Saturday, December 27, 2014

Why I embrace Christmas as an Atheist: Trying to avoid the package deal fallacy

Don't let the Christian marketers fool you: You don't have to buy everything in the Christmas basket.
You can take the gifts you want and leave back the ones that don't interest you.

Another year and once again a chance to enjoy Christmas. A day that has held a special place for me since I was five years old and rushed down to the tree in my pyjamas to unwrap those magical coloured packages that 'Santa' brought.

These days things are a bit different as an adult and an atheist. This is now my fifth Christmas as an atheist and every year I seem to get into some discussion with someone about why I still celebrate and perhaps more significantly why I continue to embrace the name 'Christmas' for the thing that I am celebrating.

The big question from some of my believer friends is "Why celebrate Christmas if you no longer believe in Christ, his birth for mankind and the truth of the Christian gospel?" The big question from some of my atheist friends is "Why celebrate Christmas if you no longer believe in Christ, his birth for mankind and the truth of the Christian gospel?"

That's right, this is one time of the year when the believer and non believer question can be the same. There is a view on both sides of the theistic divide that Christmas is for the Christians. This is not by any means the perspective of all, but it has significant sway it seems. These people believe that if there is any mass an atheist should be playing on the morning of the 25th,  it shouldn't be the one with Jesus' name.

I think this is unfortunate. I continue to celebrate Christmas and call it 'Christmas' and try to enjoy it to the fullest. I believe that we atheists that have come up in a culture where Christmas has had significance within the family and wider society should do the same. I'll explain why.

Anything to keep you in the 'club'

It is not difficult to understand why many Christians are unhappy to see atheists and secular people on the whole embrace what they see as being THEIR festival. For Christianity and indeed religions on the whole, the main goal is getting and keeping as many people in the 'club' as possible. The arguments for the belief in the doctrine collapse easily on their own logic so it is important that other types of social pressures or manipulations are there to keep you in their camp. One of the ways to keep you in the 'club' is to maximize the benefits from being in the group and withholding as many of the benefits as possible (or even dish out punishments) if you decide you prefer to stay outside. Yes, once you deny their saviour  they immediately want to place you on the naughty list.

It's the proverbial 'carrot and stick'  technique that is epitomized to a large extent by the creation of the various heavens and hells in different faiths. But it doesn't end there. There is an earthly aspect too.  Although they claim that becoming a Christian is giving up all the tempting attractive worldly goods, the truth is that leaving Christianity also means giving up the numerous attractions of being in faith.

Christmas with all that goes with it,  is seen by a section of believers as one of those in-house treats. The rich traditions of colours, lights, trees, mistletoe, gift giving, music, food and all manner of consumption of alcoholic beverages is fun for many people who believe nothing of miracles, Magis or mangers. The general good will,  joy and happiness that go along with the festivities makes it something that millions the world over are keen to latch on to.

So, of course one way to make atheists pay for going for the rational over the religious is to tell us we have to give up  all of the activities of the festival that bear their saviour's name. Of course, as people like Seth Andrews  The Thinking Atheist' have repeatedly pointed out, most aspects of Christmas have nothing at all to do with Christianity. Most of what people love about Christmas comes from much older practices of pagan origin. Even the date of December 25th was the birthdate of many 'gods' that came down to earth long before the Christ child.

All of this is undeniable, but the fact is that whatever you say, the celebration still carries the name of CHRISTmas and believers milk that for all that is worth. If atheists or church people who enjoy the season can be convinced that they need to stay in the Christian fold if they want to truly enjoy Christmas, the church benefits from increased club membership and club dues.

Keep Christ in Christmas but don't dare give church kids a 'Christ' gift on that day

That is why the "Keep Christ in Christmas", "Put Christ in your Christmas" and "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" campaigns are so important.  Christians that make such remarks and protest the over  commercialization of the day know full well that Christmas is not centred on the baby Jesus and will almost certainly never be. Neither would they want it that way. Show me the Christian parent who would dare forego buying a 'Star Wars' lego set to purchase a 'Jesus Christ Super Star' figurine for their eight year old son. You can  talk about keeping Christ in Christmas all you want, but put Christ in a Christmas present and you are history. Most Christian youngsters would rather get a lump of coal in their stocking than have it stuffed with something 'Christ filled'  and they'll let their parents know it. So, if Christian parents want to prevent a juvenile war on Christmas they know that they have to keep their Christ far away from the Christmas tree.

Yes, by and large, Christians are happy to keep Christmas the way it is. The Jesus part is just lip service, but it is important lip service.  The message is that if you don't at least claim a belief in the Jesus baby and the surrounding story you don't get to do all the other fun stuff.

The Package Deal Fallacy

It's the package deal fallacy. Marketers often indulge in this type of practice. If you have an item that people don't want and something that is very popular, you tell them in order to get popular item 'X' you need to buy this other superfluous item 'Y'. So they trap you into buying 'Y" when you don't need it and often don't even want it. But the result is that 'Y' flies off the shelves and gets into the hands of consumers. Then the makers of 'Y' can claim their product is a best seller. So they can make you buy the transistor radio with the smartphone you want just to make sure their old time radios don't go extinct.

