In June, I wrote a piece for AlterNet, titled 8 Awesome Atheist Leaders Who Aren’t Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. The gist: When a media outlet decides that atheism is important, they all too often turn to Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. Then, when Dawkins or Harris puts their foot in their mouth about race or gender — again — the reporter cries out, “Atheism needs better leadership! Why doesn’t atheism have better leaders?” Atheism does have better leaders — so I profiled eight of them, to bring just a small fragment of the range and variety of atheist leadership to more people’s attention.
At the end of that piece, I wrote, “And these eight are the tip of the iceberg… I could write a new profile of a different atheist leader every week, and still be at it ten years from now.”
So I decided: Why not do that?
I don’t know if I’ll do it for ten years. But for at least a while, once a week I’ll be profiling and interviewing a different leader in organized atheism.
This week’s profile: Jeffrey L. Falick.
GC: Tell me briefly what your organization does and what you do for them. (If you’re in a leadership position with more than one atheist organization, feel free to tell me about more than one.)
JF: My professional leadership position is to serve as the Secular Humanistic rabbi of the Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Michigan. (The name “Birmingham Temple” is an historic holdover from the days when it was a more conventional liberal Jewish synagogue.)
Humanistic Judaism — which began in my community — combines an adherence to the philosophy of Secular Humanism with a celebration of Jewish culture. We are basically secular Jews who choose to adapt the forms and functions of Jewish customs in ways that serve our needs as non-theists. This is no “theist-lite” brand of Judaism. I am an outspoken atheist. Rather, it is a way to enjoy our cultural heritage in a manner that conforms to our commitment to Secular Humanistic principles. Whatever cannot conform or adapt does not survive!
My day-to-day functions are pretty similar to many members of the “clergy” (a word I don’t use) but without the dogma, doctrines, authoritarianism or loyalty to tradition that characterize everything that they do. So while the functions are similar, the mindset is completely different. The best comparison might be to the (sadly diminishing) UU Humanistic clergy. I visit the sick, I provide Humanistic resources for people in crisis, I lead Humanistic life cycle ceremonies, I teach (about Humanism and the historical and contemporary Jewish experience), and I coordinate speakers and cultural programs. I also serve as a kind of liaison to the greater Humanistic community.
In addition to my professional position, I’m also on the executive committee of our North American body, the Society for Humanistic Judaism, and active in the American Humanist Association. I am president and co-founder of the local AHA chapter, Humanists of Southeast Michigan.
Tell me about a specific project or projects your organization is working on.
Because this is a thriving congregation of Secular Humanists, there are always a dozen or more things happening here. One of my biggest projects has been to open our doors to the larger non-theistic community. We are fortunate to have a building and there are simply not very many Humanistic spaces like ours in the world. We now host the local Sunday Assembly, frequent programs of the Center for Inquiry and the Humanists of Southeast Michigan, just to name a few.
The Humanists of Southeast Michigan is a very new group that has really taken off. We have thirty members and we have just decided that our biggest project going forward is to support women’s reproductive rights. We have a huge problem in our state with Catholic hospitals taking over formerly secular ones and imposing their religious restrictions, mainly on women. And, of course, we want to do everything we can to support Planned Parenthood during their current crisis.
Where would you like to see organized atheism go in the next 10 to 20 years?
What do you think are the main challenges facing organized atheism now?
I’m not really sure how I feel about “movement atheism.” On one hand, I think it’s fantastic to see all of us getting together at a Reason Rally and in other venues. But then I read or listen to some public atheists and I’m appalled at the ways that they think. Something that really surprised me when I “came out” as an atheist is the misogyny and backward thinking about race. On the other hand, I do believe that the vast majority of us agree on probably 95% of the really important issues even if we have different “styles.” In that sense I support the notion of “movement atheism.”
I think one of our greatest challenges is to provide enough variety so that we have something to offer non-theists with different needs. Those who love the good things that religion had to offer – community, celebration, ties to heritage – can have their Sunday Assemblies, UU Humanistic fellowships, Ethical Culture groups and Secular Humanistic synagogues. Those seeking other forms of organized community – political activism, recovery from religion, atheist advocacy – need to be able to find something for themselves, too. And we all need to cooperate. In the largest sense we are one community even if we have many subdivisions.
I am convinced that atheism will one day become the default position in our society. I know that this will not happen in ten to twenty years, but we are moving slowly in that direction. The atheist organizers of today are pioneers. The more outlets that we create for living outside of a theistic framework, the better we will be prepared to welcome the atheists of the future!
Do you consider yourself a “new atheist”? Why or why not?
I’m just a regular atheist with a commitment to a life of reason and compassion. My preferred “label” is Secular Humanist (I capitalize these words to draw attention to their legitimacy parallel to the ways that religions capitalize their titles).
I tend to think of the “new atheists” as a group of writers more than anything else. I agree with some of what they write and I disagree with some of it too. It depends on the writer and the topic! I think the most gratifying part of the “new atheist” movement (if it is one) is the visibility that it provided. It’s terribly important for a put-upon group to have people brave enough to point the way to others seeking to leave their closets. When I was a conventional rabbi I lived in an “atheist” closet. For professional and personal reasons I was frightened to admit to myself that I was, indeed, an atheist. Some of their books helped to nudge me out.
Any questions you wish I’d asked, or anything else you’d like to add?
One of the things that I love about being out as an atheist and conducting my life as a Secular Humanistic is that my beliefs are entirely consistent with my behavior. This plays out in really interesting ways in my professional life, too.
Just this past week I met with a member of my community who is coming out as a bisexual. He and his wife are trying to negotiate how to have an ethical open relationship.
After we talked, I reflected on how it would have gone if I were still a conventional rabbi, committed to traditional values. I could not possibly have helped him to think through the ethical dimensions of this change in his relationship because I would have been antagonistic to the very idea.
But today, as a Secular Humanist, tradition has no claim on my values. This is liberating. It enabled me to openly embrace this couple’s journey, to lend a willing ear and to refer him to some resources to explore the ethical way to take that journey. Even the most progressive of conventional theistic rabbis can’t do this. They remain loyal to a tradition that idealizes monogamy.
This is an incredible gift of Secular Humanism and one that I would never have experienced had I not embraced my atheism.
Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.