I am a staunch advocate for kids. I think this is because I have a better recollection of my childhood than most adults.
From the file of “Innocent children in America have fewer rights than murderers on death row,” let’s look at kids and how their parents make them (or do they?) practice religion.
Very few religious parents admit that they force religion on their kids. To a degree, many of these parents are probably right in that their kids at least went along with the motions. Many people who are atheists as adults tell me that they liked religious services and groups as kids because they got to be with their friends.
I know my mom forced religion on me. After a while, I actively resisted it. Surely, there were others like me. It’s telling, though, that few, if any, parents are likely to admit they imposed religion on their kids.
Here’s what the world would look like if parents *did not* impose religion on their offspring: Parents would leave the kids alone and not drag them to services or religious events. Once the kidlets came of age, let’s just say 18, the parents would offer to take junior to a religion fair of sorts and let the free market decide. Offspring would make their own choice as to what religion, if any, they would join and the religion wouldn’t necessarily be that of their parents. Since that’s not the way things are, offspring tend to be whatever religion the parents are.
In secular matters as well, many adults tend to think that the tenets of freedom and democracy don’t apply to children. Many adults behave as if kids simply deserve worse because they are kids. Even though there are many secular examples of this, forcing religion on a kid strikes me as particularly useless.
I reckon most adults in the U.S., even many religious ones, would reject the idea of forcing an adult to go to religious services, but to force children to do so is taken for granted as “acceptable.”
In some areas of my religious upbringing, notably summer camp at Camp Ramah when I was eight, religiosity could get very onerous. If you were 8 years old, would you want to be forced to comply by rules including no reading or writing on Saturday (or listening to music, turning on the lights, etc.)? Praying for a half hour before breakfast? Yep, that’s demanding, all right. It’s all the more obnoxious when the parents didn’t subject themselves to the demands of Godliness. My mom essentially said, “These religious laws are too burdensome for me, so instead I’m going to impose them on my kids.”
That is what religion is like, folks. It’s forceful. Not in the same sense as, “Kids, brush your teeth,” “Kids, eat your vegetables,” or “Kids, do your homework or you’ll have to work at McDonald’s your whole lives,” but a very special kind of forceful.
Our kids deserve better. Our kids deserve freedom. Kid power!
Some years ago, I made the mistake of staying with a male friend so we could attend a Society for Creative Anachronism event. (In retrospect, he was a creepy guy and I made a mistake by staying at his place and ergo letting him think he’d score with me, but let’s put that aside.) When he was driving me during the event, this man (Let’s call him Tom) somehow got on the subject of his religion.
Tom didn’t know I was an atheist, but he knew I was (ethnically, culturally) Jewish. He told me about his Christian sect (cult?) and that to bring on the Rapture, he would fight in the “eternal army” in the holy land (Israel, where my mom lives) and kill my people (his words). I think he said a third of my people, actually.
I was between cell phones at the time and if I’d had a phone, may have called a friend at the event for help, although this might have been tricky to do without alienating Tom and perhaps exacerbating my situation. Instead, I relied on my counseling psychology background to draw him out. “Religion is very important to you. How did that happen?”
What I should’ve done had I been thinking was to ask to stop someplace, perhaps CVS under the pretense of picking something up, and called for help. Getting back to the event, though, I told another friend of mine, who was able to give me a ride home.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
One of the funny things about this episode is that when I remember it, I picture myself praying during his rant to protect me, protect my people, and so forth… although in real life, of course I didn’t. Why do you suppose I picture the praying? Am I wishing that I did have the comfort of prayer in that situation?
It’s telling how Israel’s enemies, by which here I really am targeting American liberals (of which I am one), charge Israel with racism. If they knew a bit more about the country, they would find it difficult to maintain this accusation.
First off, let me say that Islam is a religion, not a race. Also, most Arabs/Muslims are not “browner” than most Israelis. Many people have remarked on the irony that Israelis and Arabs look so much alike.
Not all Jews in Israel are blond-haired, blue-eyed Europeans. Like Muslims, Jews can be of any race. If you don’t believe me about Israel’s diversity, please go over and see for yourself.
(Tangentially, while we’re on the subject of racism, it’s worth noting that racism is serious in the Muslim world. Sadly, blacks would have no relief moving to the Muslim world and may be shooting themselves in the feet.)
