Jewish Journal


April 12, 2013

Jewish atheism and Jewish theism in America



Michelangelo's "Hand of God." Photo by Wikipedia.

     American Judaism has a God problem.  Actually, and paradoxically, it seems to have two God problems. One is Jewish atheism. The other is Jewish theism. Here we will look at the data and the dilemma.

     At the outset, we have to recognize that there is something odd about the concept of Jewish atheism. Is there really such a thing? Can there be a Judaism without God, however you want to define it. What are the People of the Book without the Hero of the story? How can there be commandments without a Commander? Doesn’t a Covenant with God require a Party of the First Part as well as a party of the second part? What do you do with prayer? Can there even be a place for atheism within Judaism? 

     The questions recall the story about President Harry Truman being asked whether he believed in baptism. “Believe in it?” the crusty president responded, “Hell, I’ve seen it done!”

     And so it is with atheism and Judaism. Most of us have “seen it done.”  We have seen Jews who are atheists, that is, Jews who do not believe in any god, much less God, but who do social work and philanthropy in and through Jewish federations and community organizations. We have seen them  performing what we and they can fairly call mitzvot  in the real world.  And we have even seen them participating in synagogue life.

     Atheists in shul? An old story tells of two gentlemen, Hersh and Maish, who went to their synagogue every Shabbes , Shabbes after Shabbes, year after year. And why did they go? Hersh went to talk to God. And Maish? He went to talk to Hersh.  There are, as we know, a lot of reasons, apart from God, to participate in synagogue life. Some seek a connection to history and heritage, others yearn for community and camaraderie, and still others seek to engage in text study or social action. No doubt some just go for the cookies.

     In shul or out, there seems to be truth to the notion that some of our best friends are Jewish atheists. Is the evidence for this phenomenon more than fiction, more than anecdotal?  Let’s look at the data, starting with a brief review of American religious orientation for purposes of context.

     Over the course of almost 70 years, the Gallup organization has surveyed Americans numerous times with respect to their belief in God, a term generally left undefined in the surveys.  In 1944, 1947, 1953, 1954, 1965 and 1967, the question was simply put as follows: “Do you believe in God?” the affirmative responses ranged between 94% and 98%, the negatives between 1% and 3%, with 1% or 2% having no opinion.  

     In 1976, the question was modified to ask: “Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?” In 1976, 1978, 1983, 1988 and 1994, the answers again fell in a very tight range with 94%-96% answering affirmatively, 3-5% answering negatively and 1-2% having no opinion.

     In the late 1990s, Gallup offered respondents choices about their belief in God. On at least one occasion, the respondents had a choice of God, universal spirit, neither and other, in addition to no opinion.  Another time, respondents could choose whether they believed in God, were not sure, or did not believe.  Still another variation asked whether respondents were convinced God exists, thought God probably existed, had a lot of doubts, thought God probably did not exist, or were convinced God did not exist.  The worst God did in the 2006, 2007 and 2010 surveys was a 73% for convinced in the 2006 survey. Add in the 14% who had just a little doubt, however, and God received an 87% vote of confidence.

     In 2011, Gallup asked the question two different ways, inquiring both about a belief in God and about a belief in God or a universal spirit. It received similar responses to each variation, but a somewhat different result compared to all prior years. In the 2011 survey, only 91-92% answered affirmatively, while 7-8% answered negatively, and 1% had no opinion. Not surprisingly, there were differences reported in different demographic categories.  Those who were less likely to assert a belief in God were men (at 90%) to women (at 94%), young adults aged 18 to 29 (at 84%) compared to all other age groups (at 94%), and those with post graduate education (at 87%) compared to those with less formal education (at 92-94%). People living in the East answered affirmatively 86% of the time, while those in the South asserted a belief in God or a universal spirit 98% of the time. Midwesterners and Westerners responded affirmatively 91% and 92% of the time respectively.

     Surveys by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and by Harris are fairly consistent with the main findings of Gallup.  A survey of over 35,000 individuals published in 2008 by the Pew Forum, and called the U. S. Religious Landscape Survey, found that 92% believed in God.  A considerably smaller survey of religious beliefs by Harris in 2009 found that only 82% of American adults believe in God, while 9% do not and 9% were not sure.

     Given the amount and consistency of the data available, it seems reasonably clear that an overwhelming majority of Americans profess a belief in some concept of God. Those who deny the existence of God do not, in national polling, appear to exceed 10% of the general population. When one drills down into the survey results, though, the picture becomes less monochromatic. For instance, in the Landscape Survey, while 92% expressed a belief in God, only 60% believed in a personal God, while 25 % believed in an impersonal force and 7% either did not know or held another belief.

     What about the Jews? In 2001, the Center for Jewish Studies, a part of The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, published a report titled the American Jewish Identity Survey (“AJIS,2001”).  AJIS estimated the Jewish population of the United States at that time to be 5,497,000. Of these, about half were absolutely unaffiliated with any Jewish organization, religious or secular. Forty-four percent (44%) claimed to belong to a synagogue, temple, congregation or havurah. Twenty-five per cent (25%) said that they were involved in a secular Jewish organization.  Obviously, there was some overlap in the latter two groups.

