Meet the Atheist Professor Who Brings His Family to Synagogue & Dismisses Atheist Activists’ ‘Anti-Intellectualism’
It’s not everyday that one meets a non-theist who differentiates himself from the outspoken atheist activist community. It’s even rarer to locate a non-believer who actually attends a house of worship on a regular basis.
However, these are exactly the attributes, among many others, that TheBlaze encountered in Dr. Jacques Berlinerblau, the director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and the author of the new book, “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom.”
To say that Berlinerblau’s views are unique is an understatement. While he is Jewish in heritage, the professor considers himself an atheist. When asked to recap when it was that he realized his lack of a belief in a higher power, Berlinerblau said that there was no “epiphany moment.”
On a grander scale, he provided a fascinating background as to why he believes some Jews found themselves, particularly in the post-Holocaust generation, having difficulty embracing God. Considering his own Jewish upbringing with parents who were a part of this cohort, his explanation was fascinating.
“For a lot of Jews in the post-Holocaust generation, atheism was sort of…an easy go to,” Berlinerblau explained. “[Especially] if you had parents who were either survivors or were European and had escaped to another country.”
The professor and author went on to explain that his parents grew up during this time frame and that “folks who grew up in that kind of generation tended to not have parents who too forcefully accentuated God.” While he was careful to distinguish that not all post-Holocaust Jews were non-believers, he noted that the traumatic world event in which millions of individuals were exterminated, made God a difficult concept for some to embrace, particularly in the event’s aftermath.
Berlinerblau connected these themes to his own upbringing in the 1970s.
“Like many Jews of that generation, I had a bar mitzvah,” he explained, going on to say that it was often easier to sell kids in his generation on Jewish culture than it was on God.
Now, remember that tidbit about Berlinerblau attending synagogue? TheBlaze asked him to explain why he still goes to a house of worship, despite actively embracing his non-theism.
“I have a tremendous debt to Judaism, to my parents — to the history,” he explained. “It feels all very very natural. I have children who I want to be Jewish [too].”
Naturally, one wonders how the professor’s world-view is impacted by these divergent ideologies. Specifically, with dueling theological constructs coloring his experience, one ponders which wins out. On the atheism front, Berlinerblau said that non-belief has “very, very little” impact on his worldview.
He then went on to describe how he frames the current breakdown of secularists — a designation that will be helpful to anyone attempting to better understand the atheist frame-of-mind.
“I think there’s two general categories of atheists. A lot of American atheists today are like refugees from very severe fundamentalist homes and they believe that these homes were abusive, that there was brainwashing and intolerance in others,” he explained.
For these individuals, the atheist movement is “a place of refuge.” The second group takes a very different stance and finds itself unmoved and uninvolved with the atheist activists’ (the first group) more abrasive tactics.
“There’s another strain…[those] who don’t live their atheism out on their sleeve, because they never had to,” Berlinerblau noted. “They never found religious people to be particularly oppressive or diabolical. The conflicts never occurred probably because they were living in a state of equality with these folks.”
As for this first group, Berlinerblau had some tough words, at least in terms of the tactics they use to progress their non-belief. In the end, he likened some activists’ activities with those embraced by the Christian right in America, claiming that he “sees parallels between the two groups.”
“I’m a Washingtonian. I wouldn’t go about it the same way,” he said of controversial actions taken by secular groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), American Atheists and others. “The courts are moving away from all-out separation. I understand why they (atheists) do what they do — I’ve often asked the same question of the hard, Christian right.”
Citing one example, TheBlaze asked Berlinerblau how he feels about American Atheists’ battle against the Ground Zero cross. The educator’s advice to secularists is to “let it go.”
“There’s no threat of establishment there. Everyone understands many non-believers, Muslims and Jews died there [too],” he said. “I don’t think it’s necessary to get involved in that atheist activism.”
To the chagrin of atheist activists, Berlinerblau also noted the “anti-intellectualism” that some atheist leaders embrace, admitting that, despite being a non-believer, he has been hard on this cohort.
“They don’t understand the history of religion, so they tend to make sweeping generalizations about religion which don’t really pass muster,” he said.
As far as America’s Founding Fathers go, the never-ending debate surrounding whether they were favorable of faith in the public square forges on. As for Berlinerblau, he believes that there are some important determinations to be made on this front. While he claims that there were some concerns among the Founders over federal versus state establishments of religion, it is clear, in his view, that they didn’t want a federal promotion of faith.
“I do think there were quite a few Founders who had no problem with state establishments. Massachusetts had one until 1833,” he proclaimed.
That said, Berlinerblau did note that collusion between state and religion makes him nervous, mainly because religious minorities tend to suffer as a result. Still, he says that these are important issues for secularists to “think through,” specifically when it comes to the state and local level (the majority of atheist activists would argue, though, that state and local government should have no relations with religious sentiment).
In his new book, “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom,” Berlinerblau discusses many of these issues. Rather than allowing semantics to run amok, the author told TheBlaze that he wants to explain to people that “secularism” isn’t about taking God away from people — and it’s certainly not about persecuting the religious. Instead, it’s about ensuring freedom from and of religion.
And as a surprise factoid, Berlinerblau claims that it’s actually an ideal with roots in Christian lineage. If there were no Protestant Reformation, he claims there would be no secularism. He even refers to the phenomenon as “a protestant invention” and “gift.” Secularism, according to the dictionary, is defined as, “the view that public education and other matters of civil policy should be conducted without the introduction of religious element.”
“What I’m trying to explain to Christian folks is that secularism is far from being [foreign],” he explained.
The professor expands the aforementioned definition in the following words and explains how he believes it should be introduced and practiced in public life:
“Secularism is a political philosophy which is preoccupied with and often deeply-suspicious of any and all relations of government and religion. That doesn’t mean strict separationism — that is one strain. There are other ways of being secular.
My personal preference is for a soft separation, not a hard separation. Government argues for accommodation, which is actually a form of secularism. Its argument is that, as long as the state establishes no one religion, it has every right to engage with religion and do so regularly.”
In this way, it is entirely possible to separate atheism and secularism. In fact, Berlinerblau claims that the two ideals don’t share intellectual DNA, as the latter is more about maintaining separation than it is about personal views on the existence of deities. In the end, the professor believes that there are both good and bad religious people; just the same, this dynamic also exists among those who do not embrace a higher power.
“Put it this way — I dont accept the civil Republican premise that religion is an unambiguous good,” he said. “I can see the good in the believer, but I think there’s a lot of moral good in the non-believer as well. I don’t make moral prioritization.”
Be sure to find out more about Berlinerblau and his book, “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom.”
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