Why The Slander?
An Open Letter To Pastor Jeff
(Report and Forum)
From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <email@example.com>
To: (Suppressed out of respect for Pastor Jeff's privacy.)
(We ask readers not to contact him unless he writes
here and specifically solicits comment. Instead,
submit your comments to us and we'll post them.)
Subject: Why the Slander? (an open letter)
Date: Thursday, March 08, 2001 4:37 AM
To: Pastor Jeff
Church of Christ at Logansport, Indiana
We are Positive Atheism, a magazine and website dedicated to understanding the historical and cultural roots of atheism (the simple absence of religious belief). We are also dedicated to combating the vicious and widespread bigotry that openly atheistic people endure, which serves to drive most of us back into the pews as "hypocrites."
As a variety of atheism, the philosophy of Positive Atheism derives, ultimately, from Gandhi's satyagraha, wherein we deem personal integrity and truthfulness to be the highest ethic. That mantle was picked up by Gora, a friend of Gandhi, who then passed it to his children, including my friend Lavanam. I have begun developing and advocating a significantly modified variation of this philosophy in the West, with the view of reducing the stigma against us which, unfortunately, has become institutionalized in America. (Just check the Merriam-Webster's entry for the word atheism and note that Merriam-Webster's is owned by a modestly powerful offshoot from Christianity.)
As atheists, integrity and truthfulness are very important for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that we are routinely vilified not only from the pulpit but by the very politicians who purport to represent us in government (read about Miami Mayor Joe Carollo's now-famous remark, about which we were the only journal to even raise a squawk when it happened).
Thus, if I, as a spokesperson for atheism, were to get caught using dishonesty or leveling bigotry against my ideological opponents, the outcry would be much greater than were a theist to get caught doing this to me under similar circumstances. The only difference is the way atheism is popularly perceived versus the way theism is popularly perceived -- and that difference lies mostly in the fact that theism is the majority viewpoint and atheism is a minority viewpoint of the despised variety -- down there with child molesters and white supremacists on the American popularity scale.
So, submitting to my sense of integrity, I sought to verify a statement allegedly made by Soviet Cosmonaut Gherman Stepanovich Titov, so I could post it in our "Big List of Quotations." In my search for a primary source (and in this case, the very wording of the quotation), I stumbled upon what appears to be the notes for a sermon against atheism.
(This mirror,clidk here, is easier to read.)
My question to you is this: What is it with all this slander of atheists? Why do you appear to find it necessary to portray atheists and atheism in such a false and degrading light?
Could it be that because you are in the majority, you feel you can get away with lying about your opponents without suffering much damage to your own credibility? If we spokespersons for atheism (or some other minority religious viewpoint) were as loose with the facts and as unfair toward our Christian opponents as you are with us, we'd never hear the end of it.
As an example, you quoted somebody making the following statement, and offered nothing resembling a rebuttal:
"...where the atheist indulges in violence, it is the logical outworking of a philosophy without God..."
If this is our only opportunity to live, shouldn't we all the more treat our fellow-humans with compassion and dignity? If it cannot be shown that a "God" exists to rescue us from the evils we face (or if, at minimum, "He" gives strong indications of being asleep at the wheel), then does it not fall on us to address these problems ourselves? If we don't do it, who will? Isn't it our job to feed, clothe, and house the needy among us? to fight disease, to ease pain, and to comfort the grieving? to institute and administer justice? to protect our homes and our community? to repair damage in the wake of natural disasters? and a million and one other things that we all do -- with or without religion?
How, then, is violence "the logical outworking" of a philosophy which results, in part, from not having been given sufficient reasons to believe the claims of theism?
I have encountered no theist (outside of the mental ward) who thinks we should just sit around and wait for God to take care of our problems. When a man recently cut off his hand and announced that Jesus would restore it, clergymen across the land made sure that we all understood that "That is not Christianity!" And I agree: that is not Christianity!
Why, then, do you so maliciously further this bold and brazen misrepresentation of the atheistic position?
Meanwhile, to get caught slandering like this serves only to discredit your claim that Christianity is a superior form of morality. You become the very straw-man caricatures you have created to vilify your ideological opponents!
Why not instead accept the existence of atheists as a challenge to improve your presentation of the Christian message? Consider addressing the fact that the Christian message does not have the precision of a multiplication table or the universality of the laws of gravitation, as Joseph Lewis once noted. Surely the Gospel of Jesus Christ can stand on its own merits, and can have a tremendous positive impact on those who agree with it and submit to it. You needn't slander us in an attempt to bolster the influence of Christianity!
