Chapter 1 – Genesis of an Atheist
It didn’t begin as sudden inspiration. I didn’t leap out of bed, wake Yonah, and holler, “Son, we’re biking across America! Fill your water bottle! Pump up the tires! Grab an extra pair of underwear! What are you waiting for? Let’s go!”
No. It began with a conversation the two of us had when he was in kindergarten. While finishing dinner, little Yonah asked, “Daddy, what happens after you die?”
I remember scant little from Yonah’s early childhood except for the times when I caused him bodily harm. Once I walked through a low doorway with him sitting astride my shoulders. While changing diapers, I almost sent him to the emergency room, twice. First I shishkabobed his delicate baby’s butt with a safety pin while pinning his nappy. I pushed and pushed trying to get the pin through the thick, unyielding cotton. And then it was through, and I closed it. He didn’t make a sound at first, but his face had a strange look of surprise, and I knew I done a bad thing. A few months later, I asked my smiling infant, “Where did that penny go?” I had given him a penny to play with, so he’d stop squirming while I cleaned his tush. It wasn’t in his hands; it wasn’t on the changing table; the carpet was bare.
“You didn’t…no…don’t tell me you…your mother is going to kill me.” For the next two days, my wife, Djina, and I went through his poop. If the penny didn’t pass, it would be a possible surgery and a probable divorce. Fortunately it passed.
With a father like me, no wonder the five-year-old was curious about death.
Yonah’s first words, his first steps, and the first time he slept through the night are stored somewhere in my brain, but I cannot access those memories. But that question, the question that launched a thousand religions, I remember it as if it were ten minutes ago. I remember thinking that this was the essence of fatherhood: conversing with your child on issues of truth and passing wisdom from one generation to the next. “That’s a great question, and the truth is that no one really knows what happens when a person dies because no dead person has ever come back to tell us. But there are at least three ideas that people have. The first is that the part of you that makes you you, your soul, goes to a place like heaven or to somewhere else and lives on. The second one says that people are reborn into something different. It’s called reincarnation. Maybe you’ll be born as another person or maybe as an animal. What kind of animal would you like to be reincarnated as?”
“I like cheetah-birds,” he replied.
“That’s nice. The third possibility is that when you die, nothing happens. You’re dead, and that’s the end.”
The third possibility sounded harsh, and I didn’t want to burden a young soul with existential nightmares, so I softened it with, “It’s like being asleep.”
Yonah digested it all. I could sense his frontal lobes cogitating. When he finished, he announced, “I’m the kind who thinks that when you’re dead, you’re dead.” He climbed off his chair and skipped to his room to play with Thomas the Tank Engine.
I sat dumbfounded because my five-year-old was more definite about the nature of life than I was at thirty-nine. I was a liberal Jew who had some amorphous faith in a god or higher power imbuing the universe with meaning. I also believed, or at least wanted to believe, in the immortal nature of the soul. But here, as I sat at the dining room table cluttered with junk mail, mismatched dirty socks, and plates smeared with spaghetti remains, I had witnessed the genesis of an atheist.
Not only am I Jewish, I went to graduate school at Hebrew Union College, a liberal seminary, to study the Bible and its commentaries. I did not come from a religious household. My family attended synagogue twice a year for the High Holidays where I sullenly sat, watching the prayerbook’s page numbers slowly trudge to the end of the service. Whenever the rabbi mercifully skipped thirty pages, my heart leapt, and it sank when, in a fit of sadism, he sent us back twenty. Passover was a week of choking down stale matzah sandwiches and scrubbing bright, red lipstick off my cheeks after being kissed by relatives as old as the children of Israel themselves. For three years I suffered in Hebrew school and had a Bar Mitzvah. Following that day when I became a man in the eyes of Judaism, I vowed never again to step into a synagogue.
So how did I wind up at a Jewish seminary?
After graduating college, I traveled to Israel to work on a kibbutz, a collective farm, partly because of my socialist leanings but mostly to meet blond Scandinavian volunteers. One day in Jerusalem, I happened upon a poster featuring a bagel smothered with cream cheese and lox. Underneath the bagel was the message: “Is this the culmination of 3,500 years of culture?” No doubt about it. That poster perfectly captured my relationship to Judaism, but it gave me pause. Three thousand, five hundred years. That’s a long time. Could there be something more to my heritage than smoked salmon? After all, while Jews number fewer than one-hundredth of 1 percent of the world’s population, Jews have taken home 20 percent of all Nobel Prizes. Perhaps it was worth giving Judaism one more chance. I enrolled in a yeshiva, a religious college, and spent two months studying the Talmud, Judaism’s sacred post-biblical text. Though I was a UC Berkeley graduate, I had never found more serious students than the ones arguing over these ancient books. And there was wisdom. I had fancied myself an environmentalist, and here was Yahweh, two thousand years before the first Earth Day, proclaiming: “Take care of My Creation, for if you destroy it, there is no one to clean up after you.”
I became religious, returned to America, and enrolled in Hebrew Union College. Following grad school, it was fifteen years in Jewish education. I became known for Jewish environmental programs and co-wrote a Jewish naturalist guide. Turning my hand to fiction, I penned three books of Jewish short stories. Christ, you couldn’t be much more Jewish than me. But as Yonah approached age thirteen, his Bar Mitzvah year, the joke about the shoemaker’s shoeless son became personal. Yonah didn’t want to go through the Jewish rite of passage ceremony. If he was only theologically opposed to immortality at age five, by twelve he had developed a severe loathing toward religion.
