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Can religion be separate from politics and even Jewish holidays? Local secular groups say yes

As I write this, it's a few days before the primary elections. I imagine candidates are gearing up for the big day, getting out that lucky suit and writing acceptance speeches. Will winners thank the voters, campaign workers, their spouses? Or will they look skyward, wave and thank God for their victory?

The faith-based life seems to jibe well with voters. According to a recent survey published by the Pew Research Center, 61 percent think it's important that members of Congress have strong religious beliefs. Among atheists and agnostics, 85 percent disagree. It seems they want their politics plain, with no religion on the side.

Members of the Center for Inquiry of Southern Arizona (CFI-SAZ) seek to end the influence that religion has on public policy. Their mission is "to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry and humanist values."

Co-founded by Jerry Karches, CFI-SAZ (www.centerforinquiry.net/saz) launched in October 2004. "We are a group of people who are freethinkers, agnostics, atheists, skeptics. ... We like to have dialogue with others with the same frame of reference. ... There are other principles to guide life. We don't need god or the devil to reward or punish us."

CFI-SAZ offers educational programs, lectures, discussions, support groups and social activities. A goal is to "end the influence that religion and pseudoscience have on public policy."

Karches points to abortion and gay rights issues as examples of religious influence. "There are any numbers of things like that where they use their belief system to determine what the policy of the government should be. It's an influence we feel that is against our principle of separation of church and state."

CFI-SAZ has formed an advocacy group to align with other national groups—all with the goal of keeping religion out of government. "We intend to remind our elected representatives that they were not placed in office by a particular god or religious organization but by the pluralistic and multicultural voters of Arizona," writes CFI-SAZ member Gil Shapiro.

Another goal is to "end the stigma attached to being a nonbeliever." Karches explains, "We feel if you announce you are an atheist, it's almost like saying a dirty word. We just have one less religion than others."

The theme of less, or no, religion runs through various secular inquiry groups—small discussion or social groups with a focus topic such as arts, literature or family. A new group, the Secular Humanist Jewish Circle, was formed after Rabbi Miriam Jerris from the Society for Humanistic Judaism spoke in Tucson. A steering committee formed to create a local secular humanist Jewish group.

I spoke with steering committee members Becky Schulman, Susan Rubin and Barbara Russek and found all three love the Jewish culture, tradition and history—without a supernatural authority in the mix.

"I am very much identified as a Jewish person," explains Rubin. "I have great respect and love for Jewish history and the contributions we've made. ... Humanistic Judaism is a way to affirm my Jewish identity as well as be consistent with my beliefs about the nature of the world."

Russek refers to herself as a "cardiac" Jew. She heard the expression from a rabbi and felt it fit. "I am definitely Jewish in my heart. I don't have a religious inclination. I am attached to the history of the Jews and relate to their sufferings, traditions and customs," says Russek.

Schulman decided to modify tradition and created her own Passover Seder. She recalls, "I went online and found a downloadable secular Haggadah (text containing the story of the Exodus and the ritual of the Seder). There's no mention of God. It tells the story of the Exodus in historical terms." She joins with Rubin and Russek in wanting to celebrate Jewish identity and culture in a non-theistic way.

I commend the women for forming a group that is true to their beliefs, and agree with CFI's stance on keeping church and state separate. As Jews know all too well, when those in power mix personal beliefs and policy, the results can be disastrous.

More by Irene Messina

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