The New York Times Asks: Is Atheism A Religion?

The New York Times Asks: Is Atheism A Religion? January 25, 2013

In the New York Times’ latest installment of “Room for Debate,” writers discuss the question, “Is Atheism a Religion?” The exchange was inspired by Susan Jacoby’s recent piece, “The Blessings of Atheism” and by the new efforts of a couple of British non-believers to establish an actual atheist church, “The Sunday Assembly” that plans to meet monthly. All of the contributors come to the obvious conclusion that no, atheism is not a religion.

I proudly display Richard Dawkins’ scarlet “A” in this blog’s logo.  I am, after all, a big believer in “coming out.”  But then I attach it to the word “rabbi,” a religious concept if ever there was one.

Nevertheless, I do not pretend that atheism is more than it is. Atheism is simply a statement regarding one’s lack of belief in supernatural gods.

Secular humanism, on the other hand, is my approach to life.  It is widespread among atheists but by no means identical to atheism. Who would consider Ayn Rand, Josef Stalin or Mao Zedong humanists?

I would have framed the debate more narrowly by asking whether secular humanism is a religion. Secular Humanistic Jews have given this some thought.

Rabbi Sherwin Wine pointed out that the category “religion” is a lot like “sports.” Sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s in and who’s out.  (Are billiards and football both sports? They’re both on ESPN!)

If religion means having rabbis, organizing congregations, holding services and celebrating holidays – however much we radically re-define these ideas and activities – then Secular Humanistic Judaism fits the bill. So, too, might this new British effort.

Its founders write:

We started The Sunday Assembly – think of it as part foot-stomping show, part atheist church – because the idea of meeting once a month to sing songs, hear great speakers and celebrate the incredible gift of life seems like a fun, and useful, thing to do.

What’s more, church has got so many awesome things going for it (which we’ve shamelessly nicked). Singing together in a group? Super. Hearing interesting things? Rad. (Our first reading was Theodore Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena bit.) A moment to think quietly about your life? Wizard. Getting to know your neighbors? Ace.

For reasons that I continue to explore, I remain hesitant to apply the word religion to my own movement.  I even equivocate about calling myself a rabbi.  With regard to the latter, I freely use it because my colleagues do and because it is my earned title (I have the certificate to prove it).  And in fact, no matter what terms we employ, Humanistic Judaism is very much experienced as a kind of religion and my job is quite similar to that of a God-fearing rabbi.

Putting aside the quibbling over whether we should emphasize humanism over atheism or whether it’s legitimate to call any of it religion, this is a crucial conversation and I am thrilled to see it entering the mainstream.

Perhaps our British friends and others will have an opportunity to look to Humanistic Judaism for inspiration.


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