Prayer was the most insidious part of my religious indoctrination

Last time I shared a prayer that I printed out for a certain someone who doesn’t want me to write about her here. I hope it helps her. You might think sharing that was an odd thing for an atheist to write about, but I don’t. I think it opens the door for me to share what prayer meant to me when I grew up.

First of all, excuse the simplistic format and words… I came up with this when I was around eight or nine years old. This was more or less my standard prayer every night:

God,
Bless Mommy, Daddy, Christopher,
Toby, Honey, Cheeky and Chirpy,
And me, if that’s the way it should be.

Thank you for [this changed every day]
Please can I [this changed every day]

There’s one thing that jumps out at me from those words: I did not believe I deserved to be blessed. And that’s a problem. (But that’s what Christianity teaches. We are born in sin and shame and are unworthy. That’s precisely what makes Christian beliefs harmful and that’s why so many humanists call Christian indoctrination a kind of child abuse.) My format was based on a book I’d heard someone read aloud at school – the name long since forgotten… In the book, a boy prayed in this format where he blessed everybody and left himself for last. Something like, “And lastly, bless little old me”. But I changed it and added the bit about not deserving to be blessed. Also I changed the words slightly over the years, but those are the ones I remember.

Here’s what I take out of this:

  1. If you look at the prayer I printed for my partner, her Christianity must be quite different to my former beliefs. I would never have considered reading a ready-made generic prayer and inserting the subject I wanted in it, like a template. Never. Everything always had to be in my own words, and I’ve been comfortable expressing them in writing since I was seven years old. It would not feel sincere to read out someone else’s words.
  2. I never did get my head around praying to Jesus, let alone infant Jesus.
  3. Toby was the family cat. He was a kitten born to a cat we had when I was five years old and he died when I was sixteen. In fact, I took the day off school because he wasn’t well, and my father was meant to come take him to the vet, but he died, in my hands, before that could happen. Honey was a golden Labrador, obtained from a school friend’s parents who emigrated when I was eight years old. Cheeky and Chirpy were budgies, and I don’t remember exactly what year they lived, but I am guessing at around my ninth year.
  4. Cheeky and Chirpy were the first pets I remember dying. (Cats like Toby’s mother had died before then, but those don’t register as memories for me. Maybe I hadn’t gotten my head around death and mortality until then.) I changed the words of the prayer, but their names stuck in my head because I’d been saying it that way for over a year. Thereafter changing the names in each prayer required conscious effort.

My prayer wasn’t just a religious thing. It was my link to my childhood. It kept those pets alive in my heart and mind. Also, this is a reminder of something else… Christopher became Chris sometime in high school, because other people called him that. If it had been me, and people called me Jay instead of Jerome, the name would not have stuck. My brother was always different to me in certain way related to peer pressure and outside influences. There was a phase where he went to someone else’s church and picked up their ideas, which upset my mother. I, on the other hand, even used her religious belief as an excuse (when I was 12 years old) to avoid going on a school outing to other churches. In truth, I would not have been influenced by other churches. More likely I would have rejected them all sooner. I think I knew that deep down. Catholicism, and prayer, had sentimental value to me. They kept me childlike and helped me not to forget my love for lost pets, and kept Chris as Christopher in my mind.

I didn’t want to let go of my childhood. I didn’t want to grow up. But also, I felt guilty if I didn’t pray at night. Now this might not make sense, but I continued to pray for several years after I stopped believing in god. It’s hard to explain, but the guilt kept me from being able to stop, even if it meant that absurdly I prayed to a god I didn’t believe in. Just like, for whatever unknown psychological reason, it took me over ten years to begin thinking of my brother as Chris, it took even longer for me to let go of prayer.

Maybe it isn’t only about indoctrination and guilt, but also about my own reluctance to change, but I found it especially difficult to let go of prayer. It was the most difficult part of my personal journey into atheism.

