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Letters From The Wasteland: The Scarlet Letter


I was sitting in a bar on Sunday morning drinking a Lord Chesterfield Ale when a rather strange thing happened. An older gentleman with one of those sandwich board signs warning about the end of times stuck his head in and asked loudly why we weren't in church. He yelled something else and then inquired as to whether we were ready to be received into the heavenly kingdom.

“Would we be sitting at a bar, casually sipping a brew, had such eternal preparations gone undone?” I asked in response.


The old guy stared for a moment or two and then turned back to the street where he began anew proselytizing to passersby. I joked to the bartender that the Lord Chesterfield in my hand was as close as I came to spending Sunday's with the Lord. He got a momentary chuckle out of it, but soon I realized he had been highly agitated by the old man's attempts at evangelism.

“Imagine if I stuck my head in the door at St. Stephens and asked what all of those congregants were doing at the mass when there were cold beers over here?” he suggested in a highly-indignant tone. “They'd have the cops there in no time. Yet this guy comes in and disturbs my customers, suggesting they shouldn't be here and I'm supposed to be okay with it? It's hypocrisy!”

He'd been getting on my nerves all morning, yapping about his Colts having given up Manning only so he could go to the Super Bowl, while they stayed home. Hadn't he heard that the big game was being played in New Jersey? Wasn't that and the frigid temperatures enough punishment for Manning's success? Hadn't they been the ones who let him go and only because it seemed foolish to pass up a smart kid with some talent, especially when his last name was Luck? At this renewed whining, I finally lost my patience and threw the sudsy bottom of my brew in his sorry and sullen face.

“They're Episcopalians you fool!” I shouted. “They've got plenty of wine in the church, and they don't give it out until the show's almost over. If you want to harass someone, go and see the Methodists. They use grape juice and some of the Baptists don't have any wine at all! You might shake an Irish Catholic or two from the pews, that is if they're not too hungover from the night before, but even then you'd have their women to contend with – and you don't want that!”

He hung his head in defeat and I felt bad enough to offer him the bar towel he'd left near my napkin. As he finished wiping his face, I thought I heard him sob, so I left a few bills on the bar and hit the streets before he'd have to look me in the eye. You see, he'd missed the point. It had nothing to do with beer or wine, but he was probably too full of some sort of nondenominational religious guilt to have understood the real offense. There's a label that too many Americans have to wear that seems to sit squarely at odds with the principles on which our great Republic was founded. It's an A, but it's not for adulterer, a badge that has become so commonplace as to render it quaint. I'm talking about the other A – atheism.

Even in an age of undeniable progress, one in which gays, minorities, children and even animals have thankfully achieved equalities and protections unthinkable less than 100 years ago, there seems to be little tolerance for those of us who do not believe in an omniscient deity watching from above the clouds and moving our fates like pieces on a chess board. In fact, I'm confident that we will have put not only a black man, but a women, a homosexual, maybe even a Libertarian into the White House long before we elect someone who doesn't at least pretend to believe in a God.

It comes as no surprise to most people that good old Ringo is an atheist of the highest order. I don't go to church and my lifestyle is squarely at odds with that prescribed by the majority of religious dogma, though that's beside the point. Nonetheless, let me give the standard required disclaimer that I have nothing against anyone who wants to believe in any particular deity or participate in organized religion, so long as their doing so does not impede on my own life, liberty or pursuit of happiness – which occasionally includes enjoying a Lord Chesterfield on the Sabbath.


Let me say that I'm also not the evangelical type of atheist who runs around telling people why they should join my side, poking holes in their beliefs or trying to make them feel otherwise inferior. However, given my own tolerance, I guess I'm hyper-sensitive to those who preach their beliefs in my direction, even via sandwich board.

