What is more peaceful than a drive through the towns and farmland of beautiful Lancaster County? The very name sparks visions of country roads, covered bridges, Amish buggies, Mennonite churches and peaceful people who often say "blessings" upon departure, instead of "goodbye". The county is the home of a 7,000+ member mega-church with branch campuses in Ephrata, York and Harrisburg. People of faith permeate this land. And, somewhat surprisingly, people of no faith.
I learned this while reading my newspaper on the iPad one morning . I came across an article about the Pennsylvania legislature passing a resolution declaring this the year of the Bible in Pennsylvania. This action had spawned immediate controversy regarding the separation of church and state. According to the article, one protesting group was PAN, or Pennsylvania Non-Believers.
Being ever curious, I immediately googled the name on the iPad and discovered that PAN was an atheist organization based in York, Dauphin and Lancaster counties. What? An atheist group in Lancaster County? It jarred my image of that serene land, agitating my curiosity to learn more about this group. How better to achieve that than attending one of their meetings, which I did.
What a hoot? Ironically, there were twelve members present sitting around a table. I was the thirteenth. When people were asked to introduce themselves, I was tempted to say that my name was Judas Iscariot, but I refrained. The average age of the membership was 55+. Many were retirees who felt they could only come out now because had they done so earlier, they might have faced workplace discrimination. Most came from religious backgrounds, but claimed reason had triumphed over their faith. There was a degree of underlying anger in this group that resulted in a somewhat aggressive posture toward believers.
Thus, the business agenda discussion included the manning of an atheist booth at the Lancaster PrideFest. (What? There are gay people in Lancaster County??) Atheists and gays are among the last social outcasts of American society, a group that once included the Irish, Jews, Mormons, Catholics, blacks, Asians and Native Americans, to name a few. Let's not forget women whose social roles were extremely limited. Some of these groups still have not entirely escaped the social outcast label, though inevitable progress will eventually free them of their current stigma.
It was announced that the York chapter had rented billboard space in Harrisburg to protest the Year of the Bible Resolution. We were told that the billboard would depict a slave in chains with a Bible verse (Ephesians 6:5) "Slaves, obey your masters!" There was no discussion; it was presented merely as a point of information. I pictured in my mind, a white Spartacus-type slave.
About a week later I learned that the billboard had been put in place with a devastatingly opposite effect than PAN had intended. They depicted a black slave in chains on a billboard located in a "diverse" neighborhood. It read like a message from the Ku Klux Klan. The billboard was almost immediately vandalized and soon thereafter taken down by the company that owned it. The PAN chapter leader in York apologized profusely. Is this a great country or what?
By the way, one of the York chapter's premiere events is a pub crawl held every time the end of the world is announced, such as this December 21. Some believe that when the Rapture occurs, people will be sucked out of their clothes and ascend to heaven, leaving nonbelievers behind. Thus, the pub crawlers set up lawn chairs in front of the establishment they are visiting, positioning clothes and shoes on the lawn chairs to represent people that have risen to heaven in this current Rapture. Meanwhile, in the bar drinks are ordered, including one for Jesus. And what drink is ordered for Jesus? A glass of water. Why water? Why pay for a glass of wine when Jesus can turn water into wine himself?
Now I realize that many people of faith might be agitated by the above paragraph, while others may find it amusing. If this were about Mohammed, somebody might try to blow up the bar. Hopefully, we are little more laid-back, realizing that this is all part of that wonderful fabric we call America.
It was also reported that buses from York and Lancaster counties were booked for the Reason Rally to be held on March 24 in Washington DC. Atheists, agnostics, humanists, and others would be gathering to hear speakers and celebrate the triumph of reason over faith that they had experienced. Music would be provided by, among others, a band known as Bad Religion. Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. Pete Stark are scheduled to address the rally. They bill this rally is as the largest secular event in world history. Take that, Super Bowl!
As people stood up at the end of the meeting ready to depart, I blurted out, "Nice meeting you all. God bless you and have a safe trip home." Some looked at me strangely, some laughed and off we went.
But wait! There's more. As Christians have splintered into many diverse churches, so the nonbelievers have also split. While the PAN group appears to consist mostly of atheists, another group of nonbelievers, the Lancaster Freethought Society, is a home for agnostics and humanists as well as atheists. I returned to Lancaster County to visit one of their meetings.
These freethinkers were more cerebral, well-versed in the Bible and had a speaker as the main feature of their program. The speaker was a former divinity school student who had lost his faith. This group was younger and more dynamic than the PAN group. They were less interested in trashing religion, and more interested in using positive works to show that the ever-growing number of secular people is just ordinary citizens like you and me. They just want to be accepted as part of the rich fabric of the American scene, you know, like an Amish buggy clopping through the beautiful farmland of tranquil Lancaster County. I wish them godspeed.