Believing Is Better than Non-Believing

Humanistic Judaism, An Anthology – Spring, 1986

It is not easy these days to be a Humanistic Jew. We live in a world in which the professed beliefs of most people — including most Jews — are either non­humanist or anti-humanist.

We live with the collective memories of nations that associate their roots and their ancestors with piety and religious devotion.

We live with the power of entrenched religious establishments that confer respectability upon those who join churches and synagogues and say they believe in God.

We live with the indoctrination of the past, which claims that atheism and morality are incompatible and that, in a time of moral decay, only a renewed faith in traditional religion will rescue society from anarchy.

We live with the shallowness of an age of science in which countless numbers of people understand the use of machines but do not understand the method of free inquiry that gave birth to them.

We live in a world of disillusionment with modern times in which many people assume that the faith of the past will be the cure for their anxiety and disappointment.

We live in a world of aggressively proselytizing fundamentalists who have branded secular humanists the enemies of civilization.

We live in a time of Orthodox revival in which religious fanaticism has replaced secular Zionism as the imagined guarantor of the Jewish future.

At the beginning of the twentieth century — when human self-confidence and optimism were stronger — the reigning intellectuals were solidly in the secular corner and put the religious on the defensive. But now the tables have been turned. We never thought 30 years ago that we would be back arguing the truth of the Biblical creation story, the merits of evolutionary theory, and the possibility of reincarnation. This new assault may be a time for humanists to reassess their survival strategy and develop a more effective response to the outside world.

Why is the opposition so successful? A realistic answer turns upon the style of presentation the fundamentalists use.

The “born-again” religionists believe that they have an important message, which the world needs to hear. They believe that this message is urgent and that terrible consequences will ensue if the warning is ignored. They believe that they are the defenders of morality and that the welfare of society depends on their missionary zeal. They believe that they are surrounded by powerful enemies who want to subvert what they work so hard to create. They believe that they have the right to intrude upon the privacy of citizens because the information they bring is a matter of life and death. Although they see themselves as a beleaguered minority, they believe that, in the end, they will win.

Humanistic Jews should be believers, en­thusiastic messengers of a positive philosophy of life.

Above all, they present themselves as “believers,” as the messengers of a positive statement about the world and its future. Their opponents (namely, we “vicious” humanists) are labeled “unbelievers,” deniers of the truth, and purveyors of negativism and nihilism. In fact, the religionists have been so suc­cessful with their propaganda that many humanists consent to their label and freely refer to themselves as “unbelievers.”

Unbelief is a loser’s style. It is a posture of inferiority, an acknowledgement that the message of your enemies is so power­ful and so positive that you must define yourself by it. While the opposition has a compelling reason to speak about its beliefs, “unbelievers” have no really significant beliefs to share. Their style is a holding operation, a defensive stance. They only want to make sure that the religious world does not intrude on their lives. They have no urgent or important message for others.

So long as we present ourselves as unbelievers — whether in the Jewish com­munity or in the broader world — we will be losers. We will be viewed as the deniers of other people’s strong convictions, not the possessors of strong convictions of our own. Especially in a free society of com­peting ideas, unbelief is a disastrously negative strategy.

So what does it take to turn a Humanistic Jew into a “believer,” an enthusiastic messenger of a positive philosophy of life?

Not very much. After all, we do have strong positive beliefs about nature, people, and morality. The problem is how we see ourselves and how we present our convictions to others.

The following ten guidelines may be helpful.

  1.  If you are a believer, you refuse to be an unbeliever.

It is very important never to allow others to define you publicly in terms of their own attachments. Humanists not only do not believe in Biblical creation; they do believe in evolution. They not only do not believe in the efficacy of prayer; they do believe in the power of human effort and responsibility. They not only do not believe in the reality of the supernatural; they do believe in the natural origin of all experiences.

  •  If you are a believer, you focus on the positive.

Believers tell people first what they believe, not what they do not believe. Effective humanists do not begin their presentation of personal conviction by announcing what they deny. They describe the things and the events in the universe that they think are really there. Agnosticism with regard to God may be the intellectual position of most humanists, but it is less important than our positive commitment to reason and scientific inquiry. Skepticism with regard to the divine origins of Jewish history may be the attitude of Humanistic Jews, but it is less important than our affirmation that Jewish culture is the creation of the Jewish people.

  •  If you are a believer, you know that the message is important.

From the fundamentalist perspective, preparing yourself for the afterlife is desperately important; from the humanist perspective, training yourself to make the most out of your life here on earth is equally important. In a world in which infantile behavior and infantile dependency are rampant, humanism has something important to say to people, whether or not they are open to hearing the message.

  •  If you are a believer, you offer positive alternatives.

Too often, humanists and Humanistic Jews assault existing institutions and practices without providing adequate substitutes. Just because traditional Jewish communities were built around prayer and God does not mean that alternative Jewish communities cannot be built around a secular Jewish culture and ethical concerns. Just because the traditional Jewish puberty rite is male chauvinist and focused on Bible readings does not preclude an alternative growing- up ceremony that is discrimination-free and celebrates the child’s connection to all of Jewish creativity.

