Thursday, August 25, 2011

Keeping an apartment empty: The perils of embracing a belief too early

When I first heard it I thought it was an unorthodox way of looking at faith. However, over the last few months as I have talked to various believers it has become almost the universal response. " Me, I am not about religion, I don't subscribe to all these creeds and rules and pastors pontificating as if they know it all, I am just about following my God who transcends all of these man made religions."

It is the kind of response that  sometimes  makes  Christians who stumble across my blog consider that we are in agreement.  When they see title ' No Religion Know Reason' they nod and say, "Yes I don't believe in religion either, we would probably be better off without it we should just concentrate on God." I think this is actually quite a remarkable shift in the way people look at things, particularly in the Caribbean. When I was growing up it would have been considered nothing short of blasphemy to decide you were going to just go with your own personal faith, turning your back on the tenets of your church's teachings. So perhaps that makes these persons consider themselves progressive believers within there own environments of conservatives, but to me they still have a way to go.

Often when you ask these believers to describe what THEIR God is like, you get some very vague descriptions.  However, in many cases their God is not so far from the  religion they claim they are free of as you may think. Some I have spoken with still consider themselves to be strong believers in Jesus and many still view the bible as the text that they live their life by. Some will say they are unsure about the Jesus thing, but still say they believe in ONE God who they would often still call HE. Now these people, in spite of their protestations to the contrary, I still consider religious. And when I say   'No religion' I am including them too.

Greta Christina recently talked on this subject about the problem with such believers hoping that atheists will give special acceptance because they are saying, that they don't fall into the neat box of a  traditional belief system. You can read her account here. I feel her a lot when she says that. When they construct or customise their personal belief system they use the building blocks of religions and faith traditions they have been exposed to. Are they saying that Jesus was their own private revelation? What about the one God? It is interesting that everybody I have met who clams to have found God on their own acknowledges one and only one. I have found no one who has told me their personal search in faith has led them to GODS. As vague as the deity they claimed to have found there is always ONE of HIM, just as is the case in the Judeo- Christian - Islamo faith that they claim to have no link to. But why? If you admit you really don't know much about the deity how can you be sure about attributes of gender and number?

The people who  have these very loose God definitions regularly admit that they are not sure at all about many of the characteristics of their God and will concede that there is indeed much mystery about him we have yet to unravel. From this perspective they will consider that they are not much different from the atheist, in that they are not making presuppositions. Their minds are open, unlike many of their colleagues who have dogmatically declared in detail exactly who God is, what he wants and how he will judge our actions. When atheists asks these moderates why they are insistent that there is a God at all, they constantly point out the gaps in science. They rightfully claim that science has not adequately answered questions of origins either of the universe or biological life. They feel that with these gaps they are at least justified in tentatively assuming a God exists  until such time as science finds better answers. They  can't conceptualise a universe without some sort of starter upper and they just throw in God as that entity even if in practice God at this point becomes no more meaningful than unknown variable'X'

Placeholder God

This kind of God belief I see as a ' placeholder' God. The believer is simply putting God in for the time being in the absence of better evidence . This type of approach is not altogether unreasonable. I have done it in my working career  from time to time. There are a lot of software programs particularly that use excel that don't allow you to leave 'cells' empty. So there were times when I had to put in 'dummy' variables to show trends in energy prices or demand when I couldn't get all of the exact data I needed. Electronic surveys sometimes don't let you continue until you have given an answer to certain key questions.  At school, it was considered a 'sin' to not give an answer to a multiple choice question  Even if you had no idea of the answer, you always had a chance of guessing right.
I think putting an idea about God into a scientific knowledge gap in the mind is more like filling the empty apartment than  making that eeny, meeny ,miney, mo determination in a multiple choice exam. For one thing at least the suggested answers in multiple choice have some feasibility about them.Often all are somewhere close to the right answer. The God response on the other hand could be light years away from the truth.

