Monday, 17 January 2011


Religion was one of my worries in coming to a developing country.  I was concerned that my position as a firm non-believer could lead to real difficulties in fitting in, and that the kind of awkward but well intentioned efforts at conversion that I have experienced from time to time in the past could be a regular occurrence.  In reality, it has not been a major problem.  It has felt a little awkward for me at times – there are prayers to begin almost every meeting or workshop, and attending a number of religious functions is necessary – but overall people are very tolerant of different beliefs, perhaps due to the melting pot of different sects and religions here.

I have had a few conversations with people who are astonished, appalled or baffled at my non-belief, but I have got much better at dealing with this than when I was an eighteen year old who saw the world much more in black and white.  I now go for an approach along the lines of ‘I believe that we don’t need God to be good to each other.  People are good because we like doing good, and I think that is a really great thing.  And the world is an amazing and beautiful place – we have nature, art, music, love and friendship. I don’t need to add anything else to that.’ The idea is to:
a)      show that atheism is possible and reasonable
b)      show that atheism is perfectly compatible with being good and
c)      convince them I am not Satan’s representative on earth.
If a), b) and c) don’t get me anywhere, then option d) - bore them enough to make them change the subject - normally does the trick.

Not being a churchgoer does close off one of the main avenues for becoming more integrated into the community. Church is the entirety of many people’s social life, and a real part of what ties communities together. Leisure options in this part of Guyana are almost entirely based around either Church or Drinking. Watching cricket or horse racing, dancing, liming come under Drinking; singing, sports clubs, praying are all done at church, or with a church group; and weddings and funerals are a bit of one and a lot of the other.

Living in a very religious culture for an extended period of time has given me a slightly different understanding of the effects of religion on individuals and societies.  For some people with desperate life situations, religion is the only thing left to hold on to.  And it is very easy here, especially for women, people with disabilities or those with little education, to find yourself with in a desperate life situation.  Religion can also bring focus and discipline in situations where turning to drink or drugs can be an easy option.  In some villages, women are very keen to recruit their husbands to the teetotal Bretheren church for this reason.  Some Churches also do excellent work for vulnerable people – for example, local orphanages in my town get a great deal of support from religious groups.  Finally, regular church going seems to do wonders for public speaking abilities.  It seems like everybody here can conjure up a rousing speech, with humour, intonation and heartfelt emotion, at the drop of a hat.

But there is definitely another side to the story.  Of course, in a mainly religious country, religious organisations are likely to be the main conduit for charity, but I suspect that secular Britain would match a similar but more religious country on charitable giving.  The Tea Party Republicans, for example, are by hardly a shining example of religious people filled with empathy and generosity.  And while churches bring the community of people who attend that church together, they can rip the wider fabric of a society apart. Racial divisions, which have plagued Guyanese politics ever since independence, are solidified by religious divides. This can be simply because of the social effects of people from the same ethnicity tending towards the same religions, but some groups (by no means all) actively preach intolerance for other sects or religions.

This happens even within very small towns. Evangelist Christian churches set up by American or European missionaries have taken over almost every Amerindian community in Guyana. I have heard a few times from Amerindian people in different areas of Guyana that these churches create serious divisions between people.  Some of the churches are open and inclusive, and regularly host larger meetings together with other groups, but others will preach hatred and intolerance towards other sects.  This can have terrible effects on small communities that were previously a single cohesive group.  There are villages of just fifty people where this kind of rivalry between churches has torn the society apart.

Closely related to this is the danger of intolerance of other lifestyles, whether that is women challenging gender roles by wearing trousers or of homosexuality. ‘Because god says so’ is arguably the last acceptable excuse for bigotry. I have personally never understood how one line in an obscure bit of the bible can trump all the stuff about love, understanding and supporting the downtrodden, but what do I know?

A final effect that I see religion having is to reinforce a lack of questioning of authority or critical thinking.  A common frustration for volunteers in Guyana working with many different organisations is that we find people seem to be unwilling to question authority, or to re-think how things are done.  This kind of attitude built into the structure of many organisations, especially the education system.  There is always a right or wrong answer – opinions and ambiguity are rarely, if ever, encouraged and discussed.  A good child is quiet, does their work, and gives the answer that the teacher wants to hear.  And a good follower of a religion is one who Believes.  No prophet (except Brian) has to my knowledge ever said ‘think for yourselves’ or ‘I could well be wrong’.  Religion is obviously only one factor that contributes to this way of thinking – the long history of slavery, indentured labour and colonialism, and the authoritarian governments that inherited the power structures left by the British clearly have a huge role to play – but I feel that until there is a change in the prevalence or attitude of many of the religious organisations here, the development of the country as a whole will be held back, and those who do begin to think differently and question how things are done will continue to move away.

But despite all this, my experience here has led me to believe that there is something that New Atheism / Scepticalism / Secular Humanism hasn’t yet come to grips with.

There are many religious objections to atheism.  Many of them are to do with the philosophical or scientific evidence for god.  These are mostly ‘god of the gaps’ type arguments, and I have not heard any that are at all persuasive, at least for anything other than a meaninglessly vague, non-specific idea of God.

The more powerful arguments are the ones that say, in one way or another, that what is true doesn’t really matter – it is the effect that belief can have on your life that matters. For those with science/logic type brains like mine, this gets nowhere.  I would rather be miserable and right.  For more normal people however an appeal to emotion can be very powerful, and for good reason. From my experience, you could break this argument down further into something like this:
Religion is the only way people will be good
Religion makes people happy
Religion gives a sense of awe/transcendence
Religion brings people together

The argument from morality is easily taken apart, by empirical evidence - 9/11, the Catholic Church covering up widespread paedophilia, the Spanish Inquisition etc etc - and by reason - ‘religious’ ethics seem to be quite flexible according to the wider societal norms of the time, and for most people an innate sense of right and wrong seems to trump the religious one. And when it doesn’t, the consequences can be horrific.

The happiness argument is a bit harder – religious belief is one thing that crops up in many large studies of happiness as a reliable factor in making people happier.  I think however that the field of positive psychology is showing the way forward here, with evidence that techniques such as meditation, mindfulness, exercise, doing good, and having a sense of purpose are powerful secular routes to the same end.

The sense of awe or transcendence argument simply evaporates if you were to spend a second in my brain while I am looking out over an amazing landscape (I haven't been there yet but really want to), listening to ‘Sir Duke’, learning how the brain works, or looking at Summertime, and I am sure every atheist in the world could give their own examples.

But, in the UK at least, the sense of community seems harder and harder to find, especially as ‘the local as the hub of life is, outside of soap operas and sitcoms, more and more a thing of the past. We seem to be desperately searching for a community with common values, in the virtual world through Facebook or on internet forums where we can find people across the world who share our most obscure tastes, or in the real world through sport tribalism, music subcultures or book clubs. Maybe this splintering of smaller specialist groups is the future.  And maybe we will find ways to make that work.  But I hope that there is some way to bring that wider sense of community cohesion back.

By the way - think for yourselves. I could well be wrong.

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