Saturday, December 22, 2012

Irrational response to irrational behaviour: The problem with turning to faith in times of tragedy

There are times when as a blogger in the atheist community you feel you just have to speak out.  In the aftermath of the slaughter of 26 in Connecticut last Friday, now is one of those times. My heart goes out to the families and friends of those who died in the face of such unimaginable horror.

Not surprisingly, the response to the massacre particularly on the internet, was to call for prayers for the families of the victims as people tried to grapple with the enormity of the tragedy and how to make sense out of the senseless. We atheists, when faced with these sudden rush of 'prayer warriors' in these awful moments find ourselves in an awkward position. Two years ago I reflected on this when I wrote about a similar type of tragedy in Barbados when six young ladies were killed as a result of the throwing of a Molotov cocktail into a clothing store. I titled that blog "When is the right time to criticize?" and I find myself asking that same question once again today.

The thing that bothers me after these tragedies is that there is an attempt by many in the faith world to shut down any view that runs counter to the idea that we all need to pray to God for comfort to the grieving. Quick dismissals of anybody who suggests that this afterlife is simply a product of wishful thinking. Just a suggestion that it might be a better approach to try to deal with the reality on reality's own terms leads to us being lambasted as being insensitive, uncaring, disrespectful and not allowing people to grieve in peace. We are often made to feel that we are not much better than the murderer ourselves, stripping mourning family members of their spiritual well being after they have already survived such a severe physical loss. We then get accused of having a personal agenda and for using this completely inappropriate time to get up on our 'soapboxes.'

In a way, I can understand these criticisms. When you are leaning on God for all you are worth, the last thing you want is to hear someone kicking over your support by saying that there is nothing other than a concept in your mind holding you up. But that is just the nature of life. Truth is truth and sometimes it is hard and cold and cruel. Trying to spruce it up in a fancy dress and coat may give you a warm feeling for a while but it doesn't change reality at its core. Ultimately you don't end up avoiding pain, you merely delay it and the deep scars can remain as open wounds for years and even decades to come.

But generally theists don't see the God belief that way, they will often tell you when it comes to things like God and the afterlife, they just NEED to believe it. It's the only way to face the darkest hours of their lives. People have admitted to me from time to time that they know that the beliefs they have are in all likelihood not true, but they just must believe them in order to get through life happy, healthy and content.

I have heard it in the media that the time to deal with the reality of having better gun control is now; the  time to deal with the reality of a mental health system that is not working is now; but the time to address the widespread irrational belief in a supernatural entity that makes people prone to embracing a delusion seems to be never.

What happened last week Friday was that an entirely irrational act was committed which led tragically to the death of 27. We can speculate as to what was behind the irrational act. In all likelihood a mental disorder of some sort or another. Whatever the cause, an irrational act is what it was and irrational acts come as a result of irrational thoughts and irrational thoughts can be traced back to irrational beliefs. No matter how we try to spin this one, it is the irrational that lies at the heart of this massacre. Somewhere along the line, something got in the way of human reasoning and lives were lost as a result. Logic suggests that the only way to deal with a problem of irrationality is to bring rationality.

Piling on the irrationality

But what do we do in times like this?  Well, we do exactly the opposite. We run headlong into the arms of anti- reason, anti-logic and anti-evidence. Meanwhile we jettison any ideas of using a method that is reality based. It's all about talk of children running about in heavenly puddles that we know are as real as the caramel rivers in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. What we are doing is piling on the irrational on top of the irrational. Somehow we believe that if we replace deadly irrational beliefs by irrational beliefs of the warm and fuzzy kind, one set will cancel out the other and we will be left with a saner and safer world. It's not going to work.

The reality is that when we keep piling up the irrational beliefs we end up digging ourselves into a deeper and deeper hole. Irrational beliefs whether in fairies, pixies, goblins, gods, angels or demons often lead to flawed reasoning and bad thinking habits. Once you get into the routine of holding something as true even if you have no evidence to support it, that behaviour can become an integral part of your life. You become sloppy in checking out facts and poor at second guessing yourself in all areas if what you believe 'feels right.' Once you make desirability of a belief one of the criteria you use for determining its truth you put yourself in trouble, if as a community or a country you actively encourage that attitude it can become thousands of times worse. You end up with a society who can be controlled and manipulated so long as you can push the right emotional buttons or sweeten the belief pot enough. This at the end of the day, is not going to give you a society that will learn to be progressive or deal with the real problems it faces head on.

Reason can be a great ally even in the most dire circumstance.  It's true that people speak of faith in the midst of stressful situations regularly, but when you listen to their stories carefully, it  becomes clear that it was their ability to put training into action and think through the steps they needed to take rationally that was often the key to survival or saving a life. These accounts tells me that rational behaviour in all situations is what we should be promoting, rather than the need to believe in the supernatural.

So, that is what scares me when I see the sprint into the arms of Jesus that I see now. I am puzzled by the notion of trying to find comfort in a God who either directly caused or passively allowed the action from which the afflicted now seek relief. If God's primary interest was the happiness of the families, the thing to do was to stop the massacre from happening in the first place, not just sit on the sidelines watching and then run out at the end with a heavenly tissue to wipe away a tear. It's a case of too little too late for God. Like having your star striker in a football (soccer) match scoring a wonder goal in the 89th minute that takes the team from being 6-0 down to 6-1. In those occasions celebrations of the losing team are muted. I don't see why God's supporters should be upset when I am not cheering about what he is desperately trying to do now, deep into injury time.

What I see in times like this is irrationality being advertised like the latest brand of iPhone. Everyone in or around the tragedy feels obliged to do the godvertising and get in on the magical thinking marketing. Grieving relatives, fortunate survivors, brave first responders, counsellors, news reporters and presidents all feel obliged to speak about faith in some form. Thoughts and prayers being offered up, spirits of dead ones looking down, snowflakes as signs from them that everything is alright 'up there.' I know that many of these people are probably nominally religious if religious at all. For them it's just like taking part in a ritual. Saying the things that you say in tragedies, just because that's the custom and culturally we are perhaps primed to find comfort in such empty platitudes.

Faith becomes part of thinking routine

For some people the harm may be minimal. When they go back to 'normal' life they'll forget about these heavenly sentiments and embrace the rational life fully once more. The same President Obama that mentioned last week that he knows that Jesus 'called the children home' and that they are safe in a heaven for which no evidence exists, will be asking in the months ahead for strong empirical evidence to support the assertion of those that are arguing that fire arms in the hands of teachers would make kindergarten schools safe. Politicians like Obama may be able to turn on and off their faith switch to suit differing situations, but the masses in the country don't have regulators in their minds that work quite as well. Many will remember these faith messages long after Adam Lanza is a forgotten name.

The message that will stick with them is that faith is something we all need and should all strive to have, particularly in times of tragedy. They will become convinced that there are many times in life when faith in the unseen should be valued above evidence and logic. Once they buy into this way of thinking can we really blame them if they choose to follow their faith which says that the world is 6000 years old and give it greater weight than the evidence that is readily available and tells us that the correct number is in the billions? It's easy to slip faith in at these opportune times, but once it gets out their in the water you can't just filter it out.

People who are better at keeping scientific thought separate from faith ideas may fare better, but a lot of them will reach back for faith when they have a personal 'Sandy Hook' to deal with in life. They'll remember all the heroes in that tragedy that held on to their bibles and beliefs and consider that they'll need to do the same thing if they are to get through as well. When the next national or global disaster  comes a calling, memories will be evoked of sacred memorials and make shift crosses from last time and everyone will turn back to God. This is the cycle. The house of logic and reason becomes like a sand castle on a Caribbean beach, beautifully made, constructed painstakingly with intricate detail when the tide is out and things are calm,  but the whole edifice gets swept away in seconds as soon as an emotional wave crashes ashore.

People are turning away from deities in their numbers, churches are becoming emptier and more and more people are declaring openly that they are atheists or have no religious affiliation.The last bastion of the religious is the 'mass tragedy.' It is the one time that priests and pastors hold the limelight. The time when they are given liberty to say almost whatever they want, because in the eyes of the influential people in society, there is no such thing as too much faith in the wake of a disaster.

Still, there are glimpses of  little changes.  At least it was refreshing to see religious leaders being called out for making the ludicrous argument that God didn't save six year olds because we had the gall to expel him from the classroom.  So, maybe things are looking up.

I am encouraged to see the  progress we are making in getting people to discover the new dawn that can come in the light of reason, but our advance will continue to be stifled if those same people don't have enough faith in the ability of reason to give guidance through the dark and desperate nights as well.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Whether you're a dot or not: Get on there and make sure you're counted!

The Atheist Alliance International is administering a census that seeks to get an idea of the number of non believers in the world. Who are we? Where are we? What are our backgrounds?  The survey looks at demographics such as age range, gender, level of education, former religion (if any) and the term you prefer to be known by (atheist, agnostic, humanist, freethinker etc.)

It's been a challenge since the census suffered from a denial of service (DoS) attack on the first day it went up. The survey is back online now and the response has been steady, up over 87,000 now. I find myself looking back there from time to time because there is a running tally of the overall responses and pie charts representing how the breakdown of responses to the various questions is so far. It's there both from a global level and a country by country level.

The results are already interesting, with by far the greatest number of responses coming from the US. Brazil is in second place, which is perhaps a bit of a surprise, ahead of UK, Australia and then Canada. We always knew that atheism was skewed towards the men, but so far we are seeing that the ratio is about 3:1, which is probably not where we would want it to be. But that's why statistical studies are so important, by knowing where we are, we can take some actions to get to where we want to get to.

I am especially interested in how the Caribbean is doing. In trying to get a movement going there, those numbers will be especially useful to us. Small populations will of course mean numbers will be comparatively low. It also means that most of our countries don't show up on the globe they have on the site that shows high response countries turning steadily from a brown to green. Well, I guess that's what you get from being born on a 'dot.' But these  'dots' do add up and it's a pity that the secular world will need to do special searches for our countries if they want to see our numbers piling up. Maybe one day we'll have to stand up and insist on more 'high def' maps for these things to combat the anti 'dot' discrimination we have to live with now. But that's way in the future, we all have to deal with 'anti atheist' attitudes long before then.

Barbados my home country, has so far had 11 responses, which is interestingly enough not that few. I see that countries in Africa with large populations like Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya are barely in double figures if that. Trinidad and Tobago has got 55 responses which is certainly noteworthy and probably represents one of the strongest country responses in the world on a per capita basis. Jamaica had 30   responses which is good also.

Still, as encouraging as these numbers may be, a census like this will only be as good as the number of people that take part in it. We have to try to get every non believer we can on board if the effort is to really tell us valuable information. Let's try to get as many people counted from our 'dots' as we can. At the same time, let us show the world that these little dots in the region can be huge masses of reason.

So big or small, get on there and take the Atheist Census!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Trying to deny the undeniable: Why can't God come down like gravity?

"You'll definitely know it when it happens to you." 

It's the trope that I am hearing more and more nowadays as believers tell me that my conversion moment will come and it will be so emphatic that my life will instantly be transformed. God has a special plan for me and I better had be ready for him when the time comes. But there is an element of contradiction in this, because they will also say that I have to accept it, have my heart open to it in order to truly be able to experience it. But an undeniable experience is just that, it is what it is. It is one that by definition just can't be denied. Hearts open, closed, half way locked or on the floor there is just no other way of interpreting it. How could you possibly deny the undeniable, even if you wanted to?

The more in depth the discussions that I enter into with my theist friends, the more it appears to me that if and when I become convinced that a God exists, it will be in a single spectacular event. Something 'experiential' as one person put it. The kind of  'Saul on the road to Damascus' experience which I won't be able to deny. I have to admit that this worries me . It suggests that revelation comes from God knocking me over and beating the belief into me, rather than by just standing back and letting the evidence speak for itself. 

Tampering with the lab equipment - chemistry
I see it like if you go into the lab to do a chemistry experiment and you don't get the concentration measurement of the acid that you were expecting. Rather than looking at the mixture under review and making sure you prepared the chemicals in the way you were supposed to, you recalibrate the burette and tamper with the pipette until you get the result you want. 

In terms of evidence for God, Christians treat us like that burette. Instead of looking at the compositions of the solutions they want us to accept, they spend all their time trying to bias our 'readings', so we can give them back the 'right' results. What they forget is that just like in chemistry, tampering with the lab equipment is not going to change the nature of the reality under test. Reality is reality whatever the dials on our heart meters may tell us. Pulling my emotional strings to get me over to your side really doesn't prove anything one way or the other. That's why I am unimpressed with the claims of death bed conversions even if they are real. It is telling that a change from non belief to belief even under duress counts as evidence for God, for them. They never take into account that meters often malfunction in extreme conditions.

However, when when we change colours from a red blooded believer to a shade of grey agnostic atheist during the course of our lives, the theists want to dismiss our experimental conclusions as flawed. They insist we throw out all the chemicals that may have affected us, clean out all the beakers and start all over again from scratch. A change from belief to non belief they will argue means nothing, as they will say that God still exists whether we believe in him or not. I tell them that bringing such clear personal bias to an experiment could not get their findings published in any respectable journal but they tell me that the only publication that matters to them passed peer review by their saviour centuries ago.

Still, I am really trying my best to be open and understand what this 'experiential' evidence that theists talk so much about could be like. In trying to construct this idea, I am taking the key aspects of what these believers tell me. I have heard that this revelation is just something that hits you inside, when you feel it you'll know it is there. It is undeniable, impossible to explain from a scientific perspective but you just know that you know that you know.

Ok, I think we can use science and what we know through that method to study this concept of undeniability. I am not trying to compare types of evidence here, just the way that human beings react to something they consider undeniable. The type of reaction we have to something undeniable should be the same regardless of the way we come to the conclusion that we have experienced something we can't deny.

The closest thing to undeniable that I can think of in the natural world is the law of gravity. Sure, the purist will say not even that is strictly speaking certain, but it is as close to it as you can get in science. What the religious people are telling me is that the thing that they experienced, manifests itself in such a way that they can be as certain about it as we as general human beings are that gravity is real.

So, whatever it is that these people who have this personal experience go through, it leaves them with gravity-like certainty. Clearly the difference between the two examples is that the spiritual revelation is not something experienced by everyone, at least not yet. People experience this gravity-like spiritual awakening at different times in their lives. So I am quite open to the idea that God just hasn't gotten around to given me my heart jolt yet. Why God would have some of us wait decades while giving some others revelations at  age four is of course another of the mysteries in this convoluted novel that is God's, but we can wait for another day to explore that chapter.

The point I want to make here is that I would expect the reaction of those religious people fortunate enough to have the spiritually undeniable experience, to be similar to my undeniable experience of gravity. Curiously, when I look further, there are some differences when it comes to undeniablity in this spiritual realm.  Here is a look at some of the things that Christians and theists in general will say about their undeniable experiences that just don't measure up to me and my gravity.

1. The God I believe in turns up regularly

I could perhaps say the same thing about my gravity. Actually no, I would put it more like he came at the beginning of time and never left. Gravity is truly impossible to ignore. He is in our face from the time we walk out the house in a morning and see a leaf fall from a tree, to in the evening when we drop a fork into the sink before washing up after supper. Gravity is indeed so omnipresent that it is difficult to remember when was the last time you saw evidence of him. I mean, how many times did gravity reveal himself to you this week? You can't count because you don't even notice him, that's how eternal and ever present he is.

Compare this to how the believers speak of their 'undeniable' experiences with God. Ask people about how God has touched them and they will inevitably provide you with a list of events. A story about something that happened yesterday, or last week, last year, ten years ago. Some will tell you God has made his presence felt so many times they can't count them, but the fact that they can pinpoint specific God moments is telling.

I don't sit down marvelling about the time when gravity revealed itself in all its glory twenty years ago when I saw a coconut fall on a pavement. I don't have a journal set aside to remind me where and when I saw gravity at work. Even though I see gravity every day, I can't give you a single gravitational testimony, because he is always there.

If the spiritual experience of God was as undeniable as gravity, you would expect that theists would have similar difficulty in pinpointing specific instances of a God manifestation. A god that is always there should be always obvious to the believer. I can provide evidence of my gravity at any moment. Wake me up in the middle of the night and I can pick up a pen on my night stand and drop it. I don't need to give you anecdotes our point towards epic stories of how gravity moved through history.

The spiritual is different, but it shouldn't be. Sure, since I am not in their special club, I cannot expect them to provide evidence to my satisfaction, but they should at least be able to give immediate God examples to convince themselves. I know that people will say that the religious do see God in everything. That not even a breath can be taken unless God gives his say so.

That may be so, but they never go for these trivial arguments when they want to convince us through personal experiences. Whenever I have asked Christians to tell me of their evidence or experience that convinced them God was real, they give me something far more telling. A life transformed from drugs or prostitution, an illness defeated against the odds, a surprising job opportunity that came out of nowhere, or an indescribable super feeling that one day shot them deep down in their hearts. When it comes to convincing us our convincing themselves the more spectacular the evidence the better. But why the need to even bring these up? If God is the one who gets you out of bed everyday why do you need to reach further by bringing out these majestic accounts.

Indeed by emphasizing these major God moments they are in effect saying that the 'he woke me up this morning' proof does not cut much ice.  Interesting again to compare with my gravity. I don't need to look in to a meteor shower or some other once in a lifetime event to strengthen my belief in gravity. A  drop in the bucket is more than enough.

If the evidence is all around, you don't need to look beyond present time and place to prove it to yourself. You can't detect the presence of God without recognising the absence that immediately precedes and follows it. If you have to wait on something to show up at specific times it means it is spasmodic and that's not what you expect from something undeniable. That ex boyfriend that shows up regularly in your life, leaves you standing on your own just as often.

2. You need to understand (insert religion here) in order to understand your experience

Spiritual revelations tend to have a strange mix of the intellectual and the emotional, even as God supposedly can speak directly to the heart. It does make me scratch my head when I hear religionists tell me that it's so obvious that God made the world that even a five year old can see it, yet Prof. Richard Dawkins is unqualified to speak on whether there is a God or not because he lacks a PhD in theology.

Yes, God can move any heart, but you need to read up and learn exactly what he is going to reveal to you before he reveals it. God miraculously manages to reveal himself with a message identical to that which his followers told you in advance. I suppose God is like a lazy university lecturer who has his Teaching Assistant  hand out notes with worked examples on the first day of class and then brings back every one of those questions in the final exam. Not surprising then that students in every religion come back with 100% regardless of the name of the God that does the grading.

Again my gravity seems to beat out all of the religionists. Sure I can present references, resources from all branches of physics and cosmology and even at the quantum level to explain how my gravity works throughout the universe. I can give you all the differential equations that will make your head spin. But you know what? None of that is necessary. You can experience gravity without any prior knowledge in any field.

You don't need to speak ancient languages, you don't need to know Newton or Kepler,  you don't even need to be literate. You don't need to be at the age of reason either, a toddler in a pram understands that her favorite toy drops when she opens her hand. In fact even if you live alone on a desert island and never had a single human interaction, you can notice that things high up tend to fall. So universal is gravitational revelation you don't even need to be a human. You could be a chimpanzee or a primate on a branch of any evolutionary tree, but you know that when you let go of that twig you will fall.

Yes, the revelation of gravity has the ability to come down from on high and touch everybody, everywhere in the same way. But spiritual revelations not only seem to be open only to the privileged X %, followers apparently need to come with specific pre existing conditions as well.

3.  Sometimes in moments of weakness I have doubts

Doubts!!!? Doubts!!? How on earth can you have an undeniable truth and yet readily admit to moments of uncertainty. But this is exactly what believers who have this experience with God will tell you. They will speak of dark, desolate hours where they wonder what God is doing or if he is even there.  Then they will tell you they will get through after prayer or directly through a revelation of the same God.

I know they always have an explanation, but remember we are speaking of the UNDENIABLE. If something is clear and certain to you there is just no way you can doubt even for a second. Again I have never had this issue with my gravity. Not once in my life have I gone to bed with nagging feelings that things may not fall for me tomorrow the way that they did today. And it's not only me, nobody has ever taken me aside to tell me that they have worries over a drop in their gravity faith. You can only have doubts if you have some evidence that is in opposition to your certainty. Doesn't matter how fleeting or rare, doubt in any form means you have something that can be denied. Once again the spiritual experience falls flat in the face of gravity.

4.  You can never get the experience if you don't want it.

This is another very strange condition of an undeniable truth. This statement is a variant of 'your heart must be open.' When it comes to undeniable truths, there is literally no way you can reasonably come to another conclusion when presented with the facts. It doesn't matter how much I don't want to gravity to be real. How much I wish I could just take off in the morning and fly to work over the traffic. I can rationalize about how much better my life would be without gravity. The benefits of a life without gravity at least some of the time can easily be seen. If only we could turn off that earth attraction for just a moment.

But no matter how much we dream of these things, how many sci fi movies we come up with where this is possible, how much we wish upon a star or pray to a fairy, we can't will ourselves into becoming anti-gravitationalists. We would indeed feel justified to lock away in a mental institution, anyone that denied the existence of the law of gravity.

It's strange that in the spiritual realm, desire can have such a telling effect on the experience that you get.  No alarm bells go off when someone says no to their undeniable experience. No move to throw those who don't accept the revelation into an institution for the spiritually crazy. In fact, many believers have told me that to have a spiritual experience and not accept it as real is quite reasonable. Undesirable, but reasonable just the same. But it just doesn't follow, it's like telling someone you're a bit sad they don't believe in gravity, but you can accept it so long as they don't impose their anti falling dogma on you.

So I am left in confusion. I am to expect an experience straight to heart from an all powerful God that I have no power to deny and yet I have to make a decision to be open that heart and allow his omnipotence in.

Whatever the case, I simply wish God would leave my heart alone, it seems a bit of a cheat to circumvent the brain he gave me and just go inside and turn on some magic switch in the ventricle.

I would prefer if he left my internal organs alone and just provided the evidence for me like my gravity does. You would think that a deity that has dropped the ball so many times in the past would have grasped this simple concept by now.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Come join us on Freethinking Island!

Welcome to Freethinking Island! Where the prevailing winds of reason blow and the waves of evidence and logic flow!

Yes, last week was the first episode of "Freethinking Island" a podcast designed to bring the voice of Caribbean atheists, agnostics, humanists skeptics, freethinkers and whatever other species of non believer to the world. For a long time I have felt that notwithstanding the power that the written word can bring in highlighting our story in the islands, there is nothing more captivating than hearing the actual voices of those among us who have chosen to let go of God.

You can flip through any Christian based TV channel in the Caribbean and hear story after story of 'lost souls' who were 'set free' by Jesus and turned their lives around. Moving as these stories may be, for everyone of them, there are equally compelling accounts of people going in the other direction. Stories of individuals of all types, finding new purpose and drive in life after abandoning the faith that had previously held them in emotional and intellectual bondage. The problem is, nobody hears these stories.

At least until now.

'Freethinking Island' is seeking to change all that. In the last few years, I have come across many persons who have been 'set free' from religion, especially in the Caribbean. Now, on 'the island' you will get to hear these voices and realise that even in a part of the world where the rough seas of religion often mercilessly pound away at our shores; freethinkers with a different vision for what the islands could be are making their presence felt and taking a stand. I feel honoured to be now in a position that I can help them tell us of their experiences.

Helping me make this happen is Joy Holloway. She is the broadcast professional that has been guiding me through the ropes as a 'newbie.' I am learning fast that 'talk radio' is an entirely different challenge from writing blogs, but I am really relishing it. Joy is also very keen and  has a passion for reaching out to our people and getting Caribbean people to 'wake up' as she likes to put it.

Joy and I have a strange shared history in that we are not only both from the same island, Barbados, but  were in the same Sunday School class! We completely lost track of each other since then, only meeting up mere weeks ago through Facebook. Her journey has taken her since to New Jersey in the US and mine has led me to Calgary, Canada but we join forces now to promote the virtues of evidence, reason and critical thinking for the Caribbean. I hope that you will all join us on what promises to be  an exciting journey.

On 'the island' we also look forward to inviting  'tourists' from around the world. Leading voices that can bring an outside perspective and help to guide us as we start on this journey. At the same time we hope that our stories will enrich them and help them understand the challenges of  leaving faith for those of us that come from the region.

In the first episode we set out to give you a taste of what to expect in the weeks ahead and let you know who we are. I got into telling my own deconversion story and ended up going far deeper into things than I expected. I have to say it was cathartic and I was happy to get things out there in a way that I never had the opportunity to before. It means that I now have a one hour audio capsule that I can make available to anybody who wants to understand why, how, when or where I made the change.

Today I will leave that with you to listen to here. Having spoken to the public through written word for the last couple of years it was great to now be able to speak to listeners directly. I can only hope that others that join us on 'the island' will feel the same liberation as I did in sharing my story with the Caribbean and the world. Look out for Joy's story next time and make sure you keep tuning into 'the island' where the prevailing winds of reason blow!

Caribbean  Freethinkers' Society

This week has to go down as a memorable one for our secular movement in the Caribbean, because even as the podcast came online, there is now a new 'Caribbean Freethinkers' Society' blog/ website where the intention is to collate writings from many of the secular writers in our community in one place.  This will be another great resource and a 'one stop shop' for seeing what is going on in the region.

Great to see all this happening, I feel very proud to be part of a movement like this and I am grateful to all who have worked hard to make these initiatives happen. We have to rally around our West Indian freethinkers. We are by no means in the forefront of the world of non-believers yet, but at least we now have a team on the field and we are playing. We can only look to go from strength to strength.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Congratulations to our boys!: Beautiful Sunday morning mass with the West Indies cricket team

It was a glorious, glorious Sunday morning! A lift to my spirit that is difficult to describe. I tell you,  If there really was a heaven I would  have been in it. Yes,  I am proud of my team, the West Indies cricket team that on Sunday won the final of the T20 Cricket World Cup. For those of you not  familiar with the game, T20 stands for twenty 20, 20 overs a side. It's a shortened form of the game, developed to bring excitement, draw crowds out to the sport and please people who can't imagine sitting and watching a game for six hours of a day, to say nothing of the traditional five consecutive days that make up the conventional Test Matches. A T20 cricket match can be over in three hours, just a little bit longer than a football or soccer match.

The short length of the game and the concentration on entertainment as much as competition has led some purists to say that the game is not the real thing, notwithstanding that this is now the format of the game where you can make the millions of dollars. But whatever you think of the game, it was clear that this was a trophy that all the cricketing world were keen to get their hands on, and it is obvious that teams have now become focused on perfecting this new form of cricket, with all kinds of innovations  being used. So, for West Indies to come out on top after coming through tough first round, Super 8 and Semi final matches, and then win the final against Sri Lanka on their home ground with a roaring crowd behind them, was no small feat.

When I watched the celebrations at the end of the match on Sunday, I have to admit I was overcome. Try as I might, I just couldn't hold back the tears. Often those who prefer to spend Sundays in places with steeples, chapels, organs and wooden crosses, try to tell us who have abandoned such things, that we just don't know what it is to have a heart, to be moved by words, sermons and testimonies that are so central to their lives and who they are. I am convinced however, that the mass I had last  Sunday with the Windies was better than anything they could have got from the pulpit on that day. So, like a true evangelist I have to share the good news with those who weren't as fortunate as me. In case you think my service was one of those that was only about praising you are mistaken. Even as I joined in the mass of dancing and gyrating in the aisles with my boys in maroon, I made sure that the acts of these eleven West Indian apostles didn't make me miss the more important messages of the sermon.

A Bit of Old Testament History

Sir Garfield Sobers: Greatest of the greats
Before I get to the details of the sermon, a little Old Testament background is necessary to put the whole thing in context. For me West Indies cricket is something that runs deep in my blood.  From the time I was small, I was hearing the stories of  West Indies cricketing heroes. My father grew up in the Bayland in Barbados where many of the greats had their start. One of them Sir Garfield Sobers, widely acknowledged to be the greatest to ever play the game of cricket. I heard exploits of his feats as a boy and the talent even of his brothers George and Gerald. George in fact was married to one of my Aunts. A fact that I was always proud of, especially when I went to school in England for a while and told the boys at school that I was 'related' to the great Sir Gary.

West Indies with pace like fire
My Dad's interest in cricket meant that  from about six years old I was carried to watch games at Kensington Oval, the famous international cricket ground in Barbados. Long before I understood claims of God, Jesus and resurrection for sins, I had first hand experiences of gods on the cricket field. Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes,Michael Holding, Clive Lloyd, Joel Garner, Andy Roberts and Malcolm Marshall. These were the first deities I knew of. No human being in the world could stand up to these giants on the cricket field, no demon, however powerful could ever prevail against them.

Viv Richards - The Master Blaster
At that time it was the dream of every single boy to one day play for the West Indies. We would all have or time pretending to be one or the other of the 'greats' when we went out to play at lunch time. Unfortunately, most of us didn't go on to wear the maroon, although there was one a little bit younger than me who did. A quiet understated guy, who was somehow able even at eight years old, to bowl six balls in a row exactly on the same spot. His name was Ian Bradshaw and he would one day hit the winning runs to win a trophy for the West Indies in 2004. That was our last major win before the one on Sunday and that had also been a tear jerker to watch.

So, from early cricket meant a lot to me. But it was more than bat and ball to me then and it is more than bat and ball to me now. Even though I never got anywhere near the top in that sport I love, I took a lot from what I saw in my heroes as motivation. At the time, as a black boy coming from a tiny island like Barbados, it was hard to feel that you could be world class and compete with the best. But seeing guys who looked like me coming from the same small villages I walked through, dominating people from vast countries like England, Australia and India gave me a great deal of confidence. It really made me feel that if I put my mind to it and worked hard I could be up there with the world's best in whatever field I chose to pursue. There was no other context in which I saw outstanding Caribbean performance on display and I often wonder where I would have gotten the idea I could truly make it to the top, if they hadn't been these guys to look up to then.

I grew up with the West Indies by my side, almost literally. Many nights when we were playing in Australia, I went to sleep with them under my pillow as I tucked away my favourite 'Tony the Tiger' transistor radio. That radio would be playing the voice of another Tony, Tony Cozier giving the commentary as we we batted merrily through the night. When we were playing in England, matches would start about 6:00 am Caribbean time, and when I got out of bed I had to turn on the radio to make sure we hadn't lost any early wickets before I could even think about having my breakfast.

Yes, those were the lovely days of yore. It was all brilliant until one morning after one Australia Test match,  I heard the words ' West Indies lost.' West Indies lost??? How was something like that even possible? I was 14 years old and this was the first time I had an experience of West Indies losing a Test Match. It was if my worldview had collapsed overnight. Like if you woke up and realised that the laws of gravity no longer applied.  Thankfully, at that time, it was just a blip on the radar, something to show me that my heroes were less than perfect. Still gods, but maybe not quite as invincible as I once thought.

Drought after the days of plenty

Ten years later we lost again, but things were different this time. It became very clear that this was no one off thing. We were definitely going into decline and it was rapid. In the blink of an eye, we went from heroes to zeros. Losses followed losses with as much regularity as the wins had piled up fifteen years earlier. All over the Caribbean people argued about who was to blame. Was it the players attitude? Competition from other sports? Bad management by the Board? Insularity of certain countries? Fingers were pointed all over the spectrum and the results just kept getting worse and worse.

