Your Atheism is (Somewhat) Irrelevant

If you pay attention to what goes on in the world of atheism/humanism/secularism, you’ve probably seen scuttlebutt about a number of accusations of sexual misconduct by Big Names in that corner of the world. There has also been some significant worry about what these accusations and the response to it mean for the future of these movements. Questions like, “Why is it that the population of conferences on secularism are overwhelmingly male?,” and whether some Big Names who aren’t accused of misconduct are making matters worse by minimizing the problem and engaging in casual sexism and victim-blaming.

There is also the on-again, off-again furor Sam Harris creates every time he talks about Islam. Harris seems to me to have taken up the mantle left behind by Christopher Hitchens as a kind of gadfly, poking at the ability of any form of religion involving any kind of belief in any kind of divinity to be “good.” (For the record: I loved how Hitch wrote, but often hated what he had to say.)

I’m not going to talk directly about any of this–not because I don’t think these questions matter, but because they are symptoms of another problem: secularism has taken on a reactionary color that sometimes makes secularists a mirror image of those whom they cast as their enemies. The reactionary problem drags along with it gender and sexual issues, and issues about talking about religion, and it is biting the secularist movement in the ass.

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Why a Manual for Creating Atheists Isn’t

I’m hoping to publish in another forum a more detailed review of Peter Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists, so my comments here will not be especially comprehensive. But I was, in some important ways, rather disappointed with the book, and I want to express a bit of that disappointment here.

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No, I’m not rebelling against the old man in the white robes

I’ve been reading Dr. Ron Wolfson’s Relational Judaism recently, and I was reminded of a trope I’ve heard from philosophers/theologians of liberal Judaism on several occasions (Neil Gillman is among them), as well as apologists for more traditional views of the divine.

That trope is: Atheists, humanists, agnostics, etc., don’t really not believe in a deity. It’s just that they don’t believe in the “Old Man in the White Robe with a Long Beard” version of God. Well, neither do we! And also, there are no atheists in foxholes.

It’s not that I think that we are all there is; it’s just that, absent knowledge that there is anything else, we are left to act as though we are all there is.

I also heard something like it just this morning during an interview with Mary Eberstadt on the New Books Network about a recent examination of the history of secularization. Eberstadt pegs secularization, in part, on disruptions to family structure and the cognitive results of that disruption upon the ability to “get” the traditional, paternal view of God in orthodox Christianity and “orthodox” Judaism. Eberstadt and the host of the podcast, Marshall Poe, take some shots at the New Atheists whom they, not without reason (see, e.g., Christopher Hitchens, whose writing I love but whose thought I often do not), accuse of not “getting” the communal values religious practice and community brings to the table.

So I want to take some time to state where it is, as a Humanistic Jew, I come from on these issues. And I want to start by making it very clear that I think the “there are no atheists in foxholes, and I also don’t believe in that kind of God” trope misses the point for me.

I don’t care that much about the question of whether there is a God. It’s an interesting philosophical question, but it’s not factually susceptible to proof.

More important is that the answer to that question is, essentially, irrelevant for me, because my observation of the world tells me that a view of God that places he/she/it directly active in history is something that I simply must reject. I cannot have faith in–that is, express allegiance and fealty to–a being that has power over the world and does not intervene in great trauma, causes trauma as a “test,” grants trauma to those who are able to “handle” it, is unable or unwilling to act to alleviate suffering, etc.

Proof, incidentally, is not citation to a tradition’s texts. It’s not showing me examples of how various traditions share common concepts. The “authoritative” text goes only so far as one accepts the authority of the text itself, which is why “John 3:16” signs don’t work for Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. And the common concepts are great–except that there are plenty of common concepts that we reject.

I also cannot have faith in a being that we are told we cannot understand, can describe only in the negative, and yet to whom normative prescriptions are attributed, which normative prescriptions we must obey in order to be moral.

That’s a long way of saying: God’s existence cannot be proved, God’s intervention in the world cannot be proved, and God’s moral authority cannot be proved. Thus, the idea that individuals must have faith that the prior three things exist, pay fealty to that idea, and act in conformance with the moral codes that are set out in service of that faith is an idea I reject.

I’m not someone whose only encounter with concepts of God is the traditional version. I spent six years of my life studying religion directly, and will likely be spending significant portions of the next four years doing so as well. I’ve flirted with plenty of ideas and approaches to religion, to faith, and to God.

But I keep coming back to the fact that there’s no proof, empirically or philosophically, and that we’re left to figure this out on our own. It’s not that I’m rebelling against the old man, or that I’ve had prayers denied. It’s just that, when I look at the situation with my own eyes, I can’t accept the idea that we should cede our own power over the world to the non-provable.

It’s not that I think that we are all there is; it’s just that, absent knowledge that there is anything else, we are left to act as though we are all there is.