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.

peopleHey folks! I’ve got a few big projects in the works right now (how vague and ambiguous…), so, to keep NonProphet Status fresh amidst my busyness, I’ve recruited a few worthy guest bloggers to populate it with content over the next few weeks. In the past, I’ve been honored to feature some pretty incredible guest posts from the likes of Tim Brauhn, Jessica Kelley, Nick Mattos, Sayira KhokarRory Fenton, Nate Mauger, Kate FridkisAndrew FogleMiranda Hovemeyer, Nat DeLuca, Mary Ellen Giess, Jeff PolletJoseph Varisco, Corinne Tobias, Vandana Goel LaClairNicholas Lang, and even my own Mom! We’ve also hosted original writing by Eboo Patel, August Brunsman, Hemant Mehta, Erik Roldan, and Emanuel Aguilar.

We’ve featured so many guest posters because NPS was never intended to be “Chris Stedman’s platform.” Rather, I wanted to create a forum for an alternative secular narrative. It’s why I initiated, organized and ran our first Share Your Secular Story contest. Featuring an amazing panel of judges that included the former head of Amnesty International USA and 2000 “Humanist of the Year” William Schulz, the contest inspired an influx of submissions from all across the United States and even across the globe, with entries from Ireland and Kenya and a story from one entrant’s childhood growing up in India.

In hosting the story contest and featuring so many guest bloggers, I’ve hoped to make NPS a place where a multitude of voices help define a new narrative for the secular community: one that respects the religious identities of others while remaining authentic to our own identities (be they secular, religious, or somewhere in-between).

I can’t wait to read along with you as this next diverse batch of guest bloggers continues to show us all a new way forward. I’m on the edge of my secular seat!

Today’s guest commentary comes from Eat The Damn Cake‘s Kate Fridkis, who we interviewed earlier this week. Kate recently attended a screening of the film Sex and the City 2, and we asked her to comment on the film’s purportedly insensitive attitude toward Muslims. Below is Kate’s reaction.

sex-and-the-city-2-posterSex and the City 2 was exactly what I expected it to be. Tired, emaciated, glitzy, and full of shoes and dresses with shocking shoulder pads. But I’ve watched the whole series and as a result, I feel obligated to go to the movies. Not that I can’t appreciate any aspect of the experience. Seriously, if I had that many outfits in my closet, I might like changing my clothes every five minutes too!

What I wasn’t quite prepared for was the regurgitation of that familiar comparison between “western” sexuality and “Muslim” prudishness. In “Abu Dhabi” (actually filmed in Marrakesh), the foursome experience every luxury imaginable, but are shocked by the strangeness of the natives’ attitudes towards women’s sexuality. There is certainly plenty that can be said about sexism, women’s oppression, and a need for cross-cultural evaluations of the concepts of sexual liberation, independence, and autonomy, but Sex and the City 2 instead rehashes some of the old arguments: America is the land of the sexually free, and its opposite is all Muslim countries, which are the lands of the sexually oppressed and repressed. Yet there is something extremely erotic and exotic about these places — like a scene from Arabian Nights.

And all Muslim women are definitely unhappy with their condition. In fact, when given the chance, women in the movie throw off their burqas and reveal the same blindingly sequined, garish fashion that the stars of the movie are wearing. This is their show of solidarity.

Overall, there is the distinct sense that Muslim culture exists both to gratify American tastes for the old-school exotic, while simultaneously providing grounds for self-righteous shock at the seemingly antiquated approach toward sex, and the subsequent self-satisfied pride at being associated with a culture that knows how good sex really is.

I can’t pretend, though, that parts of Abu Dhabi don’t actually cater to and attempt to consciously create this impression for Western visitors! And I can’t pretend that Sex and the City 2 should be held responsible for being as silly about Muslims as it is about everyone and everything else. But maybe there should’ve been more effort made here, since it’s obviously a sensitive and difficult topic.

Kate Fridkis recently wrote an Op/Ed for the Huffington Post’s Religion Section titled “Atheists Can Be Stupid, Too” in which she addressed the fact that Atheism is fraught with an intellectual superiority complex. I found her piece so compelling and worthwhile that I reached out to her to see if she would be interested in having a conversation to be published here. She graciously obliged; below is a transcript of our exchange.

NonProphet Status: Hey Kate! Thanks for joining me today. For those who don’t know who you are, what do you “do” besides write for the Huffington Post?

