Tag Archives: agnosticism

Why Biblical criticism is important for both the religious and non-religious

I know I haven’t posted anything in ages.  Sorry; been busy with important stuff.  Thanks a lot for sticking with me.

I can’t write as well as this guy.  Here some of my favorite quotes on the virtues of modern Biblical scholarship (a.k.a. Biblical criticism) – especially for those who are religious, courtesy of the late Italian scholar of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) Alberto Soggin, via John Bowden’s outstanding translation (Introduction to the Old Testament, Revised Edition).  [I’ve added occasional points of clarification in brackets].  If you have any favorite quotes on the subject, please share!  Enjoy:

“It is impossible to understand the attitudes of people or schools of thought and therefore the writings that derive from them, without knowing the events which have influenced them in whole or in part.  For example, inadequate knowledge of Canaanite religion would constitute a most serious obstacle to understanding the message of the prophets…, nor could we understand properly their comments on society if we did not know the economic and social conditions which they were attacking (p. 4).”

“The fact that the Christian theologian is convinced that he finds Christ foretold in the writings of the Old Testament (cf. John 5:39) or that the Jewish believer discovers here the revelation and the promise of God for his people, and the divine law, should not in any way prejudice critical and historical study of the texts, which is needed if faith is not to be reduced to the level of ideological prejudice.  The fact that the texts of the Old Testament have an authoritative character for the believer, whether Jew or Christian, which they evidently do not have for the unbeliever, should not prevent the former from achieving a proper objectivity.  On the contrary, it should compel him to listen humbly to what they say.  This is not a paradox.  He should therefore make as calm an examination of the text as possible, taking care not to read into it what is not there.

“Thus the criterion of scientific objectivity applies first of all to the believer, if he wishes to hear the word of the Lord instead of his own, and if he wishes to have a dialogue with his Lord instead of a monologue with himself and his own opinions.  At the same time, it is right that the scholar who is not a believer should be asked to apply the same objectivity to the text of the Bible as to any other oriental [Near Eastern] text (pps. 9-10).”

“In the case of the Old Testament and all the literature of the ancient Near East, the reader finds himself at a considerable remove in both geographical setting and chronological context; the modern reader, especially the Westerner [of the Western hemisphere], meets peoples (and therefore literature, customs, institutions and patterns of thought) with which he has little or nothing in common.  We shall certainly be right in supposing that anyone who does not have an advanced and specialist education will be largely ignorant of the historical, political, economic, social and religious facts to which the texts refer.  In addition, … there is a problem peculiar to the biblical texts; when considering a work which for thousands of years has been the sacred scripture of Judaism and Christianity, and still is, it is all too easy for the Western reader, who has grown up within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, to have assimilated unconsciously a theological and ecclesiastical tradition which will not fail to make its weight felt in an any explanation of the texts.  Without one noticing it, centuries of exegesis loaded with preconceptions can lead either to uncritical acceptance of certain unproved assertions or, paradoxically, to an equally uncritical rejection of particular positions simply because they have traditionally been sustained within the sphere of the religious community.  The need for a science of introduction which offers a critical view of the biblical literature must therefore be obvious to anyone (p. 5).”

“While there has never been a time when the reader of the Bible has not felt the need for information about the circumstances which accompanied and often governed the origins of a particular text…, we must remember that (leaving aside the Antiochene school and Jerome) up to the Renaissance the Christian church was not very interested in establishing in an independent and original form the circumstances in which the sacred books had their origin, being content to accept the traditional views of them handed down by the synagogue.  Allegorical exegesis [interpretation] , very soon practiced on a large scale in the medieval church, avoided problems by means of that special form of unhistorical sublimation which is its hallmark; consequently the problem of the difference between the reality presented in the texts and the traditional interpretation of them did not arise before humanistic exegesis  at the beginning of the sixteenth century….  It was humanism, with its principle of a return to the sources, which first laid the foundation for scientific and critical introduction (pps. 5-6).”

