I’m a Bad Atheist

September 9, 2010

Today’s post in NonProphet Status’ series of guest bloggers comes from Eat the Damn Cake‘s Kate Fridkis, who I “interviewed” for this blog before. Today Kate, a lay cantor at a Jewish congregation, shares the story of why she is a “bad atheist” (yes, I know, I’m posting this during Rosh Hashanah — L’shana tova, friends!). This is a wonderfully engaging story, and I’m proud to share it here. From one “bad atheist” to another: you’re up, Kate!

kate as a kidLittle kids are supposed to believe in God. I was bad at being a little kid.

For a number of reasons, really. I wore this shirt a lot that said “Brooklyn” on it. And jeans, even though I was only four. I was bulky and awkward. My best friend Emily was tiny and perfect and angelic-looking. She wore dresses and was about a foot shorter than me for a long time. When her grandfather saw me again as a teenager he squinted at me suspiciously and then said, “Wait! You were that little fat girl!” By then I was too skinny, and gangly, but still totally flat-chested. Sigh.

Emily believed in God. Easily, sometimes passionately. She was born again for a while. She told me about gold dust on her hands. She just believed. I never could. One night, when I was eight, I sat on my bed in the big room in the empty third floor of my family’s crazy contemporary farmhouse, and I tried really hard to believe in God. I’d moved upstairs by myself when I was seven. I was scared of the dark, but I felt brave, knowing that I was scared and I was doing it anyway. I was scared of the sound the toilet made when I flushed it. I ran out of the bathroom as fast as I could. I wanted to believe in something that would protect me, but the idea felt vague. The dark was more obvious.

I closed my eyes. I tried to imagine God as a light, slipping into the room. A blue light. I tried to imagine what kind of voice God would have if God spoke to me. I thought of a deep, booming voice. My eyes snapped open. That was ridiculous! God wasn’t a guy! See, I already believed in feminism.

But feminists are not supposed to decide they’d rather not call themselves a feminist anymore, even though they care a lot about all of the right issues. And when I recently stopped calling myself a feminist, and wrote a series of pieces about why, beginning with this one, a lot of women wrote to me to tell me how tragic my life must be, and how bad of a woman I am. So I’m bad at being a feminist.

And I’m bad at being an atheist, even though I didn’t believe in God from the time I could think about the idea of God (which was part of why I was so bad at being a little kid). I’m a bad atheist because I am a lay cantor. I lead Jewish religious services at an established synagogue. I stand on the bima with a rabbi and I sing a lot of ancient prayers. I initiate young adults into the community with bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies. And I love all of this. I love singing liturgy. I love the gentle rumble of the congregation joining in. I love my community, and, by extension, I feel real love for the Jewish people. Not an abstract feeling — but a feeling so strong that I cry when I read an article about Jews working together to solve a problem. Or making some bagels. Or whatever.

I’m also a bad atheist because I like to listen to people talk about God. I like to listen to people describe their spirituality. I like to know what people think about these things. I don’t understand why they believe what they believe or feel what they feel, but the fact that I don’t desire the same things and still experience the same existential pull fascinates me. Which is probably why I got two degrees in religion despite the fact that in doing so I was pretty much guaranteeing my own impoverishment.

Sometimes it bothers me how easy it is to be bad at these things. Someone must’ve written down some very strict rules about identity somewhere, and most of us seem eager to obey them. Or at least to try.

People are quick to tell me that I can’t be an atheist, since I’m a clergy member. They tell me I can’t be a smart, aware woman if I don’t call myself a feminist. They tell me I can’t be as social as I am, because I didn’t go to school as a kid. There are a lot of rules I seem to be breaking just by living my life. Just by being myself. And it gets tiring, trying to remember them all, and all of the explanations and defenses I need to offer people.

At this point, I’m ready to just be bad at everything, if that’s what it takes to be the person I am. Because if being a bad kid means being able to question things that other kids don’t think to, and being a bad woman means being able to question any label I give myself, even the supposedly positive ones, and being a bad atheist means occupying a role that lends my life so much meaning, then I’ll gladly be the worst version of all those things.

Though, if I may share a secret — privately I’ll continue to arrogantly believe that I am a perfectly fine atheist and a thoughtful woman. And that Brooklyn shirt I wore all the time as a kid — it was pretty damn cool.

kateKate Fridkis is the lay cantor at Congregation Kehilat Shalom in central NJ. She blogs at Eat the Damn Cake and for The Huffington Post. She recently received a Master’s in Religion from Columbia University and is the interViews Editor for The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue.

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13 Responses to “I’m a Bad Atheist”

  1. Nikki Bluue said

    Dang dang dang! I am not lesbian or bisexual, but I “fell in wuv” with her! 🙂 Then by her words, I must be a “bad atheist” and “bad feminist” too. 🙂

  2. Kate said

    Thanks, guys! So kind!

  3. […] there’s a guest post of mine over at Nonprofit Status. It’s about things I’m bad at. And some of those things may feel a little ironic, […]

  4. Disclosure: I’m a secular humanist, feminist man. I am biased.

    I read several of your posts on feminism, “Talking With Feminists”, “The Vicious, Dangerous World of Blogging”, and the linked “Why I don’t call myself a feminist anymore”. Also Danielle’s “Why I Am A Feminist, and Why I Will Shout It Loudly Into the Ears of Anyone That Will Listen”, and all the comments on these four posts. But I try to avoid HuffPo comments, as I hope you’ll understand. It’s a lot to take in! So I’ve only been thinking about this conversation for a couple hours, while you’ve been thinking about it for several weeks.

