The Frontal Cortex

Religion Without God (Judaism Version)

So it’s the High Holy Day season again – the pious two weeks in the Jewish calendar connecting Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – and that means that many American Jews are going to shul. For most of these religious observers, this will be their only trip to temple during the year (unless, of course, they’ve been invited to a bar mitzvah).

The one thing that always strikes me about spending time in a non-Orthodox temple is just how little God there is. Sure, His name is constantly invoked, but it’s always in a rather rote, ritualistic way. I never get the sense that most of the people crammed into the pews actually imagine a man with a white beard taking meticulous notes on their prayers. Look, for example, at my own extended family: everybody has a rather firm Jewish identity, and yet nobody believes in God. (We got this brand of agnosticism from my grandfather, who didn’t see the point of God after the Holocaust.) And many of my Jewish friends feel the same way. They find the whole idea of a Biblical Yahweh a little silly. This doesn’t mean that many of them aren’t vaguely spiritual – they close their eyes during Yoga, went through a Tibetan Buddhism phase, etc. – but they still find the paternalistic, fertility obsessed, punitive God of the Old Testament to be rather unappealing.

So here’s my question: can a religion without God exist? How long can a religious culture persist without the anchor of every religion, which is a belief in the divine? What will keep my kids from deciding that Christmas is better than Hanukkah (which it is), and since God is dead, why does it matter what we celebrate? And aren’t us non-believers indebted, in some way, to the Orthodox believers who keep the faith and literal traditions alive? If Judaism consisted entirely of people like me – people who go to shul twice a year, and consider watching a Woody Allen movie a Jewish event – it would soon cease to exist. Like many Jews of my generation, I’m largely tethered to the religion through cultural traditions, family rituals and guilt. I just worry about the long-term implications of such a faithless faith.

Comments

  1. #1 Brandon
    September 20, 2007

    I’m reform, and while I’m not strictly a “high holidays” Jew I don’t go temple nearly as much as I could. I believe in God, but I imagine Him as something more abstract than an old man with a beard who shoots meteors at non-believers. Also, I don’t think he’s petty enough to care whether I eat shrimp or go out on Friday nights. I still celebrate the holidays and go to temple once in a while because, God or no God, they’re still good things to do.

  2. #2 Doug
    September 20, 2007

    Why bother with a religion without a god- isn’t that just called a social club? A group of people with similar views getting together once a week / every so often.

    Santa likes rich kids better, so he gives them more gifts.

  3. #3 Matthew
    September 20, 2007

    Interesting post. I’m also reform and I go to temple twice a year. I don’t believe in god. I go to temple largely out of guilt, I’d say. But I get your point about how long this religion can continue if it’s based solely on the guilt from our parents. I’ve got a jewish identity like you, but I definately know less about the bible and stuff than my parents, who knew less than their parents, and so on. I think if I believed in god I would be more interested in studying the bible, learning hebrew, and that sort of stuff.

  4. #4 Juuro
    September 20, 2007

    There are quite a few religions that are based on ritual, not on belief. Perhaps there is belief in something, but not necessarily “the divine”.

    One Hindoo teacher once told me “Hindoo is as Hindoo does,” meaning that it is of no concern what you think, as long as you follow the rituals.

  5. #5 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    September 20, 2007

    question: can a religion without God exist? How long can a religious culture persist without the anchor of every religion, which is a belief in the divine?

    I’ve heard people suggest that the hope of an afterlife was a more important marketing tool than God.
    (BTW, I trust your Jewish friends don’t use the term ‘Old Testament’.)

  6. #6 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    September 20, 2007

    question: can a religion without God exist? How long can a religious culture persist without the anchor of every religion, which is a belief in the divine?

    I’ve heard people suggest that the hope of an afterlife was a more important marketing tool than God.
    (BTW, I trust your Jewish friends don’t use the term ‘Old Testament’.)

  7. #7 Jonah
    September 20, 2007

    Thanks for all your comments. Per the comparison with Hinduism…It’s an interesting parallel. But I’d wager that it’s tougher for a religion to exist on ritual alone when it’s not in the majority.

  8. #8 KimBooSan
    September 20, 2007

    My brother is nearly-Orthodox and is very faithful; he doesn’t enjoy going to services but he does, and he very much enjoys following the Laws and engaging in Talmud study. We have this argument all the time because as much as I love the rich, textured history of Judaism and as much as would appreciate “belonging” to the club through participating, I am an atheist. Quite frankly I think it would be morally repugnant for me to participate in services or identify myself as Jewish when I DON’T BELIEVE IN G-D.

    His thoughts, which he swears are supported by the Mishnah, is that you don’t have to believe in G-d to be Jewish, you just have to follows the Laws. It actually makes sense, as that way the culture and heritage of the tribe is protected from an outbreak of atheism or agnosticism, and the Laws of G-d are followed even if no G-d is acknowledge. Still…I think it is questionable. :)

    I think the real issue is assimilation. When “atheist Jews” don’t need to *feel* Jewish, then they will simply be atheists. But the tribal impulse runs strong, does it not? And for good reason; I’m not bashing it. That’s just the way it is, though.

