I'm A Radical But I'm Not An Atheist

For better or worse, though, the God thing has managed to stick.
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Publish date:
November 15, 2014
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atheism, weekend, Radical Politics, Communities, Political Communities

We believed in God, the three of us. Two are dead now -- my mother and my grandmother -- and I’m the third.

When they were alive, we all lived together, a little knot of women, bustling through the world. My mother was sick; cancer and cancer and then cancer again. When I think about what I knew of my mother’s relationship with God, it seemed to be chiefly based in desperation and fear (please, don’t let me die). After my mother died, my grandmother quit Judaism.

“It’s Rosh Hashanah,” she said to me once, probably a year after my mother died, during a visit. “but I don’t care.” I’m not sure how she felt about God then; our close relationship deteriorated quickly after my mother’s death. Grief does a lot of terrible things. For my part, I parlayed my “meh” attitude towards religion into several years of full-on Jewish obsession, which predictably petered out.

Last year, I had dinner with a friend who said to me, “You’ve changed your whole, entire life.” She has known me through a lot of transition -- from that Jewish fervor to the burn out to leaving it all and moving into the space I’m in now, steeped in writing and politics, observance and attention to religion left behind. Most of the time, my break with organized religion doesn’t feel at all significant. If anything, it’s freeing -- not thinking about keeping kosher or breaking a rule or not being good enough or committed enough. I didn’t have to work really hard at trying to be into the Torah. I have a lot more energy these days.

For better or worse, though, the God thing has managed to stick. In this life I’ve been living, I’m surrounded by folks whose politics match mine -- which is to say: super left, radical. Anarchists. Occupiers. Feminists. God is not the most popular in this world, and so I’ve been keeping my mouth shut when people say dismissive things, assuming that everyone in the room agrees that God is restrictive and ridiculous, that anyone who believes in God or religion is unthoughtful and naïve and unaware of how religion destroys and oppresses.

Look, I get it. I stopped going to synagogue after my malaise turned to anger over apologetics around patriarchy, Israel/Palestine, the incessant emphasis on heteronormativity and breeding. It was not for me anymore. Part of growing as a person means letting yourself realize what isn’t working for you and breaking with it, and, at the same time, knowing that we are all perpetually unfinished creatures, who need to be able to return to those things.

People often assume I’m an atheist, because I’m what? Too smart to believe in God? Too political? Too cynical? Because too many people close to me have died and why would I hang on to a thing like God in the midst of all that?

I don’t say anything because it’s very easy to make people lose their faith (pun intended) in you. It’s fragile out there. We’re building these little forts, spaces meant to be safe for one another to struggle, but there are some things that make it harder to be open. How do you know you can trust me to fight, to really show up for you, to understand how shitty and dangerous and insipid the world can be when there’s a part of me that’s colluding with what many regard as superstition?

I get it, the suspicion. It’s hard to admit you might be into God, or that you have any kind of religious identity, when you know you’re being lumped in with the same folks who scream at people entering abortion clinics. And still it makes me angry that that association persists. Everyone is made up of contradiction, of inconsistencies. We can extend the idea of complicated identities to a lot of people, but God shuts everything down.

It’s possible that I am not the target of people when they disparage the God-believers (which, admittedly, doesn’t happen often, although it’s the sort of thing that sticks hard when it does). There’s a spectrum of non-atheists, like everything else. And organized religion and God are not the same thing, at least not for me.

This thing -- I’m calling it God, even with all the baggage around the word and the concept (white bearded dude, merciless, homophobic, etc) -- is so non-specific that I often wonder if it means anything. It doesn’t motivate my politics or my decision making. Believing that it exists doesn’t happen without struggle.

I modify what I think about God a lot. Sometimes I let myself believe, for a minute, that God doesn’t exist. I entertain all those reasons people say that it’s stupid and childish sink in. It is scary to think of the world as empty of anything beyond what I can see. Maybe that’s my mother, a person who suffered a lot, talking, as she hung onto God, or seemed to, in the moments of her life that were the darkest and most treacherous.

I only witnessed my mother believing from the vantage point of a child and an adolescent, but it made clear to me that there are things that happen in life that make you lose your grip, and with your grip sometimes goes the ability to think critically. I’m not sure the best we can do for the world is to give up on faith, or encourage others to give up on it -- even if it means we suspend critical thinking for a moment, in some corner of ourselves.