'Individual Activists' Reply
From: "David Eller"
To: "Positive Atheism" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: Atheist Organizations
Date: August 31, 2001 7:23 PM
I appreciated and enjoyed your thoughtful and very long answer to the question about what Positive Atheism is and about atheist organizations. I have felt, since I discovered PAM for myself a few months ago, that you do a tremendous service for atheists and others who want to read important work and contribute to or ask about our "philosophy" (if you can call it that). I understand the distinction you make between a group and a magazine and see clearly how PAM constitutes the latter; it would be like if someone talked about the "Newsweek group" or the "TV Guide group." There may be those who "group" around those publications (sad as that is to consider), but the publications themselves are simply a product, a business.
It is also certainly true that many "atheists" are passive -- I consider anyone who is not actively believing a particular faith and practicing it on an ongoing basis to be a practical atheist. If you are not actively believing, you are passively disbelieving. At least that's how God will see it, if there really is such a thing. Of course, most people cringe at the word, and most would simply say that religion is not very important to them, as you note, but that is precisely what makes them passive atheists.
And I suppose they can go on being passive atheists, although I consider the position to be intellectually bankrupt -- in fact, a non-position, a position by default rather than by determination. I don't go around trying to "convert" such people, but in the end I would be happy to see them grapple with the issue actively and come to a decision. You see, for me, atheism or any other position or action has got to be fully thought out or there is no point in it all. Some people don't take an interest in politics, yet politics goes on around them. Some don't take an interest in current events, yet current events go on around them. It really is not an option to disengage yourself from any of these areas and say it doesn't affect you. You can live in that shallow state if you want to, I guess, but who would want to live in the shallows?
Not everyone has to become an activist, but everyone has a certain responsibility to be informed and to take a position.
Which brings me to the "atheist organization" question. I have been interested in this question for a while, because there is plainly a certain disinclination for atheists to form groups. Everyone knows that "freethinkers," since they by definition go their own way, are difficult to coordinate and mobilize; everyone thinks he is his own authority, and most of us have a very strong sense of our own intelligence and rightness. This issue came to a head in your latest edition of PAM, with what's-his-name's article about the non-existence of atheist organizations. I found that article troubling and a little offensive (which was perhaps his intention).
First of all, it is empirically the case, whether he likes it or not, that there are atheist groups. There are national ones like American Atheists, and there are local ones, like our own Atheists and Freethinkers of Denver. They may not have all the qualities of "groupness" that he seeks, and they may not hold all the positions he prefers, but that is irrelevant. Second, his accusation at the outset of the article that atheists suffer from some neurosis or pathological life-history is dismissive at best and stupidly wrong at worst. I have been an atheist my whole life -- not on moment of theistic inclination -- and I was never molested by a priest or punished by a nun or hurt by an evangelist. I was not deprived of a father-figure, and I had no great emotional or cognitive struggle to survive; in fact, it was the freedom that my family gave me to think, and their encouragement of education, that provided me the framework for a natural atheism. I am as psychologically and emotionally healthy as a modern American can be, so diagnosing or psychoanalyzing my atheism is disrespectful to me and utterly informative to the analyzer.
Finally, he said that he has never met an atheist he respects, other than you. I am very happy that you are held in such high regard, and I share his regard (although, as you will see shortly, I disagree with you in some fundamental ways). But perhaps he should get out more. I know some respectable atheists right here in cow-town Denver, and surely in the big cosmopolitan world there are a few. He seems to discount people whose atheism is mixed up with other notions that he also discounts, like New Ageism or non-traditional healing, etc. Well, I actually agree with him that a thorough-going rationalism and skepticism would apply to and rule out those beliefs as well (along with ALL beliefs). It may be the case that most atheists are not pure rationalists. But then, as you indicate, atheism is not a complete lifestyle, it is merely a position on one particular (although, to my mind, critical and central) question. There are atheist liberals and atheist conservatives, atheist feng shui artists and atheist debunkers. What's-his-name might be happy to know that I am a pure-rationalist atheist, accepting the null hypothesis on all non-supported issues and rejecting all unproven claims. Maybe he would like to get to know me. Maybe I would be the second atheist he actually respects.
But on to the subject of atheist groups. It is a fact that atheists tend not to group. However, I think we are here taking a personality trait and turning it into a principle. Probably atheists are by nature loners. Probably they are a bit misanthropic. Certainly they esteem their own intelligence and independence. All of these things make grouping unlikely if not unnatural. We had a discussion recently in our local atheist group about Hoffer's "The True Believer" in which we pointed out that atheists lack most of the characteristics that make mass movements possible and successful. This is a strength and a weakness. I don't want to march in the streets and kill or die for the cause, but if we stay battened down in our houses fuming about the Trinity Broadcasting Network, then nothing will ever change.
So you say that there is nothing conducive in atheism to forming organizations.
There may not be much in the personality of atheists that is so conducive, but I see no reason to assert that there is nothing in the principle of atheism that is unconducive. People form associations for much more trivial reasons than ours; I mean, for chrissakes, there are sewing groups and bingo groups. Why would atheists be different from any other humans in wanting to socialize and converse and plan with others who share their "interest"? Is there something mysterious about me wanting to be in the presence of people who have ideas and opinions that resonate with mine?
You mention three possible bases for atheist association and refute them all. I see no reason for the refutation and wonder what the protestation is about.
