Monday, May 21, 2007

Atheist vs theist debate

Event: "The Existence of God: Theism vs Atheism": dinner party & panel discussion
Host: DC International Connection
Location: The Fireplace Mansion, Washington, DC
When: Saturday, May 19, 2007


Ralph Dumain (independent scholar) on atheism, irreligion, & rationality
See statement with web links & bibliography

Richard Akin (Alliance of Secularists USA), former Baptist minister turned atheist
Rick Wingove (American Atheists, Beltway Atheists), main speaker on the issue of "God or no god?"
Lori Lipman Brown (Secular Coalition of America), main speaker on church & state issues, moral atheism
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld (Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah - The National Synagogue [Orthodox]), main speaker defending the theist perspective

Click here for main speaker bios.

This program was organized in a hurry with some last-minute juggling. The format along with time constraints did not make it easy to do justice to everyone's interests. Some people found the diffuse directions of the presentations and the audience discussion left them wanting more. I was approached to participate in a future session focused on this topic, but I think other panelists with a greater interest in debating the existence of God would be more suitable. I'll explain momentarily.

Two of the speakers kept on topic: Richard Akin and Rick Wingrove explained how and why they came to reject the existence of a belief in God and why it matters to have evidence-based convictions and a rational system of morality.

The rest of us did not stick to the confines of the defined topic.

Lori Lipman Brown expounded her position on the separation of church and state, why people should not impose their religious beliefs on others, especially via the government, and why owning the label "atheism" is warranted given public opprobrium and discrimination against atheists.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld did not defend the existence of God, but rather the Jewish tradition, frequently inviting us to study with him. He was a surprisingly young man for an Orthodox rabbi, 32 years old by my calculation. One would think only an old man reared in a bygone age would fit such an occupation. He told jokes, acted amiably, but as I surmised from the beginning, he was not a good match for this alleged debate. The shtik couldn't disguise the lack of substance.

I was the first speaker. My presentation was a version of my written statement pruned to the minimum. I laid out what I considered to be the philosophical issues of public concern, spanning the continuum encompassing atheism, irreligion, and rationality. The existence of some abstract conception of God matters when attached to pseudoexplanations and pseudoscience. The notion of a personal God is insupportable, but dangerous mainly when combined with other claims. My argument is for irreligion, that is the rejection of faith, religious and other irrational beliefs and the inevitable authoritarianism of same. Finally, I argued for a broader outlook on irrationality and ideology, inter alia for the benefit of those who think it proves something to argue that Stalin produced a body count to rival that of religious tyranny.

The audience questions and comments were all over the place, as were the personal discussions afterward. Upon reflection, I am convinced that my perspective is correct, because when you listen to what concerns people, you will realize that they are no more interested in the abstract existence of God than I am: all their arguments revolved around other questions, involving parapsychology, paranormal phenomena, the status, validity and interpretation of sacred texts and religious traditions, scientific explanations, the existence of vital forces and life after death, etc. Of course, in theory one has to believe in God to believe in the sacred texts of theistic religions (though there is such a thing as Christian atheism!), but the existence of a god does not in any way justify the validity of any sacred text or religion. Nor does there have to be any god to account for paranormal phenomena if there is anything paranatural or parascientific to explain. The universe is just what it is, however weird it gets. (You've seen the T-shirt--"Taoism: shit happens [etc. etc.]"?)

But some people, pro and con, persist in thinking that the existence of God actually merits debate. Some have heard of the ontological argument, the cosmological argument, etc., and are aware of the relevant philosophical tradition. This is exactly what bores me. And, whatever they say, the majority of people don't really care, either, because they are really out to defend belief systems which they think they can justify by first asserting or proving that there is an omniscient, omnipresent, all-good, infinite, perfect Superfriend, then rationalizing away the discrepancies between this unconceptualizable entity and the actual world we experience, and then adducing revelations via the sacred texts of antiquity to justify more nonsense and create more contradictions.

Therefore, I think I am justified in claiming that the analysis of the persistently illogical, ideological, superstitious mind is more important than the analysis of philosophers' arguments for the existence of a supreme being. But as evidenced by the scattered and often off-the-wall comments from the audience, this is a wide-ranging problem that is very difficult to address comprehensively in a format such as this. History, sociology, psychology, parapsychology, cosmology, evolutionary theory, philosophy of science, history of religion, anthropology, hermeneutics--how on earth can anyone expect to plow through all these areas of enquiry in a disciplined fashion in such a short time, and how many of us are prepared to answer to all of these topics and condense them into sound bites at a moment's notice?

For a real intellectual debate any philosopher or theologian might have done the trick, but the participation of an orthodox rabbi out to defend something more than the existence of God complicated the issue. I was even more ill-disposed towards the rabbi after reviewing his web site ( the night before the event. I checked out some of his commentaries under the rubric "social issues" and was appalled, beginning with his essays on intermarriage (part 1 and part 2). The attempt to apply outmoded, arbitrary, superstition-derived, ethnocentric perspectives and rules to the contemporary world could not be more superfluous, diversionary, and obscurantist.

The rabbi, surprisingly young, had a manner more akin to a liberal than to the conservative old grouch I anticipated. He agreed with the principle of church-state separation, not only in the USA, but in Israel. He admitted he was intellectually unprepared to defend the existence of God, and he proceeded to discuss the basic principles of Judaism. Having just arrived after the end of the Sabbath, he posed the question: why would a rational person want to observe Shabbos? He claimed that the fundamental principle of Judaism is: there is a God and it is not me, i.e. humility. He further cited Maimonides' negative theology: the infinite cannot be positively characterized or proven. Humility. He also claimed that the religious do not have a monopoly on authority or salvation.

This obviously is a rather unconvincing position, given that in a modern, pluralistic, democratic state we actually have the option of what to observe and how to behave and there is no possibility of acting out the horrors of Old Testament mores. Had I time I would have cited the diatribe by William Blake (no atheist!)against humility in his poem "The Everlasting Gospel". My rebuttal was very brief but cutting. I scolded him for sanitizing the religion. I listed a few reasons why a person would be interested in ritual observance nowadays when it is purely optional, e.g. the psychological need for structure, the feeling that one is important because one is obliged to follow certain rules.

But most of all I let him have it for his duplicitous claim to humility. Humility is a ruse intended to humble others. Humility is sneaky, manipulative and irresponsible. A person should forthrightly stake a claim, take a stand and take personal responsibility for it, without playing games. The rabbi in effect seeks to regulate other people's behavior, as evidenced by his defamation of intermarriage as a "holocaust" and his offensive injunction against it.

In response Rabbi Shmuck accused me of an ad hominem attack. He clarified his position that if Judaism is merely a culture, then there can be no objection to intermarriage, but if the goal is to perpetuate a spiritual tradition, then preservation of that tradition is the priority. However, I was not as careless in my reading of his position as he claimed. Indeed, in his writings he states that if Jews were just an ethnic group, then the prohibition on intermarriage would be racist, but since it's about the preservation of Jewish practice, then it's not. But the Jews are de facto an ethnic group and only by the arbitrary fiat of superstition can anyone commandeer them to fulfill an imaginary divine mission. Rabbi Shmuck responded in another interchange on church-state separation that coercion doesn't work, but he knows that the contemporary multicultural society is his enemy and he wants to turn the clock back while remaining contemporary, that is, not advocating stoning people to death as in days of yore. What a putz!

The rabbi had a number of fans in the audience, one of whom reiterated that buzzword humility. None of them seemed very bright.

An atheist questioner pressed him on all the horrible practices chronicled and sanctioned in the Old Testament--rape, genocide, etc. As these are not acceptable today, how does one salvage the good from the bad? The answer: study. The Hebrew Bible must be interpreted, and the cumulative body of oral law takes precedence. Judaism evolves while respecting tradition. (I suppose the rabbi would not favor Clarence Thomas, but I didn't get a chance to ask.) These difficult passages of the Bible create a lot of tension for us; no belief system is without inner conflict. He offers classes in the Talmud for free.

Another questioner asked how one can claim the Bible is given by God if there is no proof. The rabbi responded that revelation is a core value and he chooses to give it meaning. A demand for scientific confirmation of the work of God misses the point: it is a beautiful book and contains meaning before he the reader finds it.

To sum up, the rabbi is an idiot. His whole style--rhetorical flourishes, jokes, anecdotes, and the rest--reveals the manipulative techniques of a clergyman, in this case a distinctive Jewish style of working an audience. Yeah, he seems like a nice guy, but as a pusher of delusion he's a weasel.

I did not get an opening to interject my point on this absolutely key issue, that of interpretation (officially known as hermeneutics), upon which the rabbi's defense of Judaism turned. Now maybe you see why I think debating religion is much more important than debating the existence of God.

But I sensed there's more to all this nonsense, and I finally articulated it in a private conversation. There's a social subtext here, and it is social class. Below the surface lie the tacit social assumptions of the upper middle class, based on luxury.

In a modern, liberal democratic, semi-secular society, if one comes off as a nice, friendly guy, one may succeed in retooling authoritarianism for the upscale crowd via hermeneutic subterfuges, because the denizens of the upper middle class are all about respectability and finding "meaning" in life without having to suffer the consequences of the beliefs they believe they believe.

Bluffers and fakers like Michael Lerner, Cornel West, and now Barack Obama all play the same game, and when you come down to it, only their liberal upper middle class groupies are really buying it. The poor play their games of make-believe and fantasize about a make-believe world they could occupy. The professional middle class is privileged to live in a world of make-believe. The rabbi, a mere lad a generation younger than I (a baby-boomer), is as removed as the Man in the Moon from the ghettoes of Eastern Europe from which his great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents escaped; he inhabits an airy-fairy world a galaxy away from their poverty, ignorance, oppressed existence and oppressive customs, but instead of exulting in the liberation achieved via a painful upward climb through history, he runs and hides in an artificial fantasy world. If he had ever experienced the cramped mental universe of the ghettoes of his forebears, or those right here in our midst, he might be forced into an entirely different outlook on the liberation of the human mind. With upscale-colored glasses he can find beauty in the violent, ignorant nonsense of the past, but for those of us who don't have this luxury and know what freedom is worth, there is no greater beauty than a free mind.

1 comment:

Dirk Buchholz said...

I notice in your web links/ biblio you included a statement by Redjacket.
I don't understand how his statement relates to atheism and or lends strength to your basic position.Native American are deeply spiritual.
Redjacket (at least according to your view) would also be possessed of a mind that is..."persistently illogical, ideological, & superstitious"