Growing up Jewish in America, as I did, gives one an attitude toward atheism and religion that can range from nonchalance to disdain. Early on, one gathers and gets used to the idea that one believes in “one less god” than very many people.
For example, I vividly remember when I was in second grade, some 35 years ago, having lunch with schoolmates. One boy, Michael, couldn’t see how I didn’t believe in Jesus. Michael declared “He [i.e., Jesus] was perfect.” I could only respond weakly something to the effect that I (or we, as in “we Jews”) believed that he was simply a regular fellow.
If my Jewish experience was at all typical, Jesus really was never a topic of discussion at home or at Hebrew School, where one one learns the Hebrew language and gets introduced to Jewish religious texts, liturgy, history, and culture. Whatever I learned about Jesus in those pre-Google days was secondhand, through daily life, television shows, literature, or other books I picked up along the way.
Nevertheless, I was unprepared for the first time I ever attended a Catholic service. Because it was a confirmation service–if I recall–the participants and the crowd said what must have been one form of the Nicene Creed:
I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
As people uttered the creed, I returned several times to an interjective “You have got to be kidding me!” It seemed obvious that the creed was not so much a declaration–an heroic here I stand–as a form of brainwashing. Say it, say it again, really mean it as you say it, and you will believe it is true.
To a boy from a Jewish tradition, although more the cultural than the religious tradition, the Catholic God-the-Father bore no resemblance to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The latter God simply didn’t conduct business in the way recited in the Nicene incantation. Yes, the Jewish God was every bit the dick described by Richard Dawkins, but tradition maintained that you could at least argue with the fucker. No way to wrestle with or approach the distant, regal, super-justice of the creed.
The creed also offended a decent sense of intellectual freedom: why on earth would people subscribe to any statement that commits one’s mind in something like a binding contract? Sure, the “I believe” part is what makes a creed a creed, but by what right does any institution get to assume the voice of a free individual and dictate a single set of beliefs for that individual to sign on for? For me, the “I believe” was way more odious than any of the transparently ridiculous predicates that followed.
For its part, Judaism sort of has a creed in the Shema:
Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is the one and only God.
This is the most famous and important part, but we must note the Shema actually consists of three paragraphs from different parts of the Torah. In this sense, the Shema is a quote. It’s said at least twice a day by observant Jews primarily because they believe God commanded that it be said. For observant Jews, religion is about following God’s commands–“Islam,” you might say–more so than any personal effects such as redemption or addlepated joy.
For me, then, growing up Jewish, meant living John Loftus’s Outsider Test for Faith from the most formative years. I gathered, as a minority, a sense of being looked at and sized up from the outside. Such sense gives one plenty of occasion to question Judaism. But one is also looking at the surrounding Christianities–I don’t recall knowing any Muslims, Buddhists, or Hindus in my youth. The upshot is that to be Jewish is to grow up as a religious pluralist.
And that’s why atheism is perhaps not such a shock or problem in many non-orthodox Jewish communities (but quite a problem, just under intermarriage, to the orthodox). Some want to be more observant than others. Some look only for the cultural tie-back to the families of their mothers and fathers. Some, like me, leave altogether, yet maintain a core of affection for Judaism and other religions. I can’t hate Judaism because that would be to hate something my mother and father love. I can’t hate Christianity because that would be to hate something my wife loves and that my children participate in.
On the other hand, I maintain that religions–theistic and secular–tend to poisonousness. Their fundamental claims are factually wrong. Where religions are factually or morally correct, the beliefs and practices play only marginal or irrelevant roles. These facts give no special honor or valor to atheism. Atheism’s a banality, actually.
But it’s now as an atheist that I stand for pluralism. Once I wanted not to be compelled to be a Christian, now I want not to be compelled either to be a Jew or to give any deference to public religiosity. This is no hard or militant stance. It is, rather, the practice of the greatest motto, e pluribus unum.