Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind


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Secret Bible reading

This post is part four of a series on the development of my religious beliefs from childhood in the 1950s and 1960s to the present day. Previous posts:

  1. Worship and other secrets
  2. The day God spoke to me
  3. The Aftermath

I was about eight years old when I started to secretly read the Bible. My aim was to discover what I was sure adults knew but kept secret from children. Being ignorant of any scholarly practice, I started at the beginning – Genesis. I already understood that the creation story was a myth, just like the Maori creation myths, and wasn’t supposed to be taken literally.

To my surprise there were two creation myths. This puzzled me. I knew that there had to be a reason for this and each was supposed to have a specific meaning, but I was at a loss to know what those meanings were supposed to be. As I continued to read, it became evident to me that there appeared to be two different Gods. The first was loving and cared very much for his creation. The second was into insistence on man’s blind obedience, and cruel punishment for any disobedience. The second God also interfered not just in the lives of individuals, but also manipulated entire groups of people, often to their detriment.

I compared this to how my parents treated and respected their children and the world around them to the parents of some of my peers, whose parents controlled them with an iron fist, and meted out harsh and inconsistent punishment, and seemed to have little regard for anyone or anything beyond themselves.

A little background: I was brought up in a family where punishment of any sort was virtually unknown, and then it was in the form of restitution or compensation. No matter what our trespass was, we were drawn into a conversation where we learnt why a particular action (or inaction) wasn’t appropriate. Often, this was in a series of questions where we were encouraged to work out for ourselves what it was we did wrong, and what better alternatives we could have taken.

This method of handling transgressions worked, even for one of my siblings who had a tendency to test my parents’ patience whenever he could. In contrast, some of my peers, might learn that something they did was “bad” due to the punishment they received, but might not understand why they were bad. They often had to construct elaborate rules of behaviour to keep on the right side of the parents. Some thought they were intrinsically bad, because that notion was repeatedly reinforced by being told they were bad children. The parallels with some forms of Biblical teachings should be obvious.

Back to the story: I persevered with reading the Bible, on and off, for over a year, always looking for the meaning behind the stories, but generally failing to do so. In hindsight, it’s not surprising that an eight and nine year old boy would fail to comprehend an ancient text full of metaphor, allegories and myth.

What I did gain from the effort was that the only way to reconcile the apparent two natures of God, was to abandon the idea that God was an anthropomorphic being. Looking back on it now, I guess that my understanding of God during the next few years would waver between panentheism and pantheism. I was able to reconcile the experience I had in The day God spoke to me by reasoning that God would appear in a form I could comprehend.

In the next instalment, I’ll cover the period as I entered my teenage years.


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In memory of Mindfull Digressions

I have no idea why Doobster418 has decided to cease blogging, and I don’t want to speculate, but I will miss him. It was due to his encouragement that I started blogging in the first place.

His blogs were intelligent and witty, and covered a wide spectrum of thought and ideas. In an environment where there are too many strident voices, his was a breath of fresh air. I didn’t always agree with him, but I always enjoyed his posts and comments

Although he has gone for now, I hope that some day we might be graced by presence again.

Doobster, I wish you well in whatever endeavours you undertake, and if possible, do drop in from time to time.


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The Aftermath

This post is part three of a series on the development of my religious beliefs from childhood in the 1950s and 1960s to the present day.The previous posts are Part 1: Worship and other secrets, and Part 2: The day God spoke to me. This post describes what happened in the days following the episode described in part 2.

I was so moved at what I had experienced, that I was bursting to tell someone – anyone. So I did. Perhaps I was somewhat naive, but I certainly did not expect the derision I received from my peers. Being surrounded by twenty or so school kids pointing and taunting and falling about laughing is not the most pleasant experience. Finally one class mate quietly took me to one side and she explained that there are some things that are better kept to oneself, and this was one of them. I think Janet was the only child that understood that I didn’t process social interactions in the way other kids did. It was from her that I learnt that it’s often necessary to select very carefully which battles are worth fighting and which battles are better to walk away from. For that I am very grateful. She had wisdom well beyond her seven years.

