Tuesday, December 26, 2006

How Can I Be Jewish and an Atheist?

Judaism is not only a religion, as even the most religious Orthodox Jews recognize a non-practicing child of a Jewish mother as a Jew. It is not only a race, because Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Ethiopian, and Yemenite Jews, for example, can not reasonably be included in the same racial category. It is not only a culture, because it both includes many cultures and includes many people who share cultures with non-Jews. To say that the Jews are a nation or a people only transfers the question to the definition of "nation" or "people."

By almost all definitions of Judaism, I am therefore Jewish. I see myself as Jewish and am often seen by others as Jewish.

Atheism, on the other hand, reflects simply a lack of belief -- or, in some cases, a disbelief -- in deities.

"Jewish Atheist" is therefore only a contradiction for those few (almost exclusively non-Jews) who would limit the definition of "Judaism" to a question of religious belief or practice.

In fact, there are a lot of Jewish atheists. According to a 2003 Harris interactive poll, 19% of American Jews believe there is no God. (Compare to 4% of those who affiliate with Protestantism, 8% of those who affiliate as Catholics, and only 52% of those who affiliate as "Atheist/Agnostic.") Another 33% are "not sure whether or not there is a God."In other words, a majority of American Jews are either atheistic or agnostic. In Israel, according to a YNET poll, 28% of Jews are atheistic. (N.b. Polls seem to vary substantially on the question of belief in God.)

Other atheist Jews include the (in?)famous thinkers Marx, Freud, and Chomsky as well as the comedians Woody Allen, David Cross, Lewis Black, and probably Sarah Silverman.


jewish philosopher said...

I think that Judaism may most correctly be called a religion which place some emphasis on ancestry.

Half Sigma said...

Judaism isn't a religion at all the way Christians understand.

It revolves around guilt even more than it revolves around Belief or Faith.

asher said...

I guess I'm missing the basic thing: How exactly are you Jewish other than as an accident of birth? Since you neither believe in the religion, don't keep kosher or observe any of the holidays, have no problem with intermarriage, consider most jewish scholars as barking up a wrong tree, and don't think Jews have a right to land of Israel, what possible connection to Jews do you have?

On another level, why not simply identify yourself as an Atheist?

By the way, Marx was baptised and wrote many anti-Jewish diatribes and Chomsky doesn't identify himself as a Jew.

Mark said...

It seems to me the problem is with English. The term Jewish indicates means both an ethnicity and a religious practice at the same time. By your words, I would say that you identify yourself as an ethnic Jew who is an atheist.

You could add Edith Stein in your little list of distinguished ethnic Jews who at one time was an atheist. She started out, much like yourself and ethnic Jewish atheist, ... but who ended up a Christian, became a Discalced Carmelite nun who ended up murdered in Auschwitz (and later canonized as a Saint by John Paul). Academically, Ms Stein distinguished herself highly, she was the 2nd woman to be awarded a Doctorate of Philosophy in the German Academy.

Anonymous said...

Who cares? It's not about you.

Juggling Mother said...

As far as I can tell the term "Jewish atheist" came about purely through oppression: I see myself as a Jew because others see me as a Jew & discriminate against me as such - or as my mother so nicely put it "it doesn't matter what you believe, Hitler would still kill you if he came back"

IMO This is a very worrying self-view in the modern Western world. I do not think it is inherently anti-semetic, and I believe that we should be able to identify ourselves as what we are, not what our families once were!

I do not call myself a Jewish atheist, just an atheist. I do "admit" my Jewish heritage if asked, in the same way that Aggie "admits" his Protestant heritage. I see no reason to hide it or revel in it. My kids are aware of their parents and grandparents differing beliefs, and that they have the choice of any when they are old enough to decide.

I know JA's jewish heritage was more of a cultural upbringing than mine, as I did not live in an exclusively Jewish community, but it is fundementally a religion, about belief in a God & the rules of that God. Culturally he & I are probably very different, and certainly I doubt that either of us have much similarity with an Ethipoian jew (for example). Judaism can not by any real definition be called a nation (no geographical, language or racial similarities), culture (no language, legal system or philosophy in common).

