Show your work!

Sr. Phillipa was a “tough but lovable” nun at Sacred Heart Elementary school. Unlike the other sadistic drill sergeants who regularly resorted to corporal punishment, I don’t ever recall Sr. Phillippa translating her disappointment in my behavior into a welt. This could be because she was enlightened, or perhaps it was because she saw some of herself in me. I always got the sense that, behind her stern instruction, she saw something in me that she enjoyed; some glimmer of herself, perhaps. She was my 7th grade teacher, but was heavily involved with me from 6th to 8th grade, as she single-handedly willed me to practice 2 hours daily for the annual spelling bee. She gave me a lot of breaks, but she pushed me very hard, too. She was driven to overcome my sloppy schoolwork habits and make me the best I could be.
I still remember the exasperated look on her face when she reviewed some rudimentary algebra problems on a math test. I had, as usual, simply written the answer. It frustrated her that I did the work in my head and did not follow and document the system by which I arrived at my answers. She lowered the paper, defeated, and took off her horn-rimmed glasses, letting them dangle from the chain around her neck. “Mark my words, Robert: One day you will pay for not showing your work! You can get away with it for a while, but one day you will pay!!”

This vision came back to me as I read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir, “Infidel.” This no-holds-barred story recounts her transformation from a devout Somali muslim to an Enlightenment liberal, atheist, Dutch parliamentarian, advocate for free speech and women’s rights. Deep in the layers of childhood memories I could see she was “showing her work.” I’ve often struggled with the question, “How did I manage to escape my childhood ‘exposure’ to religion?” What is the magic moment that allows such a change? As I read her story, it became clear that understanding her transition required full understanding of the long process it entailed. If I am ever to adequately explain how I managed to go from Z to A (zealot to atheist) I am going to have to show my work. I am going to have to detail the slow, methodical process that led me to the answers I now put forward.

Sr. Philippa was right. I regret not showing my work sooner; not only because the memories aren’t as fresh as they once were, but because it is clear that people need more stories like Ayaan’s and mine to help them understand that there is a life beyond childhood indoctrination; beyond belief.

There is no room in the market for angry atheism. If breadth of coverage alone were not enough, the topic becomes stale on its depth…Thomas Paine, in “The Age of Reason” was making most of the same arguments being made today. Surely Voltaire and Socrates voiced similar proofs against the “fact” of God, but we are left nonetheless with the fact of religion. In fact, after reading Jennifer Michael Hecht’s “Doubt: A History,” there can be no doubt that the scholarly work refuting claims of a personal God has been done. No evidence supporting the claim of a personal God stands unscathed; The proof for the claimed entity’s existence is the responsibility of those claiming He exists. This truth is out there, widely disseminated over centuries, and yet we still have a vast majority of people clinging to religious myths to make life bearable. So what can I add to the discussion? A breaking point. A way out. An example. A few laughs. A few cries….

Copyright 2008, All Rights Reserved.

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