Friday, May 28, 2010

Why I don't call myself agnostic

Agnostic or atheist, what's in a name? It is amazing how many times this comes up for discussion and as many people say, they are certainly not mutually exclusive and sometimes can be almost synonymous. But, say what you like, the connotation that these two words create are oceans apart. Agnostic is a very light term to use in a conversation, it will often endear you to many listeners. It is the "honest" position. For the strong believer you become fertile ground for discipleship, you just don't know God..... yet. To the atheist you are an honest doubter and have taken the first step to non belief.In a way you are like the cup both half empty and half full.

Say that you are an atheist and the response is completely different. First you have to make sure no one is about to sip a cup of coffee,or you run the risk of creating a spill of BP proportions. If you are lucky you may get away with just a gasp followed by an uncomfortable silence, and sighs of relief as someone quickly changes the subject. For the believer, the atheist has closed his mind, not willing to accept any contrary information. To any other atheist there, it is also awkward because unless they have come out about it to this audience before they are just not ready to say, "me too."

Agnosticism is clearly the safe position in the religious debate but I think it ultimately keeps the protection around faith. It pulls at things around the edges rather than targeting the core. Doubt after all is not normally seen as a bad thing by religious people. After all, many will tell you they have gone that way before. It is ok to be unsure, you can question as much as you like so long as you never actually stop believing. God can help with unbelief, non belief is a totally different story. When I was an agnostic, Christians treated me like an athlete with a broken foot. A poor soul tormented by confusion, that needed assistance to understand. At least I entertained the possibility of a God and that meant what the bible said at least COULD be true. There might be a heaven or hell and I needed to keep a half an ear on what they were saying even if only in a Pascal's Wager sort of way. The most you can do as an agnostic is make the ultra-religious slow down for a minute, but you are sure as hell not going to stop their train from moving.

For many years I thought agnostic was the better position. I honestly didn't know. The thing that hits me now is that of course, nobody knows. Therefore, in reality, everybody is an agnostic. So to call yourself an agnostic is about as descriptive a term as calling yourself a human being. It really gives no useful information. What is important is what you believe. You either believe there is a God or you don't, unless of course you think the probability is exactly 50/50. But I would risk to say most people know that their God meter either tips in one direction or the other even if the perturbation is slight.

For me the belief is firmly in "no God" territory even though it is by no means at the extreme. So in a somewhat paradoxical way, I would gladly call myself an agnostic atheist but would consider it a misnomer to be labelled agnostic.I also believe that in order to get the world to become more rational in outlook it is important to emphasize atheism rather than agnosticism. There is a view in the world that agnosticism is the most rational point of view, that needs to change.

The respect for agnosticism as the superior intellectual position comes from the view of science as being an open minded discipline. Many think that scientists that make dogmatic assertions on God's non existence are not being true to the field, acting ultra vires, treading on ground they should not be. However, I think that there is an aspect of science that is often overlooked. Science is not only about seeking the "one truth" it is just as much about weeding out the ideas that don't have merit. It considers all positions but is duty bound to immediately eject from the table anything that is unsupported by the evidence, regardless of the proposer. Science from that perspective is like God, it is no respecter of persons. Science must rank, categorise and separate otherwise it is not doing its job. All ideas are not equal.

We live in a world of limited resources; time devoted to ideas that have long since been recognised as having no merit will hold back overall development. The journey towards the truth depends on an efficient process of eliminating the false.The God hypothesis has unfortunately failed the tests and science has simply moved on. It is a cop out to say that science makes no comment on the supernatural, when it clearly shouts, NO!! Every experiment in the natural or social sciences could have this sentence written in the assumption section:

" We have assumed that no gods, demons, spirits or angels have affected the outcome of this experiment."

So far no results obtained have caused researches to question whether these assumptions are valid. If results do in the future, scientists will go back and question them, but it will take a massive weight of conflicting evidence to counteract an assumption which has been consistent with observations for millennia and that's only fair.

So lack of God's influence is assumed but with good reason, that is why supernatural evidence is not admissible in the law courts. It is why forensic scientists rather than demonologists are called as expert witnesses in murder trials. Atheism is indeed the position of reason and should be promoted as such. You don't remove a child's night phobia by telling him that there is probably no monster living under the bed. You take him in the light of day and let him see for himself there is nothing there but his toys, shoes and colouring books.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Unbreakable until you broke it

Imagine that someone sold you a vase, he claimed it was perfect and infallible in every way, it could never be broken. It seemed an amazing claim but you trusted the salesman and bought it. You showed if off on your living room and everyone you know admired it. From near and far people came to admire your unbreakable vase.

