Making sense of religion as a child

Wilfred Bion, brought up as a child in a religious household at the beginning of the twentieth century, shows how very little of the religion he took in made any sense. ‘Our Father’ he heard as ‘Arf, Arfer’ but knowing that whatever ‘Arf Arfer’ was – it was not to be trifled with.

‘Sometimes in my dreams I thought I heard Arf Arfer arfing. It was a terribly frightening noise … Arf Arfer was related, though distantly to Jesus who was also mixed up with our evening hymns. “Geesus loves me this I know, For the Bible tells me so” … I felt Gee-sus had the right idea, but I had no faith in his power to deal with Arf Arfer. Nor did I feel sure of God whose attribute seemed to be that he gave his ‘only forgotten’ son to redeem our sins. By this time, I had become wary of probing too deeply … secretly I felt the green hill city and Geesus were ill-treated.’

Every night the small boy said his prayers in front of his father: ‘Pity my Simply City”.  Once Bion asked his mother what had happened to his Simply City but she didn’t know what he was talking about. The parents, part of the colonial white imperialists in India, were worried that the children might ‘get ideas’ if they had any contact with ‘pagan superstition’ and anything to do with eastern spiritual practices; they were parents of what he describes as an uncompromising mould.

After a tiger was cruelly shot on a Big Game Shoot the tigress came to the camp for three nights to claim her murdered mate, Bion remembers that: ‘That night Arf Arfer came in terror like the King of Kings’. He later asked his mother whether the tigress was loved by Jesus … and how would the tiger get to where ‘Saints in Glory stand, bright as day’ …and what was the tiger who had been shot doing now, was he chasing the lamb? His mother – scarcely listening cannot answer. ‘Following this it was agreed that it was time to go to school ‘to knock this nonsense out of my head – I hadn’t a mind then only a “head”.’

Bion’s account of school is pretty grim and religion comes out of it very badly. Bion was left believing:

‘I knew I was a horrible child and God would never make me a good boy however hard I prayed. I don’t think he ever listened. I really don’t … Church was all right … a respite from tormentors … When Church was over … the trouble started. For half an hour we did “Search the Scriptures”. These were booklets in which texts from a book in the Bible were printed with blank spaces; we were to fill in the chapter and the verse where they were to be found. I could not find them; other boys could. God was worse than useless. I used to pray. One day, in a sermon, the mystery was solved. “Sometimes we think”, said the preacher, “that God has not answered our prayers but he has”. I pricked up my ears at this. “It means”, he went on, “that the answer is ‘No’”. I unpricked my ears.’

The only relief for Bion were some of the hymns and hymn singing practice. A favourite: ‘Art thou weary, art thou languid?’ with a lovely sad tune brought much comfort. ‘I found out that five or six little boys liked it and were just as weary and languid and sore distressed as I was.’