Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Visit to Jamaica: A chance to reflect on faith in the Caribbean

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.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Barbadian and The Atheist Experience

Now that church is no longer my Sunday morning refuge The Atheist Experience has become the show I watch "religiously" on that first day of the week. I love the battle of wits between Matt, Russell, Tracie and company with both theistic and atheistic callers. Last Sunday's show, June 13th was especially unforgettable . As they went to callers I immediately recognised a countryman. Yes, Stefan the first caller was from Barbados, he had an unmistakably Barbadian (Bajan) accent. I perked up immediately. Was this a fellow atheist or a theist that was at least open to the non supernatural?

He was a theist but quickly my anticipation turned to worry as he started to put forward his arguments for God. It was obvious that he was not a regular follower of the show. Had he not ever watched Matt Dillahunty and Jeff Dee, probably the least forgiving of the hosts , go to town on arguments like these before? Honestly, I was preparing myself for a bloodbath. I just prayed that that the hosts would not prey on my Bajan brother. Seems on this one occasion my request was answered, kind of. He was given time to make his points and there was no quick hang up. However, with each passing moment he seemed to sink further in the mire with facepalm after facepalm by the hosts. They was talk of 12 foot tall humans and evidence of Noah's ark, but maybe that the most embarrassing moment came with the " were you there?" objection to the Big Bang argument. I might be a non prophet but I knew that the word "assinine" was soon going to come from the mouth of Matt Dillahunty. It arrived right on cue.

Almost as exciting as watching the show is following the chat room debates simultaneously where on this occasion the word "idiot" was being used liberally. Things got so bad that people started to wonder whether it was a prank caller. Under normal conditions I would have been "cracking up" at the exchanges I was hearing , but not on that day. It was like if I was listening to my past talking with my present. Although I never was as naive as this guy in his beliefs, they were the type of arguments I have had put to me on numerous occasions in Barbados and points that are considered sound arguments by the average Bajan. In days past I had to answer these questions with a gentle response of , " I understand what you are saying but have you considered X." So, let me say now with almost certainty that the call was absolutely genuine. The thing is that the caller was also not a fool by any means. In terms of the way he presented himself I thought he did extremely well. He was not aggressive, ranting or preaching. He put his views forward in a logical manner, he certainly had references and he was quite open to the objections put. I would not be surprised if he honestly had never had a challenge to these ideas before. I believe this was truly his first atheist experience.

I also completely believe that the guy is at college. These ideas are put out as often by PhDs in Barbados as the "living in the blood" evangelist. The most poignant point came when the caller said, " So, a biblical account is just not just good enough?" the hosts said in unison" correct." Then came a few seconds of silence that I found so poignant.For me, that moment epitomised the crux of the matter in Bajan and indeed Caribbean society. As obvious as his comment about the bible seemed to Matt and Jeff I am sure that it hit Stefan l"like a big rock" as we would say in local parlance.

Almost nobody born in our part of the world is able to conceive the bible as " just another book." Indeed in my journey to atheism this was perhaps the most difficult part to get past. Sure, many people have long since rejected the bible as infallible. Perhaps the majority have matured to dismiss Adam , Eve and Jonah as ancient myths. They will even come further forward and reject virgin births and maybe even resurrections. But to almost everybody, the bible still represents some type of truth. And by everybody I am including many persons who are not religious or as we would say have not " darkened a church door" in years. Society still claims that the bible is a holy book. It may not be free of error but its certainly not equatable with Moby Dick, Harry Potter or Grimm's Fairy tales.

Indeed there are many people in Barbados who will say " I am not a Christian." This is a curious statement, yet one that is virtually never challenged. But what do they mean? They never offer up or give the impression that they are now followers of an alternative religion. However, by the same token they would certainly not call themselves atheist or agnostic. They would not even describe themselves with the generic term "spiritual". It's just " I am not a Christian."

