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.
In 1997, I tearfully said goodbye to my family and stepped onto a plane that would take me across the equator. I wouldn't see my brothers, sisters, parents or friends for two whole years. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make as a representative of Jesus Christ. I knew God's truth. I was going into the fallen world to save some souls. Who would have guessed that four years later I would be an outspoken atheist?
Ironically, the first steps out of my faith-centered life began while I was preaching the gospel in the predominantly Catholic Republic of Peru. I was a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a.k.a. the Mormon church (you know, the one with those slick commercials reminding you to spend more time with your family). Every morning I donned my white shirt and tie and official black nametag, working the streets of the poorest shantytowns imaginable. I was looking for the Lord's elect who would hear His voice and come unto His fold.
It wasn't easy. In fact, I couldn't admit to myself back then how much I hated it. My despair becomes apparent in my journal entries from those two years. I constantly wrote about how hard it was and how nobody wanted to listen to me and how frustrated I felt. The Peruvians really didn't care about the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith or whatever holy texts he had dictated. Day after grueling day I was told over and over again that they just weren't interested. The great conversion work that was supposed to be so glorious and wonderful was an unsuccessful disappointment.
The scriptures made me feel that my lack of success was entirely my fault. The Book of Mormon (Mormonism's most important holy book) told the story of Nephi and Lehi, two ancient American prophets. Because of their faith, these two powerhouse missionaries were able to baptize 8,000 people in one day. If they could do it, why couldn't I? I believed that I could. I was teaching God's truth. And surely God wanted His children to be baptized, right? So then why couldn't I get the Hernandez family to join the church? It had to have been my lack of faith. But I knew in my heart that I was doing everything I possibly could. And no matter how hard I tried or how hard I prayed, God would not come through.
Even though I didn't realize it at the time, that was the very first crack in my armor of faith. I spent countless hours on my knees in run-down apartments begging Him for this or that. I would beg Him to touch the hearts of the Hernandez family so that they would join the church. I would beg Him to help my companion to not be such a flirt with the girls (Mormon missionaries are not allowed to have romantic interests during their assigned time). I wanted to go home so badly that I even begged Him to make me get sick. If I got sick enough, I could go home "honorably," and would not have to suffer any shame for giving up early and not completing my two-year stint.
Well, God never came through. The Hernandez family suddenly wasn't interested in meeting with us. My companion kept winking at the girls and giving presents to the young ladies he liked. And while I did get sick, my diarrhea and stomach cramps weren't severe enough to get me on a plane back to my family.
Church doctrines became a problem as well. As a missionary, I devoted several hours a day to studying the scriptures and official church pronouncements. As I immersed myself in the "wonderful truths" of the gospel, I started to notice little things that either bothered me or didn't quite make sense. The atonement of Jesus Christ in particular didn't sit well with me. One Catholic practice that Mormons don't agree with is the baptism of little children because of "Original Sin." We would explain to potential converts that a just God could in no way hold a baby accountable for the sins of his or her parents. We told them that nobody should be punished for another person's sins. But this is one of the basic tenets of Christianity: Jesus suffered for the sins that other people commit. I didn't think that was right. I didn't want another person to suffer for what I did wrong. If anyone should suffer for my sins, it should be me, not an innocent person. But, in classic denial, I dismissed the obvious injustice as one of those "mysteries of God." I believed God would some day give me the answer to this dilemma.
Another problem I had was the whole idea of eternal bliss in heaven. In Mormon theology, the most obedient Mormon souls go to the Celestial Kingdom, a mansion-filled paradise complete with gold-paved streets. There they will spend eternity raising "spirit children" and making worlds without number. Honestly, I couldn't conceive of anything more boring.
First of all, I don't like raising children. I'm the oldest of seven kids, and I have already done more than my share of childcare. Second, I couldn't stand making worlds all day for billions of years. Monotonous jobs, in my opinion, are what should await the foulest members of society in the sulfurous trenches of Hell. . . . Satan would be the grand supervisor of the universe's largest data-entry department (no offense to any readers in that line of work, of course). I always felt that a better reward would be a couple of lifetimes in the Bahamas, followed by a sweet, peaceful end to my existence. But that's just my idea of paradise.
