Monday, June 4, 2007

Healthy Doubt

My fiancé is Jewish (Conservative). Just over a year ago, he decided to start keeping kosher. Not full-out with separate plates for meat/dairy, but simply not eating pig products and not mixing meat and dairy. His reason for doing so was that he felt that he could not simply pick and choose which rules he was going to follow, and that he shouldn't just not observe the ones that he didn't like or that were a bit inconvenient. Given my habit of interrogating religion at every turn, I spent some time questioning his decision. This wasn't an effort to make him give up Judaism (I would never try to do that, and it wouldn't happen anyway), or even to get him to not keep kosher. I mean, I was a little freaked out by his decision. Although I had no plans of keeping kosher, I was going to have to remember to not mix meat and dairy when cooking for both of us, and I was worried about his religion encroaching on my atheism. But I asked him so many questions because first, I really wanted to understand more about Judaism, and second, because I really wanted to know where he was coming from with his interpretation of Jewish law.

Ultimately, his being kosher turned out not to be a real problem for me. Sometimes I would forget not to mix meat and dairy, but honestly, it wasn't difficult; I could always add dairy separately to my meals. Still, my fiancés reason for keeping kosher bothered me. He said he didn't feel you could simply pick and choose what rules to follow, but I could think of lots of other rules (such as not wearing polyester fabrics) that he wasn't following. But it got to the point where I quit debating the issue, because it was clear that neither of us was going to be satisfied with the other's answers. It was going to be a time when we had to agree to disagree.

About a year later, some of those contradictions have started to stand out for him. While in a Torah study, the group read a passage that states that a deformed person cannot enter the synogogue. My fiancé realized that this was a rule he simply could not accept. Now he's putting a lot of thought into the interpretations he has about Judaism. He's not losing his faith per se, but he definitely has a lot of questions right now, questions I think only he can answer. He has to figure out how to distinguish between rules he doesn't like and rules he does not feel he can accept. Although I like discussing everything with him still, even if we're not going to come to an agreement.

How does this relate to atheism? To put it simply, I think that even atheists experience times of non-spiritual confusion and questioning. These sorts of questions and contradictions that my fiancé is thinking about now were ones that ultimately led me away from religion. Granted, I was not raised in a religious household. I came to Christianity/Catholicism in my early teens (our town was almost entirely Catholic), and spent a long time exploring religion and belief. I found a lot of problems with religion, most of them you have experienced as well. I spent a lot of time trying to answer my own questions, and definitely experienced what one might cause a crisis of faith, even though I didn't really have a lot of faith. And even as an athiest I've had these period crises, when I sometimes doubt my disbelief. Ultimately, I think these periods of questioning have been really healthy, and helpful to my development. I have in fact come away from them stronger in my convictions, because these have been periods in which I've read up both on atheism and religion, and though that learning understood why I cannot be a believer.

I think that an atheist can have a crisis of non-faith, just as a believer can have a crisis of faith. And I think these crises are ultimately beneficial, because they force you to think critically about what you do and do not believe. I think atheists pride themselves on being critical thinkers, and periods of confusion can be a time to really engage with what you do and do not believe on a very deep level. I don't think the point is to just say "I don't believe" and be done with it. The point, I think, it to continually engage with the world, with other people, with current events, and to always be thinking and interrogating. Don't just take a stance and become complacent.