God and Atheism in Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism is often described as the atheist denomination. In large part this is true, and most of its members are atheists. However, there are no numbers (that I’m aware of) that reveal how many Jewish Humanists are atheists. I would venture a guess that Jewish Humanists generally believe in some concept of God, although most would eschew belief in miracles and the otherwise supernatural. Humanistic Judaism need not be limited to atheists. If we accept the idea that the concepts about God are diverse and nebulous, we can move from a strict atheism which is limiting the Humanistic Movement towards a more open and pluralistic Humanism which embraces a sense of the sacred without sacrificing anyone’s deeply held beliefs about whether or not there is an entity which goes by the title ‘God.’

It is best to approach this from the perspective of Harold Schulweis who argues for a “predicate theology.” It is not so important to argue whether there is a supernatural God or not, but rather to acknowledge those aspects of reality and human life which we recognize as godly or sacred. Goodness, truth, justice, compassion, love, liberty, and peace are seen by atheists and theists alike as worthwhile ideals for human behavior and society and easily acknowledge them to be sacred and meaningful. In this approach we leave the question of God’s existence alone and focus on the quality of life we wish to have as human beings and as Jews.

We can further borrow from the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich and ask, “what is our ultimate concern?” What aspects of life can human beings acknowledge as the most important, those which no other concerns can take precedence over? This is a deeply personal question, but there are only a few answers which are sufficiently enduring, personal, and worthwhile enough to truly give life meaning; e.g. goodness, truth, justice, and love. If we acknowledge these ideals as the highest ideals of our lives, we are already revering them as sacred ideals for ourselves, our communities, and our societies.

When we approach the God question by asking what is sacred, rather than is there an entity called God, we are able to find a way to give our individual and communal lives meaning and purpose. If some of us choose to use the term God as a symbol of the sacred aspects of life, that is perfectly in line with Humanist philosophy. The important thing is to acknowledge that, as the Humanist Manifesto III states, “Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals.”

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