Humanistic Hanukkah

Hanukkah is a slightly challenging holiday for Humanistic Jews.

The “official story” of the holiday goes something like this: the Maccabees fought against the evil Seleucid Empire, who wanted to kill or convert all the Jews. The Maccabees prevailed and, following their victory, they held a ceremony to re-dedicate the Temple to Yahweh, the Hebrew God. There was only enough oil to light the Temple menorah for one night, and it would take eight days to make more. By a miracle, the oil that should have only enough to last for one night, lasted eight.

I always wondered why, if they knew it would take eight days to make more oil, they didn’t just wait seven days before they lit it to begin with. But it turns out that whole part of the story is made up, anyway. It was a myth created by the rabbis who wrote the Talmud, who wanted to take the focus off the Maccabees and place it on God.

The part about the Maccabees, though, is at least in some respects, true, though it’s a bit more complicated than most people realize. As this recent article in the Forward reminds us, at least some of the people the Maccabees were fighting against were actually other Jews:

“The Maccabean revolt, according to this interpretation, was not a revolt but a civil war between cosmopolitan Jews who wanted to assimilate to Greek culture and religious zealots who wanted to defend the original tradition…”

Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick also writes very compellingly about this in his piece “Chanukah: When Truth Collides with Memory”:

“I find it impossible to admire the Maccabees. In fact, my sympathies tend to lie with the Hellenizing Jews. They at least sought avenues toward tolerance and integration with the larger world culture. But even those sympathies are probably misplaced. From everything I’ve learned about them, they were also elitist jerks.”

Yet Hanukkah remains one of the most popular Jewish holidays (at least in America). To sit this one out, seems crazy.

We may want to look for inspiration elsewhere. In Judaism Beyond God, Sherwin Wine, founding rabbi of Secular Humanistic Judaism, writes about the ancient pagan origins of the holiday that would become the Jewish Festival of Lights:

“Hanukka started out with another name. Before the Maccabean triumph it was called Nayrot (Lights). It was the winter festival that celebrated the rebirth of light. At the winter solstice, darkness ceases to expand, and the day begins to grow longer. Since darkness is death and light is life, the reversal is a dramatic moment in the year.

“…Fires were lit on each of the eight days to imitate the change and to encourage nature, by suggestion, to continue its good work. Ultimately, the fires were confined in each household to a board of eight lights. The eight days and the lights were part of Jewish life long before the legend of the holy oil made its appearance.”

Light, darkness, winter, cold, fire, warmth–all of these are also themes of the holiday and all have been a part of the human story for a long time. And there may some things we can find to admire about the Maccabees–like the fact that they were willing to fight on the Sabbath after their initial defeats.

And, of course, there is the food. And the music.

Lastly, even if we find it difficult to sympathize completely with either side (the Maccabees or the Hellenistic Jews), we can recognize in this ancient story a conflict that continues to this day–a struggle within the Jewish community between cosmopolitanism and secularity on one hand versus parochialism and religiosity on the other. It’s a struggle that has become largely peaceful, but no less real with the passage of 2,000 years. And that struggle will probably always be a part of the Jewish experience.

Make America Hate Again

I’m worried.

But not primarily for myself.

Yes, I’m Jewish. Yes, there’s been a lot of antisemitic rhetoric lately.

And yes, I worry about synagogues, Jewish community centers, and other institutions becoming targets for vandalism and other crimes.

But as for me, I believe I’ll be OK.

My presentation is White male, and I don’t have a “Jewish-sounding” last name, so honestly I don’t think there’s much for me to be worried about personally.

I worry for almost everyone else though.

I worry for women, I worry for communities of color. I worry for the LGBT community. I worry for immigrants and I worry for refugees.

So what can we do?

First, I think it’s important for those of us who oppose bigotry, racism, and xenophobia to speak up. In one version of a famous quote sometimes attributed to Edmund Burke, “For bad men to accomplish their purposes it is only necessary that good men do nothing.”

Second, I’d like to echo all the inspiring “Safe Place” posts I have seen in the past two weeks. If you’re a member of a group that has been targeted by Trump and the alt-right, please know that you are not alone and that we are here for you and support you.

Third, please participate in our system in whatever ways you are able. Sign a petition. Attend a peaceful protest. Write to your member of Congress. Volunteer. Donate money to charity or other causes if you can. And in two years, when we have our next mid-term elections, make sure you turn out to vote.

I’d like to close by saying that I still believe that we are all in this together and we will get through this together. As Americans and as members of the civilized world, we are stronger than the forces of hate and intolerance and we will prevail.

A Humanistic Sukkot

My new favorite Jewish holiday is over.

Sukkot, an ancient holiday celebrating the fall harvest that later became associated with the forty years of wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt, is an eight-day celebration beginning after Yom Kippur and culminating with Simchat Torah. I didn’t build a sukkah this year, but I helped build one at my synagogue and visited another one at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine articulates a humanistic interpretation of the Sukkot in Judaism Beyond God:

From a humanistic point of view, Sukkot has special significance. Agriculture was the beginning of human civilization, a quantum jump in the human mastery of the environment. The emergence of farming some ten thousand years ago revolutionized human existence. Territorial settlements, cities, population growth, surplus wealth, and written language followed quite naturally from this technological success. It lay the foundation for the human self-confidence that led to the secular age.

