Wednesday 19 December 2012

Spreading the Light

by Jason Dookeran

In the Holy Bible, amidst the passages attributed to one Isaiah it is stated, "The people who walk in darkness will see a great light." However, it takes a lot more than simple light to become enlightened. In this day and age, that which had been the light has now become the bringer of darkness, the pillars of ignorance.

I was born in the small Caribbean island of Trinidad, half of the twin-island republic of Trinidad and Tobago. This tiny country boasts amazing racial and ideological differences across its islands. The one glaring thing that stands out is that not many people, even though they may think it, come out and state that they have doubts about their religion. The average Trinidadians who do not have a particular religious leaning refers to themselves as a 'Nowherian', a word specifically created by the Trinbagonian public as a means to describe someone who belongs to a religion in name only, but does not practice or believe the basic tenets of the religion. It is not uncommon to hear someone stating "Well, I'ze ah Catholic inno, but I doh go church and thing..."

It is upon this backdrop that I, in the waning months of 2010, realized that I was an atheist. The admission was based on critical analysis of what I knew, what I thought and what evidence had been presented to me. It is not a decision to take lightly and it is not one that will improve the overall comfort of my social situation, but it is something that I feel I need to do. I'm tired of pretending to be something I am not.

I was born in a rural setting, many miles from the nearest city. The quaintness of my heritage is preserved today in the village that my parents live, a truly bucolic refuge in the hustle and bustle of modern life. My early life, spent as a child in this rural village, was only sparsely punctuated by allusions to faith and belief in an Almighty. Indeed, the only time one would hear prostration to a deity from a neighbor would usually come in the form "Oh God, ah think mih rice bu'n!"

In the first eleven or so years of my life, my only brushes with religion were the odd wedding/funeral and the yearly Hindu prayers my Grandmother/next door neighbor would perform. After the first eleven years of my life though, my mother decided that I needed religion, for one reason or another, and so we went to church.

Presbyterians aren't noted for being massive proselytizers and that suited me fine. The Presbyterian Church is probably one of the more liberal arms of the Christian movement, and as such doesn't put a whole lot of stock in converting people. The informal and open way in which the Presbyterian Church deals with issues makes it ideal for someone who wants to be a Christian, but doesn't want as much of the rituals and rites associated therein. It is also very accepting of science and sees the bible as a figurative tool (mostly) for instruction. From any atheist’s standpoint, it would seem that it's the least threatening branch of the Christian tree, and that may be so if people would follow the doctrine of acceptance, but over time I came to realize that this "doctrine of acceptance" is quite fine in theory but does not carry over to practice. As inviting as this branch was, it wasn’t without its thorns.

Having been internalized into the church (baptized and confirmed), I started attending church regularly, becoming one with the sheep and following unquestioningly. In fact, at one point in time I was seriously considering becoming a minister in the Presbyterian Church. It was in critically examining the church in my preparation for this decision, that I discovered many unsavory things about the Christian religion. These things, coupled with two major issues, caused me to rethink my position.

I was able to gauge and question Christians of "my" denomination freely, since I was accepted as one of them. I gained insight into their thinking and realized that quite a bit of them do not actually believe the tenets of the religion but have some ulterior motive for attending, whether it was using the Presbyterian board to land a job, or because they want to get married in the church. The unsettling thing is that some of them believe and subscribe to the archaic outlines of the Old Testament (selectively of course; the chapters and verses that pertain to their own transgressions are notoriously absent from their interpretation of the scripture) and believe those who don’t believe the same as them to be misguided damned.

The second thing, the one that forced me to reconsider my want to be part of this (or any) religious body, was the indoctrination of youth. On every fifth Sunday, the Presbyterian Church allows the youth of their congregation to deliver a sermon. On a particular fifth Sunday of the year, the entire country is urged by the Presbyterian Board of Youth Affairs to deliver a sermon based on a theme. Outlines are distributed to separate churches and a sermon is done up and delivered on the proposed day. On National Youth Sunday, 2010, the threads that bound me to this institution were irreparably broken.

