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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12 thoughts on “The Third Night of Hanukkah: On Being an Atheist”

  1. now i know i’m part of the 5%. i like how jennifer teaches her children about all religions rather than protecting them from these religions like what my parents did.

  2. Jennifer-

    Lovely essay. You certainly have an interesting household and certainly an advantage for your kids. They will be allowed to belief whatever works for them. How refreshing. Count me as part of the 5%, as I too never believed in god.

    thanks for the read!


  3. There are some people who get offended when non-believers celebrate so-called religous holidays. I’ve taught my kids to explain that we celebrate Christmas as an American tradition when people question them about celebrating it when we are not Christians.

  4. I agree that believing in a god offers comfort and health benefits, too. But I’m with you. As much as I want to believe in god, it’s difficult. so instead, I try to believe in myself and the people I love who are close to me and whom I trust. Lovely expression of your feelings, Jennifer.

  5. one more note: i think it’s really gutsy to write about atheism. i remember feeling so ashamed of myself whenever somebody asked me where i went to church. of course, i’ve gotten older and have outgrown that sense of shame.

  6. I like the thought of a higher power, something that connects me to the rest of humanity and to something miraculous, bigger than myself but that includes me as well. One day I might call that God, another day I might not. Such a thought-provoking post, Jennifer.
    .-= Meredith Resnick – The Writer’s [Inner] Journey´s last blog ..The 5-Question Interview: Craig Mattes =-.

  7. I’m with Meredith, very thought-provoking post. I think Christmas trees belong in the tradition of American holidays, not necessarily a religious holiday symbol. Growing up I had friends who were orthodox Jewish, reformed Jewish, agnostic, Catholic, Lutheran, it’s important to learn about and respect other people’s faiths and traditions. My own children have learned about other religious traditions from friends who are Muslim and Hindus. That said, I’m grateful that I can teach my children more about my religious beliefs and to have faith in God. But I try to encourage them to seek out their own relationship with God, not just take my word for it.
    .-= ReadyMom´s last blog ..Simple Goodies Teachers Love =-.

  8. This is fascinating, Jennifer. See, for me, I grew up with a father who doesn’t like the idea of God and is fairly against religion. Yet, somehow, I had my own sense of faith, a sense of God, and I always felt guilty about it. It is only now that I am beginning to embrace the fact that I DO have faith (albeit a faith that is NOT based in religion). Anyway, it is particularly interesting to read your words, as my experience has been somewhat the opposite of yours… To each their own! It does come down to that…

    Hope you are well. I so enjoy this blog of yours.

  9. I would say you have an All-American family despite what some people like to claim. Isn’t America all about the melding and blending of traditions to find what works for you? Looks like you had a lovely holiday. Christmas tree, gelt and all.

  10. Can’t one believe in stars and light and love and celebration without ascribing to a specific religion or belief system? (Thanks for the thoughtful post!)

  11. Actually, my friend was not really insulted or so “deeply religious.” He just liked to, as we used to say in Boston, zoo on me wicked much.

  12. It’s hard being atheist in a family that is religious.

    Even though my mom knows that I don’t believe in God she still makes me go to church and participate in all Christian-like things. she thinks that it’s making me moral.

    I really respect how you raise your kids in an environment that lets them make their own religious decisions without attempting to force them to believe what you believe. I don’t think many people would do that and I will definitely follow your example.

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