Saturday, 29 September 2012

Days 12 & 13: Is that a bug or a feature?

Day 12 was another perfunctory affair.

Today, I waited until I was a little more awake.  I find it easier to concentrate if I'm not on the verge of losing consciousness!

I began with the usual: thanks and a prayer for revelation.

On the Facebook page for the Atheist Prayer Experiment, a number of Christians have suggested that the participating atheists try repenting, or at least asking God to help them with personal problems.

I've resisted the repentance aspect, because it is so tied in with a particular brand of theism, whereas my aim in this experiment is to invite anything that thinks it fits the word "god" to show itself to me.  Also, there are bad habits that I'm quite attached to.  I'm not proud of being attached to them, but I am.  Even worse, I'm attached to being attached to them.  I don't even want to want to change.

That said, there are of course parts of my life I'd like to change.

While I was on my knees, I thought of several things.  The main thing I'd like to change is my energy levels.  I work two days a week and struggle even to do that.  I often end up working from home because I'm ill, run down or otherwise exhausted.  As I prayed, a part of me wondered if I sometimes use this as an excuse.  Then another part of me piped up: "Stop giving yourself such a hard time - you're on immunosuppressant medication and your body has been through a lot".  Then a third part said, "Would you stop over-analysing and get your head out of your arse?"  - which is probably what you're thinking, dear reader.

This links back to my last autobiographical post about hoping to change things which, frankly, it would be wiser for me to accept and accommodate.  There's that old prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference."

That third part is a bugger.

I don't know how to handle my lack of energy.  I don't know whether or not it's something I can change.  I'd like whatever it is I'm talking to - be it God, a wise part of me, whatever - to help me with that.

How I lost my faith (2)

My mother tells me I changed overnight, from a happy-go-lucky child to a rather intense individual.  I don't remember this, though I vividly recall my overnight stay in hospital the day before I had the blood tests and scans that confirmed my diagnosis.

I tried to fit what had happened into my 10-year-old understanding of God.  Was he punishing me?  I couldn't think of anything I'd done to deserve it, but God would know better if I had.  Perhaps God had chosen me to bear a special burden that would bring me closer to Him?  I tried to feel thankful for my illness.  These questions troubled me throughout my teens.  I never got an answer, but didn't blame God for what was happening to me.

In fact, I expressed very little emotion about my illness.  As I mentioned in my last post, my family was moving towards a more charismatic form of Christianity, which meant that the Christians around us believed in miraculous healing.  So did my parents.  So did I.

My family, my family's friends and others prayed for my kidneys to be healed miraculously.  I attended a lively, "Spirit-filled" youth group (I use quotes not to be offensive but because I don't believe in the Holy Spirit) where my friends and the group leaders regularly laid hands on me and prayed with me.  I would cry a lot.  This was pretty much the only emotional release I allowed myself, and I can't say with any certainty that I was crying about my illness.

During this period, I went to hospital about twice a year.  At each visit, they took blood to test the levels of urea and creatinine in my bloodstream.  Creatinine is a waste product of muscle metabolism which is almost all excreted by healthy kidneys; it is the primary marker doctors use to measure kidney function.

Each time I went, I took the memories of the prayers with me, the people who had "prophesied" that I would be healed, the message from the Bible and individual Christians that you needed faith to be healed.  I tried to believe.  I wanted to have faith.

But each time, the results came back, I had worsened.  Each time, it became more difficult to have faith - too painful to raise my hopes only to have them crushed.

Nevertheless, I kept believing.  I was passionate about God and Jesus and believed that he was active in the world through the Holy Spirit.  I wanted to be a part of that and sought to be his instrument in the world.

At 18, my renal function still declining, I went to university.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Days 9-11: Something not very nice

Days 9 and 10 were uneventful.

