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“Civilization will not attain to its perfection, until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest!”

Emile Zola

THE Jewish Atheist is gone. The definite article the may have made me seem special, but it was a piece of marketing overreach by an inept consultant. There are thousands of Jewish atheists, with various attitudes toward Judiasm and atheism, so I could hardly pretend to be THE Jewish Atheist. On a more practical level, nobody Googles “The Jewish Atheist.”

I now have two new domain names, www.jewishatheist.us and www.jewishatheist.org. You could argue that these are no more accurate than the name with “the” — implying that there’s a whole group of Jewish atheists behind the name — but at least if you’re looking for a Jewish atheist, you’ve come to the right place, and I have to work within the limits of the available URL suffixes.

I would ask you to look at the other tabs in this blog, to get an idea of what you’ve stumbled onto. “Secular Wisdom” is of particular interest to people who may have been taught that you don’t know how to live unless you read the Bible. As for the posts, here are the Four Big Themes:

(1) Meanings of religious words — that humanists can accept. The first thing I set out to do was to provide rational, humanistic definitions for certain words that will not go away and that are central to any discussion of religion — namely, God, spirituality and the soul.

I confronted, as an academically trained linguist, the empirical question of what these words mean in common usage, given that they do not refer to anything in the physically verifiable world.

I discovered that people use these words very indiscriminately, with a wide variety of meanings, and sometimes the only reason they use them is to include themselves in the group of people who are allowed and encouraged to talk about God, spirituality, and the soul, whenever those words may mean.

Deliberate vagueness is something that a linguist can unravel and – by taking a social perspective – explain. In this case, the explanation has to do with the social power of language and the widespread acceptance of religion in the world today.

People really want to believe in God and the soul, really want to think they are spiritual. So yes, in the beginning there is the word, so let’s use it and not worry too much about what it means.

Some of the blog posts provide a commonsense, linguistically oriented explanation of these fundamental terms:

Let’s get spiritual: the many meanings of “Spirituality”
An atheist’s definition of God - and why people still believe
A secular-humanist definition of “the soul”

(2) Truth about the ancient texts.

Another early goal was to publish my book, which was intended to take a secular humanist view of the central religious text of the Jews, the Torah, i.e., the first five books of the Bible. I actually read it, cover to cover, in the best available translation (440 pages).

Just as Richard Dawkins brings his knowledge of biology to the argument for evolution, I bring my understanding of linguistics to the actual production and interpretation of the Torah and other religious texts.

As a Humanist, I simply do not believe in their divine origin or any impossible events they depict.

With the supernatural aside, we can begin to look at the evidence for the purported events. There is none. There is, for example, no way 600,000 Israelites could have trekked across the Sinai and left no trace.

Similar inquiries yield similar results for the rest of the Torah: none of it happened. It’s all a legend, and maybe one of several competing versions, or maybe the latest version of folklore that had been mutating for millennia and happened to get written down. The Torah writers put Moses at center stage perhaps because they believed themselves to be his descendants.

There is a noticeable, yawning gap between Genesis and the rest: We follow the story of creation, all the way through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph — then, at the beginning of Exodus, we have fast-forwarded many years into the future, the Jews are doing well in Egypt, but the current Pharaoh doesn’t know of Joseph and is concerned that they’re so numerous as to constitute a possible threat.

Then we go right into the Moses story. There’s no continuity, no attempt to link Moses genealogically with the preceding characters. To me, that suggests that the Torah writers cobbled together the creation-patriarch story (a bunch of pre-existing legends) with the Moses story (which also resembles other legends and which the Jews took to be their history). The two are tied together with a single theme: the divine land-grant.

This document is not the revelation of a deity or even of a great sage. It is of little or no interest to modern people. Its morality is primitive; its fables are minimally relevant to modern life, except with a lot of spin, which is quite different from the scientific process of translation.

Yet even Humanistic Jews include it in their services and bar/bat mitzvahs, so enthralled are they by the power of Torah nostalgia and by not wanting to seem too different from other Jews.

It’s especially important to put the ancient texts in their place — as ancient texts, and nothing more. During my 12 years in the Birmingham Temple, the founding congregation of Humanistic Judaism, the Torah was rarely mentioned, the emphasis being on the entire Jewish experience, especially modern times.

No energy was wasted in uncovering “hidden meanings” in the Torah. It says what it says, as far as we can determine. From the footnotes in the Jewish Publication Society version, it seems that at least 10% of it is unintelligible or has multiple translations. But who cares what it says? We have advanced way beyond those primitive shepherds.

