I'll never know for sure exactly how or when I became an atheist.
On the one hand, you could say my childhood left me with little choice. My parents, recovering hippies, maintained only the most mainstream of Jewish traditions in our house. Chocolate gelt was dutifully doled out at Hanukkah. I was unceremoniously stuffed into scratchy tights for the high holiday exodus from Westchester to my grandparent's apartment in Brooklyn.
I knew which holidays meant hamantaschen and when to expect only bagels and white fish. I came to look forward to (or dread) certain Jewish food groups during their respective seasons, but the educational buck stopped there. My brief brush with religious school came as quickly as it went when my parents asked me, "Do you want to go to school on the weekend, too?" and I all but laughed in response (who wouldn't?).
On the other hand, I'm a cynic by nature. When first shown the Ten Commandments, my parents asked if I knew what was happening when Moses parted the Red Sea. "Yep," I replied, "It's an advertisement from God." My brain stumbles when trying to connect the dots between pain and some larger plan or to make sense of the concept that everything happens for a reason.
But I'm not without worship. When the first fall air blows in, the wind lifts my hair and chin to the skies, and I involuntarily inhale -- long, and deep, and slow -- drinking the newly chilled air, filling my soul with nature's intoxicating wine, notes of leaves, hints of apple. That first sip of fall brings me to my knees. And the early morning mist. The hazy hiatus between night and day when time is suspended for a few still moments, and light and air and water momentarily lose their identities and become one. I close my eyes, bask in the pregnant pause, and thank the molecules for the moment.
And yet -- there was always a nagging loneliness. Not because I felt unfulfilled, but because it was one less thing I had in common with (what seemed like) the entire world. And, as an adolescent -- hell, even as an adult -- we long for those connections. Then there was the safeness -- that limitless, logic-defying peace that seemed to carry believers through every difficulty. At times, I envied it. Instead, I made my own peace, feeling out my small place in the world, wrangling with the good and the bad on my own.
On some level, I believed atheism was hereditary. That the composition of my DNA couldn't produce anything other than me. And so, when my first daughter was born, I made a conscious effort to introduce her to religion. I wanted to make sure that whatever beliefs she formed, they were of her own making, not mine. If you earned frequent flier miles at temple, we could vacation annually in the holy land. She attended Jewish pre-school. She and I, together, learned about the high holidays -- reading her books at night was as much of an education for me as it was for her.
And so it shouldn't have shocked me when she first asked about God. (In the car, of course. How do they know to ask the heavy hitters when your brain is only at half-mast behind the wheel?! But I digress.)
Again, I envied the believers. The ones who had some semblance of an answer (even if not a fully fleshed out one -- because really, does anyone?). So I tried to leave it open, explaining that lots of people thought that God meant lots of different things. There. That should sate her.
Nope. She pressed on (as they do). But what did God mean to me? I looked out the window. I panicked. Oh god (yeah, the whole name-in-vain thing comes easy to us non-believers), this answer will matter. It will shape her. Think. Think!
I say the first thing that I see. "The trees," I answer. (Wait. I can salvage this.) "I believe God is the trees and the animals and the earth all around us. All of the amazing things that aren't just man-made." (Red alert! Was that specific enough? Sufficiently non-committal? Have I biased her for life?!)
"Okay," she replied. "Me too."
I didn't know if that was good or bad. I didn't know if it would stick. But I knew that while I would dissect this conversation seven ways to Sunday, she was already onto the next thing, telling me that so-and-so was rude to whoosy-whatsy at school -- and so I knew to move on too, and just be thankful we had both escaped the situation (relatively) unscathed.
As time has gone by, her beliefs have started taking more definite shape. She protests my stepping on bugs, because they're "God's creatures." (Somehow her child's logic, however, excuses her own feet from the same blasphemy. I just roll with it.)
She told me recently that God was an actual person in the sky. I can only assume she heard this from someone else. (Either that, or God is an actual person in the sky who comes down through her skylight at night, materializes in full, and coaxes her to show me the error of my ways).
In any case, I will continue to expose her to all schools of thought. Mine. Our rabbi's. Our extended Irish family's. Those more "religious" and those less (yes, there are plenty). I will always answer her truthfully. I will always offer that more knowledge and information will lead her to a deeper understanding of herself and, just as importantly, of others. And I will offer a silent prayer, to no one in particular, but in that way all parents do when their child's heart and mind is on the line, that whatever she comes to believe will fulfill and satisfy her on her journey. And to that, I say, Amen.
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