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Trying to Understand Smug Clergy

Why do believers fail to hear the true message of atheists?

In response to “Trying to Understand Angry Atheists: Why do nonbelievers seem to be threatened by the idea of God?

By Marc Gellman

Newsweek, April 26, 2006

Rabbi Gellman,

You were so close when you started your commentary with, “I think I need to understand atheists better.” If you had written that and that alone, we would be miles farther down this road than we are now. You sullied that very astute mission by proceeding to run through every tired assumption that every smug believer uses to convince himself that he is somehow morally superior to those who reject his faith. Your arguments betray more about your ignorance of atheists and your failure to grasp the impetus for their actions than they offer any sort of truce or cease-fire between the faithful and the faithless.

It is striking to me that you assert that the biggest question is “Are we alone?” To claim that that is the “biggest” question of all really gets at the heart of what is the difference between atheists and believers. From the perspective of most atheists, the question is not only not the “biggest” question, the question is totally irrelevant. If the answer to that question, in a believer’s mind, leads to a specific set of moral choices based on some sort of answer to Pascal’s wager, that just in case there is someone watching we should be good, indicates to me moral immaturity in an individual who chooses to be good in his adulthood for the same reasons he choose to be good as a child: want of reward, fear of punishment.

In response to the “biggest” question I give the answer, “What does it matter?” If there is no one out there, how does it degrade my reality at all? Does it make me love my family less? Does it erode the love I have for my life? Does it make anything in my subjective experience any less important or relevant to me? For those who have chosen to not base their moral and ethical values in a place of fear and subjugation, the answer is simply “No, it doesn’t.” Likewise, if God revealed himself tomorrow in the second coming that the faithful have been promising for two millennia, would it change the way I felt toward any of the subjective values that I have built over years in my life? My answer? No. Would I fall down and worship him? Absolutely not.

If I can reduce the struggle of atheists against our faithful compatriots in our fair and secular nation, it would be to this end: we seek to minimize the social, political and environmental harm that the impact of a majority population with values that are not based in any sort of objective reality has on our person, our children, our community and our future.

If the faithful practiced their faith in a personal way that improved their emotional well-being and it helped them achieve a greater understanding of themselves and their mission in life, then never the day shall come when atheists would raise an objection to it. I tend to believe that when we talk about the metaphysical truths of the universe and the subjective value of life we are in essence arguing over semantics. Each one of us, atheists included, has an overriding metaphor that colors our existence and gives us purpose. We try to talk to each other in terms that really only have meaning to ourselves and there will never be a perfect match between the deep meanings of words and concepts that we use to communicate with each other.

But outside the recesses of our minds, where, as best as we can tell, the entirety of our subjective experience resides, including the self-aware mind, conscious, spirit and soul, there exists an objective reality that we are all subject to that is true regardless if we accept it or not. In this objective reality we must eek out a living to provide physically for the food our bodies need to support our brains, which in turn provide the medium that our minds and spirits need to thrive. We must subsist on what we can find. We must interact with each other and with the environment in very real terms. We must engage objective reality with very real efforts and expectations. No amount of our subjective spirit or mind will influence objective reality unless it is by the result of our own actions according to the laws of physics. Over the course of human history we have become more and more efficient at doing this, and every single advance in our civilization is borne out of a willingness to learn more about objective reality and use it to our advantage. Every setback results from a failure to do so.

Axiomatic to our existence in communities and nations is that each one of us has a profound effect on each other’s objective reality. It cannot be denied that how we decide to engage each other, how we decide to rule ourselves, and how we decide to be civil is something that is not simply confined to our own perceptions. Our actions and decisions affect each other’s objective reality, and if we expect to engage each other in a civilly responsible manner we cannot retreat to the ubiquitous, yet fundamentally flawed rubric of The Golden Rule. It does not serve us in this regard. We cannot simply do unto others because others don’t think how we think, others don’t share our values. We can’t use our own subjective experience to guide us in a truly civil society. A truly civil society relies upon objective truths that we can all agree on. For the purposes of interacting with each other; like Descartes, we must reject all our subjective assumptions about what is true and start with those simple things that we all can verify are absolutely true and then build from there. Our policy must be based upon sound civil agreements, backed up by the methodology of science and consonant with the wisdom of history. All appeals to religion for this purpose are inadequate.

