Saturday, April 30, 2011

God always found wanting

The Lord is My Shepherd I shall not want

This quote from Psalm 23 is perhaps the most famous line in the entire bible. Certainly the first one I learnt by heart. Looking back, maybe my skeptic mind was being developed even as  a five year old learning this. The line just didn't make any sense. Why would the Lord not be wanted? Isn't the whole point that we need to trust him to get what we want? It was years later that it was explained to me that 'want' in that context means I shall not lack for for anything that I need. Of course, that only made slightly more sense since bible believing Christians lack the things that they need all the time. Anyway, we all know that finding a sentence in the bible that does not contradict something else in the book or  in the observed world is about as easy as getting a camel through the eye of a needle. So, no need for worry here.

What I have been recognising recently is that apart from Christians being full of wants, God himself is found wanting right through the bible.  From what I hear from the sermons on the radio and television we are finding him more wanting every day. God might not have succumbed to the temptations in the wilderness but I heard during holy week about  many things God wants . He wants us to worship him. He wants us to accept him as our Lord and Saviour. He wants us to have sex only in certain ways with certain people. He wants us to go to heaven and not hell. He wants that we keep his commandments. He wants us to have faith. Yes, there are so many things that God wants us to do. And that in large part is why Christians  observe and practice the rituals the way they do. It's done like that because God wants it like that.

However, this whole 'want' thing  leaves me just as confused today as I was learning that Psalm 23 at age five. How can God want anything?  It can't be want as in having a lack of something because he is a God, a god can't lack for anything, can he? Of course when we say 'want' in the usual context it means desire. But still this poses more problems. How can God have desires?  To many in the faith this would seem a strange question. We all have desires, things we want to achieve and things we do our utmost to make become reality. Why would God be any different? Well, that's just the point, God is different.Those omni properties change everything. An all powerful God or even a supremely powerful one must be able to get what he wants especially when it relates to his creation. If God wants it surely he can get it. How could any lowly human being like us possibly resist him? If we are not following him it must be that it's his will to have it that way.

On the other side of the coin, I often  get told what God doesn't want. God doesn't want anybody to go to hell, I hear. That would seem to be an easy problem to fix. Eliminate hell and nobody will go there, simple. If you don't want a child to get shot when playing in the shed at your home where you keep your weapons, you remove all the guns you have from inside . Seems like a no brainer, but a no brainer that seems to have eluded God's grasp so far. Right about this point, the believer yells " Free will ! Free will!"  Well, if that's the reason some of  must go then it would have to be that God doesn't REALLY want the hell prevention.

We all know that if we REALLY want something no way that something like preserving free will ever stands in the way. We want less fatal accidents on the road we put in stipulations for sear belt wearing, that physically restrains people's bodies. Doesn't mean people must drive like robots though. We might have speed limits as well as seat belts  but we  have freedom still to go where we like , take any road we want once we follow the basic rules. Somehow in the curious faith world, God the maker of heaven and earth can't find an ideal balance between  freedom and protecting us from mortal danger. There seemingly is no system of reward and punishment that he can come up with that does not require the use of a torture chamber. But that's simply impossible, how can God can't? There is no way out, if God has the power to do anything, and hell exists he must be in favour of  it.

So the bottom line is this, if God is all powerful he cannot possible want anything more than what he has. The world as it is today must be exactly how he wants it to be now. So anytime a believer says, " God wants you to......." it doesn't matter what comes next its 'game over.' If God wants something for any more than a split second without getting it ,that means he is not God. It just doesn't add up that a God needs our help in order to achieve. Humans need help to get where they want to be, God the Almighty does not. The fact is that we so much want or God to be like us that we make him want, to be like us. Our wants become his. And we humans want so much, that our God is found at the end of our Holy Books just as wanting as we are.

Once we start on this wanting cycle we can't help ourselves. Not just God but the entire religion becomes about wants. We want to go to heaven, we want there to be an ultimate cosmic justice, we want there to be an external meaning of life, we want to live forever, we want there to be a guardian angel protecting us, we even want there to be a devil  in hell so we can feel euphoria that we triumphed over him, but of course most of all we want there to be a God.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Atheist meets Mormon Missionary: My in- flight discussion with Elder Troy

An atheist and a mormon were sitting together on a plane. Sorry, I wish I had a witty punch line to follow that but this, my friends, is no joke. It happened this week during my trip through the Caribbean, en route from Guadeloupe to Antigua. I always make a point of getting know a little bit about the person I am sitting next to when I am  on a plane. It adds to the whole travel experience. But when this young, white man dressed in the traditional black and white with his "Jesus Christ Church of the Latter Day Saints"  name tag, took up the seat next to me  I knew I was in for something different.

I sat and watched him settle into his seat with his Book of Mormon in hand and wondered if this little LIAT plane could handled such a potentially combustible combination of characters side by side. If that wasn't enough we were seated by the emergency exit and would have been called upon to work together in the event of  something untoward happening. Wow, that would have been a story if we had been called upon to pool our skills to save the day.

Well before I could even say a "hello" to my mormon neighbour, I knew I would be in for a fun ride . This guy was quick to announce himself to all around him and you could see he was not just another passenger. As is typical with mormons he was travelling with a companion but his colleague was sitting the row behind and the one sat next to me hardly seem to notice him. It was like he was trying to establish his own identity he was in his world a 'freethinker.' His name was Elder Troy.

Breaking down the stereotype

They say that the easiest way to break down a stereotype of a group is to take the time and really get to know a member of that group in a personal way. Even in the first minute and a half of meeting him he was breaking down a few mormon myths I had. I have always seen mormons walking through neighbourhoods dressed in pristine white shirts and silky black ties. Two blank faces staring like androids from a sci-fi movie, stalking the next unsuspecting victim looking to send them into a hypnotic trance and leave him droning, " I believe, I believe, take me to your master."But Elder Troy was nothing like that, he just oozed personality and it struck me he could be the life and soul of any party and he clearly had a wicked sense of humour to boot.

When the attractive Barbadian flight attendant was  handing out the brochure with the details on how to handle the emergency exit, Elder Troy gave a wry smile. The lady asked him that cursory question that you get in all flights once you are seated in such positions. " Would you be willing to assist in the event of an emergency?" Troy looked up and his smile got even broader. " Lady, I would be very happy to assist you even if there is NOT an emergency. I would be VERY happy to help you in any any way that I can during this flight!" I just about fell out of my seat in spite of having a tightly buckled seat belt on. This was too much. Did I really just witness a Mormon missionary hitting on a LIAT flight attendant?

The Curious Missionary
It struck me as I looked more closely at Troy that he was Elder in name but certainly not in nature. He turned to me an actually asked me many questions about myself. Where I was from and what I was doing in the Caribbean. I spoke to him about the energy project I was involved in.  He responded with excitement  "Oh energy, you mean like kinetic energy?"  he responded while punching the air in front of  him to demonstrate that he understood the concept that kinetic meant moving energy. A bit of a strange way to look at it but energy transformations usually involve some kind of movement, even solar if you look at it at the atomic level. So I responded with, "Yes, I suppose so." I spoke a bit more and mentioned something about geothermal energy. Ted laughed and told me that when I said geothermal energy he wondered if I meant energy that you  can capture in a flask or a bottle. This was an awkward moment, I was not sure if Troy was making a joke here or if it was just that he was ignorant in the subject, so I just smiled and then went on to explain what I did some more and he seemed quite intrigued. He then got  more serious  in discussion and explained to me that he was really very limited in his exposure to many things. He was not allowed even to watch TV or go on the internet very often to learn things. So even though he was 21 he felt like he was just a novice not just as a missionary novice but a total novice in life.

The Heineken Church
At that moment I felt a bit sorry for Troy but I also realised I had a great opportunity to share with him. "Do you enjoy your missionary work?" I asked him. He said that it was fun but he once again mentioned about his lack of exposure in other areas and he acknowledged that this was a challenge in many interactions with persons because they were often more informed than him and had a broader view. He then asked me a bit about my upbringing church wise. I told him I was raised in the Anglican church which over the roar of the engines   sounding to him that I was saying the "Heineken Church." Now that might not be a bad place of worship, I would drink to that. We both had a good laugh at that one.

