A Dialogue

Last week I wrote a post titled A Separation detailing my feelings about religion in the world and heavily leaning on the words of Christopher Hitchens and John F. Kennedy.  It was my first Internet foray into the religion vs. non-religion debate and admittedly I leaned rather heavily on the words of the aforementioned gentlemen (who possess much more powerful voices than I).  Therefore, first and foremost, I will lay bare my entire perspective and opinion about religion and the debate before turning my attention to a comment I indirectly received.

I am Jewish – from my mother’s side, as my father was raised by a WASPy family.  Neither parent experienced religion particularly devoutly and thus by the time each was my age the whole of their “religious” experience revolved around major holidays – Hanukkah and Passover for my mother and Christmas and Easter for my father.  Predictably, when I was growing up, these were the holidays we celebrated at home.  Hanukkah and Christmas meant presents to me (though I was aware that they meant different things to other people), Passover meant a tasty meal (following an interminable story) and Easter meant a house-wide jellybean hunt and too much plastic grass for the cat to eat.  I know the Hanukkah blessing but neither my brother nor I had a bar mitzvah.  In high school AP English, my class read the better-known sections of the Old and New Testaments as a semester-long exercise in allusions and symbolism.  When I arrived at Amherst, then, my exposure to religion was limited but I was content – I harbored no desires to become more observant or approach my Judaism differently (I went once to Hillel and quickly realized I was not even Jewish enough to know what everyone was talking about).  After taking a gripping class about Buddhism, though, I became a Religion major and as I approach graduation have taken at least one class in each of the major religious disciplines touched on at Amherst (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism).  Certainly, compared to famous scholars I am little more than a novice, but I am also not approaching my critiques of religion blindly and I try to be fair, reasonable, and straightforward.

On the debate: it is possible to be tolerant and still tell somebody it is my opinion that he or she is wrong.  Believing an opponent to be wrong is not intolerance – it is the seed of an argument.  If a religious person says to me, “God exists because I know he exists and because you can’t prove that he doesn’t exist” I will reply, “You are wrong.”  To support this statement I provide this evidence:

  • The argument, God exists because there is no proof otherwise, is not a new argument.
  • People have always given God as a reason behind things they cannot otherwise understand.  For example, many years ago, people believed God to be behind the stars.
  • But after the invention of high-powered telescopes, humans could find stars being born and dying and had a scientifically-verifiable answer to the stars.
  • Therefore, the stars were taken out of God’s hands.

A long time ago, there were many things that were God’s doing.  If something was unexplainable, God was behind it, and if it was unpleasant, it was witchcraft.  But as our scientific horizons stretched further and further, God’s domain became smaller and smaller.  There are still things humans do not fully understand – dark matter, for example – but the number is shrinking.  Humans have been slowly but surely disproving the existence of an omnipotent and omniscient God for a long time, a God who surely would have spoken up by now, watching his “doings” evaporate.  So no, I cannot “disprove” a belief in God, but I can provide endless examples where God’s omnipotence was challenged and struck down, where someone’s belief in God was shaken and perhaps destroyed.  The purpose of this long-winded example was to demonstrate that argument is not necessarily intolerance.

I can finally tackle (briefly, for that is all the space it needs and deserves) the first “argument” set against me (on Facebook, of all places).  The statement:

“jeeze that was kinda dense haha. this atheist feels the need to bash every religion when most people like us just love our country and want to mind our own business and have a nice shabbat meal. quite frankly this world is becoming increasingly secular and diluted with intermarriage across the board for the most part (except Islam) and i think this is where many radicals are born who are just kind of grasping at what they’ve grown up with and always known and tend to go overboard in order to maintain their shared beliefs with other people.”

The opening sentence refers to my article and is fair criticism.  I enjoy the second sentence especially because of its absurd relationship with the rest of the argument.  The author’s use of “people like us” seemingly refers to Jews who love their country (I think Israel is intended here, but it is ambiguous) and want to eat a Shabbat meal while minding their own business.  Fine.  Mind your own business.  But there is very little minding going on, as the author continues to point out “quite frankly” (indeed) that the world has become diluted with intermarriage – and that an atheist like me is a product of such a union.  The author insults my knowledge and claims that I have “gone overboard” to maintain my shared beliefs with other people.  I must admit, this made me smile.  Let me repeat his statement: “…just kind of grasping at what they’ve grown up with and always know and tend to go overboard in order to maintain their shared beliefs with other people.”  I swear he was looking in a mirror as he wrote this.  My academic background lifts me somewhat above the level of grasping, I would think, and I mentioned nowhere that my article represented a shared belief.  In fact, the whole of my article was against these shared beliefs, which have resulted in perverted opinions like the author’s own on intermarriage.  Does he believe that anyone who is not completely Jewish (which would be a statistical impossibility) is sub-human, or at the least, of a lower class?  I need not delve into Nazism and Supremacism to point out the frightful implications of this statement.  Ultimately, this commenter won nothing for his faith by resorting to a faith-based argument – which is a common result.  In conclusion, I am issuing a challenge: I will respond to any argument placed against me, even faith-based arguments, which, like the above, are generally weak.  The problem of religion must not be ignored on the premise that an argument against religion is “intolerant,” especially when so many arguments from religion are intolerant (see above).  No person has the right to devalue another person due to race, creed, or sex, and the fact that so many religions do just that is only one of the multitude of wrongs that religion must answer to.