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I live in the American South and it seems you cannot drive more than two blocks in any direction without coming across a church. In fact, I have seen a crossroads where all four corners each features a different church. They come in all varieties, from the most sedate Episcopalian, to the most frenetic Holiness. There are so many different types of Baptist, that I wonder that anyone can be confident that he has chosen the right one and not by accident found the shortcut to Hell. 

Church is so completely built into the culture, that it is taken for granted. The first time I visited my barber here in Asheville, N.C., he made for casual conversation by asking me which church I went to. I had to squirm a little and let on that I don’t go to any. “I am not religious,” I said, understating the case rather diplomatically. 

I have no religion; I’m not even an atheist. Being an atheist seems like wasting your time angrily proving that Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist. I haven’t had a religious impulse since I was 9 years old. 

Anyway, the South must be the only place in America where churches outnumber convenience stores. You find them everywhere and in every economic register, from the banal brick churches with large parking lots that minister to the bourgeoise, to the strip-mall storefronts that cater to the more out-there fringe-element evangelicals. In one, the parking lot is filled with Buicks and in the other, with pickup trucks and aging Datsun hatchbacks. 

My favorite is a church just north of Greensboro, N.C., that looks something like a high school pre-fab gymtorium with words in large letters on its front that can be read two ways. I’m sure its believers only see “God Can” as a profession of the capabilities of the deity. But I prefer to think of it as a place of canned piety. The tin roof only reinforces the image of a  kippered divinity. 

The newest pestilence among the churches is the clever changing sign out front, advertising either a Bible verse or bad pun. These can be entertaining, although I wonder what a real old fire-and-brimstone preacher man would have thought of them. Not much, I suspect. 

I know of two such preachers, one on my side of the family, and the other on my wife’s. I grew up in New Jersey among Norwegians, and the first church I ever went to, as barely more than a toddler, was Trinity Evangelical Free Church in Teaneck, N.J., where the presiding minister, Pastor Anderson, gave his sermons in Norwegian and although I didn’t understand the language, there was no mistaking the import of his message: He was a hellfire and damnation sort, who poked his finger at the congregation, wagging it as he scolded them at the top of his voice. We were all damned, for sure. I have been told that away from the pulpit, E.W. Anderson was a kind and mild man with a good sense of humor. It’s a side of him I never saw. 

(Pastor Anderson may have been ahead of his time in at least one regard: From 1931 to 1936, he broadcast a weekly radio program — in Norwegian — every Sunday. His religion may have been old-fashioned, but he took advantage of emerging technologies.)

RD Bell preaching

The other is my wife’s grandfather on her mother’s side, a wiry and contentious old man named Rhudy Dolphus Bell. No one seems to know where he earned his ordination, but he was a severe and unforgiving man, always ready to consign the sinner to an eternal rain of fire. He was known in his time to padlock churches where offending parishioners had been caught in — or suspected of — sinful behavior, and he would post a sign on the door: “Because brother so-and-so was seen at the dance hall with sister so-and-so, who is not his wife, this church is officially closed.” Of course, he had no official authority to do such things, and was thus rather taken for a crank. 

RD Bell baptizing

That old-fashioned Old Testament fire-in-the-eyes preaching was much more common in the past than it is now, outside of televangelists ranting and weeping on the airwaves. R.D. Bell regularly took part in so-called camp meetings, aka tent meetings, aka revivals, when the preaching went on all day long, with preachers spelling each other as they wore down, like tag-team wrestlers. 

Of course, the king of the revival circuit was Billy Graham, who ran things on an industrial scale. 

The Cove

I live in Asheville off Exit 55 of Interstate 40. That is also the exit for the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove, which is fashionably set upslope on the mountain on the far side of the highway. This is Billy Graham country. The bypass around downtown is the Billy Graham Expressway; there is a bronze statue of the man in Ridgecrest, just east of Black Mountain at Exit 66, and Graham’s home in Montreat, just north of Black Mountain; Montreat is a religious retreat community that looks like the vacation home of old money. The houses tend to be cobbled from stone set among the trees, and Lake Susan sits in the center of town, surrounded by mountains on all sides. Real estate values are astronomical. 

