Thursday, November 12, 2015

Pendulum swinging in our direction: but faith equilibrium a major challenge

It's been quite an active last few months for me as an atheist and secularist. Haven't had the chance to put out all the various thoughts and reflections, but there has been no shortage of material coming in.

Starting back in August, I had the pleasure of attending the first atheist conference held in Puerto Rico. That filled me with optimism as I heard stories of secularism and activities to make sure that the separation of church and state that is clear in the US constitution, extends to this Caribbean island territory. However, at that conference there was also a measure of despair as I heard of the hold that faith thinking has in that country. A kind of addiction to dogma that I have seen at play in many other Caribbean islands. The news that they had a police road stop to force drivers to have a pray was certainly an eye opener. Definitely won't be forgetting that one soon. 

In the USA itself,  the excitement of marriage equality was tempered by the obstinance of Kim Davis and her continued refusal to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. A lot has been written and said about that issue, but it shows plainly that the defiance of those in the religious right who always think they are right, knows no bounds. Then news of Pew studies showing declining interest in faith and religion in the youth was counter balanced by the Popemania that surrounded the tour Francis took to the US. 

On a personal note, the feature of some of my work in Greta Christina's blog was a boost to me to continue to work to promote secularism in the Caribbean. I still feel humbled to be considered an 'atheist leader', but I received quite a few new contacts and messages of interest in our efforts in the Caribbean stemming from that article. I can only believe that this will augur well for our future growth. So thanks again to Greta for all of that.

Meanwhile, in Calgary a torn banner at our counter protest against Jesse Rau,  the driver claiming persecution for having to drive an LGBT bus, reinforced in my mind the vitriol coming from the small but very vocal and influential fundamentalist wing here in this city. A few weeks later, the first Alberta secular conference was cause for some optimism once again, even as we learnt of creationism and other anti science attitudes pervading the schools throughout the province. 

In Barbados, my island of birth, a tragic vehicular accident that left four dead, has been met with calls to pray and look towards God for assistance rather than exploring ways to fix the condition of a road that has seen many serious accidents at that spot over the years. My brave colleagues in the Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers group in Barbados still have their work cut out in convincing those around them that leaning on the Lord is not worth it all in the end.

The latest flicker of hope has come here in Canada where the new prime minister Justin Trudeau has brought what looks like a sweeping change to how critical thinking will be valued. Ministries dedicated to issues such as science advancement and climate change are definitely steps in the right direction. Meanwhile south of the border, Donald Trump and Ben Carson battle for first place as the Republican nominee for the 2016 US election. Enough said. 

As I write this, reports are coming in of a deadly terrorist attack in Paris at the hands of ISIS. Yet another grave reminder of what can happen when religion holds sway over reason.

I could speak of many more ups and downs to my secular morale over recent times. Over and over again, you think the pendulum is swinging in a progressive secular direction, but just as you are about to celebrate, there is a sharp and vicious swing back to faith positions and a trust in dogma and the divine.
In looking back at how the pendulum has been swinging recently,  I couldn't help but think that the same movements that happen towards and away from secularism in our societies, happen in the minds of individuals who are exposed to the paradigms of both religion and realism on a daily basis. Of course we in the atheist community would just like to grab hold of these ever swinging pendulums and hold them in the rational position. We as persons that consider reason to be the best road to reality, don't go back and forth on the faith issue like so many of our believer friends do. As atheists, we see no reason to return to faith positions even for a fleeting moment. 

However, if we don't understand the nature of the faith/ reason swing in the minds of different believers, we'll never figure out what we need to do to get people to get off this continuing, repeating cycle and dwell in the region of reason, that promises a future ripe with exciting possibilities for all.

Analysing the swing  

So, let's look at this pendulum in more detail. Where does this oscillation come from? It comes from that conflict that leads to the much discussed cognitive dissonance. The dissonance we experience from living in a world where we are regularly fed the message that faith and reason are both important. Every believer that I have engaged in discussion over the god question, has assigned some value to both faith based and evidence based beliefs.

Some believers see the two as equally important, for some faith should always trump reason and for others of them reason takes precedent over the dogma. But whatever they have faith in and however strongly they believe it, they argue that these unsubstantiated beliefs have some value to individual and/ or society and that is why they hold on to them.

That being said, believers cannot deny that they live essentially in a world where rationality rules. A world where we have proven over and over again that looking at the evidence, developing hypotheses, testing those hypotheses in light of observations, drawing inferences and then further testing these inferences through making predictions, is by far the best way to learn what is true about the universe we live in. 

Invariably these truths that reason tells them comes into conflict with what faith and religion tell them, but because ultimately survival in reality is first and foremost on the mind of most people, believers are just as quick as atheists to put all their  trust in science  when it comes to those critical decisions that could mean the difference between life and death.

They will go to doctors when sick, take out insurance, consume medicines that have been FDA approved and wear helmets or seatbelts that have been tested to the required safety standards. When believers engage in these actions, they are behaving like a pendulum swinging away from its faith centre. The swing away is not permanent however, because latent faith inherent in them remains strong even while  they do their reasoning. We know from observation that a swing back to faith is never far away for these believers. That pull of attraction from the extremes of reason back to the centre of faith, comes from the emotional factors in their lives and the widespread idea that is perpetuated in many societies that I have been exposed to. The idea that everybody needs to have faith and that we all 'have to believe in something'.

We are told that we need to have faith even to make sense of anything. In one of life's greatest oxymorons we are told that reason means nothing unless there is faith to ground it in. We are told we need it to have purpose, to be assured of a life after death, to experience love, to be moral beings, to be true supporters of our families traditions or the countries in which we live. The combination of all these forces is what continually ensures that the pendulum swings back towards the faith centre after each journey towards the extremities of reason.

To explain this more clearly, I hope you indulge me in a short physics lesson.

Faith is represented by the middle position (A) which is equilibrium. This is where the believer feels most comfortable. It's a natural, familiar position and any deviation from this point feels like a displacement.

Education, exposure to the scientific method, problem solving and critical thinking pushes the believer away from his midpoint of faith comfort, just like a physical push of a hand on a pendulum 'bob' causes it to move it away from equilibrium. 

Just as with the pendulum in the diagram above, the greater the force of reason the greater the push from the equilibrium and the greater the amplitude of the swing towards (B) or (C) which are the points of maximum 'reason'. These points of maximum reason are where the potential (energy)  of the believer is at its highest. As the distance the pendulums swings increases,  the height which it can reach also increases. It can be thrilling and exciting for even the most  devout believer to push towards those reason 'maximums'  where you can figure things out by thoroughly thinking through a problem. Exploring topics such as the evolution of our species or the expansion of our universe after the Big Bang can be truly exhilarating, like being thrust into the air on your favourite ride at a theme park.

But of course with that excitement comes a level of fear as well. The further the believer gets away from that initial ground level, the greater the worry of being separated from 'home territory'. They can see their faith slipping away in the distance, even as they revel in the height of discovery in science and reason. Eventually the forces that act as a constraint to reason become too strong, and the believer slows down as 'reason maximum' is approached. 

If you look back at the pendulum above, you will recognise that the greater the distance from the initial equilibrium point (A) the greater the force pulling the 'bob' back to that equilibrium point.  In my experience, this is how faith works with a lot of believers. The greater  the extent to which their faith is tested, the stronger the urge within them is to get back to their faith. The more they start to doubt, the more scared they become and the more desperately they try to cling back on to the faith centre that keeps their life in balance.

This not only comes when they are pushed into reason by intellectual pursuits, it happens when they have those emotional jolts in the pendulum of life  that make the god they believe in seem distant. The times like four families in Barbados are facing right at this moment, as they come to terms with the fact that four of their most beloved have had their lives snatched away in their prime. Those kind of tragedies that push the believer's pendulum into planes of uncertainty and doubt are followed up by extremely strong dependencies on faith present at their core to get through it. In essence, the more experiences in life push these people away from belief, the greater their desire to hold on to that same belief. That's how it tends to work for believers and that's why they keep swinging like a pendulum and most never get to the point of  grounding themselves in reason's territory.

Sadly, this swing back to faith centre happens also when we atheists engage believers in extended, discussions and debates. For many, the more you bring arguments against their belief the more they dig into hold their belief.  They'll acknowledge the points we make but still say that the belief in the god they believe in is locked at 100%. I can't tell you how many believers that I have had discussions with, claim that their faith in God has been STRENGTHENED as a result of our discussion. It's frustrating as hell, but now I am realising that it is nothing more than the simple harmonic motion of their pendulum of faith.

The strength of the centripetal force in the faith pendulum is immense, but remarkably still often underestimated. Faith congregations, faith communities and faith countries all play a large part in this force to bring back those swaying from the faith. They do this by telling the believer who deviates from faith that they just have to pray more, ask Jesus for help, or just go to the pastor for a counselling session. The more the believer questions the more measures the faithful around the believer will put in place to stop them from drifting completely away.

With these types of messages circling around, the believer will then actively try to erase the doubts. The desire to have faith will at that point come to the fore. The believer will while acknowledging doubt, continue to tell themselves that they 'just got to have faith'. It's the old 'fake it til you make it' rule. If you believe enough, suppress your reason enough, you will be able to force yourself back to the centre with the help of those 'pulling for faith' around you.

But what happens when the believers get back to centre? Let's look at the pendulum again. The believer starts moving away from faith once more. That is because as much as faith is a comfort, it's easy to be pushed away again to reality through reason. Indeed in a pendulum the velocity (speed) is maximum as it moves through that equilibrium point. The 'bob' of the believer just can't stop there in the middle as the challenges to faith and belief are always around. They feel the urge to keep moving, because in that position they have a large amount of kinetic energy. As much as a believer just tries to remain at that faith centre, it very seldom happens. Many Christians will claim that this failure to remain at the centre is the fault of sin or the devil. But I don't think so, it's just nature and reality. You just can't live in that fantasy world all the time. That's why so many faith activities, are done at certain times with a definite start and finish and then it's back to 'reality'.Church on Sunday morning, bible study on Wednesday night, or praying facing mecca at five specific times of the day. Faith is a little 'check in' with god to make sure you are OK. Then you can move back out in to your world of reality and reason, until you have the realization of too much drift and then come surging back to centre for one more go around.

This is the reason why believers, however questioning and skeptical they may be in everyday life, never quite get away from oscillating back and forth around their faith equilibrium. They may swing miles and miles away from their faith home, but there is always something in their centre that brings them back. The swing back may be after one week from Sunday to Sunday, a year between Easter and Easter, or even decades between when the children came along and when the sceptre of death begins to threaten.

I know many believers that are on the pendulum. They swing a lot, they swing widely and sometimes wildly, but they keep hanging on.  I was on it myself for more than 35 years. So I know more than most, that it can be extremely hard to remove yourself from it.  As it is with the pendulums we come across in physics, so it is with believers. Not all of them swing to the same extent or with the same frequency. Below are three types of pendulum believers I have come across. Maybe you know them too!

Wrecking ball believers

These are by far the hardest believers to deal with. The ball on their pendulum is heavy, really, really heavy. You try to push it and it just doesn't move an inch. Yon can try every instrument you have in your reason toolbox, but they just won't budge.  They are rigid in their beliefs,  the entire bible is inerrant, everything written there is absolutely and undeniably true. 

You bring your skeptic friends around, yell at everybody around to push simultaneously, and still no movement. Feels like this type of believer's  stubbornness weighs over a tonne and it probably does. They deny evolution, climate change and any other part of science that even appears to be a distant threat to their cherished dogma.

You may have to bring a crane to get movement, but you must be careful, because balls of that mass at the end of a pendulum can be really unstable. And because they are heavy if they move and hit something they can do a lot of damage to everything around them. People, buildings, towns, vehicles, nothing is safe. These are wrecking ball believers.

Their beliefs in absurdities can easily turn to atrocities. These are the raging fundamentalists. The Fred Phelps, the ISIS, the Westboro Baptists. No controlling these kind of believers, just best to try to contain them and make sure they are never close to anything that can be destroyed.

Metronomic believers

These type of believers are not usually dangerous but they can be infuriating as hell. I know quite a few of these and there were common in the Anglican church that I was once a part of.

For these believers its all about routine. Everything has to be done in an exact and completely predictable way when it comes to worship. They are like clockwork. Like a metronome keeping exact time to the music.

Prayers must start at a certain time. Incense must be swung when it has to be, not a moment too early or late and the swing must be consistent.  Hymns must be played as written, no slowing down or quickening up, no pretty improvisations. These guys will go crazy if anything changes in the church. Ask them what their faith means to them they can't tell you. Ask them what they believe is true and they give some vague wishy washy answer.

But change one thing in the liturgy and it's hell to pay.

Free swinging pendulum believers.

These are the type of believers I like to engage with and I daresay most atheists too, even as we wonder why they don't just jump off the swing and join us. These believers swing in reason's pendulum with childlike glee. Not that they have childlike faith, far from that, they have great maturity. However, they have a child like curiosity, that spurs them on higher and higher. They are like the kid playing in the park that just wants you to push the swing harder and harder, so that they can feel their body going up, up into orbit. They don't settle for the regular or ordinary, they seek to push the envelope of discovery.

At their best these free flowing pendulum believers can be among the greatest of scientists and skeptics. They can blow your mind with ideas, levels of creativity and understanding of complex concepts. 

These tend to be the liberal believers, the 'spiritual but not religious', those that insist there are agnostics or even ignostics. Yep they'll carry any label that sticks just to avoid 'atheist'. Let me clarify that  I respect people's right to self identify in their faith or non faith in any way that they see fit. But when I see people who essentially agree with my philosophical position, desperate to avoid the label that quite clearly fits, I tend to ask why.  I think it has a large part to do with there desire to keep that faith equilibrium, be seen to have it or at least not be seen to have lost it. Perhaps the strongest emotional force that keeps people wanting to have a faith centre of some kind is the idea that faith is a virtue. It may be irrational, it may sometimes be laughable and ridiculous, it  may even in some people lead violence, but it's still all in all seen as a trait to be desired.  And nobody wants to identify with a trait that is undesirable. People generally don't want to go around saying they have thrown away that faith equilibrium that is valued by so many.

We as atheists often don't see this when we are dealing with these free flowing pendulum believers. When they swing up in to reason's territory we get excited. They reason with a critical eye, see through biblical contradictions, smell the bullshit like it really is and we sit there waiting, thinking that it's just a matter of time. We'll just keep the challenges up, show them more and more about how faith isn't worth it and they'll come around to reality, happily throwing faith away completely, just like we did. But they don't, they keep holding on to that faith centre no matter how much their rational mind tells them it's not needed. And what do we do? We keep adding more reason pushing them harder, forcing them more but like the pendulum 'bob' they just keep swinging back.

We have to understand that giving then the push of reason is not effective on its own, the only way to truly make the difference is to break the chain of the pendulum and set the 'bob' free completely. We need to break the pendulum not just push it harder in the hope that magically sometime in the future the system will collapse under its own weight. Breaking the oscillatory cycle means chipping away at that centripetal forces that draw believers to the centre. That force is mainly about desire stemming from an assumed need, so essentially what we have to do from an individual and community perspective is to work at removing that desire to embrace faith. As long as people continue to hold the position that faith is a virtue, they will seek it out and we'll keep going through the same cycle over and over again.

We atheists often actively encourage believers to cling to their faith equilibrium.  We tell them if faith works for them they should cherish it and  keep it. Sometimes we even apologize for not having faith ourselves. I used to do that a lot. We tell believers that we wish we could believe but we just can't. It gives people in the faith the idea that atheists are people with an emotional handicap, a kind of 'god blindness'. So those liberal pendulum believers begin to feel they are better than we are. Having the best of both worlds, reasoning with the best and still able to hold on to a steadfast faith.

We have to stop speaking about losing faith as if it we have lost something of value.  We have to emphasise  that faith is NOT a virtue. This is where I agree a lot with Peter Boghossian's approach of showing faith as a flawed epistemology, a bad process for making decisions, doesn't matter if it's a decision about what to eat for dinner, which elementary school to send your children to or what god to believe in. It is more the method of faith belief rather than the content of faith belief that we should be attacking.

If people start to realize the dangers of making decisions without evidence, eventually they will abandon it. It will be a long eventually, because of all the other emotional forces that keep the believer swinging back to faith centres.  But in time as we build the secular institutions and show how much wonder there is in the world and the satisfaction associated with really figuring out an answer rather than guessing at an answer, faith will become less attractive. I look forward to the day that the masses look for centres for inquiry rather than centres for faith, to keep them moving froward. When faith is seen universally as an unattractive way to live,  believers will cut away from the pendulum themselves. I did it and more and more people are doing it. As I said, I was swinging on that pendulum for years before I got my scissors  and had the courage to cut the cord.

In the end, my decision to cut that faith out was done not because I no longer needed it. It was done, believe it or not, because I no longer wanted it.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Profile for Greta Christina's blog!

I have long been a fan of Greta Christina's blog. She was one of the first in the atheist community that I ever followed and I enjoy her style of writing. A conversational playful, humorous style that makes her points logically and clearly while still having that fire to call somebody an 'asshole' every now and again, if she thinks it's merited.
She is the author of "Why are you Atheists so Angry" which is an extended rant of all the thinks that frustrate and enrage us as non believers,  she also wrote"Coming out Atheist" and "Comforting Thoughts About Death that have nothing to do with God". In contrast these books seek to provide methods for non believers to cope with the emotional challenges that face many of us as we adjust to living as atheists among a population that is still very religious in the most part. These books are extremely useful to any atheists struggling to come to terms with the challenges. Pease check them out!

Greta played in huge part in my own 'coming out' as an atheist by featuring my blog among atheists of colour. She did me a great honour once again by doing a profile on me among 'atheist leaders' The article is at the link below. 

You can give aid a read and tell me what you think! 

