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Category: Personal (page 1 of 5)

Enlightened Ancestor: Dr. Benjamin West

I can thank my migraines for Dr. Benjamin West.

When I am anxious or don’t feel well, I often do genealogy research to take my mind off things. I have always enjoyed learning about family history, but really got bitten hard by the bug the first time I had cancer, in 1994. I was at home recuperating, on painkillers and other drugs that made concentrating difficult, and I found message boards on AOL that were all about genealogy. And my ancestors were there! I connected with some very distant cousins and compared notes. I started learning more and more about my origins.

It occurs to me that we are all the products of our parents, who are the products of their parents, who were the products of theirs, and so on. Our parents don’t just pass genetics on to us. Even when we disagree about things like politics or religion or how to raise our children, the values of our parents are distilled into us, just like the values of their parents were distilled into them. We find that professions tend to run in families – a  certain branch of the family may tend to be lawyers, writers, preachers, doctors, architects, artists, military, etc.

An obituary notice in a newspaper from 1822 led me to him. He was named as the father of one of my 5th great-grandmothers, a woman whose origins were completely unknown to me before that moment.  The man was phenomenal, and I don’t understand why every generation after him hasn’t continued to hold him up as the pinnacle of the Enlightenment. This guy’s brain was so huge and active I don’t know how it managed to stay confined in his skull.

benj-west

Benjamin West, from the Brown University Portrait Collection

Benjamin West was born in Bristol, Massachusetts in March 1730. I think of him as the Stephen Hawking of his day. His accomplishments in math and science are truly remarkable because he was an autodidact – his formal schooling lasted a whopping three months of his childhood. He was poor and had to borrow every book he read until about 1758, when he managed to find some backers to open a dry goods store. A couple of years later, he opened the first bookstore ever to grace the commercial avenues of Providence, Rhode Island. He managed to pay for the books he so desperately wanted by selling them to other people.

He married Elizabeth Smith, daughter of Benjamin Smith, in 1753 when he was 23.  They were married for 53 years and had eight children, only three of whom survived Benjamin. The 1822 death notice for his daughter, Mary Smith West (wife of Oliver Pearce), in a Providence newspaper, alerted me to him. The death notice that mentioned her father was “Dr. Benjamin West of Providence.” Mary West Pearce died in Fayetteville, NC. Her daughter, Eliza West Pearce, married Dr. Benjamin Robinson, that guy from Vermont who tested out that newfangled smallpox vaccine on his little brother and his brother’s friends and basically got run out of Bennington for his efforts. The science is strong in my family!

Benjamin West was a brilliant mathematician and astronomer. His buddies were the founders of Rhode Island College, which later became Brown University. He loved mathematics and astronomy, and conferred with some truly fantastic minds of his day. He published annual almanacs for Halifax, Nova Scotia and Providence, Rhode Island for nearly 40 years. He didn’t have the formal schooling necessary for good academic chops, though, and before he opened that dry goods and book store, he failed at operating a school. He tutored students privately for all of his adult life.

Astronomical Genius

In 1766, something would happen that ultimately would reverse his fortunes and open some gilded doors for him. A comet appeared in the constellation of Taurus on the evening of April 9. Being a good astronomer, Benjamin took careful measurements. The next day wrote a letter to an astronomer named John Winthrop who was at Cambridge College (now known as Harvard University). He had never met or corresponded with Winthrop, but was so excited about his observation he simply had to share it.

Providence, April 10, 1766

Dear Sir:

For the improvement of science, I now acquaint you, that the last evening, I saw in the West, a comet, which I judged to be about the middle of the sign of Taurus; with about 7 degrees North latitude. It set half after 8 o’clock by my watch; and its amplitude was about 29 or 30 degrees. Nothing, Sir, could have induced me to this freedom of writing to you, but the love I have for the sciences; and I flatter myself that you will, on that account, the more readily overlook it.

I am, Sir, yours,

Benjamin West

He and Winthrop became great friends and continued to write each other. For the rest of their lives they would share observations about the night sky.

1769 Transit of the Planets

Johannes Kepler and Edmund Halley figured out how to apply the theory of parallax to determine the distances between astronomical bodies.  With both Mercury and Venus predicted to pass between the Earth and the Sun in 1769, astronomers worldwide were anxious to test the theory. Since this was the first really good opportunity to view the transits of both inner planets since Kepler’s original accurate prediction in 1627 of the 1631 transit, everyone in the field of astronomy was excited. Captain Cook would famously observe the 1769 transit of Venus from Tahiti while on his ill-fated circumnavigation and while bringing European diseases and disharmony to the South Pacific. At the time of the last transit of Venus in 1761, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who had just finished their survey of the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, had traveled to the Cape of Good Hope to observe it. All of these men used astronomy as an important part of their lives – navigating the oceans and surveying the land required precise measurements, and measurements started with the stars.

benjamin-wests-1769-telescope

Telescope used by Benjamin West, at Providence, Rhode Island, to observe the 1769 transit of Venus. Ladd Observatory, Brown University

There was no telescope in Providence in 1769. Benjamin West, Stephen Hopkins (the signer of the Declaration and great-grandson of the Mayflower passenger) and the four famous Brown brothers – they were among the founders of Rhode Island College, later known as Brown University – were determined to see the phenomenon, though, so they managed to import a telescope from England at the incredible expense of 500 pounds.  They set up on the outskirts of Providence. Transit Street in Providence is named after the spot where they viewed the transit on June 3, 1769. There are photos of the telescope on the Brown University website – the school still has it.

benjamin-wests-diagram-of-the-1769-transit-of-venus

Benjamin West’s diagram of the transit of Venus, 1769, from the Ladd Observatory, Brown University

As was his habit, Benjamin West made careful measurements of the transit. He published a tract (and dedicated it to his friend Stephen Hopkins) about the event. A copy of the tract made its way to John Winthrop at Harvard, and on July 18, 1770, Benjamin West – the man with only three months of formal education – was awarded an honorary Master of Arts from Harvard. Here’s the text of the notification letter from John Winthrop:

Cambridge, July 19, 1770

Sir —

I have the pleasure to acquaint you that the government of this college were pleased, yesterday, to confer upon you the Honorary degree of Master of Arts; upon which I sincerely congratulate you. I acknowledge the receipt of your favour, and shall be glad to compare any observations of the satellites.

Yours, &c.

John Winthrop

 

American Academy of Arts and Sciences: the American Philosophical Society

That same year, Benjamin West was unanimously elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia – the American colonial version of Great Britain’s Royal Society. He would meet and befriend another author and publisher of almanacs there: a fellow named Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin West was still primarily a merchant at this time, and the Revolution was on its way. When full-blown war finally arrived, commerce dried up. He went to work manufacturing clothing for the American troops. He continued his studies and his correspondence with the other great minds, though.

Mathematics was Benjamin’s first love. In 1773 he wrote to a friend in Boston of a theorem he had developed to extract “the roots of odd powers” that was probably his greatest contribution to the field of mathematics. That’s right – he discovered a math formula that I can’t even begin to hope to understand, but other really smart people who could math really well understood it and lauded him for it. When he finally explained his theorem to other math geniuses in 1781, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences not only published it in one of their earliest journals but unanimously elected him to membership and awarded him a diploma. It was his second honorary academic degree, and he still supported by only three months of formal education. The theorem caught the attention of the European mathematical geniuses, who, giddy with discovery, also published it. Benjamin West, already pretty cool, became seriously hot stuff.

