When a terrible disaster happens--an air crash, a flood, or an earthquake--people thank God that it wasn't worse. (But then why did he let the earthquake happen at all?)
Or, even more childish and self-indulgent: "Thank you God for the traffic jam that made me miss that plane." (But what about all the unfortunate people who didn't miss the plane?)
The same kind of infantile regression tempts us when we try to understand the natural world.
"Poems are made by fools like me . . . But only God can make a tree."
A pretty song, but an infantile explanation. It's too easy. Lazy. The moment we put a little effort into thinking about it, we realise that God the creator is no explanation at all. He constitutes a bigger question than he answers.
Once, we couldn't do any better. Humanity was still an infant. But now we understand what makes earthquakes; we understand what made trees. Not just trees like oaks and redwoods, with their underground root system like a huge, upside-down tree.
The arteries that leave the heart branch and branch again like a tree. There are about 50 miles of blood vessels in a human body.
Nerve cells, too, branch like trees. They are so numerous in the teeming forest of your brain that, if you stretched them end to end, they would reach right round the world 25 times.
In the face of such wonders, do you fall back, like a child, on God? "It's so wonderful, so complicated, only God could have done it."
It's tempting, isn't it? But it's not a real explanation. Not the kind of explanation that actually explains anything. And it's nowhere near as poetic as the true explanation.
Because the beauty is that humanity has grown up. We now know the true explanation. It's gloriously simple once you get it, and more wonderful than our forefathers could ever have imagined. It makes use of yet another tree. The family tree of life. It began with something smaller than a bacterium, and it branched and branched to give all the species that have ever lived, whether extinct like the dinosaurs, or still hanging on like our own. Evolution really explains all of life, and it needs no supernatural intervention of any kind.
The adult response is to rejoice in the amazing privilege we enjoy. We have been born, and we are going to die. But before we die we have time to understand why we were ever born in the first place. Time to understand the universe into which we have been born. And with that understanding, we finally grow up and realise that there is no help for us outside our own efforts.
Humanity can leave the crybaby phase, and finally come of age.
Now there's a thought for more than just a day!
The Ten Commandments monument never should have been placed in Cameron Park. It was wrong to erect it there nearly 40 years ago--whatever the purported reason--and it's wrong to leave it there now.
We can't have freedom "of" religion--that is, the freedom to worship (or not) as our hearts and reason tell us--without freedom "from" religion. To make a free choice, we must be free from religious requirements.
Some of the complainants in the current court case consider themselves religious, and some don't. Some have won awards for service to the community. Some have done graduate work in theology. All thought long and hard about the decision to sign on to the Freedom from Religion Foundation's lawsuit--not because they doubted their stand on moving the monument but because they feared repercussions from elements of the religious right not exactly known for rational thought.
Some people say the monument honors young people who banded together to fight the Mississippi River flood in the mid-1960s. But before you jump on that bandwagon, take a look at the monument: There's no mention of the flood or the brave folks who helped save the city. What connection do the Ten Commandments have with fighting a flood? Why not a statue of a bucket-wielding teenager, a woman filling sandbags, a man hoisting them against the rising floodwaters?
Look at what the monument actually depicts: an eagle, the U.S. flag, two Stars of David, two stone tablets (seemingly the tablets that Charlton Heston carted down the mountain).
Then read the actual words that the city government is endorsing by keeping the monument in the park. Are you comfortable requiring La Crosse residents to believe only in religions that follow one god, who must be worshipped on a certain day? Do you believe, as the city essentially is saying, that Hindus, Buddhists, and others don't belong in the Coulee region?
It's a diverse world, folks, even in La Crosse, Wis. And no one religion holds all the answers for everyone.
Those of us who have joined the lawsuit to move the monument--and the hundreds of people who have contacted us to applaud our decision--are not antireligion. We want to protect freedom of religion by ensuring that church and state stay separate. Allowing the monument to remain in a city park erodes religion's constitutional protections.
People who argue that the monument belongs in Cameron Park because this is somehow a "Christian" country are blinded by their own religious zeal. They don't see that they've become what their religious forefathers tried to escape--proponents of an official state religion.
