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The Puritan Roger Williams, Church State Separation, and The Impact on Today

November 12, 2020

What does the Puritan founder of both the state of Rhode Island and the Baptist Church have to say about modern evangelicals?

Roger Williams had certain ideas that didn’t fit into 17th century England or its American colonies. Freedom of conscience, separation of church and crown, fair treatment of indigenous peoples, and supporting the rights of women were all a tough sell in the 1600s. But sell he did, and though Roger Williams is far from a household name in 2020, some of his ideas still reverberate through our country and our world.

In this episode, Jim Underdown speaks to Roger Williams’ 12th great-granddaughter, Becky Garrison, about her book, Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues. They speak about and his legacy, dive into his beliefs and their context in the 1600s, and how much of Williams’ legacy impacts us today.

We are proud to announce that this episode of Point of Inquiry was sponsored by the Wadsworth-Sheng Fund. Our friends, Spike Wadsworth and Sherry Sheng, are committed to ensuring that everyone has access to thought-provoking content that addresses the big questions in science, religion, politics, and culture. We are grateful for their support. If you would like to learn more about how to support Point of Inquiry or the work of its umbrella organization, the Center for Inquiry, please contact our Director of Development, Connie Skingel, at

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This Week’s Music

“Bon Journée” by Chad Crouch / CC BY-NC 3.0
“Idle Ways” by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0
“Lost in Space” by Silicon Transmitter / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

[00:00:08] Hello again, everybody, welcome to another episode of Point of Inquiry. I’m your host, Jim Underdown. And today we’re going to be talking about Roger Williams. [00:00:17][9.5]

[00:00:18] Who the hell is Roger Williams, you might ask? Well, it turns out the answer is pretty interesting. If you’re from Rhode Island, you probably know the Roger Williams is basically the founder of the state of Rhode Island and he’s also the founder of the First Baptist Church in the United States, even before we were the United States. So why are we talking about this religious puritan on point of inquiry? Well, it turns out that he can’t be cubbyhole, quite that simply Roger Williams was way ahead of his time in a lot of ways. Unlike the evangelicals of today, Roger Williams was a staunch church state separationist even before Rhode Island was a state and before the United States was a country. He believed in the individual’s right of conscience. And Rhode Island really was the first colony to welcome people of all religions. So today I’m going to talk to Becky Garrison, who is actually a relative of Roger Williams. She’s a writer of many different topics. And she wrote a book called Roger Williams Little Book of Virtues, a very interesting book which weaves her life, modern political times and the history of Roger Williams all into one book. I spoke to her from her home in Oregon. So without any further ado, here is Becky Garrison. [00:01:42][83.2]

[00:01:56] Becky Garrison, welcome to a point of inquiry. Thanks for being on today. Thank you very much for having me. [00:02:02][5.8]

[00:02:03] I read your book, Roger Williams, A Little Book of Virtues. I found myself enjoying it. And I think we have very similar tastes in comedy and history and maybe even some religious common ground. Well, let’s start a little bit about you. Where are you from originally? [00:02:23][20.4]

[00:02:24] I’m originally from the South, but spent most of my childhood in North Carolina. Then after college, I moved to New York City and Boston area, and then in 2014, I moved to the Pacific Northwest and currently live in Portland, Oregon. [00:02:42][18.1]

[00:02:43] OK, well, when you were a kid in school, first of all, did you know that Roger Williams at all? And did you know you were related to him? [00:02:52][9.2]

[00:02:54] I knew I was related to him. I had some spinster aunts. That’s what we called them back then who charted the family tree. I guess he didn’t have anything else to do. So I you know, it’s related to this man who founded Prudence Zylon where our family vacationed. But I had no idea, even though I had been to divinity school, I was not aware of his work in church and state separation work until after I had published my first book, Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church, which was on the very same topic. [00:03:24][30.2]

[00:03:26] The topic of separation of church and state. [00:03:30][3.8]

[00:03:31] Yes, and I also realize we both are very vehemently we both can be kind of smarty pants. I think there’s portions of Roger Williams is writing where he could give his contemporary Jonathan Swift a good run for his money. [00:03:43][11.8]

[00:03:44] I mean, in the end, what I think odd for our audience is that this is a very Roger Williams was a very pious religious man from England. Well, what are his one? [00:03:59][15.2]

[00:03:59] Was he born is Jesus. He’s a 17th century person. [00:04:04][4.2]

[00:04:05] Yes, that’s correct. He came to the United States actually ten years after my relative pilgrims came over on the Mayflower. So he was around that same era where your options he became an Anglican. At four, as a small child, he became appear more of a puritan at the age of 11, which so he’s been pursuing the more going against the church for pretty much all of his life. [00:04:31][26.0]

[00:04:32] What is so just a pain, a little bit of a picture about 17th century England. What is the difference between a regular Anglican and people who are calling themselves Puritans at that point? [00:04:45][12.4]

[00:04:46] Well, as people like Susan Jacoby, a very well noted back in this era, you either were practicing the religion of the state or you were not alive. So that’s or you are under persecution if you happen to be lucky to not get put into the tower or home or tortured. So during this period, you are required to follow the faith. Now, Roger lucked out in the sense that he got a position with a man who is a very wealthy, well-connected family. And at the time, Archbishop Law was not persecuting private Catholics who were in families. He was persecuting other people who were Puritans, but not those like Roger, who were able to be well-connected, at least in the interim. [00:05:32][45.2]

