Wednesday, September 14, 2011

How to Argue with Jews

Over the past few years, rabbis seem to have gotten more into the business of bashing atheists.  The most recent example is Rabbi Moshe Averick’s claim that atheism is on the slippery slope to pedophilia (  Earlier this year was the equally obtuse, if somewhat less offensive Open Letter to the Atheist Community ( by Rabbi Adam Jacobs.

(UPDATE: Rabbi Brad Hirschfield has joined the fray with  However, I somewhat agree with him, so I don't see much reason to argue.  The redoubtable PZ Meyers does, at  I don't think that there is much of a problem with tearing up photocopies of religious texts, but tearing a page out of a Bible is unnecessarily provocative.  On the other hand, I also agree with PZ Meyers somewhat.  It's quote small compared to various atrocities committed in the name of religion on a daily basis.  On the, I guess, foot, atheists could do with a bit more tolerance, but this would be the subject of another blog.)
There have also been numerous debates between rabbis and atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens’ debates with Rabbis Boteach (, Wolpe (, and Kushner (  Debates like this seem to have gone a lot better than rabid rabbi blogs, but I get the impression that atheists who debate rabbis don’t quite get it right.  It seems to me that having a lot of experience arguing with Christians doesn’t necessarily map onto arguing with Jews.

Even the most stalwart and vituperative Christians seem to have learned to avoid the most cretinous arguments against atheism by now.  It sometimes seems as if some rabbis have never cracked a book on ethical philosophy in their lives.  (As I explain later, that may not be far from the truth.)  There might be some value in educating them, but since phenomena such as Averick and Jacobs have emerged in the information age in America, so it doesn't seem that they are going to educate themselves.  The only thing left is education through argument.
So I’ve set out to give advice on arguing with Jews.  I wish I didn’t have to pick on Jews.  Jews aren’t usually evangelical and usually don’t get in your face.  Plus, there are really a lot of atheist Jews out there, and even more who are functionally similar but don’t use the word.
On the other hand, these rabbis started it, and turnabout is fair play.  So far, the public face has mostly been rabbis, but you might meet some walking-around-type Jews who are influenced by them.  So I’m going to talk about Jews and what an atheist needs to know to argue with them.
One reason I can do this is that I am one.  Well, sort of.  I grew up amongst Jews and have attended more than my share of festivals. I wasn’t raised particularly Jewish, and I always though I was the token Goy.  It has only been recently that I traced my ancestry well enough to have a claim for being born that way, as Lady Gaga says.   Due to some Jewish girlfriends I have gotten more into it (though I still don’t believe) and have had lots of great discussions with rabbis and their congregations.
Another reason is that I think I know a fair amount about atheism and how atheists think, having been involved for decades.  My experience in anthropology and ethnography is also helpful.
A couple of notes.  First of all, when I write “Jews,” I don’t mean every single Jew on the planet, and sometimes not even most.  I am referring to the kind of educated, Americanized Jew who is likely to come into conflict or discussion with atheists in the first place.  Second, if it isn’t clear by now, I am deliberately not taking Judaism, atheism, or the people who have those things (including myself) very seriously.  This is common practice amongst Jews, and I hope to convey some of it by example.  Still, there are serious points, and much of this is in the vein of “ha-ha only serious.”  (

