I’m an atheist for the same reason most believers are members of their particular faith: I was born into a family of unbelievers.
We are all products of our background, atheists and believers alike. At a speech by the (in my opinion) much-maligned Richard Dawkins, an audience member asked for his response to a questioner’s passionate affirmation of his deep and profound personal belief in the Christian God. Dawkins respectfully pointed out to him that it was very likely his questioner would have felt just as deeply about Shiva had he been brought up a Hindu.
I think that those of us who have been raised in a particular culture and remained true to the values we were taught in childhood must, in all honesty, admit we are – in the main – products of our upbringing. Converts, like Antony and Rachel, have had a different journey.
So, at least in part, I’m an unbeliever because I was brought up that way. I have had flirtations with religious belief, however. I was a precocious reader and many of my favourite authors were profoundly religious Victorians (George Eliot, the Brontës, Mrs Gaskell). Heavily influenced by their spiritual – even quasi-pagan – world view, I used to try saying prayers secretly at night, waiting for some kind of momentous spiritual experience (I was also a horribly melodramatic and exceedingly morbid child). As far as revelations went, however, I experienced nothing, nada, zip, zero, and, as a result, grew bored with my own grandiosity and soon gave it up.
Many years later, as an unhappy young woman struggling with a mental illness, I sought solace in religion. I earnestly tried to believe there was some kind of higher power. (I was never much tempted by any particular brand of religion. A true child of the 1970s, I sought spirituality. ) I even went to a local church once just to see what was on offer but fled in horror, never to return, when the minister announced a film night that would expose why Muslims followed a false god.
When, thanks to the skilled and compassionate help of a secular psychotherapist, I finally made the breakthrough that helped calm my irrational anxiety and dissipate my depression, I was filled with gratitude.
I wanted to place this sense of grace with someone or something bigger than myself or my therapist, and so I tried to believe in some kind of supernatural force that had helped me resolve my fears. I was never quite convinced, however. In fact, I had a second breakthrough listening to Richard Dawkins explain his theory that religious faith is a misfiring of the gratitude impulse. As he explains it, as herd animals, human beings are hardwired to feel gratitude and repay debts: reciprocity holds the herd together. But good things also happen for reasons outside human agency. After a week of rain, your wedding day dawns fine, warm and sunny. You feel immense relief and gratitude, but who should you thank?
Who can you repay? A God, of course, that’s who. After my own experience of gratitude, such an explanation made perfect sense to me.
I think that’s the essence of my lack of belief, in fact: that it just makes sense. I come from a household of intellectuals. My parents migrated here from the United Kingdom, and both my father and grandfather were graduates of St John’s College, Cambridge. I think the influence of that university on my family has been profound. Here’s what Salman Rushdie had to say about his alma mater:
At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalise, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: people must be protected from discrimination by virtue of their race, but you cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.
I was brought up in an atmosphere of passionate argument and discussion. No quarter was given around our dinner table to age or experience. If you put forward a proposition, you were expected to defend it. Our family get-togethers were (and still are) noisy, argumentative and intense. Lazy, illogical thinking earned you scorn and ridicule. Many of my Australian friends and boyfriends fled our dinner table in horror at the furious verbal exchanges that were so common there. Indeed, my sisters and I sometimes joked that we ended up marrying the only boyfriends who could withstand the onslaught. They proved their worth and courage by coming back for more. (Unlike many of my friends raised in more religious households, all three of us are still married to those same brave men.)
The arguments that earned respect were those that made sense. Belief alone didn’t cut it, there needed to be some kind of evidence and proof. And while the arguments could be intensely passionate, there was much humour and honesty around our family dinner table. If someone thought you were saying something foolish, they said so; you were neither patronised nor protected.
