Why Being An Atheist And A Jew At The Same Time Isn’t A Contradiction

It took me a while to figure out why I’ve gotten strange looks most of my life when I claim to be both an atheist and a Jew.

Every one of those strange looks comes from non-Jews who have it in their heads that Judaism is equal to Christianity is equal to Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism or any other world faith. And, indeed, one can convert from whatever faith one practices to any of those other faiths — Judaism included. But the only thing one can convert into — where Judaism is concerned — is the religion. One can change one’s way of thinking to to see the world from a Jewish perspective. That doesn’t make one Jewish though in the cultural sense. And that’s what separates Jews from nearly every other ethnic group. We’re not just a religious affiliation, we’re a distinct cultural group whose religion is part of the group’s culture but far from its entirety.

A Baptist may have Baptist roots and the culture they live in can be Baptist out the wazoo. But those Baptists could convert to Methodism or Calvinism tomorrow and that’d be the end of them being Baptists. A Jew can quit Judaism and never walk into a synagogue again for the rest of her life. In the world’s eyes, she’ll never stop being a Jew however. Because what makes her a Jew — what makes any Jew a “Jew” — isn’t their version of God, it’s something deeper than that. God, after all, is just an idea of how we all got here.

In addition to this blog, I have a few others. There’s Mulligan Jesus (which I neglect and shouldn’t) and there’s The Faithesism Project Podcast which I do with my good friend Randy Lovejoy who’s also a Presbyterian Pastor. A few podcasts back, Randy and I had a guest named Dave Wertlieb. Randy and Dave are related by marriage which is how they know each other. Randy wanted Dave to be a guest because (in addition to being Jewish), Dave is an avowed agnostic. Whereas theists insists that “absolutely, there is a God!” and atheists insist “absolutely there is not!” agnostics insist that neither theists nor atheists know what they’re talking about. That is, they cannot literally “know” anything here and both the theist’s faith and the atheist’s un-faith are based on incomplete information. Randy and I both expected the podcast to focus on a discussion of agnosticism (their point of view really is the most honest), it ended up more a discussion between Dave and I about what it is to be “Jewish”. More specifically, about how Dave and I could both insist we’re Jewish while neither of us practices the Jewish religion.

Randy grew up in Texas but then traveled the world as a religious missionary. His attachment to Christianity — though it’s the faith he grew up in — isn’t cultural at all. Christianity is an ideal that appeals to Randy, a vision of the world he agrees with. Of all the Christians I know, Randy has more Jesus in him than most. But, Randy found himself befuddled by both Dave and myself. For starters, though I had never met Dave before the podcast, Dave and I hit it off instantly. That is, we had plenty to talk about including a huge pool of common experience: we’re both Jewish. Randy, at the conversation’s start, couldn’t understand how I could claim to be an atheist — and yet Jewish — while Dave could claim to be agnostic and yet Jewish. Randy was assuming that the bottom line for “being Jewish” was following the Jewish faith.

The reasons WHY Jews were treated as pariahs across two thousand years of European history is a whole set of blog posts unto themselves. Christianity grew on the back of multiple untruths — all of them Paul’s creation. Paul took various Jewish ideas and mythologies and repurposed them for the gentile communities he was grooming across Asia Minor. These communities had no knowledge of Jewish mythologies or prophesies. Whatever Paul created went unchallenged. After Justinian made Christianity the state religion and, as the Catholic Church began to assert its primacy, Jew hatred became a focus because “feelings over facts”.

For fifteen hundred years, Jews were excluded from European society, forced to live separate lives in separate communities. The word “ghetto” is Italian. The first place it ever referred to was the Jewish Ghetto in Venice — that fenced off part of town where the Jews were forced to live. Living apart from Christian Europe for fifteen hundred years, marrying and having babies only with other Jews — not a huge community begin with — caused a Jewish genetic disorder: Tay Sachs disease. Tay Sachs was born in the shtetls of Europe. And Tay Sachs can live inside a Jewish person regardless of how dedicated they are to the Torah.

I recommend the podcast Randy and I did with Dave. Okay — I’m biased. But it really is a worthwhile conversation both because of what was said about being a Jew and about being a person of “un-faith”.

When I say (and I say it at the start of each podcast) that I’m “grateful to Hebrew School for making me the atheist I am today”, I am absolutely not being sarcastic or even mean. I am genuinely grateful because Hebrew school taught me to question even fundamental ideas like where we all came from. To be honest, I’m pretty convinced I dropped from the womb an atheist. Except for a twenty-four period when I was eight and thought I was in big trouble for taking a Playboy magazine to school one day? I have never looked skyward expecting a shoulder to cry on.

History says any shoulder up there is too cold to cry on anyway.

If You Haven’t Sampled The Faitheism Project Podcast, This Is A Good One To Sample

Our sister site — The Faitheism Project Podcast — just dropped its latest podcast and (okay, I’m biased), I really recommend it.

In “The Faitheism Project Podcast”, a devout atheist (me) and a Presbyterian Pastor (my friend Randy Lovejoy) sit down to discuss spirituality — as opposed to religion. They are, in fact, two very different things. And, once you make that distinction, a conversation about religion becomes less contentious because, as Randy and I keep discovering, all of us, really, are on the same kind of spiritual journey; we just use different vocabulary to describe it. The Faitheism Project Podcast opens up the discussion by removing judgment. It’s not about winning an argument. It’s about discovering our commonality where we least expect to find it.

In this episode, Randy lets his hair down. He talks with remarkable candor about his actual spiritual process — the path that led him to where he is. It’s been challenging in ways both spiritual and physical. He’s been to some pretty remote places, put himself in harm’s way because he truly wanted to help those who most needed help by going TO them and directly helping. We’ve all got a horrible travel story or two in our past — especially one where either food or water and our gut went to war with each other.

