Welcome to Buster's Blog

Irregular commentary on whatever's on my mind -- politics, sports, current events, and life in general. After twenty years of writing business and community newsletters, fifteen years of fantasy baseball newsletters, and two years of email "columns", this is, I suppose, the inevitable result: the awful conceit that someone might actually care to read what I have to say. Posts may be added often, rarely, or never again. As always, my mood and motivation are unpredictable.

Buster Gammons

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

In Brief Moment Of Clarity, Dispatch Wakes Up, Smells Coffee

Minor miracle. The Columbus Dispatch ran an editorial today opposing the idiotic "guns in bars and restaurants" bill recently passed by both Ohio houses. The editorial urges the bill be vetoed. This marks a rare instance when Buster and the Dispatch editors are in agreement. Don't hold your breath waiting for it to happen again.

I just had to post it to document this most unusual occurrence. Here it is:


Bill allowing most anyone to carry handguns almost anywhere is frightening

Wednesday, June 22, 2011 03:47 AM

The Columbus Dispatch

Can anyone seriously doubt any longer that the true agenda of the National Rifle Association and its willing servants in the General Assembly is not the defense of a reasonable, regulated right to own and use firearms, but the unfettered proliferation of guns everywhere in public life?

Why gun-lobby supporters are so keen to see more weapons in more places is mysterious. But the lobby's power in Ohio was unmistakable last Wednesday.

The House and Senate passed a bill allowing holders of concealed-carry permits to take their weapons into bars and other places that sell alcohol. It passed easily, despite the fact that law-enforcement agencies, prosecutors and restaurant owners-- people who know something about the unhealthy mix of guns and alcohol -- adamantly opposed it.

Lawmakers voting "yes" did so at the service of a powerful and deep-pocketed special interest, not in the public interest.

Besides needlessly enhancing the potential for barroom conflicts to turn lethal, the bill also robs law-enforcement officers of security by eliminating the requirement that a gun carried in a vehicle be either holstered, in a locked case or, if unlocked, in plain sight. Officers approaching stopped vehicles will be less certain the driver can't pull a loaded weapon from a convenient hiding place.

The bill is an outrage, but it's not enough for the gun lobby.

A bill introduced by Republican Rep. John Adams of Sidney would eliminate the pesky detail of a permit for carrying concealed weapons. Anyone who "qualifies for a permit" could carry a gun. For good measure, the bill would expand the right to carry to colleges, churches, child-care centers and government buildings. It's a wonder it leaves out nursing homes and nunneries.

Thus crumbles the gun lobby's contention that no one need fear the expansion of gun privileges, because the requirements of the permit system ensure that everyone toting a gun has a certain amount of training and the civic wherewithal to comply with the requirements. Not anymore; in Adams' world, people who don't have criminal records or diagnoses of mental illness should be able to carry concealed weapons, with no public declaration that they intend to do so.

Ohio is not a lawless frontier. People shopping for groceries or having lunch at a restaurant do not face a credible risk of an attack necessitating an armed response. Anyone who feels that sort of danger at church or the day-care center should choose a new church or day-care center, and call the police while they're at it.

The main effect of encouraging more people to arm themselves is to increase the chances of accidental shootings and tragedies involving family members, friends and lovers whose quarrels turn deadly because somebody has a gun.

The guns-in-bars bill is a bad idea that deserves a quick veto.

Adams' bill would be a bad joke, if only he were kidding.

Roger Ailes, Fear Meister of Fox News

The spooky-looking, rotund man shown here is Roger Ailes, Chairman of Fox News. He's a former Republican operative and dirty-trickster, going back to the Nixon administration. Today, as leader of America's unfair and unbalanced "news" network, he's determined to give us a daily dose of birthers, terror mosques, death panels, and Tea Partiers. He, his staffers, and his on-air anchors and hosts are in the business of disguising far-right conservative propaganda as journalism. He's a dangerous fuck, and you should know about him.

There is an excellent article on Ailes by Tim Dickinson in the 6/9 issue of Rolling Stone titled "The Fox News Fear Factory". It's long but a good read. You can check it out by clicking on it under "Buster's Links".

What follows are a few excerpts from that piece.


(From "The Fox News Fear Factory", by Tim Dickinson)

Rupert Murdoch had long been obsessed with gaining a foothold in the TV news business. He made a failed run at buying CNN. Even before he hired Roger Ailes, Murdoch had a germinal version of Fox News that he intended to air through News Corp. local affiliates. The false start included a 60 Minutes-style program that, under the guise of straight news, would feature a weekly attack-and-destroy piece targeting a liberal politician or social program. "The idea of a masquerade was around prior to Roger arriving," says Dan Cooper, managing editor of that first iteration of Fox News. Murdoch envisioned his new network as a counterweight to the "left-wing bias" of CNN. "There's your answer right there as to whether Fox News is a conventional news network or whether it has an agenda," says Eric Burns, who served for a decade as media critic at Fox News. "That's its original sin."

To understand what drives Fox News, and what its true purpose is, you must first understand Chairman Ailes. "He is Fox News," says former commentator Jane Hall. "It's his vision and a reflection of him."

To watch even a day of Fox News -- the anger, the bombast, the virulent paranoid streak, the unending appeals to white resentment, the reporting that's held to the same standard as a late-October attack ad -- is to see a refraction of its founder, one of the most skilled and fearsome operatives in the history of the Republican party. As a political consultant, Ailes repackaged Richard Nixon for TV in 1968, papered over Ronald Reagan's budding Alzheimer's in 1984, shamelessly stoked racial fears to elect George H.W. Bush in 1988, and waged a secret campaign on behalf of Big Tobacco to derail health care reform in 1993. "He was the premier guy in the business," says former Reagan campaign manager Ed Rollins. "He was our Michelangelo."

His dirtiest moment came in a 1988 TV ad focusing on Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who had escaped from prison during a weekend furlough when Michael Dukakis was Massachusetts governor and later stabbed a man and raped a woman. "The only question," Ailes bragged to reporter, "is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand."

"Roger Ailes is the general," declared Bill O'Reilly. "And the general sets the tone of the army. Our army is very George Patton-esque. We charge. We roll."

Ailes know exactly who's watching Fox News each day, and he is adept at playing to their darkest fears in the age of Obama. The network's viewers are old, with a median age of 65. Ads cater to the infirm, the immobile and the incontinent. The audience is almost exclusively white -- only 1.38% of viewers are African-American. "Roger understands audiences," says Rollins. "He knows how to target, which is what Fox News is all about." The typical viewer of Hannity, to take the most stark example, is a pro-business (86%), conservative Christian (78%), Tea Party backer (75%), with no college education (66%), who is over age 50 (65%), supports the NRA (73%), doesn't back gay rights (78%), and thinks "government does too much" (84%). "He's got a niche audience and he's programmed to it beautifully," says a former News Corp. colleague. "He feeds them exactly what they want to hear."

From the time Barack Obama began contemplating his candidacy, Fox News went all-out to convince its white viewers that he was a Marxist, a Muslim, a black nationalist, and a 1960's radical.

A recent study found that the ignorance of Fox viewers increases the longer they watch the network.

In 2009, the network went so far as to actually co-brand Tea Party rallies as "Fox News Channel Tax Day Tea Parties." Veteran journalist were taken aback. "I don't think I've ever seen a news network throw its weight behind a protest like [they did]," said Howard Kurtz, the then-media critic for the Washington Post.

The clearest demonstration of how Ailes has seamlessly merged both money and message lies in the election of John Kasich, a longtime Fox News contributor who eked out a two-point victory over Democrat Ted Strickland last November to become governor of Ohio. While technically a Republican, Kasich might better be understood as the first candidate of the Fox News Party. "The question is no longer whether Fox News is an arm of the GOP," says Burns, "but whether it's becoming the torso instead."

"Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us," said David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter. "Now we're discovering that we work for Fox."

GOP: Voter Suppression Is Our Election Strategy

Again singing one of their favorite tunes, Ohio's Republican state senators have cooked up a photo-ID bill (HB 194) which would require us to produce a valid drivers license, passport, or state ID when voting in person. While most voters have such things, some might not -- the young, the old, the underpriveleged -- and those without also tend to vote for Democrats. So the GOP, not just in Ohio but across the country, has long sought a way to keep these undesirables home on election day. It's not about voter fraud. We have no voter fraud problem. It's about suppressing Democratic votes, pure and simple.

As such, the photo-ID proposal is slimy, discriminatory, and possibly illegal. Ohio Democrats are firmly opposed. Surprisingly, so is Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted. This is a rare moment of reason and fairness from Husted, who as a state senator, infamously represented Kettering while living in Upper Arlington.

A cynic might suggest that Husted's principled stand is only a charade stage-managed by King Kasich and his minions: "Look, Jon, we all understand what this bill is all about and we all know it's dirty as hell, but it's good for the party, we've got the numbers, and we're gonna ram it through. But as Secretary of State, you've gotta be against it. It's kinda like, you know, your job to oppose shit like this. So you play Good Cop and come out against it, we'll pass the goddam thing anyway, and the party's got your back a hundred percent. OK, old buddy?"

They wouldn't do anything like that, would they?

(P.S. Just saw something saying the R's might change their minds and withdraw this bill. If true, that would be nice.)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Buster Gammon's History Of Religion


First, let me apologize for the length of this thing. My original intention was to have a brief riff on some of the absurdities of religion and post it on my blog. As I slowly put it together, somehow it just grew. And grew. Don’t know when to shut up, I guess. Now it’s well beyond blog length, but I’m posting it anyway. Forgive me.

What follows is certainly not a scholarly treatise, although I learned some things while compiling it. Nor is it a simple comedy piece – it’s too long for that, and I’m not that funny, although I did chuckle to myself while writing some segments. Maybe you’ll do the same reading parts of it.

Whatever this piece has become, it was never meant to be taken too seriously. It was instead most definitely meant to be a light-hearted, mostly irreverent look at a societal institution that often takes itself much, much too seriously – organized religion, a.k.a. the church.

I realize that my thoughts on this topic are the minority view, and that some readers may not take kindly to my taking pot-shots at their church. I do not wish to offend.

But screw it! If you can’t make fun of religion and its history, people, and practices, then you can’t make fun of anything. And that’s no way to be.

So here goes.



by Buster Gammons

Many, many millennia ago, when the aboriginal Buster (shown here, and known to our family as Cousin Ugg) pulled himself up out of the primordial ooze and knuckle-walked out onto the African veldt, the world was a big, scary, dangerous place.

It was sometimes hot, other times cold. There was darkness, then light, then darkness again. Water would mysteriously fall from above, then stop just as mysteriously. There were other creatures, possibly predators. It was hard to tell. Some were just like Cousin Ugg, and there plenty of other critters running, crawling, swimming, and flying all over. Some days you ate the bear, other days the bear ate you.

Life had its moments, but it was basically a brief, brutal existence. It was only natural then that Ugg and our prehistoric forebears eventually began to ask themselves, “What the hell is going on around here? Why are we here? What’s it all about, Alfie?”

Most had no idea, but an imaginative few of our ancient kinfolk came up stories to explain it all – creation, life, death, the strange and powerful natural world in which they found themselves. Such stories mark the rudimentary beginnings of what we today call religion.

Right from the start, religion was contentious. Some people believed the stories, some didn’t. Other people had what they thought were better stories. So they discussed the stories and argued about them and yelled and fought and hit each other on the head with sticks.

Our world of today is far removed from those long-ago days of Cousin Ugg, but for all our progress, many people are still yelling and fighting about religion. From what began as localized tribal tales of seasons, animals, and celestial bodies, to the Big 4 organized “tribes” of today with their competing Books, Gods, and Sons of God, religion’s raison d’etre is the same: attempt to explain the unexplainable, offer some comfort, do some good.

Noble goals, to be sure, although hardly the sole province of religion. And of course, these days many of our “organized religions” are so damn organized they’ve become vast, money-making enterprises whose first concern is self-perpetuation. It gets rather unseemly. Back in the day, nobody ever asked Cousin Ugg for one thin dime. (Of course, dimes hadn’t been invented yet.)

So how did we get from there to here? From Paleolithic wonderment to the screeching, fractious world of modern “faith”? And is any of it doing us any good? Are we making any progress, or just spinning our wheels, or going backwards?

To see if we can come up with a few answers, let’s hop in Buster’s Way-Back Machine and go back, back, back into time as we learn more about the History of Religion.


The earliest archeological evidence of religious belief takes us back to 13,000-12,000 B.C. in the western hemisphere and the pre-Colombian Native American culture. These early people were pantheistic – they didn’t believe in specific manifestations of supreme beings, but instead had an all-encompassing spirituality and a belief in dreams and visions. They saw gods/spirits everywhere and in everything.

Paganism goes back as far as 10,000 B.C. and was prevalent in Western Europe for many thousands of years. Examples of paganism include the Celts and the Druids. Pagans found magic and spiritualism in the natural world around them, celebrating the sun, the moon, the seasons, fertility, etc. They were polytheistic, worshipping many specific gods. In the first centuries A.D., pagans were persecuted horribly by the early Christians.

(Certainly the mythologies and practices of indigenous sub-Saharan African tribes qualify as pantheism/polytheism, and are probably much older than the European and American examples. But such ancient African religious history lacks archeological proof.)

Many consider Hinduism to be the oldest “formal” religion. It began in northern India and dates back to 6500 B.C., perhaps much older. It’s a polytheistic stew of religious, cultural and philosophical ideas. Hindus believe there are many deities and one Supreme Absolute called Brahman. The hundreds/thousands of other gods/goddesses are the many facets of Brahman. These can be people, spirits, animals, plants, or hybrids thereof. Hinduism is one of the world’s largest religions, and has a number of holy books, including the Bhagavad-Gita.

The religious practices of ancient Egypt go back to 3000 B.C. and are another example of polytheism. They believed in numerous gods in half-human/half-animal incarnations. The major function of these gods was to prepare people, especially royalty, for the journey into the next world. The Egyptians believed this next life would be very similar to the present one. Thus, a mummified body and a fancy pyramid tomb filled with food, drink, and possessions would help the dead scoot into the next world and pick up pretty much right where they left off.

The ancient Greek Empire lasted from 2700 B.C. until 146 B.C., when it was conquered by Rome. Greeks were both pantheistic and polytheistic in their religious beliefs – the gods inhabited everything but were also finite in number and had specified duties/functions. Today, those gods – Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hades, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, Dionysus, Ares, etc. -- and the accompanying story lessons are called Greek Mythology.

