Editor's note: David Van Biema, the chief religion writer at Time Magazine for ten years, is author of the illustrated biography "Mother Teresa: The Life and Works of a Modern Saint," now being reissued and made available in Spanish as "La Madre Teresa: La Vida y las obras de una santa moderna."
By David Van Biema, Special to CNN
Fifteen years may be less than an instant in celestial time, but here on earth it's a lot of news cycles.
Mother Teresa departed this Earth on September 5, 1997. What more can we say about the woman who became synonymous with love for the "poorest of the poor," picking up a Nobel and tweaking the conscience of millions? What do we know about her now that we didn't know then?
A lot, it turns out.
Here's a quick Blessed Mother Teresa primer, emphasizing the stuff that you probably don’t know, some of which we only learned recently.
1. She was born a rich girl.
Born in 1910, Mother Teresa came from money – at least by the standards of her native Skopje, Macedonia. Her parents were so well-off that there was a local saying "as generous as the Bojaxhius." (Her last name was Bojaxhiu; her given first name was Agnes.)
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Agnes was cultured and well-educated: She wrote poetry and played the mandolin. Her family took in orphans and she tagged along as her mother went out to tend to the destitute. All of this challenges the notion of pre-saints as nasty, or no better than average, until God flicks a switch (think Paul, pre-Damascus).
In Agnes’ case, if God flicked a switch, he had clearly laid the circuitry carefully beforehand.
2. For a long time, it was hardly obvious that Teresa would end up who she became.
She emigrated to India to become a nun at age 18, but worked as a teacher another 17 years before receiving a series of startling visions and locutions (verbal communications) from Jesus. The experience, wrote her confessor at the time, was "continual, deep and violent."
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She later recalled it as a dramatic dialogue taking up pages: Jesus calls her "my little one" and demands that she "carry Me into the holes of the poor. I want Indian nuns … who would be my fire of love among the poor, the sick, the dying and the little children." She hesitates. He asks impatiently, "Is your generosity gone cold?"
It had not. After two years spent convincing her local bishop, she was released from her previous vows and founded her Missionaries of Charity.
3. She changed our view of the poor.
"There are plenty of nuns to look after the rich and well-to-do people, but for my very poor, there are absolutely none," Teresa wrote, describing communication she got from Jesus.
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That seems a bit exaggerated. But Teresa redefined the concept of "working with the poor" in the modern age. For poor she substituted "poorest of the poor," a new category with a corresponding moral imperative. She understood the word "with" as obliterating the line between benefactor and beneficiary, plunging her nuns deeply into the world of the slums.
As for "working," Teresa combined case-by-case spontaneity with an organizational genius. In Calcutta she developed institutions – schools for poor children, homes for pregnant homeless women, orphans and lepers, and hostels for the dying – that became a template for her ministries the world over.
4. She was a marketing guru.
"Billions know about her compassion," says evangelical megapastor Rick Warren. "But what is not so well known (were) leadership skills, evident in the multiplication of what she did to other parts of the planet."
Teresa instinctively leveraged her growing renown, cultivating a United Nations of world leaders and donors and paving the way for the Missionaries. Four decades after her solo start in India, her order was in over 100 countries, making her one of the church's truly great founders. "If there are poor on the moon, we will go there, too," she joked – sort of.
5. She cultivated her celebrity.
Teresa was famous first in India, then worldwide, partly through the efforts of British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge and partly due to another gift. "The way she spoke to journalists showed her to be as deft a manipulator as any high-powered American public relations expert,” noted Irish rocker/philanthropist Bob Geldof.
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That that gift seemed to be unconscious did not make it any less effective. After winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she became part of a Mt. Rushmore of greatest-generation religious icons – including Pope John Paul II, Billy Graham and the (relatively youthful) Dalai Lama – that has no successor generation.
Of them, Teresa attained the purest pop-culture status, capped by her touching friendship with then-Princess Diana of England. When the two died within a week of one another (Diana in a car wreck, Teresa by heart attack), a T-shirt immediately popped up showing both with halos.
6. Teresa had a long, dark night of the soul.
In 2007, a cache of newly released private letters introduced a startling unknown side to Teresa: a 39-year period, coinciding almost exactly with her Missionaries career, during which Jesus, previously so present, seemed utterly absent to her, in prayer and even in the Eucharist.
