My big takeaway from a summer I spent peddling encyclopedias, door-to-door, is a succinct motto: We bullshit you for your own damn good.

Such a mission statement also works fairly well for organized religion. And disorganized religion too—though I lack space in one essay to present every single case where such a principle might apply. Allow me to confine myself, then. I’ll simply compare the merchandizing of two types of tomes: one secular, the other sacred.

At first glance, hawking encyclopedias might seem like the ultimate, unattractive way for a poor teen lad to ruin his entire summer. That could seem true at a second glance, as well.

Only in comparison did it look good to me. You see, just a year earlier, I’d been mired up to my navel in a far worse method of literally grubbing for cash. When I was 16, my father came home to announce he’d arranged for me to be shanghaied into a summer job on a construction crew.

In that era, you did not tell your dad “no” on an issue like summer employment. What you did instead was, you saved up two full decades of your noes, then dumped that whole heap on his balding dome after you reached your early twenties. Whereupon, you did it like this: “NO!”


Don’t recall if I described my construction labor gig for you in a newsletter before. Maybe. Even so, it’s worth a reprise. You see, the constant theme of that job was “80.” The air temp was 80; and so was the air humidity. The mosquitoes on my arms were 80. My paycheck was 80; and so was the IQ of my foreman.

There were two great things about it, though. I did learn how to shovel—a highly underrated skill, since plenty of ergonomic tricks are involved in doing it all day long without wrecking your body. And I also became tight pals with a co-laborer, a sturdy black man named Kemp, who kindly offered me bits of insight into his (for me) alternative culture.

For example, there was a jazz club on the west side of Highway 1 named the “The Blue Note.” He explained why.

Kemp also bought me a few bottles of vodka at a strip mall store, which I tucked into a tool satchel to tote home, then hid beneath a board up in our attic. And after yet another day spent busting my tail out on some sizzling construction site, I’d stagger on home, fill a tall glass nearly full of ice cubes and RC Cola, then climb a ladder to the attic, glug three slugs of hooch into my drink, then plop down next to my dad on the couch to watch the evening news on TV.

Ah, those calm, smooth, authoritative bearers of sad-to-glad tidings: David Brinkley, Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather. This was long before our news in the good ol’ USA was even fake-able! Or, at least, it seemed that way to me back then.

Another pleasure was getting myself progressively snockered a foot or so away from my dad while he remained wholly oblivious to my condition. That might’ve been a wee dose of passive rebellion. I dunno, what do you think?


Anyway, that long and hot and harsh gig made me fairly determined to find some other method of earning my keep. And, lo! Next spring, as I scanned ads in the Miami Herald’s help-wanted classifieds, my eyes fell on an intriguing option. A company sought college-age youth eager to proffer erudition to the masses. The job consisted of giving away free sets of Colliers Encyclopedias in a summer-long, special promotion throughout South Florida.

Give away stuff? As a job? Grand and lovely. How hard could such a chore be? Compared to swinging a pickax into solid limestone or shoveling wheelbarrows full of grit and gravel, why, it ought to be a hunk of cherry pie. A la mode!

Headquarters for the firm was a suite of offices in a bank building up in North Miami. Boss of the operation was a corpulent, amiable, handsome and well-groomed gent named Robert. His gang of operatives included: Ron, a refugee from Appalachia; Gus, a sailor recently jettisoned from the Navy; Adrienne, a lovely redhead with a missing tooth; then, me. Others came and went, but we formed the hard core of that corps, the ones who sold enough encyclopedias to make it through the entire summer.

Excuse me, did I say, “sold?” I meant, “placed enough free sets.”


Because that’s what we supposedly did, knocking on many doors to find exactly the right family to bless with a free, glossy set of new Colliers Encyclopedias, just prior to the year when the public could buy them. All a family need do to score their promo set was write a fanboy letter to Colliers, saying how fabulous these books were. Also, to prove they really, truly, genuinely were fans, they should subscribe to an update and info service. And to show these books off to any visitors to their home, they ought to purchase a veneer bookcase (with the look of actual walnut!) to display them.

