I never had any formal religious instruction as a kid. My folks were Catholic and they took me to church for a while, till I was five or so, but the Mass was tedious and I was disruptive, and anyway by then we started spending our weekends camping. There was also the fact that I was nervous, superstitious kid whose imagination easily and frequently ran away with him, so my mother – probably sensibly – decided that Catholic catechism was probably something I could wait a while to engage (as it turns out, about thirty years).
So in fact my religious education came in a much more casual and modern form. There wasn't much on TV on Sunday mornings in those days and so while my folks were upstairs in the kitchen, I'd be down in the family room, scribbling away on my homemade comics and stories, while Protestant televangelists beamed up out of Maine to fascinate, indoctrinate, and terrify me. It wasn't the fire-and-brimstone stuff that became fashionable in the 80s; back in the 70s, the stuff I was watching, at least, was more temperate. But it was just as unequivocal. I was persuaded that extramarital sex, rock music, abortion, divorce, and a host of other things in life weren't simply unfortunate choices, but were necessarily evil (obviously, since I've singled them out, I've since softened or entirely reversed my views on most of these). Those who believed would go to Heaven; those who did not, no matter how good they were (Jews, Muslims, and others non-believers) would not; something that struck me as unfair and, somehow, ungodly, even as a child; a conviction I never outgrew. It was a black and white world with no room for nuance or question. And it haunted me for years because it was at odds with the world around me, and even the views of my parents, who were moderately liberal.
My parents were always big readers and there were always books around the house. They read to me, subscribed to monthly book plans, and purchased a set of encyclopedias for me in anticipation of my birth. I always lit up with an interest in science. I was also fortunate that I had a school environment where getting into books and science was not looked down upon; in fact, quite the opposite. I distinctly remember that in grade three, a man wasn't a man (in elementary school terms) if he didn't have his copy of Scholastic Books' In the Days of the Dinosaurs. Recess on inclement days involved little cliques of the boys sitting around on the carpet, recreating long-dead giants out of plasticine and dreaming of a lost age. (At that age, who knew or cared what the girls did?)
A lost age, that is, that school told me was real, but religion insisted was not. For a year or two I was in a strange limbo. The world was telling me there were two realities, and they were bridged by the fact that pretty much every adult I knew, and the culture in general, agreed there was a God. God seemed to be the nexus of these two versions of what was real; the fulcrum of some existential seesaw.
I guess I was ten when I got hold of a book I still have. I actually ink-stamped the date on the cover. It's smudged now but it was definitely sometime in September, 1978. It was one of those How and Why books; thin little magazine-sized paperbacks on topics of science and history that, at the time, would set a young inquirer back 79¢. I must have had two dozen of them at one time. What I distinctly remember about acquiring them was how easy it seemed to be to drum up the first six bits... but how strangely difficult it seemed to manage to get hold of those last four cents! But the book in question was called Primitive Man, and it was a wholesale revelation to me. It was my first real exposure to the idea of, and mechanism behind, evolution. That it applied to me, that it made my heritage unimaginably deep and rich, was a powerful idea to me. Thrilling. But maybe most important of all, there was a short section that dealt, very succinctly and tactfully, with the thorny question of religion. The book said that if God created the universe, then evolution was his plan, and it was a beautiful and elegant plan. I think that was the first time I had ever heard the explicit suggestion that religion and science were not mutually-exclusive, and suddenly the fact that adults I knew could accept the things of science and God at the same time. Maybe the preachers were wrong, at least about some things.
