Obviously, Judaism maintains that it is best to follow Judaism or, for gentiles, the Noachide laws. But I'm curious as to whether, according to Jewish scripture, it is preferable to not believe in G-d, or to believe the wrong things about G-d. That is to say, is it better to be an atheist, or a Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Shintoist, etc? This question is about belief, not practice.

I'm also assuming that the nonbeliever in question is a good person. He or she treats other people with respect and compassion, cares for the less fortunate and the afflicted, and is in all respects an admirable human being. He or she simply doesn't believe in G-d.

Note: I'm deliberately leaving out Islam, because I have been led to understand that, at least theoretically, Islam is considered to be preferable to the other non-Jewish options.

  • 3
    As a new member of Mi Yodeya Wad, the quality and diversity of your questions is quite impressive. Judaism does not consider it best to be Jewish. A basic tenant of Judaism is that each individual person and each nation has a specific role to play in God's plan. Judaism does perceive believers in monotheism--especially followers of the Noahide Laws---as on a higher spiritual level than pagans and heathens. Sincere followers of monotheastic faiths are assured a place in heaven. Ignorance of the law, as in secular courts, is no vindication............
    – JJLL
    Aug 19, 2015 at 3:11
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    AS JJLL said, Judaism doesn't actually maintain that it is best for everyone to be Jewish. Judaism does expect Jews to follow Jewish law and tradition, but for everybody else, it is enough to follow the seven laws of Noah, which include a prohibition on idolatry. I'm guessing you didn't know about that and would rather not base a question on a faulty premise, so I'm going to make an edit -- but if you have any objection to that edit or I've misunderstood your intent, please roll back or make another edit. Aug 19, 2015 at 3:36
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    Translation: "Not just the tribe of Levi, but rather every person of all the inhabitants of the Earth, whose spirit moved him and whose intelligence gave him the understanding to separate to stand before God and to serve and minister to Him...behold he is sanctified with the utmost sanctity and God will be his portion and heritage for all eternity..." His language clearly refers to non-Jews as well as Jews. All have the potential to reach this exalted status. (in his view).
    – mevaqesh
    Aug 19, 2015 at 4:07
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    @WadCheber This may be a semantic issue, but "Judaism" (in the sense of what Jews practice and what Noahides practice) thinks that non-Jews who follow the seven Noahide laws are perfectly fine in that capacity and are not even encouraged to convert to Judaism (the kind that Jews practice). This does entail their acceptance of the general Jewish enterprise as the correct one (as it applies differently for Jews and non-Jews), but saying that 'non-Jews should ideally accept Judaism' sounds quite off to our ears.
    – Double AA
    Aug 19, 2015 at 5:26
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    @Aaron See Megilla 9b. The ability to read into those verses the interpretation you present is noted, rejected and cautioned against about as early as you can find in Jewish sources. (It's true that our Septuagint does not have the listed change TTBOMK.)
    – Double AA
    Aug 19, 2015 at 5:31

3 Answers 3


As acknowledged in the question, Judaism only requires that non-jews keep the seven Noachide laws (plus some miscellaneous laws which are beyond the scope of this answer). Seeing as the first of these is the prohibition against idolatry, it is clear that belief in any polytheistic religion is definitely a problem. That the prohibition extends to belief in addition to action can be seen from the Rambam in Hilchot Melachim 9:2.

What about atheism? Is atheism less problematic?

Jews (according to most classic opinions) have an explicit mitzvah to believe in God. There is no such mitzvah amongst the seven Noachide laws. Only the prohibition against idolatry. In the past, I inferred from this that there would be no problem with a non-jew being atheist. After all, one can be atheist and keep all of the seven Noachide laws. The problem with this is a halacha found in the Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 8:11, which states that a non-jew who keeps the seven Noachide laws because of his own moral calculations instead of because of God's commanding them doesn't get full credit for them (note that there are two variants of this halacha. See the Frankel ed. The above point stands according to both though). We thus see that the behaviour of a non-jew who doesn't believe in God is deficient regardless of how good his behaviour is. Apparently then, belief in God is some sort of prerequisite to the seven Noachide laws. This would also explain why the Rambam mentions this halacha immediately before listing the seven Noachide laws and their various details.

It appears then that atheism would also be a problem for non-jews, albeit a less severe one than polytheism.

What about Christianity* which professes to be monotheistic? The classic sources generally think that Christianity is idolatrous, for example, the Rambam explicitly says so in Hilchot Ma'achalot Assurot 11:7 (see the Franked ed. for the uncensored version) as well as in other places. There is however an often quoted Tosofot to Sanhedrin 63b which states that it is permissible to force a christian to make an oath with the name of God because the christian is only "associating" (shituf) God with his idolatrous beliefs and this is permissible for non-jews to do. There is significant discussion regarding whether Tosofot means that shituf is generally permitted for non-jews or only in the context of making oaths. To summarise then, according to one school of thought, Christianity is as problematic as any polytheistic religion while according to others, there may be no problem depending on how you interpret the aforementioned Tosofot.

Even though the question explicitly excluded Islam, it seems appropriate to deal with it here anyway because it will give us an insight into other religions in general. Classically, Islam has been assumed to not be idolatrous. This can for example be seen in the previously mentioned Rambam, Hilchot Ma'achalot Assurot 11:7. This however only addresses one side of the issue. From a theological perspective, Islam is apparently not idolatrous. Does this make it into an acceptable belief system for non-jews? The answer is unequivocally no. See the Rambam in Hilchot Melachim 10:9 where he explicitly brings a prohibition for non-jews to create their own religions to serve God. In his language - אין מניחין אותן לחדש דת ולעשות מצות לעצמן מדעתן - or in english - "we do not allow them to create a religion or to create mitzvot for themselves based on their opinions". As such, assuming that Muhammed wasn't actually a prophet of God, it turns out that subscribing to Islam and in fact any non-jewish religion would also be problematic for non-jews.

To summarise, from best to worst, we have the following types of belief in God for non-jews:

  1. Belief in God as described by Judaism (i.e. singular, omnipotent, omniscient, etc.) without subscribing to another religion
  2. Belief in God as described by a non-jewish genuinely monotheistic religion such as Islam.
  3. Atheism
  4. Belief in God as described by Christianity according to some opinions
  5. Polytheism (and Christianity according to other opinions)

(Note: There may be some room to argue for swapping the order of 3 and 4)

*If I am not mistaken, different denominations of Christianity can have very different beliefs about the divinity of Jesus and other potentially idolatrous beliefs. I'm not familiar with any classic sources which bother to distinguish between the denominations though so I have no way of categorising which denominations are less problematic and which are more.

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    Rambam doesnt say "that a non-jew who keeps the seven Noachide laws because of his own moral calculations instead of because of God's commanding them doesn't get credit for them" He says that he does not receive the particular credit discussed in that halacha. It would seem fairly unlikely that according to Rambam an atheist may as well devite his life to theft and murder since even were to he refrain it would count for nothing.
    – mevaqesh
    Aug 21, 2015 at 12:29
  • Although this is a nice collection of sources, the only part of the answer which directly addressed the crux of the question; atheism vs. polytheism, seems to be an unfounded assumption at best.
    – mevaqesh
    Aug 21, 2015 at 12:33
  • "As such, assuming that Muhammed wasn't actually a prophet of God (a reasonable assumption given that many of his teachings contradict those contained within Judaism)" this is not the place for a presentation of why you dont believe Islam to be true. The question is how Judaism would view the relative merits of different beliefs that are incorrect from a Jewish perspective.
    – mevaqesh
    Aug 21, 2015 at 12:38
  • "it turns out that subscribing to Islam and in fact any non-jewish religion would also be problematic for non-jews." Where do you see any problem with subscribing to beliefs? I only see a problem with certain practices.
    – mevaqesh
    Aug 21, 2015 at 12:39
  • "In his language "they are to keep their own mitzvot and not innovate at all" This is not the Rambam's own language. Rambam did not speak English. Furthermore, he doesnt say this (at least in the cited halacha) in any other language either. The closest thing he says is עכו"ם שעסק בתורה חייב מיתה לא יעסוק אלא בשבע מצות שלהן בלבד the latter clause לא יעסוק אלא בשבע מצות שלהן obviously means in context that he should not study Torah pertaining to other mitzvos; not that he should not perform them.
    – mevaqesh
    Aug 21, 2015 at 12:49

There is a dispute at to whether שיתוף (believing in G-d AND another power; the trinity included) is permitted for gentiles. See Is Christianity Avodah Zara? for the differing opinions. There's no need to go through it again. I heard from a Rabbi who's actively involved in spreading knowledge of the 7 Noahide laws that most contemporary rabbis hold that שיתוף is allowed, although not preferable).

