Archive for the ‘Atheism’ Category

As I’ve explained at length on this blog, one of the contradictions of my life is having a relatively rationalist orientation to the world, and yet having this powerful draw to religion and, especially, religious practice. My judaism course this spring is focusing on the siddur, the shabbat morning service in particular, which is really appealing to me in my search for practice.

Yet the notion of prayer sticks in my craw and troubles me. Who or what exactly am I supposedly talking to? For a humanist Jew like me, I see prayer as an expression of human yearning, hope, suffering, and longing; and inasmuch as the human mind tends to overextend social consciousness, projecting intentionality into the universe to make a “conversation” seems to be, well, deeply human. Moreover, there’s some pretty good psychology research about what prayer does for states of mind and for affect and for overall sense of well-being.  For me, prayer has become a problem of balancing my humanism (and agnosticism) with the beauty and humanness of religious desire expressed in ritual language.

When I was still a theist (and a Mormon), I had a vibrant prayer life, with prayer playing the central role in my spiritual life (the second largest piece was temple worship, a highly ritualized form of prayer). But I had given prayer up in about 1996 when I finally came to grips with the fact that I just didn’t believe. [I’ve explained my position on the existence of god and possible uses for the idea of god on this blog before, so I won’t rehash them now (see here, here, here, and here).] My break with a theistic, personal, agentive god was not a clean one. And I mourned the loss of god for several years after I made that realization—it was, for me, a stunning blow to my world view and habits of mind. To this day I find myself automatically talking to something exterior, in moments of pain, panic, awe, or joy.

But that was many years ago. Shortly after that I took up reading buddhist philosophy and started trying meditation practice (primarily vipassana); I undertook a buddhist path alone, without a teacher, because every attempt to join any kind of religious community induced panic attacks. (I’m not being hyperbolic—it’s only been since I started exploring Judaism that I have been able to sit and enjoy a religious service without feeling what I call Mormon-PTSD for lack of a better term.) Later I started doing yoga from time to time after I moved to San Francisco. During this 10 year period of reading and exploring eastern religion, I came to understand religious practice in new ways and to understand my craving for it.

Which brings me back to the siddur and to Jewish prayer or to prayer more generally. In his introduction to the Koren Siddur, Rabbi Sacks notes that the talmudic rabbis divided prayer into three phases or parts: 1) praise, 2) supplication, 3) gratitude. His description uses god-language in a way that I am completely comfortable with other people using, but which I find unusable in my own spiritual path. So he speaks not just of “praise”, but specifically of praising G-d for what he has done; not just of asking, but of asking G-d to give and answer and help and sustain; not just of gratitude, but of acknowledging G-d as creator and giver.

In both the Jewish and the Christian traditions, there is about a 200 year old tradition of reading “god” as metaphor (i.e., Haskalah in Judaism and liberalization of Christianity after German high criticism). So I feel that I have some ground to walk on in thinking of god as metaphor for something else. I have also always loved religious liturgy (both Christian and Jewish) as one of the arts, so I see the aesthetic and human appeal. But what of the practice of talking and asking that metaphor? or praising that metaphor?

The answer seems to lie in somehow combining my understanding of the inward purpose of practice from Buddhism (centering, calming, opening, accepting, and bringing awareness to life) with the beauty of the Jewish prayer tradition (music, dance, poetry, ancient tradition). Here’s my thinking, beginning with Rabbi Sacks’s talmudic outline, but expanding it to a liberal, contemporary, Judaism. I think of prayer as practice, as a grounding, centering, and opening practice of the heart. In keeping with the sage’s three-phase prayer, a humanist-Jewish practice might look something like this:

1) Expressions of Awe: the idea of the unity of G-d, the ultimate Oneness of Being, the place of my infinitesimal consciousness in the massiveness of Existence, and awareness and openness to all being. When I think about this for long, it’s hard not to think of Emerson’s essay Nature and the all-seeing eyeball and the oneness of the individual with everything that exists; or with Thomas Paine’s deist argument that Nature itself is the Word of God. The first part is to take a moment to open and contemplate Existence Itself and the Self’s relationship to it.

