Experiences of religion in childhood 3


Inside a Catholic church – ‘the distant altar’

The descriptions by the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion in the last two posts raise questions about what does religion mean, and how is it understood when we are under five, aged seven, and even adolescent. What does religion do to our sense of ourselves and our attitudes to others – so are we more loving and inclusive or more judgemental and exclusive? Does it increase our guilt and sense of wrong doing or does it make us rigid, or the opposite are we more creative? This is of course so different from spiritual or mystical experiences of wonder and awe that many children experience outside of any religious frame.

Despite all that Bion experienced in terms of critical religion and injunctions about deception, shameful bodies, and being a very good boy, as an adult he became someone able to think outside convention. In his later years he wrote about an almost mystical philosophy on what can sometimes happen in the consulting room when transformations occur between and within two people – a state he called ‘O’. In 1965 he writes:

“O is not good or evil, it cannot be known, loved or hated. It can be represented by terms such as ultimate reality or truth. The most, and the least that the individual person can do is to be it”.

Monica Furlong, a British writer, with a great interest in spirituality and religion compiled a book of what it used to be like to grow up Christian. The world she describes – mostly from people growing up before the 1970s – is no longer present in 2024. Some was good: ‘the strength and beauty, the depth, and influence’, some bad: ‘stuffy and constricting propriety’. Most was incomprehensible to a child. Old conflicts between different Christian groups were rife, with each one convinced their beliefs were right and the others wrong, and there was inbuilt antisemitism. The Muslim religion, Hinduism and Buddhism were barely recognised. Most schools held religious assemblies with daily bible readings, hymns and prayers. Furlong herself remembers how the whole thing felt like a bland façade that deadened any enthusiasm she might have for religions as it seemed so fatally linked with ‘being proper’. It wasn’t until later, as an adult, that she had another look at religion, and stayed on to look more.

One of the contributors in her book is the priest Angela Tilby whose earliest memory is of going into a Catholic church with her mother and brother – they never went back because one of the priests rebuked Angela’s mother. The priest had spotted that Angela’s brother, was wearing school uniform that wasn’t from a Catholic school. However, the visit had a lasting effect on the small girl:

‘My impression of the catholic Church remained vague, huge and mysterious throughout my childhood. The green dome and the singing sensation of space, the dark clusters of sacred images and the distant altar made an ineradicable impression on me. This was nothing to do with religion or morality. I had no formed language in which to understand or respond. It had nothing to do with Jesus or with the stories from the Bible. It was … pure awe …’

In her later childhood Tilby experimented with a range of Anglican churches, a Congregational church, the possibility of atheism when she felt ‘embarrassed by all forms of worship’, and, then, as a teenager making a decision against her family experience and the ethos of the school she went to, to become an evangelist and ‘a baptized Christian’ – the decision ‘to become what I was’- an adolescent assertion of freedom. Searching for true religion lasts a lifetime.