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How I Became a Heretic.

2 Nov

  I love my parents and recognise that they are very good people. Yet I have spent much of my life rebelling against two of the most important things they tried to teach me — their religion and their diet.

  When I was 17, I got sent into an empty room to eat alone. This was a surprising turn of events considering I belonged to a very loving, Christian family. What was my crime? Well, it was to sing a well known hymn while my parents and my sister were eating their dinner. Normally mum and dad, being devout Christians, would have loved to listen to a melodious hymn. They enjoyed singing hymns every Sunday when they attended chapel, and my sister, Glenys, and I, were taught to sing them at Sunday School. However, on this occasion, I was using the words to point out what I considered to be the hypocracy at the heart of their life-style. The hymn goes like this:

       All things bright and beautiful,

       All Creatures great and small,

       All things wise and wonderful,

       The Lord God made them all.   ( Cecil F Alexander — Hymns for Little Children — 1848.)

  How could such innocent lyrics possibly be the source of a family controversy? Well, it’s because, while I was singing the hymn, the rest of the family were devouring the dead body of one of those very, “bright and beautiful” creatures that the Lord God had made. The words are idealistic and child-like, but conceal the real story. In the society and family that I grew up in, it was taken for granted that animals, birds and fish had been put on earth merely for human use ( and abuse) and pleasure. ( it still is.)

  In the 197o’s, the popular TV comedy act: The Goodies ( Tim-Brooke Taylor, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie) stripped the hymn of its naivety and sentimentality, when they parodied it in their song: “I’m a Carnivore.” Their version read:

     All things bright and beautiful,

     All creatures great and small,

     The cuddly and the furry ones,

     I love to eat them all.

  This seems particularly strange as Bill Oddie at least, was identified as being a wild-life lover through his association with programmes like “Spring-Watch” on BBC. Maybe it can be seen as bad taste to make a joke about the deaths of innocent creatures, but at least this version tears away the veil of hypocracy and tells it as it really is, in our so-called compassionate, Christian society.

  At 17 years old, I became a vegetarian. ( see previous blogs.) The penny dropped in my mind and I realized that by eating meat I was supporting an industry that murdered millions of creatures every year. It was an annual, horrific holocaust, largely uncommented upon in everyday life. Up to that point, I had subscribed to the widely held view that animals and birds lives had no value except to provide a service for people or food for human stomachs. Once I realized that I fundamentally disagreed with this selfish, human-centric view of the world, I stopped eating meat straight away. I didn’t want to be responsible for countless unnecessary deaths. The industrial scale slaughter of animals would no longer be done in my name.

  But what about my parents? Weren’t they supposed to follow the Christian ideas of: gentleness, compassion and love? Why didn’t they agree that the taking of a life, any life, is wrong? Afterall, one of the Ten Commandments, supposedly given to Moses by God, said ” Thou shalt not kill.” From that time onwards I have viewed meat as murder. Compounding that murder by eating the victim’s dead body seemed to me to be absolutely gross! I genuinely could not understand why my parents –  good, caring people and devout Christians, could not see this. A screen seems to have dropped down in their minds, preventing them from viewing the animal world in any other way. The singing of that children’s hymn, extolling the wonders of nature and the miracle of God’s creation, was my attempt to make them view their meal in a different light. I wanted them to see “life” when they looked at an animal, rather than just seeing “food.” However, I failed miserably and got sent away to eat alone.

  46 years later I am still a vegetarian and trying to become a vegan. My mum and dad still routinely eat meat and fish and think nothing of it. My younger brother Graham, also became a vegetarian, independently of me, but it never made them stop and think — “Well, both our sons think eating meat is wrong. maybe we should think about their reasons and reassess our diet.” Not a bit of it. They just carried on, regarding themselves as “normal” and their two vegetarian sons as “odd.” One of my friends, Malcolm, took the same decision when he was 17. When his bemused parents asked why he was refusing to eat the meat on his plate, he replied that he didn’t want his stomach to be used as a tomb for a corpse. I wish I’d thought of that back in 1967, but I don’t suppose it would have made any difference.

