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.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Freethinking Island at the BlackOut Secular Rally

I am still buzzing from the excitement of the weekend of July 27th in New York. Joy Holloway-d'Avilar and myself made the rounds for Freethinking Island at the BlackOut Secular Rally and interviewed attendees that entertained, enlightened and enthralled.

We podcast virtually (in both senses of the word) every week but it was a rare opportunity for Joy and I to be together in the same place. We didn't have this chance since being Sunday School students in the same class more than 20 years ago. We made the most of the opportunity to produce a LIVE show.

We had a lively exchange with Jamaican Laurie James who captivated us all with her fierce passion as an unapologetic 'militant' atheist. We also spoke to Hilaire Sobers, Seon Lewis, Jeremiah Camarah, Mandisa Thomas, Joe Dixon, Gary 'Gifted Anomaly' Gibson and many more.

I was honoured to be a part of this inaugural event and have an opportunity to speak about the development of the Caribbean Secular Alliance which was formed on the day following the BlackOut. It was also a privilege to be able to interview David Silverman the President of American Atheists and get his endorsement for our new secular group.

Highlights at this rally were many. Mandisa Thomas of Black Non Believers and Ayanna Watson of Black Atheists of America deserve lots of credit for hosting it. The numbers were not huge but it was a great start and the quality of what was said on the day certainly deserves as wide an audience as possible. So, share, share, share!

I'll be writing more soon about my thoughts on the weekend, particularly regarding the formation of the Caribbean Secular Alliance. I will also have some reflections from being in Barbados, the island of my birth and the place where I grew up. People in this overwhelmingly Christian society are still trying to come to terms with my loss of faith and my role as a secular activist after I was heavily involved in the church less than five years ago.

So lots to come, but in the meantime watch and enjoy the special episode above of 'Freethinking Island' LIVE from Flashing Meadow New York.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Conversing with believers: 15 things to NOT let them get away with.

Some call me a glutton for punishment, others tell me I must have been born with some type of martyr complex. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Baha'is, Mormons, New Agers, whatever, once invited I just get in there and engage in the verbal jousting.

People don't understand why, but I usually enjoy it. I like listening to people who bring different faith angles to me, even if it is just to learn a little bit more about another irrational way of thinking. Sometimes people see my engagement as an opening to get me to their brand of belief. On the contrary, I regard a chance to bring my doubt and skepticism as an opportunity to chip away at some of those 'eye of a needle' sized cracks that may be hiding somewhere in the crevices of their faith armour.

Whatever the nature of the exchange, inevitably there are some 'sleight of hand' techniques that the believer tries to slip past my logic shield. Many times I am able to spot these and deal with them before they cause trouble later on, but little morsels of irrationally get through here and there.

Whenever I leave after having discussions with believers, I do a post mortem.

'Why didn't I challenge him on that?'

'How could I let her get away with that?'

Yes, there is always something I could have said, would have said, should have said even if I have outplayed an opponent.  When I am debating with a theist I don't take comfort from a victory. The battle is primarily against myself. I am trying to just do a better job than I did last time. Learn from any mistakes until I successfully hone my craft.

Still, the idea of practising until perfect is not always enough. In a discussion you can get distracted, go down an unnecessary rabbit hole that obscures the issue, or simply succumb to raw fatigue, because theists can easily wear you down by talking around in never ending circles. Sometimes the fallacies they spout are coming at you as fast as the water that gushed from the rivers here in Calgary last week and you just can't keep up with all the nonsense.

After all the hours of talking with these believers of all stripes, I thought it was about time I produced something useful to other non believers that occasionally try to engage theists in debate. I wanted to develop a resource for those brave secular warriors who take the challenge of boldly going forth into frontiers where reason may never have gone before.

That's what this post is all about. Yes, the blog today is designed as a support for atheists.  In some ways it is a note to self, a reference document to glance at during a debate to make sure I don't miss any of the contradictory, illogical or downright silliness that may be presented when I am trying to wrap up a marathon conversation at 1:00 in the morning, or terminate a discussion over an early breakfast that has morphed into lunch.

It's by no means exhaustive, but below is a list of 15 major things that I want to urge you atheists out there to NOT let believers get away with.

15 things to NOT let them get away with

1. Don't let them get away with saying their holy book has no contradictions.

The way I intend to deal with this one in the future is to ask them if their 'holy book' has any gods in it.  If the answer is 'yes' then their claim dies right there. For gods by nature are contradictory. Once the god of the text has powers to act in nature yet can't be established by investigating nature, he is a contradiction. Once he can give you free will while still having full control of what you can do through an unalterable plan, he is a contradiction. No need for further investigation,

2. Don't let them get away with saying you haven't brought any new arguments. 

The validity of an argument has nothing to do with how long it has been tossed around. They keep bowling the same balls at us over and over again, so it is unsurprising that we play the same strokes time after time. The arguments we make are as poignant today as there were 100 or 1000 years ago.  Arguments do not have expiry dates like cartons of milk nor do they become obsolete like last years laptops or smartphones. Arguments remain valid for as long as there has been no successful defence against them.

