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Luke Banton

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Luke Banton"
Subject: Re: Thank you
Date: February 28, 2002 10:33 AM

[All but the first paragraph of this first response was added later (March 1, 2002).]

This makes sense: the Bible makes a big thing of being a slave to the Church, a slave to the Christian godhead.

I would be interested in knowing what you mean by "freer" when you said this.

Freedom, if by this you mean "Liberty," is all about making your own decisions. Crucial to the concept of Liberty is personal accountability: I make a decision and I live with the consequences. (I don't know how "freedom" plays out in this respect; thus, I use the word Liberty with a capital "L" the way Paine, Jefferson, and others of that era did.)

In order to enjoy the greatest benefits of Liberty (to make the most of Liberty), you do well to learn how to predict the possible and likely consequences of any action. This means learning as much about how your world works as you can afford to learn. We all gotta live (day-to-day living), but we must invest at least some of our life in learning, and this usually comes early. When you're a kid, learning is cheap, even free -- even forced upon you! -- but you now approach the age when learning will start to get very expensive.

If we can learn how to make successful predictions as to what might be the likely outcome of this or that decision, we can do a lot that we otherwise could not do, because we will know just what we can and cannot afford to be the result of this or that action on our part. This almost sounds like a gamble, but that's precisely what it is, if you tyink about it.

My favorite formula comes from Richard Robinson's wonderful lecture series, which eventually became bound into his 1964 book An Atheist's Values. Agreeing that "good" involves nothing more than good choices, he first pondered a value system that would bring about the most good. However, unable to come to an agreement with himself as to what the most people would consider "good," he later decided to make his choices based upon which ones would bring about the least amount of harm (or evil) to the most people. He even went so far as to agree that we count ourselves as one of those people, so that we are not making decisions that bring about the least harm to ourselves, but the least harm to the most people, period, without counting ourselves as anything special. This is the ethic that I try to practice -- when I can afford to practice it.

When I talk about being able to afford to be ethical, you can see what I mean when you consider that some "environmentally friendly" products are extremely expensive, compared to their "commercial" counterparts. Of course! Sometimes it costs lots of money to protect the environment (and sometimes we're just dealing with greedy environmentalists!). As a fully disabled man, having never had the opportunity even to build a nest-egg, I've always had to be money conscious. I've even spent years at a time living on nothing but my wits! Often, as much as I'd like to buy the "environmentally friendly" product, just for my own peace of mind, I simply cannot afford the price tag and must either purchase the "cheaper" product or do without.

Again, as walking got more and more difficult, I started, for the first time in my life, to use paper towels. Before, I could make a roll last for years -- literally years for a single roll of paper towels! Instead, I had an intricate system of rags which I prioritized into the wash at certain, specific intervals. As it became harder and harder for me to lug my military duff to the laundromat, the system of rags had to go. Today, however, I am the proud owner of a washer and drier. It's reached the point where I cannot live without one (rather, the cost of paying someone to lug my wash and paying someone else to do the wash at the laundromat will be absorbed by the cost of the appliances plus their operating costs in less than a year). Good-bye paper towels!

Freedom is the ability to make your own decisions in life, ranging from how you will wipe up spills to what ideology (if any) you will hold. The absence of freedom is someone dictating to you what you will and will not do, think, or say.

Finally, as Maurice Cranston pointed out in his wonderfully concise and absolutely unforgettable essay on freedom, "The Meaning of Freedom: Words," freedom is always spoken of in the context of freedom from some restriction. Cranston uses the example of the man who walks up to you and announces,

"I'm free!

You reply,

"What!? Tell me, kind sir! What are you free of? What are you free from?"

What he says in this context explains everything about what he has said; without providing a context (always the context is freedom from some restriction). Cranston also points out the case of the man who says he is free to swim the English Channel. This says nothing about whether he is strong enough or healthy enough to do it, but that he has no restrictions: perhaps he has convinced the government of France to allow him entry into the country so that he may now step onto their shore when he is done with the swim! This is a very crucial step in swimming the English Channel, if you ask me! The only way this could even remotely relate to his ability or capability would be that his doctor has lifted a previous restriction and will now allow him to do it where he wouldn't before.

Thus, freedom of religion always means freedom from some restriction in regards to your religious views. Really, the only context I can think of is that with religious freedom, you are free from obligation to practice a specific religious ritual (the state religion?), meaning that you are free to practice whatever religion you wish (or no religion at all!).

As I suggested at first, I would be interested in knowing what you mean by "freer" when you said this.
 

Richard Dawkins suggests that it ought to be my hope that it remains standing long after I'm dead, since that will give me the largest audience (even though I'll be dead and unable to enjoy the fruits of my labors).

