There's something that I've been struggling all week with trying to write. It occurs to me lately that it would be easier to explain if I first told you a story that phierma says that I haven't told in writing here yet, and that's the story of how I ended up becoming a born-again fundamentalist Christian in May of 1976 and how I came to leave that faith in July of 1983. To tell that story, I have to start even farther back, to my upbringing in a working-class neighborhood of far north county, Spanish Lake, in the St. Louis metro area in the 1960s. Perhaps this will interest some of you if for no other reason than that it'll end up being a glimpse into a world that you could never have imagined.
The most important thing that you have to understand about religious upbringing in working class north St. Louis county in the 1960s is that religion was not something that you were expected to have any concrete beliefs about. You weren't supposed to think about it very much, any more than you were supposed to think about anything at all. After all, while preachers and Sunday School teachers found things to occupy Sunday mornings talking about, nobody that I ever met thought that any of that, not even one single word of it, was either interesting or important. There were only a few things in this world that you needed to know. Good people go to heaven when they die. Bad people go to hell when they die. There are two religions in the world, Catholics and Protestants, and you either come from a Protestant family or a Catholic family. And which ever one you grew up with, all you need to know about the difference is that the other ones are all bad people who go to hell, and exist so that kids from your families can beat on kids from their families. Everything else was, like much of any kind of abstract thought, seen as an unpleasant distraction from the only important things in life: jobs and cars and stereo equipment and sports.
If you were a Protestant kid, it was an expected and natural part of your growing up that you would go to the public schools, even though your parents were likely to complain that the federal government was filling them up with black kids. (At the time I started hearing this, "filling up" in my case meant a total of 2 black kids in a school with over 300 white kids.) After school, it was fully expected that you would gang up with some of your fellow Protestant kids, and ambush the Catholic school kids on their way out of school and beat them up. It was, of course, also tolerated for you to sneak off campus and do this during recesses and lunch breaks, if there was a Catholic school close enough that you could run there, beat up some Catholic kids, and get back in time before the bell rang. If you were a Catholic kid, it was completely assumed that you would attend an all-white parochial school. During recesses and after school, it was a fully expected part of your natural childhood to beat up Protestant kids any time the numbers were on your side. This whole way of life didn't come crashing down until 1972, when north county became the official dumping ground for the last remaining inhabitants of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing complex after its demolition. For several years thereafter, white Catholic kids and white Protestant kids decided they had common ground. They, and the black newcomers to the neighborhood, then turned their substantial negotiating skills to agreeing upon official dates for each school's approximately monthly after-school race riot. On those days, white and black kids all knew what was expected of them, just as Protestant and Catholic kids had understood in a lesser way before. Instead of rushing to the buses to get a good seat for the ride home after school, they were all expected to report to the side yard of the school, all of the boys and nearly all of the girls. Once there, they were expected to find a kid of the same gender but the other color and beat on them with fists until everybody was tired, usually about 45 minutes later, and then all go home.
I want to stress, to those of you who are thinking how barbaric this was, two things. First of all, never once did I hear of anybody over the age of 14 engaged in this behavior. And secondly, in 8 years of Protestant/Catholic and then white/black violence, never once did I hear of anybody needing more than an ice pack for bruises or sprains or, at most, a few stitches. Only once in that whole time did I hear of anybody bringing a weapon to the riots -- and that was the beginning of the end for the riots, because thereafter the cops (somehow also clued into the riot calendar) started showing up about half the time with K-9 units to herd kids straight from the school building to the buses. I never understood the process of how they came to agreement on the date, time, place, and manner of the engagements, not as a nominally Protestant kid prior to 1972 nor as a white kid in 1972 through 1974. Nor, thanks to my neurological disorder, was I ever able to learn just how hard it was okay to fight under what circumstances, a decision I still don't really trust myself to make. So I concluded, at a very early age, that I was a nominal pacifist, not out of any moral sense that violence was wrong but for the pragmatic reason that I didn't know how to engage in it without making things worse. I also concluded that I was neither Protestant nor Catholic, but secular progressivist. And I concluded that I was neither white nor black, but extraterrestrial. You might think that this would get me in trouble with both sides, but no, it was only with the white and Protestant kids, who would occasionally notice my betrayal of my born side long enough to take a break from thrashing Catholics or black kids to chase me around for a while, seldom catching me.
Next: From secular progressivist to Biblical literalist Protestant Christian, and then from there to Neopagan Witchcraft, the story that phierma asked me to write down for y'all. And then, after that, my explanation of why I made excuses not to go to St. Louis Pagan Picnic last weekend.