July 11, 2013 - 10:31 am

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Catholic Church. That’s why I feel less comfortable criticizing Catholicism than Orthodox Judaism, the religion in which I was raised. Occasionally, though, I just can’t help myself. In my defense, some of my best friends are Catholics (actually just one—a guy named Tony). But many of my best friends are ex-Catholics, including my wife.

Which brings me to sainthood. Because I prefer behavior to belief and life to death, I recently criticized Catholic doctrines that make martyrdom an easier path to sainthood than good works. But part of me wishes Congress were as willing to craft political compromises as Pope Francis, who approved making Popes John Paul II and John XXIII simultaneous saints. The first is a conservative and the second a liberal. (I’m grading on a curve here because “liberal pope” seems like an oxymoron.)

Pope Francis has been so anxious to elevate both that he put John Paul II on the fast track to sainthood and waved a second miracle for John XXIII. As I understand sainthood, you must first be dead and in heaven. You must then perform miracles, usually by answering a live person’s prayer for assistance in a desperate situation. “Proof” of such miracles is frequently a medical cure that the Vatican has found to be instantaneous and without scientific explanation. Prayers to win the lottery don’t count, despite overcoming greater odds, one would think, than inexplicable medical cures. If there were a god, she would probably have a good chuckle over the chutzpah of one man (the pope) declaring someone to be in heaven.

It would make more sense to me if sainthood were simply a lifetime achievement award for good works, reserved for those whose character others are invited to emulate. But good works are downgraded when miracles play a key role.

The Catholic Church is known to move slowly. For example, it wasn’t until he had been dead for 350 years that the Vatican admitted Galileo had been right after all about the earth orbiting the sun. Even if I believed in sainthood, I would prefer that the church take its time to declare saints. A long waiting period allows for a legacy to endure or for scandals to emerge. How many of the thousands of official saints would stand up to careful scrutiny today?

Continue reading at the Washington Post's On Faith >>

July 3, 2013 - 2:45 pm

When I was six, I began Hebrew School as an Orthodox Jew because that’s what my family was and that’s the kind of synagogue I attended. At age 11, I started thinking seriously about the concept of God and soon became an Orthodox Jewish atheist, although I could not have used the word “atheist” to describe myself because I didn’t know what “atheist” meant (a person without a belief in any gods). Nonetheless, I felt comfortable participating in Orthodox rituals for a couple more years, mostly because I was a good student who could read Hebrew faster than the other boys. There are satirical movies (like Keeping up with the Steins) about families who compete to throw the most elaborate and expensive bar mitzvahs, but mine was simple and inexpensive. However, I won my invented “competition” of reading the complete Torah portion for the week with fewer mistakes than others in our congregation at their bar mitzvahs.

Our congregation considered the Jews at a nearby Reform synagogue to be almost as bad as the Goyim (Gentiles) because they not only failed to observe many of the Jewish rituals, but also conducted their services in English instead of Hebrew. Had I understood the English version of all my ritual Hebrew prayers, I’d undoubtedly have become an atheist even sooner. Eventually I stopped performing the rituals and moved from being an Orthodox Jewish atheist to just a Jewish atheist, without passing through Conservative or Reform branches.

Now when I give public talks, I’m invariably asked how a person can be both Jewish and an atheist. But “Jewish atheist” is not an oxymoron, as indicated by the subtitle of my book, “Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt.” Since Jewish law is based on matrilineal decent, even Orthodox Jews consider an atheist born to a Jewish mother as fully Jewish. Consequently, one can be a religious, cultural, or ethnic Jew.

Within traditional Judaism, there is little interest in what one believes compared to what one does. Fixed prayers are standardized and required for the entire Jewish community, regardless of God belief. Saying these community prayers is not assumed to be an individual declaration of faith. There are 613 Torah commandments, and Orthodox Jews try to follow as many as possible. Some, like performing a ritual animal sacrifice at a temple in Jerusalem that no longer exists, are impossible. A commandment to believe in God is also impossible because people can’t will themselves to believe something they have solid reasons for not believing.

Continue reading at Washington Post's On Faith.

June 25, 2013 - 1:31 am

There were two categories of teenagers in the 1950s: those who could name one book by an atheist and those who could not. I joined the small first category in 1958, at sixteen, after fortuitously discovering Bertrand Russell's "Why I am Not a Christian." That single book was the complete atheist wing of my local public library.

I didn't know anyone else without a God belief. More accurately, I didn't know anyone who acknowledged such nonbelief. I felt better about myself after learning that Russell was more than just not a Christian. He was as many "nots" as I was, and brave enough to say so.  Bertrand Russell transformed the lives of many in my generation. For the first time we heard articulate arguments that confirmed and gave voice to our own skepticism and doubts. Even some true believers were led on a thoughtful journey toward altered religious states.