We can't let the Christian marketers get away with that type of thing. As consumers of Christmas we can buy what we want and leave back the things we don't care for. Many of us have bought a lot of it but have opted to leave that weird looking baby Jesus on the shelf. Belief in a claim should be based solely on whether the evidence for that claim is reasonable.  If the answer to that is 'NO' it means you can and should reject that premise, but this should have absolutely no bearing on whether you choose to continue to practice any traditions that may be associated with the belief. As I have said in one of my earliest blogposts, tradition does not equal truth.They may often be sold together but they don't have to be bought together. We have to resist the package deal fallacy and we do that by explaining to Christians that we are free to continue to hold to their traditions while rejecting the beliefs. Throw out the baby and keep the bathwater.

Bathwater yes! Baby no!

There are quite a few people that find a lot of value in the bathwater after the baby is gone.  They can find some degree of nourishment in the traces of the babies dead skin in the water even as the blood and the body are rejected. We should not be afraid to continue to enjoy the music, sing the hymns admire the art and poetry if we still get some enjoyment and fulfilment from them. We have to remind believers that being an atheist simply means we don't believe the god they believe in exists. It REALLY is nothing more than that. It's not hypocrisy to continue to do some stuff associated with religion when we don't believe in the central doctrine. Hypocrisy would be pretending to believe in the doctrine when we don't. To not believe but explain we practice something because we identify with aspects of the culture is not only fair enough but something that should be encouraged. What we need to do is find a place to practice these outside of a church service context because staying in the church keeps us in their club and helps swell their numbers which is not in our best interest. But concerts featuring the church music are certainly great as far as I am concerned.

Enjoying Messiah Myth Music

So it was for me this year. I had the pleasure of attending a wonderful performance of Handel's Messiah with the Calgary Symphony Orchestra. The concert was every bit as moving as it was when I listened to  similar performances as a young Anglican in Barbados. As a side note,  I have to say that I got a totally different meaning out of the piece 'All We Like Sheep'.  I smiled all the way through that one. I couldn't help but feel that Handel highlighted  the entire problem with Christianity today in that single title and opening line. I wondered for a moment if Handel in a cheeky way was giving his own satirical take on the gospel. If only Christians would listen to the words coming forth from their own bibles and their own mouths. We can only live in hope.

But I digress, the point I am making here is that Handel's music is for me an essential part of Christmas and the fact that it surrounds a myth doesn't diminish the beauty in any way. We as atheists shouldn't have to apologize to other non believers for going back to enjoy something from the faith museum that we grew up visiting week after week or year after year. Neither should we have to deal with Christians trying to pick from our love of the tenor line in "And The Glory of the Lord" that our hearts are secretly yearning to join them back in God's kingdom.

No atheist should be pressured into taking part in an aspect of religious ritual or celebration they no longer feel comfortable engaging in but by the same token, no atheist should be pressured to give up an aspect of religious culture that they feel happy to keep doing. Indeed,  whenever atheists engage in something from a religious tradition, it gives us an opportunity to emphasize that you don't need to give up other things when you admit that you don't believe. This is important because many atheists, including myself, for years identified ourselves as Christian because we liked and appreciated the culture, especially the music. We bought into the package deal fallacy by assuming that our love of choral arrangements and organ improvisations was all part of our love for God and belief in his inspired word. It's only when we recognized we could look at our beliefs solely on their own logic with no additional trappings of culture and social expectations that we were able to break free of our indoctrination. So emphasizing the importance of analyzing religious beliefs ONLY on their logic and evidence to those still in the faith gives them the chance to take that same approach that many of us eventually took. Maybe one day they will reach the same conclusion we have. That's how we will end up with more non believers and have a chance of strengthening our secular movement adding to those of us who champion reason, logic and evidence.

So when we who are atheists seek to encourage atheists to not celebrate Christmas and opt instead for  going with Winter Solstice, Newtonmass, Festivus or push to popularize a more generic "Happy Holidays" we may not be doing ourselves a favour. I am not saying that these other celebrations don't have their place, because they definitely do. But if we over emphasize  these we can play right into the Christian 'package deal' argument that says Christmas is only for the Christ followers.

Keep the name but broaden the nature of the traditions

Each year Christmas embraces more traditions and becomes potentially an umbrella that more and more people can exist under. That to me is a benefit not a drawback. Christmas does not and should not mean the same thing to everybody. The more we can get Christmas to embrace new traditions the more people will be able to feel that they actually belong. In a world where we have divisions over race, religion, gender, nationality and political ideologies the potential of a festival that unifies us across our common humanity is exciting and attractive.

