'Bitter Atheist' Stereotype:
Commentary Or Convenience?
Dear Mr. Cliff Walker,
I am very grateful for the oppertunity to see different points of views, as I continue on my openminded search for the truth.
I should probably tell you that I am a follower of Jesus, and was formerly an atheist myself. Yet as I continually try to find out more about the truth of the world, I am always encouraged to hear about atheism in a positive light. So many atheists I have spoken to have been either bitter or confrontational. This made it difficult for me to view their arguments from an objective standpoint. For the first time, I have actually been able to hear the testimonies of atheists without having to deal with constant cynicism.
Once again, thank you for helping me see atheism from a positive perspective; it is not something that I have encountered before. You have been very helpful in my search for truth.
From: "Positive Atheism" <email@example.com>
To: "benjamin Eisenberg"
Subject: Re: Thank you!
Date: April 10, 2002 2:29 PM
Thank you for your kind words and, most of all, for the opportunity for us to examine our attitudes and behaviors in light of how they are seen by others.
Allow me to further take this as an opportunity to express some of the thoughts I've had regarding some of the matters you bring up, in the hope of eventually discovering or developing an effective statement of those thoughts. If we can clearly express our views, our hopes, and our concerns, and if those who listen likewise try to express their views, hopes, and concerns, we can come a long way toward reducing or even eliminating the stigma and bigotry that each side flings in the other's direction.
In light of this, I have suggested that unlike the theist, the atheist has no concern that is unique to atheists. The theist has a unique, positive (philosophically positive) statement of faith; thus, the theist rightly affiliates with those who agree with that unique statement of faith. The atheist, having no faith, thus has no philosophically positive statement around which to rally with other like-minded individuals. In this sense, our atheism is simply the way in which we distinguish ourselves from theists, should that need ever arise (and hopefully that need does not come up very often).
Following that to its conclusion, I have suggested that atheists have little or no business forming or affiliating with atheists as organized groups: if we wish to ally ourselves with other humans for any purpose, the only reasons I can think of revolve around concerns that at least some theists would share with us. Of course theists are interested in the separation of religion from government; indeed, I think the majority of Separationists are theists, even though very few atheists oppose the basic tenets of separationism! So separationism is no reason to form an atheists-only group. However, I go so far as to suggest that the same goes for the desire to see the lot of atheists improved. I think you are a prime example of a theist who might go so far as to work toward improving the lot of atheists, just as many Christians today are working to improve the lot of Muslims in the wake of the 9/11 Day of Atrocity. In this respect, I have announced my desire to form Atheist Awareness programs along the same lines of the Muslim Awareness programs such as we have in the schools today.
Surely most of the atheists who are activists in their atheism will disagree with my renunciation of organized atheism, as such. But I think even many theists would agree that we all do well to work toward improving the lot of atheists, a full 14 percent of our population. I think we'd all agree that we all ought to at least work toward reducing the vicious antiatheist stigma and bigotry that exists today. Unlike bigotry against other classes, which appears to be improving in recent years, our situation appears to be going backwards, to the extent that even the respected columnist William F. Buckley went on record as blaming atheists for the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks!
Finally, one way to minimize or even eliminate friction between two groups is to grant the benefit of the doubt to the other party. In this sense, I recommend that atheists presuppose that theists have or think they have valid reasons for believing the way they do. We may not agree with those reasons, we may not think those reasons are valid, but the theist thinks they are, and we do well to at least assume that they think they're doing the right thing.
This is easier for atheists to grant to theists than it is for some theists to grant to atheists, but I would like to see theists grant to us the same dignity (which is one reason I recommend extending this dignity in the first place). For example, it is popular among modern Christians to invoke Psalm 19 ("The heavens declare the glory of God") or Romans 1:19-20:
 Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.
