atheism

New York, Day 4

Strawberry Fields in Central Park, Central Synagogue

Today I visited Strawberry Hills in Central Park, based on a friend’s recommendation. At first I wasn’t sure what visiting a site dedicated to the memory of John Lennon had to do with the theme of my work, but upon arriving and seeing the Imagine mosaic on the ground, I realized there might be something to it after all. There were lots of people there. I walked around for a bit and then I noticed two women placing flowers on the mosaic. There was a singer, too, and when he sang Imagine, the idea of imagining a world without religion really struck me. So I decided to ask a few people if they could imagine a world without religion. You can see what they said in the video.

 

You may say I'm a dreamer...

You may say I’m a dreamer…

Now, I realize “Imagine” is not an anti-religion song. I like that song as much as the next person and I’m actually a bit of a Lennon fan myself. I also truly respect the opinions of those who feel that a world without religion would be a better place. So many people have been hurt and discouraged by their religious communities, and we all know that most –if not all religions- have been guilty of countless atrocities throughout history. Surely we could all do without that. But, I wonder what else we would miss in a world without religion. I would miss the community, the beauty, the art, the notion of charity and lovingkindness, the sense of wonderment, tradition, so many good things. I know all of these things can exist without religion. But, it seems to me that religion has done a pretty good job of preserving and fostering these things through the ages.

If you do a Google search for “imagine no religion,” you will find a great deal of hits for atheistic slogans, conferences and memes. John Lennon’s famous song actually says, “Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do, nothing to kill or die for and no religion, too.” While “imagine no religion,” is not a direct quote from the song, one would be hard-pressed not to make the connection. A black and white reading of these words might suggest that a solution to the world’s problems would be to eliminate religion altogether. I can sympathize with those who feel that way. A few years back I too read Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion,” Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith,” and Christopher Hitchens’ “Religion Poisons Everything.” I didn’t just read them, I devoured them.

But back to the song… I’m beginning to wonder whether “imagine no religion” might be taken out of context by activist atheists, the same way Leviticus 20:13 is taken out of context by fundamentalist Christians. Yes, over the ages people have killed and died in the name of religion. But they’ve also killed and died in the name of freedom, in the name of nationalism, in the name of any manner of ideologies. I also wonder whether it’s fair to use John Lennon, or even his words, as an anti-religious or atheistic messenger. After all, he’s also meant to have said, “I believe in God, but not as one thing, not as an old man in the sky. I believe that what people call God is something in all of us. I believe that what Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha and all the rest said was right. It’s just that the translations have gone wrong.”

I spent a good part of my day thinking about this, but my mind is nowhere near made. I’m very happy to have visited the site and it was good to see so many people congregated to pay their respects and celebrate John Lennon and his music. And for the record, my favorite verse is, “Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can, no need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people sharing all the world…”

Inside Central Synagogue.

Inside Central Synagogue.

The highlight of my day was attending my very first Shabbat service. Central Synagogue is one of the most beautiful sacred spaces I’ve visited. I arrived a few minutes before 6:00. I was greeted by an usher who immediately made me feel welcome and at ease. “Where are you visiting from?” He asked. I told him I was from Kansas City and without missing a beat he said, “Which one?” I was surprised, so I didn’t have the wherewithall to give my sassy reply, “Kansas City, Missouri. More city, less Kansas.” But I did say it was good of him to ask. He explained that the congregation meets in a smaller room over the summer due to so many people being out of town. He could tell I had really hoped to see the main sanctuary and asked me to stand by while he inquired about the possibility. He came back and told me there would more than likely be a guided visit after service. He offered me a kippah (the head covering, which until now I only knew as a yarmulke) and said I could sit anywhere.

The service was filled with lovely music and singing. Most of the readings, the hymns and the prayers were read in Hebrew, but English transliterations were available. This made it very easy for me to follow along and I rather enjoyed it. My (very minimal) biblical Hebrew came in handy, I don’t think my pronunciation was that bad (although I didn’t ask my neighbors). It was a joyous service and a very warm and welcoming one, too. I have visited a few synagogues in the past, but never during service. The reverence paid to the Torah scrolls was particularly striking to me, and I loved the way the Rabbi and cantor walked among the congregation holding the scrolls for people to touch. Most people tapped the scrolls lightly with their prayer books, and that’s what I did, too.