Thanks again Greta!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Reaching the goal of Marriage Equality: Why I truly felt the pride

It happened now over a month ago, but I am still reflecting on how the aftershocks of THAT decision in the USA continue to reverberate all across the Caribbean. The lingering vibrations even greater than the ones the Kick'em Jenny underwater volcano has been able to produce.

It was Friday June 26th. The day when we all read the headline.'Same sex marriage is now legal all across the U.S'. Ever since then, pastors from my home country Barbados and the wider Caribbean have been been digging their heels in, vowing to keep 'marriage equality' from reaching their island shores, as if it were a rare and lethal form of dengue or ebola.

Of course for me, it was not a decision that filled me with any worries. Indeed, I saw it as a landmark victory and I felt without doubt that I was part of the winning team. In some respects, it reminded me of how I felt in 2008, when Barack Obama was declared US president. It was a day you hoped you'd be alive to witness,  but never in your wildest dreams expected be there to see. I felt elated for the LGBT community, because I know for them it has been and will continue to be a long hard struggle. But even in my own euphoria, I stopped to reflect a bit.

I am not a member of the LGBT community and I don't live in the US,  so why was I feeling so excited?  Why was I so emotional?  Why was I fighting to hold back the tears? To be quite honest, I really wasn't sure. Canada has had marriage equality for a decade now, so it's no really an issue here where I live. However, though we don't always like to admit it, what happens in the US tends to have a far greater influence on the rest of the world than what happens in other countries. I knew what happened in the US would have a big impact on the debate  in other parts of the world and that has happened. As a result of this ruling,  I believe that full marriage equality worldwide is now a matter of 'when' rather than 'if'. And that, as a certain vice president would say is  'a big fucking deal'.

But that still doesn't explain why it was a big deal for me. Having had now more time to think about it, I  recognize why. It is because I myself have had my own journey over the last few years.  A journey which has brought  as significant an opening of the mind as an opening of the heart. My journey has not been one where I was to trying to be able to love who I wanted to, mine has been one of a loss of love, separation from the God I once believed in. It was coming to terms with accepting an idea I embraced six years ago. The notion that there is no higher power, no cosmic leader or arbitrator beyond space and time that pulls the levers or keeps things in motion. Going through that transition in my belief system certainly provided its degree of emotion and at that time I considered it to be perhaps the biggest struggle of my life to get through. I remember well the anxiety and uncertainty of walking that narrow secular road ahead.

At that time, it was all about finding my own way and figuring how I would "come out" to family and friends and psychologically be able to navigate in the world without that spirit to guide. Still, I happily embraced the world of 'reason' and looked on it to lead the way. In trying to come to grips with my new life, I started to reach out. First through this blog which I started back in 2010 and then through joining organizations such as Centre for Inquiry (CFI) here in Calgary.

In time these associations and activities brought me in contact with more atheist, humanist and secular groups. I discovered atheist and secular podcasts which quickly became my daily diet of listening. Two years later, I would also become a podcaster, doing what I could to add to reasonable rational voices already out there.

I realize now, that on that Friday 'same sex marriage' morning the journey that was pulling at my heartstrings was not my journey to atheism, but my journey since atheism. The journey that has led to me walking arm in arm with so many secularists all over the world. Now that I have successfully navigated my personal 'coming out' as an atheist,  I have discovered that my non-theism is about far more than ME.  It goes far beyond just getting through as David Ince. It's about a family, a community and a world that is held back in so many ways because of the prevalence of religious laws, religious norms and religious thinking that will still take many more years to sweep away.

In the beginning of my atheist life, as much as it was exciting to find a community that I could identify with and feel good about being able to reason with, it was also at times distinctly uncomfortable. The discomfort came from the fact that I realised just how much 'un-reason' there was in the world and how many people were suffering because of it day by day. People have lost their lives, families, jobs and been sent into exile in many places due to 'unreason'. Much of this irrationality stems from religion, and I felt that we as secular people, who understood these issues more than most, had a responsibility to try to fix them. But were we doing enough? Was I doing enough?

Moving beyond my disbelief

I quite quickly realized that one of the biggest issues that the secular movement was involved in, certainly in the western world, was gay rights and rights within the LGBT movement in general.
The first president of the CFI in Calgary when I joined back in 2010 was Mike Gray, He was an enthusiastic leader, passionate about building the secular community and also openly gay. I remember he would from time to time wear a t-shirt with the word "Gaytheist" emblazoned on the front.

I smiled when I saw him do that, but it also was a genuine eye opener for me. For all my time growing up in Barbados I knew my fair share of gay people, or should I say my fair share of people 'rumoured to be gay.' But that's the point, it was never something anyone wore as a source of pride, it was a mark of shame, something to hide from at all costs.

Discovering the word 'homosexual'

I remember very well the first time I heard the word 'homosexual' when I was about seven years old.. One heavy set young fellow pushed a smaller boy on the pasture at school and the little guy responded with the words  "You're a homosexual!" I can guarantee that none of us around there had a clue what that word meant. But we just knew it had to be something bad, really bad. A word so big couldn't be benign. It had four whole syllables, it had to be something dangerous and terrible. Indeed at the time, I think it was the only four syllable word we knew.

So, for the rest of that term the word 'homosexual' became the insult word of choice. It was all fun for us as kids, nothing too serious. But looking back I think the anti gay sentiment was set in for us even back then. I came to learn that homosexual was just the more formal word for 'buller' that pejorative 'b' word for being gay in Barbados.

Yes, as I grew up into adolescence in Barbados I came to realize that you could pretty much survive being accused of anything, but one thing you never wanted to be was to be 'accused' of being gay. No, if anyone were to think that even for a moment, your entire reputation would be flushed down the toilet.  Guaranteed!  In fact in my parents' generation a common euphemism for referring to a person who was gay was to call them a person 'of doubtful reputation'. I have seen it many times, artists, musicians, scientists and sportsmen. All their achievements glibly glossed over as people say ' but you know he is a 'b*****.

Backing away

I can remember one term in secondary school when I began to talk quite regularly to this one guy, as we both used to get picked up from school around the same time. One morning,  a classmate called me aside and said he had noticed I had been spending a lot of time talking with this friend. He warned me that this individual was known to be gay and if I continued to hang out with him, people would start to believe I was the same way too. I was shocked by what I heard and from the very next evening I started cutting my conversations with my new friend short and about two weeks later I was finding other people to hang out with on afternoons. It's embarrassing to look back at that now and I wish I could go back and change it, but that's just the way it was.

In spite of this, I certainly was not among the 'homophobic' in Barbados.  As a liberal, I was always in favour of gays having whatever rights others were entitled to. However, there was still a level of distance that I felt I wanted to keep from them. I endorsed the idea that gays should be equal but still separate. You should tolerate them, but that didn't mean you went out of your way to have them as your best friend. People may find this surprising, but my position at that time was at the very progressive end of the spectrum of attitudes in Barbadian society.  The more conservative  view was. 'You gays just need to find Jesus and stop sinning'.  And of course as 'good Christians' the conservatives were called to reach out to this community in 'love' by helping them to turn from their 'nasty' and  'wicked' lifestyle.

In spite of this hurtful kind of rhetoric, I have to say that at least to Barbados' credit, we never had the violence against gays that other Caribbean countries such as Jamaica had to endure. Indeed, many in the Caribbean often saw Barbados as the most 'gay friendly' island and we Bajans can attest to being frequently teased about this from our island neighbours. Additionally, within Barbados  we often made fun of the gay community ourselves. The easiest way for a comedian to get a cheap laugh, was to  make a joke about homosexuals or trans sexuals. The way they talked, the way the walked the way they dressed, it was all fodder for various forms of ridicule. That was the comedy we seemed to like more than any other type. The popular comedy and calypso singing group MADD milked it for all it was worth through their 'ArchiBULL Cox' character. For so many years we laughed and laughed, lapping up the hilarity without much of a second thought. For those of us who were straight, we would privately let out a sigh of relief that at least we weren't one of THEM.

So when I came in to the secular world and realized that the people I grew up  identifying as those "THEMS" were actually important allies,  it was somewhat of an about turn for me to take. As I said. I have never had problems with the movement for 'gay rights', but a lot of my feelings before being an atheist activist were pretty apathetic. I thought they deserved rights, but I didn't see it as something I needed to get up off the couch and join them in the fight for.

But my views changed quickly, from the time I started going to weekly CFI meetings, held at the 'Sapien ' night club.' Sapien' was a gay club, it's name a clever short form for 'homo- sapien'. I remember feeling a bit uncomfortable telling people I was going there for meetings. Especially people from the Caribbean, who had enough trouble getting over the 'atheist' thing already. I had to admit that even as a freethinker and atheist I still had lingering fears about someone thinking I was gay when I was not. I felt embarrassed about having such feelings and never shared them with any of my new secular friends, most of whom had grown up in Canada and appeared to have no such hang ups like this at all.

I realized somewhat in horror, that even though I was a liberal by Barbadian standards, I still had a way to go in dealing with aspects of my thinking which still had  remnants of indoctrination. Shedding my belief in a god was indeed only the first step of many I would need to take to embrace rationality fully. Going on to meet people like our following president Nate Phelps (son of Fred Phelps) and strong LGBT activist made me understand more. I began to realize this was more of a fight about human rights than about 'approving' of particular sexual practices. Then we interviewed gay individuals from the Caribbean such as Duane Howard and Dadland Maye on 'Freethinking Island' who had faced backlash in their respective countries of Jamaica and Trinidad. Later we interviewed Angeline Jackson whose work as an advocate in Jamaica has made her  recognized publicly by no less a person than President Barack Obama.

But it wasn't all about the social impact of my new friends in the LGBT Community that affected my thinking. It was reason and  evidence of their arguments that ultimately made me open my mind fully on this issue. The LGBT movement, in putting forward their arguments for their rights, always made a convincing and compelling case. Their arguments  made me realize that not only did they deserve tolerance and acceptance, they deserved to be fully embraced and supported in their push for all basic human rights. That included the important right to all the benefits of being 'married' if they chose to go that route.

I came to learn that to look at the gay community as 'equal but separate' was just not good enough. To do that, would be like saying to blacks in times gone by, that you can drink the same water as the whites but you just need to go to a different water fountain. I began to understand why it was important that the word 'marriage' be used to define gay unions as well as straight ones. Many people like to say that if you let gays have a  'marriage like' union you should call it something else. But that's part of the 'separate but equal' mentality that I now definitely reject.

This is what I have come to love about being in the atheist and secular community. You get your views challenged all the time and you move or adjust your position in the face of a rational argument. That's how it should be. Losing my belief in a god, has allowed me to investigate these human rights issues without the inhibition of dogma. I have come to recognize that a world where rights are extended to more people is a win for all. When this happens we should be proud that we as a human species have identified an imbalance in our system and have taken measures to correct it.

Love your neighbour

So, the marriage equality win is not a win for the 'gays' it's a win for the world. I realize this is a difficult concept for some people. For  as much as Christians claim that being good is about loving your neighbour and caring for others, the truth is that religion is generally not about including others and loving unconditionally. It's about loving your 'neighbour' in a restricted sense. Loving those who are 'next to you' culturally or ideologically. In general, religion is not about loving people who are different and respecting them for who they are. For them, love is about trying to push others who may live far away into  becoming 'neighbours'. For its only when you are in the same 'neighbourhood' as them that they think you can experience love fully

This is where the whole 'love the sinner, hate the sin' comes from. Translated it means, 'We love you, but that love is expressed through placing emotional pressure on you to embrace our belief'. So they will argue that you can't really appreciate or understand love until you experience the love of Jesus. They'll say you will only get God's full approval, if you turn away from your 'sin' of being a homosexual. Love in  a religious context definitely comes with strings attached.

You don't have to be in our neighbourhood

But those of us on the secular side don't operate from that premise. Our aim is to love our 'neighbours' but also those who have taken up residence far away, those who may have likes, preferences and cultures far different from ours. It's about looking to defend the rights of the marginalized wherever they may be. It doesn't have to be us atheists ourselves that are the ones being denied the right. In fact it could be and often is the very religious who we disagree with, whose rights we want to defend.

I realize this is a very difficult concept for a lot of people.  That's why some of my friends in Barbados, including some in my own family, wondered if my putting the rainbow filter on my Facebook profile pic, was actually me coming out as a homosexual!

It's weird, but I think I get it. So often our world promotes a 'stand up for YOUR rights' attitude. Fight for what you think that YOU have been denied. It's important to do that, but that's not where it should end. You need to stand up for the rights of others as well, even as others stand up for YOUR rights. That's how we make the world better.  The fight is not over and the battle continues. Other groups will need the support as the years go on. None more so than the 'T's in the 'LGBT' movement, I think of my brave colleague in the Caribbean secular community Gabrielle Bellot, who is the Founder of the 'Caribbean Freethinkers' Society' blog and facebook group. Gabrielle is a transgender woman living in US, who now lives in fear of returning to her native Dominica since her transition. Given the disparaging comments that have been made about people like Caitlyn Jenner in her island and the rest of the Caribbean, her fear is not at all unfounded. Things like this make it clear that we need to keep up the fight both for those in our 'neighbourhood' and those who live well outside.

So we must go on. It's amazing and remarkable. A journey that started out for me as a mere disbelief in the existence of a god has become so much more along the way, and I truly feel the PRIDE when I think about that.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Why do women hide their penises?: If only the believers could get hypothetical

'Why do you hate God?'

'Why are you so mad at him?'

'What did he ever do to hurt you?'

These are the kinds of questions that I have heard a lot from Christians, especially over the last few weeks as the Stephen Fry video about what he would do if he met God played out in mainstream media. If you haven't seen it you can watch it here, he is unapologetic about how evil, stupid and capricious that god would be. The facial responses from the interviewer are priceless. He clearly was completely taken aback. But we atheists weren't, we have seen it many times before from the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Matt Dillahunty, Greta Christina and many, many more. The tirade that says that surely if a god exists he would be an evil, capricious tyrant rather than the benevolent, all caring, protective, merciful god that so many Christians have in their minds when they think about their lord and saviour.

Most of us non believers have at some point given our own version of this argument, commonly referred to as the 'problem of evil'. We use it to justify why we don't subscribe to the god that they seem to quite willingly put all their trust in. There are very few believers I have talked to who don't admit that the 'problem of evil' presents a challenge to their faith. They usually put it down to God and his 'mysterious ways'. Deep down, I think they see it as an unsatisfactory answer.  It certainly felt like a weak response to me when I was a Christian. However, the 'mystery' challenge didn't knock my faith down back then, as I reflected on how often great triumph can emerge from tragedy, and that there's plenty of opportunity to make delicious lemonade from the limes and lemons that life throws at us.

I imagine that this is the way that most of my religious brothers and sisters still think today. So, when they hear rants that the likes of Stephen Fry throw up, they hear a person who is just not willing to try to make the best of the world he has been given. Doing the easier thing of sitting back and blaming someone else for the shit, rather than getting up and trying to help ease the pain as it happens. When words like evil, bully and tyrant are used. The believers cringe, wondering what on earth could cause those that claim to not care or believe in a creator god,  hate him so much.

As one of the persons who commented on an extended conversation on my Facebook page told me,

"How can Stephen Fry say all those bad things about a person whom he has not ever met."

The power of the hypothetical:  IF changes everything

What Christians seem to miss every time they chide us for being upset with God, is the impact of that simple two letter word, 'IF'.

A small word that signifies a BIG hypothetical.

IF I won a million dollars
IF the moon were made of cheese
IF men could become pregnant
IF I were a squirrel in a tree.
IF there was a God.

In the 'non God' examples, nobody ever makes the mistake of thinking that the speaker actually believes that what is being hypothesized is true. However, when it comes to god, many Christians just don't hear the 'IF'.

They hear "God is evil".

 When what is actually being said by atheists is,

"If there was a God existing in the world, that god would be evil".

These are obviously two completely different statements.

I think that a big part that plays into this problem is many believers' inability to hypothesize in the way that atheists do. Atheists do not believe in god, but every atheist I have met has been capable of imagining what a world with a god in it might look like. We can conceive of different gods in the universe and imagine the implication of each of these god's actions or character. Much in the same way that we can imagine a super hero, give him or her fictional powers and imagine what the person may do in a particular scenario that we conjure up in our minds.

But for some reason, this power to hypothesize seems to be very difficult if not impossible for the majority of believers, even for believers that claim they were once atheists. They just seem incapable of imagining a world without a god. I have met some who feel that even putting that thought in their head for a split second would be a severe insult to the god they serve.  Since they can't make that theological leap into the hypothetical, they assume we also can't.

So, whenever we mention anything about a god,  they believe that we actually believe in that god. Any slander against his character is a slander against a real entity. Blasphemy for them is not a victimless crime.  But their god is safe, because even if he exists, we atheists have never seen him, so we certainly won't be able to find him to hurt, maim or kill him.

One of the things that is troubling about this widespread notion that atheists hate god, is that it demonstrates a barrier to many believers' ability to empathise with us. In all aspects of  life one of the most important things to be able to do is to show empathy. Through being able to imagine what it would be like to be the other person we are speaking to, we are more easily able to relate and provide the right response, or engage in the behaviour that is more likely to help that person.

It's not always easy to be able to fully empathize with a person or concept foreign to us, but I think we have an obligation to try, so that we can bridge the gap a bit. I can imagine what it might be like to be white, gay, a woman, an elderly person, a professional athlete, a starving infant or a middle aged man diagnosed with a terminal illness. Doesn't mean that I immediately can become an expert on those things by just thinking about it, but I can often come to an understanding or at least learn to ask the right questions when I think of something that I really can't get my head around.

By imagining what it is like to be gay doesn't mean I will suddenly start being attracted to  men, thinking of being a woman isn't going to make me start ovulating overnight and imagining what I might be like to be laden with a terminal illness isn't going to cut my life expectancy in half.

However, when I talk to theists and ask them to imagine what it might be like to be an atheist like me, there are often unable to do it. They say that the idea is just too far 'out there'. But why should that be a problem? I can imagine myself being a lot of things that are 'out there'. I can imagine I am an alien living on another planet coming down to investigate and probe humans. Why can I do that and my theists friends not make the relatively tiny intellectual leap to imagine what it would be like to not believe in god like me?  Why can't they walk in my shoes for a block or two? I am not telling them they have to keep the shoes on for life. Just a brief walk around to see whether or not the shoes are super comfortable or pinch around the toes.

The fact that most of them can't do that is telling. And I think that is a definite indication that the indoctrination and brain washing is deep. People's minds have been so closed off, that they can't become an atheist even for the sake of argument. It's unfortunate, because that creates a barrier to understanding our position. It explains why we so often get questions from them during our discussions that just don't make sense. Why they are often talking to straw men rather than talking to us.

It's the reason why they can't see the absurdity of using the bible to prove the bible.
It's the reason why they don't see that it's ridiculous to try to convince an atheist to have faith by telling her that without faith it is impossible to please god.
It's why they can only see our non belief in god as a denial of a god that we know in our heart is true.

The fact is that the best most believers can do when talking to us is put themselves in the position of a believer pretending to be an atheist. That's are far as their powers of hypothetical thinking can take them on this topic. So the questions we get are the questions they would pose to a person who believes like them but is trying to convince themselves that they actually believe the opposite.

It would be like if a man tried to understand a woman by assuming that the woman he was speaking with was actually a man like him, only trying to believe that she was of a different gender.

With this in mind I came up with an example of such a  HYPOTHETICAL  interview between Simon (a confused man) and Jenny, a self proclaimed woman in a HYPOTHETICAL world where the prevailing view is that gender differences are a myth and that all humans are either men or people who try to deny that they are men.  I call this fictional interview 'Why do 'women' hide their penises?'

Why do 'women' hide their penises?: The Hypothetical Interview

Confused Man (CM): I am confused. What made you decide that you are a woman? Could you please explain?  Why do you go around trying to deny that you have a penis ? Why do you self proclaimed women spend your whole lives trying to hide your penises? It just doesn't make sense to me.

Self Proclaimed Woman (SPW) : It's pretty simple really. From the time I was a kid I was told by my parents and everybody around me that I had a penis. I just accepted it to be true, even though I never saw evidence for the existence of such an organ on my body. For years and years I kept looking and looking, waiting for a penis to show up on my anatomy as promised, but it never did. One day I just  came to the conclusion that I really didn't have a penis. It was hard at first, but I thought it was important to embrace the reality that it wasn't there. Ever since that day I have identified as a woman.

CM: So, just because you looked and haven't found a penis yet, you came to the conclusion that there is no penis on your body? Did you really look hard enough? Can you honestly say that you have searched every millimetre of your body? When was the last time that you did a complete body search? How do you know it didn't become visible a minute ago? There are some parts of your body that your eyes can't see. There are some parts of your body that your hand can't reach. How do you know that your penis isn't located in one of these out-of-the-way crevices? The way I see it, you can't prove with absolute certainty that you don't have a penis.

SPW: That may be so, but I think it is very unlikely that my penis is located in one of those out-of-the-way places. I would need some strong evidence to believe that my penis is any of those locations. I have no reason to believe it would be and without any evidence pointing to that possibility, the most reasonable conclusion for me to come to, is that it's not there. Why is it so hard for you to accept that I am really not a man?

CM: This may come across as harsh, but I honestly don't believe in the existence of women. There are only people who claim to be women. Men who choose to deny their manhood or who have been deceived by 'the enemy' to believe that their manhood isn't there. The book of peneology makes it clear to all mankind. There is no such think as gender. Our Lord Testiculus has placed the mark of the penis on every human body.

SPW: Peneology is a myth. The reality of gender that we see all around us clearly shows that the words of Testiculus are false. I don't set my beliefs according to that ancient book, science has long since proven those old beliefs about a genderless universe false.

CM: (Gasp) Are you telling me you deny the words of Testiculus? You really have to have some balls to do that.

SPW: Yes, of course I don't believe in Testiculus. Read any book about chromosomes and reproductive organs and you would see the truth too.

CM: Oh my God! You're a genderologist! Do you really believe that propaganda that you came from a mutation? Those liberal universities really brainwash you young people. Sadly, you have been taken in by the religion of embryology.

SPW:  It's not propaganda it's scientific fact! Based on evidence!

CM: Ok, I can see you're very set in your views. Even if Testiculus came down from the heavens now and showed you his holy appendages you wouldn't change your mind. Let's move on.

Have you ever found anything on your body that you even once thought might have been a penis? You can't tell me that there isn't at least one time in your life that you felt something that might have been that hidden organ.

SPW: Well there was one time that I was exploring my body and I came across something that for a moment made me think I might have one.

CM: I knew it! You do believe! Deep down inside you know your penis is there!

SPW: No, I did some investigating and deep down inside me, what I was feeling was my clitoris. It wasn't a penis. It was too small to be that.

CM: A clitoris? Are you sure?

SPW: Yes.

CM: No. What you felt was a penis. I am sure. You said it was too small to be a penis. But that's a mistake that many of you self proclaimed women make. You see pictures of penises in magazines or porn sites that show all penises as large and long. So you start to look for penises that look like that. But that was your error, you were looking for the wrong type of penis.You didn't find a penis that looked like the ones you were exposed to in popular media, so you assumed that no penis existed on your body. Just because you didn't find THAT penis on your body doesn't mean that ALL penises are absent from your body.

SFW: That's ridiculous, the clitoris is inside my vagina. It's a totally different  from the penis.

CM: You and your genderology indoctrination again. Why are you so keen to hide your penis? I don't get it. Whatever the evidence you find,  you always  go out of your way to seek out the non peneological explanation.

SFW: But peneology has nothing to support it except for ancient writings. Surely the logical thing to do is to go with the explanation and descriptions found through science. It's not like I am making a predetermined decision to deny peneology or the fact that I have a penis. If I found a penis on my body tomorrow I won't deny its existence,

CM: Really? That's interesting because I still don't think you have done all you could have to find that penis. I mean, have you ever got down on your knees and begged the Lord Testiculus to reveal your penis to you? I urge you to try it.  Try Testiculus, you won't be disappointed.

SPW: No, I am not going to do that.

CM: Why not?

SPW: Because I don't believe in Testiculus. If my penis is there, there should be some good evidence for it. Why should I have to beg Testiculus to reveal to me a penis that he has already supposedly bestowed on me openly? It just doesn't make sense.

CM: Let me explain. Testiculus has given you free will,  but you have used that free will to turn away from him and reject belief in all possible penises, you have indeed become an a-prostate. This a-prostatecy has blinded you so much that you are now unfortunately unable to see your penis in all its glory.

Anyway, let's move on to my other questions.  Without a penis how does your life have worth? How do you find pleasure?

SPW: Believe me, I can find pleasure in more ways than you could ever dream of.

CM: Nonsense,  I know what my penis does for me!  I know from personal experience that having a penis is great! It's got me through so many hard times. Do you want me to tell you about all the occasions when my penis has given me ............

SPW: No, it's fine. I don't need all the details. I get the point. Your penis is important to your life, I would never try to take that away from you. I am not saying that you don't have one, I am just saying that I don't have one but I am absolutely fine.

CM: I still find that very difficult to believe. It's not just about pleasure. I mean, without a
penis where does your sense of urination come from?

SPW: Again I  can tell you, I don't need a penis for that. I know it's really difficult for you to understand, but we women can do all the things you men do and we don't need your organ to do it. You really don't need a penis to pee.

CM: I am telling you, it's just because you haven't found your penis yet. Once you find it your life will be transformed immediately, I guarantee it. Thousands of testimonies from people all over the world speak to the might of Testiculus and the transformational power of the penis.

But moving on. I must at least give you a compliment. I can see you have a considerable amount of courage about your conviction and you are more than capable of standing up for your beliefs.

SPW: Well thank you sir! * statement made dripping with obvious sarcasm which nonetheless is completely missed by confused man*

CM: In fact I am sure many would say you have testicular fortitude.

SPW: Of course.

CM: And tell me how can you have testicular fortitude if you have no penis or testicles! Ha! Checkmate genderologist!

SPW: That's just an idiomatic expression. Doesn't speak to anything in reality. It's like how I might say, " Oh my God!"

CW:  Oh my God? How dear you take our Lord' s name in vain.  I just hope Testiculus is merciful to you when it comes to the day of judgement.

SPW: That sounds like a veiled threat.

CW: No it's not. I just love you and don't want you to suffer due to your choice to deny that you have a penis.

SPW: For the final time. I am telling you. I do not have a penis! Don't have one, never had one, never will. And in spite of not having one I have a healthy, happy and contented life and there are billions in the world like me. We have purpose without a penis!

CM:  I guess we'll have to agree to disagree. There is just no getting around your non-peneological worldview. It's quite sad really. Maybe one day Testiculus will reveal to me why you are the way you are. Then I may be able to answer this big question that has baffled mankind for centuries. Why do  'women' hide their penises?