If your real accusation is that Israel is unfair to Muslims, than “racism” is still not the correct charge and you’re only calling it “racism” out of ignorance. I need to repeat it because it keeps coming up: Islam is a religion, not a race.
Let’s look at how Israel behaves about race. One concrete episode comes to mind.
In the 1980s and 1990s, in the spirit of bringing Jews sanctuary in Israel (which is what I see as the purpose of Israel), Israel’s government, on its own dime and by its own initiation, airlifted Ethiopia’s Jews to come live there. We are talking about 120,000 blacks. In addition to footing the bill to bring these black Jews to give them a better life, the government paid for immigrant absorption centers to feed, shelter and find employment for Ethiopian olim (Hebrew for new immigrants to Israel).
On its own dime. By its own initiation. To 120,000 blacks to live with them.
Has any other country in the world done something like this? I’m asking non-rhetorically. I don’t know what the opposite of “racism” is, but that’s about as far from “racism” as you can get.
The purpose of Israel is to provide a sanctuary for Jews. Put bluntly, we needed a place to be safe from everyone else.
While I am not religious (ya think?), nothing can change the fact that I’m ethnically Jewish. More importantly, nothing can change the fact that I believe in freedom and democracy. That’s why I stand with Israel.
Recently on Facebook, I shared an article about a proposed plan, which probably won’t go through, about sex-segregating the upcoming train system in order to appease the religious market. Part of what shocked me about this is that Israel is very liberal when it comes to sex and gender, in many ways much more so than the U.S. Women in Israel get drafted, just like men. (Yes, the terms are less for women, but the point is that both sexes get drafted.) They don’t have boy scouts and girl scouts; just scouts. The U.S. could learn a nice lesson from Israel.
The responses I got from my friends, though, veered off the sex segregation topic and into a wholesale attack on Israel and on Jews. As a Jewish woman and a supporter of Israel, I can’t help but take this personally. I know that many of you will disagree with me about all this, but I aim that if you follow my thoughts, you might be swayed. Either way, I wish you peace– shalom!
One commentator on my post called Israel a “disgusting country.” Another of my FB friends said about Jews, “Fucking goddie pieces of shit! The arrogance to think that the Lord and Creator of the entire universe would pick some backwards clan of violent Bronze Age sheep fuckers (literally) as His Chosen People is just so damned ridiculous! I don’t condone pogroms or the Holocaust, but I sure understand why they happened. I mean, any kid who went around talking about how cool and special he is in the playground would soon have his ass kicked for him and everyone would understand. Anti Semitism is the same thing; it’s just a matter of scale.”
I replied to these commentators: “@Bob– my mom lives in Israel and I don’t think it’s disgusting at all, but this isn’t one of its prouder moments. Likewise, the US has its share of shameful chapters.
@Anthony: *every* religion thinks it’s the “chosen people,” almost by definition of what religion is. Jews spent a lot of our history in our hidey-holes staying away from everyone else’s wrath, so I don’t think we were out there bragging in the marketplaces that much.
Let’s stick to the original post:) Shalom!”
One of the posters continued: “[Jews] bleated on incessantly about how special and chosen they are by some backwater god. The original Hebrews were a small nomadic tribe with next to no technology or literacy living in the shadow of giant advanced empires in a patch of land that has been called the world’s hallway since it is both in between much and yet contains nothing much of interest of itself. These backwater Bronze Age jackasses rambled on about how special they are on god’s eyes (a claim that can really only be made by monotheists) and the rest of the world has never stopped retaliating.”
In other words, we had it coming. I don’t think of Jews as any more “chosen” than anyone else, although I do think our contributions to the world are very significant, but as I said before, every religion thinks it’s “the best”! BTW, Jews were literate in much larger numbers (yes, even the women) in times and places where most other people were not.
Let’s start with why I see a need for Israel. Jews are in need of a sanctuary after what the world has done to us. Throwing us a bone in the form of a little strip of desert the size of New Jersey isn’t asking too much. All we want is a place to live in peace and to protect ourselves from our numerous enemies. (Please remember: there are tens of millions of people who would like Jews off the face of the Earth.) Perhaps Israel does not need to be geographically where it is, but we want the land more and we make better use of it. Jews came to Israel, purchased lots of the land, irrigated it and farmed it. It was much more desolate and poorer in the hands of Arabs. Now it has an important economy. It might interest my nerdier friends that a lot of internet pioneering was in Israel.