3. Don't let them get away with making up their own definitions. 

There is nothing that theists like to play with more than definitions. It's like a slinky that they roll, twist, slide, press and pull to get whatever shape they want. Almost every word in the world of faith has an unclear definition, 'spirit', 'faith', 'worship', 'holy','transcendent', 'metaphysical', even 'God'. The definitions slip around continuously.

Consider that in Islam, a Muslim is defined as 'someone who submits to God.'  Muslims will go on to point out that we know from the bible that Jesus submitted to God. Therefore Jesus was a Muslim. QED.

Yes just like that, the Christian's saviour gets sacrificed to Islam through a definition with whom only Muslims have a personal relationship. We have to let Muslims and other religionists understand that they can't go off in the corner and make up their own definitions. If they persist we'll just join them in the game too.

Since by atheists' definition, there is no such thing as a 'true god', everyone who believes in a God is not believing in the 'true God.' Therefore all Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and other believers  are  atheists. They are all like us, non followers of the 'true God'. Wow! That was easy. I think it's time to re-evaluate  and inflate our numbers.

4. Don't let them get away with saying that the people who wrote their holy book were 'righteous' or 'noble' men or women whose word can be trusted.

This is laughable, but you wouldn't believe how many times that believers in different religions have told me this with a straight face. 'Righteous' and 'noble' people are indeed usually less trustworthy than the masses they represent. Reputations often don't reflect reality, especially when the claims come from their own followers who have something significant to gain from being loyal.

Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and Hitler were well respected as 'righteous' and 'noble' by those who followed them at the time. For those on the other side, not so much. Today Mother Theresa is still regarded as a paragon of virtue and goodness by many all over the world. How much is this reputation fairly earned?

5. Don't let them get away with telling you they believe with 100% certainty even though there are things within their religion that they are not sure about.

They say that they are sure about God and then talk to you for half an hour on all the things about God they are not sure about. Contradictions anyone? Refer to item one on this list. Enough said.

6. Don't let them get away with saying they have a faith that's based on evidence and logic.

Oh boy, contradictions they keep a coming. If faith was based on evidence and logic then we wouldn't have to call it faith. To promote 'knowing by faith' as a virtue is to say that the best way to gain knowledge is through absence of knowledge. It is no less absurd than saying that you should pluck out both your eyes in order to attain 20/20 vision or that the best way to became a virtuoso violinist is to go through life making sure you never commit the 'sin' of picking up a bow or plucking on a string.

7. Don't let them get away with assuming that because you accept a claim they make for 'the sake of argument' that you are agreeing to the truth of that claim.

You always have to be careful with this one.  There are so many things wrong with theistic claims, that if you addressed every one during the course of a debate, discussions would probably end up lasting  40 days and 40 nights. So if you are to be effective you have to quickly recognise what points are critical to your objections and which are not. For the sake of argument, you go along with some assumptions because you know even if those patently false assumptions were true their argument would fall flat.

A lot of time theists don't get this and interpret your lack of argument as if it was acceptance. That's why they fool themselves into thinking that atheists en masse accept things like a historical Jesus. Many atheists do not, it's just that whether there was a 'real Jesus' or not is not central to the most important point, which is whether the miracles happened or not. We have to remind them that silence is not consent otherwise they will go away thinking we have conceded far more ground than we actually have.

8. Don't let them get away with saying you can't judge any claims made in their holy book unless you have read the entire book.

This is a classic move by theists. They try to make you feel that your atheism is not really stemming from a lack of belief in God, but rather from  problems you encountered from the specific version of God you grew up with. If only you were exposed to their faith you would be still in the fold of belief.  It is akin to telling somebody you don't like ice cream and they respond by telling you that you just haven't found the right flavour yet. Of course it always happens that they have five or six tubs of this elusive heavenly brand sitting in their refrigerator.

Well, unless you want to end up bumbling about weighing about 800 pounds, you can't spend your life going around the world tasting every ice cream until one titillates your pallet. What the people trying to sell you the faith sweetness don't understand is that it is the principle of faith you're rejecting not any individual belief system.  It wouldn't make sense to keep trying to sell ice cream to someone who has a violent reaction to having a cold tongue. Changing out chocolate for strawberry, banana or 'tootsie frootsie royale' is not going to relieve the suffering.

9. Don't let them get away with claiming that your refusal to consider living by faith is close minded.

It is not. Faith is accepting something without having a reason to do so. It is not difficult to realise that if you accept an answer before you even look at the problem you are far less likely to be right than if you actually look at the problem and work towards an answer. Refusing to accept a proposition through faith is not closed mindedness it's making a decision to actually use your mind.

10. Don't let them get away with saying that depending on reason 100% of the time is just as bad as depending on faith 100% of the time.

Is trying to be good 100% of the time the same as trying to be evil 100% of the time? Again, enough said.

11. Don't let them get away with claiming that the fact you don't reject what they are saying means you accept what they are saying.

This is the old burden of proof mixed with the argument from ignorance fallacy that believers like to exploit. Yes, there are many claims believers make in arguments that I don't outright reject. I don't reject the possibility of the supernatural or an after life, but I am extremely far away from accepting either of these propositions.

12. Don't let them get away with saying you are not like 'all the other atheists'.

This is an underhanded compliment that anybody who is part of a marginalised group can identify with.  It's the 'I Like you' but 'I still want to discriminate the group you belong to' tactic.

