Apparently, my nephew is an atheist.
My sister informed me of this on the phone this evening, by way of explanation of why her adult son doesn’t want to attend a Passover Seder with her. She says he doesn’t believe in God because he was “raised in science.” I suppose this has something to do with having a father who is a computer engineer and a mother who was a biology major in college and now works in health care. Still, he attended Hebrew school and had one of the coolest bar mitzvahs I have ever attended. When my niece and nephew were kids, I spent countless Passovers and Rosh Hashannahs with them, attending synagogue and eating festive meals.
Regardless of how you were raised, I suppose you come to a time in your life when you have to decide matters of conscience for yourself.
My mother says my father is an atheist, but Dad denies it. He says he doesn’t believe in an old man with a long white beard throwing down lightning bolts upon sinners, but that he does believe there must be some type of higher power. He just has no idea what that might be. Still, one would be excused for thinking him an atheist, as he claims to loathe religion, which he cites as the cause of most of the world’s problems.
One of these days, I’ll have to make a point of asking my nephew whether he’s really an atheist. While having no need to follow the tenets of any faith may seem nominally liberating, I think it must be rather difficult explaining to others the absence of God in one’s life. It’s one thing to have members of other faiths thinking that you’re going to hell for your beliefs. That’s par for the course. When you’re an atheist, however, I would assume that every faith would think you’re a sinner and a lost cause.
Of course, there is no need to explain one’s beliefs to anyone. Many people of a variety of faiths or of no faith choose to keep their beliefs to themselves. After all, it’s really no one else’s business.
While it is not necessary to believe in God to have your heart in the right place, to do things like helping the less fortunate and being active in one’s community, I find that it does help. Although we all manage to justify whatever it is that we want to do, I suspect that it’s a little harder to stray off the straight and narrow when you know you’re being judged by the Divine and will have to answer to Him. Personally, I find God to be a centering experience in my life, a means of reminding myself of what it’s all about. And while I’ve known too many people without God in their lives who engage in repetitive destructive behaviors, there are plenty of believers who do this as well.
At least if I go wrong, I know that I’ll be able to ask God for forgiveness. Real contrition, at least to me, doesn’t happen in a confessional. It happens when you recognize the error of your ways, vow to take a different path, and follow it up with action toward living a more upright life.
Praying is great, and I do it daily, but I believe that it has limited value if you don’t “put feet on your prayers.” It’s not enough to talk the talk; you also have to walk the walk. We’ve all known those whose credo seems to be “church on Sunday, business as usual on Monday.”
Among my saddest experiences was the time I encouraged a coworker to attend religious services with me, but he refused due to his believe that God hates gays. He obviously didn’t know God very well. God doesn’t trade in hate, only in love. If a particular house of worship doesn’t want your presence due to your sexual orientation, that means that the hearts of those involved are in the wrong place. It has nothing to do with God.
But I can certainly see how those who feel rejected by churchgoers, or who feel that they’ve gotten the raw end of the deal all their lives or who feel that their prayers were never answered might deny the existence of God and consider themselves atheists.
Some atheists might believe that I am indulging in self-delusion by placing my faith in God. They may find that believing in God is illogical and fails the test of science. I wonder whether my nephew truly feels this way, or whether he is confusing God with religion. Every religion has certain precepts that might be difficult for the modern man or woman to believe. The faithful have all types of explanations for such things, but I fail to see why one must equate the rejection of dogma with the rejection of God Himself.
Ultimately, people come to God (or not) on their own terms. Finding faith often requires just the right combination of life experiences. I hope that, as my nephew makes his way through his young adulthood, he eventually finds his way back to the joy that I associate with faith in God.
I’d hate for him to miss out on that.