I then thought it was about time I came clean on where I am now so I told him I was an atheist. His response was surprising, " Oh,  I know." he said casually. This stumped me, I wasn't wearing my 'A' pin at that time and as far as I could remember I hadn't said anything ungodly. Then he pointed to my i-phone which I was holding in my hand. "I saw that you were listening to something there called the Atheist Experience." I looked down and sure enough the name of the program was there etched in big white lettering on a dark blue background. During this period of travel it is very difficult for me to catch the show live or even in the days following its airing. I have therefore taken to downloading the podcasts on to my phone and listening to them while in flight. It has been great listening to Matt, Tracie, Russell and Jen battle out with  people like Mark from Austin Stone church  while I am 30,000 feet in the air. Nothing better than listening to reason when all that is between you and the ground below is two propellers and some jet fuel. Contrary to popular belief it is clear rational thinking that helps you in emergencies not " a wing and a prayer."

Anyway, after  that moment that Ted  caused me to glance at my phone I started chuckling again. Yes, he got me. He knew all along what I was he was just humouring me, waiting for me to tell him. Indeed since LIAT has open seating Troy  might have sat next to me deliberately after he saw AE on my phone just to have this conversation. By now I knew Troy was a curious traveller and he was just fascinated by the concept of The Atheist Experience. "What do they do there? What's it all about ? How does one get to have the atheist experience?" The questions kept coming thick and fast. Troy said that after he saw the title on my phone  he had visions of non believers going on to a show and being asked to choose between competing religions. I suppose he thought that an atheist was just somebody who hadn't found the right religion yet.

I, of course relished the opportunity to explain  'Atheist Experience' to Troy. This was as great a chance as I had ever had to 'evangalise.' Believe it or not this entire exchange  happened before the plane even left the ground , because I remember the flight attendant breaking our conversation at that moment to announce that the flight was about to take off and flying time would be approximately 20 minutes.  So many times in my life I had been on those long trans Atlantic flights or those across the North American continent wondering how on earth I would pass the hours. Now I had serious godless missionary work to complete and all I had was 20 minutes. But there it was, that was the time I was given to build on Troy's curiosity to sow some seeds of doubt. No, I was not looking for an instant conversion but there are enough ex mormons in the atheist movement to give me some hope.  You never know, Elder Troy  mormon missionary today could be host of 'Irreligiosophy' tomorrow.

Anyway in fairness, the curiosity went both ways. Already Troy had opened my mind by his willingness to engage me in honest conversation and was every moment breaking down some of my own stereotypes. This had the potential to be a great learning experience for us both. It was certainly the first time I had had a discussion with a mormon and I am quite sure this was his first encounter with an open atheist as well. So, I just got right to it. I told him that Atheist Experience was actually  a call in show where theists were encouraged to call in and try to justify their belief in God. Troy seemed a bit confused by this concept so I thought the best way to explain what the show was about was to actually just enact the show right there.  When I told him that  we would play 'Atheist Experience' right here he beamed. " Oh, I am so honoured to be here " he exclaimed. I told him the pleasure was all mine and then I put on my Matt Dillahunty hat and went to work.

Atheist Experience in the Air

This was not going to be a one hour show so I went straight for the jugular. "Why do you believe a God exists?"I asked. Troy for the first time since he entered the flight cabin was speechless. " That's a very good question," was his eventual reply. That was a poignant moment and a response I didn't expect. AE callers regardless of the quality of the reasons they give always have something to offer up to the hosts. Here was a man whose life to this point was all about spreading the gospel,  a man who I had come into contact while he was still dressed in uniform right in the middle of his work day.  Yet, he had no ready reply to this most basic of theological questions. It was to me equivalent to a doctor having no response when asked  why he thinks its a good thing to prescribe medicines for patients with ailments.

Troy did after mulling over the question for a while, go on to talk about his father who was a devout member of the Church of the Latter Day Saints. He spoke of how wonderfully supportive his Dad was and how much love he showed and what a wonderful role model he was. He said that having that earthly experience he could only begin to imagine how so much more magnificent his heavenly father would have to be. I was glad to hear Troy speak so glowingly about his father but I had to point out that I saw this argument as an argument from metaphor. It was just a quantum leap to jump from something you experience in an earthly sphere to assume that the same or something greater must of necessity exist in the heavens. I think he got this point but I sensed he felt I was cheapening the deep relationship he had with his dad by suggesting the love and respect they shared was merely something human.

