Monday, June 25, 2012

Help Yourself To My Milk If You Must, But Keep Your Grubby Mitts Off My Dinosaurs

It's funny how a minor incident, such as this one I wrote about recently, can expand within your mind when you're young, becoming, in the long run, a not-so-minor incident after all. Here's another one, a moment so fleeting that I doubt it filled an entire minute, but its repercussions lasted a lifetime.

There are two important pieces of background information crucial to understanding this story. The first is my religious background. My mother came from a more traditional, stricter Irish Catholic family than my father's. He was more passive in our early exposure to religion as a result. (UPDATE: I have edited this paragraph to remove some spurious information.)

The first big blow to my eldest siblings' attitudes towards religion was that they ended up having a traumatic experience in the Chicago parochial schools to which they were sent. Like totally evil nuns, horror stories which are not mine to tell, etc. When we moved to Arizona, we all attended public schools. We still went to Catholic church every Sunday, but the church in Tucson was... different, less stern, more liberal. This was the early 70s, after all: my earliest church memories contain neither fire nor brimstone, but felt banners with doves and daisies and, oh no, folk mass, which made me hate Bob Dylan forever. To me it was boring and, worse, corny. It never held even the slightest appeal to me. One by one, each of my siblings dropped out of church activities, and since I was a bit of a caboose baby, by the time my mother made a last-ditch attempt to get me to go through confirmation, my brother and sisters openly derided her "indoctrination" efforts as I rolled my eyes. Poor Mom! I'll give her credit: she was never, ever overbearing or mean with her religious guidance. Perhaps this prevented her guidance from being effective, but at least it left no scars. She ceded without much drama.

The other piece of background information is this: I am so into Dinosaurs! Endlessly fascinated! My first exposure came in first grade, when I found a book about Dinosaurs in my school's library and became instantly hooked, utterly beguiled and awestruck by these crazy monster animals. Soon enough, I found more books featuring prehistoric beasts in my father's library (I grew up thinking all houses featured a room called "the Library."). I'd stare for hours at reproductions of the famous Yale Peabody Museum dinosaur mural (see above), or at the Life Nature Library "The Reptiles" and "Evolution" volumes. I think I was in fourth or fifth grade when I started seriously cross-referencing what I was learning from science and what I was learning from religion, and the former was winning out in every way. Religion was boring and corny; astronomy and paleontology were thrilling! I had come to a fork in the road.

I never would have guessed it would be Rolf (not his real name, but that's his picture up top), of all people, who would inadvertently show me which path to choose. I believe this was in sixth grade. Rolf lived in my neighborhood, a new kid I think. He was kind of marginally accepted by my circle of friends, but seemed a little off, a little hot-headed and violent. I liked him OK, but remained wary. One day after school, Rolf sort of tagged along to my house; I guess he was bored and didn't have anyone else to hang out with. I remember thinking that I didn't know him that well, and wasn't all that comfortable having him in the house, and didn't know what to talk about, so I brought up dinosaurs in some context or another. And then Rolf did two simultaneous things which blew my mind.

First, he marched over, uninvited, to the refrigerator, opened the door, and grabbed a milk carton and drank right from it! Let me tell you, manners were very important in my family, and this was shocking, incredible behavior to me. Second, as he was doing this, he stated, "There's no such thing as dinosaurs."

"W-what?" I stammered.

"There never were any dinosaurs," he replied.

"What about fossils," I asked, probably with my hands on my hips.

"Fossils were put on the earth by the devil to fool man," he said matter-of-factly.

Oh wow. wow, wow, wow. Really? It cascaded through my brain, and I'm convinced to this day that several crucial synapses were connected and completed at that moment. I think I quizzed Rolf a little about the source of this belief, and he said that his family was 7th Day Adventist, and that they believed the universe was young, just like Genesis said, and that Noah's ark was real and there weren't no dinosaurs on Noah's ark, etc.

And that's the day I decided the Bible was totally, irretrievably stupid, a wrong old corny fairy tale with a dud ending.

Not good enough.

I asked my parents about Rolf's views, and they basically laughed it off as ridiculous, nutty fundamentalism. My father explained that "most people" didn't really believe that Genesis was literally true, but that it was allegorical. It really bugged me, though. How could people believe such things? And how could you tell which parts of the Bible were "allegorical" and which were true? If one big chunk of it was a fairy tale, what did that say about the rest of it? Frankly, I decided the answer was too boring to pursue.

Meanwhile, my dinosaur passion continued unabated. New dinosaurs were discovered all the time, and they weren't allegorical. They were real. I could go to the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show and see their remains right there in front of me!

A little later, in junior high, after a few years "off" from religious indoctrination, my mother made a last-ditch effort to get me confirmed as a Catholic and back I went to Sunday school, which was actually on Wednesday evening, and I was pissed. I thought this had been settled. In class, I was bored and obviously reluctant to be there. Unlike the ones my brother and sisters endured, the nuns who taught my classes were really nice, which didn't make it easier. The classes were mostly about Jesus' love, etc., but I kept trying to bring it back to the Old Testament, about things I thought were ridiculous, like Noah's Ark and the Garden of Eden. The nuns didn't really like talking about the Old Testament, and they, too, tried trotting out the "allegory" excuse, albeit in a more timid "Let's talk about Jesus again, instead" way than my father. Finally, though, something clicked, and I challenged the nun:

"So, you're saying that we can think of the Old Testament as allegorical, but not the New Testament."

