Member (Idle past 3032 days)
From: Frodsham, Chester
Message 1 of 280 (573483)
08-11-2010 3:01 PM
The evolution of an atheist
If I say that my father’s given names were Dermot Anthony, then you should be able to make a reasonable guess about at least part of my heritage. Irish Catholic would score the points. In fact my father’s side were Irish Catholic on his mother’s side. My mother was pretty non-religious but, having done the full Catholic church wedding, she had signed up to raise any offspring in the church, as per the usual Catholic ‘understanding’. I was the eldest, with two younger sisters 2 and 5 years apart.
I was therefore raised a good and true Catholic. I don’t remember the baptism but I do remember first communion, first confession and, aged 9 or so, my year as an altar boy. Up until then my path had been that of many Catholics – a Catholic primary school, mass on Sundays, being towed to church socials in my Sunday best, and fussed-over by rather old, scary (and very hairy) nuns every month or so....a routine familiar to many I daresay.
Elevation to altar boy followed the passing of the old Parish priest (I never knew whether he died or simply moved on) and the arrival of younger more vigorous blood in the parish – Father Burke. Within a very short time it was the common wisdom that Fr Burke was ‘with it’ and ‘great with the kids’. I seem to remember that none of us kids thought anything much of him, but our parents had decided that we liked him, so that was that. After one Sunday mass I remember being greeted by Fr Burke as we left the Church, and him shaking my hand and remarking, in the rather too bright and cheerful tones of those with no real clue about talking to children, on my height, growth and maturity, using the various clichés uttered on these occasions –‘.. growing fast’,’.. soon be taller than me’,’..becoming the man of the family’ etc. When I got home I found that I had become an altar boy.
For those with no clue what that means – an altar boy wafts around the altar with a cotta (ankle length black smock-type affair) and cassock (baggy white waist-length pinafore type top). The various duties included ringing the altar bells when the Priest performed the magic with the ‘host’, and holding a plate under the chin of those receiving Holy Communion. At special services (Christmas, Easter and funerals) there was also the chance to play with the Thurible – a spherical brass container, perforated with cross-shaped cut-outs, containing burning incense and suspended from a brass chain. The Thurifer (the boy entrusted with this sweet-smelling smoke dispenser) would walk behind the Priest, giving it as many swings as he thought he could get away with, and hand it over to the Priest for various parts of the ceremony which required a quick wafting of the incense over the altar, congregation, host, or coffin. A more junior boy – the ‘boat boy’ would walk slightly behind with a boat-shaped container full of incense, for top-ups.
After nearly a year as the ‘bell boy’ – a job given to the junior – I had graduated to some-time Thurifer, and was ready for the biggie – the plate. In those days people came to the railings of the altar and knelt down to receive communion – just a circular white cracker, no wine. The senior altar boy always had plate duty – supposedly in case the Priest ever dropped a piece of Jesus’ body, but I had never seen or heard of that happening. This particular Sunday it was my turn. Solemn as you like, I retrieved the gold (plated) paten ready to do my bit. I walked beside the priest to the altar rail, where I was greeted by a widow of the parish (always first to the rail) kneeling, with head back, eyes closed and tongue out. The sight was too much and I got the giggles - big time. If anyone ever draws up a 1-10 scale of times and places where not to get the giggles, the ‘plate’ altar boy position would have to be a 10. Of course, the more I tried to stifle it and turn it into a sneeze, the funnier the whole situation was and the more helplessly I shook.
That was the end of my career as an altar boy. I have vague memories of being dismissed from the altar in disgrace and lectured to by a pretty angry Priest after the service, but the details washed over me since I was far too busy worrying about what awaited me once I got home. My parents were not big on smacking, belting and other corporal punishment - I was probably spanked about half a dozen times in my childhood, and then mostly fairly token affairs. I found out this day that there were worse things than spankings. The look on my father’s face still sticks in the mind. The shame, anger, guilt, puzzlement - all mingled with a hint of tears in his eyes. It destroyed me. He didn’t say a word – left it to my mum who was the normal disciplinarian. She was quite easy on me – gave me a lecture about responsibility and appropriate behaviour - but I knew this wasn’t something that would be forgotten quickly and that was the first time I remember feeling really guilty...proper catholic guilt, as I later came to know it.
Anyway, things rolled by and eventually normality returned. In my brooding, though, I had begun to think, for the first time, about this religion business. Up until then it had just been what I did. I never really thought about it and I couldn’t say what, if anything, I actually believed. I do remember as an even younger child that I had always been confused about whom God actually was – largely because for some years I would routinely say the last 4 words of mass with the rest – but my version was only 3 words. ‘Thanks be to God’, the congregation would say, whilst I dutifully intoned ‘Thanks Peter God’. That confused me for some time.
