December 2, 2014 - 9:32 pm

Groucho Marx famously said, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” I’m thinking about joining a club that I thought would never accept me as a member. A Ku Klux Klan chapter is now accepting Jews.

My only public comment about the KKK, in 1987, was supportive — sort of. When the Charleston City Council in South Carolina, where I live, asked for citizen comments about whether to grant the KKK a parade permit to march, I said, “The Ku Klux Klan has done hundreds of horrible things, but I don’t want to deny them the one appropriate thing they do — use their free speech right to demonstrate for a cause.” The Klan was allowed to march, and it was especially ironic that the KKK Grand Dragon had to listen when our black, Jewish police chief, Reuben Greenberg, read him the permit rules and regulations.

So why would a liberal Jew like me even consider joining a hate group like the Ku Klux Klan?

1. I like diversity.

I’m happy when groups become more inclusive. Only one KKK chapter thus far is opening its membership to Jews, as well as to blacks and gays, but that’s a start. I also enjoy seeing hate groups argue among themselves about changing traditions. KKK Imperial Wizard Bradley Jenkins said about John Abarr, who started this new chapter: “That man’s going against everything the bylaws of the constitution of the KKK say.” This reminds me of a piece in The Onion about a small group of Klan reformers who claimed that blacks and Jews may be partially related to human, or White, beings, a controversial view that challenged one of the most dearly held Klan beliefs.

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November 19, 2014 - 3:09 pm

Should atheists come out to their religious family at the Thanksgiving dinner?

October was a good trick-or-treat month to wear masks and pretend to be someone else. The organization Openly Secular is encouraging atheists in November to remove their masks and reveal who they really are. But holiday gatherings can be filled with tension for atheists in religious families as they weigh staying in the closet or coming out as the “black sheep” atheist.

Here are my tips as you look ahead to Thanksgiving dinner, with the disclaimer that you know your family better than I do, so tread carefully.

1. Don’t come out as an atheist during the Thanksgiving meal.

The blessing may seem like an appropriate occasion for you to drop the news, but family gatherings usually have enough potential friction. It’s best to maximize the happiness of the occasion — or at least minimize the unhappiness. When you come out, try to begin with close and/or tolerant families members who are likely to be supportive. They might later become an advocate or mediator between you and less flexible family members.

2. Be yourself at the Thanksgiving meal.

For instance, you need not bow your head for the blessing. Anyone who notices likely isn’t bowing either, so you might connect with other atheists. (New friendships for me have sometimes begun with eye contact and a knowing smile during public invocations and benedictions.) If someone comments about your unbowed head, then you have an opportunity to engage in a discussion — preferably after dinner.

3. Sit respectfully while others at the table give thanks to God.

If asked why you are not praying, you can mention that you are thankful we have freedom of religion in this country and the right to worship or not worship as we see fit. Families thrive and become closer when they respect different points of view, including religious diversity.

4. If you’re asked to say the blessing, do it.

Most atheists may respectfully decline, but I think it presents a wonderful opportunity to give thanks — to the farmers who grew the food, the migrant workers who harvested them, the truck drivers who brought the food, the grocery store employees who displayed it, and the family and friends who helped prepare it. No need to mention any gods. (When invited to say some version of “grace” in a gathering of atheists and liberal religionists, I sometimes quote Bart Simpson: “Dear God. We paid for this food ourselves, so thanks for nothing.”)


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November 6, 2014 - 2:44 pm

I'm conflicted about privileging religion in prison, because government should not privilege religion inside or outside of prison. However, I think most prisoners should receive more privileges than they now have, and a substantial number shouldn’t even be incarcerated, yet they sit in prison because of our cruel and ineffective War on Drugs.

The purposes of incarceration should be to protect the community, to act as a deterrent, and to rehabilitate — not for punishment or retribution. More than 60 percent of prison inmates are functionally illiterate, and it’s no secret that people who learn to read are more likely to become productive citizens and less likely to end up in jail.

Similarly, those who learn to read, learn a trade, and learn coping skills while in prison are less likely to return once they are free. Help in finding a job upon release cuts recidivism significantly, and reducing recidivism through rehabilitation is less costly, more humane, and safer for the community.