(End of Interview)

Now, if you found that hypothetical interview absurd, silly or ridiculous, you now understand how it sounds when people ask us atheists why we vehemently deny the existence of a god, that we know deep within our hearts is real.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Charlie Hebdo, terrorism and freedom of expression: How theism distorts the dialogue

May 2013 Calgary CFI protest in support of Bangladeshi atheist bloggers.
The more things change the more they remain the same.
Well it didn't take long. Barely a week into 2015 and once again the impact of religious beliefs and irrational behaviours that can follow as a consequence, were on display for us all to see. The attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris served as a reminder, as if we needed it, of the horrors that can occur when fanatic religious beliefs get out of hand. To add even more injury to insult, we recently heard the story of Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian blogger who is as I write this serving his sentence of a public flogging of 1000 lashes.

These two pieces of news immediately reminded me of the protest we had in Calgary in 2013, where some of us  marched in support of atheist bloggers in Bangladesh who were at that time facing persecution for their writings. That situation then was by no means as severe as the mass murders committed in Paris were, but nonetheless it was part of the overall problem we are plagued with whether through blogs, cartoons or badly produced movies. The idea is that there are some ideas, well at least one idea that has special immunity from criticism or ridicule.

As is usual in these moments, two basic perspectives came to the fore after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  One condemning the action but also reminding us that we should respect the  religious beliefs that others may hold dear. The other set proclaiming that free speech must prevail, that no ideas should lie beyond the pail of being challenged. From my photo above and the fact that I too  regularly challenge beliefs in this blog and beyond, it shouldn't be hard to ascertain in which camp I stand.

The other discussion that came up once again,  was the extent to which religion or Islam has played in the atrocity we have just witnessed. In my experience, those outside Islam scoff at the idea that things like a belief in a saviour Jesus or a commandment bearer in chief like Moses could have anything to do with Mohammed's followers' violence.

Within Islam there are attempts to disassociate the more moderate members from the radicals at the extreme end. We hear the following comments.

 "Not all muslims are like that!'

" You shouldn't paint the whole group with one brush!"

" Most Muslims are peaceful people who respect others of different faiths and beliefs and abide by the laws in the societies in which they live."

There is also the common narrative about Muslims going to grocery stores or owning a bakery at the end of a street, speaking fearfully about the backlash they are worried about as people put them into the category of 'terrorist' without a second thought. I understand these type of responses within Muslim communities and others internationally who value the rich diversity of religious beliefs as much as they love the variety of species in a wildlife reserve.

I agree that when it comes to issues of terrorism, our emphasis should be first and foremost on those who are directly responsible for the evil acts. You can't hold those who have not pulled a trigger, brandished a knife, detonated a car bomb or piloted a plane into a tower responsible for the blood of the hundreds and thousands. But far too often while looking at direct causes after these much highlighted cases of terror, we are as quick to exonerate institutions with influence as we are to condemn individuals who commit the acts.

Never a single cause: Underlying systems are often at the root

Tragedies and terrorism:
Always direct and indirect causes
In any tragedy there are direct and indirect causes. When a plane crashes, the investigation will usually lead to figuring out the direct cause.  Perhaps it's a fire on board, a pilot error, a mechanical failure or a problem with something in the communication system.

But it doesn't end there. In trying to ensure that these kinds of things don't happen again, they look at the whole process, the overall management of the airline,  the systems of maintenance on the ground, the relevant aviation regulations and the overall governance structures. This is not to say that the CEO, president or prime minister can be held responsible for a rookie pilot  ditching an aircraft into the ocean at 2 am in the morning. But the point is that in a tragedy like that, there are a number of stakeholders throughout the system, from the designer of the plane right down to to the co-pilot. We have to pay attention to all these actors and associated networks if we want to be sure that air safety is not compromised in years to come.

When it comes to air crashes, the public doesn't seem to be resistant to the practice of looking at all aspects of the system in the aftermath of an accident. However, when fatal crashes occur as a result of religious fanaticism,  millions are quick to jump up and say it wasn't me, it wasn't you, it wasn't us, it wasn't them,  it wasn't this, it 't wasn't that.

But we do ourselves no favours if we immediately try to assume that the secondary factors are irrelevant or of little relevance. The thing about systemic causes, is that they very rarely come down to the fault of an individual or even a single group of people. It's an ideology, an established rule, norm or a way of thinking that can lead to problems right down the chain.  In the case of an airline, there may be a practice of skimping on cost that leads to reduced safety or a culture where subordinates do not feel confident enough to speak up to a captain when they discover an error made by their superior. There are indeed examples where such systemic failures were identify in an airline's management system and there have been improvements made since.

Religion in general and Islam specifically are systems, which include beliefs, widely held ideologies, laws and cultural practices. These have developed and evolved over the centuries and have been influenced by a multitude of people. But whenever these things are criticized, some people immediately leap to stop you because your criticism of a system is seen as personal attack for all who follow or are in any way connected. The result is that those of us who are sensitive about not offending others, back off from the criticism of the system so as to avoid accusations of directly attacking individuals.

In looking at most if not all the atrocities committed as a result of fanatics in the last few years, I see theism being a significant and perhaps the most significant systemic problem that runs through. Notice I am saying that the systemic problem is theism and not religion. The key issue in my view is the general promotion of the idea that a god exists. This may be surprising to many. I know it is often thought that it is organized systems of faith that are the problem. Generic, nebulous god beliefs or acceptance of a higher power and a  spiritual dimension are often thought to be benign. However,  I think these ideas  all play a part in the system of thinking that makes Charlie Hebdo and the numerous other horrific acts of terror a reality.

I hope it is clear by now that I am not saying that each individual that believes in a god of some kind has blood on her hands when a suicide bomber decides to strike.  It's similar to how I am of the opinion that the sharp decline in the performance of West Indies cricket in the last twenty years relates to general problems within the mindset and psyche of Caribbean people. That does not mean that it's the personal fault of anybody with roots in Barbados, Jamaica or Trinidad when we get bowled out for 86 or our bowlers get caned by South Africa for a score of 439 for 2. Still, in as much as those of us in and from the Caribbean contribute and influence culture, we can and do play a part in the system and can explore ways in which we can help to improve things overall.

Hopefully, that illustrates the point, but let's take a closer look at how theism plays into so much of the bad stuff that happens.

Persons who believe in some kind of god or 'higher power' in the universe tend to believe the following

1. He/she/it  is all powerful or at least far more powerful than all humans that have ever lived combined. 

2. He/she/it  is all knowing or at least has knowledge far beyond the combined knowledge of all humans who ever lived.

3.  He/she/ it  is all loving or at the very least works in the best interest of humanity and generally looks out for our welfare far more than any human individual or institution does or can.

4. He/ she/ it has revealed itself in some way that those that experience the revelation can be sure that the entity exists and have at least a good idea of what that entity wants from them and all of us.

5. He/she/ it is the source of everything in life and is the ground of their entire being. 

None of these beliefs necessarily point to a specific belief in bible, koran, torah or any particular holy writing. Nor do they necessarily indicate that the believer aligns with any particular church. Indeed many religious people who will identify as non denominational, 'spiritual but not religious' or just feel that there is 'something out there' will have these five beliefs indicated.

Now if you are convinced such a god exists and has these characteristics, it makes sense to listen to what the god says and let it override your own thinking. If you know there is a being out there that can think much better than you can, see the consequences of your actions better than you or anyone else could ever do and is looking out for you better than anyone ever would, why would you not simply follow that entity, that deity, that saviour, that higher power? I know I would. If I knew for certain there was a god out there like that, I would totally lay down my own reason to follow him, her or it. Just on the basis of characteristics 1 to 3 alone.

If I am to logically follow what my beliefs suggest, I will harm or even kill others if I am convinced that is what the god I believe in wants me to. There is no room for me to use my own reason to override the message, because as can be seen from my five step belief system, my own reasoning and even the reasoning of any human being in no way compares to that of my 'super god'.

Of course many believers will say that the god that they believe in never would suggest killing innocent people. But how can they be so sure? After all, they would be suggesting their knowledge is equal to or greater than their god to presume that they know what their god would or would not do.

The big problem with people who have this super god belief, however undefined, is that it completely obscures discussions had with people who don't have a 'super god' belief. I know from experience that some will assume they can trump you in any argument because your views and opinions are only those of 'man' weak, puny, fallible, ignorant 'man'. No way that even the best humans can in any way compare to god. Even the bible says that the wisdom of man is no where near the 'foolishness of god'. So in effect what we have in discourse of most topics is an unfair advantage given to those that have this 'super god' backing. The debate becomes distorted in favour of believers. As atheists, without that god to turn to as our source, we are forced to back up all of our positions with some kind of rational argument. We have to do all the heavy lifting. We cannot as the theist do, claim god revelation or faith knowledge when our reason tank runs out of logic fuel.

With god in the discourse you distort the dialogue

In a world where logic and reasoning are generally not seen as the end all, skeptics obligation to justify all their arguments with reason can be quite a disadvantage in the public square. Arguments in defence of faith ahead of reason are given through statements like the following.