Kate Fridkis: Well, I work as a lay cantor at a synagogue in central New Jersey. For people who don’t know, that means I’m the other person standing up on the Bima with the Rabbi; the one who keeps singing in Hebrew. I also blog at eatthedamncake.com about body image and being a young woman in New York City, and sometimes about my experience as a homeschooler and how that continues to impact me. I am the Interviews Editor for the Journal of Inter-religious Dialogue, teach for Interfaith Community here in the city, and I make awesome sandwiches.

NPS: Great! It certainly sounds like you’re busy.

Fridkis: Yup. Who isn’t?

NPS: You make awesome sandwiches; do you also make awesome cake? [Laughs]

Fridkis: [Laughs] I wish! Ironically, my fiancé is a diabetic so I don’t really bake. Though I try to order it out as much as I can.

NPS: Does that leave you eating cake alone? That’s kind of a depressing image… [Laughs]

Fridkis: No, it’s an empowering image! Read my post about ice cream

NPS: [Laughs] Excellent reframe. I’ll get right to it. So, let’s not beat around the bush – do you believe in God? Now that’s a loaded question, eh?

kate fridkisFridkis: I don’t believe in God, and I haven’t believed in God for a really long time if I ever did.

NPS: Is your synagogue a Humanistic Jewish community?

Fridkis: No, it’s a Reconstructionist Shul.

NPS: Are you “out” about your non-theism in your community?

Fridkis: No, not to my congregation, which is why I was really nervous about that last HuffPo piece. It felt like “coming out.”

NPS: How do you think they would react to it?

Fridkis: I’m not sure, honestly. A congregation is just a bunch of individuals and I think they’d all have different reactions. But there’s something very sensitive about clergy being Atheistic and I’m nervous that the board wouldn’t approve.

NPS: So what made you decide to “come out” in spite of the possible ramifications you could face?

Fridkis: I’m tired of not being able to say anything. I’m tired of having to pretend that everything that I believe and am doesn’t come together to make me better, rather than weaker, as a person. I hate the implication that supposedly contradictory beliefs make someone confused and lost, rather than stronger, more honest, and more complex. The fact is there are plenty of Atheist clergy members; they just don’t talk about it. I think Daniel Dennett is writing a book about this now.

NPS: That’s perfect. I couldn’t have said it better if I tried… and I have. [Laughs] So I completely agree. But your piece for HuffPo was about more than just you coming out as an Atheist. You also offered a pretty strong critique of the idea that Atheists are intellectually superior to theists.

Fridkis: Yes; in fact, the piece wasn’t about me coming out at all. That was incidental. As, I feel, it should be.

NPS: Absolutely.

Fridkis: I’m just one person, and I’m part of a much bigger trend, which is the point.

NPS: Yeah. I think you really underscore this at the end of your piece, and I couldn’t help but think of the work I’ve done with the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) when I read it, where you say: “Maybe we need some new terms for the camps. How about this: ‘people who are willing to have a conversation, ‘ and ‘people who just want to hear themselves talk. ‘” It’s very reminiscent of IFYC’s framing of “pluralists” and “totalitarians” instead of the old “Clash of Civilizations” model.

Fridkis: Absolutely. I really think that the bifurcation is incorrectly positioned – if we need one at all! People like dualisms, though, because they like the idea of “dueling.” Sorry, that’s corny… but it’s true. That tension is very exciting: the idea that we’re on opposite sides and we’re locked in this cosmic battle.

NPS: Yeah – it’s why I utilize that IFYC model even as I acknowledge that, ultimately, even it is inadequate, as any simplification is. But we need to simplify to get ideas out there, and it’s certainly “better” or, at least, “more helpful.” It points in the right direction.

Fridkis: Totally. And I love what you’re doing.

NPS: Thanks! So we’ve got this binaristic narrative right now that is totally dominating secular community organizing that is essentially quite fundamentalistic in its critique of religious fundamentalism.

Fridkis: Right.

NPS: And your piece in HuffPo is kind of a call to acknowledge the gray areas of both religious and secular identity.

Fridkis: Exactly.

NPS: What inspired you to write it, besides the catharsis of “coming out” about your Atheism?

Fridkis: It’s annoying to feel as though, as an Atheist, one will immediately get lumped in with the people who dismiss religion as a whole.