More doubts and questions entered my mind as time went on. None of them was serious enough to make me really question the validity of my faith. I chose instead to ignore the questions and contradictions and continue as an obedient servant of God.
Things changed when I returned home to the United States and (surprise!) started college. I enrolled full-time in a junior college with plans to transfer to Brigham Young University, the Mormon school near Salt Lake City. BYU was the world's largest singles and dating scene. I hoped that in Utah I would meet and marry a sweet Mormon girl who would support me in my quest to achieve eternal life in the highest degrees of heaven. Oh, and I wanted to get an education there, too.
The courses at my junior college posed a serious challenge to my faith. The first blows came in the form of a biology course. I had an excellent teacher, as well as an excellent textbook, that clearly and simply put forth the ideas of organic evolution and the study of life. I learned how the first human beings were not Adam and Eve, and that they didn't live in Missouri (Mormon doctrine teaches that the Garden of Eden was located in the middle of the United States).
I learned that there was absolutely no evidence of a horrendous flood that covered the entire earth for forty days. But more important than these facts, I learned how scientists had come to these conclusions. I learned the importance of having objective evidence to support a conclusion. I was enthralled and amazed by Mendel's work in understanding heredity. I read about the key experiments that unraveled the mystery of the composition of DNA. These facts simply made sense. They were clearer and simpler than the religious "truths" that had been taught to me for over two decades. Arriving at these new truths didn't require a blind reliance on one man's claim to exclusive communication with divinity. The scriptures said, "It's this way because Moses said so." The scientist said, "This is how I got this conclusion. If you do the same experiment you should get the same result. And if you get a different result, let's figure out why. Maybe I'm wrong." The latter approach made more sense to me. It felt right. It seemed like a reasonable approach to life.
After three semesters of wonderful courses, I found myself at a crossroads. In all truth, it was both frightening and exhilarating. Was it possible that my religious leaders, my parents, my friends, were wrong? Was I really in possession of the "truth"? What if I wasn't? How would I find out? Was I willing to make a lifelong commitment to an organization that wasn't teaching "truth"?
It was time for me to find out. I embarked on the most thorough and exhaustive investigation of my life. I had always believed that asking God in prayer was the ultimate source of truth. But for some reason, God would tell the Mormons that Mormonism was true, the Catholics that Catholicism was true, and the Jehovah's Witnesses that they had the truth. Remembering those experiences made me realize that God wasn't a good source of objective information (oh, the blasphemy!). I had to hold an impartial trial in my heart. I had to wipe away all of my prejudices and biases and be as objective as possible. I could make no assumptions. I alone had to find all of the evidence and all of the witnesses. I had to weigh each piece of information carefully. I had to test everything.
The process consumed me. I realized that this was not a simple choice I was making. My life and eternal salvation were at stake. I was not just testing my church, but the very existence of God. I checked out dozens of books from college and public libraries. I would be awake until two or three o'clock every morning, poring over thousands of pages. I spent countless hours online performing hundreds of searches. I went to Internet bulletin boards and watched heated debates unfold. I searched the scriptures hungering for answers. I looked as hard as I possibly could.
I also consulted members of my faith. I spoke to my bishop and told him about the doubts I had and the books I was reading. I needed his advice and counsel. His solution was simple: "Ted, don't read that stuff." I asked myself, "Why not?" As a child, I had learned a simple idea about truth: it will withstand any and all tests. It can take any assault, be it from science, logic, or just plain old criticism. After the dust has cleared, truth will still stand unharmed, stronger than ever for having survived the attack. If my church taught the truth, then my testimony would be strengthened, not weakened, by the inquiries I was making. The bishop's counsel, and the counsel of the church hierarchy, was to ignore such criticism. "Don't doubt, don't question." To me, that was a confession of fear. It was like the Wizard of Oz warning Dorothy, "Do not look behind the curtain." I looked.
Eventually, my faith failed. No, it didn't just fail. It failed miserably. For all of its claims of ultimate truth, the only evidence religion could offer were arguments from authority and circular reasoning. "The Mormon church is God's church because Joseph Smith said so." Or, "The Bible is God's word. How do we know that? Well, God says so in the Bible." Those reasons were not good enough for me. In August of 2001, I wrote a letter to my bishop instructing him to remove my name from the church's membership roles. I no longer believed in God. I had rejected religion. It didn't make any sense anymore.
The aftermath has not been easy. I broke the news one sunny afternoon to my very devout parents. Mom cried. Dad was in denial. He made it sound like a "phase" that I would get through. Their communication with me has been much less since then. I was also dating a Mormon girl when I became an apostate (a title I am actually proud of). Her parents and every one of her siblings tried to talk her into breaking off our relationship. Her brother even said that my rejection of the faith would make me a bad father. It didn't work: we were married six months ago.
Despite the struggles, my life is much better without religion. This is perhaps the greatest reason why I do not turn to religion in my life. Since freeing myself from dogmatism, I have finally accepted myself for who I am, warts and all. I no longer have to measure up to Jesus, whom I was taught was perfect. I accept myself as a human with faults and flaws. I no longer have to worry about God judging every single one of my thoughts, words, and deeds. I have become healthier and more loving. I love my wife for who she is, not for her obedience to church authorities. I have become more aware and accepting of the needs and beliefs of others. I have learned to accept that there are things out of my control and beyond explanation. I have learned that it's okay to not have all the answers. It's okay for me to change my mind. It's okay to be wrong.
I think that as a Mormon, I was so worried about the next life that I completely missed the beauty of this life. Removing God from the picture has given life a greater sense of purpose and depth than it has ever had before. As a child, I was taught that God wanted me to endure the trials and tribulations of this world so I could be happy in the next. But I no longer believe that. I will not endure life to the end. Instead, I have chosen to enjoy life to the end.
I don't remember her name, her age, or even what she had written on her wish list. It wasn't important, it wasn't the point, and none of the others in my youth group knew their kids' names either.
We got on the train, ten white middle-class Christian teens, under the supervision of a woman we called The Chicken Lady because of her hair, and an old man we referred to as Mr. Uh, because he was someone's grandfather but nobody seemed to know whose. It would be an overnight trip on the train to the reservation school in Arizona, and we all had heavy jackets and boots to combat the December cold.
Our church had commended us in advance for the kindness we were about to show: taking Christmas presents donated from our congregation to the poor children of the reservation who had none. Like the three Wise Men bearing gifts to the Christ Child, (sans camels to our disappointment), we would tromp in, shower the crayons, toy cars, and Barbie dolls upon grateful hands, and tromp back out basking in the heady glow of our own goodwill. This was our next step to heaven--reminding us of the needy, reminding the needy of Jesus. Mr. Uh handed out slick stacks of stickers for us to give out to the children, teaching them the inheritance of the meek in pictorial form with a longhaired hippie Jesus giving the world to the poor.
The Chicken Lady herded us off the train and into vans, where we drove for a long time through reservation land. The houses were crumbling under the weight of their own dilapidation, garbage littered the porches, and rusty car skeletons sulked into the slushy ground. It was night when we reached the school, and we were warned that some of the smaller children might keep us awake with their crying. They were homesick; they lived too far away from the school to leave for the holidays.
The Christmas celebration had been scheduled for the following afternoon, so we passed the time together in the common area and then in the dining hall, where an unspoken segregation striped the long tables brown and white. Almost giddily we went into the worn gymnasium holding our brightly wrapped gifts, and waited for the children to find us. I handed my gift to a girl whose name I still didn't know and whose face I promptly forgot, and then we headed back to the dormitories.
I waited for a feeling of charity to come over me.
When we returned to California, I gave a short speech to the women's group about our experience at the reservation. The audience clapped, five rows of well-off matrons in their Sunday finery, and we talked about all those squealing, happy children. We had given. We could go home with a clean conscience with which to finish the year.
I went home with neither a clean conscience nor a feeling of charity. My own suspension of belief for religious tenets had been stretched and snapped years before. The only reasons I had still attended church at all could be boiled down to two: I believed I could stay involved if only for the charity work, and besides, my mother made me go.
Once past those early Sunday school classes of Jesus-Loves-Me and David-and-Goliath, I ran into trouble. That smiling Jesus in our coloring books who loved everyone was actually hiding a darker side. He didn't love the homosexuals, mentioned my grandmother. He didn't love people who committed suicide, added my mother, or children who failed to obey their parents. Various teachers, relatives, and religious figures added to my slowly growing list: he also didn't love the Jews, the Muslims, the Wiccans, the feminists, or the abortion doctors. Even Christians pointed at other kinds of Christians and said they wouldn't get to heaven that way. The list went on forever, a seeming free-for-all of Jesus's dispossessed.
The Bible gave me more questions and problems than answers. I studied Latin and Classical Greek in school, discovering the inexact science of translation: that one word can have a dozen different definitions, and that some of the real stinkers have more. It was guesswork at times, to pick and choose among the possibilities for what I felt fit the best in the context of the phrase, sentence, or paragraph. There were moments when it was completely subjective work.
God did not flick His Holy Bic and write the Bible, supplying us with a copy in every language. (As Barbara Kingsolver aptly notes through her character Brother Fowles in The Poisonwood Bible: " 'Darling, did you think God wrote it all down in the English of King James himself?' " - page 247). The Bible has been translated and retranslated and then translated again, each writer adding his or her own biases, guesses, and stabs in the dark. In this light, religion becomes even more disturbing when it is used to defend moral judgments, and then in turn used to influence political decisions. When no one knows for sure what was said, how could it be used in these ways? And why, just because something was written a very long time ago, is it assumed to be unassailable truth? Writers of the past had as many biases and agendas as writers of the present.
Carl Sagan, through his main character in Contact, brings up another interesting point.
Jesus made prophecies during his lifetime, fairly forgettable pieces that can be found in any fantasy book. Why didn't he use this chance to say something that could eventually be proven, something he had absolutely no way of knowing about in that time period, a fact about math or science that could be substantiated centuries later? Why not take this one chance to offer to the future irrefutable proof that he was who he said he was?
For whatever reason, he didn't. We are left with no concrete evidence, just a bunch of stories bound together and us quarreling with each other about times, places, and people. Perhaps something important was lost in the translation.
Eventually, under the weight of problems like these, I abandoned the doctrine altogether. So for me only the charity work remained, at least until the trip to Arizona. It wasn't until much later that I understood the cruelty of what we had done. Organized religion, when all the platitudes and rituals have been stripped away, is only a business, one that works feverishly to maintain the status quo. While those children cried, too poor to afford the trip home, we had our tickets secure in the Chicken Lady's coat pocket. It was all right, though, this difference between us, because the presents would make them feel better.
We did worse than put a band-aid on a broken leg. We saw someone with a hemorrhage and handed over a Jesus sticker.
It wasn't charity. We did it for God's approval, to tally up another point on our karmic scorecard. There was no altruism on that trip, just ten self-interested teens who liked the attention they received from the church and their families, who believed that a Christmas present somehow compensated for the desperate lives led by those children. We didn't bother to talk to them. No one left with a new pen pal. We gave each other a wide berth because the only relationship that could exist between us was that of giver and receiver.
Charity, in its truest form, stands apart. To give without accolades, promises of eternal bliss, or even recognition, that is charity. At this point, religion and I parted ways.
Religion is a business, with a lovely mission statement about God and heaven and giving, but a business practice that ends up supporting inequalities rather than challenging them. It gains followers and makes money by identifying others as different, the "wrong" kind, and made it possible for me to meet another human being and not even have enough interest in her to learn her name. I should have been interested. I should have seen her as a person, not a charitable work to be performed.
Fighting for equality won't have the immediate picturesque payoff of a happy child holding a present, and in a business, that's not a very good sell. But it would have been a far greater act for us to show support of programs that would really aid the people on the reservation--money for the school, help for the poverty-stricken families trying to feed and clothe their children. Toys are soon enough forgotten. But equality can last forever.
Twenty-five years ago I personally experienced the anguish a terminally ill person and family endures when my second wife became ill with cancer. While in the shadow of death, her vitality languished as her life was consumed by pain.
