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.

Cremation

Death and Dying – Summer 1989

To cremate or not to cremate. That is a controversial question in the Jewish world.

Cremation is forbidden by the rabbinic tradition. The burning of the body is viewed with horror. Burial is the only legitimate way of dealing with the corpse.

The tradition prescribes not only burial, but burial on the same day as death, burial in shrouds, burial without embalming, and burial without a coffin.

In the Bible, burning is viewed as a form of humiliation and punishment. “If a man marries a woman and her mother it is depravity; both he and they shall be put to the fire” (Leviticus 20:14). “When the daughter of a priest defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father she defiles; she shall be put to the fire” (Leviticus 21:9). “He that is indicated for proscription and all that is his shall be put to the fire” (Judges 7:15).

In the Mishnah, cremation is identified as an idolatrous practice (Avoda Zara 1:3). Even the burning of sinners is discontinued, though this form of punishment is still regarded as legal.

Why is cremation forbidden?

The official reason is provided in the Shulkhan Arukh, the sixteenth century code book prepared by Joseph Caro. The prohibi­tion of cremation is justified by the resurrec­tion of the dead. Rabbinic Judaism main­tains that a final Judgment Day will take place and that the dead will rise from their graves to stand before the justice of God. No body means no resurrection. And no resur­rection means no access to Paradise.

However, this official reason seems to be a rationalization, an ideological after­thought, rather than the real historic motiva­tion. The prohibition against cremation preceded the emergence of the resurrection idea. And the assertion that no body means no resurrection seems silly when one realizes what happens to the corpse after burial, especially without embalming. Time reduces the body to a dust that is almost in­distinguishable from the ashes of burning. Moreover, if the resurrection idea were true, wicked people could avoid the punishments of Gehenna by simply choosing cremation.

Anthropologists tell us that early cultures are divided into burial groups and crema­tion groups. Both dispositions of the dead seem to be equally ancient, with their roots deep in the behaviors and beliefs of the Stone Age.

Inhumation, or burial, seems to derive from a belief that the souls of the dead con­tinue to reside in their respective bodies and cannot successfully survive without this at­tachment. The preservation of the body assists in the preservation of the soul. The embalmed Egyptian dead are an exagger­ated testimony to this belief, as are the tombs filled with material possessions for the afterlife. Cremation, on the other hand, follows from an opposing conviction that the souls of the dead do not depend on the body for their continued existence. The destruction of the body in no way adversely affects the welfare of the soul. In fact, it may be liberating.

Another motivation for cremation is the belief that corpses are a source of defile­ment and dangerous to keep, even in a buried condition. Still another belief main­tains that fire is sacred and therefore purifying.

Many famous cultures featured crema­tion. In ancient Greece and Rome, much of the aristocracy chose burning. In India, cremation became the universal ritual of death and has remained deeply identified with Hinduism. Buddhism followed suit and planted this Indian practice in In­dochina and Japan.

In the West, the triumph of Christianity and Islam, both anti-cremation religions, made cremation a ritual taboo. Burning bodies was a no-no for orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Only criminals or apos­tates deserved the indignity of immolation.

But the arrival of the Enlightenment undermined this solid front of opposition. In the age of science, believing in the resur­rection of the dead was difficult even for Christians and Jews who tried to be loyal to ancestral tradition. Reason challenged the unconscious fears of many religionists. By the nineteenth century, immortality had be­come so ethereal that bodies seemed quite irrelevant to the project of eternal life. Romantic spirituality had no need for the physical. Enlightened religion was open to alternatives to burial.

This development was reinforced by new social realities. As long as people lived on farms, burial was easy and cheap. But city life added complications. Death specialists in the form of morticians and funeral chapels now intervened. Affluence and con­spicuous consumption made rituals and ceremonies more elaborate. What was once simple and inexpensive now became com­plex and costly. Burial involved a lot of money and a lot of time.

Overcrowding and mobility added to the problems. In an uncrowded world, giving land to the dead was no imposition. But in densely populated centers, cemeteries com­peted with the demands of the living for the rational use of scarce land. In the stationary world of farm life, the graves of ancestors could be revered and cared for by genera­tions of descendants. But in the fast-moving milieu of urban displacement, people hardly stay in one place long enough even to re­member where their ancestors are buried. Within two generations, graves are abandoned.

