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.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Short Bus

I finished reading The Short Bus by Jonathan Mooney an I really liked it. (Note to those following the blog closely: I failed again at reading Religion for Atheists and I have to return it unread, again. But I promise I'll pick it up again after my vacation!) Mooney tells his story with compassion, both for himself and for the people he meets. Heck, he even has compassion for the bus. He makes his points well, too. As far as I can tell, Mooney has two main points in this book:

1) We should celebrate all people for their abilities, and we should never treat anyone as less than human because they think differently than we do.

2) Labels cause more difficulties than they are worth.

I love the first point. After all, that's a fine Humanist statement, and Mooney tests it with visits to a girl who is both deaf and blind, a man who seems to make no sense when he talks, and Burning Man. But he manages to find some beauty in everyone he meets and is convincing in his argument that one school model cannot serve everyone and everyone deserves the opportunity to learn.

On the second point, though, Mooney and I differ a bit. I think labels, when used correctly, can be very helpful. That's why teachers like IEP's (Individualized Educational Plans.) A well-written IEP gives a teacher valuable information about how a child learns, so that she doesn't have to discover it all again. Valuable weeks of school time can be saved, as well as plenty of frustration. In terms of a child's self-worth, and ADHD kid is going to be much better off in my classroom, on Sunday mornings and Tuesday afternoons, if I know he's ADHD and don't ask him to do things he physically can't do, than if I don't know he's ADHD and spend a lot of time trying to get him to sit down and be quiet.

Here's a better example: My Dad has really poor working memory. (Working memory is the part of the brain that remembers instructions and remembers to remember things.) To be clear, he's a really smart man: he has a PhD, he reads great literature, he can hold his own in an argument and he knows more about dinosaurs than any adult really should. But when he says he'll be somewhere, he may or may not show up.

This has been true his whole life. As a child, I often found myself waiting to be picked up at piano lessons, or driven past acting classes and having to double back because my dad got distracted while driving. He even forgot my daughter's first birthday celebration. When these things happened, there would be fights and recriminations and denials and no explanation to be found. These disputes caused a decent amount of stress in our family, and to this day I have anxiety whenever I have to meet someone or wait for someone.

Then, in his sixties, my dad got diagnosed with ADHD. Suddenly, everything made sense. We now understand what my dad can do and what he can't. He understands it, too. So when he's supposed to be  at The Little Jewess's school for a special event, my mom makes sure he leaves early, and then he calls her when he gets there. He keeps his phone on so we can call him if he's not where he's supposed to be. My mom is now 100% in charge of their calendar, and she goes over with my dad where he's supposed to be when so he doesn't forget.

My dad's diagnosis was a moment of huge relief for all of us. Suddenly, there were books and websites he could turn to for hints on how to remember things better. My mom no longer blames him for not doing things he can't do, and instead of enabling him, she can structure things in a way that my dad doesn't forget and there is no crisis, and no ensuing fight.

So I kind of like labels. The catch is, the label can't be everything. You have to see the person above all, and treat that person with respect, even if that person needs help.

Monday, August 13, 2012

My people!

I just read this article on Friendly Atheist, and boy, did it get me excited! Mary Johnson is one of my people. Her whole journey really resonates with me, and I love that although she is now an atheist, she still can see the value and appeal of religion.

Check out this quote:

I believe that humans need ritual and art and encouragement. I’m in the process of becoming a Humanist celebrant so that I can help people celebrate weddings and births and funerals in a secular context. I’m encouraged that people like Alain de Botton and Greg Epstein and Miriam Muroff Jerris are taking on the challenge of creating meaningful Humanist rituals without supernatural references.

I could have said that! Plus, it takes me back to my original idea for my presentation. Probably, I can focus on deBotton, Epstein and Jerris and that will be enough for one presentation. I wonder if Jerris would answer some interview questions for me. After all, she did reply to my e-mails.

But what REALLY got me going was the discussion in the comment. It seems that Friendly Atheist's readers are up in arms because Johnson used the word "soul" in her last sentence. Personally, I think she was using the word partly as a metaphor and partly because she was asked to address "anyone who is sitting in a church pew right now," so the use of religious terminology was appropriate in that context. But I often say that religion gets a lot of things right, and I think the idea of a soul is one of them.

Let me be clear: I think it's incredibly unlikely that there is any kind of life after death. I don't believe that there is some kind of permanent part of us that is endowed by a deity. 

However, there is the essence of a person. That thing that is not my brain and not my body: the me that metacognates. I know it's not a real thing--it's generated by the chemicals in my brain. But I also know that it is real in my experience of myself and my experience of those I love. It's the thing that makes each of us who we are, different from everyone else. It's the part of my husband that I love all the time, even when his body and his brain are pissing me off. Although I know it's only a concept, it's a concept worth talking about, from time to time, and when we talk about it, we need a word for it. "Soul" is a long-established term for just that thing, and it comes in handy. Because the rest of this paragraph makes very little sense.

And there's another thing. My mother, whose relationship to religion is very confusing so I won't try to explain it here, told me a story that made me wonder about all of this. When my grandmother died, my mother was with her. My mother reports that Nana's last breath was peaceful, and exactly like my first breath, but (obviously) backwards. My mother felt in that moment that death was completely natural. She also says that there is no question in her mind that her mother left the room at that moment, and that she want up.

Do I think Nana went to Heaven? Of course not. But neither do I think my mother is lying, or deluded. She is not a Christian and does not believe in Hell, so there was no interest in her believing her mother went up instead of down, or to the side. What I think is that she experienced something we can't explain. She had a sensation of some kind, and other people have experienced this same thing, and that's where the whole idea of a soul going to Heaven came from. What was it? I have no idea. But I know it brought my mother some comfort. She still had a really tough time with the idea of her mom rotting under the ground. She couldn't watch the body being lowered into the grave, and a few months after my grandmother's death I started singing that lovely childhood diddy about "the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout" and I thought my mom was going to have a panic attack.  (To be clear, I was an adult when all of this happened--there was no child abuse involved.) But she likes the idea that her mom left the room with that last breath, and I can't prove that it didn't happen.

So, to sum up: I don't believe in eternal souls that go to Heaven if we're good, but I do notice that each of us has an essence of some kind and I think "soul" is a useful term for it. Lay off the poor woman.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Another kind of homework

Last week, in my capacity as a Religious School teacher, I went to a conference on teaching children with learning disabilities. The keynote speaker was Jonathan Mooney, and each attendee was given a copy of his latest book, The Short Bus. Mooney was such a compelling speaker that I decided his book would be my next read.

The Short Bus is a memoir about a trip Mooney took around the country, driving a "short bus" emblematic of the buses that drive Special Ed students to school, and visiting children and adults who are labeled with various learning disabilities. Interspersed with that story are Mooney's reflections on his own childhood and school experiences.

The central question of Mooney's discourse is whether labeling children helps or hurts them, whether school is adequately preparing kids for life, and whether the benefits these kids get from school is worth the price they pay for dealing with the labels. It struck me that this is at heart a Humanist question.