[00:05:34] Yeah, so it’s it’s not really a great time to be a puritan in his in his youth, is it, in England? [00:05:43][9.3]

[00:05:45] No, I mean, there was numerous people being hung in his area. He would have I’ve cited several examples in the book. Roger had to be aware of what the dangers were if he chose to go against the state. But he felt very strongly at a very early age. And we don’t know where this came from because he never discussed his relationships with his family or his. It appears, but from a very early age, he knew that the church needed to be separate from the state and back in the 17th century. That was a viewpoint that would get you, at the very least, exiled, if not executed. [00:06:19][34.2]

[00:06:21] Yeah, OK. So we’re we’re like almost a century past Henry the Eighth and splitting from the Catholic Church and. [00:06:29][8.3]

[00:06:31] Basically, the Puritans are saying that the Anglican Church did not go far enough in their split from Catholicism and this got them into trouble with the Anglicans and OK, so Rogers in that camp at a pretty young age and that this seems to be is. I mean, if you’re a minority in England at this point, right? [00:06:57][25.8]

[00:06:58] They are a minority, but furthermore, when he went to the United States and was over at Massachusetts Bay Colony, they were curious if they still want to remain in good graces with the crown. And that is where Roger began to have differences with the Massachusetts Bay Colony, because over there, if you were not their kind of puritan, you would find yourself executed. Tourists to Boston may be interested to find that the Commons was a place that was very common to have hangings there. Mary. Such as Mary Dyer. [00:07:28][29.9]

[00:07:29] Yeah. People should remember, right, that all these people who came to the Americas for alleged religious freedom only meant that they wanted freedom for themselves, not for anyone else who wanted to join them. [00:07:43][13.4]

[00:07:44] Well, here, I think it’s important to distinguish between Puritans and pilgrims and not to defend my Pilgrim relatives, but I consider the pilgrims to be more akin to the Amish, meaning if you wanted to stay in Plymouth Colony and live with the Puritans, you had to follow their beliefs, and if not, you were asked to leave. In the case of the Puritans, you would be put on trial and could be executed. Slight difference there, I think. [00:08:13][29.4]

[00:08:14] Yeah, yeah, right, I mean, they both they’re both pretty demanding of people being the same as them, just with different consequences. [00:08:25][10.7]

[00:08:27] And if you also look at it, I mean, John Winthrop was the one who put the city on the hill, the beacon on the light, and he was using religion as a means of social control. And this is where I think Roger’s running into problems. He was also suggesting that the natives should have been compensated for their land. He had was allowing women like in Hutchinson to have a services and preach these were issues. So it was more than just a religious disagreement. He was impacting the economic future of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where religion had to be used to control. And think about this. England did not have a colony at this moment. There was a lot of pressure on John Winthrop to make the Massachusetts Bay Colony work. [00:09:14][46.7]

[00:09:16] And line up with the Anglican churches version of how that should happen. [00:09:21][5.0]

[00:09:22] Because if he doesn’t. [00:09:23][0.7]

[00:09:25] In some way accommodate the Anglican Church, he’s going to lose his ability to be the governor. So he was there was a lot of pressure on this gentleman. I’m not justifying his behavior, but people realize when he discusses current church state debates, you can trace back to Williams and Winthrop, you know, are we a Christian nation, a beacon on this hill to shine forth this version of politicized Christianity to the rest of the world? Or do we allow for liberty, of freedom, of conscience, for people to practice as they please? [00:10:00][34.1]

[00:10:01] So Winthrop is trying to play ball with the crown and stay in their good graces and still keep everything Puritan while Williams is saying some of these new radical ideas. [00:10:15][13.8]

[00:10:17] Yes, that’s what got him banished to what was called Rhodes Island, which back then would have been considered to be a very, very undesirable place to live. This is where you basically sent everyone who. [00:10:29][12.1]

[00:10:31] You know, it was either going to Rhode Island or you go back to England to get executed before he could have put Roger Williams could have had a a preaching gig in Boston when he first got there. I mean, he could have been a proper high standing member of that society if he wanted. [00:10:51][19.6]

[00:10:52] Oh, yes, he was very charismatic, very popular, in fact, he was when he was. Vanish in the dead of winter. He was tipped off by Winthrop that you need to leave. So he personally everyone really enjoyed his company, which is why I think he’s still alive and conversely, why I’m here as his 12th great granddaughter. But no, he Roger was choosing to place his values over his pocketbook. He did it every time he died destitute. His books were burned by parliament. He died penniless, a forgotten man. You go around Massachusetts and there’s very few signs that he’s there. I mean, there are signs, of course, in Rhode Island, but that’s the smallest state union. He’s been written out of the history books. Jefferson came along one hundred and fifty years later is the person who is credited with creating the wall of church a separation of state? Not Roger Williams. [00:11:51][58.3]