"The silence and the emptiness is so great," she wrote, "that I look and do not see– the tongue moves (in prayer) but does not speak."
Critics like the late Christopher Hitchens said the correspondence proved Teresa was just a "confused old lady." But the letters were issued by her postulator, the Vatican-appointed advocate for her sainthood.
Her church regarded her perseverance in the absence of a sense of divine response as perhaps her most heroic act of faith. Both her torment and underlying faith were evident in another letter: "If I ever become a Saint – I will surely be one of 'darkness,'" she wrote. "I will continually be absent from Heaven – to (light) the light of those in darkness on earth."
7. She’s not a saint yet – not officially.
Not as recognized by her own Roman Catholicism, where validation of sanctity is a multi-step process.
A year after Teresa's death, the Vatican waived a five-year-delay to allow her "cause" to begin early. In 2002, it announced her "heroic virtue," and in the same year credited her with the disappearance of a tumor affecting an Indian woman who had prayed to her.
This first miracle led to her beatification, for which 250,000 people flocked to Rome. But canonization awaits a second miracle. Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, her advocate, says reports of her "supernatural favors" to believers currently total 4,200. He is currently investigating a case in Colombia.
Of course, the church freely admits that saints are saints before it recognizes them, and many Catholics fervently believe Teresa is one. So do others, including Rick Warren, who defines a saint as "a true hero" who "sacrifice(s) for the benefit of others." Suzie van Houte, left in infancy with Mother Teresa and now an Episcopalian living in Washington state, says simply: "A saint is a person who's gone out of her way."
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Van Biema.
Mother Teresa is an example of compassion and caring. We need more of that in the world.
Yes, and if only she had done all of that without spreading the Catholic mind-virus the world would be that much better off.
Everyone has an opinion
Just another one of these nauseating humanists like tutu mandela syu kyi and the list goes on
Instead we should all be judgemental like you? I am guessing your list of good deads would not fill up the back of a postage stamp?
"God" is not a manic-depressive attention wh0re of some particular gender.
you speak of spinozas god? the laws that dictate the evolution of the universe?
this is more a philosophy than a religion though.
This was a woman who worked endlessly for the sake of the poor. She really cared about them. You people know nothing of who she was or what she did. All you say is your personal opinion or thoughts which aren't correct and no one cares about. Have you ever done anything for the less fortunate? I dont mean sending a donation but rather physically donating your time and effort to actually do something like volunteer work or a soup kitchen. No? Then you can't say crap about this woman. She dedicated her life to this work. You dedicate your life to you. Big deal.
And I suppose you were her personal confidant?
By the way, her last name "Bojaxhiu" means painter in Albanian. In Albania they call her Nena Tereza.
Atheism offers nothing to believe in and no hope which is the essence of humanity. For more insight into Mother Teresa and the religions of the Middle East - read the international novels based on direct experiences in that part of the world -- king of Bat'ha by Hashim, and the ensuing sequel - Tales from the East: Return of Ivanhoe by Ivanhoe. Religion and more so spirituality gives us all something to believe and hope in which is our essence.
Atheism doesn't mean believing in nothing, it means not believing in gods. Out of all the wonderful things to believe in and find hope in, a supernatural father figure is the only one none of us has ever actually seen. And yet, as you say, hope is the essence of being human. Please explain to me how there is nothing to hope for or believe in if one doesn't believe in an invisible supernatural being.
Belief is delusion, accepting something as fact for which you have no proof or logical basis for.
As an atheist, I agree atheism offers nothing to believe in and no source for hope. But as an atheist, I assure you I have something to believe in…many things. Do you even personally know any atheists? Be honest. Atheists believe in science. We believe in facts. We all have our own motivations, or lack of, just like every believer. We also have hope. Hope for this world we all live in. Hope for our country and the preservation of rights, especially to not have religious laws forced upon those of us who do not believe in them. Religion or spirituality is not necessary to have something to believe in or hope for. Thank you for the reading suggestions.
