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some reflections on religion and childhood

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serious stuff

I’m preparing a ten-minute talk to a little group of non-religious people, many of whom are interested in crushing religion or recovering from it. Here are some of the things I’ll be saying.

I want to talk about certain basic aspects of the psychology of religion, as I see it, which might help to illuminate why religion is so eternally popular and so hard to overcome for some people. There are certain features of religion which are near-universal, and one of those features is that the deities we create, or the supernatural beings, ancestor spirits and the like, are intensely interested in us. They often meddle in our affairs, as certainly happens in the Old Testament, and in The Odyssey and The Iliad – both very religious texts. God’s so obsessed with us that he’s counted every hair on our head [Matt 10:30, Luke 12:7], while also being the master of the multiverse. He always makes time in his busy schedule for you. And the gods’ interest in us is generally of a protective, and sympathetically judgmental, nature. They’re interested in our welfare and our improvement. They are parental figures. The Judeo-Christian god is our father, and we’re his flock of children.

And this brings me to the world of childhood, the period in which religion takes hold, and is most fervently felt. The world of a child, at 3 and  4, and before, is one of great intensity, and, it seems, regular trauma. Think back to your own childhood or take note of any kid of that age that you know or have known, and think of ‘tantrums’, an understated term for the sense of absolute disaster, collapse of all hopes and dreams, that leads to all the screaming and rage when you don’t let her have an ice-cream, or say she can’t go to the beach because she’s been naughty, or when she realizes she’s been abandoned to some strange baby-sitter. These traumatic experiences are generally related to some rudimentary sense of justice – ‘it’s not fair’. It’s part of an essential learning process, because of course the world isn’t fair, in fact.

The world is often cruel, and nothing is more cruel than being abandoned, all vulnerable and unprotected, by your parents. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’ [Mark 15:34, Matthew 27:46], says Jesus to his dad. The anguished cry resonates with us. Yet there’s a sense in which we’re all abandoned by our parents, even if gradually, even if only through the growing sense that they can’t or don’t always protect us or judge us sympathetically. They haven’t counted every hair on our head, and instead of mastering the world, they often seem to be crushed and cowed by it.

Psychologists have understandably made much of this necessary process of gradual abandonment coupled with a gradual development of autonomy, but I’m not sure that enough has been made of the religious element in all this. One element, it seems to me, is that the child tries to take on the ‘godly’ qualities that she gradually realizes are missing from the parent. This helps to explain why the world of magic, of wizards and superheroes, is so appealing to children. The wizard-child can fight back against the parents when necessary, or correct their mistakes. She has it in her power, she feels, to become ‘perfectly good’. 

This point is important. Aquinas and other theologians have presented to us a god largely stripped of historical, contingent associations, a god who is no longer even an embodiment but a principle or set of principles, somehow metaphysically enshrined, of omniscience, omnipotence and perfect goodness. I’ve read comments on this from the logically inclined to the effect that such qualities are ‘logically incoherent’. This may well be so, but such qualities are perfectly coherent to a four-year-old. Think of a child who’s punished for naughty behaviour, sent to the naughty corner to think over what she’s done. Amongst all her resentful and angry contemplations there is probably regret for having put herself in this predicament – she could have behaved differently. She might also recall how in the distant past, an hour or so ago, she was fondled and made much of for being a clever or thoughtful or ‘good’ girl. When released from the naughty corner, she might go up to her parent and solemnly and sincerely announce that she will never be naughty again. She will become a god.

It’s worth noting here that in many religions there are humans who are more like gods than other humans. In the Catholic Church there are saints, who are supposed to have performed miracles as well as being ‘unnaturally’ good. Jesus himself partakes of this human but more-than-human nature. In the Graeco-Roman religious tradition there are ‘human gods’ such as Hercules and Perseus, and in other religions there are holy figures, shamans, Dalai Lamas and the like. In the Judaic religion, a whole cultural group is raised above the mass of humanity by virtue of being divinely selected. Even simple nuns and priests are represented as closer to divinity than commoners, which is why such vocations often appeal to children of a certain age who want to be ‘more good’, partaking of divine perfection. The pervasiveness of this way of thinking, or perhaps fantasising, should be cause for reflection. To me, it is rooted in childhood, but that’s no reason for simply dismissing it. It’s not just simply a matter of putting away childish things, for the thoughts and impacts of childhood stay with us throughout life, like it or not. As children we think in absolutes – in fact we’re encouraged to think that way. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are two of the first terms we learn, and at first we don’t dissociate the physically bad from the morally bad. In fact, I would argue that we never fully make that distinction. Our parents aren’t of course to blame for instilling those absolutes in us – they come naturally as we learn to survive in the world. broadly speaking, good is all that helps us survive, grow and develop socially, while bad is all that prevents this.