One of my commentators: “I lived in Israel for a year and my brother, sister and all of their children live there. I don’t want to get into debate about how nice it might be to live there but I’m sure if your mom was an arab, she wouldn’t think it such a nice place to live.”
I’ve already made my point when it comes to sexism, but if you still think Israel is a sexist/fascist/ultra-conservative country, compare it to its neighboring countries. I don’t think I need to spell out the details of how backward much of the Muslim world is, but in every liberal and progressive value, of which I hope you share with me, Israel is truly an oasis. By the logic of the above commentator, the measure of a country’s niceness is how it is to Arabs, so perhaps Saudi Arabia is the best nation in the world. (I’ll help you pack. Kidding.) Compare the progressive values of Saudi Arabia with those of Israel.
Think about where you’d rather live. Under whose administration you’d rather to live.
More about sexism. A commentator continued: “It’s pretty impressive how religions speak of the value that they have for women while at the same time, treat women like crap. The Jewish religion claims to hold women in greater esteem than men while not allowing them to have a voice. Many orthodox jews still believe that’s it’s even forbidden to hear a woman’s voice in song! Some members of my family even have separate beds.”
I replied: “I don’t know any Jews like the ones you’re describing, and I think even the most religious Jews out there share beds with their spouses (except during menstruation). Besides, in percentages, how liberal are Jews with regards to sex roles, or anything else, compared to Muslims? And I’ve never seen a Jewish woman wearing a burka, or even heard of such.”
The average Jew, in the US or Israel, espouses liberal and modern values. Can the same be said of the average Muslim? Not if you look at how their countries behave, at least.
Another commentator replies to the guy who said that while he didn’t approve of persecution of Jews, the Jews had it coming: “So the holocaust and the pogroms happened because the christians were appalled by the treatment of women and because the jews were so backgrounded? That is why the nazis burned Einstein’s books?
What is it with people that when they are thinking of the wrongs and crazy superstition of a people, they have to justify the pain those same people suffered?”
Good point about the holocaust and Nazis, but not so much the second matter. The above opinion ignores the point that all religions think theirs is the right one. As for Jews being a superstitious people, I replied:
“The wrongs and crazy superstitions of Jews? Compared to whom? I guess Einstein must’ve been crazy and superstitious… as are nearly all the Jews who are far over-represented in the sciences.”
While no one brought it up in this conversation, many people accuse Israel of racism, which I think is an unfair and untrue accusation, but that’s fit for another post. There are many issues involved in Israel and I don’t have the brainliness to address them all here today.
Israel is the one really free and democratic nation in the Middle East and is the only hope for that region. What really gets to me is that the world resents Israel and many nations in the developed world condemn it, while at the same time saying, “By the way, get out there and protect us from Islamic terrorism.”
Excuse the long post; I didn’t have time for a shorter one.
I’m not religiously Jewish, but I’m ethnically Jewish. Yes, that’s tough to explain to goyim (non-Jews).
While reading stories of Jewish atheists, I couldn’t find what about Judaism specifically turned people off, as in something that is unique to that religion. I ask because it looks to me that Judaism simply has fewer “sins” than Xianity or Islam (did we ever live to regret spawning those two religions, but I digress).
Take me, for example: Hebrew school turned me off, as I wrote in one of my earliest posts here. Still and all, there wasn’t a whole lot that I experienced that wouldn’t take place in Muslim or Xian education. I didn’t have anything “extreme” imposed on me, as I see in stories of non-Jewish atheists. Things like hell and proselytizing aren’t even mentioned or allowed in Judaism, all the more reason why I see it as a more “innocent” religion than Islam or Xianity.
My rejection of religion was to religion, not just to Judaism. It wasn’t that I became an atheist to chow down on fried shrimp and sleep in on weekends.
For you Jewish atheists, help me out!
What are the “sins,” if any, that we can throw at Judaism’s feet? Yes, it can be a very demanding religion, but anything else?
I have missed this blog! Between winter holidays, Andy getting badly injured, planning a wedding and miscellaneous happenstances, I haven’t posted in a while, though I religiously (heh, heh) have posted every Thursday.
