How to be a Jewish atheist

In the video I linked yesterday, I referred to myself as a Jewish atheist a couple of times. As is usually the case when I mention it publically, there were some comments questioning how such a thinG can exist.

The reason this question happens, I think, is because Christianity so dominates the Western conception of religion that I becomes difficult to recognize that much of what we think of as being “normal” for religious practice and belief is really idiosyncratic to Christianity. 

When discussing religion from a high-level perspective, I prefer to use the dimensional approach laid down by comparative religion professor Ninian Smart. This approach treats religions as social constructs that contain seven distinct dimensions of variance:

  • Ritual/Practical: The active, participatory elements of the religion, such as holidays and celebrations, rites of passage, prayers and observances, and so on.
  • Ethical/Legal: The behavioral restrictions imposed by the religion, such as moral precepts.
  • Experiential/Emotional: The personal, emotional elements of the religion. Most mystical traditions usually fall here, but so also do personal epiphanies and numinous moments.
  • Narrative/Mythic: The stories of the religion. Note that these are usually a mix of mythology (that is, events which are treated as having occurred but likely never did, such as the Exodus from Egypt), history (events which probably did occur, such as the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Romans), and parables/marchen (stories which illustrate a point but are not intended to be statements of fact, such as the Four Sons in the Passover ritual).
  • Doctrinal/Philosophical: The cosmological, metaphysical, and epistemological beliefs of the religion.
  • Institutional/Organizational: The structure of the religion as a social phenomenon, such as hierarchies of clergy, educational institutions, charity organizations, and so on. This is the dimension which spreads the doctrinal and narrative beliefs, as well as enforcing the ethical/legal dimension.
  • Material/Artistic: The creative output of the religion, such as sacred songs and art, temple architecture, and so on. Can be created at the institutional level or the individual (the architecture of a cathedral and the Easter eggs a Christian child decorates in Sunday school are equally part of this dimension).

The first thing that you may notice is that this approach works equally well for non-religious worldviews. Contemporary secular American society has its own equivalents to all of these: We have rituals such as elections, driver’s license exams, graduation ceremonies, and retirement parties; a legal system; shared experiences such as national mourning over tragedies like the Newtown shootings; narratives both mythical (Washington and the cherry tree; nobody except Columbus believed the world was round) and historical (the Continental Congresses, the Civil War); doctrinal beliefs (it has been said that most people in our culture find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism); institutional and organizational structures such as public schools (which indoctrinate and educate) and the police (which enforce), and a massive artistic output, from New York publishing companies to Hollywood movies, that makes up one of our chief exports.

Of course, like all social constructs none of this exists except within the context of a human mind, and as such any given person’s worldview is going to be unique to them, albeit likely built out of bits and pieces of culturally available worldviews. When we speak of the “Christian worldview” or the “Jewish worldview” or the “American worldview,” therefore, we are talking about the consensus worldview of individuals within the group in question.

What about when we discuss the “atheist worldview”? I would argue that there is no such thing; atheism is a doctrinal position that can serve as one element in a worldview, not a complete worldview in itself. Communism, scientism, skepticism, Theravada Buddhism, and humanism are all examples of worldviews in which atheism is a doctrinal/philosophical component.

Given that atheism is a doctrinal position, it is easy to imagine taking a typical religious, theistic worldview, and just swapping atheism into the doctrinal/philosophical dimension. However, this is where the treatment of Christianity as normative becomes problematic: that swap is absurd in a Christian context, because the Christian religion, as a general rule, heavily emphasizes the doctrinal and experiential dimensions. Christian ethics depend on a concept of salvation, which has no meaning if the underlying doctrine of a particular understanding of the divine is removed.

The Jewish worldview, however, is less dependent on the experiential and doctrinal elements and focused more on narrative, ritual, and ethics. Thus I am able to be a Jewish atheist:

  • On the ritual dimension, I celebrate the holidays I like as a means of bringing structure to my year and connecting with my heritage.
  • On the ethical dimension, I merge Jewish ethical precepts such as tikkun olam (a form of deontologically constrained utilitarianism) and the importance of debate and discussion between a plurality of voices, with a generally humanist approach and a healthy dollop of third-wave feminism.
  • On the experiential dimension, I basically have nothing, because I have no sense of spirituality or the numinous. But that would be true no matter what my religious views were.
  • Narrative: I tell the story of Passover, not because I believe it is true (archeology strongly suggests it is not) but because it connects me to generations of ancestors and millions of contemporaries who have told the story before. I also maintain an awareness of Jewish history because it is my ethnic heritage.
  • On the doctrinal/philosophical dimension, I’m an atheist and a postmodernist/post-positivist, and a materialist skeptic.
  • Institutional/Organizational: I don’t really participate in any larger institutions or groups.
  • Material/Artistic: Every once in a while, I write an essay (like this) about my Judaism, as well as quite frequently doing postmodern media analysis (you may have read some, possibly) and the occasional feminist piece.

I think “Jewish” and “atheist” are both adjective that make sense applied to the worldview I describe, so calling myself a Jewish atheist makes sense to me.

0 thoughts on “How to be a Jewish atheist

  1. I'm pretty much the same way, except I wouldn't describe it using nearly so many words. To me the explanation is simple: being Jewish is both a religion and a culture. I am culturally Jewish (in fact, besides “American” it's the only part of my cultural heritage I know or care about–I couldn't tell you what country any of my ancestors were originally from or how far back that was) but religiously I am an atheist.

    There are some aspects of the Jewish mindset that are with me to stay, some rituals that I still maintain out of habit even if I don't think they serve a purpose, and I'm certainly not going to forget any of the things I was taught about it as a kid. I just don't actually believe any of the theological stuff or that most of the rituals are important (Or at least that the form is important. Just because I accept that retelling a story or a yearly day of atonement might be good ideas doesn't mean I think a three hour meal or a day of fasting are useful to do so).

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