Education & Religion

As you may have already have discovered from other pages on this site, I am a rationalist and an atheist. How did I decide this?

I was born an only child in 1957 to what in those days were fairly elderly parents. My father was the main 'bread-winner' for many years, working for a large book company (now long gone) called Claude Gill; however, ill health had plagued him for most of his life as he contracted TB when younger, and been the subject of early medical experiments (voluntarily!) — later on he needed a pacemaker. Subsequently, my mother needed to work to help support us, and she easily secured various jobs as secretary / book-keeper in small local firms.

Their own backgrounds were entirely dissimilar in that father came from a large Jewish family in Yorkshire (though his faith waned during his middle years, he tried with varying degrees of success to rekindle it in later life), and mother came from a smallish Oriental-European mixed family, being given a very strict upbringing in a Catholic school (her tales of being beaten on the backs of her hands with a wooden ruler for the smallest misdemeanour and then being sent to do needlework are not atypical of her experiences under the nun's ever-watchful gaze), whose teachings she totally rejected as soon as she left her family.

With both parents being non-practising, intelligent and largely self-educated people, they decided not to give me any formal religious education. Rather, the earliest things I was exposed to (amongst the general toys and other paraphernalia of any youngsters of the time) were children's encylclopædias such as Pear's, simplified versions of Classical myths such as the Iliad and Odyssey, and coffee-table books describing long-dead creatures which seemed to belong to the realms of mythology (i.e., dinosaurs, which were faithfully reproduced in plasticine both at home and at school). Other books contained things I did not recognise until later as the planets, but the pictures were bright and attractive, and whilst the pages of text were mostly without meaning, I read the simple captions. All this was naturally complemented by my primary-school education, which focused on what was then the usual things — reading and writing, arithmetic, simple geography and history (particularly Greek and Roman), and playing around in the gym.

Home life was not all spent in books, of course, there was a marvellous things called radio where, if I closed my eyes and listened to the music on the Third Programme (classical), I could see pictures; it wasn't until I was in the last years of secondary school (early 1970s) that I really became aware of pop music, where I ignored the records played endlessly throughout the day and listened to the late-evening broadcasts that played non-chart groups such as Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, Genesis, etc.. News was gathered mainly from radio and the cinema newsreels which were shown before the films I was taken to. Then, under pressure from myself (because 'all' the others in my class had one, when in reality it was only about three), we hired our first television (needless to say (?) it was black and white), and it was set up one Saturday afternoon. The first programme I ever saw was Dr. Who, with Patrick Troughton.

The goggle-box was, however, a treat and not something to be used as a means of passing time; it was never on during evening meal-times unless there was a special reason (something my parents wanted, or I did and they agreed), for conversation and reading were still the main forms of entertainment and education. I knew that anything I did not know or was unsure of could be asked of my parents, and if they did not know the answers they didn't try to fob me off with a lame excuse, but either said they had no idea (but they knew where the answer might be found), or told me what they knew whilst admitting their knowledge was not complete, or possibly out of date. Due to this upbringing, and education in the existence of the 'classics' (though obviously at a simplified level), I left primary school as a true atheist, for I had no conception whatsoever of any gods except as super-human creatures who populated the myths I knew (and who believed in the minotaur and centaurs any more?), and I certainly had no idea of a God, which I doubt would have made any sense to me at that time anyway. Not that it does now.

So… then I progressed (if that's the correct word) to secondary, grammar school, and my life fell almost fell part. Instead of learning being made a fun thing, sometimes to the point that not until I looked back did I realise my primary-school teachers were actually instilling things in me, it was now advocated that to be a recorder and regurgitator of information was the single most important thing in my daily existence. Even then I wondered why I had to remember so many things when all I had to do was look them up in a book (and when there was none at home to answer my query, I simply went to the library), but of course schools did and do not work that way.

The second puzzle was something called RE or religious education, though in higher years it was referred to as RI or religious instruction, but it was still centred on Christianity, due to that being the official religion of this country. At primary school, there was a short recitation of the lord's prayer each morning in assembly which meant absolutely nothing to me, either personally or in relation to my surroundings, but it was something that had to be done, and that was that (Jewish children were excused this, and there were no Muslims, Hindus, etc.). The only other activities may have been a seasonal play at Christmas or Easter, but I certainly never took part in one as I was never on stage for anything other than the usual embarrassing school concerts (hesitant recorders and flutes a speciality). My new school, though, took its religious role very seriously, and my parents agreed with them that I should attend the classes (there had to be extremely good reasons to be excused); father had a Talmud which he never even once tried to read to me, but they told me that if I had any questions regarding what I was told in school, or felt unsure about anything, then they would do their best to explain it, and that as I grew older I would learn there were many different religions, all with their own points of view.

