The Easy Way for Atheist Clergy to Lead a Congregation

The Easy Way for Atheist Clergy to Lead a Congregation May 30, 2016

Editor’s Note: Some non-believing clergy have it easy! They can be recruited to lead a congregation despite being openly atheist. It helps to be Jewish because they established a humanistic tradition over 50 years ago. When I asked Dennett-LaScola study participant Jeff Falick to write a “secular sermon” for the blog, he instead wrote this essay on his experience applying for the job of secular humanistic Rabbi and becoming one. It’s very instructive for what could be an increase in humanistic communities as traditional (i.e., supernaturally-based) religious communities continue to lose membership. Jeff has contributed to the Rational Doubt blog before and now has his own Patheos blog at The Atheist Rabbi. I look forward to seeing Jeff, his husband, and other Clergy Project members at the upcoming Reason Rally in Washington. More on that later this week.


By Jeffrey L. Falick

For some clergy, “coming out” as an atheist means leaving their profession behind. They face the challenges of re-training, living off their savings (if they’re lucky enough to have any) and leaving behind congregations full of people they care about.

I did not go through any of that. Thanks to Sherwin Wine’s creation of Secular Humanistic Judaism in 1963, I was able to re-position my career and skills to work in a non-theistic community.

Humanistic Judaism symbol

In fact, my position as the Secular Humanistic rabbi at the congregation Wine founded offers me many more “pastoral” responsibilities than any other job I’ve held.

One thing that I did not expect to develop is an almost visceral dislike of the title “rabbi.”

When Wine founded the movement, there were people who considered alternatives. Many Jewish secularists were uncomfortable with the title. Ultimately he decided that Secular Humanistic Jews needed rabbis. He felt strongly that the title would help to bring respectability to our movement among the more conventional Jews.

I agree with his thinking. And it is true that rabbi can mean “teacher.” Yet there are times that I feel that it is ill fitting. It is redolent with a history of authoritarianism and that makes me uncomfortable. Yet it is the job that I do, even with God left out of the picture!

When I interviewed for my position, they asked me to provide a “vision of my rabbinate.” This was challenging. My professional experience was in administration. I had never worked in a congregation. I knew what rabbis did, but I also knew that they did what they did as representatives of the authority of God or Torah or “tradition.”

Who or what was I representing?

After weeks of agonizing over the question, I finally realized that I would be representing something larger than myself. I would be representing our community and its values by connecting our members—and other Humanists—to each other. Here’s what I wrote:

There are many specific responsibilities of a congregational rabbi. Yet no matter the specific undertaking at hand, the rabbi’s most important role is to create connections. Our busy lives do not permit even the most involved volunteer leaders to be fully present or available at all times for all members. The rabbi must represent them. In some ways, the rabbi is a walking, talking, very human Facebook; an instrument of connectivity. I view this as providing one of the central conceptual frameworks of the rabbi’s role. In traditional Jewish practice there is a role for individuals known as shaliach tzibbur, the “representative of the community.” For traditional Jews this is the person leading the prayers, representing the community to God. I believe that for Humanistic Jews, this can be a horizontal representation. A Humanistic rabbi can represent the entire community, conveying its collective interests and concerns and convening others to do so as well.

While I was thinking about my role as a Secular Humanistic rabbi, I think this idea works for Humanist leaders in any setting. We do not claim authority but neither are we irrelevant. I’d like to see congregation-style Humanistic communities someday replace faith-based communities, offering the same sense of belonging. These communities will require Humanistic leaders who can connect people to each other. Along the way, good Humanist leaders can also inspire others to take on leadership roles of their own. This is key to growing communities.

**Editor’s Questions** 1) To those of you are or once were clergy: How do you think you would adapt if you had the opportunity to have a humanistic congregation? 2) To those who once belonged to a religious congregation: What would you be looking for in a humanist group?


Falick25551e_9ad1b36d762444a0be678812295f4b05.jpg_srz_261_372_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_jpg_srzBio: Jeffrey L. Falick is the rabbi of The Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Ordained by the (theistic) Reform Jewish movement, he later became associated with Secular Humanistic Judaism, an approach that combines adherence to nontheism with a celebration of Jewish culture and life. He serves as president of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis and on the Executive Committee of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, and blogs on the Patheos atheist channel at

>>>Photo Credits: By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use,

By HOWI – Horsch, Willy – eigenes Foto (Zeughaus), CC BY-SA 4.0,

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  • mason

    Fascinating article. It will probably cause many closet atheist Christian clergy to wish they’d been born Jewish. 🙂 “Jew” has an extensive and dynamic continuum today as does “Christian.”

  • Bronxboy47

    Proving that being Jewish is cultural and tribal rather than religious. If Jews no longer need to believe the truth of their scriptures to be Jewish, how do they justify their adamant claim to have been given the deed to their land by god himself?

    • mason

      Some Jews are cultural, secular etc. Others are very religious, from moderate to fundamentalist. Here’s an interesting Pew Report on Jews in Israel

      • Bronxboy47

        I’m well aware of this, but I don’t see how this answers my question?