My brother is my only link to those days now, since all those pets are long gone and both parents too. Funny how it works… my changes and my journey through the years feel natural to me, so I still feel like the same person – I am the same Jerome who was the child who remembers all these things as an adult. But it’s different now and I don’t perceive others as being the same. My brain has compartmentalized Chris and Christopher almost as if they are two different people. Christopher is my baby brother, the one I would lay down my life protecting. Chris is… someone else. It’s really difficult to explain, but at least we are closer now than we were a few years ago, since I (rightfully) lost his trust in my years of addiction. And then got it back, but it took some time longer than I expected. Maybe that’s a subject for another day… when we stop using drugs, we expect too much of those who know us, we expect them to know that we have changed long before there is any way they can possibly know.

Advertisements

Friendly reminder: Virgins don’t have babies

  • They don’t have babies now, and they didn’t thousands of years ago either.
  • Natural disasters aren’t caused by angry deities. Hurricanes in the US aren’t caused by God’s anger for [insert people you are prejudiced against here], and the plagues in the Old Testament of the Bible weren’t either.
  • Snakes don’t talk. They don’t now and they never did.
  • Women weren’t made from a man’s rib. We have the same number of ribs now, and we always did.
  • The whole world was never flooded at once. (Where did all the water go?)
  • People don’t come back from the dead. They don’t now, and they never did.

When I used to debate theists, I noticed different reactions to the impossibilities I’ve written above. Not everybody accepts them all literally, to be fair. Most avoid thinking about these things entirely. Some take some things literally and the rest is analogy. And some people, especially those who debate, take some bits literally and the same bits can be analogy, depending on the argument. The general trend is to accept specifics as being impossible in the moment, and call them analogy.

Analogy for what?

It’s easy to say… Well OK, the talking snake didn’t happen… But that’s analogy for Satan and god still created us; sure, virgins don’t give birth, but the other religions had virgin birth stories, so Christianity incorporated that to compete; sure, the other resurrections didn’t happen, but Christ was resurrected because he was special (Maybe he had magic beans?); the world wasn’t flooded all at once obviously, they just thought their small area represented the whole world; the plagues were blamed on God’s anger because the people were less advanced than we are, but the rest of those stories really happened for sure…

Why? Why explain away what can be explained away but continue to believe? There is no point. None of that happened. Every religion has a creation myth. Many had virgin births. Primitive people (and conservative evangelical Christian Americans) blame the gods’ anger at people they perceive as weak when things go wrong. It’s god’s anger at a minority, or a simple old woman who can’t defend herself… or someone similar. Someone they can punish on god’s behalf. The flood myths come from mythology much older than Christianity or Judaism and were likely part of the culture way back. But to then believe anyway is simply to believe what you already believe because you believe it. Because you’re indoctrinated.

All religious people know what indoctrination is. When a cult trends in the news because of something bad they did, you realize that members removed from that cult still hang onto their beliefs. You realize that something fucked up is happening with them psychologically, that they don’t want to stop believing, and that indoctrination must be similar to Stockholm Syndrome. But rather than calling their beliefs a religion, you call it a cult. Because on some level you know you are just as brainwashed, and you want to distance their beliefs from yours – convince yourselves that you are different to them. But you’re not. You’re just like them. Every atheist who has ever debated theists knows this.

Clarification: Why my son won’t attend his cousin’s first communion

Last night my mother, who will be attending her granddaughter’s first communion, told me she would really like Josh to go with her. I had to explain to her why that isn’t going to happen.

First of all, she interrupted to remind me that I originally wanted him brought up Catholic. Yes, I did. I was insecure in my atheism then, and I wanted the best for my son. The best, in my mind back then, was for him to be brought up just like I was. Am I not allowed to change my mind? In my mind back then, it was also very important for me to smoke methamphetamine every day. Why not equate the two beliefs? My mother (and others) are quick to point out the mistakes I made back then, the awful choices I made… But not this one. This one is perfectly OK because it happens to agree with them.