I am not trying to convince you to become an atheist or to abandon your religion. I wouldn't want someone with this sense of "morality" publicly advocating human reason over theism, and I spend a lot of my energy challenging the outspoken atheists among us to clean up their act in this respect. We have enough problems addressing and rectifying the slander that is everywhere hurled against us, without the damage wrought against our position by our more dishonest and more bigoted advocates!
However, I will urge you to reconsider what you have said about atheists.
As a people group, we are the most widely and viciously vilified group in America, and perhaps in history. We have it worse even than homosexuals. An atheist is much less likely to be elected President than a fornicator, a pot smoker, a drunk driver, a crook, or a man known to have slept with a chimpanzee. We have all the stigma of a band of purse snatchers, but we have, as a class, committed no crime to earn this stigma.
The only reason most of us don't readily see this (but must rely on polls and other studies) is because it is so much easier for atheists to pretend to be Christians than it is to endure the stigma and bigotry. In order to soften the blow of theism's collective disdain toward atheists, we quietly join your congregations and become the very "hypocrites" that you so vocally loathe within your own ranks.
If you would instead stick to espousing your own position, and refrain from vilifying atheists and slandering us and making our position appear more ridiculous than is even necessary -- than is even truthful -- then the "hypocrites" within your ranks would not fear announcing the true opinions of their own minds: "No thanks, we're not interested." We would "come out of the closet" as atheists and your congregations would be that much purer. Those who fear the stigma of admitting their doubts or their atheism would no longer hide among the congregants and pretend -- just to get along or to keep their position within society or, in some cases, to keep their jobs.
Also, by focusing only on the positive claims of theism and by touching on only valid, truthful criticisms of the atheistic position, you would not be creating factions where factions need not exist.
First, our camp would have no animosity over your camp's misrepresentations and unfair portrayals of our camp's position if such portrayals didn't exist, if you stuck only to positive statements about Christianity and the handful of legitimate criticisms of the atheistic position.
Secondly, your congregants and followers exercise a level of trust that many atheists find unhealthy. Nevertheless, that bond of trust exists, and as a result, the potential for abuse all too often becomes a reality. When a pastor tells his congregation this or that about atheists (or whoever), chances are that many of the congregants will uncritically accept those statements as fact. And why shouldn't they? He's their pastor!
But what happens is that the congregants often go home and act on these misstatements and misrepresentations. They often go out treat the atheists they meet as if they actually were the stupid, willfully dishonest, bitter, insensitive, closed-minded, unenlightened, lawless, and all-around loathsome and wicked people that their pastor warned them about. (To see such misinformed and misguided Christians in action, just check the Positive Atheism Letters section.)
Without this artificial (and needless) divisiveness, we could much more easily and effectively get on with the formidable task of living.
We all face much more important tasks than quarrelling over whether gods exist. Your false portrayal of our position sets up a practically insurmountable block to our being able to join together in addressing the truly grave problems which we all face. Your people don't trust us because they believe their leaders' slander of us and of our position. Our people don't trust you because the transparent, spite-filled slander that you have leveled against us is so pointless and unnecessary. (Is your position so devoid of foundation that you must resort to lying about our position?)
For these reasons, we at Positive Atheism Magazine advocate several things:
First, we urge our fellow-atheists to presuppose that all theists have, or think they have, valid reasons for believing the way they do. The most common reason cited by theists for believing in gods is the design argument (study commissioned for Michael Shermer's book, Why We Believe). We have our own reasons for thinking the design argument to be insufficient to warrant our assent, but we all realize just how tempting it is to think there's just got to be a creator -- especially when our observations are limited to this tiny knot of order called Earth.
Secondly, unlike the "atheist" you so scornfully characterize as belittling a former drunk for believing in Jesus, we advocate that atheists not try to de-convert people back to atheism. Although this particular anecdote betrays of being the fable of so much Christian propaganda, a similar event happened to me in 1978 -- entirely within my own mind and without need of a tearful little girl either to wake me up or as a prop for emphasis. But if this tale is historical, then the atheist learned a great lesson, and we all should hope that other atheists will follow this person's example. (This is unlikely, since your anecdote goes out of its way to portray this man's inappropriate remark as the fruit of atheism itself, rather than simply the boorish indiscretion that it happens to be.)
Finally, we try to popularize the definition for the word atheism which has been preferred by atheistic writers ever since the act of admitting that we're atheists stopped earning us the death penalty. Most atheistic writers and philosophers have preferred "the lack of theism" or "the absence of a god belief" over "asserting that no gods exist." We realize that the latter definition is convenient for theistic apologists who wish to provide an easy way to refute atheism and thus bolster their own theistic views, but to use this definition is both unfair and erroneous.