There can be serious consequences for inserting a random belief in your brain where the appropriate response is " I don't know." Just as there are dangerous implications for accepting 'just anybody' into an apartment you have for rent without any background checking. Tenants in a new home, settle themselves in once they are giving the go ahead from the landlord that they can stay, even if they are told they may be one day asked to make way if an estranged family member returns. They pick out their furniture, choose the colour of their drapes and put down their carpets. Soon after their family photos are on the wall  along with the paintings from Egypt that they got on their vacation of a lifetime 10 years ago. Before long they are talking with their neighbours and their kids are running around with the eight year old boy next door. They sing lustily and drink heavily at the annual Christmas party in the avenue. They are a part of the community and feel just as entitled to its benefits as the guy who lived in the area since 1970.

New Beliefs moving in

Beliefs, however loosely held, do the same thing once you give them a place in the mind. They become a part of you and they mix with the other ideas next door and feel just as much a part of you as those others in the area that had to go through a much more rigid vetting process to be allowed in. Yes, faith ideas and scientifically justified ideas run around and socialise in the mind just as the tenants of all different ilk do in the neighbourhood. Not surprisingly, after a while it's very hard to tell different types of ideas apart when they have all been living together for so long. Perhaps many would say it doesn't matter ultimately, but the problem comes when one day that better answer comes along, the one you want to take the place of your 'placeholder' God. You find the tenant you were looking for years ago, the one that will keep the place exactly as you would want it and pay you exactly what you want  for it. But, it's not so easy. What do you do with the incumbent in the place. Yes, you did make it clear that he might be out sometime if circumstances led to it, but how can you just throw a family that was living there for years on to the street? Common decency and humanity just wouldn't let you do that.

Even if you resolved that you would ask the family there to leave, you still at least have to give them time to move out, get their stuff together and find alternative accommodation. Apart from your own misgivings, there will be friendships made in the neighbourhood that will be hard to let go.To me, ideas like 'God placeholders' are no different when we put them into our minds. As much as people talk they will not be able to just let go of them when they find the right answers tomorrow. Ideas have an emotional attachment to the minds they inhabit and there is no way they are just going to get up and get out of there right away. There is always baggage that comes when these thoughts move in and in some cases there may have been a family of ideas that have emerged from the original beliefs  during the period of stay. Getting these ideas out of the mind are difficult. Sometimes  it is so hard you have to reject this ideal tenant, the perfect idea, because it's too impractical to get the old one out. Other times the new one can come in but it has to wait for the moving out process to be complete and this just leads to frustration. By the time the new 'right' idea moves in so much time has been lost its almost not worth it. At the end of it all it would have been so much easier if you had just waited a bit longer and kept the apartment empty until the right tenant came along.

Darwin's Accommodation Woes

 Maybe you are still not convinced that the analogy holds. A landlord might reject an 'ideal' tenant but surely no one is going to hold on to a bad idea when presented with one  better? Well that didn't seem to happen when Mr.Darwin came knocking in the 1800s. Armed with his fossils and finches Darwin tried to checked in to many places but so often it was simply a case of no room in the Eden Garden Inn.  Fossils for many just did not seem to fit with their beautiful paradise apartments, so in many places in spite of his well developed theories and answers to so many questions Darwin just could not find a place to lay his head. Even today he is left out in the cold in many places, and there are many that are so snobbish they don't even want to give him the privilege of coming to one of their tea parties.

Thankfully Darwin has found more places to live as the years have gone on , but it has not always been easy for the bearded biologist. There are many landlords who have recognise the value of Darwin and seek to accommodate him in their dwelling, but for reasons we have talked about earlier, they have not been willing to put out the couple that has been in there since the Genesis. So in neighbourhoods all over the world Darwin has been asked to share the flat with Mr. Adam and Mrs. Eve. It has been a relationship, that has not surprisingly been filled with tension. It is bad enough sharing an apartment with a couple that insist on running around half naked but Darwin as the new guy has had to play by some strange rules. There are fruits on display that he is told he is forbidden to eat and he has been told he can only study his fossils if he is prepared to complete all his specimen dating within six days. Sleeping has been no picnic either,  there have been many times he has woken up to find a cold slithery body moving up his torso. Yes, he has had to deal with an in house reptile too. However, perhaps nothing has been more scary in this living arrangement  than the old man that has his bedroom upstairs. He rarely emerges from his  room but he  just shouts  his commands and expects complete  and immediate obedience. " My way or the highway!" is the message Darwin has gotten in this place everyday.