It is for this reason that atheists are (or should be) moved to action and engagement. If you want to categorize the level of intensity that you’ve experienced as “anger,” then I say that the only reason that it takes on that tone is because we are immensely frustrated by the level of intolerance, ignorance and willful sabotage we encounter when seeking out a place in our society to earnestly secure the rights and freedoms that our secular constitution has promised us. We are fighting the use of subjective religious values as a basis for our civil policy and that fight is what the Framers of the Constitution intended in order to guarantee our liberty. When the will of the people, through political power, through voting, and through the barrage of media reinforcement, relies upon subjective religious values to justify what we see as injustice, greed, corruption and human misery–it is indeed, very angering. Until the letter of the law says that it will no longer protect my right to pursue my happiness under a secular government, expect that atheists will, angrily if need be, seek to change the things that are based in subjective religious ideology. I will leave this country the day that the letter of the law does not protect that right.

When Catholic doctrine is used to justify why prophylactic education is not a part of the ministry to Africa, where the promotion of condom use might stop the pandemic of AIDS; when fundamentalist Christian doctrine is used to justify the bombing of medical clinics and the killing of doctors; when religious-based organizations get to “opt out” of nondiscrimination policies, and yet still receive the benefit of federal funding and still maintain social credibility; and when blowhard religious charlatans blame everything from tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes to terrorist bombings on the fact that God is displeased with us instead of, say, offering in the relief, and yet still have the vocal and financial support of millions of people–these things do indeed make me very angry.

Part of it is pure reactionary emotional response to the perceived injustice of it all. Part of it is belonging to what has been historically a politically impotent group that stands against the very ideology that most people blindly credit for giving them so much happiness, and yet we see how so much of what it has brought the world is pain. And the last part is being subjected to the constant deluge of rhetoric from the religious majority that accuses our position of having no merit, that we atheists have no morals and, if faced with death, our metaphysical beliefs would have no integrity and our intellectual fortitude is nothing more than opportunistic hedonism. Angry? Indeed.

It is often parroted that the kindness and good will in this world comes from the pious nature and devotion of thousands of generations of the faithful, and we should accept religion and accord it respect and tolerance if only for that reason alone. That patronizing justification almost admits that religion is false and yet should receive some sort of intellectual pass because the ends justify the means. I don’t know what evidence is being used to make the claim for religion’s benevolence over the course of human history but the world history that I’m familiar with is a succession of slaughters and injustices justified by religion, not overcome by it. I know not of any war between men or nations that has not at some point appealed to religious righteousness as a justification for killing and political opportunism. In the history I’m familiar with, only through compromise, science and truth have men found peace. In response to the claim that any good in this world exists because so many have been faithful and pious over the years, I say that if they have managed to be that good in spite of their faith, imagine what we might accomplish if we dedicated ourselves to truth.

Camus’ existential despair: “The purpose of life is that it ends,” is not the cornerstone of any atheistic world view. While atheism strictly defined is not a search for the meaning of life but rather simply the denial of the existence of God, gods or anything supernatural, I can speak to the fact that this denial was the catalyst to seeing everything in my life with a new light. Once the search for objective truth begins, the only thing that stops it is the cool indifference of death, but death is not my purpose. My purpose is to grow, to expand my knowledge of objective truth. My happiness comes from continually aligning my will with the objective truths of the universe, to find my place in nature again, and revel in what I know and benefit from how it directly improves my life. I do not toil in hopes of reward and behave in fear of punishment. I cherish each day because I understand that it is special and uniquely mine, and those things that I deem good I seek to understand how my hand creates and maintains their continuing presence in my life. I credit that glory to no one else except where it is deserved by the decent and graceful action of a fellow human. No god is required to validate this happiness and if there is some creator that put this all into action, explain how am I defying him by wanting to discover the laws of the universe that he created to the capacity of my potential that he granted?

I have come to the understanding that the will to live and life itself are synonymous. Everyone who takes responsibility for their own existence and seeks to improve it by seeking truth is embodying the very real purpose of life. I’m sorry that I don’t have some well known philosopher that has said some relevant quote that I could refer to now that would give my position some amount of pretentious authority, but I have found that truth does not grow or diminish based on authority, or the lack thereof. Simply stated: The purpose of life is that it persists.

If life does not persist, then it has no purpose. If you are not growing and learning, then you have no purpose. Regarding the future from an evolutionary standpoint, if we do not pass onto our children our wisdom and skill, then our life has no purpose. We accept that while our physical body will not persist into the future, what our children learn from us will carry a part of us into the future. In our children, we pass on ourselves and we impart to them as much of ourselves as we can. They share with us the same genes, the same blood, the same capacity for leaning and the same potential to be great. If we quash that potential with dogmatic fear, instill the need for faith, and teach them to distrust their intellect, we are training them to be slaves and charity cases. We are training them to not be responsible for themselves.

