The Atheism Spectrum


Whether we believe in God is not a yes or no question; there is a whole scale of answers to explore.

by Naomi Myrvaagnes

You’d think that someone who has just finished writing a novel about a rabbi and her congregation would have intimate knowledge of God’s presence in the story. As I began working on this essay, I was sure that in The Third Street Temple, my tragicomic tale, Rabbi Felice Whitman mentions God by name only a handful of times. Felice is, after all, a young person who meets the standard definition of “atheist”: reverent and prayerful though she is, she does not believe there exists a Being who created the universe, oversees human affairs, or provides a moral standard or direction. It’s not that Felice did a lot of thinking about theology and rejected God; this is simply who she is. A graduate of “one of the smaller rabbinical schools,” Felice was never pressed for a theological statement, and the spotlight in the novel is on contentions over liturgy and learning and the communal practice of Judaism, not belief. Still, I surmised incorrectly. Thanks to the wonders of digital search, I learned that Felice actually talks about God a lot. It’s been fascinating to go back through my manuscript, click by click of digital recognition, and learn what she says, how she says it, and what she means.

In her professional capacity, Felice pitches her voice carefully. The voice is neutral when she discusses God in Bible stories; it’s soft and soothing when she quotes Psalms in offering pastoral comfort. On many occasions, she can speak forthrightly of God by remembering that she is speaking metaphorically, as when she reminds us that humanity is made in God’s image. Metaphor is most often the key for Felice. It creates a broad zone where things aren’t spelled out one way or the other; something can be what its name says, or it can be like it. Thinking in metaphor, Felice can pose the question to her congregants: Might not God prefer an honest lentil to a Passover cake mix?

Felice strives to speak in such a way that all in her diverse congregation can process God in their own ways, whether as existing Being or as Name, Shimmering Placeholder. (In Hebrew, “the Name” is in fact how traditionally religious Jews refer to God; instead of using God’s name, they speak of HaShem, the Name.)

Thus an atheist rabbi negotiates religion with her congregation. Perhaps some day, after she’s been with them awhile, Felice can open up what has been closed off and start holding discussions on theology. For now, she keeps to place-holding, inviting believers to be nourished by belief and non-believers to be nourished by metaphor, both orientations held respectfully in her neutral speech.

But what about Felice’s private, inner life with God? Reasoned positions do not always correlate perfectly with lived experience. God may not exist as a Being, but God is nevertheless the place (another respectful locution – HaMakom, in Hebrew) that people turn to with their needs and yearnings. Praise and pleading are states of mind integral to the human mind. People all over, from the dawn of human time, have prayed. There is plenty to feel grateful for and plenty to fear, and humans express these states of mind by addressing a Being that they look to as responsible for causing splendor or woe. Danger and threat, in particular, are great motivators for cries of the heart. It is said that there are no atheists in a foxhole. Even Felice erupts in a very occasional “Oh, my God” of alarm, or even plain surprise. “Thank God for Scott,” she exclaims, a congregant who will fix the ladies’ toilet.

But beyond the foxhole is the loophole, home to all of humanity all of the time. We are wired to be connected to what is outside us, to communicate, to seek affirmation of our very being from others: we are all “in the loop,” moving constantly within our heads to join with others, to be in relationship. Is it a surprise, then, to hear ourselves talking constantly inside? To whom? Is anyone talking back?

Anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann, in her recent book, When God Talks Back, writes about the evangelicals in the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, who practice being attentive to the voice of God and learning to distinguish God’s communications from their own inner voice. Felice does not share this preoccupation, but atheist as she is, she is fully, squarely in the human loophole of speech. Her incessant ruminations, ranging from tart commentary to poignant longing, are not addressed to a concrete audience, but it happens that in times of stress and need, she spends gobs of time conversing with a mysterious visitor who drops by at just those moments. So absorbed is Felice in responding to his comforting or provocative remarks that she never gets to inquire exactly who he might be. He looks a lot like her predecessor at Congregation B’nei Yisroel, Rabbi Velvel Kalish, whose portrait seems to gaze at her from the commemorative wall in her office; Rabbi Kalish retired 20 years earlier and hasn’t been heard from since.

Felice has questions: Will I succeed in reviving this congregation? Why do I get so impatient with people at times, so angry? Where is the limit of what I’m responsible for? The answers Felice gets usually make her feel better for the moment; yet they don’t really offer anything she doesn’t already know. They offer her not the surge of divine love Luhrmann’s evangelicals seek, but most often practical suggestions, cautions against overvaluing her capacity to have an effect. Her visitor has a sly sense of humor.

These sessions (such fun to write!) remind me of others in our time. Sigmund Freud so refused to converse with, or have anything whatsoever to do with God that he forbade his wife, Martha, to light Sabbath candles. Yet Freud took on the God role himself in the human conversational loop, earning his living by sitting silently, invisibly, in a comfortable chair while analysands on the couch in front of him talked on through their contracted analytic hours.

I’d say there is an atheism spectrum – from belief in the existence of a personally attentive God who rewards, punishes, and maybe loves us, to belief that no such Being exists. Agnosticism – the “maybe” – is somewhere in between these poles. Felice is no agnostic. She does not hedge her bets. Her reverence is Spinozan, a passionate, humble consciousness of the totality of Being; a consciousness that dismisses the idea of any Being separate from, tacked onto, that totality. But entirely separate from this spectrum is the universality of the human mind and how it functions. There, we are all in the loophole of wishing and speaking “as if,” together in the unmediated experience of believing without regard to the cognitive, ontological implications of this incontrovertible state of mind.

About the Author

Naomi Myrvaagnes is a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, where she has been writing poems, essays, and fiction. Her work has appeared in diverse publications, from the Harvard Review to the Forward newspaper. She has long been a participant-observer of Jewish religious life, and she likes to write what she knows. She is currently seeking publication for her newly completed novel, The Third Street Temple.

One Comment

  1. Steffi Aronson Karp January 22, 2015 Reply

    So thoughtful-as I’ve often thought. There’s the intellectual agnosticism, and then the day-to-day practice rooted in belief-but of what? Please find a publisher so that I can read your novel!

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