Everything my parents did as I grew up was to make my life interesting and enjoyable (and for themselves, of course), and whilst I received and in retrospect deserved the various punishments meted out to me, this in no way harmed me. Please don't suggest I have repressed memories of child-abuse! That is the most offensive thing anyone can be accused of, and to use the non-existent technique of hypnosis to recall a dubious phenomena (repressed memory syndrome, not any actual abuse that has taken place) is to make matters even worse. Even as we went on holidays to various historic towns such as Chichester (the marvellous Roman villa at Fishbourne had just been discovered prior to our first visit), Wells, Exeter, and other Roman or cathedral towns, gave me a practical sense of history that school had never succeeded in drumming into me, and wandering around London revealed its rich and complex ancestry (e.g., Roman walls uncovered during the construction of the Barbican centre). From this I obtained my wonder for architecture and natural history, for country walks were also the norm, and the Observer books of trees, insects, and so on, made each of them a voyage of discovery. The remainder of the school holidays were spent either playing or wandering around the Natural History, Geological, Science, V&A, and British Museums, where again ideas were presented as toys and models to play with. What does it do? How does it work? Push a button and read the text to find out.

Having been exposed to the likes of Zeus and Hera, Aphrodite and Paris, Circe and Daedalus, from an early age, and from there learned of the equivalent Roman pantheon and their own mythology, then gone on to discover Odin, Thor, Loki, Balder, and the other Scandinavian gods because of the Sutton Hoo exhibitions in the British Museum, and Ra, Osiris, Thoth, Set and the Egyptian gods when the Tutankhamun exhibition arrived, to me the Christian God was just another one — another myth, that is, with his own book which was called the bible, just as Allah had his own book of slightly newer myths. Add to this the fact that father visited South-America and brought back stories and drawings of the discoveries there, and mother was half Chinese, that introduced even more gods to me, and all of them were described (along with countless others) in many reference books we had, the best of which were the Oxford Classical Dictionary and the Larousse World Mythology.

As for other non-existent creatures such as Santa (he's obviously working for the big red guy with the horns, for not only is he red as well but his name is an anagram of Satan <g>) and the tooth-fairy, these were things I'd heard of, but even when I went to bed one night and awoke the following morning with a sixpence under my pillow I knew it was placed there by my parents; this knowledge did not in any way diminish the expectation of receiving it, and I tried to wake up so I'd catch them, but I never did. Christmas was the usual thing of large meals and presents, games and fun things, but once again I didn't expect an over-weight man to come down the chimney (how did he avoid getting burned on the coals?), and even knowing my parents were again responsible didn't lessen the enjoyment, and I awoke on Christmas morning to find a small gift awaiting me before the main unwrapping after lunch. I never needed that kind of fantasy, and though I did of course read of fairies and elves and witches, demons and wizards, I always knew that no matter how frightening they may have been, they were no more genuine than the monsters on Dr. Who. The real world was always presented to me as far more interesting, especially all of the history and art which had been done by other, long-dead people.

The most important thing is that even when Christianity was being taught at school, where I and most of the class ignored it completely despite the often severe reprimands, at home the option of not deciding was not only available but virtually the default position, for questions about this so-called 'supreme being' could not be answered simply, if at all. Unlike many atheists who are brought up in a theistic environment and then, for various reasons usually but not always related to reasoning or an understanding of wider issues (or just straightforward rebellion), decide to reject the G/god(s) of their youth, I had been exposed to so many gods that I could see no difference between them (so the question of 'choosing' one is and was irrelevant), and so I had no actual need for any of them. I no more require any of those deities in my life as I do, for example, any of the characters from a modern myth such as Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings, which deliberately mimicked existing mythologies (and yes, I'm aware of his religious leanings, which unlike his friend and contemporary C. S. Lewis, remained free from his stories). I honestly see no difference whatsoever between Yahweh or Allah and Zeus / Jupiter or Odin: if anyone can explain rationally why one is a myth accepted as 'truth' and the other not, I'll be glad to listen and debate. Why do believers accept Yahweh but not Baal, Nergal, or any of the other local gods? Do they know nothing of the mythology of that place and period? No, most do not, and the few who do deny it as Pagan or Heathen or, of course, Satanic lies and temptation.

