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Book of Matthew: Losing my religion: A follow-up

Published: October 2, 2009
Section: Opinions


It was about mid-way through last year. There I was, manning the cash register at my job at Einstein’s, minding my own business and wishing my shift would go by a little faster. Amid the yelling of orders and the frantic WhoCard swipes, one customer decided to strike up a conversation with me.

“Hey,” he said. “You’re Bret Matthew, right? You write for The Hoot?”

“Yeah, that’s me,” I answered, slightly surprised.

“I read your last article. It was good. I liked it.”

“Thanks.”

“I just wanted to tell you that I agree with you. I’m an atheist too.”

I’m an atheist too. Now that got my attention.

It’s true that at the end of fall semester last year, I wrote a column entitled “Losing my religion: A rant about non-believing.” The title was no exaggeration. I made it quite clear where I stood at the time. I mocked the concept of God. I claimed to despise organized religion, going as far as to call it a “detriment to humanity.” The fact that I wrote the piece under the pressure of an uncomfortably close deadline didn’t exactly pacify my writing either.

The reason I bring this up is that they are words that I can no longer claim to fully believe.

What do I believe? That’s a good question. In a sense I was born and raised into a perpetual religious identity crisis. I grew up in a mostly Jewish home, but never a strict one. I was taken to synagogue and taught about God, but never forced to pray on my own. I learned to read Hebrew, but never mastered the language well enough to know what I was actually saying.

These aren’t exactly circumstances that bring about a sense of deep personal faith. And as I grew older, I moved even further away from my paltry religious upbringing. I became dismissive of all kinds of belief, to the point where I was writing angry opinion columns about it.

And then Monday happened. Monday, as I’m sure you already know, was Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. It’s a time for Jews to gather, pray, fast, and cleanse themselves of all their sins from the past year. Although I didn’t partake in these traditions (as you may have guessed), I did find myself dedicating an exceptional amount of time to personal reflection.

“Am I an atheist?” I asked myself.

I came to two very different, tentative conclusions.

On one hand, I still have many doubts about organized religion, Judaism included. I question the existence of a God. I question the use of prayer. I question the use of complicated rituals. I question devout believers, who appear to be shackled to their chosen dogma like mindless slaves. Above all, I question any institution that demand that its unprovable assertions and teachings be accepted at face value.

On the other hand, I cannot consider myself an atheist. I just can’t, if for no other reason than the fact that my arguments against all other religions seem to apply to atheism as well. Yes, religion has so far been unprovable. We do not know if there is a God, or if any of the millions of prayers invoked every day actually make a difference in the world. But out of fairness, I would argue that none of this can be disproved either. In this vast, complicated, and inadequately understood universe of ours, there exists the possibility of any number of higher beings or powers. To say that this is unequivocally untrue carries no more weight than to say the opposite, for a simple reason: we don’t know.

In the end, atheist beliefs, while in many cases simpler than other religious beliefs, are still no less dogmatic, and still demand acceptance at face value. And as much as I question the validity of religious tenets, I must admit that my questioning has also led me to remain open to their possibilities.

Belief-wise, this probably leaves me somewhere in the middle of everything. But I suppose that this state of mind is where I’m supposed to be.

You see, it’s calm here. It’s a small, peaceful eye in the midst of contentious storms. I feel like I’m free to consider anything. It’s been a long time coming, but I think I’ve finally managed to open my mind.

I never did give an answer to that customer’s assertion. But if I had a chance to speak to him again, I know what I would tell him:

I am not an atheist, nor a believer. I am simply a rational human being, a tolerant one who seeks the truth that will satisfy my deep curiosity. And until that truth appears, I have nothing to believe, but everything to learn.