On religious atheists

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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.

 

Written By: Herb Silverman
continue to source article at washingtonpost.com

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  1. This issue often comes up on this site, so here we have it from the horses mouth;

    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.

    Thanks Herb

    • In reply to #1 by alaskansee:

      This issue often comes up on this site, so here we have it from the horses mouth;

      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.

      Thanks Herb

      Or as Dara O’Briain put it in Ireland! “You’re an atheist, – but are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?”

      • In reply to #9 by Alan4discussion:

        In reply to #1 by alaskansee:

        This issue often comes up on this site, so here we have it from the horses mouth;

        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…

        Or, as I like to think of myself, the god I don’t believe in, is a Protestant.

  2. Both Jews and Christians consider in very important to rebuild a temple in Jerusalem destroyed long ago. Jews control the real estate. Why don’t they just build one? or a provisional one? Or are they completely stuck on the precise real estate, which is already in use?

  3. If an atheist Jew lived in Germany in the 1930′s, it would be of no consequence whether they were a believer or not. I can understand how one would like to keep one’s cultural identity.

    • In reply to #3 by Nitya:

      Really? It’s relative like everything else. I’m uncomfortable with the “cultural identity” of the Confederate States and don’t think I would want that cultural baggage. Given the behaviour of the Jews since we formed their country based on deserved sympathy and ridiculous biblical bullshit I would be very uncomfortable and in no way want to keep that identity either.

      I think like most things in life it requires thinking and if you haven’t done the work then I don’t care what you hold dear.

      And yes you’re right neither the Jews or Nazi’s would be able to tell the difference.

      I can understand how one would like to keep one’s cultural identity.

      • In reply to #5 by alaskansee:

        In reply to #3 by Nitya:

        Really? It’s relative like everything else. I’m uncomfortable with the “cultural identity” of the Confederate States and don’t think I would want that cultural baggage. Given the behaviour of the Jews since we formed their country based on deserved sympathy and ridiculous b…

        Cast aside the “religious bullshit”, because I’m in agreement with you here. As “religious bullshit” goes, it must be up near the top, but I was talking about the Jewish identity, not about Israel as such.

        I was thinking of the Jewish cultural tradition of scholarship and in the arts. It would be a shame to disregard this heritage just because you were a Jewish atheist. When you look back on the history of persecution they have had to endure, I’m amazed that there is one person remaining, who was willing to be identified as such. I would have become an instant convert if I’d been put in that position. Still would, in fact, if the world suddenly decided to exterminate atheists.

        • In reply to #6 by Nitya: The Jewish identity was still there without having to upset the locals. It used to be associated with being oppressed I’m not comfortable with the 180 type direction it’s taken since then, pity.

          In reply to #5 by alaskansee:

          In reply to #3 by Nitya:

          Really? It’s relative like everything else. I’m uncomfortable with the “cultural identity” of the Confederate States and don’t think I would want that cultural baggage. Given the behaviour of the Jews since we formed their country based on des…

  4. Here’s a copy of what I posted on the WP’s site:

    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 !

    I don’t think I need to add to that here.

  5. “Culture” is the true villain of the human piece. We’re all intuitively both gregarious and tribal. Imagine a group of people who somehow, overnight, reject their cultural heritage (as alaskansee #5 would like). With what do they fill the void? The reality is that cultural change often takes remarkable amounts of time to achieve, but it does happen and we have to be content with that.

    Non-religious Jewish people like Herb Silverman could take a great stand by not circumcising their sons and by minimizing (better eliminating) the Jewish religious aspects of their domestic behaviours. But they won’t: the cultural pull is too strong. So instead they dissemble and rationalize what they know deep down amounts to hypocrisy.

  6. I’m a Scottish Atheist who thankfully does not feel dragged toward either bigoted side of religion even though my family are from both Catholic and Protestant ancestry but only in the last few hundred years…. Scots like me are able to keep their clan traditions and still be atheist….our traditions are as much Viking and Scandinavian as Celtic and Gaelic which are all quite pagan and naturalistic…and many Scots have not lost that genetic lineage…that’s perhaps why I felt instinctively atheist as a child….. but family lifestyle traditions are fine as long as you don’t support religion by proxy….Atheists want to celebrate life events like any other human and we can do that without being part of religion and we should still feel free to attend religious places just out of respect to individual family and friends….Religion will not hijack my connection to my family or traditions…..It will not isolate me from my people….I will not let it…..

  7. ‘Jewish atheist’ is an oxymoron! Just look it up Mr. Silverman! Or perhaps it’s a true myth or an open secret or you are clearly confused. Sorry to be pretty cruel it was the only choice.

    • In reply to #14 by finchfinder:

      ‘Jewish atheist’ is an oxymoron! Just look it up Mr. Silverman! Or perhaps it’s a true myth or an open secret or you are clearly confused. Sorry to be pretty cruel it was the only choice.

