When we arrived in Norris in the summer of 1949 there were only three religious congregations in the community. The largest of the three by far was the Norris Religious Fellowship. A very small group of Catholics had been worshiping together for well over a decade. In 1947 the first Baptist Church in Clinton established a small ministry in Norris. All three congregations were meeting in the Norris School building.
During the changeover of the town’s ownership from TVA to private (between 1948 and 1954) four ministries besides The Fellowship (as it was known) established churches in Norris – St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, the First Baptist Church, the St. Francis Episcopal Church, and the Norris United Methodist Church.
In November 1933, when TVA began the construction of Norris Dam, Arthur Morgan, the first board chairman, was adamant that TVA would not build a church in the town of Norris on constitutional grounds, which forbids the sponsorship and compulsion of religious exercise by government upon its citizens. Nevertheless, within the first month of the dam’s construction, Rev. C. C. Haun, a Congregational minister and a TVA employee, began conducting religious services at the Norris Community Building. These religious activities were not compulsory, yet were open to anyone interested.
By the summer of 1934 as more and more families moved into the newly constructed homes the need for a more formal religious association became apparent. TVA conducted a survey. The results of the questionnaire confirmed that 99 percent of the Norris residents preferred a cooperative community approach to fulfill their religious needs. As a result, in October 1934, the Norris Religious Fellowship was formed.
The members of The Fellowship came from very diverse backgrounds – both religiously and geographically. Though the membership was below the average age of most congregations, the majority was above average in education and intellect. From the very beginning all church activities were designed to provide ecumenical inspiration and enlightenment, so that each member could seek and find religious truth in their own way. Through a greater appreciation and understanding of the world’s major religions, the members of the Fellowship believed that the opportunity for spiritual growth would be enhanced.
Both of my parents were drawn to The Fellowship’s guiding principle (In things agreed upon unity, in other things liberty, in all things the will to be one) and the lack of a religious dogma and creed. However, it was rare, if not extraordinary, for my father to attend church. He had come to believe that religious faith and doctrine were liturgical nonsense, pious propaganda often administered by hypocrites.
My father’s disillusionment with religion came early. Growing up during the early 1900s in a small Alabama town northeast of Montgomery, my father’s family faithfully attended a small protestant evangelical church. The entire congregation of the church (including my father) believed beyond a shadow of doubt that their charismatic married minister was a conduit of God – that the Almighty spoke through him. That is, until he skipped town with all of the church’s funds in the arms of an underage female parishioner.
Though traumatic the experience was transformative. My father came to realize that faith (the belief in, devotion to, and the trust in someone or something, especially without logical proof) is ludicrous. When devotion and honorable behavior are coerced through indoctrination and/or proselytizing, using the fear of punishment and the prospect of reward, both the transaction and the conversion lack moral standing.
Moreover, as an adult my father was unable to reconcile the doctrine of a loving, omnipotent, all-knowing, and transcendent creator with reality. Both the Bible and life experience seemed to suggest that if God truly exists outside the mind of man, he must be cruel, manipulative, and sadistic – undeniably a deity to fear, but not one to worship.
Though my father may have recognized Saul of Tarsus (better known as the Apostle Paul) to be a highly eloquent, aggressive, fearless, and brilliant promoter, as well as the interpreter of the meaning of Christ throughout the world (then and now), my father did not agree with his interpretation nor his analysis “ . . . that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose." [Romans 8:28]
No, my father was more apt to agree (as I do) with Samuel Clemens that faith is believing what you know full well ain’t so, that the sure confidence with which we righteously reject other faiths as nonsense should teach us to suspect that ours is also, or with the title character in Archibald MacLeish's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, J.B. who expresses the theodicy paradox eloquently:
“If God is God He is not good,
If God is good He is not God,
Take the even, take the odd;
I would not sleep here if I could
Except for the little green leaves in the wood
And the wind on the water.”
Though The Fellowship had from time to time discussed the possibility of securing a place to worship, it was not until 1945 that it acquired a building of its own. Though not large enough to be used as anything but a classroom or an office, early that year it purchased from TVA an old fire hall on West Norris Road for $20. After the Fellowship obtained a state charter, TVA licensed The Fellowship to use a parcel of land east of the Norris School building on the corner of Dogwood and East Norris Roads. The old fire hall was then loaded on a truck and moved to the site. The Fellowship spent another $379.59 to renovate the small two-room building, calling it the Fellowship House. Nearly 70 years later, it still stands nestled in the trees near the educational building as testament of the Fellowship’s enduring legacy.
When my family became members of The Fellowship in 1949, the minister was Dr. Philip Burton (a Methodist) who had succeeded Thomas 'Scotty' Cowan (a Presbyterian) who served from 1939 to 1946. It was under Dr. Burton’s leadership that a building program was, at last, actualized.
However, in 1950 the cost to build both a sanctuary and an educational building was estimated to be over a $100,000. The Fellowship’s prospect of securing a sum of that amount was unpromising at best. So the membership chose to build the educational building first. In the interim the worship services and Sunday School classes continued to meet across Dogwood Road in the Norris School building .
Late in 1950 a site began to be cleared for the building. By April 1951 work was started on the foundation. Nearly all the work was voluntary and done by members of The Fellowship, which reduced the costs of construction considerably. Though the work moved slowly as money became available for purchase of materials by January 1953, services were conducted in the new educational building for the first time. This initial stage of the building project was completed free of debt.
Though I was too young at the time to offer valuable assistance, I do remember helping my father run electrical wiring throughout the building. Despite the fact that he continued to refrain from attending church, his electrical expertise and supervision were indispensable in the building’s successful completion.
During Dr. Burton’s tenure a number of innovative collaborations were initiated with other houses of worship in both Knox and Anderson counties. For example The Fellowship’s Young Peoples Group would often meet with and plan outings with Temple Beth El’s youth group in Knoxville and the Unitarian youth group in Oak Ridge.
Rabbi Marx from Temple Beth El also would on occasion fill-in for Dr. Burton during Sunday services. I remember Rabbi Marx as a very likable guy, with a pleasant personality and a good sense of humor, yet obviously extremely intelligent.
On January 2, 1955, Dr. Burton resigned to become the minister of a community church at Westport, Oregon. Immediately, a pulpit committee began to hold a series of small group meetings of the membership to find a successor for Dr. Burton. In the interim, the Rev. Daniel M. Welch (a Unitarian) led services while the pulpit committee sought a new minister.
On March 27, 1955, shortly after he graduated from the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, the Rev. Sterling W. McHarg, (of the Christian Church) preached his first sermon as minister of The Fellowship. It was under his guidance that the building program continued through fruition. On July 26, 1956, ground was broken for the sanctuary. Once again, it was constructed almost entirely by volunteer labor from members of The Fellowship. Though few, if any, had careers in the building trades, they became unpaid carpenters, electricians, painters, and roofers. Every weekend for three years the men of The Fellowship worked on the building. Some worked nights and on holidays. Others (both men and women), who were unable to help with the actual construction, contributed to the effort in other ways. For example, the Women’s Fellowship made substantial financial contributions, as well as preparing and serving meals to the Saturday and Sunday construction crews.
Long before the sanctuary was completed my labor contributions became, if not significant, substantial. My father’s electrical expertise and supervision remained indispensable. On July 26, 1959, exactly three years to the day after the groundbreaking, the sanctuary was consecrated.
From its inception The Fellowship sought ways to express its religious convictions in acts of service. Under the direction of The Fellowship’s first paid minister, Rev. Thomson, in 1936 a plot of land was purchased and members of The Fellowship built a five-room house for a family of 11 whose two-room log cabin had burned down in the small community of Vasper near Lake City.
Over the years working with other Norris churches, the Women’s Fellowship (founded in June, 1939) has helped provide food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and utilities for countless individuals and families throughout the county and the region. Much of the money to finance these acts of service was raised by the annual Church Bazaar and other fund raising events of the Women’s Fellowship.
The Fellowship’s Young Peoples Group was also involved in many fund raising and service projects. During Halloween each year, the group would gather in the educational building, divide up into small groups and canvas the town, trick-or-treating for UNICEF. Afterward we would return with our donations and then play games, pull taffy, and party.
