Secular Jews

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.

163 Comments

  1. Bill Gilliland
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    So do cultural Jews still practice male circumcision, or is that something that parents can choose to opt out of?

    • Matt G
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 8:47 am | Permalink

      No, this one is not optional. Failure to perform this ritual can lead to you getting cut off.

      • Posted September 26, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

        I though that performing that ritual would cause your son to get cut off?

    • Posted September 26, 2011 at 8:58 am | Permalink

      If you think that many Jews don’t believe in god then try the church of England. Not only do churchgoers p not take the god stuff very seriously , but neither do quite a lot of the ministers.

      • Jeff Walker
        Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:10 am | Permalink

        I agree. I think the U.S contains a sizeable portion of cultural protestants and catholics that are effectively atheists or at best deists. One possible difference (in academics at least?) might be that atheists from protestant lineages seem to divorce themselves from protestant culture more than atheists from jewish lineages and catholic lineages.

        • EvolutionSWAT
          Posted September 26, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

          That’s a good point. I think that might have to do with the fact that the protestant Church, at least culturally, is much less intellectual. Catholics might believe some very strange things, but I think it is easier for an intellectual to fit in in certain circles. Protestant culture is much more anti-science across the board …

      • Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        There aren’t that many COE churchgoers, full stop, except at Christmas and Easter.

      • Posted September 26, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

        I fully agree. I think Martin Rees, in his semi-apology for accepting the Templeton Prize, identified himself as a cultural Anglican. I’m not as keen as he is on the actual services, but there are bits of the liturgy and related rituals I like. Above all else, I adore Blake’s “Jerusalem”, which I guess makes me a cultural British Israelite.

    • Posted September 26, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      Resistance to circumcision varies widely among Jews from country to country. It’s said to be as high as 60% (i.e. only 40% circumcision) in northern Europe and Scandinavia. In the USA, many secular Jews have their sons circumcised in hospital “because we’re Jewish” just like a high proportion of gentiles, optionally with the bogus medical excuses.

      Brit Shalom (non-surgical baby-naming ceremonies) are starting to be noticed in the USA (especially in the wake of the recent abortive moves to age-restrict circumcision in Massachusetts, Santa Monica and San Francisco, and the backlash, which promises to entrench circumcision by anyone, with anything, on anyone whose parents consent as long as the vic^h^h^h subject is a) under 18 and b) male).

      Contact details for Brit Shalom celebrants are here. Predictibly, they are mainly Humanistic, then Reform and Conservative. No Orthodox celebrants yet.

  2. Llwddythlw
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Centuries of persecution not prosecution?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 8:45 am | Permalink

      Whoops, typo. Fixed–thanks!

    • Posted October 1, 2011 at 3:19 am | Permalink

      Pretty sure it was both.

  3. Sajanas
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Judaism as a religion is somewhat unique in being as much its own ethnic group. Rather than comparing oneself to a Catholic or Muslim, perhaps a better comparison would be to the Irish, the Scots, the Greeks or zee Germans. Living in NC, there is a pretty tightly knit community of Scots living up in the mountains that will gather for various Highland Games and other more local festivals, and that often involves local churches too, but doesn’t require actual religious belief to still enjoy, and feel pride in the community.

    Sadly, I’m too much of an American mutt… though my family is of mostly pre WWI German immigrants, they all left any cultural distinctiveness behind some generations ago. I’m trying to make up for it by eating as many tasty brats as possible, but its a daunting task.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      It’s somewhat unique now, but I think until a few hundred years ago it was the norm for religious identity and ethnic identity to go hand in hand.

      The proselytizing nature of Christianity and Islam had a lot to do with separating the two, in my opinion, as did the Protestant Reformation.

  4. Posted September 26, 2011 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    Agreed! But wait! Not about the food?

    You have never been to Katz’s deli on Houston Street? Never eaten a Knish at Yonah Schimmels, or been to some of the best dairy restaurants in NYC to eat or schmooz.

    I am also an atheist Jew, happy with my NYC culture and upbringing. So despite my mother’s attempts to make chicken. As Woody Allen said, “putting it through the de-flavorizing machine.” There are many other tasty options.

    There are some great places to eat ethnically great “jewish food”.

    Cheers,
    David

    • Posted September 26, 2011 at 8:46 am | Permalink

      Yes, I did several posts on my food tour in NYC a while back; I’ve spent tons of time in delis. But beyond deli fare, Jewish cuisine is pretty dire. Think of a big lump of flavorless brisket with some kasha on the side. . . . .

      • Llwddythlw
        Posted September 26, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

        Sephardic food may be better….

      • SteveF
        Posted September 26, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink

        I strongly disagree about Jewish food being dire. A quick peruse of Claudia Roden’s seminal cookery book should be sufficient to disabuse anyone of this notion!

      • NateHevens
        Posted September 26, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

        Did you just diss brisket?

        I’m sorry, but we must cut off all ties. I can no longer read or respond to your blog…

        Okay, I’m kidding. :D :p

        Seriously, though, I frickin’ LOVE brisket. Admittedly, though, I’d rather brisket then classic “Shabbat Chicken” (grilled and flavorless, served with rice and veggies, and water to drink… so damn sick of it) any day of the week.

      • Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

        I thought Jewish Cuisine was Chinese Food … at least it was on Christmas when I used to ditch my family as a teenager to hang out with my Jewish friends. ;)

        • Posted September 30, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

          Which is very odd if you think it through, since if there’s anything that *really* characterizes Chinese food, it is pork …

          • Posted October 1, 2011 at 7:34 am | Permalink

            My wife’s Bobe kept three sets of dishes: meat, milk, and non-kosher for when they ordered Chinese take-out.

            There’s a certain logic to that, I suppose.

    • Posted September 26, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

      Yeah, really — not about the food? (This from a kid raised on meat/potato/veg by transplanted Brits, introduced to Jewish cuisine by his high school GF-now-wife).

      Shelley Posen has an album Manna about nothing but Jewish food. One song contains the chorus “If God had meant Jews to be healthy, he wouldn’t have given us…blintzes!” (substitute kishkes, etc, on each verse). Amen. If you’re ever in Toronto on a Sunday, be sure to go to the Free Times Cafe on College St. West for the “Bella, did’ja eat?” brunch.

      • Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:00 am | Permalink

        Bah, close-italics-tag FAIL. The album title is “Manna”.

      • Tim
        Posted September 26, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, well, you came from a place that sets the bar pretty low, don’t you? In the old joke where people from various European countries are in charge different things in “Heaven” and “Hell”, weren’t the Brits the cooks in hell?☺

        • Janet Holmes
          Posted September 26, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

          British food can be dire but never forget the desserts! Trifle, apple pie, and sponge cake etc. I have traveled in Eastern Europe and the food was fucking awful, never again. Much worse than English food which actually gets really marvelous if you spend enough money! My mother in English and she’s a truly fabulous cook.

          • Posted September 27, 2011 at 2:11 am | Permalink

            Well said Janet !

            Tim ~ I do not know what flag you sail under. Brit food, drink, dentition & attitudes to foreigners & their food has improved enormously over the past three decades ~ transformed beyond recognition in variety & quality ~ though we are still poor on service. The latter is changing with ‘waiting’ on tables no longer regarded as undignified labour ~ it’s becoming a career.

