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,