When I was 13 I became a fanatical Baptist. It only lasted 6 months, but in that time I went to a Baptist church, I was re-baptised, I waved my hands in the air, I praised the Lord, I cried in rapture. It was expected of me. It changed my life, but not in the way that was intended.
This wasn’t born from some innate religious leaning, even though I had been packed off to Sunday school from the age of 5. Admittedly that had been by parents who were less endowed with religious fervour than they were keen on a bit of peace and quiet on a Sunday afternoon, but it did give me a grounding in the mysterious movements of The Lord.
No, as a pubescent teenager I had in fact been dragged into something akin to a cult. It wasn’t quite up to the standard of The Moonies, we didn’t hoard weapons in a secluded desert hideout, that might at least have given me some street cred for this little confessional. But it was all orchestrated by a single rather crazed individual. A particularly unprincipled religious education teacher, who by today’s standards would’ve been sacked before making the front page of whatever lurid Sunday tabloid was in circulation at the time.
Looking back on it with the jaded gaze of a psychology graduate I can see how we fell for it all. Impressionable youngsters in our formative years, looking for a group to belong to. Peer pressure pushing just ahead of the tsunami of freshly brewed hormones. Once one or two of my immediate contemporaries had joined the group the rest of us became eager to do the same. It really wasn’t much more than a fan club, except with a celeb in the form of a 2000 year old deity, with escape from eternal damnation as his main USP.
Members of the club got to buy books such as The Living Bible. Same as the regular tome but with the ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ replaced by a slightly hipper English idiom. In fact I’ve still got mine somewhere, emblazoned with stickers prosthelytizing various bits of scripture in soundbite form. I had posters to put on my bedroom wall, next to the one of Suzi Quatro. Frankly it was all bordering on hippy philosophy. After all it was the 70s and Jesus Christ Superstar was all the rage. Not that we approved of that show you understand, it ended before the resurrection dontcha know?
If I’m honest I spent most of my time in the company of these zealots feeling very out of place. I remember being consumed with self doubt that I hadn’t connected with God, something at the time that was referred to as your “personal relationship”. I tried, but found it hard to relate to a metaphysical being whom I saw no real evidence for. On the upside I’m told I became a model citizen during my tenure in la la land, and always handed in my homework on time. That’s probably the one virtue I could have done with hanging on to into later life.
I can’t really condemn my teacher now for what she did. She was convinced of the correctness of her actions whilst indoctrinating a group of us impressionable pupils into her private little fiefdom. To be honest I can’t even remember her name, although I remember the church in South London that I think had better remain nameless. It’s forever burned into my memory like a scene from The Exorcist, except with better music and not as much head spinning and puking.
Oddly enough, members of our congregation protested outside cinemas when that movie was released. It was seen as glamorising the whole possession myth. Something that baptists believe in as something of a given. Many of them at the time could be heard babbling away ‘in tongues’ at various points of intense prayer or during sermons. It was very much frowned upon and I was told in no uncertain terms that if I ever felt the urge to break into a bit of ethereal multilingualism myself, I should probably put a sock in it.
Somewhat ironically, that period of my life coalesced later in my fuzzy memory as an experience roughly akin to The Exorcist storyline. In fact the most vivid flashbacks I had of the events within those hallowed walls were inspired by a visit to a church in Mexico where the local indigenous religion had been mixed with Catholicism into a rather scary amalgam of effigies and poultry sacrifice. I should say that inspired by all this hocus pocus my later ‘religious’ leanings moved into areas such as spiritualism and Satanism, but the less said about those brief dalliances the better.
In hindsight it’s like I was another person. In fact at that time I probably was. It was a formative experience that I far from regret, and something that in a twist of irony changed my attitude towards all religion and profoundly established a personal view on life that I have to this day.
Up until that point I, like so many people, never questioned the existence of God. As I said, I went to Sunday school and church (I was in a local church choir), I folded my hands and I went through the motions just like I’d been taught to do from an early age. I genuflected, I sang hymns in assembly and if you’d asked me what my religion was, I would have answered C of E without hesitation. Not unlike a lot of people I still see now when I’m obliged to step into a house of worship at weddings and funerals.
The most valuable lesson I took away from my times with that church was a realisation that we are all hostage to our own beliefs. Probably the defining point for me, and the reason I left it all behind, was when I asked during one of the frequent visits we had from missionaries, why our religion was any more valid than those of the ‘heathen’ societies they had been tasked to convert.
Conversion of non-believers was one of the highest goals we were all set at the time. It was a bit like earning Nectar points, although it more often earned me a good kicking round the back of the sports hall for not having enough sense not to preach to those more given to head-buts than godhead.
If anything good came out of these futile farragos it’s probably that they set me up with many of the sales skills I came to rely on in adulthood. After all, if you can nearly persuade someone of the existence of god, you can most likely sell them anything.
Questioning this stuff wasn’t actively encouraged, but then as now, I never did know when to shut the fuck up. My subsequent ostracisation by the other less picky believers probably marked my slide from grace into the miserable infidel I am today. My brief religious fervour was finally and ignominiously ended when I had to make a choice between going to church one Sunday or going to see the movie Westworld with my dad. Westworld won. I have to admit that Yul Brynner still has the look of Satan’s disciple about him.
It is though one of the few abiding fond memories I have of any kind of comradery with my father, being as I was at the time too young to see the movie without his company. So if nothing else, if god really does exist, he or she gave me that.
But from my questioning of the status quo that had up until that point been drummed into me, I took away a philosophy that right and wrong pretty much depended on your perspective. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with someone else’s point of view, or even find it valid. Just that I accept that we all see things from our own place in the world, and in those terms what we do, and in many cases don’t do, is ‘right’ and could be described as such by others. In that sense, there is no right and wrong. Just whatever philosophy is regarded as acceptable at any given moment. And that’s something that constantly shifts depending on social norms, shared values and political expediency.
It all sounds simple I know. Something of a truism. But ask yourself where any of the fundamental groundings you have for concepts you hold to be unshakeable truths have come from. Try to imagine your life with a different set of beliefs, borne from an entirely alien culture. Then try to visualise living your life by those values now. How easy would you find it? How much does your personal programming stop you from analysing issues on individual merit, rather than knee-jerk conditioning that probably started before you could walk?
I believe that relying on a universal acceptance of concepts such as good and evil are pointless and irrelevant. In fact I don’t believe in the concept of evil, just that the consequences of misguided and in some cases psychologically irrational behaviour can be construed as being driven by some malevolent force. It isn’t. we’re all just animals motivated by wants, needs and beliefs, some of which aren’t very desirable in the social structures within which we live our lives and which are therefore sensible and expedient for us to condemn and outlaw.
It’s a philosophy that has earned me almost as many verbal kickings in adulthood as my days as a teenage mini-missionary. Most people assume I’m playing devil’s advocate or simply fence sitting, whereas I see it as removing myself from dogma and an intellectualisation of basic drives.
I could of course be entirely wrong in this belief. The irony hasn’t escaped me that it’s the very same construct that traps me in a logic loop of my own making. But by standing outside of my humanity and the belief in the superiority of the human experience, I arrive at the same point as I did during those missionary presentations. Just because you or I have an absolute conviction that our way of thinking is ‘right’ doesn’t mean that we might not be completely wrong.
Perhaps it’s fitting that an involvement with a religious group, something that is by it’s very nature rooted in a strong concept of belief in good and evil, eventually led to a dissipation of those forces in my own perception of the world.
Or maybe I’ve just always been a contrary bastard at heart. God alone knows.
And as we’re not on speaking terms any more, I’ll probably never find out.