It’s no secret that I have big love for the HBO series Big Love, which I discussed in my posts about Mormonism. The opening credits end with Bill, the husband, meeting each of his three wives in heaven. (Do they get every third night with him in heaven, too, or how does that work?) Maybe it’s because I’m getting married, but recently I paid attention to that part and it choked me up a little.
All right, so Andy and I won’t meet in heaven. That may not really be a loss for me, as I don’t remember ever believing in heaven. Jewish theology doesn’t discuss the afterlife much, and in any case, there is no hell in Judaism. (Hell is other Jewish people.) This is another point in favor of Judaism: no hell. Thanks, guys!
Many atheists tell me that atheism is a positive thing– they don’t need to feel “watched” and judged all the time. They won’t be punished in the hereafter. Still, there are quite a few who tell me that they lament the loss of a loving god and not going to heaven. They are sad that this life is all they will get and that they won’t get to join their loved ones after they die. It is indeed a rude shock to think that you’ll spend an eternity in paradise only to conclude that such a place doesn’t exist.
Skeptic extraordinaire Michael Shermer’s stock response to his feelings on life after death is “I’m for it.” Many people may want an afterlife, but I suspect these people haven’t really thought it through. I would rather die tomorrow than be forced to live forever. Would you really want to go on forever and ever (and ever and ever) after the earth ends, the universe ends, and you’re just floating in nothingness, with nothing to occupy you but your thoughts?
What do you think? Do you miss the idea of an afterlife, including an eternity in the Celestial Kingdom with your spouse (or spouses)? Are you glad you’re not going to hell? Are you glad you’re not going to heaven? Did Christians ever portray a really compelling heaven, for that matter?
Those of you who read my sample chapter on Janet (which was also published) have read the story of a PK (preacher’s kid) who experienced one of the worst things that could happen to a child. Her father urged her to pray to forgive the man who sexually abused her, something she was not able to do. This was a pivotal moment in her path to atheism.
Ah, the life of a pastor’s kid!
I grew up in Cambridge, Minnesota – a town of 5,000 people and 22 Christian churches. My father was (and still is) pastor of a small church. My mother volunteered to support Christian missionaries around the world.
I went to church, Bible study, and other church functions every week. I prayed often and earnestly. For 12 years I attended a Christian school that taught Bible classes and creation science. I played in worship bands. As a teenager I made trips to China and England to tell the atheists over there about Jesus.
I felt the presence of God. Sometimes I would tingle and sweat with the Holy Spirit. Other times I felt led by Him to give money to a certain cause, or to pay someone a specific compliment, or to walk to the cross at the front of my church and bow before it during a worship service.
Around age 19 I got depressed, But one day I had an epiphany. I realized that everything in nature was a gift from God to me and God delivered me from my depression.
My dad and I read lots of this Christian self-help stuff. We shared our latest discoveries with each other and debated theology.
I moved to Minneapolis for college and was attracted to a Christian group led by Mark van Steenwyk. Mark’s small group of well-educated Jesus-followers were postmodern, “missional” Christians: they thought loving and serving others in the way of Jesus was more important than doctrinal truth. That resonated with me, and we lived it out with the poor immigrants of Minneapolis.
The seeds of doubt
By this time I had little interest in church structure or petty doctrinal disputes. I just wanted to be like Jesus. So I decided I should try to find out who Jesus actually was. I began to study the Historical Jesus.
What I learned, even when reading Christian scholars, shocked me. The gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death, by non-eyewitnesses. They are riddled with contradictions, legends, and known lies. Jesus and Paul disagreed on many core issues. And how could I accept the miracle claims about Jesus when I outright rejected other ancient miracle claims as superstitious nonsense?
These discoveries scared me. It was not what I had wanted to learn. But now I had to know the truth. I studied the Historical Jesus, the history of Christianity, the Bible, theology, and the philosophy of religion. Almost everything I read – even the books written by conservative Christians – gave me more reason to doubt, not less.
I started to panic. I felt like my best friend – my source of purpose and happiness and comfort – was dying. And worse, I was killing him. If only I could have faith! If only I could unlearn all these things and just believe. I cried out with the words from Mark 9:24, “Lord, help my unbelief!”
I tried. For every atheist book I read, I read five books by the very best Christian philosophers. The atheists made plain, simple sense, and the Christian philosophers were lost in fog of big words that tried to hide the weakness of their arguments.
