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Unintended consequences on holy days

August 30, 2010 Comments off

Flickr CC-BY mikecattell

Today is a holiday in England and Wales called the Summer Bank Holiday, not a religious one, best known here for being the last holiday before Christmas, the weekend of the Reading Music Festival, and is, in a way, the start of the end of summer.

With the religious origin of many holidays in mind, it was with interest that I read today’s article in Center For Inquiry by Reba Boyd Wooden, where she talks about how holy days meant to bring communities together often seem to have the exact opposite effect, driving a wedge between sects of the same faith. Some points from the article are the differences in subjects and tone fired from the pulpit by different Christian ‘denominations’, and that good people in religion can and would be good even in the absence of their religion.

After all, religion does not make you a good person any more than standing in a garage makes you a car. Surely being good for its own sake is its own reward?

Here’s a partial quote from Reba’s article:

The… minister preached a lot about heaven and hell and said that death is “precious.” … [Was] death “precious” for my nephew and my niece’s husband who died recently in their forties — one leaving two teenage sons?

Here’s the rest of the article: Theology and Ritual Divide Neighbors on Holy Days

Categories: atheism Tags: , ,

Stand up and be counted: it’s ‘A’ Week on Facebook!

March 28, 2010 Comments off

Many people who either cannot see evidence for the existence of gods or are convinced that gods do not exist (there’s a difference) keep to themselves and never speak of it, watching in bemusement as their loved ones structure their twenty-first century lives according to the words of pre-scientific Bronze Age nomads and shepherds.

Or perhaps they haven’t given much thought to their position on the supernatural — or are frightened for one reason or another — so when asked their beliefs, they’ll write or say the same thing as their family. In some cases this can be an act of self-preservation, as much of the world does not enjoy religious freedom (yet) and can be punished severely. However, for most in the West this normally revolves around our relationships with family, friends and colleagues.

Wherever you live, the unfortunate result of this passive acquiescence is that governments and organisations with a strong religious ideology are then able to claim that the percentage of religious believers is far higher than is actually true (this can be skewed further by families with a domineering religious parent, or parents who take their babies to be christened or equivalent). Religious Tolerance states that, as of 2000, one-third of the world’s population is Christian, 19.6% is Muslim, 13.4% is Hindu, 12.7% are non-religious, and has atheism at 2.5%. They state that non-religious includes those with “no formal, organized religion include agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, secularists, etc” but clearly consider atheists to be a separate category. I think this is misguided at best — I consider myself a Secular Humanist (i.e. humanist), which is very much an atheist world view. One could also say that non-theists (i.e. all those without religion) are 15.2% of the world population, and thus the third-largest group, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate, either.

So with all these statistical fun and games taking place from the school classroom to the highest seats of government power, isn’t it time we stood up to be counted?

Funny you should ask! Next week is the start of the ‘A’ Week on Facebook campaign (29 March to 6 April, 2010), hence the scarlet letter ‘A’ image at the top of this post. From the campaign’s front page:

Good without God? Imagine Facebook with ‘A’s all across the site showing the world is full of people who are ‘good without God‘ and don’t need religion to influence their lives. Imagine the awareness we can raise during ‘A’ Week On Facebook if 1,000s of people take part. Imagine… you can be a part of making a difference…

Details on how to go about joining this campaign can be found at its website:

‘A’ Week on Facebook

Simply follow the recommended steps, then you’re good to go!

In the past I’ve been reticent to connect myself with groups such as the Out Campaign, as I consider many of them to be too aggressive to otherwise normal people who just happen to believe in a sky fairy. However, in this case I think the value of a worldwide Facebook atheist awareness campaign outweighs any differences I may have. So those who know me on Facebook can see that my profile picture is now showing the scarlet letter in support of the campaign.

Perhaps this will put paid to the oft-quoted fallacy that atheists are a tiny but vocal minority.

I hope you’ll consider joining the campaign, and look forward to a week of increasing the general public’s awareness of atheists and atheism by showing that:

  • It’s okay to be atheist
  • It’s okay to let others know you’re atheist
  • We’re not all aggressive iconoclasts
  • We don’t hate everyone
  • We’re not all “angry at God” or “punishing God” for something
  • Not all of us reached this point after a traumatic event
  • Not all of us insist your unexplained events are hallucination or mental illness

For most of us, atheism is simply a logical process held up to the light and examined critically.

Because of “the medication”?

December 3, 2009 Comments off

image: freeimages.co.ukThis 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.

The excruciating tedium of secular funerals?

October 20, 2009 Comments off

Church of England minister Ed Tomlinson has made the news in recent days — see the Times and Mail websites for examples, and a pro-religious perspective — with an entry on his church’s blog lamenting the increasing secularisation of funerals, and his own conflicted emotions of conducting an event at which he feels unwanted, or where he feels his beliefs are undervalued. Here’s is an example:

I have stood at the crem like a lemon, wondering why on earth I am present at the funeral of somebody led in by the tunes of Tina Turner, summed up in pithy platitudes of sentimental and secular poets and sent into the furnace with “I Did It My Way” blaring out across the speakers!

To be brutally honest I can think of a hundred better ways of spending my time as a priest on God’s earth. What is the point of my being present if spiritually unwanted?

Aside from it being an inappropriately personal rant on a church website, he seems unaware that such events are not about him.

The Problem
In his zeal for ensuring that his religion has more involvement in the lives of the people in his community, he appears to have forgotten that a funeral is about the dead person and their family and friends. Not him. Not his god. It’s to pay respects to the departed, to honour their life, and to give their family and friends a point of closure, something to remember them by. Period.

That we have, throughout time, as a species attributed certain things to invisible and unprovable forces is neither here nor there. To my knowledge (I’m not an anthropologist), mankind has always marked the death of one of its own with respect. Before Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, or any of the religious rites, forms and doctrines we remember today (to say nothing of those lost to Prehistory — the 190,000+ years of modern Homo sapiens history pre-dating modern religions). “People of the cloth” weren’t a necessity then for the same reason they aren’t now, however any humanist will recognise the part of mankind that benefits from certain customs, habits and rituals. Having a wise or respected person (or elder) officiate at the departure ceremony of a member of the tribe maintains a sense of belonging, continuation and comfort.

But you don’t need a degree in theology, a seminary certificate, or a special book for it. You just need compassion, understanding and respect. I’m afraid the blog post about which I’m writing shows an absence of all of these qualities, instead replacing them with lesser qualities that will likely have hurt and offended people who have recently lost loved ones. I wonder how the families of his recent funeral ceremonies feel at his slap in their faces?

That we may have an opinion is not necessarily a justification for publishing it.

To make things worse, it appears that there have been some negative reactions to criticism of (Father? Vicar? Reverend? Minister? Let’s go with Mister…) Mr Tomlinson’s blog entry. Margaret, a humanist celebrant and the person behind Dead Interesting, posted a reply entitled They’re not doing it his way, to which some of his defenders have responded angrily. That will be their self-avowed cheek-turning at work, then — or is it the eye removal? It depends on whether you think that those who don’t share your beliefs deserve to be treated like human beings, I suppose.

The Solution

Part of the problem that Mr Tomlinson has unwittingly illustrated is that there is not widespread understanding that those who wish to have a non-religious funerals can easily achieve just that. He states the following:

I am equally troubled that pastoral care is being left in the hands of those whose main aim is to make money. And I am further concerned that an opportunity for evangelism is slipping through our fingers.

Atheists and secularists might delight in this fact but is it really the victory they imagine?

The implication here is that non-religious alternatives are about making money (we’ll ignore the collection plates, donation envelopes, tithing sermons, Direct Debit facilities and Gift Aid awareness present at church services), when in fact there are humanist celebrants and others who often have a normal career but spend their spare time performing weddings, namings, funerals, memorials and other events that provide a non-religious alternative to those offered by religious organisations. I understand that there are also people doing this full-time, though I still fail to understand why their costs should be ignored — or does a person of the cloth still have to beg for food, shelter and Internet connectivity?

The majority of non-religious people (even those that may have only gone to a church as a child) that I’ve spoken to have said that they have or expect to get married in a church, have or expect to name their child in a church and, if they happen to have thought that far ahead, expect to have their funeral service in a church.

But this does not have to be the case. There are alternatives and they are not — as many people may suspect — antagonistic, iconoclastic alternatives. They are the marking of important events in our lives without the constant reference to an invisible force, or subject to the dogma and doctrine of that invisible force.

Let me repeat: you can get married, name your child, and farewell a loved one outside of a religious environment. And the sky will not fall.

It won’t be performed in a cleaner’s closet or seedy back room somewhere, and in many cases it can even take place in a religious building, if that is your wish. To any pro-religious detractors who may read this and scoff — please recognise that this is the humanistic recognition of the importance of milestones in our lives. It pre-dates all religion.

It might interest you to know that the British Humanist Association (BHA) responded today to Mr Tomlinson’s blog entry with the following article: BHA defends humanist funerals.

