My Jewish Atheism

Print More

When asked if she believed in God, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir responded "I believe in the Jewish people." Credit: Creative Commons/Marion S. Trikosko.

“All the calculated dates of redemption have passed and now the matter depends upon teshuvah and mitzvahs.”
– Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97b

I am grateful to belong to a people, a culture, and a community that embrace a spectrum of religious backgrounds and beliefs. When asked if she believed in God, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir responded “I believe in the Jewish people.” Questioning and struggling with the concept of God are deeply ingrained in Judaism and literally part of the word Israel, the community of Jews, from which the country takes its name. Therefore, atheism is kosher and I am proud to be an “atheist of the book.”
Spiritually and intellectually, I believe that complex questions are almost always better than simplistic answers. Faith, whether in God or anything else, is not necessarily important; what is important is community and action, that is, doing Jewish stuff separately and together, doing good deeds. With or without God, there can be and is Judaism, reverence, spirituality, awe, the sacred, transcendence, radical amazement, mystery, miracles, community, ethics, gratitude, compassion, kindness, education, wisdom, justice, mentshlikhkayt, and so on.
Whether good or bad things happen, I don’t blame, praise, beg, fear, or worship any God or gods, devils or demons, angels or ghosts. Just because the unknown may be unknown doesn’t mean that God is the only or best way to explain it. I instead recognize the physical, psychological, sociological, and other forces, both known and unknown, that influence us and the world. Likewise, the only heavens or hells are the many metaphorical ones we create for ourselves and others. The concept of God doesn’t necessarily lead to spirituality, meaning, responsibility, peace, or justice, though of course it can, but rather often inhibits those processes by distraction, deflection, delay – or worse.
We all rely on science in so many ways. Science, which is fundamentally based on observation and evidence, is completely incompatible with theism. In all cases, the burden should be on believers of a phenomenon to prove what they claim exists; in contrast, one should not have to try to prove the non-existence of God, flying spaghetti monsters, or anything else. In the absence of evidence, I choose not to believe in something I’m confident does not exist. If a God does exist, however, either God is doing a really crappy and cruel job and therefore should be continuously rebuked by all or God negligently doesn’t get involved and is therefore still guilty of reckless disregard yet is also irrelevant. If God is Being, Nature, Awe, Energy, Great Spirit, Love, Inside Us, the Universe, or anything of the sort, as it is for some, then the God concept seems an unnecessary layer of obfuscation and therefore superfluous as it adds nothing beyond the word and concept itself.
To put it mildly, the evidence for God and other supernatural beings is extremely weak at best. On this point, I am in very good (Jewish) company: Baruch Spinoza, Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman, Sigmund Freud, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Niels Bohr, Primo Levi, Saul Alinsky, Hannah Arendt, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, Janet Jagan, Erich Fromm, Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Stan Lee, Harold Pinter, Abbie Hoffman, Jacques Derrida, Betty Friedan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Richard Feynman, Daniel Seligman, Stephen Jay Gould, Howard Zinn, Maurice Sendak, Aaron Swartz, Nadine Gordimer, Amos Oz, Frank Gehry, Lawrence Bush, Peter Singer, Bill Maher, Marvin Minsky, Robert Sapolsky, Steven Pinker, Noam Chomsky, Oliver Sacks, Jared Diamond, Jules Feiffer, George Soros, Woody Allen, Paul Krassner, Gloria Steinem, Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran Foer, Mark Zuckerberg, Uri Avnery, Rabbi Sherwin Wine, Rabbi Peter Schweitzer, Rabbi Jeffrey Falick, Rabbi Richard Hirsh, as well as some of my family, friends, co-congregationalists, and others.
As with Emile Durkheim, for me, divinity is manifested in community and we are a holy community, as all good communities are. I am religious because I belong to a religious community, which I love, not because I believe in supernatural beings. There is only one God, as our tradition suggests, and we atheists don’t believe in it (how strange that people typically genderize God as male, as if God could also have a race or nationality). Even without God, I am a proud, practicing, affiliated, and active Jew and congregational member, having had a bar mitzvah and a Jewish wedding, regularly attending services and serving on committees, as well as engaging in Torah and Talmud study, and my son having had a bar mitzvah and hopefully, sometime in the future, a Jewish wedding.
Biblical Abraham created atheism for all gods but one. It might be time to smash the idolatry of the belief in this last remaining God. Jews have sometimes described God as a verb, as a job description, ineffable, limitless, unknowable, and much else, but fundamentally I think of God as a misunderstanding, a mistranslation, a misappropriation of our individual and communal energy. Rabbi Michael Lerner says that “the God you don’t believe in doesn’t exist.” Mine certainly doesn’t. As an ethnic, religious, spiritual, and intellectual community, I think we need to theologically transition from monotheism, a belief in one God, to monism, a belief in oneness.
In additional to our Jewish community, I find overflowing spirituality in the beautiful and infinite forms of nature and culture, those miraculous wonders that transcend us as individuals, often inspiring awe and wonder. In any event, believing pales in comparison to doing. According to Deuteronomy 30:12-14, “It is not in heaven above”, but in your mouth and heart, in the thoughts and actions of people who ethically navigate this beautifully complex world.

“Tzedakah and acts of kindness are equivalent to all the mitzvahs of the Torah combined.”
– Jerusalem Talmud, Pe’ah 1:1; Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 9a

Dan Brook, Ph.D., who met his wife in Israel, is the author of An Alef-Bet Kabalah, the editor of Justice in the Kitchen: An Or Shalom Community Cookbook, is a long-time member of Or Shalom Jewish Community, and teaches political science and sociology in the San Francisco Bay Area.