Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Atheists have emotions too!

Last week I came across the video above by ReligiousFiction. It includes a live phone conversation between herself and a theist. The theist is learning for the first time that ReligiousFiction no longer believes in God. I thought the video was very moving and powerful. While I am not familiar with the Emmaus program that is being discussed here, the video immediately resonated with me. I felt so much as though I had this conversation before and I am sure that it is one that I will have many more times in the future. What caught my attention most in this video, were the changes in emotions on both ends of  the line as the call progressed. I must say all in all, ReligiousFiction does a great job here although her commentary on the conversation doesn't seem to suggest that she thinks so. If every future conversation I had with a believer followed this script, I would be extremely happy.

"I don't have any supernatural beliefs"

One thing I learnt from listening to this exchange, was a new way to break the news to a friend in faith that I no longer believe in God. ReligiousFiction says that she, " No longer has any supernatural beliefs." I like this statement. It serves two important purposes. Firstly, it diverts attention from disbelief in THEIR God. It makes the point that you have made a judgement on an entire category of beings and it just happened that Yahweh and Jesus got swept away in the tide. It also emphasises that belief in God is a belief in the supernatural. To many people this may appear obvious, but I can assure you that this is not how it is seen by a lot of believers. I have come across quite a few Christians in Barbados who have told me that they don't believe in the supernatural. They go on to give a laundry list of phenomena that they consider fake. Ghosts, spirits, vampires, werewolves, mediums, haunted houses, psychics, telepaths and other spooks. It never occurs to them that their God is a supernatural entity too.They also don't realise that spirits and ghosts  haunt their own religion. Somehow the mere action of putting the word 'Holy' in front, makes these entities part of the natural world order.

When they talk about their dismissal of things supernatural, they also seem to forget this popular song we sing in many Caribbean churches. Part of it goes like this:

" Super, super, super, super, super ,super, super, super, supernatural power, power."

I taught this song to a Christian friend in Canada. He laughed uncontrollably at this line, probably conjuring up images in his head of a Jesus with a cape and a big 'S' on his chest leaping over buildings. It was only then I realised that it was indeed a pretty ridiculous idea. Little did that friend know that he was laughing at his own belief system. In due course, I learned there was much more to laugh at within the faith, that of course is another story. The point is that going the 'rejection of the supernatural' route forces theists to see how God fits with the other super heroes, without resorting to the belittling strategy of telling them their saviour is no different from a leprechaun.

Apart from recognising the super piece of advice, I considered the video important in that it showed an atheist being emotionally torn about  whether or not to take part in a religious activity. Atheist videos on youtube  tend to be filled with rants on how destructive faith is and how religious people just need to wake up and use their  brain. Other videos that take a softer approach, go through the logic step by step to demonstrate where the fallacies are and show how faith just doesn't add up in the end. In  these cases, atheists can come across as persons that only care about logic, reason and evidence while viewing emotion as anathema. Any suggestion that there is emotional value in religion  is dismissed as being a poor reason for belief.  While I appreciate the strength of such arguments made by atheists, this approach  often leads to some unfortunate consequences. We get put into a category of having no heart; at least not one beyond the organ that pumps blood. This is because we often make every effort to maintain the idea that we are the thinkers while they are the feelers and dreamers.

Keeping the two searches separate

The truth is that atheists are driven by emotions just as much as theists. The difference is that we tend to apply the logic and evidence first to try to determine what is real. Afterwards, we search for meaning in life and causes that we think are worth fighting for or promoting within the context of that reality.So, for us there are two clear cut steps. For religious people the search for reality and the search for meaning in reality tend to be taken together and this is where everything becomes muddled. So, scientific theories are accepted partly on the basis of evidence but also on the basis of whether they give satisfactory answers to the ultimate questions of meaning. For them, finding reality is a compromise between two very different searches. Consequently, emotionally unsatisfactory theories such as the Big Bang and the Theory of Evolution often take a hit.

It has been suggested that logic is like the steering wheel of a car and emotion the gas pedal. Step on the gas without the steering and you are likely to have a cataclysmic crash very early. Steer without pushing the gas and you are not likely to move very far. In life you need to have both in order to get to where you want. Indeed, we in the atheist movement that are activists are fueled by emotion, wanting to correct issues that we see as social injustices that either anger or sadden us deeply.
The phone conversation in this video shows  that emotions can also be like a brake pedal. There are times when the emotions cause us to feel awkward and uncertain about saying how we feel. The position of the atheist in the conversation in the video is one such situation. In spite of our recognition that the logic of our former belief system does not hold water, many of us still feel an emotional attachment having been involved in it for many years. In my case, the time I spent in church was a training ground for me in a number of ways. It was the first place I got the opportunity to speak in public before a large audience as I performed recitations from the time I was six years old and became a lay reader in later years. One of my proudest moments was memorising a lesson for one Sunday and stunning the entire congregation by delivering the entire passage without once looking down at the book opened in front of me.

