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.
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