To be sure, human ingenuity, economic growth, and literacy are all the kinds of developments that humanists can celebrate–yet we should not be overly sanguinic about the legacy of the agricultural revolution. Yuval Noah Harari, in his 2014 book Sapiens, argues that it probably represented a marked step backward in terms of standard of living for the average person compared with earlier hunter-gatherer communities:

Village life certainly brought the first farmers some immediate benefits, such as better protection against wild animals, rain and cold. Yet for the average person, the disadvantages probably outweighed the advantages. This is hard for people in today’s prosperous societies to appreciate…. A much more representative viewpoint is that of a three-year-old girl dying from malnutrition in first-century China because her father’s crops have failed. Would she say ‘I am dying from malnutrition, but in 2,000 years, people will have plenty to eat and live in big air-conditioned houses, so my suffering is a worthwhile sacrifice’?

There’s an ancient midrash about Abraham that before he came to know Yahweh, he saw the sun shining upon the earth and said, “surely now this sun that shines upon the earth is God.” But evening came, the sun set, and he said, “surely this cannot be God.” He then saw the moon and stars and said, “surely this is the God who created the whole earth as well as man, and behold these his servants are gods around him.” But when morning came and he once again saw the sun, as well as plants, the animals, and human beings, and other things, he said, “surely these are not gods.”

It’s a lovely story that cautions us against worshiping objects from the natural world (including ourselves), while also seeming to acknowledge the polytheistic origins of the Jewish people. At the same time, perhaps there can be nothing wrong with celebrating the beauties of nature, the legacy of our agricultural history, and the power of the human imagination to create the world we live in today. And this is what Sukkot gives us an opportunity to do.

I Hereby Forgive

I hereby forgive whoever has hurt me,
Whoever has done me any wrong,
Whether deliberately or inadvertently,
Whether by word or by deed.
May no one suffer on my account.

“As I forgive and pardon fully
Those who have wronged me,
I shall seek out those whom I have harmed
And ask them to forgive and pardon me
Whether I acted deliberately or by accident,
Whether by word or by deed.
May I not willfully repeat the wrongs that I have committed.”

I’m an Atheist (and So Are You)

fighting-godSo we are all atheists.

All of us who call ourselves humanists, agnostics, freethinkers, skeptics, nonbelievers, nones–we are all atheists.

And that’s what we should call ourselves.

At least according to David Silverman, in his book Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World.

Silverman’s definition even goes beyond that to also include many people who we might not typically think of as part of the freethought community  (presumably this would also extend to members of the Church of “Spritual, but Not Religious”):

  • If you don’t have a belief in any literal god( s), i.e., are without theism, you’re an atheist.
  • If you don’t have a belief in any literal god( s) but aren’t sure none exist, you’re an atheist.
  • If you don’t have a belief in any literal god( s) but rather think God is a metaphor for love, all humanity, etc., you’re an atheist.
  • If you don’t have a belief in any literal god( s) because you think the universe is unknowable and we can never know all the answers, you’re an atheist (and an agnostic, see below).
  • If you don’t have a belief in any literal god( s) and you feel you’re educated enough to think you can say definitively there are no god( s), you’re an atheist (a conclusionary atheist like me).
  • If you don’t have a belief in any literal god( s) but you like/ follow some religious traditions (Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or whatever) in which you were raised and maybe even agree with some of the religion’s nonsupernatural teachings (e.g., “Love thy neighbor”), you’re an atheist.
  • If you don’t have a belief in any literal god( s), but you wish there were a god and maybe still hold out hope for one to show up, you’re an atheist (hoping and wishing are not believing).
  • If you don’t have a belief in any literal god( s), but you consider yourself “on the fence,” you’re an atheist (until you believe, you’re not a theist, and, no, there is no middle ground— you have a belief that a god exists or you don’t).
  • If you don’t have a belief in any literal god( s), but you “like to think” there is a god, because the story is good and wouldn’t it be nice if it was true, you’re an atheist (and you’re literally proclaiming belief in something you know is a fantasy).
  • If you don’t have any belief in any literal god( s), but you absolutely hate the word atheist— tough shit, you’re still an atheist.

Why this rigid insistence on nomenclature?

Silverman argues it’s because most people don’t understand other terms like “humanist” and “freethinker.” He calls these terms euphemisms and advocates against their use, citing a 2014 study performed for Openly Secular as evidence:

…while more than eighty percent of Americans essentially know what an atheist is, less than half of Americans know what agnostic means, less than 30 percent understand what it means to be secular, and, as you can see, very few Americans know what Humanists and freethinkers (a person who forms their opinions on the basis of reason) are.

I came to a deeper understanding of David Silverman and his work after reading this book, particularly the later chapters where he recounts stories of activism, billboards, legal battles, crashing CPAC conventions, and appearing on The O’Reilly Factor. At the same time, his self-proclaimed “firebrand” approach is not for everyone, and the distrust of atheists runs deep in our culture, as a 2015 study confirms.

Am I an atheist? Yes. But does that mean I always have to identify as one, and only as such?

For most practical purposes I usually simply identify as “Jewish.” I’m proud to affiliate with the traditions of social justice, activism, and advocacy that I feel that term signifies, as well as the value traditionally placed on education and the family connections it represents to me.

At the same time, I also believe it’s possible for me to be honest about my beliefs without always needing to say everything I believe. Especially with new friends and professional contacts, I try to stick to what Thomas Hardy called “the opinions and actions common to all good men.” If I get more specific, I do so later, after the establishment of trust.

