“I treat all religions equally said the man – I disrespect them all.”
The teacher to whom he spoke was entirely unfazed by the comments, “how then do you understand the world in which we live?”
Unable to answer the question, the man turned away. He seemed of the school of thought which considers voicing an opinion loudly to constitute a coherent argument. Also, he seemed to fail to understand that the English tradition of liberty rested not upon disrespect, but upon the respect of everyone’s right to hold their own beliefs, no matter how eccentric those beliefs might seem to others.
An old Jewish story came to mind, a story that suggests that being an atheist is being the very opposite of the man who disrespected all religions. It is to understand and to be well informed and to know why it is that one does not believe.
“In the little Eastern European village of Chelm lived a young man, who considered himself an atheist. Chaim, the Chelmite had heard that the very famous “Moishe the Atheist” lived in the neighbouring village. Eager to find a like-minded soul to learn from, Chaim packed a bit of food in his kerchief, hung it on a stick, and made his way through the woods to find Moishe the Atheist and to study with him.
After a few days journey, and directions from a few helpful strangers, the young man found Moishe’s little cottage. He knocked on the door and received permission to enter. There was an old, bespectacled man hunched over the table, half-hidden behind a pile of books.
“Yes,” said the older man.
“I am looking for Moishe the Atheist,” said Chaim.
“I am Moishe,” said Moishe.
“Sir, I am an atheist too, and I would like to be your apprentice,” said the younger man.
Moishe slowly removed his glasses and peered at the stranger. “You are an atheist?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” replied Chaim.
“Have you read the Torah?” Moishe asked.
“No, sir,” said Chaim.
“Have you studied the Talmud?”
“No, sir,” said Chaim.
“Are you familiar with all our prayers and philosophies?” asked Moishe.
“No, sir!” said Chaim adamantly. “I am an atheist.”
“Ach,” said Moishe, waving the young man away dismissively. “You are not an atheist. You are only an ignoramus”
The story is one from a Jewish rabbi, who would have smiled at the idea that being disrespectful constituted an argument. What would Moishe the atheist have said to the man at the open evening?