At the moment the celebration most likely to do that is Christmas, notwithstanding the identification of one single religion in its name. But lets not fixate too much on this nomenclature. Already many don't associated Christmas with Christ's mass. It's just a name connoting  no more feelings of a religion that when we talk to Christine, Christopher or Christian.

For me December the 25th is Christmas, has always been Christmas  and will also be Christmas.  It's being dressed in my cassock and rough singing treble as a 12 year old in the St. Michael Cathedral Choir Nine Lessons and Carols. It's playing Christmas carols with the Christ the King Church ensemble outside Super Centre.  It's using every ounce of energy from my lungs to make my clarinet be heard above the blast of the pipe organ at Christ the King Church in 'O Come all ye Faithful' at midnight mass.  It's  playing and singing with the Cavite Chorale back in university days in Barbados. It's appearing with the gospel  band 'Promise' in the park on Christmas morning. It's  treasure hunts for Christmas presents in the house as a kid in Rock Dundo Barbados. All these things I did in the name of Christmas and I won't and can't  delete such memories from my December holiday hard drive. There's an emotional connection I get with Christmas that I can't get from a vague wish of 'Happy Holidays' or ' Have a fine Winter Solstice'.

If  you are an atheist and you never had such traditions and memories with Christmas, by all means celebrate something else or don't celebrate at all. I certainly would never judge you negatively for it.
But if you are an atheist like me who has had Christmas written all throughout your heart and history, give it a chance. Let's play our part in further  secularizing this pagan festival. Let the Christian's keep the name. Let them have their moment to bask in some glory.even as we know that all they have is the Word. The Word that they think is key to salvation while we see a symbol of a relic long past.

 A Christmas 'tree'  that carries their name at the root, paganism in the overlapping rings of the trunk and our secular traditions in the modern branches makes the resulting 'evergreen' something that both those that believe and those that don't can justly identify with. That's what I think makes Christmas special. If we do it right, Christmas may one day be something that all the world can truly share.

Because having a holiday  season where believers celebrate one holiday and non believers celebrate another one is not ideal. The holidays should be about families, communities and the world coming together, breaking down the barriers that tend to divide us. It should not be a time where we seek to separate ourselves based on our differences in philosophies about origins of the universe. More and more families are now going to have a mix of believers and non believers and having that divide over holiday celebrations will only add to the tension.

So let's see what we can do with Christmas, keep Christ in it but let's keep adding more things, take it in all the other directions it can go to make more human beings culturally feel a part. Those who grew up with traditions in Islam, Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism will be wondering why this western religion has to be the chosen world celebration ahead of the ones embedded in other peoples in the world. I take that point, but hopefully in time their traditions will be included in Christmas too and the origin of the name will fade in importance. Then the role of Christ in Christmas will actually become as relevant as the role of Thor in Thursday.

Who knows? One day historians may be arguing among themselves about whether the popular December festival's name hearkens back to an ancient religion that came from a Jewish tribe or finds it's genesis  from the name of a famous champion of anti religion, who came to wake us all from our intellectual slumber by giving humanity a 'hitchslap' of salvation.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Doesn't the truth matter?

I have observed an interesting change over the years as I have continued my discussions of theological matters with theists. In the early days I got inundated with arguments for why the universe testifies to God's existence.

 'Look at the birds, the trees, the planets, pretty flowers and beautiful sunsets.' 

These I call the 'All Things Bright and Beautiful' argument for God. Many Christians just consider these signs of a god obvious and are often flummoxed when non believers push back and say that these things prove nothing. The existence of the universe is evidence for the existence of the universe, nothing more, nothing less. No, you don't need a creator. Just because you call it a creation doesn't make it so.

As my friends that are Christians have become more and more aware of the weakness and the circularity of saying that God's creation proves God and that God's existence is proven through his creation,  they've changed tact. They have switched to the 'Well, if it helps people it can't be bad, right? ' argument. What I call the 'utility' argument for belief in God that many refer to as belief in 'belief'. 

People will say that religion has a record of motivating people to do good, keeping people from harming others, giving people a sense of purpose and reassuring them of a better life in the great beyond to keep them from falling into the desolation here on earth.

So many times I have been asked what I intend to replace religion with once I have stripped it away. I have been told over and over again that people need something to believe in, something to hold on to.These are all valid points and issues that are certainly open to debate. But what people don't realise when they present me these arguments is that they are reinforcing to me that the God they believe in doesn't exist.  With every appeal to how belief in their God is helpful it becomes clear they have no good argument to put on the table for why their God is real.

Surely the strongest defence you can bring for holding on to a particular belief is that the belief is true. If Christians could clearly demonstrate that, there would be no reason to go on to all these secondary arguments for faith. 

In no other area of life do we spend time debating whether it is better to spread belief in a lie rather than the truth. I have never attended or read about any international conferences that have been held to discuss whether we should opt for reassuring lies over difficult truths because it might be better for people.

No one argues that we should work to suppress the truth about Ebola, AIDS or Chikingunya because it would reassure people that they live in a healthy world. In those cases, we recognize the far greater dangers we will face if we don't deal with reality head on.

