Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Christmas Pantomime: Handel and the 'Baby King'

It was interesting for me to read my First Atheist Christmas blogpost from last year while getting ready to celebrate Atheist Christmas number two.  One year ago I was tentative, not quite knowing the ropes. I almost wondered if I had any right to celebrate at all. Even as I listened to my old favourites then, I was wondering if I should be belting out 'O Come all Ye Faithful' or shyly withdrawing into a 'Silent Night.' This year was quite different, even though I can't by any means call myself a veteran. This Christmas I allowed myself to go back into the music I grew up on. I listened to the entire Handel's Messiah, one of my all time favourites. It was as pleasing to the ear as ever and I even found myself  singing out loud to "Worthy is the Lamb" as I listened to the triumphant trumpets blasting accompanied by the thundering timpanis.

Myth Music- 'The Baby King'

How did I do it? I allowed myself to embrace the music for what it is; myth music. It is a new category I have designated to place all of the religious music that is still beautiful but whose story, I have to admit these days, has nothing to do with reality. I fully embraced the story of the 'Baby King' on Christmas day including  the proclamation of the theme song in the video clip above," For unto us a child is born." In fact, as I listened to those lovely runs for which Handel is so famous and followed the story that is told in that iconic work, I thought of those pantomimes I used to enjoy as a child.  The ones where the evil witch, dressed in black, would come and create some kind of turmoil with some magic spell or portion. Then, when all seemed lost, in would come the good fairy to clean up the mess and make everything right.

Christmas Pantomime

For those not so familiar, Handel's 'Messiah' sets many passages from the bible that relate to Christ to music. From the initial 'Fall' in Genesis, through the prophecies of Isaiah, to the ' Coming' in the New Testament. Perhaps the best known excerpt of all is the timeless " Hallelujah Chorus." To listen to the unabridged  "Messiah" is to take yourself on a magical, dramatic journey. Indeed, this is what I pictured in my mind starting with the haunting melodic minor strains telling me how in "Adam all die" and " Behold Darkness Shall Cover the Earth." I could almost see the ' fade to black' on the stage with smoke emanating from a cauldron. Then, "Lo and Behold!" In the final act, emerges triumph from the midst of despair, in the person of ' The Baby King' , the prophesied one, the one who will one day free us from  sin through his death. I did think to myself that the wave of a magic wand to make sin disappear would be more elegant and certainly a more palatable ending for the children. Anyway, there is still enough there in the Christmas story to at least make you smile, with all the wisemen, shepherds and angels.  So, there I was on the morning of December 25th, enjoying my Christmas Pantomime just like in the days of my childhood.
Just like those days, I tried not to analyse the plot of the story too much. I could never understand, back in those pantomimes, why the witch in casting an evil spell, would always create some kind of loophole through which the spell could be broken. Why was there always some magic word, flower or wish upon a star that when discovered could just make the evil go away? Why leave the door open for your plan to be foiled? Now I understand. It was all part of the script to give you the desired ending.  The formula is simple; everyone's happy at the beginning then something goes terribly awry as we approach intermission. In the second half comes the wonderful denouement where everything just sorts itself out and all live happily ever after.

So, my 'Christmas with Handel' morning was every bit as sweet as a 'Gretel with  Hansel.' Yes, of course the holes in the plot were there. The difference here being that  it is the good saviour rather than the evil witch that seems to be giving the opposition a lifeline.The 'devil' in  Handel's masterpiece cannot  be faulted for making things too easy for our hero. The question is how the powerful God of Goodness allowed evil into the picture in the first place. In the pantomimes I have watched, good fairy godmothers may have special powers but certainly nothing like the omnipotence our God father has. Fairies going up against witches are relatively even contests. In contrast, in Handel's work, the protagonist has infinite power, yet inexplicably never uses it to eliminate bad for good. Well, it's all part of the  story mystery and it doesn't matter. The implausibility of  pantomime storylines is what makes them humorous and fun. Handel's 'Baby king' is no different. The absurdity is all part of the entertainment.Yet, undeniably you can still leave the performance with real feelings of love or disgust for the actors.  You may even see yourself in one or more of the characters and try to take away some lesson from their experience. However, when you leave the theater humming, laughing or contemplating what you have witnessed you know that the show is over.

Unfortunately for many of our friends, the pageantry does not end when the curtain is drawn for the last scene of 'Baby King.' They identify with the characters so much that they become part of an ongoing production with them and join  an ever expanding cast of 'extras.' They are  quick to  tell us  that the drama is not really over and that we have come back to see  the actors perform once more when  'The Cross' opens in March or April. They tell us that tickets  for 'The Cross'  are ridiculously expensive but some generous soul has paid the entrance fee for all of us already and that we would be both stupid and ungrateful not to take up this incredible offer. I am sorry, I am very familiar with the script of ' The Cross,' and I respectfully have to decline it.  Bloody pantomimes are just not my passion these days. I'd rather wait for December next year and enjoy my favourite  ' Baby King'  all over again.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Saying Goodbye to Christopher Hitchens: Unity in the Midst of Grief

Last Thursday night the non-believing world let out a collective groan. It was the news everyone knew was coming but no one wanted to hear. Christopher Hitchens was dead. Immediately, the tributes started to flow in from every corner of the 'atheosphere'  and indeed from many in the religious world who stood on the opposite side, but could appreciate a champion when they saw one.

It was a strange feeling for me during that night. I  experienced at that moment something I had never felt before in the three years that I have identified myself as an atheist. I suddenly realised that I was part of something truly global and it felt great to be part of it even as we all grieved. It has so often been said that bringing atheists together is like 'herding cats' but that night and the days following, every one in the herd was raising a toast to the fallen 'horseman' popularly known as Hitch. It didn't seem to matter what side of the secular spectrum you fell on. Those who favoured more measured methods of promoting secularism through humanism or explicitly working with the churches, seemed as touched as those that modelled themselves on the more hostile approach of Hitch himself. Many atheist bloggers and you tubers that are usually  not short of an opinion, seemed genuinely too shocked to talk or make a key stroke on their computers.Thursday was a night when you saw en masse the humanity of atheism and the grieving from the heart of a community that is often accused of not having one. Yet, it was so different from the kind of tributes I had experienced in religious life, it was huge but it was not worship. Even in  grief, atheists were  talking about things they thought Hitch was flat out wrong about, like his support of the Iraq war. I was told growing up that one should never speak ill of the dead. That didn't seem to be the modus operandi applied Thursday night,  yet the support for the man and what he represented was overwhelming. I think that says a lot for the value of the secular over the sacred.

It is common when a prominent person in any field dies to say, " There will never be another X." It is almost a cliche. Well, it seems on this occasion it may not be an exaggeration. The way Hitch delivered  his points during a debate, showed absolute brilliance. He could easily have made it as a stand up comic, his timing and turns of phrase so impeccable. It was an honour to join with members of the secular community here in Calgary and give a toast to 'the Hitch' on Saturday. None of us there had ever met him, yet he had clearly touched all our lives. It was years since I had got together with other people to sip wine for someone none of us had ever met in person. In the days of old in Barbados it was a weekly gathering to pay homage to a Jew that  lived 2000 years ago. Somehow the Christopher I was thinking about on Saturday meant so much more than the Christ offer I used to make in those bygone days.

I have been paying my own tribute to Hitch by listening to some of his famous debates. Some classic moments like these:

On the Catholic church: " They seem to have altered the popular ' no child left behind' to ' no child's behind left.' "

After a less than complimentary introduction of him from an MC at a debate: " Thanks for that introduction, which of all the introductions I have had in my life, is certainly the most.................(pause for dramatic effect) recent."

There was just nothing you could do with Hitch, not a moment that he ever appeared the slightest bit fazed in a debate.Yet, he could evoke an enormous degree of passion at any moment. Who could ever forget his many references to heaven as a 'Celestial North Korea'? There is a tinge of irony that Kim Jong Il, a man referenced so often by Hitch, died so soon after him. It would certainly have made for an interesting discussion between those two in the line up going to the 'Pearly Gates.'

Aside from all Hitch's brilliance though, I think it is something much more that is causing people to respond to him so emphatically after his death. It is the way he played out the last year of his life, the way he looked death in the face squarely and dealt with it. People of faith tend to face the threat of death by immediately seeking to get around it. They are like the student that begs the professor to grant an extension once he realises the assignment deadline is a tight one. Maybe, there are times such pleas are heard and leniency is granted but often valuable time is lost while going through the process of the appeal. Also, quite often even after the extra time, not much more work is produced. Scholars like Hitchens, don't spend time debating and  negotiating with the time the professor has set, they just put their heads down and get going, using the deadline as a spur to get the brain in gear and motor down the track. By the time others get their extension granted, Hitch has already finished two or three assignments. That's just his way and I think that's the way we all should roll.

