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.