I remember sitting in a World History class in highschool when we were doing a section about organized religion. We were talking about the five major religion.
I grew up near Fabric Row in Philadelphia. Historically this part of town is very Jewish. In the early days of the 20th century, Fabric Row was part of a very large marketplace that was primarily run by Jewish families. Today there is still a highly concentrated Jewish population there. When I started school at 5, I was introduced to the kids of the neighborhood…who were mostly Jewish. As I got older, this didn’t particularly change. I was among them. My mother’s entire family is Russian Jew. My father, I suppose, would be Catholic if only because his father was 100% Italian and in his words, “When you’re Italian, you’re just Roman Catholic…it doesn’t really mean anything”. So, I’m half Jewish, but the “right” half to become a citizen of Israel, if I so desired…and also to avoid “Shiksa” status, if you care about such things. This was basically the case with all of my friends. In addition, very few of the Jews I knew were particularly religious. They participated in rituals and went through their bar/batmitvahs, but no one seemed to actually care about “God” itself. None of them prayed as far as I knew. The most I heard anyone talk about religion is when they were whining about having to eat matzo during Passover.
Meanwhile, while my mother liked the idea of the cultural side of Judaism, she didn’t believe in any of it. Instead, she was into astrology and the New Age. My parents were both in EST (a New Age group that was very popular in the 70’s and 80’s)…
Side note: So, I totally went to look up a page on EST so that I link information about it here and all I found was that the founder used to be a used car dealer and is now on the run from the law. HOT!
Anyway, my parents eventually rejected EST because, while a lot of the ideas that they were teaching were good (personal control and responsibility), it turned out that they were full of crap. But, my mom still thinks about astrology and numerology and things like that. This was very prevalent in my life when I was very young. Also prevalent was the idea that organized religion was a pox on the world.
When I was five years old, my dad took me out walking around on South Street. A middle aged man came up to me standing with my dad and spoke to me directly. He went to hand me a lollipop but before he let me take it, he asked, “Do you take Jesus to be your Lord and Savior?”
Without skipping a beat, I looked the guy in the eye and said, “I’m not really into Jesus. I’ll take the lollipop though.” My dad was astounded. And looking back, I mark this as my first point of consciousness about my atheism.
So, for those following along, my perspective on religion/atheism at the time was that the biggest religion in the world was Judaism but that it was pretty meaningless because everyone was an atheist anyway. I honestly believed that atheists were the majority. Even more hilarious, I thought atheist Jews were the majority. In addition, what I did know of spirituality in my own home was a spirituality centered around the stars, the spiritual significance of numbers and possibly crystals and past lives. I was raised that the Universe will give you the things you want if you ask for it. It was magic and I liked the idea of it…but I don’t think I ever really believed in it. Needless to say, I had a peculiar and incorrect view of the world.
So I’m sitting in this class and it is revealed to me the Judaism is the smallest religion of the “big five”. I was surprised. Part one of my peculiar world view gone. Then I got older and when I was a senior in highschool I was suddenly made aware that really very people I knew were atheists and that they found atheists utterly insulting.
I wrote an essay in for English about how I didn’t see why anyone needed prayer to be officially sanctioned in school. It was in response to an article I read about a group of teens that formed a prayer group that would meet before school everyday. The teens started the group because they felt deprived not being able to pray during class time.
I didn’t get it. I mean, couldn’t you just pray to yourself during math class or something? So…I wrote about it and the essay was handed out to the entire class (without my name) to be workshopped as a piece of writing.
Oy…it was a poorly written piece in my opinion. But, of course, no one was getting on my case about the syntax or bad structure. They were all up in arms about my disrespect for religion. Suddenly I looked around the room (no one knowing that it was me who wrote it) and saw room full of people completely offended and hateful about the fact that I didn’t see prayer in school as appropriate.
I graduated and then went to Drexel and met Wes. At the time, I was identifying as an atheist, but I still had the remains of liking the idea of the stars dictating my destiny and getting what I wanted from “The Universe”. I don’t really remember how it happened that I lost the last of this, but I don’t remember it being cathartic. It was just another thing that I got rid of when I thought about it rationally.
I am happy to be more aware now, to finally be joining in the “New Atheist” party. I sort of regret that I am so late to it, but better late than never, right? As I have started reading many atheist bloggers, I finally feel a sense of community in that aspect of my life. Next month, just after I turn 31, I will be attending the Reason Rally and I have to tell you that I am really quite excited about it. Before now, I don’t know that I ever defined atheism as an important thing about me to myself, but as I see the country inching towards theocracy I find that it is highly important.
Like I said, better late than never.