One of the most wonderful things about my recent trip to Australia was meeting people who have read my book. I’ve had emails from ex-Muslims and other atheists who have simply wanted to share their own stories of how and why they came to leave religion behind. Below is an email from Juris Jakovics whose story deserves a book of its own. He’s kindly let me reproduce it here. Juris and I met at a “Skeptics in the Pub” session in Canberra, where we disagreed on why we might choose to describe ourselves as atheists or agnostics. I’m glad we disagreed, because it led him to write this to me:
It was a pleasure to meet you yesterday at your book reading and to engage with you in the ensuing discussion. You asked me inside the cover of my copy of your book to forgive you for being a little harsh on “agnostics”. I didn’t, and don’t, take offence.
I’ve read your book from cover to cover since then. It was compelling reading. I disagree with none of the points you make in the book, although there are some things I could add to, but then so could you, as you so clearly state.
Having thought a bit about why I disagree with you on what you said at the pub about agnostics, it probably stems from our differing life experiences, even though we have some startling parallels in our life stories. I could engage with you in an almost page by page discussion of the points you make in your book, agreeing with or embellishing what you say, but I doubt that you have the time or that that would necessarily be productive.
So I’ll try and paraphrase or distill some of my thinking for you, if you‘re interested, as to why I differ with you on the one issue – the issue of how I label myself.
I think I’m old enough to be your dad, but I consider myself your equal, probably not in terms of intellect, but as a human being. I have a lot of friends of both genders, some of whom are much older or much younger than me, but I give all my friends equal space and appreciative attention. As you can imagine, I abhor ageism, sexism, racism, homophobia and prejudice of any kind against anyone (and indeed against any being, such as occurs with an anthropocentric view of the world). That’s not to say that I don’t recognise my own propensity for prejudice, because, as you yourself say in so many words, none of us is actually rational. In fact there have been carefully controlled scientific studies that have shown that we tend very much jump to conclusions and are incredibly adept at instantly finding convincing justifications for those conclusions.
A little background about myself. I’m Latvian of origin, born in Riga, Latvia, two years before the end of the Second World War. A year later my mother took me as a babe-in-arms to Germany, fleeing from a return of Russian troops to Latvia under fear of persecution and possible deportation to the Gulags of Siberia. My father turned up in Germany and found my mother in a refugee camp when the war ended, having spent most of the war years on the Eastern Front, fighting the Russians with the Germans. My sister was born three years after me in Germany. In my teens I discovered that my mother had miscarried a child before me. She was a very attractive woman and must have also suffered a lot of unwanted attention and who knows what else in Germany, under constant bombing attacks while travelling across it by train with me as a sickly baby.
The refugee camps, euphemistically called Displaced Person camps, were bleak, and hunger and cold were frequent problems, not that I as a child growing up there was at all aware of such issues. I spent some four years there, plus some six months in an awful camp in Naples, and eventually joined my father in Tasmania who went there ahead of me, my sister and my mother by a year. My mother was a sensitive, loving soul, interested in classical music, literature and poetry, while my father, who had been a veterinary surgeon in Latvia, was rather self-centred and distant from us kids, and was put to work in a sawmill in Tasmania.
My two years in Tassie were like paradise after the refugee camps. We lived on a farm amidst abundant natural features and I walked through the fragrant Australian bush to and from school. I flowered and quickly learned English, which at the age of five or six is a cinch. My mother already showed signs of mental illness and at some point threatened that if I didn’t behave, she’d put me in a children’s home. Not much later I found myself, together with my little sister, in a children’s home in Melbourne, run like an army camp, dominated by fear and physical punishment for the slightest infringement, sure that I had been so bad my mother had had to put us there. She had left my father and taken up residence separately while working, and visited us once or twice a month for a few hours. I closed up completely, barely spoke at school, and was thought to be mentally slow.
After some six or eight months my father found her and rejoined her and we were taken out and reunited as a family. I was placed in another school with a lot of middle-class kids where I had great difficulty adjusting and experienced a lot of prejudice and bullying. For at least a year I spent every school recess and lunch-time hiding up a tree, often defending myself against gangs of bullies on the way home from school. My father built our house and my mother worked from home as a seamstress under sweatshop conditions. He went off building houses for several years all over the countryside and I saw him a couple of times a month for a day or two. When he was home, I was afraid of severe beatings from him, either with his belt across my buttocks or around my ears with his open hand that occasionally threw me off my feet, always in a white rage. In fact he seemed to have only one tone of voice and that was anger.
