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When I was six, I began Hebrew School as an Orthodox Jew because that’s what my family was and that’s the kind of synagogue I attended. At age 11, I started thinking seriously about the concept of God and soon became an Orthodox Jewish atheist, although I could not have used the word “atheist” to describe myself because I didn’t know what “atheist” meant (a person without a belief in any gods). Nonetheless, I felt comfortable participating in Orthodox rituals for a couple more years, mostly because I was a good student who could read Hebrew faster than the other boys. There are satirical movies (like Keeping up with the Steins) about families who compete to throw the most elaborate and expensive bar mitzvahs, but mine was simple and inexpensive. However, I won my invented “competition” of reading the complete Torah portion for the week with fewer mistakes than others in our congregation at their bar mitzvahs.
Our congregation considered the Jews at a nearby Reform synagogue to be almost as bad as the Goyim (Gentiles) because they not only failed to observe many of the Jewish rituals, but also conducted their services in English instead of Hebrew. Had I understood the English version of all my ritual Hebrew prayers, I’d undoubtedly have become an atheist even sooner. Eventually I stopped performing the rituals and moved from being an Orthodox Jewish atheist to just a Jewish atheist, without passing through Conservative or Reform branches.
Now when I give public talks, I’m invariably asked how a person can be both Jewish and an atheist. But “Jewish atheist” is not an oxymoron, as indicated by the subtitle of my book, “Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt.” Since Jewish law is based on matrilineal decent, even Orthodox Jews consider an atheist born to a Jewish mother as fully Jewish. Consequently, one can be a religious, cultural, or ethnic Jew.
Within traditional Judaism, there is little interest in what one believes compared to what one does. Fixed prayers are standardized and required for the entire Jewish community, regardless of God belief. Saying these community prayers is not assumed to be an individual declaration of faith. There are 613 Torah commandments, and Orthodox Jews try to follow as many as possible. Some, like performing a ritual animal sacrifice at a temple in Jerusalem that no longer exists, are impossible. A commandment to believe in God is also impossible because people can’t will themselves to believe something they have solid reasons for not believing.
Judaism’s view about Jewish atheists is akin to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” When a rabbi from a Reform synagogue spoke to my local secular humanist group (Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry), he was asked how many in his congregation were atheists. He said, “I don’t know. We don’t ask such embarrassing questions.” When someone else asked which answer would be more embarrassing, he just laughed. In the branch called Humanistic Judaism, rabbis and members of their congregations are openly atheistic.
Some atheists go through the motions of prayer to preserve their place in family and community. People in all religions can and often do pretend to believe. I’m more puzzled by atheists who pray seriously and fervently to nobody. For instance, atheist Sigfried Gold followed a rigorous prayer routine to a made-up goddess. His prayers apparently “worked,” because he is no longer 110 pounds overweight. Obviously the pounds didn’t just miraculously melt away. Instead, he and others often achieve a desired goal through strategies to overcome bad habits and replace them with good habits. Atheist prayers sound a lot like what I would call focusing or meditating, which some also view as a transcendent or spiritual experience.
Many churchgoers, religious or not, are more interested in experiencing love and support within a community than in defining God or finding evidence for God’s existence. They can feel joy in religious fellowship and tradition even if they believe their official church doctrine is silly. Fred Edwords, Executive Director of the United Coalition of Reason, phrased it succinctly: “How many put up with nonsense for the smell of incense?”
Very few atheists pray to an entity that they don’t believe exists, and the few who do usually view it as talking out loud to themselves about hopes for a given result and a desire for guidance—but not from above. I think they have much in common with people who are deeply religious, like Nik Wallenda.
When Nik Wallenda recently walked a two-inch cable across a gorge near the Grand Canyon, I watched with part horror, part amusement, and a bit of admiration as he murmured prayers to Jesus almost constantly during the 23 minute walk. He thanked Jesus for steadying the wire, calming the wind, and even for showing him such a spectacular view. At the end, he thanked Jesus for his successful venture. Had Wallenda slipped and fallen to his death, as his great-grandfather and uncles had done on other dangerous walks, I wonder if he would have thought on the way down that it was God’s will that his children grow up fatherless. I think risking his life in that way was irresponsible.
Nik Wallenda’s ability to train and stay focused for so long was a remarkable achievement, as was Sigfried Gold’s commitment to lose 110 pounds while praying and gaining self-discipline from a goddess he envisioned. Apparently, whether or not you know you are praying to an imaginary friend, your imagination can help you focus and achieve some (but not all) of your goals.
Although an argument can be made to do whatever works for you, reality works best for me. I don’t need imaginary friends—nor do most reality-based people, whether they consider themselves culturally religious or not.
Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.