Another Passover, another celebration of non-deliverance; on not being a jerk

Imagine the religious principles which have, in fact, prevailed in the world. You will scarcely be persuaded that they are anything but sick men’s dreams.”

David Hume

Psrt I: The Non-Event

Another Passover is upon us. I’ve said just about all I can say about this holiday when Jews celebrate their founding myth, the central reason for their identity, the source of their bond with their deity (who delivered them but gave them plenty of hell along the way; he killed Aaron’s two sons because they didn’t do a ritual properly).

General comments are at

Holiday at home – no rabbi needed!

Note that in the Torah, Passover was not about slavery and freedom. That’s all modern, add-on hype. God did it all for his own glory – it says so, right there in the Holy Book.

It’s interesting to note also that this holiday is entrusted to the Jewish laity in their homes – no rabbi needed, full instructions provided (in a book called the Hagaddah, which comes in many variations; for years, Maxwell House distributed one at Passover time). Same for Succoth, the holiday where Jews build little structures in their back yards, to pretend for a little while that they are not pampered suburbanites but hardy desert trekkers, on the way to the Promised Land.

Kinda makes you wonder why they don’t do that for all of Judaism. It would kill the rabbi job market, that’s why. It would eliminate the middleman.

Even if there were home-guides for Tisha B’Av, the High Holidays, and Simchat Torah (where they celebrate finishing the Torah—and then start all over again!), you still need a congregation to reinforce the groupthink and make everyone feel religious instead of psychotic. (Irreverent question: Does it ever occur to any rabbi, even for a moment, that “Holy shit, I’m up here babbling gibberish to nobody”? Never a moment’s doubt?)

Anyway, the traditional Seder does not, cannot cut it for skeptical, science-oriented atheists.

A humanistic Seder is provided in a separate post.

My wife and I did that service one year, then abandoned the whole endeavor. It wasn’t hard. She’s an atheist/skeptic from a family of obedient, observant Jews (two rabbis — true believers).

None of it happened.

As for me, well, when I found out that none of it happened…I lost all motivation for celebrating non-events. Left all of that Exodus crap behind – and never looked back (at one point, God kills 24,000 Israelites in a plague, for whoring with Midianite women; hey, can’t a guy get laid out here?).

Passover and the High Holidays are when highly observant Jews go into a frenzy. A whole new set of Passover dishes and utensils is required. From Jewniverse I learned that “find the chometz” (forbidden leavened baked goods, legumes, and other foods) has been transformed into a “Clue” format, with the chometz being discovered and the hider found out. They go after it with toothbrushes, determined to remove every crumb. Ho-lee shit!

Paper frogs and real history

But I don’t know why I should be surprised. My wife tells of making paper frogs to symbolize one of the plagues. Every year the Haggadah’s joy in other people’s suffering becomes more distasteful to me (ten drops of wine are dripped out to sympathize with the poor Egyptians).

Thinking about the real history makes me LMAO. The Jews were a primitive tribe of shepherds and farmers. Egypt was the Middle Eastern superpower of its day. Imagine Somali pirates attacking the US Navy.

Any exodus from slavery probably resulted from captivity, which in turn resulted from attacking the fringes of the Egyptian empire. But in the Torah, a 430-year, master-slave relationship between Jews and Egyptians was fabricated out of whole cloth.

And before slavery, the story goes, the Jews did rather well in Egypt, after Joseph correctly interpreted the Pharaoh’s dreams. If Joseph was such an influential advisor to the Pharaoh, don’t you think the Egyptian historians and record keepers would have noticed?

What does it say about a religion that its founding myth bears no relation whatever to discoverable reality? At least the Muslims have an actual historical figure (who rode up to heaven on a white horse).

Do you believe?

What it says…is that here, in the Exodus story, is the dividing line between belief and non-belief. Do you believe the fundamental myth or not? If you are a true believer, yes: you probably manage to do the same group-reinforced mental programming that keeps the Torah intact as a true account of the history of the Jews. If you doubt, keep it to yourself.

Among the Orthodox is a small number of doubters. Some go “off the derech” and go public with their apostasy; others keep it a secret. The price of ostracism or voluntary separation is very high.

