Humanism Now

8. Martin Di Maggio on Humanistic Judaism, Cultivating Communities & Confronting Misconceptions

November 19, 2023 Humanise Live Season 1 Episode 8
8. Martin Di Maggio on Humanistic Judaism, Cultivating Communities & Confronting Misconceptions
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Humanism Now
8. Martin Di Maggio on Humanistic Judaism, Cultivating Communities & Confronting Misconceptions
Nov 19, 2023 Season 1 Episode 8
Humanise Live

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This week on Humanism Now as we welcome Lola Tinubu, Co-Founder of the Association of Black Humanists and  Nicole Shasha, Founder of Leicester Humanists to discuss their experiences creating and cultivating secular communities and challenging misconceptions.

We also discuss the implications of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's recent article Why I am Now a Christian, the critiques of atheism contained within and Hirsi Ali's  impact, influence and legacy for global Humanists and freethinkers.

In our guest interview, Martin Di Maggio explains Humanistic Judaism, from its intellectual routes to current practices and differences with other denominations of both Judaism and Humanism. 

Finally, we answer this week's mailbag question; What are the taboos associated with being a humanist?
 
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📷 @spinoza_havurah

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Send us a Text Message.

This week on Humanism Now as we welcome Lola Tinubu, Co-Founder of the Association of Black Humanists and  Nicole Shasha, Founder of Leicester Humanists to discuss their experiences creating and cultivating secular communities and challenging misconceptions.

We also discuss the implications of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's recent article Why I am Now a Christian, the critiques of atheism contained within and Hirsi Ali's  impact, influence and legacy for global Humanists and freethinkers.

In our guest interview, Martin Di Maggio explains Humanistic Judaism, from its intellectual routes to current practices and differences with other denominations of both Judaism and Humanism. 

Finally, we answer this week's mailbag question; What are the taboos associated with being a humanist?
 
Episode References:

About Martin Di Maggio:
🔗 The Spinoza Havurah
📷 @spinoza_havurah

Martin's References:

Upcoming Events:

Support the Show.

Support us on Patreon

Click here to submit questions, nominate guest & topics or sponsor the show.

Follow Humanism Now @HumanismNowPod
X (Twitter)
YouTube
Instagram
TikTok

Follow Central London Humanists @LondonHumanists
Centrallondonhumanists.org.uk
Meetup
Facebook
X (Twitter)
YouTube

CLH are an official partner group of Humanists UK and an associate member of Humanists International

James Hodgson:

Music. Hello and welcome to episode eight of Humanism, now the podcast from the central London humanists for anyone active or just curious about humanistic values. I'm your host, james, and this week we'll be talking about humanists rejoining religious groups, the role of humanistic Judaism and other any taboos around being a humanist. To discuss all this and more, I'm delighted to be joined by returning Nicole Hello and making her debut on the podcast, lola, from both the central London humanists and the Association of Black Humanists. Welcome, lola.

Lola Tinubu:

Hi, good afternoon. Thank you for having me.

James Hodgson:

Pleasure and thank you for joining us here on Humanism Now. As it's your first time, I think it'd be quite nice for our listeners to learn a little bit about your background, your personal journey and how you came to be involved with humanism here in London.

Lola Tinubu:

I was born and raised in Nigeria. I was born into a seven day Adventist family. My grandfather was one of the earliest converts to the religion and, yes, I practiced the religion until I left Nigeria. But when I was a teenager because we, I grew up on the school campus, the seven day Adventist in Nigeria is a very close knit community, the, the, the church is, provides employment, house facilities and everything for the members. So I grew up on one of these. Both of my parents were school teachers. So I grew up in on a school campus and we were segregated from the, from the rest of the community, and it was drawn into us. They used to call us the remnant, that we were special and Jesus was coming back for us and everybody else was practically going to, essentially going to hell. So as a young girl, I used to wonder why, and in in the village where the school was, they were predominantly Muslims and they were lovely people, but I used to wonder why. So I think I started having certain thoughts since I was young. But I went along with the religion. I was serious about it. The, you know it, I had. I was happy in the religion. I didn't have any problem with being in the church when I turned 16, that question that I had when I was little about what was wrong with other people did not leave me. So I started exploring other religions, but I was still, you know, coming back to Christianity and I became a street preacher. And when I came to the UK I joined the Pentecostal. I joined the Pentecostal church and I became a street preacher. I was far then in my in my faith.

Lola Tinubu:

And then my dad came to visit me in the UK. My dad, even though was very religious, still loved science. I don't know how he was able to. He loved astronomy and one day he invited me to join him to watch a documentary and it happened to be on Big Bang, and everything does make sense watching that documentary. And unfortunately, my dad saw it in my eyes that day and he said something. I think he could figure out that something was going on in my head and I wish he would have wished he didn't say that. It said to me you know what you are, science is something along the line that science is factual but it's not the truth. The word of God is the truth. And then he also said something that you know Jesus will come back through the Orion Nebula and then I was just that point. Everything just sounded so gibberish and that was it for me.

Lola Tinubu:

And you know the racist history a lot of trauma, you know living religion and all that. And then I joined the Central London Humanist Humanist UK and then I think a few of all there were a handful of us that we will see when we attended the humanist event. And then we were wondering where are black people? Why are they not here? And then what can we do to bring them into, to come out? We figured out that you know, looking at the shared statistics, the number of black people in London, you know there will be non-black believers. So we formed London Black Atheists in October 2012. And then we later became a session of Black Humanists.

James Hodgson:

Amazing. So we that's now over 11 years that you've been active here in London, Congratulations. And Nicole on the call has also just set up a new humanist group. I was wondering how the Association of Black Humanists came to be, how yourself and Clive started the group, and how was that journey being over the first 10 years.

