The masses have never been religious. The ancient Jews practiced all sorts of idolatry, the Romans were famously cynical about religion, and medieval French Christians built cathedrals full of demonic imagery. The people of old went to houses of worship for entertainment. They had no movie theaters or clubs, and synagogues and churches served as social venues.

Nor were nations particularly God-fearing. All sorts of crimes and unethical behavior flourished in past centuries. Affluent societies, such as the modern West, are relatively tolerant and ethical. Religious rites that absolved sinners, such as sacrifice in Judaism and confession in Christianity, were popular specifically because people sinned a lot. Expiation rites provided an outlet for their guilt; the modern equivalents are charitable donations and activism.

Religions were the communal ideologies. They pervaded societies and cemented them. Alternative ideologies—nationalism, liberalism, communism—took the place of the seemingly irrational religions. Ideologies, however, are less rational than religions. Rationality is the product of myriad trials and errors. The major religions developed beyond their revealed core by trial and error, slowly accumulating working doctrines and rules. Ideologies are consciously developed by a small number of theorists and politicians.

Ideologies obviously benefit states rather than societies, and idealists grow dissatisfied. They switch between ideologies: national imperialism gave way to national liberation, liberalism to socialism. Science becomes more complex and less understandable to the common man; he cuts the Gordian knot by supernatural explanations.

The end of time is unlikely. Ancient city-state societal organizations resurfaced during the Renaissance. The religious cynicism of mature Catholicism gave way to Protestant zealotry. Many atheist hippies became devoted Buddhists. The failure of half-baked state ideologies will clear the way for a religious resurgence.

Critical modern people reject religious anthropomorphism and frown at the divine origin of every line in the sacred books. That is not outrageous. Judaism rejects the former, and Christianity lives without the latter. People die and kill for ideological causes with no supernatural origin.

It doesn’t make sense to insist on the infallibility of the Talmudic sages or attribute every Biblical word to Moses. Many modern Jews don’t buy that, and the contentious issues are not central to Judaism. Besides the basic notions of the unity and abstraction of God, Judaism is about law, practical things. Jewish ethics is profound and rational regardless of its origin. One might envisage God as a field or recall that Moses knew and practiced the law before it was given on Sinai (Exodus 18:20). The theory of relativity is accepted not because Einstein invented it. Judaism need not be substantiated by an appeal to authority.

Nations maintain their distinctive culture without distinctive religion. Catholicism is important for the French but not critical. Jews are inseparable from Judaism but have other specific national traits which we must stress—if other means fail—with the atheists. They or their children might return to Judaism later; the first job is to save the object that houses Judaism, the Jews.

Small nations and religious groups rarely weather ideological swings. Left for a time without their core idea, they quickly assimilate and do not live to see the renaissance. Jews have weathered assimilation swings often, but they were always culturally protected by relative isolation in ghettos.

Poor and aspiring Jews of the early twentieth century had no time for cultural issues and accepted the best opportunities offered by assimilation; their children followed by inertia. Affluent Jews might search for their roots and possibly decrease assimilation.