Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My first atheist Christmas

Well, I've just completed my first atheist Christmas . The American Atheists' billboard on the left is absolutely right. I have known it was a myth for many years now, but this year I was truly able to celebrate the season rather than just the son. It has been a time for me of much reflection as I wondered whether I would get the same buzz over the festivities as I did when I was in the church. Would I yearn for the church bells and the merry organ? Would the emotion of the season get to me and would the call to "come let us adore him" be too much to resist? It hit me sometime in early December that I didn't really know how to do Christmas as an atheist.

I am learning everyday as a new member of the "non believers" club, that the rule of thumb is there is no rule of thumb. Some atheists embrace the myth fully and celebrate as strongly as any born again Christian, because it's what they grew up with and love. Others down play the sacred but fully embrace the jingle bells, ho-ho-ho, Santa and gift giving. Then there are the "grinches" who just can't stand to hear even a carol on the radio. There's maybe a silent majority who just shrug their shoulders and live life as usual seeing no reason for a season even if it's to celebrate reason. Then there are some free spirits that have told me there's no need for reason while sharing a beer and that free thinking and free drinking go hand in hand.

So, what did this all mean? It meant I had to make my own holiday, decide what was in and what was out for me . In the end it was a pretty typical Christmas, some getting together with friends, a little gift giving. I didn't do church but I did make a point of listening to some of my favourite carols on Christmas Day and yes I included " Hark the Herald" and " O Come all ye faithful." I wondered how I would feel inside listening to these tunes now. Reflecting on lyrics that I now clearly accept refer to the triumphal arrival of an imaginary saviour. But it didn't matter that morning, I was able to suspend my disbelief for at least a few moments and get a bit of that emotional lift that I have always got from those songs. I did have to recognise the feelings for what they were, which were as another song says" nothing more than feelings." But it was ok, just a break to enjoy something purely coming from inside me. It was not evidence of a supreme being smiling down and warming my soul, it was all chemicals and neurons, but I didn't care. Anyway, I supposed this means I still kept " the baby" in Christmas and didn't throw him out with the bathwater , so to speak. I now feel that celebrating the Christ myth at Christmas is fine.

My view is that many of the religious rituals are ok so long as you recognise what the reality is. I smiled when I heard about the " You know it's a myth" billboard because I knew it would be seen as a great insult by the faithful. But, why should it be? Myths can be very powerful stories that can teach us so much about ourselves. They can inspire, as indeed many great works of fiction do. Myths can give great insight into the culture of a people and what they truly value. A myth surrounding birth is a great metaphor encouraging us to start afresh with renewed vigour in whatever we are doing in our lives. The fact that the festival coincides with the meteorological "new sun birth" of the winter solstice and the new calendar year, doesn't dilute this message it actually reinforces it. So, long live Christmas and all the other end of year festivals! We really can't have too many.

Well, what lies ahead in 2011? I guess it's time for the resolutions. I am happy to say I kept my 2010 one, which was to publicly identify myself as an atheist. Though I am not fully "out" I am well on my way. After all, this time last year nobody on the outside knew. Today I have a number of atheist friends in my local circle and lots more in the online world. I thank all of you who have been part of my journey in 2010. I can only hope that in 2011 we all grow stronger in our lack of faith with every passing day.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Undue pressure on polite pig

This year there is a character trying to make his way into the hearts of children in Barbados and it's not jolly old St. Nicholas. His name is Percy; Polite Percy. Yes, the government's National Initiative for Service Excellence (NISE) in Barbados has launched this mascot as part of a promotion to encourage the nation to be more mannerly. In short, say "please" and "thank you" and keep the smiles on.

I have to say that I am all in favour of promoting good behaviour. However I had to wonder if emphasis is on the right place when I heard a discussion on television bemoaning that it is a shame that young people are using the texting shortcut" thnx" instead of spelling out the word "thanks" when they communicate. For me, service excellence is not only about saying " good morning, how are you today?" It is about giving the client or customer what they ask for as efficiently as possible. We can all attest to the fact that those automated messages that tell us how important we are, thank us continually for "holding on" and beg us to "please wait a little longer" tend to rub salt in the wound rather than cheer us up. So, hopefully NISE will look at service in a broader sense as time goes on.

Having reflected on Polite Percy as an outsider now living in Canada, it didn't surprise me that Barbadians at home also had some reservations about the program. What opened my eyes a bit though was the reasons I heard for their disapproval. It wasn't that there was too much emphasis on the cosmetic rather than getting to the root of service excellence. It wasn't that in difficult economic times government should put its emphasis on more critical programs. What I have been seeing on facebook comments and local letters to the editor is disgust that NISE chose a pig as a mascot to promote good behaviour. I must admit that this never even crossed my mind when I first heard about Percy. I thought his name was a nice alliteration and children tend to respond to those things. Still, maybe the people protesting had a point. At school if you pushed in front of the line in the canteen you were commonly called a " bore pig" and many of the bad behaved boys coming in class after running around the pasture were accused of " sweating like a pig." It's true, a pig was never something you looked to as a model of behaviour. Eventually NISE responded to the criticisms by saying that the whole point of Percy was to show that even a pig could be reformed to become polite.

I thought long and hard about the objections of the public and about the government's response. The more I reflect the more I feel that there was a great teachable moment lost here. Why do we associate a pig with bad behaviour? Is it something based in fact? They might be out there, but I have not read any comparative animal behaviour studies that suggest that pigs are any worse in their conduct than other animals. I am sure cows, goats, horses, ducks and many other farm animals can be just as feisty, especially when provoked. No, the pig association with bad behaviour is primarily cultural, a stereotype essentially. It would have been great if NISE had instead responded with something like the following:

"We know that traditionally the pig has been associated with bad behaviour in our culture. However, we should all be careful at how we put labels on categories of things, stereotyping is not a good thing. Instead of looking at Percy, let's take a look within ourselves and see whether the negative associations we make in life, often without thinking, are really fair."

I know many will think that this is taking things too far. After all, we are only talking about a pig here. I disagree, it's about mindset and of course we do exactly the same thing when it comes to humans. We have seen this "pig" come in many forms over the years, black people, women, disabled, immigrants from neighbouring countries. Percy is the latest in a long list. What do we do when one of these "pigs" defies our expectations in a positive way? We do just like what NISE did. We take the individual out of the group and say he or she is exceptional. One that has risen above the others in the herd. We exalt the individual but our prejudices regarding the group remain. It goes without saying that as a non believer I am one of those most detested "pigs." "Even an atheist can be a moral person," we have all heard it. Just like the popular " even a caveman could do it." In all these cases you excel inspite of being part of marginalised group "X." Once we keep doing this, prejudices in society in its many forms will always remain.

This week articles like this one and this one in the Barbados Nation have distressingly emphasised this point. Here, the "pig" in the crosshairs is the homosexual. All the clergy in the two articles claim with absolute certainty that homosexuality is a sickness that needs a cure, having nothing to back them up other than " My God-book tells me so."  They go on to pat themselves on the back, proclaiming they are being tolerant for wishing to help homosexuals turn from their "dirty" ways. They no doubt think gays too can become reformed like Percy and one day teach others about good behaviour; of course in this case the sexual kind.

My word to Percy, is to hang in there. I congratulate you for keeping your composure in the face of such unwarranted pig persecution from the public. If I were you I know I would be a pretty peeved Percy. As I said before I can't help you because my species is probably even more despised than yours. However maybe YOU, being a specialist in politeness, can help ME. You see, I just can't seem to find a polite way to tell the people in Barbados that the God whom they love, serve and worship is no more real than you.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Great to be Independent

Today is Independence Day in Barbados. The island has reached 44 years of being free of British rule. It's one more year that I won't be there to join in the celebrations which may mean a little bit more than usual since this year has undoubtedly been a challenging one for the population. Congratulations are therefore in order for all "Bajans" at home and abroad.

For me, I can't help but reflect on my own journey to independence over the last year. I see myself as having broken ties every bit as significant as the one my country . It's as if my flag with the big Scarlet " A" is being raised as I watch the lowering of the cross I bore and the crown I wore with pride for so long. Independence really is a great feeling!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Ghosts have us on the run again!

Well, just as I said it was quiet in the Caribbean, things have stirred up again. This time it's not a hurricane, it's something a lot more sinister. Yes, from Jamaica in the north to Trinidad in the south, the duppies are back. You can watch the Jamaica episode in the video above and read here about the Trinidad encounter which appears to have involved the devil himself.

