Category Archives: Atheism

The Radical Fairness of Opting In

swearing inThe week before Adam’s official swearing in, the other members of the Town Board fondly ribbed him about taking the oath. They knew his wife was an atheist, and someone quipped that when I held the Bible for him to swear on it would burst into flames.

Adam doesn’t mind being teased, but the joking did introduce an uncomfortable prospect: Would he feel comfortable swearing on a Bible? He was neither a Christian nor a fan of mixing church with state. Could he use a different book, like maybe the U.S. Constitution?

We had only the flimsy paperback copy that the ACLU sends in its fundraising appeals: it could easily be palmed for a magic trick. On New Year’s Day, preparing to leave for Town Hall, I slipped it into my coat pocket.

It was my dress-up coat; hung-over but game, I had cleaned the mascara smudges from my eyelids, re-curled my hair, and donned my pearls in an effort to look wifely. I wanted to show respect for the occasion. And in this respect, I had my doubts about the bendy founding document in my pocket. It didn’t look as important as a Bible (or a TV Guide. Or that little “start here” manual that comes with your new cell phone). So although I thought it was unlikely Adam would be required to swear on a Bible, I feared that his opting out would turn into a thing, perhaps even a story for the local paper. Should that really be Adam’s first public act as an elected official?

All of which is why I, your friendly outspoken atheist, said to my besuited husband on our way out the door, “Oh just use the damn Bible. Who cares?”

Do you make a point or do you stay quiet? On the drive over I thought about a friend of ours who grew up in our upstate New York town but now lives in Texas. He coaches youth football in his spare time, and he emailed me after the first scrimmage of the season this fall. “Before I knew what was happening,” he wrote, “one of the coaches starting leading the team in prayer.” Our friend is not a crusading atheist; he’s just an extremely logical, fair-minded person. Also, apparently, he is brave. He sent me the text he wrote to the prayer-leading coach:

. . . no offense to you or the other coaches, but I think we’ll leave the prayers to the privacy of each player, out of respect to players of all creeds. Guys can do whatever they choose before or after we gather as a team. Yeah, I know, I’m one of the few footballers who thinks that prayer and football aren’t a good mix.

A big strong guy with a voice that carries, an impressive job, and no lack of confidence, our friend is the head coach of this team. But I bet he put a lot of thought into exactly what level of explanation, supplication, and self-deprecation should go into that text. Results were mixed. Although the other coach, the prayer leader, bowed to my friend’s authority as head coach, said the request was offensive: “prayer is always optional,” and people “have the freedom not to bow their heads.”

Prayer is always optional. True: in this country, there’s almost always a way to opt out. In a well-publicized case last year, Air Force higher-ups at first refused to let an airman reenlist because he crossed “so help me God” off his re-enlistment form; eventually, they relented. Most states let you affirm rather than swear an oath; a 1961 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Torcaso v. Watkins) guaranteed the right to oath-related conscientious objection. States that still have “religious test” oaths on their books tend not to make a fuss if someone opts out: they know they don’t have a constitutional leg to stand on.

We arrived, shook some hands, and took our seats. Just as I started to get anxious, the first oath was administered: to a town Justice, who would then administer the rest of the oaths. His wife stood beside him, chic and smiling, one hand clasping . . . the other. The Judge raised his right hand, put his left hand by his side, and repeated:

I, ______, do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the State of New York, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of _________, according to the best of my ability.

Wait! What? No Bible? No “so help me God”? Just a promise to uphold the federal and state constitutions and do your job as well as you can?

Shortly thereafter, the Judge swore in the Town Supervisor. He brought his own Bible, hefty and worn, festooned with post-its. His wife held it as he swore the same oath everyone else did, except when his was over, he added “so help me God” at the end, unprompted.

