Veritism: Morgan Grossman-McKee

Faith is a recipe for endless violence and persecution, since when “God” commands, thou must do.

This essayist received a $1,000 cash scholarship.

By Morgan Grossman-McKee

The summer before eighth grade, I purchased a blue fishing hat. It was not long before I began wearing the hat everywhere. If I was not asleep or submerged in water (and occasionally even despite being asleep), that hat was on my head. But I knew that come the start of school, the tyrannical middle-school administrators would banish my hat the second I entered the building–and so they did. On the first day, I argued in vain that the school had no right to regulate my clothing, but despite my impassioned rhetoric the fishing hat was deemed “disruptive to the school environment.” It was thus expressly forbidden by the school’s omnipotent rulebook.

Throughout the fall and the winter, I reluctantly left my hat stowed away inside a locker. But then came spring, and with it the overwhelming desire to subversively proclaim independence from “the system,” a desire that strikes nearly every teenager in warm weather. This time, I carefully perused the small but dense rulebook, desperately seeking some loophole that would allow me rightfully to wear my hat during the school day. After sorting through all the legalese and consulting some of the younger teachers, it appeared there was only one real exception to the hat rule: head garments worn for religious purposes.

A light bulb burst on above my head, or rather, above my fishing hat. There was only one acceptable course of action here, and that was immediately to make it a religious priority that I wear a fishing hat in school. Now, at the time, I considered myself a “strong” atheist. Not only did I refuse to subscribe to any religion, I explicitly believed that “God” did not exist. Nevertheless, in the “religious head garment” clause, I saw a golden opportunity. By creating my own religion, I could simultaneously give myself an excuse to wear a hat in school and demonstrate in a somewhat humorous method just how arbitrary and ridiculous the rules of religion can be.

So, I set out to start a religion. The first thing I needed was a name, and I settled on “Veritism,” derived from the Latin word for “truth.” Next up, of course, was a bible. Mine was short and sweet: In one page, I declared myself the prime ruler of all Veritists and laid down the laws. Actually, there was only one law: All Veritists were required to wear a fishing hat, with appropriate characteristics, at all times while in public. I was very careful here, describing in minute detail the acceptable colors, brim length, and decorations that would define an acceptable fishing hat for public use. After about an hour of work (the majority of which was spent finding a suitably “God-like” calligraphic font), I printed out half a dozen copies of my bible and went for a walk, nearly boiling over with rebellious–no, religious–zest.

I became a Veritist on Sunday. In my bible, I had carefully specified that the one law would not take effect until 12:00 p.m. on the day following the bible’s publication. So, on Monday, I walked into school, carefully took off my hat, and went straight to my guidance counselor’s office. I calmly explained that due to religious observations, I would need to wear a hat in school for the rest of the year. My guidance counselor, glancing casually at the first part of my last name, assumed that I was Jewish and would be wearing a yarmulke. He seemed a little puzzled as to why I was suddenly so concerned about covering my head, but still easily agreed. Never one to spoil a good surprise, I did not bother to correct his implicit assumption.

I ate lunch early in eighth grade, from about 11:15 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., if I remember correctly. After lunch, I grabbed my hat from my locker, crammed it proudly on my head, and walked into history class. My history teacher was a middle-aged, stubborn and rather conservative man. When he saw my fishing hat, he barked: “We’ve been through this before. Take that thing off.” Barely able to wipe the smirk from my face, I sardonically explained that due to my religion, I was unable to comply with this request. Assuming he was being mocked, my teacher sent me straight back to my guidance counselor–a place I was more than happy to go.

When I arrived back at his office, wearing a blue fishing hat and waving my bible in his face, my poor counselor was hopelessly confused. “Veritism? Bible? Fishing hats? What kind of joke is this?” But when assured it was in fact no joke at all, the tone of the conversation changed dramatically. Staring me down, my guidance counselor endeavored to put a quick end to the mischief before him, so he called my parents. His goal was to prove that Veritism was not truly my religion.