2) Awareness of Suffering, Lack, Need, Want, Imbalance: I like the notion of bringing what is wrong or lacking in life to consciousness and holding it with care and compassion (maybe with chesed?). The emotional or mental act of holding out the broken pieces of the world, or my life, and bringing a degree of acceptance and resolution to repair, in a conscious intentional way seems to me a great way to make prayer a fitting daily or weekly practice for anyone who wants to repair the world or his own heart.

And finally 3) Acknowledging the Unpayable Debt: Much of the joys of life are in the daily, ordinary things that fill our lives—the smell of rotting leaves in the fall, the sunrise over the bay before most people are even awake, holding hands with a beloved friend or lover. Sometimes when I stand back and account for what is in my life, the only word that comes to mind is blessed (ברוך). For me, it seems that very often, the things in my life that make me most thankful are from no doing of my own; they are simply the things that are or have happened to me, without my will or effort involved. In this way, they are miraculous (but not supernaturally so, in my mind). And so it’s the conscious gratitude of blessedness, even if there is no ultimate Blesser.

I have not tried it yet, but perhaps this will evolve for me into a regular sitting practice, maybe 10 minutes on each phase? Meanwhile, I can enjoy the liturgy in community with other Jews, some of whom are firmly theist, others of whom are firmly agnostic, many of whom are humanists like me; I can feel the connection of the Jewish past and tradition of prayer and understand its beauty and humanness in its longing; and use it as a practice to ground and center my own intentions and desires.


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When I was a little boy, I used to create fantasy lives with the characters I saw on TV. Among my earliest memories of such fantasies were with Michael Douglas in Streets of San Francisco, with one of the boys from Zoom, and, later, with the pilots from Baa Baa Black Sheep. Only in retrospect do I see this is the budding erotic life of a soon-to-be gay teenager. The practice of re-imagining the narratives on screen to match my narrative needs—to fulfill my own desires as someone craving reflection in culture—could only carry me so far. By the time I was in high school, I was conscious of the unbelonging, the exclusion from the narrative, and the imagination became interlaced with shame, frustration, anger, and self-hatred. I knew what I was doing, and I knew why I was doing it. And it was exhausting.

In graduate school, I would learn that hundreds, maybe millions of gay people did as I did, rewriting scripts, recasting romantic interests as they watched t.v., and that theorists called this “queering the text.” While it may seem easy to trivialize or dismiss the significance of television or movies, the lengths that many minorities go to to see themselves reflected in dominant narratives that were written to exclude them (either consciously or tacitly) or to identify with characters who are unlike them—in short, the effort it takes for the Other to find herself represented in the dominant should attest to the psychic significance and power of mass cultural narratives.

In my religious life, there was no way to queer the Mormon text, which explicitly condemned me. And so I tried to re-write myself, recast myself as another man. As I got older and my intelligence and personality continued to progress, I realized that gayness was not the only part of me that needed to be “read into” the mormon script I’d been given: I was a budding feminist, an intellectual, and increasingly agnostic. It took me longer than many people to realize that there was simply no room for me within the religion of my parents and ancestors. It takes a lot of energy to maintain yourself in a symbolic world that doesn’t want you there (other than as a foil for the righteous characters in scripture, or a clown for the heroes to laugh at on t.v.).

Since Yom Kippur, I’ve been put back into the position of having to read myself into texts, rituals, and life—this time, into Judaism. I’m thrice an outsider: I’m a goy seriously considering conversion (but not seeking a new ethnicity); I’m gay; and I’m agnostic-atheist-humanist. The fact that I’m exploring the liberal wing of Judaism eases this process enormously (Conservative-Reform-Reconstructionist-Renewal), and in many ways, there are people around me who are wrestling with the texts, prayers, and practices of Judaism alongside me. But even in the liberal theologies of these modern forms of Judaism, I find myself coming up against the idea of God and those who believe in him.  Given that I’m in the very odd position of seeking religious tradition, ritual, and community from a humanist perspective, this is not an unexpected development and, indeed, is something that I had anticipated.

What I had not anticipated is the difficulty of experiencing the outsiderness again in such strong feelings. In talking to friends at shul, men and women I really like and admire, and realizing that they are coming from a place of belief that I do not share has made me stop and question my attraction to religion generally and judaism in particular. While it is clear that being atheist is, in many ways, a very Jewish thing to be; within a community of practicing Jews, it feels odd and excluding.  My beginning assumptions are different, off-kilter, and would maybe even be offensive if they were known. There’s an odd way that I feel I must be closeted with my unbelief (although in practice, I don’t think that’s true—I’ve heard people at shul talk openly about not believing in God); it makes me question what I’m doing at all.

Then there’s Rabbi Heschel. I’ve been wanting to read God in Search of Man for several months, because Heschel is one of those rare people whose moral life and dedication to justice and tikkun olam has been an inspiration to me since I taught about him to undergrads at KU in the late 1990s. Arthur Green and Arthur Waskow, whose writings and activism have guided my journey through Judaism this past year, were both students of Heschel. But whereas Green and Waskow are relatively rationalist and, although practicing and spiritual, have unconventional and universalist notions of God that work really well with my agnostic-humanist belief. In reading Heschel’s book, I encountered an unexpected drawn-out argument for belief in God, complete with the typical science-can’t-know-everything and intelligent design lines.

And so I found myself reading a man I greatly admire and whose ideas I want to love, and find myself instead having to “read myself into” his text, just as I’ve had to read myself into the siddur, as I learn more and more Hebrew. And I don’t know if I have the energy or headspace or will to engage in another process of constant reinterpretation and re-imagining.

What I loved in Heshel’s book is the notion of the Holy and the human engagement and perception of it through wonder and awe. Heschel calls it the Sublime, and he argues that we have flashes of Insight throughout our lives that are windows onto the sublime. For Heschel, these experiences lead to a belief in the “living God” who is a “reality beyond realities”. That is where I kept snagging on his God concept, and having to stop and re-imagine the meaning. Clearly, Heschel was a believer; am I doing him an injustice by disagreeing and reading my humanist views into his work?

From my humanist perspective, awe and wonder (or the sublime) are aspects of human experience of the world and of each other. But holiness (the sublime) is not an intrinsic characteristic of any object or individual. Indeed, I would argue that it doesn’t exist at all, other than as the human experience of the thing. Heschel explains that the way we can ensure experience of the sacred is through recognizing it in the World (or in his words, in all of creation), that is, in all that Exists; through Torah; and through Ritual. The power of ritual is easy to get my brain around anthropologically, as it is both well-documented and, for me, I’ve experienced it myself; the weirdness there, for me, is that I’m having a different kind of a ritual experience as a non-believer. Torah I’m going to have to grapple with that later—I like the idea of wrestling with a text for meaning, but I have a hard time not seeing Torah as a political and cultural product of those who wrote it. And my American, post-transcendentalist, quasi-pagan, environmentalist, naturalist self is completely on board with Heschel that it’s Existence itself that cries out for holiness.

William James tried to describe the religious impulse, the thing that drives so many humans to seek the divine, as the drive to know or experience the MORE. The MORE is James’ abstraction of the desire, bordering on the erotic, for humans to experience something beyond. For James, this involves a Will to Believe, on some level, a conscious choice. A tragedy of his own life was his desire but inability to believe. Around the time of the Civil War, he lost his faith in God, but spent his life studying belief and practice of all kinds. That is perhaps why I feel such a kindship with James, in that his own spiritual life (not to mention his ethical orientation to the world) resonates so strongly with me.

In this instance, I think that James’ concept of the MORE is very useful to explain what I mean by my humanist conception of holiness as an experience: It is a willed affect, a willed outcome of a kind of ritual or action to produce the sacred in one’s life.

