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December 26, 2005

Chanukah Questions

We know that some of the more significant figures in the history of atheism -- Spinoza (though he never went so far as to call himself an atheist), Marx, Freud -- were lapsed Jews.

We know that the Jewish god seemed maddeningly elusive to pagans. A rabbi, hearing of my project, noted that when, during the destruction of the Temple, Roman soldiers entered the Holy of Holies and found no statue, nothing--a void, they concluded that the Jews were atheists. (Brings to mind the quote from A. N. Whitehead from the shuffle above: "The progress of religion is defined by the denunciation of gods.")

What I don't have is much of an understanding of Jewish nonbelief (Christian and Islamic nonbelief have proved somewhat easier). Elisha ben Abuyah, a rabbi, may be an example in the Talmud. What am I missing?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at December 26, 2005 11:42 AM


I'm not a scholar, so this is a purely personal opinion. But I have to ask, how can there be such a thing as Jewish or Christian or Islamic nonbelief? Whatever background a person might have come from, atheism is a rejection of religious beliefs. I suppose that, to the extent a person has been conditioned by their religion, some vestigial beliefs might hang on, but other than that, atheism is an equal opportunity point of view. Maybe this issue is different for individuals who were brought up in a religion and those who weren't. My background is nominally Jewish, but as far as I know, since it was never discussed, my parents were atheists. I grew up without any religious beliefs, so my perspective may be quite different from that of ex-theists.

Posted by: Catana at December 26, 2005 1:44 PM

Fair enough, Catana.
But, since this is to be a history, not a polemic, I need to place beliefs, or lack of same, in contexts and periods. I need to understand how they develop -- here and there.
One of the purposes of this book will be to trace the wider, longer *human* story of atheism. So I certainly agree that atheism in India at the time of the Buddha connects in important ways with atheism in Enlightenment France. But I also want to be sensitive to the particular flavors atheism gains from the cultures that spawn it.
Disbelief in the Jewish god is not the same thing, though it is related, to disbelief in the Roman gods. And in changing the meaning of god, and the social patterns associated with religion, Christians and Moslems change somewhat the meaning of disbelief. Don't they.

Posted by: mitch at December 26, 2005 3:28 PM

I understand Catana's resistance to the term, since belief that there is no god would seem to preclude being a Jew or Moslem or Christian, etc. But, of course, we know that not only can you, as the scholar, discuss the religious cultures that at specific moments might give rise to particular forms of atheism, but also some individuals could easily describe themselves as both atheists even while they describe themselves, as Catana does, as nominally identified with a religion.
I'm not at all expert in this--but I have a suggestion here: relative to those born into other faiths, Jews atheists might be more likely to continue to describe themselves as "nominally" Jewish because they are too/well aware that Jews have been persecuted for their beliefs. So it's a question of loyalty, identifying with the [minority] tribe, enacted in some identification with the cultural tradition, and in the ID itself.
This suggestion leaves wide open, still, whether Jews are, relative to other faiths, are more likely to abandon their beliefs (again, because of that persecution?). That is, my suggestion is "despite." I don't know about "because."
Another question, perhaps marginally relevant to this very issue: are you making a distinction between famous people who were atheists; professional atheists or people who became famous AS atheists (was Madalyn Murray O'Hair listed in your cast?); and "ordinary" people? If so, my suggestion about what is distinctive about Jewish atheists refers to the third category of regular people.

Posted by: George at December 26, 2005 9:42 PM

"The progress of religion is defined by the denunciation of gods."

That line's really slick.

Posted by: NoahSD at December 26, 2005 11:28 PM

Postscript in support of your point, precisely: Philip Pullman is described in this week's New Yorker as one of England's most outspoken atheists (the conservative columnist Peter Hitchens--isn't that Christopher Hitchens' brother?--said Pullman is the one "atheists would have been praying for, if atheists prayed"). Pullman says, "I am a Church of England atheist, and a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist, because that's the tradition I was brought up in and I cannot escape those early influences."

Posted by: George at December 27, 2005 9:07 AM

Thanks, George, for the tip. This blog is time consuming but damn interesting and useful.

Posted by: mitch at December 27, 2005 11:07 AM

This was in one of Karen Armstrong's books, I think. The Romans were poly-theists. They thought Jews were atheists, because they only believed in a single god.

This ties in nicely with an essay Sam Harris wrote at Huff Post recently: we're all atheists, since none of us believes in the gods worshipped by adherents of faiths different from our own.

Posted by: Matthew Heaney at December 27, 2005 11:22 AM

A slight clarification here, which may or may not be relevant. I'm aware that many people identify with a religious background even though they are atheists. Even though my background was nominally Jewish, the actual practice and even the culture of Judaism was entirely absent. In other words, I don't consider myself a secular Jew, but an atheist, pure and simple.

Since culture is important to what you are asking, and to the book, I'm just curious as to where atheists fit in who aren't shaped by the religious culture of their time. The only reason I'm asking about this is the general assumption that atheists have "deconverted" from one religious belief system or another. Are "noncoverts" an anomaly, too small a demographic to even be part of history, or would a history of atheism actually be incomplete without them? I realize this may depend on your aims, but it's worth asking.

Posted by: Catana at December 27, 2005 3:17 PM

What you call "nonconverts" would be part of the story, too. John Stuart Mill, an important figure cause he combines atheism with liberalism, called himself "one of the few examples in this country [England, 18th c] of one who has not thrown off religious belief, but never had it." His dad, James Mill, was also a nonbeliever. Same was true of my parents and, consequently, I too qualify as a "nonconvert." It is also true that conversion stories -- seeing the nonlight, so to speak -- are an interesting part of the tale, often quite painful.

Posted by: mitch at December 27, 2005 4:16 PM

oops. Mill was, of course, England 19th century: 1806-73.

Posted by: mitch at December 27, 2005 6:42 PM

That's almost 18th century ;).

Sorry to come late to this. Also, by now it's probably obvious that I'm not an atheist; I'm a very skeptical agnostic. So I hope I am not hijacking your atheism project too much to talk about agnosticism.

This point about losing a particular faith seems germane to the atheist vs. agnostic divide. Many people who "lose faith" (i.e. in a particular dogma) do not head straight for atheism; they instead try to find a new concept of spirituality. Sometimes they find a new faith that is equally dogmatic, but more in tune with their world view. Sometimes they become agnostic.

Posted by: Peter at December 28, 2005 5:36 PM

anxious to to talk about the atheist/agnostic divide soon.

Posted by: mitch at December 28, 2005 7:29 PM

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