How A Devout Atheist & A Presbyterian Pastor Became Very Good Friends

From The Atheist’s Point Of View…

You know what they say about oil and water not mixing. It’s true. Without a whole lot of chemical intervention, you cannot make oil and water mix. But, on closer inspection, you may realize that what you thought were oil and water are actually both variations on water or on oil. Water and oil may not mix but the two things you’ve got in front of you will.

How one starts a conversation can be hugely impactful. Start by shouting at each other and getting to a more respectful place is going to be a heavy lift. I knew Randy Lovejoy — my partner in The Faitheism Project (and The Faitheism Project Podcast) — socially before I knew what he did. I’m kinda slow on the uptake sometimes. I’ve never been good at remembering names — socially. If we’re talking history or movies or literature, my memory’s terrific. If we just met however… I’m already grasping for your name even though you just told me.

My son and Randy’s son attended the same public elementary school in the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles. Randy’s church was right around the corner from Ivanhoe Elementary. The class our two boys were in — by class, I mean “year” — was highly social with each other which caused their parents to become highly social. They played youth sports together (which lots of the dads coached — it should have been moms AND dads coaching but it wasn’t) and hung out and became a tight-knit unit that, parts of it anyway, hung together all the way through high school.

I knew Randy before I knew Randy, if you know what I mean. We’d attended parties together and chatted and, I think, I may even have remembered his name. Randy’s got a great name: Randy Lovejoy. And when you consider what he does for a living — it’s almost like he made the name up. I say that as someone who’s always disliked his own name. There’s nothing wrong with Alan Katz (I changed it professionally to A L Katz because there was already a very well-known Allan Katz in the Writers Guild and I needed to avoid confusion). There’s just not a whole lot “right” with it. It’s not what one might call “memorable”. Like Randy Lovejoy.

At some point, I became aware in the group’s early, formative days, that one of us was a minister at the nearby Silver Lake Community Church. When I learned that the minister was my acquaintance Randy, I confess I looked at him differently. He got sexier.

Politics had always been good fodder for our conversations; the Silver Lake neighborhood back then — before it became Hipster Heaven — was filled to the brim with mostly progressive-minded families, Obama voters all. Politics was safe — even for a socialist lunatic like me. One avoided religion because that wasn’t safe and, being progressive-minded people, we tried to be sensitive. But, the moment I knew religion was what Randy did for a living, sensitivity was no longer required — but lots of deep discussion was.

I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. I was born in 1959, 14 years after the death camps were liberated and grew up in a Jewish suburb of Baltimore, MD. My community didn’t shy away from what had just happened to us. Some of my Hebrew school teachers had survived the camps. They had numbers tattooed onto their arms.

So, from about six onward — when I first attended Hebrew school — I was “indoctrinated” into what it is to be hated. Though the Holocaust had directly caused Israel’s creation, its existence didn’t end anti-Semitism. If anything, it caused it to grow exponentially. Now the world could hate a whole country because it was Jewish — while hating all the Jews inside their own countries even more because Jews now had their own damned country. The Holocaust, don’t forget, wasn’t a one-time freak incident. It was the same old Jew hatred — but on an industrialized scale.

I grew up wondering why we were hated so much. It’s a natural question for a little kid to ask. What the hell did we ever do to deserve being thrown into ovens? What did we do to deserve pogroms before that — or inquisitions? What the hell did I ever do to be told I sucked just because I was Jewish?

The answer was not satisfying. Apparently it had something to do with “us” (the entirety of the world’s Jews) killing someone else’s “God”. Can I tell you? When, even as a kid, you begin pulling at that story’s threads — and the whole garment implodes? It doesn’t make you think “Oh, I get it, so THAT’S why the world hates us so much — it kinda makes sense”.

You think the opposite: the whole world is crazy for hating you because of a clearly made up story. That is how I feel about most gentiles: you’re crazy. Not your fault, it’s your religion’s, but you’re crazy.

I never ever bought into my own tribe’s magical stories. The more I learned about my tribe’s actual history, the more I was justified in rejecting those stories. All the way up through King David (who was likely a bedouin chief not some “King”), the stories collected into the Pentateuch and the rest of what we now call the Old Testament is unsupported as history. Adam & Eve? Oh, please. Noah? Don’t go there.

But that applies to Abraham, too. And Isaac and Joseph and everyone who ended up in Egypt with Moses. There’s no evidence that any of these “personages” are other than characters invented for the purpose of telling a tribe’s “Genesis” story. For instance: there’s no evidence in the historical record that Jews were ever really slaves in Egypt.

Could it have been a handful of Hebrews captured in a skirmish, say, and sent to Egypt as slaves? Sure. That happened a lot back then. Stolen labor was understood as a spoil of war. But a literal, historical Moses? Not bloody likely.

The culture those stories produced is one thing. The stories themselves are something else entirely. Stories passed down over generations, decades, centuries before being written down are like a game of telephone. Every time another person touches it, in order to relate a story, they color it, even if only a little. What you get at the end bears minimal resemblance to what you started with.

And, when you started with magic…

As a kid in Hebrew school, I flat out rejected my own tribe’s magical stories as being wholly unrealistic. I wasn’t the only one thinking that way in my Hebrew school class. Don’t forget — we’d all been touched by the Holocaust one way or another. We’d seen pictures of how useless being this angry god’s “Chosen People” was. Chosen for what? Magical stories about gardens and arks and even whole seas splitting apart so our whole formerly enslaved tribe could escape to freedom smacked of just that: magic.

