The Colombian Inquisition
By ILAN STAVANS
During a recent reading I gave in Bogotá, Colombia, a person
in the audience asked why I didn’t believe in God. She said that she had never
met any Jews before, and thus didn’t know how they looked, what they ate, how
they dressed, and why they refused to believe in Christ. I wasn’t surprised by
the question—coming from Mexico, I’m somewhat used to this type of
exchange—although the directness with which it came gave me pause.
She had read a story of mine, “Xerox Man,” included in my collection, The Disappearance, in which an Orthodox
Jew in New York City is caught stealing old books from famous libraries,
photocopying them, and then destroying the originals. He justifies the endeavor
by suggesting that the world in which we live is a replica of a lost original,
and that the best way to feel close to God is to stress that which is
inauthentic around us.
My interlocutor asked me if, as my story suggested, Jews were thieves and if
they even stole from their own people.
After taking a breath, I answered that Jews were just like everyone else. I
told her that I was raised secular among descendants of Yiddish-speaking
immigrants from Poland and Belarus for whom language and culture were a form of
religious affiliation. The Bible was an anthology of the best stories ever
told. We read it not to confirm our faith in the Almighty but to be
entertained, to wonder and rejoice with an extraordinary set of characters. The
fact that those same characters had inspired our ancestors was reason enough to
embrace them. But we didn’t take these stories for granted. Our duty was to
find new meaning in them, to make them our own.
Unhappy with my response, she further inquired how is it possible to be
compassionate, to feel another person’s pain, to do good deeds, if one doesn’t
believe in God. I replied that morality no longer precludes faith. In certain
religions, when performing ethical acts, it’s essential to substantiate them by
embracing a view of the afterlife: good behavior leads to heaven, bad behavior
to hell. But in the 18th century, the Enlightenment cleansed us of these
superstitions. Today it's possible to behave in accordance with a moral code
embraced by civil society without necessarily affirming one’s loyalty to God. In
fact, I told her that quite often believers in God engaged in sacred wars that
left an aftermath of insurmountable suffering, and that faith is regularly used
to validate hatred.
I frequently reject the concept of God as a palliative to explain the unexplainable:
who we are, where we come from, and where we're going. Science offers solutions
to those questions, but they are intellectual in nature. Belief isn’t about
ideas but about the passions of the heart.
Later on, after the reading was over, the event organizer approached me
apologetically. He said the woman who asked me about Jews believing in a higher
being was an ignoramus, but that she should be excused because she was going
through a difficult moment in her life: her only sibling was ill with an inoperable
cancer, and his days were numbered. She was with him constantly, trying to
minimize the suffering. “Her state of mind is contemplative,” the organizer
I liked the idea of her contemplative mood; I would like to be that way in
times of sorrow.
I told the organizer that I wasn’t at all offended by the questions. On the
contrary, I had found them extraordinarily honest. Knowledge about Jews is
minimal in Latin America. In the region we’re often seen—if at all—as imaginary
Yet the organizer was himself puzzled. “Can you be Jewish and not believe in
God?” he asked. He said that if my answer was yes, his definition of an atheist
would need to be thoroughly revised.
I responded that in his Devil’s
Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce states that religion is “a daughter of Hope and
Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.” But I quickly
added: “Don’t get me wrong… a world without ethics is inconceivable. People
need to find meaning, and the easiest way is to attach that meaning to a mighty
force that is accountable for everything. But the ethical code is divorced from
the concept of God.”
I concluded by saying that I’m not an atheist but a skeptic.