Where Heschel (and theists generally) loses me is in the notion that this holiness constitutes some kind of evidence for God, for his [sic] existence, reality, and “livingness.” I believe in the experience, but I believe the experience is the thing itself, rather than a sign of something exterior, least of all of someOne exterior, with agency and intention. For me, my idea of the meaning of the experience of awe, wonder, and the sublime resonates more closely with Heshel’s definition of faith, as “a sensitivity, understanding, engagement, and attachment; not something achieved once and for all, but an attitude one may gain or lose.”

For some time now, I have thought of the importance of the experience of the sublime as the taking of an attitude in the social-psychological sense, as in taking a position vis-a-vis the object that is guided by affect and manifest in behavior. To choose to experience holiness in another human being, in a giant sequoia, or in the red earth of southern Utah is to take an attitude in how one feels about the non-self and in how one treats it. In James’ terms, it is the manifestation of the MORE that we consciously chose to experience and make real in our actions. The MORE does not exist in an objective, exterior sense; but it can be experienced and/or made manifest.

Heshel ends the first section of his book with what I consider to be the most important reasons to choose a religious life and my explanation for why I continue to follow this path. If I lay aside Heschel’s theistic insistence and read myself into the text, this could be the best explanation for why I seek out a meaningful religious experience in Judaism despite the amazing amount of effort it takes to read myself into it:

To summarize: The power of religious truth is a moment of insight, and its content is oneness or love. … A genuine insight rends the enclosure of the heart and bestows on man the power to rise above himself. … [The experience of oneness] is astir with a demand to live in a way that is worthy of its presence. … The root of religion is the question what to do with the feeling for the mystery of living, what to do with awe, wonder, and amazement. Religion begins with a consciousness that something is asked of us. It is in that tense, eternal asking in which the soul is caught and in which man’s answer is elicited.

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One of the main things I hope to find in a Jewish practice is a sense or awareness of the sacred. It is a tricky proposition for me, because I am agnostic/atheist, yet think the experience of the sacred is a deeply human and, for me, centering and meaningful part of life. My atheist friends who were raised outside of a religious tradition often look at me askance for my fascination with the sacred; and yet I am just made in such a way that I both experience the sacred in my bones and don’t believe in god or any kind of external, agentive, creative force.

The quote from Rabbi Green (in the column to the left) describes a way that an agnostic but religious humanist Jew approaches the world. Science does what it does, and produces empirical knowledge about the universe. But we still, as humans, with these amazing and weird brains, must experience that universe; and our brains, with the weight of their evolutionary origins behind them, are impelled to give that experience of the universe meanings.**  Rabbi Green calls this a “post-naïve” religiosity, where the literal existence of a being or essence that acts in the universe with intention is rejected, yet the post-naïve remains connected to a religious affect and practice.  I have been without such a practice for about 15 years, and yet have never lost the occasional overwhelming and powerful experience of Existence, Being, The One, what Rabbi Green calls “God”.

Who or what was the God I sought—and still seek today, half a century later!—once I had accepted that I was such a ‘nonbeliever’ in the God of my childhood? The question seemed to be whether we post-naïve seekers dare to use the word ‘God’ anymore, and what we might—or might not—mean by it, while remaining personally and intellectually honest. …

… I still consider the sacred to be the most important and meaningful dimension of human life. ‘The Sacred’ refers to an inward, mysterious sense of awesome presence, a reality deeper than the kind we ordinarily experience. … These moments can come without warning, though they may be evoked by great beauty, by joy, by terror, or by anything else that causes us to stop and interrupt our ordinary, all-encompassing and yet essentially superficial perception of reality. …

… It is out of such moments that religion is born, our huamn response to the dizzying depths of an encounter we cannot—and yet so need to—name.

… I find myself less convinced by the dogmatic truth claims of tradition than powerfully attracted to the richness of its language, both in word and in symbolic gesture. Through the profound echo chamber of generations, tradition offers a way to respond, to channel the love and awe that rise up within us at such times, and to give a name to the holy mystery by which our lives are bounded (Green 3-5).

Although I’m still uncomfortable with Rabbi Green’s god-language, when I read this passage a couple weeks ago, it was as if I had written it. This was straight out of my experience with being a believer in science, scientific method, and scientific mindset, and yet having these experiences of awe and wonder at the universe I live in, my own body, and life as Being.

It is this awareness of the massive interconnection of all existence in an incomprehensibly massive universe in which I am an infinitesimal speck, that I want to have in awareness, to acknowledge in a regular kind of way. It is the one aspect that has been missing for me in Buddhism (which, by the way, has been an amazing power for good in my life, and which will always be an integral part in my own spiritual path). In the Congregation Sha’ar Zahav Siddur, there is a blessing for everyday life, written by Sue Bojdak, that can potentially remind me of this greater connection, and the holiness of every other human I encounter from day to day.

You reflect God through your soul, through your mind, and through your body. … We honor you and your body because you are a gift (Siddur 6).

In more orthodoxic religions, the requirement is on belief. In Mormonism, where I was raised, there are a set of key beliefs that are mandatory, and you are regularly asked about them and expected to publicly proclaim them on a regular basis. This is more common in Christianity, but may exist in more conservative or traditional forms of Judaism. So in my early 20s, when it was increasingly clear that I didn’t actually believe in it, I tried for about two years to talk myself through a different meaning of the rituals, scriptures, prayers. It was  a lot of work, exhausting in a context where I knew that if anyone knew what was happening in my mind, what I was doing to try to make mormonism intellectually tolerable, they would have been mortified and possibly taken corrective action against me.

But what Judaism seems (so far) to offer is a context within which the relationship to each other and the sacred is the focus, and there is built in to the religion, at least in modern, liberal, post-Englightenment mode of Judaism, the assumption that every individual in the room is working out the meaning themselves and differently. I get the impression that if I told the guy davening next to me at shul that I didn’t believe in God, that I just thought there was something awe-ful and wonder-ful about the Existing in the universe and being aware of it, even the most orthodox might argue with me in disagreement, but there wouldn’t be a question of whether or not it was Jewish to think such a thing.

It is an incredibly refreshing and relieving and relaxing place to be. And so I can pray B’tzelem Elohim, and love its meaning and implications in a panentheistic spirituality, and yet maintain my intellectual integrity as an atheist.


**I do not mean to argue here that religiosity was selected for in the evolutionary process. When I look at the evidence we have at the moment, I fall into the “spandrel” camp, those who see Homo sapiens religiosity as an accidental bi-product of the evolution of our problem-solving consciousness and our social cognition.

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Two weeks ago, I attended a Torah study at the synagogue down the street from me and then went to a Bat Mitzvah service afterwards. At the Torah study, a small gathering of men, surprisingly diverse, black, white, young, old, gay straight, gathered around a bare table on folding chairs to read this ancient text together. I’m quite skeptical of the use of ancient texts in any kind of normative way. It feels more like a cultural artifact to me, than anything else. But the Reform torah commentary that went with the text was fascinating, with metaphorical and even critical readings, acknowledging the historical and situated composition of the text. The men seemed to enjoy each others’ company and laughed as they read a portion from Devarim (Numbers), a dry text about a census and a bunch of legal proscriptions, and God punishing Miriam and Aaron… I’m just not sure where a reading of the stories of an ancient desert people will get me in the 21st century.

Throughout that day, I had two prominent impressions, at war with each other.

On one hand, I have a strong aversion to the hard, tight law, the Right, of Judaism and organized monotheism in general, at least as it was portrayed in the parsha (Torah portion). A suffocating straight jacket of ancient culture, dead people, dead context, lifelessness, meaninglessness. The same feeling comes whenever I read ancient religious texts of any tradition: They are out of context and don’t fit. Why do we consent to be bound by cultures that emerged in times and places so far removed from our own as to bear no meaning in the here and now? Beliefs and practices disarticulated from their contexts no longer make sense and risk doing great damage in the here-now.

The redeeming feature, for me, of modern, post-enlightenment judaism, is the recognition of the potential deadness of the tradition, and a struggle or dialogue about and with that deadness is built into the practice. Because Judaism generally anchors itself to a tradition of wrestling with “god”, the Sacred, Being, Oneness, rather than dogmatic submission to it, judaism has the possibility to wrest meaning germane to the here-now, a connection between the ancient and the now.