There was no self-indulgent Midrash ( = “Let’s see, what kind of fun stories can I make up about what the Torah doesn’t say, or could have said, or might mean?”). I never heard the term till I came to the Chicago area.

Instead, at The Birmingham Temple, there was realism. Rabbi Wine drew a bright, clear line between reality (the actual history of the Jews) and fantasy (the Torah).

So the entry on Clinging to the ancient texts represents my humanistic interpretation of one of the key ancient texts. Similar thought processes apply to them all.

We begin with the premise that there are no holy texts, only good/bad deeds and good/bad people. Nothing is immune to honest inquiry. So scholars in many disciplines work to answer the questions “Did it happen?” and “Who wrote it?”

Obviously, supernatural events didn’t happen. But does any of it resemble history? Now there’s even some doubt as to whether such “established” figures as David and Solomon existed.

Also, please, let’s have no more spin about why there are two versions of so many stories (e.g., the whole Lilith thing, the two versions of creation, two sets of instructions for loading the Ark, with a separate provision for extra, sacrificial animals). There were multiple authors and careless (by our standards) editing. Both versions of a story got included in the final edited/compiled version. Case closed.

I believe that one of the Secular Humanist’s key tasks is to educate people about the reality of the Bible and the Quran. Way too many people regard them as literal and infallible, thus trapping themselves at an infantile and easily controlled level of magical thinking — and not realizing what every language scholar knows: how texts can be modified over time.

In this process, we must be compassionate and must separate the beliefs (mostly infantile and degrading) from the believer (capable of enlightenment)…and in turn separate those from the merchants of belief: the clerics, who often operate from the darkest of motives and incite people to discrimination and violence. Even if innocent of these sins, they perpetuate infantile fantasies and enslave people to the ramblings of primitive ancestors.

(3) Being FOR something.

Another early theme, from Rabbi Wine’s teaching, is that Secular Humanism cannot just be atheism — it must stand for something. That something is virtue: pretty much the same personal virtues as most religions preach, minus prayer, worship, and mythology. Thus I’ve considered the practical aspects of leading a humanistically spiritual life…and how that might be accomplished.

The entry on Believing in something expands on this theme. Above all, Humanists value human dignity, choice, and responsibility.

(4) Change in the wider world.

It’s encouraging that secular humanists and skeptics are now “out” in great numbers. But they remain a minority, they have no political influence in this most religfious of countries, and they are hated and resented by religious believers. We’re going to hell. Polls show us far below other groups as people that Americans would want their kid to marry.

Orthodoxy and fundamentalism claim the world’s attention every day, with far more social approval than they deserve, wreaking havoc and setting human beings upon each other like animals. But animals kill for a reason; they don’t blow themselves up over stories. Only we are smart enough to do that.

Thus a lot of my attention is focused on the outside world and in how we might bring about real change. I’m losing patience and getting really worried. It is appalling, for example, that no one can be elected to national office in the United States who does not profess some sort of theistic religious belief.

A skeptical Secular Humanist, I have argued, would make the best President. A religious believer, one who can believe Christian or Mormon fantasies, is more apt to take a false political story, disinformation, if you will, as true, without adequate evidence or penetrating analysis.

Did Dubya think that God told him to invade Iraq? It’s easy for a President to go to war for quasi-religious reasons.

A president who is a religious believer can easily internalize some insane reason for starting a war, whereas the President committed to analysis and reason would almost certainly not have followed the same path. There was just NO CREDIBLE EVIDENCE for the war in Iraq, except in Bush/Cheney’s fevered symbiotic brain.

It is equally upsetting that there is absolutely no representation for Secular Humanism in the serious media. Comedy Central, Penn and Teller, that’s about it. Religious stories are regularly reported with no dissenting view — e.g., that the rebuilding of their stupid, tax-exempt church is not evidence of God’s power but of misguided HUMAN power. Or how about a well-worded press release, from a secular organization, patiently pointing out that whatever holiday is being celebrated and written about is based on events that did not happen, and we’d all be better off if we let Biblical bygones be bygones instead of setting us against each other?

News stories of the celebration of religious rituals and superstitions are soberly reported as deserving of time and attention, without quoting any prominent philosophers or Secular Humanists to the effect that nothing that is being celebrated in that particular holiday, whether the Torah being given at Sinai, or Jesus rising from the dead, actually happened.

