Getting Acquainted with Freethinkers: Harold Saferstein

Why We Chose Humanism

By Harold Saferstein 

My wife and I were both brought up in orthodox Jewish families. I was bar mitzvah’ed and my wife was bat mitzvah’ed (as an adult). Our three sons were all bar mitzvah’ed. I served as president of both Synagogue of Israel and Temple Shalom in Wheeling, W.V. We attended services and observed the Jewish holidays, blessed the sabbath candles, supported Jewish charities, but did not consider ourselves very religious in that we did not keep kosher or observe sabbath restrictions.

Why did we practice Judaism for 40 of our 48 years of married life? The reason is the same for us as for almost everyone: our parents were Jewish! Had they been Muslims we would have grown up as Muslims. Our religious choice is almost always decided by our birth rather than by any intellectual decision based on a study of religious choices.

I realize now that I was always a skeptic, doubting the existence of a god, angels, devils or miracles. Having a scientific education, I was hesitant to accept the supernatural without evidence. I did not believe that prayer accomplished anything and was, for the most part, bored by the repetitous ritual. I did sing along at services because I enjoyed the music, and I read the prayers in order to improve my ability to read Hebrew (what else was there to do?).

About eight years ago, we stumbled onto humanism and I immediately realized that this philosophy conformed exactly to my personal beliefs. How gratifying it was to learn that humanists all over the world shared these beliefs. The more I read the works of authors like Bertrand Russell, Robert G. Ingersoll, Carl Sagan, Susan Jacoby, Paul Kurtz and others, the more convinced I became that religion is largely mythology and superstition with very few redeeming values (at least for me).

I’d like to compare humanism and religion.

The Supernatural

Religion (faith) requires accepting some outrageous assertions without evidence, such as virgin births, resurrection after death, heaven and hell, miracles (like the parting of the Red Sea), angels, devils, etc. We are expected to accept these things on “faith.” Humanism respects science, the natural world and the laws of nature. Scientific truth changes as new evidence is presented. Religious truth (since it is the revealed word of God) changes reluctantly, e.g., Galileo was arrested by the Church for contending that the earth revolved around the sun; the church only recently admitted its error. Irrational things are done in the name of religion. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for questioning Church doctrine. Voltaire tried to save the life of 19-year-old Chevalier de la Barre in 1766, but the boy was tortured and beheaded for the crime of blasphemy. He had failed to remove his hat during a church procession. Orthodox religious Jews throw stones at fellow Jews who fail to observe sabbath restrictions in their Isreali communities. Muslims fly airplanes into buildings to kill the infidel.

Secular humanists, rejecting the supernatural, respect and tolerate all religious views, providing those views do them no harm.

Ethics and Morality

Some theists assert that one cannot lead an ethical life without a belief in God. Certainly many religious people behave ethically in hope of a reward in the “afterlife.” Humanists behave ethically as a matter of conscience without expectation of any reward. Many Jews I have known were unethical in business or even committed illegal or immoral acts, while expecting forgiveness for their sins by praying in synagogue on Yom Kippur (the Jewish day of atonement). Many Christians have slaughtered infidels, witches, blasphemers, shot doctors performing legal abortions, participated in pogroms and inquisitions against Jews, conducted holy wars and crusades against Muslims and committed other horrible acts in the name of their God. Christians may, of course, sin with impunity, confess their sins to a priest and receive absolution from a forgiving God (often with some cash down for the Church). Even better, they can obtain “last rites” on their death bed from a priest and all is forgiven. (Jesus died for their sins.)

Humanists do not subscribe to this idea of rewards and punishments or forgiveness of sins. They behave ethically toward their fellow human and the earth and environment by using reason, intellect, compassion and conscience. Without ethical behavior, reason tells us that our species may not survive on this planet. This is, of course, a definite possibility, when one considers the motivation and potential capabilities of certain religious fundamentalists.

The Environment

One of the many pressing problems facing our planet is overpopulation. We are rapidly outgrowing the earth’s resources. Most humanist families we know have one to three children, rarely more.

In Western Europe, the fertility rate (children per family) is 1.2-1.8. Among Muslim families living in Denmark it is 6.4. It is predicted that by year 3000, Europe will have a Muslim majority if this birth rate disparity continues. The Muslim population in France already exceeds 12%. We know of many Mormon and Catholic families with five to ten children. Catholicism rejects birth control measures because the bible says “be fruitful and multiply.” Some evangelical Christians express no concern for the environment because of their conviction that we are approaching “the end of days” and only they, the true believers, will be whisked off to heaven in the “rapture.” If one believes such nonsense, why indeed would one have concern for future generations?

Humanists are greatly concerned about global warming, protection of endangered species, world hunger, AIDS, malaria and other epidemic diseases, depletion of our natural resources and many other environmental issues.

Community and Social Involvement

Here is an area where religion may have the advantage. Many people belong to and are active in churches and synagogues for social rather than religious reasons. They do a good job of providing social and recreational activities.

Humanists, atheists, agnostics and freethinkers usually are not “joiners,” so their groups tend to be small, not well-financed and often have minimal social activities. The emphasis in these groups is usually on education (lectures and seminars) rather than dances, card parties and bingo games.


Most secular humanists do not believe that prayer accomplishes anything. I am concerned about the many hours of human productivity that are lost in prayer and other religious ritual. Religious Jews pray three times a day and devote the sabbath to rest and prayer. Muslims pray five times a day every day. Is it any wonder that Muslim societies are so backward with so few current contributions to science and the humanities?

The hours in a humanist’s day are devoted to work, study, recreation and self-improvement, with no time devoted to prayer or religious ritual.

Church/State Issues

Humanists believe passionately in the separation of church and state. They take great issue with those who proclaim America is a Christian nation. We do not believe that we are second class citizens because we are not Christian. I will not present here the arguments to support this view but they are quite compelling and the subject of many books and articles.

I would hope that rational, reasoning, educated, intelligent individuals would consider some of these differences between humanism and religion before deciding which philosophy to follow.

“When we moved to Arizona we joined Temple Chai in Phoenix. My wife liked the service and the music. We were disappointed in the less than friendly atmosphere but stuck with it until we learned about humanism. I was turned off by the almost frenzied religious enthusiasm of some members. After encouraging my wife to attend some of our humanist meetings, it was she who suggested we resign from the Temple. We have found our new humanist friends to be much warmer and caring. A few years ago my son’s in-laws asked me to conduct a Passover seder. I agreed, providing it could be a humanist seder (without mention of God or miracles). It was well-received, but I have not been asked to do it again. Our only religious involvement now is at family life-cycle events.

“To replace religion in my life, I am an active member in the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix, Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Humanist Association, Center for Inquiry, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a few others. My wife, Doreen, is also active in HSGP, having served as recent program director. She has been an art docent at our local art museum and a Democratic Precinct Captain. She also works with homeless kids in Phoenix. We both read a lot and enjoy theater, opera and concerts. I play tennis three times a week.

“This past spring I conducted a series of five lectures on Humanism at Scottsdale Community College with the participation of four other members of our HSGP group. Fifth-three people took the course and we intend to expand it to seven lectures next spring.”

Dr. Saferstein is a Life Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Freedom From Religion Foundation