In light of the Reason Rally on March 24, at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., now seems like a good time to ask: how are Jews supposed to respond to a rise of attention to atheists, humanists, and the secular? Given how controversial the Rally has turned out to be (and was there any surprise there?), this topic isn’t going away soon. What’s been interesting is the relatively quiet reaction from the Jewish press (particularly in comparison to publications from other faith groups).
The idea behind such a gathering is not a bad one, all things considered. Demonstrating the presence of a minority people and its will is an excellent way to begin incorporating that people’s voice into our country’s wider collective. It is also an opportunity to note parallels between the experiences of one group with that of another. Moreover, the stigma behind non-belief in this age seems ridiculous, especially in America, where religious values don’t (ideally) dictate public policy. (…wake me up after the Republican primary to see if that’s still true…) So, what’s so toxic about expressing informed skepticism?
All that said, there’s a line between expressing skepticism or a secular humanist philosophy, and disdain of other belief systems. Why must some individuals feel the need to believe their conclusions are entirely sound to the exclusion of other peoples? Many philosophical or religious systems undergo reform periods in reaction to perceived extreme points of view, and it wouldn’t surprise me if, one day, secular humanism experienced a shift in how its proponents relate to other groups (even those of faith). In the meantime, however, secular humanists are still finding their voice in the public sphere. In some ways, it makes since that some of them may be hostile given how few SHs actually occupy popular thought. I maintain that many, if not most, secular humanists are uninterested in coercing their peers of faith. They simply want to be heard, to participate openly. To come out, in effect.
Thankfully, the Jewish press has largely stayed out of covering this demonstration. It would be excellent to see thoughtful, fair coverage of similar news from Jewish media sources (particularly given our usual knack for keeping a pulse on the sentiments of other religious groups, at least toward Jews). But I for one much prefer little coverage to unfair or slanted coverage. It might even behoove to empathize, at least a little, with groups that hold unpopular (or less-understood) philosophies and belief systems.
We have much to learn from one another. As Jews, it serves us well to reach out to the “strangers” in our midst to better understand what drives them, gives them passion (even if, in this case, the strangers have been in our land all along– in some cases, even among us). Not every Jew will find meaning in, say, Humanistic Judaism. But a little respect and reaching out (whether to the atheist Jews, or others) might be just what the doctor ordered. Whatever we do, let’s just not lose our heads.