In other words, some theists have scriptural justification for thinking that we atheists clearly know what they see to be the truth. Indeed, this is tied up in the American Heritage Dictionary's definition of atheist: "one who denies the existence of God." Excuse me? You mean that a reference work is going to take sides in a controversial argument for the sake of defining the individual who holds to one side of the argument? The dictionary here presupposes God's existence as fact, and then says that the atheist "denies" this alleged fact. To rub it in, the implication here is that the "denial" is willful on the part of the atheist.
In many expressions of Christianity, as well as other religions such as Islam, the highest crime one can commit is to not believe that an admittedly "hidden" God exists. This is outdone only by the crime of knowing that God actually does, in fact exist but openly denying this "fact" nonetheless. It's very difficult to be treated fairly when you are seen as such a high-ranking criminal in the eyes of such a wide majority of the population.
No wonder it became a sport during the Dark Ages to tie us to posts and light us on fire! No wonder it is still great sport in certain Muslim countries to gather together in a sporting arena and watch as the clerics cut off our hands and feet!
No wonder the vast majority of our culture is still too frightened to come out from under the yoke of the faith of their fathers!
There is still nothing
I should probably tell you that I am a follower of Jesus, and was formerly an atheist myself.
In our attempts to improve the lot of atheists and nontheist throughout the world (and into the future), we are trying to popularize the fact that historically, atheistic philosophers (since the Era of Enlightenment made it legal to admit you're an atheist) have tended to use, for their definition of atheist the following: An atheist is anybody who lacks a god-belief, anybody who is not a theist.
Thus, to say that an atheist insists that no gods exist is incomplete, and to require this is slander, refusing the atheistic communities the right and dignity of self-definition.
Many atheists do agree with the other definition and subdivide (what we call) atheists into categories such as agnostic, nontheist, atheist (we'd say "strong atheist"), and the like. This is not cut-and-dried by any stretch. All we wish to do is popularize the fact that this definition has been the favorite among atheistic writers for as long as being an atheistic writer has not put said writer in danger of the fiery stake. Our reason for doing this is because we think doing so will improve the lot of atheists in that we think it will reduce the stigma leveled against us from all sides.
We would hope that you, as a follower of Jesus would understand simply because "Jesus" has been given many different meanings by various people and groups as well. Surely you feel tempted, at this point (upon reading this), to want to clarify just what it is that you mean when you call yourself "a follower of Jesus"!
(Am I right? Do you feel that urge? I know I did when I once called myself "a follower of Jesus"!)
Surely I would give you the dignity of using whatever it is you tell me this means during such times as I would be speaking with you, dealing with you, or describing you.
But if I found that most who used the same words gave a specific explanation or meaning that differed significantly from what you tell me, I might tend to use that popular definition when speaking generically about "those who call themselves followers of Jesus."
In the same sense, we would hope that those who deal with a specific atheist would respect that individual's self-definition for "an atheist" (or "a nontheist" or "an agnostic" or whatever). Likewise, we would hope that many, upon discovering the majority viewpoint, historically, among atheists, would likewise tend to use that majority self-definition when speaking generically of those who call themselves "atheists."
Our main goal, here, is to reduce the stigma and bigotry hurled against atheists, and our hope is that you, as a follower of Jesus, might join us in helping to solve this admittedly temporal problem. In this respect, this is all we really have to say about what we call ourselves, and I saw your letter as a lovely opportunity to bring some light to this topic that I hadn't encountered before.
So many atheists I have spoken to have been either bitter or confrontational.
Are we talking about atheists who approach you and try to convince you to change your core values as a human? Or might these be atheists who are simply responding either to your attempts to change their core values (or simply to your announcement that you disagree; that is, that you are "a follower of Jesus")? The answer to this first question makes all the difference in the world!
I get accused of being "bitter" by Christians who have just finished insisting that I jetisson the core values which I've nurtured and cherished for my entire life, those aspects of my outlook that make me who I am. They tell me I must exchange these integral parts of myself for a pat religious system that I have thoroughly investigated, a pat religious system that I find utterly abhorrant! You'd be bitter, too, if I did that to you! Even if you didn't mean this, allow me to comment on that situation.
