The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Monday, September 14, 2009

An Open Letter to Atheists

Dear Atheists:

Even though I am a religious Jew, I'm not your enemy. Really, I'm not. I was raised secularly, and spent a lot of my life without faith. For most of that time, I considered myself agnostic, but I never believed in an angry bearded anthropomorph in the sky (and still don't), and I would consider myself to have held implicit atheistic beliefs in my past. I still have many close friends who are both implicit and explicit atheists, and we respect each other enough to have respect for each other's beliefs. Because Judaism is a complex umbrella of ethnicity, culture, religion, spiritual practice, and de facto grouping, there is no conflict of interest to be an atheist Jew. I have atheist Jews who go to synagogue with me, and they are as welcome as anyone else there. Some will even fast for Yom Kippur, not out of any religious devotion, but as an expression of cultural identity. An atheist Jewish friend of mine defines Judaism as: "When they come to round up all the Jews, if they get you, you're a Jew." While more paranoid than my own personal definition, it does illustrate a point. Jews are not evangelical, and even if you wanted to convert to Judaism, a rabbi would try to talk you out of it unless you had your heart set on it.

I wouldn't even need to write this letter to you, except for a disturbing trend I see within your ranks, that has me concerned, especially because I want to extend an olive branch to you, and this trend makes me hesitate to do so. I am tolerant of other religions to the extent that they are tolerant of me and my faith. I have Muslim friends whom I love and support, but when Hamas says that Jews are descended from pigs and rats, I withdraw my support. I have Christian friends, and I admire their faith, but I do not admire those who claim I am damned to Hell for rejecting Christ, nor those who accuse me of killing Christ. Tolerance has to be reciprocal, or it doesn't exist. I love and support my atheist friends as long as they don't regard all faith as a sick delusion that has to be stamped out of human consciousness. My worry is that I'm seeing too many of you go from atheism to antitheism to intolerance of theism, and I don't like to share my community with bigots of any stripe, theist or atheist.

It's hard to be an atheist. The overwhelming majority of people believe in God, and it's easy to feel outnumbered and overwhelmed by those of faith. Believe me, as a Jew in the USA, I know what it's like to feel outnumbered and overwhelmed, and in Australia it was considerably worse. I experienced being forced to have a Christian religious education, to be told daily that I was damned, to be rejected, suspected, and condemned, and worst of all, to be treated as alien by otherwise well-meaning people. In your history, you were subjected to the same persecution as the Jews, Cathars, Rosicrucians, Swedenborgians, Sufis, Ishmaelians, Yazids, Druze, Quakers, Unitarians, and other minorities who believed differently from the faiths of the majority. The previous President of the USA vocally doubted whether you could be true citizens. That sucks. In some regions, you face discrimination at work, ostracism in your communities, and in other parts of the world, imprisonment or death.

There have been moments where atheists have been in control of their nations, but so far those have not been happy memories either. In the USSR, the League of the Militant Godless had state support, and sought to teach people that they did not need gods in order to live a fulfilling life. In their zeal, they destroyed churches, synagogues and mosques, and ended up imprisoning and murdering people. In Albania, every place of worship was ceded to the state, and converted to secular community centers. Priests, rabbis and imams were sent to re-education camps. It became a criminal offense to teach any religious thought or practice, making it the only state in the history of the world to actively seek to obliterate religion from its territory.

Like state religion, state atheism is horrible and inhumane. Any forced ideology exists through violence rather than reason, and a reasonable person opposes any forced ideology of intolerance, whether towards, or away from religion. That religions have, in their history, committed far more atrocities than those committed by atheists, does not make any of those crimes condonable or justifiable.

Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Communist, grew up in Sardinia. He watched the Young Sardinia movement emerge, modeled after the Young Turks movement. He saw Sardinians develop a political movement based on a Sardinian identity, and saw they had a chance of overthrowing their Piedmontese (Italian) occupiers and establishing a Sardinian state. Then he noticed that the movement was bankrolled by the local landlords, who were starving the local peasantry with brutal rents, and harsh reprisals for late payments or disobedience. That is when he asked himself: if the Young Sardinians take power here, will they be kinder, or more just than the Piedmontese? Would he be any freer than he would be under the status quo? That's when he realized that who ruled was not the only matter of importance, but how they ruled was equally important (by using that same logic, he ultimately later rejected Communism).

