Friday, September 29, 2006

A different kind of coming out

Most people who get to know me even a little bit find out that I'm gay. If the conversation is at all personal, I can't help but mention my wife and son; I've often said that being in a relationship makes it much easier to be openly gay. And if I weren't comfortable with people knowing, I'd need to get comfortable very quickly since a 3 1/2-year-old doesn't self-censor.

But what comes up much less often, what I don't immediately work into a conversation, is that I am an atheist.

And it's not just that there are fewer opportunities to make this announcement to people. I am fully aware that I experience greater anxiety about how people will react to my atheism than my 'alternative' family (although there have been situations where I've decided it's simply in my best interest to stay mum about both issues).

Unlike a good number of the other atheists and agnostics I know, I was raised to be an atheist. My parents had a 'mixed' marriage--one side Jewish, one side Christian (and a mix of denominations at that). We celebrated holidays from both sides of the family, but it was about family traditions more than the religion. As there were not many Jews in my hometown, my parents took special care to make sure we knew the history and significance of the holidays. Of course, because they assumed I would be inundated with information about Christianity, they gave me little specific instruction on that side; I remember learning about the story of Easter on the playground just like one learns about sex.

As I got older, I came to understand about the difference between ethnicity and belief. My father did not believe in God. It was not until many years later, after his death, that I discovered my mother does believe; I do not know if she agreed not to try to influence us or if she simply yielded to his dominant personality. My father did not force us to believe as he did, but he firmly presented his position.

My first conscious decision about where I stood came at age 11. I had been taking Hebrew and Jewish history at the Jewish Community Center. I enjoyed it, as I enjoyed most intellectual pursuits. But then I came to the proverbial fork in the road. If I continued classes the next year, it would be specifically in preparation for my bat mitzvah. There were several reasons this was enticing: continuing a language I enjoyed, the mental challenge of taking my Hebrew to the next level, not to mention the gifts everyone went on about. BUT. But I knew that I would be doing it for the above reasons, not because I was a committed Jew, not because I wanted to be recognized as an adult in the religious community. And that somehow didn't seem right or fair or ethical.

That is when I first called myself an agnostic. For the most part, I was pretty sure I did not believe in God, but I wasn't quite ready to commit. Even then, I didn't go out of my way to tell people about my beliefs (or lack thereof). Since my last name is often seen as Jewish, I tended to let people maintain that impression. People with any political sensitivity, even those who felt the need to witness, generally left me alone--it would be insensitive to push Christianity on a Jew.

As I got older, I continued to examine my religious beliefs and began to acknowledge that calling myself an agnostic was hedging my bets. Several things contributed to my eventual willingness to embrace the term 'atheist.' The primary influence was my wife. While she had a very different path to atheism, our specific beliefs were basically the same, so it didn't seem that we needed two different labels. I also came across an article which refuted the idea that atheists don't understand faith; rather, the author posited, many atheists have faith in science.* That was a real "Eureka!" moment for me.

But the final transition from agnostic to atheist happened in the oddest of places. I was on break at my retail job (one of those obligatory college jobs that helped pay rent and provided a break from deep thinking). Three other coworkers were there as well. Two of them were women my age or just a little bit older, working full-time at the store. The third was D., a guy who was the age of my next younger sister, someone whose family I actually knew through my sister. The three of them were involved in a heated debate about religion; I was reading a homework assignment. All of a sudden, D. turned to me and said, "Mouse, you don't believe in God, do you?" I'm not sure anyone had asked me so point blank before, but I quickly recovered and replied with a simple, "No, I don't." In triumph, he turned back to them and said, "See!" I'm not sure what point I had made for him, but that's the day I fully became an atheist.

Many of my friends and family members assume that my being an atheist is connected to my being a lesbian, a result of feeling rejected, even damned, by certain denominations. They enthusiastically tell me about how their church or synagogue is different and how much I would love it. Sometimes I will try to explain that there is no connection, that my identity as an atheist is a separate issue (as much as any aspects of identity can be separated). Mostly I've taken to telling them I'm glad to hear that there are so many accepting congregations--and I am truly happy to know that religion does not have to be an immediate point of division.

My wife and I are raising our son as an atheist. We celebrate both Christian and Jewish holidays, though fewer than I did as a child. As in my childhood, this is mostly about establishing family traditions. I've had it suggested to me, usually in subtle terms, but not always, that my son will lack a moral compass without a religious upbringing, yet that doesn't worry me. Issues of right and wrong, ethical behavior, relating with others do not require religion; instead, I will make sure to encourage my son's compassion and empathy, his understanding of the consequences of actions.

I think I turned out OK. I have faith my son will too.

*Argh, bad scholar. I have no citation for this and absolutely no recollection of where I saw it.


Rock the Cradle said...

Hi Mouse!

Congratulations on your coming out!

I always have a particular gathering of breath before anwering any inquieries about my faith, because as soon as I reveal I'm agnostic, suddenly I'm a target for conversion. After all, agnostics don't know what to believe, right? They just need a little...persuasion.

When I explain that I don't NEED answers, that in fact, I don't WANT them...there is a particularly blank look that I've become familiar with.

It's interesting to discover that there is really no need for any religious beliefs to have a spiritual life. You just need the capacity for wonder.

Lisa b said...

Your story is so interesting to me as I feel much the same way about religion but seem to lack something that would allow me to declare myself an atheist. Maybe I am just hedging my bets?
I've taught in a Catholic school and had my daughter baptised but for me it is much more cultural than faith based.
I think it is laughable to suggest that your son needs religion to have morals. Organised religion, particularly mine, has shown us some of the worst examples of morality in history.

bubandpie said...

The agnostic/atheist dilemma is an interesting one. Because agnosticism is perceived as the gentler version (though hard agnosticism is at least as unbending as atheism and possibly more so), those who adopt the term "atheist" are often perceived as being either (a) angry and bitter at religion, or (b) rationalistic to the point of excluding imagination, intuition, emotion, or any other faculty that is not based on lopical principle or empirical fact.

From what you've said here, it seems as if for you the term atheist was adopted as a way of presenting yourself more honestly and authentically - a way of saying that belief in God has no place in your life.