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Tag: faith

‘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.

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.

It’s Really Not OK to Pray in Public Schools

Graduation seems to be one of those times during the school year when religion rears its head and wants to elbow its way into the public square, disseminating itself messily all over unwilling captive audiences. This year is no exception.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) got involved in an Arkansas case recently, writing a letter to tell the Riverside School District in Lake City, Arkansas, that plans to pray and sing hymns at its sixth grade graduation were unconstitutional. Variations of two different versions of what happened next have made their rounds. In the first story, the school board, possibly at the behest of the superintendent, decided simply to cancel graduation rather than bow to the law. In the second story, the school board voted to abide by the law, but the parents organizing the graduation said that if they couldn’t pray, then graduation at the school would be cancelled. The upshot was that the sixth grade graduation was indeed cancelled, and the organizing parents decided to hold graduation exercises at a local church instead. More uproar has ensued.

Because apparently we’re the only advocates of separation of church and state to be found in Arkansas, the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers was invited to participate in a radio talk show about the kerfuffle. When Alice Stewart, Mike Huckabee’s former spokesperson and the host of the program, told me that her other guest would be the evangelical preacher who enjoyed the spotlight at our fair state’s National Day of Prayer event at the state capitol, I asked her if she had considered asking a representative of a more progressive variety of Christian – one that supports separation of church and state. She said she didn’t know any.  Right then and there I probably should have directed her to the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, or Jews, but I didn’t. I agreed to go on the show.

Here’s the TL; DL version of the hosts’s and pastor’s points:

  1. There’s a war on religion.
  2. They’ve done it this way forever, so there’s no harm in allowing them to continue praying at public school events.
  3. The Constitution says we are entitled to the free exercise of religion.
  4. God is the foundation of our founding documents.
  5. Many of our founding fathers went to seminary with certainly the intent that God would be incorporated on our money and in our system and society.
  6. We’ve tried, and we just can’t ever take God, guns, sex, violence, drugs out of school.
  7. God is everywhere in school forever.
  8. Our country is built on the principles of God.
  9. The pledge is a prayer.
  10.  By insisting on leaving religion out of school functions, atheists impose their views on everyone else.
  11. It’s more important to keep faith in schools than anywhere.
  12. It’s impossible to take God out of schools because too many religious people are in the schools, and god is in the songs that the school choir sings, plays that the school theater performs, civics and history books, and because there is a federal holiday honoring Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. who taught the nation about the Bible.
  13. We shouldn’t have to wait for another bombing or mass shooting before a school assembly prays again.
  14. We should not have to care about the rights of minorities in public schools.
  15. FFRF wanted graduation stopped.
  16. Public prayer in school isn’t illegal.
  17. God calls the light day and the darkness night and no one can change that because it’s an order from god. (If you listen closely you can detect that I nearly busted out laughing here. Sorry.)
  18. If the Constitution allows the pledge, which contains a prayer, then it is resolved that all prayer should be allowed in schools.
  19. Religion never changes.
  20. Jesus said always to pray and not to think.
  21. The word that God gives Christians is in Psalms 1.
  22. God’s law is higher than Constitutional law.
  23. If we say “under God” in the pledge at school, we are obligated to continue praying in schools so as not to be hypocritical.

I know, I know. Our first response is “What? They actually believe this tripe?” followed immediately by a facepalm and “Oh, boy. They really believe this tripe.”

So…

1. The War on Religion

Evidently I burned my draft card on this one. Personally, I couldn’t care less what religion someone else practices, as long as they do no harm with it. (Yeah, I know. That’s impossible, unless they keep it totally to themselves, which they never do.) They can have all the fantasies they like about what happens after death, and no one else is affected. We are, however, affected by their dogmatic attempts to indoctrinate our children, deny freedom of conscience to our children and to us, and to curtail the rights of other people based on their fantasies and what someone said their invisible friend wanted more than two millennia ago. So, practice religion all you want – just keep it strictly to yourself.

2.  They’ve done it this way forever, so why make them change?

Ah, yes, the appeal to tradition. As logical fallacies go, this one is pretty easy to dismantle. It is also symptomatic of the traditional conservative state of mind, which holds that progress is bad.