    ::::KBS

  9. #9 Erp
    September 20, 2007

    Godless religions do exist (or religions that don’t care whether you believe in a god or not such as Unitarian Universalists or Ethical Culture).

    One thing that religions do provide in US culture is an alternative social structure that is not work or government. I suspect that one reason that Black churches were so prominent in the Civil Rights movement is that they provided an existing structure for organizing. In addition religions can (though don’t always) provide concrete social support for poor, ill, or bereaved members. This is especially useful in a society where the government is not good in providing such support.

    I suspect in England a lot of people belong to the Church of England who are atheists (including some of the clergy). They like the trappings such as choir music, bell ringing, social events, memorials, church weddings, etc..

  10. #10 Lisa
    September 20, 2007

    Non-religious cultural groups certainly persist. (I always think of the term “culture brokers” from an African history course, describing those who emphasized tribal & ethnic divisions/traditions to their constituencies, and therefore contributed to conflicts between those groups.)

    As for minority cultural groups? That’s a different story. Yes, as long as they feel separate (say, because of discrimination) or act different. Immigrant groups have strong communities, but like Jews, their kids tend to assimilate after a few generations. Maybe it’s the core of observant followers / new immigrants that keeps such communities vibrant.

    So, your question rephrased: by welcoming the large numbers of non-believers, can Reform Judaism redefine itself as a sustainable cultural-only movement? I suppose if it keeps its core of devotees, it probably can be sustained. But to have such devotees, they might need to be believers, which would make the community not entirely non-religious–just as it is now.

    Personally, I was never comfortable with its (unofficial) split identity, and I went the way of KBS, feeling it was “morally repugnant” for an atheist to stay.

  11. #11 lizzie
    September 20, 2007

    KimBooSan wrote “tribal impulse runs strong for good reason, I’m not bashing it”

    I think KimBooSan gets to the heart of the question by bringing up the tribal impulse, because it’s the tribal impulse that is stroked with the performance of ritual. But, is the tribal impulse- the part of our brain that aligns us with those we grew up with- really worth preserving and celebrating through ritual? One quick scan of today’s newspaper headlines, with in-group out-group strife underlying so many of the stories- indicates that tribal impulses might actually deserve a little bashing. Or a lot.

    And since we’re discussing religion, (religion is supposed to have some connection with morality, right?): what moral good do rituals provide? Okay, yes, they might bring us closer to our families and loved ones. But is this really such a lofty goal? How about asking what could bring us closer to people who aren’t our own friends and kin- or even our own species? Wouldn’t that be worth aiming for? Are rituals really all that worthwhile, if they mainly seeem to simply emphasize our own specialness in the eyes of our god?

    I think a much more valuable use of religious feeling would be to try to figure out how to expand our circle of compassion, and to try to ask ourselves difficult questions about how we can each as individuals work to reduce suffering on this sad, divided planet of ours. Another bit of shrimp, grape juice, or bread eaten or not eaten, prayer mumbled or not mumbled, service attended or not attended, might feel good, and might even impress our parents, but these acts have very little to do with our active consideration and compassion towards others.

  12. #12 Dan Lurie
    September 20, 2007

    All good commentary on something I’ve been dealing with daily the past few weeks. I recently moved off to college, and have all but completely ceased any of the religious observance which I grew up in.

    I do fee it is interesting how KBS continues to hyphenate god while asserting atheism…

  13. #13 Peter Teiman
    September 20, 2007

    Peter Teiman here.
    Ritual without religion is lame.Religion without ritual is dead. Excuse me borrowing from Einstein.
    Peter Teiman

  14. #14 KimBooSan
    September 21, 2007

    Dan: You got me! Hyphenating (and capitalizing, for that matter) is a knee-jerk writing reflex. I was raised in an atheist household so you would think I would not even consider doing it; but I was also raised to respect other people’s *ideas* of…god…(argh! why is that so hard?) and nothing seems to tick the religious folks off more than bastardizing the Title of the Almighty. LOL! Anyway I’m not so worried about ticking them off anymore, I’m much more along the Dawkins/Hitchens course now, but still…old habits die hard.

    :::sheepish grin::::

  15. #15 quidnunc
    September 22, 2007

    I wasn’t even aware that it was Yom Kippur today. Shows how much my family has drifted into secularism. I stopped believing in god before I even had my Bar Mitzvah but my parents did believe in god even if they weren’t very religious (but still very tribal about being “Jewish”). I think a lot of reform families put their kids in religious school to learn about tradition and the rest of the family is pulled into that indoctrination, however the kids grow up and it fades when the reinforcement stops. It plays out in the reform temple itself where we are constantly reaffirming the belief in god as if it was put into question.