        • mason

          Brox,…”If Jews no longer need to believe the truth of their scriptures to be Jewish, how do they justify their adamant claim to have been given the deed to their land by god himself?”

          I respectfully submit there’s a non sequitur problem with the question, because many Jews adamantly believe the “truth” of their scriptures, so the question leads to a conclusion based on an inaccurate assumption about all Jews. I personally don’t believe in their claim or scriptures and all that keeps them holding on to the land is their military and the US military.

          • Bronxboy47

            Let me rephrase my question: If it is no longer required for all Jews to believe the historical accuracy of Jewish scripture, how do non-believing Jews justify occupying the land both the scripture-believing Jews and the Israeli government claim was given to them by god? If your own government cites scripture to justify it presence in the area, doesn’t that make non-believing Jews hypocrites or, at the very least, mere opportunists?

    • Well you’re addressing that question to the wrong kind of Jew. I am aware of very, very few non-Orthodox Jews who believe that Israel was a gift from God. I certainly do not!

      As an atheist and Secular Humanistic Jew I don’t believe that the Bible was written by any deity. However, even non-Orthodox Jewish believers (e.g., Reform or Conservative Jews) do not typically make an “adamant claim to have been given the deed” to Israel.

      Most would go no further than stating a conviction that there exists a historical connection between Jews and that land. For while there is much in the Bible that is unreliable, it is not the only source that attests to such a connection. Thus, given the tragic events of subsequent Jewish history, they maintain that there are sufficient secular reasons to support a Jewish state in that land.

      Quite a few of these non-Orthodox Jews (and all Secular Humanistic Jews) also fully recognize the claims of Palestinians to the same land. We hope for these two groups to come to an equitable and peaceful solution for sharing it (though there remain differences about what that solution should entail).

      Interestingly, DNA evidence points to common ancestry for both Jews and Palestinians in Israel-Palestine (even figuring in intermarriage on both sides). This strengthens the argument that they must figure out a way to share the land.

      • Bronxboy47

        Please enumerate the non-biblical sources that serve to convict Jews of their historical right to the land regardless of the existence of the Palestinians.

        • Linda_LaScola

          Jeff did not make any statement that would suggest he thinks this or could respond to it.

          • Bronxboy47

            Really? “Most would go no further than stating a conviction that there exists a historical connection between Jews and that land. For while there is much in the Bible that is unreliable, it is not the only source that attests to such a connection.” Straight from the horse’s mouth, Linda.

          • Linda_LaScola

            You can check for yourself because it is a well documented historical fact, with archeological evidence (e.g., the destroyed temple), that Jews inhabited that region for centuries. This is unrelated to any “right” to the land.

          • Bronxboy47

            My question about extra-biblical sources was directed at Mr. Falik, but neither he nor you have responded with links to those sources. So either provide some or back off.

          • Linda_LaScola

            I feel no need to fulfill your requests or to back off. Evidence of long-termJewish inhabitance in Israel is quite easy to find.

          • Bronxboy47

            If you had real evidence you would provide it in a link or two. But apparently it appears far more important to you that I do as you say. One can only wonder why that’s more important than proving your point. And I find it just as important not to let you manipulate me. I don’t go on fact finding missions for perfect strangers. And i certainly don’t do it for anyone who claims to have proof that I’m wrong but balks at sharing that proof.

          • John Lombard


            The fact that the Jews occupied this land historically is more than adequately attested to historically. Hell, even Muslims accept it as a historical fact, since part of their history includes conquering Israel and taking it away from the Jews.

            Quite frankly, it seems to me that your opinion is based on ignorance. You want ‘proof’ that the Jews occupied this land historically, when the quickest of Google searches will provide such proof. Yet you offer exactly zero proof of the opposite position, that the Jews did NOT historically occupy that land. And I doubt that you can provide any such evidence, since the historical evidence is OVERWHELMINGLY in favor of the former claim.

            That doesn’t ‘prove’ that the Jews have a right to that land. Historically, there were others who lived there before they conquered it; and there were others who later conquered them and took it away from them.

            But the claim that they DID occupy and control that land historically is established beyond doubt. Hell, archaeology alone has established the FACT of ancient Jewish settlements there. If the Jews did NOT live there historically, how do you explain archaeological PROOF of Jewish settlements that are thousands of years old? With Jewish temples, Jewish writing, Jewish religious artifacts, etc?

            What idiocy. Many Muslims hate Jews…but they don’t take the idiotic position of trying to claim the Jews have no historical claim there. Quite the opposite, they tend to prefer to brag about how they conquered it, and kicked the Jews out.

            And to satisfy your demand for links, here are two:



            However, I very much doubt you’ll ever actually check them out. I rather expect something along the line of “It doesn’t matter what those sources say, they are obviously biased and can’t be trusted.”

            Because you’re not someone looking for ‘proof’. You’re just some sad individual with an incredibly closed world view whose only interest in ‘evidence’ is where it can be used to support your ignorant conclusions.

