Friday, April 28, 2006

Rabbi Gellman Tries to Understand Atheists... and Doesn't Quite Make It

A friend of mine sent me an article that I found pretty unintentionally hilarious.

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

Now, because simply saying "They aren't" wouldn't be any fun, let’s take a walk through this article, shall we? I think it touches on a lot of what’s wrong with religion, and with the perception religious types have of themselves and others.

Before I start, let me just establish that I am not an atheist; I’m more of an “i-don’t-have-any-freakin-idea-and-neither-do-you”-ist. Also, this Rabbi Gellman cat seems like a decent guy, and I am in no way attacking him. He seems like he'd be interesting to talk to. For a while, anyway. Wait, wasn’t Rabbi Gellman the Rabbi on "Seinfeld?" The one who told Elaine “shiks-appeal is a myth, like the Yeti, or his North American cousin, the Sasquatch?”

Anyway, let’s see what the Rabbi has to say:

I think I need to understand atheists better. I bear them no ill will. I don't think they need to be religious to be good, kind and charitable people, and I have no desire to debate or convert them.

So far so good. This separates the good Rabbi from like, 70% of the other religious people out there. I’m waiting for the “but” though... and here it comes:
I do think they are wrong about the biggest question, “Are we alone?” and I will admit to occasionally viewing atheists with the kind of patient sympathy often shown to me by Christians who can't quite understand why the Good News of Jesus' death and resurrection has not reached me or my people.

First of all, “Are we alone?” is more of a Fox Mulder question than a religious question, isn't it? A more accurate presentation of the question would be, “Is there a Supreme Being that directs the world and our actions within that world and rewards those who follow His will in the afterlife?” Although I suppose a reasonable answer to both questions could be “I want to believe.”

I do like the fact that the good Rabbi acknowledges the condescending way he views atheists. Although he seems to miss the fact that this might be answer Numbero Uno to his question. The "Why are atheists so angry?" question, not the "Are we alone?" one.
However, there is something I am missing about atheists: what I simply do not understand is why they are often so angry.

I will point out here that Rabbi Gellman gives exactly zero examples of this alleged anger, although he does mention the angry letters and emails he gets. He must have gotten a real doozy to prompt him to write this article. Wait, did I just say “doozy?”
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.

I think I can help here. First, his implication here is that atheists wake up every morning thinking up new ways to torment their churchy (or templey) neighbors. Not being an atheist, I don’t know for sure if that’s true, but it seems wrong to me. I do know that if I lived next door to evangelical Christians, I would move. Immediately. I mean, who wants to hear a cheerful "You're going to hell, you know?" every day from over the hedge while you're raking leaves or mowing the lawn or waking up hung-over in your underpants in the front yard on a Sunday afternoon?

Seriously though Rabbi, first off, nobody is “threatened by the idea of God.” Well, somebody probably is (like that little girl in this movie I saw once; she could spin her head all the way around). But nobody with half a brain, or free from demonic possession, is. I would venture to guess that the majority of atheists share your tolerance of others’ opinions, and are perfectly happy to let anyone and everyone worship whatever they want in their own private way.

What angers those of us who don’t subscribe to any particular religion is the compulsion a great many of the "believers" out there have toward foisting their beliefs on the rest of us. What makes us angry is that religious-types try to force their religious beliefs into science class in the guise of “intelligent design,” that they refuse to fill a woman’s doctor-prescribed medication based on their personal superstitions, that they try to hang their religious iconography all over state courthouses, that they write laws prohibiting people from marrying whomever they damn well please, that they purposely withhold information about safe sex from teenagers in favor of abstinence-only education, and that they sometimes, in extreme cases, toss bombs into family planning clinics or strap bombs to themselves and blow up soldiers or civilians, all in the name of their religious beliefs.

These are things forced upon all of us, and they’re all a direct result of someone’s religious beliefs, and THAT is why some people get angry when confronted with religion. Not God, but religion. There's a difference.
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.

Yep, that sounds condescending and a large generalization, alright. It’s also dismissive to think that this “atheist anger,” which isn’t defined and of which no examples are provided, is the result of some personal trauma. The implication is that something really bad happened and turned an otherwise “normal,” believing person into some loony non-believer, the same way shell-shock could turn someone into a catatonic.

Maybe a person just woke up one morning and thought, “Gee, you know, that whole thing about a guy being born to a virgin and rising from the dead, or that guy going into the mountains and getting a couple of stone tablets of rules directly from God, or Xenu blowing up a bunch of aliens in Earth’s volcanoes, just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.” And maybe after making this realization, said person’s “anger” comes from all that religious stuff I mentioned before being crammed down his throat. Maybe.
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.

An “uncomfortable assault” on my urges and desires? Sign me up! Seriously, if religion was all of those things he just said (after “animal urges,” anyway) I’d have a lot less of a problem with it, and I suspect most atheists would too. Mostly, though, it seems to be a lot of gay-bashing and social repression and child abuse lately.
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.

And also due to the contributions of non-pious and non-religious people. What exactly does this have to do with people being “threatened by the idea of God?”
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.

Well, now we know why Rabbi Gellman can’t understand atheists. He has them confused with nihilists. I’m sure atheists believe in a lot of things, like science and reason and the basic decency of most humans and self-discipline for the sake of self-improvement, not to please some angry or vengeful god. And, news flash, if it turns out that there is no God, or that you chose the wrong God, well, then you’re the one who believes in nothing. Just sayin’.
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."

And I would ask my religious siblings, is your life really made more enjoyable by denying yourself a myriad of experiences and (mostly) harmless indulgences because some 2000 year old text tells you to?
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.”

Again with the condescension Rabbi? Oy vey. Seriously, the Rabbi seems to think that the lives of everyone who doesn’t believe in God are so dreary and hopeless and pointless that it’s a wonder they don’t all line up on the edge the nearest cliff and fling themselves off. Or maybe us non-religious types just do our best to enjoy the time we have here on earth, instead of wasting it pining away for some magical, wonderful after-life that may or may not exist and denying ourselves the things that make us happy.

So, the Rabbi’s last paragraph is some bizzaro tangent about the time he took a couple of chicks to some lab, so I won’t really address it. But, seriously, as understanding and open-minded as he’s trying to be, Rabbi Gellman actually answers his own questions with his little “think” piece here. It’s a softly-spoken little sermon delivered in such a way that I can picture the Rabbi standing there, hands folded in front of him, looking down with a kindly, pitying smile on his face, gently shaking his head and thinking, “Poor little non-believers, they’ll never be as happy as people like me.” And, if there are a bunch of “angry atheists” out there, I suspect it’s things like that that make them angry. Because I bet they’re just as happy as anyone else, thank you.

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