Sunday, July 31, 2011

Oh how my head hurts! : Reflecting on a common response by theists to my arguments against God

Photo from Start line Physiotherapy
 I was fortunate enough this week to get another taste of the Caribbean as I went to make a presentation in Curacao. It was a short visit, where the time travelling from Calgary equalled the time I actually spent on site in the island. However, as has now become the norm, the journey itself was filled with meeting new fascinating people and the subject of religion never seemed far away. Once again I had chance to discuss the idea of God's existence.

 I must say that now I have had the opportunity to talk about  my atheism with theists of many different flavours in the Caribbean I am starting to notice certain patterns in how the discussions have gone. There have been a few surprises along the way in terms of the objections I have received or in many cases not received. Yes, I keep going into these discussions expecting push back on assumptions about first causes and  fine tuned universes. In reality these have seldom come. What I have got a lot of is, " Oh how my head hurts!" A basic comment suggesting that the  points I am making are just too high level. They claim that the arguments are just too intellectual and philosophical for them. After this point the debates often ends or peters out. Over the last few days I have been reflecting on this "Oh my head hurts" phenomenon.

I must admit that the first response that used to come to me upon getting the ' head hurt'  comment was  a sense of satisfaction that the person in the discussion was basically conceding that I had won out intellectually. I suppose there is a part of your ego that is fed when someone tells you that your level of understanding of some topic is greater than theirs. Perhaps it is that type of raising of ego that leads so many Christians to consider that atheists are arrogant. However, now that I have had the response more times and have had more time to reflect on it I see it differently now. The truth is that I consider that the people I have talked to are in no way inferior to me intellectually. I am no brighter than them.  It's just that critical thinking in our society is so widely discouraged that most people are simply just not able to follow what we as full time skeptics would see as straightforward logical arguments.

Exercising Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is like  a muscle and sadly for many in the Caribbean it is a muscle that has atrophied due to lack of use. It means that often when you enter the debates with theists about religion the lack of critical thinking conditioning appears early. It's feels like as you are out on your gentle morning jog, you can hear them panting for breath behind you begging you to slow down so they can keep up. It is not  that there is any lack of intellect in the Caribbean. Indeed, we can boast in our region to having some of the finest brains internationally in a number of areas. It's just that our strength tends to be in learning the core disciplines in our chosen fields. We can then apply those  fundamental principles to become successful practitioners in our  careers.

Where we fall down is in being able to criticise other ideas especially when they fall outside of our domain of expertise. We are often good at expounding and representing our own positions but comparatively weaker in  being able to ask the searching questions to others when they bring  ideas that we have not previously been exposed to. The lack of this ability in our general populace I think relates back to our education system and where we put our focus. I definitely do not think that there is any inherent  weakness in us that makes us incapable of being critical thinkers.Actually, I think that in Barbados there is a desire to learn more and develop that ability to challenge. It's just that in the 'intellectual gym' of the island there are no critical thinking machines available. Therefore you just can't spend the hours doing the necessary reps to get fit .

I am sure it is not surprising for skeptics to find that a lack of critical thinking is one of our main problems. It is something I have spoken about a lot in blogposts and is a point made many times by writers from parts of the developing world who are working to promote secularism. But, I think there is a part of the 'head hurt' response that goes beyond the lack of emphasis on critical thinking. Regularly in discussions I will make a statement similar to the one below.

" The fact that I cannot  disprove the existence of Big Foot  is not good reason for anybody to come to the conclusion that Big Foot exists. The persons out there that claim they have seen Big Foot have the burden of proof to show the rest of us the evidence for what they claim. We are justified in saying that Big Foot doesn't exist even if we can't prove it 100%."

Everyone that I have put an argument like that to has been able to follow my line of reason immediately, regardless of educational background. Many would tell me that it is so obvious that it doesn't even make sense to even state it. However, when I simply substitute the word 'God' for ' Big Foot'  the old 'head hurt' phenomenon comes back to the fore. I hear comments like

 " Oh, that's too deep for me!"
" Woah, this is so intellectual!"
 "I will have to back to my grad school philosophy notes."
 "You are the big doctoral student writing a thesis this is far too much for me to take in."

All of a sudden it seems their brains become incapable of  the cognition required to do the necessary reasoning. It is the equivalent of asking a child at kindergarten how many cherries you would have if you had three at first and added two more and he answered, " Five of course!" You then ask  him what you would get if you had three pears and added two more and he tells you that this level of maths is  far too difficult for a student in his class, and  that he would have to do an advanced course in pear arithmetic to answer that one.

