(Written in 1956; posted by Daniel P. B. Smith
on Mother's Day, 1998)
Additional indexing terms: agnostic, agnosticism, atheism, religion, freedom of religion
by Elinor Goulding Smith
It is a long time since I have heard anyone say,
out loud and unafraid, "I do not believe in God." It frightens
me that we need be afraid.
As I was born in 1917, I did a good deal of my growing up in the roaring 'twenties, which, as I was very young at the time, seemed a good deal less roaring to me than to some other people. If there was bootleg gin in the house--and I am sure there was--I was tucked in bed long before anyone drank any of it. And if my mother's skirt came only to her knees and her hair was bobbed, still after school we went roller skating or played hopscotch in the park, supped early on things like lamb chops, baked potatoes, and buttered carrots, and were bathed and bedded down by eight o'clock. My sister and I wore brown coats with beaver collars and wide-brimmed beaver-felt hats with long streamers in the winter; navy blue coats and navy blue, wide-brimmed straw hats with long streamers in the spring.
We toed the mark. Home work was done. If it was not of a neatness to suit my father (who was an engineer and thought blueprints a good standard neatness) it was done over. If either of my parents had ever heard us say "Gosh," we'd have had a tongue-lashing that would have kept us from saying "Gosh" again for a long time. We curtsied when we were introduced, stood up when anyone past twelve entered the room and I believe that had either of us ever been late for school, my father would have sent us out into the night, never to mention our names again. Report cards showed lettered grades for Effort, Proficiency, and Deportment. Proficiency could drop as low as B+ if we had missed a great deal of work because of illness. To this day I cannot think, because it is unthinkable, that either of us might ever have gotten anything but A in Effort or Deportment.
In that (I have been told) mad era of wild drinking and lawbreaking, home was an island of Gemütlichkeit, snug and secure. We knew what was right and we knew what was wrong. Above all, we were taught from the beginning, if we did right and told the truth, nothing could ever harm us. It was a thought as comforting as a loving arm about your shoulders.
We were--still are--Jews. That is, we are Jews by race. When it comes to religion, I don't know just what we were. But whatever we were, we were taught to respect other people's religious beliefs, and that--no matter what our parents believed--we were free to believe what we wanted when we grew up. My grandfather on my mother's side was an atheist, and my mother is, I believe, more or less an agnostic herself. My father grew up in a more religious family, studied Hebrew and was bar mizvahed when he was thirteen like all good Jewish boys. Yet even he cast off most of his religious beliefs in adult life. My sister and I were sent to Sunday school on the grounds that we had to learn something of Jewish history and customs. We learned little. When I was twelve, I was confirmed along with the other children of my class because I thought my parents wanted it. As I stood at the altar of the synagogue in my white dress, waiting for my turn to make my speech, I looked around me and I thought, quite simply, that the whole thing--was utterly meaningless to me, and that I, having now completed this foolish thing, would never again set foot in a place of worship.
I never have.
After my confirmation, when I told my parents how I felt, they both agreed wholeheartedly with my feelings and said that, had they known how I felt, I needn't have been confirmed at all. Not that the confirmation was anything much to go through. We wore our white dresses, and the boys their dark blue suits, and we made our little speeches that somebody else had written for us, and the rabbi made his speech and said that we were all grown up now--which fooled no one--and blessed us, and that was it. What troubled me about it was that it made me feel dishonest, and I had been taught that honesty was important and good.
As it turned out, even though we had the same upbringing, my sister does not share my feelings or beliefs on this subject. She goes to temple (on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) and sends her children to Sunday school. It would never occur to me to criticize her for this, although I cannot understand it, and if she were to criticize me for not going, I would be justifiably furious. For in the roaring 'twenties, when we were brought up, it was clearly understood that people's religious beliefs were their own affair.
All through the 'twenties, while we were in the New York City public schools, not only were we being taught to keep our fingernails clean, tell the truth, shine our shoes, and brush our hair, we were also taught that America was the greatest country in the world. We were taught this at school and at home. We were taught that this was so, not because we had more iceboxes and bathtubs and automobiles than the people of other countries, but because in our country our Constitution guaranteed to us certain things as stated in the Bill of Rights. We were taught that worship of God was a private, personal matter, and that the separation of church and state was vitally important to our freedom. This separation was carried out fully in our schools. We learned reading, writing, and arithmetic, and plenty of grammar, but when it came to religious instruction, that was left to the parents to attend to outside of school hours.
We said the pledge of allegiance every morning, and what we said was, "I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." I think those are pretty fine words. It had a certain grand cadence, too. Later it was explained that it was felt (by whom I can't imagine) that you could be saying those same words but secretly meaning the flag of another country. So the words "of the United States of America" were added just after "flag," thus spoiling the rhythm.
What puzzled me was, if some child felt a secret allegiance to some other country for some unimaginable reason, would saying "the flag of the United States of America" make him feel differently? If his parents came from Italy or Germany or Ireland, didn't they very likely come because they wanted to, as my grandparents and great grandparents had? And did they not, therefore, probably think this was a better place than the one they went to so much trouble to get away from?
