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.

Homosexuality: A Challenge to Traditional Morality

Humanistic Judaism,Vol 25, No 1-2, Winter_Spring 1997

Homosexuality is the hottest moral issue of the late 1990s because it strikes at the very heart of traditional morality. 

What we call “traditional morality” is the hand-me-down ethic of an agricultural society. The fundamental social unit of a peasant culture is the family. The family works or grazes the land and subsists on its produce. The cultivation of land requires cheap and plentiful labor. Having and raising children is the easiest way to provide that labor. Especially when infant mortality is high, reproduction is the primary responsibility of all family members. To abstain from procreation violates the law of survival. The traditional family is reinforced by the institutions of male domination, female chastity, marriage, ancestor worship, and land inheritance. The happiness of the individual is subordinated to the welfare of the group. Work and children are the foundation of all ethical norms. 

In such a context, homosexuality is deeply offensive. It is an insult to family continuity, a dereliction of duty, a refusal to conform to ancestral ways. It cannot be openly tolerated. If it exists at all, it is a covert behavior conducted by men and women who are married and who produce children. It is a private pleasure that is never allowed to interfere with the public responsibility of reproduction. Like romantic love, it is not essential to the family’s and community’s agenda. 

The authors and editors of the Torah, like all their contemporaries, were members of an agricultural, sheep-herding society. (Raising meat is a form of agriculture). They hated homosexuality and saw it as an “abomination.” Since they were deeply attached to their shepherd traditions and were hostile to any form of urban culture, they found any deviation from the reproductive mode of sexual behavior very offensive. Thus religious homosexuals must confront the fact that their ancestors hated them. The prohibitions in the Torah and in the sacred documents of other religions are too explicit to deny. 

Male homosexuals, in particular, were despised. Female homosexuals can perform their “duty” even if they derive no pleasure from it. The same is not true of men. A few societies gave a special status to male homosexuals, but the price was that they ceased to be regarded as men. 

Toleration of homosexual behavior begins with the development of uran culture. Since the Greeks were pioneers in urban culture, it is no mere coincidence that some of their intellectuals celebrated the virtues of homosexual love. But this love was confined to the attachment of married men for boys. It was assumed that when homosexual boys grew up, they, in turn, would be married. Athens was not San Francisco.  

Open homosexuality for men and women who intend to remain unmarried is quite new. It arose out of the rapid urbanization of Western Europe and North America in the past century and a half. It has no historic precedent because capitalism and science, the causes of mass urbanization, have no historic precedent. 

In an urban culture, reproduction is problematic. Children neither work for you nor stay with you. They may not even respect you because, in a world of changing information, they may know more than you do. In addition, they are expensive and parasitic for long periods of time. Choosing not to have children is a legitimate moral choice in an urban culture, especially in a technological society in which the life span of the individual is prolonged and infant mortality is reduced to insignificance. Only in an advanced urban culture can the values that now dominate liberal society emerge: individualism, feminism, happiness, and self-esteem. Only capitalism and affluence can allow what agricultural society forbids. Liberty rests on a sometimes fragile economic foundation. 

The homosexual rights movement first emerged in Berlin after the defeat of the kaiser. The turmoil of World War 1 undermined established conservative regimes and triggered the lifestyle revolution of the 1920s. From clothing to the cinema, sexual liberation emerged with stunning glitz. The sophisticated city of Cabaret was the perfect venue for a movement that defied social convention. The depression, the triumph of fascism, and the horrors of the Second World War pushed sexual liberation aside. But postwar affluence eventually revived the movement. 

The uproar of the Vietnam War and the student revolution that followed emboldened homosexuals. Before that time, it was difficult to press for homosexual rights beause, unlike some other minority groups, homosexuals, for reasons of safety, chose clandestine lifestyles. A group that is afraid to be visible cannot lobby or organize demonstrations. The emergence of the homosexual community from the closet gave them a new power to make demands and to gain political satisfaction. 