Is Evangelism Intrusive? (Impolite?)
If a theist spends her life minding her own business, then she (ideally) ought never encounter such atheists (in my opinion, based on my ideals of how this game works: others disagree, of course). On the other end of the spectrum, theists who spend their days "carrying the message," as the Steppers like to put it, tend, at times, to forget what it feels like to be evangelized! In this sense it reaches a point where there is no proper or dignified or ideal way to evangelize, because the very act of evangelism becomes intrusive (read: "impolite," or, in the vernacular, "boorish," or, as certain social activists might see it, "bigoted").
Evangelism is impolite in that "we don't discuss politics or religion in polite company." Regardless of your views on free speech, there was an important reason they used to say this when I was younger. I finally discovered the full implication of this on the most recent (presidential) election night when I was kicked out of a bar for talking about George W. Bush and Al Gore! What!? It was election night, for cryin' out loud! That's what was on all the television sets and that's what was on everybody's mind! Why was I asked to leave? Simple! A man who was just outside my field of vision but still within earshot had become visibly enraged by the fact that I had said I think both men are dangerous. Later that evening, at another bar owned by the same man, the bartender, relaxing after a long day, explained to me that we don't do this where alcohol is being served.
"Ah! Some people can't handle it so I must restrict my behavior!"
Five years ago I would have made that remark with a cocky and arrogant tone of voice, emphasizing the sense of irony that part of me still sees in the situation. Today I utter the same sequence of words in all seriousness and with deep respect: we do what we can to keep the peace; we do what we must to keep the peace! This is our responsibility as responsible, civil-minded individuals. If somebody still wants to talk to me about "free speech," I know a great dentist who can save them under all but the most adverse situations. In other words, pick them up off the floor and bring them in: it's still not necessarily too late. If his skills fall short, then his brother is the absolute best at making them look like they're actually yours! This family has made plenty from people who insist that "free speech" precludes suffering the consequences for one's actions.
Last year I carried this to its ultimate conclusion in the context of prayer. If you wish to examine an exercise in stretching this concept of evangelism as a sense of superiority complex and thus as a form of bigotry, check my dialogue with Cameron Pearl, called, "We Will Pray For You Always." In it, I take Mr. Pearl's out-
A key element in the context of this situation is that Mr. Pearl knows nothing about me besides the fact that I am an atheist. The other crucial element is that Mr. Pearl does not simply pray for me. This is his right, indeed, his obligation to his faith; in addition, to the extent that this activity violates no law and impairs the Religious Liberties of nobody else, his activity is protected by the United States Constitution as well. However, instead of simply praying for me, Mr. Pearl approaches me and announces to me that he is praying for me!
I try to make the case that his announcing to me that he is praying for me is an expression of his superiority complex. Unfortunately, some took this letter as my recommendation regarding a proper (or at least justifiable) attitude, instead of taking it for the posturing that it was. Rather, this dialogue was an exercise in seeing how an atheist on the receiving end of such a remark might (rightly or wrongly) take such a remark, and seeing if one specific Christian could relate to at least some of the atheist's frustration (he couldn't). In order to do this, I acted the part of an extremely sensitive atheist who had endured just one too many remarks from Christians.
As a result, I have concluded (for now) that yes, it is somewhat arrogant for the Christian to announce to the atheist that she or he is praying for that atheist's salvation (but not if she or he is praying for the atheist's recovery from physical illness, for example).
There Is No Polite Response To Being Evangelized
Nevertheless, I would encourage caution on the part of any theist who approaches strangers and evangelizes them (this includes coworkers, neighbors, etc., those who are not within one's immediate group of trusted friends and family). Frankly, evangelism comes off as a monumental superiority complex, no matter how carefully it is done. To be evangelized is one of the more awkward and embarrassing situations into which you can place an individual. When you evangelize us, when you even make remarks suggesting that we ought to convert, etc., you put us on the spot.