  16. #16 Novalis
    September 22, 2007

    Religion – God = Art.

  17. #17 Epistaxis
    September 23, 2007

    There’s always the Society for Humanistic Judaism. They’re a nationwide organization for people who love the holidays but don’t believe a word of the scriptures.

  18. #18 S. Neimark
    September 23, 2007

    When one cannot either prove or disprove the existence of God, it seems to me that it’s arrogant to be an affirmed atheist. Judaism as a religion (it’s more than that) has no formal creed, and doubt is permitted. Whether or not one believes in God, if he or she sees something positive in the tradition, it’s worth continuing that tradition, and to do so requires at least some ritual.

  19. #19 S. Neimark
    September 23, 2007

    When one cannot either prove or disprove the existence of God, it seems to me that it’s arrogant to be an affirmed atheist. Judaism as a religion (it’s more than that) has no formal creed, and doubt is permitted. Whether or not one believes in God, if he or she sees something positive in the tradition, it’s worth continuing that tradition, and to do so requires at least some ritual.

  20. #20 mistah charley, ph.d.
    September 24, 2007

    I was hanging out at the American Psychological Association annual meeting a number of years ago, and got into a discussion with a guy who taught at a Catholic college. He said that mysticism boiled down to three basic beliefs:

    1)The universe has a reason for being
    2)This reason for being has, or could have, some connection with people
    3)It is possible to have a greater or less connection with this purpose (be more or less enlightened, if you like that language), and it’s worth making an effort in that direction

    Are these propositions true? Well, I can’t prove them, but if they aren’t and I act as if they are, what have I really lost anyway?

    As Jesus, upon whom be peace, allegedly summarized the Law and the Prophets – the Word is Love, wholehearted love – of the Source of All, and of our fellow potentially sentient beings

    May the Creative Forces of the Universe, if any, have mercy on our souls, if any

  21. #21 Lizzie
    September 24, 2007

    Why would it be arrogant to NOT believe in a god? Most people reading this post probably don’t believe in Zeus and Persephone, is not believing in those gods arrogant as well? I’m not trying to be glib- just because a belief is pervasive does not make it correct.

    I know there are lots of arrogant sounding atheists, but how does simply not believing in something make someone “arrogant”? That makes no sense to me, and it feels, well, quite arrogant for someone to make such a claim about me.

    Is tradition really such an appropriate form of authority ?

  22. #22 tina
    September 24, 2007

    500 million Buddhists can’t be wrong…

  23. #23 notevenjewish
    April 11, 2008

    I hope someone is still seeing these posts. I am not Jewish,but I believe in the Jewish God. The question was how long a religous culture can exist without a belief in the divine,the answer is til the end of the age. This problem was prophesied by Jesus and his diciples. The real question is: What is the point of life if there is no God? He is real, not believing in Him is arrogance and one day we will all bow down to him.

  24. #24 Marcelo Ganem
    October 10, 2008

    Here you put the question of religion in absence of God, and we go further to the question of Godīs existence. For me, the idea of God is deeply seductive (how I wish we had someone to care about us and make everything right in the end !), so that many prefers to refuse the rational arguments against it and keep this fantasy. Itīs still hard to deny that an intelligence superior to ours may exist, but not some personal being, oniscient, who has itīs own reasons to let world run chaoticly, and then fix everything in heaven or Armagedon. I guess religion can survive holding to the cultural aspects, the moral values it sustains, the agregation it promotes. In this aspect, Christianism has the upper hand compared to Judaism. Anyway, considering that it all comes to some misticism, I see that some oriental religions, and some rituals that envolve worship to nature and self-knowledge, meditation, etc, can be more seductive than monotheism. Humanity will always seek to something transcendental, and me, although mainly sckeptical, still hold some hope that all that chemmical wedding has some higher sense :P – Cheers, and carpe diem you all !

  25. #25 Gerri
    February 28, 2009

    “went through a Tibetan Buddhism phase”
    They and every other white person in America. See stuff white people like post #2 for further information: http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2008/01/18/2-religions-that-their-parents-dont-belong-to/

    If there is no God then it is pointless to go to service. You are merely cementing the stereotype that religion is a lack of thought which it is for an atheist jew who goes to temple. But not for the theist Jew. Instead of asking can there be religion without God, you should be asking can there be Jonah Lehrer without God. Can Jonah Lehrer’s ever find meaning in life without God.

    Why should Cinderella bother asking how it is that she can go to the ball on a pumpkin and not ask how it is that she is allowed to go to the ball at all!

  26. #26 Mike
    June 27, 2010

    I grew up in the conservative movement, and for awhile I thought I had to be orthodox, but I was afraid to be too observant because I didn’t want anyone to think i was meshuge. Now I am a committed atheist. I realized that davening is a one of the most bizarre, time wasting behaviors mankind ever invented, god is imaginary, and rituals are bizarre, time-wasting obsessive-compulsive behaviors I do not do anymore.