Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Praisey Mindset: The Sunday School song that starts it all

Hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelujah! Praisey the Lord!

There is no way that you could have grown up going to Sunday School in the Caribbean and not know this song. I know, I know it's "Praise ye" not "Praisey" but it was years after my early Sunday School days that I understood that. So, the song will always be called 'Praisey the Lord' as far as I am concerned. You may laugh, but I used to think that Praisey was just another name for God. After all, the Lord seemed to have so many others, God, Christ, Holy Spirit, Yahweh, Yeshua, Jesus, El Shaddai, Elohim, Saviour, Prince of Peace, the Alpha and Omega, why not Praisey? It made just as much sense as the other names at the time. There was even a period when I felt I had a personal relationship with 'Praisey'. Anyway as is the case with so many things you sing at church, the  meanings of words don't matter too much. So, I never asked for clarification.

Although there were other  tunes that could liven up a Sunday morning, none is engraved in my memory as much as 'Praisey the Lord.' It was a favourite of children and teachers alike . That secret weapon that any song leader could  introduce, certain in the knowledge that it would wake everybody up and have bodies moving in the pews. Even back in those days I was not certain that  the claim that Jesus was the saviour of the world  was true, but I knew that 'Praisey the Lord' could bring salvation to any boring Sunday school class.

It's interesting to look back and try to figure out why this song was always such a hit. ' Praisey the Lord' was by no means only for children either. Indeed, I can remember this song being launched in the middle of deanery youth services and even during  traditional Sunday morning 8 o'clock mass. I think what made the song so popular was that it was more than just a song. It was a fun game as well. Children, youths, adults and seniors  all like to play and that's what made 'Praisey the Lord' a winner.

The video above gives some indication of how you do 'Praisey the Lord.' Basically, that is how it went.  The congregation was divided into two halves. Generally each of the halves was assigned a song leader. One side of the church were labelled as team 'Hallelu'  and the other as
 'Praisey.' The introduction of the song would be played and the song leader would signal to the first side and they would  stand  and sing, "Hallelu, hallelu, hallelu, hallelujah!"  They would then sit down and the other  side would stand and respond on cue with, "Praisey the Lord!" The leader would urge them to outdo the 'Hallelu' people in terms of volume. More often that not this was achieved. After that, battle lines were drawn, it was up to the 'Halellus' to raise the bar further and try to outdo the 'Praiseys' effort. And so as the song went on it got louder and louder and often faster and faster as people got more into it.

When the pace quickened it meant that you had to be lighter on your feet too, because you found yourself often back up in the air as soon as you sat down. So, if you didn't pay attention or were slow, you could get caught out standing for the wrong part, singing at the wrong time or missing your cue entirely.  Not surprisingly, as people sang faster and louder, tone and singing in key would go out the window. By the third or fourth 'Hallelujah' people were bellowing at the top of their voices, shouting like you would at a local fish market. Probably this was the only time as children that we were allowed to shout as loudly as our lungs would permit.  Believe you me, we stretched the envelope to the max. As a five year old it was simply astonishing to think you could get to that noise level without getting even so much as  a 'Shush' or 'finger on lip' from an adult in your midst. I suppose that was close enough to heaven for us.

The song could go for several rounds as people challenged themselves to take it up a notch next time. This meant that  the tune could easily last over 20 minutes . The climax was generally a rousing long held out ' Praaaaaaaiiiiiisey the Lord!'  Everyone joined in for that, even the 'Hallelus' who would reluctantly switch sides for the finale. Inevitably there would be some 'rebel' who would start up with another "Hallelu, Hallelu"and that would mean on for another lap, and the fun would continue. It was definitely hard to stop " Praisey the Lord" once in got going.

In recent times I seem to be remembering 'Praisey' a lot. It comes back to me regularly when I get into debates or discussions about God with Christians or listen to debates on podcasts or youtube. There is definitely a ' Praisey' mindset that seems to stay with you after Sunday School days.  I remember in my church days in Barbados writing two songs that actually gained some popularity on the gospel scene. One was called " Sing His Praises!" the other was called " Sing Hallelujah!" So I was definitely caught up in the 'praisey' fad myself. Today on Christian forums online you see  a lot of 'Praisiness' in evidence. Below is a fictional example, but it represents what you typically see.

