By Naima Cabelle Washington
I believe that it was the African American poet, Sterling Brown who wrote that “the strong men keep on coming!” During a recent visit to Houston, Texas for the 4th Annual Texas Freethought Convention, I was privileged to meet Glenn Ellison, Jr., a man with a gentle smile and a friendly easy-going approach. I’m not a real fan of poetry but the words of that poem came to mind…”the strong men keep on coming,” each time I spoke with Glenn. Perhaps, that because he’s built like a Sherman tank, and when it comes down to foolish talk and religious nonsense, he easily shifts gears and uses an intellectual steamroller approach to effortlessly flatten every bit of superstitious claptrap which dares to raise its head around him. Born in Woodland, Georgia in 1942, Mr. Ellison is the eldest son in his family; there were eight children including a stepsister. According to Glenn, his initial rebellion against religion came at an early age. “It was all her fault,” he tells me, referring to an aunt. One Sunday, she saw him with a math book and told him he had no business reading it; he should have been reading the Bible. Glenn wanted to know, “Why?” Still sounding very much like a mischievous nephew, and still sticking to his story, he says, “It’s all her fault! She started it!”
As the saying goes, he’s been around a while, including around the world a few times as a member of the United States Air Force. Just listen to Glenn and it won’t take long to conclude that he’s a man who lives according to his own conscience. While stationed in Vietnam he decided to read the Bible “…from beginning to end…and when I put it down, I said, ‘this is all bullshit!'” He says that up until that point, “I played the game,” but after reading the Bible he was finished with religion because according to him, “nothing matched.” He saw through the Bible’s many contradictions. His travels were so extensive that he’s lost count of the many countries he’s visited, but he’s been on every continent. I’ve met many people who have traveled extensively and some seem to lack any interest in other people or their cultures. Not so with Mr. Ellison who is upbeat and seems to thrive on personal interaction and intellectual stimulus. He sat attentively through many of the presentations at the convention, soaking up every word; evaluating every idea, but at the same time, doesn’t mind having a good laugh.
Despite his robust appearance, he’s had some very serious health challenges and in 1992 was hospitalized to undergo grueling surgical procedures. When his wife, who is a believer, was asked by the hospital administrator who filled out her husband’s paperwork for his religious denomination, she said ‘none.’ According to Glenn, when his wife was asked if she wanted to put down a religious affiliation on his behalf, she bluntly said ‘no’ and warned them not to do it either!
Some time before his surgery, Mr. Ellison was asked if he wanted to see the Chaplain; he wanted to know, “What for?” I happen to think it is cruel and insensitive to badger a patient about to undergo surgery with such questions. People who are religious won’t hesitate to request a priest, rabbi, etc. and I really become angry when I hear stories like this. But, in my own jaded way, I also can imagine a ‘bright’ side to this: A dying man’s spiritual adviser assures him that his place in paradise is guaranteed if he is willing to confess his sins. The dying man says that he not only wants to confess his sins, but has a special ‘thanks’ for his spiritual adviser as well. He confesses that for the past 25 years he’s committed adultery―with the wife of his spiritual advisor; he also wants to thank him for supporting all of the ten children that he fathered with his advisor’s wife as well as putting each of them through college! Anyway, after his surgery, Glenn was asked again if he wanted to see the Chaplin, and he asked, “Can he get rid of this pain? …Then I don’t want to see him!”
He views San Antonio, his hometown, as a place where most of the people, especially Hispanics, are controlled and impoverished mainly by the Catholic Church. In 1992, he joined the Texas Alliance of San Antonio, the freethought organization that he has belonged to ever since. The group meets monthly and closes out the year with a celebration of the Winter Solstice. When he dropped his religious baggage, he says that he also “removed the shackles, the doubts and fears.” He would do anything or suffer any consequence for the sake of his wife and children, but, “I have no fears for my own life.” He also expressed a sentiment that I and probably many other atheists share. Once freed from the burden of religious dogma, we feel relieved and happier than ever. A man who is intent on living life to the fullest, Glenn is ‘living quite well and wanting for nothing!’
Since this was his first secular convention, I wondered if he had any expectations; he said, “I came with no expectations, but neither am I disappointed!” I understand that there were over 600 people in attendance, and during the two-and-a-half days of the convention, I had conversations with many people including Glenn, who mentioned many times how much he enjoyed being around so many like-minded people. He had a good impression of everyone he met; they were “well-informed, intelligent, and well-educated…Education is what’s needed to break the bonds of religions. It’s hard to forget what one learns at their mother’s breast.”
