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
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!”
A Secret Base Under an Antarctic Volcano. (I don’t think I believe that)