Yep, sure, those encyclopedias were entirely free. However, purchasing the additional demonstrations of sincerity would cost a small sum, but it was still a fabulous deal, just $56 a year for ten years, or they could write me a check right now for the substantial discount of only $443 and then not have to worry about ever making any annual payment…

The pitch was choreographed with samples, high-gloss foldouts, and a psychologically astute series of blandishments, questions, compliments, and come-ons.

The upshot was that I “placed” 2-to-3 sets a week, earning a lot more than I ever had as a slo-mo human backhoe. Meantime, I got to galivant around Florida whilst partying hearty with a fun-loving crew. We boarded in hotels, dined out, and sometimes even hit the clubs or theaters.

Especially memorable was the night I braced Robert The Boss in one of our shared rooms after quaffing several Cuba Libre nightcaps. “These encyclopedias won’t be released to the general public next year, Bob. Right? Truth of the matter is, we’re selling them now. Any testimonial letter a family writes for us is simply a waste of a good sheet of paper.”


It shouldn’t have required a genius to figure this out. Eventually, even I was able to catch on. Robert, a devotee of scam artist Napoleon Hill (“Think and Grow Rich”), got a tiny smile on his face, then acknowledged I was correct. However, he said, this scam always worked best if a “placer” of sets had some belief in the bogus pitch himself.

That exchange left me with the moral conundrum of either continuing to lie my butt off, or bail entirely out of this line of work. I chose to stay, and rationalized my decision in the following way. Encyclopedias back then were a major, informational asset in any home. Sure, the search engine consisted of your own fingertips. Still, those books constituted the Google and Bing of their day. Parents and kids both could settle arguments, satisfy a burst of curiosity, or educate themselves methodically via well-researched essays or even challenge themselves to peruse an entire set. My older brother George enhanced his knowledge by reading our family’s set of World Books, inspiring me to follow his example.

Sure, I majorly bullshitted people as I coaxed them to allow me into their homes. However, afterwards, I did them a world of good. Equipped with a set of Colliers, they might slog on to much better-informed lives. Their kids could spackle any holes in their conventional educations, perhaps even advance toward improved test results and thus more rewarding careers.


Okay, let’s shift the scene. My summer of peddling books has ended and I’ve slunk back to the bosom of the Roman Catholic seminary in Miami where I’d matriculated since I was 13. However, now I’m 17, and I’ve just been educated—shall we say—a considerable distance outside of orthodoxy. I’m in Theology class, and I’ve just raised my hand to ask our priest-teacher a question.

“Why do we emphasize a description of Mary as a virgin? Why isn’t ordinary motherhood holy enough? I mean, that’s where everyone alive today comes from. Even Mary herself was born in a normal way. But we still call her ‘Blessed Mary, Ever Virgin,’ like it’s some kind of ultimate accolade. Why should that be so? Is it truly necessary? How come the Church tries to make such a big deal out of not having sex?”

(Let me add, that at this point, I had not had sex my own self. Even though I had invited Adrienne to initiate me. She refused! Can’t imagine why. I was nice and charming enough. Not too ugly. I brushed my teeth often, changed my socks regularly… Well, might’ve been because she was Robert’s girlfriend. But, I digress.)

The priest stared at me a while without answering. We both took a silent second to glance at other seminarians, who sat wearing their regular, bland, poker, classroom faces. It wasn’t the sort of question that got asked here. A rubric went unstated, yet seemed crystal clear: candidates that the Church hired were those who bought its pitch so thoroughly they could sell it to others. But hey, anyone who questioned the quality of the goods? Less suitable for that role.

