A Scientist Embraces God: The Language of God by Francis Collins, A Review

Thinking Outside the Box- Winter 2007

Can anyone prove the existence of God? Theologians have been obsessed with this project for the past two thousand years.

When gods began, nobody had to prove their existence. People believed that the gods were as real as the land they farmed and the family that nurtured them. Proving their ex­istence would have seemed silly.

But excessive touting led some people to claim that their god was the one and only god. Even more touting led passionate devotees to claim that the one god made and managed everything. Because flattery costs nothing, the one god ended up being all-mighty, all-perfect, and all-good. An Almighty God is respon­sible for everything. And if he is all-good, he uncomfortably ends up being responsible for evil. In a polytheistic world, undeserved suf­fering can always be blamed on an enemy god. But the divine dictatorship of monotheism offers no such alternative. God needs apolo­gists to rescue his reputation and to explain away his “bad behavior.”

Now, theology starts out with a certain level of absurdity. It is the only discipline I know that needs to prove the existence of its subject matter. Ichthyologists do not spend their time proving the existence of fish. Ornithologists would feel ridiculous having to prove the ex­istence of birds. Anthropologists would laugh if asked to prove the existence of people. But theologians have no sense of humor.

Modern science has not been friendly to either God or theology. Most scientists are consistent empiricists. They require more than faith or wishing to demonstrate the existence of anything. They have discovered no substantial, or even modest, evidence to demonstrate that a Moral Creator and Man­ager of the Universe exists. Like the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1801), they find most of the traditional arguments for the existence of God to be flawed.

Francis Collins is a famous scientist. He was the chief of the Human Genome Project. But he is also a believer in God. He is a believ­er in a personal God who loves and cares for his creation. He is also a believing Christian, the child of eccentric freethinkers, a man who freely chose the Christian faith. In his latest bestseller, The Language of God (Free Press, 2006), he plays the role of a theologian.

Can a famous Christian scientist playing theologian do what Kant was unable to do? Can he prove the existence of God and simul­taneously rescue God’s moral reputation? Can he prove the existence of a God who loves all human creatures and who wants to rescue them from undeserved suffering?

Many Christians who bought Collins’ book were conservative Christians who hoped that he would place the endorsement of science on their problematic beliefs. But he is an enormous disap­pointment to the religious right. He repudiates creationism as unscientific. He endorses Darwin­ian evolution as valid, accepts the principle of natural selection, and rejects Intelligent Design. Collins endorses all of modern cosmology, with its “Big Bang” explosion and its fourteen billion- year-old universe. A scientific atheist would be very comfortable with most of his conclusions.

One would expect something fiercely original from a man of Collins’ caliber. But his presentation is disappointing. It is a rehash of familiar arguments offered by former skeptics who embraced God and Christianity. Much of his case is derived from the writings of C. S. Lewis, a clever Anglican apologist, who was the rage among sophisticated defenders of religion in the 1930s. Lewis’ audiences were people who feared Communism and who imagined that faith would provide a firm resistance.

Collins embraces all the old stale theo­logical tricks of conventional theologians. He denounces science because it cannot answer the question “Why did the universe come into being?” But this question has a premise. The hidden premise is that the universe must have a purpose. But what if the universe has no purpose? What if it was not created? What if it emerged by chance with no conscious interven­tion? What if there is no Why, only How? Sci­ence is perfectly capable of handling the How.

Collins maintains that the natural world cannot be the foundation of morality. Only God can. But ethics did not arise in a vacuum, a proclamation from a mountain top. All animals living in groups depend for their sur­vival on the survival of their group, whether they are ants, wolves, baboons, or people. To imagine that human ethics has no connection to our animal past, to assert that guilt has no genetic basis, to claim that love is not rooted in human survival but is a message from be­yond space and time is to abandon reason. The moral law is not some prescription for love and compassion floating around in some supernatural never-never land. It is one of evolution’s children in the relentless struggle for genetic survival. The love of strangers is new. It competes with the old fear and hatred of outsiders. That is why it is so difficult. But the love of family is old. It is the foundation of all other love. If God championed the moral law, he most likely learned about it from hu­mans and other animals.

Collins insists that the desire for God is evidence that He exists. It is hard to believe that Collins said this. Wishing obviously makes it so. If I want and need immortality, then I am immortal. If I want and need to be strong, then I am strong. If I want and need God then God exists. Why else would I long for him if he was not there?

Collins asserts that God cannot prevent human suffering because he gave human be­ings free will. People are responsible for what they do because they have free will. God could do nothing to prevent the Holocaust because he gave Hitler and his cohorts the wonderful gift of free will. What silliness! Intervening to prevent a person from harming others other does not deprive the criminal of his free will. It is an act of compassion. It is the moral demand that God presumably makes on all human be­ings. Why will God not do what he requires humans to do? A God who uses the excuse of human free will to stand as a spectator before human suffering lacks moral authority. Love by determinism is better than hate by free will. Collins discloses his daughter’s traumatic and tragic rape. What a horrible injustice! But no – Collins transforms tragedy into absurdity. Invoking one of the age-old apologies for God’s bad behavior; Collins justifies the event. He describes how much he learned from his daughter’s suffering. God uses his innocent daughter and her suffering to teach her father to forgive a criminal. What next? Plane crashes in which hundreds die, so that the survivors can be ennobled by their pain?

The last absurdity is the Anthropic Prin­ciple. The Anthropic Principle maintains that God created the universe in order to arrange for human intelligence. There are many mo­ments in the past fourteen billion years when a different turn of events would have precluded the appearance of our solar system, the planet Earth, and the air pocket on the surface of our planet that makes human life possible. Col­lins asserts that these amazing coincidences are not coincidences. They are the evidence of God’s deliberate plan and of God himself. But the Anthropic Principle reduces God to an incompetent bungler. If God’s intention is to create human intelligence why would he force human intelligence to undergo the ghastly process of evolution, with all its struggle, suf­fering, and enormous waste? The Anthropic Principle is like the Charles Lamb story where you arrange for roast pork by placing a pig in a house and burning the whole house down.

Collins’ book fills me with great sadness. Why would a brilliant biologist risk his intel­lectual credibility by consenting to play the part of C. S. Lewis’ parrot? That he is a nice man is clear. That Collins is a wise man is doubtful.

Humanistic Judaism: A Response to Future Shock

SHJ Conference 2004, summer 2004

Humanistic Judaism has a unique role to play in the Jewish world. That role is more than providing an ideological space or a con­gregational home for secular and nontheistic Jews. It is more than providing a cultural Ju­daism for Jews who no longer can accept a conventional religious Judaism.

This role can best be explained by remem­bering the words of the futurist Alvin Toffler. It was Toffler who invented the phrase “fu­ture shock.” Toffler used this phrase to de­scribe the mental and emotional state of mod­ern people who are overwhelmed by the accelerating rate of change. Industrialization, urbanization, capitalism, science, democracy, freedom, and the new technology have arrived in rapid succession during the past two hundred years. They have radically altered the lives of most men and women in the West­ern world. Responding to all this relentless and continuous change produces confusion and anxiety.

Toffler suggested that people have devel­oped a series of defensive strategies to cope with this anxiety. The most powerful one is denial, the refusal to accept that change has taken place. And the most popular form of denial is nostalgia, a hankering after a roman­ticized past that can never be restored. Since people cannot avoid the real world in which they work and play, they create islands of nos­talgia to which they can retreat periodically and pretend that nothing has really changed at all. The institution that lends itself most easily to this strategy is religion. Religion be­gan as the worship of ancestors. The purpose of much religion in modern society is not to help people confront the real world but to en­able them to retreat every so often into a com­fortable past world that no longer exists.

The Jewish people, the most urbanized people in the world, is in future shock. Over the past two hundred years every aspect of its life has been radically transformed. Work, education, family, sex, government, and be­liefs are no longer the same. The break with the past is so dramatic that most Jews cannot even conceive of what Jewish life in the Middle Ages was really like. But this devia­tion from the ways of our ancestors fills us with great anxiety and triggers many troubling emotions. There is the fear that our ancestors disapprove of us and will punish us. There is the guilt of having abandoned what they worked so hard to secure. There is the sad­ness that the past has died and will never re­turn. There is the anger directed to the amor­phous forces responsible for the change.

Denial and nostalgia become the chief strategies for coping with all this discomfort. Synagogues and temples become islands of nostalgia, where for short periods of time Jews can use the language and symbols of the past and pretend for a moment that nothing has changed. They can pretend that reliance on God is the comfort of their life, They can pre­tend that the Torah lifestyle remains at the center of their existence. They can pretend that the texts of the past support the dramatic changes they cannot deny. They can lift quotations out of context and imagine that the past “kosherizes” the present.

Humanistic Judaism is the only branch of Judaism that refuses to practice this denial. That is its unique role in Jewish life. For Hu­manistic Jews the changes are real and unde­niable. They stand in opposition to the pref­erences of the past. The differences are real and cannot be wished away. A good philoso­phy of life helps us to face reality and not to run away from it. Judaism is not an eternal doctrine. It is a strategy for saving the Jewish people in a sea of change.

As Humanistic Jews, our way of coping with future shock is to make five affirmations.