            I think losing an empire & going almost broke after WWII taught us some much needed humility. The teeth thing was probably driven by Hollywood & we can perhaps also thank the North Americans for leading the way in food distribution & preservation technologies [e.g. Clarence Frank Birdseye II]. British food is now a fusion of influences from all over the world & is second to none these days, if you are prepared to pay for it…

            Another up-and-coming foodie nation is Australia ~ also a fusion thing.

            I would like to see the demise of global ‘one size fits all’ fast food chain culture ~ let’s close the door on instant coffee, the submarine sandwich & the universal prefab cheeseburger. Celebrate the best of our national/regional differences & do away with the McDulling of the things in life that make it ‘sweet’

          • Posted September 27, 2011 at 6:34 am | Permalink

            Ah yes, my mother’s Christmas trifle….

            I was back in Ol’ Blighty this summer for the first time in 37 years (ie. first time as an adult), and was struck how things have changed. My cousins don’t cook much like the way I recall their mothers cooking. And I recall a BBC article a couple of years back talking about Britain’s most popular pub dish — roast beef & Yorkshire pud? Bangers & mash? Nope: chicken tikka masala.

            • Posted September 27, 2011 at 7:28 am | Permalink

              Yes it’s completely changed. For example Brits today eat more garlic per capita than the French. As to your cousins not cooking. This habit seems to be spreading in the first world ~ the consumption of processed & home-ready meals. I was brought up to help in the garden & the kitchen ~ food prep from the raw is mostly my preference.

              Regarding CTM ~ it was most probably an Anglo-Indian invention see Here:

              Rahul Verma, an Indian expert on street food from Delhi, has stated that the dish originated, probably by accident with subsequent improvisations, in Punjab during the last 50 years.

              There are also claims that an Indian chef in Glasgow invented it by improvising a sauce made from yogurt, cream and spices. In July 2009 Pakistani-born British MP Mohammad Sarwar tabled an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons asking that Parliament support a campaign for Glasgow to be given European Union Protected Designation of Origin status for chicken tikka masala. The motion was not chosen for debate nor has Sarwar spoken on this subject in Parliament [...] In an ironic inversion of history, British companies now export chicken tikka masala to Pakistan, India and Bangladesh

              BTW Curry first appearance on a Brit menu in 1773 & the first Indian restaurant opened in 1809

              • Posted September 27, 2011 at 7:38 am | Permalink

                For what it’s worth, one of the best restaurant meals I’ve ever had was in a hole-in-the-wall Pakistani restaurant somewhere in London in the late ’90s.

                I also have very fond memories of the pastries I bought from a bakery between the hotel and the Tube station. Didn’t have a single bad meal the whole trip. Hell, even the airline food from London to Edinburgh surpassed American standards.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted September 27, 2011 at 7:51 am | Permalink

                Note: I didn’t say “not cooking”. I said “not cooking like [ie. the same way as] their mothers did”. We had some delicious home meals over there.

              • Posted September 30, 2011 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

                Go “reverse colonialism”! After centuries of blandness (desserts perhaps excepted) the UK finally has at least tasty food everywhere, what with the ubquitous curry places and all.

          • dongiovanni
            Posted July 30, 2013 at 3:04 am | Permalink

            I take offence to that comment about Eastern European food.

  5. Neil
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    Well, I celebrate Christmas and sing Christmas carols even though I do not believe. Then again, I make a bee-line to a jewish deli the moment I arrive in NYC. So maybe its just that I do what I enjoy.

    As for atheism and cultural jews, I think Judaism emphasizes a more impersonal relationship with god than does Christianity. Is that part of the explanation?

    • NateHevens
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

      This is actually true. Jews are taught to actually pray *for* anything; with the exception of someone’s health. We* don’t pray for help finding jobs, or coming into a fortune, or getting a girl, or a good grade on tests, or anything like that. Such things are discouraged in Judaism.

      God is not our giver, but our protector. He’s not so much a father as a chief or leader. Giving is up to him.

      *I’m an Atheist Jew like Jerry. My family is rather religious: my Dad’s a Hazzan (look it up on Wikipedia) in the Conservative Movement, in fact.

      I’m am also pretty much an antitheist, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Judaism. Yeah, it has practices I don’t like: I don’t keep kosher (unless I’m with my family). If I ever have kids (I’m undecided on that front), I will not be circumcising them (I was circumcised… and I actually don’t care that I was… I’ve accepted it… I just won’t be doing it to my kids). The Old Testament is quite a bit nastier than the New Testament, and it is, quite frankly, the Judaism of 2000 years ago that we have to thank for modern misogyny, homophobia, racism, and even Creationism.

      That said, in general, I think Judaism’s pretty nifty, so…

      • NateHevens
        Posted September 26, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

        “Jews are taught to actually pray *for* anything; with the exception of someone’s health.”

        That should say “Jews are taught to actually NOT pray *for* anything; with the exception of someone’s health.”

        I wish we could edit these comments…

        • Neil
          Posted September 26, 2011 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

          Don’t worry about editing. Your meaning came through loud and clear.

          I think the Christian concept of god is akin to Santa Claus. I was practically kicked out of Sunday school for asking why I should believe in Jesus but not in Santa Claus. The Jewish conception is more deistic (is there such a word?), though both religions are riddled with nonsense.

          Culturally, both have given the world a lot. As an atheist, I am not unmindful of that. But as the Bible (NT) says, it is time to put away childish things.

  6. GBJames
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    I guess you might call me a “Cultural Catholic” since I was baptized as one and I eat fish on most Fridays.

    But I also eat fish most Sundays. And sometimes on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. And even Saturdays.

    But don’t call me that. If you do I’ll snarl at you and make an ugly face. Don’t do it.

    • NateHevens
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      Call you what?

      Oh…

      Hello, Cultural Catholic… :P

  7. Posted September 26, 2011 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    GSS data show that 35% of American Jews are atheist, agnostic, or believe in a “higher power but not a god.” Only 3.8% embrace atheism to describe their faith.

  8. HH
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Bosnia, and to a lesser extent Turkey, have significant numbers of what Christopher Hitchens called secular Muslims. It’s certainly true of Bosnia, where adhering to Ramadan (usually means no alcohol) is part of an ethnic identity that is Muslim only in name.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      That was my impression of Bosnian (and Albanian) Muslims as well.

    • Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      In Bosnia (and pretty much throughout that region), religion is something one is born into rather than necessarily what one believes or practices. When I lived there in the late 1980′s, practically nobody except a few old ladies seemed to be open practioners of any religion — in part because in Tito’s day it was discouraged as being socially divisive.

      With the rise of ‘nationalism’ in the decade following Tito’s death, the religious labels of identity became very important, especially for the extremists. Suddenly people found God and, in 1991, they started slaughtering each other.

  9. Llwddythlw
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    I agree with your assessment. In my own case, I also feel motivated to study the history and the texts (from a non-religious viewpoint), and on occasions attend synagogue. I did receive a thorough religious education which gradually filtered into me as I got older and which led to my current interests but never to the desire to observe all of the laws.

  10. Becca Stareyes
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Well, yes and no. I’m a secular humanist who was raised by lapsed Catholic parents. I still celebrate Christmas, but most of the other rituals… well, we didn’t do most of them growing up because a very secular Christmas and Easter, and maybe the idea that you were baptized and married and buried by the Church, even if you never went in between times.