Another bunch of polytheistic ancients was the Incan Empire. The Incans held sway in South America from 1200 B.C. until 1500 A.D. They saw divinity in nature and worshipped animals. Jaguars and snakes were biggies.

The ancient Kingdoms of Israel and Judah take us back to 1200 B.C. and a small piece of land on the eastern Mediterranean. The original Canaanite tribes of this area were polytheistic, believing in many gods. In time, the “Tribe of Abraham” (a.k.a. the Jews or Hebrews) became dominant. While still acknowledging multiple deities, the Jews decided that one of them – “Yahweh” – was top dog among the gods. Eventually, it was declared that there was in fact only one god, and God was Yahweh, period. This marked the start of western monotheism. The old Hebrew priests began writing stories about Abraham, Noah, The Flood, Isaac, Saul, King David, and King Solomon building a Holy Temple in Jerusalem. These story lessons -- generously spiced with polygamy, slavery, and the stoning of non-virginal women -- are still with us today, known variously as the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and the Torah. While the Jewish religion agrees on one god, the idea of a “Son O’ God” is generally frowned upon.

The Roman Empire ruled much of the world from 750 B.C. into the 5th century A.D. They held pantheistic/polytheistic beliefs similar to the Greeks, and the gods of Roman Mythology Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, Pluto, Apollo, Diana, Cupid, Bacchus, Mars, Mercury – had duties identical to the Greek counterparts. (Note that poor old Apollo drew double duty.) In later years, the Roman Emperors/ Caesars were considered divine beings, gods on Earth. The Romans tolerated the Jews in their midst, but made them pay a tax just for being Jewish. But those newbies, the Christians, didn’t fare so well. A few were famously crucified, and many became lunch for the lions at the Coliseum. All this gaiety came to an end in the 4th century A.D. when the Emperor Constantine The Great converted to Christianity. This switch hastened the fall of the Empire and served as a tremendous endorsement of the Christian religion.

Another of the biggies, Buddhism, dates to 500 B.C. It’s similar to Hinduism and, like Hinduism, began in northern India. It’s based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, a.k.a. “The Buddha”. Buddhism is a spiritual philosophy with the goal of attaining Nirvana – the escape from everyday pleasure and pain; selfless enlightenment. There is no single Supreme Being or creator, instead numerous gods/goddesses. Buddhists also have numerous holy texts known as sutras or tantras. Oriental religions with Buddhist roots include Confucianism, Taoism, and Shintoism.

The history of Christianity began in the early 1st century with a charismatic carpenter from Nazareth named Jesus. At that place and time, the Roman Empire was still large and in charge. The Romans practiced polytheistic mythology, the Arab tribes in the region had their own versions of polytheism, and the Jews were doing their thing with Yahweh and the Torah stories. Most of those stories came from prophets, seers, and various other mystics and holy men. Back then, becoming a prophet was something of a career choice – if you told a good story, other people might give you some of life’s necessities. If you told a really good story, and especially if you could write it, your name and story might wind up in the Torah, and then you were golden.

Well, it turned out that this Jesus fellow could tell some simply excellent stories, different stories, the best stories around. More and more people showed up for his little talks, and in no time, Jesus became the #1 prophet in the area. Top of the Pops! He was a sensation, like the Elvis or Beatles of the visionary business. He would have had Facebook friends out the wazoo.

At some point, Jesus declared that his virginal mother was magically inseminated by God himself and he was therefore literally the Son O’ God, the Christ, right here, right now! Some of his advisers felt that Jesus might have jumped the shark with that one, but it seemed to make no difference. If anything, it made him more popular. Jesus had gone viral.

He had scant appeal to the Romans and Arabs. For the most part, they ignored him. The majority of his first fans were Jews. They found the message in his prophecies to be a little more user-friendly than the usual hellfire and damnation of the Torah/Old Testament. So the truth is that Christianity is actually a Jewish break-away sect.

As the Jesus-following grew and grew, the Romans finally started paying attention, and in the most paranoid and insecure ways. For some reason, they felt threatened. Eventually the Romans became so freaked-out and intolerant they felt the need to kill Jesus, and then persecute his followers and feed them to the lions for the next 300 years.

But the Christian movement would not be denied. Believers began writing down the Jesus stories in books and epistles (the New Testament), spreading the so-called gospel and soliciting more and more followers. And in the year 313 A.D., Constantine, Emperor of Rome and Byzantium, converted to Christianity. Rome at that point still ruled most of the so-called civilized world, so this was a truly Huge Friggin’ Deal – a stamp of approval which allowed Christianity to rather quickly become the largest, most influential religion in the Known World.

By 380 A.D., Christianity was the official religion of Rome and all the lands of the Empire. Soon after, Rome and the Pope had near-total control of the entire Christian/Catholic religion.

For the next 1000 years, Roman Catholicism dominated Christianity. For all practical purposes, being Christian meant being Catholic. Rome was the most important city in the civilized world, and the Pope was the most important person. During this time, the church exerted tremendous influence and authority over many aspects of daily life. The church controlled not only religious practices but social practices, governments, and schools. Virtually all law was church law. And the Top Cop overseeing the entire operation was Il Papa, The Pope.

The very concept of “The Pope” is a fascinating human construction. This guy (thousands of years and it’s still a guy) is supposed to be the holiest individual on the whole planet. He’s not God himself, but he’s sort of like God’s wingman. They’re tight, and hang out together all the time. The truly faithful believe that God talks to the Pope – literally talks to him, and often. And God doesn’t ever talk to anyone else. So when the Pope talks, he’s like God’s speaker-box – you’re getting it straight from the source, unedited. God’s voice on earth.

Back then, however, when the Pope spoke, relatively few people were actually present to hear him. Guttenberg hadn’t yet invented the printing press and most people were illiterate anyway, so he could forget the mass-mailing idea. So to disseminate all the pearls of holy wisdom which the Pontiff had gathered from his little chats with the Big Boy, the Catholics devised a hierarchical pyramid of underlings – cardinals, archbishops, bishops, etc. The “Word of God” went from the Pope on down the bureaucratic line like a verbal chain letter. By the time the holy message reached the end of the line, it was a classic case of I heard it from a guy who heard it from a guy who heard it from a guy . . . Thus the yokels in some tiny village of Lower Slobovia might believe they were hearing the actual word of God through their local sheep-fucking priest.

It’s instructive to note that this long era when the Catholic Church ruled much of the world is now known to history as The Dark Ages.


We’ll return to the Wide Wide World of Christianity in just a minute. For now, let’s touch on a couple latter-day pagan cultures, and then move to the last of the Big Four religions.

In Mexico and Central America, two Native American civilizations had their day. The Mayans existed from 200-900 A.D. and the Aztecs flourished from 500-1500 A.D. Both cultures practiced polytheistic religion. The Mayans favored nature gods while the Aztecs went with animal gods. Both dabbled in human sacrifice as well. How charming! Eventually, the Mayans died out all by themselves, and the Aztecs were wiped out by murder and disease, courtesy of the Spanish Conquistadors.

In 570 A.D., a guy named Muhammad was born in Mecca, in what is now Saudi Arabia. As an adult, he got into the prophet business just as Jesus had before. Muhammad traveled throughout the Arab lands, spreading his unique religious visions. Up to that point, the various Arab tribes were polytheistic, their many gods focused on earthly life. Muhammad went in a different direction. Borrowing liberally from Judaism and from the new-fangled Christianity, he spun compelling tales of his revelations about one God and the afterlife.

