The title of this article sounds like it includes a contradiction. How can a person be Jewish or Christian and disbelieve in God? Isn’t the belief in a Creator the foundation of any religion?

Today, the fact is that many people identify as “Jewish atheists” or even “Christian atheists.” One reason is that Jewish identity is not only a “religious” identity, but first and foremost a “national” or “ethnic” belonging. Many Jews who reject formal religion or even disbelieve in God altogether still identify as Jews for national, historical, and cultural reasons. Some atheists of Christian background similarly recognize the strong influence of Christian thought, tradition, and culture in their own lives and therefore continue to identify as “Christian.”

When the idea of a “Jewish atheist” is raised, the first name that comes to mind is usually Baruch Spinoza, a famous philosopher of the seventeenth century. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Spinoza is one of the most important philosophers—and certainly the most radical—of the early modern period…. [His ideas] lay the foundations for a strongly democratic political thought and a deep critique of the pretensions of Scripture and sectarian religion. Of all the philosophers of the seventeenth century, perhaps none have more relevance today than Spinoza.”

In other words, Spinoza is one of the most significant thinkers in terms of modern democracy and also criticism of “sectarian religion” – i.e., the constant conflicts between different interpretations of ultimate truth and attempts to prove the superiority of one denomination or religion over another (part of which I treated in a previous article – Which is the “True” Faith? Judaism vs. Christianity). Spinoza tried to construct a system of thought on completely rationalist bases, which eventually led him to assert that “Except God, no substance can be or be conceived” and therefore everything in the entire universe is a kind of manifestation of “God.” But by “God” he did not mean a personal being, but rather “whatever is in existence,” and so religious people condemned him for his belief in “God existing in only a philosophical sense.”

Spinoza was excommunicated from his native Sephardic Jewish community of Amsterdam in 1656 for “abominable heresies.” Yet he went on to become one of the most influential philosophers in European history. On the one hand, Spinoza’s work reveals some of the pitfalls of too great a faith in logic and rationality to solve all the questions of human existence. Yet on the other hand, he poses major challenges to “sectarian religion” – or any faith-based system of thought that thinks its own interpretations are superior to all others. Spinoza’s writings are a clarion call for believing people to clarify and reexamine their own views, reject flawed interpretations, and be willing to learn from other perspectives. Because his views were so thought-provoking, many Jewish communities today proudly claim this atheistic thinker as a “Jewish philosopher,” despite the fact that he was excommunicated!

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26 COMMENTS

  1. Very interesting can you teach a little bit more on it for me. I’m interested in where we humans come from and faith bace teaching and yes I am a Christian.

    • Thank you for the comment, Mary. Can you clarify which particular topics interest you? Perhaps we can address some of them in a future article. Also, please check out our course listings for fuller discussions of many issues related to Bible and history.

    • Thanks for joining the discussion, Phil. The question is meant to be thought-provoking for readers, who may come up with a variety of answers depending on their perspectives. However, the article itself does explain how and why some people do in fact identify as “Jewish atheists” or “Christian atheists.”

  2. Thank you Dr Gruber for this thought provoking text. I believe its not merely about being religious but being saved by the precious shed blood of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ who is the way, truth and life. Without Him there is no heaven only the wrath of an angry God. There have been and still are many who mock and scorn the Almighty but oh how sorry they will be in the life to come. Again, thank you.

    • Thank you, Colin. Certainly there is a big distinction to be made between any formal or institutionalized religion and personal faith/belief.

  3. I enjoy your explanations. Make sense to me. I have a miniscule experience in Hebrew and Greek. I am emeritus and die to the high cost of living in RSA it just is not possible to enroll with you. Thank you and JHWH bless you.

    • Thank you, Jerry! Yes, that passage certainly gives a view of God and the universe that is different from Spinoza’s.

  4. I would like to say this: To be a Follower of Jesus all readings of the bible have spiritual meanings. Such as: God created light.

  5. To be a Jew is to make a statement about religion and/or cultural identity. It is, I think, unique. Thus, you can be an atheist Jew. You cannot be, in my opinion, an atheist Christian. There is no cultural component.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Gordon. I’ve met many people who could be described and/or who describe themselves as cultural Christians (having grown up in Europe, for instance) but agnostic or atheistic about God. But I think you make an important point about ‘religion’ and ‘culture’. Esp. in the case of Jewish identity, ethnicity/nationality also enters in, perhaps as the primary component.

    • I don’t think he did, Murray! I would view Christianity as a later historical development. Perhaps you can clarify your question?

  6. Good to read and thought-provoking article. Thank you, Dr. Yeshaya Gruber. However, as a traditional view, those who have illicit sexual relationships, who do not believe that Torah is from heaven, and Epicureans would never get part of Olam Haba in the messianic age or age of the fathers as quoted in the Talmud to Shaarei Teshuvah??

  7. Thanks for raising the question of the need for critical thinking. The Hebrew Scriptures never argue for the existence of God. The Bible simply declares ‘In the beginning God…’ 1Cor. 1:20-21 nails it down. Philosophy or any religion that doesn’t lead to the God of the Bible is eternally flawed.

  8. Since the existence/nonexistence of Deity cannot be empirically demonstrated, I can understand agnosticism (“I don’t know whether Deity exists”), but not atheism (“Deity definitely does not exist”).
    Those who believe in Deity have information that, although not empirically provable, is nevertheless convincing.

  9. You are just all 58 years late with my views at 21 after having studied till then Chumash commentaries Dinim Michna Gemara and Pirke Avoth…and decided I was a Cultural National Atheist Jew and discovered Spinoza later as He was excommunicated by the Jews but also IGNORED by the Lycée…

  10. A male “identifying” as a female does not make him so. An Atheist “identifying” as a Christian does not make him so. Ask the Atheist if he is a BIBLICAL Christian. If he is honest, he will say no.

  11. Absolutely NO! One cannot be a Christian and an atheist at the same time. One is not Christian because of nationality, society, culture, or anything else in environment. One is Christian because of a relationship with God through Jesus the Christ. Not possible without believing in God.

  12. May I add my thank you? I might add that, in my experience, when I’m talking to a Jew or claiming to be a believer Goy, what I hear often is “I’ve been around you Believers often enough to know you are hypocrites!”

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