I think that it really means, "I am not a fundamentalist and I don't want to follow those crazy faith heads who put limits on sexual behaviour, the types of parties I can attend, the movies I can watch, the music I can listen to or the number of beers I can drink. I enjoy my life and I just don't want it being interfered with. I just want to keep doing what I am doing because I enjoy it and I don't think I am harming anybody." The response of these people to the religious zealots is "I'll think about that later," and so we get the mass flow to church of these people at 70 plus when they think they might be "called home soon." Indeed as youths, I heard many of these non christians admit to the fundamentalists that they do have moments of "doubt." Times when they have thoughts about the threat of hell and judgement day but they just try to push them aside. .It is these people who are in line with the christian strawman atheist who only denies Jesus because he wants to keep on sinning.

What seems clear to me now is that these non Christians are really just latent believers. They may not practice faith and may even be vehemently anti church, but they still believe the bible is a special book. They don't practice because they want to continue secular lifestyles and don't want to be labelled hypocrites. It's always interesting to hear some of these non Christians lambaste the flock. " You is a Christian, what you doing in this party getting on like that?" they say. These types of statements say a lot. It shows they accept the basic doctrine fundamentalist preach. It is funny, but even moderate Christians identify as non Christians sometimes. I remember many anglicans telling me they don't understand why Christians want to have their own exclusive crop over (carnival) band. " Why can't they just jump with the rest of us?" they remarked.

I often tell people that in Barbados there is no such thing as atheism. I believe when that Barbadian caller heard the word atheist he thought it meant non Christian.The local non believer that can easily be converted by the "Heaven's Gate Hell Flames" approach. The "skeptic" who can be stopped in his tracks when you point out what the bible says about his behaviour. In Barbados, what the bible says can never be completely ignored. In fact many national debates will include somebody who will bring to the table what we commonly call "the biblical perspective." And, believe you me, this position must be given at least equal weight. Even a Muslim, Hindu, Baha'i or Rastafarian in the country will never claim that the bible is not God's word. They only claim that their sacred writings are holy too.

So, the bible is still the book that is "up there" to virtually all Caribbean people. So to hear two hosts say that what the bible says is irrelevant would be just mind boggling to put it mildly. This respect for the bible is really entrenched and almost impossible to break. I mean, even today inspite of all my non belief I would feel extremely uncomfortable using a bible to prop up my window or make my rocky bed level, even if not one single soul was watching and that's the gospel truth.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Nothing wrong with being wrong

Get it right the first time.
Seems I have heard this statement so many times from people who work in customer services. It's far easier to take the time to do things the way they should be done at the beginning than try to clean up things later. Perhaps if a certain company in the news today had adhered to this mantra, BP would not stand for big problems. The thing is, getting it right from the outset in anything is not as easy as it sounds, especially when you are embarking on a journey into unknown territory. Scary as it may sound, experience is sometimes the only reliable teacher.

Many people claim to accept that trials and failures are necessary for learning but few seem to really take it to heart. We may remember the countless falls off the bicycle as children when learning to ride, but as adults we are consumed by a need to be always right, right away. We are so afraid of being wrong we will only admit we are at fault as a last resort. It is not only aimed at self, we are also reluctant to tell other people that they are wrong, Why? Because being wrong is just not socially acceptable. We feel pointing out a failure is a direct attack on a person's character and is rude; eliciting a fight or flight reaction. The response is either to lash back at a criticiser in similar manner and seek to discredit their judgement or whimper away with head bowed thinking that our worth as a person has been devalued by their words. Both these responses are seen as detrimental to society so we seek to avoid criticism in every sense.

Even in circumstances where feedback and critique is asked for, it is often just a pretense. I always have a chuckle to myself in restaurants. The waiter comes around and cheerfully asks if everything is ok. In almost 100% of circumstances the people I am eating with nod in unison, giving the "thumbs up" while wearing pleasant smiles. All seems well with the world until the waiter is out of earshot and I inevitably hear mumblings about spare ribs that are too dry or potatoes that weren't cooked enough. It's all just a ritual. The waiter must ask the question and the customer must say everything is great. In the few cases where I have been with someone who actually took up the waiter and gave criticism, the waiter has appeared generally uncomfortable and offset as if thrown completely off script. Doesn't this idiot customer understand the program? Why is he picking on me?

