I thought I would kick this back up to the front page in the hope that some of you would see it and agree write a guest post about your Christian School experiences.. Please contact me if you are willing to do so.
Chris Stroop, an ex-evangelical, recently launched the #ExposeChristianSchools hashtag on Twitter in response to “Vice President Mike Pence and conservative commentators like David French lambasting liberals over legitimate criticism of Second Lady Karen Pence for choosing to teach art at Immanuel Christian School in Springfield, Virginia—a K-8 school that explicitly discriminates against members of the LGBTQ community.” Needless to say, Stroop’s effort has caused a tornado-level shit-storm. You can read Stoop’s article on the fallout from #ExposeChristianSchools here.
ObstacleChick sent me a two-part guest post detailing her experiences attending an Evangelical Christian school. As I read her submission, I thought, maybe there are other readers who would like to share their Christian school experiences. If you would like to do so, please email me via the contact form. Anonymous submissions are fine, as are pseudonyms. I hope some of you will consider adding your voice to the discussion. I plan to write a series of posts detailing my experiences as a pastor who started an Evangelical Christian school. Several months ago, the local school superintendent and I were chit-chatting and he asked me, “so where did your children go to school?” I chuckled and responded, “well, that’s a long, convoluted story I will have to share with you some day when we have time.” I hope this series will provide a vehicle by which I can share my past experiences and readers can understand why I, today, oppose the anti-culture, anti-human beliefs and practices used by many, if not most, Evangelical Christian schools and home schoolers.
Stay tuned. I have lots to share, and I hope other readers of this blog will too. Your voice is important. I look forward to hearing from you.
About Bruce Gerencser
Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
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New York City and State are often seen as liberal, progressive bastions in a conservative nation. Indeed, The Big Apple was a leader in passing laws to protect the rights of tenants, workers and LGBT people, and The Empire State legalized abortion and same-sex marriage before other states and the Federal Government got around to doing the same.
Even so, the city and state have other statutes that seem retrograde and even racist compared to other states. An example of racism is in voting: It’s more difficult to do than in just about any other city or state. And the things that make voting difficult almost invariably place the greatest burdens on the poor, and on ethnic and racial minorities.
Among the laws that are simply retrograde are the ones that governed the reporting of child sexual abuse. Currently, criminal or civil charges can be brought against an abuser until the victim’s 23rd birthday. Only Alabama and Mississippi have more restrictive regulations, while nine other states have no statute of limitations at all.
So why does one of the “blue” islands in a sea of “red” have laws that, frankly, do more to protect the perpetrators than the survivors? One could argue that New York passed such legislation a long time ago, when it didn’t seem quite so restrictive, and simply didn’t bother to change. That could be said about the state’s abortion laws, which allow the procedure up to 24 weeks into the pregnancy. When the law was passed, three years before Roe vs Wade, most states still didn’t allow abortion at all. But, after Roe vs Wade, the relative strength or weakness of New York law didn’t matter, because Federal rulings supersede state statutes.
Likewise, when the state’s current regulations about reporting child abuse were enacted, they may well have been more progressive than those of other states—if, indeed those states had them. Indeed, there was little or no discussion of the issue, and there was a common belief that the victim was somehow at fault—or, at least, should just “move on.” But now the time is long past to acknowledge the pain and suffering too many of us have carried—in some cases, for decades, or even to our graves—and to allow us to achieve whatever measure of justice may be available to us.
On Monday, the New York State Assembly passed, by a vote of 130-3, a bill that would allow prosecutors to bring criminal charges against a perpetrator until the victim’s 28th birthday. It would also give victims the right to sue until they turn 55. In the Senate, every single senator, Democrat and Republican, voted in favor of that same bill, which Governor Andrew Cuomo has promised to sign into law.
If you want to know why this law is so necessary, all you had to do was watch—and, more important, listen—to the press conference that followed the vote in the state Capitol. It included testimony from survivors, some of whom were the very legislators who voted for the bill. A few of them were talking about their abuse for the very first time.
That grown men and women were breaking the silence around sexual abuse they experienced as children and teenagers is a measure of how the law is necessary—yet still inadequate. There are still many of us who grew up in places and times where such abuse wasn’t discussed because the authority of abusers wasn’t questioned. Moreover, whatever education we received included no lessons about our bodies: As I recounted in an earlier essay, when a priest molested me, I didn’t even know the names of the parts of my body he touched.
The incidents I can recall most vividly and terrifyingly happened between my ninth and tenth birthdays. I did not talk about them with anybody for nearly half a century. So, even with the new law, I would not be eligible to sue. Many other people my age, or older, are in similar situations.
If some lawyer for the Diocese of Brooklyn (where I was abused) is reading this, he or she is breathing a sigh of relief. There are surely many others like me (I’ve talked to a few), and the Diocese and Roman Catholic Church know it. So, I am sure, do many other religious organizations as well as insurance companies and the Boy Scouts of America.
Those organizations are the chief reasons why New York has taken so long to pass legislation to widen the statute of limitations for reporting child abuse. One thing about New York’s “liberalness” is that it allows freedom not only to racial, ethnic and sexual minorities, but also to reactionary religious sects. That is why, for example, ultra-Orthodox Jews can influence New York’s elections and public policy in ways they never could anywhere else in the United States. It has also, for nearly two centuries, given the Catholic Church influence it has never enjoyed anyplace else in the nation, save perhaps in Boston, Rhode Island and Louisiana.
Those religious organizations are also the reasons why the bill isn’t as strong as it could be. Lawsuits from survivors are already bankrupting dioceses in other parts of the country; the Archdiocese of New York and the Dioceses of Brooklyn and Buffalo surely know that they could suffer the same fate. I am sure that other religious governing bodies came to the same realization. Just two weeks before the bill’s passage, Cardinal Dolan wrote an opinion piece declaring that he had to protect the church from Governor Cuomo’s efforts to “single out the church and weaken its ministry.”
But the state’s bishops realized they were fighting a losing battle. They said they would support the bill as long as it applied equally to public and private institutions. Then Dennis Poust, one of their spokesmen, said the bishops would call for even stronger protections than the ones provided in the new Child Victims Act.
