How beliefs linger after faith is gone: My tale as a kosher atheist

Looking back over this blog, I’m realizing I really haven’t said too much about my religion (or rather, my lack thereof). It’s something a lot of people are interested in; heck, some bloggers make an entire career out of it (cough PZ Myers cough). So I figure I might as well take another crack at the subject and explain how exactly I ended up where I am now: a complete lack of any faith. But that’s such a big subject area that I’ll focus on a very small area of it in this post, specifically how I maintained certain irrational customs, such as keeping kosher, long after my faith dwindled to nothingness.

But first, I’d be a fool if I didn’t leverage some of my previous blog posts (if for no other reason than having to avoid rehashing all of the same material again). I developed a pretty healthy sense of morality at a young age, none of which derived from religion. Some of the people in my family were once very religious, but that had been mostly eaten away by the time I was born. It’s gotten to the point that our holiday celebrations are almost entirely secular. I’ve had a mixture of experiences in churches, some good, some terrible, though of course most of my encounters with religion occurred in synagogues, which were just boring. I lived in a state of indifference towards religion for most of my childhood until the Islamist terrorist attacks of September 11, which really focused my mind on the downsides. Then, throughout college, I couldn’t help but keep bumping into more instances of religion at its most exploitative, as well as religion at its ugliest. Those events and others inspired me to take a more active role against religion, which brings me to today.

I have finally, finally, just within the past two years, started eating pork regularly, despite not having been a believer for at least ten. It sounds pretty silly, right? It’s not like we ever kept any of the rest of the kosher rules — prohibitions against mixing milk and meat, checking for that silly “U” symbol on everything, etc. Heck, we even ate non-fish seafood all the time, especially crabs (though living in Maryland, how could you not?). I just had a silly hang-up with pork, and I rarely if ever ate it, with the exception of pepperoni and of course bacon. It’s more because I wasn’t accustomed to eating it than for any other reason, but if anyone ever questioned me about it, my excuse was a mumbled response about keeping kosher. My mom’s parents never served anything pork, and so she never learned to cook it. Thus, it was never served in our house, and I didn’t particularly want it when we ate out either.

Just like how dietary restrictions linger long after the faith is gone, so too do other facets of faith. I’m thinking specifically of the many ways in which religion brainwashes people: to revere “men of God” when the only thing that differentiates them from normal people is that they’re more useless, to have respect for specific cockamamie beliefs but to detest others that are equally unlikely, to distrust empiricism and value a non-rational world-view, to trample the civil rights of others merely because they are different in some regards, and many more. It’s pretty common for people to lose their belief in God but retain most of the other attendant silly beliefs, like pulling the tablecloth out from under a house of cards so quickly that most of the cards remain standing. You just can’t radically adjust your world-view so quickly.

When I was in eighth grade, after I had stopped believing, I remember asking my mother about Muslims (back in those days, we didn’t know much about them). She told me they believed in one God, and that it was the same God as the Christians and Jews. I’m thinking, “Great, just like we do” — except it was a “we” that didn’t include me. A cultural we, if you will. So, silly me, I thought that Muslims were our allies, and began to look suspiciously at my Hindu classmates who believed in multiple gods. I felt more empathy with the monotheistic Judeo-Christian-Islamic faiths because that’s what I was raised with, even though I disbelieved in all of them equally. Well, three years later September 11th happened and I quickly stopped thinking of Muslims as “allies” in preference to Hindus — after all, the hijackers weren’t flying those planes into buildings in the name of Vishnu.

And now, over a decade since I’ve been actively calling myself an atheist, the deprogramming still isn’t complete. I still find myself marveling at some of PZ Myers’ attacks on religion, because despite them being so obvious, I wouldn’t think of most of them on my own. I still have all of these absurd ideas in my head that I can easily reject when I consciously think about them, but that color my perception the vast majority of the time when I don’t. I really wish I had been raised in a secular society. It’d be amazing to know what it feels like to be totally unencumbered by religious baggage. But I regrettably did not have that experience, and so every day is another struggle to find all of the non-rational beliefs in my mind and snub them out. And many of them don’t have anything to do with religion. For instance, it was only just recently — when I started watching MMA — that I realized that the oft-rumored, near-mythical powers of martial artists were completely made up. And don’t even get me started on acupuncture or chiropracty.

11 Responses to “How beliefs linger after faith is gone: My tale as a kosher atheist”

  1. arensb Says:

    And don’t even get me started on acupuncture or chiropracty.

    Then don’t google “digital homeopathy”, or you may weep openly.

    The pork thing makes a certain amount of sense: our species evolved in an environment where some foods were good to eat, and others would kill you. So children need to learn from their parents which foods to eat and which ones to avoid (apparently this is related to the way toddlers get really picky about their food). At any rate, according to Steven Pinker, food icks are the hardest to get rid of.

    Other than that, I like the house of cards analogy: many elements of your personality or “culture” or whatever you want to call it are based, directly or indirectly on religion. But since the whole thing continues to work, so there’s no life crisis that you have to deal with; you can just adjust things as you notice them.

  2. Cyde Weys Says:

    Andrew, you make a great point that I hadn’t even considered. Of course, taste in food has a biological basis. Children can’t be expected to understand explanations on why or why not to eat certain foods, so like everything else their parents teach them at their age, they take it on faith. Richard Dawkins points out that this is how, by and large, religion is propagated: brainwash children with it when they’re still in the “accept everything that my parents tell me” stage of development. So keeping kosher persists in the same way.

