Why I failed as an Atheist….or, how I tried nothing and failed epically

August 30, 2009

I tried to believe in nothing. And I failed. It was simply too difficult for me to let go of a belief in God that is as innate to me as the English language.

I was born into a secular Jewish family. We observed the holidays as cultural events. The existence of God was implicit, even as I went to public school and studied science and learned about evolution. No one forced me to believe in God. No one even told me to believe in God. No one told me to pray or taught me to pray.

I don’t remember the first time I talked to God, but I think that it was around the time that I read Judy Blume’s “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?“, which puts my age then at around 10. A pre-adolescent with lots of confusing thoughts going round in my head, I liked how the main character seemed to get something emotionally satisfying out of talking to God. And so I did the same. I liken it to when having read “The Diary of Anne Frank“, and taking note of how Anne framed her diary entries as letters to her imaginary friend, Kitty, I decided that I too would frame my diary entries as letters to a friend.

Essentially, I gave myself a friend to talk to, when I was, in essence, talking to myself. It was totally unrelated to any real belief in God’s existence. But it felt good.

My first and possibly only brush with the “dogma” of my religion was when I asked my parents about Jesus Christ. They told me there was no such thing. I asked them to clarify. Did they mean that there was no such deity, or no such man? They answered that Jews were “supposed to” not believe that Jesus Christ had ever existed. This didn’t make sense to me. Why would it matter if Jesus Christ was a man? And why should anyone be telling me what I should and shouldn’t believe?

I put that aside though. It seemed like a minor flaw in an otherwise satisfactory religion. Not that I participated much in my religion. My family never went to synagogue, didn’t even belong to one. It was more that being “a Jew” defined me culturally. It gave me brisket and bagels and some holidays to celebrate around the dinner table.

As an adult, I did not join a congregation until my firstborn son was ready to enroll in preschool, and then, it was only because we were required to do so by his preschool, which was part of Park Avenue Synagogue. For years, we drifted along as barely-participating members of this congregation, drifting anemically into enrolling our sons in the Hebrew School, then leaving Park Avenue Synagogue for a less rigorous Hebrew School, then leaving the city and joining a synagogue with a Hebrew School that was so lacking in rigor that it doesn’t even call itself “Hebrew School”, but rather “Jewish Identity Education”. Finally, this past year, we have found ourselves drifting rather lacksidasically towards my older son’s Bar Mitzvah.

It wasn’t until we attended a training session for parents of Bar Mitzvah age children that I was jarred out of my trance. It was at this training session that our rabbi basically summarized the Torah (the first six books of the Bible) in an hour’s time. He started with the Garden of Eden and he ended with the death of Moses. As a lover of literature, I expected to be delighted with by the stories that are told over and over again throughout literature, drama and music, whether directly or as metaphor. Instead, all I heard was this:

“God built, God destroyed what he built, God rebuilt, God destroyed it again. God was angry, God was proud, plague of this, plague of that, flood, fire, destruction, war, slaves, more death, my way or the highway. The end.”

I walked out of that lecture traumatized. This God that the rabbi spoke of, that the Bible spoke of, could not be benevolent. He certainly couldn’t be my imaginary friend. This God was vindictive, arbitrary and capricious, like a child, building towers out of Legos and then smashing them to bits. And if God were not really anything like that, the Bible was still glorifying a God that could kill entire races because they displeased him.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. It dawned on me that using the Bible as a reference, one might suppose that the Holocaust was evidence that the Jews had displeased God, and that God was simply cleaning house. My mind reeled: Hurricane Katrina as God’s will? Children with cancer? Orphans? Plane crashes? Of course, intellectually, I understood that the Bible was written by people who witnessed, or were told of, terrible events, and were simply trying to make sense of it. So, either, I couldn’t believe in this God, or I couldn’t tolerate the Bible as anything more than the rantings of scared, primitive people who needed to believe that there was a reason for all of the things that frightened and displeased them.

I decided to reject the Bible. And that was no small feat given that the Jewish religion is based on the Torah, on celebrating the Torah, on revering the Torah (for God‘s sake, we KISS the Torah, as if it were a living being). But I decided that no one could tell me how to be a Jew. And I decided that I could tolerate my son having a Bar Mitzvah, so long as I told him that he doesn’t have to “believe” in the Torah to participate in the ritual (he had already expressed his own doubts in the existence of God, which makes him vaguely agnostic, but still a Jew).

Not long after this, I was talking to my brother-in-law, who I like to refer to as an “Extremist Atheist” because of his efforts to convert the entire world to atheism, and his epic intolerance for anyone who believes in God, about my decision to reject the bible. I told him that my feeling was that the Bible is the problem, as opposed to God, that I could believe in God but not believe that he was single-handedly responsible for every bad thing that has ever happened in the history of the world.

My brother-in-law’s reply was to ask me this: “What evidence to you have that God exists?

I thought about it. And I thought about it some more. But I had no answer beyond, “How could this world exist without intelligent design?” And even I knew that that was not “evidence”. You might call it “faith” of sorts, because “faith” cannot exist except in the face of a LACK of evidence. But still, it wasn’t evidence, and I knew that.

And for lack of a better answer, I decided, “Yep, I’m an atheist.”

Except I couldn’t stop talking to my imaginary friend, God. And I felt weird trying to not use the word “God” in sentences like, “God knows…” and “God help us” and “Oh my God!” But mostly, I couldn’t stand the idea that there is no greater power out there, and I couldn’t tolerate my own hubris at denying the existence of something that might be beyond my comprehension. I don’t understand a word of what Stephen Hawking writes, but that doesn’t mean he’s a raving lunatic. I don’t know if there is life on other planets, and I certainly have no evidence of it, but wouldn’t it be a bit short-sighted to refuse to believe that there could be?

And so, as quickly as I made the decision to reject God, I made the decision to stop rejecting God. I know that isn’t saying a lot. But it’s enough for me. Sure, I’m still not a fan of the way God is presented in the Bible. Sure, I don’t understand why bad things happen to good people or otherwise. Sure, I don’t like how religion has been and continues to be the root of so much violence. But having that “imaginary friend” is a comfort to me in my life. And I don’t presume to know anything more than that. Which is kind of the point, I think. Isn’t it?