Monday, 29 October 2012

Why I celebrate Christmas

I often see on twitter Christians getting in a huff about atheists celebrating Christmas. They seem to be quite upset about people who don't see Jesus as the son of the bible God, Yahweh, joining them in an event that, they believe, is the celebration of his birth. 

Followers of my blog and my twitter account will know that I grew up in a Christian family and was indeed a Christian myself for many years. Christmas was a huge event. When I was quite young we'd head to my grandparent's house after we'd done our thing at home. We'd usually head back there on Boxing Day to help take care of all the food that had been left over from the day before. 

When my grandmother died my grandfather moved away to a place down near the beach. We'd take a drive down there, stay over night, and come back home late Boxing Day. It was a huge event because it's a massive family. My grandfather, his 10 kids, their partners and children. Then some of the grandchildren (my generation) got our own partners. We're easily talking 40+ people. It was a wonderful time. After my grandfather died the 10 'kids' as we still think of them took it upon themselves to take turns in hosting, though it was now on only boxing day. It's still a big event. Some of my dad's brothers and sisters are now grandparents themselves. Many of my cousins have partners and children of their own. Not everyone can get there each year but it's still a large group of people to have all together in the one place, especially considering we're all essentially the same family. 

Of course that's not the only Christmas thing I do, just the biggest. There's also work functions, gatherings with friends, getting together with my mum's side of the family and my partner's family. I will attend 8 to 10 Christmas functions or gatherings a year. 

What's interesting is that Jesus Christ is never mentioned. Not once. Not even by the Catholics. Putting aside for the moment that the origins of Christmas can be traced to pre-Christ days, and that if Jesus did exist, he probably wasn't born on December 25th, Christmas has long been removed from the celebration of Christ's birth and has since become a celebration in its own right. A celebration for the sake of celebrating. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying there's no one left that celebrates Christmas as the birth of Christ, I'm saying that in my experience it's not the focus of people I know. 

When we talk about Christmas, it's never about the birth of Jesus, it's about shopping for presents (for family, friends, workmates, and things like The Wishing Tree), it's about getting together and 'catching up', it's about parties, and functions, and drinking and eating, and simply wanting to have fun with those whose company we enjoy. 

Christmas was a massive part of my life growing up, and it's still a huge part of my life now. That's why I celebrate it, because it means so much to me. It's not because of someone that biblical expert Francesca Stavrakopoulou describes at best as 'probably' existed (fellow biblical expert Richard Carrier now argues that Jesus in fact never existed). I don't celebrate Christmas because of the Winter Solstice (I'm in the southern hemisphere, it's not the winter solstice for us anyway). I celebrate Christmas because it's FUN. It brings me joy and brings joy to my family, friends, and colleagues. 

I celebrate Christmas for the sake of it. Yes, the name is a hangover from Christian influence (I've light-heartedly taken to calling it Giftmas), and yes, there is still a great deal of Christians that think they're celebrating the birth of their Savior. Anyone that wants to celebrate it that way can continue to do so. Nothing about how I celebrate Christmas is going to stop any Christian celebrating it they way they want to. 

I love this time of year and getting together with so many people and I assume, and hope, that they like getting together with me too. It's a wonderful time where we can look back at the year we've just had and relive the highlights, and commiserate the low lights. We can look forward and share with our family and friends our hopes, dreams, and expectations for the year to come and we can do it over good food and good drinks. It's a time of year where we can get together with all the people we know and love just because we want to, because we think it's a good idea and we like it. It doesn't require the alleged birth of an alleged messiah.

The thing is, not only do Christians not own late December celebrations, they didn't even invent them. 

Monday, 24 September 2012

Being an atheist when my dad died.

I wrote this several months ago but have decided to put it up as a blog post because someone asked me what it was like, as an atheist, to deal with the death of someone close. When I wrote this piece I linked a lot of what I thought and how I dealt with it to being an atheist. I think that's not quite right now. I have come to think that atheism is the result, not the cause, of who I am and how I think. So below where I say something like 'as an atheist' read something like 'what it is about me that makes me an atheist...' I hope you understand what I mean :)
Dad first told me he had cancer two years ago. Oesophageal cancer right at the bottom of his throat. He went through a massive operation where the majority of his Oesophagus was removed and his stomach was basically attached to the bottom of his throat. He also had a lot of chemotherapy and radiation. It was declared a success. After days in intensive care and a long recovery period he returned to what for him was a normal life. He would occasionally have to go and have his throat expanded so he could eat freely, but that was it...for a while.

With almost a feel of inevitability, dad called me one day and said that the cancer had returned. After living one year cancer free after the operation the disease was back and he was literally in the battle of and for his life. He battled hard and long but in the end, as it so often does, the cancer won, and on December 17t2011 my dad died. I was at the hospital, but outside the room when it happened. I was on the phone to my children's mum discussing when – if at all – to bring them in to see dad. My eldest daughter was playing tennis. Normally I would have been there watching, but not this day. They came, but were about 30 minutes too late. I told them the news outside the hospital and they all broke down. I tried to comfort my children as best I could while still dealing with the grief that had kicked me only minutes before. Anything I could say about what I felt at that moment would be a dismal understatement. 

I received a call quite early that morning from dad’s wife. I was planning on going in to the hospital later that morning, after the aforementioned tennis, but overnight dad had taken a turn and if I wanted to see him, I didn't have much time. I got dressed quickly and headed to the hospital. When I arrived I saw one of dad’s 4 sisters outside the room. Inside were Sonja – dad’s wife, another of dad's sisters, and Mick, who had been dad’s best mate for nearly 40 years. Dad’s sisters were crying, Sonja was strong and Mick was silent. We spent time with dad, but he wasn't conscious. His breathing looked extremely painful and difficult. He had an oxygen mask on, but no other medical equipment. We talked to each other about dad, and to him on occasion. We even laughed. If someone had told me I'd be laughing whilst I sad beside my dad as he died I'd have thought them crazy. But that would have been because I didn't understand. I understand now. 

After a little while I wondered what to expect. All I knew at that stage was that dad was extremely unwell.

