I came across this passage today from my interview with one of my humanist, atheist and agnostic oral-history respondents, Julia Stuart from Dundee:
“What I wonder about now is how children, really me, how can you believe this indoctrination god thing, and yet at the same time, one of uncles was a great Marvel Comics fan, and I loved all that. The Superman, the heroes, loved it all. But how do we decide that the god thing is ‘real’, but we know that Superman ain’t? So I wondered how you decided that as a child – why you kept on believing in the dogma but you knew that Superman was play?”
I found this very striking – on two levels.
First, Julia was describing a common feeling amongst the 80 people I have interviewed – the sensation of disquiet they had at their own credulity as children to religious education at school and what they often regarded as indoctrination in church and in the home. They seem to be saying to me: “How could I have been so gullible back then, knowing what I know now?” The interviews give a sense of anger at the waste of time, of emotional energy, of stress and anxiety as children or teenagers, and, for those who didn’t spring out of until later in life, there is even great self-criticism at the loss of too much of their lives.
Second, there is an issue here about how the researcher approaches childhood religious change – both conversion and de-conversion, or plain rejection of organised religion in middle youth. How does the child come to know that god-belief must be treated in a different category from consumption of other forms of culture such as comics or television drama? How is the category of ‘religion’ formed in a child’s mind? What transition do we go through to understand this category, and then to adopt a personal position on it? And what makes belief in one form of story distinct from mere enjoyment of another form?