“From Napolean’s expedition to Egypt onwards, with the discovery of the Rosetta stone which provided the key for the deciphering of its two scripts and of the Egyptian language (1798), through the nineteenth century and into the first half of the twentieth, there was a rediscovery of the world in which the men of the Old Testament had lived and against which they often struggled.  Practices and customs, religious, political, judicial, and social institutions, people and places previously unknown, or known only vaguely, began to take shape.  Perhaps more important still, their languages came to be understood.  This restored a proper historical basis and a setting in a wider historical context for texts which hitherto had almost always been read only in a church setting.  It also often eliminated fictitious themes and explanations which had been created by the traditions of synagogue and church (p. 7).”

 “Because the believer, Jewish or Christian, sees the text as having a sacred and therefore authoritative character, he should be able to accept biblical [textual] criticism* without difficulty in so far as it sets out to present a text which is as close as possible to the original.  However, precisely the opposite has happened:  among conservative [religious] Jews, Protestants and Catholics, biblical criticism has often received with mistrust, as through the discipline set out arrogantly, and there impiously, to put itself above the text to judge and to ‘criticize’ it.  Such an interpretation of the functions criticism shows a complete lack of familiarity with the concept … and it cannot therefore be taken seriously (p. 30).

*Textual criticism means looking at various old manuscripts of the Bible and, wherever the manuscripts differ, trying to figure out in each case which manuscript has the best reading.


Out-of-touch rabbi comment of the day

I still receive weekly E-mails on Jewish law from Rabbi Yirmiyahu Kaganoff, an American-turned-Israeli Orthodox Jewish scholar and writer.  Rabbi Kaganoff is a very intelligent man, and he really knows his stuff when it comes to Jewish law.  But in this week’s article, which is apparently recycled from one he wrote in 2010 (see here), he writes the following when introducing the laws regarding conversion to Judaism:


To the non-Jewish or non-observant world, the definition of a Jew is based on sociological criteria. But to the Torah Jew, the definition of a Jew is someone who is a member of a people who are obligated to fulfill all of the Torah’s commandments. For this reason, it is axiomatic that no one can become Jewish without first accepting the responsibility to observe mitzvos [the commandments] (kabbalas mitzvos).

This concept, so obvious to the Torah Jew, is almost never appreciated by the non-observant. Someone who does not (yet) observe mitzvos himself usually does not appreciate why observing mitzvos is imperative to becoming Jewish. This is why a not-yet-observant Jew often finds our requirements for giyur [conversion] to be “unrealistic” or even “intolerant.” However in true reality, attempting to bend the Torah’s rules reflects an intolerance, or more exactly, a lack of understanding. The Torah Jew realizes that the basic requirement for becoming a Jew is accepting Hashem’s commandments, since a Jew is by definition someone who is bound by the Torah.

With all due respect to the rabbi, I think it’s impressive he was able to squeeze so much misguided, retrogressive thought into so few sentences.

Despite the arrogant tone with which he sets us straight about how “We Torah Jews know what the Torah really says about conversion,” the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), in fact, says zip about conversion.  In Jewish day school, we were taught that the word ger (with a hard g) in the Hebrew Bible means “convert;” however, if one sees how the word is used, one immediately notices ger cannot mean “convert.”

For instance, when the Torah says, “You shall love the ger, for you were a ger in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19),” translating this commandment as “You shall the love the convert, for you were a convert in the land of Egypt” would be nonsensical, because the Israelites weren’t converts in the land of Egypt.  Rather, ger refers to a resident alien – i.e. someone who is not ethnically a member of the local people – in this case, the Israelites – but lives in its community, and so his/her status is different.  Typically a resident alien could not own land, for instance, and thus we find the beautiful commandment to make sure that those who don’t own land, such as the Levite, the ger, the orphan, and the widow are as happy as you are when you gather your hard-earned crops you worked so hard to reap from the land you are fortunate to own (Deuteronomy 16:14).

And so the rabbi’s assertion that the Torah view is that conversion requires accepting the commandments is baseless, since the Torah doesn’t say anything at all about conversion.

