My Path from Rome
OH, YES – I once had an orthodox creed. I was brought up in a devout Roman Catholic family, and had an old-style convent education – and throughout my childhood and adolescence I was a steadfast believer. That was in the days (before the Second Vatican Council) when the Catholic Church was still Catholic and the Pope was infallible – so I had absolute certitude about God and the universe and my place in it. But in the end – and it took me a very long while – I grew up.
Whenever I mention my Catholic childhood, people tend to assume that the reason I have rejected religion so completely is that an extreme version of it was drummed into me as a child – but it wasn’t like that at all. No one needed to drum religion into me: I lapped it up like a thirsty puppy. Of course, I must have been given the taste for it first of all, but I cannot remember as far back as that.
What I do remember, though, is that my four younger sisters and one younger brother were coaxed to say, as the first syllables that ever passed their lips, not “Mama” or “Dada”, but the far more difficult “Jesus” – so presumably I was equally precocious. Anyway, by the time the good nuns got hold of me, at the age of four, I was hooked on the supernatural.
At home, as in most large families, we were always playing competitive games among ourselves – and Rule Number One, which became standard for any competitive family game, was “No Praying”. This was at the insistence of the others, who thought that praying would give me an unfair advantage.
This indicates that at home I was regarded as the pious one of the family – which is saying a great deal – and the nuns at my first convent school seem to have cast me in the role of a future saint. Whenever there was any school entertainment, I was given some religious poem to recite, and once, when they put on a little play in which Jesus appeared, I was given that role, without any competition – though, admittedly, my auburn curls may have contributed to the choice.
There was a large sentimental painting on our classroom wall of a guardian angel hovering protectively over a child on the edge of a precipice – and I accepted it quite literally. I never got on a bus or a train without quickly reminding my guardian angel to keep an eye out for danger.
My gullibility embraced not only the supernatural and miraculous, but also the magical. Amazing though it may seem in these days of advanced childhood knowledge, I was actually ten years old by the time I realised that Christmas presents were not really left by an old red-coated gentleman coming down the chimney.
When I upbraided my mother for having told me such lies, she protested that Santa Claus did, in a sense, exist – as the personification of generosity and giving. But it was too late to give me a metaphorical explanation. I had accepted the myth literally for too long.
Empathising with younger children on whom the same confidence trick was being imposed, I embarked on a crusade around the neighbourhood, telling all the kids that there was no Santa Claus. This reached the ears of the father of a neighbouring family, who reproved me for spoiling it for the little ones. “Spoiling it’”! I could not understand what he meant. To my mind, they were being made fools of, and I was only saving them from this indignity. I now see this as the beginning of both my loss of faith and of my persistent missionary zeal in proclaiming scientific truth – but it was many years before Jesus went the way of Santa Claus.
On one occasion, when our family, together with a number of aunts, uncles, and cousins, were spending Sunday afternoon at Grandma’s, our uncle priest offered a shilling to the best behaved child at the tea-table. When, after a tea-time of unusual restraint, the children were told they could leave the table, I was the only one who remained to say my grace – and that, of course, won me the shilling.
The others protested that they too had remembered to say their grace after meals – but quietly, with a less ostentatious sign-of-the-cross. This, however, was apparently not believed. To this day, half a century later, some of my cousins still hold this shilling against me – maintaining that I cunningly planned the whole thing: but it is really not so. I would simply never have thought of eating even a biscuit without saying a grace both before and after.
As my sexual urges developed, I got all my sexual out of contemplating the sufferings of Jesus – the masochism engendered by Christianity, as exemplified in medieval art – but, of course, I would have been horrified had I realised that this had anything to do with feelings associated with parts of the body that one was supposed not to notice.
At that time, never having experienced orgasm in any context other than prayer and religious meditation, I interpreted it as one of the “consolations of religion” – a phrase which I had often come across in the lives of the saints. Indeed, I still think that that is precisely what most of them meant by it. And when those of them who had taken a lifelong vow of chastity wrote in mid-life about “the dark night of the soul”, I think it was really the body they were referring to. Nowadays it is commonplace to say that religious emotions are akin to sexual feelings: but they are not just akin to them – in my experience, they are indistinguishable.
At my secondary school – also a convent – the other pupils laughingly referred to me as “the saint”, though I was fortunate in that my piety did not make me unpopular. Eventually, however, even the nuns told me to spend less time in church and the convent chapel, and more time study. But they played on my masochism, and were always lending me devotional books and pamphlets about the religious vocation. My favourite book for years was the autobiography of St Therèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul – which I now regard as utterly sick, and sickening.
By the time I was fourteen, I had no wish to be anything but a nun – not in a teaching order, but in the Carmelite (enclosed) order. I was already saving up half my pocket-money towards my dowry – and I would gladly have entered at 15, as St Therèse did. But my mother said I must wait until the age of 19 to see if I changed my mind.
She said the same to one of my sisters who, similar to me in temperament, is nine years younger than I – but whereas the Second World War started when I was 16, and I then left school and went out first into the world of work and then into the Women’s Royal Naval Service, my sister, in the post-war years, remained at school until the age of 19, and then went straight from one convent as a pupil into another as a novice, with no time between to change her mind. She is still a nun.
In my last year at school I was awarded the religious knowledge medal by the diocesan inspector because, when he unexpectedly departed from the set catechism questions and asked for a proof of Christ’s divinity, I was the only pupil ready with an answer. To me it was obvious that God would not otherwise have given Jesus the power to perform miracles, since this would mislead people as to his divine claims. It did not occur to me at the time that it was an unproved assumption that the gospel stories were true. And no one pointed this out.
