Religion is a subject that fascinates me as much as any other phenomenon of human existence. Yet I have been an atheist for most of my life, and can honestly say that I never felt fulfilled by, less still enjoyed the religious practice that formed a part of my childhood. This assembly of thoughts and memories is an attempt to bring together my experiences of religion, perhaps with the hope that it might provide some sort of purgation, or at least to contextualise why I remain intrigued by something I long ago rejected.
To get the throat-clearing out of the way, in compiling this essay I will give full and frank reasons for my views on religion. As such, I’m not trying to be offensive, but it’s such a contentious subject that I risk hurting good people’s feelings. It’s not intended as an attack on religion, but an explanation as to why I am not a Catholic, less still a believer; and why I arrived at an atheist and humanist worldview. As I write, it is my intention to post this essay. Most people who know me are very well aware of my views on the subject. I fully and unashamedly admit to admiring Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris on this subject, as well as others; and whilst this is my personal take on religion, and I’ve scrupulously avoided verbatim copying of the aforementioned Holy Trinity’s (rather better) analyses; it would be wrong not to acknowledge the intellectual debts that have stimulated my thoughts and memories, from the day I went out to buy God is Not Great, and read the book I’d been wanting to read my whole life.
My own particular brand of atheism is Catholic atheism, and I class myself as a fugitive from the Catholic Church as much as an opponent of it, though my objections to the truth claims of Catholic dogma cover all religions.
Psychologists believe that the first few years of a person’s life are fundamental in forming their personality. Or to put it another way, and less negatively than Larkin might: early childhood experiences mark you. I’m not for one moment going to claim that I was mistreated or abused as a child, and this essay is not intended as a self-pitying rant; but in understanding why religion holds such a fascination with me, it is necessary to revisit the climate of my childhood when religion played a regular part, and where I was an active player, rather than what I later became – an observer and critic.
I was lucky enough to have very loving parents and have all my needs provided for. My mother happened to be Catholic, and her family a typically Catholic Liverpool family. In matters concerning the upbringing of children, the maternal belief system trumped the paternal apathetic agnosticism leaning towards atheism, which had already willingly acquiesced to the Church in order to marry my mother in the first place, and then hung silently and uncommented upon in the background thereafter.
I don’t ever remember religion forming a part of my year at nursery. Perhaps we said prayers, perhaps we didn’t. Either way it can’t have been too much on the agenda in a state-run nursery in the early 1980s. Nor, indeed, at that time (when I was, I suppose, a toddler up to the age of four) do I remember any attempt to indoctrinate me at home. I’m sure I was made aware of the notion of “God” as well as introduced to the idea of intercessory prayer; but I have no malign memories during the first four years of my life.
The problem (and I did consider using a less loaded noun, but that one does, after reflection, seem the most apposite) started at school. I spent one deeply unhappy academic year at a Catholic state school where I found the crowded and resoundingly loud dinner hall a place of terror; and the evocative smell of cheap minced beef, which was almost daily masquerading as cottage pie (it had never been near a cottage), never fails to take me back to that hellhole even now. It was there that I witnessed the first instance of shocking cruelty meted out on a child by an adult, the headmistress. Always her emphasis was on instilling piety in infants, through frequent calls for fingers-on-lips silence with which I was only ever willing to comply. One girl, who can only have been five-years old at most, hobbled back to school with the aid of crutches after a lengthy absence with her leg plastered up to her hip. Unable to comply with the request to sit cross-legged, and eager to speak to her much-missed friends, she continued to talk after the call for silence had been issued one morning during assembly. The headmistress dragged the tearful girl by her plastered leg all the way to the back of the assembly hall and out of the door. Of course, relaying this in no way suggests that all Catholic teachers are unremittingly cruel, nor does it nullify the intended consequences of any religious teachings. But that instance of horror, which I can still vividly recall almost three decades later, and which I will probably never forget, was the first for me of a pattern that was to emerge where cruelty – specifically cruelty to children – and Catholicism, were connected, as well as serving as an introduction to the hypocrisy of the pious.
