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Atheism, Religion

Response to Rabbi Adam Jacobs

The Huffington Post published an “Open Letter to the Atheist Community” from the Rabbi Adam Jacobs.  Read it in it’s entirety HERE.  Here are selected passages with my comments:

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.

I’m often wary of people who begin by saying they aren’t trying to change my mind.  Usually they’re trying to change my mind.  Or worse, they’re attempting to persuade me that because of my choices, I’m somehow making my life a dismal place, or forcing other people to hate me, or something like that.  (And isn’t that still a kind of passive-aggressive persuasion attempt?)  So off the bat, I’m skeptical.  But as to his first “premise,” I agree that in general, humans who have not committed horrible misdeeds should be treated civilly.

The first point I’d like to explore is that there really are no true atheists.

Bleh.  This old dreck again?  Rabbi, you should know that if we appear un-civil while listening to this argument, it’s because we’re experiencing boredom and incredulity at the same time.  Is it really possible that you’re so unworldly that you’ve never heard our answer to this?  Really?  Or are you just trying the FOX News approach?  Say it enough times and it becomes true?

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.

There’s a special squad of atheists you may not have heard of.  There are seven of them.  They wear helmets and ride the short bus to school.  And they’re the ONLY atheists who claim to know with 100% certainty that there’s no god.  Because they’re retarded.  And they don’t know any better.

So stop with this ridiculous caricature of the rest of us.

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.

Our assumption of the title “atheist” is a statement of belief.  We believe there are no gods.  You are a theist.  You believe there is a god.  You’re a Rabbi.  Don’t you have to study linguistics?  Just look up the etymology.  It’s about belief or the negation thereof.

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.

Call me a Frog-Legged Namby-Pamby if it makes you happy.  If your argument begins with “Call yourself what I like you to call yourself, not what you like,” we’re already off to a bad start.  I’ll call myself whatever I please.  Thank you.

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.

I may, but I shan’t.  I will counter that the existence of “personalities” is irrelevant to either question.  I can call myself an atheist or an agnostic, and Richard Dawkins has no say in the matter.  And without Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, the ideas supporting atheism would exist, in the same way that gravity exists with or without Newton’s apple-licious head butt.

Sure, modern science has given considerable support to the already strong argument against god.  And I’m happy to have many of the scientists as public supporters of atheism.  But I don’t think that’s what you’re getting at.  I think you’re implying some sort of cult of personality.

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.

Perhaps you will quote your expert.  I will rely on evidence independent of the personalities, and I’m quite capable of forming my own arguments.  Thank you again.

Having spent a sizable portion of my life as an atheist, I understand your perspective.

Wait for it…

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?

Here it is!  Was anyone surprised?  I wasn’t.  “Gee, atheists, wouldn’t my life be better if all of you just sort of… you know… kept your meddlesome opinions to yourselves and let us religious types continue to make the laws and fight the wars and dictate the content of school books?

Yeah.  Your life would be better.  But not ours.  So we don’t keep it to ourselves.

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.

Yep.  So sue us for trying to make the world a better place.  (Wait… was that a Jewish joke?  I didn’t mean it to be.  I promise.)

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.

Damn, this gets tiring.  This gets so very tiring.  No, it hasn’t.  Humanity has progressed in spite of religion.  We managed to write beautiful music despite the Church’s centuries long fear of the devil incarnate in the diminished fifth.  We acknowledged the heliocentric model despite the censure and worse of anyone who dared to question the interpretation of the holy books.  We discovered DNA despite vehement opposition to the principle of evolution.  We are reducing AIDS despite the Church’s opposition to condoms.

But you’re talking about Jews, not Christians, right?  Ok… We managed to create an egalitarian culture despite your holy book’s instructions to trade slaves, rape women and then marry them, or cut off their hands for touching a man’s penis.  We no longer stone children to death for disobedience.  We don’t treat women as untouchables when they’re on their period.  We don’t treat them as property.