He didn’t stop at math and astronomical observations, though. One of the biographies I found explained a physics problem he cogitated upon for more than two years in conjunction with John Winthrop and a Mr. Oliver. It had to do with the properties of air in a copper tube that was then put into an otherwise airless container. The qualities of invisible gases – basically, the scientific understanding of the very concept of the physical nature and properties of “air” – was in its infancy. Our ancestor speculated about the attractive and repulsive nature of the tiny particles that made up the matter of air – what we now call its molecules – and how they would behave under different conditions. Gravity, matter, magnetism, and ultimately the behavior of the tails of comets played into his understanding of the question. This is stuff my brain simply isn’t big enough to handle.

Benjamin West’s mind was at the peak of its illuminating brilliance as the world around him heaved. His most important discoveries and writings happened as the American Revolution was about to explode.  By the end of the Revolution, he had returned to academic pursuits. He tutored students in math and astronomy. He still wasn’t rich; despite his prominence in academics he never became particularly wealthy. The well-endowed founders of what would become Brown University had not forgotten their friend, though. In 1786, he was elected to a full professorship there.

For some reason, he did not begin teaching at Brown for a couple of years. Probably because of his honors and his friendship with Ben Franklin and the rest of the gang at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, Benjamin West was invited to teach at the illustrious Protestant Episcopal Academy there. The name of that school is familiar to members of my father’s family.  Although Benjamin West was the direct ancestor of my Arkansas-born mother, my dad, an Irish-Italian kid who grew up in the Philly suburb of Gladwyne, went to school at Philadelphia’s Episcopal Academy while his dad coached its sports teams. (Insert refrain from “Circle of Life” here.)

Brown University awarded Dr. West his first non-honorary degree, his Doctor of Laws, in 1792. He taught mathematics and astronomy there from 1788 until 1799. Then he opened a school of navigation and taught astronomy to seafaring men. Like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, this man loved to teach other people the wonders of the universe.

I’m proud of him for another reason, too: Benjamin West was a member of an active abolitionist group in Providence.

I’ve found several contemporary biographical accounts for Benjamin West. They are typical of their time: purple prose and flowery metaphors abound. They all reach one conclusion: Benjamin West was a genius. He was a determinedly self-educated man who contributed considerably to the arts of science and mathematics during his lifetime. He was truly a product of the Age of Enlightenment: a self-educated, self-made man whose gifts and prominence considerably exceeded his bank account.

This discovery of my ancestor Benjamin West is exactly why genealogy research is so rewarding. And given the anxiety-provoking events of November 8, I expect to be doing a lot more of it – in between my stepped-up schedule of political activities, that is.

______

Bibliography:

American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Book of Members  (2016 edition), p. 252. Entry for Benjamin West, elected 1781, Fellow. Residence and Affiliation at election: Providence, RI. Career description: Astronomer, Educator, Businessperson, Book of Members; American Academy of Arts & Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Leonard Bliss, The History of Rehoboth, Bristol County, Massachusetts:  Comprising a History of the Present Towns of Rehoboth, Seekonk, and Pawtucket, From Their Settlement to the Present Time (Boston:  Otis, Broaders, and Company, 1836). Google Books

Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment, Entry for Benjamin West (1730-1813), pp. 1096-1097. https://books.google.com/books?id=qZ2yBwAAQBAJ&lpg=PA1096&dq

Louise Hall, “Family Records: Newby Bible”, New England Historical and Genealogical Register 122 (Apr 1968):  125-128, 125.

Martha Mitchell, “Benjamin West”, Encyclopedia Brunoniana (1993). https://www.brown.edu/Administration/News_Bureau/Databases/Encyclopedia/search.php?serial=W0170

John Chauncey Pease, John Milton Niles, A Gazetteer of the States of Connecticut and Rhode-Island:   (Hartford:  William S. Marsh, 1819), 331-333. Biographical entry for Dr. Benjamin West.  Google Books.

Unattributed, “Biography of Benjamin West, L.L.D.  A.A.S.:  Professor of Mathematicks, Astronomy and Natural Philosophy, in Rhode Island College – and Fellow of the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, &c.”, The Rhode Island Literary Repository Vol I, No. 7 (October 1814):  137-160 (337-360), http://books.google.com/books?id=HLQRAAAAYAAJ.  Google Books.

Benjamin West Papers; Rhode Island Historical Society Library, 121 Hope Street
Providence, RI 02906. http://www.rihs.org/mssinv/Mss794.htm.

Worthy of Plants and Society

I confess that yesterday did not go as expected.

I got a text about 1:30 yesterday afternoon from my friend Sarah.  Sarah and I serve on a couple of nonprofit boards together. We get stuff done. She said she needed to ask me something in person. Since she never, ever does that, my heart just about pounded out of my chest.

My mind was racing. Had I said something inappropriate to someone? Had I screwed something up? Was I about to get bad news? Holy shit, what was it? I wanted to vomit.  My heart was beating in my throat. I couldn’t think of anyone I might have offended recently. I couldn’t think of any projects that I’d flaked out on. I needed a Xanax. My eyelid was twitching.

Not Worthy

My Inferiority Complex

Sarah rang my doorbell about 20 minutes later. She wasn’t alone. I could have sworn that I heard my sister’s voice before I opened the door. That was just craptastic. The last thing I wanted was for my sister to be here if Sarah had something awful to talk with me about. I mean, Mom has proof that my younger sister’s smarter than I am = we had IQ testing done when we went to boarding school 40 years ago, so it must be true – and that fact just feeds megadoses of Little Shop of Horrors-level superfood to my inferiority complex. I really didn’t want to be humiliated in front of her….stop it, Anne. Jesus!…I opened the door.

Sarah was there. Susan was there. And so was my mom. Fuck. Sarah was holding a big flower arrangement. What was THAT all about? I wanted to get rid of Mom and Susan so Sarah could talk to me about whatever it was she had texted me about. But before I could even say “come in,” all three of them shouted, in unison, “CONGRATULATIONS!”

Garden Club flowersSarah handed me the flower arrangement. “You’ve just been elected to the Little Rock Garden Club,” she said.

 

Holy mother of meatballs and spaghetti sauce.

 

This garden club is pretty hard to get into. Like, you can’t get into it if you ask. You can’t buy your way in. There are only 70 active members, all of them female. My great-grandmother was in that club, as was my grandmother. My mom and sister are both in the club.

I don’t have a lot of friends in common with them. See, I’ve spent most of my adult life in offices and courtrooms and working long hours. I didn’t have time for book clubs, golf or tennis, coffee klatches, lunching with ladies, or dinners with friends. Even now that I’m not working anymore, I spend long hours in front of my computer and I rarely go out. When I do, it’s usually with my heathen friends, who tend to be focused on other things. I mean, I just don’t run in the same circles as these ladies. I never expected to be invited to join their club.

To get into the Little Rock Garden Club, someone unrelated to you who knows you well has to nominate you without your knowledge, then someone ELSE has to second the nomination, then a secret committee gets a chance to blackball you. And then the whole board gets a shot at saying no.

It seems that the board said yes. It seems that I did not get blackballed in committee. Apparently Sarah nominated me and another friend seconded the nomination.

I have officially arrived in society. Me. The activist. The outspoken freethinker. The agitator. The socialist. The foul-mouthed, overweight, loud, obnoxious, ultra-liberal, Charlie Brown-hating, rabble-rousing…me. I suddenly had tears in my eyes. Dear sweet baby Cthulhu, where did this gift come from?!

