I’m a Jew, but I’m an atheist. This confuses non-Jews all the time. If you are born Jewish, you are always Jewish. It’s something you identify with culturally. It’s not a race, but it’s still pretty much an ethnicity. There’s a distinction in that, which has been argued for years. Jews (especially American Jews, with their diluted genes) are not genetically distinctive enough to be considered a separate race. For example, while Greeks and Swedes are pretty far removed from each other trait-wise, they are still not separate races. So it is with Jews. To be Jewish, you have a connection to the heritage, the songs, the food, the feelings of ostracization and persecution, the traditions. You can have questions and still be a Jew.
This is how it was for me around the time of my confirmation at age fifteen. I began to wonder about the truths of the religion. Of all religions. I decided to label myself “agnostic” until I figured out what was real for me. It’s been 11 years, and I have no renewed faith or belief in god, so recently I’ve settled on full-fledged atheism. The shroud of agnosticism was to affirm that I still had an open mind about the possibility of a higher power. That I was waiting for proof before deciding absolutely. In the past few years, I’ve realized that I’ve stopped looking for answers, and I’ve come to terms with that. Thus, I removed the “unsure” title and assumed one of resolution.
Now we come to an interesting quirk of mine (or another, I guess). I love churches. European churches to be exact. For some reason, unfailingly, the most enthralling sites I visit during my travels are churches. In fact, other than when I went to Israel in 2001, before I lost my faith, I have never even been to a Jewish synagogue while on a foreign excursion. I don’t seek them out, and I’m not really interested in them. But churches draw me in.
It’s not a religious thing at all. When I’m inside a church, I don’t feel any spiritual awakening or connection. I don’t know what it is exactly. Certainly they’re awe-inspiring structures simply for their grandeur and craftsmanship. I’m humbled by the sheer amount of work put forth to create some of these enormous houses of worship. The stained-glass artists’ interpretations of history, the sculptures, the organs with their sky-high pipes, the different styles of pews in different grains of wood: I find myself spinning to take it all in. It’s like a museum that lives, a piece of history with which you can interact.
The ages of the churches I visit bring up different emotions. If it’s a recent construct, like Sacré-Cœur or La Sagrada Família, I wonder what the builders were trying to prove. Did they notice people’s faiths slipping, and want to reinvigorate them? Were they trying to shame booming criminals into revising their ways? If it’s an older church, I think about how it would have made the people of the time feel. Small and insignificant, perhaps, as was intended. I wonder how the money used to build these gargantuan halls could have been spent in the Middle Ages instead. How many people could have gotten better healthcare or education if that same amount of money had been divvied up to the peasants instead of kept to the priests? What a way to keep the downtrodden in their gutters: by insinuating a great, mysterious, invisible power resides within these palaces and demanding money to help keep that power outfitted in finery.
I don’t visit these churches to shake my fist in roaring cynicism. I really feel something when I step inside. There’s a hush, and a hum, and it echoes from the stones and reverberates through my core. They’re full of ghosts, and hopes, and conviction. They are storytellers and story-keepers. They are the guardians of wishes and whispers and wails. They keep the dead, and the living keep them.