    Maybe the distinction is one of persistence through generations. Or one of mainstreaming — American culture itself seems to assume a form of Christianity is ‘normal’, so it’s really hard for me to see what religious transitions have become cultural. Easier to identify Jewish cultural bits when it’s considered a minority culture.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 10:37 am | Permalink

      Yes. US culture is “secular Christian” by default, so not many people feel the need to explicitly self-identify as such.

      • Posted September 26, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

        But then, most of us here would *not* identify as “secular Christian” if asked — not even if we moved to country that was majority Muslim or something. We have rejected Christianity in a way that secular Jews have not rejected Judaism. I suspect this is because Jews have been a small, relatively monolithic ethnic group, where Christianity was divided among a couple of dozen or so European nations — thus those who are ancestrally Christian tend to identify first as English, Italian, Spanish, Polish, etc, and only secondarily (if at all) as Catholic or Protestant. Religion was not bound up with cultural identity in the way it was in Judaism.

  11. Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Of course one can be a cultural Christian.

    I was a cradle Catholic and yes, I still find myself cheering Notre Dame football (and no, I am not the only atheist to do so).

    Guilt, shame and redemption come naturally to me; I enjoy overcoming suffering as a sport (I do marathons and long distance swims for “fun”).

    Other people see this in me: my lunch buddy (foreign language professor) is an atheist Jew. We were having a discussion and at one point I said “hey, I am an atheist”. She replied “yes, but you are a Christian atheist and I am a Jewish atheist”.
    Even more strangely, I understood what she meant!

    • Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink

      ps: you do know that there was a time when Jews were “overrepresented” in boxing and basketball, right?

    • Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:17 am | Permalink

      As G.B.Shaw once said: “The French are not religious, and the religion they are not is Catholic”. I once paraphrased that to my agnostic father as: “You are not religious, and the religion you are not is English working-class Methodist” (his childhood background, and it still showed 50 years later).

  12. sasqwatch
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    From a Catholic (Italian-American Western, as opposed to Irish Catholic big-city Eastern) family.

    Most of us lapsed, despite (or perhaps because of) the attempts of our parents to indoctrinate. Am half-Irish, quarter German, quarter Italian mutt, but identify with the Italian, mostly because of the food (not the religion). ‘Twas a matriarchal lineage kind-of thing, and food preparation was mostly handed down along those lines.

    If anything, the next generation doesn’t consider themselves secular catholics, me included. Lapsed Catholics, perhaps, but it’s more like the whole religion thing has been suddenly dropped, like waking up from a bad dream. One of us didn’t make the leap away from religion, but that person ended up as more of a “Promise-Keeper” Jeeby-breeder type who outfits his kids in “Things go better with Jeezus” T-shirts (and is a singular exception among his five siblings, even regarded strangely by his still-religious parents). It’s as if the Promise-Keeper variety is a more virulent strain than even the mild western Catholicism. None of the sane among us would consider ourselves cultural Catholics.

  13. Sean
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    I’ve had quite a few Catholic friends who were not at all religious, but if asked would call themselves Catholic. One was even an avowed athiest, but still said he was a Catholic. Never having been Catholic, I kinda didn’t get it. I knew these guys all in college, though, and maybe they’d describe themselves as ex-Catholics or as “raised Catholic” now (it hasn’t come up in conversation since then).

    Me, I’m kind of a cultural Christian. I celebrate a very secular version of Christmas, and also of Easter, and I very much enjoy any kind of artistic endeavor that incorporates something from the Bible or the hymns I grew up singing (e.g. the recent Cohen brothers version of True Grit; that Iris DeMent version of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” was awesome.)

    I don’t celebrate when a “Christian” accomplishes something, but when I hear that someone well known was raised in the Church of Christ (not the United one, the other one, that’s very disunited) my ears prick up. For example, apparently Wierd Al Yankovick was raised CofC. Who knew?

    Anyway, that’s my two cents.

    • Posted September 26, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      I grew up with that kind of cultural “Christianity”: my parents were agnostic, but we had a Christmas tree, and played carols on the stereo. Easter, however, was all bunnies and chocolate — no mention of that unfortunate incident where the Romans tortured some poor bugger to death, and the wild Elvis-sighting-type tales that sprang up afterwards. Which is good.

  14. Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Jerry,

    I often read your blog and I enjoy it every time. Except for today.

    I find this sort of arguments frankly just self-serving and wrong.

    You say
    “Perhaps it’s about solidarity with a group that has tremendous respect for learning and debate”

    Really? Every religious person’s respect for learning and debate ends when their religious beliefs are exposed for what they are: the evolution of superstitions over the ages. Debate ends when you expose the underlying factoids that lead to our human need for “more”. An open mind does not need to be Jewish. We all try to have an open mind, we all succeed at time. We all fail often.

    And you continue:
    “[Jews are] still around, having produced way more than its share of academics, comedians, songwriters, and Nobel Laureates.”

    But so have many other groups on the surface of the planet! I think it’s time to set aside the “we are special” and move on. We are humans. I don’t think it serves anyone when a group points out its own members achievements (as in “he’s a Jew”). It’s just serves to perpetuate the false myth that some are better than others. You teach me that this is not the case and this is why evolution is true!

    For full disclosure: I an atheist or more appropriately an anti-theist (I actually believe religion is wrong). I was raised Catholic in Italy and I have not been in a church since I was 12. My partner is a secular Jew and she has also not visited a synagogue for some time.

    • GBJames
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      Yes.

    • Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:33 am | Permalink

      I would argue that Jewish people have indeed contributed a lot more than ‘their share’ to many intellectual and cultural accomplishments. They are only 0.3% (or less) of the world’s population, and yet — to pick one example — they have produced over 160 Nobel Prize winners (out of 750 total).

      I compare my own fundamentalist Protestant culture to that and come up nearly empty.

      • Llwddythlw
        Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

        I used to wonder if a disproportionate number of virtuoso violinists were Jewish. I don’t have the statistics, but I suspect it’s the case.

      • AlT
        Posted September 26, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink

        simply because “jewish” = “most often better access to education”

        and

        smart non-jews find the ways to get into “jewry” simply because that helps to climb up the pecking order structure and have a “better life”

        i agree with alberto that truly open mind will emphasize its non-specialness and similarity to all other minds on the planet

        anyone who feels the need to pick a specific “identity” along some sort of “‘specialness” (race,gender, ethnicity, religion, ‘botox’) closes some part of its brain/mind and will be ill-equiped to cooperate with the rest of humanity on matters of continuous viability that can only be handled thru science moving into government

        • Llwddythlw
          Posted September 26, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

          ‘Smart non-jews find the ways to get into “jewry” ‘

          I don’t understand this. Can you provide an example?

          • AlT
            Posted September 26, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

            if you are interested in the ‘topic’ check out the book by John Glad titled “Jewish Eugenics”

            The chapter that may be of particular iterest to you in this respect is titled “Are Jews Jews?” and is on pp 37 – 47

            • Llwddythlw
              Posted September 26, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

              I’m interested in understanding what you mean by ‘Smart non-jews find the ways to get into “jewry” ‘. Can you explain this without directing me to another book?

        • Diane G.
          Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

          simply because “jewish” = “most often better access to education”

          Though at times that access has been purposefully limited. There used to be Jewish quotas (to lower, not raise their numbers) at upper tier US universities.

      • Posted September 26, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

        But Ray,

        you forget to mention that 76% of Nobel Price winners have brown eyes!

        Come on!

        • Llwddythlw
          Posted September 26, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

          Isn’t that the same as the % of the general population that has brown eyes?