And oh god, do I love bacon.  And shellfish.

No, your religion is just as awful as the rest, and when you are good, you are good in spite of the fact.  If you actually practiced what your holy book dictates, I’d demand severe punishment for you.  Because you’d be a horrible, horrible person.

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?

Yep.  I’m open to the idea.  But the evidence doesn’t support it, so I conditionally reject it.

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.

Evolution is detectable.  So detectable that it takes a pretty astonishing amount of credulity not to see it.  As far as multiverse theory goes… I dare say you know exactly as much about it as me, which is next to nothing.  So I reject your rejection on the grounds that you have no idea what you’re talking about.

If only a complete explanation and empirical proof of a multiverse would convince you that there is no god… well… I guess it’s a good thing I’m not trying to persuade you of anything, isn’t it?

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?

No.  Our argument is that when we don’t know the answer to a question, we don’t get to just make up a magical intelligence to solve the problem.  We leave it unanswered, or make our best guess based on whatever evidence we have.

I do not agree that “unseen forces” appear to play a major role in our lives, if by “unseen forces,” you mean anything with an intellect.  Because the universe appears non-intelligent.  As does evolution.

Charles Darwin added three interesting quotes to later editions of the Origin of Species.

It’s not called “Darwinism,” Rabbi.  It’s called “Evolution,” and we know a lot more about evolution today than he did.  In fact, I know more about it than Darwin, and I’m not even a biologist.  That’s how much our learning has advanced.

Just goes to show… trading quotes from celebrities is a bad way to settle disputes.





17 thoughts on “Response to Rabbi Adam Jacobs

  1. “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.”

    One can respond with: “It seems to me that in order to claim with certainty that there is a God you would have to have knowledge of the totality of the universe.”

    Posted by LM | February 11, 2011, 6:30 pm
  2. “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.”

    One can respond with: “It seems to me that in order to claim with certainty that there is a God you would have to have knowledge of the totality of the universe.”

    That’s true. Because I can imagine a universe in which — from a certain less than omnipotent perspective — all the available evidence would point to a god, but the TOTALITY of evidence would prove conclusively that there was not one.

    Anytime anyone appeals to either a lack of or possession of 100% certainty, you can be 100% certain that there’s something wrong with their argument. (/sarcasm)

    Posted by hambydammit | February 11, 2011, 6:47 pm
  3. Another great post Hamby. Just last week I had to explain to a relative that I was an atheist. I find it so amusing when someone with their highest level of education being only high school retorts back… “But of all I know and have seen of the human body it’s proof of intelligent design.”
    *smacks forehead*

    Posted by Sabbysu | February 11, 2011, 8:19 pm
  4. Good counterpoints. There was so much to pick and choose from we didn’t bother. Here’s what we posted in the comments section:

    I will give this guy the benefit of the doubt that he truly wants to have open discourse, but give this attempt a big F for FAIL. Here’s my summary:

    “I want to have an open discussion­.
    1. Here’s why the label you choose for yourself is wrong.
    2. Here’s why your counterarg­ument to #1 is wrong.
    …3. I understand you because I used to be an atheist, but I don’t understand why you don’t like religion.
    4. Oh yes I do, because you think religion is bad. Well my religion has done good things so we are not bad.
    5. Your argument doesn’t make sense to me, so let’s agree that mine is right.
    6. Since Darwin believed, you should believe, because you like Darwin right?
    So, let’s discuss our difference­s respectful­ly.”

    Um, yeah. I am very open to discussion­s with religious people, but really, this is not the way to start a discussion if you want it to be productive­. Sorry, but I’m not buying and I doubt any other atheists will either.

    Posted by SECULAR Center | February 11, 2011, 9:04 pm
  5. And this is why I don’t think either the religious movement nor the atheists movement are going to get us anywhere other than to hell in a hand basket [excuse the figure of speech]

    On one end we have Rabbi funny beard here claiming that we would be better off if we had religion and that people are bad despite religion and then we have those claiming that we would be better off without religion and that people are good despite religion.

    The problem is that when these people start talking about the group like it’s true. Such as Rabbi saying that all religious people are inspired and meaningful, well, I wasn’t inspired or meaningful when I was a theist, or you saying that only the retards are 100% sure there is no God, where as PZ Myers has expressed extensively that he believes exactly that.

    If I could wave a magic wand and make one thing disappear for good it would be labels, the other would be Justin Bieber.

    With that said if Rabbi wants to have open dialogue than he can get rid of his assumptions and assertions and actually listen to what atheists have to say. Let’s just hope he doesn’t listen to the wrong ones.

    Posted by cptpineapple | February 12, 2011, 3:37 am
  6. God has been proven to exist based upon the most reserved view of the known laws of physics. For much more on that, see Prof. Frank J. Tipler’s below paper, which in addition to giving the Feynman-DeWitt-Weinberg quantum gravity/Standard Model Theory of Everything (TOE) correctly describing and unifying all the forces in physics, also demonstrates that the known laws of physics (i.e., the Second Law of Thermodynamics, General Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics) require that the universe end in the Omega Point (the final cosmological singularity and state of infinite informational capacity identified as being God):

    F. J. Tipler, “The structure of the world from pure numbers”, Reports on Progress in Physics, Vol. 68, No. 4 (April 2005), pp. 897-964. Also released as “Feynman-Weinberg Quantum Gravity and the Extended Standard Model as a Theory of Everything”, arXiv:0704.3276, April 24, 2007.

    Reports on Progress in Physics is the leading journal of the Institute of Physics, Britain’s main professional body for physicists. Further, Reports on Progress in Physics has a higher impact factor (according to Journal Citation Reports) than Physical Review Letters, which is the most prestigious American physics journal.

    The Omega Point is omniscient, having an infinite amount of information and knowing all that is logically possible to be known; it is omnipotent, having an infinite amount of energy and power; and it is omnipresent, consisting of all that exists. These three properties are the traditional quidditative definitions (i.e., haecceities) of God held by almost all of the world’s leading religions. Hence, by definition, the Omega Point is God.

    The Omega Point final singularity is a different aspect of the Big Bang initial singularity, i.e., the uncaused first cause, a definition of God held by all the Abrahamic religions.

    Posted by James Redford | February 12, 2011, 4:50 am
  7. …you saying that only the retards are 100% sure there is no God, where as PZ Myers has expressed extensively that he believes exactly that.

    PZ was even going so far as to say he wouldn’t accept theism under any circumstances, the last time I read pharyngula with any regularity. Which is part of the reason I hardly read it anymore. Once you’ve bought into fideism, your position isn’t interesting anymore. There’s just nothing to say about it.

    So I don’t think Hamby’s characterization of “short bus” atheists is unfair. It’s right on target.

    As was the rest of the article. The only thing that makes dreck like that bearable is seeing it so skillfully eviscerated. Great stuff.

    Posted by Ian | February 12, 2011, 10:31 am
  8. PZ’s position is untenable. He’s a great biologist, but he’s over-extended his philosophical reach by claiming 100% certainty. He’s also qualified his 100% certainty claim enough that anyone who reduces it down to a simple statement of unqualified 100% certainty is as retarded as the Short Bus Atheist Squad.

    In a nutshell, I think he’s defined his way into 100% certainty by refusing to call anything that could possibly exist a god. That’s the mistake in his position. Not misunderstanding the nature of probability. So he’s not a retard. Just an over-extended curmudgeon.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 12, 2011, 3:13 pm
  9. James, you and Cptpineapple should have a chat. She used to believe in a god similar to the one you’re discussing. It took two years of banter with a world-class physicist (among others) but she finally figured out that the notion is just wishful thinking. Or something. But not likely to be true in any case.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 12, 2011, 3:15 pm
  10. LM said:

    “One can respond with: “It seems to me that in order to claim with certainty that there is a God you would have to have knowledge of the totality of the universe.””

