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Reacting Against the Inevitable

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

This year’s Easter/Passover/Ramadan season has been interesting. For one thing it’s the second such holiday cycle during the COVID-19 pandemic. For another, it witnessed two developments that, at first glance seem contradictory.

The first: A Gallup poll revealed that fewer than 50 percent of Americans identify themselves as members of a church, synagogue, mosque or other religious institution. That is the smallest proportion since 1937, when Gallup first asked the question and 73 percent claimed to be so affiliated.

The second: Arkansas’ state legislature overrode Governor Asa Hutchinson’s veto of a bill that would bar transgender girls from participating in school sports program and would keep health-service professionals from providing transgender-related health care to minors. Similar legislation is on the table in other states, and in others even more draconian measures are under review: Health care professionals who help young trans people get the care they need could face long prison sentences and the revocation of their licenses and certificates.

Although those two developments seem at odds with each other, it actually makes perfect sense that some states are trying to keep young transgender people from affirming themselves at the same time more Americans are dissociating themselves from churches.

Why is that?

Any time a major cultural or societal change is underway reaction to it can be fierce and even violent. Think of the Counter-Reformation, or the way cops and everyday citizens—let alone Klan members—tried, brutally, to resist the Civil Rights movement.

The bad news is, of course, that reactionary people and movements foment fear and hatred, and inspire or even embolden haters to all manner of violence, including murder. The silver lining, if you will, is that the virulence of their reaction is a sure sign that they are ultimately on the wrong, and losing, side of history.

At the dawn of the Civil Rights movement, for every white American who participated in a lynching or cross-burning, there were many more who accepted or rationalized Jim Crow laws as well as other, subtler kinds of discrimination. They might not have chased a black kid off their block, but they didn’t want the same black kid to date, let alone marry, their kid. They knew, deep down, that change was needed but “the time wasn’t right.”

Slowly, such people became aware of their own deeply-held, and often unconscious, assumptions and realized there was no rational basis for them. Moreover, they came to realize that the American system of apartheid was not only unjust and irrational; it benefited no one. The Loving decision not only righted a wrong; it aligned with the Constitution and simply made logical sense. The social order would not be broken by people marrying people of “different” races any more than it would be when members of those “different” races—or faiths or gender identities– entered schools, professions and neighborhoods that, previously, had been off-limits to them.

So, racist beliefs could no more be defended than rigid ideas about gender roles, identities and hierarchies with science, logic or law. The Loving decision deemed that “miscegenation” laws violated the Constitution; four and a half decades later, Robert Shelby, a conservative Republican judge in Utah, would declare that state’s laws defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman as unconstitutional (a pivotal moment, I believe, in the fight for marriage equality). In a similar vein, Asa Hutchinson—a Republican– vetoed an anti-transgender youth bill because, he said, its restrictions were “government overreach.” By the time those actions were taken, people had come to realize that gender identity and sexual orientation cannot be legislated or medicated away, and that racial purity is a myth at best and a lie at worst. (The human race began in Africa. That’s Anthropology 101.)

Those events, of course, have everything to do with Americans’ loosening relationship to churches and such: Nearly all of organized religion—especially Evangelical Christianity—is predicated on racial/ethnic hierarchies and rigid gender identities and roles. It’s pretty difficult to tell a woman to submit herself to a man, in her home or in a church, when she’s running a business or graduating at the top of her law school class. Even if it were possible or even feasible, there just isn’t any rational reason why a woman should stand back if she knows better about something than her male spouse or colleague—or why she should align herself with an institution where she is, at best, a second-class citizen and, at worst, a mere incubator.

Those who benefit from such systems of oppression are, of course, not happy to see the edifices that hold them up being dismantled, brick by brick, or eroded. They also worry that people, especially the young, are not interested in upholding those structures or institutions. The young make up a large portion of the religiously unaffiliated (“nones”), Gallup found.

It means that, deep down, religiously affiliated and reactionary folks know they aren’t going to find replacements for themselves among their children. So, they know that whatever they feel the need to do, they’ll have to do more of, with more intensity, for as long as they can. Their behavior will become more extreme, and they will do whatever they can to hold to their notions of gender, marriage, family and society. That means forcing those notions on everyone else through irrational prohibitions. The only way to get people to support such bans is to stoke their fears by invoking stereotypes, junk science and outright lies. And the only way to enforce those bans is through force. What I have just described culminated in Donald Trump’s judicial appointments: He chose jurists who oppose what most Americans want, including safe and legal access to abortion, the right to marry whomever they wish and to live in accordance with whatever they know to be true about themselves.

Those judicial appointments, the law Asa Hutchinson tried to stop and other retrograde actions and policies are thus part of a reaction against the inevitable: the secularization of the United States of America. Somehow it’s fitting that they came together during the Easter/Passover/Ramadan season.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so. Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Robert Aaron Long Is A Symptom

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Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

Even after the Trump (mis)administration and a seemingly endless string of mass shootings, Robert Aaron Long’s killing spree shocked me. But it also stirred up other reactions that I’m just now sorting out.

