Religious Gratitude For The Atheist Wave

Rabbi Gil Student writes:

There is a thought-provoking opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal (link) in which the religious author suggests that he is grateful for the recent wave of vocal atheism:

Why should believers welcome this emergence of unbelief? Why not? We should be glad that there are people, even the devil’s disciples, who take religion seriously enough to attack it, especially in these days when God seems to appear only in quarrels over holiday displays, during political campaigns or on the self-help shelves of Barnes & Noble. Should the primary goal of religion really be to fund municipal crèches, allow politicians to end every speech with the tag "And God bless America," or inspire works like "Tea With God: A Divinely Inspired Self-Help Book" and "The Christian Entrepreneur: How to Profit From Your God-Given Idea"?

In attacking the cloistered monks and nuns of my Roman Catholic Church, the brilliant, if occasionally logorrheic, John Milton wrote in his defense of free speech, "Areopagitica," that "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed." And what will possibly make us exercise and breathe more fully than challenges by intelligent, thoughtful opponents?

In other words, he has two reasons for praising them:

  • They take religion seriously enough to argue against it, which is unusual in this superficial age.
  • They cause believers like us to rethink and re-energize. Some of the greatest works in Jewish history were written to rebut heretics (e.g. R. Sa’adia Gaon’s Emunos Ve-Dei’os which was written in response to Karaites).

However, while all this may be true, something tells me that the parents of someone who is convinced by these atheists to leave religion is not going to be thanking them. So, thanks but no thanks.

ANON POSTS: if someone is convinced by Christopher Hitchens to leave religion, I suspect it’s because the person’s parents and/or school did a lousy job convincing them why they should be religious. It’s not like Hitchens is required reading and someone is suddenly turned on to atheism.

The parents of someone who is convinced by kiruv workers to become frum might not be thanking them either. So what does that prove? We are all adults, so why are you suddenly worrying what our parents might think? Or is Hitchens particularly effective on teenagers?

HENOCH POSTS: The important issue is not whether we should or shouldn’t thank them but rather since they exist we must deal with the reality of their existence. We need to deal with them and give our children the compelling reason to take what we have to offer over what they are offering.

ANON POSTS: I’m not sure that we’ve really gained much from the atheist cause. What great and ground-breaking works have been written to rebut atheists? I agree that there have been great Jewish works written to rebut heretics who, we would now say, went off the derech. However, does anyone know of any great works that were written entirely for the purpose of proving the existence of G-d (or, at least, the inability to prove G-d’s non-existnece) to rebut the specific concept of atheism (which is a relatively modern concept)?

YONI ROSS POSTS: I disagree with the view that atheists take religion seriously enough to attack it.

Firstly, most atheists do not attack religion, they have just decided not to believe in God. Trying to convince others to "come to the dark side" is not an attack on religion any more that an ad for Coca-Cola is an attack on Pepsi. True, the effect is that people will leave religion, but that’s what happens when someone takes on an ideology which is mutually incompatible with his current ideology.

Secondly, if they did take religion seriously, they would study it first (not Dawkins or some other prominent atheist), and then come to a conclusion about it. In other words, they would judge religion, not atheism, on its own merits. (I’m sure that there are some atheists who have done just that, but I think it’s a safe assumption that most have not, or have been turned off by their own experience with religion, turning to atheism instead of seriously investigating religion first.)

I’m not advancing the position that a religious person who wants to become an atheist should first study religion in depth (I think he should, but that’s not the point). However, until he does just that, I don’t see how it could be considered taking religion seriously.

JEWISH ATHEIST POSTS: Interesting, because there are two sides here. The first side recognizes that atheism forces the religious to clarify and correct their dogma. The second side couldn’t care less what’s true, they just want their kids growing up with the same religion they had.

So yeah, obviously we’re good for the first group and bad for the second. The question is why intellectuals like you would support such parents. If you care about the religion, you should want people to honestly engage with it, to wrestle with it, not to follow it just because they don’t know about the alternatives.

GIL STUDENT POSTS: I think your mistake here is in thinking that it matters what is true and what is not. It certainly does on the grand scheme but regarding individuals who have limited understanding and are often emotional and easily influenced, even someone who is obviously wrong can still have a damaging effect.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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