Many theists that I have had discussions with have complimented me on my rational discourse but try to maintain that I am some sort of anomaly among non believers.

They claim that unlike me, most of my counterparts are rabid, foaming at the mouth militants ready to pounce on theists due to some childhood trauma they endured for which they are blaming God.We have to let the theists know that for the vast majority of us atheists, reason has been the sole guide to non belief.

13. Don't let them get away with dismissing an argument as irrelevant because they don't understand it.

I often during exchanges with believers point out instances where they have used circular reasoning, tautologies, arguments from ignorance or special pleading. They look back at me blankly. It is clear they have no idea what I am talking about.

This is a frustration. Trying to argue logic without an understanding of logic, is as pointless as going into a workshop without bringing a single tool and expecting to construct a bookshelf a cupboard and a complete dining room set.

I have explained to people that they have manufactured a God whose existence is unfalsifiable and they grin from ear to ear thinking that this is a concession that their God is real. I don't have time to suspend an argument to teach the other person in the conversation the rules of logic. Training needs to be done before you run out on to the field of play.

Often theists use their lack of knowledge to their advantage, just ignoring the arguments that go over their heads. You are required to follow rules of logic in a discussion just as you need to follow the road traffic laws when you drive. In logic just like driving, ignorance of the law is no excuse.

14. Don't let them get away after you debunk a reason they believe in their God by allowing them to say 'well that's not the only reason I believe'.

This is another slippery tactic. As soon as they realize a reason for why they believe in a God doesn't hold water, they quickly shift to the next one on what is always a long list. They can always come up with another reason for believing and they never acknowledge the weakness of the one that you just knocked out of the park.

Invariably the next argument up is just as bad as its predecessor, but for them it doesn't matter, once they can keep spitting out another one and another one and another one into the debate, they think they are holding their own.

Don't let them move on without acknowledging the failure of their previous attempt. Let them know that a string of bad arguments lined up together doesn't get them anywhere. One thousand times zero is still zero.

And finally,

15. Don't let them get away without reminding them that their 'Truth' should have absolutely nothing to fear from your continuing investigation.

Friday, May 24, 2013

When is the next bus coming?: Looking to reality to tell us about reality

It's been a long time. Indeed, recent circumstances have made it difficult for me to keep up blogging with the regularity I would like. I have to apologise to those who have over the years looked forward to reading my blogposts. I appreciate and will always be grateful for your support and I will be looking to make up for my inactivity over recent months in the weeks to come.

I am happy to report that since my last post at the end of March, I have successfully defended my doctoral thesis looking at the development of renewable energy in the Caribbean. That brought to an end the piece of work that I have dedicated myself to over the last five years and it was certainly exciting as well as a great relief to complete that journey.

At the same time I have had to go through a significant life challenge. One that I hope to write about someday, but that someday is not today.

A break from blogging has not in any way meant that I have had a break from thinking. I have kept up my activism through the weekly ' Freethinking Island' podcast where I continue to be inspired by the great guests that we have had coming through. I was part of a demonstration in support of the atheist Bangladeshi bloggers here in Calgary and I have taken part in a Pathway River Cleanup with fellow atheists that produced a very unlikely reunion with Shanon. When I last saw her four years ago she was a fundamentalist Christian that would not even walk to the other side of the room unless Jesus told her.  I once played music with her every week in a church group as we led worship. Since that time, unknown to each other we both took our separate journeys away from faith.  Now we are both playing on the side of the atheists and are quite sure we have finally chosen the correct team.

Yes, there was much to think about in the last few months, but it is a challenge when you've been away from writing a bit and need to just pick that one idea to blog about to get you back into the groove. I was thinking about all of this today while waiting for a bus in the rain. On days like today in Calgary, any wait for public transportation seems like an eternity and while it's not as bad as being in -30 in January, it's still definitely in the uncomfortable category.

Fortunately in today's world, at least in Canada, you don't have to be left guessing about bus arrivals too much as there is a 'Teleride' phone number you can call that gives you a relatively accurate idea of how long you have to wait.  Well, this morning as I took up my phone to call the automated number, I saw the trademark white with red and blue stripes of Calgary Transit in the distance and I knew my bus was on its way. Once I spotted it, I hung up the phone and put it safely in my pocket. No need for any info now, the bus was here. All I needed was to wait for it to stop and get on.

What happened this morning was nothing unusual. I have experienced this many times. You go to make the call and then you don't need to because you have your answer right there in front of you. Seems quite straightforward, but I realized today that for many in faith, looking for answers is far from being as simple as that.

For them, direct observation of the thing they are trying to find out about is not where they go to first to find out about that thing. No, their trust is more in the thing that talks about reality than reality itself. It sounds crazy, but that is exactly how it is with fundamentalist Christians. In their worldview the bible is more real than even the reality of which it is purported to speak to. When you give the thing that maps to reality greater credence than reality, you end up with absurdity. Imagine if I took a leaf out of the fundamentalists' book when I was at the bus-stop today.

