Thursday, 27 December 2012

It Might Get Better: LGBT Rights in the Caribbean

by Jonathan Bellot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Spreading the Light

by Jason Dookeran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Small Islands, Big Eyes: How Jack the Ripper, the Cosmos, and Myth-Making Are Connected

by Jonathan Bellot

In the autumn of 1888, a series of extraordinary murders began in Whitechapel in London. Whitechapel was well-known for its prostitutes—its “tarts,” who, to use a wondrous Victorian euphemism, would take their customers to “Hairyfordshire” for some action—and the victims of the Whitechapel murders were female prositutes—five in particular. I say “in particular” because many more than five female corpses turned up that dark autumn, but five stand out for the cold, clinical brutality the killer—if not killers—exacted upon their bodies. Their bodies had been sliced up and eviscerated, organs removed with a surgeon’s precision. While murder was nothing new in Whitechapel, the brutality was, and the story of a mystery killer—even from the first corpse on—spread throughout London and beyond. The precision of the murders, alongside the darkness—literal or otherwise—cloaking the identity of the killer, shocked and excited the public.

The murderer soon received a name. Or, more accurately, someone sent Scotland Yard a letter that supplied the murderer with a name, a name that would become nearly as well-known (if as little popularly understood) as Shakespeare’s. (And Shakespeare, as we see with Titus Andronicus and the impressive kill counts in Richard III and other plays, was not above gory details himself.)

I’m speaking, of course, about Jack the Ripper.

Even after 124 years, we’re no closer to unmasking the Ripper. Many tried, of course. Queen Victoria’s personal psychic, Robert Lees, supposedly declared that he had used his clairvoyance to determine that her personal physician, William Gull, was the murderer; a discredited conspiracy theory by Stephen Knight goes so far as to claim that Queen Victoria personally ordered Gull to assassinate the women because they had attempted to blackmail her due to an affair with one of them Prince Albert had had, and that Gull’s brutality was in reality part lunacy and part Masonic ritual. The solitary and possibly homosexual cricket enthusiast and teacher, Montague Druitt, is another possibility. Then, of course, there are those who claim that there is either no one Jack the Ripper or that “Jack” was a woman. (Incidentally, scholars of Ripper lore—Ripperologists—deem most of the letters from “Jack the Ripper” fabrications, but the one person who was caught writing such a letter was a woman.) Because of how open the case is, the possible identities of “Jack” and his victims have expanded, in fiction, to include not merely human beings but no less than a gigantic version of Mr. Hyde (Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Jack Seward from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula, in which Seward’s victims are vampire prostitutes), and, as Kim Newman notes in “Drac the Ripper,” an article in The Ripperologist (#60, 2005), just about any literary figure from the 1880s, from Count Dracula himself to Algy from The Importance of Being Earnest (“Bunburying” takes on new meaning here!) to H. G. Wells’ Martians and Marlow, Joseph Conrad’s extraordinary narrator.

In short: we don’t know, but we want to know, and yet we don’t want to know, because that would spoil the mystery. Mystery, after all, can be both beautiful and infuriating, and yet we might prefer that bit of fury to having the case put to rest.

Why resurrect Jack (or Jill?) the Ripper? Well, there’s something significant in the way people responded to those killings. Although the killings took place in a small area of London, in a tiny patch of the globe, they quickly took on grand dimensions. The strangeness of the crimes, alongside, perhaps, a society desiring a new thing to wonder and shudder about, generated a myth. Perhaps there was no Jack the Ripper, per se, or, if there was, he, she, or they were nothing like the legends. But people wanted to believe in something. They wanted excitement, danger. In many ways, the murders were just what they wanted—though those who actually saw the gruesome bodies might not agree. What should have been a blip on history’s radar became a myth that has lasted over a century and shows no sign of dying away. Murder, of course, is no minor thing--but murder, unfortunately, is also no uncommon thing.

