“Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, then that of blindfolded fear.”
~Thomas Jefferson, letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787
I’ve carefully avoided this topic because I have always felt it improper to wear it on my sleeve, unlike some others who throw it in others faces, or display it like a badge of honor. However, the intense proliferation of religion as an apparent litmus test in the political arena, combined with he science vs. creationism debate regarding evolution, the beginning of the universe, et.al, has driven me to vent – at least in this forum – my own views on what I believe or rather don’t believe in.
I am an atheist. I have been one for some time, but let me clarify what exactly I mean when I use that word.
In the traditional definition, an atheist is someone who does not believe in the existence of a deity. I don’t say “God,” as this is normally meant to mean the god of Judeo – Christian – Islamic theology. I think it’s safe to assume that most, it not all atheists do not believe in the existence of any higher deity, irrespective of the religious dogma that accompanies it. For me, I define atheism in my lack of belief of a literal “God.” I came to his conclusion after becoming acquainted with the books and lectures of the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell. His work opened me up to a new way of thinking about other religions, as well as addressing the conflicts I felt with the one I was brought up in.
I was raised in a Reform Jewish home, and while I never considered my parents particularly religious, they were very much in tune with the cultural aspect that accompanies Judaism. They were raised during the depression, and in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Their identity as Jews were shaped by both their parents, and the peers they associated with. My mom’s parents in particular, who escaped the pogroms of Tsarist Russia and the fledgling Soviet Union, had a deep Jewish identity. My father served in WWII in the Navy, in the Pacific theater, and my mother lost aunt’s and uncles to Nazi concentration camps.
By the time I came along, secular Judaism in this country was pretty well entrenched. I went through all the motions expected of a Jewish lad; I attended Hebrew school starting at age nine, learned Hebrew not necessarily out of a need to speak it, but in order to be able to read it well enough by the time my bar mitzvah arrived in September of 1972. I then breathed a sigh of relief, as I no longer had to go to Hebrew school anymore after that momentous life event. All the while however, there was the nagging doubt in the back of my mind as to whether or not there was this all knowing, all seeing, all judgmental old bearded man, of not very pleasant temperament, who resided beyond the mind of humans. The literal nature of this creator deity was not to be questioned. I however, had questions about his existence, questions that were not getting answered. Even the most basic one, “How do we know God is a man?,” was not forthcoming by the rabbis I encountered in Hebrew school.
I suppose I could say that during most of my teenage years, post-bar mitzvah and into young adulthood, I was more agnostic than anything else. I left open the possibility of the existence of God, only because I wasn’t certain in my own mind the he didn’t exist. At the same time, I was expanding my knowledge of science, not through schooling really, but through my own reading of things related to astronomy, the space program, a smattering of physics, and through my involvement in EMS, human biology, and yes, evolution.
Then came Carl Sagan and his incredible “Cosmos” series. it was a television classroom that blew open my mind to concepts and ideas that were never really presented in junior and senior high science classes the way they were presented here. Sagan brought ideas to life for me that before while interesting, were being given in a dry, straightforward, didactic manner. Sagan’s approach brought alive that sense of wonder I had inside of me for things that I felt, but couldn’t express. it brought my nerdiness to the forefront, and didn’t make me feel bad about it. It fed the sci, in my sci-fi innards.
Also in the world at this time, was the ongoing Middle East conflict of Israel vs. the nation du jour. The Yom Kippur War was just a few years prior, but the conflicts that had been playing themselves out since 1948 (and before, if you really thought about it) seemed to go on and on without end. All this time, I kept hearing how it was every Jew’s duty to be loyal to Israel, support her, and if possible, make an aliyah, a pilgrimage that resulted in a permanent move to Israel. It was the duty aspect of it that bothered me. Duty to whom? Why? I wasn’t born there, had no family there, and while I understood the basic politics of what was happening there, and why the US had an interest there, the religious/spiritual/cultural part didn’t ring home with me, as it did for some friends, and many relatives. I also had reservations about moving to a place where a rocket attack, or a bus bombing was a reality, something that we had yet to face here in this country at that time with any frequency.
The religious conflict, Jew vs. Muslim, one interpretation of God over another, also began to fester inside of me. Here we have two religions that use different names for the same creator deity, and because those interpretations are taken so literally, they have been the cause of suffering, and death, and hatred for decades and centuries. Throw Christianity into the mix, and you’ve got a religious gumbo that is non-edible to any sane person.
So there I was, still with no questions to my most basic questions about God, but with science and practical common sense beginning to take a larger role in my own evolution as a person. However, what was to come during the 80’s would truly push me over the wall towards realizing that the idea of a literal God was something I could no longer accept….. (To be continued)