For many years the entire town would also gather in the Norris School auditorium for a Halloween costume competition. The evening was always immensely entertaining. There were awards given for both children and adults. The grand prize inevitably would go to Gary Fuis (at least twice). There was always great anticipation each year on what inventive costume Gary and his father would devise. They entered their most memorable creation the year that Gary came as the Headless Horseman, with a remarkable likeness of his head tucked under his right arm.
If I’m not mistaken that was the same year (possibly 1955 or 1956) my father won for most original adult costume when he came dressed as Hazel – Ted Key’s famous cartoon character – the wry, take-charge, live-in maid of the Baxter family. In 1961 the single-panel comic strip that ran in the Saturday Evening Post for many years was adapted into a sitcom for NBC, starring Shirley Booth as Hazel. Though Ms Booth received two Emmys and a number of nominations for her performance as Hazel, I must admit that I’m rather partial to my father’s incomparable presentation of the character.
I will never forget watching him haughtily saunter down the center isle of the standing-room-only packed auditorium wearing a black dress with a little white frilly headpiece, collar and apron, carrying a broom. As a murmur of laughter began to swell from the folks in the back rows, heads in the front of the auditorium began to turn. Soon the entire audience was roaring hysterically. By the time my father reached the stage everyone was standing, enthusiastically applauding his performance.
As a child the major influences on the development of my philosophical belief system (beyond The Fellowship community, my parents, friends and neighbors) came from two sources – literature (mainly from Samuel Clemens, Victor Hugo and H. G. Wells) and the international community through radio and television.
As I have mentioned before, my mother was a prolific reader of both fiction and non-fiction. She read to me all of the classics. We had a large number of books in our home, including a set of the Great Books and the Encyclopedia Britannica. The community library was also well used.
My father loved crossword puzzles. Though he only had a fifth-grade education, he became a master of solving them. He believed that the best part of solving a good crossword puzzle was learning something new. Therefore, reference books were essential in our home, including dictionaries, atlases, and a good encyclopedia, all of which were well used. And, not just by my father. Through his own experience he learned that the process of looking something up was extremely beneficial in developing memory and expanding knowledge. As a result, instead of directly answering a question you knew full well he knew the answer to, he would often say, “look it up.”
My mother was an avid listener to WOR out of New York City and the Long John Nebel's radio talk show. On Friday nights I would often sit up and listen with her late into the wee-small-hours. A frequent guest of Long John’s was a man by the name of Khigh Dheigh (pronounced Kye Dee). If you ever saw the original Manchurian Candidate, he was Dr. Yen Lo or if you ever watch Hawaii Five-O, he was Chinese agent Wo Fat.
Khigh Dheigh was not just an actor. He had a doctorate in theology and in his later years was the Rector for a Taoist Sanctuary in Tempe, Arizona called Inner Truth Looking Place. Though there were many, the one phrase I heard him speak back in 1958 when I was only 14 years old that I have never forgotten was, "If you only know one religion you know none."
From that point on I began a life quest to learn as much as I possibly could about all of the world’s religions. In the possess I soon realized that religion, a belief system which attempts to explain the cause and nature of the Universe and the purpose of life through a belief in a supernatural being, made no sense to me. It still doesn’t.
To this day I have never been able to rap my mind around the concept. It is totally illogical. The Universe, to me, appears infinite, both in time and space, having no beginning and no end. And, therefore, no place for an omnipotent creator to reside or exist.
Of course, I recognize the paradox of an infinite Universe being made up of what seems to be finite creations (like myself) that come into existence and sooner or later become extinct – “For dust thou art, and unto dust thou shall return.” [Genesis 3:19] This is merely the 'changing nature' of what is, the transformation of matter into energy and energy into matter.
It’s a fact: life is not everlasting. Though the phenomenon may be absurd and discomforting to the mind of man, it gives me no solace whatsoever to perceive what is as what isn’t. My thoughts, beliefs and the writing of this memoir are the mere, yet phenomenal result, of an evolutionary history that stretches back billions of years, if not forever.
Throughout my childhood I received no religious indoctrination from anyone within The Fellowship community, including my parents. I was not only free, but encourage to actively explore and seek truth were ever I might find it. From everyone I received moral guidance through their words and conduct, which always seemed to be consistently harmonious.
