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Home From the Rabbi From the Rabbi - January 2013
From the Rabbi - January 2013 PDF Print E-mail

 

Dear Friends:

A few weeks ago, I received a mailing from the American Humanist Association entitled “Good Without a God.”  I wrote to them, asking them to help me understand how they chose what to believe, what values to hold up and what ideas and values to reject.  Roy Speckhardt, their Executive Director, was kind enough to write me back and refer me to the Manifesto.  You can find it, as I did, by going to the search box of your computer and typing in http://www.americanhumanist.org/Humanism Humanist_Manifesto III.   Humanism and both atheism and agnosticism represent major challenges to religious conviction and faith today, and Mr. Speckhardt’s answer led me to do some very serious thinking.  I share my response to his note in the hope that it will stimulate you to  your own thinking and spiritual search.

Dear Mr.  Speckhardt:

I very much appreciate your response to my note and the reference to the Humanist Manifesto III, which I have read and reread carefully.  Its contents are prima facie evidence that American humanists are committed to being good, ethical and moral individuals by every and any standard to which the western world subscribes.  Of that, I do not think there can be any doubt among serious readers of the Manifesto.  It is a position that evokes admiration and honor.

Nonetheless, I am still puzzled about the source of the values enunciated in the document.  The Manifesto proclaims that “science is the best method for determining…knowledge [of the world]”, and I understand this perspective.   However, as Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of Great  Britain often says that “Science takes things apart to see how they work.  Religion puts things together to see what they mean.” (The Great Partnership, p. 2).  Science cannot even ask the question “Why?” nor can it offer help in differentiating and choosing between alternative values.

The Manifesto says that “Ethical values are derived from human need and interest…..”  But need and interest can lead in perverse and horrific directions.  The Nazis and Stalin murdered tens of millions of human beings because they perceived it to be in their interest to rid their nations of enemies.  So, too, the Khmer Rouge, the Serbians, the Hutus, Assad and Khomeini and Idi Amin and scores of other tyrants through the ages have justified torture, imprisonment, exile and cleansing of one’s enemies, racial, religious or political, because they judged that these acts met their needs and their interests.  I do not believe for an instant that the members of the AHA would approve of these actions, but I am unable to figure out from the Manifesto by what philosophical process a humanist would prefer one set of values and reject another.

In other words, is simple subjectivity the basis by which you can declare that “each person …[has] inherent worth and dignity…” or is there some principle that you apply that makes it possible to affirm that this position is superior to any  of its alternatives?  I ask this question, not out of a polemical perspective, but as a serious inquiry to understand how humanists make decisions that other people assert are the consequences of their religious traditions.

By the way, in your response to me, you speak of a dichotomy between “blind faith” and “flexibility.”  I reject this opposition as a false dichotomy that may serve your institutional and/or personal needs and interests, but which does not do even minimal justice to a variety of liberal religious traditions presently practiced around the globe.  I belong, for example, to a movement called Reform Judaism.  Nearly fifty years ago, a study was published entitled “Reform is a Verb,” and the author made the point that the word “Reform” designates a continuing process in which the applications of ethical and moral values that have been validated by 2500 years of usage are constantly updated in the light of new conditions and understandings.   My personal religious convictions and those of my congregants cannot be characterized as “blind faith;” with unending flexibility, we seek an amalgamation of the best of religious insight and meaning with the best of contemporary, scientific knowledge.  The life to which we aspire is described as “holy,” a word that cannot even find a place in the vocabulary of the scientific mind.

Shalom,

Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

 

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