Monthly Archives: November 2014

Openly Secular Campaign

When I received an email from the Richard Dawkins Foundation asking me to be open about my non-religious views and secularism, I was amused. To me-born European-to make a statement about my atheism sounds really unnecessary.To be an atheist is as natural as to be Portuguese, or a woman, or a biologist. It is part of who I am. I never thought that such label could be an issue of discrimination in Western Europe.

I never had any problems in relation to social integration or discrimination for my religious views. On the other hand I did have problems for being a foreigner. I lived in Denmark for many years and there I did feel strong  social discrimination. I have been living in England for more than 15 years and it frightens me to witness the rise of anti-foreigner feelings, which trigger social discrimination.

I was born in a country where the official religion is Catholicism, but people are not very interested in religion unless they need to negotiate with God. In times of need they remember that there is this deity that may fulfil their wishes against some form of payment in the form of prayers or self-sacrifice.

Even during fascism, I do not recall any type of religious related persecution. Portugal was a very accommodating country to religious diversity, having  homed many Jews during the second world war. My grand-mother had a Jewish child from Austria living with them during the war.

If a person showed Marxist tendencies or socialist sympathies, that would be a good enough reason to subject them to imprisonment, torture and death, but I never heard on anybody being  punished for talking against the church. But  between 1958 and 1974 I was a child and I might not be aware of what was going on in the country during that period and I was 15 years old when the revolution took place in April 74.

I became an atheist the day after my confirmation at age 14. Before that I went to catechism every Saturday more because the church was just across the road to my house and I had a pretext to get out of the house and play with the other  kids, than for real religious reasons. My father had always been a fierce critic of the Catholic church and their abuse of the poor people. He claimed that if they really wanted to do some good, they could use all the money they had to end poverty, rather than indulge  themselves in banquets and useless exhibitions of their wealth. He said that it was an insult to the millions of poor people who, despite their difficulties,  gave money to the church. My father wasn’t very interested in theological discussions on whether God existed or not. He simply pinpointed the illogicality of the teachings of the Christian doctrine as taught by the Catholic Church. My mother’s family did not care much for the church either.  My granny taught me how to pray, just in case, so I could secure a place in heaven. A bit like Pascal’s wager!  But when I turned 14 I started to teach granny everything I learn in school about the origin of life and evolution theory. My poor grand-mother, an uneducated person, thought that what I said made logical sense and at the age of 60 something she started to cast some doubts on the teachings of religion. My uncles thought tha I was mean, shaking her beliefs at such age and she should spend the rest of her life believing she would go to heaven after she died.

In school, during fascism, we had a subject called Moral and Religion, taught by the priest of the main church in my home city. I was a bit of a restless child and would ask the priest lots of inconvenient questions. For example, how could he explain population growth on Earth since God made only  one man and one woman which  produced  two boys?  Did the son have sex with his mother? He said… “oh no, after them they had many more children.”  I asked again “did the brothers made babies to their sisters?   Isn’t incest  a sin? Why would God, which you claim is all powerful, would start the world by inducing his product to sin against his own rules?”  So the priest said that after Adam and Eve God made other peoples.

Ah ah… but if God made other peoples why do we have to bare the original sin because of that  one pair of apple lovers. How do we know we are descendants of this pair and not from the other people?

By then the priest was being quite tired of my questions and complained to the School’s director.

In those days, many teachers were informers of the secret police and kids who showed signs of atheist were assumed to have been influenced by their families which were certainly Marxists so the secret police would soon be knocking at the doors of their homes. But it never happened to my family. In my case, I was not showing signs of atheism. I was simply pinpointing the illogicality of it all. I guess the priest agreed with that the Bible was full of illogicality but that was precisely what God wanted; to bring people to his church on the base of faith and not logic. The poor man had a lot of patience. The other kids simply grinned embarrassed by my questions and would tease me after the lesson.  This sort of subtle bullying got me into a split state of mind. On one had my mind was thinking logically, but I was not praised for such desirable achievement. On the other, I was becoming some sort of irreverent outsider not conforming with the norms of the group.

I grew up I realised that any religion that presented logical inconsistency was probably as good and valid as nursery fairy tales.

While I was a child and went to church Saturday school I got told a lot of stories about the devil and burning in hell which had a strong influence on me. I had nightmares and could not sleep alone in my room for fear of being taken by the devil. My father was very upset with all these stories and told the priest he would remove me from catechism lessons if the tutor would continue to tell this bushtit to kids. At age 6 we get imprinted with this stuff and there is no rationality that can erase it from our minds when we are under the subconscious state  of dreaming. The result of this exposure to biblical histories at such young age is that at age 50 something I still have nightmares about the devil and maleficent spirits where I sleep alone at home.

Today I realise how education hampers rational thought. After I completed my Masters in Biology by the University of Lisbon I became a secondary school teacher for some 7 years, before I went to Denmark to do a PhD.  In those days, education was about memorising information and spelling it out in exams. They did not teach kids to think rationally or question anything.  I remember at age 11 asking a science teacher who was describing the anatomy of a fish if fish slept. She was just telling us fish did not have eyelids, so I was puzzled. The teacher’s answer “ Fish are like your tongue!”… well  it took me over 20 years to figure out the answer to this question by myself.

Teachers  were not welcoming of kids curiosity, and their goal was to normalise them all to a homogeneous amorphous mass of non-thinking zombies.

When I came to the UK I saw some books with the title Critical Thinking and I was puzzled about what it meant. I opened one and my mind was caught in it. I realised the importance of learning how to think critically, at all levels and especially for those doing science. Since then I have been an avid consumer of books in Critical Thinking and have been delivering courses and workshops to science postgraduate students and academics in many Universities in the UK and overseas.  I am just about to finish writing a book on critical thinking in Portuguese, since there is not much available in this language.

So, being a critical thinker I could only be sceptical of religion and everything belief that is plagued by illogicality, inconsistency or lack of evidence. I think there is nothing to feel ashamed of when one thinks rationally.

This is why I was so surprised to hear that some people may be discriminated for having more than two working neurons.  But on a closer look, and considering the poor quality of education in some so-called developed countries , there is no wonder that as population increases, the level of ignorance and stupidity increases, rendering intelligent and analytical people to a minority without vote power. Stupid people vote on candidates that resonate with their ideas. Those eager for power have to resort to stupid messages easily understood by an increasing mass of idiots. Just look at the rising popularity of UKIP.. . this tells us something about the educational level of the UKs population!