The consequence of all these changes was the emergence of an interest in crema­tion. In the 1870s, cremation societies were established in England and North America. Although religious opposition was strong and vocal, they continued to grow and flourish. An increasingly secular society now found what was once abhorrent ra­tionally attractive. Even many “spiritual” people chose cremation as an expression of their new, free religious commitments. By the middle of the twentieth century, in­cineration had become a major choice in northern Europe and in the antireligious regimes of the Soviet Union, its satellites, and China. In both Russia and China, the reversal was dramatic and revolutionary. Both nations had been deeply involved with the sacredness of burial. But ideology and necessity combined to produce a quick transformation.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Jews in Western Europe and North America followed the new fashion. Influenced by science and secularism, they found crema­tion an appropriate choice. In North America, cremation became so popular among liberal Jews that the Reform rab­binate, defying tradition, legitimized its use. Even Modern Orthodox rabbis — Hermann Adler in England and Zadoc Kahn in France — conceded “burial” rights to the ashes of Jews in Jewish cemeteries.

The influx of Polish and Russian immi­grants into Western countries dampened the new enthusiasm. Even the radicals among them retained a traditional prefer­ence for burial. And this traditionalism was reinforced by the events of the Holocaust. Cremation became associated, in many Jewish minds, with the horrors of Nazi bestiality. Even today, among secularists in Israel, cremation is an inconceivable option for Jews.

But cremation remains an important op­tion for Jews outside of Israel. A significant and growing minority are choosing it for themselves. For humanistic Jews like me who prefer cremation, the choice is gener­ally based on the following considerations:

  1.  Death is final. No significant part of the human personality continues to reside in the remains of the body. The preservation of the body through embalming is a meaning­less expense. Without embalming, the body will disintegrate in a short while into substances equivalent to ashes. Cremation is the affirmation of human mortality.
  2.  The monies expended on burial can be used more productively for the living. The best tribute to the dead is the support of pro­grams, causes, and institutions that were important to them while they were alive.
  3.  Where reason and tradition conflict, reason has a right to override. Both laws and customs ought to be responsive to human needs and human welfare.
  4.  The Holocaust is irrelevant to this issue. The extermination campaigns of the Nazis were as much associated with mass burials as with mass cremations. In both cases cruelty and indignity accompanied dying and disposal. Where there is love and respect, cremation, like burial, provides a setting of dignity.

If you choose cremation for yourself, you will need to deal with certain problems.

Your family may be strongly opposed to cremation and may resist carrying out your wishes. It is very important to be very ex­plicit with your spouse, your children, and your siblings. They should know in advance how you feel. You have a right to be the master of your own death. Written state­ments entrusted to your family and to your lawyer will reinforce your spoken desire. Since your family are the legal owners of your body after your death, their coopera­tion is indispensable. Refusing to discuss the matter before you die will leave your family open to manipulation by hostile funeral directors, rabbis, and relatives. Even families open to cremation will choose burial unless you say otherwise. The inertia of tradition has power.

Getting your body to the crematorium may not be as easy as you imagine. In most states and provinces, because of the lobby­ing of funeral directors, a coffin is required for cremation. The best procedure to follow is to contact a sympathetic funeral home or memorial society before you are too ill to act. In some states, cremation societies offer cremation services at moderate costs. If a sudden catastrophe occurs, your family will have to act on your behalf. Make sure that you tell them what to do, while you are still healthy, so that they will not deviate from your desire.

Many people who choose to be cremated also choose to donate their bodies to medical research. After the body has been appropriately studied, it is usually burned. The time to make arrangements for this donation with an appropriate medical school or medical institution is while you are still able to.

Your memorial service (whether public or private, whether formal or informal) generally follows the cremation at a time convenient for your family and friends. The place can be a temple, a funeral chapel, your own home, or a setting — indoors or outdoors — significant in your life. If you have any preference, you ought to indicate it while you are still alive. If you want the service to precede the cremation, then pro­vision has to be made for the presence of the coffin.

In most states, disposing of ashes by scat­tering (the choice of most people) is illegal for obvious sanitary reasons. Despite these legal prohibitions, many families choose to scatter the ashes of loved ones clandestinely in lakes, rivers, fields, and woods. The legal options are 1) retaining them in an unburied urn, 2) placing them in a mausoleum niche, 3) burying them in a cemetery plot, or 4) burying them in a memorial garden with no distinct plots. Many liberal religious organi­zations now set aside an area on their con­gregational grounds for a memorial garden where “cremains” may be legally buried. Quite often a memorial wall accompanies the garden. Names of the dead are inscribed on the wall.

Cremation is a legitimate and appropri­ate option for humanistic Jews. Since it is nontraditional and arouses hostility among many Jews, a special effort is required by both you and your family — if cremation is your choice — to guarantee your option. Discussing death after death is a humanistic impossibility. You have to make your ar­rangements beforehand.

Circumcision

Becoming Parents, Summer 1988

To circumcise or not to circumcise. That is the question. At least for a militant group of new opponents, many of them Jews.

Doubting the value of circumcision is something new in Jewish life. For most of Jewish history, such opposition would have been inconceivable. In the perspective of priestly and rabbinic Judaism, circumcision takes top billing with observing the Shabbat as one of the two most important signs of Jewish identity.

Even in modern times, Jews who have no connection with the Jewish community or with Jewish culture, who hate organized religion and all forms of conformist ritual, will still manage to have their sons circum­cised. Many are the calls I have received from peripheral Jews in out of the way places seeking some way to insure a “kosher” circumcision for their child.

Avoiding circumcision is not like eating shrimp. The emotional commitment to the brit milla is far more intense than to almost any other Jewish ritual. To announce to your fellow-Jews that you intend to remain a ham-eating atheist is far less traumatic than to declare that you intend to leave your son uncircumcised. The first provocation is by now ho-hum. The second is almost next to betrayal.

For traditional Jews, phallic circumcision is the basic initiation rite into membership in the Jewish people. Although the effect of the surgery can hardly serve as a visible public symbol of Jewish identity, like a beard or tsitsis —- except in a nudist colony — it symbolizes belonging more than any other procedure. Especially in the Christian world, where all historic nations avoided circumcision like the plague until this cen­tury, being circumcised was a unique condi­tion that defined the Jewish male.

During the past century in North America, religious circumcision received an important boost. Physicians decided that the surgery had therapeutic value. Ulti­mately, more than 85 percent of all newborn American males were circumcised for secular medical reasons. While this develop­ment certainly took away from the unique­ness of the Jewish condition and diminished the significance of circumcision as a sign of Jewish identity, it provided a rational hygienic justification for doing something that many modern people previously viewed as primitive and barbaric. What anti-trichinosis theories did for anti-pork- eaters, the new medical reasoning did for circumcision-lovers. Science had come to the rescue of religion.

But the heyday of universal circumcision is over. During the past twenty years a vocal anti-circumcision lobby has emerged in America, especially in California. In 1971 the American Academy of Pediatrics declared that there is no observable medical value to circumcision. And by 1988 five states denied financial coverage for the pro­cedure. Books and periodicals featured anti­circumcision themes. And new organiza­tions arose to lead the battle against this in­fant surgery.

The opponents of circumcision fall into three groups.

The first group find no positive health value in circumcising boys. They do not believe that it either prevents disease or pro­motes cleanliness. In fact, they claim, the surgery may have negative effects. The trauma of the pain and the risk of infection may endanger the child’s welfare. The im­plication is clear. Even circumcision for religious reasons may be harmful. Perhaps Jewish parents will have to be retrained in their religious zeal in the same way that the anti-blood transfusion Jehovah’s Witnesses need to be held back by the law for the sake of their children.

A humanistic Jewish response to circum­cision separates the therapeutic from the ceremonial issues. As a medical proce­dure, circumcision needs to be judged by medical standards.

The second group are civil libertarian. They object to non-urgent elective surgery being foisted on babies by their parents. After all, once the foreskin goes, it is not recoverable. An issue of so sensitive a nature ought to be decided by the person who has to suffer the consequences. Men should not undergo this surgery without their consent. And infants are incapable of giving their consent.

The third group are feminist. Their resistance is directed less to the surgery and more to the ceremony. The idea of using phallic circumcision as the only required initiation rite is deeply offensive to them. The celebration is only for boys. Girls have no equivalent ceremony of their own. The patriarchal and male chauvinist premise that underlies the brit milla is inconsistent with the moral premises of a democratic and egalitarian society.

How valid are these objections?

Before I answer this question, let me pro­vide a little background information.

Traditional Jews believe that circumci­sion was ordained by God. The command­ment pre-dates Moses and goes all the way back to Abraham. In Genesis 17, Yahveh is reported to have said to Abraham: “This is my covenant which you shall keep between me and you and your seed after you. Every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin. And it shall be a token of a covenant between me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circum­cised. . . and the uncircumcised male. . . shall be cut off from my people.” The penalty for the uncircumcised, then, is death or excommunication.

The Biblical commandment features some glaring omissions. No explanation is provided to clarify why foreskin removal is chosen among many other possible alter­natives as the sign of the covenant. Perhaps, in Yahveh’s mind, modesty precluded an explanation. Or, perhaps, phallic surgery was associated in his thinking with his cove­nant promise to guarantee Abraham num­berless descendants. The other omission is any justification of requiring circumcision on the eighth day. Why not the seventh day or the ninth day? Did Yahveh simply make an arbitrary choice for the sake of uniform­ity? After all, most other circumcising peo­ple impose the procedure much later. Some even wait to puberty.

From an anthropological view, Hebrew circumcision is not part of divine revela­tion. It is part of a human story that em­braces many people of the distant past. In the ancient world, fellow-Semites like the Phoenicians and Ethiopians practiced cir­cumcision. And the neighboring Hamitic Egyptians also indulged in the practice.

The real reasons for foreskin removal are lost with the reasoning processes of primitive peoples in dim antiquity. Quite certainly their motivation was hardly hygienic. Cutting away flesh with a dirty flint knife (shades of the Stone Age!) would cancel out any presumed health benefits from having a circumcised penis.

The most likely explanation is the ap­peasement of the gods in order to guarantee fertility. Part of the penis is offered to the deity in order to secure his protection of the rest. Since circumcision was originally done at puberty (the earliest known Semitic bar mitsva), it was intended to prepare the male for adulthood by guaranteeing his reproduc­tive future.

One of the grisliest stories in the Torah, an old literary fragment inserted into a more sophisticated text, suggests this motivation. In Exodus 4, this mysterious in­sert appears as Zipporah, the wife of Moses, leaves Midian with her son and her hus­band to journey to Egypt. “It happened upon the journey that Yahveh encountered him [the boy] at an inn and sought to kill him. So Zipporah took a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Yahveh’s feet; and she said, ‘Truly you are a kinsman unto me by virtue of the blood of circumci­sion.’ Therefore, he (Yahveh) let him alone.” Yahveh in this story is appeased by the bloody foreskin and must now assume the role of a protective kinsman.

Whatever the real reason, by the time the Torah text containing the circumcision commandment was written, circumcision was so much a part of Jewish practice that no explanation for its choice as the sign of the covenant (Yahveh’s promise to protect and multiply the Jews) was required.

As for infant circumcision, the reason most likely imitates that of infant baptism. Christian baptism started out as an adult ceremony. But in time, it was moved for­ward to birth. Parents were fearful to leave their children unprotected, especially because of the threat of early death. Similar­ly, infant circumcision provided immediate protection from hostile deities. Caution turned a puberty rite into a birth ceremony.

The requirement of the eighth day simply tied the ceremony to lucky numbers. The seven-day week followed by the eighth day closing was a familiar pattern for calendar events. Both the autumn Sukkot festival and the winter Hanukka holiday followed the same format.

In time, the circumcision procedure turned into a full-fledged ceremony with fixed ritual procedures. By late rabbinic times, the ceremonial drama included six distinct parts: 1) the presentation of the child, 2) the seating of the child on the throne of Elijah, 3) the recitation by the father of the circumcision blessing (“Blessed are You, Lord our God, who has made us holy through your commandments and commanded us to initiate the covenant of Abraham our father”), 4) milla, the cut­ting and separation of the foreskin, 5) p’ria, the removal of the foreskin, 6) and mitsitsa, the stopping of the blood through oral suction.

In the beginning, the surgery was per­formed by the father of the boy. But, like most religious procedures, it was turned over to experts. The mohel, the professional ritual circumciser, made his debut. And the flint knife, reminiscent of neolithic times, finally turned into an iron blade.

It is important to point out that the Jewish identity of the male child never depended on circumcision in the way that Christian identity depended on baptism. A person born of a Jewish mother was Jewish regardless of anything he might choose to do or have done to him. An uncircumcised Jew remains a Jew, even by Orthodox standards.

Hostility to circumcision appeared early in Jewish history. The Philistines prided themselves on their foreskin retention. And the Greeks were absolutely revolted by the procedure and its effects. They regarded it as mutilation. Part of pre-Christian Greek anti-Semitism derived from this visceral response.

Of course, the objections were not hygienic. They were aesthetic, religious, and moral. To the Greeks, circumcision seemed almost as bad as castration. The human form, as intended by nature, was violated. To this day, Greeks and Latins re­tain this revulsion.

But what of the objections of our modern North American opponents? How valid are they?