I agree that atheism itself offers nothing to believe in – that would by paradoxical – but that doesn't mean that an atheist has nothing to believe in. I believe in the strength of my marriage, the promise of my children's futures, the positive impact they may have on the world. A non-believer has the same real-world hopes and beliefs that a religious believer does – they just don't wrap it up in a plastic coating of sugary make-believe.
Atheism offers reason....if you need something to hope for, go to the circus
Anybody who goes to church wonder why the one and only all powerful god needs to collect your money every week?
to pay staff and for the upkeep of the building. next question.
So not all-powerful then?
It does sort of seem like a god ... one who can orchestrate the entire universe, simultaneously listen to the prayers of billions of people, and have a plan for every single molecule at every single moment in time ... should be able to handle the upkeep of a simple building without charging a fee, huh?
The church that I go to does not ask for donations at all. People are free to donate or not, everyone is welcome. Moreover, as a mom who volunteers at lot at my kids bible school, I have noticed that everything, from the smallest items to the larger items cost money....only a few parents are willing to donate but everyone wants the "free" cookies and drinks. Every organization or club, religious or not, needs to raise money to use the facilities, buy books, crayons, glue, etc etc etc to have meetings and in the case of a church, help the community. How about go doing some volunteer work Tony! You can't build a house without a hammer at Habitat for Humanity and you can not help feed the homeless without buying food.
Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.” C.H.
Rather than hand out birth control and help solve the problem, she perpetuated the problem so that each year she had to bring in more money to feed more poor people. Talk about short sighted. And they want to make her a saint. No thanks I will stick with the people that help to solve problems not perpetuate them.
Listening to people these days it seems to me the only way poor people can get birth control is if the Catholic Chuch supplies it.
Couldn't someone else (maybe you) supply them with the birth control they so desparately desired but lacked soley because Mother Teresa didn't provide it?
It wasn't solely that she didn't hand out birth control, but that she spread the mythology of a religious cult that opposed the use of birth control. The ignorance of the catholic cult and it's followers about the cause of the problems in these areas perpetuates the suffering and poverty.
Wondering, it's not a matter of providing birth control, it's a matter of controlling people through convincing them that God does not approve of their use of birth control, and that this same God might very well torture them for eternity if they defy His will.
It's a bit different than what you describe.
Rufus T. Firefly
She dedicates her life to helping people you wish were never born but have no problem criticizing her for acting within her convictions.
Again, what prevents you from going to India and presenting an alternative?
Wondering, I was responding to your comment. I never claimed to be the solution to poverty. I do, however, understand that suppressing birth control is a factor in both poverty and AIDS around the world, and if you're going along with it then I am indeed doing more than you by simply speaking out against it.
Dang, Wondering, I think you just got put in your place.
Athiests should admit that Mother Teresa is an example of the good that religion can do.
Religious people should admit that even if Mother Teresa had doubts about her religion, it never lessened the value of her good deeds.
Or the constant flow of many good deeds quietly done by the average atheists, but not trumpeted by the tax exempt, self-serving religion business machines.
FactChecker, you make religion sound like cr ap. Thanks but no thanks. I love what Teresa did, but I definitely do not love your religion or the pope. She was a great example of what a human being can accomplish.
Rather than hand out birth control and help solve the problem, she perpetuated the problem so that each year she would have to bring in more money to feed more poor people. Talk about short sighted. And they want to make her a saint. No thanks I will stick with the people that help to solve problems not perpetuate them.
Mother Teresa is not someone I'd venerate. Besides selling useless religion, she stole from charities and amassed millions for the vatican and her own business by not leeching the money from the poor she was crusading for. She accepted donations from any source, even despots that had bled the money from their own peasants. Her womens shelters became practical death houses, where no medical care was provided to the terminally ill. The worst part of it all was that she did all this while being an agnostic in secret. That makes her a fraud and a thief in my eyes.
Good thing most of the world that has heard about her and the work she did isn't as twisted and fu*ked up in the head as you are when it comes to making any judgments about her work.
Mother Teresa indeed believed that suffering was good for the poor. Saint my ass.
First of all, all believers are saints. At the moment of conversion one becomes a saint. Do not think she became an atheist because she didn't feel His presence for so long. You can't trust feelings, but you can trust God. He said, "I will never leave you nor forsake".
What a shame your parents didn't use birth control instead.