It is worth looking at how this idea—taking something relatively small and making it into something grand, into a great legend—may apply to how many people view the Earth in relation to the rest of the universe. After all, in a sense, we tend to do the same thing. We are tiny, scarcely even blips on a cosmic radar, specks on a vast map God might lose sight of for thousands of years if he had the misfortune to blink or sneeze. The Earth is utterly nothing, size-wise, compared to the Milky Way galaxy where we live, to say nothing of the billions of other galaxies out there. And the Milky Way alone contains at least 809 (as of September 20th, 2012) confirmed exoplanets—planets outside our solar system, planets with their own suns and moons, planets with their own valleys, cliffs, icy seas, storms, and—perhaps—life forms, be they microbes or multicellular pranksters that tease Americans as they drive along dark highways. There are likely millions of planets just in our galaxy, and if the same is true for other galaxies, there are too many planets to conceive of. The Earth, in other words, is only special so far, only special because we have not confirmed that life exists on another planet. If we do that, we will finally put to rest the belief that our planet, and by extension we humans, are alone in the universe, and are alone for a reason—because we’re somehow special. No, we may simply be alone because, well--dull as it seems--that's how things worked out.

Of course, this applies to history, too. We haven’t been here very long, and it isn’t clear we’ll be here for much longer. As John McPhee once put it, if you imagine geological time like both arms outstretched, human existence takes up no longer than a bit of a fingernail. 99% of all species that have ever lived on our Earth in the 3.8 or so billion years life has been around are extinct--there for perhaps millions of years, and then gone. And all for what? It is easy to believe that we must be here for some grand reason, a cosmic mission greater than anything Ian Fleming could dream up James Bond doing. And perhaps we are, but the evidence is against it. We are newborns in Earth’s history and scarcely sperm and egg in our universe’s. Those of us who think we are the key to some grand design, in short, have not read their history books—and I mean the history books of the universe. “The universe (which others call the Library),” Borges begins his uncanny short story, “The Library of Babel,” and it holds true here.

The cover of Moore's novel
And, just as in the Ripper case, some of us know we’re deluding ourselves, but we play along, anyway, because some part of us yearns to be part of something bigger. In a scene from Alan Moore’s From Hell, a graphic novel partly following Knight’s vision of the Ripper murders, we see a collection of normal people sitting down to write fake letters purporting to be from Jack the Ripper. Some kids may be doing it for kicks; an older man does it while his wife calls him down to read scripture to the children. The man, in particular, is living a double life, vicariously becoming the Ripper—or, at least, injecting some excitement into a dull, puritanical existence. It’s fun to delude ourselves sometimes, to imagine that we, ourselves, are no longer the prisoners of small and boring lives but are part of something larger: a conspiracy, a mission, a societal or global (or cosmic) plan. The Ripper chilled many—but his legend excited far more. People wanted to be involved, to catch a glimpse of a bloodstained murderer, without being the victim or being in any real danger. Fantasy. If a sketch of Goya’s says that the sleep of reason produces monsters (perhaps ones that rip), deliberately giving reason some sleeping pills might produce sharp-toothed exhilaration, comfort, softer (real) sleep at night.

Goya's "Sleep of Reason"
This, of course, is how many people justify a simple theism: I don’t know if it’s true, but it helps me feel better and more meaningful, so I’ll believe. (Indeed, , Henri Bergson ends The Two Sources of Morality and Religion with the statement that the universe itself is nothing less than "a machine for the making of gods.")

