Just for Laughs?

"I look forward to someday when we'll meet. (Romans 14:12)"

"Ah, yes! Threats of physical violence! Because you cannot persuade us through reason, perhaps you can persuade us by dispatching The Big Volcano Guy after us! (And you seem like the type who'd just love to peek over into the edge of Hell and watch people burning alive. I'll bet you can hardly wait!)"

"...the atheist who is writing to you at this moment was 'held' for 24 days in county jail simply for refusing to undergo religious instruction..."

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: Just for Laughs
Date: Saturday, February 10, 2001 8:47 PM

By reciting what is commonly used as a passage to describe The Great White Throne Judgement Of God (graphically portrayed in those inane little comic books that you sometimes find in phone booths), and then repeating similar language from a similar passage, and then saying, in all caps, "Bowing is not an option, the question is when," Mr. Zawadzki implied very strongly that I would be sent to the Fundamentalist Christian Hell later if I did not agree with him sometime during my lifetime. The "wailing and gnashing of teeth ... where their worm dieth not," as described by the Jesus character in the Christian New Testament, is physical violence if I've ever heard of physical violence -- probably the most dire threat ever hurled against any human. A threat of physical violence need never be carried out and need never be taken seriously by the one being threatened in order to be intended as a threat of physical violence. (Are very many threats ever carried out?) This threat, though, causes Mr. Zawadzki, in my opinion, to lose the argument that he was having with me (I don't argue such matters myself).

The only point he had -- the only point he really offered and the only thing I got out of his reply to my response -- was to try to convince me to go along with his opinion by trying to strike The Fear Of God in me. His quip about macro and micro is a reference to a common but dishonest criticism of evolution (check Hovind's site to which he refers), as no evolutionist believes that macro evolution occurs in a single generation. His quip about all atheists being bitter was just an empty slander, not thought through at all (was anything he wrote well-thought-out?). He skirted everything I had to say about there existing moral atheists by implying, through a very oblique quotation (search Google for the only other occurrence of it on the web and note the several which precede it and the several which follow), that atheistic morality will never get you into the Fundamentalist Christian Heaven (so what is the only alternative in the Fundamentalist Christian scheme of awareness?).

I have openly admitted that I still suffer from Anthony Burgess's "vestigial fear of Hell," and am the first to admit that even in the context of a ridiculous rant such as Mr. Zawadzki's, any suggestion that people actually believe in a literal Fundamentalist Christian Hell will bring on painful memories in me -- even though my parents and grandparents were all atheists!

This is your language, not mine. The only thing that would make him a sadist would be if he likes to play the "top" role in certain forms of sex play. However, the subject of bed-time antics did not come up in our discussion.

My main point is that in my opinion, threats of punishment and enticements of reward do not constitute morality. My secondary point is that this behavior of relegating me off to the Fundamentalist Christian Hell for disagreeing with him, in my opinion, instantly forfeits one's credibility and thus any claim to have "won" the argument (although I don't argue to win, I argue to test my views and increase my prospects of finding truth).

You refer to my parenthetic counter-taunt: "(And you seem like the type who'd just love to peek over into the edge of Hell and watch people burning alive. I'll bet you can hardly wait!)" This is my personal speculation as to why, in a letter that has nine whole points to make (including salutation and close), Mr. Zawadzki makes an allusion to the Fundamentalist Christian Hell in four of those nine points. I'm sure he has read the tale of Lazarus reclining in the bosom of Abraham and watching the poor "rich man." Was his only crime being rich and greedy? or can we assume that he was sent to The Eternal Flames for rejecting The Gift Of Salvation offered by the Christ of modern Fundamentalist Christianity?

Again, this would not make someone a "sadist" (in the metaphorical sense; not the literal, psycho-sexual sense); this is simply an interpretation of the body Christian Scripture that is somewhat common among the more extreme Fundamentalist Christians of our day. I agree that this sounds "sadistic" in the metaphorical sense of the word, but this is how I've heard people talk. If he really was sadistic in that sense, I doubt he'd be trying to convert me to The Light, but would prefer to increase the chances that I end up in The Cosmic Crock Pot by keeping me in my honest ignorance. No. His purpose was to taunt, because he sees himself as that "Right Man" which Colin Wilson described several decades ago.

By cloaking my taunt in language like "you seem like the type" and "I'll bet," I keep this speculation firmly within the realm of personal opinion: this is how the guy came off with his bigoted taunts about atheists doing no good for society and his later implications that I was destined to spend eternity in The Abode Of Condemned Souls if I didn't come over to his point of view.

This was in Portland, Oregon, in 1988, and it occurred with my attorney at my side, after having served 180 days for shoplifting in order to support myself. I shoplifted because I am permanently disabled, having never held a job for very long and having not held a job at all since 1985. I became disoriented and eventually slipped away to the point where I didn't even get along in the homelessness scene. I skipped bail so many times (due to being too disoriented to even keep track of the days of the week -- remember, I weighed over 100 pounds less than I do today, and I'm not overweigh today by any stretch, but well within the norm for my age and huge skeletal structure).

