Armin Rosen spent the past couple nights seeing what The Tribe is up to.
Jewish philosophical smack dooooooown!
It’s about time the philosophical salon made a comeback: on Tuesday night, a couple dozen List College students gathered in the Mathilde Shechter music room for some laid back Judaically-focused philosophical disputation. The night’s topic was the so-called “New Atheism”–the aggressive attack on religion led by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and others.
JTS philosophy professor Leonard Levin began by arguing that the “new atheists” do not realize how little science and religion actually disprove one another. While science explains the particulars of the physical universe in ways that religion can‘t, religion provides the underlying meaning and guidance that science lacks. “Until recently,” Levin said, “religious experience is all of human experience.” Religion is personally and communally centering, and strives to, and occasionally succeeds in, addressing important, fundamental truths.
Dr. Austin Darcy from the atheist Center for Inquiry spoke partly in defense of the “new atheists”–while he disagreed with their assertion that “religion poisons everything,” he said that Hitchens and his ilk are removing religion from its pedestal and giving it the unsparing intellectual analysis it deserves. He deployed a Kantian proof that the logical basis for theism runs similar to justifications for atheism: Kant argued that man believes in a God that will order an unordered world, but since the world is assumed to be unordered, Kant’s postulate of practical reason proves that theism is little more than elaborate rationalizing.
The night’s arguments were pretty standard, but never trite: Levin, for instance, rebutted the claim that Theists irrationally uphold a solipsistic view of the universe by quoting a 3rd century Talmudic rabbi’s shockingly accurate estimation of the number of stars. Of course we’ve heard this all before: that theism is scientifically and morally untenable, and that religion is more than just blind belief in something we can’t hope to see or interact with. And the arguments had their usual weaknesses: Levin’s concession that secular philosophy could provide the same kind of objective morals as religion means that religion is preferable for utilitarian, rather than qualitative reasons–if religion is superior simply because more people can understand Exodus than Locke’s First Treatise on Government, how superior is it, really?
But it’s tough to argue with high-level philosophical discussion in such a laid-back atmosphere, and the question and answer was informal and refreshingly non-confrontational, given the sensitive subject matter. The questions raised–like whether a perfect God can reasonably be expected to create a perfect world–probably won’t be answered any time soon. But events like these show that it sure can be fun to try.
It would be easy to accuse ADL president Abraham Foxman of fear mongering, and believe me, I’m tempted. The premise of last night’s talk at Hillel sure does sound far-fetched: that Walt, Mearshimer, Jimmy Carter and others are reviving anti-Semitic canards that conveniently blame the problems of the day on the Jewish people. But the blustery Mr. Foxman has a bit more respect for nuance than his agitated delivery would suggest. Without explicitly taking sides on Israel, Iraq, AIPAC or other thorny issues, Foxman laid out the facts: there is nothing to suggest, as Walt and Mearshimer allegedly do in the Israel Lobby, that there is any coordinated “Jewish lobby.”
Besides which, the pair don’t even try to prove that it is, since they don’t interview a single member of the so-called “lobby”–they simply assume that there exists a massive, Jewish-controlled machinery leading the U.S. to national ruin. But this doesn’t withstand scrutiny: if there really was a “Jewish lobby” driving America to war in Iraq, Foxman argues, why did the Reform Synagogue–America’s largest Jewish organization–officially oppose the decision to invade?
Forgetting for a moment that Walt and Mearshimer are careful to point out that not all Jews are a part of the Lobby, which is “comprised of American Jews” rather than “controlled by America’s Jews:” Foxman’s fundamental argument, that even the slightest suggestion that Jews act in any kind of conspiracy to do anything vaguely disadvantageous to the United States smacks of the “blame the Jews first” mentality that’s rife throughout world history. Nitpicking Foxman’s less-than-watertight arguments probably gets us nowhere. Besides, our society isn’t prepared to take chances with other, equally insidious efforts to single out specific ethnic and religious groups. Why make an exception for the Jews, Foxman asks?
The fact that the ADL can be accused of “stifling debate” by pointing out the use of historically anti-Semitic arguments, Foxman argued, while such treatment of the head of the NAACP is practically unimaginable shows just how entrenched anti-Jewish double standards have become. And he had stats to back this up: according to ADL surveys, 30% of Americans think that the Jews killed Christ; another 30% believe that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the United States.
It’s tough not to find fault in some of Foxman’s assumptions, or to find fault in his reading of the “Israel Lobby” thesis. But Foxman’s speech provided chilling context for a controversial set of ideas. It was tough not to take him seriously.