Secondly, and equally importantly, the idea that becoming a member of the Jewish community requires accepting the commandments with it is like saying writing with a pen requires using a quill.  In Biblical times, being part of a community necessarily included accepting the community’s local god.  If you moved to Moab and wanted to identify with the Moabites (part of modern-day Jordan), you most likely had to accept the Moabite god Chemosh.  If you moved to a Phoenician (modern Lebanon-area) community and wanted to identify with the Phoenicians, you most likely had to accept the religion that centered on worshipping Baal.  And the same was true if you moved to an Israelite community.  Thus, when, in a touching assertion of loyalty, Ruth the Moabite famously refused to forsake her Israelite mother-in-law Naomi and told her, “Your people is my people, and your god is my god (Ruth 1:16),” the two (people and the local god) went hand in hand.

Today, however, pens no longer go together with quills and joining a new community no longer goes together with accepting the community religion.  You can become Irish without becoming Catholic, and you can also join a Jewish community, where people celebrate Jewish culture, etc., without accepting any specific religion.

Granted, for many centuries the definition of Jew included following the Jewish religion.  Over the last 300 years or so, however, most Jews have defined themselves as Jewish and yet do not follow the commandments.  And so there’s no reason someone cannot join the community of the vast majority of Jews who define Jewish as one who connects with an extremely rich Jewish heritage and culture, independent of their adherence to the Torah’s commandments.

Finally, is there anything more worthy of throwing an article into the trash than seeing the good old “not-yet-observant?”  It’s a shame that the not-yet-enlightened and not-yet-out-of-the-17th-century Rabbi Kaganoff is not yet observant that calling people “not yet observant” is offensive.

I feel better now.

Thanks for reading.  Please add your thoughts below!

Hand of God found in space!

In case you were wondering where God’s hand was located, it’s been severed from his body and is suspended in space, millions and millions of miles away from us:

Hand of God

(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/McGill)

If you haven’t seen the story, look here.

I’m not sure what the chiddush is; we already saw a clear sign last year that, not only does God exist, but that his name is Osiris (see “Take this, ye stubborn non-believers!”).

Kudos to the author Tanya Lewis for realizing that not everyone has been taught critical thinking skills and taking it upon herself to enlighten those who need it, at the conclusion of the article:

“The Hand of God is an example of pareidolia, the psychological phenomenon of perceiving familiar shapes in random or vague images. Other common forms of pareidolia include seeing animals or faces in clouds, or the man in the moon. Despite its supernatural appearance, the Hand of God was produced by natural astrophysical phenomena.”

Can you think of any other clear signs of God that have been reported?  I don’t know about you, but I find them highly entertaining.

h/t theHighJewess

The best explanation for miracles, e.g. Splitting of the Sea

This Saturday, Jews around the world will be reading about how our ancestors walked through the Sea of Reeds on dry land, with water on both sides.  Accordingly, I thought you would enjoy this hypothesis given in 2010 by Carl Drews of the National Center for Atmospheric Research:

You can find many news articles about this study online (e.g. here).

While we have no way to know for sure the event occurred as Mr. Drews suggests, I happen to love this way of thinking when it comes to explaining miracle stories.  We freethinkers look for the most likely explanation, and since “An invisible being came and messed with the laws of physics” is never the most likely explanation, seems that we’re left with either:

a)      The story was completely fabricated, or

b)      A natural event happened, and the authors of the Bible did what everyone did in the first millennium BCE – they attributed the event to the hand of their god.

Which is the more likely explanation for miracle stories?  a) or b)?

No doubt that for some of the miracle stories in ancient sources such as the Bible, explanation a) may be the most likely explanation.  But, in general, all else being equal, I would think that b) should be the default, at least when it’s a story that is presented as an historical event that happened to an entire people.  In some cases, though, the story may have started as a b), but as it was related many times over many generations, some additional embellishing fabrications crept in.

The Aish HaTorah/Ohr Somayach types (those who try to “prove” the Bible is divine) are known for arguing, “There’s no way you could convince an entire nation that –

– their ancestors all stood at Mt. Sinai;

– their ancestors survived in the desert for 40 years on manna;

– their ancestors all saw the sea split;

etc etc.