I went out to the nurses’ station, explained who I was and asked simply ‘Just wondering what happens from here’. The nurse explained that over a period of time – and she couldn't say for sure how long, but certainly 'hours' – dad’s breathing would start to change. His breathing would become more moist and we’d be able to hear that, then it would become irregular – a few short breaths followed by a pause, then maybe a deep one, then a few short ones again. I remember her saying ‘That will continue until the end’. She expected that to be sometime that afternoon, but like I said, she couldn't say for certain. I thanked her for her explanation and went back to the room. 

I sat and thought about the way she spoke to me. I loved it. It was factual and to the point, whilst still dealing with me with compassion and empathy. I have said both on twitter and Facebook that good morals come from Empathy, Compassion, and Logic. The nurse’s compassion and empathy were noticeable, but she didn't hide the truth. There would have been no benefit to lying to me – to trying to say that there was a chance of a ‘miracle’ recovery. I didn't want false hope, I wanted the truth and that’s what I received. 

Obviously it was an important moment for me because out of a very difficult day, it’s still very clear in my mind. I don’t know the nurse’s particular beliefs, but I was very glad she didn't say something to me like ‘He’ll soon be in heaven’. I would have had a real issue with that. I think being an atheist has grown my appreciation for the ‘facts’ and that’s exactly what the nurse provided. The nurse had it spot on as far as dad’s breathing went. I remember hearing his breathing get moist, I remember noticing the change in the timing of his breaths and in my head I thanked the nurse again for what she had told me. I've had someone ask if I prayed during this time, suggesting that maybe at a time like this why not try anything? I didn't pray once. Didn't even think about it. I sat holding my dad's hand while he was in the last hour of his life and the thought of praying for him never occurred to me. 

As is quite common with anyone with a terminal illness, despite knowing what’s coming, the moment it happens, or the moment you find out, is still a shock and still incredibly heartbreaking and simply – sad. I was walking back to the room after my phone call and one of dad’s brothers (three of his five had arrived in the mean time) said to me ‘They said it might be soon Don, you might want to head in there’. I entered the room and could see right away that dad was no longer alive. There was two nurses in there tending to him and Sonja was sitting by his side. The nurses had removed the oxygen mask and the room smelled different. Sonia told me he had gone. 

I was totally flat. Numb. There’s nothing I could say to describe the feeling that would convey what I felt. Only clichés come to mind and they fall terribly short. I went over, kissed him, held his hand and told him I loved him. Sonja said someone needed to let his brothers know, so I walked out, looked up, and saw 3 of my uncles, two of their wives, and two of my cousins standing just outside the door. ‘He’s gone’ I said and cried and cried. One of my uncles came and gave me a big hug. Another came and put his hand on my shoulder. I’m a 38 year old man with children of my own, but was so thankful to have a ‘grown up’ there to comfort me at that moment. 

On twitter I often see the comment ‘The awkward moment when an atheist is thankful but has no one to thank’. I know it’s a somewhat facetious comment, but I think the sentiment is genuine – with no belief in god, who do atheists thank when something good happens? I always respond the same way – We thank our family and friends, you know – actual people that actually helped us. 

At the moment, probably the worst moment of my life – it was my family that helped me. It was my family that wrapped their arms around me and comforted me with their touch. I was extremely grateful they were there.  Actually there. Not in my mind, not looking down from heaven – real people, really there with me. Really there to help. I didn’t need, nor, thinking back, would have wanted, some unknown, unknowable ‘being’ imposing on that moment. I felt loved and cared for and it was family that made me feel that way. Real people. I invited them to come in, if they wished, to say there final farewells, which they all did. 

Like I said earlier, I spoke to dad after he’d died. Not because I think he could hear me - because I don’t. I’m not really sure why I did it but if I had to guess, it would be in order to have a final moment. It was, I guess, so I could say good-bye to him, not so he could hear good-bye from me. 

The rest off that day felt very strange and it’s hard to describe how I felt without again reverting to using of some kind of cliché. But I guess clichés come about because they’re accurate, at least some of the time. So let me say I felt like I was in a void. It was empty. Loss. Anyone that has gone through the death of a close loved one would know the feeling, I’m sure. My dad was gone and was never coming back. I’d never hear his voice again, I’d never see him again, I’d never hug him again, I’d never share a beer with him again. I was terribly sad. I didn’t think he was in heaven, he was simply gone. As atheists we often talk about making the most of this life, and how precious THIS life is, because we don’t believe in an ‘after life’. I feel my dad lived a good, if simple life. His feelings on the subject of an afterlife were different to mine, and I guess if he was right and I am wrong he knows. If I am right and he was wrong, he’ll never know. I hope he did appreciate the life he had and realised it was precious. 

I spoke at his funeral and when I stood at the dais in the church (it was a religious service – catholic in fact) I looked up and saw what I would guess was around 300 people. I was moved. To look up and see that so many people cared enough for him to come along to his funeral was all the proof I needed that he had lived a good life. He was just a regular bloke but he’d obviously touched a lot of lives in the 61 and a bit years he had here. So as an atheist I’m proud of that. I can look at the life my dad lived and know that on the balance of things, he will be remembered as a good bloke. Did he mess up? You bet. Was he perfect? Of course not. But can any one of us claim we are? No. 

Clearly I don’t think I’ll ever see my dad again and this is where I think being an atheist helps me again. Because I celebrate him and his life. I don’t need to have a thought of meeting him again in the afterlife, I’m thankful and happy for the life I had with him. It’s the time I got to spend with him that I think about, not the strange hope that he might be waiting for me when I die. 

Atheism is natural for me, it’s the only position that makes sense. I understand what it’s like to be a Christian, I was one for a couple of decades, but looking back, I just don’t get it. I don’t want to be a person that’s happy to believe in things without evidence. I like understanding how things actually work. But that doesn't mean I’m without emotion. It doesn’t mean that when my dad died I was devoid of feelings and simply said ‘ok, time to move on’. I was terribly sad, and I still cry now when I think about him. But I understand what happened and I understand that my dad’s life is over. His existence is remembered by his family and friends, but he himself is gone and even though it makes me sad, I’m ok with knowing that’s how it is. I don’t like that my dad is dead, but I like knowing that he had a life – a good life –and that I was lucky enough to be not only part of it, but a result of it. 

I think being an atheist makes me strong, but not emotionless. I think being an atheist make me appreciative of the facts, without being cold. I think being an atheist lets me love the life I have and helps me understand that I get one chance at it. 

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Marriage equality.

It is expected that next week the Australian senate will vote on the issue of marriage equality. At this stage it looks like the 'for' side is about 8 votes short of victory with 16 senators either undecided or with their view unpublicised. 

I took the time to write to each of the undecided senators from my home state and wanted to share the email here: 

Dear Senator . 

Australia is a nation that prides itself on giving people a fair go. We want to be known as a country that is for equal opportunity and against discrimination. 

I ask you to please take the time to read some points below, and with this in mind I urge to to vote in favour of marriage equality in the upcoming senate vote. 

There is no valid reason to keep couples of the same sex from marrying. Marriage is not owned by religion, therefore religion shouldn't be a factor. No one is asking any religion to perform a marriage that they feel goes against their teachings. Atheists are allowed to marry, clearly showing that marriage in Australia is irreligious. 

Marriage is not for the purpose of having children. We don't tell couples that can't, or don't want to have children, that they can't marry. We don't tell married couples that find out they can't have children that they must get divorced. To say that same-sex couples shouldn't marry because they can't have children is therefore a flawed argument.

Marriage equality is not a pathway to people marrying siblings, pets, or furniture. This is a slippery slope fallacy and is an invalid objection. The marriage equality debate is about allowing people in same-sex couples the right to marry each other. That is all. 

Given the above, I hope you understand that marriage is a way for two people to commit their lives to each other. It is for two people to make a bond with the partner of their choice, regardless of religion, or the desire for procreation. The commitment of marriage is not diminished if these people happen to be two women or two men, but our nation is less fair if we prohibit these marriages.

The Australian public supports marriage equality because the majority of people understand that a law that keeps same-sex couples from marrying whilst giving the privilege to opposite sex couples is discriminatory and hurtful and such laws have no place in a modern and fair Australian society. 

The world is moving forward and marriage equality is becoming the norm in more and more places. Common sense dictates that in a progressive and fair nation like our own, marriage equality is inevitable. The question is - are you going to be among the first to support it, or among the last to oppose it? 


Helping a new atheist

Back in the early days of my twitter account I gained a follower that was new to/on the verge of atheism, though I didn't know this detail at the time. 

I have her permission to write this blog but she'd like to remain anonymous so I'll call her Amy. If by some chance you happen to recognise who it is, please respect her wishes and don't publicize it.

Over time I received a few questions about atheism from Amy which I answered as openly and honestly as I could. I will answer genuine questions as best I can whether they be from atheists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, or Hellenistics. Being a vocal atheist and then refusing to answer questions would pretty much defeat the purpose. 

After a little while Amy sent me a message asking me to follow her so she could DM me some more specific questions. I obliged. Amy hit me with a lot of questions, which made me quite happy. The questions were great because the showed a curiousness and a scepticism that is lacking is so many people. They were clearly from someone that was new to being an atheist. It was a pleasure to be able to assist. 

When she asked about an afterlife I said that for me, the year 3366 will be just like the year 1366. Amy replied: I'm borderline believer/non-believer and tbh you're making more sense than any religious person I've approached for answers :)

It was a great response. What could be better in this kind of exchange than being told you're making sense to someone that is clearly coming to terms with seeing the world in a new way?

The questions continued. Looking back now they seem more like thinking out loud than actual questions. It was like Amy already knew the answers but having someone to bounce her questions and ideas off gave her validation. I feel like I was confirming what she already knew, not telling her things she hadn't thought of. For example: 
Also, your views on God are just common sense, right? How can anyone have a solid belief in God? ... but why are there MILLIONS of religious people, they can't all lack common sense and all be brain washed, can they? So why do you think all these religious people deny the fact that there might actually be nothing out there? do you think it's because they're afraid about going to hell, afraid that God will hate them, their reputation, what family will think of them? Disobeying parents?

As you can see, a lot of good questions to be asking, especially when atheism is new to you. I would always try to explain what I thought, and more importantly, why I thought it. Trying to give valid reasoning and, of course, trying to make sense. It was important to me that I didn't tell Amy what to think. It wasn't my goal to turn her into an atheist. I wanted to help her find her own answers. 

The conversations and questions continued and we developed a very cool relationship. One that I think benefits both of us. Not only is Amy getting answers that she's looking for (for the record I have encouraged her, on more than one occasion, to speak with other atheists also), but I also am challenged to think and to assess why I think the way I do. Amy's questions keep me on my toes. I have helped Amy become and get more comfortable being an atheist, she has helped me be a better atheist. 

Our conversations revealed that Amy wasn't just religious in a church going sense, she was culturally religious, which includes being the child of very religious parents and everything that goes along with that. With that in mind, after several months of answering her questions, I thought it my turn to ask Amy a question. The question was 'What lead you down the path of atheism'? Her answer impressed me and is the reason I wanted to write this entry. I wanted to share her response with the people that follow me on twitter and that read this blog.

Her answer:

Growing up, I was forced to go to do certain rituals and go to the Temple, but I never really knew what I was doing or why and my parents didn't teach me. This time last year I believed in a god, I don't know which one, I don't know if I believed in all of them, or just god. There were doubts, but I didn't really give it any thought, I didn't care, my belief never affected my lifestyle. September last year I started a college where about 80% of the people were Muslim.  I met girls my age, 17 at the time, who were practising Muslims and I was just so shocked at their lifestyle. How what they wore completely covered their bodies, they never spoke to any boys, they didn't even talk to their male cousins??? They didn't listen to music or watch TV and I was just confused as to why a teenage girl would pick to have that kind of life. If you're going to sacrifice so much and dedicate your life wholly to a religion, you have to be 100% sure it's the correct one. But their religion was the one their parents brought them up in, and their confidence frustrated me because they lived in a bubble. The more I learnt from them, the more I began to doubt religion and god. Like, I asked why their god allowed me to be brought up in a Hindu family - because that's just a straight ticket to hell, right? I was told that I'm expected to revert to Islam, if not, then I'm going to hell. Ok so there are thousands of non-Muslims that die everyday, and they're all going to hell because god allowed them to be brought up in a non-Muslim family, and he's fully aware of this yet he's still allowing it to happen? I mean, how many happen? How many people actually convert to another religion?? If he wanted people to convert, why doesn't he make Islam more convincing, or give some evidence??? Why doesn't he eradicate all the false religions? Or does he just not care about non-Muslims? It's like they never questioned anything at all and it made me realise how much shit can be drilled into your head as a kid, and you'll end up following it because it just always seems like the right thing to do. So I just started thinking maybe I was a taught a whole load of shit too, just like everyone else, about Hinduism and just about god as well. By Christmas I sort of knew I was an atheist. But I wasn't comfortable at all, I had a hard time admitting it to myself. After a couple of months, and after talking to you too, I could accept it.

