Please Note: This is a post by guest author, S.W. Atwell. The views and opinions expressed in her post are entirely her own. If you would like to post as a guest author on this blog, please contact me at the email address posted on my contact page.
— Paul Sunstone
I’m writing this blog piece in response to some of Paul Sunstone’s musings about people who blog about leaving the religion in which they grew up. According to Sunstone, some people lose their childhood religion because of an intellectual disagreement with doctrine. “Typically, their doubts began to mount until one day some point in particular became the straw that broke the back of their faith.” Others found their religion personally repressing, even destructive to the development of their selves. “They find in religion an Aggressor.”
I cannot resist blogging about my loss of faith, not the least because Sunstone feels that loss-of-religion blog pieces usually “outclass” religious blogs. How can I resist an invitation to be “classy.” Oh, yes, and Sunstone finds it especially “moving” when the reason for leaving one’s religion was the discovery that it was working against them personally. So, now I simply have to blog about my little faith crash. I want to move my readers and do so with at least a little class.
When I was seven, my moderately observant Jewish parents placed me in a school for Hasidic girls. Hasids are the “old style” European Orthodox Jews, easily identified by their clothes. The men wore dark suits, long beards, sidelocks and black fedoras. The women dressed in long, dark-colored skirts and never rolled their sleeves higher than the elbow. Once they married, my classmates covered their heads with wigs or kerchiefs.
I liked the school well enough at first. I did not even mind learning that I was not observing Jewish ritual “correctly.” Learning to follow the customs better did not seem all that different to me from learning to read better in the second grade than I had in the first. Where I got stuck, however, was on this God (usually referred to as “Ha-shem” or “the name”, because Orthodox Jews avoid saying God’s name) who knew everything that was going to happen and could do anything about it that he chose. As a child getting crunched under a heavy load of disapproval from parents and teachers, I could not understand why he did not intercede on my behalf before I screwed up. How about making it easier for me to learn to spell? Or putting a thought in my mind that would stop my big mouth before I insulted my big sister? Or even prompting the adults to be a little bit kinder when I made mistakes? How could an all-powerful God make it so easy to sin even when you didn’t really mean to. The story of Lot’s wife was simply terrifying. What small child has never peeked through her fingers when told to cover her eyes? Unkind adults and an uncaring God make for a bad psychic combination in the minds of the young. I still remember one little girl who was scolded by her teacher for making mistakes at math. She waited until recess to whisper her greatest fear to her best friend, “Ha-shem must really hate me,” she wept, “and I don’t know why.”
There is not much of a line between god and parent in the mind of a small child. The parent can get the child to believe in god, or not. The parent can get the child to believe anything, or not. Sometimes, there is not much of a line between god and the parent in the mind of the parent. My own mother was a religious fanatic. She was sure she knew what god was thinking. It was, of course, whatever she was thinking. God’s desires were her own. One of her desires was to quelch my growth into any sort of person who thought for herself. She had this right, because it was what God wanted. While I did not grasp all this until I was in my thirties, I certainly felt unable to live in some sense by the time I was twelve. My breath would nearly stop at times against her unyielding wall.
This was also the point in my life when I became really aware of the most faith-testing circumstance faced by modern Jews, the Holocaust. I asked my mother why God had not prevented it. She responded, smugly, that God always had a reason for allowing bad things to happen and that the Holocaust had paved the way for the modern State of Israel. In that moment, I decided not to believe in God. Either he did not exist, because such bumbling could hardly be credited to the Omnipotent One, or he was not all-powerful. If he couldn’t prevent babies from being gassed, he did not deserve to have people believe in him.
That last was a primitive reaction, but there was something even more primitive going on. There were three people in the room that day, my mother, God and me. My mother wanted to tell me the most terrible things so I would know I was never safe with anyone other than her. God was her weapon. If I accepted what she was saying, I would somehow no longer exist. In short, one of us in that room had to die. I was too stubborn to be the one, and I was too frightened of my mother to make her be the one. Only God could die that day.
It would make quite a headline, wouldn’t it? “Jew Kills God.” Now, where have I heard that before?
© S.W. Atwell (2011)