“Post-Atheist”

One of the first questions I receive as a Humanistic rabbi in any media interview is “Are you an atheist?”it happened again this past month on Sarasota NPR. One would think that the shock value of an “atheist rabbi” might have faded a bit since Sherwin Wine made news in the early 1960s; one of my colleagues even runs a blog by that name. But the contrast between “traditional religious authority” and “anti-religious perspective” is like media catnip – irresistible. Never mind that I don’t look like what people think a rabbi looks like, and neither does my mother-in-law or any other woman rabbi!

Googling 'rabbi image'

Googling ‘rabbi image’

My answer to the atheist question is to insist that I am a Humanistic Jew – I am defined by what I DO believe rather than by what I do not believe. Socialists and libertarians have positive agendas, and they have chosen positive labels rather than “anti-capitalism” or “anti-communitarianism.” Reform Jews are not “anti-halakhic [religious law] Jews.” The opposing sides in the abortion debate are “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” And on and on. I am a philosophical Humanist because I believe in human power, human responsibility, meeting human needs and furthering human self-actualization. For me, god(s) or no gods, or a nebulous force before the Big Bang, or any other possibility is secondary to those positive beliefs. Why do we continue to call ourselves Humanistic Judaism? Because we are, in a way, post-atheist.

What does it mean to be “Post-Atheist”? Consider this joke definition of “Atheism” courtesy of The Onion

Atheism, rejection of a belief in the existence of God in which one deeply devotes oneself to the nearly nonstop studying, writing, thinking, and talking about God. Upon reaching the philosophical and logical conclusion that God cannot exist, an atheist will dedicate the rest of his or her life to poring over books about God, fervently arguing with those who believe in God, and meeting with other devout atheists to discuss God or listen to someone lecture passionately and at length about how there is no God. The firmly held belief that there is no God gives atheists a deep sense of purpose and meaning in their lives.

To be “Post Atheist” means to be interested in different questions, those that come after your resolution of “is there or isn’t there.” OK, I see no evidence for a conscious force running the universe by my moral agenda. What next? What now? How can I be a better person? Where can I find meaning and inspiration? What I can I do to leave the world better than I found it? What do I do once I am post-atheist, past the breakaway experience and ready for the next stage of my life?

dewitt

 

In the battle over labels, I very much like what former evangelical pastor Jerry DeWitt likes to say, incorporating many of them in his self-description. Each of these labels has a use and a place, or a moment in the individual journey.

I was raised as a Humanistic Jew; my father was the breakaway from tradition, and my mother’s grandparents were the rebels on my other side. If my philosophical Humanism agrees with my parents’, then defining myself by something I never believed or spending my time rejecting religious authorities who never controlled my life or beliefs is very uninteresting and unsatisfying.

There are some for whom “atheist” is a meaningful label, either because of their personal narrative or current self-definition, and I would never deny them their choice of identity (as they might mine as simultaneously a non-theist and a Jew). But as for me, I’m on to what’s next. Or, as the original “atheist rabbi” put it:

Believing is better than non-believing. It is a strategy more conducive to self-esteem and community effectiveness. If there have to be unbelievers let those who do not believe in humanism play that role for awhile.

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8 Responses to “Post-Atheist”

  1. john zande says:

    Well said. I prefer the title Humanist over Atheist for precisely the reasons you outline. “Atheist” doesn’t describe a thing about me, whereas “Humanist” comes with a nice suitcase filled with positive notions.

  2. David Ross says:

    Academic Biblical Scholarship, Biblical Archaeology and science support there is nothing supernatural in our natural world. Also our Torah is Jewish mythology. There is no independent evidence that any of the characters in the Torah or the events ever occurred. As such, there is no deity to believe in so the term atheist doesn’t apply. Humanist is the appropriate label

  3. Aron Gamman says:

    I feel fairly close to humanism, but prefer naturalism because humanism sounds rather anthropocentric at times to me with all due respect. I still think the scientific method as a primary method of gaining knowledge, though, so I’d say I’m post-atheistic as well. I also suspect I’m more generous to some of the poetry within some theistic frame works without every wanting to swallow any of it whole.;)

  4. Jon Dreyer says:

    Adam, I urge you to reconsider.

    There are a lot of things more important to me than being tall. When people ask me how I identify, I almost never say that I’m tall. I say I’m a nerd, or an educator, or a musician, or an atheist, or a Humanistic Jew depending on my mood. Yet I don’t disclaim “tall.” I am tall, and if people were to ask me if I were tall, I’d say yes. I don’t go around saying I’m “post-tall” or saying those other things are more important to me than tallness so I don’t identify as tall.

    I’m all for you choosing to identify as a Humanistic Jew. It’s fine for that to be much more important to you than atheism. But if you don’t believe in gods, and especially if you disbelieve in gods, I urge you to also wear the atheist label proudly as one of your identities, and I urge you to answer the “are you an atheist” question with a proud “yes” before moving on to what’s more important to you.

    Personally, in a world still dominated by theism with all its baggage, I feel it’s important to replace theism with atheism While the word itself has negativity at its root, it also implies, quite positively, the use of reason and evidence to determine truth. That the atheist stance is not in itself a way of life does not mean the struggle towards reason and evidence is unimportant. You are welcome not to join that struggle, but I ask you to maintain solidarity with those of us who do. My atheism does not make me less of a humanist, nor should your humanism make you less of an atheist.

    For millennia, much of the world has bought into the theists’ libel that atheists are devoid of virtue. By rejecting the label, you are (inadvertently, I hope) adding fuel to that fire and also adding more disunity to an already fractious secularist movement. More than ever, we need reasons to stick together, not further split apart.

    In the words of Michael Jackson, “[we] want you back!”

  5. Brilliant. Thank you, Rabbi Chalom, for these cogent and useful thoughts.

  6. Pingback: Sherwin T. Wine: An Apprecation | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

  7. Pingback: What defines you? | random travels of a wandering mind

  8. Pingback: Dealing with the “God” Question | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

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