When I read this initially I tweeted about it immediately. I'm sure many of you reading it can relate to a lot of what Amy said. You can almost see her going from theist to atheist as she speaks. I've read it a few times now and it still makes me smile. I love "Why would god allow me to be brought up in a Hindu family". But this part is the stand out for me:  It's like they never questioned anything at all and it made me realise how much shit can be drilled into your head as a kid, and you'll end up following it because it just always seems like the right thing to do. So I just started thinking maybe I was a taught a whole load of shit too, just like everyone else, about Hinduism and just about god as well. By Christmas I sort of knew I was an atheist.

That's it in a nutshell. The lack of questioning of the truly devout is telling. It should be setting off alarm bells for everyone that values truth. Obviously for Amy it did. As you can see, Amy was well on the way to atheism before she ever spoke to me, but I still feel kind of proud that I've helped. Like I said, I didn't tell her to be an atheist, but I've helped her find the answers to her own questions, and I've helped her make sense of her own doubts. I've experienced some very cool moments with my twitter account. I've received wonderful feedback from many of my followers and I'm followed by people whose work I really admire, which is quite an honour. It all makes doing this worth it. To know people are listening and enjoying what I'm doing makes me happy to keep going. But if Amy was my only follower and helping her be more comfortable with being an atheist was the only thing I achieved as MrOzAtheist, then it would still be worth it. 

Amy and I still communicate via the direct messages and I'm glad I'm still here to help. Amy has many, many questions :) She's not officially 'out' to all her family and friends yet so I imagine that that will be another huge step for her. When that happens I hope I can help her deal with that too. 

Since I've called this blogpost 'Helping a new atheist' I'll let her have the word...

You're just a constant reminder to me that I've made the right decision :)

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Atheists have nothing to live for.

There seems to be a theme among some theists that atheists have nothing to live for, that we have no purpose in life, they question why we even bother to live. 

What though are we meant to be living for? Do some theists see this life as nothing more than a qualifying period for the 'next' one? Are they simply biding their time until they make it through to the 'afterlife'? I would see that kind of existence as such a waste. It's almost like this life doesn't truly matter to them, that it's simply to fill in time until they can move to this heaven place. It's as though they're treating this life as nothing more than a waiting room. Who enjoys spending time in a waiting room? 

There are others that seem to think they are here to fulfil their god's purpose. I have had one person tell me they are proud to be a slave for their god. I couldn't believe it. How is that 'something to live for'. Where is the individual? Where is the human being? What is going on, what has happened to a person that they would actually desire this kind of existence? It amazes me that a person can think so little of themselves that they are proud to live as their master's slave.

I'm not going to just criticise what some theists think they're living for though. I want to talk about what I, as an atheist, do have to live for. This won't be the case for all atheists of course. We all have different loves, different ideals, and different desires. But what it will show is that despite being an atheist, I do in fact have something to live for. 

First, and I would guess for most people quite obviously, is family. I have two children and a partner that bring me happiness in ways that I lack the words to describe it. I have loved watching my children develop into kind, friendly, thoughtful, and funny people. I share with them both their highs and lows. Yes they make me angry sometimes and yes dealing with their less appealing attributes can be frustrating but they are a positive part of my life. My partner is a wonderful and caring person that makes me incredibly happy. She understands me so well (or at least can deal with me well when she doesn't understand me) and I cherish the time I get to spend with her. My life is a better thing with them in it. 

I don't think I really need to add more to the above to justify having something to live for. The reasons I've just given are surely enough on their own. But that's not it. There's so much more. 

I've sat next to my best friend when our team, Collingwood, won the AFL Grand Final. The 30 seconds before and the 30 seconds after the end of the match add up to the best minute I've ever lived.  We suffer through loses and ride the highs of victories. My partner, my daughters and I look forward to it each week in winter and enjoy getting ready and travelling to the match together. It's a club that we are all part of, that we share with tens of thousands of others. Some don't understand the passion others have for a sporting team, and I understand that. But that diminish what it means for us? No, it doesn't. 

My life is full of music. I've been a huge Metallica fan since the mid 80s and was lucky enough to meet them in 2010. I'm going to see Radiohead later this year. Last time they came here they had to leave early as singer Thom Yorke got a throat infection and I didn't get to see them. The upcoming concerts have been a long time in the making and have had me excited for months. I love discovering new music. Whether it's artists that are new to the industry or discovering someone that has been around for years, finding something 'new' is terrific. I also love going to concerts. I've had many great times at them and then spend time remembering them days, weeks, and even years later. 

I have a huge collection of books including dozens of Stephen King 1st editions which I like to collect, the 4 million+ words of The Wheel of Time, and all things Nick Earls and Matthew Reilly. Too many to list here. I love reading them, and I love just looking at them too. I've spent hours in the worlds of Roland Deschain, and Rand al'Thor, to name just two. There's also the non-fiction books that help me learn and grow as a person and give me knowledge that I can then share with others.

There's movies. I try to watch at least one a week. Whether it's something new or revisiting a classic. I get enjoyment from showing my partner something I've seen many times but she's watching for the first time, and I enjoy having her show me something that is one of her favourites. I get enjoyment from taking turns with my children selecting a movie for 'movie night'. We laugh together and cry together. We congratulate each other on good choices and have fun ragging on each other for bad choices (Cars 2, you suck!). I enjoy television too. It's not all great, of course, but I'm happy to have enjoyed The West Wing's dialogue, the daydreaming of JD in Scurbs, and the latest sting from Nate and the team in Leverage. 

And of course there's friends. Friends are such a wonderful part of life. Sharing time with them, knowing they can make you laugh, and knowing you can make them laugh. Whether it's dinner at a nice restaurant, a few drinks after work, or meeting up for a BBQ in summer, spending time with friends is important. I love it. 

