Letters Between Cliff Walker
And Rich Zawadzki

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: Letters between Cliff Walker and Rich Zawadzki
Date: Wednesday, January 24, 2001 5:44 AM

The main difference between you and I is in our approach to atheism and atheistic activism (as I gather from this letter, anyway; all I know about you is what you've said here). Allow me to prejudice my response by stating that I not only do not care what other people believe, but I actually think it is morally wrong for me to try to change somebody's views on religion. In fact, I respect the fact that almost all theists have, or think they have, perfectly valid reasons for believing the way they do.

I also admit that if I had found a way to make theism work for me the way it seems to work for most people I've known, I'd be a much happier person than I am, and would definitely be much more successful. Unfortunately, I am constitutionally incapable of lying to myself (or to anyone else) in order to effect personal gain -- including personal happiness.

What I do know is that I have been an atheist for most of my life, and have suffered immensely as a result. I was raised an atheist, spent a few years as a fundamentalist Christian, and "de-converted" back to atheism, the faith of my fathers. As a life-long atheist, I have endured vicious bigotry simply for not going along with the claims of theism, or for refusing to be polite to this bigotry. This began in the second grade and has not stopped, even during those times when I remained silent about my views.

After being jailed in 1988 for refusing a court order to undergo religious instruction, I now refuse to roll over and find this behavior acceptable. And I absolutely refuse to go along with this trend to paint theism as good and wonderful and healthy and all that, or the notion that theism is effective at making people moral. I will respond sternly to any claim or assumption that I hear along these lines, because it just simply is not true: I was raised by atheists who themselves were raised by atheists. I have never accepted this claim and now sternly denounce it for the bigotry that it is.

I suspect that this has hit one of the lists with a call to slap us around over it, because, even though this letter has been up for several weeks and has, since I posted it, received consistently high "hit" counts, we just today started receiving complaints about the tone of my response. Until now, the only complaints I've received regarded my assertion that Satanists are atheists. But even at that, the complaints have been far fewer than the compliments, and I received so many requests to expand on the theme of this response that I actually fortified part of my original response and placed it in the print edition. And I have, over the weeks, received more compliments about the tone than I expect to receive complaints -- even if this is part of an organized effort.

Mr. Zawadzki approached us in a very degrading, extremely bigoted tone, and I replied accordingly. It is not my view that we ought to continue to take it from individuals such as this. Our objective is not to try to "de-convert" such individuals (or anybody, for that matter); they have every right to believe in gods, angels, demons, creationism, the "Great Tribulation," the innate superiority of theists, or anything else that seems right to them. Our main goal, here, is to try to put a lid on the bigotry that atheists constantly endure. Since there are no textbooks on how to approach antiatheist bigotry, we must wing it, try this or that, see what works, and reject what does not.

Presently, my experiments consist of occasionally engaging with such individuals in an attempt to display their bigoted behavior. I am inspired by former gay-dignity activist "Luke Sissyfag," who most remember as the queen who disrupted one of President Clinton's speeches while wearing a pink chiffon. Sissyfag, like myself, was not out to change anybody. He only wanted to display the bigotry in hopes that at least somebody will see this display and thereby learn something. Incidentally, Sissyfag's method was to do things like change his name to "Luke Sissyfag" and wear a pink chiffon in order to attract bigotry upon himself. This is one of the elements that went into my decision to keep the word atheism prominent in the name of this organ and the URL of the website. The word atheism, more than anything else, is responsible for attracting the spiteful, vitriolic e-mail that we receive every day. The writers of the worst letters click the link on the front page! They never get past the front page before they write! It's the word atheism that does it!

If you will read the Zawadzki exchange again, you will see me focus on the bigotry -- the derogatory statements and the sideways remarks. I come back to this aspect again and again throughout my response. You will also note that the only question to which I approach even a semblance of a response is the one implying that atheists, as individuals and a class, have done nothing good for humankind. Even at that, my response was carefully tailored toward displaying the sense of superiority expressed in this question. The rest, to me, were just baits.

Also note that I completely passed over the questions on evolution, culling out only the conceitedness ingrained in his presentation of those questions and commenting only on that. My goal, here, was to suggest to atheists that there is a dignified way to ask these questions, and to show that Mr. Zawadzki comes very close to crossing that line throughout his letter, and clearly crosses that line at several points in the letter.

