This time of the year, discussion in the YMCA locker room regards the Nebraska Cornhuskers football team. However, when I encounter Rodney at the gym, I’m likely, instead, to be challenged at some intellectual or spiritual level.
He greeted me as I entered the Jacuzzi to soothe my aching muscles. Then I asked Rodney if he enjoyed himself during his visit with family in Texas. He said his parents and siblings were healthy and he was happy to see them again.
Then Rodney told me his youngest brother had joined a church. That particular church is not the sort of church most people would expect to find in the Lone Star State, either. Rodney said that his brother’s decision to join a church surprised him, because his brother has always claimed to be an agnostic.
I asked about the particular church his brother had discovered. He said that it is the Freethought Church. Rodney said he even attended one of the church services with his brother.
I was astonished, I didn’t know that freethinkers had their own churches.
Rodney moved closer to me in the bubbling water, then asked, “You do realize that free thinking people do not classify themselves as agnostics or atheists, right?”
I confessed that I only knew a little bit about the Freethought movement. My investigation into skepticism had yielded a few sources of information about Freethought, but I had not followed up on any of it.
Rodney again brought up his brother’s agnosticism. His sibling is a shy, quiet, thoughtful young man. He likes to ride his horse in the countryside where he can commune with nature and think. The brother goes riding every weekend and any other times that are free.
My mind conjured up a vision of a quiet rebel character, sort of like James Dean. I told Rodney that I wouldn’t mind having a lifestyle like that. My gym buddy smiled and said he wished he could live like his brother, too.
What about this new church? What would attract an agnostic to church?
Rodney said the Freethought religion reminded him of the Unitarians, but had a basic difference. While Unitarians are open to unpopular, minority religious views, they elevate the tolerance of all religious opinions to a core part of their religion. Meanwhile, freethinkers have a different take on spirituality than Unitarians. They respect all people, but not all their beliefs. Evidently, Freethinkers utilize facts and reason more than conventional religions. It’s more about the why than the what.
I noted that the common notion of religion involves an organized institution that relies upon some sort of core set of beliefs. There are usually rituals involved, along with a hierarchical structure that includes some sort of governing board and some type of a priest or minister. These are all utilized to attain a particular version of an ultimate goal or
purpose for the believer’s life. Does this new kind of church work along these lines?
Rodney told me when he attended the church with his brother, that he was reminded of a “storefront” church. The sanctuary was furnished with folding chairs and a table and a small podium, much like a convention meeting room. The leader gave some announcements of community activities and a summary of the last few services at the church. The main feature was a speech by a visiting college instructor from Oklahoma. The topic of her talk was “The Meaning of Life”.
She asked the gathering whether they have authentic meaning in their lives. If they have found meaning, is it defined by some unknowable purpose of a deity or maybe a public figure or known authority? The instructor said that she found a deep meaning in her profession. She feels that teaching history to her students is a very meaningful way to spend her life. The students learn about human behavior and the pitfalls of civilization. Her profession allows others to discover ways to help make the world a better place. She notes that her students begin to understand that one way to improve the world is to not repeat the mistakes of the past.
The teacher then asked if they have a real hope for the future. Do they have sympathy for their fellow human beings? Are they living their lives the best way they know how? If they don’t understand something about their lives, are they afraid to say, “I don’t know?” What have they thought about these things?
Rodney said her talk concluded with a question and answer session with the gathered group of people. He said the experience made him feel stimulated. Even though the service wasn’t conducted like a normal church service, he felt uplifted and energized. The end result being that he and his brother understand each other a little better.
Rodney mentioned that Freethought Day was on the calendar for October twelfth and that he planned to spend some time in nature on that day. I asked why Freethought Day is celebrated on that date.
He told me that the day is related to that blemish on American history, The Salem Witchcraft Trials. In the 1690s the “good” people in Salem, Massachusetts got caught up in accusing one another of having harmed one another through supernatural, demonic means. Many people suffered through defamation of character and imprisonment. Several people were hanged, and at least one man was pressed to death. The accusations arose only because of alleged beliefs, hearsay, or nonconformity.
The hysteria went out of control, and nearly everybody was involved in one way or another. Finally, some of the more sensible citizens turned away from the proceedings as pillars of the community began to be accused. The Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor sent off a letter to the Privy Council of the King and Queen of England. William Phipps described the state of affairs that he found upon his return from his battles against the French. Phipps was disgusted with the witch trials and had them halted. The day he sent off the letter was October 12, 1692.
The reason for the October holiday is to remind the public of the dangers of superstition and to encourage people to challenge baseless traditions and claims; and to be skeptical of authority.
I told Rodney that the world has a long way to go regarding all of the ideals and practices he mentioned.
We both began to feel a little woozy from the heat and humidity, and the talk in the Jacuzzi room, so we headed to the showers.