On Being a Mostly-Atheist Folklorist

On Being a Mostly-Atheist Folklorist March 23, 2016

Me in Spain, being a bad Jew and eating all the pork and shellfish in sight. Photo by Adam Zolkover
Me in Spain, being a bad Jew and eating all the pork and shellfish in sight. Photo by Adam Zolkover.

Thus far in my time at Patheos, I’ve introduced myself and established why having a folklorist at Patheos is an awesome idea. Now I’ll talk about why I’m here, at the atheist channel, which requires going into a bit of personal background.

I was raised in a half-Christian, half-Jewish family in suburban southern California. Both sides of the family were pretty secular; we celebrated Christmas and Hanukkah, but I think it was mostly an excuse to get together, eat specific foods, and spoil us kids with gifts. We didn’t spend much time in houses of worship, unless someone was getting married or had died.

Because it was my mom’s side that was Jewish, and because my dad didn’t want much to do with the flavor of Christianity he’d been raised with, I identify as Jewish. We celebrated way more of the Jewish holidays, more of my peer group at school was Jewish, and when it came to food… well, let’s just say I’m a huge snob about proper deli food. However, we never kept kosher, and I didn’t have a bat-mitzvah. I only barely know some colloquial Yiddish.

This led to some interesting outcomes in my life. As I discuss in my post about the ramifications of not really liking pork, but not specifically because it was prohibited:

“religion enters the equation because while we ate plenty of shellfish and other non-kosher foods, pork didn’t cross the dinner table too often. This was also a matter of personal preference, as both of my parents find that pork can easily dry out, even in the hands of an experienced cook. So it just wasn’t something we ate very often. It became a habit to substitute other meats, and this even extended to (dare I utter the holy word?) bacon. Yes, BACON. I grew up eating turkey bacon. Most everyone who learns this about me pities me. I don’t think I had much in the way of real bacon til I was an adult, adrift in the world on my own.”

Because, of course, we can’t be talking on the internet without mentioning bacon, right?

I go into all the detail about pork to emphasize that while we were never very religious, religion still shaped my family culture. References to “God” were never very common, and I didn’t read the Bible in any real quantity until it was assigned in my high school AP English class so that I’d understand literary allusions better. But I knew how to make latkes, and how matzoh ball soup was supposed to taste, and what a schmata looked like (even if I probably can’t spell it).

So, I’m culturally Jewish. I don’t have kids, but if/when that happens, I’ll probably want to have some facet of the cultural Jewish experience, minus the religious belief stuff.

That’s because I’m functionally an atheist, even though I’ve got some agnosticism going on too. I’ve been a non-believer in specific religions since I was young, maybe 9 or 10. I recall reading books about mythologies from around the world, and thinking about the discrepancy between what the deities say and what they do. I noticed that each one claimed to be the one true path to salvation, enlightenment, or whatever… and that pretty much turned me off organized religion. As a folklorist, I appreciate variation, but as a potential believer to be recruited, well, it seems awfully hypocritical to tout your paradigm as the one true way while everyone else is saying exactly the same thing. And I prefer to have as little hypocrisy in my life as possible, even as I know that humans will always brush up against it because we’re complicated critters.

(The other reason I’m not super into organized religions is that I’m a GIANT feminist, and most religions are misogynist and/or homophobic, or at the very least uphold what I view as inaccurate, unnecessary, and damaging gender norms… but that’s probably a topic for another post!)

At the same time, as a folklorist I work with communities and lore that is both familiar to me and foreign. I’ve done the most fieldwork with my own dance community (tribal style belly dance), for example, where I know a lot of the norms and culture. But I also conceived of a research project while visiting northeast India, revolving around women’s experiences of pregnancy, birth, and sexuality. While that fieldwork never got off the ground, I had to be open to the possibility that these midwives know something that we don’t, whether it’s conceived of in religious, supernatural, or scientific terms. Similarly, when I studied the spiritual experiences of American belly dancers, I couldn’t shut down my collaborators’ experiential narratives in a nasty or close-minded way. Hell, I’ve entered trance states while dancing, and I don’t really know how or why.

I know that other folklorists and cultural anthropologists have talked about this, especially in light of the reflexive turn in both these disciplines that happened a couple decades ago. But in my mind, it’s the height of arrogance to enter a community (whether close or distant) and assume that you know everything there is to know about the world. Sure, I like to benefit from scientific innovations as much as the next person, and for that reason I always strive toward the empirical, the replicable, and the externally reviewable. Yet there are whole facets of human experience that we just haven’t managed to explain rationally yet, and until we have the peer reviewed studies backing up one explanation over another, I feel ethically obligated to adopt something of an agnostic stance when studying culture. (that, and it makes me seem way less douchey to my informants when I’m open to the possibility that they just might know their shit)

To conclude, my secular Jewish upbringing instilled in me a love for culture, and my voracious reading gave me an understanding of how variation and tradition interact… and further, I came to grasp that I could comprehend these phenomena better as an outsider looking in. Hopefully not an arrogant outsider, which is where my agnosticism comes in. But that’s why I do what I do.

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