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Nov 30 2011

Why I am an atheist – T.E.P.

Fish paste sandwiches.

Not the kind of answer to the question that you were expecting, I suspect. Also, it’s a more-than-slightly facetious answer and not entirely true, but it’s not entirely untrue either…

My earliest memories of religion are much like those of many others: sitting in a cold and draughty church with my grandparents, getting bored and fidgety, the feel of the hard pew and the dusty smell of my grandmother’s “Sunday best” coat. Or going to Sunday School in the church hall, with pictures on the walls of lions and camels and all the exciting and exotic bits of the bible, such as are wont to capture the imagination of a four-year old. And of bright and shining people telling stories in tones of wonder, and trying to relate their awe at miracles to the experiences of children too young to really have any.

But they were wrong. I’d had experience of stories. I knew that stories told of things that weren’t real, that couldn’t happen, that didn’t now or hadn’t ever been. My bible in those days involved a bear of little brain and a piglet who went hunting heffalumps. I knew that people made these stories up, sometimes to entertain themselves or for their friends, and sometimes just because they didn’t know the answers, and a story is more fun than just a shrug and “I dunno.” I knew that people sometimes made up stories to teach lessons, or what else could be the point of Sunday School?

But Aesop taught that being kind to others would repay in not being eaten by a lion, which is a most important lesson to a four-year-old. Had he but known, the ancient Greek could have given his tale more impact with an allosaur, and I always did prefer a stripy tiger to a lazy lion, but even then I knew you’ve got to work with what you’ve got. If lions were the best he had, at least they made the point.

And what of Christ? What lessons were there here for me to learn? I learned that he could walk on water, and that he cast his nets upon the sea and filled them full of fish. But I didn’t like fish much. I learned that he could heal the sick and make the lame to walk. Well, that I didn’t even think about – I walked because I had my operations and my surgeons and my callipers to wear.

If I did what I was told, would I be able to heal others? Would I have superpowers?

“In a minute,” was the answer. “When you’re older,” or “we’ll see,” the bible says. “Not just now, but maybe later, if you’re good.” It doesn’t take the brightest child to figure out by the age of four just what these phrases mean. They mean “don’t bother me just now, and behave.” They mean “I’m too busy to explain.” They mean “no”.

So the stories had a most unsatisfying ending. Yet these people, with their shining cheerfulness, kept insisting they were true. They told me that he fed a multitude with three loaves of bread and just two fishes, and when he finished there were baskets full of scraps. “But how?” I longed to know. “How did that work?” I tried to understand*.

No-one told me, so I filed it, like so much of what I learned in early years, in a big box in my head labelled “things that grown-ups tell you that aren’t really true, and in time you’ll figure out the reasons why,” and didn’t worry. When they brought out food for us (which was a treat, you understand, and not a thing that happened every week), my stomach over-rode my brain as often happens when you’re four. And I took a bite of sandwich, and I chewed and

FISH PASTE!

YUCK!!!

Postscript/Authors note:
No, the betrayal of a fish paste sandwich masquerading as a meat paste sandwich (which I did like) wasn’t what killed all of religion for me (although I never did forgive Sunday School for it). You see, there really wasn’t ever anything there to kill. It was pretty much always just stories, and not very good or believable ones. I only stopped attending services regularly when I stopped attending a youth group for which regular church-going was a necessary condition of membership, about a decade after the events recounted above. For all of this time, religious observance was always something I thought could only be a social observance for the vast majority of attendees. I mean, any child could see that man had made god in his own image, and that the supernatural was just a way of explaining the natural-but-yet-to-be-understood. To believe otherwise required a level of wilful stupidity which I, in my sheltered naivety, thought had to be really quite rare.

The fish paste sandwich does make a nice metaphor for when I found myself disabused of that notion, though.

*And also, “What did they do with all those scraps? Did they take them into town and feed the poor,” I thought. “Shouldn’t that be the moral of the tale? They’ve left it all half-finished!”

T.E.P.
A Secret Base Under an Antarctic Volcano.
(I don’t think I believe that)

19 comments

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  1. 1
    eclectabotanics

    Never underestimate the intelligence of a child. They can smell a lie and a dodge and yet ACT as if you’re making sense. Kids take it all in and then make their own minds up.

    The ones who aren’t impressed by authority, that is.

  2. 2
    ManOutOfTime

    Wow! This is just about the most witty, literate entry yet! Your love of story really shines through and it’s easy to see how that particular gift came in handy, inocculating you against the onslaught of infectious adult foolishness. Thank you for broadcasting this epistle from your icy underground lair – getting my day off to a cheerful start!

  3. 3
    Glen Davidson

    “Fiction” was largely frowned upon in the church I grew up in, not, of course, that they were counting the Bible as fiction.

    I’ve long thought that was a good strategy on their part, since discounting Disney would invite similar treatment of the Bible’s fairy tales.

    Then they blew it, at least for me, by whining that evolutionists wouldn’t consider what creationists say (yeah right) while opposing our consideration of what they had to say (which was “fiction,” you know). Challenge accepted.

