Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The firm foundation that never was: The ‘mosquito sting’ that grew into atheism-

Growing up in the island of Barbados, being a Christian was as natural to me as breathing oxygen. Even at five years old, I figured that I had the God thing all worked out. “ It’s he that hath made us and not we ourselves” That was Psalm 100, we recited it at least once a week at school. Whenever we said it, I would look at my little dark coloured hands with curiosity. I knew for sure that I hadn’t made those. I could scarcely make a sand castle that would stay up for more than eight seconds. No way I could have manufactured these limbs, even limbs that had a long way to go to even approach competence, far less perfection.

Far too young to understand the term” false dichotomy” the argument from Psalm 100 made perfect sense to my young super impressionable mind. I looked at the world around me and saw even more beauty and complexity in nature all around me. The birds, the flowers, the trees, the cute animals and the savage beasts all giving testimony to this wondrous creator God. Hymns sung at school like “All Things Bright and Beautiful, the Lord God made them all” and “ He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” helped to reinforce that everything we enjoy in this world came from Him.

I am sure that for most of us who grew up in the Caribbean, this is what it was like. God’s existence was something that was as undeniable as the sight of the bright yellow sun hanging in the air or the sounds of the crashing waves driving against the shore. In our culture, even the notion that there might not be a creator was often something greeted with a snicker. It was unfathomable to most people, to even begin to entertain such a ludicrous idea.

I was no different at that point. My ‘god box’ was checked off early. I believed in God sincerely and I wanted to be like him in every way I could. To me, that meant trying to be on my best behavior, to be obedient. I was convinced by many of my early  teachers,  that a docile accommodating follower by faith alone was what Jesus wanted. Life seemed so easy when I interacted with such people. Do what you are told and everything would be allright.

But at home things were a bit different from school. Mainly because of my dad, who although devoted and faithful in his church attendance, viewed his Holy book differently from anybody else that I knew at that time.  I recognized this one day after church when I was seven years old. We were sitting down to our regular Sunday lunch when Daddy reflected on the church service earlier. He addressed the popular Noah’s ark story that I had known from the time I was four years old.

“ The animals came in two by two?  That’s ridiculous! How could you get two of EVERYTHING! How would Noah have been able to get two mosquitoes on that Ark? How would he catch them? And how would he make sure he had two and only two of the required gender?”
Daddy laughed, and when I saw him laughing I felt comfortable enough to laugh too. I didn’t realize it then, but that was perhaps one of the most important moments in my life as a skeptic or critical thinker. It was the day that the bible for me was stripped of its holiness.  That comment about the mosquito, humorous as it was, caused a sharp sting . Any notion that the bible was the infallible word of God was gone in that instant and that was a little unsettling. Who was the ultimate authority now? Who was I to obey? What text could I look to now to give that overall unquestioned guidance?

Atheism was at that time years, even decades away, but I now realize that it was that first ‘sting’ that got me up and moving in the direction of reason.  I know people today fifty, sixty years old that still haven’t gotten their mosquito moment, and revel in the unblemished skin of there revered faith. They pray for me, pity me for the soreness that they are sure I am still enduring. But for all the buzzing in the ears that they may get from all the people outside their religion, they do all they can to spray away everything. They even sometimes cover themselves in an impenetrable net to make sure that not even the smallest bug can threaten to override their faith program and the book that it relies on.

In contrast, my own ‘mosquito’ moment led me to look critically at several other things in the bible. My dad was again there to give me a few more not so gentle pricks, pointing out how the Adam and Eve story, Jonah and the whale, the tower of Babel were all just as implausible as the Aesops’s Fables we read at night. Still through all of that, my family and I remained committed to the church. We prayed together and we asked for God’s blessings on all we did. I suppose the God we prayed to was the Christian God, but to be honest, we didn’t mention Jesus much if at all. By the time I became a teenager the notion of a risen savior and miracle worker seemed unlikely at best.

Learning more about science around that time also tended to expand the divide between the bible and me. I was surprised when I first went to university in Barbados, that so many of my colleagues were still strict fundamentalists. There was one “Development of Civilization” first year class that was especially controversial. So much so that many dropped it, even though it was a foundational class. The course was one of my favourites, it traced the history of human beings right back to Africa and explored the origins back to pre historic humans such as Australopithicines and Homo Erectus. It upset quite a few people who thought the classes flew in the face of the bible and ‘creation’. Amazing when you think that we are talking about classes at the University of West Indies Cave Hill in the 1990s!