  You might think I am being very unfair, picking on my poor parents, when they are actually belong to the vast majority, whereas Graham, Malcolm and myself are members of a tiny minority. I am using them as an example because I am so close to them and this increases my perplexity about how they can be so different from me. How can good, decent people casually sanction murder? At the time I first challenged their views, I thought things were made worse by them purporting to be good Christians. Wasn’t this the religion that presented it’s founder as the “Good Shepherd”, looking after every member of his flock? As a child, I loved the idea of Jesus being born in a stable ( an animal’s home) and placed in a manger (an animal’s feeding trough), with a cow, sheep and donkey sharing the magical moment of the nativity. I cannot remember there ever being an abattoir in the background. I loved the carol “Little Donkey” which revered the dumb animal which carried Mary to the birthplace of her special son. Later, that same humble creature was given pride of place when Jesus rode into Jerusalam on Palm Sunday. Then there were all the stories of St Francis of Assissi being kind and loving to animal and birds. It seemed from these stories, taught to me at Methodist Sunday School, that love, care and respect for all the creatures of God’s world was a central feature of the Christian philosophy. When I was young, I believed that Christianity stood for love, charity and kindness to all living beings.

  Thus it was very difficult for me to equate “compassionate” Christians, with their sanctioning of the slaughter of innocent creatures.  The shield had lifted in my mind when my grandad casually extinguished the life of a poor chicken right in front of my eyes. This was his Christmas gift to us. ( see previous blog “How My Grandfather Turned me Into a Vegetarian.”) My dad, who as a lad, had helped his father slaughter countless pigs and chickens, thought it strange that I refused to help him prepare the dead body for the table. He probably thought I was just being squeamish and a bit of a softy. I was a disappointment to him, as he was to me. A gulf, created by our opposite attitudes to animals, yawned between us. To him, animals, birds and fish were there to be exploited for our pleasue. To me, animals, birds and fish had as much right to live their lives as human beings. I regard all life as sacred. So began our war of words. I sang hymns sarcastically to try to make him realise the inconsistency of his position. He sent me into another room and said that if I didn’t eat the meat provided for me, then I wouldn’t get anything else. ( my mum fed me in secret for a time while dad was at work.) Dad and I both soon backed down and tried to paper over the cracks, but I have never changed my mind and neither has he.( or mum for that matter.)  There has been an unspoken, uneasy truce ever since.

  It’s only recently that I’ve come to realize that for my parents, and many others, eating meat is actually part of being a Christian, instead of flouting Christian principles as I had first thought. Christians, it seems, regard meat as God’s gift to them. That is why they say Grace at the beginning of a meal, thanking God for what he has provided for them. They seem to believe that the killing and subsequent eating of a living creature has been sanctioned by God. In the past, in medieval times, vegetarians were branded as “heretics” as they were insulting God by refusing to accept His gift. “Heretic” was the label given to anyone who did not follow the strict rules set by the power brokers at the head of the established Church. As such they were liable to be punished, including being burnt at the stake, because, as is well known, Christianity has not been renowned for its tolerance and compassion over the years, despite Jesus’s preaching. Hence, in this sense, I became a heretic the moment I chose to be a vegetarian.

  I have also recently come to realize, after reading Colin Spencer’s excellent book: ” Vegetarianism: A History”, that the most sacred Christian ceremony, the Mass or Holy Communion, is really a celebration of meat eating. Christians actually believe they are consuming the body of Christ and drinking his blood when they are partaking of their bread and wine. So eating flesh is validated and drinking blood is not just the activity of vampires.

  All of this is sanctioned in the Bible. When I was young I was told that the Bible was the word of the one and only God — which conveniently ignored the Qu’ran, which is the word of the Muslim God ( Allah), the Veda, the word of the Hindu God, the Guru Granth Sahib, the word of the Sikh God, the Buddhist scriptures, and so on. Now I realize that the Bible is just a book, or a collection of books, written by people. So not surprisingly it contains words that back up the life-style and belief systems of the majority of people, particularly of those in power.

  It’s interesting to note that the Bible has been heavily censored. Inconvenient gospels such as those by the disciple Thomas or Mary, the mother of Christ, were left out because they didn’t fit in with the views of the most powerful early leaders of the Christian Church such as St Paul. Ancient documents such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in the late 1940’s, give us a glimpse of what was censored, because it did not fit into the theological straight-jacket imposed by Paul and his followers. Many early Christian sects were in fact vegetarian, leading ascetic lives in order to cleanse themselves of earthly pleasures. This they thought would enable them to concentrate more on spiritual development. One such group, based in Jerusalem, was led by Jesus’s brother James. It was characterised by its belief in non-violence toward animals as well as toward people. It was very suspicious of Paul and his followers. However, in the subsequent power struggles for hearts and minds, Paul came out on top and so was able to mould the early church to fit in with his own beliefs and life-style.

  One such belief was in the Jewish dietary laws, which say that God had declared certain creatures as unclean and therefore not to be eaten, while certain other creatures were clean, and so could be consumed with God’s blessing. Paul, who before he became the chief of the Christians had been a devout Jew, following all the strict rules of Judaism, carried these dietary ideas into his new faith. The Jews had possibly developed this meat- eating religious philosophy in reaction to the Ancient Egyptians who had enslaved them. Once free, they wanted to distinguish themselves from a culture that revered and even deified animal and birds. Many Egyptian priests also embraced a vegetarian, ascetic life-style to enhance their spiritual journey. So possibly to separate themselves from the philosophy of their former masters, the Jews adopted a policy of subduing animals rather than venerating them. Thus meat-eating could have developed amongst the Jewish people for anti-Egyptian political reasons. Subsequently, this was carried forward into the customs and practices of Christianity by the likes of influential Jews like Paul.

  When I challenged my parents and other church-goers about their carnivorous eating habits, by pointing out the Commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill”, they countered by saying that that rule only applied to human beings, not to animals. They pointed out a statement in another part of the Bible in which God gave people dominion over all the other creatures of the world. It’s funny how God always seems to agree with the dominant majority of human beings! This chilling passage comes in Genesis 9:2, and has formed the basis of all the Judeo-Christian dealings with the rest of the animal kingdom ever since. It reads: ” And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered.” So, according to this pronouncement, God wants a world based on fear and dread, rather than on love and compassion which Jesus promotes in the New Testament. Which world would you rather live in? Genesis 9:2 sounds almost like a section from Mein Kampf or a Nazi master -race manifesto. Just substitute: beasts, fowls and fishes for : Jews, Gypsies ( Romanies) and Slavs, and you’ve got it! Nazi racial theories deemed non Aryans such as Slavs as sub-human, fit for enslavement and to be killed at will, whilst Jews and Gypsies were described as :”life unworthy of life”, fit only for extermination. How is this different from most human being’s attitude to the animal kingdom?

  The blood-curdling Old Testament passage quoted above, comes in the section that relates what happened after the Flood. It seems heavily ironic that Noah saved all that wild-life from the rising waters by taking them on board his Ark ( following God’s supposed command), but then celebrated landing on dry land by killing some of the very creatures he had “saved” in order to have a feast.( again following God’s supposed command.) Contradictions abound. This in turn follows the description of the Garden of Eden earlier in Genesis, where everyone and everything is happy, living in harmony and enjoying a vegetarian diet. Eve was warned about the apple on the tree, not the leg on the lamb.

  It’s a dangerous business quoting the Bible to validate one’s views. Apart from the mixed messages about the rights and wrongs of killing, there is the example of the Old Testament preaching vengeance ( An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth), while Jesus in the New Testament espouses forgiveness and loving one’s enemy. The thing is: the Bible is not really the word of God in my opinion, but the words of many men. The women, by the way, seem to have been mostly edited out. I think it would be safer to follow one’s own conscience rather than trying to follow the contradictory messages of the Bible.

  I think men grew to like the taste of flesh, so conveniently inserted into the Holy Book the idea that God gave them the right to eat it. This in turn, indicated that meat was God’s gift which it would be sacrilegious to refuse. In early religions, lives were sacrificed as gifts from humans to gods. Christians seem to have turned this concept on its head and claim that lives are now sacrificed in order for God to give the gift of meat to humans.

  The result of all this contradictory and hypocritical mess is that I have not only rejected my parents’ carnivorous diet but also their Christian beliefs. Being faithful Methodists, I have been sorely tempted to point out that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, totally eschewed meat- eating.( for ascetic, spiritual reasons.) However I know that it will never stop them from munching their bacon sandwiches or devouring their pork, beef or turkey roasts. Afterall, meat is a symbol of wealth, success and status in our society, as well as of human domination over the world.( a world that humans are swiftly destroying.)  Meat eating is also sanctioned by God! How can mere sympathy and compassion for other living creatures stand-up against all that?

  The chasm between my beliefs and those of my parents remains. But what can I do? Despite being a vegetarian and a heretic I still love them and would never wish to upset them by singing “All things bright and beautiful” again.

I’m Confused — I Thought Murder Was Wrong!

25 Feb

When I got to the age of around 16-17, I first started to realize about the enormity of death. It horrified me. The thought of not existing any more, of being swallowed-up into oblivion, was simply terrifying. It was the stuff of nightmares. So I ended-up doing what most people around me seemed to be doing — I kept busy, constantly distracted myself with stuff to do and never talked about dying. In the West, there is this unacknowledged conspiracy: that if we don’t talk about it and if we try not to think about it, then it’s as if death doesn’t actually exist.

That’s why when someone sadly dies ( we usually use the euphanism “passes away”), many of us don’t know what to say to the bereaved. We are just not used to talking about the awful subject and so we are lost for words. It’s happened to me as well. All I can think to say is:”You are in my thoughts at this difficult time” or “If there’s anything I can do, don’t hesitate to ask.” It’s an awkward subject to broach, especially if the bereaved person is in a state of shock, as if they never imagined that death could claim someone close to them.

When I was a late teenager this fear and dread of death provided me with the strength and motivation to make one of the most important decisions of my life. I decided not to avoid the taboo subject anymore. I also vowed that I would no longer be knowingly responsible for any unnecessary death. You might think that that’s an obvious and reasonable stance to make in our “civilised” society. Afterall — murder — the deliberate taking of another’s life, is our most serious and condemned crime. Everyone agrees with this, except perhaps for the odd psychopath. Underpinning this is one of the Ten Commandments: ” Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Surely everyone agrees with that? Or do they? It was as I reached my later teens that I sadly realized that many don’t. The first thing I discovered was that I belonged to a species that was constantly taking each others’ lives, in the phenomenon known as war. ( see previous post — “Realizing About War.”)

Human beings unfortunately spend inordinate amounts of money, time and effort figuring out new, more efficient and more horrific ways to kill each other. In the 20th Century alone we had: artilliary bombardment, poisonous gas, machine guns ,shrapnel, grenades, aerial bombing, incendiary bombs creating fire-storms, concentration camps, starvation in ghettos, Atom and Hydrogen Bombs dropped on unsuspecting civilians, nuclear missiles, germ warfare, land and sea mines, cluster bombs and napalm — to name but a few. They are just from the top of my head and I’m not a military expert. All that’s on top of the more mundane shooting and stabbing. We like to blame the murderous campaigns or weapons of mass-destruction on evil ogres such as Adolf Hitler , Saddam Hussein or Colonal Gadaffi. We also blame evil organisations such as the IRA or Al Quaida. It always seems to be someone else’s fault, but we’re all at it really. There has been warfare somewhere in the World every single year since the end of the Second World War, which was supposed to have brought us peace in 1945. Also, wasn’t the Great War of 1914-18 supposed to be have been “the war to end all wars”? I think this continuing situation is tragic. It has led to untold misery and appalling loss of life. It’s still happening today in Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia, to name just 3 war-torn countries.

So why isn’t everyone a peace campaigner? It’s a very good question which I cannot properly answer. I have tried to be a peace campaigner. I have: marched, petitioned, lobbied MPs, been in vigils and sit-ins, discussed, debated, written letters, canvassed door to door and taken part in all kinds of peaceful protests. I have even acted in a play “what I wrote”( with apologies to Ernie) called “Protest and Survive”.  But war rages on and the horrendous threat of a nuclear holocaust still hangs over us. In fact, unbelievably, peace campaigners have been branded and castigated as: cowards, defeatists, traitors or extremists. In the days of the so-called Cold War when our enemy was supposed to be the Soviet Union, peace-campaigners were also labelled as : commies, reds or pinkoes. When I was active in CND in the 1980’s, my group in Tyneside was expelled from the pub where it met because it was upsetting the drinkers to have communist-sympathisers and traitors meeting in the room upstairs. A sympathetic local hotel owner took us in.

These days it is difficult to criticise the British army’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan ( or “The War on Terror”) despite all the suffering and killing on both sides, because so many people have relatives or friends fighting out there. Saying that you are against the war and in favour of peace would be seen by many as being disloyal and unpatriotic. One little known ( and trivial) consequence of Britain and America’s illegal invasion of Iraq was that I broke up from my girlfriend of that time. At first she seemed to agree that it was wrong to use armed force to bring down another soveriegn country’s government and that it would be setting a terrible precedent. However, once our troops invaded, she thought it was important to close ranks and support “our boys”, probably taking her cue from the overtly chauvenistic tabloid press. So even those close to me disagreed with my idea that war was wrong. I saw this as a fundamental moral isue and found it impossible to continue the relationship. Maybe I should have chosen somebody from the million who marched through London proclaiming ” Not in my name.” At least the unprecedented size of the peace march reassured me that I was far from alone in being opposed to war.