It was this first school where I also developed my lifelong aversion towards and loathing of hymns, as well as my psychological fear of singing, which I have only for the most part overcome in recent years after taking singing lessons. Each morning we were forced to stand in the assembly hall and sing praises to the Lord God Almighty. Technique was outranked by enthusiasm, and we were encouraged to inhale great lungfuls of air, all the better for belting out worshipful phrases to our Creator (or so the teachers thought, who knew nothing of singing technique). Smells and sounds being as evocative as they are, and so finely impressed on the development of memories; I cannot bear to hear the hymn, “Walk in the Light”, without it taking me back to that assembly hall and myself, at the age of four, being caught mouthing the words and receiving the telling off of my life. “Don’t turn on the waterworks,” the old harridan yelled – I recall the exact words – as my chin quivered.
I would have not been able to elucidate on my dislike of hymns then, apart from that I disliked singing, but looking back on it now I’m sure that even as an infant, I was deeply uncomfortable with the instruction to passionately avow something which I did not feel. I thought then, and still do now, that the hymns we were made to sing were dreadful assaults on all the aesthetic senses, and an undisguised attempt to indoctrinate one to think and feel in a certain way. Of course, at the age of four, I believed everything the elders of my tribe told me, and fear and respect were unquestioned allies: but even at that time, as the most conformist and eager-to-please child you could be unfortunate enough to meet, I knew I didn’t like what was being demanded of me, and I could tell that the words in the hymns meant more to the elders than they did to me. This at first unsavoury knowledge was to reassert itself when it came to scripture, the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary, which we were taught rote fashion. “Forgive us our trespasses,” confused me. There was a sign on a farm gate near our house that said, “Trespassers will be prosecuted”, and I assumed that the prayer related to this. Having never climbed over the gate and entered the field, I assumed I must have been doing something right. “Deliver us from temptation,” I found equally baffling. In my childish mind, I amalgamated “temptation” and “invitation”, in the only context I understood the word – an invitation to a birthday party. To me, that part of the prayer was asking God to deliver us loads of party invites. You see, nobody actually bothered to tell me what the prayers, with their obscurantist archaic language, actually meant. Just committing them to memory and regurgitating them parrot fashion was all that was required. The hymn (like the rest, dreary and irritating) “Morning has Broken” was another baffling oddity. How does one break a morning? How may the morning be fixed? (If I may be allowed a brief digression, I soon learnt that I was far from alone in holding bafflement and confusion about religious words. The best example I’ve ever read was a schoolboy, who, requested to learn psalm 23, which has the words, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life,” instead regurgitated, “Surely good Mrs Murphy will follow me all the days of my life.”)
Eager to address my unhappiness, and having been told by teachers at a parents’ evening that I was borderline retarded (I’m not making that up – it was on account of my extreme introversion), my mum arranged for me to move schools the next term, in the middle of my second academic year, and I spent the rest of my childhood education at another Catholic school: a private one, which was, to begin with, boys only. The motto of the school, “fidem vita fateri” means, “show your faith by the way you live,” which gives some indication of the ethos.
Certainly I was much happier there. Gone was the smell of minced beef as we could take in our own sandwiches for lunch. Gone was the overwhelming assembly hall full of the frenzied movement of infants and the horrible level of noise they can generate, at pitches so shrill I wince to recall them; to be replaced by a small assembly room with fewer infants where I did not feel quite so overwhelmed and the wall of shyness I had frenziedly erected around me for the previous few years, was, brick by brick, lowered.
Before I knew better, I had been comforted to learn that my mum had spoken to the headmaster of the school, and that he had agreed to my move there, and that he was a Christian Brother, a practicing Catholic priest who had dedicated his career to the education of children. At the age of five I had been told, and had believed, that people who represent God were holier, and somehow more special than the rest of us, and that their calling placed in them in a different earthly realm, as their close relationship to God (in whom I had no reason to disbelieve at the age of five – incredible and inexplicable things happened to me every day) filled them with an inner serenity unmatched by mere mortals. By this time I was taken to church every Sunday without fail by my mother, and I developed an odd habit of scrutinising the veins of the priest, because my grandmother had mischievously told me that priests had blue blood. Whilst I naturally believed her, I was on the lookout for evidence, and the fact that these weirdly robed beings were somehow more than human offered both fear and fascination.
It didn’t take long for my expectations to be shattered by the shambolic and brutish figure of Brother Kelly, known without affection as “BK”, who imposed a reign of terror on the school that far exceeded the limited imagination of the harridan in charge of my former school.
