It‘s been several years since I wrote my original Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) series. I had wanted to finish out my experience memoirs, but the homeschooling portion of my ACE experience still hit a lot of nerves in my life. There were a lot of flux and upheaval going on throughout my homeschool years. Dad started believing in Calvinism (or Sovereign Grace), we changed churches, we were put out of a church, my parents split up for a while and other generally disrupting things happened in my life.
Some of these things are still raw, even 30 years later. I have thought about writing this off and on for a while, but could never do it. Then Bruce had a post where someone looked at, but didn‘t read, my ACE experiences. Please see Fundamentalist Man Strains at the Gnats and Swallows a Camel.) I re-read what I had written and decided I needed to finish the story.
As you read this, remember that it is my story and my experience. People may have had similar experiences, but no two people process things the same.
It may be helpful to go back and read about my ACE school experiences before starting into this. I‘ll break this up into two parts, to make it easier to read. I want to say thanks to everyone who has read my story, and to Bruce for making this platform available.
In my 10th grade year, 1987-88, Mom and Dad began to homeschool my brother and me. My brother has severe dyslexia and my parents felt that homeschooling, using ACE, would be best for him. Also, my dad had started becoming more and more separated from the world and he didn‘t want the worldly influences in the Christian schools affecting us.
Between my 9th and 10th grade years, we began attending a different church. Due to Dad‘s belief in separation, there were a lot of tensions in the church we had been attending. We visited an IFB/Missionary Baptist church, and found a new church home. This church had a school, so my parents ordered our school supplies through them and began schooling us at home.
The first year, my parents tried to make it like a traditional school. We had to get up, dress in ACE uniforms, say the Pledges of Allegiance, do devotions, say prayers, we used flags to ask for help, and referred to our mom as Mrs. XXXXX. If we didn‘t finish our work in time, we had homework slips. We got demerits and detentions. It was truly like school, except for we were there 24/7. We lived in a small apartment, so there was no escape from school.
That first year was tough. I hated it. | resented it. Already, my whole life was different. My dad was to the right of anyone we knew. Everything was wicked and evil. Now, we were homeschooling, which was something even more unusual. I got into a lot of trouble that first year. Scoring violations were my biggest issue. I just didn‘t care, I hated being home with my parents all day long, I was upset that we had to act like this was a real school, and l was always in trouble because of my attitude.
Even simple things were an issue. I took a typing course. I wanted to do it on a computer since that was the wave of the future. No way. I had to use an old portable typewriter that weighed a ton and was a pain in the ass to use. l was taking typing and, by God, l was going to learn on a typewriter. I learned how to type, but hated every minute of it.
Because we did devotions every morning, l was constantly getting dumped on. My dad would go through a book of the Bible in devotions and pick out things that my brother and I had done wrong. Calvinism is nothing if not oppressive. We would read a Bible story, and it seemed like it always translated into how I could do things better. We were constantly being told that we weren‘t good enough and that we needed to live up to the Christian ideals. We should be proud to be peculiar. We should be happy to suffer for being different.
Here‘s one example of what was going on at the time. I had a decent GI Joe collection. Something happened, and my mom told me that I should get rid of them, in order to further my Christian growth. In one of the few times I talked back to her, told her that the GI Joes were all I had, meaning something for fun. She countered with something to the effect of, “All you have? Well, Jesus gave up all he had to save you. You can‘t give up some toys for him?” I can still feel the raw emotion of that all of these years later.
What does that have to do with homeschool, you ask? It is to show you how homeschool, church, and life were wrapped tightly together. Homeschool was a nightmare.
We were made to memorize huge portions of the Bible. Dad had my brother and me stand up in front of the church and recite the entirety of John 14, 15 and 16. l was expected to do this perfectly. It made my dad proud, but did nothing for me. I can still quote Romans13:1-7, but haven‘t looked at it for years.
I‘m dyslexic, but nothing like my brother. I never even knew it until probably 10 years ago. The math lessons I had to do were greatly hindered by my dyslexia. Anyone who has done high school math using ACE will know what a nightmare it is. l was doing Algebra but had no clue of what I was doing. My mom didn‘t know it either. So, she would argue with me about how problems should be solved. We would look at the score keys and try to figure it out from there. This was 1988, so there was no Google. Interspersed with the Algebra were pages of long division and multiplication, to hone our basic skills. I struggled through 11 Algebra PACEs, only to be given a huge, horrible surprise. The last PACE was a review of everything I had done. I didn‘t remember more than half. I was yelled at because I should have remembered everything; Mom didn‘t remember any of it, though; funny. I had nights where I wanted to cry.
Added to the horrible math was learning “Christianized” history. Very small subjects were covered. We were required to memorize speeches and writings. We were given no context as to why the Magna Carta was important, except for some Christian rubbish. The French Revolution was basically just rebellious people who didn‘t realize that God put rulers in place for a reason.
Non-Christian explorers were minimized, but we knew all about the godly interests of Christopher Columbus and the fact that he wanted to bring Christianity to the heathens.
Science was no better. No context for anything. This made learning a miserable experience.
My brother and l were sometimes able to tag along with the church‘s school on field trips. Not too often, though — wouldn‘t want to catch any worldliness.
Mom did help out in the church school for a couple of weeks and it was a great break from the horrible routine. It was nice to get up and actually go to school. We had fun at break times. It was like a vacation. But that came to an end and we had to go back to reality.
That first year of ACE homeschool was brutal. Homeschool can be a good thing, but it has to be done properly. By trying too hard to make a schooling environment, my parents just created a negative learning environment.
My parents and l have talked about this, and have made peace with everything. I didn‘t want to leave the impression that I‘m carrying around anger and hatred towards them.
My brother did well, though. The extra attention he was given helped him in reading and comprehension, and he finally started reading at his grade level.
I‘ll stop here for now. That year stands on its own. My last two years were better.
I am an atheist and a Democrat. Even so, the public official I have most respected, for most of my adult life, was a conservative Christian — and a rock-ribbed Republican.
If you are around my age, you have an image of him with a bushy, mustacheless beard. You remember him wearing what looked like a Naval Admiral’s uniform, or a suit with a brightly-colored bow tie that served as a diacritical mark highlighting his facial hair.
Most important, though, you remember the way he acted while he was on the national (and, for a time, worldwide) stage. That behavior was completely consistent with his professional ethos as well as his personal values.
His name was Charles Everett Koop. Ronald Reagan, during his first year as President of the United States, nominated Dr. Koop as Surgeon General. Despite objections from feminists, LGBT people, and secularists, the Senate overwhelmingly confirmed his confirmation late in 1981. Charles Everett Koo His name was Charles Everett Koop. Ronald Reagan, during his first year as President of the United States, nominated Dr. Koop as Surgeon General. Despite objections from feminists, LGBT people, and secularists, the Senate overwhelmingly confirmed his confirmation late in 1981.
He would soon put their fears to rest. Although he personally opposed abortion because of his religious beliefs, he would not succumb to pressure from the Reagan administration to prepare a report stating that abortion is psychologically damaging to women. Ever the doctor (pediatric surgeon) and scientist, he said there simply wasn’t evidence to corroborate what the President wanted him to say.
His stance seems even more consistent with his credo when you realize how active he was in championing the rights of the newborn. Although he was not personally involved with the case, he was motivated by the death of a six-day-old boy who was born with Down Syndrome and denied surgical treatment to correct his esophageal atresia and tracheoesophageal fistula. Before he became Surgeon General, he was, for more than three decades, the surgeon-in-chief at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, during which he saw increasing survival rates for babies with congenital maladies. During his last eight years, he never lost a full-term baby on whom he operated to correct esophageal atresia.
He would also call attention to the AIDS epidemic when the President would not utter the word “AIDS” in public. Liberal and LGBT groups criticized him for highlighting the dangers of sexual intercourse in general, and gay sex in particular, for spreading the disease. But he was also excoriated by religious conservatives and others for recommending mandatory sex education, beginning in the third grade.
Finally, he put his scientific knowledge ahead of the wishes of his boss when he called for stronger warnings against tobacco use. He infuriated some of the largest donors to the Republican Party—namely, cigarette makers—by issuing a report saying that nicotine has addictive qualities similar to those of heroin and cocaine, and should be treated as such.
After he left public life, he started a website that published articles that turned out to be little more than advertisements. Still, he deserves credit for his fealty to empirical evidence over the agenda of an administration, or even his own religious beliefs.
It seems that a Dr. Koop for this generation, if you will, has emerged. Like Koop, he is a physician and scientist. He, too, became a national public official during the Reagan Administration. He is also is resisting, quite publicly, a President and administration who deny science at every turn.
Dr. Anthony Fauci became the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 1984. He has remained in that position under six Presidents, turning down several offers to lead the NIAID’s parent organization, the National Institutes of Health. During his tenure, Fauci has been at the forefront of efforts to deal with HIV, SARS, Ebola and other contagious diseases. In 2003, the Institute for Scientific Information stated that during the previous two decades, Fauci was “the 13th-most cited scientists among the 2.5 to 3 million authors in all disciplines throughout the world who published articles in scientific journals.”
His current boss denied the threat of the coronavirus until a couple of days ago. Even after Donald Trump finally acknowledged the severity of the pandemic and the need to take unprecedented actions against it (and the economic disruptions it’s causing), he continued to blame the Chinese for it. And members of his administration insist that, while public gatherings and physical contact of other kinds have been banned in various cities and countries, church-goers won’t get sick by attending worship services, and that communion wafers and shared wine cups won’t transmit the virus.
Dr. Fauci, in another parallel with Dr. Koop, refutes those, and other, follies—and articulates his dire but accurate warnings—in clear, unambiguous language. The main difference, I believe, between the two men’s situations is that while most of the pressure on Koop came from “behind the scenes,” Fauci must make himself heard when his boss is an overbearing bully who is always trying to talk over him. Fortunately for us, Dr. Fauci, it seems, has been heard, loud and clear.