No seas parted so that six million Jews could escape the Nazis. Hell, even if we crossed the ocean on a boat — to make it easier — ships like the SS St. Louis weren’t allowed to land here in America. They were sent back to Europe where all the Jews were taken off and sent to the very camps they were trying to escape.

Nope. No magic.

If I reject my magic and you are from a tribe who not only accepted my tribe’s magic but built on it? I’m going to have questions — especially if you’re in the business of selling that magic.

What made that first lunch with Randy so fascinating was that Randy wasn’t your average-ordinary preacher. And I already knew this for a fact. The guy I knew did not line up with the line of work he did. In theory.

And, so, we had lunch. What made that first sit-down so fascinating as we sat down was how this guy I knew didn’t line up with the line of work he did. Randy, it turns out, is not your ordinary preacher. And I hope he doesn’t take this the wrong way, but he’s not so “extraordinary” either. Randy as Randy — beyond extraordinary. But Randy as the preacher with… I’ll call them questions. What surprised and delighted me about Randy was that he wasn’t far removed from the religious culture in which I grew up.

Jews aren’t dogmatic. To begin with, because we were a tribe apart for so long across so much time, you sorta-kinda have to be born a Jew. That’s always been the mentality. You have to be born this thing; conversion into it? That’s weird. For starters, who’d want to be hated like this? That’s why Jews don’t proselytize; in theory, you can’t convert into a thing you have to be born into. And you can’t be kicked out of this thing either. You might be excluded from your community — but your community can’t say “You’re not a Jew anymore”. It’d be as logical as saying “You’re not a carbon-based life form anymore”.

That’s why Jews can question anything and everything with total impunity. There’s nothing at stake — except getting closer to the answer to your question. And, so, Jews do tend to question everything. I know — it’s annoying. But it’s part of our culture. It’s baked in.

I’ve always said I’m grateful to Hebrew school for making me the atheist I am today. In truth, I was born an atheist. But Hebrew school put an imprint on my atheism. It made me question not only my tribe’s religious faith but its opposite — not having that faith as the basis for how I thought the world worked. Reject the religious version of events, what’s your go-to instead?

Turned out there’s this thing “Science”. Now, science ain’t perfect. But, the thing is? Science KNOWS it ain’t perfect. Science keeps trying to get it right. It’s mind is open to new evidence and what that evidence suggests about the truth. In fact, with science as the basis for your “belief system”, one has to be willing to completely change how one thinks about things because new evidence just dropped.

One has to be willing to say “What I thought previously about this thing? I was wrong!”

I grew up in a “science” household. My dad was a surgeon who knew from experience that medicine, science-y as it is, still required an awful lot of “art” in its practice. Not “magic” exactly, but intuition. Educated guess work. The better you understand people — your patients — the better you can care for them.

How about we call it “empathy”? I grew up where the basis for our belief system was Science + Empathy. And asking questions.

But, I also grew up in a house where mystery was part of the equation, too. Sometimes human bodies do things we don’t understand. They break down or grow in ways a body isn’t supposed to. We deal with the symptoms the best we can while trying to figure out the “why it happened”. “We don’t know” was an acceptable answer in the face of a “life-and-death” question. Why did my friend Steven Levy get leukemia and die when he was eleven? We don’t know.

I’ll be honest. When Randy and I first sat down to lunch, I had no idea whatsoever that that lunch would lead us to this blog and our podcast. But, something emerged during our very first deep dive. A conversation about differences very quickly became a conversation about all the things we had IN COMMON.

I have always been on a spiritual quest. It took me most of my life to understand that that is what I’m on, but — take my word for it: I am on a spiritual quest. So’s Randy. Now, I’ve never had a beef with Jesus. Why would I? He was born, lived and died a member of my tribe. And his core message — Do Unto Others — is as Jewish a philosophy as there is. Jewish culture obligates Jews to make the world a better place (that does not include turning non-Jews into Jews).

If not for the Apostle Paul remaking Jesus into the mascot for the Christian faith he was crafting — starting with turning Joshua Ben Joseph into Jesus Christ — there wouldn’t be “Christianity”. Jesus did not do this.

I told Randy flat out: “Atheist that I am, I consider myself a big fan of Jesus”. “So am I,” said Randy. Turned out Randy was into Jesus’s message more (I’m editorializing here) than his church’s message. Having lived a remarkable life up to that point that took him all over the world, Randy had tremendous perspective. As perspective will, it made him ask questions.

How do we achieve happiness? How do we achieve sustainable happiness? How do we understand and act on our place in other peoples’ happiness? And, most importantly, what can we do personally to improve on other peoples’ happiness?

In other words, how best can we Do Unto Others?

Turned out atheist Alan and person-of-faith Randy had just about everything in common. Our spiritual quests were almost identical.

We used different words and vocabulary to describe our quests, but other than that? Pretty much interchangeable.

The whole point of The Faitheism Project and The Faitheism Project Podcast is to question everything — with an open mind. That’s do-able when messages transcend dogma. When being the best person you can be is valued above being the most loyal to the group’s ooga-booga. Even people who “believe in science” are capable of succumbing to ooga-booga.

Anti-vaxxers, for instance.

That’s the story’s big twist. If you open your mind as fully as you can, you realize how big your tribe actually is. How big our tribe is.

I think I’ve always known this about Randy — and me. Regardless of anything else, anything we thought or said out loud, we were tribe.

We are tribe.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: