Atheists have had a rough couple of weeks. When Sen. Jeff Sessions, president-Elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, was asked during his confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate whether he thought a secular person could understand truth as well as a religious person, Sessions said, “Well, I’m not sure.” This, according to Michael Stone, who blogs at Patheos as a “Progressive Secular Humanist,” is very upsetting. While Sessions has said he believes that atheists should be treated just like all other Americans, Stone wrote that Sessions “is a dangerous Christian extremist, with little or no respect for secular Americans.”
As if this attack on nonbelievers weren’t enough, the atheists seem to have lost one of the more prominent members of their team. Last month, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wished Facebook users a Happy Chanukah and a Merry Christmas. He posted a message saying: “I hope you’re surrounded by friends and loved ones, and that you have a chance to reflect on all the meaningful things in your life. May the light of your friendships continue to brighten your life and our entire world.”
It was a lovely sentiment. But wait, one of his more sharp-eyed “friends” responded, “Aren’t you an atheist?”
“No,” wrote back Zuckerberg. “I was raised Jewish and then I went through a period where I questioned things, but now I believe religion is very important.”
One shouldn’t attach too much importance to things going on in Zuckerberg’s mind (although several observers have noted Zuckerberg’s aspirations to one day become president), but these statements lead to some interesting questions. If you’re not an atheist, what do you believe in? And, separately, why do you think religion is important?
As for the first, Zuckerberg has met with Pope Francis and he has posted a photo of himself praying at a Buddhist pagoda; he has praised his wife, Priscilla Chan, for her faith (Chan is a Buddhist). Yet his answer about his beliefs wasn’t exactly a full-throated endorsement of the voice behind the burning bush. Nor does he seem to have had any kind of born-again experience. And he’s unlikely to run to the defense of Jeff Sessions anytime soon.
But he also didn’t merely say that he thought it was important to be “spiritual”—which is the preferred answer of most celebrities, especially those living on the East and West Coasts, when asked about their beliefs. Zuckerberg did not say he was into yoga or Kabbalah or meditation.
So maybe the Facebook CEO should take the next step away from being a Silicon Valley cliché. Instead of raising his daughter as a spiritual JewBu (slang for Jewish-Buddhist), Zuckerberg might consider actually raising Max Jewish.
I don’t mean to discount his wife Priscilla’s religion. But in America, Buddhism is notoriously difficulty to pass on to children in any meaningful way. A few years ago, a Buddhist commentator suggested that, if Buddhism is to survive in America, “it has to get itself grounded in the realities of American family life. That is why I tell every Buddhist I meet these days to make friends with a local priest or rabbi and ask what kinds of programs he (or she) is offering for children and families.”
Indeed, in a recent book that explored the high rates of Jewish-Asian intermarriage, most of the Asians interviewed had little sense of what Buddhism meant to their families and were happy to embrace and be embraced by Jewish communities.
There are many reasons why people think religion is important, most notably the sense of meaning and purpose it brings to people’s lives. But religious communities also provide a support network for children and families. They make marriages stronger and give children a sense of connection to what has come before them. Offering children a Jewish education, including a knowledge of Jewish history, Torah, rituals, and traditions can help ground children in a world that can often seem too superficial and transient.
Zuckerberg’s wish for the “light of our friendships to shine,” is nice enough. But on Shabbat, Jews offer a blessing to our children, placing our hands on their heads: “May the light of God shine upon you, and may God be gracious to you. May the presence of God be with you and give you peace.”
Go ahead, Mark, Give it a shot.