These accounts always have two impacts on me. On the one hand the absurdity of these stories always provide welcome comic relief at the end of a long day. However, after watching I am always very scared. Not of the sceptres or malevolent beings described in the accounts but of the fact that people can treat stories like these as serious news items. People always ask what's the harm of religious beliefs, but just think of the media resources that are used to bring these stories into our homes. Makes you wonder how many real stories that could actually edify and educate are left on the cutting room floors.

Then again, shouldn't we keep an open mind? Many Christians will admit that the Jamaican boy, his family and his pastor, are either crazy or acting but then go on to say that there are still real spirits out there. It's almost like the fake ones make the belief in the "real" spirits more valid; much like how the many replicas of the Mona Lisa make the one that hangs in the Louvre even more invaluable. I have heard debate after debate where it is logically made clear that the burden of proof is always on the believer; the one making the supernatural claim whether it be for God, leprechauns, Santa Claus or the flying spaghetti monster. But that is not the world we live in, the unwritten rule of "social logic" suggests the burden of proof is on the person that is considered by society to hold the more outrageous position. This means the burden of proof is on us atheists, we can complain all we want but that is simply how it works. So by default we have to accept that some ghost, at least the holy one, is real.

What surprises me, is that if the bishop in Jamaica was so sure the ghost he encountered was real; is the haste with which he chased it away. It is unimaginable what the impact on the island would have been if he had managed to convince the ghost to stick around a bit longer. There didn't seem to be immediate danger to life, even the boy claimed that he had reached the point where he was able to laugh at his tormentor. In the worst case scenario, the perils of flying stones or knives seems a small price to pay for the opportunity of gaining potentially world altering knowledge. We had a really great chance to get an understanding of ghost behaviour and the supernatural realm. The ghost might be a coward as the bishop suggested, but I am sure we could have elicited an interview if we had been more patient.We could have asked the demon so many questions. Where the hell did you come from? Do you work for the devil? Do you know the holy spirit? How powerful is God? Have you ever been haunting around Rose Hall in Montego Bay? Are you involved in the demon possessions now going on at the Trinidad school?

Apart from the million dollars from the James Randi foundation for verified supernatural entities, there was certainly a Nobel Prize waiting for some fortunate doctoral student at the University of the West Indies. The tourism that would have been generated by marketing the place where the first ghost was positively identified could have potentially transformed Jamaica and even the wider Caribbean in the midst of harsh economic times .We could have led the world in the field of Ghost R&D the way we once did in the sport of cricket. Tragically, with the pouring of a bottle of "sanctified" olive oil bought from a Spanish Town grocery store that chance has been lost forever.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Nothing to write about

Well, things have settled down a little in the Caribbean. There has been thankfully no need for mass appeals to the gods for mercy since the ravaging storm Tomas and the illness and subsequent death of the Barbados prime minister. Things have also been relatively quiet on the international faith scene and there are no recent crazy believer statements on my facebook page. In short, there is nothing to write about. So, that's exactly what I thought I would do this week, write about nothing. It's fitting I think, because there is nothing that the faithful like more than telling us atheists that we are right about nothing. Moreover, I have found that religious people when debating with atheists tend to engage a lot in "nothingness" talk.

"How can you get something from nothing?" is eternally the theistic cry. You can bring your arsenal of arguments from physics, chemistry, paleontology, biology,cosmology, archaeology, geology or psychology to justify your position that God does not exist. It matters not to them, because they tell you that you simply can't get something from nothing. They go on to say we atheists believe in nothing and nothing could change our minds. I suppose given all of this it is no surprise that they should think we have nothing of substance to say.

It amazes me that religious people don't see that there is nothing in their argument. Firstly, I am not sure why they are so sure that there had to have been nothing to begin with. Lawrence Krause, a leading physicist, gave a fascinating lecture where he explains that what we consider "nothing" actually has more mass than all the stars, planets and other "somethings" put together. But I don't think we even need to go to a level as sophisticated as that to see the problems with the concept of "nothing." What is a "nothing"? I have certainly never seen one. In my experience "nothing" is used as a relative rather than an absolute term.

Whenever we say the words, " there is nothing" we mean that there is none of the thing or category of things which we are looking for. If we go into a room and state that we see nothing, it doesn't mean absolutely nothing. It may mean there is no furniture. However, the room might have a carpet on the floor or pictures hanging on the wall but it would still be defined as "empty". Of course at the molecular level the room is filled with gases and microbes. Going further down there are atoms with electrons, protons , quarks etc. If you are worried about having a cancer and go to a doctor who looks at an x ray and tells you he sees nothing; he is not telling you have no bones, tissue or muscle fibres.

We can apply this model conceptually to anything that we define as "nothing". Even if we speak of a vacuum, that is not a "nothing" because it still has particular properties and that makes it a "something." Indeed, once we can define a thing it is not a "nothing." In my mind a "nothing" would have to be something devoid of any properties or characteristics. Once we can define it, we have a "something." If we accept that the universe had a beginning, it would have to have existed at that point in some state "X." Even if it was a void that would still have to have some properties, some defining qualities that differentiate it from every other state. The more I think about it, I really don't think there is any such thing as "nothing." I don't believe in "nothing." So, there is one atheist myth debunked. In that respect God and "nothing" have a lot in common, both vacuous concepts. God is undefined because it can include everything while "nothing" is the obvious antithesis.

Once we recognise that the universe was in some state at the beginning, our "nothing" problem goes away. For we have any number of examples in nature where we see one state change in to another. In most of these cases we do not assert that an intelligent supernatural agent is needed in the explanation. At school I did countless chemistry experiments where changes of states occurred. You could get a precipitate salt forming from the mixing of an acid and alkaline solution, but these were never regarded as metaphysical mysteries. It was all natural, a consequence of the interaction between the chemicals which gave rise to something completely different. Indeed, what would be surprising in these experiments would be if you didn't get the product that you expected to get. That would be the mystery and in almost every case it was because you, the experimenter, made an error. Ironically, in such circumstances, it was you, the supposedly intelligent agent, that was getting in the way of nature. I think this analogy is interesting, perhaps the intervention of a God would have impeded nature and prevented the formation of a universe rather than the other way around . In any case, if no divine hand is needed to explain the appearance of colourful solutions or gelatinous precipitates in lab experiments why is a god needed to explain that "big bang reaction" at the beginning of time?

When we look through the universe we see changes that occur all the time; tectonic plates shifting, volcanoes erupting, stars exploding, black holes and dark matter affecting space and time. This is all part of this wondrous thing we call nature. Even though some people think it's all part of God's grand design, I have never heard anyone argue that God is needed to explode a star any more than he is needed to give a "push" at the top of a cliff to ensure a dropped stone reaches the earth below. But then comes the argument which is closely related to the "something from nothing" question. How can we get life from non life? This is a very strange question in light of what we have already said. We know that "life" and "non-life" are made up of all the same elements. We know that elements when they rearrange themselves can form things with different properties. Why are some people so adamant therefore that we can't get life from non life? Why don't they say it is impossible to get stars from non stars, precipitates from non precipitates, colour from non colour or a tsunami from a non tsunami? Why do we consider this thing called "life" so different that we regard it as outside of nature's capabilities?

That's the thing about religion, it makes us the most important thing in the world, rather than just one minuscule part of the many things nature does . We are the great "something" that could not be here unless nature had some help from the outside. We need to have been specially created by a God without whom we would of course be nothing.

But wait, I just remembered I had nothing to write today. Yet I am seeing eight paragraphs above this one. That's amazing ! Well theists, the existence of this blog post seems to suggest that something can come out of nothing after all.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Ernie and the invisible ice cream

One of my friends posted this video on facebook today. It brought back so many memories. Sesame Street was one of my favourite tv shows growing up and this sketch with Ernie and Lefty is definitely one of the classics. I highly recommend watching it now if you haven't before, because in watching it today, after reliving those great Ernie reactions, I saw for the first time that religion is written all over it.

Yes, that invisible ice cream cone, the one that could help you get away unscathed if you were unfortunate enough to encounter Louis the Lip. Ernie in this case is ever the skeptic. "Why would I need an invisible ice cream cone?" he asks. For in spite of the sinister tones used by Lefty in describing this Louis, Ernie confesses he has no idea who he is and obviously has never encountered him and certainly previously lived with no fears of this demon. This is evangelist meets non believer, substitute invisible saviour for invisible ice cream cone and there you have it.