Towards the end of my primary school experience a new school opened closer to home which attracted the children of many working-class and immigrant families, and I switched to that school. Within a couple of months I was school captain and had a bunch of friends.
On Saturday afternoons during my primary and early secondary school years I took my little sister by tram or train to Latvian Saturday School, an hour and a half away by public transport. Here we were indoctrinated into being good little Latvians and Latvian Lutheran Christians at that. At home there was no emphasis on religion. It was paid lip service only. I can thank that period of my life for becoming truly bilingual, although I have learnt well a couple of other languages since and a smattering of a huge number of others.
Melbourne had three government high schools at the time that drew select students from all over Melbourne as well as locally. We didn’t live locally, but apparently I passed an exam that gained me entry to the school my mother had selected for me. I did well in the highly intellectual company I now kept and under the tutelage of teachers I mostly respected and admired. I had good friends at school, including a close Jewish friend, and still keep up with many of them (although the Jewish friend didn’t recognise me thirty years later back from a couple of decades in Israel, even though we’d wagged classes together to play chess in the locker-room or to go see a film in town). Home life was becoming increasingly erratic. At some point my mother almost died of another miscarriage and she was at times taken away by police to be put in a mental asylum. This was of course extremely disturbing for me and probably more so for my sister. When my mother was at home, her behaviour was increasingly erratic. Living with her I felt no stability – as if my feet were constantly on shifting sand. She suffered from auditory delusions and was convinced we were all plotting to kill her. No matter how I tried to convince her otherwise, she only had occasional periods of lucidity.
It was around this time that I became increasingly curious about religion – Christianity that is, because there was nothing else around. On Sundays I would catch a tram to town and visit various churches to see what was going on. I started to listen to a radio program run by a fundamentalist American Christian sect, read the Bible every day (I got through all of the Old Testament once and the New Testament several times), and became quite convinced that I had discovered the real truth. As could be expected, I became intolerant of other views and my behaviour at home became excessively meek, never protesting any punishment. This is the one time I can remember that my father did something truly good for me. He forbade me to listen to the religious program until I reached the age of 21, the age of majority at that time. Like a good son, I obeyed. By the time I was 21, I was no longer interested in the fire and brimstone sermons and rejected the program’s teachings, though still embracing what I thought was a Christian outlook.
I was apparently destined for great things. I wanted to become an architect and won a scholarship to Melbourne University. But I had become dysfunctional in my study methods, probably because up till then I had been able to get by with last minute cramming for exams. At the age of 18, which seems laughable now, I ran away from home and university and sought work hundreds of miles from home, returning only when I gave in to my mother’s emotional pleas. I worked at a desk job full-time and many aborted part-time courses later I re-enrolled for architecture, was accepted, but within eight months had a breakdown and attempted suicide. It was a call for help. I got work in a government department as a stop-gap job, but finished up stopping that gap for the next thirty years. Meanwhile my mother took her own life when I was 22. I couldn’t speak about it for twenty years. I felt I was to blame.
I had a girl-friend from the age of 7 to the age of 19. We used to sit in the park before Latvian School holding hands and wrote love letters to each other. We were 16 before we kissed. Three days after breaking up with her, I met my current wife. We met in a Latvian church youth camp. We’ve been married for 41 years, have two children and four grandchildren. We married when she was 20 and I was 25. A year later we were overseas on the first of two postings lasting in total almost seven years. My posting to Athens entailed occasional field trips to Cyprus, Beirut and Tel Aviv. I witnessed the unbridled, irrational prejudice of Greeks against Turks, Turks against Greeks, Arabs against Jews, and Jews against Arabs. In Manila I became involved in refugees from Vietnam, coming across by boat, escaping the war zones and I was recruiting the first Asian immigrants to Australia.
On return to Australia, I wanted Canberra for career opportunities and to return to study. I got a degree majoring in sociology and economics working full time and studying full time, all at the same time, while riding my bicycle to and from work, home and uni, helping the kids with their homework, and helping my wife with her supplementary studies, and later, training for a marathon. I did very well with my studies. It was the sociology that fascinated me. The economics you could keep. I could see it was flawed and market economics in the real world excluded externalities to our own detriment – something borne our by the Global Financial Crisis and now recognised as needing application. I wanted to know what made people and societies tick. That was where I slowly lost all my religious beliefs, realising that so much of what we assume under religious guise is so much bunkum. It is also where I strengthened my belief that prejudice is the biggest problem facing any society – in fact any group of people and even any individual.
I retired early from my career in the public service – at not quite the age of 53. My kids had grown up, they had finished uni, had jobs, had moved out of home, my mortgage was paid off, and I couldn’t see the sense in continuing to go to work, just in order, it seemed, to buy a car to go to work in. I could manage on what I had saved and on my superannuation eventually. My wife continued to work as a teacher for some years, and that helped the budget too. I turned my attention to voluntary work and have been engaged in various organisations in various capacities for all the years of my retirement. One of the issues I have been heavily involved in is development aid in eastern Indonesia. I have travelled there half a dozen times in a monitoring or training role. I have a deep sympathy for the region, its burgeoning population and the need to provide clean water and sanitation and education particularly for girls. Although the region is mainly Christian (which is probably partly why it is so neglected by the central government), I have over the years spent many social occasions with Muslims in Australia in support of the work we do there. I am also active in the Latvian community in a couple of capacities, catering basically to people still living in the past who find comfort in monthly meetings that celebrate their connection with things Latvian. Besides, I have been a vegetarian (for philosophic reasons) for almost twenty years, and a closet one for the preceding ten years. I have all along had a brilliantly good relationship with my children and my grandchildren. My relationship with my spouse has been a bit up and down but is tenable and sustainable.
Okay, that wasn’t so brief, but I think it shows you in essence the parallels and divergences of our respective experiences of life.
In my view, humanity has always faced a huge amount of uncertainty. That uncertainty is evident everywhere, and we don’t actually have sufficient information to make rational decisions in an uncertain environment. (Even such a thing as our eyesight depends on illusions.) Accordingly we seem to have evolved to cope with uncertainty. We do that by categorising and labelling, and using these categories and labels to interpret the world. These categories and labels enable us to jump to conclusions without real evidence to back up our categories. But we are very quick to rationalise our views. The thing is of course, that someone else, or another group of people, or another society, or another religion, uses different and often partly overlapping or mutually exclusive categories, interpreted differently and leading to different conclusions. Some years back I made a thorough study modelling horse-racing data to see if there was any money to be made from it, using the government-run betting agencies. I saw how easy it was to fool oneself with statistics, especially if applied retrospectively. I though I was onto a goldmine, but eventually I had to admit to myself that I was wrong. I came to the conclusion that in practice it is impossible to win in the long term because the government creams off too much and because graphical evidence showed me that there was unpredictable skewing in the results long term – either done deliberately by the agencies or by big bettors who bought unfair rights with government agencies (the latter has since been confirmed in the press). I bring this up just to give an example of how easily we fool ourselves that we have all the rational evidence to make a rational conclusion, when in fact we don’t.
Today we clothe much of that uncertainty in a kind of certainty, living in our cocooned urban environments. But the uncertainty, especially in times past or in societies not yet enjoying the benefits of the developed world, is instrumental in people reaching out for something to believe in. So they believe in any old stuff thrust on them – all sorts of superstitions, including religions. One modern day example is the belief many people hold in alternative medicine, as if it had some legitimacy. It takes a kind of anti-scientific view of the world to believe in any of that stuff.