Believers in the supernatural define atheism as the rejection of the belief in the existence of a deity. Therefore, according to their definition, I am not an atheist for I do not deny or reject their belief in the existence of a deity. I merely hold that nothing supernatural exists in or outside the Universe other than that which exists within their minds. One cannot reject or deny what does not exist.
Circular reasoning in which the proposition to be proved is assumed implicitly or explicitly within the premise is illogical and fallacious. Conjuring up a mental concept or image and then asserting that it must exist for others to perceive is not only irrational it is insane.
The fundamental difference between those who are religious and those who are not is that those who believe in the existence of the supernatural do so by faith and faith alone. Faith (when used in a religious or theological context) does not rest on logical proof or material evidence. It implies a trusting reliance and/or confident belief in a supernatural and transcendent reality beyond what is real, self-evident, certain, demonstrable and natural.
Granted there may be an array of reasons why an individual may choose to believe in a transcendent reality. For over half a century I have read, studied and discussed the historical, philosophical and psychological development of religious beliefs, teachings and practices throughout the world. I conclude that most folks (historically and presently) who believe in a divine presence do so out of fear and ignorance – a fear of the ultimate unknown (death) and an ignorance (lack of knowledge) of the historical and scientific evidence of what is.
I recognize that it is extremely difficult to deal with the absurdity of life and death. The human mind naturally seeks meaning and purpose. I understand how mysticism, a belief in a supernatural omnipotent being with universal authority and power, could provide comfort and support in a meaningless Universe. I have no quarrel with anyone’s beliefs as long as they remain benign and do not inflict harm on others.
With that said, a quest for the truth to understand what is and the questionable conviction that God is the answer are significantly different endeavors. One is intellectually honest and the other is not. For thousands of years we have been told that without religion human beings are no more than ruthless egocentric animals fighting for our share of life’s sustenance. Only through religion and God’s grace and forgiveness can we acquire a moral compass.
Nonsense! In fact, both logic and history inform us that religion actually prevents us from fulfilling our evolved intrinsic moral responsibilities. With our highly developed mental capacity to choose one action over another, our motives (not our theology) are what determine our moral competence. In fact, if there were a god, one would have to ignore its existence in order for one’s motives to be pure, honorable, and just – a mental hurdle, which is impossible to accomplish.
What determines whether an act has been morality initiated is motive (the reason one chooses to act in a particular way). A belief in the supernatural (as history has clearly shown) has never guaranteed obedience to the laws of any religious faith, let alone adherence to any moral standard. Moreover, it should be obvious that morality becomes corrupted when our motives are influenced or manipulated by the benevolence and/or fear of God or by any reward and/or punishment.
Therefore, the choice of a particular action or course one chooses (if it is to be moral) must always be carefully and cognitively selected. Morality does not require one to be heroic, to disregard one’s interests over the interests of others. It merely obliges that the basic needs and interests of other sentient beings should always take precedence over one’s wanton desires. In other words, reciprocity is essential. We must care for others, as we would like for them to care for us.
Furthermore, morality cannot be arbitrary. In order to truly live a moral life one must treat all living sentient beings with the same consideration and respect, and not just the members of one’s family, community, nation, race, ethnic heritage, gender, religious affiliation, philosophical perspective, political ideology, and/or species. I would also add that morally we are obliged to revere and care for all non-sentient elements of the Universe that provide and sustain life.
Clearly the concept of the supernatural and the ethic of reciprocity originate from the human mind, however, one is most often fashioned and formed from fear and ignorance while the other is inspired by a desire to do what is right and just.
Intellectual integrity demands the truth. More likely than not, if the powers of the supernatural were perceived by its believers to be ineffective (unable to reward or punish), the number of so-called non-believers would greatly increase, immediately reducing the theological exploitation of ignorance and fear.
Without the reward of Heaven and the damnation of Hell, Christianity would not have become one of the world’s foremost religions. It would have remained an insignificant Jewish sect if Saul of Tarsus and other early Christian leaders had not been so successful in convincing gentiles that "God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
Is it not self-evident that there is absolutely nothing moral about that declaration? Though it was (and remains) a highly successful marketing ploy, it is, in fact, a veiled threat, exploiting man’s fears and ignorance and not a moral initiative.