It is not to say that in this period everything was bad in our  game. We produced the great Brian Lara, a batsman just as much of a master with the bat as any in that glory era, but it was as if he had escaped from a time machine, because there just wasn't the talent around in his day to match him. At times, he himself was blamed for the decline in our game which was ironic, but at least losing as we were, we could still lay claim to having one of the games brightest stars.

Brian Lara: The great that often stood alone
When his career came to an end and we were still losing, the future began to look even bleaker. We were at the bottom of the ladder without a star who could even shine occasionally for us. We did have a very industrious whole hearted player in the form of Shivnarine Chanderpaul who could be counted on to save us from indignity, but he lacked that flair and star quality of a Lara. Behind him the cupboard seemed bare and it was not unreasonable to think that once Chanderpaul was gone, the decline in West Indies cricket would be terminal. There were times indeed when we even wondered whether the entity 'West Indies' would survive. After all the West Indies is not a country, and the only institution other than cricket that bears its name is the UWI, University of the West Indies.

The Offering we couldn't resist: The Temptation of Stanford and the Indian Premier League

Alan Stanford: Turned out to be not the real thing
The downward spiral continued and the pain especially for the fans who had lived through the glory years was palpable. It is often said in the Caribbean that cricket is like a religion, that may be true, but people were starting to lose faith and few new converts were coming through. A struggling religion is a bit like a struggling business. When things get a bit tough people look towards trying to get money in. In business this is done through looking at the bottom line in religion it is all about the collection plate, how to get more offering coming in on Sunday morning. The first man to come a calling with promises of adding to that plate was a Texas billionaire by the name of Alan Stanford, but it soon became clear that he was not the Good Samaritan he was touted as, he was indeed a fraud from abroad. Whether you could say he was like the Anti- Christ, I don't know, but the West Indies Cricket Board and many of the players in the region definitely ended up with a false profit.

Not to worry, money soon came a calling again, it came from the only other part of the world where I am told cricket is also the national religion. That country is of course India. Yes, India had developed the Indian Premier League (IPL), cash was floating around and the owners of big Indian TV franchises were like the glitzy American tele evangelists, tempting our cricketers with lucrative offers. Their sales pitch was like a prosperity gospel and many of our players eagerly signed up. It was indeed an offering that even after the sting of Stanford, they just couldn't refuse.

The IPL was to be the short T20 version of cricket. Well suited to some of our younger players who seemed to have lost the appetite for concentrating over the long periods necessary in the traditional game. The guys who were happy to give a thrill a minute to DJs in the Party Stands before going back to the pavilion and enjoying a bit of merriment themselves. In a way you couldn't blame the impressionable youth to be lured by these smooth talking evangelists in the IPL. With the West Indies team not performing, these players had more to gain from seeking individual fame and glory than by sitting on a sinking Caribbean ship. In India they would be sold to the highest bidder for their pieces of silver and in so doing they would make themselves less available to play for the Caribbean side. Try as they might, the Board could do nothing to stop the exodus of the few top class players we had left in the region and weak became weaker.

Chris Gayle: West Indian star in the IPL
Not only did the team decline but great rifts between players and Board emerged. Acrimonious relationships ensued over the players decision to put loyalty to Indian Franchises above the West Indies. The public at large had their say as well and all kinds of dirty linen was hung out.  In the most recent melee, the main protagonist was Chris Gayle. A hard hitting Jamaican batsman that was in the shorter game threatening to become the kind of star that Viv Richards and Brian Lara had been in the longer game before him. Just maybe someone like Gayle, could help save our game. But no, the rifts between him and the Board became greater and greater. Eventually the Board decided not to make him eligible for selection on any West Indies team and he went on his way plying his trade as a freelance cricketer. It seemed at that time that Gayle was unlikely to play for West Indies again.

Others followed Gayle to the lure of the IPL and from all reports were successful. Gayle stood out in the tournament along with a few other West Indians, including a young emerging slow bowler, Sunil Narine. Meanwhile our West Indies team continued to struggle. I used to hear my Indian friends telling me how much they loved our players over there, they spoke of the great innings they were playing and the outstanding bowling performances they were putting in, but I just couldn't watch it. Why couldn't these guys be doing these things for us? Why should Kolkata, Mumbai, Decca and Bangalore be prospering on our talent, while we languish?

So now we come up to the present. Thankfully, things seemed to get a little better before this tournament, as there was some mending of fences and it appeared that we would have all of our big players available. It was a surprise to me when some commentators even installed us as being among the favourites. We blew a bit hot and cold in the tournament but we made it to the final. A final which as I said at the outset was to produce a powerful sermon with some great testimonies.

The Sermon: Preaching from the book of 1st and 2nd Samuels

Like all good sermons, the one last Sunday built on the readings from the past and applied them to present day. The poignant message was taken from the books of 1st and 2nd Samuels, no not the one in the biblical Old Testament, this is the modern day West Indian version. The story of Marlon.

Marlon Samuels: Subject of the sermon and star of the show

1st Samuels

The Book of 1st Samuels does not read well. It is a true testimony of tribulation. I remember watching this 1st Samuels on television scoring 100 runs as a youngster barely over 20, in a One Day match in India. Never had I witnessed more consistent clean hitting, even from the greats I saw in our glory days. It looked like he had what it took to be a cricketing saviour. But Marlon faded badly, disappointing time and time again after that. He walked on to the field to play as if he didn't care and wished he was somewhere else. Talent he had, but he never seemed to accept it and make the effort. He was truly like the Prodigal Son. But things got even worse for this 1st Samuels, he was caught giving advice to an Indian involved in betting and match fixing and was subsequently banned from playing all cricket for two years. He also had further indignity by being suspended from bowling because his action was considered illegal by the International Cricket Council.

When all this happened we thought that was the last chapter and verse as far as Samuels was  concerned. Here was a man that couldn't even make good when everything was in his favour, to think that he could ever get close to a West Indies team after two years out of the game was a joke.

2nd Samuels

Last year after the period of the ban was over, we heard for the first time, the word from 2nd Samuels. He was back, he told us ready to go again, he had been practising for the last two years. Samuels practicing on his own to get back to where he left off and then go further? No, not the Samuels we knew. But they were some early suggestions that this 2nd coming of Samuels might be different. He started to score runs with regularity for Jamaica, he really seemed to want to atone for previous transgressions. He was even to be seen admonishing himself if he got out as a result of playing an injudicious shot. This was something we never ever saw in 1st Samuels.

When I was in Barbados last year I went to a match against Pakistan, where I saw this 2nd Samuels myself. He did not score heavily, but he did appear to be more focused, watching the ball carefully, picking the right balls to hit. Still there was none of that clean hitting I saw of him when he first came on the scene and though I thought he could probably hold a place on the team, I didn't see him doing much more than that. Now we know that there was a lot more to be written in that Book of 2nd Samuels. In 2012, he just has not stopped scoring runs. In spite of his success he has never got carried away or suggested any bravado or don't carishness he showed in his earlier Book. He has just told us over and over again that he wants to keep playing and practising hard because he knows he has two years of runs put down that he has to make up for. It really did appear that this Samuels was a changed man.

The question was, did he have what it took for the big occasion? The answer over the last few weeks was a resounding YES. With bat and ball he has been the captain's 'go to ' man and he has delivered every time. None moreso than on Sunday. We made the worse possible start we could in the match. We lost Gayle or star batsman very early and the other batsmen just couldn't get any runs. It was clear we would be left with a paltry score and Sri Lanka would walk to victory. The crowd was roaring and the Sri Lanka party was about to rev up, but out strode 2nd Samuels to make sure that there were more verses to come. He started hitting clean and hard as he had that time when I saw him first on television. The ball disappeared over and over into the night sky and suddenly West Indies were back in the game. No one else in our team could get going on the day, but Marlon Samuels stood up to this stiffest of tests. Even if we were still to lose, he made sure we had a fighting score. And fighting is what we did after that, with everyone involved. Marlon once again was in the forefront with the ball and as they say the rest is history. 2nd Samuels had delivered and all I could say was "Amen!"

