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Don’t get stranded on a desert island with Rabbi Adam Jacobs November 9, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Ethics, Religion.
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The Huffington Post continues to publish Rabbi Adam Jacobs, who continues to be “startled” that anyone could possibly disbelieve in a creator God and a “grand design to the universe.” Jacobs does not, however, attempt to persuade nonbelievers by presenting good evidence in support of his religious beliefs; instead, he arrogantly claims that those who profess disbelief are either hypocrites or in denial:

… most “non-believers” actually believe a bit more than they generally let on, or are willing to admit to themselves. That, or … they have contented themselves to willfully act out fantasies that bear no relation to their purported worldview.

In attempt to prove his hypothesis, Jacobs offers a test: three questions, which are supposed to reveal that all of us are really non-materialists who believe in “grand cosmic forces” that operate on non-empirical levels. Before we consider his questions, please notice that the rabbi’s entire argument is a non sequitur: even if his claim were true (which of course it isn’t), that would say absolutely nothing about whether God (or any other supernatural phenomenon) really exists. What is actually true is not determined by what people believe. The Earth revolved around the sun even when all humans believed otherwise; witches and ghosts and fairies don’t become real just because people believe in them.

But on to the rabbi’s test:

1. Would you be willing to sell your parent’s remains for dog food?

Ah, the classic moral dilemma that has confounded philosophers for centuries. On second thought — I fail to see how my sentimental attachment to the remains of my parents, and my wish to preserve their memory, entails belief in the supernatural. (And if I had hated my parents, and needed the money, and really loved dogs…)

Next question:

2. You and someone you dislike are stranded on a desert island with a functioning ham radio. One day you hear that there has been a terrible earthquake that has sent a massive tsunami hurtling directly for your island and you both have only one hour to live. Does it make any difference whether you spend your last hour alive comforting and making amends with your (formerly) hated companion or smashing his head in with fallen, unripe coconuts?

I always find it strange, not to mention creepy, when religious people imply that the only thing keeping them from murdering and raping and stealing is their belief in God — as if there is no rational reason to want to spend one’s life, however fleeting, promoting trust and friendship and cooperation by treating others with compassion and respect and solidarity. Is it really so mysterious why I would prefer to spend my last hour of existence in the supportive companionship of a friend rather than in violent conflict with an enemy?

One thing’s for sure: I wouldn’t want to be on that island with Rabbi Jacobs — he might try to secure his place in the afterlife by fulfilling his God’s commandment about killing heretics (or sabbath desecrators, or blasphemers)…

The final question:

3. Is love, art, beauty or morality intrinsically significant?

These things are significant to us, because of what we are: conscious, thinking, feeling beings. To claim that the most precious and wonderful experiences in our lives only really matter if they’re part of some superhuman plan is to cheapen them. We don’t need a god (certainly not the hateful, immoral God of the Bible) in order to care about each other and appreciate the beauty of our world.

So the rabbi’s test is a failure, but then his premise was fallacious to begin with. If there were any good reasons for believing in gods and cosmic purposes, Jacobs would be able to present evidence to that effect and make an honest case. Instead, he is reduced to insisting that those who dismiss his fantasies are only pretending: materialists ought to be immoral nihilists, dammit, and if they turn out not to be — then they’re not really materialists! Did someone mention denial?

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Comments»

1. reasoningbeing - November 9, 2011

“Materialists ought to be immoral nihilists, dammit, and if they turn out not to be — then they’re not really materialists. Did someone mention denial?”

So well put! What a load of malarky! Whatever makes them think that they know what we atheists think? Makes me think that they actually care about about our opinions – but probably only in so far as those opinions discredit their own.

2. Cult_Of_Reason - November 10, 2011

“Materialists ought to be immoral nihilists, dammit, and if they turn out not to be — then they’re not really materialists. Did someone mention denial?”

I believe I mentioned that the Rabbi doth protest too much. I suspect that, like a homophobe, he is going through some self-doubts and lashing out at those who are confirming his doubts.

3. Ophelia Benson - November 10, 2011

He’s sooooooo annoying.