What do we owe our children?

Humanism would dictate that we owe them all an equal opportunity at life. I suppose that is the heart of the education debate in this country. What gives a child that opportunity? For now, I will put aside issues like poverty (which is the most important educational issue of our time) because I want to react to Mooney's book. The question then is, do we need to develop each child's strengths, whatever they may be, or do we need to teach them all the same thing?

I have difficulty answering this question. On the one hand, it seems ideal to give each child confidence and expertise in his or her greatest strengths. But I am parenting an 8-year-old. I know some of her strengths: swimming, art, music, geography and communication. But what strengths does she have that haven't yet been discovered because she hasn't yet been exposed to them? And what strengths are yet to develop? And are they really strengths, or is she just developing in these areas ahead of her peers? Are her weaknesses (math, self-monitoring, gym) developmental, essential, or because she hasn't yet found the best way to learn those things? It's very hard to tell.

So I have to advocate for a generalist approach to elementary education. However, I am very glad that The Little Jewess is in a Montessori school. Montessori teaches each child individually, which means TLJ can be ahead of her peers in reading while receiving remedial help in math. She's also learning to monitor her own time and take a strategic approach to resolving differences with other children.

It's clear to me that nobody should be dehumanized in the way that the people in Mooney's book describe. But I'm not sure what the solution might be.

I look forward to reading the rest of The Short Bus to find out what ideas Mooney has.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Oh, Penn

I finished Penn Jillette's book God, No! several days ago, but I've been too angry to compose anything readable. That, and I've been watching the Olympics obsessively and trying to be a parent and hold down a job. But back to Penn.

He's a Libertarian.

That's right. A rich, able-bodied, straight, Christian-born man who's a Libertarian. Now, don't get me wrong, I realize that Penn and Teller work hard. They work really hard. And Penn, being the talker of the pair, has a lot of responsibility on his shoulders and he can take credit for all the hard work he's done. I even think it's good that they have found material success and give a great deal of the credit for that success to the two of them. But they had help. They had some good luck--that helped. The government makes television work, and cleans the streets outside of their theaters, and keeps the lights on, and keeps civilization going so that people feel safe enough to go out and see a show--all of that helped.

Oh, and they might have had a smidgeon of help from the giant ball of entitlement they're living in.

They could have been born women in Saudi Arabia, or farmers in China, or poor people in America. In some situations, nobody gives a damn how good you are at magic, or how hard you work, or how fast you can talk.

And that's why we--we, all of us, and we, Atheists--have to work together to make sure that everyone in the world has basic rights. We, Americans have to make sure that nobody in our country is starving, or going bankrupt because of medical bills, or living on the streets. I'm a Liberal because I think Government does certain things well. Sure, Government screws a lot of things up, too, and we need to fix those things, but the answer is not to get rid of it all together.

The thing that frustrates me most about Libertarians is the mental gymnastics they go through to make their points, none of which make any sense in reality. Rand Paul is always saying things like, "In a Libertarian Society, every corporation has to take responsibility for the damage and pollution it causes." That's a nice thought experiment, Rand, but in real life, lots of corporations screw over the local poor people, so I like having Government keep an eye on them.

In that vein, Penn goes through a whole floor exercise routine about libraries being nice, but he wouldn't shoot anyone for not paying for one, so he can't ask the government to collect taxes. Huh? Does that mean that people who wouldn't commit robbery shouldn't be landlords? Because taxes are what we pay to make the country work. We owe that money to the Government so that they can use it to take care of the things we all use--roads, police, schools, libraries, museums, theaters parks and so forth. It's our rent, Penn, for living in this country.

And you know what else? Inequality hurts all of us. So I want you to be a little less rich so that everyone in this country can have health care. I want you to be a little less rich so that ALL old people, not just the parents of rich magicians, can die with dignity. You spend a little less time in the hot tub with porn stars and we all get bridges that don't fall down. See how that works?

Saturday, August 4, 2012

A little light reading

I went to the library on Friday feeling like it was time for me to do more homework. After all, November is coming ever closer and I recently received a phone call from the Programming Officer of my Humanist Group asking me to send a description of my presentation and my qualifications to our group Secretary.

So I checked out some good ones: The Portable Atheist and Religion for Atheists (which I'm determined to read all the way through this time.) But while searching for "atheist" in the catalogue, I came across God, No! by Penn Jillette. I'm a big Penn and Teller fan, and I've been meaning to read this book for a while, so I decided it would be more fun to start with this one and move into the more serious discourse after that.

I'm almost half-way through, and I have some really mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, Penn is funny, and I am really enjoying his 10 Suggestions. On the other hand, he swears way too much, and in the most vulgar way, and he appears to be a misogynist. Oh, sure, there are some women he seems to respect--his mother, his wife, and the lesbian minister who didn't ask his family to return to the church when they left--but in general, he seems to think that women were placed on this earth (or evolved, I suppose) for his personal sexual enjoyment.

Also, Penn is most certainly a Christian Atheist. He said, "I don't understand atheists who claim to also be Jewish. ...I hear hard-core atheists claim that they are Jewish because their moms were Jewish. That's not a genetic rule, that's a religious rule, and if you're not religious, you don't follow religious rules." (P. 33) That, my friends, is a Christian view of religion if I ever heard one.

I don't believe in God. I do believe in religion. There are many, many things I like about Judaism and being Jewish. I believe that Judaism was created by people and is maintained by people. I believe everything in it should be open for interpretation. But there's a lot about it that is very sensible and the structure of it is helpful in many ways. And Judaism has always been about questioning and interpreting. That's why I think the Hasidim are wrong. Somewhere along the line, they stopped questioning, and started imitating. They closed themselves off from the world. I don't think that's real Judaism, and when I believed in God I didn't think that was what God intended us to do.

But I have the freedom to make these distinctions because I was born a Jew. As a Jew, nobody ever asks you what you believe, they ask what you do. "Do you keep kosher? Do you keep Shabbat? Do you daven after dinner?" are all acceptable questions for a Jew to ask another Jew. But nobody ever asks about beliefs. And there is no creed, so we are not asked to promise to believe in anything. So Jewish Atheists do not see a clear and solid demarcation between belief and non belief. Some people keep kosher and don't believe in God. Others believe firmly in God but sit in mixed-gender seating. Your typical Orthodox Jew would be more comfortable with the kosher non-believer than the believing mixed-gender-sitter.

Christians, on the other hand, recite their creed every Sunday. It is a fact that a person who does not believe Jesus is the son of God is not truly a Christian. So for them, Atheism is a much brighter line. Becoming Atheist means that one is no longer a Christian. It all goes out the window in one fell swoop. But let's face it: there are plenty of Atheists who don't eat bacon. There's nothing about Atheism that requires the mixing of milk and meat, or working on Saturday, or eating bread in the springtime. And discussing Biblical passages with Atheists is downright fun.

