On religious atheists

When I was six, I began Hebrew School as an Orthodox Jew because that’s what my family was and that’s … Continued

When I was six, I began Hebrew School as an Orthodox Jew because that’s what my family was and that’s the kind of synagogue I attended. At age 11, I started thinking seriously about the concept of God and soon became an Orthodox Jewish atheist, although I could not have used the word “atheist” to describe myself because I didn’t know what “atheist” meant (a person without a belief in any gods). Nonetheless, I felt comfortable participating in Orthodox rituals for a couple more years, mostly because I was a good student who could read Hebrew faster than the other boys. There are satirical movies (like Keeping up with the Steins) about families who compete to throw the most elaborate and expensive bar mitzvahs, but mine was simple and inexpensive. However, I won my invented “competition” of reading the complete Torah portion for the week with fewer mistakes than others in our congregation at their bar mitzvahs.

Our congregation considered the Jews at a nearby Reform synagogue to be almost as bad as the Goyim (Gentiles) because they not only failed to observe many of the Jewish rituals, but also conducted their services in English instead of Hebrew. Had I understood the English version of all my ritual Hebrew prayers, I’d undoubtedly have become an atheist even sooner. Eventually I stopped performing the rituals and moved from being an Orthodox Jewish atheist to just a Jewish atheist, without passing through Conservative or Reform branches.

Now when I give public talks, I’m invariably asked how a person can be both Jewish and an atheist. But “Jewish atheist” is not an oxymoron, as indicated by the subtitle of my book, “Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt.” Since Jewish law is based on matrilineal decent, even Orthodox Jews consider an atheist born to a Jewish mother as fully Jewish. Consequently, one can be a religious, cultural, or ethnic Jew.

Within traditional Judaism, there is little interest in what one believes compared to what one does. Fixed prayers are standardized and required for the entire Jewish community, regardless of God belief. Saying these community prayers is not assumed to be an individual declaration of faith. There are 613 Torah commandments, and Orthodox Jews try to follow as many as possible. Some, like performing a ritual animal sacrifice at a temple in Jerusalem that no longer exists, are impossible. A commandment to believe in God is also impossible because people can’t will themselves to believe something they have solid reasons for not believing.

Judaism’s view about Jewish atheists is akin to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” When a rabbi from a Reform synagogue spoke to my local secular humanist group (Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry), he was asked how many in his congregation were atheists. He said, “I don’t know. We don’t ask such embarrassing questions.” When someone else asked which answer would be more embarrassing, he just laughed. In the branch called Humanistic Judaism, rabbis and members of their congregations are openly atheistic.

Some atheists go through the motions of prayer to preserve their place in family and community. People in all religions can and often do pretend to believe. I’m more puzzled by atheists who pray seriously and fervently to nobody. For instance, atheist Sigfried Gold followed a rigorous prayer routine to a made-up goddess. His prayers apparently “worked,” because he is no longer 110 pounds overweight. Obviously the pounds didn’t just miraculously melt away. Instead, he and others often achieve a desired goal through strategies to overcome bad habits and replace them with good habits. Atheist prayers sound a lot like what I would call focusing or meditating, which some also view as a transcendent or spiritual experience.

Many churchgoers, religious or not, are more interested in experiencing love and support within a community than in defining God or finding evidence for God’s existence. They can feel joy in religious fellowship and tradition even if they believe their official church doctrine is silly. Fred Edwords, Executive Director of the United Coalition of Reason, phrased it succinctly: “How many put up with nonsense for the smell of incense?”

Very few atheists pray to an entity that they don’t believe exists, and the few who do usually view it as talking out loud to themselves about hopes for a given result and a desire for guidance—but not from above. I think they have much in common with people who are deeply religious, like Nik Wallenda.

When Nik Wallenda recently walked a two-inch cable across a gorge near the Grand Canyon, I watched with part horror, part amusement, and a bit of admiration as he murmured prayers to Jesus almost constantly during the 23 minute walk. He thanked Jesus for steadying the wire, calming the wind, and even for showing him such a spectacular view. At the end, he thanked Jesus for his successful venture. Had Wallenda slipped and fallen to his death, as his great-grandfather and uncles had done on other dangerous walks, I wonder if he would have thought on the way down that it was God’s will that his children grow up fatherless. I think risking his life in that way was irresponsible.

Nik Wallenda’s ability to train and stay focused for so long was a remarkable achievement, as was Sigfried Gold’s commitment to lose 110 pounds while praying and gaining self-discipline from a goddess he envisioned. Apparently, whether or not you know you are praying to an imaginary friend, your imagination can help you focus and achieve some (but not all) of your goals.

