Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Thursday, April 05, 2007

A Conversation With An Old Friend

Phew. I've been busy enough lately that I still haven't had much time for blogging--there's a lot I've been wanting to write about, but I just haven't found the time to write it. (And yeah, I know I've been saying that in almost every post lately; sorry for repeating myself.) But I just had a conversation this evening that I want to write about while it's still relatively fresh in my memory.

One of my oldest and dearest friends is a Jew from New York City named David. I mention that he's Jewish because it's relevant to what follows. (The fact that he's from New York City, on the other hand, isn't really relevant at all, but I guess I mentioned it anyway.) When I say that David is a Jew, however, I mean only ethnically and, to some extent, culturally. In terms of religion, the impression I got from our talks about the subject--though I don't recall whether he ever stated this explicitly--was that he was an agnostic. He had an intellectual interest in religion--at one point, he even asked me for a Book of Mormon--but he didn't seem to have any real religious beliefs himself.

That is, until he got married, whereupon he seemed to become much more religiously active. He got married in a Jewish wedding ceremony; he even put up mezuzot by the doors of his apartment. I wondered to what extent he had really become a believer, and to what extent it was just a cultural thing, but I never directly asked.

A similar source of puzzlement was the fact that David had joined the Freemasons. I had had some interest in the Freemasons myself, though I'd never gotten around to making any serious attempts to join, but that David had become a Freemason surprised me, since I knew one of their requirements was the belief in a Supreme Being--which, at least from our conversations during our college years, was something I thought David didn't have. I did actually ask him about that, in one e-mail, but I didn't get a response (possibly the e-mail had been accidentally filtered out as spam and he'd never received it), and I didn't press the issue.

Nowadays, I don't see much of David--he lives on the East Coast, and I on the West. I think in the last five years or so I've only seen him three times--once for his wedding (I was one of the groomsmen, and, like all the male members of the wedding party, wore a purple kippah with gold trim), once for his daughter's Brit Bat, and once when he was in Los Angeles on business and we made arrangements to meet up. I don't even talk to him on the phone much; we're both busy enough we don't often get around to calling each other, and when we do it often involves extensive sessions of phone tag before one of us finally finds the other available. Still, even though circumstances prevent us from being in frequent contact, I still consider him a close friend.

I don't remember how long ago it was that I last talked to David before today, but recently I decided it was about time I got in touch again and found out how things were going with him. As usual, it was hard to get in touch with him, with his busy schedule, but this evening I finally caught him at home.

I hadn't planned on discussing with David my atheism, but I knew there was a chance it would come up. He'd been encouraging me to join the Freemasons (I had mentioned to him I was interested), and if that came up again, well, I'd have to tell him I no longer met the requirements.

Well, it did come up, and as it turned out we had a long talk about religion and skepticism. And it cleared up some things I'd long wondered about David's religious beliefs.

David had started out, as I'd surmised, as an agnostic. His grandparents had originally been practicing Jews, but had turned away from religion when his mother was still quite young due to a family tragedy that made them doubt the existence of a benevolent god. His mother was a hard-line atheist, at times vehemently anti-religious. (I knew David's mother, but hadn't realized she was so opposed to religion--oddly, despite my being an active Mormon, she always seemed to like me, and considered me a good influence on David.) David took a somewhat more moderate path, and considered himself, as I said, an agnostic, until he took a class on existentialism that made him reevaluate his thinking. While he couldn't know for sure whether there was a god or not, he came to realize that there was really nothing he could know with an absolute certainty, and that it was best to behave as if anything that had more than a 50% probability of being true was the case, and anything with less than a 50% probability was false. (I'm sure this is an oversimplification, but that's how I remember him having put it.) In any case, he didn't--and still doesn't--believe in any sort of personal God.