Similarly memorable moments are there regarding my music. My skills as a performer honed in that environment, playing at many a harvest and church supper. I learnt aspects relating to teaching from leading Sunday School,Vacation Bible School and even adult bible study. I  learnt how to be a manager and negotiator as I led a church instrumental ensemble and once coached the church athletics team. All of these activities have shaped how I approach my professional and personal life. I  therefore feel a heaviness in my heart at times when I have to turn my back on church and say 'No more!'

Perhaps the most similar experience I had to ReligiousFiction was an email exchange I had with a  friend I used to play music with. This friend and I played for more than 15 years in Barbados as a duo. We played at churches all over the island and frequently entertained as we ministered to congregations with our lively Caribbean rhythms. People would come up afterwards and speak of how they could 'feel the spirit' while we were playing. That 'spirit' sometimes caused them to dance in pews and wave arms in the air. This year when I was in Barbados, I played in partnership with my friend again, back at one of the same churches. Things were different for me now, but I couldn't bring myself to speak to him of my change.  I just thought it might kill the vibe and I didn't want to risk that. I remember feeling the guilt minutes before I started playing. An excited lady from the congregation came up to me, hugged me and said, " So great to have you back in the land, we going to to have a great party in the house of the Lord tonight, we going to enjoy weself in Jesus name right David?" I just could not bring myself to say a word in reply and it left me with a hollow feeling.

I left Barbados days after that performance and although I successfully got through it, I  had an uneasy feeling about it all. I did not feel guilty about having played. I was glad to share my talents with old friends. My problem was that I did that without them knowing about the change in my life. I took the decision to send an email to the friend I had played with and give him the heads up. The gist of the correspondence was similar to how ReligiousFiction put it, except that I did not say that I was averse to performing in church again. Still, I remember feeling a tinge of nausea in my stomach as I sent that email. Even five minutes after, I wondered if it was worth it. Things got worse as weeks went by and I got no reply from him. I  had no idea what that silence meant. He eventually contacted me after more than a month telling me it was "only now beginning to sink in." It was great to hear him, but the fact that it took so long for him to even bring himself to say anything spoke volumes.

Stumbling across this youtube video brought back many of the feelings that I went through earlier this year. It reminded me that as far as my atheism is concerned I still had unfinished business. There are still good friends who I have not yet told personally that I am an atheist. So, on my facebook page yesterday I put this video up as a link. Perhaps it was my way of having vicariously, this same conversation with them. I must admit it helped me a lot and I feel as though I am now just about completely free. Since the posting, I have got some responses both from atheists and theists. Some have been surprised that I could have written so many blogposts on atheism and still have difficulty at times in telling people I don't believe.  If I am relying on logic, evidence and reason, I should just tell people how I  feel and not be worried about whether they like it or not. Some feel it is a  lack of conviction not to speak out boldly on every occasion.

I even get a hint from a few theists that these internal emotional conflicts mean that deep down, I DO believe in God. Of course they are way off the mark on that. What some  believers see as a lack of conviction, really reflects a desire on my part to spare their feelings as much as I can. However, I have to remember that most of these people will never know what it is like to be isolated in terms of religious belief and from that perspective it is hard to expect empathy.  All I can tell them at the end of it all, is that atheists have emotions too.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Listening to my data when it speaks to me

The chart above probably looks like a set of lines and coloured blocks to you. Well, I am here to tell you that this apparent mish-mash has deep meaning to me.I have a personal relationship with this data and it continues to reveal many things to me every time I look upon its face. The magnificent thing is that even though I don't pray to it, it speaks to me every single day. Still looks like a random pattern of squares? Well, you just need to open your mind and accept that it is what I claim it to be. I can testify to the fact that since I started studying this data my intellectual life has been fundamentally changed.

For many years, I have tried to ask Christians who tell me that God speaks to them, what they really mean.  I have had quite a few explanations on how Christian voices in the head can be differentiated. How to tell the difference between the voice of God, the voice of the devil or the voice of your own conscience. Apparently all three of these voices can be speaking to you at the same time. However, there are not three distinct tones or accents. You know who speaks by what he says. You know the sort of things God would tell you, you know the ideas the devil would want to put in your head and you know yourself well enough to know when you are talking to you. One wonders why any supernatural entity would need  to talk to you in the first place, if you know what he would say before he says it.  Anyway, I can now report that I have heard that still soft voice myself and it has become louder as I have got more submerged in my research over the last few weeks.

My data's voice is not always audible, it often manifests itself in a way that you couldn't record on a digital device, nevertheless it unquestionably speaks to my mind.  Other times I do actually hear a voice. It happens in a way that it is just impossible to ignore even if I wanted to.Yes, my data is made up of voices,  75 to be exact. A number of interviews that I have conducted in the Caribbean over the last three years as part of my doctoral research on renewable energy development. Whenever I read my transcripts, I can hear my interviewees voices. I hear their comments in my head and am immediately transported back to the time and place where their words were uttered.

My data is amazing. It is made up of many different individual perspectives, yet there is a thread of similar goals, ideas and levels of understanding that go through all the discussions. Wow, 15 countries, 75 individuals, three years and so much agreement! I can show you times where two people said almost the same thing word for word and yet they have never met each other. Of course there are areas where opinions and beliefs differ or even contradict. That should be expected, after all people come from different professional backgrounds and live in places where cultures, governments and even languages are different. It's all a matter of interpretation. You have to understand each interviewee within his or her own context. If everybody said the same thing you would know they were just repeating whatever they heard others say and that you weren't getting something authentic.

I have also had instances where prophecies have been made that came true. In 2009, I spoke to many people about oil prices that had fallen from the previous year. Many told me that they were certain that oil prices would rise again soon. And guess what? They did! Before the end of that very year.  These people were right, 100% on the mark. I tell you, my data has it all. Prophecies fulfilled, a unifying vision shared by many diverse inspired individuals, and contradictions in perspectives on truth which can be explained through differences in location, time and context. I think those characteristics taken together are enough to put my research data at least on equal footing with that super intellectual, who in spite of having only one publication to his name, has more citations than anybody else in history.

Despite the similarities, I cannot match this more illustrious author in terms of level of confidence. I cannot bring myself to claim the things he does about his work. I don't believe my data is divine and I am not going to put in an application for sainthood for any of my interviewees. I am far too skeptical to take what my data says as gospel.  I acknowledge my data's fallibility, and recognise that there are gaps in it. Still, I will cling to my holey data for all that it is worth. I am very serious when I say that my life has changed through my data and that there are things my data can do for me which the Almighty cannot.

For one thing, my data is not jealous data. When it speaks to me, it encourages me to check other sources, look for other data to see what makes sense. In fact when I hear my data speak it often confesses to me it has not got the answer. It suggests to me  new directions  to look in, in order to find out more. So, my data helps me to broaden my perspective and through that I experience greater freedom.  My data is very patient with me and never forces me in any one path. It recognises that I might sometimes misinterpret it, but I am never judged for being wrong. A bad conclusion may make me feel the heat from a journal reviewer or I might be shot down in flames at a conference for making an argument that doesn't stand up to scrutiny, but at least there is no threat of an everlasting fire. Any heat that I get from others in the field will just help me to refine my way of thinking and writing. At the end of the day, I will be moulded into the finished article rather than having my insides burnt to a crisp for failing to turn over a new leaf when I had my chance.

Caribou- Photo from Environment and Natural Resources Canada
Apart from the fact that my data is merciful, I like that my data is objective. It tells me how things are rather than how I would want them to be. It also gets me to the heart of whatever I am studying.  At the university here in Calgary, I know people who are studying a myriad of  things, from species of wildlife  and  plants, to volcanoes and underground caves. In each case they gain their knowledge but studying whatever they are looking at in the highest level of detail  possible. If you are studying  caribou and want to determine what's best for them you have to spend time with them, observe what they like or don't like to eat, their migratory patterns, their mating habits, the way they care for their young and how they deal with predators. Yes, in spite of how many experts there may be in an area, nothing beats the knowledge that comes straight from the source, straight from the data itself. I heard a researcher express to me how easier her life would be if only the caribou could talk.The point being made here is that data takes you down to where the real knowledge is. It is as close as you can get to that  which you are studying. That's why my data means so much to me,

It is curious that what is good for studying flora and fauna is not always considered the best method for humans. We don't look to an invisible entity beyond the cosmos to give us mitigation measures for a falling  beetle population, but we choose to look  to a spaceless, timeless, intergalactic being for guidance on how to curb homicide rates in homo sapiens. Even if there is somewhere out there, something that created us, that has a purpose for us, why should we assume its  point of view regarding our lives is better than our own? Why should we consider him the expert on how we should run governments, what values we should believe in, how we should treat others or  who we should be having sex with?

