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