More a short, practical invitation than a deep, philosophical compulsion
True, part of Judaism is Theistic. But an even larger part is Humanistic. So, a humanist Atheist likely already executes most of Orthodox Judaism.
Yet, it’s not true that if one happens to be or has become an Atheist, the G^d-part must be out-of-reach. And one doesn’t need to be wary of letting G^d in (again). True Judaism, I found, is benevolent. Why?
Moody gods that want to be served are idols created in humans’ image. The Jewish G^d (not the G^d of the Jews but the G^d Jews teach about) doesn’t need us and doesn’t need to be placated or pampered. G^d created the whole Universe just to execute Divine generosity for us.
G^d is an Atheist too. G^d believes in people and awaits our actions.
I tried to make G^d appear gender-neutral.
But, before we enter our subject, we need to state the importance of (mutual) respect. It’s contra to Judaism for a religious Jew to see a secular Jew as an inferior creature, someone to lecture, change, and improve.
If it is hard for us to love secular Jews, at least we must have respect for them and realize that most of them have a heart for all of G^d’s children and do most of Judaism’s Commandments. And, Reb Shlomo Carlebach stressed: ‘Don’t kid yourself. When you distance yourself from people, you distance yourself from G^d.’ Religious Jews must never have the ambition to ‘bring secular Jews closer to Judaism.’ It is better and more realistic to try and work toward unity and mutuality, and teach each other!
Atheism is not deficient and Theism is not overdone. They are not imperfections of the other. Science lacks morality. That doesn’t mean it’s flawed. Religion lacks overriding objectivity. That doesn’t make it rubbish. It depends on what you need it for. Were you raised by immoral people, you need a(ny) religion as a lifestyle to strengthen you. If your parents were very moral, only your (grand)kids will need religion not to end up spoiled brats. (Partly flawed morality is better than no morality or ethics at all.) NB: There is faulty religious morality which is worse than none at all.
Jews who ran away from Judaism are right if they did so because of abuse, racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. These things are contrary to Judaism. I know that’s hard to believe if your rabbi raped you, most in your shul slander all Muslims, or only your religious mom says Gay is OK.
We should not subscribe to religions that promote (opium to the people) the status quo, comfort the comfortable, and abandon those hurting. True religion should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.
What should set Jews apart is not our religion but our character traits. There’s no need to feel guilty about your life’s choices if you do your best.
I address here Happy Atheists because I want to move away from the (Christian?) assumption that we can only come to G^d when suffering.
I assume that people who moved away from Theism were put off by the religious, not by G^d. By what they do, what they don’t, and how they define religion. Especially by bigotry and murder in the name of religion as the results of sexual, gender, racial, ethnic, and national supremacy.
But, Judaism teaches that G^d is with the oppressed. So, people who claim that bigotry is G^d’s will are mistaken at best. If they behave as the enemies of G^d, you don’t need to leave G^d as a protest. If you wish, you could call out the bigots. In any case, they don’t own G^d. And when they curse, hate, and fume, almost everybody will understand they’re wrong.
When many members of one’s religious community think, talk, and behave in repulsive, sub-moral ways or refuse to face obvious reality, facts, proofs, and logic. Or lack the honesty to admit that belief and doubt are irrelevant in Judaism. (The core/name of Christian Faith is Belief, but unassimilated Judaism mainly shows in our Acting.) Then one should find this religious dimension stifling and oppressive or simply redundant.
It is high morality, to be honest enough, to refuse to pretend to agree or relate to G^d in a wrong way. There are two ways to solve that. 1. To leave your community. 2. To say: I’m the religious person and the bigots are not proper. I’m in; they are out. I give ‘G^d’ another chance but in my way.
One could have left a religion but still go to its meetings as one feels most at home with those raised in the religious framework of one’s youth.
