Because we seem to have a real "religion" theme going today -- and because, once again, I'm really pressed for time and worthwhile new material -- I figured I'd resurrect (no pun intended) one of the most popular and provocative columns ever to appear on this site. It's from October of 2006.
There are times when living in this city isn't simply tolerable but downright wonderful. Yesterday, my wife and I spent the afternoon wandering through the labyrinthine Museum of Natural History -- taking in the myriad exhibits on the science of the universe and mankind's growth throughout the millennia. We followed this up with a walk through a street fair in the kind of crisp air which can only herald the dawn of autumn, then an evening at my agent's place on the Upper West Side, drinking wine on the terrace and watching twilight descend over the city in shades of blue and purple, providing a view which was beautifully augmented by the rise of a giant and glowing full moon.
This morning, I dragged myself out of bed, threw on a leather coat and wandered out onto a relatively quiet York Avenue to grab a cup of coffee and a few provisions for the refrigerator. Given that I had no intention of straying very far from my apartment, I neglected to bring along my iPod -- an accoutrement which is attached to my person with the regularity of a soldier's sidearm. The lack of Dave Brubeck pumping into my head (the perfect soundtrack to a Sunday morning in Manhattan, I believe) of course meant that my ears were open to the sounds of the city itself.
It meant that I was able to listen to and fully appreciate the conversations taking place outside of St. Monica's Catholic Church on East 79th Street.
On the steps of the church sat a mother and what I assume were her two young children; she was explaining to them Christ's inarguable plan for their lives. Not far away, I strode alongside a family which had apparently just exited Sunday mass; the children were -- as children do -- innocently questioning the dogma which the priest had just laid out for them in no uncertain terms. It made me smile and shake my head -- a somewhat ironic gesture for a somewhat ironic moment.
Here were a group of children -- willing to no doubt thoroughly buy into the existence of Santa Claus -- asking logical questions about a professed truth which even to their young minds seemed incomprehensible. Their parents' predictable response to this curiosity?
Just trust us; you have to believe because that's the way it is.
Suffice to say, it took me back.
As it's Sunday, perhaps a confession is in order: I was raised in a Christian household.
To many, this will come as absolutely no surprise; it takes a fierce knowledge of -- and an even fiercer indoctrination to -- a given belief to eventually wage war against its tenets in any meaningful way. At some point -- exactly when, I can't recall -- I made a personal decision that religion in general and Christianity in particular, was nothing more than absurdist wishful thinking -- and that in this day and age, it's more likely to get you killed by those with equal but opposite views of the hereafter than it is to create a more ethical and moral Earth for the totality of mankind to reside upon.
Needless to say, a majority of America and the world disagrees with me -- which as far as I'm concerned in no way substantiates its opposing position. For some reason, we've come to accept Validation Through Democracy: the idea that the larger the group to adhere to a belief, the more likely it is for that belief to be accurate. Obviously, this is nonsense; it's entirely possible for a very large group of people to believe something that is completely false. At the risk of proving Godwin's Law -- it's important to remember that Hitler once had the overwhelming support of his people.
Many of those who are true believers in the concept of religion -- of course -- are parents. It is also -- of course -- these parents who instill their religious beliefs in their children; essentially creating an inherited fear of God in the same way an inherited eye-color, acquiescence to the parents' ideas of right and wrong, and even the parents' political beliefs are passed along. The end result is that religion becomes simply another ill-fitting hand-me-down. As I witnessed first-hand on the street today -- kids will believe whatever their parents tell them; insist that they must be "saved" and accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior and it will take years for them to believe otherwise (that is, if they ever do -- as opposed to simply passing down to their own kids the beliefs they themselves never thought to question).
If you'd like a frightening example of the dangers of this kind of indoctrination, go see the new documentary Jesus Camp. True, the film highlights only the most fervent of Christian extremists, but make no mistake that the ambition of these extremists is to claim the United States of America for Christ. They want nothing less than the dawn of a new theocracy, and -- to borrow a line from George Benson by way of Whitney Houston -- they believe the children are their future.
The film focuses on the "Kids on Fire" camp which is located (ironically) at Devil's Lake, North Dakota. While there, children are forcefully instructed how to become "Christian Warriors" -- the eventual frontline in the battle to win the hearts, minds and souls of America; it's essentially a Jedi camp for Fundamentalist Christians, with a rather unassuming pastor named Becky Fischer playing the part of Yoda. Some of the film's most trenchant images are of children -- most under the age of ten -- weeping openly, speaking in tongues, praying before a large cardboard stand-up of George W. Bush (an image, coincidentally, with roughly the same IQ as the real President Bush), and talking about their initial desire to be "saved" because -- at the astute age of five -- they realized that they simply needed something "more" in their lives.
It would all be hilarious, if it weren't so utterly disturbing.
Some have seen the movie and have called the tactics and methods used on these children nothing short of brainwashing; Unfortunately, it's simply parents doing what many parents do: passing their beliefs down to their children, and giving them no other real option. Kids generally want to please their parents during their formative years, so if, as a parent, you tell your kids that they should believe the sun revolves around the Earth -- or that they need to be saved by Jesus Christ -- you can be all but assured that that's exactly what they'll do.
Understand, neither Pastor Becky Fischer nor the mothers and fathers who send their children to Camp Kids on Fire care one bit about my opinions or beliefs; to them, I'm to be at the very least pitied for what will surely be an eternity in hell -- or at the most, despised for openly wishing to inflict my belief in logic and reason on the rest of the planet, which would inevitably turn it away from their "One True God."
This leads me to confession number two: for a very short time (not even a full year, for reasons which should be obvious) I went to a Fundamentalist Southern-Baptist school.