Lola Tinubu:

As I said, we started as London Black Atheists and then we had all sorts of ideas at the time. The initial thing is to have like a support group, because it's very difficult still very difficult to be black and be non-religious Over I think statistically, over 96% of black people identify with religion and when you are outside of it, you are outside of you know, you have problems with family, with friends, you are alone and there are so many issues that we, you know we face that I think maybe some things may be unique to us as black people that we want to come together to talk about, you know. So we are a kind of support group, but we also had grand ideas when we started that we were going to educate and enlighten, you know, black communities. We want to promote reasoning, rationality, regard for science and all these things. But it's not been an easy. It's not been an easy journey.

James Hodgson:

How has the reception been from religious groups or religious friends that you've mentioned, that you're actively involved with? You know, atheist and humanist groups?

Lola Tinubu:

One is a shock that we even exist and then it's a shock that we have the audacity to even say who we are. And then there are some, there is a tiny minority of black people that are not within the conventional religious settings. They will call themselves maybe spiritual, you know, in the African sense, whatever that means. I still haven't figured it out. Those ones, you know, I can, we can understand the hostility from you know, the conventional religious communities. But the ones that are not, that are, you know, this non spiritual, this spiritual groups they accuse us of. They will say you know, you know, white people brought Christianity to black people, you know, through slavery, colonialism and everything. And they are such atheism with white people as well. So we just have it everywhere we go. You know.

Lola Tinubu:

So that hostility and anger that we are still following white people and we are trying hard to say reasoning, humanism, reasoning skepticism, it's not a color thing, it's a mind thing, is the way you think and that has been. It's in all cultures. Maybe it has prominence in the West, but it's in all culture, even within African tradition. So we are trying to go back to our tradition, to our oral history, to let people know that reasoning, doubt. All these things have always been around, even within African. You know, tradition, african culture.

James Hodgson:

Yeah, absolutely. We've had a couple of interviews, I think, particularly Chris Cameron. I know I came to give a talk in London with us recently, but his interview as well really spelt out much of this in terms of the many different roots there are of humanism, reason and rationalism. Just one more question you mentioned a couple of times about the name change from the black atheists to the association of black humanists. I'm wondering why it was important to focus on humanism rather than atheism.

Lola Tinubu:

Yes, because you know you, there are many reasons. One of the reasons is the hostility towards the word atheism. That's one. Two, ourselves as individuals. You know the organizers, the founders and organizers of London black. It is at the time we want finding atheism sufficient enough to describe who we are, you know, because atheism is about what is lacking in terms of belief, whereas humanism is more round, it's about how we want to live our lives. You know, as you know, through reasoning, you know ethics and things like that and what you know, having a sense of community and the wholesomeness and everything that sometimes people. Because what we find is that a lot of black people don't actually believe in the doctrines you know, and but they don't have the alternative outside of religion. But humanism offers that. So humanism offers a lot of things. So, yeah, that is why we change their name to have humanism. Also, if I'm being honest, the hostility to atheism is a huge part of it and the word humanism is more warm for you know, for people, I think.

James Hodgson:

Yeah, I think so too. Well, thank you, lola, for everything that you've done and everything you continue to do in building the community, both here in London and I know it's a global movement as well and thank you for joining us today. Now, nicole, this is the first time we've seen you on the podcast since you had your launch event for the Leicester Humanist Group. How did everything go?

Nicole Shasha:

Yeah, it went really well. So it was a week ago today, so very fresh. No, it was really good, so it's been a while in the making. As I think I talked about last time, we met up with a couple of members of Humanist UK and people who are members of the dialogue network, so it's been quite a lot of work but it really paid off.

Nicole Shasha:

It was a really good turnout, which was very happy, with lots of different interesting people, lots of people who've been humanists their whole lives, lots of newcomers to it, lots of people who were just like what is this? This is interesting. We had Andrew Copsen come who and he came and spoke to everyone and obviously he's always an excellent public speaker and conveyor of humanist values. Yeah, and it went really well and I think it's a really good start for a local community, particularly in Leicester, which is a very interesting and multicultural place, and it's something we've already started talking about introducing those cultural elements of people from different religions and backgrounds, without the doctrinal side and the belief side. And we already had our second event, actually yesterday, because it was the Voltaire lecture. I don't know if either of you saw it. It was very interesting.

James Hodgson:

Would you like to give some background and overview of the lecture this year?

Nicole Shasha:

Sure, I'll try to do it justice. So it was called On Savage Shores and it was on Savage Shores and it was Caroline Dodds-Penek, who is apparently Britain's only Aztec historian, which is certainly a niche, and it was really interesting. So it was about indigenous people to the Americas and them coming over to Europe, and it was a really interesting history and that's one I knew much about at all. But obviously she didn't shy away from a lot of those. Things were enforced and through slavery or kidnapping, but a lot of them, particularly in the early days, were kings of Brazil, for example, coming over and touring Europe because they wanted to see it, and it was a really interesting different side to that sort of history that I didn't know anything about. Yeah, so that was really good and there was a little viewing party for that yesterday in Leicester as well. So, and that was really good, we had a great discussion about it afterwards. So, yes, it's going really well and I've got high hopes for Leicester going forward.

James Hodgson:

Fantastic. Thank you both. Now our main news story this week was actually shared by Lola in our WhatsApp community. There was quite a lot of discussion, I think not just amongst our humanist group but, I suspect, amongst humanist and atheist groups globally. The announcement from by an article by Ion Hershey Ali, a hero to many of us in the atheist movement that she is now associating or identifying as a Christian, was quite a shock when it was announced. Lola, I know you've been across this story. Could you provide some background on who Ion Hershey Ali is and the importance of this announcement?