We let the past speak for itself. We do not do what many well-intentioned liberal Jews choose to do. We do not force the past to agree with the present. We know that Moses, Isaiah, and Hillel would not be happy with our present lifestyle. We do not distort their world in order to extract their approval. We let them say what they intend to say. We let them be what they were. We try to under­stand why they made the decisions they did, even though we would not choose to make the same decisions. We listen respectfully to the past because it is the voice of our ances­tors, and they deserve our respect. But we do not try to hide the differences. Where we agree, that is wonderful. Where we do not, that is reality.

We empower the present. Since the cre­ations of the past are human creations, just like the work of the present, they are not su­perior to what the present has to offer. The holidays, ceremonies, and values of the past that fit the realities of the present must be saved and savored. But the present has the same right to create that the past did. The vic­tories and traumas of recent times need to be celebrated and remembered. We give the present its own dignity.

We say what we believe. We can never confront reality if we use words that were in­tended to describe another world centuries ago. A good philosophy of life is more than an exercise in nostalgia. It is a path to truth and reality and must speak clearly and di­rectly to our own convictions. If we have to make a choice between continuity and integ­rity, we always choose integrity.

We find our continuity in the fewish people. It is not God or Torah that are the real foundation of Judaism; it is the Jewish people struggling to find ways to survive and pros­per in a difficult world. This affirmation lies at the heart of the writings of two great hu­manistic Jewish philosophers from Russia, Ahad Ha’am and Micah Berdichevsky. In the end, they said, beliefs, values, words, and ceremonies may change. But the Jewish people in all its diversity remains.

We love the future. It is important to respect the past and to empower the present. But it is especially important to honor the future. In a world of continuous change the future is always with us. When, in ancient times, the priests of Jerusalem allowed only one temple — and that temple had to be in Jerusalem — they failed to imagine that one day the Jewish people would be an international people. They were stuck in the past and present. We must not make the same mistake. It is difficult to imagine what life will be like in fifty years because, given the present accelerating rate of change, it will be very different from what it is now. But it is clear that a Judaism in a global world that is becom­ing one big mixed neighborhood needs more imagination than nostalgia.

As Berdichevsky said in his essay Wrecking and Building, “We can no longer solve the riddles of life in the old ways, or live and act as our an­cestors did. We are not their living monuments…. Through a basic revision of Israel’s inner and outer life, our whole consciousness will be trans­formed: and we shall live and stand fast.”

The New Humanism: What Is It?

Humanistic Judaism: Beyond God, Beyond No God – Summer/Autumn 2007

Is there any connection between Salman Rushdie and Humanistic Judaism? Now there is.

During the weekend of April 20-22, 2007 Rushdie was at Harvard, together with hundreds of hu­manists from North America and Europe. The occasion was the thirtieth anniversary of the establishment of the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. The mobilizer of the event was Rabbi Greg Epstein, a recent graduate of our Interna­tional Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism and the current Harvard Humanist Chaplain.

Rushdie is an atheist and a humanist. He is also the man the Ayatollah condemned to death in 1989 for writing the book Satanic Verses. Born into an Indian Muslim family in Bombay and educated in England, Rushdie had already achieved fame as a novelist and commentator on Indian life. His surrealistic style of writing celebrated the absurdity of the human condition. Only laughter could do justice to the internal contradictions of Indian and Muslim life.

Condemned to assassination, Rushdie went into hiding for many years. Any public appear­ance was fraught with danger. Rushdie’s plight was testimony to the frightening terrorism of fundamentalist Islam. Rebelling against the life of recluse, Rushdie defied his enemies and be­gan to speak in public. Nothing has happened. But the decree of death has never been fully withdrawn. Courage now needs to be added to brilliance as one of his virtues. Rushdie’s ap­pearance at Harvard for a humanist conference was certainly an act of courage.

The theme of the celebration was the New Humanism. What is the difference between the “new humanism” and the “old human­ism”? The difference lies in the rejection or acceptance of the cultures of the past.

Humanism arose out of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was an eighteenth-century European intellectual movement that ushered in the Age of Science. It championed reason as the best method for the discovery of truth. It identified the consequences of human behav­ior as the best criterion for the determination of moral behavior. It celebrated human empower­ment and human dignity. It was this-worldly and optimistic, promising the improvement of the human condition here on earth.

The chief enemy of the Enlightenment was organized religion, especially organized Christianity. The war between reason and faith turned into an intense hostility between the two sides. The clergy saw secular human­ism as the ultimate foe. Secular humanists saw organized religion as the chief barrier to emancipation. The events of the French Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution gave testimony to the intensity of this battle.

When humanism was first turned into an organized movement in North America and Europe, humanists insisted on a clean break with the religious past. To be humanists was not to be a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or even a Jew. Humanists must organize themselves in opposition to traditional religious systems. This decision produced the “old humanism,” a movement profoundly hostile to churches, synagogues, and clergy.

But the old humanism was unable to mobilize most of the people who had become secular in the Age of Science. It cut people off from their cultural roots. It severed their con­nection to holidays and ceremonies, family memories and customs that possessed great cultural power. Whatever new celebrations were invented were sterile, lacking emotional and cultural depth. Humanist societies were small collections of intellectuals who felt especially wounded by dogmatic and fanatic clergy. The secularized masses that bore no conscious hostility to their roots were turned off by the perceived negativity of the old hu­manism, by the continuous denunciations of the religious enemy.

The dilemma lay in the word religion. Most secularized humanists resisted being called religious, even though they felt strong emotional connections to their religious past. Perhaps Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were more than religions. Perhaps they were cul­tural systems as well as religious systems. If you imagined that each religion was attached to a unique ideology, then such an assertion was invalid. But if it was the case that each religious system ultimately embraced many philosophies of life – some of them contradic­tory one to the other and all of them united by a single international culture – then the assertion corresponded to reality.

In every great world religion you can in­deed find many philosophies of life. That is how they became world religions. In Judaism you have Maimonides and the Kabbala. In Islam you have Osama bin Laden and Omar Khayyam. In Christianity you have Paul of Tarsus and Harry Emerson Fosdick. All that unites these dichotomies is a shared cultural system of family memories, holidays, cer­emonies, and literature. Philosophy is one thing. Organized religion is another, a cultural system that connects us to our ancestors.

Cultural religions were created by either conquest or dispersion. Christianity and Islam started with conquest. Judaism began through dispersion. World religions embrace many national traditions. Christians include Greeks, Romans, Germans, and Russians. Muslims include Arabs, Persians, and Turks. Jews embrace Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and the new mixed gene pool of Israelis.

Humanistic Judaism is part of the New Humanism. It does not protect the culture of the past. It does not repudiate ancestral roots. It embraces them and makes them a home for humanistic convictions and hu­manistic integrity.

At the Harvard conference, a Unitarian leader identified Unitarians as a version of Hu­manistic Confucianism and a Hindu scholar saw Hinduism as a cultural system that could offer hospitality to a Humanistic Hinduism. In all cases, the accommodation to roots is a bal­ancing act between continuity and integrity.

Can there be a Humanistic Islam? Given the prominence of fundamentalist Islam today, many people claim that such a designation is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. But Salman Rushdie, the man who was condemned to death by fundamentalist Islam, disagreed. He recalled his own childhood of secularized Muslims, of pious Muslims who preached toleration, of Muslim teachers who were more comfortable with the natural world than with the supernatural world. He saw himself as a secular Muslim, a secularist by conviction, a Muslim by culture. He saw value in presenting the connection with the past as a way of reach­ing millions of secular Muslims who could not be reached by rejectionist Humanism.

My dialogue with Salman Rushdie was one of the high points of my life: It confirmed my commitment to Humanistic Judaism and to the New Humanism.

Evolution is Our Story

Evolution: summer 2000

Charles Darwin is not a traditional Jew­ish hero. But he is one of the great sages of Humanistic Judaism. The principles of bio­logical evolution and natural selection lie at the heart of our belief system.

Twenty-five hundred years ago some anonymous priests edited two stories about the invention of life. These stories constitute the first two chapters of the Torah. In the first story God manufactures life in three days – plants first, then animals, and then people. In the second chapter he starts with man. Adam is bored. So God creates plants and animals to amuse him. Adam is still bored. So God conjures up a woman from Adam’s rib. Adam is impressed.

These two stories provide the informa­tional and ideological foundation for tradi­tional Jewish biology. All life is simulta­neously created. All life forms have remained the same since their creation. The age of both the universe and life is somewhere around six thousand years.

In most Jewish schools today these stories are still being taught. For liberal Jews they present an enormous problem. They are in obvious contradiction to what modern sci­ence teaches. They do not bear the faintest connection with the realities of natural evo­lution. Only a tortured poetic interpretation can rescue them. They are simply embarrass­ingly inappropriate. But, since even liberal Jews, whether Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist, are stuck with the Torah, they feel compelled to present the stories.

The net result is that liberal Judaism has no strong message on cosmology or biology. No one really believes the traditional stories. But no one is prepared to draft a compelling alternative. One of the cornerstones of an ef­fective philosophy of life, a credible view of where we came from, is neglected. The fun­damental questions of the nature of life are relegated to the public school. The synagogue prefers mythology.

This deplorable situation is aggravated by the rise of fundamentalism in Jewish and Christian life. One of the “banners” of this new fanaticism is the defense of the Genesis sto­ries as basically true. Creationism has now reared its absurd head to challenge the prin­ciple of evolution. Creationists demote evo­lution to a mere “theory” despite the over­whelming evidence to support it. And they present their mythology as a theory of equal validity. While Orthodox Jews applaud this development, liberal Jews condemn it. But there is nothing in their prayer books or in their school programs that would give any substance to their resistance. Their approach is negative: “Do not take the stories literally.” “Do not put religion into the public schools.” But there is no positive and enthusiastic de­fense of evolution. In the end, the temples read the creation story on the Sabbath and teach the creation story in their Sunday schools. The Darwinian story they claim to believe in is never dramatically told.

Humanistic Jews are liberated from the “yoke” of liberal Jewish religion. They do not place the Torah and its stories at the center of their Judaism. They do not need to pay hom­age to ancient myths and to demonstrate their worth even when that worth is questionable. They are free to create an alternative story that is responsible to evidence and is flexible enough to face constant revision. If they want to, they can write it down in Hebrew and place its words on a parchment scroll, even though the truth of the story is not a function of an­tiquity. Nor are they afraid to admit that knowledge and wisdom can come from people other than Jews.

If Humanistic Judaism is to function as a complete philosophy of life, then it must pro­vide a dramatic answer to the questions about the origin and nature of life. It must articu­late that answer clearly and forcefully so that both children and adults can incorporate it into the foundations of their Judaism. The story of evolution must be a dramatic part of public celebrations, school programs, and textbooks. It must have a prominent place in the presentation of the basic ideas of the move­ment. There is no need to find a way to con­nect it to Genesis; all attempts to make that connection distort the meaning of the origi­nal myths and only sow confusion.

As a foundational story of Humanistic Judaism, evolution is a powerful saga. The drama of life continually transforming itself in a tough setting of competition and struggle is compelling. The development of life is no serene emergence, with divine decrees con­juring up living forms effortlessly and instan­taneously. It is a dangerous ascent, and only a small fraction of the organisms that attempt the climb make it to the top. The hurdle of natural selection is tough to surmount. The fit between organisms and their environment is not an easy one.

Just as the history of the Jews needs to be rescued from the absurd doctrine of the Cho­sen People, so must the story of life be saved from the destructive embrace of creationism. We need to be continually reminded of the realities of life so that we can cope with it. The message of evolution is not only infor­mational, providing the order in which liv­ing things emerged. It also is philosophic, describing a setting for life that rational people can accept and adjust to.

What is the philosophic message of evolution?

  1.  The forces of nature that control our uni­verse and the development of life are natural and impersonal. They have no conscious pur­pose and no moral agenda. They operate re­lentlessly, ultimately sweeping most organ­isms into the garbage can of history. Natural selection may appear to be a cruel judge. It cannot be negotiated with. And it cannot change its mind.
  2.  All life is connected. We are not special creations of God, earthly angels with souls who have no fundamental relationship to the rest of nature. We are made of the same stuff as all other living things. We share the same origins. We share many of the same needs and desires. All the parts of our body and our mind have their roots in the bodies and minds of fish and reptiles and other mammals. Fear, anger, love, and sadness are not uniquely human. They have their counterparts in our animal cousins. We did not begin as fallen gods. We began as walking apes. Feeling our basic connection to all of nature restores balance to our lives and makes us see who we really are. It also makes us more compassionate with the suffering of living beings that are not human.
  3.  There is no fundamental harmony in na­ture. The living world is filled with many competing agendas. What is survival for the hunter is death for the hunted. What is vic­tory for the invader is destruction for the in­vaded. Humans and the microbes that afflict their bodies are not in harmony. They are at war with each other. In this world of strug­gling organisms we have both friends and enemies. There is no way to make every or­ganism our friend. When we can be generous, we ought to be. When the enemy is fierce, we need human allies in the battle.
  4.  Love and ethics emerged in our struggle for survival. Some animals are loners. Oth­ers, like us, need community. Each of us is too vulnerable alone. Our evolution has turned us into social beings dependent on the kindness and help of other people. Morality did not fall from heaven. It evolved over mil­lions of years as the price we have to pay for group existence. Over time, natural selection reinforced the tendency within us to work with others and to care for them. All cultures bear the imprint of this conscience.
  5. Victory is never final. Our survival lasts only so long as we fit our environment. If we destroy the foundation of the environment in which we evolved, we also shall be destroyed. Protecting and improving the natural setting in which we live is as important as any new power we acquire. Power is useless if it blows up the foundation of our existence.

Evolution is our story. It has an impor­tant message. It needs to be proclaimed in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish. It needs to be celebrated through holidays and tributes. It needs to be taught clearly and boldly to our adults and our children in the schools we cre­ate. As Humanistic Jews we have a powerful answer to the question, what is life? And our answer is not mythology. It is confirmed ev­ery day by the testimony of our experience.

The “Values” Debate: A Response to the Religious Right

Ethics for Humanistic Jews  Winter 2005

The presidential election fooled many people. Liberals imagined that the compelling issues for the voters were the economy and the war in Iraq. They were wrong. The issue that defeated John Kerry was “values.”

Morality is an obsession for many Ameri­can voters, especially the voters that constitute the amorphous Religious Right. The social conservatives in the United States see ethics going to the dogs. They are obsessed with what they perceive as the precipitous moral decline of the American people. They see themselves as victims of rapid social changes that confuse them and outrage them. From abortion free­dom to gay marriage, they are appalled by the subversion of traditional values.

Traditional morality has its roots in the agricultural worlds of the Bible and of medi­eval Europe, cultures that have been replaced in America by urban industrial civilization. In the world of farmers and herdsmen, the fundamental social institution is the extended family, a tightly knit structure of people who live together, work together, and depend on each other for survival. The fundamental ne­cessities are continuous work and continuous reproduction with clear and distinct gender roles for both men and women. The funda­mental values are loyalty and collectivism – the willingness to sacrifice your well-being for the welfare and survival of the family. With the evolution of families into clans, tribes, and nations this collectivism turned into the virtue of patriotism. Reinforced by guilt and the threat of exclusion, these “family values” were transformed by the omnipresent clergy into the commandments of God.

Although there are variations, the tradi­tional values of all civilizations – European, Muslim, Asian, and American — are essen­tially the same. The family obligations and the gender roles of Confucian society do not ap­preciably differ from the requirements of the editors of the Bible. Necessity is the mother of ethics. Families and clans that want to survive need not only loyalty but also trustworthi­ness, generosity, and sacrifice. Conformity to the ways of the ancestors provides the glue of solidarity. Morality, reverence for the past, and religion merge into a powerful amalgam of culture and community.

The world that justified these values no longer exists for most Americans. The new urban culture has undermined the extended family from which traditional ethics flowed. Collectivism has been replaced by individu­alism. The old clan has been replaced by the nuclear family. The old call of sacrificial duty has yielded to the pursuit of happiness and dignity. The basic unit of society is now the free individual who has the power to choose the agenda of his or her life – where he will live, when she will work, whom he will marry, what philosophy or religion she will embrace. Technology and international markets have produced the beginning of a global culture in which national cultures turn into a smorgas­bord of personal options.

We live in a revolutionary time in which a new ethics is being forged by a new urban world. The 1960s dramatized the assault of the new values on the old. The black revolu­tion challenged the conventional notion that pedigree and race define social status. The feminist revolution challenged the traditional premise that women were born to servitude to men. The sexual revolution assaulted the historic assumption that sex is only for re­production and that sensual pleasure is an invitation to wickedness. The youth revolu­tion defied the age-old belief that older people are smarter and wiser than their children and grandchildren. The leisure revolution resisted parental insistence that only hard work can give meaning to life. Never before had so many old values and beliefs been challenged with so much fury in such a short period of time.

The consequence for millions of people is “ethical future shock.” They are con­sumed by fear and by outrage. They see the familiar world around them collapsing into a sea of chaos and confusion. They imagine that morality is vanishing and that the cul­tural establishment is in cahoots with the fomenters of this wickedness. Religious fun­damentalism is the child of all this resent­ment. It feeds on the notion that “liberals” have repudiated ethics.

Is the accusation of the Religious Right that the new liberalism has fostered immo­rality and the abandonment of ethical living true? Is the modern world morally inferior to what preceded it? Were our ancestors and the disappearing residents of rural villages more noble and more ethical than we are in our urban affluence? Is the “secular humanist” cultural establishment the agent of Satan and a danger to the preservation of a moral society? Are the humanists, including Humanistic Jews, who advocate abortion freedom and gay rights the subverters of public order?

We humanists need to answer these questions with both boldness and empathy. We need empathy especially. The millions of people who voted for the old values have legitimate complaints. They are not simply stupid country folk and coots who cannot understand the importance of civil liberties. They are traumatized by relentless change, and they are navigating in unfamiliar waters. Their children and their friends often use the newfound freedom to make harmful choices. And some of their anxieties about pervasive pornography and violence are shared by us.

Our reply to them cannot be filled with defiant contempt or with the arrogance of new prophets of a new religion. Our response has to be filled with an awareness of what humanism really says – that all ethical rules are imperfect attempts to maximize human survival, happiness, and dignity.

Historic humanism rejects authoritarian reasoning. No “authority” – whether it be God or a famous prophet or a charismatic philosopher — can make an action right by simply declaring it to be right. If any of the Ten Commandments are ethically valid, it is not because their pronouncement was accompanied by miracles and supernatural dramatics on a mountain top. It is because living by those rules fulfills human needs and enhances human welfare. The validity of an ethical rule does not lie in the commander. It lies in the consequences.