    I totally understand not wanting to call yourself a feminist, when you put it in these terms: “But I had to explain all that, whenever I used the word. And it got old really fast.”

    Say you’re a feminist, and people want to fight you for it. They want to project all their prejudices on you. It is very, very tiring. And I probably get far less of this than you have, because just by being a man who identifies as a feminist, I evade some of the reflexive prejudices.

    There are so many times, on so many topics, when I just get sick of arguing and I have to let it all go for a while.

    This also made a lot of sense to me: “I should be clear that I wouldn’t simply say, “No,” if someone asked me point blank. I would actually probably say “yes!” Because it’s simpler. I meant more that I don’t go around trying to fit “I’m a feminist” into conversations, or mentioning it as an identifier in a class, the way I once did.”

    So, particularly because you make clear that you still acknowledge the need for feminism, I don’t think that any of this makes you a bad feminist.

    Patriarchy punishes feminists hard, and it’s understandable that some will decide they don’t want to deal with the stigma. The fact that so many women feel similarly as you do, citing similar reasons, is evidence that the personal is still political; this is still a systemic problem for feminists and allies to address, not just a series of personal failings or individual selfishness.

    Having read all the comments, I remember at least one that seemed to call you a bad woman. That’s messed up. I understand the commenters’ frustrations too, but I wish they could see your situation as one facet of the systemic issue.

    But, and I’m bringing this up in part for readers here that might not click over to your blog, isn’t it also worth noting how many feminists commented at your site who didn’t judge you? San D, Karen, Justine, Carly, rachel, Bridget, Vivi, and so on.

    It looks like a majority of those feminists who read your posts were actually supportive, even while disagreeing. Sorry if I’m being pedantic, but I was worried that readers here might not see the positive comments.

    And now I must go draft something about feminism and humanism. Thanks for the inspiration, Kate!

    • Kate said

      Thanks for pointing out the feminist support I received! That’s definitely something worth paying attention to.

      I thought it was interesting that a lot of the women who I offended were much older than me (from what I could tell), and the women who defined themselves as feminists but were not offended by me were my age. I think there’s a generational divide happening in the feminist community that could definitely be explored a little more.

      Thanks for the careful reading and thoughtful comment!

  5. Hitch said

    True compassion is that of not judging those who do not feel the same existential pull. But we judge too much. Ourselves. And others. Perhaps one day we’ll replace labels with actions, and arrogance with being enough.

    Until then we can expect to use labels and to use negative qualifiers. After all, and never forget, atheists can be stupid too! And who would want to listen to their stories, they are emotional robots. Only “bad” atheists have feelings and a capacity for empathy.

    We can turn others into “others” by turning ourselves into the other. Let’s all hide in the corner and emphasize how much it is exactly us who is not understood, rather than come out and work to understand and give others the time, chance and benefit to possible understand too.

    • @Hitch said

      Sarcasm, platitudes, and negativity, as per usual….

      • Hitch said

        So I’m bad at being a commenter.

        At this point, I’m ready to just be bad at everything, if that’s what it takes to be the person I am.

        Though, if I may share a secret — privately I’ll continue to believe that I am a perfectly fine and thoughtful person.

        [Or in other words Kate does have a point… From your comment I gather that you probably missed both hers and mine.]

  6. Brian said

    Alright you ignorant atheists… if there is no god, then HOW DOES THE SUN KEEP ORBITING THE EARTH? BAM!

    You see people, that’s how you deal with atheist skum. With LOGIC! Hit that bullseye and the rest of the dominoes will come down like a house of cards… CHECKMATE!

    And on that note…

    Dunt dun duuh DAAAAHHHH!

    !!!!!!!!!MY ATHEIST STORE!!!!!!!!!

    Aristotle’s Muse

    This is my store. Maybe wearing an atheist T-shirt won’t change the world, but enough of them just might.

  7. Sarah said

    @bloggingishard – what a wonderful, insightful comment! I too have read much of the articles and the comments, and I think your insights are spot on.

    Wonderful post, Kate. In return I’ll tell you what I’m bad at. I’m a bad vegan. Why? Because I don’t believe that it’s the only way to live, and I don’t feel a moral imperative to ‘convert’ people to veganism. I also listen to omnivores and try to understand where they are coming from, and see if they’ve thought of something I haven’t. I get attacked all the time about it, and essentially people tell me I’m not pure enough. There are a lot of other things I do that make people say I am a bad vegan. So much so that I feel embarrassed to call myself that. But I still am in my head.

    And for the record – I don’t think you’re a bad atheist or a bad feminist, and I am both.

  8. As another “bad atheist” I totally understand where your coming from, Kate. I think Sara hit on one of the two key points of why I feel like a bad atheist (in reference to her veganism)…I don’t want to convert anyone. Which goes along with the other point, that I want tolerance of my atheism so I give tolerance to theism.

    I’ve started to think of myself as an independent atheist. I came up with my atheism on my own and I’m doing it my own way.

  9. […] essays from Stedman as well as a whole host of contributors, from Muslims to LGBT activists to secular Jewish clergywomen. Of course, with so many contentious issues bottled up on the site, there’s plenty of debate […]

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