Whenever I watch a video like this I always read the comments below to see what people now get from it so many years later. It's interesting that in this case everyone is saying " Good for you Ernie!" Delighted that Ernie was able to see through Lefty's scam play along with him for a while and then hit him with that devastating come back," I'll pay you with an invisible nickel." Back in my school days in Barbados, we would have said that Lefty really "get kill off."

A curious thing happens though when we move the scenario in the adult world of invisible deities. Suddenly the roles become reversed. Ernie is no longer the hero in the piece. Indeed, Ernie now becomes the naive one. "Of course you can't see an invisible God, he's invisible, that's what invisible means!!" We can all hear the faithful responding exactly like Lefty in this clip. They will say that Ernie is the close minded naturalist, believing only in what he can see touch and feel, not being open to experiencing the metaphysical. Obviously incapable of enjoying the spiritual things of life like the arts, music or poetry. Living oblivious to powerful emotions such as love and devoid of the humility that comes with observing the grandeur of nature.

The response to the evangelising Lefty might be a bit more complicated. Many may still see him as con man, but not because there are no such things as "invisible ice cream cones." It would be argued in many circles that Lefty just hasn't got the real one or that his emphasis on money making has obscured his ability to recognise the "true pure invisible ice cream." I love the part of the clip where Lefty asks Ernie what his favourite ice cream flavour is and instantly produces the desired "Banana Royale Tootsie Frootsie." At that moment we see the liberal Christian breaking through, flexible enough to give the masses the God that they want. "No you don't have to be baptised if you don't want to. Yes, you can eat pork, you'll still get to heaven." Oh, things are just so easy to  manipulate when you are working in the world of the invisible.

Continuing with the adult evangelist parallel, there will be those that will clearly see that "invisible ice creams" are ridiculous but will not be cheering for the Ernie in the scenario. They will lambaste Ernie for mocking Lefty's faith with his insensitive joke about paying for the ice cream with invisible money. Some will call Ernie a militant and say that even though Lefty might be delusional he has a right to have his beliefs respected especially if selling his "ice cream" gives him a strong sense of purpose in life. There may be some who will go out of their way to present evidence to show that Lefty does a lot of good in the community from the money he collects from his invisible trade. Maybe he has helped to give shelter to the homeless or feed the poor. If he takes a cut to purchase a Mercedes Benz for himself or build a church altar made of gold he should not be admonished.

Oh, how things change when we lose the innocence of childhood. Back then we could so easily see "Lefty the con-man" for who he was. We learnt the lesson that skepticism beats credulity in coping with a world filled with scammers of all types. But, alas we become adults and we forget. We so badly want to trust in the invisible. And this week in the Caribbean, most markedly, the invisibility of our God was there for all to see. We didn't see him when we asked for the prime minister of Barbados to be healed. He once again failed to appear as Hurricane Tomas made its way through our islands leaving widespread destruction of homes and some loss of life in St. Lucia. His invisibility powers have continued to be especially strong in the island of Haiti where he has been unseen during a trinity of events; a devastating earthquake, a cholera outbreak and now the arrival of Tomas.

Yes, it seems God's invisibility endureth forever. After much thought I think I agree with Ernie. Invisible money is fair exchange for an invisible product. I wish I could be as bold as Ernie though. I could just imagine myself laughing like him as people stared at me blankly while I dropped my invisible dollar into the collection plate.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Death of the Barbados Prime Minister: A look from the atheist side

Sadly the fears of the nation have come to pass, the Prime Minister of Barbados , David Thompson is dead. I express my condolences to his family, friends and the entire nation. In spite of the numerous prayers offered and the various worship services as I described in an earlier post, there was to be no miracle. Not even the bold declaration by a pastor who said " we will not let another prime minister die under our watch" made an impact.

Death on its own is hard but its intensity is even greater when it is that of a leader of a nation as small as Barbados. With 270,000 people you can be sure that each person has seen the Prime Minister at some point; maybe out at a political meeting, visiting in his constituency, watching a game of cricket, or attending a calypso tent. This death also feels more tragic because of the youth of our leader at age 48. A leader who had dreamed about being the prime minister from since he was at school, was clearly relishing the job and was committed to leaving his legacy after persevering for many years to get that top spot. So, why would God decide to take him from us now? Well, thankfully I don't have to ponder on such "difficult"questions these days. That's surely an atheistic advantage.

Predictably the tributes have been coming in from all over the globe and many have been very personal and touching. Of course, religious sentiments have been at the forefront. In fact I have yet to read a single one on the main online tribute pages that doesn't allude to something "spiritual." One common sentiment is " Rest in peace and rise in glory." I am still trying to figure out exactly what that means.

The rationalisations for why God decided to take David at this time have been many. "God must have needed an extra angel !" one person claimed. There have also been many prayers of thanks to God for removing Mr. Thompson's pain, as if this is really what they were asking for when they were pleading to the saviour to deliver the PM. One writer was even giving thanks to the Lord for providing men of God at the bedside so that the PM could be ushered into the hereafter. Wait, you need ushers to go into heaven now? Is he going to a wedding? One of those same priests stated how they had released the PM into the arms of God. What would God have done if the men of cloth decided they wanted to hold on to their man? I wonder.

In reading the many accounts of persons who were assured that Mr. Thompson is now in the embracing arms of Jesus, something struck me. Atheists are often criticized by the faithful for being too committed to the physical world, obsessed with naturalism and married unconditionally to the mantra of materialism, trusting only in our five senses. But, what I was reading this morning was Christians clinging desperately to the physical. For their descriptions of heaven speak directly to those same five senses. Heaven is always described as a place, it must therefore be located at some point "X" which we are able to detect somehow. According to many, our senses will be very much alive when that "roll is called up yonder." We will see our long lost relatives, hear the sounds of the blaring trumpets and feel the loving embrace of a creator, we may even smell the roses of a garden or taste milk and honey. I know that many people see heaven as a "spiritual" place but once we are experiencing direct stimulation to our senses, heaven or the spiritual realm must at least be "physical like" in as much as it is analogous to experiences we have here on earth. What is more is that Christians speak of existing in this realm forever, so this "physical like" state they think extends to the infinite. This means that there must be some type of "material" that exists forever. Yet so many theists scoff at the idea of matter always existing.

On the other hand, after hearing the news this morning, I found myself not focusing on things related to the physical realms . I had no thoughts about a body travelling to to take up some cosmic real estate in an alternative world. I accept we have lost the PM in body and that this is not coming back in any form or fashion, I have indeed let go of the physical. Instead I am thinking about his non physical part. The ideas he brought to the table, the love he showed for Barbados and the causes he believed in. In there are things that I can draw from to make a difference in my own life today and well into the future. In so doing, a life can indeed tend to being eternal, as a person can make a difference without existing in the physical. We live in an age where many relationships thrive without any physical interaction. Skype, facebook , instant messaging, are everyday, the material world, in terms of communication at least, is not the ultimate reality.

Yet, on a day like today people spend their time thinking about what lies on the "other side", how our late leader will get a new body and be taken care of until we one day join him. In looking towards hoped for hereafters we forget the messages we are being given through completed life stories in the here and now . We don't toss a book in the garbage just because we have finished reading it, neither should we consider a life "finished" because there are no more chapters to be added.

In the last message the prime minister gave to the nation, he did not appear on screen, due to the severity of his weight loss." I want you to focus on the message rather the medium, " he declared. Mr. Prime Minister, you can be rest assured that is what I will always strive to do.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Church just not the same today

" I only go to church for weddings and funerals." How often I heard this phrase. In years gone by I would be in awe of such people wondering how they could possibly survive without at least an occasional dose of spiritual medicine on Sunday or Saturday morning. Alas, I am now one of the "WAF"ers and unfortunately this year it has been the latter rather than the former that I have been attending.

I went to a funeral on Saturday and perhaps the family of the deceased knew I was lacking a bit of Sunday morning spirituality. The memorial service was conducted in an Anglican church and the full liturgy was included. It was a strange yet nostalgic to go through this. I had been raised in the Anglican church in Barbados and many of the passages I still practically know by heart. As an Anglican I used to have to endure criticism from persons of other denominations who claimed our faith was dead since all we did was recite words from a book and utter outdated Latin responses. However I always felt the standardisation was a blessing as it meant you could walk in to an Anglican church anywhere in the world and immediately follow what was going on and feel a part of it.

Now things felt different even though the readings were so familiar. The words rather than sitting passively on the page, jumped out of the book and shook me by my collar. There seemed to be so much blood, every other word it felt like. Suddenly the passages seemed to be more something from a horror movie than a holy book. Were these words always in here ? Surely this was a later more X rated version of the more palatable liturgy I had grown up with. But no, no it was not. Another thing struck me, the words I was reading were so self deprecating. So many lines were mentioning how horrible we are as human beings, how undeserving we are of anything. Nothing makes it clearer than the words before the communion.