Ethical rules are not eternal truths dis­cerned through the mediation of priests or through encounters with charismatic prophets. They are the results of human testing over long periods of time. Societies without trust or loyalty cannot survive. And people without some modicum of freedom cannot be happy. It is always in the results that moral justification lies.

Morality is continuously being revised through human experience. What worked to make people happy in light of the low expec­tations of the farm world may not accomplish the same end in the presence of the high ex­pectations of the urban world. Modern society has given women the taste of empowerment. They can no longer conceive of a meaning­ful life without the opportunity of choice. Modern society has also altered the nature of marriage. What started out as an institution for reproduction has turned into a social ar­rangement for partnership and companion­ship reinforced by love. Most heterosexual people today in North America get married, not because they want children, but because they want partners. If loving partnerships are now the primary purpose of marriage, then homosexual marriage is no moral travesty. It is the natural consequence of a society that has changed.

The problem with any ethical rule, whether traditional or innovative, is that it encourages behavior that has both good and bad consequences. Telling the truth can foster trust; it also can be cruel. Promoting human dignity can enhance self-esteem; it also can breed annoying prima donnas. Touting love may produce more caring and nurturing; it also may permit the masochism of abusive relationships. No ethical rule is perfect. It en­dures so long as its positive effects outweigh the negatives.

The new world the Religious Right fears has many problems that arise from the plea­sures of affluence and freedom. But a world in which races mix that never mixed before, a world in which women can now choose to express their creative talents, a world that is molding formerly hostile nations into a global village cannot be all bad. It may, in many ways, be superior to the world that came before.

Spirituality as Empowerment

Colloquium 01 – Spring/Summer 2002

Spirituality is a controversial word in the secular world. For most “traditional” secular­ists the word is a weapon in the armory of the enemy. It conjures up the illusory world of spiritual beings — all the way from gods to spirits of the dead. People who are genuinely and consistently secular, it is said, cannot be spiritual. They can be emotional, artistic, im­passioned devotees of beauty — but they can­not be spiritual. A secular spirituality is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, very much like a square circle.

Yet for many other secularists, both old and young, the word spirituality has become a com­fortable addition to their lives, pointing to a secular reality that no other word adequately denotes. They recognize the historic use of the term for supernatural events. But for them the word easily crosses over to the world of space and time, to the realm of here and now. Many religious people are spiritual. But so are many secular people. Spirituality is an experience that can happen in both places.

If there is a real, this-worldly experience that can be designated spiritual, what is it? And what is its connection to the secular experi­ence that would justify our use of the word?

The answer to this question lies in the origins of religion. The foundation of religion is the human experience of suffering and death. If there were no suffering and no death, there would be no religion. All religions are coping strategies for dealing with these two frightening realities.

As a coping strategy, historic religion of­fered magic power. Magic power is extraordi­nary power. It can achieve what natural power never allows. Magic power that is manipulated by magicians and wizards belongs to the world of magic. Magic power that is personalized and attributed to ancestral spirits — and that be­comes the focus of acts of reverence and wor­ship — belongs to the world of religion.

Holiness and sacredness mean the pres­ence of magic power. Holy things radiate power and are often too dangerous to touch. If they are near, they can cure suffering and post­pone death. Holy spirits possess the power of immortality. They defy death and stand in contrast to the change and decay of the natu­ral world. The original spirituality was indeed access to or contact with this spirit world. It provided the serenity of eternal life, the tran­scendence of the supernatural, and the sense of power that dispels fear. In short, spiritual­ity is a form of extraordinary empowerment.

Spirituality as empowerment comes in two forms: external and internal. External spirituality is the most common form. The seeker sees himself as helpless and powerless, a childlike victim in need of rescue. Magic power is external to him, present in the god or the angel that will save him. The normal experience of prayer is an example of this unequal connection. The source of power is outside of the supplicant, beyond him. He seeks to be touched by it and transformed.

Internal spirituality is less common. The devotee feels the magic power within herself. She feels himself capable of performing miracles. A sense of extraordinary power per­vades her being. She easily turns into the prophet, the healer, the saint, the guru, the holy person. Internal spirituality is the sense of empowerment felt by charismatic and mes­sianic leaders. They may plead humility, but their followers see them as godlike. The goal of mysticism, as opposed to ordinary prayer, is to achieve this condition.

Both external spirituality and internal spirituality can be dangerous to the welfare of the individual. If one becomes addicted to prayer, he can aggravate passivity and depen­dency. If one sees himself as godlike, he can easily fall into the foolishness of pretension. Traditional spirituality, when it works well, can provide its devotees with a special em­powerment. But when it works badly, it can lead to self-destruction.

So what is the connection between spiri­tuality and anything that secular people may be comfortable with? How can one have spiri­tuality without magic power?

Secular spirituality, like traditional spiri­tuality, is the experience of extraordinary empowerment — not so extraordinary that it defies natural law, but extraordinary enough to make it special. The birth of children, the intense solidarity of determined groups, the euphoria of great achievement, the inspira­tion of beautiful nature or beautiful people — all of these experiences provide the seeker with a new sense of significant power.

Secular spirituality can be both external and internal. It is external when we feel the power coming from outside of us. When we feel insignificant in the midst of a vast and overwhelming universe but feel significant as a part of a single nature evolving through the ages; when we feel insignificant as a lonely and mortal individual but feel significant as part of a centuries-long chain of family love; when we see ourselves as powerless in fight­ing the forces of evil alone but see ourselves as powerful when joined together with oth­ers in a movement of political idealism — we experience the wonder of natural transcen­dence. For many Jews their spirituality arises from their sense of connection to generations of ancestors — a sense of solidarity with the past and with time. The pleasure of roots gives us a sense of “immortality,” of continuity be­yond our all-too-brief personal existence. Having children and grandchildren is grow­ing roots in the future.

Secular spirituality is internal when we feel the power residing within ourselves. Self- confidence and personal self-esteem are not as extraordinary as sainthood. But they fill us with an energy of hope and well-being. There are times in our lives when we feel euphori­cally that we can seize the moment and achieve goals that we once thought were un­reachable. Such moments are the stuff out of which internal spirituality is made.

Like traditional spirituality, secular spiri­tuality can be dangerous. If we never feel pow­erful within ourselves but only feel powerful when we are connected to nature and to other people, then this losing oneself in something greater than oneself is the path to passive sur­render and conformity. If we exaggerate our personal power and imagine that we can change our lives and the weather by simply wishing it, then we become the victims of megalomania and illusion.

A healthy secular spirituality is a balanc­ing act. We need to feel connected to forces beyond ourselves without ever losing our per­sonal identity. And we need to feel powerful enough within, yet never imagine that we can survive independent of the help of others.

A healthy spirituality for Humanistic Jews needs the following guidelines.

We need to distinguish between the word spirituality and the experience of extraordi­nary empowerment. Some Humanistic Jews will feel comfortable using the word spiritual to describe this experience. Others will not. As long as we understand the experience we are talking about, we can generously let the word be optional. If someone prefers to say “empowerment” or “transcendence” or “ex­altation,” that choice is legitimate. Leaving the word as an option is kind, good-humored, and pragmatic.

We need to recognize the spiritual qual­ity of many secular lives. The spiritual ideal­ism of halutsim and kibbutzniks, which defied both nature and the limits of human ingenuity to achieve almost impossible goals, has a spiritual quality that can surely equal the devotion of monks and nuns. The resistance of secular ghetto fighters who of­fered their lives to rescue the dignity of the Jewish people certainly has as much spiritu­ality as that of the religious martyrs who died for their faith. Secular scientists such as Einstein and Darwin, who brought unity out of difference, were as spiritual as the most famous theologians.

We need to distinguish between the spiritual experience and its consequences. Empowerment may make us feel energetic and ambitious, willing to confront all odds. It also may make us feel satisfied and secure, dispelling all fears. Ambition and serenity are the consequences of empowerment, not the substance.

We need to develop the ethical side of our spirituality. Transcendent experiences that focus only on nature and the universe to the exclusion of other people are morally danger­ous. A healthy spirituality is not so transcen­dent that human affairs become unimportant. Some of the most significant moments of empowerment come from working with oth­ers to alleviate suffering and to strengthen the community.

We need to develop the aesthetic side of our spirituality. Beauty is the reflection in nature and people of whatever fosters life. Romantic love and sunlight are beautiful be­cause they nurture life. In a universe where ugliness reflects all the dangers to human ex­istence and happiness — from pestilence to violence — we need to feel strengthened by everything in the universe that supports our will to live.

We need to cultivate the internal spiritu­ality that courage brings. In a world where guaranteed happy endings are illusions and magic power is the stuff of fantasy, the ulti­mate spiritual experience is not the surren­der to God. It is the sense of empowerment that refuses to surrender to adversity and insists that taking risks is as sublime as naive faith.

Atheism in the Soviet Union

Building Communities  – Winter 1987

Atheism in the Soviet Union. It seemed an irresistible thing to investigate en route to Oslo for a world meeting of humanists. Twenty-five of us from the North American Committee for Humanism, leaders from six major humanist organizations, arrived in Leningrad on Friday, July 25, 1986. Victor Garadzha, director of the Moscow-based In­stitute for Scientific Atheism, a research center for the study of religion and anti- religion, had invited us to visit and learn after a letter of inquiry sent by me. Our stay in the Soviet Union was to be for eight days.

