A Representative Atheist in a Class of Christians
This blog is essentially a letter to me from my friend Richard, describing his experience as one of three representative atheists participating in a graduate class, “Responding to the New Atheists” at The Christian Theological Seminary here in Indianapolis. He had a rewarding and enjoyable experience and was treated with respect by the class. No doubt the students learned much from this intellectual, soft spoken and pleasant atheist in their midst. They learned that a person does not have to believe in god to moral and honest. He noted that none of the graduate students were part of the Republican base of far right evangelicals. Perhaps that is why he was received and treated so well.
One of the graduate students had written to Richard and asked further questions concerning his experience with the bizarre beliefs of other religions. Richard replied as follows. His letter was forwarded to the other graduate students.
Richard wrote to me: I am forwarding an exchange of messages which has taken place outside of my “New Atheist” class at the Christian Theological Seminary. I thought you might find it interesting. I had raised a subject in class which we did not have time to explore in depth and was asked to expand on it as well as my own world view in terms of religion. The result is attached.
Thanks for the opportunity to continue this conversation. I sought out chances to attend a service involving deadly serpents because of my fascination with bizarre beliefs of others whether Christian or some other religious group. I spent several years throughout the ’60s in the South and was able to attend services in W. Virginia, Alabama and Georgia. Each of these congregations was small, closely knit and related to the preacher either directly or indirectly. The largest group consisted of less than 50 members and the small church facility was, in each case, in an out of the way location. The services were irregular and not advertised to the general public. The services were Christian in every respect in the sense that there was a traditional sermon based on scripture, Christian hymns were sung and the name of Jesus as lord and savior were was invoked consistently. The people were all friendly and emotional, much like Pentecostal services I have attended here in Indianapolis and elsewhere. Clearly there were no “outsiders” other than myself at any of the three snake handling sessions I attended. In each case the preacher knew that I would be there and we had met in advance so that he could ask me any questions and satisfy himself that I had no ulterior motives and meant him and his flock no harm.
When I was invited, along with everyone else, to an “altar call” to handle the snakes, the level of emotion had already become quite high and several were speaking in tongues as the preacher held up several snakes at a time without any fear. I saw a couple of other men in the group move forward and take up one of the rattlesnakes and the intensity level was as high as I can ever remember. Others would, I suppose, have described it as being “filled with the spirit of the holy ghost”. I was just feeling “very intense” or I would not have moved out of my seat. I felt some kind of obligation to the preacher in the form of thanking him for his allowing me to attend and also an obligation to my own intellectual curiosity to get as much out of this experience as possible.
As I walked from the back to the front, I had second thoughts about how stupid it would be for me to go through with this but I didn’t want to “chicken out”. When he asked me if I were a born-again Christian, I answered “No” and he said, “well then you better not take up these serpents because they (not God) know the difference.” This gave me an out, an excuse to turn around and go back to my seat without seeming to be a total wuss. In fact, I didn’t have the guts to pick up a large live poisonous rattler and handle it. I had an instant impulse that I would never again have this chance and should go for it, damn the consequences, but the short walk to the front gave me enough time to “sober up” and push back the intensity level so that when I got there I was trying to figure out how to get out of doing this incredibly stupid thing. The preacher gave me the excuse and I grabbed it. If he had not done so, I am sure I would have just slunk back to my seat, somewhat humiliated and swimming in a pool of embarrassment for my “lack of faith”. In fact, the prospect of picking up a writhing rattler was something that, when push came to shove, I was just too afraid to do. It had nothing to do with my being an atheist…it had to do with my being a rational person and finally allowing my brain to overcome my emotion and intensity.
The other two times I attended services, I did not respond to the general call to “take up serpents” but others did without incident. The call was an opportunity to demonstrate one’s faith as set forth in Mark 16:16-18, to wit: “16: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be dammed. 17: And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; 18: They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover.” (KJV). In the early part of the 20th Century, this language in re the “taking up of serpents” came to be taken literally and seriously throughout much of the old South ranging as far north as Kentucky and as far west as Oklahoma. Never large congregations but small, mostly homogeneous groups of followers often related directly or indirectly. The ideal was to demonstrate one’s faith and to test the strength of one’s faith.
