Killing Audrey

Audrey must die.

My post on the self-confident SSS (Students for a Secular Season: fictional, I think) representative accosting a little black girl as she tried to drop some change in a Salvation Army kettle was a nuclear disaster.

A few ardent unbelievers have come to regard her as a folk hero and asked for her contact information.

A larger number of critics thought I had lost my natural theological sponginess and had taken secularism over the line into churlishness. (I am not Mark Twain so I will not follow with “and have joined the Salvation Army.”)

A few others thought it was “obvious satire,” but disagreed with its inobvious point–that atheists need to be more Christian in their giving habits. Note to some of my readers: This is called Irony.

I know that religion can get ugly. Not as ugly as politics, its natural twin for the better part of human history, but pretty awful. No one needs to remind me that the church has ignorantly done its bit to exacerbate poverty and disease, so forgive me if I remind you that the church did not create poverty and disease. It is darkly ironic (that word again) in a world where the state professes to care about people that the promoters of religious violence in Pakistan and Lebanon, the Taliban and Hezbollah, also run the most efficient social relief operations in those countries and do so because they believe their religion commends it. Now if they could just sign on to the Peace on Earth, Goodwill towards Men appendix.

But just as a pedantic point, Christianity has a long and fairly impressive record of cor ad cor loquitur–heart speaking to heart. The early Christians remembered Jesus having said radical things about giving: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. (Luke 12.33). True, he had a long prophetic tradition to draw on–for example, Isaiah 58: 6,7-10: “I have chosen…to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke… To share food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter. When you see the naked, clothe him, and do not turn away from your own flesh and blood …And if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”

The early church turned these traditions into what even Roman emperors like Julian (the last “pagan” ruler of a socially unglued empire) recognized as the distinguishing, if cloying, characteristic of the Christian faith: its conscience. “The religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1.27); or “If anyone has possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3.17-18). Saints ranging from Francis of Assisi to Martin of Porres and Vincent de Paul to Mother Cabrini, Elizabeth Seton and Louise de Marillac deserve, in their contexts, to be viewed as social justice activists, and many cared just as deeply about education as a way of climbing out of the conditions that made poverty and ignorance flourish. True, their church bureaucracy was not always so concerned and while they rang bells–the ancient symbol of being outcast and downtrodden or diseased–bishops prospered. But for many people until the rise of the secular state, charity did not begin at home because there was none: it began at the rectory door. Education, such as it was, at the parish school long before the state thought about getting into the game.

Elizabeth Ann Seton

Even critics of the early Christians found their charity remarkable, if also cloying. The second century writer Lucian tells the story of a particularly dodgy philosopher named Peregrinus who apparently decided that becoming a Christian teacher would be the quickest route to advancement among the yokel adherents of the new religion. He quickly “masters their books and writes a few of his own.” Peregrinus has no real interest in the doctrine of Christianity, but he does know that once you’re in, you’re in and that even the poorest converts will spend what little they have to help a teacher in distress. When Peregrinius finds himself on the wrong side of the law and is imprisoned for professing his faith openly, if insincerely, Lucian takes the occasion to tell us the following, half of it ridicule, half informative:

The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. Well, the end of it was that Proteus [Peregrinus] was arrested and thrown into prison. This was the very thing to lend an air to his favorite arts of clap-trap and wonder-working; he was now a made man. The Christians took it all very seriously: he was no sooner in prison, than they began trying every means to get him out again,—but without success. Everything else that could be done for him they most devoutly did. They thought of nothing else. Orphans and ancient widows might be seen hanging about the prison from break of day. Their officials bribed the jailers to let them sleep inside with him. Elegant dinners were conveyed in; their sacred writings were read; and our old friend Peregrinus (as he was still called in those days) became for them ‘the modern Socrates.’ In some of the Asiatic cities, too, the Christian communities put themselves to the expense of sending deputations, with offers of sympathy, assistance, and legal advice. The activity of these people, in dealing with any matter that affects their community, is something extraordinary; they spare no trouble, no expense. Peregrinus, all this time, was making quite an income on the strength of his bondage; money came pouring in. You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on trust, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property. Now an adroit, unscrupulous fellow, who has seen the world, has only to get among these simple souls, and his fortune is pretty soon made; he plays with them.”

Finally rejected even by the Christians, Peregrinus becomes a cynic (i.e., wandering) philosopher and ends his days around 165CE by igniting himself atop a funeral pyre in full public view. Had he stuck with the Church, he would have had the distinction of being the first Christmas light display.

It’s plain from Lucian’s story that shyster evangelists have always been the other side of the Christian mission; but that notwithstanding, so has this strange habit of actually caring about other people. Organized caring, mercy, and compassion have never (alas!) been much prized among the non-believing intelligentsia, and perhaps that is why they are in such short supply among atheists.

Bright doesn’t do compassion well. Think of Audrey. Now we’re getting somewhere.

