Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

On Jewish Atheists I

posted by David Klinghoffer
I’ve been mulling the fact that some of the leading figures in the New Atheist movement are born-Jews, at least according to their own accounts. Christopher Hitchens is Jewish through his mother’s mother (and proud of it, which I find charming). So too Sam Harris. Jerry Coyne is ethnically Jewish. Ditto Steven Weinberg. Neither Richard Dawkins nor Daniel Dennett is, thank God. I know that Jews are disproportionately represented in all fields of intellectual, business, entertainment, and other public endeavors — everything except public moral leadership, our natural calling, which we strenuously resist. (See the book of Jonah.) So in a way it’s not surprising that we lead the field of evangelizing atheism too.
It’s unsurprising for another reason, however, alluded to in the haftarah reading from this past Sabbath — Shabbat Hazon. “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider” (Isaiah 1:3). Meditating on that verse, Nehama Leibowitz quotes from Rabbeinu Bachya in the Duties of the Heart

Should they fail to appreciate the wonders of creation bearing witness to His wisdom and kindness, this would not be beastlike but worse, as the text has it, “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know.”

Animals, at least, know their master. Atheists don’t. That Jews would sink to this level was part of the plan, part of the history that God anticipated. It is an apparently necessary aspect of the drama of redemption.
This is a great week to contemplate such issues — the Jewish angle in secular culture’s increasing alienation from God — with Tisha b’Av coming up on Thursday, a day of mourning and fasting over our current alienated condition, symbolized by the destruction of the Temple nearly two millennia ago. 
According to mystical tradition, this past Sabbath came to be called the Sabbath of Hazon, or “Vision,” superficially because that’s how the reading from the prophet Isaiah begins — “The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz” — but at a deeper level because as a prelude to Tisha b’Av, every Jew is granted a sort of unconscious vision of the ultimate symbol of redemption, the as yet unrealized Third Temple. Some Jews, obviously, fight off that vision at the cost of embracing the existence of a brainy animal, which is what a human being is reduced to under the atheist vision.
More on the theme later.

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Alan Stillman

posted July 27, 2009 at 10:08 pm

I was taught, in Hebrew school at my observant Conservative shul, that Judaism has no doctrine as to the nature of God and that it is totally compatible to be both a Jew and an Atheist. I suppose this is why – at a very early age – when I openly questioned the gender of God I was not given any grief about my questions.

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Scott R.

posted July 27, 2009 at 10:28 pm

A Jew is a Jew is a Jew – if you have a Jewish mother, you are a Jew no matter what you don’t or do believe – as long as it isn’t JC. That is the point of no return.

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posted July 27, 2009 at 11:49 pm

Spinoza, Marx, Lenin (part Jewish) — there seems to be a long history of prominent Jewish atheists. Part of this is because there are prominent Jews in nearly any intellectual or religious movement you can think of, from Objectivism to Guru cults. Jews have an inherent desire for meaning and purpose, and when they abandon Judaism (if they ever knew it, which they mostly didn’t) they end up adopting something new (liberalism, atheism, capitalism, communism, an aggressive foreign policy) and making it into a compelling messianic ideology that tries to perfect the world and ….fails.
I agree with you that Orthodox Jews need to try to be a light unto the nations and actively counter the secularism of modern societies. Noahidism is growing fast — there’s even a siddur available, Service of the Heart — and it’s only a matter of time before Noahide-friendly rabbis like R’ Lazer Brody or a Chabad rabbi writes a best-seller about Noahidism, the Jewish approach to a deeply religious life for all the nations. But there are other ways to do this too. I’ll be interested to see what you have up your sleeve.

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Your Name

posted July 28, 2009 at 8:23 am

IMHO Jews have a neshoma that gives them a need to connect to a higher truth. If they don’t connect via the Torah, then they search for some other ideology.

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Eric the Green

posted July 28, 2009 at 10:15 am

I’m an Atheist. But nothing surprised me more than discovering that every Jewish (ethnicity) person I know is also an Atheist.

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posted July 28, 2009 at 10:57 am

“A Jew is a Jew is a Jew – if you have a Jewish mother, you are a Jew no matter what you don’t or do believe – as long as it isn’t JC. That is the point of no return.”
I find it very insulting that Jews put people in this category. I fail to see how Jews are a race of people. I’m born Canadian, my parents are born in Russia and Canada, My grandparents born in Poland. I myself agnostic/atheist – when asked my religion – I say atheist. I take no part in religious ceremony or identify with people based on it. I have no allegiance to Jews, the same way I have no allegiance to Raelians. The fact that my mother decides to follow certain religious practices does in no way make me a Jew – the same way in no way does it make someone Catholic. – In fact, because of this attitude, I may even be a little anti-semetic. I don’t want to be categorized by someone because my mother’s vagina was Jewish.