So here is another case of history repeating itself: Drs. Koop and Fauci had to fight against religious superstition and plain-and-simple bigotry in the hope that empirical evidence would guide public policy. Unfortunately, if history teaches us anything, it’s that every public health crisis will need a Dr. Koop or a Dr. Fauci, whatever his or her ecumenical or political affiliations, to prevail against religious bigotry and political partisanship. People who were caught in earlier epidemics like the Black Death, unfortunately, did not have anyone like either of them.
Today I live as a woman and an atheist. But I grew up as a Boy Scout in the Catholic Church. From my current perspective, decades after my involvement with the Church and the Scouts, I can see some parallels between the organizations—and how they are failing for essentially the same reasons.
According to a Pew survey, as of 2015, 32 percent of Americans were raised as Catholics, but only 21 percent remained in the Church. Moreover, while the number of Protestants who reported attending a church service during the previous seven days has held steady in the 40 to 45 percent range since the 1950s, during that same period, it fell by nearly half—from 75 to 39 percent—for Catholics. The fall-off is even steeper among young people: While Catholics of all ages attended mass at nearly the same rate in 1955, by 2017, only 25 percent of 21-to-29-year-olds (compared to 49 percent of Catholics 60 and over) went to church.
The Boy Scouts of America is hemorrhaging membership even more quickly than the Church. At its peak in 1972—when I was earning my Star Scout badge—6.5 million boys were in its ranks. By 2016, that number had fallen by nearly two-thirds, to 2.3 million. Two years later, in response to the BSA’s decisions to allow gays, transgenders and girls—and to change its name to “Scouts BSA” — the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) cut its ties with the organization. About 425,000 Scouts are also members of the Mormon Church, so the national organization faced losing 18 percent of its membership in one fell swoop.
The Mormons aren’t the only ones blaming gays and girls for the demise of Scouting, at least as their elders knew it. All manner of reactionaries in the mainstream as well as the fringe media are also laying the Scouts’ troubles at the feet of those who want to foist “political correctness” (i.e., an acceptance of reality) on the rest of the world. They hear raised glasses clinking in gay bars and in The New York Times and The Washington Post newsrooms when the Scouts’ troubles are reported.
Those same pundits, whoever appointed them as such, view the decline of the Catholic Church in America and Europe in much the same way. They hold to the discredited notion that “loosening moral standards”—by which they mean societal acceptance of homosexuality and gender non-conformity—are responsible for the epidemic of sexual abuse by priests and church officials. To bolster their claim, they’ll say that the incidence of such abuse peaked during the 1960s and 1970s. To be fair, perhaps they are making an honest mistake in not realizing that those numbers are of reported incidents. One reason those numbers are high is because of people like me (baby boomers) who came of age when sexual abuse by any adult, let alone priests, was not openly discussed and it was more likely that the child—if he or she had the vocabulary, let alone awareness, to talk about it—was likely to be shamed or punished for “lying” about a priest who held an esteemed status in the family and community. Many of us did not report our sexual abuse until decades later, while those who suffered before had died.
What conservative and reactionary commentators fail to realize is that both the Church and the Scouts in America are sinking, not only under the weight of lawsuits brought by those who were abused in their confines, but also through their own irrelevance—which, itself, is one of the reasons why those abuses happen.
In brief, both the Church and the Scouts were founded upon mythologies that were outdated and even demonstrably false the moment they were adopted. The Catholic Church, like other Christian Churches, is based on a belief in stories like the death and resurrection of Christ and other miracles that fly in the face of empirical reality. Those stories were told and re-told, written and re-written, in ways that appeal to the hope (or simply the wish) that one’s lot in life can improve. Yes, there is redemption and resurrection—as long as you align yourself with power (God), even if it is often cruel and capricious and destroys innocent lives that happen to be in its path.
How is this different from the goals and means of a paramilitary youth organization? (Not for nothing are Scouting units called “Troops” and the sub-units “Patrols”.) Lord Baden-Powell said, in essence, that his purposes in starting the Scouts were to inculcate boys with “good moral character.” (Is that a code phrase, or what?) The Scout Law says a Scout is “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.” (I didn’t have to Google that: I still know it, by heart, all of these decades later!) They all sound like fine characteristics, and they are. But he did not mean that those values are intrinsically worthy. You see, he was not only a military man, but a full-on imperialist who saved the garrison in Mafeking by commandeering all of the food for the white population, leaving Africans with the choice of starvation in the town or dispersal in the veldt—where, of course, many more died of hunger and disease. He ordered the flogging and shooting of Africans who tried to “steal” food while caviar was being served in the Mafeking hotel.
His book Scouting For Boys (1908) is full of naked appeals to “national unity” and defenses of the British Empire—and what a duty and privilege it is for a young man to be one of its bulwarks. (Every page practically screams Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.) While perhaps more subtle, similar calls to duty and patriotism permeated my Boy Scout Handbook published more than six decades after Baden-Powell’s piece of propaganda. Notions of God and the King (or Queen) meshed with a frontier myth that appropriated Native American traditions for the purpose of asserting an American version of Victorian-style Muscular Christianity. Boys with whom I grew up were as ready to defend their country’s interests—whatever their leaders said those interests were—as young British men were to help Britannia rule.
Indoctrinating young and powerless people with myths and propaganda not only gives them a false sense of their own power and their right to exercise it, but also leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by those on whom power is bestowed in such a structure. That sense that the weak can be powerful, that those who lose the zip code lottery can find themselves living in Hammock Oaks if they align themselves with the values of the powerful—which is to say, to believe the myths they promulgate—make them prime targets for exploitation. So is it a surprise, then, that sex abuse has been so rampant in both the Boy Scouts/Scouts BSA and the Catholic Church?
I think not. To me, the only surprise is that even more people haven’t come forward because such abuse did not, as the conservative pundits assert, arise in the 1960s or 70s. It has become part of the DNA of both organizations because of their inherently imbalanced power structures, and the way those structures can be, and have been, used to exploit the vulnerable. If anything, I’d reckon that such abuses were even more rampant in the early history of the church and scouting, when fewer people questioned the authority of those who led and represented them.
Blaming the decline of the church or scouting on girls or gays, then, makes about as much sense as blaming bipolar disorder on demons. Both institutions are dying, at least in some parts of the world, because people—especially the young—are seeing them as irrelevant and corrupt as they are, and have been. No “return to traditional values,” whatever that means, can change that.
(In case you were wondering: In some of my previous articles, I talked about the sexual abuse I experienced from a priest in the late 1960s. I did not experience anything of the sort in the Scout troops to which I belonged. But long before the recent revelations hit the media, I heard stories from others who were Scouts.)
In the United States, Super Bowl Sunday is a big deal. People who rarely watch American football during the regular season will gather together to watch the Super Bowl Championship game. Companies pay millions of dollars to buy advertisement time during the broadcast, and many of the ads are quite clever, funny, or touching. The halftime show typically features A-list performers with advanced choreography, lighting, and showmanship.
This year, the performers were Latina entertainers Jennifer Lopez and Shakira. Both are women over 40 who are superstars in their respective genres. In addition to her career as a singer-dancer-entertainer, J. Lo is also an actress and a judge on the show “World of Dance”. Shakira is known for her dual Lebanese and Colombian heritage, incorporating belly dancing into her performances, and she was a voice character in the animated movie “Zootopia”. Both performers have won multiple awards during their careers.
It did not take long for the Evangelical Christian world to lose their minds over the halftime show. J. Lo and Shakira, along with their backup dancers, put on a dance-heavy performance in which many appeared to be scantily clad, though in photos it’s obvious that J. Lo’s base layer was a long flesh-colored bodysuit, and Shakira’s costumes were no more scanty than the outfits of the cheerleaders on the field. However, Evangelical Christian sensibilities were ruffled by the fact that these two women, both over the age of 40, were dancing and wearing costumes that showed some of their skin or what appeared to be skin.
Common in Evangelical Christianity is the concept of purity culture. Purity culture revolves around the way that Evangelical Christians believe their deity designed men and women. They teach that men were designed to be predatory, dominant, aggressive, and aroused by visual stimuli. Women, conversely, are designed to be passive, nurturing, submissive, and aroused by tactile stimuli, and are therefore the designated gatekeepers of all sexual activity. The belief is that if a man sees something that arouses him, he will be unable to control his urge to dominate and possess what he sees. As women supposedly are not aroused until they are touched, they have the ability to thwart sexual activity by not drawing attention to themselves and by saying no. The idea is that if a woman draws attention to herself by wearing clothing that shows her physique, by any motions that draw attention to her physique (such as dancing or swaying of her hips), even by making direct eye contact with a male or “flirting,” that means she is signaling that she welcomes sexual activity. She is therefore at least partially culpable in any sexual activity. In Evangelical Christian purity culture, I learned that it was important to be as silent and as invisible as possible in order to prevent sexual advances from men.
When J. Lo and Shakira sang and danced on stage, purity culture adherents viewed their activity as openly welcoming sexual activity. The performers were tempting upstanding Christian men and boys to desire sexual activity with them. Additionally, J. Lo and Shakira were demonstrating to girls and women how to draw the attention of men. The performers repudiated purity culture’s directive to be as silent and as invisible as possible. These two mature, successful, talented performers dominated the stage and made their voices heard. (I won’t even address the references they made to children singing in cages, the nods to Shakira’s Middle Eastern heritage, J. Lo’s use of the Puerto Rican and US flags or her daughter’s singing of “Born in the USA”, but those were all important elements in the show as well.)
I grew up in the 1980s with purity culture, but fortunately I was too old for the more slickly marketed purity culture that exploded during the 1990s and 2000s. It affected me as well to the point that I hated and was ashamed of my body and wore oversized clothing for several years. In the Fundamentalist Christian school I attended, we had a strict dress code that included rules about skirt length, sleeve length, and cleavage-covering. Prior to our senior trip, girls had to model their swimsuits in front of three female faculty members for approval. The message was that we were to be “feminine” but also well-covered so as not to draw too much attention from our male classmates and teachers. My mom did not know the extent of purity culture that I was taught at church and school, and she did not understand the source of my body hatred. When I was in my early 20s, my mom bought me a two-piece bathing suit and a suede miniskirt and told me that I should wear these types of clothes while I still “could” before the inevitable obesity that plagues females in our family set in. Eventually, I became accustomed to wearing age-appropriate and body-appropriate clothing, but the body image issues have never completely gone away.
