More in Common
Than Even We Realize
[unsigned]

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "possble artist?"
Subject: Re: IN GOD WE TRUST On Our Money
Date: July 19, 2002 6:41 AM
 

No, not at all!

It seems as if you'd think it would be that way, but even thinking it should be that way is mostly our own, almost reflexive prejudices at work. They aren't even our own prejudices, really, but those of this or that political force which has taken advantage of our culture-wide weaknesses and ignorance so many times that the feelings themselves become habit. Like the frothing dogs of Professor Pavlov, it's not something we can even control: it's not a voluntary muscle.

But no, ideologically, we all have much more in common than we have differences, and if adventists are separationists, then you and I have much more in common than either of us have in common with somebody who, for example, wants "In God We Trust" printed on all U.S. currency and coinage. Generally, they want their group or message to receive special, unearned supremacy, treatment, or favor, along with what has always been our national image, being those messages that are enveloped into our Constitution. We prefer to keep the message that our country sends to the world the same as it has always been, at least until after World War II when we assumed a much different role in the world scene than we had held before.

State-church separationism is essentially a theistic issue. Within the movement of separationism, I would assume that atheists are a minority, by count, but the latest . However, very seldom will you find atheists stumping for establishment of religion, government endorsement of religion, and policies that amount to transparent attempts to bring about what amounts either to government intermeddling or government favoritism.

Now that I know that Adventist Christians are, as a group, strongly separationistic (I assume, by what you say), I know where to go when I wish to engage in some separationism work. I know about the Baptists, but the denomination itself is divided because Baptists consider it the individual's responsibility to interpret the Bible for himself or herself. For this reason you will have, on one side, Dennis, one of this magazine's "Official Pastors" and Jerry Falwell in the same denomination, each accepting the other as a true Christian while denouncing same for serious flaws in the understanding of Scripture.

Besides, I almost constantly urge that the "God question" is one of the silliest reasons over which we could possibly bicker and fight! Now, I only wish I could call my Grandma (either one) and tell her about you! You will see what I mean by the time you're done with this Reply, and I will only have touched the surface!
 

As is was saying above, we all have much more in common than we do differences.

The biggest difference (even in the theism-atheism axis) is that your religion is probably very important to you, whereas my atheism is a very small part of my outook, meaning little or nothing to me. Chances are, your religion is an extremely big part of your life, up there with your family and your career, and intertwined with the very values that you hold as a moral human. This is probably true even if you are not a fundamentalist or even what one might call "devout": if you're bringing it up and pointing out these differences, your religion means a lot more to you than it does to some bloke who hasn't thought about religion since he got offended as some clown's irreverent tattoo and ended up trying to tangle with him on the sidewalk over it. At the very minimum, as a theist you would probably want to come to bat for the "faith of your fathers" if somebody challenged its validity in casual conversation.

Most atheists just roll their eyes at such conversation. I'll bet that just about every atheist who would challenge someone's faith gratuitously, that is, unprovoked, already has a web sites to take care of that problem! Most atheists wouldn't dream of carrying it that far.

My atheism, for the most part, doesn't mean diddly to me (and to most of us). The reason for my web site has never been to propagate atheism but todeal with the social advocacy problems inherent in state-church entanglement. Since at least part of my proposed solution involves urging atheists to change their tune on a few things, I have a web site and publish a magazine which places this issue as one of her several editorial goals.

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It is very important to keep in mind that theism, particularly a specific religion, can itself be a large fraction of a person's outlook or point of view.

This is never the case with atheism, and cannot be. Atheism, being the simple lack of a god-belief (not necessarily the positive belief that God does not exist), can never account for much of anybody's comprehensive world-view. Yes, all world-views are either theistic or atheistic; that is, each person, in holding a unique world view, is either a theist or an atheist.

My world view is atheistic, but there is much, much more to my world view than anthem. Much, much more. My atheism is a very minor element, in fact, hardly worthy of thought most of the time (except that I do this work full time, otherwise, I wouldn't think about it at all beyond knowing that I am an atheist and not, say, a Rastafarian).

Your world view is theistic, but the fact that you're an Adventist demonstrates that even in this respect, you are much more than simply a theist.

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Varieties of Atheism

(Although I've written on this subject many times, this is my first attempt at this specific exercise: a comprehensive list of the varieties. I expect to try this many times again, and will finally come up with one I like!)

The only varieties within atheism, really, are (1) how vehemently we hold our atheism ("strong" and "weak" atheists) and (2) how active we are in pondering and thus expressing our atheism (what I call "active" and "passive" atheists; this is what I mean by "activistic atheism").

Some have studied the philosophy of religion and have a strong education or experience in philosophy and logic. Such atheists might assert that the very idea of God is impossible. They might ask, How can a god be both all-powerful and all-knowing? These are usually the only thinking persons who will assert that "No gods exist." Someone who simply says, "There's no such thing as God" is usually parroting somebody, or, at best, has an inkling of what they think they mean and it comes out like this. These "strong" atheists are very, very rare among atheists.

Others have thoroughly studied the various religious claims, have found strong reasons to reject them all, and now suspect that if there were a "true god-claim" out there, she or he would have encountered it by now. This is pretty much how I hold my atheism; however, I never say "God does not exist." Instead, I prefer to speak in terms of god-claims, simply because this is language with which you and I can both relate. Once you carry it further than the fact that you are making a claim, once the discussion goes further than whether or not your claim warrants my assent, that is, once you start talking about God Himself, you've lost me. This last part is hard to see, so I won't delve too deeply unless you write back on it.

Still others gave it a fair review in high school or college and said, "This is not for me" or "This is interesting, but it certainly is not real." Such atheists have, for the most part, never pondered the subject again. So far into the back of their minds have they filed the subject of religion and atheism that if you walked up and called them "an atheist," they might even get offended! They might have bought the Roman Catholic definition which says that all atheists vehemently assert that no gods exist (rather, "deny the existence of God"). If, then, you spent some time (as I am with you) and explained what atheism is and is not, they will scratch their head, shake off the stigma much like a dog shakes off the moisture from its head, and say, "I guess, if you put it that way, I guess I'm an atheist. I couldn't be anything else, really, except that you might call me an 'Agnostic Atheist.' But I'm still an atheist nonetheless, because I lack a god belief, for sure." This is the largest segment of atheists who have ever thought about their atheism.

A similar category would be those who, for example, were molested by a priest and will never again be able to stomach anything religious. Either they cannot see how God could exist ("weak") or God, for them, does not or cannot exist ("strong"). However, this atheist cannot explain it to you philosophically. Apart from that, everything else applies.

Philosophically "weaker" still, is the atheist who just never became interested: she or he perhaps grew up in an atheistic home and never had any close friends convert right there in the middle of the friendship (like I have). This is my Sister, this is my Father. Mom is probably the category above, having grown up in a family with a long, long tradition of Spinoza's-God Unitarianism, often called Deism during the American Revolution. However, the Unitarians and the Universalists became a single entity long after anybody in our family had ceased involvement (1961).

Still "weaker" (in the philosophical sense) are those whom many people would not consider atheists at all, being either wholly ignorant of theism (isolated tribes; rare cases of children raised in isolation either by sick, brutal parents or due to rare medical conditions) or children incapable of putting together the complex thoughts required for theistic belief (infants; the retarded). However, the Victorian-era Secularists commonly called such people "atheists" simply for lacking a god-belief, which is, in fact, what atheism is: the lack of a god-belief. To avoid this position is one of the attractions of the Roman Catholic view that atheism necessarily denies the existence of God. The other reason, that amongst Church officials themselves, is to make atheism seem abjectly stupid, as nobody can empirically disprove an existential claim (a claim that a thing exists).

However, I still favor this view, simply because it is consistent with the rest of the ways in which the same definition is used. That is the most important reason, for me, to favor this definition for atheism, "the absence of theism": it is simply much more self-consistent than any other way I've seen of describing the situation. True, it has the advantage of softening the blows of stigma, and this is good. Also, it is convenient for the atheist in that it clearly demonstrates that theism has the burden of proof. To say, "God does not exist" is to make a claim, in the eyes of some; this is true, but "God does not exist" is not an existential claim, and I'm not sure precisely how the burden of proof would work in that situation.

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What's the Big Problem?

Why are atheists so widely and viciously despised that we have it worse than homosexuals, even? Why would only 40 or so percent of American adults discriminate against a homosexual, while 50 percent would discriminate against atheists (probably thinking in terms of the Roman Catholic definition of one who asserts the nonexistence of God).

That is what I have tried to address in this letter, though I haven't let on that this was what I'm doing.

We don't know the answer to this; however, we all witnessed a big clue this past week in the wild reaction to the Newdow case (didn't we?)!

As an activist, having worked in several fronts, including many involving antibigotry campaigns, I've never seen anything like this. Also, the others all had various, and in each case, unique tools, resources, vehicles, angles, approaches, and the like, which they could utilize in solving their problem. Atheists, unfortunately, have none of the big tools that I've been able to identify as those used to address or eliminate their problem.

Here's an exercise: think about the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, beginning with Rosa Parks and ending with, say, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., when, I think, we all realized that we're basically on our own in this regard, there are no more big-name activists to carry us forward in this struggle, so we had better pick up the ball from here and continue the struggle as individuals and as small organizations. First, try to identify for yourself what were the main tools they used to accomplish their goals. By this I mean what tools did they use in their activism. I am not thinking in terms of anything that occurred naturally, such as the role that AIDS played in the gay rights movement. (I can see it: "To eliminate bigotry, see to it that a large chunk of your class catches a fatal virus!")