So, even though the talk is of honesty being the best policy, this is far from the truth. The unwritten law in our society it is, " Don't tell me ever that I am wrong." It is far more important to be nice than to be honest. In following this edict we inhibit our development. We lose the opportunity to improve; as a result a person, company or country can easily make the same mistake over and over again. Although people like to claim they are straight talking, nobody really calls a spade a spade. This is a real tragedy for humanity. All of us suffer as a result of the human obsession with sparing feelings. I don't think that this is anybody's fault it is just a trait that has persisted over the centuries probably because it carries with it certain species evolutionary advantages. A real honest approach will almost certainly lead to ostracisation from the tribe, any politician will tell you that.

This I think really is the crux of the difficulty when we come to discuss matters of religion. Being wrong is such an undesirable state that human beings do whatever they can to avoid it. Religion is the perfect answer to that insatiable drive to be right because once you belong to a faith, you cannot possibly be wrong. Your belief is unfalsifiable, no evidence can ever knock it down. Basically, you are always right by definition. I have so often told fundamentalists that no one can ever prove that the God they believe in is not real. Amazingly this comment leads to a knowing smirk, they think I am conceding defeat in the theological debate. They just don't get it.

Contrast this with the scientist who goes totally counter to society's philosophy of non critique. Religious people will not hesitate to tell you that science has been wrong many times in the past. Evolutionary biologists have been embarrassed by having to admit that what they thought was a vital link to our earliest ancestors was indeed just a tooth of a pig. But that is science, it takes the risk of being wrong in order to find out what is right. Hypotheses that are disproven can tell us much. Verifying a commonly held hypothesis is good , but true breakthroughs in science come when you actually find out that something you held strongly to be true is in fact in error. Indeed in science there is nothing more exciting that finding out you were wrong. It means you have learnt, you have made a discovery.

This is why it makes me laugh when believers suggest that if a God was ever found to exist atheists would run and hang their heads in shame. I think nothing would be more thrilling than acknowledging that moment when it comes. Any atheist that has left religion has had to admit to himself he was wrong and wrong in a really big way. But, for me I wasn't upset or embarrassed I was just excited to learn something new by honestly following evidence.

I think that as atheists we sometimes don't recognise the paradigm clashes when making arguments. We must sound like stuck records to the religious, responding to their reasons for belief with the words, " But is it true ?" The real issue is that truth is not what is most important to the believer. There is a reason for the phrase " brutally honest." Admittedly it is better if what makes them feel good is true but they are ok if it is not, on the one condition that they never conclusively find that out.

I remember watching a segment on CNN last year. A boy who had down's syndrome wanted to play football for a high school team more than anything, but just didn't have the skill level. One day at the end of the season where the result of the game was a foregone conclusion, the coaches of the two teams got together and decided to allow the kid onto the field . It was agreed that the opposing players would not try to tackle him, he would be allowed to run right down the field unimpeded to score a touch down. I saw the play and it looked impressive. The boy was delighted to score his touch down and the players on his team embraced him like he had just won the FIFA World Cup. He was lifted shoulder high by his team mates and the entire crowd at the stadium were in uproar. He had people rushing up to him hounding him for his autograph.

The media were excited by the story praising both the coaches and all the players for the gesture they had done for this young disabled boy. In their opinion they had made a dream come true for this youngster and the value of that could not be measured. I sat and watched and shook my head. Was I the only person in the world that saw something wrong with this? The boy was happy, friends and family shed tears of unadulterated joy but it was all a LIE!! Sure the boy felt great today but just imagine if he were to ever find out what really happened, that could really shatter him for life. How would we feel if we were to find out tomorrow that all of our achievements were just given to us by others out of pity to make us feel good? This boy undoubtedly has real talent in some area and could with effort and dedication achieve something far more spectacular than even his teammates could imagine. That opportunity may have now been lost.

That tv moment illustrated to me why it is so hard to beat that religious feel good "high". Happy falsehood always seems to beat sober reality, but I am an optimist. I think we can build a new paradigm in society based on honesty and criticism. One where everyone is encouraged to give and take it as much as possible. A world where we smile and say thank you when somebody calls us an idiot; as we revel in the opportunity to correct a mistake. A world where truly and honestly there is nothing wrong with being wrong.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Not in a Church!