While the priest assembled his reply, my brain juggled with all the stuff I hadn’t blurted out. Let’s assume that God the Father (more potent than Zeus—that Greek deity who had the hots for earth ladies also, but behaved in a more directly ribald manner) had impregnated Mary without physical intercourse. Even so, how on earth was she able to birth the Baby Jesus without rending, and so rendering, her hymen into a distant memory? What the heck, was Mary able to psychically teleport Jesus straight out of her womb and into a pile of straw in that Bethlehem manger? Or—if she had proceeded to give birth in a normal human fashion—in what sense then did the woman happen to remain a virgin? Had I added any such elements such to my question, they would’ve pushed it way-y-y past the pale.

The priest cleared his throat to say something like this, “The purity of the Mother of God must remain beyond question by any of us sinners and mere mortals. Leading theologians discussed the matter in the past, prayed over it, researched its divinely inspired scriptural basis, so it’s now considered settled as one of the great mysteries of our faith.”

“Got it,” I said. “Thank you.”


What I really got, of course, was that any time our Churchmen bumped their noggins against a matter that could not be settled by fact or logic, the nettlesome prob would be declared a “mystery.” It was sort of a “get out of that cul-de-sac free” card.

Three gods in one? Mystery. The taboo of human cannibalism transformed into a sacred communion? Quite the mystery. Elements of other and older religions that somehow wormed their way into Catholicism? Just God working in His highly mysterious ways to foreshadow the eventual emergence of our One True Faith.  (Outside of which, by the way, there’s no salvation… Just in case you ever feel tempted to wander off the reservation.)

Now, I must admit, I ran a risk by raising questions such as these in seminary. But any inquiry I aired was only a small sample of all the ones I mutely put to myself. You see, I was trying to figure out the phenom of religion in general, and Catholicism in particular. I also had to decide if my career would consist of hawking such ephemera to prospective adherents.

As a seminary student, I’d been bouncing up and down on thin ice for a while. I got threatened with expulsion on numerous occasions. About a third of our priestly faculty made it clear they thought me a highly unworthy successor to themselves. Over the preceding four years, they’d charged me with episodes of arrogance, sarcasm and asocial behavior, as well as several bouts of inappropriate joking. Guilty, guilty, guilty, folks! Despite all that, I didn’t find myself quite ready to abandon their fond embrace.

While our curriculum did force me to flail about in a briar patch of theological conundra, I also was being taught Latin, Greek and Spanish, plus a goodly number of sciences. I ate relatively well, and had full access to a library, a gym and a swimming pool. In short, I was scoring a quality education that would have been nearly impossible to find elsewhere in Florida at the time.

And as far as those pesky theological conundra went? I strove to have them not go very far at all. I began to weed whack the cluster down to its roots, using my very own, homebuilt version of Occam’s Razor. Are you familiar with Occam’s? It’s a venerable scientific principle that states, to wit: “entities should not be needlessly multiplied.”


Occam’s! It slices while it dices, and it can seriously de-clutter your paradigms, too. Like a Marie Kondo model for simplifying your mental life. And who wouldn’t enjoy meditating in a nice, efficient, sparsely populated Kondo-minimum?

For example, if you take the most attractive, benign and nurturing aspects of our universe, finesse them loose, pat them into a single divine shape, then name it God, you might be producing one more entity than is absolutely needed. However grand It may subsequently appear! Plus, by next endowing It with all the powers of a Cosmic CEO, you proceed to saddle yourself with a brand new task: explaining Its policies—all those actions done or left undone. Which can become a highly frustrating enterprise. Who needs it?

Plus, you must then devise some sort of a destination for all the crap that you excluded from your definition of God, including but not limited to, the cause of earthly suffering of various stripes, untimely deaths of the innocent, diseases, crop losses, spoiled canned goods and stock market crashes. Oh yeah, and tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanos and floods. Famines and plagues. The wretched meanness of bullies as well as the utterly wacko curse of pure human cussedness.

Where’s that crap come from, anyway? More importantly, who should we blame for it?


