The season changing to autumn has long been my emotional and reflective season, not that any reflection off my side is likely to blind anyone with illumination. Coolness in the air and the de-greening of foliage are visible signs of time passing in the block form of the seasons. The change often made me sad. Perhaps this was selfish sadness that the warm easy days of casual wear would soon be replaced with being shrouded in wool and parkas, or a schoolboy sadness knowing the drone of mathematical preaching would soon be my sorrowful pleasure to enjoy. It was in leaf falling season that I came closest to embracing my own mortality, and the same season a few years later I parted deliberately and firmly from the faith I was raised in from birth.

I don’t intend to make this too long or too serious. Most readers will know I’m as religious as any other balsam fir in the north shore forest. Perhaps I should say religious in a faith-community, church-going context. Some folks are comfy in church. I am not, and it was with considerable relief that I quit attending the weekly ritual I found quite boring and irrelevant to my circumstance. I prefer going it alone, which may explain why I’m up the shore in the lawless regions of peaceful freedom, where neighbors are neither seen nor heard. But with autumn tossing leaves outside my door, I’m reminded that even the sternest loner can be tempted to take a look back at what it was he or she so firmly rejected.

So there I was last Sunday, walking out of a church. I’m as surprised as anyone, especially as I wasn’t wearing a disguise and attended in a place where I’m generally known as anything but the church-going type. Regardless if you are religious and belong to a faith community or not, there are none of us who escape the influence (if only reactionary) of organized religion in our communities and nation. For some it may be a case of knowing the enemy to keep an eye on the doings of our churches. There is that because few things match religious zeal for denying life and liberty to others who are different or think contrarily. It’s been my personal conviction that only a strong secular state preserves us from religious extremism, and anything weakening that protection is of immense potential danger. Some religious people lament the godless secular state, but let me remind you and them that through history and in the present, there is nothing so devoted to crushing spiritual life as zealous religion intent on replacing spirituality with rote observance and obedience to sectarian rule.

It happened that the Sunday sermon drew on the gospel lesson for the day where one of the apostles wrote to distant Christians reminding them of essential roles and duties. Among those was a wife’s duty to be subservient to her husband. Can you see the red flags pop up over that? It’s as if the church filled suddenly with bright crimson maple leaves ahead of season. I had to wonder how the sermon was going to handle the specific injunction for wives to be subservient. It was, I think, a case where secular influence about human and individual rights helps turn religious zeal from blunder, but there is more.  Many churches recognize a historic context. In this case the preacher pointed out that in the era the gospel was written, wives and children were considered a man’s property, and that common usage at the time could not help but influence the writer. A point was also made that a better gauge was the example of the Christ setting a tone of Christian marriage as more equitable than the pagan mode of ownership.

To be honest, these approaches do not answer and satisfy all objections, nor do I have time here (or inclination) to belabor the topic. I think it is enough to say that awareness and willingness to dialog are good things in a religion, in society, and in personal relationships. I need not get wrapped up in virgin birth, miracles, or other fine points to have a reasonable appreciation for religion when it tries to promote understanding and does not depend on stricture or coercion to promote a supposed goodly life. I can think of few things less goodly and less godly than religious enforcement, which is so unfortunately prevalent in far too many settings, most especially where church and state are combined to form a death grip of gender repression and sectarian discrimination that can more easily be tagged fascist than be called religious or spiritual.

My experience at church last Sunday and my appreciation of religious or spiritual values are not the business of anyone but myself. Despite the pomposity of know-it-all clerics with a propensity to yowl and who dress in funny ancient garb, my nonattendance to their regular ranting may be a higher sign of piety than listening to their empty blather. Do they know I take belief less seriously than them simply because I don’t set, kneel, or kowtow on cue? If going through the motions is enough to satisfy, then when in heaven need I bother satisfying fools convinced of their own importance? I am a very poor believer and an even worse Christian, but in this season of autumnal reflection I confess being glad we have a strong secular state and churches that for the most part attempt to be responsive and avoid repeating excesses of the past (and in some cases of the ongoing present) where state religious piety sets roots and rules.

Simply look at the over 50 nation-states on the planet that observe piety through state-imposed religious practice. Find among them one committed to gender equality or to human rights based on equity. Find one of those committed to progressive policy and open dialog. There is much we can rightly be critical of about religious practice in contemporary Christian churches, but there is quite a lot we can be glad of as well, especially—most especially—that religion is private and not a public matter.