September 24, 2018

Why does a Jew write for Atheists?

“Are you an atheist?”

No, I explained. I’m a Jew.

“Then why are you writing a book about atheists?”

I’ve run into this line of questioning a lot.

For the past several years, I’ve worked on What If I’m an Atheist?, a guidebook for teenagers who doubt or deny the existence of God. The book answers questions that teenagers have about unbelief (Are atheists immoral? How do I tell my parents I’m an atheist?) and tosses in atheist stuff both trivial (atheist jokes, lists of celebrity atheists) and serious (how to answer popular lies about atheists, where to turn if your parents kick you out).

Finally, the book has been published. But the question remains: Why does a Jew write a book about atheists?

Even worse, why does a Jew write a book for atheists? Worse yet, for young atheists? Am I trying to turn impressionable minds toward unbelief?

No, I’m not – but being Jewish has made me feel a kinship with atheists.

Jews were the original people who said, “No, we won’t believe in your god.” Kill us if you want, but the answer’s still no.

Like atheists, Jews know how it feels to have your viewpoint about religion ignored and slighted, even in Jew-friendly America. Every winter, it seems as if every store window, TV show, and public event is saying: Celebrate Christmas! Sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “O Holy Night”! Get a tree and a ham!

And like many young unbelievers, I spent much of my teens and twenties trying to determine if God exists and why he lets the world be as – there’s no more appropriate word for it – godawful as it sometimes gets. When young people described the path that they took toward atheism, I recognized some of the landmarks.

But that’s not why I wrote this book.

I wrote it because there weren’t any books like it. There were lots of books for young people of religious and spiritual leanings (mostly Christian) but no advice for teenage atheists and other unbelievers.

And a lot of them needed advice. In researching the book, I discovered first-person accounts of atheist and agnostic teenagers who were scared to tell their family and friends what they believed. Some parents yelled or wept. Some teachers and principals criticized and threatened atheist students. Some classmates shunned or insulted them.

I had written a lot of books that had entertained and informed people, but this one could genuinely help them.

So I knew the reasons why I wanted to write the book – but were there reasons why I shouldn’t write it? Was it wrong for a Jew, even (or especially) a secular Jew like me, to make a guidebook for young atheists?

I wasn’t worried about my soul or God’s judgment on it. I figured that if God exists and wants to blame me for being a bad Jew, he’d unspool a long rap sheet of my other sins before he’d get to “…and you wrote a book.”

But I did worry about hurting Jews. Would the book, in its tiny way, hurt Jews or Judaism? Specifically, would it encourage young Jews to reject their heritage?
  

I had been through something like this before. I had written a coffee-table book about the wild ways in which people light up their houses for the winter holidays. Since most of those people were decorating for Christmas, I wondered if I was doing wrong by, in essence, glorifying a Christian practice.

So I queried ask-a-rabbi websites. Most of the rabbis answered that I’d be doing wrong only if I were encouraging Jews to abandon Judaism. Since there’s nothing un-Jewish about lighting up in December – it’s the time of the Festival of Lights, after all – I reckoned that I was in the clear.

But hanging up lights is just decoration. Going atheist means abandoning religion, exactly the practice that the rabbis warned me about. And I was aiming this book at kids, a very touchy matter.

So I thought and wrote and deleted and rewrote and then rewrote again. The final, published book doesn’t encourage anyone to abandon his or her faith.

It does imply, though, that there’s nothing wrong with being atheist or agnostic. If that offends the Almighty or my fellow Jews, then so be it. Virtually every book offends someone. Some of the book’s toughest critics have griped that I didn’t go far enough – that the book should push young people to become atheists.

Why write about atheism? Because kids needed it. Because I’ve had doubts about God. Because I wanted to make something that would help its readers. Because of a lot of reasons.

The reasons don’t matter, really. Once a writer finishes writing a book, it’s on its own. It will offend or delight the readers no matter what the writer’s motives were. The writer can explain himself at endless length, but the readers will make up their own minds.

Which is what atheists and agnostics have always done. It’s just one more trait that they have in common with Jews.