Jewish Atheism

Coming as no surprise, I identify both as a Jew and an atheist. I’ve written about what it means to me to identify as religious, and how I reconcile the potential contradictions here and here (oh, and here), and I spoke about the Holocaust memorial on the Ohio statehouse on the Camels and Hammers show, which can be found here.

The atheist community seems split on this (I mean, insofar as they are deeply preoccupied with this questions, which is not so much). Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, says no. Kate Bigam says yes. Many many people say things that I find demonstrate a total ignorance of Judaism and Jewish identity. These comments range from a misunderstanding of what the Jewish star is and represents, to what halacha (Jewish law) and the separation of genders in Orthodox spaces is supposed to do.

My dear friend Miri Mogilevsky and I sought in the most recent FTBCon (full play list here) to explain ourselves and address some of those ideas and misconceptions. Comments and further questions welcome!

Should A Public Holocaust Memorial Have a Jewish Star?

That’s the question many atheists are asking. The state of Ohio is intending to build a Holocaust Memorial at the Ohio Statehouse that prominently features a Jewish star. It will be on public land, and 300,000 of the 2,300,000 dollars used to build it will be public money. The Freedom from Religion Foundation has sent the State of Ohio a letter claiming that the star violates the separation of Church and State, but do not currently have plans to mount a lawsuit.

The model of the proposed memorial

This spread around the atheist blogsophere fairly quickly, and there have been excellent pieces written from several perspectives. Dan Fincke was the first to bring this to broader attention, and criticized the FFRF’s position extensively. James Croft wrote about the difference between secular law and secular culture, Hemant Mehta defends the strategy, and Adam Lee called for a defense of the constitution. To try to sort out the many issues by dialogue, a varied group of atheists – lawyers, bloggers, activists, people with opinions – participated in a public Google Hangout/an online panel to discuss the morality, legality and reasonableness of the memorial and the star. I was very pleased to be invited to join, and it’s now available on youtube! Watch at your leisure:

The Questions We Discussed

  • Is the memorial legal?
  • Is it advisable to fight it?
  • Could the FFRF (Freedom from Religion Foundation) win a lawsuit against it?
  • Is it an unethical use of public land?
  • What vision or version of secularism do we want to see America move towards?
  • Does the memorial endorse religion? Does it privilege religion over nonreligion?
  • Is the Jewish star a primarily or solely religious symbol?
  • And others!

Things I wish we’d had time to discuss (or discuss in more detail):

  • Ohio’s goal in building the memorial. Is it as powerful and uplifting as Ohio Jewish Communities has it,

    To create a memorial that would help legislators and visitors to The Statehouse understand not just the history of the Holocaust, but the fact that today we must stand against evil. To construct something that can teach people about man’s inhumanity to man. To create a monument to remember the victims of the Holocaust, Ohio survivors and liberators; inspiring people to think and act differently in the face of hatred, anti-Semitism and genocide.

Is it, as some of the more cynical on the panel had it, to court Jewish votes to the Republican party or to win the approval of the Jewish or Jewish sympathetic public? Is it another part of the ongoing attempt to harness the influence of Jewishness to make the case for right wing causes? Is it because the last survivors are about to die? Or perhaps, is it something we can actually take at face value, that Ohio is doing this It would have been interesting to investigate.

  • The relevance of the first line of the intended inscription: “Inspired by the Ohio soldiers who were part of the American Liberation and survivors who made Ohio your home.” How did this not come up? How did no one (myself included) know about it? How does this not make it absolutely relevant to the American context? And this ties it in so beautifully to one of the other lines of the inscription, the Jewish proverb, “If you save one life, it is as if you have saved the world.”
  • What a truly inclusive memorial would look like, and what we would like to see in it
  • Hopes for memorials to the Romany, to the Jehovah’s witnesses, to the gay people and so on.