There is undoubtedly a lot of good done by religious organizations, which I have always viewed as their greatest value to our culture – organizing the goodwill of those in a society to help the less fortunate amongst them. This town is particularly blessed in that regard. But I don't see the religious aspect being a necessary part of tapping our altruism, as evidenced by the equally-impressive work of secular organizations. Like most atheists, I believe that the ability to act decent toward one another is innate and not because a higher being put it there.

That seems to be the fork in the road, at which I part ways with most theists. The idea that our potential for good is divinely endowed and is most pronounced when we participate in an organized worship has never squared with my experience. For example, somewhere around 80 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian, yet the 10 commandments are not even a casually-observed list of suggestions in our culture.

As a society, we covet everything, worship false idols by the score, take the Lord's name in vein as a regular part of our vernacular, steal everything that's not bolted down, kill, engage in adulterous liaisons like they're a sport and have made a virtual tabloid industry based on bearing false witness. The 10 commandments are ground zero for how Christians are supposed to act, a template for being a good person and earning God's grace, yet they still don't seem to have caught on much in the last 3,000 years. Religion's impact on cultural morality seems to me dubious at best.

In fact, the whole idea of the sort of pious behavior people tend to ascribe to religious virtue has always left me scratching my head. I was raised in religion and have read the bible front to back. I remember stories about God doing some pretty frightening things, even to innocent people. He threatens to punish the Israelites by making them eat their own children, kills a man for refusing to impregnate his brother’s widow, gives all sorts of passes on the thou shalt not kill commandment, even helps those in his favor wipe out their enemies, and sanctions more genocide than the Nazis and Janjaweeds could have ever dreamt of. Then there's the guy who is praised for allowing his daughter to be raped to death (before beingdismembered) in order to spare a guest, the 40 plus kids ripped to shreds by bears (sent by God) and the tribe that's raped and slaughtered for not showing up for morning attendance.

That's only a partial rundown of the horror stories found in the good book, but I don't make too much of it, seeing as it originated thousands of years ago, when we were still blood letting people because we weren't even close to understanding things like germ theory. Yes, I find the idea that some people take this stuff literally more than a little silly and sometimes even frightening, but like I said, as long as they're not infringing on me and mine, then any port in a storm. But when people begin to suggest that I'm somehow morally inferior because I don't worship their book, my patience runs thin.

Yes, I understand that most people don't even know such things are in the book, because in my experience, few Christians actually read the bible in its entirety and instead rely on the small, selected doses that are read and explained to them by someone else in a way that might construe a positive message about how they can lead a better life. I also understand that most people don't believe in all of the rules or even pretend to attempt to follow even a majority of them, but it's not my understanding that being in with one foot is any better than being out of the boat altogether. In fact, there are several passages that suggest it is worse.

So no, I'm not religious and I'm not one of those people who dresses up my lack of faith with little qualifiers like "I'm spiritual" or that "I believe in something," etc. I'm not even agnostic. I believe that the moment life ends, so do I and the same for those around me, even the ones I love dearly and would desperately like to believe I will one day see again. Isn't that a dark and empty outlook? people often ask. Not in my view.

For me, the idea that the uncertainty of the amount of time we each have here on Earth is the only thing guaranteed to any of us, endows each precious moment with a profound gravity. Everything from the smell of the roses, to a child's laughter or the touch of a beautiful woman seems heightened in the exclusivity of the precious time that passes in a way that I can never imagine a whatever will be will be outlook could manage. To me, even life's sourest misery seems muted and ignored when it's relegated to some other being's will and a master plan we're supposedly incapable of comprehending.

Would I like reality to be different? Of course, otherwise I wouldn't eat Psilocybin mushrooms. But realizing life isn't always what you want it to be isn't necessarily the big let down it sounds like. In fact, sometimes it can be quite empowering. Learning there's no Santa Claus didn't ruin Christmas and coming to grip with the idea that life is short and the here and now is all we get hasn't spoiled the rest of it, at least not for me. I'll wear my A proudly. In fact, I might even get a sandwich board.


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