I no longer see my body as a temptation to men, something to be covered and hidden. Life experiences taught me that people are responsible for their own actions, and I am not responsible for someone violating my consent. As I have grown older, I am a lot more vocal about what I will and will not tolerate from other people. As someone who has become an athlete later in life, I have learned a lot about what my body can and cannot do and about the signals it gives me when it is hungry, tired, or in need of care. I can still find plenty of things “wrong” with how my body looks, but I will no longer cover up just because of someone else’s rules about “modesty,” nor will I cover up because of my own insecurities, which are probably mostly in my head anyway. I wish I had known at age 18 what I now know at age 50, but I believe I have been successful in passing along to my own daughter that she should use her voice, own her space, and demand that others respect consent.
I will no longer be as silent and as invisible as possible in order to ward off actions that are the responsibility of someone else. Purity culture and all it entails can go to hell.
Thirty-five years ago this month, Paramount Pictures released Witness.
It was tailor-made for the Reagan administration, and for the religious right, in that it depicts the hardworking, pious Amish as virtuous and anyone associated with The City (in this case, Philadelphia) as depraved and corrupt. That said, I will admit that I saw the movie twice and enjoyed it, mainly for some of the acting performances (which were charming or engaging, if not incisive) as well as individual scenes.
One scene that sticks out, in my mind, takes place in the 30th Street station, where Samuel Lapp, an 8-year-old Amish boy and Rachel Lapp, his recently-widowed mother, are transferring from one train to another. Moments before he witnesses a brutal murder, he sees an elderly man wearing a black coat and hat. The boy believes, for a moment, that he’s met a member of his own community; the man’s face quickly turns into a frown of rejection, which the boy mirrors. That man, it turned out, was a Chasidic Jew.
The scene was inserted mainly as a visual comic relief. Were the writing and direction of Witness more sensitive, or simply more conscious, that scene could have highlighted the “so close and yet so far” relationship between the two religious communities and cultures: While the Amish are farmers and most Chasidic Jews live in or near large cities, both reject modern secular society in nearly all of its manifestations, right down to the way people dress.
Oh, and there’s another similarity between them. It came to light only recently, but I’d had an inkling of it for some time.
During my childhood, my family visited an Amish family every summer. Although I enjoyed seeing the countryside and animals, and learning about a different way of life, I was always glad to return home, even with the emotionally unsupportive family I had: I am a city girl at heart. (All right, I was living as a boy in those days.) But I don’t think that I would have liked spending any more time than I did in that bucolic setting for another reason: Even though the people were friendly and generous, something I couldn’t articulate troubled me.
Ironically, it became a bit clearer to me when I was teaching at an Orthodox yeshiva many years later. Of course, my relationship with the pupils was very different from my experience with the Amish children I met. My family’s visits to the Amish farm were “fun” for the kids—and us—in the same way as time spent with cousins or other peers whose company you have, and enjoy, only on holidays and other occasions. While I had to be the literal and proverbial “adult in the room” for Jewish boys I taught, we didn’t have to live with each other: Their expressions of vulnerability were momentary, and we went back to our lives afterward. Still, it was hard not to see that both the Jewish and Amish boys were more vulnerable and felt more like they were failing, in one way or another, than their parents and other adults in their lives might have realized.
I also couldn’t help but notice that in both communities, the women and girls didn’t seem happy. Rather, they seemed dutifully resigned to their fate. Perhaps some even found a way to “make peace” with it, or to find some sort of fulfillment in conforming to the roles their cultures and religions prescribed for them. Even the boys—who, like their counterparts almost everywhere else, enjoyed more freedom than their sisters, mothers, aunts or grandmothers—seemed to be living in a fear that ran deeper than that of simply displeasing, and incurring scorn from, their elders.
A year ago, I wrote about a yeshiva student of mine who was sexually exploited by a rabbi at his synagogue. Around that time, the media were reporting sexual abuse of children in ultra-Orthodox communities. Those revelations came not long after a wave of stories about clergy members and others in positions of authority who took advantage of altar boys and other children in various churches, including the Roman Catholic and Mormon, as well as evangelical sects. Around the same time, the “Me-Too” movement was spreading.
None of those developments surprised me, as I had just recently “come out,” if you will, about my own experiences of sexual abuse by a priest. It was the first time I’d talked about them with anyone besides a therapist or a former partner of mine. Some might say I am “projecting,” but any subsequent revelation of sexual abuse in a religious organization or community has not caught me by surprise. I include one of the most recent, namely, the horrors of sexual abuse recounted by people who grew up in Amish communities.
Although there is much I respect about the Amish way of life, in particular, their rejection of war, it is as rigidly hierarchical — specifically, patriarchal — as just about any other highly-organized orthodox religion. The perceived proximity of the elders, priests, rabbis, ministers — or, in some cases, even the family patriarchs — to God gives them power and authority that is rarely questioned. Challenging the position of such a leader can lead to the loss of a person’s entire way of life, not to mention his or her family and friends. That, along with the suppression of knowledge about sexuality and people’s (especially women’s and girls’) bodies and the insularity of such communities, all but ensures not only that the vulnerable will be victimized, but also that victims will not have the language to express their experiences or the means to escape from the aftermath of their trauma.
So, perhaps, the Amish and ultra-Orthodox communities have even more in common than Witness suggested, though it might not have been what the movie’s makers had in mind.
When Thelma & Louise came out, it seemed that people reacted in one of two ways. Some viewers were unhappy that the two title characters fled after Thelma shot and killed the man who tried to rape her. Others — including nearly all of the women I knew — elevated those characters into heroes. One even said she felt a “catharsis” when Harlan is struck by the bullet from Thelma’s gun.
I could have said the same: When Thelma fired that gun, I vicariously struck back — at what? She did to her aggressor what I wish I’d done — to whom?
At the time I saw the film, I had not yet come to terms with the childhood sexual abuse I suffered from a priest. Those experiences were submerged within me, occasionally bubbling up through nightmares and unconscious behavior. Also, I was many years away from starting my gender-affirmation process. I was living as a man, with a deep hatred of the male species (that’s how I thought of them) and resentment of my membership in it.
I saw Thelma and Louise with the woman I was dating. She knew of my attitudes about men and referred to me, only half-jokingly, as a “male lesbian.” To her, my response to Thelma’s action was just an expression of how I felt about men generally. I accepted that explanation simply because, at that time, I couldn’t come up with a better one.
There was another part of my response to the film which I understood full well, but discussed with no one—not even my woman friend. I completely sympathized with Thelma and Louise running from the law. Actually, Thelma wanted to call the police, but Louise understood that no one would believe her claim of attempted rape, especially since Thelma had been drinking and dancing with Harlan before he tried to attack her. Now, I wasn’t drinking or dancing with the priest before he took advantage of me sexually, but I knew that even if I’d had the language to describe, and make sense of, what happened to me, no one (at least, no one I knew then) would have believed me. I grew up in a conservative community where nearly everyone attended the same church I did, and many kids were my classmates in my Catholic school. In such a milieu, nobody — especially a child — has more credibility than a priest.
A recent news story brought to mind my reaction to Thelma and Louise — and to earlier experiences. I first heard the story from a friend of mine in France, and it made its way into English-language media during the past few days.
A 19-year-old boy confronted the priest who, earlier, abused him. That, of course, is something I wish I could have done to my abuser, who died three decades before I spoke of his actions with anyone. Then the young Frenchman did a Thelma, if you will: He killed that priest.
I will admit that in hearing the story, I vicariously struck back at my abuser. Perhaps that reveals some baseness in my character. If it doesn’t, then perhaps this does: I also felt a vicarious thrill in picturing the young man vanquishing his abuser.
All right, I’ll admit: It was the way he tore the life out of that man of the cloth that so excited me. In fact, I’ll confess something perhaps even cruder: I found myself wishing I’d come up with the way he ended a decades-long string of abuses.
Now, I know that killing should never be condoned: I have opposed capital punishment from the moment I learned about it. Still, I have to concede that if I were on a jury at his trial, I would have a difficult time voting to convict him. I would hope that other jurors, and a judge, would consider not only Alexandre’s suffering, but also the way the priest “shattered a whole family,” in the young man’s words.
He was not being at all hyperbolic. Perhaps not surprisingly (at least, I’m not surprised to learn) the prelate, Father Roger Matassoli, is also alleged to have abused Alexandre’s father as well as other boys during the time he served in the northern French diocese of Saint-Andre-Farivilliers.
Alexandre probably knew about other boys Father Matassoli is said to have abused. What he and his father—as well as their fellow parishioners — probably didn’t know, until the allegations of abuse came to light, was the circumstances by which Father Matassoli arrived at their Oise parish. They probably knew only that he was transferred to their diocese from the diocese of Clermont in 1967 because of — you guessed it — allegations of sexual abuse which, of course, the church hushed up.
How many lives and families did Father Matassoli “shatter” there? We may never know, but at least that cycle has been broken.
Now I can only hope that young Alexandre gets the help he’ll need — and Thelma never got. I know how much they both need it: It took me nearly half a century to get help.
And help is all he can hope for. Although it’s tempting to see a young man ramming a cross down the throat of a priest who abused him as a kind of “poetic justice,” the truth is that there is no justice in situations like ours. I just hope that the French authorities understand as much. At least he is in a country where such help is not contingent on his (or his family’s) ability to pay for it, and where the church is losing its power to silence victims young and old.
