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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia


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A term derived from the Greek, meaning literally the "disbelief in a God." As originally used in the writings of the people that coined it, it carried the implication of non-recognition of the God or the gods acknowledged as supreme, and therefore entitled to worship by the state. It was in this sense that Socrates was accused and convicted of Atheism. The same note is dominant in the oft-quoted dictum attributed to Polybius, that reverence for the gods is the foundation of all public order and security.

Impossible in Ancient Israel.

The Hebrew dictionary has no word of exactly similar import. The reasons for this are not difficult to establish. Atheism, in the restricted sense of the Greek usage, could not find expression among the Hebrews before they had come into contact and conflict with other nations. As long as their tribal consciousness was strong and supreme among them, recognition on the part of all members of the clan or tribe of the god to whom the family clan or tribe and people owed allegiance was spontaneous. Recent researches in this field have established beyond the possibility of doubt that this sense of family or tribal or national affinity is focal to all primitive religion. Sacrifice and all other features of private or public cult center in this all-regulating sentiment. The deity is entertained by the members of the family at the sacrificial meal. Even some institutions of the Israelitish cult, such as the Pesaḥ meal, reflect the mental mood of this original conviction. Denial of the family or tribal or national deity would have amounted to relinquishment of one's family or people; and such abandonment is a thought of which man is incompetent before a long stretch of historical experience has changed his whole mental attitude.

In the development of the Jewish God-idea, as traced by modern Biblical criticism, the conflict between the Prophets and their antagonists pivots not so much around the controversy whether God be or be not, but around the recognition of Yhwh as the only and legitimate God of Israel. Even they who opposed the Prophets were not atheists in the modern acceptation of the word. They may be so styled, if the implications of the term be restricted to the original Greek usage. According to prophetic preachment, Israel owed allegiance to Yhwh alone. This is the emphasis of their oft-repeated statement that it was Yhwh who led the people of Israel out of Egypt. The first statement of the Decalogue is not a protest against Atheism in the modern sense. It posits positively the prophetic thesis that no other God but Yhwh brought about Israel's redemption from Egyptian bondage. The force of this prophetic contention is well illustrated by the counter or corresponding claim advanced in behalf of the deities nationalized by Jeroboam at Dan and Beth-el (1 Kings 12:28). With all the strenuousness of their insistence upon the sole supremacy and legitimacy of Yhwh as Israel's God, the Prophets never went the length to call their opponents atheists. That the gods whom the followers of the false prophets worshiped were not gods is a conviction that appears only in later prophets, and then not in a very violent emphasis. Jeremiah resorts to mild sarcasm (Jeremiah 227, 28). The second Isaiah is more pronounced in his ridicule heaped upon the worshipers of idols. Yet the quarrel is not because some or many deny God. Their censure is evoked by the fact that some or many worship gods that have no claim upon the recognition of Israel, the people of Yhwh.

Atheism the Result of Skepticism.

Again, Atheism always is the result of criticism and skepticism. Both in the individual and in the race it is, as it were, an afterthought. No people starts out with Atheism. The original religiousness of man is always spontaneously theistic in one form or another. And as long as the religious consciousness of man is in its prime vigor, there is no provocation for critical analysis of its contents. Periods of decline in religiousness produce skepticism, which, in turn, breeds Atheism. Up to the Exile the conditions for Atheism—in this sense—were lacking in Israel. Even the Exile, though fatal to the religious fervor of a great number—as is apparent by a study of the "'Ebed Yhwh" hymns, portraying as they do the indignities and ridicule to which a pious minority were exposed at the hands of their compatriots—brought to bear upon the minds of the Jews influences much more potent in the opposite direction. Contact with the Babylonian-Assyrian, and shortly after with the Persian, civilization had a pronounced tendency to develop an abiding predisposition toward mysticism, which is always fatal to sober Atheism. In this connection it is well to remember that Jewish angelology and demonology took their rise in the Captivity; and certainly an age susceptible to suggestions of the order vocalized in the belief in angels and their counterparts is not very propitious for the cultivation of atheistic proclivities. The literature assigned to the Exile evidences the prevalence of the very opposite inclination. It is safe to hold that anterior to the Greek period there was but little cause among the Jews to pay attention to atheistic enunciations. This fact accounts for the absence of a term to denote both the professor and the system of Atheism.