You do understand that by Saint, the author is referring to the fact that Catholics believe that some people have so clearly been saved and in heaven that they are officially recognized by the Church.
Few 100% true Reasons why Atheism is TERRIBLE and unhealthy for our children and living things:
† Atheism is a religion that makes you angry, stupid, brainwashed, ignorant & blind.
† Atheism is a disease that needs to be treated.
† Atheism makes you post stupid things (90% of silly comments here on CNN blogs are posted by closet atheists)
† Atheist are satanic and have gothic lifestyle.
† Atheists are misguided and causes problem in our religious & public society.
† Atheists are mentally ill, that's why they have no faith.
† Atheism won't take you to kingdom of heaven and paradise.
† Atheism making you agree with Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler (denied his faith later), Mao, Pol Pot & other terrible mass murder leaders who killed religious people because of their religious cult!
† No traditional family lifestyle, no holidays, no culture, boring and feeling 'outsider'
† Atheists are angry, drug additcted and committ the most crime.
† Atheist try to convert people over internet because they feel "safer" behind closet.
† Atheists do not really exist, they just pretend that they don't believe in God and argue with religious people.
† Atheists have had terrible life experience, bad childhood and not being loved.
† Most atheists are uneducated... No atheists could run for presidency.
† Atheism brought upon the French Revolution, one of the most evil events of all of history.
† Atheism cannot explain the origins of the universe, therefore God exists.
† All atheists believe in evolution, which means they don't believe in morality and think we should all act like animals.
† The Bible says atheism is wrong, and the Bible is always right (see: Genesis 1:1, Psalms 14:1, Psalms 19:1, Romans 1:19-20)
† Countries where Atheism is prevalent has the highest Suicide rate & Communist countries = Atheism!
**Only 2-3% of the U.S. are atheists/agnostics VS. over 90% who believe in God (80% Christians) in the U.S.**
† † Our Prayers goes to atheists to be mentally healthy and seek their creator † †
PS! the USA is a † nation and will always be. You know it's true and stop being ignorant and arrogant!
(Take a look at our federal/state holidays, 99% of our presidents, blue laws in parts of the nation, name of some cities/counties/streets, the majority of people, some laws, calendar, culture, etc.)
Useless religious tripe.
Rev Charles...poor baby...your reasoning has completely broken down...your "facts" are often not facts at all...you are a mystic in a religious orgasm...come out and try some fresh air.
I could wring a compelling psych paper out of this comment..
That's funny. You called yourself "AMERICA IS A CHRISTIAN COUNTRY !" on another comment list.
You don't believe in the 9th commandment I see. You must be well on your way to becoming a resident of your Hell at this rate.
Lol, most of you, Atheists and "Christians" alike, are all just blabbering disrespectful, arrogant doo doo heads lolololol
I stopped reading this above post after a few lines.
I am not sure an Atheist needs you to believe him in order for him to be happy and secure. But you obviously need someone to believe you or you will never be secure much less happy.
You would think that having a personal god who listens to your prayers and personally intervenes in your life would make you fulfilled and happy, but it doesn't. You see, you can not be happy until I believe it too...
Rev, a fact is a statement that can be proven true or false. An opinion is an expression of a person’s feelings that cannot be proven. Opinions can be based on facts or emotions and sometimes they are meant to deliberately mislead others. Your opinions seem to be based on emotions. Maybe that is why you can't accept the facts.
Yeah, Like 3/4 the stuff you said isn't true or factual ( giving you the benefit of doubt) And with everything you just said, it makes me sick that you might acully think like that. By the way Mother Tearesa was a sadist, She wanted people to suffer that way she could be closer to god. A lot of people died because of her.
Ahh, Rev., you slay me. Poor deluded creature, trying so hard to convince us of your imaginary friend. Did you ever graduate from Kindergarten? I ask because a student in grade 4 could see the flaws in your logic.
thanks Rev. you are spot on correct!!!
Wow, so desperately pathetic a response.
I feel sorry for you, but you and others like you are frightening in your ignorance.
What about being a decent person just because it's the right thing to do?
Forget I even commented – you're too delusional to have a discussion with.
Mother T. was not/is not someone worthy of praise.