It isn't my intention to offend Jews, but if that happens, I'm OK with it.  If you're a Jew, and you don't see yourself here, great!  However, if you're a Jew, and you don't see a lot of Jews here, I think you need to do more observation.
Jews Aren’t a Religion
This is one of the more important things people get wrong.  Being a Jew isn’t the same as practicing Judaism, though there is a correlation.  Jews are, for the most part, defined recursively.  You are a Jew if your mother was a Jew, or if your father was Jacob.  Since World War II, this has been relaxed somewhat.  You are a Jew if any of your grandparents were Jews (though you might have an uphill battle with some of the orthodox).  Conversion to Judaism is allowed but strongly discouraged, kind of like a Kung Fu thing: they want to make sure you really want it.
Jews are roughly divided into Sephardic and Ashkenazi.  Sephardic Jews were kicked out of Spain in 1492.  Ashkenazi Jews are named for a part of Germany, though they moved there from the Middle East, and something happened to a lot of them during the 1940s.  Most Jews you’ll meet in the US are Ashkenazi.
There’s also some stuff about twelve tribes.  Hardly anybody remembers who is what, though.  A lot of Ethiopians think they’re the lost tribe and say they have the Ark of the Covenant, but who cares?
All this inheritance stuff may seem silly, and I doubt that many of the details in the Torah are accurate, but there is a lot of evidence for a genetic bottleneck amongst Ashkenazi Jews.  There are a lot of genetic markers associated with them and a lot of diseases that they get.  Before AIDS, for example, almost nobody but middle-aged Jewish men ever got Kaposi’s sarcoma.
People sometimes call what Jews are a race or an ethnicity, but I think it’s more accurate to call it a family.  If you are a Jew, you can go anywhere in the world.  If you find some Jews, they’ll sing the same songs, eat the same foods, and have the same fears of being kicked out or killed, which seems to happen eventually.
In any event, there is no way to get out of the Jew club, unless you are disowned because of marrying a non-Jew, which basically doesn’t happen in modern America.  (For more, see Fiddler on the Roof.)  The practical upshot is that becoming an atheist (or always being one) doesn’t stop someone from being a Jew.
Jews Have a Religion
There is a religion, associated with being a Jew, called Judaism.  At the center of Judaism is the Covenant.  This is an agreement.  Jews agree to do nice things for God (like cut off the ends of their penises).  In return, God agrees to do nice things for Jews (like have them be the most hated people on the face of the planet forever).  If you think this wasn’t so hot a deal, you’re not the only one, and maybe it’s why there are so many Jewish lawyers.
Beyond this, things get a bit murky.  There are a lot of laws and various how-tos in the Torah, but as with any religion, there’s a lot of selective reading, interpretation, and oral tradition.  There was the Tribe of Judah, whose practices might have been the ones that survived.  There was a time when the Kingdom of Judah was the only place where Jews could freely practice (even those not of the Tribe of Judah).  To make matters worse, the first major work of Rabbinic Judaism (the Mishnah) was written by Rabbi Judah.  Take your pick as to what modern Judaism was named after.  I like Judy Tenuta’s version: Judyism.
Speaking of the Mishnah, mishnah in general means “repetition,” but practically it means everything from “interpretation” to “arguing” to “making stuff up.”  This is important.  Jews love a good argument.  Even rabbis like it.  To be sure, many only do it because they want to trip you up (like Jesuits), but you will find rabbis who will think about arguments, which is a lot better deal than you’ll get from most Christian and Muslim debaters.
The Mishnah with a capital M, which argues about the oral tradition, is usually printed surrounded by the the Gemara, which argues about the Mishnah.  I told you Jews like to argue, at least as if it's on a reasonably intellectual level.
If you debate a Jew, please don’t say the Hebrew Bible.  It’s understandable, but it sounds a bit dorky.  Jews don’t say “the Christian Tanakh,” and Jews had it first.  The Tanakh roughly corresponds to the Old Testament, so you can use the Old Testament pretty safely.  “Tanakh” may just be the first acronym in history.  It consists of the Torah (basically, the Pentateuch), the Nevi’im (Kings and Judges and Joshua and Ezekiel and all those other big wheels), and the Ketuvim (Proverbs and Psalms and Psomethings and some other stuff).
Even though the Tanakh is pretty obviously the foundation of both Christianity and Islam (though it is not canon in Islam), the way Jews look at the book and its concepts is very different from these other two religions.  Understanding how Jews look at this book and at concepts of God is important.
Christians view God as some guy, and the book his word.  More or less.  There’s definitely the idea of God as a guy, personified as Jesus, but even in transcendental views a being or entity of some sort.  Not every Christian views the Bible as true in every word, and some disagree that some (or many) of the things happened, but there is this basic default idea of God as a guy who wrote or dictated or influenced this book here.
You might find some of the Orthodox and Conservative Jews who think this way (such as Harold Kushner), but really, it’s quite rare.  Far more common is the idea of Maimonides that rejects a personal God.
Atheists like to say that these books are myths by bronze-age goatherds.  Most Jews will generally laugh at that and agree.  The Jewish books are kind of like a family album.  They are the stories that Jews know and talk about.  But real?  Not quite, at least not in the Christian sense.  Did Moses or Daniel or David really do that?  Meh, who cares?  We think about it.  They’re good stories.  A bit gory, but good.