    Actually no. All a theist would have to do would be to show that a god existed in ANY part of the universe to make their claim. In other words, their burden is easier than the theoretical 100% certain atheist (and I agree with you, Hamby, about PZ’s view).

    The problem is that no theist has met this simple burden. Thus, belief in any gods is not justified. Therefore, I’m an atheist.

    Posted by ShaunPhilly | February 12, 2011, 3:28 pm
  11. Hambydammit wrote:

    In a nutshell, I think he’s defined his way into 100% certainty by refusing to call anything that could possibly exist a god.

    A semantic shenanigan worthy of the Discovery Institute, and comparable to the Rabbi’s refusal to understand what “atheism” means.

    Posted by Ian | February 12, 2011, 3:37 pm
  12. ShaunPhilly wrote:
    “All a theist would have to do would be to show that a god existed in ANY part of the universe to make their claim.”

    Perhaps, but the irony is that they keep placing God outside of time, outside the universe, in the supernatural, blah, blah, blah… 😉

    Posted by LM | February 12, 2011, 4:05 pm
  13. Actually no. All a theist would have to do would be to show that a god existed in ANY part of the universe to make their claim.

    Realizing that I’m going way, way far afield here, let me play devil’s advocate. Let’s imagine a theist proving “conclusively” that a “god” existed in X,Y,Z,T coordinates in the physical universe. Now, acknowledging that the theist does not have 100% of the available information concerning the existence of the physical universe, we must also acknowledge the following as a possibility: The physical universe we observe is a complex computer simulation, and what we perceive to exist as “god” is actually a quantum deluxorama hyper-holo-simbot from the 547,381st universe extending from the black hole at the edge of the universe… you know, the one we haven’t discovered because it’s beyond our ability to detect?… that one… And so what we call “god” is neither intelligent nor powerful. It’s just a trick being played by a hyper-dimensional blob of intelligent cranberry jelly in the parallel universe where cranberry jelly is the only intelligence.

    The point being that no matter how conclusively a theist “proves” a god, they cannot prove that there is 0% possibility that we’ve got things horribly and terribly wrong. It puts the same burden on them that they try to hoist on us. If I can imagine them being fooled in any conceivable way, they’re not really 100% certain.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 12, 2011, 6:30 pm
  14. Late to the table, but I have something to add. PZ Myers unwillingness to accept theism is a product of a poor definition of the “supernatural”. This is not solely PZ Myers’ failing as I have seen a few atheists and skeptics claiming that the supernatural is anything that is untestable. I don’t think this is a good criterion for what the supernatural would be if it existed. I think Richard Carrier gave a good laundry list approach to supernatural claims, some of which would be testable.

    His main claim that I took away was that when people use the term “supernatural” they don’t use it to make epistemological claims (like whether or not the entity can be proven to exist through empiricism), but rather a metaphysical claim. I also took away from the discussion that natural things may or may not be testable.

    See the discussion here (this may be the second time I linked it on your blog):

    I’m not fully convinced by his definition, but I agree it applies to the items on his laundry list of supernatural claims.

    When I have time I’d like to get through this:'s%20Copy%20(Fishman%202007).pdf

    Posted by MKandefer | February 16, 2011, 7:23 pm
  15. Hi, Hambydammit. Since the Omega Point cosmology is now a mathematical theorem per the Second Law of Thermodynamics, General Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics, the only way it could be wrong is if one or more of those said laws of physics are wrong, yet they have been confirmed by every experiment to date. Hence, the only way to avoid the Omega Point cosmology is to reject empirical science.

    Posted by James Redford | February 18, 2011, 8:19 am
  16. James, I don’t think you quite understand either the OP cosmology model or the implications of calling “God” an information set. But maybe I’m wrong. Where’s your degree in astrophysics from?

    Posted by hambydammit | February 18, 2011, 3:49 pm


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