Part II: On not being a jerk

I’ve worked hard not to be a dick to or about these people. A recent article in SKEPTIC Magazine (“What Is The Most Effective Way To Be A Skeptic?” vol. 16, #4, 2011) addresses, yet again, the attitude and “tone” that atheists should take with believers. They talk a lot about tone, which is a technical term in rhetoric and refers to the writer/speaker’s attitude towards the audience and the topic, as revealed by word choice and rhetorical strategies, among other things.

Although the thought process has been around for a long time (see below), the “dick” theme, as a shorthand term for obnoxious, arrogant behavior by atheists, dates to a 2010 speech by astronomer Phil Plait, who called for “less name calling and more civility in skeptical outreach.”

Carl Sagan was the standard-bearer for this school of thought, and he was a master teacher and practitioner of it:

“In the way [that] skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudo-science are human begins with real beliefs, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with [those of] science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue their great quest, let us temper our criticism with criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped” (from “The Demon-Haunted World”).

Trying to understand

The magazine itself has been a bearer of Sagan’s conciliatory message. It employs Baruch Spinoza’s maxim “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.”

Michael Shermer notes that “If you start off a conversation with people by telling them that their most cherished beliefs are utter nonsense and bullshit you have just ended the conversation before it even began — and shut the door to any further communication about the virtues of skepticism.”

On a more practical level, condescension, name-calling, and ad hominem and other extraneous tactics (questioning someone’s financial dealings) can have serious repercussions – like lawsuits. And they’re bad for our image, part of the reason why atheists are politically marginalized, why they’re the lowest-ranked group in polls that ask whom you would support for President.

In a survey of Canadian college students. A “selfish opportunist” was as likely to be “rapist” as an atheist – the two are equated! – but not as likely to be a Muslim or a Jew.

The report (Boston Globe, Nov. 20, 2011) said, “Distrust of atheists was motivated by the belief that being watched by God improves behavior.” I should say so! He’s makin’ a list, checkin’ it twice… (Gervais et al., “Do You Believe in Atheists? Distrust is Central to Anti-Atheist Prejudice,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology).

As noted, the conflict has been around for a long time. An 1838 book, Humbugs of New York, notes that “Persecution only serves to propagate new theories, whether of philosophy or religion, as the history of the world demonstrates; and this it has never failed to do, whether those theories were true or false.”

OK, OK, I get it.

Speak clearly and calmly, stay on subject, never insult or attack, especially by name calling, believers or their views. The article has its own to-do list, and you could probably make up your own.

The article ends with a distinction between “debunkers,” who “wish to deploy the full power of the scientific method against paranormal [including religious – AMP] beliefs” and “skeptics” who “consider that such prejudgments of paranormal claims as unscientific as some of the claims themselves.”

Wait, wait. I thought we were talking about personal attacks and “tone.” The foregoing is a distinction without a difference. You can deploy the full power of the scientific method AND debunk without prejudging.

Debunking nicely

Example: Let’s say we wanted to verify the events in Exodus by looking for physical evidence. We can identify human remains and cultural items from tens of thousands of years ago, so you would expect that there would be something from a more recent period.

But no. There is no physical or separate textual evidence that the Passover story took place as described in the Torah or that 600,000 Jews trekked across the Sinai for 40 years. Case closed. We have debunked.

Back to tone. I am all for being nice to believers (as long as they leave me alone) who consider me a heretic or apostate, who, in another time and place, would have tortured or burned me alive. Likewise, I may think that believing in the supernatural and the divine is a brain malfunction, or perhaps a primitive vestige – science hasn’t been around that long, after all – and I can keep that to myself.

And in evaluating all paranormal/religious claims, it’s certainly desirable to focus on the claims and not their perpetrator.

How much farther?

But how much farther can we go? Shermer says you end an argument before it begins if you call the other person’s religious beliefs nonsense and bullshit. Ok, fine, don’t do that. Other than that, you can help push doubters towards genuine agnosticism or atheism and even influence a bystander or two. But that’s about all I would expect.

Yes, it’s nice to be nice…but significant problems arise when we try to operationalize Shermer and Sagan’s conciliatory point of view. How is one supposed to behave in the company of, say, Orthodox Jews?

I maintain that it’s hard work to repress our contempt for and anger at the way religion grabs people at childhood, molds their minds with fantasies, and viciously excludes followers of the one true truth. A Jewish child in my wife’s family innocently said he wanted to be a Christian; he’d heard of it - maybe it was some kind of club. His mother told him, in no uncertatin terms, that he would then have no parents, home, or family. Scared the shit out him, no doubt.

