This post is part two of a series on the development of my religious beliefs from childhood in the 1950s and 1960s to the present in the 2010s. In the first of the series, I wrote about my childhood belief that adults were privilege to knowledge that was hidden from children. They also made up stories which they wanted children to believe even though they knew the stories to be false.
This part of the story commences in 1957, shortly before I turned eight. My father was not religious. He was probably agnostic, but he may have been an atheist. Religion was a topic he avoided at all costs. However he had a dislike for organised religion.
My mother was not a practising Christian at the time — perhaps she could be described as a closet Christian. She encouraged me and my siblings to attend Sunday school in part to encourage me to interact socially as well as the more obvious objective to broaden our view of the society we lived in. There was no pressure to attend Sunday school, and I was the only child that continued to attend longer than six months.
My motive for continuing to attend was not because I believed the stories we were told, or that it was necessary to attend to be a good Christian. I was sure that the real truth about God was being hidden from me, and by continuing to attend I was convinced that I would discover it.
Children’s books with illustrated bible stories were accessible at home, school and Sunday school. God was usually depicted as a wise old man with a long white beard and wearing flowing white robes. He was usually carrying a staff, and was often shown as standing on a cloud-like surface (heaven sitting on the clouds?). Strangely, while I was sure the truth about God was being kept from me, I never questioned his appearance and accepted he looked and behaved like the kind and gentle being depicted in the illustrated biblical stories. Keep this in mind as I describe a turning point in my religious journey.
At that time, my school provided one hour of religious studies each week. In truth, it was more like Christian indoctrination by whichever church happened to take your class each week. The woman who took my class had beliefs that would approach those of a modern fundamentalist church. During one lesson she decided to illustrate the power of God by telling a story, which I have paraphrased as follows:
One Sunday, a Christian wife persuaded her nonbeliever husband to accompany her to church. After service was finished, the minister stood by the exit, as was his practice, to enter into dialogue with any member of the congregation who might wish to do so. The wife decided to take a moment to thank the minister for the informative sermon which was about the infinite power and mercy that God possesses. The minister, being the kind man he was, tried to encourage the husband to join the conversation. The husband stated that he saw no evidence that God possessed any power at all, and in fact he didn’t exist. However, if he did exist, he was clearly an evil god as he allowed so much suffering in the world. The wife was shocked at the husband’s blasphemy and warned him that he risked God’s ire for his foul words. The husband retorted that there was no God, and there was nothing short of God striking him dead that would convince him that God existed. At that moment the husband fell down dead. This, children, is proof that God exists and has the power to do anything he desires. So remember what he could do to you if you make God angry.
I was appalled by the story. The God depicted in the story was nothing like the loving God I knew from the stories I had heard and read. Was this the real God that adults had kept from children? Was he someone who we should be terrified of? Was he not the gentle loving Father we had been lead to believe?
I can remember sitting at my desk in shock and disbelief. It was almost like the foundation of my belief in the goodness of creation had been swept away. To this day, I can recall clearly crying out silently “You wouldn’t do that, would you God?”
Being a seven year old, going on eight, with an unquestioning belief in the existence of God, what happened next should not be a surprise. Today I can explain it away as a neurobiological reaction to a traumatic event, which was influenced by social conditioning. However, what I experienced had a profound effect on my trust in adults and a realisation that God was able to be comprehended in multiple ways. What happened is just as vivid now as it was then, almost fifty years ago. It neither proves the existence or nonexistence of God. It does illustrate that the mind is capable of strange and wonderful interpretations of reality.
My plea to God to affirm his goodness was answered by what I can only describe as the sounds of a heavenly choir rising in glorious harmony as a brilliant light grew before my eyes. The light transformed into bright clouds through which a clearly wise and gentle man with white beard and robes stepped. The face was kindly but tinged with sadness. This was clearly God, and the sadness was due to my doubting his goodness and that our religious instructor has so misrepresented him. He answered my question by asking one of his own, which was “What do you believe?” It was immediately clear to me that God could never contemplate harming anyone as told by our instructor. With that realisation, the vision quickly faded,and I was back in the reality of the classroom.
Now before anyone calls the men in white coats to come and take me away, I am describing what I experienced at the time. It was how a child’s mind was able to make sense of a confusing and traumatic event using his knowledge and experienced wisdom in his relatively short life. To this day it is still my most vivid memory, even though I no longer believe God exists in that form. That experience was the start of a long journey that is yet to be completed.
The next post in this series will reveal how others reacted to my telling them that God spoke to me, and my response to those reactions.