I decided my mother would be be more understanding. When I told her that God had spoken to me, her response of “That’s nice dear”, while turning back to continue with preparing dinner, I understood that it was a conversation she didn’t want to participate in – much like when one of my siblings tried to engage her in conversations with his imaginary friend. At that time my mother was the only person I was moderately successful at reading social cues from voice tone, body language and by what was not said.

Surely my Sunday school teacher would understand, so I resolved to tell her about on the next Sunday. However, a classmate got in first and blurted out that I claimed that God had spoken to me. The Sunday school teacher looked at me very sternly. What had I done wrong this time?
Teacher: Have you been telling lies about God speaking to you?
I most certainly was not telling lies.
Me: No
Teacher [peering over the top of her glasses and looking even more stern]: Barry, have you been telling people that God spoke to you?
I found that question more difficult to answer. My first inclination was to answer “No” again. I had told the story five days ago, but not since. Her use of “Have you been telling” meant that I was continuing to tell the story, which was not the case, so a negative response would be appropriate. Experience had taught me people don’t always mean exactly what they say. Perhaps she really meant “Did you tell“, in which case “Yes” would have been appropriate. I pondered my options for a moment, then decided the best option was not to answer the question, but to make a simple statement of fact that should avoid confusion.
Me [with hesitation]: I haven’t told anyone since Tuesday.

Apparently I goofed… again. I realise now that my delay in answering and the words I chose was tantamount to an admission that I had lied the previous Tuesday. I then received a lecture as to why lying was a sin, and lying about God was an even greater sin.  Finally came the message that it was necessary for me to confess my sin if God was to forgive me. This I refused to do.

Let’s just say it went downhill from there. I never went back to Sunday school again.

What did I learn from the experience?

  • Personal experiences shouldn’t be shared with others
  • I’m going to be misunderstood irrespective of how carefully I choose my words
  • Delay in responding to a question equals lying in the eyes of adults
  • Sunday school teachers don’t know much, and what they do know is wrong
  • Be very, very careful who you identify as friends
  • The God I know and the God in the Bible are not one and the same
  • Mothers don’t always know when you are telling the truth

The Sunday school teachers had made it very clear that anything and everything about God could be discovered in the Bible, and in fact it was the only source of knowledge about God. Curious, I started a secretive reading of the Bible stating from Genesis. More about this in the part  of this series.


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Do Americans have freedom FROM religion? Actually, yes (two SCOTUS cases)

In my country conscientious objection to military service is based on ones conscience, not religion. Membership of a pacifist faith may make it easier to prove ones believe is genuine, but it’s not a requirement.

Back in the 1970s when union membership was compulsory here, members of some faiths were granted exemptions on religious grounds. I applied for, and was granted an exemption based solely on pacifist principles without the mention of religion or religious beliefs at all (although I was prepared to bring those up if absolutely necessary).

In this country, at least, I’ve found found more success in arguing for religious principles by not bringing religion into the discussion. If a religious principle can’t be supported by nonreligious argument, then one needs to rethink the principle.

The Atheist Papers

Americans indeed have a right to not be forced to practice a religion, any religion. We have rights to not be subjected to a state endorsement of one religion over another, or over irreligion. These are inalienable rights; however, some have resisted the implementation of these rights with a rather strange assertion: “It’s freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.” Well, yes, that’s how it’s traditionally worded, but I don’t think they understand what freedom of religion actually is.

Yesterday I examined how — in my opinion — religious exemptions to certain rules (in my example, beards) have the unfortunate effect of harming the rest of us. Today I’ll pore over two court cases that explicitly lay out how Americans indeed have freedom from religion. Yesterday’s post highlighted rather inconsequential issues, so I figured I should examine issues of literal life and death: War.

In these cases SCOTUS sidestepped defining religion…

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The day God spoke to me

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.


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Worship and other secrets

I was going to write about my frustration of getting very little done over the past few weeks due to almost constant migraines and the resulting “brain fog”, but my thoughts have been hijacked.

The shortest day of the year has just passed, so it can only be upwards from here on, as the days get longer (unless you’re in the northern hemisphere, in which case, you’ve just had your longest day, and you’re now on a downward slope toward slope towards winter). It’s a lovely sunny day (but very cold), blue sky, and the wind turbines are glowing brightly on the horizon. The camellias and rhododendrons are coming into flower, and the silver green magnolia buds are swelling. There’s a grey warbler singing it’s heart out nearby, and outside my window there’s two pair of fantails performing their aerial dance as they chase insects too small for the human eye to see.

