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My Atheism—An Interim Report

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By William Deresiewicz

June 24, 2012


There was surely no more fiery an unbeliever than my own teenage self, after I had broken from the Orthodox Judaism in which I had been raised. It happened pretty quickly, the year I turned 15. The catalyst was Civilization and its Discontents, which I discovered in the library of my yeshiva high school. (The fact that Freud was a Member of the Tribe was apparently enough to warrant the book’s inclusion, without anyone inquiring too closely into its contents.) I toted it around for a few days, gulping it down between classes. I felt like I was hiding a weapon in plain sight. Of course, it made me realize, of course it’s all absurd. How could I have ever imagined otherwise?

Oh, I gave it to them, those believers, after that. Got myself thrown out of school by the end of the year. (The last straw: I made fun of another boy for wearing tzitziss during gym, which is akin to ridiculing someone for carrying a rosary at a school called St. Cecilia’s.) “God?” I remember saying to a Catholic friend in college. “God can go to Hell!” In my late 20s, as a graduate instructor, I’d insinuate my unbelief into the classroom, along with the principles of English composition. If I can win one away from the pale Galilean, I thought, then that’ll be a bonus.

But gradually, at first unwillingly, over the last 10 years or so, something began to change. Not my atheism—that isn’t going to change. To paraphrase Marilynne Robinson (leave it to a believer to find the perfect way of putting it), I’m a categorical atheist. Says a character in Gilead, “I don’t even believe God doesn’t exist.” God, in other words, is a meaningless concept. But my feelings about religion—those have begun to change. Once I became a professor and began to try to articulate the purpose of a college education, and of studying the humanities in particular, I found myself being forced to use words like soul and salvation. That simply was the best available vocabulary. Of course, I didn’t mean those terms the way religious people usually do. But I came to embrace them, and not only because of the rhetorical leverage they provide. I started to appreciate the kinship between my approach to the world and that of religion in some of its forms. If I’d been born in a different age, I realized, I would have been a preacher. I would’ve gone around to people asking, “Is it well with you, my brother?”

Speaking to a student once—a religious young man as well as a vividly serious one—I said, “You and I understand what a lot of the people around here don’t, that books are temples of the spirit.” I meant the human spirit, he undoubtedly heard me as meaning the spirit of God, but we were taking different routes, I knew, to the same destination.

I no longer divide the world between believers and nonbelievers. I divide it between fundamentalists of both kinds and (for lack of a better word) liberals of both kinds. Liberal Catholics, Reconstructionist Jews, various kinds of mainline Protestants: people who understand religion the way that I understand art, as a source of spiritual wisdom and moral guidance, not literal truths about the physical world. The content of my atheism hasn’t changed. What’s changed—what continues to change—is the way that I live it.

William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.


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