Humanism Variety

Humanistic Judaism, Fall, Winter 1974-75

An enthusiastic modernist asked me recently if I thought that the advance of science and empirical procedures would usher in the possibility of a world religion. If, with the exposure of the masses to secular education, acceptance of humanist message becomes fairly universal, then the basis of a genuine unity exists. While traditional religions with their closed methodologies of faith created exclusive cultural enclaves, the new humanism, characterized by an anti-dogmatic and responsible openness, would enable men of radically different backgrounds to hurtle their home barriers and merge into the religion of mankind.

The heady optimism that characterizes this question was not unique to my questioner. Over a century ago the naive exponents of free-thinking imagine that the use of reason, once widely spread, would prove the key to a universal ideology in which all men would participate. However, they cannot be too severely condemned, for, after all, naïveté was the mood of the era. Even a contemporary Rabbi, Isaac Mayer Wise, was proclaiming, in all seriousness, that by the beginning of the 20th century Reform Judaism and a purified Hebrew monotheism would have won the world.

The problem is that the question I received contained a hidden promise. The asker assumes that scientific humanism is one religion. He assumed that, if all men embrace the empirical approach, all meaningful controversy would be ultimately resolvable. While men may disagree about conclusions when evidence is meager, the responsibility to public experience will enable men to agree when evidence becomes overwhelming. (After Magellan’s crew sailed around the planet, it was pretty impossible to maintain that the earth was flat.) Thus, disagreement is theoretically only temporary. Time and patience will heal all arguments and reduce men to increasing unanimity of opinion. Controversy will never cease, but each disagreement is conceivably “settleable” by a set of imagined experiences. The logical possibility of a single conclusion makes unity possible.

If religion were concerned with information about man in the universe alone, then one would have to assert that empiricism provides the basis for a universal religion. But, of course, it’s primary concern transcends information and reaches out to evaluation. Religion has historically, although not uniquely, been concerned with the question of meaning in life; and meaning, or purpose, is a function of ultimate values and final goals. The discovery of an achievement of those value and has been a persistent driving traditional religion and secular philosophy.

Now, certainly, most of our values can be empirically determined. Because the vast majority of our ethical judgment or involved with means and not ends, they are extrinsic. An activity that had extrinsic value is never good in itself; it is good for achieving some other action or experience that is “self-validating:” that needs no justification beyond itself. Science can conceivably answer all questions of extrinsic value. If the empiricist knows the goal, and if he has available the relevant data, he can determine what procedures are necessary to achieve the goal. But he could not demonstrate that any end is worth pursuing, simply for its own sake. While he may lead his student to experiences he personally finds intrinsically meaningful, and teach him how to achieve them, he cannot prove their value from his own perception of the student himself.

Intrinsic or ultimate value is not a proper subject for scientific demonstration. Science may do a statistical survey on what ultimate values people do have. They cannot, however, make a list of ultimate values people ought to have. Science may open up a host of new activities which individuals may find meaningful and self-justifying; it cannot, however, demonstrate their meaningfulness. Final values are the result of personal intuition. To talk about them is to talk about a personal situation, not a universal one. Each individual, through his own experience, finds those actions and passions he wishes to repeat.

It is, therefore, obvious that all humanists, no matter how united on a method for the discovery of informational truth, will not find the same “meaning” in life. Unless we assume against the personal testimony we daily encounter, that all men share the same ultimate values, you will have to conclude that among humanists a variety of different “religions” may exist, each religion a function of a unique set of values.

Of course, it is possible for two people to share the same ideas about the intrinsic merits of certain experience and still not share the same religion. The difference lies in the ordering. Even if both individuals find ultimate meaning in the act of compassion and in the act of intellectual discovery, one person may regard compassion as the more significant while the other may view intellectual discovery as qualitatively superior. There are degrees of intrinsic value; and the discernment of degrees is again both personal and intuitive. One humanist, on the basis of his value order, may prefer to devote the major part of his life to the cause of social justice, and only a small part to academic pursuits, while another may prefer the thrill of pure your research and indulge asocial crusade now and then. Neither humanist is expressing the humanistic value order. Each of them simply reflects a different temperament.