In one of these stories, he said he’d traveled on a winged horse to the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, prayed with heavenly prophets, then actually went to heaven himself, checked the place out and talked to God for awhile, then came back to earth. According to Muhammad, God’s name was Allah. In the tribal legends, Allah was just another one of the gods, nothing too special. But Muhammad said, no, there was really just one God and it was Allah. All those other dudes were just pretenders. Monotheistic, just like the Jews and Christians.

Muhammad’s revelations were recorded and became the Quran/Koran, a book of Holy Scripture, just like the Torah and the New Testament. And since Muhammad claimed to have been to heaven and chatted up Allah, he too was a virtual Son O’ God, just like Jesus.

We are, of course, describing the religion known as Islam. The word “Islam” means “submission to god”. Today, Islam is the 2nd most popular religion in the world.

Now it just so happens that the Jewish, Christian and Islamic religions all began in more-or-less the same small geographic area, with a great deal of overlap. All three feel they have historic and divine entitlements to this piece of real estate. They call it The Holy Land (Christians and Muslims), and The Promised Land (Jews), and Palestine (Muslims). These are just concepts, with no defined borders, but they essentially refer to modern Israel, the Palestinian territories, and parts of Jordan and Lebanon.

No place is the overlap of the three more evident than in that Venn diagram of religion, the city of Jerusalem, which is officially located in modern Israel:

• The Jews believe that Jerusalem was promised to them by God himself. This is why King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem on Temple Mount.

• For Muslims, Jerusalem is where the Al-Aqsa mosque is, located in the courtyard of Solomon’s Holy Temple at the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount. (How’s that for urban planning?) It’s there that Muhammad saw the prophets and went to heaven.

• Jerusalem is special for Christians because Jesus traveled there, spoke there, ate the Last Supper there, and was crucified and buried there.

With all this commonality and centuries of living and worshipping together, one might think that Jews and Christians and Muslims would peacefully co-exist and get along like peas and carrots. No such luck, bucko. Over there in the Middle East, nobody wants to play sharesies and it’s all just too close for comfort -- chafes like woolen BVD’s on a hot summer day.

Jerusalem illustrates one of the never-ending problems in all of religious history, that of zealotry -- the true believers with unshakable faith that their God, their Book, their Son O’ God is obviously, undeniably the only way to go, and anyone who says different is not only wrong and itchin’ for a fight, but also very likely evil. Religious zealotry breeds smug, self-satisfied snobbery and, at its worst, violence and war.

The good old Holy Land was the epicenter of the quintessential example of religious violence, The Crusades. Lasting from 1096 to 1291 A.D., the Crusades were a series of military campaigns pitting Medieval England and France against the Muslim Empire of the Middle East. It was all about power and control of the Holy Land, and control of the religious message. Both sides were convinced that God was with them, and the other guys were infidels.

You see, Islam had turned out to be pretty popular with the Arabs and in just a couple hundred years had spread like wildfire across the region. By the year 1076, the Muslims were feeling so spunky they captured Jerusalem and claimed it for their own. Naturally, this pissed off a lot of Christians who’d always thought of it as theirs. And so began 200 solid years of “holy war”: The Christians retook Jerusalem, and the Muslims took it right back again, and on and on and back and forth. The Muslims invaded Spain, the Christians invaded Egypt, and on and on and back and forth. Richard the Lion-Hearted. Saladin. God is great! Allah aqbar! Jesus! Muhammad! UNCLE!!!

Throughout the whole damn thing, the Jews kept a low profile and tried not to get themselves killed. “Oy veh! These meshuggina goyim momzers should go home already!”

And eventually, they did go home. And what had the Crusades accomplished? Not much. Things remained pretty much as they had been, minus a few hundred thousand dead holy warriors. And the “Holy Lands” are still a tinder box today.

We can’t leave the topic of religious violence without a tip of the old Papal miter to that long-running road show, The Inquisition – Roman Catholic tribunals held to discover and punish “heresy”. These tribunals ran rampant in Spain, Portugal and much of Europe from the mid-1200’s to the 1700’s. Eventually, the Church accused hundreds of thousands of “heretics”, who were tried, tortured, imprisoned, and often burned at the stake. The mentally ill and the disabled were frequently accused, as were those who didn’t attend church regularly and anyone of a scientific bent. Galileo was imprisoned by the Inquisition, Joan of Arc killed, and Jews were sitting ducks. “What? You don’t believe in Jesus? Light the fires!”

Tribunals were traveling show trials (the outcome was rarely in doubt) which were very popular and highly attended. They probably sold popcorn. With heart-warming terms such as the rack, torture chamber, and iron maiden, linguistic vestiges of the Inquisition are with us still.


And let’s pause here to touch on the subject of human sacrifice in religious history. The idea of “sacrifice” as something advantageous began long before the idea of religion. It’s a basic survival tactic dating back to early humans like Cousin Ugg. When eating a meal, Ugg and friends would sometimes leave some scraps for nearby wolves and other predators, figuring the beasts would eat that and not them. From there, you start believing in various gods and you leave them small offerings, hoping this will make the gods smile on you with good fortune. And when grapes, apples and loaves of bread don’t do the trick, you take it up a notch. Sacrifice a lamb. When that doesn’t work, kill a cow. And after that, it’s a short leap to . . . us! “Ugg, old boy, time to take one for the team. Remember, it’s an honor.” From ancient Incans and Egyptians to Abraham and Isaac to the Salem Witch Trials to suicide bombers, there’s no shortage of human sacrifice in the name of religion. How in the hell did this ever make sense to anybody? Holy shit!


Catholicism had almost total control of European Christianity for centuries, but by the 1500’s many churchmen were disillusioned by Rome, the Pope, and the Catholic Church. Many had concluded that the Pope was not God on earth, not God’s wingman, but just another guy in a dress and a funny hat. They were ready to break away from Rome. Today, we know this as the Reformation and the beginning of the Protestant movement. Martin Luther led the revolt in Germany. In 1517, he nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of the church in Wittenberg. (Jay Z had his 99 Problems, Marty L had 95 Theses.) This document was a combination bitch list and kiss-off letter – “Dear Pope, you suck 95 ways and we’re leaving you.” And thus was born the Lutheran Church.

In 1533, King Henry VIII broke away from Rome too. The King was pissed because the Pope wouldn’t annul his marriage. (Henry was boinking Anne Boleyn and wanted marry her, but was still married to Catherine of Aragon, whom he kept conveniently tucked away in the dungeon.) Henry solved his problem by making up his own church, which of course would grant him his precious annulment. It did, and he married Anne. His new church was the Church of England, a.k.a. the Anglican Church. And just like that, all good English citizens were supposed to be Anglicans, not Catholics. This is probably the only historical example of a new church forming just so one person could enjoy “church-legal” fornication. Surprisingly, it all worked out pretty well – the Anglican Church is one of the world’s largest Protestant denominations. But it didn’t work out too well for Anne Boleyn.

And it wasn’t all beer and skittles for the Anglicans either. They had hardly begun when the Puritan movement arose in 16th and 17th century England. The Puritans were upset with the Anglicans because, in their opinion, the Reformation hadn’t gone far enough. The Church of England was still too tolerant, still too much like the Catholic Church. Basically, the Puritans were dissenters and gadflies, lobbing spitballs at the Anglican higher-ups and provoking endless theological arguments. By the early 1600’s, many Puritans fled England and immigrated to the New World, most of them settling in the New England colonies.