Posted Message: I am happy to report that my daughter that had an asthma attack last night is now doing much better. The Lord is marvellous! Thank you all for your prayers. We must always give him praise.

Responder 1: Hallelujah, The Lord's name be praised!

Responder 2: He is worthy! Praise his holy name!

Responder 3: Hallelujah, Hallelujah!

Responder 4: Hallelu, Hallelujah, Praise his Name!

Responder 5: HALLELUJAH!!





Responder 10: PRAISE HIM!!!! PRAISE HIM !!!!!!PRAISE HIM!!!!!! PRAISE HIM!!!!!!



You can see clearly here the 'Praisey' influence that goes all those years back. The same two key words 'Hallelujah' and 'Praise'. Today in the 21st century, things have changed a bit. Instead of trying to drown out your neighbour with noise,  you add volume by using ALL CAPS or simply typing the word more times. To take things up an extra notch you bring in more exclamation marks!!!!!! and even bolding.  Then you can just elongate the words and repeat as much as you want. I saw someone actually post the message below, I am not kidding.


Thankfully that person didn't bother to tack on 'Praise the Lord.' He would have probably needed a new laptop for that. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with believers using all the features available on their keyboard to get God's attention. It is clear that God is well into this internet age, he has millions of friends on facebook in spite of  the fact that he has no recent posts. I even heard a lady say that God downloads songs into her spirit. Not sure if he is using itunes but it is quite clear that the Lord is very open to working with the latest technology. Now it would appear that he has Steve Jobs himself to do the necessary updating.

I must admit that these things seem a bit comical to me, but in all seriousness, if you believe that God will hear you if you type more EMPHATICALLY, go right ahead. If you think it demonstrates your level of faith to your fellow believers when you do that, that is fine too. If you think that such proclamations in BOLD will bring unbelievers into the fold, that's OK too. If you believe in Him, no one should try to stop you from expressing yourself how you wish. So I can't say I am a fan of the atheists who respond to the 'Praisey' comments with "What the &*%#*@%*$&*%*$*%#@#!" It contributes nothing to the dialogue and only adds to keyboard suffering.

Where I have a problem is when the 'praisey' mindset finds its way into debates or discussions between atheists and theists regarding the existence of God. Similar to the way we did it when singing 'Praisey' as children, these debaters have specific words which the people on their side are required to say. They may 'hear' what the other side is saying, but it is not a matter of responding to an argument as much as it is restating what they said the time before. Maybe faster, in a louder voice in a different key but always the same message. Indeed, maybe they don't respond to atheist arguments because they assume what we are going to say. They think of us saying 'hallelu' and they just get up with 'praisey' all the time. And more often than not from a 'praisey' point of view they win hands down. There are more singing on their side than ours for sure, so we can't match them for sound. And just like the 'praiseys' in the Sunday School song they always seem to get the last word too.  The long held out phrase to end the discussion. It happens because often atheists get tired after a certain point, of making the same argument over and over without them  being addressed. We bow out once we realise we are not making headway. In a way, Christians make us play their game, for we end up being as repetitive as they are. We have to, because if they are not answering our points we end up having to restate them and it becomes as repetitive as "Hallelu."

The only difference is that we don't generally resort to turning up the decibels although we do try to change the rhythm and the tone as we go along, just to see if a different strategy will lead to better understanding. It seldom works, because they are only counting down the time as we talk, looking forward to springing up from their seats and shouting "Praisey the Lord" one more time.

So here's how the  'Praisey' mindset works in debates. The atheist makes a point the theists counters, the atheists counters the counter argument, the theists repeats original counter argument without any acknowledgement of directly previous counter argument from atheist. Atheist restates the previous counter argument that was not addressed by the theists last counter argument and the cycle continues. Sounds confusing? Here are two examples:

Praisey Argument One

Atheist:  I don't believe in God because there is no evidence. You are making the extraordinary claim that there is a supernatural being controlling everything in the world. The burden of proof is on you to give justification for that belief.

Theist: But where is your proof that God doesn't exist? You believe in science. I choose to live and praise my God. Science has not proved that there is no God.

Atheist: That is true, but the point I was making is that the burden of proof is on you, because you are making the God claim. It has to be like that, otherwise you couldn't say you didn't believe in fairies unless you could provide evidence for the non existence of fairies.

Theist: I am still waiting on your proof that your atheism is correct. You have not provided a shred of evidence on your side so far. Your position is just one of blind faith.

