Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Atheists of the World Unite!

Photo of Susan Jacoby by B.D. Engler
“Atheists of the world unite,” is the message Susan Jacoby conveys in a Sunday Times Review piece (“The Blessings of Atheism," NYT, 1/5/13). “It is primarily in the face of suffering…that I am forcefully reminded of what atheism has to offer…I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen. It is a positive blessing, not a negation of belief, to be free of what is known as the theodicy problem.” Howard Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People was a bestselling book that dealt with a similar problem and came to a different conclusion. Writing from personal experience, the author, a rabbi, dealt with how he maintained his faith in God after his son died from progeria, a condition which produces premature aging. Kushner went on to deal with similar issues in a later volume, When All You've Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough. What is interesting in Jacoby’s piece is that she invokes Robert Green Ingersoll, a famous l9th century agnostic and freethinker who was much beloved by Walt Whitman and who Whitman once described as being Leaves of Grass. The picture Jacoby draws of the agnostic or the atheist is not the cynic, empiricist and victim of the kind of "disenchantment" that Max Weber would later describe as limiting natural human impulse towards finding metaphysical connections between things. Jacoby attempts to bring atheism and agnosticism out of the closet so that its followers can be encouraged to congregate and provide each other with the kind of solace that Ingersoll did in his many graveside eulogies. “We need to demonstrate that atheism is rooted in empathy as well as intellect,” Jacoby writes. “And although atheism is not a religion, we need community-based outreach programs so that our activists will be a recognizable to their neighbors as the clergy.”

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