During my arraignment, I spoke abusively toward a judge and fired my first court-appointed attorney. That judge became visibly angry and (apparently) sent my paperwork into a subsystem which would guarantee that I'd need to squawk in order even to have a trial -- so I rotted in jail for three months. A cop, a very conscientious jailer, noticed that I was still there after several months and had no indication of sentencing on my record. He asked me about my trial date. By my shrug of the shoulders it was clear to him that something was up, so he made some noise and I got a trial date before another judge.

Only after all 180 days were served was I informed that I would have to undergo Twelve Step instruction. On asking why, we were told that "We've got to do something so we're going to do everything in hopes that something works." What worked was medical treatment for a depressive disorder, which included an income that is not keyed to my performance in a competitive work environment, and something to do which is done apart from the stress of it needing to be done on specific terms or I'd lose my job and become homeless again. I stayed clean and sober for almost twelve years just on general principle, and now practice moderate drinking -- very occasionally -- and smoke a little pot -- even more occasionally.

I balked at going to the program -- not the "Anonymous" meetings but an institutionalized, publicly funded, in-house "treatment" program which featured Twelve Step religious instruction as its primary mode of therapy. So, I was placed on a thirty-day hold, of which I was accidentally released on the 24th day. I don't remember the official reason, but it would never have got that far had I not denied having a drug or alcohol problem, balked on religious grounds, and expressed the opinion that even if that remedy were appropriate, such remedies do not work unless the victim wants them to work.

This was 1988, remember, and to oppose Twelve Step coercion on state-church grounds had only been tried in rural California, and not within the legal system but within the realm appeals against employment terminations, denial of visitation rights, etc. No cases came to Oregon for another four years, and that one was just a threat: it never went to trial and received no press coverage beyond a story I wrote for KBOO Community Radio.

As you can see by my writings in the Recovery Watch section, I caved in to insurmountable pressure and became active in the Twelve Step program -- much to the chagrin of those who actually like it there! I had been mandated to attend for three years, and soon discovered what "coercion" and "enticement" mean: anything good that happened to me (including whether or not I qualified for Food Stamps!) happened because of my involvement in the Program. The social workers made it a point to emphasize the fact that I was getting these "perks" (such as Food Stamps, welfare disability payments, medical treatment, and even a "Disabled Citizen" discount pass for the bus) only because of my active involvement in the program. (I still have that pass, and whenever someone tries to push me a little too far, I like to whip it out and show it to them and say, "Hey! They don't let me on the bus for half-price for being level-headed!)

Little did the social workers realize that after my first year, my "involvement" consisted mainly of making lots of noise about atheists being actively discouraged from remaining atheists -- writing articles such as "Whose Father?" and "Completely Realistic" for various Narcotics Anonymous journals (most of which went unpublished), joining committees (see mention of my work on the NA World Literature Committee mentioned in an article in NA Way Magazine published much later, in 1999), and expressing my opinionated opinions in meetings and at coffee after the meetings.

A little over three years later, I discovered the Rational Recovery program, and volunteered for them for another seven-and-a-half years. During that time I came to be called the volunteer most skilled in the country at teaching their methods. But never hid the fact that my motive was to retaliate for having been forced to undergo religious instruction. To have that as your only motive for involvement was actually a plus in Rational Recovery.

So, I was not in a position to sue and was in no condition to go through such an ordeal. I had everything to lose and nothing to gain -- when I'd just completed three years of choosing between dignity and food! I doubt I'd have found even an ACLU attorney willing to take on such a case in 1988. And it probably wouldn't have worked, because I think the judge exercised caution in her wording of the order -- her response to my objection made it clear to me that she was fully aware of any state-church questions clouding this commonplace arrangement. But awareness of a problem and addressing the problem -- even through doing the right thing -- are two separate things in this less-than-perfect world.

Meanwhile, this move on their part served only to make an activist out of me. Since shortly after this happened, I have been working non-stop for this and similar changes in the way atheists are treated in the United States and in alerting the government and the public to the compromises of Establishment Clause of our Constitution. I've done enough work to be able to say with confidence that I have effected no small changes.

If that editor of the Narcotics Anonymous magazine can remember, eight years after the fact, a specific "member of the fellowship" who "pointed out that the committee's efforts were still falling short in one area," that being that there was "no material to address belief in a higher power that wasn't a supernatural deity," I think I have every justification for assuming that this one message is not the only one to sink in somewhere. I am particularly encouraged by the fact that I barely pay attention to the Recovery Watch section these days (you must navigate several levels of menus to get there) and yet see evidence of this struggle (of which I was but a small part) taking effect almost every week.

Traffic to our website increased significantly after the Primary Conventions, and soared upon the inauguration of George W. Bush as President of the United States. This tells me that many people are aware that the Establishment Clause of our Constitution not only protects everyone's freedom of religion, but also protects a small (and highly despised) minority's freedom from religion. As one reader notes: "He even brought his own rope" to the Inauguration. Far from squashing our precious Constitutional guarantees, I think George II's antics will serve mainly to promote discussion and awareness, and will result in the eventual strengthening of these values for which our nation was once renowned.

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

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