In my opinion, the best arguments against the memorial:

  • It would be relatively easy to remove the star or make it not the only symbol present on the monument, so the cost of making everyone happy is low
  • We don’t want to allow a precedent of religious symbols on public land
  • We must fight the contrived Judeo-Christian alliance based on Dominionist, theocratic values that may have been the basis for the decision to build the monument

In my opinion, the best arguments in favor:

  • The Jews were central to the Holocaust, the Jewish star is the best symbol to represent Jews, and thus a prominent Jewish star is entirely reasonable on a Holocaust memorial
  • The Jewish star is a symbol of culture and ethnicity as well as religion, and it represents Secular Jews as well as religious, and both were killed in the Holocaust
  • The memorial and the star serve legitimate secular purposes and do not exist as a result of favoritism of Jews over others or religious people over the nonreligious
  • This does not advance the causes of atheist acceptance or religious liberty
  • The proposed inscription is beautifully inclusive, paying homage to the

six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust and millions more including prisoners of war, ethnic and religious minorities, homosexuals, the mentally ill, the disabled, and political dissidents were suffered under Nazi Germany

Also, keep an eye on this google plus link for an upcoming public discussion from me and Miri Mogilevsky about Jewish atheism, which I imagine would be relevant to this broader conversation.

I’d love to hear more thoughts about the Holocaust memorial in comments! What would you like to have seen in the discussion?

More links on the topic here:

Huzzah Better Arguing!

The atheist community has seen its share of controversy and Big Issues and Deep Rifts. Every week, it seems, some event, from the smallest comment on a facebook thread to a public address at a major conference, sparks an internet conflagration, spawning tweets, blog posts and facebooks statuses galore, and further entrenching the “sides” we keep seeing over and over again. As Cliff says (though about something else), “It’s bizarre and disturbing the way an issue becomes a Designated Controversy,” and I agree. It’s sad to me to see the same blowups and the same arguments, when I want so much for us to move forward and to engage more productively with each other.

But sometimes, things don’t go wrong. Sometimes, people react and respond reasonably and thoughtfully to each other. Sometimes, people argue and the internet doesn’t explode. And since the internet is a volatile substance and charitable argumentation can be incredibly difficult, I think we all ought to be honoring and praising the people involved when Things Go Well.

So, Richard Dawkins and Miri Mogilevsky: really, really well done.

It all started when Richard Dawkins went to twitter to discuss the British public shooting and in the ensuing conversation, got called an “insufferable smug white male making snide comments in loafers.”

The conversation then turned to what racism and sexism are, whether they can be said to happen to white people and men and how important definitions are. Obviously, this is a topic that incites a lot of anger and strong opinions, and all of these were easily findable in the twitter discussion that emerged. (Though I must say, from what I can tell, the tweets that flew back and forth where rather more restrained than they might have been, and all those responsible for that deserve praise.)

Miri observed this minor brouhaha, and as a blogger, decided to blog about it, resulting in the great post On Useful and Not-So-Useful Definitions of Racism. This post went over what had happened and then gave an analysis which, while richly and thoroughly critical of Dawkins, was compassionate and thoughtful. Here are some of the things I think she did well:

“Dawkins sounds eerily like my high school self here–desperate to stick to his own definitions of things and reject the definitions of others, all while claiming that everyone needs to be using the same definition in order for a discussion to be productive. Dawkins assumes that a dictionary definition is by default more legitimate than a definition provided by people who actually study the subject in question and presumes that what is written in a dictionary is “true” in the same sense as, say, the periodic table or the speed of light.”

  • She engaged with Dawkins’ understanding of the word racism and instead of dismissing it, explains why she thinks it’s not useful (and by the way, arguing that certain definitions are more useful than others rather than more right than others is infinitely more productive).

“It is true that if you define racism as “not liking someone based on their race,” then people of color can be just as racist as white people…But the fact is that this isn’t a very useful definition. You might as well make up a word for “not liking someone based on the color of their hair” or “not liking someone based on whether they wear boxers or briefs.” I don’t deny that it’s hurtful when someone doesn’t like you based on something arbitrary like your skin color, but when you’re white, this doesn’t carry any cultural or institutional power.”

“As a scientist, Dawkins must realize how difficult it is when people take technical terms and use them too generally. For instance, a “chemical” is any substance that has a constant composition and that is characterized by specific properties. Elements are chemicals. Compounds are chemicals…Yet most people use “chemical” to mean “awful scary synthetic substance put into our food/water/hygienic products.”