Using a common religious explanation, we should blame ourselves; we’re all of us wayward sinners, wholly deserving of many sorts of punishment. The whole holy tale also invites us to take a leap further and imagine a Devil, and also concoct a substance to call Evil, then finally dub the horned one as its fountainhead. That scalawag is surely potent, a lot like God, yet not nearly quite so much, since he’s not an entity we ever would wish to see mount a podium to claim victory at the endgame. (Remember that, religious scriveners, when you write up his story.)

Add saints, angels, imps and demons to this mix—every doggone one of whom insists on remaining resolutely invisible despite our endless appeals for interaction—and your multiplication of entities may seem to have gotten a tad out of hand. What the heck do you think you’re doing, when you issue so many conjurations? Is this a casting call for some kind of a Biblical epic? Well, yep, sure. Exactly. That’s what it is.


Tibetan Buddhism owns a Kalachakra ritual that enjoins its initiates in the following fashion: “Do not deride the hearer vehicle.”

And what is a “hearer vehicle?” It is a system whereby the perplexed are advised by supposed experts on the right way to find various routes out of their situation. It’s analogous to a book of travel tips. Here’s your start point, that’s where you ought to be heading, we need to point out the major guardrails, let us offer some rules of the road, watch out for these badass potholes, and we can also inform you about several fine places to stop for lunch. Viewpoints? Rest stops? All indicated on this convenient, foldout map. (Available for only a slight additional fee.)

In the West, our hearer vehicle relies heavily on the Bible, but a full collection of every associated tome would likely sink the Ark. In the Mideast, it’s the Koran or the Torah and their companion commentaries. In India, the Vedas and Upanishads. And so on and so forth…

“Do not deride,” means do not mock or denigrate. The people who feel like they must have all this stuff often look like they truly need it. Consequently, you won’t do them any favors by trying to yank it away before they’re ready to let it go. And you won’t do yourself any, either, if you strut around and lay claim to a level of superiority, since you don’t have to cozy up to even a shred of the stuff.

Anybody’s imagined ego is no less an artificial construct than anyone’s visualized deity happens to be. So, by vaunting yourself in such a fashion, you’d only be swapping one form of idolatry out for another. Are you going to worship God, or yourself? Well, there’s a third choice in this scenario. How about: nobody?

Furthermore, religions or hearer vehicles do not exist for no reason. They impose a virtual grid on reality that lets people navigate through life. They help people internalize moral behavior. They nurture social order, as well as a communal spirit. That’s on the plus side. On the down side, they can be used to suppress, dominate, manipulate and garner power in unscrupulous hands. They can foster afflictive emotions like fear, shame and guilt, while sapping human minds of dignity, independence and courage.


No less a social critic than George Orwell was ambivalent about a decline in religiosity, and fretted over which mental constructs might effectively replace faith in the West. “One cannot have any worthwhile picture of the future unless one realizes how much we have lost by the decay of Christianity,” he wrote in one essay. And in another, “It appears that the amputation of the soul isn’t just a simple surgical job, like having your appendix out. The wound has a tendency to go septic.”

My own view is that useful insights can be found by analyzing the contents of a religious bookshelf, just as practical learning can be garnered by probing a set of secular books. Even so.  Sometimes, we all yearn to flee stuffy rooms of human lore of whatever sort, to venture outdoors and trek into the wilderness for unsullied views and deep breaths of clean air. Since far sweeter and deeper moments can be discovered by wiping one’s mind of all prior concepts and notions, then nudging empty awareness into snug contact with sheer existence, its own sprawling self. Suspend every judgment, deploy no interpretations. Simply be.

To insist, on the other hand, on always trying to encounter reality through filters of myth, that’s like plucking a wildflower while wearing welder’s gloves, peering at it through dark glasses, then attempting to inhale its fragrance via a gas mask.

In other words, prior learning and the encumbrance of the ages need not form an inescapable burden. After my many decades of mentally digesting religious culture, I feel like I’ve reached a more congenial outcome. As Robbie Robertson from The Band put it in one of his greatest hits, “You take what you need, and you leave the rest.”