No one is setting up missionary trips to push universal belief in Santa Claus because the idea of an omniscient saint who knows when 'you've been bad or good' and rewards you accordingly would help to keep kids all over the globe in line. Nobody as far as I know has made it their goal to seek to extend this delightful delusion into the over 20s so that grown ups around us will cut down on their naughtiness too.

Indeed, if what matters in faith is how we are led to behave or how it makes us feel, why don't we just construct a religion to have all those elements we want? We could make religions that speak  about how to treat technology and the importance of minimizing climate change, we could author new 'holy books'  with commandments about not texting and driving or how to invest wisely. If usefulness is what matters and pragmatism is what it's all about, why don't we just dive right in and come up with a 'create a religion' app that works on all platforms, ensures the  optimum in behaviour of us all and equality in treatment right across society with no 'us' versus 'them'?

So why DON'T we do that? The truth is that truth does matter to believers.
I don't think I have ever attended any religious service anywhere where I have not heard the word 'truth'  uttered at sometime or another.

At my church I  used to hear about 

The TRUTH of the gospel.
The TRUTH of Jesus' sacrifice for all mankind
The TRUTH of salvation
The TRUTH of everlasting life

Here in Calgary there is a church that even has the audacity to call is self simply 'Truth Church'.

Hank Haanegraph who runs the 'Bible Answer Man' podcast has as his tagline ' Because the truth matters.'

Yes, religion's huge selling point is TRUTH. Each of them has it and they do everything to convince you that YOU need to know it. That's their big marketing strategy. They are selling TRUTH, of course whether people buy it is a different matter altogether.  But once they get a few customers, they can usually survive. Churches know full well that they would not have a snowball's chance in hell of surviving without playing the ' We have the ONE truth' game.

Don't ask don't tell: Keeping congregations in the dark

When I point this out to believers of different types, they tend to object. They tell me that their faith is not about certainty, that they question their pastors regularly and that they grapple with doubts and it's not fair to lump them in with the fundamentalists who say that they know for sure. That's all well and good, but the layers of doubts and uncertainties come from those in the pew not from those in the pulpit. 

How many times have you heard a preacher even in the most liberal of churches go up to a pulpit and speak about his or her doubts or doubts that exist within the doctrine he or she is promoting?  And of course they will never ever talk about doubts of the existence of the God they are preaching about. But why not? In other areas of life people often speak about the arguments out there in society against their positions and actually ADDRESS THEM! Any scientist positing a hypothesis that does not speak about the objections of others in the field to it is not taken seriously. Why are those in churches so happy to let their leaders get away without responding to the points of those raised from other sides?

For every religion in the world there are more people that reject that doctrine than accept it. No denomination can lay claim to having more than 50% of the world's population. Yet the existence of gods being preached about are spoken about as if they are as clear to humans as the existence of the sun. 

There are doubts about the authorship of the gospels, historical accuracy of the exodus, the crucifixion story and as Richard Carrier would tell you, even the existence of Jesus himself. Many priests especially those that went to  top theological colleges are well aware of these doubts and controversies among scholars but will not dare speak of them to their congregations. They withhold the truth even as they go out of their way to proclaim to all and sundry that they speak only in its name. 

They know that the Genesis stories are ancient Jewish myths. They know that the talking snakes, magic gardens and floating zoos are as real as any of Aesop's fables. They also know that their congregations by and large,  buy these stories literally. When atheists like me come along to talk to their faithful and break the news that it's mythical and not mystical, they think we non-believers are the crazy ones. I am sure they would have a heart attack to know that very likely the views of their pastors  align much more with my perspective than theirs.

It's hard to live with the fact that the group of people that follow the word 'TRUTH' so much forsake it so often. 
When I went to Anglican churches, the supposed leaders of the liberal, I heard them say that 'This IS the word of the Lord'  not ' This may be' or 'this might be' or ' this could be.' 

So truth does matters to religious people, that's why they join religions in the first place. They like the comfort that certainty brings. It's also the reason that many of them feel uncomfortable about leaving religion and being atheists or agnostic. When we say we don't know it scares them. It's just not good enough, they have to put their money on the people who 'KNOW'. But saying you know doesn't mean you do any more than me saying I am a millionaire results in a six figure deposit being lodged in my savings account.

Indeed, if churches were more honest about the limits of their knowledge I might still be attending them today. If only they would stay something like this 

" We come here on Sundays because we value the social support we give each other and the love that is shared among us. We respect the tradition from which our faith has emerged but recognize that the truth claims made are dubious at best and many of the claims are plain ridiculous in light of the scientific knowledge of the 21st century. However, we think that there are certain basic teachings that come along with our faith tradition that are beneficial both to individuals and society and we choose to focus on these principles as we seek to make a better world for ourselves and everyone we may influence or come into contact with.'