Instead of extending and enhancing her life, chemotherapy, radiation and surgery seemed to have increased her suffering. She died a thousand deaths!
Her appetite was replaced by nausea and vomiting and her bodily wastes removed by catheter and colostomy. Her breathing was aided by an oxygen mask and tank, and her erect spine bent nearly at right angles.
Her mind became disoriented, and finally, all hope was replaced by despair. Every ounce of what was once a beautiful life had been replaced with excruciating suffering.
How much misery can a human being take? Doctors could not relieve her pain short of placing her in a drugged stupor. Is that life?
During her last few months of death her young (32) heart kept pumping painful chemicals and cancerous toxins throughout her body. She pleaded for help to end it all. But there was no law like Oregon's for the terminally ill.
Since the Oregon law's inception, some members of Congress and various religious establishments have been obstinate, even fanatical, in their effort to create roadblocks (fear, scare tactics, abuse, propaganda, lies, etc.) to stop it. Huge sums of money were spent trying to deny an individual the right to determine when his or her life was too painful to continue. The law was democratically passed twice and has since worked flawlessly.
The enormous amounts of money (over $6 million) and time spent fighting this law could have been better spent preventing millions of babies from suffering agonizing deaths. Those dollars could have saved millions of the 12 million lives of the children under 5, who die each year because of malnutrition, diarrheal dehydration, disease, lack of clean water, and proper sanitation.
Some of the money could have helped provide facilities for some of the billions of people who are without basic sanitation. If you doubt the plight of millions of children, visit Juarez and Tijuana just across the border in Mexico. Or go to Haiti, the Philippines, or Africa.
The Oregon law is strictly voluntary with numerous safeguards to avoid abuse. No doctor, pharmacist, congressman, or anyone is compelled to participate in Oregon's assisted suicide law.
But Attorney General John Ashcroft has joined Senators Gordon Smith and Don Nichols in imposing their views on the terminally ill. It is no surprise that Mr. Ashcroft attempted to override Oregon's assisted suicide law. During his confirmation hearings, he said he would enforce current laws, even as critics cited examples where he had disregarded laws that conflicted with his beliefs.
One has to ask why many religious people are so vehemently opposed to allowing a terminally ill person to end unbearable suffering and yet be willing to interfere with "God's plan" of death with defibrillators, pacemakers, joint replacements, etc. So the Attorney General blithely attempts to block a democratically passed law, ignores state rights, and refuses to acknowledge an individual's personal right to end his or her own life.
Give priority to saving the lives of children and show some compassion for the terminally ill who want to avoid an agonizing death.
Religious journalists, particularly the very conservative and fundamentalist, love to portray the USA as a spiritual battleground. In their world, the godly are in constant battle against broad contempt for religion and the resulting moral decay. The foes of the righteous are academia, the media and the government. If you believed everything that they wrote along these lines, you couldn't help but conjure up an image of a Christian family barricaded inside their home while drunken atheists loot and burn their neighborhood. A little research shows, however, that crime is at historic lows and the traditional bellwether of the nation's moral fiber, teenage pregnancy, is also at a record low and still declining.
That's why I read with interest a recent profile of respected religious scholar Huston Smith and his new book, Why Religion Matters. What would a more liberal commentator have to say on these matters, I wondered? After all, someone like Smith, author of the bestselling The World's Religions, would be more likely to receive a sympathetic ear from the more reasonable quarters of the public and the media.
Reading the book, I was surprised at how familiar it sounded. Like the others, Smith alleges that we are in the midst of a moral and spiritual crisis, which he extends to the media, government, education, the law and almost every other facet of society. Combined with his attacks on freethought, it soon becomes apparent that his message is subtler but just as pernicious as all the others.
Setting himself up as a defender of the human spirit, he rails against the scientific worldview (which he labels "scientism") and the evils of secular schools biased towards evolution. For example, after having the phrase "unsupervised, impersonal" removed from the National Association of Biology Teachers' definition of religion, he went on to suggest the following be given to students:
"There is so much that we still do not know that plenty of room remains for you to fill in the gaps with your own philosophic or religious convictions." The fact that something so blatantly anti-science could be suggested in earnest would anger one if it came at the suggestion of Pat Robertson, but from Smith--a man consulted by the NABT once before--it is doubly alarming.
