Saturday, July 31, 2010

Faithland : A fascinating journey in both directions

From as long as I can remember I have always loved to travel. There is nothing like boarding a plane and taking a journey into the unknown. The simultaneous anxiety and excitement as you try to imagine what things will await you when you land. Will this place live up to your expectations? Is it all that the brochures make it out to be? Will you be met in the terminal by an eager host or will you be forced to use all your street smarts to somehow make it to your hotel?

I always make it a point when I travel by plane to try to find out something about the person sitting next to me. Over the years I have met people with so many different stories. Excited honeymooning couples just married yesterday, proud mothers feeling the thrill of the opportunity of seeing the first gran and college students enjoying the feeling of liberation of getting that trip away from home for the first time. I have occasionally run into the sullen face of a reflective son or daughter facing the task of burying a parent, or a disappointed professional returning home after a promising job didn't quite work out.

What I often find fascinating in travelling as well, is the difference between the emotions of the traveller beginning the trip and one who is returning home. It was especially clear whenever I was about to land in Barbados. While I usually just gave a cursory glance at my island home through the left window, my neighbours would often be clamouring over me to get as long a look as they could at the paradise they had saved the entire year for. They would tell me that they had their bathing suit at the top of their hand luggage so they could hit the beach even before they were shown their rooms at the hotel. I think that there were as bewildered by my nonchalance as I was by their childlike glee. Now as I live in Western Canada I have come to understand them a bit more. The majestic Rocky Mountains that used to have me staring with jaw dropping awe, have become an everyday background that now generally serve me more as a natural compass to tell me when I am going west. At the same time I regularly long to hear the surf and see the contrasting shades of blue on the water that I used to experience everyday but barely noticed back then. It really is all a matter of perspective.

In living in Canada I have met people from all over the world and of course it has been a great learning experience. I find that perhaps the most interesting people I have met are those from China. I suppose the reason is that, on the surface at least, Barbados and China could not be more different. Whenever I tell a Chinese person that I come from a country of 270 thousand people they stare at me incredulously, assuming that there must be something lost in translation. That number would not even qualify for the designation of small village in their country. An island like Barbados for them is just, like or slogan used to say, completely beyond their imagination.

However, as I have learnt over the last year or so, size and population are only the beginning of our differences. The contrast is just as glaring when it comes to the question of faith. I had a discussion with a colleague from China who asked if I believed in ghosts and /or gods. I answered no on both counts, recognising now the irrationality I had in the past of excepting one group and rejecting the other, but another thing hit me. Unlike other times when I told people I was an atheist there was no startled or excited response. It was just a casual, " I don''t believe in anything like that either."

However, my Chinese friend went on to tell me that she was beginning to have doubts about her non belief. Recently some Christians had come to visit her at home and told her that as someone who didn't believe in God she was missing something very important and worse than that she had no soul. This had her confused; maybe she was not a complete person after all. She remarked that from birth she had been taught , even at school, that there definitely was no God and all religions were just inventions of man. It was nothing that she had ever given much thought to as it just seemed obvious to her. Now that she is in Canada and being exposed to Christianity she was wondering if what she had been taught as a child was really the truth. I was just about to ask her why she would want to change, tell her how fortunate she was to be born in reason and assure her that nobody else had a soul either when I realised something amazing. She and I were going through the same thing , she was on the same faith journey but going in the opposite direction. We were both questioning the ideas that we were born into. She was going to faithland while I was coming from faithland. It was if we were two trains passing in the night. Atheism was her indoctrination, at least that's how she saw it. She, incredible for me to even conceptualise, had never been inside a church in her life. How could she be really sure that it had nothing that could enrich her life?

Once I realised that she was going through the same thing as me, I became more understanding. After all, I think questioning your long held beliefs and opinions is a desirable thing in any context. I encouraged her to explore what for her was something new that seemed exciting. However, I felt I needed to caution her. I told her that I had come from where she is thinking of going to and it's not quite as beautiful as the pamphlets and tv ads make it out to be. It seemed to me that she was thinking of going to faithland as just a 'weekend getaway visit.' Just a stop-over to see what it is like. The problem is that many faithlandians are not satisfied with overnight guests. Once you are in their territory they will lay out everything to entice you to stay longer and if you aren't firm in saying, " no thank you" to certain offers you can easily find yourself holding citizenship there before you know it. So when it comes to faithland it may be easier to just cancel the trip and turn back.