Well, us residents of Atheists Avenue have done or best to help Darwin with his difficulties in finding suitable accommodation. By not yielding to the temptation over the years to bring in the young fig leafed couple, Darwin has been able to settle easily into our abodes and do all of his fossil dating and verifying  of nested hierarchies without bother. He can move all over the apartment without limit and no one will complain about bones left all over the floor. He's been able to expand his work and now DNA models are laid out on tables which in other apartments were laden with forbidden fruit.We have really created a Darwin heaven and we believe it  has made the world better.

Likewise we atheists have a special apartment open for the special creator should that time ever come.
When I was a Christian I was often told that it was important to wait on the Lord. Wait on him to provide the right job, the right spouse, the right country to live in. You just couldn't rush him and try to make a decision before he was ready for you. Well, we atheists have been waiting on the Lord too. Indeed we have been patiently looking out the window for centuries, but no one supernatural has yet  come knocking at our door.  Still, the moment that he, she, it or they show up we will be sure to usher whoever or whatever straight into that empty apartment that we have always kept in mind for them.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Atheists of the Caribbean: So much we can learn from each other

Facebook ' Caribbean Atheists'
If I had the funding I would make the movie. Yes, ' The Atheists of the Caribbean.' I can tell you they are an awesome group. I was fortunate over the last two years to meet a few of them as I travelled doing research on renewable energy sources in the region.

Standing on their own in most cases, these atheists are like islands of the Caribbean in themselves. Tiny skeptical land masses surrounding by a raging sea of fundamentalism that constantly batters their shorelines. Yet, in spite of their isolation they are making a difference and you can see no small measure of resilience wherever they are. It was an inspiration to meet everyone of these individuals. I met with atheists living in or with  roots in Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica and Belize. All of these atheists are active online and speak on issues related to atheism generally through facebook, Atheist nexus and/or blogs. Their thoughts are well worth reading. To Lori, Derrick, Seon, Carolyn, Elayne, Omar and Mr. A, I thank you for taking the time to meet and chat.

It was always a step into the unknown when I met with these persons at various restaurants, bars or coffee shops. They say you can never judge a book by its cover and you certainly can't judge an atheist by their online persona either. It is a funny thing when you get together with a total stranger where the only thing you know about them and they know about you is that you both disbelieve in the same Gods. Sometimes you sit down thinking that the other person is just going to  start up on some anti religious rant, taking up a thread of an argument that you have read on one of their blogs or atheist  posts.

Of course it never happens like that. You  realise quite early that the one who sits before you is a real person, one that has a family they love, groceries they have to pick up, a car they need to take to the mechanic, or an annoying coworker that grates on their last nerve. Often  in these chats it took a while even for the subject of religion to come up. I suppose that religion has so much indoctrinated us that even atheists sometimes have stereotypes of atheists. What I found though as we explored topics and issues generally, is that there was always a deep connection. We often would meet a second time to follow up on discussions. I always left feeling as though I had known the people I was talking to for years. It is true that atheists only necessarily agree on the one issue, but there are inevitably many other similarities that come to the surface. Generally it's an interest to learn more about the world around you.

It was also a thrill for me because I so rarely get the chance to connect with someone with whom I share a bond with both culturally and ideologically. Hearing,  "Man, belief in God don't make no sense, you need to show me de evidence!" stated emphatically  in various West Indian accents was like music to my ears. With all due respect to my my atheist and secular friends in Canada there is something about the mix of intellectualism and joie de vivre that makes meetings of atheist Caribbean minds unique.