And so what was the place of religion in all this? It's surprising to me now that I was thinking along these lines, though I guess everyone at that age must, but I was trying to understand the dynamics of souls and minds, spirits and bodies. I tried to look at it from what I thought was a scientific point of view, though now I can see it was just self-satisfying philosophizing with abstract concepts. By that age, I understood that humans were animals... or rather, I would have said, something like animals; clearly, in terms of our bodies, we were the same kind of thing as dogs and horses, cats and monkeys, and even bugs. But obviously we were something more; we had fire and could talk and we wore clothes and drove cars and flew airplanes across the oceans and had nuclear bombs and went to the moon. Nobody else did those things; nobody else even came close. And why did we have two words, spirit and soul? So I eventually concluded that they had different functions, and the hypothesis went like this: bodies were alive while they had a spirit. This was true of humans and animals. But a spirit wasn't identity; it was more like some sort of supernatural permission or prerequisite to being alive. When you died, it went away, and returned to some sort of pool of spiritual energy to be recycled. But the soul was identity. It was permanent, and it was either a piece of God or something specially made by God. It was you. It used your brain to think and do things, in the same way, I decided, that a computer program runs on the hardware of a computer (yes, we did have computers in the 1970s, just not in every home yet). And when you died, it stayed you. It was what made humans different from all the other creatures. I had no proof of any of this, and I was faintly aware it didn't quite dovetail with the general ideas of Christian thought around me, but I liked what I'd come up with and it satisfied me for a long time.
Eventually I started spotting the flaws in my comfortable arrangement, though. If a soul needed a brain in order to think, then what happened when you died and it left the body? How could it think or know anymore? Wouldn't it become just like a computer program without any computer to run it; just a static piece of paper or an old reel of magnetic tape that sat around collecting dust and accomplishing nothing? But if a soul could think and know things without a brain, then what did it need to ever be in a body for in the first place? And why did people who got head injuries sometimes stop being quite fully human (as I saw it at the time)? How could they lose parts of themselves if "they" weren't the brain that was injured, but the soul that could not be damaged by any physical force?
There were other things, too. The older I got, the more science, and even my own observations, seemed to be finding similarities between us and the other animals, and I began to understand that we really were animals, like the rest, but particularly better than most of them at certain things. But still, I could see that dogs and cats could think, work things out. I used to tease our spaniel by pretending to throw a ball, and eventually he stopped falling for it. So convinced did he get that my attempting to psyche him out was the norm that it got to the point that he'd be surprised when I did throw the ball. But he never hesitated when my dad threw the ball, because my dad always did. And I realized not only had our dog figured out that I was jerking him around, but that I, in particular, as an individual being, was a little jerk. He hadn't just figured out my trick, he'd figured out me. And when I realized that, I understood that our dog was a person, like me, in many if not most respects. Sure, he didn't make fire or read books, but suddenly things like that seemed like just "human" icing on a much bigger and more fundamental "higher animals" cake. In the end, how could I say that someone who could fake throwing a ball had some kind of soul, but someone else who could not only figure that out but reach the conclusion that the guy routinely pulling it was habitually unreliable, didn't have a soul? Ultimately, I had to abandon my proud thesis on souls, brains, spirits, and whatnot.
It was around this time that Cosmos aired on PBS. I think more than any other single person, Carl Sagan unfolded my mind. Cosmos was packed with, as Sagan himself characterized his childhood realization that "the stars were suns, but very far away; the sun was a star, but close up" (facts long known to me by the time Cosmos aired), 'very big thoughts'. I think the most astonishing, on a personal level, was the idea that every atom in my body that wasn't hydrogen was, necessarily, created by fusion inside a star, and that the only reason I had those atoms was that the stars they had once been part of had blown themselves up (indeed, that any element beyond iron actually has to be forged during that supernova explosion itself), and scattered those atoms across space, billions of years before the Earth (itself made up of that debris) had ever existed. Sagan passed along more 'big thoughts' to me on matters of evolution, the history of science, and the physical nature of the universe; the most profound for me being "we are a way for the cosmos to know itself". Nothing before or since has ever made me feel as deeply and fundamentally connected to all the rest of the universe as that one simple sentence. The book spawned by the series cost me about thirteen dollars and was the first hardcover book I ever bought for myself. If could pass just two things along to some future generation to restart civilization, one would be Cosmos, and the other would be the English language by which to understand it.
Cosmos, I think, formed the first solid foundation for my skepticism in the supernatural. I also remember being further illuminated in my mid-teens by Desmond Morris's Manwatching, which used comparative anatomy and baviourism as everyday observable evidences for evolution and the relatedness of all life on Earth, and, around the time I started university, by Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker, which elegantly and clearly explained how natural selection works.