With the so-called "sale" of the park land to the Eagles, the city has admitted that the monument does not belong in the park. This "sale" is a sham, a ruse. If city officials believe this is a good idea, why didn't they "sell" the park land before? Why was it offered only to the Eagles? Why is the city refusing to sell other parcels of the park to others for other monuments? The answer, of course, is because a bare majority of the City Council is desperately trying to keep the monument in a place where they know it has no legal business. This is the distorted outcome of a corrupted process.
What, then, to do? Many people are saying, "Why not move the monument to the Episcopal church on Main Street?" The church wants it, and the monument would be seen by far more people than in its current location. Main Street is a lot busier than King. Please remember: Those of us who want the monument moved aren't against the Ten Commandments--we're against maintaining that monument in a city park.
The Constitution, not the Ten Commandments, makes this country unique in the world. If you're interested in what can happen in a country with an "official" state religion, consider Afghanistan under the Taliban, or Spain during the Inquisition. That's what happens when government dares to dictate religious beliefs.
The U.S. Constitution promises that no despot can force a particular religion on the American people. Unlike many countries, the United States' founders believed that people should make up their own minds and hearts about religious matters.
The County of Santa Barbara removed a Christian cross from Manning Park in August, in response to a challenge to its legality by Foundation member Roger S. Schlueter, chairman of the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara.
In late June, Schlueter was alerted to the presence of a wooden cross, approximately 10 feet in height, in Manning Park, which is owned and maintained by Santa Barbara County. His brief investigation revealed that the cross had been maintained by the county for decades.
Schlueter wrote a letter to the Santa Barbara County Parks Commission asking that it be removed, citing various legal precedents.
Rick Wheeler, Interim Director of the Department of Parks and Recreation, forwarded the letter to county counsel. Acting promptly on counsel's advice, they removed the cross.
"It is heartening to see the county react promptly and effectively in removing the cross. This ensures that the wall of separation between church and state remains intact and respected in Santa Barbara County," said Schlueter.
Schlueter noted that other local governments in California "have expended thousands of dollars and wasted years fighting the removal of other Christian crosses located on public lands in the state."
"Kudos to Roger for his significant First Amendment victory," added Anne Gaylor, Foundation president.
In a surprise development, the State of Wisconsin did not appeal the Freedom From Religion Foundation's landmark legal victory declaring direct public funding of "faith-based" social services unconstitutional.
"Our legal win sets a firm precedent against Pres. Bush's push to expand so-called 'charitable choice,' " said Foundation President Anne Gaylor.
In a January 7 ruling, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb of the Western District of Wisconsin declared unconstitutional the grant of $850,000 in unrestricted public funds to Faith Works, a Christian treatment program in Milwaukee for male drug abusers.
The Foundation's lawsuit resulted in the first legal victory in the nation against "faith-based" funding by government. Congress adopted guidelines in 1996 permitting some federal programs to fund churches and "faith-based" groups without requiring them to create a secular arm, remove religious symbols or stop proselytizing.
In a follow-up July 26 ruling, Crabb decided against the Foundation's separate challenge of indirect public funding of Faith Works through state contracts.
The Foundation is appealing that decision to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Below is just a sampling of typical news clippings detailing the many tragedies or disasters befalling believers. As usual, "god" gets the credit, but never the blame.