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This is another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than a hundred million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, 'the present century'. Interestingly, some physicists don't like the idea of a 'moving present', regarding it as a subjective phenomenon for which they find no house room in their equations. But it is a subjective argument I am making. How it feels to me, and I guess to you as well, is that the present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. In other words, it is overwhelmingly probable that you are dead.

In spite of these odds, you will notice that you are, as a matter of fact, alive. People whom the spotlight has already passed over, and people whom the spotlight has not reached, are in no position to read a book. I am equally lucky to be in a position to write one, although I may not be when you read these words. Indeed, I rather hope that I shall be dead when you do. Don't misunderstand me. I love life and hope to go on for a long time yet, but any author wants his works to reach the largest possible readership. Since the total future population is likely to outnumber my contemporaries by a large margin, I cannot but aspire to be dead when you see these words. Facetiously seen, it turns out to be no more than a hope that my book will not soon go out of print. But what I see as I write is that I am lucky to be alive and so are you.
    -- excerpt from Chapter I, "The Anaesthetic of Familiarity," of his 1998 book Unweaving the Rainbow

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Ah, writing! The ultimate investment in selflessness!
 

Actually, it does. I'll bet that whoever made that decision gets roundly castigated by his fellows who might not understand all the ramifications of Internet.

I don't go around presupposing that my ideological opponents are de facto dishonest or weak-minded or anything of the sort. Instead, I assume that all believers have, or think they have, valid reasons for believing the way they do.

Most of all, though, if they say they're seeking truth, then they ought not be afraid of information. They ought not even be afraid of lies, now, should they? Information that is true ought never be intimidating to someone for whom the truth is always welcome. If my goal in life is to follow truth wherever she may lead, then, even if it turned out that the Gospel of Jesus Christ as is commonly understood and believed and taught in the fundamentalistic Evangelical circles of America is what's really happening "out there," then the very worst that I could honestly say is,

Damn! I sure wish that it would have turned out that God wasn't such a freak, a sorehead, and a loser, and all that!

But that's all I could say, because in so doing I would at least be accepting the truth of the situation: that a god existed who resembled an Oriental Despot, only Bigger, Invisible, and with a very deep male voice (à la Ted Cassidy, as "Lurch") if C. B. De Mille is to be credited with any insight into the matter, who throws tantrums when He doesn't get His way with about the same sense of abandon that adolescents at a drinking party toss cookies when they get a little too much of their way! I'd say, "Damn! Damn, God! and of all the truly cool deities that humankind invented over the years, it had to be You!"

But that's my likely response in the event that the Fundamentalist Christians turn out to be right. I doubt it'll turn out that way, though. Instead, their history, it seems, is to kick and hiss and spit and jump up and down and anything else that they think might keep the truth from its appointed rounds. At least this is what I tend to observe of many of their spokesentiities such as this, of course, renders the possibility that they're right about God most unlikely. But truth is truth just as gravity is gravity and you can work around it and you can make it work for you, but you cannot simply ignore it. That's what these folks have tried to do: simply ignore truth. When Christians do this, the result is that their arch-nemesis, the Atheists, begin to appear extremely moral by comparison.

But if we look at the source, even this ought not surprise us: When God demanded of Pharaoh that he "let my people go," what was His reason? Was it because human slavery is morally wrong? No, because immediately after they are freed, God hands them instructions on how to treat their own slaves. But we needn't carry it that far, even. In the text, God tells us precisely why he wants his people freed: He wants them to be able to go into the desert to worship Him! That's right! He wants his "pets" to fill their prayers with crude and bald and florid flatteries of Him, so that He can, in response, sit and purr over these extravagancies [1] and enjoy the false happiness that comes from intimidating a lowly, ignorant band of goat-herders into nervously singing His praises -- lest the Earth open up her gaping mouth and swallow the whole lot of them (Numbers 16 [2] -- a foreshadowing of the Christian Hell, according to those Christians who still relish that thought, although this is as close to the concept of "Hell" as the Hebrew Scriptures ever came)!

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Note: 1. The imagery preceding this note reference ("crude ... bald ... florid ... purr" etc.) was borrowed from Mark Twain, Letters From the Earth, chapter 1, and the "ignorant band of flea-bitten goat-herders" (etc.) language is, of course, from Jerry Billings.

Note: 2. United States Founder Thomas Paine wrote a hilariously scathing satirical poem explaining the fate of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.