"Yes, I suppose so."

"Well, I don't think the story of Adam and Eve can possibly be true. There's too much evidence against it."

"If it makes you more comfortable to think of it as a story, Peter, then that is your choice."

"But if Adam and Eve is just a story, then "original sin" is just a story, too."

"Uh... well...."

"Do YOU believe all the Bible is true?"

"Yes!" she replied, indignant.

"So if everybody gets to pick and choose which parts of the Bible they think are literally true...."

That was usually the point when the nun would tire of my obstruction, and she'd change the subject and we'd move along to some other sappy Jesus platitude illustrated with felt doves 'n' daisies. For this I was missing Charlie's Angels!

I had figured it out: if Adam and Eve was a fairy tale, then so was "original sin." And if that was a fairy tale, then so was Jesus' supposed sacrifice: he died on the cross for an allegory. It was only logical. Or, rather, illogical. The whole thing fell like a house of cards. And even though my parents implied, in response to my question about Rolf's creationist beliefs, that Catholicism was a "normal" religion, while 7th Day Adventism was a "weird" one, the nun at my class made it clear that Catholicism was only as normal as you made it, and that it was, as its core, just as weird and stupid as any other ancient belief.

I can still picture Rolf standing there in my kitchen, as clear as if it had happened yesterday, drinking milk straight from the carton and decrying dinosaurs as tools of Satan (see above), and from that day on I conflated religious belief of any kind, sincere or not, with rudeness and stupidity.

It's almost as if Jesus and a Tyrannosaurus Rex had a duel in my brain, and the T-Rex won. It sounds like just about the best episode of The Flintstones ever.


nixiebunny said...

That's a great introduction to religion. That Rolf sure made it easy for you!

I remember a certain high school student teacher who was unable to see the illogic when asserting the absolute silliness of the Greek god myths and the compelling truth of the Judeo-Christian god myth. But it was a public school, so she was ignored.

I had all that stuff figured out from the get-go when I told my parents that God didn't make any sense after receiving my first New Testament at the age of five. They had the good sense to not argue with me about it. Heck, my mom converted to atheism about 20 years back.

Peteykins said...

It's so weird to realize it, but I really do think that dumb ol' "Rolf" actually helped my brain grow, like, a lot!

Matty Boy said...

My family were not church goers. My grandma had a falling out with the Catholic Church when my dad was in grade school, so I missed any family attempts at indoctrination.

I did have a neighbor lady tell me dinosaurs were created by Satan when I was five, and this bothered me. I went to my dad for guidance. His view was that the big selling point of religion was they would tell you what happened when you died. Though not an exact quote, he said something to the effect of this.

"No one knows for sure what happens when you die. If anyone says they do, pretty soon after they tell you they will ask for money."

I made some attempts at being religious in my life, but my dad's indoctrination into faith in stunningly accurate cynicism has pretty much held onto me for about a half century now.

p.s. I loved the books you loved when I was a kid, by the way. Time-Life Science Library was fantastic stuff and dinosaur picture books with those great paintings were awesome then and they still are.

Amy said...

Ha! The dinosaur thing was the big nail in the coffin for my childhood religion too. I still remember the moment when the nice Sunday School teacher said there was no such thing as evolution and my little jaw hit the floor. I was a big science nerd as a kid. But I was raised Christian Scientist, so the explanation was something about how all matter is an illusion. I could explain, but just thinking about it makes my head hurt.
Later in life, I managed to become a born-again Christian anyway. A born-again pro-choice social-libertarian Christian who believes in dinosaurs (and angels and demons) and supports gay marriage and socialized medicine. It's almost as if I have a subconscious pathological need to not fit in, anywhere.

I'll close with a nun joke OK?

Four nuns are standing in line at the gates of heaven. Peter asks the first if she has ever sinned.

"Well, once I looked at a man's penis," she said.

"Put some of this holy water on your eyes and you may enter heaven," Peter told her.

He then asked the second nun if she had ever sinned.

"Well, once I held a man's penis," she replied. "Put your hand in this holy water and you may enter heaven," he said.

Just then the fourth nun pushed ahead of the third nun.

"Why did you push ahead in line?" asked Peter.

"Because I want to gargle before she sits in it!" replied the nun.

The Cat's Meow said...


My first reaction was, "I had a grandmother like that." Except that my parents' marriage was similarly mixed, but German-Catholic, not Irish-Catholic, and la-de-da Protestant, and my mother declined to raise me and my brother Catholic because she'd divorced somebody to marry my dad, hence the fact that "I had a grandmother like that."

My second reaction was, why did you choose as the milk-drinker's alter ego the name of the telegram delivery boy who went over to the Nazis in "The Sound of Music"? Because there are some of us to whom traditional Broadway musicals are The Bible. Just curious.