What this means is that it is practically impossible to get a rabbi or a Jewish audience to react by pointing out some of the juicier atrocities.  There is just not the basis of literalism in Judaism.  It’s not even merely that Jews don’t get as literal quantitatively; the qualitative connection isn’t there.  Did God really say that?  Well, maybe.  He can be a bit of a schmuck, but he’s family, so whatcha gonna do?
The main thing that you have to learn to say (or preferably sing) in Judaism is the Shema.  It translates as “Hear, Israel!  The Lord your God, the Lord is one.”  (“Israel” doesn’t mean the country.  It’s the name for Jews before they came up with the name “Jew,” at least when they weren’t being called Hebrews or Canaanites or whatever).
Emphasis is on the “one.”  Tease out the theology of most Jews, and you’ll find that it resembles pantheism or panentheism much more strongly than traditional theism, even when they don’t use those words.  God is not really this guy or personality but is identified in some way as or with the Universe.
To put it succinctly, at the expense of precision: in Christianity, God does things; in Judaism, God is things.
This comes into play because it underlies a lot of the things that Jews will say in debates.  I’ve seen Hitchens tripped up a lot on this one.  A Christian who says that God and belief therein is required for morality is probably saying that this God guy laid down some rules, and that’s where morality comes from.  You can argue against this by bringing up some nasty God-stories, which I’ve already explained doesn’t work with Jews.
You can also argue that morality comes from empathy, enlightened self-interest, our evolution as a social species, etc.  This doesn’t work with Jews either.  Anything you can bring up will be interpreted as a manifestation of God.  You can’t assume that they will object to evolution (though if one does, you can find a contradiction).  Jews are likely to respond to the effect of “so nu?  That’s God.”
There is an exploitable weakness, however.  The identification of God with the Universe is kept very vague, and it makes Jews uncomfortable to use too much logic on it.  (Boy, did Spinoza ever find that out!)  The claim also amounts to (and is sometimes explicitly stated as) the idea that morality is built into the very fabric of the universe.  You can find fault with that directly.  
Furthermore, while this vague identification is just fine for making congregations feel good, it doesn’t pack much of a punch.  If God is, basically, a word for the natural order, including biology, then ethics and morality are natural and do not require a belief in God, which is what the rabbi wants to argue against.  So you’ll likely see a vacillation between the literal and the figurative.  Watch for this.
Jews are Very Smart
Yeah, this may sound self-aggrandizing, but you can pretend that I’m not including myself.  If you look at any indicator of intelligence, such as Nobel Prize winners, great physicians and scientists, even activists for progressive causes, you’ll find Jews represented way out of proportion to their numbers.
The two towering physicists of the 20th century, Einstein and Feynman, were both Jewish.  The finest mathematician ever, Emmy Noether, was Jewish.  Lots of comedians.  Lots of actors.  Lots of lawyers.  Lots of writers.  Larry, Moe, and Curly–OK, sometimes it doesn’t work.
Why is this?  I don’t know.  The tendency of Jews to look out for each other and accumulate money doesn’t seem to explain it, though I doubt it hurts.
Jews have encouraged their brighter children to become rabbis and breed like rabbits.  Unlike in Catholicism, you’re supposed to have children, because you’re going to be counseling families.  Also, let’s not forget that everyone likes to kill Jews, which doubtless provided some selection pressure against the dim.  Still, there doesn’t seem to have been enough time for evolution to have done the trick.
Jews also have an unbroken tradition of literacy going back thousands of years.  My Jewish ancestors were reading when some of my other ancestors were painting themselves blue and running down hills at people, screaming and brandishing bronze swords.  Nowadays, Jewish kids don’t just come home from school and play video games; lots of them attend Hebrew School for a few more hours, every single day and twice on Saturday.
Whatever it was, it worked.  If you debate Jews, they’ll know logic.  They’ll know fallacies.  They’ll know rhetoric.  They’ll know how to talk.  You’re not going to trip them up on this stuff.  Be prepared.
Jews are Very Stupid
Now comes a great irony.  If you have read any of the links I have provided, especially the ones by Averick and Jacobs, you already know that they are preternaturally stupid.  It isn’t simply that they are offensive; I don’t really care about offensiveness, as there are a lot of things that are both true and offensive.  These are just plain stupid, clueless, vacuous, and many other words that would be inappropriate for a family audience.
Seriously, atheists do get similarly stupid arguments from Christians.  They seem like a lot, until you look at the rabbis.  For sheer, concentrated stupidity, you just cannot beat them.  It is to Christian stupidity what Everclear 190 is to small beer.
Though it is manifestly true, why is it so?  There are a lot of Jewish atheists, so to be so obtuse about atheism alone must take a lot of work.  Jews are well educated, and so to be as eye-wateringly dumb about such things as consequentialism is practically heroic.  (Nota bene: Obviously, not all Jews are stupid, just like not all Jews are smart.  However, there is a particularly Jewish or rabbinical form of stupidity that seems to come to the surface when Jews get on the anti-atheist kick, and it needs to be dealt with.  That's what I'm talking about.)
I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is related to a kind of arrogant myth that Jews have of themselves.  In somewhat abbreviated form, it goes like this:
And the Earth was void and without form.  And then God moved over the face of the waters and created a bunch of vile barbarians, and thus did they hack and mutilate each other.  And then the Jews came along and introduced Ethical Monotheism and lo, it was good. 