Even if all men become humanists (which is highly unlikely) organized religion would still reflect these differences of “temperament”. Even if all humanists came to endorse the same side of ultimate values, the religious expression would still have to deal with the fact that the same values may be ordered differently. Some congregations would be primarily devoted to you in the mystic experience; others to the thrill of understanding the operation of the universe. Some would prefer to build their program around the kinesthetic pleasure of song and dance; others to emphasizing help for the underprivileged. Available religious society would be committed to do more than the empirical method; it would be billed on a sense of shared meaning, a set of final values that call into a certain order of emphasis. The personality of a congregation like that of an individual is determined by its value structure; and this structure provides a basis for organized activity.

Value imperialism of the disease that good humanists resist. To assume that the welfare of mankind requires a single set of moral ends which the young must be educated to accept is to cultivate self-righteousness and to frustrate the creation of a workable society. It might be eco-satisfying to know that “my” values are the values; but it breeds the danger that “I” will treat contemptuously alternative moral choices. To assume, as many modern Christian humanists do, that all men ought to accept a radical and suffering love as their primary ethic is to project the personal side of ultimates onto the universal scene and violate the obvious uniqueness of individual taste and temperament. Love as a secondary motif might give life a different meaning from love is a primary motive (and, therefore, provide a different religion); it but it is consistent with an empirical outlook.

Thus, world united by its commitment to the scientific method and its rejection of intuition as a valid means to information truth will still spawn and sustain a variety of religions, each religion a derivative of how individuals and groups perceive the character and order of their values.

In fact, the variety may be further increased by another factor, the factor of aesthetics. Two humanists may share the same life goals and therefore share the same religion and yet choose to symbolize and dramatize their commitment to different poetries. The consistent Christian humanist may fully acknowledge that the validity of the values Jesus proclaimed are independent of the fact that he proclaimed them and may further admit that many other historic figures preached pretty much the same message, and still choose to use the figure of Jesus as the personal symbol of his ethical commitment. Alternative symbols are possible, but none is as compelling for him.

The Jewish humanist will readily admit that his value system does not depend on prophetic or Talmudic endorsement for its validity, and yet he will choose to use certain events in Jewish history as dramatizing of these commitments. Alternative poetry is certainly available, but for him no other possibility has the same emotional impact. He certainly has no objection to using items in other poetic traditions. It’s just that, since he desired to devote only a limited amount of time to symbolism in ceremony, he would prefer to use one set of related symbols well, rather than a variety of culturally unrelated symbols superficially.

One can conceive of a host of different poetic styles to express a given side of religious values. On a theoretical value, that difference in aesthetics would not make a difference in religion; but, on the practical, or organized level, it would provide an emotional basis for separate development. Aesthetic modes are not easily merged, because they are so tied up with the pleasures of what is visible and audible. Moreover, certain options may possess a kind of intrinsic value for those to use them.

This observation confirms the “problem” our optimistic questioner faces. While the world of the future may, therefore, see the continuing advance of science and empirical thinking; and while it may witness a general disintegration of the theoretically oriented religious denominations, the emergence of one system of value meaning is highly unlikely. In fact, technological this already, with its opportunities for leisure and study will hide in the sense of individuality and provide within the framework of a comment with method, a wide variety of ethical and aesthetic alternatives.

The Many Faces of Love

Recorded by the Center for New Thinking.

Love is a universal value that comes in many forms.  There is romantic love, parental love, friendship love, patriotic love and even nature love.  All have found their celebrants in literature in poetry, literature and drama.

Click HERE to download and listen to this audio lecture.

The God Delusion: Richard Dawkins and Militant Atheism

Recorded 2006 by the Center for New Thinking.

A preeminent scientist – and the world’s most prominent atheist – asserts that a belief in God is irrational and that religion is harmful. Richard Dawkins eviscerates the major arguments for religion and demonstrates the supreme improbability of a supreme being. He maintains that religion fuels war, ferments bigotry and abuses children. He also asserts that atheism is superior to religion, providing a clearer truer appreciation of the universe’s wonders than any faith could ever muster.

Click HERE to download and listen to this audio lecture.

Courage in the Face of Death

“Courage” memorial reading, Humanistic Judaism journal, Winter/Spring 1999

Death needs courage. It is so overwhelmingly final that it fills our lives with dread and anxious fear. When it arrives at the end of a long and happy life it is never welcome, yet not deeply resented. But when it comes too soon, invading young lives, disrupting hopes and dreams, it adds anger to our fear. We cry out at the injustice of destiny and wait for answers that never seem to come.