But the lecturer for the course who had an especially entertaining style, would not be deterred. He took on the religious people  in the class directly. He would start up on his own call and response routine during class.

“ How do you know that Jesus really died and resurrected? “
“ Because somebody told you that.”
“How do you know the bible is really the word of God?”
“Because somebody told you that.”
“ How do you know Moses parted the Red Sea?”
“Because somebody told you that.”
“ How do you know that Mary was a virgin when she got pregnant with Jesus?
“Because somebody told you that”.

And he went on.

I know he annoyed a lot of students, but his point really couldn’t be refuted. You could say that it was God who revealed these things through the bible. But did anyone ever come to the conclusion on their own that this was the case? Of course not!  it’s always some other individual that at some point tells you that. A teacher, a parent, a grandparent, a priest, a trusted friend.

And why did the people who told you that believe? Because someone else told them! Their parent, their priest, some person in their community that they trusted. And so it goes on. There is no verification, no analysis you could conduct to show that a person can arrive at such a position independently. Work back to the ‘truth’ of your religion starting from first principles like you can do in Mathematics?
No. It simply cannot be done. Religious truths are always the truth simply because somebody else says so, it’s the ultimate argument from authority.

And that’s the explanation for people in all other religions as well. Whether you were born into it, or whether you were pulled into it later, it can always be traced back to a person who one day told you something was true and you believed them.  The fact that most people claim that they get their beliefs through personal experiences says a lot.  It’s actually more like a PERSONAL assertion made by a PERSON you have faith in. That’s how people generally find their Gods.

Once I realized that beliefs really came from the word of man, rather than God, it was obviously hard to still accept the bible as the ultimate guide. It was clear by the time I was 25 years old that my religion was only an accident of birth. The bible was just a cultural relic that happened to fall in my lap. But still I believed in God, through it all, none of the evidence that I had come across had convinced me that there was no overall creator of everything, that there was not some entity, some power out there that had ultimate dominion over everything.

I remained a Christian out of convenience.  As a musician, I played the music, I sang the songs (and even wrote some) out of respect for my tradition. What God actually was, I couldn’t tell you. But I knew I felt him in my heart. It was that ‘warm and fuzzy’ that I felt sometimes at the low points, that gave me the assurance that someone out there was always looking after me. I was comfortable as an open theist in a Christian world. That’s where I stood up to the dawn of the year 2007. There’s no way I could have predicted the transformation in my belief system that led me to identify myself as an atheist just two years later. But unknown to me, that early ‘mosquito sting’ had be followed by so many more little bites here and there, that It became difficult for me to ignore the marks on me that were becoming more apparent. Still there seemed no serious threat that my faith skin would finally be shed.  But it did, starting with a tragic day in July of 2007.

Right in the midst of the local Crop Over celebrations in Barbados, a bus carrying passengers to the East Coast to enjoy the Party Monarch finals crashed on the way, as the driver lost control in the middle of a hill. Six people died including Adrian Franklin, who was a friend of mine and classmate both at primary and secondary school. I always felt a special bond with Adrian, as we were born exactly one week apart. Adrian’s death was a huge shock to my system. I realized when reading his obituary that it could so easily have been he reading mine. It was almost like reading my own eulogy, only the name and photo in the article were different. I began to question God a lot in the days after, Not that this was the first time I had done this. However, the feelings were stronger than usual on this occasion. It seemed the cruelest of cruel, for God to do something like this, causing so much pain to families whose only ‘sin’ was to want to go out and have a fun time on a Sunday afternoon.

After that tragedy came two similarly gruesome multiple death incidents in Barbados. There was a car accident that took four lives just days later and then came a cave-in of a house in Brittons Hill that took out an entire family of five while there were peacefully sleeping in their recently acquired home. Three tragedies of this magnitude in the space of two weeks, was something very rare in a country as small as Barbados, with only 270,000 inhabitants. The tragedies touched everybody. It was virtually impossible for you not to be connected in some way to one of the people that was lost across those three accidents.

In the aftermath I remember that there was a telethon to raise money for the families left behind to struggle after all three tragic events.  I was watching still dumbfounded when a moment came that I will never forget. Belle Holder the hostess on the CBC (The Barbados TV station) at the time said the following words.
“We don’t now why things like these happen, it’s a mystery!”