Then one day you brushed the vase lightly as you walked past, the vase fell and shattered into hundreds of pieces in front of you. You are both shocked and angry, this vase was supposed to be perfect and infallible. You go back to the salesman who turns on you and asks you how you could destroy his perfect vase. It was totally infallible, before you carelessly let it fall and now it is perfect no more. You made the perfect imperfect. Yes, the vase was unbreakable until you broke it.

Reluctantly you admit your mistake, although the salesman's logic still baffles you. You shrug your shoulders and ask him if he could fix the vase and make it "perfect" again. The seller tells you that is totally impossible, by your actions you have changed the nature of the vase forever, it is perfect no more. Ok, you could maybe accept that, but you ask if he could sell you a new perfect vase. Surprisingly, you are told "no". You broke the one perfect vase ever made, the nature of vases are now forever changed and all will be fragile from now on. In fact every time a person breaks a vase for generations to come , it would be a reminder to them of your careless action. Yes, vases were once unbreakable until that fateful day of the "fall."

Well, by now I am sure you can follow the analogy. This is the genesis story. A perfect world that we messed up. Some will argue that the analogy doesn't hold because perfection does not imply infallibility. Something could be perfect today and imperfect tomorrow. Even the most beautiful picture can be destroyed by a three year old's scrawls. Maybe we had a perfect vase in terms of the artwork or design but not in terms of its durabilility. A fair point, but surely when we talk about a perfect world we are not talking merely of aesthetics.It's not just beautiful trees, animals and landscapes. Indeed in terms of raw beauty the world seems no less beautiful than any you will find in a Garden of Eden representation. The critical difference is that in the perfect world there was supposedly no death, suffering or pain, no decay,deterioration or destruction. That sounds like an infallible world, one that could not be broken down, no different from the fictional unbreakable vase.

Yet christian doctrine suggests sin came into the world and things changed. There are millions in the world who accept this idea, yet all would immediately identify the salesman with the super fragile unbreakable vase as a con man. We are often told that man after the fall took on a sinful nature. This talk bothers me. How could any human being change anything of his nature? I can understand how you can change your behaviour, attitudes or responses. But how can you change your nature? That would be like changing the very essence of yourself. You can break the vase but you can't change the way that it was made. A human can no more change his nature than a lion can take on a sheep nature or a butterfly can take on the nature of a boa constrictor.

The maker of the vase is the only one who can determine the nature of the vase. The creator of the human is the only one who would have any power to determine human nature. A man with the ability to change even his own nature, far less the nature of the entire world or universe would have to possess powers equivalent to a God himself.

But, inpite of all these arguments, many will still insist that it is possible for perfection to be transient. Once perfect does not mean always perfect.But, what does that say about God? Can his nature be changed just like his creation? God may have a perfect mind today, but he might get Alzheimer's tomorrow, all because of our sinful actions. Maybe it has happened already, the fall might have affected God too. It affected all of his creation we are told, and that would mean heaven too. How do we know that the imperfections did not reach up to God?

The scary thing is we would never know if God ever becomes less than perfect.For,he is the ultimate self regulator, only he can judge himself.I tell you, there really is no way ever to get your money back after purchasing that vase that was unbreakable until you broke it.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Now where do I know you from?

We have all been there. Walking down the street and seeing that familiar face but for the life of you, you just can't remember where you met or interacted with the person. Inevitably the other person has the same reaction as they are sure they know you too but they too ponder from where. Like a computer program you scroll down the menu trying to find the files that match. Without thinking you list of your asociations, was it primary or secondary school, choir, band, athletics, church? You rapidly go down your list hoping to find a match. You get that shake of the head with all the misses until that magical moment where it clicks.

Yesterday I had the first of those kind of meetings since becoming an atheist. I ran into a lady who looked , so so familiar; as I went through the scrolling I said to her, " Were you at that a.... ?" I stopped mid sentence as I caught myself. I was going to ask her if we had met at an atheist lecture about two months ago. Suddenly, I realised I had to change from the regular program. Suppose it was not there that we met, she could easily take offence to that question. She realised my hesitancy and looked a bit bewildered. I then rephrased the question and simply asked if she had been to any lectures recently at the university; keeping it nice and generic. She replied in the negative and unfortunately we never made that connection, but I was still relieved to leave the conversation without any awkwardness.

