I was taught as a child that the Roman Catholic Church was the one true apostolic religious faith in the world. Protestantism certainly wasn’t it, and I assume that the various Jesuit, Franciscan, and secular priests who asserted all this were just as unaccepting of other heresies like Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism, Jainism, Shinto, Baha’i … whatever.
You were lucky to be born Catholic, and God help you if you ever decided that Rome and its legions were anything other than representatives of The True Word of God.
That was good enough for me. My whole family was steeped in the traditions of Catholicism that had been brought across the great water by my great grandparents from Ireland. The Church provided the social glue to us that it had already provided to millions of other itinerant Irish in the United States. While the pub had been for those original immigrant men the place where business was done, the church had been the place where social contacts were established, children were made to be sociable and rules were handed down to them for proper behavior. My grandfathers and my father spent very little time in pubs (much less than I myself was to spend in such places), but the church colored and shaped my upbringing very significantly. I toed the line until I was seventeen years old.
But then a remarkable event took place in my life, something that basically shattered this faithful acceptance of platitude and dogma, which was that I enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley.
I went to the Newman Center frequently during my first year there, the place where young Catholic faithful prepared to be fed the defense of their beliefs by the resident priests. But I also saw that my scrubbed, clean-cut appearance, and that of my fellow Catholic freshmen, was not the only possibility in Berkeley. For one, there were all sorts of slovenly students walking around in beatnik black, with copies of books like The Communist Manifesto in their wrinkled coat pockets. Other books too, like Howl and Other Poems by Alan Ginsberg (which, as it happens, I had already read), Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs and, the most shocking of all, Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. I surveyed the title of this book, which was at the time de rigueur reading for anyone with an anarchist or bohemian soul at the University of California, as it passed by, peeping at me from so many jacket pockets. No one in my teenage circles had ever read such a book, and once I did read it (in secret), I understood why.
At the time I also lived very near the International House at the corner of Bancroft Way and Gayley Road, a student housing complex in which people from all over the world (and particularly from non-European countries) lived and studied. It’s still there. There was a cafeteria in that building that stayed open until very late at night, and I used to go there after studying because they served a remarkable banana cream pie. Over my pie and coffee, I listened in on conversations that amazed me.
Many, of course, were in languages of which I knew not one word. But it was in that cafeteria that I discovered my love of languages and my determination to study some of them. But these students all spoke supreme English as well, and I frequently listened to them talk about the many and various religions that they practiced. Sometimes the students would come from the same tradition, so that I’d hear a table of Malay students from Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, and Singapore talking about their understandings of Islam. Or a few of these same students speaking with a Thai or a Cambodian about the forms of Buddhism practiced in their countries. Or a Mexican Jew and a Jerusalem Catholic debating the very presence of God in such places as Berkeley.
What struck me then was the friendliness with which all these students conversed. Perhaps they too were as unused as I was to speaking with people who did not come from my own religious tradition. But as people of inquiry, they wanted to explore things, and these conversations were part of the search. Because of some of the conversations I myself had at International House, I found the beginnings of the wanderlust that later took me out of the United States and around the world. I have lived in Muslim countries, traveled extensively in poly-religious societies, and written about itinerant Americans living in such places, including those that feature my favorite religious practice of all, the ubiquitous “pagan-animism”, forms of which fuel so many tribal beliefs.
I even got to live in one of these societies when I worked with the Ibans in western Borneo, experiences that I fictionalized in two of my novels, The Day Nothing Happened and The King of Rumah Nadai.
All these experiences, plus conversations I had with various priests throughout my life, took the Catholicism with which I grew up as far from me as it could possibly be. All religious dogma, actually. My own personal experiences in The Church brought me to my eventual understanding that the bright flame of faith is usually subverted and manipulated by clerical self-interest. Rules replace ecstasy. Priest-ridden bureaucracies claim themselves as oracles, and the rank and file are made to hunker down and march in step. All this ensured organized religion’s abolition from my soul many years ago.
But now, religion is at the forefront of political thought around the world, and one of the major problems with that is that terrible weaponry accompanies those religious beliefs. If you think The Thirty Years War was bad, wait until you see what’s coming.
At Berkeley, one of the first things I learned was that religion kills. It didn’t take me too long to discover that. My first survey course in European history proved it as we passed through the Crusades, enjoyed other spirited contests like the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-reformation, conflicts that killed thousands upon thousands. Later, as I read about other histories and other religions, the premise was even further proven. So when I learned the details of the conflict between the Irish and the English, starting with Cromwell’s scorched-earth policies in Ireland, then moving along to the repressions and hypocrisies of the Victorian Irish Catholic Church and finally to the mindless meddling of Protestant men of the cloth like Ian Paisley, that conflict joined the other religious wars in terms of general disreputable villainy.
Putting aside for a moment the basic hypocrisy that war can be waged in the name of the Prince of Peace or some such, there is also the fact that all organized religions are based on simple myth, on stories that tell of the birth of the universe, the sun and the stars, land, water, animals, birds, greenery. If you read Carl Gustav Jung and Joseph Campbell, you find that really there is just one set of myths worldwide and that differences in religious belief are simply regional variations on those myths. So it seems obvious to me that much waste, buffoonery and murder has been visited upon the world in the belief that one variation on the myth is somehow the only variation … the One True Faith, The Word of God.Powered by Sidelines