So, Penn Jillette, why should I stop? Because it doesn't make sense? Of course it doesn't. But I'm Jewish, and not only does my being Jewish not hurt anyone, I teach kids to be skeptical about Jewish teachings and to participate in social justice activities. Objectively, these are good things. So no, Penn, I won't bend to your Christian definition of religion, no matter how hard you argue that it's really free thought. I'm not going to fit into the box you want to put me in. I grew up with a different set of boxes.

Friday, August 3, 2012

You think?

I saw a bumper sticker today that read, "God is pro-life." If that's the case, He should really lay off the smiting.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Worldwide Secular Celebration

Well, this is it--the biggest secular celebration of humanity that we have. The dream is peaceful competition among nations. The reality is a spectacle of the human body being pushed to its limits in every way imaginable. It comes down to courage, focus and execution. And the best human wins.

I love the Olympics. I've always loved the Olympics. I love watching sports that I never think about when the Olympics aren't on. I love watching people push themselves and achieve their best performances ever on the biggest stage in the world. I love the fact that almost everyone practices good sportsmanship. I love everything about it.

But now that I've realized I'm a Humanist, I think I love it even more. The Olympics is a time when the whole world comes together to celebrate humanity. How many times during the broadcast do we hear the phrase, "Human spirit?" Olympians may or may not trust in god, but they don't rely on that--they prepare, they train, and they come together with other people, whether it's teammates, coaches, family, or the support of national fans. Maybe Olympians are praying before every performance, but we don't see that. Every commercial during the Olympics focuses on the fact that nobody gets to the Olympics alone. And so we are reminded of our connectedness, and of our potential.

We need more secular ways to celebrate and to come together as a community.

Here's one.

Monday, July 23, 2012

More about post-its

I tried two meditations today. First, a walking meditation with the dog, focusing on the word "gratitude," then a more traditional meditation lying on the floor using the word "peace" every time I exhaled. I wouldn't call either a success, but I'll give myself some points for a good start.

The walking meditation might not work with the dog. I couldn't walk slowly, one step per breath, because the dog requires brisk walking. He also requires me to stop from time to time. However, while my brain was full of stray thoughts--mosquitos! No, dog, you can't go into the street. Ooh! I can blog about this later!--at least some of my thoughts were about gratitude. Maybe a couple more than I would normally think, so that's something. And I did notice that I was less annoyed by the lawn mower in the park than I usually am. Maybe that was because I was focusing on gratitude instead of how annoying everything is.

The second meditation worked better, and I only stopped (I made it 12 minutes!) because I was feeling a cramp coming on in my left shoulder, and I've had a headache in that shoulder for the past two days and I felt I shouldn't push it. (Yes, a headache in my shoulder. Either you understand that or you don't. Suffice it to say, it's unpleasant and not something one courts.) I didn't feel transcendent or anything, but I did reach a nice state of relaxation that remained even after I got up and started to peruse the internet, until the dog heard the garbage truck and started barking like only a terrier/hound mix can. In fact, I didn't realize how relaxed I was until I was so suddenly surprised out of that state.

I know my choice of "gratitude" for a focus word was brought on by The Little Jewess. She was angry this morning, and in a fit of typical suburban-kid rage, she screamed, "There's nothing good at my house anyway!" Now of course, being American, my child is practically drowning in stuff. And so while I was walking and trying to think about gratitude, I also started thinking about what kind of post-its I'd like to have in my life, and what would be good for my family. I thought I could make a list here and then I can start thinking about what the post-its would look like.

My biggest problem in life is Depression and Anxiety with a side order of OCD. I take meds, but some spiritual practice and regular exercise are known to help as well. So mainly, I'd like my post-its to be things that take me outside of myself while helping me care for my body.

The things I'd like to increase in my life are:

  • Peace
  • Gratitude
  • Love
  • Relaxation
  • Forgiveness
  • Tolerance
  • Trust
  • Community

I think that's enough to be going on with. Now I need a new homework assignment: something that will help me to find out what other Humanists are doing to increase these things in their lives.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

What are your post-its?

I've been fascinated by Eric Weiner's idea of religion being a series of "post-its for the brain." If good religion reminds us to be better people--calmer, more generous, kinder, and more focused--then how can this translate to the non-religious? What kind of "post-its" are appropriate for someone who doesn't believe in god?

As I discussed in a previous post, prayer is one that works for me, even without god. One other thing that works for me is my pets. At present, we have three pets: a dog, a cat, and a gerbil. I try to spend time with each of them every day, doing what he or she likes best. I walk, hike or train with my dog, relax with and stroke the cat, and for now, just hold the gerbil and try to be calm so as not to scare him (he's new.)

Each pet affects me in a different way. The dog encourages exercise and releases a sense of love in my heart when I look into his affectionate gaze. The cat helps me to relax. In fact, if I wake up in the night after a particularly bad dream, I love to touch the cat. Feeling her complete relaxation helps me to relax my own body and mind in a way that nothing else can. When my previous cat died I was in an agony of grief--I had adopted her right after college and bonded with her in a way that I don't think I ever will bond with a pet again, as she was with me through big changes in my life. One of the things that was most difficult about losing that cat was that I didn't have her there to comfort me in my loss. Sure, I had people around me, and a dog, but cats have the ability to relax their bodies totally, and I have always found that touching one can help me achieve a similar, if inferior, state of relaxation. And as I get to know the gerbil I have to focus on him in a way that I don't usually focus. I don't know much about gerbils as I never lived with one before, and so I'm trying to learn about gerbilness at the same time as I get to know this gerbil in particular. In order for him to gain trust in me I have to be perfectly calm when I'm around him and I find that I'm able to do that in spite of what goes on around me: the Little Jewess panicking because he tickled her hands and she's not sure she can hold him, seeds falling everywhere, the cat sneaking into the room where the gerbil lives, or whatever.

Animals have always responded well to me. They tend to trust me. I think this has something to do with a state that I enter when I'm trying to connect with an animal. It's a state of calm in which I forget my problems because I'm focused on the animal. When I'm with the dog, I do doggy things. I don't act like a dog, but I do thinks that interest him--walk, play fetch, sleep on the couch--and living in dog time separates me from my problems. Dogs don't worry about money, or whether they're raising their kids correctly, or whether there's a god. Dogs just worry about what they need right now, and once they've got it, they stop worrying. I'd like to be more like that, and when I'm with my dog, or my cat, or my gerbil, I am.

So for me, pets can serve as a post-it for the brain. A reminder to chill out, spend time taking care of my body, and not worry about the other stuff. And when I am worried, they help me by being a warm body to cuddle with. Pets are a source of pure love.

What are your post-its?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Man Seeks God

I recommend Man Seeks God, by Eric Weiner. It's a really interesting memoir about a man who searches around the world for something he's missing. In the book, Weiner explores eight different religions (although mainly the mystical branches of these religions) in an effort to "find his God." In the end, he concludes that his premise was wrong, but he's much more comfortable with religion, specifically Judaism, than he was at the beginning.

