During my long life, I’ve often spoken out for the oppressed — for farm workers, for the LGBT, for the homeless, even for mistreated poultry.
This time it’s different, I’m speaking out for myself.
The oppression I speak of started early:
It’s 1951 — the McCarthy Era. I’m a 14-year-old eighth grader at Thomas Starr King Junior High. My class is going to the auditorium for an assembly, which makes me quite happy. We will get to see movies instead of doing boring classwork.
In the assembly, we are shown several nature films, then one final one featuring a gentleman in a Catholic clergyman’s garb — a black cassock with a red sash. He has a friendly countenance, and I like him immediately.
On his desk is a large watch. He tells us that the timepiece is very expensive and complicated.
“Now, we would never think,” he continues, “this collection of carefully calibrated wheels, gears and levers put itself together. We’d assume somebody made it, made it by design and for a purpose.”
“Likewise,” the gentleman continues, “the world of nature in all its splendor and variety, how much more complex it is than that of the watch. Surely no one could doubt some kind of intelligent creator must have constructed it so.”
Even at 14, I could see he was confusing human manufacturing with the processes of nature. Obviously somebody made the watch to tell time. But with nature’s systems, making and unmaking themselves across eons? With Ice Ages and evolution? Only causality is evident, not some cosmic designer.
Still, I was willing to give the guy a pass. He got me out of class.
Then he says, “Of course, someone wanting to make off with the watch might say nobody made it, it just happened to be there, and it didn’t belong to anyone.” Ha, ha, he laughs. A little joke.
But the message comes through anyway. He’s already mushed together human toolmaking with nature’s handiwork, both requiring a purposive shaper. So if one denied the existence of the clockmaker in order to justify stealing it, what about someone denying nature’s mastermind? Was he suggesting that I also would be prone to thievery because I didn’t buy his analogy?
It was a small thing, but symptomatic and oft recurring.
Parenthetically, in the Cold War hysteria of the ’50s, the school administration no doubt felt a need to deter us students from becoming godless communists.
But why am I bad when I deny other people’s cherished beliefs, which aren’t believable? Why is it my fault when I notice, for example, that consciousness requires an intact central nervous system and that dead people don’t have one? Thus, no happy reunion with loved ones in the hereafter. Indeed, no hereafter at all.
Evangelicals come to my door to share their “Good News.” What if I showed up at theirs to share the bad news? How would that go over?
And there’s coerced participation in prayers at public meetings. Sure, it doesn’t kill me if others wish to stand for a prayer in my presence, but when I don’t? When I want to peruse my iPhone instead? They say I’m rude.
What about their rudeness? Where do they get off implying that people like me are not just as legitimate a part of the public as they?
How come atheist kids aren’t allowed in Boy Scouts?
According to the 2014 Pew survey, 56 million American adults claim no religious affiliation. Are we all lesser citizens, left out of public participation?
History shows that both those burning with faith and those burning with denial of it commit terrible acts. Shia and Sunni regularly blow each other to pieces. During the Reformation, both Protestants and Catholics dispatched their fellow Christians with great savagery. And the atheist Soviet empire notched up as impressive a bodycount as many a godfearing state.
As Buddha said, “God. No God. Same thing.”
I don’t pretend to know that what lies behind existence, why there’s something and not nothing. Maybe we humans aren’t equipped to know. But I do know the factual bases of most people’s religious beliefs do not merit credence.
And that’s not my fault.