It's hard to know where to begin and end with this blog post. So much happened to me last week. It was without doubt the defining week of my non-believer journey so far. The week during which I came out "to the world" as an atheist. It all started with the thrill of being included as one of Greta Christina's prominent atheists of colour. In preparing that list for publication, Greta graciously asked me whether I preferred to be listed as caribatheist or under my actual name. It was not a very easy question to answer and I gave it a lot of thought. The truth is that I had been thinking about this issue of "coming out" as an atheist for a long time and over the last month or so the desire to be "out" had almost become overwhelming.
The longer I have been involved in this freethinking movement and read and listened to the stories of atheists who have made a break from religion, the more inspired I have become. I found myself wanting to challenge myself fully and follow them in a more emphatic way. Sometimes I even felt angry about having to keep my new found passion to myself. I see and hear people everyday sharing the things they love with the world. The desire to fight for rights of women, children and other marginalised groups is lauded. The promotion of environmental protection and preservation of endangered species are also considered honourable causes. It just seems unfair that those of us that choose as our cause the promotion of evidence, logic and critical thinking have to face vitriol.
What's wrong with "negative" atheism?
I have often heard that the problem with we atheists is that we are too negative. Promotion of reason is a goal worth pursuing but why do we have to go about tearing down others' dearly held faith? We are told we must promote positive atheism. It is a strange criticism because there are so many organisations that are framed in the negative. The RSPCA, RSPCC, organisations against racial discrimination and groups fighting against abuse of women are all "anti" organisations. They are not organisations that promote something "in the positive", they promote improvement through preventing or discouraging something that is negative. Atheists are doing the same, promoting better through reducing brain contamination that comes from accepting supernatural phenomena without supporting evidence. Promoting reason means fighting against non science, anti evidence and anti logic and these phenomena against reason are gift wrapped within the guise of religion. It's as simple as that. So, I don't think going out there and being identified and displaying an 'A' is being absurd as one commentator put it. It is just as important to stand up for want you don't believe in as to go out there on the frontline for what you believe.To me, atheists have as much right to be heard as any other organisation that has a mandate to rid itself of activities that inhibit social development.
In reflecting on these things my conviction to "come out" just got more and more intense. When I started this blog I was just trying to come to terms with not believing and adjusting to living a life without God. Now, I feel that non belief for me cannot be a passive thing. I feel I must act against the further propagation of faith and religious thinking. Atheism has become a core value of mine and I consider it necessary to engage that passion. I don't see why I should be prohibited to tell others about it. Not as an intent to impose my views but simply to let people know an important part of who I am. To present myself to someone and hide away my lack of faith is to present someone or something that is not fully me.
An instrumental taboo
I don't think that is a overstatement. I tried to imagine what my life would be like if I was forbidden to go public about another passion of mine, my music. How would I have survived over the years if I had to be an anonymous instrumentalist? If people could only hear my music if I locked myself backstage or played into a remote mike at an undisclosed location? What if people told me that flaunting my saxophone in public was an insult to my family and the country in which I was raised? What if I was told that under no circumstances could I have sax on a date with someone's daughter? Supposed I had to lie and say that my clarinet case had a camera inside in order for people to let me into a party or social gathering? What if I had to pretend in public that I didn't know the drummer in my band for fear of being called evil by association? What if I was not able to "like" any type of music on facebok for fear of a mass "unfriending?" What if I had to scroll down an internet page quickly for fear someone woud catch a glimpse of a title on my screen saying,
"Songs written in minor keys are not great" ? Suppose I had to remain silent about what I did on the weekend for fear of offending people by saying I was on stage at the local Carifest? What if I had to worry about my job and future career prospects if someone discovered a woodwind reed in my pocket? Having to undergo any of those things for the love of music would be close to torture and would make life almost unbearable. I could never stand for any of that in pursuing my music and I resolved that I could not continue to stand for that with regard to my atheism either.
Looking for the "coming out" moment
So, I knew I had to come out. I also agree with the philosophy that the more of us that are out there the easier it becomes for others to make themselves known; especially for those of us in the black community. I knew I had to do it but I wasn't sure how to go about it. I have for over a year been toying with doing the electronic version of the Dan Barker strategy. Send out an email copied to all the important people in my life. E-convert to deconvert. It was tempting because that would probably be the cleanest and quickest way to do it. Compose an email explaining I no longer believed and just get on with my life unhindered by the dogma. I did actually write that email , but after a year it still remains in the "drafts" folder. I think the reason I never pressed " send" was because of the instantaneous nature of emails. In the 80s when we had to rely on the postal system, I am sure I would have gotten responses drifting in at a reasonable rate over time Not so in 2011.
In the instant email world, I had fears of waking up next morning with 200 emails asking me what happened , or facing networks formed overnight with the mandate of organising prayer meetings to try to get me back. I really thought the best method was to have a more controlled movement. Try to get a smooth landing into "out" atheism rather than hitting the ground with a jolting thud. So, I took the approach of starting with my immediate family members and then moving on from there. Well, after getting over the family hurdle I still hadn't gone further . I knew I needed to find some way to inform people en masse without flooding my inbox. The question was when to do it. It would seem strange to just pick an arbitrary day and just put a status on facebook like, " Oh by the way I am an atheist now." I needed a context within which to make the transition. I thought of leaving it to a landmark birthday, I have one coming up. I could wait until my graduation from university and declare it as part of my intellectual further degree. But all of these seemed like a bit too much of a delay. I needed some type of trigger moment for this. It didn't take me long to realise that this was just what Greta had provided me with. So there I was on the list as " David Ince a.k.a caribatheist." And with that my two identities became one.
The feelings after 'A' Day
On that day and those immediately following I felt a real mix of emotions; considerable excitement, a little trepidation, but mostly a feeling of liberation. I felt confident that I had made the right decision. Over time people will come to know of my deconversion as they inspect my facebook page or talk to someone who has found out one way or another. If anyone decides to confront me about it directly I will simply respond with the truth. I am no longer worried about that. Actually, I can't help but feel that many of my theists friends know or suspect already but I wonder if they will ever talk to me about it. I think some of them will prefer not to ask because they would prefer not to know for sure. Just like the patient who thinks he has cancer symptoms will sometimes prefer not to have his fears confirmed by going to the doctor. If they choose to live in such atheistic denial I will be fine with that. I have no time to harp on such things because I am already thinking about all the new connections I can make with my "out" status. Indeed, I made a few new friends in "A" week and in the days following. I am just so excited about how much more effective I can be as a member of the freethinking community now.
Over the last two years, I wondered on many occasions if I would ever reach the point I got to last week. It is through the support, encouragement and inspiration of the atheist community both within Calgary and the wider internet that I have made it. I felt compelled to write an email to some of the more influential among those people and thanked them all from the bottom of my heart. It was perhaps the most emotional email I have ever sent, it was hard to hold back the tears as I typed. On that day, fittingly during Atheist Week the "A" for the first time went up on my profile picture and joined the sea of 'A's out there. That upload moment was a powerful few seconds. I knew then that there was no turning back. Atheist closets don't shut back. I must admit that in spite of the liberty of being an "out " atheist, I realised I couldn't just open all the floodgates. I still am very aware that just because I am not covering it up anymore doesn't mean that I should use every opportunity to push my atheism out on others. I need to be able to show discretion and determine when is the right time. Much as I wanted to go out there and comment on every atheist facebook thread I just couldn't do that. So this next stage of my atheistic journey will no doubt still be a challenge.
If this was the full story of my 'A' week, that would have been awesome enough. But, it didn't end there. Random events sometimes work in mysterious ways and it so happened that Wednesday last week I returned to my native island Barbados for the first time in two years. I had a lot of time to reflect on the way back and think about how different a person I was since I left to live in Canada two years ago. To mark my week of liberation, I decided to wear my scarlet 'A' lapel pin from the time I set off to the airport in Calgary until I touched down in Barbados some 18 hours later. In addition to wearing it as part of my own symbolism I was hoping that I might meet some freethinker along the way who would come up and make himself or herself known to me. Alas, that did not happen but who knows who saw what and thought what on the way.
Back in Barbados
Well, I've made it home and it is a reall delight to trade in the cold and snow for the warmth and the sea and sand. However, it didn't take long for the wave of religion to knock me back. A friend picked me up from the airport and she went to collect her children from school on the way to dropping me home. When we got to the school we were surprised to find a large gathering of children on the outside. We were told that they were awaiting the arrival of a student who was returning to school after a successful battle against cancer over the last two years. We got out and joined the expectant crowd because there was no way that we could escape the traffic to get out anyway. It was a touching moment as the tiny student arrived to be hailed by the throng of teachers and students alike. I just couldn't stop smiling.
Then, suddenly the music started up, blurting out from two large speakers, I heard the words," I am not forgotten, I am not forgotten, I am not forgotten, God knows my name, He knows my name!" The students and teachers started to clap and even my friend got into the " spirit." But me, I stood frozen still, because I had forgotten. After a year of sharing discussions with skeptics in the pub, attending lectures on all angles dealing with freethought, watching Atheist Experience and meeting up with friends to watch videos of Dawkins' presentations, I had forgotten. I forgot what religion looked like " in the flesh."
When the song reached its end the children continued, singing the words " God can move mountains!" over and over again. It was clear that some of the students were starting to tire by this time but a teacher continued to urge them on, " Sing children sing, God can move mountains, He can do miracles, all you need to do is trust in Him!" The teacher was insistent that the children who ranged in age from 5 to 9 repeated these words.This it seemed was even more important than greeting their friend who had recovered. I knew the teacher was sincere and meant well, but I felt like a manager observing the day to day operations on the floor of an indoctrination factory. After the excitement earlier in the week with making Greta's "A"list and the whole "coming out" thing, landing in Barbados brought me firmly back down to earth. I stood there in the midst of this excitement, realising that the task before me was huge. At that moment, as motivated as I was I had no idea where I would even start in trying to reduce this hold of religion far less trying to promote a secular nation. Still, I know that the enormity of the task is all the reason why I need to remain committed. Indeed, all of us atheists need to see ourselves as a part of this struggle.
I will be in Barbados and visiting other Caribbean islands over the next couple of months. I have no idea what new insights I will gain during that time. What I know without doubt is that the week March 20th- 26th, 2011 is 'A' week I will never ever forget.