On one hand, I felt disgust at Long because he attacked members of an ethnic group that is under siege. Within a few days, within a few miles of my apartment, Chinese and other Asian people—including a woman in her 70s—were brutally beaten. Moreover, his victims were also further marginalized and stigmatized because they were sex workers. Very few people actually choose to make a living that way: More often, they are paying off a debt to a smuggler, drug dealer or pimp, or simply find themselves cast adrift with no other skills or means of survival. I think now of the young queer people in the LGBT youth group I co-facilitated for two years. Some were kicked out of their homes when they “came out,” or ran away from home because they were bullied. A few, I knew, were turning “tricks” minutes after our group sessions ended.

So, perhaps, I could say that I took Long’s actions personally, not only because of those young people, but also because my status is not much greater than theirs, at least in the eyes of some people. As a transgender woman, I have been falsely accused of all manner of sexual misconduct by people who knew they could invoke stereotypes and caricatures to exact revenge against, or simply bully, me.

At the same time, while I do not condone what Long did, what I feel about him is more complicated than what I felt about, say, Dylan Roof. I had an easier time condemning and—dare I say it?—hating Roof because he seemed to act on a purer kind of hatred and bigotry: He admitted he killed nine African Americans because he wanted to start a race war. And, quite honestly, from what I learned about him—not much, I admit—he and I seemed to have little in common.

In contrast, I can find some points of comparison, if not identification, between myself and Mr. Long. While I don’t think I’m a sex addict, whatever that means, I can understand, at least somewhat his anxiety over his sexual desires and impulses. Though mine, I imagine, are and were very different from his, I think we share this: Our desires (and, in my case, my identity) were seen as “sinful” by the religious communities in which we participated, as well as by the secular authorities (his, via his family and community; mine, products of the time and places in which I grew up) that ruled our lives.

I was raised as a Roman Catholic half a century ago. Later, I would “answer” what I thought was a “calling” from “the Lord” (which I now realize was a kind of breakdown) by “accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior” and becoming with an Evangelical church and organization. In reality, what I needed were a good therapist and a support group. The particulars of Long’s religious life were surely different from mine, but I believe we shared this: Inculcation with an intense belief in an implacable being that caused us no end of anxiety.

As someone who was sexually abused by a priest, I can attest that one of the ways the church gets its “hooks” into young people is by filling them with guilt about their biological and psychological impulses, however common they may be. Those impulses conflict with their fealty to the Divine, according to the teachings of the Church, and must therefore be extinguished (via celibacy) or sublimated into a sanctioned relationship that leads to the production of more future church members. But whether you celibate (I know, you’re not supposed to verb adjectives) or procreate, your faith can never be enough.

I suspect that something like what I’ve described is at work in other Christian churches. Certainly, it was in the Evangelical church in which I was involved, and from which known and suspected homosexuals, smokers and other “sinners” were expelled. The fear of losing one’s community (and possibly family) compounds the anxieties someone might have about not being “saved” and being thus consigned to eternal torment.

Now, I won’t pretend to know the exact nature of Mr. Long’s sexual desires. He says he was an “addict.” His claim begs this question: Was he always so? Was he—or anyone—born to be a “sex addict?” Or did suppressing his desires in the name of faith cause him to occasionally “binge” like students on Spring Break in South Beach after being cooped up all winter? Could William Blake have had someone like Mr. Long in mind when he wrote, “Prisons are built from stones of law/Brothels from bricks of religion”?

One thing I know: Having to deal with suppressed desire, and anxiety over a seemingly implacable God and church, makes quite a load to bear. Especially if you are young. (Modern neuroscience shows us that the human brain doesn’t fully develop until about age 25.) Especially if you have been surrounded people and institutions that inculcated you with anxiety about your destiny and shame about your desires.

As I mentioned earlier, I neither condone nor excuse what Robert Aaron Long did. But he is not the only villain in that tragedy. He must be held to account but he also needs help as much as–again, dare I say it?—I needed it when I was abused. As I needed counseling and therapy (which, to be fair, almost nobody in that place and time knew how to do), Robert Aaron Long needs some serious de-programming, not only from a belief in the need to please an unpleasable imaginary being, but also from the notions about gender roles and racial hierarchy that enforces. So do many other young people; so did many of us: We got the same kinds of indoctrination, reinforced in similar ways. Unless those are dismantled, indicting and punishing Robert Aaron Long will serve no other purpose than to indict and punish Robert Aaron Long.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so. Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

If the Snow Doesn’t Melt

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Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

Years ago, I did a solo bicycle tour from France into Spain and back. Along the way, I stopped in Lourdes. I didn’t expect its waters to heal any of my psychological wounds (of which I had many) or even physical ones (of which I was, at the time, almost entirely free). Rather, I was simply curious.

