Nov 16, 2007

An Agnostic's Upbringing in the Bible Belt

We’re in the Bible Belt
Where God has always dwelt,
And if you work and pray,
You may be saved some day.
True hearts and narrow minds,
Yes, you will always find
God does his very best
Out in the Middle West.


As the ditty says, the middle west, where I grew up, is the American Bible Belt.In later years I have come to realize that all the meanness, badness, and immorality that burdened my upbringing in was neither better nor worse than the meanness, badness and immorality elsewhere in the world. It’s just that in the Middle West people firmly believe that god is on their side even when they do evil things, just as do the Al Quaida of the Middle East.

Either East or West, "middle" must be another word for hypocrisy

What is most important in the Bible Belt (and, I'll wager, within the Al Quaida/Taliban movement) is upholding the appearance of morality. Being actually true to your beliefs is unimportant, as long as you remember to go to Church on Sunday (or the Mosque on Friday, or whatever). You can lie, cheat, kill, steal, and bugger your sister or brother or your best friend’s wife to your heart’s content Monday through Saturday, but on Sunday you must go to church and listen to some minister tell you why, if somebody else did what you did during the week, they would burn forever in hell. Thereafter, you must pay lip service to morality by shaking your head and clicking your tongue in incredulity that anyone could be so immoral.

During first years of my childhood, I wasn’t bothered much by difficult questions like religion and belief-systems. My parents were devout agnostics. My dad came from pious, churchgoing, Lutheran stock from the flatlands, for whom church activities were a way of life. My mom’s family were dour Calvinist Scots from New Jersey for whom religion primarily meant having lots of do-and-don’t rules to live by, like "never play cards on Sunday" or using words like "heck" and "shoot" and "darn" instead of "hell" and "shit" and "damn".

When we visited Grandma and Grandpa Meglitsch at Easter we went to church services and social events with them; When we visited Grandma and Grandpa Mitchell in Virginia we didn't curse around adults or play cards on Sundays - otherwise religion was peripheral.

The first years in Des Moines, our family didn’t go to church. On Sundays all of the neighbors would leave home all dressed up in their Sunday finery and go to some church or another, many of them went to the Grace Methodist church, right across the street from our house. In Iowa, it was normal – even among children – to ask “what church do you go to” when meeting new people, and I could never answer. I think it was sometime during first or second grade that I started wondering what all the Sunday stuff was. I asked my parents why we didn’t do the church thing and their answers were sort of difficult to understand.My friends all went to Sunday school on Sundays, and I guess I decided eventually that I didn’t want to miss out on something that everyone else did.So I decided to try out Sunday school, and my parents said, more or less: “well, if that's what you want to do, that’s OK with us ...”

So one Sunday in, say, 1952 or 53, I made my debut at Sunday school at the Grace Methodist Church and attended for a few weeks. The experience wasn’t at all enjoyable, but I learned some important lessons about life.

At our house, we were taught the value of learning very early.And as Mom and Dad were scientifically oriented people, a scientific approach was our primary model for learning: If there’s something you don’t understand, you ask questions and find an appropriate way to check if the answers you get are dependable.

But that was definitely not the learning model to which the Methodist Sunday school teacher (her name, mercifully, I have repressed and forgotten) who wound up with me in her class, adhered. For her, learning simply meant listening to the teacher and remembering what she said without asking questions. She told us things I had trouble understanding, and read us bits and pieces of the bible I didn't see the point of, and I naturally asked her questions in order to clarify what she meant.She wasn’t, apparently, used to little kiddies asking questions like “but if we can’t ever see God, how can we be sure he is there?” or “how do we know the bible is His words ...” or “But if God made the Earth three thousand years ago, how could the dinosaurs have lived millions of years ago?” She told me, rather succinctly, that God certainly didn’t like little kids that asked that kind of questions at Sunday school.