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So, then, if God's goal is to be worshipped (and this seems to be the case for all the passages that we moderns might be tempted to call "moral" teachings), then it makes perfect sense to me that today's Christians (at least those who take their Bible more seriously than they perhaps ought) will not place a very high of a premium on what most of us would call morality: that is, honesty, integrity, the Boy Scout code, "Bark! Bark! Don't steal my bone! Grrrr!" Robert's Rules of Order, etc. Such Christians have a much higher ethic in mind, that of worshipping "The Lord," and thus it should not surprise us in the least that they'd remove an entire web site simply because an atheist logs on and raises questions to which the answers lie outside the cultic world view (oh, yeah! that line is the exclusive property of Ted Patrick the famous [or infamous] deprogrammer of members of so-called religious cults [I try never to use that word], whose downfall, I hear, revolved around an attempt to deprogram a lesbian couple. I'd forgotten that that was his line, and I promise never to use it again in such a flippant context -- at least not until the next time the urge strikes).

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Six-and-one-half years of service
    to people with no reason to believe
P.O. Box 16811
Portland, OR 97292
http://www.PositiveAtheism.org/
editor@PositiveAtheism.org

"My conclusion is that there is no reason to
    believe any of the dogmas of traditional
    theology and, further, that there is no
    reason to wish that they were true. Man,
    in so far as he is not subject to natural
    forces, is free to work out his own destiny.
    The responsibility is his, and so is the
    opportunity."
       -- Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), from an
          unpublished essay, "Is There a God?"
          (1952), being the religious opinion of
          Russell, of this journal, and of as many
          as one-fifth of the world's adults and
          perhaps one-seventh of Americans

"The legitimate powers of government extend
    to such acts only as are injurious to others."
       -- Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), in his
          "Statute for Religious Freedom," saying
          government has no authority over one's
          religious opinions, thus defining "crime"
          as the injury of a person or his property

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain
    a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty
    nor safety."
       -- Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), from the
          "Historical Review of Pennsylvania," which
          warns, among other things, that if we don't
          use the Liberty to hold and express our own
          religious opinions, even if out of the fear of
          reprisal, then we rightly forfeit that Liberty

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Added: March 1, 2002

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Luke Banton"
Subject: Re: Thank you II
Date: March 01, 2002 12:53 PM

Sadly, this trend is so ubiquitous throughout the Bible that one need merely pick whatever Bible Story I've been thinking about lately (the Exodus) and, as the kids who just now grew up had been prone to say, "Whoop! There it is!"
 

I like to think that this is a sign of inner personal philosophical turmoil (i.e., "Is this really real?") but I must admit that it's much more complex than that. I think you cannot have one without the other, though, and suspect that had you not had such turmoil, you would have "survived" even this! My "straw" was when the police busted down the place where I work only to find that we weren't the fencing operation they'd hoped to find. They even went so far as to try to entice me into getting involved with their little game. It didn't work. What saved me was my telling the (unbeknownst to me) cop that he was headed for jail if I found out he was trying to sell me hot property. My sense of honesty goes way back. But the incongruity for me was that the cops, according to Paul, were working for God. On top of all that was an intense sense of loneliness. I am even more alone today than I was back then, but the difference is that I have now learned how to handle these feelings, to live and thrive in spite of them.
 

Two things:

First, this is one of the ways they get the leadership types "hooked." In fact, leadership opportunities are themselves great "hooks": just ask Alcoholics Anonymous how powerful a force evangelism is toward keeping someone loyal to the group (and group loyalty, in AA, is the source of life itself because when you leave the group, you drink and then you die.

Secondly, stand back and take a look at the sheer hypocrisy of this thinking: in order to "set a positive example" -- but what kind of example could you possibly be setting if the "example" is contrived!? Ponder the meaning of setting an example, and then ponder the meaning of what it is to contrive something: can the two possibly coexist in truthfulness?

We're setting an example that's supposed to say that we want to be here, that this is an important part of our lives -- but the real reason we're here is because that's what we must do in order to keep our position of leadership (wherein we are guaranteed to receive certain perks, not the least important of which is a very powerful tool for attracting members of the opposite sex! I went through this whole scene in my mind every time I was denied a leadership position. It's not too hard to see -- unless you're "hooked" into the leadership position itself!
 

This is very painful for them: they are trained ("goaled," if you will) to see you unto salvation, but they also know the signs of a "falling away," as they say. They also, in perhaps even the most minor sense, consider you a friend, however "casual" or distant or the like. It hurts them to see you walk away from what they've trained themselves to think of as the greatest gift one could receive. It pains them, of course, to admit defeat, in that one of their charges is now strolling along the precipice of self-rule -- that dangerous "edge" of thinking for oneself (hence my pen name, which, by the way, is eighteen years old this month: soon it will be twenty since I've been a Christian! [Seems like yesterday. Seems like yesterday -- .]).
 

