Should Secular Jews Drop the ‘Jew’ Label?

Rachel Silberstein at Tablet wrote a really fantastic profile of American Atheists’ Dave Silverman in which the question is raised of whether you can really be both atheist and Jewish at the same time.

On the surface, the answer is a clear “Yes.”

The Pew Research Center released a report in October showing that 22% of Jewish adults weren’t actually religious, a number that jumped to 32% when just looking at Millennial Jews, born after 1980:

6% of Jews, overall, described themselves as atheists.

So there’s a lot of history behind the idea of secular Judaism. Silverman, too, called himself a “Secular Jew” at one point, but he no longer feels that way:

Previously outspoken about the compatibility of cultural Judaism and atheism, Silverman found that, in trying to write his [book's] chapter on Jewish atheism, he struggled. “I kept writing and writing and deleting and deleting,” he told me. Silverman ultimately concluded that Judaism is, at its heart, a religion — one that is incompatible with atheism.

He notes that much of what is defined as Jewish culture, such as music or food, is simply Judaism-the-religion “taking credit” for a geographically specific regional culture — Ashkenazic culture primarily being simply Eastern European, for instance. The only thing world Jewry has in common is the Torah, he says, and as a religious doctrine, the Torah cannot be reconciled with atheistic values.

“I see Judaism more malevolently than I used to,” he said. “Judaism is no better than any other religion.” And so, the man who was once America’s most prominent Jewish atheist now says he is no longer a Jew.

That idea hasn’t quite caught on. In fact, it goes right up against what groups like the Society for Humanistic Judaism (which, along with American Atheists, is part of the Secular Coalition for America) stand for:

Bonnie Cousins, executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism… disagrees [with Silverman]. “We find value in Jewish culture and Jewish identity. It supports our humanism. It is not at odds with our humanism,” said Cousins. “He’s made a decision about how he wants to live his life, and it doesn’t include Jewish identity, but many, many Jews have made that same decision about evolution and the origin of the universe, but would feel bereft if they gave up their Jewish identity.

Since a lot of readers here are non-religious Jews, let’s ask them some questions:

Why do you hang on to the “Jewish” label if you’re not religious?

Does Silverman have a point about the culture being more about geography, anyway?

Is shedding the Jewish label something that’s even possible in your life?

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Randay

    “Further, Jewishness also refers to a set of cultural practices/attitudes, and traditions. Moreoever, Jewishness is also informed by the history of persecution we’ve suffered”. The first sentence can refer to other cultural practices/attitudes. I described mine earlier. I was brought up in a rather strong religious xian family, but as a child I never much thought about it and around 14 or so I knew I didn’t buy into it. I preferred to go to the beach, play with friends, and find out about girls.

    In his documentary, “A Brief History of Disbelief”, Jonathan Miller describes his upbringing in a Jewish family in a very similar manner. He never felt the connection with the practices/attitudes and traditions.
    http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article13868.htm
    Also on You Tube.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kCtPMHA-SIU&list=PL6B66A23AB6E95E5E

    Trying to claim a unique specificity for a certain group can lead to its isolation, exclusion, and prejudice. Your second sentence is just playing the victim card. As if no other groups suffered persecution, atheists for example, or my ancestors.. So don’t play the professional victim. Individuals can also suffer persecution by their own group. Take Spinoza. He was officially shunned by “his” Jewish community in Amsterdam for questioning the truth of their religious beliefs. Where is Jewish social justice there?

  • CanuckAmuck

    I never said that isolated (whether through geography or custom) populations do not or could not share certain genetic markers, so don’t lie (that’s not a good thing, by the way). I am saying that given the extreme homogeneousness of the human genome, the significance of said markers is arbitrary. Hells, even more so considering that the further on goes back in time, the more everyone’s “bloodline” merges with everyone else’s. In other words, over time, and given the statistical nature of genetic markers, who’s “bloodline” is who’s becomes so blurred as to be even more arbitrary.

    So no, it isn’t ideology that I follow, it’s human ancestry, IOW, science. What you don’t seem to want to recognise (and please do correct me if I’m wrong) is that what makes you genetically – as opposed to culturally – Jewish is no more significant than what makes me genetically blue-eyed or someone else left-handed.

    Nice links, BTW. I suggest that you read them.

  • Daniel J. Schalit

    I never said that isolated (whether through geography or custom) populations do not or could not share certain genetic markers, so don’t lie

    Ah, I see, you’re trolling.

    Of course, I didn’t say that, so you’re lying in order to claim I lied. How very meta.