" No! Not in a Church!" Anybody who has grown up in the Caribbean has heard this phrase yelled at them sometime during their childhood. It could be for running up and down the stairs with friends playing "catcher" after Sunday School; using some selected slang words as you hail up a colleague outside the window or for wearing a dress that is a bit too see-through or a jeans too holey to be holy. God forbid if you were at a meeting and in an absent minded moment leaned against the altar. Well, if you didn't die on the spot from the looks of utter disdain you would pray that the priest would bring you some water right away, not only to prevent you from fainting in shame but to baptise you anew to remove that repugnant stain of sin.

Yes, as a child you learnt that the house of the Lord was sacred. Not respecting that was worse than more trivial sins such as stealing a candy from a supermarket or scratching up somebody's vehicle in the parking lot. Transgressions against people were one thing, but transgressions against God could take you straight to hell. So, from early as five or six we learnt to fear God and everything in his house.

Well, it didn't stop in childhood. I remember an incident where I was a director for an adult chorale in a church. In the Caribbean, chorales are the groups in the church that push the musical envelope by using indigenous rhythms of reggae and calypso along with other contemporary stylings. It may seem paradoxical to some, but church culture in the Caribbean has in the past been one that has frowned on traditional island culture. Regarding much of our music as "banja" or devil music. Today this view is less prevalent, but " not in a church", for this music was not that long ago.

Anyway, during one chorale practice, I encouraged members to express themselves in their movements as they sang a song we had put to a calypso beat. Apparently, in the opinion of one of the chorale members, another singer had crossed the line with her gyrations. It seemed strange as the movements we were doing were quite conservative, some head, foot and upper body moves, certainly nothing in the waist area. I learnt later, the main concern of the protester, was that the offender's effervescent movements were made in front of the tabernacle.

The tabernacle is the little box kept just above the altar on the far left hand side that houses the communion wafers. A box that, according to tradition, God himself resides. It's like a hierarchical trinity of sacredness. General church on level one, altar on level two, tabernacle on level three. Each level more sacred than the previous and the admonishment for desecration more severe. So, the problem didn't seem to be the body motion it was just that it shouldn't have been done in front of the tabernacle. Supposedly, if the gyrations had been made, while standing in the middle of the group rather than being outermost on the left, it would not have been as bad. Amazing!

What ensued was an angry exchange between the offending and offended member and both left the chorale practice in disgust. In all this, the rest of the chorale were just shocked and speechless. No one knew quite what to say. It struck me at the time that this was an example of religion not knowing reason. It was impossible on the spot to reconcile the disagreement because there was no basis for the discussion. Without God himself in the midst to arbitrate; the discussion had no way of resolving, there was an inevitable standoff. In this case it led to two very angry and distraught individuals, both of whom were simply acting according to what they believed was the proper way to serve God. There is really simply no way to counteract in logic, this " not in a church" syndrome. It's either war or shake your head and give in. You can point to traditions, but they are not based on logic. It's just how it's been done in the past. They can build a sense of strength in community but can also hold back progress. Some people uphold traditions others move away, it is a natural tension, there is no right or wrong.

It is sad to see how religion can divide people even those who earnestly want to "sing from the same hymn sheet," but "not in a church" syndrome can do that. Eventually this syndrome makes its way up in Caribbean society and manifests itself at national level. It becomes, "not on a Sunday", "not during Lent" or "not on Good Friday" where it is not uncommon for government officials to voice their open disapproval for even private functions held at these times. There is even, "not in this country." A musical group was recently prevented from performing in Barbados, in part because aspects of their message were not considered to be inkeeping with the morals of a "Christian" society.

Just like the chorale scenario, there is no way to reason these things through, unless God speaks for himself, but he has kept silent as his followers have bloodied themselves in ideological battles. It is far worse when , "not in a church" is used to exclude not music, body movements or clothing, but people themselves. I can remember when the response to having women as preachers was , "not in a church." Today those four words are likely to confront gays or lesbians wishing to evangelise.

Well, history has shown us that , "not in a church", can be overcome.The church, like society around it has moved with the times. It is a pity that the book on which the faith is based reflects an understanding of the world that is so primitive. Melodies and rhythms may have moved with the times , but the lyrics, by and large, have remained the same. Someone needs to tell the churches that these must be updated too. We shouldn't be reading a book telling us how to treat our slaves, at least not in a church.