It's interesting that cutting out 'Big Foot' and putting in 'God' suddenly changes an obvious statement into a super intellectual one, but it's true. Say you are having a debate " Does God exist?" and many would tell you that is a deep intellectual topic that only  the elite theologians, philosophers and theoretical physicists can weigh in on. Say you want to have a debate on the topic " Do fairies exist?" and you would be laughed out of court with  people telling you that you must have the intellectual development of a five year old, that is if they don't send you to a mental asylum  first. The truth of the matter is that the two questions, at least as far as the atheist is concerned, are absolutely equivalent. Substituting one invisible being for another is no different than substituting a cherry for a pear.

Probability Phobia

It all makes me wonder if there is a defence mechanism in the brain that actually affects your ability to understand when you have an argument that potentially calls into question a strongly held belief. Could the brain actually be capable of causing itself not to function? Can a person become momentarily less intelligent on account that their core belief is being challenged? It certainly has me thinking. I remember at school that many of my colleagues used to tell me that of all the topics within Mathematics, they hated 'probability.' I always found this baffling because to me 'probability' was my favourite part of Maths. I could easily grasp the concept of the ' lottery' and how the chances of outcomes would be affected by adding or subtracting cards with hearts or spades from a box that someone was drawing from. For me it was  easy to visualise what was happening and I couldn't understand why it would be so confusing to other students. On the other hand there were topics within 'Pure Maths' that really did make my head hurt. The second order differentials and double integrals were almost impossible for me to solve yet many of my colleagues with the 'probability phobia' seemed to get through these calculations relatively easily.

Now, I am wondering whether the underlying worldview of their religion was playing a part in their inability to grasp 'probability'. For many theists there really is no such thing as 'probability.' In their world view everything is ultimately ordained by God. There is no such thing as chance, coincidence is simply an illusion. As a lady I met recently put it, it's all divine arrangement. Maybe when such theists are presented with a paradigm that suggest that whether I get a ripe or rotten golden apple from a bag is something that only depends on Maths, the brain rejects and becomes incapable of grasping the entire concept. Meanwhile other aspects of Maths that are more deterministic, where there is one correct answer, are easier for them to get. Such aspects fit neatly into a worldview that suggests things must be the way they are as God knows what will happen with every atom of every piece of material. This is all of course just hypothesis but I think it is an interesting one for the psychologists to look at.

Anyway, regardless of what is going on at the conscious or subconscious level, the fact is that in many of these 'God arguments' theists will give you the compliment of suggesting that you have defended your position with sound logic and that they are at least not at that point able to respond to much of what you have raised.  To many atheists this will seem like a victory and maybe it is. But the thing to understand is that in their mind you have won not because your position was stronger, but because you were a bit more prepared than them for the fight. Also the fact that they don't fully understand the points you made gives them a reason not to change their position. Rightly, they take the view that they would have to spend some more time going over what you just said before they could even begin to consider changing their position. So, if the objective is to keep your faith alive there is definitely an advantage in not understanding. I think they are often convinced that there are arguments that persons like Lee Strobel and Deepak Chopra have that could have your argument for dinner. They just have to study them and come back for you next time.

One lady I spoke to was literally beating up on herself for what she thought was a personal failure on her part to defend her position properly. She vowed to go back and read up on her arguments so she could be more convincing next time. I felt like telling her she was just being too hard on herself. That is the problem with religion, it always makes the individual follower feel they are not worthy. They have problems representing their side because the underlying belief system is flawed with internal contradictions at every turn. The problem is the message not the messengers.

It is ironic that within religion itself, not understanding is a virtue. Christians will tell you quite freely that there are many things in their faith that they don't understand fully. The trinity, transubstantiation, the problem of evil, many theists will confess to their inability to understand these things. But most will never think of reconsidering their beliefs due to their lack of understanding. In fact the mystery just makes the thing more beautiful . They are confident that their faith is the right one whether they understand it or not. All will be revealed one day and even though they have no idea what the revelation will be it will confirm that it was the right decision to have accepted what their faith is telling them now.  It's a curious double standard. They withhold judgement on things they don't understand when they come from outside but will accept prior to understanding when the argument comes from within.