[00:11:53] Why is he written out of history? I mean, we see this with Thomas Paine as well, because he had some pretty serious enemies toward the end of his life and people were writing bad things about him. And history was not, you know, was not putting him up as where he should be in the pantheon of founding fathers. Roger Williams, right, I mean, is was that one of the Mather’s wrote something nasty about him? [00:12:25][32.2]

[00:12:27] Yes, I think he had the misfortune of coming to a head of history. I mean, you look at, for example, and look at the Reformation history, Tyndale was executed for translating the Bible into the vernacular. Martin Luther did the same thing a bit later and was perfectly fine. Roger came too far ahead of history. He did not have the groundswell of support that would have been needed to keep him in the history books. [00:12:54][27.3]

[00:12:55] Yeah, and he’s he’s saying things that threaten power about the power and existence at the time, right. [00:13:03][7.7]

[00:13:05] Oh, yes, and it’s also the fact he was doing things that were unheard of. I mean, the mere fact that he was the first person to translate the First Nations peoples language into English, he wrote this a book. He tried to communicate with the local tribes instead of massacring them and giving them equitable monies due for their land. He allowed Ed Hutchison, a woman of hers, to set up a meeting house in Newport. The first synagogue in the new world is set up in Newport as well. These are concepts that are just absolutely unheard of at this time. This is beyond heretical. I mean, he even permitted atheists, which at that time were called heretics, to come and reside in Rhode Island. No one had heard of this. This is just unfathomable beyond our comprehension. [00:14:02][57.7]

[00:14:04] It’s really the first of the colonies that are saying anybody can come here of any religion and live. [00:14:10][5.7]

[00:14:11] Yes, and Rhode Island had the first state charter that granted religious liberty to everyone, and by now when we say everyone, we do have to know. One thing is that Roger Williams never did address the issue of slavery. And he when he addressed women’s rights, it was only in terms of their right to worship as they please. There’s a case I note in the book involving the Vernons where James Byrd wanted to worship with Roger Williams at his church. He said fine, but there was no mention of the fact that her husband was beating the living daylights out of her. So his objection to protecting Jane was from a religious freedom standpoint, not from a domestic violence viewpoint. So he in some ways, he was a man of his times. And there are issues that were just not even addressed, the colonial America that nowadays we are seriously still wrestling with for wives considered basically the property of their husbands among them at that time. [00:15:13][61.7]

[00:15:13] And Puritans. [00:15:14][0.3]

[00:15:15] Yes, as we’re slaves, I’m just trying to point out that Roger Williams, for his time, was very lightened. But there was a point at which he was primarily focused on church state separation. And that’s the issue that I look at as well as other issues, were not ones that he dealt with. [00:15:33][17.5]

[00:15:34] We find and as you mentioned his writings a bit ago, he wrote The Bloody Tenant while he was still in England. [00:15:41][6.8]

[00:15:43] Oh, that, I believe, was probably written when he came here in sixty 30 and that was written in somewhat later, a lot of his work. There was also a period where he was traveling to England to try to secure the first charter. After a while, he sent this gentleman named Clarke over who ended up security, but he did travel back somewhat to try to get the first charter. And then after Charles the first was executed and Oliver Cromwell, he came into power, things looked OK. But then after Croma was executed, he had to then go back and secure the second charter under Charles the second. So exactly when he penned, which I’d have to go back and charter exactly when he was in the United States and when he sorry, what the colonies, I mean, and when he was in England. [00:16:32][49.3]

[00:16:34] But the purpose of this document and it’s for the listeners, it’s bloody B.L. o you d y and it has turned into an EMT on the document, but it’s really Tammet, right? I mean it’s it’s an earlier spelling of. [00:16:54][20.2]

[00:16:57] Yes, and you just pointed out a major issue of trying to do research involving Roger Williams, is that your reading 17th century English? Most most of the works that I’ve looked at have not been translated into more modern English. You’re spending your time doing a lot of scholarly slogging, so to speak. [00:17:15][18.7]

[00:17:18] And in this document was basically an argument to the English parliament to give some of these freedoms to the. [00:17:25][7.3]

[00:17:27] Yes, yes, and he was basically blasting it and then, of course, his lovely Cotton Mather was definitely opposed to that. So then Rohter wrote an opposition to which Roger then wrote an additional opposition. He was very, very friendly. I mean, this is a man who said forced religion stinks in the nostrils of God. He was definitely opposed to anybody forcing anyone to worship. Against the way that they wished and ultimately that led him even though he founded the First Baptist Church in America. He ultimately concluded that no one knows the full truth and therefore he let the institutional church and became a seeker. [00:18:07][40.8]

[00:18:10] So do you think that that has maybe his early experiences as being a Puritan, a minority person in England, that that shaped his ideas of. The power of the state being able to dictate, I mean, he’s he’s seen you said there were hangings of Puritans, these types of things, as you know, the bully of the state exercising its power over individual conscience. [00:18:46][35.6]

[00:18:48] He does it make him set his he doesn’t bring in his personal history, but there’s a lot we don’t know about him. We learn about snips and pieces from other people. But that’s what I was surmising based on all of my readings. We don’t know the genesis of where this happened, but we’ve never seen any writing from him where he does not address this. [00:19:09][20.9]

