Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The atheist's fight for survival: Can't let them define us out of existence

I can't believe that 'A' week has come back around so quickly. It seems like just the other day that I was tentatively putting my little 'A' on my facebook profile to tell the world that I no longer believe. There were many other events that went along with that which you can read about here. One year later and things have changed quite a bit. Definitely, I am more settled in my own skin but there are still times where there are remnants of guilt that I feel for speaking up against a worldview I once readily embraced. However, with every passing day things get easier.

I have to say that as much as I had anxiety when I made the decision to 'out' myself last year, I have never for one moment regretted it. I had put myself out in the open having heard many different stories of difficulties, particularly with close friends and family members. I braced myself for what I imagined would have been an onslaught of emails, messages and phone calls from friends, families and acquaintances of people expressing shock, horror, disappointment or dismay. I had practiced in front of the mirror, how I would react to the different types of responses, what I would say and how I would say it. Incredibly, no such responses ever came. No one telling me the friendship is over, no one even telling me I am going to hell. The most widespread response has been 'no response.'

It's strange, I wasn't really prepared for the silence. It's eerie, rather unsettling, because you are not quite sure what it means. Maybe, they don't care. Perhaps they are too shocked to talk. They might even agree but are too afraid to be seen doing that. Who knows? I sometimes wish they would just come right out and say something. It is interesting to me that those theists who have been engaging with me are in the main, people who I have met recently. Those for whom, I  have always been an atheist. They disagree of course but are happy to challenge and that is what I want. That is one of the big differences between living based on faith and living based on evidence. When you post something for God, you don't do it with any intention of starting a debate or discussion. You are quite happy if people just read and move on without comment. A 'click' of the 'like' button or an 'Amen' along the way and you are happy. As an evidence based person you put things up hoping that it will spark interest and you want comments, particularly dissenting comments. You want  people to disagree with you. That is how you know whether your views and arguments are sound and you help others who are on the opposite side see flaws in their argument (at least that's what's supposed to happen). However, I think our culture in the Caribbean takes over and people feel they don't want to 'rock the boat.' It's a pity.

When I look back at it, I feel as if I should have known this would happen. I blame my lack of foresight  on  spending too much time listening to religious discussions. When you immerse yourself in these, it's easy to think that everybody out there is keen to represent their beliefs and show why they think as they do. However, in reality the type of theist who will call in to 'Atheist Experience' or go out and study William Lane Craig style apologetics is rare. It's a bit of a shame. I had done all my background research, listened to online debates  with all types of theists; from the raging fundamentalists, to the mildest of agnostics. I was ready for the cosmological, ontological, teleological and other 'logical' arguments that I was sure I would have to be handling. It was like I completely over prepared for my exam. Staying up all night to study for something and then getting a super basic 15 minute multiple choice quiz in the morning. If I could understand not having a 'big deal' response here in Canada, the Caribbean was supposed to be so different, but not really. Perhaps I wasn't in Barbados long enough but the people I talked to about it, apart from this big exception here, haven't had much to say. When you think about it, it is somewhat strange. You have people strong in their convictions about their Lord and saviour, adamant that following him is crucial to the salvation of every individual on the planet. You tell them that you think they are fundamentally mistaken in this belief and that none of this stuff is true and their reply is the equivalent of, "Whatever."

When considering my  family, I have to pay special tribute to my parents. My mother in particular has come around remarkably since I first told her I was an atheist and I wrote this. While I was in Barbados I got a lot of time to explain to her how my beliefs had changed and why I made the switch. She was happy to engage in discussions and has actually now become one of my biggest fans on this blog. Dad has also enjoyed the writing  and thinks my approach to religion is healthy and is happy that I don't come across as too angry. I am glad to hear that, I want that theists can read what I write here without fear. Dad and I  share a lot in terms of our skepticism of religion, even though he remains very involved in the church. We had some very long into the night debates while I was in Barbados which I wish I had taped and could share to a wider audience. Dad tries to keep me to high standards, never afraid to point out the occasional grammatical error that may crop up in my writing here and their. I suppose dads will always be dads. I always promise him I will aim to do better with every effort and as he always tells me, when I write he is more in my corner than against me.