Once over here, they were free to do the religion thing in their own "special" way. And the Puritans quickly became known for their strictly humorless views on sex, recreation, celebration, poetry, drama, gambling, drunkenness, etc. Bottom line, if you weren’t reading the Bible, praying, or on your way to or from church, you were probably violating a Puritan law, and you might be jailed, pilloried, or systematically shamed and shunned.

“A Puritan is someone who is afraid that someone, somewhere, might be happy.” -- H.L. Mencken

“Well, I hope and I pray for Hester to win just one more ‘A’ . . .” – Meredith Wilson

After a few generations, the Puritan influence dwindled and Americans became less, well, Puritanical. But most Protestant denominations -- Calvinists, Episcopalians, Methodists, Pentecostals, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Evangelicals, Adventists, Baptists, Unitarians, Quakers, etc. – have roots in the Puritan movement. In today’s world, just as it is with the various Catholic orders, there’s not a shred of significant difference between any of ‘em. But it must be said that the Puritans certainly left their mark on the world.

Missionaries tried to leave their mark, too. Jesus supposedly said, “Go forth and share the good news”. A missionary is someone who takes this suggestion much too literally. This urge to proselytize and convert the non-believers to your particular view is certainly not limited to Christianity, but Christians have always shown a real affinity for it. The earliest missionaries may have been the Jesuits who were sent to the New World in the 1600’s, where they found the Native American tribes to be a tough sell. The British colonial age of the 1800’s and early 1900’s was the heyday of the Christian missionary movement, with hundreds of well-meaning but clueless English clergymen setting up shop in African villages in hopes of somehow saving the souls of these dark savages.

(If we can imagine the language problem was magically overcome, the following exchange might have been typical.)

African: “Who are you, Whitey, and what do you want?”

Missionary: “I’m here to help you.”

African: “Good. Go shoot me a monkey. It’s almost suppertime.”

Missionary: “No, not that kind of help. Help with your immortal soul.

African: “The bottom of my foot? It’s fine, thanks.

Missionary: “No, no, no. Let me ask you, do you believe in one God?”

African: “Man, we got lots of gods around here.”

Missionary: “That’s wrong. There’s one and only one.”

African: “Oh yeah? What’s his name?”

Missionary: “His name is God, and only He can hear your prayers.”

African: “Tell it to the Lion King, dude. He better hear your white ass pray to him or else his lions gonna eat you up for sure!”

Missionary: “But my God is the only one who can get you into Heaven.”

African: “Into where?”

Missionary: “Heaven, where your soul can go when you die.”

African: “Around here, we take ‘em to the graveyard when they’re dead. And quit worryin’ ‘bout my feet!”

Missionary: “I’m not talking about your body, I’m talking about your soul inside you, your spirit.”

African: “Oh, my spirit! Now I got you. Yeah, I got a spirit, but it’s got other plans.”

Missionary: “Which are?”

African: “When I’m gone, my spirit’s gonna go deep into the forest and be with all the other spirits of my tribe and my ancestors, and all of us are gonna hang out with all the gods and we’re gonna hunt and fish and eat and drink and tell stories and dance and sing all the time. My spirit’s gonna be busy!”

Missionary: “But with my God, the one and only true God, you get to go to the one and only real Heaven.”

African: “And what’s so good about your place?”

Missionary: “Oh my! Everything! It’s . . . Heaven! You’re an angel with robes and wings and you live in the clouds. You play the harp. There’s a great choir. And best of all, you get to sit at the foot of God the Father Almighty.”

African: “There you go with that foot thing again.”

Missionary: “That’s not . . . oh, never mind. Sorry.”

African: “So tell me, this Heaven place, you can hunt and fish and dance and so forth?”

Missionary: “Absolutely! Anything your heart desires!”

African: “Hmm. Sounds pretty good. And all my ancestors and family can be there too?”

Missionary: “Well, that could be a problem. First they’d need to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior.”

African: “Who? As what?”

Missionary: “Jesus. He’s the Son O’ God. He came down from Heaven and said if you believe in him and his Holy Father, he will save your soul – I mean, your feet – oh crap, I mean your spirit, and you’ll get into Heaven. But if you don’t, you won’t.”

African: “Oh man, you’re confusing me now. You got a God and a Son O’ God and I gotta believe in both of ‘em, and if I do, I get into Heaven?”

Missionary: “Now you’re catching on!”

African: “But how can all my old ancestors and such get into your place? They’re already dead.”

Missionary: “That’s the problem I mentioned.”

African: “So I’d go all by myself, but all my old people would be together in a different place out there in the forest with all our tribal spirits?”

Missionary: “No, they’re not there either. That place is a lie. Doesn’t exist.”

African: “Say what?! Well alright then, Mr. Smarty-pants, where are all my old people?”

Missionary: “Probably in Hell.”

African: “What? Where’s that?”

Missionary: “It’s a place way down below. It’s where dead people go when they don’t believe in My God and his son Jesus. It’s full of fire and misery and eternal pain.”

African: “And you say my ancestors’ spirits are there ‘cause they never got introduced to this Jesus guy?”

Missionary: “Very likely.”

African: “And what are my people doing there?”

Missionary: “I should think they’re frying like bacon.”

African: “Oh-hoo-ha-hah! Oh man, you do talk some shit! You kill me! Where do you come up with all this stuff?”

Missionary: “It’s all in the Good Book, the Bible.”

African: “The good what?”

Missionary: “The Good Book. Holy Scripture. The Word of God.”

African: “What’s a book?”

Missionary: “Oh dear. Well, a book is a bunch of pieces of paper stuck together with writing on them.”

African: “What’s writing?”

Missionary: “It’s words and thoughts on paper.”

African: “Show me.”

Missionary: “Yes, yes, good idea. Here you go – look at this; it’s the Bible. Full of writing. See?”

African: “Hmm. And the scratching and marks in this Bible book are all about what you told me about your God and all that stuff?”

Missionary: “Yes. Does your religion have a Holy Book?”

African: “Of course not! Didn’t I just tell you I don’t even know what a book is? Why would I have something and not even know what the fuck it is? Moron!”

Missionary: “Good point. You’re absolutely correct. How silly of me.”

African: “Yes, it was. It was damn silly. And you know something else, Whitey? We’re all cool here and we never asked for your help. After careful consideration, we believe we’re all just fine and we don’t need your gods or your books or your heaven. You’re pale, crazy and dangerous. So, fuck the monkey dinner. We’re throwin’ your silly ass in the stew-pot tonight!”


A Small Sampling of Religious Wars (Excepting the Crusades)

Hindu-Muslim Borderland Conflicts – 715 A.D. - present. Fighting over territorial and religious control in Kashmir and the border region of Indian and Pakistan.

French Wars of Religion – 1562 -1598. French Huguenot Protestants vs. French Roman Catholics.

Spanish Armada Attacks England – 1588. Spanish Catholics vs. English Anglicans. Spain wanted to restore Catholicism in England and put a Catholic monarch on the English throne.

Thirty Years War – 1618 – 1648. German Protestants vs. German Roman Catholics.

Irish Conflict – 1600 – 1998. Irish Catholic majority vs. Britain and Anglican Protestants. Fighting over territorial and religious control, and for Irish independence.

