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.

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