Today there are countless "nonspiritual" heirs to Bertrand Russell. Many teens who consider themselves religious fundamentalists have heard about or even read best-selling books like "The God Delusion," "God is Not Great," "The End of Faith," "Breaking the Spell," and "The Demon-Haunted World."  Conservative religionists might believe that Satan inspired these and other such authors, but godless views are gaining traction in our culture. (Note to fundamentalists: Is Satan winning?) I agree that God is both a delusion and not great, and that it would be nice if we could bring an end to faith by breaking the spell of a demon-haunted world. But in-your-face books aren't always the most effective ways to change minds or activate atheists.

There aren't many atheist evangelists to take on that challenge. In fact, most of them rarely discuss their atheism because it's not a big issue in their lives. I had long been an apathetic atheist, and turned into an accidental activist atheist only when I saw how the religious right had become politically influential and was impacting my life. I still fear for our country when politicians base decisions more on theocratic than on secular values.

Religions have long known how to organize communities. For a long time, atheists were so proud of their independent thinking that the idea of bringing atheists together seemed like trying to herd cats. It's much easier to herd religious sheep, as in "The Lord is my Shepherd." But the times they are a changing. Atheists have seen the light, so to speak, and now lots of atheist and humanist communities exist locally and nationally. For instance, the Secular Coalition for America counts eleven national nontheistic organizations as members.


Continue reading at Washington Post.


June 19, 2013 - 9:37 am

I could not have had a more patriotic beginning. I was born on Flag Day (June 14) in 1942, during World War II, at Liberty Hospital in Philadelphia, birthplace of the nation and the flag purportedly designed by Betsy Ross. My first public speech was at a fourth grade Flag Day ceremony. I had been chosen to read my essay, “What the American Flag Means to Me.” I wrote about looking at the flag when “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung at major league baseball games, hoping I would one day be a player on that field. I’m pretty sure my essay was picked because I happened to mention Flag Day was my birthday. Or maybe the other essays were even worse.

My views on patriotism in general and Flag Day in particular have changed considerably over the years. The anniversary of my birth has become a day when opportunistic politicians periodically attempt to take away freedoms for which our flag is supposed to stand. On my twelfth birthday, President Eisenhower signed into law the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, saying, “From this day forward, the millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.”

President Eisenhower made no mention of the Constitution during this 1954 Flag Day ceremony, perhaps because the Constitution, which is dedicated to “We the People,” prohibits religious tests for public office and makes no mention of any almighties. This melding of God and country, turning a secular pledge into a religious one, only resulted in my feeling less patriotic when I no longer believed we were under any gods.

The Pledge is not simply a passive reference to religion. It calls on every child in public school to affirm that our country believes in God. No child should go to school each day and have the class declare that her religious beliefs are wrong in an exercise that portrays her family as less patriotic than God-believers.

We once had a fine pledge written in 1892, slightly modified in 1923, and recited without controversy for decades. So why in 1954 were the words “under God” added? Almost certainly because it was the time of the shameful McCarthy era, when pandering or fearful politicians wanted to distinguish themselves from the atheistic Communism of the Soviet Union by creating a holy Cold War. Of course, a government that feels entitled to tell its citizens that they are one nation under God can also feel entitled to tell its citizens that they are one nation under no gods, as the Soviet Union did. Clearly, our secular government began, and must remain, neutral about religion.

Continue reading at the Washington Post.

June 12, 2013 - 2:27 pm

Recently, I wrote about a Democratic Representative of Congress who used biblical arguments for doing something about global warming to counter a Republican Representative’s biblical arguments for doing nothing about global warming. I advocated for evidence-based decisions rather than faith-based decisions, which put me on the do-something side.

Now we have a Republican who used biblical arguments against food stamps to counter Democrats who used biblical arguments for food stamps. During a meeting of the House Agricultural Committee, Tennessee Rep. Stephen Fincher quoted from Matthew and Thessalonians that the poor will always be with us and that those unwilling to work shall not eat. Fincher acknowledged that caring for the hungry might be something for Christians to do, but not with government money. While I strongly support separation of church and state, I think that’s a rather bizarre framing of the concept. Private support for the least among us can be for religious or secular reasons, but I hope we will never have a government that ignores the least among us.

Unfortunately, biblical arguments have become so commonplace in politics that they are hardly worth noting. This one, however, has an added dimension. Although Fincher complained about Washington stealing taxpayer money from some and giving it to others, he had no problem with Washington giving him $3.48 million of taxpayer dollars since 1999 for farm subsidies. Last year he reportedly received over $70,000, which I assume he needed more than those low-income people he wants to cut from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

It’s easy for powerful members of Congress to help themselves to such largess and justify it biblically with “God helps those who help themselves.” That’s not really in the Bible, but no matter. It sounds like it could be, and that’s good enough. If Rep. Fincher were to read his Bible carefully, he might find a word or two about hypocrites.