If you ever wanted a story, a testimony a parable of redemption, there it was. Not in a myth or a 'Holy Book' from ancient times, but in the story of a real flesh and blood human being living in our own time. Not a person with any special divine powers, not a 'chosen one.' Just an ordinary person, determined to turn his life around after many years of hardship. Finally the Prodigal Son had returned home and the whole village was ready to throw a party in his honour.

Marlon's story reminds us of much; that we can always come back strong and we shouldn't give up, that we mustn't be quick to write off people because of earlier transgressions. It illustrates to all that we can make a horrible circumstance work dramatically in our favour. It's not to say that now Samuels is the saviour of the West Indies. We don't know what the future will hold and they may be a 3rd Book of  Samuels that doesn't quite deliver the goods.  I hope for all our sakes that there are no other installments of  Samuels and that things follow on like the Bible, because after Samuels comes Kings in that 'Holy Book' and no one in the Caribbean, not even the ones most staunchly in favour of a republic, would begrudge us having a period of West Indies cricket monarchy right now.

Further inspiration in the Book of Sams

Darren Sammy: Captain that landed the big prize

If the Samuels story wasn't enough for the morning, there was further inspiration from the Sams. When I used to go to church, I always tried to draw a lesson from the verses of the Psalms and this morning the Sams kept coming up as well. There was another Samuel from Trinidad whose bowling kept us in the match, but the other stand out Sam, was Sammy. Darren Sammy the St.Lucian captain of the West Indies team.

Again I need to give some back story on Darren. When I think of him, I remember a St. Lucian lady that I worked with in Barbados that was probably the biggest fan of the West Indies team that I have ever met. During the time I worked with her, win, lose or draw she always stuck with them, referring to them consistently as ' My boys.' It was interesting for me at the time, because her home country St. Lucia of which she was intensely proud, had never produced a single West Indies player in their history. She never had the privilege of watching anyone from her country put on the maroon but she held the West Indies team as close to her heart as a family member. Many of us would moan about who was in or not in the team, but for her it didn't matter. Once they were West Indians playing she was 100% behind them.

I used to encourage her by telling her that one day she would be able to cheer for one of her own too, a St.Lucian out there on the field. At that time none seemed that close to the mark, but she always used to say that there's this boy Darren Sammy who came from her village. "He is a very good cricketer, one day Sammy will make it." she would often say. By 'make it' she meant, play for the West Indies, maybe one match sometime, somewhere.

On Sunday there was that Darren Sammy I had heard about all those years ago. Not just wearing the maroon, but as the captain, yes the CAPTAIN of the West Indies team. And not just any captain either, he was the one holding the WORLD CUP aloft. I thought about how my former workmate must have felt at that moment. I just couldn't even begin to imagine the pride that must have been inside her. As I watched the proceedings, I realised that I in a way had come to the position that she was once in. For as many great cricketers as Barbados has produced over its illustrious history, not one was part of the eleven that played in the match to win the Cup on Sunday. Yet, it didn't matter one iota, these were still 'My boys,' just as I had learnt from my St. Lucian friend back then, this team is our team no matter what.

Just like Marlon Samuels, it's not been an easy road for Darren Sammy. Sammy himself would be the first to admit that he is not the world's greatest cricketer. He took over the captaincy at a difficult time and many have argued he shouldn't be playing because they don't think that he is  good enough to make the eleven. That is debatable, but what Sammy lacks in talent he makes up for in heart and effort. Like the office mate I had in Barbados years ago, he seems to really believe in the West Indies and playing for 'the crest' as he puts it. Whatever his personal abilities and failings may be, he has managed to take the team and make it gel, putting the mission of 'one team, one people, one goal'  in the forefront. His success is definitely a reminder that one needn't be the biggest star or come from the biggest island to achieve greatness.

I remember being in St. Lucia three years ago watching a match when Sammy was not playing, much to the dismay of many St. Lucians at the ground who felt he had been unfairly left out. Darren walked among the ground while the match was going on to tell those there that it was OK. He didn't fuel the crowd by expressing disappointment, he said he recognised his own faults and that he would go away and work harder on his game, so that he could make the team next time. Of course I don't know Darren Sammy personally, but this was an early impression that I got of him that made me believe he was a  decent man. I am delighted that his diligence has paid off in such an amazing way. So, there ended the morning's lesson, at least for the most part. You can't finish a service without the Benediction and there was plenty of that going around.  "Thanks to the Almighty," was the repeated phrase. I guess the "Almighty" could be any kind of God you wanted it to be.

Interviews are always 'must see TV' after games like these. During his interview, Sammy was asked about how he handled criticism over the years. He responded by talking about Jesus and how he was crucified even though he didn't do anything wrong, so who is he Darren Sammy, to bother about the critics. It made me laugh because I knew that Christians hearing that would be caught in two minds. On the one hand, they would have been glad to hear reference to Jesus, they Lord and Saviour at such a public moment before all the world. On the other hand, they would be somewhat perturbed by the fact that  Sammy was comparing himself with that Jesus. That would seem like blasphemy to many.  Thankfully, blasphemy doesn't regularly lead to violence in our part of the world, so all was well. Still, I am sure the dissonance of the listening believers would have had them in a bit of a bind.

Not withstanding the God references, I was proud of how the guys spoke at the end of the game. Excited as they were with winning, they made no bones about the fact that they know that this is only the beginning of what is still likely going to be a very long journey back for West Indies cricket. On Sunday I rededicated myself to sticking with them in that journey, long and hard as it may be.

Of course the next thing up was the song service, with the music and dancing. A combination of cultures with the new West Indian version of Gangnam style led by worship leader Chris Gayle! If you have any questions about whether Chris Gayle is the 'annointed one' you can hear that he is in the clip below, straight from the mouth of the Bishop on commentary. Gayle prophesied before the game and it was a prophecy that came to pass.

The scenes shown here are something to watch and there was even more revelry to come later. International commentators and sports lovers the world over keep commenting that they love the way we celebrate and the joy we bring to what we do. It is this kind of unrestrained exuberance that they respond to. Whether it's the cricketers as we are seeing here, or Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake in the Olympics. It's great to know that in an age where war and conflicts seem to dominate world news, that we can at least lead the way in making the world smile. It is a trait in the Caribbean that is not by any means limited to sportsmen. It's just the way we do things. In North America  and Europe there is often emphasis on curbing natural instincts so as not to upset anyone present who may not approve. In the Caribbean, it's about self expression and letting your true self show to all the world. Showing that true self includes expressing our religion and beliefs as can be seen here. Some may be surprised to hear me say this, but I have no problem with it. If they are convinced that the Lord has guided them or that a lucky yellow band around the Samuels' neck did the trick it's all well and good.

If only we could dance to atheism too

My only wish is that one day we with different beliefs will also be able to join the party. It would be great if one day Caribbean atheists will also be able to express themselves, openly proclaiming their faith in reason to the world. As Caribbean people it's not in our nature to have to live and hide who we are, to not be able to evangelise about things near and dear to our hearts. I look forward to the day when we can all dance together regardless and proclaim the 'Word of truth' whatever we may think that truth to be. It is unfortunate that as things stand, anytime we say anything against religion it is deemed to be a 'no ball.' Then Christians get a ' free hit' where they are allowed to dispatch our arguments anywhere they please, often going way beyond the boundaries of logic. They can swing at us with maximum force knowing that under the rules that they have established, they can never be caught out.

Well, that little caveat was just but one moment of sober reflection, in the midst of the jumping with pride. It may sound strange, but in a way I enjoy the victories now even more than when I was a kid. These days I no longer see the gods I once saw wearing West Indies colours. I see flawed men trying their best to put together their talents to make us feel a sense of pride. Sometimes they will make us deliriously happy other times they will flop and leave us in deep disappointment, but that's all part of the game.