The "Comforts" of Death? The tragic suffocation of three little girls, ages 2, 4, and 6, in their family's cedar chest in rural Wisconsin on Aug. 5, was declared "an act of God" by their deeply religious Mennonite family. "They feel the children are in better hands right now," reported Clark County Sheriff Louis J. Rosandich. Pastor James Martin of the Unity Mennonite Church said, "One of the comforts of this is that children are innocent before God. There is no doubt of the justice of God in this situation." Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Aug. 7, 2002
Church-goers forget toddler, who dies. Daniel James McCray, 23 months old, died on July 28 when his church-going parents accidentally left him in their van for five hours. Temperatures in Lehigh Acres, Fla., reached the mid-90s that day. He was not discovered until the parents were getting ready to return to church for evening services. He was the youngest of five children. Source: AP Online, July 29, 2002
Bus Crash Kills Five. A chartered bus taking youngsters to church camp inexplicably crashed into a concrete pillar of an overpass near Dallas, Tex., killing the driver and four teenagers. Most victims were members of Metro Church of Garland. Sean Burns, a deacon at Metro Church, said: "God's ways are higher than our ways, obviously, and we've just got to trust in God. There may be a reason why this happened." Source: Daily Oklahoman/AP, June 25, 2002
Church Wall Kills Four. Four people, including three children, were killed in a minivan when a church wall collapsed as worshippers were leaving a prayer service in Memphis, Tenn. Three other children were hurt when the wall collapsed at New Greater Hyde Park Missionary Baptist Church. Source: Associated Press, July 22, 2002
Three Killed in Church Bus. Three people were killed and 16 were injured when a semitrailer hit a church bus traveling with a flat tire on Florida's Turnpike near Fort Drum. Eighteen people from First Bethel Missionary Baptist Church and the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church were on the bus. Source: Associated Press, July 22, 2002
Pilgrimage Ends in Disaster. A bus carrying Polish pilgrims on a religious pilgrimage to Medjugorje crashed near Hungary's Lake Balaton, killing 19 people and injuring 32. The shrine to the Virgin Mary is in southeast Bosnia. Source: Reuters, July 1, 2002
Wall Collapses at Religious School. Eight children, ages 6-12, were killed and eight others were injured while reciting verses from the Koran, when a wall at a religious school collapsed after heavy rains in Quetta, Pakistan. Source: Associated Press, April 8, 2002
God Wasn't His Co-Pilot? A pilot of a plane, towing a "heavenly love" banner memorializing a teen car accident victim, died when his plane crashed near Bradenton, Fla. Brian Mason, 21, worked for a banner advertising company. Source: Daily Oklahoman, June 8, 2002
Bikers in Accident after Blessing. Four people who had just attended a "Blessing of the Bikes" service for motorcyclists got into an accident after leaving the Melrose Alliance Church, Melrose, Wis. None was injured. Source: Associated Press, May 5, 2002
Church Member Critically Wounded. Church member Nancy Browning was in critical condition with a gunshot wound after interceding in a dispute between an estranged lesbian couple outside Holy Cross Metropolitan Community Church, Pensacola, Fla. Andrea Cobb, 61, was charged with two counts of attempted murder after shooting at people in the church parking lot following a worship service. Source: Associated Press, April 29, 2002
Tree Crash Kills Four. When a long-dead oak tree crashed on the roof of Baptist preacher Stan Jones's Lincoln car on New Year's Eve in a country road near Cumberland, Ind., he, his wife and two of their three young children were killed. Source: AP/Washington Post, Jan. 6, 2002
Five Christian Students Die. A truck carrying five students from Abilene Christian University ran off a highway bridge, fell 30 feet to a concrete embankment and killed all five people inside. The accident occurred near Weatherford, Texas. Source: Daily Oklahoman, April 1, 2002
Priest, Worshipper Killed. A priest celebrating Mass and a 73-year-old worshipper were killed when a man opened fire without provocation at Our Lady of Peace Church, New York City. Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 13, 2002
Pilgrims Start Epidemic. More than 1,000 people in the country of Burkina Faso (north of Ghana) have died since January of a strain of meningitis linked to an outbreak among Islamic pilgrims traveling to Mecca in 2000. Source: Associated Press, April 11, 2002
Widow Burned to Death. Kuttu Bai, 65, burned to death on her husband's funeral pyre in a village in central India on Aug. 6, in an apparent act of "Sati," or ritual burning. Fifteen people were arrested in the state of Madhya Pradhesh on charges of murder and conspiracy, including the woman's two grown sons, believed to be after their mother's property. Police said a crowd of 1,000 villagers, some throwing stones, blocked them from rescuing the woman. A woman who dies through Sati is said to become a "goddess," making it possible for villagers to cash in on her death through tourism. Source: BBC News, Aug. 8, 2002