Lake Susan, Montreat


Graham is an interesting case. Less Old Testament than many evangelists, he preached against racial segregation and even allowed, in some moments, that even good non-Christians might be saved. 

A few things you might not know about Graham. When he was a boy, he loved reading Tarzan books and, according to his father, would hang on trees and try out the old Tarzan yell. “I think that yelling helped develop his voice,” his father said later.

St. Anthony of Padua

And, after he received the calling in 1937, while a student at the Florida Bible Institute near Tampa, he was known to paddle to an island in the Hillsborough River where, like St. Anthony of Padua preaching to the fishes, he would practice his sermons and “preach to the birds, alligators, and cypress stumps.”

By the way, Graham’s college degree, from Wheaton College in Illinois, is in anthropology. Who knew? 

I mention Graham because I have a personal confession to make. No, not that kind. 

My parents were relaxed when it came to religion. They both grew up in religious households, but seemed to have taken the lesson away from their upbringing that they would not force church on their children. My father, especially suffered from religion. His father — my Pop-pop — had been a successful homebuilder in New Jersey and quite well off, but lost it all in 1929, when my father was 10 years old. The old man tipped into the religious mania, banning dancing, radio, music, and anything that might be considered fun, from the home. They went to church two or three times a week, and all day Sunday. It was quite a constrictive childhood for my father and his five siblings. 

They never said it, but I believe my parents decided they would never visit that on their children. 

My mother’s mother wasn’t quite so bonkers, but she was pious, and her apartment was filled with religious trinkets and devotional pictures. When I was young, she lived with us. And when I was 9 years old, she took me to Billy Graham’s 1957 Crusade at Madison Square Garden in New York, where he preached to sold-out crowds nightly for 16 weeks. I was young and impressionable; Graham was riveting and inspiring.

I had been to the Garden for Rangers hockey games and the Ringling Brothers circus, so I knew the venue. But I had never seen so many people packed into it. At first, I wasn’t sure who was talking. Graham sideman Cliff Barrows did most of it, acting as an emcee for the show, but I thought at first he was Graham. After all, he was as far from me as home plate is from the outfield bleachers. The choir sang, and George Beverly Shea dropped his pear-shaped baritone down into the depths of what I now recognize as bathos. 
But when Graham finally came out and began sermonizing, he was electric. It was my introduction in crowd psychology, and the power of oratory over the masses. My friend, the late Dimitri Drobatschewsky, who fled Nazi Germany told me how he had listened to Adolf Hitler speak when he was a teenager and how, he said, even as a Jew, “I could hardly keep my arm from raising in the Nazi salute.” Hitler had that effect on his audience. There must be something to that. I would never otherwise compare Billy Graham to Hitler, but Graham had that kind of hypnotic effect on his listeners. And when it came time, at the end of his speaking, to “come forward and accept Jesus,” I was ready to go. Let me go down. But my grandmother said I was too young, and wouldn’t let me go. I rankled, but I stayed up in the bleachers. The mood soon passed. I never had a religious moment again. 

There may have been something in Graham’s relentless activity, because his minion, Cliff Barrows lived till he was 94; Graham till he was 99 and Shea until he was 104. 

But then, famous atheist Bertrand Russell lived to be 97. 

missionariesThe time was, that when Mormon missionaries or Jehovah’s Witnesses rang my door, I would argue with them. Not angry arguments, but bantering ones, at least on my part. It was a pleasant form of entertainment.

“Did God create the animals before he created Adam? Or did he create Adam first? The Bible has it both ways, you know.”

Or: “Where in the Bible does it say that it is the inspired word of God? Is that belief not as deeply buried in tradition — unexamined tradition — as the Catholic saints that you disparage or the veneration of Mary?”

I’ve read the thing from end to end, and while I can see why the faithful might come to the belief that it is inerrant — just as the Islamist believes in the Quran or Republicans in Fox News — nowhere have I found a Bible verse that makes that claim.

Some of those door-jambers would argue points, some would be flummoxed and a few would engage in genuinely interesting dialog. I enjoyed the back-and-forth.

Mainly, they wanted to know if I had been “saved” and I could never quite understand what I needed to be “saved” from. Being human?

