Saturday 18 January 2014

An Interview with Political Activist Dadland Maye on Atheism and the LGBT Community in the Caribbean

by Jonathan Bellot

Jamaican Activist Dadland Maye
The following is an interview between me, Jonathan Bellot, a writer and critic from the Commonwealth of Dominica, and writer and political activist Dadland Maye. Maye's story interested me as soon as I learnt of it. He had been born and raised in Jamaica, but he had been forced to flee from the island to the United States in 2001, due to persecution for being gay. After living for years as an undocumented immigrant in the U. S., Maye received political asylum in 2008. Maye has become an active figure in both the LGBT and atheism communities in the Caribbean and in the Jamaican diaspora. 

Maye's story was not unique--a similar fate awaited Larry Chang, who was also forced to leave Jamaica for threats on his personal safety--and yet the reality of the horrors of such forced flight remain a topic we talk about far too little, as well as the reason that people like Maye and Chang have left--and were lucky enough to leave. Moreover, the media often outside of Jamaica, as well as some of the other islands, often paints a picture only of the victims of homophobia; we must also look at those who are both victims and success stories, fighting against the victimhood of people like themselves in the future. 

A great deal of the homophobia in our islands comes from the twin legacies of British and religious colonisation, and the slow-growing atheist movement in the Caribbean is one of the more dynamic and exciting ways to fight against such persecution. There is much to do, much to make.

"Create dangerously," the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat tells the immigrant writer, as well as the artist in general. I decided to ask Dadland some questions about these two communities, the nonbelievers and the LGBT, as these communities constitute some of the most contentious topics in the Caribbean today. This is what he told me.

JONATHAN BELLOT: Why is atheism important to you and your work?

DADLAND MAYE: Nurtured in a tradition that schooled me to believe I was “born in sin and shapen in iniquity,” and that my life goal should be to discover the spiritual lifestyle that would enable my emergence into spaces of light needed to enter a heavenly life, atheism was my deliverance. Atheism was my refashioning, rebirth, and remolding. Atheism was the set of ideologies without deceptive, defeatist, and destructive, spiritual borderlines that had long restrained my mental adventures. The freedom of the mind to look beyond, and even ignore, the very thing/s it was told constructed it, is a freedom that makes me sometimes feel tingles in my shoulders, in my head, and my toes. Freedom gives me physical stamina, and inspires me to consider my life and my work as missionaries for freedom.

JB: Given the religiosity that seems such a part of the cultural fabric of Jamaica and many other Anglophone islands in the Caribbean, what do you think is the likelihood that we will see a prominent figure in the region--a politician, for instance--declare him- or herself an atheist in the near future?

DM: That I am from the Caribbean and I can call myself an atheist and even write about atheist subjects at DadlandShutUp and post these non-traditional viewpoints in social media spaces where my Christian friends spend time, and yet I have faced only little resistance, is a message the Caribbean is changing. If I am to consider a writer or singer or leading scientist beneath the umbrella of  “prominent,” then it’s easy for me to imagine that in today’s Caribbean, some prominent persons might be able to declare they are atheist and still maintain successful career platforms, but they will no doubt encounter much resistance and sabotage. However I cannot speculate how long it will be before political figures are able to dare the powerful religious tradition of lobbies, government legislators, community peoples who will easily become more offended by political atheist presences than the presences of crime and violence. In fact, looking at the U.S., which atheist politician can become president today? Like most geographies, Caribbean political figures cannot always court truth and then win elections.

JB: What does the landscape of atheism in Jamaica look like to you? Are there many people who you think are doubters or unbelievers but who profess religiosity to protect themselves? For instance, there are Rastafarians like Mutabaruka who doubt the existence of God, and Vybz Kartel was recorded not too long ago as saying he trusts more in scientists than priests, but the image people have of both groups--Rastafarians and dancehall artists--tends to be tied up in assumptions of some kind of religiosity, even with some dancehall songs' predilections towards violence.

DM: I do not have the language to address Rastafarianism or Vybz Cartel or Mutabaruka in regards to atheism, because my thoughts aren’t currently excited to speak along those lines. I believe it is important to speak when one has, not only the knowledge to speak, but importantly, one has to also have the mood to speak about a subject. For that reason, I will only address your question about the atheist landscape in Jamaica.

A landscape, such as Jamaica’s, remains in recovery mode from the violence of slavery. Although Jamaica reflects diverse ethnic groups such as the Chinese, Indians, Syrians, Jews, and Blacks, a dominant ideology that fuels the pace of the recovery has to do with reimagining the Africanist self. The Jamaican selves, as they currently exist, seek a departure from colonist whiteness and imperialist Americanisms. In the process, Jamaican selves hope to locate a type of authentic nationalism. Not that this nationalism rejects cultural or racial hybridity, but rather it must be authentic enough to be called Jamaica, just as Jamaican English is Jamaica’s—not dominated, overpopulated, or polluted with the foreign.

The intersection of the desires of the Africanist and the local selves are often times culturally productive. Yet we cannot ignore the fact that these desires spiral cultural clashes that play out in zones of ignorance and progressive sabotage. A case in point is Jamaica’s activist retention of sodomy laws that criminalize and imprison LGBT persons. The irony is that Jamaican Christian warriors argue for the retention of the laws on the basis that they will not surrender to human rights pressures from foreign countries such as America, England, Canada that seek the overturning of these hate laws. Christian disciples reject the foreign, thinking they are persevering a historical Africanist tradition that is supposedly devoid of homosexuality—really a rejection of a supposed “white queerness.” The truth, however, is that the sodomy laws are legislative hate-gifts given to Jamaica by its colonial master, England. That places like England want to take it back, it is certainly interesting observing how aggressively Jamaica holds on to this gift of hate.

In the same way, the clash of desires is evidenced in the rejection of atheism. While more spaces of cultural recovery from histories of violent spiritualism are opening up in the Developed World, recovery in Jamaica will continue to face sabotage for a long while. Christian constituencies will continue to cling to an inherited tradition of spirituality that remains hostile to atheist declarations. It explains why many contributors of the most prominent media outlets are declared ministers and Christians, but not atheists. Like all ideologies, atheism needs consistent exploration and interrogation; and like all persons who embrace an ideology, atheists need nurturing from other atheists in order to feel they are not alone. Given the current hostile landscape in Jamaica towards atheist, it should be expected that there are many atheists, some of whom will declare themselves, but most will remain in the shadows, fearing condemnation from families and friends.