A couple of years rolled by and it was time for the 11 plus. Few from my primary school ever passed it, but I was ‘bright’ and, when the results were read out, I was one of the two in the year group who was destined for grammar school. My parents were determined that I should attend a Catholic single-sex grammar school in the next town (about 12 miles away) so I was driven there to take the entrance exam. I remember a mixed feeling of curiosity and dread when we were met by a smiling Monk at the entrance and I was shown to a desk in the main hall, along with a couple of hundred other hopefuls. The test passed in a blur – I knew I had done badly but I couldn’t keep my eyes of the robed monks patrolling the hall.
A couple of weeks later the letter arrived. No, Christopher was not in the top 90 and would not be offered a place this year. Very sorry, yours sincerely.... Three days later another envelope arrived. ‘Delighted to inform...new form this year...Christopher has a place....’. I was now formally enrolled at Thornleigh Salesian Grammar School.
School uniform consisted of short pants, a white shirt and striped tie with the school motto in the middle – I still don’t know what it was – and a brown blazer, with the Salesian motif on the pocket. All the pupils from my home town (Leigh) were transported to and from school on the ‘Leigh Bus’ – a double-decker – with seating in strict hierarchy of year – sixth formers on the top deck - back seats, and then down the line until the first formers at the front of the bottom deck. The only person I knew was Thorpie – the only other person to pass the 11 plus from my primary school – and we weren’t really mates.
A detailed account of my time at Thornleigh would take too long and be rather bitter, but suffice it to say that I mostly hated it. I must accept some responsibility - I was an unlikable youth – very much wrapped-up in my own world - and far too ready with a quick lie. From the start I received the (fairly mild) attention of the bullies but that was something I could deal with. More difficult was going from being top of the class with ease in Junior school, to being a member of Delta form. Those who know Latin will guess that in a school with 4 form entry, delta was bottom, behind alpha, beta and gamma. Most of the Leigh boys were in delta – I guess they took our entrance exam results to decide on our form but I don’t really know.
I found lessons both boring and incomprehensible much of the time – especially Latin and Chemistry. Art was a joke – we were aggressively slept at by a withered Salesian, retired from missionary work and doing a few lessons whilst waiting to die. Fr Nicholson was his name – universally known behind his back as Ciggie Walter. He taught calligraphy in year 1, which lessons consisted of a 5 minute rant at those without homework, followed by issuing of ridiculously severe ‘marks’* to anyone foolish enough to forget both homework and Players cigarette coupons (it was important to gift the coupons to him just before being asked to present homework – that way he wouldn’t forget your face and issue a Conduct mark in error). The rant over, he would retire to his desk, tell us to continue (copying stencils of the Roman alphabet) and nod off. Once or twice in the lesson we would hear a muffled ‘I’m watching you’, but we knew he wasn’t, so we quietly copied the letters.
*Marks were divided into a scale as follows: Discipline marks (1 got you detention, 3 in a term got you 3 strokes of the tawes [a 4 ft leather strap with split and knotted ends] on the backside). Conduct marks – 3 of which made 1 Discipline mark. Bad marks – 3 to a Conduct Mark.
Normally forgetting a homework was 1 or 2 Bad marks. Being late for a lesson was 2 Bad or a Conduct. Running in corridors – 1 Bad. Not shutting-up when told – up to 1 Conduct depending on the teacher. Wagging a lesson – 1 Conduct. Wagging a whole day – 1 Discipline. Cheek or insolence – 1-3 Discipline.
It probably wasn’t until year 3 that I noticed that some of the Salesians (about ½ of the teachers were Salesians, a few Nuns and the rest lay) had strangely disturbing habits. The Latin teacher was forever bending over one particular lad in the lesson to ‘correct his work’, and the English teacher would always greet Year 1 and 2 boys after games to ‘tuck their shirts in’. I was way too naive to suss what it meant; it was just a bit ‘odd’. I realised later, of course, what was going on, but I’m not going to dwell on that aspect because personally I was never seriously molested by the good Fathers, and I have no right to speak about people who were – that must remain their prerogative..
