A Wise Man

I got a thoughtful letter on Thanksgiving Day that I thought I would share:

On [your page about religious freedom] you wrote, “Americans tend to think religion is the exact same thing as Christianity. Of course, it isn’t.” It was years ago that I visited that page and was exposed to that idea for the first time.

Before then, I was raised devoutly Roman Catholic and attended private Catholic schools, where for 13 years I was surrounded by like-minded people. I was happy and confident in my piety and didn’t understand those who were intolerant of religion. But when I started college in 1997, I began encountering people who were different. It was not horrifying; on the contrary, it was fascinating. My upbringing had never taught me that there was so much else to learn and understand! I’m now very comfortably not Roman Catholic. Nor am I agnostic, or atheistic, or much of anything else. A wise man once said, “-ism’s in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself.”

I listen weekly to podcasts like Point of Inquiry and Scientific American; read books such as Conversations With God and I Sold My Soul on eBay; and distribute GOOHF cards in church collection plates. Christians tell me I’m going to Hell; atheists tell me it’s my fault we’re already there. For me to be upsetting that many people, I must be doing something right.

I’m still happily on this path of discovery. I can’t say that for sure that ‘This Is True’ — and, before that, ‘This Just In‘ — set me down it, but it’s certainly played a role in helping open the mind of this person. Thank you. –Ken in Massachusetts

You’re welcome, Ken. As I’ve said for years, True has two missions: to entertain, and to get people to think. I’m glad it apparently did both for you.

A Long Path

The path you’re on often takes a long time to complete. You may yet return to Catholicism, or head somewhere else. But when you get there, it’ll be because you thought about it and made up your own mind, rather than just say “I dunno why I’m Catholic (or Baptist or Anglican or Muslim — or Democrat or Republican, for that matter); I guess it’s because my dad was.”

I’d much rather spend time with someone who made up their own mind after thinking about the important issues involved than someone who mindlessly follows along without any concept as to why.

Two other points: if atheists are telling you it’s “your fault” that we’re “already in hell,” they’re not very good atheists! But I suspect that was just a joke.

The other, the quote from the wise man, I had to look up. Here’s the full quote:

Not that I condone fascism, or any “ism” for that matter. Ism’s in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an ism, he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon: “I don’t believe in Beatles, I just believe in me.” Good point there. After all, he was the walrus. I could be the walrus, I’d still have to bum rides off of people.

Sounds more like a wise guy than a wise man, eh? What wise man said this? Ferris Bueller, in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. (Or, really, the screenwriter put those words in his mouth.)

You never know what will get you to think. It could be a pop culture movie, it could be a weird news newsletter. Anything that gets you to think about real issues that affect your life is a Good Thing, eh?

Ken is indeed a long-time reader: he’s been on the Premium distribution for more than ten years. I also found a previous letter from him on the same subject. In December 2001, in response to several other stories that had to do with religion, he wrote:

Christianity has so many wonderful qualities. It’s a shame that people can’t follow them wholeheartedly; if they did, then they’d be wiser than to be caught in so many of the religion’s pitfalls.

A relative of mine said that her church’s new pastor is somewhat controversial. “How?” I asked. “Well… he’s open-minded.”

True story, word-for-word.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Neither: smile inwardly because you get to witness someone starting to wake up and think! You don’t have to lecture them or tell them what to think, but you can encourage them to keep it up and discover their own path, just like you did. Trust me: it’s immensely gratifying to watch it happen.

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10 Comments on “A Wise Man

  1. I used to be Catholic. Like Ken I went to Catholic schools through high school, surrounded by like-minded folks. It worked out well for me.

    Traveling my own path, however, I no longer consider myself Catholic. When asked, I’ve decided to call myself a “hopefulist”. I have much hope for the future, and I hope there’s something after our time here. Being hopeful seems something that more of us have in common, and seems more inclusive and positive than what many preach and believe.

  2. Atheism is simply an admission of non-belief in God or gods, nothing more. Many atheists eagerly await evidence of “God”. Are they close minded because they refuse to take the word of some goofy old man wearing a funny hat? Requiring hard, pertinent evidence before accepting any claim as truth is hardly indicative of having a closed mind.