Having attended Catholic school, I’d heard and read about the supposed Marian apparition. I didn’t expect to see anything of the sort or, really, anything fit for an X Files script. To tell you the truth, even when I was a believing, observant Catholic—or, later, when I conflated something I now realize as a psychological near-breakdown with “accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour” and threw myself into an Evangelical Church and organization—I didn’t believe in divine or Marian apparitions, or anything else that could be called “miraculous” or “supernatural.” Some might argue that on that basis, I never was a “true” Christian, and I won’t argue with that assessment mainly because today, as an atheist, it really doesn’t matter to me. I guess that, if anything, I wondered whether there was some rock formation or something that might’ve looked like the figure of Mary, just as some mirage in the desert might’ve caused someone to think that Jesus or somebody was turning stones into bread or water into wine.

I did have two other reasons for stopping in Lourdes. One, it was along my way and, being a fairly large town in a rural area, I figured I could get something to eat and refill my water bottles, if not with the “holy” stuff. Second, I wanted to get a gift for my mother. I accomplished both: She was happy to receive the Sainte Bernadette medal I bought.

Even if my mother had been indifferent to it, I would have been happy I went to Lourdes. It’s actually a lovely place, in part because of its location in the Pyrenees foothills. (But I must warn any potential traveler: “It ain’t Paris.” When I was there, the cafes and everything else in the town slammed shut at 9pm.) And I continued a correspondence with the man from whom I bought the medal until he passed away. Turns out, he had no more religious belief than I had!

Ironically, my brief stay among thousands of pilgrims, some of whom had saved up for a once-in-a-lifetime trip, may have been a nail in the coffin of whatever belief I still may have had. I wasn’t quite a full-blown atheist, but by that time I had dissociated myself from organized religion and knew that I didn’t—trending toward couldn’t—harbor any faith in a supernatural being. Still, I kept my eyes open for someone who might hobble up to the grotto, take of the water, throw off his or her crutches and skip away, singing praises to the Lord. I’m not sure that such a spectacle would have ignited any kind of faith in me, but I didn’t see anything of the sort.

I am sure other people hoped, or even expected, to see a “cure” or “miracle”—or to be the beneficiary of one themselves. They probably would have had a greater chance of winning the jackpot in the Francaise des Jeuxeven the Roman Catholic Church acknowledges that only 69 miraculous cures have occurred at the site since Bernadette Soubrious had her vision in 1858.

What brought all of this back to mind? A couple of days ago, a friend sent me a news item that, even after the Trump Presidency, makes an episode of The X Files seem like The Financial Times.

It happened in the wake of the Texas snowstorm, which itself seems almost surreal. Some folks picked up balls of the white stuff, lit a cigarette lighter or match—or turned on a blow dryer–and, upon seeing that the snow “didn’t melt,” decided that it was fake. Oh, but it gets even better: The “fake” snow is, they believe, part of a “government conspiracy” initiated by, depending on whom you listen to, Bill Gates or Joe Biden himself.

The science behind the “snow that doesn’t melt” is so simple that I—who last took a science class when Jimmy Carter was President—could understand it. You don’t even need my outdated, rudimentary knowledge: If you’ve ever ordered a snow cone on a boardwalk or at a state fair, you’ve seen it: The snow cone remains, well, a snow cone because the water from snow that melts on the surface is absorbed by the remaining snow. (If you’ve ever watched piles of snow disappear over a period of days after a storm, you’ll notice that the snow ever-so-gradually collapses inward and the water seeps out from underneath.) That is how snow cones hold onto their sugary flavor (and why they taste so good)—and why “fake” snow “doesn’t melt.” And the black marks you see in some of the videos are chemical burns from the butane lighters.

The folks who believe in “fake snow” sent by “government conspiracies” are certifiably mentally ill—or they also believe that the “stolen election” was a way “God is testing us” in preparation for Donald Trump inheriting the mantle of the Kingdom of God on Earth. (Did I repeat myself?) Such irrational beliefs are the only possible foundation for a faith or philosophy based on little more than, well, one’s belief in the divinely inherent superiority of one’s race, gender, country, way of life—or beliefs. I grew up in a church that taught us that in putting a wafer in our mouths, we were “partaking” of the “flesh” of Christ, and the sweet wine in the priest’s chalice was Christ’s blood. The Evangelical Church of which I would later be a part told us that “allowing the Lord to speak through you” (Frankly, even then, I thought it was gibberish!) would “save” or “transform” you and, according to some, would cure you of your ills and bring you prosperity. If you were poor or unwell, well, it meant that you needed to pray and believe more.