Thus, one of the themes is change in the real world…the kind of acceptance for the articulate, persuasive Humanism that we see on the Net. The asymmetry is painful.

We have a tremendous amount of well-thought-out atheism and secular humanism on the Net. How can we bring it into the real world? Possible answers: Cash, celebrity, and maybe even a crisis — those are the only things people notice nowadays.

The answer to this question is more urgent than ever. In the United States and in the Middle East – in the most powerful nation in the world and the most volatile region in the world – religion has united with politics in a vile conflict of competing fantasies.

Are we, as Norman Podhoretz contends, already engaged in World War IV? Or, as Tribune columnist Steve Chapman says, perhaps we should chill out, because there are so many peaceful, democratic Muslim societies in the world.

I usually agree with Chapman, but here I think he is a bit too sanguine. I spell out the special dangers of Islam at http://thejewishatheist.com/?p=89.

There may be Muslim countries, even countries with oil, that are not prone to the autocracy and tribal warfare of the Middle East. But even these countries are in danger of Islamic terrorism, because fanatics live among them, and as long as there is an Islam that takes the Quran seriously and literally, there will be fanatics — unless somehow the broad mass of people can be reached by the light of reason, impossible as that sounds.

The reason there will always be fanatics is that everyone, from childhood on, is indoctrinated with a rigid, phantasmagoric ideology, which calls for world conversion to Islam.

There are 1.5 billion Muslims, and while many are content to live in peace, there will always be enough desperate, easily–molded people, especially if the imams get them while they’re young, to act out the Quran’s destructive fantasies, every day. Until this document ceases to be regarded as infallible and literally true, the world is in danger.

Secular and moderate Muslims must do more.

Muslim madrassas (religious schools) must be exposed as (at best) merchants of fantasy and (at worst) the perpetrators of the cult of terror and martyrdom (new low: early in ‘09, at a reconciliation meeting of Sunnis and Shiites, a suicide bomber blew himself up!!).

The vile anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, anti-Western slanders of the Muslim clerics and media must stop. As many have pointed out, Muslims don’t tolerate the slightest slight.

Muslims pose a special danger because of the degree to which they regard their sacred text, which is highly aggressive and violently intolerant, as literally true and infallible. Plus, I repeat: There are over a billion of them, and they have a very high birth rate.

I really believe that religious orthodoxy, especially Islam, threatens our very existence on earth. Of course, it doesn’t help that continued Western invasions cause havoc, turn Muslims against us, and bring out their most radical violent elements. It’s a dance of death.

It would be a pity for humanity to have come so far, just to be done in by our inability to abandon our primitive stories.

So the four themes:

SUMMARY IDEAS: Secular Humanism, not atheism. Being FOR something. The dangerous mix of religion and politics. Actually reversing the progress of religious superstition, especially Islam, in the real world.

I look forward to your comments.

PS. I have since abandoned Humanistic Judaism as one more failed attempt to make the culture of primitive shepherds palatable to modern people, even as H/J becomes more like Reform Judaism.

True believers make it meaningful through self-delusion. Conservatives and Reform Jews — and especially Reconstructionists, who make no bones about what they’re doing — are an uncomfortable compromise, making the old texts say what they do not say. I once heard one of these super-liberal rabbis completely reinterpret the sh’ma (”Hear O Isreal, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” — actually represents a merger of two sects who called God by different names) as a call to inner striving, by giving alternate possible meanings to the words. What a crock.

Humanistic Judaism tries to make a connection by either making no connections (creating stuff ab initio, as with the re-interpretation of the holidays) or by actually repeating the old stories (while implicitly agreeing that nobody actually believes the supernatural parts).

Ultimately Humanistic Judaism fails because in its supposed pursuit of truth, it conveniently ignores the fact that nothing in the Torah happened…which means that most of the holidays have to be scrapped or completely reinterpreted. Why hold a community Seder to celebrate events that didn’t happen?

Incredible as it seems to me now, Jewish laypeople do not read the Torah; they rely on rabbis to tell them what it says. The question as to whether any of it happened…I didn’t consider that until I decided to actually read it and look into the scholarship about the events portrayed in it.

