The making of a religious 'None'

A religious education can be a good thing, especially if it turns you away from certainties. For that I thank Seattle's Mount Baker Presbyterian Church.

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Knute Berger, Seattle's Mossback.

A religious education can be a good thing, especially if it turns you away from certainties. For that I thank Seattle's Mount Baker Presbyterian Church.

My Crosscut colleague, Tony Robinson, believes that religion ought to be taught in schools. I agree. There are many subjects that should be in the public school curriculum, such as the futility of empire, the science of warfare, the true history of Mesoamerican civilization, the basics of the law, and how to support a family and keep a marriage.

The idea is that a religious education would advance pluralism rather than any particular religion, and I agree with that too. In fact, in my experience, even the teaching of religion in churches has a way of eroding faith and increasing doubt, which I support.

I went to church at Mount Baker Presbyterian in Seattle, and my religious education began early (as a toddler I was a "dream angel" in a religious pageant). I regularly attended Sunday School, and my religious upbringing was shrouded in a single mystery: Why did my mother and sisters and I have to go to church on Sunday while my father got to stay home and watch football? Early on, I divined that something was fishy about a faith that allowed the patriarchs to opt out.

I know our church was involved in good deeds. We supported civil rights and open housing and had a wispy, gray-headed missionary in Africa who showed us slide shows of village life. But for the most part, we were apolitical on Sundays. My mother had taken me to a local Unitarian church for awhile, but she quit because of their anti-war politics. Church, she believed, was not a place for activism, something that had been an article of faith among her Midwestern Republican forebears (how anachronistic).

For my part, I was a bloodthirsty child. I enjoyed singing hymns like "Onward, Christian Soldiers" because the idea of fighting and crusading seemed to bring color to my bland sect's cheeks, as bland as the portrait of the white Jesus in our classroom who, other than for the fact that he had an unfashionable beard, looked as enthused and soldierly as an accountant, or interior decorator. Reading the Bible, I relished the blood, gore, and battles documented within. Religion, it seemed to me, ought to march to John Philip Sousa. In Boy Scouts, they gave medals for religious studies. Our scout troop met at my church and for a short time, I wanted to earn a Christian soldier medal to wear into battle.

Our church was very ecumenical, to the point where on some Sundays, our class would take field trips to other houses of worship. This seemed odd to me: Why give up Presbyterian air time to other faiths? We attended services at St. James Cathedral, a synagogue, and a Buddhist temple. We good Presbyterians were broad-minded, embraced pluralism and difference, appreciated faith in general, if not our own.

I came away impressed that other religions were more exotic, colorful, and robust, with incense and golden altars and mysterious languages. At Catholic Mass, one sipped wine and ate wafers that were the blood and body of Christ. At Mount Baker Presbyterian, they served us grape juice once a year and someone played a flaccid organ. These field trips convinced me that we suffered from spiritual anemia.

The minister would occasionally drop in for tea or coffee unannounced to talk about sin. My father would disappear and my mother would reluctantly tolerate a short visit. Just as she disdained political activism in church she also abhorred evangelism of any sort, including from door-to-door salesmen with Fuller brushes or Bibles. If the minister wondered why my mother was vaguely hostile, it was because anyone who dropped in unannounced has committed two deadly sins, salesmanship and a violation of propriety by not calling ahead. A home invasion by a man of the cloth was wickedness personified.

As I grew older, it was time to go to church one evening a week for the teen outreach program, which mostly consisted of hapless young divinity students trying to corral us into "rap" groups to address such hot '60s teen topics as "What is piety?" At this point, around the time young men like me began smoking like our Greatest Generation fathers, I slipped through the faith's fingers and adopted my dad's stay-home policy as well. I did choose a different brand of cigarettes, however.

My mother had wanted to give us a religious background. She was raised Congregational, indeed came from a line that had included fire-and-brimstone ministers like the Rev. Ebenezer Haseltine, the scourge of sinners in 18th-century New Hampshire. My father was a reluctant Lutheran. His mother, raised in poverty in rural Scotland, always had a soft spot for charismatics and gave money to Billy Graham because he was exciting like Elvis. She held firm to her belief that there were only two respectable professions for sons in any village, and that was to be a doctor or a minister. My dad was a doctor, so she selected minister for me. "My wee minister," she would coo with her Highland burr as she looked at me in my Sunday suit.

Like many young people, my disenchantment with the thin gruel of mainstream Protestantism led me to look at alternatives, but only half-heartedly. I have never found a faith that spoke to me more than looking at the Olympics at sunset or the fiery bark of a madrona at dawn. The closest thing I am to being anything is a Northwest nature worshipper, a "None" (for "none of the above" on religious preference) raised in the spirit of John Muir, who was a largely secular holy man, and a Scotsman to boot. A wee minister he was, though he rejected his father's fundamentalist faith.

For me, the religion in which I was raised seemed not too strong, but too weak. When I sit in a near-empty mainline Protestant church today, the only thing that surprises me is that anyone is there at all. My Presbyterianism seemed to fade as the ministers looked and sounded more and more like Mister Rogers. I can well understand the appeal of more muscular Christian churches, even those that preach a preposterous gospel of violence, selfishness, prosperity, and homophobia. They have energy. And if you look at the success of holy places and traditions, that is the one thing they have in common: juice.

As to the Pew test, I did well, getting 14 out of 15 right, putting me in the top 90th percentile, above even atheists and agnostics. Perhaps heathens and pagans are even smarter. As others have pointed out, those of us who belong to religious minorities tend to know more about other faiths because we've explored them, or have had to be more aware of majority viewpoints. I did read the Bible in Sunday school, and therefore know little of it. However I do remember my last church pageant performance: I was a fully clad Roman soldier in the Easter play. If there were to be no Christian soldiers in my church, I could relish the moment of wearing sword and sandals for Caesar.

I think Mount Baker Presbyterian did well by introducing me to a larger menu of spiritual options, including teaching me that I can stand up and walk out of the religious cafe without placing an order. That is why the teaching of religion in schools, as Tony suggests, should not be feared but embraced. The result is likely to be more understanding, more choice, and less blind certainty. Certainty has a religious sex appeal about it, but ultimately, doubt is made of sterner stuff.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.