Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Mr. Schopenhauer, Mr. Paine, and My Short Religious Instruction

And the capacity for faith is at its strongest in childhood: which is why religions apply themselves before all else to getting those tender years into their possession. In this way. even more than by threats and stories of miracles, that the doctrines of faith strike roots; for if, in the earliest childhood, a man has certain principles recited to him with abnormal solemnity and with an air of supreme earnestness such as he has never before beheld, and at the same time the possibility of doubt is never so much as touched on, or if it is only in order to describe it as the first step towards eternal perdition, then the impression produced will be so profound that in almost every case, the man will be almost as incapable of doubting this his own existence. Hardly one in a thousand will then possess the firmness of mind seriously and honestly to ask himself: is this true?
On Religion: A Dialogue, Arthur Schopenhauer
When I was in sixth grade in primary school, I desperately wanted Wayne to be my best friend. So, when he told me that his Sundays were spent, not milling around at the shopping center but in Sunday school, I was both impressed and interested. Pastor Peterson, in fact, had only recently been ordained and had yet to acquire a position in an establish church, a church of his own, or, for that matter, even a congregation. For this reason, he would temporarily be giving sermons and classes in the more relaxed but mundane atmosphere of his suburban home.

I suppose, given the world we live in today, such an arrangement- a middle-aged man taking seven children to his basement for classes- would be somewhat suspicious- the opening of a nasty scandal on Fox news. Back then, however, potential molestation was not something anybody thought too much about. That sort of thing was something that happened only big cities. Suburbia, we reckoned, was a safe place for children.
Waking up early on Sunday was quite a novelty and I wasn't sure it I liked it. My mother drove me to Pastor Peterson’s ranch- style home with the required lawn and evergreen trees. His wife was nice enough-big hair and thin wrists, with what night have been a handmade dress. She offered us homemade cookies and Kool-aid and that made her ok in my book. The pastor was a tall balding man with a gentle voice, like Mr. Roberts. He seemed a bit nervous, I noticed, without the smooth confidence of any of my elementary school teachers.

There were about seven of us although I recognized only Wayne. The others appeared to be "regulars" but for me, any time I was in somebody else's home was like going to a museum, only less awe-inspiring.
We all sat in the floor in a semi-circle and the pastor, composing himself for a second, asked, "Does anybody know why were baptized?" Hands shot up in the air like onion shoots. I remained silent and slightly wary.
"We were baptized because..." the little girl paused, unsure of herself.".. so we will go to heaven."
"That's right. Tammy."
"And can anybody tell me what the Original Sin is?"
A much longer spell of silence.
"Adam and Eve. Remember last week?"
"I know. I know." Wayne said. "Adam ate the apple and then, and then, we have original sin."

OverThereI was familiar with that story of disobedience, shame and expulsion- this was something I myself had experienced, though not on such a grand scale, of course. But I was more concerned about the baptism business.
I was, in fact, stunned by this news. Worst of all, it was not merely a theoretical problem because I knew for a fact, that I had not been baptized. My mother had always felt that it was an immoral act to baptize a child before it had become aware of even the most basic tenets of that particular faith. Of course, her Laissez-faire approach would have probably horrified any church, synagogue or mosque.
It seemed to me then ( and to me, now) if God is love , then how on Earth could He condemn a baby to eternal torture? That could not be reconciled and nothing they could say could convince me.. Original sin was thrown out as a lame explanation but this somehow made it worse. A child- perhaps especially a child- can see the fundamental unfairness of being punished for somebody else's mistake.

And besides, take one look at a baby and it is the image of innocence and goodness. When my rejection of this idea was all too obvious, the pastor would fall back on the easy- out. "Sometimes, God asks us to take a leap of faith. Our minds are so small and puny compared to the mind of God, that we cannot begin to understand how it works." But still.. I thought.
Anyway, if that were true and we are all just so stupid that we can not possibly understand the complexity of it, then why worry and create such a strict system and such an elaborate and yet illogical explanation in the first place? Obviously, there was something more going on, I thought.
I don't recall too much about the rest of the Sunday school class. My mind wandered, no doubt. Today they would call it “Attention Deficient Disorder”; back then, it was called “being fidgety.”

The following week, I tried not to dwell on the problem and I especially did not want to share my fears with Wayne. It seemed like quite a heavy social stigma to carry-perhaps I was to be the only child in MacArthur Elementary School going to hell. It just wasn't something you want the world to know.

The more I tried not to worry about it, the more questions arose. For example, according to their articles of faith, you had to be a Christian in order to go to heaven, a rather exclusive club, I thought. But what about the people born BEFORE Christ? Did this mean that countless generations of very good people (but naturally non-Christian) would be roasting on a spit forever in hell? It isn't as though they had had a choice when they were born.

A few days later, after some sleepless nights, I finally worked up the courage to confront my mother. How could she have let this slip-up occur? She was definitely up to the task of keeping me in clean clothes and giving me my lunch money. All for nothing, of course, if in the end, I was to be stuck with forks by hideous demons for eternity. Was it even true? But it had to be true, the pastor had no reason to lie.
"Was I baptized?"
"No." She answered, as she peeled the potatoes in the sink.
"Well, then am I going to Hell when I die?
"Who on earth told you that?" She laughed, but I detected a bit of nervousness there. What was she hiding?
"Well," I said slowly and carefully," when I was in Sunday school , the pastor told me that all babies that weren't baptized would go to hell when they died."
She stopped for only a second to consider this. "You never got to meet your great-grandfather, Joe. He was one of the best people in the world. He was kind and would have given you the shirt off his back if you'd asked. And he was never baptized but when he died, he didn't go to Hell."
I had seen old photographs of the man. He, indeed, seemed like a decent and kindly man from what I saw and from the stories my mother had related. In the photo, he was sitting on a stump, smiling and holding an obliging chicken under his arm. Yes, I thought, how could a man who loved animals. especially idiotic chickens- be sent to hell.

So without question, I accepted this, swallowing the whole explanation as easily as homemade ice cream. My mother in her wisdom was fully aware- as every man of the cloth can easily affirm- that children, when told something with air of conviction, are liable to believe nearly anything.
I believe that any system of religion that has anything in it that shocks the mind of a child cannot be a true system.
The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine


  1. Very interesting story In some ways similar to mine. I was very young and I wanted to pray during Ramadan but a distant relative told me I couldn't be praying that way if I wanted my prayers to be excepted I had to do all the stuff. Which was the and of my all relgious efforts. Too many rules for nothing.

  2. Dropping by via Ardent, I enjoyed (to read) both the quotes of Schopenhauer and Paine, and the episode you describe.

    Nicely put. Thanks.

  3. In Dante's version of Hell, the people who were good before Jesus (including the likes of Noah and King David) go to the Elysian Fields, which is a like a really nice big meadow with babbling brooks and wine and fresh fruit. You get to hang out in the shade with Socrates if you want. It sounds way better than Dante's version of Heaven, which is all bright lights and ethereal singing and processions with trumpets and different colored banners. Presumably everyone is jostling to cozy up to God, with beatific looks on their faces.

    Religion can be so creepy.


Always great to hear from visitors to Nomadic View. What's on your mind?


Related Posts with Thumbnails