          • Bronxboy47

            I asked for extra-biblical sources and the best you can do is Wikipedia and an obviously Christian Zionist site? Wikipedia? Really? That bastion of accurate information? As for the Arabs being in agreement with Jews, are you suggesting they don’t have a vested interest in that agreement?

            Btw, your very much doubt has been very much misplaced. Try exercising your doubt where it would do you the most good. If you catch my drift.

          • John Lombard

            Aw, now this is fun! It’s not often we get a troll that is THIS predictable! I mean, my god…I specifically said that you’d dismiss the articles as biased, and refuse to accept them…and that’s EXACTLY what you did!

            You entirely ignored the HUGE amounts of archaeological evidence. And no, Muslims do NOT have a “vested interest” in saying that the Jews have a historical claim on Israel…quite the opposite, it’d give them FAR more leverage to say, “The Jews never lived there, they stole the land from us”, rather than say “Yeah, the Jews used to live there, but we kicked their asses out.”

            Not to mention the fact that for all you ranting and moaning, you have yet to provide ANY links to evidence that the Jews do NOT have a historical claim. For example, evidence that proves that the THOUSANDS of archaeological discoveries, all verifying Jewish settlement hundreds/thousands of years ago, either don’t exist, or have been faked.

            Some people here might get annoyed at you (I’m sure some already are), but I simply find you an amusing play toy. The depths of your ignorance are truly astounding…you’re a living, breathing example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. (And since I know how much you hate actually finding information on your own, I’ll inform you that essentially it means you are so ignorant about a topic that you are unable to recognize your ignorance, and actually think you know something).

            Please, continue with your objections 🙂 Since all the members of the Clergy Project once lived in fantasy lands with mythical gods and bizarre conspiracies (which we’ve since escaped), it is rather entertaining to see someone not only thoroughly lost in a realm of complete and utter ignorance, but who seems thoroughly determined to stay there!

          • Bronxboy47

            I don’t ordinarily argue with people who cite Wikipedia as proof of anything, but I’ll make an exception here. Try this on for size:

            Nova interviewed Professor William Dever on the Archeology of the Hebrew Bible. and here are some of his responses:


            Nova: According to the Bible, the first person to form a covenant with God is Abraham. He is the great patriarch. Is there archeological evidence for Abraham?

            Professor Dever: One of the first efforts of biblical archeology in the last century was to prove the historicity of the patriarchs, to locate them in a particular period in the archeological history. Today I think most archeologists would argue that there is no direct archeological proof that Abraham, for instance, ever lived. We do know a lot about pastoral nomads, we know about the Amorites’ migrations from Mesopotamia to Canaan, and it’s possible to see in that an Abraham-like figure somewhere around 1800 B.C.E. But there’s no direct connection.

            NOVA: Have biblical archeologists traditionally tried to find evidence that events in the Bible really happened?

            William Dever: From the beginnings of what we call biblical archeology, perhaps 150 years ago, scholars, mostly western scholars, have attempted to use archeological data to prove the Bible. And for a long time it was thought to work. [William Foxwell] Albright, the great father of our discipline, often spoke of the “archeological revolution.” Well, the revolution has come but not in the way that Albright thought. The truth of the matter today is that archeology raises more questions about the historicity of the Hebrew Bible and even the New Testament than it provides answers, and that’s very disturbing to some people.

            The fact is that archeology can never prove any of the theological suppositions of the Bible. Archeologists can often tell you what happened and when and where and how and even why. No archeologists can tell anyone what it means, and most of us don’t try.

            And yet, after Professor Dever has said all that, he caps it off with this revealing remark:

            “But perhaps we were asking the wrong questions. I have always thought that if we resurrected someone from the past, one of the biblical writers, they would be amused, because for them it would have made no difference. I think they would have said, faith is faith is faith—take your proofs and go with them.” Yeah, faith, that’s the ticket!

          • Bronxboy47

            “But the claim that they DID occupy and control that land historically is established beyond doubt. Hell, archaeology alone has established the FACT of ancient Jewish settlements there.”–John Lombard

            I never said or even implied that this wasn’t an established fact. It’s obvious you have a reading comprehension problem.on What I asked Linda LaScola for were non-biblical sources proving Jews have a historical right to the land, not proof of their having lived in the land for centuries.

          • Linda_LaScola

            I don’t go on fact finding missions for perfect strangers who demand information they can easily find on their own.

          • Bronxboy47

            So, you’re admitting you don’t actually have the information at hand. Otherwise there would be no need for you to go on a fact finding mission. You’ve just been too clever by half and outed yourself.

          • Bronxboy47

            You say it’s unrelated to any right to the land, but that was the exact point I was making. Just the fact that Jews have lived in that area for centuries is not proof they have a biblical right to the land granted by god as the present Zionist Israeli government adamantly believes.

          • Bronxboy47

            I asked for non-biblical sources proving Jews have a historical right to the land, not proof of their having lived in the land for centuries. Just because they lived there is not proof of any right to the land. Non-indigenous residents of the United States have lived here for a few centuries now, but does that prove they have a right to this land?

          • Elizabeth.

            That’s a good question, Bronx : )