NPS: Oh yeah, it’s one of my biggest pet peeves. People hear I don’t believe in God and automatically assume they can start ribbing religion with me, thinking that such comments wouldn’t be hurtful to me just because I’m “not religious.”

Fridkis: Sure.

NPS: When really, I think they should hurt anyone who has a basic respect for the dignity of all people. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve got a sense of humor about religion. You have to when you work with it as much as I do. “Dogma” and “Saved!” are two of my favorite movies.

Fridkis: [Laughs] Exactly! I’m all for being able to make fun of everyone, really, though I try to be sensitive about it.

NPS: I guess I just think there’s a difference when you start attacking identities in a public way.

Fridkis: I couldn’t agree more. I guess what inspired me to write the piece was an endless string of conversations I’ve had with people. Some of these conversations focused on my Atheism, and people would challenge me to defend it. The idea that I had to defend it seemed ridiculous to me.

NPS: [Laughs] Right?

Fridkis: I don’t think anyone should be responsible for having mastered the intricacies of an entire tradition, unless that’s their life’s goal.

NPS: Right. It does feel like a lot of pressure, doesn’t it? To have to speak on behalf of your entire community and the history of a belief, let alone just speaking to how it functions in your own life?

Fridkis: The idea that, because I identified as an Atheist, I should be able to make these brilliant logical arguments in defense of my stance felt ridiculous. And too difficult!

NPS: [Laughs]

Fridkis: People started suggesting that the whole point of being an Atheist was that you thought you knew better than everyone else; that you used logic, and not faith, to make sense of the world. This bothered me a lot, because I don’t think there’s ever any one way to approach a state of being. People arrive there from every direction, from every background, from every set of experiences imaginable. I couldn’t explain why I was an Atheist very well – I just knew I’d never really believed in God. I also knew I was totally committed to Judaism. I love my people so much that I feel like crying anytime I see something like Jews coming together to march for peaceful causes, people lighting Shabbat candles, whatever. The New York Times does a piece on a little Jewish community somewhere, as they like to do, and I cry. It’s kind of funny. And one of the most fulfilling ways I can express my commitment to my people is through being a Jewish leader. Being a cantor feels right. But it also doesn’t feel as though it should logically exclude my Atheism, because my participation in my own religion is very people-oriented as you can probably tell. It’s not about God, it’s about community. And even if people are there for God, they’re still there as a community.

NPS: Right. That’s beautiful, and it’s why my friends and I started a Secular Humanist community here in Chicago – because we still crave some of the things that religion has historically offered: community, opportunities to give back, etc.

Fridkis: Awesome! Good for you. And, of course, I completely agree.

NPS: And, unfortunately, I see a lot of “baby with the bathwater” rejection among Atheists. Anything that seems even the least bit “tainted” by religion is dismissed as “emotional.”

Fridkis: Absolutely. And that’s also why I wrote the piece – because of my conversation with an Atheist leader who was a complete jerk.

NPS: I know a lot of Atheists who will laugh when they read that you cry over any NYT piece about a Jewish community, because it will “prove them right.” “She clings to religion for its emotional benefits,” they’ll say. To which I’d respond: “So what?!” [Laughs]

Fridkis: [Laughs] As if anything is ever divorced from emotions. That’s a ridiculous argument, and when people make it, I wonder why they’re even bothering to talk. You can’t separate being a person from having emotions.

NPS: Right.

Fridkis: This goes back to that absurd argument everyone wants to make that Atheism is about cold, hard logic and nothing else. My philosophy friends will hate me, but “logic,” as I understand it, is perfectly capable of including emotion.

NPS: Absolutely! I went to the American Atheist Convention last month and they did a blasphemy exercise where three women dressed in burkas sang a song that I found horribly offensive. It prompted me to cry. When I shared that on my blog, which felt very vulnerable to do, it was met with scoffs and scorn, including a YouTube video where one person called me a coward and smirked when she repeated that it made me cry.

Fridkis: Wow. That’s sad.

NPS: When did our community – Atheists – decide we wanted to be emotionless robots?! [Laughs]

Fridkis: Seriously! I’m so sorry you’ve gotten that response. It’s embarrassing for the Atheist community, if there really is such a cohesive thing.