Altogether, the day is so pleasant that the frustrations of the past fortnight have all but disappeared. what remains doesn’t warrant a blog post. There’s also the fact that a post over on Mindful Digressions diverted my thoughts in another direction.

I’m often reminded that only the brave or foolish blog about sex, politics or religion. I’m not particularly brave, and I don’t believe I’m foolish, although there are some who may think otherwise (regarding me being a fool). Never the less, I’m going to attempt to flesh out my religious beliefs over a series of postings. The intention is not to sway the views of readers, but to help me clarify what I really believe. Doing so on a public forum will likely encourage me to be think more carefully than I might otherwise, and the postings might elicit a few comments that will assist my thought processes.

With the introduction out of the way, it’s time to proceed.

When I was a small boy

As any young child does, I enjoyed listening to stories without discriminating between reality and imagination. It made no difference. My mother read stories to us every night and I was an avid listener of the children’s hour on the radio every evening. I was also an avid reader and absorbed stories about historical events, scientific discoveries, myths, legends, fables and fairy stories with equal enthusiasm.

I’m not sure what age I was when I began to recognise the difference between fact and fiction. Certainly by the time I was seven, I knew that stories such as Alice in wonderland, Gulliver’s Travels and Peter Pan were entirely fictional, as were fairies, the Easter rabbit, dragons and talking animals. In the case of Santa Claus, I had already concluded that reindeer can’t fly, and it would be a physical impossibility for one man to visit every home in one night nor was there a sack big enough to contain at least one gift for every child. This meant the the entire Santa story was a fantasy. Had I considered, the possibility the the jolly man might have been able to distort the space time continuum in order to deliver his gifts, then I might have believed in the story a little longer. But such concepts were beyond the reach of this seven year old boy.

Living in a nominally Christian society, biblically based children’s stories were ubiquitous. I had absorbed these just as readily as any other story. By the time I had decided Santa wasn’t real, I already understood that the creation stories in the Bible were similar in nature to other creation stories I was familiar with, such as those those from Maori and Greek mythology. I didn’t know what the symbolism of the stories was meant to be, and I didn’t know how to ask adults the appropriate question. My peers weren’t of any help, as they insisted that the biblical stories were true while the others were “just stories”, but were unable to justify their logic.

I was convinced that adults had a reason for making up myths to tell children, and that I didn’t understand because I was “too young”. I was sure I would learn the symbolism when I was older. I held the same notion about many of the bible stories, but I never questioned the existence of God or Jesus. I believed the adults knew the bible stories weren’t true but I was expected to believe them because I was a child. As I was convinced that I wasn’t meant to know the stories weren’t factual, I didn’t dare to approach adults about it.

On Sundays I attended Sunday School. We sat with the adults in Church for the first fifteen minutes of their service before filing out to Sunday School proper. In my mind, religion was a bit like sex. I understood the basics of procreation, but it was very evident that there was a lot more to sex than what I was permitted to know. In a similar vein, my child’s mind had concluded that there was a lot about God I wasn’t meant to know or understand. I accepted this as a burden I had to carry by myself as children shouldn’t know there was more to religion than we learnt at Sunday School, so it would be wrong of me to destroy the illusion. I was sure all would be revealed when the time was right. I reasoned that adults didn’t attend church just to pretend there was a God for the sake of their children, therefore there must be secrets about God in much the same way as there was about sex. That was enough “evidence” to cause me not to doubt the existence of God.

If you are still reading, you’ve possibly come to the conclusion that I had I had a somewhat unusual view of the relationship between adults and children. On that score you would be right. I was sure there was an adult conspiracy to keep the some truths from children, and that it involved creating elaborate stories (lies?) to keep even the existence of the real truth from us. I was also sure that there was a good reason for this deception and when the time was appropriate I would be let in on the secret. Because I believed I shouldn’t have had the knowledge that there were secrets, there was no one that I could turn to for answers. I was desperately curious, but knew I just needed to bide my time.

All that would change drastically before I turned eight, and that will be the subject of the next post in this series.