My simple idea that war is wrong has turned out to be very controversial and troublesome for me. Human beings seem to be naturally prone to kill each other and concoct endless excuses in order to carry on doing it. It seems that if one has a “just cause”, then it’s OK to kill and OK to die. However, what constitutes a just cause is highly controversial. Is it acceptable to kill or die for land, for living-space, or for natural resources such as oil? Is it OK to take or sacrifice life for: a political cause, a religion or an economic system? The matter gets even more confusing when the original cause of a war is forgotten or changed. For instance, Britain entered the First World War to defend Belgium’s neutrality, but during the course of the conflict, British and other allied troops violated the neutrality of Greece. In the Second World War we entered  to support Poland against Hitler’s totalitarian Germany only to sacrifice the Poles to Stalin’s totalitarian Soviet Union in the peace negotiations at the end. How can you tell I was a History teacher? Sorry! To cut a long story short, it seems that all humans need is a cause ( ie — an excuse) and they will kill each other on a massive scale.

The second big decision I made when I was 17 was also to do with not wanting to be involved in unnecessary killing. It was my decision to become a vegetarian. ( covered in previous blogs.) Animals, birds and fish have lives too, I said to myself, and human beings have no right to extinguish those precious, unique lives, simply to provide a” tasty” meal. Once I’d made that fundamental decision, I couldn’t imagine anything more revolting than agreeing to a living creature being slaughtered for me and then eating its dead body. To my surprise, my Christian parents disagreed. They were against murder but thought there was nothing wrong in murdering animals in order to eat them. It upset me that they were kind and compassionate people but didn’t extend that compassion to the creatures we shared the world with. I tried to argue with them and point out the hypocracies of their position, but to no avail. It was if I was speaking a foreign language. I even sang one of their favourite Methodist hymns at meal time:  “All things bright and beautiful,  All creatures great and small,  All things wise and wonderful,  The Lord God made them all.” Then I would dramatically get up and leave, leaving them to eat one of God’s creatures that had been “sacrificed” to accompany their potatoes and veg. For the rest of life I would be a vegetarian as well as a peace campaigner — a painful double-whammy in some peoples’ eyes.

As you know, most people agree with my parents rather than with me. Human beings rule the world and are indisputably at the top of the food chain. I think that humans should use their position of absolute power responsibly and compassionately in accordance with their own rule of “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” However, I am naive to think this. Being in a position of total dominance is like being a Nazi in control of a concentration camp. Just like the wretched inmates of Belson or Auchswitz were mistreated, abused and slaughtered by the so-called “master race”, so the inmates of the animal kingdom are mistreated, abused and slaughtered by their human “masters”. It’s a very simple example of Robespierre’s adage: ” Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” To me, it is utterly depressing that the majority of humans choose to use their power “corruptly” rather than “compassionately”. However, as soon as I open my mouth and start saying stuff like this, I am quickly shouted down and accused of: preaching, being emotive or even being extremist. It seems that one is labelled as an  “extremist” if one disagrees with the majority view. The majority of human beings have deemed that other living creatures have been put on this earth to serve us, by providing us with: food, clothes, labour, sport, companionship and bodies for scientific experimentation. In other words: other creatures are expendable. Unfortunately, only a small minority share my belief that animals should be allowed to live their own lives without interference from us. I think a true test of a civilised society is how the strong treat the weak. Do the former care for the latter and protect them, or do they neglect, abuse and exploit them? I think responsible human beings should pose this question with regards to the animal kingdom as well as to the weaker members of their own species.

I am no longer afraid of death. As I get older I have grown to accept its inevitability instead of resisting it. As the trials and tribulations, heartaches and problems of life take their toll, I am gradually getting round to viewing my own future death as a welcome release. However, I still value my life so far, as it has brought me so much joy, happiness and fulfillment. I am now 62 and am still clinging on to my simple teenage belief that the unnecessary taking of life is wrong. No amount of name-calling, sneering, mocking, aggression or criticism will change my mind. This simple, basic belief has led to much trouble and anguish in my life, because so few other people have shared it. Sometimes I feel as if I was born into the wrong world. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a world that valued and celebrated life rather than one that revels in death and destruction? That’s called a pipe dream.