The first Burleigh arrived on the shores of the New World sometime in the 1840s. He left behind Ireland, with its potato famine, and its long history of bloody religious strife . He also, apparently, jettisoned his own religion. Four generations of Burleighs later we have no trace of the ancestral religion, presumably Protestant or Catholic. The forefather seems to have left his Bible, if he had one, in the Emerald Isle.
The stateside Burleighs didn't just have no religion. They actively rejected institutional religion, and I often wonder whether this trait didn't originate with the man who fled a country where people still blow each other up over theological dogma. No baptism, no family Bible recording the births, deaths and marriages. My grandfather actively despised churches. By the 1970s when I was growing up, the fourth-generation Burleigh was telling the fifth-generation Burleighs that they were free to decide for themselves whether God existed when they were "old enough" to go to church on their own. Churches were anthropological curiosities. I can count on my fingers the number of times I actually sat in a pew during my childhood.
We were not so a-religious that we didn't have Christmas, though, which makes us, I guess, culturally Christian. We celebrated Christmas with a tree and Santa, we learned the Christmas carols, and someone - the friendly Mennonites who routinely proselytized us probably - even snuck advent calendars into the house during the season. We knew the story about the baby Jesus and the virgin birth.
Fast forward a few decades. I found and married in a secular ceremony a man whose religious upbringing nearly matched mine. My husband has actually spent less time in church than I have. His father is geologist, and committed atheist. He actually threatened his son with a spanking for stepping into a church once.
One might assume that things don't look good for our children's spiritual training.
Not so fast.
After my son was born, I got to thinking that it might be nice to at least expose the child to the inside of a church at Christmastime. We had been spending Christmases in a house in upstate New York. The river valley was filled with picturesque white steeples. One afternoon, I picked out the nearest steeple and made for it, thinking to tour the inside with my boy and prepare him for a visit on some Christmas morning. We opened the big wooden doors and he was instantly enthralled. The arched interior was indeed all that I had imagined. Sun streamed in through stained glass, casting colored shadows on the pews.
Stepping into the vestibule, stacks of pamphlets piled on the shelves caught my eye. On closer inspection, they turned out to be urging parishioners to contact their lawmakers about fetal rights, gay marriage and other favorite fundamentalist issues. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I gathered up the toddler, who was fascinated by the place and didn't want to leave, and scurried back into daylight.
Evangelical Christians reading this may be mopping their eyes at the image of that tiny lost soul, snatched away just inches from salvation. As they should. I respectfully ask them to consider just how their offensive politics have made it impossible for people like me to even be culturally Christian anymore.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece praising Sam Harris' book, The End of Faith, which proposes radically secularizing our society - getting God out of Christmas, as it were Some readers agreed with me, and some didn't. I found the disagreements most edifying.
One reader wrote that I had "insulted" him when I called his belief system "mythology." This man and I exchanged a few private emails, which grew progressively politer, as things tend to do when people agree to disagree using words not weapons. I told him I didn't understand why he felt "insulted" by my opinion. He responded that his belief system was so much a part of him that my calling it "myth" was not just an opinion but a very intimate kind of attack. He didn't convince me that I was wrong, but I did feel I understood him a little better. In the spirit of increasing the number of such exchanges, I would like to make a modest proposal. It is difficult for me to do this, because I really, really don't like the pious moralizers who put W back in office in 2004 just to keep their idea of marriage sacred. At one time, I was ready to sign onto an idea proposed by a particularly exercised friend of mine who, after election 2004, suggested a "Days of Rage" campaign in which liberals would band together and ride into Red-State towns, waiting for the first intolerant comment. The Rage-ers would beat the shit out of the offender, then hop in their cars and move onto the next town.
As viscerally satisfying as that sounds, I have a more nonviolent suggestion for secular Americans who worry about the pod people taking over our country. After the last Presidential election, it should be obvious that religious right-wingers must be deprogrammed. Who has the time, the infinite loving patience, the energy for such an epic task? What I propose is that the centers of learning in this country organize missionary teams, made up of fresh-faced, inherently non-threatening young people. In the interest of the nation's future as a secular society, these students will agree to pair up and devote a few months of their young lives going door to door in exotic far-flung corners of Red States bearing brochures from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, and other more local centers of humanist endeavor. They will talk about humanism and maybe leave a copy of the Bill of Rights. Like the Mormon teens from Utah who wear black suits and go door to door in the ghetto, these kids from Cambridge, Providence, New York and New Haven would have to be very brave, but the cause is worthwhile. Such exchanges can at the least help us learn to talk to speak their language. And who knows, maybe some conversions will result - to our side. As the religious institutions have always known, we can only win one soul at a time.