I am a “non-believer”
Posted by shannonclark on January 21, 2009
Yesterday in the midst of a historic Inauguration, President Obama included the phrase “and nonbelievers” in his Inaugural Address.
Many of my friends commenting live at the time via Twitter echoed my personal sentiments “finally I/we are being included” but many more via online email lists and blog posts have uttered a sentiment that this phrase was somehow not the right one. That something else such as “people of other beliefs” or “other-believers” would have been preferred.
Not by me.
I am a non-believer. I do not believe in any supernatural beings or forces, I have no “spiritual” practices.
Culturally I do consider myself Jewish, it is the ancestry of my mother’s family for as many generations back as we can trace (to at least the 14th century via one branch) and it is along ethnic and cultural identity which I accept and deeply appreciate. But I was not raised attending synagogue and since I do not believe in God that does somewhat pose a problem to be “religious”.
My father is a highly devout Catholic, very active in his church. How he reconciles the modern Catholic Church with his Democratic voting record and strong science and engineering degrees I don’t entirely get, but he comes from a large, Irish-Catholic family and grew up in the Church attending mostly Catholic schools and college. Though he did get his PhD from the University of California Berkeley in the late 1960’s, he wasn’t exactly a hippie by any stretch of the imagination (he tells stories of wearing a suit and tie to a Jefferson Airplane concert).
Growing up we went to mass every Sunday and on all the Catholic holidays. When we moved to Oak Park from New York I attended a local Catholic elementary school for 3 1/2 years until I was able to get my parents to send me to the local junior high which had a far better and more rigorous academic courseload. This meant that I had to take Catholic religion classes in elementary school and received a few of the Catholic sacraments (first communion etc).
So I have had at least some “formal” religious schooling and have read the vast majority of the Catholic bible.
However even at a very early age my doubt and questions were evident. In, I think the 3rd grade, I recieved my only non-A grade throughout all of my elementary schooling in an assignment for Religion class. The nun who was our teacher had asked every child to draw a picture of God.
I turned in a blank page – explaining that if I had a picture of God at all it was not the expected old, white man with a long flowing beard but rather a sense of nothingness. She wasn’t amused and failed me for that assignment.
But another memory for me stands out too about my childhood, I remember very distinctly having the perception that everyone in the world was a Catholic.
And yes, intellectually I knew that my own mother and my grandmother, grandfather, his wife, my aunt, uncle, and cousin to name just a few immediate family members were all Jewish. But having been immersed in the bubble of a Catholic elementary school my perceptions were that everyone was Catholic, that the world and everyone I would meet and knew were Catholic.
That realization that my worldview was seriously distorted was one of the many reasons I insisted my parents allow me to switch to the public junior high.
And I should also note here that I was very young, when we moved from New York to Oak Park, I had been in the 2nd grade at one of the top school districts in the entire country in New York, in Oak Park they skipped me ahead to 3rd grade claiming that I would be “just average” there and already knew everything they would be teaching in the 2nd grade. Instead I was fairly rapidly at the top of the class academically (though most definitely not socially) and was barely challenged intellectually until finally getting into the public schools in the 7th grade. But as a result throughout all of my schooling I was always by far the youngest person in every one of my classes.
Once in the public junior high I no longer had religion classes in school. In high school I actively chose not to get the Catholic sacrament of Confirmation which is the formal marking of joining the Catholic Church as an adult member. I refused to publicly swear that I believed in God and in the Catholic Church and that I would both be an adult member and eventually marry and raise my children in the Catholic Church.
My father was not exactly pleased, my mother I think was more pleased and I’m sure my very anti-religious grandmother was pleased.
I have studied a great deal of philosophy and as a medieval near-eastern history major in college my studies included a lot of study of the history of religion especially in the Middle East. But in my own life I see no need and indeed would find it to be a negative force to call upon any supernatural force or “holy book” as the inspiration for how I act or make moral decisions.
I am an Existentialist which I take to mean that I give preminancy to the personal responsibility for decisions and actions.
Philosophically I come down firmly on the side of free will and personal choice as the determinant of our actions – I refuse to take what I see as the easy way out of looking towards external factors (environment or a supernatural being) as the underlying cause of things rather I place the final responsibility firmly on myself for my own actions.
I am, however, reluctant to judge others or to impose my own philosophy upon them. I see the appeal of being able to say things like “the booze made me do it” or “it must have been God’s will” and there is always a very human desire to create order out of chaos and randomness, to create a story that explains why things (both good and especially bad) happen.
In my own life my philosophy is fundamentally why I have never been drunk, rarely drink, avoid all drugs and quite seriously have a philosophical debate with myself over my consumption of caffeine. But these decisions about how I choose to live my life, which arise out of a choice to avoid (mostly) anything which would impair my mental capacity (which probably should include getting better sleep and more exercise) are not taken to meet the rules as set forth in some holy book or to meet the expectations of some supernatural being, rather I have taken them because I would feel the full burden of responsibility for my actions while impaired in anyway – and rather than do so I preemptively chose and choose to avoid being impaired in the first place.
Perhaps my social life would have been better if I did not make these decisions about how to live my life back when I was about 17, but once I make a decision I (generally) stick to it.
All this said, I very much take what I say, what publicly swear (or affirm) to very seriously. I will not swear an oath “to God” or make a statement that I believe in God, even if in so doing I might obtain some social advantage. I certainly don’t think I would be going to “Hell” if I did so, but I would feel the full moral responsibility for my lie.
In many ways my Existentialism is not and has not been an easy choice. It does not give me the comfort or the ease of having some firm set of rules to live by, or some external force to turn towards to seek solace or an explanation for life’s complexities and randomness. Nor has it, for the most part, granted me the social benefits of inclusion in a group or the marking of time which comes from weekly, monthly and yearly rituals common to nearly all religions.
So I am proud to be a non-believer and proud to that finally, for the first time in my lifetime (and perhaps ever) the President of the United States of America has acknowledged that non-believers alongside of believers of all faiths are and can be full citizens of the USA.
Last night I twittered that I thought it impossible for any national politician to be an Atheist and indeed for the majority of my adult life this has been the case, but upon further research I learned that in late 2007 one member of the House of Representatives, Peter Stark publicly acknowledged that he is an Atheist. And indeed he is from a part of the SF Bay Area.
So that gives me some small hope that writing posts such as this one (or the many others in my archives where I have mentioned my lack of beliefs) may not entirely make any future political career impossible. Though I somehow also suspect it won’t be in my lifetime that there is an atheist as President, though I would love to be proven wrong (and some might argue that we may have had one historically in the past, back when as a nation we took the separation of Church and State a bit more seriously).
And on a personal front one good and very positive (for me at least) aspect of Twitter has been that I have seen echoes of my own views in the messages of many of my friends. So I have hope that there are smart, attractive, non-Christian (and perhaps even fellow atheist) women also living here in the bay area and that it is possible I could meet one in 2009…