by David Weinshilboum
I don’t believe in God. I just don’t.
I’m not coming to your door to proselytize. I am not saying that my belief is any better than yours. Goodness knows I’m not going to file a lawsuit to redact the term “God” from the Pledge of Allegiance or currency. I’m just letting you know what I think.
When I was younger, I had no qualms about revealing my atheism to others. A few times, I received raised eyebrows. Once I got a loud retort of “REALLY!!?” — a response two parts exclamation and one part query. My favorite response was, “Not even agnostic?” I had to acknowledge that, no, I wasn’t even hedging my bets.
Regardless of what was said, virtually all of the responses I received carried the following subtext: You are different.
I get that. I am different. Unlike 92 percent of Americans, I don’t pray. Hell is nothing more than a metaphor — a metaphor that usually means I have a late-afternoon meeting with administrators. My Sunday mornings are wide open. What happens after death doesn’t influence my worldly decisions.
These differences are significant. Polls in recent years have shown that the average American doesn’t trust atheists and don’t want one as president. Aware of these facts, I’ve played my godlessness close to the vest in recent years.
But really, why should I? I’m not all that different from my spiritual counterparts.
My lack of belief is rooted in my youth. My mother was a devout atheist. She arrived in America from China at the age of 16. The people with whom she lived performed a fire-and-brimstone hard-sell of religion on her. My mother rejected it. Big time.
My father, always the pragmatist, viewed his Judaism as his heritage as much as a religion. Put it this way: While I grew up, the only things kosher in our fridge were hot dogs because they simply tasted better than their non-kosher counterparts.
Per my father, I attended temple. My skeptic ways — learned from both parents — infiltrated my Sunday-school experiences. When a rather conservative instructor at the synagogue informed my 11-year-old self that Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer were dangerous symbols of a Christian-dominated society, I demurred.
I will never forget when the instructor barked, “There’s no way to avoid these evil symbols of Christianity. They’re on television. They’re in the malls!”
My response: “Why not shop less and turn off the TV?”
The actions and words of the more conservative Jews in the synagogue seemed to stick with me the longest. In fact, according to Jewish Orthodoxy, my non-Jewish mother precluded me from being a “true Jew.” Needless to say, this highly starched brand of religion wasn’t terribly appealing to me.
But here’s the thing — just because I don’t believe in god doesn’t mean I’m a soulless heathen who does whatever he wants. You’re mistaking me for Charlie Sheen. And some people do mistake me for Charlie — if a conversation I had not too long ago is any indication.
The man was highly educated, on his way to a doctoral degree. Our discussion was lighthearted. The talk shifted to our pasts. I happened to mention that my mother was an atheist and my father was Jewish — more in terms of heritage than religion. After a few minutes of banter, this man looked at me in all seriousness and said, “So what was it like to grow up in a household devoid of morals?”
I did a double-take. I searched his face, seeking out some hint that his words were a ruse.
The man was not joking.
“Whoa, whoa whoa,” I said. “Devoid of morals?!” (Two parts exclamation, one part query.) I informed him that godlessness did not mean rudderless or without morals, that my parents raised me properly, thank you very much. He backtracked. I seethed.
I only hope that this man’s Philistine thinking is not representative of the larger populace. My parents’ upbringing should in no way be challenged. My father believes. My mother doesn’t. And guess what? They were both fantastic parents who raised me well. They believed — and continue to believe — in the importance of family. They believe that — hell or no hell — you should conduct yourself honorably, without unduly hurting or marginalizing others. The ethical system that I learned is just as valid as morality that might stem from Christ, Vishnu, Allah or any other god.
Even as one who is without god, I still hold myself to high expectations. When I shave, I look in the mirror and see if I can live with the face staring back at me. Some days that face is easier to live with than others. Some days I wish that I had treated my friends and family better; other days I wish I had handled a tough situation at work with more grace.
You see, I might be without god, but I remain full of belief — belief in my friends to help me become a better person, belief in my family to accept me even in my most human of moments — and belief in society to view my atheism as but a mere fraction of who I am.
David Weinshilboum, who might redefine his atheism as “extreme Unitarianism,” can be contacted at email@example.com.