This will become less and less difficult to understand as time passes. But yes, the feeling is very clear: I must stay away from the church -- that church or any church!

But where do you go? What do you do? That's the tough one! What I did was go back to what I had done as a teenager: listening to records and taking drugs and tinkering with mechanical and electronic devices. This is what I knew before Church, and I found that going back to it was wonderful therapy (except that the drugs got me caught up with a few rather unsavory women, and I almost died as a result (by mimicking their drug use behavior, which, by the way, were completely foreign to anything I'd ever done before, I having always been so cautious in that area of life). But had I omitted the drugs (stuck to, say, drinking and pot) or had I simply done drugs the same way I did when I was a kid, I would have come out just fine (I came out fine anyway), and would have done so a lot faster. Nevertheless, the old records and the old training in electronics brought to me a sense of familiarity, a sense of "home." All this worked wonders toward showing me just how foreign the church mindset was for me, not to mention leveling me out, once again, as a human being! I even got a few part-time jobs in electronics during those years just to hammer that point home: this is me! this is who I am! this is who I REALLY am! not that, over there, but this!
 

I'll give you the easiest sources first, but please consider the third section as your most important prospect for obtaining direct answers to the specific questions you have asked.
 

1. I glommed a section from C. Dennis McKinsey's Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy, a newsletter piece he wrote which later became a section in the book, about "Solidification and Isolation." I rewrote this section (to get around the copyright) and posted it in our FAQ piece, Introduction to Activistic Atheism.

This is a concise overview of the methods used by Evangelical Christians to obtain and retain converts. Mine, as I mentioned, is a "condensed" rewrite, and if you can get your hands on the book itself you'll get a little more, but not much: I tried to be mindful of keeping as much of the important information in here as I could.
 

2. I wrote a not-so-cute little piece in our Letters section in response to a rather low-class stunt that an Evangelical type tried to pull on me, which turned out quite interesting, if I do say so myself. In any event, I would have never guessed, when I started this work, that it would have come out the way it did! You may remember that I helped a young fellow named Randy unravel an online preacher's shameless slander of the "Jesus Myth" proponents, in a piece called "The Jesus Myth Myth Myth": they call the "Jesus Myth" movement a myth using the line "Jesus Myth Myth," and I'm calling their response a myth in that it's mostly just another collection of jumping up and down, that is, making bald assertions -- as if the more boldly one asserts something the truer that assertion is! (This fallacy was exposed during the times of the ancient Greeks, but they still try to pull it on us today! How stupid do they think we are, anyway?)

After posting this piece, the evangelist who runs the web site was amusing himself one evening by entering his own name into one of the popular Internet search engines. Low and behold! He discovers that this "peanut-level venture" of an atheistic web site (that has a direct affiliation with Mohandas K. Gandhi's work, which, I suppose, qualifies us as being degraded as "a peanut-level venture"), Positive Atheism, had poked a fun at his own approach to absolutism, that black-and-white style of thinking which is somewhat popular among Evangelical apologists who cannot think up any real criticism of those who don't quite see reality the way that Christians tend to describe it. So this evangelist posts quite an obsessive-sounding slander of me in response (they can't simple leave it alone, can they? don't they always have to have the final word? isn't it like they've just gotta set us straight or make sure that no stone is left unturned or the like? -- as if I care what he thinks or says about me, as long as he keeps his use of my copyrighted material under the 500-word limit, I won't even pay attention to him except that he now plays a part in this story!).

Fast-forward to the place in the story where cometh the point: another youthful evangelical type, Andrew Anderson, wrote to me and asked me to divulge to him the e-mail address of Randy, who had asked about the anti-Jesus Myth web site! He "reminded" me that Randy "was asking about [this] apologetics site" (no, he'd simply asked about it) and said that he'd "like to talk to [Randy] about that apologist and his website too" (oblivious to any subsequent unposted exchanges that Randy and I may have had).

Needless to say, my olfactory system detected variety of rattus norvegicus: in other words, I smelled a rat! Wouldn't you? As television's most popular prædatorius psychopathia sexualis, Mister Rogers, might have said, "Ca -- can you say, 'transparent'? Sure!"

Not to be undone, though, I entered this fellow's e-mail address into a search engine and came up with a solitary "hit": an anonymous web page that described the author's conversion from "atheism" to faith in Christ via a visit to one of numerous sequestered indoctrination compound for youths, run by Billy Graham, called Cove Camp, located in Asheville, North Carolina. Aha! I quickly responded with a terse explanation of my responsibilities as an editor, especially when it comes to honoring the trust granted to me by a youngster, in the face of exploiters who would just love to get their tainted hands on someone who has expressed the level of confusion as our friend Randy had in his letter to us!