The charge that circumcision is either unnecessary or harmful must confront con­temporary evidence. While the 1971 report of the American Academy of Pediatrics ruled circumcision unnecessary, it is impor­tant to note that the Academy is reviewing its earlier decision because of new evidence. Of fifty thousand known cases of penile cancer in North America only nine have occurred in circumcised males. Urinary tract infections occur less frequent­ly when the foreskin is removed. And ninety-five times as many uncircumcised males contract AIDS as do the circumcised. If all these assertions are true, then the pain and trauma, if they indeed exist, may be worth enduring.

The charge that infant circumcision, be­ing involuntary, violates the civil liberties of the child is valid only if the surgery has no therapeutic effect. The needless subjection of a child to pain without its consent is cruel. But, if there is therapeutic value, then the argument fails. It is the responsibility of the parent to protect the child from harm, whether it be through an involuntary smallpox vaccination or an involuntary tonsillectomy.

Quite frankly, the fury of many anti- circumcision militants is out of proportion to the provocation. Given the horrendous proportions of child abuse, a little foreskin removal (which may, in the end, turn out to be beneficial hardly deserves the hostility it receives.

We need a birth celebration that features at its center something Jewish, something easily given to both boys and girls…. Its main drama is the conferring of a Hebrew name on the infant.

The first two objections are directed primarily to infant circumcision itself and not to the brit milla, the religious ceremony. The third charge, the feminist complaint, denounces the ceremony, not the surgery. It maintains that the brit is inappropriate as a birth ceremony since it is designed for boys and not for girls.

There is little humanistic doubt that this complaint is valid. As the original purpose of circumcision faded from Jewish ken and the ceremony took on the significance of a birth celebration and an initiation ritual for membership in the Jewish people, the exclu­sion of female infants took on a political significance. A patriarchal society grants full membership only to men. Women are possessions and attachments who derive their identity from their connection to their fathers and husbands. No special celebra­tion is required for their arrival because they are secondary in importance. Their membership in the community derives from their membership in households of which men alone are the head. In a sense, the cir­cumcised penis protects not only the boy who possesses it but also the woman who will ultimately come to be attached to him. The brit milla, by its very nature, assigns an inferior status to girls.

A humanistic Jewish response to circum­cision separates the therapeutic from the ceremonial issues. As a medical procedure, circumcision needs to be judged by medical standards. If parents believe that it has health value — and there is much evidence to indicate that it does — then they should arrange to have their son circumcised by ap­propriate medical personnel, with all the guarantees of medical protection, at a time deemed appropriate for the child. If parents believe that it has no health value or that it is harmful, they should avoid the procedure for their son. The decision should be based on a scientific determination, just as one decides upon diet or vaccination.

But whether phallic surgery should be the central feature of a Jewish birth celebra­tion is another issue. Equality between boys and girls, men and women, is also an impor­tant humanistic value. And a ceremony that subverts that value is inappropriate for Humanistic Judaism.

Introducing female circumcision — a la East African practice — would be a rather bizarre way to solve the problem. And so would including women in the traditional minyan required for the performance of the ritual.

There is no way of making a happy celebration out of the performance of bloody surgery, even if you add female pa­tients and female observers. If somehow the ceremony was not so male chauvinistic, the surgery ritual might be worth enduring for the sake of tradition and continuity, in the same way that liberal Jews continue to observe the traditional dates for most holidays even when they are inconvenient. But surgery-as-ceremony is not worth en­during if it violates values more important than tradition or continuity.

There is no doubt about it. We need a new kind of Jewish birth celebration and in­itiation rite that provides for relaxed festivi­ty and that features at its center something Jewish, something easily given to both boys and girls.

This new kind of celebration has been developing among liberal and humanistic Jews over the past thirty years. Its setting is the home, the temple, or the community center. Its main drama is the conferring of a Hebrew name on the male or female infant. Even in the traditional circumcision ritual, Hebrew names are announced.

There is no reason for tying circumcision to a humanistic Jewish birth celebration. Despite its historic importance, it is simply inappropriate in the same way that female segregation is inappropriate.

There are times to rescue the old. There are also times to invent the new. Judaism is the story of both.

The Rabbi Writes: Abortion

The Jewish Humanist, September 1989, Vol. XXVI, Number 2

Human rights in America received a serious blow from the Supreme Court on July 3 when five justices upheld a Missouri law restricting abortion freedom.  Ever since January, when the Court announced that it would consider the controversial case, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, the pros and cons of the abortion world have been waiting with bated breath to hear the decision.  Liberals were somewhat prepared for an unsatisfactory outcome.  They knew that the Reagan appointments of O’Connor, Scalia and Kennedy would have conservative consequences.  But they were hoping against hope. 

