Q&A: Jewish Atheist replies to Christian Atheist

In an email exchange, an old friend and fellow English-prof colleague wrote this:

"I know you're 'the Jewish atheist,' but don't you feel a strong sense of identification with the Jewish ethos, aside from religion? You've sought out Jewish wives, and friends to some degree could be, the way I might seek out writers as friends. I think of my former Catholicism not angrily but gratefully. When I grew up, I decided on my own that I didn't believe. But my Catholic education was excellent; it taught me to think critically, even to the point of abandoning religious belief. My dad, pious Catholic lawyer, warned me on going to college to beware of the atheist professors; but none of them said anything, explicit, about religion. It's just when you study  modern art and literature there aren't a whole lot of pious  and devout believers. Glory is elsewhere, in man and his piddling poetries."


Here's what I wrote in response:

"At this point in my life, Judaism is a genetic accident with cultural trappings (preference for certain ethnic foods, mainly, plus a few Yiddishisms in my speech in the right context, which is not NH). 

"Vestiges of tribalism caused me to associate with Humanistic Judaism, not least beacuse of the charismatic founding rabbi, Sherwin Wine​, but after a couple years with my current wife, abandoned the whole thing. 

"A few years ago, I actually read the Torah cover to cover - probably one of a handful of non-religious/rabbinical Jews who has -- and found nothing noteworthy.  A little research revealed that nothing in it happened. 

"Here, in my opinion, are the the three key passages that tell you what the Torah is all about: 

"(1) Genesis 3:3-5 -- God says that Adam and Eve will die if they eat the forbidden fruit, but right afterward the serpent says if they eat it, they'll know right from wrong and be like gods.  That's a no-no!

"(2) Genesis 11:5-6 -- God is worried that if Noah's descendants can build the Tower (of Babel), they'll be able to do anything they set out to do.  Another no-no.

"(3) Exodus 10:1-6 -- God specifically takes credit for hardening Pharaoah's heart and playing the whole plague/exodus thing out for his own glory.  Passover is most certainly NOT about freedom. These people didn't know anything about freedom, and the word is never mentioned. 

"That's what the document Jews revere is all about: humans do not know right from wrong; human aspirations are to be discouraged; God's always in charge.

"The craziness of the whole enterprise hit me, and I saw no reason to be further involved.  I certainly didn't learn anything of quality in my Jewish education - only holidays and festivals, rules and regs, prayers and more prayers, God rescuing the Jews over and over again, which is why we celebrate (fill in holiday, except the Holocaust). 

"Nothing about critical thinking.  Goodness consisted in obeying God's commands as written in the Torah and spun by centuries of rabbis into the Talmud and succeeding bloviations.  Unbelief was never an option.  Perhaps some good moral principles appear in the rabbinical commentaries as people got more enlightened, but nothing you wouldn't find in any well-developed ethical culture (or on the Little Zen Calendar)."

"There is no Jewish ethos, other than what I've described.  Jews' sense of specialness is no less irritating than claims made by countless other religious groups.  Some varieties of Orthodoxy are so closed and rule-governed that they are truly cults. 

"As to wives, #1 wasn't Jewish, #2 was, but humanistically and New Age-inclined (her father was one of Sherwin''s original followers), and #3 was adopted and raised Jewish, played along, hated the whole thing, abandoned it as soon as feasible."


To my fellow A/Ners: how would other atheist Jews (and non-Jews) respond to my friend?

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Comment by Alan Perlman on May 3, 2013 at 7:36pm


Jewish success is no mystery to me.  The economist (black, libertarian) Thomas Sowell has studied the success of certain ethnic groups -- Japanese, Jews, Chinese outside China, others. 

My take, after reading Sowell: With Jews, a long tradition of literacy and linguistic disputation ("on the other hand, the rabbi might have meant..."), plus intelligent people marrying intelligent people (never mind the genetic drawbacks), opened up many secular opportunities with the Enlightenment. 

Also, Jews, always on the move, needed portable enterprises - moneylending, spices, jewels, medicines, from which followed a procession of Jews into science, finance, and business.

So no, it has nothing to do with the religion, if by that you mean the Adam/Eve/Moses story or observing the 600-odd commandments.  It has a lot to do with circumstance and culture. 

These successful, secure American Jews -- their forebears being self-made men in the best American tradition --  ARE usually religious!!  They know who's really responsible for their success, yet they contribute generously to temples, attend services, go to Israel with the rabbi (my cousin and husband), and pretend to believe the whole schtick!  Many are Republicans, mainly because of Israel.  ERWC (eyes rolling with confusion).  I don't get it.

Comment by Luara on May 3, 2013 at 3:00pm

the Catholic Church. Yes, it gave me an excellent education, and taught critical thinking.

I've been told there are many intellectuals - mathematicians etc. who are Catholic - brilliant academics, but in personal life, they are Catholic. 

Of course Jewish people have a disproportionate number of Nobel prizewinners and intellectuals in general - if you are in academia at all, you'll encounter a lot of Jewishness and little yarmulkes on guys' heads.  I don't know if that has anything to do with the Jewish religion ...

Comment by George Capehart on May 3, 2013 at 2:47pm

Christopher Hitchens targets those issues, too. If your friend has not yet read "God Is Not Great," I highly recommend it to him. Hitchens says much the same things and more . . .

Comment by Alan Perlman on May 3, 2013 at 11:43am

Pat & Spud, Thanks for the personal insights. 

It's hard for me to believe that any religion would allow for even the merest possibility of unbelief, so that aspect of Catholicism was news to me. 

The other, darker parts were not.  The obsession with guilt, sin, and suffering -- on the part of any religion -- far outweighs whatever individual and social good it espouses, all of which would be possible without all the fantasy-mongering and the onerous, oppresive sexual/marital/-personal prohibitions.

Comment by Idaho Spud on May 2, 2013 at 6:21pm

I like what you wrote.  From an ex-mormon perspective, I'd like to tell him that mormonism did me far more harm than good, so I have no desire to thank that cult for the little good it did me.

Also, from what I read, it seems likely that catholicism is even worse than mormonism.  Especially in the fear and guilt departments.



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