In the United States, the landscape is equally hostile, but there are many atheist organizations asserting their rights, freedoms, and challenging inequitable legislations. These activist atheist presences have nurtured atheists like me to occupy an out-of-the-closet platform, where, if I were still in Jamaica, I might have remained quiet. And without the consistent nurturing of self-acceptance and knowledge expansion by persons with a similar belief, I might have regressed into the enslaving borderlines of religion.

JB: Do you think the anti-gay attitudes so prevalent--or, at least, so strongly voiced--in Jamaica and to varying degrees in other islands are slowly being overturned, and, why or why not? What still needs to be done?

DM: The Caribbean region has no choice but to put-up with our queer backside. They can talk and talk so fast until they speak tongues; they can vomit until they bleed from the nose; and they can drag Jesus off the cross and put him before our eyes—wi naw change wi dutty ways! wi nah guh nowheh!

Before the 80s, they knew we were here and silent. While our names had made gossips in big verandah chairs, our silence secured us from their violence because our silence told them what they wanted to hear: we “arent’t like that”; we “naw mess up inna dem deh somt’ing deh.” But into and beyond the 80’s when AIDS entered silently, screams came and broke silence. Mothers had to scream because discovery frightened them—how could their sons have been so filthy nasty? Gay friends had to scream because another of the gay-family had gone too soon—how much sooner was their own time? Screams had to be answered—for what was this thing among the Jamaican people that was eating up gay men in America, and men and women in Africa? Who caused it? Where were these cursed men hiding? What did they look like, act like, speak like, dress like? Was “their kind” putting “us” at risk?

Those conversations are still occurring in Jamaica. Conversations will continue with the mediation of the conflict of desires that seek to preserve the Africanist and local self. We cannot ignore that the conversation continues to be influenced by gay persons in the United States, many of whom fled the Caribbean out of fear. So while places like Jamaica would like to have the conversations without the intrusion of the Americanist lenses, it will be particularly difficult since the bold speakers are mainly the ones who have fled to landscapes from where they can speak without retribution.

What is important is that no matter who is leading or influencing the plurality of conversations, talks are occurring. Given the widespread popularity of talks, Caribbean peoples, who now have minutely and hourly connections to distant geographies through the social media Facebook and Twitter age, are forced to hear and participate in these sites of talk. There is no guarantee, that any particular imperialist, nativist, or Africanist ideology can dominate particular sites.

This voluntary or involuntary participation into talking zones forces Caribbean persons to move beyond the shock emotions encountered from hearing the traditional stereotypes deployed by of the word “gay.” Automatically, they are mentally situated in closer proximity to the reality of the diversity of gay presences. To cope, some will and have become less hostile while others will continue preaching homophobia as God’s will. Inevitably, however, most will grow weary or at peace with themselves and change in order to accept change.

JB: Given how uncritically many people accept the truths of a particular religion in our archipelago, how should we push atheism forward? Is a militant, in-your-face approach preferable to a quieter, more conversational approach?

I haven’t seriously considered how atheists should push forward because I’ve been more concerned about how I should continue courting and testifying about my glorious deliverance from Christianity. Perhaps, providing mediums for testimonies would help as a form of activism. Yet as you know, atheists have different viewpoints about how to live and what agendas to pursue. We all don’t agree on activist strategies and I don’t think it’s healthy for us all to agree on whether our approach should be militant, subtle, compromising, etc.

But it would be nice for spaces to develop in which persons can agree that an organization will deploy a certain activist strategy that is bold and unapologetically atheist. I will support such a movement as long as it doesn’t shy away from the “atheist” label. I had grown tired of hiding as a gay man; I will not hide as an activist atheist within any organization whose actions raise questions as to whether it is toning down freedom-rhetoric to pacify religious constituencies and constitutions.

DM: Will we ever see the rise of a Caribbean New Atheist figure--a Caribbean Christopher Hitchens, a Saint Lucian Sam Harris, a Trinidadian Richard Dawkins? We have had doubters in the past, from Hubert Harrison to CLR James and V. S. Naipaul, after all.

Yes, you will.

Thursday 6 June 2013

Assessing Gay Rights in Trinidad and Tobago

by Kwame Weekes

The LGBT community of Trinidad and Tobago is forcing the nation to think deeply about fundamental issues of human rights, the constitutionality of certain laws and the separation of church and State. The community is presently asking for one thing – equality under the law. Unfortunately, the debate has been muddled by the media and politicians in the public sphere so much that the grassroots see a debate about same-sex marriage and are up in arms about such a drastic request. Same-sex marriage is not yet a request of the community because it requires other fundamental changes to legislation that dehumanizes the LGBT community.

The first piece of legislation that affects the community is the Immigration Act of 1969 that lists homosexuals in its nomenclature of the “prohibited class” of persons next to known criminals and “persons who are likely to become charges on public funds.”[i] Next on the list is the Domestic Violence Act of 1999 that offers protection to cohabitating adults, defining a cohabitant as “a person who has lived with or is living with a person of the opposite sex as a husband or wife although not legally married to that person.”[ii] And the one that is all over the media today is the Equal Opportunities Act of 2000 whose intention is to protect persons from being discriminated against in a variety of situations for varying reasons. Discrimination against a person for their sexual orientation, however, is not only excluded but it explicitly states that discrimination on the basis of sex “does not include sexual preference or orientation.”[iii]

This is where Trinidad and Tobago is: legislation that puts homosexuals on the same level as violent criminals and persons carrying infectious diseases, barring them entry into the country; failing to legally protect a homosexual victim of domestic violence if they are in a cohabitating relationship with a person of the same sex; granting legal permission for persons to discriminate against you if you are homosexual under the very Act that is supposed to prevent the same - a travesty of a law.