He comes to Judaism (his family's faith) through Kabbalah, which he studies in Tsfat in Israel. I find Kabbalah fascinating because it is an individual approach to Judaism, but I can't subscribe to it myself because its focus is a direct connection to God. However, some of Weiner's conclusions about Judaism really resonated with me. For example, he points out that because Judaism is so old and has survived so much, it is flexible. That so much of Judaism involves questioning and challenging, not subscribing to a creed. I think this is why so many famous scientists have been Jewish.

He also points out that if people like him (and me) leave Judaism, then the only people left will be the ones who focus on doctrine to the exclusion of everything else. And he emphasizes again and again that "Truth is what works."

So even as I take the first step towards becoming a Humanist Celebrant, I am comfortable remaining a Jew, a Religious School Teacher, and an active member of a Reform Congregation.

So many things in religion are what Weiner describes as "post-it notes for the soul--" things that remind you to pay attention, to help others, to take care of yourself. These things are good even without God (and without a soul, even.) And recently, while listening to a podcast about money, it occurred to me that if money only works because we believe in it, maybe other things can be evaluated the same way. Sure, I understand that the paper in my wallet has no intrinsic value, but I believe in it because thousands of times in my life I have handed it to someone and gotten stuff in return.

Prayer works for me, too. I never believed in prayer really. I didn't think that if I prayed for something, God would do it. But prayer has always worked for me. I love the ritual and community experience of services. I like the way it feels in my body and the way it focuses my mind. I like learning something new as my focus changes because of the vocabulary I've been teaching at school or the experiences I've had that week. And silent prayer is a chance to list the things I want for myself--peace, generosity of spirit, the ability to forgive. I think that meditating on these things is a useful task, even though nobody else is listening. Focusing my attention on the ways I want to improve has to be a good use of time. So in that way, it works. So why not?

And there's something to be said for participating in rituals that have supported my ancestors for thousands of years. Sure, I understand them in a different way, but I understand freedom in a different way from the Founding Fathers, and I still consider myself an American. I am a Jew. I can't run away from that, whatever I do. Humanistic Judaism doesn't seem like the place for me, so like Weiner, I'm going to have to find my own path.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Response to "An Atheists Prayer"

I just read this article on Parenting Beyond Belief--an excellent blog, which is linked at the right. This article is an excellent example of the kind of thing I want to talk about--atheists incorporating prayer into daily life.

Another thing that religion often does well is gratitude. It's one of the things I've always liked about going to services, especially when I can go to a weekday morning service (there isn't one available in my current congregation, so it's been a while for me.) I like the Jewish morning prayer because it's a list of things for which one is to be grateful. I dislike it for many reasons, but I'm not going to go into that now. It's good to be reminded, even in godly terms, that I am free, that my body works, that I'm glad I woke up this morning.

I like the ritual in Liz James's family of expressing gratitude before dinner. Taking time to be grateful for what we have can make us happier. Reminding our children of their privilege is a good thing, too. There are people in this world who don't have food or a table or a house to put it in, and before we get into the inevitable complaints of the day that come during dinner, it's a good idea to remember that we're better off than most people in the world.

And we don't need a supernatural eavesdropper to make it good.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Are religious people less angry?

I've been working on my summer homework, reading Man Seeks God by Eric Weiner. In chapter 2 (on Buddhism) Weiner states that the religious people he's been meeting all say that they're less angry and more peaceful since beginning religious practice.* That got me wondering. Clearly it's an anecdote, not a statistic, but the people Weiner discusses in the first two chapters are Sufi Mystics and Buddhists. Both traditions focus on meditation, circling, repetition, and communion with a greater power (Allah for Sufis and everything for Buddhists.) It stands to reason that spending time each day working on becoming calm, or working on focusing the body in motion (as Whirling Dervishes do) might help to reduce stress. And I wonder how much the surrender also helps. Recognizing a higher power is Step 2 in Alcoholics Anonymous, after all.

So the question is, is this one of the things religion does well that Humanists could adopt and adapt, or is it really god entering into the equation? The Humanist Community Project at Harvard has developed a meditation group (I'll have to cite that later, because their website doesn't seem to be working at the moment, but take my word for it for now) and I found this version of the twelve steps by Googling "Atheist Twelve Step Program."

I'm wondering how many Humanists out there are practicing some kind of meditation. Buddhists don't believe in god per se, but the whole interconnectedness of all beings thing is more or less beyond our ability to prove scientifically, and reincarnation is definitely beyond belief. On the other hand, Weiner tries out (also in chapter 2) imagining that everyone he sees was his mother in a past life, and finds that he is less judgmental and more forgiving to the people around him, and this relaxes him a bit. Is that useful as an exercise, even if we don't actually believe it, or does one have to accept reincarnation to practice that particular exercise? Is being less judgmental and more forgiving a good goal for Humanism? What about being less angry? It seems to me that a particular group of Humanists could set goals like this and work toward them as a group, and that might form a good community for those who wanted it. Good without God, and all that...


*I think I remember this is on Page 76, but I might be wrong. Anyway, Weiner said it, and it's in Chapter 2 of his book, and this isn't a scholarly article, so I'm deciding that's attribution enough. If Eric Weiner wants to leave a complaint in the comments, I'll be happy to add a proper citation at a later date.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Are Religious People Healthier?

I've been thinking a lot about this guy since yesterday. Obviously, his argument (that religion makes you healthier so Atheists should pay a tax penalty for not going to church) is ridiculous. But I do believe that people who belong to things (clubs, neighborhoods, organizations and yes, churches) are healthier. I don't think this has anything to do with God, but I know from my work in public health that one of the things we look for in our studies is connectedness. We ask questions like

Is there someone who could look after your children for 20 minutes if you needed them to?
Is there someone who would check on you a few times a day if you were sick in bed?
Is there someone who could help you find new housing if you needed to move?

All of these things relate directly to health. People avoid going to the doctor if they can't find someone to watch their kids. They get sicker if nobody brings them chicken soup. They stay in unsafe housing if they don't know where else to go.

Does it matter if they know these people from the neighborhood or from church? Not really. But your congregation is more likely to get together to bring you food when you're recovering from surgery, or to visit you after a death in the family, than your neighbors. Your clergy person has special visitation rights in the hospital.

This is one of the issues I plan to bring up in my presentation on secular religion. Because I think that these are issues Atheists need to deal with. Caring for others in the community is something Religion does well, particularly in our current society where most of us don't live in small towns where everyone knows each other's business. My congregation has a Caring Community whose job it is to make sure that people in distress get visits from community members, a few meals if they need it, and they keep the Rabbi updated if someone wants a visit from her. There's no reason a Humanist community can't do the same for its members.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Summer Homework

It's about time I got started on my presentation. I'm not presenting until November, but there's a good deal of research involved and a lot out there to read, so I've decided to assign myself some summer reading.

First up: Man Seeks God, by Eric Weiner.