Those bishops, along with other religious leaders in the State, did everything they could to stop the bill from passing until they knew it was going to pass. But, just as Roe vs Wade galvanized anti-abortion activists, I believe that passage of the law—as welcome as it is, at least in comparison to what it’s replacing—will cause those bishops, as well as the clerical and lay leaders of other religious organizations, to do whatever they can to keep victims from exercising their rights under the law. That is why we, the ones who were abused by priests and other religious leaders, need to be as vigilant as pro-choice activists have had to be in the 46 years since Roe vs. Wade. Especially in “deep blue” New York.
Since my deconversion, people have asked me how I feel about dying. I tell them that I feel nothing, it would just be the end.
I have had two life-threatening instances over the last 3 years, and neither one has caused me to “cry out to Jesus.”
When I was still a believer, I was scared of death. I knew I was going to heaven, but the thought of death scared me. This is actually the most ridiculous thing ever, since my place in the clouds had been bought and paid for with the blood of Jesus®️. The Apostle Paul talked about people who had been held captive by their fear of death being freed by belief in Jesus. For myself, and most Christians, it wasn’t true, though. I have heard so many Christians talk about lying in bed, in the dark of night, afraid of hell/death/sickness/etc., and praying for Jesus to take the fear away. After the prayer, they are ready face that nasty old Devil again. Why should they be afraid, though? Doesn’t perfect love cast out fear? Aren’t the fearful some of those who won’t see the kingdom of God? I see this as a direct result of the fear-mongering peddled by church leaders of every stripe. They use our fear of death to keep us subjected to their power.
I think, though, that it is the fear of the unknown that scares people. No one has come back from the dead and told us what is there. If you believe nothing is there, then you have nothing to fear. If you believe angels or demons await, then there is a huge fear. The dirty little secret is that you can never really know for sure you are saved. There will always be a little doubt, tucked away somewhere. That is what gnaws on you in the middle of the night, as you lie awake in bed.
My fear of death was mostly cured by Calvinism. One day, I realized it didn’t matter how I felt, I was pre-ordained to either Heaven or Hell, and nothing I could do could change that. That freed me from most of my fear. My deconversion shook away the last remnants of the fear of death. I now understand that there is nothing, death is just the end of this life.
What I do fear is how I might die, and the possible pain involved, but that is a rational fear. I also am sad at what I will miss; that is also normal. Kids growing up, grandkids, friends prospering. I’m selfish and I would like to experience all of it. I also fear being forgotten. In two or three generations, almost no one will know I existed.
I have come to terms with all of that, though. I’m not looking to jump in front of a train, but I’m not going to shrink back when it is my time.
I’d like to finish with this quote. It gave me joy and I hope it will for you, too:
So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide. Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and grovel to none. When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision. When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.
I’m reading a history book (Early Modern Europe: An Oxford History edited by Euan Cameron) in which there is a section by Robin Briggs (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robin_Briggs ) about religious thought in the 1600s. I have been struck by how much “modern” Evangelical thinking still reflects the same thought patterns.
The author talks about “the continuing domination of theory over facts; intellectuals used the latter [i.e. facts] to support preformed concepts rather than to test them, so that referential accuracy was still low on most people’s scale of values.”
Doesn’t this describe a lot of Evangelical blather? The pastor says the Bible says X, so anything that doesn’t fit the what the pastor says is distorted or ignored. The important thing is to preserve the myth.
Briggs continues, “For most thinkers of the time change for the better usually implied a return to an allegedly superior past, through the removal of corrupting elements.”
My comment in one word: MAGA.
To quote further:
Significant numbers of both clerics and laity, in all the major religious denominations [of Europe], were making a strenuous attempt to live out true Christianity as they understood it. In the process they rejected numerous traditional compromises, recognized only absolute moral standards, and tried to extend the sacred into all areas of life. These enthusiasts were always a minority, but more tolerant – or perhaps lukewarm – Christians often found it difficult to resist them openly. Scripture, the Church Fathers, and logic itself appeared to be on their side. Their ultimate aim was to turn passive Christians into active ones, who did not just participate in ritual activities stage-managed by others, but internalized the faith as a moral code and way of living. Conversion and a change of life were key concepts here, built around the inspirational power of the word. Preaching and religious writing were to carry the message around Europe, where missionaries were just as necessary as they were in heathen lands beyond the seas.
Remember, he’s talking about the 1600s, not the 2000s.
Ultimately, this type of reforming Christianity tended to fragment as much as it united. The closer the bonding between enthusiasts, the sharper the divisions between them and their opponents; the practice of defining oneself against the ‘other’ was much in evidence here. Internal splits could be ferocious …
On the international scale confessional tensions remained high, for despite the similarities between the creeds they continued to regard one another as mortal enemies, while as churches became more national this hostility might be reinforced by xenophobia [as in, evangelicals wearing MAGA hats]. Different countries vied for the position of the ‘elect nation’ favoured by God [as in, America as the new Jerusalem].
There were some obvious motives for rulers to associate themselves with religious reform, which offered a boost to their power and prestige, and a means to trump [Trump?] potential critics.
So next time you are tempted to argue with an Evangelical, remember that you can’t take their arguments at face value. Their thought patterns are rigidly set in a deep layer of brittle concrete that has been curing for at least 400 years, and they can’t yield on anything because one crack can bring down the whole structure.
This Thanksgiving, I will not be in any situation in which I will have to pray — or, at least, mouth words that sound sufficiently like prayers to please the people around me. The people with whom I will share dinner are not all atheists, but even the ones who still believe do not expect public expressions of faith from me, or anyone else.
I am thankful for that. I am thankful that the people with whom I will spend this holiday are in my life.
But I am also thankful that I don’t have to thank God for them. Instead, I can truly feel gratitude to them for being loving and kind people. Even if they give credit to the God they believe in, I am thankful that they share what is best about themselves — their pure and simple humanity — with me.
I will be thankful for the food we will share. Knowing the people who are cooking it, I am sure it will be good. It is a gift of their love and munificence; I am grateful that people can choose to share as they do.
