How Can Atheists
Endure Religion's Exclusivism?
Mike Biglan

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From: "Positive Atheism" <>
To: "Mike Biglan"
Subject: Re: your website
Date: September 25, 2001 5:33 AM

I'm sorry this ended up being so long, but you touched some key issues that I feel we need to discuss in depth. I particularly wish to introduce some new thoughts about President Bush's religiosity in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Hopefully my remarks will spur much talk so we can see if my new ideas have any merit. I also would like to summarize for readers some of the changes I've made in my understanding of the word atheism.

You're right about the media: this is what I'm talking about when I refer to institutionalized bigotry: people believe it because the powers that be keep repeating it. Even reference books are remiss in dealing with the meaning of atheism. For this reason, I tried to put down in writing what the word means to me, working it into our FAQ piece called, "Introduction to Activistic Atheism."

But I've also started something new: Lately I have been telling people that the moniker "atheist" serves only to distinguish myself from a large chunk of the population who have, in their lives, an added attraction that I not only lack but do not miss. One's atheism is always a very small part of their overall outlook; never will the atheist's atheism mean as much to him or her as even moderately devout theists' theism means to them.

For more on this, check out the letter from Juan De Gennaro called, "Why Advocate For Individual Activists?" Also check my recent columns titled "Atheism: But A Small Part" (April, 2001). More recently, the one called "To Symbolize That Which Is Not?" (August, 2001) reiterates the points made in the first one. Also, the column titled "We Exist. We're Atheist. Get Over It!" (June, 2001) also touches on this angle.

I've been working this one out for much of the summer, and have a lot of hope that people will be able to find it useful in softening the blows of stigma, bigotry, and just plain misunderstanding that we endure to this day. It is an institutionalized misunderstanding, and most who perpetrate it have no idea what they're doing or even that they're doing harm; but it's a misunderstanding nonetheless, and we do well to try to educate those close to us so that we can try to live our personal lives in relative peace. My column titled "Dictionary Definition Of Prejudice" (May, 2001) touches on the institutionalized aspect somewhat, and was intended to tie in to "Atheism" But A Small Part."

Now for the real test: Today, as a large part of our understandings of reality change and get put to a very stern test, I need to see if anything that I learned this summer is of enduring value under this new paradigm into which we have all been ushered by the events of this month. The true challenge to anybody who submits to liberal scientific method is this: If what I have struggled with over the past several months (or even years) seems to be fine and dandy in times of relative peace but shows itself to be invalid during times of duress, can I show the fortitude of integrity to jettison anything that I find to be less than valid, no matter how carefully I may have worked to put the pieces together, and no matter how lovingly I have worked to be able to explain it to others.

There is a balance between expressing yourself and getting along.

As teens, some of us have used our atheism for its shock value. I cannot say that I respect this use of atheism, and don't hold out much hope for the prospects of such people remaining atheistic later in life. Enduring atheism is atheism that has been thought through: it knows what atheism is and why atheism must be.

As you hinted at above (and I'm beginning to see myself, these past few years), enduring atheism might also be willing to set itself aside for the business of getting along and living life. I'm not saying to become a theist or to lie about one's atheism, but simply to realize that atheism is never that much of a big deal.

To me, enduring atheism has absolutely nothing to sell; that is, it has nothing to say to anybody -- particularly a theist. Enduring atheism does not need for theists to deconvert to atheism. It's beginning to look (to me) as if enduring atheism doesn't really care how religious the atheist's surroundings tend to be, because enduring atheism, I'm beginning to learn, can roll with those punches.

Fortunately you are not alone in this. I do not say fortunately in order to rejoice in our having had to endure hardship because of what I consider to be a patent abuse of power at the hands of our President. I say this because we can expect no small awakening among atheists as a result of what President Bush has done. The public will hear more from us (and from other non-Christians) after this thing has settled down. It will haunt him from the other direction too, as the supporters of his move to trash our Religious Liberties begin to point to these abuses as precedent for justification for even more abuses. In the letter "How Six Wrongs Make A Right," you can see it happening already.