          • Posted September 26, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

            dunno, I clearly made it up.
            But it’s not that there are lot of “jewish” nobel prices is that there are a lot of people who value education and learning that win them. We need to move beyond this divisive arguments. We need to evolve as a species.

            • AlT
              Posted September 26, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

              ditto!

              • Llwddythlw
                Posted September 26, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

                It’s not a “divisive argument”. It’s simply an observation. Why it’s so, I can’t explain.

            • Posted September 27, 2011 at 12:08 am | Permalink

              IMO, there’s nothing wrong with admiring a culture’s accomplishments.

  15. Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    I’ve heard a few people use the description “cultural Catholic”, at least to describe a mindset. Catholic priests tend to give their homilies in a roundabout, metaphor way that feels similar from church to church.

    I admittedly sometimes go to the basilica in Minneapolis. The architecture and music are worth it and feel comfortable and familiar, even if the “substance” isn’t the best!

  16. Kevin
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Cultural Christian here. As well as my brother and his family.

    We celebrate the holidays — though often in a slightly off-kilter way. My favorite Christmas CD is the South Park Christmas album. And my brother decorates his house almost 100% with the trappings of The Christmas Story (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”).

    One year, we all went to Vegas for Christmas. That was a blast.

    • Hempenstein
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

      Presumably your brother has a Leglamp?

  17. ritebrother
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    I think “cultural Catholicism” is more prevalent than you think. As you describe with cultural Judaism, it’s often a component of solidarity and continuity with one’s European cultural heritage. In my case, Ukrainian immigrants; in my wife’s case, Sicilian immigrants. We are atheists, but have fond and important bonds to our family cultural traditions, which are largely intertwined with Byzantine and Latin Rite Catholic traditions. For example, many of the ethnic food traditions that we maintain as part of our cultural family identities are originally of religious significance.

    • Jeff Sherry
      Posted September 27, 2011 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      I’m curios ritebrother, do you think the culturalism that you are describing disappears when each generation is further removed from the immigrant generation? I’m 3rd generation and I don’t make the holiday krushtikis or do the easter eggs.

  18. MKray
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    I understand that you can’t be just an atheist in Ulster, but a protestant-atheist or a catholic-atheist. Can someone confirm?
    BTW, I’m a presbyterian-atheist with a weakness for Burns’ poems.

  19. Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    JAC:

    I still believe that Judaism is the only faith that also comes with a purely secular version.

    Should one call the purely secular version a ‘faith’, though?

    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.

    It’s the secular accomplishments of Jewish people that I most admire, especially those in science.

    • Llwddythlw
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      Good point. Would the word “lifestyle” fit the secular version better than “faith”?

      • Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:36 am | Permalink

        It’s probably much deeper than ‘lifestyle’, as those can be changed pretty easily. ‘Culture’ might a better description.

  20. Comrade
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Definitely a cultural catholic. Holidays, food (yes, fish on Fridays, idiom usage (‘Jesus, mary, and joseph!’), meeting places –CYO, eg), rituals (even atheists like myself had a church wedding), sport team affiliation (yes I am a Notre Dame fan), and so forth. It is certainly as much of my cultural identity as my ethnicity, which is no coincidence as my genes all spring from a catholic country.

  21. Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    There is an interesting cross-over of faith, culture and race that doesn’t really get covered that much, though some of the individual details do, such as the cases you’ve just listed. It seems obvious that all three aspects together of a persons background can take on any mix.

    So, you might get, for example, a British ‘white’ Muslim – someone who is from a British ‘white’ atheist family who becomes a Muslim. Islam has no race element to it (despite claims by some Muslims about the ‘racism’ of critics of Islam).

    On the other hand, a Muslim from Iraq that became an atheist might still identify as an atheist Iraqi, but no longer as a Muslim.

    I’m a British atheist, though I was supposedly a Christian as a child, having been christened, but I no longer identify as a Christian. My nearest race identity is ‘white’, though many of us Brits are clearly a mix of all sorts.

    From the outside, Jewish culture, faith and race seems more tightly bound than it does for other mixtures, so that even if, as you say, you are an atheist, you would still identify as Jewish.

    My daughter lives in NYC and has many Jewish friends. She, being a Brit new to living and working in NYC and ignorant of these details, told a Jewish friend that she had bumped into Natalie Portman in a store, and mentioned that she was Jewish, only to be corrected: she’s Israeli, not Jewish. Well, I’ve still not had that one explained.

    While I consider everyone to be free to make their own cultural choices, restrictions relating to faith are often imposed by those within a faith – such as the faith of the person one should marry – but given many faiths are open to any race, they can hardly be considered racist.

    But it seems within Jewish culture there are similar restrictions, whether you’re religious or not, about who one ought to marry. When the architypal ‘Jewish mother’ demands her son marry a nice Jewish girl, is this simply cultural preference, or given the close cultural, religious and race ties, and given that the prospective partner might be an atheist, so removing the faith element, is it culturalism, or racism?

    With some of the more orthodox Jewish groups the racism seems more explicit.

    At what point does cultural and/or religious preference become racism?

  22. Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    I’ve never heard of a cultural Catholic (is that someone who eats fish on Fridays out of solidarity with believers?)

    How many atheists with a Christian background still celebrate Easter and Christmas? In that sense, cultural Christians do exist. Although it’ll probably be more about chocolate bunnies and decorated trees than about Jesus. For most people it’s simply an occasion to spend time with your family, which will remain even if the religious elements are abandoned.

    I think the big difference is that those atheists don’t feel the need to hold on to the “Christian” label, not even a label of “cultural Christian”. I suspect that this might have to do with “cultural christianity” being the default in western societies – you don’t need to identify as such, it is just assumed.

    …or a cultural Muslim (nonbelievers who fast for a month during Ramadan?)

    Exactly. Just like Christmas for former Christians, Ramadan is still an occasion to spend time with the family, even if you don’t pray anymore. You may even think fasting increases your empathy with the poor, and that doing extra charity during Ramadan is a great idea. And why give up on the big feast at the end of Ramadan? These people do exist. Probably in larger numbers than we think.

    • Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      How many atheists with a Christian background still celebrate Easter and Christmas?

      Well, to be fair, there’re plenty of Jews, religious and not, who have Christmas Trees and who do Easter Egg hunts for the kids.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • GBJames
        Posted September 26, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

        I’m pleased that we changed our neighborhood event from The Easter Egg Hunt to The Spring Egg Hunt Hunt. Since it was us atheists who were organizing it, it only seemed fair.

        • Posted September 26, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

          Consider modeling it after the event on the White house Lawn…and then you can call it the Spring Egg Roll.

          Sorry….

          b&

        • Posted September 26, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink

          What, you mean people were offended by the reference to a middle-eastern fertility goddess? Man, PC-ness is so running amok these days….

      • Janet Holmes
        Posted September 26, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, does celebrating Easter and Xmas make you a cultural Christian or just a cultural European? We celebrate both round here but there’s precious little that’s Christian about them. Although I do own a ‘baby Jesus in the manger’ set which I sometimes put out, the tree, the chocolate eggs and the feasts have nothing to do with Christianity. I do sing carols in a choir some of which are religious.

  23. Digitus Impudicus
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    I met a cultural Muslim who fasts during Ramadan for cultural reasons and not religious ones. He said it was an “Arab thing” and not a “Muslim thing”. I forgot to ask if he still lives with his parents.