The Stonewall incident in 1969 in Greenwich Village mobilized widespread homosexual resistance to repression. Cities like New York and San Francisco became havens for men and women coming out. The word gay replaced queer in sophisticated parlance. Homosexual political and propaganda power grew. In time the defense of homosexual rights became “politically correct” in liberal circles. In some places laws were passed to end discrimination and provide protection from hatred. 

In the 1970s and ‘80s, homosexuals pressed for relief from persecution. They wanted the right to practice their lifestyle openly, the right to housing and employment, the right to be teachers, councilors, clergy and parents, the right to serve in the armed forces, and the right to have their lifestyle included as a moral option in public education. Over the course of these two decades, more and more of the American and European public came to support these demands. 

Even the intrusion of the AIDS plague did not retard the advance of homosexual rights. On the contrary, the assault of HIV forced the now openly homosexual community to mobilize itself for action, discipline some of its promiscuity, and develop a network of mutual support and fundraising. The community became more responsible, more self-confident, and more aggressive. One of the consequences of AIDS was a new emphasis on nonpromiscuous homeosexual partnerships that paralleled marriage in the heterosexual community. 

Of course, the success of the homosxeual community as a political constituency was bound to produce an intense conservative reaction. By the 1990s, the Religious Right in America, stalemated on the abortion issue, began to push gay rights to the forefront as the symbol of moral decadence. Assisted by the AIDS scare, its leaders chose resistance to homosexual demands as the “flag” of their moral crusade. Even Bill Clinton, who had been supported in his first presidential campaign by the gay community, retreated before the right-wing assault. 

Nevertheless, the homosexual political vanguard pressed forward with a new demand for gay marriage, arguing that homosexual partnerships are no different from childless heterosexual marriages. In our modern society, heterosexual couples who choose not to have children are nevertheless entitled to legal acceptance and the status of marriage. Why not grant an equal right to homosexual couples? Without marriage, homosexual partners are denied the priveleges that legal marriage brings: the right to inherit wealth, the right to manage the illness and death of life-long partners, the right to insurance and tax benefits, the right to spousal pension and retirement benefits. The homosexual world is filled with horror stories about alienated, hostile family members who, when a homosexual becomes ill or dies, suddenly emerge to claim control of money and funeral arrangements, driving away the partner whose presence is needed and who has the moral right to the assets and benefits. The push for gay marriage dramatizes how far the homosexual community has come in its drive for equality and moral recognition, but also the difficult battles still to be fought. 

Humanistic Judaism must stand against biblical Judaism and halakhic Judaism in defense of homosexual rights and homosexual freedom. From a humanistic point of view, the choice of a homosexual lifestyle is ethically appropriate. Individuals have the right to be the masters of their own lives insofar as they do not harm others. In its social consequences, gay sexual behavior is no different from contraceptive and childless “straight” sexual behavior. Indeed, in an urbanized world threatened with planetary overpopulation, gay sex may provide a social benefit. And stable homosexual partnerships are preferable to homosexual promiscuity, just as stable heterosexual partnerships are preferable to homosexual promiscuity. 

From a pragmatic point of view, however, the insistence on calling homosexual partnerships “marriage” is a stumbling block. The word marriage has a long association with the social right to bear children and, for most of the public — even for many people sympathetic to homosexual freedom — is not easily transferred to homosexual partnerships. The battle would be easier to win if homosexuals pushed for the rights and privileges of domestic partnerships, whether they be called “marriage” or something else. 

The issue of whether homosexuality is genetic is irrelevant to the moral discussion. If homosexual behavior were both bad and genetically determined, that would be an argument for enforced segregation and exclusion. Pleading helplessness is meaningless in the face of social harm; it is simply a victim’s strategy for arousing pity. It may indeed be the case that homosexual desire is genetically determined, but the moral right of homosexuals to practice their lifestyle derives from individual autonomy and social usefulness. Talented people who are not engaged in producing offspring provide and have provided enormous gifts to society. 

The Voice of Reason

Humanistic Judaism, Spring, 1991

The Arkansas state legislature has passed a bill requiring science teachers to give as much time to the Genesis story of creation as a gift to the Darwinian story of evolution.

