My earliest memory of a church service involves a trip to visit relatives, and I started discovering how different from others I was at a very young age. This is one of the episodes which played a major role in that discovery.
I was only four of five years old, and had already developed an intense hatred of being bored. Ignoring the sermon seemed like an even more boring prospect that actually paying attention to it, so I consciously chose the latter, which I’ve observed is often not the choice young children make.
This church’s denomination is one of those that teaches that drinking alcohol is sinful. They are also Biblical literalists. This, of course, poses a problem, for there is a lot of drinking of wine to be found in the Bible. This preacher didn’t avoid the contradiction, though. His task, that Sunday morning, was to deal with it head-on, and he did so with the following claim: when Jesus, his disciples, and numerous other people from the Bible are described as drinking wine, that wine actually contained no alcohol. It was not wine as we know it today. It was, rather, merely “strong grape juice.” Those were his exact words.
Even at that young age, I had already started working on building, in my own mind, the best crap detector I could possibly create. (Improving it is still something I work on today.) I didn’t yet realize that real wine would be far safer, before refrigeration existed, than grape juice, simply because alcohol, at the concentrations found in wine, kills lots of disease-causing bacteria. However, that morning, I had learned enough to instantly recognize this “strong grape juice” claim as absolute crap.
Dismissing the preacher as not worthy of further attention, I stood up in our pew, and turned around to face the back of the church. We were sitting near the front, so this let me see most of the congregation. I didn’t need to speak to them — I just wanted to look at them. I remember being stunned by what I saw. Nearly everyone appeared quite attentive to the sermon. Some mouths were half-open, and numerous heads were nodding in agreement with the preacher’s droning nonsense. I figured it out: they were actually accepting what this man was saying as the truth, and were doing so without question! They believed him! At first, I felt dizzy, and then, later, I felt sick. The more I thought about the experience, the worse I felt, and I could think about nothing else for a long time after that church service finally ended.
I’d been exposed to religion many times before, but it always seemed to me that adults didn’t really believe what they were saying, any more than when they told children my age about the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus. At that moment, though, I realized I had been mistaken. This was no act. These people, in that church that day, actually believed what they were told. Why? I didn’t know. I still don’t. If that man told them that two plus two equals six, would they believe that? I suspected they would.
I was surrounded by a herd of sheep. That moment of clarity, when I realized this fact, scared me. It made me wonder, and not for the last nor first time, if I had been secretly planted on earth by aliens, as a baby, and without a guidebook.
This is only one of many experiences that convinced me of the importance of skepticism. The fact that it is so clear, in my memory, leads me to think it was one of the more important of those experiences. It cemented, in my mind, a scary truth: the world is infested with large numbers of incredibly gullible, deluded people. They weren’t like me. I didn’t understand them. They were everywhere. I wasn’t anything like them, and didn’t want to be, either. I was, however, stuck here with them.
I was stranded on the wrong planet, with no prospect for escape, any time soon. That was over forty years ago, and I’m still here.