I haven’t included anything personal on this blog yet. That doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t love talking about myself, but I’ve been trying to remain “pure” to “my mission.” Still, a few people have asked me recently when and why I happened to decide that there was no god. I’m not really sure how to answer that, but maybe the following snippet from my memoir will do.
Dad was an atheist, not so much because of any deeply held philosophical convictions, but because he was suspicious of perfection. In his worldview, an omnipotent being was impossible. And he could prove it!
“Listen,” he once asked me during dinner, “if god can do everything, can he make a rock too heavy for himself to lift?” Dad sat back, with his hands smugly folded across his chest, and watched in exultation as five-year-old-me struggled with metaphysics.
“Yeah, sure,” I said.
“But if he can’t lift it, then he can’t do everything. Can he? Hah? Can he?”
“Umm. Ok, I guess he can’t make a rock like that.”
Dad was triumphant. “Then he still can’t do everything. Right? I’m right, aren’t I?”
“Well,” I challenged, “who says he can do everything? Maybe there’s some stuff he can’t do.”
“And what kinda god is that to have?” Dad asked. “You want a god who can’t do everything? He’s god, f’Chrissake. You hear me? That’s his job. He oughta be able to knock off whatever dumb task you can think of. Otherwise, he’s just some shmendrick in the sky.”
I wasn’t willing to give in. “Well,” I said, “maybe he can make a rock that’s really, really hard for him to lift, but if he doesn’t give up, and keeps trying, over and over again, maybe he can finally lift it. What about that, Dad?”
Dad didn’t buy it. “You’re getting god mixed up with your little engine that could. I’m telling you, there’s no god. Believe me, nobody’s that perfect.”
I have to confess that I wasn’t completely won over to his point of view, because my mother interceded with a session of heavy eye-rolling.
“Put your eyes back in your head, Honey,” my father pleaded with her. “I’m trying to teach the kid something important here.”
But at our kitchen table, Mom’s facial expressions always trumped Dad’s words. Still, instead of chomping on her inedible meat loaf, I chewed on what he said. Silently, of course.
At this time in my life, I was already a trouble-maker, and I had gone up often against my kindergarten teacher, Miss von Steuben. This neo-Nazi was particularly hot on the concept of “good citizenship,” and, apparently, I was not a good citizen. Maybe this was because I chose not to color between the lines, or it could have been that I just didn’t think skipping to music was a worthwhile activity. Notes went back and forth between Miss von Steuben and my parents. If I didn’t learn to behave, she told them, I might be forced to repeat the grade.
Mom and Dad both pleaded with me to mend my ways. “Just do whatever the old bag tells you,” Dad said. “Is that gonna hurt you so much?”
It took a lot of doing, and a parent-teacher meeting at which my mother cried, but eventually I improved my citizenship. After that, Miss von Steuben went out of her way to commend me whenever I was sufficiently brain-dead to suit her. “Your conduct was perfect today,” she would say. Having lived for over five years with Dad, I found that impossible to believe. But I’d smile meekly and answer “Thank you, Miss von Steuben.” This went on for about three weeks.
So I guess I caught everyone — Miss von Steuben, Mom and Dad, and even some of my classmates’ parents — by surprise on the day that I dropped the burden of perfection with a permanent plunk. It was early in the morning, and Miss von Steuben, as she did occasionally, was reading a psalm to the class. This was back in the days when religious indoctrination was considered patriotic, and not just by theocratic right-wingers.
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Put your hand down, young man, until I’m done. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth ... I see you waving, but now is a time for the pupils to just sit and listen. Do you need the hall pass?”
“I have to ask you a question, Miss von Steuben.”
“This is the bible. Is your question more important than the bible?”
I thought it was. “If god can do everything,” I blurted out, “can he make a rock too heavy for himself to lift?”
I don’t remember Miss von Steuben’s exact response, although her horrified look is still burned indelibly into my mind. I do know that Mom bawled like a baby during her subsequent chat with my teacher. Dad, oddly enough, never said a word to me about it. He must have known that I’d suddenly become a fellow atheist.