Tuesday, October 4, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christianity = Humanist+

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

You  just haven't picked the right strawberry yet

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

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

"Just take it, it's free!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humanism- The place where all faiths intersect

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

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


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  2. Good piece. Humanism is what you get when you ask religious people to come up with things they agree on. This is true. However, this is not, I believe, because religion is humanistic, it is not. It is because there are people who are humanistic in their worldview making up the worshipers in those religion. Religion is intrinsically anti-human togetherness. The dogmas, the directive given by their god is to harm other people who believe unlike theirs. Scarce resources are a major factor in creating wars and religion is one institution that is great at creating scarce resources. Ex. Israel/Palestine issue over land. The truth is, religious people believe more in humanity than they think, and the fact that more and more are not following the directive laid out in their holly book and their god anymore is proof, I think, to why religion appears to be humanistic. Religion, as dictates by its God or gods is not naturally humanistic. People can and know that they can do better without literally following a supernatural being's dictates.

  3. Thanks Seon. I agree with you. Religion in of itself has a primary goal of propogating and surviving into the next generation. Humanism is part of the social conscience that I think is present naturally in all of us to some degree. Religions have taught us that such feelings of altruism and love come from God. So the link is made and this helps religions grow ever stronger as followers believe they need faith in order to be good.

    Followers of religion I think often have far more humanistic ideals than those generally contained in their holy books. That's why they so regularly run into trouble, having to justify atrocities and reinterpret verses that clearly don't fit into their view of what is right.

    We have to try to show them the benefit of leaving those holy books altogether rather than holding on to them as 'truth' and continually trying to force square pegs into round holes.