Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Replying to the Rabbi: Misdefining atheism.

Rabbi Adam Jacobs, at Huffington Post, has written an “open letter to the atheist community.” Strictly speaking there is no atheist community. A community is based on share values and beliefs. Atheism is not a belief; it is the absence of a belief. As such, atheism espouses nothing. The non-existence of a belief is not a unifying factor. I have no values in common with someone else merely because we are both atheists.

This is not to say that atheists don’t hold beliefs, they do: many beliefs in fact.

But the lack of a belief neither binds people together nor inspires them to action. You may act on the basis of something you do believe, but not on the basis of something you don’t believe.

Quickly the good Rabbi wants to find a way to pretend that atheists don’t actually exist. He does this by misdefining atheism. He isn’t the first to pull this exact same trick, nor will he be the last. It is actually a very unoriginal argument. Though it does raise a question about the sanity of writing an open letter to people who don’t exist. But then they pray to a god who isn’t there.

He says, “there really are no true atheists” because “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.”

Note several problems with this argument. First, he completely reverses the burden of proof. He demands that atheists prove there is no God, and since they can’t see the entire universe, they can’t do that, therefore atheists don’t exist. But the burden of proof is not on the atheist.

I can’t say that Jacobs doesn’t molest girl scouts because to do so would require that I have knowledge of every second of his life, and perhaps as good measure, knowledge of the life of every girl scout as well. Therefore, there can be no person in the world who can honestly believe the Rabbi isn’t molesting girl scouts. Clearly this logic is fallacious, so too it is when the Rabbi uses it.

The burden of proof rests with the one making the assertion. It is not the atheist who is called on to prove that no god exists anywhere. It is the theist who must show proof that a god exists somewhere.

For the same reason it is not up to the Rabbi to prove he doesn’t molest girl scouts, but up to his accuser to prove that he does.

Rabbi Jacobs also misdefines atheism. All one need do is look at the word itself. In this case it is two words a-theist. The “a” comes from Greek and means “without” and theist comes from “theos” which means a god. The word means “without god” or without a belief in a god.

This word describes a person who does not hold a belief in a god. Now there are similar beliefs that we don’t speak of. Many people lack a belief in the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus or the Loch Ness monster. They are not called upon to prove that no such entity exists. There is no community of people who disbelieve in these fantasies. And no one demands that they show every inch of the universe in order to prove that neither the bunny, Santa or Lochie actually exist, perhaps hidden behind some remote planet.

An atheist may assert that there is no god, but many don’t. Most, including the most prominent atheists around, have been quite clear that they lack a belief in a god, not that they “know” there is no god. Richard Dawkins refers to a teapot flying around the sun as an analogy. He says he thinks it higher unlikely that there is such a thing, but he can’t say so with absolute certainty. He hasn’t been there. In other words he is not an atheist in the way that Rabbi Jacobs defines them. Few atheists are.

Jacobs also says all atheists are really agnostics. If an agnostic lacks a belief in a god he is an atheist. If he holds a belief in a god, he is a theist. Agnostics say they don’t KNOW if there is god, which is not the same as saying whether they BELIEVE there is one.

An agnostic may say he thinks there is a god but he can’t prove it. He may also say he thinks one probably doesn’t exist but he can’t prove it. He is separating his knowledge from his belief. An atheist is someone who is lacks a belief in a god but he is making no assertion about his knowledge by that statement.

The Rabbi says that atheists don’t say they are agnostics because it “sounds wishy-washy and degrades your ability to take a firm stand against deism.” This merely continues his confusion about atheism and his misdefinition of it.

Rabbi Jacobs does make a rather shameful claim, in my opinion, one spread by some evangelical con men. He argues that the libertarian philosopher, Sir Antony Flew, changed from being an atheist to a theist late in life. Now Mr. Flew and I travelled in similar circles and knew many of the same people and worked with the same organizations. Before his alleged conversion it was widely known that Sir Antony was becoming senile, and losing his ability to think. BTW: It is Antony, not Anthony as the Rabbi spells it. You would think that if you are going to invoke a man in his senility you would at least find out how to spell his name.

