The tsunami and earthquake in Japan yesterday were devastating. Not just for the citizens that live there but for the rest of the world watching. These natural disasters often bring about questions of God for so many people, and understandably so. Many are left wondering how God can allow such awful things can happen to the people of Indonesia (2004) Haiti (2010) or Japan (2011). And while these horrific events call many an individual’s faith into question, they typically seem to reinforce mine.
My Mom comes from a Catholic family and Dad from a Jewish one, and so my sisters and I were raised Jewish. Growing up, we were members of the reform congregation, which holds Jewish law should be interpreted as a set of general guidelines rather than as a list of restrictions for literal observance. We were, in other words, secular. My sister and I never had a bat mitzvah and our family was never very religious (we’d celebrate some holidays and traditions but that’s about it). As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve realized that I really don’t fit under the umbrella of reform Judaism. I have searched for where my beliefs (or lack there of) best fit and think I have finally found an appropriate “label” for them.
Here is what I do believe:
-beliefs, ideologies, and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith.
-individuals and societies should use reason, factual evidence, and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith and mysticism, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.
-we should focus on life–how to best fulfill it for ourselves and others, and how humans can make the world the best possible place for generations to come–instead of focusing on what happens after life.
In short, I subscribe to a life stance that focuses on the way human beings can lead happy and functional lives, called Secular Humanism. I truly believe that one can find purpose, compassion, and community without the existence of God. Further, I believe that people can be “good” (act in morally, ethically responsible ways) without God. I don’t deny the significance of God; in fact quite the opposite. Belief in God has shaped cultures and societies throughout history. I also don’t deny the importance of religion and tradition for billions of people, myself included.
I unfortunately think that many people around the world perceive the word “secular” as a dirty or dangerous one. Many also make the mistake of believing that secularism is synonymous with atheism. Although our government has always espoused the separation of church and state, our society has historically been–and continues to be–one dictated by dominant religious beliefs or cultural world views. While this makes for an extremely interesting historical study of our nation, it can be frustrating to any individual in the minority who doesn’t identify with Catholicism or a form of Protestantism. It is interesting that approximately 20% of Americans consider themselves secular in one way or another (agnostic, humanist, atheist) and that this comprises the second largest “religious preference” in America.
So while many are left wondering how God can allow such awful things can happen to the people of Japan, I question how people can do something so passive as to attribute such powerful natural disasters to a divine being. Bad things happen. Bad things happen to good people. It’s one of the most difficult things for most living, breathing human beings to accept. I have the greatest respect for nature. It is so beautiful, seductive, powerful, and sometimes downright scary. But I have even greater respect for human beings, who are exceptional at persevering. People are intrepid; they regroup, rebuild, and carry on. And hopefully, learn enough to be just that much better prepared for inevitable future disasters.
For anyone who is unfamiliar with Secular Humanism and wishes to learn more about it (just so they are more informed about it, not necessarily subscribe to it) I recommend Greg Epstein’s Good Without God