Psalm , preserved in a double version (in Psalms 14), mentions the speech of one who maintains that there is no God. The professor of this belief is styled "nabal," and in the context is contrasted with the "maskil" (verse 3); wherefore the word was understood to be "fool," or, as Ibn Ezra has it in his commentary, the contrary of "ḥakam" (wise). This meaning the Targum to Psalm also accepts, rendering it by "shaṭya." Other commentators hold that the psalm does not register a general proposition, but records the utterances of some definite person—Titus or Nebuchadnezzar. From the character of these men it may be inferred that the interpreters who refer the expression in the Psalm to them, took the word "nabal" in the secondary sense of "knave," implying that foolishness which always characterizes a corrupt or pervert mind. "Nabal" would thus be a synonym of "rasha'" or "zed."

Talmudic Designations.

The nearest approach to a phrase which might be considered the equivalent of our modern "atheist" is the rabbinical "kofer be'iḳḳar," one who denies a fundamental tenet of the Jewish religion; namely, the existence and then the unity of God. Of all the other designations applied in rabbinical writings to heretics, none other seems so directly to suggest or to stand for avowed and open negation of the Deity's existence and supremacy (B. B. 15b; Pesiḳ. p. 163). Atheism is included among the heresies charged against the "minim" (Shab. 116b; and Maimonides, Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah, Teshubah, , where he enumerates among the heretics "minim," "those that declare that there is no God and that the world has neither governor nor leader").

But as in the case of the Biblical "nabal," so in the descriptions of the atheist by the Rabbis it would appear that Atheism was much more a matter of perverse and immoral conduct than of formulated philosophical or metaphysical assertion and conviction. At least it is from the conduct of man that his Atheism is inferred. Observance of the Sabbath was regarded as evidence of belief in the Creator; while neglect to keep the day of rest holy gave point to the presumption of atheistic leanings. The passage in Sifra, Beḥuḳḳotai, 3:2, shows that the observance or the rejection of the "laws and ordinances" was the decisive factor in the attribution of Atheism, according to rabbinical understanding. Adam is said to have been an atheist; for in hiding himself to escape, he gave proof of his belief that God was not omnipresent (Sanh. 38b).

How far the term "Epicurean," (see APIḲOROS), served to denote an atheist, is not very clear. It is patent that by this name were designated men who denied the doctrine of resurrection and revelation. As both of these may be said to be involved in the (rabbinical) doctrine concerning the Godhead, the appellation "Epicurean" may in a loose way have been synonymous with the latter-day atheist. Connecting this Greek word with the Aramaic root "paḳar" (to free oneself), the rabbinical sources—even Maimonides—assumed as the characteristic trait of an Epicurean's conduct disregard of all that made for reverence and decency. "Scoffer" might, therefore, be suggested as the best rendering in English. As one that would scoff at the words of the learned and wise, of the God-fearing and pious (Ned. 23a; Sanh. 99b), the Epicurean naturally created the impression by his conduct that he shared the views of the "nabal" and was under suspicion that in his insolence he would go so far as to deny the existence of God and to stand in no awe of His providential guidance of life and the world. Hence the advice always to be ready to refute the arguments of the Epicurean (Abot 2:14).

Jews Accused of Atheism.

Strange to say, the Jews often had to defend themselves against the charge of being atheists, though, in the conception of the Prophets, Israel's history was the convincing proof of God's providence. Israel was chosen to be His witness. The prime solicitude of Moses (Exodus 32:12,13) lest the "Egyptians" should put a wrong construction on the events of Israel's career and become confirmed in their false conceptions of Israel's God, is also, as it were, the "leitmotif" of the theology of later Biblical writers. The appeal of the Seventy-ninth Psalm is for God to manifest Himself in His avenging splendor, lest, from the weakness of Israel, the"nations" might infer that He had abdicated in favor of their idols. Psalm 115:2 seq.—undoubtedly of the Maccabean period—expresses the same anxiety but on a higher and more spiritual plane. It reflects the arguments and conceits of even the enlightened among the Greeks. The invisible God of the Jews was beyond the range of the ancient world's intelligence. A visible God alone was entitled to recognition.

Greek thought may not have gone so far as Pharaoh did—according to the Midrash (Ex. R. ), reflecting certainly the anti-Jewish attitude of the Greco-Roman period—in refusing to recognize Yhwh for the reason that his name was not included in the official list of deities, yet it did erect an altar to "the unknown God" (Acts 17:23), as, in fact, the hospitality of the Pantheon was elastic enough to admit every new deity. Still, two considerations dominated the judgment of the Greek world on the religion, or, according to them, irreligion, of the Jews. The Jews believed in an invisible God; therefore, according to the Greek mode of thinking, in no God. Secondly, the Jews refused to join them in their worship, though the Greeks were prepared to pay honor to the gods of other nations. These two complaints are at the bottom of the accusation of Atheism against the Jews which is very frequent and violent in the writings of Alexandrian detractors and Roman historians. The philosophers among the Greeks, indeed, furnished many an argument in defense of the excellence of Jewish monotheism; but the vast multitude was still addicted to the grosser notions. If the Jews were citizens of the towns where they resided, as they claimed to be, why did they not join in worshiping the communal gods? This was the burden of the popular prejudice against them; and Apion (Josephus, "Contra Ap." § 6), Posidonius, and Apollonius Molo made themselves the willing mouthpieces of popular distrust. Here was proof that the Jews were really atheists. In the Roman empire they refused to pay religious honors to the statues of the emperors. This fact sufficed, in the eyes of Tacitus and Pliny, to accuse them of despising the gods and to describe them as atheists, as a people void of all virtue (Tacitus, "Historiæ," 5:5; see Schürer, "Gesch." 3d ed., 3:417).

The same feeling that led the Greek and Roman enemies of the Jews to accuse them of irreligion is potent in the modern charge brought against them of unbelief. Atheism is indeed a relative term. The Mohammedan regards both the Christian and the Jew as infidels; and the Christian is not slow to return the compliment to the follower of the Prophet. Refusing to accept the construction of his history that Christian theology puts on it, and declining to subscribe to many of the Christological interpretations of his Bible, the Jew is under the suspicion of irreligion and Atheism. The "amixia," the stubborn defense of his historical identity, and his right to maintain his religious distinctness, which puzzled and angered the Greeks (compare Haman's argument in Esther 3:8, the precipitate of the Maccabean era), is still a pretext for denying to the Jew genuine religious feeling, and a provocation to class him among the wanton deniers of God.

Attitude of Mohammed and Philo.

The attitude toward the Jews in the Koran illustrates the same fact. Mohammed, incensed at the refusal of the Jews to acclaim him as the expected final prophet, pours out over them the vials of his wrath and abuse. Though "the people of the book," they have falsified it. They claim to believe, and still are unbelievers. They disavow him, simply because he believes in God and they do not (Koran, suras 2:70-73,116; 5:48,49,64-69; 9:30).

That there were atheists among the Jews stands to reason, and is made evident among other things by the tenor of the Book of Ecclesiastes, which, without the later addition of the saving concluding verses, is really an exposition of the skepticism that had impregnated the minds of the higher classes during the Greek fever preceding the Maccabean rebellion. In Alexandria, too, Jews must have been openly or tacitly inclined to accept the philosophy of negation. Philo takes occasion to discuss Atheism. He quotes the arguments advanced in its defense by those who maintain that nothing exists but the perceptible and visible universe, which had never come into being and which would never perish, but which, though unbegotten and incorruptible, was without pilot, guardian, or protector ("De Somnis," 2:43). He does not state that they who advance these theories are Jews; but as he mentions others who embrace a pantheistic interpretation, and describes them as Chaldeans ("De Migratione Abrahami," p. 32), it is not improbable that "the others" may have been of his people. To Atheism he opposes the doctrine of Moses, "the beholder of the invisible nature, and seer of God" ("De Mutatione Nominum," § 2), according to which the Divine exists, and is neither the cosmos nor the soul of the cosmos, but is the supreme God.