And my parents didn’t fit neatly into any particular box. My mother was a stay-at-home mum (at least while we were young) who was a passionate feminist and free-market capitalist. She was also unequivocally, scornfully atheist, having been brought up a Methodist. Her view was (and still is) that religion is all about blokes. I agree with her. My father’s family was probably Jewish once upon a time, but there is literally no memory of that. His father Jack (John Everard) and grandfather Wilkinson, as their first names indicate, styled themselves as typical members of the British middle class, despite their exotic surname. My father was a very successful businessman, a lifelong Liberal in the English rather than the Australian tradition. He was (and still is) energetic, opinionated and funny. He has always claimed to be an agnostic. He treats everyone as an equal, even his children. We benefited immeasurably from this.
Little was disapproved of in our household, except dishonesty and lying. You could swear, lose your temper, drink, smoke and have sex. At eighteen, when I wanted to move in with my boyfriend (now my husband of thirty-seven years), my mother gave me – a full-time uni student with only a part-time job – an allowance so I wouldn’t be financially dependent on him. My parents applied logic to their decisions, not tradition or fear of what other people might think. They valued independence, not just of behaviour, but also of thought.
I was brought up to be sceptical, particularly of the establishment and of entrenched power and privilege. I was brought up to fear certainty and celebrate doubt. I was taught to despise pretension, pomposity and self-importance. I was encouraged to see the gap between the rhetoric of the powerful and their actions, and to point it out. I was encouraged to ask the difficult questions.
I was brought up not to believe.
I love religion. If there’s a religion gene, I have it in spades. I could happily spend my days surrounded by incense and chanting, stained-glass windows and prayer beads, books of theology and people in funny robes. I’m not fussy – Buddhist nuns, Jewish rabbis, and Sufi whirling dervishes are all fascinating to me. I spent many childhood weekends pilfering bedsheets from the linen closet to imitate Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story, and schooldays reading books with prominently bold religious titles, imagining that one of my unsuspecting and unbelieving school chums might wander by and ask, ‘Oh, Rachel, what’s that interesting book you’re reading?’ so that I might launch into earnest theological debate with them.
The religious gene must have skipped a generation to land on me, however, as both my parents are inoffensively only mildly believing. They were adventurous enough in the 1960s to join what was then a relatively unfamiliar new religious movement called the Baha’i Faith. Originally founded by a nineteenth-century Persian nobleman, the faith had more overtly Islamic aspects that were later moderated by his great-grandson, who tailored the Baha’i religion to suit its shift into the Western world.
The early Australian Baha’i community was an assortment of odd-bod hippies, progressives, seekers and a handful of Iranian missionaries. My parents were, like most of the early converts, happily persuaded by the Baha’i social message but resolutely Australian by culture. After 1979, waves of Iranian Baha’i refugees fleeing fundamentalist Shi‘i Muslim persecution hit Australian shores, and the small communities of peaceniks and eccentrics were gradually submerged by the sea of Iranian expatriates. This coincided with a time of financial difficulties for my parents, and, not receiving the pastoral care they desperately needed, both Mum and Dad lapsed in the face of the new style of Baha’i community and religiosity.
As for me, I was beginning to explore the vast world of religion. My open-minded parents sent me to the state primary school’s Christian religious instruction and later the Jewish version, the two options available at my school back then. I confused a Salvation Army volunteer by asking ‘Why are all manifestations of God male?’ and recited the Shema prayer along with Jewish girls preparing for their bat mitzvahs. As is customary, at fifteen I declared myself a Baha’i and among other things founded a small library, joined the local youth committee, and became skilled in what Persians have been famously good at for millennia: bureaucracy. I defy anyone to find another youth who so meticulously slaved over such punctilious agendas and minutes as I!
At twenty-one I had a profoundly life-altering, mystical experience. Being a stalwart Baha’i, I was no stranger to prayer. My favourite little prayer book with its padded grey cover was well thumbed and stuffed with handwritten devotions that had taken my fancy at one time or another. I often experienced that calming, meditative state known well by those familiar with the ritual of prayer, and I was quite happy to believe in God and recognise that he was a continuing source of comfort and guidance in my life.
