Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Why can't we all just get along? This is why.

I ran across this article by Rabbi Adam Jacobs when I saw a link to it over on the Atheist Experience blog.  Rabbi Jacobs writes this to say that he wants atheists and theists to get along better, unfortunately his letter is full of many of the various canards and tropes which tend to irritate atheists in these dialogs.

He actually starts out pretty strong in the first paragraph but quickly descends into nonsense in the second paragraph, by saying the following:
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 - seen and unseen - and I don't think any of you guys are ready to make that claim.
So he starts his dialog with atheists by asserting that we are not real, and completely invalidating our beliefs.  Is this really his best effort in outreach to the atheist community?  This particular topic is annoying to atheists for three reasons.  One, it is a straw-man, I know of no atheist who actually asserts that they know there is no god.  Second, it is a useless semantic argument.  Third, we do not need to prove there is no god with 100% certainty in order to not believe in one.  Anyone should be able to think of hundreds of things that they do not believe in without being 100% certain about it.  What is mostly annoying about this is that Jacobs claims to know quite a bit about the atheist mind set, later in the article he even claims to have been one, a point I will comment on more in a moment.  If he understands us so well why was this the opening volley of his article?  I can only conclude is knows less than he thinks, or he wants to make us angry.

He continues in this third paragraph by saying that debates over religion are pointless because we all have are so called "experts." Atheist have Dawkins, Hawkins etc. and theists have C.S. Lewis, and Anthony Flew.  Of course I might point out that Flew is a Deist and not a theist, which is not a minor distinction, but that is not what really struck me.  The problem with this is that he basically misunderstands us again.  The so called "new atheists" don't really put that much stock in experts, at least not the way he seems to think.  The facts speak for themselves and I don't really care who makes the arguments so much as I care whether they are good arguments.  For instance, while I respect C.S. Lewis in many ways his arguments for religion are extremely bad, not as a matter of opinion but as a matter of objective fact.  Besides, just because we disagree does not mean we should all stop having a dialog on this issue in order to get along as he seems to think we should.  I simply do not share his opinion that this debate is pointless.

He then start the fourth paragraph by saying
Having spent a sizable portion of my life as an atheist, I understand your perspective.
Reading this made me chuckle since he started this article by saying there are no atheists, but in any case he goes on to admit he only recently learned why we have a problem with religion, that is:
You believe that we are ruining the world and stunting its progress.
I have a bit of difficulty believing it took him this long to realize that this is why most atheists have a problem with religion, it is not like we hide this from people.  However, I give him credit for seeing this point honestly, most simply ask atheists in some sort of mock bewilderment why we seem so angry all the time.  Though he goes on to list several groups of atheists who he says tried to ruin society too.  He lists Hitler among these even though he was clearly not an atheist, or at least if he was had no problem making religion a major part of his regime.  However, my biggest problem with this tu quoque argument is that they simply dismiss their own failings by pointing out the failings of others.

First, as atheists, we are well aware of the excess of certain political ideologies, we are also aware that some of these ideologies are atheistic in nature.  Most atheists I know would happily oppose such groups for many of the same reasons we speak out against the excesses of religion.  This is because our opposition of organized religion is really a separate issue from our atheism.  As an example of this look at the writings of Thomas Paine, who was a founding father, and a Deist.  He wrote several books attacking organized religion with far more vitriol than anything Dawkins or Hitchens could muster despite his ardent belief in god.

Second, telling us about the bad things that non-religious people have done is not conducive to a solution, and people like Jacobs manage to completely misunderstand what our complaint is when it comes to religion anyway.  Our chief complaint (or at least mine) is not a laundry list of the bad things religious people have done, but with the basic philosophical underpinnings of religious thinking.  This thinking makes it easier for bad ethical teachings to go unchallenged, and can often make even those who WANT to be good, do things which are harmful because their religion says the actions are virtuous.

I have yet to ever hear any theist adequately defend any of this.  Every one I have ever spoken with has always avoided the question entirely by pointing out that atheists have done bad things too.  We know this, it's obvious, being an atheist is no guarantee of rationality.  Indeed I, as an atheist, would take issue with the ethics of the atheistic governments, like communist China,  that Jacobs mentions for the same reason I take issue with religious ethics.  No one was allowed to question anything in communist regimes, the system was clearly not working but anyone who said so ended up in a prison or dead.

He ends up trying to say that theists are not anti-science but that, "see scientific proof and inquiry as subject to certain inherent limits."  This statement seems to be extremely anti-science to me.  Perhaps I misread him, but I typically see statements like this as saying they are OK with science as long as it doesn't question any religiously motivated beliefs, anyone who knows a smattering of the history of science should know why that is an unreasonable demand of scientific inquiry.

He ends his article with an argument from design, which seems rather preachy for someone who started out by saying they weren't trying to preach.  When he says to atheists,
You don't enjoy my conviction that there are aspects of existence that are, by their nature, beyond the reach of science.
he is quite correct, but I have no trouble admitting that there might be some things beyond the reach of science.  I just happen to think it absurd to assert this with conviction when there is, by definition, no evidence for it.  If it is beyond the reach of science then it, also by definition, cannot have any effect on anything in observable reality, since that which exists but has no effect on us is indistinguishable from that which does not exist at all then a conviction that such a thing exists is pointless at best.

That happens to be my final conclusion about his article, a pointless waist of time, I doubt any atheist is going to read this article and leave it with the urge to open a more friendly dialog with Jacobs about religion.

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