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Should We Respect the Religious Beliefs of Others?

hitchens respecting religion

Generally, I respect other people. I don’t respect all people without exception. Some people deserve nothing but scorn and disgust. These people are sociopaths or psychopaths who only care about themselves; people who cause great heartache and harm. When I hear of their demise, I will say good riddance. These people aside, I try to respect religious and non-religious people alike. Our society works best when we have mutual respect for others as people. However, there is a big difference between respecting someone as a person and respecting their beliefs. I have devoutly religious family, friends, and neighbors. I respect their persons, but I do not respect their beliefs. How could I? I’ve spent the past fifteen years preaching up and promoting reason, science, skepticism, and common sense. How can I possibly respect beliefs that go against these things? Evangelicalism, in particular, is irrational and anti-science. Evangelicals believe and practice things that cause harm not only to people, but to our Country. Sometimes, their beliefs actually kill people.

I am faced with a conundrum, locally. Using a quirk in the law, Lifewise Academy — an Evangelical ministry — is now holding release-time Bible classes for public school students who attend nearby Central Local Schools. I am downright angry that this is going on; that neither local newspaper has looked into the people and religion behind this program; that everyone around me seems to think Lifewise Academy is wonderful. The program for Central Local’s first-to-fifth-grade students will be held at Sonrise Community Church — an Evangelical congregation less than two miles from my home. The first quarter will feature lessons such as:

  • What is the Bible?
  • God Created the World
  • God Created People
  • Sin Entered the World
  • Cain & Abel
  • Noah and the Ark
  • The Tower of Babel
  • God’s Covenant with Abraham
  • God Tested Abraham
  • God Blesses Jacob
  • Joseph Sent to Egypt to Save Lives
  • Moses Born and Called
  • The Plagues, Passover, and Red Sea Crossing

I know many of the people involved with Central Local’s program. Good people. Honest people. Hardworking people. People I’ve sat next to at football and basketball games. People whose children I photographed when I was shooting sporting events for Fairview High School. If I ran into one of them at the local grocery, we would likely chat for a few minutes, catching up on what’s new. I respect them as people. However, they have religious beliefs that are, to put it kindly, bat-shit crazy. Look at the list of lessons for the first quarter, starting August 29. These lessons are going to teach myths as facts, stories as history, and creationism as science. Worse, young, impressionable children will be lied to about the nature and history of the Bible. I can only imagine how fanciful the lessons will be once they get to Jesus and the New Testament.

As one of the few outspoken atheists, humanists, and secularists in this area, I cannot and will not be silent about this egregious injection of Fundamentalist Christianity into our public schools. Sure, what they are doing is “legal,” but it is being done on false pretenses. I have talked to the Freedom From Religion Foundation about this. Sadly, there is nothing that can be done outside of publicizing who is behind Lifewise Academy, what their agenda is, and what they are really teaching children. The challenge, of course, is separating the skunk from his smell, the sinner from his sin, and the believer from his beliefs. As soon as I make my objectives public — and I most certainly will do so — local Evangelicals will take my objections personally.

Evangelicals are a touchy lot. They live in a country where their beliefs have been given preferential treatment. Dare to object to their beliefs and they take your objection as a personal attack. Recently, someone posted on a local Facebook group information about Lifewise Academy’s program at Bryan City Schools. My objection brought the scathing wrath of “loving” Evangelicals. Several people suggested that I butt out and mind my own business. Sorry, but that’s not how that works. When you drag your beliefs into the public square, you should expect pushback from people who disagree. The goal, then, is to try to separate sincere Evangelicals from their beliefs; to make it clear that it is their beliefs I object to.

For those who insist and demand that I respect their beliefs? I can’t do that. You believe things that cause harm; that retard intellectual growth; that stunt academic progress; that substitute myths for facts. In what other setting would this be okay? Yet, because it has to do with religion — particularly Evangelical Christianity — non-Christians (or moderate/liberal Christians) are expected to shut their mouths and mind their own business. I have never been one to keep his mouth shut or mind his own business. I see and know the broader picture and agenda. Lifewise Academy is just the first step in taking public schools back for the Protestant Christian God. Next comes restoring teacher-led prayer, Bible reading, and forced recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, with its “in [the Christian] God we trust” pledge of fealty. And then Christian teachers will be free to talk about their faith and the Bible in their classrooms. Creationism will make a triumphant return to science classrooms and “Biblical” morality will be taught in health classes and written into school codes of conduct. The goal is to return the United States to the good old days of the 1950s. Underneath all of this is theocracy — God rule. And what do we know about theocracies? Freedoms are lost and people die. We must not let this happen.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar
    Ken Hagen

    Christopher Hitchens was absolutely correct. The religious right is making inroads into our government and it must be fought on every front. My tax dollars cannot be used to further a religious agenda. Keep up the fight.

  2. Avatar

    This says it all, Bruce: ‘You believe things that cause harm; that retard intellectual growth; that stunt academic progress; that substitute myths for facts. In what other setting would this be okay?’ Absolutely.

    I can’t see how you can’t speak out. You may be the only one to do so, as the voice of sense and reason.

  3. Avatar

    My friend in KY is doing her level best to get detailed information on what is in a program at her son’s middle school that’s being run by a local “crisis pregnancy center”. Participation in the program requires a signed permission slip, and she won’t sign unless she gets answers. Crickets from the program director, the principal, and the guidance counselor. She is persistent and won’t give up. She thinks they are stunned that a parent in red KY is asking questions about an anti-choice religious group doing presentations at a public school and are trying to figure out how to answer…..

  4. Avatar

    Thank you for dragging this nonsense out into the open, you might not stop it, but you may save some of the kids from this indoctrination. Where I am Vacation Bible “School” is a big thing, it’s scheduled for a time when summer recreation programs have ended and working parents need “Something” to fill in the gap until school starts. I despise this, but then I simply didn’t send my kids to it.

    For some quiet families knowledge is half the battle!

  5. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, kids in the local public school (in Brooklyn, NY) got “release time” for religious instruction on Wednesday afternoon. Most came to catechism classes at the Catholic school I attended; a few, I recall, went for Torah or Hebrew instruction.

    I don’t think that still happens in my old neighborhood, but I’m not surprised to hear that it happens in a place with a lot of Christian fundamentalists.

    As for the question of “respect”: Like Bruce, I respect people as long as they’re not awful. I also respect their right to believe as long as they’re not trying to bully other people with those beliefs. But I don’t think any belief system should get any sort of preferential treatment, whether through tax or other codes, or cultural imperatives.

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