Bill O’Reilly and Me
Thank God I’m an Atheist
By Carl Finamore
Bill O’Reilly new book is entitled "A Bold, Fresh Piece of Humanity." It’s a rather strange formulation. Most of us probably have not had the distinction of being described as a "piece" and those that have would normally take offense.
But, then again, Bill O’Reilly is not easily offended because he is too busy being offensive. It’s his calling card and he makes a good living off it.
Now, 50 years after his third-grade teacher, Sister Lurana, uttered those fateful words of his book title, the man says it describes "the essence of Bill O’Reilly." Pretty lofty stuff.
O’Reilly promises readers "will learn how his traditional outlook was formed in the crucible of his family, his neighborhood, his church, and his schools, and how his views on America’s proper role in the world emerged."
Now this would otherwise not have the slightest interest for me, but it appears Bill O’Reilly and I have something in common. We both attended Catholic schools in the 1950s and 1960s and both came from devout religious families.
So, I began to think how and why our religious education affected us so differently. O’Reilly emerged from the experience as a right-wing, self-proclaimed enemy of "secularism," whereas I emerged as a left-wing thinker and atheist. O’Reilly has sappy school-boy recollections, whereas my recollections yield memories of a stifling academic environment hostile to debate and critical discussion.
Now, this is not a review of O’Reilly’s book. That would require me shelling out $26 and actually reading through the text. That is not going to happen.
You see, I already have an opinion of the man. I consider him a blabbermouth bully hosting a "show" that should be sued by World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) for copyright infringement. In fact, O’Reilly very much resembles Bobby "The Brain" Heenan of WrestleMania fame in the 1980s.
Remember him? Bobby would strut around the ring with glib responses to questions, fast answers and outrageous declarations.
Just like O’Reilly, Bobby stretched the truth by calling himself a "broadcast journalist," despite references to his wrestling critics as "humanoids" and "ham-and-eggers."
But the similarities end there. Bobby never meant any real harm to anyone. His humiliation of opponents was laughable and was intended to be so.
Not so with O’Reilly. It’s just not possible for him to conceal his deeply-embedded frustration and even virulent hatred for those with whom he disagrees. It all comes out in periodic eruptions such as his recently televised, vein-popping tirade against Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) over the mortgage crisis.
Indeed, O’Reilly’s frightening mean streak often shatters his carefully cultivated veneer of Irish charm. But I suspect the source of O’Reilly’s combative, often ugly defense of his self-described "traditional outlook" may actually be those youthful experiences that began with the good Sister Lurana.
I can believe it. Both personal experience and my own intellectual development have taught me that the clergy are metaphors for the police, courts and government, just as centuries ago Popes were the spiritual surrogates for the monarchy. Strict adherence to religious orthodoxy has always been designed to curtail rebellious impulses, especially among young people. It’s all about preserving the existing class structure of society.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the reactionary Cardinal Spellman of New York City, often referred as the American Pope, embodied this religious rigidity and social authoritarianism. There was no brutal, murderous dictator on earth denied Spellman’s celestial blessings. The cardinal was wined and dined by Batista in Cuba, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Stroessner in Paraguay, and Somoza in Nicaragua.
His busy CIA travel schedule still left time to enthusiastically support the Joe McCarthy witch hunt; severely criticize baseball legend Leo Durocher for marrying a woman of Jewish faith; and stridently condemn a few books and movies along the way.
The religious message of Spellman and his type really meant: "Don’t Fight the Power."
Of course, uncritical acceptance of the Church hierarchy and their ideology has always been contrary to educating critical thinkers. Rejection of rational discussion in favor of Church "infallibility" severely harms the human spirit, dampens curiosity and curtails debate and discussion.
Recall poor Galileo. On orders from the Pope, he spent his last few remaining years under house arrest for producing evidence that the sun, not the earth, was at the center of our solar system. (1)
In our time, the dark consequences of uncritical acceptance of Church authority revealed itself most vividly and tragically in the unchecked, deviant conduct of thousands of child-abusing Catholic clergy.
As a product of Catholic education, I knew nothing of such devastating childhood traumas at the time. Nonetheless, my Catholic education changed my life, though not in the way Church officials intended.
