Why I’m an atheist

Over at WashPo Susan Jacoby couldn’t resist having another laugh at the expense of the Catholic Church. But this is like sniggering at the shmendrick who drops his ice cream on the sidewalk: it’s too easy. Here’s Jacoby:

Let’s see. One in four American-born Catholics have left the church during the past 20 years. Parish schools are being closed throughout the country because many dioceses are strapped for cash after settlements with victims of priestly pedophilia. Seminaries are empty and nuns (those who are left) are in open rebellion against a male hierarchy that will not even consider ordaining women as priests. I guess it’s logical that the church needs more exorcists.

Talk about desperate. If I were the pope I’d be trying to make my church a bit more modern, a bit more humanistic and a bit more, well…serious. Exorcism is sheer buffoonery, like clown shoes. Did you ever see the pope walk out in public wearing something so silly as big, floppy clown shoes? Well, I guess you have.

Jacoby nails moderate religious belief as well:

The problem with “moderate” religion–as distinct from fundamentalists creeds that insist on the literal truth of ancient collections of fantasies–is that there is really no difference between “reasonable” and “unreasonable” supernatural beliefs. When you think about it, it is really no more absurd to believe that Satan can make us froth at the mouth than it is to believe that ashes will one day be reassembled and restored to life. Any belief for which there is no evidence apart from one’s own longings and fears is unreasonable. That is why I am an atheist.

She’s right, too. Why is belief in the recomposition of a decomposed body any less outlandish than belief in devils, demons and dybbuks? It’s all nonsense, and that’s the point. All religions are full of such beliefs, right down to the central one about God. If you think I’m being unfair (and I know a lot of people who hold on to God as a pre-teen boy holds on to his teddy bears) I’d like to know what you think the difference is.

And that’s one reason I, too, am an atheist.

Pax Ben-Gurioni

Last week I had my beef with Susan Jacoby on her reading of the Gaza flotilla raid as a kind of capsule version of Israel-Arab tribal rivalries. This week she hits the mark in a wonderful, highly critical column about Israel’s Haredim – or ultra-ultra-orthodox Jews – proving that it is possible to criticize Israel without falling into the myopic, anti-Semitic tropes of people like Jose Saramago.

For the record, I share Jacoby’s worry about the Haredim. They are religious extremists dedicated to a Torah-only vision of life on this planet. As an atheist, a secularist and a half-Jew (like Jacoby herself) who cares deeply about the present and future of Israel, I can only applaud her claim that these fanatics imperil Israeli democracy from within.

The sight of thousands of Jews taking to the streets of Israeli cities to fight for the right to wall themselves off in their own ghetto within a Jewish state–and at the expense of that state–is utterly dispiriting. These are people who want to write Baruch Spinoza and Moses Mendelssohn out of Jewish history. They want to shackle their own minds and let other Jews–the Jews who who played such a vital role in creating the modern world—do their fighting for them. And they want the rest of us to shut our mouths out of fear that we will be charged with anti-Semitism for saying that their form of religion is rigid, retrograde, and contemptuous of the beliefs of others. That the State of Israel, founded by men and women of far-reaching vision, should tremble in awe of these fearful people is a shame and a disgrace. And it breaks the hearts of those of us who can never forget the hope and pride we once invested in Israel’s future. Even more, it breaks the hearts of the sabra grandchildren of the tough, proud, secular Jews–men and women of reason who hated the very idea of spiritual or physical ghettos–who devoted their lives to the creation of Israel.

So these are the same problems dogging countries like the United States and Italy. The US has its evangelical nutjobs, and Italy its criminal Catholic Church which intimidates Italian politicians in a way strikingly similar to that of the Haredim in Israel. Of course, the Church is a multi-national institution representing the world’s largest religious denomination, and the Haredim are a small percentage of one of the world’s smallest peoples. But they both want theocracy in the end.

So why can’t the Israelis stand up to them? The history of the Jewish people is so rich, so ennobling, so varied and engrossing that the Haredi version palls in comparison. To think that Torah, or the Gospels, or the Qur’an is unequivocally the best guide to life in the twenty-first century is beyond laughable. It’s dangerous. I’m with Susan on this one.