Now, it is common for legislation to lag behind changes in sociocultural attitudes. I say this because while the law is so explicitly harsh towards homosexuals, a recent study done by Caribbean Development Research Services Inc (CADRES) revealed that 56% of the population were either “accepting” or “tolerant” of gays.[iv] The study also found that women and young people were more likely to be tolerant than others. At the same time, CADRES said that there seemed to be a general misunderstanding regarding whether homosexuality was a choice or not. This general confusion, if cleared up, could make the 56% a bulkier number.

Under local pressure from representative groups like CAISO and internationally from the likes of Kaleidescope, Prime Minister Kamla Persard Bissessar promised Lance Price, Director of Kaleidescope, to give “due consideration” to these issues.[v] The LGBT community held their breaths in hope for five months that change would come only to have their hopes betrayed by the Minister of Gender, Youth and Child Development, Marlene Coudray. Coudray made herself out to seem like a puppet of the Interreligious Organisation when she said that “gay rights” were not included in the nation’s gender policy because the IRO would not have it. “It’s not up to me,” she said in an attempt to wash her hands of any responsibility.[vi]

In a letter to the Express editor I argued that the IRO should not have the political clout that they claim to have and are allowed to have by the government.[vii] The IRO uses a “majority rule” argument to justify their power but, as I highlighted in the article, this so-called majority is only a nominal one. According to the Catholic Church’s (the most vocal member of the IRO) own research, 17% of nominal Catholics attend Mass on Sundays, the bare minimum requirement of the faith whose failure is punishable by eternal hell-fire. I speculated based on studies done in Archdioceses around the world that not all Catholics agree with all Church doctrines. Within the 17% are a number of persons who not only disagree with the Church on this particular issue, but are also members of the LGBT community. For the Church – and by extension, the IRO – to use these numbers to bolster their influence is shameful and the government has to answer to the people as to why this group is given so much air-time regarding homosexuality.

Trinidad and Tobago has a history of deflecting certain concerns to the religious community because no other group has offered itself in an approachable way to give insight. In 2012, CNC3 ran a LGBT series that brought the issue to the public while they sat at home watching the news. A bold and progressive move, I thought. Then, I watched the series. The LGBT community was given a famously flambouyant representative in Saucy Pow, who spoke of a history of child molestation and a current occupation as a male prostitute who serviced many men, some of them police officers.[viii] Saucy Pow is a member of the community, but he is by no means a representative of the cross section of the community that is as rich in diversity as the nation itself. The feature only further perpetuated the notion that members of the LGBT community only had these tendencies because of past trauma – a dangerous untruth used by pseudo-psychologists who would rather the World Health Organisation re-install homosexuality on its list of mental illnesses.

Leela Ramdeen
The CNC3 series gave voice to the religious community. Leela Ramdeen of the Catholic Commission for Social Justice of the Archdiocese of Port of Spain gave us a lesson in Catholic theology, that homosexuality – the orientation – wasn’t a sin but that acting on the orientation was. Sat Maharaj, secretary of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha in condescendingly sympathetic tones said that homosexuals were “sexually deformed” likening them to “deformed children” who needed to be loved by the community. The good thing about these two were that they were courteous enough to acknowledge that homosexuality wasn’t a choice unlike Rev. Dr. Ethelbert Charles who said “How could God condemn them if they were born that way? Homosexuality is a choice. Men and women of their own volition, of their own will, choose to take that kind of lifestyle.” He warned that if they continued without repenting and die, they would “definitely split hell wide open.”[ix]

Trinidad and Tobago prides itself on its religious tolerance in the midst of its great ethnic diversity. The IRO is a symbol of this “religious tolerance” but this tolerance has always amused me. In the video alluded to above, we see three persons of different faiths banding together against a common enemy, all justifying their stance using differing theological arguments. What has the LGBT community done to warrant such attention by the religious?

As stated before, they had the audacity to ask to be treated as human beings. This point has been continuously overlooked and it is an outright disrespect to the LGBT community. Is it that the IRO agrees that homosexuals should not be allowed into Trinidad and Tobago? Does the IRO think that homosexuals should not be legally protected against domestic violence? Does Leela Ramdeen believe that homosexuals should be discriminated against because of their homosexuality? The force with which the IRO has responded to the debate would imply that they answer these questions in the affirmative. However, if asked directly, I doubt they would do the same. The media needs to do a better job in fine-tuning the debate to these fundamental issues.

What people are really afraid of is the phantom of gay marriage that is haunting America and spreading across Europe. Leela Ramdeen said it eloquently in a symposium in April:
            “The Catholic Church said...once you change, or enlarge gender, the consequences of        such a new definition would be monumental, as it could change the meaning of thousands       of UN documents and all our laws. Activists could then use this expanded definition in    their respective countries to strike down laws governing such things as heterosexual     marriage and anything that would seem to discriminate against them.”[x]
No argument was given to show why the definition of gender was intrinsically wrong. We were only told, like the animals in Animal Farm, that if we accept this definition, we would go down a “slippery slope.” Interestingly enough, “slippery slope” is its own logical fallacy. One cannot make a statement true by alluding to possible future demise especially when gay marriage is nothing to be feared.

Rev. Shelly Ann Tenia

The religious hold great influence on this matter but it would be unjust of me to not acknowledge those religious who are more compassionate. CNC3 came under attack at the end of their series from the LGBT community for not giving voice to these said persons. CNC3 relented and aired a follow-up segment with Anglican Rev. Shelly Ann Tenia who emphasised her duty as a minister, acknowledging the humanness of persons in the community. She said “there are faithful Christians who are [homosexual] and understand themselves in that way.” It is beautiful that she would call them “faithful Christians” and perhaps her own unconventional role as a female minister allows her to be a more progressive thinker. Catholic cleric Fr. Harvey was also aired and said something I hope the IRO and all the people of Trinidad and Tobago could take note of: “They have challenged us a lot about what does love mean.”[xi]

Father Harvey
No legislative changes have yet come about as a result of LGBT activism and if we are to prophesy the near future based on what Marlene Coudray has said, no change is just around the corner. However, there have been changes in the visibility of the community. Persons have courageously come into the open about their sexual orientations in a charged atmosphere which has brought about a change in the conversation. The more the public saw that homosexuals were real people, the more compassionate their words became; less “fire bun battyman” and more “I don’t agree with their lifestyle but people should be able to do what they want.” If this upward trajectory persists, all that would remain is for the law to reflect the same attitude. 

