Superstition and the false god

Being religious is about accepting a sense of mystery and finding a system that can enshrine it. The psychoanalyst Neville Symington, (who died in December 2019) writes in his autobiography A Different Path about the varying quality of soul he found in people who were religious or philosophical – in other words interested in life below the surface. He thought that this interest was to do with the person’s inner orientation to life: ‘It is a humble deference to something bigger, to an Absolute, to mystery. It is a spirit of enquiry.’

Symington was born into a Catholic family and lived in Portugal: ‘We Catholics had the truth. Protestants were simply wrong and were to be pitied. We knew we were right. We must have been the most self-righteous family and some of the English of Oporto, I suspect, hated us for it.’ Part of the struggle he documents is how to throw off this self-righteousness and the superstition which went with it.

An early experience that dogged him for many years was identical to the one I wrote about exactly a year ago that happened to Dennis McCort when he took a sip of water before communion on a Sunday, thus breaking the fast required from midnight. Symington writes about a similar injunction, when, very excited on Easter Sunday aged eight, he ate two chocolates he had been given. He then remembered the fast, but not wanting to disappoint his father he said nothing, so lined up at the communion rail he received the host: ‘I had committed a mortal sin. This deadly sin had cut me off from God and should I die now I would go straight to hell.’ Knowing he could go to confession he went a few days later, but was so terrified by what he had done he dared not tell the priest. This then he knew was a further mortal sin: ‘Now I knew I was deep in hell … I knew my soul was as black as pitch’. It’s not until four years later when he was a junior at a boarding school in England that he finally summed up the courage in confession. A kindly priest gave him a small penance and spoke the words of absolution. Yet, Symington, who became a priest in his twenties, but then left some years later, can look back and see that although he had apparently been forgiven, he had been such a frightened child that the inner belief and state of his soul, whereby he believed that he was wicked and deserved to be punished, was still present within him long into adulthood.

He can then write in his later years:

‘At a later time in my life I came to hate the Church which had made such an agony for me in my childhood. However, I now know that the fearsome God, although aided and abetted by superstitious injunctions, was a product of my own emotional state which I had projected onto and into the Church … Nevertheless I think the Church has much to answer for when it inculcates fears of this kind into its members.’