You should know that the above is just a snapshot and I could go on, but even so the above is enough. Even if you don't think these things are good enough to live for, it doesn't matter. I do - that's what matters. Because that's what I'm talking about here - what I've got to live for. That even though I'm an atheist, I do have things to live for.

Put together, what all these things add up to, for me, is life itself.

That's what I live for - life. There's learning about yourself, about others, and about the universe in which we live. There's those experiences that you can't plan. The times that you're not expecting but they happen anyway. The spontaneous laughs with mates, the movie that you keep replaying in your head, the song you sing loud to yourself, over and over, the book that makes you cry, the TV show that makes you want to hug someone you love because Dawn and Tim end up getting together. There's a late night with a good friend, talking about anything and everything and you simply enjoy being in their company and suddenly the sun's coming up. There's simple pleasures like sharing a funny photo with a work colleague, reading a tweet that makes you laugh out loud, and bigger things like showing up to see your daughter receive an award at school, sing in the school choir, or receiving an phone call form your partner telling you she's been promoted. I could go on and on but by now it should be obvious - there's SO many things to live for and not one of them requires belief in a god. 

So the next time some theist tells me that because I'm an atheist I have nothing to live for, I'll point them to this blog entry. They may not like the things I live for, they may not agree that they're worth living for but that doesn't matter because clearly it's not nothing. Clearly I do have something to live for and that's what they need to understand. 

Friday, 31 August 2012

Losing my religion.

I was born, at a young age, into a large Catholic family - Dad the second eldest of 10 kids. As previously noted in this blog I was christened, like most babies in Catholic families, without my consent and without any knowledge of what was happening. With never having a choice, I was a suddenly a Roman Catholic. 

I was enrolled in a Catholic school, taught by nuns, went to church each Sunday. At least this wasn't a trek as the Church and School were both literally next door to my house. We were Catholics and for quite some time I didn't know anybody wasn't. My family, including uncles, aunties, and cousins, were catholic, my friends were catholic, my school was catholic. I was living in a catholic world, I didn't yet know anything outside it. As my family grew, there were weddings and Christenings all of which took place in Catholic churches. Not only did I 100% believe in the story of Jesus and the god of the bible, I didn't know I couldn't. I had no idea not believing was an option. Adam and Eve were the first people. Noah built a boat because the world was going to be flooded. Jesus was crucified for my sins (huh?) and I was to apologize for that for the rest of my life. Oh, and everything in a person's life that made you feel even slightly good was something to feel guilty about. I believed all this as though it was completely true. No doubts, no questions. 

A big change came when the Church, which owned the house in which my family lived, decided they wanted to use the land on which the house stood. We had to move and did so to an area where getting to the Catholic school wasn't an option. It was the end of a 26 year run of a member of my family being enrolled at the school. So off to the government school it was, with a weekly dose of religious instruction at school and Sunday School (which took place on Saturday morning), to keep up the religious studies. I'm not sure if the move to the government school fast-tracked my move to atheism or not but I am sure it helped in not getting me even further into religion. Perhaps if I'd stayed at the Catholic school I'd be a priest now. Who knows? 

I've mentioned before that my earliest memory of testing my doubt was cooking red meat on Good Friday. I had grown up being told that eating red meat on Good Friday was an absolute no-no. I assumed that if I did it, I would be instantly struck down and sent to hell. But somewhere between the ages of 10 and 12 the idea lost it's grip on me and there was something inside me that drove me to test it out. 

So on a Good Friday I was home (I assume alone, or perhaps inside alone, I can't remember) with a steak ready to go. I don't have great memory of cooking it but I do remember clearly cutting a piece of the steak and bringing it to my mouth. I was scared. At this stage I still believed in hell, it was just that I needed to test the idea that eating meat on Good Friday would actually send me there - there was simply something about it that didn't seem true. I was shaking slightly. I remember my heart beating hard. I put the meat in my mouth and started chewing. Of course nothing happened. I was still in the kitchen. Nothing felt weird. There was no lightning, no brimstone. It tasted no different to any steak I'd previously eaten. I was a kid eating at steak on Good Friday, and I was on the path to being an atheist. 

I started wondering more about the bible. I didn't understand why there were some parts of it we lived by - we believed in Jesus, we celebrated Easter (not Eostre) and Christmas (not Saturnalia) for religious reasons, the 10 commandments were important - that sort of thing. But there were other parts we ignored - we worked on the Sabbath, eating shellfish wasn't a problem, we no longer went to church regularly. Although I still believed, I was starting to have serious doubts about the whole story. I had questions that weren't answered properly. I was never satisfied with 'god moves in mysterious ways'. It always felt like a cop-out to me. I also started to realise that what we were learning from science contradicted what was said in the bible. I remember my dad telling me that science explained religion. God created Adam and Eve...via evolution. I almost believed it.

After primary school I attended a government high school, stopped going to church, and was really a non-practising catholic. I still believed, but it didn't matter. Religion and being religious played no significant role in my life whatsoever. 

As we know though, religion is an impossible subject to escape. As I lived through the first five years after high school, when the subject came up, I found myself being less and less of a believer and more and more of a doubter. I struggled with justifying the problem of evil. I became more and more interested in all things astronomy, which lead me to detailed answers to the hows and whys of what was going on and away from the god-moves-in-mysterious-ways type 'answers'. I started wondering why not everyone was catholic. I wondered why people in certain areas were one religion while people in other areas were different. And I wondered why religions came and went and I found more and more things that science could tell me but religion could not. It slowly but steadily got to the point where my belief was all but gone. 

One day I was riding Puffing Billy with my then partner. We were talking about various things as couples do, when the subject of god came up. It was during that conversation I realised that my belief was no longer just diminishing, it was gone. 

The process had taken years. The idea of hell one of the hardest things to shake. I had thought about it and had come to a significant realisation. 

I was now an atheist. 

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

"Prove God doesn't exist" - Really?

Honestly surprised that I feel the need to write a post on this subject. I would have thought this kind of argument would have been taught out of people during the early stages of primary school. 

However, it is something that comes up quite often. A theist will make a claim that I question and their retort is '[you can't] prove god doesn't exist'. Through the twitterverse you can almost hear them sticking their tongue out and saying something like "ner nerny ner ner". 