Ah, but this is the easy part (but you wouldn't know it to watch so many atheists who seem to find this behavior acceptable). The tough question is how to respond to it.

Therefore, if you have any specific objections to the way I handled this one, please describe what I did or said, and how you find it offensive. Also please indicate how one would better solve the bigotry problem: this is our main goal here at Positive Atheism, to try to find answers to this problem.

Meanwhile, if you really want to see something worth complaining about, you might want to check some of the earlier exchanges, particularly the one called "To All You Intellectually Dishonest 'Thinkers'" (my nineteenth letter to the editor!): that one is a classic example of what I'm trying to change in myself (though I admit that I do still occasionally "go for the throat"). The fellow in "Finding Truth Through Gambling And Hedonism" not only lied to me, but sent me a virus, to boot! After sending that one off, I realized what I had done and wrote an editorial column about it.

I don't know: maybe rolling over and taking it is the answer. I doubt it, though, and will continue to demand my dignity unless someone offers me a compelling reason to do otherwise.

Meanwhile, I am still very proud of my response to the Zawadzki letter. I am not out to "de-convert" him or his ilk, only to bring awareness of the antiatheist bigotry and to bring this awareness to the atheistic communities (acknowledging that some of this awareness will spill over into the theistic communities). For me to seek to "de-convert" anybody would be, I feel, an act of bigotry.

This is a clear and concise expression of the very attitude that I am trying to overcome in my atheism and in my activism. While I will not tell anybody else what to do or how to think, I have rejected the notion of "reaching out" to theists or "making an impression" on them.

While editor of "Critical Thinker," I clearly favored this approach, but was, nonetheless, working for someone else; that group proudly had, as its reason for being, the goal of educating the public as to the dangers and the stupidity of religion (their sentiments: I'm just describing what I heard time and time again at their meetings; I actually respect the fact that people who believe have what they think are valid reasons for believing).

Now, since founding Positive Atheism, I have made it clear that we are not here to "de-convert" theists, but that our target audience consists entirely and exclusively of people who are already atheists.

I realize that some individuals and groups have, as their motive, trying to set theists straight on matters such as theism, superstition, and the supernatural. While I do hate to see somebody I know go the route of theism, I will no longer act on those feelings. The furthest I will go is in response to someone who approaches me and expresses their views to me in such a way that it is clear to me that this person wants me to go along with those views.

What is left is to denounce the stigma, the bigotry, and the misrepresentation of atheism, as well as the struggle for state-church separation. The latter is what I'd hope was the function of groups such as Freedom From Religion Foundation, although I realize that this organization goes much further in seeking "de-converts" to atheism. Even American Atheists has rejected that approach, and has, over the past few years, come closer to what I've been advocating for a long time: atheist dignity and state-church separation.

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

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: Letters between Cliff Walker and Rich Zawadzki
Date: Wednesday, January 24, 2001 7:04 PM

This is a tough question for me, which is why I tend to leave people alone except in response to their outbursts toward me, and except in terms of public discussion (such as proposed legislation to post the Ten Commandments on the schoolroom wall).

When I was an unwilling Twelve Stepper, I had three or four close friends. This was a terrible existence because these friends would "relapse" (get loaded) and we'd be in a quite a quandary because we always felt betrayed. You can't help but feel this way because of the loyalism instilled by the Program. If we took our Program seriously, we soon learned not to get too close to anybody.

Gary, a successful office furniture salesman, was one who always meant a lot to me, and I didn't care what he did with his life, I just liked him a lot. A lot. After I left the Program, having learned several of the "alternative" techniques to recovery (I consider the Twelve Steps to be the true alternative, and the other methods to be main stream -- despite the popularity of the disease model). Gary converted to Christianity after several bouts with re-addiction to heroin. He seemed to be doing well with Jesus.

I didn't believe him, so I offered to spend twenty minutes telling him all I know about how to recover from an addiction (twenty minutes is all it takes to explain all that I know that I consider worth knowing -- all I think anybody needs in order to figure it out and get on with their life). Gary declined, explaining that Jesus was working just fine.