Randy’s stories beat anything I’ve got hands down — for which I am grateful.

In this podcast, I also do a tribute to my old boss the action movie director Dick Donner. Dick was my boss back when I ran “Tales From The Crypt” for HBO. Dick — if you don’t know — produced and directed the “Lethal Weapon” movies, “Scrooged”, “The Goonies”, “Timeline”, a gazillion TV shows (back in the 60’s) and the horror classic “The Omen”.

Dick had a theory as to why “The Omen” succeeded as massively as it did. And his theory had something to do with the family Bible that sat in many American homes (unread of course).

There’s also a YouTube version (if you prefer to watch).

Please enjoy!

The 3 Words That Make Me An Atheist: “I Don’t Know”

“I have always been grateful to Hebrew School for making me the atheist I am today”. That’s how I sign on to “The Faitheism Project Podcast” that I do every week with my good friend the Reverend Randy Lovejoy. In fairness, I’m pretty sure I dropped from the womb an “unbeliever”. Hebrew School merely closed the deal. Back then, I hadn’t had time yet (or the intellectual capacity) to reason out exactly why theism didn’t add up for me. That’s not to say I didn’t feel awe as I gazed up at the cosmos. I felt tons of awe. And tons of curiosity. I just didn’t see Yahweh staring back with the answers.

My awe is no different from the awe a Christian feels as they contemplate the nature of God (their version in their head) or the the all knowing state of Bodhisattva a Buddhist might experience as they achieve nirvana. But that’s where our paths diverge — me and my faith-practicing friends. People of faith need to know what’s behind the awe (even if the explanation isn’t entirely satisfying or logical). Why does the universe exist in the first place? God knows. Whether he reveals that truth to them is a whole other question; that “knowledge” that God has the answer, that’s good enough for them. Not for me. I’m pretty clear about one essential fact: Yahweh did not invent humans, humans invented Yahweh. If you’re looking to Yawheh for real answers, you’re looking in the wrong place.

The scribes who first scratched out what eventually became “The Book Of Genesis” were memorializing more than a thousand years of accumulated mythology — all bent toward answering the question “Why are we here?” Unsatisfied by a polytheist answer, whoever the actual “Abraham” was (mostly likely, he was a tribal chieftain who migrated his tribe from modern day Iraq to Canaan, now modern day Israel), he also migrated his tribe away from the polytheistic gods of their past to a “new God” called Yahweh. But, even Yahweh wasn’t entirely original. The newly arrived monotheists must have liked a lot about the Canaanite god EL; they incorporated not just EL into Yahweh, but El into their identity. El’s presence remains in place names like “Beth EL” and “IsraEL”.

Even Yahweh says of himself that he used to be called El but, at long last, has gotten to show his true self.

Knowledge — “gnosis” — became extremely important in the monotheistic universe. Human beings weren’t allowed to have “ultimate knowledge”. That’s Eve’s original sin — wanting to know what Yahweh knew.

To know everything therefore, is to “be” Yahweh. To be a god.

Atheists aspire “to know”. Same goes for many agnostics. Their agnosticism hinges on the fact that they don’t and therefore won’t conclude definitively whether or not Yahweh (or any god) exists. The information I want is out there somewhere. Will I ever acquire it definitively? I don’t know. And that’s the bottom line. Until I do “know” what happened, I’ll have to accept that I don’t know. The question is — can I live with that? Can I live with not knowing definitively?

What preceded the Big Bang? I don’t know. I think string theory provides a more satisfying answer than “Yahweh preceded it”. At least string theory can rest on a foundation of math. Yahweh rests on a foundation of storytelling in the absence of hard data. If the first monotheist (be it Abraham who whoever) had had access to a telescope or a microscope — or the internet — would they have written Genesis the way they did? Would they have described an earth-centric universe all geared toward the creation of human beings? Of course not — they would have started mythologizing with what they already knew then used the mythologizing to explain what they, as yet, didn’t know. In the beginning, Yahweh might have been standing on the other side the singularity that started Life As We Know It — and Genesis might have opened by describing The Big Bang in remarkable, proto-second by proto-second detail.

The bottom line is how do any of us deal with uncertainty? Those with little tolerance turn to religion because they need to know. Religion says it WILL provide the answer. Science can only say “it might” provide an answer and the answer it provides today may not be good tomorrow because we’ve learned new information. That’s the best science can ever do. If you want certainty, science — ironically — is not for you.

When I say “science”, I mean a process of analytical, observation-based thinking as opposed to “revealed knowledge”. Back before Darwin, theology was considered “the Queen Of The Sciences” — for real. But, with Darwin came not just science but a “scientific method” of thinking that demanded all conclusions be based on actual data and not just “cos God said”. Forced to provide receipts, theology fled the building. Whereas the institutional church could have used the occasion to reinvest in Jesus and teach a spiritual “Do Unto Others” message (something they’d never really done before), instead (in America), the church doubled down on the ooga-booga. Rather than see the Bible as a bastion of good messages for good living, the institutional churches of America insisted that their sacred texts were the “divinely inspired word o’ God” and therefore even better than science. Unlike science, the church insisted (and still does) God does not need receipts.

What’s true inside a church stops being true outside it.

Not having a reason to be here imposed upon me by a bipolar deity doesn’t scare me. Hell, it liberates me! I can tolerate living in a DIY universe where the Big Questions are concerned. Hell, I half expect it to turn out that the the whole Universe is just a giant piece of IKEA furniture — and the nitwit putting it together misunderstood the instructions and flipped the main piece upside down; we’re moments away from him realizing he’s going to have to break the whole Universe down and start all over again. How “Noah”…

That’s just the Universe being ironic, right…?