I originally thought atheism meant “lack of religion,” but after hearing more sermons delivered from atheists than I ever did from any priest or pastor, I reconsidered. Most of the people I knew growing up were atheists, followed by Muslims, then Jews, and finally Christians. My dad was not an atheist; he was “spiritual but not religious” (a description that I now understand to mean he believes in a higher power, meditates, has strict morals, but under no circumstance will reveal what he actually believes). A couple of my friends from high school identified as “culturally but not religiously Jewish.” That ended up meaning their families were Jewish, probably celebrated Jewish holidays, but rarely went to services. All I knew about Christianity was what my Facebook friends posted about the Westboro Baptist Church being comprised of hateful bigots. It wasn’t uncommon for me to make presumptions about unfamiliar groups. I had little-to-no experience with religion growing up, so I had no idea what to expect from Brandeis. Yes, I’ll be politically correct and note that Brandeis is not officially a Jewish university, but the main selling points on my tour here were the half-kosher dining hall and that Brandeis is sometimes referred to as “The Jewish Harvard.”
Generalizing my preconceptions of the Westboro Baptist Church to all religious people, I was half-expecting to be thrown into a pit of hateful, close-minded people who ate babies, then protested their funerals. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. I was actually very quickly humbled and pleasantly surprised by the feeling of welcome-ness and community that Brandeis offered. I had thought that asking what “kosher” actually meant was taboo, but when I finally summoned the courage to ask the religious-looking man who supervises the kosher side of the dining hall, he simply smiled and explained the various dietary restrictions to me. As he explained, I felt compelled to apologize for my ignorance, out of respect for this belief system that I knew nothing about. He responded by chuckling, revealing a comforting smile, and then pointing me in the direction of the big entrée of the day. His tone revealed no indication of offense, in fact, he seemed incredibly accepting—a common trend among most religious people I’ve actually talked to at Brandeis.
Atheists had always convinced me that atheism was the intellectually superior path and that religious people were incredibly close-minded, but whenever I questioned that, they told me I was wrong. My conversations with them were often brief because they’d get quickly frustrated when I didn’t see the same “truth” as them. And they often entered our conversations from a post-enlightened–“I once thought that too”—perspective.
As a sharp contrast, during my first week at Brandeis, I had a really pleasant conversation with two orthodox Jews. We sat down for lunch and they invited me to ask them anything I wanted about Judaism or about their particular beliefs. We began talking, and even though I disagreed with several of their views (particularly with regards to homosexuality), I did not feel like they assumed a moral superiority or forced their views on me; they were both actually extremely receptive to me articulating my disagreements. I’m sure there are plenty of close-minded religious people and open-minded atheists, but the point is that it’s just people on all ends, and assuming anything based on religious preference is fallible.
I remember how shocked I was in high school to hear that my Economics teacher was a Catholic. I remember being even more shocked when I learned that he was a Republican. But the biggest shock of all came when I realized that he was absolutely brilliant. He turned out to be one of the most perceptive, interesting, and intelligent people I’ve ever talked to. If I hadn’t had to sit in class and listen to him speak every day, I would’ve just finalized my opinions right then and there—ah, another Catholic, Republican bigot, racist, sexist, homophobe, earth-destroyer.
But think about how ridiculous it is that I formed all of these judgments from simply hearing him speak a sentence or two. Think about how ridiculous it is that I nearly did the same for Brandeis. Think about how ridiculous it is when any of us presume to know anything about anyone. It’s easy to lock ourselves away with beliefs that feel safer, more familiar, and more secure, to surround ourselves with other like-minded folks, but it’s really hard to enter an unfamiliar place and to not just tolerate it, but to embrace it. I definitely haven’t fully embraced Brandeis yet, but I feel like I’m on my way. Shalom.