With the Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa seasons upon us, our family has been searching for alternatives. It can be difficult for someone to find a celebration in and around town that doesn’t have the God component in it. My daughters have celebrated Hanukkah in the past (from my upbringing), and the tradition of a Christmas tree (from my wife’s upbringing). We never incorporated religion of either holiday into the lives of our two young daughters, choosing instead to go through the motions of the holidays to meet the obligations of family traditions.
I have outgrown the fears and guilt of not practicing Judaism. (The latter took much, much longer.) And much like those who shed their religious practices and embrace a non-theistic approach to life, I began my search for developing new family traditions and practices with which my wife and I can raise our daughters. But first I needed to better understand the term “Atheism,” and how I related to it.
The commonality all religious people share is a belief in a deity. It doesn’t matter which religion you subscribe to, there is some inherent respect for others who attend a religious place of worship even when it is different from one’s own — at least on some level. This doesn’t include non-theists.
According to a 2006 study conducted by the University of Minnesota, Atheism is not thought of too highly. Well, that’s an understatement. The study concluded that Atheists are the least regarded minority in America; thought less of than Muslims, blacks, Latinos, gays, Asians, etc. I came to understand through a conversation with my father (my dad, not the Father), that the word "Atheist" is what the public takes issue with. The definition of Atheist simply means “without God”, but I have come to the conclusion that many Americans understand the word to mean “against God”.
Atheist, agnostic, non-theist – whichever term a non-believer labels themselves as – God is not part of their life, and therefore they are considered a heathen. Heathens are way less cool than a semi-practicing, not-quite-sure-Jew who just goes to temple on high holy days, or to attend bar mitzvahs. In his New York Times opinion piece Americans: Undecided About God? Eric Weiner refers to the roughly 12 percent of Americans who have no religious affiliation as “Nones.” (The number is much greater with young people, at 25 percent.) Seven percent of these “Nones” define themselves as Atheists. The term “Nones” is much less offensive then Atheist, but it still doesn’t define me. “None” seems so empty. I’m so much more than “None”.
There has been an awareness campaign lead by Atheists and non-believers through various organizations, such as Richard Dawkins’, Non-Believers Giving Aid, as well as through the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The organizations have been informing the public that Atheists are an active part of every community, and are positive members of our society. One can be good without God. In fact, I would argue that goodness without God is more genuine than goodness with God because the goodness is generated without the consequence of heaven or hell. Society has included many non-theists, both famous and less well known.
Here in my hometown of West Orange, we celebrate and honor Thomas A. Edison. He did not publicly declare himself an Atheist, but was quoted in a 1910 interview published in the New York Times Magazine as saying, “No; nature made us – nature did it all – not the gods of the religions.” Just for fun, I enjoy exploring the names of other famous non-theists throughout history. I like to see who shares my views.
Historically, individuals and groups are judged by any number of traits, whether it’s on the basis of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, political views, etc. Although Atheists should be proud of their charitable works and positive acts within our communities, this inherent, negative judgment based on godlessness presents a danger and fear of sharing non-religious views that go against the mainstream. Non-theist organizations have launched publicity campaigns to promote a coming out (if you will) with one’s own non-theistic views.
There are many in the non-theistic community who take an alternative approach to Atheism: Humanism. Humanism is defined as this:
“An outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.”
Humanism does not address God at all. I like it. As a father, a husband, an educator, and a generally good person, it defines me well. I realize that I had been defining myself as an Atheist to “get away from God”. Redefining myself as a Humanist allows me to recalibrate my spiritual compass and move forward with my Humanistic-led life, instead of spending energy moving away from God.
This year, our family has decided to participate in HumanLight, which is an event to celebrate the teachings of Humanism. As I explained to my daughters: “Think of all the best qualities you like in those people whom you love, that’s Humanism.” Since my daughters have never been introduced to religious dogma, they never developed a sense of fear or guilt related to religion. They were never told that if they were naughty Santa wouldn’t bring them a gift, or they need to go to temple to be a “good Jew.” (I would never think of telling them they should marry a nice Jewish boy. Had I heeded my mother’s insinuated advice to do just that, I would never have the beautiful family I have today!) Likewise, I could not bring myself to raise them to kneel before a supernatural being and commit them to a life of servitude to an Almighty Master. My daughters have always been raised and taught to respect others, to inquire about the world around them, to treat the environment as though you would a good friend, that they can achieve whatever they set their minds to and most importantly to enjoy life.
What will our HumanLight celebration look like? It’s new to us, and that’s very exciting. We have chosen (as a family and not dictated by a book or the media) to develop our own tradition. We have decided to donate money to the organization, Heifer International. It is an organization that provides animals and related training to families around the world so those families can become self-reliant. (Of course, my daughters are deciding between bunnies and ducks.) We will light our “Family Candle” on Dec. 23, which is HumanLight Day, and spend the evening together doing what we do best: enjoying each other. In preparation for the celebration in Morristown on Dec. 17, we worked on a large family banner together, which reads: “Happy HumanLight!” Unlike the 10 fairly threatening commandments which seem a little outdated for the world we live in today (“Thou Shall Not Murder” Really?), my daughters thought of words which reflect the qualities they think people should live by: Charity, Share, Recycle, Kind, Friendship, Donate, Peace, Love, Respect, Family, Caring, Happiness, and Fun. (And if you are not a fun person, I don’t think my daughters will wish you struck down by lightening, or to burn in the eternal flames of hell…)
To the young child, the world is naturally full of respect, love, compassion, and caring. I tend to overthink the need to address questions they have about God, heaven, Jesus, temple, praying, and such. There is innocence when discussing religion with a child who has no pre-conceived notion or even more so, post-conceived belief system that has been in place for years. Where I struggled for years to shed the guilt of not practicing something I had no longer believed in, my daughters simply don’t believe. And they do so guilt-free. There is immense beauty in this.
As I was reading yet another blasphemous book, Parenting Beyond Belief, by Dale McGowan, my 8 year old throws her arms up towards the ceiling and fervently exclaims, “I don’t get it! People want to do good things so they can go to heaven, and then it’s over. You die, and it’s over. It’s over! It’s just over.” She’s right. You do good, and then it’s over. What’s so bad about that? Darwin would be proud. Actress Hermione Gingold once stated, “’Thy glorious kingdom, which is for ever and ever. Amen?’ I don’t want to live for ever and ever. It’s too much.”
So, as I experience yet another holiday season of shoppers running to the stores, the media debating the use of the term “Happy Holidays!” v. “Merry Christmas!” the car magnets declaring, “Keep Christ in Christmas”, listen to news stories of yet another religious war, and watch as town halls place religious props on their lawns for lightings and such, I will continue to live a good life through the values of Humanism. My daughters will pass on the traditions my wife and I model and teach each day, and they will live a life of true freedom: Freedom from superstition, freedom from guilt, freedom from servitude, and freedom from religion.