But none of this prepared me for one night in a little outback town in Far North Queensland called Forsayth. I had been saying my nightly prayers as tiny insects buzzed around the lamp in my room. After a while I put down my prayer book and prayed the most unselfish prayer I knew from the bottom of my heart: ‘God, I give my life to you. ’ At that moment I was flooded with the most beatific, loving sensation of an intensity I have never managed to describe adequately. It didn’t feel like it was coming from within me; rather, it felt like I was enveloped, wrapped, nurtured by love, and it seemed as if time and space had melted away. When I emerged from this unutterably wonderful state of felicity, I hardly knew what to make of it. Over the years since, I have gone through many illnesses, frustrations, trials and difficulties, but the unshakable conviction that God is more real than anything – everything – else has never left me. Now, I know that the sensations I experienced, at least on an ordinary level, were produced by chemicals in my brain and body, but that’s because the body is the tool we’re given to experience reality while sojourning in this material universe.
I don’t know why God gave me that taste of heavenly assurance then, and I’ve never experienced it since, but it held me in good stead through my leaving the Baha’i Faith and converting to its older parent religion, Islam, a few years later. It has also meant that I take seriously the Qur’anic statement:
To each We have prescribed a law and a way of life. Had God willed, He would have made you a single community, but that He should test you in what has been given to you. So compete in doing good. To God, you all will return, and He will inform you about that in which you differed (Q5:48).
While I’m Muslim because it is the religious music to which I respond most energetically, I have enough humility to recognise that God seems to enjoy diversity. He continues to create people of various colours, genders, cultures, languages – and yes, religions – all through this great pulsating evolutionary vehicle called life!
Birth is a beginning
And death a destination.
Rabbi Alvin Fine
This poem has remained with me since childhood, when I remember hearing it recited at my family’s liberal synagogue during Jewish New Year celebrations. It is moving, mysterious, revelatory and lyrical. I recall listening to it as a young boy and not understanding its power.
As I became older and distanced myself from the organised Jewish community, this poem, recited in English and not Hebrew – we were not, after all, Orthodox Jews – has stayed in my mind. Although it doesn’t make me think fondly of Judaism itself, it’s a reminder for me even today of the power of emotive words to conjure both melancholy and warmth.
I was born Jewish in 1974 in Melbourne. I’m an only child to Jeffrey and Violet, liberal Jews who were born in the same city, Melbourne, during the Second World War. Their parents had escaped Nazi Europe and arrived in Australia in 1939. Most of the rest had realised too late the threat posed by Hitler and perished in the death camps. Being Jewish back then, in the heart of supposedly cultured Germany and Austria, was a death sentence. It’s not something I forget.
When I visited the sites of this Holocaust in the 1990s – from Dresden where my father’s family resided to Auschwitz where many of them perished – my affection for Judaism was enhanced, though not with any desire to become more religious. It was a secular Judaism fuelled by resilience, a determination to survive and thrive after the greatest catastrophe to befall the Jewish people.
My interest in Judaism was both accidental and intellectual. I had no control over being Jewish, but Judaism continues to fascinate me, especially the various ways Jews can practise the religion and still proudly call themselves Jews.
Close friends in New York regularly attend a synagogue for Humanistic Judaism. Its website states, ‘Judaism is much more than a set of religious beliefs and practices. It is the cumulative cultural and historical experience of the Jewish people. ’5 This is correct, but it then goes on to claim Israel is a key aspect of Jewish identity. When even the most liberal Jewish movements blindly praise Israel in this light, they ignore the country it has become: an occupier and a brute.
Zionism is not the answer. And this ideology has almost comprehensively forced me away from Judaism and into a Jewish atheism that feels more comforting but also incomplete. Most of my serious relationships have been with non-Jewish women and, although the failures of these relationships had nothing to do with my or their religious beliefs, I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be with a Jewish woman who truly understands why I’ve had to reject the organised Jewish community. She’d have to feel as proud as I do of pissing outside the tent rather than within it.
