It may seem a paradox, but being Jewish set me on the path to atheism. Judaism taught me to question assumptions, to argue for and against differing points of view, and even to challenge voices of authority. Even a cursory look at the Talmud reveals page after page with a central theme or teaching presented by one learned person and followed by different or dissenting views by others, equally learned. Jews argue and always have.
When I was quite young—perhaps nine or ten—I began arguing with myself about the existence and nature of the god that everyone around me seemed to worship. I came to the juvenile conclusion that there was a spelling error here. It wasn’t God that that was important in the world, but Good that was meant to rule our lives.
I liked then—and still do—many aspects of my birth religion/culture/civilization: the teaching that saving even one life is more important than any ordained rule; that examining one’s thoughts and behavior (the theme of Yom Kippur) can lead to improved relationships; that asking forgiveness of anyone you may have hurt in thought or deed can improve the community; and that we are obligated to try to improve the world.
What I increasingly pushed away was the fawning prayer-book liturgy and sermons that elevated God above all else. When I read “lean not upon your own understanding,” I thought, “but my own understanding—and that of people I respect—is all I have to guide me.” The prayer books and other literature repeated beliefs from ancient times written by authors from those times, not truths dictated by a supernatural being. I have discarded this religious Judaism, but I can never shed my connection to the “peoplehood” that has shaped me and my ancestors.
When I voiced my religious disbelief to a friend, she asked, “Did something terrible happen to make you lose faith?” I told her “no,” and I realized that I had better keep my convictions to myself if I wanted to avoid unpleasant conversations. I was still a coward. Yes, terrible things happened to me (stillbirths, a heart attack, the deaths of loved ones), but I never attributed these to any god. They were just part of life. When my beloved husband died after sixty-five years of marriage, I couldn’t draw on religion for comfort, but I could—and did—draw on the comfort of friends.
When my group of about ten women friends, who meet weekly for lunch, opened their hearts to me in sympathy, we discovered that none of us were religious believers. This was a great surprise to all of us. We had hidden our convictions for years, believing that publicly acknowledging our atheism would prevent general acceptance in our community and deny us access to employment or public office. Several of us are politically active, so this was a real consideration. Others simply did not think their beliefs were anyone’s business, or they didn’t want contentious conversations.
I have since been open about my atheism. I have mentioned it some books I have written, and I no longer avoid the subject in conversation. I even talk about it with religious family members who seem to accept my idiosyncrasy.
I believe that the fear of the inevitable end of life and consciousness drives most people into a religious faith that promises eternal life or a return to earthly life in some other form, although Reform Judaism says only that people live on in the memories of others. I believe that, just as I had no life before I was born, I will have no life after I die. I am now in my nineties, and I have come to terms with this sad reality.