[v] Prime Minister Kamla Persard Bissessar’s promise to Lance Price
[ix] CNC3 InDepth report. Religious views
[xi] CNC3 InDepth report. Pro-gay religious views

Saturday 12 January 2013

Liar, Lunatic, and Lord?

by Kwame Weekes

C. S. Lewis
Considered by many to be one in the long line of heavyweights in Christian apologetics is Clive Staples Lewis. In his memoir, Surprised by Joy, he told a story of growing up sceptical of religion and becoming atheist at the age of 15. At the age of 32, after years of personal study and quiet nudging by friends like J. R. R Tolkien, he found reason to believe in the Christian God. Since then, he has become a poster child for atheist-to-Christian conversion, giving hope to Christian families with wayward sons. A young Christian looking for ammunition to fight against the onslaught of atheist friends may come across his famous Trilemma argument in favour of the godhood of Jesus Christ.

The argument (which can be found in Mere Christianity) is that we must either accept Jesus Christ as a liar, lunatic, or Lord. He argues that there is no room for us to consider Jesus to be a great moral teacher while simultaneously stripping him of his divinity because anyone who makes the kind of claims that Jesus made is either a mad man or a liar, neither of which, according to Lewis, could be considered great moral teachers. Therefore, if we are to accept Jesus as a “great moral teacher,” we must also be willing to accept him wholesale, “fall at his feet and call him Lord and God.”

The argument is made against persons who claim Jesus as a great moral teacher but not Lord. I, for one, do not consider Jesus to be a “great” moral teacher. He said some wonderful things, yes, but he also said some things in ways that make me second guess his sanity. However, for the sake of argument I will grant that Jesus Christ was indeed a great moral teacher. The question now is, why can’t he be both a great moral teacher and a lunatic or a liar or an unfortunate combination of all three?

If I understand the phrase correctly, a great moral teacher gains his greatness by what he teaches. The term does not say he is a great moral person. We’ve all heard the saying “do as I say and not as I do.” It is conceivable that a person can teach and preach the most beautiful morality and still be the devil himself. There is also room in there for madness. There are different types of madness and psychology is a science that does not yet stand on very solid ground with regard to its use of definitions. Regardless of this limitation, history has been coloured with many mad men who lived normal public lives and were considered sane by the rest of the world.

One such person is Jeffery Dahmer, serial killer extraordinaire. Anyone who watches a video of him may find it hard to believe that this man killed people, cut off their heads, stripped the skin off their faces, stored their skulls in refrigerators and had sex with their corpses. If this darkness was not enough to stop him from charming young men back to his room, most certainly with lies, what was to stop Jeffery from spouting a few words of moral wisdom if he wanted to?

I tried pointing this out to a friend of mine who had cited Lewis’ Trilemma argument and he agreed with my general argument. Still, he said that we would never call someone like Jeffery a “great moral teacher” no matter how many good things he may have said. That may be true, but that does not refute the argument that a person can be both at the same time and that the Trilemma is no real trilemma at all. I thought about what my friend said, however, and wondered why that was so.

Historian Jad Adams did extensive primary research on the voluminous writings of Mahatma Gandhi, a man second only to Jesus in popular perception of holiness. Adams revealed in Gandhi: Naked Ambition a Gandhi who believed sex tarnished the soul and so practiced celibacy. The shocking information, however, is that the saint tested his fortitude by surrounding himself with women – sleeping naked with them and bathing with them. To add madness to the peculiar, he refused to give his wife suffering with pneumonia medication, a decision that resulted in her death. When he was struck by malaria, though, he reversed his aversion to modern medicine and accepted it. This type of inconsistency was known to him, it seems, because he wrote of himself elsewhere:
I am not at all concerned with appearing to be consistent. In my search after Truth I have discarded many ideas and learnt many new things…What I am concerned with is my readiness to obey the call of Truth, my God, from moment to moment, and therefore, when anybody finds any inconsistency between any two writings of mine, if he has still faith in my sanity, he would do well to choose the later of the two on the same subject. (
Was Gandhi a liar, lunatic, or great moral teacher (unlike Jesus, he never claimed divinity)? I’d argue that he was a mixture of all because there is nothing that says he cannot be. The real problem of the Trilemma is not a problem inherent in the persons in question but in the persons looking on. Some persons find it difficult to see people complexly. It is either you are a sinner or a saint, a hero or a villain, a Madonna or a whore. When it comes to public figures like Gandhi and Jesus, Aristotle can give insight to this propensity. Ethos, he says, is one of the three components of persuasive arguing. Your case is greatly improved if you are seen as an ethical person. This is why politicians go through great lengths to cover up their dirty pasts.

Men like Jesus and Gandhi preached philosophies and had devoted followers. After their deaths, in order for these philosophies to grow and remain influential, followers needed to ensure that the saintly images of their leaders were preserved. The unpopularity of the dark sides of Gandhi is better understood when put in the context of India’s independence and the role he played there. If everyone knew about his secret practices it may have adversely affected his influence while alive and also after death. For human beings, you cease being a hero the moment your sin becomes public and this must be avoided at all costs. Seeing that the earliest gospel written about Jesus was done 40 years after his death, I suspect that similar things were done with Jesus as were done with Gandhi.

What I think is necessary as we move forward is less hagiography and more objective historical inquiry. Jesus Christ should not be exempt from this scrutiny. Christians should ask themselves why they believe the things they believe about Jesus. What evidence do we have that he was free from sin? Why should we believe that Jesus Christ was the perfect human being apart from books written about him by devoted followers? Jesus Christ never told a white lie? Really, now. There is evidence of him being a bit rude to his mother when they couldn’t find him because he was “about his father’s business,” but that is always interpreted in Jesus’ favour. More is needed for us to uncover the true face of Jesus and we may all be surprised by what we find. We should want to know the truth no matter how unbearably beautiful or terrifying because reality equips us for real life better than any fantasy ever can. 