     The denominational breakdown reported was as follows: Those who identified with Reform totaled 30%, followed by Conservative at 24% and Orthodox at 8%. The Reconstructionist movement was mentioned by 1% as was Secular-Humanist. Those describing themselves as “None” or “just Jewish” were 20% with “Other” coming in at 6%. (These figures do not add to 100% because the survey excluded “Don’t Know” and “Refusals”.) Formal denominations aside, those describing themselves as secular or somewhat secular were 34% and 15% respectively in the survey. Those describing themselves as religious or somewhat religious were 9% and 35% of the survey. Seven percent (7%) were uncertain as to their outlook.  In short, the outlook of American Jews surveyed was more secular than religious. 

     And what did AJIS, 2001 find with respect to the beliefs of American Jews? In response to the question of whether God exists, 48% agreed strongly, 25% agreed somewhat, 8% disagreed somewhat, 8% disagreed strongly and 11% were uncertain.

     A similar result appeared in the Pew Landscape Survey.  Where the percentage of mainline Protestants and Catholics who were absolutely certain about the existence of God was between 72% and 73%, only 41% of Jews had such firm convictions. Based on their analysis (although without some attribution), Robert Putnam and David Campbell, authors of an expansive study of religious attitudes and practices in the United States, have concluded that “half of all self-identified Jews are not so sure they believe in God.”  (See American Grace (Simon & Schuster 2010) at 23.)

     The situation is even starker when one looks at Jewish scientists. In 2005-08, Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund surveyed scientists at twenty-one elite research universities to determine their religious beliefs. In general, fewer scientists (36%) expressed a belief in God than did the population as a whole (over 90%). Jewish scientists did not even reach that low threshold, with almost 75% of them reporting that they were atheists.  (See Ecklund, Science vs. Religion (Oxford 2010), at 32-36.)

     Even when Jews, as a group, do hold a belief in some sort of deity, they conceive of God differently than others do. According to the Pew Landscape Survey, while Protestants and Catholics believe in a personal God at the respective rates of 72% and 60%, only 25% of Jews do. Conversely, while only 19% of Protestants and 29% of Catholics believe that God is an impersonal force, fully 50% of Jews hold that view.

     While there may be problems with sampling and the precision or lack of it in the questioning, among other issues, what data exist consistently suggest that across the American Jewish spectrum there is no widespread belief in a traditional, personal God. A significant number of Jews do believe in some sort of spirit or impersonal force, but it is not at all clear what the respondents may have meant by those terms. Finally, there is another group of Jews, some affiliated and some not, who appear to be atheists in the pure sense of the term, i.e., individuals who deny the existence of God.

     So Judaism, American Judaism at least, has two God problems. One is that many Jews affirmatively do not believe in any kind of god. The other is that many Jews who do believe in God do not believe in the traditional, personal God.

     The first problem challenges the stability of the classical formulation of the three supporting pillars of the Jewish civilization: God, Torah and Israel (the people, not the state). And this problem, and the questions with which we began this piece, are not just academic as indicated by the polling data.

     Discussing whether there can be Judaism without belief in God, some commentators have characterized the idea as “ridiculous” and the result “a fraud, an illusion” because the Jewish narrative depends on God, and without God “cannot reproduce itself.” Others perceive a historical “march of Judaism from religion toward secularity.”

     How Judaism will evolve is unclear, but the reality is, as AJIS, 2001 recognized, “(s)ecularism is a serious conviction for some Jews, as well as an existential condition for a great many more.” (AJIS, 2001, above, at 5.) We do not know whether this secularism has emerged in response to science, to the Shoah or to one or more other factors. We can be sure, though, that the American Jewish community can ill afford to alienate further this large component of itself.

     The second problem challenges non-Orthodox congregations in particular, or perhaps helps explains their lack of attractiveness to so many Jews today. The God language that one encounters in a Jewish faith setting, regardless of denomination, is for the most part traditional God language that the overwhelming majority of contemporary American Jews reportedly rejects.

     At the same time, if American Jews could be enticed to affiliate with a synagogue, temple, congregation or havurah simply because it adopted a non-traditional theology or philosophy then one would expect Reconstructionist and Humanist groups to be larger than they are and growing, but they are neither large nor growing, remaining relegated to just 1% each of affiliated Jews.  Is that because the Reform and Conservative movements have older, more established brands or have more “stores” or offer more programming? Does the current situation result from inertia on the part of potential congregants or the failure of the Reconstructionists and the Humanists to promote themselves effectively? Or is a non-traditional theological approach really not as attractive in practice as the surveys suggest it should be? Or, perhaps, not a decisive factor determining affiliation?  We don’t really know the answers to any of these questions, but the data nevertheless suggest that Jewish religious institutions might be more attractive to a significant portion of the Jewish community if they were more creative and bold, with new liturgies that talk to their congregants’ sensibilities, even as they appeal to their hearts and provide a link the past.

     The data developed in the surveys cited above also suggest the high degree of difficulty the major denominations will have addressing Judaism’s twin God problems. If the organized Jewish community does not address these two problems, however, they will lose the future. And not only the future, because without a viable and committed American Jewish community in the future, there will be no recollection of, much regard for, the past either.

Another version of this post was published previously at www.judaismandscience.com.

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