In the first few decades, dozens of preachers died and hundreds were bitten. Hands were disfigured and gnarled and fingers were amputated. Many preachers were bitten so many times that they developed immunity to the venom and became famous for their demonstrations of faith in the lord’s mercy and protection. Eventually, all of the states passed laws against the “taking up of poisonous serpents” in religious services but just like the experience of the Mormon Church when it got a new revelation and tried to ban plural marriage, the “true believers” ignored the ban and continued to practice in the old original “true” way. They just continued in secret and in “out of the way” locations, trying to stay under the radar.
My experiences were with three of these “illegal” services. Irregular, no advertising, congregations sworn to secrecy but each convinced that they had the one true expression of their faith. After all, Mark 16:18, quoted above, does provide Biblical authority, printed in red as the literal word of Jesus, just as strongly as any other words of Jesus according to the Gospels. There is very little of this going on now but in the backwoods of W. Virginia and Arkansas and virtually the entire “old South”, there can still be found remnants of the true believers. They have faded into the woodwork of fringe religion. They concentrate on a single verse and focus their beliefs and services on that verse. A similar instance of focus, although highly publicized, is the mission of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. The “congregation” consists of the extended family of the Rev. (disbarred attorney) Fred Phelps and the mission is to demonstrate at the funerals of dead members of the military. They are not especially anti-war at all. They consider dead soldiers to be the agents of a godless and corrupt government which tolerates homosexuals in contravention of the specific prohibition of such activity as found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy calling such activity an “abomination” deserving of death. They demonstrate at funerals to gain attention to their cause and to publicize their website “God Hates Fags”. Those religions, which focus on faith healing and venerate the speaking in tongues, also have concentrated their focus on the same verses from Mark.
The second part of Richard’s letter concerned the KKK, Klu Klux Klan. Richard’s knowledge of the notorious Klan is extensive and fascinating. Here are his words.
As to the Klan, I have been fascinated with the fact of the strength of the Klan since the Reconstruction era and especially the power and influence they held in Indiana particularly in the ’20s when virtually every public official was a Klan member or in the pocket of the Indiana Klan…until the tragic Madge Oberholser death here in Indianapolis with which I assume most of us are familiar.
The Klan had or tried to have a substantial comeback in the deep South in the ’60s and they received a huge shot in the arm with the passage of the Civil Right Act of 1964 and the subsequent legislation on voting and public accommodations. They operated openly and in costume in Montgomery, AL during the years I was stationed there in 1963 and again from 1965 through the end of 1968 as an instructor at Squadron Officer School.
I was a leader in the local Unitarian Fellowship (which many of the locals considered to be a communist cell) and detested the Klan and everything they stood for. I never attended a cross burning rally since I had no “contact” and to do so would have been above my pay grade in terms of danger. However, they were emboldened enough to hold a giant public rally on the steps of the Alabama statehouse. George Wallace was Governor at the time and had no objection. He did not speak but he was clearly supportive of their anti-federal government “tyranny” positions. The Klan at various times concentrated their wrath on blacks, Jews, Catholics and homosexuals and often all at the same time. They always considered themselves to be Christian and could rather easily justify their hatred of these groups to selected verses in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. The Bible lends itself to this kind of support for selective hatred. Otherwise, it would not have been possible for both the backers of the abolition movement and the pro-slavery movement to have relied so heavily on the Bible for their moral and ethical positions.
The statehouse rally was well attended by both Klan members and supporters AND others who, like myself, were not supportive but were curious to see the Klan in action out in public. Several hundred wore their robes and Klan regalia and carried signs, just like Fred Phelps and the Tea Party today. The signs left no doubt as to the targets of the bias and hatred. I felt sick to my stomach when I saw small children, in full Klan regalia, holding up signs saying “God Hates Niggers, Jews, Fags and Race Mixers”. I thought of this obscene spectacle as I read Dawkins’ thoughts on indoctrinating small children with “religion” as being or having the potential to be “a form of child abuse”. There was nothing secret about the statehouse rally. It was fully covered in the media and the Klan members were not reluctant to show their faces even in full costume. It was the participation of the children that was so depressing. They didn’t know any better and were simply being obedient and respectful to their parents. Still, their worldview was being constructed in a perverted manner, which many, if not all, would have difficulty in overcoming in later life.