"Honor Killings" Rampant. Human rights experts report 430 cases of "honor killings" in Pakistan during the first four months of 2002. The "tradition," legitimized by religious extremists, sentences women to die if they dishonor male family members. Most killings are sanctioned by a traditional tribal council, such as the one which sentenced a 30-year-old woman to public gang-rape in June after her 12-year-old brother walked down the street with a woman from another tribe. Source: ABCNews.com, Aug. 5, 2002
Women Killed as "Witches." Ten local Bengal tribesmen were arrested for killing five women in India's West Bengal state. They told police a local priest ordered them to kill the women, contending they were witches responsible for a spate of recent deaths from malaria and diarrhea. The women were kidnapped on July 29 in the Jalpaiguri district. Women's rights groups say greedy priests, chiefs or relatives label women as witches to seize property. Source: BBC News, Aug. 1, 2002
Father Convicted in Son's Death. Jacques Robidoux, 29, a member of "The Body," a Massachusetts-based Christian fundamentalist sect, was convicted of murder in June for the starvation death of his son, Samuel, who died three days before his first birthday. Roubidoux's sister claimed she had a religious prophecy that he and his wife Karen had to withhold solid food from their son, even though Karen was pregnant and not producing enough breast milk to nourish him. Roubidoux testified tearfully that he believed to the end that a miracle would save his emaciated baby, who wasted away in 51 painful days. Karen is scheduled to go on trial in September for second-degree murder. Source: Associated Press, June 17, 2002
Doomsday Leader Doomed. A leader in the doomsday cult that killed 12 people and sickened thousands in a nerve gas attack in Tokyo in 1995 was sentenced to death in late June. Tomomitsu Niimi was also found guilty of slaying a lawyer and his family, but said he was just following the orders of religious leader Aum Shinrikyo. Source: Associated Press, June 26, 2002
Drumstick Beatings. A Japanese faith healer, Sachiko Eto, was sentenced to death for beating six people to death with a drumstick during a 1995 exorcism ritual. The group carried out drumstick beatings for about a year. Source: Associated Press, May 11, 2002
Protective Services Aids Boy. The state of Arizona took medical custody of a 9-year-old Prescott boy whose parents refused to give him follow-up chemotherapy and radiation treatment after the removal of a tumor in April. "Our religious beliefs are in our heavenly father," said Stephen Schaffer, father of Samuel. Source: Arizona Republic, May 7, 2002
Starving Baby Rescued. A vegan couple in Queens, New York, were arrested in April for starving their baby daughter by denying her breast milk and formula, feeding her only nuts, fruits and vegetables. At 16 months, Ice Swinton weighed only ten pounds when authorities found her close to death last November. Joseph and Silva Swinton, both 31, contend veganism is their religion. Ice, in foster care, is still developmentally delayed. Source: New York Post, May 6, 2002
Father Kills Daughter, 11. William Harrold, 51, of Seattle, Wash., was charged with first-degree murder after he "decided to give his only child to God," and shot Tiffany Grandquist, a 5th grader. The shooting occurred after St. Therese parochial school said she was "acting up," and asked the family to find a new school. Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 20, 2002
New Zealand Parents Guilty. A jury in New Zealand found parents of baby Caleb Moorehead guilty of manslaughter in March, after failure to provide the necessaries of life for three of the baby's six months. Caleb died on March 29, 2001, of broncho-pneumonia due to vitamin B12 deficiency caused by the Mooreheads' vegan diet. The Seventh Day Adventist parents kidnapped the baby from a hospital before he was slated to get a life-saving vitamin injection, considering his illness a test of their faith. Source: New Zealand Herald, May 6, 2002
TB Victim Dies. A 24-year-old Tulsa woman who refused treatment for tuberculosis because of her religious convictions died after an 11-month quarantine in her home. Maria Rebecca Rossiwall refused treatment as a member of the Christian Science Church. The Christian Science practitioner who prayed for her almost daily told the media he reduced his usual fee of $20 per ministerial session for her. Source: Daily Oklahoman, May 31, 2002
[St. Paul teaches] that government . . . derives its moral authority from God. It is the 'minister of God' with powers to 'revenge,' to 'execute wrath,' including even wrath by the sword (which is unmistakably a reference to the death penalty).
--Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia
First Things Journal, 2002
My becoming a Christian upset him [Ted Turner] very much--for good reason. He's my husband and I chose not to discuss it with him--because he would have talked me out of it. He's a debating champion. --Jane Fonda, filing for divorce E! Online news, May 15, 2002
One of the reasons I believe the spiritual door was opened for an attack against the United States of America is that the policy of our government has been to ask the Israelis, and demand it with pressure, not to retaliate in a significant way against the terrorist strikes that have been launched against them. --Sen. James Inhofe, R-OK Senate floor speech, March 2002
I have great respect for the Holy Father and I have not lost confidence in the church [due to priest sex abuse scandals] . . . . The Lord is pruning the branches right now, . . . --Jim Tower Pres. Bush's advisor on "faith-based initiatives" Boston Globe, April 23, 2002
Every great and meaningful achievement in this life requires the active involvement of the One who placed us here for a reason. --Vice President Dick Cheney, 2001 New Republic Online, March 20, 2002
Whenever [one] hears [our] religion abused, he should not attempt to defend its tenets, except with his sword, and that he should thrust into the scoundrel's belly as far as it will enter. --King Louis IX of France Roman Catholic Saint (Quoted) Boston Daily Globe April 9, 2002
This [Jewish] stranglehold has got to be broken or this country's going down the drain. . . . A lot of Jews are great friends of mine. They swarm around me and are friendly to me. Because they know that I am friendly to Israel and so forth. But they don't know how I really feel about what they're doing to this country, and I have no power and no way to handle them. --Evangelist Billy Graham to Pres. Nixon, 1972 Recently released tape recording
[Islam is] a very evil and very wicked religion. --Rev. Franklin Graham NBC Nightly News, November 2001
I just fear that they're [the Muslims in America] in agreement that this is a just and holy war. --Rev. Franklin Graham Fox TV's Hannity & Colmes, Aug. 2002
[Pluralists] would have us to believe that Islam is just as good as Christianity, but I'm here to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that Islam is not just as good as Christianity. Islam was founded by Muhammad, a demon-possessed pedophile who had 12 wives--and his last one was a 9-year-old girl. And I will tell you Allah is not Jehovah either. Jehovah's not going to turn you into a terrorist that'll try to bomb people and take the lives of thousands and thousands of people. --Rev. Jerry Vines Pastor of First Baptist Church Jacksonville, Fla. Southern Baptist Convention Times-Union, June 12, 2002
My parents did not practice any organized religion, although my father was raised Roman Catholic and my mother was Jewish. But there was always an ethical context to our lives, a very strong notion of individual moral responsibility.
--Actor Harrison Ford
Parade, July 7, 2002
Our father was not a religious man. The faith that many people place in god, we place in science and other human endeavors. --Children of baseball legend Ted Williams Reuters, July 25, 2002
. . In India, as elsewhere in our darkening world, religion is the poison in the blood. Where religion intervenes, mere innocence is no excuse. Yet we go on skating around this issue, speaking of religion in the fashionable language of "respect." What is there to respect in any of this, or in any of the crimes now being committed almost daily around the world in religion's dreaded name? --Writer Salman Rushdie "Slaughter in the Name of God" Washington Post, March 8, 2002
I am all for the death of God. . . . [I am against] every religion and fundamental organization where there is one truth and they will kill you if you don't believe it. In the Middle East, we are delivering each other to hell. If President Bush unleashes hell on Iraq in the next weeks, it will tell us something about human nature's capacity for monstrous wrongs. Hell is our own creation. --Award-winning children's author Philip Pullman Edinburgh international books festival The Guardian [UK], Aug. 12, 2002
I never really believed in God. Not even for a week, not even between the ages of 6 and 10, when I was an agnostic. --Author Tariq Ali The Clash of Fundamentalists: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity
I'm not a practicing anything. I've been brought up around Buddhism and I'm very interested in it, and if I have any leaning I would lean toward Buddhist feelings. But as I have seen so many devout people, I wouldn't categorize myself as a practicing person. --Actress Uma Thurman Biography Magazine, Aug. 2002
Just when we wish to flee to religion for sanctuary, we find ourselves fleeing from religion for sanctuary. -Columnist Maureen Dowd New York Times, April 7, 2002