So how do we assure that you can live lives free of oppression? Because if you aren't free, you may gain power and enslave me some day, so I need you to live a life where you are secure in your liberties in order to be secure in mine. Here in the USA, we have had an interfaith tolerance written into the Constitution, but throughout our history, it has been a struggle to live up to that tolerance. If you actually look at the language, it is more than interfaith, but extra-faith as well:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...
That means that respecting an establishment of religion is beyond the power of the state. If we truly live up to that sentiment, it should be beyond our power to compel another's faith or lack thereof. This is the essence of tolerance: that I believe what I believe, you believe what you believe (or don't believe), and neither forces the issue. We live in peace together because we do not try to coerce each other. I pray every day, and go to synagogue and pray with others who are there willingly, and you don't have to. However you may personally feel about my practice, you are enlightened enough to assume that, in my current level of enlightenment, I need it to function, and do not seek to deprive me of my needs. You may privately feel that such needs are pathetic, but you are compassionate enough not to interfere. You are gracious enough to let me be, and you may have faith that if I seek to improve my mind, I may one day reach your level of enlightenment and cast off my belief system, but you do not force my hand. Reciprocally, I may privately see you as stunted and deprived, starving for spiritual truth, and may feel that you are playing out old emotional damage by creating a deity of your bitterness and giving it non-existence as a form of catharsis, and that the real God is patiently waiting for your tantrum to end in order for you to see God again and reunite with your Creator, but I also understand that by so doing, you are healing, and I do not interfere with your process (I don't actually think that of most of you, but I'm being rhetorical here).

The point is that tolerance is allowing others to believe things you think are wrong, and respecting their processes enough to allow them to work things out on their own. Obviously there are places where tolerance ends. If I feel that God wants me to strap dynamite to my body and blow up a shopping mall, I should be prevented from doing this as expediently as possible. If you feel that I require a lobotomy because I believe I have a personal relationship with the Creator of the Universe, you should be prevented from having your way. There are going to be gray areas, like the Jewish practice of B'rit Milah, or the education of children, but we can negotiate these gray areas in a respectful manner if we develop the practice of tolerance for the clearcut cases.

In religious communities, the idea of interfaith dialogue is a hot idea right now, and it's a good idea. Most Jews and Muslims have no idea how many points of similarity we have together. Jews and Christians have a lot of tragedy and reconciliation to process, having come from a common source. We may see the reintegration of Catholicism with Orthodox Christianity in our lifetimes. Tolerance depends on mutual understanding, and we have seen many religions in the USA that previously excluded and oppressed lesbians, gays, bisexuals, the transgendered, and those questioning their sexualities welcoming them back into the fold (The United Church of Christ has done great work here). Although Christians once regarded (and many still regard) homosexuality as a terrible sin, some Christians are able to be tolerant, and by so doing, have won many to their faith. There is nothing like respecting a person as they currently are to earn their respect. There is no reason that a dialogue between believers and unbelievers, in the interest of tolerance, can not take place.

So my plea to you is to be tolerant of others, and to encourage others to be tolerant of you. People who think differently from you will think things that annoy you, but if you can communicate with them in an atmosphere of mutual respect, please do so. I know that many religious people are so intolerant of your beliefs that they cannot meet you half way. You are under no obligation to be tolerant of such people. But please understand that not all religious people are your enemies. Some of us love you and respect you, and want to earn your love and respect as well.


  1. :applauds:

    I have long noted that some atheists are (or at least, act) just as intolerant as the fundamentalists that they complain about.

  2. The sad truth is that State Atheism has a really bad track record. State Religion has a really bad track record, too. Even a mellow state religion, like Church of England, started out very bloody and took centuries to mellow out. Contemporary militant antitheists of the non-Communist stripe are quick to point out that only Communist state atheism has a bad track record, but there are no non-Communist state atheisms, and the only non-Communist antitheists that have had any power are some Fascists (others being pro-Catholic or pagan), and the occasional Ayn Rand zealot, and neither seem very promising.

  3. Sounds like my position exactly, though my religious beliefs don't quite match your own. I'd hope for widespread ratification of the reciprocity agreement, whether openly stated or not.

  4. My pet peeve is the irrationality of antitheists, despite a pretense of commitment to reason. Since the existence of god cannot be disproven, even atheism is on shaky ground; the truly rational stance would be agnosticism.

    Even demonstrations of the irrational basis of specific religious doctrines, or of evils being done in the name of religions, aren't rational arguments in favor of atheism; they are rational arguments against specific doctrines or moral arguments against evil deeds. I happen to agree with most such critiques that I've heard, but the conclusion -- that, since some religious beliefs lead men to do evil, religion is indefensible -- is spurious and based on a leap of faith. Or a leap of something. Not reason, though.

    Even the argument that "poor critical thought leads to evil deeds" is off-base; reason only leads to goodness when it is based on principles of compassion -- which is not itself rational in origin. Compassion is the road to goodness, not reason.

    I'm not saying reason is bad; it's a great tool, though limited. But it's embarrassing when people claim rationality as their standard and then jump to conclusions that aren't fully supported even by their own arguments.

  5. Been thinking the same things, from the atheist side. Militant atheist jerks give atheism as bad a name as militant...well, take your pick of ideology...jerks. I've had enough of them.

    Faith is vital stuff.

  6. This is the person who inspired me to write this post:

    A friend sent me to the blog "Attempts At Rational Behavior", which I'd never seen before. I read a post about a woman who lost her faith because of 9/11, and I commented on it. I was met with a response that surprised me. I tried to clarify, and was met with a much nastier response. I admit I lost my temper in my third response, and some of my arguments were unsound. The link above is from the nastiest responder. I guess his own reaction to my comment upset him, and he went to a friend to console him, and instead she called him out for it. Freaked out, he launched into a defense of his anger. I find that a narcissistic love of anger with respect to a political stance is usually a sign of fanaticism.

    Nobody on his blog responds to my actual words, except to cut out the pieces they can argue with, out of context. I sometimes use a rhetorical device of two sentences of opposite slant juxtaposed together to prove a point. Quoting the first sentence without the second is disingenuous at best, lying at worst. I'm stupid for getting into an argument with people who use the word "theistards". My guess is that it's a portmanteau word composed of theist and retard, but with that level of childishness, I can't really be sure.

    There seems to be an operative axiom at work here, that belief in God and ability to reason are mutually exclusive. It is a false axiom. Newton believed in God. Newton could reason. Quod Erat Non Demonstratum.

    I don't equate atheism with Communism. Having explored both paths, I understand that Communism has atheism as an axiom, but that atheism doesn't have to be communistic. But Communism is the most successful atheistic movement that ever existed in the history of the world. No other atheistic movement has ever had political power. I don't believe that atheism = communism, but I do warn that angry antitheism historically leads in a similar direction, because there are no examples of peaceful antitheism in history. Antitheism forces its will on the unwilling. That cannot be peaceful.

  7. I neither agree nor disagree (and also both), but endorse your authority, support your premises, and defend your right to espouse them publicly.

    I also am pleased that you have discovered the invaluably accurate word "antitheism" that I began using several years ago. I am both sorry that you didn't slide over into the parallel world of humanism/freethought which is so often mischaracterized as unbelief (or disbelief) -- and also glad of that, because discussions there are so often feckless.

    And I apologize first, before pointing out that in line 7 of paragraph 7 (can that have significance?) your fingers seem to have intruded an "t" where an "n" was intended (i.e., "If you actually look at the language, it is more that interfaith..." makes no sense, but changing "that" to "than" is clear). (In my own line 3 above, my fingers originally wrote "expose" instead of "espouse" and it took me 3 tries to get it straightened out.)

    One question: how do you know that the others with whom you willingly pray are thereby all being united with the same Creator?

    Finally for now: I think the capitalized God has only one useful meaning -- a self-aware, omnipotent and omniscient being. I say that other qualities (loving, caring, interested in us) are only human-generated attributes -- just like calling God "him."

  8. Typo fixed. Thanks, Dick. My main exposure to humanism, except what you have shown me, comes through the Humanistic Judaism movement, which I find fascinating, and fully support, albeit not through membership. It's an attempt to live consciously as a cultural Jew without the trappings of religion. I would say that most Jews in the USA do this. What makes HJ interesting is that they have congregations and meet on Jewish holidays, which for them are cultural rather than religious. Many atheists have told me that the one thing they lack without religion is an adequate substitute for a religious community. Mensa was pitched to me as a substitute for a religious community, but somehow it seem to fall short. Mensa do not form mishpachah, but Humanistic Jews do, and Arbeter Ring Jews do as well (extremely left-wing cultural but not religious Jews).

    I also understand the Ethical Humanist urge to stop being part of one tribe, and embrace all of humanity. Unitarian Universalists are similar, and for I while, I was going to UU services.