In my teens I started feeling uncomfortable with the casual racism towards Palestinians and Arabs I heard in the Jewish community, from Jewish friends and from my family around the Friday Sabbath table. At that age I wasn’t fully across the reality of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land but something felt wrong even then. It was a created victimhood born of a collective fear, both real and imagined. Jews, now largely successful members of Western society, were powerful and connected but many still clung on to the belief that we were weak and trapped in a ghetto, unwilling to hear criticisms of sacred issues. ‘Don’t air our dirty linen in public, ’I was constantly told. This was shouted routinely in my direction by the time I published my first book, My Israel Question, in 2006.
It was a dangerous delusion that allowed perceived enemies – Muslims, Arabs, Palestinians or ‘the other’ – to threaten our newfound strength. It allowed Jews to claim that Israel, a superpower possessing nuclear arms, was vulnerable when in fact it was the dominant force in the Middle East. Despite this, however, insecurity was the country’s middle name, a disease that has spread like cancer throughout the Jewish diaspora in the last few decades.
By the time I was in my early twenties, Judaism had become indistinguishable from Zionism and we parted company. My lapsed religiosity wasn’t a great loss to the devout in the Melbourne community – I enjoyed bacon and sex and dabbled in drugs – but I felt the religion left me rather than me having to deliver the divorce papers. I didn’t miss most Jewish rituals and almost enjoyed being the outsider critic of the community.
I had never been a regular synagogue attendee. My parents usually had to drag me to a Jewish event or holiday and I don’t recall ever embracing prayer or Jewish spirituality. Although I attended a Jewish group called D&M (Deep and Meaningful) in my teenage years, led by a progressive rabbi, I wasn’t like the others there. Israel was already in many of my friends’ DNA, despite most of them never having been there.
In an age before the internet and easily accessible information that revealed the harshness of Jewish actions against Arabs, it was too easy to romanticise the Zionist state, especially since Melbourne had one of the highest percentages of Holocaust survivors in the world. The community lived in denial about the present and future, convinced that the best way to commemorate old losses was to deify a state that bloomed a few years after 1945. Israeli occupation was largely invisible, dismissed as Palestinian and anti-Semitic propaganda.
My disillusionment with Judaism may seem illogical or even irrational. After all, Judaism isn’t Zionism. Or shouldn’t be. But for the vast bulk of Jewish communities in the last decades, the two ideologies have become interchangeable. You can’t be a Jew if you’re not a Zionist. Being a non-Zionist Jew in any organised sense is virtually impossible in Australia, though nothing stops me, of course, from living my life as a cultural Jew on my own and with close friends.
Naturally, you can be a proud Zionist if you aren’t Jewish, but this usually involves taking a hardline conservative position, embracing evangelical Christianity or standing as an Islamophobe after September 11, 2001. Loving Israel is no longer cool, if it ever was, when we’re constantly bombarded with images of rampaging Jewish colonists shooting Palestinians; Israeli politicians talking proudly of ethnic cleansing of Arabs; and Knesset members finding ways to censor unpopular, anti-Zionist views. This is what modern, mainstream Judaism has largely become, a deformed beast that encourages debate on most issues except arguably the most important one, Israel. This is the opposite of what I believe a religion should be if it wants to prosper in the twenty-first century.
My Jewish atheism isn’t settled. I feel open to exploring a truly secular religion that embraces diversity. I’ve felt deeply moved and proud to be Jewish when I’ve met members of the Jewish community in Cuba and Iran. They’re resilient in the face of tough conditions. For them, regular prayer is salvation. For me, I felt connected to a global religion that had persevered.
