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.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Interview with Hitchens: The questions give you all the answers

It was a sad sight to see Christopher Hitchens a shadow of his former self on CNN a few nights ago. Yet, it was an inspiration to see a man leaning on reason rather than prayer to get him through his cancer. Ironically he seemed to be dealing with the issue of his mortality and possible death in the near future with indeed much grace and perhaps more peace than many who claim to be convinced that a world of eternal bliss lies before them. Maybe this is the advantage of living a life in reality, you can spend your life preparing for the moment that you will be no more. When your moment comes you have played the scenario in your mind many times and is not a time to paralyse you with fear. There is no feeling of, "Why me?" or "How does this fit into God's plan?" There is no deity to be angry at or disappointed in. You come to the conclusion that I am a part of nature and things in nature die, simple. I always find interviews like the one on AC 360 as fascinating for the questions asked as by the answers given. Many of the questions posed by Anderson Cooper spoke volumes. One or two really resonated with me.

"So you don't pray at all?" Anderson asked. I thought this was a truly remarkable question to ask a man that had dedicated his entire life to fiercely promoting reason and the elimination of the supernatural ideas. The author of " God is not Great." Did Cooper think that this was all a facade? It was as if he thought this was his great moment of investigative journalism. He could get Christopher to admit something at his darkest hour. Maybe an " Ok, ok you got me I do say an itsy bitsy prayer but only once or twice a month." I have played this question over and over in my head and the only conclusion I can come to is that Cooper thinks that Hitchens might be a closet theist. Well, if Hitchens is a theist, who among us can be atheist? There is of course the cliche that there are no atheists in foxholes. But Cooper's question suggests that he thinks there are no atheists. No atheists full-stop.

Yes, it must mean that he thinks everybody deep down knows there is a God there, it's just an attempt to deny. The books, the speeches, the debates, the blogs, all a cover, an atheist's attempt to convince himself by repetition. If you say "God is not Great" enough times maybe you'll start to believe it. This is all in spite of the fact that not only Hitchens, but several writers, bloggers and speakers are at pains in everything they say or publish to show step by step how they have reached their position by a rigorous process of logic. They don't just say we used reason and that's it. They always show the process, sometimes making it painstakingly simple. Even after that , the theist is inevitably invited to criticise the logic and point out any flaws that might have been overlooked. Invariably no logical objections are forthcoming. Yet, the theist continues to ask questions which clearly show that they don't think that the conclusion that the atheist says he came to is what his conclusion really was. But why would you go through the hard logic and reasoning process and then toss out the conclusion you come to? Unless of course, you really weren't interested in logic in the first place. That is the key, many persons of faith don't believe in using logic to reach such conclusions. They reason that if they don't atheists don't either. They think that atheists are just using logic to appear to bolster their preconceived beliefs, so they never bother to explore the atheists' arguments seriously. Talk about the man in the mirror.

This idea of emotional appeal came up also in the interview opening, when Cooper said. " Many are wondering if Hitchens' diagnosis would have changed his belief in God." Again a curious question, at least from an atheist's perspective. Why would an ailment that you are suffering from affect things you have discovered in the world through  reasoning ? It would be like someone asking you what was 2+2 when you were robust and healthy and getting the answer '4'. Then as you are on your death bed the same person comes up to you taunting you by saying , " So do you still think 2+2 = 4 now?"
Many theists really don't get the fact that for an atheist, you arrive at the conclusion 'there is no God' by the same process that you arrive at the conclusion that 2+2 =4. Emotion in no way factors into the decision. The only way you can expect illness to effect a person's belief in god is if you considered that emotion does or should play a part in making a judgement on reality. More and more the questions show that the general theist perspective is that questions about the reality of the universe cannot be studied without regard to emotional implications. That's the only conclusion I can come to. Of course in most debates believers never state that their beliefs are based on emotion even if they admit faith makes them happy. They always start out with the assertion that the belief is real. The other benefits come later and are a consequence of having faith, not the cause. When you analyse the questions Christian's ask and how they phrase them it's clear that they believe the opposite. I am now learning that the answers or the truth of what people think is really contained in the questions they ask. If you assess them you can really learn everything about what they think. You never actually need to ask them any questions. You just need to listen to how they question you.

Oh yes, believers, as amazing as it may seem atheists actually do sincerely believe what they profess. When I think about it that's a strange concept to grasp in a world where what you think and what you say rarely seem to coincide. One last comment on the interview.  The idea was presented  that surely at a time like this Hitch should be hedging his bet on whether there is a God or not. Yes, as much as I have heard all the many objections by atheists, Pascal's Wager does remain the apologetic of choice for many Christians. It is a weird thing that so many Christians say they would rather believe in a God and be wrong than not believe and be wrong. Surely that statement suggests they have some doubts. Are they saying they really don't KNOW that they redeemer liveth? Why would you have to bet on a horse that everybody already knows won the race? They really put themselves in Catch 22 situation with this type of reasoning or should I say Hitch 22.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Going back to church

Ok, ok don't get so alarmed. This is not a sudden reconversion. Today I went with a group on a tour of some buildings which had incorporated energy efficient aspects in their design. It just happened that one of the buildings we visited was a church.

Although the purpose of the trip was purely technical it was still interesting to walk into a church for the first time in almost a year. Right off the bat, there was one curious characteristic. We walked into a church divided, literally. On the left hand side was a door saying Lutheran and the other door on the right was labeled Catholic. Never saw anything like this in all my life, apparently the two denominations had come together to build the church, but worshipping in the same space was just a step too far. This was something which many just could not understand. For one thing, having one worship space instead of two would have been far more energy efficient. This morning's first lesson; when it comes to saving, it's souls before energy.

But that was not the only notable aspect of this morning's visit. What followed related more to what didn't happen than to what did. There was nothing in the body language or behaviour of anybody there that would have given away that we had entered into a holy place. In the Caribbean I could never think of this happening regardless of the reason for the visit or the denomination of the church. Even in the middle of a work day I am sure I would have seen a few solemnly bowed heads, a quick genuflect or sign of the cross and even talking in hushed tones as a further sign of respect

Today, none of the above. Everybody entered the church without missing a beat and concentrated on discussions of insulation, solar collectors and heat storage. It was amusing to hear someone struggle to understand the whole church thing. " Is this where the priest stores the ornaments that he uses during mass?" Ornaments? Was he really equating the communion cup, wafers and chasuble to stuff you would put on a Christmas tree? No one eve flinched at this comment that I am sure would have been considered sacrilegious in Barbados.

Later we went to an area where there was a large basin of water, which had another steady flow of water pouring into it. A lady reached into her purse and glibly tossed a coin into it. After a few steps someone tugged her by the hand and whispered that she was pretty sure that that was the basin where they baptise people. As she walked back things became more clear. The penny lay shining as the solitary object in what now seemed to almost certainly be holy water. Yes, indeed the object in question was a font not a fountain. Too late, there was no way that coin could be fished out now, the basin was far too deep for that. Well, of course we didn't inform anyone of this minor gaffe. Not to worry, I am sure that penny will one day take its place as a "miracle coin" probably assumed to have been sent down by Jesus himself.

The most memorable moment of our brief visit came as we prepared to leave. Someone in assessing the overall design was impressed by how solar energy was being used to provide energy for the offices, day care centre and gymnasium all within the church building. He confessed however that he was unsure why the parishioners had insisted on a state of the art heating system for the place where they have mass. "That is the least important room in this building." he remarked. "After all, they only use it once a week."