Indeed, the way Hitch finished his life reminds me a lot of the way that we were told to finish races on the track at school. We were always told to run through the tape, make that lunge to the line with the torso, regardless of the effort we had expended before. It was not something that came automatically, it was tempting to cruise through the finish after a gruelling run, especially if you  thought you were well ahead or were on your way to capturing some kind of medal. Well, Hitch may have been a winner but he ran through the tape and threw everything he had as the finish line got closer. From the time he heard the bell he was off and away. The race is over for him now and he has plenty of time to rest. Sadly, he can't hear the applause now ringing for him around the stadium. At least we in the crowd can take heart, knowing that if we all take his example and run with it, reason will win out one day.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Godvertising all around us

Well, it's that time again. The month of December. The time where retailers rub their hands together in anticipation of increased sales, while churches moan about how the commercial aspects of Christmas have taken away from the 'true meaning' of the season. We know it's the dream of some in the pews to bring Santa to his knees before Jesus. Meanwhile, secular groups will be trying to break through the  religious din to remind the world that Christmas has really only just arrived at the holiday party. The festivities were in full swing long before Mary, Joseph and  the baby came knocking, desperately hoping there was room for them in the inside.

One thing is sure, through it all, God will win out. For all of the protestations of the faithful, the benefits of Christmas, wrapped in secular salutations of "Happy Holidays" and "Season's Greetings," will  spillover into the church. Church attendance will spike on December 25th and the offering plates will be just a bit heavier than there were in the 11 previous months. Don't fool yourself, the churches, just like the retail outlets, get a nice little bonus during the northern hemisphere winter solstice. They say they want the secular out, but throwing out the bathwater to leave the baby will make for a dry Christmas. There is no way that the world would pay attention to a holiday with a pure focus on religion. This would mean that populations would pay as much attention to Christmas as they do to Passover. I am sure that deep down in their hearts the churches don't want that.

In any case, I don't think that churches at Christmas or any other season for that matter are likely to be pushed aside by things 'of the world.' The reason for the churches' staying power has to do with an advertising campaign that is highly integrated and structured. A public relations campaign that has been going on for well over two millennia. It is advertising that is dedicated to promoting the product called 'God.' I call it 'Godvertising.' Everybody raised in a society where religion is dominant knows what Godvertising is and many have been part of it and continue to be. We start getting exposed to Godverts from the time we are born and receive our Christian names. We continue to have the divine promotion bombarding our psyche until we are on our death beds being told of judgement or are at such a low point that we think it is the end of the world.

The goal of Godvertising is to create in the mind of the faith consumer a connection between 'God' and 'good.'  In short,  the message is that everything in the universe that we consider good is sponsored by God. I remember watching Sesame Street as a child and being amused by the idea that a letter of the alphabet or a number could be the sponsor of a children's show.  You would hear "Sesame Street is brought to you today by the letters 'C' and 'J' and by the number '5.'  Even back then, I realised that letters and numbers are abstract constructs of the human mind, obviously they couldn't provide funding for television shows. Well, believe it or not, there is another abstract construct that apparently produces something far greater than one hour of education and entertainment. Yes, every single thing that you love, value or treasure in this life is brought to you by the  letters G, O and D.  That spectacular sunset, that awesome piece of classical music,that amazing sexual experience, that beautiful family that loves you, that ability to understand and reason and learn, all brought to you by G,O and D. In fact, even the entire universe from before the Big Bang was brought to you by that invisible entity that starts with a Gigantic, Galactic 'G.'

There is indeed no evidence to suggest that this G-O-D letter trinity exists in reality. Even if it does, there is no reason to think it has a connection to anything else in the universe. So, that is where Godvertising comes in. It has to be very strong and unrelenting if it is to fill in a gap that logic and evidence can't. Of course, Godvertisers are more than equal to the task.

This is how Godvertising works. Basically, we are told that God is good and good is God.  Advertisers will often tell you that there is no better way to advertise than 'word of mouth.' Godvertising is no different. Words of clergy, teachers, parents and other authorities tell us that there is nothing we can achieve in life without God. We can't even take a breath without him. After being exposed to Godverts for many years, we start believing that all those things we have labelled 'compliments God'  were  written by God himself. Yes, Godvertisers just like crafty advertisers, know that your brain can play tricks on you like that, especially after a long exposure to a suggestive message.

Effective advertising campaigns tend to have 'jingles.'  These short, repetitive ditties  are composed so that people can remember the product and have connections that the advertiser wants resonating in the head.  Godvertisers recognised this early and came up with some very catchy tunes that are extremely difficult to forget. Just like advertisers, Godvertisers recognise the importance of catching the children in order to develop brand loyalty early. One popular jingle that plays over and over in my head even to this day is, " Jesus loves me this I know for the bible tells me so."  This may seem a pretty innocuous line but it creates  an important association between some key words. Jesus, bible and love. Getting this link into the mind early, helps to stave off questions later on when you actually open up that bible package. It is true that you may see endorsements of slavery, genocide and misogyny when you read.  No worries, Godvertisers just want you to remember that 'hook' from the familiar jingle.  The strong imprint of  'Yes Jesus Loves Me' washes away every stain of Old Testament horror.

Throughout our lives, the Godvertising continues. Billboards outside churches, brochures left  strategically at bus stops, bumper stickers, customised number plates, door to door salesmen dressed in fancy suits, infomercials on late night television, swag with the 'cross' logo, it never lets up.  Even in the mainstream media, Godvertising rules. On call-in shows people are often warned that giving free adverts for products they may be associated with is not allowed. For some reason, these stipulations are waived when it comes to Godvertising. It certainly seems that there is no time or place when Godvertisements are off limits. The Godvertisers, inspite of  always claiming to be short of money, are somehow able to secure their positions as lead  sponsors of every champion sports team and grammy award winning recording artiste.

Godvertisers are also excellent at creating demand for their product. Yes, everybody needs God. We have all seen the advertisements that prey on the lack of self esteem of persons who have a few spots on the face, carry a little extra weight in the middle or have a receding hair line. The advertisers don't rush to tell such traumatised consumers that they just need to recognise that their beauty goes beyond such minor blemishes. No, they are quick to offer them that cream, shampoo, or exercise machine that will magically make the problem disappear. More than that, they will assure the customers that they will turn from nervous, recoiling introvert to fearless, confident 'go getter' that can land that great job, relationship or promotion. We are shown the tearful testimonies from consumers who tried EVERYTHING until this life changing product came along one day. The Godvertisers are way ahead when in comes to this tactic. God, of course is the 'all in one' product for all blemishes and the marketers make sure to show you every dirty flaw under the microscopes they carry with them. It's just like how those telemarketers make sure they show you how bad your skin is before they bring out the moisturising lotion. Godvertisers, just like the telemarketers, know that the worse you feel about yourself the more you will buy of their 'Cross of Jesus' cure.  It won't be a one time purchase either. Jesus may have paid the price for us in one installment, but they know we dirty sinners will keep coming back week after week after week for the Salvation Body Wash.

Godvertising really runs deep. Once that relationship between faith and morals is entrenched it impacts the choices people make, even as a career. Just as persons with a flair for the sciences are encouraged from early to pursue medicine or engineering, those with a strong sense of ethics and altruism tend to be pushed towards involvement in church life by both peers and parents. I have seen this many times. People with a strong sense of community service have made the decision to go into the priesthood so that they could get a chance to do what they felt a strong drive from inside  to do. A drive which the Godvertisers were quick to point out was a calling from God himself. Often these persons  realise later on that the product isn't all it is made out to be. However, by then they have such a high position in the Godvertising franchise that there is simply no other place to go. One of the saddest things about the Godvertising campaign is that it often catches those who are the most sincere in their desire to make the world a better place. Unfortunately the Godvertisers cause them to look upwards rather than inwards and around them for solutions.

In business strategy, one learns of the concept of path dependence. The idea that it takes time for a new company to develop the capabilities and reputation to compete with the incumbent 'big fish' companies. Well,  the Jesus fish has been in business far too long for any new secular brand to even think of coming close. As a result, often when atheists want to get into the charity businesses they have to rely on the Godvertisers to make their programs effective.The Godvertisers love this. They may have nothing to do with the fund raising, but when the cheque is there to be handed over to the homeless mother of three, they are sure to be in the limelight. Once again the community perception will be emphasised. God= Good. I know it may seem cynical, but when it comes down to it, the Godvertisers are not as much concerned about the people getting the help as they are about the perception of where the help is coming from. In this regard the Godvertisers success is off the charts. "Thank God," is a Godvertising slogan we hear everyday. So powerful a catchphrase, even atheists who don't buy into the product, find themselves saying it.

 Interestingly, Godvertisers are not really there to advertise God per se.Godvertisers are in the market in order to promote their particular brand of God. It's not that different from people in the market looking to sell 'Smart' phones. You don't hear, " Buy a Smart phone, choose anyone you wish but just get one." No, you hear , " Get the iphone 4." You need a Blackberry Pearl" or "Samsung Galaxy is the best." They don't want you to buy a cell phone. They want you to buy THEIR cell phone.

The Godverts are similar, churches don't tell you to just, " Try religion."They want you to pick THEIR God and will try to the best of their ability to tell you why their brand is better than all the others in the market. A curious thing happens though, both when it comes to smart phones and religion. Some brands will get the lion share of the market, some will struggle to survive, but at the end of the day you will have more sales overall of the general class of product. In other words, people may not buy your Smart phone, but they will very likely buy a smart phone of some kind. Religion is the same, the more Godverts people see, the more conflicting messages they receive the more confused they will get. They may not know which to choose but eventually they will pick one and some religious leader will have a new consumer of dogma.