" Lord, we are not worthy even to gather together the crumbs which fall from your table."

That is a truly powerful statement, an analogy that really sums up our position in the world. When I used to say this years ago, I saw it as a reminder that I should be humble and I regarded this a virtue. Now, it felt like such a put down of myself, a real self esteem killer. It was so incongruous with the idea that we can take on the world and make life into what we want to. The above statement makes us lower than the stray dog that passes around after the picnic looking for the scraps. Yes, the message is that we humans should be grateful that we get anything from God at all. No wonder Christians can so easily brush off mass deaths and disasters as the will of God and rejoice at the one saved life in the midst of the rubble. The "miracle" is our tiny crumb of blessing and its far far more than we deserve.

The service went on and I recognised that there was another very strange thing that was happening. I was thinking, yes actually using my brain in church and it felt weird. Church before was a place I could go and sit back and relax a bit, free from the stresses of the outside world. I would often listen and evaluate the sermon carefully but the rest was just like an adult version of "Simon Says." Stand when the priest said "stand" and sit when the priest said "sit." Pray when I was told to do so and be silent when that was required. I knew how to bow my head, close my eyes, genuflect and make the sign of the cross right on cue.

Today it wasn't like that at all and in many ways that made things harder. At quite a few moments I had choices to make. Should I take part in all the rituals or should I refrain from some things? This was not an easy question to answer. I had not given this much thought before hand so I had to think on the spot. I felt a little awkward, I would sometimes start saying something and then realise I really didn't think I should say it and mumble off mid sentence. Other times I started with an uncertain utterance and then spoke more boldly when I realised that the sentiment being made was something I could endorse even if it wasn't that I strictly believed everything I expressed. So up to a certain point I felt happy to realise that even though I was an atheist, I could still "do church." I could sit in the pew and play along if I had to, that was good to know, I think.

Well, I spoke too soon, for then the real moment of truth was yet to come. It came when it was time to say the Apostle's Creed." I believe in Almighty God , maker of heaven and earth, He came down to earth and became man, was born of the Virgin Mary , resurrected in body on the 3rd day etc." No I could not in good conscience say any of this. The passage says I believe. Maybe if it was "our church believes", I could justify it. But no, I didn't see how I could rationalise that this passage as some grand analogy. Resurrection of the body must mean Resurrection of the body. Virgin Mary must mean Virgin Mary. I realised then and there that there is not a single word of this creed I could truly say that I believe today. Not even that Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate and died" for as most scholars will admit, even Jesus' existence is questionable. It also hit me that it was rather presumptuous to have a funeral service where you are inviting everybody to pay their respects and then additionally ask them to proclaim that they believe all the things that you believe in. I have no problem with persons expressing their beliefs as much as they want to and as strongly as this wish, but I don't think it's reasonable to expect others to proclaim that your belief is theirs too. I suddenly wished I could apologise to all the guests that came to our church in Barbados that were expected to do the same. After all, I wonder what would happen if a Christian went to a secular humanist's funeral and was then asked to recite a creed that went,

" I believe there is no God, the universe is governed purely by laws of physics which are probabilistic in nature. I believe in the Big Bang, the evolution of the species, the method of scientific enquiry and the importance of evidence, logic and reason. I believe there are no supernatural entities, no ghosts, spirits or angels and that ultimately there is no purpose in my life other than that which I assign to it."

What would be the response then? I don't know, but I am betting it won't just be shrugged off as just being part of the ritual or considered an honourable thing to recite as a mark of respect for the beliefs of the deceased. I expect even the most liberal believer would be screaming.

So I stood absolutely silent as the creed was read by those around me. It is one of those moments I will never forget. For all of the countless discussions I have had about my loss of faith, the blogs and articles I have written, the many pieces on atheism I have read, watched or listened to this was the first time I on my own, had taken a stance on the "field of play" against the belief system that was once mine. I saw it as my loud silent statement. I am sure that no one there noticed, but it meant a lot to me. I had proved to myself that I could stand on my convictions and that it wasn't just all about philosophical musing.

My own special moment of atheism during the funeral could not take away the sadness that came with the loss of a life well lived. I realise also that in spite of my problems with parts of the service, it reflected the faith of my lost friend and that was what mattered the most. Still, in thinking about the whole experience I remember something I heard recently, " Some of the worst damage can be caused by people that have the best of intentions." This is so important to remember about religion. Most church people are there with the greatest intentions. They truly believe all they do is a benefit to humanity. There is no offence meant when they ask you to recite their creed as if it was yours or require that you believe that it is you who deserved to be tortured, hung and left to die on the cross. The challenge for atheists is to show how christian beliefs can cause offense without leaving the idea that we consider Christians to be offensive people. Indeed most Christians are very beautiful people just for having the desire to want to make the world a better place. My late friend can certainly be numbered as one of those most beautiful.

Well, as far as the funeral goes I am glad I had the chance to pay my last respects. Perhaps there were two funerals for me as I had the chance to confirm that my life of faith has also been lost. There was one chance for me at the end of the service to see if I could still resuscitate myself as a member of the "living body of Christ." I was invited to come and share communion. I willingly got up from my pew and stepped into the aisle, but only so that the lady sitting next to me could have a clear path to go up to the altar and receive her sacrament.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Faith in God = Faith in Man

"Once you and God understand, you don't need to explain or justify anything to man!" This was the quote I read on someone's facebook status yesterday. Up to the time of writing, 13 others said they "like" this and the numbers are still rising. For me this statement, short as it is, is one of the more scary things I have read in a while. " What's the harm of belief in God?" they say. Sometimes we forget that for many believers, what man thinks is of no relevance when compared to God. The unseen far greater than the seen, the unknown greater than the known, that without evidence far greater than the thing we can observe. It may sound extreme, but this is the philosophy that can ultimately lead to people flying planes into buildings.

The first thing, of course , is that God always understands you. In my Christian days God was always a God of empathy. He was always on my side, especially if it was in a time when I felt I had been wronged. He always agreed with me when I thought I had been unfairly left out of a school team or told unjustifiably that I wasn't good enough to get the job I wanted. The more passionately I felt about an issue, the more strongly I felt that God was behind me. I often reflect that if it was something other than reason and critical thinking engaging my passion now , I would attribute the drive I feel to the divine and be convinced that I was doing God's work. Indeed, that is one of the reasons that I am an atheist today. It seems to be illogical that God would be pushing me so hard to find knowledge that continuously gives me more confidence in my conclusion that he doesn't exist. I therefore find myself forced to infer that this new mission is not coming from God at all. This means my other drives and passions in life can also be explained without God being there. So I feel justified in dismissing the presence of God I felt in the past; which often came while I was writing or speaking up for things such as racial or gender equality, human rights or sustainable development.

I suppose some Christians might say that it is the devil who is driving me now , but that would mean that it could have been the devil driving me before too. After all, the feelings I experience now are exactly the same as then. But if these Christians are right there is at least one benefit I can say that comes from being on Satan's side. He always encourages me to justify and explain to man. He is never happy with me just convincing myself and my "Lord". I have to justify and explain all my beliefs so that I can give new insight if I am right, correct myself if I am wrong and engage in a cross fertilization of ideas if I am somewhere in between. I really have faith that this is "the way." I so wish I could show this to my christian brothers and sisters, but that just doesn't seem likely to happen because in the way it is now the believer holds all the cards.

To say that once God understands you don't have to justify to man, is to say that once you feel very strongly about what you are doing you don't have to justify it to anybody. In other words, you can essentially do what ever you want. Ironically, that is exactly what the believer says the atheist is doing. Recently I have heard a lot of this idea of trusting in God rather than man. The talk comes on the heels of the pope's visit to Britain with the pedophilia hanging over his church and the homosexual charges facing Pastor Long in the USA. The followers in both cases say, that they will not put their faith in fallible men they will put their faith in the Almighty and Jesus. I always smile when I hear this, because what does it really mean to put your faith in God instead of man?

I suppose believing and trusting in God means following his example or doing what he prescribes. Sounds like good advice, but then here comes the problem. What exactly does God want? Well, many would say, it's there in the bible, the word of God. But in order to "know" the bible is the word of God we have to trust the word of the man who has told us that. Yes, what the believer calls faith is really faith in what other people have written or said about God. People do not realise that when you say God's word is perfect you are not only trusting God but every human being that has played a part in bringing that " word" to you. For the bible to be the infallible word of God, those inspired writers would have to be just as infallible as God himself. How do we know the writers were not deceived by something or someone they mistakenly thought was God? To say that we know for sure that they were not, is to say that these people had perfect judgement. Surely that would be like saying these writers are gods themselves.

If someone came to my door claiming he had a letter from my father who I regarded as perfect I would be naive to take the deliverer of the message at his word. Indeed, accepting the letter as true would be more a reflection of trust in the stranger than it would be a reflection of trust in the one who may have been the author. I mean, the stranger could have just written the letter himself in my dad's handwriting. He may have made a mistake and the letter was actually for my neighbour next door. The stranger may have taken out a page of the letter or added in a section. He may have gotten the letter from a friend and is just relaying it. In the end your failure to accept the letter in no way indicates that you have any lack of faith in your father himself. You just don't trust the people downstream in the chain.

With the bible that downstream is far more complex. You don't even have the luxury of being able to evaluate the stranger at the door, ask him for his ID or credentials or read the body language to assess whether he is telling the truth. You have to accept the word of the anonymous who lived hundreds of years before you were born, translators, editors and church leaders right down the line. You can't just reject the pastor at the end of the long chain and claim that you are putting your faith in God himself. In this case you are just transferring faith from one man to another, from the man you say you thought you knew to the men you never knew or will know. There are some Christians and other " spiritualists" who will claim their beliefs are not based on the bible at all. It is a personal experience with the divine that has made them believe, the bible only serves as confirmation. However when you dig into the stories these accounts can all be related to something out there either in the faith tradition or local culture. They may claim to see or have heard Jesus or the holy spirit or some other medium. But they interpretations of what may have been a real experience is framed in the context of the faith. A framing delicately prepared by the institution of faith which has human experience at its source. Others claim that the evidence lies in changed lives of the followers, but again they just choose to interpret this as being occasioned by their God whose description is at least partially wrapped in an existing faith tradition.

At the end of the day faith in God is equal to faith in man. The truth is we all have faith in man one way or the other, whether atheist, agnostic or fundamentalist.The difference is that the non believer freely acknowledges his trust in man. Those in faith rarely concede such, but if God exists, until he comes to us all in person and explains himself with the relevant credentials, any faith in him must be seen as based on human constructs. So when it comes to these issues, it's really hard to separate God from the pastor. From the look of things recently, it seems that it is even difficult for the pastor to differentiate between God and man. For as much as the pastor feels in his heart for his God he appears to have an abundance of love for man as well.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Church of the Metaphorical God

Now isn't this is a church you would love to join? I certainly would. Yes, up to now it is a figment of my imagination but I think that this is a church that could one day save the world. Why? For one thing , I think metaphors are great . So for me, a metaphorical God would be just awesome. Every major religion today knows how powerful figurative language can be. Jesus was a master of the craft, he spoke in parables for God's sake. He never actually told us what the kingdom of heaven was, did he? He didn't give coordinates of the location, he didn't say what material the place was made of , he didn't give the chemical composition of the air. He just used simile and metaphor, "The kingdom of God is like"............ and then he went on to give stories of a lost coin or a prodigal son. What greater evidence do we need to show us that we need to put more effort into getting to know God metaphorically?

Don't for a moment think that metaphors are only for the metaphysical. Many of you may have realised by now that I love to use metaphors in my writing. Sometimes I see them as the frame for the painting, other times as the extra harmony note that adds to the richness of the piece. Where would great works of poetry be without metaphor? How would we hear of love stories and personal triumphs, sporting heroics and natural beauty without the use of the figurative?

Many may not realise, but even in the world of science metaphors persist. Often the concepts in science are so complex that we have to resort to simplified models in order to make sense of what we discover. When we speak of light travelling in waves , it makes it easy for us to understand because we all, at least those of us lucky enough to be born in the Caribbean, have seen waves crashing against the shore. In reality waves that define the travel of light don't move like water waves at all, but still this model is a convenient way to start thinking about it.

In chemistry it's similar. When I was doing my CXCs at 16 I was told that in the atom, electrons orbited a central nucleus much like how planets orbited the sun. I remember drawing all those circles with the electrons represented by 'Xs' along the curve. After mastering and embracing the concept I reached sixth form only to be informed that the model was not " strictly speaking " true. Electrons were in quantised energy levels and occupied orbitals with opposing spins and it was all a matter of wave functions. My eyes glazed over. At first I wondered why we weren't told "the truth" earlier. Couldn't we handle it? Then I accepted that it was probably better to do things that way get a handle on the simple even if not real and then "graduate" to the truth.

So, I have a great respect for metaphor and the benefits it can offer. The universe is a complicated place and it helps to break it down in terms we can understand even if it means we lose a bit of its essence. When we seek to simplify things figuratively we humans inevitably end up using anthropomorphisms; assigning human qualities to inanimate objects. At school I read of angry seas and smiling sunsets. In today's technological age I constantly hear about computers and printers that "play the fool."My friends tell me when they get to work late that their vehicle," she just didn't want to move this morning."

Yet, when it comes to Christians, their relationship with the metaphorical is a bit strange. Many of them readily accept the fact that the bible contains metaphor while at the same time holding on to the notion that every word of the book is literally true. I have heard the apologetic that God does use figurative language in the way that we say " raining cats and dogs." There are others who will admit that there is metaphor in the bible that goes far beyond obvious ones like parables. Many will assert that the entire Genesis story, for example, is allegory. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel , Noah's flood, Tower of Babel, none of that is literal. Then of course there is another group which take the position that it's all literal until they are cornered in a debate. For them a metaphor is a "get out of jail free" card. "I see that this makes no sense as it is read , so it must be metaphor," is how they reason

The interesting thing is that regardless of how much the believer wants to concede as a metaphor, the one thing that is never considered metaphor is God himself. I don't know why they are so adamant on that point , because that's where they get into problems. He is the all powerful king, the all knowing sage, all loving parent, faithful best friend and even husband and lover. The consequence of all this is that glaring contradictions appear in the resulting deity. Atheists regularly point out that all the omnis just don't fit. An all knowing God could never change his mind or even make a decision and so couldn't be all powerful. The honest believers have to admit that the logic just doesn't add up and this means they have to sacrifice reason for their faith to take root.

Well, it doesn't have to be that way for any believer of any faith, not if they join me in the "Church of the Metaphorical God." In this church, God can have any qualities you wish to give him or her. For here God is purely a model to express something in nature that is too complex to express using its actual characteristics. It is the embodiment of that thing which is intangible.That interaction between the wonder of nature, the synergy between species and the desire of the human spirit. Perhaps this church will be similar to the Unitarian Universalists, but we would go one step further by pushing the congregation to leave God squarely in the realm of the figurative. Any description of God would be welcomed once it was helpful to view it that way in a particular context. Contradictions would not need to be resolved as logic can never penetrate a " faith" based purely on metaphor. My message to the congregation would be to" Find God in your own imagery,"because in my mind any God concept or idea is something that can be cherished and embraced. Indeed, it is only when churches start to talk about a real God that things start to really fall apart.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The world can't serve two masters: The question of science and religion

There has been much talk within the last week or two about Stephen Hawking's latest book " The Grand Design" and his assertion that it is "not necessary to invoke God to explain the origins of the universe." Predictably the religious have come out with their swords to attack. I even heard a person on a religious "call in" claim that the media were only pandering to Hawking out of pity for his disability. How low can you go? We all know that if Hawking had declared that there must be an intelligence at the beginning of all this, people of faith would consider that a "slam dunk" for God's existence,citing Hawking's immense stature in the realm of theoretical physics. As far as the disability comment is concerned, we all know that it has often been those born with limbs missing or suffering from sight or speech impediments that have been used to spread the gospel of Christ through their motivational speeches. I wonder if we can also call that cheap pandering.

The whole argument comes from the common belief that religion and science are not enemies and can happily coexist without conflict. It's all part of that whole "faith and works" idea that we often hear. Indeed even many atheists subscribe to the idea that science is not qualified to make statements on issues in the faith domain. I would have subscribed to the NOMA ( Non overlapping magesteria) up to a few years ago. However, as I delved more into the crux of these arguments I began to see that there is indeed a huge conflict between science and religion and that, perhaps more than anything else, led me to being an atheist today. Yes, once you realise science and religion are on opposite sides, you don't have to think long about where to place your bet. Only the deist God, the one who sets off the " big bang" and runs away, might be able to escape the long arm of science, but he is powerless and doesn't even merit consideration.