Ethics : Human & Divine

There is also the matter of ethics and morality to consider, for despite the proselytising of various believers who seem to find their bible a source of all that should be good in this world (those who actually want to affect this real world rather than wait for an imaginary 'next' one), looking beyond the mythology and garbled history (and I readily accept it contains many true events, even if extremely distorted), I see a list of atrocities perpetrated by a petty, vindictive, egotistical, genocidal creature whose actions are excused by his believers as ultimately being in our best interests, which is no more than saying 'the ends justify the means'; or I am told that I, as a mere mortal, should not question (and indeed cannot know) the mind or ways of this god. Those who believe what he does are for the best, naturally follow these examples, and so use his name to murder others not like themselves, all for his greater glory; given his past record, he must be revelling in this slaughter. Apologists excuse the massacre of the Amalekites and similar instances of infanticide (they would have grown up to be evil non-believers, etc.), and denounce abortion as murder, yet remain blind to the contradiction of their position, for in saying that God is unknowable, how do we know that our ideas of good and bad are the same?

Certain religions (I'll leave you to work out which ones, and which sub-sects) seem to delight in creating unpleasant realms, both in this world and the alleged 'next'. It is an unforgivable crime against God to kill yourself, for example, and if you do, your soul will go straight to hell with no chance of explanation or remission, even if you've done it as a way out of a life spent as the victim of rape, torture, and other abuses (reassurance, if that is the correct word, is given in the vacuous phrases "God has a plan for us all" and "God works in mysterious ways"). Contrary-wise, if you have spent your life dishing our rape, torture, and other abuses, and with your last breath repent of those actions, you will go to heaven.

So it seems that all God wants is your obedience, and your love, and endless praises. What do you think you'll be doing in heaven anyway? Your soul will reside there for eternity, a literally infinite length of time, and assuming for the moment it is merely (and so unimaginatively!) a richer brighter place than this world, what will you do? Assume that roughly 200 million million million million million million years have passed and you've visited every planet in every solar system a few times, seeing how things have changed, and in all the universe's finite space you've done all the finite number of things that can be done, at least a dozen times. Now what? That time you have just spent is less in eternity than a millimetre is in relation to our galaxy's diameter (100,000ly), so you have an infinite amount of time in which to become infinitely bored, and you cannot die. Perhaps that is one definition of hell?

And that is assuming you even have a choice. Many people seem to actually want to (and say their God demands they) spend all that time praising God. Say "You're wonderful", "I adore you," "I worship you", with real feeling and honesty, and every combination in every language in the universe… and that's all you can do. No matter how great the reward is for such behaviour (and who says there will be any if it is expected?), is that heaven?

Education Redux

I know this might sound incredibly arrogant, but from my own experience and those of others raised in similar circumstances, I'm sure that the vast majority of fundamental religion could be removed simply through proper education. If comparative mythology was taught at the same time as history (for example, explaining Ea and Dagon and Chemosh during lessons about Ur and Babylon) then most children would accept them in the same manner as the gods of Olympus. That would only leave belief in some form of spirit being (perhaps a creator of the universe, but not necessarily, perhaps a guide of some kind), but more along the lines of personal deism, so there would be no organised revelation, no miracles (why do Hindus never see Jesus and Muslims never see Odin?), and most importantly, no dogma or clergy: that way people can get on with enjoying their lives (makes it rather pointless, otherwise) and if they feel so inclined, seek answers to their questions instead of saying everything is in (your-name-here)'s book of myths so why bother searching anywhere else?

