Have you ever thought back to the time so long ago when you first thought about religion and a belief in a deity? Was it a gradual change from childhood bible stories into a religious belief or was it a sudden transformation later in life? Because I attended a liberal, interdenominational Protestant church, my religious beliefs were different from most. What follows is my personal story of how I came not to believe in religious miracles and myths and how I came to reject any belief in a supernatural deity.
Why I am not a believer in any religion.
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.
As we entered the classroom we noticed 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 taped a picture of 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! I was impressed.
On each higher ladder rung she drew or taped 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 few 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 famous liberal protestant, Harry Emerson Fosdick. Nearby the magnificent interdenominational church over looking the Hudson River, was 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 Riverside’s Sunday School Classes.
Of course, biological evolution was only one story to be told. Other religions 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 mythical 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 the Riverside Church 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 over many thousands of years instead of the mythical story of Abraham. The other unlikely and contradictory stories of the Old Testament were taught as mythical explanations of scientifically ignorant tribes. 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 had to be natural explanations for everything. The scribes who wrote and copied the scriptures made errors and additions; 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 ordered 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 to become just mythical tales. 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 twelfth grade teachers, 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 was a crutch and a rule book needed by some so as to distinguish themselves from others and to control populations. 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, Seminary students and faculty 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 judging from the crowd.
I remember the sermon well for its clarity, honesty, and downright boldness. Frankly, I was shocked. 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 parents, 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 Riverside Church staff. I hope similar classes continued on at 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 for my support of secular humanism.
Comments: It is tragic that some kids are denied the chance to choose what they will believe in adulthood rather than be brainwashed in church sunday school. I recognize the rights of parents to guide/force their kids into a particular religious belief, but it is sad. At an early age children are not scientifically knowledgeable enough to question. They have no choice but believe the myths of whatever religion they were born into. Later in life, almost half of these brainwashed kids drift away from the religion of their youth and parents. Some choose a more liberal belief, some slip deeper into spiritualism and mythicism, and about forty percent reject the fairy tales of youth along with a literal Santa, Easter bunny, and Adam and Eve. Those who cannot make the break still believe that unexplained events are impossible miracles, that goodness is not possible without God, that every religion is false except theirs, and that the sins of the father are also the sins of following generations. How silly, how dangerous, how unfair, and how unscientific. Good science taught in grade school and high school becomes more vital than ever, the main hope for those poor brainwashed children from Evangelical/Fundamentalist churches and families. Religious sectarianism divides people, groups, and nations and it sets people against each other. It diminishes the urgency of science in our lives and in the preservation of our fragile planet. When will we learn?