While their basic argument is wrong – plenty of people have been convinced that miracles happened to their ancestors – just ask students of Aish HaTorah and Ohr Somayach! – I think it is true that the more likely explanation is that something did happen, and the people interpreted that something as an act of God.  For instance, we wouldn’t argue the Miracle of the Sun story never happened at all.

What do you think?  Do you think miracles are usually made up 100%, or are natural phenomena misunderstood, … or Option C!
(h/t Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – one of the things I actually learned from him in that debate with Professor Richard Dawkins for which I criticized Rabbi Sacks in previous posts.)

Why is Christmas in the winter? Not the reason you thought, says New Testament scholar

Since many Christians will be celebrating Christmas or the Feast of the Epiphany this Monday, on January 6, I figure it’s not too late to post about this.  I think it’s good for us freethinkers to have an idea of why Christmas is celebrated when it is, and this article suggests a reason you may not have heard.

In this interesting article (here) in Biblical Archaeology Review, New Testament scholar Andrew McGowan goes through the sources and explores how December 25 or January 6 came to be celebrated as Jesus’ birthday.

I recommend reading the full article, but if you really want a short spoiler, keep reading.  My short summary is:

  • The first mention we have of Jesus’ birth occurring on December 25 is from some 300 years after the time of Jesus.
  • The earliest source we have on Jesus’ birth says it occurred on May 20.
  • Some of the rituals associated with Christmas, such as the Christmas tree, are probably borrowed from pagan religions (religions where people worshipped more than one god).
  • No one knows for sure why Christmas is on December 25, but
    1. One possibility, which Professor McGowan does not advocate, is that Christmas was established on December 25 either to coincide with pagan holidays celebrated at that time in order to spread Christianity among the pagans, or to connect the birth of the Messiah to the winter solstice, when the sun is “reborn” (i.e. when the days start getting longer).
    2. Another possibility, which Professor McGowan thinks is more plausible, is that if Jesus died on the Eve of Passover, his death would have occurred on March 25, and early Christians believed he was crucified on the same day he was conceived.  If he was conceived on March 25, add nine months and you get Baby Jesus on December 25.

What do you think?  My Jewish education taught me a boatload about Judaism and zip about Christianity.  So if you have anything to add, please do so.

Atheists can be anti-science and irrational, too

Being a freethinker, I’m free to call out irrationality whether perpetrated by atheists or by theists.  Here are just a few examples of atheists’ being anti-science, making assertions with no evidence, and adhering to views that run counter to the facts or to the scholarly consensus in the relevant field:


Many atheists believe that foods containing genetically engineered ingredients (GMO’s) are either unsafe or that not enough research has been conducted to determine their safety.  However, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, a European Union study of 50 research projects, and other reputable studies  on this question (e.g. this one and this one) have concluded unequivocally that GMO products have been scientifically shown to be safe.  In the words of the EU study, there was “no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.”

As Skeptic Magazine’s Michael Shermer (@michaelshermer), an atheist, conceded in a recent tweet:  “Anti-GMO/Monsanto is science denial/anti-capitalism comparable to climate denial/creationism on the right. We all have our blind spots.”

Bill Maher

Mr. Maher, a constant ridiculer of those who hold anti-scientific views, apparently is anti-vaccine and has doubted germ theory.

Free will

Neuroscientist and anti-theist author Sam Harris, of whom I am a fan, as well as anti-theist biology professor Jerry Coyne, adhere to their view that humans have no free will (see here and here, respectively).  I have found their arguments persuasive.  However, a survey of analytic philosophers showed that only about 12 percent accepted or leaned towards no free will.  In addition, Dr. Harris maintains that science can determine objective moral values, despite the fact that his thesis has, by and large, been rejected by moral philosophers.

Dr. Harris rails against religious people for relying on Bronze Age teachings rather than having a 21st century conversation.  In these cases, however, 21st century conversations have taken place and yet neither he nor Prof. Coyne has accepted the conclusions of those conversations.

