I consider myself a secular Jew: I don’t believe in any of the tenets or holy books of Judaism, nor in any divine being, but I still identify with Jews, hang around the Lower East Side when I’m in New York, am proud when a Jew has a big achievement like the Nobel Prize, and use a fair amount of Yiddish in my speech. Steve Pinker, I believe, is about the same, and we’ve had discussions about things like where to find the best “smoked meat” (the Canadian equivalent of pastrami) in the delis of Montreal.
I still believe that Judaism is the only faith that also comes with a purely secular version. I’ve never heard of a cultural Catholic (is that someone who eats fish on Fridays out of solidarity with believers?) or a cultural Muslim (nonbelievers who fast for a month during Ramadan?). Now I’m sure that my readers will be able to point to a few counterexamples, but, as Jason Rosenhouse points out in his latest post on EvolutionBlog (drawn from a piece on PuffHo), estimates of the incidence of atheism and agnosticism among American Jews are as high as 50%. That means the percentage of cultural Jews must be far higher than the cultural versions of any other faith. If you’re a reader who considers yourself a secular version of a non-Jewish faith, do weigh in.
I haven’t analyzed, although I always meant to, why it’s important for me to be a cultural Jew, though Jason has been more introspective. It’s not about associating with a community of like-minded people, for I never go to synagogue, and haven’t since I was 12. Perhaps it’s about solidarity with a group that has tremendous respect for learning and debate and, despite centuries of persecution, is still around, having produced way more than its share of academics, comedians, songwriters, and Nobel Laureates. (We are, however, severely deficient in the sports department, but I don’t see that as a liability.)
One thing I do know, though: it’s not about the food.