What Kind of Atheist Are You?

Sheldon F. Gottlieb

I have been asked this question by friends: “Since you do things that are seemingly religious, which in all likelihood no respectable atheist would do, what kind of atheist are you?” What is it that I did, and do, to incite such consternation and make people question my atheism? And, should I still do such things?

On occasion, I have attended synagogue services, conducted Friday night services, and served on the board of directors and as president of a synagogue. My four children went to Hebrew school, and each had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I participated in and led services as part of the religious quorum required for communal services in and out of synagogues. I created personalized services for mourners and led such services. I put together and led a service for a ritual circumcision. My wife and I keep a kosher home, although we do eat in nonkosher restaurants. On several occasions I, a nonmember and nonattendee of the church, was asked by the reverend of a Unitarian church to lead the Sunday services in his absence. I did. So, what kind of an atheist am I?

To understand my seemingly odd atheistic behavior, it is important to understand that in addition to being an atheist, I am also a humanist skeptic (“Why I Am a Humanist Skeptic—and Still a Jew,” Free Inquiry, Fall 1993). The easy answer to my friends’ question is: I engage(d) in these activities not in order to derive any personal religious or spiritual satisfaction but rather in order to assist others. Let me explain.

Belonging to a synagogue or church is a very rapid means whereby strangers to a community, especially one in which they have no friends, family, or prior acquaintances, can initially and comfortably meet people of similar backgrounds and experience and learn about and become integrated into the community. Such institutional membership provides a base from which people can widen their social and political milieus. Being active on a board of directors is a means of enhancing socialization while protecting the community and one’s personal interests. For instance, on one occasion my vote as president of a synagogue broke a tie, giving women the right to be counted in a religious quorum.

When we lived in Midwestern and Southern cities, my wife and I agreed that it was important to support the synagogues so that even a transient Jewish stranger would have somewhere to go to seek help if needed. Overt and covert anti-Semitism still exists in society.

My children have been raised in the Jewish faith. Raising children in a home with conflicting religious views poses potential problems unless parents develop a modus vivendi. My wife requested that I not instill our children with my atheistic philosophy until they were older. Honoring her request was not a problem for me: I thought it was important for the children to have an education that gave them deep roots. In our case, this education tied them to a people and a tradition that had for thousands of years, despite having to survive unremitting exposure to the most horrific persecution imaginable, contributed greatly and continuously to the total cultural growth and development of Western society.

I considered it important that the children be exposed to the rationalism of Maimonides and the humanistic aspects of Judaism, especially those of the Jewish festivals. Also, Jewish tradition teaches that the later prophets would have done away with ritual and the like in favor of ethical behavior. Since much of Western art, literature, and music is suffused with biblical references, I thought that it would not hurt the children to have a biblical background from a Jewish perspective. After all, they would inevitably be overexposed to Christian theology and mythology because of the environment in which we lived and the public schools they would attend. Indeed, one day our oldest son’s sixth-grade teacher asked the class whether they wanted to believe that they were descended from a monkey. We made sure that the children heard the scientific version of cosmology and evolution from me.

Similarly, keeping a kosher home was no problem for me. Traditionally, the kitchen is the wife’s domain. If “keeping kosher” made my wife, Eda, happy, I was happy. A Jewish adage advises maintaining “sholom bies” (peace in the home). The modern version would be “Happy wife, happy life.” Because I love and respect my wife, I acceded to her wishes. I was always able to eat whatever I wanted outside the house.

My in-laws were religious Orthodox Jews who would not eat in any nonkosher restaurant. When they traveled—they motored extensively throughout the United States—they took their food and eating utensils with them. When they visited us, it was no imposition for me to provide them with a comfortable, homey environment. I liked and respected my in-laws.

Similarly, I continue to attend “high holiday” services with my wife because she asks me to accompany her: she does not want to go alone. I read Science, Scientific American, or American Scientist while others are engaged in prayer.

My participation as part of the religious quorum is just another reflection of my humanistic instincts, my willingness to help people who require comforting. Helping to provide comfort for the bereaved is why I have provided services for mourners. I do this for them, not me: I derive nothing from the services. It is not for me to judge what comforts a grieving person. If my education and ethnic credentials can help them, why not do so?

Similarly, I felt comfortable obliging when the minister of a Unitarian church asked me to fill in for him while he was away. He and his congregants were aware of my social, religious, scientific, and political philosophy and activities, most of which were congruent with their philosophies. Since this church did not require recognizing the divinity of Jesus nor any reference to the trinity or God, it was easy for me to prepare and lead secular-oriented services and deliver “sermons” reflecting our shared philosophy. I was asked to help a friend, and I did, without compromising any of my values or principles. The congregants never objected. I was invited back on several occasions to substitute for the minister.

Putting together and conducting a personalized ritual circumcision service was done to help the son of a very close friend who was not on the best of terms with the rabbi of the temple to which his family belonged. I did it at his and his parents’ request. It is not for me to judge them, nor am I required to lecture them as to my views on God and religion. I did not perform the surgery.

All the people I helped knew of my atheism: it did not bother them. They viewed me as a Jew. An aside: it is an interesting phenomenon that when Jews convert, all too often their new coreligionists still consider them as “their” Jews. Didn’t Hitler consider anyone having at least one-sixteenth Jewish heritage, irrespective of religious affiliation, still a Jew and thereby worthy of being wantonly murdered?

Let’s sum up. What kind of atheist am I? I am a humanistically oriented atheist who is willing to use his ethnic background, knowledge, talents, and abilities to help his fellow human beings without deriving any personal or spiritual benefit other than the satisfaction of knowing that I have helped. I see no reason to apologize for helping to assist and comfort fellow human beings.

Sheldon F. Gottlieb

Sheldon F. Gottlieb is a retired physiologist and professor of biological sciences. He is the author of The Naked Mind (Best Publishing Company, 2003).


I have been asked this question by friends: “Since you do things that are seemingly religious, which in all likelihood no respectable atheist would do, what kind of atheist are you?” What is it that I did, and do, to incite such consternation and make people question my atheism? And, should I still do such …

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