    I am saying that given the extreme homogeneousness of the human genome, thesignificance of said markers is arbitrary.

    Yet again, I find myself quite comfortable trusting the scientists who study population genetics when they say that they can identify population groups.

    , it isn’t ideology that I follow,

    Not just ideology, but blind ideology. Science shows us that when dealing with population genetics, there are definite population and sub-population groups. You deny that. And you claim that you’ve got science on your side, because your ideology is challenged by the facts… and ignoring the facts for your ideology is very ‘sciency’ to yo, I suppose.

    Nice links, BTW. I suggest that you read them.

    As I not only read them, but understand them, and you rather obviously didn’t even click through to them (since you’re still claiming that the concept of a bloodline is “bullshit”). Well… as that’s the case it looks more than a little funny for you to be claiming I didn’t read something.

  • Daniel J. Schalit

    The first sentence can refer to other cultural practices/attitudes.

    … yes, there are other cultural groups on Earth. Did you figure that out all by yourself?

    He never felt the connection with the practices/attitudes and traditions.

    Um… okay? “This is Bob. Bob never liked bacon. Obviously, bacon has no redeeming features.”
    Great reasoning there, buddy.

    Trying to claim a unique specificity for a certain group

    Yet again, it’s supported by the science. Take your ideology, and set it aside so that you can look at the facts.

    As if no other groups suffered persecution

    No, I never said anything of the sort. I said that the shared history of persecution helps create a cohesive and distinct group. Why this enrages you is beyond me. Well, not quite beyond me…

    So don’t play the professional victim.

    How very interesting… so Jews who talk about the history (or modern reality) of anti-Semitism are “playing professional victims”. And Jews who self identify as atheists are causing anti-Semitism among ‘some people’.

    Would you like to elaborate on why Jews make you so angry?

    Take Spinoza. [...]Where is Jewish social justice there?

    I see you’ve got The Anti-Semite’s Playbook and you’re going page by page.

    Spinoza died nearly 4 centuries ago. And you’re trying to use him as an example (because you don’t like Jews). Yeah, some Jews are sometimes mean, even to other Jews. You found a terrible secret that we’ve tried to bury for centuries. :facepalm:

    You still haven’t falsified the use of Tikun Olam, but it does seem that you’ve got some serious issues with the Jewish people. You should probably cut that shit out.

  • Randay

    At last, your first and last argument comes out in the open: supposed anti-semitism. Anyone who criticizes Jewish culture/religion/traditions is an anti-semite. Your own racism shows. You hate anyone who isn’t Jewish. Jews don’t make me angry, but dishonest lying people like you do.

    “I said that the shared history of persecution helps create a cohesive and distinct group. Why this enrages you is beyond me. Well, not quite beyond me…”

    Almost everything is beyond you. Have you shared in that persecution? I doubt it, but you continue to play the professional victim. I am not “enraged”, but only presented you with facts. You are too incompetent to even respond to what Jonathan Miller said. He doesn’t cry like you about shared persecution. You didn’t even watch the video.

    Oh, Spinoza doesn’t matter. You should learn some history. I don’t give a flying fuck about Tikun Olam. You say I have “issues with the Jewish people” as if they are a monolith. More of your racism. The only issues I have with Jewish people are those that believe in ancient mythology and act on it. They are the same as those I have with xians or muslims and the like.

  • CanuckAmuck

    Science shows us that when dealing with population genetics, there are definite population and sub-population groups. You deny that.

    Yet another lie. I admit the existence of such genetic markers in the very post to which you respond. To refresh your memory: “I never said that isolated (whether through geography or custom) populations do not or could not share certain genetic markers”.

    But I see now that you’re playing a game of equivocation, trying to conflate scientific terms like “population genetics” with the completely unscientific and hugely ambiguous “bloodline”. Seriously, you might as well be a creationist talking about different “kinds” of animals, for all that “bloodline” means. Tell you what – go to Google Scholar and look at the search results for “bloodline”, then those for “population genetics”. First, note the discrepancy. Then bring up a handful of those latter results and do a Ctrl-f for “bloodline”. See how long it takes you to find the term in amongst the scientific literature. Best not hold your breath while doing so.

  • Daniel J. Schalit

    your first and last argument comes out in the open: supposed anti-semitism.

    I will note that you are a liar, and I have provided many arguments. In the course of talking with you, I’ve also pointed out that at best you condone racism, and at worst you’re a racist yourself.