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October 27, 2014 - 2:45 pm

hile back I wrote about the War On Christmas manufactured by Fox News, in which saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” was somehow taken as an insult to Christians. Then I wrote about the War on Thanksgiving, again manufactured by Fox News after President Obama gave a three-minute Thanksgiving Day speech without the word “God” in it. So now I’ll complete the hat trick by writing about the War on Halloween.

Christian evangelist Pat Robertson is the most famous opponent of Halloween, which he calls “Satan’s night.” Robertson claimed, without any evidence, that the original practice of trick-or-treating came from the Druids, who went house to house asking for money and threatening to kill one of the owner’s sheep if he didn’t pony up. (Both October 31 and December 25 were initially celebrated by pagans and later adapted by Christians.)

Pat Robertson doesn’t like children dressing up as ghosts or zombies, which he doesn’t believe exist. However, he does believe in the Holy Ghost. And since a zombie is supposed to be a human who died, was raised from the dead, and once more walked among the living, the Gospels seem to imply that Jesus was a zombie. Furthermore, Zombie Jesus offers everyone the ultimate trick or treat: eternal torture or eternal bliss.

To Pat Robertson’s credit (I’ve never used that phrase before), he is merely spreading misinformation and advising Christians not to celebrate Halloween. This is a moderate position compared to some other groups.

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October 22, 2014 - 8:17 am

 is a Jew? While I’m often asked how I can be both a Jew and an atheist, this question hardly ever comes from Jews. According to all branches of Judaism, a person is Jewish if born to a Jewish mother. Since my mother was Jewish, so am I. End of story. But it isn’t.

Jews argue about everything, including who is a Jew. Disagreements usually develop along sectarian lines. Reform Jews are willing to accept into the tribe someone with a Jewish father and a gentile mother, but Orthodox Jews are not. Some ultra-Orthodox rabbis won’t even accept a child as Jewish when born to a devout Jewish mother from a donated gentile egg. All branches of Judaism allow for converts, but Orthodox Jews don’t recognize conversion of gentiles to Judaism unless that conversion is approved by a three-judge religious court comprised of three Orthodox men (usually rabbis), ritual immersion in a mikvah, and a commitment to perform all the Torah’s commandments according to Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law.

Gentiles are often surprised to hear that there is no religious belief requirement to be a Jew. Well-known Jews with no belief in God include intellectuals like Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx, as well as comedians like Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Jon Stewart, and Sarah Silverman (no relation, unfortunately). In fact, these Jews openly criticize or make fun of religion.

I am hard-pressed to name a pious Jew, dead or alive, who is a household name worldwide — except for Jesus.

Pew survey shows that 62 percent of American Jews say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15 percent say it’s a matter of religion. Secular Jews, atheist Jews, and agnostic Jews comprise the largest constituency of Jews. I am hard-pressed to name a pious Jew, dead or alive, who is a household name worldwide — except for Jesus. Which brings us to . . .

What’s a Christian? I think it’s more difficult to define a Christian than a Jew. Christians believe that Jesus was/is a very special person with important teachings. But Christians differ on countless significant issues: whether Jesus is the only begotten Son of God, whether he was born of a virgin, whether he was resurrected bodily, whether he died for your sins, whether everything in the New Testament is literally true, whether and when he will be returning, and whether such beliefs will be the difference between going to heaven or hell.

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October 14, 2014 - 10:31 am

There’s an elephant roaming through the Vatican these days, but apparently the pope hasn’t noticed. Its name is Women.

Pope Francis recently called for a two-week meeting of Catholic bishops to consider matters related to “the family.” The pope publicly encouraged the bishops to speak openly on family issues without fear of censure. Of course, the bishops are all men. It seems that women’s thoughts would be irrelevant, though women do tend to be present in almost every family.

I wish I could be cautiously optimistic that this “open” dialogue will bring about significant policy changes to an anachronistic institution, but the Vatican is not known for major changes. Here are some issues we won’t hear bishops discuss with Pope Francis, but might hear from the Nuns on the Bus or countless other Catholic women — if they were invited to participate.

1. The Church should stop treating women as second-class people, and not just in family issues. Women should have the same rights and privileges as men in the Church. We can only dream that one day there will be a Pope Frances. At this point, women cannot even be priests.

