I am a formerly religious woman and I do not believe in G-d. But it is still very important to me to be Jewish and maintain affiliation with the Jewish nation and Jewish culture.
In my opinion every person must feel affiliated with something and needs roots from which to grow. Of course all people are equal and a Jew is no better than a gentile and vice versa. But it seems to me that even the gentiles separate us from them. Just as the Greeks have their culture, as do the Germans, the Turks, the French, etc., so must we have ours.
But this is what raises the confusing question.
How can an atheist express his Judaism? How can there be Judaism without G-d?
How can Judaism be preserved without religion? (I was taught in school that Judaism has been preserved to this day only by merit of religion. Without it the Jewish nation would have long ago become extinct due to assimilation.)
I would be happy to get answers to my questions.
The answer lies in the body of your question.
You were right when you said “Every person must feel affiliated with something.” Man is a social animal. It is this natural urge which creates cultures, religions, nations, and societies. It is not religion which is the mainstay for preserving identity and affiliation, but man’s primal and natural desire for affiliation and identity. If so, religion was created to fill this natural urge (at least that is one of the reasons for the creation of religion), independent of G-d.
Given this, religion can be seen as a culture which unites and affiliates a group of willing participants. See something amazing: what unifies the historic Jewish nation from the destruction of the Second Temple to the modern era? Halacha with all its rites and rituals!! A Jew can be an utter atheist in his heart, and as long as he observes the Sabbath and the other commandments, he will be included in the Jewish nation. To illustrate, and since this point is important to clarify I will expand a bit, Maimonides thought that one who believes G-d is corporeal is an apostate and has no portion in the World to Come, while according to the Raavad one who believes that G-d is corporeal and has human qualities is not considered an apostate — yet it is clear that factually both are considered part of the Jewish nation. It is not faith in G-d, which is an internal matter, which unifies and creates affiliation and identity, it is the ceremonies and laws which are public acts, which are the culture. I will also say, to support my words, that in the framework of my activities with Daat Emet I have seen that many Charedi and religious are utterly atheistic yet continue to meticulously observe the smallest commandment in public — everyone admits these are Jews and are to be considered part of the Jewish people! Moreover, according to religious philosophy, everyone born to a Jewish mother is considered part of the Jewish people: “A Jew who sins is still a Jew.” According to religious criteria, an atheist born to a Jewish mother is a Jew, whether he wants to be or not. I have given these examples from the world of religion because I know that for some, strange as it may be, religion serves as a stamp of approval for their identity and emotions.
Now let us discuss modern Jewish identity, the Jewish nation in the modern era, comprised of denominations and sub-denominations which all agree are part of the Jewish nation: Reform, Traditional, Conservative, Orthodox, and atheist. All are called “Jewish” and this is a fact that none deny. For further explanation read our answers to Who is a Jew and Jewish atheist.
Moreover, the national awakening in Europe which influenced the Jews created a new nation — Israel! Even the philosophers and sociologists have a hard time defining the modern sense of nationality; most agree that a group of people which share a territory and which have a common past and future is considered a nation. If so, the state of Israel as a territory which unifies a group of people can serve as a basis for citizens’ identity and affiliation. Here, too, I will bring an example to illustrate: a Litvish yeshiva students who began to have doubts on matters of faith and ethics in Judaism asked me a question similar to yours. I answered him by asking a question: With whom does he feel more identification and affiliation, to Neturei Karta who are meticulous in fulfilling the smallest commandment and oppose the state of Israel (they even met with the president of Iran, who wishes to destroy us; see the video here) or with the secular atheist who observes Jewish culture? He immediately answered, without thinking twice, that he feels more similarity to the secular atheist. This shows that the Jewish nation is meaningful both to atheists and to the religious.
Being Jewish nowadays means belonging to a group of people united by a common identity and a sense of belonging together. This group includes people with different kinds of religious affiliation: religious people, people observing (some) traditional rituals without embracing all the essential beliefs of Judaism, secular people, atheists, etc.
At present, being Jewish does not necessarily entail belonging to a certain religion or nationality. The Jews in the world belong to different nationalities: French, American, Israeli, etc.
There are Jews accepting the Torah of Moses as the blueprint for their lives, others accredit the same status to the Mishnah and the Talmud or to the New Testament, and still others accept the principles of humanism as the blueprint for their lives.