"Grrrr!" If I could get my hands on a few of those types, they'd see what it means to me to exploit young people for personal gain or, worse, to bring a few bucks or a few brownie points into a cold-hearted, lifeless organization such as the Christian Church or even Billy Graham's outfit! I say:

"Grrrr!" "Hisss!" "Ffft-ffft! Ffffffft!" "Bow-wow! Bow-wow!" "Hissss!" "Growl!" "Hey! Watch it, there, Bud!" "Grrrr!"

As a literary note, I limited my criticism of the online evangelist to that which also applied to how I felt about this character for even asking me to compromise my morals like this! for even thinking of me as being one who would either knowingly do this or who would fall for such a poorly laid trap. Seldom have I been so pointed in my attack of someone -- basically because I so rarely encounter such a blatant level of exploitation. And never have I been asked, point blank, to join in on such exploitation, certainly not in such a tricky manner as this!

What came of all this? Why, in responding to his innocent-sounding queries about my loathing for Billy Graham's sequestered youth indoctrination compounds, I developed quite an interesting study of just how those things work! Even I was surprised at what flowed from my fingertips that evening! This is worth a look, and might give you some insight into how these sequestered camps work, and some of that might apply to regular situations as well. Portions of it are, I'll admit, derived from the McKinsey piece mentioned above.

Here is the URL, pointing directly to the section in question, as this is a rather long file.
http://www.positiveatheism.org/mail/eml9049.htm#CAMPCOVE
 

3. Definitely your best bet, in my opinion (and I'm rather well-read for a Red), is a book called The Mind of the Bible Believer by Edmund Cohen -- that is, if you have the education to be able to wade through this thing. (This book comes complete with an endorsement from Frank Zappa, circa 1988!) The problem is that you need at least a first-year education in psychology to follow what he's saying. Add to that just how dry the book is.

In fact, if someone could read this book and then present its contents in a much more accessible format, we, the atheistic activists of America and of the world, might have the tools to really turn Evangelical Christianity on its ear, so scathing is its indictment of that brand of Christianity. This book contains such bold, cutting insight, and every word I could grasp applied directly to my own situation, as well as just about every situation I've been told about on this Forum.

We have a brief outline of the book posted in our Reviews section; in fact, it is this review which prompted me to create the "Reviews" section to begin with! and check out the song (below the review) that goes with the book, written especially for the book, in honor of it, I've heard.
 

4. Otherwise, you might try to analyze for yourself some of the ex-Christian posts on such web sites as PostFun (post-fundamentalism) or even our De-Conversion Stories (we're frantically working toward posting a new set as I write this!). However, this method is imprecise because we all tend to color our own experiences so that they'll fit our present ideology or to justify our current behavior.

For example, the "drunkalogue" of an Alcoholics Anonymous member will contain strong doses of AA's ideology of powerlessness, disease, and illness, in order to please the peers of the AA member: fellow members have a habit of clearing their throats and shifting nervously in their chairs whenever such a "drunkalogue" does not fit this ideology, so the AA member is trained quickly and effectively. A similar account of the drunken exploits of, say, a Rational Recovery student might deliberately avoid mention of anything remotely resembling powerlessness, to the point where we could even expect such a story to conspicuously omit mention of these elements which are present, to be sure, but which AA has most certainly blown way out of proportion. But the RR person would be remiss in mentioning these things.

Thus, I would trust something such as Cohen before I'd believe much of what I read in PostFun or the De-Con Stories: our specific goal in posting the De-Con stories is so that we can chart our progress as ex-believers over the years by logging on later and reading what we wrote "back then." Had gaining insight into your specific question been my goal, I'd have done something quite different. However, this is all we have and you might be able to find something useful in there that we would have never counted on obtaining.
 

Mostly, though, we can write back and forth and try to figure these things out for ourselves. You can turn your informal little group of ex-believers into a formal discussion group which meets once or twice a month specifically to discuss these things, and even places an ad in the paper inviting others who have undergone the same experiences. An advanced version of such a group would even invite members of the community, ranging from psychologists who have dealt with these matters to Liberal clergypersons who have addressed fundamentalism in their own ministries. If you do come up with anything you think we might want to know or from which we might benefit, you are more than welcome to log on and tell us what you've learned! That's what I did with you today, and that, most of all, is how we will be able to learn these otherwise undocumented bits of information -- this material that you cannot simply go to the library and look up in a book somewhere.

