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Baby Boomers and the Bomb

Lawrence Bush
February 1, 2003

My mother loves to tell of a time from my childhood in the 1950s when she eavesdropped on a conversation I was having with another kid. “Do you believe in God?” I asked, to which the girl replied: “Yes, and in Mighty Mouse, too.”
Like a snapshot in a photo album, Mom’s repeated telling of this story has preserved, or perhaps induced, a shred of “remembrance” in me: I see Little Larry sitting side-by-side with somebody in a semi-enclosed space, and I feel my question to be risky and intimate, ­an effort to find someone complicit in my family’s atheism, which, I was only then learning, was not a mainstream view. My “memory” dissolves before the girl replies. I have no idea of whether I found her answer amusing or disappointing or idiotic. “It was so cute” is all my mother says ­yet her delight in the anecdote goes well beyond its charm. In fact, the story is highly ideological, with a double moral that sums up the content of my family’s atheism:

  1. God is a concept as silly as Mighty Mouse (a television cartoon parody of Superman).
  2. People who believe in God are childish.

This is the atheism with which I was raised. It grappled with no theology more sophisticated or subtle than the “God with a white beard” variety, and it gave no respect or even acknowledgment to 20th-century Jewish theologians who were grappling to produce a modern Judaism. So what if Martin Buber, Mordecai Kaplan and others were shaving off God’s beard and expressing religious insights born of their own struggles with science, materialism, and the disillusioning horrors of the two world wars? My parents and their peers of the radical left were not in the least interested in the progressive renewal of Judaism, but in making all religion obsolete through the humanistic uplift of the world. They basically saw believers as weaklings or charlatans - or, at best, as sentimental addicts unable to wean themselves from what Karl Marx so famously called the “opiate of the people.”

For the intellectuals and trendsetters of my parents’ (and grandparents’) generations, atheism seemed almost a prerequisite to radicalism, open-mindedness, creativity and nonconformity. It marked them as proud heirs to two or more centuries of Enlightenment, to the heresies of empiricism, materialism and rationalism, which had shattered the chains of superstition, fueled the motors of Western progress, and would ultimately be vindicated, they believed, through the application of “scientific” principles to human society. But as their fellow-socialist Helen Keller once observed, “The heresy of one age becomes the orthodoxy of the next.” Today, for my own “baby boomer” generation, the heresy of atheism seems unremarkable and uninspiring. Instead, baby boomer culture is soaked through with “spirituality,” especially with the ideologies and lingo of the ‘New Age” and “human potential” movements. Todd Gitlin, a perceptive chronicler of the revolutionary 1960s, reports that in subsequent years “no ex-movement household was complete without meditations, tarot cards, group therapies, the Tao Te Ching, and the writings of Alan Watts on Zen, Fritz Perls on gestalt therapy, Wilhelm Reich on the recovery of the body . . . R.D. Laing on the truths of madness, Baba Ram Dass’s invocation to Be Here Now ­and most of all, Carlos Casteneda’s parables of an intellectual’s skeptical yieldings to the Yaqui shaman Don Juan. . . . [I]ndividual subjectivity promised to reinvent a shattered world.” (The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, 1987)
Today, Gitlin’s list would have to be updated to include Feng Shui, kabbalah, spirit-channeling, homeopathic medicine, Deepak Chopra on “quantum” healing, and any number of other spiritual and “alternative” teachings that have become so imbedded in American culture as to seem unremarkable. The trend that Gitlin observes among “ex-movement” households would also have to be extended to the larger culture. Nearly as many Americans today as in the 1950s say that religion is “very important” or “fairly important” in their lives, according to Gallup ­-- this despite constant scandals or tragedies featuring the hypocrisy or insanity of religious leaders and followers (Jim Jones’ suicide cult in Guyana, sex abuse by scores of Catholic priests, and, of course, the terrorism of September 11th are but a few examples). According to a New York Times poll, 70 percent of Americans described themselves in 2000 as more or equally observant of religion as their parents; 81 percent expressed belief in an after-life; 53 percent believed in the existence of hell; 30 percent had meditated or practiced yoga. Gallup (1996) further reports that 40 percent of Americans attend religious weekly services, 90 percent engage in private religious experience, and a majority believes in miracles ­ including more than 70 percent of people with postgraduate degrees!
This new Jewish Currents column is an effort to explore why religion has such appeal in contemporary America, while the ideological atheism of previous decades seems no longer a significant part of public discourse. In addition, this column will be an opportunity to express skepticism and debunk many of the mystical beliefs, superstitions, and religious mishegos that have been embraced by the media and the public. It will be an opportunity to identify the inadequacies that have limited the impact of secular Jewish and humanistic organizations. Finally, it will be an opportunity to weigh in critically on significant developments in contemporary Judaism and other religious movements.
I undertake these discussions from my own peculiar perch as an atheist who has nevertheless worked intimately in Jewish religious institutions as a writer and editor for much of my adult life. Through this work, I have developed an admiration for liberal faith communities that my parents might have found unthinkable. Far from providing a mere prettification of reality, these communities offer tools with which to cope with life¹s challenges, celebrate the most meaningful moments, and aspire to virtues of discipline, generosity, humility, joy, mindfulness, and more. And rather than merely supporting “the system,” these communities actively embody ethical, social and economic perspectives that strongly dissent from the status quo.