If previously, an Atheist learned offensive ideas about G^d, especially from ‘Orthodox Jews,’ it will be harder to forget about the nonsense. Primitive ideas like G^d is here to reward and punish might speak to some people but if it wasn’t for you, you understand it’s not true. There are such things as Divine Reward and Punishment, but let’s first talk about G^d. I will first invite you. Only after that, some points for contemplation follow. You can reject them without trying, but not claiming that you have tried when you didn’t. You may feel stupid trying. That’s OK. And why try at all?
Judaism likes Agnostics: those with no or too much opinion about G^d.
To Hell with Philosophy
You don’t need to adopt a special philosophy of your life to justify talking to G^d. No deep analysis of life is needed. No fight needs to be undertaken for religion or against science. Judaism is down-to-earth and practical.
Christianity, largely, did away with action and made religion into a ‘belief’ system. If, as a Christian, one doesn’t believe, one is not religious. Atheist Jews are thus mostly a phenomenon of Ashkenazic Jews’ assimilation. Mizrachic Jews don’t divide up their communities into levels of observance and certainly have much fewer self-defining Atheists and Agnostics.
If you reject a ‘supernatural’ realm, Judaism agrees. We’re supposed to serve G^d in this world. The Hebrew word for prayer is reflexive. That means that, when we pray, in the first place, we should overhear ourselves. Judaism teaches us that the human Soul is a sliver of G^d. So, our most inner, deepest Self is Divine. When we connect to G^d, we connect to Us, our Soul. Why then not just to connect to ourselves? Because that leaves us easily over-focused on us, egocentric (see below).
Talk to Me
So, we don’t need to ‘believe’ in G^d to talk to G^d. (We only need G^d to believe in us.) We bring G^d into our lives by talking to G^d from the heart. Note, G^d’s love can’t be acquired. G^d already loves, no questions asked.
Now, how can and why would you believe or try such things? Where is the proof? There is no proof. When religion is sold as proof, it’s bogus.
Rather, talk to G^d and see if you like it. If it’s good for you, keep it. You don’t need proof. Those who claim to have proof are lying anyway.
Don’t be scared of brainwashing yourself by talking to G^d. Treat it as talking to a projection of the best parent you (wished you) had. Reversely, you can say that we project the relationship with G^d unto our parents.
We can do more with G^d than being needy. We can team up too, and also say Thank You. Not because G^d needs to hear that. But, any meaningful relationship is based on mutual gratefulness. Don’t leave home without it.
No One has a right to be trusted. Trust must be won. Jewish trust in G^d is not a blind trust. Rather, it consists of two consecutive parts.
First, you do everything that reasonably can be expected of you (or a tiny bit more, just to be sure). After that (and only after that), you leave it to G^d. You say: The rest is for You. Like, when you must sleep, you let go.
When G^d doesn’t add what you expected, talk to G^d. Complain if you must. Express your disappointment. (About Bad things, more below.) But realize that if you trusted G^d to do more, it could mean that G^d trusts us more than you would think. Maybe, G^d is waiting for us to shape up. We can’t think of a Jewish G^d and ignore that apparently, G^d trusts in us. Do what you can and further, give it over. What do you have to lose?
G^d does things or lets things happen you might deeply hate. Put blame where blame is due. Note: All things that go wrong can be taken as an invitation to hate, fight, and undo them. The word Israel means: Fighting with G^d. Don’t say: ‘She’s sick, apparently G^d wants this. All that G^d does is done well.’ No! Rather: She’s sick, call a doctor. Of course, G^d already wanted a doc to arrive. G^d doesn’t need us to fill in the blanks. It’s for us to join G^d’s scene. G^d just enabled us to chip in on the action. Sometimes, there are ways to see that the Bad was a stepping stone to Good. Yet, if you don’t see that, call a spade a spade and ask G^d to stop it.
An example is death. With better health in the West in the last century, many became part of the ‘sandwich generation.’ They must take care of both young kids and frail parents. Just imagine if death didn’t exist. We’d have no time to take care of future generations. So, first, we must end all illness, handicaps, and aging, before physical immortality will be doable.
