Sunday, April 7, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 348: Biomythography - Note 89: Strange Bedfellows, Part I

Strange Bedfellows, Part I
The Non-Believer

When I was six, my grandmother decided to take me to her church. We stood on her screened-in porch before the trip. She tidied pulled out the crease in my pants. She straightened my collar. 

My parents had brought me to her house for the weekend. They already knew my grandmother felt it was scandalous that they hadn't taken me to get baptized. She had warned them of her intention to take me to her church. Forewarned, my father decided to prepare me. In the car on the way to her house, he reminded me of all the philosophical arguments he had drilled into me about logic being better than religion.  

His reminders:
  • Grandmother and her church members would probably say, everything has a creator and therefore the universe must have a creator. My father taught me to reply, 'Well, who created God, then?' If he exists without a creator, then things exist without someone to create them. Otherwise, God must have a creator.
  • God permits evil and natural disasters. Therefore, he isn't good. If he exists at all, he doesn't deserve worship.
  • The concept of omnipotence creates logical paradoxes. My father reminded me, 'Can God create a rock so heavy he can't lift it? If he can't lift it, he's not omnipotent. If he can't create it so he can't lift it, he's not omnipotent.'
  • The problem of hell. My father didn't need to remind me of this one, actually. Punishment forever, whatever the cause, is a moral horror. No one can condone it. At the age of six, the problem was maybe more obvious to me than to my father, who was accustomed to hearing the concept.
  • The lack of evidence. This was a tough one for me but my father encouraged me to let people try to present evidence. My problem (because I was six) was I had only a vague idea of what good evidence might be. (If three good friends pinky swear it's true, is it evidence?)
Fortunately, my grandmother realized she couldn't debate me, partly because my logic was good, and also because I had almost no understanding of the world. It didn't make sense to argue. In her eyes, the real path forward was to put me into a church environment to see if I could be lured in by the kindness of the place. At least, I think that was her plan.

On the car trip, I napped. In the pews, I dozed off, too. My grandmother tried to keep me awake. In an effort to please her, I strove to be alert. My time in Germany with nannies there had taught me to keep still (or else get a smack) but no one could quite make me pay attention, it seemed, if I wasn't doing anything.

My only memory of the actual church was the struggle to stay awake. When everyone around us started to rise, my grandmother took my hand. That woke me more completely and made sure I waited for others to leave our bench. She led me at a leisurely pace down the aisle toward the exit.

"Well, I'm going to go off with the ladies, now," my grandmother announced as we approached the main doors.

"What do the ladies do?"

She shook her head at my question and instead introduced her own line of thought.

"You are going to go to Sunday school," she said. "Won't that be fun?"


"It's fun. You'll see."

At that point in life, I didn't mind school - the reverse, really. Schools, since the age of two, were places where I met and played with my friends. Even better, the classes were sometimes interesting. At their worst, they were rest periods between my games outside.

The church had built its school in the attic. The young woman in charge, wearing a blue blouse, led me up a narrow staircase to it. In my mind's eye now, as an adult, the classroom spaces look like an afterthought added on much later. The church had decorated the area well, though, with dark wood paneling in some spots and olive green paint on the main wall. The seats were sized for children, mostly, and the partial attic had been divided into four quarter sections for different activities. The mothers in charge had bought mats, alphabet blocks, and bins of play equipment.

I am not sure how the argument started.

There were eight or nine other children. The Sunday school teacher asked questions about what everyone believed, which seems odd in retrospect. It could mean my grandmother asked the Sunday school teacher to talk with me and this is the way she decided to start.

At any rate, I said, "I'm an atheist."

If you can imagine a thirteen year old bookworm wearing wire-rim glasses, her blonde hair pulled back tight in a bun, dressed like an adult but still looking like a child even to younger children, that was the Holy Babysitter I faced. She seemed smart and sure of herself. She decided to hold a debate with me.

We proceeded through my father's list, almost in perfect order. When I said "Who created God, then?" she seemed shocked and had no other answer than God was exempt from needing a cause. Like a good six-year-old student of logic, I pointed out that meant the universe needed no cause, either.

When we discussed the paradoxes caused by omnipotence, she said my example was 'silly,' which seems fair. But when I asked for an answer, she turned to the other children for a while to move them away into other activities, lest listen to us too much. Also, maybe she wanted to think.

When she returned, she folded her arms and said I should believe or else I'd go to hell.

"Do good people go to hell just if they don't believe?" I asked. 

"Yes." Her response was immediate. Yet, after she said it, her expression fell from stern to sad, almost crushed. She didn't want it to be true.

"Doesn't that seem mean?"

She gave me a worried look. Arms still crossed, she tried to talk about infinite goodness for a while. It's a concept I find attractive even as an adult. As a child, it was certainly something I wanted to be true. I think she could see by the expression on my face that she was making progress at last. 

"He is the best, the goodest, the nicest." She pointed all around the school, as if to indicate how beautiful it was. "If you could see Him, you would want to be his friend. You'd want to stay with Him forever."

I didn't have a counter-argument and, from her point of view, I calmed down. But when she kept talking, I started looking at the covers of the books around me. One of them said "Hymns" and I asked if that's how she spelled God's name: Hymn.

"You can read?" her eyes widened.

I had been reading for years. To her, this was a welcome revelation. She had reached the point of wondering what to do with me now that I had been intrigued by the idea of infinite goodness. In a few seconds, she searched for and found a  big blue book called The Bible Story. It had short words on the pages, printed in big letters. She held it open for me. I started reading. She put it in my hands. I sat down to turn to the next story and gawk at the illustrations.

Half an hour later, the Sunday School leader called me over to the rest of the children.

"But I'm reading," I protested.

Here is where I joined the other kids and my memory ends. I suppose I found playing with the children boring that day. 

So this is sort of the story of my grandmother's strategy. And my father's. And the tactics of the Holy Babysitter, bless her. But in a way, it wasn't my tale except as the tiniest soldier in a spiritual battle. I didn't have my own plan. What I have left from the incident is this slightly embarrassing memory of my grandmother's church.

It may have been embarrassing for my grandmother, too. She never took me back.  

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