My paternal ancestors were French Huguenots, persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church, who fled France for the New World and freedom from religious oppression. My maternal ancestors were Irish Protestants who left Ireland for the New World to be free from violent religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants.
Notwithstanding this ancestral history, it was my privilege to be born and raised on a small family ranch in rural Texas where I spent my early years outdoors with nature and animals, free from repressive religion. My parents were casual, cultural Christian Protestants who did not belong to or attend a church regularly but who said grace over meals and prayed some nights expressing gratitude for our lives and blessings. In our extended family, women were the spiritual leaders, and they encouraged reverence and gratefulness for God’s creation. I was taught that God created all of us in her own image, provided the beautiful Earth to sustain all of us, and declared all of it to be good. Experiencing the goodness of God and her creation, love of family, relationships with animals, sunrises, sunsets, seasons, clouds and rain, moon and stars, fauna and flora, cycles of life, the miracle of birth, and the reality of death confirmed family values and sustained early development. My life as a young ranch kid was indeed very good.
A severe and prolonged drought caused a continuing struggle for financial survival. My hopeful mother often said that if we prayed for rain, God would answer our prayers. I recall asking my stoic father if she was right about praying. His response was “Yes, Son, but make sure your horse is unsaddled, fed, watered, and put out to pasture first.” Our prayers failed. We eventually lost our ranch and moved to the outskirts of the nearest major city, Abilene, a Bible-belt bastion.
The trauma of involuntarily relocating to a busy community full of strange people from the peaceful solitude of the country where people were scarce was soon severely compounded. I learned for the first time from religious city folks that I was an unworthy human being born into sin and doomed by a vengeful god to a fiery hell with an evil devil unless I was saved by repenting of my sins in church, was cleansed by church holy water, and followed rigid requirements set by the church. Unworthiness, sin, vengeance, hell, the devil, being saved, repentance, and ritual cleansing were unfamiliar, even disturbing concepts to the innocent mind of a child who had never been exposed to negative Christian fundamentalism. I remember asking my parents to please move us to another rural ranch where the good country god lived so that we could get away from the bad city god whom I did not like. Such regressive religious rhetoric irrationally recited from rote by self-righteous adults and imposed upon children is, in my opinion after having experienced it, immoral psychological child abuse. Today, I know it is bogus and based upon primitive and presumptive beliefs concocted by semi-literate men with personal power agendas in ancient societies that bear no rational relevance to modern American society (other than for historic purposes).
We remained in the city out of economic necessity and were overexposed to fundamentalist Christianity. Fortunately, I never fully accepted the human myths about hell, Satan, original sin (featuring a talking snake), the Trinity (one deity in three but three deities in one), sacrificial atonement (human sacrifice for deity appeasement and personal salvation), and so on. I questioned these dubious dogmas and their hypocritical use even back before public-school graduation and my departure for higher education.
Throughout college and law school, I participated in moderate and mainstream Protestant worship and activities. Thereafter, a military legal and judicial career included regular attendance at military chapels’ nondenominational services throughout the United States and abroad. The civilian career that followed included membership in a large, progressive United Methodist church in San Antonio, where I took all the Christian adult-education courses offered and, for over a decade thereafter, taught a popular nine-month advanced educational (not doctrinal) course during the school year on biblical history with independent reference sources and sometimes short summer courses on contemporary Christianity. In an earnest effort to ground my teaching in knowledge, I gathered and studied books, cassettes, videotapes, DVDs, and copies of Internet research on all past and present religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Native American spirituality, and others—as well as various varieties within each), including histories, sacred writings and authors, philosophy of religions, and comparative and critical analysis.
It was during this time that I learned critical truths not openly disclosed or discussed by the church or its clergy, including the fact that the Bible or an inerrant Bible does not exist because there are no original biblical texts—only copies of copies of copies made centuries after their composition, altered by human changes, mistranslations, additions, deletions, and editing. There are currently countless biblical versions, all human-corrupted for adherence to human-created doctrines and dogmas. The New Testament Gospels are not biographies written by the original disciples whose names are on them but are instead oral stories later compiled into written texts by anonymous authors in different foreign communities long after Jesus’s death, who followed the Old Testament to ensure conformity to its messianic prophesies. They are hearsay and not eyewitness accounts. Centuries later, they were given the names of original disciples to provide authority over other writings circulating about Jesus (in other words, they are forgeries and fraudulent). The perfect, infallible, and inerrant “Word of God” (or Yahweh or Allah) is, in truth and reality, the imperfect, fallible, and errant word of unknown men marketing their own manufactured versions of the Abrahamic religions.
When asked, a few honest clergy have acknowledged these historical facts and offered two revealing rationalizations. First, the laity cannot handle these truths, and, second, they undermine the credibility and authority of the church that has preached otherwise for centuries. Obviously, this circular reasoning is without merit because the first is a direct result of the second. It is a sad commentary on Christianity when truth is trumped by tenuous man-made tenets discredited by historical documentation. Elevating dated religious doctrines devised by humans above empirical evidence from history, science, and many other disciplines, including scholarly biblical criticism, is dishonest and a disservice to humanity. Any religious institution that claims its antiquated man-made authority to be superior to everything else cannot be trusted. Institutional tradition over truth (and justice) may occasionally succeed, but it will ultimately fail. “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time” (attributed variously to Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and P. T. Barnum).
A few years ago, after retiring from my long military and civilian careers, my wife and I relocated from San Antonio to the rural Texas community where she was born and raised, the location of her fourth-generation family ranch, where our grandchildren resided with our oldest son and daughter-in-law. The nearest major city is the Bible-belt bastion of Abilene. Life is cyclical as well as ironic. The fundamentalist Christian sales force is still pompously peddling the same old parochial product for the purpose of exploiting insecure individuals and controlling compliant congregations. Religiously speaking, nothing much has
changed out here. Insidious religious bigotry still lingers on, disgracefully discriminating against women and minorities. Back when I attended public school, separation of church and state was ignored and not discussed. Today, it is a concocted controversy opposed by regressive religious revisionists who do not want to be bothered with facts, history, and especially law.
Retirement returned us by choice to rural America, where life began for us and where people are still more scattered than in the metropolitan areas of our great country. We are able to experience once again the peaceful serenity of rural ranch life in the great outdoors with family, nature, and animals. Retirement has also provided the opportunity to study other religious, semireligious, and nonreligious beliefs (deism, Unitarian Universalism, pantheism, panentheism, animism, agnosticism, atheism, humanism, secularism, and others). I remain relatively comfortable in the familiar and traditional Christian culture—provided I do not have to participate in its religious services or rituals, it is not publicly imposed on me or my family too often, and there continues to be freedom from government-supported religion, freedom of private religious (or nonreligious) practice, and freedom to discuss religion publicly as provided by the First Amendment of our U.S. Constitution.
The more one studies religion and its many forms, the more one realizes it is human contrived, corrupted and controlled. “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” These wise words of Mark Twain, written in 1897, are just as true today. The heart cannot accept what the head rejects. The countless confusing and contritional religious rituals are superfluous trappings for the benefit of church and clergy, not the people. The only moral creed we modern humans need is to do good, do no harm, and believe what you want but respect the right of others to do the same. Peanuts creator Charles Schulz put it plainly: “The best theology is no theology at all; just love one another.” Nobel Prize–winner Bertrand Russell put it philosophically: “The good life is one guided by reason and motivated by love.” World religious leader the Dalai Lama put it profoundly: “ . . . Compassion is more important than religion.”
As I enjoy the golden years of life, my belief/moral/ethical/value system has slowly but surely evolved into secular humanism, where it now securely fits. Retirement from religion is enlightening, enriching, and emancipating. Becoming a freethinker may not be for everyone, but I wholeheartedly recommend it to all who have the courage to try it.
John Compere is a retired Texas lawyer, retired U.S. judge, retired Army brigadier general, and Vietnam-era disabled veteran who resides and ranches with his wife, Dolores, in rural Texas.