Courage is the power to confront a world that is not always fair. It is the refusal to beg for what will never be given. It is the willingness to accept what cannot be changed.

Courage is loving life even in the face of death. It is sharing our strength with others even when we feel weak. It is embracing our family and friends even when we fear to lose them. It is opening ourselves to love, even for the last time.

Courage is self-esteem. It prefers quiet determination to whining. It prefers doing to waiting. It affirms that exits, like entrances, have their own dignity.

God and Human Knowledge

“God and Human Knowledge” from Judaism Beyond God, (1985)

God was the central figure in the world of tradition. The universe was his creation. He could do with it whatever he wanted. As an all-powerful, demanding, intervening superfather, he dwarfed the rest of reality. God was part of a supernatural world of angels and demons who did not have to obey the laws of nature and who possessed extraordinary powers that natural creatures did not have and could not understand. The world of faith was a frightening place, loaded with natural disaster and supernatural terror.

God was an unchallenged given. In the age of faith, you might argue about the nature of his personality and desires, but you never challenged his existence. Jews, Christians, and Muslims disputed endlessly. But atheists were never part of the discussion. To question the reality of God was to question the validity of faith.

The need to prove the existence of God is the beginning of his end. It means that people are starting to doubt. An organization where the employees begin to doubt the existence of their employer is in deep trouble. As reason grew in strength, more and more religious philosophers became embarrassed with their divine superstar and his behavior. Why does an all-powerful God allow the suffering he can certainly prevent? Why does an all-knowing God hold people responsible for behavior he already knows they will perform? Why is a God of the whole universe interested in the daily behavior of an insignificant peasant?

Answers were not easy to come by. Ultimately, God was turned into a vague abstract retired superstar who was so distant and mysterious that nothing positive could be said about him. Any atheist could almost be comfortable with the God of Maimonides. But then why bother with God at all?

As modem science revealed the vastness of the universe, a divine father figure with a personal interest in planet Earth became less believable. The world of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton made people too small to be noticeable and God too big to be approachable. For many thoughtful people, having him around was pragmatically the same as not having him around. Since he had lost his power to intimidate, God became a perfunctory sweet frosting on the natural cake of the world.

Ultimately, Immanuel Kant, the philosopher of Koenigsberg, a mild and unpretentious man, did God in. He demonstrated that the existence of a supreme being was problematical and that reason could neither prove his reality nor disprove it. This unseemly slaughter transformed theology. The main question shifted from “Does God really exist?” to “Do people need God?” Theology became a department of psychology. The issue was no longer whether God was really there, only whether people needed God to be there. How humiliating! By the twentieth century, the religious experience—which, at least, is open to

study and investigation— became the new focus of theology. Believing in God became a new form of psychotherapy.

The age of reason did not kill God through angry disbelief. It disposed of him in a much more deadly fashion. It made him too vague to be interesting. Theology passed from the excitement of hell, fire, and brimstone to the boredom of abstraction with capital letters. The “All,” the “One,” the “Ground of Being” are like the emperor’s clothing. You are not even sure they are there. And if they are, who cares? Ultimately, the masters of contemporary religion refused to admit to any God that was meaningful. He lingered on as a word of reverence. Most people believed—but there was nothing to believe in.

In a world without God, people’s attention turned to the natural world. Theology was replaced by physics, chemistry, biology, and geology. These new sciences changed our view of the world. The planet Earth became a small satellite spinning around a small star. The earth grew older and older. And humanity discovered that it was the cousin of the ape.

Divine creation was out. Evolution was in.

Evolution is the monumental epic story of the secular age. It is more than the story of the development of life. It includes the entire universe—from the moment of the Big Bang to the present. It starts with electrons and photons, gravitons and gluons. It moves on to atoms, stars, and galaxies. It features explosions, transformations, and glorious fires. It encompasses the birth and death of millions of suns, the formation of billions of moons. Nothing ever stops changing, always turning from one thing into another.

The stuff of evolution is not the divine word. It is elusive energy. Everything is a disguise for energy. Comets and leopards, rocks and people—all share the same little particles, the same little flashes of substance. The evolution of earthly life is only a small chapter in the saga of a changing universe.