Now that is a church I could get behind. That would be a real 'Truth Church' . Truthful about what it knows and what it doesn't. Recognising that the true value of the congregation is in the people and the solidarity and support that could be given. The funny thing is, is that you will hear this type of statement from church people quite often   but usually only when the truth claims they start by affirming have been torn apart. 

Preachers don't talk about doubts because they know if they did their church would be empty in a few weeks. Believers aren't looking for 'ifs', 'buts', 'maybes' or 'on the other hands'. It's all about what IS. 

But it's not fair for churches to be able to go about catching their prey through a classic 'bait and switch'. They reel you in with unreal  'truth talk'  and then keep you there with an ' It makes you feel better'  appeal. That's dishonest. If you are selling your beliefs based on 'truth' then you have to back up with arguments that speak to 'truth'. How it makes you feel inside or the purpose it gives you in your life are irrelevant to what's real.

Useful? Only if you make yourself believe the unbelievable

I know after all this talk, there will still be a few who will prefer to take that 'fantasy' pill. The one that works and tastes good too. The thing is that when you look at it, all these cited benefits of 'belief'  are only helpful if you believe. And to believe in a religion like Christianity you have to suspend reason, attempt to believe the unbelievable and claim to comprehend the incomprehensible. Convincing yourself of facts that you know that you would reject out of hand in any other context, ultimately unthinking your way out of reality. How useful is that really?

Friday, September 26, 2014

Breaking the silence: Being in Barbados as an 'out' atheist, and other reflections on a year of transition

Atheist meet-up  during my most recent visit to Barbados. A memorable evening
and sign of hope for things to come!
It's been a long, long time. Over a year !!

Can't believe I have gone so long without making an entry in this blog.

Don't think that the lack of writing in any way signified that nothing interesting was going on in my life. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is there was perhaps too much happening, lots of things to think about and reflect on. There were so many times when I thought to write, but I think it was a matter of trying to figure out what I should say, what I could say and how I should say it.

What I have realised, is like anything else, writing blogs is a habit. When you're in the groove you seem able to churn them out weekly almost with no effort. But when you lose the habit and find one week, two weeks, three weeks, a month, six months, a year has gone by without you saying anything it becomes harder and harder to break the silence, even when you know deep inside that you have a thousand things to say.

As I look back and see my last blog post, I remember the wonderful Black Out Secular Rally we had in New York last year and the exciting launch of the Caribbean Secular Alliance (CSA) we had back then. The formation of the CSA was an exciting beginning and one I had personally looked forward to making happen for a long time. I was impressed with the team of secularists that we had from countries as diverse as Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Grenada, Dominica and USVI. Many of these key members present at the inaugural meeting live or online were either avid bloggers and/ or podcasters. It was a thrill to be able to assemble and then be a part of such a group.

But with high hopes of building on this group, I faced my own start-up challenges both professionally and personally. I had recently completed my PhD degree in Calgary where I had focused on the development of renewable energy technologies in the Caribbean and was exploring the possibility of returning to Barbados or the Caribbean to work on projects there. At the same time I have been pursuing interests within Canada and as a result the last year has seen me travelling to Barbados and the Caribbean quite a bit both for work and general reconnecting. However, I remain based in Calgary, Canada.

On the personal front, last year I separated from Heather, my wife of 13 years. It was a break that came just one month before my thesis defence and it sent my world into a tailspin. Heather is from Barbados and of course I have many memories there of being with her when I was there last. I knew I still had quite a bit to deal with emotionally and still do.

To say that I had much on my plate over the last year and a half, would be the epitome of understatement. I got through  2013 thanks to a lot of support from family and friends, some old and some new.  But it certainly wasn't all gloomy. I  had something to celebrate in being a brand new 'doctor' and with the formation of the CSA now behind me I  had something new to get my teeth into and drive forward.

But just as I was at that pinnacle, I found myself feeling emotionally drained and unfortunately my work in secularism took a hit. I wasn't able to continue with the 'Freethinking Island' podcast which I had been doing frequently with co host Joy Holloway- D' Avilar. The blogging stopped and after a few initial meetings of planning we have not in recent times had meetings with the CSA.

I felt disappointed to not be taking an active role in a movement that I feel so proud to be part of, but I just needed to take some time for myself. Still, I kept being involved in the dialogue and meeting people and talking on the subject. I just wasn't writing or getting things in podcasts. Today I am finally putting thoughts back into words

Interacting with the believers in Barbados

It was an interesting mix of emotions going back to Barbados in 2013. My friends there had so much to talk about when it came to me. The two big topics were of course the news of my two break ups. As far as my divorce from God was concerned, that was starting to become common knowledge in many circles in Barbados. It didn't take me long to realise that inspite of the deafening silence from my friends in Barbados that often accompanied my facebook status updates,  blogs and podcasts announcements about my non belief, people were reading.

I will never forget when driving through Bridgetown,  I heard a good friend shout at me through the window " Hey Incey (that's what many of my childhood friends call me), Man I read all of your stuff!"