I turned to the TV and blurted out,  “It’s a mystery? It’s only a mystery if a God exists. If no god exists then there’s no mystery.”

I caught myself and was almost shaking. What did I just say? Yes, it was the first time in my life that I had ever really entertained the thought that God might not exist. I went over what I said and realized this was a huge sting. But this one would not just go away in minutes like others before and it wouldn’t be covered up by any flimsy band-aid either. I had to look into this latest cut more deeply.

The feeling was definitely strange. It’s not that I had never been exposed  to the concept of atheism. I even had a close atheist friend once. It’s just that I had never REALLY thought about it, or considered it as something that could be right. But that changed immediately at this moment in question, as I realized that without a God a collapsed roof or failing brakes are perfectly understandable. It’s just the laws of Physics at work. And sometimes we are on the right side and sometimes not. Sometimes we are lucky and sometimes not. Whether we deserve it or not is irrelevant. So good things happen to good people, bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to bad people.

It’s not that I became an atheist at that moment, but that was the pivotal point. That was the day when I stopped assuming that a God existed. God belief was no longer my default position. This new perspective led me to think a lot, I decided to give myself a test. For the next week I would live my life as if a God did not exist. It would be my chance to look at the world through a non believer’s eyes. I never expected to stay there, I just wanted to know what it was like, so I could better understand a perspective that I had never really entertained before.

An amazing thing happened. The more that I thought about it, the more obvious it became to me that the things I experienced in the world made much more sense if there wasn’t a God there. There were gaps in understanding. The origin of the universe, the origin of life and the explanation for the emergence of consciousness are still not completely understood. However, these are the only large gaps within a complex tapestry. I came to realize that these gaps were nothing to panic over.  There were more of an opportunity for future learning than a earth shattering piece of ignorance that had to be expunged right away.

The other thing I noticed during that test week was just how prevalent God and religion were in Barbados. I was genuinely shocked that I had never noticed this before. These are some of the phrases I frequently heard.

“Praise the Lord thank God”
“ If God spare life”
“ I just here waiting on the Lord”
“Lord come for your world!”
“ Get me vexed and I’ll let you know which God you serving!”
“ Only God knows why you would do such a thing!”
“ Jesus is Coming Soon (Again)”
“It’s written in God’s word the bible!”

But how many times did I actually hear someone making an argument for why they believed this God was there, coming back, or working in some way? None, not one. No one ever did because no one was ever asked to back up the talk. There was never a need to justify. They appeared to be just as convinced as adults, as I was at five with my Psalm 100 evidence.

What was more, was that in spite of the lack of evidence by these God claimers, their statements were presented with an expression of certainty. There was no ‘if’, ‘perhaps’, ‘might’ or ‘maybe’. God for these people was not only true, he was obviously true.  For these people it wasn’t about belief, it was about knowledge.  Knowledge ultimately gained from the bible that everybody somehow just KNEW was true.

That was just the point, when it came to God in the Caribbean, we just KNEW. Assumed knowledge is a vital component of any faith system and it’s not so hard to see why.  Because one thing about knowledge, is that you don’t question it. There is no need for further investigation. You can tick that box and move on. And many of our people do exactly that. They move on to questions like:

“What does God want from me?”
“How should I worship him?”
“What wonders does he have in store for me?”
‘Why has he given me this cross to bear?”

But these statements are all begging the question.  They all rather surreptitiously brush aside a glaring unsupported God assumption underneath.

I am thankful for that first ‘mosquito sting’ that got me  questioning and digging deeper into assumptions from early.  So thankful that the ‘sting’ eventually made me realize that trying to turn assumption into knowledge was a sleight of hand, no less plausible than a fairy tale where a Rumpelstultskin claims he can spin gold from feeble straw.

Yes, it took me over 35 years before that first ‘sting’ stated to really burn. But now I understand that naked assumption was all my faith was ever built on, and that having the unanimity on this one fact by all who I was in contact at the time, didn’t make it in any way close to truth.

 Once I recognized this assumption, my faith skin fell away and  the long ago pain of the ‘sting’ began to feel more like the jolt of a spring. A spring to push me higher and further in pursuit of knowledge.

In becoming an atheist, it’s not that I discovered any piece of evidence that disproved the God I knew, nothing that I unearthed to firmly knock the Lord off of his sacred perch. I just simply came to the realization that there was never any foundation beneath him to keep him standing up in the first place.

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