A book was published with Flew’s name on it entitled There is a God. Oddly when a reporter interviewed Flew and asked him about the authors cited in the book, Flew said he didn’t know them or their work. It seems the main author, perhaps only author, was a fundamentalist Christian. One reviewer noted that:

Oddly, Flew seems to have turned into an American as well as a believer. His intellectual autobiography is written in the language of an Englishman of his generation and class; yet when he starts to lay out his case for God, he uses Americanisms like “beverages,” “vacation” and “candy.” It is possible that Flew decided to make some passages easier on the ears of American readers or that an editor has made trivial emendations for him. But it is striking how much of Flew’s method of argument, too, has changed from that in his earlier works, and how similar it now is to the abysmal intellectual standards displayed in Varghese’s appendix. In fact, Flew told The New York Times Magazine last month that the book “is really Roy’s doing.

The same reviewer wonders if “Flew has lost the desire to reason effectively or whether he no longer cares what is published in his name.” Sadly it wasn't the desire to reason he lost, but the ability. Mutual friends who visited Flew reported a man who was often befuddled and confused. That a fundamentalist type took advantage of that is shameful. Using it as argumentation is doubly shameful.

Bu,t the Rabbi’s point is that there are intelligent people who believe in a god, and this is to counter the argument supposedly made by atheists that brilliant people don’t believe in a god.

First, I have never heard an atheist argue that atheism is true because brilliant people are atheists. Brilliant people are not infallible. It is the argumentation that is important, not the arguer. So, even if a befuddled Sir Antony change what was left of his mind before his death, it proves nothing. The Rabbi has offered up a straw man argument. He thinks there is some sort of tie and crows “you will quote your expert and I will quote mine. …At the end of the day, it’s always going to be a draw…” But, that only happens if you ignore entirely the quality of the argument and rely ONLY on the authority of the man.

There were many brilliant men who worked in German universities, who endorsed the National Socialist platform and endorsed Jew-hating. There were many equally brilliant individuals who were aghast at the anti-Semitism and bigotry, and openly opposed it. Would Rabbi Jacobs accept that “at the end of the day, it’s always going to be a draw?” NO! If he had any intelligence at all, and he clearly does as it takes some intelligence to forge arguments that sound good but are fallacious, he would respond to that example by saying the quality of the arguments must be investigated, not just who is saying them.

Anti-Jewish rants are not more logical because the man who utters them has a high IQ, or is an expert in chemistry. Facts, logic and the quality of argumentation are far, far more important. But the Rabbi wishes to have a “draw,” so he pretends the arguments themselves are irrelevant. This is precisely why he raised the false claim that some number of atheists, presumably enough to mention, think atheism is correct because brilliant men endorse it.

He next asks and then answers the question as to why atheists bother to challenge religion. His answer is: religion does bad things. Most atheists don’t spend much time on the topic, though a few do. Certainly the typical atheist spends less time trying convert people than the typical Baptist. Jacobs next says that secularists like “Hitler, Mao Stalin, and Pol Pot” also did bad things. Thus assuming another tie.

Hitler was a Roman Catholic who regularly invoked his belief in God and Jesus Christ, so why would the Rabbi simply invent that he was a “secularist?” As for the Communists he mentioned, go back to what I said at the beginning. Atheism does not inspire action, as it is the absence of a belief. People will act on a belief they do hold, not on one they don’t hold. What inspired Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao? Communism. They were not acting as atheists, they were acting as Communists. They also lacked a belief in Santa but no one would seriously argue that their lack of a belief in Santa made them commit genocide.

Hitler’s National Socialism and anti-Semitism inspired his genocide. Marx, and their own views on communism inspired the others. They didn’t act based on what they didn’t believe, but on what they did believe.

Finally Rabbi Jacobs appeals to the Right-wing Christian author, Paul Johnson. Jacobs says his Jewish faith, according to Johnson, brought all sorts of important values to the West. While a bit of self-congratulatory, it isn’t exactly humble, or exactly correct. I would argue that many of the concepts that Johnson ascribes to the Jewish religion were not really in the Jewish religion until long after the West adopted them, and that the West received many of these ideals from the Greeks instead.