That had an impact on me. I found it telling. This guy has never made a single comment on anything I ever posted, yet he was reading.  Even though he hadn't seen me for years that was the first thing he thought to say when he set eyes on me.

There were others who were not so forthright in talking about my writing, but whenever the subject of religion came up in conversation I could see they were well aware of my new perspective on the divine. On one occasion I met a friend from school. We started out just catching up on what we had been up to in recent years and she mentioned about her involvement in teaching Sunday School. I casually stated that I used to be involved in that sort of thing but now I was no longer a believer.

She smiled knowingly, as if she was waiting for me to bring it up. Then she did her best to win me back over telling me all about the love of God and 'evidence' for his existence with some not so fine tuned cosmological and teleological arguments. When all was said and done, we had been standing there talking in the open for well over an hour. It happened to be an overcast day and the sun popped out from behind a stubborn cloud just at the moment that she made a point about how powerful He is and the great things He had done in her life.  Her smile beamed as the sun rays suddenly streamed down, " There, look at how God is showing himself to you."

I gave a little chuckle and thought about the weakness of belief. It was one of those times when you get something from a believer that is kind of half joke. Deep down they know it's lame. At least I think they must do, but they still hope that you will go 'hmm'. Or maybe it's just a good distraction, something you'll both laugh at to forget the hammering that they just got when the logic of their argument was pulled to shreds.

This type of interaction was repeated in Barbados on many occasions. I got to know about all the struggles with health, relationships, finances, jobs, studies and much more more that friends and acquaintances of mine have had to go through in the last few years. They revealed these things to me to show me how real their gods have been in getting them through these situations, giving them strength to cope where they would not have been able to do it otherwise.

I think I made a discovery. For any of you in the Caribbean who like to 'know people business', just go up to a person and tell them you don't believe in God and ask them why they believe and wait for the 'testimonies'. If you are patient you'll have all the inside gossip of their lives.  All jokes aside, it just amazed me that these people expected that such stories would move me. That somehow, hearing THEIR testimony was the one thing I needed to sway me back to faith.

Didn't they realise that I have been hearing these types of stories poured out to me constantly for five years plus? What would make theirs a game changer?

I have had so much experience with these discussions now I took some time and formulated the following template. Here is what they say:

Testimony Template

(1). At some point in life I had a very difficult situation to deal with. 

Today, either 2a, 2b or 2c accurately represents reality.

(2a) At some point (seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years or decades later) I got through that difficult situation. 
(2b)  I  haven't got through the situation but I have faith that I will get through the situation someday. 
(2c)  I haven't got through the situation and don't think I ever will but I have learnt to live with the situation and adapt accordingly.

Therefore I can be sure that (3) is the case.

(3).  God is real and never fails me.

If skeptic is not convinced, go back to step (1) and mention another difficult situation that had to be dealt with. Repeat cycle.

When there is no movement on the part of the skeptic after several cycles, he or she is accused of being close minded by rejecting every example. That's how it works.

One of the most interesting interactions I had on that first Barbados visit came with a friend I used to play with regularly at church. He revealed that the priest at a church we used to perform at had got wind of my atheism. According to him, they 'went ballistic' and wondered how I could possibly do 'something like that.' He said that that he himself was not sure if I would ever be welcomed back into the church again given what he had witnessed in terms of the response from the priest.

This revelation had a profound effect on me. Up until that point, I always considered the decision about whether to go into a church or not in terms of my comfort level. Did I feel like I really belonged there? Was I being hypocritical? Could I justify it based on the social aspects of the service? Was there enjoyment I could get out of singing the hymns or playing the music even if I no longer believed? Were their things I could learn from the sermon or the lessons even though I rejected the overall doctrine? Could I make it through the tedium of the Te Deum and all the rest of the droning?

But never, never had I thought about things the other way around. The perspective of how they would feel. Would they want to have me? It's then I realized of course the big difference between being an atheist and being a person that everybody knows is an atheist. On my trip to Barbados in 2011 the former was the case. Now things were different.

I began thinking about reactions that I have had from people after saying I have been to church or a religious event.

" Wait, and the church roof didn't fall down?" ,
" Lightning didn't strike you?"
" Nobody didn't hold you to douse you with holy water?"

These comments of course are meant in jest and I take them in the spirit that they are meant. Indeed, even atheists tease me like this sometimes. But I think there is a seriousness that lies behind  these comments sometimes, because deep down some people are a little uneasy about knowing that there is an ungodly mingling with the godly, especially during worship. The unsaved 'black sheep' that could contaminate the pristine flock.

Much as the idea of me being struck down by lightning during mass may seem a ridiculous notion, I am sure that if anything 'out of the ordinary' happened on a Sunday morning  while I was there, people would make  connections. Suppose the large crucifix hanging from the roof suddenly gave way under its weight and fell to the floor, or someone in the choir feinted due to an asthmatic attack and had to be carried to hospital or a bird in need of defecating suddenly flew into the church and decided to 'bless' the altar.