I appreciate and understand this impulse. But I think we need to sit back, clear our heads as best we can, and reevaluate what we know. The fact is that the Ripper cases were not, taken as a whole, anything special, and neither are we, put up against the universe. If it turns out no life exists anywhere else in the universe—an unlikely prospect, but who knows—then we may well be unique, but that doesn’t mean we’re special so much as lucky, a fortunate fluke of planet formation, abiogenesis, and evolution. (I'm not saying we can't be special on some cosmic scale, but I just don't see why we should be; if the purpose of the Big Bang was God's way of creating life, the universe is a literally epic failure, with so much of it apparently utterly unhospitable for life.) Of course, we have much to learn about how life formed in the first place, and I don’t pretend to have the answers—but the evidence, again, points to no special creation of humankind or even of life itself. We are, and that seems to be about it. Whatever meaning we make, whatever beauty and horror we produce, bloom and fade, appear and vanish, like tiny bubbles over the vast river of time (to steal E. H. Gombrich's image from A Little History of the World). The grand myths we have made about what we mean, the global and cosmic epics, may well be no more than bubbles themselves, soon to pop and vanish as microbes and new organisms feed on our bones and the skeletons of our civilizations before the sun dies.

And in the Caribbean (and elsewhere, of course, but I have seen this often in Dominica and other islands), we do this all the time. We do not see the bigger picture; we make small things into the entire world. It is easy to make this mistake, to forget that a whole world, and a whole universe, exists beyond the shorelines. The city, the town, the village, the rooms, the streets we live in and on the most: these become the world to use, and our eyes narrow and we forget, sometimes altogether, that there is more out there. And for many people, there’s little need to remember this, to be fair, since those “small things” are really quite big in their own lives: our jobs, our loves, our losses. But that doesn’t mean we should all willingly see the world with such narrowed eyes, if we know better. There is too much else out there. And it certainly means that we should be careful about mythologizing things around us, turning tiny events into grand stories that they do not deserve to be. Myth-making isn’t bad—as an artist, I could hardly say otherwise—but it can blind us, if we don’t step back once in a while and try to take in things on a bigger scale.

But once you’ve seen how vast and seemingly baffling the universe is and how forgettably tiny we are by comparison, it may be worthwhile, too, to indulge in some mythology, some whisky against the horror of feeling small. After all, our little patch of space and times would be far less interesting without the ghost of Jack the Ripper to haunt it once in a while. And even if the Ripperologists know the myth of the Ripper is likely more interesting than the truth, and cosmologists and astrophysicists are well-aware of how infinitesimal we are--"a piece of cosmic lint," Bill Bryson calls Pluto in A Short History of Nearly Everything, and it might as well apply to us--there's no reason we can't enjoy ourselves and continue to speculate, even as we acknowledge that all the grand myths we've conjured and dreamt up may crumble away when we're gone, forgotten by ghosts and gods alike.

Moving Forward in Reason

A Guest Post by Seon Lewis

The argument as to whether religion is a good or bad thing is an ongoing one. Some argue that it is; others think not. Of course this divide is along party lines: the non-believers/believers line. Religious people are certain that religion is a great thing, in that, they argue that having a cosmic watchman that sees and knows everything you do is not only good, but needed. It keeps the individual morally grounded. 

Growing up in a country that is virtually 100% religious, I was one of the many Grenadians that accepted the idea that God is certainly needed to be a moral person.   As with so many in the other Caribbean countries, I had no other choice in the matter of choosing what I believe. It was quite simple; I was born in a country whose main faith is Christianity. So Christianity it was. In other words, I was indoctrinated into the faith from my childhood. I am matured now, and as David Ince, a fellow atheist blogger from Barbados, wrote, I learned to “put down the ducky.” I have come to realize that religion does not have a monopoly on morality. And, as some people may indeed need religion, and God, to keep them in check, many of us don’t. We are moral people because we are, being good for goodness’ sake. Good without God! (Like the title of Greg Epstein’s book.)

On the other hand, religion has in the past, and continues to be, a major motivating factor for many people to commit atrocious crimes. Parents in the Faith Healing community, for instance, continue to damn their children to death by refusing to grant access to medicine for otherwise manageable diseases. Their faith in God to heal their children is the problem: blind faith, faith not planted in reality, but in religious, dogmatic teachings. We have Islamic Jihadists, killing innocent people because Allah “told” them to do so. In the Caribbean, intolerance is rampant, and, the “Holy” Bible and the Qur’aan are the religious texts held up as the justification for this inhumane behavior.     