In brief, the news about “fake snow” and the other lunatic ideas promulgated by the likes of Paula White, Marjorie Scott Taylor, Franklin Graham, Ravi Zacharias, and their ilk are magical thinking, as are the hopes and wishes that motivated the pilgrims I saw in Lourdes. The main difference is that those folks, making what might be their one and only major trip, paid for the experience. So, probably, did the ones who tithed to the churches whose preachers and pastors told them to vote for Trump. On the other hand, Trump, White, Scott Taylor, Graham, Zacharias, et al. are making rather nice bank from the conspiracy theories, dogmas, and flat-out lies.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so. Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Tears as the Work Begins

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

Sometimes I cry at the end of a bike ride. The tears might trickle from a well of joy: The ride was particularly delightful because I’d climbed a mountain or covered a long distance, or the bike or my body felt particularly good. Or I may simply have ridden through an interesting place or on a beautiful day. Other times, though, the cry is cathartic: During my ride, I might have been working something out in my mind or letting out some kind of frustration.

Yesterday I shed tears of release. They felt, somewhat, like the ones that have rolled down my cheeks after a ride that works out my psyche as well as my body: salty as a tide but cleansing like the rain.  

But I hadn’t ridden. I had planned to get out on my bike, but instead I listened to the speeches and performances during of the presidential inauguration. I wasn’t expecting much: even before Trump campaigned for the presidency, I was rather cynical when it came to political candidates’ or office holders’ words. Even their most absurd claims or outrageous lies no longer enraged me: They all seemed part of their stock in trade. Never was I moved–as some claimed to be by “Ask not what your country” (I was about two years old when JFK made that speech!) –or by anything an office-seeker or -holder said on the stump.

Yesterday, though, I couldn’t help but weep while listening to Joe Biden’s inaugural speech. He doesn’t have the oratorical skills of JFK or Obama, and his words, while important and wise, weren’t as stirring as those of Amanda Gorman, the young poet who followed him. In hearing him, though, I knew this: I’d survived. We had survived. Those tears, the tension leaving my body, were the same as what I’d felt after the most traumatic events of my life–or, more precisely, the moment when I’d processed them, whether through finally talking or writing about them, or going on a ride.  

In fact, I can pinpoint two other occasions when my tears felt like the ones I shed yesterday, and when I felt the same kind of taut energy leaving my shoulders: when I talked and wrote honestly, for the first time, about my gender identity and when I first revealed my experience of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest.

Only my cat witnessed my catharsis yesterday. She gave me the best cuddle any pet has ever given me, and I thought she would hold yet another of my secrets. Other humans, I thought, might find my response to yesterday’s events was melodramatic. This morning, however, I described my experience to a friend I encountered on my way back from the store. “I’m not surprised,” she assured me. “Other people are saying they feel as if an abusive relationship is ending.” After what seemed like an interminable pause, she continued, “So do I. But the real work is about to begin.”

I know exactly what she means. Telling someone, for the first time, how I really experience my body and the world, and about those encounters with a priest in the parish where I was an altar boy, were starting points that led to years of unraveling, undoing and rebuilding: processes that continue to this day, through my writing, developing mutually supportive relationships—and cycling, of course.

I am going for a ride later today. Although I will pedal along familiar streets and roads, the path ahead is just beginning—and, as best as I can tell, won’t end. All I can do is to keep going, Yesterday, Joe Biden and Amanda Gorman told us that not only is it what we must do; it is all we can do. All I know is that tears—whether cathartic or joyful—and tension will be released. They are the signals that we have survived and therefore have no choice but to move forward.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so. Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

The Black Death of the Church

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A guest post by MJ Lisbeth

It sickened and killed its first victims in China. Italy was the stage for its European arrival; from there, it spread to Spain, France, Germany, England, Scandinavia and the Balkans. Urban dwellers of means fled to their countryside manses. In the meantime, leaders insisted that things were normal, blamed their enemies and racial groups who were already experiencing suspicion and scorn, and, perhaps worst of all, recommended “treatments,” “cures” and other courses of action that, they claimed, had remedial powers but, in fact, had no empirical foundation.

So far, this sounds like an outline of the COVID-19 trajectory and the response to the pandemic, doesn’t it? Would that we were living in such interesting times, to paraphrase an ancient Chinese (!) curse. Instead, this recounting of a pandemic feels, if anything, more like the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

The chronology I outlined in the first paragraph is, in fact, a rough sketch of the Black Death’s trajectory—with a slight variation. Nearly everyone who has studied the 14th Century spread of the plague agrees that it started, or at least was first noticed, in east-central Asia: somewhere in what is now Mongolia or, perhaps, westernmost China. Those same scholars say that it spread along the “Silk Road” and maritime trade routes while the current pandemic most likely spread in planes, trains, cars and buses.

What is all-too-depressingly-familiar, though, is the response of rulers—and said leaders’ relation to a “higher” authority. In late-medieval Europe, the church was all but inseparable from monarchies and the noble classes. Likewise, the heads of state in the United States, Russia, Brazil and other countries glean much of their support from vocal religious groups who, in many cases, deny the findings of scientists, ignore the recommendations of health care professionals and eschew intellectual inquiry. Thus are we advised that COVID-19 is “just a flu” that will “pass” with warm weather or the re-election of the leader making the claim. The US President bellows his prescription of injecting one’s self with cleaning products over the warnings of one of the world’s leading infectious disease experts, much as medieval authorities prescribed chopping up snakes and rubbing the pieces on one’s body (the snake, associated with Satan, was supposed to attract and draw away the “evil” of the disease) or drinking potions made from a unicorn’s horn. The President also insists that religious fundamentalists, vital to his re-election, can congregate, sing, dance, hug, kiss and share meals with hundreds of other fellow worshipers, just as the medieval Church continued to encourage mass gatherings, a source of its power.

That same symbiotic relationship between political and ecumenical authorities is a reason why the former can so easily blame people who are not part of the dominant culture or religion for the pestilence spreading across the land—or for any number of actual or imagined evils and tragedies. In a world where Jews were said to poison wells, kidnap and kill Christian children and perform all manner of evil rites, it wasn’t hard for the Church and Court to promulgate the belief that Jews caused the plague—and to justify murdering them. Likewise could, and did, the President marshal the xenophobic resentments of his supporters to call COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” or “Kung Flu,” just as leaders of other countries could, and did, blame the epidemic on religious and racial minorities or LGBTQ and other “deviant” people. The “Leader of the Free World” also fuels (or at least does nothing to tamp down) rumors that members of those same groups—or his political enemies—run pedophilia rings that—you guessed it—kidnap innocent white children and force them into unspeakable acts .

(In my admittedly-amateur reading of history, I’ve noticed this: When deranged minds and empty hearts fill clerical robes, gaudy uniforms or expensive suits, they use—or encourage others to use—the need to protect the supposed innocence of their children or purity of their women to rationalize all sorts of thuggery.)

If the parallels I’ve drawn, so far, are grim, I can offer a more hopeful comparison. While the Black Death brought the worst kinds of religious bigots out of the woodwork—as the COVID-19 pandemic is doing in the US—it also was, arguably, the first event to cause some people to question the authority of the church, and even the power of their god. It’s almost impossible for anyone in a secular Western country to imagine just how deeply monarchs and secular officials were in thrall to Church authority. (The closest analogues we have today are probably countries such as Saudi Arabia that are ruled by one interpretation or another of Sharia law.) While religious authorities held sway over secular ones at least until the Enlightenment, their influence lessened, however gradually, beginning with the Black Death.

One reason the church lost some of its authority was attrition: Priests and bishops were no more immune than illiterate field laborers to the ravages of the bubonic plague; soon, there weren’t enough prelates to conduct masses or other rites. Nearly all religious institutions act from a premise they dare not articulate: It’s harder to keep people in the fold when you can’t gather them. That, I believe, is why some religious groups, particularly Evangelical Christian and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish congregations, are pressuring or even defying local officials who have banned or restricted large gatherings.

Oh, and in some places, there weren’t enough attendees to keep churches open—even though the Catholic church, like most Christian churches today, doesn’t have a requirement equivalent to that of the minyan. And, even though the social pressure to attend mass was much greater than it is today (save in some conservative homogenous communities), some people stayed away. Although they knew nothing about how the plague was transmitted, much less of epidemiology in general, they noticed that, most often, people got sick when they gathered in large groups. (That, of course, is the reason why affluent urbanites fled to more pastoral settings.)

There is also evidence that some might have stayed away from church—or simply waned in their commitment to it—because they wondered, if only to themselves, about a God who visited such suffering on people who did nothing to deserve it:

For God is deaf and deigneth us not to hear That girls (children) for their guilts (sins) he forgrint (destroys) them all.

William Langland embedded those lines in Piers Plowman, his epic poem that is an allegory of the narrator’s quest for a “true” Christian life—or, if you like, a thinly-veiled critique of a medieval Catholic church that, too often, exploited the Black Death to stoke smoldering hatred of Jews, gypsies and other “infidels.”

Similar developments are unfolding today. While the most extreme congregations of Christianity and Judaism have shown that they are willing to disregard the health and safety of others in the name of “religious freedom,” the pandemic seems to be accelerating a trend, particularly among the young, away from organized worship and religious institutions. They don’t expect prayer or other rituals to protect them from COVID-19 any more than they believe that it’s “God’s will” for them or anyone else to suffer and die from it. If the churches and synagogues never open again, Gen X-ers and Millennials probably won’t miss them. They—and their more educated and rational elders—are leaning in so they can listen to Dr. Anthony Fauci or Deborah Birx over the bellowing of self-appointed (or selected-by-the-Electoral College) messiahs.

During the past few months, all sorts of parallels have been drawn between the 14th Century Black Death and the current COVID-19 pandemic. Some should serve as warnings, but others—such as the erosion of faith in religious institutions—might offer some hope for the future, as long as we allow ourselves to get there.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so. Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Closer to Home

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

He made it—just barely—out of Sobibor. So, it was no surprise that any time a former Nazi was found, or a new revelation about the regime and the Holocaust emerged, he took notice.