But would that be really be fair ? After all, every journey is a learning experience and as many people have told me even visiting a country with poor living conditions has the advantage of helping you appreciate more what you have at home. So, after some thought I think the best advice for my friend is to go ahead on the journey. See what lies out there. I however suggested that she take the longer route through reason rather than the ' faith express.' I think once you approach through reason you can enjoy faithland for what it is. You can enjoy the stories about mighty kings and beautiful queens, visit buildings as exquisite as any palace you have read about, wear the most radiant costumes, dance and sing along to lovely tunes and lose yourself on an emotional roller coaster in a world of magic and mystery. You can also learn so much in the process about history and traditions and how men and women from the earliest times used all the knowledge they had to make sense of a fascinating yet scary world surrounding them. I think that's worth it if you can get a ticket, just make sure it's 'return.'

Well, for me I have certainly been there, done that and have bought more t-shirts than I care to remember. It's been over a year since I have been to any of faithland's places of interest. Am I tempted to go back and visit? Of course, but for the time being I am enjoying my new home. There are so many fascinating things I am discovering everyday. Like anyone in a new place , I want to explore everything, I just can't get enough. I just want to read all about it, go to all the events, meet the people living in the community and when it comes to the internet I want to see all the sites.

So many people ask me if I think my excitement will last. Shouldn't I wait a bit longer before making the decision to migrate? Don't I miss faithland ? Won't the novelty wear off someday? Yes, I am sure the newness will wear off at some point and just as is the case after every trip I have been on, it will be back to life and back to reality. Well, that's ok with me, because more than anything else, I want to live in reality.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

I just told my parents

Well,I finally did it. I just told my parents that I am now an atheist. How does it feel? I am still trying to process it all, but I suppose the most important thing is that it is done. I guess it was not a critical action in that I am living in Canada and they in Barbados and my actions with secular societies here would not have affected them directly. Nonetheless, I felt with my involvement increasing everyday in freethought it was only fair they should know of my new philosophical position. As I was not sure how to slip the issue into normal phone conversation, I opted to send them an email telling them what I was involved in and specifically provided the link to this blog. That was a few days ago and I left them some days to mull it over.

Tonight I had an extended discussion with each one separately. My mum was the one that I was more concerned about. So many atheists have told me they could just never tell their mother. I always felt that I could even though up until a few days ago I hadn't. However, yesterday I started to get a bit nervous as she told me she was still mulling over my email. I just had visions of my mum staying up at night agonising, this was the last thing I wanted. Anyway after talking tonight I feel a little bit better. She however seems to be worried that I may have involved myself in some cult group which I might find it difficult to get out of later. Tonight I thought was not the time to go into details of why this is not like some new religion and that it is indeed Christianity that is the difficult thing to get out of once you are in. She pleaded with me not to throw out the "baby with the bathwater" which reminded me of Dan Barker's remark in his book Godless that he threw out the bathwater and there was no baby there. Again I thought better of bringing up that extension to the analogy. To my mother's credit she didn't try to change my mind or throw me a version of Pascal's Wager as I have heard has happened in other atheists' experiences. She did mention about sending me some bible passages, but I'll deal with that when and if the time comes. Overall not too bad with mum.

Not surprisingly things were a little easier with my dad as he has always brought more than an air of skepticism to his faith. I remember clearly being at the dinner table at six years old and hearing him chuckling at the absurd concept of two of every animal walking in procession into the ark. He jokingly wondered how on earth Noah managed to capture the two mosquitoes and how he could be sure he had a male and a female. I almost choked on my chicken bone hearing him laughing at something in the HOLY bible, but I never ever forgot that moment. Looking back that was the first crack in my armour of faith. Indeed my father's influence is certainly a large part of spurring my desire to question and investigate all my beliefs. It's like he took me right to the brink of reason's "promised land" but he at least up to now has not been prepared to step over the threshold with me. I on the other hand can find no reason not to keep walking and that's of course what I have done. I certainly think daddy's the one that needs to take a lot of credit for where I am today. Ironically he, as he told me tonight, sees himself as the one if anything that has to take the blame. I suppose it's a question of glasses half empty and half full.