As for his seeming conversion to practicing Judaism after his marriage, it was all, as I'd surmised it might be, a cultural thing. I guess I hadn't realized just how powerful a force Judaic culture was--even David's strongly atheistic mother bowed to Judaic tradition when it came to naming him. (There's an interesting story behind that--two stories, in fact--but I'm not sure whether I should share them here; while I write this blog anonymously, and I haven't given any real identifying information about David (I'm sure there's more than one Jew from New York City named David), the possibility still remains that eventually my identity will come out, and it then wouldn't be too hard to figure out David's identity, and I'm not sure these are stories that he'd want made public. I'm only saying here things that I'm reasonably certain he wouldn't mind being stated in a public venue; matters that he might consider too personal I'll omit.) In fact, for his wedding, he'd specifically sought out a rabbi who was willing to perform the ceremony in such a way as to avoid all mention of a personified God. It wasn't easy; the first rabbi he and his then-fiancée had talked to flatly refused, and even questioned why, if they felt that way, they would want to have a Jewish wedding at all. The rabbi they finally chose for their wedding was of a reformed faith, and opined that, in fact, real Judaism didn't include belief in a personal God, and all the references to God as a person in the scriptures were metaphorical and were only there to make them easier for man to understand. If David and his wife-to-be were beyond those crutches, he was certainly willing to perform the ceremony accordingly.

As far as the profession of belief in a Supreme Being required for Freemasonry, David told me that, while he didn't believe in a personal God, he did believe that there was something that was greater than man--be it mankind as a whole, or the physical forces behind the universe, or what have you--and that after much soul-searching (so to speak) he eventually decided that that was enough for him to feel comfortable saying he believed in a Supreme Being. I'm not sure how much I agree with him on that point--while there may be things that are in some sense greater than man, considering any of these entities or forces to be a Supreme Being in the sense that seems to be intended by the principles of Freemasonry doesn't seem quite right to me. But David said he considered the matter for years before coming to that decision, so apparently he had some trouble with it as well. As a matter of fact, David claimed that rationalistic, humanist thinking is very common among Freemasons, and that 90% of those he'd met had attitudes similar to his--although I'm a bit skeptical about that, since it doesn't really jibe with what I've heard about Freemasonry elsewhere, or for that matter with the fact that it requires a belief in a Supreme Being to begin with.

Anyway, though, David was surprised to hear about my turning away from religion, but he was supportive of my decision, and sympathetic to what I was going through, and to my reluctance to talk to my family about the matter--David knows my family well enough to understand my concerns about how they might react.

At any rate, David isn't the first person I've told about my atheism, but the others I've told are people I've only known for a few years at most. David, as I've said, is one of my oldest and closest friends, and it was really good to have the opportunity to talk to him about the matter, and to know that he supported me. I mean, I know several people have commented telling me that true friends would stand by me through my deconversion, and I knew that on an intellectual level, but actually talking to an old friend about the matter and knowing that our friendship remains as strong as ever...well, it's a good feeling.


At 4/09/2007 2:01 PM, Blogger King Aardvark said...

Wow, that's an interesting story about your friend, for sure. Note, I won't bother searching out a particular Jewish David in New York. That task would likely take decades.

Definitely the cultural thing is important. I've heard of many people who cease to believe but can't imagine themselves no longer belonging to their church. It's a community thing, it's tradition, whathaveyou.

At 4/11/2007 7:38 AM, Blogger Yulacu said...

I know a lot of people like David that do not necessarilly believe in a personal God but continue to go to services because of tradition, community, and/or a fear of telling people that they no longer believe in the same things any more.

At 4/12/2007 12:28 AM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

The thing that I found particularly odd, though, isn't that David was following the traditions of a religion he once belonged to but no longer believed in--it's that he never believed in God or in the doctrines of Judaism in the first place. And neither did his mother, who brought him up. So the Jewish traditions have survived intact through two generations of nonbelief...apparently tradition can indeed be a very powerful force.

At 4/12/2007 12:32 AM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

P.S.: He was originally from New York City. He doesn't live there now. So you wouldn't be searching for a particular Jewish David in New York; you'd be searching for a particular Jewish David who had once lived in New York...which I'd imagine would take even longer. ;)


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