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Oct 31 2011

Why I am an atheist – Dave

Because a bar mitzvah’s timing coincides with, what was at least for me, the age I began to think.

Born in Antwerp, Belgium in 1968 to a fairly liberal Jewish family I accepted God’s reality, not out of fear like many, but because my parents gave me no reason not to trust them. I attended a Jewish school and learned all the nice parts of the Torah.

At my ten year mark, my recently divorced mother took me to live in Liverpool, England where she’s found love in a new husband. This is when she started getting more serious about her faith. I attended a new Jewish school and regular services at an orthodox synagogue. Jewish studies, like math, and yes, even biology was more tiresome than anything else; I was more interested in playing with Lego and Action Man.

For my twelfth birthday I got a year’s worth of bar mitzvah lessons. I had to go over to a local rabbi’s kitchen once a week to practice singing the Torah passage that I’d be reciting a year later when I officially became a man. Months go by and I see some of my friends go through their ceremonies. I’m paying more attention than ever before because I’m nervous. I’m not looking forward to having to perform in front of a crowd, and I hadn’t discovered the courage found in booze yet. I began noticing that the congregation wasn’t filled with worshippers, but rather with braggarts, opportunists and xenophobes disguised as worshippers. The women on the separate, upper balcony were always wearing new outfits with matching hats and purses and very few of them paid any attention to the service. The men, between seemingly sincere head bobbing prayerful moments talked about their businesses, their cars, and how awful those damn ‘Muslims’, ‘Christians’ or whoever the villains of the day in the Jewish press were. I notice also that the boys who were turning thirteen before me weren’t changing. They weren’t becoming more mature, more responsible?

Meanwhile, every Wednesday, over at the rabbi’s house I sat and read and re-read the same passage with him over and over while his well meaning wife fussed over me with stale biscuits and weak, cold tea. It was during these sessions that I began to actually think about all this, to look up at the empty sky and ask questions.

How would reading a passage I hardly understood transform me into a man?

Who was this God that I’d been told so much about, and why did he no longer perform these miracles he was so famous for?

How are the people that hang out at the synagogue on Saturdays better than anyone else?

That was the clincher.

So I’m told not to trust the kids that moved down the street because they’re Arabs, or not to speak to those kids on the other side of the beach when I was on vacation because they’re Germans.

Apparently I belong to the ‘chosen people.’

It made no sense.

It took just a few weeks of internal turmoil before I accepted that my parents and all who came before were basically well meaning but deluded and poisoned.
I kept my new found atheism mostly to myself at first, only casually bringing up the conversation with friends to test the waters. I came out to my mother in my late teens and got pretty much the same reaction that my gay friends got from their parents. “It’s s phase, you’ll get over it.”

I didn’t become militant about it until I left high school, but that was when I’d landed in Texas for University so it felt a lot like pissing up-wind but that was ok, the girls loved my accent. For most of my 20s and part of my 30s I’ve felt that the opportunity for a global awakening and a better society through the unshackling of the religious mind via the spread of scepticism leading to atheism was too fleeting to ponder as there just weren’t enough people making an impact. Until recently I had little hope.

Now I’m ever so grateful because along came the internet, yourself, the four horsemen and this growing movement. I’m not expecting Americans or Afghans to tear down all their churches or mosques quite yet, but I have hope. I’m connecting with friends from high school who tell me they’ve recently dropped their Judaism. These would be the people who thought I was just being rebellious as a teenager.

Thanks you for being part of something great PZ, please keep chipping away at the bastards.


Dave
Canada

Oh … and ok, I admit, I think biology is pretty fucking cool after all.

38 comments

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  1. 1
    Markle

    Math is pretty fucking cool too :)

  2. 2
    Glen Davidson

    It’s all made up, folks. Move along, there’s nothing to see.

    Glen Davidson

  3. 3
    Hazuki

    Nice, Dave! This may be the best one yet :) Always good to hear from a religion other than Christian, too. I’ve got some orthodox Jews in the family (and just attended a cousin’s Bar Mitzvah this summer…) and can basically confirm what you were saying about the crowd.

  4. 4
    Peptron

    What do you mean Jews are the chosen people? Wasn’t it the Catholics? I’m going to call the Vatican to inform them of this inconsistency. We have the logical proof that at least one of them is mistaken. They will take light of this new information and dogma will get changed, I’m sure of it.

  5. 5
    Dave

    Did I really just get published on Halloween?
    That’s made my day, thanks PZ.

    I’d like my two sons and I to dress up as Mohammed, Jesus and Moses for trick or treating tonight. Inspired by Hitchens, we’d call ourselves “The Real Axis of Evil.”