I, like so many others, used to believe my morals and values were Christian. My mistake was the argument from morality, and I have since changed that belief. And actually, thinking back, my morals were already rock solid by the time I started Sunday School. I already knew right from wrong, not to lie, steal, and so on. They didn’t teach me morals at church. Instead, they taught me a whole lot of confusing nonsense, prayers, and rituals, and also explained why contraception is not OK with their deity.

For he so loved the world that didn’t exist yet, that he created the entire universe, every planet, every star, every animal and every plant, and all manner of things that we cannot know, and then, he explained what I can and cannot do with my penis, and what you can and cannot put in your vagina, and that we can not do these things outside of an arbitrary contract between us that we call marriage. Also, oral sex is right out! And stay away from the anus. Satan lives in that dark hole. Amen.

Anyway, mother dearest agrees with me… my morals did not come from church.

Imagine letting a child grow up without ever hearing about Christianity, and then trying to explain it to him or her in their twenties. God created the whole world, and all of us, but he created us with sin. Then he sent his son down to us, but the son is also the father. Then he sacrificed himself, which somehow saves us from the sins that he created us with. But he came back to life, so there wasn’t really any sacrifice. Ignore that last part. He loves you unconditionally, and if you don’t love him back, he will send you to a bad place where you will suffer for all eternity.

My religious upbringing caused me much confusion. Before my first communion was first confession. I was the only one in my class to bunk that, pretending to be sick to avoid it, then had to go back alone the next week. And I attended my First “Holy” Communion as they called it, with everybody all dressed up. It was a special occasion and a big deal, and of course, it takes place in an environment where everybody believes, and everybody takes it for granted that everybody else there also believes. When you’re a child and haven’t yet learned to think critically, even if you have doubts as I did, it’s hard to hold onto them. You trust your parents and implicitly trust the authorities that they trust. I forgot about my doubts until I was much older, and it took me years to get over my indoctrination.

That’s what this is about: indoctrination. I don’t want my son to suffer any more of the church nonsense. I don’t want him to sit in an environment where everybody believes, and feel that sense of fellowship, of belonging. He already had that for a few years before he was returned to my custody. Enough damage has already been done.

Perhaps this last point can be carried to another post for elaboration, but another thing that annoys me about people like my mother and brother is their double standard… I am not allowed to say there is no god. “How can you say that? You don’t know!” But it is perfectly OK to hammer that there is a god into the unfinished immature mind of a child before he or she can learn to think critically? I don’t see or hear Christians telling their children that they don’t know if god exists. In fact, they teach it as fact that god does exist, but hold us who doubt this to a higher standard.

(Edit: This post was originally intended to be an elaboration of the last paragraph’s point, titled “Christian privilege”, introduced by comparing it to white privilege – because this double standard where Christians assume their belief as the default and impose it on everyone else, is quite similar to white people assuming white as the default for all people, and then treating others as inferior. But it’s a hard sell because too many people are ignorant of white privilege; the intro would end up too long and detract from the point of the post. So I decided to change the approach completely and make it personal and anecdotal instead.)

Knowing that men have created gods to explain what they don’t understand throughout history, why would you believe the god you were taught about is any different?

I had an interesting conversation with Josh, my ten year old son, last night. He asked me for tuck money for school, but since I had already given him two days this week, I said no, and suggested he find god and ask him for the money. “But god isn’t real”, he said. “Like Zeus.”

His answer was thanks in part to the Gods of Rome game that he occasionally plays, free from the Windows app store. I’ve used this as an opportunity to help him understand that there have been many gods worshipped throughout history, since we do like to invent them.

And that led me to this simple but logical argument: Knowing that men invent gods, why believe the one you were taught of is real, unlike all the others? That’s madness.