The 'argument' is, of course, ridiculous and I'm sure the vast majority of people that follow my MrOzAtheist account on twitter will see the flaws with it immediately. So if you feel no need to continue reading, please be my guest and move on to something else. Perhaps one of my earlier blog entries may do? :) The purpose of this post is more to point theists to in the event that this argument comes at me again. 

"Prove God doesn't exist" (Always with the unnecessary capitalisation of god). My usual response, once I've stopped sighing and shaking my head, is to wonder if this person applies this 'argument' to anything other than their god. Are they saying that they will believe in anything that can't be disproved? It should seem obvious what kind of trouble this could lead to but perhaps that doesn't occur to people. I could claim to be the personification of the god they happen to believe in and tell them that they need to give me all their money. Would they comply? Of course not. Because despite them not being able prove my claim is false, I have given them absolutely no reason to think I am, in fact, their god. So if 'you can't prove I'm not your god' doesn't work on them, why would they think 'you can't prove god doesn't exist' would work on me? 

The argument also fails to consider that it can be applied to any of the numerous gods and goddesses that the person does NOT believe in. If someone believes that the inability to disprove one god justifies belief, they must admit that they should believe in ALL gods - based on that premise. Sure, I can't prove that Yahweh doesn't exist but I also can't prove Apollo doesn't exist. Wouldn't this mean the person using the argument must now believe in all Greco-Roman mythology? It does, but they wouldn't. Why? Do they actually understand that an inability to disprove the existence of a being, is NOT sufficient reason to believe that it does exist? I think they do understand this. I think the 'Well you can't prove God doesn't exist' line is a last minute, desperate attempt by someone that realises all their other arguments have failed and they've got nothing left. It is infantile. 

The phrase also ignores the burden of proof issue. When someone tells me I should believe that the god they happen to believe in is real and I'm grilling them about why, I have no burden of proof. We all know that they have made the claim and I'm simply trying to get them to justify it. To resort to telling me that I can't prove that god doesn't exist is completely nonsensical. Sure, if I was to make the claim that their god does not exist, I would expect to be asked to defend that position, however, when I'm simply de-constructing the argument they're putting forward, and not making a claim of my own: that I can't prove their god doesn't exist, is irrelevant. 

To finalize, if we ever have a discussion about the existence of the god you believe in and you resort to 'prove god doesn't exist', you have failed. 

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The prayer challenge.

Even when I was a believer I couldn't really understand the purpose of prayer. We used to pray at church and when I stayed over at my grandparent's house or cousin's house. I couldn't understand what we were doing. Though christening me before I was old enough to 1) Object and 2) Know what was happening, mum and dad weren't really strict on religious rituals at home. They sent me to a Catholic school (according to one of the nuns/teachers, when I left that school it was the end of a 26 year run of one of my family members being enrolled there). Apart from that, church on Sunday was pretty much the limit. 

I've since come to understand that prayer is really for the person doing the praying, rather than for the people being prayed for. When praying for the victims of a tragedy, the pray-ers feel like they're doing something. They feel like they're helping fix the situation. There's plenty of quotes about what's going on here. One that I really like is "One pair of hands working does more than 1000 clasped in prayer" This feels very accurate for me. 

But going back to the purpose of prayer - what exactly are we trying to achieve. The kind of prayer I'm talking about is the one directed to an omniscient god. The god that knows not only that we are going to pray, but when we're going to pray and what we're going to pray for. 

I recently saw on twitter that someone tweeted they were praying to find a missing girl. It's lovely that this person was concerned for the welfare of the missing girl and of course I don't have a problem with that. Who could? What I didn't understand was what he thought he prayer would achieve. I asked a couple of questions, but never got answers. I guess the questions may have been seen as an 'attack' but I was genuinely curious. I asked whether the god that was being prayed to was waiting for this person to pray before ensuring the girl would be found safely. Or perhaps there was a target number that the god required. Maybe if 9,999 people pray the girl is never found, but once the 10,000th person gets on board, the right police officer knocks on the right door at the right time and she's found safe and returned to her family. Of course the god in question knows these people are going to pray so why wait for the right number? It's not like those people know how many others are praying. Why not let the missing girl be found immediately since he knows that the right amount of people are going to pray? (Of course it's a different topic to question why he would allow the girl to go missing in the first place). When the person is praying, are they asking god to do something that he wouldn't have otherwise thought of (despite knowing everything about everything forever)? Do they think that god is sitting(?) there, knowing that someone is missing and wishing he could do something about it? He then receives a prayer from Tommy in Jacksboro, Texas, asking god that the missing girl is found safe and well and god thinks Ah Ha! That's what I can do...I can save her! Thanks Tommy. I doubt this is what the fictitious Tommy is expecting, so why is he bothering to pray? 

Natural disaster is also a big time for prayer. Whether it be earthquake, tsunami, bushfire, or cyclone, when something catastrophic happens the pray-ers of the world get fired up and try to encourage as many people as they can to join them. Twitter will always see a new hashtag get created. #PrayForJapan for example. Again I need to question what people think they're going to achieve. Whatever the natural disaster is, people that believe in prayer must necessarily believe that the god they're praying to allowed the disaster to occur. Are they assuming that their god of choice is unaware of the destruction he has caused? Do they think he's sitting there with all the angels saying 'hey, check this out' then creates an earthquake before boasting about all the buildings he made collapse? Is it only when the prayers start arriving asking that people survive the disaster that god realises that maybe people aren't 100% happy with what's going on? Does Michael or Gabriel (or their equivalent) need to tap this god on the shoulder and say 'Um god...the humans aren't happy with that earthquake. They're asking if you can save some of the people'. We must not forget that this is an omniscient god. He knew before he allowed the earthquake to happen that people wouldn't be happy. He knew before the earthquake that people were going to ask that people be saved. So given that god knows all this, and he knows this beforehand...why are people praying to him? What is the goal of the prayer? 

When a tsunami hit Japan I received some criticism on twitter for saying 'rather than praying for Japan, why not do something useful and donate'. The criticism wasn't from a religion person. They asked who I was to say what was useful and what wasn't. They questioned why it was a bad thing to pray, suggesting that a person sitting on the other side of the world might feel completely useless and that praying might be the way the can feel like they're contributing. This goes back to what I said at the start - praying is for the person doing the praying, not the person being prayed for - and praying is certainly not for the god being prayed to. One religious friend said that rather than needing donations over prayers, we need both. Although I concede that maybe there could be an argument made for saying that people being prayed for could take comfort from knowing that although people are unable to help, at least the victims are in their thoughts, the same arugument could be made for simply letting the victims know. 'We haven't forgotten you, you are in our thoughts'. How would this be any less affective than 'we're praying for you'?

