Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Bones in the Basement

One of my all-time proudest moments occurred during my grade 10 religion class. At the time, I wasn't yet an atheist. In fact, I don't recall really considering myself anything at all as far as religiousness goes. I just hadn't really thought about the whole spiritual question very deeply.

As the students all took their seats and the bell rang to signal the beginning of class, the teacher, Mr. Radoux, announced, “There are bones in the basement of St. Patrick's High School.” The students looked confused and glanced around at each other, not quite sure what he was getting at. Mr. Radoux repeated, “There are bones in the basement of St. Patrick's High School.” Then, after pausing to great effect, he asked, “Who believes me? If you believe me, I'll show you where they are. If you don't believe me, you can stay here in the class. Let's have a show of hands of who believes that there are bones in the basement.”

Slowly at first, and then quite quickly, every student in the class put up their hands; all except for one: me. Noticing that I was the lone non-believer, Mr. Radoux pointed me out and began to interrogate me.

Why don't you believe me?”

“Well, can you tell us more about these bones? What kind of bones are they?”

“I can't tell you any more.”

“Can you show us a picture? Or anything else that would be evidence that the bones exist?”

No. You either believe or you don't believe.”

Well...then I guess I don't believe you.”

“That's fine. Class, follow me down to the basement. Robert, you stay here.”

One by one, everyone else in the class got up from their seats and walked past me out the door. Most of them looked at me. Some snickered; some looked confused; some looked concerned. Soon, I was left completely alone with my thoughts.

After about 10 minutes, the class filed back in with smiles on their faces. Some even said, “It's true! There were bones!” as they walked past my desk. At this point, I was sure that it was just a big practical joke; that Mr. Radoux had simply convinced them all to lie to me for some strange reason.

It wasn't until the next week that I was brought down to the basement along with one other student who had been away from school on the day that everyone else “saw the bones”. As he was leading us down into the bowels of the school, Mr. Radoux explained to us that many years ago, the basement of the school was excavated in order to build a swimming pool. During that excavation, the workers had come across bones, which turned out to be human, and were from a forgotten cemetery that the school was built on top of. The ironic thing is, that we didn't actually see any bones in the basement. The ones that were found had been removed, and the rest of the bones that were probably buried there, were encased in concrete so that they could not be disturbed.

Despite Mr. Radoux's intention to make me feel guilty for not believing him in the first place, I can remember feeling vindicated. Why should I have believed him without any good evidence? Why couldn't the other students have been playing a prank on me? Isn't that much more plausible than there actually being bones in the basement that I had never heard about, despite being a student at the school for three and a half years?

At the time, I didn't grasp the implications of the the lesson that I was meant to learn, or the lesson that I had actually learned. With years of reflection, I can finally say that I understand. I was meant to agree that believing things just because it was asserted by a person in a position of authority (e.g., teachers and priests) or books in authority (i.e., the Bible) was a virtuous trait. What I actually learned was that believing things without evidence was silly; arguments from authority are silly; the Bible is silly; religion is silly; many firmly held and popular beliefs are silly; and although it seems scary, it can be fun, exhilarating, and empowering to stand up for your convictions, even when (perhaps especially) you're standing completely alone against unthinkable odds.

I have carried these lessons with me ever since and they have had a powerful influence on how my sense of self has developed and on every significant decision I have made since.  I am very proud of those decisions, and I am very proud of the person I have become. If it wasn't for those lessons, I probably wouldn't have become the radicalized critical thinker I am today.

I will leave you with a quote from one of the most influential authors in my life; a quote that serves as a direct extrapolation of the lessons I learned during that fateful week back in Mr. Radoux's grade 10 religion class.
"When, in the course of human development, existing institutions prove inadequate to the needs of man, when they serve merely to enslave, rob, and oppress mankind, the people have the eternal right to rebel against, and overthrow, these institutions.

The mere fact that these forces--inimical to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness--are legalized by statute laws, sanctified by divine rights, and enforced by political power, in no way justifies their continued existence."
-Emma Goldman