    • TrineBM
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      My son has a teacher who, for all I know, is an atheist muslim, but he cannot eat pork. It’s a cultural thing he say’s – not a religious one.

      • Janet Holmes
        Posted September 26, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

        I had the misfortune of going out to dinner with an atheist Jew who kept kosher ‘out of respect for his grandfather’ whatever that means. He was the dullest man I’ve ever met, even his wife refused to talk to him leaving me to shoulder the burden.

  24. Ken Pidcock
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    I had considered myself a cultural Christian, but eventually had to accept that there’s no real support for it. It’s kind of like being a Log Cabin Republican. (Do they still have those?) Everybody’s grateful that you’re under the tent – in fact, they love it, it makes them feel so enlightened and all – but you are to understand that you are objectively disordered.

  25. Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    “we’ve had discussions about things like where to find the best “smoked meat” (the Canadian equivalent of pastrami) in the delis of Montreal.”

    Oh my god, thank you for telling me what “smoked meat” is! When I was in Montreal with my friends a few years back, I saw that on the menu and I asked the waitress what kind of meat it was, and she just looked at me blankly and kept saying “it’s smoked meat”. Seriously, the conversation went on for a good minute or two and I never got an answer! :)

    • Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      Hmm, except…..what does “equivalent” mean here? Is it really pastrami, or LIKE pastrami? If the latter, then WHAT IS IT? :)

    • Posted September 26, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      John. Check out this Wiki ~ it is very detailed with good pics. A short extract:

      Montreal-style smoked meat ,or simply smoked meat in Montreal (French: viande fumée or du smoked meat), is a type of kosher-style deli meat product made by salting and curing beef brisket with spices. The brisket is allowed to absorb the flavours over a week, and is then hot smoked to cook through, and finally steamed to completion.

      Although the preparation methods may be similar, Montreal smoked meat is cured in seasoning with more cracked peppercorns and aromatic spices, such as coriander, and significantly less sugar than New York pastrami. The meat is typically served in the form of a rye bread sandwich slathered with mustard. While some Montreal smoked meat is brine-cured like corned beef, with spices applied later, many smoked meat establishments prefer dry-curing directly with salt and spices

  26. Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    There is actually a Society for Humanistic
    Judaism. I had a girlfriend in High School
    who’s family attended Congretation Beth Or in
    Deerfield, Il, which was part of that. I don’t know if their Rabbi, Daniel Friedman was an atheist or not, but I was always under the impression that he was. In any case, he always struck me as a great guy. I just did a google search for Rabbi Friedman and discovered that he’s written a book called “Jews Without Judaism”. Looks interesting!

    http://tinyurl.com/jews-w-o-judaism

    • NateHevens
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      I actually belong to Beth Or! Granted, I’ve never been able to get away to experience a service, but I know for a fact that their Rabbi (he prefers the term Teacher or not title at all… but he is ordained as a both a Reform and a Conservative Jewish Rabbi) is an atheist and would actually be welcome by the “Gnu Atheist” movement as he’s not at all an accomodationist/faitheist; he thinks the world would be much better off if we humans left dogma in the historical dirt. I talked with him for almost an hour once on the phone about it.

  27. HP
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    A lot of secular American Protestants (including me) come from “faith alone” type religions, where the only thing that matters is personal revelation and what you profess to believe. There’s no liturgy, no orthodoxy, no dietary practices, no rosary, no traditions. Worship services consist of some music, announcements, a bible reading, a sermon, a call to witness. Once you stop believing, there’s nothing left to embrace. That’s why there are, for example, no secular Church of Christ brethren, secular Baptists, etc.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

      Excellent observation.

    • Posted September 26, 2011 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      Spot on!

      Also, forget being accepted into those circles without professing the right beliefs.

  28. Egbert
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    I’m very much enjoying the new series of Curb Your Enthusiasm here in the UK. Jewish humour always seems to expose the fantasies created by Christian cultures (fantasies that still persist).

  29. Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    There’s a growing secular Buddhist movement as well, see the works of Stephen Batchelor and the various blogs and websites inspired by him.

  30. truthspeaker
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Here’s my theory on why you, Jerry, and many other cultural Jews identify as Jewish even though you don’t hold any of the religious beliefs.

    Hitler and the Nazis considered Judaism a race. When sending people to the gas chambers, they made no distinction between practicing Jews, non-observant Jews, people who had been raised Christian because their parents or grandparents had converted from Judaism to Christianity, and people with a Jewish father but gentile mother who Orthodox rabbis would not even consider Jewish.

    So it seems to me that identifying as Jewish for cultural reasons is a statement of solidarity with those killed in the camps or otherwise persecuted.

    • Dean Buchanan
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      I think there is a lot truth to what you write. My in-laws are secular Jews and I have heard them say, many times, that being Jewish and raising your kids Jewish is important because Hitler would have killed them.

      Also, at every holiday someone says “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!”

      • NateHevens
        Posted September 26, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

        Heh. That is actually the base for just about every Jewish holiday except for the High Holy Days.

    • NateHevens
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

      GODWIN!

      LOL j/k

      Seriously… you make a good point. I’m sure that solidarity with the victims of the holocaust plays a role. My family got hit by it, too. A Great grandma and a great uncle, to be exact.

  31. ChasCPeterson
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    We are, however, severely deficient in the sports department

    Sandy Koufax.

    I rest my case right there.

    • Ryan S
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      Hank Greenberg also!

  32. anthrosciguy
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Montreal smoked meat is actually the equivalent of corned beef. Ironically, and this really is a mystery, in most of Canada you can get pretty good Montreal smoked meat, but the corned beef is terrible.

    • Posted September 26, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      In comment 25 above I posted a link that states this:

      While some Montreal smoked meat is brine-cured like corned beef, with spices applied later, many smoked meat establishments prefer dry-curing directly with salt and spices

      So the major difference seems to be down to the use of brine or the use of salt applied without water ~ is that correct ?

  33. Marichi
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    I am puzzled. As a better informed Hindu, thanks to S.N. Balagangadhara, I have realized outside the narrow context of the Protestant Reformation, secularism, its result, is meaningless. If secular means identifying with a culture and rejecting beliefs, as Hindu, I’ve got an App for that too, and heckuva lot of Hindus would say that. Over the 5000 odd years of Hindu thought, there have been several schools of thought that range from absolute monism to devotion, hedonism to presdestination, high logic to folklore and so on. Hinduism as the fount that produced Buddhism and Jainism covers just about everything.
    Several Hindus would identify themselves as non-practicing Hindus or cultural Hindus.

    • Grania
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      No, that’s not what secular means. Secular means something that has no religious or spiritual basis.

      The Protestant Reformation is by definition several orders of magnitude removed from secularism, even though it may have contributed to the rise of secularism in certain societies affected by it. That was certainly not its intention however.

      The fact that some people can reject a religion and yet retain many cultural traditions that have over time become associated with a religious tradition is largely, although not wholly, dependant on whether that religion in question has dominated that society for a significant length of time.

    • Tumara Baap
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

      I’m of Indian heritage, but absolutely will not identify with any religion in any capacity. It’s been correctly pointed out Hinduism has straddled a vast range of philosophical positions over the eons, the most sophisticated of which had little staying power. But even the most progressive of these are in no way peers to modern empiricism and science. I cannot deny the lore, music and language of my ethnicity tugs on me. However an inclination to tribalism is innate and often the default position. I consciously try to shed any ethnocentric tendencies I might harbor. I find such an outlook rejuvenating – to never enslave one’s mind to to outmoded group allegiances, some embarrassingly tainted by mythology and superstition. And better yet to aim higher – not slipping into the furrows of the limitations of the era that we live in, to not have any privileged perspective on humanity and the universe because of the cultural system that engulfs us. I’m always surprised by otherwise like minded secular people who are so drawn to some ancient affiliation.