The sermon outline contained a collection of bullet points that writers were asked to expound upon. One of them, I noticed, called for the dissection of "the persecution of Christian youth." After slowly reading through this section a few times, and finding it to be both misleading and propagandist in nature, I started to critically analyze all the things that were told to me. It was a moment of revelation and one that I look back on as the start of my atheism.

I decided to apply critical thought to the majority of the things I took for granted as outlined by my church doctrine. More often than not, the application of doubt and critical questioning caused the previously accepted facades to fall apart. I was excited! Here was something I should show people; here was something I could present, with requisite evidence, to show something tangible! It could cause a revolution; an uprising. It could make a difference to so many who are blinded. Here, then, was a “great light.” I immediately set about to educate my peers on my newfound epiphanies. That was when I encountered the ugly side of the believer.

Indoctrination is a powerful force. It can make one disregard evidence opposed to one’s belief completely, making one hang on desperately to an ungrounded fable contrary to, and at times in spite of, incontrovertible evidence against it. I brought my basic arguments to bear on the logical fallacies contained within the body of knowledge that my peers regarded as “holy.” I was accused of being a blasphemer. One by one they stopped talking to me or asking me questions because I “think too much.” Only in a religious institution would thought be considered evil and a vice.

Slowly, they drifted from me and I drifted from them. Their inability to understand or simple ignorance of the facts presented made me regard them differently. I decided that since I was finding myself at odds with the church, that I would forge my own path, one where I would discover what the world had to offer by exploring tangible objects and not putting my faith in something I could neither experience nor prove.

Thus began the growth of my skepticism and my move from being simply agnostic (belief in a God but with no belief in organized religion) to atheist. Helped by videos from Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, I learned about this new movement and how much of my own ideas were in line with the ideas and thought proposed by these great men. I became a heretic, and I have never in my life felt so free.

Now, with the passing of each day, I meet and interact with more people who share my point of view. Even friends I had considered to be dyed-in-the wool believers are now just as skeptical as me. The wave of reason is spreading, slowly overwhelming the tide of ignorance. Indeed, one can only hope that soon, those lost in the darkness of ignorance shall see the light of reason.

1 comment:

  1. Read your article with interest. It seems to me that your background forged your concept of God in the biblical fires of conservatism. But instead of seeing God as a person looking after you, God can be seen as an infinite reality of supreme value that underlies all things. Ironically, this is closer to the main theological tradition of the Christian church.

    I have a lot of time for Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens and some other atheists. I find their criticisms of the God of the OT pretty accurate. However, they seems to ignore the fact that God is neither Jew nor Gentile. They seem to be caught in the web of materialism and have ignored the dramatic emergent reality in the universe of consciousness - thoughts, feelings, perceptions and desires - which are generated by the neural network of the brain. The basic laws of physics cannot explain the contents of consciousness, since such contents are neither stated in the premises of physical laws nor entailed by their operation. Employing the well-established axiom of physics that every real entity causally relates to others in some way, it seems that the existence of consciousness must introduce new sorts of causal relation into the universe which did not previously exist.

    As an atheist you deny the existence of a theistic deity but do you deny the reality of a Source or Principle of all things higher than humans? Am not speaking of an external deity who comes to help us when we need him, her or it. But supposing God is the Source emanating thru the whole universe in its various forms, so that we in essence are "god" in our respective human form. Is that not what Jesus was really saying when he said, "as you have seen me you have seen the Father." All the aspects of Theism, Deism, Atheism are but labels and mean nothing when we come to the recognition of who we are.

    Enlightenment liberates us from the dead hands of the past, of unquestioned authority and un-revisable truth. Science has shown how many primitive, factual elements are contained in the ancient scriptures. History has shown that it is impossible to be certain of events recorded at second or third hand in an apologetic text. Critical thinking undermines the rational confidence in systems of doctrinal theology which claim to state the final truth about the universe. Analysis of language emphasizes the role of metaphor, paradox and analogy in all speech about that which is ultimately Real. These are the gifts of Enlightenment, and they have changed our view of religion forever. Yet the Enlightenment insistence that everything must be judged by pure reason is itself a culturally limited restriction on human knowledge and understanding. It is not pure reason which is the criterion for faith. It is the lure of the Spirit or Source calling us to new outlook, to an expansion of imagination and acceptance of creative change.