I am an atheist. I have been an atheist for 63 years, 6 months, and 8 days.
Last year someone told me, “I’ve come out of the closet as an atheist.” “Good,” I replied. “I’ve been out for a long time. I call myself a practicing Jewish atheist because I do practice Judaism but I don’t believe in god.”
I feel quite certain that there is no god. I know this is an epistemological problem (how do you prove the absence of a thing?), but I know. While the events of 9/11 brought some people to faith, for me it clarified that a god, a concept that always seemed implausible, does not exist. As Job asked, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Why not? Existence is arbitrary. I’d say even capricious, but that seems to imply a being with the capacity for such behavior.
I’m not blind to the value of religious faith. My summer on an American Friends Service Committee work project in 1961 showed me that “work is love made visible.” (Actually, this is Kahlil Gibran, a cult figure among teenagers at the time, not Quaker sentiment. Yet, our Methodist leaders certainly demonstrated how faith inspired. Curiously, there was not a Quaker in the lot of us.) In some respects I envy people who seem to have the certainty of belief.
Later, I studied social science: sociology of knowledge, sociology of religion, cultural anthropology, and came to understand the role played by belief and the institutions that embody it, along with the shared experience of ceremony and ritual. I continue to read at great length about religion in general and Judaism in particular. But study does not lead to belief.
I practice Judaism; in fact, with considerable emotion. I can be swaying as I sing, eyes closed, almost surrendering to a trance-like state. But, as a friend pointed out, “All this emotion, but we just can’t get to god, even if we wanted to.”
I subscribe to a Jewish view of how best to live in society and my personal ethical code is firmly guided by the principle of “tikkum olam” (repair of the world, both a worldly and a sacred obligation). I believe that the point of life is to do the best we can.
And I do believe in the sacred. As with Abraham Joshua Heschel’s radical awe and amazement, I believe that the sacred is in the mundane. There are gifts of extraordinary beauty (both natural and human-made) that are sacred. Moreover, the capacity to appreciate it is sacred, speaking to the potential, that is more important than the act itself.
So, I still claim the title “atheist.” And I claim the role of practicing Jew. They don’t feel incompatible, or even dissonant, any more than does my conviction that our law-bound universe is ultimately arbitrary. God does play dice with the universe, Dr. Einstein. I call this the “if I get hit by a truck” factor.
What happens after death? I don’t know. Does this frighten me? Oddly, not as much as it used to. I find the vast unknowableness of things strangely comforting. I’m no longer upset about my smallness; looking up at the vastness of stars clarifies that while I’m important and valuable, in the larger scheme of things I’m not.
There’s no one looking after me but me. In the words of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, “I was on a psychological mission to accept living without a God, which means accepting that I give my life its own meaning.”
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