Bible stories cannot match the grandeur of this unfolding epic. Boiling rocks and flying reptiles are only two of a trillion wonders. Instead of emerging neatly packaged and classified for human use, the universe moves on its messy way in cruel indifference to human desire.

The Garden of Eden has been replaced by East African gorges. Adam and Eve walk upright, but they have sloping foreheads and jutting jaws. Our roots are not in heaven. They are in water holes and swamps. And our embryonic bodies cannot hide the fact that fish and frogs are part of our family tree.

Reason has presented us with a new setting. The world we live in is both messy and orderly. All units of energy under the same conditions behave in the same way, no matter where they are or when they are.

Since the universe is a collection of events, not a thing, it was not “manufactured” or “created.” Energy changes form and association. It may squeeze together or thinly spread. It may contract and explode. But its universal drama has no beginning and no end.

Events in the universe have causes. But the universe, as a whole, has no cause. The question, “Who made the World?” is naive. Even if we incorrectly assume that the world is a manufactured object, the conventional answer, “God,” is unsatisfying. For if one can legitimately ask, “Who made the world?” one can, with equal justice, ask, “Who made God?” The logical answer, “Super-God,” leads us down a trail of regression that provides no enlightenment. If we can imagine a God without a beginning, we can much more easily imagine a world without a beginning.

The age of reason is the age without God. While nostalgia preserves him in the vocabulary of the powerful, he has lost his substance. The terrifying heavenly super father has been replaced by a dispensable philosophical abstraction. He has lost his ability to intimidate and to attract. The world he supposedly created is now more interesting than he is. Science has replaced theology as the intellectual commitment of modern times. If science and modem theology appear compatible, it is hardly a tribute to religion. Liberal religion has produced a God too vacuous to be taken seriously. Fundamentalist religion, as the surviving popular resistance to the age of reason, may be rude and assaultive. But at least its God is worth noticing. The God of the fundamentalists can enforce what he commands.

The problem in the contemporary world is not the power of God. It is the power of people. The technology that is born of science has given humanity the intimidating force that was formerly reserved for divinity. In a time of biological engineering and computer slaves, new “deities” of knowledge and power have emerged. The natural world, all by itself, provides us with access to overwhelming might.

In the age of science, the leaders of humanity are faced with the question only gods used to ask: “How do we use the terrifying power we possess?” The tricks of old Yahveh on mountaintops are now easily duplicated by run-of-the-mill military establishments. And the non-traditional electric switch has turned “Let there be light” into a routine human experience.

No redefining the word God will change the reality we now perceive. The world that reason has revealed to us may give us more anxiety than we want. Or it may fill us with the pleasant anticipation of new adventure and opportunity. But its new face cannot be easily denied.

The New Atheists

Humanistic Judaism, Autumn 2003/Winter 2004

This is the season for atheism. Three intellectuals have ridden the train of fame to the top of the bestseller list with three atheist books. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett have clearly proclaimed that atheism is the only path for honest, consistent, rational thinkers.

Atheists are usually more discreet. They are reluctant to publicly acknowledge their lack of faith. They often hide behind more ambiguous designations like “agnostic,” “free thinker,” or “skeptic.” They often plead their respect for religion and religious values and express regret for not believing. Atheists are always on the defensive. They never feel really comfortable in a society that places such a high value on religious faith. They never feel really safe in a society that still equates atheism with immorality.

Our three writers are bold and fearless. Two of them, Dawkins and Harris, describe religious belief as ridiculous and without a stitch of evidence. They also denounce the religious penchant to distinguish between scientific truth and religious truth. For them there is only one kind of truth. It is the truth that is supported by the evidence of controlled investigation. Faith and intuition are the beginning of the truth process. They are “hunches” and hypotheses that require future verification. Knowledge demands more than internal conviction. It insists on external evidence. Truth is responsible to fact. Whether one is talking about Bible stories or about transcendent deities, the same criterion applies. Whether one is describing angels or atomic particles, the same test for reality is relevant. Feeling that something is true is never enough.

Dawkins, who is a biological scientist and the world’s most famous science writer, dismisses religion as a useless and often dangerous evolutionary accident. “Religious behavior may be a misfiring, an unfortunate byproduct of any underlying psychological propensity which . . . once was useful.” [The God Delusion, p. 65] In other words, religion cannot help us. It may even harm us. It may be the cause of intense hatred and violence.

Lifestyles in Transition

The Jewish Humanist, February 1977

People in transition. We are people in transition.