Louis is gone now. Though I can’t imagine what he endured, in the camp or in his nightmares and flashbacks, I feel I’ve become like him, in a way. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a priest, I can’t help but to notice when some clerical predator is exposed.

Or what he and his brethren left in their wake.

Since “coming out” about my abuse two years ago, I have met others who had to endure similar horrors, whether from priests, professors, professional colleagues, parents or others in positions of authority. I have also learned about lives, families, communities and institutions that were destroyed as a result.

Some of the institutions will be missed. Others, however, deserved, like Hitler’s regime and its agencies, to be swept into the dustbin of history.

Perhaps the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Rockville Centre and Camden won’t disappear any time soon. There can be little doubt, however, that they’ve lost their powers, including their abilities to harbor and enable priests who preyed on people’s trust.

Last week, within the space of a couple of days, they declared bankruptcy, citing the financial strain of lawsuits from sex-abuse litigation. They are, of course, not the first dioceses to take such action. But their going into receivership is significant because of their relative prominence. Camden, in New Jersey, is directly across the Delaware River from Philadelphia which, in 2015, was tied with Chicago as the second-most Catholic city in the US. (Boston, New York and Pittsburgh were tied for first.) Rockville Centre, comprising the Long Island counties of Nassau and Suffolk, is one of the largest dioceses (by population) in the nation—and the largest, to date, to declare bankruptcy. It’s also directly east of the Diocese of Brooklyn, of which it was a part until 1957.

Camden’s and Rockville Centre’s proximity to two of the largest and most Catholic American cities is reason enough to take notice of them. Equally important, though, is another characteristic they share, and I know all too well.

The parish in which I, as an altar boy, was abused by a priest, is in the heart of the Diocese of Brooklyn. In other posts, I’ve talked about the church’s centrality in my old neighborhood: Nearly everyone attended it, and I, like many of my peers, were pupils in its school. Many kids were encouraged, or even forced, to become altar boys or participate in other church activities; I, and some other kids, volunteered for such things because our families or other people in our community didn’t have the time, or didn’t know how to give us the kinds of non-material support we needed. (For some kids, that support was material.) Our parents worked long and hard (our fathers at paid jobs, our mothers at uncompensated tasks) but, because they married and birthed us when they were very young (or for other reasons), didn’t know how to deal with anything besides fawning obedience. They did not know how to respond to the kinds of tiredness, sadness, or bewilderment children experience, sometimes because for no other reason than they don’t have the language or other means of expressing it.

What I didn’t know, of course, was that at the time I was growing up, we were part of a way of life that was dying: The cops, the firefighters, the factory workers were moving their families to Rockville Centre and other places on Long Island.

And to New Jersey, where I moved with my family when I was twelve. Our new church was part of the Diocese of Trenton, the northern neighbor of Camden diocese. The city of Camden, once home to RCA and Campbell’s soup, was in steep decline. But the surrounding communities in its diocese flourished as bedroom communities to Philadelphia, from which cops, firefighters and factory workers moved.

There, and in the Rockville Centre enclaves, their parents worked even harder to pay and keep up their houses and car payments. That meant kids were, perhaps, even more isolated and alienated than they would have been in South Philly or South Brooklyn — and, in those pre-Internet days, with fewer ways of reaching others who felt the way they did.

A lonely or alienated kid is to a sexual predator—whether a priest or some other authority figure — like tinder to a forest fire. So, if a kid feels isolated in an urban enclave, imagine what it must be like in a suburban town, with the family’s breadwinner(s) commuting for several hours a day in addition to the time he/she/they work.

Fortunately for me, I did not get involved with our new church, beyond attending mass, after my family moved to New Jersey: I become more involved with Scouting (which I joined before our move) and school-related activities. But other kids who weren’t drawn to such things (literary magazines, photography clubs, sports teams and the like) were probably even more stranded than their peers in the neighborhood my family left. So, some of them might have been even easier prey for predacious priests than I was.

Although I have never met them, I thought about those young people when I heard that the Dioceses of Camden and Rockville Centre declared bankruptcy — just as I imagine my late friend Louis thought about inmates at Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and Auschwitz whenever a former Nazi was found in Cleveland or Argentina or some other place far from where they committed their horrible crimes.

In short, the bankruptcies of the Camden and Rockville Centre dioceses were personal for me — just as the capture of John Demjanjuk was for Louis, my late friend.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so. Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

The Stench They Can’t Stanch In Cologne

guest post

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

According to a Gallup Poll, about 39 percent of Roman Catholics in the US attended church weekly in 2017. In 1955, that figure was 75 percent.

There is not, however, a corresponding drop in the church’s reported membership. One reason for that is Catholics are more likely to “lapse,” for decades, than to actually quit the church. Also, short of excommunication, the church almost never purges anyone from its rolls. But there are telltale signs of a thinning of the flock. One is the closure or merger of parish schools and, in some cases, the parishes themselves. Another, even more telling sign is the shortage of priests — which sometimes leads to closures.