Got “First World Problems”?

SapiensNow there’s a paradox.

Many of us living in industrialized Western nations enjoy the highest standard of living any humans have ever known.

Yet rather than making us happy, it makes us feel alienated and depressed.

Yuval Noah Harari explores this and many other subjects in his book SapiensA Brief History of Mankind.

He explores the alienation, depression, and pressure many modern sapiens feel as originating, at least in part, from the mismatch between our pre-agricultural brains and post-agricultural lifestyle:

For nearly the entire history of our species, Sapiens lived as foragers. The past 200 years, during which ever increasing numbers of Sapiens have obtained their daily bread as urban labourers and office workers, and the preceding 10,000 years, during which most Sapiens lived as farmers and herders, are the blink of an eye compared to the tens of thousands of years during which our ancestors hunted and gathered.

Harari argues that, although our daily lives have changed dramatically, the evolution of our brains and minds has not kept pace. According to research, many of our present-day social and psychological characteristics were forged during our long hunter-gatherer history:

The flourishing field of evolutionary psychology argues that many of our present-day social and psychological characteristics were shaped during this long pre-agricultural era. Even today, scholars in this field claim, our brains and minds are adapted to a life of hunting and gathering. Our eating habits, our conflicts and our sexuality are all the result of the way our hunter-gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial environment, with its mega-cities, aeroplanes, telephones and computers. This environment gives us more material resources and longer lives than those enjoyed by any previous generation, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed and pressured.

There may be no simple fix for this dilemma. And even assuming this were possible, who would want to forgo the comforts of modern life for a return to the life of our earliest ancestors?

For now perhaps the closest we can get is a periodic return to nature. As summer draws to a close, make some time to spend outdoors.

 

Rewriting the Ten Commandments

Atheist Mind, Humanist HeartHere’s some good advice: get some good advice.

The Ten Commandments are often cited in our culture as the best words to live by. But they may present some challenges for secular humanists.

Or so, it would seem, was the thought process of Lex Bayer and John Figdor when they co-wrote Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart: Rewriting the Ten Commandments for the Twenty-First Century.

Lex, a secular Jew, and John, a lapsed Christian, each share some of their own personal experiences in the book with the loss of faith, and their search for meaning in a world without God. Over the course of the book they explore and craft a set of ten new “non-commandments” reflecting their own beliefs.

The book ends with a call to action for each reader to create his or her own list of ten non-commandments. They recommend all would-be authors to consider “the nature of existence, truth, and facts, and human behavior, morals, and ethics” in their own lists.

An important thing to keep in mind, the authors point out, is that none of these guidelines are (literally or figuratively) set in stone. We should allow ourselves to modify or edit our beliefs at any time, in the face of new evidence.

With all of that being said, here’s my list for now. Thanks for reading and please leave a comment if you feel so inclined.

  1. You are a unique individual. No one quite like you has ever lived before, nor will again. Strive to understand and celebrate what makes you “you.”
  1. Our senses and our reason may be imperfect, but they’re still probably the best resources we have for understanding the world and our place in it. Do your best to keep both in good working order.
  1. Gods are human creations. Perhaps in this sense they can be said to exist, like so many other human creations—art, money, systems of belief—but if you’ve got a problem that needs solving, you’re better off putting your trust in yourself and other human beings like you.
  1. Make it a point to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” when you can. Try to understand where the other person is coming from, to the extent possible.
  1. Revere and protect nature.
  1. Honor your family, even if you’ve had your differences with them.
  1. Carve out “alone time” for yourself when you need it, but don’t remove yourself from your community or from society completely. Work in your own way to try to make both better.
  1. Remember your past successes and failures without dwelling too much on the past. Plan ahead without worrying too much about the future. Seek to live in the present more of the time.
  1. Avoid excessive drug or alcohol use, and other unhealthy obsessions.
  1. Strive to be tolerant of other people, even if you disagree with their life choices. Feel free to try and persuade them of your own ideas if you like, but respect their right to live their lives their way, as long as they don’t encroach on your rights or anyone else’s.

2016 Reason Rally

The season for reason…

On June 4 I attended the 2016 Reason Rally on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The Reason Rally Coalition is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to hold large events in celebration of atheist, humanist, and secular identity and to demonstrate the power of the secular voting bloc. The goal of the Reason Rally is to showcase the presence and power of the nonreligious voting bloc, and to demand that reason be put at the forefront of our public and political discourse.

Speakers included Bill Nye, Carolyn Porco, Lawrence Krauss, Penn Gillette, and many others.

It was a fascinating day and an eye-opening experience. I would estimate there to have been on the order of 10,000 people or more in attendance, and most of the interactions I had with other people there were very positive. Curious to see what impact, if any, secular voters en masse will have on the 2016 Election. From my point of view, their voices to be heard now more than ever.

“But Judaism is a Religion!”

mosesI hear this a lot.

The claim is, that Judaism is at its essence a religion, a set of beliefs about the world. I myself lived under this assumption for years.

But what are these beliefs?

There’s no “Jewish Pope” who can tell us. For one example, though, we can look to Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith:

1. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, is the Creator and Guide of everything that has been created; He alone has made, does make, and will make all things.

2. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, is One, and that there is no unity in any manner like His, and that He alone is our God, who was, and is, and will be.

3. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, has no body, and that He is free from all the properties of matter, and that there can be no (physical) comparison to Him whatsoever.

4. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, is the first and the last.

5. I believe with perfect faith that to the Creator, Blessed be His Name, and to Him alone, it is right to pray, and that it is not right to pray to any being besides Him.

6. I believe with perfect faith that all the words of the prophets are true.

7. I believe with perfect faith that the prophecy of Moses our teacher, peace be upon him, was true, and that he was the chief of the prophets, both those who preceded him and those who followed him.

8. I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah that is now in our possession is the same that was given to Moses our teacher, peace be upon him.

9. I believe with perfect faith that this Torah will not be exchanged, and that there will never be any other Torah from the Creator, Blessed be His Name.

10. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, knows all the deeds of human beings and all their thoughts, as it is written, “Who fashioned the hearts of them all, Who comprehends all their actions” (Psalms 33:15).

11. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, rewards those who keep His commandments and punishes those that transgress them.

12. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may tarry, nonetheless, I wait every day for his coming.

13. I believe with perfect faith that there will be a revival of the dead at the time when it shall please the Creator, Blessed be His name, and His mention shall be exalted for ever and ever.

Pretty serious stuff. I guess, by this definition, if I don’t believe all of these things I must not be a Jew.

But I think most people don’t look at Jewish identity this way.

Religious observance may be part of it for many people. But other kinds of observance, such as political activism and attendance at Jewish cultural events, may be just as much a part of it for many people. Still others seldom, if ever, participate in any kind of organized Jewish life, but still feel a connection to their Jewish identity. A well-known 2013 Pew Research Center study shows that one-in-five Jews describe themselves as “Jews of no religion,” identifying on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.

One way to square this, is to look at Jewish identity from the perspective of Jewish peoplehood. The Jews in America have traditionally been known as a religious denomination, but throughout their long history, the religion of the Jews has been only a part of their rich cultural life. Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine explores these themes in his book Judaism Beyond God.

The Jewish people today, Wine asserts, represents an “international family” and a “‘civilization'” of many national cultures.” Citing the Bible itself as evidence, he expands further on these themes in a lecture series on the roots of Humanistic Judaism:

“Before there ever was a Jewish religion…there was this entity called “the Jewish people.” If you go to the Bible, the Bible does not regard the Jews as a religious denomination. The Bible refers to the Jews as an ‘am.’ The word ‘am’ is people. You could translate it as nation. When the Jews started out, they were as a collection of families, clans, and tribes. And if you put two Jews in a room, you got five philosophies of life, from the very beginning. Because any family has diversity. You don’t kick people out of the family because you’re a Republican, and I’m a Democrat, you’re a member of the family….The Jews are a people…and throughout our history, the belief systems of our people have changed.”

 

A Credo

Doubt a HistorySo, I’m a “hardcore atheist.”

At least, according to one quiz.

It’s the one at the beginning of the book Doubt: A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht.

Not only that, I’m a “rationalist materialist.”

What does that mean?

This philosophy blog offers us some helpful explanations:

Materialism…sees matter as the primary reality and all other things including thoughts as the product of interactions of matter.

Rationalism is the belief that the rational mind is the best way to know something. If you are a rationalist you believe that your mind is more trustworthy than your sense. A stick in the water might look bent, but you know rationally that it only looks that way because it is in the water.

But that’s just one test. There are others.

Take, for example, the “Godless-o-meter” quiz from SelectSmart.com.

Here are my top results from that one:

  • “Ethical Culturist” 100%
  • “Unitarian Universalist” 95%
  • “Strong Agnostic” 91%

About.com offers us some clarification on this:

If someone is a strong agnostic, they don’t merely claim that they don’t know if any gods exist; instead, they also claim that no one can or does know if any gods exist. Whereas weak agnosticism is a position that only describes the state of knowledge of one person, strong agnosticism makes a statement about knowledge and reality themselves.

Finally, there’s this quiz from the British Humanist Association.

This one reveals that I am 100% Humanist. Here’s a brief definition they provide on their website:

Roughly speaking, the word humanist has come to mean someone who:

  • trusts to the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works and rejects the idea of the supernatural (and is therefore an atheist or agnostic)
  • makes their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals
  • believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.

I identify with all of these terms (atheist, agnostic, humanist) in varying degrees, and find them all useful in different ways. But to take it a step further and articulate one’s core beliefs is admittedly more challenging.

So what things do I believe? I believe that natural phenomena have natural explanations that will continue to emerge over time, without requiring the existence of a Creator God. Neither does this require the existence of a God who hears and answers prayers or intervenes in the world in any way.

But neither am I openly hostile to religion. As Thomas Jefferson said, I believe “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God.”

Some other things I hold sacred might be rights like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and equal protection under the law.

Perhaps most importantly, I believe in the power and beauty of the human imagination. Humans create art, culture, technology, and philosophy. Only humans create poems, paintings, stories, and symphonies, and only humans can solve the world’s problems.

“A Big Jewish Hug” from Bernie

Bernie Sanders hugI was pretty appalled by this recent article in Moment Magazine.

In it, the author essentially criticizes Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders for not being “Jewish enough” to be the first Jewish presidential candidate of a major political party. The piece ends with a quote from a rabbi who said, “We need a Jewish hug from him every once in a while.”

