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Believe Me

When I was a kid back in the mid-1960s, a woman named Madalyn Murray O’Hair was often in the news.

See, she didn’t believe in god and, rather than do the right thing and keep her mouth shut about it, she traipsed all over the country telling people she was an atheist. In fact, she even founded a group called American Atheists, a moniker about as contradictory as, say, Obese Marathoners.

O'Hair

Madalyn Murray O’Hair

How she ever found more than one or two other like-minded spawn of Satan in the year 1963 in this holy land is beyond me.

At the time I was a second grader at St. Giles, a Catholic school, under the tutelage of a pack of the sternest nuns this side of the cast of a John Waters movie. The principal was Sister James Mary. When she’d taken her Holy Orders, she assumed the name of a male saint known as a “perpetual virgin” and that of the Virgin Mother of Christ, a double-whammy of the Catholic church’s bizarre sexual value system. Sister James Mary — or, as we referred to her, JM — was the toughest, scariest, most brutish, deep-voiced, flinty-eyed bully I ever knew until I was introduced to a gang tough named Little Willie in 1973. Little Willie once beat a guy in the side aisle of the Mercury Theater simply for liking the same girl he did. The poor guy was hospitalized for several weeks, having suffered a concussion, a broken jaw, broken ribs, and a broken arm. Yeah, Little Willie was tough, although I’d hedge my bet on him were he to be matched against JM.

Sisters

Sisters

Anyway, Sister James Mary visited our classroom one day in the winter of 1964 wearing her meanest look. We knew she was deadly serious. Even the class clowns, Albert DiPrima and I, refrained from making goofy faces at each other while JM visited that day. She had a message of great import for us. She looked around the room when she spoke and I swear that when her eyes landed on me, the radiant energy emanating from them raised my body temperature a degree and a half.

She told us that a horde of people in this dangerous, dangerous world were trying to rob from us the right to worship our Holy Father. We were to resist them at all costs.

A little background. A couple of years earlier, the US Supreme Court had ruled against school prayer. And then the next year, that same Court had outlawed the reading of the Bible in classrooms. (Never mind that these decisions affected public schools only.) The Court, clearly, was under the thumb of the pagans. At the forefront of this assault on all things godly and good, JM warned, was Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Sister James Mary grimaced when she mentioned O’Hair’s name, as if she was about to retch.

At the time I was still trying to be a good sport about all this Catholicism and god business. It would be another five or so years before I finally quit the Church. As an obedient Soldier of Christ at the time, I immediately counted Madalyn Murray O’Hair among the most vile humans on Earth. She, Castro, Kruschev, Lee Harvey Oswald, and the Boston Strangler constituted my personal Axis of Evil in 1964.

O'Hair/Castro/Kruschev/Oswald/DeSalvo

Rogues Gallery

I was not alone. Madalyn Murray O’Hair was, according to Life magazine that year, “the most hated woman in America.”

That was then.

In the year 2013, it would be an oddity to find a nun who is the principal of a Catholic school. If you do find one, it’s a sure bet she’s wearing a pantsuit as opposed to a habit and a wimple. And she sure as hell hasn’t named herself after a fellow whose claim to fame was his steadfast refusal to have sex.

And, although the world’s most famous atheist is still reviled among backwoods fundamentalists and politico-Christianists, he is not ranked among the likes of Bashar al-Assad, whoever the boss of al Qaeda is today, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and — oh, I don’t know, Miley Cyrus? — among the general populace.

As a matter of fact, Richard Dawkins, the world’s most famous atheist today, is one of the most respected thinkers on this crazy, mixed-up planet.

From "The O'Reilly Factor"

Hey, the place has changed a lot in 50 years.

I bring this all up because I just learned that Dawkins’ memoir is due to hit the streets in a couple of weeks. The book is An Appetite for Wonder. One of the things I like best about Dawkins is his obvious impatience with theists. He’s about as tolerant of believers as he is of the object of their adoration. From his book, The God Delusion:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infantificidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Dear god, I can’t wait to read his new book.