    Unfortunately their hears are set on being ninjas, so it’ll have to wait another year.

    Happy Halloween everyone.

  6. 6
    Marius Rowell

    This sounds a lot like my Catholic upbringing version, except I spent my formative years at a convent boarding school – where I learned that nuns are no closer to the big man than the rice puddings were. Their only concern appeared to be beating ‘the love of god’ into us all!

    Going from there to a C of E boarding school and learning about evolution in biology classes certainly sounded the death knell for any religious beliefs I maintained, although the degree of hypocracy I saw in church-goers of all sects helped me realise that religion was not the answer. The final straw for me was listening to the school chaplain trying to ‘prove’ that god exists because he went to seminary for 7 years – huh!

    Good to learn that other religions’ explanations are just as dumb as Christianity’s. I still think biology is cool, though I prefer math myself :)

  7. 7
    Hyman Rosen

    Meh. It’s like saying soccer is a bad sport because a lot of fans are hooligans. I don’t think attendees at religious services are collectively better or worse than people in general. It’s also not all that damning that people use religious services as social occasions where they get to dress up and schmooze. Many Orthodox Jews attend synagogue services twice a day, morning and evening, every single day, so it’s also not surprising that many look like they’re just going through the motions – they’re doing something that habit and practice has honed over time. That doesn’t mean they’re insincere about what they’re doing.

    The point of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony isn’t that the celebrant is now actually an adult, it’s that he or she now assumes personal responsibility for religious obligations from his or her parents. In fact the parents often recite a blessing, “Blessed is the one who has relieved me of the consequences of this one.”

    I’ve never really cared for the “I am an atheist because religious people are annoying” argument. That may be a good way to be led into rethinking one’s assumptions and upbringing, but ultimately atheism ought to be based on a proper understanding of how the universe works. Otherwise, it sounds like whinging from someone who doesn’t have the maturity to understand that people aren’t perfect.

  8. 8
    DaveG

    Dave,

    I was raised a Unitarian Universalist and, thinking I had to label myself, decided I was Christian, albeit on the fringe. I became aware of how twisted and smarmy Catholics can be and vaguely realized that terrorists were Muslims. Looking around for a group of nice people, I decided that Jews rose above everyone else. After all, as far as I knew, they didn’t go looking for trouble. Now you’ve wrecked my illusion!

  9. 9
    Markle

    The point of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony isn’t that the celebrant is now actually an adult, it’s that he or she now assumes personal responsibility for religious obligations from his or her parents.

    No, the point of a bar mitzvah is an excuse to have an extra-big birthday party and get even more gifts than usual.

  10. 10
    Dave

    DaveG, sorry to let you down.
    I think that apart from what’s going on in Israel/Palestine Jews aren’t really in a position to look for trouble.
    That aside, there are some things I like about Judaism, principally it’s that Jews don’t recruit, in fact they make it difficult for anyone wanting to join. Also, they encourage drinking on certain occasions, especially for Purim. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purim

    Hyman, my little spiel above was, as you mentioned, just what got me to reconsider my upbringing.
    You’re right, my world view would be pretty shaky if it was solely based on what I didn’t want to be associated with.

  11. 11
    Sid Schwab

    Now that you mention it, I think it was the idea of “the chosen people” that first made me question religion, too. I found it embarrassing for some reason. And once you start down the path of questioning, it all falls away pretty thoroughly, and not just Judaism: the whole idea of an all-knowing all-loving all-powerful god becomes ridiculous on its face when one looks squarely at the world as it is.

    And, to a kid, the question “if god made the world, who made god” is a pretty powerful one. As it should be to everyone. I began to figure if religious people could accept the idea of the existence of something as complex as god, without having been created, then why not the existence of the universe without creation?

    But really, I think it all began with the idea of chosen people and how self-congratulatory and elitist it sounded. Thanks for reminding me.

  12. 12
    Echidna

    Hyman,
    Ultimately, atheism is built on a lack of belief in gods. It is not necessary to understand quantum mechanics..

  13. 13
    tonylloyd

    Hi Dave

    “At my ten year mark, my recently divorced mother took me to live in Liverpool”

    Did you end up Blue or Red?

    Before we mess around with atheism, faith, reason and whatever we need to sort out the important stuff.