We are moving from one life style to another.

Our behavior is changing. As husbands or wives, as mothers or fathers, as employers or employees, as men or women, we are no longer behaving the way we used to.

The change is overwhelming. Divorce is ordinary. Pre-marital sex is conventional. Career women are legion. Artificial birth control is the norm for American Catholics. Even abortion has become Italian.

The change is so overwhelming that we often deny it. It makes us feel so insecure, so guilty. We try to imagine that our moral values have remained the same. We try to avoid confronting our behavior.

Moral schizophrenia is the psychic disease of many people in transition. It is the self-destructive defense against fear and guilt. Our conscious beliefs go one way, our behavior goes another. Our stated values are fantasies. They are unrelated to the substance of our actions. When we are challenged , some of us get very angry because we are resisting the painful truth. Some of us shrug our shoulders because we are embarrassed by our own ambivalence.

Moral schizophrenics are always the victims of change. Since they deny that it is happening, they can never control it.               They simply change and grumble. Unconscious needs and dumb social forces push them on relentlessly. Their resistance, when it comes, is both hysterical and ineffective. They are the victims of their own cowardice.

Healthy people are always fighting ethical dishonesty. They want their stated values to coincide with their behavior. They want to be aware of .what they are doing and why they are doing what they do. They want to be in control of their behavior and to consciously select the changes which are best suited to their needs. They want to resist irrational fear and non-productive guilt.

As people in transition – who can no longer live according to the dictates of old social scripts and who want to preserve their own moral integrity – we need a healthy style for coping with change. We need to admit ultimate responsibility for our own lives. Blaming others for bad decisions may be justified but is generally useless. Blaming destiny or irresistible social forces may be accurate but is usually a way of avoiding doing anything. Peevishness is fashionable. If we cannot be in total control, then we will not be in control at all!

Assuming responsibility is merely the good-humored awareness that conscious decision does make a difference.

We need to identify our most important desires. A healthy life style should serve our needs, not violate then. We have to be honest about our feelings. Anger and depression are signs that we are missing what we really went. Pro-longed anxiety Indicates that we haven’t come to terms with what we really fear. We have to know our needs before we can choose to satisfy them.

We have to be able to put our wants in some order of priority. Since we cannot satisfy all our desires simultaneously, we have to pick and choose. Human needs are complex. They cannot be reduced to single desires like sex, love, power or serenity. Simplicity is intellectually neat but pragmatically naive. On a practical level, we are messy jumbles of wants, each demanding center-stage and enormous amounts of energy. Knowing desire is never enough. We have to figure out the order of desire. If we don’t do it consciously and rationally, then we will do it unconsciously and irrationally. The former procedure is less spontaneous – but it is also less dangerous.

We need to know how to make rational choices. Irrational choices are decisions that serve the interests of dead people – that serve the needs of ancestors who cannot be served. Irrational people are always citing tradition and historical convention to justify their life style. Rational people always justify their behavior by pointing out how decisions serve the needs of the living. ‘I can’t help myself; that’s the way I feel’ is the standard reply of people who are traumatized by ancestral disapproval and who refuse to take the painful step of resisting the past for the sake of living needs and future good consequences.

We have to be able to resolve incurable ambivalence. Most of us want both independence and togetherness. The current psychotherapeutic fashion is for people to say that they want to run their own lives. But they generally want to run their own lives together with someone else. They want the ecstasy of intimacy and the pleasure of separateness at the same time. Total independence and total intimacy are not compatible. If we want one, we cannot have the other. Self-fulfilment is more than selfish independence or masochistic merging. It is a good-humored compromise called responsible intimacy.

We need to know the life style options. The traditional world allowed only one script for each sex and for each class. The contemporary world is a supermarket of life styles. Open marriage, communal child-rearing, living together, single swinging, nature simplicity, leisure careers – are still novel but increasingly legitimate choices. Even conventional long-run relationships, whether in marriage or work, require new stimulation to rescue them from boredom. Keeping ourselves aware of alternatives is necessary for both hope and sanity.

We need to resist stereotypes. As: children of our genes we are indeed programmed. But our programming allows for wide options. Men are not violating their nature when they are soft, gentle and dependent. Women are not resisting their essence, when they are strong, aggressive and publicly commanding. Our society requires greater flexibility than the tradition allowed. We need to be more open to variety. People do not exist to fit life styles. Life styles should be designed to fit people.

