The other night I was out for dinner with a friend. At the bar, I ran into a guy I hadn’t seen in years. He’s a shrink. We started chatting about various schools of therapy and the name Sherwin Wine came up. He told me Wine had married his parents when Wine was the rabbi of a very special synagogue in Windsor, Ontario. How special? Wine was an openly gay man leading a congregation in his signature brand of cultural Judaism combined with secular humanism.
Sherwin Wine used to host a lecture series on the Detroit PBS series. On screen, he was mesmerizing, as evidenced below. For an agnostic goy like myself, he was great fun, not quite mincing but always free associating with incredible knowledge, insight and composure. Here was an atheist with real charm and warmth. Wine wasn’t out to put the bite on religion. He wasn’t trying to show anybody up. He simply wanted people to enjoy life free from the unnecessary burdens of galatic anxiety, to borrow a term from the great existential psychotherapist Irv Yalom.
Wine is important if unsung figure. Both Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have mentioned him in their work. And I suspect their admiration must have been tinged with envy. Secular humanism often gets a bad rap because the messengers stink. They try too hard. Hitchens did and Dawkins certainly does. Wine was a great advocate for a secular humanism that was rooted in a living, loving community on the ground.
Wine is a great influence on my fiction. When I move into a minor key, I try to imagine how I can have my characters confront their primal doubts and find meaning in their lives without resorting to magic thinking and false hopes. Wine put the human in secular humanism and were he still alive, I don’t doubt that he would be enjoying a star turn as the crucial bridge between faith and the faithless.