You wouldn't want me to use my own definition for Christianity as a springboard for a critical treatment of your beliefs, would you? What if I were to include, within an overly broad definition for Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Mormonism, the Watchtower Society, Seventh-Day Adventism, Unification (Sun Myung Moon), Branch Davidianism, and any other people who frequently utter the sound "Jesus"? What if you were a Trinitarian, but I ridiculed you for the belief that Jesus was an archangel, a view unique to the Jehovah's Witnesses? No. Such a loose definition for Christianity would not do when assessing the Christian religion. So please consider what we atheists say the word atheism means before you launch your salvoes against us -- lest ye risk painting one-fifth of humanity with a broad brush.
Specifically, you err in portraying all atheists as people who assert that no gods exist:
"QUOTE: 'An atheist is one who believes he has absolute knowledge that there is no one who has absolute knowledge.' Frederick Copelson."
This is akin to asserting that a Christian is one who insists that the Earth is flat and has a lid, or "firmament," resting on top.
Those who assert that no gods exist are but a tiny fraction of all atheists. And nobody who asserts that no gods exist even pretends to have "absolute knowledge" any more than a person who asserts that there is no Santa Claus pretends to have knowledge of all things. Copelson's statement is a slander of the first degree, and is slated for inclusion in our "Scary Quotes" list as an example of this popular lie, told at the expense of (to the detriment of) a people group who, as a class, has done Mr. Copelson no harm.
Within theism one person may be more sure of the existence of God than he is of his own existence (the Mormon missionaries who visited my home during the early 1990s) while another exercises healthy levels of doubt, such as the character in the Gospels who said, "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief." Faith varies across the entire range between (and even beyond) these two examples.
In a similar sense, there are various degrees of atheism. Some find all claims for the existence of gods to be incomprehensible or unfathomable (read: "nonsense"), and say that since there is nothing in the god claim that can be understood, there can thus be no belief. Other atheists write off the entire idea of God as fiction -- myths created by primitive, superstitious cultures to explain the mysteries of physics and psychology, and to keep the masses in line.
But both these groups are a drop in the bucket compared to the vast majority of atheists who have simply been given no valid reasons to believe the claims of theism. Most of us do not think upon the matter at all -- unless an evangelist or a missionary comes upon us with an eye toward converting us to theism. We perhaps considered the claims of theism at one time and dismissed them, or perhaps we considered only the faith or our fathers and have rejected it and all others with it. Still others of us have never even heard the claims of theism to consider them, or we lack the cognitive abilities because we're retarded or are infants. (Yes, the majority of atheistic philosophers since the Enlightenment have included infants as atheists because one either has a god belief or one does not.)
We understand why many theists balk at this definition: unable to make a very strong case for the existence of "The Hidden God," it becomes easier simply to paint atheism as a ridiculous notion. And atheism becomes no more ridiculous than when the atheist commits the logical error of trying to disprove, empirically, an existential claim (a claim that a thing exists) -- the very thing that this popular and age-old slander of atheists portrays us as doing: "The fool hath said in his heart, 'There is no God.'"
The truth is that the modern claims for the existence of gods are carefully designed to evade any form of testing or verification: we must take them on faith if we are to accept them at all. While many humans do think that a god exists (or many gods), a large fraction of us have not found the claims of theism to be very convincing. You'd think this would be a wake-up call to preachers to come up with stronger and more convincing arguments. Instead -- all too often -- apologists for theism get lazy, ducking their responsibilities as the ones making the existential claim, by simply slandering the opposition.
This is fine and well when you feel it your duty to bring more and more "sheep" into your fold. However, have you considered just how many people you have hurt with these lies? The next time you hear a Christian political leader bemoan the "anti-Christian sentiments" welling up in America, please remember one of the objections we have to Christianity: so many Christians tell such vicious lies about us, and we're quite frankly growing very tired of this behavior.
I have posted the final draft of this letter to you at:
and will post any responses that meet our criteria of decorum. I will also place a link to this file on our front page, which will guarantee it receiving, at minimum, over 300 "hits" by the week's end. I have also taken the liberty to mirror the file
as it currently stands, and I do this under the Fair Use provisions of U.S. Copyright Law for purposes of discussion and verification (in case you change or remove this file in the future).
We also apologize in advance for any increase in bandwidth to your website which is inevitable when we focus on a statement made by a theist. This is, now, only the third or fourth time we have contacted a theist in a challenging context (though we have contacted many religious leaders in the context of their being potential allies or for gathering information -- and we consider you to be a potential ally).