Most worrying of all is Smith's contention that the law is unfairly skeptical when it comes to religious matters. Smith contends that the First Amendment was not designed to erect a wall between church and state--because "there is no way to keep church and state separate," but to simply turn religious issues over to the states. He decries the use of the Establishment Clause as a "guarantor of public secularism." If only! Of course, he ignores the constant struggles between organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation or ACLU and a defiantly pious judiciary. In fact, Smith contends that in those facets of public life where church/state separation is routinely violated, such as "In God We Trust" on the currency, real religion isn't being served--it's a shallow attempt to "domesticate" real faith. One supposes this means it doesn't go far enough. To Smith, any policy that does not actively embrace, or at least acknowledge religion, is hostile to it. He sees the value of the constitution as imposing "neutrality" in religious matters, which to him means that publicly expressed religion should be abundant, without overtly favoring any particular sect. How this impossible situation would be realized, he does not say. Basically, the theme of Smith's message is the same as that of the Falwells of this country--we need more religion in our schools, in the media, and in our laws.
Potentially the most damaging parts of the book address the notion that religious need is a fundamental part of the human condition. Smith often ascribes to us a "basic longing that lies in the depths of the human heart," a "fundamental disease," a "spiritual hollow." Perhaps this cannot be easily denied; but it is a mistake to conclude that because a human being desires meaning, the universe must provide one.
Furthermore, it is false to assume that such a desire for meaning and wonder cannot be satisfied by observing the universe around us. Most freethinkers know that there is an ample supply of the mysterious and awesome without the need for an ad hoc godly explanation. Still, the myth persists among others that meaning and value are impossible without faith. "The atheist's world contains very little value," Smith says. Science is "an artificial language that cannot accommodate the human spirit" and "belittles art, religion, love and the bulk of the life we directly live." How could freethought appear a viable outlook if these statements are not refuted?
That's why a book like this is of concern to freethinkers. It serves as a reminder that even the most rational-seeming religionist probably considers an atheist to live in a moral vacuum, a spiritual void both literally and figuratively. When religionists like Smith speak of science being blind to the otherworldly, heads nod in agreement. When they speak of morality as religion's domain, they find a receptive audience. And perhaps most alarmingly, when they speak of the scientific mindset as devoid of love, beauty and all human values, there are few to contradict them.
As long as the myth persists that the rational worldview is somehow lacking in humanity, the efforts of freethought will only be rewarded with marginal success. It is these fictions that grant religion all of its respect and legitimacy. Freethought may be literally soulless, but its ethical, life-affirming qualities must be emphasized. The fact that one can live a life where morality is solely a human affair, where the natural world offers beauty in abundance, and where life is even more precious for being finite is one all freethinkers know. And that's why religion doesn't matter.
My son and I attended Dan Barker's debate last year at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and were inspired by his ability to spread the freethought message, and to do it so well against a professional theologian in a very hostile environment.
So, when my son came home from school one Monday in April and told me that his public high school was having an Inter-Faith Forum on Thursday, and that his teacher was looking for an atheist, I jumped at the chance. What an opportunity to be able to demonstrate the stark differences between atheism and the world's major superstitions! I immediately called the teacher who was organizing the event and offered my services.
I was the first panelist to arrive at Osburn High School (Manassas, Virginia) that morning, and I sat in the office awaiting the arrival of the others. A Catholic seminary student, in training for the priesthood, arrived and sat across from me. After exchanging pleasantries, he said to me, "Isn't this great? A public high school conducting a religious forum. We don't get the chance to do this very often."
I said, "Yes, it's great just as long there is no proselytizing."
He looked at me just a bit quizzically, but he went on. "What people don't seem to realize is that the First Amendment provides freedom of religion, not freedom from religion."
That is one of my hot buttons, so I figured that it was time to take off the gloves. I responded, "Actually, the First Amendment states that 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion'--this is unquestionably freedom from religion. So, contrary to what you just said, the First Amendment does, in fact, make that guarantee. You'll hear that in my little talk today."