      If ‘Jewish atheist’ is an oxymoron, then ‘Buddhist atheist’ is a redundancy.

      giggity

  8. 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.

    Former Catholics who are atheists or agnostics also call themselves “lapsed Catholic” because the only way to be an ex-Catholic in Canon Law is to be excommunicated by the Pope.

    In a typically extreme example; many Muslims claim the only true method of becoming an ex-Muslim is through death.

    It is also becoming common for those of us who were formerly members of mosques or Protestant churches to describe ourselves as “cultural X” (where X is your former, or your parents’, religion). I myself am a cultural Christian; I observe holidays using their Christian names and occasionally embrace Christian cultural norms (singing carols at Christmas, for example).

    It is tempting to turn up the outrage and claim that this is religion continuing in its attempts to claim adherents it does not have, influence it does not posses, and power over those of us who reject them.

    But this is a two-way street. While it may be true that religions twist the cultural ties of atheists and agnostics for their own ends we should not let this poison the well of family life and the wider culture. We all need connections. We need an understanding of our past, and we all feel the need from time to time to connect with family and friends using simple available cultural elements.

    Very few people actually grow up in a religion-neutral zone. Organised religions make it their business to inveigle their way into all aspects of our lives precisely because they recognise the value, to them, of merely being connected to each of us – however remote, tenuous, or unlikely such a connection may seem to the casual sceptic.

    Like Herb’s remarks on prayer (see the full story at the OP link) when we accept cultural connections we need to be alert to the possibility of misuse and miscalculation when we use cultural X.

    Religions are ingrained in our societies. After centuries of trying, they would be pretty pathetic if they had not succeeded to some degree by now. Yet reversing this trend would appear to be a faster process. A few pockets of resistance hold out, but in most countries Protestants and Catholics have accepted that the label Christian is apropos. It seems to me that this is in direct response to their shrinking influence as individual groups in just the last Century and a half.

    We can accelerate this process by accepting those who describe themselves as Cultural X. By doing so, we accept people into the Secular / Humanist / Sceptic fold on their own terms – just as Herb describes synagogues accepting atheists without question.

    When we do this, we advance a progressive society that respects tradition without accepting that we cannot move away from tradition. Social and political change are on the agenda.

    But, and here Herb appears to me to miss an important point, we also need to be alert to our own thinking. Cultural X must not blind us to the possibility that some of our individual Culture X may be redundant, ultimately harmful, or regressive – or all three!

    Above all, remain sceptical.

    Peace.

    • In reply to #17 by finchfinder:

      No, giggity No.16, ‘Buddhist atheist’ is also an oxymoron. Well, it is if it’s still used.

      Actually finchfinder, to be a Buddhist, it is not required that one has a belief in god. (unlike the Abrahamic religions).Therefore, most Buddhists do not believe in a god but they do have other supernatural beliefs such as reincarnation and karma.

      giggity

  9. I was brought up in pretty much the same way as Herb, the orthodox way. My parents were not particularly observant and even less so when we migrated to Australia and away from my grandparents and wider family. Observant or not, my family was definitely within the Jewish community and us kids all went to Sunday school. I was allowed to stop after my barmitzvah. I just accepted being Jewish and didn’t give any thought to God at all – I bought the brainwashing I guess – until one incident raised my awareness. I was very attached to my maternal grandmother, who sent me a tallit (prayer shawl) for my barmitvah. She died very soon after of cancer. The following Yom Kippur (the all day in synagogue without food day) I went out for a break as soon as I could wheedle permission from my Dad. Yom Kippur was a very important day for us kids: it was the best time we had for social interaction with our Jewish peers, particularly those of the opposite sex. When I went back in, my tallit and its carry bag were missing. I never found them. Whether or not it happened that way, I was convinced someone had stolen them. The loss of my only connection with a grandma I loved and grieved for was the trigger that caused me to think about God for the first time. I was fourteen then, anti-religion by fifteen, and an atheist by seventeen. It took me a while to work through the issues on my own. Of course I never talked to my parents about it, but at seventeen I didn’t talk to them about anything. We hardly ever discussed religion at home. It wasn’t until I was in my forties that I discovered that my mother was a long-time atheist and that for my father it was all about community and culture. I continued to go to services for the Jewish holidays and took my own children too. When my children were older, I went to services, weddings, funerals etc when around my family (one of my brothers is still into being Jewish at age 60). I am also happy to go to other religious services, mostly christian. I sing along happily with all the hymns and have no qualms about ‘for Jesus Christ’s sake amen’. It costs me nothing to sing their songs and politely observe their rituals, much as I do for my brother. I explain that it doesn’t mean anything to me except being sociable, but I’m not sure my religious friends really believe me. In my view, I gave my children an opportunity to engage with their culture and community, without any emphasis on religion. I got questions, e.g. how come we eat bacon? and my answer to that was, if there is a God, and it is responsible for everything, why should it be interested in unimportant trivia like what one little person eats. My children are exceedingly secular in their own lives now and don’t inflict any religious stuff on their own children. If anyone asks me, however, I say I am Jewish and that is how I think of myself. My ethnic and cultural origins are Jewish, although my religion is no longer Judaism or any other. Nevertheless, I think there has to be a distinction between religion and belief in a God. It is surely possible to believe in a Creator without subscribing to a particular religion. I gave up religion first and belief in God sometime later. My first step on the road to atheism was to disconnect God from religions (obvious once you think about it) and then work out that believing that God created the universe was the first step on the road to infinite regression. My opinion is that religions are the problem not necessarily belief in God. I do sometimes take the piss out of friends and others who try earnestly to convert me to their views by declaring, “There is a God and it is the Higgs boson.” Perhaps it is.