They were usually so earnest, I eventually came to feel bad toying with them.

I was a proclaimed atheist at the time, and although I didn’t recognize it then, those door-frame debates were the rituals of atheism, as regular in form as the Eucharist or full-immersion baptism.

Then, at some point, I lost interest. I gave up arguing; it had become repetitive. At that point, I would say to anyone who asked, that I was a “lapsed atheist.” Not that my beliefs had changed, but that I no longer participated in the rituals.

I was happy for anyone to believe anything they wanted; I still am. But I cannot share those beliefs. They are something I cannot partake of. While much of the world goes on slaughtering each other for using the wrong name when addressing their deity, or for not eating fish on Friday, or eating pork chops on any day, or cutting or not cutting off tender bits of anatomy, or whether God does or does not turn into a loaf of bread, my current response is a sigh. After all, some of these people believe a three-personed god surrounded by winged godlets and opposed by an evil god named Satan somehow counts as monotheism. One scratches one’s head.

Most peculiar to me: God killed his son because he loves us so very very much. Is this something God’s dog told him to do, like Son of Sam? It’s as if God were schizophrenic; we lock people away who contemplate such things. For good reason.

These are not the only peculiar things that human beings believe, and it seems that a need to believe is inbred and genetic.

The question of god seems so unnecessary. I suppose when the DNA was handed out, the part of the sequence that causes one to believe was left out of my portion. I just don’t see the point; and now, I don’t see the point in arguing over it. You can have whatever supernatural beings you want, as long as you leave me out of it.

I certainly recognize that for some people, the need for a deity is intense, and I cannot gainsay their belief. Again, I see such sincerity in their quest, in their faith. But there is nothing in me that responds to the same issue: an invisible man who lives in the sky and grants your wishes?

Nowadays, I just say I have no religion; I’m not even an atheist.

Because, let’s face it, for most people who make the claim, atheism is a religion. It is a creed that needs to rebel against Big Daddy and destroy him. Atheism on this level feels adolescent in impulse. For me, it seems just as silly to deny something that doesn’t exist as it does to pray to it. Simply let me go my way and you can go yours. Just, please, don’t slaughter me over it.

mormon miss 1

The time was, that when Mormon missionaries or Jehovah’s Witnesses rang my door, I would argue with them. Not angry arguments, but bantering ones, at least on my part. It was a pleasant form of entertainment.

“Did God create the animals before he created Adam? Or did he create Adam first? The Bible has it both ways, you know.”

Or: “Where in the Bible does it say that it is the inspired word of God? Is that belief not as deeply buried in tradition — unexamined tradition — as the Catholic saints that you disparage?”

I’ve read the thing from end to end, and while I can see why the faithful might come to the belief that it is inerrant, nowhere have I found a verse that makes that claim.

Some of those door-jambers would argue points, some would be flummoxed and a few would engage in genuinely interesting dialog. I enjoyed the back-and-forth.

Mainly, they wanted to know if I had been “saved” and I could never quite understand what I needed to be “saved” from. Being human?

They were usually so earnest, I felt bad toying with them.

I was a proclaimed atheist at the time, and although I didn’t recognize it then, those door-frame debates were the rituals of atheism, as regular in form as the Eucharist or full-immersion baptism.

Then, I at some point, I lost interest. I gave up arguing; it had become repetitive. At that point, I would say to anyone who asked, that I was a “lapsed atheist.” Not that my beliefs had changed, but that I no longer participated in the rituals.

I was happy for anyone to believe anything they wanted; I still am. But I cannot share those beliefs. They are something I cannot partake of. While much of the world goes on slaughtering each other for using the wrong name when addressing their deity, or for not eating fish on Friday, or eating pork chops on any day, or cutting or not cutting off tender bits of anatomy, or whether God does or does not turn into a loaf of bread, my current response is a sigh. After all, some of these people believe a three-personed god surrounded by winged godlets and opposed by an evil god named Satan somehow counts as monotheism. One scratches one’s head.son of sam

Most peculiar to me: God killed his son because he loves us so very very much. Is this something God’s dog told him to do, like Son of Sam? It’s as if God were schizophrenic; we lock people away who contemplate such things. For good reason.

These are not the only peculiar things that human beings believe, and it seems that a need to believe is inbred and genetic.

The question of god seems so unnecessary. I suppose when the DNA was handed out, the part of the sequence that causes one to believe was left out of my portion.

I certainly recognize that for some people, the need for a deity is intense, and I cannot gainsay their belief. Again, I see such sincerity in their quest, in their faith. JehovahBut there is nothing in me that responds to the same issue: an invisible man who lives in the sky and grants wishes?

Nowadays, I just say I have no religion; I’m not even an atheist.

Because, let’s face it, for most people who make the claim, atheism is a religion. It is a religion that needs to rebel against Big Daddy and destroy him. Atheism on this level feels adolescent in impulse. For me, it seems just as silly to deny something that doesn’t exist as it does to pray to it. Simply let me go my way and you can go yours. Just, please, don’t slaughter me over it.

seventh seal knight

Can you choose to believe?

Some people seem to think so. You consider a menu of possible beliefs and choose which you like best. The American church scene certainly gives you a host of beliefs to sign up for: Not only Catholicism or Mormonism or Christian Science, but a hundred different versions of Protestantism, each with its heartfelt shibboleths. And there are thousands of varieties of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam. And let’s not forget that Atheism is a belief, also.

So, you scan the menu and choose.

Blaise Pascal offered a bet: Believe and be saved. If there turns out not to be a God, then you have lost nothing. Fail to believe and maybe nothing happens, but if there is a God, then you lose your bet.

The problem is, of course, that the bet isn’t merely whether there is a god or not — putting your chips on the red or the black — but which god will save you and which will cast you to perdition: With so many choices, the odds are always against you: The house wins.

But you cannot merely choose. It sounds good until you try it. There is, after all, a difference between joining a church and believing what it teaches. seventh seal knight looks up

There are plenty of examples of people choosing one religion over another for political or survival reasons. Composers Gustav Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn each converted to Christianity to further their careers and escape the anti-Semitism of their time and place. It wasn’t at all uncommon in earlier centuries when one’s religion could disqualify one for certain jobs.

But did they believe in their adopted religions? That’s another question altogether.

For belief cannot be a matter of choice: You can believe only in what seems true. You don’t choose a religion and decide to believe its tenets; you decide what you believe is true, and look for a religion that offers those beliefs to you.

Believe simply isn’t volitional. You believe because you think certain things are true. Ineluctably true.

That doesn’t mean that what you believe is true — people can believe all kinds of odd piffle — but that those who believe do so because those ideas seem true to them. Whether it is religion or science, fiction or the ravings of a tin-foil-hat Tea Party Republican, you can only believe what rings true.

This is so even for those young academics who profess not to believe in any truth, that truth is all just relative. But of course, they believe it is true that there isn’t any truth. You cannot escape it: If you believe, you do so because you perceive it as true.

There are certainly people who wish they could choose to believe. There are those without faith who suffer from their inability to believe. They desperately want to believe, like the knight in Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal.

What holds them back is that they cannot choose to believe something that doesn’t seem to be true, no matter how beneficial it would be if they could enforce that choice. Faith has, after all, many demonstrated benefits.

But if you don’t think there is a god or a savior, you cannot pretend there is.

Conversion happens when you accept that the religious tenets are true. It isn’t logic or reason that defines truth for us. We each have inclinations of genes and upbringing. seventh seal subtitle

Our emotions as surely as our syllogisms govern what seems true to us.

Some people are credulous and can accept as true any amount of silliness. I know a man who converted to a new religion every six months or so. He has been Baptist, Buddhist, Catholic, Methodist, Hindu and Evangelical.

One religion he joined actually worshipped triangles and explained the entire universe in terms of three-sided figures. There was not an ounce of hypocrisy in him: He believed each religion in turn was the true one.

Yet, if you cannot choose to believe, you can nevertheless choose to be open to possibilities, to allow yourself to learn about things you had previously been closed to. You can choose to look and listen.

Maybe you’ll be lucky.

burned at the stake

“What’s wrong with belief?” she asked. ”I have been a Christian for many years, and my faith has given me great comfort.” 

