PREACHERS WHO DON'T BELIEVE
Thank you for the excellent article “The Pastor’s Secret,” by
Daniel Dennett (Fall 2010). As an active Unitarian Universalist, I thought
I would make a significant connection that the author overlooked. Tufts
was founded in 1852 by the Universalists, who merged with the Unitarians
in 1961 to form Unitarian Universalism. Today Unitarian Universalism lives
on as a liberal faith in which a “free and responsible search for
truth and meaning” is not only accepted but expected. Any clergy
who question the dictated theology of their original faith tradition would
be welcomed with open arms at most Unitarian Universalist congregations.
It’s our way of saving souls.
The unspoken tangential issue raised by Dennett’s article is that of what replaces faith in a god. Even my friends whose faith is most tenuous fear to leave their churches. The reason is that they believe organized religion to be the sole repository of morality.
I hold a less generous view of organized religion, and am myself an open but non-proselytizing atheist. Nevertheless, if Dennett’s upcoming investigations reveal a sizable proportion of religious leaders to be “closet doubters”—and if recent polls are correct in showing that sixteen percent of the American population are already nonbelievers—we will have a real problem on our hands. We will have to convince people that a secular society can remain moral, orderly, and inclusive without relying on the authority, dictates, and threats of a nonexistent god or the chimerical rewards of a better life after death.
“The Pastor’s Secret” made me smile when I read that one
preacher evaded conflict by telling his congregation, “Let us remember
our forefathers and mothers in the faith who said . . . .” A friend,
a professor at Yale Divinity School for nearly fifty years, used to explain
that the purpose of his ministry was simply “to help others grow.” In
my later life, I reduced my own beliefs to a simple phrase from a hymn: “God
knows and understands.” In my memory, the phrase eventually became “he
knows” and then, finally, “someone knows and understands.”
One might think that if Tufts Magazine were going to proceed with an article about belief in God, the author would have personal experience with religion and its traditions. Daniel Dennett, an atheist, has no sense of the dynamics of religious faith. Consequently, this questionable enterprise was fatally flawed from the outset.
“The Pastor’s Secret” fairly leapt off the page at me. We’ve all known pastors who left the church to better themselves or were dismissed for incompetence or misconduct. But most of us have never been privy to one who just plain gave up his or her calling because of deeply personal theological disbelief. Dennett’s article was intriguing, and best of all, it was just one part of an issue that was a winner from cover to cover.
If Professor Dennett and his colleagues truly intend to “guide the inevitable
evolution of religion in the twenty-first century,” I’d suggest they
cultivate a more humble and contrite spirit. It’s a big job, and since
they’ll be taking over this project from God, they might also want to
consult with Him a bit, to avoid the potholes that their subject pastors seem
to have fallen into.
Faith is much more than belief. Professor Dennett perpetuates the limited
view of religion as being all about creeds and institutional practices. It
is quite possible to no longer believe in a grandfatherly figure in the sky
and still benefit from a faith tradition steeped in such images of the divine.
True, if one is the leader of a religious community, there are problems to
be solved. But these problems should be defined not as a pastor’s secret but
as the result of a natural diversity in how each of us can develop faith in
response to some faith tradition.
Michael Blanding omits one important “first” in his otherwise excellent story “Goooooood Morning, Medford” (Fall 2010): 1XE had the first woman announcer in the region—the late, great Eunice Randall. 1XE/WGI was also the first home of bandleader Joe Rines and the first station to broadcast talks by economist Roger Babson, as well as the first to feature programming on exercise and physical fitness. In addition, it introduced both the great African-American stage actor Charles Gilpin and Rabbi Harry Levi (Boston's well-respected “radio rabbi”) to a wide audience.
I read with delight Michael Blanding’s wonderful synopsis of Tufts’ role in the development of radio. I was a freshman when WMFO signed on the air as a ten-watt educational FM station in January 1970, and I remember that the first song played was the Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun.” By the way, 1XE announcer Eunice Randall went on to become one of the most prominent women in amateur radio (also known as ham radio), and to this day W1KN, the amateur radio station first started at Tufts in 1912, encourages on-air technical experimentation.
Your story about Tufts radio brought back memories. I started working at WTUR when I was a freshman in 1968, the year of the Summer of Love. John DeGioia and I were on the air every Saturday afternoon as the “Ghost Riders.” John was the oldies expert, and I contrasted his picks with the best of artists like Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, the Yardbirds, and Janis Joplin. At that point, the studio was high atop Curtis Hall, broadcasting from a glorified closet. Hot days were a challenge, as traffic noise or a passing train was likely to drown out the voice of the DJ.
I remained with Tufts radio throughout my college career, becoming music director, then program director, and, in my senior year, station manager. I loved it. We at WTUR and later WFMO operated a real communications center, keeping students up-to-date on issues such as the “Paul is dead” mystery—the bogus story about Paul McCartney. We also announced draft lottery numbers and presented live interviews with visiting musicians. I am gratified to see that the station continues to bring information, joy, and creativity to Tufts.
After the CrashI found “Living for Two,” by Darin Strauss (Fall 2010), moving and thought provoking. I myself was hit by a car sixty-two years ago, when I was five or so. I have absolutely no recollection of it, and never even knew it happened until sometime in my teens, when someone offhandedly mentioned it. Did this obscure aspect of my childhood bother me? Because I had no memory of it, I figured there was nothing to be bothered about. But Strauss’s memoir made me realize that I had never thought about the driver of the car. Neither, it seems, had anyone else; no one ever mentioned a word about the driver when they were describing the accident to me. Was this person a man or a woman? Old? Young? In between? Was he or she affected by hitting me? A little? A lot? Was the person told I survived?
And what would I wish for him or her, if I could? Just what I would wish for Darin Strauss: good experiences so that the memory of the accident is not a weight to be borne but rather a reminder of how precious life really is, and how, in an instant, it can be shattered.
BlooperstarsHow in the world did you manage to not include Oliver Platt, A83, in your list of Tufts celebrities (“Jumbos of Distinction,” Fall 2010)? Recently, Oliver received a P.T. Barnum Award for excellence in entertainment. He has been nominated for Tony, Emmy, and Golden Globe Awards, and has won the New York Film Critics Online Award for best supporting actor in the film Casanova. He was also a tremendously nice guy while at Tufts.
I was most pleased to see that you included track star Eddie Dugger, E41,
among your “Jumbos of Distinction.” But I take exception to the
description of him as a “one-man track team.” The 1940 track team
had exceptional talent in a several players: Laurie Grant, E40, high jump;
Bill Atkinson, E40, G43, distance running; Walt Hall, A42, along with Dugger
in the dashes and hurdles; and, “ahem,” I in the weights. And incidentally,
I was the captain of the 1940 team, not Dugger as you report. Dugger was captain-elect
for the 1941 team.
“Jumbos of Distinction” was sadly crass and silly. The arbitrary glorification of graduates based almost solely on their attainment of “celebrity” betrays an ignorance of what is to be gained from an education. So many graduates do fine, commendable work without the benison of that celebrity tag.
Editor’s note: The complete list of Tufts Alumni Notables includes Jumbos in all areas of achievement. And, yes, Oliver Platt is among them.