On other occasions, I would ask the nuns quite probing theological questions – but, of course, my teenage naivety was no match for their comparatively sophisticated replies, and so, though generally of a questioning turn of mind, I accepted the Catholic creed in toto. Indeed, in those days of papal authority it had to be all or nothing; and I remember how amazed I was to hear of a Catholic who had given up practising yet had remained a believer in Christianity. For me, there was never any possibility of a halfway house between the Catholic Church and atheism.
At the same time, I must already have begun to fear a loss of faith, for I remember praying daily that this would never happen to me. It took ten more years to complete the process.
At the age of 19, when, at my naval training camp, I found that there was no provision for Catholics to hear Mass on January 1, (the Feast of the Circumcision) or January 6 (the Epiphany), which were then holy days of obligation, I successfully requested special 6 am “liberty boats” for that purpose. How my fellow Catholics must have hated me for forcing them to go out on dark, wet mornings, instead of having another two hours in bed!
A year later I was in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where I served king and country for the next 21 months. There I not only mixed with non-Catholic Christians, with some of whom I used to discuss moral theology, but I also visited Hindu temples and Buddhist shrines, and so widened my perspective on religion. Consequently, by the time I returned home after the war, I was no longer sure I wanted to become a nun, though was still a believer. However, my theological doubts now began to build up, and became more and more insistent.
In confession, I was told that I was suffering from intellectual pride. Who was I to put my puny intellect against the teaching of Holy Mother Church? I saw the force of this argument – especially as there were important Catholic writers I admired, such as G K Chesterton, who, though obviously far more intelligent and learned than I, apparently had no difficulty in accepting doctrines that seemed to me to be irrational and at odds with the world around us.
Now, of course, I realise that many people of undoubted mental ability manage to cling to their supernatural beliefs by keeping them, as it were, in different mental compartments from everyday knowledge, not subjecting them to the same sort of scientific scrutiny of rigorous evidence that they would demand for anything else.
As for the accusation of intellectual pride, surely the boot is on the other foot. Atheists don’t claim to know anything with certainty – it’s the believers who know it all.
At school, we were taught that there is no such thing as an atheist – and to some extent I think the nuns were right in this, because they took the world “atheist” to mean someone who categorically denies the existence of any kind of god. Obviously, it must depend on the definition of the world “god”, which can mean anything from the very human and immoral Old Testament god, Jehovah, to some sort of abstract god, such as Bernard Shaw’s Life Force, or even something as indisputable as the whole of existence. The only objection one can make to that last god-concept is to the confusing use of the word “god” as a synonym for everything.
However, the one function that most gods seem to have in common is to give human existence some ultimate purpose – but, while it is not possible to disprove an ultimate purpose, there is no evidence for it. This is not to say, of course, that there is no purpose in life at all: as well as the collective purposes of human society, we all make our own individual purposes as we go through life. And life does not lose its value simply because it is not going to last for ever.
For most believers, however, the important thing is that death is not the end, either for themselves or for their relationship with close friends who have died. Most of us, probably, would find it comforting at times to believe that – but the fact that a belief is comforting obviously does not make it true. And I suppose, in common with other atheists, I just happen to be the sort of person who cannot derive comfort from a belief that lacks supporting evidence.
In fact, all the evidence is against personal survival of death. It just doesn’t make sense. How could anything that survived the death of the body be the same person?
As for the idea that the universe was deliberately created, which is intended to explain existence, it manifestly fails to do so – for one is still left with the question of God’s existence. It is less complicated to suppose that particles of matter and waves of energy have always existed than to suppose they were made out of nothing by a resourceful being that has always existed.
Besides, the idea of deliberate creation raises the moral problem of all the suffering there is in life, for so many people – and also for animals. I am ashamed, in retrospect, that I ever found it possible to worship the supposed creator of over-reproduction, sentient food, disease, and natural disasters. If I still believed in an omnipotent creator, I would have to heap curses on him – or her, or it. But if there is one thing to be said for this creator-god, it is his evidence non-existence.
In the late 1940s, however, I was still trying to reconcile belief in his existence with the nature of the world around me – of which I had become more aware Remembering from school theology lessons that Thomas Aquinas had said it was possible to come to faith through reason, I thought I would give my faith a boost through reason, stimulated by a course of reading. So I read book after book – mainly books written by Catholic apologists, but some by atheist philosophers too. And the more I read the less I could believe.
Finally, one Saturday morning in November 1949, standing by the philosophy shelves of my local public library, I suddenly said to myself, with a tremendous flood of relief, “I am no longer a Catholic”. And that, for me, meant I was no longer a Christian, or theist of any kind.
After so much mental turmoil, I did not imagine at first that I had really come to the end of it; I expected to go on having doubts – doubts now about my disbelief. But in fact this never happened. I have never for one moment found any reason to suppose that my decision that morning 36 years ago was a mistake.
Cautiously, though, until the mid-1950s, I adopted the label “agnostic” – only to find this was generally misunderstood as meaning that I was still sitting on the theistic fence: a position I had found so painful, and was so relieved to relinquish in 1949. So I began to declare myself an atheist and a humanist – which suited me far better.
That is not to say that I have not sometimes hankered after my old childhood comforter – but it is no more possible for me to go back to believing in a god and a heaven than it is to go back to the belief than an old red-coated gentleman climbs down chimneys with presents on Christmas Eve.
• Barbara’s article first appeared in the January, 1986, edition of the Freethinker. It is included in her anthology of articles she penned for the magazine over a period of five decades. Her 239-page book is entitled Freethoughts and she still has a few copies for sale at £10 post-free. The first item is dated 1966,the last 2002.
If you would like a copy, you can write to her at 51 Farmfield Road, Bromley, Kent BR1 4NF.