Let me be clear–don’t need a “Jewish hug” from Bernie Sanders, whatever that means. And although I voted for him in the Michigan primary last month, it wasn’t because he’s Jewish. That being said, it makes me proud to be able to support a candidate for President who has a positive message vision for the country that I can support, and who also happens to be Jewish.

And it’s not as though he never talks about that fact:

Let me be very personal here if I may. I’m Jewish. My father’s family died in the concentration camps. I will do everything that I can to rid this country of the ugly stain of racism which has existed for far too many years. And let me tell you something. What racism is about is many many things. It is pent-up hatred, it is lashing out at people in uncontrollable ways, but it is something very different than that. For many years in this country you have had politicians, and I’m old enough to know this, who played black off against white. So they told white workers who are earning pennies an hour, you think you’re in trouble but you’re better off than the blacks who can’t drink at a water fountain or go to your school. And they told straight people, well you think you’ve got problems, but you’re off than those gay people right? And they held men against women. They played one group off against another. Rich got richer and everybody else is fighting with each other.

Our job is to build a nation in which we all stand together as one people. And you are right, there is a lot of anger being generated, a lot of hatred being generated against Muslims in this country, that’s absolutely correct. There is hatred being generated against immigrants in this country. And if you stand for anything we have got to stand together and end all forms of racism, and I will lead that effort as president of the United States.

If I could hope for one thing, though, I wish that Sanders would give us a “secular hug” once in a while–although I understand the reasons why he doesn’t.

Is Bernie secular? He often seems deliberately vague on this front. When asked, he says things like, “I am who I am, and what I believe in and what my spirituality is about is that we’re all in this together.” It’s beautiful, but the best we can say is that it “sounds like” humanism.

Forget having the first Jewish candidate–to have the first openly secular candidate for President on a major-party ticket would be a major accomplishment for our country. But if he said, “I’m a secular humanist,” it would likely be the end of his Presidential aspirations. A recent article in The Independent confirms that the distrust of atheists runs deep.

Still, whether he says it or not, Sanders “is who he is,” and he is correct in asserting that a Bernie Sanders victory “would be of some historical accomplishment as well.” Indeed, his candidacy already is.

A Reflection for Purim

mordechai-1Why wouldn’t Mordecai bow?

Many Jews suspect that it was because the hero of the Purim story would not bow to any man–only to God.

Clearly, whoever made that rule didn’t tell the other patriarchs and matriarchs that bowing to other people was forbidden:

When Joseph came home, they brought into the house to him the present which was in their hand and bowed to the ground before him. (Genesis 43:26-28)

“Judah, your brothers shall praise you; Your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; Your father’s sons shall bow down to you.” (Genesis 49:8)

Then Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and he bowed down and kissed him…. (Exodus 18:7)

And when Saul looked behind him, David bowed with his face to the ground and prostrated himself. (1 Samuel 24:8)

Then she fell on her face, bowing to the ground and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your sight that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?” (Ruth 2:10)

The real reason has to do with Haman’s lineage. In the Book of Esther Haman is called “Haman the Agagite.” He’s understood to be the seed of Amalek, the group that attacked the Israelites in the desert.

In this day and age we like to believe that it doesn’t matter who your parents were, or where they came from, or what they did. For one example, we may know about Henry Ford’s despicable behavior in the 1920’s, but that doesn’t mean we hold his children and grandchildren responsible for their ancestor’s actions–in fact, we honor them for their contributions to the Jewish community. In this day and age, we tend to believe that the circumstances of your birth shouldn’t dictate what you become, or how you are viewed by others.

But even if we disagree with Mordecai’s principles, perhaps we can admire him for standing on principle. A contemporary equivalent might be choosing not to say the Pledge of Allegiance. And another example comes to mind that may be a bit more a propos.

I don’t often attend traditional Jewish worship services anymore. But I grew up in that world and I remember when people started bowing during the Bar’chu and the Amidah, and also towards the end with the words Va’anachnu korim u’mishtachavim u’modim. I was always pretty uncomfortable with this and, needless to say, on that rare occasion now when I find myself in a Reform or Conservative service now, I don’t bow.

So you might say, I’m following Mordecai’s example–except I take it one step further.

“Where Does Your Morality Come From?”

ethics1It’s a good question.

And not one that necessarily has tidy answers. At least for secular humanists.

For the religiously-affiliated, the answer is often simple: “My morality comes from God.” But whether they admit it or not, what they are really saying is that their morality comes from religious authority and tradition.

“Thou shalt not murder,” “Thou shalt not steal,” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” are all perfectly human values that come from these sources. They are rendered no less valid by virtue of this fact.

But, as we all know, some sources of religious authority and tradition also offer some far more challenging positions with regard to many contemporary issues. This includes women’s rights and LGBT rights, among other things.

Those who want to hold onto this religious authority and tradition, while at the same time espousing contemporary values such as feminism and LGBT acceptance, sometimes have their work cut out for them. They may have a hard time explaining Bible passages such as, “Thou shalt not tolerate a sorceress” (Ex. 22:17) or “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination” (Lev. 18:22).

Secular humanists don’t need to try to fit the square peg of traditional religious teaching into the round hole of contemporary values. But then, where does our morality come from as secular humanists?

In his Living the Secular Life, Phil Zuckerman explores this question:

The bald truth is, secular morality doesn’t have a simple, observable, obvious origin. Secular men and women don’t get their morals from some singular, readily citable source or supernatural deity. Rather, our morals are complex creations. They are the outcome of numerous forces, factors, and influences working simultaneously— many of which we aren’t even fully aware of, at least most of the time.

He cites findings from psychology, sociology, anthropology, criminology, and history as evidence that human morality is a complex question. Then, using a conversation with Gwen as a point of reference, he summarizes his findings:

…if I could offer a suggestion to Gwen, or any other secular individual out there who’d like a pat, simple answer to the question at hand, I’d offer the following: “I get my morals from the people who raised me, the culture within which I live, the kind of brain that I have, and the lessons I have learned from things I experience as I navigate life.”

At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, I’m prepared to offer an even more succinct answer: as secular humanists, our morality comes from usWe are the ones who know and decide what is right and what is wrong. And since we don’t accept the validity of accounts of supernatural revelation, we acknowledge that this is where theists’ morality comes from too.

A Visit to the American Museum of Natural History

20150503_125425Prepare to feel small.

Whenever I am in New York, I love to go to the American Museum of Natural History. One of my favorite exhibits is inside the Rose Center for Earth and Space. It winds around the room and deals with scale, from the largest to the smallest known objects.

In the center of the room is the Hayden Sphere. I didn’t get a good picture of it directly, but you can begin to get an idea of the size from the people walking around it in some of the photos.

As you make your way around the room, you’ll see panels that read, if the Sphere is one object in the Universe, then the small model in front of you is another object in the Universe. It begins with the scale on which the Sphere represents the observable universe

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Albert Einstein

Einstein pipeHis name has practically become synonymous with “genius.”

And that’s not all.

He was perhaps the first great scientist who was also a great moral philosopher.

A German Jew by background, Albert Einstein was a believer in humanity with a universalist worldview. In 1935, he wrote: “In the last analysis, everyone is a human being, whether he is an American or a German, a Jew or a Gentile.”

His idiosyncratic religious beliefs remain a subject of controversy, a subject on which the Israeli physicist and philosopher Max Jammer sheds some light in his 1999 book Einstein and Religion. On at least one occasion, it seems the famous scientist was comfortable referring to himself as “religious,” and many of his quotations referring to the force or entity he called “God” are well-known.

But Einstein rejected the concept of a personal God, or a God who responds to the prayers of individual people and intervenes in the world:

“I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals. . . . My religiosity consists of a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we can comprehend of the knowable world. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.

Einstein’s views earned him some strongly-worded responses from some American religious leaders in his time. These remarks were often clothed in the ugly language of antisemitism. One such leader wrote, “we invite you, if you do not believe in the God of the people of this nation, to go back where you came from.” Another offered, “In the past ten years nothing has been so calculated to make people think that Hitler had some reason to expel the Jews from Germany as your statement.”

Perhaps aware of these critics, Einstein was less than comfortable using the term “atheist” for himself. He said instead, “you may call me an agnostic,” and wrote, “I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our being.”

Christopher Hitchens described Einstein as a “genius” whose mission was “to spread the message of enlightenment and humanism.”

Sounds good. That’s what I want to do too.

Who Wrote the Bible?

who-wrote-the-bibleSpoiler: it might not be who you think it is.

The story of the authors of the Bible, as best we can understand it today, is the story of the Jewish people from their earliest times to their return from the Babylonian exile. Richard Elliott Friedman offers us some answers, along with some beautiful textual analysis and history in his 1987 book Who Wrote the Bible?

Biblical criticism begins formally in the 19th Century, but some of its impulses can be traced back much earlier. Arguably it can be said to begin with the 17th-Century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who dared to suggest that Moses was not the author of the Torah and suffered excommunication for his heretical ideas. The documentary hypothesis, taking shape in the 19th Century and codified by Wellhausen, forms the foundation of Friedman’s analysis. It holds that the Bible, as it came together in its final form, is primarily the work of four separate authors known as J, E, P, D. They are differentiated from one another by a handful of distinctive factors, including style, syntax, and names for God.

J and E are the earliest, perhaps dating from the time of the split of the unified kingdom of Israel into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. J is from the south (Judah); E is from the north (Israel). These sources include the second of the two creation stories (Gen. 2:4-4:26), stories of the patriarchs, and other portions of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers. Wilhelm Vatke, a nineteenth century pioneer of biblical criticism, argued that these sources date from a time when Hebrew religion was concerned primarily with nature and fertility.

D was composed after the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom and during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. The D text includes nearly all of the book of Deuteronomy as well as the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. D represents a spiritual/ethical phase in the evolution of Hebrew religion.

The last major source, itself almost as long as the other three sources combined, is the P text. The first creation story in Genesis (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…”) comes from the P source, as well as the entire book of Leviticus, and numerous other stories from the Torah dealing with covenants and ritual sacrifice. The P source represents a priestly stage of Hebrew religion.

Friedman devotes a good amount of space to discussion of when the P source was most likely to have been composed, and he presents evidence suggesting it was probably written much earlier than had at one time been thought. He references passages from the books of the prophets suggesting that they were familiar with the P text and that it therefore, too, must have been pre-exilic in its formation. He places its creation during the reign of Josiah’s grandfather, Hezekiah.

Friedman also devotes some time to a discussing of the fifth author of the Bible: the redactor. It seems there was another separate individual who took the four sources and skillfully and artfully combined them into the unified text as we know it today. This text is not without its own internal contradictions and inconsistencies, but it is one which has nonetheless occupied a place of central importance in world culture for thousands of years.

Friedman concludes by asserting that the Bible is “more than simply the sum of its parts” and issues a charge to different kinds of readers:

For those of us who read the Bible as literature, this new knowledge should bring a new acquaintance with the individuals who wrote it, a new path to evaluating their artistry, and a new admiration for the book’s final beauty and complexity.

For those of us who read it in search of history, this enterprise continually opens new channels to uncovering what was happening in various historical moments, and new sensitivity to how individuals in biblical society responded to those moments.

For those who hold the Bible as sacred, it can mean new possibilities of interpretation; and it can mean a new awe before the great chain of events, person, and centuries that came together so intricately to produce an incomparable book of teachings.

And for all of us who live in this civilization that the Bible played so central a part in shaping, it can be a channel to put us more in touch with people and forces that affected our world.

Stick-in-the-Mud Science

stonehenge winter solstice

Science doesn’t always have to be hi-tech.

Indeed, you can learn things just by driving a stick into the ground.

Any old stick will do, as long as it’s straight.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson explores this and other topics in his book Death by Black Hole. Chapter 5 is called “Stick-in-the-Mud Science.”

In this chapter Tyson goes on to discusses various ancient religious and cultural sites around the world in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Stonehenge in England is only one famous example. These sites doubled as “low-tech astronomy centers” and continue to fascinate many modern people for a variety of reasons.

The astronomical knowledge required to build these sites, he says, “is not fundamentally deeper than what can be discovered with a stick in the ground.” So why are so many people still so astonished by the scientific achievements of these ancient civilizations?

Tyson goes on to speculate as to an answer:

Perhaps these ancient observatories perennially impress modern people because modern people have no idea how the Sun, Moon, or stars move. We are too busy watching evening television to care what’s going on in the sky. To us, a simple rock alignment based on cosmic patterns looks like an Einsteinian feat. But a truly mysterious civilization would be one that made no cultural or architectural reference to the sky at all.

Today is the Winter Solstice. Do yourself a favor and look up at the sky at least once today. Think about all the ancient civilizations for whom this was one of the most important days of the year and about the common humanity that links us all together. And if you’re really feeling ambitious, hammer a stick into the ground and see what else you can learn.

Something From Nothing?

Star explosion in space

Why is there something rather than nothing?

It’s a good question. And one that philosophers have wrestled with over the centuries.

Lawrence Krauss looks at it as well in his 2012 book A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing.

Krauss is a leading theoretical physicist, science educator, and American Humanist Association 2015 Humanist of the Year. Like his colleague Richard Dawkins, he believes that philosophical questions such as these should not be exempted from scrutiny by science.

Krauss begins his answer by re-examining the question itself:

Whenever one asks “Why?” in science, one actually means “How?”. “Why?” is not really a sensible question in science because it usually implies purpose….

So, rather than, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” the question becomes, “How do we get something from nothing?”

Krauss begins by presenting the “cosmological term” from Einstein’s 1917 theory of general relativity. Einstein later called this “the biggest blunder of his career,” but the cosmological constant, as it became known, has since been given new life by science.

It represents the mysterious energy present in

the nothingness we normally call empty space. That is to say, if I take a region of space and get rid of everything within it— dust, gas, people, and even the radiation passing through, namely absolutely everything within that region— if the remaining empty space weighs something, then that would correspond to the existence of a cosmological term such as Einstein invented.

This mysterious dark energy is thought to account for over 70% of the matter and energy content in the universe.

The same phenomenon of “something from nothing” can also be observed on the smallest of scales. Quantum mechanics dictates that the total energy of a given system cannot be determined exactly if measured for only a fixed, finite time interval:

A key tenet of quantum mechanics…is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which, as I have mentioned, states that it is impossible to determine, for certain pairs of quantities, such as position and velocity, exact values for a given system at the same time. Alternatively, if you measure a given system for only a fixed, finite time interval, you cannot determine its total energy exactly.

This allows for the existence of so-called virtual particles, particles that spontaneously come in and out of existence on the shortest of time scales. These particles cannot be observed directly, but the measurement of their effects represents

the best, most accurate prediction in all of science….we can calculate the value of atomic parameters and compare them with observations and have remarkable agreement at the level of about 1 part in a billion or better! Virtual particles therefore exist.

It gets better. Not only is it possible to get something from nothing, but

virtual particles reflecting the particles and fields that convey the strong force between quarks are popping in and out of existence all the time…and, in fact, when we try to estimate how much they might contribute to the mass of the proton, we find that the quarks themselves provide very little of the total mass and that the fields created by these particles contribute most of the energy that goes into the proton’s rest energy and, hence, its rest mass. The same is true for the neutron, and since you are made of protons and neutrons, the same is true for you!

There’s still a lot about this theory we don’t understand, like the effects of these mysterious virtual particles on truly empty space. But it can offer increasingly precise explanations for how it is possible to get something–indeed, everything–from nothing:

The answers that have been obtained— from staggeringly beautiful experimental observations, as well as from the theories that underlie much of modern physics— all suggest that getting something from nothing is not a problem.

That’s pretty awesome. And I’ll take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.

The Search for Dignity

snoopy meaning of lifeWhat is the meaning of life?

Are we here for a purpose?

If so, what is it? If not, why go on?

Greg Epstein explores these questions and many others in his 2005 book Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe.

In Chapter 3, “Why Be Good Without a God?” he discusses the concept of dignity.