Authority becomes Authoritarian
In 1958, I was among the 1300 students from mostly working-class families who attended Our Lady of Victory grade school on the northwest side of Chicago. All the teachers were Franciscan nuns. Of course, there were very dedicated and caring nuns and priests at the school but, unfortunately, the bad ones made the biggest impression on me.
There is a reason for that. Those entrusted with my care were never held accountable for unacceptable behavior. Challenging the nuns and priests was simply not done. They were untouchable. Not even my loving parents would take my side when they were called to the Church rectory to discuss my "rebellious attitude."
My rebellion began in the fourth grade when I was ten years old. Like most youngsters, I was naturally curious and full of questions. I went to school wanting to learn as much as possible.
In class one morning, we were discussing science with Sister Estelle. This nun was probably in her late 70s, having endured a lifetime of being clothed in medieval black robes covering her whole body except small parts of her face.
Any normal person must certainly internalize the effects of decades of emotional denial and restraint nuns of that era suffered. Consequently, Sister Estelle was no one to mess with. She kept a ruler in her hand ready to mete out street justice to anyone who challenged her.
In any case, I had often been the target of her wrath so I was on my best behavior that day. I knew instinctively it was not good to ask her a question she could not answer. Predictably, such impudence would arouse her rage.
But I had a question. I wanted to know how rain fell from the sky. So I took the risk and speaking as softly and with as much deference as I could muster, I asked my question. Sister Estelle hesitated for a few seconds before responding. "The tops of mountains poke holes in passing clouds and the rain falls out," she explained.
Brilliant. It was so simple even I could understand. I was very appreciative. With all her faults, I thought at least I could learn something in her class. But later that day another thought hit me: There are no mountains in Chicago. In fact, Chicago has to be one of the flattest places on earth. I had never seen anything in the city even remotely resembling a hill.
So how does it rain in Chicago when there are no mountains to poke holes in the clouds? I had the youthful audacity to return to class the next day, cautiously raise my hand and say, "Sister Estelle, yesterday you said it rains when mountain tops poke holes in the clouds. But there are no mountains in Chicago."
That was it. She hesitated only slightly before rushing down the aisle and smacking me right across the face. "You smart-Alec, don’t you talk back to me." After a few years of both seeing and feeling this mistreatment, I had enough.
From that day forward, I declared to my Mom and Dad that I did not believe in God, would not go to Church, and was definitely not a Catholic. Needless to say this was both dramatic and shocking to my innocent, kind parents.
In fact, it was so shocking they didn’t believe me. That was good, because I didn’t want to upset them, I loved them. Of course, as a ten year old it was also true that I really was not sure of what exactly I was saying.
I only knew my defiance was my own slap in the face to those who would control me rather than teach me. I was putting a plan into action. I began to dispute everything they wanted me to believe that was only based on faith. In fact, I had no faith in them. They had betrayed my trust and would never earn it back. I can thank the ignorance of Sister Estelle for teaching me the value of thinking for myself.
Rebellion: Act One
Soon after, I was asked to be an altar boy. I refused. The nuns and priests could not believe their ears. I was the first child to ever refuse this "honor." But they still forced me to go to formal classes. I was finally drummed out because I refused to learn key Latin phrases required at the time. At the tender age of ten, I had my first successful experience with civil disobedience.
Later, I felt bad about missing out on learning Latin because it would have at least been progress in my education.
My encounters with priests were not much better. Years and years of unrealistic, secluded and denied lives took its toll on them, just as it had warped the personalities of many nuns.
The Church pastor was the elderly Father Fitzgerald. In the mornings, I would give the obligatory "Good Morning, Father" as we passed in the hallways and he would literally growl and sneer an undecipherable response.
I couldn’t understand why he reacted to me in that way and tried to avoid him. I now understand with adult insight why he was so angry and detached. Clearly, he was an alcoholic.
Sadly, several other priests had unmistakable symptoms of this terrible disease which I could not recognize as a child.
O’Reilly’s book cover features him in 1957 at eight years old with his hair neatly combed and slicked back while impeccably dressed in the traditional First Communion white pants and suit jacket.
