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Religion and though control

My parents were Roman Catholic, but lapsed. My father had grown up in a family of religious addicts and he represented a "backlash"; he had only contempt for regular churchgoers and for him the greatest sin imaginable was religious hypocrisy. He believes that that if a religious person does something wrong it is worse than a nonbeliever because the religious person "sanctifies" it.

Deeper than this is a current of atheism. Although he continues to celebrate Christian holidays and respects the teachings of Christ personally (though disregards the rest of the Bible, and other writings) he does not believe that a just God would permit injustices such as genocide, child starvation, war, and prejudice. For this reason he regularly questions the existence of God, but stops shy of openly declaring himself an atheist. He often talks of the Freudian view that God did not create man, man created God, a fictitious sanctum to hide from the reality that life is an ultimately meaningless struggle.

My mother talked much less about religion, even though she had been a nun before marrying. Though they battled over many issues, religion was not one of them. Both had withering contempt for televangelists, the American New Christian Right, and religious fundamentalism in general. For them "fundamentalist" was a label representing narrow, backward, bigoted, nationalistic, right-wing influences to be resisted at any cost.

My parents had me attend a Catholic school until the age of 9. I am not sure if it occurred to them to send me elsewhere. Catholic teaching of young children was ambiguous, with thorny questions like biblical inerrancy left unanswered.

Shortly after I left the Catholic system and entered the private school described in the previous post, I came across a magazine, called the Plain Truth published by a small American sect. It argued forcefully in favour of biblical literal inerrancy, and not having been really exposed to the other side, I accepted this. I was 10.

The magazine had articles supporting generally conservative political and moral views, compassionately written but decidedly out of the mainstream, and certainly what my father would call "fundamentalist". I found them convincing, but made no personal lifestyle changes.

Except for the matter of prayer. More as an experiment than anything else, I started praying for some small things, and these things happened. I did not ask for anything affecting my life seriously, but began to be more firmly convinced of an existence of God.

My parents ordered me not to read the magazine. It was an corrupting influence, they warned darkly, and would fill my mind with wrong thinking. I didn't agree and continued to read secretly.

So it went. A year later at 11, I came across the book The Late Great Planet Earth, by an American fundamentalist author. The book argued, quoting various biblical verses, that the end of the world was coming by the mid- to late 1980s and would be preceded by a Soviet invasion of Israel converging with a massive Chinese attack on Iran, where they would be met by the Antichrist in Armageddon which would be interrupted by the Second Coming of Christ. I enthusiastically showed the book to my father, who called it right-wing fundamentalist garbage, flew into a rage, and strictly forbade me from ever reading anything of the sort.

Naturally, I continued to read more, and began to pray a bit more often. Throughout the next several years many prayers were answered; nothing earth-shattering, but something seemed to be there. This was all done in secret.

Meanwhile, the articles in the Plain Truth contained a tack rather different from mainstream Christianity, or even fundamentalist denominations. They agreed that the end was near, but the details differed. Further, they argued in favour of such observances as the Saturday Sabbath and the Old Testament holidays (Passover, Pentecost, Yom Kippur etc.) instead of Christmas and Easter. Lifestyle was expected to be loving, gentle, and selfless.

Yet I made no lifestyle changes. At this time, therefore, religious hypocrisy was added to my parents' litany of faults against me. For them it was the most bothersome of all.

In fact, I found it difficult to abandon my hot temper etc. The Bible seemed to contend that one could not do this by oneself, but only through the "power of Christ"; i.e. turn one's life over to Christ. I finally did this shortly after turning 14. My life changed. I felt happier than ever before, and many but not all of my bad habits almost magically disappeared. I prayed regularly and studied the Bible, before long acquiring a huge store of biblical knowledge before long. I should add that neither my overeating nor my other addiction lessened in force.

All this met with complete disapproval from my parents. Attending the services of the church I wanted to join was out of the question. They tried to confiscate booklets and the like I received; I resorted to hunting through the garbage to find my own mail. The idea that a fourteen year old might be old enough to decide his own religious beliefs was of course not considered.

I asked them to let me do chores, shopping etc. on days other than Saturdays; not a chance. They mocked me, chanting "Keep holy the Sabbath day" in a parody of Cecil B. DeMille.

However, the new faith was not without its pitfalls. For starters, I was not permitted to actually speak with a clergyman and thus whatever errors I picked up remained there with no feedback or correction. And because my parents never hesitated to pile religious guilt on me, I developed the idea that I must square down and accept any abuse or intolerance with no anger, forgiving anything at once.

So I believed it was my Christian duty to forgive my mother for brandishing a knife at me. When my father piled guilt upon it, I took the approach of assuming all blame possible. Unless my conduct was absolutely and perfectly unreproachable (which it seldom was) I believed my own sin deserved priority. So religion became a contributing factor for my increasing self-condemnation and perfectionism.

When the time came to consider university, I wanted to go to the best schools, but my father among other arguments said that a true Christian, and not a fundamentalist fake, would make sacrifices and honour his parents. I stayed at the local school.

The idea of constant renewal and spiritual growth attracted me to the Twelve Steps, which I first came across in a religious bookstore at age 17. I saw many similarities between church teachings and the Steps, so I tried to work them on my own. It had no effect on my two addictions.

As I grew older my religious experiences waned in intensity. Prayer lost the joy of my earlier years and I did it less. Bible reading became redundant after I became an amateur expert on the book. I could not go to church services so had no sense of religious community.

Also I found the idea of the end of the world increasingly outlandish, the Saturday Sabbath dogmatic, biblical inerrancy an unsupported axiom, and other disagreements. Interestingly, the church did so too; I later learned it dropped most of these teachings in a series of radical internal reforms during this period.

Nonetheless, I still believe in a God, vaguely in a Christian sense, and respect most (but no longer all) biblical teachings. However I no longer pray and have no connection to any religious organization left. My spirituality has become barren, and I am now bitter at religious beliefs which contributed to my own self-denial and submission to emotional abuse and censorship.

Oasis, June 10, 1996.