Billy Graham, 1951, when he was still associated with the Sword of the Lord
Guest post by ObstacleChick
Recently, my New Jersey-based family took a trip to North Carolina for a long weekend to celebrate my birthday. We flew into Charlotte, rented a car, and traveled about an hour and a half west to our destination. My son, having visited Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina several months prior while visiting colleges, wanted to play our favorite highway game in the South – “count the Jesus signs.” The rules are simple: merely spot an overtly Christian billboard or other sign not part of a church campus.
We saw several more signs our first evening of driving, including a series of white wooden crosses with a different message on either side and elaborately floodlit so that they were visible at night. Apparently, these crosses are the work of Henry “Hank” Vegter, a Saluda, NC based Baptist pastor.
Here are some of the messages:
Jesus Paid It All
Blood Secured Redemption
Jesus Saves From Sin
Jesus Died For Sinners
Jesus’ Incorruptible Blood
My family thought it was funny when I told them that “Jesus Paid It All” is a common hymn, and I sang it for them. As my husband and kids have rarely ever attended an evangelical church service, they are always amazed at my wealth of knowledge regarding hymns, evangelical Christian messages and doctrines, and those doctrines’ implications for current politics.
My son was excited to spot the small yellow “Thank You Jesus” sign in a yard, as he recalled seeing dozens of them in North Carolina several months ago. One morning, we counted a dozen of these signs within a 30-minute time period. These signs were the brainchild of a North Carolina teen who wanted to spread the gospel. (Please see Thank You Jesus Signs.) These signs may be purchased to fund the 503(c)3 organization whose mission is to spread the gospel. In addition to the signs, one may purchase magnets, bracelets, and garden flags.
At the end of our trip, on our drive back to the airport in Charlotte, we saw more Christian signs. One from Gospel Billboards spurred a discussion. “The Bible: Wisdom, Correction, Truth” was the message, and I pointed out that the creators of the billboard probably wanted to say “Discipline” instead of “Correction” but most likely realized that “Discipline” might be off-putting to potential converts. I asked my husband and completely nonreligious kids what they thought when they saw that sign, and their reactions included ambivalence and rejection. We saw two billboards listing John 3:16 in full, but because the verse is so long and the font was difficult to read, my son had trouble catching the whole message, thus negating the purpose of the advertisement. Fortunately for all involved, my years of early childhood indoctrination ensured that I was able to recite the verse in its entirety.
At the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, we saw several signs that encouraged people to visit the Billy Graham Library. My daughter asked, “Who is Billy Graham, and why should I visit his library?” I explained that Billy Graham was a Christian evangelist who spent decades touring the world spreading the message of Christianity. My husband mentioned that Billy Graham was fairly free from scandal, unlike Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart and a host of other evangelists who quite publicly used their ministries for personal gain. My kids were fairly unimpressed.
If my mother or grandparents were still alive, they would be horrified that my kids know very little of Evangelical Christianity or its vaunted icon Billy Graham. My mom was “saved” at a Billy Graham crusade in Nashville in the mid-1950s. My grandmother rarely watched television, but she ALWAYS watched the televised Billy Graham crusades. I have a very vague recollection of attending a Billy Graham Crusade in Nashville in the 1970s, as a group from our church rode our church bus to the downtown Municipal Auditorium for the grand event. I wasn’t “saved” there as I resisted “going down front” for altar calls as long as I was able to avoid doing so.
Whenever I visit the South, I am reminded of the familiarity of Evangelical culture but am very much put off by it. My kids find the culture curious, and we are all bothered by the “Blue Laws” that affect us as malls and stores aren’t open until after church hours. And that was another question from my kids – how long does church last on Sunday? My response was that it depends. The truly devout attend hour-long Sunday School, followed by a worship service, and some churches have a coffee hour or some other “fellowship” after the service. They were both glad that they were not required to attend church services, and instead able to enjoy other activities.
Do you live in an area where there are a lot of religious road-side signs? Do you live in an area with blue laws? Are you nonreligious or casually religious but living in a religiously saturated area?
I was reminded of this while listening to the impeachment hearings. Pundits are referring to Gordon Sondland’s testimony in front of the House Intelligence Committee as a “John Dean Moment”: a reference to the White House Counsel whose 1973 testimony before the Senate Watergate Subcommittee implicated his boss, then-President Richard Nixon.
However, Sondland tying a quid quo pro to the man who gave him a job (ambassador to the European Union) for which he had no apparent qualifications—aside, perhaps, from the $1,000,000 contribution he made to said boss’s inauguration—is not the only echo of a scandal from the past. As venal as Donald Trump and his administration have been, there is, sadly, almost nothing new about the kinds of corruption that have marked him and it—or, perhaps more to the point, what has enabled that corruption.
People even older than I am, some of whom are lifelong Republicans, regard Trump’s administration as the most corrupt of their lifetimes. Historians are already comparing him with the most unethical leaders in American history, such as Andrew Johnson and Warren G. Harding.
The latter occupied the White House nearly a century ago. One of the darkest stains on his legacy was the Teapot Dome Scandal. Interior Secretary Albert Fall (such an appropriate name) leased oil-rich Federal lands in Wyoming in exchange for large bribes. For that, he became the first Presidential Cabinet officer to go to prison for a crime committed while in office.
Evangelical Christians, who overwhelmingly supported Harding’s election, didn’t seem to care much about the scandal, just as today’s Evangelicals (82 percent of whom supported Trump in 2016) don’t seem too upset that some of his associates, including his former lawyer, campaign chairman, campaign adviser and national security adviser, have pled guilty or been indicted for crimes committed in the service of their boss.
In another bizarre parallel with Trump, Harding had a number of extramarital affairs, including some trysts that took place in the White House. Oh, and some of the Ohio cronies he appointed to prominent positions helped to keep his shelves stocked with bootleg whiskey—after he himself voted for the Eighteenth Amendment (a.k.a. Prohibition) as a Senator from Ohio. Evangelicals, who—along with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union—supported the Amendment, were willing to overlook Harding’s flouting of the law as well as standards of sexual impropriety, just as today’s Evangelicals excuse “baby Christian” Trump’s two divorces, numerous extramarital affairs and sexual assault of scores of women.
In perhaps the eeriest and most damning parallel of all, Evangelical Christians’ support of two men whose behavior directly affronted the values Evangelicals professed had, at its base, the same essential motive: preserving their idea of a “Christian” nation. Harding’s predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, helped to build the League of Nations but failed to get his own country to join it. His efforts were of a piece with his refusal to support Congressional efforts to restrict immigration: efforts that would finally succeed a year after Harding died in office, with the Immigration Act of 1924. One reason Evangelicals supported this legislation is that the massive immigrations of 1880-1920 were almost entirely non-Protestant (Catholics? Jews? Oh, my!) and were thus seen as undermining the “Christian” culture of this country. On the other hand, the League of Nations was seen as an attempt to subjugate America to the authority of outside forces that, presumably, would have opened the floodgates to people fleeing poverty, violence, natural disasters and political corruption in all corners of the world
Like the Harding-era policies supported by Evangelicals, Trump’s “America First” policy is an appeal to a yearning for a country based on “godly” American values that are undermined by immigration from poorer, darker countries. Thus, in another parallel with the Harding administration, “Christian” is conflated not only with the beliefs of a few Evangelical and mainline Protestant churches, but with whiteness and Anglo-Saxon heritage. Moreover, that vision of Christian Nation America is one free of “entanglements” with the rest of the world. That, along with the benefits that accrued to the Trump family and a few others in their income bracket, is a reason why Trump took the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord (signed by his predecessor and nemesis, Barack Obama) and other international agreements—and claimed that he did so because he was elected to “represent the people of Pittsburgh, not of Paris.” In doing so, he was able to present himself, to his supporters, as a champion of the “traditional” white “Christian” nation of which they were a part.
Such blatantly false appeals lead to the selling-out of the interests of this country. Evangelicals of nearly a century ago enabled the corruption that led to Teapot Dome and other scandals; Fundamentalist Christians of today likewise enabled Donald Trump to use the security of this country’s elections, and potentially of the security of this country itself, as currency in exchange for military aid to a country that, for decades, writhed under the oppression of Russia, its neighbor and former-US-enemy-turned-Trump-client.
History is repeating itself. Gordon Sondland helped to confirm that.
Science is a process that methodically gathers knowledge about the natural world. Science leads us to knowledge about the world around us, and how it works. We all make observations about the world around us all the time, but those using the scientific method are careful not to jump to conclusions based on those observations until they are testable repeatedly and independently. This means that, for scientific findings to be valid, anyone with the right training and resources must be able to repeat the experiments and consistently come out with the same results. Science, though it is conducted by biased and imperfect humans, must be conducted in an unbiased way. Scientists have to learn to put aside their biases and preconceived beliefs before they conduct their experiments. Bias can very easily cause someone to misinterpret the results. This is the fundamental difference between the scientific approach and the approach taken by most people in society. If you have a favorite political party or sports team, you are likely to cheer for them no matter how they perform. Even if your sports team never wins, you may still convince yourself they are the best team. The difference between the scientific method and what I would call the political or religious method is best explained by the following illustration:
In the scientific method, all the evidence on a particular topic is examined. Then the conclusions are drawn from the findings of the evidence regardless of whether the scientist likes the conclusions or not. Conversely, in the political or religious method, the conclusion is generally formed first and then evidence is gathered to support that conclusion or theory. When it seems like science has been wrong about something, usually it is because scientists have not properly taken their bias out of the methods and therefore have misinterpreted their findings. A very important part of science is also acknowledging when you don’t have enough data to form a conclusion. (More on that later in relation to scientists being wrong all the time).
