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Religion is Like The Letter People

by Gip Plaster on August 9th, 2010

When I wrote the post “Atheism and Spirituality Are The Same Thing” for David Damron’s The Minimalist Path last week, I expected some controversy. As of the time I’m writing this (on Saturday afternoon), however, I really haven’t gotten as much of it as I was expecting.

The responses were typical. One or two religious people defended their religion in the comments sections, and several supposed atheists disagreed with my characterization of atheism as sometimes being a reaction to religion. (While that isn’t always true, my post was a response to a previous post by David on The Minimalist Path that indicates his decision to become an atheist was, in fact, after a religious upbringing, so I think I got that right.) And one spiritual person sent me an email of encouragement.

I was accused of being out of my depth, but I’ve been writing about spirituality for a long time, and I find the subject both challenging and comfortable, so I’ll be continuing to write about simpler spirituality. There is lots of room to explore when you’re in deep.

As my regular readers know, I’m a spiritual person who is no longer constrained by religion. And David at TMP says he’s an atheist after growing up in religion. It’s not surprising that a post that mentions spirituality would ruffle a few feathers on a blog run by an atheist. I’m a bit surprised that David agreed to run it, but I’ve been reading and commenting on his blog for a long time, so I know he doesn’t mind a bit of controversy.

My post on David’s blog is intended to express my agreement with his idea that things work out better when we pray less and do more, and I think I state that clearly.

Atheists and spiritualists aren’t opposed to one another as some of the commenters on David’s blog would like. We have many of the same ideas about personal power and responsibility.

Simpler spirituality is the answer for all of us. Whether we’re denying the obvious existence of a unifying presence in the universe or creating religions that make rules to limit our interaction with it, lots of us are overcomplicating a very simple concept.

Mister S

But what’s this about The Letter People?

Do you remember The Letter People? If you went to elementary school during certain years and in certain places, you learned about the alphabet from a bunch of blow-up dolls intended to represent the letters of the alphabet. (They were actually redesigned to do a better job of that than they did when I was in school. There was even a television program, but they never told us that when I was in school. You can learn all about them at Wikipedia.)

An idea for a post about the Letter People and their similarity to religion has been floating around on my desk since I started this blog. Now, it’s time to finally say this: The Letter People, like religions, are for beginners.

Mrs. Davenport, my kindergarten teacher, spent a lot of time teaching her students the alphabet using The Letter People. “Mister B has beautiful buttons…” and “Mister D carries delicious doughnuts…” That sort of thing.

When I moved up to first grade, Mrs. Meier didn’t have any dolls, but she had drawings of The Letter People taped over the chalkboards around the room. And she told us a story: During the summer, it seems, Mister Q and Miss U got married. While Miss U often still goes out without her husband, Mister Q never — I repeat never — goes out alone. She had a few other similar bits of gossip about The Letter Family as the year went along.

There’s just one problem: Her little story about Q and U isn’t really true. As any schoolchild with a father in Iraq — or a friend named Tariq — knows Mister Q gets around a little on his own. True, he only goes out with foreign words, but it must be just as damaging to his relationship as if he were going out with American ones.

Miss Meier’s story attempted to build up a mythology around these two letters to make understanding them easier. But as the mythology reaches the situations on the edges, it fails. Religion is, almost by definition, mythology, and it will eventually fail most people.

Religion is a good way, perhaps, to teach some basic concepts of life, but if your life is like mine and falls outside some so-called norms, religion will fail you. Atheism and spiritual are both responses to this. And they’re both better than another common response — the spiritual and emotional void left by simply going through the motions rather than living an examined life.

I grew up in a moderately liberal Christian church, then I join even-more-liberal churches as an adult. They failed me as I outgrew them. Their narrow-minded righteousness annoyed me and their unenergetic methods of presentation bored me. Because I’ve seen evidence of God, being an atheist wasn’t an option. I reacted to religion by moving beyond it.

I don’t use The Letter People much in daily life. Mrs. Davenport and Mrs. Meier were both dedicated teachers with very different but very effective styles. They probably did the right thing by putting their dolls and drawings between me and the real knowledge of language I was supposed to be learning.

But I grew up. When I abandoned the narrow lessons of The Letter People, I learned the lessons of other style books and manuals that purported to exemplify and control language.

Now, I’ve moved beyond everyone’s rules. I have personal experience that guides my decisions, and I do what I think is best in today’s situations.

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12 Comments
  1. Joshua Noerr permalink

    For me Gip, religion is people shutting off their thinking mind, and going with only their feeling mind. That’s just me.

    I suppose what seperates me is that I truly believe their is room for all beliefs, so other’s opintions do not offend me.

