Getting Acquainted With Dr. Eric T. Pengelley (April 1994)

I was born (1919) in Toronto, Canada. My mother was a Nova Scotian and a nurse, while my father was an engineer and from Jamaica. In 1919 they were both freshly discharged from military service in WWI. It is worth recording, as they frequently explained to me in later years, the horrors that WWI imposed on their generation, and I have never forgotten them. They were all devoutly Christian nations (with God on their side!) as they went about the business of slaughtering each other in a “war to end wars.”

As the English poet, J. C. Squire, wrote at the height of the war:

God heard the embattled nations shout and sing
‘Gott strafe England’–
‘God save the King.’
‘God this’, ‘God that’–
and ‘God the other thing’
‘My God,’ said God,
‘I’ve got my work cut out.’

Needless to say his poem was banned. Anyone who might think we are just a little less hypocritical today, should read the Presidential proclamation #6243, February 3rd, 1991, of President George Bush, issued during the Gulf War. He managed to get in God, the Almighty, our Lord, Heavenly Father, etc. etc., 12 times in one page! Quite apart from that, he was blatantly preaching religion from the White House at the taxpayers’ expense in defiance of the constitution.

At the age of 3 I left Canada for Jamaica, where my father became the chief engineer and manager of a sugar estate. I am happy to record that both my parents were essentially areligious, and as a child I was raised without any formal religious instruction, for which I have always been grateful. In the 1920s, Jamaica was still very much a British crown colony, with a population of less than 1% very privileged ruling whites, and more than 99% blacks, most of whom lived in complete poverty. My family lived in what would now be described as the lap of luxury, waited on hand-and-foot by black servants. The servants were all devoutly Christian (it was their opium!), and although largely subdued, cowed and loyal, the dangers to the whites were great enough that my father had a loaded revolver handy by his bed, and would not have hesitated to use it.

I remember my childhood years in Jamaica with pleasure, being largely unaware of the social injustices that surrounded me, somewhat like Mark Twain, who never questioned the slavery around him–“it was preached from the pulpit as a holy thing” he said. The principle negative things that I remember were all the health hazards, for preventive medicine was still very primitive, particularly in the tropics. I escaped malaria (though my younger brother didn’t), and I remember my cousin dying from diphtheria, he was literally strangled to death at age 7. I have asked many times since what kind of a God it is that stands idly by and watches a little child being strangled to death. We children all got whooping cough, measles, chicken pox etc., and we were all loaded with parasites; pinworms, tapeworms, roundworms, hookworms, flatworms, and ringworms, to say nothing of jiggers, ticks, lice and god knows what! All this was the norm, especially for children.

At the age of 9, I was sent 4,000 miles to boarding school (all boys) in England. This was also the norm for so-called “colonial” families. In fact I was considered a year late, I should have gone at 8! During the next 8 years, I crossed the Atlantic by boat 14 times. The routine was that the journey took 2 weeks each way, so that during the summer holidays of eight weeks (the only time we ever saw our parents), we spent 2 weeks going out to Jamaica, 4 weeks there, and 2 weeks going back to England. The principle purpose of the boats, however, was not to carry passengers, but bananas to England. As the crew said when their officers’ backs were turned, “every banana a guest, every passenger a pest!” However, I must say that the journeys on those boats were one of the highlights of my life. Today it is a millionaire’s way of traveling, the rest of us having to crowd into those overgrown sausages called jet airliners.

It was at boarding school that my religious indoctrination in the Church of England began. From Monday to Saturday we boys compulsorarily attended chapel morning and evening. In addition after morning chapel we were instructed in the Bible and Christianity. Over a period of time we had to learn verbatim the “Sermon on the Mount,” chapters 5, 6 and 7 of St. Matthew. On Sundays we had to learn, again verbatim, the Collect for the day, before all trooping off to the local church for the usual Sunday service, and again chapel in the evening. At the age of 13, I was confirmed in the Church of England, after “suitable” indoctrination in its meaning and significance, which included a smattering about sex, taught by a very embarrassed clergyman who was a bachelor!

Needless to say it left us with a host of inhibitions, guilt feelings, etc., and more confused than ever. The culmination of this was the confirmation service itself, conducted by a bishop, and the following morning we all attended “holy communion.” It is the only time I have ever attended this ritual, for I found it absolutely disgusting–“eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ!” However for me there was something worse, namely the constant reminder of the central image of Christianity–the crucifixion. This horror simply played on my mind, and filed me with fear and revulsion. Anyone who forces such an image (to say nothing of the concept of “hell”!) on little children, I would consider to be guilty of mental terrorism. Not for one moment would I shield children from learning the realities of this world (both past and present), but to hold something as repulsive as crucifixion and the myth of “hell” constantly before their developing minds is both cruel and pathological.