Deliberate Discrediting of Science and Scientists
There are two classic examples in recent years of how good science has been rejected because it conflicts with an agenda: 1) evolution; and 2) climate change. Evolution is a process that explains how biological diversity arises by changes in the inherited genotype (genetic make-up of the organism) and phenotype (the observable characteristics) through generations of offspring. The word “overwhelming” is often used to describe the amount of evidence supporting evolution. There is no doubt that evolution happens in biology, and that humans evolved from more primitive primate species (not monkeys!). Evolution is as established and verifiable as many other parts of science, such as gravity, germ theory, etc. I don’t need to list all the evidence in favor of evolution here, that information is available to anyone who honestly wants to know the truth. However, evolution goes directly against the concept that God created the species (including humans) as they are, and that humans are somehow special among the many species of animals. Therefore, those people who are unable to let go of their belief that God exists and that he created the species as they are, must reject evolution, try to discredit the science behind it, and even teach children known falsehoods in science classes, all because the truth of evolution challenges their pre-conceived conclusion that God created humans as we are.
Another example is climate change. The global climate is a complex phenomenon. There have been large variations and cycles in the earth’s climate throughout its history. Cycling between ice ages and warmer periods seems to be a natural occurrence. However, in the past decades, the earth’s climate has been changing much more rapidly than ever before. This has been occurring in concert with an increase in carbon dioxide levels, higher than they have been in roughly 100 million years. The rate of change is completely out of whack with the natural cycles that have happened in the past, and corresponds to the recent centuries of industrialization of our society and our massive increase in use of fossil fuels (which give off carbon dioxide). Again, there is no doubt in science about the facts of climate change. Though the process of climate change is not as established as evolution, there is no doubt that human activity is dramatically affecting the climate on our planet. But to alter this process would take some very, very significant changes in all our lifestyles. (This is the part where climate change deniers roll their eyes and claim that environmentalists would have us all living in caves). One of the huge changes that would have to take place is a shift towards cleaner energy sources, and there are very, very wealthy and powerful people who make all their money by having you and me use fossil fuels. They have an agenda, and they don’t care about the science. Therefore, the science of climate change has been very deliberately attacked by organized and well-funded groups with special interests.
Both of these (evolution and climate change) are great examples of the political and religious process of having an agenda or a conclusion, and then going out and looking for evidence to support that agenda, rather than forming conclusions based on all the evidence. Sadly, many people have been led to believe exactly the opposite: that scientists have an agenda with evolution and climate change, and they are making it all up to support their agenda. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Don’t Scientists Have an Agenda Too?
The short answer is no. Scientists are human, of course, so they all have biases and are capable of making mistakes. But the scientific method is specifically designed to remove human bias, errors, and agendas. The whole point of the scientific method is to discover without bias. Yes, some scientists have an agenda. Yes, some scientists do take money from funding agencies that want to prove they are right more than they want to discover the real truth about something (think pharmaceutical companies). But the vast majority of scientists deliberately try to remove bias from their work, look for the honest answer regardless of what they want the answer to be, and when they do have their findings, they present them publicly for others to review and criticize to ensure they are valid findings. That is the way good science is conducted in research institutions, and the vast majority of the time it works to uncover a lot of knowledge about the world around us.
If you get into a disagreement or argument with a scientist about his or her particular area of expertise, then one of two things is likely to happen. Firstly, and much more likely, you are wrong and are not accepting the evidence that the scientist is using to back up their position. (A simple example would be arguing with a physicist about whether the earth is round or flat. You are wrong. He is right. The physicist is right because he based his position on the evidence). Or, secondly, you are right and the scientist is wrong because he has either left the scientific method of examining only the evidence, or he has over-extended himself beyond what the evidence tells him. (An example of this would be if a physicist tells you that we know we are in the only universe in existence. We don’t have enough evidence to support that claim, and if a scientist claimed that fact, then he has forgotten not to extend his conclusions beyond the evidence).
Why Do Scientists Seem So Arrogant?
In short, because they are right! Remember, when they are doing their job properly, scientists only form their conclusions based on evidence and facts and limit their conclusions when they don’t have enough evidence. Therefore, when they do draw a conclusion about something, it is very, very likely to be correct. You’ll notice that it is very hard to win an argument with someone when they do this. Try to take the position in an argument that the sky is not blue, or that gravity does not exist and see how you do. If you knew nothing about gravity, you might think a physicist seemed arrogant for being so adamant that he is right about gravity. But the physicist is only adamant because the evidence overwhelmingly supports his position. If you base your arguments on evidence and are careful not to overextend your position beyond the evidence, then you will always be right, simple as that. Of course, most scientists have extensive knowledge on one specific topic that is far greater than that of the average person. Therefore, when you argue with them on that one topic, they are always right and you are always wrong (assuming they base their argument in evidence). This can seem like arrogance.
Of course, in reality many scientists do overextend themselves beyond the evidence and make claims that are not supported. Then they are just being arrogant.
Aren’t Scientists Wrong All the Time?
Scientific findings are often corrected as we learn more about the natural world. Sometimes scientists discover something and then realize down the road that their discovery was not quite right after all. But that is not a good reason to reject science whenever it conflicts with your particular preferences, and to explain it away by saying that scientists are often wrong anyway. The scientific method gradually produces knowledge and facts about nature, but one experiment might not immediately provide all the answers. For example, if you want to know whether drinking aspartame has negative effects on pregnant women, you don’t want to draw your conclusions after one experiment. After many experiments by many different scientists, we may discover the truth about that question. But each experiment by itself tends to give an incomplete picture. The important thing in understanding science is to distinguish between the findings that are preliminary and those that are overwhelmingly supported. If you read in the news about a study that found that eating seven carrots a day will reduce your risk of cancer by 36%, then you can likely assume that it is a preliminary finding. Much more research needs to be done to establish the actual benefits of a certain number of carrots per day. But, if you read a textbook on evolution, you would be wrong to roll your eyes and think that this is a preliminary finding. Over 150 years of scientific research in many different fields (geology, biology, genetics, microbiology, etc.) all lead to the same conclusions about evolution.
It is easy and tempting to look back over time and claim that scientists have been wrong about so much. You could look back in history and claim that scientists first thought the earth was flat and the sun went around the earth and so on. But most scientific claims have a degree of uncertainty to them. (Statistics dictates that certainty is not possible in any one scientific experiment. Most scientific experiments are set up statistically so that the likelihood of misinterpreting the results are roughly 1 in 20. But that does not mean that the chances of science being wrong on well-established findings are 1 in 20. For example, any single experiment on tobacco smoking leading to cancer will have a 1 in 20 chance of being wrong. But the chances that smoking does not cause cancer are much, much less than 1 in 20, almost infinitely smaller.) That is why scientists have to be careful to say that the evidence supports their findings, given what we know so far, but that there may be a lot more to the whole story. Scientific findings have to be interpreted with a great deal of humility about what we still don’t know about nature. Anytime scientists conduct one experiment and then claim to know the truth about that phenomenon, they are probably being hasty and arrogant. Only over time, with careful and unbiased repetition of results, can we state things to be true with a very high level of certainty.
Usually, when science has turned out to be “wrong”, it is in fact a case of a scientist having drawn a conclusion before there is enough evidence to support it, so that when enough evidence does come to light their conclusions don’t hold up. In ancient times, a true scientist would not have made assumptions about the earth being flat, but instead should have said: “We don’t have enough data yet to know what shape the earth is.” This is the approach modern scientists take on many unknown issues surrounding things like dark matter, and the exact origins of the universe. Since we don’t have enough data yet, we have to be careful not to draw too many conclusions. Sadly, this acknowledgment is often exploited by the religious with a statement that God must fill in the gaps in knowledge, or that since science can’t explain everything about the origin of the universe, God must have created it.
Can You Be A Scientist and A Christian at the Same Time?
It is possible, but very uncommon. In my time as a scientist, I’ve met very few scientists who are religious. The vast majority of those have grown up in religious cultures and families that they have just continued with in their lives as adults. When they go to work each day and conduct experiments, they almost always set aside their religion and just work as scientists. To work as a scientist and keep your firmly entrenched Christian beliefs in the forefront of your mind would create a conflict because science requires that we set aside personal biases. If your personal bias is that God created the world and is ultimately responsible for how everything works, then you’re unlikely to be very good at interpreting your scientific findings objectively. In my experience, the vast majority of scientists are not religious. Most of them, if asked, would probably admit to agnosticism since there is no sure way of knowing whether a god exists or not. The best answer I’ve heard on this was from my high school chemistry teacher. When asked if he believes in God, he replied: “You define God for me, and then I’ll tell you whether I believe in your definition.”
Are Science and Religion in Opposition?
This is an age-old argument. Carl Sagan’s fictional book Contact has a great debate on this topic. Everyone seems to have a different point of view on whether science and religion can co-exist. My position (which I am not saying is the only correct one), is that the two are in conflict. The whole point of this post has been to show that the scientific method is one that forms a conclusion only after examining the evidence. The religious method is the opposite: you hold a belief (or have faith) and then look at the world and find things that support that belief in God. If you always stick to the scientific method, I am confident you’ll never find a reason to even bring religion into the conversation. In my mind, everything in the world is explained naturally with no need for the supernatural. It was science that ultimately helped relieve me of my religious beliefs. After years of studying science, I finally realized that the level of scrutiny I demanded of myself for my religious beliefs was completely out of whack with the level of scrutiny for everything else in my life. I lived an evidence-based life, always being careful to critique what politicians and others claimed against what the evidence actually stated, but when it came to religion, for some reason, I just accepted what the Bible said about God without ever questioning it. Eventually I overcame that inconsistency in my life and left Christianity behind, so it is not surprising that my particular point of view is that science and religion are not just incompatible but are in direct opposition to one another.
I wrote at the beginning that: “for scientific findings to be valid, anyone with the right training and resources must be able to repeat the experiments and come out with the same results.” The beauty of science, therefore, is that it is freely available for anyone and everyone. No one can come along and claim to have knowledge that is not accessible to you. No one can claim that they know better than you, and you should just trust what they say without independently verifying that knowledge. You will notice that this is in direct opposition to the religious approach to knowledge by revelation. The Bible tells us that Jesus died on the cross and came to life again three days later. But this is not independently verifiable. You cannot test this claim. You must rely on someone else’s description of that event in order to believe it. This is exactly the opposite of the scientific approach. While you may have to rely on scientists’ description of things that are very complicated for you to understand, nothing is stopping you from going and getting trained in that field of science and then conducting your own experiments to find out for yourself if they are correct. If you do that, no honest scientist will ever tell you: “Yes, but I have superior knowledge and findings in my experiment, so I’m still right.”