    Ken’s heart is in the right place. Unfortunately his attitude towards atheism perpetuates the false and damaging notion that it is a religion, something one “believes”.

  3. Ken put me in a thoughtful mood this morning. I still remember back in high school (way back in the dark ages — PC, pre-computer) reading Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth, by Herman Hesse, for the first time and having, what felt like, my skull cracked open by the idea of being open minded and seeing a world view beyond my own little patch of sod.

    Something Hesse had Sinclair say in that book has stuck with me ever since (paraphrasing): once you’ve opened your eyes and your mind to new thoughts and ideas, you can never go back to the ways you used to think and feel. It seems like such a common sense thing once you think about it, but at the time, being raised in such sheltered circumstances, the experience was very much like Sinclair’s image of violently breaking out of the egg shell of the old world, disoriented and flapping into the new.

    I would like to suggest the book to Ken. He sounds like the kind of person who would enjoy this particular novel, if he hasn’t already read it. It was written before WWI and yet still passionately, accurately describes the societal herd response as it stumbles off to war yet again as if were happening today. Hey, by golly, it is! Dang it, now I’m going to have to dig out my old copy and read it again for the hundredth time. What a pleasure.

    I checked, and the book is apparently out of print, though I’m sure used copies can be picked up here and there. Meanwhile, Wikipedia has a reasonably detailed entry about the book. -rc

  4. A wise friend pointed out to me that the “paths to the top of the mountain” metaphor works well when considering spiritual growth (as opposed to religious growth), and I found that I agree with him. Regardless of the path, some things are true: (1) as the path gets closer to the summit, it gets steeper and narrower; (2) as all the paths near the summit, they get closer and closer together; and (3) those close to the summit, regardless of which path they’re on, tend to resemble each other more than they resemble those further down their chosen path.

    On a tangent, that reminds me of a joke we shared back in my Navy days:

    Three GI’s were standing around in a park in occupied Berlin in 1945, and all had cigarettes but no matches. One of them approached a solitary soldier nearby, and said casually, “Hey, buddy, got a light?” The soldier wordlessly provided a light, and the GI returned to his horrified buddies with a lit cigarette. “Don’t you realize who that was?” gasped one of his friends. “That was General Patton!” Trembling with fear, the first GI rushed back to General Patton, snapped to attention, saluted, and said in a rush, “Sir, I apologize, I certainly intended no disrespect, I just didn’t recognize you in the dark, and again I apologize.” As he waited for doom to strike, General Patton smiled, returned his salute, and said, “That’s all right, son — but don’t EVER do that to a 2nd Lieutenant.”

    So, on my post-Thanksgiving gratitude list, I’ve got to include This is True, and the Stella Awards (I’m about to graduate from law school at 59), because I will always need to hear that voice of the Court Jester, saying what the sycophants would never say, that sometimes the King makes mistakes.

    And as soon as I get my law-school debts under control (not paid off — that will take years) and don’t have to buy outrageously expensive law books every semester, I will (finally) hop onto the Premium Express.

    First, what’s with all this illuminating philosophy from Texas this morning?! You guys are going to blow the stereotype! 🙂

    Second, I love the joke and how it relates to the topic. I also appreciate your kind words, and I wish you luck in your legal career: we need more lawyers who can think, and not just scheme. -rc

  5. Trisha: Thank you for recommending this book to me. I have read Hesse’s Siddhartha several times but not any of his other works. Demian is readily available from my local library, and I have now requested a copy be set aside for me.

    Leo: I hope my letter to Randy did not suggest any disrespect of Catholicism. I am very grateful for the foundation it has given me, just as I am thankful to have now given myself permission to explore beyond its boundaries. I like the term “hopefulist”; I may quote you on that…

    Edger: I similarly mean no disrespect for atheism; otherwise I would not be including it in the philosophies I am choosing to let life educate me about. I’m not sure what “attitude towards atheism” you gleaned from my note, or even if it was my attitude you were reading and not Ferris Bueller’s. The only person I called close-minded was the person I was yesterday. Like Randy wrote: “I’d much rather spend time with someone who made up their own mind after thinking about the important issues involved than someone who mindlessly follows along without any concept as to why.” Whatever decision I come to, be it Jainism, Mormonism, or atheism, is not as important as how I arrive at that decision.

