Ask Gretta (and Denise) 6 – Atheists and Humanists at the Pulpit: A Tale of Two Freethinkers

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Reverend Gretta Vosper is a unique individual in the history of Canadian freethought insofar as I know the prior contexts of freethinking in Canada’s past in general, and in the nation for secular oriented women in particular.

Vosper is a Member of The Clergy Project and a Minister in The United Church of Canada (The UCC) at West Hill United Church, and the Founder of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity (2004-2016), and Best-Selling Author

I reached out about the start of an educational series in early pages of a new chapter in one of the non-religious texts in the library comprising the country’s narratives. Vosper agreed.

Our guest today, Rabbi Denise Handlarski, is the Rabbi of SecularSynagogue.com. Secular Synagogue is an online community for Jews. Handlarski is the Rabbi of the Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Toronto, an Ordained Rabbi through the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, and a member of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis.

She is licenced to perform life cycle events including wedding ceremonies, funerals and memorials, baby namings, and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Handlarski focuses on “Tikkun Olam” or repairing the world, and the emphasis of ethical behaviour within Jewish culture.  

Here we talk about atheists and humanists at the pulpit.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: When we observe the freethought history of women, and if we take into account the predominance of men in the leadership and in the history texts, the tales of women freethinking, in and out of religious communities, can become either lost, downplayed – for a variety of reasons, or lost in the mosaic of the profiles of men.

Within The United Church of Canada and the Humanistic Judaism traditions, what set the stage for the freedom of women to lead, sermonize, and create communities of faith or non-faith – in the case of an atheist reverend and a humanist rabbi? How does this tradition lead right into the cases of the two of you?

Rabbi Denise Handlarski: The Humanistic Jewish movement has always been open to female leadership, with no obvious barriers to entering our seminary, being hired in our communities, etc. I would say that all major religions are still unlearning some of the patriarchy and paternalism on which they are founded. Our texts, our institutions, our broader communities where we live and practice, continue to need to work through some gender stereotyping and expectations. 

Having said that, I believe there is no movement in Judaism more committed to equality and equity than Humanistic Judaism. We give tradition a vote and a voice, but our philosophy and ideology mandate that we choose justice over tradition every time. For that reason, we do not hold onto problematic texts, liturgies, songs, etc simply because of their traditional or nostalgic value. I’d also say that although some movements try to make the name of their god feminine, or alternate masculine/feminine names/pronouns, the idea of God as Male is still quite dominant. Sometimes the English translation is changed, but the words being said in Hebrew continue to be words evoking and invoking a male God. I do think this filters into how Judaism is understood and experienced. 

I came to Secular Humanistic Judaism as a teenager, feeling my feminism was in conflict with my Jewish community. I had witnessed so much sexism already, and it made me want to reject the religion and culture completely. It was when I found secular communities that were culturally Jewish that I found I could have my feminism and my Judaism too. There is no doubt that this was foundational on my path to be a rabbi.

Again, we continue to have problems. There is no doubt that sexism still lurks in Humanistic Jewish communities, as in all communities. I believe that some of the ways I’ve been spoken to and treated by congregants, members of the public, other rabbis, has to do with my sex and gender. Still, I’m aware that it was only a few generations ago that a woman wanting to become a rabbi would have no option available to her. I’m proud to be part of the movement that allowed women leaders in first, and has made it part of our expression of Judaism to pursue gender justice. 

Rev. Gretta Vosper: There are so many in The United Church of Canada (UCC) who are ignorant of its history and who believe that dismissal or condemnation of a non-theistic or atheist minister is appropriate. It is not. In fact, based on our historical theological trajectory, non-theistic clergy should be the norm and atheistic clergy welcomed alongside them.

Until the 1960s, preachers in the UCC held very close to the traditional perspectives represented in the UCC’s 1925 statement of doctrine, an archaic assertion of beliefs that were mostly undermined by contemporary, critical scholarship. Although most educated within UCC theological training institutes or colleges would have been made familiar with contemporary critical scholarship, upon stepping into their first pulpit, they often learned very quickly that their congregants were not. The great chasm which had always existed between the pulpit and the pew has remained in place, it would seem. The UCC, however, was about to let down the drawbridge and share their heretofore privileged knowledge with those outside the keep.

The bridge was lowered in 1964 with the publication of a radical new church school curriculum – aptly titled “The New Curriculum” – the product of over a decade of work led by the UCCs most celebrated scholars. From kindergarten to adult study classes, regular churchgoers, for the first time ever, were exposed to the findings of contemporary, critical scholarship. It was a new day for the UCC and its clergy excitedly shared contemporary critical scholarship with the people in their pews. 

Whoops. 

Over the first year of the curriculum, Sunday School registration dropped by close to one hundred thousand children. Adult membership peaked in 1965 and has diminished ever since. While the positioning of contemporary, critical scholarship within the grasp of the general public may not be the only factor that gutted church membership, it was certainly coincidental with that decline. But so, too, was the creation of a strong social safety net, the core of which is Canada’s universal health care system. It is significant that in every social democracy, the strength of a social safety net is inversely proportional to religious belief and participation. The UCC might have educated its people beyond belief, virtually eliminating the need to stay in church, but with the government of the day alleviating fears about health, welfare, and the future, it may be that the church didn’t stand a chance. [1]

Beginning in 1982, a denominational team worked on one of the big questions raised by the New Curriculum: “Is the Bible really the world of God; is it authoritative for us?” They returned their work to the highest denominational council which quickly learned that, decades after the New Curriculum began teaching progressive scholarship, many members were unaware of its dramatic claims. Indeed, the curriculum saw less than a decade of publication. So the denominational council rejected the team’s recommendations coming to a fretful compromise: it refused to state whether the Bible was the world of God or not. Four years after agreeing that ordained gay clergy could be in relationship while leading a congregation, no one wanted to rock the boat so seriously and so soon. Survival trumped truth. 

And here is where a little bit of cynicism about the leadership of women in religion comes into play. On the critical edges of belief, power and prestige are scanty. Those whose identity is tied up in the pre-critical vestments of authority and knowledge have no interest in risking either. They stay cloaked until they retire and when they do leave the pulpit, if they don’t get handed the collar of “Emeritus Minister”, they rarely look back. Others simply leave leadership roles and participation before they retire, their inability to reconcile what they know with what they need to say they know.

But women, we who watched from outside the in group for so long, are eager to get in and see what we can do with the stuff religion provides. And it is great stuff. We arrive in the circle with little allegiance to many of the elements of leadership that have long been considered privileges or signs of power. And this is why women have the disposition, the strength, and the vision to be leaders on the permeable membrane the lies between religion and the secular. We are invested in the substance of religion – its place in the articulation of meaning, the central place it has occupied in our pursuit of well-being, connection, the luminous aspects of human relationship. We are not invested in the exclusive narratives and the exclusive language in which they have long been couched, much of which is tied to the privilege and power we have mocked and now eschew.  

So here we are, two women committed to the truth, eagerly exploring the membrane between religion and the secular, and very likely making history along the way. 


[1] Gregory S. Paul, “The Evolution of Popular Religiosity and Secularism: How First World Statistics Reveal Why Religion Exists, Why It Has Been Popular, and Why the Most Successful Democracies Are the Most Secular.” in Atheism and Secularity, Vol 1, Issues, Concepts, and Definitions, Phil Zuckerman, ed., Praeger: Oxford, 2010.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Photo by Lanju Fotografie on Unsplash

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