Arab-Israeli War – 1948. The brand-new nation of Israeli vs. Arab coalition of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Jews vs. Muslims fighting over territorial and religious control of the “Holy Lands”.

The Six Day War – 1967. Israel vs. Egypt. Jews vs. Muslims fighting over territory. Israel took the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip.

Yom Kippur War – 1973. Israel vs. Egypt and Syria. Jews vs. Muslims fighting over territory. Failed attempt by Egypt to retake the Sinai. Failed attempt by Syria to take the Golan Heights.

Sri Lankan Civil War – 1983 – 2009. Buddhist majority vs. Hindu Tamil minority. Fighting over governmental and religious control.

Bosnian Civil War – 1992 – 1995. Serbian Orthodox Christian minority vs. Muslim majority. Fighting over territorial and religious control, and for “ethnic purity”.

Al Qaeda Global Jihad – 1990’s – present. Radical Islamic extremists vs. the world. Terrorist attacks meant to establish strict fundamentalist Islam throughout the Arab world, and to expel all “non-believers” from Arab/Muslim lands.

(This list could have been much, much longer. What does this teach us? That religious intolerance is a recipe for guaranteed violence.)


A Handful of Odd and Amusing Religious Sects, or “Go Ahead, Have a Vision”

Mennonites and Amish – A Protestant offshoot begun in Germany and Switzerland in the 1600’s. They work to preserve the culture and lifestyle of that era. Known for hats, beards, bonnets, and buggies. “Tonight thou shall party like it’s 1699!”

Two Amish jokes:

Q. What sounds like this? “Clop clop clop – Bang! – clop clop clop . . .”
A. An Amish drive-by shooting

Did you hear about the married Amish woman who took a lover?
She liked two men a night.

Shakers, a.k.a. Shaking Quakers “Twitchin’ the night away!” A Quaker splinter group formed in England in the 1700’s. Known for speaking in tongues, jerking and jumping for Jesus, and uncomfortable chairs.

Mormons – In 1820, a guy named Joe Smith had a vision in which he clearly saw that he, Joe Smith, was essentially a modern-day Jesus, and he was also a latter-day prophet of God and that he should write a book (The Book of Mormon) and he should start a new religion (Church of Latter Day Saints) and he should have many wives and hundreds of children. Other like-minded men said that last part sounded good, so they guessed they were latter-day prophets too. But other folks thought Joe Smith was completely nuts, so they killed him. Another guy named Brigham Young then led the Mormons to Utah, where nobody would bother them. They’re still there, with a huge Tabernacle and a famous choir. Otherwise, Mormons are known for producing a good quarterback (Steve Young) and a mediocre politician (Mitt Romney).

Voodoo – In the 1800’s, Haitian slaves created a mash-up of West African ancestor worship and French Catholicism. Bunches of demi-gods, and every other person is a “priest”. The core belief is fate, predestination. Bones, feathers, chicken blood, dolls with pins stuck in ‘em -- it all means something in Voodoo. A little rum helps. And for Pedro Cerrano of the movie Major League, golf club covers mean “Hats. Hats for bats. Keep bats warm.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses – In 1870, a guy named Charlie Russell had a vision. His vision showed him that Heaven would be reserved for him and 144,000 of his closest friends (the Witnesses), and for nobody else. The rest of us are luckless pitiful losers. While they’re here among us, the Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t vote, salute, fight, drink, or celebrate birthdays. They do ring doorbells and push their goofy Watch Tower pamphlet. Was that also part of Charlie’s vision? “I’ve got it! We’ll cold call door-to-door, and try to engage complete strangers in long, unwanted conversations about religion. Yes! A brilliant idea!”

Christian Science – In 1875, a woman named Mary Baker Eddy had a vision, in which she clearly saw that all modern medical practices were bogus, a sham, and that all true healing was spiritual healing. So the next time you’re in a car crash or you fall off a ladder, remember, it’s all in your head. Don’t call a doctor, just pray.

Rastafarians – Lots and lots of ganja convinces some Jamaicans that, quite improbably, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie is in fact the 2nd coming of Jesus. It also convinces them that haircuts are unnecessary. Wow! That's one hell of a vision. Must have been some righteous bud! “Don’t bogart that spleef, Mon!”

Black Muslims – In 1930, a guy from Detroit named Wallace Fard had a vision. He saw that it would be amusing and profitable to create a new religion, and be its leader, of course. He called it Nation of Islam. It’s an American-Islamic-black separatist movement, sort of, featuring serious guys in bow ties. (Nothing says serious like a bow tie!) Black Muslims don’t care for Jews, Christians, or white people in general.

Scientology – In 1952, a guy named L. Ron Howard had a vision that he could turn his half-assed self-help program, Dianetics, into a full-fledged, tax-exempt Religion with a capital R. Salvation can be yours . . . for a substantial fee. Tom Cruise jumps the couch!

Wicca – Practitioners of modern-day witchcraft. No, they’re not trying to eat Hansel and Gretel. Wiccans are harmless neo-pagans. They have many nature-based deities, and believe in magic and sorcery and symbols. “Hey, Wicci-Witch! Pentagrams are easy. How about conjuring up another Stonehenge? Go ahead, I’ll wait right here.”


Three Crazy, Frightening and Unamusing Religious Sects

These three are classic examples of a religious charlatan exerting incredible and fatal control over his unfortunate flock.

Heaven’s Gate -- (The cult, not the movie.) Founded and led by Marshall Applewhite, who believed he was a direct descendant of Jesus and was also from an “Evolutionary Kingdom Level Above Human”, i.e. he thought he was an extra-terrestrial. He convinced his followers that Earth was soon to be destroyed and if they wanted to evolve to a higher level like he had, they had to “leave” the planet. So one night in 1997, Applewhite and 39 others put on armbands which read “Heaven’s Gate Away Team” and committed suicide by drinking Phenobarbital and putting plastic bags over their heads.

Branch Davidians -- A Seventh Day Adventist splinter group made famous by David Koresh (real name Vernon Howell), who believed he was “God’s Final Prophet” and also the “Son of God”. Koresh and his well-armed followers set up shop in Waco, Texas, where he practiced polygamy with young girls. In 1993, searching for firearms and explosives, ATF agents raided the Davidian compound. They were fired upon and four agents were killed, launching a 51-day stand-off. It ended when FBI and ATF agents stormed the place and it somehow caught fire. Big fire. Koresh and 76 Davidians died.

The People’s Temple/Jonestown – The People’s Temple was a California cult of so-called “apostolic socialists” who left the U.S. for “religious freedom”. They established a communistic agricultural mission in Guyana, known as Jonestown, for its leader the Rev. Jim Jones. By 1978, almost 1000 Temple members had moved to this African Utopia. It turned out that Jones was a paranoid, drug-addicted control freak. He made everyone call him Father, and didn’t allow anyone to leave Jonestown. He tried to shut down all contact with the outside world, but Congressman Leo Ryan flew to Guyana to investigate. Jones had him murdered as he attempted to leave. The next day, Jones somehow convinced almost all his followers to knowingly drink poisoned Kool-Aid. Over 900 men, women and children committed suicide – the largest mass suicide in history.


Two Gigantic Assholes Posing As Men of God

A pair of pissant pussies. Don’t be like this despicable duo!