I did everything I could to keep my faith. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t force myself to believe what I knew wasn’t true. On January 11, 2007, I whispered to myself: “There is no God.”
The next day I emailed my buddy Mark:
I didn’t want to bother you, but I’m lost and despairing and I could really use your help, if you can give it.
I made a historical study of Jesus, which led me to a study of the Bible, historical and philosophical arguments for and against God, atheist arguments, etc. It has destroyed my faith. I think there is almost certainly not a God…
I’m fucking miserable… I told my parents and they sobbed for 30 minutes. Can you help me?
As always, Mark responded with love and honesty. But he didn’t give me any reasons to believe. He said he believed mostly for the “aesthetics of belief” and his “somewhat mystical experiences of Christ.” He wrote, “In a way, I am a Christian because I want to be one, and the logic flows from there.”
I also wrote a defiant email to an atheist radio show host to whom I’d been listening, Matt Dillahunty:
I was coming from a lifetime high of surrendering… my life to Jesus, releasing myself from all cares and worries, and filling myself and others with love. Then I began an investigation of the historical Jesus… and since then I’ve been absolutely miserable. I do not think I am strong enough to be an atheist. Or brave enough. I have a broken leg, and my life is much better with a crutch… I’m going to seek genuine experience with God, to commune with God, and to reinforce my faith. I am going to avoid solid atheist arguments, because they are too compelling and cause for despair. I do not WANT to live in an empty, cold, ultimately purposeless universe in which I am worthless and inherently alone.
I hope that I find a real, true God in my journey of blind faith. I do not need to convince you of that God, since you seem satisfied as an atheist. But I need to convince myself of that God.
Matt responded to my every sentence with care, understanding, and reason. But I still tried to hang onto my faith. For a while I read nothing but Christian authors. Even the smartest ones just made lots of noise about “the mystery of God.” They used big words so that it sounded like they were saying something precise and convincing.
My dad told me I had been led astray because I was arrogant to think I could get to truth by studying. Humbled and encouraged, I started a new quest to find God. I wrote on my blog:
I’ve been humbled. I was “doing discipleship” in my own strength, because I thought I was smart enough and disciplined enough. [Now] having surrendered my prideful and independent ways to him, I can see how my weakness is God’s strength.
I’ve repented. I was deceived because I did not let the Spirit lead me into truth. Now I ask for God’s guidance in all quests for knowledge and wisdom.
I feel like I’ve been born again, again.
It didn’t last. Every time I reached out for some reason – any reason – to believe, God simply wasn’t there. I tried to believe despite the evidence, but I couldn’t believe a lie. Not anymore.
No matter how much I missed him, I couldn’t bring Jesus back to life.
I don’t recall how it happened, but eventually I found out that I could be more happy and moral without God than I ever was with him. I “came out” as an atheist to my family, friends, and church. They were surprised, but they still loved me. They were much more concerned when two elders of my church decided they were Catholic. I bonded with them briefly because the three of us were suddenly outcasts.
I had stubbornly resisted my deconversion, but these days I am excited to accept reality, no matter what it is. I remember when I finally realized the problems inherent to my precious Libertarianism. I was not dismayed or resistant; I was thrilled.
This comfort with truth unleashed my curiosity about Christianity and religion in full force. In my studies I uncovered lots of false facts and dishonest arguments from Christians and atheists. Each discovery only deepened my hunger for knowledge, but also my realization that humans know very little, and with little certainty.
Looking back, I feel lucky that I left God for purely rational reasons instead of emotional ones. Indeed, all my emotions were pushing the other way.
But that’s probably not the norm. I bet most atheists today have lost their faith for irrational, emotional reasons – or else they were raised as atheists. When I went to the premiere of Bill Maher’s Religulous – one of the few blatantly atheist films released in America – almost the entire crowd was gay. I remember thinking they were probably atheists because the church rejected them, not because they knew the logical fallacies of the Kalam Cosmological Argument.
In many ways I regret my Christian upbringing. So much time and energy wasted on an invisible friend. So many bad lessons about morality, thinking, and sex. So much needless guilt.
But mostly I’m glad this is my story. Now I know what it’s like to be a true believer. I know what it’s like to fall in love with God and serve him with all my heart. I know what’s it like to experience his presence.