As I am fond of pointing out (well -- I'm not fond of the fact that it has to be this way), if I wanted to adjust from a reason-based outlook to a faith-based world view, I could step out my front door and walk in any direction: not two miles from my home (wherever it may be). I would, within this radius, find a minister who was more than willing to spend as much time as necessary to help me with that transition. However, if I were to hang up a shingle offering help to those who wish to adjust from a faith-based outlook to one that depends solely on human reason, I would be so sternly and viciously attacked that I would not be able to get any work done!
 

As for people thinking they've encountered God, I did mention that we tend to interpret experiences in such a way as to back up of justify our ideological viewpoint. This happens a lot.

The other thing we must now consider is the results of research done by Andrew Newberg and others, which we covered in our April, 2001, issue. Newberg charted a brain function that tells the organism where it is in space and time. The other part of that function (there are usually a "left" and a "right" part of any function) distinguishes for the organism between itself and what is not itself. If you disable this function through meditation (and Newberg determined that meditation does, in fact, disable this function), the individual feels "at one" with everything (of course! it cannot distinguish between itself and "not itself"!).

This is the heart of Buddhism, becoming "at one" with everything. In certain orders of Roman Catholicism, the monks and nuns try to become "at one" with God or Jesus, and by focusing on God or Jesus during the meditation, guess what happens when the meditation process knocks out the "orientation area" of the brain? Yup! the nuns report that they have "become at one with Jesus"! Check out some of the letters during April and May of 2001 and see what we've come up with. You can also order the April, 2001, issue for US$3.00 if that's all you get, or, in the U.S. you can get 12 issues for $24.00.

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

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Added: March 03, 2002

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Luke Banton"
Subject: Re: my little vicious circle
Date: March 03, 2002 10:13 AM
 

Don't let them have that much power over you.
 

This is what makes them bigots. They see us as somehow inferior simply because we're not members of their group. The condescending language of them having to help us, to do something to us "for our own good" (as if only they know what's good for us; as if only they know how we ought to run our lives), is what makes their behavior so utterly cruel.

Turn the tables around and see how this scenario would play out if we were doing the "evangelizing" to the Christians (etc.). I needn't go any further: you can see exactly what I'm suggesting without my saying another word, can't you!? This is why I so cautiously emphasize that we work toward not repeating this very mistake in our dealings with them. Thus my recommendation of leaving them alone -- unless, of course, you think you know what you're doing in that area! See the example of the lay minister in my January, 2001, column, "When They Just Won't Quit." He was not trained in the subtleties of evangelism and thus became quite oafish in how he carried it out. Then remember that all who propagate atheism are "laypersons" in this respect! We have no training because there's really no "proper" way to do this at all! We're on our own and must "wing it" at every corner, as they say.

As long as we don't go around judging them on anything except their behavior (such as being bigots) we do well. As long as we don't lump all Christians into the same circle, such as "slaves to a dogma" (as not all Christians are like that; in fact, only a few are: most are not).

Nevertheless, part of what this Forum is about is to explore the very questions you have asked (which is why I set that trap with the "Is it Time, Yet, to Stop Being Polite to Religion?" bit.

Is it time to stop being polite?

Never! Never is it time to start being rude!

But doesn't it seem like we ought to start doing something?

Of course!

So what, then, should we do about it?

I don't know! I just flat-out don't know what (if anything) to do! That's why I raised the questions, so we might begin finding out (or, at least, working out some new solutions of our own that have never been tried by our predecessors. I do know that because we don't know, because the best of us are at least as "unqualified" as the oafish lay-evangelist in "When They Just Won't Quit," we need to be twice as careful as he ever ought to have been. He at least has a precedent in that what he does has its long-established professional counterpart, the professionally trained pastor and evangelist. We don't have even that! we don't have a precedent!

Can you imagine my putting out a shingle and offering help deconverting from Christianity? can you imagine the opposition I'd get? (Here's an example that I toned down, in the interest of "fairness," from how I really think it might play out.)

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"Uh, what are your qualifications for providing this service, for offering advice in this regard?"

"What do you mean, 'qualifications'? Nobody has ever done this before! I've simply been through it and made it, intact (for the most part), to the other side. I see the need for help in this area, so I am offering what little I know. I need to pay rent and to compensate for lost wages during the hours I'm doing this, so I charge a nominal rate for my time."

"So, explain to us exactly what it is that you teach people! How does one 'deconvert'? What is it about deconversion that is so tricky that some people might need your help?"

"Well, I really don't know the solution; I really don't know what I'd tell someone. Nobody's done this before, nobody's studied this before. There are no books, no classes, no boards or professionals, no experts, no journals, no studies, no university departments. Nothing! I know only that having been through this experience and having fielded thousands of letters from others who have left the 'faith of their Fathers' or who are now enduring this grueling experience, I've noticed that it can be quite harrowing. I've watched myself and others come completely unraveled during their attempts to adjust from a faith-based outlook to one based entirely upon human reason. I also know that it's fair game for Christian Evangelists to openly counter my clients' desire to stop being religious, to use any ruse they think might work to coax or entice or coerce them back into 'The Fold.'"

"So, then, what's stopping your critics from pointing out that it might be quite dangerous for people to leave the 'faith of their "Fathers?' Why should people do this in the first place? Can you show us that to do this is even healthy? can you show us that it is not dangerous? Explain to us why people ought to leave the religion of their heritage, why they ought not simply continue as they have been doing! Doesn't the fact that you encounter problems every time someone tries to deconvert prove that what you're doing could be dangerous?"

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Can you see what we're up against if we even go up against a group of door-openers at the mall?
 

Popular as this slogan is, it's an extremist, black-and-white way of seeing things. I would say the same about the phrase, "to say nothing about it is to condone it," though my emphasis would not be as great with the latter as with the one about which you ask. Both ignore such problems as whether we have the power to change certain social situations. Both ignore the problems encompassed in the fact that we've all got to live and get along. Neither addresses the fact that some issues, though bothersome, just aren't worth the effort (e.g., the fact that the system of dating we use alleges to point to the birth of the central figure in Christian mythology; thus, some ne'er-do-well Christians gloat and say this proves their superiority: yeah? so what!? even if what they say were true [which it isn't!]).
 

The only thing truly wrong with that is the "in their faces" part. It's entirely legitimate to propagate atheism. It's both moral and legal. There is, I think, a sense of decorum that most Evangelical Christians (and all Hare Krsnas) ignore. We have the legal right to be that way, and arguably the moral right, but does it do us any good? does it really promote our best interests and those of the people around us? This is why I suggest that we take a good, hard look at how we do this before we begin to engage in a "campaign" of any sort.
 

In my June, 2000, column called, "Prayer As Intrusive Outburst," I likened this very situation to what etiquette columnist Miss Manners calls "intrusive pleasures." She uses, as her examples, smoking and listening to the radio. If I want to smoke and you want to avoid it, we cannot coexist in the same area. Etiquette, according to Miss Manners (and to me, a smoker) dictates that the smoker smoke elsewhere. If I want to crank up the tunes and you want to hear the silence of your thoughts, I must defer and take the radio elsewhere.

(You might say that the fact that you can hear a portable radio shows that it's not being used properly! Check the PioneerT ads in any relatively recent Rap magazine [say, three to five years ago; I haven't checked any out since then] and you'll see car stereo sub woofers being openly marketed as an effective means to menace other people: that is their purpose, according to the ads. One ad I saw celebrated the sub woofer's alleged ability to induce heart attack in older people! This was supposed to be comedy, to be sure, but I just spent almost six grand moving -- twice -- to get away from too-loud sound reproduction devices. As I net just under nine grand a year, this constituted two-thirds of my net income for the year -- I zapped all of my savings on the first move and put myself into hock on the second one! I'd like to see happen to Pioneer what's now happening to R. J. Reynolds! I see no difference except that the dangers of second-hand smoke are overrated, though the menace of stinky, unwanted smoke differs little from the menace of an unwanted bass line.)

As for the dilemma you raise, we don't have to listen to it. Fortunately, except during Christmas, the Christian message is not ubiquitous. If a street preacher is on this corner, move to that corner and I promise you there won't be one there! Begging with a cardboard sign is easier and more lucrative than preaching: it's a thankless routine and very few will do it any more. If the radio station is waxing religious today, switch channels (except during Christmas: see below). If the hustlers at the mall make you avert your gait, write a letter to the mall administer and go see them immediately if you have time: perhaps these clowns don't even have the right to do this on private property; the mall has the right to set rules in this respect, and since it is private property, there is no infringement of Liberty of Speech (as there would be if it were public property: however, our busses do not allow any pamphleteering at all, which, the ACLU tells me, is not an infringement because they're enforcing it equally. Only if you paid the bus company for ad space can your pamphlets go up on the rack and get distributed! Go figure. But other than a few cases such as Christmas music, your government cannot force you to listen to it (such as school prayer, high school graduation, college graduation).

