On one of my other blogs, recently someone shared a link to Kate Cohen's book, We of Little Faith: Why I Stopped Pretending to Believe (And Maybe You Should Too).
I bought it, because while I've read and enjoyed books that praise atheism by Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and others, Cohen takes a different approach from these men.
Cohen's book is rooted in her experience as a Jewish woman who found her atheist voice and was determined to bring up her children not as secular, spiritual but not religious, or any other euphemism, but as the proud outspoken atheist she herself came to be.
This gives her book a lightness and practicality that books by the hardcore atheists mentioned above mostly lack. Cohen describes conversations with other Jewish mothers in everyday settings, like school Halloween parties, where she had to decide how open to be about her atheism. I find that refreshing.
Here's excerpts from the "Prologue: Actually an Atheist." It will give you a feel for what the book is all about, and Cohen's engaging writing style.
Americans who don't believe in God call themselves agnostics, humanists, skeptics, free-thinkers. They call themselves "spiritual." Sometimes they are called "nones" -- from the box they checked on a survey identifying their religion. Sometimes they prefer not to label themselves at all. And sometimes they call themselves Jews. Or Catholics or Muslims or Buddhists.
Rarely do they choose the word "atheist."
That used to be me. I was one of the many people who identify with a religion while disbelieving in the Supreme Being that lends it authority. I was raised Jewish and married a Jew in a Jewish wedding. As a child, a teen, even a young adult, though I didn't actually believe in that jealous, capricious, and cruel Old Testament God, I would not have called myself atheist on a survey; I would have called myself a Jew.
...Having drifted from the church or the synagogue after high school, having neglected if not outright rejected their own religious upbringing, many young parents return to it once it's their turn to bring up kids. Even if the idea of heaven once made them roll their eyes, heaven is the consolation they offer their children when burying the family cat.
For me, becoming a parent did the opposite. When it hit me that I was responsible for teaching my children everything, I knew in that moment that I must do something about this. And for me, "this" was the mindless transmission of information that I actually believed to be false, and "something" was telling the truth -- to myself, to my kids, and, finally, to others.
I vowed to teach my children what I truly thought about everything, and that included what I thought about God: that like Zeus, Thor, Brahma, and Ra, he's a fictional character created to soothe the fears of ancient people. I would not -- I did not -- tell them that God might be real, just as I would not have told them the Mayan goddess Ixchel might be real.
And if there's no supernatural being, then there's no supernatural place, either: temping as it was, I did not offer my children the consolation of heaven when the cat died or when they themselves began to understand that their lives had a time limit.
All of this felt right in my head and in my home but radical in the context of the dominant culture. More radical still: I did not let them decide for themselves, as I would not with any other question of morality or the way the world worked. My insistence on telling my children what was true and what was fiction -- my refusal to leave the question open -- bothered even some of my nonbelieving friends.
Being an atheist was one thing, but raising atheists was quite another, and far more questionable -- at best, depriving children of the comforts of religion; at worst, brainwashing them.
I believe, to the contrary, thant passing on one's preference for reason, evidence, and honesty -- pointing out, with conviction and context, where fiction poses as fact -- is the only truly moral choice. It's one of the most powerful ways to stop the cycle of evasion and politeness that has given religious belief far more cultural, political, and legal power than it should have.
Most of us have grown up with this reflexive deference to religion, and many of us continue to act on it even if we don't ourselves believe in God. I still sometimes have to remind myself that it's okay not to tiptoe around religion as it it were a soufflé that could collapse and then the dinner party will be ruined. I'll never be totally free of that reflexive deference. But my children are.
...Raising children made it abundantly clear to me why people invented religion -- why so many strays return to the pews after they have kids, and why even nonbelievers pass along to their children those religious beliefs (or half-beliefs, or the assumption that believing is the benevolent norm). Religion offers ready-made answers to our most difficult questions.
It gives people ways to mark time, celebrate, and mourn. How should we think about death? How do we know right from wrong? How do we make sense of a world of wonders and horrors with no one in charge?
Those are questions I wrestled with as an atheist -- and still do. My answers are not the only answers. They are probably not even my final answers. But they demonstrate that you can conduct a full life, a wonderful, even profound life, without relying on either the familiar religious structures or the supernatural beings that supposedly animate them.
You don't need any special tools or training; you just need the determination not to pass on -- by silent acquiescence or outright misrepresentation -- what you don't believe to be true.
Six months after she declared herself an atheist on national television, Rebecca Vitsmun was interviewed about her heroic display of honesty. "I had this moment where I just stopped for a second and I realized, you either lie or tell the truth," she said. "And I, just, I'm not a liar."
That's what this book is asking you to do: stop for a second, think about what you believe, and consider telling the truth.