The sense of community was heightened by the way the seating was arranged in a circle around the table and the ark. The Rabbi and cantors stood in the middle but moved around throughout the service. So much of this service felt so familiar to me, having grown up in the Evangelical church. I was also struck by the sense of history and continuity as reflected by the acknowledgment of those commemorating the passing of a relative by way of a Yahrzeit prayer. Light refreshments were offered after service, which made for a great opportunity to meet with people and chat. What a joy it is to feel so warmly welcomed in a place and a faith that are not my own. I can’t imagine not having these opportunities and I’m grateful that I do.

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PEOPLE: Finding Home

In this first installment of PEOPLE, I share briefly some of the highlights from the stories people have been so kind to share with me. These are three of the first interviews I have conducted on this journey and I’ve been so enriched already by the individual paths, the distinct experiences, and even some of the common threads. Longer versions of these stories will appear in an anthology of narratives of faith later in the year.

 

"Everything is really amazing!" Tara Varney

“Everything is really amazing!” Tara Varney

I.  There wasn’t really ever a moment in life when Tara said, “I don’t believe in God anymore.” Rather, she sort of grew out of the casual religion of her parents. She was 8 years old, maybe 9, when she asked for a cross necklace. She wasn’t quite sure what it meant or why she wanted one, except it was what the other kids had and she wanted it because it made her happy. Happiness was a central theme in Tara’s story; what makes her happy, what makes others happy, and specifically how perfectly happy she is without faith. If you press her for an answer, she will reluctantly say she’s an atheist. Not that there’s anything wrong with being an atheist, but the term carries so much baggage and draws the wrong kind of attention. Plus, as Neil deGrasse Tyson would say (and Tara would quote), it’s a little strange to label yourself by what you’re not (“I’m not a nongolfer, I just don’t play golf!”)

As she followed her own path, Tara discovered new and different ways of believing. She practiced Wicca for a few years and she was particularly drawn to the sense of feminine divine force, “I have friends who spell it ‘Godde,’ because it’s the middle point between ‘God’ and ‘Goddess.'” But eventually that seemed not to be a good fit either as she found that her sense of wonder and magic were not dependent upon a belief in God. And she sees so much to be amazed about in the natural world. You should’ve seen her talk about honey: “we essentially eat bee spit! AND IT’S DELICIOUS!”

For Tara, the notion that things simply happen and things simply are, without the aid of a divine mover, is one of the most exciting things. She doesn’t believe in destiny or fate because, “happy accidents are more wondrous than ‘it was meant to be.'” Bird watching, overlooked beauty, theater, creative expression, and arts education are just a few of the many things that bring meaning to Tara’s life. I asked Tara what she’s grateful for and the list was very long…a laughy family, people who surprise her, curiosity, and so on. The last thing I wrote in my notes is a quote of hers that pretty much summed up her story, “Everything is really amazing!”

 

"I belong in the Universe." Stacey Donovan

“I belong in the Universe.” Stacey Donovan

II. “Of any religion you could identify with, I would say it’s probably the least respected one,” says Stacey. The religion she speaks of is Wicca, and she has only recently started identifying as one. As a child, she was raised in the United Church of Christ. Her insatiable appetite for reading started at a very young age, a time when she was also deeply religious. She told me about how she would come home from church every Sunday and read an entire book of the Bible in one sitting. And that’s when she started realizing that religion was not necessarily set in stone. “I read the Bible a lot, and thought about it…there are some very bizarre stories in it, you go to war and cut off a hundred foreskins and throw them at somebody’s feet. When you’re like 7 or 8, you look up ‘foreskin’ and you’re like, ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” The more she read, the more she realized there were a lot of rules and principles the Christians she knew were not living up to, and so, “extreme biblical literacy led me to the conclusion that you get to choose what you believe.”

Jesus made a lot more sense to her than the Old Testament stories she had read and re-read. She was drawn to Jesus’ message of kindness and acceptance of those who are perceived to be different. Stacey grew up feeling she could make her own decisions about what to believe and so she identified as a Christian for many years while not adhering to many of the central tenets. Eventually, her voracious reading and curiosity led her to Wicca. She’s not even quite sure when or how she stumbled upon this earth-based religion, but what she saw piqued her interest. She had grown disenchanted with the way women were portrayed in the Christian tradition and scriptures, and she found the balance of female and male divinity in Wicca to be much more appealing. As a reader, a poet and a novelist, the metaphors and symbolism in Wiccan practices and rituals were a natural fit for her, “I’m not interested in what’s factually truth, metaphor is what we’ve got.”