That’s it! I thought: opt in, not opt out. Of course! It’s so simple, so  . . . fair. If you want to express your religious devotion, if you want to bring God in as a witness, go right ahead. The believer—specifically, the believer who want his beliefs to be a part of the civic occasion—should be the one who stands out. God would probably approve:

“Therefore come out from them and be separate,” says the Lord. (2 Corinthians 6:17)

Be not thou ashamed of the testimony of our Lord. (2 Timothy 1:8)

And, on the off chance that such public declaration invites judgment, ridicule, or worse:

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10)

Opting in wouldn’t keep my friend’s football players from praying; it would just keep non-Christian kids from having to make the awkward—and, on a Texas football field, possibly even risky—decision to opt out. In fact that’s what he suggested to his fellow coach in a follow-up text:

No one is standing in the way of anyone on the team worshiping as they wish. But . . . it won’t be a part of team activities. I think an “opt in” system is much more respectful to all than an “opt out” system. No one could realistically walk away from the team once the prayer started, but nothing would stop anyone who wants to pray from gathering privately to do it before team activities.

I wasn’t rereading my email at Town Hall, I swear. I looked up his exact words later. But I was thinking of him as I silently thanked his native and my adoptive state of New York, which afforded me the pleasure of standing by my husband as he swore an unambiguously heartfelt oath. Good old, rational New York State.

Then we all stood for the Pledge of Allegiance and I had to decide whether to say the “under God” part or opt out.




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Back to “School”

Children with their %22textbooks%22When I was in elementary school, we had Weekday Religious Education once a week. Yes, it was public school. And yes, of course they knew about the separation of church and state. That’s why it was held in a trailer, a few yards off school grounds.

I never went (I wish I had!). Instead I got to stay on the state side of the church/state divide, in an empty classroom, with a book.

Anyway, that was in Virginia in the 1970s. Today the situation is . . .exactly the same. I know that because a friend of mine recently fumed on Facebook about a similar class at her child’s school in Staunton, Virginia. So I was curious: was it possible that Plains Elementary still had that damned trailer?

I called the office, nervous. I didn’t want to sound like a condescending Northerner–or worse, like an atheist on the verge of writing a damning blog entry that tens of people will read.

(I am hopeless as a reporter: I hate to make people uncomfortable.)

The school secretary said, yes, students still go off-site for religious education, but they no longer call it Weekday Religious Education. They call it Released Time. Oh, I said. Released Time. OK, then. Thanks so much for your help.

(See what I mean?)

“Released Time” is short for Released Time Bible Education, a program in which children are “released” from the school day to have religious education. It started in New York in 1905. The Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1945 (McCollum v Board of Education), when Justice Hugo Black wrote that it was “beyond all questions a utilization of the tax-established and tax-supported public school system to aid religious groups to spread their faith.”

But in 1952 (Zorach v Clauson) the Court went the other way, since school buildings were not used in that instance; it decided the schools were merely making “adjustments of their schedules to accommodate the religious needs of the people.”

To me that sounds less like pausing for Christ during the school day and more like closing for Christmas.

Accommodation for religious holidays probably exists across all school districts in the country. My children’s 2015-16 school calendar includes days off for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Good Friday. There’s a mysterious “Holiday Recess” that begins December 24. Easter is so early next year that spring break does not coincide; they have the day off for Good Friday, but that’s it. But we don’t really need a specified day off for Easter, do we? Easter’s always a Sunday, and we would never have school on Sundays because . . . our entire calendar accommodates the religious needs of the people.

But scheduling the required 180 school days around religious holidays (and federal ones, and Superintendent’s Conference Days, whatever they are) is a far cry from setting aside a particular time within the school day for children to go to church.