I know there would be people in the church that would think that these were not be coincidences. The same mindset that leads them to make the joke about 'how come lightning didn't strike David'  would make them at least wonder if their God was sending them a message about having  'non believers' or opposers to the doctrine in church. Worse yet, they might wonder whether my presence had opened some portal from hell that Satan was now barrelling through.

I began to realize that given the public stand against religion  that I had taken, things would not be quite the same for me now if I walked into a 'House of God'. Now it would be more difficult to go into a church in Barbados and sit incognito at the back and hang out. Probably nobody would talk to me openly, but they would be watching, looking for signs. If I smiled or appeared to be enjoying any aspect of the service they would take that as evidence that I wasn't really the 'non believer' I purported to be on line. I was just a meek sheep in wolf's clothing. If I  rolled my eyes, shook my head or chuckled after hearing an absurd  line like ' Our father who lives in heaven' this would be  taken as gross disrespect for their faith. They would be wondering why I came to mass if I am not going to behave properly.  I felt that being at church would be truly a 'damned if I do, damned if I don't' proposition.

So, I took the decision to just not go. Not even to see old friends or have the experience of what it's like.  Honestly, I didn't really want to be there anyway. It has become harder and harder for me  to ignore all the harm that faith and 'non evidence based thinking' has inflicted and continues to inflict on our world. It's so easy to think when you live in a place like Barbados that you have a benign faith, but it is important to look beyond your cocoon. I get angry when people say they know when they know that they don't know. When they think that saying that they know will suddenly magically give them the knowledge that they seek.

So, I met with former colleagues from church in other places to the extent that I could. I had many conversations long into the night, both one and one and in groups. These interactions made me recognize that there is still a lot about atheism that is not understood. The strong level of religious indoctrination which transcends every aspect of culture makes the belief that everybody 'believes in something' widespread.

They believe that as an atheist your faith must be in Satan or Darwin or 'science' must be your religion. I have tried to explain on many occasions that atheism is not a belief in something but actually a response to theism. Saying ' I disagree' to the person that says ' There is a god'.

Still, it's hard for them to escape the widely held notion that everybody has a faith and their belief that we choose the one we want in the same way we choose which shirt we put on in the morning. It appears to be a huge challenge for people to get their head around the fact that when it comes to religion, it's quite acceptable to go out naked.

Through all the discussions I have had in Barbados,  I continue to hear that I am merely on a journey seeking and there are more than a few that are confident I will one day return to god. They implore me to keep thinking, but they don't realize that if they want me back that is the very thing they should discourage me from doing.

Nonetheless, I have to say that on the positive side there is a feeling in Barbados that everyone is open to follow the  life that they choose and they therefore have no right to be hostile to me about my atheism. Generally, they are prepared to respect me once I respect them. I am Ok with that but wish they were more prepared to engage me on the conflicting ideas rather than agreeing to disagree which so many of them prefer to do.

Atheists in Barbados

The situation for non believers in Barbados is improving albeit slowly. Atheists in the country are beginning to feel more comfortable identifying themselves as such and I was very encouraged to have 14 people attending the atheist meet up on the island while I was there. (See photo at the top of the page)

In addition to those pictured in the photo, I got quite a few messages of support from people who expressed their deep regret for not being able to be there that evening. These I see as encouraging signs for the movement there. I think we now have a core set of persons living in he island who can promote the virtues of reason in the public domain and provide an effective opposing voice to the bombardment of the various religious views that are heard everyday. I take the time here to make special mention of Brian Vaughn (Nairb Nhguav on Facebook). This week he has started the facebook group Agnostic, Atheists and Freethinkers of Barbados which I hope will build the community and let those in Barbados who have lost their faith or are having doubts recognise that they are not alone.

When speaking of changing attitudes to religion in Barbados, some of the atheists pointed to the outcry in the island over the visit of the controversial Pastor Benny Hinn. Lots of people went on their facebook pages and called him out as a fraud. They didn't think that Bajans would have been bold enough to do that even five years ago. That is at least a small sign that things are changing.

Then and now - Feelings of being an atheist

When I look back over my time as an atheist, I see significant changes that I have gone through. I think when you first become an atheist the feelings are a bit like when you first fall in love. There is a beautiful mixture of excitement and fear. You want to tell the world of your discovery but at the same time your heart patters with trepidation.

How will my family react? What will my Christian friends think of me now? Will they be angry? Will they pity me? Will they disown me? Will they breakdown in tears at the thought of going to an eternity in paradise while I writhe in unimaginable pain in the depths of hell?

At the beginning I had no idea what the various reactions would be and I had all sorts of imaginary conversations where many over reactions played out in my head. For that reason, a shock used to go through my spine in the early days whenever I mentioned the 'a' word and I would drop my voice with an almost apologetic tone when I said it.  I would say things like ' I identify as an atheist', or ' I consider myself an atheist' or 'I see myself as an atheist' because I could not bring myself to say what I really wanted to say which was ' I AM an atheist.'

