Disclosure: To begin with, I’ve never been a believer in religion, ghosts, goblins or tooth fairies…
My earliest autobiographical memory (circa 1945; about 3-yrs-old) was of digging for the devil in my front yard w/my toy beach pail and shovel. Somewhere I got the idea that he was responsible for all the bad in my limited world, that he lived under the ground and I was gonna stop him.
My father came home, asked what I was doing, and gave me a spanking for digging a hole in the front yard, then beat my mother … I suppose for not watching me.
That gave me my first Aha! moment: People make shit up.
Of course, given society’s acculturational processes, like practically all of us I was required to learn and abide by the established rules. My mother’s Irish family had me baptized, First Holy Communion and Confirmation in the Roman Catholic Church in Rhode Island.
When I was 8-or-so and my parents divorced, my father’s Slovakian family in the South Bronx made me go thru much the same rituals in their Russian Orthodox Church. My childhood “money route” on Saturdays was down the street from Bathgate Avenue in the Hasidic Orthodox Jewish community as a Shabbos Goy. We all have our “devils living under the front yard.”
After my mother and her Jewess partner, Ruth, gained custody of me, religion slipped into the background. Both of them were nominal participants in the holiday observations of their familial religions. I enlisted in the Army at 17 (1959) and they put Catholic on my dog-tags. After Basic Training in Hell’s Kitchen, Ft. Benning, I was sent to Ft. Gordon, GA, for radio school.
Run ins w/off-base racists (I had a NYC mouth) obliged me to assume an alter-ego of Bernie Cohen in the more tolerant Jewish community. Teen nights w/Jewish girls at the Synagogue and Sunday dinners made soldiering a lot more tolerable.
Volunteering for the 101st Airborne at Ft. Campbell, KY, I had the opportunity of taking passes to Nashville, which featured Printer’s Alley with Boots Randolph and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge with Willie Nelson, among many others on the music scene.
I married a TN girl after I turned 18 in 1960 and after the Army we lived south of Nashville on Crowder’s Hill. I joined her Southern Baptist church and was even baptized. That beat the local alternative of hanging out w/the Klan and “popping side-road ‘niggers’ w/whiskey bottles.” (Going to the police? Ha! They were the police! Just like today…)
(When I listen these days to all those grown-up racists and their progeny talk about that “uppity” Obama and all those “liberal” Democrats, I’m not in the least bit fooled by such “coded” talk. In “polite company” it’s always how they speak. The main difference is that today, instead of just 11 states of the Confederate South, there are now 32 of them…along with both houses of Congress and the US Supreme Court. Gonna be a long and rocky road…)
In Nashville, I variously worked as a mechanical draftsman, roller-dance instructor and door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. Traveling throughout TN, GA, AL and MS during 1962-63–when I wasn’t dodgin’ irate husbands and fathers–I was running from the Klan and their police. I ended up on a chain-gang for much of 1964 and ’65.
When I got out I blew the whistle on that chapter of Southern insanity by first-hand accounts in the Nashville Tennessean, and helped get the workhouse placed under federal receivership and the rock-quarry gang shut down. My wife had since moved on and given that I had over-stayed my Southern welcome, I moved back up north.
I settled in Detroit and got a job working as a Quality Control Inspector in the aerospace industry (Local 212, UAW). I was exposed for the first time to guys from the 1930s and ‘40s who had built the unions and had also served as sergeants in the Pacific during World War-II. After that war they were a part of organizing the “Bring the Boys Home” movement in opposition to reestablishing colonialism. They were various types of socialists and communists.
In the summer of 1966 I had an extraordinary secular epiphany. In psychology: a Conversion Experience (CE). I didn’t realize it’s technical explanation until later when I studied psychology at the university. At the time, it was such a strange, acid-like journey that I never spoke of it. Later still, in my post-grad yrs and doctoral studies (PsyD, Doctor of Psychology), I made CEs a significant aspect of my research and dissertation.
(Just after waking up and starting to brush my teeth, I looked up and was startled to see a hole where the mirror had been. I was looking into another bathroom w/a complete stranger staring back at me. While startled, I soon realized that the stranger mimicked my every move precisely.
After some momentary confusion, I became convinced that I was in fact looking at myself in the mirror. The effect was so realistic that I studied my face for awhile. What was different? Why did I have this weird feeling of looking at a stranger?)
In a nutshell, I learned that the psychic effect was an artifact of an almost instantaneous transformation from perceiving myself as a solitary figure, to a consciousness of social connection. This sudden change and awareness included a sense of universality, being an integral part of the entire cosmos. All mental alienation between myself, life, material form and energy evaporated.
This included a profound change in the consciousness of individualism. While we are indeed born into perceiving life solely as individuals, at some point we have the capacity to develop a social consciousness. We can then perceive individualism as a shared, even secondary characteristic of existence. One cannot progress into social and moral maturity by remaining fixated on infantile individualism.
Conversion Experiences (or if they contain religious reference, epiphanies) are fairly rare phenomena. Perhaps only as many as 10% of a given population experience one. Most people acquire knowledge and socialization thru accretional learning. A few resist that process until they hit a psychic/emotional wall. If they have access to other models of beliefs and behavior, they may experience sudden shifts in consciousness … an epiphany, or a conversion experience.
These shifts are usually accompanied by a universal sense of connection (w/or w/out belief in a deity) and assume quite long duration…usually for a life-time.
Given the still early social maturity of the human species, it’s hardly any surprise that most of these CEs are in fact experienced as epiphanies. That is, most individuals culturally tend to surrender to a belief in a supreme being, which holds ultimate authority and reactive punishment … a mirror image of the predatory individual state of human relations still prevalent on Earth.
Dr. Publico (Nick Medvecky, PsyD) November 2014