Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Religion of My Youth

I`m a child of the 80s, as you might be able to notice by looking at my obsessions on this here blog. I grew up in what you could rougly call the "Greater Toronto Area" - not in Toronto, but near enough to consider the Maple Leafs the 'home team', anyway.

Now I never had any reason when I was a kid to believe that my religious beliefs or religious upbringings were in any way 'out of the ordinary' - so even though that Canadian secularism extends so thoroughly even to ten-year-olds that I don't actually know what the religious beliefs of my friends were back then (even my best of friends), I can take a stab at it. This is more or less what seemed 'normal' to me back then.

We weren't Christians, really. I think if you'd pinned down any of my friends back then and asked what religion they were, most would probably shrug and say, "Christian", or some subcategory (Catholic, Protestant, or one of the many baffling sub-sub-categories there: Presbyterian, United, whatever). I suppose I had a vague sense of my own taxonomical classification there: Christian, then Protestant, then... well, my father called himself United and my mother called herself Baptist. I can recall at different times having both of those labels affixed to me. None of it meant a single thing - no one in my family could explain what made a Baptist different from a United. Or any of those others. Catholic is what my aunt's husband was. Catholic people had a different school they might go to and perhaps they spoke French. They were all labels, that's all.

When I say, "We weren't Christians", I mean a few things. I heard the name Jesus enough when I was a kid, but it was always pretty vague. I had a good idea of what God was, and there was a decent amount of God talk, but Jesus seemed like a rather minor adjunct - like, say, Robin to God's Batman, or John Oates to God's Daryl Hall. Certainly the idea that Jesus was God seemed pretty remote - I'd heard it, but God had a white beard and Jesus had long brown hair, so obviously not.

Furthermore, we all seemed, more or less, to believe in Heaven. Hell was a bit dodgier - it seemed that Hell existed, but it was pretty much empty except for, well, Adolf Hitler and... well, other Nazis. The really, really bad Nazis. Never in my entire upbringing did I even once hear the idea expressed that only Christians went to Hell - and certainly not that the only determining factor regarding who went to Heaven and who went to Hell was who was Christian. I repeat - not once in all of my youth did I hear that idea.

I guess 'universalist' is what everyone was, more or less. It seemed like pretty much everone would go to Heaven. There was this sense that Heaven was another place - up there somewhere - where you would still live with your family and kind of carry on as you had done, except dead. Or an angel or whatever. Harp and wings strictly optional. Heaven was where your grandparents lived. Well, my grandparents lived in the Lawrence Heights housing projects at Lawrence and Allen Road... but that's frequently mistaken for Heaven.

And we were certainly all aware that there was such a thing as a Bible - some kids (none I knew personally, but they existed) went to school on Sunday just to learn about it. It was filled with stories we all vaguely knew - there was some guy and a whale, there was God parting a sea. Adam and Eve was a particularly cool one, involving a snake somehow. There was also a rabbit and a turtle who had a race with each other...

Or wait. Slight confusion of the source material. It didn't matter very much, though, because Aesop and the Bible were similar things: cool stories from days long gone by that were certainly nothing more that stories. if anyone told me that Jonah and the Whale differed from the Fox and the Grapes by being absolutely true and that anyone who questions its truth is going to go to Hell... well, I think most of us woudl have dismissed such a person as simple.

It's interesting in retrospect looking back on those days. Canada is seen as a majority Christian country, more in line with the USA than with Europe. But by any useful definition of 'Christian', I'm not sure if I knew a single one growing up. Well, I did know one, one who could actually cite Bible quotations by book and verse. But that person was very clearly a minority, and seemed very, very alien to the rest of us. Whatever statistics-gathering organisations would have labelled both that kid and me as 'Christian' was making a category that had no practical meaning at all.

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