From Church Elder to Freethinking Traveler (November 2003)

How does someone go from being a being a three-term elder in a large Presbyterian Church to the author of Time Traveling with Science and the Saints, a book that nails Christianity to its own much-vaunted cross? In my case, it was easy, much easier than the paths that many of my formerly religious friends (many of them ex-clergymen) have more painfully walked. I was raised in a family in which religion was a non-issue, free to go to Sunday school with my friends whenever I wished.

But northern Minnesota’s forests and lakes held much more appeal, so most Sundays found me strolling through pine-shaded woods with my dog at my side. Then came college, a dental degree, and marriage to a great young lady who was raised Presbyterian, which explains how I became involved with the church.

Fortunately, our church soon acquired a forward-thinking pastor, who, to the parishioners’ great surprise, turned out to be more interested in projects like aiding the poor than air-conditioning the church. That pastor lasted just two years, and when he left, so did we, for after poring through books on comparative religion, we had concluded that the emperor we’d been serving had, like Swaggart and Bakker (and today’s Rush Limbaugh), been parading around with no clothes. I like to say I once served as an officer on a very impressive ship, the S.S. Presbyterian.

Like most spiritual ships, the vessel rarely sought serious waters–the crew being too busy singing hymns and burnishing brass to tend to the pressing needs they found in every port. When our wealthier officers began to pressure the crew to pledge even more to embellish our splendid vessel (while ignoring needs ashore), my wife and I decided to escape. And late one evening, when we passed abeam the Rational Islands, we slipped over the gunwale and quietly swam to shore. Shortly thereafter, we joined a unique organization that we all support–the courageous Freedom From Religion Foundation, of which I am a Life Member.

A subsequent move to Minneapolis provided an opportunity to join both the Minnesota Atheists and the Humanists of Minnesota, an organization for which I served as president and newsletter editor for many years before being elected to the board of the American Humanist Association. During those years we raised two good nonreligious sons, and I spent a part of every summer exploring northern Canada and Alaska in my floatplane. The experiences garnered during those thirty summers, plus the history of the marvelous people I’d met, led me to write True North, a book that not only rode the bestseller list in Canada for three months but has done very well in the U.S.

To my knowledge, True North is the only U.S. mass market book that provides a mix of wildlife and adventure, criticism of missionary practices and creationists’ ploys, plus praise of an atheist chieftain and the science that created all of our comforts. I’m pleased that so many readers have used True North for a birthday, graduation or Christmas gift for friends and relatives. While writing True North, I attended a program titled “Galileo and the Catholic Church,” sponsored by the College of St. Thomas. Unfortunately, the event turned out to be little more than an exercise in blaming the victim.

During the discussion period, when a participant repeated the commonly held belief that, despite its abuses, religion has civilized the world, I decided to write a book comparing the fruits of Christianity to those of the sciences that it has opposed for almost two thousand years.

With Matthew 7:20, “by their works shall ye know them,” to guide me, I scanned the historical record to see which has brought more pleasure and which has caused more pain. I’m pleased that Time Traveling with Science and the Saints (Prometheus Books), though predictably not a bestseller, has also sold very well, especially to the freethought community. Now, with my 71st birthday out of the way, my wife and I are contemplating a move to a home in northern Minnesota that we have been remodeling for more than a year. Directly across the lake from our “new” south-facing home is–surprise–a seaplane base that I expect to use for at least forty or fifty more years! Editor’s note: George donates the profits from True North and Time Traveling to the Foundation whenever members order signed copies from him and mention FFRF.

George and his plane George’s Commandments Because of my contacts in the education community, I am occasionally asked to speak to high school and college students about religion vs. freethought. In response to a frequently asked question about the Ten Commandments, I often say that we don’t have much use for most of them, and then offer the following list, explaining it is probably incomplete, but it does provide an example of how most of us operate.

George’s Commandments:

1. Use your head–think critically. Use your hands–be helpful. Use your heart–be caring.

2. Remember, everyone needs to be loved.

3. Leave thoughts of gods and miracles, heavens and hells to those who invented them. Many people believe they need religion to make them be good–we do well without.

4. Be at least as good as your parents. If they weren’t very good, you have an easy job. If they were great, you’re lucky. If everyone did this, the human race would improve quite rapidly.

5. Get an education. It might be expensive, but ignorance costs more.

6. Support democracy. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best system running.

7. Support science. All of your comforts and conveniences derive from science.

8. Make today a little better for someone else, and today will be better for you.

9. Be tolerant. Why should others consider your viewpoint if you won’t consider theirs?

10. When you screw up, admit it–and apologize.

11. Appreciate and protect the planet that feeds you. Recycle; don’t pollute.

12. Be good to your body. Why damage something that took millions of years to evolve?

13. Practice safe sex and family planning. The earth is getting crowded. Malls, factories and parking lots are expanding at the expense of the forests and farms that sustain us. –George Erickson

Freedom From Religion Foundation