The Third Night of Hanukkah: On Being an Atheist

ChristmasWe always had a Christmas tree growing up but we would hang Hanukkah gelt from the branches and put a Jewish star at the top of the tree.

The star really offended one of my older brother’s best friends, a deeply religious practicing Catholic. He didn’t think Jews should have Christmas trees, and felt the Jewish star at the top was an insult to Christians.

My husband, who is from an Italian Catholic family, grew up deeply religious. James paid attention in church, he listened to the priests, and he worried about committing sins.

Even as a toddler, James was intrigued by the tenets of Catholicism.

My father-in-law still remembers his son’s enthusiasm after a sermon: “Jimmy loved that stuff. He’d say, ‘Yeah, and there was this guy, and he was dead! And then he came back to life! And he could turn stuff into other stuff!’”

James took the idea of turning the other cheek to heart. He would get into fights in grade school and try to remember you shouldn’t hurt people even if they hurt you first (though it usually didn’t work). He was puzzled by how the men in his family had fought in wars and were still Catholic. He felt it was important to help people, and was concerned that so many people needed help around the world.

But James stopped believing in God when he was 14 and he started reading Descartes, Nietzsche, and other philosophers. Descartes’ Meditations, though a defense of rational faith, convinced James that he had to doubt what he believed to be true, stop believing blindly, and rethink everything rationally for himself.

I never believed in God.

It’s something of a taboo in America to be an atheist.

According to a 2005 Gallup Poll, only five percent of Americans believe that God does not exist.

Although I feel dismayed when people do bad things or act hatefully in the name of religion, I feel a profound respect for people who do believe in God.

I wonder if my children, unlike me, will actually believe in God

I wonder if my children, unlike me, will actually believe in God

I envy other people’s faith, I know that having faith can help you in times of trouble and that it has health benefits. I wonder if my children, unlike James and me, will believe in God.

At the same time, I don’t think you need God or the Bible to be a good person, to care about others, to object to war, and to try to make a positive contribution to the world.

I also don’t think you need God to celebrate Jewish holidays, to feel a connection to your ancestors and your past, or to pass on family traditions to your children.

After Hanukkah, James is planning to take the kids into the mountains, traipse through the snow, and saw down a small conifer.

We’ll put the tree in our living room, Jewish star, Hanukkah gelt, and all.

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