The difference between the schools was that where the former had been wholly unsympathetic, the latter was populated with some teachers who were kind, thoughtful, and even good with children. Nevertheless, BK liked to make his presence felt, and he could, at any time, and without any advanced warning, wander into any classroom to take the pupils for an impromptu maths (or, more accurately, mental arithmetic) lesson, at which point the usual teacher would leave us to our fates and disappear off for an hour’s marking homework, or smoking in the staffroom, or whatever it is that teachers do when dismissed from their own classes.
“Everybody out to the blackboard.” These words, spoken in a thick Irish accent, accompanied by a sweeping arm gesture from the stocky figure in black, who was aged anywhere between fifty and eighty, would always form the clarion call to an hour of torture and – the allusion is not entirely fanciful – concentration camp mentality. “Please, God, let him hit the other boys and not me,” a frequent cowardly prayer in my head, and, I imagine, in most other boys’ too. BK was a mountain of a man, but strong rather than fat, like a bull. At the time I would not have known the smells or associated them with any particular time of day, but years later I worked out that it was whisky, tobacco and body odour that formed his cologne. I never remember him smelling of anything else. Logically, he must have been drinking during school hours, and was probably at least partially drunk most of the time. The absence of sobriety may explain a few things, but I will not hasten to be too censorious on that point. His intoxication may explain his appalling mental arithmetic.
“Three sevens,” he would yell. “You boy!” A finger jabbed in the chest of his victim. No matter what answer was given, even if it was patently false, he would chalk it on the blackboard (as they were in my day).
“Forty-eight, sir.” His broad back turned as he wrote 3×7=48. He would carry on in this vein, pointing to a different boy each time as we all stood in a semi-circle, desperate to be left out altogether, full of panic in case it was our turn. Two things would then happen. One boy would panic so much that he would hesitate whilst he worked out the sum.
“Too slow!” BK would thunder, whacking the boy across the back of the legs with his hand. This would often merit a frenzy of “too slows”, as he would machine-gun his way along the line of bare legs in an arc, applying a firm slap to each pair, until he had sated himself, rather than until an answer had been supplied. Then, looking back over the earlier sums, he would spot that 3×7 did not in fact equal 48.
“Which boy told me three times seven is forty-eight?” BK glowered along the rabble of boys as if one of us had broken all Ten Commandments in one go. Experience taught us to name and shame.
“Him, sir, him!” An army of fingers would jag at the guilty boy, who had spent two minutes desperately hoping the error would not be spotted. The chances were normally about fifty-fifty. Having been ratted out by his peers (the logic being that a special slapping for one boy was preferred to BK punishing all of us if we concealed the miscreant), the boy would then tremble or weep in anticipation of the wrath that was about to be dished out.
What has to be understood is that BK enjoyed torturing children in this way. He got a real bang out of it. It was his shtick. Associating religion with totalitarianism took root during “the BK years”. His influence could be felt around the whole school, including the playground. When lunchtime was over, he would ring a bell. Hearing this signal, we had been trained to – no matter what we were doing – freeze absolutely still. It’s a common drama school warm-up exercise, but there was no fun in it here, nor was it considered a game, since failure to comply, if, for example, you had not heard the bell, would result in a thrashing. Once satisfied that every boy in the school had acquiesced to his whim, BK would then sound the bell again. On the second signal, we would form orderly lines with our classmates in a designated area and do it in complete silence, whilst BK stood on a raised plinth and kept his beady eye out for signs of dissidence.
The cellar of the school was used for two purposes. One was for us to store our coats and bags, and to change for compulsory cross country runs (where we were not free from the omnipresent despot either, since BK would drive his priest-mobile in circles around the roads yelling, “Too slow!” and tooting his horn, memorising any boys who had slowed to a walk so that he could round them up and thrash them on their return). The other was to act as a repository for BK’s collection of leather straps, which were kept under lock and key in a bespoke cupboard. If a dissident was identified, who had perhaps talked whilst standing in line, or had arrived late for school, or had failed to hand in homework, or who had failed to hold open a door for a teacher – the list of offences was as long as BK’s imagination cared to make it – he would be dragged (and I mean dragged) down into the cellar, to wait next to the cupboard, whilst BK opened it and selected his strap of choice, often taking one out, thoughtfully rubbing his chin, studying the child’s face, replacing it, taking out another that was perhaps longer and bendier, until he made his selection. The preamble was designed to taunt the child, who would often stand in tears begging for mercy. Full punishment would then ensue, measured in half dozens, depending upon the severity of the offence. Some of the hardier boys would show off their involuntarily shaking hand, the palm red raw, and on some occasions, bruised, or the skin punctuated by red lesions, or even cut. I am told on one occasion a finger was broken, but that could be exaggeration. Either way, it hardly matters. To run a school for under-elevens where the sounds of screams can be heard daily issuing from the cellar is bad enough that a broken finger seems relatively trivial. It’s interesting to note that Augusto Pinochet was still President of Chile at the time.
So what? So a handful of Catholics who should have known better were brutish bullies, why on earth would this leave you with a lifelong distrust of religion? Well, what I have so far left out of my narrative is a special place in BK’s heart for one boy in particular, who was, in BK’s words, “teacher’s pet”. This was a quiet, sensitive, articulate and well-behaved boy, who was never any trouble and didn’t make enemies amongst his peers, even though he was an eccentric. When I was classmates with this boy, BK would regularly start a lesson by grabbing him by his hair, dragging him out from behind his desk and (I promise I am not exaggerating) carrying him by the hair, his feet off the ground, to the front of the classroom, where he would viciously shake him by the head until the boy cried, all the time saying, “Teacher’s pet. Who’s teacher’s pet? Teacher’s pet.”
This boy would be subjected to his own round of arithmetic testing, staged for our amusement, where a slap would be issued for a half-second’s hesitation. If BK ever showed his softer side, it was to allow a child to enjoy his own feeling of authority by ringing the bell. When this boy was unexpectedly asked, BK soon revealed his hidden motive for this warm gesture, by “helping” him to ring it. Grabbing the boy’s hands, BK swung the bell into his face several times. This boy did not stay long in the school, and I recall an angry scene between the boy’s father and BK outside the school as I waited for the bus one day. I did not know it at the time, but since have concluded given a number of clues, though I’m not absolutely certain, that the boy was Jewish, and was being made an example of. He was moved to a secular school, and I wonder if the daily humiliation and abuse he received at the hands of BK during his childhood still bothers him.
The other teachers, apart from one notable exception, apparently did not question BK’s reign of terror and often used the threat of sending a boy to his office. Parents, assuming that BK, as a man of God, must at least have been fair even if he was firm, thought we exaggerated our stories (I have heard as much first-hand many times) and held BK in very high regard, as a saint-like pillar of the community. On one school trip, BK threw a boy who had spoken out of turn into a door, where the safety glass shattered. There are plenty of other examples of child cruelty that I could reel off, but I feel I have already made my case for associating the supposedly godly with horrific child abuse.
Years later, when reminiscing about the BK days with the parents of an old schoolfriend, the father opined: “Well, he may have been strict, but you respected him.” Respect clearly is not the right word. “Feared” I would go with, but I find myself now, as I was then, unable to respect somebody who was so angry, so brutal, so unjust, and so bullying. In microcosm, the tyranny of Catholicism, its ready affiliation with totalitarianism and fascism (years later when I read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four I could only imagine the Anti-Sex League as troupe of devout Catholics) and its anti-Semitism impressed on me before the age of ten that it was not something I liked.