Rev, I thank God every day that I am not a Christian like you. You are everything that is horrible about some of the followers of Christianity. Rev, when you say your prayers tonight you should consider asking for forgivness of your own sins.
Mother Teresa is the Messiah for CTHULHU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
LOLO Jones is the pimple on humanity's azz!
This isn't really on topic but this is so cool I had to post it.
Religious people have a hard time understanding that they are related to an ancestor of ancient apes. Just wait until they find out they are related to an ancient fish and organisms even more basic than that.
FYI. For the most part Catholics accept evolution.
Apparently, people like you have a hard time understanding religious people.
Oh by the way. You might want to check your video uploaded OK. It seems the beginning is missing.
Cool video. Thanks for sharing.
Wondering I present you your beginning.
You've moved back in time but still not a beginning. What was before that?
By the way, the Big Bang Theory was first formalized by a Roman Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître, who was also an astronomer. So the premise of your first post is still wrong.
Also, Cosmology and Evolution are 2 different things.
Wondering, I present you your answer.
The god of the gaps is getting very small, and there still remains no evidence to support gods existence even if you try to hide in the gaps.
Wondering your attention span with the video was apparently too short and you missed the info on evolution.
Also the laws of evolution for the universe are the underpinnings of the chemical laws that enabled self-replicating molecules and the development of life. See exploring those "under"lying truths that support or standup the later findings is how we reach "Under"standing.
"Religious people have a hard time understanding that they are related to an ancestor of ancient apes." This is the statement you made – pure nonsense.as I have pointed out.
99.999% of the population has no understanding of the concepts or the fundementals behind what Hawking presents in this video and his writings. Heck most people can barely do math beyond basic algebra. Yet they accept all this at face value. Kinda like a religious belef.
The difference is that the religious acknowledge they are acting on faith. Athiests clarm to be basing everything they "believe" on fact and science.
I dare you – take a survey of how many people can tell you what the Associative and Communicative properties of arithmetic operations are. Then ask them to summarize your video.
Wondering thank you for your reply but you are demonstrably wrong. Actually, over 40% of the American population fails to accept or understand evolution; this is the direct result of ignorance bred by religion. The singular ignorant force denying evolution is religious groups. you also remain terribly ignorant of how logic works, there is no faith component to logic. Faith means to believe in a thing for no good reason. Let me demonstrate evidentialism and how it works.
Please view the following video for educational purposes. I hope this helps clear up your misunderstanding of how logic works. It is getting late so I will be off for the night, but I will respond in the morning to any rely you wish to leave me. Thank you for engaging in this conversation. I hope this does help you reach a better understanding. Also I understood perfectly what Steven Hawking said, and I have evidence that they are correct, displayed to the extent of the predictive power of their theories. No faith involved in any of this.
Here is another video to help
Thanks for the refreshers on logic but they were entirely unnessary as my graduate degree in computer science from DePaul University and my graduate degree in applied mathematics from the University of Chicago covered that topic quite thoroughly. I've also read a lot of Hawkings work.
What percentage of the athiests understand the mathematics, chemestry, physics, etc. necessary to say for certain that evolution explains their existence? Does everyong who accepts evolution have the same definition of evolution? are they using the same boundaries? Some of those 40% probably say no to evolution because they think that it is mutually exclusive to a belief in God. Well they are not mutually exclusive because evolution only attempts to explain some part of our existence. You have to combine it with a whole bunch of other stuff to explain the origin of all things – what I am calling Cosmology for our purposes here even though that is an inexact term as well.
The problem we encounter when trying to define the universe using purely physical ideas is that we are limited by the universe itself. Some day "Science" may fully define the physical universe, then someone will posit a new idea that expands the understanding of the universe, and poof, no longer fully defined.
Faith does not claim to fully understand and explain the universe. It goes beyond the physical. The modern theological understanding of God is as far from the Greek/Roman understanding of gods as modern physics is from the physics of the same time.
Religion deals in the philosophical and meta-physical while science deals with the physical.
Science may someday explain the what and the how but never the why.
By the way, my best friend is an intelligent, highly educated,athiest Democrat while I am a highly educated, conservitive, practicing Roman Catholic Republican. He and I and our families do everything together, including coaching, vacations, weekend hangout, charity work, complaining about politices etc. Believe me I've heard it all. We are no stranger to Ted.