I am most grateful, though, for what will make this year’s celebration truly special for me: During the past year, I’ve begun to move forward from the sexual abuse I suffered from a priest half a century ago. The essays I’ve written about it have, of course, been part of that process.
I am grateful to and for Bruce for publishing them. I am also grateful for the supportive, encouraging comments some of his readers left in response to my writings.
I am thankful that I don’t have to thank God for any of that. Why would I thank such a God for abating my suffering — after letting someone inflict it on me and letting that person go scot-free?
For that matter, why should any victim — whether of sexual abuse, war, poverty or other kinds of violence — thank God if and when things get better? Would we thank someone for putting out a fire after setting it?
I am so grateful to know that I don’t have to be thankful such things, for such people.
And I am thankful that I have met people who are better — than the priest, than those who inflict cruelty and destruction, than God.
All of the gratitude I will express will go to the ones who will share their holiday feast with me; and to the ones who helped me to get to where I am now, and who are helping me to understand where and how I might go next.
My brother recently posted on social media a link to an article in Charisma Magazine regarding a sermon by John Lindell, pastor of James River Church, a church with four campuses in Missouri (Ozark, Joplin, and two campuses in Springfield) along with live streaming option. The title of the sermon is “Haunted: Pursuing the Paranormal.” According to the church’s website, this James River promotes the Bible as “accurate, authoritative, and applicable”; a Triune God; symbolism of communion of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection to empower us for life; that belief in Jesus along with baptism in water, setting our minds on God and His purposes, and being filled with the power of the Holy Spirit will allow us to lead the power-filled lives that God intends for us; that Jesus is coming back again to rule and reign on this earth and that history will end as the wicked are judged and the righteous will inhabit a new heaven and earth.
If you have nearly an hour to spare and care to watch his message, please watch the following video. (I was cooking at the time, so at least I was productive while listening to this ridiculous message.) Otherwise, I have provided a very brief summary below.
In the sermon, Lindell warns of Satanic and demonic influences of five major practices common in our “post-Christian” society. He opens the sermon describing Satan as a fallen angel created by God who convinced a third of the angels to rebel with him, thus becoming demons. He says that as a created being, Satan is not all-powerful or all-knowing, and that Satan is a murderer, a liar, and a destroyer. He will be defeated by God one day.
The first practice Lindell warns against is seeking information via the paranormal, such as reading horoscopes, consulting psychics, using an Ouija board or tarot cards. He says that these people are either charlatans trying to take your money or they are opening a door to Satanic and demonic influences. The second practice is attempting to connect to powers, energies, or forces by using physical objects such as crystals or amulets or dream-catchers which supposedly open a portal to demonic activity or influence. The third is practicing Wicca, and the fourth is the typical admonition not to watch movies or read books or participate in any other media not promoting Jesus/God/True Christianity. The fifth is the warning against practicing Yoga, and his description of yoga is one of a false demonic religion (Hinduism) that opens one up to demonic influences.
As an atheist who does not believe in deities or any other supernatural forces, beings, or auras, my reaction to his sermon is that this is all ridiculous fear-mongering in order to keep the congregation away from any outside influences that might run counter to the teachings of the fundamentalist religion. Indeed, Lindell says that opening one’s mind is dangerous. Of course it is dangerous to fundamentalism, as someone may learn concepts in biology, physics, sociology, psychology, archaeology, or any of a variety of other scholarly pursuits that contradict dogmatic religious teachings.
What fascinates me is that these Christians believe that God/Jesus/Holy Spirit and all the angels are on Team Good and Satan/Beast/False Prophet/Anti-Christ and demons are all on Team Evil. It reminds me of comic books or novels, but these Christians believe that Real Live Spirits are duking it out for possession of our puny little human souls. Pastor Lindell believes that physical paraphernalia such as crystals, Ouija boards, and movie posters as well as the practice of chants, mantras, or poses (as in yoga) open up actual portals that allow these demonic spirits to affect us physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually (and frankly, I don’t know what spiritualism is so I use the term loosely). Pastor Lindell states that all religions other than Christianity are false religions and therefore demonic. Practicing these religions is tantamount to inviting demons into one’s home.
Yoga isn’t my favorite type of exercise, but I do it from time to time and find that it can be good for stretching and for improving my flexibility and balance. These aspects are important as we get older, particularly for those of us who do exercise in a single plane of motion such as running and weightlifting. Additionally, I like wearing yoga pants, as they are comfortable and encourage easy range of motion. Never have I experienced any demonic influence or activity while wearing yoga pants, though according to my husband and 16-year-old son, they may have had lustful thoughts – possibly demonically inspired – when seeing attractive women wearing yoga pants. That’s their problem, not mine.
Here’s what my fervently devout Christian brother commented on the article:
In its origin, design and intent, yoga is worship of Hindu deities. The word yoga means ‘to yoke’ and by extension ‘union’, as when two oxen are joined together under the same harness to plough a field. It refers to the yoking or union of the individual with the divine, and specifically, to Hindu deities. In India, hatha yoga is the physical path to the divine; the devotee dedicates his body to god through ritualistic exercise and hygiene practices. The centerpiece of yhoga is the sun salutation in which an invisible entity receives homage through a series of bowing, kneeling and prostration poses and is entreated through a series of supplicatory skyward reaching poses and prayer gestures. Aside from the salute, many yoga poses represent Hindu deities and/or are designed to direct or contain energy flow, like canals and locks that channel or dam water.
Yoga is idolatry and incompatible with Christianity. Despite the practitioner’s best intention, yoga cannot be divorced from its original purpose and redirected to some other use such as mere exercise or communion with the God of Abraham.” (Quoted from an article written by Corinna Craft)
It is no secret that meditation and prayer exert positive activities in the brain. Research shows through magnetic resonance imaging that the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex — the mid-front and back portions — are activated during prayer or meditation. These regions are responsible for self-reflection and self-soothing. Meditation and prayer can also trigger the release of oxytocin and other “feel-good” hormones in the brain, therefore positively reinforcing the behaviors. Stretching, on the other hand, promotes other types of benefits such as increased flexibility and range of motion, improving posture, and increasing blood flow to muscles. Paired with meditation, as in certain types of yoga, these activities can allow one to experience physical and mental benefits concurrently.