The fact that the school only catered for boys for the first seventy years or so of its existence (girls were introduced when I must have been about eight or nine, I forget exactly) also betrays its Abrahamic roots, which still enables most of the world’s misogyny today. There were, believe it or not, complaints from some parents in the 1980s about the introduction of girls, and one family felt so strongly about it they withdrew their son from the school. I find this incredible. Of course it’s not in itself as harmful or wicked as the practice of throwing concentrated acid into the faces of women wishing to study that goes on in some Islamic countries, but the mentality behind it is the same. The Abrahamic religions are all guilty of the oppression of women, and if society as a whole has blindly followed suit, it is only because the “values” of the religion are seen as the bedrock of that society. The Catholic Church, ever immune to reason and deaf to criticism, still excludes women from holding any position, sticking to the misogynistic dogma of the New Testament author known as Paul, and indeed it should surprise no one that they are able to maintain this ideology of suppression of half the human population through reference to scripture and on no other authority or basis. What else would we expect? Though if anyone can point to a society or institution where women have been emancipated, and where this has resulted in injustice and anarchy, I would like to hear of it. This is something that liberal-minded religious accommodationists should be urged to bear in mind, when they show willing to bend over backwards to the demands of faith, and allow religious expression to be implemented unchecked in the name of tolerance. They may not be thanked by, in particular, women who wish to be liberated from the tyranny of the demands of their society’s religious faith. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a case in point. The Catholic Church is now touting for bigoted Anglicans, who for some reason I can’t fathom, think the reality of women bishops and of gay partnerships is the height of immorality.
Perhaps you may think that BK was a bad apple. The trouble is there’s little in the bible that contradicts any of the brutality I have documented about my early education. BK is your typical patriarchal figure, sharing many personality traits with the despicable God of the Old Testament. Normally the last resort of people unwilling to join me in a condemnation of BK, or religiously-inspired discipline, is to tell me that, whatever the “firm but fair” punishments (that they might not have been never seems to occur to anybody who wasn’t there) they were at least “character building”. This same platitude is levelled at any form of military training, from national service to a school cadet corps. There is one specific parallel between religious indoctrination and military training. They are both the precise opposite of character building. Character building would suggest taking the already extant personalities of the recruits and making them stronger and firmer. The reality is that a complete capitulation of character is the core demand. A surrender of free and individual thought, and a suppression of any urge to question authority is mandated. Debate, rationalisation and a democratic process would be inimical to religious (or military) indoctrination. It can only be achieved once character has been paralysed or amputated.
Whilst I was at school, under the auspices of BK, I was still leading my life at home, and had other influences that informed my worldview. As a boy, I loved the company of dogs; I loved to go to the park and feed bread to the ducks; I loved to watch the birds in the garden and see animals on television. Specifically, though, I adored dogs, and would always want to fuss any dog I saw in the street, and by and large this was encouraged and endorsed. We didn’t have a dog at home until I was ten, but both grandmothers did. I wept when my Catholic grandmother’s elderly dog died. My mum attempted to console me with the words: “She’s gone to the big kennel in the sky,” although I could see that my grandmother disapproved of this sentiment. I had heard of heaven, and was familiar with the concept of an afterlife, and at the time accepted it as fact. This idea was new to me. How could each species have its own heaven? Why did we not share heaven in the same way that we share the planet? My grandmother was keen to impress on me that only humans have souls, and my mother did not contradict her. This logically meant that dogs did not in fact go to heaven, and what I was being offered was false consolation.
An epitaph I once saw on a dog’s gravestone in an animal cemetery: “If god hath no place for thee, my friend; he hath no place for me,” struck a cord. To me, an afterlife spent entirely in human company would be pretty much a working definition of hell. My grandmother consoled me that God is so infinitely clever that he could magic up a pet dog for me, even though the dog would necessarily (not having a soul) not be real. This sounded like a cheap trick. No matter how convincing the illusion, I would know that the dog was not real, and therefore it would offer no succour, unless I was cleverly deceived and doomed to “live” in ignorance.
Incidentally, this same pious, religiously feverish grandmother held complete and absolute disdain for all non-Catholics, hauling me away from Marks and Spencer on one occasion, lest I should give money to “the Jews”. She died, bitter and alone, having, without going into details, played mind games with those closest to her until she had pushed them all away; and all our memories of her are, with good reason, unsympathetic. I learnt the hard way as a child that pious religious observance did not make someone a better person. I’m not sure it even made her a hypocrite. Nor do I think a successful argument could be made to divorce responsibility for her bigotry from her faith. Of course she was responsible for her own actions, but she believed her prejudiced views, learnt from the pulpits and shared by her peers, were divinely mandated, which made them not just acceptable but righteous.
