Have You Seen Any Elephants Lately? Heather Blum

This essay received an Honorable Mention in FFRF’s 2009 College Essay Competition, which was prize of $250, including $50 donated by Dean and Dorea Schramm. 

“Little Tim died on the cross,” was the answer my 4-year-old daughter gave me when I asked her why she had pulled all of the cushions off the couch and put them on the floor with Little Tim, her small kitten, placed in the middle. I remember sharply sucking in my breath as I noticed the T-shaped arrangement of the cushions (a detail that had previously escaped my attention).

My daughter looked at me with big, blue eyes as she continued her narrative. “Jesus died on the cross and he looked like this,” she said, spreading her arms out wide at her sides, cocking her head over onto her shoulder and sticking her tongue out a little. After a few more questions, I learned who had introduced her to their beliefs, using a picture bible to illustrate the “high points.” This person and I had quite a talk, I can assure you.

What would possess someone to try to indoctrinate my child? Converting adults is one thing, but my PBS-watching, teddy-bear-pajamas-wearing, eats-all-her-vegetables, sweet little girl was now imprinted indelibly with the concept of a “righteous” murder. Where is the sense in teaching violence to a child? 

Some people regard religion as having an elephant in the room. It’s there, but no one wants to talk about it. I disagree. As I see it, most people are more than happy to discuss their elephant as long as you can see it, too. The elephant you see can’t be pink, gold or polka-dotted. It has to look the same as theirs. For some reason, elephants of different colors are threatening, ridiculous or of lesser importance. These people will tell you so. Never mind your feelings. They must save you from yourself. It is their holy mission, their prime directive.

I live in a small town not far from Green Bay, Wis. In 2007 (as many Freedom From Religion folks might remember), there was a great dust-up about a nativity scene placed at City Hall. The Foundation’s lawsuit got the city to veto the display, but not before the mayor said that symbols of different beliefs could share the building. I felt a little better about the display of different faiths as opposed to the showing of one, but in my opinion, none of the symbols should have been placed in a government building to begin with.

Anyway, the intolerance among the groups came to a head with the theft of a Wicca pentacle and wreath. Some­one brought a ladder, climbed up and just ran off into the night with them. I wonder what the thief’s elephant looked like. It probably glowed in the dark with the light of self-righteousness.

One of the more interesting paths I’ve traveled in my adult life is being an atheist who home-schools her children. It’s really hard to find books I like that don’t contain God and scripture. I was so excited to start our home-school journey that I went to the first used book sale I could find. The very first book I picked up (a third-grade history book) contained this passage: “Columbus sailed to the New World because God told him to.”

The last time I checked, hearing voices is a symptom of schizophrenia. What about Queen Isabella? Shouldn’t she have gotten at least a mention when summing up Christopher Columbus, since she sponsored his voyage? Or is a strong, influential female figure going against some misogynistic belief system?

I left the huge sale frustrated and empty-handed. Subsequent visits to other book sales yielded mostly the same result, as I continued to be assaulted with the idea that girls should be “trained up” to be a “helpmeet” for their husband. I’ve never bought into the idea that a woman needs to be subservient (Ephesians 5:22-24) to her husband. My husband and I have been married for almost two decades, and he appreciates my intellect and my willingness to give him my unabashed opinions. We don’t treat our daughters as though they are inferior to men. In fact, I fully believe that my girls will have successful careers after college and chase their dreams and not have to bow down “shamefaced” to the will of a man because some antiquated book says so. 

My dear mother-in-law used to belong to a church that was entirely too happy to take her tithe money, but refused to let women sit on the board of directors (1 Corinthians 14:33-35). So, her money was good enough to help run the church, but she wasn’t because she is a woman. What message does this send to our children? Haven’t we all had enough of inequality?

Speaking of inequality, after local folks (especially home-schoolers) found out that I’m an atheist, suddenly their children couldn’t hang out with my children. Their youngsters were always conveniently “too busy” to come over. It was like they didn’t want their children “tainted” by the atheists. (By the way, I do have one child who is spiritual.) Funny, I knew about their religious affiliations all along, and that didn’t faze my family at all.

We always taught our girls to be tolerant of people who are different from them and to observe the golden rule as much as possible. When we lived overseas, my husband and I would often tour various places of worship, not because we were seeing the “error” of our ways, but because we appreciated their beauty and their place in history. We never mocked the people who went in, but we also never joined them in their worship. 

For some reason, people seem to think you are a good person just because you have a religious affiliation. I think this is because people are afraid of the unknown. Some religious people can’t admit that those who don’t share their faith can live worthwhile lives, contribute to society and have equal rights under the law. Ironically, it makes one wonder if this is a direct throwback of evolution. Ancient people herded together with others who mirrored desirable traits in order to survive. Anyone who was different was often cast out and left to fend for themselves, while the persecutors reassured each other and themselves that they’d done the right thing.

In the end, isn’t that what everyone is doing? Regardless of beliefs, personal doctrines or agendas, in the dark of the night, everyone wonders if they are doing the right things and if their lives are heading in the right direction. The main difference is that atheists don’t ask for absolution or guidance from any supernatural force. The weight of my actions rests squarely on my shoulders. This feels right to me. When a religious person asks me, “Don’t you believe in anything?” I can reply honestly, “Yes! I believe in myself and in my family and in my friends.”

I basically believe in “live and let live” — to a point. There is more than one set of ideals in this country, and when a nativity scene is displayed at City Hall, that can be offensive to religious non-Christians and to atheists, agnostics and freethinkers. It’s also an assault on the Constitution.

Let people do what they will in their own homes, but in public, how about people striving for a peaceful neutrality of sorts? There is no need to say a prayer at a graduation ceremony, or hand out religious tracts in front of the colleges (someone did that to me recently), or list a fish fry as being the only special in a restaurant on a Friday night. I say “Gesundheit” (good health) when someone sneezes instead of “bless you” or “God bless you.” I would want people to be considerate of my feelings, so I try to avoid doing things that others would find offensive. Please do believe that I am not a milquetoast just because I try to see everyone’s personal point of view. I am not ashamed of my views and if asked or pressed, I will be very vocal. Atheists are not second-class citizens and have no reason to feel that way.

In case you’re wondering, I don’t have an elephant in my room. I have a tiger. You never know when the claws will come in handy.

Heather Blum writes: “I live with my husband and children on a small farm in northeastern Wisconsin. I enjoy traveling and can’t wait to return to Germany to show my daughters where they were born when their dad was in the military. I also like reading, volunteering at a nursing home and home-schooling my teens. I enrolled as a freshman last fall at UW-Marinette and hope to obtain a bachelor’s degree in human biology, a master’s in epidemiology and a Ph.D. in international public health. My dream is to work for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation