Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Connecting the dots

Many years ago, a group of friends and I came across one of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen. It was early morning in a school yard, and we stood in awe before a tree that was completely covered and surrounded by long fingers of ice that reached out in delicate and beautiful curves. The sight was enhanced by the early sunrise; the ice almost glowed in the orange light. One my friends looked in wonder at the tree and said: "God worked here last night".

I fully appreciate my friend’s sentiment. In my Christian years, it was hard to stand before such natural beauty and not ascribe it in some way to the workings of a higher power. But now, many years later, I realise how much my thinking has changed.

Was god involved in creating that ice tree, somehow? It was winter, and the temperature the night before had dropped below freezing. Under that specific tree, the school groundswoman had left the water sprayer on for a couple of hours during the night by accident. The conditions were just right for the spraying water to pattern itself as layers of ice onto the tree's leaves and branches. When you analyse the chain of cause and effect, when you connect the dots from 'tree with no ice' to 'tree with ice', there only seems to be natural processes involved.

Rainbows, waterfalls, sunsets, snowflakes. We know, without having to appeal to the supernatural, how these things arise in nature. What reason would there be to invoke a god, then?

Often, when eager Christians learn that I'm an atheist, one of the first things they often do - in some attempt to win me over - is to appeal to beautiful vistas in nature as evidence for god. They assert a dot called god, a supernatural link that somehow enables a 'tree with no ice' to turn into a 'tree with ice'. I'm often perplexed when I listen to them, left wondering if there is something that I'm constantly missing. How can I accept that a supernatural force is the cause of a rainbow when a person making that claim cannot demonstrate or tell me where in the process of 'rainbow formation' the supernatural is involved. Can you see why this seems like such a silly argument to me?

I also stood in awe in front of that beautiful ice tree. But for me natural beauty is enhanced by understanding how something like that really comes into being. The god answer only cheapens the experience because with the god answer I learn nothing new; it doesn't act as a springboard for further understanding. Instead, I prefer to take the time and effort to connect the dots. The answers I arrive at are far more satisfying that way; the universe far more interesting.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

What Christmas means to me

Get ready to role your eyeballs, as I have a confession to make. 

I love Christmas. 

I love the lights and the decorations, the endless replaying of Christmas carols in shopping centers, the nativity scenes, the Christmas trees, the malls overcrowded with shoppers, and the sound of ringing church bells echoing through the neighbourhood on Christmas morning. Some non-believers might raise an eyebrow at the fact that as an atheist, I treasure everything about Christmas, even some of the religious symbolism. Some Christians might sigh at the fact that I feel an affinity towards the rampant commercialisation that takes place over this period. But I don't care. I love it all.

I think it has to do with growing up: all the images, sounds, feelings, tastes and smells of childhood Christmas experiences cemented themselves into the foundations of my neural networks, intertwining with personal, positive experiences of the holiday.

What kind of positive experiences? The quiet, relaxed neighbourhood atmosphere of families sitting around braais in their gardens on Christmas day, children splashing around in swimming pools, the smell of freshly mowed grass, and the hot, bright African sunshine. I love all these aspects of Christmas as well. But most of all, I love the time when our extended family gets together on the day around a table to partake in a special, intimate meal. The laughter and chatter that occurs between family members, as we evaluate a year gone by and talk about the year that lies ahead, is the the most important aspect that has always defined Christmas for me.

I kind of approach Christmas in the same way many Americans might approach Halloween, another cultural holiday that is important to social cohesion, steeped in long held traditions shared by the community, such as trick-or-treating and dressing up in costumes. Halloween has significance for many American families, even though most Americans don't actually believe that real goblins and spirits roam the streets on the 31 October every year. Likewise with Christmas: I don't have to believe in the supernatural roots of the holiday in order to derive any significance from it. Christmas, including the religious aspects of it, is part of the culture in which I grew up, and as a result it is part of my identity as an individual.

So instead of waging a "war on Christmas" (whatever that means) this atheist will spend the day with his feet up, sitting on a deck chair next to the swimming pool, sipping on a cider and chatting to family, while listening to the church bells ringing in the distance.

For me, Christmas is about community. But most importantly, it is about family.

Thursday, October 06, 2011


"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.
Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice."

Steve Jobs, Commencement speech at Stanford University, 2005

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Mourning the death of an idea (part 2)

Hebrews 10:24-2: The loss of a cohesive community

The ideas advanced by the brand of Christianity I grew up with may have been very bad, but the Christians I knew were really good people. Although I no longer accept the claims made by Christianity, I have a high amount of respect – and I still look up to – many of the religious mentors and friends I knew and still know today. They are some of the most caring, thoughtful and wise people that I know and many of them hold the same values as I do.

I will say it right now that I have no regrets growing up in the Christian groups I found myself in as a teenager and young adult (I've written about this before). I was lucky: as a shy 14 year-old, I joined the youth group of a local church and even now I consider that as was one of the best decisions I've ever made. Being part of a group that really cared for me, despite my social awkwardness, is something that changed me for the better. And I regard the stable Christian community of my youth as one of the things that successfully steered me through a turbulent adolescence.

As an atheist, I sometimes miss this support structure. One's religious identification is far more than just a private matter: it has social consequences on whether you are accepted into a group or not, and whether you can easily take advantage of resources or networks within that group, let it be emotional, social, or otherwise.