The discussion about prayer versus donations lead me to write something that to this day is still one of my favourite tweets of mine. I said 'Tell you what, put all the prayers in one warehouse and all the donations in another warehouse and let the Japanese take their pick'. 

Being an atheist with a twitter account means I get to hear a phrase pretty much daily. I'm sure you can guess what it is... 'I'll pray for you'. Yep, this is the way many theists choose to end a discussion - 'I'll pray for you'. It has been described to me as being passive/aggressive. There is certainly something about it that feels threatening, though I'd be surprised to learn that it's ever meant that way. I'm sure it's genuine. I'm sure the person saying it feels that letting me know they're praying for me should be seen as a good thing (it's not). There is the old response 'I'll think for you'. But I prefer to ask why they would pray for me when the could be praying for a child starving to death. I've said 'rather than do that, why not spend the time reading a science book'. I've also told them that I'm being prayed for by many, many people and I'm still an atheist, and that their praying is simply a waste of time. 

This leads me to issuing the prayer challenge which I first saw on The Atheist Experience. It was given by Matt Dillahunty in response to a caller asking what would convince Matt that god was real and is borrowed by me here. 

I don't believe in god, therefore I necessarily don't believe in prayer. It might, however, be possible to convince me simultaneously that these things are real. 

The Prayer challenge:
If you believe there is a god, and if you believe that this god answers prayers do this - Pray to your god and have them tell you what you can do to convince me he/she is real. Once you have this information, come back to me. Present that information. I will then be a believer. 

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Respect all beliefs? I don't think so.

"We should all respect each other's beliefs". 

This is the view of some of the more moderate believers that I encounter. On the surface it seems admirable and something I would support. Why wouldn't we respect what people believe? It seems very basic and straight forward. You respect what I believe, I respect what you believe, and we all get along and maybe have a beer and a BBQ. 

Of course, if it was that simple, I wouldn't be writing this post.

The problem is, beliefs guide actions and actions can and do impact on others - sometimes that impact is negative and it happens regardless of whether the person being impacted shares the belief or not. This kind of unjustified negative impact is, of course, unacceptable. 

"Homosexuality is a 'sin' and same-sex couples don't deserve the right to marry."  This is probably the classic case of a person being negatively impacted by the beliefs of others. In Australia (and many other places of course), if you and your partner happen to be of the same gender, you're not allowed to get married to each other. You see someone somewhere (read: many people, many places) 'believes' that marriage should be restricted to being between a man and a woman. For reasons that are almost universally religiously motivated (and if it's not religiously motivated, it's political motivation based on the religiosity of others) people have declared that same sex couples don't deserve to have the same status as a mixed gender couple. It is obvious discrimination, sanctioned by government, and based on nothing but the unsubstantiated beliefs of the religious. 

I have no reason to respect the belief that says there's something 'wrong' with someone being attracted to the same sex. It's a hurtful belief. It's a discriminatory belief. It says 'I don't think you deserve the rights that I enjoy myself'. There is nothing there worthy of my respect. 

I once tweeted  When people say 'everyone's beliefs should be respected' remember - The Westboro Baptist Church do what they do because of their 'beliefs'. I don't know anyone that supports the Westboro Baptist Church. I don't know anyone that would defend them and their actions. Not one sane person thinks that what the Westboro people do is good for society. In case you're not familiar, this is them:

Yep, these people not only involve themselves, they also involve their children. They picket the funerals of soldiers killed in action. They picket the funerals of well known people that supported the gay/lesbian community. They are despicable, vile, and awful people. But make no mistake, this do this because of what they 'believe'. They really do believe their god hates 'fags'. They really do believe their god is punishing America because America allows homosexuality.  This is hateful. It's disgusting behaviour and I do not and will not respect the belief that drives it. 

The above two examples are obvious illustrations of how a belief can drive a person to think they have the right to infringe on other people but this certainly isn't the limit. It would be a massive post if I listed all the examples.There's examples of genital mutilation of both boys and girls, people dying of curable diseases because people prayed rather than seeking professional medical care, children indoctrinated into religions without their consent, Muslim children being cut during Ashura, and many more, not the least of which are racism and sexism. All of these are examples of where someone's *baseless* belief has impacted on the lives of others. I guess it's up to the individual to decide whether or not that impact is a negative. (Someone trying to make a case to me that it's a positive to have a person die because medical attention wasn't sought would have a very hard time convincing me they are right). 

These kinds beliefs are hurtful, they are discriminatory, they are negatives. From where I sit, none of these beliefs are worthy of my respect. Respect should be earned, not be given away by default. People should be able to say 'this is what I believe, this is why I believe it, and this is the impact on others'. Upon receiving this information I'll decide whether or not to respect the belief. I don't need to respect a belief simply because someone has it.

Before I'm done, let me clarify something. I respect everyone's right *to believe* whatever they like. You want to believe a god exists...go for it. You want to believe said god has a problem with homosexuals, that's up to you. You want to believe some really old bloke built an ark, put something around 5 million species of animal on it and then floated around on a body of water large enough to cover the peak of Mt Everest and that this happened only 6000 years my guest. In fact, I support your right to believe any asinine, boneheaded, ridiculous, made up, preposterous, piece of crap, bullshit, unscientific, mythical story you like. Two things: One - Don't expect me to be ok with you using those beliefs for infringing on the lives of others. Two - Don't expect me to respect it.

Friday, 3 August 2012

What I do and why I do it.

I started my twitter account ‘MrOzAtheist’ a little over a year ago because I found myself getting into a few arguments with theists on my everyday twitter account and my mentions (yes, apparently a ‘mentions’ is something you have now) filled with arguing.

I didn't want to overwhelm my regular account with atheist tweeting/debating but I didn't want to give it up either, so MrOzAtheist got created. I followed other atheists (the first few being MattDilahunty, MsPraxis, RosaRubicondior, Monicks, GodlessAtheist, UTBrainstorm, Secular_Oz, kaimatai, and ReneeHendricks all of whom I still follow) and quickly found I enjoyed reading their tweets;  learning a lot from the things they were saying and the links they were providing. It was helping me grow and become more comfortable as an atheist.

