It’s hard to believe, but a great idea.
It was 10 AM Sunday morning and a group of eight-year old kids had just settled down for a Sunday-school lesson they would not soon forget. That teacher, whoever she was, changed the life of at least one child by trashing the biblical creation story once and for all and started him on the road to science, reason and skepticism.
A 2×3 foot poster board with a large ladder drawn on it was taped to the blackboard. For the next hour we talked about evolution. “Huh! What’s evolution?” None of us knew. On the lowest rung of the ladder our teacher had drawn an irregular amoeba-like shape. This she claimed was the first one-celled living thing. Next to it she had written “Billions of years ago”. A billion is a thousand thousand years. Wow!
On each higher ladder rung she drew another picture and wrote a date. A sponge like creature representing multi-celled things was next; higher up she drew a fish, then an amphibian, then a lizard like animal, and so forth. On the highest rung of the ladder she drew a human shape and announced “We are all related to the first life on earth billions of years ago.” I was awed. In retrospect I think this may have been one of the first times evolution was taught in a Sunday school class.
The year was 1944, the church was The Riverside Church of New York City, and the senior minister was the liberal, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick. Nearby the magnificent interdenominational church over looking the Hudson River, was Grant’s Tomb. A block away stood the prestigious Union Theological Seminary, a bastion of liberal theology. Unitarian educator Sophia Lyon Fahs was an influential faculty member who was revolutionizing children’s religious education. Her seminary students were enlisted by Dr. Fosdick to teach a rational brand of religion to grade school and high school students in Sunday School Class.
Of course, biological evolution was only one story to be told. Other religions, including Christianity had their own creation stories and we learned about them all under the guidance of well-educated seminarians. The earth was a flat disc held up by giant elephants, on the back of a huge tortoise, and so forth. We learned about all the legends.
I faithfully attended the Riverside church Sunday school from K through 12, although it took our family over an hour of travel from our cramped Bronx apartment, by bus and subway to get there. Friday evenings after high school in Manhattan, I made my way by bus and subway through Harlem to Riverside for youth activities including social work projects. On Sundays I learned about hunting and gathering societies, Asian, Greek, Roman, Nordic, and Egyptian cultures and their Gods. I cannot remember any of my Sunday school teachers ever saying, “This theology is true or that is false.” Also, I can’t remember ever praying in Sunday School Class. There were no tears or “hosannas.” We were left to draw our own conclusions based upon facts, science and history. We learned about the early tribes that migrated from the Fertile Crescent to what is Israel today over many thousands of years instead of the mythical story of Abraham and other unlikely and contradictory stories of the Old Testament. We learned about New Testament bible miracles and the possible natural explanations for them. For example, Jesus did not actually walk on water but on a sand bar in the mist. At the Sermon on the Mount, every one shared their personal food supply so every one had food to eat. Jesus’ body was removed from the tomb by his followers, etc. In short, the supernatural was something we could take or leave. Miracles were not necessary for Christians. We were taught there were natural explanations for everything. The scribes who wrote the scriptures made mistakes; the church fathers who edited scriptures exaggerated, censored, and wrote with good intentions but from ignorance. After all, they lived in the Bronze Age and believed the earth was flat. How can kids or adults today believe anyone who thought the earth was flat and the sun was made to stand still in the sky? Yes, this is what I learned in Sunday school. I am forever grateful to those enlightened Sunday school teachers whoever they were. I wish I could thank them personally for their dedication to the truth, historical accuracy, and for not indoctrinating, or should I say brainwashing, gullible kids.
Gradually, my Grandmother’s Calvinism and the prevalent Roman Catholicism and Judaism of my Italian and Jewish Bronx neighborhood faded. I became the minority liberal protestant in grade school, and the minority non-believer in High school and college. I did my best to defend my rationalism against the world. Debating religion around the college lunch table was at times frustrating, but it prepared me for future debates and helped me established an accurate scientific and historical basis for my skepticism and atheism.
My Sunday school story, ended when I graduated from the twelfth grade. I well remember the last month of Sunday school. One Sunday morning our teachers for grade twelve, and other church observers, greeted us in a large room. We were seated in about thirty chairs arranged in a circle. Our teachers invited each one of us to testify as to what we believed or disbelieved, about God, about religion, and about our personal beliefs. No one was forced to testify but we all did. Most of my classmates expressed a liberal religious belief excluding the raft of Christian miracles. Most claimed to believe in some vague power, more of a creator god rather than a personal God. One of my friends shocked everyone by stating his belief in the literal God of the Old Testament, but he was the only one.
On the other extreme one student testified that he was an atheist, and went on to explain what that meant. He was somewhat apologetic, and uncomfortable to be in the spotlight as we listened. He said he could not believe in Jesus any more than he could believe in Santa Clause. Miracles were not possible because they contradicted science, reason and nature. He acknowledged that there were many good people who were religious but also claimed there were also many non-religious people who were good people and lived moral lives. He thought many religious folk, especially religious leaders, were hypocrites. He said religion often was a crutch needed by some but not the majority. I was surprised at his testimony, which was so close to my own disbelief. It took another year for me, to evict the neural remnants of an imaginary deity.
The last Sunday service we senior students conducted was memorable. My atheist classmate appeared in the pulpit; he had been chosen by our Sunday school teachers to give the final sermon on our last Sunday. The chapel was packed, standing room only. Parents, junior pastors, and unidentified visitors and the whole Sunday school grades 9 – 12 were in attendance. His controversial sermon must have been well publicized at Riverside Church and at the Union Theological Seminary. I remember the sermon well for its clarity, honesty, and downright boldness. My atheist classmate spoke about his misgivings of the supernatural and his commitment to science and rationality. It was the only time I ever listened to a sermon with such total concentration and amazement. Thereafter, I knew my personal beliefs were just that, personal. I did not have to believe everything I was told by elders and teachers. I could question whatever I was told, I could think for myself. I still follow those simple principals.
I hope the information gleaned from this Sunday school teaching experiment made future teaching of this sort possible by church staff. I hope similar classes continued on at the Riverside Church as a result of this teaching experiment, but I do not know. I was soon off to college and lost touch with the program. Unlikely as it may seem, Sunday school was the beginning of my skepticism and the reason for my rejection of supernatural religion and my support of secular humanism.