God as powerful and wise as he may be has not had the experience of not being God. To me, even omniscience does not substitute for direct experience. I know  Christians will say that he knows what it is to be a man as he has been here in human form. Even if that is true he, according to them, was still a God when he was here."Fully man and fully God" they say, but that's not logically possible, it's like saying you ate an ice cream that was fully chocolate and fully vanilla. So, however  you look at it, whatever God is, he is not the same as you or me. If he was, then we would be Gods too. Whatever he experiences, it is not the same thing we experience.

The fact is, we are the ones who live in this neck of the woods in 2011 and go through what it is like to be human everyday.  It is disappointing to hear some religious people talk down human knowledge as if it has little or no value. They speak as if the moral codes, ethics and laws we develop mean nothing if we don't get a supernatural stamp of approval. I have no idea why millions of people in the world believe that this is so.

When I was a kid growing up in Barbados we regularly  played impromptu games of cricket after school or in the neighbourhood. We would determine among ourselves what the rules would be on the spot. Maybe we would play ' first hop' so that you could be out caught even if the ball hit the ground before the fielder caught it. Perhaps ' tip me two' where you had to try to run for two every time you hit the ball. At times we made a rule that if you hit the ball into 'Ms. Lewis yard ' that would be out. Maybe there was a time limit on how long you could bat. Sometimes we had specific boundaries marked out for fours and sixes, sometimes you would just keep running until you got too tired. The point is, we made up the rules and played by them and they worked because they were designed for us and we agreed on them. We didn't feel we had to refrain from playing because the rules we were using were not those sanctioned by the International Cricket Council. We didn't feel we needed to run home to ask our parents whether the rules we were using made sense. Who cared what anybody else looking on thought about how we were playing? It was really none of their business. If they wanted to join in then they could have a say in how we made the rules. That's the problem, God is a perennial non player and yet we want to look to him to decide on everything in our lives. Some will refrain from playing the game of life altogether unless they know exactly what the Almighty thinks about it. To me, this attitude makes no sense, God or no God.

That's why when I want to find out what is best for the energy sector in the Caribbean I speak to people who work there and encourage them to develop ways of doing things that work in their environment. People who are on the ground and know what is going on can tell what works and what doesn't in that community better than anyone else in the world. Yes, I can read the works of Nobel Prize winning economists and political scientists and gain some insights, but that will not make much impact unless I talk to the people who are part of the daily reality that I am studying.

Any CEO will tell you the same.  If you want to introduce a new policy, technology or process to a company , you have to talk with the people who work on the  'floor.' Make sure that they understand what you want to achieve and why you want to achieve it. No matter how brilliant the plan is from the head honcho, if the people below are unwilling or unable to comply with it, your plan is destined to fail. Success in industry almost solely depends on how clients accept a product, not what the producer thinks of it.  The iPhone took off because  customers liked the product, not just because Steve Jobs thought it was great.  Elmo is a phenomenon in the Sesame Street empire because children love him. The four year olds are the target audience, it's what they think that matters, it's not the opinion of marketing consultants with MBAs. I know tons of adults who can't stand the furry red monster, but that doesn't matter one bit.

It is beyond me therefore, why God's opinion so often comes ahead of the collective wisdom of all humans. Why is it that knowledge that bubbles up from within us is seen as inferior to that which is imposed top-down? For some reason, we just have to accept God's ways because he has more knowledge and can see the bigger picture when we can't. It doesn't follow. If God were an earthly Marketing Manager he would fail on the grounds that he did not successfully communicate his objectives to his subordinates and that  the product he designed was poorly crafted from the perspectives of those who planned to used it. The fact that he himself understood it perfectly  would be no defense. He could give a presentation of how the company would be better if people had followed the rule, but that would not be enough. He would be fired on account of not considering his stakeholders and their limitations. People would ask why he didn't have questionnaires, surveys or a 'complaints hotline' to tell him how his Creation Plan was working out for his creatures.

Yes, we are told that God created everything for us. One would think that we might have a least some small say in how things operate.Well, that's not part of God's way of leading. I suppose he does allow us to pray to him for what we want, but this is a charade really. It is like a government that holds a Town Hall Meeting to get comments on a policy document long after it has been approved by Cabinet. The Divine Strategic Plan was written into law long before we came into existence, any feeling that our petitions, prayers or other interventions have made a difference is purely an illusion.

So, at the end of the day, even if a God exists I still will look to my data first  for guidance. I will make my recommendations for humans based on the experience of  humans. When I am  commissioned to develop the Sustainable Energy Policy  for 'Angels and Heavenly Beings', I promise that calling upon God is the first thing that I will do. I will keep his contact information in my database for when that time comes. However, once my investigations are dealing with phenomena in the natural world I will continue to listen and put my trust in that which my data tells me.