An Internet Community
To Mobilize Atheist Opinion
Ajit Nathaniel

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Ajit Nathaniel"
Subject: Re: regarding a webpage i put up.
Date: January 05, 2002 11:07 AM

This is good! Thanks! If you have any favorites, some piece of writing that you'd like to immortalize in our print edition, feel free to submit them.

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

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Ajit Nathaniel"
Subject: Re: About creating a community.
Date: January 06, 2002 4:11 AM

While I am not out to shut down any organizations, I am more into individual, unorganized efforts. I've never been a "Hey, everybody!" type. Not only is this against my nature, but it also goes against my upbringing. So I work as an individual. I am beginning to notice that the effort that I, as an individual, have made appears to be paying off: I can see it in several places on the web, and have even seen it elsewhere. If I can do this, just think of what a large number of individuals can do!

I think the best way to "mobilize atheist opinion" is to give various communication tools (namely, the skills and the information) to a large number of atheists. This is what I think I am doing in our Letters Section as well as in our Big List of Quotations. Thankfully, these are by far the most popular sections of the web site. The other sections are there, and they are important, but they do not have the ability to impart powerful ideas as easily (and some sections, unfortunately, do not do this at all).

A new word has been coined, recently, that means, essentially, "a powerful, self-replicating idea." This word is meme and it sorta rhymes with the word gene, after which its meaning is patterned. Memes have surely been with us since the beginning of language, but we've only recently been seeing them as self-replicating. A good example of a meme to which everyone can relate would be the "hook" line in a popular song: the refrain that you hear so many people whistling; the line of poetry that the kids memorize and then recite while walking down the street. A meme becomes powerful when it imparts to a large number of people a new way of seeing or thinking about this or that situation. This is much of what "Rap" music is about. Many consider the Rappers to be the equivalent of newscasters relating the day's events to the audience, but in a way that gets listened to and then repeated, in a way that mobilizes opinion.

The idea that I've spent much of my energy trying to impart over the past four years or so is the "weak" definition for the word atheism. I'm not sure if I can turn this into a meme, but I do think that if people could see atheism (nontheism) as the simple absence of a god-belief rather than the vitriolic spitefulness against religion (against "God Himself") that many theists think of when they hear the term atheist, we could do wonders toward reducing the stigma and bigotry that we endure as a class, at least here in the West. I cannot speak for the situation in India.
 

Another idea that I think is important is for atheists to practice their atheism as an ethic of living. Some, such as Gora and Madalyn Murray O'Hair, considered atheism itself to be an ethic. I prefer to leave atheism itself alone and continue to call it what I think it is: the simple absence of a god-belief.

Instead, I offer a revision of an atheistic ethic which comes from India and is strongly rooted in Gandhism. I call this ethic "Positive Atheism," named after a term that Gora also used. However, I'm not sure Gora had much in the way of precision in mind when he used these two terms: I see him advocating as "true" atheism the ethics I advocate as "Positive Atheism," and I've known both he and O'Hair to think of certain individuals as "not real atheists" -- not because they believed in gods but because they were hypocritical in their unbelief! I disagree! To me, someone is "not a real atheist" when she or he expresses faith in one or more gods! Going to church or even having your kid baptized to please the grandparents does not make you a theist.

However, if a significant (though not necessarily large) number of atheists would openly advocate and practice just one ethic, truthfulness, we could do much to reduce the stigma and bigotry. Now, I'm not saying to limit ourselves to truthfulness; rather, I'm suggesting that we begin to openly and consciously practice ethics as part of our atheism. What this means (to me) is that we use our atheism to justify the effort and sacrifice of leading an ethical life. For example, if this is the only life anyone gets to live, then why should we want to unnecessarily make things hard on someone else? In his work, "An Atheist Manifesto," Joseph Lewis said,

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With this recognition of the finality of death, no one should willingly withhold acts that would bring benefits, joy or happiness to others.

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Finally, I have urged atheists to try to avoid gratuitous and indiscriminate criticism of any and all expressions of religion. What about the older woman downstairs, who is happy in her own little world and never harmed a soul? why would we want to bother her or try to "set her straight," especially in light of what Joseph Lewis said in the previous section?

The older woman example is an extreme that I think nobody would dispute. However, most people are much closer to the "edge" or boundary of where one atheist might say something whereas another might refrain. I am urging a form of leniency in this regard, hanging my hat with those who would refrain if they find themselves in a gray area. In this situation, we might want to see if the theist is becoming intrusive with her or his theism, and use that or something similar as a guide to determine whether or not to speak up. However, we all are probably fully competent to make such decisions, at least as long as we bother to think about them at all, as long as we don't walk into a situation and begin to act reflexively.

