Why are most Jews not religious?

According to Pew research (I think it’s the most recent, but if there is a more recent one, feel free to reply with a link to that) the majority of Jews in the USA and Israel see remembering the Holocaust as an essential characteristic to being Jewish, while only 19% of US Jews and 35% of Israeli Jews believe observing religious law is.

So why in your opinion are the majority of Jews non believers?

Jewish families are more concentrated in coastal areas that are less religious and they come from more academic backgrounds versus the general population, which have also become less religious over time.

1 Like

Since I’m not Jewish I can’t really answer this, though I would be interested in hearing some thoughts on the matter from their perspective :+1:

1 Like

I’ll echo this and simply add that some Holocaust survivors I’ve had the privilege of meeting have said (in my very poor summation) that the tragic event and it’s handling, even by their own Jewish leadership in some cases, was enough to leave them with little faith in anything.

2 Likes

I think any answer really has to revolve on what you mean by ‘religious’. Therefore, it makes answering your question difficult.

I have read quite a lot on Judaism. I do not claim to be any kind of expert but I have learnt one thing. The Jewish religion is very different from Christianity. To draw comparisons between the two, therefore, requires considerable care.

Plus, in Judaism there is not central authority. I know in Christianity only we Catholics have the pope and other other Christian community has its equivalent. How many do have a central governing body. Whilst Jews tend to belong to a particular school such as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, etc., each synagogue is an independent congregation.

I’m not Jewish, but I would presume that Jewish people being less religious in USA is, in large part, for the same reasons that people of all the Christian faiths are less religious nowadays.
Such as:

  • worship services are boring or get in the way of other stuff somebody wants to do on the weekend
  • religious practice seems like an empty ritual that isn’t addressing actual spiritual needs
  • people aren’t taught the principles of the religion and don’t understand it
  • religion is old-fashioned, modern thinking people don’t bother with that stuff
  • religion is divisive, if we got rid of it then a lot of wars and conflicts would just go away
  • people don’t like being told No, you can’t do what you want because it’s against God’s law
  • some people struggle with basic issues of belief in God, afterlife, etc.
  • some people who do believe in God don’t see the religion as the best way to commune with God
  • hypocritical and sinful people in the religious group are a turn-off

Etc.

I know Jewish people who aren’t practicing and maybe don’t even believe in God but they still have a strong sense of ethics and are very involved in Jewish organizations, Holocaust awareness, fighting anti-semitism, monitoring stuff going on with Israel, etc. I think it’s odd that a person would be so involved in that and yet not be an observant believer, but if somebody is having doubts for whatever reason, it’s not my place to judge them.

2 Likes

Here’s a poll from 2015 which found that Jews were among the least religious group in the world:

I find this simply heartbreaking.

A relative of mine through marriage is a Jewish atheist who has replaced a belief in God with a belief in liberalism. He scorns anyone who holds to religious beliefs of any kind and especially regards Protestant evangelicals as idiots.

1 Like

I read this old article a while back. I found it interesting. It seemed similar to what might happen in a Catholic family when one kid falls away and the other kid becomes a traditionalist.

The author, a well-known feminist, journalist, and rock critic, died about 15 years ago. I pray for her soul.
I believe her brother is now an Orthodox rabbi in South Africa with a wife and 10 kids.

3 Likes

The notion that a person can be Jewish even without observing the Sabbath or believing in God may be tied to the idea held by many Jews that being Jewish is more about ancestry or culture than about religion.

This is the explanation from the Pew article.

God has chosen the Jews. Those who believe in God still acknowledge those who do not believe in God because they were all chosen by God.

Why would religiosity, or lack of it, be more important than God’s choice?

Personally I find this a really interesting topic. But I think when looking at it, we have to understand that Judaism functions very differently than Christianity in a number of ways. I don’t think that particular study is telling us that the majority of Jews are “non-believers”. I didn’t see the number percentage of Jews who are athiest (I could have missed it). I think the point of that study is to determine what it means to identify as Jewish. And that shows what I think most of us already understood: Judaism is as much a people as a religion.

As for “believers”, I think we have to be cautious in phrasing, because Judaism and Christianity don’t see “religiosity” the same way. As Christians, “belief” is what defines us. It defines us as Christians, and it defines the kinds of Christians we are (Eg. does someone believe in sola scripture, papal authority, consubstantiation or transubstantiation?) That’s why our theologians spend so much time on doctrines and working out the relationship between the persons of the trinity, what we believe matters. In Judaism, what constitutes “religious” is not the same, and it varies some among the different movements. The differences are more in practice and adherence to the Halacha and Mitzvot (Laws and Commandments). Theological differences are almost entirely about those 613 commandments, which are necessary, which were necessary and are no longer relevant and should be adapted, and what would be considered (in Catholic terms) tradition vs Tradition and unnecessary altogether. So in some circles not practicing all 613 mitzvot would be a sign someone is a non-believer, in others, practicing Mitzvot is a sign of adhering to tradition and not a sign of “belief”. Judaism tends to dineneate more along “observant” / “non-observant” continuum rather than a “believer”/ “non-believer” continuum.