These tactics and writing approaches are wonderful. They are thoughtful, productive and charitable, and yet they remove none of the critical bite that makes up the backbone of this piece. I think I can say that even someone who started out being fairly sympathetic to Dawkins could have read the piece and taken the criticism to heart, without immediately feeling defensive or attacked. In fact, I happen to know someone did. Who was this mysterious person sympathetic to Dawkins’ position?

Richard Dawkins himself.

That’s right. Richard Dawkins commented a blog disagreeing with the author and everything didn’t go wrong! (Those of you familiar with some atheist movement history will likely be quite surprised) In fact, he was pretty damn reasonable. You can see the full text of what he said here, but again, I’d like to point out some of the important aspects of his comment.

(6). Where annoyance spilled over into outright pain was the implication that, because I felt strongly about (1), (2), (3) etc, this must make ME a racist. That pissed me off royally and actually hurt. Indeed I find it all but unforgivable.

People tend to become angry when called racists, which I’ve talked about before. I don’t think it’s a very good strategy. Again, pretty understandable, and again, it gives us important information.

  • He explained why he was bothered by others refusing to engage with his definitions and usage of language, and clarified his position on dictionary definitions.

(3). Because, for brevity, I quoted a dictionary, simply to show that the sociological technical term was not universally agreed, I was annoyed that people gave vent to a sort of anti-dictionary prejudice, even calling dictionaries a tool of white, male oppression (reminiscent of a famous feminist who called Newton’s Principia a “rape manual”)! Actually my feeling is that whether or not we use the DICTIONARY definition of a word is less important than making sure we use the SAME definition as each other…But I was accused of a kind of naive dictionary worship, which was grossly unfair.

Now, no one has to agree with Dawkins here, or even be more sympathetic to his position. I think the comment after his gives very good rebuttals to most of his points. But I do think, no matter our opinions on the content, that we have to admit that Dawkins was being restrained and reasonable, and given how much he was being attacked (even rightfully!), it was extremely commendable of him to do so. As a result, there hasn’t been a blowup! I imagine Miri’s comment thread is a little ridiculous, but I haven’t heard anything about loafergate, or Mirigate, or elevatorgate II. And that is thanks to Dawkins being reasonable here.

But why was he able to be reasonable? I am pretty sure that he would not have been nearly so restrained (even given that he was likely doing damage control) if Miri’s post hadn’t been so wonderfully thoughtful.

What we see here is a story of success. We see people who disagree about the values and facts of a case, who are criticizing and rebutting each other, who nonetheless made thoughtful, reasonable points, engaged in good faith and a result were able to turn what could have been a Big Fat Controversy into an everyday disagreement. That’s a testament to civility, and it’s also a testament to Miri and Professor Dawkins, who kept their cool and made the internet, and the atheist movement, a nicer place to be.

Blogathon Wrap Up

I know this is a few days late, but I think it’s nice to have a place where all the posts are in the same place. I also really wanted to have a place to put this beautiful word cloud I made on wordle. It has all the words from all my blogathon posts, scaled to reflect the frequency of their use. I love that I seem to talk about people a lot. The other top words are pretty broad: think, just, know, like, good. They’re my go-to verbs, adjectives and adverbs. But there’s also: math, religious, questions, atheists and argue, and that all seems to describe me pretty well.

blogathon word cloud

For those looking for what I wrote, here are the posts:

My Blogathon Announcement: Where I said I was doing it and explained why I thought it was important.

Beginning Blogathon: Where I talked about why the Secular Student Alliance is so important and wonderful (and also how I got lost getting to where I was going)

What I’ve Learned as President of the Secular Alliance at the University of Chicago: Just a bunch of thoughts on what makes groups succeed and thrive.

On Challenging Religious Beliefs: On why I’m working on not seeing challenging religious beliefs in social settings or online as so cringe-inducing, and why I’m glad people actually do it. (Big honking caveat: All normal social conventions like appropriateness and respect obviously need to apply)

Maaaaaaaath: How and why math is so freaking great. Includes crocheted hyperbolic spaces and some light cursing.

Emotion-based Arguments and the Atheist Community: On my suspicion that arguments about infighting and about accomodationism vs confrontationism might be based more on emotional bias than on good arguments.

