My dear atheist friend,
I have been actively involved in the education of Jews of all stripes (especially those with a built-in apathy or antipathy to theology) for the last 11 years. I have had a lot of time to reflect on your position and I'd like to offer a few general observations that I've culled from my experience over the years - not to convince you to change your mind (which, I've discovered, is close to impossible) and not to judge your choices, but rather so that we can understand each other better and possibly "walk back" some of the clamorous dialogue. Certainly we can open by agreeing that all human beings should be respected and, assuming no egregious misdeeds, treated with civility.
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. You have not observed an overarching creative force, a God ... yet. Being a rationalist, of course, you know that failing to make such an observation is different from proving that there isn't one, which, by its very nature, is an impossible task. (You will counter that definitively proving the existence of God on purely rational grounds is similarly impossible, which, for the sake of argument, I will concede.) Given this, your assumption of the title, "atheist" isn't so much a statement of fact as it is a statement of principle, or intent -- a nom de guerre. To define oneself as simply agnostic (which I believe you truly are) sounds unsatisfingly wishy-washy and degrades your ability to take a firm stand against deism, in its various forms. While this is certainly understandable, I suspect that you have traded accuracy for titular intensity.
You may want to counter that you have many well-regarded and brilliant personalities who have provided more than sufficient evidence to knock theism back to the Bronze Age where it belongs. Hitchens, Dawkins, Weinberg, et al are big time, unapologetic, capital "A" atheists. I've read many of their books and found much of them to be polemics against Christianity and ill-conceived take downs of classical philosophical and scientific arguments that make the idea of a Creator seem more than plausible. See here for a great rebuttal of Dawkin's "The Ultimate 747 Argument." But even if the arguments were more persuasive and comprehensive, surely you are aware that believers are ready to parry with many philosophers and scientists of our own, people like Anthony Flew, the Oxford philosopher and sparring partner of C.S. Lewis (who was a pillar of academic atheism until he reversed his position late in his life), theoretical physicist Dr. Andrew Goldfinger, and the mathematical physicist and cosmologist Frank Tipler. You will quote your expert and I will quote mine. Strangely, they disagree ... utterly. At the end of the day, it's always going to be a draw, each of us convinced that our own arguments are superior and that the other is (perhaps willfully) missing the point.
Having spent a sizable portion of my life as an atheist, I understand your perspective. What I have found hard to understand from my new vantage point, however, is why so many of you spend so much time trolling around the comments section of religiously-themed blogs or spend good money to buy billboards on the Jersey Turnpike asserting a negative. Wouldn't it make much more sense to just chuckle knowingly to yourselves and shake your heads at our folly in the way you might with children who believe they have magic powers? Yet, many of you seem to have a big axe to grind, and I only recently realized why. You believe that we are ruining the world and stunting its progress. You will point out all of the violence carried out in religion's name. We will point out that equally severe evils have been perpetrated by secularists such as Hitler, Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot. You deride us as anti-science, to which we respond that we're really not, but, rather, see scientific proof and inquiry as subject to certain inherent limits. You do not find our responses any more compelling than we find your criticisms to be insightful.
To me, however, the crux of the matter is incontrovertible. It is not the product of rational argument, nor expression of faith, but simple historical fact. The faith to which I ascribe has brought substantial light and unique meaning to the world. Some great thinkers readily embrace this idea. Have a look at this quote from British historian Paul Johnson:
"To them (the Jews) we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without Jews it might have been a much emptier place."
Given this historical reality, since you're a rationalist who bases your world view on empiric evidence, could you be open to the possibility that religion isn't inherently bad?
As an empiricist, you are only prepared to believe in that which can be seen or measured. You don't enjoy my conviction that there are aspects of existence that are, by their nature, beyond the reach of science. Fine. So when we Theists look carefully at the astounding complexity and improbable fine-tuning of our universe and conclude that there's no way that this happened randomly, you then turn around and ask us to accept that it is the result of undetectable organizational forces or of an un-testable (and thus non-scientific) multiverse. Isn't your argument every bit an assertion of faith, rather than knowledge? Maybe we can at least agree that forces unseen, however we conceive of them, seem to be playing a major role in our lives?
Charles Darwin added three interesting quotes to later editions of the Origin of Species. Of these, the third, from Francis Bacon's Advancement of Learning, is especially revealing:
"To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain that a man can search too far or be too well-studied in the book of God's word, or in the book of God's works; divinity and philosophy; but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficiency in both."
If Darwin himself could find room for belief in a God and stay faithful to his discoveries, maybe the common ground is much bigger than we currently imagine. We still have a lot to discuss. Let's do it with a caring heart, and open mind and a spirit of appreciation for our shared humanity.
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