That’s fine, I told her. I have no problem with that. I, myself, am a lapsed atheist: same non-belief, but no interest in the rituals of atheism. I don’t care to proselytize. 

She took exception, she said, to something I had written about political art. I had said that bad political art came as much from the Christian right as from the Marxist left. 

She got me to admit that I had been using hasty polemicist’s shorthand when indicting the Christian right. And she’s correct. For one thing, I’m hard pressed to name any art at all currently made by the religious right. They don’t make art, they criticize it. It is the conservative’s impotence that he can only react, never create. 

For another thing, the Christian right seems to me less a religious than a political faction. The items on its agenda are not notably Christian — at least not from the Christ who advocated poverty and humility — but rather free-market and male-dominated conservatism wearing the imprimatur of authority — a kind of soup made up of half-baked doctrine floating in a broth of testosterone. 

So, it wasn’t Christianity at all that I was indicting, and I should have left the term out of the story. I have no quarrel with Christians. 

Yet, there is something about a certain persuasion of Christian that worries me. And that thing that worries me is the same thing that worries many of us about the Muslim fundamentalism that bombs airplanes or the Hindu fundamentalism that killed Mohandas Gandhi. 

Because it isn’t really Christians who scare me, it is believers. 

I have always made a distinction between faith and belief. Faith is a comfort, and it is a willingness to let pass from one’s heart the angst, rancor and jealousy and recognize that there is something greater in the universe. And further, you are willing to give up control to something greater. 

In some ways, this is only common sense. 

The power you think you have is only illusory in the first place. You cannot control whether you will die, for instance, or whether you will go bald. That is the kind of power you must be willing to give over to the universe that gave you birth. It doesn’t much matter if you name that power Jehovah, Allah or the Void. On this point, the atheist and the Christian can come together. 

Belief, on the other hand, requires an agenda, a dogma, a list of specific things you must accept as ultimately true. Faith is generalized, belief is specific. 

And it is those specifics that have caused all the trouble. 

For human beings are willing to believe the most astonishing things. And what is worse, they are willing to act on them and impose them on their neighbor. It matters not whether you are Savonarola or Madalyn Murray O’Hair. 

Belief is the very devil. It is not a willingness to recognize one’s ultimate powerlessness in a universe that is an overwhelming mystery; it is rather the arrogant assertion that there is only one right way and what is more, you know that right way and everyone else had better start wearing your uniform and marching in step. 

What I should have written, if I had had the time and space, is that the root of evil is certainty. If there is a Satan, he is certainty. 

Certainty gave us Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition.

The wheel of the inquisition

It gave us Hitler, gave us Pol Pot. Certainty justified slavery and permitted white Americans to believe that the only good Indian was a dead Indian. 

Certainty destroyed the temples of Tibet and the churches of Moscow. 

We live in a world beset with certainty. It killed Serbs and Croats, Turks and Greeks, Tamil and Hindu. It kills abortion clinic doctors and it kills Oklahoma City government workers and Boston marathoners. 

When people die because someone believes an income tax is unconstitutional, you know something is desperately wrong somewhere. 

The bottom line is: There is a world of difference between being willing to die for your beliefs and being willing to kill for them. 

I am reminded of a chapter in a book by the late Jacob Bronowski, who wrote in his Ascent of Man about the difference between knowledge and certainty. 

jacob bronowski-bbc

After a clear-minded explanation of the uncertainty principle of physicist Werner Heisenberg, Bronowski brings the reader to Auschwitz and shows us a lake bottom — muddy with the ashes of those killed there. 

Heisenberg formulated a theory that explained why if you can measure how fast an electron is traveling, you cannot measure where it is, and if you measure its location, you can no longer measure its speed. It is an expression of the ultimate ambiguity of knowledge. In science, all conclusions are provisional. 

Bronowski extrapolates that it is not just electrons for which that is true, but for all knowledge. Uncertainty breeds humility. Certainty breeds arrogance. 

We shouldn’t need Heisenberg to tell us that all knowledge is uncertain. 

uncertainty formula

”Look for yourself,” he writes. ”This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.”