Archive for the ‘background’ Category

Because of “the medication”?

3 December 2009 Comments off

image: was a post originally written because my sister had misunderstood something about our mother’s mental health. This is a revised version.

Yesterday morning I noticed my sister’s status on Facebook indicated she was seriously upset about something, so I had a chat with her on IM later in the day and she told me that our mother had tried to commit suicide again. It turns out that this was not what happened this time, but I’ve chosen to re-write this post to raise awareness and in the hope that it may help someone or their family recognise the signs and seek help before it’s too late.

It turns out that my mother had realised something was seriously wrong with her medication (anti-depressants, among other things) so had asked my father to take her to hospital, and upon their return had chosen to keep most of the details from my sister as she had some things going on in her life… and didn’t want to bother her.

My mother’s motto and — if I have anything to do with it — her future gravestone will say: I didn’t want to be a bother. Along the lines of Spike Milligan’s I told you I was ill.

This behaviour sounds delightfully self-effacing and British, but the problem is that it can cause actual harm. By not treating her as an adult, my sister naturally did what our mother (unintentionally) taught her to do as she was growing up: fill the gaps with the worst possible scenario, and she freaked. Past history means that it’s not an unreasonable assumption to make. From my perspective, I’m on the other side of the world, didn’t know what to do and began to react badly, too, finding out towards the end of a week in which I had a university assignment due (adult student). Obviously an assignment pales in comparison to the health of a family member, but when you discover the health is no worse than it was the day before… perspective changes.

This is clearly not a situation in which you can confidently point a finger and say who’s to blame; it’s a distinctly unfunny comedy of errors. To prevent a repeat, I’ve asked my father to promise to clearly communicate what’s going on to me, and he’s agreed. Sad that such a protocol had to be established for something as simple as communication, even though we all regularly speak on the phone. Families, eh?

To provide some background, my mother says that her most recent psychiatric diagnosis is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), of Vietnam War infamy, which she says explains the depression of recent years and the alcoholism she’s had for as long as I can remember.

During her pregnancy with my sister in 1988, my mother dropped a bombshell: not only would I soon cease being an only child, but I was to become a middle child. She had me when she was 18, but she had also had a son 3 years before I was born, and her mother had forcibly taken him away from her. He’d been adopted out, and it remained one of those family secrets you hear about.

The following year we met my older brother and then began the getting to know you process, soul-seeking and questions, and various ups and downs. By his accounts, growing up on a farm was tough and he’d always known he was adopted, and it had gnawed away at him. Perhaps it was these “Why was I sent away, but not you?” questions and sense of injustice that made it insurmountably difficult for anyone in the family to establish a lasting relationship with him, despite every one of us trying for both his and my mother’s sake. Either way, a few years of roller-coaster ups and downs with him, and he’d eventually broken contact with each of us in turn.

A couple of years ago I got home from work to find the landline ringing and my dad on the other end. My first reaction was, ‘Hey, Dad. Who died?’ He laughed that nervous laugh. My older brother had been found dead of a heart attack in his flat a couple of days earlier by his adopted sister (with whom he’d also broken contact).

Since then, and perhaps understandably, my mother went downhill and she finally went to seek counselling after being badgered. This is apparently when the diagnosis of PTSD was given: brought on by the forcible removal of her newborn child (by her own mother), meeting up with that child 20-odd years later (and “realising” he was no longer an infant), his problems preventing him becoming part of our family, and then for him to die angry and alone. Regardless of the diagnosis and discovery of the root of her issues, therapy was not something she wanted to do and she stopped going at the first opportunity, and hasn’t been back since.

Shortly after this is when she tried to kill herself. To hear her recount it, she got up in the middle of the night to raid the fridge (something she and her brother have done since they were kids), discovered there was no leftover cooked meat, so raided the medicine cabinet instead. Simple as that. She wasn’t even aware she was doing it.

So a psychiatrist and her doctor have been working on medication combinations and, although she has tried to give up smoking and drinking a few times, she is back on both. Since then, my father and sister have played tag-team to ensure she’s not left alone when the sun is down. I can’t help: I live 9,000 miles away.

The doctors said the suicide attempt was due to a change in medication. You hear stories of antidepressants driving people to zombie-like attempts at suicide and that the person doesn’t remember it (if they survive), and this seems to have been one of those cases. Apparently it happens. To your mother and mine. In 2009.

With the latest incident, it’s fantastic that my mother had enough self-awareness to realise something was wrong and headed to the hospital to get it rectified. It turns out that two of her medications were cancelling each other out as she become accustomed to one of them. Left unchecked it would almost certainly have led to another medicine cabinet raid, or similar.

It’s the 21 century and this is happening all around the world, in affluent countries, in people you would think have good lives. How has this come about? Even if it is a genuine reaction to trauma, grief, brain chemical imbalance or mixed/ineffective medication, it’s been 40 years since mankind walked on the moon, we spend trillions fighting people to decide whose imaginary friend is best, and yet we still have people in zombie states trying to kill themselves.

This is my mother for fuck’s sake.

Welcome to Reality

4 May 2009 Comments off

I’d like to start this post with a welcome to those who have found me via The Global Atheist, and to pass my thanks to Doug for adding me to the aggregator. He seemed to find something interesting in my ramblings (and this is one of them), so I hope you do, too. Fingers crossed?

This weekend I attended the marriage of a friend and work colleague near the ancient and amazingly beautiful city of Bath, in south-western England. He is most definitely what many term a New Atheist and his lovely wife is most definitely an evangelical Christian. It makes for some interesting conversations and — as they are both mature, intelligent people — it will mean that they’re never stuck for conversation when a storm knocks out the power. It may also explain why the wedding took place at a beautiful old hotel in a picturesque rural setting, rather than in a church. I felt honoured to have been invited to the actual ceremony, rather than just the reception in the evening — though when invited, I did jokingly ask who had pulled out at the last minute…

Of course all the extended family were in attendance — many of whom were continental Europeans and antipodean, mostly from the bride’s side of the family — so many had at least crossed the Channel to get here, while others had crossed the equator. Parents, step-parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles — the usual suspects. It made for a marvellously diverse experience with people from various walks of life all united for the common purpose of wishing the Bride and Groom the very best on their promises to each other and themselves. It was, of course, a beautiful day.

It was while sitting down to the post-wedding meal in the early afternoon that I struck up a conversation with a young couple to my left and an older man to my right and — as is probably natural at such occasions — the topic gradually turned to the greater meaning of the day’s ceremony and all three turned out to be remarkably naturalistic in their view of the event. The consensus between we four was that the underlying importance or motivation of the marriage ceremony is predominately to add some kind of “ultimate seal” to the event, to help the newly-obligated couple understand that they have made a promise to one another in the presence of their loved ones and that it’s not something to be taken lightly. I, like everyone else there, hope they have the maturity, flexibility and friendship to grow old together happily.

Later in the evening I was chatting with the same couple and we chatted more about secular world views, and they seemed interested in my views. We discussed the basics of secular humanism, secularism and the problem of religious privilege, soft/weak atheism and its contrast to strong/hard atheism (often characterised as intolerant of religion), the logical reasoning for admitting ignorance as opposed to declaring a position, and so on.

So it took me completely by surprise when he took out a notebook and asked me for a list of books that I’d recommend. After plenty of Guinness — and through the loud music and flashing lights filtering from the next room — this is what I came up with:

  • The Demon Haunted World [Amazon|UK] by Carl Sagan. The man is my hero, what can I say? The book presents his genuinely compassionate view of supernaturalism and what it’s meant to mankind.
  • Anything and everything else by Carl Sagan — including Contact [Amazon|UK] and especially the Cosmos [Amazon|UK] TV series. All his and Ann Druyan‘s works share the same compassionate, understanding view of the world.
  • God is Not Great [Amazon|UK] by Christopher Hitchens. He may be one of the founders of New Atheism as one of The Four Horseman, hold political views that swing as wildly as a large grandfather clock, and get himself beaten up for insulting thugs on their own turf (and here), but the man is undoubtedly one of the best thinkers of our time. That all of his opinions don’t agree with your own is a good thing — I don’t want to read someone whose words I agree from start to finish, as there’s no critical thinking in that.
  • The God Delusion [Amazon|UK] by Richard Dawkins. Many religious people consider this worse than Anton LaVey’s contentious work, The Satanic Bible, but I suspect that’s because the former uses provable facts to justify itself and makes absolutely no room for dogma.
  • The Selfish Gene [Amazon|UK] by Richard Dawkins. It may be a little hard going on the majority of us who are “bioscience-challenged,” but it is a classic piece of work that helps illustrate how un-you you actually are. Helps put things into perspective when your ego wants to insist that You Are Special — and perhaps you are… just like everyone else.
  • The Culture series of novels by Iain M. Banks — I started with Look to Windward [Amazon|UK]. I’m only a few books into the series, but I find it fascinating.
  • 1984 [Amazon|UK] by George Orwell. I read this in the year it was set, at the age of 12, and it changed me forever.
  • Watchmen [Amazon|UK] by Alan Moore. It shows that even bad people have redeeming qualities and good people have damning qualities, stripping the infantile false dichotomy of Good and Evil People. But of course without such flawed thinking we can’t possibly justify war and capital punishment, so it remains as valid today as ever before.
  • 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God [Amazon|UK] by Guy P. Harrison. I’m reading this at the moment, and it’s brilliant.
  • The websites of the following organisations:
  • There are also the podcasts and vodcasts listed via the link at the top of the page.

Last but not least, have a read of the Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles:

  • We are committed to the application of reason and science to the understanding of the universe and to the solving of human problems.
  • We deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence, to seek to explain the world in supernatural terms, and to look outside nature for salvation.
  • We believe that scientific discovery and technology can contribute to the betterment of human life.
  • We believe in an open and pluralistic society and that democracy is the best guarantee of protecting human rights from authoritarian elites and repressive majorities.
  • We are committed to the principle of the separation of church and state.
  • We cultivate the arts of negotiation and compromise as a means of resolving differences and achieving mutual understanding.
  • We are concerned with securing justice and fairness in society and with eliminating discrimination and intolerance.
  • We believe in supporting the disadvantaged and the handicapped so that they will be able to help themselves.
  • We attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, and strive to work together for the common good of humanity.
  • We want to protect and enhance the earth, to preserve it for future generations, and to avoid inflicting needless suffering on other species.
  • We believe in enjoying life here and now and in developing our creative talents to their fullest.
  • We believe in the cultivation of moral excellence.
  • We respect the right to privacy. Mature adults should be allowed to fulfill their aspirations, to express their sexual preferences, to exercise reproductive freedom, to have access to comprehensive and informed health-care, and to die with dignity.
  • We believe in the common moral decencies: altruism, integrity, honesty, truthfulness, responsibility. Humanist ethics is amenable to critical, rational guidance. There are normative standards that we discover together. Moral principles are tested by their consequences.
  • We are deeply concerned with the moral education of our children. We want to nourish reason and compassion.
  • We are engaged by the arts no less than by the sciences.
  • We are citizens of the universe and are excited by discoveries still to be made in the cosmos.
  • We are skeptical of untested claims to knowledge, and we are open to novel ideas and seek new departures in our thinking.
  • We affirm humanism as a realistic alternative to theologies of despair and ideologies of violence and as a source of rich personal significance and genuine satisfaction in the service to others.
  • We believe in optimism rather than pessimism, hope rather than despair, learning in the place of dogma, truth instead of ignorance, joy rather than guilt or sin, tolerance in the place of fear, love instead of hatred, compassion over selfishness, beauty instead of ugliness, and reason rather than blind faith or irrationality.
  • We believe in the fullest realization of the best and noblest that we are capable of as human beings.

I expect some atheists — and of course theists and deists who find their way here — will disagree with what I’ve said, both in this post and previous ones (please feel free to read through the archive), but I cannot reconcile the concept of belief, or even emphatic or ardent disbelief, with logical reality. While at university some of my peers jokingly nicknamed me Data — the android from Star Trek: The Next Generation — and I then (as now) considered it a sideways compliment, as the character was all about logic and intellectual honesty, and that series of Star Trek was the poster-child of and introduction to the concepts of humanism for millions of people. Sure, I have countless flaws in every aspect of my life, but I try to improve this blink of existence called my life and to help others (and nature) where I can. And I think that’s all any of us can really do.

But I do what I do for humanity, not to try to earn a place in an afterlife. That is, I think, what humanism is all about.

So much to learn – so little time

5 March 2009 Comments off

Last month saw me decide to return to university study, as there are so many subjects that interest me that I could either have a hobby of “life”, and spend all my spare time sifting through much of what is available on the Internet, or instead focus my interests on targetted and effective learning. So I’ve chosen the latter, in the form of The Open University‘s Open Degree programme.

Strangely, the Open Degree is a qualification of which most people seem to be completely unaware. Within a few constraints and requirements, it is effectively a roll-your-own Bachelor’s degree in Arts or Science. You can begin the process without actually choosing to enrol in the programme, instead just doing individual units (courses) that you decide to allocate at a later date, and then choose whether you want a BA (Open) or BSc (Open) or, and this is something that makes it very appealing to me at least, you can select a named degree (e.g. BSc (Computing)) if you decide after some study that you do wish to specialise in something. Another advantage is that, aside from the occasional course expiring, being replaced, or having some time restrictions (some finance, medicine, etc, courses), there is no time limit on when you must complete all your study. 20 years to complete? No problems.

It’s with all this in mind that I’ve decided to take up the torch and study a degree of topics that interest me. Such things include, but most certainly aren’t limited to (nor in any particular order): astronomy, archaeology, history, philosophy, art & art history, forensic science, languages, environmental science, classical studies, mathematics, evolutionary biology, ethics, creative writing, literature, political use of the media, and a few work-related topics. I also hope to be able to develop my critical thinking skills during the process.

One of my Twitter friends calls me a Renaissance man, and I suspect he’s referring to the breadth of my interests and the sense of urgency to cram as much experiential knowledge in my head as I can while I can. That is, a polymath — like Pythagoras, Aristotle, Da Vinci, or Benjamin Franklin — as opposed to the protagonist in the film of the same name. I choose the former option, if you don’t mind…

Categories: background Tags: ,

A lot can happen in 20 years – Part 8

30 January 2009 Comments off

This follows on from Part 7.

As mentioned in Part 1, I realised that it’s exactly 20 years since I entered the full-time workforce, and a lot can happen in that time, so thought I’d share my road to reason. This is the final part.

While I can understand how religion appeals to those seeking absolute certainty, there is no proof of any given religion’s validity beyond its own self-referential written text and its adherents. And there are countless religions with their own texts and followers, each claiming to be the truth, and many of them damn non-followers to their own version of hell as punishment for not making a choice in their favour. So a failure to choose correctly, when there is so much confusion and noise all around, religiously speaking, will result in an eternity of torture and brutality. And you call that a caring, just god? I don’t think so.

A book that has “This is the truth” written in it doesn’t make it true. Billions of people claiming that a book is true doesn’t make it true. Even if we might want them to be true.

That’s not to say that all religions are definitely false and that there are definitely no gods — that would be both hubris and an unsubstantiatable belief — but rather there is no irrefutable evidence in favour of them. Welcome to uncertainty: mind your step…

In case someone wishes to raise the question of whether I can afford to take the risk where eternal damnation is the cost, I would simply point to Bertrand Russell’s famous teapot. Just because something can be imagined and the concept of an after-life (with eternal punishment) can also be conceived for it, it doesn’t mean that it exists or that is should be followed. Otherwise, where would it end? Roman pantheism – haven’t we already tried that…?

As I see it, there is no proof or evidence of a god that doesn’t include something like:

These are all logical fallacies that prove nothing. Not a sausage. Nada. Zip.

It is for these reasons, founded in actual experience and investigation, that I confidently and unequivocally declare… that nothing is certain. (Anticlimax?) After all, it’s the only truly neutral judgement. All the odds (and evidence so far) are that we created all these gods in our own image and they are mere fantasy or perhaps projections of our own desires, hopes, prejudices, greed, or possibly a coping mechanism for the fears we had when cowering in the caves while thunderstorms raged outside or volcanoes erupted. But perhaps not. To state otherwise would be belief, and that’s a voluntary shackle I’ve chosen to undo.

It brings me to the definition of atheist (with a little ‘a’) from my first post. As I see it, the only neutral position is one that mirrors that point in our lives before our family, friends or teachers impressed (cynics might say infected) the unseen and unempirical upon us. So a-theism means the absence of theism (supernatural belief). Simpler days indeed.

For many atheists like myself, however, it is not enough simply to eschew supernatural thoughts and superstitions, but also the millennia of religiously-inspired rules, laws, beliefs, restrictions and horrors forced upon mankind for no other reason than they appear in one or another translations of that nation’s or continent’s holy book, and they kept its leaders in the lap of luxury. It’s very easy to point to things such as schools, hospitals and charities run in the name of a god, but it’s more distasteful pointing to the slavery, torture, rape, genital mutilation, oppression (race, class and gender), genocide, conquests, and wars that are all happening this very day in the name of any given god and his book. It’s deplorable and shameful.

So a step beyond simply divorcing oneself from such… taint is to look at ways of living that do not involve Stone Age edicts meant to keep superstitious nomadic desert tribes alive in this scientific, largely urban, modern world.

Enter Secular Humanism, a non-theistic system or philosophy of looking at and living in the world with reason, ethics and morality foremost, and without the irrelevant encumbrances of religious or supernatural thoughts or beliefs. It’s about being good and striving for goodness, justness, and morality for its own sake and for your fellow human, not because your fear hellfire or damnation. (Would you really do awful things if you weren’t afraid of a god or eternal punishment? What kind of person does that make you?) And it’s beautifully liberating — you can be a good person and knowing you’re doing it because you can and want to, not because it’ll go into some imaginary ledger for use against you in some Miltonian judgement.

There is enough beauty and majesty, cruelty and suffering in the world. Why do we insist on wishing for more of the former by creating more of the latter?

Instead, perhaps we should marvel in what we have with those we love for whatever time we may have.

A lot can happen in 20 years – Part 7

27 January 2009 Comments off

This follows on from Part 6.

As mentioned in Part 1, I realised that it’s exactly 20 years since I entered the full-time workforce, and a lot can happen in that time, so thought I’d share my road to reason. This is a continuation.

Muslims are taught to pray 5 times per day — always facing towards the Ka’aba, the ornate black cube-shaped structure (satellite map) in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in which is contained the fabled Black Stone — at various offsets of the rising and setting sun. The times vary based upon the seasons and latitude, but typically take place before sunrise, around noon, mid-afternoon, early-evening and late-evening. The higher the latitude, the more these times vary: for example, in London these times are (shows the variation for each prayer over the year):

  • 02:30-06:00 – Fajr
  • 11:45-13:00 – Dhuhr
  • 13:30-17:30 – Asr
  • 15:45-21:30 – Maghrib
  • 17:45-23:30 – Isha

This is because the sun rises and sets at quite a varied range of times throughout the year (ignoring the different ways used to calculate sunrise and sunset, which itself is controversial in Islam), again using London as an example:

  • 04:45-08:00 – sunrise
  • 15:54-21:30 – sunset

It gets worse at even more polar latitudes, at its extreme resulting in the midnight sun, which makes literal adherence to any schedule based on sunrise and sunset an impossibility. The prayer system does not seem to have been designed with all of the world in mind, apparently favouring more equatorial locations.

Praying at the required time and in the correct direction (the Qibla) is a relatively simple task in some locations on earth (both in terms of latitude and culture), but in some locations at some times of the year it can mean waking up twice in the night to pray. This is aside from the day’s normal tasks (such as commuting, working, classes, recreation time, etc) during which Muslims are expected to stop to pray — which you see in many Muslim countries, with even bus and lorry drivers pulling over on the roadside to pray. Various Islamic societies and groups have different ways of dealing with this problem: some do them all exactly when required, some have a window of time, others skip one or two (sometimes “making them up” later in the day), and some groups “stack” their prayers and do them all at the beginning or end of the day. I have met Muslims from all over the world for whom each of these is permitted in their culture, though the ruling used in the mosque I was visiting was the window method: if a prayer was meant for 13:00, you could pray that prayer from something like 12:00-14:00 and it would still be “valid”.

There is a strong concept of valid/invalid in Muslim actions, suggesting that an act of devotion to god would either be accepted or rejected by god based upon the validity of your actions, the way you did it and in what circumstances. One example is that it is forbidden to pray in any room that has a toilet in it (e.g. large bathroom, jail cell), and some groups think prayer is invalid if there is a toilet between you and the Ka’aba (e.g. if you are facing Mecca and the toilet is in an adjacent room in front of you) — to do this would make that prayer invalid. This, and the black-and-white concepts of haram (forbidden) and halal (permitted) have meant that Islamic jurisprudence is a big deal, with these scholars issuing fatawa (non-binding religious opinions, though often treated as a requirement if it suits — the 1988 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, for example) on whether an action is permitted or forbidden. It is effectively deciding whether god considers it a sin or not, in much the same way that the Catholic Pope has done throughout history. Since the end of the last Caliphate in the 1920’s there are now many such scholars in Islam, though this cannot be a unique criticism, as this is comparable to Protestantism — also without a central authority or head — where each church’s leader (minister, pastor, father, priest, etc) acts in the same capacity, declaring this or that a sin under god. Probably because of this, both have the same problems of fragmentation, isolationism, and a easier tendency to extremes of belief, interpretation and opinion. The religious component of American politics is one such example.

All Abrahamic religions have a holy day each week, and Islam is no different. While attendance at mosque for prayers is preferred/ideal whenever possible, and in practice many even devout Muslims are lucky to manage two visits a day, attendance at Friday’s midday prayer, Jumu’ah, is considered almost compulsory (it is mandatory in some places). Jumu’ah is similar to the other mosque attendance throughout the week, except it includes a story or lesson from the Qur’an by the prayer leader, and is the closest thing to a sermon in Islam. This communal prayer is also a way to ensure that the Ummah are together at least once a week, and furthers the bonds of friendship and brotherhood.

While I can fully appreciate why Muslims value their community so highly, as it really does provide a sense of belonging that is more universal than other religions I’ve seen and experienced, it suffers from a number of problems — some of which are shared with other religions and others that may be unique to Islam. The absence of a central authority — the Caliph — is a new problem for Islam as it has always had one in the past to unify and prevent splinter groups forming, but since the Caliphate’s demise I think it is unlikely to ever be replaced as in the presence of any power vacuum, many self-appointed authorities have now stepped up in its place often with vastly different agendas, interpretations and priorities, and I can’t see how they will all voluntarily bow down to one leader, regardless of how regular and orthodox his election might be. Also, a large portion of the Islamic world lives in areas of strife and war that, whether or not the strife is religious in origin or not, has polarised its inhabitants into believing it is a religious struggle — and the Qur’an speaks quite a bit about religi
ous struggles, and the call to and justifications of jihad. This fallacy provides an opportunity for agenda-driven self-appointed leaders to steer people to suit their own ends.

There are other issues on which I could elaborate, but the final, undeniable stumbling block is again the beliefs and dogmas. As with Christianity, this too has its requirement of belief in a god and its attendant dogmas and practices, along with quite extreme punishments should any member decide to enact them, with only its text and adherents as proof of its truth. For many that is more than enough.

Continued in Part 8.

A lot can happen in 20 years – Part 6

25 January 2009 Comments off

This follows on from Part 5.

As mentioned in Part 1, I realised that it’s exactly 20 years since I entered the full-time workforce, and a lot can happen in that time, so thought I’d share my road to reason. This is a continuation.

Having had my fill of what could probably be considered the traditional religion of the “white western world”, Christianity, and living in the UK (that contains a large immigrant population from outside that region), it seemed natural to look into one of the world’s other dominant religions, Islam. Up to 2 billion people follow or were born into it, and many reports say that it is growing in popularity, and may even be the world’s fastest growing religion.

Before reading on, note that all words in Islam are Arabic, as Muslims believe Arabic is the only language in which their holy book can be read or understood (perhaps even so far as to believe that “Arabic is the language of god”). All translations are considered merely guides, which is why translations of the Qur’an are always have the title prefixed with The Meaning of… In addition, transliterations of Arabic words can be spelled various ways — my understanding is that there is no ‘correct’ way to spell them outside of the Arabic character set: hence Islam, Islaam, Muhammed, Mohamed, Mohammed, Mahomet, Qur’an, Quraan, Koran, Muslim, Moslem, etc.

