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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  • Chaya C.

    I am a member of a local atheist group that has linked itself to Silverman’s group, American Atheists, as well as the American Humanist Association. I was all for this, as I see a need to separate church and state in this country as well as increase the use of critical thought. I am finding myself in conflict, however, with this atheist crusade of Silverman’s: he is sounding very like a fundamentalist–very dogmatic–in his desire to dictate to others. The tolerant ways of Humanism are conflicting with AA’s demand that Jews stop calling themselves Jews etc.. I have to rebel against this kind of attempt to determine how I may think and behave. I had thought I had joined a community of freethinkers.

    Clearly I have problems with AA’s new dogmatism, but I wonder how I thought it could have gone differently: an atheist by definition is dogmatic. By declaring that “There is no God,” he sets himself on the same playing field as those who declare, “There is a God.” All you have left is a shouting match between what are actually two believers.

    I am not a believer. I think I must use Sherwin Wine’s term for myself: I am an ignostic, one who does not even enter the argument because it is an irrational one. But I am also a Jew. I converted many years ago and find myself without belief today. Yet I am still a Jew. I cherish the Torah and our traditions for what they have given us and yet give us, much as others might cherish the Tao, and I continue to observe the mitzvot that have proved so valuable, such as that of Lashon HaRa. There is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater–to throw thousands of years of accumulated wisdom out because you can’t “believe” or because you are angered by the crusades of Christians and the intifadas of Muslims.

    Anyway, I’ve much appreciated reading your comments and want to thank you for them.

  • Norm Cohen

    Mazel Tov for David Silverman!

    A “Jewish” identity is superfluous and self-limiting to a true Secular Humanist. A more mature intellectual path is a complete rejection of Judaism and Jewishness on the rational basis of obsolescence. The tribalism, dependency, and elitism can and should be abandoned.

    The assumption that Jewish culture can exist separate from the religion is a modern attempt at accommodating the end of faith among Jews while maintaining an elite and separatist tribal identity. Fortunately, the destiny of “Jewish” atheism is non-Jewishness.

    • Rabbi Jeffrey Falick

      I personally believe that my Jewish identity in no way limits my secular Humanism. As you can see from my subsequent post, Humanistic values drive my personal and professional decisions. I do not feel bound in any way by tribalism, dependency (except in a positive community-building sense) or elitism. In fact, I decry those things frequently and loudly.

      You are completely correct that this notion of Jewish culture surviving independent of theistic notions (what I assume you mean by “religion”) is a modern accommodation. But why should a group of people not be allowed to maintain their cultural traditions as long as they are vehicles to express non-theistic, Humanistic values? Does secular Humanism demand the abandonment of a sense of belonging? Does it envision all of humanity blending into one undifferentiated mass?

      As long as there are people there will be cultures of difference. I certainly do not claim any superiority for my own. In fact, in many of its guises it can be grossly intolerant and un-Humanistic (again see my subsequent post). Moreover, I have stated frequently that I do not value Jewish continuity over integrity. But I do value my connection to Judaism as a culture. When an element of Jewish culture proves to be incompatible with Humanistic values, I choose to alter or eliminate that element. And, I hope that it is clear that my hopes for the future of humanity lie with secular Humanism – even at the cost of preserving Jewish identity. I simply hope that it will not come down to that choice.

      • Mark Schwartz

        You write: “Why should a group of people not be allowed to maintain their cultural traditions as long as they are vehicles to express non-theistic, Humanistic values?”

        They absolutely should! The problems arise when you want to identify these “non-theistic, Humanistic values” as “Jewish.”

        The world allows you to live with as many logical fallacies as your brain/psyche will allow as long as you can follow the common law. The problem with the “science-centered” viewpoint and approach is largely a problem of ahistoricism, i.e., science is only as good as the newest refined theory or fact or discovery that invalidates previous scientific assumptions. Early scientists theorized that spontaneous generation explained existence until better science came along in the late 17th century. I suppose it would make me feel good as a secular humanist to see myself as the one who developed a better theory, but it is just as possible the future will show how backwards and benighted we truly were.

        I fully respect the lack of belief in God. I have never thought of belief in God as a prerequisite to Judaism. I simply don’t see “we don’t believe in God, we call ourselves Jewish and deny the parts of Judaism that make us uncomfortable, plus, you know, bacon” as a way to build a particularly “Jewish” or even “Jewish-ish-ish” community. That you make it work is testament to the human ability to reconcile logical fallacy into a self-perpetuating coherence.

        Another word for people creating a community-based organization centering on logical fallacies molded into a self-perpetuating coherence is “religion.”

        Mazel Tov! It’s a religion!