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Silverman, 47, grew up in a Jewish family in Marblehead, Mass., but from a very young age he disagreed with the idea of religion. His questioning of faith was a source of contention with his mother, who insisted that he go to Hebrew school and have a bar mitzvah. Standing on the bimah and reading his portion, Silverman recalled feeling that “it was the greatest lie I had to tell.” He resolved to be an atheist. But he still went on to complete his confirmation.
Later, while studying at Brandeis, arguing with Jewish friends about religion was one of his favorite pastimes. He identified himself as a Jewish atheist, meaning Jewish by culture but irreligious by faith.
As leader of American Atheists since 1996, Silverman directed the group’s advocacy and public activity, much of it on display on billboards before Christmas to call for a season of celebration without the “myth” of religion.
In recent years, Silverman abandoned his decades of self-definition as a Jewish atheist. While working on a book he is about to publish, he reached the conclusion that this religious cohabitation was impossible. “I wanted to describe why Jewish atheism makes sense, and I failed,” he said. He rejected the notion that being Jewish could be not only about a religion, but also about being part of a culture or a national ethnic group.
For Silverman, this also meant rejecting the notion of Israel as a Jewish homeland. “The idea that Israel is a home for all Jews is nothing more than a marketing scheme at this point,” Silverman said, “it’s a great way to lure legal, loyal immigrants. It makes no more sense for a Jew, let alone a former Jew, to have religion-based allegiance to Israel than it does for a non-Italian Catholic to have allegiance to Italy.”
Silverman’s personal formulation of Jewish identity as something purely religious moved him to see the current state of Jewish identity nationally as a potential boon to his political agenda. Silverman believes there are many Jews who are, in fact, atheists but have yet to acknowledge it.
“I want to de-demonize the word ‘atheism,’” he said, “there are so many Jews out there that are in fact atheists and not Jewish.”
Jews are already overrepresented in the atheist movement, and historically many atheist thinkers came from Jewish backgrounds. Harvard University political scientist Robert Putnam, who researches religion in America, said in an email to the Forward that studies show Jews are overwhelmingly more likely to question the existence of God. “That figure is much higher among Jews than any other major religious group in America,” he noted.
Pew Research Center’s survey on American Jews, published last year, supports this view. Silverman sees in this a growing demographic of potential supporters for his movement. According to Pew, one in five American Jews describes himself or herself as having no religion, with the share increasing to 32% among millennial Jews. If these young American Jews adopt Silverman’s definition and view themselves as atheists, they could be the next activists handing out anti-religious fliers at political conventions.