Safe Spaces for Racists: On what a space where people could ask “politically incorrect” questions without hurting people might look like. Note: title is meant to be catchy/provocative, not an accurate description of what I’m hoping for. By the way, if you like that post, you might like this one, called, “You Want a Space for Political Incorrectness? You Got It“, in which I announce I’m actually trying to create this space.

Brain Crack: A bunch of silly random ideas I’ve had floating around, like getting kids to teach their own classes and having churches serve as homeless shelters.

That’s all! Thanks so much for reading.

[Blogathon] Brain Crack

Brain Crack is the stuff in the back of your mind that you wish you could bring into existence that you hold onto, hoping and hoping to write about it or create it. But it’s better to let it out, to let other people see it and add to it and make it better, and maybe one of them will make it happen. Here’s some brain crack I have lying around:

  • When children are old enough, they should run part of the classes they’re in. It forces them to do research, prepare work, be accountable to their peers and work on something that has literal, immediate real world applicability. It cultivates confidence and social skills, and also lets them be creative about the kind of class they would want to see and want to be in. It would certainly give the teacher something to think about. Might take too much time out of class, but maybe it could be extra credit?
  • Everyone with a social security number should be automatically registered to vote when they turn 18. They can just show up at the polling place on election day and vote.
  • Open a restaurant with one table. Everything on the table is for everyone, so if you’re full, you just leave what’s left over for the next person. People who can’t pay can just sit at the table and wait for people to order (there would be some kind of maximum occupancy). People who can might need to buy some more.
  • Every church, mosque, synagogue and other house of worship should have an area where homeless people can sleep. It can be separate from the main area, but just somewhere warm so people don’t have to sleep in the cold. (I can think of a lot of problems with this one, actually).
  • What if instead of fixed distances between two points there were fixed times between two points? So if you walk faster, you would be walking a shorter longer distance. What would that look like? Is that even meaningful?
  • I’ve been thinking about movies that play with atheist = bad, religious = good dynamic but also the liberal = good, religious right = evil dynamic. What would that look like? The good guys are super intense religious people but still good, and then bad people are atheists somehow? Not sure. Would love thoughts.

I’m not defending these ideas to the death, or even at all. I’m sure many of them are morally ridiculous or economically unfeasible. They’re just ideas. But I’d love to hear thoughts on them!

And that’s the end of blogathon! Thanks everyone for the favorites and retweets and comments! Until next time!

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[Blogathon] Emotion-based Arguments and the Atheist Community

We know that much of our morality comes from visceral emotions rather than pure, crystalline reasons. We know that Kant’s categorical imperative not to murder comes long after the evolution of human disgust at the thought of killing someone in the in-group. We know that a great deal of anti-gay sentiment comes from the notion that men having sex with men is icky. And since we know these things, we also know that sometimes,even if reasonable-seeming arguments exist for some position, they are predicated primarily on some deep emotional basis. If we were to recognize this in ourselves, it would be very important for us to reconsider our position, and be sure that we weren’t just sticking to it because it was so uncomfortable not to.

There are two potential examples of this in the online atheist community. Now, I don’t want to imply that there are no good arguments on the issues I’m about to present, or that everyone’s just being irrational. Only that on these issues, I think there is more emotional motivation than we as skeptics should be comfortable with, in large part because good evidence on the issue is difficult to find or thoroughly absent, leaving us with only our gut reactions.

Issue 1: The Badness of Infighting

We online atheists have been talking about infighting pretty much as long as we’ve been infighting. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it harmful? A lot of people really don’t like it, think it’s divisive, bad for the movement and all around ill-advised. Now, they could certainly be right. Beth Ann Erikson has made very compelling arguments that infighting makes the community look very bad from the outside, which discourages people from joining us and fails to give new atheists a safe place to land. I often think that while arguing against sexism and racism is very important, one of the most powerful things we can do is just to keep writing, keep blogging, about sexism and racism more generally, but also about just everyday skeptic and atheist topics.

