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.