Let’s say you’ve got an employee who regularly steals from the till. You’ve warned him time and time again that if he doesn’t stop, you’re going to take legal action. He doesn’t stop. You call the cops. Do we seriously expect the police to say that since you never called them before, you can’t call them now?

Or, let’s say your neighbor is a wife-beater (the POS, not the shirt). He’s beaten his wife at least weekly for all 40 years of their marriage, and your long-suffering family has witnessed it. One day, you’ve finally had enough. The wife has two black eyes and a bloody nose after one of their little tiffs, and you call the cops. Do you want to live in a society where the police say, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but she let him beat her up for 40 years, so she has to keep letting him beat her up. Just use ear plugs and avert your eyes if you don’t want to be aware of it”?

I didn’t think so.

Illegal is illegal. Period.

3. The Constitution says we are entitled to the free exercise of religion.

It sure does. And then it says that the state can’t tell us how to practice our religions. This is the part the religious right loves to forget as they strive to use government-sponsored events to impose their version of God on the rest of us. And impose it they do – at public invocations, in schools, in the laws they pass, and on billboards across the country.  Only one of those instances is actually legal. (Hint: it’s the one that has nothing to do with government.)

4. God is the foundation of our founding documents.

The only foundational document that mentions anything about a God is the Declaration of Independence, which wouldn’t have been a founding document if the rebellion had not been successful. In its introduction, it mentions “Nature’s God” and which in the famous second sentence of its preamble says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” One of those unalienable rights, which was added to the Constitution 15 years after the Declaration (it wasn’t there to begin with), says that Americans are free to practice whatever religion they choose, and that the state cannot tell them what religion to practice.

It’s the second part that people like Rev. Hunt and Ms. Stewart and their fundamentalist friends have so much trouble with. In fact, they prefer to ignore it, under the short-sighted and arrogant assumption that their version of religion would naturally be the one established by the government.

5. Many of our founding fathers went to seminary with certainly the intent that God would be incorporated on our money and in our system and society.

Sometimes when religious people say idiotic things, we have to graciously understand that they are grasping at straws. I certainly hope that Ms. Stewart knows the facts don’t support this assertion of hers. I hope she has a better grasp of history than what this particular assertion indicated.

First, let’s look at the education opportunities in the late colonial period. Actual colleges were not easy to find – or, maybe they were, since there were so few of them. New College (now Harvard), the College of William and Mary, the Collegiate School (now Yale), the College of New Jersey (Princeton), the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania), King’s College (now Columbia), Rhode Island College (now Brown), Queen’s College (now Rutgers), and Dartmouth College were the only choices for formal higher education, and the last three in that list were founded after 1760, so it’s unlikely the founders attended them. Without exception, all were associated with religious institutions. However, like the colleges and universities sponsored by religious institutions in the 21st century, none of them was strictly a seminary. Since the founding fathers all obtained what formal education they got prior to the Revolution, these nine schools – and probably actually only six schools – were their only choices unless they opted to go abroad. A number of them whose families had money did indeed send their sons abroad for education at places like Cambridge, London’s Middle Temple (one of the famous Inns of Court where British barristers were – and are – formally trained, not a religious institution), and various schools on the European continent.

So, let’s take a closer look at the oldest six. By 1750, the era when the founding fathers who went there would have been enrolled, only 15% of Harvard graduates were seminarians. William and Mary, the second oldest institution, was founded with only one-third of its resources dedicated to a college of divinity, and separation of church and state was already a thing in Virginia prior to the end of the Revolution thanks to the work of George Mason and James Madison on the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Yale was not founded as a seminary, but as a college of the arts and sciences. Princeton was founded primarily to train Presbyterian ministers, but by the 1760’s was focused on the disciplines valued by the Enlightenment: philosophy, science, and the arts, and by the 1780’s no longer housed a seminary at all. Penn was never a seminary, but was founded, mostly on the advocacy of atheist Philadelphian Benjamin Franklin, as a liberal arts institution. Columbia, also, was founded as a liberal arts school. According to its website, “various groups compet[ed] to determine its location and religious affiliation. Advocates of New York City met with success on the first point, while the Anglicans prevailed on the latter. However, all constituencies agreed to commit themselves to principles of religious liberty in establishing the policies of the College.”  Brown University was founded as a Baptist college – not Southern Baptist, but traditional, original, New England Baptist – although Congregationalists, Quakers, and Anglicans all had significant representation on its original board of trustees. Its Charter, granted by George III in 1764, declared its purpose was to prepare students “for discharging the Offices of Life with usefulness & reputation” by providing instruction “in the Vernacular and Learned Languages, and in the liberal Arts and Sciences.” It was not a seminary. Rather, the charter specified specifically that “into this liberal and catholic institution shall never be admitted any religious tests, but on the contrary, all the members hereof shall forever enjoy full, free, absolute, and uninterrupted liberty of conscience.”

But easily half or more of the founding fathers of the United States of America had no formal education at what we would now consider a secondary level. The state of education in colonial America was such that most people were taught to read and write at home, and additional education was often sought with private tutors. For the most part, our founding fathers were autodidacts – self-taught, widely read, and definitely products of the Enlightenment. They never stopped questioning their world, reading, debating topics as diverse as philosophy, agriculture, and astronomy, and most importantly, they never stopped learning.

I think it is extremely safe to assume that not a single founding father decided to go to a seminary so he could foment a revolution and put his god on the money of a new nation, much less so he could violently rebel against his sovereign specifically to get more religion.

 6. We’ve tried, and we just can’t ever take God, guns, sex, violence, drugs out of school.

Maybe it’s just me, but when the good Reverend Hunt said this, I couldn’t help but notice that his deity was lumped in with all the other bad things we don’t want in schools. The clear implication of his statement was that we can try, but we ought to just give up. Sorry, Rev. Hunt, but no can do – not as to any of these things.

7. God is everywhere in school forever.

Indeed, our imaginary friends can be wherever we choose for them to be. Inflicting them on other people is unacceptable, though.

8. Our country is built on the principles of God.

The principles of God that I see when I read the Bible are intolerance, caprice, narcissism, homophobia, misogyny, and violence. Are these the principles upon which our country is built? If so, it’s beyond time for reform.

Rev. Hunt probably meant the Ten Commandments, though, because before they were written down about 500 BCE, people just went around killing, coveting, disrespecting their elders, stealing, and bearing false witness all harum-scarum and willy-nilly. Never mind that Egypt’s laws (3000 BCE), Mesopotamia’s Lagash Code (2400 BCE), Sumeria’s laws (2200 BCE), and Hammurabi’s Code (1795 BCE) predate Leviticus by much more than a millennium, and Sparta’s laws (800 BCE) predate it by 400-500 years. Other codes of law from roughly the same time period as Leviticus are well documented, including the Dharmasutras of the Hindu tradition and the evolved versions of all those laws that went before, as well as Roman law (550 BCE), the Zoroastrian Avesta (600 BCE), China’s Zheng laws (500 BCE),  and Draco’s Greek law (620 BCE). It is worth mentioning that our trade and maritime laws originated with ancient Phoenicia (~1200 BCE).

Don’t pretend to know legal or social history if you look at it only through the opaque lenses of your Mosaic blinders.

9. The pledge is a prayer.

In the 1962 case of Engel v. Vitalethe Supreme Court held that prayer led by government officials was not permitted in schools, but did not address whether the inclusion of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance rendered it a prayer. Justice Douglas, in his concurring opinion, said that he believed the religion “honeycombed” throughout our federal laws was not permissible, and that the words “under God” should not stand – and that, yes, the pledge was indeed a prayer.

A 2004 case, Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow  challenged the pledge directly, but was dismissed because the plaintiff, a noncustodial parent of the school child in question, lacked standing.

Therefore, I sincerely hope the good Reverend will be willing to repeat this assertion that it is resolved that the Pledge is a prayer the next time some godless heathen decides to file suit to challenge the inclusion of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, because it get us one step closer to getting the words stricken.

10.  By insisting on leaving religion out of school functions, atheists impose their views on everyone else.

There’s a difference between religious neutrality and forced atheism. If we were forcing our atheism on the impressionable little school children, we’d be hosting “There is No God” as the cool after-school activity to go to instead of tolerating the insidious presence of “Good News Clubs” that indoctrinate children. We’d be demanding that the school choirs sing Tim Minchin songs instead of classical choruses. We’d start every event with an announcement that there is no god, and repeatedly remind any believers out there that they are stupid to still have an imaginary friend. As it is, we may think those things, but we don’t say them in government settings and we certainly don’t try to scare the shit out of their children to ensure the little darlings will come around to our way of thinking.

