I’ve had a religious experience. It was your average, everyday, run-of-the-mill religious experience in that it involved indoctrination and the use of time that could otherwise have better been spent doing pretty much anything at all. I’m talking about my upbringing and not some delusional "ooh, I’ve spotted the beard of Jesus in dry rot" or "I’ve got no grasp of probability so two random events are clearly a physical manifestation of an ethereal omnipresence" situation.
I was raised to believe in an Irish-whisked, Rome-centric, Italian interpretation of the fictional Greek account of a group of Middle Eastern gentlemen along with all the popular legends passed down generation-to-generation by word of exaggeration and borrowed from numerous other disparate cultures: Catholicism to the layman.
I was brought up this way by my mother and I can be thankful for the small mercy that at least the brain-pummelling attempt was in English; she had latin to cope with too.
Now, of course, it’s not my mum’s fault that she encouraged fear of doing anything lest the invisible man in the clouds punish me; she underwent a similar indoctrination process herself and it worked to some extent on her. Nor is it her fault that she utterly, utterly wasted an hour every week of both our lives engaging in the ritual of – now let’s see if I can remember – genuflecting, sitting, standing, sitting, kneeling, sitting, standing, kneeling, getting soggy paper-tasting wafer stuck in the roof of the mouth, kneeling, sitting, standing, swapping germs through the act of shaking hands with random, nearby, homeless people and those who figured the nineteen layers of clothing they were wearing would probably absorb any leakage so why not skip the whole visiting a loo experience, sitting, standing, and genuflecting once more; all interspersed with monotonous tunes and the same stories over and over again.
Religion: helpful hint! Try writing a few new Jesus stories to keep the kids coming back!
My Catholic indoctrination was proceeding well, it thought. Baptism was completed, stamping my fortunately-difficult-to-detect soul with a "Property of The Pope" mark. The repetitive tall tales and body-training kneely-standy-sitty routines were becoming ingrained. There was even… The Confirmation.
The Confirmation is another way of saying "Hey! I didn’t ask to be baptised but strangely after being instructed over and over and over and over and over again about how good being a Catholic is I’ve decided of my own free will that I’ll repeat the process to show there are no hard feelings." I didn’t get the option to choose not to be Confirmed; that would have been crazy.
Being Confirmed means you get to pick your favourite saint and adopt their name as your new middle name. I wasn’t given a middle name when I was born because my parents figured that they wouldn’t have so many children so as to make a second name vital to distinguish among them and, as a result, getting to have a not-legal-for-identification-purposes middle name was something of a big deal. I chose Saint Anthony. Was Saint Anthony a good saint? Did he do something amazing? Did he even really exist? Can I remember? Did I even care at the time? The important thing was I could call myself Mark Anthony and pretend I was living in Ye Olde Roman Tymes. As you can see: the whole religion experience wasn’t really taking hold like it should. There’s a reason for this.
The childhood religious experience is a virus; its purpose is to simply exist and pass itself on to a new generation. There are beneficiaries of the virus but they are institutions, not the carriers. As with any virus there are anti-viral medicines and I was fortunate to be regularly taking that most potent of religious anti-virals…
I was educated well.
Where I can’t blame my mum for the religious upbringing, I can certainly praise (non-religious sense) both her and my dad for what also happened during my childhood. I was read to and taught to read from a very young age. My parents bought an encylopedia in twenty volumes (the 1971 Merit Students Encyclopedia) which contained a treasure trove of knowledge I happily stole. There were books a-plenty in the house and I read a lot. Library trips were frequent and wholly enjoyable. I was able to read just fine by the time I went to school. I read every single book in the primary and middle schools by the age of nine and was then asked to help the teacher at times with children less able.
My schooling was Rome-centric, Italian interpretation of the fictional Greek account of a group of Middle Eastern gentlemen along with all the popular legends passed down generation-to-generation by word of exaggeration and borrowed from numerous other disparate cultures-flavoured too. Catholic junior school, Catholic middle school, private Catholic secondary school run by an order of monks.
Yet, in spite of what appears to be a religion-reinforcing environment in which to be taught I can happily report that it delivered the opposite experience altogether. This isn’t a case of rebelling against the system; the education – particularly that received by the brothers at the private secondary school – was wide, deep, and honest. Comparative religion was taught, for example, and we learned of the origins of many of the world’s religion’s strangely-yet-not-really-when-you-think-about-it-shared tales. But, more importantly, we also learned of the history of the religion we were all being most convinced by our elders was the one to choose; historical education such as: gospels not included in the New Testament and why, dates of gospels, lack of credibility in the Old Testament, inconsistencies in the Bible and reasons, plagiarism within the Bible and reasons, lack of evidence for anyone named Jesus or Jesse or The Jeezster in the records of the time, assimilation of Christianity for Roman political purposes, and much, much more.
This was, as I’m sure you can imagine, a wonderful thing to learn (learning is wonderful!) and more than a little surprising to hear from a group of men in dresses who still prayed to a non-corporeal entity who’d allegedly had a son they openly admitted was completely fabricated for sociopolitical reasons. I heard an explanation of this belief-in-the-face-of-reason from the headmaster as being a means to lead a good life and wear black dresses because it’s so becoming. Some of that particular memory may have become warped and embellished with the passage of time.
For those capable of understanding them educational revelations of that magnitude are nuclear-tipped warheads fired against the pine sheds of religious indoctrination.
I opened hostilities on my mum and delivered a debilitating first strike on her beliefs from which she couldn’t recover. Within weeks the war was won: Sundays were… free! There was no more church, not just for me and my brother but also for my mum. Education had rid her of the infection. The family has been clear of the virus for mumble-something years now.
Of course, religion is still around in the world at large. A vaccination programme would be nice but education takes time, effort, willingness, and a genetic predisposition towards not being deeply stupid and not being pig-headed after indoctrination in spite of knowledge. That’s a lot to ask for. Still, even if the level of education in schools is on the decline (evidence says: hell yes) the internet is delivering wisdom and spreading the cure daily. Religious folk who tolerate other religious folk from other religions (because it’s difficult to openly point out the stupidities in those others’ misguided interpretations without encouraging a similar investigation of one’s own along with its accompanying hard-to-swallow-so-just-ignore-them truths) fear agnosticism and atheism because the religious virus has never mutated a form that is resistant to rationality in an intelligent host. The virus is scared. Poor little virus.
And that’s my religious experience. Happy Easter The Jeezster!