Godless Jews

I'm not accustomed to being part of the majority in most things, especially religion. One notable exception comes from a recent Harris survey that shows the majority of American Jews do not believe in God. While I'm mildly surprised by such a high percentage, I'm not totally shocked. Throughout my academic career, hardly any Jews I have known believed in God. This, of course, is not a random sample because the percentage of atheists in academe is higher than in the general population, rising to about 93 percent in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

Gentiles are often surprised to learn that there is no religious belief requirement to be a Jew. Jewish law says I'm a Jew because I was born of a Jewish mother, just like I'm an American because I was born in America. These definitions have nothing to do with beliefs.

While there is considerable diversity within Christianity, most Christians believe there was something very special about Jesus. Some even believe that Jesus is God as the second person in a Holy Trinity. We all can name many well-known Christians like Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Mother Teresa, and the Pope. But most well known Jews are atheists: Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Groucho Marx, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman (no relation, unfortunately), and many more. I'm hard-pressed to name even one pious Jew, dead or alive, who is a household name worldwide -- except maybe Jesus. And I have my doubts about him.

A 2013 Pew Research Center survey of American Jews found that 62 percent said being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15 percent said it's a matter of religion. Only 28 percent thought an important component of being Jewish meant being part of a Jewish community, and an even smaller 19 percent said observing Jewish law was important. Interestingly, 42 percent said having a good sense of humor is essential to being Jewish (Humoristic Jews?). The survey didn't ask about "Gastronomic Jews," but I'm one of those, too. I like latkes, knishes, matzo balls, and even Gefilte fish.

Theological ideas about God are private matters in Judaism and not enforced by a religious establishment. When a rabbi from the Reform Synagogue in Charleston, South Carolina spoke to our local secular humanist group, one of our members asked him how many in his congregation were atheists. He said, "I don't know. We don't ask such embarrassing questions." The rabbi just laughed when another member asked, "Which answer would be more embarrassing?" The rabbi later told me that he was an atheist.

When I was growing up in the 1940s and 50s, what got my family's Jewish juices flowing was not God, but anti-Semitism. There was still a post-World War II "us vs. them" mentality, which meant that we should never trust goyim (gentiles). My family became worried whenever I had a gentile friend. Many years later, I committed what would be a cardinal sin (if Jews had cardinals) of marrying a gentile. After I told an Orthodox aunt that I was getting married, she had just one question: "Is she Jewish?" When the aunt got the dreaded answer that Sharon Fratepietro is not Jewish, the aunt refused to even meet my bride to be. When I told a more liberal aunt that Sharon and I are both atheists, she asked, "Couldn't you marry a Jewish atheist?"

Today, fortunately, there is not much anti-Semitism in this country, which means that anti-anti-Semitism is no longer an essential factor for most Jews. Much to the dismay of some Jews, tolerance for Jews in our culture has turned intermarriage into the norm among American Jews. My wife Sharon is an ex-Christian, and we have a wonderful interfaithless marriage.

But godlessness isn't only for Jews. Since it's easier for Jews to accept atheists in their families than it is for Christians and Muslims, I expect there are a lot of closeted atheists in these other religions. The Secular Coalition for America, of which I'm president, contains a Jewish atheist organization, Society for Humanistic Judaism, as well as Ex-Muslims of North America. Unlike with Jews, I guess the terms "Christian atheist" and "Muslim atheist" really are oxymorons.

Surveys consistently show a shift in this country away from religion, especially among Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996). Not coincidentally, we are becoming a more open and inclusive society. If I were a believer, I'd say "thank God" for the change.