A California judge just recently declared the teachers and the California public schools must acknowledge the evolution is only a theory and not a fact.

Paul Laxalt, a conservative senator from Nevada, has co-sponsored a bill in Congress, which is called a Family Protection Act and what to remove the issues of abortion and teacher qualification from the jurisdiction of the higher courts.

Committees of the Christian fundamentalists in southern Texas organizing to remove the pornographic writings of Salenger and Hemingway from the shelves

Committees of the Christian fundamentalists in southern Texas organizing to remove the pornographic writings of Salenger and Hemingway from the shelves of public library’s.

Mark Siljander, and Michigan Republican primary candidate actually backed by the Moral Majority, recently want to surprise victory against seemingly overwhelming odds.

A letter arrives to my office address to ‘you humanist bastard’.The anonymous author proclaims, ‘The Age of the Enlightenment is dead. The Age of Faith is reborn’.

Is the age of enlightenment really dying?

Well, if it were up to the Moral Majority and to its allies in the New Right, it’s certainly would be. The advocates of political Christian fundamentalism are determined to reverse the course of 200 years of American history and to turn our country into a Puritan version of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran.

The ideas and the ideals of the Enlightenment are now under attack. The Age of Reason is now on the defensive. The belief in an orderly world governed by natural law, the valuing of reason is the best method for the discovery of truth, the ability to live with uncertainty and the tentativeness of judgments, the eagerness to welcome new ideas, and maximizing of individual freedom and personal options, the assumption that good citizenship as possible without denominational religion—all these affirmations of the enlightenment are now being assaulted by voices of reaction.

The voice of reason is being drowned out by the voice of Fanaticism.

Who is this voice of Fanaticism?

The list is long. There is…

The Moral Majority of Jerry Falwell

The Christian Voice of Jerry Jarmon

The Religious Roundtable of Ed McAteer

The Committee for the Survival of the Free Congress of Paul Weyrich

The Christian Crusade of Billy Joe Hargis

The Stop ERA of Phyllis Schlafly

The Conservatives Caucus of Howard Phillips

What do they want? They want. Period.

The National Conservative Political Action Committee of Tim Dolan

The Conservative Digestive Richard Viguerie

And the remnants of the John Birch Society

As well as many others.

To put prayers in the public school;

To insinuate Bible stories into public science classrooms;

To censor classic literature they deem morally offensive;

To undermine our judicial system a state secular education;

To use public money to support denominational religion;

To ban sex education;

To limit sexual freedom;

To defeat the ERA universe the hard-won gains of female liberation;

To ban abortions;

To revive political witch hunts in the name of anti-communism;

To secure a political power to make the changes they desire.

How are they going about getting what they want?

They have developed a simple message that everyone can understand. Unlike the complex answers of liberal intellectuals, their analysis of the causes of crime, poverty, and family decline can be reduced to a simple observation. Turning away from God and the Bible is responsible for moral decay. It, therefore, logically follows that, if we turn back to God in the Bible, all will be well.

They have infiltrated political parties. They are encouraging their members to become active Republicans and Democrats. They have already taken over the Republican Party in Alaska and are aiming for broader victories.

They pushed through members to go out and vote for the candidate they have chosen–or, in many cases, vote against the political figures they have targeted. Church of Idaho, McGovern of South Dakota, Bayh of Indiana and many others were victims of their effective campaign.

They have mastered the media. Ironically, the technology which the spirit assigned to sponsors of them better than it serves defenders of science. They understand the power of radio and television to indoctrinate the masses and to mobilize them for social action. Fundamentalist station channels are proliferating. Millions of dollars are pouring in weekly from enthusiastic audiences. The political fundamentalists have entered the home of every American with their electronic campaign.

Alliances with formally angry opponents. Hostility to the public school system, the advocacy to parochial education and hatred of abortion unite them with conservative Catholics. The salvation style of fundamentalist Christianity makes them appealing to native Blacks. The Bible approach to the importance of the state of Israel into the Begin government claim to the West Bank and Gaza gives them support in the Jewish community. They have cleverly decided to woo their old enemies.