Why Do We Need Science Anyway?
The way science is conducted is changing rapidly in universities and research institutions. Governments are focusing funding on things that they think are important and ignoring or actively discrediting the science that they think is either unimportant or that goes against their political agenda. This is not the way science is supposed to work. Science is a process of discovery, but you often don’t know what you are going to discover. Many of the greatest scientific discoveries in history were made more or less by accident when a scientist was actually looking for something else. When Alexander Fleming stumbled upon penicillin in 1928, he did so by accident. He wasn’t even studying antibiotics at all. Yet, that accidental discovery changed all of our lives for the better, probably more than any other medical discovery in the twentieth century. Imagine if governments had shut down Fleming because they didn’t feel his relatively obscure scientific research was contributing to society. The point is, you never know where the most important scientific discoveries are going to come from. So, trying to focus on curing cancer while stopping the study of sea-slugs would be a big mistake because ultimately the cure for cancer could lie in knowledge gained by studying sea slugs. When you limit the process of discovery, you limit the discoveries you will make.
The other very important reason that science is important in society is that if everyone took an evidence-based approach to life’s decisions, we’d have a much better world. There would be far fewer (if any) wars, and governments would be forced to serve the best interests of the population, and not the party. The scientific method teaches us to take a humble and open-minded approach to life. Don’t go into things assuming you know the answer before you begin. Stick to your conclusion if the evidence supports it, even if everyone else says you are wrong. But do admit when you are wrong. These are the hallmarks of a good scientist, but most of us don’t act this way when engaging in politics, marriages, friendships, conversations, and so on.
Summary: Why Is Science Relevant to a Discussion About Religion & Atheism?
What does science have to do with religion? Isn’t religion outside the realm of science? Doesn’t religion require faith, which doesn’t involve science? Well, science is all about basing conclusions on evidence. If there is no evidence for something, then it probably isn’t reality. Therefore, science is relevant to discussions on religion because there’s no objective evidence for God. If there was a God, and if there was evidence for God, scientists would be the first people lining up to tell the world all about it. Discovering that God exists would be the single greatest scientific discovery in history, for which any scientist would be glad to get credit, if only it were true. The reason scientists do not generally agree that God exists is not because of some agenda or some grand anti-religious conspiracy. No, the reason science does not support the existence of God is simply because there is no evidence to support that claim. All the claims for the existence of God (or gods) are based entirely on personal experience. All the personal experiences recorded in the Bible are examples of exactly the opposite process of discovery in science: they are not reproducible, they are not supported by evidence that anyone can observe, and they are not carefully controlled observations by people trained to be unbiased in their interpretations. This is where conversations between believers and scientists can start to go in circles, with believers claiming that God is outside the ability of science to detect and therefore does not require evidence, and with scientists claiming that nothing is outside the ability of science to detect and therefore God must not exist since there is no evidence for God.
I’ll conclude with a statement and a challenge. My statement is this: “Everything that exists is explainable by science, given enough time and resources.” I state this because my position is that there is only the natural world. There is no supernatural. Since science provides answers to the natural world, science has the answer for everything. My challenge is this: “Come up with a question, for which there is a definite answer, that science is not capable of providing an answer with a reasonable level of certainty.”
In 2014, Brandon Fibbs wrote an article titled “Carl Sagan Took My Faith — and Gave Me Awe,” for the now-defunct Washington Post “On Faith” blog. Fibbs wrote:
I was not always an atheist.
I was once a devout and sincere believer in the Christian faith. I am the son and grandson of pastors and missionaries. My family founded one of the country’s largest Bible colleges, Christ for the Nations, from which I earned a theology degree. For years, I contemplated, and began strategizing, a run for national political office under the banner of Christian reform.
The longer a belief system—any belief system—remains in place, the more likely it is to become an unmovable fixture of that person’s identity. In my experience, most persons of faith who undergo a deconversion experience do so during their middle or high school years. But that is not my story. I did not begin to question, nor finally abandon, my faith until my mid-30s.
That was when I discovered science. And Carl Sagan.
Carl Sagan was an astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist and author who became a household name in the early 1980s when his television series “Cosmos: A Personal Journey” became the most watched program in PBS history. Before his untimely death in 1996, Sagan was the nation’s leading science communicator, a regular guest on both the nightly news and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
But in my childhood home, Carl Sagan was a fundamentalist caricature of science. He was a figure of scorn and mockery, conjured in conversation only when one needed a large and easy target for pillorying evolution.
“Billions and billions of years” was a “Cosmos”-inspired quote my family and friends would mimic in Sagan’s telltale nasal inflection, always earning animated laugher. Not because it was fun to imitate so singular a personality, but because anyone who believed, much less preached, such nonsense deserved nothing more than sarcastic contempt. And so it was for most of my life.
As the product of a mostly terrific private school education, I never had to worry about encountering something like Sagan’s “Cosmos” in my school science classes. A literal reading of the book of Genesis, including a six-day creation, 6,000-year-old Earth, and a historic Noah and Tower of Babel, constituted our learning of cosmic and human origins. Evolution was a dreadful ploy spat up from the pit of hell, with which the world’s scientists were in complete collusion.
The closest I came to Sagan was in my mid-20s, when the film Contact, based on Sagan’s only novel, appeared in theaters. The story centered on a mysterious alien signal and the manner in which the globe’s many cultures processed the realization that they were not alone in the vast universe. I, like many people who saw the film, found it awe-inspiring. I can still remember returning home from the theater on a euphoric cloud, opening my Bible, and reading with wonder the majesty of God’s creative prowess.
A year or so later, I decided to read the novel, and while it entertained a certain ambiguity where matters of faith were concerned, the book initiated my first-ever crisis of faith. “Contact” raised and inspired questions that neither I nor anyone I knew could satisfactorily answer. I resolved that crisis of faith not by reconciling those quandaries, but rather by listening to those who told me that the questions themselves were either wrong to ponder or not even worthy of my time. I decided to ignore the questions, telling myself my faith was as strong as ever.
But the questions festered, continuing to grow and feeding off my neglect, until they were too large to ignore. I could not be intellectually honest and continue to ignore them. They demanded a verdict. And when I finally turned to face them down a decade or so later, I found that all my years in church and all my academic training was not enough to halt their advance.
I did not abandon my faith because I was hurt or angry or disillusioned. I did not abandon my faith because I wanted to rebel, or live a life of sin, or refuse god’s authority. I left because I could no longer believe. I left because I felt there simply was no convincing evidence for my belief. I left because my faith insulted reason one too many times. I left because once I applied the same level of skepticism and incredulity to Christianity that I always had to all other faiths, it likewise imploded. Once I accepted that the Bible’s account of cosmic and human origins could not possibly be true, I began to realize that it was just the first in an interminably long line of things the Bible was wrong about.
Science killed my faith. Not “science,” the perverse parody invented by some Christians—a nefarious, liberal, secular agenda whose sole purpose is to turn people from god—but rather science, an objective, methodological tool that uses reason and evidence to systematical study the world around us, and which is willing, unlike faith, to change direction with the accumulation of that evidence. Science is a humble and humbling exercise. Science is the impossibly dense core of curiosity—always asking, always seeking, always yearning to know more, never satisfied.
My newfound appreciation of science came, in no small part, from the writings of my old nemesis, Carl Sagan. What I discovered in Sagan’s elevated verse—particularly in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark and within the baker’s dozen of the series “Cosmos”—was one of the most transcendent experiences of my life. Here was a man who could stir both body and, if you will allow me a bit of poetic license, soul.
While Sagan’s personal views set him safely in the camp of atheism, he was more comfortable claiming the title of agnostic. He certainly never made it his mission to destroy anyone’s faith. His sights were always set on something far higher. His mission was to build up, not tear down.
As I read, I began to wonder—why had Sagan been so reviled? His manner was so meek, his words so respectful, his position so evenhanded. He was compassionate and affable, even when he quarreled. Certainly, he was nothing like the thought leaders of modern unbelief, such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, who take pride in their public disdain for religion. Sure, Sagan was staking a position against mythology, irrationality and pseudoscience, but he was so, well, kind about it.
Perhaps it was this very gentleness, warmth and humanity that made him so much more menacing than his ideological peers, then and now. He did not attack so much as elevate. He spent only as much time as was necessary dismantling those things that posed a significant threat to rational living, instead focusing most of our attention on the wonders science had revealed.
So it was with my own deconversion process. I had a mentor in the final years of my faith—a name with which everyone reading this is familiar—who never took my spiritual tumult as an opportunity to hack at the foundations of my religion, but who also didn’t turn his back when I came to him with my quandaries. He never attacked or belittled my faith. He merely redirected my gaze to the wonders that can be found within a scientific framework and let everything else take care of it itself. He simply showed me something unspeakably beautiful and inarguably true and then stepped back, trusting in a process he knew would ignite my brain and consume my body. Whether he knew it or not, he was walking in Carl Sagan’s footsteps.
This, for me, is Sagan’s most enduring legacy—this realization that science is the most emotional journey imaginable. Science does not castrate awe or inhibit transcendence—science unleashes it.
Though I am no longer a person of faith, I retain an understanding that there is something vastly and, at times, unfathomably larger than myself. And while this thing does not have intent or agency, so far as the evidence shows, that in no way modifies the wonder and majesty that washes over me when I contemplate it. Having removed a god from the equation, I counter-intuitively possess a greater sense of awe now than I ever felt in faith.
This immersion in something both utilitarian and grandiose was the definitive purpose of Sagan’s work. He does not inform; he immerses. He does not teach; he transports.
