Friday, April 28, 2006

Dear Rabbi: Mankind Doesn't Need God to be Moral

On April 27, posted the following column, "Trying to Understand Angry Atheists," by Rabbi Marc Gellman of television's "God Squad." It contains a number of distortions and inaccuracies about those who choose to live a secular lifestyle and follow a humanistic view of the universe, rather than a deistic one. The following is my response to Rabbi Gellman's unfounded attack on secularism. The original column can be found at:

One of the first things one learns in elementary logic is that starting with a false assumption causes all conclusions that follow to be incorrect. This is precisely the trap into which Rabbi Marc Gellman tumbles when he begins with the assumption that all atheists are angry. The fact is that, while some nonbelievers may be angry, as a group atheists are far less rageful than those self-righteous believers who murder homosexuals or bomb abortion clinics, confident that they are doing God's work.

Rabbi Gellman makes personal reference to "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." If he has been the recipient of only "patient sympathy" from evangelical Christians, then he should count himself very fortunate indeed. Too many others who did not accept the Gospel have faced hateful persecution for centuries. Perhaps Rabbi Gellman needs a refresher course on the Inquisition?

I must also confess that I shook my head in disbelief when I read Rabbi Gellman's words, "All religions must teach a overcome racism and materialism, selfishness and arrogance and the sinful oppression of the most vulnerable and the most innocent among us. Some religious leaders obviously betray the teachings of the faith they claim to represent, but their sacred scriptures remain a critique of them..." Is it not a central tenet of all major religions that their followers alone are chosen by God for salvation, and that those of other faiths are blasphemers who will face eternal damnation? Is this not the height of arrogance, as well as a carte blanche invitation to oppress nonbelievers? As for the "sacred scriptures" critiquing those leaders who "betray" their teachings, does not Leviticus legitimize the persecution of homosexuals? Does not the Quran direct Muslims to "slay the Infidel?" Most holy scripture is so murky and self-contradictory that both those who preach tolerance and those who thunder about eternal damnation can rightfully claim to be its true heirs.

With his false assumptions about atheism, Rabbi Gellman asks "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.'" The fact is that those like myself who follow the principles of Secular Humanism are not busy clinging to existential despair; we believe that the purpose of life is not to prepare oneself for eternal salvation in an afterlife whose very existence is unlikely, but to do as much good for humanity in this life (the only one we get, as far as anyone knows) as one can, while enriching oneself morally, culturally, and scientifically . Notice that I did not add "spritually" to the list of life's enrichments. We humanists manage to live moral, fulfilling lives without the need for a supernatural being to direct us. Amazing! In the end, it is not religion that stops us from doing "what we want to when we want to do it," as Rabbi Gellman asserts; it is respect for one's fellow human beings that does.

The irony inherent in Rabbi Gellman's final paragraph clearly escapes its author. He praises James Watson, an avowed atheist, for his attitudes and ethics. I have met Dr. Watson, and he has very little that is positive to say about organized religion. Yet Rabbi Gellman, confronted with the reality of modern atheism in the brilliant Nobel laureate, still clings to his prejudices about secularism. He will likely persist in mistakenly thinking of us humanists as "angry;" we prefer to regard ourselves as enlightened.


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