A popular argument to ignore G^d is, “If G^d allows such terrible things that happen, I don’t want to talk to such a G^d.” Yet, G^d allows terrible things to credit us for protesting and helping to heal and prevent them.
To be ‘spiritual,’ we only need to be human. No need to go supernatural. When we feel joy or empathy or choose honesty over comfort, we’re holy already. Life doesn’t need to be more than what meets the (inner) eye.
A great rabbi already mentioned that when it comes to giving charity, we should be like Atheists. He meant: Don’t say: G^d will take care of it.
When you see injustice; particularly when directed at you or people you love; especially when done by religious Jews; remember the hidden justice. G^d is then not as a parent but as a grandparent of children whose parents are too tough. G^d winks at the victims. G^d is with them. The Rabbis teach that G^d is on the side of the persecuted. Even when the victimized is wicked and the victimizer kind of saintly. How much more so when the victim is innocent! People who slander you lose all their merit to you, and all your sins, they will have to answer for; an excellent deal!
The main idea of a ‘Higher Power’ is to teach us to be humble and giving, while we strive to soar above low expectations and down-to-earth despair.
Sometimes, life’s such a mess. How to keep ourselves from worry, despair, anger, and other negativity? One easy way is to see the Good. To see that the Bad can’t have a future and the Good may. Many call the Good G^d.
Imagine Me Not
You could say: For what do I need old ideas about G^d? I have ideas such as Karma, History, the Universe and its Law—those speak to me. If they are true, they are just other terms for G^d. There cannot be a difference between the Jewish G^d and Reality and Facts. Plus, ‘religious’ people, who pray and obey and say they don’t imagine G^d, lie. You can’t do this and not imagine Whom you’re talking to. The only thing that G^d wants is that we then immediately realize: What we imagined is not G^d. This counts for relating to G^d as a royal, parent, judge, Nature, the Universe, a superpower like an idol or general, or the collective Souls of humans. These are ‘faces’ we need. But, whatever the image, admit it is just our human imperfection that we cannot relate to an abstraction.
This, I believe, is parallel to Maimonides recommending to learn every rationale for the Commandments we can get to, but then do them just because we are commanded, not because they make any sense.
I’m certainly not advocating Fictionalism: just pretending G^d exists. (Our Sages know for sure G^d doesn’t ‘exist.’ G^d created existence, but G^d’s not part of it. The ‘real’ G^d we could never prove. If we could, G^d would have little relevance. G^d might ‘be’ beyond logic, but doesn’t talk to us like that since that would be meaningless—except for diehard romantics.) I’m also not claiming that two contrary realities/universes exist in parallel.
We can’t perceive the Jewish G^d, but we can see G^d’s footsteps and fingerprints, as it were. At best, even Moses only overheard G^d’s inner dialogue, so to speak, pardon the pun. When we look for/talk to G^d, G^d is with us. When we don’t, we don’t even miss G^d. We decide, not G^d.
It is hard to see G^d as supportive, giving, loving, tolerant, and friendly if your parents were not. Try to imagine the parent you wished to have had.
The Talmud says that, of course, G^d would talk to us in human speech. We decide if we call an intuitive hunch or a thought that’s suddenly there, ‘a thought that came/popped up,’ or ‘a thought that fell/came down.’
Many people are sure that they can quote G^d’s Words. They don’t realize that their convictions can never surpass their partiality. ‘But this is G^d’s Word.’ ‘No, this is what you believe is G^d’s Word.’ ‘But, this is what G^d tells us to believe.’ ‘No, this is what you believe G^d tells us to believe.’
Your relationship with G^d is private. Let no one define it for you. Others need not interfere with what you want, feel, do, or don’t. Your life is a gift.
When others help you realize your highest dreams, team up with them. People who want to stop you from doing what deeply fits you, avoid them. But, it’s nice to find a supportive community too. And also, friends and a partner for life who are there for you. And to contribute to them.
