The fourth event of our lecture series The Others’ Faith is dedicated to atheism and the question: Can mindsets critical of religion be constructive for a Jewish and Islamic theology that speaks to our times?
Skepticism, non-belief, and doubt have accompanied religions since their beginnings. As a result of advancing secularization, however, atheistic and agnostic convictions have become widespread in the Western world to an unprecedented level. How do Judaism and Islam respond to this?
As monotheistic religions, they both see the negation of God as a rejection of moral values. But do moral principles necessarily require recourse to transcendence? And how do Judaism and Islam meet the claim of rationality and reason formulated by the atheists?
A discussion with Jacques Berlinerblau (Georgetown University) and Ufuk Topkara (University of Virginia). Moderation Asher Mattern (University of Tübingen).
Jacques Berlinerblau is a Professor of Jewish Civilization and the Director of the Center for Jewish Civilization at der Georgetown University. He has published on a wide variety of scholarly subjects with special attention to heresy, atheism and secularism. He is the author of How to be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom.
Abstract: How To Think About Jewish Atheism
The scholarly study of Jewish Atheism is still in its nascent stage and as such there is little in the way of peer-reviewed literature about this topic. This makes it challenging to confirm, or even investigate, a popular axiom which holds that Jews exhibit a unique affinity for godlessness.
The purposes of my discussion at the Jewish Museum are broad and programmatic. I will begin by surveying plausible and major “taproots,” or drivers, of Jewish atheism, assuming its presence is as pronounced as some believe. These, sometimes overlapping, taproots are: 1) a peculiar motif in Jewish Rabbinic speculation that permits for intense focus on what is colloquially known as Torah over and against concentration on the metaphysical God of Israel, 2) a rhetorical tendency within early Judaism for playful, verging-on-blasphemous, speculation about the divine, 3) a collective history of suffering, culminating in the Shoah, that elicits a uniquely Jewish “theodicy,” or explanation of suffering in light of God’s alleged beneficence, 4) the widespread embrace by 19th-century Eastern European Jews of Marxist-tinged worldviews which explicitly relegated the divine to the realm of “the superstructural,” “the chimerical,” etc., and, 5) a historical skepticism among a “pariah people” about official God narratives the likes of which were encountered in European Christendom.
Maybe as a cause and effect of the proceeding, Jews can find religious solace in, around, below, and even beyond God, all the while remaining Jews. Which is to say, many Jews can find validation as Jews in a sense of peoplehood, and/or a commitment to Zionism, and/or immersion in Jewish culture. That such a mode of religiosity is uniquely Jewish and uniquely bewildering to traditionalist Christians, Muslims, (and many orthodox Jews) is a key point to be made in this presentation. This paper ends with a plea for researchers and religious figures of all stripes to adopt a less doctrinaire and judgmental view of Jewish atheism and related positions. A willingness to understand the fluid, complex, historically conditioned and culturally creative nature of this form of Judaism is the ideological starting point for the study of Jewish Atheism.
Ufuk Topkara studied philosophy at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and Harvard University. He has served as a lecturer in Islam at Evangelische Akademie Berlin and is the author of the book Umrisse einer zeitgemäßen philosophischen Theologie im Islam: Die Verfeinerung des Charakters (Outlines of a Contemporary Philosophical Theology in Islam: The Refinement of Character), which combines Islamic philosophy with existentialist philosophy.
Lecture Series 2019/20: The Others’ Faith (6)
The Others’ Faith
This lecture series explores the complex relationship of Judaism and Islam to the other religions. Two researchers are invited to each event who present the topic from Jewish and Islamic perspectives and enter into dialog with each other.
On the Path to Enlightenment: Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism
With Jerome Gellman (Ben-Gurion University) und Johan Elverskog (Southern Methodist University)
24 Sep 2020
Tying the Knot versus Bonds with God: Jews and Muslims in Interfaith Marriages
With Madeleine Dreyfus (psychoanalyst with a doctorate in cultural anthropology) und Imen Gallala-Arndt (lawyer and a lecturer at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology), in German
18 Jun 2020
Non-Transcendental Morality: Judaism, Islam, and Atheism
With Jacques Berlinerblau (Georgetown University) and Ufuk Topkara (Johns Hopkins University), in German and English
20 Apr 2020
What Do You Think about Jesus? Judaism, Islam, and Christianity
With Israel Yuval (Hebrew University in Jerusalem) and Maha El Kaisy-Friemuth (Friedrich Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg), in German and English
18 Feb 2020
Mono or Poly? Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism
With Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein (Elijah Interfaith Institute) and Reza Shah-Kazemi (Institute of Ismaili Studies in London)
4 Feb 2020
Judaism and Islam – The History of Theological Relations
With Lukas Mühlethaler (Free University Berlin) and Imam Abdullah Antepli (Duke University, USA), in German and English
21 Nov 2019