My Atheistic Reply To Rabbi Adam Jacobs’s Open Letter To The Atheist Community

Oh boy, I just love getting letters!  So, you can only imagine my enthusiasm at getting An Open Letter To The Atheist Community from a Rabbi Adam Jacobs of The Huffington Post Synagogue:

My dear atheist friend,

Gosh, he holds me dear!

The first point I’d like to explore is that there really are no true atheists.

Okay, then the first point, I’d like to explore is that there really are no true theists.

It seems to me that in order to claim with certainty that there is no God you would have to have knowledge of the totality of the universe – seen and unseen – and I don’t think any of you guys are ready to make that claim.

Wait—what?  What does this have to do with being an atheist.  I don’t claim anything about God with certainty. I don’t even claim with certainty that there is not some leprechaun hiding somewhere in the totality of the universe—”seen and unseen”.  That’s not being what an atheist means at all.  It just means that the preponderance of metaphysical, ethical, and scientific evidence is that the personal god hypothesis (and in specific the Abrahamic God hypothesis) is illogical and unwarranted.

As a result I make a knowledge-claim of a quite ordinary sort:  illogical, unwarranted, unverified entities whose alleged actions in history would have involved unproven and extraordinarily unlikely violations of the laws of nature are to be rejected as false.  We can say we know such entities do not exist in the quite ordinary sense in which we confidently say we know that Charles Manson wasn’t really Jesus or leprechauns and unicorns do not exist.

There is no need for any more certainty in order to lack a belief in personal deities.

But, let’s be fair to the good rabbi and hold him to his own ludicrous standards and not my impose my own on him.  It seems to me that in order to claim with certainty that there is a God and that he really is the true creator of the universe and the single most powerful being in the universe, you would have to have knowledge of the totality of the universe – seen and unseen – and I don’t think any of you theists are ready to make that claim.  Ergo, you’re not a theist!

You have not observed an overarching creative force, a God … yet.

And you have not observed an overarching creative force, a God…either.

Being a rationalist, of course, you know that failing to make such an observation is different from proving that there isn’t one, which, by its very nature, is an impossible task. (You will counter that definitively proving the existence of God on purely rational grounds is similarly impossible, which, for the sake of argument, I will concede.)

Really?  You’re giving up your faith as a matter of intellectual principle?  Or are you going to insist that atheists be held to a rational standard you yourself will not hold yourself to?  Where do you theists pick up your “get out of the requirement for evidence free” cards, anyway?  Why can’t we have one?

Well, that’s alright, we don’t need one.  There is plenty of counter-evidence to the God hypothesis and plenty of easy refutation of the supposed evidence for the God hypothesis.  There is enough such evidence, I feel confident saying I know that no personal gods exist, including the Abrahamic one(s).

Given this, your assumption of the title, “atheist” isn’t so much a statement of fact as it is a statement of principle, or intent — a nom de guerre. To define oneself as simply agnostic (which I believe you truly are) sounds unsatisfingly wishy-washy and degrades your ability to take a firm stand against deism, in its various forms. While this is certainly understandable, I suspect that you have traded accuracy for titular intensity.

No, you’re the one who defines the only criteria for belief or non-belief as certainty.  It is you who are trading accuracy for “titular intensity”.  Your “rabbi” title would not really carry so much cachet if you just owned up to your agnosticism, now would it?

Most of the rest of the letter tells us vacuous things like that since there have been both smart theists and smart atheists, there is really no reason to think one side has any more reason on its side than the other.  Which is ludicrous.  I am capable of assessing the arguments for myself and the fact that a smart person disagrees with me is not cause to abandon my view.

And, in fact, 69.7% of philosophy PhD holders “accept or lean towards” atheism, while less than 19% “accept or lean towards theism”, so for anyone who, like Rabbi Jacobs wants to take surveys of experts as decisive, then I’d say it’s pretty clear, that this person should lean 69.7% towards atheism and less than 19% towards theism, and feel small %’s towards other positions.  This person should not feel like it’s a  50/50 proposition and should certainly not go in with a commitment to a religion on the basis of a 19% likelihood of truth like that.

Having spent a sizable portion of my life as an atheist, I understand your perspective. What I have found hard to understand from my new vantage point, however, is why so many of you spend so much time trolling around the comments section of religiously-themed blogs or spend good money to buy billboards on the Jersey Turnpike asserting a negative. Wouldn’t it make much more sense to just chuckle knowingly to yourselves and shake your heads at our folly in the way you might with children who believe they have magic powers?