Now, it probably looks as if I'm more down on Jews that I really am, though at least I'm not calling Judaism the slippery slope to pedophilia.  I can understand where it comes from.  Jews are one of the half dozen or so ancient civilizations that are still relevant today, when many others crumbled into dust.  Even more impressive, they did it without an actual civilization, that is, a long-term cosmopolitan city.  When Christianity came along, Jews were excluded and mostly vilified, yet they carried on a tradition of thought when Europeans barely thought they were human enough to sweep the streets, if that.  I can understand some pride, but it's excessive and has prevented Jews from becoming cosmopolitan enough.  It results in many stupid statements by Jews.

Jews, and especially rabbis, are almost entirely ignorant of or dismissive of classical thinking, by which I mean the great tradition leading from the ancient Egyptians to the Greeks to the Romans to the various Europeans to today.  They’re exposed to it in school, but it just seems to bounce right off.
Well, we know what Jews think about Egypt with that whole Exodus thing and God raining down cholesterol to harden Pharaoh’s heart.  But I know only one–one–rabbi who is willing to give the Greeks some cred for civilization, and he’s very uncomfortable even doing that, as if he fears getting shot in the back of the head.  Every other rabbi I know just thinks the Greeks were vapid hedonists or vicious barbarians or both.
You’ll see this in some of the debates, where the rabbi includes the Greeks and Romans in a litany of non-Jewish badness.  There might be an avenue of attack there.  Be armed with a knowledge of Greek ethics.  The science and math won’t cut it, as Jews are used to importing those–there isn’t a lot of good science and math in that Tanakh.  But lots of rabbis think that Jews, and only Jews, came up with ethics.
Of late, many Jews have opened up a bit to some other ancient traditions, including those of India and China, hence the term Bu-Jews (vaguely Buddhist Jews).  With respect to classical traditions, however, there is a myopia so ingrained that it’s almost impossible to detect unless you spend an awful lot of time with rabbis.  This is why I’m warning you.  If you’re not prepared, then likely it will come up in a debate, and it will just slip right by.  I’ve seen this happen to Christopher Hitchens, who is no dunce.

So it may be that Jews aren't as stupid as Rabbis Averick and Jacobs appear.  It may be that there is simply a blind spot that impairs communication and affects the view of otherwise basic concepts.  If so, it's a blind spot big enough to fly a Saturn V through.

Jews have had an almost completely separate tradition of philosophy, ethics, and of course, theology.  This includes people like Hillel, Maimonides, and in extreme cases, Spinoza.  It’s all great stuff, really, but it’s amazingly inbred.  A lot of it is very similar to the classical tradition.  Maimonides will remind you of a lot of classical philosophers, but bring them up, and the rabbi will probably go, “huh?”  
The best rabbis, such as the one I mentioned, are trying to fix this disconnect, and more power to them.  But of course, these are not the ones who are going to come at atheists like a pit bull on methamphetamines and tell them they are pedophiles.  Those are the dumb and insular ones.  Use that to your advantage.
In many ways, rabbis are like adolescents.  I suppose I should be mollified that Rabbi Adam Jacobs has subsequently moderated his position based on responses from atheists.  That’s good, but it’s the kind of thing I would normally expect someone to do at age 15.  Like adolescents, rabbis often think they know it all, whereas they don’t even know enough to appreciate how little they know.
Anyway, this disconnect really exists, and is kind of astounding, because Jews are so well integrated in every other conceivable way.  Still, be aware of it, especially if the audience is Jewish, which is what happens when the debate is at a Jewish center.  Very nice to be hosted, of course, but what you don’t want is a dialogue between the rabbi and the audience that you are not even aware of.