[00:19:12] OK, so he comes over, he comes to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he gets banished for them from them in the dead of winter. And what happens to them? [00:19:22][9.3]

[00:19:23] He befriends the local natives who help survive, help him to survive, and then he found the colony of Rhode Island, which is the Providence Plantations, and tries to set up a community there and then established and does work for decades to try to establish a charter there. In the meantime, I noticed during the war of. And other events, he helps Massachusetts with a number of what he calls Indian insurrections and quells them despite them, they still will not let Roger sail out of Massachusetts Bay Harbor. His banishment was not lifted until nineteen thirty six when the Massachusetts state legislature finally passed a resolution revoking the ban. [00:20:18][54.4]

[00:20:19] And a lot of good it did them in nineteen thirty six. Yes. [00:20:22][3.0]

[00:20:23] You know, you got it. You got to give them credit for not holding a grudge against the Massachusetts Bay people because he’s he’s actually probably saves a bunch of lives. Right. By I mean, there’s a bunch of Indian tribes that are ready to really sock it to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and they keep these weapons that quite a bit. [00:20:49][25.5]

[00:20:50] He does the only tempers he can only temper so much, I mean, because of who he was and what he did. He was warned that the natives were going to burn down Providence and he was given warning so he could flee. In that sense, he was still very well respected as an individual. But at this point, the natives were so upset that they. And understandably so, having their land seized, they had a series of wars such as the King’s Philip’s War, which proved to be very deadly and costly. [00:21:26][35.8]

[00:21:28] Nobody’s nobody in their authority side on the colonists side is listening to Roger Williams when he’s saying, you know, at least that you should be compensating these people for taking their land. Right. They’re just taking it easy. [00:21:44][16.4]

[00:21:46] Oh, yes. I mean, you wonder how successful the United the what later became the United States would have been without the usurping of land for free and the exploitation of free slave labor. [00:21:59][12.9]

[00:22:01] Yeah, right, I mean, all of this is that continues on for two centuries and change right after this. We have a long and storied history of making promises to native populations and then reneging on them. [00:22:18][17.7]

[00:22:19] Yes, we still continue that practice, unfortunately, to today. [00:22:22][2.9]

[00:22:31] Hello, thank you for listening to point of inquiry. You’re taking a short break to announce that this episode was made possible to the Wadsworth Schang Fund. The fund was started by supporters of the show Spike Wadsworth and cherishing, we’re both committed to science, critical thinking and making accessible thought-Provoking content that addresses the big questions in science, religion, politics and culture. We are grateful for their generous support point of inquiry and its umbrella organization, the Center for Inquiry, critically examined and advocates against pseudoscience, the dangers of alternative medicine, and analyzes the intersection of religion and science in our society. This educational and advocacy work of the Center for Inquiry is more essential now than ever before, and your support is more essential than ever. Point of Inquiry is a listener supported show, which means continuing this work is only possible because of the financial support of listeners like you. Visit Center for Inquiry AGB Pouye to make a donation today and ensure that point of inquiry can continue. If you would like to learn more about how you can support the show, or for more information about the Wadsworth Schang Fund, please email Center for Inquiries. Director of Development Carneys Gangle at Development at the Center for Inquiry that OAG. Thank you. [00:23:51][80.3]

[00:24:01] So the technique and telling his story, by the way, it’s I said it before, but it’s a very enjoyable read and I like the fact that you you weave some of your personal history and your personal journey and with the telling of his story and you also use the has the four basic virtues do as a sort of a little bit of a framework to tell his story. [00:24:29][27.7]

[00:24:30] Elaborate on that a little bit. [00:24:31][1.3]

[00:24:33] Oh, yes, I began to explore part of why I wanted to identify with Roger Williams is I come from what I would describe best as a very dysfunctional family with a fair amount of addiction and alcohol issues in it. And I was trying to explore why I never became like that. I just was interested in that exploration. And I found this relative of mine that I really identified with. And I realized there must be something in our respective DNA. We think very, very much alike. And he was a very bright, shining exemplar in my own personal life. I began to read up on him and see how he was able to maintain in a very polarizing era his sanity and remain a kind of compassionate person. And I found myself very struggling with how do I do that? How do I learn how to put people over politics? How do I do what I can? Even though I’m a religious satirist, I satirize religion and don’t take it very seriously because it’s many ways it’s a manmade institution where a lot of people can do a lot of very silly and also very harmful things. But what can I learn about his life in ministry that could help us in this current state of extreme polarization? And that’s began my search. And as I noted in the book, I also noted that we both ended up leaving the institutional church. We became seekers. And that just fascinated me how my life seemed to parallel his in some ways. [00:26:15][102.8]

[00:26:18] Yeah, and also you strike the contrast between today’s very politically involved evangelicals and someone like Roger Williams, who would consider himself as devout as anyone today, but with just as strong of an idea that the government should not be putting their hands and our religion and vice versa. [00:26:46][28.4]

[00:26:49] Oh, definitely. I mean, I think and it’s also at a very telling time for me and I’ve noticed this with the 2016 election PRR I reported that the largest voting bloc for among religious people are the nuns, and that includes the spiritual but not religious atheist, agnostic, basically anyone who does not identify with the institutional church. And yet both political parties continue to do faith based outreach to quote unquote religious people. And you find whether it’s the religious right or this supposed rise of the religious left, you’re not finding anyone addressing the nuns, even though they are, as I said, the largest religious voting bloc in the United States. [00:27:40][50.8]

[00:27:41] No one ever calls us. And there’s all this religiosity. And I mean, of course, you know, the Republican Party is is unabashedly pro Christian. And it’s just that it’s we’re a huge group. We’re in the tens of millions and no one seems to be taking advantage of that. [00:28:04][23.4]

[00:28:06] Well, I think some of that is I was when I was getting to know Greg Epstein, he was saying that trying to hurt humanists is like trying to hurt Chaz because humanists and every free thinkers tend to be just that free thinker. You can’t coalesce around a single issue like you can among people who are faith based. And what I’m finding particularly interesting right now is there’s this. The media keeps trying to push this mythical rise of a religious left. You do the numbers. The numbers are not there. There is not a rise of a religious left. What you have is a rise of a form of neo liberal thinking where you have someone like Hillary Clinton who happens to have Dudko of the family as her spiritual director. This has been documented by religion author and scholar Jeff Sharlet that you see this happening. You know, the Biden campaign did a very good, in their minds, outreach to faith based people. You find evangelicals for Biden, the pro left or pro progressive people are now doing something on the religious left and saying, we want to support this. And I’m sitting here going, I’m not seeing the statistics for this. I’m just not. And it’s surprising how even the DNC is ignoring this major voting block. [00:29:29][82.6]

[00:29:30] Now, what do you think of the Hillary and the Bidens maybe are just trying to peel off a few percentage points of evangelicals or, you know, the religious right of my background is in church state separation, not in politics. [00:29:48][17.9]

[00:29:48] But what it looks like to me is that they’re operating from a neoliberal standpoint and not looking at what’s happening at the grassroots. What I see happening at the grassroots often, or people are connecting on some very deep and very profound way. And that’s what I was pointing out in my book. And I noticed this when I was moving here to the Pacific Northwest. Here you have a Celtic form of spirituality. It is very much informed by the beauty of the nature of the world around us. There’s these communities are looking to explore sacred sexuality and the environment in different ways and connecting of being. And they’re not connected to the institutional church at all. It may be here and I have met some people here are kind of outliers doing some very interesting ministries here. But you’re not seeing this huge religious push here. And then yet there’s a definitely a very strong desire to connect with something beyond themselves. They just don’t call it God. It’s more what happens when you get outside. You connect with nature. [00:31:01][72.3]

[00:31:02] All right. Well, it’s in the Pacific Northwest is one of the least religious parts of our country. Well, what do you call yourself these days in terms of. [00:31:14][11.3]

[00:31:15] Religious perspective. [00:31:16][1.1]

[00:31:18] Well, you have to be a little bit careful because some of the atheist crew have slammed me for not coming out and saying I’m an atheist because what I say, I’m an apophatic, agnostic Anglican. I’m apophatic because I embrace the mystery. There’s just there’s something in this world that is just I go out nature and there’s something beyond me and I cannot fathom it. And I just want to sit and revel in it. And it takes me to a different place in a different state of being. I’m agnostic because I don’t know. And I’m going to probably stay that way for a good long while, if not the rest of my life. In many ways we don’t know and I won’t know until I die where I go. And the reason I say Anglican is my late father was an Episcopal priest. I jokingly say I was prenatal Episcopalian. If you take the line of succession seriously and that’s always going to be part of me in the same way that someone who was raised Jewish or raised Catholic, that’s part of my heritage. I’m not going to walk away from it, even though I don’t identify as a practicing Christian anymore. The Anglican way of scripture, tradition and reason does inform how I think and how I believe. [00:32:37][78.8]

[00:32:39] Yeah, I mean, it’s you know, when you’re exposed to that stuff from day one, it’s hard to you can’t pretend like it’s not a part of your your your upbringing, your. [00:32:52][13.7]

[00:32:54] Your point of view, I guess. [00:32:55][1.0]

[00:32:57] And also being Episcopalian and raised down south, I did have many of the same hatreds. I mean, the KKK came after my father in nineteen sixty four trying to integrate his church. So I do recall being told by evangelicals numerous times I was going to go to hell for a variety of things, from wearing pants to my dad wears a dress when he preaches at church to I drink wine at sun you name it. So in many ways I kind of identify with atheists and Jews. And to some extent, Catholics who were persecuted by the evangelicals or if not persecuted, seriously ridiculed for not conforming to their beliefs. [00:33:46][48.5]

[00:33:49] Yeah. [00:33:49][0.0]

[00:33:53] You you cite a lot of comedians in the book which made me smile many times. Kelly Carlin appeared on our stage at the Center for Inquiry in Los Angeles. I did a pilot with Lewis Black. You know, I used to do stand up comedy. So I opened for Bill Hicks years ago in the 90s, so you imagine all these people and use them to help sort of tell these stories and it keeps the book. [00:34:26][33.5]

[00:34:27] It keeps a lighter tone threaded through it throughout. [00:34:32][5.5]