I know what it’s like to isolate one part of my life from reason or evidence, and I know what it’s like to think that is a virtue. I know what it’s like to earnestly seek the truth but still be totally deluded.
I know what it’s like to think that what I believe, or what my loving pastor says, or what my ancient book says, is more true than what reason and evidence say. I know what it’s like to think faith is a strength, not a gullible weakness.
I know what it’s like to be confused by the Trinity, the failure of prayers, or Biblical contradictions but to genuinely embrace them as the mystery of God. I know what it’s like to believe God is so far beyond human reason that we can’t understand him, but at the same time to fiercely believe I know the details of how he wants us to behave.
That was my experience for 22 years, and I am grateful for it. Now I can approach believers with true understanding.
One of the things that struck me most reading this was when Luke wrote that he didn’t have the strength to be an atheist at first. This reminds me of two friends: one, a somewhat-religious Jew (read: looks for loopholes) told me that he would be an agnostic were he honest with himself, but didn’t want to be cut off from the community.
I reminded him that a) he had many friends and loved ones that weren’t religious Jews or at least wouldn’t shun him, and b) we weren’t living in the ancient Middle East when being shunned was a death sentence.
Another friend, who is superstitious and Catholic (talk about living a stereotype) told me once that it was harder to believe in God than to not believe. I said, “I love you, but you are just wrong! Of course it’s easier to go with the flow and do what’s expected of you. Do you know how hard it can be to go against the status quo, and how non-believers risk being hated? If it were easier to not believe, not many people would believe.”
From December, ’08
Thanks to everyone who made my 30th birthday so special. I had a wonderful time as I enter this new decade of life. L’chaim! Even better, I found out that I’m getting another niece or nephew this June– I’m going to be re-aunted, as my friend Chris said.
Here’s an article that I hope to publish (for money), but is something I’m slow to do. Nu, it’s relevant to the site, so I’m posting it anyway, even though I realize that if I do publish it formally, it might be considered a reprint.
I recall sobbing with my head on my desk at Hebrew school. Me, age eleven, skinny as a rail with scraggly hair just beginning to grow out again after two years in a crew cut.
My teacher Yaffa came to console me. “You will like Israel,” she had said. “I’m from there. Is it so bad?” If it was so wonderful, why had she moved to the United States, I am inclined to ask in retrospect. At the time, I was too inconsolable to question her.
“I don’t want to go,” I said. “I want to stay here. I want to stay home.” I must’ve sounded younger than I was.
My mother had traveled to Israel with Young Judea before she started college at U.C. Berkeley, where she had met my father. She had worked on kibbutzim that year, full of hubris in building a nation. Always somewhat Israel-centric, I remember growing up with her telling me that the Israeli army was the most powerful in the world and if they had wanted, they could destroy NATO; that Israeli women were tough; that the Jewish people had to stand together and build themselves up as a people.
Still, Mom could hardly be described as devout. Indeed, Mom often editorialized about her more religious Jewish friends, describing them as meshuggah. I have, as an adult, described her religiosity as “quarter-assed conservative”: for example, she wouldn’t eat bread during Pesach, so she would keep it in the freezer all week. Other foods forbidden at that time, such as rice and legumes, were fair game. A devout Jew would have taken pains to remove these foods from the house entirely without trying to cut corners. In more recent years, she went to synagogue less and less and even started to eat pork and shellfish.
Mom had taught English as a foreign language in Israel the summer when I was ten, during which I stayed with my dad in Boston. She returned to the States glowing about her trip. I remember asking my mother if she would move to Israel and she told me no. She must have been saying that to lull me into a false sense of security because in the spring, she announced that she and I would be moving there for a year.
To put it lightly, I did not welcome the disruption in my life. I was about to start junior high—a major transition. I had noticed boys and one in particular, a friend with whom I fell in love. I was ready to start French and had even bought a minuscule French dictionary for a dollar at Wordsworth in Harvard Square. The Simpsons had just landed a series, which excited me as I had been a big fan of them since they began shorts on Tracy Ullman. I had friends that I loved and was starting to feel at home and grounded after a childhood riddled with moves and school changes (people today often ask me if my parents were fugitives or stalkers; at least these would have been valid reasons for their playing gypsy).