Lola Tinubu:

Ion Hershey is a Somali lady ethnically. I'm not sure whether she was born in Somalia or in Kenya, but she is from her parents are from Somalia and she ended up in Netherlands and then she became a Dutch citizen. She was an activist when she was in Netherlands. She even became an MP. But before, I think, when she was I think it was when she was in Kenya she joined the Muslim Brotherhood. She was I can relate a lot with her.

Lola Tinubu:

She was very passionate about Islam, she wanted to do the right thing. So she was not an average Muslim. But then, I think, when she got to Netherlands with exposure, she got to see the dark side of the religion. She got to see it for what it is, especially the oppression of women and the issue of FGM. And then, with the rise of political Islam, anyway, one day she attended a lecture, the philosopher I can never pronounce the first name correctly Bertrand Russell. And then everything fell into place for her. She saw for her I'm explaining her view on Islam and everything fell into place for her. She was able to see the religion and the negative impact of religion on not just the follow us but the rest of the world society. So she became an atheist and then a very vocal atheist.

Lola Tinubu:

She's written I think I've got three of her books, the most popular one being the infidel. She talks about her history, her experience with female genital mutilation, the oppression of women, hijab all the normal issues and criticism about Islam, and she has this. I want to be very fair about everything that I know that she said, what I've read. It's about the doctrines of Islam, not about people. She has kept you know she will say it repeatedly that the people that she loves the most are Muslim, are still Muslim. So she still has friends within the community. She still cares about you know, people. It is just the doctrines and she's very anti Islam, also in a political way. She's in awe of the West, the Western civilization. She was in Europe because in awe of Europe, of the history, of everything that has been achieved, and then, I don't know, she's taking the reverence for the West to another level.

Lola Tinubu:

When she went to America and it was actually when I started paying more attention to Ayahasih was during Black Lives Matter. She was not able to separate that Black Lives Matter organization from the idea behind Black Lives Matter and she is really against it. She just she doesn't seem to understand it that it's not just about the organization and whether you know we should like or care about the people running the organization. She did not understand the philosophy at all and did not embrace it, and that was when I started, and then I think she joined the Republican as well, and then not even the moderate side of it, she moved to the far right of it, in my opinion. Yeah, I remember watching a video of her on Black Lives Matter. She didn't support it at all. She didn't understand the concept.

Lola Tinubu:

One of the things that she founded is Ayahasih Ali Foundation, aha in short. So it's a nonprofit organization which is committed to preserving, protecting and promoting Western freedoms and ideas. So on the website it says we stand up for universal human rights and opposed to tyranny in all its forms when it comes from oppressive traditions such as female genital mutilation, unobivalence and child or first marriage, illiberal ideologies, shutting down free speech and inquiry on campus and beyond, or Islamist extremism. And then she also says we believe that Western values and ideals apply to and protect everyone with champion a world defined by liberty for all.

James Hodgson:

No, thank you, Lola, for that overview, and Nicole, could you just draw out some of the reasons that Ayahasih Ali has given for leaving atheism and joining Christianity?

Nicole Shasha:

Yeah, so it does seem like, having read her unheard article, that her perception at least how it became, whether this was it the whole time or not, I don't know of atheism is that it's nothing and it's not anything. It doesn't replace any meaning and there's a quote. She calls it a nihilistic vacuum and that it doesn't answer questions such as what is the meaning and purpose of life? And I think as humanists we've heard that sort of thing about non religious ideologies before as a criticism. And while it's interesting, you know how she's come to that in the article and how she is kind of saying that this is lack of lack of belief. But I think that all humanists would agree that that doesn't have to be it. Obviously it doesn't give you this nice package of. This is the meaning of life and you will have this afterwards. But humanism is not a lack of meaning In my opinion. I think most humanist opinion that that is. But it's just that you kind of have to look for your own meaning and what it means to you. It's very much like a kind of it's the beginning of a exploration of that and she does.

Nicole Shasha:

It does seem to be quite a political thing, I think. For her. Reading it, it looks like she's saying that when there's this nihilistic vacuum, it will be replaced by extremists of other religions, whereas I think that I would say if you have a strong secular government with no room for any extremism of any religious type, then that that wouldn't happen. But this is, you know, she's. She's come to this with her life, but it's very interesting and she's, yeah, she's very much. It's this belief of atheism, in believing in nothing, which, yeah, I fundamentally disagree with, because we believe in humans and humans are important Very good, Lola.

James Hodgson:

would you like to add anything?

Lola Tinubu:

Yeah, I think there is. She has said that you know that atheism is lacking in terms of purpose of life and you know it's like she's looking for something emotional in atheism, which I'm just really surprised that I think she's been an atheist for about at least 20 years and I'm surprised that it seems. I'm hoping that she will talk more on this so that we can have more information on her, on her reasons. I don't think she's. She said it all and some people are saying, okay, we should expect a book, but I wish she would talk more about it so that we have a bit more insight. But I'm surprised that she hasn't that's what I said at the beginning that her journey from Islam because she was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood she has been a political activist throughout. So even as a Muslim, she was a political activist, a strong political dimension to her journey and her aim and in everything that she does. So but I'm surprised that throughout, when she was an atheist, one thing that has been strong is her wanting to destroy Islam as not just as a religion but as a political. She says Islam as a political movement and I do agree that religion, not just Islam, I believe that even Christianity is a, you know, religion is a political organization in a way. So so that so I can understand her saying Islam in that way and tackling Islam in that way.