Even though the parties are no doubt still going on from Jamaica right down to Guyana, I am not convinced that every West Indian has got out of their chair to cheer along with the 'Gangnam Style' beat. For many, I think it is that they have been disappointed too many times. Too many false dawns. Many West Indians will gladly show of their allegiance to Chelsea, Manchester United or Arsenal, the Miami Heat, the New York Nicks or the Chicago Bulls. But when it comes to their own West Indies they want to hold themselves back. I remember wearing my West Indies shirt to an exhibition when the West Indies team was struggling. I was told rather publicly by a man in attendance that I should be ashamed to wear it. That was a comment that hurt.

We have to do better as Caribbean people, supporting a team, means being there through it all, through thick and thin. That's why I loved the way that Sammy ended on Sunday by thanking Peter Matthews who has traveled the world supporting the West Indies. His unmistakable tall maroon hat has been spotted all over the globe. As Sammy said, he has been there  ' through rain and sun.' I wish more West Indians would follow suit. I can sense even now, that some from the islands are waiting in the wings for things to go sour again, to say, " I told you so!"

We know that the rains in West Indies will come again, and that our day in the sun will not last forever. Being a winner just like life itself is transient. Neither will be here for eternity, and that makes both of them precious moments to be cherished. As I know after four years here in Canada, you don't shut up yourself in the house in the summer just because you know that winter's coming. So, I am certainly going to take the time now to bask in the Caribbean sun whether or not it's another false dawn or the start of a brand new day.

Recessional Hymn

Well friends, that's it. Great service from the West Indies on Sunday. Please stand now for the Recessional Hymn, Number 137, "Rally Round the West Indies!"

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Messages of faith for Birthday week

No, the attempts to woo me back to Jesus have simply not let up. While the lady that I went to church with a few weeks ago continues to do all she can to make sure my first visit is not my last, I have had new measures aimed at restoring my faith, coming from back home in Barbados.

I celebrated my birthday last week and was thankful to receive many messages of good will. However, two messages in particular demanded my attention. The first was from a close friend from childhood. We were born just two weeks apart and many of our friends used to say back then that we looked very much alike. Because we also spent a lot of time together around church, music and other social circles, people tended to assume that we were brothers. The belief became so widespread that we started to see ourselves in that way, and eventually we came to refer to each other as  'brothers.' This 'brother' of mine was actually Best Man at my wedding. I will never forget that because he said on that day, that one thing my wife could always be sure of is that with me, she would always have a committed Christian by her side. I have often wondered if ever a more ironic statement has been made in a wedding speech.

Well, my friend and I have remained close over the years in spite of the fact that we have both spent considerable time out of Barbados, the country where we both grew up. This time that we have spent out of the country, in addition to the fact that my friend is a leading professional in his field and always in demand and busy,  has meant that although I have seen him on the last two visits I have made to Barbados,  we have not had the chance to sit down for an extensive discussion. In other words, we have not had THAT religious talk. Another important point, is that this friend is not on Facebook. Facebook is the main medium through which I have revealed my non belief to the wider world. He is not part of that network and therefore has missed out on this news story.

In spite of our lack of time interacting in recent years, one time of the year that we always make contact is on each others birthdays, this year was no exception. However, the text that he sent me this year made me sit up and take notice. Here is what it said:

"A beautiful, holy and God filled birthday to you. May God grant you many many more birthdays."

Wait a minute. What was this? I am still caught in two minds about what happened here. At first glance it seems obvious. He is laying on the God thing just a bit too thick. Clearly someone has told him of my atheism and this is just his way of testing the waters. Either pushing me with a stick of provocation to see if he gets a resistance reflex or putting that stick there with words for me to grab hold of, hoping he can eventually pull me out of the abyss.

But truth is I am just not sure. I think it may just be his way of wishing me birthday greetings with sincerity. I have to add that he was always a bit more into religion than I was anyway. If he had sent me a message like this even three years ago, I wouldn't have thought twice about it. I may have thought to myself that he seems rather 'godly' this year, but it would have ended there. It made me realise how much I had changed. I have moved so far from religion now and spoken so much in its opposition, that any mention of the 'G' word just resonates in my head. It's like an alarm that goes off or a red flag that goes up. Quite often in everyday discussions with believers who are very aware of my atheism, God will be mentioned by them in passing.

' I hope to God this' or 'Thank God for that,' ' God help me with this' ' The Lord knows what's best' 'God don't sleep' and many more.  I smile to myself when these phrases come up. The believer carries on with whatever he or she is saying without missing a beat. I know that if I stopped them to point out their use of a superstitious referent that I don't subscribe to, they would be completely oblivious that they had called on God. If they were aware, I am sure they would have stopped and smiled, teased me a little or at least made a note of my non belief. Indeed, there have been times when I have expressed to people in no uncertain terms about the difficulties of being an atheist, the isolation I sometimes feel, or the anger I feel when people try to make judgements about my morality or intelligence because I don't believe. The person I would be talking to, would nod and empathize and say that they understand and agree, then attempt to give me support with a reassuring , 'God is good.'

I know it sounds like something from a sitcom, but the theist makes the statement in these situations out of sincerity. It's not something said in irony or to piss me off, it's actually said in love. Because that's how it is when 'theish' is your native language. 'God is good' in that context is a statement meaning to say I feel your pain and wish you much better. So I wondered if it was just my God sensitivity at work when reading my friend's text. Maybe it was just a nice little note my friend was giving me in his own 'theish' way. Assuming of course that he was talking to David the committed Christian, the one who he knew, the one who existed as recently as 2006.

I know I have gone through a transformation. I have a 'God-dar ' now. It's a kind of antenna that I am sure must have some commercial application which I can put to use some day. I have this ability whereby I can have a conversation on the most mundane subject with a theist and at the end of it I can tell them how many times they said the word 'God' and what was the context in which it was used. Not that I actually do that, of course. However, I know people who pay quite a bit for software that is able to do word frequency analyses like that. Try to top that, Google!

Well, whether it was a proclamation of my friend's faith or a provocation due to my lack of faith, one thing is for sure. I have to respond by telling him something now and I will.

The Auntie Fundamentalist 

My friend's short text was not the only one that caught my attention on my birthday week. A few days earlier I had received a letter from my aunt. This aunt is no ordinary auntie, by the way. She is one I can only classify as a super fundamentalist. From the time I was a small child this was clear to me in every visit we ever made to her home. There were bible verses on the walls, the bible itself was always on hand as a reference and conversations never wondered far away from God and the spiritual. It seemed every time we visited her, that she was either just about to get ready for church or had just got back. She asked me several times on visits even before I was ten, whether I had accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and saviour. Back then I hoped that telling her that I go to Sunday School regularly would be good enough.  From her facial expressions, I don't think that it was.

In my childhood, her strong emphasis on faith made her not the most fun Auntie to be around. Birthday parties, movies and sporting events were definitely not part of her repertoire. In adulthood, I had come to know this Auntie better and appreciated having a relationship with her more. Of course she would still bring up the subject of faith from time to time, but I generally didn't engage her in this area. This was especially so when I came to the period of my life where I was beginning to have doubts. I just knew there would be no way I could talk to her about such things. I remember just before I left to live in Canada she told me that she hoped I would be able to balance the spiritual, with the intellectual. It was as if she sensed danger on the horizon.  I agreed to keep that idea in mind, even though I knew by then that my faith was extremely close to slipping right of the scale.

When I reached that point where I had recognised that I was indeed an atheist and was contemplating if, when and how I would tell others of my change, I thought of my Auntie regularly. I just couldn't imagine telling her, it would break her heart. I knew it would.  In fact, at one point I just vowed that I won't tell her. I would just smile and play along with her God talk and just be atheist when I was outside of her four walls.