Christianity I- Pad 2

Troy went on to say how much he saw the words of God reflected in all the love and beauty around us. Then he turned to his text. He began thumbing through the Book of  Mormon that he had in his hands all this time.
"This is the Holy Book. It is something like the bible but it has much more!" He looked at me with excitement and seemed surprised that I was not that moved. I realised that what happened there was that he was using a technique on me that he would use on the people he usually met, ie Christians. Christians even of the casual agnostic type you sometimes find in the Caribbean are generally impressed by people who show respect for the bible and its teachings. I don't think that at that point he had put together that ' it's like the bible' is not a phrase that would endear me to his product. So he continued pushing his book as if it was a bible with new and enhanced features the equivalent of  a 'Christianity I Pad 2.'

Circular Reasoning with the Angel Moroni

He went to the end of the book and started to read to me out loud from what I discovered was a Portuguese translation. I was very impressed with Troy's linguistic skills. Clearly he could proselytise in many languages. His English was flawless, he had just come from Guadeloupe where he had been speaking to the people in the street in French and now he was demonstrating he could easily handle Portuguese as well. However, by his own admission the language of science and evidence  was still very foreign to him. He started reading the words of the angel Moroni. " Oh , I know of him'." I replied. " You have heard of the  Angel Moroni!!!"  You could almost hear Troy's scream above the engines. He looked shocked that I would know of someone so prominent in his faith and then slightly perplexed that I would know of him and still not follow him. It is a bit like how so many Christians can't understand how a person could know of Jesus and the story  of the resurrection yet still reject him. " Moroni was just such an awesome guy !" he went on to tell me all about the revelation , I didn't want to interrupt him with a " No, no, no you're done!" so I waited patiently until he finished, even as I was recognising that time was starting to run out. Once he ended I followed up, " But how do you know that this is true? Why do you take this book as an authority?" He told me to hold on and continued to read the verses that came after. I smiled , it was the same as the biblical fundamentalist. The all in one package deal; claim and proof of claim neatly bound together in the same literary work. It all came down in the end to the fact that if you asked God he would tell you that the Angel Moroni was telling the truth.

I sighed, there was so much I could have said but I had to start my rebuttals or I would never be able to make a point before we landed . I could already feel the plane starting its descent. I told Troy that what he was doing was just circular reasoning. It just doesn't work to use one book to prove itself. I told him that for me I was quite prepared to accept that the supernatural was possible but once I entered the realm of faith there was simply no method available to me to separate the true from the false.  To choose any faith position and reject others would therefore be a purely arbitrary process. I explained that I couldn't determine truth through what made me feel good or because I had a devout father  that believed these things. To discover truth I had to use the only method that gives reliable answers and that was the scientific method. There was just simply no other way out there to use. I added that things like love in the world and beauty could be explained in purely natural terms without the need of a creator. I  emphasised the point that  the universe would be no less awesome just because a God didn't do it. Surprisingly to me he nodded in agreement. As the wheels  extending from the plane in preparation for landing I felt quite happy I thought that in those few minutes I had sown some seeds of doubt that Troy would go on to reflect on some more. Who knows where that will take him? I thought.

You don't want a God to exist

Then my bubble burst. Troy said the following, " So you don't believe in a God because you don't want there to be a God." This statement just floored me. How could Troy have come to this conclusion based on what I had argued? I am still trying to wrap my mind around this. So often theists think we atheists are just consciously making a choice to reject. " NO!" I said. " It's absolutely not the case. I am just searching for the truth. Whether there is a nice God, a horrible God or no God. I just want to find out. What I want to be true just doesn't come in to the equation. If the God is going to throw me into eternal hell I won't be happy but I'd still like to find out if that is so." Troy seemed to finally get it but I can't really be sure.

