Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
Q. I've been contemplating atheism of late and wishing there were denominational labels for atheism like there are for most other belief systems. Here are my suggestions:
Observant Atheists: I'm one of these. I believe that man created God, and has also created a plethora of related rituals and doctrines that support, sustain and comfort us. I love ceremony. I value the rituals that mark life-cycle events, and I appreciate that there are institutions that specialize in teaching moral and ethical values. I attend religious services because they challenge me to find the divine in myself and strive to be a better person. I have no problem with prayer in schools or at events because I don't consider someone else's expression of their belief to violate my own.
Classic Atheists: My husband is one of these. He refuses to take oaths that invoke God. He'll leave the room if people are engaging in any form of religious ritual (even grace at meals). He won't enter a sanctuary of any kind if it can be avoided, and he attends life cycle events only under protest. We try to respect each other's beliefs and practices.
Science as Religion Atheists: These are the people who apply scientific principles to religion to argue that there is no God. As a trained research scientist, with a doctorate in biology, I consider this a violation of scientific principles. Science is a method of thought that requires objectivity; turning it into a belief system results in the loss of objectivity. Similarly, I believe religion has no place in the interpretation of scientific principles. Interestingly, these are the atheists who most get under my skin.
So, what do you think of this approach?
-- L., via email
A. I'm delighted that you love religious services " . . . because they challenge me to find the divine in myself and strive to be a better person." I have some big news for you: You're not an atheist! As to your husband and the Classic Atheists, he is indeed an atheist, but his decision to leave the room rather than endure religious ritual or contemplation is a bit flamboyant and uncivil. As for Science as Religion Atheists, I would just ask them to consider Einstein's observation about the universe: "Could such a great symphony have no conductor?"
Q. Do the godparents of a Catholic child have to be Catholic?
-- Anonymous, via email
A. A Catholic deacon from Cape Cod tells me he has baptized several Catholic children who did have Protestant witnesses. This is allowed, he notes, under Canon Law 874, which states: "A baptized person who belongs to a non-Catholic ecclesial community is not to participate except together with a Catholic sponsor and then only as a witness of the baptism." In other words, one of the two baptismal sponsors (only one is required) must be Catholic. Another interesting fact is that if there are two sponsors, one must be male and the other female (Canon Law 873).
Following my recent columns on the subject, many readers wanted to talk more about the Ten Commandments:
Q. What definition of "adultery" should we be using?
-- R., Kenosha, Wis., via email
A. In the olden days, extramarital sex with an unmarried woman was not (and in some traditions still is not) adultery. It was just a way to take a new wife. After marriage became defined as a monogamous union between one man and one woman, adultery became broadened to include any extramarital sexual relations, which is how I believe it should be defined.
There is, however, an important moral and spiritual issue about the definition of adultery raised in the New Testament (Matthew 5:28): "But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart."
The question is whether lustful thoughts constitute the same level of sin as lustful deeds. I would defend the Christian definition of adultery -- to a degree. Thoughts are the precursors to deeds, and if we discipline our thoughts, we will also discipline our deeds. Our immoral thoughts and desires are a snare to the life we might all hope to live.
Religion is about disciplining our passions, and our passions begin with our thoughts. However, ultimately I wouldn't go so far as to equate adulterous thoughts with adultery. Our desires are not as morally culpable as our actions.