I could easily reason that 'Teleride' was the true source of knowledge  for all bus behaviour. Honestly, it is generally accurate and if you put your trust in what it says, you will get where you want to on time at least 80% of the time. I can vouch for this from personal experience and others I am sure can testify. So at least in terms of ability to 'prophesy' arrivals of buses, 'Teleride' has a track record. The book that the fundamentalists carry around has pointed to an 'arrival' for centuries now but neither the 'holy train' nor the luxury coach on the highway to heaven has made a stop to pick up all the eager passengers. So, from my perspective, having faith in my 'Teleride' is at least just as rational as putting faith in their bible.

So today if I was in fundamentalist mode, I should have continued to listen to the machine and get the info on the arrival times even though the bus was right in front of my nose. I should have understood that the position of the bus depended solely on where 'Teleride' said it was and it could only arrive when 'Teleride' said it would arrive. So if the automated voice said ' #72 will arrive in five minutes' I would be forced to wave on the driver of the apparent # 72. I would have to call the bus 'apparent' because it just could not be real. It would have to be a fake, the driver the equivalent of a false prophet, sent to lure unsuspecting passengers on board, taking them on a road trip to hell. I should have stood waving my cellphone wildly, scaring all the passengers climbing on board, by explaining that only 'Teleride' could answer that question that all users of public transportation since the beginning of time have wanted to know. "When is the next bus coming?"

The Prophecy of 'Teleride' revealed 

If you think that trying to rationalise away the bus that doesn't conform to the 'Teleride' prophecy is ridiculous, think again. The 'fake bus' theory is not without precedence in history. One driver told me about an incident one night when an angry passenger actually drove off one of the buses when the driver had got off momentarily. It is not uncommon here in the city for drivers to leave buses idling as they slip out for a quick smoke, toilet break or coffee when they are a couple minutes ahead of schedule. Apparently on one occasion a passenger just drove off the vehicle and it took them a couple of hours to track down this 'rogue' bus. So it can happen and has happened. Why could it not be that this morning's bus was one of those? False buses, false drivers, false passengers, I am sure I could dig up or fabricate some 'Calgary Transit' pamphlets that could be interpreted in a way that speaks to their existence. I could scoff at the public for being so gullible to believe that every bus driver sincerely has a desire to lead them to the correct destination.

I can hear atheists laughing even as I am writing this, in considering life in a world where the gospel according to 'Teleride' held sway. At the same time, I can imagine my religious friends shaking their heads vigorously.  They would  admonish me for using a poor analogy, for making the same mistakes all atheists make, by thinking that Christians just rely on the bible. They will no doubt tell me that their belief is based on direct experience too. Direct experience with Jesus, who they have a personal relationship with. They will let me know that they are as sure of their Jesus as I was of the existence of the #72 this morning.

But there is one big problem with a claim like this. Many people that have been hanging around their bus- stop for years have never seen this driver nor his bus. Some report seeing a bus, but it is entirely different. Maybe driven by Mohammad, Shiva or Abraham. I have even heard of a young driver called Joseph who has a sleek vehicle with gold plated license plates. I would have to question Christians as to why only people with a particular cultural and religion conditioning see the 'Jesus bus' and want to get on.

One thing about the 'Calgary Transit' buses is that they are accessible to everyone. It doesn't matter the culture, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation or  level of ability or disability. Everyone can get on, but moreover everyone acknowledges when buses arrive at the bus stop. Sometimes people rush on, other times people enter circumspectly, waiting for the driver confirmation. Some get on and then get off smartly when they realise the bus is not the one they want and some just wave the bus away entirely. Everyone acknowledges or reacts to the bus in some way or the other. So even as there is no doubt about the existence of the buses, there is passenger free will as commuters can hop on and off the buses as they see fit or 'motion' them to go on if they are not interested.

Infallible until it fails

It's hilarious to think of how much religionists skew the nature of reality right before their eyes by trying to make it fit with a book that they consider to be an infallible guide. I personally have never understood this concept of infallibility. To me there are two categories of things. Those which have failed in the past and those that haven't been seen to fail as yet. To make the leap from something you have not seen fail yet to assume that it would never fail is mind boggling. But that is what happens in the mind of the fundamentalist.

' He never fail me yet, He never fail me yet, my Jesus never fail me yet!'

This is a favourite chorus in the Caribbean. Presumably that line is evidence that Jesus will never fail them in the future either. Well, my heart has never failed me yet, but does that justify me believing that it will never give out? A thing only needs to fail once and that is when infallibility becomes null and void.

So, no matter how accurate your book has been in the past, if it doesn't conform to the reality it purports to describe you have to go with what reality says and conclude that the book was wrong this time. Any authority can be wrong once. If you catch a bus every morning for ten years and it s never late, you can rely on it. But if one morning the bus doesn't show up you can't argue that it 'has to be there' because it has never been late before. If the bus is not there, it's not there. Doesn't matter what has happened before in history, what the statistics suggest or what is prescribed in a schedule. Reality is still reality and if you have the direct evidence available that's what should always win out.

I had the pleasure of chatting with world renowned physicist Lawrence Krauss last year when he came to Calgary and one thing he said is that if you want to find out what the universe is like you go out there and look at it. A simple message but one so often overlooked. No amount of philosophical musings and 'what ifs' can substitute for going out and making a direct measurement.