This morning, I said the usual prayer and spent time in thanks.  Then I thought, "Let's read Joshua 8."  Having decided to go along with these thoughts, I went to the bookshelf and picked up the well-thumbed Bible I got as a reward at Sunday School for memorising the order of all the books in the Old Testament.

Given the subject matter of Joshua, I suspected I wouldn't like what I read.  I didn't.

Chapter 8 is about the Hebrews taking the town of Ai.  All credit to Joshua's military acumen, but essentially it's a massacre.  The Hebrews slaughter everyone in Ai and burn the town to the ground.  This is framed as a glorious victory given by God to his people.

My first thought was that this story is vile; my second was that it fits well with my atheism.  If the story were in the annals of any other bronze-age tribe, I suspect most Christians would interpret it as the narrative of a primitive, warlike group attributing its victory to its (non-existent) deity.  That's how Joshua 8 reads to me.

My next thought was that if this was the will of the God I'm praying to in the mornings, then I really don't like him.   I wouldn't want to worship a God who is as hemmed in by us-and-themism as humans and orders the extermination of entire communities.  I would want to follow as God whose "us" is so all-embracing that there is no "them".

In fact, that's the sort of person I'd like to be.  Not that I'm anywhere near it!  The closest I've been to it was when I was regularly practising metta meditation.  And that's a Buddhist practice.

Buddhism is atheistic.  Just don't ask me to believe in reincarnation.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Days 7 & 8: what I learned from the cat

Day 7 was another non-event day, though I did spend some time in gratitude, after day 6's thought/revelation/whatever it was.  On that score, I've decided that if that voice speaks to me again, I'll take on board what it says - as long as it sounds reasonable - without worrying too much about its origins.  (A commenter on my last post also suggested I do this.)

Today, I prayed downstairs, on my knees in the living room.  The cat was in the mood for morning affection and was winding round me, rubbing her face against me and rolling on her back for a tummy rub.  In the face of this furry temptation, I stood firm, steadfastly continuing with my prayer.  I asked God to reveal himself to me and spent some time being thankful for the good things in my life.  Including the furry temptation.

After the prayer, I tried to settle into a listening, meditative state, but the cat really wasn't having it.  She was working that cuteness to unignorable levels.  So I gave her a stroke and decided to direct my meditation towards her.

She came to me for a stroke, went over to her bowl to chow down a few biscuits, back to me, over to the window to look out on the garden, then back to me.  She was happy doing her thing completely unselfconsciously, without worrying about the meaning of her actions or her life.  (Or at least, if she was, it was not readily apparent.)

I can be so laden down with the significance of my life and my desire to make a difference.  Yet this little animal makes such a difference to my life without trying, simply by being herself.  I started laughing.  Within 70 years I'll be dead and the chances of anyone remembering me in 150 years are close to zero, and here I am worrying about my to-do list* and how to change the world.  I laughed some more.  Perhaps I make a difference just by being myself and should lighten the hell up.

I guess I got my lesson for today.

This is not to say that I think dealing with injustice is unimportant or that I should lie back and do nothing, because one day I'll die.  But sometimes it's good for me to zoom out and get a better perspective on my life.  As Bill Hicks said: "It's just a ride."


*Currently written on five toilet rolls

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Atheist Prayer Experiment: Days 5 & 6

To be honest, day 5 was a bit meh.  In terms of the praying, that is.  The day was alright.  The prayer time was difficult because my cat, who - like all cats - thinks she is God, was loudly demanding that I pay attention to her.  So I was unable to settle into it.

Today, I felt a lot of things.  For the first time, I got on my knees, in the hope that it would help me concentrate.  It kind of did.

I began with the usual prayer for revelation.  "God, you know me, you know I used to believe in you.  If you're there, please show yourself to me."

I felt fear.  What if God was there?  What if it was the God that I abandoned in my 20s - the God of the Bible?  A homophobic God who would demand that I dissolve my civil partnership (or at least never do anything more than hug my wife) and who thought, on balance, that it was better for me to go through three transplants than to heal me?  Not to mention a God who is happy to sit back and watch millions of people die of starvation, drown in floods, be crushed in earthquakes etc only to punish most of them for eternity for failing to believe something for which the evidence is pretty shoddy?  I really don't want that sod to be real.

