Project of IISHJ

Is Humanistic Judaism A Religion?

Humanistic Judaism, An Anthology – Spring, 1986

In recent years, I have encountered, a persistent objection: “How can you call your organization a temple? Humanism may be a great philosophy of life. It may even be the ideological answer to man’s twentieth-century needs. Yet, if there is one thing it isn’t, it isn’t a religion.”

The question is a significant one. If we are going to designate our philosophy and institution as religious, then we must be as precise and accurate with the phrases we employ as we expect the theologian to be with the words he uses. One has a moral obligation to be faithful to the historic meaning of ordinary words.

To discover the authentic significance of religion, we must clarify the unique characteristics of the religious experience. A proper definition must rely on what is peculiar to the phenomenon under analysis. To define religion as “the pursuit of fulfillment” or “the pursuit of salvation” or “the act of relating to the universe as a whole” is to consign the term to the limbo of words that have lots of prestige but refer to nothing in particu­lar. For after all, what human activity, from psychiatry to politics, is not con­cerned with human fulfillment? And what human procedure does not involve relating to the universe “as a whole”?

Initially, we must clarify what religion is not. Many liberals are fond of desig­nating the religious experience as the

moral dimension of human life, the ethical commitment of the individual. However, while it is certainly true that all historic religions have been vitally concerned with social right and wrong, it is also true that there are hosts of activities, normally des­ignated as religious, that have nothing at all to do with ethical propriety. Lighting candles and celebrating spring festivals are morally neutral. Moreover, large num­bers of sincere and sensitive people think of themselves and are regarded by others as both ethical and nonreligious.

Many popular definers associate reli­gion with the act of faith as opposed to the procedures of empirical reasoning. Reli­gion is viewed as a unique approach to questions of truth. While this definition may be attractive by its simplicity, it will not hold water. Reasoning through obser­vable evidence is common to parts of all sacred scriptures; and intuitive trust in the truthfulness of self-proclaimed author­ities is as common to the daily procedures of politics and business as it is to those endeavors that are normally regarded as religious.

As for the persistent attempts to identi­fy religion with the worship of God, they may be appropriate within the narrow framework of Western culture but invalid universally. The Confucian ethical tradi­tion and the Buddhist Nirvana are reli­giously as significant as God and yet are quite distinct from the normal notion of deity. Nor will the Julian Huxley defi­nition of the religious experience as the apprehension of the sacred quite do. To simply describe the sacred as that which is able to arouse awe, wonder, and rever­ence is to identify its consequences but not to clarify the nature of its constituent parts. Without analysis, the definition simply substitutes one mystery for an­other.

A proper view of religion requires an honest confrontation with certain histor­ical realities:

  1.  In almost every culture, religious in­stitutions are the most conservative. It is historically demonstrable that ecclesias­tical procedures change more slowly than other social patterns. Ideas regarded as radical and revolutionary within the framework of church and synagogue are usually regarded as commonplace in other areas of human behavior. While most institutions resist change, organized religion has been the most supportive of the status quo. Intrinsic to established priesthoods is the notion that change may be necessary but not desirable.
  2.  Religious teachers and prophets per­sistently refuse to admit that their ideas are new; if they do, the indispensable sa­cred character of their revelations disap­pears. The religious radical must always demonstrate that he is, in reality, the most genuine of conservatives. Moses pleaded the endorsement of Abraham; Jesus in­sisted that he was but the fulfiller of old prophecies; Mohammed posed as the re­viver of pure monotheism; and Luther claimed that he desired only to restore the pristine and authentic Christianity. As for Confucius, he denied originality and at­tributed all his wisdom to old emperors. Even the Jewish Reformers vehemently af­firmed that they were simply recapturing the true message of the Prophets. Novelty is historically irreligious.
  3.  In ordinary English, the word reli­gious is usually equivalent to the Yiddish frumm. Both adjectives are tied up with the notion of ritualism. An individual is judged as “more religious” or “less reli­gious” by the degree of his ritual behavior. The liberal may protest that this usage is narrow and primitive. But he still has to explain why even sophisticated speakers, when they relax with the word religious and are non-defensive, associate it with repetitive ceremonies.
  4.  The annual cycle of seasons, as well as the life cycle of human growth and decay, are universal concerns of all orga­nized religions. Spring and puberty may have no apparent ethical dimension, but they are more characteristic of historic re­ligious interest than is social action. We may deplore the religious obsession with Bar Mitzvah. But then, after all, we have to explain it.
  5.  Despite Whitehead’s popular defini­tion of religion as that which man does with his solitude, most religious activities have to do with groups. In most cultures, sacred events are not separable from either family loyalty or national patrio­tism. The root word religio is a Roman term for the sum of public ceremonies that express the allegiance of the citizen to the state. Even the ancestor cult that defines the popular religion of most of the Eastern world is an act of group loyalty that di­minishes the significance of the isolated individual and enhances the importance of family continuity. Historic religion started with the group and is not easily separable from it.
  6.  The notion of the saint or the holy man permeates most religious cultures. This revered individual achieves his status not only because of his impeccable ritual and moral behavior but also because he is able to enjoy the summit of the reli­gious experience. To be able to transcend this messy world and to unite mystically with what is beyond change, space, and time is his special forte. The mystic expe­rience has almost universally been regar­ded as the supreme religious event and the entree into the supernatural.