I don’t believe in God, or any kind of supreme being, and yet, I call myself an agnostic. As I said, that’s because I allow that there are things I don’t understand and therefore I can’t be absolutely certain that there is no God, whatever way that might be defined. I don’t wish to put myself in an absolute category, because to me absolute categories are fundamentalist in nature, and that’s one thing I shy right away from. Also, some of my friends are deeply religious in one way or another (usually not Christian, but of New Age conviction). Out of deference to their beliefs and not wishing to harm them psychologically (because some people benefit psychologically from their beliefs), I tell them that I allow that there could be a supreme being or entity of some kind. I do say that to me that is more likely to be my own higher self, perhaps in some kind of union with other higher selves of other people (which amounts to a kind of Jungian philosophy). But I don’t entertain the idea of an afterlife or any anthropomorphism. I don’t know where I came from, and that doesn’t bother me at all. Why should it bother me where I’m going? Why should a God try to bribe me with Heaven? I personally don’t need that kind of option. I know I arose from star-dust and I’ll return to star-dust. That’s fine with me. I don’t need to entertain the thought of my consciousness or soul surviving me. I think such a need arises from anthropocentric and egocentric thinking. Other beings have other marvellous senses we don’t have. Other beings have just as much right as we do to a heaven of sorts, if we do. But there’s no sense in any of that. We just merge back into the universe, and I’m very happy to be part of that, as a conscious individual right now, but as unconscious but malleable star-dust when the time comes.
I see a parallel too between how Australian society views atheism versus agnosticism or veganism versus vegetarianism. The former in each case seems more strident and categorical to most people – fanatical even. In Australia in fact most people are indeed atheists by your definition, but on a very thin veneer of religiosity. Most young people have no idea of Biblical allusions which were once the staple of just about any piece of writing or discussion. Churches everywhere are closed or used in other ways. People just don’t see themselves really as Christian. People lose their religiosity gently and slowly in the same way that they lose their belief in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. Mostly religion is not reinforced at home. Only religious schools reinforce the myths that we both despair at for the good of the world. In fact I’ve had people call others Christians only in situations where those others are fundamentalist Christians. I think the reason for the slow decline in religiosity has been the slow ascendancy of secularism in Australian society, together with increasing living standards easing the kind of uncertainties I spoke of earlier, and immigration over decades and generations producing a melting-pot and a more tolerant society, even though it is uneven.
Last year I spent a fascinating time in Central Australia for two weeks, sleeping under the stars, searching for and finding previously undiscovered Aboriginal artifacts and cave paintings, as part of a push to empower the local Aborigines. I studied up a lot about Aboriginal anthropology and could discuss with youvery interesting aspects I found about their spiritual lives. Their societies, going back 40,000 years or more, were devoid of concepts of divinity but rooted rather in animistic beliefs in spirits and in timelessness – a notion they still live with that merges the distant past with the present and the future, not only in time but with the land and with their cultural systems. They were much better guardians of Australia’s fragile ecosystems than we have been. Their cultures and way of life have been utterly destroyed. I’m very much aware, both as a result of my experience as a Latvian, and as a student of sociology, that language seems to underpin culture, and culture underpins identity. When you destroy one or both of the first two, the third is also heavily affected, resulting in psychological dysfunction. That’s another reason to be wary about trying to force sudden change in religious beliefs on people. I know that isn’t the aim of your book – in fact quite the opposite – but agnosticism could be seen as a transitory position to atheism with a legitimate place along that route to safeguard sanity.
A trip to China less than two years ago spurred me to refresh for myself and study up, among other aspects, Chinese history and religious beliefs. I found that fascinating too, especially the influence of Buddhism and Confucianism on present-day Chinese thinking. Both are really philosophies rather than religions, although both acquired in practice various and disparate sets of rigidities and rituals. Actually, Confucianism was rigid and ritualistic from the very beginning. In part I see myself as post-facto Buddhist, only relating to its philosophical components. Meditation is indeed a technique I find helpful and quite amazing, not that I’m a regular practitioner by any means.
One reason why I think people in the USA and people from somewhere like Latvia have great difficulty with assimilating any notion of atheism is their experience of Soviet atheism as a component of state brutality and totalitarianism – for the US less directly than for East Europeans. The USA’s roots in most of its early immigrants escaping form religious persecution in Europe seems to be the main reason for a continuing emphasis on religiosity as the basis of American culture.
On the other hand, I do recognise that paradigm shifts do occur for some people as a result of a kind of shock-and-awe, to plagiarise a recently popularised term from a very different context. I well remember decades ago sitting in a suburban Melbourne train thinking to myself that the young lass, who sat down near me wearing a T-shirt proclaiming animal rights, must be out of her mind. It was after reading about the shocking things that go on behind the scenes in the meat industry and the way that in Australia cruelty in farming practices is exempt under legislative arrangements that I had a sudden change of heart. So I suppose that shock-and-awe tactics can also result in people changing how they see themselves as non-believers rather than believers.