As naturalistic, nontheistic humanists, many of us perfectly willing to identify ourselves as atheists, we were curious about what the establishment of atheism as the of­ficial “religion” of the Soviet Union (replac­ing Russian Orthodoxy) meant. How perva­sive was atheist belief? How were school­children indoctrinated? What were the ceremonies of birth, puberty, marriage, and death that had been substituted for the old Christian rites? How were the sick and the dying counseled and consoled?

We knew that between the two world wars, atheism was militant. The govern­ment closed down churches, synagogues, and mosques, forbade all religious teaching, banned religious books, and interfered massively with religious activity. Many churches were turned into community cen­ters, schools, and even stables. The clergy were portrayed as agents of reaction. Dur­ing World War II, Stalin softened his anti- religious policies because he wished to mobilize all parts of the population to resistance against the Germans and desired to revive the old Russian nationalism for political purposes. After the war, the anti-religious militancy never returned.

We knew that no religious propaganda was allowed. Many of the churches, now restored to their former glory, are either purely ceremonial centers or museums. We knew that being religious publicly in the Soviet Union was a disadvantage in the pur­suit of work, power, and prestige — in the same way that being an atheist is in North America.

Our meetings were held in the House of Atheism in Moscow, an old pre-Revolutionary mansion that had been transformed into a local center for the dissemination of atheist propaganda. Located in the eastern Taganka district, this center was one of 53 such centers in major cities throughout the Soviet Union. Its exterior retained some of the elegance of czarist times. Its interior was more pedestrian, with offices, study rooms, lecture halls, and a row of photo­graphs of atheist heroes.

Present at the meetings was an array of atheist officials from many organizations connected with education, ceremonial life, publications, and research. Feodor Timo­feev, vice-director of the Institute for Scien­tific Atheism, chaired the gathering, which included Igor Romanov, leader of the Mos­cow Central House of Scientific Atheism, Yevgenia Osipova, professor of atheism and philosophy at the Moscow State Institute of Culture, and Boris Maryanov, co-editor of the main atheist journal, Science and Religion.

Our discussions, which lasted for two mornings and an afternoon, ranged over a wide variety of topics. We carefully avoided certain subjects, since we did not want to spend our precious time on political cliches. We had no intention of arguing about the virtues or vices of Marxism and the Soviet political system, since that conversation would have ended up with useless confron­tation and no information concerning the subjects we were interested in. We mainly directed our questions to atheist education, life cycle ceremonies, and personal counsel­ing — aspects of Soviet daily life that were less visible to Western eyes than the blustery Marxist propaganda we were accustomed to reading and hearing.

There are no special atheist communities in Russia comparable to humanist or reli­gious communities in the Western world. Atheism is simply an integral part of the of­ficial “religion” of Leninism and is express­ed through all the agencies of the state and, especially, through the multitude of com­munal organizations — social, military, in­tellectual, and athletic — that claim the time and allegiance of Soviet citizens. The “god” of the Soviet Union is Lenin. His face and figure are everywhere. Since he was an atheist, atheism is part of Soviet doctrine.

Atheist indoctrination is handled by six different agencies and institutions: 1. The Ministries of Education are in charge of the school system and the molding of young Russian minds. All teachers in the Soviet Union are trained to present the atheist point of view to their students, whether in study or play. 2. The Ministries of Culture are responsible for many intellectual and ar­tistic activities, including state-managed life cycle ceremonies. 3. Faculties of atheism and philosophy, in all major schools of higher learning, provide compulsory courses in atheism for all university students, regardless of their specialties.

  • The many houses of atheism in the major cities, such as the one we visited in Moscow, are propaganda centers where the history of religion is presented from an atheistic point of view and where lecturers, voluntary or paid, are trained as atheist “missionaries” to the general public. 5. The Institute for Scientific Atheism, head­quartered in Moscow, has a faculty of some 40 scholars who research the history of religion and atheistic thought and publish scholarly papers. 6. Science and Religion, a popular journal with a circulation of 400,000, seeks to expose the evils of religion to the Soviet people and to demonstrate the incompatibility of religion with a modern scientific outlook.

None of these six agencies really coor­dinates its atheist activities with the other five. Informal ties exist, but they do not con­stitute an efficient central control.

Soviet authorities have developed alter­native ceremonies, however pedestrian, to those of the old religion. The first Bolshe­viks were so hostile to organized religion that they avoided any kind of celebration that could be remotely connected with the traditional ceremonies of the church. Mar­riages were conducted in registry offices, and babies received no ceremonial wel­come. But, after a while, the authorities came to realize that even atheists needed a ceremonial life with some kind of aesthetic dimension. The result was the gradual development of a series of state-sponsored institutions and celebrations to serve as an integral part of the developing cult of Leninism.

Now citizens of the Soviet Union have options. If they are secularists who hate cer­emonies, they can avoid them, except for a perfunctory procedure at the marriage registry office. But if they want something more “poetic” at special life cycle moments, the system has arranged for this need. There are baby-naming palaces and wedding pal­aces and ceremonial houses at cemeteries.

In the main wedding palace in Moscow, the marble interior is both spartan and grand. Sophia Bulayeva, its manager and director, invited us to witness a marriage ceremony.

On a typical busy day, couples and their families wait in the large reception halls to be summoned to their respective ceremo­nies. Grooms dress conventionally, but brides wear some shortened facsimile of a wedding gown and headdress. The celebra­tion is held in an impressive room with a dramatic rug, desk, and governmental seal. A female wedding professional, assisted by a female representative of the Moscow city government, conducts the ceremony. The shy couple stand by themselves in the mid­dle of the room with family and spectators along the walls. A three-piece orchestra, engaged for four rubles, introduces the celebration with a very short section of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. The of­ficiant, dressed in a severely tailored blue ceremonial suit, instructs the couple on their obligations as husband and wife and as good Soviet citizens. The bride and groom walk forward to sign the marriage docu­ments. Witnesses follow. Rings are ex­changed. More exhortation is offered. Wed­ding chimes are heard. Family and friends rush forward to embrace the couple. But the bride and groom never kiss each other. After the ceremony, the couple, like most Soviet newlyweds, may go off to one of the public statues of Soviet heroes, especially Lenin, to offer their tribute of flowers.

Weddings, babynamings, and funerals are increasingly being conducted by a new breed of professionals, trained by the Ministries of Culture, who function as a secular “clergy.” They are full-time workers with special ceremonial costumes and ritual formats. Almost all of them are women. When Bulayeva was asked why, she replied with the surprisingly traditional response that women are more appropriate than men because they are more nurturing.

The most developed and successful athe­ist ceremonies are the growing-up rites that are provided for children in the schools. Throughout their school careers, Russian children participate in group celebrations of high emotion, which mark important steps in their development as Soviet citizens. There are ceremonies when school begins, when school ends, when important achieve­ments are made. And the school ceremonies are supplemented by dramatic celebrations in the youth groups, especially the Pioneers, which almost all Soviet children join. Rus­sian youths are more innocent and less jaded than Western children and do not pos­sess the cynicism of affluence that affected so many American young people in the six­ties and seventies, when graduation cere­monies were often avoided.

The counseling of the sick and the dying is much more traditional than parallel pro­cedures in the West. In America, in recent years, serious efforts have been made to protect the dignity of the patient by enabling him to confront the truth of his condition, even when it is fatal; in Russia, fantasies of hope are preferred. Pessimism of any kind is regarded as subversive. The vision of a world that is getting better and better is part of Soviet triumphalism. The real human condition, with all its disappointments, disillusionments, and frustrations, is never allowed to surface — especially on an offi­cial level.

Philosophically, Soviet atheism is nega­tive in content. It devotes most of its time to denouncing religion and old superstitions. It spends very little time articulating the positive humanistic side of atheism. What­ever positive elements exist are tied up with the cliches of a traditional Marxism that very few young people really believe in pas­sionately anymore.

We visited the famous Museum of Athe­ism in Leningrad, ironically and deliciously the former great cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan. When I was there sixteen years ago, its magnificent classical and baroque in­terior was filled with an appallingly tasteless anti-religious exhibit. Today, the assaultive elements have been subdued, and a more objective history of religion is pre­sented. Still, the emphasis is on what atheists do not believe — very little on what they do believe. Even the magazine Science and Religion and the scholarly work of the Institute are negative in tone, always find­ing fault and rarely stating a positive, per­sonal alternative to the old religion.

At the same time, nostalgia for the art and artifacts of the old religion is growing. It is now fashionable among the young to collect icons and religious pictures, to “ooh” and “aah” over old religious architec­ture, and to choose a church wedding. While most people in the Soviet Union have become overwhelmingly secular after 70 years of atheist power, many of them find Soviet life boring and search for romantic roots in the past. This nostalgia becomes a safe rebellion against a regime of tired pro­gressive slogans.

One afternoon, one of the voluntary guides at the House of Atheism took us on an “atheist” tour of Moscow. All the sites we visited were religious buildings, old churches that had been restored. When our guide talked about these structures, tied so intimately with the history of Moscow and Russia, his presentation was positive and sentimental.

