Freedom from Religion

Book burning on the rise

Senior year in high school included the long-feared ‘senior paper.’ A project of English class, the paper’s thesis had to be approved first then the long drudgery of research would begin. The paper itself, to be footnoted and typed, would form a significant part of the final grade in that class.

I was no stranger to research and looked forward to hours at the local library, which was located only a block from the high school. Unexplored wonders could be found in that quiet place, books on the history of the world and the various exploits of human kind. As I sought further information to prove my thesis, I jotted my notes on 4×6 index cards, another requirement for the project.

My thesis asked the question: Why did existential thought that existed throughout the history of mankind suddenly become an overwhelming condition of modern mankind?

The material I explored included Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization, James Gutman’s Philosophy A to Z, John Killinger’s The English Journal, and a long list of citations from the Bible as well as ancient writings from world cultures. In reading these materials and processing the information into a coherent statement in proof of my thesis, I realized that much of what I had come to believe in my eighteen years was right: Christianity—indeed, all organized religion—was a construct of humanity meant to salve our existential despair.

The difference with the modern age, as so clearly delineated in philosophical examination, is/was that by the very process of advancing civilization, humans have cut themselves off from key partnerships that once provided balm to our woe: Nature, tribal life, our gods, and ourselves, the latter with our frenetic pace and endless amusements. With these alienations, we find ourselves utterly alone, a condition so difficult that we endlessly seek escape in intoxicants, entertainment, and work.

The paper earned me an “A.” I packed it away along with the notecards in their little clasp envelope. I’ve always remembered the paper and the education I gained in my research, but I never looked at those cards again. If the question ever arose, I would have guessed they had been tossed out a long time ago.

Not so. My mother saved them, and they once again entered my domain when a few years ago she handed me a couple of boxes crammed with souvenirs of my life—photographs of junior high and high school friends, letters home from California or the Philippine Islands, clippings of my various public activities through the years. And the notecards.

At first, I picked up the small packet of cards not knowing what it contained. On the outside, at some point my mother had written “Denele’s – what helped her turn away from God!”

Well.

Yes, insomuch as I indeed turned away from the Church of Christ’s concept of God, this project helped. But what my mother could never grasp is that I had been questioning God, or more to the point, religion in general, since age five. By eight years of age, I had settled on key questions no one wanted to answer, typical questions for young people such as ‘Where did God come from?” and “Who did Adam and Eve’s children marry?” The answer always condensed down to “Don’t ask.”

Fast forward six or seven decades while I continued to read and question and discover. I have no regrets that I discarded the blinders imposed by my parents’ fundamentalist faith. I’m happy that my curiosity led me to explore philosophy, natural history, and science with the many mysteries of human existence. What makes me sad is that even today parents still seek to limit their children’s exposure to knowledge that exists outside the boundaries of their rigid belief systems or which violates the dogma of their faith.

The burning of the pantheistic Amalrician heretics in 1210, in the presence of King Philip II Augustus. In the background is the Gibbet of Montfaucon and, anachronistically, the Grosse Tour of the Temple. Illumination from the Grandes Chroniques de France, c. AD 1455–1460.

For example, I once lamented the limited extracurricular activities available at the small rural school my children attended, pointing out that so many opportunities were being lost. Where was the encouragement to attend college, learn music or art, explore the wonders of the world? The response from one parent actually struck me speechless. “Well, honey, somebody’s got to flip the burgers,” she said, fist propped on her hip. “What about that?”

Indeed, what about that? How tragic that her children and so many others would be trapped in that mindset.

The price of limiting the thinking of our children is immeasurable. We see it every day in intolerance even hatred for anyone different, whether ethnic, racial, or gender differences. We see it in embrace of authoritarian figures like Trump who fit a distorted concept of leadership based on an authoritarian god. We see it in the fear of change that leads to violence against those perceived as ‘Other.’

Frans Hals – Portret van René Descartes, Wikipedia

Much of what is written on those cards is nonsensical taken in isolation, like quotes from Heidegger’s book Being and Time (1927) about the two kinds of being, “Sein” meaning all things, and “Dasein” meaning only mankind. Or the postulation of Descartes in his 1637 Discourse on the Method wherein he wrote: Ego Ergo Sic, or “I am, therefore I am thus,” or more widely conceived as “I think, therefore I am.” Pondering these kinds of concepts is not easy and tends to take oneself out of the hum of routine. And away from the strict belief systems of doctrines undergirding religion.

What my mother exclaimed in her quickly penned remark about my notecards is true. Those learning experiences helped me abandon religion entirely. Another big step on that path was a college course in English Bible, where the three authors of the Books of Moses were examined with comparisons of material in Genesis to the Sumerian books of Gilgamesh—and much more. It’s been a lifelong study, full of empathy for others who, like me, struggle with the very essence of existence, remarked by feminist French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir in her book The Ethics of Ambiguity (1948):

“The sub-man is not very clear about what he has to lose, since he has nothing, but this very uncertainty re-enforces his terror. Indeed, what he fears is that the shock of the unforeseen may remind him of the agonizing consciousness of himself. …Everything is a threat to him, since the thing which he has set up as an idol is an externality and is thus in relationship with the whole universe; and since, despite all precautions, he will never be the master of this exterior world to which he has consented to submit, he will be constantly upset by the uncontrollable course of events.”

For de Beauvoir, freedom comes in the act of trying to be free and accepting that this journey is the freedom.[1] Freedom to believe, to act, to question, to reach out to others in individual acts of kindness—these fulfill us in myriad ways that counter the existential despair of modern life. Understanding that, and the awareness that our personal journey is best seen as an opportunity to make the world a better place, has helped me live a rich life.

I thank the notecards. I thank the Founding Fathers for enshrining my freedom of thought within the Constitution. And I thank my parents and ancestors for giving me the intelligence, if not the freedom, to choose.


[1] Summarized at https://fs.blog/simone-de-beauvoir-ethics-freedom/