[00:34:36] Well, thank you, that was definitely informed by my parents, who were very, very inappropriate, as I say in the book I was introduced to. Songs like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a dirty old man, my father would sing me the English versions of those lyrics. I was applauded when I would give Nixon the finger on television and I really just absorb, laugh it. And then as my family started to really implode from alcoholism, as both my parents died from the disease in the late 70s when I was a teenager, Monty Python happened to be coming on PBS and that was really soul saving, as was George Carlin. Humor has always been a way for me to laugh and stay sane no matter what. [00:35:25][48.5]

[00:35:27] Yeah, and I mean and we get great insights from some of these people, I mean, Carlyn, especially in his late years, ripped the hell out of organized religion and did so as social commentary. I mean, it was I found it funny. We were in the audience one time in Orange County and he just went into this tirade that lasted 10 or 15 minutes. And there wasn’t much laughs, I have to say, or was sort of uneasy laughs. I’m sure the crowd were at least a good part, Christian. But Carlin got away with it because, you know, he saw the humor in it. But it was also a legitimate social commentary. [00:36:09][42.8]

[00:36:12] And also, if you look at how George Carlin was treated by the nuns, it is not surprising. I mean, I if anything, I think he but he also had a very strong core of wanting to be human. I remember this one episode where he was doing a comedy bit of showing his dogs basically having sex with each other. And just he was happy to say something really horrible about the Catholic Church and then switched to his dogs or switched to baseball, which he had that amazing ability to slam something and then give us hope. I saw a very optimistic side. Of George Carlin, and then you have someone like Bill Hicks, I think Bill Hicks. I really regret that, that he died way too young because his voice was so important at pointing out the absolute hypocrisy of corporatization. And I and that to me that’s been one of the things about America is watching how Christianity has become completely corporatist in both the progressive and the evangelical wing. The biggest enemy to me, if you look at the whole Christian industrial complex and how everyone is doing things, ultimately, as I always say, follow the money and see who’s funding. And even among certain progressive causes, I would encourage people to look at the money. I mean, I had an instance where I was confronted, Rob Bell, who’s this one of Time magazine’s 100 greatest preachers and. He ended up taking money to start his ministry that made him Rabil from Betsi Divorce and people, yet he claims he’s pro LGBTQI. Now, explain that to me. Look at some of Jim Wallis of Sojourners funding. A lot of these people, they claim to be hipster and edgy, but ultimately they’re beholden to the Christian industrial complex that pays and funds their funds, so to speak. [00:38:17][124.7]

[00:38:18] Yeah, these are a lot of these you look at Rick Warren and some of these churches, they’re not all in the wall churches in the middle of a neighborhood somewhere. They’re mega churches and it’s their multimillion dollar operations. [00:38:32][13.4]

[00:38:34] Oh, yes, I mean, there’s and if you look at how you become a best selling New York Times author, you pay to play you. If you don’t play the game, you end up being kind of an outsider. And I think that’s ultimately what happened to Roger Williams. He wouldn’t play the God game. [00:38:50][15.4]

[00:38:52] Yeah, we wouldn’t play the politics game with the people who were. [00:38:56][4.1]

[00:38:58] Pushing God as part of their power structure, that fair? [00:39:02][4.3]

[00:39:04] Yes, I think it is definitely because even today, you see a lot of I see is more progressive religious, where they’re like, we’re going to try to build bridges, we want to try to find harmony. We want to try to find ways that we can promote what we want to say. We’re going to do what I call atheist outreach to a theism. And it’s to me how many people kind of buy into that for a little bit. It’s like, no, this person is not really trying to build your bridge. They’re trying to tap into the atheist market to line their pockets. Are they really trying to have honest dialog with you? The answer is probably no. They’re trying to profit from what they see as a another market. [00:39:51][46.8]

[00:39:52] Poses the fundamental problem with religious beliefs in general, because if you I mean, if you’re you know, the the hard right Christians believe that all of us are going to burn in hell. So that’s I mean, that’s a problem with. How do you how do you live your life and and treat people equally and have true friendships and stuff with that looming over all of our heads? [00:40:21][28.8]

[00:40:24] Well, I think what it has to do, and I’m looking at more the work of the family, the Council for National Policy, and it’s about what I would call Christian capitalism. It’s about how do you use a certain type of Christianity to advance your political agenda and maintain power? That’s exactly what Winthrop was about. So in some ways, you can say we’re snafu. [00:40:46][22.9]

[00:40:49] Well, yeah. So, Roger, he doesn’t play those games. He ends up he did live a long life, right? I mean, he lived to be 80 or something. [00:40:58][9.9]

[00:41:00] Yes, he did, but he could have lived a real comfortable life had he engaged in the. [00:41:09][9.3]

[00:41:11] Religious and political community that was in power, he could have lived a real comfortable, nice life, and it seems like he always assumed that. [00:41:23][12.7]

[00:41:25] Oh, definitely. I mean, people you look at, he was somebody who came under the influence of Coke and got a really good education of the Charvat Charterhouse School and then later Cambridge. He was a contemporary of Milton. He was teaching multiple languages. They’re both teaching each other different languages. He could have lived in the same kind of universe as Milton. How do you play his cards right then? A proper Anglican and kind of promoted a nice kind of tolerance without trying to be as strident as he was that he that’s not his personality and that’s not my personality either, which is why I’m not a Christian best selling author. [00:42:07][42.2]

