On Godless Heathens

September 29, 2010

Today’s guest post in NonProphet Status’ ongoing series of other contributors is by freelance writer and blogger Emily L. Hauser. Emily, a Jewish woman and frequent writer on Israel/Palestine and Middle East issues, tackles something a bit personal: her marriage to an atheist. Whether you’re Jewish, an atheist, or something else altogether, this inspirational writing is a must-read. Take it away, Emily!

billboardLately Americans have been talking a lot about faith – the Muslim faith. As we grapple with the understanding of just how diverse we are as a people, Americans of good will – Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims – have been striving to help their countrymen learn that we have nothing to fear from Islam. As a believing Jew, I’ve been right there in the thick of it.

But as I struggle with the fact that so many of my fellow citizens fear a belief system dear to the hearts of 1.5 billion people, I struggle also with another, far less acknowledged, fact: Even more of them fear my husband.

Because he doesn’t believe in God at all.

I pray, I keep kosher, my relationship with the Divine plays an enormous role in my life. But my husband? Not so much.

Eran is an unwavering atheist. But because he’s a Jewish atheist, and Jews do a lot that can just be about heritage, we’ve found a fairly easy middle ground. For me, lighting Shabbat candles consecrates the day; for Eran, it’s a nice thing to do with the kids. Tomato, tomahto.

Yet I will be the first to admit that the margins of the middle ground are broad, what with me seeking guidance from a Creator whom Eran believes to be all in my head – and I’ve come to realize that as broad as the margin is on my side, Eran’s is equally wide.

He’s argued with me for 18 years that there’s little room in Western culture for nonbelievers, and I say “argued” because, through he’s never been anything but supportive of me, I spent years not really taking him seriously. No room? Please. I have spiritual struggle; he gets to eat bacon.

Like a constant drip on rock, however, his comments began to wear away my ignorance, and I’ve had to take notice. Americans hold to an unspoken understanding that is so deeply ingrained, it appears to be natural law: A belief in God, we think, is the well from which all morality springs.

Consider, if you will, the word “godless.”

The cadences of Scripture run through American thought. We read that “the fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile” (Psalms 14:1), and our highest officials regularly make clear that they believe it.

At our dawn, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “While I claim a right to believe in one God, I yield as freely to others that of believing in three. Both religions, I find, make honest men. …” Much later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower echoed Jefferson, saying that belief in God generates “honesty, decency, fairness.” More recently, a pre-Presidential Barack Obama, seeking to reassure nervous Red Staters, declared that we in the Blue States “believe in a mighty God.”

Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of the seminal When Bad Things Happen to Good People, took this approach to its logical conclusion in his 1995 book When Children Ask about God: “The person who is good because he believes that certain things are right … need not take literally the image of a divine person in Heaven,” he wrote. “[He] believes in God and is acting on that belief.”

That is: Even if my husband, a real peach of a guy, doesn’t believe in God – he believes in God. He’s good, isn’t he? Or, in the words of one member of my synagogue: “Oh, don’t worry. He’ll come around. They always do.”

This unease, this distrust, this sense that, really, everyone believes in something! No atheists in foxholes! and so on, this overarching attitude can be seen in cold hard numbers, as well: A 2007 Newsweek poll found that fully 62% of registered voters wouldn’t vote for an atheist candidate; a 2003 study by the University of Minnesota found that 40% of Americans believe that atheists “don’t agree at all with my vision of American society”—and nearly half wouldn’t want their children to marry an atheist. Atheists, the U of M found, were the single least trusted group in the country.

While there’s been some powerful water under the bridge since these surveys were conducted – the election of our first “other” President, for instance (a President who has since acknowledged “nonbelievers” on more than one occasion) as well as an apparent increase in our willingness to talk about the atheism, I think I’m safe in thinking that these numbers still broadly reflect the attitudes of believing Americans toward their non-believing brethren. If only because I hear the way my believing brethren talk.

But living with Eran, one of the most truly ethical people I know, I find I can no longer allow such bigotry to pass unremarked. Our beloved American respect for all creeds is revealed as just that: for the creed-ed only. The creed-less need not apply. Even the separation of church and state becomes suspect, as it presupposes, by definition, a church.

When pressed, Eran might allow the vague possibility that Something created the universe, but he’s certain that said Something has nothing to do with history or humanity’s ability to reach its highest ground. We live, we die, certain things are right, others are wrong – and we can find them without being told.

