In one of the latest God Squad columns, the querent is a Catholic parent whose 16 year old son has declared he is an atheist. He asks for Rabbi Gellman’s advice on how to convince his son there is a god. The parent, the father, admits that even he and the mother don’t go to Mass much nor take part of the sacraments and considers himself “spiritual” rather than Catholic. He seems to just want his son to believe in some kind of a “higher power” and accept at least “intelligent design”. The son accepts biology and evolutionary theory as correct and evidently has some respect for his biology teacher.
The main question I have here is why? Why is it so important for the father to have his son agree with him that there is a higher power? At the moment, it seems that the only reason is to get external validation, that my son believes, my wife believes, my neighbor believes so I must be right and have some “truth”. The father’s last sentence also seems to be revealing “I’m at a loss as to how to debate the issue with him, but I wish, for his own sake, that he were open to the idea of a higher power.”. It seems no more than a variant of Pascal’s Wager, where one assumes that one is believing in the correct god *and* that this belief has some worth in getting you out of whatever divine punishment might be waiting if you didn’t believe in it.
Rabbi Gellman says that it’s good for atheists and theists to live together, that beliefs are “sharpened and refined” in the heat of dialogue. Unfortunately, on the theist’s side, they are stuck with believing that the atheist that they may love somehow deserves to die or be tortured eternally for not believing in what the theist does. Only universalists, those who believe their god will accept everyone in some form, get out of that little problem and their beliefs are not to be shown any more true than those who believe in divine punishmenet.
The rabbi seems to be taking refuge in the idea that atheism is only a method of his god to teach someone else something of importance, in this case “patience and forbearance”. Now, patience does mean forbearance, but forebearance can have a more detailed meaning, patience with someone who is “difficult” aka “stubborn or unreasonable”. This seems to be nothing more than the usual attempt by a theist to claim that an atheist is just being rebellious for no reason. That is a nice excuse but it does fail when reasons and facts can be brought to bear against the claims of the existence of a god. I am no more rebellious against a god than I am against the Emperor and Darth Vader. I can be rebellious against edicts claimed to be made in their name, that is a reaction to something real, not the fictional characters involved.
I do agree that it is very important that a teen does feel his parents do respect him or her. But to tell that teen that they should believe in something that has no evidence is rather like telling them that they should still believe in Santa Claus because it makes the parents feel better. Most teens that I know, or that I was decades ago, would just laugh at that since they came to the conclusion that Santa isn’t the one who is leaving the presents under the tree.
It isn’t terribly surprising that the rabbi claims that when he’s changed his beliefs it wasn’t because of a better argument. He claims that it was because he’s seen a “better life” in those people who have changed his beliefs, and many people do accept beliefs from people who appear to be telling some truth. One sees evidence and if it is misattributed to a divine being rather than a human, it’s easy to think that religion is true. But if one finds out what that evidence really supports, the conclusion changes. Since Rabbi Gellman has been good friends for years with a Catholic priest, I would guess that one of his changes in belief is that people of different religions are decent people and that there is no good reason to believe that they are going to be killed or tortured for what they believe. One can come to the same conclusion by realizing that there is no evidence for any version of the Judeo-Islamo-Christian god.
If I witness that someone is a good person, generous and forgiving, I attribute that to that person, not to some religion because I know that religion affects people in entirely different ways; it is not a consistent cause and effect. These ways are so diametrically opposite that again there is no reason to believe that one god is doing anything at all. The rabbi claims that “If he can witness in your generosity and forgiveness, your kindness and compassion the results of a pious life lived in an impious world, he might want to have the same qualities in his life.” Sigh. And what prevents this young man from having these same qualities without religion? What prevents atheists from being the generous and forgiving, kind and compassionate role-models? Again we have a theist tryingto make the argument that non-theists can’t possibly be good, forgiving, kind and generous. What happens when this young man points out that he can witness plenty of people, of his religion and not, being decent and humane and doesn’t need religion at all to be that? The rabbi’s argument fails, like so many theistic arguments have.
It also seems that the rabbi wants to adjust expectations for his arguments even before they are made, which seems to only be to excuse how badly they do fail. His supposedly one guaranteed argument against atheists is “What is the source of your hope? Is there something in the way you view your place in the world that gives you a reason to get up in the morning and try to make the world a better place?”” This appears to be to assume that atheists have no hope which is again a rather sad little lie on the part of a theist.
I, and many atheists, have plenty of hope. I have great hope in humanity, though occasionally not a great deal in many individual humans. Humans have done great things and we have done it in spite of religion and its dogma and reinforced ignorance. We now say slavery is wrong when it was perfectly fine to supposed omnipotent and omniscient gods. We say humans deserve to have basic rights. We, or at least a lot of us, look beyond tribal, religious and state identities and see us all as humans.
What gets me up in the morning to make the world a better place? My fellow humans and some good ol’ enlightened self-interest. I don’t need the threat of a god to make me do any of this. I don’t need a promise of a magical present after I am dead to make me do any of this. Gods are useless ideas that are nothing but humans wanting to explain things that they don’t understand and to pretend that they “know” better than other humans. The idea of a god certainly doesn’t make anyone automatically good, decent, kind and compassionate.
The rabbi say he doesn’t care if one uses the word God if we have a world view that does this for us. I do think he does care if we don’t use the word God at all and we say, and show, that this god doesn’t exist. He might not mind if some other theist says Allah, or Goddess, or Vishnu, but if I say that there is no magical supernatural force that does anything, then I’m guessing that the rabbi will be a bit offended. He still insists on trying to imply that atheists don’t have any hope and that we are all somehow nihilists, with his quoting of Camus “The meaning of life is just that it ends.” It tends to indicate that the rabbi has apparently talked to no atheists at all if he trots out such old tired nonsense.
Finally, we have the rabbi saying that he would encourage the father to “revisit” his decision to allow his son to stop going to Mass. Per the rabbi, “family outings” produce bonds that are important. I do think that family outings are indeed important, but to a church where you are doing anything but interacting with your family but sitting still listening to things you’ve heard before? That seems to be the exact opposite intent. It’s no more effective than watching who will be thrown off the island again. Go for a walk, visit a museum, do something that makes you think, rather than something that says don’t think at all.
The rabbi says that the father has a “right” to expect church attendance for a “few more years”. Really? I know teens, and that might not be the tact you want to take. You want rebellious? That’s a great way to get that.
A note to the father of the teen here. Listen to your son and don’t just decide that he has to do what you say because you are the parent and need some validation. He very well might be right in his conclusion that there are no gods. You might be wrong and that’s not a bad thing as long as you can admit it. Kids realize their parents aren’t perfect long before the parents realize that they have and it is a rough thing to accept, especially if they know they are right. They’ll respect you a lot more when you stop trying to play the card that says I’m older than you and I’m part of your DNA.