      • Circe
        Posted September 27, 2011 at 12:39 am | Permalink

        And why does your nickname mean “Your Father”?

        • Tumara Baap
          Posted September 27, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

          You must render it correctly. In Punjabi or Hindi, Tera Baap or Tumhara Baap conveys to the other fellow to know their place on a pecking order. It’s manner of the street. “Who do you think you are?” The reply “Yo Daddy!” That captures it better. Yourrrr Father? For heaven’s sake…

          • Circe
            Posted September 27, 2011 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

            Gustakhi Maaf, Sarkaar!

  34. Daniel Schmuhl
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    My grandfather is an Ashkenazi German American, but I’ve never really practiced the religion or anything. Usually if someone asks me if I’m Jewish it turns into a huge debate over the definition of Jew, so I just avoid it.

  35. TrineBM
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I honestly think that most atheists from protestant areas like Northern Europe are atheist protestants. I know for sure that I’ve got the whole “work-before-pleasure”, “work-is-the-meaning-of-life”, “Noone-deserves-ANYTHING-in-life”, “Are-you-having-fun? Well-that’s-wrong-of-you” plus all the slightly more enjoyable things like Bach Christmas Oratorio at christmastime, Christmas itself, the hundreds of bible references in litterature etc. etc. I’m very much a cultural christian even though I was brought up in an atheist household. There’s just no running away from it. But I must say, that I do not identify as such with my fellow human beings. I don’t feel as a part of a – for lack of better word – cultural christian brotherhood.

    • pj
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      A fair proportion of Finns can easily be called cultural Christians. People who definitely want to marry in a church, baptise their children, celebrate Christmas and Easter, have Christian burials for their loved ones…but have very vague and unexamined belief system, and only become aware of the strain between the official Church line and their personal ethics when, say, gay marriage is actively discussed in media.

  36. Posted September 26, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Well, my ancestors looted, pillaged, raped, and burned their way across the known world, so although I’m atheist I’ve always considered myself culturally Viking. (Oddly, I really hate visiting new places, maybe because one’s not allowed to loot, pillage, etc. nowadays.) I do celebrate the winter solstice with a little Thor tree.

  37. Llwddythlw
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    It’s a useful exercise to see what remains of different religions after jettisoning any supernatural baggage, what points are shared and where this might lead us in the future. This is what John Dewey began to address in A Common Faith.

  38. Grania
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    I was raised a Catholic but I do not regard myself as culturally Christian or Catholic. I don’t celebrate Easter or Christmas, let alone any of the other “rituals of passage” associated with those traditions – although I might relent on the chocolate bunnies and tinsel-strewn trees if I had kids, which I don’t.

    Okay – sometimes I get involved with gift-giving in December. But neither winter solstice gifts nor Christmas trees are particularly Christian, both of those practises pre-date this monotheism.

  39. Occam
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    George Steiner, an immense literary scholar and a secular Jew, used a phrase which is engraved in my memory: “Perhaps we can define ourselves thus: the Jews are a people whom totalitarian barbarism must choose for its hatred.”

    This is a convoluted and slightly self-important way of saying that modern Jewish identity and consciousness has been irremediably forged in one catastrophe: the attempted total extermination of European Jews by the Nazis and their accomplices, inaccurately euphemised as the ‘Holocaust’.

    Is there a non-religious Catholic or Protestant cultural specificity? There most certainly is. Umberto Eco is an exquisite example of a non-religious Catholic. Helmut Schmidt, the former German chancellor, is an typical example of a non-religious Protestant. And so on. Moral and cultural attitudes and values associated with a once-dominant religion remain pervasive, even long after societies and individuals outgrow that domination.

    I don’t think that many non-religious people of Jewish extraction would still identify themselves as Jews if a lapse did not entail such an acute sense of betrayal of the collective memory. The shadow of the pain, the suffering, and the death is ever looming. Looming is the awareness that so many humans were murdered, so many more went through the living hell, because someone decided they were Jews, and as Jews this must be their fate. Nothing could be cruder than that. Transferred pain and transferred guilt are potent binders.

    Whatever the merits of Jewish cultural traditions, I think centuries of anti-Semitism and religious persecution have induced an epidermic oversensitivity, and an equal measure of defensiveness and tribalism. It is no coincidence that the greatest contributions of Jews to Western culture occurred during the century after their emancipation in the Age of Enlightenment. From Heinrich Heine to Albert Einstein, a luminous arc was drawn by men and women who sought to transcend outer and inner ghettos. Hitler ended all that, perhaps forever.

    My own father, as recounted here a few years ago, was one of the few in my family who survived the Nazi camps. He told me: “Hitler decided that I should be a Jew, and that as a Jew I must die. I decided to survive, and if I survived I would decide on my own how to define myself.” Never a religious man, he gradually even stopped going through the motions on Jewish holidays: he thought there were better ways of honouring the memory of those who had been slaughtered. As for the cultural part of the tradition, he considered it an accumulation of habits, irrespective of merit. (His training in ethnology helped with putting all traditions into perspective, including his own.) Everyone, he thought, should be free to conserve the good and ditch the bad according to their own lights.
    Likewise, my mother, raised in a rather observant Greek Orthodox family, distanced herself completely from the religion of her childhood when she became aware of the structural analogies between Communist aparatchiks and Orthodox clerics in the Stalinist dictatorship where she grew up.

    My parents never tried to influence my stance towards religious or cultural identity, one way or the other. From my earliest childhood onwards, I have never ceased to be baffled by the phenomenon of faith. It was, and still is, the least comprehensible aspect of human behaviour. That’s why I don’t ever call myself an ‘atheist’: there is too much of the ‘theist’ and too little of the ‘a-’ in this sobriquet. I need not define myself in respect to a figment of human imagination, a noxious and pathological non-entity. Let those who adhere to absurd superstitions justify themselves and don funny denominational hats. As a thinking human being, I need none. Ian Stewart once wrote that the term ‘non-linear phenomena’, with its implication that linear phenomena are seen as the norm, was about as apt as a zoologist who specialised in elephants calling all other branches of zoology ‘non-pachydermology’. I need not position myself relative to an inexistent, imaginary elephant.

  40. DV
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Cultural Christian = people who go to church only once a year (Easter Sunday).

    • truthspeaker
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      More likely to be Christmas Eve where I’m from.

  41. Stephen
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    >> Perhaps it’s about solidarity with a group that has tremendous respect for learning and debate >>

    An additional reason is that Jews “teach the world to be discontented and restless,” as the theologian Jacques Maritain wrote. Because Jews were marginalized everywhere, they were the ones who challenged every convention and undermined every orthodoxy. And so Jews have ever been in the intellectual and social vanguard of much of the world, changing things for the better (and sometimes for the worse).

    Some will see this message as a snide assertion of Jewish superiority. I do not believe in that and do not intend that. I rather submit this as a historic fact. Personally, I honor those who agree and honor those who disagree.

    • Circe
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      Because Jews were marginalized everywhere, they were the ones who challenged every convention and undermined every orthodoxy.

      There has been a significant Jewish minority population in several areas in India since roughly the 1st century CE, with no instances of anti-Semitism.

  42. Chris Slaby
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    I have, at times, considered myself a secular Orthodox Christian. I grew up in a family that was Russian/Ukrainian Orthodox. A lot of the church and religious life of an Orthodox Christian in the U.S. is similar to that of a Catholic in the U.S. It’s not the most conservative of Christian sects, but it’s also not the most liberal. Like Catholics, Orthodox Christians tend to identify with their religion, and to see faith in a very positive light, but they don’t tend to talk about it in public so much, at least not the way evangelicals do. Religion and God are cultural for Orthodox Christians. Something that’s always there, yes, but something that’s also not usually there every day. Religion and church serves as a community for Orthodox Christians, especially since “we” are such a minority here.

    Early enough in my teens I realized that none of the supernatural claims of “my” religion were true, but to this day I still have a sense of belonging and identity related to Orthodox Christianity. I can’t remember the last time that I went to church, but I don’t completely hate it. Again, I don’t believe in any of it (and probably on par with most readers here, I have an overall strongly negative view of religion and faith), but unlike PZ, and perhaps other prominent atheists, I do often enough enjoy the ritual(s) and the experience. While at best the text of the Orthodox Church service is an interesting historical/cultural relic for me, the sounds, smells, and sights of an Orthodox Church can be very alluring, at least to someone like me who grew up with it. (I should also note that Orthodox priests can marry, and whether or not this is particularly related to the just previously mentioned comment, as far as I’m aware, and certainly from my personal experience as an alter boy, the Orthodox Church does not have the problems that the Catholic Church has with child rape.)

    It all has to do with family, with cultural identity, with a sense of self. So yes, I would, with the proper caveats, call myself a secular Orthodox Christian. I am also attracted to certain rituals, and ideas, found in Buddhism and Islam. I hesitate to identify with these religions because 1) I’ve seen no reason to accept the supernatural claims of any religion, and 2) the costs of identifying with them and thus providing any semblance of positive public relations (even though there are, of course, certain things that I do find positive, or at least interesting, about them) far out way any possible benefits to calling myself in someway a secular Buddhist or a secular Muslim. And as we keep talking about, if people don’t actually believe what their self-identified religions tend to indicate they should believe, why are people continuing to identify with those religions? It’s just about culture, ritual, behavior. I feel like if we got that reality out of the way, so many more people would simply accept the fact that the supernatural claims of “their” religions simply aren’t true.

  43. Dianne Saichek
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    check this out, Jerry:
    http://progressiveerupts.blogspot.com/2011/09/50-reasons-why-i-reject-evolution.html

  44. George
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    There is obviously more to being a Jew than Hanukkah or smoked meat. According to Nicholas Wade, “The shared genetic elements suggest that members of any Jewish community are related to one another as closely as are fourth or fifth cousins in a large population, which is about 10 times higher than the relationship between two people chosen at random off the streets of New York City, Dr. Atzmon said.”

    • Diane G.
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

      Funny how, in a website about evolution, so few have brought up possible biological reasons for solidarity…

  45. Posted September 26, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    I Jews are a unique case – the Jewish identity has two facets one is the religious identity – I am a Jew because I believe in the religious tenets of Judaism and the other is the almost tribal identity – I am Jew because my parents and their parents were Jew. For a long time it seems to me these two were intertwined and inseparable but now slowly they are unraveling. I have always wondered if it is possible for an outsider to convert to Judaism. I know Judaism doesn’t have a proselytizing zeal but if one wants to convert to Judaism, how does one go about doing that? Is the tribal Jewish identity a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for having a religious Jewish identity? Are there religious Jews who are not Jews in the tribal sense?

    • Posted September 26, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      My understanding is that officially becoming Jewish is almost as hard as officially becoming non-Catholic.
      ;-)

      • pj
        Posted September 26, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

        I have heard of gentile women converting to Judaism when marrying a Jewish man. To wit, some broads called Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor.

        • Posted September 26, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

          Now that you mention it, there’s a case of that in my wife’s extended family, two generations back. Marriage no doubt makes it easier, but I have the impression that some random goy walking in off the street to see the rabbi will be given a bunch of stuff to read and told to go think it over long and hard.

        • Janet Holmes
          Posted September 26, 2011 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

          A friend of mine converted to Judaism to marry a Jewish guy, they still went home to Adelaide for Xmas though. I expect she was actually an atheist and just wanted to keep his husband’s family happy. The kids went to an expensive private school but not a Jewish one.

    • NateHevens
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      Depends. Mainly, for the Traditional-Orthodox, Labuvitch, and Chasidic, if Judaism does not run in your whole family (mom, dad, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc) then there is conversion. A non-Jew is a non-Jew. Period.

      For some Modern Orthodox, the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist, conversion is welcomed. They still don’t proselytize, but the family tree is of less import. A goy can, essentially, walk in and, maybe a month later (sometimes sooner) be considered a member of the tribe.

  46. Circe
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    I still believe that Judaism is the only faith that also comes with a purely secular version.

    Not true. Hinduism comes with built-in atheism right from the start, see for example this wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism_in_Hinduism. Even the Vedas devote some time to what is almostly certainly agnostism, if not atheism. Even the almost militantly secular Charvakas have been around almost since the Vedic period, and were considered important enough by the religious majority that when a religious commentator called Madhavacharya wanted to write a treatise on different philosophical systems, the first chapter was devoted to a discussion of the Charvakas.

    Several other religions originating in the Indian subcontinent were/are fairly “secular”: Buddhism almost developed as a negation to ritualistic Brahmanism, and Siddhartha Gautama was by all accounts a proto-rationalist and surely an agnostic. Jainism (which started around the same time) is strictly atheistic. In orthodox Jainism, the most important observance for a Jain is a very rigid adherence to non-violence (No meat is allowed, and rooted vegetables are not allowed because while digging them you could kill insects. In fact, Jain monks are required to make sure than any spot they are going to sit on has no ants, lest they be crushed under them. But I digress: if you take ‘life is sacred’ taken to its extreme, you should certainly have a look at orthodox Jainism.)

  47. Posted September 26, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Plastic religionists & genuine religionists, just like most people, are interested in Sex, Reproduction &/or Not-Being-Alone

    Playing the religion card gives access to a club where…

    ** One can meet & assess potential sex/ marriage/ TV dinner partners
    ** in a safe/ non-threatening environment
    ** where it’s likely that people will share many of your values/ cultural history/ prejudices

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

      Well said. I’d add that it’s a place where your children can meet, and learn to communicate with, adults outside of the family.

  48. Posted September 26, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Something unique to Judaism is the “God’s Chosen People” schtick – though literal-minded Christians like to think the torch has been passed to them.

    This seems to me quite toxic and responsible for a lot of the trouble between Jews and other peoples. I wonder how much and what kind of a residue is left in Jews who have shaken off God?

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      To be fair, observant Jews understand themselves to have been chosen for a greater burden than other people.

      • Posted September 28, 2011 at 12:35 am | Permalink

        Yes, and tikkun olam, healing the world, is a great ideal, except that it can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean. The burden of being God’s Chosen People is a little bit like the White Man’s Burden, don’t you think?

  49. Posted September 26, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    “We are, however, severely deficient in the sports department” Cheer up, Mark Spitz is worth several.

