Ben Avuyah

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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Quick Fisk

Someone recently brought my attention to the following article, which is entitled “Danger ahead- there are good reasons why God created atheists”, by Rabbi Sacks, so I thought I would print the articles and sum up my response to it. Here it is with a spattering of my thoughts in Bold:

“DO YOU believe,” the disciple asked the rabbi, “that God created everything for a purpose?”
“I do,” replied the rabbi.

“Well,” asked the disciple, “why did God create atheists?”
The rabbi paused before giving an answer, and when he spoke his voice was soft and intense. “Sometimes we who believe, believe too much. We see the cruelty, the suffering, the injustice in the world and we say: ‘This is the will of God.’ We accept what we should not accept. That is when God sends us atheists to remind us that what passes for religion is not always religion. Sometimes what we accept in the name of God is what we should be fighting against in the name of God.”

Here we are going straight into the toilet from the first paragraph. One would be left to believe that Rabbi’s voices get soft and intense when they are about to venture into territory they feel their listener may correctly identify as bunk, and few things smell as bad as when our Rabbinical greats tread around the dreaded issues of Theodicy and suffering. I think it is poor form to bring the all to common refrain: “This is the will of God” as the *mistaken* premise from which atheists will deliver us. After all, religious folks will be left with nothing more than these few words of comfort at the end of the day, with or without the help of well meaning nonbelievers. Furthermore it has rarely been the job of atheists to reform religion. To the contrary, most religious reforms have been forged by coreligionists with a different vision. Not by atheists who do not believe in a God that has provided a rulebook in the first place. But here Sacks lays his false premise, and I will beg to differ.
Atheists do not, “remind us that what passes for religion is not always religion”, No. Atheists remind us that we have no good reasons to believe in the things we claim to know with certainty.

Atheists remind us that intellectual honesty means that belief is proportional to evidence and when no evidence is evident truthfulness demands a default position of uncertainty.

Atheism reminds us that our self proclaimed absolute belief is an unfortunate psychotic break from the sane view of reality that regulates other areas of our life and this egomaniacal fantasy, fueled by unbridled ethnocentrisms, is demonstrably outrageous by any rules of logical engagement.

The Good Rabbi is happy to pretend Atheism is about reforming religion and proceed with his half baked theory from there, but he does not apparently have the stomach to tackle any of the real issues atheism raises for those struggling under the weight of a three thousand year old draconian belief system that deigns to force belief without ever gracing us with a shred of evidence.

Smoke and mirrors.

The first paragraph redefines the “problem” to something Rabbi Sacks has something to say about....'how we make our religion better'. And avoids the real issues of atheism and modernity and the problem he doesn't want to talk about...'why would any reasonable person believe any of this to begin with?'

I think one of the most powerfully disappointing aspects of our religious leadership is the avoidance of the real issues and problems of modernity. Rabbi Sacks continues….

Richard Dawkins is one of the great atheists of our time, and his latest book, The God Delusion, is his angriest. Imagine, he says, a world with no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian Partition, no Bosnian massacres, no religious persecution of the Jews, no Northern Ireland troubles, and so on. No religion, therefore no evil in the name of God.
This is good, honest, challenging atheism. I only wish I had as much faith as the learned professor. It would be nice to believe that if you cured people of believing in God, you would thereby have cured them of hate, violence, anger, injustice, cruelty and the urge to control, exploit, dominate and oppress.
Nothing in history suggests such a thing. On the contrary, if people do not commit evil in the name of God they have never been short of other reasons to do so: race, the war of classes, the political system, the march of progress, the Darwinian struggle to survive.
In the perennial battle between our lowest and highest instincts, which is the human condition whether we are atheist or believer, people usually robe their most brutal acts in the mantle of high ideals. In this respect the history of religion, like the history of substitutes for religion, is all too human.

Here he does make a good point. Humans will find reasons to kill each other even if religion becomes extinct.

There is, though, another thought-experiment worth performing. Imagine a world with no Book of Psalms, no Isaiah, no Ten Commandments, none of Michelangelo’s religious art or Bach’s devotional music, no Dante, no Milton, no medieval cathedrals, no prayer. Imagine one with no narrative like the Exodus to give hope to the oppressed and enslaved. And that really is the point.

Another good point, religion has certainly inspired, sometimes for good, sometimes for evil.

It took an even greater atheist, Nietzsche, to see the truth with fearless clarity. He called Judaism and Christianity “the slave revolt in morals”. It was, he believed, the ethic of the underdog, the weak, the vulnerable, the powerless. It generated an entirely new set of virtues: “Pity, the kind and helping hand, the warm heart, patience, industriousness, humility, friendliness.”
Nietzsche was contemptuous of such attitudes. Wherever they prevail, he said, “language exhibits a tendency to bring the words ‘good’ and ‘stupid’ closer to each other”. Only slaves are foolish enough to believe that love and gentleness are ways to live. Masters know a different ethic entirely: “According to master morality it is precisely the ‘good’ who inspire fear and want to inspire it.”
On this Nietzsche agrees with Machiavelli, who said that in politics it is better to be feared than to be loved. And here we arrive at the heart of the matter. Nietzsche’s supreme value was the “will to power”.

This is a classical rabbinical mistake. In Orthodoxy we twist and bend to make unpalatable opinions of ancient Rabbinic authority figures make sense. But there is no such mandate in Atheism. It is simply skepticism about God or Gods. Nietzsche can conclude what he may but he is not as the Rabbi implies, the “greater atheist” that all other atheists humbly follow. There is no reason why atheism precludes compassion and fairness.

Look at Dawkins’s list of crimes committed in the name of God and you will see that they are all cases in which religion has been used to conquer, control or intimidate. They are all expressions of the will to power. This, if anything, is the root of all evil, whether it takes religious or secular forms. That is why the supreme virtue of Judaism and Christianity is humility, the opposite of the will to power.

I agree that religion is not the root of all evil, and while it may be that religion claims that humility is it’s "supreme virtue", the ample number of incidents in which it has been manipulated at the drop of a hat into an implement for bloodshed shows that humility can be hastily replaced by supremacy, ethnocentrism, and the need for conquest.

To seek to impose your will on another, against his or her will, is the first step on the road to dehumanisation. It leads people to kill in the name of the God of life, hate in the name of the God of love, and wage war in the name of the God of peace. If Richard Dawkins has done no more than warn us of this danger, then may he forgive me for saying that he is a fine example of why God creates atheists and why sometimes theirs is a prophetic voice.

His ending suffers from the same problems as his first paragraph, he has not solved the difficulties atheism and modernity pose to orthodoxy. He has only correctly identified the weak point in Dawkins argument: that not all evil comes from religion. But by concluding that this “prophetic voice of atheism” which helps religion.... is Gods work, he avoids every fundamental problem that truly troubles the members of his community. Those whom actually understand the challenge of modernity are going to be left wanting at the end of his article. The whole piece has the slippery feel of politics and yet another succesful escape through the magic of well lubricated prose.

I will be impressed when a Rabbinic figure actually begins to consider the problem from some type of even ground. "Why does God create atheists" assumes much in an argument against atheism- the lack of belief in a God.

I would have been willing to overlook that had he actually dealt with any of the difficulties rational thought posses to religion. But when he chose to ignore any of the more difficult aspects in favor of restructuring the debate into "we can all be shown better ways to be religious by our unwitting atheist freinds who are pupets in God's great game, the rules for which I will be kind enough to explain to all you ignoramuses out there..", well....let's agree to just flush this dvar torah down to it's peers.