I often wonder if one of the consequences of living in a multicultural and multi-religious society is having to deal with the fragmentation of large support groups based on race, language or religion. No longer being religious, one has to concentrate on building other types of social support, through friends and family, for example.

But the sheer size and single minded vision of the Christian network - which emphasises community, support and acceptance - is something that I sometimes still miss. The warm smiles greeting me at the church door, the reaffirming of beliefs by a large group of people during praise and worship, and the cozy background chatter of friendly voices around muffins and coffee after the Sunday service. I feel a sense of loss for these things; a sense of loss for the community I left behind.

Next post: Psalm 139. The loss of fully being known.
Click here to return to Part 1 of 'Mourning the death of an idea'

Friday, June 17, 2011

Mourning the death of an idea (part 1)

A feeling of loss.

That is all that remained from my walk away from faith. In the early years my struggle was dominated by anger, frustration, doubt and fear. But as the crumbling theist worldview that I grew up with completed its slide into the sea of metaphysical confusion - and as I started to build a new worldview of my own - fear, anger, frustration and doubt dissipated. In hindsight, even though these feelings were so vivid at the time, they were only temporary: brief bouts of flue that passed as I healed.

But a feeling of loss has taken a lot longer to get over. It’s been nine years since I attended a church service as a committed Christian, but at odd moments I still catch myself missing some elements of my Christian life. It has gotten a lot better, especially over the last year, but it’s like a scar that never fully heals, a piece of my neural network that is so ingrained within my psyche that I will never be able to rid myself of it completely, even though leaving Christianity was one of the best decisions I ever made.

What do I sometimes miss about my own Christian experience? A while back I was thinking about this and I came up with the following elements that contribute to my own sense of loss. In the coming weeks I will expand on each of these in the following posts:

Part 2: Hebrews 10:24-25: The loss of a cohesive community. (click here)  

Part 3: Psalm 139: The loss of fully being known.  

Part 4: Jeremiah 29:11: The loss of certitude. 

Part 5: 1 Corinthians 15:54-57: The loss of immortality.

Part 6: Conclusion (Proverbs 24:14).

I welcome any thoughts or comments you might have.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Crying wolf . . . again

The rapture will take place today. That’s according to Harold Camping, a preacher from Oakland, California. His followers, from Family Radio Worldwide, have preached that the end times will take place this year, and they have spent huge amounts of money on extensive advertising campaigns, bus tours and thousands of billboards.

As usual, many mainstream Christians have responded by saying that this is all bunk, that “no one knows the exact hour or day” of Jesus' return. This response is quite strange to me, as I've known many Christians who believe that Jesus will come back in their own lifetimes. In fact, I once attended a youth summer camp where one speaker was convinced that we were the “Joshua generation” and that we would be the ones to witness Jesus’ return. If it is hubris to name the exact time and date of Jesus’ second coming, as Camping has done, isn’t it just as arrogant to name the decade or even the century?

But I wonder if all this Armageddon stuff isn't getting a bit old. For 2000 years Christians have been crying wolf, each generation believing - sometimes with absolute certainty - that they were the ones who would witness Jesus’ return before their deaths. In fact, Jesus himself seems to imply in Matthew 24:34 that the end times would happen within the lifetime of his disciples. But the reality is that, even after all these years, nothing has happened. It goes to show that no matter how certain you are about a specific belief, it doesn't mean that that belief is true.

Life will just go on as usual tomorrow; there will be no rapture. Believers at Family Radio call people like me ‘scoffers’ for saying that, but the problem doesn't lie with me; the problem lies with reality: it has a way of not aligning itself to people's beliefs, no matter how certain those beliefs might be.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Why is there something rather than nothing?

This question, related to the existence of the universe, is one that, as an atheist, I've been asked on more than one occasion. I have two responses. The first is: why not? And the second is: why God?

Why not?
There is a subtle, and almost hidden, premise here. The premise is that 'nothing', whatever that may be, is actually the default position, and that 'something' is the exception rather than the rule.

I don't think that premise has much weight. Consider the following points:
  • Nobody knows for sure what happened before the Big Bang. We don't know, with any certainty, if there was indeed 'nothing' before the current universe came into being, or if the universe came from some previous 'something'.
  • What is the definition of 'nothing' in this case? If one speaks of 'nothing', are they referring to an absence of everything, including matter, time and space? It is claimed that God created these things, so I would assume that a theist is talking of a kind of 'pure' nothingness, an absence of everything that we understand to be the physical universe.
  • Related to the point above: in all of human experience and history, nobody has experienced or demonstrated 'pure' nothingness. Even in a vacuum space and time exist. In other words, if we consider all our knowledge and all our experience, we can be pretty sure, with a high degree of certainty, that something exists. But the same cannot be said for 'nothing'.
In other words, the idea of nothingness is simply an abstraction. There is no reason to presume that a state of 'nothingness' is actually the default position, if it has even been the case, or even if it is possible. Why should we consider it at all, then?

Why God?

It seems that apologists unwittingly trap themselves when they ask why is there something rather than nothing. Their basic premise is that it is impossible to get something from nothing, more from less. Thus, God has to be the missing link that explains how something came from nothing. But what about God? If the universe (which is something) requires an explanation, then doesn’t God (who is also something) require an explanation too? The question can thus be rephrased:

"Why is there a God (i.e., something) rather than nothing?"

I wonder if the apologist can provide a possible answer to this question.