Even if we did look at the number of Jewish “believers” vs “atheists” I think it still wouldn’t be an equal comparison to Christianity. When a Catholic becomes an atheist, Buddhist, Baptist, etc, they stop identifying themselves as Catholics. Even though the Church still considers them Catholics, they don’t. In Judaism, it’s similar in that if someone becomes an atheist they still remain Jewish. The difference is they often still self-identify as Jewish. There are people who identify themselves as “Jewish Atheists”. But we don’t have anyone identifying as “Christian Atheists”

So I wonder if that makes it seem like there are more “fallen away Jews” than “fallen away Catholics”.

2 Likes

Heartbreaking, but I suspect the data is skewed. The reason is Jewish people usually identify as Jewish even when they don’t believe in God. Christians usually stop identifying as Christians when they don’t believe in God. So if they’re only asking people who identify as Jewish and Identify as Christians, naturally the people identifying as Christians will have a higher percentage of religious people.

HOWEVER, I suspect if they polled everyone who was baptized or comes from a family with Christian ancestry (even if only traced on the mother’s side, as is traditional with most Jewish families), the numbers would be quite different. Probably even more heartbreaking.

Several years ago, a Rabbi told me that, as a people, the Jews were lost.

We actually have more Jewish people where I live than most people would think, we also have a lot more Muslims than most people would think. But anyway, the Jews I know are basically the equivalent of Christmas and Easter Christians, obviously they’re not that because they’re Jewish. I actually went to high school with a Jewish kid, still a friend of mine, his brother’s friend of mine too, and basically they just go to the synagogue on certain days of the year, like on important feast days. And why they’re not religious, you would have to ask them.

I think they had turned away from Judaism as a religious identity even before emigrating, in the cities and towns of Russia, Ukraine, Poland, etc.

I suspect the fact that Jewish people have been mistreated for centuries in the name of religion may have something to do with it.
If my people were under existential pressure, you can bet I would have a vivid memory of those facts, possibly at the expense of religious practice.

1 Like

Because Jewishness is an ethnicity as well as a religion. With other religions, you cannot ask, “Why are most x/y/z not religious?”, because if they are no longer religious, they are not really x/y/z. You could rephrase the question: “Why are most people who were born into x/y/z culture not religious?” If you take the Nordic countries and Germany, for example, you could ask, “Why are most Lutherans not religious?” However, you would not ask this, because Lutheranism isn’t an ethnicity, so people whose parents or grandparents or more distant ancestors were Lutherans are not non-religious Lutherans, they are simply non-religious.

5 Likes

Zechariah 13:8 foretold this…
And it shall come to pass, that in all the land, says the LORD, two parts therein shall be cut off and die; but the third shall be left therein…

Hey! A question right up my alley!

I can only speak for the US and to some extent, Europe. First, the Holocaust devastated many Jews, turning some into stronger Jews but many into outright atheists or, at best, questioning agnostics. How many times can God devastate a people yet expect them to remain worshipping him?

As stated above, Judaism is an orthopraxy religion. It’s about right practices more than right belief. In a weird way, Judaism doesn’t require one to believe in God but to obey His commandments. Questioning God is a very Jewish thing to do.

Enter America where for most likely the first time, Jews were able to live out their Judaism as they saw fit. No more Ghettos and pogroms and forbidden professions and Jews became worldly citizens…like most everyone else. What on earth is the reason to keep Kosher nowadays? Many still obey the laws for multiple reasons but just like general society, belief in God, belief in the reasons to obey the Laws of Moses, belief that we are a Chosen People just clashes completely with American life. In order to continue to practice as an obedient Jew, they need to self isolate to some extent and can not fully participate in American society…so, many don’t. Some still believe in God. Some don’t. Some leave the culture behind completely (me) and some still participate…and call themselves Jewish Atheists.

I grew up immersed in Judaism and left it all when I lost my faith in God. There was no point, in my mind, to continue the cultural aspects when I felt much more American that Jewish but others enjoy walking within both cultures.

I’m not sure I answered anything, but it is definitely true that many Jews no longer believe in God or, if they do, continue to be pious Jews. There are still many that do, however. We tend to model the same patterns as Christians except that we have the choice to remain in the community or not.

9 Likes
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.