When I hung out with Afghanistan’s only known Jew in 2012 in Kabul, a grumpy, Orthodox man who chastised me for not practising Passover during my visit and showed me the country’s only known synagogue near his basic, one-room apartment where a box of matzo sat on the table, I was surprised by my emotional response. I felt proud to be Jewish. Here was a solitary man, offered asylum in America and Israel, but dedicated to remaining proudly in Afghanistan, a man who had survived years under the Taliban and remained openly Jewish.
My reaction had nothing to do with Israel, Zionism or the Middle East. It was a visceral response that left me wondering if my Judaism was lying dormant and could be awakened by the sight of Jews living in a repressive regime. What did that say about my faith? Today, nearing forty, I wonder if my appreciation of the Jewish faith, one not besmirched by the state of Israel, leaves me vulnerable to reintegration into some kind of progressive, secular, cultural, anti-occupation, anti-Zionist Jewish community.
I’m still looking for that comfortable space.
I don’t find it easy to say ‘why I believe what I believe’, because my response is complex and multi-layered in a way that remains a bit of a mystery even to me. I’m sure my answer now, at forty-five years old, would be somewhat different from the one I would have given when I was, say, twenty-six. Ask me again in twenty years’ time, and my response may have changed again. But there are definitely constants in my journey of faith, a journey that certainly hasn’t ceased.
It’s fair to say I was born into a very Christian home – my father was an Anglican minister in Tamworth, a large rural centre in north-west New South Wales, known, much to my dismay, as the home of country music. I notice that Jane says she’s from at least three generations of atheists, so it turns out she and I are about as rebellious and original as each other!
Mercifully, when I was eight years old Dad became the head of a school and for most of my growing up he was known for that rather than for being the local pastor, a burden that I know was too much for some preachers’ kids to bear. Nonetheless, in my early years I was happily raised on a diet of stories of a great and mighty God who created the world, who knew me and loved me and who had things under control.
That was all fine until I hit my teenage years. I wanted to be ‘cool’, and being Christian was decidedly uncool. As a young guy I was interested mostly in sport and music and hanging out with friends. I read my Bible most nights out of fear and guilt and what I now realise was superstition. But I learnt some things along the way.
At university I was free to live as I chose, and the choice I made was mostly not living as if God had any real place in my life. As all self-respecting university students do, I had the odd minor existential crisis here and there, but on the whole I was more interested in the next game of golf or holiday up the coast. Yet I could never shake the God question completely. In those days I would slink into the back row of a church without any real involvement in the community that accompanied it.
In my twenties, most of my friends were non-believers and I went out with some great girls who didn’t share my faith. But slowly it dawned on me that I did believe and that I was a Christian. I never had the ecstatic spiritual experience many people describe. I didn’t once feel the need to go to the front at evangelistic services and declare a newfound faith, and this bothered me for a time. It was more a case of gradually feeling that from the beginning I’d been introduced to the truth, and that there was nowhere else to go.
Over the years, my faith has become stronger and a much more central part of who I am. The biggest boost to this was a couple of years of studying theology in Vancouver, Canada, at Regent College, where I was given the freedom to ask the hardest, most honest questions of my faith and access to satisfying, if not exhaustive, answers. Coming to understand the way the Bible holds together coherently and that it has withstood the ruthless critique of some of the finest minds for more than twenty centuries is a significant reason I am still a believer. At Regent College I feel I came to know God in a much richer, more profound way.
What I have come to understand is that right from an early age, through my family, I was blessed by contact with people who seemed to embody something authentic, who had latched on to something that appeared real and true and larger than any individual or group. It’s what, if you hang around Christian groups long enough, you will hear someone describe as the indefinable quality that initially drew them to the faith.
I hope I am not misunderstood. It wasn’t that I was exposed to an unrelentingly fabulous array of individuals who oozed goodness and light from every pore. But there were enough people who could tell of the impact of God in their lives for it to be compelling. Anyone who has spent time in a church community will report that it’s a mixed bag of people from the saintly to the ordinary to the truly nutty, much like other communities or clubs you could choose to be a part of. It may in fact be that churches have an over-representation of misfits.