A wonderful Catholic woman and a teacher to remember. She can be counted in the ranks of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru that have contributed to the Indian Sub-continent.
She is in Heaven for her efforts
Hey god how come you are such a Do-uche? I mean still born babies, kids dying of flesh eating disease, I could go on but its much to disgusting for my taste.
Oh wait there is no evidence for gods existence at all. You must be a fake just like all the other gods ever claimed to exist. Go sit in the corner with Zeus, Thor and the rest.
ScottCA – Everyone is laughing at you.
ScottCA is playing with himself while posting up mean things about little old ladies.
Not that i believe such malarkey, but the bible claims that nobody goes to heaven until the apocalyptic resurrection. You've got a bit of a wait before you get to meet Xenu... i mean, Thor... i mean– what's your god's name again?
I remember reading a story about Mother Teresa, that she had quite a struggle building a makeshift hospital to care for people near a conflict. Some terriorist had planned to kill her and evryone there, but as they came in they noticed she was taking care of their fallen soldiers too. She said to them"You be a good Muslim and I will be a good Catholic." They did not harm them, but left to show the world we really could get along if you truly cared for one another.
I thought that Mother Theresa had become an atheist in her later years.
tony and Steve – Uh no, that's exactly wrong. She went through a spiritual darkness for many years, referred to as "the Dark Night of the Soul" (read any bio on St. John of the Cross for more details). But she kept her faith. She would have left the Church if she had been an atheist at any point.
Nope. She experienced what is called the Dark Night of the Soul (after a book by St. John of the Cross), which means she continued to have faith after losing any sense of God's presence, which is of course the precise opposite of atheism. You can read about it in any good biography of Mother Teresa, or the writings of saints like Therese of Lisieux for example.
I don't think it would be fair to call her an atheist, but anyone who has read her letters knows that she indeed lost faith, saying that no matter how hard she tried she could not feel anything like a connection to God or Jesus, and that she doubted their existence at all. This was not some temporary "dark night" but something that never went away. She held those doubts for forty years while her confidants in the Church convinced her to keep going and keep her thoughts to herself. She apparently held those doubts until her death.
How are you able to come to conclusions about things without knowing anything about them? That's so weird Tony.
It is amazing to me how certain athiests are when making statements about something they have so little knowledge of.
I am fully confident most religious people understand the athiest point of view much more than an athiest undrestands the religious point of view.
Just because someone expresses doubt does not mean they have lost faith. Even if someone writes their doubts in a letter.
She wasn't an atheist, she wasn't that smart.
Pacololo, I'll take a big heart over a big brain any day.. . .besides, everybody is writing and commenting about her while you on the other hand are writing some silly little remark. . .probably one of your highest achievements to date.
I think based on her letters. The official biography wasn't written by her, so it's just as speculative. Like most of the bible, it was written by other than the people involved, long after the fact.
@Wondering: "I am fully confident most religious people understand the athiest point of view much more than an athiest undrestands the religious point of view."
I am fully confident that you are giving yourself a bit too much credit, while not extending that same credit to others.
I am basing my statement on the evidence available in the majority of the "athiestic" posts on this thread. They show a complete lack of understanding of religious beleif.
Very few athiests study religion but appear to have no problem making very authoritative statments that demonstrate they have very little understanding of any one religion.
Wondering, and why would you presume to know more about their point of view than they do about yours? If anything, if what you say is true, it might suggest to you that your understanding of the atheist position seems just as simplistic and ignorant to them as theirs does to you. Have a little humility.
As I said. My statements are based on the posts here. People are claiming Mother Teresa was an athiest based on some of her writings. That claim shows a complete lack of understanding of faith.
Perhaps you are disputing my statement that few athiests have studed any particular religion in depth, not to mention the vast scope of religious belief. I stand by that statement.
Who are all these people claiming she was an atheist? The root post indicates that one person thought she was and asked about it. I don't see anyone else agreeing with that position. Are you really certain that it's everyone else who doesn't understand?
My mistake – Steve agreed. That makes one and a half.
There are 20 pages of posts here. Its getting harder to track my own posts to say nothing of others.
But, there were several who make the claim outright. And many more impying it without specifically saying it.
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