My confession of non-faith

My objections to obnoxious atheism are to its obnoxiousness, not to its unbelief. If you need a label for my religious stance, “atheist” will do as well as any, which is to say, not very well at all. “That which alone is wise and just does, and does not, allow itself to be called ‘Zeus’.”

A reader of my earlier exchange with P.Z. Myers about whether people who go to church are boobs asks, politely, about my own religious commitments. A fair question, to which no answer can be both full and brief; this is complicated stuff. But here’s a sketch.


My parents were both Jewish atheists, my mother from a non-observant family, my father from a somewhat observant (kosher) but not pious Orthodox family, whose practices he regarded as absurd and annoying; he abandoned them as soon as he could. He was proud of being Jewish but really loathed the Jewish religious establishment; he claimed that all Hebrew school teachers should be required to register as agents of a foreign power.

Nonetheless, my parents sent me to Hebrew school because their liberalism was stronger than their atheism. As liberals, they thought that I ought to choose my own religion rather than having them choose for me, and they also thought that I couldn’t actually choose, in any meaningful sense, without knowing something first.

I hated Hebrew school and mostly shirked the work, but in the run-up to my bar bitzvah I started going to schul every Saturday morning with my father’s uncle, whom I greatly admired. I found the service long and boring, the prayers uninspiring (as I tried to follow them in English translation as they were chanted in Hebrew; no doubt they read better in the original), and the sermons morally obnoxious. However, being a natural ham, I looked forward to the bar mitzvah and worked reasonably hard to prepare my parscha, the first verse of which I can still chant.

At the seder that took place about a month after my bar mitzvah, my father made what I thought (and still mostly think) was an unanswerable argument in debating Jewish practice with his synagogue-going uncle: “Yossel, are you really telling me that Whatever created the galaxies and the omega-minus particle cares whether or not I eat pork?”

Then I decided to read the Tanakh straight through. I managed to get through the boring parts of Leviticus and Numbers, but when I got to the divinely-commanded genocide in Joshua I said, “This is evil, and I don’t want any part of it.” (The Gospels, which I have since learned to recognize as products of Bet Hillel, I found much more congenial; the Epistles, which are pure Bet Shammai [Saul of Tarsus reportedly having been a student of R. Gamliel] even less so. Revelation, like Daniel and Ezekiel, reeks of ergot or magic mushrooms.)

I haven’t been to schul since except for weddings bar/bat mitzvot, and other social occasions (and once to give the d’var Torah on Jonah). On the other hand, I wouldn’t miss a Seder for the world: the combination of liturgy, seminar, and feast is really unmatchable, and parts of the liturgy are sublime, though most of it isn’t. (I hate modern roll-your-own Haggadot: if you’re going to encounter the tradition, then encounter it for real, warts and all.)

I got dragged into a UCLA faculty group that was doing a close reading (in English) of Deuteronomy because my friend Jack Hirshleifer invited me, and have become the note-taker as we finished Deuteronomy and went on to Samuel. It’s a great experience, serious but never solemn. We read the text intently, to figure out what it meant to whoever wrote it, what it has meant since, what it tells us about the historical period that produced it, and what we think about the issues it raises. We do so from many different perspectives (our Episcopalian law professor is especially valuable, as is the Puerto Rican sociologist who just discovered that his family was marrano: Jewish pseudo-converts to Christianity).

But we don’t read the text, or the Talmudic and later commentaries, reverently, if that means with the conviction that the tradition is divinely inspired and that therefore the truth must be in there somewhere, like the pony the optimist is sure he’ll find in the pile of horsesh*t. I’m much more reverent in reading Plato or Machiavelli, in the sense that if one of them says something I don’t understand or that seems obviously wicked or stupid I’m inclined to look for subtlety or irony or deep insight, rather than simply shrugging it off.

I’m prepared to be delighted and instructed by parts of the Tanakh and other traditional texts such as the Pirke Avot, but I’m also prepared to be appalled, and grateful that we no longer believe such nonsense or admire such wickedness. On the other hand, the sheer narrative drive of Samuel, and its depth of characterization, are simply astonishing.

Summary: I’m a pretty loyal member of the tribe (except for the endogamy rule, which I strongly disapprove of) who thinks that the tribal religion has lots of cool stuff in it but doesn’t believe in the tribal god, regard the tribal law as binding, or follow most of the tribal rituals.

So when I defend active practitioners of the various religious traditions against Myers’s assaults on their intellectual capacity, I’m acting out my open-mindedness, not my faith. I think that open-mindedness is personally enriching as well as polite; a world without Byrd’s masses or Hesiod’s poems would be a poorer world to live in, and it’s harder to get benefit from them if you assume that Byrd’s beliefs, and Hesiod’s, were simply foolish and worthless. But it’s not as if I expect to have pie in the sky when I die.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: