My oldest son is almost 15. Last year when we were on a tour of Israel’s holiest sites with a group led by our Rabbi, my boy- a fiercely proud Zionist who wears a Hebrew Hammer-sized Star of David around his neck, has attended Hebrew School since he was two and a half, celebrated the Sabbath regularly in both his mom’s house and mine, and has participated in leading Saturday morning services at our synagogue- announced that he was an atheist. Upon further thought he modified his statement to “an agnostic leaning toward atheism”. This realization, which he came to at the age of 11 and voiced to me seriously for the first time when he was 13, prompted him to ask what I thought was a fairly deep question for a young teenager: Can I be both an atheist and a practising Jew? More recently, as we prepare for the upcoming Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement, he asked if he still had to attend synagogue with his siblings and I since he does not “believe in praying to God”. My answer to both of his questions was “Yes”. I am quite satisfied with the rationale I laid out for him to support my affirmative answers to his questions and I have decided to share my reasoning here. However, since my answers would apply equally if we were of a non-Jewish faith I will substitute in the first question reference to any or all religions for the words “practising Jew”. To the second question, I will refer to other houses of worship as opposed to solely the synagogue. Further, although the terms atheist and agnostic are not the same, I consider the discussion equally relevant to anyone on the agnostic-atheist continuum. And before my devoutly atheist friends jump on any of my points, this is not a column debating the merits of religion versus atheism, but rather an attempt to reconcile the involvement of religion in one’s life even if that person is dogmatic in their atheism.
The practise of one’s religious faith, while typically thought of as containing as its overriding tenet a belief in God or a supreme deity, does not necessarily have to contain that component. There are a great many benefits to being active in one’s church, mosque, synagogue, temple, or other religious community that simply put, do not require as a condition precedent the belief in an almighty. Studies show that teenagers active in religious youth organizations through their church, synagogue, or temple perform better in school. People who are active in their church are less likely to commit crime, more likely to help their neighbours and to volunteer for community service. Other studies show that people who attend worship services regularly rate their level of happiness higher than those who do not belong to a religious structure. Further, the benefits of being part of a like minded religious community are particularly felt during life cycle events such as birth, death, marriage, divorce, as well as significant milestones in our children’s lives. This is to mention nothing about the sense of belonging to a community of people of like values who care about one another. Or of the intimate friendships, business relationships and romantic partnerships that arise through the social interactions which occur as a result of one’s involvement in a religious community.
While my son does not accept the literal teachings of the Hebrew Bible that he has studied in Sunday school lo these many years, he has very clearly grown into a fine, well behaved young man who is tolerant and understanding. He tries to live a “Jewish life”, meaning an existence based on certain moral and ethical paradigms and a desire to not only succeed but to help others. In an era when we are inundated with materialism, consumerism, celebrity obsession and a culture of entitlement, it is often only through religion that our children develop a sense that there is a vastness to the universe and that said universe does not revolve around them. It is through religion that they are instilled with values that involve making the community richer for all.
It is almost trite to say religion provides a moral compass by which to live our lives. And I concede it can be argued that morality does not necessarily need to come from religion. We all know very decent atheists who adhere to a strict moral code and live to serve. Conversely, we can all think of individuals whose conduct runs contrary to their religious posture. But the exceptions would seem to prove the rule. It is simply easier for communally beneficial values and morality to take hold early in life, and remain dear to us as we age, when we are not trying to figure it out on our own. Much better to develop as a member of a larger community with supportive friends, teachers and role models to help guide us.
My son has accepted my assertions as above and feels perfectly confident continuing to live and practise culturally, and (at least tangentially) religiously as a Jew, but still wants to know why he has to attend synagogue. He argues in his defence that he finds it difficult to pray to a God he does not believe in, but goes on to point out if he did chose to pray he could just as easily do so at home. Which leads us to the second question he posed.
I took this opportunity to ask him to consider that if he went through the liturgy and took out the references to God, what would be left? How about a series of affirmations, meditations, and reflections about being thankful for what he has; remembering not to take his health, material objects, happiness, friends or family for granted; a sense of the vastness of the world; an introspective look at his dreams, joys, fears, and regrets; a reminder to try every day to live a better life by being a better person. It is one of the few times, if not the only time in our perma-wired society, that he will be away from his smartphone, detached from his ipod, disconnected from his computer and unplugged from all technology. It is only during synagogue services that he is in a place where there are none of these outside distractions. It is only in this instance, I reminded him, that he can truly engage in even a brief period of genuine, deep and profound self-reflection. Those moments, even absent a belief in God, will serve to make him a better person.
So to my son I say: I am proud of you for being able to think for yourself, for your pride in your heritage, for your courage to ask difficult questions, for your desire to figure out the difficult answers; and for living a Jewish life. I have no issue with you being an atheist and no intention to change your mind. But for all the reasons discussed above, you still have to go to synagogue next week.