[00:42:09] Yeah. Yeah. You’d have to sell out to do that. By the way, quick point of clarification. When you said the influence of Coke, you’re talking about a person named Coke in England. Yes. [00:42:20][11.9]

[00:42:21] Oh, definitely. I’m not talking about the drug. I’m not there’s no evidence that Roger was in the least bit. He was a very pious individual. There’s no evidence of him engaging in any hankie panky whatsoever with anyone other than his wife. [00:42:36][15.1]

[00:42:38] Yeah, he had some kids anyway. Thank goodness. Because you’re here with us. Yes. Thank you. [00:42:44][5.7]

[00:42:45] So how do you see the future unwinding with these evangelicals and people who are using the government to keep themselves and their religion in power? [00:42:58][12.9]

[00:43:00] I think it’s hard. Let me preface by saying. I don’t even think Roger Corman or Stephen King could have envisioned 20, 20, so I think to try to hypothesize where we’re going is very difficult. I think crumbed to me is the symptom, not the problem. It’s a larger issue we are having conversations with giving me hope is at the grass roots. I’m seeing people that want to get together and put people over politics. What does it mean? We come together and celebrate? What we have in common is our shared humanity. What happens? We look at each other as individuals are worthy of respect. We’re not there yet, but I am seeing that happening in small pockets is we are sorry. [00:43:52][52.1]

[00:43:52] Go. [00:43:52][0.0]

[00:43:54] No, but I’m also seeing and this is being realistic. If you read books like. Some of the books I’ve been reading lately about on civilization’s, I’m wondering we seem to be coming to the end of a civilization cycle. Karen Armstrong as well documented how we had these five hundred year shifts. And we seem to be at the end of what we seem to be hitting this era where everything is kind of at the decadence, degrading the final stages of something. So we’ve been having this experiment since, you know, Roger Woodhams time and it seems to be crumbling. What replaces that? I’m going to leave that up to the political and. Analysts and historians to analyze, but I am looking at the extreme rise of a nuts, over 50 percent of Americans are in favor of marriage equality, legalization of cannabis and a woman’s right to choose. You’re starting to see the emergence of alternative forms of sexuality like polyamory, open relationships, people realizing, especially the millennials, they’re not getting married, but they’re still anxious and wanting to live in community. So where all this means in the next ensuing decades, I don’t know. I’m seeing a rise of Generation Z wanting to make a difference. Look at how many kids are voting this year. So where this goes, I don’t have a crystal ball. As again, as I said, I’ve never, ever would have predicted 20, 20. But I’m trying to see hope it is I know it can be hard to see hope, but you look at the twenty twenty election, say these are my choices, but then look at the grass roots and see where you’re seeing local changes happening in the community for good. [00:45:45][110.9]

[00:45:47] Yeah, and there’s something just to be said about other generations just dying off and being replaced by, like you said, I mean, the the the younger people of every subsequent generation seems to be less religious, more socially conscience conscious of all these qualities that seem to be advances, at least in my to my humanist eyes. [00:46:13][25.8]

[00:46:15] And one thing I think it’s important, and this is is that of the nuns, only 16 percent of them are less than. Or somewhere, no, in that area identify as ardent atheist. A lot of them have what they would consider to be a spiritual core. It’s just not tied to a institutional faith. And where this is going to go, I don’t know. If you look at the reformation that happened, there was a tremendous amount of splitting and fracturing and then repurposing together. We’re now in that fracturing phase and I’m seeing some signs of some things being put together. What is it, three in 10? People under 30 call their religion, but it is really rising and others who call their religion something, how many of them are more cultural like I am, as opposed to actually being agnostic? And it’s also interesting with a whole lot of other developments you’re seeing, I mean, I’m looking at how the Metoo movement is forming. There’s and it could be some backlash going on for a while. But we’re looking at how do we create societies where everyone is considered equal based on their own worth, regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity and other markers that we’ve used to divide us in the past? [00:47:33][77.7]

[00:47:34] Right, and and these generations upcoming seem to that seems to be in their DNA way more naturally than it is to the generations that preceded them. [00:47:49][14.1]

[00:47:50] Oh, yes, I mean, I’ve seen younger people who for them, it’s like we’re going to compare it, the person who makes the most money is the one who may go out work and the other person is going to stay home. That would have been unthought of in my generation. The mere thought of a man choosing to stay home and raise a child. And people are making choices that work for their own ethical values, that work for them. You know, I’m also excited living here in Oregon. We’re about to vote in to legalize, you know, make psychedelic mushrooms legal. And that’s going to be very exciting for what that could do for helping to expand people’s consciousness and also treat some diseases like PTSD. I’ve seen what how cannabis is such an amazing medicinal healing tool for many people. These are some interesting developments that we’re now getting. The more we get in touch with nature and see what we can learn from nature, I think the better off we will be without the stigma of of past conceptions of. Those drugs or those ways of living well, if you look at this particular with the cannabis issue, that was the whole nature was calling it marijuana and under her Anslinger demonizing of people of color, especially the black people and Latino people. I mean, look at how they were using their force to stop with the most amazing forms of music, jazz from getting off the ground by demonizing criminalizing individuals such as Billie Holiday, which was just an absolute crime. But I do think that it’s interesting how the will of the people right now is not being expressed through our government. And that, I think, remains a huge problem. Those of us on the grassroots increasingly do not have a voice, and I’m not sure how that’s going to play out long term once whatever the election happens. I think I’m looking beyond the election because I think. And try to say hope where there is among the rise of, as I said, a form of what I call secular spirituality, these are people that want to explore being in community. They want to explore alternate ways of being. You know, we’re seeing rises of communities here in Portland. This really giving me a lot of hope in this regard. [00:50:22][152.0]