Interdisciplinary courses, especially those that can lead to good jobs, are popular at colleges and universities. So I propose one that combines political science with religious studies. The course would have four components:

Choose about a dozen hot political issues such as taxes, healthcare, education, science, environment, gay rights, women’s rights, homeland security, immigration, war, foreign aid, religious freedom, church/state separation, climate change, gun control, capital punishment, drugs, etc.

Continue reading at the Washington Post's On Faith.

June 4, 2013 - 4:00 pm

Atheists are the only ones who say unequivocally that atheists don’t go to heaven. Most heaven-believing religions seem to have a clause that allows even atheists to integrate the neighborhood. The road, however, is usually narrow and littered with obstacles.

Mormons, for instance, are known to baptize dead people. Many Jews, myself excluded, are upset that Mormons have sometimes focused on Jewish Holocaust victims (perhaps even my dead relatives) for posthumous baptism. This practice, however ludicrous, is fine with me. It does no harm to my deceased relatives or to me. In fact, I take this as an expression of good will, much like, “I’ll pray for you.” I believe in its positive sentiment, if not its efficacy.

Another positive sentiment recently came from Pope Francis, who spoke of finding common ground with those outside the Catholic faith. He even implied that atheists who do good works are good people and might get to heaven without passing through the “Go” of Christianity.

The pope sounded a bit like the Dalai Lama: “I have come to the conclusion that whether or not a person is a religious believer does not matter much. Far more important is that they be a good human being.” The pope even came dangerously close to sounding like a humanist. The elevator definition of Humanism is “Good without a god.”

Perhaps Pope Francis forgot to run this concession by the papal censors, because the following day the Vatican announced a do-over. The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said that those who are aware of the Catholic Church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.”  This sounds like damage control for Francis’ offhand remarks, much as official spokespeople often “clarify” embarrassing remarks made by politicians. So Rev. Rosica is simply reiterating the traditional Catholic position that atheists can go to hell.

Finish reading article at the Washington Post's On Faith.

May 17, 2013 - 10:22 am

Recently, I read two articles about dying for a cause. The first, on these pages, by Sally Quinn, addressed the Dalai Lama’s lack of compassion for not criticizing the self-immolation of more than 100 Tibetans since 2009 to protest China’s occupation of Tibet.  The second article concerned 813 Italians who were just declared “saints” by the Catholic Church because they chose death in 1480 rather than convert to Islam

Different religions have formulated arguments about what constitutes a “just war” and causes worth dying for. Some of history’s most brutal wars have been holy wars, perpetrated by people who expected heavenly rewards for killing countless “heretics.” They justified their massacres because designated infidels either did not believe in “the one true god” or did not worship the one true god in the one true way. Most of the civilized world now condemns those who take innocent lives, regardless of the cause. More nuanced is whether we can justify taking our own life for a cause, the theme in both articles mentioned above.

I can respect, if not agree with, those who believe their suicide will save additional lives and increase the happiness of others. That was the goal of the self-immolators trying to free Tibet and bring back the Dalai Lama. On the other hand, I always look for ways to resolve problems without loss of life. This is why war must always be a last resort.

I reserve my harshest criticisms of religion for its practices that intrude on the lives of those outside the religion. This doesn’t mean I can easily ignore religious practices I find ridiculous, which brings me to Catholic sainthood. How many miracles does it take to change a dead human into a saint? The Catholic Church says two, but no such miracle has ever been as documented as, say, would be a televised prayer that results in a light bulb changing itself.

Continue reading at Washington Post's On Faith.

May 8, 2013 - 12:50 pm

Recently I was invited to participate in a Religion and Law Conference at Florida State University. Almost all the other speakers and attendees were legal or religion scholars, from disciplines in which I’ve had no formal training.

My only “credential” to speak was as a former plaintiff in a South Carolina Supreme Court victory for atheists. In a conference session called “Legislating Conscience,” I described (to much amusement and agreement with my position) the legal roadblocks South Carolina had placed in my path in its failed attempt to maintain god belief as a requirement for public office. The conference, though, was not a “kumbaya” weekend because I disagreed with many speakers on issues they supported.

Almost all attendees were religious liberals, whose conference papers I’d roughly place in three categories: (1) objection to favoring mainstream religions over minority religions; (2) approval of selected government support for religion; (3) disputes over what legally constitutes a religion.