After two or three weeks of that kind of thing, her frustration mounted to an absolute frenzy. My short career as a Sunday school pupil ended in a dramatic scene with a red-faced Ms. Whatshername pointing to the door and screaming “Get out of here, you child of Satan! Get out and never come back!”

I left, and indeed I never went back to Sunday school at GMC. The experience did, however, help me to understand the scientific approach a little better. Finding the right question is important, but you can’t just ask the right question indiscriminately in order to get an answer. To find answers, you must find the right place to ask the right question. The right question in the wrong place can be downright dangerous!

Fortunately, my intellectual curiosity about religion wasn’t dampened by one run-in with a narrow-minded bible belt Sunday school teacher. But I now needed to direct my questions to a more appropriate informant. I knew of course that my grandmother was very religious … perhaps she could help me understand.

You must understand that Grandma was a woman with the unusual combination of great piety and considerable intelligence. She grew up in a family of Illinois-flatland Plattdeutsch farmers from East Friesland. Friesland, both East and West, was sort of the bible belt of Europe. Both the Amish and the Mennonites had come from there, as well as the Hendrix (Grandma’s) family. According to Grandma's Frisian beliefs, her only son, my father, the great professor Meglitsch, having turned his back on the one true faith had doomed both himself and his family to eternal damnation in the fires of hell.

Her dilemma of course was that she knew in her heart that both her son and his family were decent, moral, ethical, good people by all other indices. And intuitively she understood that God, if He indeed was what He was cracked up to be, would not condemn the good unjustly … thereby, she realized that it must be her belief-system than rather God that was flawed.

So all the while I struggled along as a child trying to understand the universe around me and to find out what I believed in, Grandma was struggling to reassess what she already believed in to make it fit the reality she found herself living in. In my struggle, I accumulated in time a number of spiritual guides, particularly through our family's eventual participation in the Unitarian Congregation, which in many ways was a rallying point for a lot of very interesting, open-minded people. Grandma had far fewer guides, but she had me.

And that's how it came to pass that I was guided, at least in part, on the path to being a good agnostic by a pious Lutheran. And I pride myself, too, on having been a helpful guide for her on the torturous path away from the narrow-minded hypocrisy of Frisian Lutheranism and towards a liberal, humanistic Christianity.

The same year as my GMC farse, dissappointed by Christian narrow-mindedness, I sat down and read the bible from cover to cover. My intent was to find out if it was Christians or Christianity I was at odds with. I found that the Bible was an interesting, sometimes boring, sometimes inspiring, somtimes exciting book with a multitude of unresolved contradictions. I began to understand how a bible reader might easily find a little piece of the scripture and follow it in a direction that would totally contradict other parts of the scripture. For that reason, the bible didn't strike me as a particularly good book to take as a holy book, as this would inevitably lead to divisive schisms and conflicts in which both sides based their positions on the infallibility of contradictory parts of the same book.

My path, as I have mentioned, led me by way of the Unitarian Universalist movement for a time. In the mid fifties my family began to attend The First Unitarian congregation in Des Moines. The congregation (which conservatively enough called itself Church) belonged to the branch of Unitarianism that called itself liberal and in the early 60s merged with the Universalist church in the sixties to become the UUA. The congregation demanded no creed or doctrine to join, and did not strictly consider itself Christian or the Christian Bible to be its scripture. Instead of a religious credo, it stood on a set of principles, like inherant human dignity; justice, equity and compassion; encouragement to spiritual growth; search for truth and meaning; right of conscience; a world community of peace, liberty and justice; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence. As a young agnostic I fit right in.

A salient feature of the Unitarian congregation was that it had been from its inception a central meeting place for poltitcally liberal currents in Des Moines. Since 1900, the congregation had a history of political and social activism in women's rights, civil rights, social justice and the peace movement. The youth movement, LRY, in the fifties and sixties became a meeting place for young politcal liberals and a spawning ground for the new wave of social, political and cultural thinking that would become the tsunami of the sixties.

[more to come]

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