[00:50:26] Well, just to come full circle here, I know I believe secular people, atheists, agnostics, secular humanists will enjoy reading about Roger Williams. This is the book. Do you think religious people would enjoy it? [00:50:44][18.5]

[00:50:47] I think religious people who have an open mind. Could definitely benefit from it, because I think a lot of people I talk to, you know, why are you still going? To a church that no longer serves you in, one of the fears of leaving a church is leaving your community behind. And I wonder how many people who are trapped in a church that isn’t working for them. Is it meeting their needs? Have a thought that there are people? Now, as I mentioned in the book, they’re not always secular. I know a few religious people here in Portland that I’ve mentioned in the book who are for me, truly what I would consider to be inclusive. Communities that are welcoming to all these places do exist. And I know it’s scary to think about having to leave a community knowing I’m not going to have any friends. I’ll be all by myself. The answer is there’s a rise of people who are just like you. I’m seeing private groups on Facebook of people very slowly going, I’m not a Christian, what do I do? And you’re starting to find this happening. And I would encourage people not to turn to the religious leaders, the Christian best selling authors. They’re still Christian. They’re committed to the church institutional look for more people that are on the fringes. And I mentioned some of them in the book, but there’s others who is really doing the grassroots work that is truly welcoming, including. [00:52:16][88.7]

[00:52:16] All right. [00:52:17][1.0]

[00:52:19] Right, even the hard core atheist community at some level, and I think it’s also interesting to see that what I’m getting some hope from in the secular community is a move towards some kind of acceptance. At some point it was like, if you’re not an atheist, then you can go to hell, too. I mean, you can be a fundamentalist atheist. That is definitely something I’ve noticed where people say, if you don’t believe this and this and that now you can’t be an atheist. And I’m like, OK, that’s not the word. That’s not the Roger Williams way that I could think. [00:52:52][33.0]

[00:52:54] Around your with disapprove of that form of criticism. [00:52:56][2.8]

[00:52:58] You know what, I also am hoping that people, the secular community, one thing that gave me some hope is that when certain allegations came up against some eight, some members of the atheist community, to me it was dealt with in a very mature manner. You were looking at and I think humanists here’s an area where humanism I’d like to see them get more involved, is in the area of the issue of consent. Religious people and Christians often cannot have a honest conversation about human sexuality because it’s tied up in so much about biblical marriage. And even in the progressive communities, they’re not discussing polyamory and open relationships and ethical non monogamy. But here’s where I could see humanists having a very good position to have a conversation. What does it mean to have consensual relationships? So every relationship you enter into, whether it’s sexual, platonic. You know, intimate, romantic, familial, whatever, the people have their full autonomy and they’re engaging in relationships where everyone can have full consent, of course, within the laws of the legal system, and there are certain requirements if you’re a minor versus if you’re of age. But this is a very fruitful conversation that I’m hoping the humanist community can continue to have because they’re in a perfect position to initiate this dialog. [00:54:23][85.1]

[00:54:24] Right. We can have the conversation based on its merits and not be stuck to any old religious text rules. [00:54:33][8.0]

[00:54:34] Yes, and I said, as I noted, even in progressive circles, they’re still doing religious gymnastics using the Bible to try to get around. Well, here’s how you can have this, this and this and. The answer is humanism without having that can really have that conversation, and I’ve also appreciated watching. How do you have these conversations? How do you deal with a someone who tends to be a predator among people and who uses their position of power to engage in consensual relationships? How do you handle that? [00:55:10][35.7]

[00:55:11] Well, I want to thank you for joining me today. The book is Roger Williams Little Book of Virtues by Betty Garrison. Where can people find it? [00:55:22][10.9]

[00:55:23] It’s available at the I would say Amazon, if you don’t like Amazon, the stock website has it. It’s also available at other online bookstores. [00:55:34][10.9]

[00:55:35] And you can also just learn a little bit about Becky at Becky Garrison dot com. [00:55:40][5.2]

[00:55:41] Is there any other sources of people wanted to see if they want to follow me on Twitter and Becky Underscore Garrison. [00:55:48][6.8]

[00:55:48] Fantastic. Becky, thank you so much for being on point of inquiry today. [00:55:52][3.6]

[00:55:53] Well, thank you very much for having me. Much appreciated. [00:55:56][2.1]

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Jim Underdown

Jim Underdown

Jim Underdown is executive director of Center for Inquiry–Los Angeles, and the founder of the Independent Investigations Group.