The two things that stand out to me, after seven years of publishing and over twelve years of activism specifically against antiatheist bigotry at one level or another are these:

1. The big problem is the very common misnomer that all atheists hate religion and that all of us boldly assert that God does not exist (which is a rather stupid viewpoint unless you've been extremely careful with it, as I described above). I described the various definitions of atheism above. In fact, for the very first time, I have called these "the varieties of atheism"; I've already decided to develop this into a work that I'd like to see distributed to churches across America. (Cliff the dreamer!)

2. I also touched on the other problem I see, which is the difference between how theists see their theism and how we atheists see our atheism. All too often theists treat me as if I hold my atheism similarly to the way they hold their theism! Fundamentalist Christians (including the more devout Roman Catholics) and activistic Muslims make a big deal about atheism -- much bigger than we atheists do.

Many theists practice religion that is virtually all-encompassing. Their religion is their whole life. That is all they know. Naturally, when they hear about an atheist, they might easily conclude that the atheist holds his or her atheism with the same vehemence as the theist holds religious faith.

A good way to see this problem would be to compare an avid football fan, so obsessed with the game that his wife once threatened to divorce him against a vegetarian environmentalist who spends most of her spare time in ancient woods and old-growth forests. In this analogy, football would be theism and the environmentalist would be the atheist. (Notice that I deliberately refrain from symbolizing atheism, here: this is crucial to understanding my point!)

The common mistake, then, would be to think that the environmentalist sits there and loathes the game of football! More likely, she borders on being oblivious to even the pros and cons of football! She couldn't relate to the football fan's wife (who loathes the game from her innermost being) any better than she could relate to the football fan himself! Instead, she is entirely indifferent to the sport of football, occasionally seeing it used as a motif in billboard advertisements when she rolls into town. (This would be the most extreme case, of course! I use it, however, to more easily illustrate the point.)

In the same way, the vast majority of atheists, those who are entirely indifferent to religion, don't even pay attention to either theism or organized, active atheism. Such an atheist might even be quite uncomfortable in the company of, say, the leader of a Humanist group or the host of an atheistic television program, because she neither embraces nor loathes religion: it simply has no importance or significance in her thoughts and her life.

Ah, but a significant number of theists (the evangelical types) act toward me as if I do sit there and loathe religion with a focus similar to how they embrace religion! Herein, I think, is one of our big problems as atheists! And once again, the solution seems tied in with popularizing the notion that atheism is a big, fat nothing!

So we have two things, now: First, atheism is not a positive belief but the negative absence of a specific set of beliefs. In other words, if religion is likened unto a shelf full of ready-made roast beef sandwiches at the Qwik Mart, atheism is not a shelf full of ready-made ham sandwiches. rather, atheism is the state of the shelf itself, after the Qwik Mart has sold out of their ready-made roast beef sandwiches! Religion constitutes the items, the beliefs; atheism is the state of absence when those beliefs are not part of the picture.

Secondly (and this one is still tough for me, even), atheism is not something that we can have in varying amounts or do in varying degrees of intensity. Religion may be the vague belief in "whatever is out there" but even then it still has an object: "whatever is out there"! It is easier to see when we examine someone who has let their faith become all-encompassing, but all theism has the same components, only to differing degrees and in differing amounts. All theism has faith in an object, a god, and all theism gives a reason as to why we should bother having faith or worshipping or confessing, etc., instead of simply ignoring God, like most of us do in regards to the pulsar PSR 1919+21. Some theism goes much further in each of these respects, giving elaborate descriptions of God and laying down precise measures for pleasing Him.

Atheism does not have either of these components, but is, instead, the utter absence of this entire picture.

Atheism, therefore, is not the counterpoint to theism. This being the case, atheism, as the simple absence of a god-belief, rarely if ever even thinks about the subject of theism and atheism.

Lately I've been saying that atheism is little more than the way I distinguish myself from theists, when the need arises (which isn't often -- or at least shouldn't be). I have written two columns that touch on this line of reasoning, the August, 2001, column, "To Symbolize That Which Is Not?" and the April, 2001, column, "Atheism: But A Small Part."

Another work that you will probably find fascinating is my "rant" against the very notion of organized atheism (if this has interested you, if you think the plight of the atheist is worthy of a few hours of your time). If you've ever thought about or wondered about the notion of organized atheism (What on Earth do they do?)athougyht wondered about that like many of us have (only to give up, tuck it neatly away for later), then I'll think you'd find it easier to see the problems with the whole idea just having read what I wrote above! This other piece, though, "Why Advocate For Individual Activists?" is considered by some to be one of the more radical essays to come out of our camp in the past several years. Ironically, I like to think of it as a review of the majority viewpoint among atheists!

How can this be? Is it possible for me to compile the thinking of the average Joe? Check out this work, which is staged as a question and reply from Argentinean Skeptical activist Juan De Gennaro, but which he played more of a role in developing than even he will ever realize. His question was, "Why Advocate For Individual Activists?"

Thanks for everything, and most of all, for the opportunity to hear from one of my most important allies, an Adventist Christian, yes (I have no problem with that whatsoever), but most of all, a person who is clearly not a bigot!

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Almost seven years of service to
    people with no reason to believe

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