  50. MarkMyWords
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    First, my bona fides: born and raised Catholic, educated Catholic all the way through high school, secular college but attended Catholic seminary and a reigious studies program at a large secular university post-graduate for a few years. Not surprisingly, it was the intellectual tools developed through that education that led me to see Catholicism and all religion for the bunk that it is.
    But I would still consider myself culturally Catholic. In my case, it’s primarily a set of tools I’ve been left with to analyze religious claims and institutions. I can “speak the language”, if you will, and so find myself pretty well prepared to probe and examine someone’s underlying assumptions when we try to discuss (OK, argue) religion.
    Also, the particular worldview of Catholicism as it reflects on what “proper” religion is colors my approach to jsut about all forms of spirituality. The particular foundational basis of Catholicism that separates it from virtually every Protestant sect is an emphasis on corporate identity as opposed to extreme individualism. It’s through membership in the church that one achieves salvation rather than through personal faith. We used to have a saying in my seminary days that Protestants had the Bible and Catholics had the Church.
    The primary remnant of my Catholic upbringing is an appreciation for the musical and artistic heritage of the church as an institution. I still regularly attend services at the cathedral in my town, even though I make no bones about being a non-believer. I tell everyone that I attend only because the musical program is so good – a semi-professional choir that is equally at home doing a Bach motet, a Tallis or Palestrina motet for 8 voices, or any of the musical treasures of the high church Anglican tradition. So, for me, church every Sunday is alike attending a mini-concert of superb choral music interupted by long stretches of (at least, high church) drivel.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted September 26, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

      Wait. Catholics have music? They lied to me! ;)

      • MarkMyWords
        Posted September 26, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

        Only the ones who deep down inside wish they were Anglican.

        • Erp
          Posted September 26, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

          High church Anglicans consider themselves Catholic just not Roman Catholic (though the a few will sometimes swim the Tiber).

          BTW some Anglican music was written or arranged by atheists (e.g., Vaughan Williams).

          Oddly enough at a local conservative Roman Catholic church the music director is Jewish.

  51. tgt
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    The discussion about the best smoked meat in Montreal had to have been pretty short. Schwartz’s wins hands down.

    • Doug Henning
      Posted September 27, 2011 at 7:11 am | Permalink

      Absolutely. Schwartz’s was absolutely heavenly.

  52. Peg
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    I come from an Irish-Catholic family. My parents were very observant Catholics–we went to mass every Sunday and followed all of the Catholic traditions (I never went to Catholic school, though). I have no memory of ever being religious and strongly reject Catholicism, now, but in my mind Catholicness is entwined with Irishness. Together they make up a strong part of my (enormous) family’s history. So while I am not a secular Catholic, I do feel a little like an secular Irish-Catholic. The ethnicity and the religion are hard to separate.

    • Posted September 26, 2011 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

      That’s kinda how I feel about my family, an unbroken line of Scottish Presbyterian descent. (Until me.)

      It is a culture, I think, with it’s own set of values, most notably (to me) is a ruthless practicality, and intense and total loyalty to one’s clan no matter what.

  53. Jim Thomerson
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    My experience in visiting secular Jewish friends is that one can expect the first meal to be pork chops.

  54. Graham ASH-PORTER
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    See Hugh Kramer’s Blog in LA Atheist examiner.’What the heck is a jewish atheist?
    http://www.examiner.com/atheism-in-los-angeles/what-the-heck-is-a-jewish-atheist?CID=examiner_alerts_article

    • Posted September 27, 2011 at 1:17 am | Permalink

      Nice. In that link Graham was a further link to a USA Today piece Judaism without God? Yes, say American atheists by Kimberly Winston. Being a non-Jew without Jewish friends it gave me a little bit of needed history knowledge & it finishes with this:

      “My rabbi said, ‘You know Maxim, God doesn’t care whether you believe in him or not. All that he cares is that you do the right thing.’ Our action in the world is much more important”

      • Diane G.
        Posted September 28, 2011 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

        That’s about the same sort of reasoning I used, as a young teen, to let myself completely abandon the sort of half-assed Protestantism I was brought up with. Really, only fear was holding me back; then I decided that, if I were going to believe in a god, it would be the X-tian all-loving, all-just, all-compassionate Dude who would never send a non-believer to hell if said person were otherwise living an ethical life…(Of course, realizing there was a spectrum of gods in the first place sort of exposed the whole charade…)

        I considered this line of reasoning my own little inverse of Pascal’s wager. :)

  55. Adam Felton
    Posted September 27, 2011 at 4:14 am | Permalink

    Come to Scandinavia. I think it fair to say that countries like Sweden and Denmark are filled with Cultural Lutherans. We have one of the highest percentages of non-believers in the world, whereas the majority of Swedes would still consider themselves Christians, while nevertheless not believing in god.

    Have a read of “Society without God” by Phil Zuckerman for the details.

  56. John Weiss
    Posted September 27, 2011 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    Secular Hindu here.

    I love the images. One god, thousands of depictions! Beautiful art. Great festivals. What’s not to like about the Lord Ganish?

  57. Marichi
    Posted September 27, 2011 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    John Weiss,

    I count David Shulman as a secular Jew and a secular Hindu. As far as I am concerned David can wear his yarmulke, kippeh, and observe the many practices that are enjoined upon Jews, and need not as much as have a Ganesha murti on his desk. I don’t know if he does, and It doesn’t matter. The work he has done on Tamil and Sanskrit is all that I see.
    http://religions.huji.ac.il/faculty/shulman.html

  58. JBlilie
    Posted September 27, 2011 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Dr. C.: I’m sure this has been covered; but the majority (I’d say) in Scandinavia are atheists; but also “cultural Christians.”

    They still want to baptize (most) and confirm (many), and get married in a church (most), and many continue to pay their church tax and get warm feelings on seeing pretty country churches and like to sing Christmas carols. They will call themselves “Christians” evne though they are in fact atheists (from Phil Zuckerman’s book Society Without God.

  59. Scrawny Kayaker
    Posted September 27, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    Dan Savage described himself as a “cultural Catholic” in his first book _The Kid_, IIRC. He and his HICBIA had their kid baptized despite both being atheists. He complained about the difficulty of setting this up as “the Church being stingy with the sacraments, as part of their efforts to drive cultural Catholics into the arms of Episcopalians,” or words to that effect.

    It’s an interesting book, although not much of it is relevant to the subject of this blog…

  60. Posted September 27, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    Secular humanism an outgrowth of liberal protestant Christianity, perhaps?

  61. Posted September 29, 2011 at 2:08 am | Permalink

    I remember reading somewhere someone’s self-description as a secular pagan!

  62. Michael Scheer
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    My father was raised Jewish, my mother Catholic. I say “was” because neither grew up to be believers so any chance of me being a follower of any faith by the age of 8 or so was gone. Having said that, the only religious ritual I have ever engaged in was in the Jewish tradition. I’ve never attended a church in my life (nor a sysnagogue) but, I did celebrate Hannukah with my father’s family and observed Passover. I was always the youngest and can remember a long run of hiding the afikomen. Even though they could never convince me to get barmitvahed I still look back fondly on those times. Since then, since I moved across the country, I have had no connection to that side of the family for over two decades. Now, I am starting a new job as a teacher at a Jewish school and I am confronted with the fact that I feel enormous guilt for not trying to maintain some kind of contact with that side of my heritage. My mother is from the West Indies and I have always identified myself as someone who is from both worlds but really, I am from neither. I hope this new job is an opportunity to reconnect with exactly half of my heritage.


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