Monday, September 24, 2007

A Revamped "On Atheist," AKA: Whatever Happened to Jared Leto?

You’re buzzing along and suddenly, one day, you look up and realize that you don’t recognize this place. Your parents have moved from their three bedroom house in Rockville to a condo in Potomac (zip code makes all the difference). Your siblings have paired off and procreated.

You’re living in Brooklyn and you’ve blinked and suddenly all your friends are moving away to pursue PhDs and law degrees and you realize that no one lives here anymore. You look in your closet and you realize that you own more shoes than Satan and not a single pair of them are anti-establishment Doc Martens. In fact, the closest you get to anti-establishment are a pair of Rocket Dogs you picked up on sale at DSW at the mall. It suddenly dawns on you that, without you recognizing the change, you are an adult, in your mid (not early) twenties, and you’re going to have to start getting serious about shit.

So you research PhD programs because you’ve always wanted to be a historian and doing programming at a non-profit is just not cutting it; you begin to discuss the M-word (it rhymes with carriage) with your significant other because it seems de rigueur for people in your age bracket; and you finally trash your well-worn collection of middle school papers that you’ve been schlepping from apartment to apartment for the last half decade, ever since your parents determined to sell the family house and move into the aforementioned condo.

Feeling all alone and finally reflecting on the myriad of insecurities that seem to have piled up on your doorstep while you were out at one of those Bryant Park summer movies drinking red wine from a plastic cup, you turn to the one thing that always helped center you in times of trouble (or in times of ennui): God. But something strange has happened here, too. Like your parents, like your friends, like your stability, God has packed up and moved away. You were so certain about God, but you realize that while you were learning other things, you unlearned God.

What do you do now? Is God like the PhD programs and apartment cleaning? Do you go out and try to recapture God, to reconnect with God like you reconnected with all of those random friends from high school whom you barely remember and with whom you now have to have a series of those vapid “remember when” conversations? Are you going to have “remember when” conversations with God?

What does the new, improved, grown up version of yourself do?

You hear all the time about people finding God, but rarely about them losing God. When you declare yourself an atheist, you proclaim that there is no God, but no one talks about the pain of that loss, a pain more deeply felt because it also entails losing those whom you’d consigned to heaven, now no longer extant. It’s the second loss of your mother, whose death was the impetus for your intractable belief in a higher power in the first place. And how do you respond to that loneliness, that loss, without the structures of the religion that had always been there to embrace and comfort you, that had provided a context for your relationship with God, that had given words to your still, silent pleas back when you didn’t have the words yet to ask the right questions or describe what you needed.

Does losing God mean losing religion? If you no longer have God, can you still benefit from the forms and rituals that religion provides? Paralleling your realization about the end of your childhood, once you realize that God is gone, can you retain the benefits that you felt when still in the innocence of youth?

I don’t know the answer to that. I do know that I continue to observe Shabbas, in my way, and to follow the rituals, to attend a shul that allows me to be myself religiously and politically, and to engage with Jews across the spectrum of observance and faith. I figure that, if there’s a God to be found, I’ll be in the right place to find God. And if not, then I’ll just be in the right place for me.

As for Jared Leto, I’m sure he’s out there, somewhere, along with other expunged remnants of my adolescence.


Annie said...

Of course you can have religion without G-d. At least in Judaism. We have a long and distinguished tradition of apikoursim (heretics). Especially since apikourus actually means a very educated person who is heretical.

There is a rabbinic story about 4 rabbis who enter into the garden of eden. One dies, one goes crazy, one is rabbi akiva (I think) and one becomes an apikorous. His learning was so respected that his students used to run after him as he rode horseback (forbidden) on shabbes, to continue to learn from him.

LT said...

There is a rabbinic story about 4 rabbis who enter into the garden of eden.

They went into Pardes (an orchard), which means they went into a deep search for ultimate truth. There's a good fictionalized account of this in As a Driven Leaf, one of my alltime favorite books (the book is a fictionalized account of the life of Elisha ben Abuyah... the one who became a apikores).

To respond to Harley...

