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.

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