Although I am fairly intelligent (thank you very much), I am not a person who frequently contemplates the great philosophical questions of the universe. I’m happy enough tackling the micro-issues in my micro-life. However I do dabble occasionally. I dabble often enough to know whether or not I believe in God, and I do not.
I’ve been through four distinct periods in my life in terms of my spirituality. The first began when I was old enough to contemplate religion (whenever that was) and ended sometime around my 18th birthday. During this time, I was informed that I was a Jewish boy and was sent to Hebrew school for religious training a couple of times a week starting around eight or nine years of age.
I think one of the world’s tragedies is that children are indoctrinated into a particular religion and deprived of the freedom to choose what to believe and what not to believe. Doing this to our children is terrible, but it is so ingrained in the fabric of modern society that even reading that last sentence may have caused you to scoff at my audacity for implying that children are capable of this choice. Anyway, my parents did what most other American parents do: they told me I was a member of my religious sect (Judaism) and sent me to learn all about it. In fairness, I was really sent to Hebrew school as part of the tragic circle I described above—so that my parents could satisfy my father’s parents, who were expecting a Bar Mitzvah out of me.
I developed a healthy disdain for Hebrew school immediately. More school (in addition to the regular school I was already enduring) wasn’t exactly my idea of a good time. But more importantly, even at my young age, I questioned the stories I was being spoon fed at this second school. I particularly recall wondering what kind of barbaric piece of shit God must have been to order Abraham to murder his son. I also found it perplexing that the father of my people was stupid enough to actually obey this horrific command, only to be taken off the hook when Yahweh canceled the operation at the last second. Still, I sat through Hebrew school, proceeded to memorize a few songs in a foreign languageand then sang them for friends and family at my Bar Mitzvah. All the while I continued to wonder what the hell the point was.
My second religious phase began when I left home for college. I was about 18 years old. Away from my family for the first time, I flaunted my skepticism about Judaism, relished in the act of eating leavened items during Passover and brazenly discussed the obvious stupidity of the Old Testament and mocked the bizarre rituals of the devout. I was finally speaking my mind. I was also acting out. At the time, it seemed cool to reject religion, and I desperately wanted to be cool. I earned every bit of the scorn many of my Jewish friends heaped upon me. They called names like me the “worst kind,” a self-hating Jew. Oy vey.
My third phase followed the death of the most religious Jew in my family, my paternal grandfather. He died in the summer following my graduation from college, and I spent a lot of time that summer thinking about him and remembering him fondly. It aroused my curiosity about the things he believed and the tenets that shaped his life, and I began to read up on Judaism. I read probably four or five books about the religion I was born into, which is a lot of convoluted bullshit to wade through. While these books did nothing to erase my skepticism, I determined that my prior phase was borne of immaturity and decided to give Judaism another test drive. I hadn’t been to temple more than two or three times since my Bar Mitzvah; I began to attend occasionally. I hadn’t been discussing my religious beliefs very often at all; now when the opportunity arose I described the joys of observance. And I decided to put my money where my mouth was; I even altered my diet, swearing off shellfish and pork.
Even though I was now self-educated about Judaism, I didn’t find my newfound piety particularly satisfying. Putting on a yarmulke, starving myself for a day, being aware of the Sabbath, not eating pig (or bread during Passover)–all of it still felt silly even after my supposed awakening. It occurred to me that I hadn’t morphed into a believer. Really, I was just paying homage to my grandfather. I had not discovered my inner Jew. I had no inner Jew.
My final phase began about ten years ago. It was then that I realized that I didn’t believe in God and decided that belief in God was intellectually dishonest (for me). Becoming a professional gambler made me more certain of my non-belief. I find that believing in a higher power and this profession—which boils down to mastering iron-clad mathematical principles—are incompatible. Becoming a devotee of Richard Dawkins’ writing further cemented things. I’ve just never felt like openly discussing it until today, so I guess this is my official coming out party: Hi, I’m an atheist!
This doesn’t take away the fact that I’m fiercely proud of my heritage. Culturally, I identify myself as a Jew. I continue to enjoy Jewish holidays because I treat them as an opportunity to reaffirm my heritage and spend time with my family. While I find Jewish (and Christian, and Islamic, and all of the other theistic) dogma repellent, I love who I am and despise anti-Semitism. If I had married a religious woman, I would likely observe the holidays in deference to her. Luckily, I did not marry such a woman (although we chose to include several Jewish customs in our wedding ceremony simply to make the ceremoney stand out and to reaffirm our cultural identity).
Of course, the occasion for this announcement is my decision to play poker on Rosh Hashanah for the third straight year. Trust me, it is not only now that I’m becoming an atheist out of mere convenience. Even when I choose to observe these “high holy” holidays, I don’t spend even a split second communing with a mythical spirit in the sky. I’ve been this way for a long time. To me, a Jewish holiday is the same as any other holiday. If I have the day off from work, I enjoy time with loved ones. If I have to work, I work. In this instance, I have to work. And I’m certain that if I bust on Day 1 of Borgata Main Event, it will be because I either played poorly or was unlucky, not because a magic bearded omniscient sky wizard is punishing me.
But Happy New Year!