4.24.2009

an atheist defends theists: part one: where i'm coming from

I've never blogged about my atheism before, because I've never felt the need. Just as I've never blogged about not having children. If I wrote this blog when I was in my 20s and early 30s, when I was still defending and justifying my decision, I'm sure it would have been a frequent topic. (In those pre-internet days, I wrote essays and tried to get them published; these days it would be on wmtc.) Similarly, if I were still a teenager and young adult coming to grips with my atheism, I'm sure I'd be blogging about it. But being an atheist is a deep part of my identity, not something in question or in flux. I've never had the need to hash it out in public.

Lately this has changed - not because my atheism has changed, but because I find myself getting annoyed at the arrogance, self-righteousness and proselytizing of some atheists. I get extra annoyed when I see atheists adopting some of the worst qualities of some theists. And I find myself in the odd position of defending believers from the generalizations and negative characterizations of non-believers.

First things first. I declare myself totally and completely without religion or spirituality. I am 100% a-theistic.

Here's a bit about when that happened and the path I followed getting there.

* * * *

I am Jewish. My family heritage and ethnicity is Jewish. I was raised as a Jew, in an observant, reform household. Like many families from many different faiths, my family practiced our own mix of which rituals we observed and which we didn't. In our case, that mix was controlled by the person who controlled everything in our lives, my father.

On Friday nights we lit candles and said the prayers over candles, bread and wine, and had a special meal. We attended services at our synagogue almost every Friday night. I went to Hebrew School, and was a Bat Mitzvah. My older siblings were both Bar and Bat Mitzvah. We observed all the major Jewish holidays, kept "kosher for Passover," and several other traditions.

As a child, I believed in god as a kind of super-parent. During Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, I prayed to be forgiven, and worried about what might happen if god didn't forgive me. My own father was brutally unforgiving, and the god I was taught about seemed even worse, so I had quite a bit of childhood anxiety over whether or not my sins - whatever they were - would be forgiven and whether I would be "inscribed in the book of life". My mother and I have since talked about how horrible this is, as what sin could a normal small child have possibly committed. But I was truly afraid, and as a consequence, deeply repentant.

For young people post Bat or Bar Mitzvah, our synagogue continued classes towards a ceremony called "confirmation". I don't know if this is an official part of Judaism, or something our temple cooked up to try to retain young people's participation. I went to one class and told my parents I wanted to quit. After some negotiating, I got out.

The class was comparative religion. We discussed the main themes of the other world religions, and attended several different kinds of services. It seemed pretty clear to me that the propaganda my father had fed us about Judaism was a bunch of crap. All religions taught pretty much the same things, and which you landed in was usually an accident of birth. Claiming specialness because of being Jewish was as ridiculous as claiming specialness over being white.

I was a teenager, and having a lot of problems at home. It's tempting to think I was rejecting my father through a rejection of his religion, that breaking away from Judaism was a substitute for what I couldn't yet do, but would later need to do, break away from a controlling parent.

But that theory breaks down when you consider that my father was a leftist. He was much more political than he was religious. I was political very early in life, and our leftist politics was something my father and I always had in common. Even when we had almost no relationship at all, we could always talk politics. It was one of our steadfast common grounds.

If I were only rejecting my father, why didn't I become conservative? Because becoming an atheist wasn't about rejecting my father. It was about finding what was inside me. Who I was.

* * * *

Still in high school and starting to explore my own philosophies and guidelines for living, I started reading about atheism and collecting atheist quotes. Clarence Darrow - still a hero of mine - was a favourite. I liked this one:
I do not consider it an insult, but rather a compliment to be called an agnostic. I do not pretend to know where many ignorant men are sure.

But I kept this one on my bulletin board:
I don't believe in god because I don't believe in Mother Goose.

In university, I took a sociology class on religion - its origins and social function. I've always loved mythology, and I started to see religion in that context: a means of answering questions about life and death, a way to exercise control of society, like a form of government, perhaps a universal need of evolving humans. (Later on, I would discover Joseph Campbell through a Bill Moyers series on PBS, and saw Christianity through a mythological framework, too. Ever since, I've wondered how anyone can accept the story of Jesus literally, rather than as a familiar and oft-repeated myth that is found in so many different cultures.)

So, now out of the madhouse of my teenage years, and with this new sociological perspective, I started to wonder if perhaps I needed to reject organized Judaism but not religion entirely.

I had been raised with the concept of god as a giant father figure in the sky, declaring "Thou Shalt Not," and punishing us for invisible infractions. I had quite enough of that in my life. As it was, my entire coming of age would be breaking away from a controlling, bullying, abusive father, so perhaps I only needed to break away from a similarly fashioned deity?