In the letter, "Why Advocate For Individual Activists?" with Juan De Gennaro (who helped me tremendously in formulating the response, by the way), I discussed the problems that societies encounter when a single group is allowed to dominate. This takes place as a postscript to the discussion on "The Oasis Approach" (the last of three objections to the idea of forming atheist groups), and is called "A Minority Solving Our Own Problems." If these problems become serious or get out of hand, you can be sure that the society will become willing to make some changes in an attempt to reduce the problems. This is why it becomes critical for us to act:

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If we in the minority remain silent and unnoticed, the rest of society (that is, the majority) will never be forced to endure the consequences of tailoring public life only to the needs of a single group (those in the majority). But if we boldly try to function anyway, even if it causes problems for some (even if it causes problems for us!), those problems will attract attention and perhaps more people will have a vested interest in seeing that society needs to have the ability to stretch and meet the needs of a wide variety of people.

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We are already hearing quite a bit in the mainstream press about this, and I'd wager that Bush himself already realizes what a great chasm his actions have caused. These problems will probably be addressed, if not by Bush's administration at least by the next several administrations to occupy the White House. Bush's great experiment was teetering on failure immediately before the crisis occurred, and the crisis has only shown that this still doesn't work: there are many people whose job it is to promote religion; this has never been part of the President's job description.

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However, there's another side to the story, a side that we, as atheists, cannot allow to escape our notice. I'll tell my story and then make my point: On September 11th, I had no television and was completely alone. For about an hour, I did not know that the damage had been restricted to these two buildings, four aircraft, and an empty field. I seriously thought that pandemonium had struck and only my Father, who, fortunately, was home at the time, was able to avert this thinking in me.

For most of the day I couldn't stop crying, out of sadness for the people who went through this and the people whose lives had been uprooted or completely destroyed by this. This is definitely a hold-over from the years I spent re-enacting the PSA crash that I witnessed in San Diego in September, 1978, wherein I'd envision myself on the plane as it fell out of the sky. Because I watched that plane fall out of the sky, this "tape" in my mind, this "scenario," would not go away. It kept popping into my head, without notice, for years after the crash. Part of that was because the TV and radio kept playing the cockpit tape of the pilots as they were going down: "Mama, I love you!"

I realize that my response to the attacks in New York was more severe than most. I also understand that others may have been able to handle the events on that day but have since started to have problems similar to what I've been going through these past two weeks.

Where can I turn? Only to my own resources and to the handful of friends that have remained in contact with me since I made several drastic changes in my social situation a year or so ago, and again about three months ago. As a woman who wrote to us very early on pointed out,

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It's in situations like this that you miss religion. I mean that quite honestly. The religious can pray and believe it makes a difference. We who have none know that it doesn't make a difference, but don't have the luxury of that false comfort, and though the comfort is false, it's nonetheless there.

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I am suggesting that Bush's religiosity is a deliberate attempt on his part to prevent a pandemonium of hopelessness and despair on the part of Americans. That day I caught a glimpse of the television, and most of the announcements across the bottom of the screen were about which churches were holding services that evening. These announcements rivaled even school closures and other shut-downs, so Bush is not alone: the networks and local stations were making sure people knew where their local churches were before we even knew where our President was!

Why is this?

Bush and his close advisors have obviously spent no small amount of time pouring over the arguments of the "Christian Nation" revisionists. This propaganda makes great use of the quotations of the Founding Fathers which point to a belief that was very common in those days: to use the words of President John Adams, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson:

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Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean hell.

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This idea has shown itself to be utterly false over the past 200 years, but it is still very common in the United States. It has enjoyed no small resurgence with the recent popularization of "Christian Nation" revisionism, especially as this revisionism was used during the 2000 campaign. I think we can say with confidence that Bush sincerely believes society would fall apart without religion. He's wrong, of course, as has been shown throughout Europe, but if this is the case, if Bush thinks this way, just imagine what he thinks could have happened to the people in the wake of the present emergency.

As wrong as he is, Bush might think he's doing the right thing in trying to save the people from pandemonium by sending them to that one place where he thinks they can get help: the churches.

I am still not ready to abandon the likelihood that he's exploiting this situation in order to slip several precedents into the works that are sure to help crumble Jefferson's Wall of Separation over the coming years. We saw this during the Inauguration and we've watched him in action over the past nine months. A lot of what he has done can only be explained in light of an attempt to set precedents for those within the "Christian Nation" movement to find quite useful down the road. And if their history is any indication, if their use of the Pledge and the Motto and the slogan on the money and even John Adams's Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer is any indication, these acts of President Bush will be used (and used successfully) to erode our precious Religious Liberties by compromising Jefferson's Wall.