Most, if not all, belief systems have within their constituencies zealots and fanatics – whether they are based on a systematic and logical quest to comprehend the unknown, or rooted in some repressive religious faith devised to cope with the absurdity and reality of life and death. When a belief system requires an acceptance and affirmation from others, beware! Proselytizing will only be the first of many perverse tactics employed to try and convert non-believers. Ultimately, if all else fails, the definitive tactical strategy becomes intimidation through terrorism and murder.
Nearly every religion (including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, as well as the teachings of Confucius and other ethical philosophers) has proclaimed that the most concise and fundamental principle of morality is the Ethic of Reciprocity (more commonly known as The Golden Rule). Nevertheless, many, if not most, religious leaders (in the name of their deity) end up using perverse manipulation to win over converts -- the reward of salvation and the fear of everlasting damnation in order to intimidate and “scare the hell out” of their followers.
The members of most of these religious faiths are able to site numerous religious passages and texts to validate and defend there depraved actions. The U. S. slave trade, for example, was justified through scripture. There are many passages within the Bible that clearly promote and approve of slavery, informing the reader of how to obtain slaves, how hard to beat them, and even when and how one may have sex with them.
There are countless passages from the Torah, the Bible and the Qur'an that provoke and encourage their followers to subdue and murder their religious rivals. When the fundamentalist believers in the supernatural unequivocally believe that their sacred text is the divine word of God almighty, there is absolutely nothing anyone can do or say to prevent their holy wrath from venting itself.
Besides, they are only following the lead of the supernatural fathers of their faiths. Revealed within all these sacred texts is a manipulative and sadistic being with a serious personality disorder. A being that has demonstrated time and time again within the pages of these revered so-called sacred writings a pervasive pattern of cruel, demeaning and aggressive behavior, using physical cruelty and violence for the purpose of establishing dominance, while seeming to be amused by and taking pleasure in both the psychological and physical abuse and suffering of all living sentient creatures.
No wonder throughout history most human cruelty has been initiated by proponents of one religion or another. Despite what they wish for us to believe, morality does not reside with the believers in the supernatural. In fact, unlike non-believers, there are (as I have tried to articulate) some daunting self-imposed impediments that must be overcome in order for believers in the supernatural to fulfill their moral responsibilities.
In closing, though there is nothing better than a good laugh (except maybe a good sneeze and, of course, that toe-curling wave of pleasure that makes even us so-called atheists call-out for God) I am compelled to ask: why would anyone revere an omnipotent being who could have easily created fearless, intelligent, and decent human beings, yet obviously preferred to make fearful, ignorant, and corrupt ones; who could have easily created a heaven here on earth, but chose to created a world of suffering for millions of innocent men, women, and children, as well as other sentient beings; who espouses justice, mercy, forgiveness, and the Golden Rule, while utilizing the fear of damnation and hell as a contrivance to intimidate and coerce his imperfect creations to do good works; who mouths morals to all his flawed offspring, and yet, lacks the understanding that morality can neither be arbitrary nor be promoted with promises of reward and/or threats of punishment; who states in Leviticus 25:44 that one may actually possess slaves provided they are purchased from a neighboring nation; and who hypocritically condemns immorally offensive acts, while committing them all himself, proudly proclaiming them throughout his so-called Holy Scripture?
Though they may be sufficient to keep you in line
Though they may be sufficient to keep you in line,
Reward and punishment are never divine.
For there's nothing more deceitful or insincere
Than honor or favor based upon profit or fear.
So, if you adhere to a straight and narrow path
Simply because you fear the fate of pharaoh's wrath,
Or worship a deity so that you might live in
Some celestial city for the freely forgiven,
You might as well sell the devil your soul
For all his apparel, his revel and gold.
For if fear's your motive or gain's your aim,
However you so live, the verdict's the same.
For in truth, the only truth there is to live by,
Isn't a tooth for a tooth or an eye for an eye.
It's never let your fear, your desire, or your greed
Ever interfere with another's dire need.
Although actions, for sure, speak louder than words,
If your motives aren't pure nothing else will be heard.
So, whatever your fate, your reward, or your plight,
Choose love over hate, never wrong over right.