On February 10th 2011, Rabbi Adam Jacobs published an open letter to the atheist community on the Huffington Post website. The letter, in its condescending entirety, can be found here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-adam-jacobs/an-open-letter-to-the-ath_b_818489.html
Below is my response to Rabbi Jacobs.
Dear Rabbi Jacobs,
Thank you for acknowledging the burgeoning atheist community with your recent letter. For decades in America, the religious have ignored or ostracized atheists, regarding us as outsiders who are uninvited to sit at the table of public discourse. Now that the numbers of the nonreligious in America have swelled to somewhere between fifteen and twenty percent, though, it seems the religious are more and more willing to engage us.
In that engagement, it would behoove both sides to follow certain rules of etiquette so that we can have a conversation, informed by evidence, without either side feeling personally affronted. With that in mind, I will make mention of a few violations of that etiquette your letter seemed to make.
First, it is typical of the religious to approach nonbelievers with condescension. Your letter was no exception. When you say something like, “Having spent a sizable portion of my life as an atheist, I understand your perspective,” it may seem to you that you are trying to relate to us, but from our point of view it seems like you are talking down to us—as if nonbelief in your holy books is just a phase that some people go through. In fact, the religious have no right to condescend to nonbelievers, as studies like this http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0190272510361602 show that nonbelievers tend to be more intelligent and polls of the National Academy of Sciences show that of the most elite scientists in the nation, over ninety percent disbelieve in a personal god. I do not bring this up to assert that atheism is true simply because high intelligence and personal accomplishment correlate with atheism. The only reason I bring this up is to show that the condescending manner in which you and other religious people approach nonbelievers is unjustified and unwarranted. You are, decidedly, not better than us.
The second breach of etiquette your letter makes is to present a straw man. You claim to have read the works of many of the popular atheist authors, like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who have taken the literary world by storm in the past few years. I will take your word for it, but I can only assume you did not absorb much of what they wrote, otherwise you would not have said in your letter:
“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.”
It is repeated, ad infinitum, by all of the popular atheist authors (with the notable exception of Victor Stenger) that no one claims knowledge or certainty of the nonexistence of a god. Rather, we claim that no one, in the history of religion, has provided a compelling reason to believe in the existence of a god. Lacking any evidence to suppose that a god exists, we must also lack a belief in a god. Atheism is not the claim that no god exists. Rather, since theism is the belief in a god, and the prefix a- means “an absence of” or “a lack of”, an atheist is simply someone who lacks belief in a god.
The great philosopher Bertrand Russell demonstrated this point with his famous celestial teapot analogy. Imagine that I were to claim there is a teapot in orbit around a star in the distant Andromeda galaxy. You would have no way of disproving this claim. However, if I were to ask you to believe this claim without any evidence except my word, you would almost definitely default to the position of disbelief. This should be our position on the existence of a god. I know of no way to disprove definitively the existence of a god; however I cannot hold a belief in a god until I have some evidence to support that belief.
The third breach of etiquette you make is when you assert that atheists, unlike the religious, have no business advocating for our position. You assert that atheist organizations, unlike churches, should not be buying billboards to advertise our presence. You assert that atheists, unlike believers, should not be networking with one another on the internet. I can assure you that secularists and atheists have just as much a right to compete in the market place of ideas and share our beliefs (or lack thereof) in the public arena as any group. And, if recent census data and the New York Times Bestseller List are any indication, we have been quite successful so far.
The fourth breach of etiquette you make in your letter is the false equivocation between the various communist dictators of the twentieth century and the long history of religiously motivated evildoers. It is important to recognize that the Northern Ireland conflict, the Kashmir conflict, the conflict in the Balkans, the attacks of 9/11 and many of the other religious atrocities and wars that we site are directly motivated by religion. People in all these situations kill each other not for personal gain, but because they believe the creator of the universe has given them a divine mandate to do so. They believe that murder and war is their God-given purpose with as much sincerity as you believe it is yours to teach and mentor members of your community. And they have about the same amount of evidence to support that belief as you do.
Now, were dictators like Pol Pot, Mao and Stalin motivated similarly by their atheism to commit their atrocities? Of course not! There is no way for an atheist to believe he or she has a divine right to do anything. What motivated these monsters to their evil acts was not their atheism, but their religious-like devotion to the communist ideology, which took the place of religion in their regimes.
Remember, we are not simply playing a game of “who has the most bad guys?” where we each count up the number of evil people on the other side and whoever has the fewest wins. What we are doing is analyzing whether believing that there is a creator of the universe who has a favorite race or nation of humans will cause more or less violence. History, both ancient and modern, has shown that it causes more.
Also, let us be clear on this once and for all—Adolf Hitler was not an atheist! He was clearly a Christian as anyone who has read Mein Kampf can tell. Numerous times he called himself ‘saved’ and Jesus his ‘personal savior.’ I have no more reason not to take Hitler at his word that he was ‘saved’ than I have any other Christian who makes this claim. It would have been very easy for Hitler to repudiate the Christian religion as being based on Judaism, but instead he refused to ever admit that Jesus was Jewish. Here is a brief excerpt from one of many speeches Hitler made in which he asserts his strong Christian faith.
"My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God's truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter.” (De Roussy de Sales, 1973)
Finally, the last breach of etiquette you made was to present another straw man—to say that atheists believe that religion has contributed nothing to human history. Of course, this is not true. Atheists recognize the civilizing force religion played in early human history (as comedian Patton Oswald parodies in a bit called ‘Sky Cake’ here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55h1FO8V_3w). We appreciate, like any other person, the art and literature and civic discourse that religion produced in times gone by.
However, recognizing that religion played a not-entirely destructive role in our history does not mean that it has a place in our future. The only role religion plays in today’s world is to warp our ethical sensibilities to the point where we believe protecting a zygote is more important than curing Alzheimer’s Disease, to provide artificial cultural barriers that prevent us from establishing a truly global civilization, to stand in the way of equal rights for women in the Middle East and gays in the West, and to prevent almost half of all Americans from recognizing that the history of the universe extends back more than six thousand years.
The negative effects of religion in today’s world are so voluminous that I could fill a book with them, but I can think of no single positive thing that religion gives us that we could not acquire from some secular discipline or endeavor.
In summation, while I am glad that you decided to reach out to our rapidly growing community, Rabbi, I hope that in the future you will do so in a more informed way.
With this in mind, I hope that you continue to encourage discourse between believers and nonbelievers.
Fool of Psalms blog