Thursday 3 January 2013

Is "Something" More Likely than "Nothing?"

by Jonathan Bellot

Why is there something rather than nothing? The question seems valid at first glance, and probably at second and third glances, as well. It seems easy to imagine a "world" where there is "nothing," but to have this vast universe around us seems somehow special, somehow worthy of wonder. There could have been nothing, the question implies, but look: we've got something, and that something is a big something, and it demands an explanation. It's all very intuitive. However, there's something--to use that devious word--very wrong with the question of why there's something rather than nothing. Beneath the intuitiveness, it reveals a drastic and unfounded presupposition about the entire universe: that "something" is more likely than "nothing." I say "unfounded" not because the opposite is true, but because we simply don't actually know, despite all our feelings on the matter, that one is more likely than the other. 

Indeed, if you ask the man considered by many arguably the greatest living philosopher of space and time, Adolf Grunbaum, about this, he'll likely say what he has said before: that those who think "nothing" is more likely than "something" are unjustifiably prejudiced towards what Grunbaum calls "the Null World" (nothingness). The problem Grunbaum refers to as "the Spontaneity of Nothingness"--our quickness to assume that we should only have nothingness around us but, miracle of miracles, we have "something." There is no reason to think that having "something" is somehow less likely than "nothing," Grunbaum says. And, if you stop to think of it, there's reason in that. Where on Earth did we get the idea that the things that allow for the universe to exist--even down to forces like gravity--had to have been created somehow? It's intuitive to think that something being somewhere implies that it was somehow put there or arrived there in some manner, and this is indeed the case inside the universe, but why should the universe, taken as a whole--the proverbial "something"--be less likely to exist than no universe? 

Copleston and Russell
As Bertrand Russell put it in his famous radio debate with Father Copleston in 1948, "the universe is just there, and that's all." Russell also said, going back to the idea of the whole universe being distinct from what goes on with the individual things inside it, that it is wrong to assume the universe itself has a cause just because things inside the universe have causes. "I can illustrate what seems to me your fallacy," Russell said when Copleston brought up the something-rather-than-nothing question, the question of why the totality of things--the universe--exists. "Every man who exists has a mother," Russell continued, "and it seems to me your argument is that therefore the human race must have a mother, but obviously the human race hasn't a mother." In other words, what applies to individual members of a set may not apply to the set taken as a whole--and, as a result, asking why there is a universe rather than no universe is to assume that everything that makes the universe possible, even down to forces, is to assume that the laws that apply in the universe must apply to the universe as a whole. While this seems intuitive and sensible, we actually have no evidence that this is true. And we also have no evidence that "nothing" is more likely than "something."

This can be a bit startling. All of a sudden, it seems possible that, even if the universe emerged in the Big Bang, whatever makes the formation of univeres possible--the "quantum foam" that produces "bubbles" of universes due to gravity, for instance, to paraphrase Stephen Hawking--may have simply always been there, and we were wrong to assign a probability to it at all. Maybe there is a probability to universes forming out of this quantum foam, but not to the quantum foam itself being there. In a conversation with Jim Holt in Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story, Grunbaum says that while he will "grant that nothingness may be the simplest [thing to imagine] conceptually," we still have to ask why this concept applies to actual existence, to reality--that is, "what makes simplicity into an ontological imperative?" And, lest you think that "before" the Big Bang there was indeed absolute nothingness, Grunbaum adds that "Physics does not allow us to extrapolate back and say, 'Before this singularity there was nothingness. That's an elementary mistake...the lesson of the Big Bang model is that before the initial state there was no time.'" As Holt writes later, reflecting on his discussion with Grunbaum, the singularity is where relativity breaks down and where time ceases to have clear meaning. 

"Unlike the beginning of a concert," he writes, "the singularity at the beginning of the universe is not an event in time. Rather, it is a temporal boundary or edge. There are no more moments of time 'before' t = 0. So there was never a time when Nothingness prevailed. And there was no 'coming into being'--at least not a temporal one. As Grunbaum is fond of saying, even though the universe is finite in age, it has always existed, if by 'always' you mean at all instants of time." And so, "[i]f there was never a transition from Nothing to Something, there is no need to look for a cause, divine or otherwise, that brought the universe into existence." The steady-state theory, basically, has been married to the Big Bang in one sense--while the universe did "appear" at the Big Bang, it has, strictly speaking, always been around, and there is no "before" the Big Bang in which there was nothing at all. 

Even Lawrence Krauss, famous and infamous for his Universe from Nothing of 2012 and a speech by the same name from 2009, does not say, contrary to popular understanding, that there was nothingness and then there was something, but that virtual nothingness--not literal nothingness, as he acknowledges in the book--is actually a sea of virtual particles popping into and out of existence, which is the likely origin of our universe. In other words, the laws of quantum mechanics still apply. Indeed, if this is the case, while there would always have been "something" in the form of the virtual particles, their frequent appearance would suggest even more strongly that "something" is more likely to exist than "nothing."

And, more simply, Grunbaum asks, "What could possibly be more commonplace empirically than that something or other does exist?" In other words, we have been observing something since we could observe at all, and "something" is the easiest of all things to observe--indeed, the only thing we have ever truly observed. To observe nothing is a hell of a thing; I'm not sure it's even possible, given that nothing is, well, nothing. And that leads to the question being flipped on its head: what makes us think "nothing" is the natural way for things to be, and "something" is unusual? Do we have any evidence to prove that nothingness is, in fact, far more likely than anything--again, even down to forces--existing? And the fact is that we don't. The whole bit of probability that something is less likely than nothing is based on a presupposition, not an actual observed fact. Again, this common-sense-but-meaningful observation from Grunbaum doesn't make the question about something and nothing into a pseudo-question (as Grunbaum calls it) we can dispense with, but it does mean we need to stop looking at the universe, the something, around us as if we are standing outside it; after all, from that view, it is easy to think there is the universe and then black empty space around it, but we have no idea what, if anything, can be said to be outside the universe, except perhaps for other universes, and it's not at all clear that other universes exist, popular as the multiverse hypothesis is. By looking at the universe from where we are, not an articifial invented position "outside" of it, we see the something we know, and there is not as yet any clear proof that there is nothingness or that nothingness is more common than its opposite (though we must be careful here too not to speak of nothingness as if it is a distinct thing, like that "empty" space. In short, this is far from resolved, but we at least know we have "something" so far).