When creationists go out of their way to make the universe 6,000 years old to fit with their book rather than the 14 billion that we have been able to accurately measure through various scientific methods, they are doing just like the person who pretends that buses in Calgary are only able to behave in accordance with the word of 'Teleride.' They are like the person who maintains that only 'Teleride' can answer the ultimate question. 'When is the next bus coming?'

Creationists are like  conspiracy theorists that say that all the buses, drivers, passengers and even the bus stops are fake. A God who provides that much fake evidence would be a prankster not worthy of following, far less worshipping. That God would be as silly as a public transit company that put 'dummy' buses on the road just to fool passengers.

When is the next blog coming?

Well, I suppose the only remaining question for readers today for me is, ' When is the next blog coming?'

I won't do like the divine writer in the sky and just say I write in mysterious ways and bloggers' 'time' is different from readers' 'time'. I'll try to return to some kind of earrhly schedule. Those of you that take buses regularly know that sometimes when you have a long wait for a bus, two come in close succession. I am trusting that what is true for the bus will turn out to be true for this blog as well.

Meanwhile, I hope you enjoyed the return ride today! 

Sunday, March 31, 2013

A long way to go to get past the bigotry: 'NO GAYS!' headline in Barbados newspaper highlights disturbing attitude


That was the blaring headline of the Nation Publications 'Saturday Sun' of yesterday, March 30th, 2013. I cringed when I saw it. It's a headline that makes all of us that live in, or have roots in Barbados seem backward and bigoted. It is ironic that it came at the end of a week where many in the world made their support for marriage equality known through changing facebook profile pics and making various statements to emphasise that people should not be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation. All the while the Supreme Court in the US was hearing oral arguments in the Proposition 8 Case dealing with these same issues.

When I saw the headline, I and most other readers I suspect, had no idea of the context of the statement. No Gays? No Gays in what? Where do we want to bar them from now? Who is making the statement? The sub heading gave a clue by revealing that it was all about the Chief Scout and his organization.
It may seem a bit odd to say, but for me that didn't really matter. The headline was in my view distasteful in the way it lashed out at a minority group. The message to them was ' We don't want you!'

Newspaper headlines are things you glance at quickly. The words hit you out of the corner of your eye when driving as you see the vendor at the side of the road, or catch your attention in the front of a bookstore in an airport terminal as you hustle to catch your next flight. Most people who see the headlines are never going to read the fine print below, but the impact of the words can be devastating.

We can recognise this by inserting another group for 'Gays' in that headline. The one that comes to mind first is 'Blacks.' What would the reaction have been if the front page headline had read 'NO BLACKS!' ? Would Barbadians have accepted that? What if we went to a country in Europe or Africa? How would we react to walking through the airport with our luggage and someone handing us a paper with 'NO BLACKS!" screaming as the headline? To say I would feel uncomfortable would be the understatement of the year. It wouldn't matter the context, it wouldn't matter what the article was saying that I shouldn't be a part of, I know I would feel tempted to just haul my suitcase up and book the next flight out and I am sure they are many that would feel the same way even if they didn't act on impulse.

What about other 'NO!' possibilities? 







I think you get the point. Any of these headlines would have been greeted with outrage. Calls would have been made for a retraction or apology.

Today after getting over some of the original disappointment over  yesterday's front page, I sat to read the actual article that had prompted the ' NO GAYS' headline. I purchased and downloaded the entire newspaper to make sure I got the full story. To read the whole thing yourself you'll have to purchase the paper, but there is a summary of the story on their webpage here. After reading the story, I was once again in shock. There was absolutely nothing said by the Scout Leader in the article that could prompt a headline of ' NO GAYS!'

It's not as if he went off on a rant against homosexuals and said never do we want anyone of 'those people' coming near our organization. What I read was nothing like that at all. There was a statement made that the Scouting movement in Barbados maintained its closed door policy against open homosexuals, but that the local organization was monitoring what was happening in the United States as petitions were being made there to change things. The discriminatory policies of the Scout movement are well known and as a member of that organisation all the leader can do is give its position whatever his personal convictions might be. I saw nothing in what I read that could be interpreted as  'Chief Scout rules out letting them join the organization.'

Recognising this inaccuracy just made the whole thing more horrible. I know that my friends in journalism will tell me that you have to editorialize. That's the way you sell newspapers, but this is going too far. The Scout leader was just stating facts, explaining the current Scouts' policy which are set internationally and have a history behind them that promotes prejudice. Thankfully people are now trying to change that. However, the Scout master can only speak to what is currently in place. In fact it sounds to me that given he is 'monitoring' what is going on in the wider world, he would acknowledge that there is a possibility that changes will have to be made in the local movement based on these developments. The Scout Leader went on to recognise that under the current regulations, atheists are also unable to join the Scouts. So indeed the headline could just have easily been 'NO ATHEISTS!'

In a way, I wish they had printed that. That would have been a great can of worms to open up and I would love to get that 'belief' debate out there in the open in Barbados. But I guess at the moment the 'Gays' are more sexy. What is happening here is that the Nation  that Published the ' Saturday Sun' is taking advantage of a prejudice that they know is present, prevalent and widespread in Barbadian and  Caribbean society. They know that many of their readers will have a positive rather than disgusted reaction to a headline like that. Many will be thinking something along the lines of the following.

