April 9, 2006

Defenders of the Faitheism

It's another dubious trend story, complete with forced coinages and vague data, and a reporter using his friends as sources. So why aren't I griping? Because it was written by a friend, and my family and I are the starring sources. Plus, this one is 100% true!

The story on The New Faitheists can be found on page 3 of this week's Brooklyn Paper [pdf], but for convenience, I've posted it after the jump too.

The new ‘faitheists’
A growing number of non-believers still need a dose of that old-time religion
By Gersh Kuntzman
The Brooklyn Papers

Gina Duclayan lights one candle and then another and intones a familiar-sounding prayer.

“Baruch ha-or ba-olam (radiant is the light within the world),” she says, closing her eyes and moving her hands from the candles to her chest, as if inviting in some higher power.

“Baruch ha-or-ba-shabbat.”

It is Friday night and Duclayan and husband Daniel Radosh are lighting Shabbos candles and saying a prayer over challah and wine (substituting grape juice for wine, so their children can also partake) like many Jewish couples all over Brooklyn.

But there is one main difference: Duclayan and Radosh don’t believe in God. Call them “the new fatheists,” a growing number of Brooklynites who are turned off to organized religion — there’s just too much “God begat this” and “God smote that” for them — yet still need spirituality in their lives.

Duclayan and Radosh do the normal Jewish rituals at their Windsor Terrace home (although their Shabbos prayer, however traditional-sounding, makes no mention of God) and attend services at the City Congregation in Manhattan.

But if one doesn’t believe in God, why bother with formal rituals?

“Our rituals have meaning, not because a God commands us to do them, but because they connect us to thousands of years of Jewish history and Jewish people,” Radosh says.

“Humanistic Judaism” was founded decades ago by Ohio rabbi Sherwin Wine as a way of divorcing Judaism from God, yet keeping the traditions. Duclayan and Radosh celebrate all the major holidays, hold their own Seders and send their kids to Sunday school. They even had their son, Milo, circumcised — an operation the Torah describes as a covenant with God.

Radosh disagreed: “Wehad Milo circumcised as our covenant with the people who made that covenant with their God. It’s a powerful thing, 5,000 years of history.”

There’s less history at the First Unitarian church in Brooklyn Heights — but just as much faitheism. The other day, there was even an atheist folding church newsletters in the basement.

“I may not believe in God, but I want to be in a community that cares about social justice,” said Katherine Lazarus of Prospect Heights, who has belonged to the Unitarian church for 50 of her 85 Godless years.

The Unitarians are a Christian faith — and the Bible is a part of the services. But God is more of a historical concept, a “fable,” as Lazarus put it, than a living super-being watching over — and passing judgment on — us.

“The Bible is just one of our sources,” said the Rev. Charlotte Cowtan, the interim minister. “God did not speak one time in one place to one people and never again. The Bible shows us what it means to live up to who we can be. Mother Theresa did it. Gandhi did it. Martin Luther King Jr. did it.”

She said most of her flock is drawn to the faith after being bruised by other churches. “The worst things humans have done in history have been done in the name of God, church and religion, so people sometimes find it easier to say they don’t believe in God,” she said. “They don’t want to put their energy and faith into a concept that has caused so much damage.”

But religion has inspired the best in Mankind, too. That’s what drives atheist Arthur Strimling to services at Kolot Chayeinu, a Jewish congregation in Park Slope that’s so liberal that the mission statement says, “Doubt can be an act of faith.”

“My grandfather and father were staunch atheists, and so am I,” Strimling said. “But I am of the generation that saw Martin Luther King and other ministers defending the best values, with courage and fortitude, in the name of God.

“You don’t need God to do those things, but it proved to me that spiritual hunger is not something I wanted to fully extinguish in myself.”

So when Rabbi Ellen Lippmann talks about the Torah, Strimling finds himself interested, even if he doesn’t believe the passages.

“Reading the Torah is about examination,” he said. “It’s a creative and humanizing process and I love that. In the Torah, God is a complicated idea. If I believe in anything, it’s that humans’hunger for God is so universal that it can’t be ignored. It must be in the DNA.”

Or as atheist Lee Pardee, who attends Unitarian services, put it: “I may be an atheist, but I love singing in the chorus!

“When I first joined this con- gregation, I was so pleased by the songs. There’s no God in them! It’s just like church, but all the words have been fixed,” Pardee added. “I can actually sing the hymns and believe in them.”

Posted by Daniel Radosh


I like to think that I usually keep a genial tone when considering novel manifestations of bourgeois decadence, but this is the most depressing thing I have read in many, many days, perhaps, ironically, for its own lightness of tone. What is to be gained from a pantomime of tradition? It adds a bitter note to the anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I thought a "novel manifestation of bourgeois decadence" was The Great Gatsby.

In a country where a large majority of people say they believe in God while probably fewer than half of them observe any but the most secular traditions of faith, it's hard to see what's so out of sorts about atheists who observe religious tradition. Except in the way that very few people in the states actually identify as "atheist."

