Rabbi Gellman Tries to Understand Angry Atheists… and fails to do so.

Rabbi Marc Gellman has an article on MSNBC.com titled Trying to Understand Angry Atheists. He opens his article with:

I think I need to understand atheists better.

Which is a stunning understatement once you finish reading the rest of the essay and realize just how patronizing and ignorant he’s just made himself sound. Let’s start with his second paragraph where he writes…

So we disagree about God. I’m sometimes at odds with Yankee fans, people who like rap music and people who don’t like animals, but I try to be civil.

While it’s certainly possible to disagree over the New York Yankees, rap music, and how worthwhile animals happen to be, from the atheist standpoint there’s quite literally nothing to disagree about on the issue of God. Unlike God, the existence of the New York Yankees, rap music, or animals isn’t something you have to take on faith alone. And while Yankee fans, rap music aficionados, and animal lovers can certainly be annoying at times, not a single one of them has ever shown up on my doorstep early in the morning to see if I’d mind spending a few hours of my day letting them try and convert me to their point of view. Certainly none of them has ever taken the time to write an essay in a mainstream news outlet to tell me how my lack of enthusiasm for the New York Yankees, rap music, or animals in general means I’m a immoral degenerate leading a meaningless life. He continues with…

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.

Here’s a newsflash for you Rabbi: I don’t wake up thinking of new ways to aggravate any theists either. Yet somehow I seem to manage to aggravate them anyway. Generally speaking it’s not the folks next door that I’m worried about so much as the folks in Washington, the various State Capitols, and so-called Religious Leaders that concerns me the most. Hell, I don’t even know what religion my next door neighbors happen to be, though I suspect the odds are heavily in favor of them being some form of Christian given the fact that they’re white and of middle class status, but that’s just a guess based on statistics. Honestly I wouldn’t care if they believed in a religion that says God wanted them to strip naked and run around their living room coated in motor oil so long as they keep the drapes closed and aren’t molesting their kids. I’d think them damned silly people, but then I tend to think that about most religious folks.

He continues with…

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. Perhaps their atheism was the result of the tragic death of a loved one, or an angry degrading sermon, or an insensitive eulogy, or an unfeeling castigation of lifestyle choices or perhaps something even worse.

And he’s right. It does sound like a condescendingly large generalization. It also sounds amazingly ignorant. It’s the old you’re-just-angry-at-God-for-some-reason argument and it’s tired and it’s annoying and he then has the audacity to wonder why so many of us seem angry. Continuing…

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.

Shame so many religions don’t teach those values. I believe it was your own God, Rabbi Gellman, who commanded Moses to instruct his followers to ”… kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.Bamidbar – Numbers 31: 17-18 ” What was that you said about sinful oppression of the most vulnerable and the most innocent among us?

Oh, that’s right! Because God commanded this to happen it wasn’t a sinful act! Silly me!

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.

Stoned anyone lately, Rabbi? No? Aren’t you betraying the teachings of the faith? Christians can at least use the excuse that Christ came along and changed a lot of the rules so those parts of the Old Testament they don’t like don’t apply anymore, but the parts they do like still do. What’s your excuse for not following God’s teachings?

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.

Rabbi, the red flag for us is that you’re convinced there’s something “out there” calling you to do anything. We tend to lock up most people who talk about listening to the voices in their head, unless those voices go by the name “God,” and even then we’ve had to lock a few of those people up too because their God(s) told them to do things like kill everyone around them. Combine that with the fact that you seem to think you’d be a totally self-centered bastard if you didn’t believe in your imaginary Sky Daddy’s threat to punish you if you don’t behave and that flag becomes super sized. It’s not an issue of naivety, it’s an issue of sanity.

Here’s another news flash for you Rabbi: The well educated, middle class Arab men who flew the planes into the Twin Towers believed deeply and sincerely that they too had been called to a level of goodness and sacrifice by a loving but demanding God. Like Moses they didn’t see their actions as sinful because they had been commanded by God. If God says to do it then it can’t be a sinful act. The problem is there’s no way to argue whether or not God told anyone to say anything. Continuing…

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.”

