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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.

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?

A rabbi’s odd relationship with morality March 26, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Evolution, Religion.

In The Huffington Post, Rabbi Adam Jacobs proclaims that atheists have no basis for condemning immorality, and he doesn’t understand why they would even care:

In fact, the most sensible and logically consistent outgrowth of the atheist worldview should be permission to get for one’s self whatever one’s heart desires at any moment (assuming that you can get away with it). Why not have that affair? Why not take a few bucks from the Alzheimer victim’s purse — as it can not possibly have any meaning either way. Did not Richard Dawkins teach us that selfishness was built into our very genes? To live a “moral” life, the atheist must choose to live a willful illusion as the true nature of the world contains, as Dawkins suggests, “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” It boggles the mind how anyone with this worldview even bothers to get up in the morning only to suffer through another bleak and meaningless day.

Oh, is that what Richard Dawkins taught us? If Jacobs had actually read The Selfish Gene, he would have come across this:

I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved… I stress this, because I know I am in danger of being misunderstood by those people, all too numerous, who cannot distinguish a statement of belief in what is the case from an advocacy of what ought to be the case… If you would extract a moral from [this book], read it as a warning. Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature… Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to.

Some of us, who prefer not to “live a willful illusion,” begin by trying to understand what is true about our world, and then we deal with reality as it is. The rabbi’s feeling that life would be “bleak and meaningless” if we aren’t part of some grand cosmic plan says absolutely nothing about whether such a plan really exists. But why would anyone think that the lack of an ultimate purpose in nature makes our lives meaningless? We are conscious beings, capable of appreciating our amazing good fortune in having the opportunity to live in this awe-inspiring universe. We can cooperate with each other in order to achieve far more than we could on our own, leaving the fruits of our efforts for future generations to enjoy and improve upon. We have the ability to understand the consequences of our actions on the happiness and suffering of ourselves and of others. So what truly boggles the mind is Jacobs’ implying that the only reason to refrain from cheating and stealing is because God said so.

But wait, the rabbi has more conclusions to draw from his deep understanding of biology:

Survival of the fittest does not suggest social harmony. Furthermore, doesn’t Darwinism suggest that certain groups within a given population will develop beneficial mutations, essentially making them “better” than other groups? It would seem that racism would again be a natural conclusion of this worldview — quite unlike the theistic approach which would suggest that people have intrinsic value do [sic] to their creation in the “image of God.”

Again, Jacobs is confusing what natural selection cares about (reproductive fitness) with what we ought to care about. But the irony here is simply breathtaking: it’s the secular worldview that is racist, while the theistic is not!? The Bible repeatedly and unequivocally supports slavery, tribalism and discrimination, and commands the destruction of entire nations including women and children. The idea that all people have intrinsic value and ought to be treated equally — regardless of race, gender, or religion — is a modern, secular value, resisted mightily (to this day) by traditional religion.

Of course, the rabbi realizes that nonreligious people are not in fact more likely to behave immorally than the religious. How does he explain the observation that most of the atheists he has met are actually “very good people”?

At the end of the day, the reason that I can agree with many of the moral assertions that these atheists make is because they are not truly outgrowths of their purported philosophies, but rather of mine. I would suspect that the great majority of the atheistic understanding of morality comes directly or indirectly from what is commonly referred to as the Judeo-Christian ethic.

Seriously!? What about all the Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, etc. — how did they ever figure out not to steal and murder without Yahweh telling them so? And what about all those Judeo-Christian pearls of ethical wisdom that the rabbi simply ignores, like executing homosexuals, women who are not virgins on their wedding night, and disobedient children? If Jacobs were not so arrogant and ignorant, he would realize that whatever parts of his own ethics are defensible are products of human rationality and secular thinking. And if he cares more about obeying the purported will of God than about the actual well-being of people in this world, then his morality is a disgrace, and he might stand to learn a few things from some atheists.

(via Butterflies and Wheels)