Gun control

In the gun control debate, the same atheists who ridicule religious people who back up their views with nothing but passion, name-calling, and assertions without evidence often do the exact same thing when arguing for stricter gun control (e.g. here).  This is not to say their conclusion is wrong necessarily – just that they usually don’t use any evidence to support their position.  Granted, good data in this debate is difficult to find, but then we should just say “Let’s come up with more good data before we trust our inclinations.”  Isn’t that we do with questions such as, “How did the universe begin?” and other faith-related questions?

In another recent tweet, Michael Shermer declared: “New paper on relationship between gun ownership & gun homicides: More Guns=More Murder. John Lott is wrong again.” [Lott is a crime researcher who is a proponent of gun rights.]  However, right there in the abstract of the article Shermer cites, the authors of the study write, “This, however, should not be seen as a policy recommendation, due to the limited data available to inform and parameterize the model.”

How is this different from theists who quote mine or jump to conclusions about their beliefs based on little or no real evidence?


Finally, a very costly example is the way many atheists have sadly gotten swept up in the “Israel-bashing is cool” trend.  For instance, many atheists who themselves are not anti-Semitic will blindly regurgitate what they hear from those who are – e.g. that Israel is an “apartheid regime.”  Yet it would be oh so simple for them to be good skeptics and look up the facts, instead of just believing such a severe accusation on faith.  If they would do so, they would discover, for instance, that:

– about 20 percent of Israelis are Arabs;

– Israeli Arabs have voting rights equal to those of Israeli Jews;

– the Israeli parliament has included Arab members at all times since the founding of the state and currently includes 12 Arab members;

– an Israeli Arab medical student graduated first in her class this year at the Technion – Israel’s version of MIT, a Lebanese woman was last year’s valedictorian, and a leading Israeli cancer researcher there is Arab; and

– Miss Israel is an Ethiopian-Israeli.

On the other hand, if a Jew would try to take up residence in Gaza or the West Bank – let alone try to gain voting rights, join the Palestinian government, or study at a Palestinian university, the Jew’s head would become a soccer ball before he/she could say, “Apartheid.”


I have no doubt that atheists are far more likely to accept the evidence and scientific consensus that evolution and man-made climate change are true, and that’s important.  But as the above examples show, the idea that atheists are always guided by evidence and scholarly consensus – well, the evidence is clearly against that hypothesis.

Objectively awesome

Do people really think atheists aren’t overcome with awe and don’t appreciate the tremendous beauty and feel the same emotions religious people do when we see something as spectactular as this?

View this on the biggest screen you can find.


[I found this through the website Why Evolution is True.]

Atheists can celebrate religious holidays – like they play Monopoly?

I recently discovered a delightful collection of short clips from interviews of atheists that one Chris Johnson conducted on a whole range of topics.  According to Johnson’s website, he is a photographer who is “traveling through the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom putting together a book of photographic portraits of atheists.

“From the college professor, to the farmer in Kansas,” Johnson writes, “I want to document my fellow atheists and ask them what brings meaning and joy to their lives. The goal of the book is to visually capture the diversity of non-believers and the ways they maintain a better life, not in spite of their atheism, but because of it.”

That is, Johnson’s goal is to show that “the atheist life is a better life and it deserves to be celebrated.”

As we’ve discussed before, atheism is a judgment about the quality of the evidence for and against God, and so whether or not the atheist life is better or worse than the religious life has no bearing on whether or not atheism makes sense.  Still, I find it interesting to hear how atheists find meaning in their lives, define their morality, grieve, enjoy life, treat religious holidays, etc., differently from theists.

In my previous post, I showed a clip from Johnson’s interview with Julia Sweeney on dealing with death.  Here’s another interesting short clip, this one from his interview with Patricia Churchland, Professor of Philosophy Emerita at the University of California, San Diego.  How does Professor Churchland, an atheist, celebrate Christmas?  (Can you tell she’s Canadian?)

And so Dr. Churchland’s two approaches are:

1)      Understand and appreciate the history behind the holiday.

I have had discovered the same benefit.  Whether it’s the origins of Christmas as a celebration of the winter solstice or, in my case, the origins of the Jewish holidays, I find that the awareness of how the holiday was originally intended and celebrated as compared to today quite intriguing.