Up until you mentioned him I’d never heard of Camus and I don’t necessarily agree with his assessment of life’s purpose. That’s you once again arrogantly assuming we all subscribe to that particular viewpoint.

I can agree to make peace with atheists whom I believe ask too little of life here on planet earth if they will agree to make peace with me and with other religious folk who perhaps have asked too much.

It’s not that you ask too much of your life that bothers us, it’s that so many believers expect the rest of us to do the same. I would humbly suggest you get out and meet more atheists. You may be surprised that a lot of them have very purpose driven lives and may even ask more from them than you do. Then you wouldn’t have to rely on what you “believe” to be true about atheists and could instead talk about what is actually true of at least the ones you’ve actually gotten to know.

As I said before, I generally don’t care what you want to believe so long as you don’t insist that anyone else comply with those beliefs by means of getting them enshrined in law. Though you should keep in mind that if you want me to respect your beliefs in God you need to respect my beliefs that you’re a bit of a (probably harmless) bigoted, ignorant, arrogant, nut case. At least I can make a reasonable argument for my belief. Your essay here is a good starting point.

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.”

There is no salvation in false hope, Rabbi. No one ever accomplished anything by sitting around engaging in wishful thinking and that’s all belief in God(s) really is.

To address the Rabbi’s initial premise, that atheists are angry, I’d have to say that that’s just another ignorant assumption on his part. For every angry atheist he might point to I’m sure I could come up with a Jewish or Christian representative as a counterpart to them. I know a lot of atheists who are generally happy people most of the time.

Personally, I’m not so much angry as much as annoyed and most of that annoyance is at the Christians and Muslims who seem so hell bent to force their beliefs on everyone else. You’ll note that I don’t spend much time ranting about Jewish people foisting their religion off on everyone else and that’s because they don’t tend to do so very often—probably a side effect of believing they’re the “chosen ones” that are the only group going to heaven (why bother to attempt to convert when we’re the only ones getting in anyway?) Because they don’t generally bug me I don’t generally have a problem with them. It’d be nice if the Jews in Israel could figure out how to get along with their Arab neighbors, but that’s not entirely their fault—there’s plenty of blame to go around in that regard—but other than that they don’t tend to have a big impact on my life and so my annoyance with them remains pretty low.

31 thoughts on “Rabbi Gellman Tries to Understand Angry Atheists… and fails to do so.

  1. Apparently there exist Jewish religious leaders who are every bit as arrogant and ignorant as the multitudes of Christian religious leaders. Call me naive, but this is something that, previous to reading this post, I would have to have seen to have believed. Now I’ve seen it, and it’s disheartening.

    I know that every belief system has its fundamentalists and its assholes, yet Judaism has always been a religion that I’ve had some respect for (as opposed to Christianity and Islam). All of the Jewish people that I know are tolerant, wonderful people.

    Of course, the Rabbi’s editorial could also be another example of “people of faith” in general banding together and fighting against us evil secularists.

  2. What truly divides all religious people of all faiths from all the other people here on planet earth is that religious people are not afraid.

    Yes, they’re so “not afraid” that they base their only existence on the fear of eternal condemnation (at least in the case of some religions) at the hands of a wrathful deity.

    Gellman’s piece would be laughable if only he (and the many readers who will agree with him) could see the blatant irony in his own words.

  3. Honestly I wouldn’t care if they believed in a religion that says God wanted them to strip naked and run around their living room coated in motor oil so long as they keep the drapes closed and aren’t molesting their kids.

    It would bother me, I mean, why am I to bother being a friend to the environment by bringing my oil back to Pep Boys for recycling after I change it if these people are just going to rinse prodigious amounts of it down the drain when they shower?

    I could save myself a trip and drop it off on their doorstep.  I use synthetic oil with K&N filters and change it every 3 months even though I could probably go double the mileage I do, I’m sure it’s still good enough for cult rituals.

  4. I just emailed this to the good Rabbi:

    Dear Rabbi Gellman,

    People often say to me; “You can’t be an atheist!  You’re so NICE!”

    Rabbi, it is likely you will receive a lot of responses you will interpret as angry, and they may be angry.  But I have read several of your columns and you DO frequently insinuate that theists’ lives are devoid of meaning.  And without any moral foundation.  And only think the way we do because of something that happened to us (rather than because we looked at the world and came to a different conclusion).