    Glen Davidson

  4. 4
    den1s

    I only went to church because my mom said that if I went to the early morning service, I could have the rest of the day to do whatever….. YES!!!!! Well no, because my best friend and I decided that we would be alter boys for the early service seeing as they didn’t have anyone else. This went over big with them, and they thought that we were a gift from heaven, we were so cute in our red tunic/cossack of the anglican church. It was just a front to have fun on our part, let’s be entertained. We could see each other’s reflection in the brass cross on the alter, and would make faces to try to make each other laugh, even though the service was like a funeral. Then we found out where the priest kept the wine….. woohoo!!! When the priest went to say goodbye to the parishioners, we partied! Two drunk 12 year olds with the whole day in front of them. Neither of us ever believed any of the crappola they served up.

  5. 5
    kullervo

    I am intrigued by the idea that Winnie the Pooh primed T.E.P. to view the bible as just another collection of stories. We live in a story-rich culture and the bible has plenty of competition it never used to have. Heck, those evil secularists even get their stories on television and in the movies! No wonder kids are not interested in what those old men in the pulpits have to say.

  6. 6
    Dhorvath, OM

    Well done. I particularly like that heffalumps made the cut.

  7. 7
    angelinabennett

    You just said it all for me, minus the fish paste. I always thought god was just a nice story they told kids, like Santa. It took me years to realize that ADULTS believed in these things. I was appalled.

  8. 8
    nora raum

    What a charming story! And I love your big box in your head to store stuff that grownups tell you that aren’t true.

  9. 9
    Crudely Wrott

    Delightful!

    It’s always a deep pleasure to see how the minds of children confound the minds of grups*.

    To quote an old Moody Blues song,

    It riles them to believe
    That you perceive
    The web they weave.
    So keep on thinking free.

    *a contraction of “grown ups from “Miri”, the eighth episode of the first season of Star Trek: The Original Series, that was first broadcast October 27, 1966.

  10. 10
    codyreisdorf

    My favorite rational explanation of the loafs and fishes story came from the movie Millions, which explains that the people all had their own food, but were afraid to share out of fear of not having enough. So when the plate gets passed around everyone takes their own food out pretending to take it off the plate, passing the plate along untouched. Hence it returns nonempty. I love how it plays of human nature, though I still tend to think most everything in the bible is myth rather than misunderstood real events.

  11. 11
    madscientist

    Be glad it was fish paste and not ‘vegemite’. At least fish paste is made from something edible; vegemite is putrid sewage.

  12. 12
    'Tis Himself

    Oh no, madscientist, now you’ll have all the Aussies weeping and wailing and gnashing their teeth because you sneered at vegemite.

  13. 13
    Crudely Wrott

    My favorite rational explanation of the loafs and fishes story came from the movie Millions, which explains that the people all had their own food, but were afraid to share out of fear of not having enough.

    All of them? As one? Not bloody likely.

  14. 14
    T.E.P.

    scroll…scroll…scroll…

    [squeek]
    That’s MY name!
    [/squeek]

    ..

    @ 2. ManOutOfTime
    “Wow! This is just about the most witty, literate entry yet!”

    “Wow!” indeed. I’ve been making it a point to read all of these posts (especially since I sent this in – it seemed only fair if I expected others to read mine) and that is indeed high praise. Thank you.

    ..

    @ 6. Dhorvath, OM (and also kullervo above that)

    “I particularly like that heffalumps made the cut.”

    You perhaps do me too much credit. As it happens, A. A. Milne was mostly background during my childhood – Winnie ther Pooh was just one of many stories. It was only later in life that I grew to my current opinion of his work as amongst the finest literature in the english language, for his ability to capture voice and mood with such deft brevity*, such deceptively, beautifully simple language. It was that adult appreciation which made him the obvious choice when I was looking back and trying to pick a suitable example of my childhood reading. Likewise the heffalump story just seemed the obvious example of friends making stories up for each other, for all the reasons I mentioned.

    It was only after I’d saved the piece and sent it (and I was in that second-guessing, “is it any good, and have I fucked up the grammar somewhere, and did I remember to spellcheck, and is it really any good?” phase) that I realised how good a metaphor it was for my greater point about religion.

    * A brevity I obviously lack!

    ..

    (Oh, and PZ, “(I don’t think I believe that)” – what are you? Some kind of skeptic? Of course we’ve got broadband down here!)

  15. 15
    T.E.P.

    @ 12. ‘Tis Himself OM

    (Sshhh… Nobody mention Marmite, and we might just get away with it.)

    ..

    Although now, I can’t help but find myself wondering which of the parables Vegemite could be used to illustrate…

  16. 16
    John Morales

    Hey T.E.P., I was impressed — you were way ahead of me at the same age.

  17. 17
    Charlie Foxtrot

    Although now, I can’t help but find myself wondering which of the parables Vegemite could be used to illustrate…

    Old testament, actually…

    Moses actually led the Israelites to the “land of milk and honey-and-vegemite-toast”, which is a flavour combination that can only be experienced, not explained.

  18. 18
    jalyth

    Huge lurker here, signed and logged in just to ask: WTF is fish paste? ….not sure I really want to know, or maybe I’d google.

  19. 19
    bilby

    Mmmmm…fish paste.

    Mmmmm…Vegemite.

    Don’t worry about not liking them. You are genetically deficient. It is called evolution.

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