Although our stay was too short for com­prehensive analysis, it was a marvelous learning experience — although quite depressing at times.

From a North American humanist per­spective, Soviet atheism is disappointing:

  •  It is intimately tied to the “religion” of Leninism, which possesses all the dogma­tism, worship, and naivete of the Orthodox Russian religion that preceded it.
  •  It has succeeded in producing a nation of secularists but not a nation of humanists. Most Soviet citizens do not find aesthetic and personal satisfaction in the doctrines of the regime.
  •  It is managed by nice but innocuous bur­eaucrats, whether academic or administra­tive, who are incapable of building any pas­sionate belief out of all the state power they possess and who, despite this power, have never recruited the finest writers and artists to offer their skills to the development of an effective atheism.
  •  Its brightest side is the ceremonial life it has created for the young, with the help of unsung legions of teachers and youth leaders.

The best thing to come out of our trip was the contact we made with some of the lead­ers of Soviet atheism. Despite our political, social, and economic differences, we share a commitment to a nontheistic philosophy of life. We hope to stay in touch. Perhaps, if a more liberal Russian regime ultimately emerges, with less of an investment in the cult of Leninism, a more meaningful dia­logue can take place.

Reason and Emotion

Reason and Emotion for Humanistic Jews, Autumn 1986

Reason and emotion: Are they compati­ble? Or are they the polar opposites of the human potential?

So often humanists and Humanistic Jews are accused of being coldly rational, of denying the emotional side of the human personality. Our opponents proclaim this dichotomy between the mind and the heart, between logic and passion. Many times we accept this perception of our philosophy and come to believe that we are emotionally deficient.

However, this dichotomy is silly. We need to resist it.

The first step is to acknowledge certain truths about reason.

Reason is not the same as logic. To be reasonable is to be in touch with the facts, to be aware of reality. If you start out with a set of absurd premises, logic will lead you to a set of absurd conclusions. If you maintain that the earth is flat, you can logically con­clude that you will fall off the end of it. Rea­son is as much concerned with the premises as with the procedures for arriving at the conclusion. Logical fundamentalists are not reasonable. And logical schizophrenics are just plain crazy.

Reason is not cold. Reason is a human faculty that has evolved over millions of years. It is tied to the human struggle for survival. Reasonable people, people who stay in touch with reality, have a better chance for survival than people who choose fantasies. The will to live, the passion to sur­vive, is not cold. It provides the “heat” of human existence. Reason, as much as the emotions, is an agent of that life force. It gets its fuel from danger, crisis, and the need to make decisions.

Reason is the friend of emotion. Our desires and needs are emotional drives. But they are not always compatible. Our need for love is not always compatible with our need for dignity. Our need for safety does not always jibe with our need for adventure and change. We cannot satisfy all of our desires simultaneously. We have to choose. Reason is the human faculty that helps us decide which emotion to indulge and which desire to restrain. It makes us aware of the consequences of our behavior and places our needs in some sort of priority order. Being spontaneous is of no use if two “spon­taneities” are competing for the same time and energy.

Reason and emotion complement each other. Discovering the truth is different from responding to the truth. Rational peo­ple can get very hot when it is time to get hot. The rational medical researcher may be coldly objective in trying to discover the cause of a disease and hotly passionate in leading the battle to eliminate it. The rea­sonable social activist may be clinically proper in studying the profile of the poor and inspired in the struggle to defend them. Reasonable people do not look to their emo­tions to find the truth. They save their feeling energy to act on it.

Reason cultivates courage. Quite often, the emotion that dominates our lives is fear, especially the fear of reality. There are so many games we play to avoid confronting painful facts. And we are so skilled at weav­ing fantasies about ourselves and others to defend our self-esteem. Courageous people need reason to fight their fear and to lead them to reality. Courageous people do not wish to live in a world of fantasy — both because it offends their dignity and because they cannot effectively change what they refuse to recognize.

What are some of the realities concerning our feelings and emotions that it is important for us to recognize?

Feelings are simply there. They cannot be dismissed. They cannot be expelled. They cannot be controlled like behavior. You can command people to be loving to others; but you cannot command them to love others. You can order your family to be nice to their enemies; but you cannot order them to stop hating the foe. What we feel and what we do are two different things. An ethic, whether philosophic or religious, that insists that people change their feelings is naive and out of touch with reality. All of us, much of the time, have feelings of hate, jeal­ousy, anger, and fear. We cannot order them out of our minds. The test of our char­acter is not whether we have these emo­tions; it is what we do with them. Behavior, not feelings, determines our character.

In the long evolutionary saga of human­ity, every feeling served an important pur­pose. Our emotions are the internal reflec­tion of behavior that, at one time, was necessary for survival. Love arranged for the nurturing of children and the bonding of parents. Anger kept intruders out of our space and defended our territory. Fear made us aware of dangers we could not control and persuaded us to run away. Hate severed our connection with harmful mem­bers of our community and enabled us to expel them. Jealousy reminded us of our competitive deficiencies and motivated us to improve our skills. Guilt emphasized our dependence on others and kept us loyal. Sadness enabled us to recognize defeat and to rest before our next encounter. No feeling is without its positive side. Even in our modern urban environment, where oppor­tunities for confrontation are so frequent, this evolutionary reality holds true. Anger is still necessary to defend our dignity. Fear is still essential to keep us away from danger. Hate is still useful for resisting harmful rela­tionships. Jealousy is still important for self- improvement. Guilt is still significant for preserving community. Sadness is still a step to personal recovery. Love is still indis­pensable to guarantee our future.

Spiritual living is not the same as spirituality… .Humanists believe firm­ly in the power of the human spirit, [but] they are wary of the “spiritual.”

Every feeling can be dangerous. Despite the common religious conviction that divine providence has designed us perfectly, our feelings are not harmonious. They often show up where they do not belong and stick around long after they should have depart­ed. It is easy to see how anger, fear, hate, jealousy, guilt, and sadness can be inappro­priate and lead to self-destruction. But love receives so much hype that we are reluctant ever to denounce it. Yet, in many human relations, love is masochistic, encouraging the lover to surrender dignity and to accept humiliation. In this present decade, when intellect is discounted and emotion is valued, it is important to remember that “being emotional” may not be as praise­worthy as some people think.

Feelings love to hide. Ever since Freud, we are very much aware that what we think we feel may not be what we really feel. The mind is able to repress uncomfortable thoughts and desires and to protect us from the pain of confronting them. Our con­sciousness celebrates love; our unconscious cherishes hate. Our consciousness seeks the spiritual; our unconscious is obsessed with sex. With such self-deception, sincerity be­comes meaningless. What we honestly be­lieve that we feel may be a fantasy of avoid­ance. Outsiders, observing us and listening to us, may discern more about our real feel­ings than we do. Thus, it is a dangerous cliche to say that all people know best what they want.

There are many emotional styles. Not all emotions are hot. Some emotions are cold. Indifference and resignation are emotional states as much as love and hate. If all behav­ior is attached to feeling — and we cannot avoid behaving — then every action or state of being has emotional content. Austere, withdrawn people are just as emotional as volatile screamers. They simply have differ­ent temperaments. Future-oriented, creative people are just as emotional as past- oriented, traditional people. They just have different feeling responses to the authority of ancestors. Dependable, supportive, but undemonstrative, people are just as loving as verbal, demonstrative huggers. They merely show their love in different ways.

Behavior often can change feelings. While it is true that emotions are simply there, undismissable, it is also true that they can change over the long run. Not all emo­tions. Some responses to life are too deeply rooted ever to go away — or even to experi­ence slight alteration. But many feelings are reinforced by the behavior they inspire. We are afraid to swim and so we never try. And because we never try, our fear grows stronger. Dwelling on the fear through introspection does not drive it away; nor does understanding its causes relieve its intensity. Only when our will, in opposition to our fear, insists that we try to do what we are afraid to do — and we discover that we can do it — does our fear diminish. While behavior usually follows feelings, feelings sometimes follow behavior.

Ventilating our feelings calls for discre­tion. During the past two decades, it has become fashionable in psychotherapeutic circles to encourage people to release the feelings they are afraid to express. Holding in emotions is thought to be as dangerous as prolonged constipation. If you are angry, let other people know about your anger. If you are sad, let other people know about your sadness. The result of this fad is not a dramatic improvement in human behavior. Quite the contrary. People have simply grown accustomed to dumping their emo­tional garbage on people who are conve­niently nearby. Marriages are destroyed. Friendships are disrupted. Work environ­ments turn chaotic. An orgy of honesty trau­matizes human relations and wreaks havoc with the fragile structure of courtesy, com­passion, and discretion that makes society possible. In a world of tender egos and lim­ited patience, wise people know that “hold­ing in” can be a discipline for survival and happiness. Uncontrolled “dumping” is dan­gerous. Some thoughts should never be uttered. Some feelings should never be expressed.

Emotional experiences need character to tie them together. In our advanced con­sumer culture, clever manufacturers sell ex­periences as well as things. They stage an event and promise an “emotional high.” A rock concert, a religious revival, a weekend of meditation, a Hasidic farbrengen, a mara­thon of self-discovery — all are available to the general public for the picking. No train­ing is required. No ideological commitment is solicited beforehand. No demands on future behavior are seriously made. Each event stands by itself as a fondly remem­bered experience. The “with-it” Jew can do Oriental mysticism, gestalt, Hasidism, Zen, and EST with little concern for their incom­patibility. Since the only thing that counts is the emotional high of the experience itself, consistency is irrelevant. Of course, what is absent is something called character, that strong cord of consistent beliefs and values that gives substance to individuals and makes them more than a collection of in­credible happenings. People with character are not searching for emotional highs. They derive their feeling of satisfaction from lead­ing their lives in accordance with long-run principles and convictions.