Then there's the other extreme, when very few atheists would refrain from speaking out. From that extreme, we move back toward that boundary, where, again, I urge that we err on the side of caution and pick our battles wisely (as they say). I commend Nancy Powell who recently prevailed in her battle against the Portland Public Schools, who had allowed the Boy Scouts of America to recruit first- and second-graders during class time! Here is something that I considered cut-and-dried, but it took over four years to prevail! Go get 'em, Nancy!

I credit President Bush, more than anybody else in recent history, with single-handedly bringing more "passive" atheists out of their closets and into even private activism, not to mention joining or supporting organized efforts. He's not the only factor, but he does exemplify a mood among theists that atheists find quite frightening. While Madalyn Murray O'Hair predicted these times way back in the 1980s, I doubt even she could have predicted the sheer volume of atheists speaking out against, for example, slurs in the press. We are definitely "on a roll," as they say, and whenever someone says something even slightly untoward about atheists or atheism, their editor or producer can expect a whole sack full of mail. As recently as two years ago, even the most openly vicious slams against atheist went virtually unnoticed.

But the most important thing that I see in all this is that a lot of these atheists who have begun to speak out are doing so as private individuals, not as members of groups. They are, at most, setting aside an evening or two, logging on to a few atheist web sites and seeing what's up, and getting their initial suspicions reaffirmed when they see others who feel the same way. Then these private, now formerly "passive" atheists, are closing the browser window and opening up the e-mail program wherein they try their hand at speaking out.

It's so crucial to note that they are acting as private individuals because it proves that private, "passive" atheists can and will stand up when the situation, in their opinion, warrants it. Unlike how some of the more vocal activists seem to think, we don't have to assume that their decision to remain (for the most part) "passive" is a permanent state. We now have proof that "passive" atheists can and will join the fight when things start to get out of hand. What they're doing, however, reflects what I've said about choosing our battles wisely: they're just much more restrained than the activists that I'm accustomed to rubbing shoulders with.

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

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Ajit Nathaniel"
Subject: Re: Re: About creating a community.
Date: January 09, 2002 7:51 AM

Guest Room and Form of Self-Expression

If they sling mud at me, I'll sling it right back! no question about that! But I don't go about initiating any mudslinging. This is because it does not matter to me whether or not other people are religious. It is not my job (or burden) to straighten anybody out on such matters. Only when they approach me and try to convince me that this or that is something to which I should give my assent do they hear from me at all. I will speak up, however, when I see forms of religious expression that I consider to be intrusive, exploitative, or dangerous (such as the Boy Scouts recruiting during class time; such as newspaper columnists denigrating all atheists in a single swipe).

In fact, most of my time and energy is not spent on the god-question. Even when it looks as if I'm addressing the god-question, look again: as often as not, I'm actually addressing a condescending attitude, human ethics, bigotry, or the separation of religion from government. Any time you see me handling someone's god-claim, look closer and see what else it is that I'm really trying to say! Of course I'll handle the god-question for the theist who wrote to me. I give everybody who writes what I think they deserve, and that is, first and foremost, my full attention. But, since I don't really care what theists think, I am writing for my atheistic audience, giving them something to chew on or laugh at or whatever.

Another thing that each writer gets from me: an original response. I do not "boilerplate" my letters by having prefabricated answers that you cut and paste into the text. Instead, I write a fresh, new answer each time a question is asked, even if I've answered and posted that same question several times before. Each writer is an individual who has taken the time to write to me, and what she or he will get in return (should I feel a response is warranted) is an individualized response.

These are a few of my personality quirks that I have brought into my web site to make it unique and to mark it as mine. I consider my web site as most people consider their living room, where the guests come and hang out for a spell, listen to some tunes, watch TV, play a few rounds of whatever, or, most of all, catch up on the latest talk. Hopefully, as you spend more time with your web site and put more thought into it, you will see how you can make this thing more and more a reflection of who you are -- who you have always been as well as who you want to be, but most of all, that part of yourself that you want to give to others in your self-expression.

For this reason, if yours is a good web site, the last thing you'll want to do is go to another person's web site, grab a whole section of it, and post it as your own. Go ahead and grab an alluring quote or a slick-looking wallpaper tile, but make most of whatever you can by yourself.

That, to me, is the closest I come to what the word community means: we each have our own place, but we all (hopefully) go visit one another's places.

And I hope to be visiting your web sit as I begin to get more free time on my hands. But, I just moved, and am going to be moving again next month. I really don't have time to check out what others have done right now. I will be able to do that again in the near future, though.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six 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.