Well there is nothing we atheists can do about such things but it does seem to me that so long as the average theist feels that he or she is not our intellectual equal we will have problems in promoting our point of view. We have to level the playing field in that respect. The only way to change that is through the education system, especially in the Caribbean. Logic, reasoning and  especially logical fallacies should be topics that everyone does alongside Maths and English. For sure everybody should understand and appreciate how the scientific method works. It is unfortunate that currently it is only people that take the decision to pursue Science at the highest level  that actually get to be taught exactly how the system works. Understanding the scientific method and how hypotheses are developed and tested  is easier than grasping the rudiments of long division and the latter is a staple part of the primary school curriculum.

So, maybe if we put the critical thinking as part of the core exercise regime in education we will see more Christians who have the strength to defend their position . The only downside is that  by the time they reach their optimum condition, they will almost certainly find that there is no position there to defend.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Trying to avoid the elevator

It was the talk of the secular world for weeks and I tried to stay far away from it. Yes, I was trying my best to avoid the 'elevator.' It is amazing how the  now infamous elevator incident blew up on the internet. Just google the word 'Elevatorgate' and pages of opinions come up.

It all started when a leading atheist blogger, Rebecca Watson, spoke of an incident at a skeptic conference. She was invited for coffee in a guy's room while alone with him in an elevator at 4am. She spoke on a video blog of how uncomfortable she felt about this type of approach and advised males in the skeptic community not to act like that. It seemed a simple enough comment and one that was perfectly understandable. However, since her statements, people from all over the atheosphere have jumped on to the elevator, one person no less notable than  the most famous of all atheists, Professor  Richard Dawkins.

 Dawkins suggested that the incident was blown out of proportion given the far greater atrocities that women in Muslim cultures have to endure. Rebecca was offended by the implication that her experience was trivial and asserted that Richard Dawkins just "didn't get it." Thereafter more secularists stormed the elevator in droves some calling Richard a misogynist and others labelling Rebecca as a " feminazi." Thankfully, it seems that that as quickly as this whole elevator shot up into prominence it is gradually making its way back down to ground level. So why I am I getting on the elevator now when most people have since jumped off? Perhaps its claustrophobia. It's often  much easier to think when you don't have a set of bodies all around you screaming while smothering you in a confined space.

One of the last people to say her piece on the 'elevator' was Greta Christina one of the top voices in the atheist blogs. In this article she explained her internal conflict of not wanting to talk about it and  still needing to talk about it. Ironically, she ended by saying that  we should keep talking about it. I interpreted this to mean not that we should close the doors and ride the elevator up to the top again, but rather that we should keep alive the debate about the issue surrounding gender issues in the atheist movement. It's a great point I think, because the debate as much as a ' mountain out of a molehill' as it might have been has highlighted that there is still much to be learnt by us all.  I have to admit that her call to to the atheist bloggers to talk, made me rethink my decision to walk past the elevator. So, here I am.

I certainly am not going to dig further into who was right or wrong in the story. This is not because I want to take a 'politicallly correct' neutral position. I simply feel that when it comes to gender issues it is better for me to do more listening than talking. From that perspective I agree with Greta's plea  for the men to " listen to what the women are saying." It's the same as how I would expect that if an issue of race came up in the secular community, greater weight would be given to what we as blacks or racial minorities had to say.

In thinking through how this whole episode played out I can't help but realise how in a broader sense we have an 'elevator' problem in the atheist community. A problem that can  prevent us from reaching the heights we could otherwise attain. Maybe is just a natural thing, but we atheists have shown a tendency to 'elevate' those who we perceive to be principal spokespeople in our community. I understand very well why it is tempting to do this. While we constantly go on in atheist circles about how much reason guides us in our lives, the truth is that the action of leaving religion after many years of following God can be intensely emotional. I do feel very moved myself when I reflect on my 'emancipation from mental slavery,' to use the words of Bob Marley. I have heard many people express similar sentiments. When you look at the journey, you can't help but  be thankful to those most visible in the atheist world who have helped you on your passage in one way or another. It is not unusual to hear people speaking of how the strident voices of  atheist activists have liberated them. Non-believers from many different backgrounds have told me how reading Richard Dawkins' " The God Delusion"  changed their lives. I certainly understand the reaction to Dawkins' writing, he was a huge influence on my life as well. Always engaging in style, he speaks with a level of clarity that makes the arguments he makes very difficult to resist.

