There’s no god (or God, if you’re so inclined) in my life. I would argue (and often do) that there’s no god in anyone’s life. Just as there’s no Santa in your life, even if you are, like our son, a 4 year-old as convinced of his existence as you are of your own.
When people ask me, often with looks of deep concern, what happened to me that was so awful it would make me abandon god, I can’t help but smirk. I lean in, faking sincerity, and say gravely, “it was a huge event: 6th grade.” I am, of course, being sarcastic. The term atheist is so confusing to say many people that they ask me things like why I’m mad at god (I, of course, can’t be mad at something that isn’t there), or, and the frequency of this actually scares me, does being an atheist mean that I worship the devil? No, I say, that’s a Satanist, and just as idiotic as being a theist. (Though I once answered that question by saying, simply, yes, then smiling.)
I was enrolled in Hebrew school just after my 9th birthday, essentially to prepare for my bar mitzvah at 13. But I was also there to learn about history, culture, language, and faith, all within the context of Judaism.
Even then, there was little talk of god. Of course, we were taught prayers and that all things come from the Bearded One, but beyond that, almost everything I learned was more historical than hysterical. That’s my cheeky way of saying there was almost none of the fear and superstition that my Catholic friends had to endure in their Sunday school classes.
Even the prayers were more short meditations than invocations. I was never taught to ask for things in my prayers, or that they would be granted even if I did ask. Granted, I went to a reform synagogue. How reform? Well, traditional enough that I learned to speak, read and write in Hebrew. I wore a yarmulke to class (even when playing floor hockey in the basement or touch football in the parking lot…both of which I dominated! J), but not in my everyday life.
But there was one conversation when I was 11 I may never forget. My teacher was a young man (I can’t say for sure, but probably younger than I am now) and his demeanor was friendly and approachable. We were learning about Moses (not unusual) and I asked, “What if it’s not true?”
I remember the rabbi patiently asking me what, specifically, I thought might not be true.
“All of it.” The Red Sea parting, the plagues, the man himself. What if it’s all just a story?
Remember, I was told, that Moses doubted also. He didn’t even know he was a Jew until later in his life.
Yes, yes, I know all that. But it doesn’t answer my question.
I was told not to get caught up in the specifics of the story, but to focus on the lessons.
Which ones, I asked. That animal sacrifice is OK? That lamb’s blood will prevent death in certain circumstances? That we’re all, as I was told often by all the Christian children on my block (three Catholic families provided our street with 33 kids) prone to backsliding and sin? That it’s OK to slaughter the first born male of every household if that’s what someone wants to do to you?
I remember his look: concern. Not at my pre-teen propensity toward sarcasm, not for my eternal soul; that was, I was told, taken care of thanks to my being born who, or more specifically, what I was. His concern, and I could be projecting inaccurately back over the decades, that I was not alone in my disbelief and that he was in for much more of this.
Before he could say anything I did what I still do, got to my point. “What if I don’t believe in God?”
He smiled. Seriously. He gave me a sincere smile.
God, he said, doesn’t care so much if I believe in him, because he believes in me.
I nodded, feeling that his answer was little more than a cop out, an easy and all-encompassing answer for an adolescent with a lot to learn.
I said thank you, and let it drop. Because I did have a lot to learn. And I still do. But I’ve learned much since then. Organized religion is, for purposes of brevity, a racket. Even the most devout, often especially the most devout, often know this to be true, though they perpetuate the lie by participating.
I can’t say, to quote Julia Sweeney, that I’ve let go of god. You can’t let go of something you’ve never had. After my bar mitzvah, a four-hour Saturday afternoon ordeal in an airless room in August, I didn’t step into a synagogue for 20 years, until my father’s funeral. I went back the following two Friday nights, and found, as I knew I would (though I admit hoped I was wrong) no comfort and no answers.
Quitting Judaism two decades earlier was the beginning of a life founded on rational thought, a system of belief (contrary to what anti atheists say, we do have belief systems) that allowed me, that aided me, in realizing (even though I knew it already) that people die, often before their time, not because of a grand plan, but because of illness and accidents. That death is not a part of life, but the end of it. That grieving is normal and begging is unseemly, especially when all the begging in the world won’t undo what’s happened.
Quitting religion released me from hours and years wasted in darkened rooms pouring over texts that provided no answers thousands of years ago and provides even fewer now that science and reason have given us so many. It has allowed me to choose, as much as anyone can, a path of my dictation and not of millennia-old prescriptions on lifestyle and food choices and superstitions that carry no real relevance in the 21st century.
Quitting god has allowed me to live a life of reason and evidence (as much as I am capable) where I appreciate what I have because I know that once I’m dead there will be no forgiving of sins and happy reunions and eternal life. What you see, is what you get. And what you get is all you’ll have. Appreciate it because once it’s over, it’s all over, baby, no matter what you’ve been promised.