I know nobody gives a rat’s ass, and I know that I shouldn’t give one either, but I have felt my whole adult life that I am unworthy of being around “nice” people like the members of this club. For the last two days, my phone has been ringing with congratulations from the people I know in the club. I had no idea I knew so many of them! Maybe I do belong there after all. Maybe this will help heal my imposter syndrome, just a little.

Today, I am suddenly worthy.

I intend to enjoy the hell out of this.

I’ve Failed at “Inscrutable”

my inscrutable life is an open book

 

The Truth Behind My English Degree

Fraternity parties, reading and writing. College didn’t consist of much else.

Oh, there were variations on the theme, of course. Maybe instead of Fraternity Row, we headed downtown to one of the bars. Maybe a study group got together to discuss the assignment at the on-campus pub.

I started out in political science. When a Canadian foreign policy professor insulted me in class for being “stupidly southern” – my accent had not yet flattened into the nondescript sound it would have by the end of my college career – I switched to philosophy. Weed and philosophy just seemed to go together, and as a college freshman, I liked weed. The term papers, fortunately, came easily.

Too much of philosophy dealt with religion, though. Kant bored me. Kierkegaard had some good points, but his conclusions disgusted me. Don’t even get me started on Nietzsche and the nihilists. It became hemlock to me. Me, who preferred whisky sours. I felt like a hack pulling an all-nighter to spew existentialist nonsense through my typewriter onto onionskin paper.

At a party at the Beta house just before fall class selections were due, an interesting guy I had just met talked about his passion for history. We drank a hell of a lot of beer that night, and, still hung over on Monday, I signed up for a history major.

History is where all the best stories were, right? Battles, intrigue, betrayal, love stories, revenge, swords, longbows: history had them all. I had a great professor who liked to host parties at his home for his favorite students. We’d go and talk about more history. But why did all of these cultures clash? Over cheese dip and home-made hard cider, the conversations I liked best were the ones that talked about motivation, not just the cold facts.

One spring evening at the history professor’s house, his buddy from the Sociology Department showed up wearing a t-shirt from Belize. Belize had just become independent from Great Britain. (Yeah – now you can tell how long ago this happened.) He spoke passionately about imperialism and colonialism, and I was hooked on a new discipline. I also discovered that Long Island iced teas oiled conversation really, really well.

The next semester, I signed up for every class the Belize guy taught, and I adored his Welsh accent. Anthropology and Sociology ripped my attention away from the details of medieval European wars. Cultural annihilation and tribalism made for much more fertile ground for delving into the mysteries of what motivates people.

Campus was a microcosm of colonialism, tribalism, and cultural annihilation. Some of us resisted the allure to joining Greek tribes; others of us embraced them. None of us would leave the same people we were when we arrived. Intramural rivalries made for every party on the Row outdoing the last. Theta Chi was a very different tribe from Sigma Chi, despite sharing the same last name.

It wasn’t until the spring of my junior year, when I realized that I was writing the same paper for a sociology class that I had written for every other sociology class I had ever taken that I decided I’d had enough. Two days before the end of the drop-add period, I dumped that sociology class and changed my major to English. It was the only major I knew I could complete in two semesters. I still adored that professor with the Welsh accent, though.

I graduated on time, even getting a class in nothing but Kurt Vonnegut novels to count toward my new major. I cranked out papers faster than ever. I soared on the written page. And now when I hung out with the guys at the Fiji House (may it rest in peace), I could talk about any subject under the sun. I had, it seemed, even if only briefly, majored in them all.

On a brilliantly sunny day in May 1984, I got my sheepskin. I had my Bachelor of Arts degree. It claimed to be a B.A. in English, but I knew better. My B.A. in English was actually a B.A. in B.S.

Ah, the humanities of it all.

How Did You Arrive at Non-Belief?

Sometimes I am asked how I came to be atheist. The short answer is that I was born that way.

No one is born with a religious belief system – our parents and others have to tell us the stories and indoctrinate us with their religion. That’s why there are so many Hindus in India, so many Jews in Israel, so many Muslims in Arabia, and so many Christians in America. We are indoctrinated into the religion of our parents. No Buddhist kid surprises his Christian parents with his full-blown understanding of the sutras as soon as he can talk, just like no Christian preschooler tells his Hindu parents that the only way to heaven is to accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior. We all have to be taught religion.

I think some kids are born skeptical. I think I was, and I see those traits very strongly in my oldest and youngest nephews and in my oldest niece. My youngest niece and middle nephew are plenty smart, as is my son, but they don’t have the attitude of “Nuh-uh, you’ll have to prove that to me!” and the excitement inherent in “That’s so cool! How’d that happen?” that the other three do.

DA Presbyterian Church

Presbyterian Church, Des Arc, Arkansas (Source: Kevin Stewart)

My mom is Presbyterian and my dad was Catholic. There was no Catholic church in Des Arc, Arkansas, where I grew up. The Presbyterian Church had been founded by my mother’s ancestors when they first came to Prairie County in the 1800’s, so naturally, that’s where we were taken as kids. The ceiling was pressed tin, and I cannot begin to guess how many times I counted those decorative squares out of sheer boredom.

In Sunday school, we were taught all the usual stories. One of my earliest memories is of sitting in the Sunday school classroom coloring a picture of Daniel in the lion’s den and listening to the teacher explain that God had closed the mouths of the hungry lions so they wouldn’t eat Daniel. I remember thinking, “Nuh-uh. They just weren’t hungry, or there was some other reason.”

By that age (probably by about 6), I already knew the truth about Santa, and had ruined it for my sister and one of our friends. My sister and our friend Mischelle will say how mean I was – truthfully, I think I was just so delighted and excited to have my suspicions confirmed that I couldn’t wait to tell them. They were about 4 or 5 when I ruined Christmas for them forever, and neither one has ever, ever forgiven me.

When I was a little older, I realized that the weekly sermon was supposed to be based on the Bible readings that were part of each church service. I started opening the Bible and reading the verse along with the minister, then reading the passages that led up to it and beyond it. So many times I wanted to raise my hand and tell the minister that he was wrong – if he had read the verses that came just before or just after, he would realize how off-base he was. He was taking the verse out of context and building a brand new story around it, and assigning it meaning it didn’t have.

Then I started reading other parts of the Bible in church just so I didn’t have to listen to the inane ramblings from the pulpit. I came across Judges 19, and at that point I could not accept that there was anything good about these stories at all. A few years ago, I reinterpreted the atrocities of that chapter in a short story set in the modern era. It won a scary short story contest.

Concordant readings and the hymns were excruciating. Eventually, I decided I wouldn’t say or sing the words I thought were silly or that I didn’t agree with. I refused to say out loud that I was a worthless sinner (I didn’t think I was) or that I wanted divine intervention in anything (because I didn’t think it would happen). Then I realized that the whole thing was vapid and insipid. It was just another Santa Claus story.

Illustration by Dori Hartley

Illustration by Dori Hartley

When I was about 9 or 10, I threw a major hissy fit over church. It was a Sunday morning. We were ready to walk out the door for Sunday school and I had had enough. I remember screaming at my mom, telling her that the whole thing was stupid, that God wasn’t real, that God was really mean and horrible, and that going to church was pointless because praying was stupid and the words we were supposed to repeat every week were stupid and made no sense – hey, I was 9 or 10, so everything I didn’t like was “stupid,” right?

My Catholic dad stepped into the middle of my meltdown and suggested that Mom go ahead to church with my brother and sister. He said that he’d have me watch church on television while they were gone. After I calmed down, he started telling me about the Mover of the First Part. (It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized he was teaching me Aristotelian philosophy and basically regurgitating Thomas Aquinas’s apologetic Summa Theologica.) Of course, my question was, “Who made the Prime Mover, then?” Dad didn’t have an answer, but he said we had to watch church on TV since he had promised Mom.