In thinking about this age old debate , I reflected on a friend of mine who was recounting her family's escape from a very serious car accident. She started by saying that there were a number of reasons why she survived. "First and foremost it was God," she remarked. However, once she had stated that point she went on to explain in considerable detail the the road conditions, the fact that it was raining and that there had been an oil spill minutes earlier. She mentioned the speed that the vehicle was going at and the angle of the bend in the road. She then went on to relate how only minutes earlier she had ensured that the boy's in the back were wearing their seatbelts. She spoke of the fact that the SUV she was driving was large and heavy, so that though the car flipped there was much protection available. She mentioned that the vehicle ended up off the road on a field where escape was easy and there was no threat of collision with other vehicles. She added that a policeman was driving by around the same time and was able to help. I remember hearing all this and wondering where the divine came in, in this whole scenario. She had basically a total explanation for everything in naturalistic terms. Rain falling, oil spills, heavy vehicle, seatbelts, policeman driving by. None of these things needed a God to explain them. As Stephen Hawking would say, God was "not necessary." Yet, in her mind it was God in combination with these other things that saved her life.

The fact is, that it is not as if God was used to fill in the aspects of the accident she couldn't explain. This was not " God of the Gaps" this was more of God "the additional layer."It was somewhat like putting more paper on a wrapped Christmas gift and claiming that the item was unwrapped until the second layer went on. The second piece of Christmas paper may make the gift prettier but it is not needed to complete the task.

There are of course many people of faith who would argue that though none of the events that took place on the day of the accident defied any natural laws, God was responsible for putting things in place. He set up things in the way they were, ensured the accident happened where there were people that could find you or had the foresight to make sure that you purchased the right type of vehicle to save you in the accident you would ultimately be involved in. But this raises some more difficulties, there is a natural causal chain of events that could be used to explain why things were the way they were that day. Rain for example, can be explained by condensation which is linked to humidity, temperature of the oceans and much more. This causal chain can if taken far enough go right back to the "big bang" itself. So too everything else, a person just doesn't "appear" on the scene of an accident. A long series of events can be traced to them being there. Maybe the policeman was going to work, which was a result of being offered that job, which was a consequence of applying for the job, which was influenced by having certain qualifications, which links to school he went to, advice he got and so on. Then the very existence of a person depends on parents getting together which depends on grandparents and this also reaches back to the first living organism and again ultimately to the "big bang" itself, which is an event occurring in nature. To say God set up the scenario is to reject that natural causal chain. To reject the natural causal chain is to reject the assumptions that science is based on. Even if at this moment not every piece of the chain, especially the first link, is fully understood, science assumes that such an unbroken chain exists and so far that has proven to be a valid assumption.

Still, they are many that say that God is just so good that he can get his will to be done even though so many of the actions appear to have a random basis. God after all has an intelligence far greater than ours and he can make it look like he's not here when indeed he is. Why he would want to do that is another mystery and the subject for another discussion, but even if we accept this premise, it leads to some disturbing implications. Apart from the natural laws in the universe such as gravity and electromagnetism, there are statistical laws that also suggest that there is no divine hand at work. For example, actuarial scientists can calculate to a high degree of accuracy how many accidents will occur in a given place in a year and even how many are likely be fatalities. They do this having collected data over a long period and analysing all the evidence. It's completely based in science.

The thing is that in many of the accidents that have been used to make predictions, the persons involved consider that God saved them. If this is true, actuarial science is just an illusion. God would just be rigging it all. It would mean that for every person God intervenes to save he would have to "kill" someone who would not have died in "natural" circumstances. God would have to "put back in what he took out" in order to not skew the probabilities. Not a very edifying thought to think you may have to die to pay for somebody else's miracle. But,that's what would have to be happening if God acts without affecting the stats.

Of course the far more plausible scenario is that the universe appears random because it is and God doesn't look like he's here because he's not. There's just absolutely no evidence that the scientific method itself is in crisis, or that its predictive power in any sphere is weakening. That's not to say that it never will. The day we find the natural causal chain assumption to be not valid is the day we can start looking for non natural causes, an outside intelligence, a being which could justifiably be called a God. Nature if having any influence in this kind of world would become purely a tool at God's disposal, it would have no power of its own. That's right, however you look at it, it's either God or nature. The world just cannot serve two masters.

Many have told me that in spite of all I say there is still room for joint leadership. Yes, it's nature most of the time controlling things, but God intervenes on rare occasions for a "miracle", interrupting normal service like a "break in transmission" during the 7:00 news. I have pondered on this long and hard and I just cannot see how God can interact with nature without leaving some indication that he was or is here. There would have to be some type of fingerprint no matter how faint. As a child it always amazed me that I could go to a pond where the water was still and by just dipping my finger in for a few seconds I could create ripples many many yards away. If I passed even fifteen minutes later I could still observe a slight vibration on the water surface. Yet somehow God, the all powerful, waves his mighty hand and we can't detect any bit of his handiwork even with the most powerful microscope we have. Well, the theist will say that's because the atheist doesn't understand the nature of God. They say, "God is outside time and a space, not made of matter, in fact God is immaterial."

Aha, God is immaterial !

That's what Hawking and many others of us have been saying for years. Maybe we can all agree after all.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

When is the right time to criticize?

It's been a really tough week for all Barbadians. Last Friday six young women perished in a fire set during a robbery attempt in Tudor Street in the capital city, Bridgetown. Make no mistake, for a country as small as Barbados, the loss of six young lives at one time is a tragedy of massive proportions. Everyone will at least know someone that knew one of the victims. I stand alongside the citizens of my country in condemning this heinous crime and my heart goes out to all the families who have lost loved ones. The outrage has led to people calling for the "gallows to swing" for the two young men that were thought to have been involved. Anger has also led to a 'blame game' that has extended to everybody from fire fighters and police to store owners and architects.

Of course there is one fellow who has as usual escaped blame all together. You guessed it, the one and only almighty God. Curiously, this is even though the words being uttered from so many lips after this tragedy was
"God is in control." Strange thing that, if it was the CEO, the prime minister, the headmaster in control and did nothing while subordinates in their organisations acted improperly , they would have to answer some serious questions.

Well, God's control in this case is just a reminder that he is there for us and will get us through the situation. We must remember him at these times and pray to him to give us comfort. This type of message is not unusual in times of tragedy and I daresay it does often help to soothe the fresh open wounds. I think this way of thinking at these times is also a way to keep faith strong at the time when it is facing its most severe of tests. It is a way of telling society that we are not going to tolerate any non religious views at this time. Effectively, if you can't say something to edify or glorify, ie something proclaiming God, keep your mouth shut. In other words, we don't want to hear from the atheists. Now is not the time for you to be criticizing our beliefs. If you do we will consider you to be unpatriotic, uncaring and selfish.

This is basically what came through to me as I saw the announcement, in the Barbados Advocate newspaper today, shown in the photo, where the government has determined that there will be three minutes of prayer by everybody at noon Friday. Everything will come to a halt, even speech it says and , "Barbados will pause and pray." Doesn't sound like a voluntary thing . So if, like me, you have no God to talk to, you have to find one quick. I hope the flying spaghetti monster is available at short notice.

But seriously, in these situations atheists are forced to shrink away to the back of the room and let the men and women of the cloth have their way with the afflicted. For how could atheists be so insensitive to illustrate at this moment the paradox of an all powerful God who allows such suffering? How could we be so mean to point out the futility of prayer to a God who if he exists can't possibly be unaware of anything that we need? How could we be so daft to choose this moment to explain that "thy will be done " means asking God to do the things that he had always planned to do anyway? No, we are told, now is not the right time for engaging in these esoteric philosophical debates, not when people are suffering. The thing is by silencing us at these times they are defanging us at the moment where we can make the most telling incisions into their belief system. For when all is going well, the idea that God is indifferent to our needs is a very hard sell indeed. Just like the best time to illustrate the weakness in a security system is after a break in, it is when the earthquakes, tsunamis, murders and cancers come that the idea of a God that loves us appears to be blatantly absurd. But those are the times when non belief is strictly off the table.

This of course raises the question as to when therefore is the 'right' time to be critical of religious ideas. The truth is that it really is hard to find the right moment. I know that many have tried to bring in the rational response at the happier times where you can't be accused of kicking someone while they are down. For example, if the six ladies had somehow manged to be saved, God would have been credited with the 'miracle.' Atheists might have pointed to well trained firefighters, additional exists, non flammable building materials, or even just plain good fortune, but they would have been told to keep silent in that scenario too. The response would be, "Why are you trying to take people's thankfulness to God away, devaluing their experience and "bursting their bubble" by explaining things it in such unemotional terms?"

So religion really controls both extremes of the 'emotions market .' It holds sway at all the points where we feel life the most, those moments we will invariably never forget. The highs of the baptisms, marriages, graduations and sporting triumphs and the lows of the job losses, divorces illnesses and funerals. So it seems the only time it's ok to criticize religion is in those neutral moments. Yes, those times when things are not too good and not too bad. The days when essentially nothing is happening. The days that sort of just fade into the background at the end of life. Usually this means a few minutes after a philosophy class at university, when you're just hanging out with nothing much to do. It's no wonder that at the end of the day no one really hears the nonbeliever. On the other hand , when is the right time to criticise atheism? Well pretty much any time, 24 hours a day 365 days a year, it's always open season.

On that subject, it also seems to be always the right time to criticize Islam. However, I must admit that when I think of the horror of those six charred bodies lying in a store after last week's inceneration I cannot get worked up about the story of a man who is threatening to burn a few books on his premises.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Answers in the back of the book

It's back to school for millions of kids all over the world. Time to get all the bags, pencil cases and other paraphernalia and of course the various text books. At this time I tend to reminisce on my own school days. I remember a particular day during my first week of class two in primary school. That day we were given a particularly challenging piece of maths homework. As we looked through the questions at the end of the day, one kid exclaimed, " Wait, look the answers here in the back of the book!"

We all stopped dead in our tracks checking our copies to make sure that we all had the same edition. Sure enough, the answers were right there. Suddenly homework had become a ten or fifteen minute affair rather than hours of work. It was truly a 'God send' as far as we were concerned. The next day in class we showed up grinning, we had finished the homework and knew we would all get 100% and teacher, well she would be none the wiser. Of course teacher duly collected the homework and then casually mentioned that we could all have checked our answers as they were given in the back of the book. We went into shock at that moment, how did she know about that? Who spilled the beans? It's amazing when you are eight that you think that in spite of the teacher using a text book for the last 20 years, that YOU would be the first to discover the 'secret.' At that time though we saw it as a clear proof of teacher omniscience.

Suddenly we had no idea what our marks would be. Luckily teacher went easy and gave us all our marks, but we were told that next time we had to show all of our 'working'. That seemed a daunting prospect but we soon learnt how to beat the system. Once we knew the answer we would just manipulate the numbers to get the 'right' result. So the next week we did just that. At primary school there are just four things you can do with numbers, add, multiply divide or subtract that's it. With a little numerical gymnastics you are bound to find the right answer sooner or later. Words of explanation were never needed, we learnt that 'working' did not mean justification of what you did.

As the year went on and we got more confident, quite often we would do the sums only using the answers as a check. There was one day though where the homework assignment really through a 'spanner into the works.' One particular answer in the book had all the students baffled. We had done this type of question many times throughout the term but this time the answer just was not working out. We had answer 24 and the book had answer 34. That morning before class there was a raging argument among us. There were one or two kids who actually had got the book answer, but they had used the numerical gymnastics trick and couldn't explain why they did what they did. But they were quite happy, they had the answer in the book and they couldn't understand what the argument was about. About seven or eight kids recognising that time was running out before class, erased their original responses and copied from the kids with the book answer, smiling at having been saved before the bell. They had the right answer and working that's all teacher was looking for.

However there were still about six students left who were truly in a dilemma. We were not convinced that the methods used to get the 'right' answer were correct. It just didn't make sense to us. Still it was what the book had and the book was the authority. Therefore it must be that we just didn't understand. We weren't getting it, maybe we weren't as smart as we thought. Slowly as the minutes past many of us gave in and decided to go with the book answer, I was one of them. However there was one student who stuck to her guns. Her view was she wanted to understand where she went wrong, she might sacrifice a grade but at least she would learn something and not make the same mistake again . We all looked at her like she was crazy and wondered why she would throw away her marks like that.

Soon the teacher arrived and we went through the homework and we all waited for that fateful question. "By the way", the teacher remarked," the answer in the back of the book was wrong, the right answer is 24." We were all speechless. How could that be? How could the book answer be wrong? Surely people who wrote maths text books knew far more maths than a set of eight year old kids? In all the discussion and argument never did anyone, even the girl who by now had become a hero, consider that the book answer might be incorrect. We all except for the one wise girl lost our marks as a result." Don't assume all the book answers are right," the teacher concluded.

I learnt a lesson that day that went far beyond maths or algebra. A lesson which has stayed with me until today. People continue to show me a book which they say has all the right answers in back, front and middle. A book whose mathematics is perfect and whose old English language can be translated without error. They tell me that the number of available paths is not greater than one by showing me the book says 'the way' and not 'a way.' They tell me the answer of 14 billion I calculated is wrong, 6000 is the absolutely correct answer. But the working they show me has been backward engineered. They show me how they calculate but not why they choose to add certain numbers together or interpret certain writings the way that they do.They also never say why they completely ignore the new maths and science of today or the more recent history books.

So, I remember my former classmate and tell them I will stick to the answers I have spent hours working out. Just like the wise girl said then, it's not because I am sure I am right but because it represents the world as I now understand it. If a teacher can one day show me the step in my calculations where I went wrong I will be happy for the opportunity to increase my understanding. Until then I will carry my 'working' with me and I am prepared to explain my methods and reasoning to anyone.I will not be swayed by a book presented to me that just lists answers 1 to 10 without words of justification. I now know that books even written by the best experts can be wrong. I also know books can lead us to state answers as being absolutely right although it's a complete mystery to us as to how the writer arrived at them. Perhaps most importantly, I know that when everyone else is following the book, a minority of even one can often be right.

My decision to stick with my answers has not gone down too well with many of those in my class. Scores of my colleagues shake their heads at me for throwing away the easy marks. A large portion have even told me I will be severely punished when the teacher comes back. I am assured that I will be given a big 'F' and sent to eternal detention. All the revelations are in the back of the book, they tell me, and I am a fool not to change my answers to fit the text. In spite of all this I am still not convinced that the teacher will show up when the bell rings. It's a shame because that would mean I will never get the chance to hear her tell the class one more time that you should never put all your trust in those textbook answers.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A life without thanking

August in Barbados is often seen as a bit of slow period. Coming after the energy and jump up of "Crop Over" (carnival) but before the back to work and school frenzy of September. However there is one thing that lights up the front pages in the middle of every August in Barbados , it is the announcement of the names of the students who have won the prestigious Barbados Scholarship. This story from the Barbados Nation features some of this year's winners. You couldn't fail to notice how well God did too, even though the picture suggests that one scholar considers that football is his religion. Here are some of the comments:

“The exams were very challenging but by God’s grace I came through.”

“I prayed right there in the exam room and God answered my prayers, so I am really grateful to him,”

“All last week while I was at church camp I was praying that God would help me to be successful.”

Amazing! In case you are wondering this is not one student going on about his Lord, these are three separately interviewed students. This is a great example of how omnipresent God is to Caribbean people and the way that the youth pick up the vibes. But apart from the belief that God is in control of all in the world, at least all the good stuff, this article highlighted something else for me. The importance for our people of giving thanks, or as we would say in the Caribbean,"giving tanks." Yes, thanks is very important in the Caribbean. One of the things I can really give parents in our region credit for, at least in years gone by, is the emphasis they placed on politeness. You always had to say 'please' and 'thank you' and there was no compromising on that. You couldn't get that piece of chewing gum or wind-up toy unless you used those 'magic words.' That early training has remained with me until today and I am grateful or should I say thankful for it. It is now so automatic I don't even realise I'm doing it. Sometimes I think I come across in North America as being a bit too pedantic in a culture that often values getting to the point without the need for all of the niceties. I find it hard to write an email without a 'thank you' somewhere. However, so many here in Canada like you to use that valuable bandwith to actually say something of consequence.

Of course in growing up, giving thanks did not end with simple gifts from adults it extended to the ultimate provider. It was really a sin to take anything for granted, you always had to thank somebody. We were so programmed to thank, that if we got something and it was not immediately clear who was responsible we just thanked God. Indeed we thanked God for pretty much everything. From first thing in the morning to last thing at night. As the song goes, " He woke you up this morning." At primary school, before lunch the prayer we recited was, " For what we are about to receive, nay the Lord make us truly thankful, for Christ's sake, Amen." Wow, that's quite an intersting prayer, looking back, we actually prayed to God to make us more thankful to him. Indeed as a new atheist I find one of the most difficult things for me is not having somebody to thank. For example,who now gets the credit for what I formerly referred to as my 'God given' talents? For me the thought of living a life without thanking is intuitively uncomfortable. Anyone who has given a 'Vote of Thanks' at an event knows there are not many feelings worse than forgetting to thank someone who made an invaluable contribution. Not thanking a God makes me feel at times like an ungrateful child, taking what life has on offer without pausing even to acknowledge a source.

