Atheism Central for Secondary Schools
|Site links||My motives - why should anyone set up a web site devoted to atheism? Why have I done it?|
"Through inculcating the notion that sacrifice is a virtue, Christianity has succeeded in convincing many people that misery incurred through sacrifice is a mark of virtue. Pain becomes the inignia of morality - and conversely, pleasure becomes the insignia of immorality. Christianity, therefore, does not say, 'Go forth and be miserable'. Rather, it says, 'Go forth and practice the virtue of self-sacrifice'. In practical terms, these commands are identical."
George H. Smith - Atheism: The Case Against God
"Faith is a cop-out, an excuse to evade the need to think and to evaluate evidence."
"Question with boldness even the existence of God; because if there be one, He must approve the homage of Reason rather than that of blindfolded Fear."
"Holy virginity is a better thing than conjugal chastity.... A mother will hold a lesser place in the Kingdom of heaven, because she has been married, than the daughter, seeing that she is a virgin ...."
"It is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot. The world is much helped by the suffering of poor people"
"We should always be disposed to believe that that which appears white is really black, if the hierarchy of the Church so decides."
St. Ignatius of Loyola, 'Exercitia spiritualia'
"The triumph of the philosophy of Atheism is to free man from the nightmare of gods; it means the dissolution of the phantoms of the beyond. Again and again the light of reason has dispelled the theistic nightmare, but poverty, misery and fear have recreated the phantoms - though whether old or new, whatever their external form, they differed little in their essence. Atheism, on the other hand, in its philosophic aspect refuses allegiance not merely to a definite concept of God, but it refuses all servitude to the God idea, and opposes the theistic principle as such. Gods in their individual function are not half as pernicious as the principle of theism which represents the belief in a super- natural, or even omnipotent, power to rule the earth and man upon it. It is the absolutism of theism, its pernicious influence upon humanity, its paralyzing effect upon thought and action, which Atheism is fighting with all its power. "
Emma Goldman, 1916
"Nothing is so much to be shunned as sex relations."
"Towards the close of the Patristic period (c. 500 AD), Gregory the Great (b. 540 AD), Jerome (b.340 AD), and Augustine (b. 344 AD) all considered sexual activity even in marriage to be tainted and even sinful. The central reason for celibacy during this period, then, was ritual purity: the priest, performing sacred rites, must not be tainted by sexuality that was suspect."
"Clearly the person who accepts the Church as an infallible guide will believe whatever the Church teaches."
St. Thomas Aquinas, 'Summa Theologica'
"It is characteristic of theistic 'tolerance' that no one really cares what the people believe in, just so they believe or pretend to believe. "
Emma Goldman, 1916
"It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what one does not believe. It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime."
Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason
I'll try to be brief - but I'll have to start at the beginning and it will appear for a while that I'm talking about other people.
My parents, both born in London in 1911, were brought up in a world in which belief in a Christian God was assumed.
In his late teens my father experimented with a group known as 'The Order of Woodcraft Chivalry' associated with the Quakers. He did this because he had a social need to mix with other young people and was attracted by the ideal of the back-to-nature healthy outdoors life of campfires and singsongs that was the hallmark of this group and of many others in the 1920's.
When he first met my mother he proposed to her but she would not accept him because he was not a Catholic. He met her again some years later, by which time he had become a Catholic - although I was never given an explanation as to how this came about. She accepted his second proposal.
When I was a child I never heard any criticism of religion or religious institutions from my father but in his later years he occasionally expressed quite strong anti-religious feelings without ever saying where they came from. He certainly distrusted the church and as a small shopkeeper, used to making his own way in life, he was not going to let a bunch of priests tell him what he could do and what he couldn't do. In some ways he was a moral person - he certainly had strong ideas about being considerate to those outside the family - and his accounts of experiences during WW2 showed him to be compassionate. At the same time he never gave money to any charity of any kind and distrusted others. He loved his cats and often said that cats were better than people any time. Animals, he said, were honest and would not harm you without a reason - people, on the other hand, were dangerous and treacherous. The worst aspect of his character came from his 'worship' of money. He did not enjoy spending money - only having it so that he could fancy himself rich (he liked to hint that he had more money than he really had) and he respected anyone who had it, no matter how they had acquired it.
My mother and her two sisters were brought up in the Church of England. According to my mother my grandmother lacked emotional warmth and her favourite memories were of her father. He abandoned the family home when she was eleven leaving something of a vacuum behind him - emotionally and financially.
While in her late teens one of my mother's sisters, Florence, was converted to Catholicism. She was attracted by the ceremony of the mass and the sense of belonging that went with the social life of the church. Florence approached my grandmother with a letter for her father to sign to give permission for the three sisters to enter the Catholic Church. My grandmother, who was not particularly religious, thought it would be amusing for the three girls to be educated as Catholics since her husband was a staunch Protestant. She forged her husband's signature and the girls were admitted into the Catholic church. At the age of 18 Florence was admitted into an order of nuns in St. John's Wood in a prosperous area of London. There were two ways of entering the order - with £500 or with £50. If you contributed £500 you became a 'Choir Sister' and had a high status - if you contributed £50 you were a 'Lay Sister' and had to clean the floor (basically, you were a servant to the Choir Sisters). Florence had only £50. The order was an enclosed order, which meant that she was not normally allowed to read or write except for religious purposes and could not leave the convent grounds or receive visitors except by appointment. From time to time she did need to travel and then she went in a taxi with the blinds drawn. Astonishingly, when she took a bath she was not allowed to look at her own body, and had to keep her underwear on. I could never bring myself to ask her in more detail about the practicalities of this.
Fortunately, the order also taught children of primary school age. This work was normally done by the Choir Sisters but Florence had been so good at school that she was required to teach the children. When Choir Sisters finished teaching they were free to go about their other activities, but since my aunt was not a Choir Sister but only a 'Lay Sister' her next job was to start on the cleaning. However, the fact that she was a teacher made it possible for her to do some reading and writing.
After 18 years of this, and after WW2, Florence passed a message to my mother on a visit, asking my father to go to the back of the convent at a certain time so that her could collect her after she had climbed over the wall. My father refused, saying that she had entered by the front door and should leave by it. Florence became very ill as a result of the mental stress she was under (exactly in what way was never made clear to me - but I was told the physical symptoms were severe). This helped her to obtain a papal dispensation to leave the order and remain a member of the Catholic Church. [Was my father right - or would she have been better off jumping over the wall and so making a cleaner break with Catholicism?]. When she left she was given the clothes she had entered the order in (they had been kept for 18 years against this eventuality) and returned the £50. The order then took no interest in her.
During her time in the order Florence had become institutionalized in a similar way to those who work for the army or go to boarding school. Every aspect of her life had been controlled by others and she found it very difficult to adapt to life as a independent person. A while after she left the order Florence became a primary school teacher at another Convent school. Constant contact with children of primary school age is not always a good thing for normally balanced adults. In Florence's case it also limited her ability to enter the adult world.
Florence continued to be a member of the Catholic Church, never missing mass and usually enthusing over what a nice man the priest was. However, she was extremely mean when it came to the collection. On one of the frequent occasions I went to mass with her she told me she had already made her contribution to the church. She never lost the extreme frugality imposed by the order and only switched from newspaper to toilet paper in the 70's. Her conversational ability was restricted to when the bus would come and how many cups of tea one would want. In all the years that I knew her (and I lived with her for a year in my early 20's) she only had three or so conversations with me that rose above this mundane level. In one of them she told me that she had done some dreadful things and something led me to suppose that she had probably masturbated. She had little or no notion about male-female relationships and had the facts of life explained to her by my mother at the age of 78. She had previously supposed that perhaps babies were born through the navel.
After she died I was responsible for the disposal of her property. I discovered a few of the exercise books she had used to study religion in the convent. All were written in a perfect personality-less handwriting and were full of meaningless (and often superstitious) nonsense. A vulnerable person from a deprived background, she had given her faith to the Catholic Church and received nothing in return. Her personal growth and natural development had been stifled by narrow dogma, inhumane treatment and a perverted notion of sexuality. I never knew her as a happy person. She had been a flower and instead of nurturing it Catholicism had cut off its head. My observation of her life has had a profound effect on my own view of religion.
My mother also rejected Catholicism. In particular, she was dismayed by the changes in the church. She remembered being taught that is was a sin to enter a protestant church and could not understand why (for a while at least) the different denominations were encouraged to work together and even share mass. She remembered the stress over the church's teachings on birth control and rejected the church's viewpoint, protesting at the harm it had done and was doing to people's personal lives. In her later years she attended Catholic mass for a last time and said she thought she'd been to a Salvation Army rally. Everything had changed, she said, and followed with 'They're not honest, they're not honest.'
For the last few years of her life my mother expressed a kind of pantheism which she had evolved herself. She firmly believed there was a god and that this god was everywhere and provided the purpose of existence. Although not a personal god it was benevolent. It was more or less synonymous with 'the life force'. All in all her ideas were pretty close to 'May the Force be with you' described in 'Star Wars' for she also believed, although less strongly, in the notion of an evil force. After death, she believed some of this life force left your body and somehow got mixed up in the universe, losing all sense of identity.