No wonder those to whom you bring your message seem bitter or confrontational: How would you feel if it were you being told that your parents lied to you. What if somebody, particularly a stranger or, at most, a remote acquaintance, told you to renounce your core values? to instantly, and without much thought, reconsider those values over which you have spent your entire life struggling, to abandon those values which you proudly and carefully teach to your children? those values which you hold not because that's what your parents taught you but because you have spend your entire cognizant life testing them and have thus far determined that your parents did a good job and are therefore worthy of whatever honor you can bestow upon them? and what greater honor than to continue the traditions that they so carefully worked over from what their parents taught them and then spent so much time and effort bestowing upon you?
Bitter? You bet!
Confrontational? If that's what it takes to convince you to cease and desist!
Jimmy Carter announced to the world that he is a Born-Again Christian. He did this in the famous Playboy Interview of November, 1976, and then he rarely if ever brought the subject up again in public. A staunch state-church separationist, he ended all speeches with the words, "Thank you, and good night." Would that all of his fellow religionists would keep it at that: tell us what's up if you really need to, and then live as if we already know your situation so well that to be told any more would be to question my ability to remember what you said or understand what that means. This would surely reduce bitterness and confrontationalism to the level and degree which Jimmy Carter obviously lived his life experiencing.
There are legitimate contexts for such discussions: Some Internet boards are specifically designed for holding these discussions. Obviously if I am a visitor to your church, I have agreed to subject myself to a sales pitch of your beliefs. Obviously if you and I are close friends and have previously agreed that this is among the accepted topics of discussion we will rightly discuss our views.
Patently illegitimate context includes, of course, the public school classroom, where we have all three red-light situations: First, we have government endorsing the personal practice of religion (theism) over the avoidance of religious activity ("strong" atheism); Secondly, we have a captive audience, in that children are required by law to attend class; Finally, we have an audience of youngsters, which the Supreme Court has declared deserves added protection not afforded to adults, particularly adults who are in the situation by choice (such as Congress, thus explaining why the courts allow organized prayer in Congress but not in the classroom).
Technically, it is wrong for Congress to organize religious services, but there are more important injustices and we have but limited resources to fight those injustices. It is wrong for an elected official to exploit her or his office for the purpose of propagandizing religion -- not just a specific religion but religion itself. Unfortunately, nothing can be done to enforce this illegality because to have a case, the plaintiff (victim) must have what's called "standing," and the Supreme Court has ruled that psychological damage caused by the simple knowledge that a public servant is violating the Constitution is not enough of an injury for the purpose of "standing." Thus, when these public servants point to the fact that their predecessors got away with it and therefore we should openly practice it, they are lying. They got away with it because the way the law works, we cannot prosecute, even in a civil context.
Most importantly, though, I think simple etiquette determines when it is and is not appropriate to evangelize. True, you technically have the right to evangelize except in these unconstitutional situations mentioned above, but what kind of message are you bringing to your audience? If you want people to think that your religion openly advocates boorish behavior, then by all means feel free to tap somebody on the shoulder, interrupt their dialogue, and tell them the "good news." The words of your message by no means constitute your entire message!
And here's a trick that several Christians and Twelve-Steppers have pulled on me in this very Forum: Do you want to think you have a legitimate case against your opponent that she or he is "bitter or confrontational"? Here's a sure-fire way to give yourself every reason to see your opponent as all that and much more: openly pester and harass your opponent, pulling every logical fallacy in the book. Whenever your opponent catches you on one of these, turn around and duck the issue by accusing your opponent of the very fallacies you have committed. When our opponent finally gets frustrated enough to get a little rude with you, slap your hand down on the table and announce, "See? I told you that all ______ists are bitter and confrontational! You just proved my point for me! Why should I practice the philosophy of ______ism if it inspires or encourages its adherents to behave like this?" Or if your opponent remains polite but quietly and civilly ends the dialogue, say, "Okay, so I guess this means that my proof for the validity of ______ism is just to formidable for your ______istic rebuttal! You're left with no more answers to my irrefutable evidence! I see this means I've won the argument!"