Lola Tinubu:

But then I'm just surprised that she has never understood I hate to use the word that maybe she didn't understand, but that is. That is, the atheism is just about not having evidence for God and the atheism is very narrow to that. And then how you live your life as an atheist, the emotional side of things, you know, even politics, and that is something outside of what it is to be an atheist. To be an atheist is, you know, generally speaking, you're looking for evidence for what you are, you know, evidence for God. That is the beginning and end of atheism. But she has wanted more and I'm, you know, I'm a bit disappointed that she didn't have nothing I express in wanting more and doing something about that. And one thing also I want to that political side.

Lola Tinubu:

I want to read from the article why this is. Is not just the emotional side of what she wanted from atheism, or what she didn't find in atheism is? I want to take it back to what she said. She said why do I call myself a Christian now, part of the answer is global Western civilization is under threat from different, from three different but related forces the resurgence of great power, authoritarianism and expansionism in the forms of the Chinese Communist Party, vladimir Putin's Russia, the rise of global Islamism, which threatens to mobilize a vast population against the West, and the virus spread of woke ideology which is eating into the moral fiber of the next generation.

Lola Tinubu:

Will endeavor to fend off this threat with modern secular tools military economy, diplomatic and technological effort to defeat, bribe, persuade, appease or surveil. And yet with every round of conflict we find ourselves losing ground. So I think her motive is very political she thinks that Christianity has values that will protect Western civilization. I'm trying to you know the article and what she has said. She has him filled in the gap of how Christianity has values that will protect Western civilization.

James Hodgson:

Nicole, I know you're having some connectivity difficulties but if you can hear us, what were your thoughts on some of the criticisms, or critiques of atheism, that were raised in the article?

Nicole Shasha:

Yeah, so there was one that I thought was a really interesting point and I actually don't disagree with. So she talks about the God whole. You know, it's like when people aren't religious anymore, what do they replace it with? And she says so the void left by the retreat of the church has merely been filled by a jumble of irrational, coso religious dogma, and I think that not within humanism, but I do think that that is actually quite true among a lot of people in modern discussions, and actually particularly particularly political ones, people have become kind of religious fanatics about ideologies, and then it makes it very hard to be able to openly discuss and debate and be honest and willing to changing their mind as well as then, on the other side, the kind of spiritual bits and bobs that people pick up that can lead to dangerous thoughts as well that aren't traditional religions. So that, while that's not a good, I don't think that's a criticism of atheism and humanism, but it is kind of a is an interesting point of that lack of.

Nicole Shasha:

When you remove religion, which was the centre point of so many people's lives, then what do you have and I do think it's something that we as humanists should try and do is, have this, yeah, this emotional, warm, fuzzy side and, you know, meet up for Sunday brunch.

Nicole Shasha:

We don't always have to over intellectualise everything. We can just be like, hey, we're all people, let's enjoy some cake. So I think that it's kind of a good lesson of people who are lots of people, who view humanism, atheism, as that sort of emotionless thing. I think it's. We need to be clear that we aren't. We do care about that sort of thing. But yeah, ultimately, my biggest I think she's coming from a very genuine place but I think my biggest critique of her thoughts about atheism is, like Lola said, that she I don't know if she grappled so much with the, the evidence based sort of position of coming to atheism. I think it was like kind of political rejection of those things she didn't like and which is now why she's like oh, atheism is nothing. It's like well, it is is tech. Atheism is technically nothing on its own, but it doesn't mean that our lives are nothing.

Nicole Shasha:

If not nihilism exactly this is the thing, because nihilism I think it's quite dangerous, and there's lots of, but you don't have to be an atheist to be a nihilist, and I would say that humanists certainly aren't nihilists. So, yeah, I think she's coming at it from an interesting perspective, but one that I think we've all heard a lot.

James Hodgson:

Just before we wrap up. I mean Lola you open talking about obviously I own her she only has background and that you'd read many of her books and I think she was an important figure for many of us in forming our views. She's one of the most prominent female figures in the atheist humanist movement, one of the most prominent Africans and one of the most outspoken ex Muslims. I think perhaps ever Do you think this changes the impact that she's had as an inspiration and an influencer to many?

Lola Tinubu:

I don't think. I think in modern day we have this so-called cancel culture, like you know, people canceling each other from different communities. I don't think we should cancel, ever cancel, ayahasihale. She has contributed a lot. She has inspired me, you know. She has her passion for women especially. I am grateful For her foundation. I am very, very grateful and actually, even since the announcement, I'm trying to revisit the book.

Lola Tinubu:

There are a lot of important things that she has said that are still true. The fact that she, I think we don't know yet what kind of Christian that she has become, and you know, we don't know whether she's evangelical, whether she's baptized, we don't know anything. You know whether she's just a philosophical Christian or just in the political sense of it, we don't know yet. So, but for everything that she has done and for, I don't think, for a lot of young people especially that she has spoken to, about using reasoning to guide us, you know, for a way of life, I don't think that changes.

Lola Tinubu:

I think all the people that she has been able to give information to that she has influenced, I think they will remain. They are not going to become superstitious because she has changed her mind. It's just like I'm going to put her in the category of Isaac Newton. Isaac Newton has a superstitious side, but you cannot take anything away from his greatness. So to me she's still a great woman and she's still and I'm sure there will be a lot of more positive things to come from from her, and I dare to say watch this space. She is on a journey. I don't think the journey is concluded.

James Hodgson:

Nicole? How about for yourself? Does she remain a hero?