Here I am four years later and the story is completely different. I am an atheist, fully out, unapologetically out and proudly out. I can say the phrase 'I am an atheist' without the slightest of unease.  It flows off my tongue as easily as 'I come from Barbados', ' I play saxophone' or ' I live in Calgary'. Atheist simply defines who I am.  At least one aspect, an important aspect. Whether I am correct or not is not really the point. Whether I got there through my own efforts or was convinced, coerced or co-opted by whoever or whatever is also irrelevant.

"He/she/ it/ they does/ do not exist."

That's my perspective on the god question, on all the gods I have heard defined or described in my life.  I can't change what I believe through will or desire. I never chose to be an atheist and I can't choose not to be an atheist. So the people in my life have to accept in and move on. It is what it is and I am what I am. So, you can say I have reached a state of peace as far as that is concerned.

Not always good without God but honesty much, much better in long run

While I was going through the initial pain of separation last year, I remember that there were atheists pushing a campaign of ' Atheists are good without god.' At the time I remember thinking that, this is probably not the message that we should be pushing. As atheists we can certainly go through all the depths that the believer can go through. Things can get bad and we can become 'bad' as a result. But what I would say is that whoever we are and wherever we are, we would not be better off with a belief in god.  Well, maybe we would be if god were real, but he's not. Belief in a god who isn't there doesn't help us in the long run. It may be a plaster for the sore for a while but it won't ultimately fix us up. I still maintain that the best way to deal with reality is to understand reality as well as we possibly can, then make decisions that appear to best fit with our situations. You'll be wrong sometimes, but when you are you'll learn and you'll get better.

I can say without doubt that I feel far more free having embraced my atheism five years ago, Being able to be intellectually honest has definitely released a major load from my shoulders which I think far outweighs any social fall out that I may now be experiencing. There were times over the last year where I wished I could benefit more from the many prayers and 'god' support that my Christian friends offered up. I thank them for remembering me and I truly appreciate their support, but I prefer to look to reason as my guide.  Holding on to the principle that honesty is still the best policy.

Honesty is indeed one of the main values my Christian upbringing taught me and it is this value that has ultimately led me to become an atheist.  It's a touch ironic of course but it has helped to remind me that even though I have turned my back on my religious belief, I have not thrown out the foundational beliefs that I learnt alongside religion as a child. In fact, if anything I hold to those values now more strongly.

Great to be back writing

Once again, I apologize for my extended absence from the blogging world. Thanks for those who have checked up on me in the interim, it has meant a lot.

Also happy to see the movement on the whole in the Caribbean getting stronger. It has been great to see the strides of the Jamaicans Hilaire Sobers and Clive Forrester and more recently Sharon Smith in developing the 'Yardie Skeptics' podcast and the supporting shows of ' Air Me Now' and 'Skeptically Speaking' as part of the Yardie Skeptics Network. It was with a significant measure of pride that I told atheists in Barbados about these wonderful programmes that are now available for freethinkers to be part of throughout the region. I also thank the team there for giving me a few opportunities during my 'absence' to take part in the discussions.

Of course I am still committed to getting back in the groove with 'Freethinking Island'. We returned earlier this year after the few months break and it was great to be behind the mic again as we welcomed Greta Christina and then Sharon Smith to the 'island.' Both giving us educational and entertaining interviews delivered in the forthright manner for which they are known,

We have been forced to take another break however. This time it's great news, as my cohost Joy recently gave birth. Exciting to have Mila  with us and heartiest congratulations to Joy and husband Neil!

The CSA remains dormant for the time being, but I will definitely be pushing more on that front in the months ahead. Recent developments and interest in Barbados has given me more encouragement to continue to drive forward on the regional front. The atheist meet-up in Barbados gave some impetus for the group in Dominica to convene the week after. This is the kind of transfer throughout the region that I love to see. If you are interested in working with us on the regional front let me know. Happy to have those extra hands on deck.

But above all my friends, I just feel great to be back in the blogosphere today. Months I have wanted to break my silence.  Endless weekends that I thought ' This is the one where caribatheist comes back." But it hasn't happened.  So,  today I am happy that once again I will be able to push the 'publish' button. There was much more I wanted to say in this blog ( although I know I said quite a bit) but I just let the secular spirit move me. As I get back into the writing I'll share much more about my life and adjusting to all the changing scenes that I have been through in leaving religion and relationship.

You all know that renewable energy is my business. In the cycle of energy, changes always occur. Energy is conserved, but not in the same form after a process as it was at the beginning. That is how I feel about myself today. My energy is there, I can feel the renewing after operating for a while with a battery that was well and truly drained. I don't know if I'll be the exactly the same though, as I prepare to go forward secularly once again. All I can tell you is that whatever happens I'll be there mixing it up on behalf of team 'reason'. It's what I love to do and I won't give it up for the world.