Everything happened by chance?
Less than a minute later, I looked out of the window and was able catch a glimpse of the world famous harbour in St. John's, the lovely greenery inland and the beautiful  supposedly 365 beaches along the coastline."So that all happened by chance." Troy said grinning. I shook my head, this was a cheeky last blow before the bell by Elder Troy. No way I could possibly explain my view about how all those things came to be  now. We were a mere seconds from touching down on the tarmac  at this point. So I agreed but stated there was some natural selection, man made contributions and other geological and cosmological elements. Not sure Troy was convinced with my answer this time but that was all I could do for now. I however thanked him so much for what was the most memorable and enjoyable discussion on a flight I could remember. We both rued the fact that the trip was so short. I wished him the best of luck and gave him my card and the link to  this blog . I really hope that Troy pays a visit sometime.

Troy, if you are reading this, maybe you can call in one day and have the authentic Texan 'Atheist Experience.' Matt and Co. are likely to bring your God down to earth with evidence and reasoning far better than I ever could have done on that day when we were cruising together above the clouds.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Atheist in the pew: The return to my church in Barbados

It was always going to be the real test. How would I handle the return to my home church in Barbados? Over the last two years in Canada I wondered how it would be. I had some friends who had told me that my atheism was culture dependent. They were convinced that my focus on reason and critical thinking was just because I was in Canada and had found a community of like minded people. Once back in Barbados with friends and family showing me the love of the Lord, I would revert  immediately to my old ways.

I knew that I could not avoid going to church on coming back to Barbados. In fact I was quite happy to go back to the place I once used to call my 'Jerusalem.' The question was when to go, I wasn't exactly in a hurry. In the end it turned out that it was not a decision I had to make . In the greatest of ironies, only minutes after making that  huge decision  to declare my atheism to the world that I talked about in my last blog post, I received a call from a close friend in Barbados who had heard I was coming into the island. She asked if I would play a solo for them on Sunday for the youth service. It was a strange feeling to say the least. She was talking to the 2009 version of me. The one that would give his time to play music to any organisation that had the spreading of the "good news" as its mandate. Her excitement on my return was palpable and I just could not say "no." In a way, I was happy that she asked me because it took away the uncertainty of when to return to church and it would be good to take part in the service like I had done so many times over the years.

The joy of being a part of it

I have reflected since my deconversion that the reason that so many people remain in their faith is because
they have things that they do in the church that keep them busy. Singing in the choir, serving at the altar, sitting on the church council, all require time, effort and commitment. Once you are doing these things there is little time to think about the philosophy or doctrine. There is satisfaction in church from simply taking on a task, doing it well and being recognised for it. It is very much like how we are at work. We often follow what we are assigned to do with little thought as to even whether we ought to have been given the project in the first place. So, as a church musician I just wanted to give my best every time and make those people listening to me happy. When I succeeded there were few feelings more satisfying.

So there it was, I would be playing at church on my first Sunday back in Barbados.On the morning in question I felt more nervous than I had ever felt before on entering the church, perhaps with the exception of my wedding day. I suppose it was due to the fact that I had anticipated this moment so much. Some nerves went away when there were so many embraces of welcome I got from people that I had known years before.The warm greetings from brothers and sisters in the faith. The next thing that hit me as the 8:00 am starting hour came closer was the numbers. This was the usual 150 odd members that I had played in front of many times but it felt like so many more. I guess it was because it had been  a couple of years since I had performed solo in front of such a large number of people, yet it was just church, regular church. Much as people talk about the 'feel good' draw of religion so much of the strength is in the raw numbers. Just being part of a community like that can lift a person.

I looked around the church as it filled up and I couldn't help smiling. I realised how much I had visualised these images and sounds over the last year. Quite a few of the posts on this blog were written while I had this place firmly in mind. Indeed, the stories of one or two in the congregation were actually the basis for some of the writings. I wondered how they would feel if they knew that the story of their lives was being used to encourage people away from the faith.