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September 26, 2014 - 11:42 am

Some people avoid labels, but not me. I’m a Jew, a humanist, a secular humanist, an atheist, an agnostic, a skeptic, a freethinker, a rationalist, an infidel, and much more. Which label(s) I lead with depends on the context and with whom I’m communicating, but they all help define me in some way.

According to all branches of Judaism, I’m Jewish because my mother was a Jew. I accept this criterion. I’ve met quite a few atheists with Jewish mothers who have tried to convince me that I’m not Jewish because they (the atheists, not their mothers) reject the traditional definition and assert that a real Jew must believe in God. These atheists are free to declare themselves not Jewish, but they have no right to tell me that I’m not.

I grew up in an era that saw considerable discrimination against Jews. In the 1950s it was not uncommon for Jews to change their names and try to pass for gentiles, hoping for acceptance into mainstream culture. I found this deplorable. My Jewish juices flowed most deeply and proudly when anti-Semitism was present. Having relatives who died in the Holocaust, I was not about to give Adolf Hitler a posthumous victory by killing off my own Judaism.

But my Judaism is more than anti-anti-Semitism. I’m a cultural Jew in many ways. I like latkes, knishes, and even gefilte fish—which makes me a gastronomic Jew. There are other aspects of Jewish culture and values that have shaped me as well. A disproportionately high percentage of Jews have been engaged in civil rights activism, for example, and it’s also a certain point of pride that while numbering less than 1 percent of the world population they have earned 21 percent of Nobel Prizes. And probably most Jews belong to a branch I call “humoristic Judaism.”

Continue reading at The Humanist >>

September 26, 2014 - 11:39 am

Here’s a confession from an atheist: I would not want school children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance daily if the words “under God” were removed. Why? Because those two controversial words at least motivate some people to examine the Pledge and reflect on what it represents.

My atheist friends should not be too alarmed, though, because I would like “under God” removed from the Pledge.

I recited the godless version until my twelfth birthday, June 14, 1954. On that Flag Day, President Eisenhower signed into law the addition of “under God,” turning a secular pledge into a religious one. These words were inserted at the height of the McCarthy era to distinguish us Americans from those godless Communists.


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September 12, 2014 - 12:49 pm

Many stories describe supernatural events that turn skeptics into believers. This is not one of those stories. I have not had a “road to Damascus” experience, though my worldview did change a little after hearing about ghosts from Will Moredock, a professional tour guide in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina.

Full disclosure: I interviewed Will for this article shortly after Will interviewed me for a piece in the Charleston City Paper about our local secular humanist group and our billboard, 20 Godless Years in the Holy City!

Will is a member of the Unitarian Church, a secular humanist, and a Charleston guide for Ghost and Graveyard Walking Tours. Ghosts, like fine restaurants and antebellum houses, are among the many attractions in this historic city, but I thought that Charleston ghosts, as in the film Ghostbusters, were only created for laughs and commercial success. (Coincidentally, Ghostbusters star Bill Murray lives near Charleston.)


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September 9, 2014 - 4:01 pm

a recent OnFaith piece by an anonymous pastor at a mainstream evangelical church asked, “Who’s Afraid of a (Partly) Fictional Bible?” I understand why the pastor might have wanted anonymity. See, for instance, Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind, where clergy reveal in confidential interviews how their lives of service are overshadowed by hypocrisy as they contemplate taking a leap from the faith of their congregants.

Although religionists often have heated arguments and even wars over holy book interpretations, our secular government does not condone killing for blasphemy. However, Christians may certainly fire sect leaders and shun family members for “incorrect” interpretations of their Bible. Literalists often disagree on what the Bible literally says, while non-literalists frequently disagree on which parts to take literally. Most Christians I know believe something equivalent to: “The Bible is literally true, except for what I say is allegorical.”

I agree with Pastor Anonymous when he criticizes people for reading “our twenty-first century lives into a book composed in an ancient and wholly different world.” However, we part company when he says that even the made-up stories “tell us the truth about God and his purposes.” Really? How can that be when the Bible mainly tells us the views of scientifically ignorant, misogynistic, and homophobic writers who were a product of their times? I regard the Bible at its best as akin to Aesop’s fables, with some positive moral lessons and universal truths (along with talking animals). I’ve written here about the value I find in the Bible.


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