    This might be splitting hairs, but a masonic lodge in the 18th century was one of the few safe places to talk about humanistic values, Deism, and other challenging alternatives to the dominant religions of the time (Christianity in Europe and the Americas, Islam in North Africa and the Middle East, Hinduism in India, etc.). Our contribution to the evolution of thought and ethics includes providing a safe place for them to emerge.

    Every mason will answer your one question differently. To me, the idea that my God is the God of the Jews is repellent and wrong. I have a Sikh friend whom I talk about God with, and we recognize the same God, although we have different practices. I feel that God is too big for one religion. The masonic verbal place-holder for Deity is "The Grand Architect of the Universe," a phrase coined by John Calvin. Our prayers are not addressed to "God", or "Allah", or "Adonai", or "Jesus", but to the Grand Architect of the Universe. Some masons will tell you that each of us is praying to our own version of Deity, and that we diverge in our intentions when each of us uses the phrase, but I feel that we are all referring to the same Entity. How do I know? I take it as an article of faith.

  9. A Muslim who straps dynamite to his body and blows up a café is doing this for political reasons, even if he thinks he is doing it for religious reasons. Similarly a Christian who blows up an abortion clinic, or a Jewish terrorist who murders Palestinians, or a Hindu who shoots up a mosque. God as I understand God does not ask that of anyone, nor condones it once it is done. So the religious terrorist is not praying to the same God I do. In my conception, the religious terrorist is an idolater, because they have forgotten Who the Source of Life is. But the religious terrorist would not be a mason, because their intolerance runs contrary to masonic doctrine, and most fanatics hate us anyway.

    I use God to represent the Deity and god to represent other uses of the word. So in my essay, I write "God or no god" because the absence of God need not be capitalized. As a Jew, I believe that God cares about the Jewish people (but not to the exclusion of others), and that God got angry and jealous in God's youth. I avoid somewhat the male pronoun in describing God in discussion, but my Hebrew prayers refer to a male God. Those prayers are old, and have a lot of power behind them as millennia of Jews have used the same words. I've been to congregations that use egalitarian language, and it butchers the poetry, and I need the poetry to reach higher states of consciousness in prayer. I struggle with this, but I'm not willing to abandon the liturgy just because it can sometimes be sexist. The liturgy I use is different from the Orthodox liturgy, but still uses male references to Deity.

    I need to believe in a loving God in order to believe in God. It's central to my belief system. I also believe that God is the source of compassion. I also believe God listens to me. I believe that God loves me with an emotion so great that it would kill me to experience that much emotion all at once, and I have since before I committed to a belief in God, if that makes any sense.

  10. Thank you for writting this.

    I have lived a good part of my lifetime as agnostic. I was raised Jewish, but I found my faith in the magic of the universe and recognized God in many forms. My agnostism as I came to learn was more in line with Unitarian Universalist beliefs. I believed there was a higher power, but allowed that this power could be female, male or even be a multi aspected set of gods.

    I have seen enough of what feels to me to be the magic of the universe, that I believe in a higher power. I will defend to the death the right of any one to believe in what they choose to even if what they believe in, is the absence of god.

    Of course, my openess to allowing the world to believe what they do ends when their belief system condemns my beliefs.

  11. Damn you for being so sensible!

    Seriously though, I have never been one to be ready to hold up a label and point to it and say "This is what I believe". I have always been one to look around and take the ideas that I like. I tend to lean towards a very atheistic worldview myself. Sometimes more so, sometimes less.

    I think there is a real perception issue on all sides. Its easy to slip towards militant atheism when I hear some of the vile things that people attempt to use their religion to justify.

    Tolerance is fine but, some groups do preach the words of gods that, be they true, would be so repugnant to me that I would declare myself not a non-believer but their direct opposition. I am thinking of slogans like "God hates fags" as I type this.

    I have wrestled recently with the question of whether I can rightly claim to believe in a "god" or a "higher power". When claims of "we want X because we are christians" or "We can't have Y because its against god" arguments come up so often in the media, it becomes very easy for me to define myself in the negative. No... I don't believe in his god. Her god, right out. Any god that has you considering shooting people for his glory can go take a hike.

    The more they come up, the easier negatives become.

    I was recently given cause to review these negatives and see if there is a positive in there. I think there is, and there does seem to be something I could call a "higher power".

    Thats said, there is trepidation there. I can't claim to know all there is to know about this power. I can't claim to know what it wants or that it even has an end purpose or goal. What I can say is that, the very idea of a person being too confident about such things scares the piss out of me.