Judaism is an ancient faith that remains strong even to this day, with over 12 million “members of the Tribe” and its own Jewish-majority state. Atheism, on the other hand, is the lack of belief in the existence of G-d or gods — a creed that is sometimes so strong, that it is sometimes considered to be a religion itself. However, what happens when these ostensibly opposing ideologies conjoin? Is it possible to reconcile them?
At first glance, anyone who considers him or herself a Jewish atheist — or perhaps an atheist Jew — seems to be one very confused individual. How can one simultaneously identify as a member of arguably the most persisting religion in history, and reject the notion of G-d — the central tenant of all religion?
Judaism has always been a religion with many different perspectives, open to contestations and dialogue. In the ancient days, the Jewish prophets would even go so far as to challenge the kings of their time — an offense that would typically be punishable by death in any other contemporary culture. This interpretive approach to Judaism is still very much relevant, as indicative by the various denominations of Judaism persistent today.
The 1990 US national population survey found that 38 percent of Jews identified as Reform, 35 percent as Conservative, six percent as Orthodox, one percent as Reconstructionist, 10 percent as “Just Jewish,” and the last 10 percent as “Other.” Hence, for modern day Americans, being Jewish has no one set definition; associations with different denominations clearly indicate varying interpretations of the religion. In their simplest form, these denominations can be reduced to their different interpretations of the Torah’s origins. Jewish Orthodoxy believes G-d wrote the bible; Reform Judaism believes a range of things including that the bible is fully from humans; Conservative Judaism believes humanity wrote the bible based on information derived from G-d; Reconstructionist Judaism doesn’t believe that G-d is active in history.
Since Judaism encompasses differing views on G-d, the question of Jewish atheism (or atheistic Judaism) must be evaluated on a sect-by-sect basis. The only sect that attributes the acceptance of G-d as a fundamental tenant is Jewish Orthodoxy, and thus atheism is incompatible with this denomination. Thus, in all the other denominations, atheism is (potentially) conformable to their respective infrastructures. This begs the question of what compels non-Orthodox Jews to identify as Jewish, if G-d is not essential?
Conservative theology came about as a response to the overly-liberal Reform movement; hence it occupies a middle-ground between Orthodox and Reform interpretations. Depending on the Conservative community in question, atheism may or may not be compatible.
Michael Meyer, a historian on Reform Judaism, writes: “Given the impossibility of fixing upon any one self-designation or religious idea in order to decide definitively what falls within and what outside the Reform movement, its boundaries must necessarily remain indistinct.” Hence, the Reform movement subscribes to a great range of interpretation, and that some of those interpretations are even more liberal than Reconstructionist ideology.
Reconstructionist Jews primarily follow the idea that Judaism is an “evolving religious civilization,” heavily involved in the evolution of humanity, but not chosen by G-d. Along the leftist spectrum are Humanist Jews, who believe that the basis of morals is human reason and that Jewish theology detracts from that idea, as opposed to Jewish culture which enhances it. Hence, atheism is not merely compatible with these ideological interpretation, but it is endorsed by them.
All the previously mentioned groups stress concepts like tikkun olam (social action), community, education, and family — all of which are influenced by religious or historic Jewish ideas, but not predicated on them. Therefore, religious affiliation can stand independent of G-d if mitzvahs (good deeds), not G-d, are the central focus.
When taking into account this perspective statistically, researchers find that most American Jews indicate a waning belief in G-d (scholars Robert Putnam and David Campbell discovered that about 50 percent of all American Jews doubt God’s existence, as opposed to only 10-15 percent of other-faith Americans). So, it’s possible to conclude that these fundamental concepts to Judaism may even be alternative to G-d-based Judaism.
Despite the fact that Jews have a long history of debate and contention, these disagreements have not created a deep enough schism within the religion to separate us completely. Yes, different denominations may disagree on the nature of G-d, for example, but we still can find umbrella Jewish organizations, such as the Jewish Federation, to represent us all. After all, we are all still Jewish.
This brings forth a complicated question: “What exactly, then, is a Jew?” I’m not one to use the dictionary to give cheap answers, but if I were to Google the question, I’d stumble upon something like, “a member of the people and cultural community whose traditional religion is Judaism and who trace their origins through the ancient Hebrew people of Israel to Abraham.” Effectively, answering such a question would take an incredible amount of time, knowledge, research, and thought: integral components to this answer, like “cultural community” and “traditional religion,” are too broad in themselves. Although basic religious practices tend to be the same amongst Jews (i.e. we all fast on Yom Kippur and have Seders on Passover to commemorate the Exodus), we all stem from different regions of the globe that have influenced how we adhere to the aforementioned practices.
In my mind, it goes beyond whether atheist ideas can fit into Judaism somewhere — atheist ideas must fit somewhere into Judaism. The newer branches of Judaism, which are influenced by modern science, history, and philosophy, make Judaism a much more open and less rigid religion for those who have contentions with the traditional interpretation of the Torah, including but not limited to the role (or even the existence) of G-d. This Jewish atheism inevitably forces all Jews to think about what Judaism really means to them.