When I was young I loved reading about the myths and legends of other peoples; I still do. I was enthralled by the pantheons of the Greeks, Romans, Indians, Norse, Irish, Aztec, Egyptians, and pretty much whoever else I could find. I did prefer the European ones, as the gods they believed in were mostly human. Snake gods and monkey gods were fun, but, even in my youth, I found them a bit unbelievable. The gods of the Europeans were clearly kings and queens, warriors and heroes, concepts I could grasp much more easily, and, with the limited understanding of history a child has, might in some fashion be based on real people and events. But, I was told, they were all myths, all made up by primitive people who didn’t understand the world as we now do. Whoever told me that really shouldn’t have…
In my mind, the gods of the Greeks were just as true as the god of the Christians; they each had complicated histories, heroes and monsters, heaven and hell. In my mind, it was simply that one religion had replaced the other in a contest of popularity, aided by men with pointy bits of steel. I never understood why one was relegated to fantasy while the other was regarded as reality. I was told it was because Hercules and Achilles were not real people, but Jesus and Moses were actual historical figures who lived and breathed, and wandered around a lot. I put aside the myths and became more interested in the Bible because its stories were real, apparently. ‘Why then are there no dinosaurs in the Bible; if it’s true they should be in there somewhere?’ The answer I received was adequate; the old parts of the Bible are made up because when people started writing it they hadn’t discovered dinosaurs yet, and they didn’t know how life began, but the stories are still important. Which appeased me somewhat at the time; I could see how the Bible began like any good polytheist myth, but then, as time moved on it became more real; Greeks, Persians, and Romans started popping up and having wars and such, the places mentioned could be easily found on a map, and people were still fighting in the region, which made the newer bits of the book far more true in my mind.
I should point out that the nation in which I grew up was almost exclusively Catholic, the schools were run by the Church, and the Church had a dominant role in society (things have change somewhat since then, but the Church still wields a great deal of power). A priest used to come to my primary school on a regular basis and quiz us; we learned loads of prayers (which I have long since forgotten), parables from the Bible, and all kinds of other nonsense. I vaguely remember being afraid at my First Confession that I wouldn’t remember all the prayers and curious incantations, which would lead to the priest getting angry at me, and then I’d have to say lots and lots of prayers. I don’t recall ever being afraid of god, just of priests; they were weird and always smelled funny (I later figured out the smell to be incense and sweat). I remember that when we were supposed to say our prayers silently I used to think about other things, and wondered if the other kids were doing the same. I’ve often wondered how many people actually pray when they bow their heads in silence.
By the time Confirmation came around (another of Catholicism’s strange rites of passage) I had serious doubts about the whole Bible thing. Not god so much, I was willing to give that the benefit of the doubt. I had become very interested in physics and history, and these disciplines, while not questioning Christianity outright, were certainly showing me an alternative perspective. Reading about evolution or the Big Bang, no mention of god was made, just of natural selection and elementary particles. Mathematically defined forces had drawn the universe, not some benign deity, and natural selection had led, quite randomly, to the improbable existence of us. Where was god in all of this? I was told all things happen “by his hand”, or some such platitude, but that was not satisfactory. Science didn’t seem to need god to explain the universe, so why did religion? And why was it made so empty? I had begun to notice some small inconsistencies in the Bible too; history books on Egypt never mentioned the flight of the Jews, the kingdom of David, which was a mighty and powerful kingdom in the Bible, was barely a blip in the history of the Near East, and Jesus was hardly noticed by the Romans until Christians started becoming a nuisance long after he died. You’d think that these great empires, and all their historians and annalists, would have noticed these apparently important people and events. The Bible was looking more and more like a myth, and not a very good one at that (also, I read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ around this time, and if one man could invent such a detailed world, well, it made me think that whoever wrote the Bible just wasn’t trying that hard). The history of the Church was also troublesome; its issues with Copernicus and Galileo, its oppression of reform, its stranglehold on education. This was looking more and more like an organisation that wanted confine the mind rather than liberate it. And who would want to be a part of that? I had not yet given up on the god thing though.
By the time I began secondary I was left with what, I learned later, is called deism. I reckoned that there might well be a god, but that it was beyond us, outside the universe, outside of understanding. So physics and history didn’t apply. I also thought that Jesus was probably a real guy, but more along the lines of Gandhi, a moral leader, rather than the son of god, and that Christianity, on the whole, was no more or less valid than any other mythology from the ancient world. I had move away from Christianity in general, and had begun to investigate Eastern faiths. I imagine many teenagers do this in some fashion or other. I became quite interested in Zen as it didn’t appear to require a belief in the divine; it was rather more an exploration of the self, and it had a far more positive attitude towards this self than Catholicism. Religion never really came up in this stage of the education system in my school; the one teacher who cared was generally regarded by students as an idiot; even other teachers seemed to shy away from her when she began talk of god and Jesus in her life. I had stopped going to Church, or rather being cajoled into going by my mother, except on special occasions (funerals, weddings, Christmas), so religion was having less and less of a real impact on my life, and I was becoming less and less interested in it. I was thoroughly agnostic. And one day something weird happened; some of my classmates and I happened to talking about something religious at lunchtime, and one of the girls in the class looked utterly baffled. I asked her why, and she said that she didn’t believe in god, and neither did her parents; she was never expected to believe. To me, this was a revelation. I had never thought of it that way; I had remained agnostic because I thought that I should believe in some kind of divine order, I hadn’t realised that simply not believing was an option available to me. Dispensing with deism, which was not difficult as it is the vaguest possible avenue of belief, in an instant I was intellectually free of this god character and the mass delusion.