Rabbis particularly seem to enjoy saying that atheists are angry at God, an idea so idiotic that most Christians don’t even think of it.  Remember, however, that this is a different conception of God.  I recall a Dennis the Menace cartoon where Dennis said to his mother, “I’m not mad at the world.  I’m mad at you.”  It’s something like that.
Finally, Jews like to answer a question with another question.
  1. Why do Jews answer questions with questions?
  2. So what’s wrong with answering a question with another question, already?
At this point, I do have to mention something that seems more obnoxious than it really is.  Sam Harris got this one wrong, big time.  It’s the interpretation of the notion of Jews as the Chosen People meaning “Hey!  We’re so wonderful that God picked us!”  Really, it’s more like “We got chosen because nobody else was dumb enough to sign up for such a crap deal.”  There is an oral tradition that God presented to all of the peoples of the Earth, and all but the Hebrews rejected him.  So the Hebrews were the great suckers.  Hardly any Jewish commentary is entirely free of a sense of resentment for this, subtly put because it doesn’t pay to take chances.
So being “chosen” is viewed as a lot more like having to take the crap job because you can’t get a better one, which in fact has been the history of the Jews for a couple of thousand years, being barred from certain occupations and herded into ghettoes.
Jews Eat Food
There are a lot of food laws in Judaism.  Oddly enough, most of them are about animals and their products.  Except for the stuff about chametz (wheat and stuff during Passover, and that leaven thingie), there’s not much about plants.  This is funny, because while animals are pretty safe, there are a lot of plants that will kill you dead in small quantities.
Modern Jews don’t generally think that if you eat the wrong thing, God will smite you.  Those who keep kosher (and a lot of them don’t, except for a few times out of the year) generally do so as a discipline, remembrance, and tradition.
Most of kashrut is just fine and involves things like purity and wholesomeness.  Ever wonder why a kosher pickle is kosher?  It’s because you don’t add vinegar from a jar; you have to let it form naturally.  There’s also a sense that things be natural.  If the ancient Hebrews had known about nitrogen-fixing fertilizers, they would have prevented them.
This has led to a kind of revisionist way of thinking that says that kashrut is either for health or the ecology (hence the modern term Eco-Kashrut).  This is nonsense, of course.  You can get trichinosis from undercooked pork (or at least you once could), and that will make your muscles sore for a bit.  Anthrax, however, can kill you, and the kosher mammals are far more likely to pass anthrax than are pigs.
Which brings us to slaughter.  Lots of people, including lots of Jews, consider the kosher  way of slaughter by cutting the throat without stunning to be cruel.  I quite agree, especially combined with other modern requirements.  I don’t want to get into a debate over vegetarianism, except to point out that it is perfectly possible, and a lot easier, to be a vegetarian if one wants to keep kosher.  There originally was supposed to be a lamb shank on the Passover seder plate, but you can use a carrot or a piece of plastic or something instead.
In any event, there are rabbis who try to pull off the story that kosher slaughter (which, by the way, is quite like halal slaughter except for the prayers) is the most humane way of slaughter.  (  They are obviously out of their minds.  It may have been true at the time slicing was better than other forms of killing an animal practiced by religious competitors, such as smothering, but it’s pretty obviously suboptimal these days.  Jews were also big on sacrificing animals, but that ended with the destruction of the Temple.  (Fear not, though.  There are Jews trying to breed a perfect red heifer so that they can rebuild the Temple.)
It seems to me fairly unlikely that kashrut will come up in a debate with an atheist, unless it goes heavily into morality.  Even then, it might not be productive to argue it, as most of the audience can be expected to eat meat and be pretty inured to animal suffering.  Well, maybe in Berkeley.  Again, I don’t want to get into an argument; this is just an observation.
