Monday, September 12, 2011

    Peter Hand: "How I Became a Humanist"

    I grew up with parents who were not very religious.  My Father was a survivor of one of the great US Concentration Camps of the Depression: St. John's Orphanage in Brooklyn, New York.  My mother was a "light" Methodist, who rarely went to church.  When I was about 10, my mother won an apparent battle with my father and sent my brother and I to Sunday School at the local Methodist Church where we lived, in Simsbury, Connecticut.  It was a pleasant experience full of story telling, punch and cookies. 

    By the time I was 12, we were offered the opportunity to memorize the 23rd Psalm and for this, we would get a Bible with our name embossed on the cover.  It seemed like a good deal to me.  Not that I would ever read the thing, because even at that age, I thought the language in the "modern" King James bible was so completely archaic, that it wasn't easy at all to understand, and required that you read a passage eight or nine times just to figure out what they were talking about.  Ramping up to the recital of the bible, a new requirement popped up: We were encouraged to accept Jesus as our savior.  I discussed this at length with my Sunday school teacher, much to her dismay, without ever coming to an understanding of just what that meant.  I knew I wasn't a sinner.  I was a good kid.  If God couldn't see that, he wasn't very interested or astute. And it made no sense that saying I accepted Jesus as my savior would make the difference between God accepting me or not. 

    After completely exhausting my Sunday school teacher, I got up the nerve to ask our Minister, Mr. Amrein.  Now, I was a very small kid. Even today, I am only about 5'5", although, I am very broad and muscular, so I don't look small, but back then, I was tiny.  Mr. Amrein was well over 6' and very intimidating to me, despite the fact that he was a really nice guy.  I caught him in the hall outside my Sunday school room and asked him for a moment of his time.  I told him that I very much wanted to accept Jesus as my savior, but was completely at a lost as to how to do it and why it is at all necessary.  The same arguments that had stumped my teacher, confounded Minister Amrein.  He didn't last nearly as long, of course, and after 5 minutes, he sent me back to my Sunday school teacher for any further assistance.  I began to think to myself "This is a hoax! No one really knows!  They all just fake it and say they're part of this club!"  I began to dismiss the whole thing right then and there.

    I went on to recite the psalm and get the bible.  But Minister Amrein and my Sunday school teacher told me that there were no answers here, and that the whole thing was a sham.  Part of this was because the myths and stories they told me, that were supposedly "true", were outrageous, even to an 11 year old with a very active imagination.  Shortly after receiving my bible, my parents sat my brother and me down and asked if we wanted to continue going to church.  Our alternative activity was to have extra time to complete our chores or watch TV.  DONE! My brother and I didn't even hesitate!  For a year, we were church free.

    The following year, I went to the local Unitarian Church with a friend and really thought I had found my home.  The lay teachers in the religious education program there taught us about the Hopi, the Navajo, the Christians, Jews, Baha'i, Muslims, you name it! It was fascinating.  And the best part was the thing they told us with every story: Take the part of this story that is true to you and make it part of your story.  You don't need to believe in anything in particular to be a good person, this is just information that shows you how history has presented certain behaviors to guide you.  If you disagree, do something different!

    About 35 years later, after being president of a Unitarian church and very involved at times over the years, I decided to leave.   The UUA's message of "All religion has something to offer" was something I wasn't sure I believed and I had heard all of the sermons based on the bible that I ever wanted to hear.  In my time as President of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bartlesville (OK), I even counselled a visiting minister to go easy on the mix of bible-related stories because the group there was mostly atheists and not interested in that type of thing.  After one sermon, where she related stories from the bible, the pews were full at first, but by the end of the first half, 90% of the group had left or gotten a jump on coffee hour.

    When I moved from Oklahoma, I ran into church after church of Unitarian communities that were Bible-rich.  I stopped going altogether.  I had identified myself as a secular humanist for many years at that point and was just going to have to content myself with using my Sundays to catch up on my chores and watch cartoons.  I have written a web site with a presentation called "A Discussion about God" to help people understand my beliefs further.  It's


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