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‘Tis the Season to Talk about Religion – Believe It or Not

I just had an interesting conversation about religion with a guy working at my house.

He overheard my end of a phone call with another secular activist about a church-state violation. When I hung up he asked if those were the kinds of cases I take. He knows I’m a lawyer.

“Tis the season for violations of the separation of church and state,” I said lightly, not sure how much he might want to explore the subject or what his feelings might be on it. I’m wary when people I don’t know well bring up the topic of religion. The conversation could go well or it could get very uncomfortable very fast.

“Church and state ought to be completely separate,” he said, “especially in schools when kids are pretty much forced to go along with whatever the class is doing.”

jefferson-separation-of-church-and-state - no religion

 

I couldn’t agree more. It’s not fair to non-Christian schoolchildren to be told by their teachers what to believe about Christmas, which they may or may not celebrate for any number of reasons. For that matter, there are Christian children who don’t celebrate Christmas. There are non-Christians who do celebrate Christmas for reasons other than religion. If a child is doing religion “wrong,” the proper place for correction is home or their place of worship, not a public school.

secular christmas - religion comes in different guises this season

 

One thing led to another, and as the conversation developed he told me he had lots of questions, because the whole “god” thing just didn’t make sense to him. I told him about a certain hissy fit I threw over religion when I was a kid. It has never made sense to me, either.

Then he said that he goes to church, but he doesn’t buy everything the preacher says. Who does? I wonder.

We talked about the notion of a prime mover. I strongly suspect that Aristotle was not the first person to wrestle with the notion of what it was that tipped the first domino and set the whole universe into motion. My response to the prime mover concept is, “Okay, but what made the first mover move? Even St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest philosophers Christendom ever produced, ultimately said that God’s existence had to be taken on faith because there was no proof.

My new friend said he thought it was safer to believe, because what if he’s wrong?

Calvin's wager about Santa. It's the same as Pascal's.

 

“You’ve just described Pascal’s Wager,” I told him. If his preferred deity is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, why won’t his god know about his doubts? If what he outwardly professed conflicted with what his logical processes and his gut told him, wouldn’t that sort of god-the god our culture is typically familiar with-have a clue?

And furthermore, what if the religion he placed his bet on wasn’t the right one? What if there is some other god that really controls it all? What if there are a lot of gods who control by committee? What if those gods really couldn’t care less what people do – isn’t that the more likely scenario?

Then we talked about using the scientific method to explain things that were only explained in the past by “God did it.” I explained the concept of the God of the Gaps, and how that God keeps getting smaller and smaller with every new discovery and addition to scientific knowledge.

 

god of the gaps - religion plugs holes

 

Finally he confided that he didn’t believe in the Abrahamic god, but he would never admit that to his wife. And, ultimately, that’s why he goes to church.

There are so many of us out there, closeted and questioning.

Come out, come out, wherever you are.

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.

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.

anne21

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.

anne hutchinson trial

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.

richard-scott-signature-on-providence-charter

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.

anne hutchinson

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.

Amicable and Neighborly

I’ve been busy lately. Reason in the Rock is fast approaching, and the last minute details are time-consuming. I’m doing some research and reading to aid those involved in various aspects of the West Memphis Three matters, and there is a lot of stuff there. On top of that, my family is in the process of selling the family farm. After 100 years of deeds being swapped among four generations and various family-owned entities, there are title issues enough to make a saint swear. My brother and I are working on the title issues, and we are far from sainted. I’ve even had to reopen the long-closed probated estates of both of my grandparents and one of my great aunts to resolve matters.

And yesterday, taking a well-deserved break to engage in a little church-related activity, which is always good for the soul, I stumbled across a float of the Flying Spaghetti Monster created by the Seattle Atheists.

 

 

I want it.

The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers needs one. Can’t you just see it in the annual holiday parade here in Little Rock? We freethinkers can dress in our clerical vestments – that is, full pirate regalia  – and toss packages of Ramen noodles to parade watchers. It’ll be Christmas, Mardi Gras, and soup kitchen all rolled into one. We would be able to touch so many people with his noodly appendages!