The religious philosophy of the Middle Ages has no occasion to deal directly with formulated Atheism. Its preoccupation is largely apologetic, not so much against the attacks of formal and formidable Atheism as against certain theistic or semitheistic schools or other controverts: first Karaite, then Arabic, and, still later, Christian theologians. But in their discussions of the fundamentals of faith the problem of theism versus Atheism in one way or another is involved. The contentions of the Dahri, Mohammedan atheists, believing in the eternity of matter, and the duration of the world from eternity, and denying resurrection and final judgment, as well as the theories of the Motazilites, the Mohammedan freethinkers, rejecting all eternal attributes of God, furnish the text for a large portion of the speculation of the Jewish philosophers. The one objective point of all medieval Jewish philosophy is the clarification of the concept of the Godhead by the removal of every form of anthropomorphism and anthropopathism, and to vindicate to human reason concordance with the true intents of the revealed word of God. The question which Mohammedan Atheism raised regarding the eternity of matter is in the very center of polemic debate. But in the later speculation, the system of Crescas, for instance, the eternity of matter, is admitted without reservation.

This throws light at once on the problem whether Spinoza should be classed among the atheoi. Fromthe Jewish point of view this must be denied. Under close analysis, Spinoza does not go beyond the positions maintained on some points by Maimonides, on more by Crescas. He carries to its furthest consequences the Jewish solicitude to divest the idea of the Godhead of anthropomorphic associations (on this point see Joel, "Zur Genesis der Lehre Spinoza's," Breslau, 1871).

In modern Judaism, as is evinced by printed sermons and other publications, Atheism of every kind has found voice and adherents. The influence of the natural sciences, and the unwarranted conclusions now recognized as such by none more readily than by the thinkers devoted to the exploration of nature's domain, have also left their mark on Jewry. Both the idle Atheism of conceit and the more serious Atheism of reaction against the dogmatism of anterior days have had exponents in the circles grouped around the synagogues. As elsewhere, evolution was invoked to dethrone God, and therefore, departing from the methods of scholasticism, the arguments based on evolution were not ignored by the defenders of theism in the pulpit. In the discussion two lines were more especially followed. Atheism was tested as to its rationality, and was found of all irrational theories of the world and life the most irrational. Mind presupposes mind. The gap between thought and matter has not been bridged by natural selection or by evolution. Du Bois-Reymond's agnosticism left the domain of faith to religious cultivation. Whatever difficulties from a materialistic point of view the doctrine of God as the Creator and guide of world and of man, as the Author of life, and as the Ultimate Reality underlying the All may present and must present—for to know God as He is man would have to be God—the divine element in man, his conscience and self-consciousness, his moral power and experiences, are inexplicable and unreadable riddles to the materialist. Materialism has no key for their solution. History, especially the history of the Jews, witnesses to a will which is not ours, but may be made ours; to the potency of purposes which are not ours, but may be followed by us; to laws in harmony with which alone man can attain unto happiness and preserve his dignity. To these facts and factors the Jewish theist has pointed in defense of his theistic interpretation of life and its phenomena, while always ready to modify the symbolism into which he would cast the supreme thought. The old demonstrations of God's existence indeed, after Kant, can not be said to be cogent. But the moral proof of theism in refutation of Atheism has taken on new strength in the very searching by Kant's master criticism. The theism of Israel's religion has been verified by the facts and forces of Israel's history, as the "witness to Yhwh."

  • S. Hirsch, Die Humanität als Religion, lecture ii, Trier 1858;
  • I. M. Wise, The Cosmic God, Cincinnati, 1876.
E. G. H.

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Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Atheism'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

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