    You’re the one, after all, who argued that Jews would cause anti-Semitism by self-identifying as atheist Jews, and that in fact that would be “Jewish Racism”, or something equally risible. It’s a rather old tactic for anti-Semites to blame anti-Semitism on Jews, most often due to outrageously foolish claims. “Jews will self-Identify as atheist Jews, so they’ll cause anti-Semitism!” is pretty much textbook.

    Your own racism shows. You hate anyone who isn’t Jewish.

    … that’s insane.
    Not only have I said nothing of the sort, not only are you delusional, but you pulled that idea out of thin air. I have nothing against gentiles, and you should feel ashamed.

    you continue to play the professional victim.

    Yes yes, by saying the history of persecution has helped the Jewish community remain cohesive, a Jew becomes a “professional victim”. Do tell us more about how you don’t have an anti-Semitic bone in your body.

    You are too incompetent to even respond to what Jonathan Miller said

    You are lying yet again.
    I directly responded, and in fact pointed out that his personal, subjective opinions didn’t count for anything beyond his personal experiences.

    He doesn’t cry like you about shared persecution.

    I will note that yet again you are spewing bile from a position of angry ignorance. I “cried” about nothing. I simply noted that the history of persecution has helped the Jewish community/identity remain cohesive.
    That evidently caused you to freak out, yet again, just like Jews self identifying as atheist Jews made you freak out.

    So Jews talking about Jewish history are “professional victims” who are “crying” about it. And that the Jewish community supports and claims as members those Jews who self identify as atheist Jews? Well, you called that “Jewish racism”.

    So you’re not an anti-Semite, you just have a problem with Jews talking about our history/culture, and with Jews not disowning other Jews who aren’t religious.
    Just one of them thar thangs, eh?

    You didn’t even watch the video.

    You provide a 14 minute video, no information on what time index you even consider important, and expect me to watch it? Moreover, your whole use of Miller is a sloppy, ham-fisted example of the Appeal to Authority fallacy.

    You really should stop trying to insult other people’s intelligence.

    Oh, Spinoza doesn’t matter. You should learn some history.

    Like I said, you really need to stop trying to insult people. It’s not even “people in glass houses”. It’s “People in houses made of soap bubbles…”

    Now, to remind you, you were (in a totally non-antisemitic manner, totes for sure!), trying to falsify Jewish concepts of social justice by the fact that roughly four centuries ago, Spinoza was ‘excommunicated’ from Jewish society.

    I know history. You on the other hand, should learn some basic reading comprehension. The whole point was that you can’t make statements about the Jewish community in 2013 based on the Jewish community in the 1600′s.
    This is hardly rocket science here.

    I don’t give a flying fuck about Tikun Olam.

    Ah, I see, you’re trolling. You’re talking about Jewish social practices and Jewish conceptions of social justice… and then saying you don’t care about Jewish social practices and Jewish conceptions of social justice.

    You say I have “issues with the Jewish people” as if they are a monolith. More of your racism.

    You have no idea what the word “racism” means, do you? Here’s a hint, saying that you’re an anti-Semite is not, in fact, a racist thing to say. Believing that is so powerfully stupid that I truly can’t comprehend how you even think that.

    And yes yes, I know, your dodge will most likely be that you don’t hate all the Jews, just those uppity Nig… er, Jews who self identify the way they want to or define their culture through its shared experiences. Ya know, not letting gentiles define them, and choosing to self identify is just about the most racist thing they could do. You’re just filled with the milk of human kindness, and you’re looking out for our best interests. Yep. I’m sure some of your best friends are Jewish.

    The only issues I have with Jewish people are those that believe in ancient mythology and act on it.

    You are a liar. Let’s quote your own words to prove that you’re a liar. I’ll number the bits to I can show just what you’ve said, in your own words, your issues are with the Jewish people.

    “if Jews self-identify as atheist Jews and are, in turn, accepted by the Jewish community as fellow Jews, who are you to tell us otherwise?” That rather sounds to me like Jewish racism. [1] “Jewish” is a tribal religious definition[2]. It is based on mythology, a nonsensical book written about 2,600 years ago by a bunch of ignorant “rabbis”

    1: You believe that it’s “Jewish racism” (note, not normal racism, “Jewish” racism) for Jews to self-identify and be secure in their self-identification since they’re accepted by the rest of the Jewish community.

    2: Your second bit forms a nice neat syllogism.

    Major Premise: You just proudly admitted being hostile to those who “believe in ancient mythology and act on it.”
    Minor Premise: You earlier claimed that the term “Jewish” itself is only a “tribal religious” definition.
    Conclusion: As “Jewish” itself is (in your mind) a religious term, and you’re hostile to those who act on religious ideas, then you are hostile to anybody who’s a self-identified Jew.

