A Pagan, a Secular Humanist, and the Beauty of Biblical Freedom

John C. Rankin

(March 11, 2014)

The beauty of biblical freedom can be profiled in two episodes I have had sharing it with skeptics. In one instance I hosted Margot Adler as my guest at a Mars Hill Forum at Yale University in the fall of 1994. Margot is a reporter for National Public Radio (NPR), and author of the widely read Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today, and herself a “non-supernatural” practitioner of Wiccan rituals.

Her book starts with a direct challenge to the “Judeo-Christian” tradition as being exploitative, against human freedom in many ways, and Margot celebrates a pagan definition of freedom – freedom from sin and guilt, “religion without the middleman.” She also relays the Wiccan creed: “An ye harm none, do what ye will.” In other words, a negative Golden Rule designed for a freedom without other boundaries. Yet during and after the forum itself, Margot expressly thanked me for my definition of the biblical freedom as defined by the ethics and power of informed choice. She affirmed its essence as something she already embraced, bearing witness to the universal nature of God’s image.

Most poignant was the testimony of a woman student. She stood up in the audience and said it was the most beautiful definition of freedom she had ever heard, and then publicly lamented how she had never heard it when growing up in the church. After the forum, she described to me how she worshiped “the goddess” and subscribed to an “earth-based religion,” or in other words, a type of pantheism. She said she did so because it gave her a sense of tranquility to have her religion in the midst of nature, among a circle of like-minded women friends, and it set her free from her experience in the church, which was one of rigidity and deadness. She then asked, “Have you ever preached this in churches? Do you speak to college students about this? You should.”

Then, in 1995, I was meeting at the headquarters of Dr. Paul Kurtz’s international secular humanist organization outside Buffalo. I joined Paul for a free-flowing conversation, along with Tim Madigan, then editor of Free Inquiry, and Dr. Gordon Stein, editor of the Encyclopedia of Unbelief. In the conversation, Tim affirmed all the biblical ethics of which I spoke, then said, “But John, aren’t you just a nice guy who is adding these ethics to the Bible to make it more palatable?” I assured him, that while I appreciate being called a nice guy, no, I was not adding them to the Bible – I was deriving them from the Bible on its own terms.

Gordon Stein then challenged me. “John,” he said, “I am sure I can find scholars at Harvard or elsewhere who will disagree with your definition of freedom in Genesis.” I answered, “Gordon, you can find many scholars at Harvard or elsewhere who will disagree with the trust I place in the Bible as God’s inspired Word. But you cannot find one scholar who can give evidence that I have misrepresented what Genesis 2 says on its own terms, about how it defines freedom.”

The difficulty Gordon had was simple. He was an avowed atheist, and viewed the Bible as inimical to freedom. However, he loved the definition of freedom I gave him as rooted in the ethics and power of informed choice. He was just disappointed to see such a positive definition in Genesis of all places, and he could not supply a superior definition of human freedom from any competing source.

My very first Mars Hill Forum had been with Gordon (March, 1993). The last time I saw him was about 1996 at a Secular Humanist conference in Toronto. He said to me: “John, it’s too bad you’re a Christian, because you’re a nice guy …” I did not know at the time he was was terminally ill with cancer, and being in his early to mid-fifties. He struck me as a lonely person, and I pray that as the veil opened into eternity he saw that in Jesus his heart and mind finds true satisfaction.

Here was a man who in my three encounters with him, responded more graciously each time. In the 1993 forum, at the University of Hartford, he did not allow me to audiotape it for my purposes, though he did so for his own. He spoke of one case where he felt an audiotape of him was used manipulatively by a Christian with whom he had addressed a debate. I was free to let him set these guidelines.

Addendum: When I was on www.foxnews.com, The Strategy Room, October 2, 2009, one of my co-panelists, secular humanist Michael De Dora, had perused the website the night before. He was happily surprised by its content, “different than what I expected,” and praised its structure and ease of navigation (designed by a Christian friend who maintains the website for the world’s largest developer of corporate websites). I seek to speak the truth, with rigorously biblical thinking in place, and always in an open-ended fashion where believers and honest skeptics likewise feel welcome.