On thinking back over all this, my overwhelming impression is what a terrible waste of time and monstrous distortion of the educational process. I also have a strong sense of resentment against the overall Christian establishment who were responsible for the indoctrination. At the very least, they should have been willing to admit and incorporate counter opinions and views into the general educational process. But of course that’s not what people who indoctrinate want! Fortunately for me, this whole indoctrination was too late, as I was passed the formative years (about 3-7) when it began, and in my late teens and early twenties I was able to shake it off with relatively little trauma. Compared to some poor people I escaped and recovered fairly easily. I was subconsciously (perhaps not so sub!) questioning it while I was still being indoctrinated, but it isn’t easy for a small boy to rebel under those circumstances. Sometime after I left school I read Bertrand Russell, and he unquestionably gave me the final incentive to dump religion from my mind. All told it took about 10 years, but even then I was merely neutral to it. It took me a lot longer to understand its basic evil, namely that it persuades people to abandon their power to reason and let other people (usually priests in one form or another) do their thinking for them, which in turn makes them easy dupes for charlatans, con men and frauds in any form. Religion has an inhibiting influence in both mind and body on human progress, and since our humanitarian impulses are based on reason, they also are inhibited. It seems to me that once people get caught up in the religious trap, they continue to indoctrinate themselves and addicts to it: “Pray-pay-obey and you’ll be OK!” becomes a way of life. Marx was right, it is the “opiate of the masses.”

At the age of 18, I found myself back in Canada and working for a bank, but in 1939 WWII began and after a short spell in the Canadian Army I transferred to the Air Force (radar) where I spent the next 5 years, all of it in the European theatre. As wars go, I had an “easy war,” did what I was ordered to do, got shot at, bombed, V-1d and V-2d, but fortunately for me they always missed! I was finally discharged in October 1945. As the war was coming to an end and for sometime afterwards, we gradually became aware of what is now called “the holocaust,” but what was conveniently forgotten at the time, and still is, was that Germany was a Christian nation, and Hitler himself was a lifelong Roman Catholic. He was confirmed in 1904, received B’s in religious instruction, and attended a Benedictine monastery school for a while, where he considered becoming a priest. He never renounced Roman Catholicism and he was never excommunicated. On top of that, Pope Pius XII (Pacelli) knew exactly what was going on in those concentration camps, and never once even raised a word of protest–all he did was pray! If he’d had any conscience or guts, much of that never would have happened. It should also be noted that the “Nazi holocaust” was by no means the only one perpetrated by Christianity, there have been several others.

Anyway, the war was behind me. I got a diploma in hotel management, and spent some time in the hotel business. However, far more important was that I got married in 1948 to my darling wife, Daphne, whom I first met during the war in England, while she was in the British Air Force. We were married for over 41 years. We had 2 children, a son who is now a professor of mathematics, and a daughter who is nurse. Not long after I was married I want back to the University of Toronto and, with the help of my very supportive wife, I eventually got a BA in Biology and finally a Ph.D. in Physiology. It was during this time that I developed a deep interest in the history of science and its inevitable conflict with religion; and in particular the impact of evolutionary theory on our way of thinking, and its principal architect, Charles Darwin. This has been a lifelong interest for me, and led to my understanding of the destructiveness of the monotheistic religions (primarily Christianity, Judaism and Mohammedanism).

I was 40 when I received my Ph.D. at the University of Toronto, and then came to California, where for 25 years I was a “ladder faculty” professor in the University of California at the Riverside, Santa Barbara, and Davis campuses, retiring as Professor Emeritus in 1984. During those 25 years, besides undergraduate and graduate teaching, I did extensive research in animal physiology and the history of biology, wrote many scientific papers and books, traveled and lectured widely in Europe and North America, and was always “involved” socially and politically as well. In retirement, I still lecture (by request only) on the history of biology and medicine, and am also “involved” in environmental, population, euthanasia and freethought issues–my latest effort being a lecture entitled “Why I Reject Christianity.”

I am now 74 and a very reluctant widower, my wife having died of cancer in 1990. I was personally able to nurse her at home during her terminal illness until she died in my arms. It was during this time that I became acutely aware of the need for compassionate laws for the terminally ill, commonly called euthanasia. I soon learned of the religious opposition to this, principally from Roman Catholic priests, and my contempt for them has steadily increased. Nevertheless I hope to live to see euthanasia in this country a reality, and I spend a great deal of time working towards that end. It will be a happy day for me, and a worthy legacy of my late wife, if I live to see this achieved and the revolting morality of the Pope and his subservient priests totally annihilated.

Prof. Pengelley, a Foundation member from California, has written books and technical papers about Behavioral Physiology, as well as a book about the history of biology and medicine. He collects rare books, especially Darwinia. An active letter-writer, he is a member of environmental, population control, euthanasia and women’s organizations.

Freedom From Religion Foundation