My parents sent me to Catholic schools though rarely attended mass themselves. It is unfortunately true in the UK that religious schools (Capital costs 95% government funded, running costs 100% funded) produce better results than nondenominational schools, with few exceptions. I know of no private schools that are non-theistic. Perhaps my parents saw no option if they were to try to get the best education for me. Anyway, I was sent to Catholic schools from 7 to 18.
My earliest memories of Catholic education are of skepticism. I had only a few brief moments when I thought there might be some truth in it. I didn't have very profound thoughts as a small child but couldn't see what connection the clothes the priest wore or the colour of the decorations in the church or some list of rules in a catechism had to do with the notion of god. I don't recall anyone ever saying anything about being good - the emphasis was all on the need to obey - not that I was disobedient or a rebel in any way. I always did what I was told and never got into trouble.
I tended to ignore the trappings of the Catholic religion and never learned the words to any prayers or which part of the mass was which. My biggest embarrassments were when I had to serve as an altar-boy. I never knew what to do or when to do it. I did notice though, when I was taught by the Jesuits in Totenham at the age of 11, that a thousand boys singing a powerful Jesuit hymn could be an impressive experience. At that school I won a poetry prize for a poem entitled 'Our Lady Look!' the first two lines went: 'Our Lady Look!, See the blood drip from those pierced veins.'
When I was 13 I went to a boarding-school run (misrun is more accurate) by the Franciscans. There were two ways I could handle my religious education classes, homework and tests - I could try to develop my own thoughts and ideas and express them on paper - or I could say what I knew the priest would like me to say. In the first case I got a very bad mark and in the second case I got a very good mark. At that time pupils were given a 'place in class' according to a total of their test results. I could decide where I would appear on the list according to whose opinions I wrote down on my Religious Education tests - mine, or the priests. I can't remember anything about the opinions I had at that time - I'm sure they were nothing radical - I certainly didn't let on that I didn't believe in God. I think the real problem was that I had opinions - I was really only supposed to write down a variety of platitudes. I'm sure, though, that the priest thought the classes were very liberal. My favourite priest in that school was a Father Cyprian. He struck me as the most devout, most caring and most honest. He left the order in the middle of a term and married a girl who worked in Boots (a chain of chemists in the UK). I wish him well.
At the age of 16 I was transferred to another boarding-school (the school misrun by the Franciscans was mercifully due for closure). I was sent to a school run by the Rosminians. They seemed to specialise in people who decided to become priests relatively late in life (this was not true in all cases). I suspect this made them more human though they were an oddball lot. I remember one Religious Education class in particular. We were asked to think about the most obvious thing in the room and say what we thought it was. After some minutes of thought we were all invited to give our opinions and then firmly told we were wrong (this method of 'teaching' is particularly common on teacher-training courses, by the way). The priest then proclaimed that the most obvious thing in the room was the light! It was so obvious, he said, that none of us had noticed it. When we look around us in the world we see no evidence of God and that is proof that He exists! He is so obvious we don't know that He is there! No-one can argue with that.
It was when I left school that I began to feel that there was something wrong. It was as though I had emerged from a long-term mental institution. I had been living with crazy people and not known it. Although I had rejected religion for my whole educational career I had come to accept theistic belief as normal. I had been the odd one out (I had never confided my atheism to anybody). I had been a kind of misfit living in isolation. I felt a need to be able to describe and explain to myself what I really did think about the world and to demonstrate why theism is wrong. Greater than that - I felt a sense of loss. In a way just like my aunt Florence I had been confined by the dogma of religion because I had been unable to share my atheistic viewpoint with those around me. I had been unable to develop my thoughts and feelings with sympathetic listeners. If there is something I am proud of it is to have thrown off the non-sense of religion and to have found a path to follow.
This is where the web comes in. It is only a few months ago (time of writing March 1999) that I first started using the internet and a month or so after that that I first thought of running a search for the word 'atheism'. The results were wonderful and right now it brings tears to my eyes. The web seemed full of atheists protesting against the craziness of religion. There were all kinds of them - some of them distinctly flaky - but I found that they and I had obviously followed much the same road intellectually and shared a common outlook because we had begun from the same starting point - we had tried to be as rational as we could.
I remembered my own educational experience and thought of my responsibilities towards my own children and decided to make a contribution of my own. You may think that with two parents who had rejected religion in their own way it would not be so difficult for me. This was not so - neither of may parents gave any coherent explanation of their viewpoints and did not seem to know why they had them. They did not provide any substantial alternative for what I was being taught at school or remove the sense of isolation I felt at being a non-believer surrounded by the faithful. It is not enough to reject something - it is necessary to know why, and to work towards a replacement.
Title: 'Atheism Central for Secondary Schoolsl' Copyright © 1998, Alan Urdaibay visit our sponsor.