In short, unlike many atheists of past generations, I don’t view religiosity as a cockamamie invention foisted on the human race by priesthoods and powerbrokers, but as a fundamental human impulse (which we atheists somehow decommission in ourselves). In his wonderfully wide-ranging book, Consilience (1998), Harvard’s Edward O. Wilson takes note of a 1945 anthropological study that listed 67 “universals of culture” appearing within hundreds of societies. Of these 67, at least 10 were “religious,” including soul concepts, food taboos, funeral rites, dream interpretation, incest taboos, faith healing, and cosmology. Wilson concludes that “religion has an overwhelming attraction for the human mind” because “ethical precepts” and “religious faith” have, for “more than a thousand generations . . . increased the survival and reproductive success of those who conformed to tribal faiths.” Whether we buy his hypothesis or not, ‘instinct’ seems a reasonable word to use to describe behaviors that appear in human cultures at every level of economic and technological development.
Nevertheless, however eccentric an atheist I may be, I remain an outsider to religion in my intolerance for prayer, my alienation from even the most metaphorical God concepts, and my general disappointment with my own generation¹s endless search for “self-actualization” and a spiritual high. No matter how therapeutic religious observance might be for individuals, no matter how beguiling the symbols, metaphors, ceremonies and community spirit, there is something about the surrender to God and to a prescribed worship tradition that simply offends my arrogant soul. This column will also serve, therefore, to explore the moral and philosophical implications of atheism, beyond the usual ironic or flippant professions of faithlessness that one usually reads or hears. Surely the religion of our day has undergone enough renewal to warrant a more self-examining humanistic response! - and surely the humanism of our day has endured enough ostracism and loss of momentum to need a renewal itself.
Let’s get the ball rolling, then, by asking why so many baby boomers, including many on the left, have become “spiritually involved.” One piece of the answer, I believe, goes back to the 1950s, when both God and Mighty Mouse were overshadowed by a seemingly larger power: the Atomic Bomb. The dearth of retrospective discussion about the Bomb’s impact on the American psyche has been a wonder to me, given the enormous nostalgia baby boomers express for the culture of our childhoods. We’ve made movies out of every mediocre television show of the ’50s, turned our toys into vintage collector’s items, and kept Elvis alive long after his drug overdose ­yet the long-term psychological effect of those images of human extinction that pervaded our precious childhoods has been little explored.
Do we not remember those bomb shelter drills, in which we made exodus to the school basement and stood nose-to-scalp, listening to each other’s breathing and envisioning Armageddon for a few minutes only to return to our classrooms and resume our lessons without so much as a discussion of the Bomb’s radically disruptive meaning?
Have we forgotten the sense of existential absurdity engendered by the notion that each of us, our families and best friends, might be annihilated due to a political argument, a failed communication, a stupid computer glitch?

