Monday, June 11, 2007

Conversion

Being the only atheist in my family and in my close circle of friends, the religious people in my life definitely give me a lot to think about. This weekend, I was thinking about my father's new status as a converted Catholic. It's a long story, one that is grounded within hypocrisy, but illustrates perfectly the way I feel about conversion.

My dad was raised Methodist, and his father was a minister. In his late teens, my dad realized that he didn't believe anymore, although he stayed active in order to avoid the draft, as back then Methodism was a religion that got you an exemption. In his early twenties, my father gave up religion, and never regretted it. I remember that when I was a kid, we would have a lot of talks about faith, why he didn't believe, etc. Those are really great memories I have of him.

In my senior year of college, dad left my mom for another woman. Upon moving in with his mistress, he starting attending the Catholic Church at her request, and made a full conversion a few weeks ago. It made me feel sick for a number of reasons. First, he converted to a religion that forbids divorce, and went so far as to have his marriage to my mom annulled by the Catholic Church authorities (presumably so he can marry his mistress, although he hasn't specifically said anything about it). How ironic that he enters into a religion so intolerant of divorce . . . Then, of course, is the fact of his atheism. I suppose he could have developed some form of belief over the past couple of months, but I honestly doubt it. Since he left our family a year and a half ago, I've come to doubt the sincerity of most of his actions. Additionally, dad converted to the religion he hated the most. I'm not kidding. Of all the religions out there, he was most hostile to Catholicism, and often not even hostile in a critical way, but in a manner that relied on stereotypes. This is enough to lead me to the idea that he's not converting because he believes.

Interfaith couples are becoming more and more common, and in several cases, one member of an "interfaith" couple does not actually have any faith at all. As long as both sides are able to respect one another's beliefs (or lack thereof), I think it can definitely work out. Of course, if that relationship is a serious one, the issue of one party converting might just become a topic of discussion. This has been the case in my own relationship. But I never had to give it much thought; I don't believe in god. Even before my father's own hypocritical conversion, I knew that I would never take my fiancé's faith, because it's ridiculous to convert if you don't believe. Adopting a religion, whether your atheist or simply a different faith from your partner, is ridiculous if you're just doing it for the other person. I can't see how anyone could find fulfillment as a result.

Ironically, I got some resistance from friends, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Their argument was that there are lots of Jewish atheists out there, so I could still convert and yet retain my athiest status. However, I find that idea borderline offensive. Judaism is both a religion and an ethnicity. You can convert to a religion, but I don't think you can really convert to a particular ethnicity. (Perhaps this is in fact possible, but I'm just not comfortable with the idea.) I think it would be wrong of me, someone who was not born into a Jewish family and raised with Jewish cultural traditions, to convert and claim I am a member of this ethnicity. It just seems wrong.

In general, my fiancé is fine with my resistance; if he were that insistent on it, we wouldn't have gotten engaged in the first place. Still, he is somewhat upset by the idea that if we have children, they won't be Jewish; we'd have to do a conversion ceremony for them. Judaism is a matrilineal religion, meaning cultural/ethinic/religious identity is passed on through the mother. Still, I'm not going to convert. For one thing, I don't see why, if our kids went to services and had bar/bath mitzvahs, they would have to convert just because I didn't convert before they were born. Perhaps because I don't come from a religious family, I don't see why beliefs and culture are passed down exclusively from one parent. After all, my mom's religious beliefs sure didn't rub off on me.

But beyond that, I think it would be a bad example to set for my hypothetical children if I converted just for the sake of them being born Jewish. If we have kids, I want them to have the confidence to be able to make such decisions in their own lives. I don't want them to feel pressured to practice the Jewish religion just because they have to; I want them to decide whether or not to be religious or atheist (or agnostic or spiritual or whatever) based on their own beliefs and ideas. If I convert just for my fiancé or to uphold a tradition I don't believe in, I'll just be sending the message to them that, even if you don't believe, you should sometimes pretend to for the sake of others. That's not the type of parent I want to be. Additionally, I think they need to see that an atheist and a religious person can love and respect one another, and my conversion would cheapen that idea. I think that by not converting, I'm honestly doing the best thing for everyone involved.