Jewish Atheism vs Atheism

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In her last post, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein wrote about the inspiration behind Azarya Sheiner, the heart of her new novel. She has been guest-blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

rabbi niles goldsteinThe last book I published, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, introduced me to a community I hadn’t known much about before: organized non-religion. Spinoza is a hero to that community, and I began to get invitations from various pro-reason and secular humanist groups. I was invited to speak at congregations of freethinkers who gather each week, on Saturday or Sunday, in order to, you know, not pray. I was even elected a Humanist Laureate.

But the more I spoke with people with whom I basically agree the more dissatisfied I became when they spoke about people with whom I don’t agree. Atheists have excellent arguments, yet there was something that many of them weren’t getting. They weren’t getting what it’s like to be a believer, what the world feels like when God seems a presence.

Perhaps even more importantly—and I think this tends to loom larger for Jews than for Christians—they weren’t getting what it feels like to be part of a religiously identified community, the sense of communal bonding that overrides metaphysics. Religion is about far more than the belief in God, which is, again, something that might be less surprising to you if you happen to be Jewish. (I had a thoroughly Orthodox education but never once, at least as I can recall, did we concern ourselves with arguments for the existence of God.)
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How does a Jewish atheist differ from, say, a Dennett or a Dawkins? Take the story I’ve heard, in multiple versions, of two Jews arguing on a park bench, one a believer the other an atheist. They’re going at it heatedly, when suddenly the atheist breaks it off with an urgent, “Come on, we’re going to be late for ma’ariv.”

The protagonist of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction is Cass Seltzer, who has become an international celebrity with the publication of his book The Varieties of Religious Illusion. He’s no stranger to religious experience, and he has been dubbed the atheist with a soul. But there’s another atheist in the book, less prone than Cass to onslaughts of religious emotion. This character is the soul of the book.

In Betraying Spinoza I argued that there was something indelibly Jewish about the seventeenth-century philosopher, despite the vehemence of those who denounced his heresy. Spinoza’s extraordinary rethinking of personal identity was, in part, a response to Jewish history. This paradox was much in mind when I was writing the novel. The most ardent atheist in the book is someone who, like Spinoza, could only exist in Judaism.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s newest book, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction is now available. Visit the official website for the book at http://www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/authors/goldstein/.

Posted on January 14, 2010

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