    We’re supposed to be happy about that?

    Worse, as you have no doubt been made aware by now, atheists are the most distrusted minority in America.  But I have found no reliable external way of telling if someone is trustworthy,  including religious belief.

    You point to the alleged advantages of religious belief.  But many of us think it is dishonest to choose a belief on the basis of some personal advantage.  If believing 2+2 were 5 conferred some inner peace, should we try to believe it?  Could we?

    Worst of all, you don’t appear to even understand how condescending you sound.  And compared to many of our elected leaders (to say nothing of Pat Robertson) you are the REASONABLE one.

    I won’t say you have no hope of understanding but you do seem to face an uphill battle.  Good luck.

    BTW I hate to introduce a schizm into the motor-oil religion when it’s barely getting started, but I got some synthetic motor oil under my watch band last year and it left an awful rash that took a long time to heal.  So orthodoxy (Quaker State 30-wt, MS, ND) would probably be preferable.

  5. DOF, your letter is excellent, and I myself have questioned this afternoon whether or not to write the good Rabbi myself. I am not personally an atheist (though I am most definately a secularist), but I know many people who are, and it is on their behalf that I defend atheism as passionately as I do. One minor concern with your letter:

    But I have read several of your columns and you DO frequently insinuate that theists’ lives are devoid of meaning.

    I know what you mean, and you know what you mean, but I fear that the Rabbi may not. Seeing how he wrote an op-ed piece claiming to be about trying to understand atheists but which in reality was a thinly-veiled rant against the very people he allegedly is trying to understand, the Rabbi’s comprehension skills (or perhaps honesty) in general may be limited.

  6. Someone should send the Rabbi a link to Les’ entry so he can read it and the comments. If we can’t help him understand atheists, no one can.

    Nice letter, DOF, but you could have been more atheistically angry. Oy! He should want to hear from a nice atheist? Sure, like he should want a hole in the head!

  7. Another sad case of religious leaders trying to understand something through warped lenses.  I must comment however that he has better clarity then many.  Reminds me of when Christainity first encountered Buddism and declared it nilalist just because it didn’t acknowledge a “god”.

    I par say am not atheist but was “once” and still sympathize with them.  Call me a skeptical, don’t follow the priests or books teachings and look for it all yourself.  I ran and still am running “experiments” into the psychological ramifications of meditation and thought processes.  My results have confirmed the presence of “something” that can be “tapped” into and accessed by anybody.  I like to think of it as a “Overmind” theory, a concious that is greater linked to the unique mindprint of humanity.  Course I’m still skeptical about the results and experiments and I guess count as a atheist.  However the view I have achieved is free of dogma and heresay.  I have had an empirical experience and no book or priest can say that didn’t happen.  Guess I’m an “enlightened” Atheist who found it the old school way!

    Atheist are “blessed” in a way that we can experience “religion” without the dogma and the fear.  We can see it for what it is when we attempt it and for that we can interpret it more “cautiously” and not leap into blind faith.  We know we have meaning in our lives, we just found it without someone elses help.  How about that, spiritual independance.  Now that’s a church!  A society that leads you on to your path of spirituality.

    By the way, The Big Guy approves (or is pretty much okay) of skeptical analysis and the rest of us.  Just thought to let all know.

  8. If that really matters to you.  Don’t take my word for it.  Don’t take ANY word for it!

  9. Good post, Les, and I hope Gellman reads your response, DoF.  But are you two sure you aren’t just a teensy bit angry? LOL

    Towards the end of the article Gellman tell a story about a “good” atheist, James Watson:

    Last Sunday I took two high-school girls to Cold Spring Labs to meet Dr. James Watson.
    (…) Watson spoke and listened to the girls, and they left, I hope, proud about being smart. I know that Jim believes way more in Darwin than in Deuteronomy…

    At least Gellman recognizes the value of science, even when it comes from outspoken atheists.  As DoF said, the good Rabbi is one of the “reasonable” ones.  But his judgement about the amount of “belief” Watson has rather “in Darwin than in Deuteronomy” reveals a typical misconception of believers: that religious belief and scientific belief are the same kind of thought process.  I would be willing to bet that Dr. Watson would deny that he “believes” in “Darwin” at all.