  6. There are problems with words like ‘atheist’ and ‘pagan’. They both are coined by the religious people and show prejudice against those who don’t believe like they.

    I resent being called an atheist even though I don’t have any personal god. The scientific principle is that the person making the claim ‘A god exists’ has the burden of proof. I don’t have to prove anything, but these guys label me as sombody who denies the existence of god.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not an agnostic. I’m not pondering whether god exists or not. I’m an outsider. The whole question is irrelevant.

    And numbers doesn’t work here. Science is not a democracy, even though most people don’t even know what an antiproton is, it doesn’t mean that antiprotons don’t exist.

    Then again I’m not bashing religions per se. There are very good teachings in religions if people just would follow them. But I don’t need it to be a god’s son to understand what turning the other cheek means. There are as many teachings in Shakespeare’s plays as in the bible.

    The old Finnish religion had a god of all waters named Ahti. To get a plentiful catch of fish you needed to respect Ahti and his bounty. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, I say, except as a knowledgeable man I don’t need a personification to understand that not taking care of fishing waters can be harmful for the catch.

    Some people seem to need that personification as within the environmentalists these old gods gain followers. There seems to be a problem to believe an authority that is lower than a god.

    Just one comment, regarding your difficulty over the word “atheist”: Eleanor Roosevelt (an American First Lady) said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.” A friend of mine also doesn’t like the term atheist, since it has come to be used (again, surely by the religious) to mean people who deny the existence of a god. My friend instead calls himself a “nontheist”, meaning he simply does not have a god; he can’t deny one exists since, as you imply here, one cannot prove a negative claim such as this. -rc

  7. RC, The “isms” quote was immediately recognizable, to me, and I’m sure to a lot of others, before you looked it up and gave everyone the info.

    “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is a classic, one of my top favorite movies of all time. It’s not just “a pop culture movie,” as you wrote, but, IMHO, a great and funny piece work of video art that is truly full of wisdom, and put in truly hilarious terms accessible to everyone. There are other lines like, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and take a look around once in a while, you might miss it.”


    (To a groveling maitre d’ who had just finished treating him like dirt): “It’s understanding that makes people like us tolerate a person such as yourself.”

    This may well be the best comedy movie of the 1980s AND ’90s.

  8. If you have not read Richard Dawkins The God Delusion, you are missing out on many keen insights with humor and great critical thinking. He has analyzed religion in general and Christianity in particular in extreme detail. It will make you seriously reconsider your beliefs.

    …Which is why many will refuse to read it, because they’re insecure enough that they don’t want their beliefs challenged. -rc

  9. Bert in Lakewood, I would like to have agreed with you about “The God Delusion.” I am a huge Dawkins fan, and I’ve read most of his books. I even agree with him about creation and evolution. However, the message I got from this book was: “I have no respect for religious people because they believe in something even though there isn’t enough evidence of it to convince me.” When you give no respect, you should not expect to receive it.

    You know, something doesn’t have to be scientific to be rational. Everybody goes around building a theory of how the world works in their own mind, and they piece it together out of whatever they believe is true. It is certain that no one’s theory is completely correct. It is also equally certain that every sane person’s theory is rational, because otherwise the cognitive dissonance would make it very hard for them to function. What I mean by “rational” here is that their theory must both explain and also hold up to all the evidence they have. Given the evidence every human being has, it’s rational to believe that Someone or several Someones are controlling everything, and it’s rational to believe that everything follows natural laws that control everything. Both of those theories explain everything in the entire world easily and succinctly. How can one of them be “delusional?” Based on false evidence, maybe. Rejecting evidence that does not fit the personal theory, maybe. But if they’re delusional, they’re only delusional in the way every human being is. Dawkins is just as blind as any fundamentalist when it comes to seeing how flawed we all are in judging what is true and what is false.


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