Wednesday, November 9, 2011

From the Comment Box: Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and Atheism

Alright, so I'm trying to get a haredi Democrat to send me something about his worldview (originally, he agreed to the questionnaire, then decided he didn't want to do that). I'm also trying to get in touch with a friend who grew up haredi and is now exploring Christianity. If anybody has an interesting narrative that they would like to share, please email me as well.

In the meantime, let's respond to something from the comment box. I recently dismissed a blog post from Rav Steinsaltz:

In a blog post, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz bashed atheists, but his piece is so obviously hypocritical that I see no need to write a whole post on it.

Daniel Rogoff disagreed with my reading. He wrote in:

...Baruch, you completely misunderstood R. Steinzalts if you thought the point was to bash atheists. The point was that having a "Rally to Restore Reason" to promote atheism is just a cheap shot - or would it be fair if a bunch of religious people got together and said "Rally to Restore aNazism" to promote religion? You're a better reader than that...

Now, my response.

First off, in case there's any possible confusion here, Steinsaltz seems to think the Rally to Restore Sanity (not Reason) was an atheistic rally, but it wasn't. The Coalition of Reason (which is an atheistic group) put up bus shelter ads in the month of October (when the Rally to Restore Sanity was held) and also called on its affiliates to attend. But the message the rally organizers were trying to get across -- at least according to Jon Stewart -- was not anti-religious.

I hope the nature of the rally is now cleared up. Now here are the lines I saw in Rabbi Steinsaltz's post which irked me:
The claim that atheism is a form of sanity is just a slightly different expression of pseudo-religious fanaticism. When people have to proclaim their sanity, or their ability to reason, their slogans don't necessarily have any more depth, sanity or reason than those of their opponents...Among those on the very long list of believers throughout the history, there's a glorious assortment of first-rate minds, individuals who might look on atheism as a downgraded, animal-like thinking. Self-proclaimed sanity is not more convincing than self-proclaimed righteousness. Both mean very little, and fail to create in others a desire for an intelligent discussion.
On the one hand, the point of Steinsaltz's post is that proclamations that one's worldview is simply more reasonable than another's are cheap and not useful: "When people have to proclaim their sanity, or their ability to reason, their slogans don't necessarily have any more depth, sanity or reason than those of their opponents." On the other hand, he is very clearly implying that it's cool to think of "atheism as a downgraded, animal-like thinking;" after all, "there's a glorious assortment of first-rate minds" who might think of it that way. In other words, it's cool to proclaim that Steinsaltz's worldview is simply less animalistic (and I would assume thus more reasonable) than atheism. That point of view (which I think he strongly implies is not only a cool point of view, but his point of view) doesn't seem to jive well with his point that public proclamations of sanity are cheap.


  1. Interesting. At the time of the original post I really wasnt sure what your beef was with Rabbi Steinzaltz's post. I wasnt getting the impression that he was giving greater priority to the religious side - I actually understood him to be bashing both sides as equally lacking in reason and sanity and full of much self-aggrandizing. It was actually ironic to see a believer put down "self-proclaimed righteousness".

  2. You're being too defensive. The comparison was made to create the grounds for a p'shara - "ok, a lot of smart people think religion is animalistic, a lot of other smart people think atheism is animalistic, clearly it doesn't help to make these kinds of proclamations." He probably does think exactly that - but his point is that to start a conversation on that basis is possibly the least effective thing anyone could do.

  3. Baruch, I read it differently than you. You seem to think he is saying that Atheism is animalistic. He is not, he is just saying the claim that it is more reasonable than religion is ridiculous for very intelligent people have said atheism is unreasonable.

    His point is to show that atheism proclaiming itself to be more reasonable is worthless. He brought up te intelligent people who think it is animalistic to show that there are intelligent people who think atheism is wrong so how can atheists claim they are superior.