Science—that minuscule word saddled with the burden of representing the entirety of the colossal human enterprise of decoding the world around us and how we fit into it—is the greatest endeavor humans have ever undertaken. Routinely taught as a dull set of facts and figures, science is the most sweeping adventure we can know. With it, hairless apes build great cities, do miraculous medicine, see the unseeable, stir the dust of other planets, and peer back into space and time. While faith purports to have all the answers, science thrives on the questions.
Carl Sagan did not invent this wondrous tool, but he was one of its most eloquent advocates. His voice, like a clarion call in a dense miasma of irrationality, can still be heard, clear and true.
Afterward, Fibbs engaged one of his former Bible college professors in a discussion about his post and science in general. Readers will likely find their conversation quite entertaining, especially when the Bible college professor uses classic Evangelical apologetics methods: quoting Bible verses and threatening hellfire and brimstone. When boxed into a corner and Jesus is not listening to your prayers for deliverance, quote the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God and threaten people with Hell.
[Grammar in the original]
Bible college professor: Shout! Can’t believe 12 inches of snow in the “Big D”….Wow! Gotta love Gores imaginary global warming.
Brandon Fibbs: Ignoring your lack of understanding between weather and climate, that *is* amazing!
Bible college professor: Yep Brandon, I am one of those who actually refuse to drink liberalisms elitist “cool aid”…Don’t ya just hate it when freemen employ their discretionary judgment?
Brandon Fibbs: We call it scientific literacy but you can call it whatever you’d like! 🙂
Bible college professor: Funny….and they call Evolution science… Hmm… better stop drinking the coool aid bobo!
Brandon Fibbs: I prefer to drinks facts. Far more nutritional value!
Bible college professor: Brandon, you keep gettin funnier. Global warming- facts is an oxymoron.Didn’t you read the fabricated emails from the G.W. elitist? Shout! I prefer “Truth truth” as to home made-imagined-birthed in deception ‘facts”. You seem selective Brandon, how is truth [facts]knowable? definable? Aren’t facts just man-made interpretations? How can we know anyones “interpretation” isn’t just made up or influenced by their bias? Seems you put your trust in” depraved humanity”being able to define truth without bias or prejudice affecting their interpretation while rejecting inspired biblical writers? Ouch! Don’t yajust hate it when “someone thinks it through and outs the inconsistency demonstrated in yer hypocrisy?”… Love ya-mean it!
Brandon Fibbs: I want to note that I did not inject God into this conversation. I called you out on your lack of comprehension between weather and climate. I brought up the issue on the most basic of etymological, scientific terms. You immediately introduced both God and the origins of the universe. Not that I am surprised. Richard, you are a stereotype of modern evangelical charismatic Christianity, someone who, from all I have seen here, finds his religion and his political ideology so intertwined that he doesn’t know where one ends and the other begins, someone who sees liberalism as some sort of blanket affront to his faith (as are those who practice it). Take comfort in the fact that you are far from unique in this ideological misappropriation.
Some clarification is called for. Science, distilled to its simplest terms, is any systematic practice capable of predicting an outcome. It does this by acquiring knowledge based on research, by study, by observation. Science is an ongoing effort of discovering the previously unknown, to increase human knowledge—not through supposition or assumption or faith, but through disciplined research that uses controlled methods to collect observable evidence of the world around us—to chart and measure that phenomena under controlled conditions and from that, construct theoretical explanations for how things work overtime in the real world.
Science (not necessarily scientists) is not ideologically driven. It is data-driven. Its interest is the truth, no matter what that means to the one monitoring the data. You achieve this by a strict, peer review process that basically encourages other scientists to blow holes in their colleagues’ work. When enough try but cannot, you can be pretty sure you have a strong consensus. Like we have on global warming. And yes, evolution. Seeing as how science as we know and apply it wasn’t even “invented” until midway through the last millennium, I find if laughable that you insist on a book written predominantly by Bronze Age (and a few Iron Age) peasants who lived during a time when the world’s population believed things even you now find utterly preposterous.
Most Christians reject evolution, microbiology, planetary cosmology, neurology and dozens of other scientifically valid disciplines as a matter of daily practice. They are the literal liturgical descendants of those who persecuted Galileo and denounced the work of Copernicus. My model invites skepticism and dissent, yours cannot tolerate it. And while yours no longer has the unchecked power to do so, it once punished or killed those who disagreed with it. There is a reason Christians prefer to educate their children in their basements, or in ideologically indistinguishable communes or entrust them to pederasts (the latter part assumes you even consider Catholics true believers, which I doubt): this is far safer than exposing them to a view of the world that insists you must be able to prove what you believe.
It would be pedantic to list the social evils caused by the rejection of science and its intellectual and philosophical fruit. But those who refuse to embrace science and instead insist on ancient mythology have been on the wrong side, the evil side, and the obviously stupid side again and again. But of course they deny that. After all, denial is easy when forgiveness is cheap and you regard history as some sort of secular lie.
Compromise? Convince them of the error of their ways? Easier to plow the sea, and just as useful. When you point out evidence, it’s ignored. When you point out where they are wrong, it’s ignored. And why? Because they have the ultimate trump card. They don’t answer to man, but to God. And how does a mere mortal contest against God? You believe your truth is incapable of criticism because it originates from a deity. Your Bible allows you to sidestep logic and basic, elementary rationality and call it a higher truth, truth with a capital T. It’s all very convenient. It allows you to adhere to something at best unprovable and at worst demonstrably false and yet charge the person calling you out as the ignorant one. Quite the free pass. You base the totality of your interpretations of the natural world on a book written millennia ago, yet I’m the ignorant one. You offer no refutation based in empirical evidence. You refuse to bend to proof and are not even expected to. In the face of overwhelming consensus you can always play the higher power card. When backed into an irrational corner, you can always claim that I am debased and that God mocks those who are wise in their own eyes (which, as this string shows, you have already done). Why let a perfectly good fantasy get in the way of facts. You can’t lose because you never once actually participate in the game. Yes, very convenient indeed.
Yet somehow I’m the selective one, I’m the inconsistent one, I’m the hypocrite. Hypocrisy is, by its definition, a pretense of having a virtuous character, moral or religious beliefs or principles that one does not really possess. Please explain to me how that is the case here. According to you, I’m a hypocrite for no other reason than I don’t believe what you believe, because (gasp) I think human beings can arrive at truth without a god. What an interesting world you must live in where the scientific method is somehow deemed depraved.
Christians believe without evidence. They order their lives without evidence. They kill without evidence. They die without evidence. And they call this cognitive disconnect faith. Show me evidence against something and I’ll disbelieve it. I don’t believe in anything that can’t be proved. I may suspend disbelief in the absence of proof, but my mind will always follow the proof. If there was evidence for something other than evolution—an angel with a flaming sword guarding the Garden of Eden, for example—I would consider it. An angel with a sword would go a long way toward transforming Genesis into an accurate narrative. Yet the world we both live in cannot support your mythology and is suffused on all sides by evidence of evolution. And yet you continue to cling to your stories, secure in faith and faith alone. Judgment Day never comes, prayers get answered with the exact same percentages as randomness, and miracles never get repeated on film. (And when was the last time God healed an amputee?)
I will never convince you and you will never convince me because our worldviews are antithetical to one another. Some scientists claim religion and science can coexist. Many more Christians say the exact same thing. Yet how is such a thing possible precisely because of what you wrote above? It is not. And why? Because you BELIEVE. You JUST KNOW. As with all adherents of all religions down through all of time.
You claim facts are just man-made interpretations and simultaneously that every word in the Bible is true? Very well. Guzzle this antifreeze. The Bible says you will be fine. Evolutionary biology offers a very different result. And for this reason, you cannot beat faith with logic or reason. And so, after posting this comment, I will not even try. Your religion has damaged your critical thinking skills.
I would rather place my faith in a system of check and balances, of research and observation, of discipline and evidence, yes even in flawed, biased people than in a prehistoric book you continue to awkwardly stretch to fit a contemporary era thousands of years on, an era that daily exposes just how tattered and incapable your beliefs are of operating in a world that no longer needs its mythologies to explain how the world works.
Bible college professor: Brandon, Brandon, Here is how your apostasy is viewed by The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…. in his own words:
You have become a fool and as a Reprobate, God’s wrath has given you over to your vile passions.
22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. 24 Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, 25 who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. 27 Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.
You can expect severe divine judgment!
26…. no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. 28 Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
May it be so!
Brandon Fibbs: Indeed. As I’ve said before, you are nothing if not predictable, going so far as to perform precisely as I predicted, in print, that you would. And once again, you prove you are philosophically and ideologically incapable engaging the argument but rather turn to your narrative crutch. Rather rude of God to hamstring His followers and make it impossible for them to engage in, much less win, a debate without blatantly ignoring the issues and falling back on the tried and true declarations of hellfire and brimstone. When you’re ready to talk without taking the cheap way out, I’m here. Till then, this is a waste of my breath. I’m done.
Looking back on my 1988 valedictory address at an Evangelical Christian school, I would like to put my remarks into some context. Some of you may have read parts of my story in other posts, but the quick summary is that my mom and I left my abusive dad in Knoxville, Tennessee when I was three years old to live with my grandparents outside Nashville, Tennessee. My mom held some relatively progressive views on racial and gender equality, and she encouraged me to read and to ask questions. She even admitted that a lot of things in the Bible might be allegory instead of historically accurate. Sometime during my adolescence, I realized she had turned thoroughly Christian Fundamentalist, forbidding movies such as “Star Wars” which we had previously enjoyed together.
Additionally, due to rumors that students in my public school district were to be sent to a predominantly African American school district, my mom and grandparents decided to send me to an Evangelical Christian school for grades 5-12. This school taught everything from a “Christ-centered Biblical view” — which means we learned lame apologetics for Young Earth Creationism, were required to take Bible classes, attend chapel, and were forced to abide by a gender-specific dress code. I hated that school.
