Special needs adoption from a Jewish perspective.

Special needs adoption from a Jewish perspective.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Secular Humanism - A friend's view

I'm tryingReally.

A dear friend of mine is a committed, principled, moral Atheist.  I asked him for his views on special needs adoption, and how it could fit into a non-religious worldview.  We had a really good conversation, but I think it ended up raising more questions than he answered.

For example, he immediately asked, "what does religion (faith in G*d) have to do with it?"  I explained that there are scriptural and liturgical references to the way we should act in society.  I said that I am explicitly looking for non-theistic sources which could substitute.

He thought about organizations such as Unitarian Universalism, as well as "Atheist churches", which seek to provide the non-theistic functions of organized religion without the idea of faith in a supernatural being.  They hold regular communal meanings, organize around charitable causes, and create rituals around life cycle events.  I think that organizing within such movements is certainly as viable as organizing within synagogues or churches.

At the same time, the question remains of where the "moral imperative" comes from in such a framework.  I remember when I had my first child, and I wanted to recreate my childhood memories of celebrating the Jewish Sabbath.  These memories were of gathering with family at my grandparents' house, so I approached my in-laws, who lived nearby, about starting this.   They thought it was a great idea to have a regular family dinner like that, but objected that Friday evenings were quite busy for them already.  "How about Tuesday afternoons instead?" they asked.    No, what makes Shabbat special is that we make room in our lives for it, work our lives around the commandment, rather than fit in religion around our everyday lives.

My friend contributes significantly to charity.  He donates money to organizations that give it to poor families so that they can start businesses in their communities.  He explained that it seemed to him the way to have the biggest impact for the money donated.  He clearly cares about making the world a better place.  He has his own criteria for choosing how to do this.  But, like Shabbat on Tuesdays, it does not demand of him to get out of his comfort zone.

What, then, does it take to "get us out of our comfort zone"?   Without religion, where do we find a "moral imperative" to stretch ourselves to make a difference in the world?


  1. I think it's not religion per se, but the belief in something bigger than yourself, to which (or to whom) you are accountable. AA graduates, with their "Higher Power", might well have something to say about this.

    No doubt secular humanists will say that they believe in something bigger than themselves, in terms of the Cause of humanity, or of making the world a better place, or saving the planet, or something equivalent. These are all much bigger than the people who espouse them, to be sure. But they don't hold people to account! To me, this makes an important difference.

  2. You're right, Daniel -- I DO believe in something bigger than myself, in terms of the cause of humanity, in making the world a better place, and saving the planet! The only one to whom I am accountable is myself. For me, that's more than enough. I see so many religious people trying to sneak around their god, making bargains, trying to curry favor. I don't have the luxury of a divine headmaster. I have to police my own actions and live my life according to my principles. Trust me, it isn't easy.

    I addressed a lot of the points brought up in this post in my comment on your first secular humanism post, but I'd like to address your question of a moral imperative. Moral systems can exist without religion. Mine does; so does every other secular person's. In fact, I would argue that moral systems without a higher power make a lot more sense...but I don't want to turn this into an argument of atheism vs. theism. We're not on different sides when it comes to orphan care. Where's the moral imperative to get outside of my comfort zone? It's implicit within my moral system, of course -- just as it is for you!

  3. I think that most of my friends who are secular / atheist are committed to creating a world in which children like these are protected and cared for, by supporting economic development, fair practices, working to end poverty.

    I admit that this work is more broad than taking the dramatic action of personally adopting a severely disabled child. That does not mean that their contribution to society is less valuable.

    Working as a doctor who provides primary care in a suburb is also less dramatic than working as a doctor in a war zone. But suburban children need doctors too. Both are moral choices. We cannot know the ultimate reward for either choice.

    Religion, like any ideology, is a powerful force. It can be used for good or for evil. It can motivate people to take great moral action or it can encourage people to be small, selfish, petty and judgmental. Many people use religion in both ways simultaneously -- great generosity towards others like them and great hatred of those who differ, even slightly.

    In light of those extremes, is there really something wrong with a rational philosophy of "enjoy life, be kind to others, do no harm"? Should we prefer great good and great evil or a more balanced approach?

    As Jews, we are *not* commanded to take extreme actions to support others. Give first to your own family, then to your community, then to your city, then to the world. Those who exceed this are noteworthy and admirable, but it is not the standard by which everyone is judged.

    An ideal Jewish society, IMHO, is not one in which every individual person adopts one of these children. It is one in which every single one of these children receives compassionate, loving, appropriate care in their family of origin.

    An ideal society does not have superhuman men and women engaged in amazing feats of compassion. It is one in which public institutions and policies are guided by compassion such that every family with such a child receives the support they need.

    While you may find few atheists / secularists adopting special needs children, you will find many atheists looking for ways to make people's lives better through science, engineering or public policy. Engineers design wheelchairs and scientists discover new drugs and treatments. One change to a state regulation could mean the difference between a child whose parents can keep them at home and a child who is institutionalized.

    These contributions are significant. They are moral actions to help better our world. Do not dismiss them because you prefer dramatic action at the individual level. Both kinds of action are needed to create tikkun olam.

  4. Thank you for this thoughtful comment! I wanted to respond to it in full, so I gave it its own post.


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