The last part of Richard’s letter concerns his personal beliefs concerning religion and a belief in God.
By now, I suspect the question of “what I believe” is rather obvious. I am a non-believer. I do not say, “There is no God” although I believe it is highly unlikely. I do not attempt to prove that there is no god even though I believe that no gods have ever existed or ever will exist. Just as amoral means “without morality”, a-theist means “without belief”. I am a skeptic and a scientific rationalist and a secular humanist and can call myself a Unitarian since Unitarians have no dogma and no creed and concentrate on “works” as opposed to “faith”. It is quite possible for an atheist to be a Unitarian and many are.
I have attended services in many of the world’s famous churches and cathedrals throughout the world including St. Peter’s in Rome, Notre Dame in Paris, St. Paul’s in London, the Washington Cathedral in DC and dozens of shrines and temples in the Far East, specifically in Japan and Taiwan. I am not a believer in anything supernatural, whether connected to religion or not and believe that miracles do not now and never have existed.
For events which appear to have no rational explanation, my position is that the non-supernatural explanation exists but has yet to be discovered…but will be in time. I admire the ethic of Jesus, whom, like Jefferson, I believe to have been a human being and one of perhaps thousands of Jewish rabbis who were put to death by the Romans as “enemies of the State” and “subversives” during the period of Roman subjugation.
I believe that, just as Marx was not a Marxist, Christ was not a Christian but that Christianity was invented by his followers, primarily Paul which is why the religion is so patriarchal and so much emphasis on obedience and the subjugation of women. I like the Sermon on the Mount, the Golden Rule and the command to Love thy Neighbor. I think about 90% of the Bible should be discarded and ignored and, fortunately, in the West, that is approximately what most of us have done.
The problem with Islam is that every attempt to have a serious Enlightenment Period has been stamped out and factions of largely conservative groups have prevailed. The early portions of the Koran are very Peace like and Tolerant; the latter parts are very aggressive and warlike and intolerant. Take your pick. Just like the Bible, one can always find a verse to validate one’s own pre-existing bias and prejudice. Everyone is a “cafeteria Christian”. Not everyone admits it or even recognizes it. The Muslims are much more serious about their religion than are most Christians and I see that as a continuing serious potential problem in so far as beliefs are translated into action for that segment of Islam which is radical and eager to die a martyr’s death so they can be transported directly to heaven/paradise without having to first go through the metal detectors and take off their shoes.
For anyone interested in an authoritative look at Islam from the inside, I highly recommend anything by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, especially “Infidel” and for a devastating critique of the treatment of women under Islam, “The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam”. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to explain myself at some length. I know we have limited time in class to do so and that many others are eager, justifiably so, to have their voices heard. I appreciate the chance to attend and am enjoying myself immensely…just don’t bring any rattlers to class. I have learned my limitations in that regard. (bolded words and phrases are mine not Richard’s)
Best wishes to all my fellow classmates. Richard
Thank you Richard for allowing me to post your experiences in the Graduate class and your extensive experiences concerning a few radical religious beliefs. The Klu Klux Klan is the tragic result of mixing religion with politics. We have destroyed all but a few hidden remnants of it. Other radical evangelical religions still persist. Some are relatively harmless but some are lethal to democracy. Mixing religion with government such as what the radical right currently attempts to do under the auspices of Almighty God is one of the greatest dangers our nation faces. Superstitious beliefs when accepted by gullible believers effects only them. They may lose their children to curable diseases and should be held libel under the law. But, we cannot let these kinds of superstitious beliefs guide and force the rest of us to accept or tolerate its insanity. Richard speaks clearly about radical religion and reminds us all to beware.