I propose this as a rule of thumb: You can say you’re an atheist if you want, but the rest of us have no warrant to call you that until you can show some evidence that you know something about the God you claim to reject. Perhaps there should be some sort of qualifying exam.
I’ve long been struck by how reliably the self-described atheists among our professional scientists turn out, on inspection, to reject not belief in God — no God that I would recognize, anyway — but a cartoon of God, distilled to an absurd clich� from long-ago Sunday School, or Hebrew School, lessons. Now theoretical astrophysicist Ethan Siegel does a valuable service by writing about his beliefs and actually publishing a cartoon, by Gary Larson, representing the God he does not believe in.
Dr. Siegel teaches at Lewis & Clark College down in Portland. He writes about how he clings to his Jewish identity despite spurning belief in the “Hebrew God” because of the way Jews have been persecuted in history and wouldn’t it be small and cowardly to disavow his ancestors under those circumstances. Hm, maybe or maybe not. I don’t see how, under strictly secular assumptions, he’s doing his great-great-greatparents a favor. (Under Jewish assumptions, it’s a different matter: He’s Jewish now and forever whether he likes it or not.) Writes Siegel:
Although it often takes a lifetime’s worth of work to understand how, everything that has ever happened in this Universe requires nothing more than the laws of nature to explain them. And in that sense, I also call myself an atheist.
Actually, there’s something sweet and guileless about this fellow, judging from his writing and the curious way he depicts himself, in an accompanying photo, in wraparound sunglasses, beard and what appears to be wrestler’s tights. To his credit, he has his head screwed on straight about the fantastic nature of attempts by other scientific-minded “atheists” to explain how the universe got here in the first place.
But where did our inflating spacetime come from? What happens on sub-Planckian or super-horizon distance scales? Speculations abound, of course, but a type 4 multiverse, a primeval singularity or an infinity of 10-dimensional Calabi-Yau manifolds have about as much observable evidence for them as angels bowling, if you get my drift.
Well, when I think about our Universe, I think there likely was some organizing force or principle that somehow led to the existence of the state that eventually created the Universe as we know it today. I don’t have a good name or description (or even a hunch) as to what this force or principle is, so I call it God. And so — in a sense that (probably) nobody else uses the word — yes, I believe in God.
As Siegel does know well, this is not God either.
So I don’t have any idea what to even call myself as far as religions or beliefs go. Am I a Jew? An Atheist? A Deist? A Jewish Atheist who believes in God, but not in your God?
To answer his question, the right term for all the self-described Jewish scientific atheists out there that I can think — from Jerry Coyne to Sam Harris to Ethan Siegel — isn’t atheist but tinok shenishba, literally a “child who was captured.” The Talmud draws this Hebrew expression from the many real-life cases in ancient times where Jewish infants and older children were kidnapped, stolen permanently from their parents, and raised in pagan cultures. They bore no responsibility for their ill-conceived ideas in relationship to Jewish belief. It wasn’t their fault. They knew no better.
To qualify as a first-class heretic, on the other hand, an apikoros — an Epicurean materialist — required that you know the Jewish faith, the Jewish God, first. You don’t get to hang out a shingle as a heretic without having already acquired some deep familiarity with the belief system you reject. That’s a distinction that no Jewish atheist I know of today can claim.