My Atheist (etc) Reaction to “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret?”

“I lived in New York for eleven and a half years and I don’t think anybody ever asked me about my religion. I never even thought about it. Now, all of a sudden, it was the big thing in my life.”

Margaret moves to the New Jersey suburbs at age 11 from NYC. Her Christian mother has disowned her parents because they wouldn’t accept her marrying a Jewish man. They had ended up eloping. Margaret’s Jewish father can’t quite stand his mother, and Margaret’s parents think she’s too big an influence on Margaret. This grandmother is written to desperately want Maragaret to choose Judaism as her religion, to date Jewish boys, to be a Jewish girl deep down but Margaret asks the important yet “innocent” seeming questions, like even if she was old enough to have boyfriends, why would she care if they were Jewish?

Margaret and her parents give gifts in her family because that’s not religious either way, just an American December tradition, and of course in this age before the internet and Facebook the only way for Margaret’s mother to still catch up with old friends and find out once a year who got married or had babies are continuing the tradition of Christmas cards except in her case they’re just secular holiday cards. On the first day of 6th grade Margaret answers questions about what she likes and hates and therefore shares that she hates religious holidays.

(This whole thing typed on my phone. Sorry for any autocorrect errors. I might fix them later.)

“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” is a book that was published in 1970 and which many Americans kinda considered, and perhaps even still consider today, a classic “must-read” for girls on the cusp of puberty, around 5th or 6th grade. I decided on a whim to listen to the audiobook version, which is only 3 hours long, starting today because this book is kinda stuck in my memory as probably? (although I can’t quite recall with certainty) a key point on my journey toward atheism. I’m only halfway through my reread right now but still I’m in the mood to comment already.

As a now adult woman, turning 29 in less than 6 weeks, who was always asexual (I just didn’t know any terminology to frame my experiences), I must point out the book is of course very heteronormative and gender-essentialist (or maybe the term I’m looking for is cisnormative) and assumes all 11 and 12 year olds are all consumed with the same basic issues pertaining to thoughts about their bodies and the opposite sex etc and if you give this to a child before they have figured out their gender or sexuality what it does is probably instill MORE of a sense of not being “normal” (i.e. cis and straight) because the whole book is about how Margaret is quite “normal” yet constantly still is insecure she’s not fitting in with the other normal kids her age.

I could write a whole asexual reaction to this book and readers of my blog might’ve expected me to. I’m also a child abuse survivor and this book presents a healthy mother/daughter relationship that is a contrast to what I had. I am white like this girl, and I am cis female like her, and I am American generally from the suburbs in the northeast, so I do relate more than some people might, but idk. I wanted to write an atheist reaction.

I have not seen posts when I Googled just now on the religious aspects of the book making parents uncomfortable or worried about giving this to their kids, and most people even don’t react to it at all one way or another in reviews.

This person: https://earlybirdbooks.com/the-re-read-are-you-there-god-its-me-margaret does find praying and speaking to god satisfying much like the lead character Margaret does. She calls that aspect of the book “profound” and says:

“I haven’t exactly walked into a temple and counted those wearing hats, or confessed a sin to a man in a box, but I have looked for some kind of divine guidance. Like Margaret, I wasn’t raised in a church. My father is Catholic, my mother is some Protestant variety, but Sunday mornings for me consisted of sleeping late or catching up with Clarissa as she explained it all.” Etc.

Back to the book…

“My parents don’t know I actually talk to God. I mean, if I told them they’d think I was some kind of religious fanatic or something. So I keep it very private. I can talk to him without moving my lips if I have to. My mother says God is a nice idea. He belongs to everybody. ”

Margaret was raised to think that when she grew up she could choose her religion, which I’ve seen plenty of atheists say is the way they are raising their kids, and this book introduces the concept casually. Margaret has to explain to her teacher why she hates religious holidays – none apply to her – and decides since her new friends/neighbors find it so fascinating she doesn’t go to Sunday school nor Hebrew school, doesn’t join The Y or The JCC, that for her “pick anything personal and meaningful you want as your topic” year long project, that she will figure out the religion thing.

It’s clear she, like me as a kid, didn’t really have much awareness that there might be other religions besides Judaism and the huge scope of Christianity like Eastern religions or Africian ones or Native American ones or Paganism etc or even that atheism was an option.