None of this makes God impossible, mind you. Indeed, William Lane Craig, attempting to get around the problem of time and the singularity, suggests that God, while himself timeless (whatever that somewhat cheap expression may mean), may have produced the universe at the same moment he intended to create it, so intention and creation are all concurrent, and there is no need to say God existed "before" anything else began to exist (despite God being, in Craig's view, eternal and necessary). But it's very odd to imagine an intention literally being simultaneous with an action--downright impossible, actually, going by anything we know about neuroscience. (Of course, to assume God's mind, if God exists, is like a human's is to commit the same fallacy Russell chided Copleston for, but that does not mean anything one says about God is therefore somehow worthy of having a free logical pass.) It's a real problem to simply get rid of God's involvement with the singularity by saying that he is "timeless," since this word has no clear meaning--or none I've seen as yet. And, if you imagine that God and the universe--the "something"--are one and the same, as in pantheism (but not panentheism), there's no real contradiction. And Krauss himself, in his book, says that "on the basis of logic alone one cannot rule out such a deistic view of nature"--not a view he accepts or that has evidence going for it, but one that can't absolutely be ruled out. But, if you imagine that God is a personal god, and that this god is logically necessary--that this god, in other words, cannot not exist--and is not equivalent to the universe, you may have run into some trouble. Quite aside from the temporal problems raised by relativity breaking down at the Big Bang, the fact remains that we cannot assume "having a universe" is less likely than "nothing" and that, therefore, the universe's creation is somehow special and requires a special creator. This assumption is just that--an assumption. Whatever allows for the production of universes, like gravity in the theoretical model Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow present in The Grand Design, may simply take the place of God as a "necessary" force--and maybe there's no real reason to think this is strange or special.

My intution rages at this. And it's true there is a lot we have to learn. It may, in fact, be true that something is less likely than nothing. Who knows. But that's precisely the point: no one knows. And, going by what we have to observe around us, and everything we have discovered in cosmology so far, it would appear that nothingness is not, in fact, somehow more likely than something. And even if it is, and we all just popped into existence in a way so absurd that even Camus would crack a smile, none of that has to involve a divine creator. God, of course, could have popped into existence along with the universe--but how superfluous is that, eh? Our origins are still shrouded in mystery, hidden behind a veil we may never be able to part, but things still seem better for us at the moment than for personal gods.

Arif Ahmed
Towards the end of a 2011 debate in Cambridge, in which the question under discussion was whether or not belief in God is a delusion, the Cambridge philosopher Arif Ahmed made a curious point. He had been talking about the necessity of God--"necessity" meaning that God (or any "necessary" thing) simply must exist, cannot not exist. (It would, indeed, be logically contradictory to say this necessary thing does not exist.) Ahmed said that "nowhere" in the book he uses to teach formal logic to first-year students of Philosophy, Introducing Formal Logic, "is there any logical principle that shows a contradiction in the premise that 'nothing exists.'" There is nothing logically contradictory, Ahmed asserts, in the statement "nothing exists"--but, if this is true, it means there is a logically sound statement one can make that does not include God or any necessary being at all. Therefore, it is wrong to assume that God's necessity--or anything's necessity--is, well, necessary. Even God's necessity, then, is suspect.

Ahmed and his partner lost the debate, seemingly largely because many people did not want to cast votes that appeared to insult the opposite side by saying they were deluded. But the real loser may be our age-old question, "why is there something rather than nothing?" We must elevate the discussion and stop making assumptions like the ones embedded in this question, even if those assumptions have dug deep roots inside us. By doing so, things may become much more confusing and chaotic for a time--but that can be a good thing, if that confusion and chaos leads us closer to the truth. And, while our intuitions are often correct, we must be prepared to accept that some of them may be very wrong.

Some links: Russell/Copleston debate:
Lawrence Krauss's "A Universe from Nothing" lecture:
Cambridge debate with Arif Ahmed:

Tuesday 1 January 2013

For the New Year!

So, it's 2013.

Normally, that would start off a chain reaction: what resolutions I made last year (and perhaps did not keep), what resolutions I'll make this year, why there's promise this year, and so forth. I've included a strip from my favorite comic, and what may just be among the greatest comics of all time, Calvin and Hobbes, below, in which Calvin (named after the theologian) discusses the problems of New Year's resolutions.

But I want to do something a bit different. I'm going to put down a list of things I plan to do, organized by categories. Each is relatively open-ended. Feel free to take those categories and list your own resolutions, or add your own categories in the comments or in your own personal list. Enjoy!

Books, Films. As an English major, I find myself reading a lot of books. But I could always be reading more. Goal: find an extra hour or so to read each day. Make a list of books to check out, and make sure I can check them off the list at the end of the year. But leave the list open. And I'll read widely: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and everything, or nearly everything, in-between. Same goes for films. I'll try to further develop myself, acknowledging I have a lot to learn--but I'll also remind myself, if needed, that I've managed to learn some things so far. It's easy to forget, after all, that we've reached anywhere at all.

People and their Ideas. Despite what I wrote above about books, I won't forget to spend time with the people I love, and I'll try to understand the people I don't love more. I'll try to put myself in the shoes of people whose minds I don't understand, like religious fundamentalists and Young Earth creationists (assuming I can find the shoes), so I can see if we can actually have a good dialogue. Empathy, and all that good stuff. And I will never assume I know all there is to know on a topic, or that my opponent/discussion partner can't teach me something new. And if I'm wrong, I have to be intellectually honest and admit it.

Issues I Care About. When an issue comes up, be it at home or abroad, and I have a chance to let my voice be heard in some way--be it by submitting a letter to an editor, a commentary, or trying to do something more visible--I will try to do so. Little efforts sometimes pay off, sometimes become big efforts--but only if we make the effort.

Stop Hiding. If something is important to you, like a cause, belief, or part of my identity, it might be worth finally sitting down with someone you trust and getting it out into the open--or just letting everyone know in a sudden social-media blitz. You may find idiots if you do the latter (and some fun screencaps for the future, no doubt), but you may also find friends who sympathize. And, more importantly, you'll have taken a step towards being closer to who you think you are. (Whether or not the self is an illusion of the brain, possibly like free will, but that's a whole different article.)

Have a great new year, from the Caribbean Freethinkers' Society!
- Jonathan Bellot

Thursday 27 December 2012

It Might Get Better: LGBT Rights in the Caribbean

by Jonathan Bellot

In a proposal from June of 2012 that briefly made him infamous on a variety of pro-gay websites, the Minister of Education of the Commonwealth of Dominica wrote that he had teamed up with former secondary school principal Simeon Joseph to combat “deviance and homosexuality” in a number of schools on the island. And eradicating homosexuality was a significant factor in fighting this deviance, Education Minister Peter St. Jean asserted. By stamping out such evil and disgraceful behavior, the Minister assured Dominicans, the schools would be well on their way to becoming safe havens for normality, places no longer ruled more by the devil than by God. Indeed, St. Jean noted in September of 2012 that the problem of homosexuality, violence, and general deviance was bigger than he had imagined and that he now had to form a “committee” to deal with the matter. For gay young Dominicans, the message was anything but gay: you are deviant, and you must change your desires, or face the consequences.

Portia Simpson-Miller
St. Jean’s proposal was hardly the first to demonize homosexuality in the island, much less the Caribbean (though St. Jean’s is all the more notable coming from a minister of, of all things, education). The Attorney-General of Antigua, Justin Simon, went on record in 2011 when asked about a repeal of the buggery law to make his stance clear: “there will be no change in the law,” he said, “being gay is morally wrong,” and, in case it was not clear, “I’m still homophobic.” Bruce Golding, the former prime minister of Jamaica, is well-remembered, among other things, for saying on BBC Hard Talk in 2008 that he does “not know” that a Jamaica in which homosexuals can be in the cabinet “is necessarily the direction in which I want my country to go” and does not want pro-gay lobby groups to change Jamaica’s values, while an extraordinary (though obscure) immigration law in Trinidad preventing gays from even entering the island briefly made international waves in 2007, when Elton John, who had been booked to perform there, came up against church leaders. Elton John made it in, and since then, Trinidad, like the other islands, has battled against the issue. However, both Jamaica and Trinidad may be on their way to creating more equitable landscapes for gays: Portia Simpson-Miller, current Prime Minister of Jamaica, famously said she supports civil rights for the LGBT community during her election campaign, and, more recently Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, has been at work with Minister of Gender, Youth, and Child Development, Marlene Coudray, to draft a gender policy that will end discrimination against individuals based on (among other things) sexual orientation.

Why the fuss over homosexuality? And, more on point: is there a legitimate reason for granting gays in the Caribbean rights they enjoy elsewhere in the world—the right to civil unions or same-sex marriage, the right to not be discriminated against at school or in the workplace, etc? At first, if you’re liberal on this issue, the answer to the second question might seem simple: yes, yes, and hurry up with it already so we can move on. Some islands have abolished their laws making buggery illegal, after all, and Saba, while part of the Netherlands, has made the pioneering step to not simply recognize but allow same-sex marriage. My own kneejerk reaction is to say “yes” as well. But the question is more complex than a simple “yes” can admit because of how deep assumptions and misunderstandings about homosexuality go in some islands. And to see why the question is complex, we need to look into the first question: what the big fuss over homosexuality is.

The most obvious source of antagonism over homosexuality comes from the bible’s references to men lying with men as with women being an abomination and to the popular interpretation of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction as stemming from God’s displeasure at the homosexuality of its inhabitants. Bring up homosexuality, be it in person or in an article online, and you can count on more than a little religious fanaticism. I’ll return to this issue later, but three quick points are relevant: it is by no means clear the Sodom and Gomorrah story refers to homosexuality; it is a serious question why those who proclaim themselves Christian obsess over this rule and not over the other rules near it, including the infamous ones: do not eat shellfish, do not wear clothes spun of multiple fabrics, etc.; and, this may be the biggest hurdle gays have to face in the Caribbean and is one reason getting rid of these laws quickly may not be for the best. So deeply rooted in so many islands is Christianity, in particular the evangelical versions that appeared in the 20th century, that to decriminalize buggery and in particular to legalize same-sex unions or marriages is to potentially endanger gays in the islands. But I’ll return to this shortly.

Another source of antagonism I have seen comes from race and heritage—specifically the idea that, in Africa prior to the Europeans getting involved, homosexuality was simply not an issue because it was not something any true African allowed or was involved in. Homosexuality, and in particular the LGBT civil rights movement, is a product of the white man in the West, so the argument goes, and one does not need any biblical verses to see that homosexuality was distasteful to descendants of Africans long before their ancestors even knew the bible existed. This argument, while not as pervasive as the religious one, appears relatively often in muted form. It is part of a series of sometimes very broad anti-Eurocentric arguments against a variety of practices and ideas, arguments employed by Africans and those descended from African ancestors alike. The most striking of such arguments is a recent claim by the proudly Zulu president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, that owning a dog is "not African" and is a "white" practice that should not be employed in Africa; similarly, Zuma claimed earlier this year, polygamy (part of his heritage) is the natural state of things, single women are abominations, and women are trained to be, well, women by bearing multiple children. More common racial claims, ones I heard myself growing up in Dominica, were that certain types of music and food were “white” and others “black”: dancehall and hip-hop were easily “black,” while electronica in general (but especially techno) and rock of almost all kinds were “white.”

These claims, while too sweeping to possibly be correct, often contain kernels of cultural truth: hip-hop, like jazz (which it partly evolved from), was developed by African-Americans, certain types of food are eaten more by cultures containing dominant populations of a certain color, etc. But none of this makes them “black” or “white.” And the fact remains that whether or not a society practiced something in the past, what matters more for human rights is what people practice today. Individuals should listen to and do what they enjoy, regardless of cultural norms.

Other common arguments are easier to deal with, since these stem from misunderstandings or propaganda from the anti-gay. These are the claims that homosexuality is “unnatural,” that it does not occur in any other animal but humans (though most users of such an argument would not accept evolution enough to accept that humans are animals), that homosexuality spreads like a virus, that allowing gay marriage will turn the world gay and cause the end of reproduction around the world, and that homosexuality is equivalent or inextricably linked to pedophilia and sex tourism.

