Banter Between
Theist And Atheist
Glen Marlon

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Glen Marlon"
Subject: Re: Letter for Positive Atheism
Date: January 05, 2002 5:29 AM

Thank you for your lovely letter! Communications such as these are why we even bother with this!

I'd like to comment on one thing you said, if for no other reason than I am under enough stress right now that something new, creativity-wise, might just pop up: bear with me, okay? This one issue is important to me because I suspect that it might hold the key to solving the stigma and the bigotry problem we endure as atheists. That's why I keep coming back to it again and again. Only by trying it out on different situations will we ever find out if my suspicions are valid.
 

That's cool: How about, A for atheist and B for believer!

I prefer to look at it as atheism (the lack of theism) being the default human condition when it comes to religion. Do you drink? do you smoke? do you play pool? do you ride a bike? do you grind your teeth? do you read? None of these things are innate to the human condition, but are added attractions.

Or, how about this: have you registered Republican? if you haven't, this does not necessarily leave you a Democrat. Can you imagine someone who is apolitical? someone who does not care about politics -- or who thinks the whole game of politics is just a game? a sham? Not the best analogy, but I want to point out that the words are the same as I use them: apolitical is to politics what atheist is to theism: an atheist is someone who is without theism. Atheism does not necessarily assert "No gods." If it did, I'd go along with your calling it an A or B choice. But I'm not ready to see it as a choice between one thing or the other thing.

Theism (for better or worse) is added to the default human condition. The reason this is hard for a lot of people to see is because it's so popular. Another reason probably has to do with the fact that for most of us, our family theism has been with us for as long as we can remember. It's hard to see it as added when it's always been there. It's hard to see it as in addition to the default when its sheer popularity makes it the norm.

Like everybody else, I was born without a cognitive understanding of a god claim. In the interim, I did pick up on a few here and there, but later came to reject those views. Thus, I have reverted back to the default: the absence of theism. So, my only choice was to reject those god claims that I've heard. I haven't heard all of them, and if one comes my way that I find convincing, I'll convert on the spot. That, to me, is atheism. It's not two sides of the same coin or even an A or B choice, but more of a Yes or No situation: Yes, this person is a theist; No, that person is not a theist. But the word atheist does not address why that person is not a theist: she may be retarded or he may be an island native who has never heard. Or, she or he may have spent half a lifetime entertaining and considering god-claims, and still have yet to find one that holds water or makes sense.
 

One more thing:

I would hope that a theist would more urgently feel this need than even an atheist. Unfortunately, most who oppose Separation have been led astray by greedy religious hustlers. Like abortion, creationism, and a pro-Israel stand, America-as-Christian-nation has become one of those "litmus test doctrines" that I've been talking about lately: "Faith in Christ is not enough! The Trinity? Guess again! You'd better believe these political issues, too, or else you're not one of us," etc.

They want their religion to be the law. Woefully, the moment this policy gets put into place, some other group will happen along and grab the power. The press was real hush-hush about Bush's recent Islam summit (worship and everything, I hear). But some of the Christian Nation revisionist groups saw what was happening and took note. Unfortunately (and ironically), they still want a theocracy!

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

Graphic Rule

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Glen Marlon"
Subject: Re: Letter for Positive Atheism
Date: January 05, 2002 11:42 AM

That's my favorite angle against the "Christian Nation" revisionists and others opposed to Liberty (although it had slipped my mind for at least three years, now): Why would they establish RIGHTS for those in the mainstream? Why would they need to protect speech that is not controversial?
 
 

I think you have a point, though you may not be thinking of the same thing I am: you're not directly addressing what I'm thinking, but you've touched on a potential clue to part of this situation.

Interestingly, I just received a letter (which I have slated for the now-late December, 2001, issue of the print edition) in which the reader likes the impersonal nature of Internet atheism. The example he used was that only one atheistic activist has her photo readily available on her web site (though mine is available from the front page -- if you can wade through the humorous photos). That didn't sit right with me, but I couldn't pin down why, so the letter went unanswered (and will remain that way).

As an activist, I studied Saul Alinski, and he showed us a trick that I've found always to work: when vilifying an organization or agency, pick a leader of that organization (the President; the Chief of Police) and personify the object of vilification through that person. Always put his portrait on signs, etc. Focus all wrath against this one individual (even though it's the agency he now symbolizes that's in the hot seat).

What I'm wondering is if this could be inverted: personify atheism through certain individuals not to vilify us but to get to know us as people. Should we be showing our portraits? In Portland, the atheist version of the Citizen of the Month is a kid, Remy Powell, whose family, on his behalf, successfully sued the schools to stop the Boy Scouts from recruiting in the schools during class time -- high-pressure sales presentations and the whole bit. But his photo and sound bites are all over the place! How could you not love this guy? This is a textbook example of what I mean by the inverse of what Alynski taught: using the images, the personality, to bring admiration to a personification of the cause rather than Alinski's method of using the personification to focus vitriol. In another Scouting case, our paper had the word Atheist in three-inch type right across the front page. This was in the news stands all day. What it did was acclimate people to the word. If we can get people used to the word, even, we can move forward.

I think getting people's pictures would be hard, though; when I was with the group, I solicited photos of members and only those who physically stood before my camera ever got their pictures to me! Nobody ever sent one! I finally took the request off of the web site. But what would happen if all our regular Forum writers suddenly submitted photos, and I went back and put the photo on each of their Letters?
 

The Roman Catholic Church has made a big thing of this, even installing it into more than one dictionary (some of which are church-owned, though not necessarily Roman Catholic). I suspect that atheism is easier to refute this way, since it is impossible to empirically disprove an existential claim (although most god-claims these days are not subject to empirical testing: that old double-standard again!).
 

I can work with that -- whatever "outside of time and space" means. The one who posits such a condition or situation has the burden, of course. But yes, I can work with the concept of an innate awareness (or whatever) being possible at birth. I think you're probably not talking about literal awareness, since the cognitive skills are so premature at that time that it's hard to think of a newborn as being aware of much besides being hungry or otherwise in pain. I'd have a tough time dealing with any concept of theism that does not involve awareness (or something similar) of the object in question: the deity (or whatever). It has to be something resembling awareness or else what you're talking about is atheism, the absence of a god-belief or god-awareness (or whatever).

Remember, the human spends a larger fraction of its life span (the extended life expectancy of recent decades notwithstanding) as a helpless infant. Even the Me versus not-Me boundary spoken of by Andrew Newberg in relation to his "mystical" states needs time to develop and, in the case of most vertebrates, probably even needs to be learned to some extent. We do well not to expect much "at birth." It is for these reasons that I'm so much more comfortable with the absence of an awareness during these years. But, if a deity exists, then it is easily conceivable that awareness is innate.

Nevertheless, what you suggest is a proposal. It is, at best, a claim. At this point, I have no reason to bring it over into my "assent" column, but unlike many of the god-claims that I've heard, I have no reason for pushing it off into the "rejection" pile, either. This does not mean that I accept it or that I am even close to accepting it. I grant that you realize this, but others will most certainly read these words and I need to make myself clear when I say something such as this: although some will deliberately take my words out of context, I want to give nobody the excuse of accidentally misunderstanding what I've said, especially when I've come this close to sounding like a potential theist.
 

If it's the ghost in the machine, again, the one positing this has the burden; as I have stated, the complex nervous system appears to be self-contained, and does not appear to have any point of interaction. And I don't even begin to understand how this would work with "God."

If it's "the life force," then we get into one of my problems with regular pantheism, wherein we are using a new word (god) to describe a situation that already has some very effective monikers (the Universe; the Life Force; Animation).

All of these are sophisticated god-claims and god-descriptions, unlike the more popular Jehovah and Allah. Those deities can easily be portrayed in film, and, can easily be shoved off into the "rejection" pile simply for having concrete but irreconcilable (that is, patently impossible) descriptions.

But when I think of the word god, I think disciplinarian -- as Robert Anton Wilson put it, "an Oriental despot, only bigger, and invisible." This is why I prefer to come up with new language altogether do discuss pantheism and related ideas. To put it bluntly: The word Universe is a wonderful word and does not need to be replaced with the word god.
 

(Note that in this discussion I use the word cult, which is not normally part of my vocabulary. But here, for the sake of brevity and as a form of shorthand, I abandon my private views about "cults" and the like and use the word cult the same way most people would, to refer to a religious group which has very aggressive recruiting techniques which some would call brainwashing.)

With George Eliot, I would hope that anything innately human would not wear away at all in most people, regardless of the circumstances. What's innately human would, I'd hope, fall very hard for those in whom it would even "wear away" at all. This is what I see as ideal, not necessarily what I see as real.

I do observe that in many who fall for a dogma, their innate human emotions have, at times, "worn away" and been replaced with the dogma (what Evangelical Christianity does to the word Love, for example, and, more obviously, the word Life). When I studied the mechanisms of cultic conversion (climaxing with a private, lengthy, nonpublished interview with deprogramming pioneer Ted Patrick in about 1982 or so), Patrick likewise had a lot of faith in the innate human ability to "snap" out of the cultic state -- to jettison the learned worldview and thinking style of the cult and return to its more natural function resembling rational thought. And this process was quick, too; sure, there was some time needed for healing, but the process of deprogramming was surprisingly quick. And, once given even the most rudimentary picture of what's going on and how a person yields her or his autonomy over to the cult leader, recidivism (if you will) is rare.

The only time something innately human has been lost for good, I think, is through physical damage of the brain tissue (there's that materialism, again!). Thus the concept of an innate awareness (or whatever: something along those lines) being easily "worn away" does not sit well with me, simply because so many other things that are innately human that do "wear away" or become entangled in dogma or get yielded to some other authority or system don't fall very easily, and when they do, they are easily identified and coaxed back into functionality. Contrary to Patrick, I think very few humans would ever join a cult. I doubt all that many would succumb to hypnosis (and I've heard from hypnotists that not all can be hypnotized).
 

Again, thanks for the wonderful opportunity to exchange ideas.

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

Graphic Rule

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