Also, as a matter of personal pride, how bloody embarrassing would it be to discover I'd been wrong all these years?  How my atheist friends might mock me for so easily succumbing to auto-suggestion.  (I'm a suggestible person and I was aware, coming into this experiment, that I'd need to be wary of this.)

I also felt sad.  I have depression, which is treated but I've been ill this week and that often aggravates it.

A voice in my head seemed to speak.

"Would you like me to help your sadness?" 

"Yes please."

"Be thankful."

Was this God?  I'm pretty sure the Christians reading this will be thinking "Yes!"  Sorry, guys, I don't think it was.  I suppose it could have been, but I think it's far more probable that it was a part of me - a wise part to which I listen far too infrequently.  I used to spend more time in contemplation and often heard a wise voice.  Moreover, the idea that gratitude can help combat sadness is something I learned a long time ago, from friends.  I think the human brain is very good at digging up answers, given time to forage. 

My conclusion from the experiment so far is that while I am still an atheist, a few minutes' meditation at the start of each day is a worthwhile habit.


How I lost my faith (part 1)

I told Justin Brierley that I'd blog about how I lost my faith.  I'm afraid we're going to have to start waaaaay back.  This could take a while.  More than one post.

My parents took me to church from the time I was a foetus*.  The church we went to when I was a small child was a fairly solemn Anglican affair.  I usually enjoyed the services (except for the rock-hard pews), believed in God and made my first commitment to Jesus when I was four, sitting on the edge of the bed in our spare room.

When I was seven, my family moved to Sheffield.  Again, we chose a relatively sombre church to attend.  Life went on.

When I was about nine, my family went to stay with one of my mum's sisters and we went to her church.  The worship there was so different from anything I had ever encountered - lively, joyful, heartfelt.  Instead of following a liturgical text, expression was free.  At one point, we children stood in a circle in the centre of the room, while adults stood behind us, laying hands on our heads and asking God to bless us.  During that time, I felt a peaceful warmth suffuse me.

I was blown away by this experience.  This was the kind of Christianity I wanted!  I read books about the Holy Spirit and asked God to fill me.  One night, while sitting in bed praying, I began to speak in tongues.  My parents - mum in particular - noticed a change in me and became interested in charismatic Christianity.  A few years later, they moved to a more charismatic Anglican church.

In the meantime, however, my life was rocked by the discovery that I had chronic renal failure.  I was ten.  At some stage in the future, I would need dialysis or a transplant.

*Though probably not within a few days of my conception, since they were in Ibiza.  Too much information, mum.  Seriously.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Days 3 & 4: Where should I be looking again?

Yesterday and today, I have experienced mild euphoria and a sense of peace and clarity.  Not while asking God to reveal himself to me, but when calming my mind for an answer.  Oddly enough, the euphoria comes when I close my eyes; the feelings are very similar to what used to happen when I was a Christian.  The peace and clarity come when I open my eyes, still my thoughts and focus on the world.  That said, I can also summon feelings of joy by concentrating on, say, the beauty of a plant; I can summon feelings of awe when I consider the way human ingenuity has harnessed natural forces and turned them into my laptop.  (Seriously!)

So far, I've not found God, but I'm starting to appreciate reality and reconnect with my emotions.  Which has to be a good thing, right?

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Day 2: Letting go

I managed to focus a little longer this morning.  I also spent some time reminiscing about my time as a Christian.

I was what is known as a charismatic Christian.  I spoke in tongues, I often trembled or cried when people prayed with me.  I would sometimes feel a surge of joy, love and wellbeing as I prayed.

Now here's a thing.