My dad has always considered himself an agnostic and always has as far as I can remember even as he has been heavily involved in the church over the years. He reiterated to me tonight that he considers that the arguments against God's existence are stronger than those in support, but he would never take a position of certainty. In my books that makes him an atheist but I am definitely not going to belabour that point with him. I just merely told him that I agree with him 100% in those conclusions. I was a bit surprised that my dad seemed at some level to be subscribing to that commonly held view by theists that atheism is a position that expresses some type of certainty.

Well all in all two fruitful interactions. It's a shame that neither at this time is able to share my happiness at what I consider to be a very positive development in my life. But, to be honest I know that would have been too much to ask for. I think that is one of the hardest thing for me in becoming an atheist, the inability to share the joy of the deconversion and resulting liberation with those who matter to me most. It's like the best you can get is an, " I'm ok with that."Still I suppose that is really great compared to many stories I have heard where atheists have been virtually cut off by their families.

I also have a wish that my parents could come to understanding my position better by reading some of my thoughts on this blog, but from tonight's conversation I don't think that is going to happen too soon. I now realise that having the name of the blog as No Religion Know Reason does not exactly help. Oh well, too late to change that name now.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Getting rid of the demons

It seems that these days I just don't have to look too far to find things to comment on happening back home in Barbados. Most recently I came across this story about demons in a community. This is a bizarre story even by Caribbean standards. What amused me was that in the story, it says the demon possession started when the lady went on the internet and "saw what she was not supposed to see." I wonder if she stumbled across this website. Could this blog have started it all? Hardly, although I know that what I write here is not what a christian is "supposed to see." I am sure that there are many people in Barbados who would think that God would strike them dead on the spot if they were to so much as to type the word "atheist"in their search engine.

Seeing this article made me reflect on one of the benefits of atheism that too infrequently seems to be brought to the fore. So often christians say that they can't imagine living without God who loves and protects them. However, that belief in God so often carries with it Satan and any number of malevolent spirits that can cause considerable havoc. I know that there are many that find a way to hold on to the Lord while rejecting the devil. I was one of them. I could never understand how a loving God could allow his children to suffer in the torment of hell, no matter how guilty we may have been. But I think I realised even then I wasn't being logically consistent. The fact that I didn't find the idea of a devil appealing in no way meant that he was less likely to be real. I believe deep down there was always at least a slight fear. I used to feel it as a teenager at the times when I had to wait alone in the cathedral cemetary after choir practice, especially if the wind was up and there was a hint of thunder in the distance. Wouldn't say that I was scared but there was a definite discomfort that looking back now I am sure related to the supernatural. Maybe I was wondering if I might see a real duppy.

I have had a few conversations with West Indians during the last year that showed me that fear of ghosts and spirits runs deep in our populations. When I was in Jamaica I was staying at a hotel close to the Great House of Rose Hall where according to legend the White Witch of Jamaica lives. A colleague of mine said that the tours were all during the day, telling me that of course nobody would want to tour the compound if it was not broad daylight. I was just about to ask him why not when my mind jumped back to the cemetary in Barbados. At that moment I realised that as an atheist I had really and truly shed the demons. I could listen to stories about any ghosts or spirits and treat them as the fiction they are, but it is so different for the person of faith. Once you believe in the supernatural you can never totally dismiss as fiction any ghost story. If ghosts exists it stands to reason that the sceptre that is being described is at least a possible manifestation of same. I think that atheists all over the world should look to rent or buy all the "haunted houses" that no one else wants to stay in. I am sure there are some good bargains to be had.

