By Simon Rocker
October 11, 2013
The YouGov poll, which we report this week, offers fresh evidence that many British Jews regard themselves as secular or cultural rather than religious.
A third of the Jewish sample said they did not have a religion. But 28 per cent of those who gave Judaism as their religion either denied or doubted the existence of God.
So if you add the third of Jews without religion to the “religious” atheists and sceptics, around half of Jews overall could fall within the secular bracket.
But the finding is not all that surprising from previous research. Nearly three out of five United Synagogue members thought that belief in God was not central to being a good Jew, according to the 1992 Kalms report.
The Institute for Jewish Policy Research concluded from its 1995 survey that around a third of Jews were unaffiliated to synagogues, while another JPR poll of London Jews in 2002 found that more than half believed themselves to be “secular” or “somewhat secular”.
What is interesting is how Jews in different countries reflect the religious climate of their society. Compared with the third of UK Jews who said they have no religion, the figure is only one in five among Jews in the USA.
It was Prime Minister Tony Blair’s press secretary Alastair Campbell who famously said the government “did not do God” - in contrast to American presidents who often invoke the deity.
Like every set of stats, these naturally prompt more questions in their wake. Since this sample consisted of just 300 Jews, I wonder if it accurately reflects the Charedi community (who represent a far larger proportion of British Jewry than American Jewry): if the Charedim were under-represented, that could well skew the results on religious participation and identification.
It would also be useful to know how the third of Jews who said they had no religion actually responded in the last national Census: did they still tick the “religion” box, or instead prefer to identify themselves in the “ethnic” section as Jews? If the latter were the case, then we should expect to see a rocketing number of Jews in the UK, once the census numbers are finally crunched.
The poll did not measure participation in home rituals – such as Seder or Chanucah lighting – which remain significant for many Jews, whether they call themselves religious or not.
Surveys like these do not take place in a vacuum; they feed into policy debates about the best way to guarantee Jewish continuity, especially in the diaspora. The Pew survey of American Jewry, released last week, has fuelled a fresh round of argument about its future.
Does Jewish survival ultimately lie in the hands of the Orthodox? Or at least those strongly committed to religious practice (of whatever domination)?
Intriguingly, almost half of those Jews in the YouGov poll who claimed to be without religion, nonetheless, did not see themselves as atheist or agnostic. So what kind of spiritual beliefs do they harbour – and what in the Jewish community might attract them?