Monday, October 1, 2012


I was listening to this episode of Star Talk Radio (because Neil deGrasse Tyson is nine kinds of awesome) when Tyson's in-studio guest, Dr. David Grinspoon, described Bill Maher as an "Atheist Fundamentalist."

Suddenly, so many things made sense.

I have often been put off by the likes of Maher and Richard Dawkins when they dismiss everything to do with religion. In this podcast, Maher says that he loses respect for anyone who believes in God to the point that he can't class them with the highest level of thinkers. (That is a paraphrase, but I think Maher would approve it as capturing his idea.) Grinspoon argues that there are things that science can't explain, and that simultaneously holding the belief that the universe is 15 billion years old and that there is a power who may influence some of the things we can't explain is not a failure of intelligence.

Now, I am more and more convinced that this is a silly thing to do. Science has explained so much that there is no reason to believe that there isn't an explanation for the things we haven't figured out yet: we just haven't figured them out yet. But we can't disprove God, so why not?

At the same time, I am more and more convinced that religion serves many useful purposes. After all, if you remove God from the equation, that means that religion was completely and only created by people. So they must have done it for a reason. It meets human needs for community, for organization, for rules, and for structure. Of course it also produces an us-against-them mentality and the necessary structure for hierarchy and oppression, and those things, while human, are definitely bad.

I am not here to sing religion's praises, but what Maher does too often is define religion by it's most ridiculous pieces (i.e. talking snakes) and hold everyone who believes to that standard. He also dismisses everyone who doesn't believe exactly as he does as being less intelligent and generally wrong. That's fundamentalism. And it's no better than religious fundamentalism.

Sometimes religious people have a capacity for creative thought that absolutist atheists just don't have. If you don't believe in the possibilities of fairies, or all-encompassing romantic love, your life will be less rich for it, and possibly less successful. Sometimes it takes a little faith to keep your marriage on track.

And it is possible to believe that God exists, but has no place in science. Or that God exists but didn't write the Bible. Or that God dictated the Bible but some idiot wrote it down wrong. Or that God wrote the Bible for the people who needed it a couple thousand years ago but expects us to have the intelligence to see that it's anachronistic now and use it accordingly. I know some gay, married, highly Progressive God-believers who'd be pretty shocked to find out that they aren't religious.

Thinking religious people are our friends. Anyone who advocates for science and reason in the classroom and as a basis for political discourse is on my side, as are those who advocate for equal rights. And a scientist should be judged by her work, and only by her work. If she writes that God created the world, she's a quack. If she studies the history of the world from a scientific basis, the fact that she sings in the Church choir is not relevant in my estimation of her as a scientist.

We're never going to live in a world where everyone believes the same thing. I'm not sure I'd be interested in living in such a world. What we need is to live in a world where argument is based on rational thinking. What you do with your soul is your own business.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


Mr. Jewess and I just watched the film Happy. It's about what makes people around the world happy, and includes interviews, profiles, and commentaries from Psychologists and Neurologists who have been studying happiness.

It turns out that what makes people happy is being with others, playing, using their bodies, doing meaningful work and helping others. Which sounds an awful lot like Humanist philosophy to me.

The film mentions religion, saying that some people gain happiness from religious participation, but fundamentalists--defined as people who think their religion is the only right one and people who don't adhere to it strictly will be punished--are less happy than the general population.

Of course I needed to make note of this for my presentation. Because being in community and helping others are two things that religion (in general) does well. The film also discussed "spiritual thinking," which is defined as thinking about things like gratitude, and said that counting blessings, among other things, like meditation, can change our brain in healthy ways in a remarkably short period of time. This, of course, is another thing that religion can do well.

And they're also things that Humanists can do together. We can form communities, meditate, help others, and count our blessings.

Oh, and it's a really good film, too.

Yom Kippur, the Humanist way

Today I taught my students a little bit about Yom Kippur. We went over some of the common practices (fasting, repenting, wearing white) and wrote our own Ashamnu* (alphabetical listing of sins) which is a hard exercise if you ever want to try it. Because I teach in a Reform Congregation, I taught my students that Yom Kippur is the day we repent for sins against God. (We should repent for sins against other people, and make amends for them, before Yom Kippur begins.)

After school, I was wondering how I can apply this practice now that I don't believe in God, and I realized that the other purpose of Yom Kippur is to repent for sins against myself. I spend all year making mistakes and apologizing for them, but I never really apologize to myself for the sins I commit against myself. Perhaps this is the real purpose of Yom Kippur. Because honestly, why would God care if I say a prayer without my heart being in it, or if I don't observe Shabbat fully? It doesn't hurt God any, but it hurts me if I waste my time. God, in theory, is eternal, after all.

Now, I'm not being sappy about this. Some people say we should forgive ourselves and pledge to be easier on ourselves at this time of year. Forgive ourselves for the times we judged ourselves harshly, for the times we only saw the bad in ourselves and didn't acknowledge the good, and that sort of thing. And I suppose that's part of it, sure. But that's easy. I mean that we should do the hard work Yom Kippur was intended to support, but do it without imagining a judgmental anthropomorph looking over our shoulders.