My refuge had become the music room. The school had a brass band – and a good one. This was presided over by Father McGovern – a Glaswegian Priest who, rumour had it, had lifted one of the 4-seater music desks (heavy oak with a sloping top) and thrown it across the room at some miscreant or other. You didn’t mess with Jock McGovern. Of course, due to his reputation, Jock never actually had to perform any superhuman feats - everyone behaved. I later realised how cleverly he had nourished that reputation as a head-banger. Jock was potty about music and lived for the band. Once I was in the band (3rd cornet), I had somewhere to go at break and dinner times. My only fond memories of those times all involve Jock. One particular occasion we were playing at our ‘local’ venue – the Parr Hall in Bolton. I had forgotten my music, so Jock, after his normal Glaswegian ‘Ach..Snowy...what de we do with ye’, told me to follow him. We walked out of the back and he seated me on the back of his Triumph 650, before roaring off back to the college (only a couple of miles) with my legs around his ears and my arms wind-milling in an effort to stay on. No helmet and, I guessed from the sensation, no speed limit. That was the start, for me, of a long and continuing passion for motorbikes.
By year 5 I had done some serious thinking about this Catholic business. We had theology and Religious Education lessons, during which we investigated the mysteries of the Catholic dogma. I was a pretty deep thinker when I wanted to be, and I really wanted to work this out, so I was always first with the tough question during the lessons, and always the one who hadn’t only done the homework, but had done a lot of extra reading as well. I knew that there had to be something I was missing. I learned early on that much of the bible was not intended to be read literally. In fact I felt like I’d graduated to the next level when I put that thought to my RE teacher in year 3 and he agreed with what I thought was an impressed and knowing smile. By year 5 I was looking for the next level, the next big secret. I read everything I could get my hands on. I was determined to work out what key Catholic dogma actually meant – transubstantiation, virgin birth, trinity. It was obvious there had to be some deeper meaning than the literal, because the literal was illogical. A thought began to germinate, but it was too huge to actually frame properly....just a nagging suspicion at this stage. I also began to find references to other religious mythology that was very familiar – Gilgamesh and the flood, Mithras and Horus with their striking similarities to the Gospel stories, and much more.
I passed sufficient O levels to see me into the sixth form – despite deliberately throwing 2 exams (Latin and Chemistry), and it was towards the end of the lower sixth that the thought crystallised and became fully conscious. The whole lot of it was bollox. I was shocked at myself for even entertaining the thought, yet I knew it was so. The whole dogma was a ridiculous set of invented stories and fables, loosely based around the bible (and I mean loosely), with no evidence and in most cases no coherent logic.
Transubstantiation had puzzled me for years. I tried to get my head around it repeatedly and sincerely, but in a blinding flash of revelation (call it my anti-Damascus moment) I realised that the reason nobody could explain it properly to me was that it was complete nonsense. Once that realisation took hold I quickly realised that the virgin birth, the trinity, the doctrine of original sin – all the metaphysics I had struggled with – it was all complete crap, invented by some early Church ‘theologians’ to make their religion stand apart from Judaism and the other sects of early Christianity, and finally sealed at Nicea. It all swam into place – the symbology and fables, clearly taken from earlier Roman and Egyptian religions; the nonsensical and illogical nature of the central doctrines; the core beliefs that appeared nowhere in the bible - it all finally made sense.
I spent a few weeks going over it, still half convinced I was missing something (I had done some pretty serious study for a 17 yr old, covering not just the core catechism/ dogma but earlier religions, early Christian history and some pretty deep Catholic theology), but the more I mulled it over the clearer the picture became.
The only thing I couldn’t work out was what came next. Clearly generations of intelligent men had obviously seen what I had seen and therefore there had to be a next level of symbolism – the next ‘truth’. I questioned my theology teacher about it and he got angry, telling me in no uncertain terms that I was ‘in error’ and in danger of ‘mortal’ sin. I had obviously misunderstood what was literal and what was parable, and the central doctrines were most certainly not just parable or symbolism. When I pressed him, using examples I’d read up on, he quickly shut me up.
To this day I haven’t solved that last riddle, though I spent the next 30 years trying to work it out. I still don’t quite understand how intelligent men – and some of the Salesians were on a par with the best of the Jesuits, way more intelligent than I – could possibly settle for what they must know was invention. Power was too trite an answer, habit seemed inadequate. Even now the only answer I have is that, like the horoscope caster or the tea-leaf reader, they know that there isn’t much actual truth in what they do, but they regard it as simply something to focus on whilst doing the real work, whether it be comforting, assuring, guiding. It is still a far from complete and satisfactory answer but it is the best I can do.
So, aged 17 I became an agnostic.
The journey to atheism will have to occupy another tale, since this is already much longer than I intended when I sat down to write it.
Edited by Bikerman, : Removed introductory comment