G^d can be all these things for you only in a limited way. G^d already said: ‘It’s not good for humans to be alone with Him’ (G^d or the Holy Satan).
Many Theists are too fond of romantic and mystic ideas to ever question their escapism. Even very smart people. Let them. It’s the best they can do.
If you learned religion in kindergarten, maybe you miss this naïve idea that G^d is our Father, our King. Time to mourn! That time is forever gone. Yet, you can have a mature version, to believe in idealism and optimism.
G^d lets us work for our reward. That way we’ll appreciate it more. If we had to suffer being meritorious, our reward only goes up. But, G^d doesn’t want us to work for rewards. It is G^d’s job, not our responsibility, to see to it that we get rewarded. And G^d doesn’t want us to hoard rewards. So, most reward will come later, when we enter a perfect world.
‘The Future World’ is envisioned by many in a metaphysical (symbolic) sense. Judaism isn’t so sure about that. It does say that, eventually, G^d will ‘kill’ the Angel of Death. We won’t any longer get sick or age without healing and will be able to undo handicaps and aging and live forever.
You don’t need to believe in G^d to try to be part of the group effort to get humans to immortality. But, if you’re with G^d’s Program and Happy Ending, why not team up with G^d? Maybe, anything we see wrong in the world is an invitation to the observer to join G^d in actually correcting it.
Life is full of temptations. Sometimes the discomfort is really big. Then, a Fear of Heaven can come in handy. Hell is not for punishment. G^d loves us. Hell is for deterrence. And maybe for cleansing. It’s a safety belt to stop us from going through the windshield. It shouldn’t hinder our breathing. It comes to stop us from quickly doing something we’d immediately regret.
Wait, But What About all the Rest?
True, Orthodox Judaism has thousands of rules to follow, and you can’t pick and choose. But, I’m not advocating a minimalistic version.
Rather, start with doing most of it. When you treat others the way you want others to treat you, you already do most of Judaism. When you then also talk to and argue with G^d, you do almost all of Judaism.
Perfectionism is not part of Traditional Judaism—that is a mental illness. Judaism has no rule of All or Nothing. See the trees from the forest. The thousands of rules cover a minority of Jewish Law. Don’t reject them but first things first. Prioritize. Then see where that gets you. Anything extra you do is extremely valuable. But it’s not at the core of Judaism.
Still Atheist or Agnostic?
Are we not a Theist when we talk with G^d? Why? G^d doesn’t care about labels. More than revealing who we are, tags reveal where and with whom we feel at home. More than a description of what we do, identity could describe in what culture we feel at ease. Backgrounds don’t need to clash and can enrich each other. We can be Theist and Atheist concurrently.
Just, if we feel strangers in every religious community, don’t chuck G^d.
Ever met people who are perfect or think they are? Insufferable, no? Reb Shlomo says that this world is a hospital; everyone comes for healing. If you think you’re perfect, you’d better write your last will quickly because tomorrow you’ll be dead. Hearing sorry can be so healing for a wronged or hurt party (including children). A barrier is when sorry is taken as proof that there is something wrong with you. But, we can hold that we’re still holy and did something less than optimal against our own deepest wishes. The Sages say that every sin is done in lightheartedness. Had we thought it over a little longer, we would have done better. Not that we could have done better; we should have done better. No human is inherently evil. (If we can’t regret what we did, and it profits us deeply, maybe it’s no sin.) Saying sorry to the wronged party (and paying compensation) goes first. Mending our ways seems only complete if we also admit to G^d we went wrong, that we’re sorry, and that we will try to do better from now on.
It can be very inconvenient when we can’t set our own limits on all things. Therefore, Atheists may want to investigate why they’re not Theists, really. Especially, some men might find sexual limitations hard. Especially, some women may find it hard that Rabbis ‘decide for them.’ It feels sexist. Even if most Rabbis promote that husbands don’t lord over their wives. At its core, Judaism is the oldest feminist approach. In any case, when you don’t like the limits set by Jewish Law, you can still talk to G^d your own way.