They have encountered very little organized opposition. The tendency of many liberals and moderates to regard them as funny fanatics who will ultimately fade away serves them well. The smugness of the academic and intellectual communities make it easy for them to succeed by default. Why are they here to begin with? Why is there a resurgence of political fundamentalism the national scale?

There are several important reasons.

They have always been around. But, they now have a new self-confidence. The decline of the North and the growing prosperity of the South has given them economic clout and greater self-esteem. After all, the heartland of fundamentalism is the South. And the South is no longer the depressed region which sponsored the ‘hillbilly’ mentality. Prosperity has created a new assertiveness and an eagerness to defend the ethnic religion.

The economic recession in most of America has frustrated millions of citizens. They are angry and troubled about their declining living standards and do not know how to deal with economic forces over which they seem to have no control. This is a good beginning for religious fervor and paranoia.

Spreading problems of crime and family decline terrified money people. Liberal clichés about personal freedom do not deal with the real question. Concern for personal safety and the welfare of children is a valid concern. The fundamentalists have a silly solution to the problem. But, at least, they’re trying to answer the question.

Most people understand how to use technology. But, do not understand the spirit of free inquiry which makes the development of technology possible. Or educational system has produced technologists. But, it has not developed the mentality of true science. We are not living in an age of science. We are still living in an age of superstition, where irrational people have access to technology.

So what can we do? How could we, as defenders of reason and free inquiry, respond to their provocation?

We can take the problem seriously. Given their determination, economic power and mass appeal, the forces of the New Right and their social agenda will not easily sleep it away.

We can organize. We can band together to become a public Voice of Reason to counter the propaganda and political activity of the political fundamentalists.

What would be the message of the voice of reason?

It would be positive. It will not allow the New Right to put us in the position of always being against. It would state very clearly that we are for three traditional American values–free inquiry —having good citizenship in a secular state—community peace and harmony—with the consequent need to avoid imposing controversial moral values on everybody.

It would be patriotic. It would not permit the opposition to claim Americanism. It would demonstrate that the founding fathers were disciples of the Enlightenment –not pious religionists. Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Franklin resisted the Moral Majority of their day to lay the foundations of a secular state.

It would be moral. It would not simply defend negative freedom and turn over all the ethical vocabulary to the moralists on the right. It will declare that teaching values is an important part of public education. After all, reliability, honesty, cooperation, sharing, and self-control are part of good citizenship. They are necessary, non-controversial discipline n in a secular state. While denominational religion can reinforce these values, they can also be derived from reason and common sense. In a land of competing religions, the shared reasonable approach is the only feasible way to teach social discipline and to preserve community peace.

It would be sensitive. It would acknowledge the worries that many poor and middle-income Americans have about crime, child pornography, and family decline. It would be concerned with pragmatic responses to these issues.

It would be non-partisan. Many Republicans, as well as Democrats, fear the Moral Majority and its attempts to take over the machinery of the political parties. The Voice of Reason would not identify with the liberal economic agenda. It would recognize that both economic liberals and economic conservatives are in favor of the secular state and free inquiry.

How was the Voice of Reason go about spreading this message?

It would establish a national organization.

It would secure the endorsement of prominent ‘stars’ in the natural and social sciences, as well as the backing of public figures.

It would produce materials for public distribution.

It would create media programs for radio and television.

It would hold public meetings and rallies to generate publicity and create a sense of group solidarity.

It would train citizens to be the effective voices of reason and to answer the distortion of the New Right.

It would issue position papers to evaluate proposed legislation.

It would monitor the behavior of Congress and state legislators and support targeted candidates, whether Republican or Democratic.

It would solicit money to make this campaign possible.

Right now, the Voice of Reason is more than a ‘would’. It is an ‘is’. Last December, a national organization called the Voice of Reason was established in Michigan and Illinois. Its founding committee came from both the Society for humanistic Judaism and from other concern groups.

The voice of reason is growing. It is reaching out to many other states. It needs your help and support.