And it is church;* make no mistake. “Weekday Religious Education” sounds ecumenical and possibly even . . . educational. Every week a different religion! “Released Time” sounds bureaucratic—like what your boss might give you in exchange for working on New Year’s. But if you look at the actual materials, it’s clear they are teaching one specific thing:

“By approval of the School Board, pupils, at the written request of their parents, may be released to the teacher of Weekday Religious Education for the purpose of Bible study for one period a week during the school session” [my italics]. That’s from the school’s permission slip. The trailer church brochure itself states, “The Bible is our textbook . . . The Adventures in Christian Living Curriculum includes the following themes:

  • Living in God’s World and Children in the Bible (Kindergarten)
  • God’s Loving Care and Bible Heroes (Grade 1)
  • God’s Helpers and Worship (Grade 2)
  • How the Bible Came to Be and the Life of Jesus (Grade 3)
  • The Teachings of Jesus and the Life of the Church (Grade 4)

“Teacher.” “Study.” “Textbook.” “Curriculum.”

Just like any other class, right? Third-graders in Staunton schools this year will learn how to add and subtract three-digit numbers, why the seasons change, how to draw conclusions from historical fiction, and (if their parents sign the permission slip, which more than 80% of them do), the Life of Jesus.

You can put the trailer off school grounds. You can make attendance optional. You can have “volunteer walkers” escort students to the trailer church. You can use not a squirt of taxpayer funds. But if you put Bible study in your school day and allow the Bible to be called a “textbook,” you are equating learning Christian doctrine with, well, learning.

My friend is not the only one in Staunton who would prefer the school day to be set aside for school subjects. Ten years ago, some parents brought up the issue of Released Time at a meeting of  the Staunton School Board. (The Washington Post, in reporting the story, found it noteworthy that Staunton had 24,000 residents and 75 churches.) They felt their children were ostracized, or at least bored, on account of the program. By law, students who don’t go to trailer church can’t do anything particularly edifying with that time, lest the Christian kids fall behind.

The Board bravely tabled the matter, with just one member voting in favor of ending the program: Reverend Edward Scott, pastor of the Allen Chapel AME Church. As Revered Scott explained to the Post:

“It seemed to me the fairest thing was to leave every student in school all day long and provide them the best education we can deliver . . . We should leave religious education to parents and the institutions that are better suited to provide it—the churches.”

Radical. Well, Reverend Scott, maybe one day the children of Staunton shall be released from Released Time. Meanwhile, to be fair, the trailer church situation isn’t exactly the same as when I was a child. My parents had to get special permission to get me out of Bible study; now you have to have a parent’s signature to get in.

That’s progress, right?

Except on Long Island and parts similar, where the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education conducts a Jewish Hour because “your child has a right to know what it means to be a Jew and what it means to have a relationship with G-d.”

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The Church of Baseball

IMG_20150701_191617680_HDROn a railing in the stands facing left field in Camden Yards, seven large medallions, six orange and one blue, sport seven numbers: 20, 5, 4, 22, 33, 8, and 42. Baseball fans know what those are: the retired numbers of the team’s most honored players. Orioles fans know who those are.

I knew two when I was there earlier this month: number 8, Cal Ripken, and number 33, Eddie Murray. Cal was in his 10th season with the O’s when I moved in with Adam, shortly after which I began a pleasant habit of falling asleep to the sound of Jon Miller announcing games on WBAL. Please, somebody, if I’m ever in traction or trapped in a well, play me a recording of Miller calling a game—any game, any team.

That’s the thing about me and baseball: I like the game—I like the sounds and the sights and the deliciously complicated rules—but I’m not a real fan. My attachment to the O’s is purely a function of my attachment to my husband—and now my kids—and my past. I’ve been with Adam since I was nineteen, which puts us somewhere in our 25th season.

I am, in other words, a nonbeliever who married into the faith and allowed my kids to be raised as Orioles fans.

Eddie Murray, number 33, had left the O’s when I met Adam, but I got to know him when he joined the Cleveland Indians, who were beloved by Adam’s best friend from childhood, who became my best friend, too, thus affording me ample opportunity to tease him about Chief Wahoo, the Indians’ mascot. Chief Wahoo takes the racism inherent in naming a baseball team after an entire dispossessed people and pushes it to 11.

