Oh God – Part 2 (An atheist without a foxhole)

So why am I an atheist?

There are two ways to approach this kind of “why do I believe xxx” question. One is to address its substance – to articulate the reasoning behind my conclusions. 

The other is biographical or psychological — more of a novelist’s approach. No matter how much we might admire Spock or Lt. Data, most of us don’t reach conclusions about things like God on a purely logical basis. We’re products of our families, our experiences, the things we cherish and the things that cause us to run from the room screaming.

I pretty much grew up an atheist. I’m not sure my father or mother would have used  that word to describe themselves, but religion was a non-factor in our home. We didn’t belong to a synagogue or go to Hebrew school. We were Jewish, and we had a Passover seder and lit Chanukah candles, but we also decorated a Christmas tree and dyed Easter eggs and cooked a Thanksgiving turkey and watched fireworks on July 4th. These all seemed like secular, cultural holidays – excuses to be happy, eat, exchange gifts, and see relatives. God never entered into any of it.

When I got older and claimed a Jewish identity for myself, it was a cultural and political one rather than a religious one. My most wonderful experiences as a teenager were in a socialist-Zionist youth group called Hashomer Hatzair, which had ties to the kibbutz movement in Israel.

Hashomer at the time was a quirky mix of early 20th century European socialism and American 1960s idealistic radicalism. Religion was the opiate of the masses. Passover and Chanukah were holidays of freedom and national liberation. Zionism was an effort to create a state where Jews could live securely like any other nation, not an effort to fulfill a divine mandate.

God, once again, never entered into any of it.

That’s the biographical back story. But shifting now from background to substance…  the common conceptions of God just make no sense to me.

Disclaimer: I haven’t read any of the recent spate of books on atheism, and don’t have a battle-ready arsenal of reasoned arguments. No Christopher Hitchens here!  But on a gut level: 

  • Science is able to explain so much of our world these days – including many of the mysteries that people traditionally ascribed to God. Even those near-death experiences where people talk about seeing a tunnel of light – there’s brain research that suggests such visions may be a neurochemical phenomenon.
  • The concept of God changes whenever humans’ need for a God changes. In ancient times, we needed some way to control rain and crops! So people prayed to rain gods and fertility gods. Well, now we have weather maps, fertilizer and  even GMO seeds. And we don’t pray to rain gods any more. To me, it seems so obvious that people create God rather than God creating people.
  • Then there’s the Holocaust. (As simply the most extreme example of unprovoked evil.) If there were a God that acted the way the Bible says – a God that rewards good and punishes evil, a God that cared enough about the Jews to take them out of Egypt — how could such a God have let this happen?

Recent take on the pilots who overshot the Minneapolis airport by the S.F. Chronicle's wonderful Don Asmussen

Honestly, I don’t think you need God to be spiritual. I don’t think you need God to be a good human being.

It is totally possible to be in awe of the miracle of existence — this planet, this universe, life, nature, human beings, love — without believing in God.

You can strive to do justice and love mercy without God.

When asked to sum up the teachings of Torah in one sentence, Rabbi Hillel said: “What is hateful to thyself do not do to another. That is the whole Law, the rest is Commentary.” No God in there.

Of course, someone far less eminent than Rabbi Hillel also said, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” And I must admit that my own atheism has never been tested in any foxholes.

I’ve never been in war. I’ve never starved. I’ve never watched a child die. I’ve never faced a deadly disease or extreme pain. I’ve never (yet!) been old and felt death tiptoe closer each evening.

I’d like to think I would be able to maintain my principles –  could live under duress and not turn to the theological equivalent of Superman or Batman for help. I’d like to think that I would be able to acknowledge the pointlessness of suffering and the end of consciousness that comes with death and the limits of my own power without blinking.

 But who knows? I haven’t been there. I wouldn’t presume to say how I would respond.

And I suspect that facing adversity, just as you can have a crisis of faith, you can have a crisis of no-faith.

 Next: So why go to synagogue? Why become a Bat Mitzvah?



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4 Responses to “Oh God – Part 2 (An atheist without a foxhole)”

  1. Judy Pace Says:

    Quick question Ilana: Have you read Karen Armstrong? (I think her latest book deals with these questions.) Judy

  2. Ilana DeBare Says:

    I haven’t read it, but it sounds interesting. I believe some other folks following this blog have read it or are reading it. Anyone want to comment on it?

  3. Kaveh Says:

    That’s pretty much where I am with all this, Ilana.

    I grew up in a nonobservant–but very faithfully believing–muslim household. The first time I read parts of the Qur’an carefully in college, I knew it was all a lie, that no dang God spoke those dang words to Mohammad. He made it all up, the rascal! Who knows, maybe he had very good intentions; or maybe he was hallucinating; or a charlatan, like many prophets are (partly). Poof, went my very strong faith, in a matter of one sitting.

    I’m sure some of the moral teachings are still there in me. “Do not walk with pride on this earth,” I remember reading in Arabic and Farsi, “for God does not like proud people,” or something like that. That one stuck.

    In my more spiritual moments, I have believed that we (living things) are here for some mysterious, as yet undetermined, grand endeavor, but I’m not sure of that anymore. Maybe the grand endeavor is just to live.

    I’m still not sure why you are doing this, Ilana, but hope to find out by reading more.

  4. Kaveh Says:

    p.s. I’m never going back there, foxhole or not.

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