NPS: Similarly – and I’m sure you’ll love this – one of the presenters at the convention was asked during a Q&A session why “more women [seem to be] infected by the God virus.” His response? “Women are more often ‘feelers,’ and religion is about emotions.”

Fridkis: [Screams] I feel like arguments like these are pointless. They’re just like war propaganda, based on enormous, absurd claims.

NPS: Totally. And, well, I think that is because a lot of Atheists do see it as a war. But I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you ask if there’s a cohesive Atheist community. We’ll never be cohesive if we keep trying to deny that we want to organize as a community to fulfill emotional needs, a.k.a. for the same reason that religious people organize.

Fridkis: Obviously, everything anyone does has emotional and rational components, and to say something doesn’t is to want to oversimplify to the point where arguments are placed in the cosmic terms of things like “heaven and hell,” “good and evil,” and other dualisms that obscure the complicated reality of being human.

NPS: Right!

Fridkis: But oversimplifying feels good to people. Because, well, it makes everything easy! And because it makes them feel right without having to question themselves, and questioning oneself is scary.

NPS: But this I think is one of the integral problems facing Atheist communities right now – everything needs to be quantifiable and “scientific,” which very easily lends itself to essentializing and dichotomizing and denies the “gray.”

Fridkis: Exactly. And it’s a problem because people who just don’t believe in God, but don’t have other strong opinions about the matter, are excluded.

NPS: So, oh great and wise Kate…

Fridkis: [Laughs]

NPS: How do we construct a more cohesive secular community that doesn’t try to diminish the emotional experiences that come along with not believing in God? Think you can tackle that? [Laughs]

Fridkis: Wow. Hmm… Maybe we stop making it all about God. Sometimes I think that’s the whole debate, and it gives God too much power. Atheists give God so much power by wanting to constantly talk about how God doesn’t exist. So maybe if we just focus on whatever else we want to do as people who care about the world, and we go and do it, and when people ask us why we say, “well, this is part of my Humanism,” then that might be a start.

NPS: That’s brilliant, and totally in line with how I feel.

Fridkis: So the community that identifies as Secular Humanists can go ahead and do things in the world, rather than constantly talking about all the ways in which it’s conceptually different from theists – not that Secular Humanists aren’t already doing things, of course.

NPS: Right. The Secular Humanist group we’ve got going in Chicago has had conversations about how we’d much rather focus on expressing our Humanism through service than hosting debates with theists, like a lot of secular groups do.

Fridkis: Awesome!

NPS: We’ve actually never once had the “God debate” in our group, because what’s the point, right?

Fridkis: Exactly.

NPS: We all know that everyone in the room doesn’t believe in God, but we don’t want to get stuck there. If we keep saying “we don’t believe in God” over and over again, we’ll become rooted in this innately oppositional identity.

Fridkis: Absolutely. I’m so excited about your work!

NPS: Wow, that’s so sweet of you! Thanks. And I yours, of course. So, I think we are getting to a good spot to conclude this conversation. I guess just to wrap things up, I want to thank you for writing what I think was a very insightful and important piece for HuffPo. Do you have any final thoughts for NPS readers on how the secular community can take steps to stop being as black-and-white about things?

Fridkis: I think that people need to stop thinking in dichotomies as much as possible. If a criticism of religion is that it divides things into “good and evil,” or creates a division of people into the categories “believers and non-believers,” then that criticism should also be turned back on ourselves. We should pay close attention to the ways in which we automatically establish binaries. On a more concrete level, maybe we should initiate more humanitarian and intellectual activities between self-defined religious and secular groups, like park cleanups, poetry slams, food drives, and lecture series. People don’t have to be there to talk about their disagreements, they can just be there as representatives of different worldviews, working and learning together. Because after all, we’re doing that already. We just have to recognize it and stop pretending everyone is so fundamentally different.

NPS: I couldn’t agree more. You’ve just described the world I’m working to create – or, more precisely, the world that’s already out there, just differently understood.

Fridkis: Definitely. It’s awesome to talk with someone who thinks this way. I feel like it’s rare for someone to be so articulate about this stance, so thanks so much.

NPS: Aw! Well right back at you, for all the same reasons. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. I’m really excited that we’ve connected and look forward to continued collaboration.

Fridkis: Me too! Thanks for contacting me!

For more on Kate check out her blog, Eat the Damn Cake, drop by her author profile on the Huffington Post, and follow her on Twitter.

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