September 20, 2016

The Intellectual Consequences of Growing Up an Abused…and Thinking …Catholic

This week, we conclude our series with Charles Sutherland, who takes a bold look at how religion became a space of confusion and inconsistencies when set against his experiences of abuse. 

One note here for believers in a higher spiritual power, I want to welcome you to read Charles's reflections here as a perspective on how faith and religion can become distorted when used by abusers as a way to manipulate rather than an indictment of religion on the whole.

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As soon as the next academic year arrived, I left our household (which I never called ‘home’) to go far away, to a Jesuit college in Denver to where I received a small scholarship.  My father did not give me any financial assistance, and I dropped out after the first year to earn money. 

A year later, because it was less expensive, I went to Europe, to the University of Vienna in Austria for two years.  Subsequently, I obtained my Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics and Philosophy in the U.S., and then pursued graduate studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and studied some French at the Institute de Francais in Villefranche-sur-Mer in France.  Since then I have been to 67 countries, for one reason or another, have been an international businessman, a newspaper executive, and a writer.

The traditional ‘growth pattern’ of an abused child is often a life of criminality.  Unlike many abused children, I was fortunate to have strong Scotch-Irish DNA, and a stubborn and tenacious disposition. I also ‘escaped’ into the excitement of reading, and thinking about new ideas. 

To summarize the mental development in growing up as a physically and mentally abused boy, I will quote below from my book Reflections of a Boy… Growing Up in Nebraska in the 1950s with an Irish Catholic Father.

“Today such physical and psychological abuse inflicted upon a child by a father would be criminal.  In those days it was regarded as ‘strict’ religious discipline, which was generally accepted, or even approved and applauded.  The constant quote, falsely attributed to the Bible, was, ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child.’  Actually the Biblical quote of Proverbs 13:24 is worse: ‘Whoever spares the rod hates their children…’

In our current era, religious intolerance and fanaticism are rising again in one of history’s cycles.  Having religion physically forced upon me from an early age compelled me to dwell upon it.  Doing so provided insights and empathy into religious persecution throughout history, of which I have written elsewhere.  If someone can beat their own child for asking questions about religious doctrines, it is easy to see how believers of all faiths can promote Crusades, Inquisitions, Biblical ‘cleansing’ of other ethnic groups, wars,  and Jihads against other people, whether family, neighbors, or strangers, who do not share their religious beliefs… or illusions.  Since by their nature all religions regard themselves as ‘exclusive’ in some manner or another, to subscribe to any religion inexorably leads to being intolerant on some level.

I was instructed to seek refuge from my painful life in God and religion.  Yet, my constant questioning revealed that any refuge I sought was just a mirage, like the mirages we saw on the long Nebraska highways on hot summer days.  When we came closer to the image, it evaporated into a mist.  I was punished for asking simple and basic questions, the kind which should be easily answered – but which went unanswered or were avoided, because like other ‘believers’ my father was afraid to even think about them.  We were taught in school not to think or ask questions, with the Christian admonition, ‘The idle mind is the devil’s workshop.’

Growing up in the farm lands of Nebraska created common sense.  When crops were dry, we didn’t pray for rain.  We irrigated them.  If someone needed help, we didn’t pray for them.  We helped them.  When action was required, we acted.  According to my emerging perspective, prayer was for the lazy, the ignorant, or the delusional.  Religious ‘mysteries’ were neurotic non-sense, meant to deceive and control the uneducated.  

Through observation, I learned to disregard apologies, which I came to see as insincere acts of self-indulgence.  I saw my father and others apologize to God
and receive ‘forgiveness’ in their weekly visits to Confession, with no improvement in their conduct.  Accordingly, I also learned to have no patience for those who practice ‘forgiveness,’ whether religious people or lenient judges.  I also routinely watched self-righteous ‘believers’ enjoy the self-gratifying religious feeling of dispensing ‘forgiveness,’ rather than having the courage to hold people responsible for their actions.  Forgiveness exonerates bad behavior, inevitably leading to worse offenses in the future.  When people are not held accountable for their conduct, anarchy ultimately prevails. 

Finally, on the crucible of painful childhood curiosity, I developed a complete and visceral intolerance for dishonesty of any kind, no matter what the personal pain or consequence.  Regardless of how intelligent, stupid, rich, or poor someone may be, they can at least be honest.  Personal relationships are built on the foundation of truth, and a stable society requires honesty to prevent the fabric of civilization from tearing apart.  Honesty is a natural impulse in a child, until a religious education suppresses and distorts it.  The religious fables, to which I was continuously subjected and compelled to recite, inhibited my ability to think honestly at an early age.  These false fables of fantasy and fear are society’s most ubiquitous and pernicious disquisitions of deceit, inflicted daily upon the ignorant and vulnerable, particularly upon children.  Given the difficulties we encounter in our everyday human lives, it is morally reprehensible for self-righteous people to add imaginary fears and woes to real ones, through a litany of useful lies.

Finally, the psychology that there are divine friends in the sky who may grant us our wishes through prayer teaches children not to be self-reliable.  It delays the reality of life, that the cosmos is indifferent to our desires.  Often we don’t even achieve our objectives by working for them, let alone by praying for them.

The ancient wisdom says, ‘It’s better to light a little candle, than to curse the darkness.’  Hopefully, these honest and candid memories, many amusing, others painful, provide some flicker of light to whoever might read them – of whatever religion.  Every religious faith flounders on its own historic falsehoods, and then, in a final act of despair, the creeds’ followers eventually seek the light of reason, however dim or bright.  The sooner, the better, for all of us…

In any event, my dear maternal Aunt Marie always told me, ‘Hang in there, sweetheart.  Always remember, the first one hundred years are the hardest’.”



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Charles Sutherland was educated at schools and universities in the United States and Europe, including the University of Vienna and the London School of Economics and Political Science. As a student and international businessman for over 40 years, he has lived, studied, worked in, or traveled to over 60 countries. He has sat on numerous Boards of Directors and has launched a wide variety of business ventures and philanthropic organizations in the United States, Latin America, Europe (including the former Soviet Union), Asia, and the Middle East. He has also been Director of Development of The Washington Times, and author of numerous articles and several books, including Disciples of Destruction: The Religious Origins of War and Terrorism; Character for Champions; Red Tape: Adventure Capitalism in the New Russia (co-author); Clash of the Gods (co-author); The Poison Planters, and GMO Food Poison Handbook. He has two sons and lives in the Washington, DC area.

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