Rev. Terry Jones – A Florida preacher inexplicably fixated on burning the Koran. He threatened to burn the book, then backed off, then eventually lit the match and torched it. Fifteen minutes of fame and a ridiculous mustache.

Rev. Fred Phelps – Leader of a tiny Kansas congregation called Westboro Baptist. They travel the country demonstrating at the funerals of U.S. soldiers. They somehow believe that dead servicemen are God’s punishment for condoning homosexuality. Another fifteen minutes and a hate-filled, ridiculous brain.


A Pair of Local Religious Hucksters

Con men like this pair are a dime a dozen, and have long worked the preacher angle in search of suckers.

Rev. Leroy Jenkins – Delaware, Ohio. Televangelist, fake faith-healer, arsonist, tax-evader, and possessor of ridiculously artificial coal-black hair. Once “married” an 80 year old black woman with Alzheimer’s who had won millions in the lottery. Jenkins claimed she was his soul mate and it was true love. After 16 days of wedded bliss, a judge annulled the marriage. Jenkins didn’t get a cent.

Rev. Rod Parsley – Columbus, Ohio. Televangelist, arch-conservative author, leader of the World Harvest mega-church, homophobe, Islamaphobe, multi-millionaire with jets, yachts, and mansions. Despite annual revenues of $50 million, he regularly begs his flock for more money, insisting his “ministries” are broke. Rod of God proudly lives the lifestyle of the rich and shameless.


One Very Peculiar Local “Church”

In 1970, a pair of fundamentalist evangelical OSU students distributed flyers for campus Bible discussion groups. They spun this off into their very own tax-exempt, made-up “church”, which they called Xenos. Initially, Xenos had no precise location, just a bunch of informal groups they called “home churches” (literally someone’s house) led by “lay ministers” (i.e. everybody). Today Xenos is a mini-mega church with a large campus on the far north side, but they continue to rely heavily on these small home groups.

Their website used to lead off with, “We are not a cult,” (Doth we protest too much?) but they’ve taken down that part. The site says that Xenoids believe in the strict and literal interpretation of the Bible as God’s revealed word. (Didn’t William Jennings Bryan use the same phrase at the Scopes Monkey Trial?) It proudly states that one of their founding principles is that monetary contributions are never sought or required, yet Xenos nevertheless had over $2 million to spend in 2009 on “missions”, had a 2010 budget of over $6 million, and built the aforementioned big-ass campus.

I bring this up because, through a middle school friendship, my son John was partially involved in a Xenos home group. He began to spend a lot of time at his friend’s house, and was often invited to remain there when other kids and their parents came over. It was a Xenos home church. They invited Mrs. Gammons and me to join them – “Come over, have a glass of wine and learn about the Xenos lifestyle.” (Lifestyle?) We declined, but allowed John to be there with his friends.

On the Xenos website, you can learn that one of their main goals is “outreach”, especially “youth outreach”. They actively cultivate children’s involvement, with or without parents, in the hope of creating the next generation of Xenoids. And if they can reel in a few parents while they’re at it, so much the better. This is the “Joe Camel” school of religious marketing. Their site refers to their many home groups as “key entry points” – like a web is the entry point for a spider.

It was all fun and games for our son at first. He was introduced to a “cell group” of 6-10 boys about his age. (“Meet your new best friends!”) While the adult Xenoids spent hours one-upping each other with Bible quotations and interpretations, the kids just ran and played. At some point, they’d pause for 15 minutes while a young adult “lay minister” led them through “the teaching”. Then it was back to play time. In time, our son was invited to accompany the cell group on “retreats” – weekend camping trips with Xenoid-led Bible study. Oh goody!

Slowly, John began to see the Xenos “lifestyle” for what it is – one of missionary zeal; one of insularity and conformity that tries to isolate you from anything non-Xenoid. Adult or child, you go from one home group to another, from one retreat to another, and pretty soon your time is consumed by Xenos, your whole world is Xenos. All you really know are Xenos people. Xenoids date other Xenoids, marry and beget more Xenoids.

By high school, our son found other friends, developed other interests, and had gained some maturity. He saw less need for the Xenos program, and made it clear that he would make no commitment to it. (Sometimes the kid makes me proud.) In the eyes of his Xenoid friends, this made him a pathetic figure. They gave him a Bible, told him they’d pray for his soul, but otherwise washed their hands of him. They’re still his friends, but it’s different now. Which is fine.

And I’m happy to say that we never gave a single cent to Xenos. Pretty sure they can get by without our help.


My Own Personal History With Organized Religion

Like every human that ever was, I was born without a religious thought in my head. And almost immediately, my grandmother and mother set about correcting this flaw in my character.

I was made to learn little songs and prayers by rote, and recite them for various adult listeners. “Isn’t he cute?” I knew the words, not the meaning:

“Jesus loves me, this I know
‘Cause the Bible tells me so.”

(The Bible wasn’t telling me anything. I was 3 and couldn’t read.)

“Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

(What a great prayer – let’s scare the shit out of a bunch of little kids!)

It should be noted that, despite learning cutesy rhymes, mine was not an overtly religious upbringing. We had a Bible gathering dust somewhere in the house, we had no crosses or Jesus pictures on the walls, and we did not say grace before meals. Bedtime prayers were a mere formality. (The same was true at Grandma’s house, although she’d sometimes tune in Bishop Sheen on the TV and wouldn’t let me change the channel.)

One thing we did, however, was go to church. Neither my grandmother nor mother went in for holier-than-thou displays of public piety. But they both believed deeply in going to church. It was simply what one did. Regularly. They never told me what to believe. They told me only that I was going to church.

Age 5 – old enough to learn a little, not old enough to sit still and behave. Thus I was introduced to Sunday School, the minor leagues of the American church experience. At St. Luke’s Lutheran, Sunday School for little kids was held concurrently with the “real” church service. On one side of the wall, Mom and Grandma sat in the real chapel with the dark wood and stained glass, and the organ and choir, and the minister. We small fry were on the other side in the back-up chapel with the linoleum floor and folding chairs, the beat-up piano and some beleaguered church lady trying her best to control us.

Sunday School taught me the basic feel-good Bible stories: Three Wise Men following yonder star, the Good Samaritan, loaves and fishes, water into wine, etc. I also learned that Jesus was a blond-haired, blue-eyed white man, that folding chairs are hard as hell, and that the church lady has no sense of humor.

After the rookie league, we slowly made our way up the ranks of the St. Luke’s minor league system. We’d break off into age groups and go into separate little rooms with more church ladies. Then, as “older” kids (age 9? 10?), they had us come in earlier so we could first attend Sunday School and, after that, our parents could scoop us up and together we could attend the “real” adult service too. Wasn’t that like going to church twice in a day? Yes, it was. And it was around this time that I began to get a bad attitude about the whole thing.

With a few years of elementary school under my belt, I’d developed a respect for the sanctity of “The Weekend” – a time for sleep, play, cartoons, and wearing the nasty old clothes I wasn’t allowed to wear to school. Gradually, it dawned on me that these Sunday church services were messing with my Blessed Weekends. Not only did I have to get up early and dress in my uncomfortable “Sunday best”, all that time spent in church was carving a big chunk out of the last day of “my” precious Weekend. (Yes, I always appreciated the stop at Dairy Queen on the way home, but I could not be bought off with a simple Dilly Bar.)