Oral RobertsHe told me that there was a TV preacher named Oral Roberts who started every broadcast by saying, “Something GOOD is going to happen to you!” That’s who we would watch. Sure enough, he turned on Oral Roberts, and sure enough, those words came out of the preacher’s mouth the very first thing.   As soon as the words were said, Dad switched the channel over to a John Wayne movie.

John Wayne Maureen Ohara

Dad and I spent many Sundays watching John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda while mom and my siblings were at church. I developed a great appreciation for Westerns (including the spaghetti variety), and was introduced to all-time favorites like the Cheyenne Social Club and Paint Your Wagon, World War II standards like Mister Roberts and Donovan’s Reef, and straight-up classics like The Quiet Man.

fonda-kelly-stewart-social-club I still had to go to church fairly regularly, but after that I always sat next to my dad, and we always found something to giggle about during the hymns and whisper about during the rest of the service. We made an effort to twist things to the absurd. Having a secret, fun co-conspirator made me feel better about having to go in the first place.

I don’t think Dad was atheist. He may have been agnostic, but I suspect he made Pascal’s Wager, because he always told us to get him a priest if we knew he was dying. Not a Presbyterian minister, even though he eventually joined the church and even became a deacon – he wanted a Catholic priest. As it turned out, my father died very suddenly, and there was no time to get a priest. Atheist me insisted that we call one, though, just to satisfy that need he had – because that’s what he had always said he wanted. It was a matter of respect.

When I was about 12, Mom insisted that I take Catechism classes – part of the training for joining the Presbyterian church, even though I insisted that there was no way I would do that. I dutifully memorized the Bible verses and the doctrinal responses. The Presbyterian Church in Des Arc had a tiny congregation, and I was the only student at that time. I spent more time questioning the sense of the verses and the responses to the doctrinal questions, asking “Why?”, and demanding answers to the unanswerable than anything else. The minister’s answers never satisfied me, mostly because things like “God’s ways are mysterious” and “We aren’t meant to know” are completely unsatisfactory answers to someone whose brain thrives on and revels in knowledge. When I was given an answer that rested on convoluted or circular reasoning, it drove me further away from belief, not closer. I never joined the church.

ASES Green Hall

Green Hall, All Saints Episcopal School, Vicksburg, MS

My sis and I were sent to an Episcopal boarding school for high school. During the course of the curriculum, and especially in our senior year, we had to take a class that entailed reading the Bible and being tested on it. I actually looked forward to having this class, because the priest who taught it, Father John Babcock, was very approachable, friendly, and related well with all of us kids.

Unfortunately, a different priest taught that class my senior year. He was more academic than Fr. Babcock, and had us write long, college-like essays on exams. For the midterm, he asked a question that started, “Why do you think…?” Silly me took the bait. I told him exactly what I thought about whatever the topic was. I got a C, which, if you know anything about perfectionist me, you will understand really upset me. When I went to talk with him about it, he told me that I was wrong, so he couldn’t give me a better grade. I was totally pissed – my opinion was only worth a C because it didn’t match his ridiculous opinion.

fearandtremblingAt Colgate, one of the first classes I took my freshman year was the Philosophy of Religion. Aristotle, Kant, Kierkegaard, Aquinas – this is the class where I read about the Prime Mover and remembered my dad’s explanation from a decade before. None of the explanations that any of the religious apologists offered were satisfactory. The reading selection in that class that hit me the hardest was Kierkegaard’s explanation of the Isaac story in Fear and Trembling. It seemed to me to be the stuff of tortured logic. If religion was the source of morality, then how could Isaac’s sacrifice be morally wrong but religiously right? There was no answer to this except the “leap of faith.” Nope – not only was that answer not good enough, it was ethically reprehensible.

If none of these religious stories and doctrines made sense to me, how could they make sense to other people? WHY did they make sense to other people? I decided to try to find out. I went to different religious services on campus, both Catholic and Protestant. I talked to a friend who went from Colgate to Harvard Divinity School to be a rabbi. (He told me a few years later that the rabbi thing didn’t work out, because anyone who pays attention in Divinity School ends up atheist. He’s a doctor now in Springfield, Massachusetts.) I spoke with a cousin who is a Presbyterian minister. I’ve spoken with friends who have strong faith.

When I ask people why they believe, they tend to get defensive instead of explaining their rationale. My asking them why they believe is not meant to be antagonistic – I really want to know, because to this day I don’t understand why normally rational, compassionate people would buy into this whole faith thing. “You’ve just got to believe,” they tell me. No. No, I do not.

My mother once remarked that because I went to Catholic and Episcopalian services, I must like the ceremonial flavor of the more ritualized  “high church” sects. I wasn’t going to church so I could get religion. I was going to try to figure out what other people got out of it. What I concluded was that the ritual seems to calm and comfort the people who attend these churches. Ritual is comforting. We know what to expect, we know what we are supposed to do. Ritual, like meditation, has a calming effect on the human psyche.

Rituals need a purpose, though, and I have never found purpose in a purely religious ritual. I see the point of the ritual in a wedding. I can see the point of ritual when it comes to memorial or funeral services. I see the point of other rituals that mark life transitions, like the naming of a baby or graduation or the passage to adulthood. I understand why human beings want these rituals to formalize life transitions. It doesn’t mean they are any less real if there is no ritual, but it does recognize the transition publicly, and we all want our major life changes to be recognized by others. Recognizing those life transitions is one of the main reasons I got ordained with the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and filed my credentials with the Pulaski County Clerk. Those rituals need to be recognized regardless of religious persuasion or non-belief.

When I got married, I agreed to a church wedding. Mostly that was because a church wedding was important to my beloved mother-in-law, who has a very strong faith. She knew this was the only wedding either of her children was likely to have, and it needed to be right for her. Skip and I would have been perfectly happy – and just as married – to have a judge say the words and sign the certificate on our front porch, followed, of course, by a kegger for our law school buddies. Instead, we were married in a giant church and had a reception at a country club.

We had our child baptized for the same reason – not because I wanted to do it, but because it was important to his grandparents. We took him to church when he was about 5 or 6 because we thought he needed to have had that experience. In retrospect, that was an exercise we didn’t need to put him through. I enjoyed the young adult Sunday school class that we went to there, though, and a few of those classmates I still call friends.

I’ll never forget the Sunday the minister of that church decided to teach our class. We were reading something attributed to Paul, and I was challenging at least half of what the blessed apostle wrote.

“Good! It’s good to question your faith!” the minister said to me, and the entire room erupted into laughter. My Sunday school classmates all knew I was atheist, but evidently word had not filtered up to the pulpit.

“I’m not questioning my faith,” I answered. “I’m questioning yours.”

So, I never “arrived” at non-belief. Truthfully, I didn’t have to. I never found a reason to leave non-belief in the first place.

Teaching Children Critical Thinking

I get asked a lot about how I approached the question of religion when my son was young. Did I insist that he follow my lack of belief?

No, I did not. That he has a vivid imagination but a rational and humanistic lifestance is attributable, I think, to making sure he knew how to think for himself.

One of the things we most urgently need to instill in our children is the to think critically about the world around us. Not just when it comes to religion, but when politics, ethics, and personal conflicts are in issue, having the skill to think rationally about things is crucial to a better life.

carlin question everything

I taught my child to question everything. Lots of times, I taught him to do it by asking him questions. Yes, my son was raised by Socratic Method. We had rules, but we felt it was important for him to understand the reasoning behind the rules.