On the other hand, in contrast to the above, both the translation we read in Torah study, and the liturgy of the service used the word Eternal as a replacement for “god”. Seeing that word, used in that way, broke something open in my head, that is difficult to explain:

Evolution—our brains have evolved with the ability to ‘see’ time, forward and back. It was a cognitive prerequisite for conscious problem solving. Many philosophers and thinkers for 1000s of years have observed that humans are self-aware and know their own mortality, their own “dyingness”, and recently (since the 1970s) some more spiritually-minded scientists, like Carl Sagan, have observed that the evolution of the human mind is in some ways, the universe becoming aware of itself.

It occurred to me that the finiteness of life for the Self is in sharp contrast to the realization that the universe has always existed without the Self and will continue to exist forever after the Self dies. Death is, in a literal sense, a small annihilation of a piece of the universe that existed with a beginning and an end. And yet, that Self is able to apprehend the time and space that existed before it did, and which will continue to exist when the Self is gone. Eternity is the beginninglessness and endlessness that can only be imagined but never experienced. That moment of imagination provokes what cognitive scientists call an “awe response”, and is actually measurable and observable in many ways (I hesitate to evoke the problematic MRI here). It can jar the Self into a momentary experience of boundarilessness, where the self experiences Oneness with all that surrounds it, because there is nothing else, in a very real way.

I am not a fan of people who try to “spiritualize” science. I am also an empiricist in many ways and a believer in the scientific method of understanding the universe and world as it is. So I find myself at odds with religion that does not acknowledge the world as it is; yet I also find myself needing to make the world as it is revealed by the scientific method meaningful.

I do not believe in an external God as a cohesive being of some kind, as an exterior force or presence or power. In fact, I deny the existence of such a being (although I would probably more accurately call myself an agnostic in the original sense of the word, one who denies knowledge of something for which there is no evidence, in this case, a god).

But I believe in the human experience of the Holy or Sacred, those moments when the boundaries between the Self and Other and between the Self and Time fall away, when the Self feels the awe-full awakening to its own beginning and end, the finiteness of its existence in contrast to the infinity of the universe. And I believe that the communal sharing of that experience provides a social, interactive space for creating a meaningful life. How have I arrived at a place where I don’t believe that religion is true, but I believe that it can be “true”?

In Judaism—at least in modern, liberal, and mystical Judaism—Hashem, the Eternal, the Neverending is precisely that experience, the Oneness and Endlessness of which we only experience an infinitesimal bit, that is only imaginable. And that is what I mean when I use the word Holy. That is holiness. A kind of panentheism, really—a word I have only discovered over the past few months, from a colleague and from reading Radical Judaism by Arthur Green.

In the scientific age, with the state of human knowledge as it is, and with our collective, ongoing gathering and keeping of knowledge and wisdom, it would be irresponsible for anyone to positively affirm the existence of a god for whom we have no evidence. In light of scientific agnosticism, for me religion’s purpose—instead of proclaiming universal, a priori, normative truths—becomes to provide one possible, ongoing social frame within which we can work out, struggle over what our finiteness, our dyingness, or endingness means in the face of the Eternal. But I must acknowledge that most religion in our society, indeed in the world, is not framed in that way; rather, it continues to make dogmatic, counter-evidential claims for a truth that does not exist.

Yet I hope that in its humble, more grounded manifestation, religion can be one path to infusing our brief moments as the Universe’s consciousness with meaning and life. I had found glimmers of this in some liberal forms of Christianity, and indeed, my own spiritual journey will be forever indebted to American liberal Christianity from the early 19th century (e.g., unitarianism, universalism, and Transcendentalism). And art, for me, serves a similar purpose in human life. If cognitive science is right, making this consciousness of the Universe meaningful is the profound and unavoidable human endeavor—the accidental spandrel of evolutionary processes long past, which now connects my body to my mind and to the history of all life on this planet and all matter in the universe in an infinite space of Being.


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