    Saying that someone who disagrees with you must be angry about something is a cheap debating trick.  When Freudian psychoanalysts were confronted with increasing evidence of the biological basis of much mental illness, they often responded along the lines of “Why are you so angry about psychoanalysis?  Tell me about your mother”.

  10. Listen, if you bought a new car and the salesman told you it was faster than everyone elses’, then you get on the highway and you find yourself unable to pull away from the rest, you’d be pretty angry, wouldn’t you?

    Believers have been told they bought a faster car than us – so when they see us keeping up, they must be really pissed off.

    They’ve been told they’re going to be happier with whatever religion the religion salesman has talked them into.

    So what are they going to do – admit they’ve been had, or persuade themselves we’re not as happy as them? (“Look how angry they are. See, I told you you’d be happier if you purchased my go-faster religion”)

  11. Brock, I was thinking exatly the same thing when I reached your post.  I think having the good Rabbi join the discusion here might be educational all round.

  12. OK, he’s invited:

    Rabbi Gellman,

    There is an online discussion of your essay on angry atheists going on at: [link]

    The question has been raised: could you join our discussion?  Some of us are angry, some only annoyed, some philosophical, all are weary of being stereotyped.  We’d be honored and pleased if you could pay us a visit.  I can promise you an interesting discussion.  Sincerely, etc…

    Hope I didn’t miss any ironic typos in that one LOL

  13. Growing up not knowing a single athiest, I got the impression that most were angry, but then, calm athiests don’t make waves over their beliefs. 

    Maybe it’s similar to the perception that most christians are hard core evangelicals, simply b/c the far right is so vocal, and it’s what makes the news.

    DOF: I hate to introduce a schizm into the motor-oil religion when it’s barely getting started, but I got some synthetic motor oil under my watch band last year and it left an awful rash that took a long time to heal.

    Does that mean full synth is the devil’s slobber?  Four quarts of Beelzebub’s Best for me then, 5W for the better mileage.

  14. 5w is also good for cold weather.  Synth oil stays liquid when regular oil turns to plastic.

    Main reason I use it is high temp tolerance.  Aircooled boxer engines do run hot. 

    (Rabbi, if you’re just joining us, you can skip this part.  Or join in if you prefer.  For all we know you really dig antique cars.)

  15. As an atheist who was raised in Conservative Judaism, I thought I’d put my two cents in.  Les, just as an FYI, most Jews don’t believe in heaven and hell the way Christians do; there’s not a lot of “behave so that you can get rewarded” talk.  Also, proselytizing is mostly discouraged (even though you sometimes need to be careful when walking by a Chabad house if you let slip that you’re Jewish—they’ll try to bring you back to the fold).

    In fact, there’s a cute joke on the subject.  A man walks in to see the Rabbi to tell him that he wants to convert to Judaism.

    The Rabbi says, “Oh no, you don’t want to convert.  We Jews are persecuted, murdered, been driven from place to place … why would you want to join a group like that?”

    The man crumples and says, “You’re right, I’m not worthy!”

    “Well, in that case, welcome!” says the Rabbi. grin

    Seriously, though, Les made most of the points I would.  Maybe I can come up with a better analogy for Rabbi Gellman, though.

    Think about your opinion of Star Trek.  You may like the shows, you may dislike them, you may think the original series was the best, whatever.  You might see a poster for a new movie in the franchise coming out, but other than that you probably don’t think much about it in your daily life.

    Suppose that there is a large majority of the people around you who believe that Star Trek is true:  that in the future, Star Trek will really happen, and the Federation will be real, and we all have to get ready for it.  They want to start teaching this in the schools.  They want to have models of the Enterprise bridge set up in front of the town hall and run courts by Federation rules.  Worse yet, they intimate that anyone who doesn’t believe in Star Trek can’t possibly have any meaning in their lives, because they don’t have a future to look forward to and they don’t have any Federation rules to guide them.  You’d better be really careful admitting that you don’t believe in Star Trek, because your co-workers may turn away from you, your children may be harassed in school, and you sure won’t get elected to anything.  If you dare to wear a t-shirt saying, “For crying out loud, it’s only fiction!” you could get beaten up by Klingon dress-alikes.