You can definitely have religion without God (Orthoprax Jews have effectively decided to take upon themselves a system of rituals that they don't necessarily believe in). You can also have God without any specific religion (deism). And you can doubt God without being an Atheist.

It's really interesting you posted this today. It's almost disturbing. I made a post today about Singlehood and Faith and how many single people drift away from faith in their 20s and 30s. Shoshana over at Sweet Rose made a likewise disheartened post yesterday, as did Passionate Life today. Something must be in the air. Almost no one I know had an inspiring set of holidays.

And I guess the holidays really make you feel that pinch. If you're single, you see much more of your family and are bluntly reminded of where you aren't in life. If you're losing faith, then the holidays only accentuate what you no longer feel.

But hey, here comes Simchat Torah, and everyone loves Simchat Torah, right?

sarah said...

Not according to Dr. Gillman, you can't. Reminds me of a paper I should be writing--my personal theology. Anyhow, I think it can be helpful to have a skeptical relationship to God, and that doubt is important. I'd rather doubt God's existance than be sure of what God wants from me. Really.

Duchess said...

Oh Harley; you have such a way of so beautifully expressing what is so often in my heart, but has not quite made it up to my brain.

I too count myself among the 20- and 30-somethings who left shul feeling cold this weekend. As one who very nearly devoted her life to this stuff, I take this sad fact particularly hard. Every year I scream that I'm not ready for the High Holidays, that they could not have POSSIBLY come at a worse time, but usually I come out of them feeling refreshed, as though now that they are behind me, I can properly begin my year. This year I just felt numb. And stressed.

I wonder if a big part of the disaffection of our age bracket comes from the fact that many of us are working full time for the first time. That's a big part of what is going on for me. This is the first time that I wasn't just handed the time off from school, and even in the instances when I had to specifically ask for it, there is a big difference between asking a professor to be understanding of religious needs and having to forfeit ALL of one's limited vacation days just to observe holidays that one is not even sure one really wants to be observing.

Danielle said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
DaGirl said...

i dont think your alone in your feelings...religion without G-d, while possible, seems to have a little hollow space.

i also morn the loss of Jared Leto...why'd he have to go off and become a rock star?

Ezzie said...

A lot of the good stuff has already been said...

Of all places, I was impressed by a Dennis Prager article about why he is a Jew a while back where he makes an interesting point about how each religion relates to God; in Judaism we are "Bnei Yisrael", which is really about struggling. (As opposed to Christianity's faith or Islam's submission.) I think that most people struggle to some extent with God and all that entails; others simply refuse to think about it to avoid spinning in circles (which I think is a valid approach, actually).

Anonymous said...


Whatever you do, don't take any advice about life and God that involves Dennis Prager. Please.


The Donkey

montana urban legend said...

This is such a sad post. But thanks for posting it anyway. It helps fill me in on a number of discussions I've had recently with Atheists. I've come to the conclusion that Atheists either lack a visceral sense of connection with the Divine (or perhaps with things Divine), or for some reason or another feel a need to intellectualize a reason for His/Her/Its absence from their existence personally. But absence does not negate existence. Your own stories from your youth could be applied to anyone with whom you were once connected, but are no longer. Why should that necessarily mean they no longer exist? It sounds like a selfish perspective.

I've done enough science in my day to feel quite comfortable with the possible existence of things, with many things, in fact, that are not yet proven. There's too much we don't know to declare what definitively doesn't exist. Once we do then the search for knowledge is over, done, completed, finito, and who wants to live in a world in which they think they know everything there is to know? I mean, other than robots, of course.

For me, it's a glass half-full sort of thing. And a feeling thing. A visceral thing. The kind of inner experience that probably 9 out of 10 anthropologists would feel religion was meant to serve, among other things. I don't have to feel a connection with the Divine every day, but the moment I feel that I would lose the ability to ever do so again would be a very sad day, so far as I could tell. The day that I would feel that I could lose the potential for any desire to ever do so again is not something I care to think about. I might as well imagine a day in which I could lose the potential desire to ever fall in love again.

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