It is indisputable that a disproportionate amount of secular Jews self identify as atheist or agnostics. The celebrated atheist Christopher Hitchens has suggested that this is because Jews carry an atheist gene. This is an interesting and arguably racist conclusion that I wholeheartedly disagree with. Though it does make me think that Hitchens the atheist with Jewish lineage and many of the great Jewish theists have much in common.
Now, it is undeniable, and Hitchens agrees, that Jews have traditionally been deeply analytical questioners. One has only to study the Talmud (the magnum opus on Jewish law canonized in the fifth century) to recognize this. In fact the entire genre of rabbinic literature is full of questions, arguments and intellectual query.
For thousands of years Jews have been taught to question and delve deeper to uncover the truth inherent in any discussion. This tradition lives on in the Jewish community despite the fact that many Jews do not study classical Jewish texts as intensely as they used to.
One might argue that the entire literature of Jewish mysticism, otherwise known as the Kabbalah, is based on a single existential question pertaining to the meaning of the famous biblical phrase, “Hear O’ Israel the Lord our God the Lord in One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). The Jewish mystics wanted to understand what the Bible meant when it said that God is one. They question how one unified God was able to create a universe so fragmented. The question of why a God would care what humans do (or don’t do) is a question that Jewish mystics prominently ask.
These are questions that atheists also ask. It is fair to say that most Jewish metaphysicians were skeptics at heart. They doubted the simplistic way of understanding the Bible. But their motives for asking these existential questions were different than those of the atheist. For the mystic intellectual inquiry brings a deeper appreciation and understanding of the truth inherent in the words of the Bible. The atheist, conversely, questions in order to disprove. The fundamental quest for truth, however, remains similar.
In my view, many secular Jews become atheists because of a lack of Jewish knowledge rather than because of an atheist gene. Most contemporary Jews—if they are given a Jewish education—discontinue all formal Jewish education at around age thirteen. This is because synagogues make part-time religious school attendance a condition to having a synagogue based Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Thereafter, however, most young Jews discontinue any formal Jewish involvement or education.
Thus, most secular Jewish adults, at best, have a thirteen year olds concept of how Judaism perceives God. Based on this miniscule amount of formal Jewish education it is little wonder that secular Jews tend towards atheism. No one can expect naturally skeptical adults to continue believing in a sophomoric concept of God. Indeed the concept of God I believed in at age thirteen has little resemblance to what I believe in today after many years of study.
To be sure, belief in monotheism is not solely dependent on an in-depth knowledge of Jewish metaphysical teachings. But a sophisticated understanding of the uniquely Jewish concept of God is necessary if such a belief is to stand to the intense scrutiny of a deeply analytical and questioning mind. My experience tells me that most Jews—especially those who claim to atheists—lack such knowledge and the God they say they don’t believe in I don’t believe in either. It is difficult to take the claim of being an atheist seriously knowing that the individual has not studied the extensive literature on Jewish metaphysics.
Thus, the real cause of overwhelming Jewish atheistic tendencies seems to be a tragic ignorance of Judaism’s most profound teachings and ideas and therefore a juvenile understanding of the Jewish idea of a monotheistic God. Undoubtedly, the concept of Jews carrying an “atheist gene” is a red herring that has little evidentiary basis. To ignore the evidence and choose instead to believe in an unevidenced and unprovable “atheist gene” sounds to me like the type of belief system the likes of Hitchens have themselves criticized within religion. How ironic.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is author of Jewish Wisdom for Business Success: Lesson from the Torah and Other Ancient Texts