Of course, a fervent Christian who believes that yoga provides demonic pathways would say that demons are deceiving us by creating mental and physical rewards for allowing them into our plane of existence. Honestly, if someone believes that there are demons, that demons are actively seeking to influence us, and that certain objects or activities open portals allowing demons to enter our plane of existence, I really don’t know how to have a rational conversation to allay those fears. Extreme forms of fundamentalist religion do a fantastic job of labeling anything “other” as “demonic,” thus inducing fear in followers in order to dissuade them from seeking activities or knowledge deemed by the religious authorities to be inappropriate. My husband suggests that I continue to be a quiet contrarian, gently stating viewpoints explained through scientific and historical evidence. Perhaps one day a nugget or two of truth will get through to my brother. In the meantime, I will practice my downward dog while wearing my yoga pants.
I don’t remember the exact date when I decided that I would not label myself as a Christian anymore. It’s probably been a couple of years — a gradual process, not a one-time event. Ironically, my deconversion was mainly due to a very in-depth, two-year study of the Bible and its history. Don’t get me wrong, I had studied the Bible for years previous to this. But it was always with the denominational glasses I had on at the time, and the theology books about the Bible that were written by authors within that same camp. Once I started studying with an open mind (at least as open as I could manage at the time) and read books by many different authors, wow! . . . I finally came to a place where I just couldn’t believe it anymore.
Recently, for some reason, I started thinking about my life when I was part of the Christian religion versus where I am now. Back then, I was happy where I was. I didn’t leave the church because of some hurt or disappointment, it was just what I thought I was supposed to do at the time. Once away from the influence of the church, I was able to study and ponder more freely, using my own mind to decide what I believed, and not what I was told to believe.
Now that I don’t hold to any of those beliefs, I’m also happy. It’s nothing that I can quantify, so it’s just my experience. I think I’m happier and better equipped to handle life now. I’ve learned a lot about the human brain and my own personality. Through that understanding and some meditation practice, I was able to come out of a four-year depression. I prayed and prayed for my depression to be lifted from me, but it wasn’t until I gained some understanding of how my brain works that I was able to take steps to head out of it.
I have some level of pain in my body most days. It’s from various things such as scoliosis, arthritis, years of running, karate, weight lifting, etc. I was very active in my youth and always just pushed through the pain. I eventually got to the point where I had to abandon most of my athletic activities. During this time, I prayed and prayed for healing. Nothing changed. I eventually found a tai chi instructor and started doing yoga. I was also able to find a good chiropractor. These helped me greatly! It could be argued that these were “answers” to my prayers. I guess that could be, right? But I did go looking for these tools hoping for some kind of relief. I am now relatively pain free compared to several years ago.
I am better off financially than I was when I was in church. I faithfully gave ten to twenty percent of my gross income to the church, trusting that God would take care of my needs. I didn’t go broke or anything like that. In fact, I had some pretty amazing things happen along the way to keep me going financially. But after I quit giving all that money to the church, I was able to come out of debt for the first time since graduating from college in 1991. I’m all for giving to charitable organizations. I still give to organizations that I believe in. But when I took some time and started saving and/or paying my debts with the money I gave to the church, I was able to pay off stuff and have the money to give without putting myself in a bad financial situation.
What about all those friends that I left behind? Good question. I enjoyed the fellowship that I had with lots of people in the church. But once I left, I realized that those were task-based relationships. And there is nothing wrong with that. We all have them, whether at work, our kids’ activities, or people we meet while doing our hobbies, etc. When I left the church, I did not hear from one church member. Again, they were task-based relationships, and I get that.
I have fewer “friends” now than I used to, but the friendships that I have now are deeper and more real and they let me be myself, and vice versa.
That’s something I really don’t miss! Putting on the “church face,” especially if you are on staff. “How are you today, pastor?” “Blessed and highly favored, brother. Ha ha ha haaaa.” I rarely felt the freedom to be real with people. And I rarely felt that they were real with me.
Remember all those bad things that we thought would happen to us if we didn’t do what we were told to do? Well, guess what? I don’t attend church anymore, I don’t read the Bible anymore, I don’t pray anymore (I no longer believe that there is a god to pray to, at least not the Christian version of god), I don’t tithe anymore . . . and nothing tragic has befallen me because I don’t do any of these things. Oh sure, I have to deal with the occasional cold or unexpected expense or the death of a loved one. But that’s just life! I had all those things going on when I was a Christian. Now that I’m away from religion, I feel as if I can see a little clearer. I have non-religious friends and religious ones, and they all deal with life, just as I do. Sometimes tragedy befalls us. No one is exempt. But, oddly enough, I feel like I handle the difficulties of life better now than I did in my religious days. I’ve learned to flow with life better — the good and the bad. Instead of wondering why a prayer wasn’t answered or why God would let something happen, I just realize that everyone has ups and downs. Sometimes people make good decisions and sometimes they make bad ones. I’ve learned a lot from secular Buddhism and Taoism over the last few years, and that helps me. I’m not saying I never get down or frustrated or angry. But I much prefer my current mindset and outlook on life to the way I used to see things.
I rarely feel bad about myself. Depending on the flavor of Christianity people come from, they are constantly told that they are sinners; worthless crap that Jesus had to die for so they don’t go to hell. Man, that just sounds weird to me now! I’m not saying that I’m always what people would call a saint. But I try not to be a dick, choosing instead to treat people the way I would like to be treated. Oh, by the way, that’s in the Bible. LOL! And sometimes, I do act like a dick, but I do my best to treat people decently. I remind myself that life can be really hard and people are just trying to get through their day. so I try to be kind. Not for any future heavenly reward, and not for any medals, or a better life next time around. Just because . . . It feels good to be kind with no hook or ulterior motive. (Like, if I’m nice to this person, maybe they will come to church with me. Gag!!!)