Recent discoveries in evolutionary biology appear to support this approach, in fact, suggesting that the faculty for developing a moral sense is a genetically designed feature of the human brain. Now, I might argue that God created that faculty in humanity – but I can’t know, in any verifiable sense, that Eran is wrong when he disagrees. That’s why we call it faith.

Like most Americans, I live my life in the belief that I’m guided and comforted by a being outside me and all human experience – but the bald truth is that I can’t know for sure.

I can, however, look to Eran’s works and see his goodness, look to his heart and see his honesty, and concede the point: There might not be a God. And my husband is no more prone to corruption and vile deeds than the next guy for thinking so.

What I do know is this: If there’s a heaven, Eran’s a shoo-in. The mighty God in whom I believe is far too great to care if my husband’s righteousness was born in Torah study or his own precious soul.

As a country, we would do better to leave matters of faith to the recesses of private hearts and measure the integrity of our fellow citizens (and elected officials) by their deeds, rather than their affiliations.

Take it from the wife of a godless man.

Emily HauserEmily L. Hauser is a freelance writer and blogger living outside of Chicago. She writes frequently about Israel/Palestine and the Middle East more broadly, but has also been known to write about everything from Winnie the Pooh to the social niceties of wearing shoes. Loud music, too. She blogs at Emily L. Hauser – In My Head; her Twitter handle is @emilylhauser.


7 Responses to “On Godless Heathens”

  1. dmf said

    as an atheist, who is married to a mystic/clergywoman, and does a lot of social work/organizing with religious organizations (many of whom are deeply prejudiced against atheists so I’m often in the closet of don’t ask don’t tell) I can testify that it doesn’t really matter Why people do things but rather it’s How and What they do that matters, but this is of course a very secular perspective…

  2. Love this post. I would also recommend to folks interested in this topic, Greg Epstein’s book, Good without God: http://harvardhumanist.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=7&Itemid=2

  3. Hitch said

    Very nice piece. I’ve been trying to get people to recognize the facts about distrust of atheists (also around here) for months. As best I can tell it doesn’t register.

    That atheists are distrusted is a hidden issue, and it’s a big one. And this is honest to good the first blog post by a believer that I have seen that takes this in any way seriously. So thank you very much for that. In fact news coverage such as CNN was dismissive on the issue and believers I have talked (and also some non-believers) repeatedly tell me that we deserve the image!

    This is quite horrible. When I volunteer my time, I learn quickly that people assume that I’m religious. And even sociological indicators by no means justify the image we have.

    Phil Zuckerman has broadly reviewed them and if anything we do just fine. Atheists don’t fill prisons, don’t do more immoral things. In fact we tend to be highly educated, in favor of social policies that help the underprivileged, very tolerant, and so forth. During WWII atheists were among those most likely to help Jews trying to hide from Nazi persecution.

    But the distrust remains despite what is true. We need more people who speak to what atheists as a group are about, and dispel the stereotypes. And we need less people who tell us that we deserve it.

  4. sue swartz said

    Years ago I was asked to make a presentation describing Jewish beliefs and customs about death to a mainline Christian study group. They were stunned to find that the afterlife was not a large motivator in Jewish theology — why would anyone behave on Earth if there was no punishment/reward post-death? This led – roundabout – to my theory that folks are so antsy about God because to question belief is sure to raise up existential dread: we’re alone in the world! There’s no purpose! Dead is dead!

    On the other hand, to raise issues of belief in certain quarters leads to an opposite existential reaction: What do you mean I’m not in control? There can’t be anything bigger than me! It is a sign of weakness to believe.

    Given that no one knows definitely whether there is a God or not (we’re all shooting in the dark here), the real measure – as others have said – is how we behave in the world and whether we’re open to finding out just how wrong we are.

  5. Tracie said

    Awesome piece.

    I am an Atheist living in a very conservative, Mormon church-centric area of Southern Utah. I believe in Daoism as a philosophy, and I call myself a Daoist because I would be vilified if I came out as an Atheist. In reality, I *am* an Atheist. But if I said so, I’d lose friendships and business opportunities.

    Thank you for writing this.

  6. […] and more, as I do interfaith work, I encounter religious people who are willing to speak up on our behalf. Wanting to include a nonreligious perspective, the organizers of Duquesne University’s […]

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