(This essay was originally published on August 8, 2010. It was reprinted at RichardDawkins.net)
When I was in second grade, a few months before we had our First Communion, my class took a field trip to the bakery where our parish’s Communion wafers were made. This field trip was just one part of the First Communion preparation process, and I suppose that our teachers hoped that it would illustrate the power of the act of Transubstantiation. In other words, if we saw that the wafers were made in the same way as any other cracker, we would more clearly understand and respect the mystery and significance of the fact that these normal, everyday crackers, via Transubstantiation, were transformed into the actual body of Christ.
For eight-year-old me, though, witnessing the process by which these crackers were made stripped some of the mystery away from it all. Although I was afraid to even consider the thought that the Church’s teachings were fallible and subject to doubt and criticism (it would have been sinful to do so), I remember feeling disappointed by the banality of the process. I had spent years looking forward to First Communion, wanting to partake in the mystery, wanting to know what Jesus’s body and blood tasted like, and wondering how consuming them would change me. In retrospect, I can see that this trip to the bakery brought about my first twinges of doubt regarding Catholicism’s teachings, even though it took me another eight years to permit myself to express those doubts.
Although I didn’t understand this at the time, what I was doubting and questioning (despite my best efforts not to do so) was the Church’s teaching regarding substance theory and how it applies to the Eucharist. I was finding it difficult to reconcile how a physical object (in this case, a cracker) could transform into something completely different without its physical characteristics changing in any way. The doctrine of Transubstantiation is obviously a ridiculous one, and that ridiculousness is apparent to anyone who stops to question it, be they a child or an adult. The fact that I felt the need to suppress these doubts and questions (to even ponder them would have been sinful) and the fact that millions of adults continue to profess belief in a doctrine that even a small child with the most basic of critical thinking skills can easily debunk is a depressing reminder of the effectiveness of childhood Catholic indoctrination.
The Church, not surprisingly, attempts to explain away this ridiculousness by claiming that the assertions expressed in the doctrine of Transubstantiation are too mysterious to be tested in a scientific manner (how very convenient for them!):
When at his Last Supper, Jesus said: “This is my body”, what he held in his hands still had all the appearances of bread: these “accidents” remained unchanged. However, the Roman Catholic Church believes that, when Jesus made that declaration, the underlying reality (the “substance”) of the bread was converted to that of his body. In other words, it actually was his body, while all the appearances open to the senses or to scientific investigation were still those of bread, exactly as before. The Catholic Church holds that the same change of the substance of the bread and of the wine occurs at the consecration of the Eucharist when the words are spoken “This is my body … this is my blood.”
I started thinking about this topic and my childhood memories surrounding it after I came across this article yesterday. It describes a recent papal audience:
Speaking in German, out of consideration for the majority of the altar servers present, the Pope said that the Eucharist was “a precious good”, and “a treasure whose value cannot be measured, it is the Bread of life, it is Jesus who makes himself food, support and strength for our daily path and open road to eternal life; it is the greatest gift that Jesus left us.”
Stop and think about that: millions of adults, all across the world, believe that, as the Pope puts it, the Eucharist is “Jesus who makes himself food”. That is both laughable and incredibly sad. Transubstantiation is a perfect example of the nonsensical nature of religious belief, and the fact that so many individuals unquestioningly accept such a ludicrous and laughable notion illustrates the insidious power of religious indoctrination.
Further, the fact that non-Catholics are expected to avoid questioning or pointing out the absurdity of this doctrine, out of fear of offending Catholics, is a clear example of the automatic and unquestioned respect that our society grants to religious beliefs. Think about it like this: if your neighbor told you they believe that, each night, their pet dog turns into a unicorn, runs around doing magical deeds, and then transforms back into a dog before sunrise, you would almost certainly think them delusional and/or crazy, and you probably wouldn’t be afraid to tell them so. However, because our society offers religion so much undeserved and automatic respect, pointing out the sheer absurdity of the doctrine of Transubstantiation is considered by many to be a disrespectful act, while few would think it disrespectful to point out the ridiculousness of the less absurd (yes, less absurd) belief in dog-to-unicorn transformation, for example.
Deep down inside, I think that eight-year-old me understood this to be true, at least to a certain extent. But when you are taught that it is sinful to question the teachings of the Church, you will unquestioningly accept just about anything that your teachers or priests tell you to be true, even something as obviously absurd and ridiculous as the doctrine of Transubstantiation.