Journey to Unbelief
What a long, strange trip it has been.
Fellow Dead Heads will understand the reference to our old hippie anthem.
The song came to mind again this week as I contemplated writing about my journey to atheism in advance of a FāVS Coffee Talk this weekend when I will join three others to discuss the nature of prayer. I am the designated atheist.
I have written twice this year about why I do not pray, first in February and then again in June, the most recent as part of the FāVS series on prayer. In those columns and others, I describe myself as an atheist. But I have never explained how I came to be an unbeliever. It is certainly not a shared belief (unbelief?) in my family. As far as I can tell, I am a one-off.
But it was not always that way.
Through the years, I have met any number of self-described atheists who came to their belief system through rigorous intellectual and philosophical study. I think of them as intellectual atheists, rationalists, whose unbelief is rooted in critical, learned self-examination.
That is not me.
My journey was personal, visceral, not always intellectual. And as with all such journeys, there was a starting point that differed entirely from the eventual destination.
I was born into a Jewish home, stereotypical in so many ways. My father was a practicing Jew for most of his life. My mother was born into a mixed household but was a prototypical Jewish mother.
Both were smart, well read (especially Mom), more interested in seeing me succeed in school than on any playing field.
We lived in Portland, Oregon, and for the first 10 years of my life, we attended synagogue nearly every week. When old enough, I went to Sunday school. When I was 9 years old, I was enrolled in evening Hebrew school, the first step in preparing me for my Bar Mitvah, and an experience roughly equivalent to Marine boot camp but run by rabbis.
So, I was relieved when we moved to Eugene, Oregon, in 1960. There was a small and quite closed, not-so-welcoming Jewish community, no Hebrew school, and no standing synagogue. My Hebrew studies ended, and I never did have a Bar Mitvah.
I always thought of myself as Jewish, but after moving to Eugene my religious sensibilities were more cultural than religious. I understood prayer as a communal exercise, prayer as ritual, not as any sort of personal conversation with the diety. And because I experienced anti-Semitism, violent on occasion, I became anti-Christian, then anti-religion.
That changed in college. Early on, I became active in Zionist groups committed to Israeli emigration. I joined a Jewish fraternity for a short time. But I found little comfort in those actions. In a reversal, I toyed with Christianity. A couple of close friends were active LDS members and so I read the Book of Mormon and sat in on their prayer sessions, even met with the ubiquitous Mormon missionaries. At one point, I spent some time in Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah, learning more about the church in hopes of marrying my high school love.
In the end I came to believe the core LDS beliefs were simply spiritual fairy tales, not for me.
Over time, I read the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, the Koran, as well as Buddhist and Hindu literature.
If not blinded by religious parochialism, it is not at all hard to find the commonalities. From there it does not take much effort to work back to religious beliefs of the classic era, what we call Greek and Roman myths, and to the earliest religious systems of Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, and then back even further to the first efforts on the part of early human beings to explain the unexplainable.
And there is the nut of it. Modern religions attempt to explain the unexplainable on the basis of narratives developed thousands of years ago by ancient peoples ruled by fear and superstition. As I came to view religion, I saw little difference between the theology of crucifixion and resurrection and the ancient myths that had the world sitting on the back of a giant turtle.
Science has given us another way to explain what was once unexplainable. Each passing year gives us a greater understanding of the physical laws that govern our universe. And we gain a greater understanding of creation, rooted in our developing knowledge of those physical laws. People of faith see creation as a miracle. I agree, but it is a miracle of nature, not of a deity.
People of faith tell me science cannot prove there is no god. Of course, the opposite is also true. They will say science has yet to conclusively prove any number of otherwise accepted and theoretical scientific concepts, ranging from the big bang to evolution. But science is not fixed. Answers are always subject to re-evaluation and reconsideration as evidence changes, as knowledge grows. Religions are essentially fixed, rooted in a distant past and, by their nature, not subject to revision once the theology is accepted.
By the time I reached my mid-30s, I had come to reject all forms of religion. I had become an atheist – no belief in heaven, hell, an afterlife, or in a god of any sort. I remain culturally Jewish, powerfully so, but have not been an active congregant for decades.
I have several religious, spiritual friends, though my two LDS acquaintances left that church decades ago in response to gender issues. My wife stopped being active in the Catholic Church when she was a youngster. But I think of her as religious. She still crosses herself when compelled by circumstance. She still prays, and still believes in Jesus, more or less. I am happy to respect her beliefs even as she respects mine.
While my atheism is stronger now, my views toward religion have moderated. I am an “anti” no longer. I try to show respect for people of faith whose views I do not share.
I long ago gave up all efforts to explain my belief system to people of faith, this column being a rare exception. These days, there is nothing to be gained by either party in religious debates.
Experience gained through my involvement with FāVS tells me how this column will be received. I will get comments or personal emails from those comfortably condemning me to hell on the one hand, or kindly offering to pray for my soul on the other. Some will ask me to meet over coffee to discuss religion or even ask to come to my house to pray for me in person.
For the kinder responses, my sincere thanks. I have heard the nastier reactions for most of my adult life and really stopped caring decades ago.
This column and my previous columns on prayer help set me up for Saturday’s Coffee Talk.
The panel discussion will be the second in-person Coffee Talk since COVID, and I am interested to see who attends and even more interested in seeing how the conversation develops.
The details: 10 a.m., Saturday, Aug. 7, at the FāVS Center, 5115 S. Freya, Spokane. Masks are optional for vaccinated Coffee Talk attendees. And look for a link to Facebook Live for a stream. Here is the link for more information.
Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full time teaching at the end of May 2020. His columns reflect his progressive political views. Smith was raised in a Jewish home and is culturally Jewish. However, he considers himself an atheist, which is reflected in his writing. Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms until his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an M.A. in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a B.S. in journalism from the University of Oregon. Smith currently serves on the SpokaneFāVS Board of Trustees.
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