Monday, February 28, 2011

The times when only an atheist can help

I remember the sermon I heard the last time I went to church, it was the old "How hard it is to be a Christian," spiel.  The message to the flock was to stand up for their beliefs, be not afraid to profess Jesus as their Lord and Saviour and stick to their guns no matter what others  may say. At the time that I heard this message I already had thoughts of embracing atheism and it was one of the few times in my church life that I thought the priest was speaking directly to me. How right the reverend  was. I had to have the courage to stand  for what I believed and I left church that morning more convinced I should make a move. The preacher cautioned us about the difficulties we will find trying to swim against the tide. Again, I was right there with him. Sometimes being an  atheist is like trying  to paddle your way against an oncoming tsunami.  Christians  in spite of their protestations to the contrary generally have no idea what it means to suffer or be ostracised for their beliefs. We atheists on the other hand face what they speak about in their sermons every day of our lives.

I try to remember that "last" sermon as I go through life now. I live  in Canada and as a member of the skeptic community here I have as many non believers as believers in my circle even though I am a relatively recent deconvert. Still, no matter how many meet-ups skeptics may have we are nothing compared to those on the believers' side. While we congratulate ourselves for being able to get 20 members to discuss the threat to society posed by magical thinking, an average sized church can pull in 200 on a Sunday morning even on a bad day.

Standing alone in reason

Being an atheist is a lonely road and I think all of us get overwhelmed from time to time as we try to navigate through the tempest. Many of us try to put on the bravado, claiming that we live according to reason alone and therefore don't care if we find ourselves alone in reason. Some even resist making the connections with others of like mind, lest  they commit the unpardonable sin of falling into " group think." This tendency has  led to the famous cliche that trying to bring together atheists is like herding cats. However, in cutting ourselves off, we are  refusing to face the reality that we accuse religious people of avoiding.  Atheists are human beings first and  humans are social animals.

The times when we need to depend on society the most are those moments where we are emotionally at our most vulnerable. Indeed, that is why many people claim they stay in church. It is great to have that community when you find yourself or a loved one in hospital with a chronic illness or after an accident. Apart from times when we are in need, there are times when those close to us or people we admire in our communities fall into misfortune. We want to be there to show our love and support and help in whatever way we can.

The thing is, it is in the tough situations that the atheist feels most isolated. We can live as atheists with persons of all creeds, work with them , laugh with them, share with them and even engage them in polite debates on the subject of religion. Many of  our colleagues will agree with much of what we say, nod when we talk about how faith has kept back developments in stem cell research, laugh with us when we talk about the idiocy of a 6000 year old world and concede that God's existence is not consistent with logic or available evidence. All is fine and secular until that moment of tragedy strikes, then  everyone seems to become a fundamentalist. Suddenly, everyone around you runs to religion, including the "skeptic" you thought was on your side. The whole experience reminds me of how children all scamper for a seat when the song stops in "musical chairs."  In this case, the atheist is the one left standing, wondering why the sudden rush to find a faith to sit on.

Platitudes on a Platter

If  the tragic situation includes a death, the desire to cling to faith becomes even more intense. From the comfort of their favourite doctrine the masses choose from a menu of " Platitudes on a Platter" that the church lays before them. Here are some popular ones they dish out :

  • You need to trust in God
  • His soul is at peace
  • I will be praying for you and your family
  • May he rest in peace and rise in glory
  • He's in  a better place now
  • She's safe in the arms of Jesus
  • Thank God that she was taken quickly
  • Thank God it wasn't any worse
  • God knows and understands
  • God will find a way
  • Trust in the Lord and he will give you strength
  • The Lord will not give you more than you can bear
  • She's singing in the angelic choir now
  • He's been called to higher service
  • Heaven must have needed another angel

Many people do find comfort in these words and it helps them through.  For atheists such statements ring hollow, very hollow indeed. We get no comfort from utterances relating to a fictional being we no more believe in than the magic tree frog in the garden. Neither do we feel that we are doing any good when we are forced to join in this chorus of "God talk" when someone else is suffering. In fact this talk  often makes us feel worse, it's almost like injecting us with a virus on our death bed. For the Christians are trying to comfort us with the very thing that we consider to be the source of so much of the world's ills.

I don't think that people that are not atheists really get this. You can't blame them. We live in a society where religion is what you turn to in the darkest hour and the greatest gift you can give people at this point is "spiritual upliftment" which equates to just picking one of the "Platitudes on a Platter." That is the formula, the only method we are taught to show that we care. We know the believer is sincere, but we atheists still feel empty, with greater stress facing us because we have to pretend that we are ever so touched by the words. Any indication that we are anything but fully appreciative and we are likely to feel the wrath even as we are already consumed with grief.

What would happen if they were sick and we told them how earnestly we were praying to our tree frog for their speedy recovery? Would they tell us that even though they are not tree frog followers, they appreciate the sentiment? Hardly.We would be severely reprimanded for making a mockery of them when they were suffering. Even if they were paralysed from the neck down I am sure they would find the power from somewhere to give us a hard slap in our face. Yet, anything less than total commitment and participation in appealing to their God and we are just cynical ungrateful people. They just don't realise that their God is  our tree frog.

In recent weeks I have become all too aware of these types of situations. "The Thinking Atheist" had a very moving podcast last week that dealt with these issues in "Grief without God." I am aware of an atheist in the Caribbean that has recently had to deal with this issue following a death of a member of staff. What I have learnt from these things, is that in these situations, only an atheist can truly relate. That's right, regardless of how close friends and family may be to you in these circumstances only another person who leans not on faith can truly understand how you feel. The atheists are the only ones that can offer you the support that you need, the dose of  non-sugar coated reality  that works.

There is another reason why it is difficult to get support when the chips are down if you are a known atheist. Horrible as it sounds, atheist suffering actually strengthens a believer's faith. One of the most troubling realities to persons of faith is the fact that so many atheists seem to live happy and fulfilled lives. It's not that religious people want ill to come of non believers but they need some support to keep believing that a God  is making things better for them. Seeing us suffer may hurt them on a personal level but it gives them a relief by providing evidence, albeit  using confirmation bias, that life is not so good without God after all. They tell themselves that your condition would be far better if you just opened your heart to Him. That's why atheists in hospitals have nurses trying to convert them everyday. It helps remove the cognitive dissonance if the followers can bring someone to Jesus, it strengthens their faith to know that they are doing the work of the Lord in their professional lives. Saving an atheist's life so that he can get up next day and continue to bash your religion just doesn't seem like it would be part of  God's plan.

It's frightening to think that a caregiver may be less willing to go the extra mile to save you when you don't believe, that they may be interested more in saving you in soul than in body when you lie on the operating table. However, that's the reality of atheism and the price you have to pay for standing in reason and you are likely to feel the isolation when you are at your lowest ebb. Not because the people in the world don't love you and want to see you well, but because the worldview that they feel they must maintain  for their own welfare, requires you be kept on the outside until you say the magic words, " I believe."

Words of comfort without God

Curiously, this inability to understand in times of trials, atheist versus theist, seems to go only one way. Now that I can no longer pick from the "platitudes on a platter" to help a friend in bereavement, I have been forced to challenge myself. It means I have to think of something meaningful to say. What I do these days when trying to comfort friends in grief is to write a sentence or two on the life of the person lost and include something they did or said to me that  has made a difference in my life. I have found that the persons grieving have been very appreciative of these short tributes and have expressed how moved they were to hear that they loved one touched me in a personal way. It's quite different from the simple "thank you" I got when I just used to pick from the "platter" in days gone by. My friends never seem to realise that God is absent from the notes I send. One day maybe they will acknowledge that referring to God at the end of a tribute is simply branding, like sticking on a "Nike" label on your shoe.  It makes absolutely no difference to the message, it's just an attempt to gain divine legitimacy.

So there it is. We can come to the aid of the faithful but they will never be fully able to embrace us where we are. What does that mean? It means that we have to be there for our fellow non believers wherever they may be. We cannot provide promises of divine protection, but we can reassure them by telling them that we understand them and fight many of the same battles everyday. We have survived thus far and therefore there is a good chance that the atheist friend in the struggle will prevail as well. That is often all that is needed for a non believer to go on to fight another day.

We are dotted in remote corners of the world but the internet has allowed us to close some of the divide, becoming "atheists of the gaps" as we seek to make each others' journeys a little less lonely. Yes, there are truly times in our lives when only an atheist can help. We must remember that there is strength in numbers and that the more of us that can be there for the struggling atheist the more effective the movement will be. So, we "cats" need to get over our fear of the collective, and not be so terrified of being part of the herd. Otherwise, with the increasing din of  the fundamentalists, we just won't ever be heard.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

I didn't use to believe in Rihanna

She holds four grammy awards, has had seven number one billboard singles and sold over 25 million albums to adoring fans in every corner of the globe. This lovely young lady who celebrates just her 23rd birthday today has taken my little island Barbados to a place that nobody before her has ever done. However, as incredible as it sounds, there was a time that I  just didn't believe in Rihanna.

Yes, I was living in Barbados in 2004 at the beginning of what would one day become the Rihanna phenomenon. That was the year when Robyn Fenty, as she was then known, sang with two of her school friends at a  local restaurant in Barbados. Among the patrons on the night was record producer Evans Rogers and the rest as they say is history.  I remember when the local newspaper carried a short article  about a girl being discovered by a famous producer . The story went that he just took one look at her and declared that she would one day be an international superstar. Next to the piece was a small  black and white photo. Looking at her face, she was strikingly beautiful but I was sure in my mind that Mr. Rogers had gotten carried away by this. It can happen in Barbados. When the surf, the music and the rum punch converge, anyone can seem like a star. After all, how could a person just after looking at somebody for  a  few seconds  really be able to know that they are going to explode like a supernova on the world stage.

I didn't pay much attention to the story after that day but I realised the talk was not dying. People really began to believe the hype and think that this girl would go to the US and Evans Rogers would change her life forever; but I was a skeptic. The evidence certainly did not support that this would be the case. For one thing , Rihanna was  anonymous on the local music scene. It is true that at the time she was only sixteen but many prodigies in the world start to show that they are something special by the time they are five or six. Barbados has a well entrenched teen talent competition where thirteen year olds have regularly featured, Rihanna was never on that roll. There are also a number of junior calypso competitions and pageants that had failed to bring her out.The church has been a breeding ground for a number of local crooners and Rihanna had also not made a mark there.

The chances that such a superstar was living among us without anyone ever noticing seemed unlikely at best. However, that was not the only reason why I was skeptical. I did admit it could be that none of the competitions appealed to Rihanna or she just hadn't honed her skills yet at that age. The fact was that in spite of the talent that we have had in the island over the years nobody had come close to making even a a ripple on the international music scene before then. To think that a Barbadian, any Barbadian could be even on the charts in a country outside of  the Caribbean was at that time as outrageous a thought as someone from our island heading a team of astronauts at NASA.

So, my response to Evans Rogers and others who told me that Rihanna would boldly go where none of us had gone before was to show me that evidence. I heard them talk about how hard working Rihanna was, that she was very open to taking advice and had a good head on her shoulders. I thought that was encouraging but still I couldn't just go on those words alone.I had heard such glowing accolades said about many whose names have long since fallen by the wayside. Still, one thing I would say was that my mind was open. I really wanted Rihanna to succeed but I  just couldn't take the word of a record producer, however famous, on faith. I had to be convinced myself.

I have to confess that  when Rihanna started her career with her song " Pon de Replay" I was just blown away by what took place. Overnight she was a sensation , just as Evans Rogers had predicted. To this day I have to tip my hat to this man for what he was able to see. To me he is far greater than any Isaiah or Elijah . He saw something that I certainly didn't and he and Rihanna have proven me wrong, spectacularly wrong and I could not be happier that they did. Today I am a convert. I recognise how remarkable her achievements have been and am filled with pride to see how she has reached the highest of heights against so many odds. It is true that in her short career Rihanna has had a few bruises, both literally and figuratively. However, given the transformation that she would have gone through from school girl to pop icon in just months, I think she has done  brilliantly  to remain at a high altitude after an explosive take off.  Ironically, these days I defend Rihanna sometimes  against  colleagues in Barbados  who have turned against her in spite of their faith in her at the outset. Many think that a "good girl gone bad" is a fitting description of  her. I still have trouble understanding why some of my people in Barbados are so quick to pull down their own, but that's a discussion for another time.

What of course I am illustrating here is the principle of living life as a skeptic. So often the believer thinks that the atheist is just picking on God. They  consider that we are the ones engaging in special pleading. They see us as the toddler pouting in the corner, arms folded furiously shaking our heads, resolving to not believe no matter what. But for me at least, it is just a matter of being consistent and my message to those in the church is the same as my message was to Evans Rogers. "Show me the things  of which you speak ."  I am a skeptic and I am inviting you to prove me wrong. I am not just saying that in an " I dare you!"  sort of way , I honestly would not be unhappy to find out there is a God. I would not look forward to one who would send me to torture for non belief, but there are definitely many concepts of a God that have been put before me that I would be grateful to accept. A  cosmic  being that was watching out for me and  who I could consult when I needed  a more informed opinion would be great. Even finding a God who was a bit eccentric and even brutal at times  would still be exciting to me,  at least it would be interesting to study him and find out what really makes him tick. What I want to stress, is that even in the days when I didn't believe Rihanna would be a star I never  wished for her to fail. I always hoped I was wrong. It is a pity  our society labels those of us that are skeptics as "naysayers." As if thinking something won't happen somehow means that we are affecting the result. This is in itself a form of superstition which goes hand in hand with religious thinking. We prefer the man who believes he can fly rather than the one who knows he can run. As I write this I am watching World Cup cricket in Asia where the West Indies are taking part. Do I think West Indies will win the tournament? No. Would I like them to win? Nothing would please me more.

Another thing that I hope the Rihanna account demonstrates is that I am willing to admit I was wrong and I don't see it as anyway diminishing my admiration for her today. I am also not going the route of pretending that I was really always a supporter and those that thought I used to say she wouldn't make it merely misunderstood or misinterpreted what I was saying. I am  not taking another tactic that I see on the other side, which is maintaining my original position on Rihanna by subtly adjusting the goalposts for the word "superstar." I could say that seven years is not enough to judge stardom, that you need at least eight years at the top and then move that to ten or twelve as the years go by. I could say she is not a star until she has a number one hit in North Korea, just to save face and prove I was always right. Then I could jump up at the moment  the number one hits dry up and say, " I told you so !" But no! I just call it as I see it at a particular point . Making the judgement on the information I have at the time. Things will change as more information comes in. Clearly, when I first heard of Rihanna my judgement  was flawed because my information was limited. The years went on and I saw more  of this lady and recognised what she was capable of and my opinion changed. So what if I had to do it again? Would I believe in Rihanna a bit more up front ? Would I show more faith? No, I would be just as skeptical next time. I will always argue that my judgement of Rihanna at that time was justified based on the evidence before me. The information I have obtained since does not change that fact. Moreover, of course, I continue to evaluate. I am certainly a supporter of Rihanna now, but it's not worship. If further information causes me to reassess the evidence and adjust my opinion of her I will do that.

I hope that the theists understand this point. If evidence for their God comes tomorrow it doesn't mean that I have been a fool all along to deny him. It would have been irrational to assume that the evidence I sought existed but I just hadn't found it yet. There is another thing that bothers me about embracing God. The Christians often make accepting Jesus seem like a one way ticket. You accept Jesus in your heart, come in to the house of the Lord and it's like you lock the door and throw away the key. I just couldn't do that even if I met Jesus and saw how great he was. I could accept him but I could never give my life to him. I would have to keep evaluating to make sure that what he showed me when he first met me is what he keeps doing.  It amazes me that the Christian can be so confident that God will be good all the time and if he does it once he will do it again.

One thing I can say about you, Rihanna is that you have proven you can do it again, again and again. Have a great birthday! You deserve it. Hopefully you will be more forgiving than God and not  grudge me because I once didn't believe in you.  You have convinced me through  hard evidence  that you are indeed the only girl in the world today that can control the billboards . Interestingly, my Christian friends tell me they have the only God in the world and to be fair, the record  they have produced has sold many more copies than even your 25 million. It's just a shame that when you listen to the lyrical content of their compilation, they have been far more misses than hits.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Will the Caribbean ever find its Darwin?

It's Darwin Day! It gives me great pleasure to say that. When you become an atheist so many  holidays get dropped or become  reduced in their meaning. It is therefore a great thing when you are able to embrace a new "day of significance" which directly relates to the values which you hold dear. The fact that most of the population is blissfully unaware, making their way through stores to buy cards, red and white flowers and heart-shaped chocolates in preparation for a more recognised celebration is not a problem for me. I have the opportunity to sit here and reflect on this day of reason and the impact of this most influential thinker on our species.

In looking at Charles Darwin's legacy, the journey appears to be as significant as the discovery. The way that the many pieces of evidence came together to form  a fundamental theory governing all living organisms is truly fascinating. What caught my imagination today was Darwin's journey through the Galapagos Islands where he made his famous observation of the finches. We are told that Darwin was amazed at the diversity in the population of species that was present in such a small area, wondered how all these living creatures arrived where they were and  how they adapted so well to their conditions. The year 1831 was a bit before my time but I can fully understand Darwin's awe. Islands are indeed intriguing places to visit and we can learn an incredible amount  from studying them. In today's world so many people see islands as places to go to enjoy sun, sea and sand but I am sure it never dawns on any of them that it was in such an environment that the one of the greatest scientific insights ever was formulated.

I think that we that come from the Caribbean need to remember that. If you look at our islands you can see all the diversity in the people just as much as Darwin saw in the species of his day. Each island has something a bit different that can teach us something  about ourselves. The Caribbean islands  are indeed an ideal laboratory for learning much about our world. Over the years there are many "species" that have come and made these islands home. English, French, Spanish and Dutch influences are all there. Along with the African presence from the slave trade, there is significant Indian and Chinese influence as well as a small indigenous Carib population. The mixing across the cultures has produced much that is unique.  It is not only the people that have made the difference, the diversity in the natural endowments of the islands is equally captivating. The flat terrain and famous beaches of Barbados and Antigua contrast with the mountainous rugged landscape of nearby St.Lucia,Dominica and Grenada. Resources of oil and gas predominate in Trinidad, whereas Jamaica is rich in bauxite and Guyana in gold and other minerals. The history of the region  unfortunately also shows differences in living  conditions with some of our countries being  among the highest in terms of  standards of living in the world but others such as Haiti languishing as one of the poorest.
For every  territory in the Caribbean there is a country in the world that is analogous to it in some way, I am convinced that a detailed study of our islands and the people could help us a lot in understanding the dynamics of culture, immigration, governance,economics and impact of natural resources in the same way that Darwin's discovery in 1831 taught us ultimately the basic mechanism of how humans came to be. Today one of the most pressing issues the world is facing is that of climate change. Islands being the territories likely to be most affected. Here is where a modern day  Darwin could be studying the  impacts on all of  our species and  the way that changes in climate are going to effect the social evolution of our community and the world.

The tragedy is that given the culture in the region  today I am not sure that we are going to find our Darwin. In order to make discoveries that can be world altering one needs to employ a systematic scientific approach. Observing the world, forming hypotheses based on the insights and trying to tie the different threads of ideas together to form coherent theories. Most importantly, there must be a willingness to follow evidence wherever it leads even if it means letting go of  beliefs that have traditionally been seen as the bedrock of our existence. This is where we keep falling down as a people in the region, because the cornerstone of faith is one rock you can never pick up to look underneath. 

We West Indians have undoubtedly had our successes in numerous fields. In the area of music and culture we have made our mark. Bob Marley stands out in the world today as an icon that has given reggae music world wide recognition. The ingenuity of the Trinidadian people has given us the steel-pan which was the only instrument invented in the 20th century.  Our Barbadian sensation Rihanna continues to astound us all by reeling off hit after hit on the Billboard charts.We have distinguished ourselves with authors such as  V.S Naipaul and   Derek Walcott both of  whom have been rewarded with Nobel Prizes. Our cricket may be struggling at the moment, but we can recall great names like Sir Garfield Sobers, Sir Vivian Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Brian Lara, the 3Ws, Clive Lloyd, Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding and many many more.  Jamaican World Champion sprinter Usain Bolt is the latest in along line of great runners from that island which includes the likes of Merlene Ottey.We have doctors, lawyers, engineers and politicians that can rub shoulders with anybody else in the world. So lack of talent, education or creativity is not a problem for our people. You may therefore wonder  why I am so pessimistic about the region producing a scientist that can change the world.

The problem is that when it comes to critical thinking ,we fall down because we just can't disturb that rock of religion. We must  accept that God is the guiding hand in everything.  Once your worldview is governed by an individual who has ultimate authority; creativity and curiosity can only go back so far. I am not sure there is empirical evidence but I strongly believe that our resolute belief in God affects our approach in other areas of life. In my childhood the word that sticks out most in my mind is "obey." This started off with obedience to God illustrated by the attitudes of Abraham and Noah taught to us in Sunday School lessons before the age of  five. They both did exactly what God told them to do even though it went against common sense. Both were rewarded richly. For the disobedient ones like Adam and Eve or Ananias and Sapphira the outcome was  not so good. Once we had those concepts emphasised to us and the fear that went  along with it, we were told we needed to obey parents, priests and teachers in the same way. Often we felt the full consequences when we were deviant. It is not a coincidence that many Caribbean parents' favourite quote from the bible is, " Spare the rod, spoil the child."

When we grew older we were taught  we should always obey rules and the word " discipline" became another critical word in our vocabulary. We so often were told that the young people don't have discipline and that we should all be sent to boot camp to straighten us out. Of course the word discipline comes from "disciple" and that's what we were taught to be; faithful followers, just like one of the twelve.
In short it was as if the God in heaven came down  and manifested himself in these earthly authorities.

Up to today, whenever we have problems in the Caribbean we think the answer is to make laws more stringent. Last year  in Barbados students behavior at interschool sports began to deteriorate as they danced a bit too exuberantly for some. The answer from the government was to ban all musical instruments from the stadium. In the same year the prime minister himself stepped in to ban two artistes from coming to sing in the country because it was deemed that the message in their songs was not wholesome. "It was not exactly Sunday School material," was a comment I heard. An ironic statement if I ever heard one.This is typical of the type of responses we get to issues of bad  behaviour.  Banning things, more rules,  insisting that longer skirts or pants less baggy be worn, sending students home for incorrect footwear..At the end of everything,  all the ills in the country are blamed  on society turning away from God and children not going to Sunday School anymore. So it's more prayer, getting down on knees, pleading the blood, whatever. Anything other than actually teaching our young people how to reason.

People may think that  when we become adults we break out of this cycle. No,  it is similar when we start in the world of work. Many employees I have worked with in the Caribbean are at a complete loss unless the boss tells them exactly what he or she wants them to do and how to do it. There is often an expressed need for written rules . In fact it is quite regular to hear people speaking about some book that contains the main principles governing their work  as the "bible" of  the particular field they are in. There is generally a fear of ambiguity in situations and I have seen people almost paralysed  when they have been left to make a decision on their own. So, in most of the  islands we have policy document after policy document. A lady working in government on one of the islands told me once that you could  complete a construction project purely using  the card and paper the policies are written on. Yet, so often activities that are suppose to emerge from these guiding documents never get close to seeing the light of day.

Admittedly, in some areas of work the desire to operate from a  blueprint is not a bad thing. Many professionals work from blueprints. Builders work from the architects' drawings, engineers  rely on equations and formulae learnt at university, doctors similarly lean on what they have been taught in their anatomy classes or their own experience of how medicines work. However, few of the people in the Caribbean are actually involved in or even interested in working in an area where the goal is to generate new knowledge. We are the "downstream" professionals, very good at taking the crude product and refining it for the market but comparatively poor at searching for the new sources of oil. This is why it is so difficult for us to find a Darwin.  The skills of questioning, pulling back the curtain and digging  beyond the text book are just not there. They have been stunted from way back in Sunday School days. It is like a muscle that was never developed and now atrophy has set in.

This in my opinion, is the greatest harm of  living in a society steeped in religion. It's not the potential harm to   civilisation  through the slaughter of a witch, a parent opting for prayer instead of medicine, or the flying of a plane into a building. It is the lost opportunities for development that come directly from a paradigm that teaches us from very early not to question authority. Who knows how many great geneticists, evolutionary biologists or anthropologists in the Caribbean we could have had if not for the glass ceiling of religious belief. As a result,  I fear that we will have to wait for our Darwin to come from outside just as the first one came from England to make the discovery in those islands off Ecuador. I sincerely  hope that I am wrong.

Many Christians are, as we speak, looking for a second coming of Jesus in a few months time. I look forward to the second coming of  Darwin, one from among us that will bring an evolution in our way of thinking, enlightenment to the Caribbean and lead the region in showing the world the way.  I am sad to say that sometimes I wonder whether what I long for is any more plausible than what the rapture ready Christians expect to see in May.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

God is so much like the Chinook

We've had a rough time in terms of weather conditions here in Calgary in the last few weeks. Many days have been like the one in the picture on the right. I took this photo at a nearby bus station, an evening when I could barely feel the camera in my hands. That day was bitterly cold. One of those days where no amount of protective clothing seems to be enough. For my Caribbean friends, YES, that is a MINUS sign in front of that number 22. In recent days it has been the continuous snowfall that has created the challenge to pedestrians and drivers alike.

Some may be surprised to learn that, in between it all there have been moments of warmer weather that feel more like spring or early fall. The reason for these radical change in temperature? It's the Chinook winds. These winds that come into this area from the west are formed as cool air rises over the Rocky Mountains. When they descend on our side they become warmer, creating dramatic temperature increases during the course of a day. This can sometimes melt as much as one foot of snow in just a few hours.

Apart from the warming the Chinook brings there is also a spectacular visual effect in the sky known as the "Chinook Arch." The clouds form an arc with the pale blue sky underneath and a hint of yellow sunlight refracting from the edges. I know many atheists will cringe to hear this, but when I walked outside my house in the depth of winter and experienced the full effect of a Chinook for the first time it was almost a spiritual experience.The view was something like the photo below.

We human beings have something of a fetish over arcs. Perhaps it's the upbringing so many of us have had in Christianity. Arches, arcs and arks are so popular in the bible. Whether its the one that carried two of every animal or the one that was being carried when it slipped and caused a rather unfortunate death. Then there is the rainbow that everyone loves, the promise of God. In contemporary times rainbows continue to fascinate us. Who can forget that viral youtube video from last year where a guy almost had an orgasm when he saw " a double rainbow all the way round." But that day of the Chinook, when I looked up in the sky it was church that came into my mind. I remembered a visit I made to St.Paul's Cathedral in London where the arches are such a beautiful part of the architecture. It was then I started to realise that when it comes to churches and the Chinooks there are so many similarities.

Perhaps the reason I was so excited to experience the Chinook was that I had heard so much about it from the time I landed here. "Don't worry about the cold winters." people would tell me.
"We have this thing called the Chinook that will come and warm you when you least expect it." In Calgary everybody talks about the Chinook, it is an integral part of the culture. There is even a popular mall here carrying the name. In spite of all the talk, during the first year I was here we had no Chinooks and I started to wonder if the whole thing was just a myth, a figment of the Calgarian imagination. Alas, in my second winter the promised salvation came. It came in all its glory right after the depth of a - 35 day. I felt like screaming out to the heavens,
"Praise the Lord!" It wouldn't have taken much more for me to fall on my knees in "Road to Damascus" style and pay the Chinook homage.

Later that year I returned to Barbados and told my friends there of my experiences in Canada. Naturally, I told them about the Chinook. I told them that the winters were cold but this Chinook was a life saver and there were few things in life I had experienced that were more amazing. My friends were intrigued. " Tell us more about this Chinook!" they implored. I gladly went on. "Well it's like this, it's the middle of winter, it's -30 and then magically this wind blows in and we get up to ten degrees Celsius in about half an hour!"

I waited for my friends' response. An exclamation of "Wow!" or " Fantastic" or "That's incredible!" Shockingly, there was nothing. I just got blank faces staring back at me. It's like they were still waiting for me to deliver the punchline. Then suddenly someone burst out laughing " Ten degrees, you think ten degrees is warm? HAHA!" So I continued, "Well there are times when it can even get up to 20 degrees Celsius in the middle of January." Surely that would now impress them. But no, even more laughter ensued. "Oooh, 20 degrees that's so so hot." one of them said sarcastically. I felt a bit embarrassed and slightly upset. How dare they make fun of my experience. They had no right to mock me. If only they went to Calgary with me then they would understand.

I thought for a few minutes and then I started to laugh at myself. Of course the Chinook would be unimpressive to a West Indian. Hey, 24 degrees Celsius counts as a cold day down in the islands. A few years ago I would probably have been the one leading the mockery. It is exactly the same thing when a christian tries to convert a lifelong atheist. When he tells the atheist he should become christian and go to church to experience the love of Christ he is like the new Canadian telling someone from the Caribbean they should go and live in Calgary to experience the salvation of the Chinook.

The Christian just like the new Canadian does not realise that the emigration has changed his reference point. He forgets that when he entered the church his self esteem was reduced to a depth just as low as the temperatures in an Alberta winter. He is taught that he is nothing, worthless, not deserving of anything the world has to offer, he is a hopeless sinner, a wretch in need of saving. As painful as this new reality in Christianity seems at first, the new convert is taught that all is not lost. If he holds on in faith and waits on Jesus Christ, deliverance will come. Then one day with the help of friends and family that great awakening arrives. He feels his confidence rising and a thrill that comes with the recognition that "Yes, I am something after all!" Something, only because of the love, mercy and power of Jesus. With that thrilling moment of faith there is a feeling of empowerment that drives evangelism, because the new Christian can stand up and proclaim, " I have had a personal experience of the saving power of my Lord Jesus Christ."

That's the thing about it. Humans are very emotionally responsive to sudden upward movements. It is the change in state, the "delta T" rather than the absolute value "T" that really matters.We feel great when we think we have a last minute escape from a disaster even if we end up worse off than where we started. It is why God is praised for saving one foot of a surviving passenger in a car accident when the life of the driver has been lost. It is also why we thank God when we were told we were going to be fired but the next day the boss has a change of heart and let's up keep or job with half the pay.

I have to accept that no matter how many pictures I send with Calgarians dancing in shorts during a Chinook; how many testimonies I have from those visiting Calgary from Edmonton or Siberia, my Caribbean friends are not going to be convinced to come here to experience this phenomenon. Ten degrees is still ten degrees no matter how you try to spin it. Caribbean people are not close minded or dogmatic for saying "no thanks" and remaining firmly at home. If there is no point in going to live in cold Calgary just to feel the Chinook, there is no point subjecting yourself to the cross just to get a crown less valuable than the hat you wear now. Neither the experience of Calvary nor Calgary is required to lead a fulfilling life.

So, the obvious next question is," Why have I left my Caribbean paradise to subject myself to this bitterly cold land?" That my friends is truly a mystery, one every bit as unsolvable as those that God throws out at us everyday.