The first thing to say here is that over 1,500 species of animals have been confirmed to engage in homosexual activity—and that’s only the confirmed species, not the ones suspected to, as well. (This is not an argument for following whatever animals do, however, since many of those species also engage in less savory practices, including rape and necrophilia. Rather, this is only a clarification of a claim that humans are the only animals to engage in homosexual activity.). Given that homosexuality is not a virus and that there is no evidence it is a choice (it seems there may be some genetic basis for it, though this is unclear; Richard Dawkins describes it as a misfiring of the brain in The God Delusion), it is impossible for it to spread if people are “exposed” to TV shows containing gay characters. All that can happen is that those who are already gay or bisexual may begin to understand their feelings better by seeing people they can identify with. As for the pedophilia/prostitution claim, which I have never seen anywhere more prominent than in Uganda, this is simply false, since pedophilia is separate from hetero- and homosexuality, and prostitution is an act that has nothing to do with orientation whatsoever, since you can as easily prostitute grinning dolphins as flamboyantly gay men. A pedophile can be gay or straight; there is no reason to link homosexuality with pedophilia. Moreover, the issue with pedophilia, both on an emotional and legal level, is primarily that of consent, and it’s clear that a normal young child is not in the same position to give his or her consent as a normal adult. Homosexual intercourse between two consenting adults, therefore, is very different from intercourse between any adult and a child, since the latter is, in many ways, closer to rape.

A chilling possibility?
With all this said, it sounds great to say we should have gay rights in the Caribbean. And I’m in full support. But I’m also a realist here. And it’s quite clear that, if I could brush a magic wand over the law books of the islands and decriminalize buggery and allow same-sex marriage across the board, the problem would not suddenly be solved. If anything, the problems might, at least for a while, be significantly worse. There would likely be riots, calls to miniature crusades by the evangelists, and more blood spilled than I would like. This is a somewhat absurd hypothetical scenario, of course, as opposed to more drawn-out legislation, but there is nothing to suggest it would be false. The infamous recent beating of a presumably gay young man at U-Tech in Jamaica, while tame compared to other such beatings and killings in the island, shows that the mob mentality to surround, attack, and antagonize “the other,” in this case the gay male, is alive and well there, and it is similar in other islands. Of course, the number of persons in support of gay rights, or, at least, indifferent to homophobia, is on the rise, primarily among young people who have gone to school or to live abroad in societies where homosexuality is not stigmatized to the same degree, but I fear that we still have a long way to go before people in general can be more comfortable with gay rights in the Caribbean.

But here’s the thing: we need to make those steps. While there has been international pressure from America and Britain in particular to stop abuses of human rights for gays in the region, we also have such models to look to as Uganda, which has done precisely the opposite: Uganda has recently signed in a law that, prior to being softened up, was rightly known best as the “Kill the Gays” bill. Uganda’s model is not the way to go. And while some people may say that this is an extreme example of homophobia, one far beyond anything even in Jamaica, this is simply not the case, in the sense that the seeds for such backwards-looking laws are already planted, amidst a few seeds of progressive opposition to the mindset that allows for such laws. We need to plant more of those progressive seeds. We cannot make the Caribbean a welcome harbor to the LGBT community overnight—eBay has stopped selling magic potions, after all, and few obeah men or women will help me with such otherworldly legislation—but we can make it a welcome harbor for tomorrow, or a few tomorrows from now. We need to attack the problem at the root, so it will be easier for better things to grow. Easier said than done, I know, but possible to be done.

We need to speak up. We need to keep this issue in the public eye. There must be more visibility for the LGBT community—more specifically, we must not allow the issue to be forgotten. The more we make the LGBT community visible and real, the more it will become humanized, and the more we will slip into our opponents’ minds the fact that gay people are not, surprisingly, evil monstrosities that must be beaten up and stoned.

But we also need to be careful how we speak. As much as I acknowledge that religion is a central problem here, attacking Christianity and Islam (those the central problem-makers) with broad, militant strokes is not the best solution. We must be prepared to have discussions, and we must be prepared to answer questions: why the bible is not the end-all-be-all of truth and advice, why we should not cherry-pick verses we like, etc. But we must do so empathetically. After all, there are many gay Christians and Muslims, and while I don’t deny the contradiction in that, it is a fact that we cannot ignore. The goal is not so much to eradicate religion as to eradicate homophobia, and so our first goal should be to show that one can still be religious and accept the LGBT community for what it is, without demonizing them as sinners. The next step may be to show more general problems with religion, but this is a much larger step than the first, and so we must go one step at a time if we’re to make realistic progress: that is, those of us, like me, who are nonbelievers can say so, but so as not to isolate our audience, we must also show the reality that many liberal Christians and Muslims accept the LGBT community, and then we can move from there.

We also need to acknowledge that many people simply know nothing about gay, bisexual, or transgender individuals (and transgender individuals will be a whole other post, given that transgenderism is related but nonetheless requires more nuance) and have gut reactions of disgust. I admit I have similar reactions at the idea of a man being attracted to a man, since I cannot personally see the male body as something to be attracted to. But even so, I fully acknowledge the legitimacy of such attraction for those who have it. We need to work to make the very idea of homosexuality more humanized, more everyday. Otherwise, the LGBT community will remain “the other,” a fringe group vying for superiority via transoceanic lobby groups.

The next time this issue comes up, please take the time to contribute in some way: a comment, a letter to an editor, a rebuttal, a petition, art, stories, something. After all, if you’re a heterosexual, imagine being in other shoes: being forced to go to secret areas to be among others like you, areas that, if discovered, could lead to your doom, all because you dance a different dance, a dance that should hurt no one, but that you must dance in private. Just imagine not being able to be who you are, to live a false life you hate, to be driven to depression, self-hate, and suicidal thoughts. The skeleton key to dealing with homophobia, you see, is empathy.

As Kei Miller writes in “This Dance” in his collection, Fear of Stones, a story that humanizes the struggles of a gay youth in Jamaica: “Jeremy would find a girl to hold on to. Always the one with the strong back, the wire waist, the foot movements, he could on, and wine down low low low low. Take the woman to the ground with him. And people used to say, ‘Lawwd, that yout’ can dance eeeeh.’
“But that wasn’t his dance.
“Wasn’t it.
“Almost his dance, but not quite.”

Let’s work to open the floor, so all may dance their dance in peace.