Bitter or confrontational? Yeah, as civil as I try to be, as civil as I recommend being, sometimes we simply cannot pull it off. Sometimes you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. Fortunately, the vast majority of theists are not like this (although a disproportionate number of them write to our Forum, to be sure).
Do Atheists Rightly 'Evangelize' Atheism?
Many atheists carry to their atheism a self-definition that I see as uniquely religious!
Before someone rolls up his sleeve and sends me to the above-mentioned dentist, let me explain: in saying this I merely question the role that evangelism plays in atheism: is it the atheist's role or "job" to try to "deconvert" theists? Let's look at evangelism for a bit.
Many religious figures throughout history have instructed their followers to instruct the world in the ways of that religion. Indeed, the New Testament quotes Jesus as having repeatedly made this command to his followers, and not simply to his immediate followers but to followers throughout time.
Why do the leaders make this command and why do the followers obey it?
I will set aside those who would obey a religious leader simply for the sake of obedience, not agreeing with what they were doing but simply following orders in order to please authority (be it God or the religious leaders or the consensus of the group through being accepted by the group).
What is left is this: we all advocate those viewpoints we hold because we think they are right! We think that others would benefit from adopting our way of life and we think that the world would be a better place if more adopted our ways.
In addition, some of us see a certain danger in not adopting our way of life. Indeed, many who consider themselves followers of Jesus also think the New Testament teaches certain punishment for those who do not take up a similar outlook or lifestyle. Surely most compare their former life before becoming a follower with their current life as a follower and wish to see their fellows similarly relieved of that misery.
Why do you think the Alcoholics Anonymous member is so adamant in telling the drunk that AA works? Having spent almost 30 years on the fringes of that organization and its offshoots, I have yet to find more than three distinct motives among those who "carry the message," as they say.
First, if you show me a man who is doing it because doing so will help himself remain sober (as AA so clearly states), then I'll show you a man who has self-serving motives in advocating to other people that they change their lifestyles!
Secondly, if a woman spent years and years in the bondage of a destructive and miserable existence in the clutches of a bafflingly powerful compulsion to "cop a buzz," and if she finally finds what she thinks is the key to overcoming this obsession that literally blinds the "alcoholic" to the certain consequences of drinking, then that woman will naturally want to share this knowledge with others.
Finally, and tied in to the first motive but needing a distinct explanation, most AA members consider their involvement in AA to be crucial to their remaining sober. The most important element of this, of course, is the "support group" that is the AA Fellowship. Regardless of anybody's understanding of AA's ideals, I have discovered that if you do not hold at least some semblance of agreement with the general philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous (the disease model of alcoholism; the notion of "powerlessness"; the idea of a rescuing deity, AA's effectiveness in addressing the problem of the drinking habit), then you will not have an easy time getting along in the AA group! In other words, if you don't "toe the line," so to speak, you will not have much of a support group! And without a support group, your reason for being involved in AA goes out the window. According to the AA mythos, you will drink again.
Thus, it follows that if one of the biggest "commandments" in AA is to "carry the message" to others, then the AA member can expect to be readily respected and accepted by his AA peers if he is active in "carrying the message" and will not enjoy these things to the same extent if he is lax in "carrying the message."
So, what of these two (or three) motives?
I would suggest that the second motive, the desire to help one's fellows improve their lot, is the only altruistic motive, that is, the only respectable motive. The others are self-serving regardless of how noble the results may be. Thus, these people (in my opinion) are engaging in self-indulgence when they "carry the message" to others. It has been my experience that these motives go hand-in-hand with styles of "carrying the message" that tend to seem "either bitter or confrontational."