And I have nothing else to do but figure out how to build a working model of our amazing deity. Really.

But wait!  What’s this? In my inbox is a missive from the company that manages the condos that lie on the other side of my back fence. Gracious, whatever could they want?

Dear Ms. Orsi:

I obtained your contact information from a mutual friend, David Simmons. I am writing on behalf of the Townhouses-in-the-Park Property Owners Association. I have been asked to contact you in reference to your swimming pool and the manner in which the water is being drained. The POA Board believes that the chemicals in your pool water are killing the ivy and eroding a French drain located below your pool on the TIP property. The POA Board wishes to handle this matter in an amicable and neighborly fashion. Would you please contact me to discuss this issue?

Thank you, in advance, for your cooperation.

 

Not again. This is, sadly, not my first rodeo with these “amicable and neighborly” people.

I clicked on the attachments.

 

 

I swear by the noodly appendages and meatballs of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and by all else that is holy, that these two photos are what I was sent as proof of the evildoing of my swimming pool.

I fumed a bit. I needed to collect my thoughts before I called the email’s author, because I was more than a little irked.  I tend to become extremely sarcastic when I’m annoyed. Sarcasm is not “amicable and neighborly,”  or so I’ve been told. So I called Mom and ranted for about 20 minutes.

When I finally calmed down, I called the contractor who had installed the offending pool in 2009.

“Jimmy,” I said, “you aren’t going to believe this.” I told him what was up. He sighed, and said he’d come take a look.

When I calmed down some more, I called the author of the email. She was out.

A few days later, Jimmy came. He looked. We both peered over my fence onto the hillside between my pool and Townhouses in the Park. He scratched his head. “So, where’s the dead ivy?” he asked. Unable to answer his question, I peered over the fence again. Nope. No dead ivy could be seen.

“What do I do?” I asked him. He shrugged helplessly. He outlined the possibility of draining the pool higher up the hill, still on my property, of course. I asked him for a bid. He left, shaking his head. We both know that the mere existence of my pool bugs the crap out of the Townhouses in the Park Property Owners Association. We’ve been down this road before.

Dad, Summer 2002, on the lake in his boat

My beloved father, whose ashes were spread into the Cache River on our family farm over a decade ago, wrote what our family calls “John Letters.” Sometimes he sent them. Usually, Mom, Susan, Jay or I edited them to remove the most sarcastic and offensive parts. At times, to Dad’s chagrin, we’d edit them into starchless, plain vanilla, politely worded protests that in no way resembled what Dad really and truly wanted to say.

The city of Des Arc was the recipient of at least one unedited John letter a few years before Dad died. The city was not amused. Dad was proud of himself. He was such a clever wordsmith.

I’ve written a John letter to the property manager representing Townhouses in the Park. Oh, I’ve edited it. I’ve refined it. I really, really want to send it. I’m proud of myself. I am such a clever wordsmith.

 

Dear Ms. Jackson:

The Townhouses in the Park Property Owners Association is fond of complaining about my swimming pool, which apparently exists mostly to annoy them. While I was in the process of building it in 2009, Townhouses in the Park reported me to Little Rock Code Enforcement for building not just one, not even two, but three swimming pools in my back yard. Seriously.

After that, they said that the drainage from the pool was washing out the soil from beneath their asphalt and would cause their parking lot to collapse. Yes, they really said that. To alleviate their concerns that my pool would wash Townhouses in the Park all the way down Cedar Hill to the Allsopp Park tennis courts, I installed a drainage system that diffused the backwashed water over a very large area on my property.

Then, on a Saturday night after a pipe had burst that morning and been repaired, they decided to come over to my house when I was having a dinner party to complain, in front of my arriving guests, that there was too much water in their parking lot. They must really hate thunderstorms.

Next, they claimed that the three year old masonry wall of my pool which faces them, and which they cannot see without coming into my yard beyond the wooden privacy fence that separates my property from theirs– and which even then they could not see since a second retaining wall blocks even my own view – was crumbling and collapsing in decay. It wasn’t.