Nicole Shasha:

Yeah, it's really interesting. I couldn't agree more with anything that I just said. I thought that was great because I think that and again, it's a very humanist view for trying to apply humanist values to everything All people are mixed bag, both in personality and the things they publicly say, and if we start binning all the good that someone has done or said because they've had some other things that we might disagree with or are more controversial, or even that they might have things about their personality, then we won't get anywhere. This is the thing People are flawed and we make mistakes and we need to be able to take the good that people do and say and keep that as a thing without. And, like you said, if we look at any humanist heroes, historical figures that we think are great, they'll have said some downright hateful things or some massive thing that we disagree with, but we need to take a measured approach. Otherwise, yeah, we won't get anywhere. So I think it's really important to remember the good she's done and said.

James Hodgson:

Couldn't agree more. Thank you, lola. Thank you so much for your time, and we'll be right back after this week's interview.

Lucy Potter:

Hi, my name is Lucy Potter and I'm a researcher based at the University of Sheffield. I am currently conducting research on how asylum claims on the grounds of non-religiosity, which can include apostasy and blasphemy, are handled by the UK government. I am looking for refugees or people who are still seeking asylum on these grounds to take part in an interview with me on their experiences of the asylum system. This research is really important because there is no research on how non-religious asylum claims are dealt with currently and not much is known about non-religious persecution more widely. If you take part in this research, you will remain anonymous and unidentifiable, and I hope this research will make the asylum system inclusive of all the systems, and I encourage anyone with experience to please contact me. My email is lpotter2 at sheffieldacuk. Thank you.

James Hodgson:

Martin DiMaggio is a neurodiversity support group facilitator and an endangered language linguist based in London, but for today's purposes, we're here to talk about Martin's new role as a leader of the humanistic Judaism group, again based in London, and I'm pleased to say that he's running that as part of his membership with central London humanists. Martin, thank you so much for joining us on Humanism Now.

Martin Di Maggio:

Thank you for having me.

James Hodgson:

We've obviously spoken a few times. I know you've presented on a different topic with central London humanists, but for our listeners could you just give us background, tell us a little bit about yourself and also your personal journey to humanism.

Martin Di Maggio:

Yeah, sure. So as you mentioned, I'm a member of Central London Humanist and I'm also a member of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. And basically I grew up in a religious family myself and as a result I was always interested in religion in general and as a younger person I was quite religiously minded myself. Mainly I liked traditions and rituals etc. In my teens I was attending Birmingham Progressive Synagogue, which is part of Liberal Judaism UK. We've moved there from Malvern in Worcestershire when I was 11.

Martin Di Maggio:

One of the first things I noticed was the lack of emphasis on God language in the services and it was quite common to meet people who did not strictly believe in a God concept.

Martin Di Maggio:

So during my late teens I began researching something called Reconstructionist Judaism. That was founded by a Rabbi, mordechai Kaplan, in 1934, who basically said that in the light of advances in philosophy, science and history it would be impossible for a modern Jew to continue towards here to many of Judaism's traditional theological claims. So he had a naturalistic theology that was similar to that of John Dewey and his naturalism, which kind of combines atheism and religious language and ritual etc. So Kaplan said that God was the sum of all natural processes that allow humanity to become self-fulfilled and I like that idea and I still like that idea and have great respect for it. But then I discovered a book by Rabbi Sherwin White called Judaism Beyond God, written in 1985. And my whole view of religion changed and I began discovering humanism and found out that it was possible to be both Jewish and a humanist. So that's what kind of brought me to humanism.

James Hodgson:

And how would you define humanistic Judaism? In discussion with some of our other members prior to the interview actually, there was, I guess, a bit of confusion, I think, and perhaps a concern that sometimes we find that religious groups will look at humanism, think that sounds great. Can we bolt that on to our practices? So how would you distinguish, I guess, humanistic Judaism from more of the religious parts of the belief?

Martin Di Maggio:

Yeah, so humanistic Judaism is a non-theistic Jewish denomination. It defines Judaism not as a religion but as the cultural and historical experiences of Jewish people and encourages Jews who are humanistic to celebrate their identity by participating in Jewish rituals and community life in ways that do not refer to God. Basically, what the book says Judaism Beyond God and I would say some of the differences between humanistic Judaism and other forms of Judaism are that there's no concept of Jewish law. In humanistic Judaism, nothing is mandatory or forbidden. Humanistic Jews are free to participate and celebrate any aspect of Jewish culture according to their own likes and dislikes, in ways that are consistent with humanistic worldviews. We do sometimes we do, as a movement, say blessings that are similar to their theistic counterparts. So, for example, on Friday night people light two candles and traditionally say Baruch hatadunayudahainu melecha olamashekidushanabimitotalfesivanuladlikneeshil shavat, which is blessed. Are you, lord, our God, king of the universe, who commands us and gives us you know, basically commands us to light the shavat candles? We do not say that and we emphasize human strength and effort. So we tend to say things like Baruch haor ba'olam, baruch haor ba'adam, baruch haor ba'shavat, which is blessed is the light in the universe, blessed is the light of humanity and blessed is the light of shavat. So, as you can see straight away, there's none of this God figures that command us to do things, and kosher rules, for example, are not a feature of humanistic Judaism.

Martin Di Maggio:

An individual like myself might choose to not eat pork or shellfish, but there's no religious reason for that and actually it's important to say that all cultures have norms and boundaries around food, including secular humanists.

Martin Di Maggio:

So for some humanistic Jews, like I said, we would avoid eating it, but for the same reason that a non Jewish Brit would not eat a horse but a French person might, and we know what happens when they try to introduce horse meat into the UK. And on the other hand, there are humanistic rabbis who will eat a ham sandwich on Zoom while teaching a class on Talmud. Other, I would say other differences are intermarriage is celebrated, not just accommodated. Children of intermarried couples and Jewish, non Jewish spouses are full members of the humanistic Jewish community and that isn't questioned. We don't require conversion, simply celebrate the fact that someone wants to identify with the past, present and future of Jewish people, and we call it adoption rather than conversion, and we may be the only Jewish denomination that does not require nor actively encourage things like circumcision. So we're having a lot of important conversations on whether we should actually ban it in our movement and there's quite a lot of aspects to answer the question actually.

James Hodgson:

Lots of, lots of interesting points. So so you still consider humanistic Judaism to be a denomination of Judaism.

Martin Di Maggio:

Um, so we are classed as a denomination of Judaism. So, yes, the answer is we, yeah, we are. We are a sex, not sex a denomination of Judaism, but we're also, we could say, a denomination of humanism. It's a specific form of humanism. I think that if a group was to to and I believe that we do have this you know black humanists, or humanists of color in general, you know, nobody would be saying, oh why, why do you need to do that? In those, the answer is quite obvious, and I think that Jews, humanistic Jews, have been doing the same since the 1960s, and so you could see it as both humanism and a form of Judaism.

James Hodgson:

And is there a distinct line of thinkers and writers that have influenced the movement as well? I'm thinking in particular. Spinoza comes to mind as one of the first real agnostics who had come. He had come from a Jewish upbringing.

Martin Di Maggio:

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. There are people like Barry Spinoza, einstein, you know he also had a concept of God that was. That was kind of naturalistic or pantheistic, as did Barry Spinoza. We also, you know Sherwin Wein from, who wrote the book in the 19 in 1985, but founded the movement in the 1960s. Mordechai Kaplan like I mentioned him before, lots of other people. Yakov Malkin, who wrote a book on secular Judaism. For sure there's a lot of writers, yeah.

James Hodgson:

And what do you see the role of scripture within the groups that you run?

Martin Di Maggio:

Yeah, so the Torah and the Talmud, for most Jews the main sources of scripture, mishnah, talmud, for some people the Zohar. But the Torah is definitely seen as literature, quite important literature that details the some mythologized aspects of Jewish history and how Judaism began to develop. Obviously, we tend to know nowadays that the Torah itself doesn't have one concept of God. There was heenotheism and then there was. It was, you know, evolving from polytheism to heenotheism to monotheism. You know all of everything is representative, can you?

James Hodgson:

just, do you mind just explaining heenotheism.

Martin Di Maggio:

Yeah, heenotheism is where people would recognize it was particularly present in the in the Near East back in Mesopotamian time. So they would recognize that there were other gods but there was a plurality of gods but there was only one from your tribe, let's say, that was more important than all of the others. So you would recognize there were a lot of gods but you would only worship the God from your, from your tribe. So that was very is very clearly in the Torah. So you know we that it's interesting to look at it that way, we. But the thing is we don't look to the Torah or Talmud for as authority whatsoever. We take whatever we see that is good from it and discard what is bad, and it's not hard to find either. Likewise, the Talmud provides very interesting insights into Jewish philosophy and particular ways that the rabbis of the time that wrote the Talmud, how they made arguments for things, and there's never one, one answer in the Talmud. So we might look to it for certain ways of thinking or looking for precedence for certain areas of Jewish life, but again, there's no authority.

Martin Di Maggio:

Not long ago, rabbi Jeffrey Felix from the Society for Humanistic Judaism gave a talk about this banning banning books in the United States that have sexual references. And he gave this whole lecture on a Friday night service of sexual assault and incest and all these kinds of things that you find in the stories in the in the Torah and said, basically they didn't have TV so they made these stories. And he said, just like we can watch the TV and we can watch awful programs with awful storylines and we can critique it, but we don't derive our morals from it. So we would have to do that. So we would look at it as very interesting literature from which we do not necessarily derive morals. So I'm interested to know a little bit more about how humanistic Judaism fits into the wider Jewish community.

James Hodgson:

What have you found is the response or view of humanistic Judaism from more observational? What have you found is the response or view of humanistic Judaism from more observant Jews?

Martin Di Maggio:

So the idea of observant Jews is quite interesting because I was recently talking to a colleague of mine from the leadership program about whether we, whether we would use that term observant Jews for ourselves, because there are observant Jews who are humanistic Jews and there are very observant, very observant Orthodox Jews who might not necessarily believe in God. It's not kind of uncommon to meet people who don't belong to humanistic Judaism but belong to the other denominations, who are very openly talk about their agnosticism at the very least. So in that sense we fit in, in that we have a lot of our. We tend to be more in between agnostic and atheists. In our movement most people are either agnostic or atheists, but there are some dais present. The only difference is that maybe, maybe we're a bit more safe to say that and we're a bit more we we openly talk about that actually. But yeah, how do?

Martin Di Maggio:

It's a difficult one because, for example, in terms of international Judaism, the Orthodox are actually a minority and Orthodoxy only really emerged as a form of Judaism in the sort of 1800s, when reformed Judaism also emerged in Germany around about that time. But it's really common within even observant families to have people who are not so observant and people that are more observant, and you know what maybe people might mean is Orthodoxy, and Orthodoxy doesn't really recognize anything that isn't Orthodox as authentic Judaism in the first place. But when you consider that the majority of the world Jewish organizations are not Orthodox, then the question becomes a little less sort of relevant, if you know what I mean. So within progressive Judaism people are much more open to the idea of somebody who might say well, I just very openly don't believe in God and I'm still an observant Jew to a certain extent.

James Hodgson:

Yeah, thank you for outlining that explanation. I think that's really helpful. Are there any? What are some misconceptions about humanistic Judaism that you've come across, and how have you addressed them?