Of course we know how it really works. There are a combination of reasons to believe… The two most obvious are these:

  1. If it was drummed into your head before you could think for yourself, you accept it as fact, and at the end of the day, it is easier to continue believing what you already believe.
  2. The belief also teaches that you won’t die when your body dies, and that you will see your lost loved ones again.

But those are not reasons to believe. They’re excuses not to think.

I’m not going to get into this in greater depth today, or look at the misguided pseudo-logic used by religious apologetics to get around the obvious truth that all gods are made up. This is about my son… In December it will only be three years that he’s been back in my care, and this is a great step forward in terms of his deconversion. I’d worried that those who raised him while I was unable (due to my former addiction) might have brainwashed him to such an extent that deconversion was impossible, but it looks like he is going to be just fine.

Indoctrination can be amusing but is always harmful.

Lately I’ve been thinking of indoctrination again, mostly because of a conversation I overheard at my son’s school sports day, which I’ll get on to in a bit…

I’d forgotten that I became aware of indoctrination quite early on. When I was around seven years old, I’d noticed how several other children in school with me had a different dentist. When they went to get their teeth fixed, they were excited about it. They came back to school with packets of sweets, sample toothpaste, and other cool stuff. Their dentist was hip and cool and made their appointments fun by giving them stuff if they behaved well. Whereas I always behaved well and my dentist didn’t seem to care. He was an old bastard named Doctor Sanc, in Wynberg, Cape Town. Sometimes he didn’t wear gloves and I could taste his chubby fingers. When I returned to him for a molar filling at 19 years old, he explained that “You’re an adult so you don’t need anaesthetic any more” and then gave me a filling without anaesthetic. (That was my last time there.)

The point is, the other kids were excited about their dentist because he made the appointments fun, just like other kids who were excited about the stuff they did in church. I knew this when I was already seven years old, and maybe that was to my advantage because I was able to see behind the curtain. I didn’t know the word “indoctrination” and I didn’t know what brainwashing was, but I understood. My mother didn’t allow myself or my brother to attend other churches because she was afraid of just that… My brother once went to a friend’s church and they got him involved in the youth activities (he was really young, a preteen), and she abruptly put a stop to it. So she knew how it works too. She recognized that indoctrination happens, but not in the Roman Catholic church, because that’s the “one true” church… It’s amusing and ironic.

But I did get sucked in. Despite seeing through the way it was done, and knowing nothing other than a Christian upbringing, I did get brainwashed to some extent. I was excited to participate in my First Holy Communion, just like everybody else. I received keepsakes, and we all dressed up and did it together. It was a big deal. My Confirmation was similar, except by then I had begun to doubt the existence of god so the ritual of Confirmation felt weird.

Getting back to the conversation that reminded me of this… at Josh’s sports day I was sitting beside my former sister in law, who was also Josh’s foster mother until December 2015. I overheard her talking to another couple she is friends with, because they all have children about to do their First Holy Communion. And that brought it all back. Like my mother, they are oblivious of the brainwashing effects of the ritual and how that sense of fellowship convinces children that the nonsense of communion is meaningful and important. Maybe those sorts of rituals, where the whole class gets confirmed together, are a large part of what cements the idea that religion (and god) gives believers’ lives meaning? The ritual and the sense of community, of belonging, that comes along with it, becomes an event that’s remembered with nostalgia. Even if the exact details are lost, it becomes something sentimental, a vague memory of times in our youth where we were part of something… something that later becomes “spiritual”, or at least leaves a lasting impression of meaning that we as adults perceive as being part of a creator’s plan for us. Maybe even a “personal relationship with god”? Meanwhile in reality, no deity was involved and we were just dragged through nonsense by excited parents capturing photos of it all and brainwashing us. I don’t think parents are at all aware of the harm they do when dragging their children through these primitive rituals. It’s a case of “monkey see, monkey do”, and it saddens me that more people don’t see through it.

