A Disturbing Trend
Grant Armstrong

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Grant Armstrong"
Subject: Re: A disturbing trend
Date: March 17, 2004 6:02 AM

The obscure Acid Generation cartoonist Ron Cobb (whose peers include: Richard Corben; R. Crumb; Kim Deitch; Greg Irons; J. Jaxon; Jim Osborne; Gilbert Shelton; Dave Sheridan) published a single-panel broadsheet in about 1968 or so that essentially summarizes my feelings in this regard. A man stands, holding a box with a button and a wire leading away. His index finger has depressed the button and his head has vaporized in the puff of a small mushroom-shaped cloud. All the while, a frog has been observing the proceedings. This panel is titled, "Man demonstrating his superiority over animals."

Many atheists of the organized variety organize as an outgrowth of their religious past. Along with the tendency to organize come any number of other traits that are an essential part of keeping a religious ideology alive. Keeping the ideology alive is crucial in the collective cultural mindset as well as in the mind of the individual believer. Individuals stand to "relapse" or "fall away" toward atheism if the imposed ideology is not reiterated and reinforced through repetition, exposure, and symbolism.

A finding, something that has been observed and verified, fares much better than a nonsensical ideology that was taught by an authority figure. (Indeed, the concept of authority is itself a nonsensical idea that needs constant reinforcement via might and violence, via financial reward and monetary sanction, via acceptance and social ostracization.) The same holds for those ideas that come naturally to an individual: if they seem to make perfect sense, verifying themselves time and again through day-to-day experience, they will need little if any reinforcement in order to remain an integral part of the individual's outlook.

Albert Ellis and Emmett Velten put it much more lucidly when describing the psychological reasons that Twelve Steppers and other religionists constantly need to "keep coming back" to meetings:

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The kind of the Belief System you adopt does have some importance to long-term sobriety, however. This is because we often start out gung ho with a new Belief System, but the fire dims as time passes. Farfetched Belief-Systems with little general problem-solving, happiness-producing capacities frequently lose their hold. This often happens with cults, even powerful and dangerous ones. In time we see their limitations, learn that their leaders are only human, and realize that we do better when we put ourselves ahead of the cult leader.

We lose faith in faith-inspired Belief Systems unless we continue to surround ourselves with other true believers. This is why you have to attend most kinds of churches pretty well forever. The same thing is true of some kinds of recovery meetings. If you don't attend, your faith may fade. People who adopt a faith-based Belief System and improve often think it should work for others also if those others will just "work a good program." They may feel threatened and attacked if some people don't like that approach and prefer something different.
    -- When AA Doesn't Work For You

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So the question is, do these atheists feel the need to "re-up" their self-image as atheists? Do they feel threatened?

My question in response to those questions is, Does atheism itself constitute a positive viewpoint that one holds, or is atheism simply what is left over once an individual jettisons his or her theistic beliefs, the default viewpoint in the absence of theistic faith?

My atheism is little more than the way in which I distinguish myself from theists when the need arises. Atheism is not what's on my mind when I'm not at work, and it's not on my mind very much when I am at work. Instead, I'm thinking mostly about conjunctions, subordinate clauses, and parenthetical phrases; CSS Style coding, For-Next Statements, and Regular Expressions; the constant pain in what's left of my upper spine, the circulation (or lack thereof) in my lower extremities, trying to recover from the damage after having fallen dead-asleep face-down on the keyboard; the particular cat who happens to have taken up residence on my keyboard, how much longer this desk is going to stand my pulling on the handles I installed to bring my chair closer (because of the lack of strength in my legs), and what a piece of junk this computer turned out to be (though it's still ticking after several years of use -- and better keep on ticking because I cannot even afford to fix it, much less replace it)! I mean, what does atheism have to do with developing a spam filter? with fine-tuning a graphic to make it look sharp? with putting sentences together in a compelling way?

My atheism (what little of it does mean anything to me) is not longer my atheism, really, but rather the very unique approach to atheism that I've developed over the years as a potential response to the stigma and bigotry that we atheists (nontheists) endure at every turn! I study the nature of atheism even in my spare time, but I never dwell upon the fact that I am an atheist and others are not.

This thinking tends to protect me from conscious feelings of superiority, though the unconscious habit-thinking still does it's thing in the background quite a bit. This thinking protects me from the hold-over attitudes that followed my exodus into atheism, but it does little toward squashing those tribal territorial habit-thinking tendencies that manifest themselves in the most sophisticated gathering of English Gentlemen, in the band of Pan Troglodyte Chimpanzees at the local zoo, and in any number of other species and people types as well!

But unlike my theism was when I spent three years as a Southern California Evangelical Christian, my atheism, today, ranks quite low on my list of priorities when it comes to how important my various values and personality traits are to me. Theism is something that can easily become the most important aspect of someone's life. If I meet an atheist who holds his or her atheism with a similar degree of importance, I start to become very nervous!