'Hooray! Thank God we're keeping those gays at bay. It's a relief to know that we are not  following those North Americans who have no benchmark for morality and where absolutely anything goes.'

Just like me, these readers will see the headline without knowing what it is gays are being barred from, but they'll be happy to know that at least someone in the country has enough courage to stand up against this wayward lifestyle.

For many of us in the Caribbean, maintaining the stance against the homosexual position is a matter of national pride. It is as if we expect to be congratulated for choosing to continue to discriminate and be praised for standing in opposition to a progressive social world movement that is seeking to extend basic human rights to a marginalized group. Of course, I criticize the Nation for misrepresenting in the headline and for sensationalising at the expense of demeaning a group in Barbados and the wider world that deserves better. But the fact is that a headline like this would never appear if the national attitude was different. It wouldn't be published if the masses on the whole  decided to stand up and say we won't stand for this kind of discrimination. It wouldn't happen if the Nation thought that they would be backlash and loss of sales for being so insensitive. What is needed is for people to recognise that gay rights are human rights and treat the needs of this group with as much sensitivity as they do any of the other minority groups in Barbados. Alas, this is unlikely to happen, because in our country, the right for a person to be anti-gay appears to outstrip the right of the gay or gay advocate to push for equality.

So, life in Barbados will go on, with the homophobes cheering for a nation sticking to its anti-gay guns and a few dissenters saying that this type of treatment for people with a different sexual orientation shouldn't be. Then we'll all march forward, with the majority thinking that being anti-gay is a reasonable stance that should be respected as part of being patriotic and holding oneself to a higher standard.

Who sets that higher standard? Well, for most in Barbados and the Caribbean, that standard setter is God, the God of the bible. The one whose abominations include shell fish eating, wearing a mixture of clothing textures and trimming beards. It is the belief in that God, cherry picked as his teachings may be, who ultimately keeps a section of society from enjoying basic rights. It's not the first time that our 'Holy Book' of choice has helped us to justify denial of a human right and we can be sure that it will not be the last. If this doesn't tell us that this bronze-age book's expiry date has long past, I don't know what will.

By now, most of you know that it frustrates me no end to see our country continue to look towards Christianity to lift us up, when it so clearly continues to provide the basis for holding social development  back. But sadly we in the Caribbean continue to choose faith, prayer and religious rites over thought, reason and human rights. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Uncertainty of Polls and Ten Reasons why God can't get my Vote

Last Thursday will long linger in the memories of Barbadians. It ended with a night of intrigue that went back and forth as many times as any of the classic cricket test match that people talk about for decades. After the dust had settled the result was a narrow victory to the incumbent Democratic Labour Party (DLP) over the Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP).

Tongues are still wagging in Barbados over the result. The fact that a government that came to power five years ago was voted back in is not especially remarkable, but what was noteworthy was that it went against the predictions of the poll conducted by CADRES led by Peter Wickham.

Peter Wickham: Pollster not Prophet
What some people don't seem to realise is that a pollster is not a prophet. Even as we that promote the scientific method try to explain that the strength of science is in its ability to correct itself and not in its ability to give certainty, people are quick to dismiss Mr. Wickham and even  the whole value of statistical tools based on one example where it missed the mark. But to his credit, Wickham's reaction is exactly in keeping with what you would expect from a scientist that prides himself on his work and wants to learn from any errors that he may have made.

He was quick to admit that he got his prediction wrong and immediately went about seeking to find out what factors may have been overlooked. This he did even as some in his corner tried to diffuse criticism by saying he really wasn't that far off. It's refreshing to see Peter stand by his predictions like that. He could so easily have taken the route of trying to rationalise his way out of trouble.  It's the opposite of religion, where outcomes are retrofitted to try to align with obscure statements made somewhere by somebody in the hazy past.  The evangelist's playing field could not be more uneven when it comes to religion versus science. Science only has to be wrong once to fall from its perch, faith only has to be right once to establish itself as the bearer of absolute truth

At the same time that Wickham tries to figure out what went 'wrong', he has stoutly defended the integrity of his method.  That is to say he is defending himself against claims that he deliberately 'rigged' the data to produce some desired result. Some people have criticised Peter for being too defensive of his position but I can definitely understand why he is so keen to confront such allegations. I would do the same thing. For any scientist, criticism on method, theory or interpretation is fair game, but any suggestion that you deliberately skewed your data is essentially implying that you are a cheat. You have to deal with that as seriously as if you are a World Champion 100m sprinter and people are claiming, without anything to back it up, that you are taking steroids.

This idea that somebody has deliberately set out to make things come out wrong is an idea that has always been prevalent in the Caribbean. I noticed it even when I was a kid going to Kensington Oval to watch cricket. If Brian Lara was given out caught behind by an Australian umpire when he clearly didn't touch the ball, that umpire would be immediately labeled by all in the crowd in the stand as a 'tiefin' umpire.' I could never understand it, why was it that everytime someone made an error that ended up favouring one side, people jumped to the assumption that there was some intentional conspiracy.

