The Halloween Parade Conversation of 2006

Jesse as Captain AmericaI’ll never forget the first time I came out to a stranger. Another mom trapped with me at a first grade Halloween parade. I think I was driven to honesty by sheer boredom; coming out was like biting the inside of my cheek to keep myself from nodding off. The topic was preschools. When I mentioned a synagogue school I had avoided, I explained, “too religious. We were raised Jewish but we don’t believe in God or anything.”

“You mean you’re atheists?” I nodded. She marveled: “I’ve never met an atheist before!”

***

When I wrote last week that I wanted to be braver about outing myself in casual conversation, I may not have been totally clear. I didn’t mean responding to “Gorgeous day, isn’t it?” with “God has nothing to do with it!” That would be obnoxious. “And how do you know the bride?” “Well, I didn’t meet her at church since I’m an atheist!” Not believing in God is neither all I do with my day, nor the only subject I can discuss.

“Knock knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“Definitely not a supreme being!”

When I am trying to be brave, I am simply making myself give the true answer. In the Halloween Parade Conversation of 2006, the question was, “Why not the Ohav Shalom nursery school?” I took a chance that day and gave the true answer:  that I didn’t want my kids spending a significant portion of their week learning prayers.

The response I got—“I’ve never met an atheist before!”—wasn’t negative, but it was depressing. I mean, of course I’m not the first atheist this highly educated professional woman had met; I’m just the first who was honest about it.

There’s a risk in being honest, I know—that’s why it makes my cheeks flush and my stomach clench. But the rewards can be remarkable. Surprisingly often, when I find the courage to be honest, I get honesty right back: people telling me what they really believe. Like that nice doctor down in Virginia who said he liked his church but didn’t cotton to the anti-scientific Bible stories. Like the mom of my daughter’s friend who said she didn’t like her church, but wanted to give her daughter something to soothe her fear of death.

Like my son’s teacher, who frowned at me when I told him I was writing about raising atheist kids. Shaking his head in disapproval, he told me that in not giving Jesse religion, I was wrongfully denying my child “something ridiculous to reject.”

We all go around—me included—assuming everyone else is a believer. I’ll bet every atheist except Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher knows someone who thinks she’s never met an atheist before. I’ll bet every atheist in America feels sometimes like he is the only atheist in the room. But he won’t know the truth until he tells the truth.

***

And what happened after I applied the conversational defibrillator to our afternoon among the Disney princesses? What havoc did my honesty wreak? As far as I can remember, she told me about her conversion to Judaism and her children’s religious education. I told her about my upbringing and my Jewish wedding. And then we discussed . . . the reemergence of Star Wars characters in the Halloween lineup.

I mean, I can talk about other things . . .

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6 thoughts on “The Halloween Parade Conversation of 2006

  1. Dena says:

    Do your parents know? For me, that is the biggest issue.

    • Kate Cohen says:

      Ah, you see, that’s where I have it easy. They know. And they are fine with it. I don’t think their Judaism was ever about a true belief in God. I hope they will correct me here if I am wrong . .

      • Dena says:

        If my parents and in-laws knew, I wouldn’t mind telling the rest of the world. But they don’t and they will not be pleased.

  2. Norman says:

    I don’t usually see any need to discuss my religious beliefs or lack thereof with anyone except close friends. I wouldn’t actually even call myself an atheist though I don’t think there’s a big guy with a long beard out there who gives a damn about us. That’s just an infantile concept of a higher power that a lot of people can’t get past. So the shorthand for spirituality, even deep spirituality is “atheist.” In fact, it’s possible to not believe in a supernatural being but to believe in a powerful force within you that connects to the whole of the universe(s). But you all probably know this already. Just want to share that I used to run into a conservative rabbi at the gym and we’d have long philosophical conversations on the elliptical trainers. I told him that when I took vocational aptitude tests after college, the number one profession I was suited for was “minister,” but I knew that wouldn’t work because I’m an “atheist.” “That wouldn’t make any difference,” he replied. Recently I ran into him and told him I was working on a book that was as if you walked into a bar and had a beer with God. He said, “Oh, you mean the God you don’t believe in?” It’s complicated. I think what I reject more than the simplistic concept of God is the whole going to services thing and the religion itself. Not the concept of God as a shorthand for something greater than us to be reverent to.. It feels like being part of a pack of sheep mouthing a bunch of canned prayers that fail to convey the depth of emotion that contemplating the incredible experience of being a sentient being evokes in me. Whenever I get home from skiing and see the faithful walking (in the middle of the street) home from services, I think, “I just spent 4 hours up on a mountain with God while they sat in a temple and wasted a perfectly good morning.”

  3. For those who worry about their parents reaction, perhaps the best way to do it would be to sit down with them and ask questions about the type of parent they think you are, the kind of child you are raising, does he seem happy? are you a good mom who seems to have his best interests at heart? do you seem like a good person? are you kind? giving? then tell them?

  4. Sady Cohen says:

    I love the knock knock joke.

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