It was an embarrrassing revelation: none of it happened. I didn’t learn that till after I left the Birmingham Temple - but I did take Sherwin’s course in the history of the Jews, and there was nothing about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, or any of it. The Jews were never in Egypt, as slaves or in any role. There was no Exodus, unless perchance an escape from the captivity that resulted from their challenging the mighty Egyptian empire. In one Egyptian inscription, a general brags of defeating the “Apiru” (probably a group of Mesopotamians) and killing them all (an exaggeration).

None of it happened: It is on contradictions like this that Humanistic Judaism stumbles into irrationality.

Their motto shouldn’t be “Adam” (humanity) but “Hey, we’re Jewish too!”

8 Responses to “jewishatheist.org and jewishatheist.us: Rebranding and relaunch”

  1. on 25 Mar 2012 at 1:47 amRick

    Saudi Arabia appears to be a stable force in the Middle East and seems to be businesslike in its relations and oil dealings with the Western world. But the Saudi monarchy finances international terrorism and was likely the instigator of 9-11.

  2. on 25 Mar 2012 at 6:37 pmAlan

    It is most unfortunate — a combination of oil wealth, primitive monarchy, fundamentalist religion, and playing both sides. Why hasn’t the US invaded THEM? A place in dire need of regime change, IMHO.

    Americans on holy ground — that was Osama’s gripe. I really wish the President had used 9/11 to demonstrate the horrors of religious belief and the craziness to which it leads.

  3. on 28 Mar 2012 at 6:38 pmRich

    As a Goy, an Agnostic, and a worrier about the Downsides of Scientific Progress (WW 1; Designer Killer Germs & Viruses; et.al.) … I tread w/care.

    I have a dark view of Human Nature. As did the Founders. They were clear-eyed about human vice, cupidity, malice, blood lust, lust itself … and the catch-all that even resides in my own heart - Perversity (sex is only part of it, like pedophilia - I’m NOT that!).

    Kafka, Joseph Conrad, and others have explored that Dark Realm.

    I’m also vexed by the seemingly universal propensity of groups of all kinds to … Fuck With Other People!

    Pornography, Prostitution, & Pot. Trans-fats. Smoking. Drinking. “Sodomy”. Driving cars. Having “too many children”. Eating meat. Carbon Footprints. Shirking Prayer Meetings. Lookism. The list of “sins” is endless.

    As for religion - “Where are the Hittites?”, as a Jewish scholar asked. It seems to me that religion must have something to do with a tiny peoples’ 3000 year existence.

    “If men knew the truth, they would go mad with terror” - Santayana.

    Most men are sheep. Good luck trying to make them into Rational Philosophers & Scientists.

    Sent in good will and friendship.

  4. on 28 Mar 2012 at 11:40 pmAlan

    I wouldn’t try to change sheeple into anything else, any more than I would try to change actual sheep into something else. As I got older, I gained more and more respect for the implacability and intractability of human nature. A college course in “Human Nature and Politics” showed me how easily people give up their freedom, especially for security.

    Yeah, everybody’s got the truth. I love the way Carlos Mencia skewers holier-than-thou vegans: you’re killing a living thing, and even worse, that living thing produces oxygen, so your precious veganism is increasing greenhouse gases and, along with everything else we do, fucking up the planet.

    We were watching George Carlin last night: “You are All Diseased.” He ranted about the flood tide of BS. His last show was dark and angry, as if to say, “I’ve been spouting common sense for 40 years, and you still don’t get it.”

  5. on 29 Mar 2012 at 1:16 amRich

    That’s a relief. But I absolutely Hate the term “common sense”.

    CS. The sun revolves around the earth. Matter is solid. Matter is the Universe (it’s actually about 3% - the rest we have no idea).

    Here’s My CS:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWBjaOOCHbk

  6. on 29 Mar 2012 at 7:37 pmAlan

    Sorry, should have defined common sense as “reasonable conclusions derived from experience,” e.g., that religion, marketing, and politics are mostly BS.

    Couldn’t listen to your video, because I have to install Adobe Flash PLayer, which then pops up every time I change screens, and I’ve had enough computer hassles for a while. Resolution for remaining years: spend a minimum of precious time talking to tech support people.

  7. on 28 Dec 2012 at 8:24 amRick Levy

    Alan,

    Mozeltov on your new site. You’re off to a roaring start with this post. It’s a beaut.

    Speaking of changes, note I have also changed my email address as per the above “Mail” field.

  8. on 28 Dec 2012 at 5:43 pmAlan

    Rick…Your readership and kind words are appreciated, as always. New mail address noted. Happiest of New Years to you and Lydia.

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