In their latest complaint, Townhouses in the Park apparently believes that the al Qaeda sleeper cell that is my swimming pool suddenly awoke after one of the hottest, driest summers in memory to unscrupulously assassinate what appears to be a two foot spread of ivy hanging over a wall, presumably just down the hill from my property.

As Townhouses in the Park is aware, the backwash from my pool, which amounts to about a bathtub’s worth every week or so, is eliminated on my property through a perforated pipe about 15-20 feet long into a French drain that is even longer. The diffuse drainage is unlikely in the extreme to have zeroed in on that unsuspecting bit of ivy after four years of peaceful coexistence. From the vantage point of my property, I am unable to discern any dead ivy; I cannot tell where the photo was taken. The plants on my property that are even closer to the point of drainage are alive and healthy. Even the ivy.

But, in the interest of resolving this matter in an amicable and neighborly fashion, I had the contractor who installed the pool and drainage system come to look at it. Unsurprisingly, he said there was no way my pool’s backwashed water was the cause of the dearly departed’s demise. Had my pool water been inclined to murder unsuspecting plants such as that particular patch of English ivy, it would do so from the point of drainage all the way to the wall; it would not have the necessary intelligence or purpose to target a single spot at least ten feet away from the point of drainage, leaving all plants between the drain and the target unmolested. That’s just how terrorist swimming pools and their affiliated suicide bomber drainage systems roll.

The seepage pipe in the wall is similarly unaffected by me backwashing my pool. By the time the water gets from the drain to the wall, it has gone through soil at least ten feet wide, twenty feet in length, and ten feet in depth. There is simply not enough water concentrated in that area at any given time to cause the problem complained of.

Townhouses in the Park should be aware that in the event there ever really is a problem that I don’t already know about (and haven’t promptly taken reasonable steps to address), I may not take them seriously. There is a story about a little boy who cried “wolf.” The Townhouses in the Park Property Owners Association should familiarize themselves with the moral to that story.

 

Should I?

 

Oh, hell. I know I shouldn’t. But I really, really want to.

 

Respectful Atheism

I am not a Christian.

I am not a Jew or a Muslim, either. I am not Buddhist, even though its philosophy is what I most agree with. I am one of about a billion people who does not believe in either a single deity or a group of gods that created the world or that control or otherwise interfere with nature and the lives of humans.

I am an atheist. I do not lightly identify myself as such, nor, I have found, do very many who says this about themselves. To claim that status, most atheists have studied religion passionately, but found it somehow lacking for us.

That is not to say I do not respect the beliefs of others, or their ability to have faith. One of the things I study when I study religion is the effortless ability other people have to believe in the existence of a deity. I do not understand it from an intellectual point of view, but from a spiritual point of view, I try to understand. I simply do not possess that faith and never have. I cannot create faith in myself, although I went through the motions for my husband and child, attending both Presbyterian and Episcopal services over the years. It has never been my intent to deny faith to my son or to anyone else. It is simply something foreign to me.

My mother is Presbyterian. She goes to church regularly, as does my sister, who is an Elder in their church. My brother and his wife attend the same church, but not with the regularity of Mom and Sis. They believe in God and teach their children about Jesus and his disciples.

My dad was raised Catholic, but as an adult never practiced. He joined the Presbyterian Church when my sister did, when she was about 12 years old. Both Mom and Dad were elders in the Presbyterian Church in my home town.

I married a man who at one time considered becoming a priest in the Episcopal Church. We were married in the Episcopal Church and our son was baptized there. We attended irregularly, mostly at Easter. I really loved the Easter service at that church – they had a fabulous pipe organ and would have a brass accompaniment on Easter Sunday that made the music absolutely gorgeous. The white lilies heaped on the altar and around the church were gorgeous, too. I can appreciate the beauty of such a service without belief in the Resurrection.

When our child started school we decided it was time to find a Sunday School for him. We had not been going to church regularly and we agreed that he should learn about the religion of his family and his culture. My sister and her boys were attending a small Presbyterian church about 10 minutes from our house. We started going there and taking our son. He began to learn the Bible stories all children learn.