We have no reason to fear death because that part of us which cares that we are dead dies when we die. The part of us that might lament our death will also be dead. That part of us which causes us to avoid death will be dead. The part of us that will miss our family and our friends and our lives will be dead. The part of us that remembers how great life is will be dead. Anyone who fixates on the moment we die and supposes that they might experience some sort of pain or longing after they die has not come to terms with the reality of death; they are doomed to waste their life fearing that and looking for some comfort from the inevitable that has no consequences instead of using the short time we have on earth, that rare and unlikely circumstance, to live and enjoy every part of it that we have while growing and learning and being responsible for every moment that is ours.

Those who abandon the responsibility for their own existence due to the debilitation of their intellect and the fear of the unknown continue to live only by the grace and charity of their compassionate fellow man. It is no wonder that the foundation of religious faith is charity, compassion, and grace; these things are needed to sustain, manipulate, control and exploit those who have abdicated their responsibility to live, to flourish, and to do good because it serves them and their family better than not doing good.

For all the charitable goodwill that religion purports to champion, has no one ever bothered to ask why it is necessary for the congregation to financially support the clergy? If the clergy were filled with such charitable good will, why must the flock of faithful pay their way in housing, food and raiment? Isn’t it better for them to make their own living as proof of their ideals and integrity and serve the congregation out of pure charitable good will and example than to live off the backs of those whom they claim to tend?

If we critically examine the methods and practices used in mediating religious ideology to a congregation, we find many functional similarities between clergy and how a shepherd tends his sheep, an apropos comparison to many religions. Why is it not often mentioned that ultimately sheep are kept not for the sheep’s well-being but for their master’s? Why is that logical conclusion of the analogy never spoken? Might we find the same sort of parallels in the methods and practices a politician uses to feed his self-aggrandizing need for power and influence while masquerading under the guise of altruism? For these reasons I cannot abide by any institution that ultimately exists to serve itself, preys upon the weaknesses of the people who buy into it, and demands faith in concepts that have no objective base.

If you were to actually ask an atheist what they believe, you’d be hard pressed to find one that said, “Nothing.” On a personal level as someone who knows quite a few atheists and nonbelievers I can tell you that among them are some of the most upright, concerned, educated people I have ever met, people who carry with them a deep sense of integrity, conviction and honor that serves them, their family and their community just as effectively as anyone who requires a god to be decent.

In fact it seems that the only thing you got right in your essay is that it is, “…condescending and a large generalization….” While it is true that many people come to embrace an atheistic outlook after having an emotional fallout with religion, many more people, including me, were smart enough to realize that religion doesn’t provide the answers to all the questions that we need to have answered. Very quickly after the beginning of the search for truth one comes to the realization that it’s impossible to reconcile a belief in the supernatural with the intrinsic truths of the universe. Very quickly on the heels of that realization, one comes to understand that anyone who asks for blind faith and trust to get you to accept an idea instead of being willing to demonstrate objective truths through empirical evidence–is a liar.

The only reason to lie is to control people’s perceptions. The only reason to control people’s perceptions is to manipulate them to do what you want. The only reason to manipulate them to do what you want is to exploit their capacity and potential for your own self-serving ends. And no one likes being lied to, controlled, manipulated and exploited. I don’t need a god to know that.

Rabbi, you seem to attribute a lot of baseless ideological foundations to atheism, and the atheists you describe fit perfectly the stereotypes of what the faithful erroneously think an atheist is. I’d venture a guess that you don’t actually know any atheists and are simply responding to your own subjective concept of what an atheist is and what you suppose an atheist might say to you if you were arguing with one.

Over and over again I see unprovoked, preemptive responses to phantom atheists and I can’t help but realize that by our simple existence we poke holes through your dogmatic theology. Our ability to defy your subjective religious ideology by our mere existence, without any sort of apparent divine punishment (lightning would be cool), sows the seeds of doubt amongst your constituents because you get asked over and over again how can our all powerful and all loving God have allowed nonbelievers to exist in the first place? If he were really all-powerful then he could compel us to believe. If he were really all-loving, then why would he punish us for using what he gave us the capacity to use? See the real question, Rabbi, is not, “Why must atheists constantly belittle your faith for being manipulative, self-serving and harmful?” My existence alone is enough of an affront to your faith that I don’t feel I need to go out of my way to attack it but rather, the question should be, “Why do clergy go so far out of their way to condemn atheists and convince their followers that we are sick or evil if they are so convinced that God will give us our due punishment after death for all eternity?” I think we both know the answer to that question:

Clergy have a vested interest in invalidating affronts to their theology because once the seeds of doubt are sewn and our intrinsic need of answers outweighs our fear of the unknown, so begins the search for truth–and not even the first basic steps to truth align with the claims of religious ideology.

And nonbelievers don’t leave much in the collection plates.

Well, like it or not, Rabbi, atheists are out here and we’re listening. Hopefully after the responses you get to your diatribe, you’ll think twice about making such assumptions about what atheists believe, and what we think our purpose in life is without asking us.

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