Kate Cohen

On this date in 1970, columnist and author Kate Cohen was born in Montgomery, Ala., to Judy and Ralph Cohen. Her father taught Shakespeare at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., and then at Mary Baldwin University in Staunton. Her mother was a travel agent and later an administrator at James Madison University. She has an older sister, Amy, a classics professor, and a younger sister, Sady, a video producer.

“I grew up Reform Jewish and bookish. Technically, I guess, the prayers we said in Hebrew to bless the wine on Friday nights were addressed to an actual being. But when we talked about God, we spoke of him as a fascinating literary character rather than as a real force in our lives. So I have no memory of believing in God, even at my bat mitzvah.” (BuzzFeed, June 9, 2015)

“The first time I remember opting out [of religious instruction] was in elementary school in rural Virginia, when my classmates went to learn about Jesus every week in a trailer off school grounds. I got to stay behind in an empty classroom because I was Jewish,” Cohen later wrote. (Washington Post, Feb. 3, 2023)

After earning a degree in comparative literature from Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., she After earning a degree in comparative literature from Dartmouth College, she freelanced as a writer, copy editor and proofreader for clients large and small.

She had met Adam Greenberg in college and moved with him to his hometown of Albany, N.Y., after she graduated. He was also raised Jewish and like her did not believe in God. They married in 1997, the year she published “The Neppi Modona Diaries: Reading Jewish Survival through My Italian Family.” (University Press of New England)

The Cohen-Greenberg nuptials were Jewish, although “we studiously avoided invoking [God’s] name,” Cohen remembered. Library Journal called her second book, “A Walk Down the Aisle: Notes on a Modern Wedding,” published by Norton in 2001, a “poignant memoir of a modern, educated, cohabitating couple’s decision to marry” after living together for seven years.

She and Greenberg — a hay farmer and town councilman — have three children: Noah (b. 2000), Jesse (b. 2002) and Lena (b. 2005). “We live on a farm, although of course the children are gradually leaving. We try to keep them lured in with good food and plenty of room for their friends to stay,” Cohen said.

In 2020, after she published a succession of freelance opinion pieces in the Washington Post, the paper hired her to “provide commentary on the intersection of faith, family, politics and culture.” Her Post bio says her essays “seek to distill observations of family, politics, and culture into moments of clarity and insight.”

One insight: “[I]t wasn’t until I had children that I realized I had to spell it out: “God was a compelling fiction created in response to human need.” Once, when her daughter was 9 and doing her math homework, she asked, “How do we know there’s no God?” Lena needed more than her brothers did to overcome her doubt, Cohen realized. “It was my solemn responsibility as a parent to give her the information she asked for, to help her understand the world.”

Her book “We of Little Faith: Why I Stopped Pretending to Believe (And Maybe Why You Should Too)” was published by Godine in 2023. Cohen had started thinking long ago that “a lot of people were pretending to believe, as I had done, and denying themselves the pleasures of authentic thought about big questions. But also it seemed to me that if more of us said, ‘You know what? Nah,’ we could break the stranglehold that religious belief has on public life in America. And that was 10 years ago or more, before Dobbs, before this anti-trans panic, before the Supreme Court started to decide that religious freedom meant the freedom to discriminate etc., etc. Now the situation is even more urgent.” (Email correspondence, June 28, 2023)

She was the 2023 recipient of FFRF’s Freethought Heroine Award, bestowed to recognize the special contributions of women to freethought and to the battle to keep state and church separate. Her appearance on FFRF’s talk show “Freethought Matters” is here.

Freedom From Religion Foundation