I remember receiving a phone call from Auntie on December 31st, 2009.  This date sticks in my mind because I made a New Year's Resolution that I would start making my atheism public in 2010. It is amazing to reflect on it now, but at the end of 2009, my wife was the only other human being that knew I was an atheist. On that last day of the year, Auntie called and we wished each other a Happy New Year and she spoke about how the weather had been in Barbados, that it had been very strange and that the waves had been extremely rough, even on the usually placid west coast. I told her that I thought it was clear that there were significant changes in climate patterns all over the world and that we had to get serious about studying the phenomenon and put our minds together to find ways to effectively deal with some of these impacts. I got a response from my auntie, that stopped me in my tracks. " No!" she said. "There is no way that any human being can do anything to solve these problems. Our only option is to call upon God. The answer to these problems has to come from the supernatural!"

I tried to argue that I didn't think we could just pray the angry waves away, but I knew my Auntie would have none of it. I also knew at that moment that I had to stick to my New Year's resolution. This was exactly the reason why I thought that religion was a foe rather than a friend. Much of my work and research is aimed at promoting the development of renewable energy technology. A large reason for doing this, is to reduce the climate change impacts relating to burning fossil fuels. When people like my Auntie, tell me that ' there is nothing human beings can do about these problems' they are effectively telling me that all my work is for nought. Better just sit back and do nothing. I thought of how much her words sounded like a slap in the face of the scientist. Declaring my atheism starting the following day, would be my way of sending out an SOS. I just simply had to save our science.

I am happy to say that was one New Year's resolution I stuck to. Probably the only one ever. From the next day I started to make the movement 'out of the closet.' A journey that of course continues to this very day. Since our New Year's Eve talk three years ago, the interactions between my Auntie and I have been brief "hellos" over the internet and a solitary visit to catch up with her when I was home in Barbados last year, but not much in the way of discussion. Then earlier this year I got a friend request from my aunt on Facebook. That made me sit up and take notice. For one, she is not the person that I would easily associate with technology and social networking, but more than that, I knew that I could be in for a difficult ride. Once I accepted her request and she clicked on my wall, my atheism would be revealed.

I thought a bit, and then considered I could handle whatever came and basically waited for the other shoe to drop. Months I waited and nothing, but I also saw that she wasn't ever posting or commenting and concluded that she was one of these people who signed up for the service but didn't really use it.

Then I got the email for my birthday. I have posted it below. You may wonder whether I have done some editing because after the subject heading of 'birthday blessings' the word birthday, never actually appears in the email. No, it's not an edit, that's just the way I got it. I can only surmise that the atheistic shock after finally visiting my wall, blasted the birthday thoughts straight out of the brain. Anyway, I am still glad she took the time to write me and share her concerns.

The only part I haven't included here is the link she sent me. She went to youtube  and put in a search for 'testimonies of atheist conversions,' copied the link of the page showing the search results and put it at the beginning of the email. I watched a few of the videos there and soon I found myself laughing. Of the first four search results, two were by atheists giving an idea of what it would take to convert them to Christianity and saying why the religion has fallen so woefully short of meeting this mark. There were arguments that could not have explained my present position regarding faith any better. The next video was this hilarious parody shown below, where an atheist, ironically named David, talks of his 'conversion' to Christianity. He talks about how he traded in his thinking for belief in the bible and now he has all the answers he needs, including the knowledge that slavery is OK.

I was in stitches when I watched this video, the irony in the fact that my Christian Auntie had inadvertently sent me videos that were anti Christian was thick. But after I got over the comedy of the whole thing, I had to accept that this was typical of a Christian fundamentalist's reaction when finding herself in a situation where someone's soul was at risk. It was quite clear that my Auntie had not watched any of these videos before she pressed 'send.' This was not any systematic argument being built to convince me to come back, this was just her pelting widely at the dartboard hoping that something, ANYTHING would stick.

" See these atheists in this video, they came to Christ, so can you!" That was the simple message.

This is not a new approach by people trying to reach us that are atheists. It is how they operate, but they just don't get that this is not what will work with us. They always think that if we could just hear one more testimony, we would be right back inside the house of the Lord, but they really don't understand. We don't make decisions on what is true based on that which makes our heart bleed or moves us to tears. Indeed, when we find ourselves emotionally reacting to something, that that's when we become more skeptical of the message of 'truth' that is wrapped inside, I have said it many times that truth is truth no matter what we think about it. Emotional pleas just don't cut it.

Well, no matter how many times I said it before, I had to put my head down and prepare to bring the message one more time. This time specially for my Auntie. Some of you may be surprised to hear that I thought long and hard before crafting the reply. After all, I have quite a bit of experience now in dealing with fundamentalists, I also have gone through the experience of discussing my deconversion from faith with close family members. However, this was the first time I was dealing with both individuals within the same person.

Talk to family members who are not quite bible thumpers and you know that in spite of their shock you can get at least a modicum of empathy from them by knowing that they have their doubts as well. When you deal with a fundamentalist that is not your relative, at least you can take heart from the fact that even if they fear for your soul, they will breathe easier that it is not their family in the fire.

With fundamentalist and family mixed together, you have to be able to handle the situation with double the care. Hopefully I was able to do that. In my email, I tried to emphasize that I wanted to build on the good relationship I have with my Auntie but at the same time made it clear that I was comfortable with the decision I had made and was happy with no regrets.

I have posted both her email and my reply so you can tell me how you think I did. So far I have not got a reply back from her, but I now know from experience that one has to have patience when it comes to these faith and family matters.

Subject: Birthday Blessings

Hi David,

Truth, David, I do not know what it is not to believe in God. I don't even want to know. He is too good to me.; He is very real to me; He is my best friend.  He has "rescued" me time and again.

I know my story- I may have been insane if He was not there for me and saved me.  I owe my life to Him.
 I thought it best to let some of those who have walked the path you have now chosen speak to you.

Above is a whole web page for you.  Listen to the converted atheists.   L-I-S-T-E-N!!
I love you,

P.S---  "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. "  I agree.  This is true.

Re: Birthday Blessings

Hi Auntie!

Great hearing from you and thanks for your greetings and birthday blessings. I enjoyed the day.

I recognize and understand the concern that you expressed in your email. Admitting to myself and others around me that I no longer believed in God was not an easy thing for me to do and I gave it considerable thought before telling others about it.

One of the main reasons why I thought so long and hard about speaking out, is because of persons such as yourself. Indeed, you were often in my thoughts as I went through this transition. I know that for you, faith is the centre of your being and as you said in your email, you couldn't imagine and don't even what to imagine a life without it. I figured that  knowing that  a close family member like me had openly declared that he no longer follows this faith, would likely cause you some distress. However, at the end of the day I felt that it was more important that I be honest and express who I really am and what I really feel, rather than what I thought others would like that I feel. So, I hope that you will understand and accept this, even though I am not expecting that you will ever see things my way.

Amazing as it may seem to you, I have actually found a level of joy and 'new life' in becoming an atheist and have found a great deal of fulfilment in encouraging people to challenge and critically assess the beliefs that they hold. Not specifically in order to prove or disprove the existence of a God, but to get a better understanding of reality, whatever that reality may turn out to be. I think that a better understanding of reality will lead to better decision making by people and we will all benefit in the long run. I believe that if God is part of reality, applying reason and critical thinking to that which we experience within this reality, will eventually point us in the direction of him, her or it. 

One of the main ways in which I have tried to reach out to others, is through a blog that I have been posting articles to over the last two years. The link is below you can check it out if you want to.

I appreciate that you sent me some links to videos that you want me to see. I have watched a few of them.  All of the perspectives presented there are ones which I considered before I came to my position and some of them are actually produced by atheists who are expressing a view similar to that which I now hold. 

Auntie, I respect that you have always believed in God and see him as working daily in your life and I have no intention or desire to take from you that which you hold dear. Likewise, I hope that you will understand that I also have principles which I hold dear. I no longer hold to faith as one of those principles, but I am as committed as I ever was in trying to live a life based on honesty, treating others as I would like to be treated and being tolerant of persons who may have opinions and perspectives different from my own. 

The way I see it, that means we have far more that unites us than separates us. I love you as much as a friend as I do as  an auntie and I hope with all my heart that the fact that we have a difference in what we consider reality to be will never change that.

Best Regards,