  14. 14
    Michael Sarles

    I’ve always been curious about atheists’ view on the source of the Universe’s matter and energy and the magnificently intricate rules that dictate their interaction. It’s always been? It just “is”? It surpasses understanding? An accident? The fact that the Universe exists as well as the course of its evolution during these past 13.7 billion years leads us to three conclusions: 1. The Universe was created by an intelligent, supernatural Supreme Being; 2. Whether or not an intelligent, supernatural Supreme Being created the Universe is irrelevant to life as we know it (us); and, conversely, 3. Life as we know it is irrelevant to everything but ourselves. Since we and the nature of creation are mutually irrelevant, all these “deep thoughts” about it all (such as why I’m a atheist) are so much puffery, just as the scribblings here are. All I can say for us all is that it’s better than sitting on the sofa and watching “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” on TV. Moreover, it’s monumentally arrogant to think that anyone else cares a jot whether or not you’re an atheist, just as it’s arrogant for me to think that anyone else cares that I think the nature of creation is meaningless. I’m one of you. The difference is that I’m right and you’re wrong. Of course, that’s meaningless too.

  15. 15
    Dave

    Tony, if you’re asking I’m going to assume you must be on the blue side, as only blue supporters are aware that blue exists. If that is the case I respectfully demand that you get out of my thread. haha

    No, to be honest, I’m not big on watching other people play sports, but when I do, and when it happens to be football, then I root for the best team in the world, Liverpool Football Club.

  16. 16
    myeck waters

    Michael Sarles #14, I think you tried to say too many things at once, and as a result none of your points are clear. If you have something to say please stick to, oh, one idea per paragraph.

  17. 17
    Dave

    Michael, the ‘why is there something rather than nothing’ question isn’t really relevant to why atheists need to speak out.
    The global status quo is poisoned by various religious beliefs and to combat those beliefs and the grip they have on humanity and this planet has to involve a dismantling of those religious beliefs and the vital institutions they infiltrate and even control. (schools, governments for example)

    This stuff isn’t meaningless.

    The philosophical ‘deism vs. atheism’ is something that, in my mind anyway, isn’t as pressing.

  18. 18
    Thomas Lawson

    That was a great entry, Dave.

    -

    My only experience with church was when my wife and I wanted to get married in a really nice-looking Anglican building. We had to attend three services before we were allowed. At the first mandatory service, my wife and I quietly slipped in and took a seat in the pew at the very back. When the Rev. really started to get into his sermon, a person in the next row up took out a magazine. Another person in our row started to clip their fingernails. I felt bad for the Rev. And I suddenly wished hell existed so that those two idiots could go there.

  19. 19
    Dave

    ‘Killer Klowns from Outer Space’ sounds like a double thumbs up to me.

  20. 20
    Glen Davidson

    Moreover, it’s monumentally arrogant to think that anyone else cares a jot whether or not you’re an atheist

    Apart from the many people who care a great deal whether or not you’re an atheist, yes. Many of us would hardly care, were it not for those who insist that it is wrong, morally and otherwise.

    Or is such evidence as irrelevant to you as the rest of your maunderings are to the rest of us?

    Glen Davidson

  21. 21
    Dhorvath, OM

    Michael Sarles,
    Your first conclusion does not follow from you assertions.

  22. 22
    Hazuki

    @Mike S

    Interesting idea, but I don’t see how you can back up the “stuff, therefore God” argument. It isn’t falsifiable, but it also isn’t provable.

    It’s true that “In the beginning there was nothing; it exploded” isn’t satisfying, but it’s at least internally simpler than “For umpteen millionty years there was an intelligent, complex, all-powerful, all-knowing, omnibenevolent mind that did precisely dick except admire itself. Then it made stuff. Like ebola and smallpox and the Ice Capades. Because it loves you. And if you don’t act juuuust right it’ll torture you forever. Because it loves you.”

  23. 23
    raven

    I’ve never really cared for the “I am an atheist because religious people are annoying” argument.

    Well, they often are. If that was all it took to be an atheist, there would be a small group of socially dysfunctional religious kooks, a lot of atheists, and that would be it.

    The atrocious and occasionally horrifying behavior of religionists is usually just the start. It calls the central claims of religion into question especially that “all morality comes from god” fallacy.

    For me, subsequently reading the bible was the death knell. Obvious fiction and ancient mythology and it hasn’t aged well.

    I’m not supposed to covet my neighbor’s donkey. My neighbors don’t have donkeys. A huge number of Americans have never even actually seen a real, live donkey. I’m supposed to stone disobedient children and false prophets to death while not wearing jewelry, mixed fiber clothing, or eating shellfish or pork. At some point it just collapses from silliness.

  24. 24
    raven

    Michael:

    Moreover, it’s monumentally arrogant to think that anyone else cares a jot whether or not you’re an atheist, just as it’s arrogant for me to think that anyone else cares that I think

    Well that is stupid. It’s also monumentally factually wrong.