I realised from this interaction that I really have to watch myself now. I never thought that I could upset a person by just asking them if there are part of a group I belong to, but that is reality. How often I have heard people say they were "accused" of being an atheist, as if it was a jailable offence. I remember all too well that Elizabeth Dole advertisement leading up to the US election. On the other hand, no one seems to be offended if you thought you knew them from church,school or rotary club.

I started to reflect on how it must be for the homosexual community. Imagine scrolling through the possible associations and finally blurting in exasperation,
"Are you gay ?" I suppose in some utopian world the answer along with a nonchalant shrug could be," No I'm sorry, I think you must be mistaking me for someone else." But we all know, especially in the Caribbean, this ain't happening. A quick jump backwards and two eyes opening in horror would tell you all you need to know, even if you had really hit the nail on the head. Of course it's all hypothetical since that question quite simply would never be posed.

But why should the question; Are you gay? or Are you an atheist? be any different from, are you an anglican? did you go to Prince Charles Primary School? or are you a microbiologist? It is strange to have an association as tainted as being a member of the Klu Klux clan, just by being part of a segment of society that wants their beliefs to actually make sense. Go figure!

Well, that is the world we live in. For the time being it means that I have to make a special effort to remember names and faces when I go to atheist meetings. If not I could easily end up unknowingly walking pass a partner in non belief with a mere smile and a nod ,as he asks himself that age old question. "Now where do I know you from?"

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Oh my God, he's an atheist too!

I just had a talk with a middle eastern friend of mine who has an African roommate. He said that he felt he had a special connection with black people and said that maybe it was because we had such a respect for religion that establishes our moral values .

I felt a bit uncomfortable since I knew that he would have no way of knowing he was actually speaking to a black atheist. I just simply asked him if he thought that if a person wasn't religious he would not have these same values. He quickly said that indeed he was not of that view and that in fact he himself was not religious. Seemed a little contradictory from his earlier statement, so I asked if it was actually more of a cultural connection he felt with black people. I then told him that I was also not religious and in fact I didn't even believe in God, really. I have no idea why I added the word really, but as they say, letting go really is hard to do.

He completely forgot the point he was making about the religious connection with blacks,but continued the conversation headlong in the opposite direction. He told me he doesn't believe either but there is no way he could tell this to any of his friends, most of whom are strong muslims. He then went on to talk about all the problems religions create and how none of the beliefs make sense. He said he had these views for the last five years or so but he could not possibly tell anyone. If he went back home he would not be able to marry anyone's daughter if he said he didn't believe in God.

I listened as he offloaded, telling me that religion was all about controlling the masses. He said that he knew of many people in the USA that had been persuaded to go to war because of their belief in God and many in Palestine for whom killing was justified once it was for Allah. He also ridiculed the notion of a God that could punish his own children,by sending them to hell . "What kind of loving parent, could that God be?" he added. He went on about how his roommate was sure Jesus saved him when he prayed to God in a motorcycle accident. Something he thought was just cray. "Everybody prays to God when they are in serious accidents, most of them die, what happened to them?" he exclaimed. He shook his head and then lamented that so many times he wanted to give the appropriate reply to religious people but he just couldn't.I just couldn't stop smiling, I knew exactly what he was talking about.

Wow, it was such a great thing to be able to witness this. He sounded like me at my first social with other atheists, just happy for the unique opportunity to say what I really felt to people who understood. What was amazing was that this conversation didn't start like that. On so many occasions before in similar circumstances I would have nodded at his initial comment about respect for religion, concluded he was a man of faith and moved on to another safer topic. Today, I just decided to ask him to clarify his position, minutes later, he transformed into an outspoken atheist before my eyes.

With this discovery I told him how I recently joined an atheist group where we had open discussions on many of these topics. He stopped me right there. "If anyone even smelled on me that I had been to any such gathering I would be a dead man," he said anxiously looking around to see if anyone was within earshot. What a pity, it would have been nice to have another minority in that group.

Anyway,I was so glad to be his atheistic ear today. This taught me a good lesson. I often hear of how hard it is coming out as an atheist, all the friendships and associations you risk. Today I "came out" and I helped a friend and it felt all so worth it. I of course will not "out" him but at least he knows that he can talk to me about issues like these with absolutely know worries. That must at least count for something.I am just left wondering now what is that intangible factor that really draws him towards black people. Maybe he doesn't know either.