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 :)
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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 live 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? 

Regards,

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.