For the record, my parents sent me to Dade Christian School not because they were zealots or in fact subscribed at all to the school's extremist take on Christianity; I went there because it was right up the street from my home as a teenager and because it actually did offer an excellent education. Unfortunately, with that education came indoctrination; Dade Christian was -- and still is, unless raided by the ATF at some point -- the kind of school which force-fed students Evangelical dogma to the point of exerting a chilling level of control over not just their lives in school, but at home as well. Children weren't allowed to hold hands -- in school or out -- dance, attend rock concerts or generally do the things that normal kids often do. Important to mention at this point is the fact that the students who either truly believed the teachings of the school or simply hoped to ingratiate themselves with the teachers could be counted on to report the behavior of those kids who broke the rules outside of the school gates back to the almighty administration. Dade Christian School operated as if it were an occupied city -- complete with traitorous spies and a Vichy student government.
It goes without saying that I was less than popular with the occupying force -- acting as the metaphorical insurgent who wandered the streets painting a giant red V over each Bible verse.
The clash of beliefs however reached critical mass in the wake of a tragedy.
A few years before enrolling at Dade Christian, I became friends with a young girl who lived up the street from me. Her name was Debby, and she and I would meet most afternoons to play kickball and generally get into trouble. We had both recently passed the point in life where boys and girls loathed each other, which meant that there was an odd but undeniable undertone of intimate curiosity to our relationship. We liked each other -- quite a bit in fact; we had the kind of relationship which was tinged with a level of youthful discovery that in retrospect brings a bittersweet smile to my face.
At some point however, it just stopped; she still lived up the street from me, but for a reason unknown to me at the time she simply seemed to disappear.
It was later, during my first day at Dade Christian, that I ran into Debby again. She was warm and kind to me, but strangely distant. I did my best to put it out of my head; I figured I would need all of my mental faculties to resist the school's relentless day-to-day proselytism.
Debby and I never really talked again; we never got the chance to.
A few months after my encounter with her, there was a fire not far from my house. I awoke to the sound of firetrucks screaming past my window and quickly rushed outside to see what was going on -- running after the trucks until I saw what exactly had dragged them to my quiet neighborhood in the middle of the night.
Debby's home was on fire.
I stood silently, bathed in flashes of deep-red as the lights from the trucks created a chaos of long shadows and violent bursts of color. I watched Debby's mother -- whom I'd never actually spoken to -- cry loudly and collapse into a firefighter's arms. I never saw Debby come out; the reason is because she didn't.
I walked home numb -- a lack of feeling which lasted well into the next day at school. It was there -- surrounded by tearful students and teachers, comforting each other with the knowledge that Debby was in a better place -- that something overcame me. My numbness was replaced by something else: sheer fucking rage. I didn't doubt the honesty or sincerity of those who grieved at Dade Christian School, I did however doubt that they ever knew the Debby that I did; they never saw the truly beautiful young girl underneath the thick topcoat of artifice with which they had covered her through the perpetual insistence that there was something wrong with her -- that she needed to be "saved," and needed to denounce her humanity -- herself. To those who truly believed the teachings I was inundated with daily, Debby was simply another lucky Christian soul gone to heaven.
My anger finally exploded just a few days later, during the memorial service held for my friend at the New Testament Baptist Church, which ran Dade Christian School. It was there that something so hideous happened that I have no doubt of its impact on my view of religion since. During the service, the silver-haired pastor -- a man who looked as if he came right out of Central Casting -- stood on the stage and uttered these words:
"Perhaps something good can come from Debby's death. Perhaps it can teach you all that you can be taken from this world at any moment, and that you cannot take your immortal soul for granted. You have to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior now, because there may not be a tomorrow."
He then urged those who were saved or wished to be to come up to the stage to bear witness for all of those in the crowd.
It was at that moment that I got up and walked out.
I was in the outer lobby of the church -- pacing and shaking with what I feared was an uncontrollable fury -- when one of my teachers, one I happened to like, came out to find me. She asked me if I was alright, and that was when I let everything inside me come bursting out.
I tried to keep my voice down, but I wound up seething and spitting anger through clenched teeth. I told her that what was going on just behind those double-doors was wrong. I told her that she couldn't possibly condone that kind of macabre exploitation of a student who sat in one of her classes just days ago. I told her that there was no reason for Debby's death, nor the death of any other kid -- and that justifying or rationalizing that kind of tragedy was simply outrageous. I told her she couldn't possibly believe in a god that would allow such groundless suffering. I told her the death of a young girl was just fucking wrong.
And then I cried.
Rather than defend the grotesque spectacle taking place just a few feet from us, the teacher simply nodded her head in acknowledgement.
But there were others who didn't -- who wouldn't; they were children -- like the baleful faces at Camp Kids on Fire -- who have been the targets of so much religious agitprop throughout their formative years, from parents who believe that they're doing God's will, that they truly believe that the death of one of their own would offer a silver-lining in the form of an object lesson from on high. At the risk of being too provocative, you have to ask yourself: if this kind of manipulation of children were coming from anyone but those who preach the dominion of Jesus, would we as a nation tolerate it?
Yesterday, my wife and I visited the Museum of Natural History. As we took in the exhibits on the earliest incarnation of the universe, the earliest incarnation of man, and the fossils which act as a concrete testament to the existence of dinosaurs -- it dawned on me that there are children in this country who believe none of it. They deny proven fact because their parents do. They've learned to demand nothing less than a new age of unreason.
Which is nothing compared to demanding that the death of one of them be accepted as the unquestionable work of a god who operates in ways we're not meant to understand.
The best we can hope for, is that they grow out of it.