I’m on vacation and the blogging is getting sparse, so for the next week or so I will be re-posting the best posts from the first months of Sexy Secularist to keep the troops of militant atheists entertained.
In my own life and as regards my own beliefs, I have the same accusations leveled against me time and again, and they all boil down to this: “All mind, no heart.” A friend who’s very nearly on the verge of becoming a former friend recently characterized me as small-minded, and frequently remarks that my beliefs are lacking in compassion and imagination and couched in cold intellectualism.
Most of my life, I’ve tried to believe in God. Atheism can be very lonely; religious holidays and the cornerstones of religious belief are ubiquitous, while God is present in our stories, our songs, our pledge of allegiance, legal oaths; He’s even on our money! Most of my friends’ families said Grace at the dinner table. Being Jewish is already bad enough—the holidays suck, the food is heavy, the music is pretty awful—but to be a culturally Jewish atheist? Every time I ate dinner at a friend’s house, I felt left out. Frequently I was asked to say Grace, whether they knew my religious beliefs or not, and I was put in a position to either be dishonest to myself or disrespectful to the hosts (never mind how rude it is to ask a seven-year-old kid to say Grace when you know that his parents don’t believe in God).
The common storyline in popular culture on the topic is that of the loveless skeptic: An arrogant intellectual who’s big on facts and low on compassion who spends so much time proving things false that he can’t accept what’s true, until some great miracle, act of kindness, or personal tragedy suddenly opens his heart to God. I grew up identifying with these anti-heroes: my soul cold and hollow, my heart in need of softening, and my mind holding the doors of faith firmly shut.
I tried as best I could to believe and fit in. I was the most accomplished student in Hebrew school, able to recite the most prayers, able to translate the most Hebrew, and able to comprehend the most Jewish law. I knew the Christmas stories and songs better than the Christians did. Heck, I attended adult Bible study regularly. For years I prayed to God, sometimes nightly. I thought that if I just tried hard enough, I could find faith. Clap harder and harder and suddenly I’d believe in fairies.
But if there was a God, why was there so much suffering? I tried to make sense of it all, with free will and all that. But there was just too much: drug abuse, murder, rape, genocide, intolerance, violence, hatred. I couldn’t fathom an omnipotent, loving God being responsible for a universe filled with so much hatred and pain. The world held such a wealth of beauty—what kind of God, capable of so much good, would allow so much evil?
Forget the logical arguments—when I brought God into my life, I became angry and scared. When I read about children my own age raped or molested, I wanted God to intervene, but he never did. I remember when I was six, watching a documentary on World War II, on the Holocaust and the atomic bomb, and wishing God would die for letting so much horror take place. No matter how much beauty there was in the world, no matter how much good, there was just too much wrong for this being to have been simultaneously just and all-powerful. I couldn’t believe he was simply incompetent. I began to think he was malevolent, and that Job should’ve told God to fuck off and leave the wagers for the racetracks.
But God was good, and other people thought so, so there must have just been something wrong with me. It was all a familiar cycle—I felt guilty for not believing, but when I tried believing, I got angry at God.
It’s hard enough being the kid in class who uses words that the other kids don’t understand–not to show off, but just because those are the best words he knows to describe his thoughts; tt’s hard enough being called “Human Dictionary” and “Encyclopedia Boy” when all you’re trying to do is communicate. It’s trouble enough growing up different without all the accusations of heartlessness—yet all the movies I saw (excluding Woody Allen’s and the Marx Brothers’), the songs I heard, and the social interactions I endured reminded me that the more I thought, the less I felt, and that I’d never be as good as the simple believer.
I tried God on for size, but all he made me was angry. I don’t like being angry, and I don’t like believing in something that every rational bone in my body says must be false. Cognitive dissonance never fit well on me.
So I gave up on the idea of fitting in. Something in me snapped one day very recently. Somewhere in between discovering Richard Dawkins and revisiting my skepticism, I gave up on the whole belief thing for good. I just couldn’t do it anymore. And now I’m back at square one in my relationships, still the kid who’s all brains and no heart. (Somehow the fact that my problems with God are rooted in the problems of evil and suffering seems lost on the people who think that I’m just being small-minded and small-hearted.)
Being in the theatre, I get to know a lot of gay people. I often wondered why I related so strongly to that feeling of shame that comes from being raised to think that there’s something wrong with you that makes you unable to love a woman as a man ‘ought’ to. Writing all this down, the common thread of “why can’t I feel like the others?” starts to make sense to me.
In “Shibboleth,” from season two of The West Wing, Toby wants to hire a woman who publically advocates against school prayer. (Note: the following is taken from atranscript, not the official script.) It says it better than I ever could:
I’ll tell you why it should be front and center. It’s not the first amendment, it’s not religious freedom, it’s not church and state, it’s not… abstract…
What is it?
It’s the fourth grader who gets his ass kicked at recess ’cause he sat out the voluntary prayer in homeroom. It’s another way of making kids different from other kids when they’re required by law to be there. That’s why you want it front and center; fourth grader; that’s the prize.
(after a pause)
What did they do to you?
(Toby looks uncomfortable, looks down at his feet.)
Every time I get to that point in the episode, I cry, even reading it now. So that’s your heartless atheism for you. Let your God explain why he hardened our hearts against him. Because we’ve tried to believe. Many of us have tried as best we can. I gave up because I’m healthier without religion. You’re free to keep believing—you’re still about 90% of the electorate, so you don’t have to worry too much about schoolyard persecution. But if you want to trot out the “heartless” argument, I have no time for you and your ignorance. I have no time for your compassionless anti-intellectualism, for your sneering blue-collar snobbery. I’m done with it. Peddle your rancid goods somewhere else.