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If God Is Dead, Who Gets His House?

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Schweitzer tells me that Humanistic Judaism was founded in the early sixties by a former Reform rabbi from Michigan named Sherwin Wine. Wine, Schweitzer explains, coined the term ignostic—you’re never going to know what God is, so why waste your time worrying about it? “God is a construct of the mind,” he says. “Maybe you get there. Maybe you don’t.”

Schweitzer sees Humanistic Judaism as an obvious extension of a North American Jewry that is already highly secular—one that for decades has made “the deli a more significant cultural force than the synagogue.” Many secular Jews continue to feel a strong connection to their cultural roots. “Jews need a place to go, especially during high holidays, where they don’t have to check reason at the door,” he says. “This is honest religion. A real gift.”

After Shabbat, I talked to a retired philosophy professor, Marvin Kohl, an expert on Bertrand Russell, who admitted, reluctantly, that he believes in God. “I like the intellectual side,” he says of the meetings. Before the night was over, a speaker from Jews for Racial and Economic Justice gave a talk about affordable housing. Then Schweitzer reminded the congregation that it needs new office space. There aren’t enough members to afford a synagogue.

Atheist orthodoxy for the most part has been an oxymoron, partly because atheist leaders have tended toward a certain eccentricity. Before the Four Horsemen arrived, the face of atheism in this country belonged to Madalyn Murray O’Hair—“Mad Madalyn”—the pugnacious founder of American Atheists who disowned her son when he became a Baptist preacher and publicly pronounced it a “postnatal abortion.” Angry and overweight, she was the muse of daytime-talk-show host Phil Donohue and a speechwriter for Larry Flynt. In 1964, Life magazine crowned her “the most hated woman in America.” O’Hair was murdered and dismembered, allegedly by her office manager, David Roland Waters, in 1995, but this wasn’t discovered until six years later, prompting speculation in the meantime that she had fled to the South Pacific with piles of atheist loot. January 2001 signaled a low point in contemporary atheist history. The same month Waters led police to the remains of the woman who successfully fought to end prayer in public schools, a Pew survey found that only 19 percent of Americans thought schools should avoid prayer or similar reflection.

Orthodox or not, for many traditional atheists, the word church is taboo, even if God is definitely not in residence. When Tim Gorski, a Texas physician, approached Paul Kurtz, an influential atheist who now chairs the Center for Inquiry, an atheist think tank, about his plans to start the North Texas Church of Freethought in the nineties, Kurtz discouraged him, on the grounds that atheists don’t need church. And about ten years ago, American Atheists turned down Gorski’s bid to sign on to an atheist advertisement published in USA Today. “Individuals and organizations could put their names on the ad. Churches could not,” Ellen Johnson wrote me in an e-mail, while insisting that American Atheism’s “eleventh commandment” is to never criticize or rebuke kindred organizations. “Since they were technically a church, we said no.”

Gorski believes that a church is not necessarily God’s house. It belongs, first, to the people. Many atheists, he says, misunderstand why people go to church in the first place. “It isn’t the specific doctrines,” he says. “[Church] binds people together and relates them to one another and gives them each a personal, private, and, of course, quite subjective understanding of themselves and their world.”

“Every service is different,” says Gorski. “For example, we created a serial feature called ‘Moment of Science,’ where we look at something recent or not so recent but something from science that informs our everyday experience. Economists tell us that if our neighbors live in nicer houses, we’re unhappy. We share this with members, so that next time they’re unhappy, they can think about why and hopefully change that.”

Atheism’s bitterest schisms, no surprise, were often formed in church. Gorski says he grew up, uneventfully, as a Catholic. “I’ve got no ax to grind,” he says. But at a meeting of the New York City Atheists in January, two former Jehovah’s Witnesses recounted a childhood rooted in lies and indoctrination. The young woman, who used a pseudonym for fear of never being able to speak to her parents again, told the audience that her father would hide her National Geographic. Ellen Johnson explains it this way: “Our members have left religion and don’t want any part of that.”

Additionally, many atheists see the challenge of tearing down the pillars of organized religion as far from over—just check the numbers of Americans who don’t believe in evolution, they say. And that work—of arguing, of reeducation, of fighting discrimination against nonbelievers—should take precedence over any kind of organization-building.


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