  1. I never said no to him without giving him a reason. “Because I said so” is not a reason. “Because I don’t feel like it” is.
  2. If he calmly and rationally rebutted me, I listened. If his argument was better than mine, I changed my position. That being said, if he was argumentative or rude, he automatically lost the argument and often got sent to his room to calm down. If only this process were observed in the political arena, we’d be in great shape!
  3. We explored his questions and his interests together. We did science experiments in the kitchen and back yard. And because Dinosaurs Are Awesome, we kept a notebook full of dinosaur information, and added newspaper and magazine clippings to it regularly. I still have that notebook.
  4. Bedtime stories were just as likely to be stories from history and science as they were from Narnia or Hogwarts. We told each other stories we made up, and we made up stories together.
  5. When he was preschool and elementary school age, we bought age-appropriate books of Greek, Norse, Egyptian, Native American, and other mythology, which we read right along with the children’s Bible our son’s grandmother gave him.
  6. He played the video game “Age of Mythology,” which taught him about the capriciousness of deities. Later he graduated to “Age of Empires,” and when he told me William Wallace was his hero, I knew for sure that these games were okay.
  7. We played the “what if” game, to imagine how things might be different if one thing about the world was different, and we explored the best possible uses of a time machine.
  8. Magazines full of popular science were in every bathroom and on every tabletop. Discover. Archaeology. National Geographic. Smithsonian. We read those articles together, too. When he got older, he would pick up the magazines himself and read them.
  9. We watched science, nature and history shows together. Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin was at his pinnacle when Jack was growing up, and there was a lot of really good stuff on that show. We grieved his death. The Walking with Dinosaurs documentary series (not the new movie) was on the Discovery Channel – back when the Discovery Channel still was about science. Connections – that James Burke documentary series that combined science, history and technology in wonderful ways – was a favorite, too.
  10. I spent time in his elementary school classrooms, and talked not just to him but to his classmates about how to tell stories, all about fossils, dinosaurs, how the legal system works, how amber is formed, and more. I even organized a field trip to the local juvenile court where his classmates and my lawyer friends put some naughty dinosaurs on trial. After the trial, we visited a real juvenile detention facility.
  11. I took him to Sunday school. I felt like I needed to, because I wanted him to understand where his religious friends were coming from. He went to Bible School one summer, too. He was in about second grade. We only did this for about a year, because I’m atheist and it was on Sunday mornings, when civilized people lounge around the house in pajamas reading the New York Times and doing crossword puzzles. I wanted him to learn, but not be indoctrinated.

This is when I knew I had succeeded:

When he was about 11, I asked him whether I had to do the Easter Bunny schtick again that year. “What do you mean, ‘schtick’?” he asked.

“Your father never helps me and I have to stay up late and I really don’t want to,” I told him. (Yeah, I was kind of whiny about it, I admit.)

“You! What about the Easter Bunny?”

“Son, do you really think a bunny hops around the house after we go to bed hiding eggs and pooping jellybeans?”

“Well, no … but can I still have the basket? And all the candy?”

“Sure, sweetheart.”

Fast forward to summer. He had lost a tooth and I forgot to put money under his pillow.

“Mom, the tooth fairy forgot last night.”

“I’m sure she was just busy and lagged behind. She’ll get to you tonight if you put it under there again.”

The next morning he reported that the tooth fairy had once again forgotten. “Just go get my purse. Get a dollar out of my wallet.”

“What? You’re the tooth fairy, too? First the Easter Bunny, now the tooth fairy – what’s next? Santa Claus?” I could tell he was annoyed, but I needed to get to work.

“Yes, son. And right after that comes God,” I said.

He looked at me in pure shock and horror for about three solid seconds, and I wondered what I would say next. Then he burst out laughing.

“I knew all along, Mom.”

Eventually, I sent my son to an Episcopal school. I did this because, after working in the juvenile justice system for a decade, I was terrified of gangs in our local public middle schools. There weren’t a lot of private school options, so I chose the least religious of the bunch, where I thought he would get a good education (that included evolution as real science, not as part of some non-existent controversy). He was inoculated against religion before he went, because critical thinking was automatic and habitual with him by the time he was enrolled there in 5th grade.

He had to take religion classes for one semester both in middle school and in high school. That was fine with me, because I doubted he’d read the Bible otherwise. Let’s face it: it’s a lousy, poorly-written book with plot holes big enough to fly 747s through, but knowing enough to be able to talk intelligently about it is pretty important in our culture.

In middle school, he pretty much kept his head down and just did his work. In high school, though, Father John wanted more out of him. The very first day of class, the priest threw out a question:

“Jack, What do you think prayer does?”

There were pockets of laughter around the classroom as Jack hesitated.

“Yeah, Jack! What do you think?” asked one of the students.

“What’s so funny?” asked Father John.

“You asked an atheist what he believes prayer does!” one of Jack’s classmates blurted. Jack was probably grinning, too. I hope he was.

He said, “I don’t think prayer does anything, but I can understand how it might be helpful for some people.”

I’m happy with his response. My son the critical thinker is also much more diplomatic than I am when it comes to this subject.

We need to give kids credit for being able to think for themselves – but we need to teach them to do it, too. It’s part of our jobs as parents, to give them the tools to understand and deal with the world, and to be able to determine for themselves what is credible.

On the First Day of Christmas, My Sister Fed to Me…

~~I’m very tardy with this post. It should have gone up on Christmas Day. Oh, well. Christmas isn’t officially over until tomorrow, when Epiphany strikes.~~

 

The year Jack was 15, he and I went to my sister’s for Christmas dinner. When we got there, Susan put a pork tenderloin in the oven and we gathered around the tree to open gifts. Susan’s two boys, ages 15 and 13, were there, as was my mother. We spent a lovely hour ooohing and ahhhhing over what everyone got and gave. It was a very nice time.

We were almost through opening gifts when Su left to check the pork tenderloin we were having for Christmas dinner. She was in the kitchen for a few minutes. The rest of us waited to open any more gifts until she returned.

We were chatting and laughing and not paying any attention to her when Su tip-toed back into the living room and tapped me on the shoulder. “Come here,” she whispered.

I had been sitting on the floor. I got to my feet and followed her into the kitchen.

“Have you ever cooked a pork tenderloin?” she asked.

“Sure,” I told her. “Lots of times.”

“Good. I have something I need to ask you, then,” she said, and opened the oven door. She reached in and pulled out the roasting pan holding the meat. I thought she would ask me about how to tell if the meat was cooked through, or how best to carve it or something. I am always willing to dispense sisterly advice. But that wasn’t what Su wanted.

“Is it supposed to look like this?” she asked.

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I gaped.

I blinked.

Su put the pan down on the counter and grinned at me real big. “Shhhh,” she said.

We walked back into the living room, and she beckoned to Mom.

I couldn’t help it. I could barely hold in my laughter, and it was obvious. I do not have a poker face at all. When my mother followed Susan into the kitchen, I did my best to keep three large teenage boys at bay, thinking they were too young and … ahem … tender … to witness what had been prepared for Christmas dinner.

I was unsuccessful. The boys barreled into the kitchen just as their grandmother was in the act of looking at the slab of meat that faced her. Their Gran glanced up with a quizzical look. For a second I thought she didn’t get it.

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Then she burst out laughing.

The boys crowded around. “What is it? What’s so funny?” they demanded. Their mothers and grandmother were laughing too hard to tell them.

Su headed down the hall to the bathroom before she wet her pants. When she came back, she suggested that a creamy Bearnaise sauce would be a lovely accompaniment.

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That set us off again. Su headed back to the bathroom.

We females of the family enjoyed every bite. “Mmmmmm.” “Yummy.” “This is delightful,” we said.

The boys, for some reason, opted for a meatless Christmas dinner.

And now, for the crucial question:
If a pork tenderloin is circumcised, does that make it kosher?

How My Family Helped Start a Shitstorm Called “Vermont”

During a recent visit with cousins from out of state, I learned that my mother’s family’s Mayflower connection is through Mercy Leonard, the wife of Samuel Robinson. I started doing a little digging to confirm this. I haven’t found the Mayflower connection yet, because, hey, I just started looking, but I found something else that grabbed my attention.

Because I get absurdly excited by all of these family history discoveries, I have to share. Grab a Bloody Mary (yeah, we’re related to her, too, but it’s way distant) or pour another glass of grape juice, and settle in for a little history lesson.

In the mid-eighteenth century, both France and Britain claimed parts of what is now Vermont.  To further complicate matters, three British colonies – New York, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts – laid claim to at least a portion of Vermont’s territory. They argued nastily among themselves as to which colony had the right to issue land grants in the area. In 1741, to the relief of New Hampshire and New York, a royal decree finally prevented Massachusetts from claiming lands north of its current border. But the French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years War, broke out in 1756 over territorial lines between the American colonies claimed by France and those claimed by England. Vermont lies less than 50 miles south of Montreal. Its territory was very hotly disputed.

The British finally took control of Ticonderoga (New York) and Montreal (Quebec), and in 1760 signed a peace agreement with France to end the North American portion of the conflict. The North American battles between France and England that started in 1756 had spilled over to Europe, where it the Seven Years War finally ended for good in 1763, making it last – you guessed it – seven years.

Even though the European superpowers had resolved their territorial differences, the British colonies had not. Before the ink was dry on the North American peace agreement, New Hampshire colonial governor Benning Wentworth began making land grants in disputed territory. His motivation was part colonial power struggle and part avaricious land speculation. Many of the settlements that sprang up as a result of Wentworth’s land grants were named for Wentworth and his rich and powerful pals who he hoped would support him when New York predictably got testy over the whole matter. The very first of these land grants went to our ancestor, Samuel Robinson, for Bennington.  Samuel knew the area because he had camped there with his troops during the French and Indian War.

Samuel Robinson died in London, England on October 29, 1767. He had been elected by a convention of Vermont towns to go to the king to petition for validation of the New Hampshire land grants. He succeeded, but was stricken by smallpox before he could return home. In a twist of fate, his grandson Dr. Benjamin Robinson (1776-1857), would pioneer smallpox vaccination in America.

The territorial dispute among the colonies was not resolved before the Revolution. Vermont was never a separate English colony. Depending on who was asked, it was part of either New Hampshire or New York. In 1777, during the Revolution, Vermont declared itself to be a separate Republic because of the land disputes between New Hampshire and New York. After the Revolution, in 1791, Vermont became the 14th state. The New Hampshire land grants pretty much prevailed once everything shook out.

My 7th great-grandfather Captain Samuel Robinson was a product of the First Great Awakening, an evangelical religious movement that started in New England in the 1730’s. This evangelical movement championed a version of separation of church and state that was first proposed by Roger Williams when he founded Providence, Rhode Island, along with Richard and Catherine Marbury Scott. (FYI: Catherine Marbury Scott is my favorite of our direct ancestors. Her older sister, Anne Marbury Hutchinson, was utterly amazing, and I’m going to be just like her when I grow up. That means I’ll be run out of Boston and killed by restless natives on Long Island, but that’s another story.)

Roger Williams promoted the notion that freedom of thought, of opinion, and of the press would inspire individual religious belief, not dogma dictated by a ruling hegemony of religious leaders. Naturally, these religiously “free” places – like Providence – permitted their leaders to impose their version of religion on local residents. The movement was born in Puritan New England, after all. (Non sequitur: Massachusetts was the last state – yes, state – to abolish established religion in the United States in 1833.)

Our illustrious forebear did all he could to ensure only the right sort of Christians were his neighbors. Mercy Leonard Robinson and her children are buried in Old Bennington Cemetery, next to the church Samuel Robinson founded there. The original church building no longer exists, but its replacement celebrated its 200th birthday in 2006.

After the Revolution, Mercy and Samuel’s son Moses (named for Mercy’s father – it’s her I’m researching, remember) was a member of the delegation sent by the Republic of Vermont in 1782 to the Continental Congress to work out the territorial dispute with New York. He later served as governor of the Vermont Republic and oversaw its transition to statehood. He served as one of the first pair of senators from Vermont. Several of Samuel and Mercy Leonard Robinson’s sons were prominent leaders in politics and medicine. Religion, not so much. That was their father’s bailiwick.

Thomas Jefferson is credited in legal doctrine with the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” because of a letter he wrote to the Baptist Church leaders in Danbury, Connecticut in 1803. Before the famous Danbury letter, though, he wrote a letter to Moses Robinson in 1801 on the subject. The original is at the University of Virginia among Jefferson’s papers. Jefferson, who had been President for less than a month at the time the letter was written, expressed dismay that so many of the clergy seemed to want to establish state religion, and ended his letter with a complaint that still rings in my ears today – mostly because I listen to my own words, and I pontificate about this a lot:

The eastern States will be the last to come over [to Jefferson’s notion of a secular and scientific nation], on account of the dominion of the clergy, who had got a smell of union between Church and State, and began to indulge reveries which can never be realised in the present state of science. If, indeed, they could have prevailed on us to view all advances in science as dangerous innovations, and to look back to the opinions and practices of our forefathers, instead of looking forward, for improvement, a promising groundwork would have been laid. But I am in hopes their good sense will dictate to them, that since the mountain will not come to them, they had better go to the mountain: that they will find their interest in acquiescing in the liberty and science of their country, and that the Christian religion, when divested of the rags in which they have enveloped it, and brought to the original purity and simplicity of its benevolent institutor, is a religion of all others most friendly to liberty, science, and the freest expansion of the human mind.

 (Today, I’d insert “Southern and Midwestern” for “eastern” in that first line. In fairness to Jefferson, not only was the letter written before the Civil War and Dust Bowl devastated the economies of those regions, thereby providing fertile ground for more religious fervor, it predated the Louisiana Purchase.)

According to a recent Gallup poll, Vermont is now the least religiously-inclined state in the nation. I assume 7th great-grandfather Robinson would not be nearly as amused as I am by this, especially since his own sons began selling land to the wrong sorts as soon as old Sam was room temperature.

Patriotic Atheist American Heritage

Recently I posted some hate mail on Facebook that the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers received. This email said that atheists have no heritage in the United States, that we aren’t real patriots, and that we don’t have the courage to step up and play with those who are.

Carey Dove

 

Dear Carey Dove:

I’ve studied constitutional law, history, and my own genealogy. I know what my heritage is. Apparently, you don’t know me at all.

Carey Dove

So, let me give you a little introduction to me, my knowledge about the constitution, and whether or not I have any American heritage.

We’ll start with the constitutional lesson.

GeorgeMason-painting

George Mason (1725-1792), portrait by John Hesselius (1728-1778)

George Mason wrote the first bill of rights to be adopted in the Americas. His Virginia Declaration of Rights, written in the spring of 1776, influenced revolutions on two continents. The Declaration of Independence drew heavily from it. The Bill of Rights plagiarized it. The French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen tracked it. Its final provision was to grant religious freedom to Virginians.