Supernatural belief can affect you in many ways. At my primary school there was a wall we dare not climb if we hit the ball over it playing cricket. Generations of students had sworn that a witch lived in a house there who used to cast spells on children. It didn't matter that no one at the school at the time had ever seen anyone on those premises, natural or supernatural. I can't tell you how many exciting games were ruined and balls forever lost as a result. I heard a story about a fellow in Grenada that no one dared owe money to since he kept a lot of strange looking potions and some exotic animals at his house, this meant he could do very bad things to you if you didn't pay him on time. In Barbados about 10 years ago some fisherman preferred to keep their nets on the shore because of reported sightings of a sea monster.

Perhaps nothing beats the story given by a taxi driver I had in Jamaica. After telling me that Usain Bolt's injuries this year are directly related to persons in the country working voodoo, he told me a story of a lady from St. Maarten. With the most serious demeanour you could imagine he told me how she was afflicted by a disease that made her want to have sex everyday at 6:00 pm. "If she found herself in the kitchen she want to have sex right there, if she was in the supermarket she want to have sex right there, if she was at church she want to have sex right there ! "Apparently she was only "cured" when she went to a "mother" in Jamaica who removed a snake that was in her vagina. "It's true, true!" he assured me, "The lady travelled in my taxi and sat right where you are sitting now!" I smiled and told him gently that I had never observed anything remotely like what he was describing. In my mind there is no doubt that he considered all this to be real.

Ghost accounts can be found all over the Caribbean and are a great part of our folklore. I would hope that we never lose that aspect of our culture. I always loved hearing the stories about the Steel Donkey in Barbados as a child. However , for too many the line between folklore and reality becomes blurred. I think many christians think that as atheists we are being dishonest when we say that we have no fear of the supernatural. They consider it just a bravado statement, believing that in weaker moments we shudder at the prospect of being on the wrong side of these spiritual forces. They don't realise that when we speak of what we would say if we meet a god at the end of our lives that we are talking very, very , very hypothetically.

The fact is that the application of reason is a powerful weapon against the supernatural. Once you recognise that the world is governed by the laws of physics rather than the laws of psychics the fear disappears completely. If supernatural entities are real the entire scientific paradigm is called into question if not rendered invalid; and not even the most raving fundamentalist will argue that there is sufficient grounds to re-examine the total scientific method. When you understand the structure of the atmosphere, troposphere and ionosphere there is no reason to fear that the sky will fall on your head no matter how many chicken lickens there are running around frantically trying to shake you from your complacency. I rigorously applied logic and reason to my belief system and now I can say all my demons have well and truly been exorcised.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

My thoughts rather than prayers are with you Prime Minister

The Prime Minister of Barbados, David Thompson is ill and has been for some time. Understandably all over the country there is a feeling of concern and anxiety. I, as a fellow Barbadian, echo these sentiments and hope he has a speedy and complete recovery. What has been a bit alarming but not at all surprising is how our people have sought to help him and his family. Yes, it's a fervent appeal to the heavens for divine healing. You can read about the national healing service here and here. I shook my head almost after every sentence in these articles. Healing the PM through touching the mother? I am still trying to work through the logic. And what pray tell is a "spiritual parliament"?

I know there is much sincerity in this national show of solidarity for the PM but after the dust has settled, what is the lingering message? It is a strong statement, endorsed by the most respected minds in the land, that says prayer works and is a legitimate if not the best method to use to affect the outcome of an event. It says that we are better than some other nations because we respect God so much. It says that our dependence on the divine demonstrates the great compassion of our people to the world.

I think the repercussions of the propogation of these ideas is far greater than the short term solace and solidarity that coming together in prayer may bring. These ideas are a strike against reason, contamination in the well of rationality. People should be concerned about religion in the way that there are about nuclear power or the threat of oil spills. Yes it may give us the energy we want today , but the pollution that lingers in the environment could be in the long run far more debilitating.