Ah! But does this mean that the altruistic ones are immune to seeming this way?
I don't think so, because I think it is possible to be mistaken in one's assessment of another's situation. The AA member who walks up to the first person she sees with a drink in her hand errs in supposing that the drinker has a problem similar to the one from which the AA member was rescued. This AA member presupposes that drinking itself is somehow wrong (dangerous; immoral) in every context.
Such presuppositions involve lumping everybody into a single category based solely upon a single common trait or behavior. At worst, this is among the core elements of prejudice or bigotry. At best, we have somebody who is acting on a misnomer; as such, we do well to be alert for other misnomers or perhaps motives being askew.
I think these are the ones most likely to exhibit a style of evangelism that folks would tend to see as "bitter or confrontational."
However, as I mentioned above, I still think the vast majority of those you will find fitting this description will be those who were minding their own business only moments before.
I thank you for the opportunity to mull over some of these issues with you, and warmly invite you to respond, elaborate, or whatever. I am slow at posting due to my recent illness, which took me completely out of commission for several months. However, our "What's New?" Index lists all new files in the order they were created, and also lists old files that have been updated. Such services as MindIt can point to this page and send you a notice that the file has changes. Although we will have our own search very soon, the Google search which points to our page is about three months behind.
While we are far from perfect in this respect, I humbly appreciate that you would notice in us what is at least our goal in atheistic expression: a desire to avoid the "bitter and confrontational" approach as much as possible. At times, our hands are tied, but if we put some basic foundational attitudes and practices in place, we can go a long way toward becoming adept at practicing those tricks which will give us a much better crack at getting along with one another.
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six-and-a-half years of service
to people with no reason to believe
Once again, it is encouraging to hear a well-thought out reply to a quickly dashed-out email (meaning my own, of course.) I believe you raised some valid points, but some of your assumptions were incorrect.
When I refer to a "bitter atheist", (and I am not trying to say that all atheist's are bitter) I mean the kind of person who refuses to believe in anything because they can see nothing good in the world. They are not openminded about their existence, and do not base their existence on rationality, but instead have lashed out at the pain in the world by denying the good of the world. This kind of "bitter atheist" is angry at God for the evil in the world, therefore they choose not believe in a God.
These people that I have encountered are not mature atheists, are generally young, and are constantly participating in self-destructive behavior. Much of their time, energy, and conversation seems to be dedicated to drugs, sex, and dissipatory entertainment. In this, I do not see "rational atheism" (which I have great respect for), but a belief system based on pessimism and bitterness at the harshness of life.
It hurts me to think about someone who is in so much pain. No matter what belief they may choose, there is a great need to show them that there are people in the world who care. From personal experience, I have found that this state of despair and rage leads to destructive behavior, both in one's life and in sometimes in the society at large.
Before I go on, I would like to make sure that I have implied that atheists are the only people to go through such experiences. Every person in the world, regardless of their beliefs, is capable of falling into this state of bitterness and despair. Yet for whatever reason, almost all of the people I have encountered who consider themselves "atheists" have been in such a state. When someone loses sight of anything good in the world, a belief in an eternally good God would be difficult to hold on to.
This is what I mean when I refer to "bitterness" in the atheists I have encountered. As I said, I did not believe that this was at all true for atheists in general. It was very encouraging to hear the testimony of truly positive atheists that have a non-destructive outlook on life.
I believe I will respond to the rest of your letter, especially the part dealing with evangelism, at a later time. Suffice it to say that I am not referring to anyone's response to evangelism when I speak about "bitter and confrontational". In this case, bitterness is a style of life, not a reaction to outside pressure.
From: "Positive Atheism" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: "benjamin Eisenberg"
Subject: Re: Thank you!
Date: April 13, 2002 1:42 PM
the kind of person who refuses to believe in anything because they can see nothing good in the world.
