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.
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.