Anyway . . .
Overall, my life is better now than when I was a Christian. At least my outlook on life and the way I handle things seem to be better. I wouldn’t go back to the religious days.
I was not raised in a religious family, so my path to atheism was much smoother than the terrifying, rocky road traveled by so many others who comment and post on this site. My father was diddled by a camp counsellor and rejected religion for himself. My mother died when I was 17 after a long struggle with cancer, so I don’t know much about her religious beliefs, other than that she didn’t believe in heaven. They both thought it important to send (not take) their children to Sunday school. So, the message I got was that religion — meaning middle-of-the-road Protestant Christianity — was something I should be exposed to, but it wasn’t important enough to warrant providing me with any guidance. Thankfully, I was never inculcated with the belief that I was born sinful and depraved, and if I don’t accept the truth of the Bible, I would face eternal hell and damnation, though I was aware of Christian eschatology.
When I was nine-ish, I had a Catholic friend named Jimmie. Every Saturday morning, we would go up to the Catholic church and I would wait outside while he went in and said his confession, which, he said, was so he would be free of sin at mass the next morning. Then we would spend the rest of Saturday raising hell.
When I was 14, I took confirmation classes at the local Presbyterian church, not because we were Calvinists, but because it was the closest church to where we were living. It was a mainline church — no speaking in tongues, rapturous praise or healings, just intellectual Calvinism with a dour Scottish Canadian aftertaste. Even at that age, I could see that you can’t reconcile free will and predestination. If you’re predestined to go to heaven, why be good? And if you’re predestined to go to hell, why be good? The minister and I agreed that I wasn’t to be confirmed. I’m still not.
A couple of years later, after my mother died, I found myself sitting in a nearly empty church willing myself to believe in God, Jesus, anything. But I just couldn’t do it. So I said to myself, what will happen to me if I give up this effort to will belief? The answer, as I learned over the next 50+ years, was that good things happen and bad things happen, but believing or not believing in god has no impact on what actually happens.
Shortly after that, I went to university and studied history, comparative religion and especially existentialist philosophy. My religious beliefs crystallized into a credo that I have carried with me for the rest of my life.
There is no god. That means, no Christian god, divine Jesus, Holy Spirit, archangels, angels, saints, virgin mothers, Satan, devils, demons or any other imaginary creatures in the mythical Christian heaven and hell. It also means no Jewish god, Muslim god, Hindu gods, Greek gods, Norse gods, native Great Spirits — no gods at all. None.
There is no divine, spiritual or metaphysical force in the universe that is concerned about the fate of individual humans or humankind in general — no fate, karma, luck (good or bad), balance, horoscope, traditional sayings or anything else controlling or even influencing what happens to people. In other words (and this is not an original thought), the universe is completely indifferent to individual humans and the human species.
Souls? Don’t believe in them. I believe people have personalities that emerge from our biology and our experiences and are remarkably persistent over time. However, when we die, we’re done. There is nothing that is me that lives on. Whatever me is beyond a bunch of organic chemicals, is no more. (Memories of me may live on in the memories of those who know me and in the records I leave, but when no one remembers me and all the records have been lost — which will be the fate of most of us — I will be nothing.)
There being no afterlife, there is no need to fear death.
Evolution is the best current explanation for millions upon millions of empirical observations.
Evolution is not progressive. Species do not evolve traits for a purpose, they evolve traits as a result of random mutations that fortuitously but unintentionally improve the species’ survival chances in the face of constant environmental pressure and change. Evolution does not work toward what lies ahead; it has no goals.
For example, our species didn’t develop eyes so we could see, we have eyes because billions of years ago some organisms randomly developed light sensitivity; that light sensitivity was positively associated with species survival; as time went by, organisms with light sensitivity developed more and more complex light-sensitive organs with positive survival implications. Our eyes are not the epitome of a progressive evolution toward human eyesight. They are just one of many diverse light-sensitive organs that emerged from the random mixing and mutation of DNA in the context of environmental change. We don’t even have the best eyes.
Likewise, the human species is not the goal or end result or peak of evolution. The idea that humanity is the progressive end result of evolution is a theological, not a scientific position, though it has been held by many scientists. Humanity developed very recently (in geological time) and is in all likelihood a doomed branch of a branch of a branch of the evolutionary tree. It is just one species among millions, most of which are extinct, with no privileged status. The inevitable fate of humanity is extinction, though we may be one of the few species to actually bring about our own extinction. There is nothing in the nature of things to prevent it. Bacteria have better odds of survival than humans.This one took me longer to wrap my head around.
I believe that living my life according to humanistic values and principles provides a better life for me as an individual and improves the society I live in. Improving my society is positively associated with survival of my species, a social species. I believe that humanistic values and principles are better for individuals and society than religious values and principles, but not because of any supernatural warrant of their superiority. I believe this to be the case because I have empirically observed that it works.
Some humanists promote the belief that there is a universal moral law that humanistic values make the world a better place. By doing so, they make humanism into a religion, where, instead of a mythical deity or universal force at the centre, the focus is on a mythical entity called “humanity.” I find it ironic that one of the oft-repeated mantras of humanism, a nontheistic belief system, is that human life is sacred. Go figure.
I believe that the following modern fallacies are highly dangerous to the survival of our species:
God would not allow the human species to extinguish itself through nuclear war.
Global warming and other forms of environmental degradation are not a real threat because God favors us.
War is okay if God is on your side.
Extreme nationalism is okay if it is cloaked in evangelical fervour.
Racism is okay if you can find justification for it in the bible.
The 2,000+-year-old collection of a stone-aged tribe’s myths, legends and laws is the inerrant word of god. Same thing for the 1,300-year-old Koran and the less-than-200-year-old Book of Mormon.
So, how should a person who wants to be good act? This is what has worked for me:
Be tolerant of other people’s beliefs, as long as the people who hold them don’t try to harm you.
Focus on the positive.
Create good memories.
Create a community around yourself consisting of people who want to help you when you need help by helping others when they need help.
Focus on the people close to you — in my case, family, friends, staff, clients — people for whom you can make a difference.
