What Does It Mean to Live as a Humanist?

Many people presume that philosophy is not meant to shape one’s life in the same way as religion. “Philosophy” in the modern lexicon has become another way of referring to a set of opinions and little else. A philosophy does not typically refer to an entire way of life in the same way as, say, Orthodox Judaism or Catholicism. This would have shocked the ancient Greeks and Romans, and even someone as late in history as Baruch Spinoza, who believed that philosophy was supposed to be a way of life which informed all aspects of life. Philosophy was the passionate search for wisdom and truth, and the search entailed certain activities which would strike many modern Humanists as bordering on the religious. Repetitions of core beliefs, reading and rereading foundational texts and teachers, prescribed periods of reflection and meditation, ritualized discussions (such as symposia), dietary restrictions and other forms of self-discipline, and a devotion to cultivating virtue above all else all characterized ancient philosophy. Humanist Manifesto III describes Humanism as “a progressive philosophy of life,” but what does it mean to be a philosophy of life? How can we live our daily lives as Humanists? What benefits could there be to adopting some of these ancient methods of incorporating philosophy into daily life?

A philosophy of life must incorporate more than just opinions on the nature of the universe, the existence of God(s), or humanity’s place in the universe. These things are important in describing what a philosophical group believes to be true, but they are not the totality of a philosophical life. The ancients understood that beliefs and virtues had to be reinforced daily in order for them to be effective in shaping how someone lived. This is why, for example, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, which was originally his private journal, is filled with reminders of his core beliefs and reflections on how to better handle situations according to virtue. The goal of Humanism is for its adherents “to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” The best way to achieve this goal is for Humanists to cultivate mindfulness of their core beliefs and values through specific activities such as daily reflection, study, and meditation. 

There are of course many ways to practice these daily exercises. They can be done free form by reading Humanist books and articles, listening to podcasts, or journaling whenever the individual has time. One could also take a more disciplined approach by reading specific texts at specific times, reflecting on predetermined topics for each day of the week, or establishing a set time for meditation. There are books which can aid in this endeavor: The Good Book by A.C. Grayling was written to be a “Humanist Bible” and contains a lot of good reflective material; Celebration by Rabbi Sherwin Wine was written as a book of meditations for Humanists and Humanistic Jews; and Morning Meditations by Barbara Kopitz was intended specifically for daily reflection. There is even the ritualistic approach, which I prefer, during which a person reads, studies, or reflects on the same material that covers a wide range of beliefs and values. In my case, I utilize the Siddur for Humanistic Judaism, which reflects on the nature of the universe and humanity’s place in it, the blessings of life, the values I wish to live by, and my hopes for humanity. There is also the possibility of dietary discipline, whether it be veganism, eco-kashrut, a health diet, or a general commitment to “ethical eating.” Every meal and snack becomes a reminder of one’s values and an exercise in self-discipline.

And finally, the issue of community gathering arises. The ancient philosophers would gather frequently for education and discussion with one another. Many Humanists are beginning to see the benefits of regular community gathering, and Humanist chapters are developing across the country. I believe Humanistic Judaism in particular has much to offer in the way of developing Humanist communities through Jewish holidays that celebrate the cycles of nature, Humanist values, and human self-reliance; and weekly Shabbat celebrations which foster community and operate as weekly gatherings to affirm our Humanist beliefs. Humanistic Judaism affirms the humanistic value of Judaism and Jewish history, and we should reach out to all Humanists (both gentile and Jewish) who may be interested in our approach to Humanism and Judaism.

In short, how do we live our lives in a humanistic way? We put our values and beliefs into action, and through daily mental exercises we can better put those values and beliefs into action throughout the day. In this way, we can begin to truly practice Humanism as a philosophy of life. Through gathering with other Humanists we can affirm our commitment to Humanism, celebrate the cycles of nature, explore the lessons of human history and philosophy, and support one another through life cycle ceremonies. I choose to practice my Humanism through the lens of Humanistic Judaism, but the possibilities for Humanist practice and communities are numerous. How will you live as a Humanist?

What About Reverence?

Since its heyday in the 19th and early 20th centuries, religious liberalism has been in decline. Religious liberalism is the approach to a religious tradition which emphasizes rationalism, critical assessment of traditional doctrine, humanism, and an openness to modernity. While religious liberalism has declined, secularism and fundamentalism have grown, which has created a perceived binary for many people between being secular and being “religious.” The liberal approach to religion gained its short lived popularity from its ability to formulate a way to express reverence toward God or Nature without giving in to restrictive and abusive dogmatism. It balanced secular knowledge of the world with the human need to feel and express awe and reverence toward the forces that create and sustain life. The inability to find that balance in a rapidly changing society is a large part of the reason for the decline of liberal denominations and religions today.

The need to feel and express awe and reverence toward something greater than oneself is a natural instinct for human beings. The usual culprits are God(s), the universe/nature, or the nation/tribe; and frequently these things will be interrelated or conflated with one another. For example, in Judaism God is the creator of the universe, which demonstrates his absolute power, and he chose the tribe of Israel to be his special people. Or take American political conservatives who frequently conflate being a “true” American with being a white Protestant. In these instances the symbols of the tribe/nation become sacred expressions of the people’s relationship with God and represent their favored status. This type of reverence rightly makes many liberals and humanists uncomfortable. The worship of God and nation has led to many atrocities in the past. To combat this, many liberals will critique this form of reverence without offering anything to replace it other than perhaps an affirmation of human dignity. This is not enough.

Humans want to be connected to something larger, whether it be a group or a god. The problem is that a group in itself is usually not enough. It must have a transcendent purpose in order to make membership and identification worthwhile. This is typically achieved through attachment to a deity, i.e. people come together because it is what their god commands, or through a utopian vision, e.g. socialists who wish to make a perfect society. Most liberal religious groups have lost this transcendent quality. The typical complaint about liberal religion is that it feels like little more than a social club and it’s therefore pointless to make attendance and participation a priority. The lack or reverence toward a transcendent entity or purpose is the root cause of the decline of religious liberalism.

Reverence is more than just the words that are spoken or sung at a prayer service. After all, liberal Jews and Christians still pray to God and read from the Bible. Reverence is as much a deeply felt emotion as it is a metaphysical belief. Reverence is defined as deep respect. Finding ways to cultivate reverence that maintains its intellectual integrity and humanist focus is the challenge that faces religious liberalism.

What should be the object or goal for reverence in Humanistic Judaism then? There are no easy answers, in part, because the people who typically find Humanistic Judaism are averse to anything that appears too “religious.” But I will offer a suggestion. Spinoza is often seen as the first secular Jew of the modern world, yet his philosophy was not strictly speaking atheistic. He spoke of God as a singular, self-existent substance which comprised the totality of all existence, i.e. there was nothing but God, and all thought and matter were merely attributes of God. Spinoza also made the comment, “Deus sive Natura,” which means “God, or Nature,” implying that God and Nature were interchangeable. But Spinoza did not stop at pantheism, he also theorized that the intellectual love of God was the supreme spiritual experience, and this love was expressed through contemplation and knowledge of Nature and our place in it.

We don’t need to accept Spinoza’s philosophy wholesale to see the benefits of the basic outlines. The object of reverence in Humanistic Judaism could similarly be nature or the universe, and the contemplation of our place in it as the supreme spiritual exercise. The UUA’s seventh principle is a good summation of this approach to humanistic spirituality, “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” I like this iteration for a few reasons. First, it firmly states the connection of humanity to all existence as one part of many. Second, it emphasizes interdependence, i.e. our connection to and dependence on everything. And finally, it uses the image of a web rather than God to demonstrate our connections.

If we accept this to be a viable object of reverence in Humanistic Judaism, as I believe we should, this necessitates certain values and practices. Environmental sustainability comes to mind as the foremost obligation, which will involve a lot of consideration for congregations, institutions, and individuals. Obviously respect for human dignity and work towards social justice will be included in this. Perhaps less obviously for some, animal rights and welfare will have to be considered as a necessary aspect of reverence for the web of life, including but not limited to vegetarianism. And finally, reverence for the universe will include the pursuit of knowledge in all its forms, since reverence will be impossible without knowledge.

Through contemplating our connection to and dependence on all of existence, we can derive a consistent ethical system which includes all of reality in varying degrees of importance. Our dependence on the earth motivates us to support environmental causes. Our dependence on other people drives us to live morally and work for the rights of the oppressed and disenfranchised. Through recognizing the underlying unity of all existence we come to revere that unity, which in turn leads to concrete values and actions. To use the formulation of the Shema: “Hear O Israel: Everything is connected; the Universe is One. You shall revere the web of life with all your mind, heart, and strength. And be mindful of all the obligations interdependence places upon you.”

Spirituality for Jewish Humanists

Humanistic Judaism prides itself on the use of rationality and the scientific method in the pursuit of truth. However, even naturalist and non-theistic religious traditions need spirituality in order to meet the emotional needs of its adherents. Spirituality is a nebulous term that can refer to many things, and it frequently has supernatural connotations. The word is used here for lack of a better alternative. For the purposes of this essay, spirituality refers to the practices and experiences that lead to the feeling of communion with something greater than the self, the experience of peace with the self and gratitude towards the universe, or finding meaning and purpose in life. This definition is clearly not exhaustive, but it will do for now. To discuss a Humanist spirituality, we must identify the goal of spiritual practice and suggest practices which are in keeping with the philosophy of Humanistic Judaism.

Spirituality has many psychological and physical benefits. It can reduce stress, helping people to cope with the problems of life. It can help people to find meaning and purpose in life and provide grounding in a chaotic world. There is also evidence that people who perform spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation live longer and recover more quickly from illness. Obviously spirituality isn’t a cure all, but it can positively impact the lives of its practitioners.

But how can Humanists who reject supernaturalism practice spirituality? Humanists must first find something to be the object of their spirituality. For traditional religions, the something is typically God. A Humanist spirituality can instead focus on something like goodness, truth, love, or beauty in imitation of Platonic spirituality. However, these concepts are too abstract for most people to be a meaningful spiritual object of meditation. Another option is to recognize the unity and interdependent nature of existence similar to that taught by Thich Nhat Hanh. Through contemplating this unity, Humanists can then have a feeling of communion with the rest of existence. Whichever choice a Humanist makes is less important than the practice they employ.

The most obvious method for a Humanist spirituality is meditation. Meditation does not require any religious commitment, nor does it rely on supernatural entities. There are many forms of meditation. Mindfulness meditation is the easiest and one of the most rewarding in terms of psychological benefits. Chanting is another common form of meditation. What is chanted isn’t so important, but words like ‘peace’ and ‘love’ or simple phrases are the best options. Another effective form of meditation is prayer. This is the most problematic for Humanists because prayer relies on a belief that there is something to hear the prayer. However, Marcia Falk in the Book of Blessings has attempted to create non-theistic forms of prayer where the use of words can help in the process of meditation. Rather than use the traditional Jewish formulation “Blessed are you, Adonai,” she uses the phrase “Let us bless the source of life which…” While this approach won’t appeal to all Humanistic Jews, it is an option for those who prefer the method of prayer over that of mindfulness meditation.

While general spiritual practices can be used, Humanistic Jews should also feel comfortable using Jewish spiritual practices. Prayer was mentioned above, but another approach is the sanctification of life through the practice of good deeds and blessings. Traditional Jews sanctify life through fulfilling the mitzvot and the recitation of blessings. Humanistic Jews can do the same by changing the words of the blessings to reflect Humanist philosophy and focusing on doing good deeds. Rather than the Hamotzi, it might be possible to make simple statement about being grateful for the food one is about to consume. Rather than the Modeh Ani, a Humanistic Jew can say, “I am thankful for another day of life and health.” Before bed and in the morning, one could say a Humanist version of the Shema that focuses on the interdependence of life and expresses a commitment to a life in service to humane ideals. Most Humanistic Jews won’t be inclined to do a Humanist “prayer” service (shema, amidah, aleinu, kaddish) three times a day, but it is an option. This approach to Humanistic Jewish spirituality requires creativity, but it has the benefit of using a traditional form of Jewish spirituality as its model.

Another form of Humanistic Jewish spirituality can be found in the new Mussar movement. Alan Morinis’s book Everyday Holiness, outlines a program of meditation and moral reflection that does not rely on God or the supernatural. Every day, one meditates on the nature of a particular virtue after reading a brief text about that virtue. There is one virtue per week that is meditated on in a cycle of thirteen for a year. Each night, the practitioner reflects on the day and records their successes and failures in regard to that virtue. The goal of the program is to integrate those virtues into the life of the practitioner through a heightened consciousness of their behavior. This practice can be done on its own or in conjunction with other spiritual practices.

No discussion of Jewish spirituality would be complete without mentioning study. Traditional Jews study the Torah and Talmud as a spiritual practice. Study should also be an integral part of Humanistic Jewish spirituality. While Humanistic Jews don’t need to limit themselves to the Torah and Talmud, they should form small groups in which to study, discuss, and argue about texts which have meaning to the practice of Humanistic Judaism. These texts could cover philosophy, history, traditional Judaism, current events, or any number of topics. This will have the benefit of encouraging scholarship and introspection among Humanistic Jews and forming close friendships in congregations.

Just as there is no single Jewish spiritual practice, there is no single practice for Humanistic Jews. Different methods will appeal to different people. The important thing is for Humanist spirituality to become a greater part of Humanistic Jewish life.