Looking at it now, I see the cynicism aimed at pollsters. umpires, referees and judges as a spillover from the religious mindset. In faith, you are encouraged to believe things that are deliberately constructed to get a desired result. You believe in God because you want to get to heaven or avoid hell, because God requires it from you or because it gives your life purpose. It is rare that anyone analyses the methodology of faith itself, assessing the strengths and weakness of this way of thinking in leading you to truth. It is easy when you are raised in such a mindset to think that other decisions in life are made on the same basis. People think that  you predict that a certain party will win because you want them to win. To many people in our islands, expressing an opinion on something means you are showing a bias. They don't get that in the scientific world, the outcome is not what really matters, it is the method that is the key. If your method is sound you will be close to truth far more often that not . If your method is fundamentally flawed you'll 'hit' occasionally if you get lucky, but over time people will  come to realise that you are shooting in the dark.

This idea of thinking that everybody that has an opinion, comes to it with a clear pre existing bias, helps me to understand why believers respond to us that are atheists in the way that they do. While we continually seek to promote our method for coming to the conclusion, all they see is the outcome. For them, we don't believe in God, because that was the outcome we wanted. That's what we wanted our 'polls' to say. If we want it to be that way there must be a reason. Perhaps we are angry at God and want to get back at him, we want freedom to do as we like or we just hate the hypocrisy of church people and want to see their cherished institution brought down to earth. Of course  by thinking those things, they show us their hand. They think we make our decisions the same way that they do. We think about what we want to be true and then go out to prove it. But like Peter and CADRES, all we are doing is applying a method. If like Peter our 'polls' turn out to be wrong, we will admit our mistake and look to see where we made our mis- step.  We will admit our mistake but we will still stand by the principle that we used the best method of assessment given the data we had. We do not rig numbers to get we want. Because what we want is not what we want. What we want is truth.

Our theist friends will no doubt tell us that we are wrong about the existence of a God for the same reasons that Peter Wickham was wrong in predicting the result of the elections. Indeed, immediately as  the final results were clear, Sandra a Christian facebook friend of mine, with whom I have had several lengthy exchanges on the subject of God's existence posted the following:

' Father God you are sovereign. We declare you as king over our nation. Continue to confound the wisdom of the wise!'

I laughed. I knew exactly where she was coming from. Apart from his reputation for being a pollster, Peter has gained some level of notoriety for his stance against religion on the local 'Brass Tacks' Call- In programme. Peter has been a true champion of reason when he has been on the air. He speaks of how people require him to back up his polls and predictions with evidence and he demands the same level of accountability from his callers. He is not prepared to accept any argument on faith from them and he let's them know it. He openly ridiculed those people who were trying to suggest that Reinhard Bonnke had done miracles when the government were getting ready to usher him in to Barbados. He said that it was a disgrace that a country like Barbados with its high standard of education in this 21st century was endorsing such superstitious nonsense. I was following from a distance online in Canada, but I  was punching the air in delight while he said that. It was as if I was on "Freethinking Island" listening to my co host Joy go off on one of her famous rants.

I was overjoyed, but deep down I knew there would be more than just a little consternation from those on the evangelical side. Hitting out at God is something that you just don't do in Barbados. I was sure that the faithful would not forget. As it turned out election night was when they and their God got their own back. Sandra's post said it all. God had come out of hiding to reign supreme and show Peter who was the real boss.

But what kind of God would that be to deal with? One who refused to reveal himself to a skeptic like Peter directly; but went through the trouble of making sure the polls he published indicated one thing and then knowingly inspired voters to do something different purely to leave Wickham with egg on his face. A God that would do that would be nothing more than a petty prankster. But that's not only Sandra's God, that's  the kind of God that millions in the Caribbean and the world believe in. Prankster or not, the global electorate have kept faith with this leader and his rather unfathomable style of governance for many years. Why? I have no idea. Sovereign or not there is no way this God could ever get my support for leadership. For so many reasons, I could never give him my 'X.' Below are just ten that immediately come to mind.

Ten Reasons why God can't get my Vote

1. Poor management of his Ministers and Ministries

God has a strange way of choosing his ministers and there just seem to be way too many. I suppose with all the ministries he has to administer he needs staff, but they often just get in each other's way. Messages conflict, divisions in the party happen almost daily and everybody just tries to one-up the other. We never know what criteria he is using to choose Ministers either. At one time he did not allow females to serve, but that has changed. Once he was firm in not picking those who were openly gay, now that's changing also. We just don't know what new rules this Prime Minister will bring. Also, in spite of his omniscience, he doesn't seem to pick the right people for highest office. For example, just a couple of weeks ago his most senior Minister resigned suddenly. People say that this event shows that he isn't careful enough it putting the right people in the right positions. My opinion is that the whole thing is simply a case of far too many square pegs in round holes.

2. Where is his Constituency Office?

For years now God's party faithful have told me that I need to get off my backside and try to find God. I have always found this a strange request. God wants MY vote apparently more than anything else in the world but it is ME who has to go out of my way to find HIM. Whenever I ask his supporters to ask him to at least come into my veranda and put in an appearance, they tell me I am being unreasonable. That God doesn't work on my terms. Excuse Me??? Not on my terms?? He is the one that is looking for a term in office not me!!