He is posed at stiff attention with prayer book in hand. The young O’Reilly appears as the angelic, good Catholic-boy idyllic public image the Church liked to project.
But at my school around the same time, things did not go so well during one memorable First Communion ceremony. In fact, Father Sullivan was so drunk that he placed two Holy Eucharist Hosts in the extremely small mouths of the row of seven-year old First Communicants. He did not realize his error until the kindly Father O’Donnell and several nuns in the side vestibule began wildly waving their hands to get his attention.
Of course, Host wafers are considered sacred embodiments of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Handing out two Hosts was truly an extraordinary lapse.
What was Father Sullivan’s response when he realized his grave error? He abruptly and dismissively waved away the nearly-traumatized seven-year old children. I had a front-row view of this outrageous act of Fatherly irresponsibility and distinctly remember the look of utter horror in the eyes of these poor First Communicants.
Like me, they were trained to never question authority. If a priest gives you two Eucharist Hosts, just open your mouth and take them. Then shut up.
Trained to be obedient, they were all frozen, kneeling at the altar staring in utter disbelief. I had a different reason for my silence. I wasn’t going to tell Father Sullivan he was making a grave error. In fact, I wanted his faults to be exposed. I wanted everybody to see these priests and nuns were not infallible. They made mistakes like everyone else.
In time, I would realize neither Sister Estelle, Father Fitzgerald nor Father Sullivan would ever be held personally accountable for their actions. But I also began to realize the problem was bigger than these individuals. The Church, as an institution, acted to protect itself rather than acting to protect me and the other students.
This was a huge revelation to me.
Opening My Eyes to the World
My plan in response was to overcome the odds against getting a good education by seeking the truth elsewhere. Fortunately, the world was changing considerably at the time. The youth rebellion of the 1960s challenged all levels of authority and sought alternative explanations for everything. Discussions and debates were occurring often and on an extremely wide variety of topics. I fit right in. My real education took place outside Catholic school.
I grew to believe religion was nothing more than primitive fantasies intended to substitute for genuine scientific inquiry. I found the whole idea of a Supreme Being to be both a preposterous fairy tale and a serious obstacle to understanding, explaining, and investigating the world around us.
Of course, many individual Catholics act with deep compassion and humanity guided by earnest religious convictions. In fact, I continue to admire my boyhood heroes, Fathers Daniel and Philip Berrigan, who acted selflessly against the militarism and greed in our society. At one time, these brave, non-violent peace activists were both listed among the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted fugitives. Another personal hero is Father Roy Bourgeois who is still at it. He was recently threatened with Papal excommunication for his outspoken support of ordaining women priests.
But I consider the admirable personal actions of some Catholic clergy and believers not indicative of the otherwise sterile, reactionary essence of the institution of the Church and its "infallible" theology.
As George Carlin said in one his frequent sacrilegious bits: "Why pray if everything is already worked out by an invisible man in the sky. I say man because no woman would ever screw things up this bad."
To those who pray as a substitute for rational thinking, I also prefer Carlin’s recommendation to "just flip a coin or wear a rabbit’s foot, it gives you the same random odds as praying to God or any of the other superstitions available."
Besides, I can’t forget the example of Fredo Corleone in The Godfather. Hoping to gain an edge in catching fish, Fredo said a "Hail Mary" only to be shot dead and dumped right in the middle of the lake for his efforts.
For myself, I long ago left behind any belief in superstitions and any allegiance to absolute authority. I can thank my Catholic education for that.
Bill O’Reilly and I, it would seem, both got something out of the whole experience.
Carl Finamore agrees with Woody Allen that "after we die, there is nothing, so get over it." Until that time comes, he is living it up in San Francisco where he can be reached at [email protected]
1 A brief commentary on how fiercely even the modern Church favors Biblical revelations over facts. The same Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, acting on directives from the Inquisition, who ordered Galileo to not "hold or defend" the idea the earth moves and the Sun stands still at the center, was not only Sainted in 1930 but declared a Doctor of the Church. A Church near my Chicago neighborhood carries his name. Even more revealing, the current Pope Benedict XVI caused a stir when he favorably quoted a leading Catholic philosopher who wrote that the Church’s "verdict against Galileo was rational and just…."