4. It’s the spook or nothing, punk | Butterflies and Wheels - November 10, 2011

[…] H/t Ezra Resnick, who does a more patient and meticulous critique on his blog. […]

5. Keith Douglas - November 11, 2011

Ah, the old “I don’t believe you really are an X” card from the Rabbi. Great …

6. Danny - November 13, 2011

Good point. But I don’t think you have addressed his argument in its strongest form.

His challenge is: do you believe that the values that inform your decisions in these case are nothing more than subjective sentimentality, or that these values have some objective existence? And if the latter, where do these objective moral values come from?
Presumably he would define God, at the very least, as the creator of these values.
Any thoughts?
He presumably defines god as an entity

Ezra Resnick - November 13, 2011

First of all, notice that the argument you present is still a non sequitur: even if it were true (which it isn’t) that without a god there are no objective values, that would give us no reason to believe that a god actually exists. Secondly, it has long been obvious that morality cannot be “created” by God, since that would make it arbitrary (this is known as the Euthyphro dilemma). And we certainly do not, as a matter of fact, get our morality from scripture — the Bible, for instance, is full of barbaric laws that everyone today rejects. (See my response to Jacobs’s previous column here.)

But to answer your question: as I alluded to in my post, morality is objective because it deals with the well-being of conscious creatures in the physical world. The Taliban’s values, for example, are objectively wrong because they inevitably lead to unnecessary pain and suffering. I’ve written more about this here and here.

Danny - November 17, 2011

Thanks for your reply.

“First of all, notice that the argument you present is still a non sequitur: even if it were true (which it isn’t) that without a god there are no objective values, that would give us no reason to believe that a god actually exists.”

I don’t think the rabbi was trying to advance a strictly logical argument. I think he was suggesting that many/most people might intuitively sense that morality is objective and of a supernatural nature.

“Secondly, it has long been obvious that morality cannot be “created” by God, since that would make it arbitrary (this is known as the Euthyphro dilemma).”

Again, I think what was being discussed is humanity’s innate sense of morality / conscience, not a system of moral laws. Does that also come under your objection?

“But to answer your question: as I alluded to in my post, morality is objective because it deals with the well-being of conscious creatures in the physical world.”

I’ll have a look at what you’ve written, but I think you’re describing a rationalization of people’s moral sense, whereas the rabbi was discussing the moral sense itself.

vinko - November 20, 2011

It’s a sensible explanation of people’s moral sense that does not require a god.

Humanity’s “innate moral sense” you refer to can be both explained by god and by what you call a rationalization. God, in this sense, is just a less rational rationalization of moral sense.

7. AYY - November 15, 2011

What’s surprising is that the Rabbi raises these questions to the Huffington Post audience. I doubt that any of his readers would either have thought about the questions or considered them to be the least bit thought provoking. So it’s like he’s tone deaf to what would appeal to his audience.
Which raises another question–why do you think the rabbi keeps writing at Huffington Post?
From what I’ve seen he gets a lot more negative feedback than positive feedback, so when you consider his articles in the light of the responses, he’s really helping the cause of atheism. How can he not realize this?
Also he’s an orthodox Jew, and his organization focuses on trying to make non-observant Jews more observant. It does him no good at all if someone reads his post and says “Okay I’ll stop being an atheist and become an agnositic (or a Christan or a Reform Jew.)”
So as I see it, the whole thing is pointless from his viewpoint. Or have I missed something?

Ezra Resnick - November 15, 2011

I don’t know what Rabbi Jacobs’s motives are for publishing on HuffPo, but the more important question is: Why is HuffPo publishing such drivel?

AYY - November 17, 2011

Actually ithat’s an easier question at least to speculate about: Maybe they print it because it puts the sitemeter into overdrive. Or maybe the person who decides to print it is an atheist with an agenda.

8. AYY - November 15, 2011

One other thing, what if the “hated companion” iis an Amalekite? The hated companion would be better off marooned with an atheist than with the Rabbi.

Ezra Resnick - November 15, 2011

Exactly! That’s the point I was trying to make when I explained why I wouldn’t want to be on that island with Jacobs…


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