Help With School Presentation:
'Atheism: Awareness And Acceptance'
Rachel Newman

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <>
To: "Rachel Newman"
Subject: Re: highschool project
Date: Monday, June 11, 2001 4:12 AM

Consider getting The Thumbscrew And The Rack from See Sharp Press in Arizona and The Dark Side of Christian History by Helen Ellerbe. We have two chapters of the latter posted, "Controlling the Human Spirit: The Inquisition and Slavery," and "The Witch Hunts: The End of Magic and Miracles." We also have Rationalism in Europe by Lecky.

I cannot think of a more diabolically memorable visual experience than to showcase all the torture devices that our forebears endured at the hands of the Christians -- both Protestant and Roman Catholic. Do this while talking about how the Church's riches came, in part, from the confiscated estates of our forebears (that's really our money, not theirs). "Thumbscrew" has many drawings which you can re-draw onto display boards. I'm sure you can find other visuals of implements of torture or the auto-da-fé (mass public burnings at the stake akin to spectator sports) in your library. Remember, an atheist, back then, was anybody who did not believe in The One True God -- regardless of whether she or he believed in so-called false gods or no gods at all.

You can contrast this with even a short list of atheists who have made major improvements in our world. My controversial response to Rich Zawadzki, in the letter, "Let's Go To The Atheist Page Just For Laughs," contains a wonderful list of atheists who have accomplished great things, usually despite vicious opposition from Christians and other religious people. Another list is Kreuger's Atheist Hall of Fame, a supplement to the Zawadzki letter.

Another thing you might try to track down is the study of the religious beliefs of the members of the National Academy of Sciences versus those of the general population. These graphs are almost the inverse of one another, with about five percent of NAS members saying that a personal God exists, against about five percent of the general population saying that no gods exist. While this does not mean anything, it does show where scientific thinking and scientific method tends to lead someone when it comes to religious belief.

Contrasting our persecution and wholesale marginalization as a people group against the accomplishments of those shining lights who have called themselves atheists (or have been called atheists by their friends, admirers, and allies) should give quite an impact. Visually, the methods of torture contrasted with both the portraits of the shining lights and their accomplishments could tell quite a memorable story.

Then three charts might be in order:

First, reproduce the chart in Encarta under "Atheism," which we've modified in our mirror of that article to show atheists and nonreligious combined as a single category. This shows that those adults who fit the "weak" definition of atheism (lacking theism) are over twenty percent of the world's adult population -- more than either Muslims or Roman Catholics; less only than all branches of Christendom counted as a unit.

Secondly, we have created a by-state list of the numbers of atheists versus the numbers of theists. They range from 28 percent (Oregon) to three percent. This chart can be found at the bottom of "Atheists Come to Power," and is quite the eye-opener.

The third chart would be derived from the 1999 Gallup Poll asking Americans what kinds of people they'd vote for as U.S. President. Hint: African Americans got 95 percent, Roman Catholics got 94 percent, Baptists also got 94 percent, Jews got 92 percent, Women also got 92 percent, Mormons got 79 percent, homosexuals got 59 percent, and atheists got 49 percent. Nobody has ever scored lower on this poll than atheists, ever since we were placed on the list during the McCarthy Era.

By contrasting our sheer numbers (not to mention our accomplishments) against how widely distrusted we are will make quite a point for your audience. The clincher, though, would be to ask your audience, "Why, week after week, in pulpits across the land, are atheists denounced as evil, wicked, mean, and nasty (as well as various synonyms for stupid, deluded, or pitiable)? Why are 'good' Christians still encouraged to discriminate against us? What did atheists, as a class, do to deserve such vicious stigma, denunciation, discrimination, and persecution? What it is about atheism itself that justifies people treating with contempt those who hold or express this opinion?"

If you are allowed to, you might consider handing out a sheet of paper asking these questions, and then soliciting written responses from your audience members. Doing this will give every participant a very vivid picture of their own tendency toward bigotry (and almost all of us have this tendency to some extent -- unless we've worked very hard to overcome it).

A humorous but poignant audience-participation event would be to make a questionnaire listing all the commonly believed gods and goddesses (including the well-known deities of ancient mythology, such as Apollo and Quetzalcoatl). Then, have your audience check off all the false gods on this list. Usually they will check all but one. Then, total up each entry to see how many votes each deity got for being a false god! You could also do this as a group vote, a show of hands, with a list on a chalkboard or display board.

Note: This works better if your crowd is more diverse, then each god or goddess gets lots of "false god" votes. If they're all Christian, this angle doesn't work nearly as well as if there are, for example, Asians, Muslims, Native Americans, Chinese, Pagans, Hindus, and atheists represented in your group. The best way to do this one would be to get a sampling of the world's population, and you could do this quite easily as an imaginary survey.

If the entire group is Christian, you can still make the point that a theist differs almost insignificantly from an atheist: The traditional theist disbelieves in all the gods except one; the traditional atheist disbelieves in merely one more deity than does the traditional theist.

So what's the big deal? They want to slap me around over one god?

Finally, if an atheist is someone who is not a theist, then compare the number of those who say they aren't religious (about 20 percent) with those who call themselves atheists (two to four percent). Why do so many atheists find life to be so much easier if we keep our lack of beliefs to ourselves? Why do we have to call ourselves Humanist, or Agnostics, or Unitarians, or "not religious," or any number of alternatives for the word (or the concept) of atheism?

Why do we have to lie in order to live a normal life? Would you rather have your church filled with hypocrites, who are only there because they're afraid of the swift and brutal consequences of admitting that they don't believe? or would you rather have a church that consists only of those who honestly agree with the church's statement of faith, who are going to church willingly? If the latter, why pour scorn on us, driving the weaker-minded atheists among us into the churches to pretend -- just so we can avoid the consequences of openly admitting we are atheists?

Here's a picturesque hand-out, display, or reading from Shelley:

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I was an infant when my mother went
To see an atheist burned. She took me there.
The dark-robed priests were met around the pile;
The multitude was gazing silently;
And as the culprit passed with dauntless mien,
Tempered disdain in his unaltering eye,
Mixed with a quiet smile, shone calmly forth;
The thirsty fire crept round his manly limbs;
His resolute eyes were scorched to blindness soon;
His death-pang rent my heart! the insensate mob
Uttered a cry of triumph, and I wept.
"Weep not, child!" cried my mother, "for that man
Has said, 'There is no God.'"
     -- Percy Bysshe Shelley, from "Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem" VII (1813)


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This one needs no visuals at all, as the words themselves will conjure plenty of imagery in your audience for years to come -- as well it should.

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

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