Undercover atheists

Feb 13, 2015

Photo by Michael Christopher Brown/Magnum

By Batya Ungar-Sargon

The moment Solomon lost his faith, he was standing on the D train, swaying back and forth with its movement as if in prayer. But it wasn’t a prayer book that the young law student was reading – he had already been to synagogue, where he had wrapped himself in the leather thongs that bound him to Orthodox Judaism, laying phylacteries and reciting the prayers three times daily.

The tome in his hands now was Alan Dershowitz’s The Genesis of Justice (2000), which used Talmudic and Hasidic interpretations of the Bible to argue that stories in the book of Genesis, from Adam and Eve eating the apple to Noah and his ark, constituted God’s learning curve – a means of establishing a moral code and the rules of justice that prevail today.

What struck him about the book was its depth, and a complexity of thought that he had been raised to believe was the exclusive domain of the rabbis whose authority commanded his community of ultra-Orthodox Jews. The book’s brilliance, coupled with its unabashed heresy, created the first of many cracks in Solomon’s faith. Seeing the scriptures interpreted in methods so compelling and yet entirely inconsistent with the dogmas of his youth caused Solomon to question everything he believed to be true.

From Dershowitz, Solomon moved on to evolutionary biology, and then to Stephen Hawking and cosmology, and then biblical criticism, until finally, he was unable to deny the conclusion his newly developed capacity for critical thinking had led him to: he no longer believed in the existence of God.

‘It was the most devastating moment of my life,’ he told me. ‘I wish to this day that I could find the holy grail that proves that I’m wrong, that it’s all true.’

And yet 15 years later, Solomon’s life looks exactly the way it did the day of that fateful train ride, give or take a few infractions. Solomon is still leading the life of an Orthodox Jew. He is married to an Orthodox Jew. His children are Orthodox Jews who go to study the Torah at yeshiva. His parents are ultra-Orthodox Jews. And so, with his new-found atheism, Solomon did nothing.


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29 comments on “Undercover atheists

  • Well, if they’d come out, they’d probably loose everything. I’m not blaming them, really. More blaming their environment and community that would drop them like used tissues. I wouldn’t judge them so harshly, not knowing what’s really at stake.

    ‘Everybody’s faking,’ he insisted. ‘I think it’s all going to come crashing down. I say 20 years.’

    The emperor has no clothes. Hopefully, sooner.



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  • I would think orthodox Jews would be the most amenable to atheism. They have been trained to debate the Torah. Valuing debate is just one step away from atheism.

    Further, I think it easier for Jews to toss the dogma and keep the cultural traditions. There is a deep tie with history. There is the wonderful cooking and the soulful music. I don’t think atheists feel in any way they have to give any of that up.



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  • By not telling the truth he (they) is/are punishing the women and children. Let’s get on with peace and prosperity; empower the women! Stop living the lies.



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  • I found the article deeply depressing. They have come to the realization that the entire doctrinaire basis for their subculture is false, and yet they keep having (lots of) children who are brainwashed anew in yeshivas and they keep sending money and going on pious pilgrimages to Israel.

    I don’t think “it’s going to come crashing down in 20 years,” not if every atheist parent creates ten believing children. Ritual and community pressure alone can keep it going forever.



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  • I have this admittedly naive fantasy of a summer camp, where orthodox Jewish, Muslim and Christian children, along with a few Hindus, and pagans, and children with no religion at all, are sent for three months and ARE TAUGHT NOTHING. Of course, they have to divest of their cult costumes and all wear the same shorts and teeshirts and not have special hairdos, so they can’t visually identify. They just spend three months playing vollyball and swimming, riding horseback, and maybe learning about fish and birds, and roasting marshmellows at a campfire eating (non-kosher) hotdogs and pizza and ice cream. Then they could go back to their previous lives. It would be interesting to see if three months without religion would be enough to liberate them.

    Hmm. Rereading that, I see I have just described a pretty good Communist Young Pioneers camp. Oh dear.



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  • justinesaracen Feb 14, 2015 at 5:30 am

    children with no religion at all, are sent for three months and ARE TAUGHT NOTHING.

    They would be taught no religious creeds, but would be “taught” social interaction by experience and example.
    Teaching takes many forms other than preaching or lectures.

    Hmm. Rereading that, I see I have just described a pretty good Communist Young Pioneers camp. Oh dear.

    Would communist (or fascist) camps, not be heavily into ideology?



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  • The second paragraph doesn’t seem to make sense within the context of the article.

    Which is, fundamentally, that those who’ve suffered from an early age the burdensome indignity of having had a religious monkey stuck on their back, have their lives and integrity ruined if they dare presume to start thinking for themselves.

    Incidentally, as I was jotting down this jolly post, I heard on the news that there’s been yet another shooting rampage, this time in Copenhagen; apparently, some people were upset by some other people exercising their right to freedom of expression.

    Some people need to grow up.



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  • I have just described a pretty good Communist Young Pioneers camp. Oh
    dear.

    What is wrong with that? Perhaps only the label “communist”. If You remove this label it is a beautiful camp. “A rose would smell as sweet by any other name”. So, I wouldn’t say that it is a communist pioneers camp.



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  • ‘I wish to this day that I could find the holy grail that proves that
    I’m wrong, that it’s all true.’

    This is a disgusting thought, isn’t it? Thoughts of religious mind – no free will, totally obedient, submissive. They simply can not accept the truth. Nations are giving freedom of expression to mentally ill (read religious) persons, instead they should treat diseased,… they should work on suppression of this horrible virus.
    The way this boy is thinking is a thinking of an mentally disturbed person, and should be treated as one. His way of thinking has condemned people he allegedly love to a life of unfreedom. He has no right to take away a freedom of another human being, … he can do it to himself, but not to the others.



