Atheism: Religious View,
Or View About Religion?

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From: "Positive Atheism" <>
Subject: Re: Positive_Atheism_Letters_Section
Date: October 02, 2001 2:57 AM

Atheism is a religious view only in the sense that it is an opinion about religion. As such, atheism is protected under the United States Constitution as an opinion about religion (as are all opinions, but religious opinion is especially protected -- twice protected, you might say). Aside from that, atheism is not religious but is the very absence of religion. You will see that we rarely organize and don't have (or need) ministers or creeds or any such thing.

Also, for any atheist, our atheism is a very small portion of our overall outlook or world view. Thus, for most of us, calling ourselves atheists does little more than to distinguish ourselves from theists: a theist believes in God and I don't so to keep you from thinking that I do, I call myself an atheist. However, even as a full-time activist, my atheism is a very small part of my life. I do this to help atheists achieve dignity and rights, not because atheism is important to me. It's not so unimportant that I would willingly lie about my beliefs, but atheism is nowhere near being the center of my life.

Regarding our medical views, most (but not all) atheists favor medical practice that is based in materialism, usually medicine that has come about as the result of scientific method. We reject any supernatural healing (though many of us do accept the placebo effect in such cases; because of the placebo effect, very few atheistic physicians would dissuade a patient from augmenting a regular regimen with faith-healing and the like, so long as the regular regimen is being followed; no atheistic physician would favor substituting regular medicine with faith healing). We are also, for the most part, skeptical of methods for which there is no physical explanation (such as "Therapeutic Touch" or "Naturopathic Medicine").

As for our history, being the absence of religious belief, we've actually been around longer than religious belief itself. Socrates was executed for the "crime" of atheism (although he was not a real atheist in the sense that we use the word today). The two most fluent atheistic Greek Ancients were Cicero and Epicurus. Though we don't have much on Diogenes, founder of the Cynic school, he, too, was very poignant: upon crushing a louse that had been crawling on an alter, he intoned: "The sacrifice of Diogenes to all the gods."

In about the fourth century, Christianity became the only religious view one could hold without being burned at the stake. During the next fifteen centuries, many who would have been atheists in a free society masked their doubts by interpreting Christian or Hebrew Scripture in a very liberal fashion. Others who spoke more freely would inevitably spend their final moments smelling the odor of their own flesh being burned alive, always being put to death as slowly as possible so as to give the atheist a maximum amount of time to "repent" -- that is, to see that there really is such thing as a God of Mercy. Later, such philosophers risked their lives by talking about a "God" who was actually Nature and the Universe the Order behind all things. Often, they would suppress their writings until after they had died a natural death.

Eventually, the Age of Enlightenment brought about the supremacy of the Deists, who taught that God could only be found by studying nature, so all the Deists became scientists. This is why most of the American Founding Fathers were interested in science, they were all Deists: Franklin; Paine; Washington; J. Adams; Jefferson; Madison; Monroe; J. Q. Adams -- all were Deists. If any were Christian, they were only marginally so, and only for show to please the constituency. Lincoln was likewise a Deist, but was also, at times, an atheist, according to his closest friend, William Herndon. Please check our Big List of Quotations to see what all these men said about religion.

Atheism, as we understand atheism today, did not become an intellectually tenable position until 1859, when Charles Darwin published his Earth-shattering work, Origin of Species. This was because any thinking human would take one look at the human body (indeed, any living thing) and see evidence of design. But since there was no evidence that the God of Scripture played an active role in the affairs of humans, the Deists concluded that God created the Earth and placed life here, but is not involved in what goes on around here. The evil which prevailed in the affairs of humans refuted any notion of a God intervening in the affairs of humankind. Justice and mercy and truth were all humankind's responsibility, and so the Deists made installing and practicing these ethics their top priority, calling it our ultimate responsibility as humans.

However, when Charles Darwin discovered that the appearance of design in living things was just that -- an appearance -- he opened the door for modern atheism to flourish and become an intellectually tenable position. No longer did we need to think that life was the result of supernatural intervention. Now we could see that natural selection is itself a design force! So almost all the Deists became "agnostics," mostly because the word atheism was popularly used as a synonym for wickedness. However, if you study the words and thinking of the great American agnostics of the latter part of the eighteenth century, you will find as vicious vitriol as we ever heard from the likes of Madalyn Murray O'Hair or Joseph Lewis or James Hervey Johnson, three modern atheistic writers particularly known for their poisoned pens.