After many years of research and reading, Stacey is now at a place where she can confidently say she is a Wiccan. Her practice is private and individual, but she is interested in finding other like-minded people. I ask her why Wicca is the least respected religion and it comes down to misunderstanding. Wiccan morality is synthesized in the motto, “An it harm none, do what ye will.” It is a declaration of the freedom to act, with the imperative of assuming responsibility for one’s actions and their consequences. But this is often misrepresented as a libertine, perhaps even anarchic view of life. “It’s not just like YOLO,” she tells me. It actually leads you down a path in which “do no harm” is always top of mind. You don’t just do as you wish. In Wicca, Stacey has found grounding, peace of mind and a way to be herself around herself. I asked her what that feels like and her answer left me speechless, “Like I belong in the universe. I belong, just like any tree, any flower. It makes it easier to be a good person.”

 

"I'm too human to understand what God is." Pat Daneman

“I’m too human to understand what God is.” Pat Daneman

III.  “Go talk to the Unitarians, that’s what they do, they marry Catholics and Jews.” Pat had a very strict Catholic upbringing and education growing up in the East Coast. Long Island was (and still is) very diverse, and most of Pat’s friends were Jewish. It wasn’t something they talked about in her family, some people were Catholic, some people were Jewish, and that was that. Still, her parents never expected her to date anyone outside of her Catholic faith, and that is precisely what ended up happening. On her first day at college, Pat met Barry, “he was Jewish, as was everybody at State University of New York in Binghamton.” Their romance quickly progressed and they were engaged by the time she was a sophomore and he was a senior.

The question of where and by whom to be married presented some challenges, “I didn’t want to convert to Judaism, he didn’t want to convert to Catholicism. His father didn’t care, my mother cared very much.” But Pat didn’t want to be a practicing Catholic anymore, so she decided they would have a Rabbi marry them. They were surprised when Barry’s Rabbi said, “I don’t do mixed marriages.” Until that moment, the thought that they would be a mixed marriage had not even crossed their minds. So, they gave the Catholic church a try. Pat’s mom spoke to the priest and came back with the good news that he would gladly marry them if she would sign a document. “It was a document stating that I wouldn’t use birth control and that I would raise all my kids Catholic. And I was like, nope, I’m not gonna get married by a priest either.” Just as they were running out of options, one of Barry’s professors urged them to go talk to the Unitarians.

Pat and Barry had a lovely and unconventional wedding in the Unitarian Church at Binghamton. There was chanting and drumming, and everybody stood in a circle and held hands. That was their introduction to the Unitarian Universalist Church. The more they learned about the church and their practices, the more they became interested. Pat was attracted to the church’s longstanding tradition of social justice and secular humanism. A great number of UUs had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and that was something with which she was proud to be associated. It wasn’t until they had their first child, though, that they became more involved and decided to raise a UU family. As time went by, Pat was taken by the realization that hers was a real church and a real religion. She’s proud to belong to a church that is at the forefront of civil rights, gay rights, environmental issues and anti-war involvement. And, while she believes in God, and she believes that “Jesus had it right,” she appreciates the fact that atheists believe in the work of the church. Pat is quick to add that she is “too human to understand what God is,” and she tells me she’s given up on the notion of heaven and hell. I ask whether she’s concerned with the afterlife. She takes a breath and replies, “I’m concerned with this life.”

 

Atheists welcome, too.

One of the first questions I was asked as I set out on this journey was, “What about people who don’t have a religion? Are you interested in their stories, too?” My answer was a certain and resounding, “Yes.” Atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, and skeptics have narratives too. And, while still a minority,

“The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.” (2012) Read more. 

I have every intention of including people with no faith in my project, not because atheism or secular humanism should be lumped in with the wide array of belief systems, but because I consider these to be perfectly suitable ways to live a meaningful life. Some of these are stories of leaving a faith, some are stories of coming out. Whatever the case may be, I find these narratives just as fascinating. And I want to know more.