In his discussion Epstein acknowledges his friend and teacher Sherwin Wine, and explains how his teacher defined this term, refining his definition over the course of many years.

But Epstein also acknowledges that “Wine didn’t invent this concept of a meaning to life beyond God,” and that others have known this concept by the name humanity, or “being fully human.”

Epstein makes the case that, by whatever name it is known, this requires more than mere self-actualization. It requires community:

We don’t have everything we need for a good life inside ourselves alone. If we did, we could all go off into separate little rooms and just enjoy.

He introduces the concept of meaning as another crucial part of the equation, citing the psychologist Jonathan Haidt and Rabbi Hillel’s famous words, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Then Epstein gets to the heart of his argument:

All of us know what it feels like to realize “I am a person.” But it takes a little more awareness to realize, “You are also a person.” And it takes even greater awareness still to recognize that I am more of a person when I am helping you to be more of a person.

In my spare time I volunteer with a local community theatre group.

The other night I heard a 77-year-old man from the chorus talking with the choreographer from our show.

He was talking about how he had been struggling with the choreography in this one number for weeks, but that he finally got it right today.

When I heard him say this, I smiled to myself and said:

That’s why I do this.

Maybe that man was a little bit more of a person because he worked hard and got that choreography right.

And maybe I was a little bit more of a person to whatever extent I was able to help him.

And maybe that is what this word means.

Does Religion “Poison Everything”?

250px-Religious_syms.svg.pngIs religion harmful?

Are the fruits of religion on the whole more bad than good?

Would the world simply be better off without it, in all its forms?

Christopher Hitchens explores these questions and others in his 2007 book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The author is sometimes associated with a worldview known as antitheism, defined in the book as the view that “none of the religious myths has any truth to it, or in it.” Yet his writing style, witty and eloquent, is offered in refreshing contrast to the disturbing realities he often presents, and his tone is that of the detached academic, even as his main argument in the work is that “religion poisons everything.” But while the breadth of the author’s knowledge is certainly impressive, and his argument is well-reasoned as far as it goes, I am reluctant call his views my own.

Hitchens begins the book, fittingly enough, with a laudatory portrait of his childhood teacher of religion, Mrs. Jean Watts. He describes Mrs. Watts as “a good, sincere, simple woman, of stable and decent faith,” and recalls admiring the breadth of her knowledge as a teacher of botany and Scripture. But he also notes the first moment when he began to question the wisdom of his beloved teacher’s Christian worldview. He quotes her as having said, “So you see, children, how powerful and generous God is. He has made all the trees and grass to be green, which is exactly the color that is most restful to our eyes. Imagine if instead, the vegetation was all purple, or orange, how awful that would be.” Hitchens relays somehow knowing, even at age nine, that “[t]he eyes were adjusted to nature, and not the other way about.”

Considering the nature of his point of view, Hitchens is often more conciliatory than one might expect. In one such passage, he writes: “When I go to the mosque, I take off my shoes. When I go to the synagogue, I cover my head. I once even observed the etiquette of an ashram in India….” His genial tone, coupled with the many refreshing witticisms such as “Heaven hates ham,” make the reading experience digestible and even entertaining. Yet Hitchens’ critique of religion is lengthy and thorough, extending to many groups, including Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Hindus, and Buddhists. Included in many are detailed descriptions of the various practices of female and male genital mutilation and various incarnations of institutionalized child abuse and pedophilia.

martin luther kingIn the second half of the book, Hitchens highlights the three individuals from history whom he deems exemplary in their life’s work and legacy: Martin Luther King, Jr.; Abraham Lincoln; and Albert Einstein. This is all the more intriguing for the fact that all three of these individuals publicly professed belief in a force or entity they referred to as “God.” But as for Lincoln, Hitchens is probably correct to describe him as “a tormented skeptic with a tendency to deism,” and regarding Einstein, Hitchens is correct enough to describe him as a “genius” whose mission was “to spread the message of enlightenment and humanism,” yet who was nonetheless “[d]ecidedly Jewish.”  Perhaps more provocative is his description of Dr. King, of whom he writes: “In no real as opposed to nominal sense was he, then, a Christian,” going on to say, “When Dr. King took a stand on the steps of Mr. Lincoln’s memorial and changed history…he did so as a profound humanist…his legacy has very little to do with his professed theology.”

In the last quarter of the book, Hitchens concedes the point that “secular totalitarianism has actually provided us with the summa of human evil,” and cites Hitler and Stalin as only the two best-known examples. He attempts to salvage his main point about religion by affirming that “a totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy” [italics original]. It’s a clever argument, but it begs the further question: if Hitchens’ critique of religion extends also to political systems such as Nazism and Soviet-style Communism, does it in fact extend to any organized worldview or philosophy, with or without reference to the supernatural? One wishes that Hitchens had spent some time in this book discussing the French Revolution, a period in which horrible atrocities were also committed, in the name of secular Enlightenment ideals such as liberty, equality, and fraternity.

God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens is a thoughtful and erudite critique of religion, coming from a largely enlightened worldview, and refreshingly lacking in malice or envy. Nevertheless, I am less than inclined to agree with the main thrust of Hitchens’ argument that “religion poisons everything.” My own view is that religion, like almost anything else, can inspire human beings to do either good or bad. For me the better version of Hitchens’ thesis might well be: “some religious people poison everything.”