Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A Personal Letter to Rabbi Marc Gellman

A Letter to Rabbi Gellman

By Gerry Dantone

In light of the printed apology that was offered on their syndicator’s website and later in Newsday in April 2006, as suspect as it was, we at the Center for Inquiry – Long Island Community believed that the message to the God Squad, Rabbi Gellman and Father Hartmann, was received, if not fully taken to heart.

We can now confirm the message was received and yes, it was not taken to heart.

Rabbi Gellman, in his blog at MSNBC.com/Newsweek on 4/26/06 (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12498143/site/newsweek/) wrote that he was “Trying to Understand Angry Atheists.”  Yes, in his usual deliberately clueless and willfully ignorant manner, he lamented that he cannot understand “why they (atheists) are often so angry.”  His subtitle was the predictably insulting “Why do nonbelievers seem to be threatened by the idea of God.”  We’ve actually written to tell him that we’re NOT “threatened” by the “idea” of God, and nowhere did he mention that we’ve informed him that it was his gratuitous and unprovoked insults that generated anger.  Instead,he imagined that the “anger” of atheists was a manifestation of “uncomfortable personal histories.”  It is amazing that he wonders why atheists are angry with him.  What class of persons would NOT be angry with him if he described them in this way?

Over and over again the Rabbi offers HIS view of what atheism implies and never what atheists and humanists actually say for themselves.  Contrast this to our constant use of his actual quotes!

Still, it would seem that we have gotten under the skin of Rabbi Gellman; otherwise he would not even bother to passively-aggressively attack atheists in this way.  So I sent him another missive which is as follows:


Dear Rabbi Gellman,


I was referred to your online article with the above headline only today.  It is just remarkable that you can write such an article, claiming to do so with good intent.  The very title itself is offensive – “Angry Atheists” – and is as much an insulting and false stereotype as any associated with Jews or other classes of persons.  I don’t have to give examples, do I?

You have no evidence that supports your contention that atheists are “often so angry”; if you did, you had a responsibility to disclose it.  But I will offer this; atheists are more often insulted and disrespected than any other class of persons, and often the only time atheists are acknowledged is when they react or respond to this bigotry – perhaps that is the source of your bias.  Obviously that is the case right here – your experience interfacing with atheists consists of responding to them AFTER you’ve insulted them!

Here is a website that displays numerous well-known persons insulting atheists in print: http://atheism.about.com/od/attacksonatheism/ ; you are among them.

Now here is my evidence that atheists are more often disrespected: a study at the University of Minnesota on this subject.  http://www.ur.umn.edu/FMPro?-db=releases&-lay=web&-format=umnnewsreleases/releasesdetail.html&ID=2816&-Find  Perhaps you could contact the authors if you really cared to understand atheists.

You go on to claim that atheists seem to find the religion, especially of their evangelical neighbors, “offensive.”  Although it is a fact that the religious are offended by the mere existence of the non-religious as evidenced by the above study, atheists have no illusions about living with neighbors who believe in the supernatural.  I never ask my neighbors about their religious beliefs; typically the religious proselytize, not atheists who generally mind their own business until someone tries to shove their beliefs down our throats.  That is why though over 10% of Americans are atheists, you’d never know it by casual observation.  Atheists are often in the closet.

Atheists typically, however, do not hold out hope for another life beyond this one.  If you consider that a hopeless situation, then of course, that is a sad thing for you.  I enjoy life whether it is eternal or not.  In fact it is inconceivable how an eternal life can stay interesting or meaningful.  That is a discussion for another day but a realistic view of life should lead to a desire for a more meaningful life.  Only believers worry about eternal hell by the way – nonbelievers worry about hell on earth.

What many atheists DO find offensive are supernatural beliefs that are imposed on their lives.  I am offended that my children must endure “under God” in the Pledge in school.  The religious NEVER have to under a Pledge of Allegiance that says we are a country “under NO God” even though in fairness, it should be said that way about 10% of the time.  This is trivial to the larger issues though.

I was offended as a young person growing up that many (not all, thank goodness for Jimmy Carter) Southern Baptists fought against civil rights and integration in this country by citing the Bible.  I was offended when my Catholic parents and neighbors picketed Public Schools and fled with their children to Catholic Schools to avoid integration in New York, not for a better education.  I was offended when a nuntaught us a story in Catechism classes about Communion wafer desecration by a Jewishbutcher as if it were 100% a true story.  I am offended when someone claims that those not saved through faith in Christ are going to suffer ETERNALLY in hell – and that since God is good and just, THEY DESERVE IT.  Aren’t YOU offended by that?  Isn’t the rejection of Jesus the source of anti-Semitism?

Isn’t it normal to be offended when a prominent TV news anchor claims that there are “no atheists in foxholes.”  (Yes, Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric have said this.)  Imagine saying this after covering Pat Tillman’s funeral!  Yes, according to his own brother and disputed by no one, he was an atheist.

I am offended when our President says (and then denies) that God told him to start a war; that God is not neutral and on our side in a war; that he can’t understand how an atheist could be president; when he names an anti-secular humanist bigot to the Federal Court (Janice Rogers Brown); and that he’d never name an atheist to the Supreme Court (yes he’s said and done all of this.)

I am offended when religious fanatics are guided by their strong faith to kill who they consider infidels; start wars in the process; genitally mutilate their women as part of their religious beliefs, whether or not they are scripturally grounded; and who are ready to riot and kill over the slightest perceived slights.

Now these, I would claim, are good reasons to get angry; making the world miserable for others or being the scapegoat for society’s problems unjustly should make one upset.  Yet at the same time, no one who knows me would ever describe me as an “angry” person.  No one who would attend one of our forums or meetings would claim that this was a bunch of angry persons.  I am NOT mad all the time; quite the contrary.  I am a lucky person with a great family, living in the US with the blessings of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.  My motivation is that I care to leave my kids a better world than the one I inherited.

And if you want to understand only one thing about atheists, scientific naturalism and secular humanism, it is this; our motivation to do what is right comes from caring about our lives and the lives of others.  Caring is the source of all morals and that goes for you as well.  And caring is a natural attribute of humans, and the evidence is that there are many close examples among our closer relatives in the animal kingdom.  There is no evidence that other primates and mammals are religious however.

Religious believers who do not care about others above and beyond their supernatural-based beliefs ARE therefore willing to place a supernatural taboo or ritual ahead of human well being; there is no escape from that conclusion.  There are numerous examples of this kind of believer: from the obvious such as bin Laden, to the less obvious such as the Pope who supports discrimination against gays and is against condom use even as AIDS ravages continents.

On the other hand, if you care about others more than the dictates of your religion, or if you believe that your God would nevertell you to do what is wrong and harmful, and you have the courage to actually determine whether what your religion calls for harms others, then you too are a secular humanist.  If not, then please do not everclaim that  your beliefs will necessarily make the world a better place; making the world a better place is all that matters in humanism.  We believe that even if God exists, we must still do what is right to the best of our ability to determinewhat is right.  We cannot escape from our role as moral agents.  All our decisions are moral decisions.

I will not be convinced of your sincerity to understand atheists, or more specifically, humanists, until I see you actually make an effort to fairly represent our side.  Consider that it is impossible to expect everyone to be convinced of the supernatural; isn’t it better to then accept as legitimate and attractive the concept that no matter whether God exists or not, ethics as a result of human love of life and the lives of others is a beautiful thing.

Thanks, Gerry Dantone.


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