I agreed with all the cases presented in (1) and disagreed with all the cases presented in (2). My position was that government should never favor one religion over another or religion over non-religion.

The most interesting discussion for me was about (3), disputes over what legally constitutes religion, because I found all the attempts to define religion problematic. One speaker defined religion as “a sincerely held non-rational (i.e., faith based) belief concerning the nature of the universe.” Why, I asked, should our government privilege irrational beliefs over rational beliefs? Of course there are both theistic and nontheistic religions, the latter placing more emphasis on what adherents view as rational beliefs.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said, “Pornography is hard to define, but I know it when I see it.” I think the same can be said of religion, and therein lies the problem. My favorite definition of religion is from a “Non Sequitur” cartoon. An old man sits behind a table on a street corner with a sign-up sheet. Next to the table is a big poster with a huge thermometer. An arrow at the top of the thermometer points to the phrase,  “Join and help us reach our goal!” The bottom is labeled “handful of wackos.” As people stop to sign, the temperature indicator moves up the thermometer alongside labels that say “cult,” “faction,” “sect,” and finally the goal of “mainstream religion.”

Read remainder of article at Washington Post's On Faith.

April 3, 2013 - 4:49 pm

I’m not gay. But I am jealous. How did homosexuality shift in public opinion from less respectable than atheism to more? And what can the atheist movement learn from the LGBT movement?

The psychiatric community considered homosexuality a mental disorder until 1974, and it wasn’t until 2003 that the U. S. Supreme Court declared sodomy laws (same-sex sexual activity) unconstitutional.When the public is polled about a willingness to vote for a well-qualified person for president who happens to be gay or atheist, gays are now ranked ahead of atheists.

The most obvious and effective lesson atheists are learning from gays (including all LGBTs) is to come out of the closet. Attitudes toward gays changed rapidly when people learned that their friends, neighbors, and even family members were gay. Attitudes about atheists are slowly changing as atheists are slowly coming out.

Gays are more likely to come out publicly because it’s easier for atheists to remain in the closet. There aren’t many excuses to give your mother (or anyone else) about why you’ve been living for years with someone of the same-sex and not dating.

Like most Americans, I gave little thought to fundamentalist, soul-saving Christians until they began to focus on politics. I’ve never been a closeted atheist, but I was an apathetic atheist for most of my life. While a graduate student in New York and later a math professor in Massachusetts in the 1970s, my friends and I had more important things to discuss than religion. For instance, our sex lives. Most of my friends were probably apathetic atheists, and some of them, unfortunately, felt the need to be closeted gays.

The LGBT movement deserves enormous credit for framing and publicizing their issues, forming a big tent that allows for cooperation between activist and laid back gays, and developing a well-organized community with a constituency recognized by politicians. And so it should be with atheists, which is a goal of the Secular Coalition for America and its member organizations.


Read remainder of article at Washington Posts' On Faith.

April 1, 2013 - 5:53 pm

As an Orthodox Jew growing up in Philadelphia, Passover was my favorite holiday because children were an integral part of the ceremony, and I got to sit at the Seder table with grownups. After the Seder leader hid the Afikomen (a piece of matzo) during the meal, the child who found it received a small prize. I always enjoyed sipping the ritual wine, while my mother voiced her concern that I would become an alcoholic. (I now think that Manischevitz wine would be an effective one-step program to prevent alcoholism.)

I especially looked forward to the Mah nishtanah…, the question asked by a child, which translates to “Why is this night different from all the other nights?” The scripted answers from the leader represent the substance of the Seder. Though I no longer believe the answers, the question reminds me of my favorite Passover joke:

“Because of his generous charitable contributions in England, Morris was to become the first Jew knighted by the queen. As part of the ceremony, Morris spent a great deal of time memorizing what he would have to say in Latin. But when the queen approached, Morris panicked and forgot the Latin passage. So he blurted out a familiar foreign phrase, ‘Mah nishtana halyla hazeh meecol halaylos?’ Surprised, the puzzled queen whispered to a member of her entourage, ‘Why is this knight different from all the other knights?’”

Before accepting Seder invitations, I always make clear to the host that I am an atheist. I believe the traditional Passover story to be both fictional and horrible. Here’s why: There is no historical or archaeological evidence that Moses existed, that Israelites were slaves in Egypt, or that they wandered in the desert for 40 years. And that’s the good news. I find the Passover story of the Exodus is horribly inhumane: An insecure and sadistic God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Why? So God could respond by bringing 10 plagues to Egypt, which culminated in killing innocent first-born Egyptian sons (but passing over Jewish households). Now and forever, we Jews are to thank God every Passover for creating plagues to benefit his “chosen” people.


Continue reading at Washington Post's On Faith.

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