Atheist Response to Rabbi

Joseph Stalin

Image by Dunechaser via Flickr

The Huffington Post recently posted An Open Letter to the Atheist Community by Rabbi Adam Jacobs.

The reason behind his letter is "so that we can understand each other better and possibly "walk back" some of the clamorous dialogue." Sounds reasonable enough -- let's see where this goes. I'll be quoting from his letter throughout this blog post.

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

This has to be one of the most boring arguments that will not die. My default position is "skeptical" -- and the whole infinite list of hypothetical creatures starts in the "skeptical" column. A creature only gets into the "I have some belief that this creature exists" column via evidence. Guess what, God, Zeus, leprechauns, and unicorns haven't made it out of the "skeptical" column.

You may want to counter that you have many well-regarded and brilliant personalities who have provided more than sufficient evidence to knock theism back to the Bronze Age where it belongs.

I would be tempted to ask for some way of distinguishing your belief in Yahweh from the false belief that Zeus-followers had thousands of years ago. Both you and an ancient pagan believes in some specifics about the supernatural -- and as far as I can tell, you are on equal footing. What have you discovered about Zeus -- or about Yahweh -- that help me to not mistakenly categorizing things that are not alike?

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've got it partly right. Yes, faith-based religions are a scourge on this earth -- and irrational beliefs and superstitions lead to all kinds of unnecessary suffering. The violence and other ill effects are truly the symptoms of the underlying disease. It isn't enough to get religious people to accept evolution, the entire enterprise of believing assertions on bad (or no) evidence needs to be dismantled and ridiculed.

Also, citing Stalin and company doesn't help your case or hurt our case in the slightest. That'd be like arguing against a cure for cancer because "people also die from heart disease" -- if it's a cure for something terrible and wrong, the fact that it doesn't address heart disease is irrelevant. Does religion cause unnecessary suffering on a massive scale? Yes, and I'm trying to fix that. Pointing out that there are other problems is irrelevant.

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.

We arrive at the sentence that got me to write this entry up. The scientific method is more concerned with the limits of what it knows and the implications of its knowledge to a degree unmatched by almost any other human endeavor. To claim that the scientific method has limits is true.

Science encompasses human curiosity and rationality -- its limit is at the boundary of human knowledge.

Contrasting with religion where proclamations are made with no (or pathetic) justification, about subjects which cannot be verified. It's equally important to recognize the limits of revealed religion.

Religion encompasses human fear and irrationality -- its limit is at the boundary of human ignorance.

The faith to which I ascribe has brought substantial light and unique meaning to the world... could you be open to the possibility that religion isn't inherently bad?

This is what's known as a non-sequitur. My fundamental argument is that it's not true, not that it's not useful. It's possible that I could get people to give more to charity if I could convince them that the great unicorn in the sky would reward them if they were more generous. This does nothing to establish the existence of the great unicorn.

...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... Isn't your argument every bit an assertion of faith, rather than knowledge?

  1. No one thinks evolution or gravity happens randomly.
  2. No one (except your fellow theists) will ask you accept things that are the result of undetectable forces.
  3. Tu quoque is a fallacy

Speaking for myself: if you think we should understand each other better (and I do) you have to tell us what you think, and why you think it. You have to understand what we think, and why. Telling us that we aren't really atheists -- or that Stalin was an atheist AND did bad things is simply irrelevant to what we believe and why we believe it. No one is an atheist because they think Stalin was a moral dude -- we're atheists because we see no compelling reason to think that any supernatural gods exist.

We (in aggregate) are very fair. You have to use and demonstrate methods of gaining knowledge that we can verify for ourselves -- and if this is too restrictive, we will dismiss your poorly conceived assertions about the real world just like we dismiss the relentless claims to supernatural knowledge that we are bombarded with daily. Just like you dismiss the heartfelt beliefs of ancient pagans as being any sort of guide to describing reality in any interesting way.

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