His father and I joined the young adult Sunday School class ourselves. We made some great friends. I enjoyed discussing the Bible and its philosophy. I really enjoyed picking apart the writings of Paul and Peter in the face of current common religious practice. Yes, I was devilish. My deviltry prompted discussion, though, and when we read the Screwtape Letters I was the good-natured butt of many jokes. I was never disrespectful to my Sunday School classmates about their beliefs, and I doubt any of them, other than my sister and my husband, would have guessed that I not only didn’t accept Jesus as my personal lord and savior, but didn’t even believe in their god. I was on their turf, but even so I do not tend toward insult and disrespect. My atheism is not something I discuss much. I imagine most of my friends would be very surprised to learn of it.

So why did I go to church? I went for my son.

The way I see it, religion is something that a great many people not only value, but really need in their lives. If my child is one of these people, I want him to understand the religion of his family and the society in which he lives: Christianity. I want him to have the ability to believe. It sometimes seems to be a comfort to those who do.

Even as a young child I did not believe. My belief in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy was for one purpose only: loot. If I said I believed, I got cool stuff. I thought all three of them were silly and far-fetched, but if it made my parents happy, I would believe. For me, God fell into the same category as the Easter Bunny. His existence was illogical and fantastical.

Upon revealing my atheism, I am often asked, “If you do not believe in a divine creator, how do you think the world came to be?” Unlike many people, I have no trouble with the concept of infinity.

One of the co-founders of my brain borrowed a little of Thomas Aquinas’s notion of a “First Mover,” which he explained in the Summa Theologica. When I was about nine years old and rebelling for all I was worth against being forced to go to church, Dad explained to me that while it was conceivable that all things happened after the first part was moved, something had to create that first part and then set things in motion. Where he possibly differed from the good Saint was in the question of whether that “Mover of the First Part” was still around, or had ever interfered beyond creating and moving the first part. My response to him was predictable: “So, Dad, if a Mover was necessary, who made the Mover?” It’s not like the question hadn’t already been asked by smarter minds than mine. I’m not a deist because it only seems logical to me that someone or something would have had to create the Creator. Even at that tender age, I understood what “for ever and ever and ever” meant.

I have also been asked what I think happens when we die if there is no heaven or hell. I don’t have any idea. It’s possible we just rot and our consciousness ceases to be. I would truly like to think we have souls, and experiences people have with the supernatural and the uniformity of near-death reports are some proof, if not empirical proof, that something – something – happens.

In light of this, I find it plausible that every living thing has a soul. I also find it possible that if there is a soul for every living thing, that these souls take a form we humans would recognize again and again. When not in use by a living thing, the souls may coalesce into a single Universal Soul, which is the ongoing, possibly infinite, existence of consciousness, or even collective consciousness. This may be the “light” that we are familiar with from reports of near-death experiences. I don’t necessarily believe that the Universal Soul or the Light – or whatever we want to call it – is a higher power, or that any “higher” power exists that “takes care” of things or “creates” things.

My concept of the Universal Soul does not interfere with individuals or with free will, nor does it necessarily predestine anything to happen. More than anything, it is a repository. But the collection of souls within it, of creatures yet to exist and formerly existing, may have emotion to some extent.

In my conceptualization, the “comfort” or “satisfaction” of each soul lies within the control of the healthy creature housing it at the moment. When we take positive steps to improve our character and our long term contentment, as well as to improve the world around us, we feed our souls with nutritious food. That makes them happy, and a happy soul adds to the happiness of the Universal Soul. Perhaps the happier those souls, the brighter the light gets. It’s my conceptualization, so if I want that to be the way it is, I can wave my wand of creation and make it so.

Going against our nature, ruining the happiness of people and other creatures around us, and making the lives of others more difficult are things that feed our souls unhealthy food. Our souls are not made happy by these acts, and the light within ourselves dims when we do this. We are diminish the quality of our souls when we are petty, mean-spirited, or selfishly harm others. (Now, that having been said, I am not above killing aphids on my plants, ants in my cat food, rodents that make their unwelcome way into my home, or cockroaches wherever I find them. My theology only goes so far!)