Spirited living is not the same as spiri­tuality. Humanists who have rich emotional lives understand that prose is often inade­quate to express feelings of joy, wonder, exultation, and human solidarity. They sur­round themselves with the poetry of the arts, the beauty of music, painting, dance, theater, and the splendors of nature. Some­times they are participants. But, in all cases, they affirm the value and glory of this natural world of life and death. While they believe firmly in the power of the human spirit, they are wary of the “spiritual.” This word has a specific meaning in Western culture. It is connected with the super­natural, the realms of deathless souls, divine intelligence, and “superior” worlds that transcend the “inferior” offerings of mate­rial existence. It is associated with men and women who have forgone the pleasures of the material world in order to serve the cause of a transcendent power. Many spiri­tual people are not very spirited. They pre­fer passive waiting to action, asceticism to joy, surrender to conflict.

Reasonable people know that the human spirit does not grow through pious rever­ence. It grows through struggle and defi­ance. The spirituality of the Baal Shem Tov may be impressive. But it cannot compare in emotional power to the heroic spirit of Prometheus and the secular defenders of the Warsaw ghetto.

In a time when the religious opposition is growing strong, we humanists are tempted to steal the vocabulary of the competition. In the end, such desperation will only make us look foolish. We will talk a lot about spir­ituality. But we will never really be able to do it with conviction.

If what we want is more poetry, then in­deed let us create more poetry and call it that. If what we want is more hugging and dancing, then let us have more hugging and dancing and call it that. If what we want is a stronger sense of community that tran­scends our individual existence and binds us together in solidarity, then let us work on the bonds of community and call it that. But let us not confuse the development of the human spirit with the experience of peace and serenity that comes from believing that there is a profound harmony between human need and the forces that guide the universe. Our beliefs as humanists and as Humanistic Jews are in strong conflict with this premise of historic spirituality. The pain and suffering of existence cannot be trivialized by claiming that they are simply part of some greater positive whole. And if the universe, with all its vast influence, does not give us peace and serenity but makes us a little bit nervous, that response is very appropriate and very Jewish.

The Rational Life

The Rational Life, Autumn 1982

The rational life. At one time, in the heyday of the Enlightenment, it was the ideal. The spokespersons of reason domi­nated the intellectual world and imagined that the life of reason would become the modus vivendi for all of humanity.

The early rationalists saw the life of reason in opposition to the life of faith. The life of faith, in their eyes, was dominated by the superstitions of traditional religion. It cultivated blind obedience and a self- destructive humility that denied men and women the power to be the masters of their own lives. It downplayed happiness here on earth and promised an illusory immor­tality of eternal bliss.

The men of reason believed that the life of reason would dispel superstition and would provide “salvation” through the truths of the new science. Made aware of its own power, humanity would seize the opportunity to transform the human condi­tion and to pursue human happiness in the only life that was ours to live.

The men of reason were naive. But were they wrong?

Many modern thinkers think so. Or, rather, we should say “postmodern think­ers,” since they associate modernity with the life of reason, which they claim is now passe. Postmodern thinkers hold reason responsible for the horrors and the disillu­sionment of the twentieth century. While not wanting to return to the life of faith, they often find it less objectionable than the life of reason. They accuse the rational­ists of fostering a narrow and elitist path to truth, which, in the end, produces a tyr­anny and emptiness worse than the life of religion.

Their chief accusations go something like this:

  •  Reason is cold and unemotional. It ig­nores the feeling side of human exist­ence. It does not pay attention to the parts of the human psyche that provide warmth and meaning to human life.
  •  Reason is wary of the power of intu­ition, which also may stand in opposi­tion to traditional faith and which also is the source of important truths. The truly free spirit cannot be limited by the pedestrian restrictions of the scientific method. It needs to use the power and the wisdom of the whole mind.
  •  Reason looks at the world through ana­lytic eyes. It cuts reality into pieces, labels them, and connects them with the categories of cause and effect. But it is incapable of synthetic truth. It cannot experience the world as a whole. And the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The analytic power of the left brain needs to be supplemented by the synthetic power of the right brain.
  • Reason leads to moral chaos. Without God and religion, everything is permit­ted. Reason can tell us how to do things, but it cannot tell us why we should do what we ought to do. Without some authority that lies beyond reason, fas­cism is just as reasonable as democracy. The terrible anarchy of modern urban life comes from the personal moral au­tonomy that reason grants.
  •  Reason fosters tyranny. The worst tyr­anny of modern times was the Marxist dictatorship of the communist empire. The leaders of that empire spoke in the name of secularism and reason and justified their actions on rational grounds. Their revolution elevated a new “clergy” of intellectuals who were more dogmatic, more arrogant, and more repressive than the clergy they sought to replace.
  •  Reason rests on the elitist notion of an objective truth, to which only the ex­perts of science have access. It fails to acknowledge the more democratic real­ity that truth is essentially subjective and that there are as many truths as there are people who experience the world.

I believe that this assault on reason is invalid. The postmodern critique is a dis­tortion of the truth and is, in a very real sense, responsible for the very danger it complains about.

Reason is not cold. Nor is it hot. It is a method for the discovery of truth, which can be used by either cold people or hot people. Most of the time it is attached to the heat of passionate desires. Desire moti­vates people to use reason. People want to survive and be happy. Reason helps them understand the reality they are dealing with. It helps them satisfy their desires by being responsible to the facts. It helps them tame their desires by reminding them of both their limitations and opportunities. Emotion and reason are not enemies. They go hand in hand.

Reason is not contemptuous of intu­ition. All great discoveries begin with intuition. The scientific method begins with a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a hunch or intuition. Without brilliant hunches and intuitions, science would be powerless. But, while intuition is valuable, it is not enough. It has to be tested by the evidence of human experience. There are crazy in­tuitions as well as profound ones. There has to be some way of telling the difference between them. That is what science is all about.

Reason is not only analytic. It also entails synthesis. It deals with the macro­scopic picture as well as the microscopic picture. The theory of evolution is not about small facts. It ties them all together into a big whole. The “big bang” theory is not about a teeny event. It is about the whole universe. It synthesizes billions of events and makes them fit one into the other. Holistic insights are as integral to science as they are to art. But synthesis is not just the sudden flash of insight. It also depends upon the hard work of making sure that brilliant flashes of insight are what they claim to be.

Reason does not lead to moral chaos. God is no guarantee of moral order, simply because no one can agree on what God wants us to do. God is not available to be interviewed. Every religion can put words into his mouth, and does. The history of humanity is the story of religious people killing each other over disagreements about God’s commands. And faith is truly cha­otic because it provides no way of peace­fully arbitrating disagreement. Reason is less arbitrary. It requires that all moral commands or recommendations be tested by the consequences of choosing to act on them. Universal ethical rules are the result of common sense based on long-run hu­man experience. Failure to act on them threatens survival and happiness, both personal and collective. Reason is the only method for the discovery and justification of moral values that does not rely on arbitrary faith and intuition. The anarchy in our society is not caused by people who are rational. It is caused by postmodern hardline subjectivists who believe that truth and ethics are simply a function of what­ever their inner voices announce. Freedom that is not subject to the test of conse­quences is not rational and is dangerous indeed.

Reason does not foster tyranny. As both Baruch Spinoza and John Stuart Mill pointed out, reason cannot survive where there is no freedom. Without the give and take of a free society, conclusions freeze into dogma. Tentative answers turn into absolute proclamations. The Marxists of the Communist empire claimed the author­ity of reason, but they were much more comfortable with the style of the religion they insisted they hated. All forms of dogma are inimical to reason, whether they be Jewish, Christian, or Marxist. And all forms of dictatorship are subversive of the integrity of reason. Tyranny flows quite naturally from absolute certainty, the vulnerable need to be protected from error. When the boundary between truth and error is unclear, only freedom suffices.

Reason is elitist in one sense but egali­tarian in another. The one person with evidence to support a stand does win out over the masses who have not done their empirical homework. But this one person can come from any class, ethnic, or educa­tional background. The peasant or the plumber with the evidence wins out over the king with none. On the other hand, an egalitarianism that claims that all opinions are subjective and, therefore, of equal value is opposed to reason. Reality is not the creation of our minds. It is not invented; it is discovered. Equating ignorance with knowledge may be democratic. But, in the end, it is foolish and dangerous. Reason does not imagine that truth comes from an act of will. It is the product of training, discipline, and hard work, Rational free spirits pay attention to outer evidence. Crazy free spirits listen only to inner voices.

The rational life may not be as euphoric as the early Enlightenment philosophers imagined. But it is the best alternative available. To live the life of reason is to be able to do the following:

Face the Facts

Rational people can respect themselves only if they are strong enough to face reality. Painful truth is more desirable than painless illusion. You cannot take control of your life if you are dancing with fanta­sies. Rational people do not believe be­cause they want to believe or need to believe. They believe because the evidence provides them with no other alternative.

