Craig Phelon’s Tribute (August 1994)

This speech was presented at the Foundation’s Recognition Luncheon for Catherine Fahringer on July 3, 1994.

Whenever I talk with Catherine Fahringer, either on the phone or during the rare times when I have the pleasure of seeing her in person, all the little neurons in my brain go on red alert.

Catherine has that effect on people. She is very unpretentious, but her way of perceiving and expressing ideas is so fresh and clear that it’s like taking a good whiff of crisp mountain air.

That’s something, by the way, we have very little of in San Antonio.

She manages to fluster a lot of local powers that be because their neurons aren’t prepared to deal with such a direct attack of logic. But I feel my association with Catherine has certainly pumped up my own neurons.

We have discussed religion very often, of course. If there does happen to be a god somewhere, his or her ears probably are ringing from our conversations.

Actually, we sometimes try to be charitable toward religious thought. In the face of the unknown, it’s not so bad to hypothesize or attempt an allegory to try to put the great mystery of life into human perspective. That may be OK as long as you remember you’re in metaphoric mode.

The problem, as we all know, is that it gets out of hand. Allegories turn into religions. In fact, I think of all religions as allegories on steroids.

Still, allegories can be useful. For example, in my own personal belief system I like to imagine humankind as fleas riding on the back of a giant elephant.

Now this giant elephant is traveling slowly through time in the great cosmos. And the perception of each flea depends a great deal on which part of the elephant he or she happens to be riding.

For example, the fleas toward the rear of the elephant have a vague notion that the beast is going somewhere. But when they look in the direction the elephant seems to be going, all they see is more fleas.

Frankly, most of them wish the elephant would stay in one place. But, lacking that option, they look back longingly at where they’ve been. At least they know that territory.

But they are afraid of where they’re going, since it is unknown. So wild and horrible stories and rumors about what might lie ahead spread among these fleas.

It stands to reason that as the fleas progress up the back of the elephant, their positions in time and understanding of the cosmos become progressively better.

Now, you may wonder what this has to do with Catherine. Well, we’re looking for Catherine on the back of this elephant. This is sort of an atheist version of “Where’s Waldo.”

Since this is my fantasy, I guess I can place specific individual fleas wherever I want–Rush Limbaugh, for example. I can imagine a special place of honor for him on a strategic spot on the elephant’s rear.

Now, if you don’t mind joining me on this search for Catherine, let’s leave the fundamentalists in the rear–as well as the folks who hang out at Hooters–and push on forward.

Here we go, jostling through the Catholic fleas and the Baptists and on through the Lutherans and Methodists. There’s some Presbyterians over there. And as we get up toward the high-rent district on the elephant’s head, the place is thick with Episcopalian fleas.

We finally reach the great forehead of the elephant. This is where you’ll find your flea heads of state and others of influence, such as captains of industry, university presidents, esteemed scientists, professional basketball players–those who have achieved stature and success according to the usual standards of fleakind.

Most of the fleas on the rest of the elephant aspire to reach the forehead because it offers such a privileged view. The only problem is that fleas, by their very nature, are extremely shortsighted.

So we’re not going to stay here. We’re going to go over the forehead and climb down to the trunk. Those of you who are more adventurous may enjoy sliding down.

As we file out along the trunk you will notice this is not a very prestigious or comfortable place to be. The trunk keeps moving up-and-down and side-to-side and you never know what the heck is going to happen next.

But oh, what a view! The trunk is several time units in front of the forehead. It is out there sniffing and probing and testing. The fleas out on the trunk get to sample all this new and radical information at least a century or so before the fleas on the elephant’s behind reach this spot.

Here you may find some famous fleas like Rachel Carson or Margaret Sanger or Robert Ingersoll. There’s a special delegation of fleas from Wisconsin out here too.

But most of the fleas out here will never be famous. They’re just enjoying the ride.

It would seem logical to think that those fleas riding on the forehead and the rest of the elephant would benefit greatly by listening to insights of the trunk-riding fleas.

But no. That rarely happens. Much of the rest of fleadom regards the trunk riders as oddballs, weirdos and troublemakers.

In fact, a few time units ago the forehead riders had many of the trunk riders rounded up and burned at the stake.

Of course, since the only stakes available were elephant hairs, all those little fires only made the elephant walk faster.

At any rate, here we find Catherine. She’s right at the tip of the trunk. That’s the bumpiest, scariest, most difficult and dangerous spot.

But she is holding on well. Fred is out here too, supporting Catherine and trying to keep her out of trouble.

And by the standards that really count, they are having a wonderful ride.

Craig Phelon is a San Antonio journalist. He wrote “Portrait Of An Atheist” about Catherine Fahringer, the cover story in the March 24 (Palm Sunday), 1991 San Antonio Express News Magazine.

Freedom From Religion Foundation