Tag Archives: Atheism

Why All the Dead Babies?

Passover makes it especially clear: religion is not where morality comes from.

This piece was originally published in FaithStreet years ago, but when I searched for it recently it was gone. So I’m reprising it here, slightly updated. It’s a bit of an antidote to my recent concession that religion can be useful.

As an atheist mom, I am sometimes asked, “How do you teach your children morality?”

I’m not a cultural anthropologist, an evolutionary biologist, or a neurologist. I don’t know where we get our sense of right and wrong. But I do know one thing: No one’s morality comes from the Bible. At least no one I want to meet.

Passover is a perfect example. When our kids were little, Adam and I — both raised Jewish — would go to my in-laws’ house for a Passover Seder, our three godless kids in tow. We’d open the door to the most delicious smell this side of bacon: matzo-ball soup.

Sorry, kids: two hours till dinner. Don’t touch that matzo! Look: Mom has brought you coloring pages!

I would bring all the Internet had to offer small children suffering through a Seder: Crosswords, word searches, and color-your-own cartoons of lice, flies, boils, locusts, and, especially, frogs — the fun plague.

But no matter how many pictures of frogs I waved around, my children fixated, outraged, on the dead babies.

They did not know the 10 Commandments, much less the 613 laws of the Mosaic Code. They had not studied sharia; they had not heard of The Beatitudes. Still, somehow, they got the notion that killing babies is wrong.

There is a lot of baby killing in Moses’ story, beginning with the Egyptian edict that all the baby Hebrew boys be thrown into the Nile and ending with the Angel of Death killing all the (non-Jewish) firstborn children.

In this context of infanticide, distracting my kids with frogs felt a little dishonest. So after a couple of years, I decided to acknowledge the horror of the story. Then I could at least reframe the carnage as the tragic collateral damage of a system of oppression.

I found quotes from Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. I found a CD with Paul Robeson singing, “Go Down, Moses.” I helpfully stickered my father-in-law’s Haggadah — the Passover playbook — with circled numbers keyed to a sheaf of supplemental materials on slavery.

Rather than relying on the verses selected in our Haggadah, I decided to return to the source: the book of Exodus itself. Although I didn’t believe Exodus was literally true, I thought it probably still contained powerful truths on the themes of slavery and freedom, tyranny and redemption.

Then I went back and read it.

Passover, as originally conceived, celebrates neither freedom nor justice. It celebrates the triumph of one god over other gods, one people over another. In this triumphant story, murder is rampant and rarely justifiable.

Animals die first: countless fish from the water-turned-to-blood (Exodus 7:21), land animals from livestock disease (9:5), then anyone or thing caught out in the worst hail/firestorm Egypt ever saw (9:25). And then, for the tenth plague, brutality, not justice, is meted out:

“Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt — worse than there has ever been or ever will be again” (11:5-7).

All of this is particularly horrible because every time Pharaoh wants to let our people go, God hardens his heart (Exodus 4:21, 7:3,9:12, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, 14:4, 14:17) so as to spread his fame in an age before the printing press or Twitter.

“But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord” (Exodus 14:4; also 7:1-5, 9:16, and 11:9).

Glory in the eyes of the Jews is an even greater obsession. We are to remember him as “the Lord who took you out of Egypt” (Exodus 6:6, 10:2, 12:17, 12:27, 13:3, 13:8, 13:9, 13:14, 13:16, ad inf). We are in his debt and at his mercy:

“If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians” (Exodus 15:26).

This isn’t God the Father so much as the Godfather.

As for slavery, the Old Testament makes it clear: there’s nothing wrong with owning slaves — just with being slaves. I’m not a biblical scholar or a historian. The rules in Exodus 21 about how one is supposed to treat one’s slaves may well represent, in the context of the biblical era, a giant moral leap forward.

But Passover, as it is set forth in Exodus, is not an anti-slavery, anti-oppression holiday. It’s an us-against-them, praise-the-Lord holiday.

I’ve never been to a Seder that presents Passover that way. Never. Some are more sectarian than others, but all of them reach for general themes that affirm — at the very least — that slavery is wrong and that struggle against oppression is righteous.

The Jews I know — believers and nonbelievers — comb Exodus looking for phrases that meet our ethical standards. We leave the rest out. We make scripture conform to our morality, not the other way around.

I remember once when I was a child standing next to my father during Yom Kippur services. We turned to such-and-such a page to read aloud a prayer about sin and repentance and before I could begin, my father leaned over and whispered fiercely, “Don’t you read that. It’s not right: you’re a child, you haven’t sinned.”

It’s not right. Every day parents are leaning over and whispering that to their children. Or showing it by example. These people don’t get their morality from their scriptures — they bring their morality to it.

Like the bar mitzvah boy who interprets his short portion of the Old Testament with extreme creativity. Or the priest who grants annulments with unorthodox leniency. Or the Presbyterian minister who performs same-sex marriage ceremonies, no matter what Romans 1:26–27 may say.

Why stick with those old texts at all if you have to twist, excerpt, or quietly ignore them? Why did I struggle with Exodus once a year, when I could just give up on Passover entirely and feed my kids matzo ball soup on Martin Luther King Day?

Habit, I think. As a family we have by now more or less kicked it; we seem often to be coincidentally out of town on Passover, or coronavirally confined to our homes. But we’ll surely find ourselves at a seder again, and it doesn’t have to be a waste. There’s something to be said for reading those passages aloud together and together proclaiming, It’s not right. Or studiously ignoring those passages and congratulating ourselves, as a people, on our moral progress.

If you look at it that way, Passover is an annual celebration not just of how long the Jewish people have lasted but also of how very far we’ve come.

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God? No. Religion? Maybe a Little.

I need events that can’t be canceled.

We don’t need religion any more to explain the universe. And we obviously don’t need it to tell us right from wrong. But it must be useful, or why would people hang on to it? This essay is about one of those uses.

Read the whole thing here at the Washington Post. (And if you don’t subscribe to the Post and don’t want to, you can probably read it online courtesy of your library. Check into that.)

(Art by Ellen Weinstein for The Washington Post)

Read the rest here at the Washington Post.

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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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