While, it is no doubt humbling and an honour for persons like Dawkins to receive such plaudits from us, there is a downside as well. When we view people like Richard Dawkins as 'changing our lives' we risk elevating them to a position way above the rest of the atheists on the ground.  This means we can react to situations involving them in a manner lacking in reason and rife with emotion. It can, as we saw in 'elevatorgate', go both ways.

 You  can be led to defend the man purely on the basis of reputation. Chiding those out there for criticising the person who has  arguably done more for the modern atheist movement than any other. Then, on the other side there are those that will respond in a way that those in Rebecca Watson's corner did. They will express an elevated level of disappointment in Dawkins for the very reason that they have or had so much respect for him. " How could you as a hero of mine, do something that hurts me so much?" would be the type of lament that you will hear.  That is the problem with the 'elevators' that send no more than five or six chosen few to the top of the building. If there is a snap in someone's line of reasoning at altitude, tension is released and you can easily be crushed if you are standing underneath.

We have to in all this remember that Richard Dawkins as well as other atheists popular from blogs and podcasts are  human. Yes, those that have worked hard in the atheist movement and made a difference deserve to be recognised and lauded for their efforts. We should lift them up but we should never elevate them. Like the star quarterback, we can lift our main playmakers on the shoulders when they win a game for us, but when kickoff comes  for the next game we all have to be back on the field in a team huddle ready to take on the next challenge. This is as much a message to self as to those out there. I have tried my best to let those public atheists that have inspired me in some way know this, but I have to still remember that they are not authorities in every sphere.

We know that a large number of our believer friends are already laughing at us for getting stuck on the elevator that they ride without difficulty everyday. For them elevation is the name of the game, there is nothing they love more than an argument from authority and they always feel that they are in the ascendancy. They will tell us we shouldn't worry because none of us could ever come close to the three persons that are in the rarefied air of  the top floor office. A significant portion of them will think that once we get on the elevator the only way we can go is down.  We are destined to be stuck in the  basement where the number of bodies in such a small  space will lead to extremely high temperatures. There will be much wailing but no one will hear the alarm no matter how many times we press the 'emergency' button.

I don't worry too much about the Christian elevator views that can't be proven. However, we might just give them an ear when they suggest that we have followed their lead by elevating our elite to the level of their clergy. I cringe whenever I hear them  talk of  'Pope Richard Dawkins.' I do think this is an absurd comparison, but if we don't keep watching ourselves there could be a time in the future where there is a kernel of truth in this type of remark..

So, we have to try to avoid the elevator at all costs and not just because of the level of vulnerability being in such tiny places can bring to those on  the wrong side of a  power imbalance. If we don't use elevators there will also never be another "elevatorgate" and I think all of us would be relieved at that.

To me the stairs seems a much better option for atheists anyway. It may take us longer to get to where we want to go, but we can all make the trek together, encourage each other along the way with no one surging floors ahead. It will also mean that, unlike our friends on the believers' side, we will reach the top through our own efforts without relying on what is above us to pull us up.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

My Bizarre Baptism

Whenever people get into discussions as to who is a real christian, inevitably you get into talk of baptism. So big is baptism from a christian perspective that  in the atheist community they now have a
de-baptism ceremony to dry away the sin of being born again. Some say that de-baptism is like being born again, again. When I think back to my own baptism I always smile because for me the process was a bit unusual.

When I was 16 years old I started to attend confirmation classes at my Anglican church in Barbados. There was nothing especially significant about this.I suppose it was a rite of passage, but to most of us it was just something we went through so that we would be able to partake of the bread and wine on Sunday mornings. While it was cute to see  five year olds going up enthusiastically for their blessings pulling there reluctant parents along, it was different once you reached teen years. At that point it was just not cool to be up at the altar and have the priest pull away the cup from your face at the last moment as he recognised that you  were one of those " not quite there yet" members of the flock. In my case things were even worse, since the priest had to reach up a bit to place his hand on my head for blessing. So the way to avoid such continued altar embarrassment was to get confirmed. Yes, we all wanted to get to that promised land not of milk and honey, but of wafers and red wine.

That was the background to my motivation for confirmation.  It was no surprise then, that I didn't start the class with any great expectations. However, I actually enjoyed the year studying my faith and the bible with other young people. Truth be told, it was probably the first time that I gave a lot of thought to my belief system, exploring a number of the moral implications of the faith. Perhaps it was the first of many steps that got me to where I am today.