Looking back on this story today, more than five years later, it is this simple act that stands out the most. And it was this act that has gone on to profoundly influence my views on organized religion. Faced with a question over the nature of my religious beliefs, my guidance counselor turned not to me, but to my parents to verify Veritism’s status in my life. To me, this phone call represents a fundamental truth about organized religion. All too often, religion is not about what an individual wants, but rather what others want for that individual.

In many cases, religion is pressed upon children by their parents: Being forced to attend church or synagogue is an extremely common experience for children across America. Even in cases in which religion is not explicitly forced upon a child, however, very few children are actually given a choice about which religion to embrace. Most kids grow up believing that the doctrines of religion are not to be questioned. An overwhelming majority of kids grow up to embrace the religious beliefs of their parents; and even among those who don’t, it is a small percentage indeed (as evidenced by the comparatively small number of agnostics and atheists in the US) that ever rejects organized religion altogether.

Consider, moreover, that slippery basis for religion as a whole: faith. Organized religion squashed individuality by demanding that followers accept on faith–that is, submissively–doctrines from above, doctrines considered so holy that they are above challenge, above questioning. This is a recipe, of course, for endless violence and persecution, since when “God” commands, thou must do. The very antithesis of reason is organized religion, a merciless juggernaut that can pulverize all traces of free thought, leaving a bland, homogenous sea of compliance in its path.

I do not share these views with others as often as I should. Some of that eagerness to rebel, to challenge the status quo and all who buy in to it (an eagerness that drove almost my entire thought back in eighth grade) has slowly seeped out of me over time. But when I do explain these views to a religious person, the response is almost always the same. I am urged to consider all the good that religion has done for the world; I am reminded that messages of love, acceptance, and charity are in fact at the core of most organized religions. And as it happens, I agree wholeheartedly that a lot of good has come from organized religion. Nevertheless, this argument misses a crucial point. When discussing the costs and benefits of anything, including organized religion, one cannot conduct the analysis in a vacuum. Rather, the decision, policy, or institution in question must be compared to an alternative (ideally, the alternative that would have been chosen in its place).

To evaluate organized religion, then, we must imagine a world in which organized religion had never been created–an impossible exercise. Still, allow me just this comment: I passionately believe that love, acceptance, and charity can and would exist in a world without organized religion. Furthermore, I believe that in a world where we loved, accepted and helped, not because we were commanded to, but because we wanted to, would be an infinitely more fulfilling world to live in.

I am writing this essay, then, in part to remind myself of a story that I feel would be very dangerous for me to forget. I want to remember, if I have my own children, my mother’s response when my guidance counselor called her, on speakerphone, demanding that she renounce my newfound religion: “Why are you asking me about his religion?” she demanded. “He can be whatever religion he wants.”

I want to remember the power that even a simple hat can have, for after a week of countless confrontations in the hallways and classrooms, I was called down to the principal’s office. He looked me over as if he could not believe the thing sitting in front of him. And then he pleaded, telling me the staff was in rebellion, with teachers saying they had lost control of the school, some even making open threats against him. He looked weary, almost beaten down, and he asked me, “please,” would I take off my hat. I paused for a moment, looking at the man before me, and decided I had made my point. There were more battles to be fought another day. I took off my hat, promising myself that this would not be my last challenge to the institutions that squelch free thought. I want to remember that promise.

“I graduated from Shaker Heights High School in 2006. I am currently attending Washington University in St. Louis as Lien Honorary Scholar, and I will be a sophomore this fall. I am pursuing a joint BA/MA program in economics, which I hope to complete in 2010 along with a second major in mathematics. I am particularly interested in monetary economics, international trade, development economics, and neo-institutional economics. After completing my undergraduate education, I intend on pursuing graduate studies in one of these fields. This summer, as an intern at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, I assisted several economists in their research on financial stability and historical monetary systems.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation