Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Death of the Barbados Prime Minister: A look from the atheist side

Sadly the fears of the nation have come to pass, the Prime Minister of Barbados , David Thompson is dead. I express my condolences to his family, friends and the entire nation. In spite of the numerous prayers offered and the various worship services as I described in an earlier post, there was to be no miracle. Not even the bold declaration by a pastor who said " we will not let another prime minister die under our watch" made an impact.

Death on its own is hard but its intensity is even greater when it is that of a leader of a nation as small as Barbados. With 270,000 people you can be sure that each person has seen the Prime Minister at some point; maybe out at a political meeting, visiting in his constituency, watching a game of cricket, or attending a calypso tent. This death also feels more tragic because of the youth of our leader at age 48. A leader who had dreamed about being the prime minister from since he was at school, was clearly relishing the job and was committed to leaving his legacy after persevering for many years to get that top spot. So, why would God decide to take him from us now? Well, thankfully I don't have to ponder on such "difficult"questions these days. That's surely an atheistic advantage.

Predictably the tributes have been coming in from all over the globe and many have been very personal and touching. Of course, religious sentiments have been at the forefront. In fact I have yet to read a single one on the main online tribute pages that doesn't allude to something "spiritual." One common sentiment is " Rest in peace and rise in glory." I am still trying to figure out exactly what that means.

The rationalisations for why God decided to take David at this time have been many. "God must have needed an extra angel !" one person claimed. There have also been many prayers of thanks to God for removing Mr. Thompson's pain, as if this is really what they were asking for when they were pleading to the saviour to deliver the PM. One writer was even giving thanks to the Lord for providing men of God at the bedside so that the PM could be ushered into the hereafter. Wait, you need ushers to go into heaven now? Is he going to a wedding? One of those same priests stated how they had released the PM into the arms of God. What would God have done if the men of cloth decided they wanted to hold on to their man? I wonder.

In reading the many accounts of persons who were assured that Mr. Thompson is now in the embracing arms of Jesus, something struck me. Atheists are often criticized by the faithful for being too committed to the physical world, obsessed with naturalism and married unconditionally to the mantra of materialism, trusting only in our five senses. But, what I was reading this morning was Christians clinging desperately to the physical. For their descriptions of heaven speak directly to those same five senses. Heaven is always described as a place, it must therefore be located at some point "X" which we are able to detect somehow. According to many, our senses will be very much alive when that "roll is called up yonder." We will see our long lost relatives, hear the sounds of the blaring trumpets and feel the loving embrace of a creator, we may even smell the roses of a garden or taste milk and honey. I know that many people see heaven as a "spiritual" place but once we are experiencing direct stimulation to our senses, heaven or the spiritual realm must at least be "physical like" in as much as it is analogous to experiences we have here on earth. What is more is that Christians speak of existing in this realm forever, so this "physical like" state they think extends to the infinite. This means that there must be some type of "material" that exists forever. Yet so many theists scoff at the idea of matter always existing.

On the other hand, after hearing the news this morning, I found myself not focusing on things related to the physical realms . I had no thoughts about a body travelling to to take up some cosmic real estate in an alternative world. I accept we have lost the PM in body and that this is not coming back in any form or fashion, I have indeed let go of the physical. Instead I am thinking about his non physical part. The ideas he brought to the table, the love he showed for Barbados and the causes he believed in. In there are things that I can draw from to make a difference in my own life today and well into the future. In so doing, a life can indeed tend to being eternal, as a person can make a difference without existing in the physical. We live in an age where many relationships thrive without any physical interaction. Skype, facebook , instant messaging, are everyday, the material world, in terms of communication at least, is not the ultimate reality.

Yet, on a day like today people spend their time thinking about what lies on the "other side", how our late leader will get a new body and be taken care of until we one day join him. In looking towards hoped for hereafters we forget the messages we are being given through completed life stories in the here and now . We don't toss a book in the garbage just because we have finished reading it, neither should we consider a life "finished" because there are no more chapters to be added.

In the last message the prime minister gave to the nation, he did not appear on screen, due to the severity of his weight loss." I want you to focus on the message rather the medium, " he declared. Mr. Prime Minister, you can be rest assured that is what I will always strive to do.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Church just not the same today

" I only go to church for weddings and funerals." How often I heard this phrase. In years gone by I would be in awe of such people wondering how they could possibly survive without at least an occasional dose of spiritual medicine on Sunday or Saturday morning. Alas, I am now one of the "WAF"ers and unfortunately this year it has been the latter rather than the former that I have been attending.

I went to a funeral on Saturday and perhaps the family of the deceased knew I was lacking a bit of Sunday morning spirituality. The memorial service was conducted in an Anglican church and the full liturgy was included. It was a strange yet nostalgic to go through this. I had been raised in the Anglican church in Barbados and many of the passages I still practically know by heart. As an Anglican I used to have to endure criticism from persons of other denominations who claimed our faith was dead since all we did was recite words from a book and utter outdated Latin responses. However I always felt the standardisation was a blessing as it meant you could walk in to an Anglican church anywhere in the world and immediately follow what was going on and feel a part of it.

Now things felt different even though the readings were so familiar. The words rather than sitting passively on the page, jumped out of the book and shook me by my collar. There seemed to be so much blood, every other word it felt like. Suddenly the passages seemed to be more something from a horror movie than a holy book. Were these words always in here ? Surely this was a later more X rated version of the more palatable liturgy I had grown up with. But no, no it was not. Another thing struck me, the words I was reading were so self deprecating. So many lines were mentioning how horrible we are as human beings, how undeserving we are of anything. Nothing makes it clearer than the words before the communion.

" Lord, we are not worthy even to gather together the crumbs which fall from your table."

That is a truly powerful statement, an analogy that really sums up our position in the world. When I used to say this years ago, I saw it as a reminder that I should be humble and I regarded this a virtue. Now, it felt like such a put down of myself, a real self esteem killer. It was so incongruous with the idea that we can take on the world and make life into what we want to. The above statement makes us lower than the stray dog that passes around after the picnic looking for the scraps. Yes, the message is that we humans should be grateful that we get anything from God at all. No wonder Christians can so easily brush off mass deaths and disasters as the will of God and rejoice at the one saved life in the midst of the rubble. The "miracle" is our tiny crumb of blessing and its far far more than we deserve.

The service went on and I recognised that there was another very strange thing that was happening. I was thinking, yes actually using my brain in church and it felt weird. Church before was a place I could go and sit back and relax a bit, free from the stresses of the outside world. I would often listen and evaluate the sermon carefully but the rest was just like an adult version of "Simon Says." Stand when the priest said "stand" and sit when the priest said "sit." Pray when I was told to do so and be silent when that was required. I knew how to bow my head, close my eyes, genuflect and make the sign of the cross right on cue.

Today it wasn't like that at all and in many ways that made things harder. At quite a few moments I had choices to make. Should I take part in all the rituals or should I refrain from some things? This was not an easy question to answer. I had not given this much thought before hand so I had to think on the spot. I felt a little awkward, I would sometimes start saying something and then realise I really didn't think I should say it and mumble off mid sentence. Other times I started with an uncertain utterance and then spoke more boldly when I realised that the sentiment being made was something I could endorse even if it wasn't that I strictly believed everything I expressed. So up to a certain point I felt happy to realise that even though I was an atheist, I could still "do church." I could sit in the pew and play along if I had to, that was good to know, I think.

Well, I spoke too soon, for then the real moment of truth was yet to come. It came when it was time to say the Apostle's Creed." I believe in Almighty God , maker of heaven and earth, He came down to earth and became man, was born of the Virgin Mary , resurrected in body on the 3rd day etc." No I could not in good conscience say any of this. The passage says I believe. Maybe if it was "our church believes", I could justify it. But no, I didn't see how I could rationalise that this passage as some grand analogy. Resurrection of the body must mean Resurrection of the body. Virgin Mary must mean Virgin Mary. I realised then and there that there is not a single word of this creed I could truly say that I believe today. Not even that Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate and died" for as most scholars will admit, even Jesus' existence is questionable. It also hit me that it was rather presumptuous to have a funeral service where you are inviting everybody to pay their respects and then additionally ask them to proclaim that they believe all the things that you believe in. I have no problem with persons expressing their beliefs as much as they want to and as strongly as this wish, but I don't think it's reasonable to expect others to proclaim that your belief is theirs too. I suddenly wished I could apologise to all the guests that came to our church in Barbados that were expected to do the same. After all, I wonder what would happen if a Christian went to a secular humanist's funeral and was then asked to recite a creed that went,

" I believe there is no God, the universe is governed purely by laws of physics which are probabilistic in nature. I believe in the Big Bang, the evolution of the species, the method of scientific enquiry and the importance of evidence, logic and reason. I believe there are no supernatural entities, no ghosts, spirits or angels and that ultimately there is no purpose in my life other than that which I assign to it."

What would be the response then? I don't know, but I am betting it won't just be shrugged off as just being part of the ritual or considered an honourable thing to recite as a mark of respect for the beliefs of the deceased. I expect even the most liberal believer would be screaming.

So I stood absolutely silent as the creed was read by those around me. It is one of those moments I will never forget. For all of the countless discussions I have had about my loss of faith, the blogs and articles I have written, the many pieces on atheism I have read, watched or listened to this was the first time I on my own, had taken a stance on the "field of play" against the belief system that was once mine. I saw it as my loud silent statement. I am sure that no one there noticed, but it meant a lot to me. I had proved to myself that I could stand on my convictions and that it wasn't just all about philosophical musing.

My own special moment of atheism during the funeral could not take away the sadness that came with the loss of a life well lived. I realise also that in spite of my problems with parts of the service, it reflected the faith of my lost friend and that was what mattered the most. Still, in thinking about the whole experience I remember something I heard recently, " Some of the worst damage can be caused by people that have the best of intentions." This is so important to remember about religion. Most church people are there with the greatest intentions. They truly believe all they do is a benefit to humanity. There is no offence meant when they ask you to recite their creed as if it was yours or require that you believe that it is you who deserved to be tortured, hung and left to die on the cross. The challenge for atheists is to show how christian beliefs can cause offense without leaving the idea that we consider Christians to be offensive people. Indeed most Christians are very beautiful people just for having the desire to want to make the world a better place. My late friend can certainly be numbered as one of those most beautiful.

Well, as far as the funeral goes I am glad I had the chance to pay my last respects. Perhaps there were two funerals for me as I had the chance to confirm that my life of faith has also been lost. There was one chance for me at the end of the service to see if I could still resuscitate myself as a member of the "living body of Christ." I was invited to come and share communion. I willingly got up from my pew and stepped into the aisle, but only so that the lady sitting next to me could have a clear path to go up to the altar and receive her sacrament.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Faith in God = Faith in Man

"Once you and God understand, you don't need to explain or justify anything to man!" This was the quote I read on someone's facebook status yesterday. Up to the time of writing, 13 others said they "like" this and the numbers are still rising. For me this statement, short as it is, is one of the more scary things I have read in a while. " What's the harm of belief in God?" they say. Sometimes we forget that for many believers, what man thinks is of no relevance when compared to God. The unseen far greater than the seen, the unknown greater than the known, that without evidence far greater than the thing we can observe. It may sound extreme, but this is the philosophy that can ultimately lead to people flying planes into buildings.

The first thing, of course , is that God always understands you. In my Christian days God was always a God of empathy. He was always on my side, especially if it was in a time when I felt I had been wronged. He always agreed with me when I thought I had been unfairly left out of a school team or told unjustifiably that I wasn't good enough to get the job I wanted. The more passionately I felt about an issue, the more strongly I felt that God was behind me. I often reflect that if it was something other than reason and critical thinking engaging my passion now , I would attribute the drive I feel to the divine and be convinced that I was doing God's work. Indeed, that is one of the reasons that I am an atheist today. It seems to be illogical that God would be pushing me so hard to find knowledge that continuously gives me more confidence in my conclusion that he doesn't exist. I therefore find myself forced to infer that this new mission is not coming from God at all. This means my other drives and passions in life can also be explained without God being there. So I feel justified in dismissing the presence of God I felt in the past; which often came while I was writing or speaking up for things such as racial or gender equality, human rights or sustainable development.

I suppose some Christians might say that it is the devil who is driving me now , but that would mean that it could have been the devil driving me before too. After all, the feelings I experience now are exactly the same as then. But if these Christians are right there is at least one benefit I can say that comes from being on Satan's side. He always encourages me to justify and explain to man. He is never happy with me just convincing myself and my "Lord". I have to justify and explain all my beliefs so that I can give new insight if I am right, correct myself if I am wrong and engage in a cross fertilization of ideas if I am somewhere in between. I really have faith that this is "the way." I so wish I could show this to my christian brothers and sisters, but that just doesn't seem likely to happen because in the way it is now the believer holds all the cards.

To say that once God understands you don't have to justify to man, is to say that once you feel very strongly about what you are doing you don't have to justify it to anybody. In other words, you can essentially do what ever you want. Ironically, that is exactly what the believer says the atheist is doing. Recently I have heard a lot of this idea of trusting in God rather than man. The talk comes on the heels of the pope's visit to Britain with the pedophilia hanging over his church and the homosexual charges facing Pastor Long in the USA. The followers in both cases say, that they will not put their faith in fallible men they will put their faith in the Almighty and Jesus. I always smile when I hear this, because what does it really mean to put your faith in God instead of man?

I suppose believing and trusting in God means following his example or doing what he prescribes. Sounds like good advice, but then here comes the problem. What exactly does God want? Well, many would say, it's there in the bible, the word of God. But in order to "know" the bible is the word of God we have to trust the word of the man who has told us that. Yes, what the believer calls faith is really faith in what other people have written or said about God. People do not realise that when you say God's word is perfect you are not only trusting God but every human being that has played a part in bringing that " word" to you. For the bible to be the infallible word of God, those inspired writers would have to be just as infallible as God himself. How do we know the writers were not deceived by something or someone they mistakenly thought was God? To say that we know for sure that they were not, is to say that these people had perfect judgement. Surely that would be like saying these writers are gods themselves.

If someone came to my door claiming he had a letter from my father who I regarded as perfect I would be naive to take the deliverer of the message at his word. Indeed, accepting the letter as true would be more a reflection of trust in the stranger than it would be a reflection of trust in the one who may have been the author. I mean, the stranger could have just written the letter himself in my dad's handwriting. He may have made a mistake and the letter was actually for my neighbour next door. The stranger may have taken out a page of the letter or added in a section. He may have gotten the letter from a friend and is just relaying it. In the end your failure to accept the letter in no way indicates that you have any lack of faith in your father himself. You just don't trust the people downstream in the chain.

With the bible that downstream is far more complex. You don't even have the luxury of being able to evaluate the stranger at the door, ask him for his ID or credentials or read the body language to assess whether he is telling the truth. You have to accept the word of the anonymous who lived hundreds of years before you were born, translators, editors and church leaders right down the line. You can't just reject the pastor at the end of the long chain and claim that you are putting your faith in God himself. In this case you are just transferring faith from one man to another, from the man you say you thought you knew to the men you never knew or will know. There are some Christians and other " spiritualists" who will claim their beliefs are not based on the bible at all. It is a personal experience with the divine that has made them believe, the bible only serves as confirmation. However when you dig into the stories these accounts can all be related to something out there either in the faith tradition or local culture. They may claim to see or have heard Jesus or the holy spirit or some other medium. But they interpretations of what may have been a real experience is framed in the context of the faith. A framing delicately prepared by the institution of faith which has human experience at its source. Others claim that the evidence lies in changed lives of the followers, but again they just choose to interpret this as being occasioned by their God whose description is at least partially wrapped in an existing faith tradition.

At the end of the day faith in God is equal to faith in man. The truth is we all have faith in man one way or the other, whether atheist, agnostic or fundamentalist.The difference is that the non believer freely acknowledges his trust in man. Those in faith rarely concede such, but if God exists, until he comes to us all in person and explains himself with the relevant credentials, any faith in him must be seen as based on human constructs. So when it comes to these issues, it's really hard to separate God from the pastor. From the look of things recently, it seems that it is even difficult for the pastor to differentiate between God and man. For as much as the pastor feels in his heart for his God he appears to have an abundance of love for man as well.