But much more important, if they did like Italy or Ireland better, was that a crime? I can imagine myself living in another country, and being a good citizen of that country, but still loving my own best. If you don't break the laws of your new country and you earn a living and pay your taxes, why can't you think the old one is a better place to live? Later still, either during or just after the war, the words "under God" were added to the already overburdened pledge, and I took a dim view of this. Of course I do not have to say the pledge of allegiance any more, but my children do.
As the years went by, my feeling; about religion crystallized, and luckily I was married to a man whose ideas on religion are the same as mine. Our failure to go to temple or to send our children to any sort of religious school is not a failure. It is not a negative thing that happens out of carelessness or laziness. It is a positive thing, arising out of deep and serious conviction, and it is as important to us as any religion could be to a religious person.
We teach our children to love, to try to be honest and truthful, to try to help others without self-aggrandizement, to try never to hurt another, to feel a sense of responsibility to society, and to respect other people's concepts and ideas, not only about religion, but about ways of life. More important, we try to teach them that they will go wrong sometimes, they will make mistakes, they will do things that will hurt others. There will be times when they won't sleep because they hurt someone's feelings. Because we are human beings, and we must forever try, and forever fail, to attain perfection. And when they make a mistake, they and they alone will be responsible for it, they and they alone will punish themselves for it, and they and they alone may or may not forgive themselves. We know this is a hard way to live. We think it is a good way. Indeed, we think it is the only way.
But I will not teach them anything I cannot believe, and I will not teach them any ritual which scents to vie as senseless as knocking on wood when you say you haven't had a cold for a long time.
We teach our children that other people have other beliefs that are their own business, and we don't go around saying, "You're stupid to go to church," or, "You're stupid to believe in God."
I expect the same courtesy and consideration for my sincere convictions that I give to others. And in 1956 I don't get it.
Now we go back to the roaring 'twenties, when people were supposed to be so wild and unthinking. Wild they may have been, but there was far more freedom of thought then than we have today. Nobody questioned agnostics or free thinkers, or used the word "godless" as a word synonymous with "evil" and "antisocial." Now, in the not-roaring 'fifties--with no bootleg gin in the houses, no gangsters in Chicago, no Charleston, no flappers, w,hen nearly everybody cheats on his income tax and the gangsters are kids instead of adults--my children are pressured from every side to do something contrary to our beliefs.
The television programs tell them to go to church on Sunday, ("and take Dad and Mom, too"). I don't think television programs should teach our children what they should do about religion. I think my husband and I should teach our children about religion. I think we are the only ones who should teach them about our beliefs. The day I need a television puppet or clown to tell my children what's right and what's wrong, I'll bow out as a mother. In the same breath with the plea to go to church, these same television programs are preaching the most blatant materialism--"Ask your mother to buy you..." "Ask your mother to get..." "All the kids have..." "Don't you wish you had..."
In our public school a teacher reads to the class from the Bible in the morning. I don't object to my children reading the Bible. I have read it--both Old and New Testaments--myself, and encouraged the children to read it. Parts of it I read for its majestic prose, parts for its historical interest, parts for the fearsomeness of its antiquity and its crude, raw primitive code of ethics, and parts because they're good stories. At no time do we read it as a revelation from God. When it is read to my children as a Testament, the direct word of God, it is an infringement of personal freedom.
One year at Christmas time, one of my children came home and asked me if it was true that the infant Jesus could do magic. His teacher had read the class a story about how Jesus turned a black lamb white. (And incidentally, I shuddered at the idea that white is a better color than black, and was glad at least that there was no Negro child in the class.) This again, I submit, is an infringement of our great American concept of the freedom of religion--which I do not interpret as meaning, "freedom of religion for everyone but agnostics. You can have any you like, but you gotta pick one." My children played occasionally with a child whose father is a minister. They don't go there any more because every time they did, he told them they should believe in God and go to church. When his little girl came to our house, the subject of religion never carte up. Why would it? I assume that her parents try to teach her what's right. Why can't her parents make the same assumption about us? The point is, if we had a religion that had a name to it, Jewish, Mohammedan, anything, they would make that assumption.
The word "godless" has been applied, unthinkingly, to Nazis, Communists, all kinds of evildoers. The word is wrongly used. The Nazis, the Communists, the Fascists were in no sense "godless." They merely substituted a new and different "god" for their old one. Hitler was worshiped, Stalin was worshiped, power and the state were worshiped. The only truly godless people are those like ourselves, who worship nothing.
People of different religious faiths ask how we arrived at ours and why. We don't ask them how they arrived at theirs, or why they happen to believe in the particular God they believe in. They would be astonished if we did. And I am astonished when they ask me.
I cannot believe that my husband and I are all alone in the world. Surely, among the 160,000,000 people in our country alone, there must be others who have come to the same conclusions and beliefs as we, who would welcome a return to a true religious freedom.
The other day when we were discussing this subject with our children, I heard myself saying, "I wouldn't talk about this anywhere except at home," and instantly was horrified and wondered for a minute just where I was living. Yet we do have to caution our children about this.
I don't want a return to bootleg gin and flappers, particularly, but I do want the freedom to think and believe in the way I find right, and I want the freedom to raise my children in my own beliefs. I speak in what I fear is a lonely voice for a return to a real respect for one another's beliefs--or disbeliefs.