© 2007  Karen Selick
Shrugging Off God
An edited version of this article first appeared in the July 25, 2007 issue of The National Post.
 If you wish to reproduce this article,
click here for copyright info.


 Shrugging Off God

I was born into a family that was nominally Jewish, but religion was never a big feature of our lives.  

My mother dutifully lit the Sabbath candles every Friday evening, but we switched the electric lights on and off throughout the Day of Rest as freely as we did on every other day of the week.  We didn’t mix milk and meat, but it was okay to eat bacon--so long as my grandmother didn’t know.  On the High Holy Days, my father and brother went to the synagogue.  I just took the day off from school and played with my friends.

Yet despite this lackadaisical attitude towards official observances, my parents believed in God their whole lives. 

I began to harbour doubts at a fairly early age, perhaps seven or eight.  My brother, who is four years my senior, came home one day quite upset.  “My friend Mark says there is no God,” he announced.

“That’s what his family believes,” my mother replied.  “We believe there is a God.” So that was the official word in our household.  But still, it started me thinking.  Why did Mark’s family not believe in God?  Could there be any truth to this rumour?

After all, as Jewish kids, we had been taught that there is no Santa Claus, while all around us, gentile kids believed in him.  They seemed to do it because other people told them to, then they stopped because other people told them to.  Could it not be the same for God? There were other parallels too.  People asked both God and Santa for stuff, but only occasionally did either one deliver.  Santa’s record was actually better than God’s. And another thing: nobody ever seemed to see the real Santa, and nobody ever seemed to see God.

 I reserved judgment and ignored the issue for several years.  Then when I was about 15, a Christian woman who had adopted elements of various eastern religions came and spoke at my high school.  She said if we wanted to communicate with God, we should close our eyelids and turn our eyes upwards to gaze at a phantom “third eye” located somewhere around the middle of our foreheads.  If we cleared our minds and repeated a mantra, we could sense the presence of God.  Individuals who were receptive often found that God would then talk to them. She claimed that when St. Paul was struck by a flash of blinding light on the road to Damascus, what had actually happened was that his third eye had suddenly opened, and he had become acquainted with God.  We could, too, if we practiced.

 The woman seemed genuinely to believe what she was saying, so in a spirit of scientific inquiry, I decided to give it a try. Lo and behold, something miraculous happened.  As I sat quietly with my eyes closed and upturned, repeating my mantra, a sensation of peace came over me such as I had never known before. God didn’t talk to me, but I was excited nevertheless. Something had definitely felt different inside my head.

 I repeated the exercise on several occasions, each time asking God to give me some sort of sign that he was listening.  He never did.  For the first few times, the feeling of peace returned each time I followed the instructions. But eventually I had to be honest with myself. There was never a peep out of God.  Not a sigh, not a whisper.  Nothing.  Disappointed, frustrated and bored, I stopped trying.

 The evidence for God was looking pretty scanty indeed, when I heard about a book called The Passover Plot by Hugh J. Schonfield.  His thesis was that an historical Jesus had indeed existed, but that his resurrection was a meticulously-planned fraud designed to convince his followers of his divinity.  I devoured the book with keen interest. I don’t recall whether Schonfield was an atheist or not.  It didn’t matter.  Added to my earlier doubts, his book was the second-last step on my road to atheism.

 The final step came about two years later, at age 17, when I read Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. Rand was a committed atheist--an articulate atheist--a proud atheist. Here was someone willing to stand up and shout what I had hitherto been almost afraid to hint at. What’s more, she had something better to offer:  a moral code based on reason.  Human beings could understand what was right and what was wrong, she said, by working it out rationally with their minds, instead of relying on hand-me-down instructions from some mythical being.

 This was all I needed. I was hooked. The last scales fell from my eyes, and my atheism was confirmed.

 I now know, incidentally, what caused that feeling of peace I got when I tried to communicate with God by looking up at my “third eye”.  Researchers studying the phenomenon of meditation have learned that turning the closed eyes upward is one of the most reliable ways of slowing the brain down from its normal alert pattern of beta brain waves to a lower-frequency, relaxed pattern called alpha waves.  What the visiting Christian lady had been inadvertently teaching my high school class was one method of achieving the relaxed mental state that author Herbert Benson writes about in his book The Relaxation Response.

 As for sensing the presence of God, it may well be that science will some day explain this in neurological terms too.  Dr. Michael Persinger, a neuroscientist at Laurentian University, has found that by stimulating the temporal lobes of the brain with a magnetic field using his “God helmet”, he can make many people feel the sensation of "an ethereal presence in the room".  Some of us may just have temporal lobes that are more easily stimulated by nature’s random electromagnetic fields than others.




.....  ..... 


July 25, 2007