I will be more than happy to discuss with you any of the topics mentioned above; however, I am more interested in trying to solve the problem of bigotry against atheists than I am in discussing whether or not gods or angels exist. Perhaps you might even be willing to get your hands dirty and help us try to solve this problem wherein those who lack religion are so widely and more viciously despised in America that many of us feel we must pretend to be Christians in order to get along. At minimum, to dignify the lack of religion would serve to ferret out the "hypocrites" among your congregations; at most, you might win some very powerful allies in combating the many serious problems that we all face.
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
people with no reason to believe
I apologize for offending you. The site that you found is my sermon illustration file titled "atheism" and is a collection of articles and light jokes that I use for sermons and articles. The quotations are not generated by me but all had tho'ts I believed would trigger ideas for me.
As for whether these attack atheists or not is not the issue for me as much as the food for thought they give me. For example: the quote from Frederick Copelson: "An atheist is one who believes he has absolute knowledge that there is no one who has absolute knowledge.." is on its face, an accurate statement. If that were not true of a person who called themselves an atheist, they would be more aptly called an agnostic. By definition "theism" declares there is a god or gods and "atheism" (as defined by the "American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language") is "disbelief in or a denial of the existance of God."
As for the quote: "...where the atheist indulges in violence, it is the logical outworking of a philosophy without God ..." - that is the observation of one writer that I included in my files. It may be simplistic, but there is truth even there.
Where a Christian indulges in violence, even atheists note that this is hypocritical. Why? Because it is such violence goes against what is generally understood about Christ's teachings. A Christian that truly understands and abides by those teachings would at least attempt to set aside feelings of bitterness and hatred that generates such actions.
By contrast an atheist has only one source of authority - their own personal beliefs or beliefs they find attractive in another teacher such as Ghandi. Thus there is no higher authority to an atheist than their own sense of what is right or wrong. If then, an atheist feels bitterness or hatred, there is nothing wrong with their acting upon those sentiments except opposition by the social mores or pressures of the culture they find themselves in. The fact that an atheist would abhore such activity would be a tribute to their character - but it is not a natural outgrowth of their atheism.
Why? Because atheism has nothing within it that speaks for or against such violence, it merely is a philosophy that gives free reign to one's own sense of what someone feels acceptable. Thus in cold war communist (and atheistic) Russia, there was no moral imperative to stand against the slaughter of opposition or innocents. In Nazi Germany, Hitler understood this and imprisoned many Christian preachers (as well as those he called "undesirables") when they stood against him.
As for the story about the drunk and the atheist who challenged his conversion... even you'll have to admit that there are atheists who are so brazen - though not all would be. When someone feels strongly about their philosophy or belief, they often say hurtful things (even Christians will).
Once again, the illustration file you stumbled upon are a collection of quotes on this topic from a variety of people. You are now the 5th person to have discovered these files and I am saddened that you are angered by them and consider them slander. They are, to the best of my knowledge, accurate quotes by people who have an opinion on atheism that I found interesting. Perhaps even your comments will find their way into these files.
From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: "Church of Christ"
Subject: Re: An answer to slander
Date: Wednesday, March 14, 2001 10:20 PM
Perhaps even your comments will find their way into these files.
Hopefully, a more accurate and truthful picture of atheists and atheism will work its way into the speech which pours forth from the collective American pulpit each Sunday. The Church has enough going for it that it doesn't need to lie about us.
Why did that one atheist in your sermon denounce his fellow atheists for being terrified by the false and unfair stigma and bigotry inflicted upon us as a class and as individuals? Because we get unfairly denounced and ridiculed and slandered from tens of thousands of pulpits across the land -- by a group that doesn't need to lie in order to gain power and influence! They are needlessly making things very tough for us, a hardship we have done nothing to deserve.
Was that atheist fair in his denunciation of his fearful and trembling fellow-atheists? I think not.
My goal, here, is to discuss what atheism is and is not, in hopes that less energy will be spend trying to make things unnecessarily hard for this class of people. Perhaps this will free up some time and energy toward more useful endeavors, but my main concern is that the popular slanders leveled against atheists make things very tough for a class of individuals who, as a class, have done nothing to earn this hardship.
As for the story about the drunk and the atheist who challenged his conversion ... even you'll have to admit that there are atheists who are so brazen - though not all would be. When someone feels strongly about their philosophy or belief, they often say hurtful things (even Christians will).
Yes, even Christians will insist that atheists are, as a class, something that they are not, and will do this only to further the Christian agenda, not because the atheists have done anything to warrant this behavior.