In that spirit, I set out to sample some other religions and see if any of them were more suitable for me. Any mainstream Christianity was utterly out of the question, although along the way I discovered I loved gospel music. Islam was out for the same reasons Judaism and Christianity don't work. Buddhism seemed cool, but I knew it could never be more than play-acting for me. It sounds nice, but I couldn't really believe it. Plus, it seemed anti-activist, contrary to working for change and social justice.

The closest I came was the Quakers. I went to a few meetings and was very impressed. But I had to face it: Quakers are Christian. Although they are egalitarian, non-judgemental, democratic, and work tirelessly for social justice in the most committed way, they are compelled to do this through belief in Christ. (More on this concept in part two.) And I could never pretend that Christ has any part in my life.

When I was a little older, I met people who adopted alternative, non-mainstream religions, like Wicca or Paganism. I think this is cool as a matter of personal choice, but I was never drawn to it in the slightest way. I'm not looking for anything to replace conventional religions. It doesn't matter what the religion is called, or how it expresses itself, how open it is, or how ancient, or how unconventional. I simply don't need or want any of it.

Around the time I realized I couldn't be Quaker, I started realizing that I wasn't rejecting organized religion - or at least not only that. I was rejecting the entire concept of a creator, a supreme being, a deity.

I read a bit about existentialism, and suddenly it all clicked. Please leave aside complex philosophical debates among various branches of existentialist philosophy. Those have about as much relevance to my journey as debates about full-body baptism and angels dancing on pinheads. The point, for me, is that I was introduced to a way of looking at the world that used no organizing principle of religion, fate, destiny or order.

I had the great Ah-Ha Experience of recognition. We live in a meaningless universe governed by random chance. Our lives are the product of our own choices, and of random luck. God is a human-made construct. These concepts felt so right, so deeply true, to me, that I instantly knew who I was. I was an atheist, an existentialist, and a leftist.

Note that I say I knew who I was. I do not say I knew The Truth. I know only the truth for me. The lens through which I see the world.

29 comments:

M@ said...

I broke with religion in the last couple of years of high school, myself, and although the direct catalyst wasn't existentialism as far as I remember, I was reading a lot of existentialist stuff at the time. I wonder whether it was changing my viewpoint without my knowing it. Interesting.

Amy said...

Thanks for sharing this very personal journey. Mine has been in many ways quite the opposite, although not as linear. Mine has been more of a roller coaster ride. I started out in a secular Jewish family where there were basically no religious practices at all, was an atheist all my teenage years, then became curious about Judaism and religion in general in college. Harvey came from a traditional but not very strict Orthodox family. From them I started to learn and practice more of the rituals. I started to teach myself through reading and then through synagogue attendance and classes more and more and at one point felt very connected to the spirituality of it all.

My religiosity peaked in my 30s and 40s while raising my kids. But since turning 50 I have become far less engaged and far more agnostic. I struggle with it all the time. I still find some meaning in the practices---lighting candles, keeping kosher, observing the holidays---but the sense of connection to something God-like? Not much these days.

I could go on, but this is your blog, and I just wanted to react to what you said and to share back.

L-girl said...

M@, interesting similarity there. I didn't really read a lot of existentialist stuff, I just dabbling. But what I did read really hit home and solidified everything.

Amy, thanks for sharing, too. You're welcome to go on at more length if you like. :)

Your comment made me wonder if the journey was as linear as I've told it, or if it became more organized in the telling. I think it was really as linear as that.

The only part I ever struggled with was reconciling where my Jewishness fit in. But even that was not a huge struggle, nothing that caused me great anxiety or that I lost sleep over. And then it all settled down.

L-girl said...

One of my least favourite platitudes in the world - possibly the one I hate most, and which I hear the most - is "Everything happens for a reason". Drives me nuts. I wonder why people persist in believing that things happen for any reason, ever. I guess it makes them feel better. But for me, nothing happens for any reason, ever. Things just happen, and we deal with them, or not.

Digressive thoughts from an existentialist.

Amy said...

I am curious to see what you say in Part 2, but for now, my only additional thought is that I think coming to religion as an adult, not as a child, and coming to it on my own, not from my parents, helped me to avoid the God-in-the-clouds image that so many people grow up with (and not just Jews, obviously). I could only accept the idea of God after reading writings that described God more as an essence that pervades us all, our better self, our sense of humanity and connection. Not as the Creator or the Overseer or the Punisher or the Rewarder---just as the spirit that connects one being, one life to another---human, animal, even the elements of the natural world. Almost a Buddhist view in many ways, but woven into Jewish views and rituals. Defining God in that way makes prayer, atonement, etc., a very different experience. I wish I could connect into that energy now as easily I could ten years ago. It was often uplifting or comforting or both.

L-girl said...

Amy, thanks, that's great.

My nieces and nephews (one set of them) are all creatively spiritual. My niece draws in parts of Hinduism (she is very connected to India), Buddhism and Judaism, the nephews a broad, eclectic mix of nature and different forms of spiritualism.

Their mother (who used to comment here as mkk) says she has no idea where it came from! They were raised as Jewish but their parents aren't spiritualist at all.

The force I feel that connects me to something larger than myself is political - the spirit of people's struggles for freedom and equality, all over the world.

Amy said...

I used to feel that spirituality at political events like anti-war marches long before I had any sense of religion, so I know what you mean. I think I found with religion and a sense of "God" as I defined it, I could also feel it at other times as well---at synagogue, at concerts, in the classroom, and even (maybe especially!) at baseball games. :)

Amy said...

BTW, I feel the same way about the "Everything happens for a reason" view. Coincidentally, we had a similar conversation at our havurah last week (which is really just 8 friends reading and talking about books somehow connected to Judaism; we are currently reading a book about Islam). We were discussing predestination and that very saying and how not one of us bought into that idea and in fact found it infuriating.

deang said...

I can't wait to read part 2. I'm wondering what criticisms you have of some current atheists (though I have some ideas).

I'm also atheist, was raised in a Protestant Christian (Methodist) family and forced to go to church several times a week. My atheism developed, though, not in reaction to that but just as a result of reading about science and nature as a child and realizing that irrational beliefs got in the way of really understanding the world, especially since, in my family, faith and belief seemed to be all about rationalizing authority.

Through my teenage years, I would go in and out of phases where I was okay with going to church, but my scientific rationalism always prevented fully accepting anything that relied on belief to seem true. The only thing I miss about it is the structured ritual, which a highly unorganized person lacking in self-motivation (like me) appreciated.

I had several friends who became Buddhist but I, maybe like you, found it too self-absorbed to be a good thing to get into. I later learned that there are other Buddhist traditions, particularly one called Engaged Buddhism, that incorporate social activism in their practice, and that the emphasis on self-absorption dominates mainly in the US (surprise, surprise). I still couldn't get into to it, though, because, despite not featuring any deities, it still includes the supernatural element of reincarnation.

L-girl said...

"I used to feel that spirituality at political events like anti-war marches long before I had any sense of religion, so I know what you mean. I think I found with religion and a sense of "God" as I defined it, I could also feel it at other times as well---at synagogue, at concerts, in the classroom, and even (maybe especially!) at baseball games. :)"

Yes! It's the fellow-feeling - the commonality - the deep connection with others. For me it is not spiritual, but it is very moving and important.

"BTW, I feel the same way about the "Everything happens for a reason" view."

Cool!

"We were discussing predestination and that very saying and how not one of us bought into that idea and in fact found it infuriating."

Extra cool! :)

[I have to remember to use quotes instead of italics until Blogger fixes this glitch.]

L-girl said...

Thanks, Dean, and thanks for sharing some of your own evolution of thought and belief.

"especially since, in my family, faith and belief seemed to be all about rationalizing authority."

I relate! :)

"The only thing I miss about it is the structured ritual,"

I miss that a bit too, even though I am very self-motivated. I also miss certain holidays which I choose to no longer celebrate. But whatever, can't have everything.

"I had several friends who became Buddhist but I, maybe like you, found it too self-absorbed to be a good thing to get into. I later learned that there are other Buddhist traditions, particularly one called Engaged Buddhism, that incorporate social activism in their practice"

You articulate this a lot better than I do. Yes, that's it exactly. I also recently learned about socially engaged Buddhism - through my niece, the one I visited recently in California, and who I mentioned (in comments) does Hindu and other spiritual practices.

"I still couldn't get into to it, though, because, despite not featuring any deities, it still includes the supernatural element of reincarnation."

Yes. It's still too much hocus-pocus for me.

And at bottom, I just don't feel it. I don't feel a need to add anything like that to my life.

JakeNCC said...

Loved this blog post. You are at your best when you delve into your personal journeys. I'm agnostic on a journey to atheist. Like someone earlier said I do miss the "structured ritual" of, in my case, the Catholic church. I could always find peace in the church although I didn't buy the underlying basis of the religion. Strange eh?

Someone mentioned India and may I suggest we take our next holiday ( you and Alan ) to India. I'm fascinated by India but will probably never make it there. Too expensive and way too hot and humid but would love to follow you through this fascinating country!

L-girl said...

Thanks, Jake, that is very sweet of you to say.

But sorry, no plans for India, probably ever.

I'm really smarting from lack of ability to travel. I've had a post about that in drafts for a while now. :)

L-girl said...

"I could always find peace in the church although I didn't buy the underlying basis of the religion. Strange eh?"

