This week I have I returned home, well sort of. I am in Jamaica, and although I am not on Barbadian soil, it is my first time in the Caribbean since officially becoming an atheist. I am here to present at a conference and conduct some research with of course some relaxation in between . The opportunity has given me a chance to look back at Caribbean faith. Another glance from the outside. How much have I changed and how much have my people changed?
Well it didn't take long to see "God." I got a " God Bless You" before I left the arrival hall of the airport. It could have been a sincere expression of faith but I am inclined it my be more an indication of a tip which was a little bit on the generous side. What really knocked me back though was being bombarded with a plethora of gospel songs while waiting on the coach to go to the hotel. Don't get me wrong, the songs were sweet and the rhythm provided as much warmth in the body as the sun outside. However, why would you want to hit tourists with Jesus, Jesus Jesus before they could even catch their breath after a long journey? Was this some new type of faith tourism?
Then it hit me. "It's Sunday!!" Oh my goodness, I had completely forgotten what it was like to be Sunday. When you live in the Caribbean you know that it is Sunday from the moment you get out of bed. There is scarcely a place you can live in Barbados where a church bell is not somewhere within earshot.There are many places where you can look out the window and see ladies in extravagant hats clutching bibles leading their young charges to attend mass. The driver of the coach just simply had the radio on a local station. It could have been any station. This is just regular Sunday programming in the Caribbean. It is after all "the day of the Lord." In Canada, Sunday is really just another ordinary day. I live near to several churches but I have never heard a whimper out of them on Sunday or indeed any other day. On Sunday's it's going to supermarket, gym, studying, or band practice with Atheist Experience in the afternoon. I can watch tv, listen to radio without hearing a word about Jesus and now I don't even think about it. I didn't realise I had lost Sunday.
At the conference opening ceremony there was prayer to begin with, as expected. The MC even introduced the pastor by saying it was the most important part of the entire conference. I wonder why we feel the need to say things like this. A full week to grapple with critical developmental issues with professionals from all over the region and world, but supposedly the two minute opening prayer is the activity that mattered most. The priest started with the phrase," Lord, we know you are the creator of all things." Then a funny thing happened to me, I found myself responding with a chuckle. Luckily, I managed to stop myself before anyone became aware of any sound. But it was enough to show me that I was not the same person that left the Caribbean two years ago. There is no way I would have found that funny in years gone by. After all, it's just a generic opening line for a prayer. However, this time I just couldn't help myself. The thought of a God somewhere zapping things into existence just seems so laughable now. Furthermore, the statement "we know," would have to mean all of us, including me. How could he possibly be speaking for me on such an issue? To me, this just highlighted the absurdity of it all. Of course, unsurprisingly it didn't even register the slightest bit of an impact on my surrounding colleagues.
Interestingly, that was not the only time during the week that laughter came as a response to a religious reference. The second time I was not alone. In one of the sessions the discussion surrounded the methods that were used to safeguard wind turbines during hurricane Ivan. One presenter joked that apart from taking the necessary measures to reinforce and protect, they had all prayed really, really hard and he thinks that made a difference. Everyone in the room burst out laughing. I laughed just as heartily as anyone else, but then I stopped. Obviously it would be funny to me but these people were predominantly Christian and supposedly would believe in prayer. Many of them would have flocked to churches in January to pray for Haiti after the earthquake. What makes praying for Haiti recovery rational, but praying for a wind turbine not to topple over ridiculous? The former appears to be a far bigger ask of God to me. Maybe at some level everybody recognises the absurdity of prayer, especially when its brought down to specifics. This may be a sign hope for our people. There was further encouragement for me when at the conference banquet we were asked to engage in a moment of reflection rather than say a word of prayer. This was the first time I had gone to any such function in the Caribbean without prayer being directly invoked. A small step, but perhaps things are a changing.
My trip to Jamaica has also afforded me my first opportunity to meet a black atheist face to face; a young lady growing up in Jamaica. It was a fascinating experience. It may be lonely as an atheist in a world of faith, but it is so worth it when you meet a kindred spirit. Our experiences were similar in many regards, but no two atheists are the same and it was intriguing to explore some of the different perspectives. We also spoke of the possibility of some type of meetup or conference somewhere for Caribbean atheists. That would be truly exciting. For one moment we almost wished that hell really existed. We could all be together as atheists without anyone having to buy plane tickets, book a conference room or invite speakers. If an exchange between two atheist could be as intellectually simulating as this night was, just imagine what it would be like if two or three million were gathered. Now that would be heaven.
Well sadly, that is not reality and we have to just plant the seeds of reason in our small corners where we can. As we recognised in our discussion, there is still a sadness in letting go what you used to hold dear and what so many of family and friends hold on to as the "everything" in their lives. It is a difficult line to balance commitment of reason to the need for community bonding. I often think that atheists who have grown up in predominantly secular communities don't fully understand the struggle.
As I spoke with my new friend about my involvement in religion in Barbados, especially in building up the church with my music, I realised how quickly my perspectives have changed. There was even a time less than five years ago that one of my goals was to one day preach a sermon at my church. Indeed, as I reflect on my former life of faith in the Caribbean I feel so much like Lot's wife, stopping to look back in awe on a ravaged Soddom and Gomorrah. I wonder how an institution that I once revered so much could have been demolished to such an extent in my eyes. But now I recognise without doubt that there was never any solid structure. The God I for so long regarded as my immovable pillar has so quickly turned into one of a different kind...... A pillar of salt.