The creators of religion may not have made it up for malicious purposes. It, however, has become the generator of many evils. It has become a cesspool of bad ideas, that often turns otherwise good people bad, and even as some people argue that religion has kept them on  a moral path , it operates more so in the negative direction than vice versa. 

What then can be done? For starters, we can and should not adhere to doctrines that encourage us to hate and discriminate against our fellow humans. Instead of allowing ourselves to be guided by books that spew divisive teachings, we should make every effort to be good people. Abandon these Bronze Age guidelines and rules that were written by Bronze Aged people. I have divorced myself, not only from the dogmas of Christianity, but from theism altogether. I am not suggesting that this should be your route. But I am urging you to think about the belief you hold and how it influences your worldview—how it affects your relationship with other human beings. 

The road to this freedom, the freedom whereby one's mind is not held hostage by these religious books and doctrines, is not an easy one.  As Caribbean people we understand the risk. Like people from around the world who have chosen this path, Caribbean people choosing to live a life free from religious dogmas also means social suicide. Most of us, if not all, have experienced being ostracized for questioning the faith and the effects it has on our society. In my community church, I recall, preachers preached about me, declaring me to be the devil, and literally crazy. Despite the trauma, however, many of us are embracing rationality and reason. We have chosen to promote and build a better world free of the divisiveness of religion.

We are now moving forward. I now know that I am not alone. You too are not alone. With great people like the creators and admins of this blog and others, we can move forward in reason, forwarding humanity and ensuring that our islands embrace reason and rationality. With the hard work of these people, the Caribbean community now has access to great nonbelievers’ online communities like the Freethinking Island,  the Caribbean Atheists group on Facebook, Caribatheist's (David Ince's) blog page, and the Caribbean Freethinkers’ Society. Come join the conversation. Your viewpoints are certainly valid.

Peace, in reason.

Seon Lewis is the creator of Spice Island Atheist,a blog about freethought in Grenada, the Caribbean as a whole, and beyond. He is also the author of From Mythology to Reality: Moving Beyond Rastafari, and has appeared as a guest on The Freethinking Island. You can find his blog at

Embracing Ignorance and Asking Questions: Raising our Collective IQ

by David Ince

It's all about asking questions. That's what being an atheist, skeptic, or freethinker is all about. It's something that people of faith, as much as they protest to the contrary, seem to have missing from their armoury.

Yes, theists are generally good at stating their positions, telling you what they believe and what you need to do, but they almost never get into interrogatories. This lack of questioning is unfortunate, not only for the believer who loses out on a chance to understand more about the atheist perspective,  but also for the atheist who misses the chance to hone his/ her argument and improve upon it. Iron sharpens iron is what they say, but that only happens when there are questions providing the friction.

When I look back at my education in the Caribbean, I see suppression of an inquiring culture rather than promotion of it. This stems not just from a religious background that says something is true because “I say so,” but from a lack of confidence in our people, an underlying fear of being seen as unintelligent just because you don't know the answer. I know this was at play when I was at school. A teacher in Maths, History, or Science would stand before us and expound on a subject. At the end of the class would be the inevitable, “Everybody understands? Anyone have any questions?”  

Nine times out of ten every hand would stay down and we would nod and indicate we followed everything fully. I guess to some extent we weren't lying. We understood the words, the teacher was speaking English, we understood English. But as I have come to know now, understanding something is far more than just comprehending words. Still, in our minds at that time, words were all that mattered, most times we just sat and wrote out the exact phrases that emanated from the teacher's lips. We could, if called upon, stand up and repeat what Mr. Brown said and that was good enough.