I began a mostly fruitless campaign of Sunday morning whining, moaning and foot-dragging. “Why do we have to go every Sunday?” “If you let me stay home this time, I promise I’ll go every Sunday for the rest of my life!” I’d pretend to be sick. I’d pretend to be so tired I just couldn’t wake up. None of it worked.

One time, I got up really early, went to my little sister’s room, woke her up, and convinced her we could escape church by hiding from Mom. If she can’t find us, she can’t make us go, right? So we tip-toed downstairs, then down into the basement and turned off the lights. And there we huddled silently in some musty corner, in the dark, in our PJ’s, until our parents got up. As hoped for, they “couldn’t find us” until it was too late, and so – miracle of miracles! – we were allowed to miss church. In truth, we spent as much time hiding as we would’ve spent in church, but Mom admired our effort and cut us some slack. The hiding technique worked exactly once.

Every now and then, I’d attempt to play the “Dad” card. You see, I’d noticed a definite Sunday pattern: Going to church were Mom, Grandma, my sister and me; staying home was Dad. (Once upon a Lent, Dad had apparently given up religion.) Oh, he might go to an Easter Sunday service every other year, but that was about it. So, in frustration and with an endearingly childish belief in complete and total fairness, I’d occasionally try something like this: “Well, what about him? Dad never goes to church. How come he gets to stay home?” This never went over well with Mom. “Don’t you worry about your father,” she’d say. “He’s fine. You just worry about you. And right now, you are going to church!” Dad wouldn’t say a word. He’d just smile and wave as we pulled out of the driveway. Easy for you to smile, old man!

I accepted my fate – like it or not, I would spend my Sunday mornings at St. Lukes’ Lutheran Church. My attitude improved somewhat, and it wasn’t so bad. It would have been better had there been more kids my age in the congregation, but that’s not the way it was. For some reason, St. Luke’s ran heavily to blue-haired old ladies in orthopedic shoes.

My mother and grandmother desired that I not only attend church, but become an actual full-fledged member of the church. And around age 14, Catechism/ Confirmation classes were the dues I had to pay. Five or six of us neophytes met with the head minister for 3 hours every Saturday in his office. And this went on for 8-12-16 weeks, I don’t know.

We had Biblical discussions, took tests, wrote essays, and learned the rituals of the full Sunday service. We memorized things like the Apostle’s Creed (just in case anyone wanted to become an apostle). We swore allegiance to St. Luke’s, received a certificate and -- poof! -- became Official Members of the church.

One of the privileges of membership, if you were a boy, was serving as an acolyte, a.k.a. altar boy. (There were no altar girls.) This was supposedly voluntary, but perhaps the other boys were better at saying no than I was. In any event, I soon became the go-to altar boy at St. Luke’s Lutheran, working most Sundays, wearing robes, lighting candles with proper solemnity, and helping serve every Communion. (Lutherans are essentially Catholic-Lite: Just a dash of Latin, only the occasional kneeling, and instead of serving communion ten times a day, Lutherans do it once a month. With grape juice, not wine.)

I acolyted my way through high school and the experience certainly did me no harm. But once I was out of high school, my church days were done. I have not been a member of any church since 1972, and outside of weddings and funerals, the number of church services I’ve attended can be counted on one hand. And I’m happy to report that even with this deplorable record, I’ve yet to be struck by lightning.

Although I’m obviously not big on organized religion, I’m not anti-church. I have nothing against those who join churches and attend services, and I know plenty of people who do. It’s just not for me.

The wife and I do have some regret that we didn’t give our son some minimal exposure to mainstream organized religion. There is that phase of childhood in which identifying oneself – racially, geographically, religiously – is important. Our lack of involvement must have given him some awkward moments. “I’m a Methodist. What are you?” “Well, I’m a . . . uh . . .”

But other than that, I’m comfortable enough with my non-participant status.


So, Alfie, what’s it all about?

In Buster’s opinion, any honest assessment of the impact of religion on our world must conclude that it’s been a mixed bag, at best. All the good works and education and acts of charity are counterbalanced by persecution, war, greed, theft, torture, lies, predation and superstition. A case could easily be made that, on the whole, religion has done more harm than good. Yet it still retains some influence in human affairs and many people find benefit in religious thought and rituals, and in being affiliated with some sort of church.

Although I’m not one of those people, I retain a kernel of faith and a dash of spirituality. Some things are indeed mysterious, and some questions can’t be answered. Evolution and the Big Bang Theory and Science can satisfactorily explain just about everything, except the ultimate instant of “creation” – the very first thing, bit, speck, subatomic, infinitesimal whatchamacallit. How’d that get here? And so it is that my own puny personal faith is best summed up in the lyrics of an old Billy Preston song: “Nuthin’ from nuthin’ leaves nuthin’, and ya gotta have somethin’ . . .”

For me, the honest answer, the best answer to the Big Questions of existence and faith and eternity is, “I don’t know, and neither do you, and that’s OK.”

I don’t know that there is a “God” or that there isn’t. No one does. If there is or ever was a superior being or a higher power, it would be something beyond understanding, a force or energy literally incomprehensible to us. You cannot comprehend the incomprehensible.

If there is such a God-thing, it’s not an old man with a long beard up in the sky.

If there is a God, he/she/it didn’t write books.

If there is a God, it didn’t reproduce and send us the offspring. God didn’t have a son or a daughter or even a distant cousin.

If there is a God, it doesn’t intercede in our world in the slightest. God doesn’t cause or prevent natural disasters. God doesn’t pick sides in any contest. God does not take a hand and affect the outcome of anything. (I’m always turned off instantly by any award winner or victorious athlete who promptly “thanks God” or “gives all the glory to God” for their big win. Do they really believe that they are so special that God chose them and not the other guy? Astounding hubris!)

If there is a God, it is prayer-deaf. Praying is a human invention anyway. Crossing your fingers or asking the Wizard of Oz works just as well. And the idea that loud, constant, sincere prayers are more likely to “reach” God sets up an absurd cacophony and a losing game – “We’re sorry. We’re unable to act upon your prayer at this time. It was not sincere enough. Better luck next time.”

If there is a God, it’s most definitely not an “intelligent designer”. The duck-billed platypus and the male prostate gland are but two of the many examples which debunk that bit of nonsense.

If there is a God, it doesn’t need churches, temples, and tabernacles, and it doesn’t need money.

And God sure as hell doesn’t run an online dating service. “Discover God’s choice for you on ChristianMingle.com.” Puh-leeeze!

Boiled down, I guess I’m just a happy agnostic. That’s not to be confused with being an atheist. An atheist is certain that God does not exist. An agnostic thinks that any such certainty, one way or another, is impossible. An agnostic finds it difficult to believe in the essentially unknowable. An agnostic therefore says, simply, “I don’t know, and neither do you, and it doesn’t really matter.”

What matters is that we realistically deal with this world as we find it, that we do the best we can, and that we treat each other decently. Beyond that, who knows?


Imagine no religion. – John Lennon

When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. And that is my religion. – Abraham Lincoln

My biggest problem with organized religion is that it makes otherwise intelligent people say stupid things. – Christopher Hitchens

God has no religion. – Mahatma Gandhi

Whenever I pray to God, I seem to be talking to myself; therefore I must be God. – Peter O’Toole in The Ruling Class

Deep within the heart of every evangelist is the wreck of a car salesman. – H.L. Mencken