If the United States of America really wants to fight these terrorists, . . . it needs to strike at the source of their fanaticism--the human need to invent deities to explain our existence. It needs to join the cause of striking down superstition and mythology with appeals to reason and the evidence of science. --Columnist Rex Wockner San Antonio Current Dec. 20-26, 2001
Imagine you woke up one day and found that Jehovah's Witnesses had taken over your government. That's like what happened to us [in Sudan, where Islamic Sharia is being imposed]. --Rebel Taisier Ali New York Times, April 30, 2002
The US is one of the most extreme fundamentalist cultures in the world, not the state, but certainly its culture. --Author Noam Chomsky Book 9-11
Schoolchildren should never be forced to appear to be patriotic by standing for a pledge or by mumbling words because their classmates do so. --State Rep. John White D-Manchester, NH World War II Veteran Union Leader, March 8, 2002
Public schools should provide a secular education. They should focus on the things that humans have explored, discovered, invented, created and done. Yes, students should be told that evolution is a scientific theory, but they should also be instructed in the definition of a scientific theory. The theory of evolution is a cousin of the theories of gravity and relativity. --Former Denver Broncos player Reggie Rivers Denver Post columnist April 11, 2002
No matter where it appears, government-sponsored Christocentrism, or even religiocentrism, undermines this nation's ideals. . . . The single most important phrase in the Pledge is not "under God." It is "liberty and justice for all." --Attorney Marci Hamilton findlaw.com, Aug. 6, 2002
The Religious Right has spent more than 20 years chipping away at the wall of separation between church and state, trying in Taliban-like ways to inject religion into public schools and the operations of government. In former crusades the technique was "religion by the sword." For the Religious Right, it is "religion by the ballot box." The legislation under consideration in Congress [to remove the ban on politicking by churches and religious groups] would move that goal to within reach. --Columnist Robyn Blumner St. Petersburg Times April 12, 2002
For some reason, we don't read about mobs of atheists stoning and burning alive human beings who do not share their non-beliefs. So far, no agnostics have blown themselves up in discos, taking someone's children with them. . . . Moral relativists are not organizing militias for the purpose of putting people in jail for possession of the Ten Commandments; . . . More to the point, confronted on an almost daily basis with the dangerous capacity of religious belief to drive people off the deep end (to induce a woman to murder her children, for example), why does belief continue to be encouraged, protected and accorded a special place in North American society? --Columnist John MacLachlan Gray "Do we have a misplaced faith in religious belief?" Toronto Globe & Mail, March 13, 2002
[Religion itself] has caused more harm than any other idea since time began. --Larry Flynt The State of the Union New York Post, June 11, 2002
Until browbeaten in recent years by huge lawsuit settlements, some of the leaders of America's largest single body of faith, the Catholic church, appear to have struck a bargain with the devil. They have opted to protect predatory, child-molesting priests, and to conceal, lie about and wish away the wretched consequences of their deeds. --Arizona Republic editorial February 13, 2002
The only reason they're still priests and not prisoners is because the church is protecting them. --Attorney Jeffrey Anderson San Francisco Examiner, June 5, 2002
Abstinence Program Unconstitutional
A federal judge in Louisiana ruled on July 25 that the state illegally allocated federal money to promote religion in its abstinence-only sex education programs.
The ruling is the most significant blow to Pres. George Bush's campaign to fund faith-based programs since a federal judge in January struck down funding of a Wisconsin faith-based program, in a case brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Porteous Jr. ordered Louisiana to stop granting money to organizations or individuals who "convey religious messages or otherwise advance religion" with tax dollars.
The lawsuit, filed in May by the American Civil Liberties Union, was the first legal challenge to abstinence-only programs created under the 1996 welfare reform legislation. Bush is asking Congress to extend the $50 million-a-year program and increase other federal abstinence grants from $40 million this year to $73 million next year.
Cities, states or organizations receiving the federal grants are required to teach that abstinence is the only reliable way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. Grant recipients may not discuss contraception, except to mention the "failure rates of condoms."