I haven't had people pray with me for a long time, but I can still speak in tongues and can usually still summon up the feelings of love etc, if I try.  I don't believe that my "tongues" is a genuine language, and I believe the emotions I experience are internally generated, rather than caused by interacting with God.  Nevertheless, the feelings leave me contented, with a sense of peace and connectedness.  Yet I very rarely try to summon them.  This morning, I asked myself why.

The answer is multifaceted and I'm far from unravelling this, but I believe it essentially comes down to a fear of losing control, of letting go of thought and surrendering myself to emotion.  It's similar, in some respects, to the way I have felt during vipassana meditation.  For perhaps even less than a second, I would reach the point where my thoughts stopped and I experienced reality directly, rather than through the prism of my conceptualisations.  Those moments were both exhilarating and terrifying.  (It's all about the death of the ego, baby!)

Yet my reluctance to conjure the feelings I experienced during prayer is also to do with the fact that I don't want to go back to a belief system that I believe to be false, and that caused me a lot of distress.  Not even as a "let's make believe for the sake of the outcome" exercise.  If I can separate the ability to feel connectedness from the belief system with which it was associated - and my experiences with meditation lead me to believe that I can - then I'll be fine.  Well, apart from my crippling fear of immersing myself in the moment...

What has all this got to do with the prayer experiment?  Not a lot, really.  That said, I've often heard theists claim that what they experience during prayer and worship is evidence for God's existence.  It isn't.  A correlation between prayer/worship and temporary good feelings (or even a lasting change in perspective) may require explanation, but "it's because God has changed me" is far from the most parsimonious explanation.  (As I recall, a study of devotees of various spiritual traditions showed that, in terms of neural activity, they all experienced the same thing when they reported spiritual ecstasy.)

Perhaps I need to let go of the fear that allowing myself to experience my emotions will lead me to believe things that are untrue.  I can observe and move myself, a puppeteer whose marionette is me; maybe it'd do me good to drop the strings more often and step inside the marionette.  I can always take up the strings again afterwards.

Just some rambling thoughts for anyone trotting by.


Monday, 17 September 2012

Prayer Experiment: Day 1

"Hello God, if you do exist I realise you're probably a little busy right now, what with half the world going round setting fire to things, but I wonder if you could possibly take some time out to reveal yourself to me."

This is how I felt, praying this morning.  Prayer can be pretty self-important and presumptuous, it seems to me.

I found it hard to concentrate.  This is partly because my mind is always a bit like a butterfly on cocaine, but my struggle to focus was exacerbated by the fact that I don't believe there is anyone or anything on which to focus during prayer.

No major revelations, though when I went out for coffee, a busker was outside Starbucks playing the tune to what used to be one of my favourite hymns.  I'm not persuaded that was God waving at me, but it did lift my spirits.


Sunday, 16 September 2012

The Atheist Prayer Experiment

Starting tomorrow, I will be spending a few minutes every day, for 40 days, asking God to reveal himself to me.  I'm doing this as part of a project run by Premier Christian Radio, called - well, see the title.  The idea is that participating atheists will share their thoughts via Facebook, blogs etc and, by the end of it, God will have resurrected Freddie Mercury, Jimi Hendrix and all the dead Beatles, thereby incontrovertibly proving his existence to us erstwhile unbelievers.  Or something like that.

I'll be writing here and on the Atheist Prayer Experiment Facebook page.

I was brought up in an evangelical Christian home and was a pretty fervent Christian until my mid-20s. I'm also gay and was diagnosed with chronic renal failure when I was ten. Despite many people praying for God to heal my kidneys, I ended up having three (count 'em!) transplants.  Attempts to de-gay me were similarly unsuccessful, but you can imagine what I was taught about homosexuality.

So yeah, I got religious baggage.

I'm typing this on an iPad, so I'm not going to go into details on my past here, but it may come up in the next forty days. I'm not expecting God to turn up. If he does, though, he'd better have a bloody good excuse for giving me my mum's depression instead of her cheekbones