Two years have passed since I first grappled with the label ‘atheist’ on this blog, and I feel that it is time to consider at least one way in which my relationship to the label has evolved. This change is not new, but I was given an opportunity to reflect on my relationship to the ‘atheist movement’ after reading this piece about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s struggles with the label.
Daniel Silliman’s piece largely focuses on deGrasse Tyson’s rejection of the label due to the militant nature of the atheist movement, characterized by their derision of (e.g.) anyone showing respect for Scripture — even if that respect is coupled with no theistic beliefs. I find myself agreeing with Mr. Tyson, and I think that it is this close-mindedness on the part of the atheists (or the loudest among them) that has led me to stop referring to myself as an atheist as well, even as my beliefs regarding God have not changed.
I have noted before, and I find it important to reiterate, that committed Jews are in a unique position regarding their beliefs about God’s existence. According to the landmark 2013 Pew Report entitled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” 68% of Jews believe that Judaism is compatible with not believing in God. Unlike other religions, atheism and Judaism do not, at least on the surface, need to clash. However, as Silliman’s piece bears out, the term ‘atheism’ today has so much unwanted baggage that it is hard to wear it without also wearing the antagonism to religion in general that it seems to imply to so many.
As a future rabbi, I will not shy away from crediting the New Atheist movement with critical food for thought in my own religious development, and I believe that their voice is one that is needed at the interfaith table. However, that invitation can only be extended to those who are willing to express interest in and respect for a religious life path. Just like in the religious world, it is up to the moderate atheists to wrest the microphone away from the fundamentalist atheists, and reclaim the label as a less antagonistic one.