I am so glad that Josh is no longer a part of any of that. Make no mistake – he was already indoctrinated to some extent. When he learned that I don’t believe in any god, or a soul, or an afterlife, he asked lots of questions. Questions like “Who made the first man?” and “If there is no god, how were we created?” assume creation. Those questions don’t come naturally to us, but are part of the mindset of someone who has been taught from early on that a particular god exists and created us. However he also expressed doubts, saying things like, “[Redacted] says I must listen for god’s voice, but I don’t hear anything” and “I’ve never seen god. I’m not sure he’s real”. And unlike religious people who discourage doubt and questioning the dogma, I encourage it. So I think I got Josh at just the right age where, even though he’d already been indoctrinated to some extent, he still hated church, and I pulled him out of that before that hatred and boredom got changed into something else, before he found meaning in the meaningless and fellowship in the foolish rituals.

In early 2016 when my family members realized that I’d pulled Josh out of church and Sunday school, they initially resisted it. I was asked questions like, “What about his first holy communion?” by my mother. My brother argued with me about it with some determination. I think this reveals what they know deep down but will never admit: That their beliefs and relationships with their god are more about the sum of the experiences they had in their religious upbringing. In other words, subconsciously they know that if a child does not have such experiences they will most likely not end up a believer. (Imagine telling an educated adult who never heard of religion about a virgin birth, talking snakes, a worldwide flood with more water than we find on the planet, walking on water, coming back from the dead and so on. They will think you are crazy.) Thus they were quick to oppose my choice. The irony of course, is that they realize the importance of indoctrinating children but not the effect of it; they don’t see the end result for what it is – brainwashing. And that brings us back to: Monkey see; monkey do.

Not everybody finds their way to critical thinking and the rejection of their indoctrination. The fact that about 70% of people are religious is testament to this. Most people, no matter how much they are taught to think critically, are unable to reject their firmly held religiously brainwashed beliefs. I’ve realized that when debating theists and even family members in the last few years. This is why, for me, it was of utmost importance to stop my son’s indoctrination before it went too far. And there’s no way of knowing how far is too far. It seems to me that since I am the only atheist in my family, allowing anyone to continue indoctrinating my child would have been a serious mistake.

My mother tells me I’m “not allowed to change my mind” when it comes to raising my son with religion.

In case the title is ambiguous, my view several years ago was that I should raise any children I have with Catholicism, as I was raised. I don’t remember exactly when I changed it.

Last night I was chatting to my mother about religion, and my view that sometimes, indoctrination of a child amounts to child abuse. The context was that Josh once asked me if I thought he was a good or bad person, because he “doesn’t want to go to a bad place” after he dies. That wasn’t the moment when I decided to keep him away from church, rather it was the moment when my choice to do so was confirmed to be correct. It was also the moment when I stopped telling him simply that I don’t believe in god, but also that god, the Christian, Islam and Jewish ones and all other ever invented by man, is not real. No more beating about the bush – I made god a joke because I was appalled that he had been taught to fear eternity in Hell.

My view used to be different. Although I stopped believing in gods in my late teens, I still believed that my Roman Catholic upbringing had benefitted me. Like most people, I confused morality with religious values, thinking that somehow my morality came from my lessons at Sunday School. It didn’t. I learned my moral values from my parents and my peers, just like everybody else. Most people may not realize it, but morality certainly does not come from religion. If it did, morals would be unchanged for thousands of years, and right now, Christians (for example) in different parts of the world would share identical morals and values. Of course it doesn’t work like that and there is no such thing as objective morality.