(1) Activism: Activism is a prime reason to associate, whether is to advance atheism or button-collecting. You say that atheists interested in separation issues should welcome theists. Well, many do. There are atheists and non-atheists in FFRF, the ACLU, Americans United, and many other groups. Not all theists obviously embrace this position, but the ones that do have organizations to join that welcome atheists and theists alike; in fact, one's religious persuasion is, in a sense, unimportant for that purpose. However, atheists also have other interests. One is, say, science education in schools. Another is non-discrimination of atheists. Another is advancing rationality and freethought. Theists might not share all of these goals, so there are some places they will not be willing to go with us. There is nothing wrong with us going there on our own. And there is nothing wrong with having an atheist-only group either. If minorities or women or button-collectors want to have a "members-only" group, I don't begrudge them. In other words, there are strictly atheist groups and there are not-strictly atheist groups. You know, a whole spectrum of groups. Nothing wrong with that.
(2) Propagation: Unfortunately, I disagree rather strenuously with you about the relation of atheists to the theistic society. I think that you, like Shermer, give religion way too much slack -- if it is not frontally assaulting you, you are willing to let live and even to pat it on the head a little. You say, for example, that "much of religion consists of sincere efforts to do what an individual thinks is the right thing to do." But this is disingenuous: religion never asks the individual what he or she thinks -- it tells them what to think. You call religion often benign or even healthy. I think the deeper point is missed. Some people like to make a big stink about the horrors that religion has perpetrated over history. To me, this is a tangential accusation. Yes, religion has caused people to do some horrible things, but not necessarily because religion is horrible by nature as that humans are pretty loathsome creatures (oops, there's my atheistic misanthropy again!). If humans did not have a ready dark side to them, then religion or anything else could not make them do anything bad. Religion is just a catalyst for destructive, intolerant, irrational human propensities. So to me, if religion had only had wonderful effects on man -- had them skipping merrily through life holding hands -- I would still find it objectionable.
The problem with religion is that it is, by definition and necessarily, authoritarian and anti-rational. All religion, in every manifestation. Therefore, what atheists want -- or ought to want -- to propagate is not atheism explicitly, but anti-authoritarianism and rationality. I do not demand that all people be atheists. I do demand that all people be rational. (I just happen to think that, given rationality, they will end up in atheism!) Religion, then, is not a private matter. I don't stand on the street accosting theists, and I don't even get into discussions about it unless they start it, but religion is a public matter all the same. It is about what parents teach children, about what schools transmit as the heritage of our culture, about what courts and governments adjudicate and legislate for society. If you can separate those things from your life, then bless your heart. However, even when they are not trampling me overtly, they are operating as a current in our culture that perpetuates irrationality, non-critical thinking, and the inevitable eruption of intolerance and discrimination at some future time.
You may recognize allies among theists -- most of them don't want to burn us at the stake anymore -- but, as stated above, it depends on particular goals. Some theists would ally with us to protect separation. A few would agree that critical thinking is the only kind of thinking there is. None, by definition, would go with us on the rejection of faith as a valid way of knowing about or participating in the world. So they are neither our total allies nor sworn enemies. They are our allies in some campaigns, the target of our efforts in others. Accept it.
(3) Oasis of rationality: It is interesting how you disparage this approach, mainly by misrepresenting it. First of all, some atheists may want a "support group," but I certainly do not -- don't need it, nothing wrong with me -- and from what I can tell, most don't see groups in that light. Most atheists that I associate with want to talk to intelligent people about significant topics. Atheists are, like it or not, a fairly cerebral bunch, so they like to exercise their minds, and they even like to duke it out a little now and then.
However, your main misrepresentation of atheist "oasis" groups is as an all-encompassing community. This would only be true if they actually formed communes and lived and worked together apart from the general society. Rather, atheist groups are a temporary gathering-place for people who, obviously and necessarily, live in the real world most of the time. Atheists are not trying to "get away from" theists at their meetings; they are simply desiring to associate with people like themselves.
As we said above, what is mysterious and objectionable about that? All of us must and do association every day with theists. Theists are not by and large terrible people, and most keep their theism pretty much to themselves. I have no problem interacting with them (unless, woe unto them, they pull out their theism in my presence). But maybe you know some arch-atheists who will not even talk to a theist; I don't.
We live in their world because there is no other.
Therefore, associating as an atheist organization is hardly "isolating ourselves" from the theist world. It is a very momentary assemblage of like-thinkers for the purpose of enjoying each others' company and thoughts. You might equally disparage the tendency of ethnic groups to congregate in distinct neighborhoods (which does conceivably do them some social damage in terms of preventing assimilation, but then that's their point and their value), but this analogy holds no water, since atheists do not form their own neighborhoods. And even if they did, (a) there would still be opportunities for interaction, just as there are between black and white neighborhoods and (b) they would just be exercising their legal preference to spend time with those who comfort and understand them. In terms of sheer social distance, atheists are without a doubt the most "assimilated" minority in the world, since they look like everyone else, do not ostracize themselves, and have no choice but to live in what is often a hostile world.
I hope you have found my own over-extended comments interesting. We agree that there are as many opinions in the atheist "community" as there are atheists. While that can be tiresome at times -- and counterproductive -- it shows something healthy about atheism as opposed to faith: it allows, even supports, differences of opinion and individual thought. Atheists may get hot with each other, but they have never fought wars to wipe out other doctrines. Religion may and probably does accomplish some positive things in the world, but at a heavy cost ... and there is no reason to assume that we could not accomplish just as much or more without it.
If we organize ourselves as reasonable people.
From: "Positive Atheism" <email@example.com>
To: "David Eller"
Subject: Re: Atheist Organizations
Date: August 31, 2001 9:01 PM
Thanks for this!
Part of our goal in this (as stated in the masthead of the print edition) is to start such discussions. Our goal in challenging the group scene is to see the people who defend it at least come up with some strong reasons to justify it, rather than what is happening in Oregon among some of the Symposia participants, anyway, simply presupposing that the concept of atheist groups is a valid one.
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