Such a scenario seems to be playing out in the Cologne Archdiocese, Germany’s — and one of the world’s — richest. As in much of the Western world, Germany — and the Cologne archdiocese in particular — doesn’t have enough prelates. For decades, few young Teutonic men have heard the calling to the priesthood. Foreign-born priests filled some of the gap, at least for a time. But even with that influx from abroad — and declining attendance at mass — there aren’t enough priests to keep parishes open.

The Archdiocese has, therefore, announced plans to “restructure”: Church Latin for shrinking the number of parishes. How much? Under the plan, there would be 50 parishes in 2030. Today there are 500. In other words, 90 percent of the Cologne Archdiocese’s parishes would be gone a decade from now.

The Archdiocese would be divided into “communities” led by teams of priests and laypeople. In spite of declining church attendance, each of those communities would serve greater numbers of people over a wider area. That means people will have to travel greater distances to attend mass, or to partake of the programs and services the church offers. The greatest hardship would fall on senior citizens, children, and immigrants — who, perhaps ironically, are the people who are keeping parishes open, as the decline in church attendance is greatest among young adults.

Other German archdioceses have similar plans. The Vatican, not surprisingly, does not want them: It holds that a church can be led only by a priest, not by collaborations between prelates and laypeople. Some church officials believe that such arrangements will lead to greater power for laypeople — and a “back door,” if you will, for women to take more prominent roles and — egad! — priesthood.

German church officials call the Vatican’s rejection of their ideas “absurd,” “divorced from reality” and even “theologically deficient.” But their opposition comes not only from Rome, but from some of their fellow officials, German charitable organizations that have connections to the church — and schools.

Though Germany is nominally a secular country, in that it doesn’t have an official state religion, the Preamble to the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany begins thusly: “Aware of its responsibility before God and humankind…” So, perhaps, it’s not surprising that public officials’ oaths end with “So help me God!” — or that members of Catholic and Lutheran churches (the two largest denominations) have a “church tax” deducted from their paychecks. That levy, not surprisingly, is one of the reasons why Cologne and other German archdioceses are among the wealthiest in the world.

To be fair, I should point out that tax also helps to fund social services, such as immigrant resettlement, provided by church-affiliated charities. Those organizations thus have a legitimate — as far as it goes — argument against reorganization, which could hamper the ability of the newly-organized “communities” to deliver those services. It also helps to pay for the upkeep of churches, which include such tourist attractions as the Cologne cathedral.

Oh, and the tax funds the religious education German children, to this day, receive in their public schools. Their parents can opt them out of it, but the consequences can be harsh for both the kids and parents. While there have been calls to abolish this practice, and German Catholics themselves are divided about the tax, church officials say the instruction and tax are necessary to “ensure cohesion” — which I read as keeping tabs on how many members they can claim. I say “claim” because, if you are affiliated with either church, no matter how infrequently you attend, you pay the tax. (It’s all but impossible, short of excommunication, to have yourself dis-enrolled from the Catholic church once you’re baptized).

It will be interesting to see how officials rationalize the continuance of this practice as the number of parishes decreases, and more parents opt out of religious instruction — both of which are inevitable as the church becomes less and less available to the people. That shrinkage will be further accelerated by the church’s inability to recruit priests.

So why is it that young German men don’t want to don the cloth? Well, I’ll pose a question to those of you who are parents: Would you tell your 18-year-old son that he must be celibate for the rest of his life? You might have an easier time if you’re living in dire poverty and celibacy is a ticket to an education and a better life. But, I suspect, such is not the case for most native-born Germans — or residents of most Western democracies.

Even if you and your family were destitute, knowing what you know today, how would you feel about sending your kid off to seminary? Would you blame him for fighting you?

So, the real problem facing the Archdiocese of Cologne, and other church jurisdictions, is that they’re not dealing with reality. Church attendance is falling, and young people don’t want to become priests (or nuns), not because of “loosening morality” or the Internet. As in neighboring countries, the U.S., Australia, and other parts of the world, generations of sexual abuse have come to light in Germany. If the Church could keep it — and its history of collaboration with despots and slave-traders — under wraps for so long, what use do the young — or other people — have for it?

The “restructuring” of the Archdiocese of Cologne will lead to lower operating costs for the new “communities.” But I don’t think it will stanch the bleeding out of church attendance and membership. If anything can save the church (and, I admit, I’m not rooting for such a thing), it has to deal with the real reasons why young people don’t want to attend — let alone become priests or nuns — anymore.

Masked in the City’s Bible Belt

williamsburg bridge

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

I think I’m recovering pretty well from my bike accident. Heck, last Tuesday I even rode the 5 miles to my follow-up CAT scan. I hope it will confirm that I’m as well as I think I am!

The day after, I went for another, longer, bike ride. I needed it because, well, I’m a nearly-lifelong cyclist. Also, I wanted not to think about the CAT scan and to think about other things: It was a couple of days after the anniversary of my mother’s death.