Martin Di Maggio:

One of the first misconceptions that I ever came across was when I was attending a liberal synagogue and I said that I wanted to get someone to come and give a talk and they said oh, they're not from the humanists, are they? Like from British Humanist Association? And I was a bit surprised by that response and I asked what did this person mean? And he said well, they're not going to come and tell us that we shouldn't run synagogues or have Jewish education or anything like that, are they? And I said no, it's nothing like that. It's in humanistic. Take on Judaism, you know it's, or it's, a Jewish form of humanism. It's not anti-Jewish. You know there was this kind of misconception that humanism is necessarily anti-Jewish and that's not really the case. And another misconception is that we're not fully humanist.

James Hodgson:

So Begin it from both sides.

Martin Di Maggio:

Yeah, exactly so. I think once people begin learning about us, they quickly realise that we are fully humanist. For example, three of our principles as a movement are that, for example, after the Holocaust, it's clear that the meaning of Jewish history is that Jews must be responsible for their own fate and likewise, all humans must be responsible for their own fate. Another principle is that every person is entitled to be the master of their own life, subject to the final authority of their own conscience. And third, another one the power to achieve human survival, happiness and dignity is a human power. So I think these kinds of these principles kind of speak to themselves. But also another misconception which I might have already covered is that all humanists are atheists, and I don't think this is true of all humanists, whether Jewish or not. Many, if not most certainly are, but a lot are simply agnostic or just might not find meaning in God language.

James Hodgson:

So yeah, we had just this discussion just a couple of weeks ago, actually on the podcast, in terms of, you know, can you still hold some form of God belief and be a humanist? And I think we didn't manage to get to an answer. But between our remains an open question. So could you tell us a little bit more about the events which you've been running in London and any that you have coming up?

Martin Di Maggio:

Yeah. So this year I began running discussion groups in about humanist Judaism through CLH, central London Humanists, and so far they've been very engaging people. Many people that attended came to certain realizations related to their own agency to take what they want from Judaism and leave what they do not want. Often people feel very scarred by traditional religion and they come along very nervously, not knowing what to expect. In one of the discussions we talked about Shabbat and one of the people said I just want to like candles and say how wonderful it is to be with friends and family at this dinner table. So I just said well, then next time you do it, then that's what you'll say, and she just really loved that idea. And another person said he'd quite like to read some poetry from Shakespeare at the table, because we very often read things at the table on Friday night sing songs etc. And I encouraged him that that's something that he could do and that's really the essence of humanistic Judaism that people can bring what they love to their Judaism.

Martin Di Maggio:

I also held a Pride Seder, so Seder is like a ritual meal and some people from CLH attended and also did the same for Rosh Hashanah. So the Rosh Hashanah Seder and some people came that had never been to a humanistic Jewish event. It was really successful and I was really honored to be able to share it with them because it was a really nice evening. So we plan to do more things like that, and I believe that we are planning to host a Hanukkah event in December, so then people need to watch this space for that, and I also lead services at an online congregation called Spinoza Havora, named after Baruch. Havora means like an assembly or community group, and we actually have four. Currently have 477 members of our mailing list.

James Hodgson:

Yeah, and if anybody would like to either join the mailing list or get involved, what's the best way to get in contact with you or to find out more?

Martin Di Maggio:

So to find out more in general about humanistic Judaism, they should go to shjorg I suppose they can find a link in the description to this talk. They can also go to spinosawordpresscom likewise I will send the link and also go to central London humanists on our meetup group or our WhatsApp group, and we have a specific community in WhatsApp for that. And also I would encourage people to watch some talks from the congregation for humanistic Judaism of Metro Detroit on YouTube or City Congregation in New York City and there's quite a lot of literature. So you know, look at Judaism Beyond God if you want a very. You know the original description.

James Hodgson:

Great and if anyone wants to follow you or your work.

Martin Di Maggio:

If they want to follow me, my specific work on humanistic Judaism would be through spinosa habora. If they want to follow my linguistics, then yeah.

James Hodgson:

Yeah, do you know what? We'll scrap that bit and just put in. We can put the links that you mentioned. But yeah, if it's spinosa, habora is your project and I'll make sure that's highlighted in the description. Great. So just before we go, martin, I do ask all my guests that there's something which they've changed their mind on, either through their work or just generally recently. So, anything which you've changed your mind on recently.

Martin Di Maggio:

I don't know what I changed my mind on recently. I think in recent years I've changed my mind on the concept of anger. I used to think that it was very negative to be angry and very negative to express anger, and I've been learning recently that it's that's not the case, that acknowledging your anger can be very important and actually can help you change things in your life and in the world at large actually Very wise.

James Hodgson:

There you go, yeah, martin de Maggio. Thank you so much for your time and thank you for being such an active member and everything you've done with CLH and for joining us on Humanism Now. Thank you for having me Welcome back to Humanism Now and thank you to Martin for joining us on this week's episode. I think it's really interesting to hear about how he's maintained his Jewish heritage whilst adopting a humanist approach to life. Nicole, I know you've been active in the group as well. How have you adopted a dual approach of being active in the humanists whilst maintaining the Jewish heritage?

Nicole Shasha:

Yeah. So I think that, particularly for Jewish people, that's a very common thing. Because of the nature of the history of the Jewish people as the diaspora and constantly moving around, the Jewish identity is really important and obviously it's very important for anyone. I think when your family comes from a different background to what the majority is in the country you live in, you can have that stronger connection and obviously it's interesting with Jewish identity because it's a culture and the religion. However, there's a really long history in Judaism of questioning things and humanistic Judaism because of that.

Nicole Shasha:

So people who will outright call themselves Jewish, but I don't believe in God or any of the stuff that we celebrate, and so there are lots of things in Jewish culture that are very divorced from the religion.