 The more Godvertising there is out there, the more the consumer is pressured to make a choice for  one of them. With every Godvert the atheist option is pushed further and further from mind. Yes, religious leaders obviously would like to control the market, but they are savvy enough to realise they can't always be the big player. However, as long as the industry as a whole is thriving, there is always a chance to get something even if it's just the crumbs on the side left by the mega churches. So, it's important for Godvertisers to keep the discussion around ' which faith should I choose ?' rather than ' why choose faith?'  The economist Adam Smith suggested that competitive markets work because a rising tide raises all ships. Religions on the whole seem to benefit as that faith tide rises.

In other words, Godvertisers work together to keep faith alive.This is why extreme Godvertisers that are manipulating congregations and making windfall profits from prayer handkerchiefs,  miracle soap and  holy spring water, are left untouched by mainstream promoters.  The excuse given is that consumers should be free to choose the God  product that they want. There is no thinking in these situations of consumer protection for the most vulnerable in society. Faith is the currency of religion and it must always remain liquid and flowing.  For Godvertisers, much as they spend  time fighting for market share among themselves, the most serious threat is one that is aimed at the entire Godverse. Moves that threaten to shutdown the entire industry from outside. Of course that danger comes from the atheists.

Not surprisingly, the Godvertisers and indeed the general public are often concerned why atheists feel the need to counteract Godvertising. The answer is simple. The widely accepted idea that God correlates to good is by implication saying that lack of God correlates with lack of good. Indirectly, the Godvertisers are saying that atheists are morally inferior and studies conducted in different parts of the world suggest that this attitude is widespread. Therefore as a group of non believers it is in our interest to counteract the Godvertising message. It is more about clearing our name and gaining respect than pulling down others' faith.  There are serious implications for us personally and professionally should we not take action to show that such attitudes regarding our characters are unfounded.It is interesting how religious people can easily recognise how an atheist billboard is an affront to their beliefs and yet never stop to think that any piece of Godvertising is effectively saying, " Atheists you are all wrong!"

Yes, I know it's sometimes hard to convince them, but at this Christmastime Godvertisers need not worry. Even though atheists may be on the move,Godvertisers are the incumbents and will be major players in yuletide for years to come.The season is promoted as a season of joy, giving and thinking of others. For a significant proportion of the population, that implies all the things Jesus stands for. So Jesus will be there in peoples' minds even if his name is not uttered. Advertisers will tell you that once consumers make associations regarding their products, you don't have to mention names to get them to buy. You can 'just do it' without having to say 'Nike!' So, Christians don't have to worry about losing their influence in Christmas or Xmas, once they continue to Godvertise.  In the meantime, we atheists will not refrain from telling them that Godverts that  imply that belief in a God is needed for good, are advertisements that are both false and misleading.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Atheists have emotions too!

Last week I came across the video above by ReligiousFiction. It includes a live phone conversation between herself and a theist. The theist is learning for the first time that ReligiousFiction no longer believes in God. I thought the video was very moving and powerful. While I am not familiar with the Emmaus program that is being discussed here, the video immediately resonated with me. I felt so much as though I had this conversation before and I am sure that it is one that I will have many more times in the future. What caught my attention most in this video, were the changes in emotions on both ends of  the line as the call progressed. I must say all in all, ReligiousFiction does a great job here although her commentary on the conversation doesn't seem to suggest that she thinks so. If every future conversation I had with a believer followed this script, I would be extremely happy.

"I don't have any supernatural beliefs"

One thing I learnt from listening to this exchange, was a new way to break the news to a friend in faith that I no longer believe in God. ReligiousFiction says that she, " No longer has any supernatural beliefs." I like this statement. It serves two important purposes. Firstly, it diverts attention from disbelief in THEIR God. It makes the point that you have made a judgement on an entire category of beings and it just happened that Yahweh and Jesus got swept away in the tide. It also emphasises that belief in God is a belief in the supernatural. To many people this may appear obvious, but I can assure you that this is not how it is seen by a lot of believers. I have come across quite a few Christians in Barbados who have told me that they don't believe in the supernatural. They go on to give a laundry list of phenomena that they consider fake. Ghosts, spirits, vampires, werewolves, mediums, haunted houses, psychics, telepaths and other spooks. It never occurs to them that their God is a supernatural entity too.They also don't realise that spirits and ghosts  haunt their own religion. Somehow the mere action of putting the word 'Holy' in front, makes these entities part of the natural world order.

When they talk about their dismissal of things supernatural, they also seem to forget this popular song we sing in many Caribbean churches. Part of it goes like this:

" Super, super, super, super, super ,super, super, super, supernatural power, power."

I taught this song to a Christian friend in Canada. He laughed uncontrollably at this line, probably conjuring up images in his head of a Jesus with a cape and a big 'S' on his chest leaping over buildings. It was only then I realised that it was indeed a pretty ridiculous idea. Little did that friend know that he was laughing at his own belief system. In due course, I learned there was much more to laugh at within the faith, that of course is another story. The point is that going the 'rejection of the supernatural' route forces theists to see how God fits with the other super heroes, without resorting to the belittling strategy of telling them their saviour is no different from a leprechaun.

Apart from recognising the super piece of advice, I considered the video important in that it showed an atheist being emotionally torn about  whether or not to take part in a religious activity. Atheist videos on youtube  tend to be filled with rants on how destructive faith is and how religious people just need to wake up and use their  brain. Other videos that take a softer approach, go through the logic step by step to demonstrate where the fallacies are and show how faith just doesn't add up in the end. In  these cases, atheists can come across as persons that only care about logic, reason and evidence while viewing emotion as anathema. Any suggestion that there is emotional value in religion  is dismissed as being a poor reason for belief.  While I appreciate the strength of such arguments made by atheists, this approach  often leads to some unfortunate consequences. We get put into a category of having no heart; at least not one beyond the organ that pumps blood. This is because we often make every effort to maintain the idea that we are the thinkers while they are the feelers and dreamers.

Keeping the two searches separate

The truth is that atheists are driven by emotions just as much as theists. The difference is that we tend to apply the logic and evidence first to try to determine what is real. Afterwards, we search for meaning in life and causes that we think are worth fighting for or promoting within the context of that reality.So, for us there are two clear cut steps. For religious people the search for reality and the search for meaning in reality tend to be taken together and this is where everything becomes muddled. So, scientific theories are accepted partly on the basis of evidence but also on the basis of whether they give satisfactory answers to the ultimate questions of meaning. For them, finding reality is a compromise between two very different searches. Consequently, emotionally unsatisfactory theories such as the Big Bang and the Theory of Evolution often take a hit.

It has been suggested that logic is like the steering wheel of a car and emotion the gas pedal. Step on the gas without the steering and you are likely to have a cataclysmic crash very early. Steer without pushing the gas and you are not likely to move very far. In life you need to have both in order to get to where you want. Indeed, we in the atheist movement that are activists are fueled by emotion, wanting to correct issues that we see as social injustices that either anger or sadden us deeply.
The phone conversation in this video shows  that emotions can also be like a brake pedal. There are times when the emotions cause us to feel awkward and uncertain about saying how we feel. The position of the atheist in the conversation in the video is one such situation. In spite of our recognition that the logic of our former belief system does not hold water, many of us still feel an emotional attachment having been involved in it for many years. In my case, the time I spent in church was a training ground for me in a number of ways. It was the first place I got the opportunity to speak in public before a large audience as I performed recitations from the time I was six years old and became a lay reader in later years. One of my proudest moments was memorising a lesson for one Sunday and stunning the entire congregation by delivering the entire passage without once looking down at the book opened in front of me.

Similarly memorable moments are there regarding my music. My skills as a performer honed in that environment, playing at many a harvest and church supper. I learnt aspects relating to teaching from leading Sunday School,Vacation Bible School and even adult bible study. I  learnt how to be a manager and negotiator as I led a church instrumental ensemble and once coached the church athletics team. All of these activities have shaped how I approach my professional and personal life. I  therefore feel a heaviness in my heart at times when I have to turn my back on church and say 'No more!'

Perhaps the most similar experience I had to ReligiousFiction was an email exchange I had with a  friend I used to play music with. This friend and I played for more than 15 years in Barbados as a duo. We played at churches all over the island and frequently entertained as we ministered to congregations with our lively Caribbean rhythms. People would come up afterwards and speak of how they could 'feel the spirit' while we were playing. That 'spirit' sometimes caused them to dance in pews and wave arms in the air. This year when I was in Barbados, I played in partnership with my friend again, back at one of the same churches. Things were different for me now, but I couldn't bring myself to speak to him of my change.  I just thought it might kill the vibe and I didn't want to risk that. I remember feeling the guilt minutes before I started playing. An excited lady from the congregation came up to me, hugged me and said, " So great to have you back in the land, we going to to have a great party in the house of the Lord tonight, we going to enjoy weself in Jesus name right David?" I just could not bring myself to say a word in reply and it left me with a hollow feeling.

I left Barbados days after that performance and although I successfully got through it, I  had an uneasy feeling about it all. I did not feel guilty about having played. I was glad to share my talents with old friends. My problem was that I did that without them knowing about the change in my life. I took the decision to send an email to the friend I had played with and give him the heads up. The gist of the correspondence was similar to how ReligiousFiction put it, except that I did not say that I was averse to performing in church again. Still, I remember feeling a tinge of nausea in my stomach as I sent that email. Even five minutes after, I wondered if it was worth it. Things got worse as weeks went by and I got no reply from him. I  had no idea what that silence meant. He eventually contacted me after more than a month telling me it was "only now beginning to sink in." It was great to hear him, but the fact that it took so long for him to even bring himself to say anything spoke volumes.

Stumbling across this youtube video brought back many of the feelings that I went through earlier this year. It reminded me that as far as my atheism is concerned I still had unfinished business. There are still good friends who I have not yet told personally that I am an atheist. So, on my facebook page yesterday I put this video up as a link. Perhaps it was my way of having vicariously, this same conversation with them. I must admit it helped me a lot and I feel as though I am now just about completely free. Since the posting, I have got some responses both from atheists and theists. Some have been surprised that I could have written so many blogposts on atheism and still have difficulty at times in telling people I don't believe.  If I am relying on logic, evidence and reason, I should just tell people how I  feel and not be worried about whether they like it or not. Some feel it is a  lack of conviction not to speak out boldly on every occasion.

I even get a hint from a few theists that these internal emotional conflicts mean that deep down, I DO believe in God. Of course they are way off the mark on that. What some  believers see as a lack of conviction, really reflects a desire on my part to spare their feelings as much as I can. However, I have to remember that most of these people will never know what it is like to be isolated in terms of religious belief and from that perspective it is hard to expect empathy.  All I can tell them at the end of it all, is that atheists have emotions too.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Listening to my data when it speaks to me

The chart above probably looks like a set of lines and coloured blocks to you. Well, I am here to tell you that this apparent mish-mash has deep meaning to me.I have a personal relationship with this data and it continues to reveal many things to me every time I look upon its face. The magnificent thing is that even though I don't pray to it, it speaks to me every single day. Still looks like a random pattern of squares? Well, you just need to open your mind and accept that it is what I claim it to be. I can testify to the fact that since I started studying this data my intellectual life has been fundamentally changed.

For many years, I have tried to ask Christians who tell me that God speaks to them, what they really mean.  I have had quite a few explanations on how Christian voices in the head can be differentiated. How to tell the difference between the voice of God, the voice of the devil or the voice of your own conscience. Apparently all three of these voices can be speaking to you at the same time. However, there are not three distinct tones or accents. You know who speaks by what he says. You know the sort of things God would tell you, you know the ideas the devil would want to put in your head and you know yourself well enough to know when you are talking to you. One wonders why any supernatural entity would need  to talk to you in the first place, if you know what he would say before he says it.  Anyway, I can now report that I have heard that still soft voice myself and it has become louder as I have got more submerged in my research over the last few weeks.

My data's voice is not always audible, it often manifests itself in a way that you couldn't record on a digital device, nevertheless it unquestionably speaks to my mind.  Other times I do actually hear a voice. It happens in a way that it is just impossible to ignore even if I wanted to.Yes, my data is made up of voices,  75 to be exact. A number of interviews that I have conducted in the Caribbean over the last three years as part of my doctoral research on renewable energy development. Whenever I read my transcripts, I can hear my interviewees voices. I hear their comments in my head and am immediately transported back to the time and place where their words were uttered.

My data is amazing. It is made up of many different individual perspectives, yet there is a thread of similar goals, ideas and levels of understanding that go through all the discussions. Wow, 15 countries, 75 individuals, three years and so much agreement! I can show you times where two people said almost the same thing word for word and yet they have never met each other. Of course there are areas where opinions and beliefs differ or even contradict. That should be expected, after all people come from different professional backgrounds and live in places where cultures, governments and even languages are different. It's all a matter of interpretation. You have to understand each interviewee within his or her own context. If everybody said the same thing you would know they were just repeating whatever they heard others say and that you weren't getting something authentic.

I have also had instances where prophecies have been made that came true. In 2009, I spoke to many people about oil prices that had fallen from the previous year. Many told me that they were certain that oil prices would rise again soon. And guess what? They did! Before the end of that very year.  These people were right, 100% on the mark. I tell you, my data has it all. Prophecies fulfilled, a unifying vision shared by many diverse inspired individuals, and contradictions in perspectives on truth which can be explained through differences in location, time and context. I think those characteristics taken together are enough to put my research data at least on equal footing with that super intellectual, who in spite of having only one publication to his name, has more citations than anybody else in history.

Despite the similarities, I cannot match this more illustrious author in terms of level of confidence. I cannot bring myself to claim the things he does about his work. I don't believe my data is divine and I am not going to put in an application for sainthood for any of my interviewees. I am far too skeptical to take what my data says as gospel.  I acknowledge my data's fallibility, and recognise that there are gaps in it. Still, I will cling to my holey data for all that it is worth. I am very serious when I say that my life has changed through my data and that there are things my data can do for me which the Almighty cannot.

For one thing, my data is not jealous data. When it speaks to me, it encourages me to check other sources, look for other data to see what makes sense. In fact when I hear my data speak it often confesses to me it has not got the answer. It suggests to me  new directions  to look in, in order to find out more. So, my data helps me to broaden my perspective and through that I experience greater freedom.  My data is very patient with me and never forces me in any one path. It recognises that I might sometimes misinterpret it, but I am never judged for being wrong. A bad conclusion may make me feel the heat from a journal reviewer or I might be shot down in flames at a conference for making an argument that doesn't stand up to scrutiny, but at least there is no threat of an everlasting fire. Any heat that I get from others in the field will just help me to refine my way of thinking and writing. At the end of the day, I will be moulded into the finished article rather than having my insides burnt to a crisp for failing to turn over a new leaf when I had my chance.

Caribou- Photo from Environment and Natural Resources Canada
Apart from the fact that my data is merciful, I like that my data is objective. It tells me how things are rather than how I would want them to be. It also gets me to the heart of whatever I am studying.  At the university here in Calgary, I know people who are studying a myriad of  things, from species of wildlife  and  plants, to volcanoes and underground caves. In each case they gain their knowledge but studying whatever they are looking at in the highest level of detail  possible. If you are studying  caribou and want to determine what's best for them you have to spend time with them, observe what they like or don't like to eat, their migratory patterns, their mating habits, the way they care for their young and how they deal with predators. Yes, in spite of how many experts there may be in an area, nothing beats the knowledge that comes straight from the source, straight from the data itself. I heard a researcher express to me how easier her life would be if only the caribou could talk.The point being made here is that data takes you down to where the real knowledge is. It is as close as you can get to that  which you are studying. That's why my data means so much to me,

It is curious that what is good for studying flora and fauna is not always considered the best method for humans. We don't look to an invisible entity beyond the cosmos to give us mitigation measures for a falling  beetle population, but we choose to look  to a spaceless, timeless, intergalactic being for guidance on how to curb homicide rates in homo sapiens. Even if there is somewhere out there, something that created us, that has a purpose for us, why should we assume its  point of view regarding our lives is better than our own? Why should we consider him the expert on how we should run governments, what values we should believe in, how we should treat others or  who we should be having sex with?

God as powerful and wise as he may be has not had the experience of not being God. To me, even omniscience does not substitute for direct experience. I know  Christians will say that he knows what it is to be a man as he has been here in human form. Even if that is true he, according to them, was still a God when he was here."Fully man and fully God" they say, but that's not logically possible, it's like saying you ate an ice cream that was fully chocolate and fully vanilla. So, however  you look at it, whatever God is, he is not the same as you or me. If he was, then we would be Gods too. Whatever he experiences, it is not the same thing we experience.

The fact is, we are the ones who live in this neck of the woods in 2011 and go through what it is like to be human everyday.  It is disappointing to hear some religious people talk down human knowledge as if it has little or no value. They speak as if the moral codes, ethics and laws we develop mean nothing if we don't get a supernatural stamp of approval. I have no idea why millions of people in the world believe that this is so.
When I was a kid growing up in Barbados we regularly  played impromptu games of cricket after school or in the neighbourhood. We would determine among ourselves what the rules would be on the spot. Maybe we would play ' first hop' so that you could be out caught even if the ball hit the ground before the fielder caught it. Perhaps ' tip me two' where you had to try to run for two every time you hit the ball. At times we made a rule that if you hit the ball into 'Ms. Lewis yard ' that would be out. Maybe there was a time limit on how long you could bat. Sometimes we had specific boundaries marked out for fours and sixes, sometimes you would just keep running until you got too tired. The point is, we made up the rules and played by them and they worked because they were designed for us and we agreed on them. We didn't feel we had to refrain from playing because the rules we were using were not those sanctioned by the International Cricket Council. We didn't feel we needed to run home to ask our parents whether the rules we were using made sense. Who cared what anybody else looking on thought about how we were playing? It was really none of their business. If they wanted to join in then they could have a say in how we made the rules. That's the problem, God is a perennial non player and yet we want to look to him to decide on everything in our lives. Some will refrain from playing the game of life altogether unless they know exactly what the Almighty thinks about it. To me, this attitude makes no sense, God or no God.

That's why when I want to find out what is best for the energy sector in the Caribbean I speak to people who work there and encourage them to develop ways of doing things that work in their environment. People who are on the ground and know what is going on can tell what works and what doesn't in that community better than anyone else in the world. Yes, I can read the works of Nobel Prize winning economists and political scientists and gain some insights, but that will not make much impact unless I talk to the people who are part of the daily reality that I am studying.

Any CEO will tell you the same.  If you want to introduce a new policy, technology or process to a company , you have to talk with the people who work on the  'floor.' Make sure that they understand what you want to achieve and why you want to achieve it. No matter how brilliant the plan is from the head honcho, if the people below are unwilling or unable to comply with it, your plan is destined to fail. Success in industry almost solely depends on how clients accept a product, not what the producer thinks of it.  The iPhone took off because  customers liked the product, not just because Steve Jobs thought it was great.  Elmo is a phenomenon in the Sesame Street empire because children love him. The four year olds are the target audience, it's what they think that matters, it's not the opinion of marketing consultants with MBAs. I know tons of adults who can't stand the furry red monster, but that doesn't matter one bit.

It is beyond me therefore, why God's opinion so often comes ahead of the collective wisdom of all humans. Why is it that knowledge that bubbles up from within us is seen as inferior to that which is imposed top-down? For some reason, we just have to accept God's ways because he has more knowledge and can see the bigger picture when we can't. It doesn't follow. If God were an earthly Marketing Manager he would fail on the grounds that he did not successfully communicate his objectives to his subordinates and that  the product he designed was poorly crafted from the perspectives of those who planned to used it. The fact that he himself understood it perfectly  would be no defense. He could give a presentation of how the company would be better if people had followed the rule, but that would not be enough. He would be fired on account of not considering his stakeholders and their limitations. People would ask why he didn't have questionnaires, surveys or a 'complaints hotline' to tell him how his Creation Plan was working out for his creatures.

Yes, we are told that God created everything for us. One would think that we might have a least some small say in how things operate.Well, that's not part of God's way of leading. I suppose he does allow us to pray to him for what we want, but this is a charade really. It is like a government that holds a Town Hall Meeting to get comments on a policy document long after it has been approved by Cabinet. The Divine Strategic Plan was written into law long before we came into existence, any feeling that our petitions, prayers or other interventions have made a difference is purely an illusion.

So, at the end of the day, even if a God exists I still will look to my data first  for guidance. I will make my recommendations for humans based on the experience of  humans. When I am  commissioned to develop the Sustainable Energy Policy  for 'Angels and Heavenly Beings', I promise that calling upon God is the first thing that I will do. I will keep his contact information in my database for when that time comes. However, once my investigations are dealing with phenomena in the natural world I will continue to listen and put my trust in that which my data tells me.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Praisey Mindset: The Sunday School song that starts it all

Hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelujah! Praisey the Lord!

There is no way that you could have grown up going to Sunday School in the Caribbean and not know this song. I know, I know it's "Praise ye" not "Praisey" but it was years after my early Sunday School days that I understood that. So, the song will always be called 'Praisey the Lord' as far as I am concerned. You may laugh, but I used to think that Praisey was just another name for God. After all, the Lord seemed to have so many others, God, Christ, Holy Spirit, Yahweh, Yeshua, Jesus, El Shaddai, Elohim, Saviour, Prince of Peace, the Alpha and Omega, why not Praisey? It made just as much sense as the other names at the time. There was even a period when I felt I had a personal relationship with 'Praisey'. Anyway as is the case with so many things you sing at church, the  meanings of words don't matter too much. So, I never asked for clarification.

Although there were other  tunes that could liven up a Sunday morning, none is engraved in my memory as much as 'Praisey the Lord.' It was a favourite of children and teachers alike . That secret weapon that any song leader could  introduce, certain in the knowledge that it would wake everybody up and have bodies moving in the pews. Even back in those days I was not certain that  the claim that Jesus was the saviour of the world  was true, but I knew that 'Praisey the Lord' could bring salvation to any boring Sunday school class.

It's interesting to look back and try to figure out why this song was always such a hit. ' Praisey the Lord' was by no means only for children either. Indeed, I can remember this song being launched in the middle of deanery youth services and even during  traditional Sunday morning 8 o'clock mass. I think what made the song so popular was that it was more than just a song. It was a fun game as well. Children, youths, adults and seniors  all like to play and that's what made 'Praisey the Lord' a winner.

The video above gives some indication of how you do 'Praisey the Lord.' Basically, that is how it went.  The congregation was divided into two halves. Generally each of the halves was assigned a song leader. One side of the church were labelled as team 'Hallelu'  and the other as
 'Praisey.' The introduction of the song would be played and the song leader would signal to the first side and they would  stand  and sing, "Hallelu, hallelu, hallelu, hallelujah!"  They would then sit down and the other  side would stand and respond on cue with, "Praisey the Lord!" The leader would urge them to outdo the 'Hallelu' people in terms of volume. More often that not this was achieved. After that, battle lines were drawn, it was up to the 'Halellus' to raise the bar further and try to outdo the 'Praiseys' effort. And so as the song went on it got louder and louder and often faster and faster as people got more into it.

When the pace quickened it meant that you had to be lighter on your feet too, because you found yourself often back up in the air as soon as you sat down. So, if you didn't pay attention or were slow, you could get caught out standing for the wrong part, singing at the wrong time or missing your cue entirely.  Not surprisingly, as people sang faster and louder, tone and singing in key would go out the window. By the third or fourth 'Hallelujah' people were bellowing at the top of their voices, shouting like you would at a local fish market. Probably this was the only time as children that we were allowed to shout as loudly as our lungs would permit.  Believe you me, we stretched the envelope to the max. As a five year old it was simply astonishing to think you could get to that noise level without getting even so much as  a 'Shush' or 'finger on lip' from an adult in your midst. I suppose that was close enough to heaven for us.

The song could go for several rounds as people challenged themselves to take it up a notch next time. This meant that  the tune could easily last over 20 minutes . The climax was generally a rousing long held out ' Praaaaaaaiiiiiisey the Lord!'  Everyone joined in for that, even the 'Hallelus' who would reluctantly switch sides for the finale. Inevitably there would be some 'rebel' who would start up with another "Hallelu, Hallelu"and that would mean on for another lap, and the fun would continue. It was definitely hard to stop " Praisey the Lord" once in got going.

In recent times I seem to be remembering 'Praisey' a lot. It comes back to me regularly when I get into debates or discussions about God with Christians or listen to debates on podcasts or youtube. There is definitely a ' Praisey' mindset that seems to stay with you after Sunday School days.  I remember in my church days in Barbados writing two songs that actually gained some popularity on the gospel scene. One was called " Sing His Praises!" the other was called " Sing Hallelujah!" So I was definitely caught up in the 'praisey' fad myself. Today on Christian forums online you see  a lot of 'Praisiness' in evidence. Below is a fictional example, but it represents what you typically see.

Posted Message: I am happy to report that my daughter that had an asthma attack last night is now doing much better. The Lord is marvellous! Thank you all for your prayers. We must always give him praise.

Responder 1: Hallelujah, The Lord's name be praised!

Responder 2: He is worthy! Praise his holy name!

Responder 3: Hallelujah, Hallelujah!

Responder 4: Hallelu, Hallelujah, Praise his Name!

Responder 5: HALLELUJAH!!





Responder 10: PRAISE HIM!!!! PRAISE HIM !!!!!!PRAISE HIM!!!!!! PRAISE HIM!!!!!!



You can see clearly here the 'Praisey' influence that goes all those years back. The same two key words 'Hallelujah' and 'Praise'. Today in the 21st century, things have changed a bit. Instead of trying to drown out your neighbour with noise,  you add volume by using ALL CAPS or simply typing the word more times. To take things up an extra notch you bring in more exclamation marks!!!!!! and even bolding.  Then you can just elongate the words and repeat as much as you want. I saw someone actually post the message below, I am not kidding.


Thankfully that person didn't bother to tack on 'Praise the Lord.' He would have probably needed a new laptop for that. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with believers using all the features available on their keyboard to get God's attention. It is clear that God is well into this internet age, he has millions of friends on facebook in spite of  the fact that he has no recent posts. I even heard a lady say that God downloads songs into her spirit. Not sure if he is using itunes but it is quite clear that the Lord is very open to working with the latest technology. Now it would appear that he has Steve Jobs himself to do the necessary updating.

I must admit that these things seem a bit comical to me, but in all seriousness, if you believe that God will hear you if you type more EMPHATICALLY, go right ahead. If you think it demonstrates your level of faith to your fellow believers when you do that, that is fine too. If you think that such proclamations in BOLD will bring unbelievers into the fold, that's OK too. If you believe in Him, no one should try to stop you from expressing yourself how you wish. So I can't say I am a fan of the atheists who respond to the 'Praisey' comments with "What the &*%#*@%*$&*%*$*%#@#!" It contributes nothing to the dialogue and only adds to keyboard suffering.

Where I have a problem is when the 'praisey' mindset finds its way into debates or discussions between atheists and theists regarding the existence of God. Similar to the way we did it when singing 'Praisey' as children, these debaters have specific words which the people on their side are required to say. They may 'hear' what the other side is saying, but it is not a matter of responding to an argument as much as it is restating what they said the time before. Maybe faster, in a louder voice in a different key but always the same message. Indeed, maybe they don't respond to atheist arguments because they assume what we are going to say. They think of us saying 'hallelu' and they just get up with 'praisey' all the time. And more often than not from a 'praisey' point of view they win hands down. There are more singing on their side than ours for sure, so we can't match them for sound. And just like the 'praiseys' in the Sunday School song they always seem to get the last word too.  The long held out phrase to end the discussion. It happens because often atheists get tired after a certain point, of making the same argument over and over without them  being addressed. We bow out once we realise we are not making headway. In a way, Christians make us play their game, for we end up being as repetitive as they are. We have to, because if they are not answering our points we end up having to restate them and it becomes as repetitive as "Hallelu."

The only difference is that we don't generally resort to turning up the decibels although we do try to change the rhythm and the tone as we go along, just to see if a different strategy will lead to better understanding. It seldom works, because they are only counting down the time as we talk, looking forward to springing up from their seats and shouting "Praisey the Lord" one more time.

So here's how the  'Praisey' mindset works in debates. The atheist makes a point the theists counters, the atheists counters the counter argument, the theists repeats original counter argument without any acknowledgement of directly previous counter argument from atheist. Atheist restates the previous counter argument that was not addressed by the theists last counter argument and the cycle continues. Sounds confusing? Here are two examples:

Praisey Argument One

Atheist:  I don't believe in God because there is no evidence. You are making the extraordinary claim that there is a supernatural being controlling everything in the world. The burden of proof is on you to give justification for that belief.

Theist: But where is your proof that God doesn't exist? You believe in science. I choose to live and praise my God. Science has not proved that there is no God.

Atheist: That is true, but the point I was making is that the burden of proof is on you, because you are making the God claim. It has to be like that, otherwise you couldn't say you didn't believe in fairies unless you could provide evidence for the non existence of fairies.

Theist: I am still waiting on your proof that your atheism is correct. You have not provided a shred of evidence on your side so far. Your position is just one of blind faith.

Atheist: No, it's not,  as I said before the burden of proof is not on the person who is challenging the claim. Atheism is not a faith anymore than 'off'is a TV channel. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Theist: Jeez, you just dance all over the place with a lot of fancy talk but you still have given me NOTHING! Not one piece of evidence to support your belief that no God exists. You expect me to take you seriously???? What is your evidence that God does not exist?

Atheist:  Again, I am saying to you that you are asking the wrong question. You are the one required to give support for your claim. I am not making any claim, my disbelief is due to lack of supporting evidence for your claim. Where is your evidence that Santa Claus is not real?

Theist: Well that does it. This conversation is over, you are not responding to me. Now you are answering my question with a question. You guys are so silly, no wonder God calls you FOOLS. Thank God I am not so blind to JESUS as you.YOU BETTER FALL ON YOUR KNEES WHEN HE COMES TO YOU.  All I can do is PRAY FOR YOU. OHHH PRAISE  THE LORD THANK GOD !

Praisey Argument  Two

 (This time the 'praisey' theist starts)

Theist: Oh praise the Lord! How can anybody look at the beauty of creation and deny that there is a God. It just doesn't make sense to me. They would have to be blind. .

Atheist: But the existence of the natural world is not evidence of anything other than the natural world. You can't just assume that God made nature and then claim that the existence of nature proves God, that's circular reasoning. You are assuming what you want to prove at the beginning. In any case if you think God made nature, then who made God? How do you account for him?

Theist: So who made creation then? How did all this get here? A design must have a designer? A painting must have a painter?

Atheist: Well,  we have ideas about origins of the universe through Big Bang cosmology but  still scientists don't have a clear idea of the state of the universe further back than the 'Planck time.' So, there are still many unanswered questions. I have to accept that I really don't know exactly  how everything got here, but a God doesn't help explain. Because you still have to explain his origins. You are just answering one mystery with another mystery.

Theist: Just as I thought. You don't know. I will ask you again. How can you get CREATION without a CREATOR? You think that all this came from nothing? When it comes down to it the answer that you atheists have to the big questions are " Don't have a clue, don't have a clue and don't have a clue."

Atheist: But you don't know either, you still haven't given an explanation for how your God got here. How did God come to be? Did he appear from nothing? You are making an argument from ignorance, putting in a God that you have no evidence to support. Then you claim that you know this God exists because of his 'creation.' Why do you assume that the universe was created?

Theist: You are so arrogant, now you are calling me ignorant. I can't understand why you keep denying God. How do you think you are able to breathe? Who gave you that oxygen? Who woke you up this morning? When was the last time you created a human being, MR. ATHEIST? You can't even do one millionth of what God can do. He created you, gave you life and a brain you could use and you use it to deny the existence of him who gave you everything. It's very sad. Why don't you just give God the Praise. ALL PRAISE AND GLORY ON TO HIM!

Atheist:  All those things are just assumptions. As I said before, you can't just assume that all of those things you mentioned were created by God if we are trying to establish whether God exists or not. You are just making bald assertions. All your arguments rest on the assumption that God's existence is fact. How can you know what God did if you can't even establish that God is? And we still haven't addressed the point about how God came to exist.

Theist: This is really ridiculous. You have no idea where anything came from and  yet you are rejecting my explanation that gives you all the answers you are looking for. God's creatures continue to choose darkness over light, blindness over sight and death over light. ALL CREATION TESTIFIES TO THE MAGNIFICENCE OF GOD. HE IS WORTHY, SO WORTHY, WORTHY TO BE PRAISED. I PRAY  that you will one day accept the LORD AS YOUR SAVIOUR!!! So that we can be  TOGETHER PRAISING GOD FOR ETERNITY IN HEAVEN!!!! SO, REPENT BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE!!!!  HALLELUJAH PRAISE THE LORD MOST HIGH!!!

Well, what can I say?  These are the 'praisey' arguments we see and hear everyday. I have to say that in spite of  what Harold Camping may be saying about October 21st, I feel we will be stuck with these types of arguments for many years to come. We in the secular community just have to be patient and continue to find strategies for survival. It won't be that easy in this 'praisey' world we live in.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Plain or Strawberry Cheesecake?: Why I prefer the word 'atheist' to 'humanist' in describing myself

A few months ago I went out with some friends to a restaurant. We had a succulent meal but we really went to check the place out for the dessert. Particularly for the strawberry cheesecake for which the establishment is well known. When we were ready to order the famous delicacy, one guy at the table said to the waiter," Please can I  have just the cheesecake by itself, don't put on the strawberries?" There were some puzzled looks both by the waiter and the others around the table. What was the point? The whole reason we came was to get the strawberry cheesecake. To have strawberry cheesecake without strawberry seemed to defeat the purpose. The person next to my 'plain cheesecake' friend  asked why he had left off the strawberries.  My 'plain' friend just mentioned that he is a true cheesecake lover and didn't see why the strawberry topping was needed. However, as the evening went on  the 'plain'  just went on to talk about how his affection for cheesecake went back to when he was a boy. It turned out that many others in our party felt the same way. There is just something about a smooth rich cheesecake that somehow beats the best ice cream or chocolate gateau.

By the end of the evening it was pure cheesecake worship as we all agreed that the delicacy at the restaurant was one of the best we ever had. By the time we got up to leave I don't think anyone remembered the strange looks less than an hour earlier when one of us decided to 'hold the strawberries' on a strawberry cheesecake.

For some reason, I found myself reflecting on this the next day. My ' plain cheescake' friend had never really explained why he didn't want the strawberries. He had steered the discussions away from that topic. As I thought about this I realised that for the believers in God out there, we are the 'plain cheesecake' people. They honestly don't understand why given a choice to savour a delicacy in its totality we would opt to only go part of the way. If we are having dessert, shouldn't we want our just desert? Strawberry is included on the cake at no extra cost. It sweetens everything. Why on earth would we want to leave it out?

Well, Christians are as mystified about our lack of desire to embrace a belief in the  blood of  sweet Jesus  as  many dessert lovers are confused about why anyone would not want that strawberry syrup bleeding through the cheesecake all the way to the crust. The truth is, that in both situations a reasonable case can be made for omitting  the crimson from the top. For the cheesecake, one could argue that leaving off the sweet stuff  could reduce overall calorie intake and perhaps  avoid long term weight gain. However, when I look at the response of my 'plain cheesecake' friend at the restaurant, he never made any negative comment about strawberry syrup . His response was one where he emphasised that which he had in common with the rest of the table. His simple love of cheesecake.

I see the response my friend gave in  the restaurant very much like  the ones we non believers give when we speak from a  humanist perspective. People who favour this approach insist that we must emphasise what we do believe rather than what we don't. They  tell us  that we should sell the positive aspects of our way of life rather than get into battles over the 'God thing' that inevitably creates divides. In essence, instead of going into why we shouldn't put strawberries on cheesecake we should talk about the beauty in the taste of cheesecake on its own. The base of the delicacy on which  the 'plains' and 'strawberries' can agree.

Humanism speaks of the importance of loving your fellow occupants of the planet no matter where they come from. The principle of not discriminating on the basis of gender, race, cultural background, religious tradition or sexual orientation. The importance of doing whatever action you do with the aim of minimising harm to our species,  while seeking to improve overall welfare as much as possible. These are like  the base 'cheesecake' principles on which all partakers can agree. And just like at the restaurant, the humanist when he espouses such virtues will undoubtedly get nods right around the table.These are ideals that virtually everyone will agree with and many will go to their holy book for confirmation , claiming that it is their recipe for living. For example, 'Love your neighbour as yourself' is the summarised Christian version of the humanist mantra. I have long recognised that even though some creative blending of bible verses is necessary, Christians can come up with some concoction that suggest that all the great values  emerge from the 'good book.'.

Christianity = Humanist+

Just as the strawberry cheesecake has all of the ingredients of the plain cheesecake; the faithful when they hear the humanist message hear a philosophy including all that they embrace as true . They would argue they have all  that  the humanist has with the  bonus of salvation that a knowledge of and belief in Jesus Christ gives. So, they will regularly perceive themselves as sitting above us when it comes to understanding ultimate questions of purpose and meaning and how we should conduct ourselves. In their opinion, if Humanism is good, Christianity must be better because Christianity is  'Humanist+.' The more we tell them how tasty our cheesecake is, the more they will be encouraged to eat, and they will be quite comfortable to continue eating their favourite version. The one with strawberries on top. Many will go on to  rationalise that our desire not to have strawberries reflects something we have struggled with emotionally that goes way back or imply that we are still searching for something to make our cheesecake complete.

You  just haven't picked the right strawberry yet

You might hear that you reject the strawberry cheesecake because as a child you happened to taste one that had gone past its expiry date and you got turned off for life. You may be told that what you tasted before was only advertised as strawberry cheesecake but was not the real thing. It must have been a cherry or raspberry that they tried to pass off as strawberry. You might further be informed that  this is not surprising, people have been making false claims about strawberry cheesecakes for years. Some die hards will assure you that you absolutely need strawberry to get any flavour at all out of a cheesecake, and that the plain one must taste awful, even though never in their life have they come close to sampling a crumb of cheesecake without having it soaked in syrup. However you look at it, once you refrain from addressing their strawberry talk you will be made to feel that you are  a depressed person, deprived because they think you are missing out on something that is a staple  at all of their tea parties.

I have heard some humanists address the God question  by saying he is not necessary.  They say God is not necessary to live a happy, fulfilling and moral life. These persons will express their opinion in a way that my 'plain cheesecake' friend would tell others that there is no need for strawberry topping. However, we know there is a big difference between telling someone they don't need something and telling them they shouldn't have something. All of us have things we don't need yet we don't feel under the slightest bit of compulsion to get rid of them. There are many old documents, papers and books I keep on the basis of ' you never know.' It comes from living in a society that tells us it's better to have and not need than to need and not have. It is this principle that makes us end up carrying umbrellas and raincoats on sunny days. The idea is, if it costs nothing to have that extra thing, you might as well hold on to it because even if it is a 0.001 % chance of having value one day, it still beats the zero chance of a benefit if you don't have it. I think this is the mindset from which arguments like Pascal's Wager are born.

"Just take it, it's free!"

Yes, we just live in a world where it's almost always considered good to have more. We also seem to have an innate desire to get something without having to pay for it.  I grew up in Barbados hearing many in my community say that, " We Bajans too love a freeness!" I have had enough discussions from my friends from the other islands to be sure that similar catch phrases abound in the other territories. I have seen it so many times at exhibitions. It could be anything; a stuffed toy, a physics text book, a bible, a flashlight, a toffee or a tool box. If you tell the passer by it's free they will just grab it and go, no questions asked. Whether it is something they will ever read, use or play with is beside the point. The mere fact that  it was free justifies picking it up.

I think for many people religion is just like that. You take it because it's there and as the Christians love to emphasise, it is a free gift. So, like the strawberries on the cake why not just take the package? Even if you bring the religion home and you can't find use for it you can store it away in the basement. You can always pull it out when you have an emergency. Maybe when there is a death you have to deal with or some other emotional crisis. You can quickly put  it away after your traumatic event when you realise it doesn't work  consistently when applied to reality.

Bearing all of this in mind I think non believers have to try to push back against these ideas by making the point that it is quite often better to not have than to have.I recognised how easy it is for atheists to understand this when we had an Atheist Garage Sale here in Calgary a few weeks ago. Large collections of  furniture and trinkets were virtually given away. No nostalgia to speak of, just a realisation that old things need to go in order for you to have space. And space, believe it or not has its own value. We need to spread the message, counter-intuitive though it may be,that when you add something you may lose something. We must say that strawberry on the top of the cheesecake may compromise rather than compliment the taste. I think it is important that in making our point about not believing in God that we emphasise not just that we don't need it but we consider we are better off without it. I believe that 'atheist' makes that point more emphatically than 'humanist.'

In my experience, Christians generally look for validation of their faith and any opening you give them to do that they will latch on to. Validation from  a non believer is even more valuable in their minds than a nod in their direction from one of their own. I have heard many Christians suggest that their faith in their holy book is  strengthened not weakened when they are informed that other religions and philosophies embrace many of their core beliefs. Instead of moving towards those core ideals and forgetting the set of doctrines in which those beliefs are couched, they just end up believing in their own doctrines even more. We can only get change in attitudes and movement away from dogma if we challenge theism head on. We have to make the point that we do not consider faith in God, any God, a good thing. This does not mean being abrasive or rude, but I think we should be direct.

Confronting religion is  of course far more difficult than challenging cheesecake norms but we must keep asking the questions . When I was in the Caribbean  recently I mentioned to someone that I didn't think that faith was a positive thing for society. She was mortified. This is a message we virtually never hear in our Caribbean islands. We may now be beginning to see questions in the public square regarding the existence of  God, but the overwhelming view is still that faith is something to be admired rather than admonished in a person. When you ask a Christian about faith the only caution they give, is to tell you to make sure you don't have faith in the wrong thing. Once you have the right faith, which every Christian believes that they have, you should always seek to get more. You can just pour it on to your heart's content. There is no risk to your heart from having too much 'good' faith cholesterol. I think we need to oppose this  idea. Too much faith does have consequences. The more you say 'yes' to faith the more you say 'no' to reason, critical thinking and learning.

I mentioned earlier that I am convinced that the most effective way of  saying 'no' to faith  without confrontation is to be open about being an atheist. For me it seems to be working so far.I have found that when I say that I am an atheist to a devout theist, I always get a visible reaction. Often a  jolt back in their chair. However, after the initial shock the response is not usually a hostile one. There is a level of curiosity rather than an outright attempt to shut me up. I think this is one of the advantage of  being part of a society where challenging religion is new. In the Caribbean most people have just never thought about these things and I think many sincerely believe that they have good grounds for their position. I don't think they have closed their minds to opposition to their beliefs.  They just simply haven't heard the other side. Atheism presents a point of disagreement to them and they are forced to look at themselves to see if they can understand what you are seeing even if it s just for a brief second.

Humanism- The place where all faiths intersect

In all this, I am not saying for a moment that I am against humanism. I am comfortable identifying myself as a humanist. A good atheist friend of mine says that humanism is what you get when you sit people of all faiths in a room and ask them to come up with the things they can agree on. I have seen this now for myself on many occasions. Humanism is really the point of intersection of all faiths. I suppose from that perspective humanism may have the potential more than any religion to unite the world. I think that makes the ideals it promotes worth pursuing. Humanism also gives something for atheists to hold on to when they move out of faith. But that's the thing, it comes into its own after faith. It is difficult to see humanism gaining mass appeal without a movement from faith going on before it. So for me it is atheism first and humanism second. I suppose, its just a matter of having to break some eggs in order to make that cheesecake batter.

For the record,  when it comes to the dessert, I still like to eat cheesecake with strawberry. However, I  must admit that even as I  have been writing this blogpost I have been reconsidering my dessert choices. So, I call on all anti- strawberryists to bring their arguments and let me do my evaluation . I can only hope that those out there addicted to the flavour of the blood of Jesus, will be just as keen to put their cherished beliefs on the table so that we non believers can do our own taste test.

Monday, September 19, 2011

My Call to a Christian TV Show

A week ago I had to make a 9-11 call. No, thankfully it was not a domestic emergency. I made a call to the nightly, Canada wide CTS Christian Call- In Show " It's your Call. " The subject on that night was ' The Atheist Perspective' and they were discussing  9-11, inquiring where God was on September 11th, 2001 when the terrorist attacks in the US were taking place. It all stemmed from an email the station received from an atheist wondering where the Christian God was on that day, and suggesting that believers just made excuses for their God's lack of action.

I know some atheists  will be asking how I managed to be watching this program , maybe thinking that I just happened to be flicking through channels and stumbled across it. Well, it didn't exactly happen like that. I actually do spend some time listening to various forms of Christian programming, call-ins and discussions. Some of my atheist friends consider that doing this is a strange form of self torture, but I actually find it entertaining and it helps to get an eye into what persons espousing the various flavours of Christianity believe. When I went to channel CTS on the night in question and saw a picture of an atheist logo on the screen next to the host Robert Melnichuk, I dropped what I was doing. I immediately started recording the show on my PVR,  because I knew this was one I couldn't afford to miss.

I have to give credit to  Rob, for accurately interpreting the arguments of the atheist when dealing with issues regarding the problem of evil, which on this night in question referred to events of 9-11.

 "Do we as Christians make excuses for God when  tragedies happen? Are we just making up rationalisations to account for the things we don't understand ?"

Yes yes, yes!! I couldn't believe the host had summed up things so beautifully. No atheist could have done a better job. I thought it was a bold question to put out there. Still, I realised Rob was speaking to his choir. This was 'It's Your Call' not 'Ask an Atheist.' Things were well set up up for his audience to call and declare in chorus that nothing could be further from  the truth. Of course, that's exactly what happened.

" Free will, free will, it's all about free will!" was the cry.

One lady made a statement that had a layer of irony thicker than the rubble left behind when the towers fell in 2001. " God wants us to be free to decide whether we want to choose him or not. If God had intervened to stop the attacks of 9-11 where would our freedoms be?" she exclaimed.

I hadn't during all this time intended to call the program, I just wanted to listen. In typical fashion, although they were looking at the ' Atheist Perspective' it was more a case of considering the atheist perspective from the christian perspective. Jeez, how many times have we heard this? Then something did break the ice, an atheist called in to explain how religion is where people turn to for comfort and that is why so many people turned to religion after 9-11. It was important to make this point as the host had begun to imply that the increase in numbers of people turning to Christianity after 9-11 was testimony to the fact that Jesus was real and had the power to deliver people from their distress. As the call finished Rob asked why the caller didn't believe in God and  the caller mentioned how seeing his son circumcised before his eyes was so horrific that he questioned the overall sanity of religion, he studied and began to look more closely at  the claims religions were making and eventually came to the conclusion that God was not real. The call unfortunately finished soon after.

I thought it was a shame the call ended there because I know enough about Christians to be sure that many would boil down his entire conversation into the statement, "I stopped believing in God because I don't like  circumcision." They would then dismiss the caller by saying that his point doesn't make sense since they as Christians don't believe in circumcision either. The believers would  then go on  to say that the atheist caller obviously doesn't understand that we are now under the new covenant and Jesus has changed all that and it is now about a relationship with God not a religion bla-bla bla, bla- bla bla. At that point I decided I would go for it. I would make the call at least to try to leave something more with the viewers. With any luck it  would portray  more fairly the 'atheistic perspective' and why we don't believe in the  God that they do.

My decision  to  call was late in the show and I knew I would probably have to be on hold behind all the callers in front of me in the line. When I eventually put the call, I received a very enthusiastic call screener . I told him I wanted to get on the show and he asked me if I was aware of what tonight's topic was.

" Yes" I replied calmly." In fact I am an atheist."

" You're an atheist? That's great!!!"  he responded.

I had this image of everyone in  the room where he was punching the air. At that moment I felt as if I knew exactly how the 'Atheist Experience' crew feel when a theist calls in. I realised that I was now 'that  theist caller' in this alternative evangelical universe. Then the phone seem to go dead, no sound of callers talking on the live show, no elevator music, just dead silence. On the tv screen it seemed they were showing a special that lasted about five minutes about a family from 9-11, so I would probably have a long wait sitting through that and then whoever else was waiting from earlier . Then I got a jolt that broke the silence like a thunder bolt.

" And we've got David from Calgary!"

That's when I got the lump in my throat, this was it. Wow, they didn't take any other calls while I was on the line. Maybe they ushered me straight to the top of the queue because I was an atheist. Well, there was no more time to reflect, I had to start talking and get on with it. I had no idea how much time I would have or if and when I would be interrupted. I had written out a few key points I had hoped to hit, I just took a deep breath and got going. The moment was made a bit more awkward because  this was not only the first time I was calling into a Christian show. This was actually the first time I had called in to any call-in program. I had been a frequent listener to shows like 'Tell it Like it Is' and 'Getting Down to Brass Tacks' in Barbados and have done my fair share of radio and TV interviews in my time but for some reason I just never thought that calling in to a live program was my thing. My lack of experience showed when I realised that although the TV was turned down very low it wasn't muted, so I could hear a faint echo of myself in the background. I frantically tried to mute the TV as I was speaking and as a result I paused as I gave  my opening statement, where I was making the point that I was an atheist. I wondered if  viewers would interpret those pauses as being scared of calling the 'A' word. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

I found myself after thanking the host for taking my call,  getting straight into the story of my deconversion. How I was once where he was but had since changed. In spite of having my talking points to hit, I think sub- consciously I wanted to take this public moment to tell the world, well in this case Canada, why I no longer believed.  I felt I just needed to get it all out and to be honest I really felt better having done it. I spoke of how easy it is to see a God in everything  once you believed in him. A sunrise or sunset the sound of a baby laughing, all those things testify to a God once you believe. I went on to say that when things like 9-11 happen ,that seem not in keeping with a loving God, you still accept them as part of a plan, they must be a reason for these things even if you can't understand. It is this type of conclusion that I think leads to the excuses and rationalisations that I thought the atheist writer was alluding to in his letter. I went on to say that I also used to see God in everything when I was a believer but that one time after observing a tragedy unfold in Barbados, I asked  myself for the very first time, " What if God really doesn't exist?" I told him that once I removed that 'faith lens' and started to look at the world without assuming that a God existed it became more and more apparent that God wasn't there.

As I finished these thoughts I heard the host's voice cutting in  and I apologised because I felt I had spoken for a long time uninterrupted. That was a bit of a surprise to me too. But it did seemed the host was listening very carefully trying to take in all I was saying. I wondered how it all went down with viewers though, I was thinking that maybe it just went totally over the people's head. Then the host asked what was a very odd question.

" So David, do you believe in God now?" The only words that could come out of my mouth were " Pardon me?"

Don't get me wrong, I heard his question clear as day, I just couldn't believe that he had actually asked that . Had he not understood anything I said?  After he repeated his question, I followed by saying, " NO I don't!" with as much emphasis as I could without raising my voice.  I added the following,

" I just think that if you want to find truth it is far better to look at the evidence and let that lead you, rather than start by believing something on faith and  investigating from there, because if you have faith then you don't need evidence."

Well,  I am not sure what happened after that because as soon as I got that statement out all I heard was dial tone. I had a nagging feeling that this would be it for my night's contribution. I was right. As I could see the hosts mouth moving on my now muted television set, I figured he was making some comment on the call.He might even be still carrying on the conversation  without me. I felt a bit disappointed because I didn't get to say what I was planning to end of with. A simple question of why God didn't care about the 'free will' thing when he intervened in the lives of the callers who phone the show every night speaking of their personal 'miracles'. Alas, my 'free will' moment  was denied.

I actually had to play over the recording a few minutes later to here what had actually occurred after I was off the line. To my surprise. Rob's  response to my statement that it is better to follow evidence than faith in order to find truth, was met with the answer, " That's a  fair point."

I was taken aback, that's a pretty big concession for a christian TV host to make to an atheist . Maybe he just didn't have a response to give me right there and then and that was the easiest thing to say. Either way I hoped that the viewers would reflect on what the implications of their faith based beliefs would be if I indeed had  made a ' fair point.' I guess I will never know what the results of any such reflection will be. Anyway I thank Rob and CTS for allowing me to make my points and giving me a fair hearing. I don't think one could say that for every christian show.

After acknowledging my point, Rob said that unfortunately it was time to wrap up. Wow, I had just got in before the bell. I smiled to myself as he finished off because the whole scenario seemed so familiar to me. I used to attend a bible discussion here in Calgary where whenever I brought up arguments to challenge the group leader's arguments for God's existence, he would look at his watch and lament the fact that time was running out and we would have to wrap up right away. Curiously, there were other group discussions that took place alongside ours, but the group I was in always seemed to finish first. I know that this time it had to be station schedules, but it still brought back memories of old.

As Rob was signing off the program he held out his hand and pretended that he was holding something round in it. " This is the fruit." he said. "You just have to come and taste it. This is what God  is asking us all to do just come and try it and you will see how sweet it is."

Apart from remembering the devastating consequences that followed  the last time that God was part of a story involving eating a fruit, there were other  things that bothered me about his invitation, presumably aimed at us atheists. It is the assumption that we atheists actually have these spiritual fruits but just refuse to eat them. They think we are well aware that their God is real but we are just stubborn deniers,many Christians really don't believe that we are atheists. It follows, because I have been often called thinks like a "self acclaimed atheist," and a "person who calls myself an  atheist" by believers I have interacted with.
Caucasian Man Sitting at a Table and Reading a Menu at a Restaurant Posters, Art Prints
Christians tell us to 'try Jesus' as if he is some exotic dish on a menu at a fancy restaurant. A culinary delight that we are too scared to order because we think it will be too spicy or tangy for our palates to handle.They don't realise that we can't try what we can't see. We have looked over the menu back, front, inside and outside many times and we have not seen the " Blood of Jesus Special."

When we ask why we can't see this divine tasting treat, they tell us it's because we don't bring faith to the table. But how can an atheist bring faith ?  If we had faith to bring, we would not be atheists.  How can we acquire belief, if in order to do that we have to believe to begin with? It's the perfect circle.  It makes it logically impossible for any sincere atheist to ever find God. Faith is needed to find God, and the only way to get it is to have it. So, if you don't start out with it you are eternally screwed. Well, in that case, I can only hope that I am an insincere atheist , because only the pretenders among us non believers have even the faintest hope of finding the God of the faithful.