I don’t come to any of my conclusions in a vacuum. I have read the entire Bible. I have read most of it many more times than once. I keep a copy of it on my desk. It is a reference book as much as a dictionary or a thesaurus. I look at religious writings the way I look at books that are classified as fiction, but since I come across Biblical references and allusions in my reading, I find it convenient to keep one handy. When I meet one of those hate-spewing zealots, I am glad to know the Bible because a good offense is indeed the best defense.

I often read the doctrine and dogma of major religions. (Yes, for fun.) I have read what I could of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I have read from the works of Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, St. Thomas Aquinas, Flavius Josephus, Bede, Maimonides, Roger Bacon, Rene Descartes, David Hume, and John Locke. I have read books on Taoism and Confucianism. I have read treatises written by Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jean Paul Sartre and his cousin Albert Schweitzer. I have read Mein Kampf. I have read Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Henry David Thoreau, Jeremy Bentham, and Wittgenstein. I have read about the Kabbala and I have read the Koran in spurts (the English translation, of course). I have read Buddhist theology and discovered some of the ways in which it differs from Hinduism. I have read other writings on the philosophy of religion. I took every class I could on the subject when I was in college. I nearly had a minor in philosophy.

I often think I may have read too much philosophy, but I keep on reading it, even today. In additional to the ecumenical and mainstream philosophers and theologians, I read offbeat and popular living philosophers like Carlos Castaneda, Daniel Quinn, Paulo Coelho, and Don Miguel Ruiz.

Why do I make this public admission? Why would I say something like this about myself, when it is practically guaranteed to draw the spewing hatred of certain people who do have faith, and therefore believe me to be apostate, an infidel, a pagan, or even somehow evil?

I make this admission because recently a friend of mine, who shares my non-belief, was recently very publically attacked for his position. To be fair, some atheists shower their faithful acquaintances with derision, essentially saying that if they have these religious convictions then they are stupid or just want to enjoy having an imaginary friend. Believers making unbelievers feel like less is wrong. Unbelievers making believers feel like less is just as wrong. We live in a unique society here in the United States. Only a few other nations have the privilege we do of not only speaking and writing our minds, but not being persecuted – or prosecuted – for it.

Each of us, no matter how weird our beliefs are, should be respected: no matter how we come to our beliefs – whether by childhood indoctrination, custom, rational thought and choice, study, or visionary moment – we are all entitled to believe whatever we want about a higher power.

When we are confronted with someone whose beliefs are radically different from our own, we sometimes feel threatened. People get very defensive and judgmental when they feel their beliefs are being challenged. People don’t like to change their beliefs. It’s hard to do that, and usually it happens after something rocks their world, not always in a good way. Consider people who lose their faith after the sudden death of a child, or who suddenly gain it after a visionary dream. In both cases, the people around them are unlikely to accept the change in the person’s belief system, and may object to it strongly. Paradigm shifting, to use an overworked phrase, hurts.

No one’s status as an atheist, or even as a deist or an agnostic, is a personal attack on anyone else’s faith. I do not want anyone to try to convert me, to force faith on me, to call me names, or to otherwise denigrate me because I am unable intellectually or spiritually to come to the same theological conclusion as someone else. I do not denigrate the beliefs of others. I don’t pretend to understand fully why they hold them, but I will never belittle anyone for having faith.

I am one of about a billion people who do not believe in one or more divine beings that created the universe and natural laws, or that otherwise affect nature or the lives of my species. Among that number are atheists, agnostics, and deists.

To some believers, that means I am immoral or somehow defective.

For instance, I have been told that the only proper values are Christian values. I find that insulting to all who are not Christian, including me. The only real philosophical disagreement among religions is in the nature of the deity: the moral code of all the major religions is practically the same. Stealing, lying, cheating, defrauding, murdering, and being disrespectful are prohibited in each and every one. They are also prohibited by the moral code of every race, nationality, tribe, and community, no matter what its spiritual beliefs.

Venomous, malicious attacks on nonbelievers are wrong in any religion, including Christianity and Islam, the two most assertive religious institutions of our time. There have been times when Christianity and Islam have interpreted their prophets to allow them to attack nonbelievers. The Spanish Inquisition is a prime example. The violent jihad of people like Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad is another.