Why do you go to the trouble of telling us we’re wrong (while patently lying about your intentions to do so, apparently disingenuousness is okay in the name of advancing theism)?  We assert a negative because sometimes a negative is an important truth about which there is a great deal of misinformation.  Truth is important to us, regardless of whether it is to you.  And you’re not the only one entitled to speak your mind about the question of God.  Who wrote the rules whereby only theists have any reason or right to speak about the question?  Why do you want to silence us?  Do you feel threatened or something?

Yet, many of you seem to have a big axe to grind, and I only recently realized why. You believe that we are ruining the world and stunting its progress. You will point out all of the violence carried out in religion’s name. We will point out that equally severe evils have been perpetrated by secularists such as Hitler, Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot. You deride us as anti-science, to which we respond that we’re really not, but, rather, see scientific proof and inquiry as subject to certain inherent limits. You do not find our responses any more compelling than we find your criticisms to be insightful.

No, 38% of all Americans (and, therefore, even a larger portion of theists) reject evolutionary theory.  And a full 84% implicitly reject the theory of natural selection and claim that evolution did not actually happen by a natural, unguided process but was actually a divinely guided process. That is just flying in the face of science when it is inconvenient to faith claims you are committed in principle to rationalize.

Atheists know very well science has limits.  Some of us are philosophers who address questions irresolvable (or only incompletely resolvable) by science, and we have properly proportioned belief which tracks the degree of certainty we can have about philosophical issues.  We do not have any need to make stuff up where there is no further answer or to assert as incontrovertible dogma what we only hold with some relatively high or middling degree of philosophical certainty.

What the faith-based community does not want to confront is that faith-based thinking is not just non-scientific in a complementary way to science but it unnecessarily involves belief-forming mechanisms that are antithetical to the kinds employed in good science and philosophy and it actively undermines people’s abilities to accept good science and philosophy which conflicts with faith-beliefs.  Good thinking is required even where science is not at issue.  And faith is irrationalistic to its core.

And religious traditions actively cultivate whatever fallacious habits of thought they can to effectively indoctrinate people and manipulate them into staying in their faiths against their better reason. That’s harmful to people’s reason and, by extension, to their autonomy.  And as such, is a morally offensive thing about faith-based religion.

His next argument is that religious people, and the Jews in particular, have done good in the world.  The point he does not grasp is that that does not make religious beliefs true. And it does not make the false beliefs and authoritarian practices of belief-formation and of ethical formation which we rail against at all necessary for the future.  We can have whatever sorts of practices truly ennoble humanity that in the past originated or were cultivated in religious contexts outside those contexts and in a way that respects people’s autonomy and stops feeding them lies and training them in fallacious habits of reasoning.

Whatever good religious people or institutions do or have done is irrelevant to the question of whether they are justified in perpetuating falsehoods and erroneous methods of determining ethical truth.  And it certainly does not absolve them of the very real ways that faith-based believing threatens to inherently, by its very nature, sow and exacerbate logically irresolvable conflicts.

But, no, I don’t say, as he accuses me, that religion is “inherently” bad in the sense that it either only ever leads to bad or, even, that it cannot be redeemed even, if it were ever fully put to the end of cultivating rationalism and egalitarianism, rather than stubborn traditionalism.  Religion can give no truth, but religious types of practices and identity formation techniques, if rationalistically employed, could be used to create something I would call “true religion” (and I think to the extent that religions serve truths rather than falsehoods and objectively good ends rather than bad ones, they can already, to that extent, be called “true religions”.)

As an empiricist, you are only prepared to believe in that which can be seen or measured. You don’t enjoy my conviction that there are aspects of existence that are, by their nature, beyond the reach of science. Fine. So when we Theists look carefully at the astounding complexity and improbable fine-tuning of our universe and conclude that there’s no way that this happened randomly, you then turn around and ask us to accept that it is the result of undetectable organizational forces or of an un-testable (and thus non-scientific) multiverse. Isn’t your argument every bit an assertion of faith, rather than knowledge? Maybe we can at least agree that forces unseen, however we conceive of them, seem to be playing a major role in our lives?

First of all, not all atheists are empiricists.  And, no, we cannot “at least agree” to something as vague to the point of meaningless that “forces unseen, however we conceive of them, seem to be playing a major role in our lives”.  That is superstitious at its most meaningful and banal and unsupportive of anything, at its least.  And it is not faith either to think there is a preponderance of evidence in favor of atheism, and thus be a gnostic atheist, or to think there is insufficient evidence for either side of the debate and to be a principled agnostic atheist who refrains from belief and worship out of a principle of epistemic caution and humility.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • mikespeir

    I’m not all that wedded to “atheist.” I use it because it’s the label that best fits my take on the existence of deity. “Agnostic” doesn’t work because, while I won’t pretend I can prove there’s not some kind of deity out there, the evidence for deity is scanty enough that I think it justifies me saying I’m convinced there’s not. I “know” in the colloquial sense of being sure enough that I don’t spend any time teetering on the fence.

    “Your ‘rabbi’ title would not really carry so much cache if you just owned up to your agnosticism, now would it?”

    Did you leave the “t” off of “cachet?” (If that doesn’t prove I’m an atheist, what does?)

  • http://cdcstudios.com Chris O’Rourke

    Well said, though there are a few spots you missed clarifying for the honorable Rabbi where he was factually wrong.

    The biggest is that Adolph Hitler was an atheist. He was in fact a Roman Catholic. There are plenty of photos of Hitler with Bishops throughout the war. Odd that he included them in so many of Germany’s events and the military’s preparations if he was an atheist. It does no good for a religious official (especially a Rabbi) to spuriously couple Adolph Hitler to a philosophy incorrectly and shows either a lack of research for his “open letter” or he is furthering an agenda.

    The other issue you missed was capitalizing on the Rabbi’s statement of empiricism vs assumptive reasoning (“fine tuning of the universe” nonsense). Nothing is so woefully ignorant as the false logic of “because it is too complicated for me to understand it must be magic”. That isn’t just a tacit admittance that his position of ignorance is wrong but also underscores religion’s perpetuation of the ideology of ignoring what you do observe.

    According to many of the teachings present in the monotheist religions in the middle east (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, specifically) God said don’t eat certain kinds of animals. What many of the religious scholars seem to miss is why those rules would exist in those days. Historically, the forbidden foods were dangerous for the average peasant to eat. Pig is dangerous if not drained of all blood due to trichinosis. Shellfish frequently can appear fine but be deadly due to a wide variety of bacteria and fungus. Rather than realizing logically that early leaders used god to ensure survival of people and the religion, modern theists such as our honorable Rabbi still cling to it as a rule because it is the word of god. You’d think that a god that issued a handbook would include a chapter on how to use genetic manipulation to prevent some of the horrifying birth defects like Harlequin Icthyosis or Spina Bifida rather than hundreds of pages of vague superstition. He can’t fathom that argument because he is indoctrinated away from questioning anything that earlier church doctrine set as law.

    Honestly, the greatest argument against any deity is that the sum total of religious work has yet to transcend the pinnacle of human knowledge. Rather, it takes an everyman’s, lowest common denominator position of ignorance. That’s not remotely a good ideology for humanity, let alone a supposed deity.

    Just my two cents really.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Yes, I agree entirely and appreciate the supplement to what I wrote. I was just a little to exasperated with his abundance of disingenuous doublespeak and tropes that I did not have the patience to go through his alleged proofs for God or cover every major inaccuracy. But I am glad you did get these good points on the record beneath my post. So thanks!

  • Mark C.

    “And, in fact, 69.7% of philosophy PhD holders ‘accept or lean towards’ atheism, while less than 19% ‘accept or lean towards atheism’”

    Just a little nitpick. You’ve got the correct statistical attributions everywhere else, but the above statement claims that almost 90% of philosophy Ph.D. holders are atheistic. If only! :P

  • http://krissthesexyatheist.blogspot.com krissthesexyatheist

    Dude, sooooo good and thank you. when i read that the other day, I was, like, WTF. Atheists and skeptics have this love hate thingy w. Huff Po. We all bash it, and yet read it all the time. When I read it it actually made me mad (no wonder atheist are perceived as angry). I wanted to respond…but you did a much better job. Like I said, so awesome. Keep it up, yo.

    Kriss

    ps too bad the rabbi will not read this.

  • http://www.DangerousTalk.net Staks

    I also wrote up a response to this Rabbi’s article. Check it out: Atheist responds to open letter from Rabbi Adam Jacobs – http://exm.nr/gQEuJ3

  • oh dear…

    When I read the aritcle by the Rabbi, I didnt take it personally insulting. I felt an honest attempt at open dialogue. It appears people have interpreted the open letter in several ways. I believe everyone (in the world) would benefit by actually keeping an open mind. An open mind can not reject ideas, and will not attack ideas in the way each reply has done so thoroughly. An open mind seeks calmly and openly to clarify and understand. These posts make clear that open minds are not at work in this forum. While I respect the assertions made in reply, and understand frusteration when “facts” from one side don’t match “facts” from the opposition. I think it dissapointing how condescending each reply is. I fear the same problems which are recounted in the story of the Buddha when he visited the people of Kalama Sutta. I implore you to engage in communication and engage in keeping an open mind, and continue to pursue knowledge. If you feel an urge to try and disprove or argue what I have said, then I am right. If not, keep in mind the writing style makes you seem arrogant and spiteful.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Please, he argues in total bad faith. He does not seek to understand atheists but to smugly tell us what we “really believe” and imply that we’re not being civil while making a big self-righteous show of his own supposed civility. He condescends to our intellects over and over, argues that essentially we should not bother to speak up about our views on the God question but just “chuckle to ourselves” as though these issues are not important to anyone but believers—as though the many of us who are former believers have no right to express our anger at being lied to from childhood.

      If he was interested in understanding us he would take our self-presentation seriously instead of telling us what we really do or do not believe and he would do the slightest research to understand atheist motivations in organizing to overcome our cultural alienation and show some goddamned sympathy for it. But he is NOT interested in understanding but in making a pious show of “civility”, of waving away serious arguments as irresolvable simply for the trivial reason that he can dredge up people on either side, and THEN, nonetheless tries to weasel in some sloppy reasons for belief and accuse us of bad faith for not just falling down on our knees and accepting them.

      He is smug and disingenuous. I have no problem respecting serious interlocutors who take atheists seriously. He does not qualify.

  • http://egoistphilosophyblog.com/ Keenan Steel

    That was a much more dignified response than our “dear friend” deserved. It’s shocking (though not very rare) to see attacks on atheism like this. He uses such impressive ignorance and more than one all-encompassing non sequitur!

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    @oh dear

    You said,

    If you feel an urge to try and disprove or argue what I have said, then I am right.

    Are you kidding? You are right if we agree with you or not? You think that’s what having an open mind means?

  • David Hysom

    Thanks for your reply to the rabbi; you’ve stated several points that I’ve been muttering to myself (in an atheistic sort of way).

    Am I an atheist? Well, I do have a bunch of T-shirts that so proclaim and which I regularly wear. And I’m sometimes asked something like, “you’re not *really* an atheist, are you?”

    The problem is labeling. I am a democrat or republican and
    hispanic or white or other, etc. The problem is that as soon as I label myself to another person, the other person interprets “who I am” in terms of what she or he associated with the label.

    The best answer I have to the question, “am I an atheist,”
    is, “I most certainly am, in the best Humpty Dumpty sense.”

    (in case anyone reading this isn’t familiar with the quote: “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’)

  • B

    The one thing I learned reading this blog is athetists are not open and are ready to attack if their views are questioned. What a bunch of lunk heads. Its interesting how you only chose certain paragraphs or lines to attack. Studying all sides of the debate might have made your response more appealing and perhaps you could have quoted facts you found instead of using the Rabbis. You shared your personal opinion, everyone has one, and yours is not better than anyone elses.

  • eric stone

    With regard to the supposed impossibility of proving that god doesn’t exist, in fact we find that he’s not there when he should be there (see Victor Stenger, God, The Failed Hypothesis). Any omnipotent being that fully directs all the activities of all the components of the universe should be detectable anywhere in that universe. The fact that he’s not detectable anywhere by any of our senses or instruments so far proves beyond any reasonable doubt that the god of the bible does not exist and is a figment of the imagination. Of course if you want to define him as not a omnibenevolent entity, then of course he might be hiding somewhere.>>

    With regard to Goldfinger, and Tipler, these are discredited scientists whom no reputable scientists support (see Stenger, The New Atheism, God, The Failed Hypothesis).

    With regard to atheists having an axe to grind, yes we have many. Religionists have been ruthlessly ruling most of the world for the past 5000 years, murdering untold numbers of nonbelievers and apostates. In more recent times they have been taking over large segments of our secular government, creating minitheocracies of our towns, robbing billions of our taxpayer dollars to advance their religions, overpopulating the planet, indoctrinating our children, blocking medical research and progress, and blocking reproductive rights. They have been instrumental in denying science, facts and history and in blocking efforts to control global warming which is now threatening the stability and well being of our planet. To not have an axe to grind in these circumstances would be insane.