I didn’t accept what I was told, which was that we needed religion to be good. The evidence was already clear to me that religion didn’t make people good. Always I came back to my enjoyment of the company of dogs, and my fascination with the natural world, so it was hardly a surprise that years later I would take this interest further, in an academic way pleasing to my analytical mind, as well as to my aesthetic senses; but at the time I was restricted to watching natural history shows on television. If, without religion, there would be nothing to stop us routinely murdering one another, then how do the religious explain the hundreds of thousands of animal species that live together in groups with very little bloodshed and where fights are normally to establish hierarchy? Do elephants have a holy book that knowledge of prevents them from going around trying to throttle one another to death from dawn until dusk? What about walruses, or birds, or wolves? Examples of moral behaviour in animal species abound, and one would have to have a profoundly human-centric view of the world to be surprised by this. Wolves have strict codes of conduct that ensures any pup who plays a little too roughly is punished, or even ostracised if they are judged to be a threat to the lives of other pups. Anyone who has ever owned a mammalian pet will have witnessed a full range of emotions in their adopted animal, as well as distinct personalities and traits between individuals of the same species. I have myself witnessed an uncharacteristic bout of rage, brought about by grief, in one of my rats, who at all other times has been exceptionally placid. The death of her sibling caused her to grieve. Rats (who really are a wonderful and fascinating species) from different groups cooperate to find food. Who could fail to be moved by the site of a mother elephant weeping at the death of her infant? It would take an oddly prudish mind not to be cheered to see dolphins having sexual intercourse for the sheer joy of it.
The explanations for the above are obvious, and it is the same for humans as for any other animal species. Any animal species that had no instinct to rear its own young (or provide resources for other species to oversee the same process) would very quickly become extinct, and mutual cooperation has similar evolutionary advantages. Thus it would make no evolutionary sense for a species to, in general, attempt to kill every other member of the same species, nor to be indifferent to the fate of its young. Biology was always one of my favourite subjects at school, and it set me on the path to learning for myself that all life on earth shares a common ancestor, and that the boundaries between species are blurred, like slowly shifting sands.
Here I realise that I’m laying myself open to the charge of hypocrisy, which I had better briefly defend before I move on. I am not vegetarian, and have no immediate plans to become one, and so I am, almost every day, responsible for the deaths of animals. Some of my shoes, and one of my jackets, are made from leather, as are my belts. However I have a very strong view on goods manufactured from ivory, even if it is old, and I abhor the breeding of animals such as greyhounds to act as commodities for human greed, especially because they are murdered in their tens of thousands every year once their racing days are over, usually aged four at the oldest. So am I a hypocrite? Well, you decide… In terms of my diet, I limit myself to poultry and beef, but sometimes pork (though I really should stop eating pork because pigs are such beautiful and intelligent animals – not because they are intrinsically dirty or unclean thanks to their trotters. Why do the religious think God went to the trouble of making species that were an abomination to him?). I rarely eat lamb even though lamb curry is one of my favourite dishes, because the animals are slaughtered so young. I like to think that I reconcile myself with my status as a mammal, who requires food to survive. In the same way I make no value judgement on the polar bear who kills the seal cub, or the lion who kills and eats the gazelle. We all have to make a living. We are all part of the food chain. I have no compunction chasing cats from my garden because they aren’t trying to catch the birds for food, in order to survive, but to satiate their desire for sadistic cruelty. Yes, that’s part of their genetically determined nature, but it is not one upon which their survival depends: therefore the protection of the birds who have come looking for food which I have willingly supplied (for the selfish motive that I love watching the birds in the garden) is a moral obligation.
I was mocked at university for my extravagant purchasing of free range eggs, which were a good few pence more expensive than the battery farmed ones. The same housemate with whom I had an argument on abortion (which I recount a little later) used to mock me, claiming that the birds know no better. Whether or not that is true, in the literal sense of what we would understand by “knowing”; it does not automatically follow that they therefore deserve no better, and that humans are entitled to treat them however they like. The constant stream of newspaper articles that lead with questions such as, “Can animals feel pain?” never ceases to astonish and anger me. How can anyone be so ignorant as to think they do not? Do they have no idea what a nervous system is, or what it is for? To me, the notion that “man has dominion over animals” (Genesis, 1:26) is one of the most profoundly immoral and wrong “teachings” in the whole of religion. We ought instead to have a respect for other creatures, and a sense of wonder and awe for the different ways in which they have evolved; whilst recognizing our own place in the food chain and taking responsibility for it. In short, I eat meat because I’m an animal and I need to manufacture large amounts of protein and I can’t help that. I limit my choice because I’m in a position to do so, and for me it is a matter of conscience. We over-fish the seas and drive other animals to extinction by destroying their habitats at our peril, to the detriment of all, and to our eternal shame. That’s a digression, in which I am not blaming religion or the religious for the maltreatment of other animal species, just to be clear. We all share this responsibility equally, and I apologise for my lecturing, hectoring tone, but it’s an issue that really matters to me.