It rings true to me that a girl is old enough to potentially start really thinking about these things deeply and in a pretty adult way at right about these ages. It also makes sense that Judy Blume the author: “Blume has described her childhood home as culturally Jewish rather than religious. Her father had six brothers and sisters, almost all of whom died while Judy was growing up, and she has said, ‘a lot of my philosophy came from growing up in a family that was always sitting Shiva.'” https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/blume-judy there was also in 2012 a clip posted to the Patheos website that might have given more insight into Judy Blume’s relationship with God if it hadn’t stopped being embedded one of these years but I’m pretty sure she believes in God in some sense.

The book uses talking to God kinda like he’s your diary especially when it comes to your deep thoughts and wishes for things to be different – things you’d hope he could change to make your life somehow magically better – as an easy way for us to get inside the main character’s head, but the things she wants clearly don’t just start magically happening. Praying clearly doesn’t really work in this book. She even gets angry at God about this at the point I haven’t quite gotten to yet in my reread (my audiobook listen that I’m still in the middle of).

When Margaret goes to Temple/Synagogue once and then a Presbyterian church she is surprised just how similar the two are, and surprised she doesn’t feel anything special really. She can tell the minister wants to “win” her to his religion and she’s mortified when he’s told she has no religion.

For this girl perpetually concerned with fitting in, of course, the question isn’t what religion is accurate or true about what actually exists and which rules actually matter and all that. The biggest reason to figure out a religion is so she has a sense of identity which her apparently secular parents didn’t provide, because they are “nothing” but all her friends told her she has to be “something”. It sorta seems she knows she’ll never quite fit in, religion wise, but at least if she has a religious identity she’ll fit in more than she does currently.

It’s a relatively fascinating step into a secular family from the late 60s era of life (although one detail about first periods was updated on the edition of the book rereleased in the 90s since menstrual products changed so much over the course of the 1970s). It’s a book where not being religious matters to this main character because the people around her make it matter, and even her parents who are “nothing” clearly have strong views. They’re concerned she’s too young to be deciding religion and going to religious services but they decide not to stop her, and she hides her praying before bed from them.

It carefully approaches this topic in a way that it feels like most parents don’t worry will corrupt the views of their impressionable children, and most adults who read it as kids didn’t even notice. Many reviews mention that only upon rereading do they find the part of the book that the title is based on to actually catch their attention.

I guess you focus on what makes sense for you at the stage of life you’re in. If you’re not worried about God existing or not you’re not gonna find the question “Are you there, God?” so interesting, thinking the answer might possibly be “no”, and you probably weren’t like me who wished even back when I was 11 and my mom told me to read this book that the book had actually explored God maybe not being there.

But you know what this book was? A book with a girl who had a Jewish father and a Christian mother and for everything else it didn’t have, I certainly saw myself in that. My dad’s family is Jewish, my mom’s is Catholic, and my mom raised me and my brother Catholic.

And this book let it be okay to not have all the answers and be okay to wonder and ask questions. It gave me the chance to know I wasn’t the only possible 11, 12, 13, 14 year old girl asking if God was even there.

When I was 14 I asked my mom with fear and tentativeness if it might be okay if I wasn’t confirmed Catholic. My mom, who was so abusive that even though she’d already had me read this book before my first period came, because of the circumstances surrounding my first period i waited a full 24 hours until the first chance i was alone with my *dad* to confide in a parent and ask for pads. My mom, who had given me THIS book year’s prior, who had at one point in her life decided to marry a Jewish man and as I’d learned later had quite a bit of trouble finding a priest willing to perform the ceremony, still framed it as only okay to not get Confirmed Catholic as long as I still believed in God. And “was I sure?” because it’s “easier to get married one day if” I had a church to belong to.

“You believe in God though, right?” only had one possible answer one was allowed to verbalize. And yet that was the exact day I really solidified my realization I maybe didn’t believe, and I know I’d been questioning for years and years.

This book deals with religion in a way that is really fascinating to me in 2018, after having been in the New Atheist movement for 9 years, knowing 1970 was when my parents were only 8 years old and seeing how much the world maybe hasn’t changed that much for many secular families.

Being a secular and nonreligious family doesn’t have to be “nothing” with no sense of identity for your kids and I hope secular kids growing up today maybe can know that.

I’m glad the title of this book is what it is too. And I look forward to finishing my listening to the audiobook. Thanks for listening. I just. Felt like sharing.

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2 thoughts on “My Atheist (etc) Reaction to “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret?”

  1. Interesting. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret is one of those books I wasn’t allowed to read growing up, but I have heard it praised by other people. Maybe i should finally get around to reading it.

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    1. It was a quick 3 hour audiobook listen and probably would be a very fast read. It was enjoyable to revisit as an adult and I’m sorry you were not allowed to read it. It’s a cute story overall.

      Like

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