July 4, and Religion without God: Alon Preiss reviews the Web

Originally published: July 4, 2019. 

Here it is, July 4. 

Happy July 4.

As secular a holiday as you could ever imagine, right?

In Time Magazine a few years back, columnist Ira Stoll begged to disagree.

“July 4 is a religious holiday,” he argues. After quoting a bunch of religious gobble from our founding fathers, with John F. Kennedy tossed in for good measure, he concludes,

So amid all the fireworks and barbecue smoke this July 4, consider pausing for a moment to reflect on the one our founding fathers called the Creator. As Kennedy realized, the American Revolution — and thus the country we live in today — started with God, and with the Founders’ belief in rights that are his gift to us.

Where does that leave the agnostics and the atheists today? 

If July 4 is a religious holiday, what does it mean, as America increasingly turns away from religion. And what about the unabashedly religious holidays. How should they be celebrated. I am not talking about an atheist who might enjoy a good Christmas tree, or who let their kids dress up Halloween without a thought to the ancient Celts who truly believed that the Dead walked the Earth.

What is religion for?

I mean, is there any point to serious ritual without sincere belief?

I’ve been mulling this over for a while.

When the High Holidays ended last year, it occurred to me that there were lot of agnostics on the pews, because a lot of Jews are agnostic, and this is something that Jews do on Rosh Hashanah, either because the family expects it, or because they enjoy it, or because they have a lingering superstition, because agnostics think (hope?) that maybe there is some hope, or at least something to be afraid of.

I couldn’t find any statistics on how many Jews attend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but the answer is without doubt,More than usual. But what percentage truly believe that God is deciding their fate for the next year, that those who attend will survive the year if they atone properly, and that those who do not atone properly will die, that anyone who dies before his allotted 120 years is, by definition, a bad fellow. (Old people are worse than young people, apparently.) If you do not believe, should you be in shul that day. Should you fast? Many people do.

I wondered: is this kosher?

Can you be Jewish, or Christian, without God?

The internet has a lot to say about whether one can be Jewish without God.

Moment Magazine examined this in great detail seven long years ago (a very notable number of years in the Jewish cycle). But they didn’t really hit on the issue that I am thinking about.

A number of thinkers concluded either that it was impossible to be a Jewish atheist or that it was possible, because Judaism is also a culture, in addition to a religion. Tablet Magazine explored this online as well, and concluded that atheist Jews still feel like Jews. The Guardian offered a summation of humanist Jews, who “reject prayer, worship and most traditional religious ritual” in favor of “a secular interpretation of Jewish texts, religious holidays and practices to make them fit in with a more naturalistic perspective.”

Post-God Ritual?

But what they didn’t get at was this: once we have gone post-God, as it were, may we still celebrate the holidays? May we still appreciate what is good in them? On the web, only the Huffington Post got at this issue, and the answer was yes: one synagogue-going atheist said, “Atheism and Judaism are not contradictory, so to have an atheist in a Jewish congregation isn’t an issue or a challenge or a problem. It is par for the course. That is what Judaism is.”

Take this: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are good times to make amends, and the fasting helps. Do we need to imagine that we are doing this because God commanded it, or might we do it even if we believe it’s just a good idea?

Passover, an ideal holiday to celebrate our gratitude for freedom, is a bit like Thanksgiving, which began as a wildly religious holiday (just read the original presidential proclamations declaring a day of Thanksgiving, if you doubt me).

Thanksgiving is now as secular as Macy’s, and no one even pauses to wonder whom we are thanking.

Isn’t Purim a great time to put on costumes and drink too much, whether one believes that God wants us to drink till we don’t know the difference between Cursed be Haman and Blessed be Mordechai?; isn’t Simchat Torah a wonderful time to dance through the streets with friends whether one believes that God wrote the Torah that we are holding aloft?

Just as Christmas will roll along without Jesus, just as Halloween will survive without paganism, couldn’t we study all night long on Shavuot without God promising that we will live another year if we do so?

Couldn’t we at least eat cheesecake and enjoy the good tunes? Rabbi Carlebach, after all, wrote some good ditties, before he was exposed in the Me-Too era.

Look, this is not something that a rabbi will proclaim, but could one be religiously Jewish without a belief in God? Or, perhaps, without a belief that God has commanded our particular holidays?

Post-Jesus Christianity?

While I naturally think mostly about Jewish ritual, this question applies to any religion. What does Communion say, for example, to a cultural Christian who may not believe that Jesus is the messiah. Is there a value to it? “Cultural Christian” Alana Massey argued a few years ago in the Washington Post in favor of taking “Christ out of Christianity,” and Trevor Wax, in a rebuttal, argued that she was wrong, but that she should be welcomed into the Church nevertheless.

He argues:

Massey’s “cultural Christianity” is not Christianity at all. Only in a world where the individual is the sole determiner of one’s identity does it make sense to say, “I want Christianity without Christ.” Imagine a teetotaler who wants to join a wine-tasting club (”I just love the fellowship!”) or a vegetarian who frequents a barbecue restaurant (”Vegans can’t compete with the smell of pork!”).

Well, shouldn’t an alcoholic be allowed to join the wine tasting club, just to hang out with old friends, while swigging grape juice. Shouldn’t a vegetarian join friends at a barbecue restaurant and order the salad? Must these two give up their lives and their friends?

Is religion the same way? May the atheist pray with her true believer friends and family? Or, by honoring the holidays that she believes are myths, does she help to perpetuate a culture in which we must “respect” people’s belief in nonsense?

I don’t know the answer. Do you?

Fireworks without God

I leave you with this, from Billy Graham (or, anyway, his posthumously surviving web page):

Although it is not a religious holiday like Christmas or Easter, for many Americans July 4th is a time to reflect on God’s goodness to us as a nation. Molded into the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia (which proclaimed our independence) are these words from the Bible: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10, KJV). Our legal system reflects our Judeo-Christian roots.

While we look with gratitude to the past on this July 4th, may we also look in faith to the future, and commit it and our lives to God and His will. The ancient words of the Psalmist are still true: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 33:12).

And this, from Steny Hoyer, about the fireworks today:

It’s not about politics in the partisan sense — it’s about democracy, it’s about freedom, it’s about individual liberties, it’s about pursuit of happiness. Not about politics, not about polarization, not about focusing on differences. It’s about one nation under God indivisible.”

Is it?

Happy July 4.


Alon Preiss is the author of A Flash of Blue Sky (2015) and In Love With Alice (2017), which are out of print, but were originally published by Chickadee Prince Books.

ˆThis article originally appeared in Audere Magazine.

Featured image from Jar155.

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