This week, I was my own lower Manhattan mosque. When I wrote on Monday about my decision to begin the process of converting to Judaism, I didn’t know what kind of reaction to expect. We’re a country based on religious tolerance and (most) of my friends are pretty level-headed. But I couldn’t get the picture of closed-minded protesters standing on Gotham streets ignoring that central American value in order to let fear and anger publicly reign.
I had good reason to be concerned my decision would be too much of a shock for my friends. Given my snarky track record, they haven’t come to expect much in the way of spiritual conviction from me. It turned out I needn’t have been concerned–almost. My Jewish friends were touched. My Christian and secular friends told me they were happy for me. (As Pastry Chef Chris said, “If Judaism brings you enough peace to find happiness, a job, and a man, great!”)
One friend, though, wasn’t so thrilled for me, and I expect they probably represent the opinion of others who weren’t as outspoken on the matter with me this week. Though it may cause additional consternation, I think the perspective they shared with me bears airing. The friend in question is an atheist. Irrespective of my former thoughts about atheists (as I noted on Monday, I’ve been unfair to many people in my time, atheists included), it’s everyone’s right to choose to be one. And I’ve known happy atheists, just as much as I’ve known unhappy religious folks.
By way of preface, in Monday’s post I never said Judaism was the solution to all of my problems, the answer for everyone, or a decision I made on or involving blind faith. My post was a description of a specific decision regarding a single faith out of many that for me has taken on personal meaning in the context of my life’s journey towards peace and happiness. What my post wasn’t was a screed upholding Jewish principles as the solution to the world’s problems and a demand to repent or die.
When I read my friend’s email, though, it felt like that’s how they understood my words. I was told they were personally, morally disappointed in my decision to become an adherent of the “opiate of the masses” (yes, the email quoted Marx), that they expected more rationality from someone of my intelligence, that religion is at the core of the world’s problems, and that if I had to be religious, I shouldn’t be religious publicly but should just keep quiet about it. In terms of religion not explaining evil in the world, my friend also noted several unhappy things that have happened in their life that God must have allowed to happen if there were a God, and that they were happy that they had come to see people and the world “as they really are.”
Whoa. The email hit me like a punch in the stomach. Telling someone you don’t agree with their convictions is one thing. Telling them you don’t think they have a right to them, though, is something else entirely. The email was on the verge of saying so. Others have stood up to Marx’s religious criticisms and the question of God and evil much better than I have (see especially Robert Gordis, God Was Not in the Fire, and Dennis Prager & Joseph Telushkin, The Nine Questions People Ask about Judaism.) I happen to agree with their opposite take from Marx, that religious ritual and communal worship can deepen the sense of community and foster a personal sense of God. And while religion has been the source of much unhappiness on the planet, enough secular individuals have caused unhappiness to make that claim seem insupportable to me. People will be people and people can be cruel and inhuman, no matter their personal convictions.
But what really struck me from the email was the idea that I should justify my personal convictions or keep them under my hat to fit into someone else’s comfort zone, at all. I got the sense from the email that my friend would have been a lot happier with me if I had arrived at happiness through the same worldview they hew to. However, my friend also doesn’t seem all that happy about life right now, and probably wouldn’t be able to accept anyone else’s happiness, no matter how they arrived there, atheism or otherwise.
I tried to have a discussion about these things, but the email thread quickly came to an end, and that just underscored things for me. There are some people out there–this one happens to be an atheist, but I won’t paint atheists with the same brush of generalization with which my friend painted newly religious me–who think theirs is the only way to be in this world. They’ve come to believe the world is as they define it and that’s that. Discussion over. Agree with them and their worldview or face rejection and judgment. And if you wouldn’t mind self-censoring, please do.
I fail to see how that perspective is any different from the judgmental views of the worst of the world’s religious zealots who demand creedal conformity or death. But whether it’s coming from an atheist or a religious adherent, the message from a perspective like that is the same: you’re not allowed to be happy unless you find a way to be happy like me.
No thanks. It’s my right to choose my convictions as I see fit. My happiness and the way I get there is between God and me, and I think we’re finding our way together just fine. And as an American, I have a right to share that experience publicly with absolutely no need to keep quiet about it. That doesn’t mean in any way I want to push my beliefs on others or denigrate the life journeys or religious or ethical convictions of anyone else, because I don’t. We’re all on amazing journeys on this planet and we all have a right to them.
But based on my long history of sad personal experience in this area, I do think if people would spend a little more time cleaning out their own closets before criticizing the clothes hanging on other people’s hangers, the world would be a much better place for everyone.