My third reaction was, how did I manage to escape all this "evolution is the work of the devil" stuff when I was growing up? I never heard of this crap until Sarah Palin and the teabaggers took over the Republican Party.

My final reaction was, Matty Boy, that line about being asked for money is just hilarious.

Flying Spaghetti Monster said...

"too boring to pursue" LOL.
You speak TRUTH!!!!!

Peteykins said...

Haw, Amy, that's an outstanding nun joke. Thanks for the good comment.

Cat's Meow: His real name was a very common German name which nevertheless stuck out as "exotic" in the land of Jeffs, Scotts, and Lisas, so it was either going to be "Rolf" or "Hans." There's no more to it than that.

The Cat's Meow said...

Okay, just checking. Not that you need someone, older and wiser, telling you what to do.

Eric said...

When I was maybe 12 or 13 my Dad kind of tricked me into chopping wood for our fireplace by telling me that he would pay me something like $40 for a cord (I still don't know if that was a good deal or not). So I set about splitting wood from a felled tree out behind my Great Grandmothers place getting blisters the size of quarters on both hands, the day just happened to be a Sunday. Long after noon my Grandmother and Grandfather came by to visit and my Grandmother said what I thought to be the most peculiar thing "This is Sunday, the Lords day, and you are NOT supposed to be working. Just what are you going to do for the Lord?" I was so baffled by this I just stared as if the words were of some foreign language. My Grandfather, without missing a beat said "Aw hell Ruth, let the Lord chop his own damn wood!" I have always been grateful to him for diffusing a very uncomfortable situation for me and for planting the idea in my mind, however subtly, that religion and its tenets are as open to questioning as anything else in this world. What finally killed religion for me was all of the unanswered (or perhaps inadequately answered) questions.

Because I said so is a bullys answer.

Mr Bad Trash said...

I also missed the fossils-were-planted-by-the-devil concept until I was well into my 20's, by which point it was merely another grain of sand on the broad beach of delusions. Church bored me, and I couldn't look the adults there in the eye, certain they could see my lack of faith written all over my face. The whole basis seemed to be missing the proof my rational little brain craved. Surely, someone knew SOMEthing, but as the mysteries of the adult world unfolded, no hard facts emerged, and religion just looked more and more flimsy.

Though my mom led youth groups at church in the 70's, infecting minds with notions of feminism and divorce, her faith always held strong. And she never tired of joking that her youngest son had a fairy godfather.

Thanks for the post!

Anonymous said...

"That was usually the point when the nun would tire of my obstruction, and she'd change the subject and we'd move along to some other sappy Jesus platitude illustrated with felt doves 'n' daisies. For this I was missing Charlie's Angels!”

Great Quote.. I think there should be a public debate match on which is a better religion, Christianity or “Charlie’s Angels”..

Peteykins said...

I miss your mom, Mr. Bad Trash. What a warm and kind woman she was.

sfmike said...

Boring and corny were my childhood and adolescent impressions of Christianity too. And my reaction to "folk masses" were probably even more aesthetically violent than yours. Zefferelli's "Brother Son, Sister Moon" with music by Donovan still haunts my nightmares.

It sounds like we were both lucky in our parents. My mother was a devout Spanish Catholic until she was told by an ignorant priest to practice self control rather than birth control, and after that we were Episcopalians or Presbyterians or whatever. My father wasn't raised with religion but he had a big spiritual crisis after he left my mother and ended up with an East Indian guru.

The punch line is that when they woke me one Sunday morning when I was about 11 and told me it was time to go to Sunday School, I told them, "I don't believe in that stuff. Please don't make me go." and their response was, "Okay." and that was that.

HRH King Friday XIII, Ret. said...

If Satan really wanted to discredit the Bible, he wouldn't run around the Earth planting dino bones. It'd be easier to go plant coke on Jesus or post photoshopped pics of God in drag online or something.

dguzman said...

When I think of dinosaurs, I remember a dino movie I saw as a kid in which one cavewoman tries to steal another cavewoman's husband, and so both women fight and the spurned woman bites the vixen's cheek off.

Nothing that cool ever happened in the Bible.

TexasYankee said...

This is a great post.

I can see myself in both you and Rolf, especially because my name is Rolf.

Goodtime Charlie said...

At the age of five I learned about Noah's ark in religious school. "Two of every animal?", I thought. On a boat? Every animal? In the world? All on one boat? I had been to the zoo many times, and it was a huge place, and it didn't contain anything even approaching two of every animal in the world.

And thus did I lose my faith before I ever really had any. 40+ years later I am still wondering why so many seemingly intelligent adults lack the common sense of a five-year-old.

Homer said...

The Tucson Gem and Fossil show is still awesome. I took my 79-year-old mother to see the fossils and warned her DON'T TOUCH ANYTHING! Because she is clumsy and we were in a room with $500,000 fossil mammoths.

Comrade Physioprof said...

Excellent post, holmes! I was raised as a relatively secular jew. I vividly remember being in synagogue preparing for my bar mitzvah and thinking to myself, "I am going to really try hard to believe all this ridiculous shitte." And I tried, I really did, but it was all just too fucken absurd and I couldn't unknow that it was total bullshitte.