Before I became scientifically literate, to my childish mind, the religious dismissal of all other species as insignificant troubled me frequently. This was coupled with the fact that no adult could tell me what heaven was really like. All I was told was that nobody knew until they got there, but it was so wonderful that they never came back, and that only humans were present, in order to praise God for the rest of eternity.
Praise God for the rest of eternity? Church bored me near to tears. Each Sunday I smuggled in a Doctor Who book, which I kept open inside the hymnbook and casually read, passing myself off as pious. The constant changing of position from kneeling to standing to kneeling again, then sitting, then back to standing before kneeling again irritated me to an almost irrational degree. Why couldn’t the priest just make up his mind which position he wanted us in (no pun intended)? Why would God only hear or believe us if we said some bits kneeling? Besides, the kneeling hurt my knees. “That’s the point,” my mother told me. So why wasn’t the old lady in front kneeling? “She has arthritis.” But I though the point was that it was meant to hurt, so surely kneeling is ideal for her? Won’t God be angry with her? “No, she doesn’t have to kneel any more.” Why, has she a special pass? Who arranges this? How do I apply?
Not only was I bored and confused, but I was also asked to believe the impossible. It is absolutely true to say that all Catholics are required to believe that during the sacrament of the Eucharist – the taking of the body and blood of Christ – the wafer actually turns into the body of Christ and the wine actually turns into the blood of Christ, and without eating the wafer nobody can get to heaven. We had this drilled into us at school, and I heard it constantly from my grandmother as well, caught, as I frequently was, in a pincer movement. No, it is not “symbolic” – but the substances actually change through a process known as transubstantiation. Leaving aside the distastefulness of the cannibalism not implied but believed by Catholics, indeed their very souls depend upon it; and leaving aside the fact that any amount of scientific scrutiny conclusively proves that the chemical formulation of the wine and the wafer doesn’t change from cheap sherry to human blood no matter how many important-sounding words the priest utters – you are still left with a requirement of the faith to put aside all reason and truly believe that you are imbibing a Judean carpenter.
I would submit that that’s a tough requirement, and I don’t blame many Catholics for struggling to accept it. I believed in Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy, but drew the line at transubstantiation. What I do have a problem with is the sheer number of Catholics I have spoken to about this who wave it aside with a casual: “Well, it’s only meant to be symbolic.”
The unawareness over what the faithful are meant to believe seems commonplace, and shows an ignorance of the history behind the Protestant Reformation. How casually the faithful throw away bits of their faith that don’t quite make sense to them, or seem now to be quaint or far-fetched (as if other bits aren’t). Why do I care so much about the get-out-of-jail-free card of, “Well, it’s only symbolic”? It opens up – and here I wade into very stormy waters, but it’s a point central to my dislike of religious thought and religiously inspired “morality” – the problem of the sheer hypocrisy of religious faith. Richard Dawkins has referred to this as “cherry-picking” which bits to believe and which to chalk up as, “Well, it’s all supposed to be symbolic, really.”
What was I meant to believe, and how was I to believe the impossible? The awkward and unanswerable questions I raised upset my mum tremendously. What I was asking her was to explain mass to me rationally, and interpret the mind of God to my satisfaction; both demands were not within her capacity to resolve, nor indeed, in anybody’s (which I learned much later). On one occasion, I forget exactly what I objected to or questioned her about, but she grabbed my hand and marched me straight out of the church and straight home where my dad (an atheist), seeing that I had made my mother cry, gave me a slap. I was told to “behave” myself in church, which amounted to raising no objections, asking for no explanations, accepting everything without question, and correcting my mind so that I felt the process to be “relevant” and “improving” – no matter what I really thought.