Djina and I spoke of Judaism as more than a religious belief. We explained that Judaism could be thought of as a culture. Plenty of Jews have little patience for the religious doctrines but are proud of being Jewish. Yonah had none of this. He saw religion as a way to dumb people down and was the root of the world’s conflicts. I felt he was rejecting a child’s version of religion. The Judaism he rejected was the one of that long-bearded, grandfatherly, muscular God painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I, too, had rejected that God and his religion. For me religion meant community, beautiful stories, and a taste of the spiritual world. It was not a dogma of rules and rites; rather, religion was a conduit to finding meaning in life. Yonah’s rejection seemed like a Christian rejecting the fellowship and charity that come with Christianity after discovering Santa Claus didn’t exist. But nuances and paradoxes are difficult for young teens. The bottom line: my son had no desire to be a Jew.
Should Djina and I have pushed the Bar Mitzvah on him as many parents do? Wasn’t there a Jewish teaching: if one acts first, understanding will follow? Though the ritual might be meaningful, it more likely would have bred resentment and fury. Perhaps if it wasn’t forced down his throat, Yonah would find his Jewish soul in his own time, like we had. Still, for one year he attempted Hebrew school. He didn’t do it at the behest of his parents. It was a cold Machiavellian calculation. At age seven he announced his desire to become president of the United States. Now at twelve he understood that Americans would more likely elect a Jew than an atheist because the most disliked people in America are those who do not believe in God. A 1999 Gallup poll found that while 6 percent of Americans would not vote for a Jewish presidential candidate, and 8 percent would refuse a woman, a full 48 percent would not cast their ballots for an atheist. So Yonah dutifully went to Hebrew school.
“What have you learned so far?” I asked after a month.
“There’s like a hundred prayers, and they all say, ‘God, you’re great!’ You’d think if God were so great, he wouldn’t need us to keep telling him.”
In addition to teaching prayer, the school gave an overview of Jewish thought. Yonah enjoyed debating the great philosophical questions such as the nature of good and evil. Unfortunately, much of the curriculum dealt with the “boring” Jewish laws such as kashrut, and why one must never eat chicken and cheese together. Yonah had been a strict vegetarian since age eight and, without realizing it, had been living a de facto kosher life.
“See you’re more Jewish than you thought!” I told him.
After a year he announced, “No more.” The chance to pontificate on a Torah passage in front of an audience held no appeal. The chocolate fountains of the Bar Mitzvah party did not entice him. Even a vision of the presidency didn’t exert a strong enough pull to get him to wear a kipa for a single Saturday morning. His thirteenth birthday would come and go like all his others. And I’d be sad.
The truth was I didn’t want Yonah to become zealously religious. But thirteen is an auspicious age because puberty dramatically changes both body and mind. While a boy is not a man at thirteen, he is clearly no longer a child. Almost every ancient culture recognized puberty’s importance, but in America it is mostly ignored. We wanted Yonah to mark his thirteenth birthday with a ritual, a rite of passage. But if not a Bar Mitzvah, what?
I had always admired the Native American vision quest or at least the popular impression of it: a solo physical journey into the wilderness with the express desire to experience a spiritual awakening. The fasting boy hikes deep into the wilderness, pushing beyond his physical endurance where he enters a sacred space. Through prayer, the boy enters the dream world and learns his true name, the essence of his spiritual being. Upon returning, he is no longer a boy, but a young man.
A spiritual journey wouldn’t appeal to Yonah, but a physical one might. Physical challenges are important. They allow us to measure our fortitude and spirit. We need to find our limits, push against them, and learn about who we are when the veneer of our personality disintegrates in the face of challenge and danger. Hence, the army, rock climbing, high school football. Maybe if the challenge was profound enough physically, the spiritual might ride on its coattails. I loved to bike and had some friends who had cycled across the United States. Maybe Yonah could do that, and I’d join him. It would be a real father-son bonding experience. Besides being a physical challenge, it would be eye-opening for a blue-state, West Coast kid to experience the heartland of America and go beyond the stereotype of its gun-toting, pro-lifers who think Darwin should have burned at the stake. It would be like exploring a foreign culture without having to learn a new language. I ran the idea past him.
“Are you kidding?” he said.
“It’s like three thousand miles.”
“Actually, because you take backroads instead of freeways, it’s more like four thousand.”
“There is no way.”
“C’mon, you love American history. Here’s a chance to see where history was made. It’ll be fun and a challenge. You’ll probably be like the youngest kid ever to do it.”
“Bike riding’s boring.”
“Did Mom tell you her idea? Going to Israel and visiting the holy sites like the Western Wall…”
“Got any other ideas?” Silence. “Okay, then it’s back to Hebrew school.”
“No, no, no! That bike thing sounds okay.”
So in order to avoid a single day of chanting a small section of Torah, leading a congregation in a half-dozen prayers, and dancing with his grandmother at his Bar Mitzvah party, twelve-year-old Yonah Biers-Ariel, an ambivalent cyclist, decided to pedal a bicycle from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., with his dad.