Islam is seen by Muslims to be the third and last in the line of Abrahamic religions, that is a monotheistic religion with Abraham as its original prophet. Contrary to what most right-wing people or extremist members of each religion will say, all three of these religions worship exactly the same god: the god of the Jewish prophets Abraham, Noah, Moses and Jesus. All three originated in a small area of the Middle East and have essentially the same roots, regardless of whatever branding and localisation may have happened where you live. The most obvious differences between the three religions are what they call their god, what level of importance they place on notable people in their holy books, and who they consider to be their authoritative prophet. Muslims believe that Muhammed is the last and greatest prophet of the Abrahamic god, whom they call Allah. Allah is simply the transliterated Arabic word al-Lah, meaning “the (only, one) god.” To make that perfectly clear: Allah is literally the Arabic word God — not actually a name. They do not believe that Muhammed (often simply referred to as The Prophet) was divine, though many critics seem unable to discern a difference between the Islamic treatment of Muhammed and the Christian treatment of Jesus.

It was not my intention to convert to Islam, though I did want to give it the attention to detail and respect that it deserved, so I observed many of the rules of the religion — to the consternation of some of my family and friends.

I began my exploration of Islam via the Islam Channel on TV, the Internet (which can be a minfield, as with all topics that polarise beliefs and opinions), and an Islamic centre not far from where I work. This centre and an Islamic Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel (or ‘chatroom’) would enable me to talk with Muslims, to learn and to get an idea of the varying opinions, sects and beliefs. On IRC I quickly found people who ranged from mature, moderate live-and-let-live responsible global citizens to angry young men (and women) screaming for jihad against the West with every breath. These people ranged from 3rd generation Americans and British citizens through to people sitting in Internet cafes in war zones. Putting up your hand in such an environment to say that you’re a white Anglo-Saxon, and not a Muslim, always gets a variety of reactions: some will immediately seek retribution (expulsion from the channel, attacking your computer, verbal abuse and threats, etc), many will raise an eyebrow but continue on as normal, and a few will be happy for the change of perspective. For the most part, once I’d been there for a couple of hours nobody asked who I was, and I was able to have interesting and meaningful conversations with a number of people. No pretending or lying was required on my part.

A few weeks into my online experiences — which also included reading numerous websites, online web forums, and a PDF copy of the Qur’an — I decided to visit the nearby Islamic centre which was open one evening per week. They were attached to a local mosque — both taking up 2-3 shops in a small strip mall — and the centre was manned by two Pakistani friends who felt it their duty to reach out to the wider community, in much the same way Christian churches sometimes do, by providing a drop-in and information centre for those who were curious. On my first visit I was struck by the difference in appearance of the two men, particularly as the UK seems to consist mainly of a fundamentalist version of Islam (which includes uncut facial hair and traditional clothes, among other things), as one had some of the typical appearance of what I had seen on TV and the other was wearing western clothes and was cleanly shaven; the former was a medical writer and the latter a school teacher. The centre itself took up one of the shops and had a glass front, school desks and chairs set up in a square in the middle, a few armchairs in one corner, and shelves on the walls with Islamic books, CDs, bookmarks, posters, and the usual kinds of things you find in a religious bookshop.

Over the next few months I visited the centre periodically, and then started going into the mosque during prayer times as the evening prayer began when I was there, so I took the opportunity to watch exactly what went on. Eventually I started to take part in the prayers, and found the process quite complicated with the movements changing depending upon which prayer you were doing, it had to be in formation with the other people there, and there were words to learn that had to be mouthed quietly throughout the prayer. Regardless of the political opinions that I knew some of the members had (I spoke with some of them before/after prayers), every single person there made me feel welcome, even though I was the only white person in the building. There was no sense of not belonging, no hint of malice, no racial awareness — each person treated me as a brother, no matter whether they spoke English or not (many didn’t). There’s a lot to be said for that sense of family, and I can see how it binds good people and bad people, and provides that global sense of community, the Ummah.

Continued in Part 7.

A lot can happen in 20 years – Part 5

22 January 2009 Comments off

This follows on from Part 4.

As mentioned in Part 1, I realised that it’s exactly 20 years since I entered the full-time workforce, and a lot can happen in that time, so thought I’d share my road to reason. This is a continuation.

Upon coming to a decision about Buddhism, I then chose to examine an aspect of Christianity that had I no experience of: the Religious Society of Friends (or Quakers). They seemed to be non-existent where I grew up, so it wasn’t until I moved to the UK that I learned more about them in passing, and eventually decided to investigate them in greater depth. My understanding is that the Quakers in the UK are notably different from those in the US — my friends there speak of Quakers there as if they are fundamentalist or fire-and-brimstone organisation, which is nothing like the Quakers I’ve come across here.