    • In reply to #20 by finchfinder:

      Well giggity No,19, I think you should ask the atheists that comment on this site how many of them believe in reincarnation and the supernatural!

      The term atheist is defined as “One who disbelieves or denies the existence of God or gods”. It is irrelevant whether one believes in reincarnation and karma in order to be correctly categorised as an atheist. However, it is not rational to believe in reincarnation and karma since neither can be proven. Therefore, most Buddhists can be considered to be irrational atheists.

      giggity

  10. Well giggity, I think you should read a bit about the Buddhist cosmology, for example the ‘devas’ amongst others. These beings seem to equate to the gods of other belief systems to me. Just as irrational!

    • In reply to #22 by finchfinder:

      Well giggity, I think you should read a bit about the Buddhist cosmology, for example the ‘devas’ amongst others. These beings seem to equate to the gods of other belief systems to me. Just as irrational!

      Devas may be supernatural “beings” but they are not “gods”

      From Wikipedia:
      Devas vs. gods[edit]

      “Although the word deva is generally translated “god” (or, very occasionally, “angel”) in English, Buddhist devas differ from the “gods” and “angels” of most religions past and present in many important ways.
      Buddhist devas are not immortal. They live for very long but finite periods of time, ranging from thousands to (at least) billions of years. When they pass away, they are reborn as some other sort of being, perhaps a different type of deva, perhaps a human or something beyond comprehension.
      Buddhist devas do not create or shape the world. They come into existence based upon their past karmas and they are as much subject to the natural laws of cause and effect as any other being in the universe. They also have no role in the periodic dissolutions of worlds.
      Buddhist devas are not incarnations of a few archetypal deities or manifestations of a god. Nor are they merely symbols. They are considered to be, like humans, distinct individuals with their own personalities and paths in life. Devas however, have an immanent Buddha Nature, as also do humans.
      Buddhist devas are not omniscient. Their knowledge is inferior to that of a fully enlightened Buddha, and they especially lack awareness of beings in worlds higher than their own. It should be noted that some buddhas resemble devas in the fact that they also inhabit celestial planes (or pure lands).
      Buddhist devas are not omnipotent. Their powers tend to be limited to their own worlds, and they rarely intervene in human affairs. When they do, it is generally by way of quiet advice rather than by physical intervention.
      Buddhist devas are not morally perfect. The devas of the worlds of the Rūpadhātu do lack human passions and desires, but some of them are capable of ignorance, arrogance and pride. The devas of the lower worlds of the Kāmadhātu experience the same kind of passions that humans do, including (in the lowest of these worlds), lust, jealousy, and anger. It is, indeed, their imperfections in the mental and moral realms that cause them to be reborn in these worlds.
      Buddhist devas are not to be considered as equal to a Buddhist refuge. While some individuals among the devas may be beings of great moral authority and prestige and thus deserving of a high degree of respect (in some cases, even being enlightened practitioners of the Dharma), no deva can ultimately be taken as the way of escape from saṃsāra or control one’s rebirth. The highest honors are reserved to the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Saṅgha.”

      Regardless of our conceptual definitional differences, we both believe these supernatural beliefs to be irrational.

      Peace, giggity.

  11. In reply to No.23, I can not imagine an atheist believing the Buddhist cosmology. The beings may not equate to the christian god, (also well supplied with angels and so on}, but are similar to other religions. Surely, belief in gods means belief in the supernatural, i.e. the Buddhist cosmology, so therefore ‘Buddhist atheist’ is an oxymoron.

  12. Man, sounds like you’re more screwed up than I am. I know the old testament is full of animal sacrifice, but can’t believe this sort of stuff still goes on. Come to think of it, we used to sacrifice a pig every fall, but it had nothing to do with god, unless you’re comparing the taste of bacon to a religious experience (Which incidentally, it is.)

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