How I Can Be Both a Jew and an Atheist

And why I’m not agnostic.

Hey, I can appreciate beautiful art. Photo by Hassan Saleh on Unsplash

No, I swear, questioning everything is part of being Jewish! Israel means to struggle with God!

I think you just think that because it’s what you do. I don’t think most Jews would say that.

Remember when I brought you to Temple? And the rabbi opened it up for discussion?

Yeah, it was like a college class. It was so much cooler than a church sermon.

See, Judaism’s about orthopraxy, not orthodoxy. You can believe anything. It’s about keeping traditions.

Yeah, I don’t know… maybe.


In our 9 years together, my husband and I have had this discussion so many times. He’s an atheist who was raised Christian. Since he was brought up in an orthodoxic religion, that’s what he thinks religion is: believing the same thing as everyone else.

I’m an atheist who was raised Jewish, and who is still a Jew. Since I was raised in an orthopraxic religion, I know religion can instead be about doing the same rituals and mitzvahs. I can believe whatever I believe and still be a Jew.

We’re raising our kiddo Jewish, and atheist, and we plan to keep exposing her to all the many different ways there are to be human.

I always knew my Judaism was different than my peers’ Christianity, despite always hearing about Judeo-Christian values, but it wasn’t until a college professor spelled out the orthodoxy/orthopraxy difference that I really understood.

The Wikipedia entry for orthopraxy includes this unattributed, but totally legit, assertion:

“…some argue that equating the term ‘faith’ with ‘religion’ presents a Christian-biased notion of what the primary characteristic of religion is.”

(So, if someone wants to edit the Wiki page to put my essay as the attribution, go right ahead!)

Yes, religion is a tough concept to define, so most Americans uses a Christian bias when thinking about other religions, without even realizing it.

Christian children bullied me, in our totally Christian town, because I was an affront to their entire understanding of how the world worked. There was one truth, as far as they knew, and Jews must be of the devil, because we didn’t agree.

So I get why Christians want to convert me. (It was so completely and horribly out of line, but) I get why my dad’s boss told my mom to accept Jesus so she didn’t end up in Hell like her dead sister and mother:

If you believed your words could have the power to save lives (souls even) how would you keep quiet? I mean, I feel that way about veganism; I get it.

Jews want tikkun olam, to repair the world with kindness and good actions, but we don’t need to convert you. I am blessedly under no illusions that I know any Truth with a capital T. I’m just a cheerleader for empathy.

“You’re not an atheist; you’re agnostic.”

Lots of religious folks love to tell atheists that they’re actually agnostic. If they can convince us that we’re agnostic, then the legitimacy of their dogma might be back on the table.

In my early 20s, I called myself agnostic, only because it felt pompous and hypocritical to claim atheism. Like, you don’t know the Truth, so why would I profess to know it? But I’ve come to believe that agnosticism gives validity to some ideas over others.

It’s like how people who don’t believe in evolution force the narrative that there is a scientific debate about it, even though nearly all of the scientific community accepts evolution as the dominant scientific theory of biological diversity. Teach both sides, they say, and just like that, their religious dogma has become a side that non-religious folks are supposed to validate, even pass on to our children in public schools.

That’s how agnosticism feels to me, like it’s validating mainstream religion by talking about it as if it’s one side of a truth coin. Heads: Christianity. Tails: Atheism.

Atheists’ stance: There’s no reason to think God exists.

My impression of most American agnostics’ stance: I just don’t know if the Christian God is real or not.

I could get behind an agnostic narrative like this:

“There’s so much we don’t know. The answers to the unknown questions could be literally ANYTHING.”

But instead, from agnostics, I hear:

“I don’t know if there’s really a guy with a white beard who’s controlling everything. We just can’t know.”

Art by Kaitlyn, and photo from Seattle’s Fremont Solstice Parade. Permission to use from the FSM website.

The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

The Church of the FSM does a great job of pointing out that religious ideas look pretty ludicrous when you’re not used to them. Why is a white bearded dude any more likely than a flying spaghetti monster?

Members (pastafarians) sometimes get their ID photos taken with colanders on their heads. And, when they’re dressed as pirates in Seattle’s Fremont Solstice Parade or getting married with a FSM wedding cake, they sure do look like their religion brings them joy.

From the About page of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster:

We believe religion — say Christianity, Islam, Pastafarianism — does not require literal belief in order to provide spiritual enlightenment. Much of the transcendent experience of religion can be attributed to the community.

and

“Let me make this clear: we are not anti-religion, we are anti- crazy nonsense done in the name of religion. There is a difference.”

So, yeah, technically, none of us know the answers to the unanswerable questions of this world. I agree with the Pastafarians that we might all get along better if we admitted we have no reason to have literal belief in anything we can’t observe. Rather, we’re all taking the pieces that were handed to us in our childhood, and we’re mashing them up with our own creativity. And hopefully, we’ll all end up with feelings of community, and a kind approach to life.

So why am I Jewish?

I get into this a lot more in my piece Growing Up Jewish in America. But it’s important to understand that, for me, Judaism is an ethnicity as well as a religion.

It’s fine; you can clone me. (Screenshot of my results from Ancestry.)

My mom’s Jewish. My dad’s not. Pictured are the results of my Ancestry DNA gene test: 50%. Meaning, if my mom sent her own spit in to be tested, she’d get a pretty boring result.

I get that it’s hard for some Christians to relate with. Can you imagine taking a gene test and it telling you that you were 100% or 50% Christian? Right, it makes no sense. But for Jews, it’s often reality.

I was pretty impressed that the gene test showed my dad’s family emigrated to West Virginia (I knew his parents were both from there), but there’s no sign of my mom’s family’s emigration to America. Why? Because the Jewish community was so separate that our genes don’t show whether her parents met in America or in The Old Country.

Okay, but all that’s just genes. Is that all my Judaism is to me?

For some Jews, it is. But not for me. Lately, I’ve been lighting the Shabbat candles again. And teaching my 4-year-old all the Hebrew I can. We’ve been connecting with other Jewish families, and rocking out to Nefesh Mountain:

Hine Ma Tov by Nefesh Mountain, on YouTube

This ancient, orthopraxic religion has always been a part of my life, and it always will be. Not a year has gone by, as an adult, that I haven’t cried as I threw bread crumbs into the water for Tashlich.

I’m an atheist, so I know there’s nothing I have to do. (Putting aside legitimate philosophical questions regarding the existence of free will), I choose which traditions to follow and which to leave behind. But I have this choice, because I have these traditions. I love them; I value them. They have nothing to do with some belief in an afterlife (Judaism doesn’t have that). It’s about joyful living, and about connecting to something larger than myself, namely the entirety of everything: people, other animals, plants and mushrooms, even stars.

What a beautiful, mysterious world. Photo by Martin Jernberg on Unsplash

I acknowledge that there is so much we don’t understand. I love that there is so much that we don’t understand.

I am an atheist. And I am a Jew. See, it’s okay.