Hopscotch through the pages

Well, before I knew it, the service was under way and the liturgy  proceeded just as I remembered. It was a weird feeling recognising that the familiar was now so unfamiliar. Those who grew up in Anglicanism know that one of the most challenging parts of the service is following in the book with the liturgy. It's a nightmare if you don't know your way around. Sometimes you are required to go from something like page 50 to120 then back to  page 76. However, today I just didn't bother to even open the book. It was not in protest or a demonstration of a lack of interest. I just wanted to listen to what was being said and take it in. It struck me that making following the service like a hopscotch game was another way to make the congregation not pay attention to what is on the page. It's difficult to think about what you are reading when you are trying to figure out what page to turn to next.

Robotic Liturgy

The first thing that caught my attention as the liturgy started was how dead and dreary everything seemed. The drone of the monotonous voices was like that of my refrigerator that I am hearing as I write this. I wondered  how I had managed to survive this every Sunday morning for so many years. I thought about that common christian apologetic that says God gave us free will because he doesn't want to create us to be like robots. But " Data" from the old Star Trek series would have been decidedly animated compared to what I was seeing here. In fact the first excitement I heard in the service was an exclamation from a parishioner after the recitation of the words " hallelujah, hallelujah" . " No!" she protested audibly under her breath. " We shouldn't be saying hallelujah during Lent!" I thought " Wow!" to myself. Apart from the lack of critical thinking that religion promotes it creates worry over things that are just so trivial.

Anyway all was not lost. We still had hymns, surely at least I could enjoy those. Yes, there were a couple of my favourites in there. Nice reflective tunes that I had sung many times before and always enjoyed. But again, today was different. No matter how much I wanted to, I couldn't bring myself to say that " He is the Potter I am the clay" or " all other ground is sinking sand."I now recognised that so many of these hymns were songs of total submission. You are basically saying to God, " Please do all my thinking for me." So in order to enjoy the tunes and not say something against my beliefs, I just sang the hymns to "la-la" right through. Must have really confused the congregation around me. Too bad though, it was really the best that I could do.

Was the  sermon meant for me?

Well, the sermon was the next thing on the cards. It was a long time since I had heard one of these. I wondered if it would resonate with me at all. The theme was escaping from 'inside the box'. The pastor's point  was that  so many of us think or behave in certain ways because society or cultures pressure us to be like that. He challenged the congregation to not let society put them 'in boxes' and confine their way of thinking. My jaw dropped. Could this message have been any more applicable to me? I was just given in the first twenty minutes of his sermon a synopsis of exactly what I had done. I had made that decision to not let my culture or background confine what I thought or believed. How great to have such a ringing endorsement this Sunday morning. Hey, I felt like shouting " Hallelujah!" myself.

Unfortunately the message didn't end there. Yes, there is always a catch in Christianity. According to the reverend, God was the only one capable of taking you 'out of the box.' No, he didn't say God can help us escape our boxes, he said God was the only one that could move us. God had all the power and we could only get out of boxes if it was His will to take us out. If he wanted to, he could miraculously change us regardless of our internal attitudes or mindset. He could give us the strength. In summary, we need to take responsibility for improving ourselves but at the same time God is the only one who is capable of making us better people. I think this is the core contradiction that appears in almost all religions. The message that tells us that we CAN do it and we CAN'T do it at the same time.

Anyway, I had to cut my analysis short because the moment of truth was at hand. It was my turn to face the congregation. My role in the service was to play the song for " reflection." Something that would put the congregation in the mood to prayerfully consider the message they had just heard. It was a very poignant moment when I walked up to the front to render the " Ave Maria." Caught up in the emotion of the moment I began to play. I had only arrived in Barbados days earlier so there was no chance to arrange any accompaniment so the sound of my clarinet was the only sound breaking the silence. I took my time and really tried to put out of my mind thoughts of what I believed or didn't believe  now. I reminisced on how often I had played this song for these very people and was still happy that in spite of moving away from them on a spiritual level I could still connect with them personally through the music. The tone of a clarinet note after all does not come combined with doctrine or dogma.
The note that changed the way I played