Although an argument can be made to do whatever works for you, reality works best for me. I don’t need imaginary friends—nor do most reality-based people, whether they consider themselves culturally religious or not.

Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.

Herb Silverman
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  • Ciscohl

    Interesting. I’m certain that buried within Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, even evangelicals, there are many atheists. Probably most are not so forthcoming as Jewish atheists. I’m hoping for the day when they will all “come out”.

  • natsera

    Thank you for this column. I had known from your name that you, like me, are of Jewish origin, but I did not know that you were open about being ethnically Jewish, nor that you had such a good understanding of Jewish attitudes toward belief, and toward action vs. belief. I was raised Reform, and came to what I consider agnosticism (in that I don’t know whether a god exists, but am willing to wait for proof, even though I totally doubt it will ever come) gradually over the years. I do identify strongly with my Jewish heritage, and am perfectly happy to regard the Tanach as the collection of mythology, history, and literature that it is — the library of the ancient Jewish people as it were. And I feel no obligation to observe commandments that are not meaningful to me as a modern Jew. The only thing that bothers me about the atheist movement is when those raised Christian subsume Jewish philosophy and mores under the heading Judaeo-Christian heritage, and then are happy to criticize it without any real knowledge of what they are talking about. If they were raised Christian, let them criticize Christianity, and leave Judaism out of it. We know what our heritage is, and what parts of it are appropriate for us to practice, and what parts of it are just ancient culture. I mostly have abandoned trying to educate them, and your article here is a refreshing change.

  • inreasonitrust

    Jewish say a baby born to a Jewish mother is doomed Jewish. Muslims say a baby born to a Muslim mother or father is condemned to be Muslim. Zoroastrians say the same thing, and most other religions have similar sentences imposed upon the new born. Some religions like Islam even order the person leaving Islam to be killed. Now imagine the God of each of these religions sitting in the heavens and recruiting their army of followers. This is stupid and ridiculous. If one doesn’t understand this, then (s)he deserves the above mentioned Gods.

  • tonykdarcy

    I must admit Herb has that certain Jewish quality about his humour ! Only the Jews are allowed to tell the best anti-Semitic jokes ! The politicly correct police have stopped the Irish jokes, the Jewish jokes, and as for Allah and Islam, – Abandon all hope all ye who enter here !

    Of course humour is one thing that most religions can’t abide, I mean they are in the business of saving our eternal souls, or spirits, or somesuch nonsense ! No room for chuckles or belly laughs !

    To admit that their great God is a joke, would indeed make many believers choke !

    Nicely put Herb !

  • WmarkW

    I recently read “Religion for Atheists” by Alain Botton. A lot of what he writes is along the lines of, if you ignore the fact that religions aren’t true, they play a useful and enjoyable role in people’s lives. Atheism qua atheism does not immediately lend itself to creating inspiring architecture, art, or music, nor to forming a community for weekly singing, uplifting discussion or rituals. Even literature, which is probably atheism’s best cultural expression, gets rather tiresome after you’ve read “God does not exist” enough times.

    An obvious problem with the book is its cherry-picking of positive examples. There’s no discussion of religion’s role in continuing traditional gender roles, physical discipline of children, or sexual repression. So while I don’t agree with all his conclusions or recommendations, he makes some useful observations about what religion does for an individual, even if you don’t believe in it.

  • Rusty Yates

    We are starting an Sunday Assembly soon. Like you we want the community minus the woo woo.

  • Rongoklunk

    Then what you’re arguing is that we should pretend there’s a God and an afterlife – because it makes for a better community, even if we know there is no god or afterlife. That’s outrageous. No matter how bad you think atheism is – it’s nothing more than rejecting the god-hypothesis and the afterlife, and continuing the search for truth, scientific truth. Atheism is not your strongest opposition. Science is.
    As Carl Sagan wrote ” What is needed, is not the will to believe, but the desire to find out, which is the exact opposite.” He got that right.

  • pelicanwatchcb1

    As a former Christian, I think I understand what Herb is saying here. I can attend a Christian service and if it is not too strident and sanctimonious, I can usually find some wisdom in the sermon and some fellowship with the congregation. Most significantly, I still feel a strange connection to Jesus. He is not magic or mystical for me any more, but he represents a standard of courage and ethics that I take as a personal challenge. He is one of my little pantheon of heroes that include Galileo and Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • Rongoklunk

    Real atheists don’t pray. We know there’s nobody up there. We know that gods are man-made – the ancients showed us that. They made thousands of them. That’s why nobody ever saw one. Not even the pope. Ditto Allah, and Hari Krishna and Brahma. All made up. It’s what we humans do. We are the God-inventing animals.
    And we’re still doing it. We also invented fairies, and goblins, and ghosts and devils and angels. We have imaginations. And that’s where God lives.