We need to be individually real. Before the present transition family, work and ethnic identities were primary. For a growing minority they have become secondary, although still very important. This minority are an avant garde, sensitive to the problems of investing self-awareness in groups. Groups no longer provide the stability and security they used to. Being able to see oneself as independently real of any group identity is becoming necessary for many people. In a world of serial careers, intermarriage and feeling young at fifty, it is dangerous to find one’s self-image in a group label.

We above all, have to be able to deal with the value of the temporary. Our conditioning so values the eternal that we often view marriages and careers that do not last forever as failures. We deny the importance of our pleasure and our joy because it does not last forever. In a world of rapid change this conditioning is conducive to neither happiness nor survival. Seeing change as painful but often desirable will, make us less possessive and more attractive.

We are people in continuous transition. We need the skills to make that transition worthwhile.

Humanist Affirmations

The Jewish Humanist, Winter 1975-76

Humanism is a life style. A life style is a way of responding to our own needs and to the needs of other people. It is a way of coping with the continuous demands of our environment and of our society.

Coping needs power. A good life style makes us aware of our power and helps us test it. Self-esteem comes from the successful use of our personal power.

A humanistic life style includes the following personal affirmations of power:

I have power to live with uncertainty.

In most traditional religions certainty is regarded as a virtue. The dogmatic and fanatic believer is preferred to the doubter and to the skeptic. Believing strongly – in spite of the evidence, or believing strongly – in the absence of evidence, is reason for praise.

Humanism finds no virtue in the fanatic believer. The age of science is an age when all statements about the world are open to public testing. If they are true, they are true in a limited way. They depend on the stingy help of limited evidence. They live with the possibility that tomorrow they may be refuted on the basis of new experiences and new discoveries. They accept the fact that they are fallible. They are willing to resign from truth and knowledge when new evidence asks them to. Unlike dogmatic theological statements they are truly humble. They do not have to be true forever and ever.

The true humanist avoids rigid belief. He has strong beliefs, based upon strong evidence, just as he has weak beliefs, based upon weak evidence. But his strong beliefs are not so strong that he cannot alter or replace them. He does not invest his ego in statements of truth. He invests his ego in the skill he possesses to believe with reservation, to be open to new ideas and theories, and to give up what the evidence can no longer sustain. He especially values the skill he has to live with no answer to important questions. If the origins of the universe are unknown, he can live without knowing. The need for answers, the need for certainty is a sickness. Healthy people prefer responsible reason to irresponsible faith.

I have the power to be generous.

Traditional religions speak a lot about sacrifice. Sacrifice is the act of diminishing myself and my possessions, for the sake of others. Sacrifice is giving myself up to the needs of others. It is a form of self-destruction. As a gift, it can only give the giver a strong sense of guilt. Both the traditional Christ figure and the stereotyped Jewish mother are expressions of sacrifice.

Humanists avoid sacrifice. They prefer generosity. The generous person assumes that when he gives to others he does not take away from himself. Since his essential identity is not to be found in the things he owns but lies in his own personal skills, the act of giving is an expression of personal; power – the power to be useful to others. If I am a poet and I give away my poems, I can still write another. If I am a carpenter and I give away my chair, I can still create another.

Generous people are neither anal nor extravagant. They do not insist on receiving equal rewards for services rendered. They do not dispose of their own goods so carelessly that they harm their own survival and the happiness of those who depend on them.

I have the power to be attractive.

Traditional religion prefers humble and reverent people who confront life by denying their own power and by affirming the power of God.

Humanism applauds the humility of living with uncertainty. But it does not commend the humble behavior of prayer and worship.     It may be true that human strength is limited and that human weakness is extensive. But dwelling on helplessness is a lifestyle of despair. It is a loser’s lifestyle. It is transferring the survival technique of infants to adult life. Helplessness is attractive in infants. It is ugly on people over ten – especially if it can be avoided.

Humanists assume that they have the right to win at the game of happiness. They focus in on their weaknesses only long enough to figure out what skills they need. They do not arrange to lose before the game starts by choosing to be pitiable. Only babies and Southern belles have ever won with that technique.

Humanism, in the end, is an aesthetic option. It finds beauty in people who do not choose to whine or complain – but who dare to test their strength against the overwhelming power of a sometimes indifferent universe.