Putting your hand up just was not an option. No, that would be a sign of weakness. It would be perceived that you were a bit of a “slow” child. Twenty-nine children nodding away confidently and you are the only backward one that doesn't get it? If you wanted to not be taunted for being stupid the thing to do was to keep quiet, don't open your mouth and show your ignorance, that's how we were trained in the Caribbean and to a large extent that's how many of us have remained in adulthood.

I have asked myself many times, how to change that mindset. How do we reverse what we learnt in school and convince people that it is the smart kid not the idiot that is the one who asks the questions? The answer to me seems to be education. I can say for my part, the further I have gone in my education, the less concerned I have become of displaying ignorance. It has often been said that the more you know the more you realise you don't know. The more knowledge you have the more comfortable you are with your lack of knowledge. Comfortable not from the perspective that you are happy to stay in that state forever, but comfortable to admit that you just don't know the answer to some things. You are willing to defer to an expert when you find yourself out of your depth in an area, taking your ignorance not as a badge of honour, but as a fuel to drive you towards greater knowledge on highways that were completely free of traffic before.

They say that ignorance is bliss, but I find ignorance exciting, a potential for enlightenment and discovery, and there are few things more thrilling than that. I think the embracing of ignorance needs to be a key part of what we promote in the secular movement  It is something I am enjoying doing myself on the  podcast 'Freethinking Island' which I am co-hosting weekly. It is easy when you put a podcast out to look at it as an instrument to get your message out, get your voice out there to the world. It is great to be able to add your voice out there, but I am quickly realising that the true value is in listening to what others have to say. These last two weeks we've had Seon Lewis and Jonathan Bellot, both of whom took us on their journey from faith meanwhile teaching us so much in the areas where they have their expertise. Here the beauty of the shows is not in how much you can say but in how much you can ask, what more can you find out about the person on the other side of the microphone or computer screen. 

However, what we in the skeptic community find when we take our questioning  habits back to those in belief is an attitude a bit like back in those school days.  Sometimes they think we are deliberately being cheeky, like the class clown, who asks the biology teacher if she was alive with the australopithecines.  Other times they may believe that we are just trying to catch them out with a “gotcha” question. What I find though, is that more often than not they think we are just a little bit behind. Slow learners in the subject of Spirituality. We have to be kept in detention, write “lines” or go to their extra classes until we get it right.  When we consistently say we don't understand them they are flabbergasted, because for them the concept is simple: God sent his son Jesus to die for our sins so that believing in him we can be saved. 

What's so difficult to understand about that? They are right, it is easy to understand, at least the words. We can repeat them just as easily as they can, but we need the follow up. Do the words make sense? Is there logic there? Does it mesh with what we observe or understand in other areas of the universe which we experience? If only our Christian friends could come to understand that we really do follow the words and that's why we just can't understand why they follow the words. 

I don't know about other atheists, but often when I speak to theists it is to just clarify what they are thinking, what they believe and how they see the world. In finding this out, it allows me to learn more about them and I can appreciate why they may have certain attitudes even if I don't endorse their views. What happens often is that they get stuck even in trying to clarify their own positions. What do they mean by words like God, spirit, faith, transcendence, immaterial, omnipotence, sanctification, transubstantiation? Often they can't tell you, because they have never asked these questions of themselves. They are like the nodding students just repeating the words of the teacher. Parroting words that have that veneer of intellectualism, but no intelligible meaning. Why do they find themselves in this position? It's down to their embarrassment with ignorance. They hear these concepts spoken about by the eloquent orators in their midst. They don't understand, but they are ashamed. Ashamed to say that it all sounds like gobbledygook to them. Their lack of self-belief makes them think that the confusion is on their side, that if they had a little more education, the speaker's words would all make sense.  They don't want to let anyone else around them know that they are confused so they listen and nod knowingly, hoping that their apparent comprehension of these highfalutin concepts will win the admiration of those sitting around. 

