My Father’s Atheism

My father did not believe in God, but he was not without belief. His atheism was a kind of religion, and he brought full fervor to it. My father’s articles of faith were that there was no God, particularly not the God of the Jews. Anyone who believed in God was worse than wrong—a believer was a child. Scorn dripped from my father’s lips when he said the word “child.” It seemed to me, child that I was, that being a child was just bad as believing in God.
Since God was never described or investigated, we just took it on faith that God was not for us. But since I had no idea what God was, I was not completely spiritually crippled. I had a strong love of nature combined with a firm sense of ethics—both from my father. I also had mystical experiences of oneness and connection that I simply found pleasurable when I was young. These things were just part of my inner world, like being able to make things happen in my dreams or ALMOST seeing the wings of flower fairies. I had nightly hypnogogic experiences of glittering colored lights and dots before I fell sleep. Sometimes I saw beautiful dancers in pink tutus. My friend Laurel and I lay on a hillside and fell asleep, promising to appear in each other’s dreams. We did. I took this all in stride—it was a natural part of my world to know and accept that there were other worlds than the ordinary one.
My father also hated what he called “mysticism.” In retrospect, I think he was using the word correctly; he hated the experience in which a person felt at one with something larger. It is obvious that my father himself was given to spontaneous bouts of connection, particularly inspired by art and music. He once confessed to me, when he was quite old, that when he was alone he’d dance naked in celebration to Beethoven and Mozart. He once ran out of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, dazzled and overwhelmed by the painting. “Those paintings were going to grab my soul,” he confided, sitting panting on the museum steps.
His character was surely at odds with his beliefs. He forbade us from going to synagogue, and from prayer, even of the private sort. I once came upon my little sister praying and was as shocked and terrified as if I’d found her torturing a kitten. This was forbidden territory.
I did go to synagogue for the bat-mitvahs of friends, and the slightly pathetic attempts at “boy-girl” parties that ensued. I was “allowed” to attend church with a friend because she was black, and her church a bastion of civil rights activity. Although this church was quite alien to me culturally—it had a gospel choir, fiery preaching, and iconic church lady hats—I felt instantly relaxed there. This feeling continued for me as I eventually went to synagogue, studied with Hassids, married a Zen monk, and went with friends to disparate settings from Catholic monasteries to Christian Science services to Quaker meetings.
It turned out, I liked religion. I studied Hebrew and koans and prayer. I have never found a particular path I could dedicate myself wholeheartedly to—perhaps this is part of my father’s legacy. But when it comes to check the box, I say I believe in God. Actually, there is little about belief here. I experience God.
I also experienced my father. In a world without God, he, my father, reigned supreme. This was, shockingly for the feminist thinker he was, a kind of absolute patriarchy. But I also did not believe in my father. Doubt has proved no problem to me. Doubt, such as doubt in my father’s total authority, helps me as I return to my struggle to be free.