All that said, my distinct impression is that the reason people don’t like atheist infighting is because it’s uncomfortable. If you don’t have a dog in the fight, it can feel exactly like holiday dinners where dad is mad at sister, and aunt’s not talking to uncle, and grandma is lecturing brother for not saying grace and standing up for his atheist principles, and you’re there, tense, anxious, staring at your turkey getting cold and wishing everyone would just calm down.

I understand this feeling, I do. But I think it’s misguided. We’re not at a holiday table, after all. Most of us don’t know each other in real life. That doesn’t mean real feelings aren’t at stake, but it does mean that it might be easier to distance yourself from the people doing harm. Most importantly, we’re not physically trapped. No one is keeping us on the internet. We are free to leave, to engage in self-care, to rant and vent to our friends, or simply to do something else for a while which will alleviate the discomfort.

That means all that’s left to argue about is whether there are empirically demonstrable harms or benefits that come from “infighting”, and that’s a dreadfully hard question to answer. But whatever our position, we should try to make sure it’s based on fact and not preference or discomfort.

Issue 2: Accomodationism vs Confrontationalism

This is an old debate in the atheist movement, so perhaps I’m behind the times, but I remember when it was The Thing To Talk About, back in 2010 or so. The question was: how nice should atheists be to religious believers? Should we mock their beliefs? Argue against them stridently? Be charitable? Not argue at all? Try instead to build bridges? Now, this ended up being even more complicated than I’ve laid out here, because people were actually asking totally different questions from each other. Some people claimed that it was simply the moral choice to argue fiercely against religion, no matter what the consequences. Some people distinguished between criticizing people and criticizing belief. Some people argued that either mocking and stridency or gentleness and charity were empirically more likely to convince religious believers. We had consequentialism, deontology and personal preference all jumbled up and split roughly into two opposing camps. It was a mess. And even on the empirical stuff, we don’t really know what convinces people to change their minds in the long term, especially on big issues like religion.

This makes this issue ripe for being primarily motivated by emotion rather than reason. In this case, I think the motivating emotion is distaste. People who like criticizing religion harshly find it completely distasteful, yes, icky, when they read people saying that it doesn’t matter if theistic claims aren’t true, it only matters what theists do, or saying that we should overlook our differences in order to engage in interfaith work. And I think that people who don’t like confrontation, who personally prefer to avoid it, who are uncomfortable at the metaphorical holiday dinner tables, find it extremely distasteful to watch the PZ Myerses of the world lambast and tear apart religious commenters or bloggers, pulling no punches. It’s gross to them. It’s just too much.

And I respect people’s personal preferences. Certainly people should choose for themselves what type of argument to engage in (though if we find that one approach is strikingly more effective than another, perhaps we might have some oblgation to subsume our discomfort for the good of atheist activism (if convincing religious people they’re wrong is to you a worthwhile goal)). But distaste is not a good argument. If we’re criticizing the argument styles of others (and I do it all the time), we should make sure it’s coming from a place of reason and evidence, just like everything else.


By no means do I think everyone engaging in these discussions is irrational, or has no good arguments. But I think anyone arguing on these issues should be examining their arguments with extra scrutiny, so as not to fall into the trap of constructing arguments ad hoc to fit their preconceived emotional stance.

What do you all think? Am I completely wrong? Are these not the motivating emotions at all? I’d love to hear in comments!

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[Blogathon] On Challenging Religious Beliefs

I have a confession to make: I have an entirely negative attitude towards people who ask religious people about their beliefs. When I hear at a party, “But how do you know God exists?” or when I hear over a Friday night dinner table, “But what about the contradictions in the bible?” or anything similar in any social situation, I cringe and walk the other way. Part of that is for decent reasons: I have no reason to expect that anything will be said I haven’t heard a hundred times before, the conversation is likely to be unproductive and/or combative, and there’s high probability of someone getting offended or upset. I honestly don’t want any part of that, especially in a social context.

But that doesn’t really excuse how little I think of the people asking. If I’m being honest, I see asking such questions as low-status. They are, to me, a marker of a 101-type, a newly christened atheist still asking the basic questions. Atheism is boring, after all. There are so many other questions to discuss besides God. I would obviously never be so gauche as to ask my friends what evidence they have for god; my intellectual sophistication means that I instead discuss Talmudic sources and argue about the consistency of John Calvin’s theology.

This is what a page of Talmud looks like, by the way

This attitude also means I’ve bought wholeheartedly into the truth of the Courtier’s Reply. That is, atheists are silly to counter the claims of fundamentalists or youtube commenters. Those are easy to rebut. If you were to read Platinga (I haven’t) or Calvin or Luther or Vatican II, you would understand. Again, it’s a marker of low-status to be pointing out silly things like lack of evidence or evil in the world. Haven’t you examined the best possible counterarguments to your position? Humph, done with you, I’m off to read Luke Muelhauser and Leah Libresco, they’re atheists (or used to be) who take religion seriously.

Now, I’m not throwing out all of this approach. I do think discussions about God at a party are largely uninteresting and unproductive, I do think asking such questions gives me good evidence that someone is a 101 level atheist, and I do think that atheists could stand to know more about common counterarguments to their positions.

But I am deeply questioning the morality and accuracy of my position. Firstly, the sneering superiority really isn’t a good look for anyone. Atheism isn’t my primary hobbyhorse, and I might argue it shouldn’t be anyone’s, but that doesn’t mean that the people who like to argue about it a lot or talk about it a lot are to be looked down on. People have their interests and their preferences, and it’s much more appropriate for me to disagree with the extent to which these people have implicitly prioritized their atheism than to dismiss them entirely. (Somewhat to my credit, consistency-wise, is that I tend not to have a lot of patience for anyone who has just the One Big Thing that they care about, hence my general disapproval of hedgehogs. But the whole low-status business is pretty disgusting on my part.)

Furthermore, some subset of the people who talk about atheism a lot online or in person are new to atheism. Anyone new to a belief system and community deserves the space and patience to do the whole 101-thing, to figure it out for themselves. We should be happy and excited that they’re asking questions and being skeptical, and recognize that there are things we’re all still figuring out. That’s how we make atheism a safe place to land.

Also, I’m often secretly happy that this kind of person challenges religious people, and actually makes them argue for their position. As we know, religious people frequently get a pass on their beliefs that no one else gets on any other type of belief, and I’m only contributing to that state of events by not asking. Good on them for being willing to have the intense conversations, even if I wish they were more charitable and/or less focused on “winning.” And after all, without Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Jacoby, Dennet and others writing books that tackle these issues, the atheist movement really wouldn’t be what it is today, whatever else one might say about them.

On the empirical part, I’m currently reading the entirety of Calvin’s Institutes for a class, and I recently attended a Veritas Forum on Truth and Tolerance that I livetweeted. You know what I’ve noticed? The sophisticated arguments for the truth of scripture and the existence of God? Really not much better than the ones I see on facebook every day. Why is humanity sinful? Because of the fall. Why did god make us fall? He didn’t, we did. Then we have free will? No. Then why is it our fault? It was necessary, but also voluntary. Why would god make our wills such that we would fall? God is perfect. Really? Yes. (The format is different, but this is the actual content of Calvin’s argument). Similarly, the Christian (David Skeel) at the Veritas forum made utterly uncompelling arguments for the existence of god and the redemption of Christ. So I seem to have been wrong about at least a large part of the my belief in the Courtier’s Reply.

That’s why at the Veritas Forum, I asked Professor Skeel what it was like to live in a world where most of the people he cares about and interacts with were going to hell. He’s a public intellectual, making public claims about the nature of the world I think are both wrong and disturbing. Many, many other religious people are making similar claims, equally wrong and equally distressing. They should have to defend those claims, and the fact that I think it’s boring or low-status to be the one to make them doesn’t erase that truth.

Professor Skeel himself

Now, I think there’s a difference between public intellectuals and people at a party or online. And I think there’s definitely a difference between people who personally believe things and people who are very public about them. But I no longer think it is a useless or rude thing to ask about and challenge religious beliefs (except when it is, and I trust my readers can figure out appropriate contexts). I may still find it uninteresting, and I may still find many of the actual arguments made in such discussions uncharitable or badly made, but I am committed to working on no longer seeing the very act of asking as a low-status thing to do, as something worthy of derision. On the contrary, it’s deeply important.

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