A remarkable woman passed away this weekend. Those of you who have read The Religion Virus will remember my personal story called "The Southern Baptists" about Ruth (not her real name).
Ruth was a strict member of the Church of Christ, born and raised in the heart of the "Bible Belt" of the southern states. She and her husband attended church every Sunday and often on Wednesday. For those of you not familiar with the minutia of America's evangelical churches, the Church of Christ is considered conservative by the mainstream Southern Baptists, who in turn are considered conservative by almost everyone else. The Church of Christ worships twice on Sunday and once on Wednesday, and they don't even allow musical instruments in church, just singing.
On several occasions I joined Ruth and her husband at their tiny rural church in the middle of the cotton, bean and wheat fields from which their people made their living. Although I didn't share their faith, I enjoyed the enthusiasm, honesty, and especially the gospel music. You haven't heard true gospel until you've sat in the pews at a tiny concrete-block church in the heart of the South and listened to a bunch of farmers and their wives, children and grandparents all sing their hearts out. Now that is honest gospel.
Ruth was remarkable to me because she kept her faith and she was accepting of others. Unlike so many people in the evangelical churches, Ruth was inquisitive. She was genuinely interested in me and in my views, and she didn't automatically assume that everyone was going to Hell who didn't subscribe to her particular brand of Christianity. Ruth didn't have very many people in her life who had studied philosophy, science and knew something of religion, and honestly wanted to know why I was an atheist.
I was also a challenge to Ruth. She knew I was a decent man who was raising three fine children, that I had a good job, and that I contributed to charitable organizations. By all of the moral codes in the Bible I was a good man ... except that I didn't believe in God or Jesus Christ. So I put the challenge to her one evening: did she honestly believe I was going to Hell for eternal torture, after living a good life? Ruth sat there quietly for a minute, and then said one of the most sensible things I've ever heard. "You'll be judged by your beliefs, and I'll be judged by my beliefs."
This weekend, Ruth's death gave me far more empathy for why religion is so appealing. One of my favorite gospel songs is That Old Country Church by the Masters Five. Be sure you listen to it, it's just some amazing singing. But while listening to it, I so much wanted to believe that somewhere, somehow, Ruth is still alive. I understand why people so much want to believe that there is an afterlife. It's a terrible thing to lose such a wonderful person.
But Ruth isn't gone. In a very real way, she does live on in the hearts and minds of those she left behind. Her four children are good people who passed her legacy on to their children. Ruth was both strict and loving to her grandchildren, and every single one of them remembers her with love and talks about what a good influence she was on them. Ruth's spirit lives on in the deeds she did and in the people whose lives she shaped.
And that is true immortality.