A Rabbi Responds to His Atheist Critics

02/21/2011 12:24 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2011

Dear Non-Theist friends,

I was surprised, and gratified, to receive so much feedback to my first attempt at dialogue. Though I wasn't able to respond to all of your comments, I found many illuminating. While most, as might have been expected, came in the context of the HuffPost talkbacks, quite a few people took the time to email me personally. The emails were, by and large, written in a calmer tone than most of the online comments. Several were particularly thoughtful, which I greatly appreciated, even when I didn't concur with their message.

Regardless of forum or tenor, most responses to the article shared a common starting point, namely, an instruction that I was incorrect in assuming most self-declared atheists to be ambivalent about the existence of a higher, divine power, rather than firmly convinced that no such power exists. While I continue to suspect, based on my own experience and history of interactions, that there are more agnostics (as I understand the term) than 'pure' atheists, it seems, based on these responses, that there are more 'true' atheists than I'd thought. Equally striking was the lesson that there are very many different conceptions of atheism: in the comments section alone, there were at least a half-dozen definitions for the terms atheist and agnostic. It's clear that there is no universal understanding of the concept warranting blanket assumptions about the nature of atheist belief (or lack thereof). I sincerely apologize for making such an assumption and feel somewhat silly about having done so -- after all, there are myriad paths to religious belief, and I've frequently decried those who make blanket assumptions about all religious believers.

A number of commenters felt it was rude or disingenuous of me to invite open dialogue and then immediately launch into a critique of atheism. To be absolutely clear: I want to have a meaningful and open dialogue in which all participants feel respected and valued for our common humanity despite our obvious differences. My own approach to discussion stems from traditional Torah study, in which logical argument (in which a series of competing propositions are advanced -- without hostility -- until a conclusion, or at least mutual understanding, is reached) is intrinsic to a thoughtful Jewish life. For those unfamiliar with the process, the Talmud is, in one respect, a record of debates. There are no three inches in the Talmud's 5400 pages that are free from dissenting opinions. If a line of reasoning is proved untenable, it is discarded, while the one who brought the argument is treated with respect (and, in many cases, expresses appreciation for the opportunity to learn). If no conclusion is agreed upon, unlike certain other traditions, dissents are preserved for record and for the sake of honesty and posterity. Anyone who reads the arguments generations later can benefit not just from the conclusions, but from the reasoning by which they were determined. Two of the most famous interlocutors, known to us as Hillel and Shammai, engaged in hundreds of dialogues, recounted throughout the Talmud, in which the two agreed on almost nothing. Nonetheless, the Talmud emphasizes their mutual esteem and high personal regard for one another. Their children married, they spoke civilly to one another and treated one another with respect as pursuers of the same common truth. In short, each mercilessly attacked the other's arguments, not the other's person. If you've read this far, chances are you can meet this standard of civility, even with someone with whom you fundamentally disagree. I propose that we all strive to follow this model in our various debates.

Finally, I had no idea that so many atheists feel persecuted and harassed for their beliefs. I can state with complete honesty that, prior to these exchanges, I had never heard about this before. I strongly agree with the commenters that any such discrimination is wrong. I love America for many reasons, first among them being our freedom to live according to our convictions. There should be zero tolerance for discrimination against, or intimidation of, people of any belief system -- including atheists. I will be the first to defend anyone who feels that he or she has been denied a job, ostracized from his or her community or shunned by family for such reasons. Mutual respect for one another's fundamental human rights is integral to what I believe. As it happens, The Theist "community" shares these feelings of persecution and creeping invasion of "the other side" in various aspects of their lives. I think that there can really be some productive conversation generated on this topic and I hope to cover it in a future post.

As for us -- namely, you, as reader, and me as writer -- it's my hope that we can follow the example of Hillel and Shammai, loving both the debate and the debater. The Talmud asks, "Who is wise?" Its answer: "One who learns from everybody." I do not believe that any individual has a monopoly on knowledge or wisdom. I sincerely enjoy these exchanges and look forward to learning more together as we go forward.

With respect,