Finding Freethought In The Bible Belt by Beth Perry (March 1994)

I live in Jacksonville, Florida, where the Duval County School Board is infamous nationwide for banning 60 books within the past two years, including the child’s book of wonderful poetry, A Light In the Attic (for showing a line drawing of a child’s bottom with a bee sting), and Huckleberry Finn. These are American classics. No wonder our children are so ignorant of good literature. (They have even tried to ban Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees” because it uses the word “breast”!)

It has only been in the past few years of my life that I finally reached the conclusion there cannot be a “loving god” floating around above, although I’ve always lacked the blind faith one is supposed to have to be a good Christian. I remember how I hated going to church, Sunday school, and listening to bible verses read by my mother before school while eating breakfast.

Once when I was six or seven, I and two other little girls sat together awaiting the annual Christmas play, party, and arrival of Santa Claus in the sanctuary of our church. We were laughing and playing and got up dancing around with happy anticipation in the aisle. Our minister came storming down, yelling at us, his face red with anger. No dancing in his church! We all were frightened and embarrassed. There was dead silence as admonishing eyes turned on three little girls. I will say that my mother was angry at his reaction and later told him so. She thought he carried it a little too far since we were so young. How did we know this was such a sin?

My mother had a very hard life, my father deserting her and six children–two just out of school, and four minors. I don’t think she ever lost her faith, but she mellowed and became more realistic in old age. Maybe she needed religion. I don’t begrudge anyone their beliefs if it helps them. I only begrudge all those years of worrying about sinning! Christianity demands faith with fear. Fear of sinning, fear of god, fear of the congregation’s opinion, ad infinitum.

Only recently did I learn that my father was a lay preacher in his younger years. Unbelievable! A randy fellow, he was stereotypical of most traveling salesman jokes popular back then, and apparently stereotypical of many fundamentalist preachers.

I married young to a sailor during World War II. He impressively attended church with me the short time we dated. After we married he admitted he did not believe in god. I was thunderstruck, never, in my sheltered life, having met anyone who didn’t believe. What was I to do? This boy/man and I had already exchanged religious vows. So, I did nothing, but his lack of faith was always kept a secret. (We just celebrated our 48th anniversary.)

It seemed to me the only people who benefited from religion were ministers who certainly expected and obtained plenty in reward from their congregation! Not only was our minister given a beautiful rent-free home, all expenses and utilities paid in an upper-class neighborhood, but also a new automobile every year including maintenance and gasoline, plus $1200/month. This from a middle-sized neighborhood church. Pretty darned good for 1947! His salary alone was four times what my career Navy husband was making.

I took the children to church every Sunday once they grew old enough to handle. I still didn’t like going, but felt it my duty to raise them as Christians. However, I had changed to the Congregational Church which was much more liberal than the Christian. My oldest daughter attended and enjoyed church, but was the only one of my children who did. The other two hated it as I always did. So, when they grew too large to be forced into the car, and we moved farther away from the only Congregational Church in Jacksonville, I finally gave up.

Twenty years ago we wanted some remodeling done to our house, so I called a company that the insurance agent I had worked for in the past had handled. The owner was a minister of a small independent Southern Baptist Church. Upon finding that I had retired from the secretarial field, he persuaded me to work for him part-time. He unknowingly opened my eyes to religion, at least the Southern Baptist denomination. They are the ones who are always “saved” once baptized; no matter what they do in the future, they’ll end up in heaven.

In the past, this city has been titillated by quite a few “scandals” among the clergy (all of Southern Baptist persuasion), such as “affairs” with female members. One woman shot and killed her pastor on her front lawn. So, I wasn’t entirely naive about the “men of god.” However, this young man was a complete crook, besides constantly carrying on affairs. He cheated his clients: shoddy work, cheap materials, unlicensed subcontractors, etc. I was the one who had to field the irate calls that came in. This extremely charismatic man set himself up as a demigod, and it is sad, but most of his congregation treated him as such. This was my first experience with working for an out-and-out crook. Thankfully, about the time I realized all this, he got himself into such a bind that he folded . . . and I went back to “retirement.” The man still has his church, his congregation paid off his debts, and his church has a “youth farm” for incorrigibles. A news reporter attempted to do a story on this “farm” after a complaint by a runaway, but was not allowed on the property. Neither was the law. Believe it or not, the church is protected over the rights of children. Knowing him, there is no telling what goes on with those teenaged children on that farm.

What really spurred on my enlightenment was college. I decided to take some art courses at the local junior college; however, the other courses offered appeared so interesting, I decided to pursue a degree. I fell in love with school and for a while became a professional student. Courses such as “World Religions,” “Mysticism; East v. West” and other subjects opened my eyes to how similar all these religions are. How could Christianity be the only religion as I was taught? How could Jesus be the son of god when most of his parables were quotations from Zoroaster and other ancient “gods”? I also took courses in ecology. Again I was astonished to learn of humankind’s record of destruction, especially in our own beautiful country, often justified in the name of religion.

Out of my mother’s six children, two brothers are devout, one a Southern Baptist, one a Disciple of Christ; one sister an inactive vague believer; one brother, one sister and I are atheists. My sister sent me the first copy of Freethought Today she received. I was immediately hooked. It made such good sense. According to my dictionary, the word “of” also means “from,” so the freedom of religion also means the freedom from it. Away from it! I have that right not to believe, to not participate or be surrounded by it.

At present I’m worried about our country and the direction it could possibly go. I’m worried about the Rush Limbaughs who preach hate and bring out the meanness in disciples as well as followers, and there are many.

We all must keep vigil on these movements or this country will become a theocracy. Our children have been brainwashed into believing one can’t be “good” unless one is Christian. This is not a perfect democracy, but as Harry Truman said, a perfect government is a dictatorship. Stay vigilant and speak up!

Beth Perry was born in Oklahoma, has 3 children and 3 grandchildren, was graduated with a B.A. from the University of North Florida, in 1978, and Magna Cum Laude M.F.A. 1983, is an artist and writer, who has received the Grumbacher Award for Excellence (painting) and many ribbons from honorable mention to Best of Show, volunteers to teach painting at a Senior’s complex and also volunteers as a docent at various traveling exhibits.

She has been monitoring harassment of the schools by a group calling itself “Justice For All,” seeking to ban The Autobiography of Malcolm X from Jacksonville schools. The schools are allowing it to be in middle schools “with parental permission,” and are stocking it in high school libraries. A citizens’ group is forming to counter the influence of the Christian Coalition on the local school board.

Freedom From Religion Foundation