From Atheism to Judaism and Beyond - My Journey
Children look to their parents for spiritual guidance and when the parent raises a child to be an atheist, the child can be left to fend for themselves in a predominantly religious world. Read one woman's journey of having been raised an atheist and see how she came to gain insights and understanding into religion
Gazing out my living room window one April morning, I became confused by the sight of the many families, couples and individuals parading down the sidewalks outside my two-family home. The men were wearing yarmulkes and dressed in suits while the women were wearing fancy dresses and skirts. I was only 8 years old and I wondered where they were going and why. My Mother explained that they were going to temple. I didn’t know what a temple was or understand why all of these people were going and I wasn’t.
You see, I was raised a non-religious, atheist Jew in a Jewish neighborhood in New York City and growing up, I never seemed to fit in. I couldn’t hang out with my Jewish friends and relate to the Jewish experience, I couldn’t hang out with non-Jewish friends and relate to their's either. I was a misfit of sorts.
I must have been around the age of 9 when my Mother pulled asked me if I believed in God. Honestly, I didn’t know what the concept of God was, but she told me that she and my Father didn’t believe and this was said without further explanation. I figured I was obliged to agree, what else did I have to go on? I had no reason to think otherwise. There wasn’t much chance of my atheist mother taking me to temple on the high holy days not to mention observing the Sabbath, so that I could see for myself what religion was about. There are no atheist clubs for kids either, so I mostly kept this odd non-belief to myself. I think this created a level of confusion and self-doubt for me, why was I the odd one out? I felt especially left out when annual holidays rolled around.
What does an atheist do when everyone else is sharing Christmas dinner with family and friends?
Christmas Eve for many Jews involves going out for Chinese food and then to a movie before coming home to watch the only thing on television that night, which was the yule log; these are my Christmas memories. I always felt like I was the only one not invited to the party. When my Jewish friends were busy clearing out their homes of any traces of bread in preparation for Passover, my brothers and I were busy trying to beat each others best time playing Superman Atari. I always wondered what people did at church and at temple and why they were always going there.
My best friend was Orthodox Greek and she would bring home pastel nut covered candies after attending Easter service at her Church. The candies came from a place that I would never know. She told me a little about Jesus and how important he was. One time she let me taste the nut candy and I felt like I was breaking the atheist law and befriending the enemy. I was obliged to be a member of my parent’s non atheist club. I was forced to join but the club never had any fun.
Just at the time that I started college, I got into a discussion with a fellow student about observing an upcoming religious holiday, after I told her that I didn’t observe the holiday she abruptly asked me if I believed in god, and I told her “no,” she looked shocked and confused. She asked me how this could be and frankly I had no answer. I didn’t know who God was; he was never introduced to me as a concept or something that would have value in my life. But the expression of shock on my friend’s face has stayed with me.
It was also during these college years, through my study of art, that I first came to learn who the Virgin Mary was, who Jesus was and began to grasp some understanding of Christianity. It was frustrating when in my first art history class of 14th century European art, it was assumed that I knew all of the disciples and other religious figures. I failed to follow my professor’s description of art work because I had no religious background. I had to do my own Christianity crash course to keep up with the class. There was a sense of relief after this because I was no longer in the dark about some aspects of religion, I felt less left out. I went on to discover more and more about the tenets of Judaism, Buddhism and of Christianity.
But there are many religious concepts that I still fail to grasp. No matter how many times my Catholic husband tries to explain the concept of sinning I still find it confusing. I don’t understand why a person has to be forgiven by another entity for something that he has done and why there is such a great emphasis on this. This idea insists that humans are born sinners and need to feel shame.
~religion's inherent dangers~
I think that Jesus was a wise man and shared great wisdom. I embrace the Buddhist concept of acknowledging change in life as a given. I have come to learn that all religions have great lessons to teach, but it seems that religion also carries with it a great many dark clouds. Religion creates division and gives its members grounds for differences, anger, prejudice and hostility. What begins with good intentions gets twisted into a game of teams, with an 'us against them' attitude. In the book “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, author Christopher Hitchens states:
Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.
It seems that the beneficial teachings of religion are more often outweighed by their negative effects.
~explanations and wisdom~
More recently, my Father explained to me that the reason he rejected Judaism and God was because at the time, just after his Bar Mitzvah, he learned of the atrocities that were the holocaust. He felt there could be no God that would allow a holocaust or any other similar man made atrocity to occur. I have mixed feelings about my largely uninformed upbringing though. I feel on the one hand that living most of my life without being taught anything to do with God or religion has allowed me to look at religion and life with an unbiased eye and to see them more objectively. On the other hand, I feel that even atheist parents have an obligation to inform their children of the cultural and historical nature of religions; both their own and of others.
As a parent, I have taught my children a great deal about their respective religions, as my husband is Irish Catholic and I am of Jewish heritage, I believe that knowledge is power and arming children with as much exposure and information about the world and their cultural background creates aware and informed human beings that can maybe one day live on this planet in peace.
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© 2012 Leah Limor