Evidence Required

Finally, lest I be accused of being closed-minded on the subject of gods (or even other creatures of myth), I cannot be omniscient and state "there is no God" (just as theists cannot likewise state "God exists", though they all claim it), but I can certainly say "there is no evidence of G/god(s) as worshipped in any of the human religions", and whilst it is true that keeping an open mind is a good thing (as indeed with all claims that do not readily fit into the mainstream), I would then ask do you have an open mind on the existence of gryphons? No one can say with absolute certainty "there are no gryphons," though it can be said almost without contradiction "there are no gryphons here on earth, now" (the Cealocanth is a good example of this outlook being proven wrong once evidence was forthcoming), yet these animals are not thought of as real. I didn't make an active choice to become an atheist, it is simply the default position, and I have yet to see any evidence to change my outlook, as I have not yet seen anything to modify my stance on being an a-gryphonist or an a-Odinist. That does not mean I deny the possibility of the existence of someone / something whose civilisation and technology would, in our terms, be equated with being a god (ability to transmute matter and energy at whim, creation of other universes in their individual space-time, travel via artificial wormholes if possible, etc.), but until such creatures make themselves known to us (and why would they?) their existence, like that of any other alien cultures, remains in the realm of speculation.

On to brighter things. As a measure of my utter lack of comprehension of this single Christian God, it was not until my late teens that I learned the C. S. Lewis Narnia books I'd read over and over again were actually religious metaphors, with Aslan the lion representing God, for all children of my generation were told that a lion was king of the jungle, and so that's how I read it, literally and innocently, and talking animals were standard fare for such fantasy stories. I now know why the final story, The Last Battle, where an ape tries to pass off a donkey in a lion's hide as Aslan, made no sense to me, beyond the fact that Aslan represented a generalisation of 'good' and the ape was destroying things and killing the talking trees, the dryads I already knew of. I have no doubt that had I been raised by theistic parents who taught me as they had been taught, to accept without question precepts that must remain unchallenged (lest their flaws be revealed), then I too would have been a theist, but I was raised to ask questions and seek answers, to look and see what happened, then try and work out why. For me, there can be no better childhood than one of wonder and freedom of thought, and it was given to me unselfishly so that I might delight in my life, as indeed I do.

By then I had discovered the rich fields of science-fiction (and, co-incidentally enough, Lewis' own ventures into the genre with his 'Dr. Ransom' trilogy, but even here the Venusian equivalents of Adam and Eve were utterly lost on me until much later), usually in the forms of books by authors such as Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Then I progressed through Issac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke (both a bit too technical for me and not too good at writing about people's feelings) to Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, and other 'new-wave' authors of the time, though films also provided me with more fantasy-based entertainment than I could have hoped for. As for television (which by now was colour), programmes such as Horizon, Chronicle, and The World About Us were staple diets, as well as the numerous 'science specials' that the BBC used to produce when it cared more for education than repetitive sports-coverage and banal soaps. Horizon is still going, but has followed the general trend of dumbing down, and apart from that and Channel 4's Equinox and occasional Timewatch, there is nothing to compare: it's been usurped by 'investigations' into pseudo-science that deliberately omit any aspect of sceptical inquiry or rationality, all based on the assumption that if it's popular it must be true, because people aren't easily fooled, though polls of what people believe continually disprove this assertion. A few years ago I completely gave up on TV and so saved myself the 'licence' (tax), and from having seen examples of things such as Desperate For An Audience (an every-day soap opera narrated by a ghost), I know I'm not missing a thing.

One cannot argue that the 1960s and 1970s were times of vast scientific changes and new discoveries (I vaguely remember the arguments for and against the theories of plate tectonics to describe continental drift, and watched enthralled at the competing American and Russian space programmes which, despite being fuelled by conflicting political ideologies that threatened to destroy the world, still produced some wonderful technological achievements), but equivalent things are happening all the time and, if the appropriate resources are consulted (the science & technology sections of the better daily newspapers, Scientific American, New Scientist, National Geographic, and now of course the better part of the WWW) there is much to wonder at. BUT, these are so rarely reported in most of the popular media as they are considered boring — a judgement made by people who were raised to find such things uninteresting, and who write for an audience who in many cases have not been educated to learn from what they are shown and so are utterly incapable of questioning it, let alone enjoying it. Besides, it is not as sensational as writing about Elvis meeting Hitler whilst riding a V3 to Mars and picking up Tesla (forgotten genius) on the way, and such things are 'only harmless fun', for who takes them seriously? Unfortunately, as many people who read the daily horoscope and think it applies to them, who believed Daniken's books and avidly read those who have followed him (psychic vibrations generate telekineses to lift the blocks that built the pyramids? Oh, puh-leeze!), and who think a vaguely amusing series like Dark Skies is based on true (but of course suppressed by 'the government') events.