Happiness

The Jewish Humanist, March 1987

The pursuit of happiness will be the theme of our Temple retreat this year.

While the Declaration of Independence guarantees us the right to happiness, it does not tell us what it is. Nor does it tell us how to get it. We generally agree that happiness is something everybody wants. But we are not sure that everybody wants the same thing.

So what is happiness?

Before we can answer the question we have to confront certain realities about happiness.

  1. If we concentrate too hard on happiness it generally goes away. People who worry constantly about whether they are happy or not rarely are. Happy people do not spend a lot of time thinking about happiness. They are absorbed in compelling projects, work or leisure, that do not allow much time for introspection. When happiness becomes the goal of life, it is rarely achievable. Only when we pursue other more specific goals does happiness emerge as an unintended consequence. The most joyous people I know do not choose to talk about joy. Like the micro-particles of physics it changes, or even disappears, when you look at it too hard.
  2. Getting away from problems does not make us happy. It is an illusion to imagine that it is possible to achieve a problem-free life When one set of challenges goes away another replaces it. Even retirement from work or the departure of children is no guarantee that happiness is around the corner. Uselessness and boredom are often worse than conventional stress. They make us focus on all the minor negative things in our lives we never notice when we are busy. Many of the happiest people I know are overscheduled and overcommitted. They simply love what they are doing, even though what they are doing gives them stress and anxiety. Life in heaven, in the end, may be more taxing than life on earth.
  3. Pain is part of happiness. The hedonism of immediate gratification; is no path to lasting pleasure. If we need our “fix” now and are unwilling to wait for later, we are pursuing self-destruction. Almost all things worthwhile require the postponement of pleasure and sometimes even the endurance of pain. Education, sport skills and Successful parenting take time. They often also involve painful testing, wasting and failure. If we are afraid to risk pain, we shall never be happy. Our lives will consist of momentary pleasures that are tied together by depression.
  4. Small things in life can be important. There is a chemistry to life which reveals itself in the realities of human relations. Certain people attract us and we do not know why. Certain people annoy us and we can find no important reason to explain our response. Certain personalities make us feel good. Certain personalities, with no apparent defect, make us feel rotten. We look for the grand reasons why we should choose one person over another. But often the small things make the difference. A sense of humor, a willingness to listen, a disposition to be kind-each little characteristic embarrassingly trivial determines our choice. Out siders often wonder what we see in the people we like and love. But outsiders are looking for the big reasons and cannot see what makes us happy.
  5. Life needs variety. It is so easy to become obsessed with the things we need and do not have that we imagine that one and only one thing will give us happiness. If only we found a lover, if only we can have a child, if only we can secure interesting work, if only we can live in a warm place – then everything will be marvelous. But no lover alone can bring us happiness, nor can any child, job or climate. People who try to put their happiness eggs in only one basket find that the basket is too small. Long-run pleasure needs variety. It requires love – but not all the time. It asks for work – but not every hour. It revels in leisure – but not day after day.
  6. What other people think of us does make a difference. So many of us imagine that what counts in our life is what we think of ourselves that we rebel against pleasing others. We maintain that if we say to ourselves that we are worthwhile that we will be. But self-esteem does not come from self-congratulations. It starts with our ability to aim the approval of the people we love and respect. Since we are social beings, we are molded as much by others as by ourselves. The hostility of others is not incompatible with happiness, so long as the people we admire standby our side. To go through life, never willing to please, arrogantly indifferent to the demands of parents, friends and teachers is no sign of self-esteem. It is certainly no path to long-run fulfilment.
  7. Winning is preferable to losing. So much current advice focuses on the virtue of trying that the consequences of trying are largely ignored. Boldness and persistence are not enough for happiness. If we try for goals we cannot achieve, if we pursue people who always reject us, if we strive for work Our talents do not fit, then relentless failure and rejection will depress us. It is simply no fun to lose always, no matter how thrilling the effort. In the end, happy people choose goals their skills can realize. They may lose from time to time. But they do not arrange to lose always. They reach out to try things they have never tried before, but never so far as to be pretentious. There is a distinction between good-humored adventure and “suicide.”
  8. The world is a little bit crazy. Unhappy people always expect the world to be orderly and fair. They do not like surprise and resent imperfection. In the end, they stop playing the game of life and spend most of their time complaining about the rules of the game. Because they expect the world to be sane they go crazy. Happy people know that the world is disorderly and unfair. They expect surprise and do not insist on perfection. In the end they prefer to play an imperfect game to playing no game at all. Because they see the world as “nuts,” they stay sane.