Every major religion is peaceful. Every major religion teaches its adherents how to get along with each other, with those not of their religion, and those who would be their enemies. The tenets of these religions are basic common sense. I do not believe that a structure of myth, fable, parable, or heroism is necessary to common sense. Common sense can exist without a god.

It is common sense to avoid creating conflict, and it is common sense to resolve conflict peaceably when it arises. It is common sense to punish those who break the peace by theft, assault, battery, murder, rape, fraud, and the like. It is common sense to act honorably so that trust is created with the people with whom we associate and do business. Common sense tells us that disrespect and dishonorable behavior creates mistrust among the ones dealing with that behavior. It is common sense to be truthful.

We all choose how to behave toward one another. When we behave badly, and make another person feel defensive or otherwise negative, it only reflects on ourselves.

I believe in a sort of karma. I’m not talking about the karma of traditional Hinduism or Buddhism, which is concept that the total effect of a person’s actions and conduct affects the nature of that person’s eventual reincarnation. My informal sort of karma happens on a much shorter time scale.

I believe that if we do bad things to other people, bad things will happen to us. What goes around, comes around. If we keep our karma on the positive side, if we are consistently good, respectful, honorable, and just, we will reap rewards. The rewards are not in the hereafter; the rewards are in the here and now. The rewards are accomplished not by a deity, but by those around us. Perhaps, if I am wrong and there is a hereafter, we will be rewarded there, as well, and come back as an elephant and not as, say, a banana slug. But for an example of the here and now kind of reward, consider Jimmy Stewart’s character in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Had he not been so good, gracious, generous, and honorable to the people of his community, they would not have been so helpful when he had his own stroke of ill luck. That’s karma in action.

I might also take a moment to address the concerns of those atheists who, for example, get bent out of shape when their children are expected to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at school with the words “under God” in it. Not only is this sweating the small stuff in my opinion, but these parents are drawing painfully embarrassing attention to their children, whom they have chosen to rear in a predominantly Judeo-Christian-Muslim society. As long as vast majority of the population is religious, parents cannot reasonably expect their children to be shielded from religion. Saying “under God” in the pledge is not ramming religion down anyone’s throat. If parents object to those two words, all they have to do is to instruct their own children not to say those two words along with the class, something the child can do discreetly without calling any attention to himself at all. Furthermore, the word “God” on our money is not establishment of any particular religion. The founders prohibited establishment of religion in the Constitution; they did not guarantee a nation free from any of its influences, whether malignant or benign.

I am one of about a billion people who does not believe in either a single deity or a group of gods that created the world or that control or otherwise interfere with nature and the lives of human beings. In some countries, as much as eighty percent of the population may be nonbelievers. I am not alone, and I have not come to my theological or philosophical conclusions lightly or for the sake of attention.

My studied opinion is that we would all benefit from taking the best of all religions and applying them to our daily lives. If we could all meditate like the Buddhists, reason like the Stoics, and celebrate like every day was Beltaine, we’d spend a lot less time at war, on both a personal and a global scale.

I am one of a billion people – one sixth of the population of our planet – who do not believe in either a single deity or a pantheon.

We are not organized. We have no agenda. We simply do not believe. No one should feel sorry for us or try to convert us. We should not be attacked or treated rudely simply because we cannot manufacture faith and refuse to pretend to do so.

‘Well! That wasn’t very Christian!’

Recently I have read blogs about topics that either called for religious responses or were about religion – which is perfectly fine, don’t get me wrong – but in a couple of cases I was left with the feeling that either the specific post or the comments in response to the post were sanctimoniously narrow-minded. This never fails to get under my skin.

No offense to its followers, but it really bugs the bejeezus out of me when someone appears to claim that Christianity has the corner on the market of good and charitable acts.

I’m not going to publicize what my religion is. There are exactly four people on my friends list who know what it is, and three of them are closely related to me. I don’t talk about religion a lot, but I do study it. I study it mainly because I tend to study anything controversial, and religion is one of the most controversial things out there. I don’t tend to talk about it much because I never know who’s going to get hacked off thinking that I’m blasting their precious dogma.