A quick dissent

I read Susan Jacoby’s Spirited Atheist column in the Washington Post every week. Two of the best books I read last year were Jacoby’s, Freethinkers and The Age of American Unreason. I look forward to seeing her name in print because it means one of our most well-informed, courageous voices is taking the stage against the almost endless stream of idiocy clogging our newspapers and television sets. So it is with slight displeasure that I feel the need to dissent from her on her reading of the Gaza flotilla raid.

In an otherwise well-balanced column on the dangers of religious extremism (she rightly slots radical Islam at the top of her list), Jacoby falls into the Israel Derangement Trap. She feels – I suppose – that to be even-handed she must say something about Israel while going through the list of religious fanaticisms plaguing our world. Instead of honing in on actual Jewish fundamentalists, both ultra-Zionist and anti-Zionist, she rides the wave of international condemnation of the IDF for its bungled operation on the Mavi Marmara ship in which nine people died and various soldiers were wounded. Here’s Jacoby:

The combination of religious and tribal entitlement is constantly on display in the Middle East, most recently by Israel in its crude attack on the relief flotilla headed for Gaza.

You could call the incident almost anything, even a complete failure, but “religious and tribal entitlement” doesn’t sound right to me. That would apply to the settlers on the West Bank, who definitely fit the bill. That would apply to Hamas, who wish to turn present-day Israel into an Islamic waqf. The IDF was, rightly or wrongly, enforcing a naval blockade designed to protect Israel from further attacks on its civilian population. That Jacoby should make no reference to the actual intent of the Marmara ship and its “peace activists”, and their brutal attacks on the Israeli commandoes, seems lazy. This was not a religious intervention, but a military one. That some of the passengers of the Mavi Marmara appear to have envisioned the confrontation as a religious one, and some were even filmed desiring to die as martyrs, goes unchecked. If the intent of the IDF was “religious and tribal entitlement,” then why did the other five ships go to port without incident, including the Rachel Corrie just days later?

That sounds like a military operation gone wrong, not Jewish fundamentalism, to me.

Susan Jacoby reviews “Agora”

And she likes it!

This idea of intellectual inquiry as a self-evident good died in the West for nearly 1200 years with the ascendancy of Christianity, and it is always–as we see in much of the Islamic world and in the precincts of far-right Christianity today–an object of hatred for those who would still criminalize heresy and blasphemy and, in the case of Islamists, murder those who defy their definitions.

Susan Jacoby Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth

Susan Jacoby has a new column at the Washington Post called The Spirited Atheist, which seems to be a continuation of her On Faith contributions under a new moniker. Today I made my routine visit to read what she’s written, and found this wonderful reflection, 5 Myths About Atheism. Here’s number 5:

As an atheist, I highly doubt that my subjective experience differs qualitatively from that of a religious believer who thrills to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Michaelangelo’s David, Leonardo’s Adoration of The Magi, or, for that matter, the immensity of a night sky. I do not have to believe in God, or any supernatural entity larger than myself, to feel overwhelming awe upon holding a newborn baby or upon experiencing the reciprocal, passionate love that comes rarely–the kind of love, as Nietzsche observed, that “compels me to speak as though I were Two.” But I do interpret these experiences differently from a believer, because I do not ascribe any mystical or supernatural character to them. Such transcendent experiences do not make us greater than ourselves; they help us realize our best selves–the best of which our species is capable.

True Fighting Words

Susan Jacoby, in her book Freethinkers, takes on Glenn Beck’s beloved Battle Hymn of the Republic:

The Battle Hymn, one of the most powerful calls to arms ever set to music, was not only religious but Christian to the core. The last verse…as well known during the war as the famous first verse is today, explicitly articulates the song’s Christian doctrinal basis and emotional appeal…But what was a devout Christian from the North, fightling under instructions from his God, to make of an equally devout Southern cousin whose God–ostensibly the same God–had handed down a contradictory set of instructions?

Clearly food for thought, but does Beck think?