Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Atheist Questionnaire

I've been tagged by Shtreimel to answer the Atheist Questionnaire which has been making its way through the intertubes lately. Before I even start this questionnaire, I have to express some ambivalence at the very outset since I don't actually classify myself as an atheist. That caveat being said, let's answer the questions.

Q1. How would you define "atheism"?

Don't have a good answer for this, and as I don't consider myself an atheist, the question has never concerned me enough to figure one out. I'll pass on this.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

I was raised religious, in what could best be described as a yeshivish (a version of ultra-orthodoxy slightly less extreme than chassidish) environment. As a very young child, we were actually much more moderate (we had a TV until I was around nine), but over the years, the nature of my family's religiosity has only become more extreme. I once came home to discover that when I washed the dishes, I had to place a plexiglass cover over the second sink to prevent any splashing from the milchig side getting into the fleishig one. Don't ask.

Q3. How would you describe "Intelligent Design", using only one word?

Desperation. (To be honest, I don't know enough about it to really express any opinion on it, but judging from other examples where religious people utilize pseudo-scientific arguments to reconcile their faith with the facts, it seems apt.)

Q4. What scientific endeavor really excites you?

Cellular Biology. Proteinomics.

Q5. If you could change one thing about the "atheist community", what would it be and why?

I think that some of the more militant voices of that group (community might be too strong a word) could do well to be a little less disrespectful of those who don't see things their way. Christopher Hitchens might well make some brilliant points, but he won't be changing anyone's mind when he speaks like a pompous jackass. They'd all do well to read a little Dale Carnegie once in a while.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said "I'm joining the clergy", what would be your first response?

My first response? "Uh… I have a child?"

Seriously though, I would try to ascertain exactly what is motivating my son or daughter to make such a decision. If the rationale for such a path is sensible and responsible I'd like to believe that I would support it. But if the child was doing it for the wrong reasons, I don't think I'd be able to give my blessing. In any case, I'd like to believe that no matter the motivation, my child wouldn't be rejected or made to feel horrible for their choice.

Q7. What's your favorite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

Well, my favorites are the really dumb ones, and they don't really need much in the way of refuting. Like when someone says, "Well if you believe that the world couldn't have just magically gotten here from nowhere then obviously you should be following the torah!" Do I really need to refute that?

What I find really fun is to show the inconsistencies of thought common to religious people. For instance, when they say that halacha never changes, I demonstrate just how often it actually does. Or when they say that the torah is timeless and should be our moral compass forever; I then show them something in the torah which runs contrary to their moral standards and they use the line of "Well, it was written for that era." Or when they point to prior torah leaders as role models for how we should conduct ourselves; I then point out that there are countless things these figures did which are not acceptable today, then they respond with "Well, they were great enough to do (or believe) such things. We simply aren't!" And the amazing thing is that they don't see themselves as being inconsistent in the least!

As for serious theistic arguments, one of my favorites is when a religious person will respond to the observation that so many atrocities have been perpetrated in the name of religion, with the answer that plenty of godless, atheist societies (Communist Russia, North Korea etc.) have done plenty of damage too. Harris answers this objection really well. He eloquently explains that these aren't actually atheist societies. A genuinely atheist society would allow for exploration of ideas and be based on reason and common sense, and not be bound by any dogmas, whether they be religious, political or scientific. These are simply authoritarian dictatorships which have rejected the tenets of science and discovery as much as they have the teachings of Christianity. None of the perpetrators of such atrocities ever seriously claimed that they were acting in the name of discovery and skepticism. (I don't think I did his explanation justice. You've got to hear it from him directly.)

Q8. What's your most "controversial" (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

Probably that I'm not actually an atheist.

Q9. Of the "Four Horsemen" (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favorite, and why?

That would be Harris. I think he approaches the issues with a certain humility and respect that is lacking in some of the other figures. Hitchens just sounds like an angry buffoon talking down to everyone. Dawkins often reminds me of an impatient professor that is just totally dumbfounded why his students can't see the obviousness of what he's trying to tell them. And Dennett I only heard a long time ago so I'm not familiar enough with him to comment on.

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

Any majorly respected black-hat rosh yeshiva or gadol. Someone like Rav Elyashuv would be just awesome. It's not that I care one way or another what view any particular man subscribes to, but the effect on the frum world of such a figure defecting would be so much fun to watch. You know what? He doesn't even have to abandon all his beliefs. If he would just renounce any commonly held frum ideology it would be incredible. Can you imagine how freaked out they'd all get if he publicly announced that mixed seating in shuls is allowed?

Now name three other atheist blogs that you'd like to see take up the Atheist Thirteen gauntlet:

I'd actually love to hear from Enigma4U and Mis-Nagid, but since they don't have blogs, I'll pass this on to Little Foxling, Orthoprax, and Spinoza.


B. Spinoza said...

ooh, you tagged me. I'll get to it

by the way, Mis-nagid is a weak-atheist so his answers would be weak :)

Mis-nagid said...

Har har. ;-)

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Harris answers this objection really well. He eloquently explains that these aren't actually atheist societies. A genuinely atheist society would allow for exploration of ideas and be based on reason and common sense, and not be bound by any dogmas, whether they be religious, political or scientific.

what is this, the No True Athiest argument? :-P

rebecca said...

The Swing

How do you like to go up in a swing,

Up in the air so blue?

Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing

Ever a child can do.


Up in the air and over the wall,

Till I can see so wide,
River and trees and cattle and all

Over the countryside


Till I look down on the garden green

Down on the roof so brown
Up in the air I go flying again

Up in the air and down!

-----by runescape money

Mike said...

Q9, Hitchens

I try and read through the popular books to see where people are coming from. I read most of Hitchens book, what destroyed it, and him completely was when he mentions the fact that religious Jews have sex through a hole in a sheet. I wrote a Mater's thesis, and if I had two blank spaces between words it was returned to me. How could he print something that is so easily verified as untrue? This ruined him for me. If he lies about something I know about, then I can't trust any of his claims without clear verifiable references in his book...

Btw, I find the reference to the four riders very funny for atheists.