Still, it also seems to me emblematic of what I talked about in the previous section.  You’re talking to someone who seems ordinary, rational, logical, decent, and even polite, and then BINGO! you are socked with another bronze age myth, with the plausible appearance of thought defending an indefensible idea.  Be prepared for this.  It can happen at any moment.
On a lighter note, Woody Allen said that the Jews knew two things: suffering and where to get really good Chinese food.  There is truth to the Chinese food bit; since Jewish holidays are different from Christian holidays, you might get peckish when Christian restaurants are closed, and the Chinese restaurants are open.
The suffering, however, is embodied in the great Jewish invention, the matzoh.  It’s supposed to be a memento of when the Jews ostensibly had to get out of town and couldn’t wait for their bread to rise.  Still, it was not necessary to make it taste like burnt cardboard, which of all peoples, the Jews managed to do.  The humble tortilla, chapati, and papadum take even less time to cook, and they all taste better, especially those burnt handmade matzohs that Chabad gives out for free.
Jews are like Everybody Else
Apart from these differences, Jews are like everybody else.  They don’t make matzohs with the blood of Gentile babies any more than atheists barbecue kittens.  They don’t have sooper seekrit rituals, and in fact, during Passover when the door is open, you can walk right down and take a seat.  They don’t necessarily hate Palestinians or even like Israel much.  They aren’t as rich as you think they are, and a lot are poor (me, for instance).  They don’t drink God’s blood on Sunday.
They don’t have magical underwear.  Oh, wait, they do, with tassels hanging out that make them look like slobs, but that’s only the really serious Jews, the ones that have the virtual-reality looking things called tefilen.  Well, you can’t have everything.
Still, Jews are, overall, pretty much like anybody else.  I keep meeting atheists that have never met a Jew, and there are obviously Jews, even rabbis, who have never met an atheist.
A lot of the objections you’ll hear from Jews are the same that you’ll hear from Christians.  Also, remember that like other religions, and even atheism, they’ll tend to view the world as “them and us.”  Arguments that are specific to other religions won’t work very well.
So play nice, y’all, but also don’t take any more crap from a Jew than you would from anybody else.
Appendix: An Analysis
Let’s apply what I’ve said to a particular text.  I’ve taken some from Rabbi Moshe Averick’s article about how atheists are on a slippery slope to pedophilia, in a different type face.  I’m not going to offer a comprehensive rebuttal or even rant.  That might be fun, but it wouldn’t serve any purpose.  Instead, I’m going to focus on things that knowledge of Averick’s Judaism might inform, if such statements were made in a debate.
It is axiomatic that in the world of the atheist there is neither morality nor immorality, only amorality.
Not a good start.  What is important here is not the claim but rather that he says that it’s “axiomatic.”  Christians make the same claim, but they are a bit more prepared to argue rather than beg the question.  Remember “God does” versus “God is.”  “Does” meshes with a logical chain.
The response isn’t Jew-specific.  Get him to argue not assume the conclusion.  The response may be an argument.  If it is, then you have something to work with.  Chances are, however, that he will never have thought about the concept of arguing the connection in his life.  You might get the kind of sputtering “but, but, but, just open your eyes!” that you  get from the most naive Christians.
Since in the atheistic worldview we are nothing more than upright walking primates, our value systems have no more significance than those of our jungle dwelling relatives. In the Darwinian view, the human is to the cockroach as the cockroach is to the paramecium.
This, at least, is the same kind of thing you will see from Christians, so we’re on familiar territory.  It is, however, rather unusual to see a Jew throwing a hissy about Darwin, as most Jews don’t have a problem with evolution.  Talking about evolution in a Jewish context might work.  The next bit is in much the same vein and so can be safely ignored.
Since these values are nothing more than reflections of the prevalent subjective preferences they obviously will shift and metamorphose to accommodate changing needs and attitudes. In my own lifetime I have witnessed radical societal swings in moral behavior and attitudes regarding marriage and sexuality, homosexuality, the killing of unborn children, euthanasia, and the use of illicit drugs.
Not to mention that old Hebrew favorite: slavery.  The most common Christian rejoinder is that Christians also worked to abolish slavery, and there’s a lot of truth in that, though it isn’t much of an excuse.  Amongst Jews, there’s a common (and surprising) rejoinder that slavery in the Torah was a different concept from modern slavery, and they didn’t know from modern concepts.  You can counter that by pointing out that there’s also a lot in the Torah about enslavement of Hebrews and how awful it was, so they knew damn well what slavery was.
There is nothing that atheistic societies are incapable of rationalizing and accepting – including the sexual molestation of children.
Again, this is standard stupidity and not particularly Jewish, so it can be dealt with in the general way, which mostly consists of pointing out the lower incidence and even lower degrees of rationalization in more atheistic societies.
When asked by journalist William Crawley if he thought that pedophilia was “just wrong.” Professor Peter Singer of Princeton University – a world-famous philosopher of “ethics” – responded as follows:
Hoo boy!  It’s couch-jumping time!  Does anybody think that Peter Singer is important as an atheist spokesperson qua atheist spokesperson?  Is he even an atheist spokesperson at all, except in the fevered imagination of the redoubtable Dinesh d’Souza?  Really.  Maybe it’s a case of “one Goy is much like another.”
But there’s a hook here.  Singer did write a piece where he criticized the UN proposal, spearheaded by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, to make defamation of religion a human rights violation, on the grounds of free speech.  Guess what!  Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, is of the same mind as Singer.  Pointing that out could work wonders.
Singer went on to explain that he is a “consequentialist.” For the benefit of the philosophically challenged let me explain “consequentialism” in a nutshell: If you like the consequences it’s ethical, if you don’t like the consequences it’s unethical.
So it’s not a particular shock that the rabbi hasn’t the slightest clue what consequentialism is.  At this point, I’d probably first point out that consequentialism is far from particularly atheist or universal amongst atheists (in fact, the best criticisms of consequentialism I’ve seen have come from atheists).  Then I’d launch into a brief discussion of consequentialism and deontology, pragmatic ethics, and intentionalist ethics, being sure to drop the names of some Western philosophers, especially those his rabbinical training probably did not cover.
More drivel follows, based on his straw men.  Then some stuff about John Marks, another fairly insignificant figure.  Then some stuff by some psychiatrists.  It all gets a bit repetitive.  And then a rather tedious thesis, starting with
All men are created in the image of God and are therefore inherently and intrinsically precious.
To which the only possible rejoinder is an adaptation of Frank Zappa’s comment.  If Rabbi Averick is created in God’s image, then God is dumb, and maybe even a little ugly on the side.  Seriously, I think that we can agree that people are inherently and intrinsically precious without needing to invoke God's image to justify it.  (Also, some people, by their behavior, need to go into the hurt locker.)
In a way, this is a terrible shame.  There are some ethical questions that need to be addressed in the context of atheism, some of which are the same as ethical questions that need to be addressed in the context of theism.  I’ve spoken about morality and ethics to atheist and freethought groups more than on any other subject.  I’ve also been quite concerned about evidence of antisocial tendencies amongst atheists.  (I don’t know for sure that these are specific to atheists, as I spend a lot less time in churches and temples, but I’d still like to see them addressed.)
The sheer boneheadedness of the likes of Rabbi Moshe Averick does not advance anything.  It should be an embarrassment to Jews as well as, well, just about everybody.  For some reason it isn’t, so it’s up to you and me to point it out.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Elevatorgate Timeline

Elevatorgate Timeline
Eric Pepke
Version 1.8
July 31, 2011

This is a timeline of the events surrounding what has come to be known as Elevatorgate, a bit of an Internet explosion surrounding Skepchick founder Rebecca Watson.

This is not intended to be partisan but rather to provide an informative framework in which to decide what was being said at what time, and what people were responding to.


women atheists.mp4 (Panel on Women in Atheism)

Amongst others, Paula Kirby gives a panel presentation.


World Atheist Convention
June 3-5 2011

Watson used her portion of a panel with Dawkins on a forum about education about atheism to talk about sexism and feminism in the atheist community.  Talks about rape threats. Makes statements about Paula Kirby's talk, which Kirby finds misrepresentative.

Elevator incident is placed later on this day


Posted June 20, 2011

Rebecca Watson's initial video describing the elevator incident.  Watson says she is extremely uncomfortable about being sexualized that way.


My response and take on sexism in the atheist community
Uploaded June 21, 2011

Rose St. Clair criticizes Watson's video.


Fursdays wif Stef #32
Posted June 22, 2011

First reaction by Stef McGraw to Watson's initial video, criticizing Watson's video.


CFI Student Leadership Conference
Weekend of June 26, 2011

Watson speaks on The Religious Right against Every Woman on Earth, in which she calls out Stef McGraw.


Posted June 28, 2011

Watson continues to criticize McGraw, indirectly associating EG with the term "objectification" for the first time on the web.  She refers to a tweet @rebeccawatson "[@stef_witha_f]'s post was a pretty standard parity [parody?] of misogynistic thought," clarifying later that she meant "parroting" in "@AaronFriel "parroting." This is what's known as "attacking the argument, not the person." Nothing to do with ridicule."


Fursdays wif Stef #33
Posted June 30, 2011

McGraw responds to Watson.

Watson replies, citing 10,000 visitors to Skepchick, claims "Dawkins or Christina have never to my knowledge dismissed misogynist thinking."  Corrected it later to say that she meant the opposite.


Bad form, Rebecca Watson
July 1, 2011

ERV criticizes Rebecca Watson for calling McGraw out.


Always name names!
Posted July 2, 2011

P.Z. Myers supports Watson.  Later that day, Dawkins makes his "Dear Muslima" response in the comment section at 11:11 AM Eastern.  Later, he made another explanatory comment.


Richard Dawkins and male privilege (Discover blogs)
Posted July 2, 2011

Bad Astronomer and Skepchick fan Phil Plait criticizes Dawkins.  Dawkins responds at 11:35 AM Eastern


The Decent Human Being's Guide to Getting Laid at Atheist Conferences
Posted July 3, 2011

P.Z. Myers says something.  I can't figure out what the point is.  It uses too many goofy metaphors to be serious, and it is too long and unfunny to be burlesque or satire.  See notes.

Podcast 312 (SGU)
July 5, 2011

Watson talks about Dawkins' response, also states that the guy in the elevator had been in the bar group.


July 5, 2011

Watson criticizes Dawkins, refers to him as a "wealthy old heterosexual white man" and "stinking rich."  Talks more about rape threats.  Says she's not going to buy or recommend his books.


July 6, 2011

A bunch of letters selected within Skepchick criticizing Dawkins.


Take Back the Elevator
July 6, 2011

Alison Smith criticises Watson.


Elevator Guy Hits the Wires (updated)
July 6, 2011

A very interesting suggestion that Dawkins lost patience with Watson during the panel in Dublin.


Rebecca Watson on Richard Dawkins’ sexist comments and the atheist community
July 7, 2011

Citizen Radio has a story about this.


Who is the Elevator Man? For me, he's someone I know
July 7, 2011

Emily has an interesting slant and obviously knows what it's like to be at a conference.


Dublin panel: Women atheist activists (comment)
July 8, 2011

Paula Kirby, whom Watson misrepresented, explains it to everyone who didn't get it the first time.


Why does everyone keep leaving out Stef McGraw as if she doesn't exist?
July 12, 2011

Rose Schwartz asks, well, the title says it all.


Mr. Deity and the Opposition
July 13, 2011

Some funny comments.


The Amazing Meeting 9 (TAM 9 from Outer Space)
July 14-17, 2011

Sasha Pixlee sends emails to most of the speakers at TAM 9, asking them to reserve a portion of their speeches to denounce Dawkins.


July 16, 2011

Watson talks about the events.


Rebecca Watson - Skepticism and Feminism
July 18, 2011

Watson is a guest on Point of Inquiry.


Cocktail Party Physics: Is It Cold in Here?
July 20, 2011

Jennifer Oullette weight in on the Scientific American blogs.


Update!  Plus dating advice
July 22, 2011

Watson talks more


Richard Dawkins, chetah the evidence on the 'chilly climate' for women
July 24, 2011

The Guardian picks up.

July 26, 2011

Watson actually describes Elevator Guy, describing him as being in his mid-50s.  She also admits to having "face blindness."


Atheists Address Sexism Issues
USA Today



1) For events on July 2, 2011, either the time stamps are funky or people were typing extremely fast.
2) This is obviously not complete, and any additions and revisions are welcome.  I'm not trying to include everybody, mostly the major players and events.  I have thrown in a few things that seemed to me atypical and interesting.  To report an error or suggest an addition or revision, go to
3) There's some evidence that Watson also criticized St. Clair, but I cannot find a link to anything substantial.
4) If anybody can figure out what in the blue blazes P.Z. Myers is on about in his July 3 entry, please clue me in.