Looking back, I remember making the assumption that one day, when I was “more grown up”, church, mass, Catholicism, the creed, intercessory prayer, transubstantiation and so on would make sense to me. I expected to “grow into it” as I grew into the at-first-baggy clothing that I would receive at the beginning of each school year, or graduated to reading steadily more difficult books as new areas of understanding opened up in my brain.
So where did this leave me? I was a child being given a Catholic education and attending church every Sunday without ever enjoying it or finding any of it in the least credible, stimulating, relevant or improving. By the age of five I was an avid fan of Doctor Who, (a passion that was to endure up until the mostly banal new series that has something of the classic series’ heart, but none of its head – I only mention that because my common riposte to people who protest that they are the same series is that that would be like saying Catholicism and Pentecostalism are the same thing) where the intrepid Peter Davison was flying around the universe meeting alien life forms twice weekly. I thought then, and still do; that this was a more credible view of reality than that offered by religion. Given the scale of the universe, which may as well be infinite, it would be statistically highly improbable that this is the only planet where life has occurred, even if the occurrence of life is an extremely rare event. Where would that leave revealed religion? Notice how earthbound, geographically local and human-centric all holy books are. And why wouldn’t they be? How could the humans who wrote them have known any better? They didn’t have access to the Hubble telescope, or indeed, to an accurate map of the world. Galileo was persecuted by the Inquisition for proposing a heliocentric worldview rather than the biblically incorrect established “truth” of a geocentric worldview. To the pre-scientific era it stood to reason that a deity had created the world and all life in it, and was concerned with human thoughts and deeds. In the light of modern science it becomes impossible to maintain this as a reasonable explanation for anything. It raises many more questions than the ones it fails to answer. I could not have put it quite like that at the age of five, but my imagination had no problem with concepts like alien worlds, alien life forms, and long distances from earth. Perhaps this is a small part of the reason that the religious indoctrination of my childhood never stuck. To believe that the entire universe was created with the human species in mind, and that the “creator” of the universe cares about the thoughts, wishes and actions of every single human, with complete indifference to every single other species on the planet strikes me not as humble piety, but as an extraordinary arrogant and solipsistic worldview, which I can’t understand and couldn’t share even if I wanted to.
By the time I was fourteen, I realised that I was never going to “get” religion, and stopped worrying about it. I was also learning more about science, and about philosophy, though then it came indirectly through literature. I had discovered acting, and Shakespeare, and wanted to spend all my time at the theatre and on stage, where everything I had been told was wicked and immoral was commonplace, and fun. Not to mention relevant. Acknowledging that I did not believe a word of Christianity led to me expressing my autonomy by refusing to attend church. It’s absolutely true to say I was stroppy, if not downright callous about it, and I know I hurt my mother’s feelings. Perhaps I felt I had to be firm about it, so that there was no room for needling persuasion, and I quickly blocked out the attempts at emotional blackmail. Whenever the subject was mentioned, I responded by saying that I had been told (which I had) that when I was old enough I could make up my own mind whether or not I attended church. This get-out clause was probably put in by my mother in the expectation that it would not be needed. Nevertheless, here I was having won back my Sunday morning, and a much-cherished lie in. Did I miss church? Were there any lingering doubts or regrets? Honestly, and hand on heart – not for one moment.
It was liberating. It meant I could finally look back on all the unanswered questions of my childhood and write them off as illegitimate questions that were leading me down an intellectual cul-de-sac in the first place. As far as I was concerned, religion was out of my life for good (although I did, until I left home for university, make annual shows of solidarity by attending mass on Christmas Day to keep my mother sweet).
The next four years passed with religion barely occurring to me. I was much too busy reading, and learning parts for school plays and youth theatre, and spending as much time as I could engaged in rehearsals for shows. All this, I at the time hoped, might be in preparation for a career on the boards, though things did not quite work out like that. Nevertheless, I unexpectedly had what I then thought of as a “religious experience” when I was sixteen I went on a pilgrimage to Lourdes as part of a week-long school excursion during the summer between the sixth form years. This was not on account of any great desire to experience the divine, but because I had heard it was good fun, a rewarding experience, and that the bar in the hotel was happy to serve students. All of that was true, and I had a great week pushing wheelchair-bound children around Lourdes in the daytime and boozing in the evening.
End of Part One
Continued in Part Two…