Transitioning through the faiths

However, as much as there are obvious similarities between atheists,  it is the differences that really provide the interest. What fascinated me was the different starting points that brought people to where there were. One thing that I discovered was that quite a few atheists had gone through transitions in their religious beliefs. This is quite different from my story. For me, once I came to the conclusion that my Christian God did not exist I became an atheist and had no urge to explore the validity of other faiths or philosophies, even though I still found interest in reading about them. Not so with others. I heard stories of Nuwaubianism, Yahwism and Buddhism that people went through before they embraced atheism. In some cases it was actually people in another religion or sect that first challenged the traditional Christian doctrine the former believer  was exposed to and that's how they made their first move. 

At times the challenge had come through criticisms of the euro centric nature of Christianity and the whole idea of buying in to the 'white man's' religion. One person explained to me how compelling this argument was to them until  one day they turned  the skepticism on their new religion and realised that there was no more evidence for the black man's religion as their was for that of the colonisers. This to me is instructive, it supports this idea, common  in the Caribbean that everybody MUST believe in something.  When holes are shown in your doctrine it just means that you haven't found the right one yet. The true religion is out there you just have to keep searching. In the Caribbean faith game, 'not playing' is never an option.

An interesting contrast to the going for the  more 'black' religion was given by one person who spoke of how during their youth they started to explore different types of music, art and fashion outside that associated with their black West Indian upbringing. This experimenting with new outside cultures caused them to challenge their religious culture too which led to exploring different philosophies, eventually ending at  atheism. It is amazing how often the road to atheism just starts from a simple decision to step outside one's cultural boundaries.

The advantages that these atheists have had in going through the transitions is that they can now  understand religion from many perspectives. It's also perhaps significant that many of the Caribbean atheists have travelled a bit or even left their homeland entirely. Being able to look at yourself from outside appears to have a huge influence on religious belief.

This is one area where I think the Caribbean atheist may have an advantage over some of their North American counterparts. Most atheists I have met in Canada have just been nominal Christians if that. It's hard for such atheists to wear the shoes of the believer. We in the West Indies seem to have a closet full of old footwear at our disposal.

Two roads to atheism

I suppose because the bible is so often presented in  the Caribbean as the inerrant Word of God, it is the discovery of the atrocities, absurdities and contradictions in this book that put the first chink in the armour of many. One person told me that they were reading a bible story to a child one day and after finishing said, " This is rubbish! I can't believe this anymore!"  For this person  religion became something they wanted to resist and withdraw from and the fact that a parent was a pastor just made them want to turn away even more.  Another person told me that it was science that did it. The mere fact of going to school and learning Biology just lit up something inside. For this person religion never really 'took' and it was easy to see the creation, flood stories and the like as the myths that they were. It does seem to me that this illustrates two distinct roads to atheism. One through acceptance of the scientific method another through identifying the dents in the dogma.

The difficulties in  ' coming out.'

This was perhaps the topic that I spent most time addressing with the atheists in the islands. This is a thousand times more of an issue than those atheists that I know in Canada. There are some in Canada that are apprehensive about declaring themselves, but by and large in this country it is not a big deal. Religion in Canada is something you basically just don't talk about much anyway. Fundamentalists tend to keep their doctrine  and rhetoric behind their church doors. A few people will proudly speak in public of their religion as an important part of their cultural identity, but that's usually as far as it goes. If you enquire about how often they go to their place of worship or what rituals they do, they often look at you in absolute horror and make sure to clarify that they are 'non practising.' So, I have met out of practice, Jews, Catholics, Methodists, Anglicans, Baptists, Hindus,  Buddhists and Muslims. The way a lot of these non practicers talk they seem  embarrassed about faith even though they feel they have to embrace it for the sake of their families and communities.  Declaring atheism in such an environment may make you appear a bit of a traitor to your people but you certainly won't get arguments regarding the rationality of your choice.