Any adequate theory about the nature of the religious experience and its unique characteristics must be able to explain these six facts. It must find the common cord that binds these disparate elements together. While many factors can account for some of them, only one theory takes care of all of them. And this theory is in­separable from the initial concern of historic philosophy.

The origin of philosophic inquiry and metaphysics lies in a disdain for the sensi­ble world of continual change and a per­sistent love of what is eternal and beyond decay. Plato was adored by later theologians because of his “religious” temperament. He detested the world of impermanence and asserted that wisdom was concerned only with entities that never change. The chaotic world of space­time events that modern science inves­tigates was anathema to his pursuit of knowledge. If the Greeks were unable to develop the rudiments of a real empiri­cism, herein lay their problem. Whatever they searched for had to be deathless and eternal. They could never end up being in­terested in what was tentative and condi­tional.

In fact, the search for the deathless is the psychic origin of the religious experi­ence. The human individual is a unique animal. He alone is fully aware of his per­sonal separateness from other members of his species and conscious of the tem­porary nature of his own existence. He fears death and needs to believe that dying is an illusion. In his anxiety, he searches for persons or forces that enjoy the bles­sing of immortality. With these, he seeks to identify and find the thrill of being part of something “bigger than me.” The religious experience is universally an act of feeling at one with what seems to possess the aura of eternity.

If we test this definition by the evi­dence, it works superbly. It explains the essentially conservative nature of historic religion. Change, experiment, and mere opinion are in spirit nonreligious. Only eternal truths will do. All seeming change is pure illusion; and even the most radical steps must be covered by the cloak of rein­terpretation. The definition also clarifies why all new truths must be labeled as old. The religious temperament requires the solace of age and venerability. Even if the good word is humanly new, it turns out to be divinely old.

The theory explains the religious power of ritual. Traditional ceremony is not sig­nificant because of its ethical content; that excuse is a sop for the modern intellect. Ritual acts derive their psychic punch from the fact that they are meticulously identical and repetitive. In a world of con­tinual and frightening change, they give to human behavior a mood of eternity. Their power is not symbolic; it is intrinsic to the ceremony itself. New observances that are labeled as new may be aesthetically char­ming, but they lack the religious dimen­sion. As for the seasons and life-cycle events, what greater evidence is required to substantiate the thesis? Societies may undergo revolutions and violent social upheaval; they may experience the over­throw of every existing value and idea. But the explosion is powerless to alter the relentless sequence of spring, summer, fall, winter — birth, puberty, maturity, and death. Nothing is more eternal than the seasons. Their continual repetition and observance is an ultimate security.

Moreover, the group character of most religious observance reflects the human desire for permanence. The family and the nation have always been inseparable from the major religious experiences of any culture simply because they suggest the immortality the individual does not. And the mystic experience is equally ex­plained by this need to defeat change and death. The ecstasy of the saint is ra­tionalized as an encounter with the changeless. To “transcend” the world of space and time may be informationally ab­surd; but as an exclamation of victory over the fear of death it has emotional significance.

If, then, the unique character of the religious experience is the act of identify­ing with what appears to be permanent, a proper understanding of humanism re­quires the following observations:

  1.  The religious temperament and the pursuit of knowledge through empirical procedures are incompatible. Humanism is committed to the techniques of modern science; and all proper statements within that framework are tentative, subject to the refutation of future evidence. Empiri­cism cannot tolerate eternal truths about man and the universe. The conditional character of all knowledge, with an in­finite capacity for adjustment, is its spe­cial power and glory.
  2.  Humanism is a total philosophy of life, which does not allow the religious temperament to invade every area of its discipline. However, if man has a need to transcend his temporariness and identify with something or someone more perma­nent than the individual, this need cannot be ignored. Within the framework of humanism, two means of satisfaction ex­ist. By asserting that every person is com­posed of the same matter/energy from which all other phenomena derive, hu­manistic teaching affirms that each of us shares an intimate bond, a basic identity, with everything in this universe. Stars and flowers are material brothers to our na­ture. And by proclaiming that before and beyond the individuality of any person, each of us shares an essential oneness with all human beings, humanism pro­claims that all of us share in the ongoing existence of humanity as a whole. In fact, the very basis of ethical behavior lies in this religious experience. If every person can feel himself only as an individual, the social character of morality is impossible. Ethical behavior is feasible only when people sense that the essential nature that binds them together is more significant than the individual differences that sepa­rate them.

Thus, humanism is more than a reli­gion. While there are certain areas of its discipline that provide the religious expe­rience, there are many areas in which the religious temperament is either irrelevant or harmful. Therefore, the humanist never regards the description “less religious” as a threat. Humanists rather view it as a compliment. They are aware of the fact that the balanced life requires much more. While they resist the invasion of all life by the religious temperament, they, at the same time, affirm the value of the religious experience in the simple rehear­sal of nature’s seasons and the image of immortality in human survival.

Related Categories

Related Tags

Note on sources: The Jewish Humanist  was the monthly newsletter of The Birmingham Temple. The periodical Humanistic Judaism was the quarterly journal of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Center for New Thinking was Wine’s adult learning program beyond Humanistic Judaism. Selections from Wine’s books are appropriately cited.
All texts, photos, audio and video are © by the Literary Estate of Sherwin Wine, whose custodian is the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism – North American Section. All rights reserved.