In the UK they meet in a Friends Meeting House (a church by any other name, but usually without many of the trappings) with the chairs arranged in a rough circle so that everyone can see one another, and the meeting consists of everyone sitting in silence. There is no preaching, no sermon, no tub-thumping, no agenda being cast down from the pulpit — just people sitting and quietly reflecting. It remains this way until someone feels moved to speak, at which point they will stand and calmly say their piece, then resume their seat; later on someone else may feel moved to speak (sometimes in response, sometimes not), and this continues until the meeting finishes. Once finished, everyone stands and shakes one another’s hands with a smile, and then everyone retreats to the canteen/dining area where everyone shares lunch, with most people having brought a plate of food to share.

With the exception of one meeting where a member clearly felt strongly about his son being sent to war and subsequently feeling moved to speak out against it (followed by another member gently providing Biblical platitudes, resulting in the same man feeling moved to speak out again against his son’s predicament, and so on), which drove home the unfortunate nature of the concept of “being moved to speak”, all of my attendances at Quakers meetings were delightful. Regardless of such instances of emotion-driven speeches, it is a truly welcoming and peaceful environment. In fact, one of the members of the same local Buddhist group I once attended is a regular attender at the Quaker meetings — they are so welcoming that one does not even have to profess Christianity (or indicate that you’re willing to “sign up”) to attend and be truly welcome, unlike every other religious organisation I’ve ever attended, before or since.

My experience with the Quakers showed that they are as much, if not more, about community and spirituality than religion and dogma, and those are attributes that I’m sure anyone can respect, admire and appreciate. However, they are prey to the same faults as other Christian groups: the adherence to the Bible as infallible, the belief in God/Jesus/Holy Spirit (the Trinity), and to the belief in the concept of “being moved” to speak. My biggest concerns were that nearly all such motions were from the speaker’s personal life or recent headline news. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to fathom that the source is mundane, not divine.

Continued in Part 6.

A lot can happen in 20 years – Part 4

18 January 2009 Comments off

This follows on from Part 3.

As mentioned in Part 1, I realised that it’s exactly 20 years since I entered the full-time workforce, and a lot can happen in that time, so thought I’d share my road to reason. This is a continuation.

The next 8 years or so saw me maintain at least a passing interest in religion, but it became more generalised to include the breadth of what I considered to be global wisdom. I gradually came to call myself an agnostic over this period, losing all of the “fear” beliefs surrounding fundamentalist Christianity (the whole You’ll go to hell if you do/don’t… thing), and it played less of a role as other matters in my life took precedence: university, career establishment, buying a house, moving across the country, moving overseas, etc.

It was a few years after I moved to the UK that I regained an interest in religion — not necessarily from an “I need religion…” viewpoint, but rather to explore it with more academic interest and to re-assess its part in my life, if at all. I realise that it’s glib to say “we’re all going to hell because we’re all heretics to someone’s religion”, but another way of looking at that is to think that many of the world’s old religions had at least kernels of truth. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are perhaps unique in that essentially they share a common origin — the Pentateuch (or Torah) — and some other world religions are based upon other religions or cultural legends. While the Mithraic legend and Horus history are probably the most obvious for Christians, I chose to look at other religions rather than stick with the Judeo-Christian theme with which I had more than a passing familiarity.

As I wasn’t “looking for god”, I looked at Buddhism and, in particular, Theravada (also called Orthodox). It is the oldest of the main variants of Buddhism today (Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana) and is the only natively non-theistic variant, and therefore an excellent candidate for a life philosophy. There is no deity, rather deference and respect for Gautama Buddha, the person who is believed to have discovered enlightenment and shared it with others. To this end, I read a great deal, become involved with the national Buddhist Society, regularly attended a local Buddhist group’s meetings, and even spent a day at a monastery, 30 miles outside London, to learn the various forms and modes of meditation. I still regard that day as one of the most peaceful and relaxing of my life, if for no other reason than we seldom take the chance to genuinely switch off from our thoughts, concerns, desires, greed, insecurities, aspirations, fears and dozens of other mental hamster wheels.

My experience with and study of Buddhism was a fascinating and peaceful experience — and I still occasionally make use of anapanasati meditation to relax myself — though as with my prior experience, there were dogmas, beliefs and practices that were clearly not real or applicable in a world outside a monastery. Part of this is, I suppose, a problem that afflicts many monastic people who deal with people who live in the real world (to do with relationships, business, time spent, etc), but the parts that bothered were to do with genuflecting towards statues of Buddha (it seemed the same as praying to a deity) as well as their viewpoint on suffering. The concept of the ending of needless suffering — euthanasing even a pet, for example — were alien, as pain is a part of life and is to be accepted. It wasn’t just those points, but it pointed out to me that this was not an entirely rational community.

I have not spoken about the other core variants of Buddhism, as I feel unqualified to do so, suffice to say that my understanding is that Mahayana — from which oriental Buddhism and variants originates — allows for the godhood of Buddha or Buddhas, as some revere more than one, and Vajrayana (Tibetan) includes aspects that are shamanic and involve magic and other superstitions. While I am not attempting to denigrate these variants, these points do show why I chose Theravada. It allowed for a thorough examination of a philosophy without the distractions of deities and such.