Anyone want to read with me?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

On Dan Savage and Christian teenagers

This week, Dan Savage had an unfortunate encounter with some Christian teenagers that blew up all over the press. I first heard of it when I read Savage's apology on his blog. But I wasn't fully pleased with his apology.

On the one hand, he apologizes for calling the teens "pansy-assed." That part I can accept. He was giving a speech, there was a walk-out, and he reacted. In the moment, he said something he regretted, and he apologized. And given that he was speaking about Christians using the Bible to bully gay people, and there were Christians walking out on him and refusing to engage on the topic, one can forgive him (since he apologized) for having a bit of an emotional reaction.

But "bullshit" was stupid. Saying the sentence "We can ignore the bullshit in the Bible," was utterly ridiculous and foolish and Savage should have known better. And THAT line was in his speech.

Savage was speaking to a group of teenagers who work on their school papers. For most of these kids, that means they were on a more-or-less required field trip. It's not the same as a trip required for a class, but some schools with competitive papers will make attendance at this kind of conference a requirement for students who want top Editing positions, and for many kids this is an opportunity to network and to learn in a way that is usually only available to adults. (I should probably disclose that Mr. Jewess is the advisor to his school's paper and took his editors to a similar conference earlier in the year and was himself invited to bring students to the conference in question.) So I don't think it's reasonable for Savage to even use the word "bullshit" in his keynote address. To me, that feels like bullying, a bit. There he is, the featured adult at a conference for high school students, using a word that is still shocking for some, and using it to describe a text that is sacred to many. There was no call for that. In fact, Savage himself linked to an article he wrote making the same argument he made in his speech which does not use that word. This was not an appropriate venue for foul language and these were presumably not comments made in the heat of the moment, but a keynote address which was prepared in advance.

I want to be very clear here. Nothing about Savage's argument constitutes bullying. It is fine to argue about the Bible with anyone at all, as long as one is actually using the text to support one's arguments (which he did.) Religious people should not feel threatened because someone points out inconsistencies in their practice. In fact, it is a religious person's obligation to wrestle with these inconsistencies. I am only criticizing his choice to use foul language.

Additionally, Savage advocates for Marriage Equality, for sexual freedom, for Planned Parenthood, against bullying of gay teens, for women's rights and for contraception. He has crossed swords with the Christian right before. So he had to realize that they would be paying attention when he made a speech about bullying to a convention of high school students from around the country. "We can ignore the bullshit in the Bible" is a sound bite that can be easily misunderstood by those who would make Savage out as a villain and he should have known better than to hand them that kind of ammunition. Again, this was a speech. He should plan these things ahead of time.

I take Savage's point. He's totally right that believers who ignore what the Bible says about lobster and slavery can also ignore what it says about homosexuality. He's not actually arguing against religion--he's offering a path to reconciliation. The suggestion is that religion accepts that homosexuality is an orientation and then puts the same restrictions on homosexuals that it does on heterosexuals.

But Dan Savage handled this situation badly and that's why it blew up in his face.

Saturday, April 28, 2012


The religious are sure making it easy to be a Humanist this week. Ross Douthat is plugging his book Bad Religion, in which he argues that Orthodoxy is good and Christianity had a better influence on us in 1957 than it does today. The Supreme Court may invalidate Health Care Reform and uphold Arizona's immigration law, Dan Savage's excellent monologue about his relationship to Catholicism was replayed on This American Life, and now Paul Ryan says that the Pope says that governments shouldn't help the poor.

Maybe I'm confusing "right" and "left" with "religious" and "humanist." But it's hard not to, when Republicans keep citing religion in the War on Women and Douthat thinks Christianity should have more influence over modern culture. (Actually, I think I probably agree with Douthat's politics more than I disagree. What bothers me about Douthat is his relationship to minority religions.)

I should probably unpack that comment. Douthat is arguing that the US is mainly a Christian nation (true) in the sense that Christianity has more influence than any other religion. He's also arguing that when Churches were the center of town life, the country was a better place. Not perfect, not Camelot, and not without major and even tragic problems, but better. What he doesn't seem to get about that is that segregation was integral to that model. Churches are inherently segregated. Because of the history of our country, African American religion evolved separately from White religion, but that's not even what I'm talking about.

If religion is the center of our society, then we are all divided by our religions, and the atheists have no community. Everyone is then trapped by their social structure into a particular religion, and there is mistrust between the religions because there is little or no social mixing. How is that good? One could argue that the centrality of churches to the social order in the 1950's is part of what gave rise to the social uprisings of the 1960's. In order to fight the political fight, the young people needed to separate themselves from their elders, and the only way to do that was to reject religion, which gave rise to free love and experimentation with Eastern religions--religions that had not ever ruled in the structure of American society.

On to Paul Ryan and the Pope (although you should check out Savage's monologue--it's beautiful.) Oh, I can't get beyond "Yech." Here. Read this and if you don't "Yech," too, explain to me what I'm missing.

I just don't want to be associated with these people in any way. Except Savage. He's cool.

Saturday, April 21, 2012


I'm thinking about writing something a bit more substantive. It would be a way to force myself to do more research and I might get a chance to present it, hopefully to the Humanist group I belong to and maybe somewhere else.

The thing I'm most interested in is the current movement within Humanism to incorporate or create secular rituals. Right now, I'm thinking it would include:

* Humanistic Judaism
*The work of Greg Epstein
*Religion for Atheists

Any suggestions for additional topics and/or references would be most appreciated.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The need to coalesce

This morning, Mr. Jewess and I went to our local Humanist meeting. Before the main presenter, there was a brief discussion about the Reason Rally and subsequent Atheist Symposium that happened a few weeks ago. While I was pleased to find that some locals had been to the event, I was rather shocked at the ignorance of the Humanist Movement expressed by the members. Here are a few quotes from the discussion, with my annotations:

"Dawkins seems to have mellowed a bit. He was less anti-religion than he can be."

Excellent! In order to achieve anything, we have to work with reasonable religionists. There are plenty of people who consider themselves religious and yet work for the dignity of humanity. Those people are our allies, and the more we argue with them about transubstantiation (or whatever) the less time we have to work for peace, justice and equality.

"There were some ministers and priests who came out as atheists. There is a fund to help them for six months because they find themselves without work when they come out. What kind of work can they do?"

How about ministering? They could help people develop life cycle events, counsel people in crisis, organize communities, help the poor, explain ethical dilemmas, comfort the sick, and teach children. We all need people to do these things, whether or not we believe in god. And to tell the truth, they can probably get jobs teaching religion, too. Most denominations require at least the equivalent of a Master's Degree for ordination, and most colleges and universities would not consider atheism a problem.

"There was an atheist rabbi? How can you be an atheist and a rabbi?"

Mr. Jewess chalks this one up to a lack of understanding about Judaism. Of course, Christians have a creed, so you can't be a Priest and an atheist. But "Rabbi" just means "teacher" and there's no creed in Judaism, so there's really no reason you can't be a rabbi and an atheist, even without Humanistic Judaism. (Although it WOULD be reasonable for a congregation to require a rabbi to believe in god, if they're into that sort of thing.) But I suspect the rabbi they were talking about is Miriam Jerris, who is ordained in the Humanist Movement.

This conversation got me thinking. Clearly, this group is not well-informed about the movement within Humanism to develop religious-style practice. They seem to be more of the philosophy that learning in community replaces prayer in community. And I suppose it can to some extent, but not completely. For example, what will happen when these people die? Do they plan to have funerals? If not, how will their families mark the loss? And if so, who will lead the service and what will it be like? Humanists need life-cycle events as much as anyone else. So I think what I want to do is to make a presentation to the group about the call for ritual within Humanism, and the various ways people are studying this idea and pursuing it. Maybe I can get them to consider adding some ritual elements to the group, or expanding to a second group that discusses religion and ethics. Really, there are lots of areas that religious institutions fill in people's lives that a Humanist organization could fill--charity work, artistic expression, cross-cultural experiences, and community meals are just a few. I wonder if this group could grow into any of those areas.

I think it will be fun to find out.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Hunger Games, Religion, and Women (or not)

After finishing Mockingjay, I read Slate's Book Club on the topic. There was much discussion of the ending and the violence, of course, but they also mentioned two ideas that got me thinking about Humanism again.

1) Panem is almost perfectly egalitarian. Women and men have equal chance to be good, evil, vacuous, creative, President, and killed in the Arena. (Although I don't think women work in the mines.)

2) Katniss is weirdly virginal. As a person so in touch with sensation, in such a heightened dramatic situation, and an adolescent, wouldn't she be sexually adventurous?

The first got me thinking about the lack of religion in the books again. Religion is one of the primary tools men have used to oppress women throughout history. After all, if it's all about the afterlife, it doesn't matter that you can't do anything in this life, right? It's one of the few ways we can see that Panem may have come from the world we know now. After the devastation of global warming and the wars, the people left decided that the new society would have complete equality and no religion. And things devolved from there.

However, I have to disagree with the statement about equality. Yes, there are women in power, and in the Capitol, it seems there is a kind of equality. There is also equality in the Reaping and the Hunger Games. However, in District 12, we see women in very traditional roles--raising children, helping in the bakery, and so forth. Greasy Sae seems to be the only woman who works in the Hob, and she is a cook.

Item number 2 I kind of disagree with. The main focus of the book seems to be an exploration of Katniss and the effects of trauma on a very strong human being. At the beginning of the book, we see Katniss beginning to emerge from post-traumatic stress that was a result of the sudden death of her father and subsequent depression of her mother. She has learned to take care of her family, they are surviving, and as her mother emerges from her depression, Katniss is aware of the fact that she is shutting her mother out emotionally, which is the first step to eventually forgiving her mother and moving on. In order to cope with the stress she has been under, she has shut herself off emotionally from everyone except Prim, and kept her distance from everyone except Gale. But she is reaching the point where recovery and a normal life are possible when the Games intervene.

Still, this history has prevented her normal adolescent development. She didn't spend her teenage years ogling boys with her girlfriends, trying on different outfits and reading romance novels. She spent them hunting with Gale and trading in the Hob and making sure every waking moment was dedicated to taking care of her family. So when boys start admiring her in her new dresses and she starts kissing Peeta, her feelings surprise and confuse her. This is underscored at the beginning of the Quarter Quell when the various Victors tease Katniss (Finnick with his flirting, Joanna stripping naked, etc.) Peeta sees this teasing for what it is, but Katniss is completely overwhelmed by it. This suggests that Peeta's sexual development has taken a more normal course (although he's remarkably self-possessed at 17) whereas Katniss is stunted. This is all augmented by Katniss's extreme fear of having children because any children she has will be under threat of the Reaping.

What is not addressed is how women achieved their remarkable equality in Panem. Women in District 12 do not seem to enjoy that liberty--we see women staying home while men work in the mines, or helping in stores (as in Peeta's family.) However, in the Capitol there is more equality.

Darn it. I started out intending to write about the fact that only a religionless and sexless society seems to be able to produce total equality of the sexes, and I have talked myself out of the equality part and the sexless part.

One wonders, then, how the society functions without religion. Most dystopian fiction contains some kind of cultural ritual, be it explicitly religious or shockingly secular. But in this world, the only ritual they seem to have is the Hunger Games. How, then, do the people in the Capitol justify their lifestyle? They know, from watching the Hunger Games, how different life is in the Districts. It is stated in Mockingjay that they have trouble recruiting people from the Capitol to become Peacekeepers because they don't want to live in the Districts. Without religion telling them that they are better than the District citizens, how do they live with themselves? Sure, there are those (like Katniss's prep team) who don't think about anything, but what about normal people? What holds them together as a community? What makes them feel that they should be loyal to the President, or the Capitol?

One reason I think people are unsatisfied with the trilogy is that they want to know more about Panem: how it works, what rituals it has, and why it functions. I think the people who are unsatisfied with the ending are looking for one of two things: a happy resolution (which is impossible) or a description of the political situation post-revolution. But Collins isn't interested in Panem, particularly. She is exploring the psyche of an adolescent girl whose world is destroyed piece by piece but who survives. That's why the ending is so quick and so anticlimactic. Because once the Capitol is done with Katniss, Katniss begins to heal, and Collins loses interest. Her only point after that is that Katniss never recovers completely, and the rest of her life is framed by her participation in the Hunger Games and the Revolution. The world doesn't really change because people don't really change, but Katniss changes enough that she is able to have children, and mostly enjoy them.

Now I talked myself out of the only bit I had left. We don't know about the rituals of Panem because Collins was only interested in setting up a world where Katniss could be destroyed.

I really liked the books, though, because it's a fascinating character study. While there are choices I would have preferred (the real Peeta in book 3, for example, would have been more interesting in a lot of ways) Collins always takes away the one thing Katniss is counting on, and Peeta's love is an important piece. It's a really interesting thought exercise.

But I'm afraid it has nothing to do with Humanism.

Oh, well. On Saturday I'm going to a meeting of my local Humanist group. Maybe I'll have something relevant then. In the meantime, feel free to argue with me about The Hunger Games.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Humanist Passover

This is one of those times of year when my Humanism is tested. I am keeping my house kosher for Passover (as much as I ever did) and we attended two seders. It's Easter today, and my Christian friends are posting all manner of glory on Facebook. And The Little Jewess is eight years old and when she has her cranky moments (she's just been sick and we've had a busy weekend, so they have been more frequent than usual this week) she asks me, "WHY do we have to have a seder? WHY can't I eat bread?"


I'm really glad I had those discussions with David.

Because I think it comes down to the story. The story of Passover tells us a lot about Jewish values, and it tells us a lot about who we are as a culture.

WHY do I have to say the Four Questions?!

I think it's essential that it says in the Torah that we should tell the story when our children ask us why we celebrate the holiday. We are a culture that values the curiosity and education of children. And this is a big part of why we have flourished when some other minorities have not. Because whatever happens that uproots one generation, we make sure the next generation has the tools to succeed. In the darkest points of history, when knowledge was despised by many, Jewish children learned to read, and to count, and to think. And we're still here.

The seder is another matter. We went to the second seder because we love that part of my family. My cousin invites us every year and we have a great time. It's also not a majorly religious event--my cousin's seder takes about 20 minutes, tops, and then it's just an enjoyable afternoon (yes, afternoon--I said it wasn't majorly religious) with lovely people and good food.

The first seder we hosted. I can't let a first night go by without a seder--I'm not sure why that is. But I have been working for several years on writing my own service, and it gets more Humanist every year. This year I took out the translations of the blessings and replaced them with Humanist blessings. I'm not sure I can take out the religious parts of the Hebrew, though, because parts of my family would object. We also read the entire Passover story from Exodus, which leads to much interesting discussion. I much prefer reading the story from Exodus to the commentary which is more traditional. So many people don't know the details of the story, and we forget them from year to year. But it's our story, and we should know it well.

But why not eat bread? I certainly don't believe that we'd be cast out of the community of Israel if we eat wheat during Passover. (This blog seems like a more serious crime if we're going to be cast out.) But I sort of like the rhythm of it. That first piece of pizza I eat at the end of Passover is the second best food I eat all year (after the first bite of bagel at the end of Yom Kippur.)

Here I go again, petering out at the end of a post. The fact is, I don't know why it matters to me that I don't eat bread on Passover, but it does. Does everything I do have to make sense?

A previous post on Passover is here.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Hunger Games and secular religion

Like everyone else in the country who hadn't already, I've just finished reading The Hunger Games. If you haven't read it, you should probably skip this post, because there will be spoilers. Also, I'm going to assume that you've read the book, because I'm still reacting to it myself and don't have the capacity to explain plot points right now.

The Hunger Games isn't presented as an element of religion, but in many ways it is. There is ceremony, and ritual. There are people with supreme power who make the rules, and people who need to follow them. The children sent to fight are called "tributes." There is the randomness of fate, and the communal element of watching something as a nation. The reaction to the games is presented as binary in the book: those in the Capitol love it, and see no humanity in the competitors (except for a few residents whom we get to know a bit better.) Those in the Districts see it for what it is: a hopeless bloodbath set up to keep them in their places.

But of course, that reaction is unlikely. Many in the Capitol would dislike the games and do small things to disrupt them: it's one motivation for being a sponsor, and it is clearly Cinna's motivation in asking for District 12 and everything he does for Katniss from then on. Anyone with a fair dose of brains and compassion would find enjoyment of the Games difficult; even if one had never met anyone from the Districts and thought of them as less than fully human, the barbarism of the Games must be clear.

Conversely, there would be those in the Districts who enjoyed the Games. Clearly not the families of the Tributes, but others. Some of these others would be people who were somehow unaffected by the games: single adults who couldn't themselves be called, who had never been called and who perhaps disliked all of the people their age who had been called. But there would also be some in the Districts who believed themselves superior. It can't be helped--it's human nature. And some people would develop superstitions and rituals to keep themselves safe. There would be some kind of underground religion (a pity that Collins didn't think of this, as it would add a wonderful layer to the world of the book) that people followed, believing that it protected them and their loved ones from the Games. This would be more like Christianity than the secular "religion" of the Games, and would rely on a deity and a complex system of sin and reward that would account for the randomness of the system the Capitol has put into place. As a result of that, these people would believe that those in the Games had sinned somehow, and this belief would free them to see the Games in the same way that those in the Capitol do--as a sport to watch and gamble over.

In all of this, though, there are positive elements of secular religion to be found in The Hunger Games. Katniss is comforted throughout the book by her familiarity with the rituals of the Games. She knows what to expect, and she understands and anticipates the audience reaction to every moment of the process.  She is pleased to speak to Flickerman because he is the friendly face of the Games, and she again knows what to expect from him. Every item she encounters in the arena has a special significance, from the birds to the food to the horrible creatures sent to kill her. Each thing sets off an emotion in Katniss in a special way that only really good symbols and rituals can.

So what can we take from this? Surely there is nothing to emulate in Panem. Setting the residents against one another is the worst kind of politics, and there is no glimmer of human dignity in the Games or the Capitol. But what if those elements--the songs, the rituals, the food, the symbols--could be used to harness the power of people and advance the cause of dignity around the world? What then? Is it even possible? And how would we begin?

Monday, March 26, 2012

We need to work harder

I'm really enjoying all the media coverage that atheism is getting in the wake of the Reason Rally. One thing that has jumped out at me is the old debate about whether or not atheists should proselytize. How aggressive should we be? It turns out it's not just me who is put off by Dawkins and Hitchens (of blessed memory) and the more aggressive sorts.

I guess to me, that's part of Humanism. If I'm in favor of human dignity, how does telling someone they're stupid for believing in God increase that person's dignity, or mine? There are so many reasons that people are religious, and most of them are helpful--community, tradition, family, charity, philosophy, etc.

It also has to do with why we need a Humanist religion. If we make something that's attractive and vibrant and satisfying, then it will grow on its own. And we can do that. It's just a matter of time and effort.

I just got a copy of Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton. I'm looking forward to seeing what he has to say about the importance of ritual in our lives.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Maybe I've already found it...

There has been a tragic death in my community. A husband and father in his 40's died suddenly this week. His wife is a teacher at The Little Jewess's school, one of his daughters is a student and the other is an alumna.

I barely know this teacher, and I don't know her daughters. But I am proud to be a member of this community. And maybe this is how Humanist communities work.

Tomorrow there will be a visitation and service at a funeral home, followed by a reception at the school. Today, people were asked to volunteer to bring food to the reception. In less than three hours, the sign-up sheet was full.

I was so happy when they asked for food, because before that I didn't know what to do. My child wasn't traumatized (because she, like me, only barely knows the teacher in question, and the daughters are much older than TLJ (The Little Jewess.) So I didn't need to avail myself of the grief counselor the school made available. I thought about going to the visitation or the reception, but the family probably wouldn't recognize me and I wouldn't want them to feel awkward. I thought about sending a card, but again, what would I say? And what meaning would it have to the bereaved? I can't remember ever meeting this man.

But I can bake brownies. I like to bake brownies. And I know how necessary good dessert is when one is in mourning, as well as what a relief it is to have enough food to offer to those who visit.

In some ways, this is the ultimate in Humanist response to death. A community comes together in a completely non-religious way to support the bereaved with food, comfort, therapy and friendship. God doesn't need to enter into it. And for me, bringing food feels appropriate because it is the traditional Jewish thing to do when someone is bereaved. But of course the school community, as wonderful as it is, can not fulfill all the needs that a religious community does.