It all seems pretty darn American to me.

You're all going to hell. Odin is God and Santa Claus is his son.

Rasselas - Just because one human interest article in the local paper is lighthearted, doesn't mean the spiritual practices of the people profiled in it are equally shallow. Perhaps you will be less depressed if you actually try to find out from more serious sources what we feel is gained from our beliefs (sorry, our pantomime of your beliefs, which are of course the True ones). Google and Amazon can help you out there. Or you can just post dismissive comments on blogs and breeze on. Your call.

Tradition is always a pantomime of the founders' experience[s]. That's what it is, what it functions as. Pretty much as a definition. Religion, typically, is a system of traditions and beliefs. Traditions w/o beliefs accomplish precisely the same cultural function as they do with, to wit, provide a sense of community and continuity through ritualised symbolic practices (pantomime).

So in a world where many family legacies, going to the same educational institution, living in the same house, or doing the same job, are increasingly impractical, holding on to the same religious tradition can be very useful indeed.

On a publishing note this is the first "Lifestyle" piece I've ever read which relates in any way to my life. I've used the terms "Ethnically Episcopalian" and "Ethnically Quaker" for years.

Excellent points, TG. But I will add that despite how the article makes it sound, Humanistic Judaism isn't just a belief-free way of connecting to Jewish history. There are actual beliefs (that would be the Humanism part) that are expressed through (transformed) rituals.

The article might also have mentioned the Society for Ethical Culture in Park Slope, which has been a home for humanist spirituality and social action for over 100 years. As a Leader of an Ethical Society with hundreds of members--in Missouri, of all red states--I assure the doubting thomases that religious humanism in many forms inspires people to work for peace and justice and to be more kind and thoughtful, and it enables them to raise their kids in a community with positive values--all without having to edit or pretend or feel like hypocrites if they don't happen to believe the stories of theistic religion.

PS. Hi Daniel. Great blog. Does Gina approve of the occasional gratuitous soft porn?

Hi Kate. Soft porn is the best part of not having God breathing down your neck. I'm pretty sure Gina would agree with that, though I'm not stupid enough to ask her.

What a pleasant article! Of course, some Episcopalians have been doing this for years.

As well as clergy who've read too much on God's "being" itself as idolatry.

Hi Kate! Great to hear from you.

You know, I've got to let Daniel have his fun.

Hey Daniel,

I've just today finished a book called "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris and I wonder if you've read it or not. I would be interested in your thoughts on it if you have and await them if you have not. Being an atheist, with a pagan brother and a born-again Xtian sister and tons of Jewish (though not religious-somewhat like your family from what I have seen here and before) friends, I'm curious as to what the meaning of practicing certain traditions has for you when faith/religion is so not compatible with reason and even a future for the planet. You can reply off-line if you wish of course. And I hope to see you at the reunion, though I just might have to miss it depending on work stuff...
Later, Dawn

Hey there, Dawn. I haven't read End of Faith, though from what I've heard I'm not sure I'd agree with its premise. I tend to think that humans are "hardwired for God," as the religious folk like to say, though for me this isn't a proof of God's existence so much as a quirk of evolution -- and not necessarily a bad one. Obviously this wiring can be short circuited but religiosity/spiritualism/faith/whatever is overall a necessary part of the human condition. As a rationalist, I can't subscribe to a system that requires a belief in the supernatural, but I do distinguish between irrational and non-rational beliefs and practices. For example, I light candles on Friday night as a way to remember to appreciate the light within the world and rest on sabbath in order to sanctify the day -- that is, to stop myself from being continually caught up in day-to-day existence that working life necessitates.

This isn't exactly rational behavior, but then neither is falling in love or enjoying music or a sunset. I feel that my practices make me more deeply human, in the same way that theists feel their practices connect them to God, I guess. And if that's what people believe, I hardly feel compelled to challenge them on it just because I think they're technically wrong. Maybe I have Harris wrong, but it sounds like his book is a form of proselytizing, a trait I find no more attractive in atheists than in Christians.

I agree with you completely that we're hard-wired for some sort of "big picture" quest. But I do think you have heard incorrectly about Harris's thesis. He even ends up endorsing meditation as a rational tool for understanding consciousness. He's not anti-tradition; just anti-belief in the supernatural and things that are completely irrational. He's also pretty harsh on Islam in particular, with the idea being if you believe these books are the perfect word of god, than you can't just pick and choose what you will adhere to from those books. He's mostly pointing out some fundamental rationalizations that modern believers have to have in order to get by in today's world. And that those that aren't really in the modern world and are fundamentalist in their views are dangerous to the rest of us. Love isn't as irrational as it seems-there is a purpose after all, and it does require rational work to make it last. And music impacts our minds in ways that are not completely understood, but that doesn't make it any less important a part of our lives. I don't believe that-I know it. I haven't checked out his website yet but I plan to, as he is deeply interested in the brain biology of consciousness, which you may remember, is a fascination of mine as well.

Post a comment

Powered by
Movable Type 3.2