Nicole Shasha:

Things like food it's very important to Jewish people and it's certainly my biggest love in life and so keeping those things alive. But then when it's things comes for the traditionally religious festivals like Rosh Hashanah or Hanukkah still doing them because in this country, for example, most people aren't Christians but they do Christmas and don't really think about Jesus or anything and if we can still do that with them the Jewish festivals then it's still great and it's celebrating the culture and all the food that comes along with it and the being together and those elements. So I think, and interestingly, with Jewishness, there is also a long history of kind of questioning the religion, and there's lots of atheistic Jewish people, humanistic Jewish people, which is what such a big movement, particularly in America, which is really nice to see because people don't want to lose the good elements of that part of identity and heritage. So, yeah, it's something I'm quite passionate about.

James Hodgson:

Now, each week we take a question sent in to our mailbag from one of our listeners. This week's question comes in from Stephen in North London and he asks are there any taboos about being a humanist? I think they were talking about are there any taboos which we have had to deal with or others may feel towards humanist groups? Who would like to have a stab at that first?

Nicole Shasha:

Yeah, so I think that the biggest one that I've heard and faced comes from non humanists, non atheistic people, whether or not they're actually religious or not. But it links back nicely to what we were talking about earlier and it's this idea that humanists believe in nothing and don't care about anything and on our lists and that that's like a terrible thing and I mean I disagree with nihilism, but that's certainly not the case and trying to unpack that with people, especially if you only have a short amount of time, is quite a tricky thing to do. But you can kind of also do it quite quickly being like we. You know humanism does care about people, it's not nothing. One place I particularly face this is so I'm a humanist funeral celebrant and for every person who was 100% their family's never been religious, you get someone who, like some of the family members, might be a little bit religious and they worry.

Nicole Shasha:

They're like, oh, this is going to have no like heart and meaning, because they're like the meat, the heart and meaning comes from when you talk about like heaven and the afterlife and things like this and very much like, well, no, this is the thing. You can have absolutely loads of heart and meaning when we focus on the people's lives and what they mentor, everybody and their family and their friends and their community, and that it's not nothing and that you don't need to, you don't have to rely on a religious thing just because you think that's the heart of the funeral ceremony. That absolutely comes heart from the rational side.

Lola Tinubu:

I think arrogance is what I hear a lot, that you must be arrogant, you think people think that you have to be religious to have a sense of humility, and they talk about, you know, transcendental, you know things like that. And I always say that actually I am the one that I don't have this belief in a cosmic father, cosmic parent. I am the one that is vulnerable because I don't have that confidence that somebody is watching over me to protect me. And in terms of you know, I have that sense of oh as well. I don't think I'm greater than anything, and the pandemic taught us that. You know that a viral that we can't even see can take us down. So that arrogance is not far from it. Far from it, it's just accepting the reality of nature.

Nicole Shasha:

I absolutely agree, lola. I think that's a really good point, because I think, yeah, it's the absolute opposite. Isn't it humanist view? I don't know. I think, and it's admitting that you know us as a human community, we are so much greater than some of our parts that we need each other, and all of the scientific medical discoveries and everything are because of the work of so many people in the past, and also then the humility of we don't know the answers, what's the biggest and closest we can get to truth, but the closest we can get to truth from what we know and from what we can understand, but recognizing that we don't know everything.

James Hodgson:

Yeah, I couldn't agree more. It's interesting. What you've both touched on is the two areas that I came up to me when I read this question as well, I think one that we have no grounding from, or morality or no appreciation for. You know the non scientific things, but the one that really I find the most irritating is this accusation of arrogance. I think, absolutely in agreement, that it's the opposite of arrogance. It's purely saying I've not been convinced and I don't claim to have the answers, but I'm going to keep searching and I think that's is the humanist stance and a little bit like we were talking about before.

James Hodgson:

You can still take a lot of wisdom and tradition and celebration from all of the other world religions and you can use any elements of them and they will help shape your. They can be part of the tapestry that shapes your morality and I think, if we're honest, even most religious people would acknowledge that they get their morality from a range of different sources. I think we all do that Well. With that, lola, nicole, thank you both so much for your time. Just before we go, nicole, do you have any anything upcoming with either the young humanists or the Lester humanist group?

Nicole Shasha:

Yeah, with Lester humanists we've got a coffee morning, a Sunday morning coffee morning, so that's going to be our first one and that should be every month after that. So the event is going to be on the 3rd of December at 11 o'clock at the Phoenix Cinema. So if anyone's in Lester or around Lester, please feel free to come.

James Hodgson:

Excellent. Thank you and Lola. How about with the Association of Black Humanists or anything else you're involved with?

Lola Tinubu:

Yeah, our next event is on Saturday, 25th November, from 4 o'clock. If you, please check us on meetupcom for their address. So it's going to be a continuation of discussion of Aya Hasse Ali living in a becoming a Christian. So we want to look at, actually, you know, what will make us consider joining a religious group, and we are hoping to be meeting in person every last Saturday of the month. So we're on meetupcom.

James Hodgson:

Perfect. Thank you. And from the Central London Humanists, we've just announced our Christmas party. Yes, we do have a Christmas party each year. That's going to be in London on the evening of the 13th of December and we're going to be joined by a selection of London's top stand up comedians and the whole event is going to be a fundraiser for Macmillan Cancer Trust. So, if you are curious minded, enjoy comedy and able to be in London on the 13th of December, we would love to see you there With that. Thank you Lola, thank you for having me and thank you Nicole.

Nicole Shasha:

Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure, as always.

James Hodgson:

And thank you very much for listening and we'll see you next time on Humanism Now.