Terror and awe formed the core of our perception of the Bomb. We all repeatedly viewed and discussed grade-B sci-fi movies about mutant insects, behemoth lizards, crawling eyeballs, and other monstrous outcomes of radiation. We all watched Twilight Zone episodes dealing with nuclear war, each of which lent it a sense of fateful meaning. We all knew real Bomb facts and figures: that just one little nuke had flattened the city of Hiroshima and killed some 200,000 Japanese, while ours and the Soviets’ nuclear stockpiles had thousands to throw, each a thousand times more powerful! And we all lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, a day in 1962 on which we sat in school awash with feelings of despair and detachment that were unnatural and bizarre for self-centered adolescents.
For me, such memories of life in the shadow of the mushroom cloud have long seemed causally linked to a range of character traits that marked my generation: our attraction to salvational beliefs, our love of irony and absurdity in art and politics, our desire to “turn on, tune in and drop out” from strivings that seemed doomed to transience and meaninglessness. These impressions of mine have been confirmed by at least one expert, Robert Jay Lifton, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at John Jay College (CUNY), who is one of the few writers I know who has delved into the psychological impact of the Bomb upon the baby boomers. In a 1982 essay, “Imagining the Real”, Lifton enumerated several interconnected psychological outcomes of what he calls “nuclearism.” These include:

  • A “new ephemeralism” ­ “doubts about the lasting nature of anything and similar doubts about the authenticity of virtually all claims to achievement.” The hippie drop-out credo might be seen as a manifestation.
  • “Nuclear fundamentalism” ­the effort to regain our connections to life, community, a past and a future by establishing “doctrinal restatement[s] of those connections,” fortified by a stubborn, totalitarian mindset. The harsh political sectarianism that tore apart the New Left during the 1970s might be linked to this.
  • The pressing urge to seek “transcendence as an alternative to extinction.” The widespread use of psychedelic drugs and attraction to Eastern mysticism might be linked to this.

To Lifton’s list, I would add one effect of “nuclear-ism” that was catalytic, I believe, to the baby boomers’ widespread embrace of spirituality during the past three decades. It was the splitting of the atom that first split us off, as a generation, from the humanistic faith in science that our parents favored. For their generation, science was a Promethean quest that brought the polio vaccine and the eradication of smallpox, not to mention televisions and refrigerators. Our parents’ scientist was seen as a world citizen, a messenger of economic prosperity and household ease, a crusader for truth against superstition, and a conqueror of hunger, disease and fascism. For the baby boomers, by contrast, science became a Frankenstein quest that brought Mutually Assured Destruction and neutron bombs, Chernobyl and Bhopal, nuclear waste and toxic Superfund sites. Our scientist was seen as a corporate lackey, an idolater who tampers with the very forces of creation for petty purposes, and an amoral technician.
While some of these perceptions are certainly true, the conflation of the demonic face of the mushroom cloud with the face of science and rationalism meant that old-fashioned humanism didn’t stand a chance. Soon, well- educated baby boomers were opting to be scientifically illiterate ­ and ideologically proud of it. The trend has carried over to our children: Harvard’s Gerald Horton, an historian of science, points out that at many leading American universities, science and math comprise from zero to six percent of course requirements. Nearly two-fifths of recent graduates, he adds, have not taken not a single class in the physical or biological sciences.
Such willful ignorance has been buttressed into a whole ideology about “alternative ways of knowing” that are empowered by yearning and anger. “Holistic” has became the password for membership in the countercultural community (the very word seems an incantation against the split atom), and a generation now expresses both its paranoia and its aspirations through meditation, mysticism, food fetishisms, acupuncture, zone therapy, anthroposophy, and numerous other beliefs and lifestyle choices that will be reckoned with (I should live so long!) in future editions of this column.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.