Makes sense, tho. There are many things about religion that are very peaceful and soothing. I'm sure that's part of the appeal.

Cornelia said...

Thanks for this interesting post, Laura!

Cornelia said...

Glad you found a philosophy you are comfortable with! I think fundamentalist bullying about sin and all that stuff about destiny and fate are horrid anyway - and extremely patriarchal and oppressive, of course! I had some extremely scary childhood experiences with fundamentalist bullies, too...They were not only forgotten at the denazification but even already at enlightenment, I say nowadays!

Cornelia said...

the spirit of people's struggles for freedom and equality, all over the world.

Wow, great! I always say that the main thing is that people believe in human rights / humanity (not cult abuse or anything else, which is extremely nasty and abusive!) and the rest is a personal issue, up to each and every person for themselves.

Cornelia said...

Once I was comforting somebody in an unhappy relationship ending and suddenly he mentioned he's religious, too. And then I said if it's a positive ressource for you in the sense that God / Jesus will help you to recover and stuff, there's nothing wrong with that.
Support is always a good thing I am just opposed to that stuff about all things happening for a reason and trying to find something positive about extremely negative stuff (I'm not happy with finding shitty things good, it seems sadomaso to me and has proved to be with some people actually) so personally I might be comfortable with saying okay bad stuff is just by chance and accident positive stuff might also be by the help of God / Jesus / the Great Mother, why not.

Cornelia said...

Next thing, I was told this is very contradictory. I said but fun and second, my view need not be yours!

Cornelia said...

I always identify myself as enlightened humanist by the central importance of human rights, personally.

impudent strumpet said...

Interesting that so many people have looked at Buddhism, because the Belief-O-Matic always puts me at 98% Buddhist - a higher score even than atheist (which I actually am).

But, like you said, I don't actually need it. Knowing that Buddhism is apparently the best religion for me is just as relevant as knowing my ideal cat breed or the most perfect baby name (me being a childfree dog person).

Tom said...

I too am curious about part 2.

As a more recent Atheist I think I might be harsher on religion that those who found it earlier in their life. Because being raised Catholic nearly killed me. So I first rejected that specific cult (I know harsh)in my early 20's. Yet managed to call myself a Chrisian until a couple years ago. I stepped in and out of various ligther versions of Christianity until I figured it out.

Coming to Atheism wasn't a quick and easy decision, it was slow, I compare it to unraveling onion skin.
But it finally clicked and I got it and honestly I think it made me a smarter person. It made me realize my destiny is up to me, I need to take control rather than sit back and pray for help, I take responsibility and action myself. If I succeed or fail I do not cop out claiming God or Satan, it's just life.

I dearly love many Christians, not all are the same, but as a whole I am disgusted by the leadership of all the major religions. They hurt far too many people every single day and don't get a pass because they do good too.

Yesterday my neighbour was mercifully putting down his very sick dog. I ran into them in the morning and said my goodbyes. I had to stop myself from saying the usual religious based platitudes. They still come naturally in odd situations. I simply said "She had a wonderful 15 years, I am so sorry."

In the end I wish I could have changed Christianity from the inside, but it's an impossible task.

L-girl said...

Thanks, Tom. Interesting that you tried being Christian after being Catholic, and that didn't work either.

I had to stop myself from saying the usual religious based platitudes. They still come naturally in odd situations. I simply said "She had a wonderful 15 years, I am so sorry."Good for you. I hate that shit, especially when someone has died. They're gone, damnit - don't tell me about rainbow bridges and how we'll all meet up one day. If you believe that shit, keep it to yourself.

I know that's going to offend many believers, but man, as an atheist, hearing that crap when you're grieving is so offensive.

Cornelia said...

Tom, of course, people need to take responsibility for their own lives instead of all that shit about fate and destiny and (maybe even devil - ugh!) this and that and complaining around. Absolutely.

Cornelia said...

Laura, I always find writing emails for comforting people when somebody has died somehow hard and stressful but at least I know what to write, usually something like "I am so sorry this has happened. Though it's biological, it's so shitty. Hopefully you will soon feel somehow better again. I hope you have a lot of support and I wish you a lot of strength and all the best!"
I would hate it most if people say something like "Oh, God made them go home, so don't say anything against it, it was God's will" or something - ugh!!! Fundamentalist crap!

Cornelia said...

Sorry, meant if people said

Cornelia said...

I simply said "She had a wonderful 15 years, I am so sorry."

Good point, Tom! Once I remember writing somebody something along the lines of this: "I am sorry your dog has died but he was very old, but I am sorry nonetheless."

L-girl said...

Cornelia, I think Tom only meant omitting any reference to god or an after-life, nothing about the dog's relative age.

Cornelia said...

Yeah, it's good that there are soothing, comforting things one can also say or write in such cases without religious reference...