Scene_at_the_Signing_of_the_Constitution_of_the_United_States

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, by Howard Chandler Christy (1873-1952). See the three men huddled off to the right, looking on disapprovingly as the Constitution is signed by the other delegates? They are George Mason, Elbridge Gerry, and Edmund Randolph.

George Mason was a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, when fifty-five men from twelve of the newly formed states argued about how to replace the unworkable Articles of Confederation. Mason dominated the discussions. Ultimately, he was one of three delegates who voted against it, primarily because it did not contain a bill of rights – there were no constitutional guarantees of personal liberty.

He would be vindicated four years later, when the bill of rights was adopted. The first of those rights was religious freedom.

BillOfRights-1024x673

So, now we have established that our constitution, and the history that preceded it, includes religious freedom. That means the freedom to dissent and to reject religion, because without the freedom to dissent and reject what we find to be wrong with religion, there can be no freedom in our practice of religion. And if we ultimately reject it all? That is the ultimate freedom.

So now I’ll embark on explaining the pedigree I have in this country.

A few years ago I was chosen to be on the Board of Regents that oversees the maintenance and operation of George Mason’s historic home in Virginia.

Gunston

Diorama of Gunston Hall

I was invited to sit on that board because of who my ancestors were. My European ancestors not only lived in colonial America, but they gave their time, talents, efforts, and money in public service to their colonies. They were politicians, military officers, doctors, judges, ministers, founders of schools, and founders of towns. They spoke out. They acted. They were patriots.

Who they were and what they did has shaped our country and its government. They shaped our states and our institutions. Their words and actions are this country’s heritage, and this country is their legacy.

On a very personal level, who they were and what they did has shaped who I am personally, and what I do. Their behavior, values, strengths, words, intelligence, and deeds are my heritage, and I am the culmination of their legacy.

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Anne Marbury Hutchinson (1591-1643)

My favorite ancestor is my 11th great aunt, Anne Marbury Hutchinson. Anne Hutchinson was a well-liked and respected mother of 15 children. She was brilliant, charismatic, and a passionate intellectual. She was also the polestar of a controversy that nearly shattered the religious experiment that was the infant Massachusetts Bay Colony.

john-cotton1

John Cotton (1585-1652)

Anne and her husband Will came to America in 1634 with a Puritan minister named John Cotton, who would eventually become the most preeminent theologian in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Unlike the Puritan ministers already in Boston when he and the Hutchinsons arrived, John Cotton believed that a person had no control over his own salvation, but had to depend on God’s grace. This was Calvinist predestination in its purest sense, but it was contrary to what other Puritan ministers were teaching. They taught that the good works done by a person were the only ticket to salvation.

Boston 1634

Boston was a small town in 1634. Click to embiggen, and note that every single household is listed. Will & Anne Hutchinson and their large extended family stayed with friends and relatives while their own home was being built. The population of the entire Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Plantations was about 5,000 people. (Map from the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center Collection at the Boston Public Library)

The Hutchinsons were wealthy in England, but even wealthier in the colony. They built one of the largest homes in Boston. After church services, Anne Hutchinson would invite other women to gather in her home to discuss the sermons and the Bible. Anne’s meetings were very popular with the women of Boston, and soon men joined in.

Anne-Hutchinson-preaching howard pyle

Anne Hutchinson Preaching at her House in Boston (Howard Pyle, 1901, from the Library of Congress)

Like her mentor John Cotton, Anne emphasized the importance of a state of grace over good works. People liked what she had to say. They were focused on feeding their families and running their businesses; they didn’t have time for unlimited acts of charity. As the number of people at her meetings escalated, Anne’s philosophy quickly leaked back to the Puritan clergy. Boston was a very small town in 1634.

The ministers claimed that Anne’s “unauthorized” religious gatherings “might confuse the faithful.” They argued the theological point of predestination – good works versus inherent grace – among themselves, and ultimately Anne was charged with heresy.

John Cotton, however, was not.

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Anne Hutchinson on Trial (Edward Austin Abbey 1901)

Anne was a woman, so was not authorized to preach.

Left to her own devices, Anne Hutchinson, the first female defendant in any trial in America, defended herself at her heresy trial, which was prosecuted by John Winthrop, her neighbor and the governor of the colony. Governor Winthrop was most displeased with Anne’s religious dissent, because his wife, Margaret, was very fond of attending the meetings in the Hutchinson home, and brought home with her ideas he found unbecoming in a woman.

And like the Reverend Dimmesdale in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, who was modeled after him, John Cotton essentially betrayed Anne to the powerful citizens who brought the charges against her. When he was called to testify, Cotton denied that he had incited any dissent in Anne, and smiled and shrugged, claiming he did not remember the substance of any of his conversations with her.

Atheist-A

It is no accident that this red A, the icon of the secular movement, evokes the scarlet letter Hester Prynne was required to wear in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel.

Upon hearing his repudiation, Anne Hutchinson did something she had been forbidden to do: she began to teach the men. While her teaching had been in private before, here, now, at her trial for heresy, she took off the gloves and came out punching. “If you please to give me leave, I shall give you the ground of what I know to be true.” Without waiting for permission, Anne continued speaking, explaining her own history, her dissatisfaction with the Church of England, her search for the truth she knew had to exist.

Governor Winthrop attempted to interrupt her. She ignored him and continued.

“God did discover unto me the unfaithfulness of the churches, and the danger of them, and that none of those ministers could preach the Lord aright.” Scripture fell from her lips as she brazened on, daring to teach, despite an exchange with Governor Winthrop earlier in her trial during which they had exchanged barbs about the ability of women to teach. (“What, now you would have me teach you what the Bible says?” she mockingly exclaimed to him.)

I don't know who painted this image of Anne and her persecutors. If someone else does, please notify me. I've found it in several places on the Internet,but never with attribution.

One of my favorite quotes from Anne is:
“How did Abraham know that it was God that bid him offer his son, being a breach of the sixth commandment?” Nevemind that, chronologically speaking, Abraham knew nothing about any commandments.

Governor John Winthrop was also, conveniently, one of the judges, so naturally Anne Hutchinson was convicted, and in November 1637, she was banished from Massachusetts.

Anne was 43 years old at the time of her trial. She was also pregnant, and during the trial she suffered a miscarriage. The superstitious Puritans allied against her saw the severely malformed fetus as proof that Anne had fallen from God’s grace.

Anne’s youngest sister was my 10th great-grandmother, Catherine Marbury Scott. Catherine and her husband, a shoemaker named Richard Scott, came to America on the Griffin with the Hutchinsons and John Cotton in 1634. They left Boston with Anne, first joining Roger Williams at a place he called Providence, in the Rhode Island and Providence Plantations secured by Williams as a separate colony. Williams had himself been banished from Boston in 1635, the year after the Hutchinsons and Scotts had arrived, for preaching that one did not need a a church in which to worship.

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Richard Scott’s signature on the Providence Compact that chartered the town

In Providence, the Scotts, along with many other of Anne’s followers from Boston, created a new community. Richard Scott wrote the Providence Compact, which was then signed by each of the 39 heads of household to come to that place. They became Baptists for a while, then Quakers. Then, in 1660, Catherine returned to Boston to protest the punishment of two young Quaker men. For her efforts she was stripped to the waist and flogged in public. Even though Boston had been unspeakably cruel to her sister 23 years before, Catherine did not hesitate to speak out when she saw the government do something wrong-headed. She was a worthy bearer of her sister Anne’s torch.

