In Defense of Atheism (September 2003)

If I were asked to identify my religion, I would reply that I am a Jewish atheist. While this may seem to be a contradiction in terms, it makes perfect sense to me. My family is Jewish, and to ignore this fact would be to disavow my heritage and ancestry, along with a good share of my personal values. Yet I am an atheist, because I have never believed in the existence of a god. Granted, I went to Sunday School and celebrated my bat mitzvah, but then I decided not to attend confirmation class or any more Shabbat services. I realized that the prayers I had muttered automatically on Friday nights held no meaning for me. Religion had been a sort of mechanical reflex that I simulated because it was comfortable and familiar. Once I recognized that I did not find any meaning in the prayers or the chants of the Jewish faith, I could not continue to be a practicing Jew without feeling dishonest.

Even though I do not accept the beliefs of Judaism, I will always be Jewish. My religious background is an indelible component of my identity. That is why, on the few occasions when people have made anti-Semitic remarks to me, their slurs have stung acutely. I have now learned to appreciate my Jewish heritage for the unique perspective it lends me. Although I do not believe in the religious tenets of Judaism, the secular Jewish values have unquestionably flavored my personality. If I had been born into a Christian or Muslim or Buddhist family, I would have grown up to be a very different person than I am today. Not better or worse, but different. Being culturally Jewish is something entirely separate from believing in Judaism–something that will always be a part of me, like the color of my eyes or the timbre of my voice.

In short, I still feel a powerful connection with Jewish history and the Jewish community, despite the fact that most devout Jews would probably refute my claim to the label of “Jewish.” I have not entered a synagogue in years, and I have had very few Jewish friends or classmates over the course of my life. All the schools I have attended have been predominantly or officially Christian: in elementary school, my uniform actually included a little badge embroidered with a red Cross of St. Michael. I did not mind wearing the cross, because it allowed me to fit in with my peers. Actually, what bothered me was having to remain seated during the morning chapel services, according to my parents’ wishes, while everyone else kneeled. At that tender age, I simply wanted to be like all the other kids.

At my high school outside of Philadelphia, I was one of just a handful of Jewish students. My parents wanted me to go to another private school in my area that had a larger Jewish population, but I insisted on enrolling at the Agnes Irwin School. I was adamant on this point because I was accustomed to having Christian friends and peers, and I never regretted my decision. If every Jewish girl in my neighborhood chose to go to the “Jewish” school, and every Christian girl attended the “Christian” school, then our suburban community would become self-segregated and narrow-minded. It is imperative that students of all different backgrounds intermingle and learn from each other, thus helping to prevent prejudice from taking root in their young, impressionable minds.

The majority of my friends at Rice are agnostics, raised in the Southern Baptist Church but too smart and intellectually curious to mindlessly accept as truth the propaganda they were fed there. At some point, they all came to realize that people of other faiths or sexual orientations do not, in fact, deserve to go to hell. My friends and I have engaged in many an animated late-night conversation on the topic of religion, and we have shared countless laughs over the Landover Baptist website (a parody of the type of church to which my friends once belonged). My experiences and relationships at Rice have allowed me to flesh out my thoughts on religion with a more nuanced understanding of the world and of myself.

Furthermore, I now have enough confidence in my religious convictions–or lack thereof–to publicly defend them. No longer am I a timid little first-grader, sporting the red cross and anxious to conform. This past February, a guest column entitled “Recent woes do not discredit all religions” appeared in the Rice University newspaper. The author, attempting to defend the Catholic faith, had the audacity to downplay such tragic historical events as the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades. She went on to blame the deaths that occurred in the U.S.S.R. on Communists’ lack of religion as opposed to their faulty political practices. Finally, adding insult to injury, she claimed that “Christianity led to the great majority of humanitarian causes.” Her assertions were not only untrue and unsubstantiated but also extremely offensive, and I wrote a letter to the editor saying as much.

In the following weeks, I was commended by dozens of my peers for taking the guest columnist to task. By implying that all atheists are hard-hearted, amoral, and even murderous, this writer had outraged not only the atheist students but many religious ones as well. My rebuttal caught the attention of the host of “What’s Your Point,” a talk show that airs on Rice Broadcast Television. The host invited me to appear on her show to discuss Christianity on campus (particularly the points I made in my letter to the editor) with three other student panelists. Two of these students were staunchly Christian, and the third was a Conservative Jew. While my fellow panelists squabbled over various interpretations of the bible, I managed to successfully propose a defense of atheism and argue the impropriety of proselytizing on campus.

Not everyone is readily accepting of my atheist views. My grandmother frequently assures me that as soon as I have a child, I will gaze at the tiny, perfectly formed human being in my arms and exclaim, “This is a miracle. There must be a God!” But I am certain that I will have no such reaction. The birth and development of a human being is indeed amazing, but it must be accredited to the wonders of nature, not the powers of God. There is a scientific raison d’etre for every aspect of this universe, from babies and galaxies to languages and the feeling of love. People may find it difficult to wrap their minds around such awesome concepts, but that is no reason to deny the legitimacy of rational explanations.

I am very privileged to have been born to parents who, unlike my grandmother, are supportive and understanding of my ideas on religion. Part of their tolerance can be attributed to the fact that neither of them has chosen to be an actively practicing Jew. But in my estimation, their intelligence is an equally important factor. I associate piety with close-mindedness, self-importance, a lack of intellectual inquisitiveness, and a certain amount of cowardice. Many people are afraid to admit that we do not have any special purpose on this Earth, and therefore they delude themselves into believing that a god created the human race to fulfill his mission. They disregard scientific evidence of evolution and abandon any inclination they might have had to “question the answers.” For the life of me, I cannot comprehend how any well-educated person can blindly believe in God. Fortunately, my mother and father were among those parents who are enlightened enough to refrain from imposing religion on their children.

I have been taught that it is impolite to bring up my opinions on religion, for fear of offending other people. This impulse to be tactful and courteous often compels me to keep quiet when my classmates are espousing their belief in God. But then I ask myself why I go to such lengths to resist attacking their views when they are attacking mine. Why is it that I must be respectful of their values when they claim that people with my values will be eternally damned? We are told that religion is not an appropriate topic of conversation, that we should not make an issue out of it, but how can we not fight back when violations of the separation of church and state are overt and omnipresent? I have the right to be offended when every coin I use declares “In God We Trust.” I have the right to be disturbed that almost every person who testifies in court is forced to swear, “So help me God.” Those who advocate silent prayer in school argue that the children can pray to the god of their choice, but what if those children do not wish to pray to any god at all? Although we Americans consider ourselves to be the most free-thinking citizens of any nation in the world, it is clear that we have a long way to go before freedom of religion (including the freedom to refuse religion) is fully granted.

Happily, it seems to me that more and more Americans of my generation are privately rejecting religion and releasing their minds from its shackles. The next step is to channel our potential as a political force and as a voting bloc. Many of today’s politicians are infecting our government with religious drivel and drowning out the voices of all who oppose them; perhaps we would be able to make ourselves heard if we spoke out in unison. It is time for Americans to recognize that the idea of a society stunted by ignorance and self-delusion is much more frightening than the acknowledgment that there is no god watching over us.

Freedom From Religion Foundation