An atheist to us is not an atheist to them

Perhaps more than anything during the last year, I have learnt that there is quite a difference between how people define the word 'atheist.' Those who identify as agnostics I find especially interesting. Often when I get down to the nitty gritty of what they and I believe or disbelieve there is little difference if any at all. It has become quite clear to me that there is a major difference between what an atheist thinks an atheist is and what people who are not atheists think an atheist is. Essentially, it seems we atheists are defining our word in a way that nobody else in the world does.

"How can you be so sure?"
" I don't see how you can know that there isn't a God, so I call myself an agnostic."
" I can't become an atheist like you, the universe is too vast for me not to hold on to the slight possibility that there might be a God."

The first few times I got these types of  responses, I just treated them as one of those textbook atheist 'strawman' fallacies. I simply explained the usual; atheism is not a position of certainty it is just a lack of belief due to insufficient evidence, I am an agnostic as well, bla-bla-bla. I never thought it was anything major pointing this out. After all, any definition in a dictionary would tell you this. Not only that, but it is trivial to point out that  everyday in life we say that we 'know' something when in fact we don't have absolute certainty. I say that my car is parked in my garage now, because I left it there. But I really don't know that, it could have been towed, stolen or moved without my knowledge. Still, in spite of all this I don't think that people draw the parallel from this analogy  to how we define  'atheist.' They will nod and give us an " Oh I see what you mean," then go on their merry way.

You see, I don't think it matters what we say and how we explain it and how many dictionaries we show them. Theists have determined their own definition of what an atheist is and they will go with that. I have found people who have told me they are not atheists because they have no problem with religion and think that we all should be able to believe what we like and no one should be forcing belief on others. Again this is a curious response, atheism has nothing to do with attitude to religion.  I have said on numerous occasions, I still have a great fondness for many of the cultural artefacts relating to religion. The music, the art, the poetry and architecture, I still have an appreciation for those things. I find people still sometimes don't get this. They will go to great lengths to point out churches to me, hoping to rile me up. It's as if  they expect steam will start coming out of  my ears from the sight of a spire on a  tower or a cross on top off a roof. They are so disappointed when I say, " Yes, I see it and it's very beautiful."

It is clear that we have a long way to go to make atheism palatable and there are many things that need to be addressed. The first one is  this definition issue. I have heard lots of people in the secular/atheist movement claim that too much time is spent quibbling over names and what people choose to call themselves. Why do we have to make such a big deal about calling ourselves atheists? I think it is very important that we do, we have to claim the term and  more than that, define it on our own terms. It strikes me that we as atheists can become complacent in this definition game. Once the official dictionary term is in agreement with how we look at it, we feel that the battle is won, the evidence is on our side and we are on intellectually solid ground. No! Usage is what ultimately determines what words mean. Psychiatrists cringe, when people talk about schizophrenics in terms of people with a split personality. The medical books will say something quite different. It doesn't matter, meanings of words depend on  how people use them. That's why the ' just a theory' argument works so well against evolution when creationists are speaking to lay audiences. Doesn't matter what textbooks might say, it's the definition in the mind that matters. Definitions of the word 'atheist' are no different. In the minds of much of  the general public, an atheist is someone who is certain that no Gods exist.

Sometimes it is fine to let words, meanings and usages evolve naturally, but we have to be careful. In the case of atheism, I see a clear strategy at play in defining atheists as persons who are certain about the non existence of God. That categorisation virtually makes every atheist not REALLY an atheist. And that's the whole point, to wipe atheists off the map, not by some kind of coup or military operation but on a technicality, simply by defining  us out of existence. It is a subtle ploy but very effective. So successful, that even many in the secular world play into it. Non believers will regularly reject the atheist title because they are accepting the theist's definition of the word. This confusion of definitions even within our ranks creates a wedge between us, and theists often pick up our fragments that break off. It's the old adage of divide and conquer.We need to push against this, explain not only what the word means to us and what the dictionary meaning us but why the definition that they commonly use marginalises us and therefore why our definition is better. Their belief is that if they find a way to make the group called  'Atheists' an empty set, they can create the illusion that there really is no one that  believes there is no God. It creates the impression that we are all just different shades of theists with some more agnostic than others. We have to show them that to ask for certainty in order to justify the statement ' I don't believe' in a God context is an unfair double standard.  The bar is miles lower than that  for all other non beliefs in the universe. There is a song popular in Caribbean churches called " Cast your burden onto Jesus, for he cares for you." Jesus apparently cares so much that he performed a miracle on the rules of logic on behalf of his followers. He has made it permissible for believers to cast their burdens of proof unto atheists. We can't let them do it.

Not surprisingly, the faithful smile when we talk about putting away the demonic 'atheist' label and identify ourselves as humanists, freethinkers, secularists, brights, rationalists, skeptics or some other nebulous title. This is great, they would always support that.Their message is that you are free to not believe in God just as long as you don't tell us that. This allows the people in the faith world to continue living in their bubbles, convincing themselves that there is no opposing worldview. Once they can keep atheism as a fringe movement,  with the perception that we are a few angry voices yelling on the church step spitting on little old ladies as they walk in the door, their job is done.

Of course, what we hear also is that it is the word 'atheist' that is the problem. It's a harsh word that grates on the ear. It brings thoughts of communism, socialism and massacres by Hitler and Stalin. Even if we have the best intentions in our use of the word, better  for the sake of strategy to avoid it. This is an argument that I take seriously. From a personal perspective I like the word and find it empowering, however I recognise the importance of employing strategies that work and if atheist is a boulder in the road towards a secular world, I am all for tossing the 'A' word aside. This week in the US a bus ad was rejected as 'too controversial' for simply having the word " Atheists"on it. Still, I am not convinced that it is the word  itself that is the problem.

The problem I believe is the " I don't believe in God." Any word that means that is going to be rejected by the religious. So, it doesn't matter if we drop 'atheist' tomorrow and start calling ourselves 'pineapples' to show we don't believe in God. In a few years time, it would be almost impossible to get a picture of the tropical fruit on to the side of  a bus without  the vehicle being vandalised. The truth is that when people want us to change the word they mean they want a new word with a different definition. They want that there be no word in the english language that means ' a person who doesn't believe in gods.'   If  that happens, the God opposition  movement will disappear from the public square, there will be nothing left to hold the Almighty at bay. With no weapon of resistance against faith, we will be rendered impotent in the theistic battle and the Holy train will continue to steam-roll us.

If we want to have any chance of achieving the utopia of a world where people need to justify their beliefs, attitudes and decisions with evidence, logic and reasoning we have to keep fighting. Fighting for the survival of our group and OUR word.  People have told me that this is not necessary. God and evidence based living can coexist and reason can flow from faith. Some even argue that reason could not exist unless a God made it. Sorry, I can't see it. How can a foundational unchangeable belief in an entity which has no evidence to justify it give rise to a society where the need for evidence to justify ones position is at the core of all decision making? The house that results is bound to collapse on itself sooner or later.

So,  that's why I will continue to support efforts like 'A' Week. For me this year it's not an individual desire to 'come out'  to society, it's a desire to get a specific societal outcome. One where religion gets to be challenged rationally  like everything else. It seems fitting this year that 'A' Week will morph right into the Reason Rally in Washington DC on March 24th. It's almost like belonging to a church, going through Advent waiting for the big Christmas morning or reflecting during Lent in anticipation of that glorious Easter morn.

It makes me chuckle, I am right in the thick of it again. It's so great to know that this time reason is the reason for the season.

Monday, March 12, 2012

No Religion Know Jesus?: You can't get to heaven without a ladder

Last week I got involved in one of those facebook debates. It started with a comment I got from one of  my Christian friends, who remarked that that my promotion of  'No Religion' in my blog's title was a good one. She told me that she doesn't believe in religion either, that religion is something that separates us from God and the emphasis that churches put on ceremony and doctrine distracts people from what really matters which is knowing and accepting Jesus as their saviour. So, her clever retort to me was,"No Religion, Know Jesus!"

This type of thinking is one that I have heard often from Christians, especially those with an evangelical bent. It is most frequently framed as ' Christianity is not about a religion it is about a relationship.' I just can't believe that the persons who utter these statements think about what they are saying. Religion is defined in the Oxford dictionary as

 ' the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.'

So, the belief that you have a  personal relationship with an invisible supernatural being is exactly what religion is!  Every religion I know of, encompasses some relationship between human beings and someone or something in the supernatural.  In the past I have viewed 'I don't believe in religion' as a tactic, it makes it easy for believers to separate themselves from aspects of their faith that they find repulsive, absurd or simply meaningless. They could take the good things  and call them ' things that God REALLY wants' and not be called to account for leaving out the 'religious' things they don't like.

Really! How can we come to know Jesus without religion? The story that we hear about Jesus comes from our bible, the central text of Christianity. If there was no Christianity how would anybody  know Jesus? That would be like expecting someone to come to know Luke Skywalker without ever watching anything about  'Star Wars'.

For a long time I did think that this argument that people of faith bring was not worth responding to.  It seemed that there was no way that you could realistically separate your God from the mythical story that brought him forth. However, these days I am realising just how widespread this view of religion without religion is. So, I thought I needed to address it. Having  looked closely at the arguments that I have heard from many regarding this 'not about religion' argument, this is how I  see it.

The Ladder of  Religion

Religion is like a ladder. A ladder perhaps not dissimilar to the one Jacob dreamt about. Impactful on the mind, stirring to the emotions but just as close to reality as the images that fill your brain when you nod off at night. We who grow up in religious cultures, get taught how to climb this ladder from the time we are in kindergarten.. Once we are old enough to walk, we are mature enough to start having climbing lessons. Each rung we reach out to teaches us a little bit more about the God of our culture. First it is how he created everything in the world including us. The next step is how he rewards and punishes us. Then we reach up to learn the stories that surround great men and women who have shown us what God is like. It is a lovely ascent for many people. We learn his songs along the way, then come to understand complicated rituals that pay homage to him, we learn how to worship him, we read the books he wrote and act out some of the things he experienced. All the while, we literally feel we are reaching up to God, getting ever closer to the prize in heaven. Then, along the way, something happens. Something that you just can't explain or put into words. It happens differently for every individual and it is commonly referred to as an 'experience.'

I have heard of many different 'experiences', and even had some of my own. An 'experience' is  something that you think cannot be explained in terms of  what you understand from physical and material reality. Something that resonates with the non natural world you have been discovering on your religious climb.At that moment it feels like God himself has reached down to you from heaven and raised you up off the ladder, pulling you to himself. That 'experience' tells you that you have found God and that is the point in the process where the ladder of religion becomes irrelevant. No need for ladders anymore when God is giving you the elevation. Or as one of my friends put it, 'no need to keep the scaffolding once the house is complete.' I think this is exactly what Christians mean when they say that 'Religion is man reaching out to God while Christianity is God reaching out to man.

Yes, 'experiences' of God reaching out can be very emotionally powerful. The sort of thing you never forget for the rest of your life. It could be a feeling of peace in the middle of a stressful situation. The relief of a long lost  friend coming through to help you with finances when you thought all hope was lost. The diagnosis of an 'all is normal' when the doctor told you a week earlier that your child was going to be born with a deformity. A voice that seems to come from inside you telling you to 'give it up' when you find yourself in the midst of gang life dealing with drugs, alcohol and prostitution.