Don’t spend time and energy worrying about things you can’t do anything about, like earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, volcanoes, etc. in places far from home, or the moronic president of another country.
Be wary of people who claim they have “the answer” to a problem because it is so easy for such people to slip over into proselytization, extremism and fanaticism. Answers that affect large swathes of people always have sweeping unintended consequences that, if predicted, are usually downplayed in their proponents’ zeal to change the world. Real change is usually a lot harder than it first appears.
Avoid psychopaths, sociopaths, adults who are still adolescents, narcissists, excessive neurotics, maladaptive perfectionists, and people whose minds are closed due to religious and political ideologies that promote divisiveness and intolerance.
Avoid people who don’t think for themselves, sponges and sharks, two-faced arseholes, power-hungry social climbers, people who lack a sense of humour, champions of big ideas, liars, thieves, con artists and mental and physical abusers.
So, you might ask, am I not in despair about there being no deities, no heaven or hell, no afterlife? After all, what I describe is a bleak, cold, uncaring existentially absurd world in which I have no future after I die.
Well, no, I’m not in despair. To despair, I would have to believe that things could have been different — that is, the universe could have been designed to be more accommodating to human needs, and in particular, to my needs. To me, that would be the height of hubris – to believe that I and my species are so important that everything that has happened since the big bang was about creating a world for us.
So at 72, when I look back over my life, I realize it could have been better, but it could also have been worse — a lot worse. If I were religious, I would say I have been blessed, but since I’m not, all I can say is I have been fortunate. I hope that in the years I have left, I will be able to help a few people who are close to me to feel that they too have been fortunate.
My daughter is a freshman at Vanderbilt University, and my husband and I joined a social media group specifically designed for parents of the class of 2022. Parents were invited by the university to join it as a way to introduce themselves to each other and to provide a forum for parents to post concerns, questions, and comments. For some parents, it has become a place to seek solace as they are missing their children. For others, it is a forum for complaining on behalf of their child (or perhaps not on behalf of the child but about something the parents are concerned about). Still others use it to share information about the best companies that deliver fresh cookies or birthday cakes to campus, or to compare notes on their child’s success using Uber vs. Lyft.
Recently, a parent posted an article from the student news publication regarding religious holidays. The article was written by a Jewish student who wanted to take some days off class for Jewish holidays and was told by her professor that he/she considered the absences unexcused. The student was furious as she canceled her flights home for the holidays. The student appealed to the Director of Religious Life, and he stated that professors have discretion in allowing absences for religious holidays. Unsatisfied with the answer, the student appealed to an Associate Dean, who stated that mature students know how to make the choice between education and religion. The Dean equated being religious to having a musical or athletic obligation – that religion is a choice in the same way that other activities are choices. The student maintains that one’s religion is not a choice and detailed that some of her family members had died in the Holocaust. The student also argued that as academic calendars are usually structured around Christian majority holidays, only those who practice minority religions are affected by the calendar structure and must seek accommodations to practice their religious faith.
The student then appealed to the Title IX Office, which developed a religious obligations form that students can submit requesting religious absences to the Title IX Office at the beginning of the semester. The Title IX Office will submit the form to the professors who then must grant students their requests for religious accommodations.
My first thought was that the university could provide a list of major religious holidays from a broad range of religions to professors at the beginning of each semester so that professors could anticipate conflicts that may occur. However, how extensively should the university go in researching major observances of religions? How many religions? Obviously, we all know the Big Three Abrahamic religions as well as Buddhism and Hinduism. Many have heard of Sikhism, Wicca, and Rastafarianism. But what about other religions that are not so well known, like Jainism, Bahai, Shintoism, Tenrikyo, Juche? I suppose the easiest logistical answer is for professors to excuse anyone for any religious request, but it may be that some professors were concerned with students taking advantage of religious liberty to rack up excessive absences. Perhaps the religious obligations form filed through the Title IX Office is the easiest way to accommodate students on a case by case basis.
Logistics aside, I did take issue with the student’s assertion that religion is not a choice. I think she is confusing the idea that many Jewish people consider themselves to be of Jewish heritage regardless of practice. People do not have a choice regarding their ethnicity, but they do have a choice whether they practice a religion, as many of us deconverts can attest. For example, I was raised in a household that practiced Southern Baptist Christianity, but I no longer consider myself to be a Christian of any sort. I made a choice to stop practicing Southern Baptist Christianity decades ago, switching to a more progressive Christianity for a while, and later to no religion at all, taking the label of agnostic atheist. Perhaps I could claim a Christian heritage, though I do not have a desire to do so at this time. I joke that my children’s last name confers upon them their Irish Catholic heritage, though neither has set foot in a Catholic church more than a handful of times and each takes the label of non-religious (and atheist in certain circles).
One may also make an argument that some people may feel that they have no choice but to practice a certain religion. Certainly in some countries where religious freedom does not exist, one may need to appear to practice a certain religion for one’s safety. In other cases, it may be difficult for one to break from one’s family’s religion, making relationships with family members difficult for the deconvert. Most of the time, children have little say in the matter and must follow whatever religious practices their parents require. But for an adult in a nation with religious freedom, whether one practices a religion or not is one’s choice. It may be inconvenient or place strain upon one’s familial or social relationships, but it is still a choice.
Do you think that practicing religion is a choice or not a choice? What are your thoughts on the way a university which strives to be diverse handled the situation?
And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Matthew 28:19,20)
And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. (Mark 16:15,16)
Those of us raised in Christianity recognize these verses as the “Great Commission,” the charge to go forth and spread the message of Christianity to the rest of the world. As the only Christian religion in the western world for nearly 1500 years, the Catholic church took this message seriously. Since the Edict of Milan in 313 CE decriminalizing Christianity and gaining Emperor Constantine’s patronage, and later the Edict of Thessalonica of 380 CE making Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, the Catholic church was intertwined with government for centuries. Spreading a religion is quite easy when supported by the government.