All went well until I got a call from the priest on Friday, two days before my scheduled confirmation ceremony. He gave me no further information other than I should meet him at the church the next day. He needed to talk to me alone urgently. This was a worry. For one thing it would mean missing part of the West Indies versus Pakistan cricket test match which was at an interesting stage. But ,more importantly, what could he possibly need to see me about? A request by your priest to see you urgently is only marginally second to a similar calling from your school principal.

So, as you can imagine, it was a nerve racking night. What had I done or left undone? As far as I knew I had followed all the pre-confirmation rules and had completed a successful year of training. I even went through the trouble of making up a  plausible story about how I betrayed a friend's trust, so that I could have a "confession." I was so sure I had all the bases covered. What on earth could he want to talk to me about at this 11th hour?

When I arrived at the church office , the priest was holding my baptismal certificate. We were required to provide these before we were confirmed. It was just a formality, or at least so I thought. The 'father' shook his head sadly. "This is not a baptismal certificate." he said coldly. " This only shows that you were christened. A christening is NOT a baptism. As far as we ( the Anglican church) are concerned the ceremony you had was simply to give you your name. To be recognised by us you have to be baptised in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. You have not gone through that and therefore cannot be presented for confirmation based on this."

My mouth dropped open. What was he talking about? Christening , baptism, po-TAY-to, po-TAT-to what difference did these words make? I, for obvious reasons, don't quite  remember the details of that B-day in question, but I had enough faith that my parents would have had me baptised properly. Surely it was just a misunderstanding. A  frivolous objection like the , "He's not an American"  tirade that Barack Obama has had to fight. It was true that I was not baptised Anglican or Catholic but I wasn't initiated by some fringe cult group. It was the " Church of God"  for God's sake, an established denomination in Barbados. But my priest would have none of it, what he held in his hand was not a bona fide baptismal certificate. I was up a creek.

How could I face my colleagues on Sunday? After a year of dutifully attending classes I had fallen tragically at this last hurdle. Then, out of the blue  my pastor hit on something. A smirk came to his face. I had no idea what there was to be happy about but I certainly hoped it would be some sort of resolution in my favour. He took up a wooden bowl that was lying around and sent me to the kitchen, with the simple instruction to fill it up to the brim. So, I went and did likewise.

On  my return he simply dipped his finger in the bowl, made a cross on my forehead and said, " I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy spirit. There! You are baptised now, all's fine for Sunday."  Once again I stared at the man incredulously. That was it, just like that he was able to get around this administrative technicality? There were no witnesses, no god parents, no prayers, no music, no liturgy we weren't even in the church proper. The priest didn't even have on robes.This was the Anglican Church, the masters of ritual and standing on ceremony, yet for this one evening no such details were necessary. It was a miracle if I ever saw one.

Yes, I was duly informed that all that mattered was that the deed was done in the sight of God. Now, we could proceed.  Still, it just wasn't fitting well with me, it was all too bizarre. I asked whether I could really get confirmed the next day since according to him I had only at that moment truly become a Christian. Wasn't there some rule for moving to 'graduation' so quickly? No, I was told that there are people in the bible who were baptised, confirmed and ordained all on the same day so this was really no big deal.

I went home still trying to take in what had occurred. I swore I was the first person in history that had a 'do it yourself' baptism. I had actually got my own holy water straight from the kitchen tap. I joked that if anyone questioned under whose authority I was baptised that day, I will tell the truth. It was under the Barbados Water Authority. I also remember thinking how unsustainable the whole thing was because I simply poured the rest of the holy water down  the drain when I was finished. At least  it could have been used to flush a toilet the next time the water went off.
Today I still chuckle at the thought that ordinary pipe water could suddenly become holy because a man dipped his finger in it. Even at that time, I remember thinking that he could as well have looked at me and just said " Abra Cadabra !"Anyway, I went ahead and was confirmed with no fuss. It took me 20 more years before I was able to break free of the superstition, but I like to think on that night before confirmation a few cracks showed up in my Christianity.

So, maybe I was baptised twice, maybe once, maybe even not at all. I guess it just depends on who you talk to and what perspective they hold. What I can tell you is that I have not had my de-baptism yet. I can only hope that the 'undo' process is not as complicated. To make sure, when comes my day to go under the dryer, to vaporise the dogma I once was washed in, I will ask the person administering the ritual, to let me go back through for a second cycle.