Anne herself was afraid to stay in Providence, especially after her husband’s death. Massachusetts had rattled its saber at the Rhode Island settlers, claiming it had the right to govern them, so she fled with her children to Long Island. There, in 1643, she and all but one of her children were murdered by natives. How long might she have lived had she not been run out of Boston? How much more might she have contributed to the ideas of women’s rights and freedom of conscience had she remained in Boston?

Far from being dour, rigid Puritans, Anne and Catherine were firebrands.

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Statue of Anne Hutchinson and her youngest child, Susannah, at the Massachusetts State House. Susannah was the only survivor of the family’s massacre by natives at their New Netherlands home in what is now Pelham Bay Park, NY.

Anne Hutchinson is a key figure in the development of religious freedom in the U.S., and in the history of women in ministry. She challenged authority, and she didn’t back down. A monument to her at the Massachusetts State House calls her a “courageous exponent of civil liberty and religious toleration.” She is easily the most famous – and infamous – Englishwoman in colonial American history.

Anne Hutchinson was a freethinker in the truest sense of the word: Dogmatic as she was in her own way, she seriously contemplated her religion, a deity, and the teachings of those who claimed to know, and then she drew conclusions for herself. The conclusion she reached was not the one that was favored in Boston in 1637. Nevertheless, she did not back down. She had the courage of her convictions, and today she is admired and even revered for her steadfastness.

I admire her enormously. Her courage in the face of adversity, her sustained intelligent wit, her sublime sarcasm – right to the face of the most powerful man in Massachusetts! This – this is a woman I can only hope to live up to as I exercise the courage of my own convictions.

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Firebrand atheism: an in-home “revival,” with Sam Singleton, Atheist Evangelist, at my house in December 2012

When I speak up and speak out, when I hold meetings in my home, when I dissent from religion, when I give my time and my money and my talents to my community and to issues I care about, I am following the legacy of my heritage. I am doing exactly what my ancestors have done ever since they first came to this continent.

For the 392 years that we’ve been in America, it’s been my family’s tradition to speak up and speak out, and to act on our convictions.

And that, Carey Dove, is a very proud heritage, with full knowledge of where our religious freedoms came from, with full knowledge of when they did not exist here, and with full knowledge of what happens when dissent is not allowed – and why it most definitely and wholeheartedly is.

Reason in the Rock’s Indiegogo Fundraiser

For the second year running, I’m organizing a conference on science and secularism. My friend Sky came up with the idea after a group of us from central Arkansas attended Skepticon in the fall of 2011, and we’ve run with the project. Last year was the first ever Reason in the Rock. We expected maybe 75 people for a day of speakers. Instead, over 250 signed up!

We’ve learned from organizers of similar conferences, especially from Skepticon’s, that we can expect to double our attendance for the first few years as word spreads. And like Skepticon, we really want to keep Reason in the Rock free for anyone who can’t afford to attend otherwise.

diplodocus

*Image is considerably smaller than actual creature

This presents a bit of a problem, because renting a venue, hosting speakers from all over the country (not to mention just getting them to Little Rock), and promoting the conference takes money. We depend on donations to make Reason in the Rock a reality.

See the video, which was made mostly in my basement hallway, in front of the collection of books in the Star Wars Expanded Universe – proving my X-treme geekery – and with a diplodocus from the Carnegie Collection of dinosaur figurines serving as the horns of the devil in many segments.

This event is very important. It’s the only one of its kind this year in Arkansas. Conferences like this can change minds, open eyes, and expand horizons. Reason in the Rock did all that last year, and will do it again this year, if it can make its funding goals.

Not only did Reason in the Rock expand the number of people who knew about the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers – because we organized the conference – it got us important positive news coverage. So often when the Freethinkers get in the news, it’s because we’re objecting to violations of separation of church and state, which, in the minds of those who would have us live in a theocracy or think that injecting religion into politics isn’t harmful, makes us seem like Grinches. We aren’t – we’re a group of fun-loving, politically diverse, intellectually active, friendly, community-minded humanists, agnostics, atheists, ethicists, and other secularists.

In the deeply religious Bible Belt, someone who doesn’t ascribe to religion can feel very alone. The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers is working to build a community dedicated to good science education, rational inquiry, critical thinking, secularism, and fun. This conference is one of many ways we can get the word out that the isolated nonbelievers in Arkansas are definitely not alone.

We have a great lineup this year, and one that will appeal to anyone who loves science, reason, and independent thinking.

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, will be here. Dave’s fun to hang out with and fun to hear speak. And yes – those who come to Reason in the Rock will get to hang out with the speakers and talk with them one-on-one. Those who donate $500 to sponsor a speaker will even get to share a meal with one of the stars of the line-up!

Jerry DeWitt, who just published his memoir Hope After Faith about his transition from charismatic Pentecostal preacher to nonbeliever, will be returning. Fun fact: The first time Jerry ever spoke publicly about his atheism was in Little Rock, at a meeting of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers. He’s a special guy, and we’re glad to be special to him, too! Jerry’s book will be available for sale, and he’ll happily autograph it for you.

Ben Bell and Kyle Sanders, who started Little Rock’s Skeptics in the Pub, will put on a special Skeptics presentation for us. Kyle put together the Indiegogo campaign for us, and he just generally rocks.

Ever seen Matt Dillahunty on the Atheist Experience? No one pwns theocrats and unthinking believers like he does. Oh, they try to argue with him. They lose. Decisively. Matt’s amazing, and if you’ve never seen him in action you should definitely check out the Atheist Experience’s YouTube Channel.

Bil Cash, the director of Arkansas’ EEOC office, will speak about religious discrimination in the workplace. Since he was one of my very best friends in law school a million years ago, I’m really excited about his participation.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is sending Lecia Brooks, the Director of Outreach, to talk about the state of intolerance in America. There’s some controversy here, because some have said that SPLC is promoting intolerance just by keeping and making public its dossiers on hate groups. Is it wrong to keep tabs on the haters and to describe them that way?

We’ll show an awesome documentary, No Dinosaurs in Heaven, and the filmmaker, Greta Schiller will take questions after it. Me, I’m hoping she can explain how none of the dinos managed to make it onto the ark, and how even the prehistoric swimming creatures drowned in the flood. (I’m kidding, guys. Relax.)

Darrel Ray will be here to talk about Sex and God. Rachel Johnson says she’ll be talking about sex, too, but from a biological perspective. She’s one of the co-hosts of the Pink Atheist Podcast along with LeeWood Thomas, who is one of our members, and Phil Ferguson, who also plans to be here.

No conference on secularism would be complete without the participation of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Dan Barker, co-president of FFRF, will be here. As much as FFRF gets slammed in the press by theocratic fundamentalists, you’d think he sports a tail and horns, but in actuality he’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.

These aren’t the only great speakers in our lineup. There are more, and we want to make sure they all come and they all make a bog impression. Please help the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers make this year’s Reason in the Rock a reality.

We’re actually hoping to be over-funded, so we have a head start on next year’s conference. We have big dreams about who we want to invite next year. BIG dreams!

And Arkansas has uphill battles. We have hateful bigots in our state who advocate the murder of gay people, a former governor with  Faux News show who thinks his version of Christianity would make a great theocracy, and a largely uneducated state legislature who not only doesn’t have the first clue about how to pass laws that also pass constitutional muster but also want to impose their dubious morality on everyone in the state…. We need all the help we can get.

Please help.

Please donate!

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