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?