It’s fall 2009, and as I make the 20 minute walk from my house to the Harvard Law School, I feel my excitement mounting. The meetings of this group are highlights of my month, and I always look forward to attending. I stride down Massachusetts Avenue, a wide divided highway dominated by the sound of traffic, lined with an eclectic mix of commercial shops, office buildings and noisy construction sites. The genteel New England houses repurposed to serve as buildings for Lesley University speak to a neighborhood crammed with academic institutions, an impression reinforced by the Harvard Law School bookstore on the other side of the road, weighty legal tomes jostling for space with the new Dan Brown book in the window.
Soon, the shops give way to residential dwellings, and Cambridge Common opens out to my right. An unlucky tourist could easily miss the Law School, tucked away to my left just moments from the wide thoroughfare, in a campus that seems to take up far more space than should be available in such a densely-packed city. Large metal letters on the sides of angular, modern buildings announce that I have arrived on a campus dedicated to the study of the law – “THE REGINALD F. LEWIS INTERNATIONAL LAW CENTER”. The cacophony of the street fades almost immediately as I enter the campus, the honks and growls of automobiles giving way to the sound of crisp autumn leaves crunching underfoot. I pass a group of students and catch a snippet of their conversation – constitutional law and its relationship to current events. I weave my way through the campus, and eventually arrive at my destination: Harkness Commons. Designed in the International style by Walter Gropius, a founder of modernist architecture, it is not the most inviting of buildings. Its sharp corners and lack of ornamentation lend it a stern aspect, rational and serious, perhaps even forbidding.
The interior is more welcoming – a long, sloping walkway leading up to the Cafeteria in which we will be holding our meeting. The room in which we meet is large, with tall windows made of undivided panes lining one wall, letting the sun stream in on this bright fall day, and affording a view of the greener parts of the Law School campus. Long tables line up in rows, student diners eating Sunday brunch while reading through stacks of legal documents and heavy legal textbooks. On one of the tables is a simple, colorful sign announcing our presence: the Harvard Humanist Small Group.
We have convened to discuss the relationship between Humanism and Islam, and I remember being excited by the topic. When I take my seat at the table there are a few group-members already gathered: Mike (one of the facilitators), a new member who I have not yet met, and an elderly Jewish couple who I have seen once before. We exchange greetings, and I shake the hand of the newest member. I take a seat opposite Frank, the Jewish gentleman, and I express how happy I am to see him here again. Frank is bald, with wisps of white hair towards the back of his head, individual hairs sticking up every which way. He sports a small, bristly, white moustache with a hint of grey in the center, his rich brown eyes bright beneath slightly drooping eyelids. A herringbone tweed jacket is complemented by a blue and white checked shirt. He leans in to hear me and I notice the hearing aid behind his right ear. In his gravelly voice he begins to tell me why he is here: “One of my relatives asks me ‘How can you be Jewish if you don’t believe in God?’” “What do you reply?”, I respond. “That’s what I’m here to find out!” he answers with a chuckle.
“How can you be Jewish if you don’t believe in God?” I’m not Jewish, but Frank’s penetrating question resonates with me, because it often seems like American culture continually asks “How can you be anything if you don’t believe in God?” Blaise Pascal, a great 17th Century thinker, once said “There is a God-shaped hole in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ.” As an atheist and a Humanist, I’m convinced Pascal, great thinker though we was, is wrong: there is no “God-shaped hole” in the heart of humankind. But sometimes when we Humanists talk about ourselves, and often when others talk about us, it seems as if Pascal’s premise is a guiding assumption: to be without religion is to lack something important, to do without.
The very terms we have to describe Humanists speak to this: we are non-religious, a-theist, religiously unaffiliated. On many surveys, under “religion”, I am forced to select “None”, or “Other”. At interfaith gatherings I need to remind people that I “don’t have a faith”. Even agnostic means, literally, “without knowledge”.
The media play into this depressing viewpoint. They find it difficult to represent atheists and Humanists as having something positive to say, and frequently fall back on the easier task of portraying what we don’t believe in. The New York Times, reporting on a huge new ad campaign by multiple Humanist and atheist groups, provides a clear example. Describing an ad by the American Humanist Association, which contrasts horrific sections from the Bible with positive statements from Humanists, the reporter quotes at length a terrifying extract from Hosea (one of the books of the Hebrew Bible) but only gives two words of the positive response from Albert Einstein!
The assumption embedded in these words and practices seems to be that when you stop being religious you lose something important, and forfeit the ability to make positive statements about values – we Humanists suffer from a “deity deficit”.
I was struck by this “deity deficit” mode of thinking at the meeting of the Harvard Humanist Small Group I began by describing. We were there to discuss the relationship between Islam and Humanism, and the questions “What does it mean to be a Muslim?”, and more pointedly, “What might it mean to be a Secular Muslim?” hung in the air. Hassan, the young discussion leader, seemed to be struggling with these questions. He sought to give a “naturalistic account of Islam…secularizing the Islamic traditions that exist today”, but he spoke softly and a little haltingly, and he didn’t smile while talking – he seemed nervous.
I remember that he asked “what do you hold onto once you’ve de-mystified the religion, explained it all away?”, and “Would you want to pray once you’ve emptied all the intellectual content from the activity?” The core of this question became a refrain: “What can we hold onto outside the supernatural forms of Islam?” and “what’s left, when you infuse the humanistic aspects, that is particular to that [Muslim] culture?” Like Frank, Hassan wanted to know how you could be a Muslim if you didn’t believe in God.
It was at that moment that the whole language of “stripping away”, of “emptying intellectual content” from belief systems began to jar me. I realized I was frustrated by the suggestion that secularization was a negative process, by the idea that any humanistic appropriation of faith-based rituals necessarily entails a “hollowing out”, denuding a cultural practice of meaning and profundity.
I think the opposite: I don’t think that the removal of religious beliefs and obligations from an important ritual, artwork, practice or community represents the “loss” of something important. On the contrary, I feel that when you take away the explicitly religious aspects of these practices, what you are left with is greater than what you had before – rich cultural artifacts that human beings have made, born of our creativity, and recognized as such. Instead of fearfully probing the dangers of “stripping the belief from Islam”, I realized, we should joyfully celebrate “re-cognizing the reason and humanity in Islam”, and so too with other faiths.
I resolved then to challenge the “Deity Deficit” at every opportunity. I refer to myself primarily as a Humanist, not an atheist, because that label reflects my positive values. I talk about those with a naturalistic perspective, not non-religious people. I’m not “faithless”, but “reasonful”. In these small ways (and other larger ones), I seek to ensure that the deficit model that has dogged Humanists for decades is swept from our cultural consciousness. And, in future entries at State of Formation, I will be asking you to join me.
There is no hole in my heart, and there’s none in yours either.