Absolute goodness and absolute power and absolute insight and understanding, these all come in the same package. Children of a certain age are convinced, or seem convinced, that they can tap into the whole package. Kids can shape-shift, they can come alive again when you kill them, they can cast spells on you, and they can send you crashing against the opposite wall with just a flick of their fingers. And if you don’t believe it, just ask them, they can do it. And if you try to tell them that their magical powers are logically incoherent, look out, you’ll get zapped straight away. 

But of course, bitter experience soon tells them that the world is impervious to their magic. They can’t become gods, and they can’t believe in their parents as gods, so compensating figures must be found – guardian angels, fairy godmothers, imaginary friends, gentle Jesus meek and mild, and so on. These ideas reinforce each other – a world of imaginary and super-powerful beings, becoming familiar, helps us to think of ourselves as super-powerful and at least potentially perfect. The pious become ‘close to God’ and partake of that Godliness.

Now of course it can be cogently argued that there’s much more to the complex phenomenon of religion than I’ve so far outlined, but here I’m simply trying to get to the kernel of needs and hopes, and childhood traumas, and the often fervent beliefs that emerge from those needs, hopes and traumas, that constitute the beginnings of religion. And I’ll finish by exploring another feature of religious belief from the perspective of childhood, namely the afterlife.

In his almost grotesquely over-ambitious book, God, actually, the Australian writer and former lawyer [you can tell] Roy Williams performs one useful service in that he puts, at the end, some forty questions he hopes will challenge atheists to the utmost. Williams is not mere deist, but a full-blown Christian who accepts the miracles of Jesus, questions evolutionary theory, and barely addresses the question of other gods. However, his questions provide a useful starting-point for fledgling atheists to think their position through. He asks a handful of ‘afterlife’ questions, but this is the one I’ll focus on:

If there’s no afterlife, why can we conceive of one?

I remember once the pianist Glenn Gould commenting that he believed in an afterlife because he couldn’t conceive of the alternative, and I can certainly sympathise with that position, and again, I think it’s a position that comes ‘automatically’ to us in childhood. Think of the most common of childhood games – goodies versus baddies. You’re playing the game, and you get it right between the eyes – ‘Ha ha, you’re dead!’ You might try to argue, or get huffy, but sometimes you just have to accept and play dead. You fall down on the grass, and you lie still for what seems the longest three or four seconds of your life, then you jump up and say ‘I came alive again’. There is the afterlife in a nutshell. No kid has to be taught to say that, it comes naturally, and the response of the other game-players will usually be a grumbling acquiescence. Everyone wins, you get to go on playing the game, and the others get the competitive satisfaction of having killed you, without the negative effects of having you drop out of the game permanently, for in these games the more the merrier. 

Two points to be made here: first, that the afterlife is simply more life, more of the same – you get to go on playing the game; and second, that death is boring. The kid lying on the grass playing dead knows she isn’t dead, and this might well be the best moment ever to imagine what death is like, but what is there to imagine? Nothing, non-existence, doesn’t give the imagination much of a purchase. Death is not so much something to be feared as something we instinctively turn away from, either because it’s inconceivable, or because, if it is conceivable, the conception is so boring – there’s nothing there to fire an imagination that thrives on richness and complexity. 

So this is something we instinctively recognise as children; and then as adults, and as historical communities, we have plenty of time and energy to build up various versions of the afterlife – reincarnation, metempsychosis [the transmigration of souls], heaven and hell, even becoming a god [if you happen to have been a Roman Emperor, or a former dictator of North Korea]. The supernatural world being delightfully untestable, we’re only limited by our imaginations and a certain communal orthodoxy. 

You might think then that all we have to do is ‘grow up’, and face the obvious fact of our own mortality and contingency. Become more ‘rational’. Well personally, I’m not comfortable with equating atheism or this-worldliness with rationality, and when I note that kids ‘come alive again’ and develop god-like traits and conjure up guardian spirits and imaginary friends because they see it as in their best interests to do so, I come to the uneasy conclusion that maybe religion isn’t so ‘irrational’ after all. Is it really irrational to want to go on [and on] living? Is it irrational to want to be judged with absolute fairness and impartiality, but also with sympathy? Is it irrational to feel someone is taking a special personal interest in you, and will never let you down?  I suspect that all this goes beyond the rationality/irrationality debate, to something deeper in the psyche. This is one of the reasons why religion dies hard, and why it will always have a great deal of appeal, especially to the most vulnerable in our community.


Written by stewart henderson

May 16, 2011 at 10:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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