May I suggest a term such as pessimist? The word atheist is already taken: it refers specifically to that individual who, for whatever reason, lacks a god-belief. This is the meaning that has been given by the majority of atheistic writers and philosophers since the Era of Enlightenment rendered it legal to admit one's disagreement with the Christian religion. To combine atheism and pessimism is one thing, the two distinct aspects can coexist in a single viewpoint; however it is unfair to link atheism with pessimism by assuming that this behavior you observe is rightly seen as atheism.
Besides, someone who "is angry at God" is most certainly not an atheist! Is he telling you he doesn't believe? Then we have one of two things: either he is lying, and does believe, being angry at God, or he is telling the truth, and your assessment of him being angry at God is mistaken (and thus, unfair). Either way, he is not an atheist!
Thinking such as this may make life and discussion more convenient for certain theists and theologians; it may give an evangelist powerful tools with which to convince the unwary that they need this thing called "faith" in their lives. However, when they do this, when they save time and effort or gain converts through these means, they do so at the expense of an entire class of people. For a modest gain, you indoctrinate your listeners with false and derogatory teachings about atheists. And it's we atheists who have to pay in the long run, suffering degradation so that you may enjoy a minor convenience!
Most of the people who hate atheists, that is, most of those who would answer a survey by stating that "atheists are untrustworthy" (98 percent of self-proclaimed Evangelical Christians) have never given the subject much original thought, but have merely listened to preachers gain converts by setting up the atheists in the most unbecoming light possible. This happens week after week to the point where the congregations who endure this become desensitized to what is happening. Nobody could possibly be as evil as the preachers call the atheist without there being great calamity in this world, not with over 21 percent of the world's adults and over 14 percent of America's adults! But through repetition, this absurd notion becomes truth in the minds of those who hear it.
And we atheists are the ones who have to pay. We did not squander away our reputations by our own neglect and misbehavior. Rather, others stole our reputations from us, people who, for the sake of convenience, chose to take the easy way, to do things the cheap way, to cut corners in their thinking. They can rest assured that they don't have to pay for their laziness: that's what we atheists are for!
Our main goal at Positive Atheism is to find things we can do that will reduce the stigma and bigotry hurled against us from all sides. We have succeeded in convincing most (but not all) dictionary editors to stop equating "atheism" with "wickedness" and are on our way toward ending the dogmatic assumption on the part of such reference works as American Herititage that the atheist wilfully denies the well-known and self-evident fact of God's existence, a fact so well known (according to the tenor of the definition) that even said atheist realizes its truthfulness (thereby making him not really an atheist). American Heritage and a handful of others are the only remaining works to commit this bigoted blunder, unbecoming of any unbiased reference work. Now, it seems, we still need to deal with the less common but equally destructive error of equating "the atheist" with "a bitter person who sees no good in the world."
These people that I have encountered are not mature atheists, are generally young, and are constantly participating in self-destructive behavior.
It is commonly known, even among today's teens, that atheism is a popular rebellious outlet, particularly in those regions where Christianity is strongest. However, let's look at their "atheism" itself, but not because we're trying to divorce ourselves from that particular style of atheism. (We need do no such thing!) But let's examine "atheism as rebellion" in order to understand the nature of atheism itself, which includes all forms and expressions of atheism, theirs as well as mine.
May I recommend that their atheism, like the atheism of every atheist (including myself), is merely incidental to their overall, "big-picture" outlook.
Because Christianity entails a positive object of faith (Christ or God), it is conceivable for a Christian's Christianity to comprise the bulk of his overall point of view. The Jehovah's Witnesses are a good example of this: hardly anything that a Witness does, thinks, or says has not been filtered through the organization's published interpretation of the Bible.
This has no parallel in atheism; atheism is not like this by any means, being (at most) a way for us to distinguish ourselves from others (the majority, in our case). All one's atheism says about himself is "not": "I am not one of those! I am not one who believes in the existence of gods and the supernatural! I am an atheist!"
