Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Do you speak theish? : Relearning my mother tongue in the Caribbean

I don't know about you, but for me there are few things in this world more enjoyable than travelling. It is always an experience that stays with you. The excitement of seeing things up close that you may have previously only seen in a magazine or on a cinema screen.The introduction to new cultures, new people and very often new ways of looking at the world. However, I find as exciting as discovering and exploring these things can be, there is always a slight feeling of trepidation when you touch down in a country or city for the first time. This begins from the time you enter the airport arrival hall, something as simple as not knowing exactly which door you should be going through or which line you should be in  can be unnerving. These feelings of being lost are increased ten-fold if you happen to be visiting a country where you don't speak the native language. The awkward feelings that accompany smiling and nodding at taxi drivers and red caps; laughing at their jokes, hoping against hope that you will leave their presence well before they get an inkling that  you haven't got the foggiest idea what they are talking about.

It may come as a surprise to many that this issue of language has affected me as I have returned to life in the Caribbean over the last two months. After all, I have been mainly in the anglophone countries and English is the language I speak all the time in Canada. It is not because of varying accents and dialects, though these can sometimes present challenges even to those of us who grew up in these West Indian isles.  No, there is a language spoken on every island in the Caribbean and you can really be at a loss if you are not familiar with the lingo. You may not find it in the Oxford dictionary, but it is called 'theish.' I used to speak it very fluently when I used to live in this part of the world, but you know what they say about language. You use it or you lose it.

Theish is basically 'God language.' Just like any other language out there it has certain rules that you have to adhere to. The central rule is the assumption that a God exists who created the world and dictates ultimately everything that happens in it. He, she or it loves you, protects you and will one day judge you. You can communicate with this God and he will sometimes grant you what you ask for if it is his will. For many atheists this seems like total jibberish, which is not surprising since all languages you are unfamiliar with sound jibberish at first. 'Atheish' is the counter language to this and has only one simple assumption; that Gods do not exist.

It's been a bit scary, but since I have returned to the Caribbean I realise that I am a bit rusty on my theish. These days in Canada I speak almost purely atheish among my friends. It was particularly bad at first when I came home to Barbados. I would be having a conversation which would seem like a normal exchange of pleasantries, a general catching up on things  when suddenly a person would say something in theish that I would not understand. I  asked one friend, " What are you looking to do now that you have decided to leave the teaching profession?" His answer was a simple, " Well, that depends on what God wants."  I went silent,  I realised for that moment I had no idea what he was talking about. What God wants? What the hell does that mean? I was so knocked back that day that I just smiled wished him good luck and went away. I reflected afterwards, that that was the language of theish. I had forgotten how to speak it. Translated into atheish, what he meant was  "I will just go with the flow and see how things turn out. I will wait and see what opportunities come my way." Now had he said that, it would have made perfect sense to me. I realised that once I made these translations to atheish in my head as I talked to people here I would be ok.

It strikes me now that perhaps the reason why it is so difficult for people to give up their religion is because it is like a language to them. Languages are something we speak naturally, we learn our native tongue from the time we are in the cradle and basically it stays with us for life. Language is also a means of self identity. When you meet someone in a distant land and you start to speak their language or dialect you are telling them that you are one of them. We are brothers or sisters because we can understand this language that the others around us can't. We have a special connection which creates a strong emotional bond within the first few seconds of the exchange. Many of us as we get older will learn other languages but as competent as we become in these adopted languages we will always slip back to our mother tongue when we are acting instinctively. Religious belief is something we don't question generally here in the Caribbean because it is our language and an essential part of our identity. It is something we need to understand even for the most basic of communication. If we don't speak theish we will be ostracised, not necessarily because people don't like us. They just won't understand us  and we won't understand them.

An object with a gender

Many of us laughed at first when we went into Spanish classes and were told that every object has a gender. The idea that el lapiz- the chalk was masculine and la naranja- the orange was feminine was to many in my class a ridiculous notion. Does the chalk wear a collar and tie? Does the flirtatious orange have a mini skirt in her wardrobe? When we atheists make fun of magic apples, talking snakes and global floods, we are doing the same as we did when we laughed at our Spanish or French at school. Speculating about where God's genitalia is that can makes us so sure he is a boy is no different than wondering where the 'sweet spot' is on the female orange.

Yes, when we view religion as a language it is quite easy to see why it is so impervious to logic and reasoning.  The philosopher Thomas Kuhn has actually likened ideological paradigms to languages. He has asserted that a paradigm shift is like a total change of language and you cannot compare two paradigms because the definitions of terms within a paradigm have a completely different interpretation when viewed from another. So, we can see that even from Kuhn's work back in the 1970s, language and paradigms are deemed to be similar. So religion as an ideological paradigm can be viewed as a  language. The problem with  the religious language  is that people think that the rules developed for the purposes of communication are fundamentally TRUE. God  becomes a real thing not a linguistic construct. If you think about it, it is a bit like saying English is the one true language. It is just doesn't make sense.

This perceived theistic truth value is the difference between theish and other world languages such as Spanish, French German or Chinese  This of course makes conversing in theish extremely problematic and that's why I try not to speak it. This may seem to some like snobbery. How could I look down on my native language as if it is something inferior? I grew up speaking and identifying myself through it and now I seem to be embarrassed to use it.

If theish was like the other languages I would happily use it and treasure it as part of who I am. It would be no different than how I would promote reggae, soca  music or bajan flying fish among my international friends. But I know that every time I speak theish I am reinforcing among the people that their theistic beliefs are true. So, as a result I try to stay away from theish as much as I possibly can. It's unfortunate that I have to go this route. On the face of it, theish is a very useful language. The word 'God' is a simple word that can be used as a substitute, for the unknowns in nature, uncertainties in interactions, random events and things beyond our control. Simplification is, lest we forget, one of the main objectives of language. 'A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush' is a common phrase used in English. Everbody knows exactly what that phrase means. However, one could make the case that in some scenarios if you were in control of the bush, two birds in the bush may be better than the bird in hand. It is true, but for someone to make that point in a debate bringing along two birds in a bushy bird cage would be missing the point of the metaphor. Sadly, missing the point of the metaphor is routine in religion and often done deliberately. I have written in a previous blog post that I would love a Church with a metaphorical God. But I just don't want to take the chance of being taken even semi-literally when I speak in theish.

Still, I realise it's good to keep it handy just in case of emergency. I have always been taught that people all revert to their native languages in moments of danger and ecstasy. Perhaps this explains the liberal use of God supposedly in many of the bedrooms of committed atheists and on the other side why there is a common belief that there are no atheists in foxholes. I must say that if I was going down in a plane and the passenger next to me asked me to say a prayer with them I would oblige with out the slightest bit of reservation.

Trying to be bilingual

It is interesting to note that there are some theists that are well versed in atheish. They can follow extremely well the rules of the language. They understand that there is no word called "God" in atheish  and can converse quite easily given that as a starting premise. Atheists realising that the theists are following the nuances of the new language get very encouraged and are convinced that they are making inroads into the theists belief system, but that is seldom the case. To the theist, atheish is a foreign language. Just like a class they take once a week after work at a community college. They learn certain things by heart, know how to answer certain common phrases in the language but that's where it ends. They never intend to embrace atheish as their own. It may come in handy if they find themselves lost and need to ask for directions at a university philosophy lecture but that is as far as it goes. Once they finish their little lesson with the atheist, it's back home where they are with their families and they slip back into theish again. If they have enough exposure they will eventually become very competent in it but they generally never get to fluency. For some reason as much as many believers actually enjoy learning atheish and spouting the few words they know, they are very opposed to atheist immersion programs which could really push them over the top. A one month stint in an atheist organisation or a CFI could work wonders for these people. I studied in Ecuador and was able to pick up Spanish much more quickly than I did in any classroom. It's hard for a foreign language to stick if you separate it from its cultural context.

By contrast there are many more atheists that speak good theish than the other way around. For a lot of atheists, theish is indeed their native language They have had to try hard to block it out and the traces of it still linger. It takes a while to learn to no longer put an accent on the word 'God.' What worries me sometimes are the atheists that think they know theish well but don't really have a comprehensive grasp. I have met some of them in Canada, people who never grew up speaking the language at home. Some of them are willing to learn from us bilingual atheists but others consider going through this kind of schooling unnecessary.These people have learnt most of their theish from promotional videos on cable television and through the ever growing ' quick fix' online resources such as ' Answers in Genesis.' They think that learning the language is super easy because, at least in this part of the world, there is generally only one text book
that you are required to read. But theish is a very nuanced language with thousands of dialects. You have to be able to decipher one from the other. Christianese is clearly the dominant dialect but even within that the accents are so different that when these people  try to get together and talk they don't understand much of what each other is saying.

It may seem like confusion but I still think it is important for atheists to take the time to learn theish so that they can converse smoothly when they meet a Godly person. Even if we are advocates for secularism or atheism we cannot make any inroads unless we meet theists where they are. You have to be able to know theish to survive in today's world, or at least be familiar with  few phrases.  I think it is time we do a Fodor's Guide for the atheist traveller to theistic lands.

These phrases below I think should feature in the Caribbean edition

-God willing
-If God spare life
-Praise the Lord thank God
-I am here waiting on the Lord
-God is good all the time
-Lord come for your world
-I plead the blood
-I lean on the word
-The bible says
- The devil is busy today
- Hallelujah, thank you Jesus

Know it but don't use it

It may seem like a contradiction to encourage people to learn theish even though I have explained why I don't myself use it. I think learning it is the key rather than using it. It's just like how people encourage you to learn the curse words in foreign languages even though you would never think of using them in polite company.So, when people speak to me in theish, I think about it, absorb what they are saying and then translate in my head to give them a response in atheish. For example, I met a lady yesterday who was delighted to tell me how her  faith had been strengthened after she lost one of a twin while giving birth. The doctors thought the second one would die also but so far the younger one has pulled through and is doing well.  The lady shared with me how at first she wondered  why God was testing her, but her mother was so supportive and encouraged her every step of the way. Mum even flew out from overseas at a night's notice just to be there at her side.

The woman went on to add that she now recognises how the trials have made her stronger and it is a miracle how God has delivered  the one daughter that survived even after the doctors had written her off. She finished off by telling me that based on her experience, she now considers that anyone who doesn't believe in God would have to be a fool. I smiled, I wasn't going to  reveal to her the irony of saying something like that to me. I resisted the temptation to go on the defensive or identify any flaws in logic. I just took a breath and answered her in atheish. This is what I said:

"We live in a natural world, and trials are a part of it. It is not that we need them because many have discovered the strength in their characters without going through the tests that you have. However, it's great to know when difficulties come our way there are people such as your mother who can really come through for you and ease the burden. At  the end of it all it is great to know that in spite of the tragedy you have been able to find that inner strength, emerge with such a sense of happiness and find so much to be thankful for."

She thanked me for my words, nodded and remarked on how true she thought the things I said were. I realised there and then that even though she doesn't know it, she really understands atheish. She is even capable of integrating it into her everyday spoken language. I didn't announce that what I was saying came straight from an atheist root, after all, I never said that God was not there. However, hopefully the few words of atheish  filtered in and maybe she will recognise one day that even in her own language, she doesn't need God to give her a sentence.

I know that to ask someone to let go of the only language they have ever known and  reject their mother tongue is difficult, perhaps nearly impossible. Maybe it is not even a reasonable or ethical thing to attempt. However, we know from history that languages evolve. We may well never be able to achieve that  paradigm shift that Kuhn talks about but if we continue to slip more and more of our words and phrases into the theish thesaurus, the language from the pulpit could be virtually indistinguishable from atheish in 100 years time.

Friday, May 20, 2011

How can they know it's NOT May 21st?: The Irrational Amayists

The atheists are having a field day. What started as a simple shake of the head and groan of "not again" has mushroomed into something massive. The request for the possessions of those departing have been made,  the drinks for the rapture parties are on ice and everyone is ready for the big LOL come May 22nd. Perhaps it's not unsurprising that the atheists have taken this opportunity to turn up the volume of this May mockery. What has been a little unexpected is how so many evangelical christians have been equally dismissive of the statement of " We can know" by the now famous Harold Camping, the man behind all the bruhaha.

For the majority of the fundamentalists, Harold Camping is seen as much of a maniac as he is by atheists but for entirely different reasons. Not because the idea of rapture is just downright ridiculous and there is nothing to suggest that there is any such thing as selective gravity even for 'glorifed' bodies.  Not because  many of the bodies that would be rapture candidates have been decomposed centuries ago and that the material that they were composed of are as likely to be found in a urinary tract as in any soil sample in a cemetery. No, none of that poses any problem at all. The issue that makes Camping crazy is that he clams to know the exact date these things will happen. He just can't be right because the bible says, " No one knows the day or the hour."

But why are some Christians so quick to dismiss Camping? If no one knows it not only means Camping doesn't know, it means no other Christian knows either. Camping cannot know for certain that the rapture will happen May 21st, but that does not mean he cannot be right. A rapture date of May 21st in no way contradicts the statement " No one knows the day or the hour." I recognise and respect Camping's deep faith in his rapture day that falls in May 2011.  He is a committed Mayist. There are fundamentalists on the other side who believe in the rapture too but they reject that it will happen this May. These skeptics are the Amayists, who reject the Mayist claims. Even though they admit that they have no idea when the 'son of man cometh', they dogmatically want to make the claim that May 21st is NOT judgement day.

Amayism is simply irrational. How can these Amayists possibly know that May 21st is incorrect? The only way to know for sure that the rapture won't happen then is to have been there on May 21st , 2011. And nobody, at least at the time I am writing this, has ever seen May 21st, 2011. But that's typical of Amayists,they are so arrogant they just think they know everything.  To know what's going to happen on May 21st they would have to be God himself. Ask these Amayists  what is their evidence that Amayism is true and correct, I guarantee they'll trip up every time. I know they don't like to hear it but it is the truth. It takes more faith to be an Amayist.

Some Amayists try to argue that the criticisms they face are unfair. They keep saying that Amayism is not a dogmatic position at all. They claim that they are agnostic Amayists. They are not claiming that they know for sure that May 21st is not the date, they just haven't found any evidence to suggest that it is, so they prefer to withhold belief in Mayism for the time being. But who are they kidding these people are just playing a semantic word game. We know full well that they reject Mayism outright. What evidence are these Amayists looking for? Don't fool yourself, there is no evidence that would ever convince the Amayists. They start with an Amayist worldview that cannot be altered. They wouldn't believe even if  'May 21st'  came down from heaven himself and said, "I am the day!"

Why the Mayists have to endure such daily persecution? I don't know. If they don't believe May 21st is the day of the rapture why don't they just keep quiet about it and let the Mayists go about their mission in peace? Why do Amayists feel the need to tear down the poor Mayists, writing articles in the newspaper or blogs  saying that the Mayist have the day wrong and have misinterpreted scripture? One writer in a paper today was even so militant he called the idea of the May 21st  judgement " rubbish." I hope that the newspaper takes action against him. If it was me I would let him go immediately. No apology would be sufficient for using such filthy Anti Mayist language. The thing is, that writer is not alone. When you read the tone of  many of the things that Amayists publish you can see they are angry. I don't understand why they are so angry. If you ask me they are just scared, they know very well that May 21st is judgement Day.They just know they are not rapture ready and  they don't want to face it .  They choose to deny May 21st  in order to extend their sinning a little while longer. It is so easy to see through them.

Some of the Amayists point to other wrong date predictions by Decemberists, Marchists and many other datists throughout history. They reason that if all the other datists are false prophets, Mayists must be false prophets as well. Now that is simply ridiculous. Just because they are some fake predictions doesn't mean that all predictions are fake. That's like saying that just because they are many copies of the 'Mona Lisa' there is no real 'Mona Lisa.' The other forms of datism were obviously man made. The ancient datists either made up their dates to make themselves feel good or were honestly mistaken. Mayism is different because it predicts a rapture date of May 21st. No other datist predicted that date.Think about it,  the chance that May 21st would be chosen as THE date is 1/ 366, far too unlikely to be picked purely by chance.

Amayism is a silly choice anyway. If you prepare for the rapture on May 21st and nothing happens, you have lost nothing. However, if you choose Amayism, judgement comes on that day and you are not ready you face the torment of the great tribulation. How can it make sense to take that chance?

Believe it or not, many Amayists still scoff at these strong arguments. I ask them if Mayism is so ridiculous why is it that so many people out there believe it and why  it is such a popular billboard? How could Mayism have spread so fast to so many parts of the world if it isn't true. There has been more May 21st merchandise made than there has been for any other previous end of the word prediction. CNN, BBC, NBC have all covered it. Google shows hundreds of new articles on the internet everyday. No other date prophecy has gotten this coverage. How do you explain that?  Well, predictably Amayists have pointed to the funds spent in advertising the Camping campaign, the influence the Camping group has in the media, the impact of technology in the 21st century. Here we see once again the naturalistic bias of the  Amayist. Quite clearly it's the hand of God that made the word of May 21st spread across the globe. It' a miracle. No way a human being could have set things up  like this and it certainly couldn't have happened by chance.

In spite of all this compelling evidence that the world will end on May 21st, I realise that it is possible that someone will read this blog post on or after May 22nd, 2011 and no rapture or judgement will have occurred. On the face of it an Amayist may consider that no rapture occurring is a direct refutation to Mayism. However, to believe that would just be naive.  You have to look at the writings of the followers of Mayism in context. You see,  Amayists always look for the easy targets, they attack Mayist literalists.  The more scholarly Mayists never claimed that the rapture was necessarily bodies flying up to heaven on May 21st. They emphasised that the rapture must be interpreted in a spiritual context. What matters is not whether you are raptured in body but whether you are raptured in your heart.

Ah, I can see you Amayists there scratching your heads. You will never understand the beauty, symbolism and artistry of sophisticated Mayism. It's no wonder you guys are always left behind.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The shock of her life! : One family member's response to hearing I no longer believe

I have read the blogs, watched the you tube videos heard  numerous calls to Atheist Experience, Thinking  Atheist and the like. But, Sunday was the first time I personally got a true ' I am shocked that you don't believe in God' response. Here is how the conversation, which was with an extended family member here in Barbados, went down.

FM: How are things at your church ? Your parents still go there? Who is the pastor there?

Me: Father "X" is still there. My mum she still sings in the choir. Dad goes occasionally and sometimes visits other churches. How is it ? I suppose its ok, I myself am not really involved in church now.

FM: You mean that you are not involved in the church down here.

Me: No, I actually mean I am not involved in the church full-stop.

FM: You don't go to church?!!

Me: No

FM: Why not ???

Me: I just don't believe anymore.

FM: Don't believe what?

Me: in God

FM: Gasp!! [Places hand over mouth , stays in that position frozen for about a  minute]

Me: [Take up newspaper from table in front of me, start leafing through it and pretending to read , trying to give impression that this is a normal conversation]

FM: [ Finally breaks silence] Wait, who is the Prime Minister of Canada now?

Me: [ Know she feels really super awkward, subject change more dramatic  than a gear change in a Caribbean maxi taxi, but I answered as if it was most natural question] It's Stephen Harper.

FM: [Another moment of silence, then suddenly we are back on to topic] So what do you believe in?

Me: The same things you believe in, I just don't believe there is a God behind it all.

FM: Like what?

Me: Love, friendships, relationships, family, welfare of humans, justice, health, clean water, access to energy,  the environment, rights of children, women and minorities, music, the arts, sports. [ I tried to list off in one fell swoop everything that mattered to me in life]

FM:  You don't believe in God?  What shocked you into that?

Me: Nothing, I had doubts about my faith for a long time. I just gradually came to a point where I could no longer support the claims religion was making. I just don't see any evidence to support the existence of a God. So, I don't believe there is one.

FM: [Shaking head] I never thought that in all my life I would meet somebody that would say something like that. The thought of there being no God has never even entered my head.

Me: Well that's honestly how I see it.

FM: You say you don't believe in God. So are you a Muslim now then?

Me: [ With very puzzled look] No! I have  rejected religion. Why would I then go and pick another one?

FM: But how can you say that there is no God?

Me: Well, our belief system is something that is taught to us from the time we are very small. We don't ever question it. We assume it is true and just go through life looking at everything based on that presumption. But religious beliefs are just arbitrary. Each culture teaches a different faith tradition but it's not based on evidence or anything that they have investigated and found to be true. Therefore, I see no reason to believe  in any of them or any of their Gods.I just think it is better to face life without presuppositions, try to look at what is out there and see where the evidence seems to be pointing. I think you are more likely to find truth that way.

FM: David, I am not hearing you!

Me: What do you mean ? Is it that you don't agree or you don't understand me?

FM: No. I have just tuned you out. I am not hearing a word you are saying now. I don't want to discuss  religion with you anymore.

Me: Ok, I don't want to discuss this with you if it makes you feel uncomfortable.

[ Conversation continues discussing, Barbados politics, recent rains in the island, the royal wedding, the death of Bin Laden, and then]

FM: But back to you. You say you don't believe in God.

Me: So we are back on to talking about religion now?

FM: Do you know right from wrong?

Me: [Puzzled look returns] What do you mean?

FM: Can you say that anything is right or wrong?

Me: Yes, I consider some things right and other things wrong, but there are also many grey areas. I determine if something is wrong if I generally think that the action will be of harm to humanity.

FM: [ Shakes head some more]

Me: So, you have never ever had any doubt about the existence of a God? [ I asked this because I know that she at least didn't consider that the bible was literally the word of God. This had come out in a conversation we had years ago.I knew she was not fundamentalist]

FM: There are some things I don't understand, but I am 100% SURE that there is a God!

Me: Do you think that God is the one described in the bible?

FM: I told you already, I am finished talking about this!

Me: Ok, sorry

[ back to previous conversation centering on what is on TV, a gospel group is singing on the screen. It's the one I once used to play in. They are performing the song, " I am Glad that I still have Jesus." Unbelievably the family member brings up the topic of my lack of faith once again. ]

FM: So would you ever say ' Lord have mercy' ?

Me: [ Puzzled look has now become a permanent fixture on face] Maybe, but I didn't used to say that much even when I did believe. In any case I consider that to be just an exclamation. It is not really a statement of belief.

FM: So do you say prayers?

Me: No

FM: What ??? Oh my gosh!!! [ Hand goes over mouth once more]

Me: I actually haven't prayed for a long time but I don't mind if people pray for me.

FM: [ shakes head] And you think you know a person.

Me: But even if you believe in God, why would you have to pray to him if he already knows everything?

FM: [ Puts finger over lips] I don't want to hear anymore. I told you I didn't want to discuss religion with you. In fact I don't want to discuss religion with you ever again!

Me: It's ok, I respect that I just thought since you had brought it back up that............[ FM interrupts]

FM: No, I don't want to hear anymore from you! I will put you into the same category as my other family member who is a Jehovah's Witness. I never talk religion with hm either.

Me: Ok. I didn't mean to shock you or cause you any pain tonight. I am sorry this has caused you such distress. I just thought since we were family it was important to share with you how my perspective has changed. Anyway, I am still glad that in spite of our differences we are able to sit here and have a conversation.

FM: It's ok, you are still a human being.

Me: [Speechless]