I free associate when I drive. Driving to a clothing store this morning, I passed a church that was having a flea market in the parking lot. In front of the church was a sign that had the times for worship, as well as the time for Sunday School classes. Sunday school got me thinking about the days when I attended Sunday School, and that in turn got me thinking how it is ironic that I have no religious beliefs (which is a polite way of saying that I am an athiest). This last thought lead me to wonder just why I hold no religious beliefs. Thinking hard, as I pulled the car into a narrow parking space between two massive SUVs, I came up with three reasons. The irony is that the first of the reasons is Sunday School itself.
I first started attending Sunday school at the same time I began attending Hebrew school. I lived in Rhode Island at the time, and I would guess this to be sometime in 1982. I was ten years old. As far back as I can remeber, I have always been curious about the universe we live in. When I was six years old, my parents got me a telescope when I used to see Saturn with its rings in my backyard. Curiosity in science is encouraged. Curiosity in Sunday school was not. I was one of those kids. There are three reasons I can think of that Sunday school soured me on religion.
First, we were being taught something that I believe we were too young to understand. The Bible is one of the greatest pieces of literature in the English language, often compared with the works of William Shakespeare. Would you expect a nine or ten year old kid to understand all of the allusions, metaphors, and allegories in Hamlet or Macbeth? Probably not. And yet we expect that same child to swallow, nearly whole, the allusions, metaphors and allegories of the Bible. We were given help, of course. I recall having some kind of Sunday school text book, with lots of pictures (Noah’s ark, a burning bush, the ruins of a temple, etc.) but the book didn’t seem to help. It was never explained to me, for instance, that an important aspect of Hebrew poetry is parallelism, something which helps to explain the wording of some Bible passages. I had a hard time understand what I was being taught, and even more, why it was important to know this stuff.
Second, curiosity was discouraged. After we moved to Los Angeles, I attended a new Sunday school and when I asked questions (“How could it rain for 40 days and 40 nights? Wouldn’t the clouds run out of water?”) I seemed to annoy my teachers. (I also remember thinking it a pretty mean thing to do to ask someone [Abraham] to sacrifice his son. I remember thinking that if God is all-knowing, then he knows what the outcome is going to be before he ever asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, so what’s the point–but I was too afraid to ask the teacher about it.)
Third, and perhaps most important was context. Remember that I had my telescope and would read books on astronomy. It is hard to read books on astonomy without becoming familiar with constellations, and it’s hard to learn about constellations without learning the mythology behind them. Therefore, I had some familiarity with myths and fairy tales. In this context, I could not understand why we were told the Greek myths or Norse myths were stories made up to explain what people didn’t understand, but that they Hebrew “myths” were true. To me, the things I learned in Sunday schools seemed no different than the myths that I learned about from other sources. No one could explain this to me in a satisfactory way, and I began to suspect that they didn’t know themselves.
In order to learn more about astronomy, I needed books and I can recall my Mom taking me to the Franklin Township Library near our home in Somerset, New Jersey. From that libarary, I checked out many books on astronomy, but the one I remember best was called The Nine Planets. I checked this book out over and over again. It was not from this book that I learned about constellations, however. That was from a book given to me by my Aunt Rose, entitled The Larousse Guide To Astronomy. I understood very little of the book, but I liked the pictures of the constellations. I remember looking them up in the library and that lead to me to reading Greek myths (in childrens books anyway).
In fact, over time, the library served to answer my questions that my Sunday school teachers could not answer. The more answers that I got, the more I began to believe that the Bible was really nothing more than the Hebrew myths, no better or worse than the Greek myths, Norse myths, Native American myths, Japanese myths, and so on. To really understand the universe you lived in, you needed to understand how that universe worked and the only way to do that was through science. I can recall being told as a youngster that thunder was God playing bowling and that rain was God crying. In the library I learned that thunder was sound caused by the rapid expansion of heated air (the air heated suddenly by lightening of course). I learned that rain was a form of condensation contained within clouds. There was nothing magical about it. It all made sense. More than that, it felt right.
With Sunday school pushing me away from religion and the library pulling me toward science, I began to notice something in myself, a kind of contentment. Using science to puzzle out the mysterious of the universe just felt right to me. I imagine that this is similar to what deeply religious people feel for their own beliefs, a kind of comfortable happiness. Well, that is how I began to feel and I have never looked back since. I am comfortable in my understanding of the universe. More often than not, I am astounded by its mysteries. Occasionally, someone who knows me will ask if I don’t feel something more missing from my life. Absolutely not! I can appreciate religion, and I have the greatest respect for people of faith. But I prefer my way. I am a skeptic by nature, so it makes sense. I feel no void. In fact, more often than not I feel exhilerated at what we will learn next about this mysterious universe in which we live. As has been said before, these are interesting times.
And yet, I fear for our future at times. Whereas I see a library as something that filled my life in the way that a church or temple fills the life of another, libraries are continually threatened while churches grow stronger. Libraries today find it harder to serve patrons than they did two decades ago. It is one less resource for kids to have on the road to reason, and I think it shows. Setting religious beliefs aside, we live in a world on the cutting edge of science and technology, and yet it is a world where more often than not, people believe in astrology, ESP, channeling, ghosts, devils, possessions, spoon-bending. Millions of people claim to have been abducted by aliens, or to have seen UFOs. Why, in this day and age, should this be so? Unfortunately, I think religion is partly to blame.
Most people are not given the choice to believe in what they want to believe. They are brought up with a set of religious beliefs that they are told are true from the day they are born. Any doubt or skepticism atrophies at a young age, never to return. For the religion, this is great. But from the perspective of reason, of critical thinking, this is dangerous. I think many people do believe in nonsense for the simple reason that they don’t know how to question its veracity. And if a person cannot tell the difference between science and pseudoscience, how can we expect them to make reasonable decisions for other important things, like electing officials, passing laws, or relating well with other countries?
These people, these folks who have had doubt drained from their beings, would look at this essay and say things like, “See, these libraries we have are no good. They are subversive. They turn our children away from God.” They wouldn’t understand that the library had very little to do with it. The library contained information. It was up to me to be skeptical, to exercise my ability to doubt what I was being told, and to look for alternate explanations. But I am in the minority and I fear that the majority, well-intentioned though they may be, are leading us down a path from which we cannot recover.