For instance, if you’re a mainstream Orthodox Jew, Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year and is the day when God judges all human beings for the coming year and Shavuot (Shavuos) is the anniversary of the giving of the “Ten Commandments” on Mt. Sinai.  However, as a Freethinking Jew, these holidays gain a certain richness when I appreciate that in Biblical times these holidays had nothing to do with any of this and instead had completely different reasons for their celebration.

I think it’s interesting to see how these holidays have evolved over time and to think about why they evolved the way they did.  E.g. in Biblical times, most of the Jewish holidays were agricultural, to thank their god YHWH (Hashem) for the crops, etc.  As society moved into the cities and the agricultural significance of these holidays was no longer meaningful, the Jews needed to develop new reasons to celebrate these holidays.  And so I find it interesting to see, for instance, how the Holiday of the First Fruits (Shavuot) evolved into the Holiday of the Giving of our Torah.

2)      Enjoy the theistic aspects of the holidays, the way we enjoy playing Monopoly.

I have found this part a little more difficult but still possible.  E.g. on Passover, when we’re reading in the Haggadah about all the miracles God performed for our ancestors as He took them out of Egypt “with an outstretched arm,” it’s hard at times just to put my mind into the game, so to speak.  On the other hand, when we’re singing Dayeinu or other holiday songs, I find it fairly easy just to enjoy the song and the connection with the tradition and community without being bogged down with the theistic implications of what I’m singing.

And a third approach that Dr. Churchland does not suggest but that I have found commonly employed:

3)      Draw your own meaning out of the holiday.

Going back to Passover, I think one reason why so many otherwise-unaffiliated Jews relate to Passover is because they have found in it a modern-day message.  Rather than celebrating the one-time event of the supposed exodus of our ancestors from Egypt 3,300 years ago, many Jews are really celebrating the fact that Jews have managed to escape the bondage placed upon them countless times throughout history.

In addition, those who have overcome personal struggles such as addiction no doubt think of Passover as a day to celebrate freedom from personal slavery.  Similarly, when I celebrate Succot (Succos) – the Holiday of the Gathering of the Crops, I feel gratitude for the various “crops” that we have been fortunate to “harvest” in the previous year through our modern-day vocations.

The above is not to argue that an atheist should celebrate religious holidays but rather to demonstrate that those who choose to do so have multiple reasons for what they do.

One more thought on grieving for non-theists

Just as a short follow-up to Rebecca’s post on grieving, here’s a short but poignant thought I just saw on this topic from actress and author Julia Sweeney:

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, “I’ll pray for him/her/them,” and I just want to scream and say, “How about you go DO something to HELP them!”

I would think helping in practical ways would come first even if you are under the impression that prayer works.

Guest Post: Grieving without belief in God or an afterlife

By Rebecca Hensler, founder of Grief Beyond Belief

As today is Tisha B’Av, the traditional day of mourning in the Jewish calendar, we freethinkers who don’t have the comfort of “knowing” that death is part of God’s plan and that we will be reunited with our departed loved ones may need ideas on how to grieve given such realities. 

We are very privileged and I am extremely grateful that Rebecca Hensler has written this very meaningful and helpful guest post for us.  Ms. Hensler, who has an M.S. in counseling, has turned personal tragedy into a means of helping others by founding Grief Beyond Belief, a support network for those who are grieving without belief in God or an afterlife. [-FTJ]

I light a Yahrzeit candle for my son, Nathaniel Judah, on the anniversary of his death.  But I have never said the Mourner’s Kaddish for him.  Like many modern Jews, I pick and choose what practices and beliefs to engage with in my day-to-day life and which to omit.  And worshiping God is one I omit.

I was raised a secular Jew.  No one sat me down as a child and told me that; I only put the word to it after learning about secular Judaism in the atheist community.  But looking back, I remember reading illustrated children’s books of Torah stories and recognizing them as myths, singing the blessings on Shabbat and holidays with a sense of thankfulness but not addressing it to a literal deity, talking about God with my parents only as a theoretical possibility.  I remember going to Hebrew school, but answering, when asked if I wanted a Bat Mitzvah, “I would just be doing it for the presents and party.  That seems like a bad reason to do a religious ceremony.”

When it came to the topic of death, no one in my immediate family proposed that I — or anyone — will pass to The World To Come after our lives end.  In fact, the freeform Reform Judaism that my family practiced said very little about death, and nothing at all about an afterlife.

What I gained from this upbringing was freedom from dogma.  I have seen people who were raised in fundamentalist religions struggle to find themselves as freethinkers; I strolled easily into atheism, keeping what I appreciated of Jewish culture and philosophy while shaking off what I had no use for.

But my lack of faith gave me nothing to work with when it came to death, not even a starting place.  Thus in my early adult years, when friends around me began to die, first of AIDS and then of suicides and overdoses, I didn’t have the ancient, well-tested tools with which Jews traditionally and ritually process grief.  It is no surprise that I cobbled together an eclectic assortment of beliefs and rituals of my own from the Pagan and New Age cultures that surrounded me at the time.

I had already given up these beliefs for lack of evidence and accepted my own atheism when, in the forty-first year of my life, my infant son died.

Nathaniel Judah, known to all as Jude, was the tiny love of my life.  Carrying Jude in my womb, birthing him, caring for him in the hospital, holding him while he passed from life, and grieving his death transformed and inspired me.  Two years after his short life, I founded a grief support network for atheists and other freethinkers: Grief Beyond Belief.  Grief Beyond Belief’s Facebook Page sends its daily post – a question, quote or link about secular grief – to thousands of freethinkers, and Grief Beyond Belief Group has over 500 members sharing sorrow and support.

This is how I come to be writing here about the differences between grieving as a religious Jew and grieving as a secular Jew.

Some of those differences lie in the ways we grieve, the actions we take following a death.  Sitting shivah comes to mind first, of course.  An observant and traditional Jew will spend the seven days following a death staying in the home, actively grieving and following a set of rules defining that process.  A secular Jew, while perhaps recognizing the value of devoting time and attention to the act of grieving, is less likely to take part in this formal and constrained ritual of grief.

But there is no reason why secular Jews should not sit shivah.  In fact, in a New York Times column in January, 2012, Bruce Feiler wrote of how his own circle rediscovered and redesigned the ritual with changes that allowed it to meet the needs of a group with diverse beliefs.

“The ‘secular shivas’ we organized had a number of notable differences that proved crucial to their success. First, we organized them for Jews and non-Jews alike. Second, no prayers or other religious rituals were offered. Third, we held them away from the home of the griever, to reduce the burden. And finally, we offered the grieving party the option of speaking about the deceased, something not customary under Jewish tradition.”

There are other actions in which a theist Jew can engage while mourning or on the anniversary of a loved one’s death that are adaptable to secular observance.  For example, those who believe that their loved one’s soul will be judged following death may also believe that that soul can increase in “merit,” if charity is given, psalms are read or Torah is studied in their name.  While a secular Jew recognizes that no soul exists after a loved one dies, he or she may still choose to extend the influence and impact of that person’s life by giving or acting in their memory.  Atheists do this all the time, donating to a secular foundation such as Foundation Beyond Belief, paying to have trees planted or a microloan granted, or contributing to a scholarship fund in the deceased’s name.  For me, founding Grief Beyond Belief allowed my son’s life to lead to something of lasting value despite its brevity.

So we are left with the possibility that beliefs, and the prayers and texts that give voice to these beliefs, are the sole aspects of traditional Jewish mourning that cannot be shared by secular Jews.  Our beliefs regarding what — if anything — happens after death are where we differ most.

The beliefs of religious Jews about death and life after death are more diverse than in many other religions, but most theist Jews believe in some form of afterlife and many believe that a person’s actions during life impact the nature of that afterlife.  Secular Jews believe that when a person dies, that person’s consciousness ends irrevocably.  Thus theist and atheist grief are divided by one simple distinction: the faithful hope for reunification with the deceased in the next world, whatever that means to them; the secular understand and accept death as a permanent separation.