More Information
If you would like to learn more, please have a look at the following resources in addition to the Blogroll links elsewhere on this page:

UK:

US & Worldwide:

Secular Humanism is not a religion, but it is a system of living that recognises the importance of ethics and morals — all without God, gods or superstition. You don’t need an invisible headmaster to make you a good person.

But don’t take what I say on faith… learn for yourself.

A lot can happen in 20 years – Part 6

January 25, 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 1

January 9, 2009 Comments off

Originally I thought I’d share my road to reason in this post, but I’ve realised it’s quite a long story, so instead I’ll break it down into smaller chunks. I find it very easy to write a great number of words on most topics, but that doesn’t convert well into blogs. Who wants to read 10,000+ word posts? I know I don’t; I wouldn’t expect you to, either.

Sitting in a meeting this afternoon I realised that today is the 20th anniversary of my entry into the full-time workforce, having graduated high school at the end of 1988. (Twenty years! It’s amazing, as I don’t really feel that much older now than I was then). On the morning of 9th January 1989 my father drove me the 15km to the place I was to do most of my 4 year apprenticeship, and I’ll never forget the experience nor the date. I was a year younger than my graduating class, so this all occurred while I was not quite 17 and not even eligible to drive yet. Some of my graduating class — all due to turn 18 that year, able to drive and soon able to drink — had continued on to university, but I was raised in a “Every man should have a trade, son” family. It made sense, so I was happy to follow their advice, and planned to enter university once I had complete my trade, being the first in my family ever to do so.

Around September that same year, I split with the girl I was certain I was going to marry: my First Love. We’d been together for 3 years and nothing was going to separate us; together forever. Of course something did, and it left me emotionally shattered. A few months later I met a family with middle-aged parents and children spread throughout the teenage spectrum, and I became close friends with most of them. They called themselves Born Again Christians and they were all enthusiastic members of what was recently the town’s small non-denominational “church in a tent” or “church on the green”, though they had moved into former office space a few months prior to me joining. There were perhaps 30 members, aged from children and young families through to older families and even elderly people who lived in nursing homes. Many, but by no means all, were related one way or another (but that was nothing to do with the town’s age, size or history).

This family was my first such experience with that kind of religion. My prior experiences had been:

  • The strange Spiritualist Church that some of my family attended, as did my mother until my birth. I was taught nothing about religion at home, but heard talk of their seances and circles which, as my older family members were involved in it, seemed nothing out of the ordinary.
  • Knowing that my “god father” (a friend of my mother and my grandfather) who was a father figure to me when I was young, was a Mormon, but not knowing anything about it.
  • The nuns from a nearby catholic school giving scripture lessons at my primary school after classes had finished. With my thirst for knowledge (something I still have even today), this seemed like a great chance to learn.
  • A friend of my mother taking me along to the local catholic church for a few months when I was 10. The morbidity of the rituals and the castigation for daring to eat a wafer (and drink some grape juice) without turning up the following Wednesday to tell the priest how naughty you’d been struck me as bizarre, considering I was told it was all supposed to be a celebration.
  • The “secular” youth groups run from the various church buildings around town. Complete with the opening and closing prayers.

All of these experiences seemed surreal and the concept of religion seemed about as believable as a certain fat red man’s annual visit and his choc-aholic rabbit friend a few months later, but it did give me the impression that belief in something other than the physical and provable was perfectly normal, and that all adults believed in something. So while I didn’t buy into religion, I did buy into belief.

With a gaping hole where my heart and sense of purpose once was, I met this pentecostal Christian family at exactly the “right” time. Although they introduced to me a world of bizarre behaviour, their absolute certainty and immutable conviction (and dogma) was a source of comfort and it very much filled the hole I had. It was made more appealing as this also included a very nice congregation who made me feel instantly welcome and loved and, if I’m brutally honest, I very much liked one of the daughters in this family. As is often the case with mere males, a woman was involved!

So I immersed myself into this world with this church for the next 12-18 months, knowing even with my rose-tinted glasses that some of it was pure fantasy but hanging onto other parts that I could believe, and finding comfort in it. Over time I found some of that church’s beliefs, policies, behaviour and dogmas untenable (this is apart from the pastor being convicted of embezzlement and his wife being caught out having affairs), so I moved to a larger church in a neighbouring town with a congregation 10-15 times the size, that happened to be denomination that was a major American export (if you know anything about American pentecostal denominations, then you know this one).

Continued in Part 2.

Categories: background Tags: , ,