For most of my life I’ve quietly been a non-believer and it always amazes me how adults continue to believe in the creation and other stories that their religions narrate. While I still respect the choice that religious people make to believe in something as intangible, abstract and incredible as an omnipotent being that created everything from scratch, it would be less farfetched to worship the big bang. However, when you think about how children are conditioned and encouraged in very clever ways to follow the footsteps of their parents or government into a given religion, it’s not hard to understand why religious beliefs are so embedded into the minds of almost all human beings.
Recently a client mentioned to me how fortunate she felt because she had never been indoctrinated into any religious belief system as a child. I felt so pleased for her, because she had never been forced to participate in such an incarceration of the mind. I reflected on my own catholic upbringing that was filled with conditioning by experts. My earliest memory of being punished was when I was three years old. I had just returned from having attended church for the first time without my mother. Our neighbor, a staunch religious woman, had caught me “sweeping the floor” with my nose, and advised my mother to punish me immediately with a spanking. My mother questioned this advice but, because she was being pressured by one of her peers, duly spanked me for my irreverence. Even though I protested that all I had been doing was counting the boots of the people in the row in front of us!
After learning that I was to do everything exactly as everyone else did while in the house of cards, I became an observer. I used to watch everyone as they entered the church: walking up to the basin of holy water, dipping their finger in and genuflecting down on one knee as they crossed themselves with the blessed liquid. Everyone was so serious, all dressed up in their finery. If a young girl forgot to wear a hat or scarf over her head, a helpful mother would kindly provide her with a Kleenex and bobby pin to ensure her respectful appearance.
One Sunday there was an unexpected transition from the normal solemn mood of the mass. The organist, who happened to have been my first grade teacher, suddenly stood up while playing one of the livelier tunes that she usually played with such reverence. As she stood up, she looked around as though she was expecting everyone’s admiration. My mother who led the choir looked at her with some surprise. As the weeks went by, the organist continued to stand, then even smile and move in rhythm with the music as the pressure for attention mounted. To everyone’s relief, the poor woman was soon replaced, so that the somber monotony could resume.
It was around that time, when I was about 12 years old, that my mother announced that I was going to be able to take piano lessons. I was ecstatic at the prospect of finally learning to play the big old upright that stood in our dining room. Some of my older five sisters had started lessons, but never seemed to stay with it. For two and a half years, I was the happiest person around. I practiced piano every day before dinner, but was among the shiest of all pianists. When my mother brought company over and asked me to play, I would agree only if they all sat in the other room. I was so happy that I didn’t have to take lessons at the convent, where tales of yardsticks as weapons were wielded on faulty fingers. When I won first place at a regional piano competition, I was both proud and relieved because they had allowed me to focus while I played facing a wall.
However, soon my musical elation would be thoroughly quashed as religion interfered. One day as I was getting money for the bus to go to my weekly lesson, my mother mentioned that I could soon start learning to play the organ at the church. I looked at her with incredulity. My immediate response was: “Then I’ll quit!” To which my mother responded: “You’ll regret it!” I felt threatened and came back with: “I might regret it, but I’ll never play the organ at church!” I knew only too well how many hours had to be spent playing at the church while the choir practiced. And who would always be popping in to see the ladies but the depraved priest that had raped me a few years earlier! Even more troubling was when the priest accepted my mother’s invitation to dinner that Easter. It was difficult to sit across the table from that man, knowing that he was held under such esteem by my mother, while I was still under his threat not to tell or my family would be punished.
Although music and religion have intertwined since ancient times, from when temples were built to maximize the impact of sounds and song to when many musical artists attribute their talents to early song worship, religion always strikes a sour chord for me. It brought me nothing but grief as a child and continuously presents divisiveness on our planet. In a world where freedom is of concern to us all, what about the religious freedom of children? Despite all the physical and psychological efforts by the religious conditioners in my early life, I’m glad that I was able to see through the hypocrisy and rationally decide for myself about the notion of God.
On the positive side, my experience set me on a spiritual search for meaning in my life. It wasn’t until I started working with my spirit that I finally understood that the ultimate goal of every human should be to personally attain harmony with their spirit.