For one thing, it's transient. While I have made some friendships that I hope last for a lifetime (and so has TLJ) the community will not. I have already lost touch with people I liked whose children are much older than TLJ and who have moved on. And some day we will move on. Although I'll always feel connected to the school, it won't be a part of our regular routine forever.

And then I come back to the need for ritual. I am enormously comforted by the outpouring of support for this family, because should something this tragic happen to me, I know the community will be there for my family, too. I feel somehow a little bit safer dropping TLJ off at a place where the families respond this way to tragedy. But I don't know what to expect tomorrow. This teacher still has to find an appropriate way to honor her husband's death, and someone outside the school will have to help her with that, whether it's a religious leader or someone else. Because a school just can't be a foundational community. It has to be a school.

It's a damned good one, though.

Anyone going to the Reason Rally tomorrow?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

What's a Humanist Passover?

Being a Religious School teacher, I'm always one holiday ahead. It's our job. So even as I'm wearing my Purim costume, I'm thinking about Passover.

A few years ago I decided to write my own Haggadah. Although I had not yet heard of Humanism, I was well on my way, and I wanted a Hagaddah that would be short and simple but would foster discussion. Last year, I added the full text of the Passover story from Exodus.

This was something I'd been meaning to do for some time. Every year, I read the story to my third graders, and I learn a lot. More than that, I struggle, and the kids struggle too. There is a lot in that story that is truly frustrating. I wanted to share that frustration with those closest to me.

To me, that frustration is the essence of Judaism. We have this text, and it is our job to wrestle with it. It's not hard to find meaning in it, but no sooner do we find some than something else contradicts it. But year after year, the struggle continues.

And yet, we keep doing it, because we're Jews.

I remember my rabbi growing up used to say on Simchat Torah, when he welcomed the new Religious School students, that the Torah is the only book we love so much that we dance with it. And to me, there's value there that transcends God. This is our story. We have carried it with us--literally--through great adversity for generations. And it's not perfect. There's a lot in there that makes me angry, or confuses me, or makes me wonder who wrote this thing and why they made God the way they did. But it's my job to keep struggling, to wring every bit of wisdom I can from the story, and to pass the story along.

So I'm working on my Haggadah. It's got the traditional prayers in Hebrew with Humanist versions in English. That's partly to make my parents feel comfortable and partly because I can't quite feel comfortable changing the prayers altogether. It's got the whole story from Exodus. And it's got some good funny songs at the end.

Maybe this year I'll remember to make notes about what to change for next year.

What would you include in a Humanist seder?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

On Davy Jones and why Humanists need rituals

As you have probably heard, Davy Jones of the Monkees died suddenly on Wednesday. This may not have been a major news item for you, but I spent my early adolescence madly in love with a young Davy Jones (although Davy was no longer young--we don't need to analyze my psyche here) and so I spent the end of the week receiving condolences for the death of a man I never met.

And then I read this, from fellow Monkee Mike Nesmith:

While it is jarring, and sometimes seems unjust, or strange, this transition we call dying and death is a constant in the mortal experience that we know almost nothing about. I am of the mind that it is a transition and I carry with me a certainty of the continuity of existence. While I don’t exactly know what happens in these times, there is an ongoing sense of life that reaches in my mind out far beyond the near horizons of mortality and into the reaches of infinity.

In other words, "Don't be sad: Davy is still out there somewhere."

Now, obviously Mike Nesmith lost a friend and a former bandmate. The kind of friendship that must have formed among the four Monkees during their rocket to fame and subsequent touring, followed by the difficult on-again, off-again relationship they had professionally over the past 45 years is deeply significant. In contrast, I had a schoolgirl crush on a young man who had long since grown up, gotten married (twice, at that point) and fathered four children (all daughters, more's the pity.) I see the difference, and I realize that Mike was trying, in his way, to offer comfort to Davy's fans and to share something of himself. 

But I get to be sad, dammit. Because someone who brought me joy, and who touched my life with his art, and who made me happy with brilliance like this, is gone. And even if you believe he's in Heaven, he's not HERE. He's gone from this world, and that is a loss, and I grieve that loss. 

But this is one of those moments where not believing is a problem. Not because I want to believe that Davy is in Heaven, or with God, or will be reanimated when the Messiah comes. Precisely because I don't believe any of that. I believe that he's gone. And I recognize that those who loved him (really loved him, not fan-loved him) need the comfort that comes from words and rituals. But that doesn't mean they need God.

One of the reasons I want to get more involved with the Humanist movement is that we all need rituals, especially for important life cycle events. Birth, coming of age, marriage, death--they are all transitional periods, and they all involve a whole lot of stress. The rituals that have been developed (by people, through religion) help people through these transitions, because we need the help. But those rituals were developed by people, for people. We can have rituals that don't involve God, but do bring the comfort and assistance that people need. 

Around death, the most important thing is to honor the pain that the survivors feel. We need to support people in grief and help them through the pain so that they can return to life fully when they are ready. And that's why I was disturbed by Mike Nesmith's statement. Because through his statement of belief, he was telling me--all of us--not to grieve. And not just about Davy, but always. He's saying that death is not really loss and so we shouldn't be sad. That's not fair. 

So this is a call to action, fellow Humanists. We need to work to form communities, and to form rituals, and to make Humanism a force that will provide for people's needs without forcing God on them. For humans.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Soldiers Without Heaven

I just read this article on the blog Unreasonable Faith, which I'll be adding to the link list at right. It speaks to something very similar to my post from yesterday: the dedication to story, which has nothing to do with God.

The reasons that people enlist in the military are many. Religious faith has certainly always been one of them, since many wars have been fought for religious reasons. But the thing that drives a soldier to put himself (or herself, of course) specifically in danger is elusive and rare, and I suspect it has more to do with earthly considerations than the promise of eternal bliss. Really, this Rev. Griem is suggesting that American soldiers are the same as terrorists, motivated only by the selfishness of future gains in heaven.

I like to give our soldiers more credit than that. One can rationally examine a situation and determine that the loss of one life is better than the loss of many, and some people who come to that conclusion will follow it through to make the decision that self-sacrifice is the most ethical thing to do. I'm not saying it's easy, but wouldn't we all like to think that we'd put our own lives on the line to save, say, a trainload of children? This calculation has nothing to do with God or even legacy, though we all hope to be remembered for our selfless deeds. It's a logical, rational calculation that has at its root a deep valuation of human life. If human potential is good then it makes sense to sacrifice the life of one middle-aged woman to save the life of many children.

Likewise, it is the fight for human dignity that we hope drives our soldiers today, especially in a time where our wars have fundamentalism on one side and Democracy on the other. When our soldiers are engaged in nation-building, it is essential that they treat each person in an occupied country with dignity. And when we are trying to convince people from another religious and cultural background to change their ways, the only viable argument to make is one based on rational thinking.

So shouldn't we be evaluating military volunteers on their Humanism, rather than their spiritual health? Ask them about their understanding of the value of human life, their definition of the word "dignity" and what is the difference between the words "loyalty," "faith," and "fanaticism?"