Looking through twitter for the words ‘atheist’ and ‘atheists’ not only lead me to fellow atheists and the things they were saying but also exposed me to things theists were saying or asking about atheists. I had no idea they were so concerned about us. Sometimes the questions or statements were genuine, but often they were ridiculous (No atheists in foxholes, do atheists have to swear on the bible, can atheists get insurance for acts of god, being three of the most common examples of the latter).

I did and still enjoy answering the genuine questions. I’ve encountered many theists that have had limited or no exposure to atheists and their understanding of what being an atheist reflects this. They think all sorts of things about us that just aren’t true so sometimes I try to help. It can be quite rewarding to have a theist reply with something like ‘oh, I didn’t know that, thanks for letting me know’. Yes, it does happen.

For the more nonsensical or asinine tweets I use a style of answering these by quoting the original tweet and adding “//” before writing my reply.

“@twitterTheist When atheists go to court do they have to swear on the bible” // Yes, but we have to wear a fire proof glove.  

Their part being before the // and mine being after. These are what I call my smart arse tweets. I do this when the question is probably not genuine and certainly not original. I do this to have a bit of light-hearted fun. It amuses me, if but for a moment. That it seems to amuse others occasionally is a bonus and something I enjoy experiencing.

Then, of course, there are the genuine replies to theists. The ones where a theist will make a claim about atheists, it’s clearly wrong, and I question them or correct them. These responses lead to a kind of debating doesn’t really lead anywhere. Neither party is going to walk away with their mind changed. So why do it? Because I think it’s important to let theists know that atheists DO speak back. That we don’t just sit here and take rubbish being thrown at us. Sure I’m not going to convince these people that they’re wrong, that’s not the point. I want them to learn that atheists stand up for themselves. I want them to walk away knowing that atheists aren’t a group that you can slander without questioning. I want them to learn that if you say dumb things about atheists on the internet, you will receive replies, and many of them. I tweet to them to get this message out.

Lastly and maybe most importantly I tweet the way I do because not all atheists can. Not all atheists live in countries where being an atheist is acceptable. Not all atheists live in communities where being an atheist is acceptable. Not all atheists live in a family where being an atheist is acceptable. As I said in one of my more popular tweets – “I wish theists would understand that atheists are not vocal just to argue with them, we're vocal so other atheists know they're not alone.” It is a wonderful by-product of what I do that other atheists appreciate it. There is what I think of as an atheist community on twitter and I very much enjoy being part of it, I like feeling included and I like feeling that I'm making a contribution, even if is a small one. I feel that the more atheism is accepted somewhere, the more likely it will be accepted everywhere.

It’s a wonderful thing to be told that my words are enjoyed or that I’m inspiring, or that I say the things they wish they could say. To know that what I do means something to people and helps people gives me the confidence to keep going and gives me the hope that maybe the atheist point of view is getting somewhere. I feel proud that I help people, even if it is something small at 140 characters and time, and I hope to keep doing it. Realising you’re an atheist, especially if you’re in a religious family, is not always an easy thing to deal with. Knowing that my words have helped with this is great. Probably the most significant moment I had was when someone told me I am the reason they are now an atheist. Of course not the sole reason, the doubts and questions obviously had existed for quite some time, but talking to me gave her the ‘final nudge to the non-believer side’. 

That is why I do what I do.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Trolling for atheists

Each person’s twitter is their own and I’m not about to tell someone what they should and shouldn't do with their own twitter account.

But that does not mean I cannot question it, or that I need to understand it. Trolling for atheists is  one such thing that I do not understand. To get online, tweet deliberately inflammatory statements just to elicit reactions that you know will come your way. To then argue for a random period of time, only to then admit the ruse our simply fade away back to twitter obscurity – except for the tweets to friends and followers detailing what you’ve *achieved* so they can join you in mocking the ‘stupid atheists’.

The thing the trolls or “Poes” seem to fail to understand is that for every one of them there’s numerous people that ACTUALLY believe the things they’re saying. Sometimes they’re easy to detect with a quick glance at previous tweets – if someone’s timeline consists almost exclusively of Pokémon tweets and then there’s a ‘watch this’ followed by ‘Hitler did what he did because he’s an atheist and atheists are evil’ then chances are that’s probably not a legitimate tweet. But there are other’s that a less easy to distinguish (in the past I was not good at spotting them so I’ll take a moment to thank those that help me out by letting me know I’ve engage with a known troll/Poe. I am improving.).

At the extreme end are the accounts that are consistent; they don’t break character and persist with their claims for god and denunciations of atheists ad nauseam. They are essentially indistinguishable from genuine accounts and clearly the person or people behind them has seen fit, for reasons I’m unable to fathom, to dedicate a lot of time to the cause.
But shy of the extreme accounts we have people pretending to be people they’re not, simply, it seems, to waste the time of other people. Sometimes it’s even fellow atheists at the helm of the account. Perhaps they don’t like the way atheists are sanctimonious or arrogant or angry or whatever other negative stereotype seems to fit and they feel they have some duty to mess with people so they can somehow feel superior about themselves. Of course this is speculation, as previously stated, the motivation for such immature behaviour is beyond me.

I will say that I wish it didn’t happen, and not just because it wastes my time, but it wastes the time of others too. I don’t see the value in it. I don’t see how someone thinks this is a worthy contribution to anything. But I won’t go so far as to tell someone to stop. As I said at the opening, each person’s twitter is to do with what they please, and that includes being a time wasting dick.

What I will say though is if you engage in this behaviour and you do manage to spark some reaction, don’t feel like you’ve achieved something. Pretending to be an ignorant theist is easy. There are lots of them with their bizarre ideas and strange notions about the world in general and atheists in particular. Blending in with them is simple, it’s not an *achievement*. Pretending to be a believer having a go at atheists isn’t pulling off a great swindle. You haven’t orchestrated a sting that’s going to see you collect millions. You haven’t infiltrated a high security building and walked away with the information that will bring down a government. What you have done is pretended to be an idiot. 

So do it if you wish, but just know you’re nothing special.