That Day in the Electronics Store: My "Road to Damascus"

I was on my to the check-out at Circuit City (now defunct) when I glanced at "Blackstone," a fellow attorney I knew only by reputation, and then only that he practiced in one of my own fields of concentration, consumer law.  It is not a particularly lucrative field but it's a satisfying one, striking back at people who violate our state's consumer protection and deceptive trade practices act.  Most clients come in with a lemon auto on their hands, often a used vehicle, or a fly-by-night contractor took their money and did some work but walked off the job for reasons unknown to the homeowner. Most haven't enough money to mount a really good offense, so these cases are settled for less than what a jury might award. 

 

After a few words of introduction, I asked Blackstone what he'd been up to lately.  He said, "I'm actually taking a few months off."  I said, "Oh?"  He replied, "Yes, I am writing a book and doing a lot of research for it.  It's a book about religion and the law."  I muttered something about his project sounding "interesting," fully cognizant of the fact that this adjective says nothing and use of it is akin to describing Dom Perignon 1996 as "tasty."

 

And then Blackstone laid it on me.  He said he had chatted only recently with a mutual friend, "Hart," a Catholic who had told him something personal about me.  Hart had said I was an atheist.  I think I must have blushed.  What I said next embarrasses me to this day.  I think of it as Biblical in the sense of Thomas being told he would deny Jesus thrice before the cock crowed and, lo and behold, when the centurians were taking Jesus before the authorities after the arrest in the Garden, Thomas reacted with agitation upon the sight of soldiers parading his prophet through the streets.  When someone asked Thomas if he knew the prophet personally, he became acutely aware he, too, might be taken into custody.  So he said, "No, I do not know this man." 

 

My response to Blackstone was, essentially, a denial of my being an atheist.  It was the first and last time I did this.  And although my response, "No, I'm...more of an agnostic," embarrasses me to this day, at the time I actually believed I was an agnostic.  I felt that no one could say with authority one way or the other.  Just as there is no support for belief in a deity, there is no proof in his non-existence, either. It is an argument that literally cannot be won. 

 

In my defense, I was at the time (about four or five years ago) completely unaware of the movement in America among evangelical propagandists to convince Americans that all the founding fathers were Christian and that America is "a Christian nation."  These people begin with the phrase, in the Declaration of Independence, "endowed by their Creator," and claim that it is proof that the founders were Christian; then they twist and distort historical events to "prove" their point.  They've even got an unofficial "historian" in David Barton, a regular on Fox News (perhaps less so now that Glenn Beck is no longer employed there), a preacher named by Texas Monthly magazine as "the King of the Christocrats."  He is also a liar and a mountebank.  Barton's "scholarship" is so shoddy as to be downright fraudulent, such that Rob Boston of Church & State magazine characterized Barton's  writings as "rife with distortions of history and court rulings."  Clearly, Barton's agenda is theocratic.

 

I left the electronics store disappointed with myself, and in the ensuing months, I read books by Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens and realized I was not in fact an agnostic.  I did not doubt God, I simply disbelieved in the possibility of his existence.  After all, "atheism" does not mean "against God," it means "without" him.  The original Greek, atheos, meant "Godless," and those to whom the epithet was applied were not held in any particular disdain, atheism being seen as just as valid a belief system as one incorporating Zeus, Hera, and all the pantheon of deities inherent in Grecian polytheism. (Actually, I am also a bit of a theosophist, in the sense that I have spent many years studying religion, with more than the usual interest in pagan beliefs, and find all mythology fascinating.  But Mme. Blavatsky herself constantly emphasized her motto: "There is no religion higher than the truth.")  What I took away from all these atheist authors (as well as from Onfray, Dennett, Stenger and others) is that while there is no way to prove God does not exist, there is absolutely no evidence that he does.  Moreover, my training as a lawyer actually dictates that there is no logical reason to believe in God.  In the words of the appellate courts, there is not a scintilla (speck) of evidence in favor of the believers' position in the matter.

 

Later on, the state bar house organ, the Bar Journal, built an issue around the idea of Lincoln as an attorney, the contributors pointing out that Abe was a superb barrister, all the more so for encouraging his clients to settle with their potential defendants.  There was nothing in the issue about religion.  Yet, when the Journal came out the following month, the letters section carried a missive from an out-of-state subscriber claiming that Lincoln made the decisions he did, including the emancipation of African slaves "out of his love of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ."  I knew this to be false, that in fact, Lincoln, like Jefferson before him, held Christianity in low esteem and had even dissed religion in letters and comments to friends.  So I wrote the editor myself and pointed out as much, identifying myself as "a freethinker" in the text, but signing off in my real name.

 

Re-enter Blackstone.  A few months later, he wrote the local paper and said, in effect, that "separation of church and state is a myth."  By now, I recognized this as part of the evangelical Dominionist agenda, so I wrote the editor of that publication, pointing out that while it is true that the First Amendment contains no such wording, Jefferson introduced the concept in his writings, and that the Supreme Court has consistently applied the doctrine to prevent religious meddling in government and vice-versa.  Now I knew what area of "religion and the law" that Blackstone was researching, and with that came the realization that I had been speaking with the "enemy."  That is, Blackstone would not be harping on the "myth" of church-state separation unless he were an evangelical or, perhaps, a Catholic.  My chagrin with myself at having hidden behind the label, "agnostic," was, with this realization, exacerbated.

 

Today, my concern for church-state separation is a major preoccupation. I just hope that the next time I run into a Blackstone type who mentions the rumor I am atheist, I sincerely respond, "That's right.  I am."  Proud of it, too.  I won't go on being a Doubting Thomas, except to the extent that I doubt Jesus ever existed.  There is no evidence of that, either.  Not even a scintilla.

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Comment by James M. Martin on September 19, 2011 at 2:05pm
"Blackstone" was a pseudonym.  Now that I have assertained that this individual has a book out from a vanity press or small religious publishing house and that he directly assaults the First Amendment in it, I will reveal who he really is and suggest that you view his website, which has anonymous quotations from "critics" (yeah, sure). He is L. Scott Smith, and the site is: http://lscottsmith.com/  Given that he is a licensed attorney whose web site photo shows him in preacher garb, I wonder if he is a wolf in sheep's clothing, a sheep in wolf's clothing, or just a fool.  I report, you decide.

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