People become shocked when I reveal this, tending not to believe me! "Look at this web site! Look how long you've worked in this field! Look how well-versed you are on the issues! Look how much thought you've put into pondering the nature and definition of atheism!"

Yes, I have done all this and I still do this. It is my "job," now (if you will), and I try to do it to the best of my abilities (all things considered: I'm retired and pay much more towards funding the survival of this operation than all the donations put together). Keep in mind that I was jailed for refusing a court order to undergo religious instruction in a faith-based rehabilitation center. I vowed to myself that I would work in the hope of seeing the day when nobody else needs to fear having that happen to them!

But when I "clock out" and go home, I, like most workers, am somebody else entirely. I don't take my "job" home with me -- very much -- any more.

No, I am not "perfect" at this wearing of two hats, either on-duty or off, but this is part of my set of goals as an atheist. I don't want to put on an air of superiority over anybody (except, maybe, a wino or similar sales-manipulator feeding me a line to try to bilk me for some money, calling me an azzole or whatever because I won't give him a cigarette or a bonus on his commission: I've still never been able to shake that one -- nor is doing so among my top priorities).

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One thing I'd probably want to examine though, and that is the fact that I consider the materialistic viewpoint to be superior to the supernaturalistic viewpoint when it comes to ascertaining the truth (and only when it comes to ascertaining the truth, really). In this sense, I feel proud that I have chosen to work (sacrificially, at times) to maintain this viewpoint within my outlook, proud that I have successfully resisted the temptation to "give up and just go ahead and let others do my thinking for me" (as I often put it when thinking to myself about the subject within the privacy of my own mind).

However, that's all the materialistic viewpoint is for me: a superior method for finding the truth. It's not the best way to win friends and influence people, by a long shot. Save that accomplishment for the numerous emotional qualities that religion has so successfully hijacked as part of its propagandizing effort; save that accomplishment for quite a number of tactics that I consider to be somewhat insincere if not blatantly dishonest. Then I ask, Are these even the kinds of "friends" that I want? those who respond only to emotional coercion? Is this about feeling superior or simply about choosing the ones with whom I'm willing to spend what precious little time I have left?

So the question here would be, am I feeling superior to the other person? Is this what's coming across in my attitude? Or am I simply proud of the fact that mine is a superior viewpoint (based upon my values, that is)? It's one thing to consider a particular viewpoint superior and to know why you hold that viewpoint rather than others, but it's another thing altogether to feel superior to those who don't hold the same viewpoint!

I feel proud -- quite proud! There is a compelling reason why I hold this particular viewpoint rather than any others that I've tried out.

But what do I have to be proud of, really? Either I was raised an atheist (as is the case with me) or I successfully rebelled against my family's core values! The former is a non-accomplishment and the latter is nothing to be proud of, really, unless the family tradition is something heinous like robbing trains or burning ant hills with a magnifying glass, in which case fleeing from it still pretty much a non-accomplishment!

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Eight-and-one-half years of service to
        people with no reason to believe

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Grant Armstrong"
Subject: Re: A disturbing trend
Date: March 18, 2004 4:14 PM
 

This is the downside to absolute Religious Liberty in that it can allow the unfettered growth of opportunistic and authoritarian religious cults. As Joseph Lewis discovered in the 1950s and 60s, We, The People, cannot even bust the charlatan faith healers for fraud if they're Christian.

Of course our system is not "absolute" by any means in that We, The People, do not insist in it's being practiced to its fullest: we allow government endorsement of religion on a very large scale and, in a handful of situations, government endorsement of anti-religious views. (The Evangelical Christians want everything for free, it seems, and they want to be paid for this privilege, to boot! They especially like the free advertising of their product by means of government endorsement!)

The biggest misunderstanding (which is a political lie, really) is the notion that Religious Liberty equals "religious freedom." No. Liberty has always included the concept of responsibility and accountability. I am "free" to smack somebody right in the schnozzle in that nobody is holding my arms in restraint. But I am not at Liberty to do this, because I will be held accountable for my actions. Similarly, we are all free to express our religious views (atheism being a collection of views about religion that is protected, by the way). However, some of us, at certain times and in specific contexts, are not at Liberty to express our religious views.

The United States Constitution, in the 14th Amendment, expanded the First Amendment to include all government entities (except courts, in certain, specific context). Thus, a public schoolteacher, a state Governor, the President, a housing project security guard, the foreman of a government print shop -- any on-duty government worker -- may not express his or her religious views in such a way as can be interpreted to mean that she or he speaks on behalf of the government (enunciates or establishes government policy). In the same sense, that government print shop, for example, must make accommodations for a Muslim worker who needs to pray five times per day in order to fulfil her religious obligations. (Private industry is subject to civil action on failing to make similar accommodations.)