The ACLU proved that taxpayers' money was used to distribute bibles, stage prayer rallies outside abortion clinics, and generally preach Christianity. Grant money, for instance, funded a theater group that performed before high school students using a character named "Bible Guy," who claimed, "As Christians, our bodies belong to the Lord, not to us." A center which received funding asked in its grant application for money to buy Christian music tapes, bibles and a book advising that Christianity can keep children out of gangs.
The misuse of tax dollars to promote religion through abstinence, which often includes antiabortion propaganda, is believed to be a nationwide problem.
The Washington Post reported in July that the Department of Health and Human Services awarded $27 million in new abstinence grants to many groups with religious affiliations.
In the Mississippi Delta, we don't rear our children; we raise them. From the moment our feet touch the black soil of the Bible belt, a religion takes root. Apostolic, Baptist, or Methodist. Catholic or Episcopalian. Presbyterian or Pentecostal. We have more varieties of Christians in Clarksdale than we have crops. But as any good farmer knows, a few fledgling roots don't guarantee a productive plant, just as a religious childhood doesn't always produce the faith-wielding, god-fearing Christians our families would have us be.
Like many others of my kind, my religious affiliation was decided during my infancy. From the moment my umbilical cord was cut, my grandmother dubbed me a Christian of the Baptistus Southernus variety. Decorated in sundresses and lace bonnets, I spent my mornings visiting with the matrons of the nursery and feasting on hordes of saltine crackers. As I grew and spelling lists and math problems filled my weekdays, Sunday mornings became mandatory religious time. From 9 a.m. to noon I put together puzzles of Daniel in the Lions' Den, memorized the "verse of the week" for its obligatory recital, and sat quietly in my seat until the bell rang and my grandmother rewarded my studiousness with a trip to Burger King.
For years I lived the same scheduled existence: five days of elementary education, one day of rest, and a half day of religious exultation. Not until I was ten years old did the church experience begin to grow stale. I can't say that my ascension into the double digits of life caused me to reevaluate my existence. No flaming crape myrtle called my name, no cotton fields parted, and most certainly no shining crop duster came to lead me to my promised land of enlightenment. None of the Biblical signs that God so readily produced in the Old Testament appeared to me.
Though I could understand that he might save the premium-quality exhibitions for the bourgeoisie of his believers, I did think that he might deliver a few answers to his many proletarians. But alas, such faith is rarely rewarded, and I soon learned that a straight answer in a church was about as easy to find as a capitalistic newspaper in the U.S.S.R.
Any question, any skepticism of a religious event became a testimony of heresy. When I occasionally raised my hand, I'd have to endure the stifled laughs or rolled eyes of my classmates as my teacher patiently explained, "Well, Jennifer, all these people talking about evolution are just wrong. Just go read Genesis, and it'll tell you what really happened."
Instead of the truth, I learned to smile and nod. Questions were pointless since they inevitably resulted in the same answer: "Because the Bible says so."
As the Sundays slid away, so did my religious drive. Every Saturday night I went to sleep with dread, and every Sunday morning I sat in church with apathy.
But deep roots are hard to unearth, and despite my misgivings, my ten-year religious regimen kept my soul embedded within the church walls. Not until the winter of my fifth-grade year, when my grandmother's foot surgery made her a benched and bedded church-spectator, did I receive a reprieve from Oakhurst Baptist Church. For six glorious weeks my Sunday shoes caught dust on the rack in my closet, my dresses reveled in their wrinkles, and the only sermons I received were from the Rugrats and Rocko's Modern Life.
While my friends' parents ordered them to church every Sunday, often enlisting sleepover buddies into the Sunday school service as well, my mother and father never commented on my leave from church. For though they might claim their Southern Baptist roots, both of my parents have been declared A.W.O.L. from Oakhurst Baptist since the year of my birth, so my absence from the weekly sermons caused very few tensions on the homefront.
No, I'd never received any pressure from within my own home. My grandmother was my only church-going relative, and by the coming of spring, with her big toe healed and a Bible in her purse, she was determined to lead me back to the church.