  • WmarkW

    I’m not arguing to pretend anything. At the moment, I’m only suggesting that the next important step atheists need to take is to begin a discussion about how to replace the enjoyment that many people get from religion. Obviously, a lot of people are still practicing religion for reasons unrelated to its intellectual appeal. Atheism has done very well at selling its own intellectual appeal, and now we need to examine what other benefits people draw from religion, and decide which of those we can or should try emulate or substitute.

  • veginpost

    Cleveland’s in first place. How do we explain that? Spooky! I have been reviewing my superstitions closely the last few days. I know if I decide to watch a game this year that they will slide and before the end of the game they will be in last place. Deep down I still harbor these superstitions even when I know better. I guess I’m an Orthodox Indian’s Agnostic.

  • veginpost

    I think it’s buried in Christians because of Christianities history and current practice of physical abuse and mental persecution. After reading one of the above letters I going to be a little less opinionated about the nature of the struggle of those from other religious backgrounds. Learning from those who know their own religion and how they fit into it will continue to fascinate me.

  • h5r2

    Much of the Judaeo-Christian heritage consisted of Christians killing Jews in pogroms and the Nazi Holocaust. Yes, Hitler and just about all Nazis were Christian.

  • 3vandrum

    “how a person can be both Jewish and an atheist”
    This may be a problem for Jews, Christians, Muslims and for other monotheistic religions because the emphasis is on a creator God. You do not have to believe in a God to be considered religious atleast for Buddhists, Jains and for some Hindus. Buddhists and Jains do not believe in a creator God. Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy(one of the schools of Hindu philosophy) is atheistic and do not believe in God.
    “Many people go through the motions of prayer to preserve their place in family and community. People in all religions can and often do pretend to believe”. Unfortunately this is the truth and applies to a lot of people nowadays. When you consider this, the real number of atheists will be much higher.

  • h5r2

    The difference is that we know a lot of verifiable details about the heroes Galileo and Martin Luther King, Jr. What we know about Jesus is mostly made up stories to glorify him that were written years after he was dead and by people who never met him .

  • Rongoklunk

    OK. It’s an interesting point.
    What to replace religion with? Mmmm. What’s to replace? How about replacing it with the truth that as far as we know there are no gods, and no afterlife either. That’s what I told my kids and they just accepted it, and went on living and enjoying life. I know an old lady who’s really devout. I wouldn’t even think of introducing her to atheism. Nothing could replace religion in her life. But younger adults and children just accept what mom and pop tell them. I raised five nonbelievers, who are all married with kids – raising their children the way they were raised – God free.
    The question is how long can religion last in this great age of science, amazing technology and higher education? To the end of the century maybe?

  • edwills

    Rongoklunk makes an interesting point. Those not raised with foolish beliefs or behavior are less likely to pick it up as adults–like tobacco or religion. That’s why priests and tobacco companies try to hook youngsters.

  • Brett Johnson

    ^ You are right, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t try to examine the wisdom. I have always thought of Jesus as a teacher (in fact he was Jewish, of course, and considered a rabbi which means “teacher”). Other figures exist in which we see the same issue. Most notably, Socrates. All we know about Socrates actually comes from Plato. Perhaps Socrates never really existed, but that doesn’t make the wisdom he shares any less important or worth examining.

  • Brett Johnson

    I guess what I am trying to say is:

    Even if a character is fictional, it doesn’t mean you can’t still learn from him.

  • titanium7738

    I really don’t understand the logic of atheists. If God doesn’t exist then how can anything exist? To say that the universe just created itself doesn’t even make sense. I understand there was a big bang but what came prior to that? What set that event in motion? Where did the elements come from that came together to create the big bang? According to atheists’ logic, it makes more sense that elements somehow created themselves out of nothing and eventually created the universe, rather than an eternal intelligent being that has no beginning or end create the elements that created the universe. If you visited another planet and came upon a stack of thousands of bricks neatly placed together to form a magnificent triangular pyramid, would you think that something of intelligence created the structure or that the bricks happened to be stacked that way by chance. Our universe is much more complex than any stack of bricks but this is the thinking among atheists. Don’t let religion ruin God for you. Put religion aside and recognize God as a creator…

  • Maceye

    Because a river twists and bends its way to the ocean, that doesn’t mean an intelligent being designed it. Yes, natural forces come together to determine its course. And so yes, it just happens.