My grandparents were very active in the Southern Baptist church in our rural community. Grandma became a neophyte culture warrior, and Grandpa was a deacon who quietly helped anyone in the community (whether a member of our church or not) who he heard was in need. He was a master of connecting those in need with those who were willing to help. Grandpa also taught me that my education came first and that I should NEVER EVER be dependent on a man financially. His biggest dream was for me to attend Vanderbilt University in Nashville. It became my biggest dream, too, and I determined to excel academically to make it happen.
In my endeavor to achieve academic excellence, I came to look down upon my peers as inferiors. In my estimation, popular culture was cheap, anti-intellectual, and as useless to one’s intellectual improvement as cotton candy is to one’s nutrition. However, I also grew to look down upon the pastors and leaders of our church as teaching anti-intellectual doctrine. I considered the (male) teachers at our school to be only slightly better. My viewpoint was exacerbated by my exposure to working with Ph.D. Biochemists at Vanderbilt University when I was 16 years old. My mom worked in the Biochemistry department as an administrative assistant, and due to our lack of automobiles, I had to work wherever was convenient for my family in terms of transportation. At 16 years old, I got a job as a dishwasher and lab assistant at the university. I was able to meet highly educated people from all over the world. I knew these were the people I wanted to be like, not the Christian Fundamentalists of my church and school world. However, I knew that the Christians among them were not Real Christians®, and some of the scientists weren’t Christians at all. It became difficult for me to reconcile the Fundamentalist teachings of church and school that these people were damned to an eternity in Hell with the reality that they were kind, intelligent, socially active human beings. These people became my mentors and my friends as I worked with them for eight years (two years before college, during college, and for two years afterward).
As a high school student, I did not have many friends. Students attending the Christian school came from far and wide, so some of my classmates lived a 30-45-minute drive away and I did not always have access to a car. I was not allowed to participate in activities outside school (except for piano lessons to which my stepfather drove me each week), so my goal was to excel in everything I was allowed to do. My competitive nature, coupled with my determination to gain admittance to Vanderbilt, fueled my path to academic and musical dominance. I refer to it as “dominance” because my goal was not merely to learn the material, it was to master the material and to score the highest grades. It wasn’t uncommon for me to “blow the curve” on tests, where I would score 100 and the next highest score might be 85 or even in the 70s. I was known as the “smartest” student in school, and I relished that title.
However, I was a depressed and angry teenager. I felt utterly trapped in a school where everything must fit within a “Christ-centered Biblical worldview.” For Bible class, it was easy for me to regurgitate the material. While there were gaping holes in our education about history (for example, we never learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement), we weren’t required to recount history in a particularly Christian manner — just the facts were required (the facts as they were presented, that is). And looking back, I believe our English teacher was struggling with the confines of Fundamentalist Christianity as he only preached in chapel the minimum required number of times, and he walked a fine line with the literature he selected for his classes. (Years later I heard that he and his wife divorced, and he took a job as a truck driver, traveling the country, and no one seems to be able to find him.) In most classes, there would be discussions of some sort about God, the dangers of secular humanism, the ridiculousness of evolution, and the erosion of society due to people “turning away from God.” And let’s not forget that every chapel service was a reminder that we were all filthy sinners in need of the saving grace of Jesus in order to escape eternity in hell.
I resented that my whole life was supposed to revolve around giving glory to God. “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman who needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 KJV). This was one of the mantras of the school. The other was this: “Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” (1 Timothy 4:12 KJV). As a student, I worked hard for my success and thought I deserved recognition for it. Maybe God had given me intelligence, but I had worked hard to use it. I hated hearing all the “God talk” where people were thanking God for this or that in which humans had more of a hand than an invisible deity seemed to. These praises seemed obsequious to me, as from someone seeking favor from a deity they feared.
Students in our school were encouraged to attend Evangelical Christian universities. The administration and faculty wanted as many students to follow a “Christ-centered Biblical” path as possible, both to promote this as a benefit to prospective parents and because they felt it was the right thing to do. Many of my classmates were personally steered toward these types of universities. I was the only one who was not steered in that direction. It was also a benefit to be able to promote that not only do most students attend Christian universities and become pastors or teachers, but the academics are so sound that they can also be admitted to nationally-ranked universities.
When it was time for me to write my valedictory address, I had a lot of different emotions. I was ecstatic to finally be free of the shackles of the “Christ-centered Biblical” education and able to pursue secular education. Additionally, I still looked down on the majority of my peers who were secretly (or not so secretly) listening to rock music and attending parties — to which I was not invited — instead of forging a path for their future (in my opinion). Furthermore, I considered graduation a celebration of my hard work and accomplishments, and I wanted to make sure that was evident to all in attendance. Neither did I want to sully my accomplishments with “giving glory to God.” I was a pompous jerk, excited about having the freedom to escape Evangelical education for the opportunities available in “the world.” While I did have some trepidation about navigating “the world” — partly because I was more sheltered than my public-school-attending peers and partly because I was still afraid of what God might do to me if I strayed too far from the fold — I was glad that no one tried to stand in the way of my pursuit.
My valedictory address reflects my contempt for my peers (hence no congratulatory message to my peers) as intellectual and cultural inferiors. It reflects my arrogance in my own intelligence and willingness to read what I considered to be intellectual books outside those assigned in class. It also reflects indoctrination regarding the “evils” of rock music, premarital sex, drug & alcohol use, and divorce. However, it also reflects that I did not refer to salvation due to a return to Christian values or praying to God or any other Christian trope. I didn’t let the door hit me on my backside on the way out of Christian school.
At the university, I was active in the Baptist Student Union during my first two years and attended church services at a large Southern Baptist Church near campus. However, I took courses that opened my eyes to the false claims of inerrancy and literalism of the Bible, which led me to question much that I had learned in religious circles about human behaviors, and overwhelming, incontrovertible evidence contrary to Young Earth Creationism. I befriended people from different religions, people who were LBGTQ — who were cut off from their religious families for just being who they were — and people who were from different cultural, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. Gradually I lost some of the intense fear of the Evangelical Christian God and was able to live my life freely. Again, I didn’t let the door hit me on my backside on the way out of Fundamentalist Christianity.
Although she attended Mass and didn’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent, she was hardly the Catholic version of a “Holy Roller.” She never talked about her concept of God, and of our many conversations, I can’t recall more than a couple that included any talk about our beliefs or even religion. What little she knew of Roman Catholic doctrines, she learned in Catholic schools during the ‘40s and ‘50s. And she knew even less of theology in general, or the Bible itself; even in my generation, Catholics weren’t encouraged to learn about those things for themselves. She often expressed disagreement, or even disdain, for much of what she heard from priests and fellow parishioners. I was only partially joking when, during one of our conversations, I exclaimed that she believed even less than I, an atheist, of what the church teaches.
The real reason she sent my siblings and me to Catholic schools, she said, was that she felt it offered “a better education” than the local public schools—and, on the money my then-blue-collar father was making, secular private schools were out of the question. To me, that is consistent with what she once told me was the main reason she continued to attend mass on Sundays (and on weekdays during times of crisis): “It’s comforting. It’s something that doesn’t change.” In other words, although I don’t doubt that she believed in God and adored Jesus, I think that she saw the church and its educational institutions as things she could depend on when other things in her life changed or failed.
Of course, I do not share my mother’s trust in the church, and not only because I survived sexual abuse from a priest. Other experiences, including my formal education, and my inquisitiveness, would undermine my ability to believe. I think that my mother understood as much, and saw my loss of faith in both the church and in God as more or less inevitable. (As far as I know, she never knew about the abuse.) My mother sometimes talked about what she might have done differently: She would have gotten more education (she didn’t finish high school), developed a career of her own and had her children later than she did. I have to wonder whether her church-going habit would have withstood such changes.
As it was, she began to hold views, and engage in practices that would have been unthinkable in the church of her youth. She was never homophobic or transphobic, but she told me—years before it became a popular view—she thought people should be allowed to marry people of their own gender. She expressed that belief even before I “came out” as transgender and started my own gender affirmation process. Although she didn’t think abortion “is a good thing,” she understood that there are times when it’s better than allowing a child to be born to someone unwilling or unable to be a loving, nurturing parent. Oh, and she had a Do Not Resuscitate order, which was carried out along with her wish to be cremated.
Signing the order to remove my mother’s life support was “the hardest thing I ever had to do,” my father said. But he knew of my mother’s wishes, and he has the same wishes for himself. While he has never declared himself an atheist or agnostic, my father doesn’t have much, if any, more belief in the church, or religion generally, than I have. Nor does one of my brothers, even though he was baptized into another church; something he did, he admits, mainly to be accepted by the family of the woman he married.
My sister-in-law, however, is firm, even adamant, in her religious beliefs. So are my other two siblings, who have remained in the Catholic Church, and their spouses, who were raised by families more devout than ours. Not surprisingly, all of those in-laws and the two still-Catholic siblings disassociated themselves from me as I began my gender-affirming process. As you can imagine, having to deal with them for the first time in many years has been stressful. Just as difficult, though, is having to countenance not only their religiosity, but their smugness about it. They believe that the only way to mourn my mother, or any other deceased, is through expressions of their religiosity, including ostentatious prayers. They do not understand that my way of mourning is more private because, for one thing, I’m simply more introverted and, for another, I care more about the relationship I’ve had with the person I just lost than with any appearance of piety. To them, the fact that I will enter the church only for my mother’s memorial mass—and not for any other ceremonies or prayers—is proof not only of my immorality (why else would I “change” my sex? they ask) but also that I didn’t truly love my mother. In their eyes, only the Godly—which is to say, those who adhere to their religious practices—can truly love anyone; never mind that one sibling and spouse, at least, have constructed their lives to avoid contact with those of different races and economic classes from themselves.
My mother did not approve of their “holier-than-thou” attitude, let alone that they shut me out of their lives. But she still loved them. Likewise, she didn’t always approve of everything I did—including, at first, my turning away from the church and faith altogether—but she loved me. And I love her. That is all we have now; that is all we ever could have, or could have had—whatever else we did or didn’t believe in.