    QED.

    Pathetic.

  • Daniel J. Schalit

    Yet another lie.

    While I appreciate you giving me a heads up that you’re about to start lying again, you really should use a colon to indicate that what follows after the preamble is the text of the lie.

    Of course, not only are you yet again lying in order to claim I lied, your argument is laughable flailing about: if you claim you’re not denying my claims, then you’ve agreed with them. By continually lying and claiming not to be denying my claims, then you’re admitting that I’m right and you’re… what, just trolling me?

    Anyways, moving on…

    I admit the existence of such genetic markers

    Yes, in the same post where you claim that such markers are “arbitrary” in significance and state, merely, that some geographic/cultural regions might share genetic markers.” So in context, it’s quite clear that you are denying that there are definite population and subpopulation groups.

    Why you’re lying about that is anybody’s guess.
    But you are put in an amusing position.

    -if you agree with the fact that there are definite population and subpopulation groups, then you accept that I am correct and you are wrong, and that referring to the Jews as one cohesive group is correct. Under that framework, you concede the debate.
    -If you disagree with the fact that there are definite population and subpopulation groups, then you have been wilfully and knowingly lying when you claimed that I’m “lying”by pointing out that you are in fact not agreeing with my claims. Under that framework, you reveal yourself to be a troll.

    I’m afraid it’s binary.
    Do you agree with my claims about distinct population groups and therefore admit your errors and bow out? Or do you deny my claims about distinct population groups, and therefore you admit that you were lying and trolling in order to claim I was inaccurate, when you admit yourself that you were disagreeing with me.

    So, which is it? Do you admit to lying and trolling, or admit that you concede the point and you can’t actually argue.

    But I see now that you’re playing a game of equivocation, trying to conflate scientific terms like “population genetics” with the completely unscientific and hugely ambiguous “bloodline”.

    That wouldn’t be the fallacy of equivocation, even if it was true. Please learn the meanings of terms before you use them.

    Further, I drew an equivalence between “population group” and “bloodline”, not bloodline and “population genetics”. And as both a bloodline and a population group refer to lineage, there is no improper conflation. Nor am I using a non-scientific term incorrectly for a scientific one. “Lineage” is hardly non-scientific. And if you can not comprehend that “Bloodline” merely means “lineage”, then speak to your high school English teacher. If you can’t comprehend why “lineage” refers to ancestry and descent, and is indeed studied directly by population geneticists, then speak to your high school biology teacher.

    See how long it takes you to find the term in amongst the scientific literature

    30 seconds.
    Kinda silly for you to challenge me on something like that when it’s clear that you’re the one who didn’t do any research. Here are scientific texts which use “Bloodline”. I haven’t read them through to see what the specifics are, and I know that one deals with the bloodline of specific cells, but the idea that bloodline isn’t a concept used in biological science is nonsense, something that you simply made up.

    http://genomebiology.com/2011/12/9/R86
    http://www.gsejournal.org/content/45/1/22
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22767247

    And a science education resource: http://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu/cs/collection/detail.asp?case_id=572&id=572

    Found those with 30 seconds of googling. Which means you didn’t even do that much before challenging me in order to waste my time.

  • Randay

    “You really should stop trying to insult other people’s intelligence.” With you that is impossible because you don’t have any, nor do you have much education. The Jonathan Miller documentary I linked is three 1-hour episodes. If you could only watch 14 min. that is not my problem. You mention some guy named Bob. I don’t see the point. Is that the character in “Twin Peaks”?

    You haven’t given any arguments that are not explicitly or implicitly tied to “anti-semitism”. If such a thing could happen to Spinoza, how many unknowns experienced the same or worse? Wasn’t the Talmud written before Spinoza?

    In fact, I am so “anti-semitic” that major influences on my life are Theodore Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Jurgen Habermas. The Frankfort School, not that you would know anything about that. The last two I had as teachers. Among my favorite authors are Arthur Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig, not that you would know about them either. I can name many others you don’t know about.

    That you hate non-Jews is obvious from your arguments, so what I said is not insane. I don’t define “Jews”, you do. Either you’re an atheist or you are a Jew. Jewish holidays/culture/traditions are just as stupid as xian or muslim ones. The latter two I can say anything I want about them. But it I do the same with Judaism, I am labeled “anti-semite”, even though they are all the same religion.

    Your “Major Premise” and “Minor Premise” I have no problem with. Your conclusion is biased in that though I accept “you’re hostile to those who act on religious ideas” the addition of self-identified Jews is extraneous.

  • Daniel J. Schalit

    You really should stop trying to insult other people’s intelligence.” With you that is impossible because you don’t have any, nor do you have much education

    Keep it up. You sure are making me look bad. Mmm hmmm. You’re certainly not just an angry racist who’s having a series of freakouts. Nopers. Nuh unnh.

    So, prove you’re not just an angry racist, and please tell me where I did my undergrad and where I got my master’s degree. Seeing as how you know all about me, right? Or just admit you’re trolling me because you’re a racist who’s going a bit nuts.

    If you could only watch 14 min.

    You have poor reading comprehension.
    The second of the two videos was 14 minutes. I watched zero seconds of it. I am not a child. You may need to see things with pretty moving pictures, but I read text. Further, as the tin said it was interviews with people who gave their own personal perspectives, it wasn’t even relevant.

    Evidently you actually think I’d watch three hours of video simply because an angry racist posted it.

    You mention some guy named Bob. I don’t see the point.

    I know, you don’t comprehend the analogy.
    Tell me some more about how very stupid I am, would you kindly?

    You haven’t given any arguments that are not explicitly or implicitly tied to “anti-semitism”.

    That’s simply a lie.
    But then again, as you imagined that I hate gentiles, and that Jews self identifying as atheist Jews was “Jewish racism”, perhaps you’re not the best arbiter of what constitutes racism.

    If such a thing could happen to Spinoza, how many unknowns experienced the same or worse?

    …hundreds of years ago.
    Yet again, still not relevant.
    And as you admitted that you don’t care about Tikun Olam, at all, it’s obvious that you’re just looking for reasons to justify your prejudged conclusion: Jews are bad.

    In fact, I am so “anti-semitic” that major influences on my life are Theodore Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Jurgen Habermas.

    It’s okay, I already prempted you and said I was sure that you had many Jewish friends.

    But good job making yourself look vile, yet again, with your ignorant idiocy about how I’m not aware of your authors. You are truly making yourself look like a disgusting, frothing, hate-filled little creature. All you know about me is that I make you feel inferior and I’m a Jew who won’t allow you to bully me, so you’re even angrier at me. Rather obviously, you have no idea what my reading list or CV look like. You’re just trolling.

    That you hate non-Jews is obvious from your arguments

    Do you normally suffer from paranoid delusions, or is this a special case? Of course, nothing I wrote evinces the least bit of hatred for gentiles. You can’t demonstrate how anything shows that, because you are unhinged. As pointed out, you actually think that Jews self identifying as atheist-Jews is “Jewish racism”.

    You are not sane if you believe I’m racist against gentiles. Simply not sane. But, imagining “Jewish supremacism” where none exists is, indeed, one of the hallmarks of anti-Semites, like you.

    But please, do attempt to provide actual proof of how I “hate gentiles”. I need a good laugh.

    Either you’re an atheist or you are a Jew.

    I’m an atheist, and I’m a Jew.
    How stupid do you have to be to still not comprehend this fact, despite how many Jews have explained it in this thread alone?

    Jewish holidays/culture/traditions are just as stupid as xian or muslim ones. The latter two I can say anything I want about them. But it I do the same with Judaism, I am labeled “anti-semite”, even though they are all the same religion.

    If you think that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are “the same religion”, you have again revealed yourself as someone cognitively incapable of comprehension.

    Further, you did not attack Jewish religious practices, but claimed that Jewishness itself is a concept that should be done away with. (Yes, I know, you aren’t able to comprehend what a syllogism is or how it works. I’m getting to that.)

    Your “Major Premise” and “Minor Premise” I have no problem with.

    As the proof is valid and you admit that the premises are true, it’s also sound. So yes, QED, you’re a racist.

    Your conclusion is biased in that though I accept “you’re hostile to those who act on religious ideas” the addition of self-identified Jews is extraneous.

    … wow.

    You’re not very good at this “debating” stuff, eh?
    See, if adding “self-identified Jews” is extraneous, that renders the syllogism:

    Major Premise: You just proudly admitted being hostile to those who “believe in ancient mythology and act on it.”
    Minor Premise: You earlier claimed that the term “Jewish” itself is only a “tribal religious” definition.
    Conclusion: As “Jewish” itself is (in your mind) a religious term, and you’re hostile to those who act on religious ideas, then you are hostile to Jews.

    Or if you’re having trouble with it:

    MaP – basing actions on religion is bad
    MiP – “Jewishness” itself is based on religion
    C – Jewishness itself is bad.

    Q.E.D, bitch.


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