    Now, are you spending your time being an a-Trekkie?  Are you angry at Kirk, Picard and the whole pantheon?  Are you a fervent Believer in the non-reality of Star Trek?

    No.  You just want to be left alone and not forced to believe in Star Trek.  You don’t want to fork out money to put schoolkids in Starfleet uniforms.  And you’re really tired of aspersions being cast on your moral character and purpose in life.  Truth be told, you could probably go your whole life without even thinking about Star Trek, if it weren’t for all the Trekkies running around in costume on the street and that stupid Star Trek theme song playing over and over in the malls during solstice celebrations.

    Rabbi, I didn’t get “angry” at God.  I just never really believed in him, unless I worked at it in services.  And when I forgot to think about it, guess what?  He disappeared.  Just like you stop thinking that the creak in your house is an intruder when you get distracted.  It was then that I realized that I was just joining in a group pretension, and I just didn’t have a need or the time for it.  I could turn it on again whenever I feel like it, but it’s like pretending I’m a princess.  It might make me feel better, but it’s just not necessary and it’s not true.

    I hope this makes things clearer.

  16. VERY good analogy, GM, but it made a bunch of Star Trek – related Google ads pop up in my Gmail interface.  Wonder how long those will take to go away…

  17. Oh, and I didn’t even get to the point of describing how depressing it is to watch the Trekkies, the Star Wars fans, and the Babylon 5 folks all tearing the planet up in their effort to make war on each other.

  18. Geekmom:…most Jews don’t believe in heaven and hell the way Christians do; there’s not a lot of “behave so that you can get rewarded

  19. Les – The “Chosen People” term has nothing to do with no one else getting into heaven. In fact, to the contrary. For non-Jews to get into heaven, they have to follow the 10 Commandments. For Jews, we have 613 Commandments that we have to follow. Some, involving the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, are impossible to follow today.

  20. I confess that my knowledge of the Jewish religion is not as in-depth as my knowledge of Christianity or even Islam so I may have made an error or two in my entry. The fact that they tend not to irritate me means I’ve not had much reason to focus my studies on their religion. It’s one of those branches of religious studies I keep meaning to spend more time on.

  21. One of the reasons we may not bug you is that we’re actually forbidden from preaching and actively trying to get conversions. I have a running joke that we’re currently hiring and we offer great benefits smile

  22. No one ever accomplished anything by sitting around engaging in wishful thinking …

    Les, I’ve accomplished ‘staying alive’ by sitting around engaging in wishful thinking and fantasising about a future filled with ‘what ifs’ instead of carrying out any one of the many ways I’ve thought of killing myself.
    Up until not too many years ago it was always first choice if I found myself in a position in which I was uncomfortable.
    I’ve since been rather pleased with myself that I always managed to find less drastic courses of action.
    I just recalled that at no time yesterday did I have it on the table as a choice, before, during or after I had a telephone-hook-up conference about a rather large increase to my Veterans Pension which will enable me more towards living rather than existing. I haven’t thought of giving up, yet.
    It’s extremely rare that I waste time in the regret & guilt over past actions game.
    I wouldn’t change a thing.
    It’s cool. Fuck ‘em. I WILL survive
    Cracks me up every time I see it. LOL LOL

  23. I’d argue there’s a big difference between wishful thinking and your musings on the future you’d be missing out on if you took your own life.

  24. In fact, to the contrary. For non-Jews to get into heaven, they have to follow the 10 Commandments.

    Actually gentiles only have “The seven Noachide laws” to follow, the 10 commandments are specifically for the Jews.

  25. You’re refering to the seven laws of Noah (which include, among other things, not eating flesh off of a live animal. *Ewwww*) which were actually superceded by the 10 commandments. The 10 contain laws more dealing with interactions in a community than practices of individuals (although they did contain some community-related ones.) Jews have the 613 Mitzvot (which are actually defined as, “commandments” rather than “good deeds” as is often assumed to be the case.)

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