So, prayers I will not offer you Mr. Thompson, but please accept my best wishes to you and your family at this challenging time.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Atheist Blogroll

No Religion Know Reason has been added to The Atheist Blogroll. You can see the blogroll in my sidebar. The Atheist blogroll is a community building service provided free of charge to Atheist bloggers from around the world. If you would like to join, visit Mojoey at Deep Thoughts for more information.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Truth versus Tradition: A look at faith and football

It happens every four years. A one month fiesta of football or soccer depending on where you are, that brings many nations in the world to a standstill. Maybe it's just me, but apart from the skill and determination that has been on show from many of the teams, there seems to be a very liberal dose of faith. I cannot remember ever seeing so many crosses before at a World Cup. No, I am not talking about those delivered from the player on the wing to the centre forward. I mean the numerous"signs of the cross" during the game, often made as players prepare to come on as substitutes or take free kicks. I guess that means that most of the teams are playing for Jesus. How confusing this must be even for a holy trinity.

Indeed, I always thought that a World Cup must be a very difficult thing for God to deal with. With so many players and prayers how does he keep it all straight in his head? Maybe he has the schedule with all the matches laid out so he can work out exactly what each match result must be in order for his divine plan to be carried out. This may explain why in the course of the tournament players will get injured on the eve of matches and superstars like Ronaldo, Rooney and Messi will underperform. It is not that God hates these players it's just that the opposition's prayers must be given priority sometimes.

What I can't understand is why a God would allow referees to underperform. Surely no team prays that their team will win due to an error by an official. Which team out there wants their victory to be tainted? It doesn't seem to make sense for an omnipotent being to go that route to manufacture a desired result. For example, why go through the trouble of allowing England to score a goal and then letting the referee incorrectly disallow it. It would seem to me that the easier thing for God to do would be to slightly alter the wind direction to modify the trajectory of the ball so that it bounced in front of the goal line instead of behind. It would have meant no goal and no controversy and his "will" would still have been done, so much less complicated. And, that was not the only time in the World Cup that God worked in a mysterious way. In the Caribbean we have a saying, " God don't sleep and he don't like ugly." Surely he must have at least dosed off a bit at the end of Ghana's quarterfinal match.

On a more serious but very related note; I have listened with interest as commentators debate the use of goal line technology and instant replays during the game. There are also calls for rule changes so that "penalty goals" can be awarded sometimes, so that football does not turn into volleyball at the end of a match. Many are unequivocal in support for more technology and rule changes if necessary. They maintain that the most important thing is to achieve fairness and get the decision right. We should use everything at our disposal to get as close to 100% accuracy as possible. Curiously, for everyone that expounds this position there is another expert that vehemently opposes the introduction of technology or a reexamination of the rules. The claim is that it would interfere with the beauty of the game, the flow of the football. Introducing change is tantamount to spitting in the face of the noble traditions of the sport. In reality it is the old status quo argument that is strangely so convincing to many; "It can't be done that way because it's never been done that way."

This ongoing debate in the premiere world tournament is basically a reflection of the faith debate that we atheists engage in everyday. We are like the sportscaster that begs for more technology. We just can't understand how any aspect in an argument can have a greater weight than truth. We are determined to find the real winner every time. Like our sports commentator counterparts we are embarrassed by the fact that in spite of scientific advancement the same type of referee error made in 1966 can return to haunt us in 2010. However, for us it goes so much further.

We have even greater embarrassment in recognising that some commentators today prefer us not to use modern technology to investigate the claims made by referees of 2000 years ago. We scoff at the idea that the beauty of faith should be defended rather than broken down by the surging attack of an enlightened age. We wonder how the theory of evolution could be fully tested and proven yet irrationally rejected by the fundamentalists out there on the field of play. Our opponents counter by suggesting that keeping the human element is more important, the beauty of the primitive man's intuition that gave rise to creation myths is far too valuable to be lost even when it is clearly wrong for all to see. Modernising the game of life with the latest scientific thinking is to destroy its very foundation, they say. We must believe because we have always believed. God's rules never change. For many the single goal of truth is overwhelmed by the multiple goals of tradition supported by culture, history and faith.

So, for the moment, the hand of God seems destined to continue its influence in the world. England in 1986 found out how devastating the hand of God can be in football, now Ghana seem to have endured a modern day version first hand. Of course, we have all seen in the wider world the intervention of the hand of God more often dividing than uniting. However, hope may be coming at least as far as football is concerned. Lately, rather than in the hand of God it is in the tentacle of an octopus that many football fans have more faith.