Atheism, of course, cannot be forced on anyone and he compared the introduction to non-theistic ideas to a believer with farming, “Plant the seed, step back, and watch it grow.” He’d advise anyone who is still grappling with religious questions to “not trust anything outside of the laws of physics.” I told him about my visit to the Central branch of the Houston Public Library. I was surprised that there were a number of very good books on non-theism; but that number shrivels when compared to the several hundred books available on religion. He’s visited the library at Cambridge University in England and spoke of the tremendous volumes dedicated to religion as well as an equally impressive number of books dedicated to non-theism. When he retired from the Air Force after 26 years of service, his wife who was teaching at that time encouraged him to also become a teacher because she felt he had a real passion for it. And, so he became a teacher. He also heard his share of criticism with respect to his lack of religiosity. Eventually, he was promoted to the position of Vice Principal where he taught school, perhaps to the dismay of some of his more narrow-minded colleagues. Glenn said that one teacher, who apparently noted his refusal to bow to peer pressure by claiming to be religious, also didn’t understand how someone who didn’t believe God still enjoyed professional advancement. His colleague noted in amazement, “But, you don’t believe,” to which Glenn replied, “And, yet I prosper. Go figure.”
Glenn is well aware of the racial turmoil of this country. In the 1960’s, America the Beautiful would once again expose its ugliness as groups of people desperate to maintain control of other human beings spewed hatred, acted-out violently, and told others which of their fellow human beings deserved to be hated. Glenn who is a proud African American wasn’t about to have anyone tell him who to hate or love. In December of 2011, he and his wife Manuela, a native of Spain, will celebrate their 49th wedding anniversary. I’m sure they both know that it takes no character to indulge in hatred, but they each have the character and internal resources needed to resist and overcome the ugliness that fills the hearts and minds of pathetic and narrow-minded human beings. He also expressed dismay over the fact that African Americans spend more money than any other group and own less than one percent of the GNP. A person with his character, discipline, intelligence, and life experiences often has little patience for those who are undisciplined, foolish, and wasteful. Yet, our current economic system teases and tantalizes especially impoverished people, with both unobtainable and useless status symbols. Corporate America encourages nearly everyone to be foolish and wasteful; few are educated to understand the difference between substance and symbolism; between necessities and desires; between price and value. Compare the amount of advertising dollars spent encouraging people to attend college, to develop their intellect, and the amount of money spent on ads encouraging people to buy showy cars, designer clothes, flashy jewelry, cell phones, etc. There’s no doubt that the corporations peddling manufactured goods will win their way into the wallets of most people. Many people, especially those living on the margins of society, are aware of how often the necessities of life are simply out of their reach: a decent education, affordable housing in quality neighborhoods, health care, and a living wage. Many poor people have also learned from their priests, rabbis, imams, etc., that it is sinful to be poor, but also learned that poverty is also the punishment for sins and yet can be a ‘blessing’ in disguise. Advertisers preach a gospel of mindless consumerism that says if we are poor we certainly don’t have to go around looking poor; while the rest of us are told that we can look and feel better and richer with every purchase that we make―affordable or not. So in many respects, we are all targeted to become servants to the corporations; our loyalty is expected by the US politicians at the voting booth as well as by Corporate America at the cash register! The doors to the public library can lead to an unlimited access to knowledge, but when is the last time that an ad on the TV, radio, or in a newspaper encouraged the public to obtain a library card? The cost of a library card that might lead to the eradication of ignorance: zero. The cost of a wallet full of credit cards that can lead to a life of debt and poverty: priceless!
When Glenn was no longer willing to “play the game,” to indulge in religious pretense, he was more easily able to do so because he is intelligent, clearheaded, and saw the benefit of no longer playing any self-destructive games. I recently heard a talk given on the topic of ethics and the benefits of developing an ethical society―not just ethical individuals. According to the speaker, when people live in an environment which encourages and promotes ways for them to do good, most of them, in fact, will do good. Conversely, when people are in an environment that encourages and promotes ways for them to behave negatively, most of them will behave negatively. By creating a society that invests in the total development of human beings, by creating communities where people are encouraged and supported to do what is good, fewer people will end up making wasteful and foolish choices. We will always be a little better off with a few more individuals like Glenn; we will much better off in a society that teaches, supports, promotes, and therefore expects its members to do what is good and to make intelligent choices.
There are many who have traded a fearful, burdensome existence for one where they are free to enjoy the beauty of nature and the company of good people; who have rejected the demands of religious obedience and empty rituals, and have accepted the responsibility to do the right thing but not in hopes of obtaining a reward or avoiding punishment. They accept the responsibility for doing the right thing for no reason other than the fact that it’s the right thing to do. The world is a better place with people like that in it; and I’m certainly better off for having met the genuine article: Mr. Glenn Ellison, Jr.!