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.

  • God’s Starship

    I call myself a cultural catholic from time to time, if push comes to shove.

    • 3lemenope

      I call myself a lapsed Unitarian occasionally, but all it gets is angry glares.

  • Proteus

    Good, whats the point of holding on to something that’s based on an ancient telephone game?

  • The Other Weirdo

    You’ll pry “Jew” from my self-identification from my cold, dead fingers. I didn’t endure a childhood of smelly, drunk old Ukrainian men ranting about the evils of Jews before asking me whether I was a Jew and taunts from classmates to give it up now, living in a completely different culture, because somebody else says I should.

  • newenglandbob

    I am an atheist. I was brought up Jewish but I am not an Atheist Jew or a Jewish Atheist. I don’t deny the culture I was brought up in. No one can just ignore it but it does not define me any longer.

  • TychaBrahe

    Well, I still celebrate holidays with my family, and explaining why I go to secular Hanukkah parties or the Passover seder, or that I can’t bring a dessert to Thanksgiving (which is held at my mother’s rabbi’s wife’s brother’s house, and they keep Kosher) is easier if I self-identify as being of Jewish origins.

    But I also think that having been raised Jewish makes me a different sort of atheist from those who were raised Christian. My great-grandparents came to this country because they were victims of pogroms. We grew up hearing the story of our grandmother who was rolled up in a rug and thrown out of second story window to keep her away from the Cossacks, and when she came home after dark, her home and entire village had been burned to the ground. Another set of great-grands immigrated as a married couple who spoke Yiddish and Russian but not English. The stories of their early life in the US is affected by their Judaism. I do think I feel connections to things like the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and the pogroms because of my heritage. Let’s face it, I can have whatever beliefs I want, but if I had been on Air France 139, the fact that I don’t believe in God would not have changed how others would have classified me.

  • mchasewalker

    I am a proud Jew and an atheist and rather than renounce the appellation I believe more and more Jews should accept, celebrate and declare and combine their Jewish cultural roots, as well as their daring and hard-earned intellectual achievement as atheists. This is certainly true in Israel where there already is a distinction made between “Jews of the Book” and “Jews of the Land”. The purpose of any mythology is to A.) Awaken a “mysterium tremendum” or sense of awe in the individual. B.) provide a cosmology and origin for the race, tribe and community. C.) Create a sense of mores, taboos, affinities, and system of sensibilities for the community, and finally, D.) Provide a means for individual awakening, scholarship, consciousness and personal fulfillment. In that sense, Judaism and Hinduism are not traditional “faith” based religions as Islam or Christianity, but race-based religions where their respective mythologies work together to accomplish the above goals. They work because they do not claim nor are they intended for universal application, or as philosophical panaceas for the whole world, — as the more ludicrous aspirations of Islam and Christianity do, but are intended exclusively for a cultural, traditional and racially connected group. Islam and Christianity create great harm in the world because of their absolutism and conviction that their faiths are meant for everyone and all dissenters should be subject to either conversion death, or eternal punishment.

  • Daniel J. Schalit

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

    Because being Jewish isn’t a religion, it’s a tribal identity. I’m an atheist Jew

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

    Eh… yes and no. But Jews have held to values like education, questioning/debate and Tikum Olam across the nations we’ve lived in.

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

    I could no more be “not Jewish” than someone could be “not black” or “not Irish”. I understand wanting to distance yourself from the religious aspects, but we’re Jews because that’s our bloodline, not because we practice a religion.

    • El Bastardo

      I was raised a Catholic in Ireland, I am not an Irish Catholic. I am an Irish, I am also an atheist. You use the Jewish label for your self because you choose it. You can be “not Jewish” if you choose to be.

      If I were to convert to Judaism does it suddenly become my bloodline?

  • Gary

    I think Silverman has a good point about the culture being about geography. But if Italian Americans can call themselves Italian and Irish Americans can call themselves Irish because they identify with a geographically specific regional culture, then it seems that I am justified in calling myself Jewish if I wish to identify with that culture even though I am not religious. I still identify as Jewish primarily to acknowledge and respect my ancestry. And I will admit there is an automatic feeling of sharing a certain bond with other Jews, perhaps because we are such a small minority. But really it’s now a very small part of my identify. First and foremost, I am a human. And a comedian (go figure).

    • TychaBrahe

      Of course, what we Americans call “Jewish” means mostly Ashkenazi. Although I am seeing a lot more Jews eating sufganiyot beside the latkes at Hanukkah.

  • Rob P

    As someone with no dog in the fight, here are my 2 cents.
    I think “Jew” is both a religious identity and an ethnic idenity. So, one could be an Jewish Atheist (or Atheistic Jew if you prefer). Now if you want to express the ethinc part of your identity, go for it. If you don’t want to, like Mr. Silverman, then go for it too. However, I think there will be people that will see Mr. Silverman’s name and auomatically think “Jew” (and some of those in not a nice way)

  • rwerdja

    I don’t think it matters much … I use Jewish words (mostly swear words) now and then, and the kids like Latkes and matzo ball soup … but we’re all atheists and I would never go into a temple (unless someone is getting married or dies; and even then only maybe!)

  • James

    A Christian who deconverts is simply an atheist and not a “Secular Christian.” A Muslim who deconverts is simply an atheist and not a “Secular Muslim.” A Hindu who deconverts is simply an atheist and not a “Secular Hindu.” The same goes for Mormons, New Agers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Zorastrians, etc. etc. etc. By the same token, a Jew who deconverts is simply an atheist.

    Judaism is not a race; historically, it’s generally anti-Semites who make that claim. Jews themselves generally define Judaism as a belief – being a Jew, just like any other religion, requires the active participation of the believer. Judaism, like all other relgions, are fundementally beliefs and not “races;” and genetics backs this up. But, just as they muddy so many other things, fundementalist Christians like to conceive of Judaism as a race; many, Jews for Jesus being an example, think of themselves as “Jewish Christians,” nevermind the contradiction between the stated beliefs. And so the notion of “secular Jews” persists.

    Judaism is not only a belief, however, it is also a culture. And like any other culture, self-identification is highly subjective and transmission of this culture varies from generation to generation and individual to individual. For example, many Americans think of themselves as Irish-Americans, nevermind they may have little in the way of actual Irish culture (and genetically, Europeans are Europeans – with few noteworthy differences). The same goes for German culture, English culture; etc. etc. Knowing she is of German decent, my grandmother attributes her stubborness to her German heritage; maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not. Eitherway, it’s a subjective opinion.

    Self-identification is very subjective, so consistency with other religions matters.

    P.S. – people who vote posts down without giving any reasons why, are intellectual cowards.

  • Kahomono

    I don’t wear it as a sign around my neck, but I am stuck with being “Jewish.” That doesn’t make me a Jew, which to me is a religion- and custom-observing creature I am no more. But I would rather have a decent bagel than a brioche, and my casual speech is a lot more littered with Yiddish words and expressions than most. My revulsion at things like Fiddler on the Roof is rooted in what a sham version of the Jewish historical experience it is. And let’s not even talk about my parents and siblings. Please.

  • JenR (aka TooManyJens)

    “Should Secular Jews Drop the ‘Jew’ Label?”

    As someone who is not Jewish, my only answer to that is: it’s up to them.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    So we’ve got these two things: religious Jewishness and cultural Jewishness. Maybe if one of them had another word commonly used to describe it, there would be a chance to change usage. But I don’t think there currently is.

  • El Bastardo

    Funny how we consistently point out Islam is not a race, now people are saying that Judaism is. Being a Jewish atheist makes as much sense as being a Catholic atheist or a Muslim atheist.
    I’m waiting for someone to make the joke “I’m not a Jew, I’m just Jew-ish”

  • Bob Becker

    Seems to me each and every secular Jew gets to decide for him or her self how they see and describe themselves. Kind of pretentious of anyone else to be pontificating (yes, pun intended) about how they should see and describe themselves, que no?

  • Don Lodsky

    I totally agree with SIlverman 100%, and if asked for ethnicity, I woould say Ashkenazi, not Jewish.