    Eight US states have constitutional prohibitions against atheists holding public office and/or serving on juries.

    Recent polls show that atheists are one of the most hated groups in the USA. (The other 3 are Moslems, fundie xians, and the Tea Party).

    An atheist can’t be elected dogcatcher in the USA much less any other public office.

    In much of the USA, atheists face discrimination or violence if the fundie kooks think they can get away with it and no one is looking. Even though I live in an area with more New Agers than fundies, I don’t have a Darwin fish on my car. Fundies will steal them if they can and they usually make sure to scratch the paint as much as possible. The cops have even caught them doing it.

  25. 25
    raven

    And oh yeah, Michael, atheists and scientists are fequently threatened with death.

    On a good day, PZ Myers can get one.hundred.death.threats.in.a. day.

    We know what the fundies think of us. They tell us often. They want to kill us.

  26. 26
    Crudely Wrott

    @ 14 who said,

    Moreover, it’s monumentally arrogant to think that anyone else cares a jot whether or not you’re an atheist, just as it’s arrogant for me to think that anyone else cares that I think.

    Some of us who care are those who have invested the greater part of our lives purposely, diligently and earnestly investigating the nature of belief, its impact on individuals and societies and the evidence that attends to both belief and non belief.

    It can be an exhausting task demanding time, effort and the kind of inward self-honesty and intellectual consistency that is seldom seen exhibited by those who simply accept a prepackaged assertion based on ancient tomes and wishful thinking.

    Do you actually think that no one gives a shit about what you think? I am one . . . and I am not alone. Look around and pay attention. In case you haven’t noticed, we are all in this together.

  27. 27
    Dave

    It’d be handy if blogs had a ‘like’ button.

  28. 28
    Dave

    … or rather, if this blog’s comment section had a like button.

  29. 29
    mikee

    @Michael #14

    “Moreover, it’s monumentally arrogant to think that anyone else cares a jot whether or not you’re an atheist”

    Actually this is the monumentally arrogant statement. You assume because you are not interested then other people aren’t either. However the number of positive posts contradicts your rather arrogant presumption that no one is interested.

    And for heavens sakes (pun intended) these are being published on a website where atheists visit and exchange ideas. They are not being put, unwanted, through your mailbox; atheists are not knocking at your door and telling this to you – you are actively opening a blog entry entitled “Why I am an atheist” – if you are not interested then don’t come here.

    Honestly, your arrogance astounds me

  30. 30
    mikee

    @Dave

    I’d much rather have an “eliminate godbot” button

    …..target acquired…..

    ….high energy pulse engaged……

    …..ZZZZTTTTTTTTT….Aargghhh

    :-)

  31. 31
    mikee

    @Hyman Rosen #7

    “Meh. It’s like saying soccer is a bad sport because a lot of fans are hooligans.”

    Only if soccer were played with an imaginary ball and imaginary goal posts

    i.e. you would have a lot of people running around looking rather stupid.

    A rather appropriate description of some religions if you ask me.

  32. 32
    myeck waters

    Well, imaginary goal posts are a necessity if you’re going to be moving them a lot.

  33. 33
    pelamun

    yeah, I don’t see the problem Hyman seems to have. You need some kind of reason to start questioning religion. If it’s the questionable behaviour of your fellow religionists makes you think about the issue more, why not?

  34. 34
    A3Kr0n

    This isn’t Michael’s page, it’s Dave’s. Well done Dave! I related to several things you said. Different time, different country, different religion, but still I’ve had the same experiences.
    Also, I didn’t have an Action Man. Major Matt Mason was my cool hero!

  35. 35
    Rev. BigDumbChimp

    Unfortunately their hears are set on being ninjas, so it’ll have to wait another year.

    Ninjas are way cooler

  36. 36
    Josh

    DaveG, you were “a Christian, albeit on the fridge”? Who chased you up there? How did you get down?

    Oh . . . never mind.

  37. 37
    mikee

    @myeck waters #32

    “Well, imaginary goal posts are a necessity if you’re going to be moving them a lot.”

    Oh well done, I hadn’t thought of that :-)

  38. 38
    Dave

    A3Kr0n, seems Major Matt Mason might have had better toys than Action Man ever did.
    In this age when kids only seem interested in toys that have screens, I think my boys who are eight and eleven would probably enjoy playing with M.M.M.
    This has me reminiscing about old toys.

    I think santa might bring us all a scalextrics set this year. http://www.scalextric.com/

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