 'science doesn't know everything'
'you can't put god in a test tube'
'sometimes we need to go beyond logic and listen to the heart'
'humans are not just molecules in motion'
'sometimes faith and hope is what really matters'
'some things just can't be solved by equations'
' if you know something from personal experience no one can take that away from you'.
'you can't prove that miracles aren't real just because you haven't seen one'

These kinds of arguments allow for religious beliefs to get through without having to go through the level of rigour for acceptance that other beliefs do. The result is that there is no filter for bad religious beliefs in the way they are for bad secular beliefs. A bad idea from science and secularism will be tossed away by reason. A bad idea from a religion will be propped up by tradition, mystery and the 'heart of the believer'. Without god as part of the dialogue, all ideas would begin on equal footing and would be fairly assessed on their own merits.  Unfortunately we don't live in such a godless utopia. In our world, once a 'super god' stands behind one idea, that equity is shattered and the god idea not the good idea rises to the top of the pile.

The only way to stop this from happening is to aim to create a world where theism is not the default position. Where ideas, ALL ideas have to pass through the same filter in order to gain acceptance by the masses. The fact that people are moved to not offend Islam is because the reason for the sanction is seen as coming from god itself. If the argument was made that images should not be drawn because of tradition, culture, laws or any other factor, people would not be moved to adhere at all cost. But as soon as the words of 'my god said so' is in there, there is an immediate feeling that respect is needed even if the person moved to show the respect does not believe or ascribe to the god being touted.

The reason why? Most people have some kind of god belief themselves and want to hold on to it. They realize that if they don't respect another person's faith theirs will one day face the same consequences. So once theism remains the default, respect for and reluctance to criticize religions will stay. This means religious beliefs will stay in spite of their lack of supporting evidence. Once religious beliefs stay, some form of fundamentalist strands will stay and once those fundamentalist strands stay, terrorism and other Charlie Hebdos will keep coming.

Need to cut that umbilical cord: Belief must be separate from believer

Notwithstanding all that I have said, there is one factor ( #5 in the list above) that makes addressing religious beliefs a gargantuan challenge. It is the idea of the god (whatever that is) being the source or the ground of all your being. Many of us in the atheist camp don't have much of an idea what that means. But to the theist it usually means that god is part of everything of who they are, as essential to their continuing existence as the air that they breathe. That kind of belief makes a link between the belief and the believer that is nearly impossible to sever.

The link to the god becomes like the umbilical cord to the unborn fetus. Cut that link and death would be instantaneous.
This is what makes religious beliefs so pernicious. It's not so much that they are irrational and toss up ideas which quite simply don't comport to reality, it is the fact that they embed themselves completely with the personal identity of the believer. Even people who don't subscribe to belief in any specific religion still tend to believe that their 'god' is at the root of their existence and they would be nothing without him.

This idea is responsible for the argument that we often hear in atheist/ theist debates that says that science, knowledge, morality and our very ability to reason could not be possible without a divine provider. Extrapolating from this, any criticism of the creator is like biting off the hand of the one who feeds you. So we atheists get caught in this trap where before we even open our mouths in a debate, whatever we have to say is deemed automatically null and void in the minds of certain believers.

Belief in a god is only an idea

So how do we change things? How do we begin to separate those beliefs out from those who hold them clasped so tightly? The first thing I think we need to do is to remind people that all god beliefs are 'ideas'.

The placard I am holding in the demonstration above states that, " Ideas don't need rights, people do"

However, so long as people don't see their faith as an idea, these messages will not have the impact that we would like. We don't have to attack the idea of god, we don't have to go out of our way to say it is bad or doesn't make sense. We just have to emphasize the point that it is an idea about the world that some people hold and some people don't. As an idea it is not something that should define who a person is, their nationality, family identity, level of intelligence or moral character. It's just an idea to  be brought to the table for consideration. And ideas are always good in so far as they push the dialogue forward and  cause us to explore something valuable that we may not have considered before.

We must nonetheless not forget that god beliefs as ideas have to go through the same process as all ideas do. They don't get special privilege because there is a 'super god' inside. The super powers of your god idea have no more power to take your belief into the mainstream than Superman or any ideas conceived in the minds of DC comics can make Krypton into a real planet.

So you have to be ready to have your beliefs scrutinized, criticized and lampooned just like all the others. It's not a matter of faith being picked on. Just like other ideas, people proposing religious ideas have all opportunity to defend them, show those who push them aside why they are wrong for doing so. We as atheist have to do this all the time. When some theists laugh at our idea that the universe could come from nothing or that even the bacteria in a sewage plant are our distant cousins, we don't get mad or violent or seek to have large world media outlets protect our deeply held beliefs from being mocked. We simply attempt to explain in as clear a way as we can, why what seems ridiculous at the outset can actually be reasonable when we look deeper. All we are asking is for people who bring god ideas to do the same. If a god idea could be backed up with reasonable evidence and logic it would be treated with the same seriousness as any ideas proposed by Darwin, Einstein or Newton that have made their way into the realm of scientific fact.

The key point for the religious to recognize is that there is no double standard here. Ridiculous ideas outside of religion are also ripe for being satirized and mocked. The difference is that other ideas that don't make sense in other realms are laughed off the stage early, as those that bring them up see the logic crumble right in front their eyes.

God ideas however survive for much longer, as those who promote them try to ensure that they never have to go up in front of a critical audience even as they seek critical acclaim. But you can't hide ideas from the impact of skeptical  minds forever, and it's better to test them in small open venues before your ideas go on to get laughed off of the world stage.

Maybe if Mohammed is given a chance to take his stand up before his critics more often in years to come, our grandchildren may one day truly be able to say that all is forgiven.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Why I embrace Christmas as an Atheist: Trying to avoid the package deal fallacy

Don't let the Christian marketers fool you: You don't have to buy everything in the Christmas basket.
You can take the gifts you want and leave back the ones that don't interest you.

Another year and once again a chance to enjoy Christmas. A day that has held a special place for me since I was five years old and rushed down to the tree in my pyjamas to unwrap those magical coloured packages that 'Santa' brought.

These days things are a bit different as an adult and an atheist. This is now my fifth Christmas as an atheist and every year I seem to get into some discussion with someone about why I still celebrate and perhaps more significantly why I continue to embrace the name 'Christmas' for the thing that I am celebrating.

The big question from some of my believer friends is "Why celebrate Christmas if you no longer believe in Christ, his birth for mankind and the truth of the Christian gospel?" The big question from some of my atheist friends is "Why celebrate Christmas if you no longer believe in Christ, his birth for mankind and the truth of the Christian gospel?"

That's right, this is one time of the year when the believer and non believer question can be the same. There is a view on both sides of the theistic divide that Christmas is for the Christians. This is not by any means the perspective of all, but it has significant sway it seems. These people believe that if there is any mass an atheist should be playing on the morning of the 25th,  it shouldn't be the one with Jesus' name.

I think this is unfortunate. I continue to celebrate Christmas and call it 'Christmas' and try to enjoy it to the fullest. I believe that we atheists that have come up in a culture where Christmas has had significance within the family and wider society should do the same. I'll explain why.

Anything to keep you in the 'club'

It is not difficult to understand why many Christians are unhappy to see atheists and secular people on the whole embrace what they see as being THEIR festival. For Christianity and indeed religions on the whole, the main goal is getting and keeping as many people in the 'club' as possible. The arguments for the belief in the doctrine collapse easily on their own logic so it is important that other types of social pressures or manipulations are there to keep you in their camp. One of the ways to keep you in the 'club' is to maximize the benefits from being in the group and withholding as many of the benefits as possible (or even dish out punishments) if you decide you prefer to stay outside. Yes, once you deny their saviour  they immediately want to place you on the naughty list.

It's the proverbial 'carrot and stick'  technique that is epitomized to a large extent by the creation of the various heavens and hells in different faiths. But it doesn't end there. There is an earthly aspect too.  Although they claim that becoming a Christian is giving up all the tempting attractive worldly goods, the truth is that leaving Christianity also means giving up the numerous attractions of being in faith.

Christmas with all that goes with it,  is seen by a section of believers as one of those in-house treats. The rich traditions of colours, lights, trees, mistletoe, gift giving, music, food and all manner of consumption of alcoholic beverages is fun for many people who believe nothing of miracles, Magis or mangers. The general good will,  joy and happiness that go along with the festivities makes it something that millions the world over are keen to latch on to.

So, of course one way to make atheists pay for going for the rational over the religious is to tell us we have to give up  all of the activities of the festival that bear their saviour's name. Of course, as people like Seth Andrews  The Thinking Atheist' have repeatedly pointed out, most aspects of Christmas have nothing at all to do with Christianity. Most of what people love about Christmas comes from much older practices of pagan origin. Even the date of December 25th was the birthdate of many 'gods' that came down to earth long before the Christ child.

All of this is undeniable, but the fact is that whatever you say, the celebration still carries the name of CHRISTmas and believers milk that for all that is worth. If atheists or church people who enjoy the season can be convinced that they need to stay in the Christian fold if they want to truly enjoy Christmas, the church benefits from increased club membership and club dues.