He had no response, and I could see him begin to rub his chin. He must have been thinking, "Who is this guy?"
We entered the stadium-seating lecture hall, and I smiled at the symbolism, intended or not, of the seating arrangement, in which I was seated at the far left, next to the Unitarian representative. But I could not have asked for a better draw for the order of speeches since I was to be the last. What a perfect way to contrast the nature of the freethought message; it was exactly as I had hoped.
There were representatives from most major religions--Islam had two, the Hindus, Unitarians, and Jews had one apiece; and the Christians were represented by five flavors, including two Mormons, a Catholic, a Lutheran, and a couple of nondenominational types. The Buddhist monk did not show. We each had five minutes to give a talk to present the basic tenets of our "religion."
* * *
[Excerpt of my remarks]
Now, before I get started, let's get this out of the way. Take a good look at me--I have no horns. I don't have a pointed tail, and I don't carry a pitchfork. In fact, I'm very much like you, except that I believe in just one less god than most of you.
So what is an atheist? The word comes from the Greek "a" (which means "without") and "theos" (meaning "god"). Without god . . . we atheists have no supernatural beliefs. Contrary to public opinion, most atheists do not say, "There is no god." Most of us do say, "We see no evidence for gods, so why should we believe in them?"
Our Muslim friends on the panel say that "the answer" is in the Koran. The Jewish folks say that "the answer" lies within the Torah. And our Christian friends say that "the answer" is within the Bible. Atheists say that the answers lie here, within our brains.
* * *
After the remarks we split into individual groups so that students could ask questions of the speaker of their choice. Well, it took me several minutes to even get near the door to leave the lecture hall, because I was inundated with students asking me questions. When I finally managed to get to the interview area, it was quite amusing to see that each of the religious representatives had one, two, or no students around them, while there were 35-40 in my area.
The interview session went well--the kids were very curious about how I felt about the origins of life, where we go when we die, how I raise my kids, how did I get to be the way I am, do I worry about going to hell, is homosexuality a sin . . . you name it, they asked it. They were all very nice, very respectful, and very curious. I had to deal with only one student who was a little upset with it all, and one teacher who was only too proud to announce that he had a doctorate and still had faith. We talked for a while, but he left fully understanding that I draw a very clear distinction between faith, defined to be the belief in a concept in the absence of evidence, and reason, which requires it.
After the interview session, which had to be extended to accommodate my large and curious group, we entered the lecture hall to find the others waiting for us so that we could conclude the morning session with formal questions for the panel members. Of course, the first question was directed to the atheist, as were most others. They ranged from questions about the historical nature of Jesus to my thoughts on abortion.
A lunch break followed. My son told me that during lunch, one of the students asked the Catholic seminary student what he thinks happens to those who don't believe in God. He replied, "See that guy over there? [He was pointing to me.] He's going to hell." This was exactly the kind of thing that I wanted the kids to hear, so that they could draw a clear distinction between the messages of faith and freethought.
The entire agenda was repeated for the afternoon students of World History. My oldest daughter, who was not supposed to be able to attend the forum, later told me that the news of the forum spread around the school like wildfire, and that was why the aisles were packed for the afternoon session.
The afternoon sessions went better than the morning ones. I received accolades for my performance, and I was forced to stay for countless talks with teachers and students alike. I've enclosed the front page article about the forum, complete with my picture. Keep in mind that this was meant to be a forum to discuss the world's religions, and the atheist got a big chunk of the press! The irony is very amusing.
The day before the forum, I sent an email to the teacher organizing the event, suggesting that he should videotape the activities--to show it on the local cable channel at night so that the whole community could benefit from the forum. He took me up on it.
The message in all of this is that freethought will remain in the shadows unless each one of us steps out and spreads the word. Impressionable young minds need to have choices, and none will be available unless we take all available opportunities to inform them that there are better ways to live than to subjugate ourselves to an imaginary and vengeful god. Our kids need to know that there is a better way of life, one that is moral and ethical, which maintains their personal integrity. It is the responsibility of each one of us to spread this message.
[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