Which is hard.

And it's why I think religion helps. It's not easy to honestly take account of oneself. But Yom Kippur is structured to help us do just that. When we recite the Al Chet, we think about the sins that are so common in our community that we probably did them ourselves, or will do them. When we chant the Ashamnu we do the same. And honestly, I think it's also useful to think about the sins of our community. If we live in a community where adultery is rampant, we are less likely to keep our own promises. If we live in a community where vanity is the norm, how can we, as individuals, hope to escape it completely? If our community does not do enough for others, what can we do to change that?

All of this is part of Yom Kippur, and it's one of the things that's useful about religion. Because after all, Judaism was created by human beings. We can be accountable to ourselves and one another at this time of year and work to be better, individually and as a community. And we don't need God to do it.

*I couldn't find a translation I loved of the Ashamnu. If anyone can recommend one, let me know. This one is usable for anyone who isn't familiar with the prayer at all.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

On Evolution, Religion, and Coming Out

This really got me going. See, dinosaurs are really important to me for lots of reasons. I have a kid. My dad is a Biologist. Oh, and my dad works as a Fossil Explainer at the American Museum of Natural History.

But even before he started working there, The Museum (as we call it) was always a special place to me. When the new dinosaur exhibit (as we still call it) opened in 1995 (no, I didn't have to look that up) it was a big deal in my family. My mother and brother got to see it the first day. I had to wait, but I got there as soon as I could and to this day I am amazed by what I learn there.

And then there's evolution. The article I linked to is partly about the evolutionary evidence found in the fossil record of dinosaurs specifically. They have taught us so much about how the world and animals developed that it's mind-boggling. Which is why Creationists are trying to suppress that science.

Which brought me back to my job. I teach religion to third graders at a Reform Jewish Congregation. Before school started, I decided it was time to come out to my boss. I didn't do it last year because my revelation (anti-revelation?) happened in the middle of the school year, and I wasn't sure, when I started this blog, where it would end up. But since I'm staying (for now anyway) in my congregation, I decided to keep the job that I love. Because I really do love discussing religion with children for two hours every week, and I love watching them make progress in Hebrew reading the other two.

So I sat down with my boss and told her that I now identify as a Humanist but I still also identify as a Reform Jew. And I don't believe in God. (I said it with a capital G out of respect for her. She's a good person, and a friend, and God is important to her.) I told her about this blog and all the work I've done and will continue to do figuring out what I believe.

She was interested in that stuff (as I said: good person, friend) but what she really wanted to know, as my boss, is whether I can still do my job. And it came down to this: my job is to impart a sense of wonder and connectedness to God to my students.


Oh, and when you taught them the real story of Chanukah--that the Jews were celebrating Sukkot because they had their Temple back, so they lit up the whole city of Jerusalem for eight nights, and THAT's why we light an 8-armed candelabra, not because of a stupid oil miracle--that pissed of the Rabbi. Don't do that anymore.

But...the kids asked. They wanted to know the scientific explanation behind the menorah miracle. Since when does the Reform Movement deny science and endorse miracles? I feel like the whole Movement has shifted.

Yes, says my boss. It did.

This opened a pit of fear in my stomach, but I had to ask.

What about Evolution?

She told me to leave the question open, because "we don't really know."

Yes, we DO really know. Feathered dinosaurs!

Crap. When did the Refom Movement come to this? Why, oh WHY would we want to side with the fundamentalist crackpots on ANYTHING?!?!?!

I'm hoping this will pass, and won't really come to anything. I'm hoping that I will find a way to gather the Progressive folks in my area, or in my congregation, so that we can stick together and stay Jewish and keep the Reform Movement Progressive. If this is the tip of a spear, though, it might be the wedge that pushes me out of the Movement.

This hurts.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

High ???? Days

It's that time again. Rosh Hashana has come and gone and soon it will be Yom Kippur. The High Holidays bring up all kinds of issues for Jewish Atheists. Do I go to work? Do I attend services? Which rituals do I observe and which do I skip?

These aren't significantly different, of course, from the questions any Reform Jew asks at this time of year: once you make religion a matter of choices, then everything requires thought. I suppose the new question is why?

But let's begin with the what. Here's what I did:

1) A pre-Rosh Hashana brunch at my parents' house. We ate apples and honey and a round raisin challah, and it was my job to explain to my brother's kids, who are growing up "culturally half-Jewish" what it was all about.

2) Dinner at home with the fam for Erev Rosh Hashana. Mr. Jewess made fish, which is a bit of a treat since I went vegetarian a year ago (I'm trying to eat fish now because I haven't been getting enough protein) and we talked about our personal goals for the new year and our hopes for the world in the new year.

4) A morning family service for 3rd through 6th graders at our congregation, at which I read the prayers before and after the Haftorah reading.

5) Picked up some food at Whole Foods which we brought home and ate for lunch. I was hoping for kugel and brisket (and something vegetarian for me) but wound up with latkes and wheat berry salad.

Here's what I didn't do:

1) A formal dinner of any kind.

2) Erev Rosh Hashana services

3) Tashlich

4) A second day of Rosh Hashana.


Starting from the bottom, I've never celebrated a second day of Rosh Hashana and I see no reason to start now. I think it's a sign of the loss of focus I'm seeing within the Reform Movement that many congregations (including ours) now celebrate a second day of Rosh Hashana. We dropped it for a reason. For many reasons, actually, all of which had to do with logic. Now we're bringing it back because people want it. Okay, that happened with Bar Mitzvah before I was born, and I guess I'm okay with that, but if we're going to do it, there should be some reason, logic and meaning behind it.

The same goes for Tashlich. I've actually tried that, but it makes no sense and doesn't really move me.

We didn't get invited to dinner anywhere because my parents wanted to include my brother and he could only come for lunch Sunday. That's cool, although it was a little strange not having plans on Erev Rosh Hashana. I think if that happens again I'll plan something myself. I didn't go to services because Mr. Jewess didn't want to and I didn't care enough to argue.

Basically, I tried to bring meaning to everything that I did. Lunch Sunday, to me, was about family. I played in the playground with The Little Jewess and my niece and nephew and joked with my brother and his wife while we ate, so that was good. Lunch Monday was more complicated. I didn't really believe it was Rosh Hashana because I hadn't had "Jewish" (Eastern European) food. There's definitely that cultural bit there. But that's never been the whole holiday to me.

I think this time of year is one of the most healthy things about the Jewish calendar. It's a really good thing to think about what you can do better, and how you can help make the world a better place. The service I went to also drew some attention (just a little) to how we can be better parents. But I sat in services and thought about the prayers and what that word "God" means to me. I still find the prayers valuable, but I'm not sure to do when the prayers are particularly God-focused. Some of the prayers are asking God to help us. That's cool with me because I can just scan past the God bit and think of it as a metaphor, and then concentrate on the bit I want help with, realizing that I need to help myself or ask for help from other people. But thanking God for making me a Jew is a bit harder to comprehend when you no longer believe in God. What's left to believe in in that sentence?

So that's what it comes down to: What's a holy day when you don't believe in holy?

Which I guess is the point of this whole blog, really. Thoughts?

Saturday, September 15, 2012


My thoughts have been swirling lately. Murders in Libya. Strike in Chicago. The High Holidays. First week of Hebrew School. And The Little Jewess had to go to the ER. (She's fine now.)

Issues big and small, and I don't see anything that ties them together. I guess I should start with the big ones, and there's plenty been written by Humanists about the events in Libya and Egypt this week, so I'm going to start with Chicago.

For those who don't know, Mr. Jewess is a Public School Teacher. My parents were also Public School Teachers and I was one briefly. I just want to make my biases totally clear here. But I also think that Unions are generally fighting the Humanist fight.

Unions have brought us minimum wage, weekends, Family Leave, sick time and safe working conditions. They ended child labor and sweatshops. And in this case, the Chicago Teachers Union is fighting not just for a fair wage for professionals with Master's Degrees, but also for reasonable class sizes, safe, clean schools and textbooks available on the first day of school. (Sorry--that last was one of the "concessions" they won from the City before the strike began.

Imagine trying to teach in a 100 degree classroom with a leaky roof and no textbooks. Imagine 45 kids who may or may not have a safe place to sleep, who may or may not have had breakfast, who may or may not have a quiet place to do homework or any books in their houses. Forty-five. And then on top of that, you have a City that is looking to shut down any school it can to privatize it, and your school will only stay open if your kids do well on some test. How many of these children have seen a relative die violently? How many have lost a parent to drug addiction? How many spent time fending for themselves before a relative found them and enrolled them in school? (I take these examples from my own experience teaching in New York City, but I expect they translate to other cities. In any case, they're real examples.)

You want to bond with these children, give them the love that they need to succeed, give them the little bit of attention they need to feel good at something so that they have the strength to push through to learn the things that are hard, but there are forty-five of them and if they don't pass this test your job will be gone, your school will be closed and then what?

And so you strike. You strike for the rights of the children to have a decent place to learn and a shot at success.

You can call the teachers greedy if you want. I can't. I've been there.

I stand with the Chicago Teacher's Union.

Saturday, September 1, 2012


Sorry it's been a while...I was on vacation. Also, Mr. Jewess got me the new Christopher Buckley book from the library, so I haven't been doing my homework. I HAVE, however, been tweeting with the hashtags #whatgovtdoes and #govtbuiltthat. I'm kind of fed up with Republicans insinuating that "we" is somehow separate from "Government." The Humanist Manifesto supports helping others and working to maintain the equality of all, and I think the government is a useful tool for doing those things. Where would we be without highways, government grants, public schools? These are the things that make America great. The ability to get a small business loan from the government encourages entrepreneurship. The ability to move goods easily from one place to another allows business to function in this large country. And don't get me started on the importance of public schools...just go look at a country that doesn't have them and let me know if you want to move there. So check it out and join in the fun. Every day, tweet (or post on Facebook, or wherever your friends will see it) something government has done for you. Your friends will thank government for it.