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  • Nations are giving freedom of expression to mentally ill (read religious) persons, instead they should treat diseased,… they should work on suppression of this horrible virus.

    Speaking as one of those diseased and mentally ill people whom you would like to suppress as a horrible virus, Modesti, I find this quite a scary attitude.



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  • So do I Ewan.

    If as an adult someone chooses to adopt a religion that’s one thing, but if they were indoctrinated as a child, that’s an entirely different situation.

    That’s why I think it’s wrong to criticize religious individuals; they’ve got enough problems as it is.

    The real problem lies with organized religion itself, and our susceptibility to its blandishments in early age as dished out by its leaders, and boy, are they on a trip.

    My first experience with religion was when I was about eleven, when one of my closest school friend’s family were Plymouth Brethren, in his teens he tried to escape from it but he failed.

    I will always be grateful to my parents for letting me decide for myself on the matter religion.



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  • Its called hypocrisy. Its a feature of most religions. Worst of all is that he is forcing his children to live as he did knowing its not true. But isn’t that what religion is all about? It cant reproduce by allowing free thought.



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  • Agreed, it’s not a genuine way to live and it has to eat away at him at some level. It seems social pressures can be strong enough to counter these feelings though. Take the LDS church for example. The church is designed to be the central thread permeating through every facet of Mormon life, so the threat of expulsion is enough to keep many from straying into the real world.
    Humans only have 2 motivators: the attainment of pleasure, the avoidance of pain. Religious institutions are experts at exploiting both to such a degree that even if your beliefs fail, you’ll still be fearful enough to stick around.



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  • I I respectfully disagree with the posters on here criticising the actions of the closest atheists here in the article. From the little I understand of these communities a person coming out as an atheist would loose everything, or pretty close to it, and it would also have a massive ongoing impact on their remaining families.

    It’s hard enough to come out as an atheist within a community when it is only you loosing everything, and an order of magnitude harder again when such a decision has a long term seriously negative impact on your remaining family.

    Please have some compassion for the near impossible situation these people find themselves in. I doubt many of us would act any differently in a similar situation.



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  • Well Ewan, as long as you believe that your personal, invisible friend want’s people to live their life enhancing everybody else’s happiness (or at least not increasing their unhappiness) then I don’t have a problem with what the hell you believe. However, as can be proven by lot’s of empirical evidence, such delusions (which are a mental process!) often lead to human beings doing their utmost to hurt/repress as many other people as they can! Human beings have enough embedded animal behaviours to deal with in their social interactions without introducing a lot of pointless hang-ups that they imagine some third party wants them to have!!!



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  • @OP – Solomon is still leading the life of an Orthodox Jew. He is married to an Orthodox Jew. His children are Orthodox Jews who go to study the Torah at yeshiva. His parents are ultra-Orthodox Jews. And so, with his new-found atheism, Solomon did nothing.

    Mind slaves, are rather like the Negro slaves of the southern USA after liberation – they stayed on the plantation or went of to find a new master, and carried on attending the happy-clappy churches, while remaining 3rd class citizens.
    Many were / are, devoid of ideas of what else to do, after their earlier conditioning!

    How many times, do we see the indoctrinated spouting, “Atheists have no purposes or morals”, because their minds have been purged of the capability to think things through, without authority figures telling them what to do and what to think!

    He clearly needs some new friends outside of this cult, – if only for his children to have contact with rational people.



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  • M27Holts Feb 17, 2015 at 7:36 am

    However, as can be proven by lot’s of empirical evidence, such delusions (which are a mental process!) often lead to human beings doing their utmost to hurt/repress as many other people as they can!

    Unfortunately, invisible friends come with, faith-blinkers which can make empirical evidence invisible, contradictory statements compatible, and logic incomprehensible!



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  • Organisation consists of individuals. This individual did nothing to prevent increase of power of organisation of which he is a member, knowing this organisation is mistaken one. He even brought new members to be a part of it (children), to be brainwashed even he is aware of injustice.

    If as an adult someone chooses to adopt a religion that’s one thing,
    but if they were indoctrinated as a child,..

    He is not a child any more, he has a children, he is a parent and an adult, and he is doing to his children what was done to him (with his awareness of doing a bad thing)… that way circle of indoctrination never ends. This way organisations are getting bigger and stronger.

    I will always be grateful to my parents for letting me decide for
    myself on the matter religion

    Yes. His children are not so lucky, and they could be. “Evil thrives when good people do nothing“.



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  • I disagree. To my mind religion can be broken down into three parts: what sort of god/afterlife you believe in, the traditions you follow, and how you define your moral compass. As for myself, I am an atheist/agnostic, yet I still follow many christian traditions (e.g. celebrating certain holidays, etc.) It’s true I don’t go to church, etc. but to me that’s just a matter of degree. So this is a person who chooses to no longer believe in God the way his religion prescribes, yet he does follow the traditions. I see no issue with this.



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  • John Feb 17, 2015 at 12:03 pm

    As for myself, I am an atheist/agnostic, yet I still follow many christian traditions (e.g. celebrating certain holidays, etc.)

    We don’t really have much choice, when state holidays are based on historic religious traditions – even ones like Saturnalia, Yule, and Ostre, which pre-date them being taken over by Xtians!

    Anyway! A party is a party, and a holiday is a holiday!!



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  • Organisation consists of individuals

    Actually, I reject this premise. “Individuals” are very much divisible, and are comprised of models of institutions and other people. Organisations and conventions, e.g. money, the existence of the devil and other systems of intuitive stories, supervene upon parts of single human brains, they do not contain each brain. Whether one is “in” or “out” of an organisation is a property of identity, that is the model of oneself, which I think is also the thing in other people considered when thinking of their minds.



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