(And only for two weeks out of the year can you not find shelter from the icy rain while awaiting your bus without being evangelized with tinny and horribly distorted Christmas music of the smarmy religious variety by the bus company's television monitor that was originally installed to give the current time table -- or hold-button music on the phone or the loudspeaker at the grocery store or even commercial radio for gaud sakes! Then, for two weeks, everywhere you go, it's, "Hark the Harold angel sings / Ga-low-ree to the newborn king!" and shit like that. No drug addict was ever as attached to his spoon as Commercial America is to her Christmas music! I see it every year, but I still cannot begin to fathom it!)
 

I am trying to learn how to distinguish between benign expressions of religion and intrusive, exploitative, or dangerous expressions of religion. People have both a moral and a legal right to practice their religion, and this right allows them to express themselves in such a way that I at least notice what they're doing. Their right prevents them from having to keep their beliefs out of my field of vision: like it or not, a man's religious belief is not the same, legally, as his penis.

With the group at the mall, that you partially described, I would need more information in order to give you a fair assessment of what I think of their behavior: just the fact that you got upset is not enough for me. If they stood off to the side, visible and audible but out of the way (and even smellable, in the case of incense or even the [gag!] Rescue Mission crew), I still see no problem. Yet. If they allowed you to enter the mall "unmolested," that is, without your having to avert your step or your gait, without you otherwise having to look or feel like an asshole, etc., then they were, indeed, unintrusive, because everybody has the right to sales-pitch or otherwise market their religious views. (Even you have this right, much to the chagrin of most religionists, though you'd probably get more than simply "molested" if you did the same with your atheism that they were doing with their theism.)

However, if you had to even talk to them, gesture to them, speed up or slow down your gait, turn to the left or the right, or do anything to avoid them, in other words, if they had been panhandlers in violation of (for example) the Portland, Oregon, unintrusive panhandling statute, they were being intrusive. If they were loudly and raucously pitching their wares in such a way that you had trouble concentrating on your dialogue with your companion, they were being intrusive. At that point, they would have heard something from me -- if nothing more than some quip from Cliff's Collection of Side Remarks Reserved for Oafish Christian Proselytizers. This is my right, as long as I do it, again, according to the above principles or "guidelines" (if you will).

I say "Christian" because several non-Christian sects evangelize openly, to be sure, but no other sect has, in my experience, been as in-your-face about their evangelism as the many Christian groups I've had to literally push aside in order to get to where I was intending to go. No other sects have acted as if they own the place, as if they had Special Rights With Impunity. Thus, I will generalize in this case. I will reserve Christians for this one, distinct group. Not even the Moonies or the Hare Krsnas that I've seen did more than require you to walk over to them -- not even at the airport. When I spent a week or so at the Hare Krsna temple in San Diego, we were trained not to get in anybody's way (part of what you read above was inspired by that lecture). It is well-known that street-corner Jehovah's Witnesses stand off against a building, making sure there's plenty of room to pass. I've never seen one call out to passers by or even openly sermonize (which, itself, is not wrong; they simply don't even go that far, in my experience). Only the door-to-door Witnesses are in any way intrusive: then it's your problem if you don't have a peep-hole (like I have) or a sign (like I have), that reads,

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   Absolutely No   
 Door-to-Door 
   ANYTHING !!   

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I love this sign because it covers anybody who thinks they might, for some technicality of some sort, be an exception to the traditional "No Solicitors" signs; at the same time, it does not come off as bigoted like the thankfully not-very-popular "Bar Sinister" (circle with slash symbolizing "No") enclosing an image of a well-dressed couple holding books with Crosses on them (funny, because Jehovah's Witnesses shun the Cross!).

In any event, if they are openly proselytizing (even within the above "guidelines") then you have every right to counter them (with the same degree of politesse, even if they are, themselves, not showing any dignity. You even have the right to stand there where they are (as long as they didn't get there first) and propagate atheism! We had, in the past, been barred from radio, television, public forums, etc., but folks such as Robert Green Ingersoll and Madalyn Murray O'Hair changed all that. In fact, in today's 9-11 T-shirt climate, we do well to go out and "depreach" every once in a while lest we once again lose this right in real life (though never on paper: it's written into our Constitution!).

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

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Material by Cliff Walker (including unsigned editorial commentary) is copyright ©1995-2006 by Cliff Walker. Each submission is copyrighted by its writer, who retains control of the work except that by submitting it to Positive Atheism, permission has been granted to use the material or an edited version: (1) on the Positive Atheism web site; (2) in Positive Atheism Magazine; (3) in subsequent works controlled by Cliff Walker or Positive Atheism Magazine (including published or posted compilations). Excerpts not exceeding 500 words are allowed provided the proper copyright notice is affixed. Other use requires permission; Positive Atheism will work to protect the rights of all who submit their writings to us.