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Atheist Jew? Apparently This Is Not A Thing You Can Be

Atheist Jew? Apparently This Is Not A Thing You Can Be December 10, 2013

Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s derision of secular Jews and Judaism is receiving a boost from a surprising source. David Silverman has joined him. You can read all about it in a recent Tablet Magazine profile about the leader of the confrontational American Atheists.

Silverman’s certainly not the first nontheist to reject his Jewishness. The great secular humanist, Prof. Paul Kurtz (founder of the Center for Inquiry), famously held a similar position. Israeli author Shlomo Sand just wrote a whole book about it…in Hebrew!

But Silverman, with his famously aggressive media blitzes, has decided specifically to set his sites on us nontheistic Jews:

[W]hile he’s still putting up Christmas-related billboards and arguing with the talking heads on Fox News, this season he has started to focus his atheist activism on a new target: Jews. Silverman wants Jews who don’t believe in God to assert their atheism and stop identifying as Jews.

Like Yoffie, he reasons that Judaism is nothing but a religion:

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.

Anyone who understands anything about the Jewish world should instantly recognize the flaws in this statement.

Do Jews who claim a faith in God really share anything in common in their attitudes about the Torah or Jewish “doctrine”? You might coax them into agreement on a common commitment to monotheism. But this only works because a commitment to monotheism is spectacularly vague. Ask them what they think God did or does and you’ll discover that they don’t really agree about God at all.

Silverman is free to define his Jewish identity and attachments – or lack thereof – in any way he wishes. But he is not free to define mine. I work as a full-time professional Secular Humanistic Jew. I’m pretty sure that this is not a figment of my imagination.

My other issue with Silverman actually has very little to do with Jewishness and a great deal to do with his advocacy for atheism:

Silverman wants Jews who don’t believe in God to assert their atheism and stop identifying as Jews. He believes that nonbelievers should “come out” to their families and friends and in some instances their work colleagues, identifying themselves as atheists. He argues that when religionless Americans avoid the word “atheist” to describe themselves for fear of sounding exclusionary, they are being dishonest. “Atheist is the correct word that has simply been made into a bad word by bigots,” he said, arguing that only the word “atheist” accurately conveys the proper meaning to people who are believers, “and telling the truth benefits everyone.”

I agree that atheists should come out of the closet. I did. It’s in the title of this blog.

The Tablet profile also describes his goal of uniting atheists:

Silverman’s rejection of his Jewishness fits together nicely with his long term goal of creating a cohesive voice for the atheist movement, which is rife with ideological divisions. He laments the fact that of the American population, 20 percent say they do not believe in a higher power, but only 2 percent to 3 percent self-identify as atheists. “Some call themselves secular humanists, and many call themselves Jews,” says Silverman, a term he argues is particularly damaging to the cause. When atheists call themselves Jews, it implies theism, he says, which “makes atheists look small and negates a learning opportunity.”

I join him in lamenting that so many people avoid the word atheist when it is the right word to describe themselves. But calling myself a secular humanist in no way obscures my atheism.

Unlike Silverman, I do not believe that there exists any such thing as “atheist values.” This is also self-evident. The Soviet Union was an atheist country. I certainly do not share its values. Ayn Rand was an atheist. Her values generally disgust me. Atheism is not a value system. It may lead you to adopt or reject a certain set of values, but it provides no values of its own.

Secular humanism is a real value system. It is shared by those who call themselves atheists, agnostics, ignostics and even deists. It is inclusive and positive. We can form communities around it; communities that are built on shared values and mutual needs…and, yes, even communities that are framed by Jewish culture.

Jewish civilization always had a profoundly religious element just as pretty much every single pre-modern culture had a profoundly religious element! But this is its history, not its destiny.

I genuinely believe that theism will one day fade from the pages of human history. However, the human need for ceremonies, identities and communities of conviction will not disappear. I challenge David Silverman to explain how his “atheistic values” will answer those needs.


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