So what is happiness?

Happiness is an enthusiasm for life, an eagerness to solve problems, a confidence in our strength to deal with reality, even when that reality is less than we want it to be.

 

Choosing to be Ethical

The Jewish Humanist, September 1987

For Humanistic Jews morality and ethics are the heart of the good life. Being a moral person is much more important than being a religious person.

But what does it mean to be moral? How do you tell the difference between right behavior and wrong behavior? In a world in which so many people believe that ethical action is on the decline, these questions are important – so important that they will be the theme of our New Year holidays.

For many people right and wrong are very clear. The main problem is motivating people to pursue the right and avoiding the wrong. For others choosing to be ethical is not quite so simple. They believe that right and wrong are not so obvious, that specific situations do not offer easy moral answers.

Certainly, in a time of so much social change, old answers do not seem as obvious as they used to. Work, love, pleasure and marriage are not what they were. And the relationship between them and community welfare is not what it was. In fact, under new circumstances, the moral action of yesterday becomes the immoral action of today. Multiplying babies is right for an undercrowded world. It is wrong for an overcrowded one.

Choosing to be ethical today starts with many difficulties.

In an age when we feel that we have a right to personal happiness and fulfillment, it is difficult to figure out the proper moral balance between individual need and community need. When is it appropriate to be self-centered and to pursue my own agenda? And when is it appropriate to sacrifice my own pleasure and happiness for the sake of the pleasure and welfare of others? In a traditional society, which accepts the justice of human suffering, this dilemma never occurs. But, in our fulfillment-centered society this is a recurring problem.

In a world where romantic love has become supremely important, it is difficult to negotiate the claims of love and the claims of duty. In fact, the harshness of the concept of duty seems a cold contrast to the warm appeal of loving attachments. But the feeling of love is a fickle experience. If human relations depended on love alone, they would become the victims of a flaky anarchy. What I love today I may not love tomorrow. There must be some other moral value that allows for stability, continuity and commitment.

In a psychotherapeutic world which has banished the notion of guilt from respectable values, it is difficult to deal with rotten people who have rotten behavior. Guilt is a form of fear and intimidation, which has been successfully used for most of human history as a way of controlling human behavior. If inducing it is immoral, then one of the most effective techniques for persuading other people to change their actions – and for others to influence as to change our actions – is eliminated. It is almost impossible to do the business of ethics and avoid guilt.

In a time when people are very much caught up with their own subjective feelings and ideas and where the opportunities of an affluent society create so many options, it is difficult to talk about an objective ethics: which applies to everybody. Many men and women, in the name of personal equality and autonomy, deny that there is a single ethical standard for all people. What may be right for you may not be right for me. And, what may be validly moral for me may not be validly moral for you. My conscience is just as authoritative as your conscience. And where they disagree – well they just disagree. If this argument sounds familiar, it certainly is. And if it seems a bit chaotic, it certainly is too.

In, a shrinking world of international trade and technological wonders where isolated communities no longer exist, it is difficult to figure out what loyalty to the welfare of the community really means. Historically, moral behavior was action that placed group survival over individual survival. But, in a place where each individual belongs to many communities – familial, local, national and transnational – this standard is confusing. What may be good for my family may not be good for my city. What may be good for my city may not be good for my nation. And what may be good for my nation may not promote the welfare of humanity. Group loyalty now is more complex than it ever was. Chauvinists who are willing to die for their nation and their nation alone may not be as noble as they used to be.

On a planet where large urban centers bring strangers together into single communities, it is difficult to kindle moral concern for people we barely know. Giving up time, energy and wealth for members of our family we can understand. Sharing our assets with friends and fellow workers can arouse some enthusiasm. But worrying about people we do not know and whom we do not want to know is hardly natural. It takes an enormous discipline of mind and will to include distant strangers within our ethical commitments. “Foreigners” do not win our hearts in the same way as members of our own “tribe.” And we find convenient ‘moral excuses to exclude them.

As you can see, choosing to be ethical is not as easy as some make it out to be. We need to explore its difficulties and what we can do about it.