I will clean up my side of the street by working tirelessly to advocate a better way for atheists to act. I was involved in some of the discussions at American Atheists when it became clear that Madalyn Murray O'Hair was not coming back. I was asked specifically about her image as a spiteful, vindictive woman, brazenly hostile to any and all expressions of faith. What came from this -- and I'm not taking credit, I only submitted my opinion -- is that American Atheists quietly changed its tune, and now deals exclusively with two things: advocating for the separation of religion from government and stumping for the dignity of atheists in the face of widespread hostility against atheists.
I have gone further by suggesting, publicly, that some of this hostility is due directly to the actions of Madalyn, James Hervey Johnson, and a few others who appeared to have little better to do than to express disdain for believers (although both did much more than this, but often it didn't seem this way). I can understand American Atheists' decision not to do a complete about-face on this issue. I can understand it without finding it acceptable.
Perhaps as a response you could clean up your side of the street by trying to soften the blows that we, as a class and as individuals, endure from all sides. Perhaps it's time to recognize that the Church doesn't need to go to the lengths she does in order to gain influence -- even to the point of advertising on our money, for crying out loud! Perhaps it's time to trust your congregants to fulfill the duties prescribed by their church's religious tenets without legislating those for all to obey.
I don't need to denounce religion in order to show that humans, as humans and as nothing more, have a wonderfully powerful potential for doing good -- but I will denounce religion if and only if a religionist insists to me that I am worthy of scorn simply because I lack religious faith.
I don't have to laugh at the Genesis story in order to marvel over just what an awe-inspiring accomplishment the collective DNA molecule has made over the past several billion years, and just how resilient she has been in the face of mass extinctions that come upon us approximately ever 26 million years -- but I will laugh at the Genesis story if and only if powerful interests within organized religion try, thought dishonest means, to install the Genesis story in place of the awesome history of reality that science describes. Science class is about science: if you want religion taught in the public schools, then overthrow the United States Constitution -- or else send your kids to private schools.
I don't need to scorn the notions of Heaven and Hell in order to know, only too keenly, that this brief flicker which I call my life will never be noticed in the context of the life span of the universe. The fact that I will live only a moment or two longer than my little brother, who died when I was very young, grieves me almost as much as the fact that he never got even the chance to live that I've had. I at least get to tell what I've seen and felt to a few close associates; he never got to learn how to talk. That was his life, and all I can do about it is to try to make up for his loss in the way I live my life. He never uttered a word, but he gave me the most profound lesson I've ever learned -- or that I've ever even read about other people learning -- but I cannot word it better than did atheist philosopher Joseph Lewis:
With this recognition of the finality of death, no one should willingly withhold acts that would bring benefits, joy or happiness to others.
I go further in that I try never to commit acts that would bring damage, pain, or misery to others.
The fact that an atheist would abhore such activity would be a tribute to their character -- but it is not a natural outgrowth of their atheism.
Ah! I never heard a truer statement! But this is not a valid criticism of atheism; rather, it is a comment on human nature. An atheist is an atheist simply because she or he lacks a god belief! Atheism is not itself a positive belief system, but is a negative, an absence.
I think we might be on to something! I think we might even be ready to admit that humans, in and of themselves, have the potential to do good and to be good people. I think we might be recognizing that there is nothing in religious faith -- as far as morality is concerned -- that cannot be found without religious faith, and that faith's only advantage lies in how religious individuals feel about themselves inside. If this is the case, then why have atheists, as a class, earned the stern and sarcastic (and patently false and unfair) denunciations that you have hurled against us?
And, are you willing to carry this a little further? Could the morality of a human who has no Heavenly enticements, no Hell-fire coercions, and no inspirational example of an altruistic Christ figure be seen as a superior, more complete form of morality than that which depends upon these other contrivances?
Perhaps theism -- a belief in one or more gods -- is best seen as being the added attraction, and not atheism? Could it be that atheism exists only because of the claims of theism, and that without the claims of theism, atheism is a non-issue -- the natural state of humanity, without the added belief that gods and goddesses (and their consorts) exist?
Perhaps there is a word that means "a person who do not pick his or her nose," but I doubt it: picking the nose is the activity, and one who does not do this is not special in any way.
Ditto for believing in the existence of gods.
Remember, only because we get so widely and viciously vilified do you even hear from us. And you will hear more about us, from pulpits and on Christian TV, than you will hear from us, because we try best to mind our own business. Occasionally, when a religionist publicly issues a bold, sweeping statement and expects the rest of us to go along with it, we will counter that religionist's claims -- in the public forum, of course.
But since you rarely if ever hear from atheists, why do you go to such lengths to draw such a dismal caricature of us as a class?
Why? Because atheism has nothing within it that speaks for or against such violence, it merely is a philosophy that gives free reign to one's own sense of what someone feels acceptable.
No. It is humanity and society that does this. Atheism is merely the absence of that additional factor of belief in supernatural intervention. Apart from this one difference, atheists are indistinguishable from theists. Some (but not all) theists think that morality comes from somewhere other than the human individual and the human social structure; atheists think that all morality comes entirely from humanity. Atheism is not itself a moral system, but points to humanity as the only known source of morality, the only source of morality about which all but the most die-hard Calvinistic, "Total Depravity" advocates will agree.
Religion has nothing in it regarding morality that cannot be had without religion. Communism proved this when they engaged in the very last holdout that had previously been a characteristic only of the religion: Communism showed us that even the persecution of classes of people over ideology is not unique to religion.
Barring the artificial stigma leveled against atheists, you cannot show, empirically, that religion has any advantage over the lack of religion; religion's only advantage is inside the mind of the person who likes to be religious, and this advantage is not subject to empirical verification.
But you denounce us and vilify us and slander us for not having religion? I don't get it!
By definition "theism" declares there is a god or gods and "atheism" (as defined by the "American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language") is "disbelief in or a denial of the existance of God."
Ah, so you're suggesting that disbelieve means "to think that something that somebody has said is untrue" (Encarta World Dictionary, definition 1)? The second definition, which specifically relates to theistic faith, says, "to have no belief in something, especially in God or religion." That's the definition that I use! Atheism is the absence of theistic faith -- for whatever reason.
As I pointed out, a Christian preacher wrote the "strong" definition in order to make it easier to slander atheists. If you studied the history of Roman Catholic thought, you will remember that this is the precise reason they instituted and popularized the "strong" definition for the word atheism. Roman Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain gives the classic defense of this one. Very few atheistic philosophers have gone along with this definition.
Merriam-Webster's was written by the Christian Scientists: I'm sure that even you would have serious problems with their definitions for the words Christian and God. I know I do. I especially have a problem with their definition for atheism which, to them, is a synonym for wickedness. Naughty, naughty!
Which church or ideology-based group publishes American Heritage? Is the publisher of Microsoft Encarta an out-of-the-closet atheist?
Many Christians who write to me insist that atheism is "a religion." I don't go along with that, either. Atheism is a religious viewpoint in that it is a viewpoint about religion, and is thus protected under the Free Exercise Clause of the United States Constitution. But that is as close as the lack of religion gets to being "a religion."
Some agnostics, misunderstanding the classic philosophical definition for agnosticism and seeing in it a safe "middle ground" between what they falsely portray as two dogmatic extremes, also ran with this definition as being in their best interest. I am not as dogmatic as the agnostics, who insist that we cannot know. I don't carry it that far: I merely state that I do not currently have a belief in any gods, that those god claims have heard fall woefully short of warranting my assent. Thus, I remain an atheist -- without a god belief -- like the day I was born.
The agnostics are wrong because atheism is no more a dogmatic extreme than is theism. Most theists are not dogmatic, but when asked will tell you that they think there's a god. To be a theist, one need not know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there is a god -- no ifs, ands, or buts about it, and no "faith" involved. Very few theists are like the Mormon missionaries who visited me ten years ago and insisted that they are more sure of God's existence than they are of the existence of the Sun. And very few atheists insist that no gods exist: our statement is usually no statement at all. We just don't buy the popular god claims, and that's all we care to say about it.
By Copelson's definition, there is no such thing as an atheist: he has defined us right out of existence, and you go along with this! I dare you to fine anybody who claims to have all knowledge, and then bases her or his rejection of the various theistic claims on that basis! This is pure slander on your part!
Is it not best if Christians decide what constitutes a Christian and atheists decide what does and does not constitute an atheist? or should the Christian majority be allowed to take from us our very right to self-definition?
In the classic definition in philosophy, A-theism means the absence of theism. Since I am not a theist, I am an atheist. I don't even have to think about god claims in order to have no god belief. One who lacks a god belief has not necessarily consciously rejected all the god claims that have ever been voiced. One who lacks a god belief has not necessarily rejected any god claims -- or even considered them, for that matter.
Are people non-smokers only if they have visited the local cancer ward or sat through a lecture from the Lung Association? Is someone a non-smoker if and only if that person has made a conscious decision not to smoke? No. A non-smoker is someone who does not smoke: why that person does not smoke does not enter into the picture.