God Only Knows

The Pencil Today:

THE QUOTE

“If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.” — Lenny Bruce

MAN WAS HIS PET, AFTER THE HOUSEFLY*

In this holy land it’s a lot easier to believe in god than it is not to.

America’s biggest holiday is Christmas.

Our coins read “In God We Trust.”

Every candidate for president must declare what a pious soul he or she is.

We say “… one nation under god…” we we pledge allegiance.

Both houses of Congress begin each day’s proceedings with a benediction delivered by a professional believer.

When someone sneezes we say, “God bless you.”

When we’re annoyed we say, “For Christ’s sake!” When we’re really mad we say, “God damn it.”

When we go to war, we ask god to help us blow the brains out of enemy soldiers’ heads.

In America, god is everywhere.

This weekend the putative creator of the universe will be the object of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of special assemblies.

There will be, for instance, a series of “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” rallies in cities around the country. These folks believe their BFF in the sky doesn’t like sex and is miffed because employer health care plans will soon be forced to cover contraceptives.

One Way To Get Under God’s Skin

Unindicted co-conspirator Pope Benedict XVI travels this weekend to Mexico. Monday he hops over to Cuba. He’ll draw huge throngs in both countries.

And Saturday, atheists will crowd the Mall in Washington, DC to proclaim that they have no invisible friends or protectors. Organizers hope the Reason Rally, also dubbed Woodstock for atheists, will attract some 30,000 godless souls.

When I was a kid, a woman named Madalyn Murray O’Hair made a big splash. She was America’s most well-known atheist in the 1960s. It seems her son Bill was compelled to participate in Bible readings while a student in the Baltimore City Public Schools. So she filed suit, which eventually made its way to the US Supreme Court as part of a broader case.

I was a nominal Roman Catholic at the time. My parents (Ma, mostly) still went to church and dragged me along. Ma and Dad wouldn’t drop out for another five or so years. I couldn’t drop out of the faith because I’d never had it.

However, I had some clubbish loyalty to the faithful and so felt that Madeline Murray O’Hair, who soon would found American Atheists, was a villain. She was called “America’s most hated woman.” It didn’t help that O’Hair was pretty much a lunatic.

The Most Hated Woman In America

So even though I had no particular allegiance to any god, I was on the side of those who did. But I was a kid.

By the age of 12, I’d given up childish things — like blind loyalty — and started thinking for myself. The nuns at St. Giles school had told me god was love. They’d said I must love him.

Man, I had a tough time with that one. How do I love god? I mean, he’s this big, powerful guy who doesn’t say much and is always aggravated. In fact, he’s just like my father.

So I imagined kissing god’s cheeks profusely. See, Ma always made me kiss Dad goodnight. He’d sit there in his recliner, purportedly watching TV but actually dozing noisily. I’d have to stretch and strain to plant my tender little lips on his sandpaper face. He wouldn’t budge an inch.

“Wait’ll I Get My Hands on You!”

I figured that’s the way it would be with god. I’d imagine myself up in heaven, standing on a chair on my tiptoes, raining smooches on god’s abrasive cheek. He, too, would remain impassive while I gushed over him.

By 12, that fever dream didn’t cut it anymore. I never did figure out how to love god.

I’m not going to Washington for the Atheists’ Woodstock. I’ve long believed atheism is about not being part of a team.

Christians’ll have an easier time of it at their rallies here in America, as well as in Mexico and Cuba. They can all pat each other on the back and say how great it is to be the apple of god’s eye.

What are the atheists going to do? You can’t really celebrate the non-existence of something, can you?

Actually, I don’t even like the term atheist. There is, of course, the association with Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s weirdness. Then there’s the matter of identifying myself by what I’m not.

It’s like joining a club for people who’ve never murdered anyone. After introducing yourself and proclaiming you’ve never taken a life, there isn’t much else to do.

A better term might be Other — as in the only box I can honestly check on an application that asks me my religion.

I’m a devout Other.

(* Quote from Mark Twain’s “Letters from the Earth.”)

IMAGINE

My second favorite Beatle.

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