In a study of 137 countries, atheism was generally more widespread in those with well-developed welfare programs. I’m not surprised. Countries that provide universal health care and education, along with adequate social safety nets, are likely to have citizens who feel more secure and in control of their own lives. Atheism flourishes with economic satisfaction, while religion often thrives when people are undereducated and desperate.
Welfare battles in the U.S. usually focus on government social safety net programs like food stamps, unemployment insurance and Medicaid. Conservatives complain that the government transfers their hard-earned tax money to people allegedly unwilling to work, and many claim we should leave it to the church rather than the state to assist the truly needy. So it’s no coincidence that our poorest states are mainly in the Bible Belt.
Most Americans will agree that work should be available for everyone, that we should encourage self-reliance, and that we should discourage potentially productive citizens from living entirely off government programs for their entire lives. But, as usual, the God is in the details.
Speaking of God, or the lack thereof, Israel is one of the most secular countries in the world and it provides significant welfare benefits to its citizens. So why do I and probably all other atheists think there is a major flaw in the Israeli welfare system? The problem started in 1949, when the first chief rabbi of Israel persuaded Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to exempt a very limited number of ultra-Orthodox students from military service so they could study full time in yeshivas. The rationale was that tens of thousands of students in Europe had been wiped out during the Holocaust, and some of the best surviving scholars should be released from military obligations and given financial assistance in order to continue their religious studies.
That temporary solution became permanent, and the original handful of full-time students grew to 60,000 in 2012. Even the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) acknowledge that not all are fine scholars, but they insist on continued military exemptions and generous taxpayer subsidies for all who wish to devote their lives to Torah study. As a consequence, graduates from these religious schools have received the equivalent of zero to four years of secular education, while secular work force participation among Haredi men is only about 40 percent. These Haredim currently make up about nine percent of the population, but may receive half the country’s total welfare payments. To make matters worse, the situation is rapidly becoming even more unsustainable because of astronomical fertility rates in these impoverished and ghettoized religious communities, while the more affluent Israeli secular Jews aren’t bound by a “be fruitful and multiply” theology.
Nonetheless, some of the “liberals” in the ultra-Orthodox community are attempting to share the burden of citizenship, but not without strong opposition from their peers. Haredi who volunteer for military service are often verbally abused, spit on and humiliated while walking through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.
Americans largely agree we should support Israel, our major ally in the Middle East, but that Israeli policies should not be above criticism. I wonder what the American religious right, which seems to offer the most unequivocal support for Israel (often more than for American citizens), would say if, in this country, able-bodied individuals studying religion and refusing to work were guaranteed taxpayer support and urged to have as many children as possible who would also be encouraged to live off life-long welfare subsidies? Conservatives are the loudest to complain about foreign aid in general, except when it comes to aid for Israel.
Fortunately, quite a few Haredi are acquiring the necessary skills to be productive members of Israeli society, perhaps because there isn’t an abundance of jobs for Torah scholars. Some are even slowly becoming familiar with modern technology, just as I am.
I recently learned, to my surprise, that I have a kosher telephone, “kosher” because it cannot access the Internet. I justify my Luddite tendencies not with theology but with refusal to be a slave to the Internet. I’m not proud of my ignorance, though, and I’m gradually entering the twenty-first century. With initial assistance from friends, I’m now able to manage my own Web site, which includes my Washington Post blogs. My next goal is to acquire the skills to use a non-kosher telephone. I hear they are a lot smarter.
Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.