The Caribbean is the opposite of course. Your religion is something you wear proudly like the "S" on Superman's chest. I was in Dominica during Holy Week and I swore there was a competition to see who could wear the biggest cross without spraining their neck. In such environments atheism is simply a ridiculous notion. A caller to the 'Thinking Atheist' last weekend said that in his part of the world, if you don't believe in a talking snake you are the one with a mental problem. The Caribbean is very much the same. In fact one person told me people actually thought their atheism was a mental illness and people wondered how they were able to avoid being locked up in a mental institution and could have the cognitive ability to be able to teach mathematics.

Atheists who have put themselves out there in the Caribbean even in small circles have faced quite a bit of opposition. One atheist married to a Christian told me that their spouse was being encouraged to file for a divorce purely on the grounds that their partner was an atheist. It isn't easy being an atheist in general and in the Caribbean the difficulty shoots off the charts. Every one of the atheists that I have talked to in the Caribbean has revealed to me that he or she is the only one in their family(immediate and extended). My situation is the same. I hear people in North America talking about being second generation and third generation atheists. This is a concept completely foreign to us in the Caribbean. And  so in our islands many who are quite active in the atheist forums and blogs have not come out to close family members. There are two that have told me that they simply will not ever tell their mothers, because the heartbreak would be simply too much for either her or them to bear.

There are concerns over job security and future career prospects. I was hearing a story where someone was asked point blank whether they believed in God in the middle of a job interview. I would say there is considerable anxiety about rocking the boat of religion right through the region although there do appear to be some island differences. I was told in Barbados that a bus campaign like the  'There's Probably no God' ones undertaken in the UK, USA and Canada could be effective. In Jamaica I was told, "Absolutely not!" The buses would be vandalised before they even left the station.

There was also one person who had been living in the Caribbean for a relatively short time and while perturbed by the religious indoctrination of the masses and very supportive of regional secular efforts did not want to be seen as the voice from outside trying to tell the locals how they should live.  This atheist prefers to stick to their online blog where I can tell you that they don't pull any punches.

I understand all these points and respect the fear of victimisation that so many people referred to. I think apart from fear there is not the same desire to knock down religious beliefs as I sense from atheists in places like the US. For my part when I look back at religion it is with a tinge of nostalgia rather than deep animosity. In the Caribbean, by and large religion has not caused the suffering as much as in has in some other places. The mega churches and tele evangelists that swindle their way up north are generally less evident in the Caribbean. Memories of  church from my youth are filled with images of picnic excursions, running about at Sunday School, singing lively action songs and church army ladies beating tambourines There are also memories of intense boredom sitting through services, but being boring is not a crime. Most of us have many dear persons in our lives still very devout and  indeed church is where for many of us our social lives revolved in years gone by.  It is where we would look to find girlfriends and boyfriends. I can think of many couples that met in some form or fashion through the church.

In the Caribbean the main interest by atheists I spoke to is to get the questioning started. Trying to create skeptics rather than atheists. And this brings me to the other main point of the discussions. Should we call ourselves atheists?

Atheists or not?

This is a ticklish one and  views certainly varied. I think we all agreed that whatever the strategy we would have to get our views out into the society gradually. One freethinker that I met who had over 40 years as a humanist suggested that it was better to try to stay clear of the term 'atheist' altogether because of the negative connotation and the history associated. " Atheism doesn't really offer anything, people need something to replace their religion with if you are telling them to give it up." The view expressed was to therefore embrace humanism and promote that.

Other people felt that critical thinking was what really mattered and there was no reason to look at challenging religion at all, just let the Christians be, they may be mistaken but we don't need to be constantly trying to take their crutch away. The other view put on the table was that we needed to put atheism out here because it was important to remove the stigma. The idea of atheism has never even entered into the head of most Caribbean people. Just letting people know that not believing in God is not tantamount to selling your soul to the devil would be a huge step.

