What Can We Do?

Biker Bob’s blog article last month titled “The Future” was well written, and some of the comments that it engendered were insightful. I hope you don’t mind if I pick up on that theme from a slightly different, expanded angle and in a different context.

I just finished reading a science fiction novel (Book IV of Voyagers: The Return by Ben Bova) set far into the future. It depicts earth suffering from disastrous greenhouse flooding. Almost all countries have been taken over by ultraconservative religion-based governments such as the novel’s New Morality in the United States. Population is ballooning throughout the globe, and resources are running out. In addition, the planet is heading for nuclear war with nations refusing to dismantle whatever stockpile of warheads they have.

In the novel, the memoirs of a very old retired schoolteacher are shown in about three places. She says that it took her a long time to understand what was happening in the schools. The kids didn’t read T.S. Eliot or Shakespeare anymore because they were too difficult. They didn’t even read Dr. Seuss. And forget Hemingway because he used foul language and openly depicted sex. The New Morality took smiling advantage of what was going on and used it for their own purposes.

The retired teacher says there was a slow, patient, inevitable dumbing down of the schools including the students, teachers, and the administrators. And she admits that “we let them make things easier.” She describes the process:

“The overarching goal of education was to achieve equality…[A brilliant child] is no better than the intellectually challenged [child]. [We can’’t hurt the feelings of children who are autistic, have attention deficit disorder or were born with Down’s syndrome]…by putting them in separate facilities with specialists to look after them. [It was decided that they deserved] to be mainstreamed and attend school with everybody else….

“Equality of outcome…was our aim. Everyone was to be treated equally; every student would finish school the equal to every other student. And what was the easiest way to achieve equality? Teach to the lowest common denominator. Make certain that every student got exactly what every other student received. No fast lane for the so-called bright ones. That wouldn’t be equal….

“Self-esteem. We tried to teach the kids to have pride in themselves. It took me years to figure out that for a youngster to have pride in herself she had to be able to accomplish things, achieve something to be proud of. But somehow we left that part out of the curricula….

“So we taught less and less of the things that made the kids feel unhappy with themselves and spent more and more classroom time on teaching them self-esteem…Arithmetic made them feel bad, so we eased off on the math. And the spelling. And the reading assignments. And homework….

“…Parents didn’t want their kids exposed to political beliefs that went against their own politics. So we stopped teaching civics. When an activist group decided that the Declaration of Independence was a subversive document…we stopped teaching about the American Revolution altogether….

“Darwin. When I first started teaching we were forbidden by the state legislature to use the word ‘evolution’ in class. Then we stopped teaching biology altogether. And physics. And chemistry. Instead we taught general science, including ‘alternative’ concepts such as intelligent design and astrology. It was a lot easier on the children, and we teachers didn’t have to defend ourselves against righteous parents who got blue in the face over ‘godless secularist ideas.’

“We went along with it. The kids were happier; the pressure groups were happier. A few die-hard scientists and university academics warned that we were turning out a generation of ignoramuses, but they were happy ignoramuses and we could keep our jobs and avoid all the painful conflicts.”

The retired teacher goes on to say that in spite of all this, there were a precious few kids who managed to get ahead anyway. A handful of schools managed to cater to those budding geniuses thirsting for real knowledge, but they were always distrusted and carefully watched. Their work was closely controlled by the government and the New Morality.

To me, much of this sounds like our present, dangerous, unstable world. These are alarming times.

I agree with Biker Bob that we need to get involved in helping all people–believers and nonbelievers–to help “minimize whatever societal problems we can.” How can we do this? Is cooperation between individuals and nations even possible?

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When Believers and Unbelievers Collide

A few weeks ago, I took my car to the mechanic because of a noise in its front end. It turned out there was nothing seriously wrong with it. But car problems are not what I want to talk about. Rather, it’s about one of many false impressions that people have about agnostics or atheists in general.

My Christian mechanic is a kind, gentle, honest person and married to one of my late husband’s high school classmates. Before he became ill and died, Fred had told this man–I’ll call him Karl, but that’s not his real name–that I was no longer a believer. Until over a year after Fred’s death, nothing was mentioned to me personally by Karl or his wife about my unbelieving status.

(And, by the way, I didn’t hold it against my Fred for talking to his Christian friends about my de-conversion. He needed to confide in believers just as I need to confide in my unbelieving friends for support. I’m quite sure Fred asked many to pray for me. When I left relgion, this was one of the few times in our long married life that Fred and I weren’t able to express our deepest feelings to each other. Our love was just as strong, but a “knot” formed in our otherwise smooth relationship.)

Anyway, during the course of a conversation around the first of this year, Karl told me that Fred had informed him of my leaving religion and church behind. We then had a short discussion about my humanist atheism. My first book (Dare to Think for Yourself) was mentioned, and I asked Karl if he would like to read it.

“Well,” he said, “I’ll take a look at it if you will agree to watch a Lutheran TV program that I think you’ll find interesting and may change your mind and bring you back to God.”

“Okay,” I replied, “I have no problem with that.” In fact, I watched two of the telecasts and later told Karl that the man was a fine speaker, but he didn’t convince me that I am wrong. I told him that he sounded like any other conservative televangelist and offered no proof for his beliefs.

Karl said nothing about my assessment of the messages from the Lutheran pastor whom he no doubt respects and admires other than, “You have too many questions, Betty.”