At the risk of being outrageous, I think I know why people like me are so stingey. It’s because our concern for the downtrodden isn’t actually mandated by anything we believe about ourselves. In fact, thinking of ourselves as an intellectual minority is only possible because, truth to tell, smart, rich, good-looking, healthy and successful is the finite set we’d prefer to dim, poor, sick and useless. There is nothing in our life-stance textbook that explains for us why we should care about the second set, and the cleverer and more self-reliant and progressive we are, the more tempting it is to become slightly (how shall I say) Darwinian or at least Marie Stopes-ish about this. Let’s not mention Margaret Sanger; she did so much good in other ways.

Belief in a God who cares about you no matter how craggy your skin, crappy your life or your credit score is both the bane and benefit of religion when it comes to “philanthropy”–literally, love of human-kind. What your faith insists on is a human family where imperfection and disadvantages can be accepted within a context where human perfection, religiously speaking, isn’t possible. I know: it isn’t fair, and for an atheist totally irrational. But as a prod to loving your fellow human creatures great and small, irrespective of their girth and goodness, there is nothing quite like God to get you moving. If he can do it–and think of how rich he must be, and how much smarter!–then who am I to resist putting a few pennies in the old man’s hat at Christmas? It seems to me that you can reject this logic entirely and still enter into the spirit of the season without compromising your secularity.

But don’t take my word for it. My secret love, the Naked Theologian (a discreet UUA minister herself) recently commented that the whole “Good without God” campaign was based on the false notion that liberals and seculars were just as inclined to charitable giving as religious folk.

“Several studies have shown that American liberals—namely, those most likely to have little or no God, are least likely to give to charity. Hurts, doesn’t it? Where’s the proof, you say? Robert Brooks, who recently wrote a book, Who Really Cares, about charitable donors discovered the following (as reported by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof): ‘When I started doing research on charity,’ Mr. Brooks wrote, ‘I expected to find that political liberals — who, I believed, genuinely cared more about others than conservatives did — would turn out to be the most privately charitable people. So when my early findings led me to the opposite conclusion, I assumed I had made some sort of technical error. I re-ran analyses. I got new data. Nothing worked. In the end, I had no option but to change my views.’

Although liberals advocate on behalf of those who are hungry and homeless, Brooks’s data shows that conservative households give 30% more to charity. A Google poll puts these numbers even higher—at nearly 50% more. Conservatives even beat out liberals when it comes to nonfinancial contributions. People in the conservative states in the center of the country are more likely to volunteer and to give blood. But what about the relationship between having a God and being generous? Based on a Google poll (again, as reported by columnist Kristof), religion is the essential reason conservatives give more. And although secular liberals tend to keep their wallets closed, it turns out that religious liberals are as generous as religious conservatives.

Reading this made me re-think Audrey. If I had finished her story, rather than send her into her back yard where she fell down a well and drowned, it would have gone like this:

Audrey joined her SSS colleagues at Target. It was December 16th, and the group had a thousand bumper stickers to distribute to shoppers. Each one had a picture of a quarter, with the motto slightly altered to read, “In Good we trust.”

An old woman adjusted her shopping bags, took one graciously, inspected it, then handed it back to Audrey saying, “I think there’s a misspelling here.”

Audrey said, “That’s no misspelling. We don’t believe in God. We believe in good, get it?”

“Oh yes dear,” the old woman said unfluttered, “So do I. But that’s not what our money says, is it?”

Audrey turned around in exasperation. She was surprised to see the little girl and her auntie–the ones she had encountered at Walmart–standing at the card table, which had been draped with a banner that read “No God, No Problem: Just be Good for Goodness’ Sake.”

“I like these,” the Auntie said to Audrey, as though their previous interchange had never happened.

“They’re free,” Audrey said flatly. “But you’re welcome to make a donation to the SSS to help our efforts.”

The Auntie’s face took on an expression of concern. “Now do those efforts go to supply kitchens and shelters or buy medicine for sick folks?”

“No,” Audrey said, turning a suppressed sigh into a yawn. “We need fuel for the van.” “Uh-huh.” Auntie said looking first at the little girl, then back to Audrey as though they were the same age. “And where’s the good in that?”

4 thoughts on “Killing Audrey

  1. I attended our Parish carol service this evening; over these weeks thousands upon thousands of people will visit our church for the same reason, but they are people with connections to the City of London whereas we live and work in the parish itself.

    So tonight was for us, in the company of the shades of our rather more distinguished forebearers, and the mince pies and mulled wine thereafter only partially compensate for the stress induced by endeavouring not to stand on Milton, nor, for that matter, John Speed or even John Foxe.

    It may be ironic (that word again) that, as the Rector pointed out, there have in the past been sincere and wholehearted attempts at abolishing Christmas; were it not for Audrey’s abysmal ignorance of history she would realise that the people trying to abolish it, in a thoroughly sincere and wholehearted manner, were themselves Christians.

    The Puritans lost…

    • That sounds absolutely beautiful Stevie. I’m so glad the Protestants lost – frivilous holidays banned? You couldn’t stop Englishmen from being Englishmen and holding secret Christmas ceremonies. And look what happened to horrible Puritan Cromwell. They banned the holiday and instructed wine sellers to sell wine, but I was always a Cavalier anyway, and hid Charlie under the bed. (Of course I was there – I had Captain Marryat read to me).

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