Rehnquist, speaking for the majority, stated that there was presently no necessity to overthrow Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision of 1973 that defined abortion choice as a constitutional right.  But he saw no constitutional reason why appropriate restrictions could not be placed on the exercise of this freedom, especially since the state had a vested interest in the preservation of individual life.  He found no difficulty with the state of Missouri’s decision to prevent abortion in public hospitals and clinics.  It was under no obligation to assist people in the exercise of their rights.  Nor was the required 20 week check on the viability of the fetus an illegal intrusion.  The independence of the fetus was a medical decision which could not be replaced by arbitrary court standards. 

Scalia joined the Court majority but dissented from the Rehnquist opinion.  He regretted that the Court had not been told enough to repudiate what was constitutionally wrong.  He believed that dismantling Roe v. Wade piece by piece was an act of judicial cowardice. 

On the other hand, Blackmun, the author of the 1973 majority statement, said that he heard the death knell of abortion freedom in the Rehnquist opinion and feared further assaults on the constitutional rights of American citizens. 

Following the decision anti-abortionists in virtually all the state legislatures framed new laws to place public restrictions on personal choice and to deny all forms of state aid and state support for women seeking abortion.  Liberal forces, angry and defiant, mobilized to resist this new legislative onslaught.  But, having lost the battle of the courts, they were not quite sure what new strategy to adopt.  They had invested so much energy in the motion that judges were ultimately the best defenders of abortion freedom.  The Rehnquist opinion dramatized certain realities for both conservative and liberal. 

1.  Ronald Reagan has won his battle to change the character of the Supreme Court.  The liberal Warren Court that drove conservatives to campaigns for impeachment no longer exists.  The liberals are now an old and somewhat feeble minority, desperately clinging to office out of fear of who would replace them.  The conservatives are young and vigorous.  And their public supporters, who at one time denounced the Court as a Communist cabal and sought to restrict its power, are now full of praise for the authority of the Court. 

2.  The Constitution, like the Bible, is not a document with an independent meaning all its own.  It ultimately means what its official interpreters make it mean.  They do not discover their opinions in the Constitution.  They impose their opinions on the Constitution, whether those judicial interpreters are liberals or conservatives.  The Constitution is a set of ‘kosherizing’ words.  But what these words mean is up to the judges.  And the judges, in the end, respond to changing political realities and to changing public opinion.   

3.  American public opinion has been deeply influenced by the persistent campaigns of the anti-abortionists.  In fact, the propaganda of the “pro-life” people has been far more effective than the educational campaigns of the “pro-choice’ advocates.  Anti-abortionists have been successful in seizing the moral high ground and in sowing doubts among ambivalent voters.  The Court, to some degree, is a reflection of the new public opinion. 

4.  Relying on the courts for ultimate protection is a misguided strategy in a democratic society.  Judges, in the end, are agents of political agenda and political parties.  In the higher courts they are political appointees, reflecting the political struggles of their time and deeply responsive to constituencies that favor their appointment.  Liberal courts can easily turn into conservative courts and vice-versa.  In the end, the defense of human rights must be won at the polls and not in the courts. 

Herein lies the challenge for all of us who believe in abortion freedom.  We have to convince the masses of the justice of our cause-not the judges. 

Ironically, many liberals who claim to be egalitarian have very elitist political convictions.  They do not trust the masses and are very pessimistic about the possibility of reversing conservative public opinion.  They are much more comfortable turning to small judicial bodies to impose their enlightened opinions on people who appear to be less enlightened.  They do not really trust the democratic process.  The reality is that, over the past decade, social conservatives have been far more successful in mobilizing the masses than liberals. 

Therefore, the traumatizing Rehnquist opinion is both a challenge and an opportunity for us.  We can no longer rely on the courts for our victories. We have to turn to the polls.  We will have to lobby legislators.  We will have to convince voters.  We will have to mobilize workers.  We will have to appeal to the ears and minds of the American people. 

This may sound like more work than we are prepared to do.  But there is no alternative.  In the end, the security of our freedoms cannot rely on the fickle loyalty of the courts.  It must depend on the support of the people and of public opinion. 

The judicial “setback” of the Webster decision may be the beginning of the revitalization of the feminist movement and of liberal political forces that need the challenge of an important political battle.  And we will not have won our fight until we convince a clear majority of the American voters that reproductive rights are human rights. 

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.

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.