Later, Karl returned my book through an employee of his without a note or a relayed “thank you” or any other comment. So at the recent encounter mentioned in the beginning of this short article, I asked if he read the book and what he thought of it.

I had never heard this gentle man gossip about another person, utter one curse word, or denigrate anyone (except maybe politicians). On that day, however, the expression on his face hardened; and he said, “Betty, I think you’re a tool of the Devil.”

I just smiled, shrugged and replied, “Well, Karl, I don’t even believe there is a devil. In fact, I don’t believe there is any so-called spiritual entity of any kind.”

“Then I suppose you think that when you die, that’s it. No afterlife, no looking forward to heaven or fearing hell?” he spat out.

“That’s right, Karl. But I enjoy this life. I look forward to every day. I enjoy helping others and doing what I can to alleviate pain, loneliness, and suffering. I volunteer at a local food bank, contribute what little money I can afford to help those in disaster stricken areas as well as animal welfare agencies.”

“Why do you do all that? What do you get out of it when you are an admitted atheist? What do you hope to gain?” he asked in bewilderment.

“I don’t know that I personally get anything out of it except the satisfaction of helping others,” I responded. “Unlike when I was a Christian I don’t expect a reward for doing something good or to earn points with some sort of god or even with other people.”

Karl just glared at me without comment, and I took that opportunity to excuse myself and let him get back to his work.

I don’t think I’ll ask him if he would like to read my recently published second book (The Homemade Atheist). I don’t want to antagonize him further and maybe lose the services of a good mechanic–or, more importantly, friendship, if I already haven’t, of a couple whom I’ve enjoyed knowing for about 19 years.

But such things happen. Believe me they happen.

I wonder how many others (both believers and unbelievers) have had similar experiences.

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Why Do You Believe or Not Believe?

Many “searching” people, or so it seems to me, are looking for a religion that does not stand in judgment of others and that does not tell them what to believe. What they are seeking is a religion that has no religious demands, a religion without authority and without condemnation of any type. But there is no such religion!

The primary definition of “religion” is a belief in a superhuman controlling power, i.e. a personal God or gods entitled to obedience and worship. Without this description, the word “religion” has no meaning. If individuals want to be free of the pressures to conform why don’t they simply take hold of that precious freedom to think for themselves while it still exists? Religion, traditionally, is the institution that is said to give safety, peace of mind, and community which is what most postmodern people are seeking. If this is so, then I wonder why there is such misery, even among believers, and evil throughout this world.

The Unitarian-Universalist (UU) fellowships embrace people of all faiths and non-faiths. Their membership includes disgruntled or disheartened Catholics and Protestants, Buddhists and Hindus, agnostics and atheists, pagans and Wiccans, humanists and Taoists, perhaps a few Muslims, etc. They come together without a unifying creed or theological interpretation to which members must subscribe. Attendees, ostensibly, are encouraged to freely and responsibly search for truth and meaning for themselves in their own way.

These fellowships, obviously, are not communities of wholly like-minded individuals. I once attended over a period of a few years a UU fellowship (and still do on occasion if the advertised sermon topic appeals to me). Even though I never signed their membership book, for the most part gathering with the UUs for Sunday services was a pleasant, educational experience. It served as a peaceful transition from orthodoxy as I struggled to come to terms with my growing unbelief. By then I had severed my membership in both the Worldwide Church of God and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Eventually and ironically, the UU meetings became too ecumenical for me as I became more familiar with the many different religious viewpoints in that fellowship. I was searching and trying to “pick brains,” but not one person ever gave me objective reasons for their particular belief positions. Even though I met a number of nice people, they seemed somewhat threatened if I questioned how and why they came to adopt their positions. My experience with the UUs was little different from the orthodox church I had left after I started asking pointed questions about its doctrines and creeds.

I did not become an unbeliever because I was angry with any deity or human being, for that matter, nor because my life was filled with disappointment or anguish. My humanistic atheism developed gradually through intensive personal research and study over many years. I began my investigation of religion because I had so many questions about the Bible and what I was taught it means, what others of different denominations say it means, and why a presumably loving, all-knowing god allows evil to perpetuate.

In a recent Gallop poll, 60% percent of Americans say that religion can answer all of today’s problems, while 26% say religion is old-fashioned and out-of-date. I don’t know what the remaining 14% say. Perhaps they include the many people who are looking for a religious or spiritual high without the burden of religious or spiritual baggage. They want to believe in something without objectively investigating their beliefs. They want to be a part of a community that gives them a sense of security but doesn’t require religious doctrine or rules.

As a sometimes-despised atheist, I know that the majority of people, especially in the United States, do not respect my stance. Religionists would much rather have nominal believers or even those who say they’re agnostics in their midst. After all, they might say, there is hope for them.

I respect sincere, nonmilitant adherents of any religious faith even though I disagree with all of them. I do, however, have a hard time with those who want community and meaning from a “spiritual” group but don’t even know the meaning of the word “spiritual.” (Please see my recently published second book, The Homemade Atheist, for an explanation of my feelings on the subject of spirituality).

If you want community without religious attachments, then join a country club, the Rotarians, or a bowling team. But be assured that you can’t be a member in good standing of an established church without at least an outward appearance of conformity to certain rules or commandments of the god or gods which church members say they worship.

Like a TV commercial for a popular cookie once advertised, “If you’re going to eat a cookie, then eat a cookie.” And I say, “If you’re going to believe in god, then believe in god–but know objectively why you do–uncolored by emotion, fear, or bigotry.

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