So, with the intent of blasting no one’s dogmata with nuclear weapons, here I go, talking about religion. (I know, I should prepare to get blasted myself.)

Fact: There are many different religions practiced on this planet.

According to Wikipedia, the dominant religions and the numbers of their adherents are:

1. Christianity 2.1 billion
2. Islam 1.3 billion
3. Secular/Atheist/Irreligious/Agnostic/Nontheist 1.1 billion
4. Hinduism 900 million
5. Buddhism 708 million
6. Chinese folk religion 394 million
7. Primal indigenous (“Pagan”) 300 million
8. African traditional and diasporic 100 million
9. Sikhism 23 million
10. Juche 19 million
11. Spiritism 15 million
12. Judaism 14 million
13. Bahá’í Faith 7 million
14. Jainism 4.2 million
15. Shinto 4 million (see below)
16. Cao Dai 4 million
17. Zoroastrianism 2.6 million
18. Tenrikyo 2 million
19. Neo-Paganism 1 million
20. Unitarian Universalism 800,000
21. Rastafari movement 600,000

Yes, Christianity has the largest following of any religion. However, more people in the world are non-Christian than Christian. This is something many Christians just don’t seem to appreciate when they blithely talk about something not being the “Christian” thing to do. Oh, the ignorant arrogance of that statement!

Think about this:

Fact: Every religion, without exception, provides a moral framework for its adherents.

Fact: That moral framework is virtually identical to that of every other religion.

Ergo: All religions are virtually identical in their morality.

When I hear the phrase, “That wasn’t very Christian!” it is usually with the sound of judgment ringing in my ears. The speaker has just measured someone else’s conduct or words and found them lacking. Likewise, when someone says, “I’m a Christian, so I wouldn’t _________” (fill in the blank with your own imagination), they are also normally passing judgment on someone they find to be behaving inappropriately.

If every religion teaches the same moral rules, how is it that Christianity has a corner on the morals market? The answer is, of course, that it doesn’t. What’s worse for Christianity is that those people passing judgment are doing one of the very things their religion teaches that they should not do: the are judging. I hear either of these two phrases and I assume, from that point forward, that the speaker is a hypocrite.

I have heard an argument that this country was established on Christian values and morals. I respectfully disagree with that assessment. Even a casual reading of what was recorded in The Federalist Papers on this subject will enlighten us. The framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights wrote the establishment clause to give Americans freedom of religion, as well as freedom from it. Not all of the founding fathers were religious men, and at least one was publically an atheist.

School prayer has been a big issue for many Christians. It is challenged only rarely, but always by parents who do not want to have religion thrust down the throats of their children.

As long as there are tests in school, there will be school prayer – just not necessarily praying out loud. We should remember, though, that unless our children go to a school connected with a specific religion, the children there are of many faiths, and not just the Judeo-Christian-Muslim traditions that worship the same god. Yes, that god is the one worshipped by the most people in this country. But there are Buddhist and Hindu children in our schools, too. Wiccans send their children to school. So do Unitarians. And there are plenty of children who are not being instructed in any form of religion.

What is the function of religion? Basically, religions exist to provide that moral framework I mentioned. It’s something all religions have in common. The tenets of each religion may be different, but the basics are the same. Religions instruct us how to get along with other people in a society.

Most of our morality is actually codified as law, but there are still issues of fairness that simply can’t be codified. Those uncodified morals are the ones we have to make choices about in daily life. Sometimes they can be condemned as situational ethics, which is another entire area of contention, and maybe the subject of another blog. But as for the morality that is not part of the law, we should remember that teaching morals is the province of parents, not the school system. If we want our children to have honor and integrity, we must teach them those things at home. If we want them to be compassionate and generous, we must teach them that at home. If we want them to be faithful to their spouses, nurturing to their children, and keep their flower beds tended as adults, we as parents must teach them that those things are important.

And we should also teach them that when the neighbor parks his boat on our petunias, the neighbor is not being un-Christian, he is being rude and troublesome. No religion would condone such behavior. For that matter, no society would.

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