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

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.

The Outcast Of Beauregard Parish

When a rabbi decides that she or he is a nontheist there is a warm, accepting professional home.  When the same thing happens to a preacher – and most especially a Pentecostal preacher – well, the option to stay in the career track are considerably reduced (eliminated).

Jerry DeWitt is a brave ex-preacher who came out as an atheist in Louisiana.  His story is the subject of a documentary that is in the works and you can be a part of making it happen.  The filmmakers have launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project about this fascinating man:

Jerry DeWitt had been preaching in and around Beauregard Parish, Louisiana since he was 17 years old. Full of warmth and gifted with electric Pentecostal oratory, he was a popular figure around town. He even planned to run for mayor. But when his 85-year old aunt discovered he was an atheist, the news spread quickly. Within a year he had lost his job, the bank had foreclosed on his house and his wife had left him.

But Jerry’s story only begins there. Thrust into the limelight by a New York Times profile, he unexpectedly finds himself at the center of a growing but dis-unified secular movement. He quickly learns to navigate the intricate politics of organized atheism and sets an audacious goal: to create a sustainable human-centered ministry in the heart of the Bible Belt. It may be an idea whose time has come. But can it happen in time to save his home and his family?

Anyone involved in Secular Humanistic Judaism should be excited by the idea of a “human-centered ministry.”  And after hearing him speak – with his Pentecostal cadences intact – I think he can pull this off.

The Kickstarter campaign has only 26 days to go and many thousands of dollars left to raise.  The film and Mr. DeWitt’s efforts could be an incredible shot in the arm for secular humanism.  Please consider participating!  You can find all the details at this link.

The New York Times Asks: Is Atheism A Religion?

In the New York Times’ latest installment of “Room for Debate,” writers discuss the question, “Is Atheism a Religion?” The exchange was inspired by Susan Jacoby’s recent piece, “The Blessings of Atheism” and by the new efforts of a couple of British non-believers to establish an actual atheist church, “The Sunday Assembly” that plans to meet monthly. All of the contributors come to the obvious conclusion that no, atheism is not a religion.

I proudly display Richard Dawkins’ scarlet “A” in this blog’s logo.  I am, after all, a big believer in “coming out.”  But then I attach it to the word “rabbi,” a religious concept if ever there was one.

Nevertheless, I do not pretend that atheism is more than it is. Atheism is simply a statement regarding one’s lack of belief in supernatural gods. Continue reading

Reform Judaism Leads To Atheism

Mark Zuckerberg’s supposed break with Judaism has inspired a chest-beating column by Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan in The Forward:

…If…he has lost interest in Judaism, it is much more a reflection on us than it is on him. For those in the Reform movement…we need…to take an accounting of our accomplishments and, as in this case, our failings.

While I could not find any direct quotes in which Zuckerberg disavows the God of Israel, either the omnipotent, omnipresent version or even the “still small voice within us” humanistic variant, he reportedly labeled his religious beliefs on his Facebook profile as atheist. Continue reading

Meet Professor Boghossian

Courtesy of a friend and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (and I would hasten to add Sanity), I received a link to Bent Spoon with  a great, short interview with Peter Boghossian, professor of philosophy at Portland State University.  Sometimes we expend a lot of energy to say what can be summed up in a few words.  I certainly do.  But I was trained as a rabbi so I have an excuse. Continue reading