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.

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