At the age of six, some 40 years before he became president of American Atheists, David Silverman came to the conclusion that there was no God.
“My mother told me I was too old to believe in Santa Claus. At that point Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and God all went away,” he told NJ Jewish News as he sat behind his desk at his organization’s national headquarters on a quiet street in Cranford.
His belief was reinforced when his parents insisted he attend Hebrew school and become bar mitzva at a Reform synagogue in his hometown of Marblehead, Mass.
While he was on the bima saying, “Let us declare the greatness of our God,” Silverman remembered thinking: “I was lying to everyone in my world. That is when I came into the idea that religion was a lie.”
He began calling himself a “Jewish atheist” — a time-honored, if not rabbi-approved, designation that has included Yiddish-speaking secularists, militant kibbutzniks, and members of groups like the Society for Humanistic Judaism.
But it wasn’t until Silverman spoke in Tucson, Ariz., at a joint meeting of the Secular Humanist Jewish Circle and the nonsectarian FreeThought Arizona in October 2013 that he publicly renounced his Jewish identity — to the disappointment and sometimes anger of many in the Jewish community who are aware of his stance.
“I am an atheist, not a Jew, and the same thing goes for every one of you,” he told an audience of several hundred — many of whom consider themselves Jewish atheists. “My proposition is that Jewish atheism is indeed an oxymoron because Judaism is only a religion, and the rest is a scam.”
Silverman’s speech — available on YouTube — set off a debate among Jewish atheists and humanists, many of whom feel their Jewish identity does not depend on a belief in a higher being. Instead, they’ll insist, they remain Jews in terms of history, family, “nationhood,” destiny, or genetics, to name just a few categories.
Across the spectrum, Jewish observers agree.
Bennett Muraskin of Morris Plains, a leader of the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations in New Jersey, considers himself an atheist as well as a Jew. He said Silverman “does offend me. Why go so far as to tear up your roots and repudiate? But if he sees Judaism as purely a religious identity, then of course, I know exactly what he means.”
“A lot of Jewish atheists are disappointed that he won’t acknowledge being a Jew,” said Herb Silverman (no relation), an atheist and activist in several secular humanist organizations who lives in Charleston, SC. “I would like people to acknowledge that Judaism is not necessarily a religion,” he said. “Outsiders consider us to be Jews, and to say ‘I’m not a Jew’ is like hiding or being ashamed of Judaism and can possibly feed into anti-Semitism.”
Halacha, Jewish law, considers Jewish identity largely a matter of biology — an inheritance from one’s mother. “Most people say you cannot renounce the halachic definition of what it means to be Jewish,” said Daniel Rynhold, a London-born Orthodox Jew who teaches modern Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University. “Even a Jew who converts to Catholicism will literally still be considered ultimately a Jew — a heretical one but still a Jew. I couldn’t renounce my Englishness. I was born in England. End of story. It is very similar in that way.”
“I think it is certainly possible to secede from the Jewish people, but I don't think the idea that you don’t believe in God does it,” said Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, and a firm believer in God. “My way of addressing these questions is not by being angry at people who depart. It is by giving new life to what their tradition is so they won't choose to depart.”
‘Poison in your mind’
In his lengthy speech, highlighted with PowerPoint slides, however, David Silverman argued that Judaism is not a culture or a race or a nationality.
“So many people have told me it is a race. You can't leave. Once you’re a Jew you're always a Jew. But if you look at the Ethiopian, and the Ashkenazi, and the Sephardim, there is nothing common among those groups except the Torah, which is religious and religious only. That is the only thing that unites those groups of Jews,” he said.
He derided atheists who “are still sticking to the concept that once born a Jew, always a Jew. That's the poison in your mind.”
In his interview with NJJN, Silverman said he came to his realization when he started writing a book in 2012 “to delineate what made Jewish atheism different from Christian atheism or Muslim atheism.” At that point, he was best known for his leadership of American Atheists, which in 2010 began putting up billboards — including one at the Lincoln Tunnel — declaring that the world’s great religions are “myths.”
“I tried to write a defense for Jewish atheism — and I failed. I came up with double standards and double talk,” he said. “So I took off my ‘Jewish hat’ for the first time and said, ‘What is different about Judaism from all the other religions?’ I realized — nothing is.”
Silverman insisted: “We are all subjects of the indoctrination we receive when we are young. It is a lie that we as Jews have all been fed, that Judaism is somehow special and different from all the other religions. It is not.”
His organization caused a stir when it was banned from setting up a literature table at the Conservative Political Action Committee’s annual meeting in early March.
“I went there to raise awareness that Christianity’s influence is dwindling, atheism is growing, and if conservatism wants to live, it needs to dump the theocratic stuff,” he said. He estimates that half of the 40 million atheists in the United States are fiscal conservatives.
Silverman, who works in the tech field, describes himself politically as “a former Republican who never votes Republican because the Republicans won’t give me a candidate who supports the separation of church and state and religious freedom. That is a dead-stop deal.”
He said one of his key missions is “to de-demonize the word ‘atheist.’ A huge percent of atheists — I would guess 70 percent — are in the closet. It is absolutely important that they come out.”