The lie is this: They say that our attempts to silence the schoolteachers and government officials (etc.) compromises those individuals' religious freedom. Yes, it compromises their freedom but not their Liberty -- and it's the Liberty that our Constitution guarantees, not the freedom. (See Maurice Cranston's amazing treatise, "The Meaning of Freedom: Words," to see the meaning that I give to the word freedom, here.) They are not at liberty to use their government position or office to propagate their own religious views (or those of someone who has bribed or intimidated them, as is very often the case with Congressmen from the American South who are "held accountable to the voters who elected them to office," or so goes the language we often hear from Southern Clergymen).

Our Constitution is not long for this world, I fear. I don't think John Kerry can outspend President Bush -- not with all these Sheiks donating millions upon millions of dollars to his re-election campaign as a reward for his slaughter of Iraqi civilians! not with the American news media telling us only what the government wants us to hear (which is all that most of us want to hear anyway)! We do not choose our President: Foreign interests do that for us!
 

The vast majority of atheists rarely if ever think about their own atheism -- their atheism being a statement about other people's religious beliefs more than a description of the atheist's views! Thus, the vast majority of atheists would never bother to log on to a web site called "Positive Atheism" much less submit the tale of their "deconversion"!

So, what we can say is this: There seem to be more "emotional atheists" who write about their deconversion experiences for atheistic web sites than rational atheists. This much is obvious: a large fraction of the atheists who pay attention to their atheism usually, at one point, either slowly or suddenly realized that they'd been betrayed by their parents and are now dealing with these feelings of betrayal.

Most of us who grew up as atheists don't pay attention to our atheism at all. Religion is not a subject that interests us, and our atheism is a reflection more of other people's religious faith than it has anything to do with us! I am one of those atheists, except that I converted to Evangelical Christianity in my early 20s for a few years. I feel the sense of betrayal, but not quite to the extent as those who learned religion by force as defenseless children. I never paid attention to my atheism until I was ordered by a court to undergo religious instruction in a faith-based rehabilitation program. It was then that I became an activist and I have been working directly with this one issue for (now) fifteen-and-one-half years and on this project alone for eight-and-one-half years. Were it not for that, however, I would still be paying little if any attention to my atheism. Oh, I might have become part of the great awakening of September 14, 2001, during President Bush's antiatheistic memorial service for the memory of those killed on September 11. But then, by now I probably would have come back to normal, considering just how little I like the subject of religion. But here I am, still an activist with no plans to quit. An unjust jail stay will do that to a person!

But as I try to explain in the Brian Marchand letter ("Looking At Some De-Conversion Stories," listed in the De-Conversion Stories TOC), many of these are useful if for no other reason than that we get to come back several years later and chart our growth. Just as importantly, we can compare our own behavior with that of others, either as an example to be followed or a warning against what to avoid. This is the main purpose of the DeCons, for me: we need to learn how to make a bold impression in the minds of our fellow-humans so as to allow them to see real atheists as opposed to the "straw-man" atheists described in the pulpits each Sunday. As bad as the behavior of some atheists gets, I cannot imagine anybody acting the ways in which some of our detractors routinely portray us as behaving!
 

Yes, some if not many of the authors do think this way -- to their own degradation! Yes, to their own degradation, because they just got through telling us that they were once this way themselves!

In one sense, it's good to be able to laugh at yourself, however. And in another sense, awakening amidst the shock of a sense of betrayal is quite harrowing; I can attest to that from personal experience. However, I cannot begin to wonder what it would be like to have been betrayed by my own parents -- especially at such as tender age as most of the writers describe their having been indoctrinated. In this sense, I don't think I would be any less judgmental by judging them as I sometimes think they are in judging their former colleagues in religious faith. There's something to be said about having been there yourself, which, I guess, makes it a tad different from condemning someone in whose shoes you have never trudged.
 

Yes, this is a tough assignment, but to do so is my goal -- even if I have to develop a new idiom or metaphor and push for its popularization. As you'll note in reading several of the Letters already posted (plus many more that remain unposted due to my slow-down in health), many of the readers have picked up on this challenge and have run with it to give us some fabulous ideas. Many others have made interesting suggestions in the sense of being well-meaning but misguided, showing us (unintentionally, of course) many things that probably won't fly.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Eight-and-one-half years of service to
        people with no reason to believe

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"I am treated as evil by people who claim that they are being oppressed because they are not allowed to force me to practice what they do."

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Grant Armstrong"
Subject: Re: A disturbing trend
Date: March 19, 2004 3:17 PM

But then there are those fickle opportunists who, for this very reason, become part of the majority whenever they can get away with it (whenever their skin color, etc., doesn't prevent them).
 

This is not what I had been saying at all.

What I had been saying was that I know what it's like to have been betrayed in a religious experience (with a church, lover, family, etc.). But as hard as I find it to judge someone who lashes out from this sense of betrayal, I could not begin to fathom what it would be like for someone whose betrayal involved their having been exploited by their own parents and "sold out" for religious loyalty at such a tender age: the infant; the toddler; the preschooler; etc. I could never "walk a mile in his shoes."

That's all I said, there.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Eight-and-one-half years of service to
        people with no reason to believe

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