From Catholicism to Ayn Rand to Pirkei Avot
December 2006 | Published by Jewcy.com
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For almost a quarter of a century, I was an atheist. Only since I turned 40 this year have I become a renegade by switching from the atheist camp to the organized religion camp. I’m an uneasy believer who goes to synagogue, even though I’ve not converted. It’s a strange place to be, after having spent most of my adult life arguing that organized religion is a delusion for people who can’t handle rationality.
When I was an atheist, I had this mistaken image that religious people find God in a blinding moment of epiphany, and then walk the primrose path forever more. Well, I’ve had no epiphany. I don’t know if God is real. And my path is not strewn with primroses. It’s full of obstacles and uncertainty. I was far more tranquil in the certainty of my atheism.
I became at atheist at 16, when I discovered Ayn Rand. My Italian-Catholic family was horrified, but I thrived on being a maverick.
Besides the rebellion factor, atheism had other benefits. It was, in some circles, a litmus test for admittance into elite intellectual company, as I found out during my college years.
Among certain students and professors, it didn’t matter how one came to atheism, whether through Rand, Marx, science, or the zeitgeist of modern intellectual life. What mattered was to avoid being branded as one of those naïve religious types. That was the ultimate stigma of uncool: to admit that you went to church or synagogue and actually believed the stuff.
For most of my life I considered atheism to be a hallmark of intellectual seriousness. No matter how smart or accomplished or wise somebody was, if he or she believed in God, that was a strike, in my book.
Atheism gave me an excuse not to wrestle too hard or too long with transcendent issues, such as: What is the good life? Where does morality come from? Why does existence exist, as opposed to non-existence? Why order as opposed to chaos? Ayn Rand had worked it out, or so I believed, and whatever gaps she left, scientists would fill in.
Then I got married and had children. Eventually, they started asking questions. Is God real? If not, why do people believe in Him? Where do good and evil come from? What happens when we die?
I wasn’t sure how to answer. I couldn’t simply dust off my dog-eared copy of Atlas Shrugged and start reading passages aloud to them. So I did the sensible thing: I let my husband answer those questions. He had already moved on from his agnostic phase and was beginning to study Torah.
We had our kids converted to Judaism when they were very young. This was not a problem for me. My atheist reasoning was this: I’d been baptized. Holy water in my youth had not stopped me from becoming an atheist, and a mikveh would be no barrier to them if they chose to give up their belief when they got older. I don’t hold this viewpoint now, but it made sense to me at the time.
Eventually, my husband wanted to join a Conservative synagogue. I was willing, but nervous.
“They’re going to know I’m a shikseh the moment they find out my name,” I told him. “And then when we talk theology, they’ll kick me out when they discover I’m an atheist.”
“Don’t worry,” my husband said. “Nobody will care.”
He was right. Nobody at synagogue gave me the third degree about my religious beliefs, nor did anybody look askance when I said my name. In many ways, I found it easier to be an atheist among believers, than, I imagine, it was to be a devoutly religious person in a secular university.
Not long after we started attending synagogue, I ran into a distant relative entering her sophomore year at college. She announced that she was an atheist. She was glib about it, as if she were talking about pledging for a sorority. As an atheist, I should have felt happy that she was joining my camp.
But I wasn’t. I was taken aback. Had atheism now become a fashion statement among college students? When I was an atheist, it meant something. At least that’s what I told myself. There was a certain gravitas you had when you said it, and you had to be ready to defend your position.
But now that atheism was trickling down to the undergraduate masses, it was becoming so commonplace that they didn’t seem to feel the need to defend themselves, as we “old school” atheists did. Had any of these youngsters actually read Antony Flew, Richard Dawkins, or George Smith? Did they know about Pascal’s wager and the argument from design? No? Then they weren’t serious atheists. Or maybe nobody cared enough to challenge them.
But my reaction to this college student wasn’t really about her or her generation. It was about the fact that I was growing older and outgrowing atheism.
The great Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig was once asked whether he put on tefillin. “Not yet,” he replied. For me, those two words sum up where I find myself these days. I’ve had no direct experience with God, no extraordinary insight, no proof-beyond-a-reasonable-doubt of anything supernatural. Not yet. Still, I go to synagogue, celebrate Shabbat with my family, and read Pirkei Avot from time to time.
My kids occasionally ask me if I’m ready to convert. “Not yet,” I tell them. And it’s the best answer I can give right now.