If I wanted to be unfair about it, I could define Christian as one who asserts that the Earth is flat, because as I read the Bible, the Earth's topography is clearly described as being flat, having four corners, with a lid ("firmament") above it, and with a reservoir of water above that lid. At one point, the Sun "stood still" and in another place, "one-third of the stars fell to the Earth," and in another, a Bible character was shown "all the kingdoms of the world" from the vantage point of "an exceeding high mountain." However, very few Christians today are such fundamentalists that they still take those stories literally. So, for me to describe Christian as someone who thinks the Earth is flat would be as dishonest and unfair to you as Copelson's definition of atheist is toward us.
Besides, Copelson misrepresents the thinking of even those few atheists who do assert that no gods exist, for the reasons I explained: One need not have all knowledge to assert that there is no such thing as the Tooth Fairy. If you are still an "Easter Bunny Agnostic," shame on you! By the time I was six, I was convinced that there is no such thing as Santa Claus -- an a-Santa-ist, if you will.
It is for this reason, more than all others, that I humbly urge you to reconsider what you say about the class of people known as atheists.
Where a Christian indulges in violence, even atheists note that this is hypocritical. Why? Because it is such violence goes against what is generally understood about Christ's teachings.
Don't speak for all atheists: The idea of Jesus as the Prince of Peace is a Johnny-come-lately understanding, and has not been the prevailing thought throughout most of Christian history. If you examine Jesus's so-called peaceful and loving teachings, you will see that most of them apply only to those who agree with him, only to those who are on his side. He spoke most brutally toward those who disagreed with him, and was outdone in his brutality only by Mohammed.
If any atheists have suggested that violence goes against the popularly accepted biography of Christ -- the New Testament -- then those atheists either have not read the entire New Testament from cover to cover, but have uncritically accepted the modern picture of Christ spoon-fed to the masses during the Christmas season.
Initially, his kingdom was "not of this world" but concerned a nebulous afterlife: thoughtful humans had no need to take his rantings seriously in the day-to-day business of social and political life. Later, though, his followers decided that these barbarous descriptions of the afterlife would make an effective basis for public policy -- extremely effective at ridding the Church of her critics and thoroughly effective at assimilating the estates of her now-silent critics into her vast treasuries. The primary inspiration, the "proof-texts," if you will, came directly from the mouth of the so-called Prince of Peace:
"Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I come not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household."
I don't see how this can be "spiritualized" or otherwise reduced to allegory.
Besides, the following passages suggests that to do that might incur the wrath of Christ:
"For God commanded, saying, Honor thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. But ye say,..."
Jesus proceeds to denounce the humanistic factions of the Pharisee movement for emasculating the Torah of its more barbaric laws -- particularly Exodus 21:17, Leviticus 20:9, and Deuteronomy 21:18-21 which command the stoning of children who curse at their parents, and other similar laws which command the violent death of any family member who would even talk of refusing to follow the religion of the father.
Jesus is here defending and upholding these barbaric laws! "For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled." (The Jesus character, in "The Sermon on the Mount" -- Matthew 5-7.)
But those laws are entirely consistent with the message contained in his parables:
"But those mine enemies which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me."
This may be a parable, but what values are being taught, here?
And its being a parable did not stop his more fundamentalistic followers from incorporating this idea into public policy. For almost fifteen centuries, the Christian Church, both Catholic and Protestant, faithfully carried out this commandment. And they would continue to carry out "His" will today if our government of "We The People" would only let them.
They cannot be faulted, though, because they were only following the teachings of the Christ figure:
"If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned."
This passage, an alleged quote from Jesus, was used for centuries to justify tying our predecessors to posts and lighting them on fire as public spectacles -- sport! -- simply for refusing to believe the official version of the State Church's dogma. This passage, John 15:6, was the proof text for the auto-da-fe.
Although no Protestants spoke up last year in apology for the role their ideological forebears played in this fifteen centuries of butchery, the Pope did apologize. I don't find his apology acceptable because his treasury still contains countless millions confiscated from my predecessors. We kill your fathers and confiscate their estates and send their kids off into slavery -- and then say we're sorry, but keep the estates. Some apology! I can see that they're really truly sorry! And some people marvel that we're scared of George Bush's schemes to re-establish religion!?
No. The myth of Christ has done anything but promote peace, suppress violence, and bring forth a working respect for every peaceful and law-abiding human's right to life. If Christianity's goal is to promote peace and reduce violence, then history shows her to be an utter failure at accomplishing said mission.
I say that reducing violence is not what Christianity is about; rather, the very promotion of violence if that's what it takes to silence those who would stand against the Church and her foundations: the message of her Gospel and the personality of her figurehead.
