Researchers at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga have just published a new study about atheists and atheism, and interestingly, the authors argue that non-belief in God is just as variegated as belief in God. At least initially, they have identified six types of non-believers: Intellectual Atheist/Agnostics (IAA), Activist Atheist/Agnostics (AAA), Seeker Agnostics (SA), Antitheists, Non-theists and Ritual Atheist/Agnostics (RAA).
The way these different groups defined themselves show how many different ways there are to think about God, even if people don’t believe in God — the Antitheists actively try to convince people that religion is harmful; the Activists pursue social justice work (such as environmentalism or LGBT rights); and the Intellectuals tend to love to study science, philosophy, sociology and politics.
One group, however, seemed to encapsulate a large segment of the Jewish community: the Ritual Atheist / Agnostics. As Christopher Silver, co-author of the study, notes:
Ritual Atheist/Agnostics find utility in tradition and ritual. For example, these individuals may participate in specific rituals, ceremonies, musical opportunities, meditation, yoga classes, or holiday traditions. Such participation may be related to an ethnic identity (e.g. Jewish) or the perceived utility of such practices in making the individual a better person.
Ritual Atheists / Agnostics, in other words, are less interested in whether or not religion is “true” than whether it “works.” Considering that Judaism is religion much more about action than about faith, perhaps it is not surprising that so many Jews would fall under this category.
Yet I have one major problem with this study. While the authors articulate distinctions among many types of non-believers, they lump together atheists and agnostics. In fact, atheism and agnosticism are almost totally independent of each other — and in fact, many Jews (myself included) would likely self-identify as “agnostic theists.”
First, the question of God’s existence is ultimately an unanswerable one. After all, different people think of, talk about and experience God in different ways, so the word “God” means different things to different people. Since we don’t all agree on what God is, we can’t accurately talk about whether or not God exists, because depending on how we define “God,” the answer to that question will be “yes” for some people and “no” for others.
Secondly, if we have any supernatural elements in our definition of God, we can’t use natural means to answer the question of God’s existence — by definition, such questions would be outside the realm of scientific knowledge. Indeed, even some of today’s greatest scientists and philosophers who call themselves “Antithesists,” such as Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, have all said that they cannot say definitively whether or not God exists.
So because we can’t know the answer to God’s existence with certainty, the only intellectually honest answer to the question about whether God exists is “I don’t know.” And so that makes me an agnostic.
But even though we can’t know about God, we can certainly create our beliefs about God. We can decide how we use our religious outlook in our every day lives. And for me, theism is the language I want to use. When I meet a person for the first time, and believe that they are “created in the image of God,” it impacts the way I will treat them. When I experience the awe and majesty of nature, I can say that I “feel God’s presence.” And when I do social justice work, I can say that I am “partnering with God to make our world more whole,” which adds a level of spirituality to my actions.
Indeed, as my friend and colleague Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu recently wrote in her piece “Where Does God Fit In?“: “We do not talk about God in the liberal Jewish community. We talk about the importance of community itself, showing up for services, and giving charity.” So perhaps if we focused less on the question “Does God exist?” and more on the question “How do my beliefs about God impact my life and our world?”, we could begin to have deeper and more meaningful conversations about God in a Jewish setting.
As the Yiddish saying goes, “If I knew God, I’d be God.” So even as we don’t know about God’s existence, we can still explore what we want our relationship with the Divine to look like.
And if we look at God in this way, then we are “agnostic theists” — which I have found to be the most intellectually and emotionally satisfying way to look at the world.
(Cross-posted with Rabbis Without Borders at My Jewish Learning.)