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.

7 comments:

  1. Nice to see you back! I am interested in this because my wife's family hails from Barbados and I have wondered about what would happen if we ever settled there.

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  2. Nice to see you again as well, Sean! I know you had thoughts of moving back to Barbados sometime ago. Things are getting better though for non believers and I am encouraged. Christianity will always be a force there but good to know we will have a secular voice there as well.

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  3. Welcome back my bro. I am about to read the article. It is nice to see you active again...

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  4. Thanks Seon! Great to be back writing again.

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  5. David, great to see you back in the blogosphere. I know it's been a demanding year for you. Good to see that you're taking an active role in organizing the Barbados crew of non-believers. Thanks for the big-up for Yardie Skeptics Network! Much appreciated, and of course, your own input in our shows from time to time.

    Should let you know that we're hosting a debate on October 9 on the moot - "Be it resolved that morality has no transcendent source". Clive and I will be up against two SDAs. Should be fun! Hope you'll be able to watch and participate.

    Best,

    Hilaire

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  6. Thanks Hilaire! Always happy to give the promotion to Yardie Skeptics! It's a great show and so very needed in the Caribbean. Sorry I missed the special episode of Skeptically Speaking but will check out in the archives. Let's keep on keeping on!

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    ReplyDelete