But there are at least two brilliant things about that. One is that, at their best, churches bring together in one community people from all walks of life and ask (actually demand) that they love each other. Very few other places will insist on genuine and sometimes costly relationships involving meals in homes and weekends away and sharing a life together in which barristers mingle with baristas, plumbers with anaesthetists, dancers with dropouts, musicians with the mentally ill, refugees with professors. When it works, it is a captivating vision of community.
The second, and this was very important for me to understand, is that the Christian community involves a belief that God calls all to him no matter who they are and what they’ve done, and asks them to follow in the way of Jesus. That means there are plenty of people in the church who are no better and in some cases much worse than those who shun religion completely. But the key is – and I have seen this plenty of times and even in my own life – faith very often makes people a better version of themselves. And even when it doesn’t, Christianity offers a vision of wholeness that remains immensely attractive even and especially when we fail to live up to it. It’s some of that vision on which I hope to elaborate in this book.
I’ve always had a fascination with the world: travel and literature, music and poetry, film and sport – all the good stuff of life. There was a time, when I was younger, when I felt that those things were somehow in conflict with my faith or were at least an awkward fit. I’ve come to believe that isn’t the case, and that all the world is God’s world – that beauty and friendship and laughter and love and surfing and art and humour are all part of God’s good creation. I’m very grateful for life as we fortunate ones in the West experience it. Psychologists tell us it’s a good practice to develop habits of thankfulness. And I’m grateful to have someone to thank.
A common and understandable criticism of people of faith is that we are merely wishing for comfort in the face of the grim reality that life is hard and death is the end. The suggestion is that religion is a man-made safety blanket that only the truly clear-thinking and courageous can do without.
There’s no doubt that my Christian faith is an enormous comfort to me, without which I would feel bereft. But I would find it hard to believe in it if I didn’t think there was extremely good evidence (not proof) for my belief. While I wouldn’t pretend to have been able to remove myself completely from my upbringing and experiences in order to test objectively all that I understand about the world (who can truly do that?), I have tried to consider the objections to my faith and to critique it.
Like all honest believers, and I hope honest non-believers, I have my moments of doubt along with unanswered questions. The issue of the immense human suffering we all know of even if we haven’t experienced it ourselves, remains a formidable challenge to my belief in an all-powerful, good God (more on that later).
But one of the most appealing things about my Christian belief is the profound hope it has offered me even in some of the hardest times of my life. One of the things I love about this hope is that while it is in many ways about the future, it’s also about now. By this I mean I have a sense that my life is part of a bigger story. This doesn’t mean I think God will make my life okay and protect me from bad stuff. Instead, it’s the sense that every aspect of life matters eternally. For me that’s a really invigorating and exciting idea. Again, I want to elaborate on this later.
And finally, I’d have to say that the figure of Jesus is the most compelling reason for why I believe what I believe. I’m not, in truth, a particularly religious person. I’m not drawn to ritual and formality and what can sometimes be the overblown seriousness of how things are done. I’m naturally averse to being told where I have to be and how I am to behave. But I keep coming back to this mysterious, ancient story of God becoming a person – and then listening to that person and what he says and how he says it, and I find that I’m convinced by his claims in general and indeed his claim on my life.
And unlike my teenage self, I don’t find this a life-suppressing thing but in fact the opposite. It now feels like a connection to a vision of a flourishing life – life to the full, which, of course, Jesus promised to anyone who would follow him.
Right in the middle of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ It’s the critical question of the whole story, and it became the critical question for me. I’ve found that in coming to believe Jesus is God I also believe I’ve been welcomed into the family of the creator of the universe.
Excerpted from For God’s Sake by Caro, Loewenstein, Smart and Woodlock. Copyright © 2013 by Caro, Loewenstein, Smart and Woodlock.
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