    Cheers!
    Joshua Noerr recently posted Engage In Your Own Life

  2. Religion will always fail as it is a man made concept that relies upon a works program to appease the conscience and denies the gifts of God.

    I have met a lot of deeply spiritual people who have moved out of the traditional religious gatherings for want of a better place of understanding. The pity is that the leaders of ‘religion’ are so blinded by what they think is right even though it is hollow and of no benefit.

    Going through the motions does not cut it with me. I would rather be an atheist than religious.
    Andre recently posted Comment on Technology- Crutch or Charm by marius

  3. Joshua — That’s the right attitude, I think. There’s nothing wrong with taking action based on feelings, but I prefer to consider both my feelings and my rational reactions. It’s funny how people get their feathers ruffled when you talk about spirituality. In that situation, atheists have more in common with religious people in being against both more modern and more ancient spiritual paths.

    Andre — Yes, I think religions will always fail. An examined life has no room for the silliness and dogmas of religion, but I do see some value in religion as a way of teaching a concept of God to beginners. I’m not sure how that all fits together, however, or how to successfully transition out of religion. It doesn’t end at a set time as other formal education usually does.

    Keep those comments coming!
    Gip

  4. Hi Gip,
    I read your post at the minimalist path and I was so impressed I came over here to read more of what you had to say. I was so pleased to see this response this morning and I just want to print it and paste it somewhere to read it over and over again. You have hit the nail square on the head for me with this. You and I have exactly the same opinion and Josua’s response was the icing on the cake. I also am a spiritual person who felt limited by the religion I was brought up in. To me one should try to do the best by people every day in any little way they can not just rock up to church one day a week and think that is going to save their souls and I saw a lot of that back then. As David says “pray less do more”.
    Colleen recently posted Day 222 Declutter or not to declutter…

  5. Colleen — Thanks for joining us here. I’m glad to see you’re a declutter, too. I look forward to reading your blog and hearing more from you.

    I’m glad you agree with my ideas. I think they are fairly obvious and pretty common. I’m enjoying writing about spirituality and plan to do more of it. But I’ll probably leave the topic alone for a couple of weeks.

    I’m looking forward to more comments from you — and more comments on this post from others.

    Gip

  6. “obvious existence of a unifying presence in the universe”
    Are you referring to gravity, weak nuclear force, or strong nuclear force?

    Taking my tongue out of my cheek: like I said on TMP, the biggest issue with your guest post was that you took the idea “atheism and spiritualism have similarities” and tried to stretch that into “atheism and spiritualism are the same thing.” You believe in god, and are a spiritualist. Atheists do not believe in god. That alone is enough to counter your generalization.

    I’m curious about the “evidence of God” that you’ve seen. From my experience, most of that “evidence” is readily explained without god.

  7. Thanks for coming on over here to my blog, prufock. I look forward to more comments from you. I can’t promise to always talk about something this interesting, though.

    And yes, the forces you mention are part of the unifying presence in the universe, actually.

    God as a “being” isn’t something all spiritual people believe in. God, for some, is a force, a presence, a science or a feeling. I think calling all of that God is simpler (and I like things simple), but I don’t think of God as a being with a form and an agenda.

    My experience with God happens on a daily basis, but I can point to two or three events that proved the existence of a presence bigger than myself to me. One of them involves an expected and dramatic physical healing/change/improvement. I’ll try to figure out how to explain it all and put it in a post.

    Oh, and is that your band you link to? I’m a big live music fan. We have lots of that here in Texas, but it’s been too hot to hear any of it that’s outside.
    Gip

  8. Alex permalink

    “Atheists and spiritualists aren’t opposed to one another as some of the commenters on David’s blog would like. We have many of the same ideas about personal power and responsibilities”

    very true, but both sets have historically set themselves up as polar opposites for generations that its difficult, dare I say losing face to go down this track.

    but as individuals, one person at a time we can change this , by respecting others beliefs, thoughts opinions ……

  9. Nice comment, Alex. Thanks. It’s good to have you here.

    We’re all the same, really, and come from the same place, no matter how we describe it or what we call it.

    Gip

  10. Linda Sand permalink

    I believe in a Creator because the world is too well organized to be an accident. I believe in the possibility of God as parent because I know what it is to try to give your child everything she needs then have to step back and watch her make her own mistakes. I believe Jesus taught us a lot about how we should live in the world. I also believe Bhudda, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others taught us a lot about how we should live in the world. I think most religions have forgotten what they are here to help us learn.

    • Very well said. I don’t see how anyone could argue with that — but I suspect lots of people would.
      Gip

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