On first examination, the former is obviously preferable; who would not rather grieve a temporary parting than a permanent one?  But for the skeptic, the rational thinker who demands evidence for any belief, trying to hold onto a hope of reunification — when every bit of evidence we have points to the death of the brain as the permanent end of consciousness — requires grieving in a state of cognitive dissonance.  While sometimes atheist Jews may wish that they believed their deceased loved ones are somewhere waiting to rejoin them, they ultimately find other ways of staying connected with those who are gone and of bearing the loss.

Two years of running Grief Beyond Belief has taught me a great deal about how atheists and other freethinkers live with their grief without religion or spiritualism.  For those who are facing grief as a nonbeliever, or who are leaving religion and are concerned about how they will survive a loss in the future without the familiar comfort of belief, here are just some of the secular strategies with which freethinkers heal from the death of a loved one and learn to live with grief:

1. Expression and Empathy

The greatest benefit of peer-to-peer grief support is the opportunity to share your emotions with others who are experiencing the same things and feeling the same way.  For me, this is how online grief support came into my life: reading the thoughts of other grieving parents, writing my own thoughts, and seeing the similarities between the two allowed me to recognize that I was not going crazy, I was grieving.  Furthermore, simply moving my pain out of my head and onto the computer screen helped me process it, feel it, deal with it before it built up and overwhelmed me.  Since we started Grief Beyond Belief’s private closed “Group” on Facebook, we have heard time after time from members that being able to express their darkest thoughts and most painful feelings — and be heard and understood — makes it easier for them to live with grief.

2. Storytelling and Memorializing

One of the kindest things that you can do for most people who are mourning is to ask them to tell stories about the people they are grieving.  Funny stories, heroic stories, romantic stories and tragic stories, they are the stuff of which our memories are made, and we bring our loved ones to life when we tell them.  We also love to hear other people’s memories of our loved ones, or even just to hear their names spoken.

The grieving also find healing through the things they do to honor those they have lost.  A memorial garden or bench; a scrapbook, art project or homemade video; a fundraiser or scholarship; a donation to a hospital or hospice; the possibilities are endless.  Every action taken in memory of our loved one brings that person from the past into the present, giving them a way to continue to impact the world around us.

3. Humanist Philosophies About Death

Many Jews do a whole lot of studying, thinking, talking and arguing about what they know, what they think and what they believe about the nature of the world around them.  Many atheists do too.  Humanist philosophies are those that focus on the human potential for growth, ethical decision making and creativity, and are based in a naturalistic rather than supernatural perception of the world.

There are many Humanist philosophies about death that comfort those who grieve without belief in an afterlife.  Atheist blogger Greta Christina has written a great deal about these philosophies, particularly following the death of her father and her own cancer diagnosis only two weeks later.  In her essay, “Humanism in a Shitstorm,” written in the aftermath of these two events, she sums up many of these philosophies in one paragraph:

“And the secular philosophies of death that I’ve been writing and reading and contemplating for years now… these have been a tremendous comfort. For instance: The idea that we didn’t exist for billions of years before we were born, and that wasn’t painful or bad, and death will be the same. The idea that our genes and/or ideas will live on after we die. The idea that each of us was astronomically lucky to have been born at all. The idea that death is a deadline, something that helps us focus our lives and treasure the experiences we have…The idea that loss, including death, is necessary for life and change to be possible. The idea that things don’t have to be permanent to be meaningful. The idea that your life, your slice of the timeline, will always have existed even though you die. The idea that death is a natural, physical process that connects us intimately with nature and the universe. In an unspeakably shitty time of my life, all of these ideas have been a deep, solid, very real comfort.”

Greta isn’t the only atheist author writing on this topic.  Google “humanism” along with “grief” and you will find many insightful and well-spoken writers and philosophers, both amateur and professional, “thinking out loud” in ways that will help you find meaning in times of sorrow.

These are only three of the approaches that atheists have found for surviving and living with grief.  Daily, at Grief Beyond Belief, freethinkers share advice on mourning, often based on their own experience surviving grief without religion.  With thoughtfulness, kindness and rational compassion they have created a community and proven that a belief in the afterlife is not necessary for the grieving to find comfort.