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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.

Using Tax Money to Rebuild Churches

On July 10, two senators introduced Senate Bill 1274, which would add religious buildings to the list of nonprofit facilities eligible to receive federal disaster relief aid after catastrophic events like hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes. The Senate bill and its House counterpart, H. R. 592, address aid to nonprofit facilities damaged in Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 and afterward.

The Secular Coalition of America opposes the bill because tax dollars would directly fund the repair or replacement of damaged and destroyed churches, synagogues, and mosques, not to mention other nonprofit organizations.

SCA is encouraging a campaign to remind our Senators that one of the longest standing principles of our nation is that no citizen should be required to fund any religions with which they disagree, and not to permit  taxpayer money to be used to repair or rebuild churches destroyed in natural disasters.

I’m usually right on board with the Secular Coalition of America in anything it does, but this brought me up short.

No, I don’t want my tax dollars to build new churches, fund their missionary programs, or finance a church-supported school’s science-denying science curriculum. It makes me sick that religious institutions get a pass when April 15 rolls around. Frankly, I think all nonprofits ought to pay taxes. If their profits are reinvested for public benefit, or set aside in specific funds intended for that purpose, then that should be credited to them. But should churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues be treated differently than any other nonprofit when they are hit by a natural calamity?

I looked into the status quo, without the passage of this Senate bill.

FEMA’s current policy addressed aid to individuals and their households as well as to government facilities. It does not permit disaster assistance to nonprofits unless they provide “essential services to the general public customarily provided by the government.” Whether nonprofit or for-profit, facilities used primarily for religious, political, athletic, recreational, or vocational purposes don’t qualify for FEMA funds. Churches, the DNC headquarters, the Superdome, Disney World, and Joe’s Body Shop don’t get government money. They are expected to be adequately insured.

The new law would allow virtually any nonprofit organization to benefit, though, which may indeed be desirable when we consider that the gift shop at Hurricane River Cave in the Ozarks (one of the coolest caves I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit) might be taken out when the next big New Madrid quake hits, as might the collection of historical buildings at the Scott Plantation Settlement.

On the other hand, it would also, in this time of high budget deficits and sequestration, open the FEMA coffers to more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations. It does this by removing the requirement that, in order to receive FEMA funds, the organization provide a service that would otherwise be an essential government service. Cool gift shop or not, amazing caverns, even if operated by nonprofit organizations, do not supply an essential governmental service. Nor do historic preserves of bygone eras.

Having a church building is definitely not an essential governmental service.

And, as the SCA points out in its letter to Senators, two-thirds of the American population doesn’t use churches. Nonbelievers and the nonreligious constitute 20% of the American population, and that number is growing. And by expanding FEMA’s coverage in this era of sequestration, 2.3 million nonprofit organizations would immediately become eligible for FEMA funds in the event of a natural disaster. (Only 1.6 million are registered with the IRS. The others haven’t filed their forms to obtain official approval of their nonprofit status.)

“While the services of these nonprofits may provide great benefit to the general public, federal funds should not be diverted away from essential governmental programs toward nonprofits with access to a charitable and generous base of donors nationwide and around the globe,” says the SCA. Being on the boards of a few nonprofits that are always struggling for money, I kind of take issue with the “generous base” description, but I can’t help but acknowledge the definite difference between “great benefit” and “essential service.”

Currently, FEMA funds can go to any

private nonprofit educational, utility, irrigation, emergency, medical, rehabilitational, and temporary or permanent custodial care facilities (including those for the aged and disabled) and facilities on Indian reservations…

[as well as any] [p]rivate nonprofit facility that provides essential services of a governmental nature to the general public, (including museums, zoos, performing arts facilities, community arts centers, libraries, homeless shelters, senior citizen centers, rehabilitation facilities, shelter workshops, and facilities that provide health and safety services of a governmental nature)…

Language proposed by the Senate bill and the House resolution would add community centers and houses of worship to the list.

To be fair, the bill contains a restriction for religious facilities that does not apply to the other nonprofits. Taxpayer-funded disaster relief would be allowed to religious institutions only for the actual buildings damaged. Its language is pretty specific:

In spaces used primarily for religious worship services, contributions…shall only be used to cover the costs of purchasing or replacing, without limitation, the building structure, building enclosure components, building envelope, vertical and horizontal circulation, physical plant support spaces, electrical, plumbing, and mechanical systems (including heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and fire and life safety systems), and related site improvements.

The SCA sent a letter to all Senators about this bill. It cited two U.S. Supreme Court cases, Tilton v. Richardson and Hunt v. McNair, to support its position.

A three-prong test has to be passed in order for government funds to be used by religious institutions, including religious educational institutions:

  1. The funds must be used for a secular purpose that does not promote religion;
  2. The effect of using the funds must not promote religion; and
  3. Enforcement of the secular purpose should not unnecessarily entangle church and state.

In the Tilton case, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that grants for non-religious school facilities did not violate the Establishment Clause because the purpose and effect of the Act that authorized the grants was not to aid religious institutions but to aid education generally. The students affected by the act were secondary students, who the Court determined to be less susceptible to religious indoctrination that elementary school students. Significantly, though, the decision in the Tilton case did not address whether granting schools affiliated with a particular religious sect would enable those schools to further their religious instruction. It did, however, determine that taxpayers were not themselves harmed if their ability to practice their own religion remained untouched.

The Hunt case came out of South Carolina, and addressed whether revenue bonds intended for capital improvements at institutions of higher education could be used by sectarian colleges. Because higher education is a secular purpose, and constructing buildings to house educational facilities does not promote religion, and because at the college level, religious indoctrination is not as significant as it is in elementary schools.

It would seem that an actual church is not a school, though, and its primary purpose is to promote religion. While Tilton and Hunt both seem to say that FEMA funds can be used to rebuild the local Catholic High School, there does not seem to be any justification, based on the Supreme Court’s three-prong test, to use taxpayer funds to rebuild a church, even if the rebuilding is limited to the facility alone and not to providing the pews within it.

An ordinary nonprofit organization exists for the public benefit, and the public does indeed benefit from its existence. These facilities all provide valuable community services. But it can be argued that churches do, too. They are community centers, even though they serve a much smaller slice of the population. Then again, rehabilitation centers and senior citizen centers only serve a portion of the community, too.

While we as secularists may disagree vehemently with the mission of religions in general, are we really any differently situated than, say, someone who believes zoos to be cruel? The argument feels somewhat like saying that if our trashy neighbors’ home got washed away during the flood or flattened by a tornado, they be denied emergency relief to rebuild just because we don’t like them.

I hate feeling mean-spirited. It puts me in a bad mood.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed suit to do away with the favored tax status of churches, and to have them treated like all other nonprofits. If churches want to be nonprofit organizations, they should have to file the expensive tax form that goes along with being awarded that status. If they want to endorse specific candidates or political parties, they should lose their 501(c)(3) and have to satisfy themselves with 501(c)(4), which has stricter reporting requirements. I firmly stand with FFRF on this, as, I suspect, do many readers of this post.

But should a church be treated differently when it comes to disaster relief just because it is a church?

As long as the damaged church isn’t violating its tax-free status by politicking, do you see a problem with treating it like any other nonprofit, and allowing the use of taxpayer funds for it to rebuild after a disaster?

And what about extending FEMA coverage to all nonprofits? It is a noble intent, for sure. But is it practical, given our current economic issues? Why should nonprofits be treated differently than Joe’s Body Shop when it comes to disaster relief? I would think that helping businesses recover from disaster would be a pretty noble investment, too.

I’m very interested in hearing what you have to say, and whether you feel strongly enough about this issue to contact your Senator.

 

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