Atheist: No, it's not,  as I said before the burden of proof is not on the person who is challenging the claim. Atheism is not a faith anymore than 'off'is a TV channel. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Theist: Jeez, you just dance all over the place with a lot of fancy talk but you still have given me NOTHING! Not one piece of evidence to support your belief that no God exists. You expect me to take you seriously???? What is your evidence that God does not exist?

Atheist:  Again, I am saying to you that you are asking the wrong question. You are the one required to give support for your claim. I am not making any claim, my disbelief is due to lack of supporting evidence for your claim. Where is your evidence that Santa Claus is not real?

Theist: Well that does it. This conversation is over, you are not responding to me. Now you are answering my question with a question. You guys are so silly, no wonder God calls you FOOLS. Thank God I am not so blind to JESUS as you.YOU BETTER FALL ON YOUR KNEES WHEN HE COMES TO YOU.  All I can do is PRAY FOR YOU. OHHH PRAISE  THE LORD THANK GOD !

Praisey Argument  Two

 (This time the 'praisey' theist starts)

Theist: Oh praise the Lord! How can anybody look at the beauty of creation and deny that there is a God. It just doesn't make sense to me. They would have to be blind. .

Atheist: But the existence of the natural world is not evidence of anything other than the natural world. You can't just assume that God made nature and then claim that the existence of nature proves God, that's circular reasoning. You are assuming what you want to prove at the beginning. In any case if you think God made nature, then who made God? How do you account for him?

Theist: So who made creation then? How did all this get here? A design must have a designer? A painting must have a painter?

Atheist: Well,  we have ideas about origins of the universe through Big Bang cosmology but  still scientists don't have a clear idea of the state of the universe further back than the 'Planck time.' So, there are still many unanswered questions. I have to accept that I really don't know exactly  how everything got here, but a God doesn't help explain. Because you still have to explain his origins. You are just answering one mystery with another mystery.

Theist: Just as I thought. You don't know. I will ask you again. How can you get CREATION without a CREATOR? You think that all this came from nothing? When it comes down to it the answer that you atheists have to the big questions are " Don't have a clue, don't have a clue and don't have a clue."

Atheist: But you don't know either, you still haven't given an explanation for how your God got here. How did God come to be? Did he appear from nothing? You are making an argument from ignorance, putting in a God that you have no evidence to support. Then you claim that you know this God exists because of his 'creation.' Why do you assume that the universe was created?

Theist: You are so arrogant, now you are calling me ignorant. I can't understand why you keep denying God. How do you think you are able to breathe? Who gave you that oxygen? Who woke you up this morning? When was the last time you created a human being, MR. ATHEIST? You can't even do one millionth of what God can do. He created you, gave you life and a brain you could use and you use it to deny the existence of him who gave you everything. It's very sad. Why don't you just give God the Praise. ALL PRAISE AND GLORY ON TO HIM!

Atheist:  All those things are just assumptions. As I said before, you can't just assume that all of those things you mentioned were created by God if we are trying to establish whether God exists or not. You are just making bald assertions. All your arguments rest on the assumption that God's existence is fact. How can you know what God did if you can't even establish that God is? And we still haven't addressed the point about how God came to exist.

Theist: This is really ridiculous. You have no idea where anything came from and  yet you are rejecting my explanation that gives you all the answers you are looking for. God's creatures continue to choose darkness over light, blindness over sight and death over light. ALL CREATION TESTIFIES TO THE MAGNIFICENCE OF GOD. HE IS WORTHY, SO WORTHY, WORTHY TO BE PRAISED. I PRAY  that you will one day accept the LORD AS YOUR SAVIOUR!!! So that we can be  TOGETHER PRAISING GOD FOR ETERNITY IN HEAVEN!!!! SO, REPENT BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE!!!!  HALLELUJAH PRAISE THE LORD MOST HIGH!!!

Well, what can I say?  These are the 'praisey' arguments we see and hear everyday. I have to say that in spite of  what Harold Camping may be saying about October 21st, I feel we will be stuck with these types of arguments for many years to come. We in the secular community just have to be patient and continue to find strategies for survival. It won't be that easy in this 'praisey' world we live in.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christianity = Humanist+

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

You  just haven't picked the right strawberry yet

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

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

"Just take it, it's free!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humanism- The place where all faiths intersect

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

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