Many people in the faith community are well aware of the ignorance phobia in their ranks and they milk it for all it is worth. This is how you end up with people like Deepak Chopra, William Lane Craig, and others in the “baffle them with bullshit” brigade. These peddlers know full well that their audiences have a number of people of average education but who want to be perceived by their peers as erudite scholars. Such members of the audience are prime candidates for lapping up all on the pseudo-intellectual menu. They dance in delight when they get to hear a talk that includes realms of paradigms of infinite regresses on quantum levels of degenerating orbiting electromagnetic layers of amplifying magnitudes. Now they can bring out this vocabulary on demand to make themselves sound impressive. Sad to say, but phrases like that often work like a charm on Caribbean people. In our islands, big words are often the measure of brilliance. He who uses the most rises to the top of the pile in the minds of the masses. Once you have a reputation to go along with the verbiage, you are set. The more the talk is out there unchallenged, the more  people in the community will pick  it up and use the ideas as if they are their own, then their lesser informed friends will join in the smiling and nodding, hoping to show that they too are sufficiently informed to understand the babble. Oil is scarce in the Caribbean, but every day more and more of these “nodding donkeys” pop up. 

It's a hard road, but we have to encourage people to be honest about their ignorance. If you don't understand, say you don't understand. Admitting you don't know may make you feel small for the moment, but you will leave as a larger person because your knowledge is greater. I recognise that this is easier said than done. If you have a doctorate, you can be pretty sure that being shown to be ignorant about one obscure fact or concept is not going to make people think you are an idiot. You know you will have more than enough opportunity to come back later and show your superior understanding in the area where you have your expertise. However, it's a different thing when you are among people and you know your level of education is low in comparison, when you know that failure to understand something simple could make you be perceived as a simpleton. That's why I say that education is the key to curing ignorance-phobia. The greater the percentage of our populations that have a sound education, the less likely that persons will feel intimidated about displaying or demonstrating what they don't know.  

Yes, in this new era of critical thinking in the Caribbean, we need to stand up and be confident enough to say we don't know. Ignorance followed by questions, that's the key to critical thinking. We don't know, but we'll try to find out. If we don't have pride in admitting ignorance, people will continue to try to hide it and there is no better place to hide it than under the rock of religion—the place where “I don't know” is somehow covered over by the idea that a God whose mind we can never know, knows everything. 

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Letting Go of God

by Kwame Weekes

Trust in Yahweh and do what is good,
make your home in the land and live in peace;
make Yahweh your only joy
and he will give you what your heart desires. Psalm 37:3

I am, perhaps, the weakest of all of my friends. Six years of my life was spent completely devoted to Jesus Christ. Like any love, I wanted to know everything there was to know about Jesus. I spent time with him and took him almost everywhere with me; almost because there were times I needed to take the crucifix off from around my neck to lessen the anticipated guilt of something I was about to do, similar to a man who takes off his wedding ring before he invites the woman at the bar back to his apartment when he's out on business. And because my love was real, every time I fell short of my commitment, I was sure to fall on my knees begging for mercy. Seven times seventy times I would, and still the love persisted. People have different reasons for doing what they do, but for me, if my memory is reliable and my honesty is true, my love was resting on a promise; a promise of love returned in abundance, of happiness, of purpose and passion, of meaning. My friends are still in love waiting on this promise, but I, in my weakness, have let go.

As I mature in my non-belief, I am beginning to see that there is very little difference - if any at all - among human beings. The same dynamics that are present in a relationship with a human lover are present in a relationship with a god. If you are not this person, you surely know someone who is madly in love with another human being. Their love is so bright it makes them blind to their own worth and the fact that their lover is blind to it as well. They would take the insults, the beating, the nights of loneliness and all the other niceties that come with unhealthy relationships while you look on in pity, disgust, or absolute horror. Tyler Perry is one of my least favourite directors of all time, but I like that he always makes room for this type of character in his work. This is probably why so many people like his movies - it gives us a "Good Friday bobolie" to beat on, ridicule and offer advice to. "How she schupid so! She takin all da licks. Girl, leave he ass and go by the next man eh!" How wise we become when we stand outside looking in. 