"Now you're gonna be goin' with me to church this Sunday, ain't ya, Jennifer," she'd say each Friday as she picked me up from school. "It's gettin' 'bout time you got baptized, 'cause you know the only way you'll be goin' to heaven is if you accept Jesus Christ into your heart."
But despite the threat of swinging upside down with Satan for eternity, my absences in church continued to mount until finally it became easier to count the few days I did attend instead of those I didn't. I can't even use all of my fingers to count the number of times I've seen the inside of Oakhurst Baptist since I entered middle school. Even in these last three years, when I have finally begun to realize just what my lack of religious conviction really means, I've only entered a church to look at the pretty stained-glass windows and stairways or to cover the Governor's special-guest sermon at Rena Laura Baptist Church for the local newspaper.
Yet ever since I chose to wander away from the faithful herd of my forefathers and sojourn into the land of freethought, the Baptists in my community have demonstrated to me why the shepherd is their token mascot. Throughout high school, many of my past co-congregates tried to drive me back to the chapel. Due to their tenacity, I'm not even sure if I heard more recruitment speeches from colleges or Christians during my senior year.
I will admit, though, that church did teach me one thing. During all of their coaxing and cajoling, I have used the same wisdom I learned back in fourth-grade Sunday school. I smile. I nod. I wait for an opening, and I run like hell.
It's not that I don't have respect for them. Just because someone else prefers McDonald's while I like Burger King doesn't mean that I'm going to try to get them hooked on my fast food. If they wish to congregate, sing songs, and pass around the offering plate, that's perfectly fine with me. Just don't make me a part of it.
Most of the people around me just don't understand that I can't see the point of religion. Age aside, I'm no different now than I was when I went to Oakhurst Baptist. I still know the difference between right and wrong. I know what is kind and just and what is cruel and unfair. I still have the same eyes, the same hands and body I had when I entered this world. They may have changed a bit with age, but I doubt a dip in the Baptismal tub is going to alter them any more than the pool in my backyard.
So why is it that so many of the Southern Baptist persuasion condemn my lifestyle as unholy, sacrilegious, or dare I say it, profane? And for that matter, just what is profanity? Is it not profane for a man to pledge his soul to an institution not because he believes in its creed, but because it has a gym full of Nordic Tracs and a free basketball court? Is it not profane for a preacher to perform the funeral of a young man, yet afterwards, declare that the boy went to Hell? Is it not profane for a body of people to run an institution so that only those of a certain race may join its congregation?
I don't need a man with a degree in God to tell me what profanity is. I see it every day, whether it be from Christians, Jews, Muslims, or pagans. Just because a man clings to his religion doesn't mean he's immune to his own nature. We're all humans, capable of creation and destruction, love and war, good and evil. Religion doesn't change this. It's not a first-class ticket to a higher existence. It's nothing more than a support group, a means for one to come to terms with life.
To say that a building is sacred is absurd. People built the churches, the cathedrals, and the synagogues. People painted the frescoes and adorned the altars just as they beheaded the disbelievers and expelled opponents from their native lands. No god has ever stepped down from heaven to take a look around and leave a to-do list for his followers. Humankind's own nature drives all religions, and so each and every faith is just as much evil as it is good.
Why then should I live my life according to a book that is no more holy than Gulliver's Travels or Computers for Dummies? The information found in the Bible is at times as vulgar as any of Swift's stories and occasionally as basic as most of the instructions for my Gateway. But because of the importance and reverence that backs its words, the Bible must not only be believed, but be followed blindly. The devoted Christian does not simply choose to respect certain parts and disregard others. He must make every word his creed for living and declare all other contradictions to be blasphemy.
I, myself, cannot forfeit my freedom just for a few loosely interpreted parables and threats of a Miltonesque afterlife. I refuse to live in shackles, to sacrifice my intelligence to superstitions and cripple my potential with the tenets of faith.
Though I may have been raised on the soils of Christianity, I outgrew my religious roots the moment I sprouted a free mind. I need no dogma, doctrine, or deacon, no religious label to establish my variety of life. I know what I am, who I am, and what I wish to become, and no homegrown heaven or hell will ever change that.