Keep Christ in Christmas but don't dare give church kids a 'Christ' gift on that day

That is why the "Keep Christ in Christmas", "Put Christ in your Christmas" and "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" campaigns are so important.  Christians that make such remarks and protest the over  commercialization of the day know full well that Christmas is not centred on the baby Jesus and will almost certainly never be. Neither would they want it that way. Show me the Christian parent who would dare forego buying a 'Star Wars' lego set to purchase a 'Jesus Christ Super Star' figurine for their eight year old son. You can  talk about keeping Christ in Christmas all you want, but put Christ in a Christmas present and you are history. Most Christian youngsters would rather get a lump of coal in their stocking than have it stuffed with something 'Christ filled'  and they'll let their parents know it. So, if Christian parents want to prevent a juvenile war on Christmas they know that they have to keep their Christ far away from the Christmas tree.

Yes, by and large, Christians are happy to keep Christmas the way it is. The Jesus part is just lip service, but it is important lip service.  The message is that if you don't at least claim a belief in the Jesus baby and the surrounding story you don't get to do all the other fun stuff.

The Package Deal Fallacy

It's the package deal fallacy. Marketers often indulge in this type of practice. If you have an item that people don't want and something that is very popular, you tell them in order to get popular item 'X' you need to buy this other superfluous item 'Y'. So they trap you into buying 'Y" when you don't need it and often don't even want it. But the result is that 'Y' flies off the shelves and gets into the hands of consumers. Then the makers of 'Y' can claim their product is a best seller. So they can make you buy the transistor radio with the smartphone you want just to make sure their old time radios don't go extinct.

We can't let the Christian marketers get away with that type of thing. As consumers of Christmas we can buy what we want and leave back the things we don't care for. Many of us have bought a lot of it but have opted to leave that weird looking baby Jesus on the shelf. Belief in a claim should be based solely on whether the evidence for that claim is reasonable.  If the answer to that is 'NO' it means you can and should reject that premise, but this should have absolutely no bearing on whether you choose to continue to practice any traditions that may be associated with the belief. As I have said in one of my earliest blogposts, tradition does not equal truth.They may often be sold together but they don't have to be bought together. We have to resist the package deal fallacy and we do that by explaining to Christians that we are free to continue to hold to their traditions while rejecting the beliefs. Throw out the baby and keep the bathwater.

Bathwater yes! Baby no!

There are quite a few people that find a lot of value in the bathwater after the baby is gone.  They can find some degree of nourishment in the traces of the babies dead skin in the water even as the blood and the body are rejected. We should not be afraid to continue to enjoy the music, sing the hymns admire the art and poetry if we still get some enjoyment and fulfilment from them. We have to remind believers that being an atheist simply means we don't believe the god they believe in exists. It REALLY is nothing more than that. It's not hypocrisy to continue to do some stuff associated with religion when we don't believe in the central doctrine. Hypocrisy would be pretending to believe in the doctrine when we don't. To not believe but explain we practice something because we identify with aspects of the culture is not only fair enough but something that should be encouraged. What we need to do is find a place to practice these outside of a church service context because staying in the church keeps us in their club and helps swell their numbers which is not in our best interest. But concerts featuring the church music are certainly great as far as I am concerned.

Enjoying Messiah Myth Music

So it was for me this year. I had the pleasure of attending a wonderful performance of Handel's Messiah with the Calgary Symphony Orchestra. The concert was every bit as moving as it was when I listened to  similar performances as a young Anglican in Barbados. As a side note,  I have to say that I got a totally different meaning out of the piece 'All We Like Sheep'.  I smiled all the way through that one. I couldn't help but feel that Handel highlighted  the entire problem with Christianity today in that single title and opening line. I wondered for a moment if Handel in a cheeky way was giving his own satirical take on the gospel. If only Christians would listen to the words coming forth from their own bibles and their own mouths. We can only live in hope.

But I digress, the point I am making here is that Handel's music is for me an essential part of Christmas and the fact that it surrounds a myth doesn't diminish the beauty in any way. We as atheists shouldn't have to apologize to other non believers for going back to enjoy something from the faith museum that we grew up visiting week after week or year after year. Neither should we have to deal with Christians trying to pick from our love of the tenor line in "And The Glory of the Lord" that our hearts are secretly yearning to join them back in God's kingdom.

No atheist should be pressured into taking part in an aspect of religious ritual or celebration they no longer feel comfortable engaging in but by the same token, no atheist should be pressured to give up an aspect of religious culture that they feel happy to keep doing. Indeed,  whenever atheists engage in something from a religious tradition, it gives us an opportunity to emphasize that you don't need to give up other things when you admit that you don't believe. This is important because many atheists, including myself, for years identified ourselves as Christian because we liked and appreciated the culture, especially the music. We bought into the package deal fallacy by assuming that our love of choral arrangements and organ improvisations was all part of our love for God and belief in his inspired word. It's only when we recognized we could look at our beliefs solely on their own logic with no additional trappings of culture and social expectations that we were able to break free of our indoctrination. So emphasizing the importance of analyzing religious beliefs ONLY on their logic and evidence to those still in the faith gives them the chance to take that same approach that many of us eventually took. Maybe one day they will reach the same conclusion we have. That's how we will end up with more non believers and have a chance of strengthening our secular movement adding to those of us who champion reason, logic and evidence.

So when we who are atheists seek to encourage atheists to not celebrate Christmas and opt instead for  going with Winter Solstice, Newtonmass, Festivus or push to popularize a more generic "Happy Holidays" we may not be doing ourselves a favour. I am not saying that these other celebrations don't have their place, because they definitely do. But if we over emphasize  these we can play right into the Christian 'package deal' argument that says Christmas is only for the Christ followers.

Keep the name but broaden the nature of the traditions

Each year Christmas embraces more traditions and becomes potentially an umbrella that more and more people can exist under. That to me is a benefit not a drawback. Christmas does not and should not mean the same thing to everybody. The more we can get Christmas to embrace new traditions the more people will be able to feel that they actually belong. In a world where we have divisions over race, religion, gender, nationality and political ideologies the potential of a festival that unifies us across our common humanity is exciting and attractive.

At the moment the celebration most likely to do that is Christmas, notwithstanding the identification of one single religion in its name. But lets not fixate too much on this nomenclature. Already many don't associated Christmas with Christ's mass. It's just a name connoting  no more feelings of a religion that when we talk to Christine, Christopher or Christian.

For me December the 25th is Christmas, has always been Christmas  and will also be Christmas.  It's being dressed in my cassock and rough singing treble as a 12 year old in the St. Michael Cathedral Choir Nine Lessons and Carols. It's playing Christmas carols with the Christ the King Church ensemble outside Super Centre.  It's using every ounce of energy from my lungs to make my clarinet be heard above the blast of the pipe organ at Christ the King Church in 'O Come all ye Faithful' at midnight mass.  It's  playing and singing with the Cavite Chorale back in university days in Barbados. It's appearing with the gospel  band 'Promise' in the park on Christmas morning. It's  treasure hunts for Christmas presents in the house as a kid in Rock Dundo Barbados. All these things I did in the name of Christmas and I won't and can't  delete such memories from my December holiday hard drive. There's an emotional connection I get with Christmas that I can't get from a vague wish of 'Happy Holidays' or ' Have a fine Winter Solstice'.

If  you are an atheist and you never had such traditions and memories with Christmas, by all means celebrate something else or don't celebrate at all. I certainly would never judge you negatively for it.
But if you are an atheist like me who has had Christmas written all throughout your heart and history, give it a chance. Let's play our part in further  secularizing this pagan festival. Let the Christian's keep the name. Let them have their moment to bask in some glory.even as we know that all they have is the Word. The Word that they think is key to salvation while we see a symbol of a relic long past.

 A Christmas 'tree'  that carries their name at the root, paganism in the overlapping rings of the trunk and our secular traditions in the modern branches makes the resulting 'evergreen' something that both those that believe and those that don't can justly identify with. That's what I think makes Christmas special. If we do it right, Christmas may one day be something that all the world can truly share.

Because having a holiday  season where believers celebrate one holiday and non believers celebrate another one is not ideal. The holidays should be about families, communities and the world coming together, breaking down the barriers that tend to divide us. It should not be a time where we seek to separate ourselves based on our differences in philosophies about origins of the universe. More and more families are now going to have a mix of believers and non believers and having that divide over holiday celebrations will only add to the tension.

So let's see what we can do with Christmas, keep Christ in it but let's keep adding more things, take it in all the other directions it can go to make more human beings culturally feel a part. Those who grew up with traditions in Islam, Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism will be wondering why this western religion has to be the chosen world celebration ahead of the ones embedded in other peoples in the world. I take that point, but hopefully in time their traditions will be included in Christmas too and the origin of the name will fade in importance. Then the role of Christ in Christmas will actually become as relevant as the role of Thor in Thursday.

Who knows? One day historians may be arguing among themselves about whether the popular December festival's name hearkens back to an ancient religion that came from a Jewish tribe or finds it's genesis  from the name of a famous champion of anti religion, who came to wake us all from our intellectual slumber by giving humanity a 'hitchslap' of salvation.