I think many times in discussions on religion this aspect of faith is overlooked. We often think of religious people as going to a 'wishing well' with a grocery list of requests for a God. The truth is much of worship is really about thanks. I remember hearing many sermons while I was growing up that chastised us for being 'Gimme' Christians. Thanksgiving I was told on many occasions, was what being a Christian was all about. I must say that I rather liked that aspect. So much in the church is about thanks, from the annual harvests, to the celebrations of weddings and christenings. Even many funerals today are referred to as, " Thanksgiving services for the life of................" I know its curious to many visitors to our region, but if you ask a West Indian, especially a Rastafarian, "How are you?" The reply quite often is "Giving thanks."

Make no mistake, the term " giving thanks" is a religious reply. It means giving thanks AND praise to Jah, Jehovah, Jesus, the most high or whatever name or title that fits. This is the point at which thankfulness leverages into worship. Thanks and praise are two words that are never far apart from each other in those parts. "Praise the Lord, thank God," was a phrase my grandfather use to mutter several times a day. In everyday life if we like the way someone has done something we praise them, we pat them on the back and tell them 'well done.' God essentially is no different. God immediately becomes worthy of much much praise, because we have so many things for which we are thankful. So suddenly we are worshipping and bowing down before a deity, prostrate at his feet all because we started with a simple and honourable desire to give thanks.

So we must be careful about being too thankful,as it can so easily end in subservience.When I think of the Caribbean and the wider developing world there is another far reaching effect. It can make us prone to settling rather than pushing for that extra. In our thanking culture, the emphasis is so much on being content with what you have. You are always reminded that things could be so much worse than there are.This way of thinking is extremely useful when survival is the primary or only goal, which has regularly been the case for black people throughout history. The world stood in awe when the Haitians, in spite of going through the most devastating earthquake , were out in the streets next day, praising God and giving thanks. That is a great illustration of the mindset of our people and this attitude has helped to endure the many hardships that have come our way over the centuries.

But spending time on thanks can be a hindrance when a society is looking to drive ahead. You become risk averse, worried about losing what you have, like the man in that famous parable you want to sit on your talents rather than invest in them. We end up comparing ourselves with those who have less rather than trying to achieve something more so we can assist those with less. Indeed, yearning for more is sometime seen in our islands as being ungrateful for what you have. Meanwhile the developed world always seems to be looking for what more they can achieve, the next frontier, the next step to innovation. There is that one day in October in Canada and November in the US where everyone pauses to 'give thanks' but by and large it's all about forging ahead in these nations.

So now I recognise, that when it comes to things that nature and chance determine, I can live a life without thanking. I will be quick to give earthly thanks to individuals that have made my life better along the way but none of my praises will be going skywards. To a large extent I accept that things just are. I am fortunate in many regards and less so in others. I will not spend too much time reflecting on what I have or don't have or how far I have come. My emphasis is on what difference I can make or what I can achieve with what I have now. I can only hope those brilliant young scholarship winners also look to what they can do for the future of their land when all the thanks and praises are over.

It has taken me many years, but I realise now that you don't always need to thank. So,when someone offers me a gift of eternal life in return for a life of thanksgiving to one I have not seen, I can just turn to them politely and say, "No thanks."

Friday, August 13, 2010

Mosque in Manhattan: Damned if you do and damned if you don't

Building a mosque near Ground Zero. What could be more provocative than that. It reminds me of when I was going to school in Barbados and one of the boys would belligerently stand up in the face of another tough guy and taunt with the phrase, " Hit me if you is a man !"Play tough and hit back and you risk a burst lip or a bloody nose to show for it. Walk away and you risk the ridicule of all and sundry for being a"soft man". It's damned if you do and damned if you don't. That's what confronts the Christians in New York . A tricky situation indeed with much more than a dose of irony running through it. Not surprisingly opinions on this one are split down the middle with a considerable amount of emotions on both sides. Many are saying that its simply too insensitive to honour the religion that was responsible for 911 so close to where the towers once stood. Others look at it as a way to mend wounds and show the gentler side of Islam and provide an opportunity for reaching across the faith divide. After all Muslims died in 911 too. As I write this Barack Obama has come out on the side of the latter, citing the importance of freedom of religion come what may.

It is really so fascinating when you look at it. Often when secularists challenge Christians on the atrocities that have been done throughout history in the name of Jesus you immediately see the tap dancing. Spanish inquisition, Salem witch trials, ritual killings, Oklahoma bombings, homosexual beatings,Virginia Tech shooting, Jim Jones suicide, these are all examples of Christianity misapplied, they say. The individuals and groups involved are not true Christians just a set of evil, maybe mentally unstable people hijacking the religion. Persons involved in these things were Christians in name only. It doesn't matter how much the non religious person shows the passages in the bible that indicate how literal interpretations could lead to these actions being condoned or mandated. The response is that any sensible christian should understand that God didn't mean what he appeared to be saying in those passages. When things get really bad the favourite nullifying phrase is engaged. "That was the Old Testament."

Many of those in the church tell us there is good and bad in everything and Christianity is no different. It is unfair to in any way to compare the nice peaceful corner church that has Church Army ladies with any of these clearly violent and despicable individuals or groups. In fact they often think that the failings of those spin off cults just highlights by contrast the beauty of their own version of the faith. Indeed, I have never heard a denomination in Christianity accept any responsibility for what happens in other branches of the faith. Even within a denomination there is often the tendency to create some distance . When the pedophilia catholic scandal was at the height , many members in other parishes were heard to say, "Not in my church, our church is not like that!" As much as so many in faith have come out against Pat Robertson for his complete lack of sensitivity to the suffering, his show continues to air on a daily basis. Tele evangelists of all stripes continue to plunder; quoting the bible as they go, they speak of manna from heaven, anointings and camels going through eyes of needles. They know that once they speak "from the bible" the flock will take notice and they can rake in donations from the vulnerable of all sections of society with the promises of healings that cannot be delivered , while selling such "essentials" as pray handkerchiefs and miracle oil . Still, we are told, the christian religion cannot be blamed for any of that.

The mosque in New York debate has presented us with a great chance to really strip to the elements of this discussion. Many who lost loved ones in 911 are outraged. They claim to have nothing against the religion of Islam per se. They realise all Muslims are not suicide bombers, but the memories and the scars from that day are still too fresh. It is fine to have a mosque, they say, but not in that place. But why not? Surely those that hijacked the planes, hijacked the religion of Islam as well. The mosque is the symbol of a religion that is present in all corners of the globe. Most of its followers are as peaceful as the ordinary parishioner in the church pew. But the anger in New York shows that as far as many Christians are concerned, Islam is Islam. As one cleric said on a news program. " The hijackers who flew the planes into the buildings on 911, were following exactly what their holy book demanded. Therefore that faith must be held accountable." Wow, I almost fell out of my chair. No talk of misinterpretations, taking things out of context or outdated sections of the holy writings. There it was, you COULD hold a faith responsible if the perpetrators of an evil act were doing exactly as their holy book decreed. Very interesting, very interesting indeed.

I thought about this a bit more. After tragedies like school shootings where Christianity is often connected, the church leaders are the first on the scene to offer comfort. Why don't we consider it insensitive to the victims to bring in the local pastor? Isn't it a slap in the face of the grieving to send a representative of the same religion that did the killing minutes ago to do the counselling? I mean yes, we realise that all Christians are obviously not killers, but might it not be better to bring in a representative from the Baha'is, Jews or Buddhists in order to not add salt to the wound? When it's Christianity, brutality and comfort can coexist. Not when it comes to Islam apparently, even 10 years after the event.

Well, it seems that, this time at least, the Christians in opposition will not be able to scare off the religion that they see like the school bully in the playground. They can't throw a punch without opening themselves to a devastating counter blow to their own rights to worship without restriction. They can walk away muttering angrily under their breaths, but in the end they will be forced to eat non christian humble pie. They will have to live with the point of view they have spent so many years promoting, that you can't paint an entire faith with the same broad brush. Oh, how much these Christians must wish for freedom from religion now.