Religion Today

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Religion of Atheism

Back in December 2008, Tom Morton of Westchester, NY opened a new front in what Bill O’Reilly calls the “War on Christmas.” Tom knew that the town’s seasonal display of the Christian nativity scene and the Jewish menorah was legally required to accommodate the seasonal observances of all citizen groups requesting it, so he obtained permission from the town manager to put up a display representing his faith.

As the New York Times described, it was a “humble little sign,” with a copper-colored tin in the shape of the sun, and the greetings “American Atheists Wish You a Very Merry Winter Solstice.” Mr. Morton is the president of the New York state chapter of American Atheists, an organization dedicated to the belief that there is no god. His purpose, he told the reporter, was “to educate his neighbors about the existence of nonbelievers like himself….he [was] trying only to let the community know that atheists exist.”

Since this was not a court case, for the city readily gave permission for Mr. Morton’s sign, it established no legal precedent. Despite this, Mr. Morton accomplished more than the erection of a sign, he demonstrated that atheism is a religion!

Definition: A religion is a group of people who join together because they share a belief about the nature of god or gods, in order to encourage each other in that belief. When we use a definition like this, we usually think of it in terms of religions that believe in at least one god. Islam is a religion because it believes in Allah. Hinduism is a religion because it believes in Krishna, Shiva, Durga, and other gods.

But the definition also applies to religions that believe in no God, such as Zen Buddhism, a religion which sees Emptiness as the Ultimate Reality. Indeed, several other religions lack a belief in an supreme being yet remain classed as religions because their members “share a belief about the nature of god.”

Atheism also meets this definition. Like Zen, its members share a belief about the nature of the divine realm, namely, that there isn’t one. But this belief remains insufficient to meet the definition, for any individual can believe there is no god, that does not make that person into a religion. A religion must consist of a group of people who hold the same views about god who come together because of that belief. They encourage and support each other to adhere to that belief and to live their lives in a manner consistent with that belief. Just like any other religion.

In other words, what Tom Morton accomplished by gaining permission to put up his sign was the recognition by the town manager that the people who belonged to the American Atheists were a group, and a religious one at that. It was not as an individual that Mr. Morton gained the right to put up a sign at the Christmas display, otherwise everyone in the town could put up their own sign. It was not as a non-religious group, like the stamp club or the girls’ soccer league, that Mr. Morton was allowed to put up a seasonal display. It was only as a religious group.

This designation of atheism could have important legal ramifications, for courts have to now treated atheists as secular. If they were reclassified as a religion, that would change their treatment in a court case, such as the 2004 attempt to remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. The judge could disallow the challenge because the wording change would actually favor atheism and hence violate the First Amendment’s anti-establishment clause. In other words, rather than the change being understood as a secularizing move, it would become a theologizing move, recasting the Pledge to follow the theological beliefs of the religion of atheism.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Scholarly Pope and a Scholarly Rabbi

True dialogue between leaders of different religions is difficult to accomplish. Heart to heart discussions, where each side listens to and engages with the other, are rare. Interaction between religions usually appears like a court trial where each side presents such different views of a situation that they seem not to address the same incident.

A good example of this is the Jewish response to Pope Benedict XVI's recent attempt to heal the schism within the Catholic Church created by the St. Pius X Society last century. The Pope revoked the excommunication of the four bishops who lead this society. Unfortunately, one bishop has vocally denied the Holocaust, so Jews are understandably upset.

Jewish leaders interpreted this as a slap in the face to Jewish-Christian relations, and Israeli leaders may cancel the Pope's coming visit to Israel. It seems the Pope was so intent on healing the schism that he failed to foresee his action's broader impact. Nevertheless, these unintended consequences may give this Pope a reputation as insensitive to Judaism.

This would be unfortunate because Pope Benedict has interacted with Judaism in a way no pope has done before, to my knowledge. He has publically, and in print, stated that he has learned from a Jewish rabbi about Jesus. He, in fact, uses that rabbi's understanding of Jesus to construct his own portrait of Jesus. This portrait appears in the Pope's 2007 book, "Jesus of Nazareth," which he calls his "personal search for the face of the Lord." The rabbi is the prolific scholar Jacob Neusner. The book is his thoughtful and imaginative work, "A Rabbi Talks with Jesus" (1993, 2000).

Benedict builds on Neusner's important point that the Jews -- the people Israel -- became a unified community when God appeared on Mount Sinai and formed a covenant with them. He became their God and they became his people, a bond guided by the Torah (which the Greek-speaking Christians later mistranslated as "law"). This Torah forms the foundation of Judaism and maintains the relationship between God and the people Israel.

As the Pope draws from Neusner's book, he follows Neusner in seeing that Judaism's Torah helps Jesus present his message. In Matthew's sermon on the Mount, for instance, Neusner understands the beatitudes as restating the message of the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) about concern and caring for the poor and downtrodden. Indeed, much of the sermon makes sense within and even extends the divine principles given in the Torah.

But it is Neusner's insistence that the Jews' allegiance to God's Torah prevents them from accepting Jesus' message for themselves that the Pope finds most illuminating. In Matthew's gospel, Jesus' first significant public speech is the sermon on the Mount. The setting is important because just as God gave the Torah on Mount Sinai, Jesus presents himself on the mountain. Through his words, Jesus presents himself as the new Torah, as God's replacement message.

The sermon's contents are key. Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said... You shall not kill... But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable." Notice how this works. In the saying's first half, Jesus states the Torah. In the second half, beginning with "I say to you," he replaces the Torah with his own dictum. He accomplishes this not by logic, precedent or argument, but through his own authority. Jesus makes this kind of statement many times in the sermon. Each time he begins with Torah and then replaces it through his own authority.

Pope Benedict applauds Neusner for this precise insight. Jews cannot become Christians because their relationship to God depends on the Torah. To follow Jesus is to believe Jesus' claim that he himself replaces the Torah. For Jews, to deny the Torah is to deny God.

In the beginning of his book, Rabbi Neusner invited Jews and Christians to join him in his attempt at cross-religion conversation, noting "we can enter into dialogue only if we honor both ourselves and the other." It is an important insight into Pope Benedict's key beliefs that he publically joined Neusner in dialogue, giving honor to Neusner's Jewish insights while never forsaking his own.

(Editor's note: The writer of this column is Rabbi Dr. Neusner's last doctoral student. His lessons in religious knowledge, analysis and understanding are being taught to the students at the University of Wyoming).