  •  If you are a believer, you do not worry about being unfashionable.

Many people enjoy unbelief when it is chic, when it is the intellectual rage. They take pleasure in tweaking the nose of authority and announcing their liberation. But when unbelief becomes less fashionable, they find their defensive posture uncomfortable. They prefer to assault; they are uncomfortable being assaulted. But humanists who are believers are prepared for changes of fashion. Since they know what they do believe, as opposed to what they do not believe, they do not lose their intellectual security when the crowd stops applauding.

  •  If you are a believer, you do not resent the enthusiasm of opponents.

Many humanists decry the efforts of fundamentalist missionaries. They despise these self-appointed proselytizers who intrude on their privacy and rudely challenge their personal beliefs. But the response is inappropriate. If you are convinced that your message is essential to human survival and happiness, you have a moral obligation to intervene. Many liberals who think it perfectly appropriate to proselytize actively for nuclear freezes and abortion freedom resent the same enthusiasm when it is applied to religion. This attitude prevents us from being effective. If we, as humanists and Humanistic Jews, have something important to say about the path to self-esteem, we should be eager to share it. Our resentment of “intrusion” is merely a sign of our own discomfort with positive convictions.

  •  If you are a believer, you turn negative situations into positive ones.

In a non-humanistic world, there are many humanistically objectionable institutions and social practices that cannot be changed. Religious chaplains in the army, religious inscriptions on national monuments, invocations and benedictions at school and fraternal events — all these provocations move many unbelievers into futile resistance. But believers recognize that these practices and institutions exist because they are the only way in which many communities know how to celebrate their connection with their roots and their past. An invocation can as easily be a quotation from Thomas Jefferson as an appeal to Jesus. A “religious” lecturer to the Israeli army can as easily be a faculty member of the Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism as a Lubavitcher Hasid. Believers do not seek to destroy “misguided” institutions. They seek to use them.

  • If you are a believer, you choose to reverse roles.

Since unbelievers see themselves as outsiders in a community of believers, they make concessions more readily than do their opponents. If the Orthodox want to close down the Jewish Community Center on the Sabbath, if Conservatives want to keep humanistic literature out of the Jewish community library, unbelievers often will yield to the opposition out of a sense that their opponents feel more strongly about these issues than they, the unbelievers, do. But believers refuse to be second-class citizens. Humanistic Jews do not reject the Sabbath. They believe that the Sabbath should be a day for family celebration, personal recreation, and Jewish cultural stimulation. Humanistic Jews do not discard Jewish literature. They affirm the importance of seeing the Jewish experience through eyes that are not traditional. In most cases, their convictions are just as intense as those of their opponents. So, if the other side is always making demands, humanistic believers reverse roles. They have demands to make too.

  •  If you are a believer, you seek out other believers for mutual support.

Unbelievers are notorious non-joiners. Because they often are refugees from authoritarian institutions, the idea of belonging to a group or community that supports congregations and fellowships — of developing a working network of philosophic brothers and sisters — is anathema to them. The very smell of organization terrifies them. They prefer the safety of isolation. Even though the opposition derives its strength, power, and effectiveness from the willingness of its members to express their solidarity through group effort, unbelievers resist measures that would enable them to be equally effective. But believers know that everything the other side does is not bad. Organization is not bad if the purpose of the organization is good. Believers also know that isolation is a self-destructive strategy. It reinforces helplessness and the sense of “outsiderness” and leads to ideological impotence. A voice that cannot be heard is no voice at all.

  1.  If you are a believer, you give personal testimony all the time.

Fundamentalists are never reluctant to share their personal convictions when the opportunity arises — whether in business, in friendship, or at public celebrations. Their religious beliefs are not in some little corner of their minds, unrelated to their daily activity. In a real sense, what they are flows from what they believe. One of the reasons people are so strongly aware of their existence is that they talk about it all the time. For unbelievers, however, personal testimony is difficult. There is nothing to testify to because there is nothing positive to proclaim. Humanist believers shed such inhibitions. Even when an audience is less than friendly, they are willing to speak out. They recognize that “hiding” subverts integrity and cultivates self-hate. They want other people to know who they are and what they stand for. They want humanism and Humanistic Judaism to have a public voice. They may do no more than the Holocaust survivor who, at a community Holocaust commemoration in Detroit, shared her humanistic vision of the meaning of the horror in a moving declaration that justice must depend on human effort and human vigilance. They may do no more than the young man in my congregation who rose to explain secular humanism in his high school class when a Christian fundamentalist student denounced it. Believers give testimony when testimony is necessary.

Believing is better than not believing. It is a strategy more conducive to self­-esteem and effectiveness. If there have to be unbelievers, let those who do not believe in humanism play that role for a while.