Help for Atheists
Talking to G^d can help Atheists with some of their worst struggles.
1. Arrogance. Sick of being humble and generous, going to the other extreme. Unfortunately, it’s a bottomless pit because it’s never enough.
2. Isolation. Thinking of religious Jews as “them,” another species. Not seeing oneself as a link in the chain of generations. We should be the engine of our activism and we should not just follow other activists. But, we should not have the illusion that we can contribute much on our own. (We can join past and future fellow Jews. That can become the new ‘us.’)
3. Idolatry. It seems that a human brain can’t work in a vacuum on whom to serve. Must we serve? Apparently, we must. A. Atheists will be tempted to serve themselves. (Hillel already prioritized that. We first must be for ourselves. Especially Jews.) B. Activist Atheists might throw in serving humanity. (Comes dangerously close to Judaism, to give like G^d.) C. But, very popular is the modern Idol of Freedom. We must obey freedom, even if we would ruin our lives (and even our survival) by going liberal all out. Modern democracy suffers heavily from excessive permissiveness, from addictions to bigots standing in elections. D. Not so new is the idol of our feelings. This has three flavors. a. It’s so easy to go with the flow, slavishly following good feelings, and fleeing bad ones. (This is the fate of animals.) b. Many feel tempted by sexual impulses. (Jewish Law Sage (!) advice about sex is uncomfortable.) c. Searching for ‘authenticity,’ we are easily enticed to follow any feeling we have. (It is important not to deny our feelings. But, it’s the smartest to let our intellect decide our actions.) Judaism must agree with our deepest wishes. Our Free Will should never be taken away in the name of any religion or G^d, including ‘Freedom.’
4. Character. One of the core jobs of Jews is to refine our characters. To do away with our stinginess, anger, envy, laziness, etc. That is hard work but possible when a Perfect G^d has faith in us. But, without G^d around, it’s so easy to be just one of all imperfect people and go with the flow. We need to love ourselves as we are but nevertheless, strive to not stagnate.
From the Atheists I meet, I can deduce some advice for improvement.
Don’t trust feelings so much. Strong dislikes may prompt investigations. But, they are no proof things are bad. When strongly drawn to something, ask why. It’s no proof it’s good. You should not ignore your feeling. Use them to get wiser. But, you are allowed to live 100% by principles and ideals. Doing good things despite our feelings makes humans stand out.
Like Golda Meir quoted: Don’t make yourself so small; you’re not that big. If you don’t have G^d towering over you, arrogance, inflated ego, and self-importance lie in wait. And so are bad moods, disappointment, and anger. Pull up the corners of your mouth and mean it (no pretense) to be happy.
Judaism can ask much time for details that seem irrelevant to you. If your ideal is to repair the world, why would you obey all Commandments? One reason might be to check that you’re not self-serving your ego or brain. But, in any case, Judaism doesn’t have a law saying it’s all or nothing.
Have a Good Life
Make sure you have a good life. Don’t exaggerate, but also, don’t forget to receive. Don’t reject that part of G^d’s kindness. Don’t make life on earth Hell. You’re not that important. But, you’re not that unimportant either.
Live! It’s a sin to dismiss G^d’s presents to us, to be enjoyed in moderation. Don’t waste your days. Don’t throw life away. Give and seek life. Lechayim!
Some of the above may be unusual to you, or so much, that you might need to reread it several times. But, none of it is really complicated, is it?
Proud Atheists, please write to me things to add or you disagree with.
Earlier, some other TOI blog posts by me were published about Atheism:
Modern atheists are right all along (with G^d on their side)
I’m not an Atheist but G^d is (G^d can’t fight them, so joins them)
The suffering of the ethical atheist (confrontational, old text)
An atheist’s Rosh Hashanah? (Soul searching)
Same subject, three recent pieces by my friend and teacher Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo: 1. God for Atheists, 2. Belief in God and the Human Brain, and 3. Theism and Atheism: the Twofold of Real Faith Which is One.