I held on, though, to the idea that we were somehow more than physical beings, and for a while in my teens it pleased me to consider reincarnation: that we are put here by God, or perhaps are even little nodes of godhood, that are born, learn, die, and are reborn again and again, gaining wisdom and experience both as individuals and collectively in our trips "home" between sojourns into this realm of material bodies. But I could never quite convince myself. There were always little nagging doubts, the pinpricks of logic that would not leave me alone and I could not ignore. If souls were bits of God, what was the point of having to experience things in a physical universe? An omniscient god would, by definition, already know everything before the first day of "universe school" ever began. If souls are just individual beings accumulating knowledge and insight through myriad lifetimes, what was the ultimate point of the exercise; that is, to what end were we going through all this? And why did we lose all sense of identity from past lives every time we began a new one, instead of building on that supposedly crucial experience already acquired? It struck me as pointless as going to sleep and, every morning, waking up to have to learn to walk, speak English, dress yourself, and learn to add, etc., etc., etc., all over again. And if souls were infused into the body at conception, what was to be learned from the untold times each of us is a blastocyst that fails to implant in the womb, or is stillborn, or dies in the first weeks of infancy (questions that trouble me even without — in fact, especially without — recourse to reincarnation)? So otherwise as pleasing as it was, I came to the conclusion it was a hollow notion that didn't ring true for me.
I suppose by then I was effectively an atheist; there didn't seem to be much reality to concepts of a deity, or a lot of need for one to explain the world anymore. There were still those old yearnings for immortality, for unconditional love (which, even as a child, seemed oddly conditionally-unconditional in Christian theology), for a thirst for justice for those who caused great harm and seemed to get away with it unpunished in the grave. Whatever lingering theistic cravings I had hung on those.
In my early 30s, I acquired my Irish citizenship by foreign birth registration and part of that was an attendant renewed interest in my Catholic heritage (despite the fact that five of my great-grandparents were, in fact, Protestant). I had never become a fully communicant member of the Church and it felt faintly like something I ought to complete. At the same time, the one-two punches of the loss of a beloved pet and the news that a dear friend was dying, far, far too young of cancer, sent me looking for that spiritual anchor I'd long wondered about. I signed up for adult catechism at my local parish. I saw it through, received the sacraments, and began attending. Things had changed for me since childhood. The Mass was no longer tedious. I enjoyed the ceremony, and it gave me a certain solace and a feeling of community. I even had a Mass said for my friend suffering from cancer. Oddly enough, he didn't understand what I was doing or why. Despite what he was facing, he remained a convinced materialist who understood, a young man in his mid-20s, that he was going to die, that nothing of 'him' was going to survive that death, and that he had much pain and fear ahead. His bravery and his ability to focus on his family and friends and the things he enjoyed were object lessons to me. I quietly drifted away from attending Mass after he died, and though I've been back a few times since, it's been for experience of the ceremony rather than any sincere conviction in the reality of it. And when I do attend, I no longer take communion, out of respect for those for whom the sacrament is at the heart of what they believe.
I guess I'm no longer looking for souls. It's hard; we're wired to want to survive and the idea that, ultimately, we don't, is a hard one to accept. But I can't deny the fact that there's no real evidence to believe otherwise. But there's still solace and wonder in the fact that we, each of us who does exist, or ever has, or ever will, partake anew in the universe's unceasing arising to consciousness and subsequent self-discovery. Every time a child learns about gravity watching raindrops slither down a window pane, or a cat marvels at how the red dot of laser light instantly gets on top of his paw from underneath it, or a raccoon works out how to get at the pizza crusts in your "locked" garbage can, we are, literally, watching the universe discovering and exploring itself, again and again and again. Recently on YouTube, a series of videos called "Symphony of Science" has appeared, making use of clips and quotes from famous popularizers of science; the quotes shaped into song by the only worthwhile use of AutoTune I'm aware of since Cher's Life After Love. A quote by Richard Dawkins in one of the pieces nicely puts a fine point on things for me at this stage in my spiritual evolution: "Matter flows from place to place, and momentarily comes together to become you. Some people find that thought disturbing. I find the reality thrilling."