Live with Uncertainty

For many questions there are presently no clear answers. Evidence is too slim or ambiguous. The best you can say is “I don’t know.” Some people find uncer­tainty unbearable. They prefer any answer, however absurd, to no answer at all. Ratio­nal people do not like uncertainty. But they are strong enough to live with it. They do not insist on an answer when none is really available. They do not admire in­tense faith. They are afraid of it. Where evidence exists, strong convictions are appropriate. But waiting for the evidence can take equal strength.

Live with Ambiguity

There are no absolutely right or wrong decisions. All decisions have good and bad consequences. Recognizing ambiguity is part of being rational. When we make decisions, we may choose the alternative with the least number of disadvantages or the greatest number of advantages, but we can never escape mixing the two. Rational people are never self-righteous. They never claim moral purity. They are too practical and good-humored for that.

Dismiss the Past

The past is unreachable and unchange­able. No magic can transform it. Learning from the past is rational. Worrying about the past and wishing it were different are a waste of time. Rational people turn their energies to what they can change and improve. They do not cultivate full-time regret. For them, being sorry does not last forever. It turns into constructive action. Guilt is not a profession. It is the rational prelude to making actions produce better consequences.

Resist Resignation

There are many things we cannot change, including the law of gravity. But there are many things we can change. No matter what happens no sacred or holy power has ordained it. It happened because — like a hurricane — blind, unconscious, and un­caring forces made it happen. Or it hap­pened because — like cruel violence — people made it happen. If something is bad, we may not have to accept it. And if we can change it, we do not have to pretend that it is besherrt (destined). Pas­sivity in the face of our power to make a positive difference is not rational.

Pursue Happiness

Suffering may be unavoidable, but it is not a rational goal. Rational people may suffer because they cannot avoid suffering or because they cannot achieve what they want without pain. But they do not choose to suffer because of a belief that suffering is ultimately good. Happiness is the satisfac­tion of basic human needs and desires, including the desire for community. Happy people know that their happiness is inter­twined with the happiness of others. We are social beings who thrive on the help and approval of our peers.

Direct Our Emotions

Emotions are facts. Denying them when they are uncomfortable does not make them go away. They simply go into hiding and cause more trouble than before. Nor do our emotions exist in perfect harmony, each complementing and cooperating with the others. Fear, anger, hate, and love compete for our energy. If left to their own devices, they produce emotional chaos. We end up indulging the wrong feeling at the wrong time. Rational people never deny their feelings. They try to become more and more aware of them. But they do not surrender to them. They control them. They respond with fear when fear is appro­priate. They offer love when love can be nurturing. Reason does not stand above emotion. It is the managing director, mak­ing sure that our emotional energies work for our happiness and the happiness of others.

Acknowledge Our Power

It is dangerous to imagine that we can do what we are not able to do. But it is equally dangerous to imagine that we cannot do what we are able to do and need to do. Too much humility provides a rationalization for cowardice and makes us wary of useful action. Reasonable people do not claim powers that reason denies. But they do not hide behind the excuses of convenient modesty. Most of us have the power to do more than we give ourselves credit for. Self-esteem is owning up to our own power, especially in a world where religion gives the credit for everything to outside powers.

The rational life is a fulfilling life be­cause it negotiates between what we want and what is possible. That balancing act needs the discipline and good humor of reason.

Ethical Guidelines

Humanistic Judaism Anthology – Spring, 1986

An adequate philosophy of life provides two guides. The first is a description of reality. The second is a prescription for how to respond to reality. The first con­cerns itself with what is. The second con­cerns itself with what ought to be. The first is called metaphysics. The second is called ethics.

Ethics is concerned with human be­havior. Applying moral judgments to the actions of animal behavior is inappropri­ate. Where self-awareness is absent, the only value judgment that is fitting is aesthetic.

Although metaphysics covers a much wider area of reality than ethics, it is not as compelling. Being human, we see things from the human perspective. And from the human perspective, nothing is more important than making decisions about our behavior.

If I am a humanist, I make ethical deci­sions in the context of the following restrictions and acknowledgments.

I refuse to accept the legitimacy of au­thoritarian demands. No behavior is right simply because some important person says that it is right. Neither God nor Moses can make an action ethical by his endorsement. Right and wrong do not derive from the authors of rules. They are a function of the consequences of behavior. Right behavior produces good consequences. Wrong behavior produces bad consequences.

I relate good and bad to basic human needs. Right action satisfies human needs. Wrong action frustrates human needs in some fundamental way. A morality that is indifferent to human survival, human pleasure, and human dignity is no morali­ty at all. It is a morality without human motivation and, therefore, irrelevant.

I acknowledge that human needs are not always compatible. We cannot always pursue our survival needs, our pleasure needs, and our dignity needs simultan­eously. Eating sweets to my heart’s content may enhance my pleasure. But it may destroy my life. Betraying my friends to the enemy may spare my life. But it will compromise my dignity. This “dishar­mony” is intrinsic to the human condition and defines the agony of moral decisions.

I recognize that, because of this dishar­mony of needs, there is also a disharmony of ethical demands. Morality is not a neat and orderly set of rules that fit comfor­tably one into the other. If I choose dignity as my primary need and my primary value, as I believe most humanists do, I do so with the full awareness that survival and pleasure are also morally compelling. Since dignity is related to our vision of the ideal ruler, and self-rule is an axiom of hu­manism, it seems to have the edge. But the edge, as we know from experience, is not always wide and secure.

I am good-humored enough to admit that ethical rules are not absolute guide­lines dropped to earth by some infallible heavenly commander. They are useful summaries of past wisdom. If I wish to teach people (especially children) how to defend their dignity and the dignity of others, I need to convey the experience of the past in the easiest possible way. Rules, or operating principles, serve that pur­pose. Since they are too brief to be all- inclusive, they are bound to have excep­tions. Telling all the truth to a dumb and ugly person may not be the best way to protect his dignity.

I acknowledge that it is impossible to motivate people to satisfy needs that are not their own. Parents nurture children and friends help friends because they un­consciously do not distinguish between their own needs and the needs of their families and loved ones. Human drives are individual. And so are satisfactions. Phrases like “the general will” or “the general welfare” conjure up social monsters that do not really exist. An effec­tive ethic is able to motivate the individual to serve the needs of others as though they were his very own.

I recognize that there are few actions in which an individual may choose to in­dulge that do not affect the lives of others. The famous liberal prescription that grants the individual the right to be the total master of his life in those areas of his existence that do not touch the interests of others sounds good on paper. But it does not work very well in reality. In an over­crowded world, almost every personal ac­tivity involves somebody else. Sex, the col­or of one’s house, smoking, and the noise level of one’s stereo are “private” activi­ties that have social consequences. Even the failure to take care of one’s own health may create an intolerable social burden.

I refuse to make behavioral demands on myself and other people that we are, by nature, unable to fulfill. Asking people to dismiss all anger, hate, and jealousy — dis­positions intrinsic to human nature — is an exercise in futility. There is a human nature. The human potential is not unlim­ited. Nor is the human personality infi­nitely malleable. To dismiss what is not dismissable is to program human beings for failure. Morality is not always easy. But it is attached to realizable goals. A ra­tional ethic may tame anger, hate, and jealousy in the same way that it tames love. However, it does not seek to arrange what reality cannot arrange.

For most humanists, the criterion of dignity becomes the ultimate arbiter in moral decision making.

I make a distinction between behavior and motivation. Some people are devotees of the cult of intentions. They are always concerned with why people do what they do. They are absorbed with inner thoughts and feelings over which the individual has absolutely no control. If love is primarily a feeling, it is absurd to demand it. If love is a behavior, it is something we can choose to do, even if we do not feel like it. Most ethical people have large amounts of anti­social thoughts and feelings. For that reason, morality requires a great deal of discipline. In the end, from the ethical point of view, people are their behavior.

I recognize that moral intuition (or con­science) is, in reality, a form of uncon­scious reasoning in which the conse­quences of my behavior are tested by memory. I may tell the truth because my conscience tells me to. But what appears on the surface to be a dogmatic rule may not be dogmatic at all. It may be derived from human experience. A society in which people cannot trust each other to tell the truth will not long endure.

I am fully aware that there is no such thing as Jewish ethics. As an ethnic group, Jews have exhibited a wide variety of moral attitudes. The Jewish Defense League can find as many Biblical and Talmudic quotations to support its posi­tion as can Peace Now. Since a Jewish humanist has to be selective about which historic Jewish advice to accept, there must be a higher, more universal criterion by which he renders judgment. A Jewish humanist and a Gentile humanist have more in common ethically than a Jewish humanist and a Hasid. What binds all Jews together is a shared ethnic and na­tional experience.

Humanistic Jews view this history differently from traditional Jews. Traditional Jews look at Jewish history and find support for the virtue of trusting in God. Humanistic Jews look at Jewish history and find (especially after the Holocaust and despite all the contrary Biblical and Talmudic quotations] the moral necessity for human self-reliance.

A personal ethics for Jewish humanists requires just as much self-discipline (if not more) than traditional morality. The vi­sion of a strong, self-reliant, trustworthy, generous person, who strives to remain consistent in the face of an absurd universe, is quite different from the ideal of a humble, obedient servant who relies on the justice of destiny. That vision is the ultimate guideline for humanist decision making.