Some Evangelical Christians have taken the Great Commission seriously as well, raising large sums of money to support missionaries to proselytize the “lost” throughout the world. Sometimes the “lost” include Catholics, who are not considered “True Christians” by many Evangelical sects. Anyone who is not part of “True Christianity” is considered “lost” and thus ripe for evangelizing. Evangelical Christians are also exhorted by their pastors to proselytize to their neighbors, friends, and coworkers. Where I grew up in the Bible Belt, most of the people I knew were more or less the “right” type of Christians — Southern Baptists as we were, a variety of other types of Baptists, Church of Christ, Methodists, Church of the Nazarene, etc. It wasn’t until I was 16 and went to work that I met people who were Episcopalian, Lutheran, Catholic, or other “wrong,” “liberal,” or “apostate” Christians. I even met some people who were Hindu, Buddhist, or Jewish. It’s possible that I met a few atheists and didn’t know it! The horror!
During college, I was exposed to ideas that led to my further questioning of Evangelical teachings of inerrancy of the Bible, and by the time I graduated I knew that I needed to escape from the religion. So I applied to graduate schools far away from Tennessee, away from my family and from any pressure to attend their church. Moving to New Jersey, just a stone’s throw from New York City, I was exposed to a wide variety of people and ideas. While it was a culture shock at first, I thrived on learning from the people I met.
My husband was a high school math teacher who started his own tutoring business providing classroom support and SAT and ACT test preparation to high school students. He works with students one on one at their homes, and sometimes he gets to know the students and their families quite well. Before we had children, one of the early clients invited us to a barbecue at their home. They had a large, lovely home with a landscaped yard and beautiful pool. Somehow, my husband and I found ourselves surrounded by a group of guests who all appeared to be in their late teens and early twenties. We had a nice conversation, and suddenly a coffee-table book appeared and one of the guests started showing us pictures of the Bahá’í temple and explaining the Bahá’í faith to us. They told us the miracle story of their prophet Bab who had survived a firing squad of 750 shooters and was found back in his prison cell when the guns fell silent. He was brought out again to a new firing squad as apparently the original executioners refused to participate again, and this time he was killed by gunfire. The Bahá’í evangelists continued to tell us about their religion, and we listened politely.
What. The. Hell?
After we left, my husband asked me if we were just part of some sort of intervention. I explained to him that no, we were targets of proselytizing. As he was raised nominally Catholic and had never experienced proselytizing before, he was very surprised that it could occur in the United States. I explained that Evangelical Christianity does the same thing with their own faith and then commented that the Bahá’í stories were strange. As he aptly put it, their stories were no more strange than Christian stories of a virgin giving birth to a deity’s son who teaches and does some miracles, is crucified, and who supposedly was resurrected from death after three days. I couldn’t argue with his statement.
My husband and I did not become Bahá’í, by the way. In fact, within a decade we had both become agnostic atheists.
A few months ago while we were doing a Spartan race (obstacle races of varying distance and difficulty), a thunderstorm came through and racers were removed from the course and sent to various sheds on the ski slope for safety. When the race resumed, it was nearly dark, so those of us with headlamps were able to make our way safely through the woods. I ended up coming across a young man without a headlamp who had gotten separated from his teammates, so I led him through the dark. He was a Jehovah’s Witness whose entire family were employed at the sect’s headquarters in upstate New York. Cognizant of where the conversation was heading, I let him know that I was raised Southern Baptist before he could start witnessing to me about Jesus. He seemed to be satisfied that I knew Jesus, and technically I did not lie. I debated letting him know that I was currently an atheist, but I didn’t want to scare the poor kid with the knowledge that he was alone in the dark with a middle-aged atheist wearing a headlamp. While I was 28 miles into a 30-mile race and thus physically depleted, my mind was still sharp, and it’s likely that a Jehovah’s Witness would believe that atheists are controlled by Satan which might be scarier to him than the black bears inhabiting the mountains.
Have you ever been the target of proselytizing? What did you think about the experience? Did it lead you to find out more about the religion or did you find it annoying?
Sometime around 1800 B.C., an Akkadian stoneworker chiseled into rock a remarkable story.
It seems there were two ranks of gods, important gods who made all the decisions, and lesser gods who did all the work. One day, assigned to dig some canals, the hot and dirty and tired worker-gods decided to go on strike; “You are killing us,” they complained.
The impasse was broken by this proposal: the important gods would create a new creature to do the hard labor, man, but the leader of the strike had to be sacrificed. It was so agreed, and man was created from the dust, the water, and the blood of the sacrificed god.
But, as so often is the case, there was a fly in the ointment — the men were noisy at night, and the gods weren’t getting proper rest. After several warnings, the gods decided to get rid of men and sent a flood to drown them all. Only one man and his family survived, Atrahasis.
It’s easy to see in this tale the roots of two of the Old Testament’s best-known stories, the Creation and Fall, and Noah’s flood.
Now skip forward almost 4000 years to a story that is true, to the copper mines in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. There, the mines employ thousands of laborers imported from all over the world; newspapers are published daily in more than a dozen different languages.
In June of 1913 the miners — who live in company-owned housing on company-owned property, buy their food at company-owned stores, and earn less than $2/day — call a wildcat strike. At Christmas they are still out, and on Christmas Eve they gather on the second floor of Italian Hall for a meager Christmas party for their children.
Soon after things get going, a strikebreaker enters the hall and shouts “Fire!” There is a panic, the door at the bottom of the stairs doesn’t open and there is a crush; seventy-three people, mostly women and children, die. The most widely-read local newspaper is owned by a mining company, and it becomes a tale of unruly foreigners impinging upon the prerogatives of a benevolent company. Nobody is ever prosecuted for the shout of “Fire!”
The story of the Italian Hall disaster shares a lot with the story of Atrahasis and the Fall. Instead of gods, there are mining companies and bosses; the men are imported, not created, to labor; there is disobedience — striving to live and enjoy life; there is even a serpent, the strikebreaker who shouted “Fire!”
And in all three stories there is cruel punishment without appeal.