    With regard to Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, first, Hitler was a Roman Catholic in good standing with his church and saw himself carrying out god’s mission. He was also fully supported by his church, which hates secularism more than any other movement on earth. Most tellingly as part of his anti-Slav, anti-Communist and anti-atheist bigotry, Hitler proceeded to murder some 30 million Soviet nonbelievers between 1940-4, which totally discounts his supposed secularity.

    As for Stalin and Mao, it doesn’t exonerate them, but I’m sure that they would have told you that they were engaged in life an death struggles with murderous fascists who were trying to destroy them. as I noted above, Hitler did invade Russia to kill 30 million while Imperial Japan invaded China in the 1930s and murdered and raped hundreds of thousands of Chinese. Stalin and Mao were far from rational thinkers, which, for me, is an essential component of atheism. But how many of us would have remained rational under those circumstances? Look at what happened to the Jews, long held to be highly moral and ethical, under the same conditions. As a result of the Holocaust they acquired nuclear weapons and are reported ready to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against Iran, if that country acquires nuclear bombs, which would kill millions of innocents and lead to a nuclear winter for us all. So even the Rabbi’s own moral people might become agents of mass death if the conditions arise.

    The rabbi states that “We will point out that equally severe evils have been perpetrated by secularists such as Hitler, Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot”. If you hold atheists responsible for all the deaths they caused you also have to do the same for religionists. Virtually all of the wars, genocides, ethnic cleansings etc that have occurred since 3000 BC have been started and carried out by people who believed in god. The body count has been estimated at some 969 million deaths (see Everyone Ever in the World, Peter Crnokrak, Science 331:851, 2011). So if you want to blame atheists for millions of deaths they caused you must also blame the god-believes for hundreds of millions they caused. We are not claiming that secularism is totally good but you are claiming that for religion. If, in fact, religion is primarily a good thing why does it have any body count at all associated with it let alone hundreds of millions of deaths? This seems to be something that you are either deliberately denying or deluding yourself, something you are quick to blame other people for. The obvious reason is that not only is religion wrong but it is also fundamentally immoral and unethical.

    The rabbi argues that the achievements of his people are evidence for the importance of religion in our lives. There is no question that Jews have contributed significantly to the good of humanity and have been rewarded with numerous Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes and great acclaim for their artistic, musical and intellectual achievements. However, they’ve also contributed their share of bad stuff. They gave us monotheism, which has been the model for most autocracies and authoritarian governments and supports obedience to and enslavement by a monarch. They continue to celebrate ancient massacres, genocides and infanticides and keep alive ancient hatreds with which they indoctrinate their young. They have created many theocratic towns in our country which, with the support of the Netanyahu administration, are helping the extreme bigots of the religious right fundamentalists of our country subvert and destroy our democratic institutions. And their orthodox wing has continued to contribute recklessly to overpopulation. So Judaism has contributed both good and bad; and its adherents are the same complex beings as the rest of us.

    With regard to the “astounding complexity and fine-tuning of our universe”, the complexity of life forms has been repeatedly and adequately explained by natural selection. The supposed fine tuning of the universe is a case of backward reasoning and also makes the highly dubious assumption that one can change the value of one physical constant without changing all of the rest of the natural laws. This is probably impossible. These arguments are half baked pseudoscience.

    With respect to Darwin’s supposely pro-god quote, the great man also said: “Formerly I was led by feelings such as those just referred to, (although I do not think that the religious sentiment was ever strongly developed in me), to the firm conviction of the existence of God, and of the immortality of the soul. In my Journal I wrote that whilst standing in the midst of the grandeur of a Brazilian forest, ‘it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion which fill and elevate the mind.’ I well remember my conviction that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body. But now the grandest scenes would not cause any such convictions and feelings to rise in my mind. It may be truly said that I am like a man who has become colour-blind, and the universal belief by men of the existence of redness makes my present loss of perception of not the least value as evidence.”

  • Steven Carr

    JACOBS
    It seems to me that in order to claim with certainty that there is no God you would have to have knowledge of the totality of the universe – seen and unseen…

    CARR
    Where does this Rabbi get off claiming I don’t have knowledge of the totality of the universe?

    I know for a fact that ‘Everything that begins to exist’ has a cause.

    That is everything, not just a few things, not just many things. It is Everything.

    I know that ‘Everything that begins to exist has a cause’, so don’t start telling me I don’t know about everything, because I do.

    How else could I make a claim like ‘Everything that begins to exist has a cause’, unless I knew about everything? Answer that one, Rabbi.


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