Mom made jokes about how I was so miserable. “You think it’ll be just like Hebrew School,” she said. “You’ll get off the plane, and a teacher will say, ‘here are your books.’” To dull my sense of outrage, if not actually change my mind, she sent me to therapists, who had the same wisdom: you both have very different needs. This was not the sort of problem therapy could solve, but the therapists were at least able to draw attention to the fact that my mother wasn’t necessarily right in her resolve. It was a crusade my mother would continue after the move to Israel, enlisting therapists, friends and, in one case, a rabbi to show me the light: that Israel was my destiny (incidentally, I never heard a rabbi swear so much). In the mind of my mother and her allies, it made no sense for me to want to stay home in the U.S. Less often heard was “that poor kid”—someone who realized what I was going through.
I wanted to do something, anything to cancel this banishment. I finally had to accede that this was just one year and then I would get my life back.
It was a tumultuous year for me, perhaps more so for Mom. My only thoughts were of my mother’s betrayal and my going home. I was young, on the cusp of adolescence, in a strange culture with a language I did not speak too well. It certainly didn’t help that my mother sent me to summer camp soon after our arrival, which evolved into a complicated traumatic experience for me– and religion played a large part. To my mother’s dismay, I was not willing to cooperate or snap out of my willfulness. A child is at the mercy of her parents, and not cooperating is a weapon of the weak: if you don’t like the results, then don’t do this to me. It’s as simple as that!
I extorted my mother in this way. I wanted to go home. I figured she might regret her move when she saw how miserable I was. With the 1991 Gulf War looming, I thought she might give in; instead, she made jokes about American diplomats “fleeing,” thinking that they were weaker than Israelis, which was probably true. Like real sabras (native Israelis), we carried our gas masks and created a sealed room. I wrote letters to my friends at home telling them it wasn’t as bad as it sounded on CNN. Mom seemed to think the whole thing was an exciting adventure. By then, we were living with Mom’s boyfriend, a likable compulsive cleaner, and I thought I might be the only kid in history whose parent used a war to justify shacking up.
As I counted the months until I could go home, if I had believed in God, I would no doubt have prayed and asked Him to free me from His will that I should live in His Holy Land. Amen.
When Mom demurred in the spring about returning home, her cousin, an older man of few redeeming qualities, told me without empathy that “promises were made to be broken.” I told him my mother would not do that to me, but soon she informed me that she would not be returning and that she wanted me to stay, as well. I stood my ground, furious at her betrayal, and made plans to live in Philadelphia with my father and my new stepmother …but that is a different saga.
What if Mom hadn’t returned to Israel when I was ten? What if the Gulf War began that year? What if something, anything, had weakened her mission to live in a land seven thousand miles away? And globally, what if history had not given Jews the horrible circumstances which necessitated the state of Israel?
I never did get my old life back. I did not forgive my mom for quite some time. The details of my year abroad are too many to describe here, but suffice to say that religion in part hurled me, against my strong wishes, to a life I did not want and was beyond the realm of normal experience for an American kid. Not many Americans decide to simply move to a country on a lark for no practical reason. And not many of those choose to remain expatriates.
“Promises are made to be broken.” It’s a difficult reality to be proven by your own mother. I think back to that scared, scrawny kid and how no one would listen to her.
Not My God focuses on the difficulty of being an atheist in America, so the stories on the site illustrate how people feel isolated or are persecuted. I look forward to the day when being an atheist is too commonplace to warrant these experiences.
Often, atheism is compared to being gay; our “coming out” movement certainly seems analogous. (Hmm, what was our Stonewall?) One big difference that I see is that the number of atheists, from what I hear, is growing, and in large numbers, whereas the number of gay people is probably stationary.
At any rate, Not My God is about the personal experiences of atheists. While I have not spoken with Hemant Mehta, so I don’t know if I can really call this a personal story, it does illustrate the persecution I’m talking about, and is so analogous to the persecution of gay teachers that it is nearly interchangeable. Later, I’ll go look to what the gay atheists have to say about this.
For those of you who haven’t heard, Mehta, a high school teacher, is in trouble with the Christian Right.
Long story short, a Christian group is campaigning to fire Mehta so that he won’t be a bad influence on their children. The Illinois Family Institute has adopted the exact same stance on (you guessed it) gays. Once the IFI found out that Mehta was an atheist blogger when he criticized their anti-gay practices, he joined their victims at the stake. (Funny, that.) Not only is Mehta spreading the “gospel” of atheism, but of homosexuality, too! I wonder what would have happened if Mehta agreed with the IFI’s homophobia, but they discovered he was an atheist, anyway.
If a high school teacher is gay (or other sexual minority), should she keep it secret for the sake of not offending the students’ parents? What about an atheist teacher?
For what it’s worth, I’m not likening the persecution of atheists to, for example, the history of racism in the U.S. They are completely different struggles and, at least from an historical perspective, being black was/is much, much worse (in the sense of persecution) than being an atheist in the U.S. Besides, one doesn’t get to choose to be black or not, but to be an atheist is a choice, at least for the most part.
On the flip side, I can’t imagine trying to get a teacher fired for being black in the contemporary U.S., and according to polls, Americans would much rather vote for a black candidate than an atheist candidate if all else were equal, by a wide margin.
Because I’m a Caucasian, I’ll never fully understand what it’s like to be a victim of racism. I do, however, know what it’s like to be a victim of sexism. Plus, I’m Jewish, and I know that there are many people in the world (the Islamic world, mostly) that want the Jewish people off the map– I do not mean hurt, subjugated, enslaved, or conquered: I mean annihilated. That includes yours truly.
I’m not comparing atheism to these things. It’s a completely different kind of movement.
Just a couple of other small things about me and this blog I want to clear up:
I don’t hate religious people. Yeah, yeah, I have many religious friends of many faiths.
I don’t think all religious people are on the side of extremists and fundamentalists. Many religious people are very cool and don’t want creationism taught in the schools, are OK with atheists, etc.
I’m an atheist and a Jew because I’m ethnically Jewish and nothing can change that.
Yes, I am very concerned with Islam, as I think a large number (no, I don’t know how many, but let’s let the incidents speak for themselves) are extremists and dangerous, but I do not think *every* Muslim feels this way and I know many do criticize their violent co-religionists. It would be very silly of me to say that all Muslims, every last one, were dangerous.
While I do not “respect” religion, neither do I stand in front of churches with a megaphone shouting, “You’re all stupid!” I don’t attack; I counter-attack.
I am a stand-up comedian and often use humor on the site. Yes, this is a serious site and I talk about some pretty serious things: child abuse, isolation, depression, violence, etc. My use of humor may confuse people, but I feel that it is a survival skill and a darn good one, and there are times when I need to get away from the “gloom and doom” that makes up a lot of the material. A sense of humor is a wonderful thing. Also, I think humor can have a lot of insight, so it is an excellent way to make a point.
“Shalom Aleichem if you got ’em!” (Stephen Colbert, answering his Jewish phone line)
My mom didn’t like my voice impression of her on my Secular Nation interview. In fact, she never likes my voice impression of her. Go figure. (She imitates me, because I imitate her– turnabout is fair play!) She asked that I send this rebuttal to David Driscoll the interviewer:
If you love Israel so much, why do you say you hate Israelis LOL?
OK, Mom, I know that you’re far from uber religious, but you did send me to a conservative Hebrew school. Why would you have done that unless that kind of religiosity was important to you? For fun? I don’t remember anyone laughing. Do you? 🙂
Sarah (Susan Trachtenberg’s daughter– and proud of it!)”
Just kidding. This is Not My God, a site for the personal aspect of atheism. I'm putting together a book with that title, having already 20 interviews lined up, but I still want to hear from more of you.
I've expanded the blog to include material not related to atheism, including rants, raves, consumer issues, curmudgeonly matters and other miscellany.
Read more about Not My God on the About page
- October 2016
- October 2015
- July 2015
- June 2015
- May 2014
- April 2014
- October 2013
- September 2013
- April 2013
- March 2012
- February 2012
- January 2012
- December 2011
- November 2011
- October 2011
- September 2011
- August 2011
- July 2011
- June 2011
- May 2011
- April 2011
- March 2011
- January 2011
- November 2010
- September 2010
- July 2010
- June 2010
- May 2010
- April 2010
- March 2010
- February 2010
- January 2010
- December 2009
- November 2009
- October 2009
- September 2009
- August 2009
- July 2009
- June 2009
- May 2009
- April 2009
- March 2009
- February 2009
- January 2009
- December 2008
- November 2008
- October 2008