I agree to an extent with all these arguments, but I must say from a personal standpoint I think identifying as an atheist is very important.  I believe the time has come  to challenge belief and anything less than an outright " I don't believe you" is going to seem like we are telling religious people that we are fine with you just continuing living by faith. Having said that, I am strongly in favour of letting people be where they want to be as atheists, skeptics, freethinkers, humanists, agnostics or whatever. To me, anyone who is in support of making people think about their beliefs more is my ally.

So, what have I come away with from all of these discussions and interactions? Well, I am thinking that in the Caribbean there is a need for two groups.

1. Critical thinking advocacy group-

 This organisation would be designed to promote general skepticism and critical thinking towards claims both inside and outside of religion. It should also have the general promotion of science as a pillar in its mandate. This group could include atheists and agnostics as well as moderate religious people (yes, believers). I think having a group that contained people of faith and no-faith would take away the fear that our mission is all about taking God out. Yet, it will make it clear that  there are believers out there that respect atheism as a viable position which can emerge from skepticism. Who knows? There may even be some believers that will be attracted to a group like this and lose their faith as they apply more skepticism in their lives. Whatever the case, beliefs of everyone involved in such a group are likely to become less rigidly held as the process goes along.

2. Atheist support group

This group would be purely for atheists and designed to support people who find themselves isolated and perhaps even depressed after letting go of faith. A society that has more critical thinking ideas in its mainstream is invariably going to lead some people to lose their belief in God. It's important to reassure people that this is OK and there are people to support them on this side if they happen to land on  non belief after they have investigated their faith. This would not be a group in any way seeking to make anyone an atheist. The message would simply be , "If you are an atheist, we are here for you!" I think this would help people a lot. I believe the reason people stop short of atheism is because they don't see any way of landing softly on the other side so they think it's  better to go back to that good 'old time' religion safety net that they know. We have to be standing outside holding our trampoline aloft when they feel they want to jump out of the building that is on fire for Jesus.

These  are just preliminary recommendations, I am still processing it all. I have to add that I have had some great interactions with other Caribbean atheists online who have given their views on the topic as well. I thank you guys too, and look forward to meeting you all one day. I have to make special mention of  Andre a well known musician in Barbados who has recently put his atheism right out there. It's such a pleasure to have someone who I admired through music now working on the same team with me promoting atheism and skepticism.

Well, there it is my exploration of the ' Atheists of the Caribbean.' I enjoyed it and hope that one day I can do a sequel. I am optimistic that this opportunity will come when we organise our meet up . I am very committed to this idea, there is so much we could learn from each other. The Caribbean has  generally speaking not been successful in coming together as one, maybe freethinkers could lead the way. Thinking of having all these people I met in the same room is a very exciting prospect. I think it is something that would change us all and encourage us to keep pushing forward. I invite any Caribbean atheists I haven't met out there yet to make contact with me. I encourage you to join the facebook group Caribbean Atheists and the Atheist Nexus Caribbean group as well. I also invite those of you that are not from the Caribbean but have an interest in our region to join us. We definitely need your support. There are many atheists who have been very encouraging when I have spoken to them about promoting secularism in the Caribbean and I am very grateful for that.

I  just have to mention one more thing about my Caribbean sojourn that will always stand out in my memory. I sat with an atheist who said to me they have never spoken with another atheist face to face before in their life. Hearing that made me sit up in shock, since this person was very active on line, and well informed on secular issues. I realised at that moment how different my atheist experience is, having quite a few like minded people in my community in Canada. I gave the person the "A" pin which I myself had worn on my jacket as I left Canada for the Caribbean just weeks before. I  spoke of that experience in an earlier blogpost. It had sentimental value to me, but I felt this atheist should have it. When I gave it, the  atheist looked at it held it securely and gazed down at it in silence for nearly a minute with a smile as broad as the Caribbean Sea. The next day a photo of that actual pin was their profile picture on facebook. That just made everything seem so worth it.