However, though I'm not ready to say he's not exploiting this opportunity to make inroads in his quest to erode the Wall, neither am I ready to say that this is the only reason he's doing this. Being unconvinced of the sincerity of Bush's religion ("Governor, you're no Jimmy Carter"), I would posit the following as Bush's most likely motives:

1. Bush probably most wants to please his religious supporters, particularly in light of the attitudes behind Falwell's ill-timed remark suggesting that our past unwillingness to turn to God caused our present tragedy. I believe Bush was frantically making sure that this charge cannot be leveled against him. I realize Falwell's remarks came later, but they did not come out of a vacuum: Falwell's feelings are very common, particularly among those who most vocally pride themselves for having put him in office.

2. Bush strongly believes that morality is intricately tied with religiosity; that is, that atheism equals immorality. Turmoil will ensue if he does not make sure that those who are even remotely religious become actively involved in their faith during these times of uncertainty (or so he thinks). He knows that no matter what he does, a good 20 percent of us definitely won't grace the inside of a church building any time this month. However, Bush knows that can make a difference with the others.

The believing class is divided between the active and the inactive, and if he can encourage those on the borderline to get involved in the local church, then they will be exposed to the recruiting efforts of the preachers and perhaps more Americans will become religious. Almost all of the people walking forward during any given altar call are already marginal believers who have just experienced the emotional hook of a skilled preacher. Very few are what you or I would call atheists. Bush, in this sense, is making a National Altar Call, of sorts, encouraging people to become involved in religion every chance he gets.

3. Bush is definitely investing in the future of his quest to destroy Religious Liberty as we know it (rather, as we have yet to ever experience it simply because Americans have yet to insist that our Constitution be obeyed). He knows that advocates of America as always having been a "Christian Nation" are quick to point out that our money all says "In God We Trust" and our Pledge of Allegiance says "under God" and our National Motto is "In God We Trust."

Never mind the fact that all these moves came about during the McCarthy Era of the 1950s, when atheism became the great enemy of Christianity as a motive to fuel the Cold War (a few coins had already said "In God We Trust" by then). Bush knows that the movement can go a long way on this type of rhetoric, especially considering that he's old enough to remember the change in the Pledge and is definitely old enough to have earned a paycheck which, when cashed, produced no bills containing the slogan "In God We Trust." Nevertheless, Bush knows the power behind such precedents. We know this because his supporters have used them many times while arguing for his faith-based initiative.

But if Bush can set some unprecedented precedents during this time of crisis, when nobody in their right mind would dare speak out against this behavior, then "Christian Nation" revisionists for generations to come will be able to point to his deeds in arguing that this ought to become policy. Not only that, but if their record is any clue, many "Christian Nation" revisionists will use these acts to argue that what he did was already law and policy and the intent of not only the Constitution but of the Founding Fathers themselves.

His best move would have been to proclaim a Day of Remembrance or even a Day of Remembrance and Courage. He could have encouraged letting people off work that morning if they thought they need it. Then, he could have allowed the religious leaders to handle the religious end entirely. The networks would have covered it just the same. Then President Bush could have changed his clothes and become Private Citizen Bush and could have answered to any of the numerous invitations he would have had to speak at one of these privately hosted affairs.

Even I would have actively supported such a move, and could have been talked into participating in an event locally (reading excerpts from the letters we've received, or whatever).

But I am accountable to my own conscience and must live with that every moment of my life. Therefore, for me to have endorsed or participated in what he did to would have bothered me for the rest of my life.

As I suggested above, what do you bet President Bush knew this from the beginning? That is always what it has felt like to me, ever since the second day when Bush started making public appearances. It has felt to me as if he knew that nobody in their right mind would say anything about it, as if he knew that anybody who did say something was putting their own reputation on the line.

I waited a few days to say anything. I waited, but I kept logging numerous complaints from readers. Then one reader, Andy Prescott, made a particularly poignant remark that basically forced my hand. He said that Bush was jeopardizing our efforts to find and destroy the networks of terrorists who are responsible for this crime.

Even so, I still felt a little like I was doing what the "God Hates Fags" preacher does, in that I was literally expressing my opinion during a funeral oration.

The only way I could justify saying anything was because President Bush effectively shut me out from being able to participate in the proceedings. I believe this and this alone gave me the (moral) right to speak out about the situation.

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

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