If the government of a "Christian Nation" puts me to death for "blasphemy," then that government will have followed the express will of the Christ figure, as described in the New Testament. Anybody who says otherwise either has never read the New Testament with a critical eye or is deliberately preaching "a different Gospel" from the one described therein.
Is that "different Gospel" healthier than the real one? You bet! But to call that "different Gospel" anything but a post-Enlightenment revision of the Gospel described in the New Testament is very misleading, to say the least.
A Christian that truly understands and abides by those teachings would at least attempt to set aside feelings of bitterness and hatred that generates such actions.
So why do we atheists and other non-Christians (and other-Christians) endure such hardship on such a vast scale at the hands of the followers of Christ? Why has this hardship against "the enemies of Christ" been so consistently and universally and deliberately inflicted throughout the centuries and across the world?
You almost sound like you're preaching the Gospel of Post-Enlightenment Humanism, and simply calling it the Gospel of Christ.
By contrast an atheist has only one source of authority -- their own personal beliefs or beliefs they find attractive in another teacher such as Ghandi.
How is availing oneself of the examples of the vast array of shining lights that have come before us truthfully called having "only one source of authority"? And how does this compare with a group who submits herself to but one of these shining lights?
And what is so wrong with thinking for oneself and deciding for oneself how to live one's own life? If everybody did this, there would be no shining lights to inspire any of us -- you would have no Jesus to follow!
All of us are gifted with the finest decision-making mechanism known: our own brains. If we'd only learn how to use them, more of us could live like those shining lights who, even now, are so rare that most of us only read about them, and never have an opportunity to meet one.
Some of us are so busy justifying and defending a single ideology that we wouldn't recognize one of those shining lights if she or he were to walk up and shake us by the lapels! We might even discredit or slander or otherwise oppose that shining light for trying to find a better way!
Others of us are busy struggling, for example, to defend a people group who has endured bigotry, slander, vilification, and every form of injustice. Or, as another example, they ponder the current situation, discover its glaring flaws, come up with a workable alternative, and face inevitable opposition from the status quo for having the audacity to demand or even suggest change. Such people often live their entire lives not realizing that they themselves have become one of those shining lights.
Thus there is no higher authority to an atheist than their own sense of what is right or wrong.
Who gave you this oversimplification, a preacher?
The most intelligent, caring, loving, and authoritative being with whom I know I can communicate is another human being. No gods have answered back to my inquiries, I don't understand why so many authors think that angels look like people with wings, and no ETs set down on the landing strip in Jamul while I knew Paul Moon. What's left? Humans! My fellow-humans! As feeble and fallible as my fellow-humans are, and as untrustworthy as they can sometimes get, as viciously as many of them have treated me -- that's all I've got!
So I observe the collective and cumulative opinion of the species, and reserve the option of veto power when it comes to what I will hold as my own opinion.
If then, an atheist feels bitterness or hatred, there is nothing wrong with their acting upon those sentiments except opposition by the social mores or pressures of the culture they find themselves in.
Why, then, to I privately have qualms over the bitterness I feel toward you for having slandered and vilified an entire class of people who have, as a class, done you no harm?
Thus in cold war communist (and atheistic) Russia, there was no moral imperative to stand against the slaughter of opposition or innocents.
Communism showed us, for the first time ever, that persecution to protect an ideology is not the exclusive property of religion, but is, like almost all human characteristics, uninfluenced by religion or the lack thereof. If atheists are indistinguishable from theists in every way, why the slander? why the hardship?
In Nazi Germany, Hitler understood this and imprisoned many Christian preachers (as well as those he called "undesirables") when they stood against him.
Hitler imprisoned and killed anybody who stood against him if that's what it took for him to retain power. He even imprisoned his fellow-Christians, the very Christians who were inspired by his lofty Christ-talk and who subsequently placed him into power. Hitler was strongly influenced by the writings of one Martin Luther, who himself was strongly influenced by the writings of the Apostle Paul and by the Gospel According to John. To see why so many Jews have been slaughtered throughout the past two millennia, simply read the Gospel of John. Those Christians, including Hitler, were just following the bad example set by the Christ character as described in the New Testament.
I hope that at least some readers will see that atheism is not the bogeyman that Pastor Jeff and his cohorts make it out to be, and that the Gospel of Christ is nothing to crow about -- but that we're all in this thing called life and we do well to foster cooperation rather than the exclusivistic totem mentality, which may have been crucial to the survival of tribal groups but will be the undoing of humanity if it is allowed to retain the credibility that it currently enjoys.
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
people with no reason to believe
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.