Here's an example of why it is odd, strange, for the term atheist to even exist: Do you know which word to use when you wish to say that an individual does not carry the AIDS virus? Does such a word even exist? Perhaps a small group of AIDS patients, advanced in the progression of their affliction, have picked up on such a term from somewhere. A word from a work of poetry or literature, or from a film, could now be repeated and understood in certain hospice situations as referring to the "outsiders" who do not share "our fate." This is conjecture on my part, showing only that such a word is possible, that such an idea is not unreasonable. Apart from such an exclusive scenario, you will not find a word that means, "a person who who does not test positive for HIV infection."
Now, we do have a term that means "a person who does not hold a god-belief of any kind," and that term is atheist. Why one and not the other? I would suggest that this situation has everything to do with those who are not atheists and little if anything to do with those of us who are. It is the theist who has decided that those who are not theists are a special class of human, warranting the attention of theists the world over. As far back as the days of the Psalmists there was a song whose title and refrain went, "The fool hath said in his heart, 'There is no God.'" The song continues: "They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good."
The situation for the atheist is not much better today, not when popular columnist William F. Buckley openly blames "atheists" for the terrorist attacks of September 11, not when any number of apologists for theism drop their sectarian squabbles long enough to defend the reputation of mainstream Islam by saying, "No true believer in God could possibly have done such a thing!"
I see! Then whoever did this must surely have been atheists! An atheist wrote those pages in Mohamed Atta's briefcase, those prayers and praises to Allah, intended for no eyes but accidentally placed onto the wrong plane by people who had no idea what that briefcase even was, no clue that its contents would change the world forever within a half-hour or so.
I suggest that it is the theist who has created this category of "atheist," is the theist who has stigmatized atheism to the point where it needs its own word to distinguish it from normalcy, lest we inadvertently confuse "one of them" for "one of us."
Insofar as the atheist has avoided the persecution historically meted out to those who fail a given culture's test of orthodoxy, the atheist has cared little about what theists do, think, or say about theism. Unlike the slander which commonly portrays us as waging a bitter war against anything theistic, the vast majority of atheists have simply ignored theism altogether.
At times the theistic majority (or its spokespersons) will do something that is impossible to ignore. They will arrange things so that it is impossible for us to simply be human. Instead, it becomes clear to all, particularly to ourselves, that we are atheists. On such occasions, many of us will feel compelled to openly and even proudly distinguish ourselves from that theistic majority:
"Why did you not participate in, or even honor, America's 'Day of Prayer and Reconciliation' for the victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11, Mr, Walker?"
"I am an atheist," is all I should have had to say. However, since this is America, and because being an atheist should never have disqualified me from everything that our country did, together, to remember the bombing victims, I will state both facts:
"I am an atheist, and as such cannot participate in a ceremony such as was central to our nation's collective gesture. However, since this is America, my country ought to have given this opportunity to everybody who wanted it, the opportunity to participate fully in America's collective gesture of grief and hope. Because certain leaders forgot that this is America (or hate what America really is, openly seeking to destroy her by redefining her), I was forced to make do with a private gesture of my own, to cope with my grief alone, without the aid and support of the rest of my country. I did this by opening up my Internet Forum for the purpose of allowing anybody who wanted to to say what they felt they needed to say, and to do so before an audience of similarly minded individuals who sought to hear what folks like us had to say.
"Anybody could have simply prayed: people do this privately all the time. In addition, every house of worship in the country opened its doors to people who wished to practice religious ritual. There was no shortage of opportunity to pray. Instead, and for reasons upon which I have speculated elsewhere, my country offered but a single collective gesture of remembrance, of grief, of hope, of reconciliation. For reasons inexplicable to myself and many others, my country limited our collective gesture to a unique religious ritual which, for me to practice (or even pretend to practice) would be at minimum an act of dishonesty and in essence an open display of disrespect toward those who died symbolizing the very Liberties which my country, in pretending to honor these dead, has arguably taken from me.
"All this because I am an atheist."
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