Continued in Part 5.

A lot can happen in 20 years – Part 3

15 January 2009 Comments off

This follows on from Part 2.

As mentioned in Part 1, I realised that it’s exactly 20 years since I entered the full-time workforce, and a lot can happen in that time, so thought I’d share my road to reason. This is a continuation.

It astonishes me to this day that this kind of surgical excision of my entire life could have happened. This elder and his wife had lied to everyone, peers my age had simply accepted it without question, and none thought to contact me — even on the side, just in case (or to wish me well). I could just have easily contacted any or all of them, but that would have misses the point of my choice to stop making contact.

It wasn’t the appalling behaviour of some of the people I’ve mentioned that has made me “hate God”, as is the common accusation levelled against atheists. I don’t hate God or even the concept of a god. It’s far too easy for our black and white views of the world — particularly in areas of high emotion, usually around the age old controversies of origin, religion, race, creed, politics and gender — to encourage us to pigeon-hole one another. Theists and atheists are often equally to blame, as it’s due to the logical fallacy of False Dichotomy (or Excluded Middle) which completely excludes the middle ground that nearly always exists. It’s what governments, leaders, politicians and advertising companies use against us on a daily basis and is quite likely to be a natural tendency (the same goes the truth of “sex sells”), so it takes thought and reason to both see and avoid.

So once I realised how things stood with the church congregation — my “loving family” and community — I ceased all religious activity. It wasn’t only because of the hurt and shock, as I was then unaware of what the elders had done on my departure, but rather because I felt as though my eyes had been opened and I was finally able to examine the previous 3-4 years of my life and the material, dogma and beliefs that had been accrued. And it was staggering. I did not consider myself an atheist at that point, in fact at that time I still consider myself a Christian, albeit non-practising. This examination included taking stock of the beliefs, policies, behaviours and dogmas of the churches I had attended, the contents of the Bible (particularly the sections chosen, those used as justifications, and those specifically ignored), and of course soul-searching my own beliefs now that I was out of the self-reinforcing environment of a congregation.

Outside of the community, it’s amazing how much time you have to think and, while you may not have someone to immediately seek advice or answers from, that is not necessarily a bad thing. There is, after all, often a difference between a fact and the party line (and that doesn’t just apply to religion). Until leaving I had mainly received the party line or an on-the-spot made up answer based upon the teachings of the party line… and it usually differed from even the written word in the Bible. Such is the nature of interpretive preaching and cherry-picking.

Continued in Part 4.

A lot can happen in 20 years – Part 2

11 January 2009 Comments off

This follows on from Part 1.

As mentioned in Part 1, I realised that it’s exactly 20 years since I entered the full-time workforce, and a lot can happen in that time, so thought I’d share my road to reason.

I was welcomed into this new church with open arms, possibly because of attendance crossover between churches, and over time I found myself with more and more responsibility, leading the youth group band, singing in the choir, mentoring new youth group members and younger church members, providing general counselling or advice to those who asked for it, and eventually I began attending bible college with the intention of becoming a qualified pastor. At this point I was doing 3 evenings per week plus at least a day per weekend: this was a serious commitment.

It was at bible college that I began thinking critically, which quickly led to a number of questions (not the least was why hadn’t I done so sooner, but that’s another topic). I brought these questions to the people training me and received insufficient responses, ranging from outright dogma and answers made up on the spot right through to outright hostility. Not receiving the answers I needed — and with some alarm bells dully beginning to ring — I brought my questions to the church elders and pastors, believing them capable of answering difficult questions without the brimstone zealotry, but I received the same kinds of responses. Rather than make a bad situation worse, I put those questions away and continued with my studies, which of course led to more questions. In a short time I found myself gradually being firewalled away from my responsibilities within the church: another person would take over youth mentoring, the youth group needed a change of band and leader “to inject new fire”, an elder’s wife really wanted a position in the choir so would I mind being a gentleman (of course, it could have been my voice), the youth group were given a timely reminder only to spend time with people who were edifying and “at peace with the Lord”, and so on. Eventually I was asked to stop attending bible college, too.

In a combined state of incredulity and despair, sometime in 1992 (aged 20), I decided to stop attending everything and watch what happened. The vast majority of my friends — indeed my closest friends — were members, so I had no doubt whatsoever that I’d hear of events through them. To my utter astonishment, nobody ever contacted me again — not even my friends. It was as if I had ceased to exist.

It wasn’t until 1998 that I happened to meet one of my friends from that time (coincidentally the daughter of one of the church’s senior elders) on the bus and we chatted. Naturally those events came up in conversation and she told me that her parents had advised her and the church that I had moved to another church in another town and wanted to make a clean break of it, requesting that nobody try to contact me. These upstanding church elders had stood up and lied to their children and the entire congregation (addressing them all because of “my” unusual but specific wishes), effectively excommunicating me in a way that would minimise any rational fallout upon the members.

Continued in Part 3.