As for whether gentiles are required to believe in G-d, while many versions of the 7 Noahide laws say not to deny G-d, others say not to do idolatry instead. https://books.google.com.au/books?id=UEzgAgAAQBAJ&pg=PA591&dq=Tosefta+Avodah+Zarah+noah&hl=en&sa=X&ei=np7zVKTPJ-3fsAShq4LwBQ&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=Tosefta%20Avodah%20Zarah%20noah&f=false It explains here that believing in G-d is likely included in the law against idolatry, and even if it's not, it's been clarified in later commentaries. I'm not aware of anyone who says that they don't need to believe in G-d. Either way, Maimonides, even though he counts idolatry (kings and wars 9.1), he still says they need to believe that G-d commanded them through Moses (ibid 8.14) [Note: Idolatry is worship, (Hebrew: avodah zarah, strange service. So for your question about belief, not practise, you wouldn't have a problem of idolatry. I'm just demonstrating that believing in G-d is necessary.)

(Additionally, Abraham fought hard to get gentiles to recognise G-d (I can bring sources if necessary).)

So, to summarise, best is to believe in G-d, believing that he is the One and Only power.

Next, שיתוף, (including believing in the trinity). While some say that this is allowed for gentiles, others say it's not.

Next, atheism, which it seems everyone, or at the very least, nearly everyone, holds isn't alright for gentiles.

  • "Next, polytheistic (including believing in the trinity). While some say that this is allowed for gentiles, others say it's not." Do you mean that polytheism is permitted for gentiles? Why inst that Avodah Zarah. If you mean only that trinity is possibly permitted, but not full polytheism, then the question; of polytheism vs. atheism remains unanswered. Either way, you have a problem. The only reason I am not downvoting because the other answer contains even more mistakes.
    – mevaqesh
    Aug 23, 2015 at 2:01
  • @mevaqesh I edited my answer. I don't see the difference between idolatry and shittuf, except that with shittuf you also believe in Hashem, but there are definitely many opinions who hold shittuf I alright. Maybe it is idolatry, but it's allowed if they also believe in Hashem. I don't know
    – user613
    Aug 23, 2015 at 3:21
  • To repeat clearly: you have not demonstrated that atheism is worse that idolatry; only than shittuf which may be permitted in the first place. The main thrust of the question was about atheism vs. Avodah Zarah.
    – mevaqesh
    Aug 23, 2015 at 4:37
  • BTW the link to google books does not display. GB sayd it wither is a page that cannot be displayed, or the viewing limit has been reached.
    – mevaqesh
    Aug 23, 2015 at 4:39
  • @mevaqesh The page is working for me. And it's quite interesting that you say the question is about avodah zarah, when the question says "this question is about belief, not practise", avodah zarah is practise
    – user613
    Aug 23, 2015 at 4:54

generally speaking Christianity is better than Atheism since it's based on the Tanach. (though it could be exploited by bad people as we saw in the spanish inquisition). Here's a source.

Kovetz Maamarim 69 - The holy Chafetz Chaim would say: "if the torah study has stopped then perforce the faith will also stop. And without faith the world cannot endure". This is explained in the verse "only there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife" (Gen.20:11). The intent of "only", is that there is nothing in the world which has the power to hold back the animal in man besides the fear of God. In our times (world war II) where denial of God has spread throughout the world, human beings have become snakes which bite each other, and the proper (metukan) countries among the nations are those which believe in the holy writings (Tanach).

  • Your quote says that belief in God is good. It also says that belief in holy writings is good. It does not say that belief in God and holy writings is more good than a lack of belief in polytheism, which was the OP's question. The only line which answers the OP's question is the first unsourced line.
    – mevaqesh
    Apr 2, 2017 at 1:40
  • Where did you get this translation?
    – mevaqesh
    Apr 2, 2017 at 1:41
  • @MonicaCellio mevaqesh keeps editing my posts and adding "translation my own". i am trying to keep my name anonymous here and could add a link to my site instead if this is required. can you clarify the policy for this. thanks.
    – ray
    Apr 2, 2017 at 6:07
  • If you have some desire to say to remain to anonymous, that is perfectly understandable. Simply saying so is much more productive than deleting sources included in your posts by other users without explanation. | I dont know when you decided to go anonymous, but note that you yourself repeatedly reference the site, and refer to it as yourself. | None of this seems too relevant since you can admit that the translation is your own (assuming it isn't plagarised from some other source) without linking to your site.
    – mevaqesh
    Apr 2, 2017 at 6:11
  • @mevaqesh let's hear what monica cellio says on this. in the meantime stop editing my posts please. i can try to add a link to my site. but i dont want people (who know who i am) to think i am just trying to get traffic.
    – ray
    Apr 2, 2017 at 6:18

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