BaconEating AtheistJew said...

Juggling mother, yes, if anti-semites want to hurt me or kill me for being an ethnic Jew, it does make me a Jew.
If Rabbis say anyone is who is born to a Jewish mother is a Jew, this too makes me a Jew.
Since most of my family aren't Atheist. Secular agnostic to worshhippers of the Jewish idea of God, this contributes to me being a cultural Jew. Bar Mitzvahs, funerals, weddings etc. The lingo too.

Asher, to what degree does a Jew have to believe in God if any degree to make them qualify as a Jew. If a Jew has doubts for a week or a year or 20 years, does this mean he is not a Jew during that time? Do you just need to accept the concept of the Jewish God and be born a Jew for the majority of your life to be a Jew? What are your rules of who should be calling themselves Jewish?

Juggling Mother said...

BEAJ - do you never go to weddings, funerals or rites of passage (18th./21st birthday's) for people of other religions? How does attending a Jewish wedding make you a Jew?

Even Hitler (at the beginning) would allow Jews to leave & live if they would renounce their god & eat a bacon sarnie or two. When I was young, I never understood why they didn't all do so - saying something doesn't chage what you truely believe - now I do understand why, but would have no compunction personally to renounce a god I don't believe in, or to break rules I do not follow. In the eyes of most anti-semites, I am not a Jew!

And yes, I have faced anti-semitism in my life, yes I have seen it across the world, and yes, I believe it is still a major issue in many places and inherent in many cultures. But as an atheist, I no longer see it directed at me. As a Jewish atheist, I exspect I would. As an atheist, I see discrimination against all sorts of religions in all sorts of places. I'm certainly not convinced Jews are still singled out in the Western world, unless they ask to be!

BaconEating AtheistJew said...

JM, going to Jewish weddings is just a tiny piece of the puzzle that gives me Jewish identity. People will see my name (name withheld) and say that is Jewish. I am perceived as a Jew by those around me. The west perceives a Jew not by beliefs but by ethnicity. This too adds to my identity as a Jew.

BaconEating AtheistJew said...

JA, I believe a Druze is a Druze for life as well. So technically one can be an Atheist Druze or Agnostic Druze. I'm not sure though.
And of course there can be Atheist Kurds, which is the closest thing to what Atheist Jews have to deal with. Though Kurds are not a religion, they are a people, an ethnicity, a nation so to speak.

Martin Cooper said...

Several of the "commentariat" above have it right: I, too, am a Jew because my mother was Jewish, as were all the mothers on both sides of my family all the way back to Abraham and Sarah (or so I'm told). I'm also a Jew because I'm thus categorized by others. But I'm also an atheist because I haven't a shred of belief in supernatural causes or effects and abjure all religious ritual and observance. As someone said (maybe even on this blog), Jews and gay people have in common the fact that you can't tell one by his or her appearance and you can't stop being one. However, I'm at peace with my Jewish identity because I believe in the right of Jewish sovereignty in the State of Israel, made aliyah, became an Israeli citizen, live in Jerusalem, and serve as a police officer in the Israel Border Guard (Mishmar Ha'Gvul). Conclusion: There's no better place for a Jewish atheist to feel comfortable in his own skin than right here in Eretz Israel!

Temuco22 said...

God and whatever is attributed to it is a superstition, never proved, non existent. The question is, then: Those of us who are proud to be jews, but are atheist, may we build a new godless judaism?

Juggling Mother said...

If anyone can define the jewish "culture" in a way that does not include any religious rituals or beliefs but does include similarities of lifestyle for jews across the world, I will re-assess my opinion of the term Jewish Atheist.

As no-one has yet managed to do that, I consider it to be an oxymoron.