Still, just to satisfy his supporters I have tried to find him, but it is a fruitless search. His 'yard fowl' followers can't even tell me where his Constituency Office is. I can't even get a hotline number or an email address to get him at. Come on! How serious can this candidate be?

3. Who really has the right Manifesto?

God must be a very good campaign manager or at least a convincing one.  He may never do house to house, but his workers in the constituency never seem to tire of going all out for that one extra vote. To their credit they usually come armed with manifestos that  give details on what God's programs and policies are. The problem is that the language of these documents is usually not the most simple and things are often open to multiple interpretations. Sometimes the people that are soliciting you are themselves unsure about what their party leader really wanted to say. Also,  all the people working the area for him don't seem to have been given the same manifesto. Sometimes there are little discrepancies I see between the documents, probably because they are different versions, other times it seems like I am looking at a  different book altogether. Perhaps there was some printing error or somebody picked up an outdated stack of literature by mistake. Whatever the case it points to poor administration. I can't give my vote to someone who can't get something so basic right.

4. Lots of services provided but no social development

One thing you have to say about God is that he knows how to provide services. He can provide services for any one of the electorate at any time. The most common one is his morning service but he can also give noon service, service at sunset and even mass service at midnight if you really want it. Any time you want a service, you know God will provide.

The problem is that in spite of all these services, the communities he serves never seem to progress much. We are not seeing the social development or transformation we would expect. Clearly the services are not achieving what they were set up to do. Somebody is failing big time and the buck stops at God. Another reason I have to withhold my 'X.'

5. When is he going to call elections?

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart in Barbados received a lot of flack for delaying the calling of elections. Some people thought that this one of the big reasons why he almost lost the government. They wanted a PM that would throw down the gauntlet and positively seek his new mandate. The thing is that God has been far more tardy than Freundel in setting a day for humanity to go to the polls. I have met several people who believe they are ideal candidates to get into heaven, but God just refuses to set a date when they will finally find out whether they have made it into that house of assembly. Over the years there have been rumours that God has already set a date, but in spite of many hopeful glances upwards into the clouds there is still no sign of a Returning Officer. I am not going to vote for a God who holds up the democratic process like that.

6. Slow in adopting new policies

For an all powerful deity, God moves awfully slowly, especially when it comes to matters of policy. He seems to follow the trends in society rather than lead from the front. I find this worrying. He only realized slavery was wrong after we realised it. He only recognised that women should not be forced to marry their rapists after we pointed it out to him. He only realised that mental illness was not caused by demon possession after doctors and scientists gave him the evidence. If you want to be a leader I can support. you have to lead on policy, not change your view because of the electorate. I understand that people have power, but God has to start acting like a real leader. So far I just ain't seeing it.

7. Never turns up to speak on his platform

Invisibility has to be God's main weakness in trying to get a vote from me. Ok, maybe he thinks the door to door thing is beneath him, but surely he can turn up to speak on a platform in front of the masses, right? But election after election he is conspicuously absent. If God is the best candidate he has to show us. If he doesn't make his presence felt and get up and demonstrate to us what he can do for us, he can't expect to win. I will vote for the man or woman who presents the best case to me. If God has what it takes but doesn't show me, I am not going to vote for him. If you don't communicate your message properly to voters and they reject you at the polls, choosing the weaker candidate as a result, it's not the electorate's fault it's yours.

8. Shabby treatment of his staunchest supporters

This part is really bothersome to me. When I look at the people most enthusiastically waving God's party banner and showing the colours, I don't see prosperity. Some of God's supporters have done pretty well for themselves but the vast majority have not. In fact the constituencies where he is most popular are usually the ones that are most impoverished. God has not treated those that have been loyal to him well. Illness, poverty and natural disasters plague those that give him the vote every election day. If God treats his followers so badly how will he treat those that stand in opposition? I shudder to think. Another reason for me to keep far away from this God candidate.

9. Aligns himself with every party

This is a huge problem because it speaks to God's integrity. It's hard to trust a God who is  a  PIP (Party in Power). Wherever I go in the world, I hear that the ruling government is God's government. Whether it's Democratic, Conservative, Libertarian, Republican or Socialist it is always the party that God supports. This is not good enough. God has to set some clear principles and stick to them. He can't just swing every four or five years from one party to another. Sorry, I am not voting for a flip-flopper God.

10. Shamelessly tries to buy votes from the 'undecideds'

God should be ashamed of himself and his supporters for allowing this to happen, but I see this all the time. I hear talk that the two main parties in Barbados engaged in this, but God's party is far more guilty of this in my opinion. I know God does it, because I have had people from his party coming around trying to buy my vote numerous times. Once they hear that I am 'undecided' they swarm like bees.

Unlike many other political parties, they offer me far more than just money for going in the booth and voting for God.  Sometimes they court me by offering to take me out for a lavish dinner or a fancy show.  But they don't stop with just offering earthly, transient delights. They promise me health, happiness everything I ever dreamed of even sometimes including sexy virgins, not for just five years but all ETERNITY.

It's just ridiculous. If this kind of thing  doesn't qualify as bribing voters, I don't know what is. It's got totally out of hand over the years and it is high time that the authorities clamped down on such disgusting behaviour. It goes without saying that I can't endorse a God or any party members that support such unethical behaviour.

So, Need I say more?