Rabbi Marc Gellman has an article on MSNBC.com titled Trying to Understand Angry Atheists. He opens his article with:
I think I need to understand atheists better.
Which is a stunning understatement once you finish reading the rest of the essay and realize just how patronizing and ignorant he’s just made himself sound. Let’s start with his second paragraph where he writes…
So we disagree about God. I’m sometimes at odds with Yankee fans, people who like rap music and people who don’t like animals, but I try to be civil.
While it’s certainly possible to disagree over the New York Yankees, rap music, and how worthwhile animals happen to be, from the atheist standpoint there’s quite literally nothing to disagree about on the issue of God. Unlike God, the existence of the New York Yankees, rap music, or animals isn’t something you have to take on faith alone. And while Yankee fans, rap music aficionados, and animal lovers can certainly be annoying at times, not a single one of them has ever shown up on my doorstep early in the morning to see if I’d mind spending a few hours of my day letting them try and convert me to their point of view. Certainly none of them has ever taken the time to write an essay in a mainstream news outlet to tell me how my lack of enthusiasm for the New York Yankees, rap music, or animals in general means I’m a immoral degenerate leading a meaningless life. He continues with…
I don’t know many religious folk who wake up thinking of new ways to aggravate atheists, but many people who do not believe in God seem to find the religion of their neighbors terribly offensive or oppressive, particularly if the folks next door are evangelical Christians. I just don’t get it.
Here’s a newsflash for you Rabbi: I don’t wake up thinking of new ways to aggravate any theists either. Yet somehow I seem to manage to aggravate them anyway. Generally speaking it’s not the folks next door that I’m worried about so much as the folks in Washington, the various State Capitols, and so-called Religious Leaders that concerns me the most. Hell, I don’t even know what religion my next door neighbors happen to be, though I suspect the odds are heavily in favor of them being some form of Christian given the fact that they’re white and of middle class status, but that’s just a guess based on statistics. Honestly I wouldn’t care if they believed in a religion that says God wanted them to strip naked and run around their living room coated in motor oil so long as they keep the drapes closed and aren’t molesting their kids. I’d think them damned silly people, but then I tend to think that about most religious folks.
He continues with…
This must sound condescending and a large generalization,and I don’t mean it that way, but I am tempted to believe that behind atheist anger there are oftentimes uncomfortable personal histories. Perhaps their atheism was the result of the tragic death of a loved one, or an angry degrading sermon, or an insensitive eulogy, or an unfeeling castigation of lifestyle choices or perhaps something even worse.
And he’s right. It does sound like a condescendingly large generalization. It also sounds amazingly ignorant. It’s the old you’re-just-angry-at-God-for-some-reason argument and it’s tired and it’s annoying and he then has the audacity to wonder why so many of us seem angry. Continuing…
Religion must remain an audacious, daring and, yes, uncomfortable assault on our desires to do what we want when we want to do it. All religions must teach a way to discipline our animal urges, to overcome racism and materialism, selfishness and arrogance and the sinful oppression of the most vulnerable and the most innocent among us.
Shame so many religions don’t teach those values. I believe it was your own God, Rabbi Gellman, who commanded Moses to instruct his followers to ”… kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.—Bamidbar – Numbers 31: 17-18 ” What was that you said about sinful oppression of the most vulnerable and the most innocent among us?
Oh, that’s right! Because God commanded this to happen it wasn’t a sinful act! Silly me!
Some religious leaders obviously betray the teachings of the faith they claim to represent, but their sacred scriptures remain a critique of them and also of every thing we do to betray the better angels of our nature. But our world is better and kinder and more hopeful because of the daily sacrifice and witness of millions of pious people over thousands of years.
Stoned anyone lately, Rabbi? No? Aren’t you betraying the teachings of the faith? Christians can at least use the excuse that Christ came along and changed a lot of the rules so those parts of the Old Testament they don’t like don’t apply anymore, but the parts they do like still do. What’s your excuse for not following God’s teachings?
To be called to a level of goodness and sacrifice so constantly and so patiently by a loving but demanding God may seem like a naive demand to achieve what is only a remote human possibility. However, such a vision need not be seen as a red flag to those who believe nothing.
Rabbi, the red flag for us is that you’re convinced there’s something “out there” calling you to do anything. We tend to lock up most people who talk about listening to the voices in their head, unless those voices go by the name “God,” and even then we’ve had to lock a few of those people up too because their God(s) told them to do things like kill everyone around them. Combine that with the fact that you seem to think you’d be a totally self-centered bastard if you didn’t believe in your imaginary Sky Daddy’s threat to punish you if you don’t behave and that flag becomes super sized. It’s not an issue of naivety, it’s an issue of sanity.
Here’s another news flash for you Rabbi: The well educated, middle class Arab men who flew the planes into the Twin Towers believed deeply and sincerely that they too had been called to a level of goodness and sacrifice by a loving but demanding God. Like Moses they didn’t see their actions as sinful because they had been commanded by God. If God says to do it then it can’t be a sinful act. The problem is there’s no way to argue whether or not God told anyone to say anything. Continuing…
I can humbly ask whether my atheist brothers and sisters really believe that their lives are better, richer and more hopeful by clinging to Camus’s existential despair: “The purpose of life is that it ends.”
Up until you mentioned him I’d never heard of Camus and I don’t necessarily agree with his assessment of life’s purpose. That’s you once again arrogantly assuming we all subscribe to that particular viewpoint.
I can agree to make peace with atheists whom I believe ask too little of life here on planet earth if they will agree to make peace with me and with other religious folk who perhaps have asked too much.
It’s not that you ask too much of your life that bothers us, it’s that so many believers expect the rest of us to do the same. I would humbly suggest you get out and meet more atheists. You may be surprised that a lot of them have very purpose driven lives and may even ask more from them than you do. Then you wouldn’t have to rely on what you “believe” to be true about atheists and could instead talk about what is actually true of at least the ones you’ve actually gotten to know.
As I said before, I generally don’t care what you want to believe so long as you don’t insist that anyone else comply with those beliefs by means of getting them enshrined in law. Though you should keep in mind that if you want me to respect your beliefs in God you need to respect my beliefs that you’re a bit of a (probably harmless) bigoted, ignorant, arrogant, nut case. At least I can make a reasonable argument for my belief. Your essay here is a good starting point.
I believe that the philosopher-rabbi Mordecai Kaplan was right when he said, “It is hell to live without hope, and religion saves people from hell.”
There is no salvation in false hope, Rabbi. No one ever accomplished anything by sitting around engaging in wishful thinking and that’s all belief in God(s) really is.
To address the Rabbi’s initial premise, that atheists are angry, I’d have to say that that’s just another ignorant assumption on his part. For every angry atheist he might point to I’m sure I could come up with a Jewish or Christian representative as a counterpart to them. I know a lot of atheists who are generally happy people most of the time.
Personally, I’m not so much angry as much as annoyed and most of that annoyance is at the Christians and Muslims who seem so hell bent to force their beliefs on everyone else. You’ll note that I don’t spend much time ranting about Jewish people foisting their religion off on everyone else and that’s because they don’t tend to do so very often—probably a side effect of believing they’re the “chosen ones” that are the only group going to heaven (why bother to attempt to convert when we’re the only ones getting in anyway?) Because they don’t generally bug me I don’t generally have a problem with them. It’d be nice if the Jews in Israel could figure out how to get along with their Arab neighbors, but that’s not entirely their fault—there’s plenty of blame to go around in that regard—but other than that they don’t tend to have a big impact on my life and so my annoyance with them remains pretty low.