Wait: I actually knew three numbers: 8, 33, and 42. 42 is Jackie Robinson, the first African-American in the majors. He was never an Oriole, which is why his number is blue, not orange. But we can all agree on Jackie. Since 1997, the 50th anniversary of his historic start with the Brooklyn Dodgers, number 42 is universally retired.

Seeing that number next to those of honored Orioles makes my throat go thick. What can I say? I am moved not so much by the saints themselves as by our reverence for them, and by what that says about our values and our beliefs.

Yes, 20, 5, 4, 22, 33, 8, and 42 are saints of a kind, and this ballpark is a place of worship. I had just come from a bar mitzvah, where I attended not one but two sabbath services, so I could read the signs. At Camden Yards we gathered before the service in traditional garb outside the gates, where we paid homage to the statues of the local saints. IMG_20150701_184704290_HDRWe spoke to strangers as if they were friends, whether they were black or white, rich (club boxes) or poor (upper reserve). When we crossed the threshold into the ballpark, we left our mundane lives and entered a magical place where we were willing to pay $8.75 for a can of beer. Shortly after we took our seats among the congregation, deacons began moving up and down the rows passing the collection plate—“Coke! Coke! Get your ice cold Coke”—and those who were able, gave.

Although I own an Orioles t-shirt, make annual pilgrimages to Camden Yards, and know who Ripken and Murray are, I would never call myself an Orioles fan. But I sure acted like one. The jumbotron singsonged, “Everybody Clap Your Hands,” and I clapclapclapclapclapclapclapped as hard as anyone. It exhorted, “Let’s Go O’s” and I yelled along. A fan in the next section tried to start a wave at some point, and I did my best to keep it going—you can’t just throw your arms up, people, you have to stand, too! I stretched midway through the 7th inning, per tradition. For some reason, at Camden Yards, smack in the city of Baltimore, they play, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” during the 7th inning stretch, and—loving to dance, knowing the words—I sang along. It’s catchy. I was caught.

A few days before, I similarly did not resist the various (Hebrew) equivalents of “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” at the bar mitzvah we attended—all the songs with familiar tunes and words I absolutely do not countenance that I sang with gusto because . . . singing is a pleasure. Remembering a tune from childhood is a pleasure. Filling up a half-empty synagogue with sound seems like the right thing to do, even if ritually and obsessively praising a primitive god seems very, very wrong.

I call myself a Jew because that’s how I was raised; it’s not what I believe. But I have long maintained that attending church or synagogue is not the same as believing. People join in even when they have, doctrinally speaking, checked out. At the bar mitzvah, I was one of those people, wearing a tallis and chanting the prayers and bowing my head to read. When the Torah was lifted, I stood as instructed, in apparent homage to a scroll I considered to be about 13% thought-provoking, and otherwise tedious, archaic, and immoral.

There may be some tedium and archaism at the ballpark, but there’s not much codified immorality. In fact, number 42 represents baseball’s pride in expunging such immorality, as does number 20, Frank Robinson, the first black manager in the majors (I looked it up). Maybe they’ll even get rid of Chief Wahoo one day.

Mostly, though, baseball relegates such matters of import to left field. Mostly it’s just a game. Even the saints are beloved for things like playing 2632 consecutive games, for doggedness rather than dogmatism. Maybe that’s the real reason a non-fan like me can shout “Let’s Go O’s” at the top of her lungs and not feel funny about it. That essential frivolity frees me to enjoy—in the absence of belief—the sense of community and shared experience I seem to crave. That lots of us seem to crave.

In the top of the ninth, with two outs, we were up 4 to 2. We all stood: those of us who could identify 20, 5, 4, 22, 33, 8, and 42, and those of us who couldn’t. We stood together, willing closer Zach Britton to seal the win. Strike 1, and a cheer goes up. Strike 2, another cheer. Ball 1, politely ignored, breath held. And then, in answer to our prayers, Strike 3.

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