These are just a few examples of 'experiences' I have heard about. There are millions more of these ranging from the trivial to the life transforming. As varied as they are, they all have one thing in common. When they come along they render the religious ladder redundant. In these moments we come to 'know' God, the God that confirms all we were learning about as we were climbing the ladder.  We believe at these points that God has taken us into his hands, he can take care of the heavy lifting now and there is no need to rely on our puny footsteps on a wobbly  little ladder to get us to the top. When God takes us in his arm he pushes the ladder away, just like how Benny Hinn pushes away the crutches of the 'healed' crippled people in those revival services.

So, as God pushes away the ladder,  he pushes away  religion. Now, the doctrines, the hymns, the recited passages, the creeds, the communion, the sacraments,  even the bible don't really matter in the overall scheme of things. You have now got a taste of the 'true' God. Understanding this process, is something that I think is vital for atheists, for me it explains a lot of the mystery. You see, in trying to convince believers in all faiths that their belief in their scriptures is misplaced, we point to things like absurdities in bible passages, contradictions within the texts, religious explanations about the world that flatly fly in the face of what the natural sciences teach us. We write blogs, produce you tube videos and  recommend books that speak to these things, but none of this makes a difference to the believer that has had an 'experience.' Pointing out the rotting wood or showing them all the loose rungs that are about to fall to the ground mean nothing  after they have left the ladder behind.

They will humour us by indulging in debates and discussions on aspects of philosophy, logical fallacies, hermeneutics and the scientific method but it's just a 'what if' game for them. They 'know' God already, so what if you can use logic to prove he isn't there? It's all a bit of a joke. It's like someone bringing a watertight argument to me, that proves that I don't exist. That's what I think they mean when they say it's not about religion, they mean it's not about that ladder, those initial steps they took to try to find God, it is about the God that found  them, the one they have experienced first hand. The one they truly have a relationship with.

The interesting thing is that even though the religion ladder is pushed aside, it's not as if it's thrown away.  It is maintained as a relic, a heirloom that represents that relationship they now have. The ladder becomes sacred more for what it stood for than for the level of support it gave.  That is why so many Christians display their bibles proudly on book cases without ever cracking them open to read a verse. It's the book that's holy, not necessarily the stuff inside it. It's no longer a simple story collection with talking animals, global floods and ritual killings. With your revealed saviour, you can leave the old stories in the Garden of Eden and start out on  your 'cherry picking' walk with Jesus. You have met a God that's loving so you can discard anything people tell you about a vengeful, wrathful tyrant described in the bible. Direct experience must always win over second hand  accounts. You are left in a bit of a conundrum because you still think what that book says is true and was written by God, because the God you ultimately found was recognisable because his characteristics squared with the descriptions you found within the book he wrote. But, the thing to remember is that you have a direct relationship with the one who understands all. Surely he can explain it and  will one day if he feels its necessary. If he never does, it's not a big problem, these little annoying things that detractors bring up are mere religious quibbles, like workmen arguing over who has the strongest ladder.

Still, I would advise my christian friends that try to down play the importance of the religious ladder to think again. They would never have been able to identify their saviour unless their religion had told them who to look for,  the ladder had to be there, leaning them in the right direction. There is just no way to know Jesus unless you know about his religion first. Strangely enough, nobody finds Jesus who has never heard of him. It's true, no God can find you unless you are some point on the ladder that reaches up to him.  While climbing, you may have stopped due to fatigue or even  have turned to scurry  back down thinking its not worth it, but once you have stepped out on to a  rung of a religion, its God is liable to swoop down at some point and pick you up. Of course, for every God in history, there is a ladder made by humans to reach him. It appears most of these man made ladders lead to man made Gods. Some say, all except one. I see no reason not to kick down the last one standing, but that is a topic for a different day.

So, I am sticking to my guns. " No Religion, Know Reason!" and  "No Religion, No Jesus.!"

Also, now I have given it more thought, I have to apologise to Jacob. He may have been a dreamer but he was absolutely right. You do need a ladder to get  to heaven.