What distressed me was that she tried to convince me I am not allowed to change my mind. (WTF?) My brother once said something similar. In that case, it was when I complained about Josh’s indoctrination… he pointed out that I was fine with him being baptised after I initially conceded that I could not raise my son for a time, and my son was in my brother’s care. Here’s the thing: Every other choice I made back then was written off as stupid and bad, the product of my drug-addled brain, but this poor choice, that I didn’t make but rather went along with their way because I had no choice at the time, was somehow taken as my final say on the matter??? How awfully fucking convenient…

Anyway, here’s how it actually works: I change my mind all the time, based on new knowledge and evidence. When I find out that I am wrong, and have been wrong about something – anything… I change my mind. But my views on religion and religious indoctrination have been as they are for some time now. They’re unlikely to change by much. When it comes to religion and my son, I have to be firm and not let these people proselytize to him any more. Religion seems to affect Josh in a different way to it’s effects on me as a child. I was never afraid of Hell, but always disbelieved in some parts of the nonsense I was taught. Josh is impressionable, easily swayed to their points of view, and has been brainwashed for several years when he wasn’t in my care. I’ve only had him back for a year and a bit and he is still quite confused about his own beliefs, and I’ll be damned if I’m to let them brainwash him any longer. (Pun intended. Hail Satan.)

In the land of the blind, nobody understands what the one-eyed man is talking about

I have seen no evidence for God or Jesus because there isn’t any. I keep saying this, but it appears that those with blind faith will never be able to understand.

I have lost count of the number of times I’ve argued with my mother, the number of times I’ve explained my position to her. It never gets anywhere, and even though she freely admits that I am logical, that my thinking is sound, she always returns to her stubborn and unyielding acceptance of Christianity, and about a month later we will have the same argument again, as if my points were never made and nothing I said matters.

What more can I say? She, and others with irrationally impenetrable faith, do not want to understand. There is no difference between your god and any other. The only reason you cling to your belief is that you were taught it in your childhood. If you’d been taught about a different god, you would cling to a different faith. Further, there is no evidence that any “holy” writing about any god is anything more than a description of a god that man created. You can not infer any meaning from any of it. But I might as well be farting against a hurricane.

I don’t do this to insult anybody. But my lack of belief gets insulted daily. I do not understand how anybody can continue to cling to their faith when presented with the rational arguments against it. I can’t speak for all atheists, only myself, when I say that I do not dispute that a god might exist simply because there is no proof one way or the other. But I can say with utmost confidence that every god ever worshipped by mankind does not exist. Every god that we know of, past and present religions included (where the past ones are called myths and the present are called religions), and every teaching of all those gods, can be traced back to humankind and humankind alone. Thus rejecting the religion of my parents was easy in the end.

A challenge for the faithful

If you truly, sincerely believe in any religion, I ask just one thing of you. This is a simple thought exercise to illustrate my point, which I’ll break down into steps to make it easier to read:

  1. Find an online forum of a different religion. (Any web site where the religious of a particular faith ask advice from each other, as long as it is not your religion.) Then read what the faithful, of a different faith, have to say. Do not participate in their forum – this is only a thought exercise.
  2. Look at the similarities in their attitudes (to those of your own) and way of expressing their belief, the conviction of the believers – look at how they blindly accept that their faith is the true faith.
  3. If you can find any, read their personal insights – anecdotes that state how their personal relationship with their god has helped them in their daily lives.
  4. Take note of the way that they are able to see signs that, to them, confirm the existence and the presence of their god – the same signs that to you signify the existence of your god.
  5. Notice how they can give advice on all manner of subjects by quoting passages from their holy book, quoted with love and reverence, and taken to be meaningful, deep and relevant to every aspect of their lives, regardless of the context of the original writing.
  6. Imagine how you would explain to them that your religion is right and theirs is wrong.
  7. Compare your holy book to theirs and try to come up with a reasonable argument that could be presented to them to accept yours but reject their own, on the condition that you may not refer to anything written in your book – it would be circular reasoning to use your holy book to justify your belief in it so you must find a way of convincing them without referring to the book itself. (But they may refer to theirs. That’s the position atheists often finds themselves in. Remember that this is only a thought exercise. I’m not asking you to troll their forum.)
  8. Then ask yourself in all honesty why your religion is right but theirs is wrong. Ask yourself if maybe, just maybe, both are wrong. Then ask yourself if all religions are wrong.