It seemed that a sea of these thoughts and reflections were going through my mind while I was playing, then something happened that just broke the flow of everything. Out of nowhere, a shrill high pitch squeak came out of my instrument. It was a bit of a shock to the system for me, I can't remember  ever playing a note over the twenty plus years I performed in that church that went awry so badly. Anyway, that immediately got me to put all the thoughts of the enormity of the occasion out of my head and just concentrate on playing the music,  getting my technique right and making sure I finished the piece with no further flaws. So from that moment on it was all about getting the notes right. I am delighted to say that it all went beautifully after that point and the mistake I made earlier in the piece was probably the wake up that I needed. The congregation it seemed were quite happy with what they had seen and heard. Interestingly no-one seemed to react to the mistake at all. Maybe they didn't hear it or perhaps they just didn't think it was a big deal. I sat back down after doing my bit in the service and was still thinking about THAT  note. Maybe I just got carried away and pushed it too hard. I could have taken a bit more time to warm up, perhaps it was partly the change in weather conditions from Canada and not taking enough time to assess the reed I was using.

It struck me as I kept thinking, that what happened during the song I just rendered was not unlike what had happened over my life coming out of faith. The piece I had just played had two parts divided by that screeching note. Similarly in my faith journey I had been brought to a screeching halt when I realised the disharmony between faith and reason. The realisation that God was not real was truly the note that had broken the peace back then.

Before I came to that monumental moment of disbelief I was, just like I did this morning, playing on the emotion of it all. I was simply feeling the music. After the dissonance came during the music I had just played,  I changed my priorities and concentrated on getting the technical details right. That was the same thing that happened when I realised that something was wrong in my belief system, I changed to concentrate on what technically made sense rather than getting taken up by emotion. That is not to say that concentrating on technical details meant throwing emotion out of the window. Indeed, this morning when I started to focus on the notes themselves, it was with a view of using them to create emotion. In determining what notes to lengthen and by how much, how long to to play in the lower register or when to bring in the diminuendos I was consciously creating the emotion of the music for the enjoyment of the listener rather than just playing by feel without thinking. The music, I hope, was beautiful both at the beginning and the end. And so it is when we compare living by faith with living without it. The output at the end of the day is just as sweet when we switch the melody and allow the mind to lead the heart.

Happy to play along

Later in the service I decided to play along with some of the hymns with the organist.  It gave me the chance not to have to sing the songs , the lyrics of most of them were now problematic for me. It gave me also the opportunity  to enjoy my playing and make up for the earlier error and finally it gave me a chance to be doing something during the communion so that my lack of participation  in the sacrament was not conspicuous. This was a relief, because I really thought I would not be being true to myself if I went up to partake of the 'body and blood 'of Jesus. At the same time I didn't want to create any controversy by refusing to go up to the altar when ushered to do so.

All in all things went well in the service after that, not withstanding the final hymn being the very famous but doctrinally disturbing, ' Onward Christian Soldiers Marching as to War.' Still an exciting tune to play though, and of course very stirring as so many songs written for the military are. I did feel a bit guilty for enjoying playing it so much, but there is little we can do to curb our bodies natural response to music. Well at least when it comes to us people of  Caribbean descent.

Final Thoughts

So, that was the story. It wasn't so bad being an atheist in the pew after all. And for those people who were skeptical about my skepticism in the face of my home religion and church community, I am happy to report that I have passed that test. Absolutely no desire to return to 'faithland.' My abiding image of the morning will be the looks on the faces of the congregation during the sermon. People really looked like there were just bodies in pews. No smiles on faces, no nodding of agreement  if they liked a  point being made or concerned looks on faces if they couldn't follow the line of argument, no notes being kept in order to ask questions after the talk was over.  That is the kind of listener behaviour I am used to now when I hear speakers in Canada. There was none of that here today. It was as if the congregation were in some sort of adult detention.  Being forced to listen to and recite lines now in order be allowed to play in heaven later. It just seems so sad  to spend so many hours of a life so short doing something that is  giving you neither entertainment nor enlightenment.

There was one other moment in that service that will stay with me forever. It happened when I looked up at the cross which hangs high up on the wall in front of the church. Over the years, I had looked upon it regularly. It was something I used to ' lift up mine eyes'  to, for encouragement. Today, I almost  fell out of my chair observing a lady staring intensely at it while earnestly belting out one of  the hymns.

"Oh my God !" I thought to myself, " That woman is singing to a piece of wood!"