Jehovah’s Witnesses consider the non-believers

Jehovah’s Witnesses from throughout the Hudson Valley will begin meeting this morning up in Newburgh.

It’s the start of one of several district conventions being held across the country.

Like so many other faiths, the JWs are focused on the great many non-believers out there.

The theme of this year’s convention is “Stay Close to Jehovah.”

A press release begins with: “In a world where some powerful and influential voices in academia and the media dismiss or disparage belief in God, Jehovah’s Witnesses are proclaiming the importance of such belief, actually promoting the strengthening of one’s personal attachment to God.”

The weekend program will examine “different attitudes nonbelievers have toward God and misconceptions that hinder many from developing an intimate friendship with God.”

One session will look at “why faith in God must be built on fact and reason…”

The convention, open to the public, is at the Newburgh Assembly Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

And, if you’re curious, the JW website addresses the question of why JWs go door to door.

Believers, non-believers and ‘radical amazement’

I can’t believe how many people have told me in the last 24 hours that they noticed when President Obama mentioned “non-believers” in his speech yesterday.

It stood out to me, but I listen for that sort of thing. I guess I’m not the only one.

Here’s what Obama said: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers.”

Non-believers are generally not mentioned when politicians, especially presidents, list off religious groups. One could imagine Obama and his aides going back and forth on whether to add the heathen (just kidding).

Or maybe not. Maybe he just went with it.

Now, if you spend a lot of time talking to people about faith and reading about faith, you may come away with the impression that the distinction between belief and non-belief is not always as stark as we might think.

A lot of people fall somewhere on a spectrum between belief and non-belief — and move back and forth along the scale.

I was thinking about this last night — and then, this morning, happened to come upon the FaithStreams website, which offers videos of religious teachers and authors doing their thing.

The homepage offered a chat with Neil Gillman, a Jewish philosophy prof at the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC. He’s a provocative guy, so I clicked in.

And he offered this: “There is no faith without doubt. Faith is not something that you have and you hold on to. Faith is something you achieve – and you lose it – and you achieve – and you lose it.”

He quotes Rabbi Yitz Greenberg saying that the difference between believer and non-believer is the “frequency of doubt.”

He also talks about his famous, late teacher — Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — and how he said that the human perception of God requires “radical amazement.”

Gillman says:

To be able to see a grain of sand, the most ordinary thing in the world, as a drama requires what he calls radical amazement. It is not fleeting curiosity…It is a basic way of looking at the world and seeing the entire work as revealing the presence of God.”

Of course, non-believers only see sand. At least most of the time.

In X we trust

WASHINGTON — 15% of U.S. adults don’t identify with any religious group. That’s 32 million people — and the numbers are growing.

Barry Kosmin, head of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, stopped by here for a program on non-believers and non-believing.

He’s been studying the “none of the abovers.” It’s based on the latest American Religious Identification Survey.

Of those who do not identify with a religious group, only 4% say they are atheists and 6% agnostics. 89% say simply they have no religion.

29% were raised with no religion, and 25% were raised Catholic.

63% are male, 42% have college degrees, and 30% are from the West.

Interestingly, 21% believe in a personal God, and 23% believe in a higher power but not a personal God.

“It’s anti-clericalist,” Kosmin said. “They have no problem with God, but a problem with the local branches.”

Paul Kurtz, long known as the pope of non-believers, joined us to explain and defend “secular humanism.”

He said that the “New Atheism” (as promoted by Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, etc.) is too negative. Secular humanism, on the other hand, promotes ethics and altruism:

“The point I want to make is you can be moral without religion. You can be moral without belief in God.”

Kurtz said that religion — despite what the polls say — is declining in America, like it has in Europe, Japan, Australia and other regions. “I think that America is basically a secular society and committed to humanist values.”

He added: “So please, religious writers in America, don’t consider secular humanism to be negative.”

Jennifer Michael Hecht, an atheist who has studied the history of non-belief, told us that non-believers have always been around, even if they haven’t gotten much attention in history books.

“There are atheist heroes in the ancient world and in every single century after,” she said.

Hecht suggested that there can be a fine line between belief and non-belief.

“There are a lot of people who are religious who feel love and use the terms they were brought up with,” she said.

She also said that it is an “extraordinary” human practice that many people only go to houses of worships for births, deaths and other defining events — without giving much thought to, or not believing, the basic beliefs involved. “I call it drop-by-and-lie.”