There are two pieces in Parenting Beyond Belief — an essay by Annie Laurie Gaylor and a silly song lyric of my own — that are devoted to the introduction of great figures who were religious doubters of one stripe or another. I included these because it’s important for kids to know that not everyone believes — that in fact, some of the greatest minds of every generation were doubters. And it’s important to do it overtly because of that busy, busy eraser.
I feel particularly strongly about this because I grew up oblivious to the fact that I was not alone in my doubts, as most of us do. Even in college I had not discovered any significant presence of articulate disbelief in our cultural history. And it really made me doubt my own doubts. How could I disbelieve when all of my greatest intellectual heroes believed? I’d heard it said the Founding Fathers were Christians – when in fact very few were. I had heard that Charles Darwin found no contradiction between evolutionary theory and Christian belief, when in fact he did. (He made that clear in his autobiography – though those pages were removed from the first edition by his wife, with the best of misguided motives.) I assumed that Einstein’s references to God were literal reflections of a personal faith, only later discovering his several irritated denials of that claim.
I was in my thirties before I discovered, in the works of AN Wilson, how many of the greatest intellectual and moral minds of every generation were freethinkers of one stripe or another – Seneca, Diderot, Voltaire, Jefferson, Lincoln, Susan B Anthony, Thomas Edison, Einstein, Freud, Twain, Hume, H.L. Mencken, Simone de Beauvoir, Bertrand Russell. They had all written eloquently of their doubts and their reasons. But those writings had not reached me, despite every possible predilection on my part to receive them.
One of the other ways believers mask disbelief is by taking every passing use of the word ‘God’ as proof that the speaker believed in God. Albert Einstein said, “God would not play dice with the universe.” He was immediately and jubilantly proclaimed a Christian, which irritated him so much that he wrote this answer in 1954: “It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”
Kurt Vonnegut did not believe in God (and expressed it clearly), but once said that “The only proof I need of the existence of God is music.” He meant this as an ironic tribute to music, not as a statement of belief in God, but it was leapt upon so effectively that National Public Radio – NPR! – ended its tribute to him last week with that quote. Why? Because that’s what we do: We mask disbelief in the appearance of belief. A giddy listener quickly posted a claim that Vonnegut, in his last years, was “arguing with his own atheism.”
Vonnegut foreshadowed this in 1992 when he began his eulogy for (atheist/humanist) Isaac Asimov with, “Well, Isaac is up in heaven now…” But he wasn’t erasing — he was being funny. And by all accounts, it slew the gathered throng.
UU humanist and minister Kenneth Phifer said, “Humanism teaches us that it is immoral to wait for God to act for us.” In context, what he was saying is this: Whether or not there is a God, passivity is immoral. But many leapt on the statement as proof that this prominent nontheistic humanist believes in God. You can just hear the squeak, squeak of the eraser, trying desperately to make us all the same.
Here’s Kenneth Phifer trying to be abundantly clear:
“I am a humanist. The humanism I espouse is materialist, naturalistic, religious, rational, responsible and inclusive. I hold with the conviction of humanism that the scientific method is the best means we have discovered for advancing truth…I have faith in that part of humanism which sees the human being as the highest form of life, an end not a means, the creator of moral values, the maker of history… It is the human race that has invented religious communities in order to share the burden of our aloneness as individuals…
He continues: “Religion is a human enterprise. It is the human race that has created religions out of that unique self-awareness that drives us to ask questions about our origins and our destiny.”
Materialist. Naturalistic. Humans as creators of moral values, religion as a human enterprise. It is the human race that has created religions. Phifer calls himself a religious humanist, but it seems pretty clear that he is not a theistic one. He supports the coming together of humanity to do and be good as the fullest expression of religion. It’s an important difference.
A systematic cultural suppression of the rich heritage of religious doubt keeps that heritage out of view. Thus is doubt rendered unthinkable by the stripping of its intellectual tradition. Once I discovered that tradition in AN Wilson’s work (and in The Humanist Anthology, edited by James Herrick, a PBB contributor), I literally wept at times as I read the courageous works of these great thinkers of the past, many giving voice to their honest convictions at a far greater risk than any I will ever encounter. In the span of a few weeks, I went from isolation to the company of giants.
I embarked on an ecstatic engagement with the words and lives of these men and women, taking their intellectual and moral courage as my own inspiration.
Just like gays and lesbians, women, ethnic minorities and others, we have to resist our erasure every bit as insistently as the hand of the mainstream culture pushes that eraser forward.