What do you do? What I did was grit my teeth and leave him be. It's his life and I was not in a position to do anything more than what I did. Had I been his brother or his wife, that would have been different.

About a year later, I needed to get a real fancy office chair to try to control a repetitive stress problem in my legs. There was only one person in the state who deserved to reap the reward from this monumental decision. I asked the receptionist where Gary was, and she said, "I'm new, here, and I don't know any Gary." Whoa! How could anybody not know Gary!? Even if he quit he'd still be there! As the salesman was showing me the chair that had the features I wanted, I asked him where Gary works. Gary had died several months earlier from an overdose.

Setting apart a portion of your life to deal with addicted people is probably one of the toughest things anybody can do. Grabbing someone and shaking them by the lapel doesn't work very often. More often, letting them pay the consequences of their action is what works, and the best you can hope for is that in the interim they become motivated enough to become open to the possibility that the prevailing myth ought to be questioned. That's the "seed" I planted in Gary, that the prevailing myth about disease and powerlessness has a lot to be desired, and that it causes more damage in more people than it helps.

Part of me keeps wishing I had grabbed him by the lapels and given him a good shake or two. I had been there and I knew that relying on "Jesus" to do anything is a fickle situation at best. And here I was, able to look him in the eye and tell him that I'd discovered the very mechanism of addiction, and that by simply describing it, most people walk away with enough insight and information to conquer the problem.

I know, though, that this would not have done much except to alienate him further. Addicted people have this very powerful voice in their heads that starts to panic any time the supply is threatened. They can be clean for years and still react this way. The voice is "them" only in the sense that it is within their head, but it is not "Them" -- it is not the conscious, aware "Self" who knows better -- it is just a mechanical, reflexive, primordial, predatory appetite, which thinks it's going to die if the supply is threatened. All I wanted to tell Gary was that this appetite is not the part of the brain that knows better, and that it is not connected to the arm muscles.

But Gary said he was doing fine the last time I saw him. I think he feared that if he indulged me after I had only recently discovered atheistic activism (though I had been an outspoken atheist the whole time I knew him), that I might touch on subjects other than religion. He feared wrongly, because I had long ago stopped trying to de-convert people -- 1970s -- precisely on the premise that this might be what's keeping some poor guy clean and sober. With Gary, as with anybody, I didn't care what he believed. True, I felt real bad to "lose" to Christian faith this fine man -- who had one of the sharpest senses of cynical humor I'd ever encountered (a pleasant sense of cynicism that always drew an accurate bead and never became gratuitous, as most cynical humor tends to get).

But, I cannot step beyond that line. It could have cost Gary his life, but I have to remember that Gary was a big boy and knew what he was doing: he made his own decisions. My feelings are natural, but to intervene when he has declined the invitation is, I feel, morally wrong. Had he sent even the slightest message that he wanted to talk -- either about addiction or about religion -- I would most certainly have taken him up on the offer. But he didn't, so I didn't.

I still miss him, though.

The day after I found out, I paid a visit to the bar where I had started singing karaoke several years earlier, and put up one of my old signature pieces, "The Pusher" by Steppenwolf. This song was, at one time, the climax to the Saturday night bash: the karaoke host would look around, and then ask, "Is everybody ready for -- The Song?" and all hell would break loose. My version was, at the time, quite intense -- much more so than Steppenwolf's version; more along the lines of Hoyt Axton's original version. Because of it, any time you went into that bar, you couldn't go ten minutes without someone shouting "Well God Damn!" For me to do this song again, after all this time, was, itself, quite an occasion -- but that's not what was on my mind.

While I was awaiting my turn to sing, I sat in the back of the bar, alone, and started thinking about all the times Gary and I had enjoyed had together, realizing, for the first time since I'd learned of his death, that Gary was gone and that I could never see him again and that he had left a fine wife and three boys and a really cool dog. At one point, I welled up in tears -- and they called me up to sing at that very moment. I don't remember the performance, but people who normally hate the way I sing (an intensely angry Joe Cocker, tempered by my love for Punk Rock) came up to me and shook my hand. The guy who used to be the host when I did this song every Saturday was there, for the first time in almost a year. I wasn't doing anything but screaming at life over what Gary had done to himself, taking it out in this song.

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

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