Dave: There's just so little evidence for God. I mean, it's not like there's a lot of people who have been in the presence of a burning bush...
Me: You've never had a yeast infection, have you?
I think my irreverence toward All Things God started pretty early. I don't remember exactly when it started, but it might have been the year I spent in fundamentalist Christian school. That was fifth grade, for those of you keeping score.
It's strange that I ever went to a born-again school, since I grew up Catholic (though not fish-on-Friday Catholic or anything). The Catholic scene meant that I went to CCD once a week (for those of you not in the know, that's the way public school kids get their Catholic indoctrin... err, education). I made my first communion. I learned the Hail Mary. I knelt in front of statues.
In short, I was no televangelist in the making.
But for fifth grade I went to Fremont Christian elementary, supposedly because it would give me a more challenging education than I was getting at the local public school. I wasn't unhappy to attend, but then again I really didn't know what was in store for me. I just thought I was getting away from the asshole kids at the old school who were making my life a living hell. I figured, with the logic of a 5th grader, that making a new start with new people could only be a good thing. That I could shed my outcast status, and be one with my peers.
(This, I must tell you, didn't actually happen until I hit 7th grade and it really went into full swing in high school. I know that's bass ackward - usually you get along reasonably OK with your peers in grammar school and then it gets all cliquey and weird in junior high, blossoming into full-blown torture in high school, and continuing in one catty form or another throughout your corporate career years. But nobody ever said I do things the normal way.)
Anyway, I went to the fundamentalist Christian school. And my personal struggle with faith began, culminating in an abiding interest in paleontology and a better understanding of my own relationship to God, distant though it is. My head was spinning by the end of the year, and let me tell you that doesn't convince people who are sure you're going straight to hell that you're consorting with Satan any less. Nobody trusts a ten-year-old with a spinning head.
See, the main problem really began in "science" class. It was a fundamentalist school, you see. It was all about the religion. So (can you see this coming?), evolution? Not taught. In fact, actively argued against, despite all logic and evidence to the contrary. My teacher, Mr. Reed, told us that evolution was a myth, an evil story propagated by godless scientists. If we believed God's highest creation came from monkeys, we would make the saints cry. Or something like that, I really wasn't listening. The last straw came when Mr. Reed revealed that fossils were a test from God - a test of our faith. If we believed that fossils really were as old as the Godless Scientists (who were quickly becoming my heroes) said they were, we had failed the test and God would know us for the faithless wretches we were and then we couldn't go to heaven and have ice cream or something. Again, I wasn't actually listening too closely.
I went home and told my father about this theory of anti-lution (more popularly known as creationism) and he immediately contradicted the whole thing with soothing, calming logic. I think that was the year he started me watching David Attenborough's Life on Earth series on PBS. You know - the one that starts with dinosaurs and ends up 11 hours later with us? The stupid humans? Yeah. I thought you did. It was also the year that my interest in paleontology and my personal collection of fossils began. I still have my best specimens on display here at home.
Because I didn't, and don't, believe for a minute that fossils are a goddamned test.
Of course, at the time I was a fifth grader with a deep desire to fit in, torn between what I felt was utter rubbish and a room full of other fifth graders who had been fed their whole lives the same pap I was now being asked to swallow for the first time. I was faced with being true to my own beliefs or at least paying lip service to the beliefs of my peers. And let me tell you, in case you weren't aware, little fundamentalist fifth graders are scary. They are the firmest and purest believers in hell, Satan, damnation and fire that you'll ever come across. They'll taunt you with your witch's fate if ever you show a chink in your pious armor.
Despite the ever-present reminders of my impending incarceration in Hell, I began my own personal Scopes Monkey Trail that lasted pretty much all year. I argued with my classmates, I threw logic at my teacher, I dared Satan to lift a television six feet into the air at a birthday party (which resulted in a dozen fifth graders screaming their heads off because they honestly feared Satan's television lifting abilities). I wasn't popular, as you can guess, but after a while I didn't care. The very idea of being popular was becoming less interesting than the responses I got on a nearly daily basis at school. It became sort of an exercise in "freaking the straights" - what could I come up with next for my own entertainment value? In fact, the evolution thing became one of my biggest showdowns, as I wasn't the sort of student who liked to fail anything. I didn't want my teacher thinking that I believed the creationist line, but if I refused to take the science test, I risked poor grades. Hey - I was in the fifth grade, ok? Your ethics only carry you so far when you're ten. I took this dilemma to my father and after a long talk, I settled on a course of action that I thought fit the situation admirably. When the test was handed out, I wrote along the top, "I believe these are the answers you want" and then I proceeded to take the test, giving the answers I knew would get me a good grade.
In hindsight, it was a really bizarre situation. I was in no way, shape, or form someone who should have been at that school. What's the use of constantly challenging the beliefs of people in their own religious school? If you want to believe the earth is flat and the sun goes around our little ball of rock, you're totally free to do so. If you believe in creationism, go right ahead. And if you establish a school to pass those beliefs on, well, I don't agree with it, but I have no business being at your school if I don't buy the line you're selling, right? Right. It's not like these people were pounding my door down to try to save me - I was there by some permutation of free will. I completely understand that the situation was whacked.
But the strangest thing about the whole experience was the last day of fifth grade. With invited parents present, the whole school drew together to watch attendance ribbons, spelling accomplishments and other academic awards dolled out. Then my teacher announced that this next award was his favorite to give out, one that he valued a great deal. It was the "Most Spiritual Growth of the Year" award. My mother and I gave each other a knowing look - that award wasn't getting within 10 feet of me. If it did, it might burst into flames.
Can you imagine the shock when Mr. Reed called my name? I honestly don't think you can. This was the culmination of a year's worth of confusion, frustration and arguing. An entire year's effort to keep my own personal senses of faith, logic and science intact in the face of beliefs I didn't for a moment agree with. I had made it so intensely clear that I didn't agree with what I was being told that I couldn't understand the award at all. At first I thought there was a mistake, then I worried that it was just a big joke at my expense. Even after I'd walked the stage to accept the award and was back in my seat, I was incredibly confused.
Later, my mom pulled Mr. Reed aside and asked him about it. He explained that throughout the year he had watched me examine what faith meant to me personally. He had seen me wrestle with some of the biggest religious questions that there are. And that although he knew that my spirituality was not the same as his, and that we might well never agree on the nature of God and the world we lived in together, he respected the work I had done and the place I had gotten to for myself. That it wasn't as important in his eyes that I agreed with him as that I had heard what he had said and questioned it, struggled with it, and eventually made peace with it. For myself.
Spiritual growth, indeed. Thanks, Mr. Reed, for teaching me what real religious tolerance is about. And thanks, Dad, for teaching me to question everything. Turns out I can respect other people's beliefs and laugh about them at the same time.
- KNP July 5, 2004