People in relationships like this tend to downplay the negatives and emphasise the positives, however few and far between. It's like the Stockholm syndrome where you think your kidnapper is a praiseworthy person because he offered you a slice of bread and some water when you were hungry, even though you had to eat it with your hands tied with ropes. In our darkest times we hold on to any glimmer of light because there is nothing else to do. I cannot laugh at persons like this. I weep for them. They are holding on to a hope that doesn't exist and I weep for them.

Many of my old friends are believers and many of them have experienced the darkest of times. Even though we don't speak anymore, my love for them sometimes pushes me, the non-believer, to my knees, begging the god that I don't believe in to be merciful to those that love him. He never listens. Still their love persists and I look on - like you look on in a Tyler Perry movie - and I say, "Hoss, why you wasting your time with this god thing?" Tomorrow, tomorrow, it would get better tomorrow. Tomorrow is always coming. Sometimes tomorrow arrives, but only lasts for a day. Then the darkness comes returns. Is there ever a right time to let go of a god?

I cannot answer this question for anyone but myself. For me, the right time was November of 2011. I could no longer live with the belief that if I made Yahweh my only joy he would give me my heart's desires, especially since my heart was not that wanting. My requests were simple - joy, peace, meaning, purpose. There were days when these did come and I made sure my praises on those days were loud enough for my atheist friends to hear. "Yuh see! My God is great! I could never have done so well in exams if it weren't for him." Yes, I did do “well” in exams but some of my atheist friends received scholarships while I didn’t. If it wasn’t me being happy about good grades it was me happy about meeting a new person who shared the same unpopular interests as me. For everything I was happy about, I could find a number of non-believers who enjoyed the same to greater degrees. It was like I was overwhelmingly happy about the bread and water I was eating with bounded hands thinking it was better than those who were eating golden crusted bread, with melted butter and cheese, washing it down with hot Milo. 

What is different between the relationship with God and the relationship with another human being, however, is inherent in the natures of the two objects. God is supposed to be eternal and all-powerful while human beings are temporal and weak. For this reason, it is incredibly easier for a person to let go of a human relationship than it is to let go of a divine one. God's promises go into the after-life, while human promises must be fulfilled in this lifetime. After a while, a person may cut their losses and recognise that the promises their deadbeat husband were making are never going to be fulfilled. A woman knows that after a certain age, the promise of having children is null because it is biologically impossible. But with God, anything is possible, and we hold on to the hope that He would work a miracle just for us, if not in this lifetime, in the next. We are so desperate for a miracle that perfectly ordinary things like passing a difficult examination are aggrandised beyond what they really are. And when the statistically improbable happens to someone else - a 56 year old woman has a perfectly healthy baby - we adopt that story and believe it would happen for us as well. We’re only hurting ourselves.

As condescending as this may sound, I wish some of my old friends would let go of God. What I have written thus far assumes the existence of a god with whom people are able to have relationships. The relationship becomes much harder for me to watch considering this god may not exist beyond the imagination. Suppose I am wrong and he does exist. Aren't you worth more than how you are being treated? To me, holding on to the hope that joy cometh in the morning is beautiful only up to a point. When the promise-giver holds the promise before you like a carrot on a stick and extends the reward’s fruition to beyond the grave, I cannot find love or recognition of your worth in that gesture. It’s as if you’re willingly putting yourself out there to be mocked.

Perhaps I am wrong and my giving up was too soon; I should have asked for strength and the intercession of Mother Teresa. I don't think so, though. I think I just found my worth and had no room for a love that tests. You may consider me weak, but I consider the decision to let go of God the greatest show of strength I have ever displayed.