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Luce Imaginary

posted July 28, 2009 at 11:13 am

“Animals, at least, know their master. Atheists don’t”
Because there is no master to know.

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John H

posted July 28, 2009 at 11:17 am

“…the existence of a brainy animal, which is what a human being is reduced to under the atheist vision.”
Being a “brainy animal” is not a reduction, except in the sense that the illusion of some link with divinity has been dispelled.
I am embarrassed that in this day and age so many still pretend that humans are magically separate from the rest of animal-kind. Once we can get over this cultural hubris (shared by almost all religions), we can begin to see humans in an accurate way and then make progress on the solutions to the problems that plague us.

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47th Problem of Euclid

posted July 28, 2009 at 11:34 am

Re: John H:
It is astonishing how Utopian/Marxists antitheists can be (I’m not assuming that you are one, because you have not revealed your own belief) about some magical future event where all humans will discover the same false dichotomy that antitheists are stuck on: having to choose between Hashem and reason, and choose reason over Hashem. It sounds exactly like that magical future event where the workers will seize the means of production and replace Capitalism with a Communist paradise, or the magical future event where we all realize that Christ is our Savior, or the magical future event where governments will give up their monopoly on coercion and we will live in peaceful anarchy. I guess we’re just as bad, because we wait for some magical future event when Moshiach arrives and leads us back to Israel, rebuilds the Temple, and reigns in peace. It’s fascinating that belief in Messianism transcends theism.

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Glen Davidson

posted July 28, 2009 at 11:48 am

Animals, at least, know their master. Atheists don’t.

And that’s supposed to be an argument against independent thinking?
I’d be inclined to turn it into a pro-independence slogan.
Glen Davidson

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Alan Stillman

posted July 28, 2009 at 2:22 pm

“Animals, at least, know their master. Atheists don’t.”
who is the master of the animal living in its natural environment? the pack of coyotes I hear howling at night in the distant woods has a master? if they do they do not know it.
frankly, I do not wish to have a master/property relationship with deity. and I don’t need to be an atheist to hold this opinion. though I respect atheistic worldviews.

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Eric the Green

posted July 31, 2009 at 2:29 am

Deeper into this thought…
I am an Atheist and an Anti-Theist…two different things. Organized religion, compared to its power past & present, will soon be dead. Cultists, extremists, fundamentalists will pass down their dogmas to lesser degrees until it is all but forgotten.
The Jewish people, however, are more than a religion. I share Mel Brooks’ prophecy of “Jews in Space.” In the future, I’m sure someone saying “I’m Jewish,” will not be taken in any sort of religious context, but rather familial legacies.
I know more Jews that are Atheists/Agnostics than are Deists. I think it’s great! I was raised in a Christian community, so I guess I’m a Christian-Atheist. My friends were raised in Jewish communities, so they are Jewish-Atheists. I guess everything is Kosher these days.

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Alan Stillman

posted July 31, 2009 at 12:31 pm

a disproportionately large number of Jews are also active in the Neo-Pagan religions. many of us find interesting ways to combine both traditions. it is not that difficult when you stop to think how Earth-based many of the Jewish holidays and practices are.

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posted August 2, 2009 at 9:09 pm

“Judaism has no doctrine as to the nature of God and that it is totally compatible to be both a Jew and an Atheist.”
It’s also totally compatible to be both a Jew and an axe-murderer, too.

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Alan Stillman

posted August 3, 2009 at 1:17 pm

@ Phil
are you saying that Atheists are akin to axe-murders? some of the most ethical people I know are Atheist and some of the least ethical people I have learned about are members of the clergy or otherwise self-described as being deeply religious.

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posted August 3, 2009 at 11:54 pm

No. I was 5% afraid someone might actually infer that from my words, but I decided not to do anything about it. (And I agree with your statement.)
I was hoping people would see my point, which, now that you know what my point isn’t, you can surely figure out what it is.

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posted May 17, 2014 at 7:56 am

David you said:… “Sam Harris. Jerry Coyne is ethnically Jewish. Ditto Steven Weinberg. Neither Richard Dawkins nor Daniel Dennett is, thank God.”
Why is it okay for Jews to be athiests but not Gentiles? You should embrace anyone who is an atheist from all religions. You are just the worst kind of person.

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