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!
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?
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.