Beginning with Darwin's discovery of natural selection, God's role in the forming and maintaining of the Universe kept diminishing. Creationists would say that entropy would reign because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and that we could not expect to see order in a universe where the Second Law is operative, so God had to be intervening and making the order to overcome the Second Law's tendency toward chaos. This was realistic until Edwin Hubble and others confirmed that the Universe is constantly expanding. With an expanding Universe, there is room for pockets of order to form (such as our Earth) without violating the Second Law. God is no longer needed to explain order in the Universe.

Then they asked, where did all this matter come from? the Big Bang? Then who got all this started? It must have been God, because something cannot come from nothing! Well, a little over twenty years ago, physicists discovered what is called heavy or dark matter -- matter that we cannot see or detect, but we can measure its effects on gravitation. If we add the total amount of energy now contained in the Universe together, we come up with a figure of approximately zero. In other words, matter and energy are different manifestations of the same thing. So, the total energy in the Universe is currently zero, so we don't have to ask where it "came" from because the Big Bang, as far as we can tell, started out with zero energy. Escaping into a vacuum, this quantum fluctuation changed, and we now have what appears to be a lot of matter and a lot of energy. But if we add it all up, taking into consideration this dark matter that we cannot see, the total is still zero and no energy or ordering was needed from "outside" from any God.

Only a few years ago, neurologists began to study the effects of deep meditation and prayer on the brains of monks and nuns who claim deep mystical experiences. They found that the monks and nuns who reported being "at one" with God or the Universe or "all things" had a very strange thing happen in their brains at the moment of peak "transcendence." What happens is the part of the brain which distinguishes "You" from "not-You" loses all input, and this is the same part which orients "You" amidst your surrounding environment. Naturally, if we lose input for the part which tells you where you are, you're going to feel like you're everywhere (or nowhere), and if you lose input from the part which distinguishes "You" from "not-You," then you're going to feel "at one" with everything. Thus, the very mystical experience, the highly personal and intimate communion with God reported by Mystics for as long as we've had writing, has been explained through natural means.

Thus, we atheists still have no reason to believe the claims that a God exists. Nobody has come up with an argument that we find satisfying. If they did, we, of course, would become theists (most of us, anyway; not all atheists are honest).

And that's what an atheist is: somebody who has never been given a reason to believe that gods exist. People go around telling us that gods do, indeed, exist, but we just don't see it. We remain atheists.

Most of us do not even think about religion or gods or even atheism. We go about taking care of the business of living. You don't ever hear from most of us (mainly because of the bigotry and stigma against atheists in the United States -- although things are much better for us in Europe, where, in some places, atheism is the majority point of view). A few atheists here and there will join together and form groups, mostly to fight for the separation of state and church. Many of those groups become social outlets. But the leaders are not "ministers" or "pastors" in any sense, because we are all equal before Nature and we need no intercession of any kind.

Since atheists believe that the human is the most intelligent and most powerful entity with which we can communicate (no gods, remember), then we place a high priority on thinking for ourselves. Thus, you will find within atheism the entire spectrum of human thought (except, of course, belief in gods and the supernatural). Thus, you will not get an answer to your questions about education and the like, because the only thing we have in common at all is that we lack a god belief. Besides that, you will find civil rights advocates and racists, you will find evolutionists and UFO enthusiasts, you will find honest people and thieves, you will find just about every viewpoint and moral stand possible, because the lack of a god belief is really not much of an influence on any atheist's life.

I recommend that you read the essays posted in the first section of our FAQ. These will give you a pretty good overview of the questions we have been asked and what my answers were at the time.

As you will see, many of the questions that have been asked either have no answer or are the wrong question. This is because people assume that atheism is a philosophy: atheism is not a philosophy but is the absence of a specific set of beliefs. Atheism is, specifically, the absence of theism, the absence of religion. Thus, to think of atheism as a religion or as something that's organized will lead you into all kinds of error regarding atheism. I picked these specifically because each one address at least one "wrong question" about atheism. If you can understand the right questions, you'll already know as much about atheism as you'll ever need to know.

If you read these and still have any specific questions, feel free to write back. Here are the titles and links to the FAQ pieces I recommend:

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

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