    And then, kosher actually becomes “evidence” of the religion that believers can point at. If a whole group of people are arbitrarily eating some animals but not others, and the only reason offered up is religion, then that makes the religion seem powerful and relevant, when all the kosher rules really are is a biologically-incentivized propagation of memes. But it’s not as if we didn’t already know that religion is the biggest scam ever.

  3. Jeff V Says:

    I wish I didn’t grow up with the notion that being anything other than Christian doomed one to an eternity of torment.

    That’d be nice.

  4. Knacker Says:

    Of all the things a person can resent their parents about, I guess I’m lucky religion was not one of them. I had no religion at all growing up. My parents were atheists, and so until I was about 18 I never even thought about it. Until through conversations with friends, who professed no belief in god, told me they still felt the need to go to church every now and then… to feel clean going through life. Seemed completely ridiculous to me. I mean, if you asked me now, or at any time in my life, I’d tell you straight up, I’m an atheist. God doesn’t exist, it’s a lie that they tell you to get you to put money in the collection plate every sunday. But… Even I’m not immune.

    I realized that being raised without any sort of religion, my mind has filled the vacuum. All kinds of examples where I’d actually find that I was personifying objects, and believing, for example, that a victorian-era-looking illustration of a duck painted on this old shelf clock was watching over me, like what Catholics must feel from their various saints. I believed my toys could feel neglected or unliked, and would try to be ‘fair’ to them, playing with all of them equal time even if I had favorites. Giving up my first car when it broke down was significant because it seemed to me like a real creature. I think of my computer an obnoxious surfer dude who doesn’t know anything, who I have to pound into submission to get working. I see, even though I know it’s ridiculous, spirits out in the woods that walk around… in the grass, in rivers, in gravel roads. I feel the accumulated relief of hundreds of weary travellers in particularly comfortable hotel rooms.

    I don’t go around saying I’m an animist, and it never even gets encoded into words unless I analyze myself and my behaviors afterward. I’ve come to see it as a rather amusing and neat aspect of my brain, linking me to the more primitive past. And even though it makes no sense, I like having these feelings. That’s probably why it’s so hard for you to get rid of your original religion. You believe it’s something extra, something brainwashed into you by your parents and your society. It’s as much a part of you as breathing.

  5. Knacker Says:

    I have also considered that I may be a mild synasthete with low-grade schizophrenia.

  6. Cyde Weys Says:

    Interesting story Knacker. I can’t say I’ve experienced the same kind of thing though. I’ve always been very rational/scientific-minded, so I’ve never had animistic tendencies. There are all sorts of superstitious beliefs built into the human condition through evolution because it’s best to avoid doing things that are bad even if you don’t know why. For the most part, I surpass them, not give into them.

    Also, I see you’ve been commenting a bit lately, so welcome to the blog. Regarding your comments, though: the URL field is entirely optional. Seeing as how you don’t have a website, you should just leave that field blank. It’ll save you some time and it also won’t display a junk hyperlink on your comment. Also, you should probably use a real email address. I don’t harvest them in any way — what they are used for is the spam filter, which you keep getting caught in because of gibberish email addresses. There’s also a per-email karma system, so regular commenters never get caught while first-time commenters sometimes do. Just something to think about.

  7. Knacker Says:

    Thank you for welcoming me. I have a website, I’m just not ready to share it with you all yet. I guess I’ll use a throwaway e-mail too; I can always just abandon it if anything I don’t like comes through.

    Anyway, my point is not that everyone will express this built-in tendency towards religion through animism, but that no matter what, people have a dependency on it. For you, for example, I’d say your replacement for religion is probably your anticipation of the technological future… but that’s just a guess. It’s not meant to devalue it or anything, or indirectly imply that you’re a hypocrite for having something filling the role in your brain while you rail against it. I mean, Einstein’s work came from what he replaced religion in himself with.

  8. Cyde Weys Says:

    I don’t agree with the argument that people need something to replace religion with. Religion isn’t that important. If you’ve been brainwashed with it your whole life, then yes, it is a big deal to you — but if you haven’t, then it isn’t, and there isn’t necessarily anything else in your life that has to replace it. Allow me to draw an analogy, if you will. There are lots of people who are hugely addicted to World of Warcraft. I’m talking about spending as much time playing it per week as others do on their full time job. This is a larger time investment than religion is for all but monks, priests, and nuns, most likely. Why, then, do you not posit that anyone who doesn’t play WoW must have some other activity in their life that merits a similar level of devotion?

    The obvious answer is “religion is different than World of Warcraft”, but for someone who’s been outside the fold of religion their entire life, this isn’t a convincing argument. If you never held religion sacrosanct to begin with, you just view it as one of those foreign things that other people spend lots of their time on, like World of Warcraft, rooting for professional sports teams, whatever.

    Does this make sense? Perhaps the description of my fascination with the future is a bit overwrought in this blog post, but I can assure you it’s nothing close to what I imagine the single-minded devotion of the devout to their religion is like.

  9. Knacker Says:

    It’s not a matter of degree. There are christians who fully believe but never go to church or even think religiously until sunday. Even thought I am given to thinking about crazy stuff, I too am mostly rational. The point of religion is that it’s something you pull out of your hat when you need it, and put it back when you don’t… Like alcohol or marijuana. And some people just can’t control themselves with it.

    In fact, comparing it to a drug really fits my entire point… And fits what you’re saying about WOW nicely.

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