Now I’m going to tell you something you may have figured if you’ve read my previous articles: I live, and grew up, in New York. Even though parts of the city, through gentrification and hyper-development, are becoming more homogenized, it is still a city of stark contrasts. It’s still possible, in some areas, to enter a completely different world simply by crossing a street.

This is especially true in Brooklyn, one of the city’s five boroughs. Today the name is practically a brand that, to much of the world, signifies hipness (if in an overly self-conscious way). If you spend any time in the waterfront neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, it’s easy to understand why: In cafes along Kent, Bedford and Driggs Avenues, where I rode, young men and women in tight jeans wash down their $15 slices of avocado toast (!) with $20 craft beers or cocktails.

These young people, nearly all of them childless, are hated or resented, or at least mocked, as “entitled millennials” because, for one thing, nearly all of them come from other parts of the United States and thus, in the eyes of some, can’t be “real New Yorkers.” (I would argue that is exactly what some don’t want to become. But that’s a subject for an entirely different article.) Also, many of them, even before the pandemic, didn’t seem to be doing any work to support themselves. The money for their avocado toast and drinks—and the condos in which many of them live—comes from elsewhere.

One thing I have to say for them, though: When they weren’t eating or drinking, nearly all of them were wearing masks. Of course, they weren’t covering their faces with those generic blue, white or yellow hospital masks: Some, I am sure, created their own face coverings, while others had them made by artisans or designers, whether in the neighborhood or elsewhere.

As I pedaled down Driggs, I rolled under the Williamsburg Bridge overpass as a train rumbled and clattered across. Many see the bridge as a sort of Mason-Dixon line, if you will, dividing North from South Williamsburg. One could also argue that Nostrand Avenue, where East Williamsburg begins, performs the same function. Like the line that separated the Union from the Confederacy, the areas north and west of the “lines” are richer, whiter and more educated (at least in a certain sense) than the areas on the other side.

My ride didn’t take me into East Williamsburg, though I ride into the area often. I will mention, however, that it is the last remnant of Williamsburg’s Puerto Rican community, which dominated the area for four decades or so after World War II. I did, however, spin my wheels south, into one of the two New York neighborhoods that most closely resemble a prewar shtetl.

I am talking about the part of Williamsburg below the eponymous bridge. The description in my previous paragraph is not an exaggeration: If you were to find yourself on the southern part of Driggs, or on Lee Avenue, late on a Friday or on Saturday, you’d have the place to yourself.

Since I was riding there on a Thursday afternoon, I wasn’t alone. The thing is, I was one of the few non-Hasidim in the area. Normally, I don’t mind that: At worst, I am ignored and can ride or go about whatever else I’m doing, undisturbed. On the other hand, the fact that I was cycling through the neighborhood on the day before shabat, I couldn’t help but to notice that I, and the other goyim in the area, were the only ones wearing masks. None of the Hasidic men and women covered their faces.

I noticed the same phenomenon as I pedaled further south, into Brooklyn’s other Hasidic enclave: Borough Park. There, I was even more isolated: I was, literally, the only goyim (all right, I’m an atheist; but in that community, any outsider is goy!) pedaling, walking or otherwise passing through the area. But that was not the only reason I felt as if I stuck out even more than I did in South Williamsburg: I grew up at the edge of Borough Park, where it borders Kensington. Half a century ago, when I was an altar boy (and manque transgender), the neighborhood was more or less evenly divided between Italian-, Irish- and Polish-Americans. Most of the men, including my father, were blue-collar workers who did as much overtime as they could so they could send me and my peers to the neighborhood’s Catholic school, which closed about 15 years ago. And we all went to the same church—which remains open mainly because of Hispanics who work in the neighborhood—on Sunday.

In my old neiIn my old neighborhood, none of the residents was wearing a mask. However, in a neighboring community, populated mainly by Bangladeshi Muslims, nearly everyone — male, female and otherwise — was.

I would like to think that the denizens of my old neighborhood would have covered their faces, if for no other reason than their reverence (really, a combination of fear and obsequiousness) for authority. The funny thing is that, for all of that they (and I, at the time—after all, I was an altar boy) unquestioningly obeyed our church and school, we knew enough to listen to secular authorities when they knew better. Unfortunately, my old neighborhood—along with South Williamsburg and a few neighborhoods dominated by Evangelical and Pentecostal churches—are this city’s “Bible Belt,” if you will. They believe that the power of their beliefs will protect them when the recommendations of Dr. Anthony Fauci won’t. And even if their fealty to the Word of their God doesn’t keep them from succumbing to COVID-19, they believe that God (or Yahweh) “wants” them “now.”

Some pundits have, accurately, observed, that in the US, the choice to wear a mask—or not—during the COVID-19 pandemic breaks along political lines. In my city, though, it has more to do with religious faith—which, ironically is the political “fault line” in the Big Apple. My ride showed me on which side of the line I live.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so. Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.