I estimate the odds of a Bronze Age storyteller making up something that has so much in common with a labor relations disaster four millennia later as … zero. Atrahasis, and the story of the Fall, are undoubtedly allegorical blame-the-victim accounts of prehistoric misfortunes similar to the real-life Italian Hall disaster. They should not be read as literally true, but they are true in the narrow sense that they are accounts of the ancient human conflict between the powerful and the powerless.
Notice this, too: In all three stories, men threaten the power of the gods/bosses. In Genesis, this is made explicit (Gen 3:22-23, KJV): “And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.”
“… the man is become as one of us …” He threatens us, challenges us, cannot be trusted to quietly and submissively do as he is told. He must go.
I’m sure it has an odd sound to many, but I read Genesis’ tale of the Fall as an ancient labor relations tale. And with Augustine’s invention of Original Sin, Christianity put itself on the side of the bosses, the Establishment’s demand for unconditional obedience — where it has been ever since.
Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. John 8:32
Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise. — Thomas Gray
A little learning is a dangerous thing. — Alexander Pope
Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance. — Confucius
Knowledge is a weapon. I intend to be formidably armed. — Terry Goodkind
No thief, however skillful, can rob one of knowledge, and that is why knowledge is the best and safest treasure to acquire. — L. Frank Baum
Not to know is bad; not to wish to know is worse. — African Proverb
Knowledge is power. — Francis Bacon
In Sunday School, children learn the story of the Creation and the Fall of Mankind. When I was a child, the Sunday School teacher would read the story to us – and if we were lucky, she would populate a felt board as the story unfolded. Typically, after the story, some sort of craft or game would follow, helping to reinforce the lessons contained in the story. Sunday school was fun, but as an adult I can see how much indoctrination occurs in such a setting.
The story of the Creation and the Fall of Mankind is quite brilliant in that it attempts to explain the following to people who lacked explanations to their questions about their origins. The story tackles the following topics:
the origins of humans;
the presence of good and evil in the world;
what happens if people disobey their deity;
why women have been treated as second-class citizens;
why people desire to have sex;
why childbirth is so painful;
why the serpent slithers on the ground and why so many people have an antipathy for it;
why there is death;
why people wear clothes;
why we cannot return to a perfect world on earth;
why we have to work and why it is hard.
I am many years removed from learning these Bible stories and more than a decade removed from church attendance. Looking at some of these stories years later, as an atheist, I see aspects of the story that I had not considered before. It is also interesting to look at these stories in terms of mythology and not as the literal historical fact that Biblical literalists profess.
One thing I find fascinating today is the concept of the Tree of Knowledge. In Sunday School, it was described as the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve were instructed that they could eat of any tree in the garden except for this tree, for if they did, they would “surely die.” It is hard to understand how newly-created humans who have no experience, no education, no knowledge, could comprehend concepts such as “good,” “evil,” and “death.” Maybe the deity or deities “created” their brains already programmed with certain concepts, instincts, tools necessary for survival, but the story does not explain any of that. Carl Jung posited the concept of “collective unconscious,” the supposed part of the unconscious mind that is derived from ancestral memory and experience and is common to all humankind, as distinct from the individual’s unconscious. There is no evidence of the existence of “collective unconscious,” though it is an interesting concept to ponder.
But let’s return to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The phrase literally translates as the tree of knowledge of good and evil from the Hebrew language. But the pairing of opposites may be an example of merism, a literary device that depicts meaning by pairing direct opposites – and in this case, it could be a merism that denotes “everything.” Some scholars believe that the merism does not denote a concept of morality but is merely inclusive of “everything.” In any case, many Christian sects teach that Adam and Eve were punished for their disobedience, and that the punishment carried forth through all Adam and Eve’s descendants — including those of us who are alive today. I have not heard preachers expand upon the concept of Adam and Eve being punished for seeking and acquiring knowledge, though some may have. It is true that there are plenty of Bible verses that warn against seeking worldly or carnal knowledge, and knowledge of content outside the spiritual is denigrated. Human knowledge itself is denigrated as being inferior to the knowledge of God. I searched online for a comprehensive list of Bible verses that denigrated knowledge and could not find one such list, but I found many verses in both testaments denigrating knowledge. I also found a variety of verses that state that true knowledge can only be found through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
If one considers the Tree of Knowledge as symbolic of knowing everything, then why was it that god or gods did not want the humans to have knowledge of everything? Was God meaning to protect the humans or was he trying to prevent them from attaining knowledge? And why would God try to prevent humans from acquiring knowledge? There is so much good that has come from humankind’s attainment of knowledge. We have learned more about how the world works, how to prevent diseases, how to harness the earth’s resources for better living conditions, how to increase our crops and how to supply fresh water. However, we have also learned more efficient ways to kill our fellow humans, and we have polluted the earth. We have created borders to exclude our “tribes” from one another. It is said that with much knowledge comes much responsibility. Perhaps the creators of this myth, ancient though they were, understood the great power and great danger of knowledge when conscientious stewardship is not applied.
From my own personal experience, knowledge of the world outside the Evangelical bubble was key to my deconversion process. In fundamentalist religions, people are warned against the outside world, often prohibited from owning certain books or gaining access to the internet and discouraged from attending secular schools. The outside world is labeled as evil, with pastors/rabbis/imams railing against the dangers to be found in the outside world. Some religions scare their members with images of demons and hell lurking around every corner, to be found in each book or library or website. The goal of fundamentalist religions is to retain its membership — to indoctrinate a new generation — and to do that, they must convince their followers that TRUTH can only be found within the safe confines of their fundamentalist religious world. As my friend who was raised in Reform Judaism commented when I told her the story of my upbringing in Evangelical Christianity, it’s a cult designed to keep its members trapped within.
The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil can be, then, symbolic of all the exposure one encounters outside the confines of fundamentalist religion. I have eaten from that tree. I can no more unsee or unread or unlearn the ideas I found outside those confines any more than I could uneat a fruit. I could try to purge it from my mind as one might try to purge a food or poison from one’s body, but the effects of exposure are not easily reversed. At least, for me they could not be. Nor would I desire a different outcome.
What do you think about the myth of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Do you see this story as a warning about misuse of knowledge, or do you see it in another way? Please let us know in the comments.