My heritage is jewish. I am an atheist. I do not see a problem with that, and do not believe I am hiding/denying any part of myself by stating that.

Red Tulips said...

Jewish Atheist:

I would not be bragging about Marx and Chomsky if I were you! Ha!

But to answer your question: Judaism is a religion, ethnicity, and culture all at the same time. One can be a Jewish atheist by adhering to the ethnicity and culture, while disavowing the religion.

mim said...

You might not be able to tell a Jewish person or a gay person just by looking at them, but you may well be able to by talking to them. You may also guess wrong, but more often than not I find that if someone seems Jewish they probably are.

Anonymous said...

I am an Atheist and proud. Until the world is secular, there will always be hate, and hate destroys people. To me religion is an evil turning brother against brother.
I am 70 years of age, and have never turned to religion. In the future at some time they will look back on religion as a fable believed. Religion is brain washing by leaders to make people do their bidding.

bhssailing said...

This is my first time visiting this blog, and i have to say that i'm VERRY impressed. it seems as if many of the regulars here are/were extremely religious, and would be angered at how secular my youth has been, ie, as a 17 year old I've never set foot in a synagogue, which im embarrassed about. Despite this, and the fact that I'm a staunch atheist, I feel that I have tried to be as jewish as possible. I have always considered myself an atheistic jew, but for years I wasnt sure if it made sense. I would like to thank you for your page on that subject, as it has done a great deal of good for me to finally clarify that.
Anyway, regarding your list of Atheistic jews... I believe Jack Black also falls into that category. my cousins are high school friends of his, and have mentioned it in various conversations over the years.

I look forwards to soaking in as much as i can from this wonderful blog.

Anonymous said...

How is it possible to talk into that 600,000 and say they saw g-d. Yes other religions are based on one carismatic leader. Judiasm is not. G-s spoke to 600,000. You can't make up such a story. This was passed down from generation to generation, about 100 generation. You can't make up such a story. Why don't you study a little about your hertige a little. There are answers wo all your questions. I grew up religious and still am. A friend of mine grew up religious and isn't anymore. I am just looking at the sites and trying to understand her view. I believe that it is an emotional decision. Yes, not all Orthodox Jews behave like they should. Who are we to decide who is a Tzadik and who is not. Just because someone has a beard and black hat doesn't mean he is a Tzadik. This is a mistake that a lot of people make. G-d judges each person in their situation. We don't know who is great and isn't. The Gemara says that next world will be an upsidedown world. What does that mean? People who we thought were great will be on bottem, and people that we thought were simple will be on top. Don't get turned off by a few people.

Roi Ben-Yehuda said...

Good stuff. I wrote a three part piece on Jewish atheism over at Jbooks.com The piece is entitled: Godless Jews: The Original Atheists with Attitude. Here is a link:




Keep up the good work.


Egoist Paul said...

The best way, in my opinion, to be both Jewish and an atheist is to be an Objectivist. You can start by reading Ayn Rand's books. If you like fiction, read "Atlas Shrugged"; if you like non-fiction, read "Philosophy: Who Needs It."

Anonymous said...

I was raised Catholic and the old guard in my family still claim that all the younger generation (stark un-believers) are Catholics. I surmise that claiming yourself as Jewish despite believing in Judaism is just a way to distance yourself from the "Goyim" without getting your hands dirty by practicing.

Jewish Atheist said...

I have no desire to "distance myself" from non-Jews and have never, ever referred to them as "goyim," having found that word to be (in practice) pejorative even back when I was religious.

aner said...

Just as being Jewish has many aspects besides a belief in the deity, so do other religions. They all have their wonderful rituals, cultural traditions, and family heritage. More people should identify as "Christian Atheist, Muslim Atheist, and Jewish Atheist". There is no contradiction.
Already, a believing Christian is not likely to believe in ALL that other Christians believe. Same for all religions -- each person adopts some subset of the possible practices and beliefs. God is just one of these, and can be left out just like you can choose to wear clothing of mixed fabrics.