I colourised this photograph of my mother, taken before I was born, possibly in the 1930s.
I've written quite a lot over the past few months, theorising about the rights or wrongs of religion, and I thought I'd put that theorising into the context of my own life in order for it to make proper sense. None of us arrive at our most sincere views without giving the matter a whole lot of thought, and I've done just that, years ago, true, but slowly, deeply, truly.
And this has motivated me to write a small episode of my autobiography. If what I have to say about my earliest memories has anything to do with the me of today I suppose Iâ€™d better concentrate on those influences that seem to have most informed the fellow I now am.
The thing about these guiding influences is that they are contrary beasts and might have had an opposite effect on my later days than you would have supposed when I was under their spell, and chief amongst them was, Iâ€™m afraid, that old beast, religion.
Back in the glory days and short pants we had God thrown at us every day of our little lives. Every school day started with a Christian assembly, every week had more than it's fair share of religious instruction lessons and Sundays were taken up with Sunday School. We were soaked in the stuff, God dripping down our sweaty bodies, Christ all around us in the form of dogma that was believed, it seemed, every syllable of it, by every genius the world had ever spawned â€“ and if they believed it, it just had to be true, didn't it?
What is it about religion that means itâ€™s got to be so one-sided? Itâ€™s considered perfectly reasonable for institutions in the glorious British Empire of past centuries to have sent missionaries across the world with the intention of enlightening the unenlightened, but if someone like me had dared suggest that there just might be something wrong with what they were preaching he would have been castigated with holy hands held up in horror, whilst they insisted that a snivelling worm like me had no right to undermine the basic tenets of their belief and had better shut up. We shouldnâ€™t do it. Itâ€™s not right. Yet the aforementioned missionaries did just that in spades. The tribal peoples of parts of Africa had societies that were every bit as good as our own society and in some ways better. After all, our society depended for its economic strength on the total domination of the masses by a few tin-pot dictators who happened to have wealth. The economy of just a couple of centuries ago depended on the employment of children in factories, mines and mills, but only the children of the poor. Those with money, the middle classes, had pretty little angels decorating their homes (but children should be seen and not heard) and not a momentâ€™s work was done until they started their education where then the rod was rarely spared lest the child be spoiled. Yet a society as unequal as that saw fit to send missionaries out into the world to teach others how to live!
And these days there are still missionaries. They walk around council estates in groups of two or three, sharp suited and with seraphic smiles, carrying their holy books and doing their damnedest to inveigle overworked harassed mothers into a faith that wonâ€™t do much for those mothers but will make the missionaries feel good when they consider how wonderful theyâ€™ve been at recruiting. Then there are extremes like the so-called Church of Scientology that fleeces those with enough money not to miss a few millions and is more of a profit-making business than a church. But fleecing the rich or the poor, there are enough missionaries of one sort or another walking our streets, yet I have been criticised when I have suggested, on a small thing like my little bit of social networking sites, that there might not be any substance behind Christianity, Judaism, Islam, any of the major religions.
And if I dared point out that the world we actually sense with our eyes and ears and nose has enough beauty and love and so on in it to make up for the absence of any deity, I get castigated as a faith-breaker by a few. Now the truth is, Iâ€™ve never been after anyoneâ€™s faith with all guns blazing: I just want to occupy the same playing field and find that its level and then put in my own pennyâ€™s worth. I think thatâ€™s fair, and donâ€™t forget that what I might see as my opposition has had centuries to get its views entrenched.
As for the concept of life after death in all of its forms, with or without enough virgins to bring on heart-failure, weâ€™d all like that, wouldnâ€™t we? Itâ€™s not the most appealing aspect of our sentience to be aware of our own mortality and not the most comfortable thing for us to contemplate on dark nights when the windâ€™s a-howling outside that weâ€™re not going to be around forever. But itâ€™s like two sides of the same coin. On the one hand we have the skills and energy and intelligence to organise the world in the way no other species ever has, and on the other we know stuff thatâ€™s sometimes uncomfortable to know. So if I say that the stuff preached at me in the past is a load of gobbledegook, Iâ€™ve got to include everything and much as it pains me, itâ€™s got to include the life after death bit too. Iâ€™d like to think I could go on and on in some glorious afterlife, blogging away to my heartâ€™s content, but liking the idea of something doesnâ€™t automatically turn it into a reality.
But back to the autobiographical part of this series of blogs.
I reached my teens somehow or other. My home, though dreadfully poor, was reasonably happy though by then I was beginning to become uncomfortably aware of the premature senility that was beginning to affect my only living parent. I went to a school that was both very good and very bad. It would have been all good had it not been for two or three male teachers who believed in cruelty. I was lucky and never actually selected by one of them for the exercise of whatever it was that turned them on, but I know that some of my mates did very little indeed that could be called â€œwrongâ€ and yet were thrashed for it. Yet my life has been coloured by those brutish men right to this day in that occasionally I find myself sweating when I think of history lessons and being a very innocent fourteen year old. I think we were very innocent in our early teens back then in the 1950s.
And it was then that I started asking important questions. At first they were practical questions, like â€œif thereâ€™s a Heaven and if space goes on for ever, where is it?â€ and â€œif hellâ€™s down thereâ€ (pointing downwards) â€œand if down there is finite in size because the worldâ€™s finite in size, where is there room for all the bad people?â€ and I always ended up with â€œIf youâ€™re there, God, what on Earth are you doing to my mother, and what has she done to deserve being turned into an empty, mindless shell?â€
Then my questions became more philosophical. How come the ancients in a desert land far away got the true story and nobody else did, till it was passed on to them? How come the Jews are Godâ€™s chosen people and yet have been mistrusted by just about everyone else for a great deal of history? Why dislike those chosen by your Creator? Is it jealousy, or what? And this virgin birth story â€“ we all know that itâ€™s absolutely impossible for an embryo to form without input from a second parent, so how come that was said to have happened? And if the all powerful Creator was going to come to Earth to guide us (thereâ€™d be no other reason) how come he didnâ€™t guide us? After all, he lived as an adult for a very short time in a tiny part of the Roman Empire, less than one percent of it, so if he was going to guide us poor creatures why didnâ€™t he start in Rome itself? Whatâ€™s that? They might have killed him before he opened his mouth if heâ€™d have risked Rome, and it would all have been wasted? What nonsense! If he could create the world, cause a flood, be so very powerful as to know everything, see everything and hear everything, Iâ€™m damned sure he could have watched his own back in Rome!
And doubt crept in.
And you know what? No sooner had doubt crept in than I saw the whole thing for what it was, an edifice put there to control the masses by the few who were enriched by it, and I hated what I saw as blindingly obvious. The real story of religion was that simple and that horrible: control.
And there you have me: mid teens, problems of the kind nobody wants, ill-prepared for the big bad world though at the same time of reasonable intelligence and with a faith that had turned into dust and blown away on the feeblest of breezes once doubt crept in. And nothing came to help me, just like when Iâ€™d prayed as a toddler for my knitted Jumbo to come to life and love me and nothing had happened. I was on my own, all right. Even my mother didnâ€™t know who I was when she looked at me and tried to say, â€who are you?â€, and the words stuck somewhere between what was left of her brain and her mouth.
I knew, from that moment, that Heaven, Hell, God, Angels, all were part of a fairy story the cruel world had told me, and I hated it for telling a poor boy like me so many damned, damned lies without being prepared to do one tiny thing to help my growing nightmare.
Â© Peter Rogerson 26.04.11