Religious neutrality means no one says anything one way or another about deities, religions, or the way those imaginary beings think we should conduct ourselves, much less what they plan to do with us when we die.

11. It’s more important to keep faith in schools than anywhere.

On the contrary, school is exactly the place where things should be questioned and not taken on faith. School is the place where facts should be tested, experiments performed, empirical evidence gathered and assessed, and ideas debated. Critical thinking skills need to be emphasized much, much more. Our children should be taught never to take anything on faith, but to investigate and find truth for themselves. Otherwise, all we are doing is drilling information into their heads without giving them the skills to apply it to reality and to the betterment of the world. I don’t know about you, but I want more for my child than for him to be an automaton  that dully repeats whatever he’s been told. Faith is the last thing we need to teach our children in school.

12. It’s impossible to take God out of schools because too many religious people are in the schools, and god is in the songs that the school choir sings, plays that the school theater performs, civics and history books, and because there is a federal holiday honoring Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. who taught the nation about the Bible.

Where do I even begin?

Okay, so, there are religious people in schools. Sure. There are religious people everywhere. It does not necessarily follow that everything that comes out of the mouths of those religious people is religious. In a school setting, they need to keep their religion to themselves and teach kids how to think critically, how to solve problems, and what a logical fallacy is. (Maybe by teaching logical fallacies, they will recognize the ones they use on themselves to keep religion alive.)

God is in the songs that the choir sings. Because ecclesiastical patronage is responsible for a considerable chunk of the greatest art and music in history, we neither can nor should avoid some religious songs or art. There is plenty of secular art and music out there, though, and it also should be taught. And if the public school is performing a religious play, someone needs to let the ACLU, Americans United, and FFRF know so a lawsuit can be filed – because it’s illegal. Period.

Religious history is part of human history. The history of the Catholic Church’s political maneuverings is valid study – it has had great effect on the politics of medieval Europe, and despite its lack of stature as an official religion for governments now, it still wields a mighty sword. Its complicity in the Holocaust, for example, should not be downplayed, nor should its interference in human rights issues in places like Africa, where it has helped to spread the HIV/AIDS pandemic by preaching against condom use, and Ireland, where women die because their lives are considered less valuable than the fetuses they carry, sometimes against their will. Religion has a great deal to do with the denial of women’s rights in the Middle East and Central Asia. So, yes, study religion’s effect of world history and current events.

Do not ever make the mistake of teaching public school children which religion is “better” or “correct.” That is establishment of religion, and in this country it is illegal.

And now for Martin Luther King, Jr., who apparently taught us all about the Bible so now we honor him with his very own holiday. I hardly know how to begin to address this idiotic statement, so I’ll just heave a huge sigh and delve in.

Dr. King was indeed a minister. He did indeed connect his faith to his fervent advocacy for civil rights, and frequently invoked his deity and the teachings of the Bible. He wasn’t assassinated for being a minister, though. He died because he was an extremely effective advocate for civil rights and for peace. Dr. King was much more than a minister, and his civil rights and anti-war activism is the reason for that holiday, not his messages from any pulpit. He pioneered peaceful civil disobedience to a degree this country had never before seen. He worked for racial parity and desegregation, something the Bible definitely does not advocate. He worked tirelessly to end an unjust war. The war he wanted to fight was against poverty and the disparate treatment of human beings in American society. That war, at least, was a noble one.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the greatest orators of the 20th century, if not one of the greatest orators in all of American history. His work was rewarded with international acclaim and he was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize because of it. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Four people have federal holidays in their honor: two of them were presidents, one is popularly credited with “discovering” the continent, and the fourth is Dr. King. Could he have done this work without being a minister? Absolutely. Unequivocally. Does he deserve the acclaim he has received? Without a doubt, yes. But not for being a minister. He deserves every accolade he has ever received because of what he did for race relations in the United States 100 years after the Civil War, and for using his popularity and influence to end a horrifically unjust war and to advocate for human rights.

Dr. King didn’t teach Americans the Bible. He taught us something much more important: that all men must be treated equally and fairly. We would certainly appreciate it if the religious right would demonstrate that they understand that lesson.

13. We shouldn’t have to wait for another bombing or mass shooting before a school assembly prays again.

When that next bombing or mass school shooting happens, we still shouldn’t pray – at least, not in school and not as part of a government-sponsored event. Prayer won’t undo it, prayer won’t prevent it, and prayer won’t stop it mid-horror.

Do we really lack so much creativity as a society that we cannot devise another way to honor the dead or mark a tragedy without thanking God for it? Do we really think a prayer will stop malicious and crazy people from socially aberrant behavior? If so, church shootings wouldn’t happen, and legislatures wouldn’t have to make church-goers feel safer by allowing them to carry weapons to Sunday services. And isn’t it ironic that we thank a god for such monstrous atrocities and celebrate the deaths of those killed by saying they’ve been “called home” to that deity? How screwed up is that, anyway?

And this leads us back to good old Epicurus (341 BCE – 270 BCE), another philosopher roughly contemporaneous with the scribes of Leviticus:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then why is there evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

14. We should not have to care about the rights of minorities in public schools.

There is so much insensitivity in this statement that my mind nearly boggled. The majority rules when votes are counted for candidates. When the candidate elected by the majority takes his oath of office, though, he represents everyone, not just those who elected him, and he owes a duty to everyone, not just those who elected him.

We do not operate our society by doing what the majority of people want to do just because the majority want it done. We also look at the public policy behind doing things, the ramifications of doing them, and the overall effect on society.

We also don’t squash the little guy under our heels just because he is poor, speaks a different language, is mentally handicapped, physically challenged, from another country, homosexual, short, illiterate, fat, old, sick, red-haired, of a different racial derivation than we are, of a different religious persuasion, or for any other reason. It’s just plain wrong. When will the Christian right get this through their thick skulls? Seriously, what jackasses!

15. FFRF wanted graduation stopped.

One of the reasons the uber-conservative media is so good at persuading its watchers and listeners that the boogeyman is at the door is because when the truth doesn’t suit them, they change the facts to fit their narrative.

Benghazi. Obama was a foreign college student. Planned Parenthood exists to provide abortions. Shirley Sherrod is a racist. FFRF’s intent.

They make us refute their fake facts, and thereby deprive us of the time to make our points. To borrow a phrase from Christopher Moore, this is heinous fuckery most foul. If you have to lie to make your point, you obviously have a crappy argument to begin with. Go home. You’ve forfeited the game.

16. Public prayer in school isn’t illegal.

The hell it isn’t. See  Engel v. Vitale, supra.

17. God calls the light day and the darkness night and no one can change that because it’s an order from god.

If you listen closely at this point in the segment, you can detect that I nearly laughed out loud here. I apologize for the audible derisive snort. I couldn’t help it. I did, however, have considerable empathy at that moment with David Silverman’s conversation with Bill O’Reilly about the reason for tidal forces. Evidently the good Reverend Hunt is a flat-earther who does not understand the earth’s rotation or heliocentrism. He thinks it gets light and dark because God says so. We’ll just ignore the fact that we have night and day for the same basic reason as we have high and low tides: gravity.

After all, gravity is just a theory.

18. It is resolved, that if the Constitution allows the pledge, which contains a prayer, then it is resolved that all prayer should be allowed in schools.

Well, he was almost right. It is definitely resolved that prayer is not permitted in schools. Engel v. Vitaleremember? But what isn’t resolved is whether or not the words “under God” make the pledge tantamount to a prayer. The atheist that is me thinks it does, and the religious guy that is Reverend Hunt thinks it does. Therefore, the pledge is a prayer and pursuant to the precedent set by Engel v. Vitale and pursuant to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the pledge shouldn’t be recited any more than the Lord’s Prayer should be.

Resolved.

19. Religion never changes.

The delegates to Vatican II would be interested to learn of this.

So would Martin Luther, who kicked off a pretty serious change in Christianity by tacking those 95 theses to the door of that Wittenberg Church back in 1517. (Okay, fine, so the church door thing may be a bit of a myth. But the invention of the printing press did a heck of a lot to change Christianity because that’s how word of the 95 theses got liberally sprinkled throughout Germany and the rest of Europe.)

In fact, I think the attendees of the Council of Nicea – you know, the meeting at which the books of scripture were either included or jettisoned from what we now call the Bible and the meeting at which the Jesus character was determined to be a god – would find the Rev. Hunt’s assertion patently ludicrous, as would those who attended the other thirteen major ecumenical councils of the last two millennia.

I wonder if Rev. Hunt has a Christmas tree? My money says he is clueless about its pagan roots or somehow thinks no religion changed to accommodate that tradition.

20. Jesus said always to pray and not to think.

Herein lies the biggest problem with religion. “Don’t think,” religious leaders tell us. “Just believe what you’re told.” A gullible, uneducated, ignorant populace is all too willing to accept any popular authority that purports to explain their world.

“You’ve got to have faith,” they say.

I have plenty of faith. I have faith that the sun will rise, because every morning it does, and because scientists have provided a reasonable, testable, consistently provable reason for it happening. I have faith that gravity won’t stop working, for the same reason. I even have faith that my computer will post this little rant when I hit a certain combination of keys – because it’s happened before, because it happens consistently and reliably when I hit those keys, and because there is some computer scientist person who knows how and why it happens. I don’t know how or why, and I don’t pretend to understand it, but because it works reliably and consistently with predictable results, I am satisfied that there is a reasonable explanation for it. It might feel like magic to me, because I just say (type) my incantation and poke my fingers at the right buttons and watch it happen – again and again. But I know people who not only understand why it works, but can tell me why it has stopped working, fix it, and make it work again. Reliably and consistently.

That’s the kind of thing I can have faith in.

21. The word that God gives Christians is in Psalms 1.

Wait wait wait wait wait. Wasn’t the Book of Psalms compiled a long time before the guy who started the whole Christianity thing? Hasn’t the god of the Christians failed to utter one single word to them since that dude’s alleged death in the early first century CE? (Well, except for like, the Book of Mormon, but those people are in a cult and not really Christians, right?) I mean, I thought most of the Psalms were attributed to King David, who lived a full millenium before the Jesus character.

Of course, Christians use the Old Testament, too. But since Christianity hadn’t been invented at the time of the composition of the first Psalm (there’s that old religion changing thing again), it would seem that the Christian god might – just might – not have been talking to Christians back then.

Just sayin’.

22. God’s law is higher than Constitutional law.

Not in the United States of America, it isn’t.

In fact, the original language of the Constitution never once mentions or even refers to any deity or creator. The only time religion is mentioned at all is in the First Amendment, which says government is to keep its hands off religion. The government can’t tell us how to practice religion and can’t tell us not to practice religion. It also can’t tell us that we must practice religion.

This is not Indonesia, Iran, or Saudi Arabia. We do not have to believe in any gods at all, and no one can tell us what version of which of the 3500+ gods man has ever worshipped that we should worship.

And just to make sure that foreign governments were aware of this, John Adams, this country’s second president, included in the Treaty of Tripoli an affirmation of the secular nature of the American government with the following language in the Treaty of Tripoli, which was duly ratified – unanimously – by Congress in 1797:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of [Muslims],—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any  [Mohammedan] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

23. If we say “under God” in the pledge at school, we are obligated to continue praying in schools so as not to be hypocritical.

Fine. I won’t say the Pledge, either. Not that I have since I was in elementary school and thought I had to. Actually, I stopped saying the pledge before I was out of elementary school, because by about 5th grade I had had it with religion and with the “because I said so” reasons that I was given for really just about anything. Plus, I thought it was stupid and meaningless to pledge my undying devotion to a piece of cloth. If any piece of cloth could be that important, it would have been the old pink blanket I used to drag around the house when I was a little kid. At least that ratty old thing gave me some comfort and kept me warm.

Rev. Hunt should keep in mind that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t have to say the pledge, either, because doing so violates the rules of their religion.  Neither does anyone else who doesn’t want to, thanks to the Supreme Court’s 1943 ruling in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.

We’re back to that “free exercise” thing that necessarily goes hand-in-hand with the “disestablishment” thing, and the “freedom of speech” thing that necessarily implies freedom of conscience.

We are free to reject religion, to follow our own consciences, and we are free not to have to submit to someone else’s religion.

Even the religious right’s.

 

An earlier version of this entry was posted to What Would JT Do?

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.

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