For a committed skeptic/humanist, there can be no productive dialog between religious believers and atheists. Believers’ brains simply partake of a different subjective reality, one that includes murderous deities, golden calves, and manna from heaven.

Seeking understanding

It is entirely in the spirit of scientific inquiry to try to understand religious behavior – and its implications for us. If we want to understand religious people, we had better be thoroughly aware that they have, if they’re fundamentalist/Orthodox, been relentlessly indoctrinated in the truth of their stories, that skepticism is evil (so much for the virtues of skepticism), that doubt will be punished by hell (or, in the case of the Jews, ostracism, and in the case of Muslims, death).

That’s why I heartily recommend not talking to fundamentalists about religion, at all. Bill Maher’s movie Religulous had a scene with a religious group of truck drivers, and as he proceeded with his Socratic wisecracks, I could almost feel the hostility building in the room (trailer, I believe it was). One participant warned him not to insult “my God.”

If you yield an inch, if you allow that despite overwhelming scientific evidence, you’re openminded enough to admit that you could be wrong about the Passover story…well, that may keep you from making enemies, but it’s just taking relativism to a whole new level. It’s like admitting that evolution’s being a “theory” makes it ipso facto dubious.

Judaism Lite

So much for the Orthodox. We have still to consider the practitioners of Judaism Lite. These are generally suburban, educated, liberal people who park their brains at the door. They may even make their living by applying the principles of science and rational thinking in their professions. They have given far less thought to why they put in their three days a year and ignore hundreds of other commandments, why they hold Seders in celebration of something that didn’t happen.

It’s very clear to me that my beliefs have precluded an invitation to my brother’s Seder, even though I now live an easy two hours away. It would be embarrassing to have at the table an open skeptic, who doesn’t want to go along with the pretend game.

My brother’s problem is that I know it’s fake – and he would too, if he didn’t compartmentalize his mind and go along with the rest of the flock. Practitioners of Judaism Lite think that even if there was no God, the general story line of the Passover celebration is accurate. You will create great discomfort by insisting that it’s not.

So they observe, each in his own way. One man I know avoids bread for a week, selling his chometz to his shicksa (gentile) wife, who is a goy when it suits him and a Jew when it suits him (staging bar/bat mitzvahs for their kids), though he doesn’t go around his house searching for chometz with a toothbrush.

Good for them. They make it work. I don’t get it, but they make it work.

However, their incuriousness about their Judaism is just as untouchable as that of the Orthodox. The family atheist’s choice is to go along to the limits of his/her dignity, which means you wind up drawing lines (I’ll attend Mom’s funeral but not say Kaddish; this may create problems, or it may not: #1 son not saying the hallowed Prayer for the Dead?).

I’m far from the first person to say this, but the best we can do is show by our example that godless people can be good people. The world is not a hospitable place to the irreligious.

Some skeptics complain that our outreach efforts are judged by skeptics’ standards and meant to impress other skeptics. Fine, but that means they’ll automatically piss off religious people, who are already angry enough at us.

Example: A secular-humanistic bus advertisement program, with the buses labeled “you know it’s a myth. You have a choice.” That’s getting in their faces. Skeptics will love it. But religious believers think you do NOT have a choice. End of discussion.

Passover again.

A major challenge for Jewish atheists who want to maintain ties with their families. Are you going to pretend and go along? Are you going to cause dissent by going but not praying? One of my Judaism-Lite friends says that at least it’s an excuse for a good meal.

That’s at least one thing believers and freethinkers can agree on.


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Comment by Michael Penn on April 19, 2014 at 7:30pm

Alan, it's in comedy as Easter Time Again."

Comment by Alan Perlman on April 19, 2014 at 7:12pm

To Nap...Thanks for the vocal version.

To Michael (where is your comedy post?) and fellow Passover refugees:  My wife's family has 4 daughters; two married rabbis.  Seders went till 1:00 a.m.  For an atheist, all this babble over nothing was torture.  The whole story is sick.  God explicitly says he's doing it all for his own glory.  Asshole.

Comment by Michael Penn on April 19, 2014 at 10:59am

Yes, it is that time. I did a comedy post on it this morning as Easter.

Passover. That time when the death angel paases over your dwelling and if you have the doorpost painted with the blood of a lamb you are OK.

But then your friend, Charlie, painted his with red paint!



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