Youth Program Seeks
To End Bigotry
Stuart Bechman

NEW YOUTH PROGRAM AVAILABLE FOR ATHEIST/FREETHINKER YOUTH IN SIMI VALLEY AREA

October 22, 2000

Dear Freethinker Family:

We as a community are aware of the misunderstandings and prejudices that are often aimed at agnostics and atheists. One of the most prominent reasons for this is that most religious people don't know any openly agnostic or atheist people, and so they fill in the gaps with whatever fantasies they wish to imagine. This becomes an important issue for many youth who are looking for role models to help them shape their beliefs and values as they approach adulthood.

An unprecedented program has been launched in Simi Valley, CA to address this very problem, as well as to provide a stronger foundation for atheist/agnostic youth. The Simi Valley Freethinkers (SVFT) have joined with the Simi Valley United Church of Christ (SVUCC) to offer a joint teenage youth program directed at promoting tolerance and understanding among youth with various worldviews.

The SVUCC and SVFT both share values of tolerance, diversity and social justice; and recognize that polarizing concepts of "We vs. Them" are negative values that merely promote suspicion and bigotry between diverse communities. By offering a program that provides multiple perspectives of faith, it is hoped that such polarizations can be minimized for those who are developing their own values. At the same time, both organizations recognize that a 'critical mass' of youth is needed to maintain an ongoing program of interest to most youth, and this has been difficult for either group to achieve. The two organizations believe that there is a synergy and opportunities for emotional growth that can come from combining the two youth programs into a single joint program that would benefit both groups.

While the SVUCC is contributing the classroom space for this program each Sunday morning, the program will not be centered solely on Biblical concepts. A mixed-faith couple, Jeanie and Stuart Besamo, will teach the program. The program will focus on ethics and life dilemmas for youth that will parallel the annual agenda of topics followed by most UCC churches. Our youth program will present the Biblical and other religious perspectives of each week's topic along with a decidedly non-theistic perspective. Also addressed will be issues of social justice, critical thinking, tolerance and diversity. Youth will not be pressured or expected to adopt one perspective or the other, but will be encouraged to consider both in their own personal development. For Christian youth, we hope to 'de-demonize' the social taint that is currently felt about non-believers; for atheist and agnostic youth, we hope to provide a good grounding of the Christian beliefs that most of their cohorts accept and an appreciation of how those values can dovetail with those of freethinkers. For both groups, we hope to create the space and support for each to develop their own values of ethics and morality that include a tolerance and appreciation of diversity.

Jeanie and Stuart Besamo are both professionals with their own teenage children, one Mormon, one agnostic. Jeanie is an ex-Mormon and a member of the SVUCC; Stuart is an open atheist and is actively involved in several local and national freethought/humanist/atheist groups. Both have taught classes in ethics, are active in community and social activism, and are interested in helping youth prepare for life as adults.

Those in the atheist/agnostic community know that belief in a deity is not required to lead a moral life; and we also understand that enough prejudice exists in the overall community towards non-believers that it is easy for many non-believers to demonize religious people and isolate themselves from the community at large. This experiment is hoped to provide a role model for serving non-theistic youth and help break down the prejudices in our community directed at non-believers to allow them to lead proud, ethical and productive lives.

The class will meet at 10:15AM on Sundays. It will consist of three weeks of joint instruction followed by one Sunday of visitation to either the UCC service or a community freethought group; one evening mid-week social event per month, usually at the hosts' house; and one community service project per quarter. Participation is free.

If you have or know of teenage children in Eastern Ventura County or the west San Fernando Valley who feel isolated and alone with developing their own values and are not comfortable with religion, we would like to invite them to participate in this novel experiment. We will be holding a meeting with interested parents on Sunday, October 29th, 11:30AM at the Simi Valley United Church of Christ, located at 370 Royal Ave in Simi Valley. If you are interested but unable to attend, please call Jeanie or Stuart at (805) 522-3125.

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Stuart Bechman"
Subject: Re: Freethinker Youth program forming in Simi Valley, CA...
Date: Sunday, October 22, 2000 10:54 PM

This is right up our alley. I would be interested in covering this event. Any chance you could either tape it or, better yet, make a monaural mini-disc copy of all the proceedings? I would even be willing to loan you my mini-disc recorder: it is capable of recording 2.5 hours nonstop.

I'd also be interested in hearing your reaction to my piece, "Introduction To Atheistic Activism" which discusses this very topic extensively, offering, I think, some very original views on the subject. See the section "What is Atheism?"

Frames (works in almost any browser, but only looks good in MSIE 5 Win or MSIE Mac):
http://www.positiveatheism.org/faq/fractath.htm

No Frames (works in any browser but lacks the handy features of the index and footnotes; the features are there but you must maneuver the notes and index):
http://www.positiveatheism.org/faq/faq1110i.htm

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

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Stuart Bechman"
Subject: Re: Freethinker Youth program forming in Simi Valley, CA ...
Date: Monday, October 23, 2000 4:00 PM

"Atheistic Activism" was a dyslexic boo-boo on my part: I am trying to introduce the concept of activistic atheism. By this I suggest that we, as individuals, tailor our personal atheism toward ending bigotry and discrimination through our actions and through our representation of what atheism is and is not. The entire piece is geared toward this end, and thus constitutes my definition of activistic atheism. In fact, "activistic atheism" is another way of saying what I mean by "Positive Atheism." I am not wanting to see atheists who are activists for atheism, per se, but I would like to see atheists who are activistic in their atheism, tailoring their personal atheism toward ending the bigotry. This, to me, includes the ethical stands I discussed in the piece as well as the philosophical positions (most lucidly described by George H. Smith).
 

We are, nonetheless, vilified by many -- at least in the United States. It matters naught whether this vilification is based in truth. In fact, since much of it is not based in truth, all the more will an atheism that actively discusses what atheism is and is not work to our favor. This, to me, is the main point: the vilification is a phantom vilification, based on falsehood, and I think working to change how we are seen by others can only do good.
 

I cover the basics in Smith's piece, "Defining Atheism," but this is not the same as Smith's book at all (read it again and see: at most I cover some material in the first chapter, comparing it with other views and with my own). Meanwhile, if someone could do something to popularize some of Smith's ideas, I think we all would benefit from this. Most Americans, when they think of an atheist, think of Madalyn Murray O'Hair and Jon Murray. The atheists on television in Portland seem to be trying to out-Madalyn even Madalyn in their indiscriminate denunciation of anything even remotely religious. I certainly would not want to popularize all of Smith's book, because in several places he makes the same mistakes that O'Hair and others have made. To me, the most important point of my piece (which is absent from Smith's) is the element of presupposing that theists have a valid reason for believing. I combine this with Smith's weak definition, though this idea comes primarily from Michael Shermer, who disagrees with me on the value of the weak definition toward eliminating bigotry. Shermer prefers using other language, as is shown in his letter to us and which is covered in his book.
 

I'm sorry you didn't see this. Perhaps no views are original, but I have never heard this combination of atheistic views (weak definition; dignity toward theists) focused for this particular purpose (ending the bigotry) expounded anywhere else. But then, I am a fallible human, and my medical problems prevent me from doing as much reading as I would like to do and from attending as many lectures as I would like to hear -- as these problems prevented me from obtaining a formal education twenty-five years ago.
 

I am sorry that you cannot find my views on ending the bigotry against atheists useful for your program. I was under the impression, based upon your press release, that the main point of this program was to find ways to end bigotry against atheists. But if this is not what you seek, then I can see how any number of other viewpoints might be more conducive to what you are doing.

My views, and this summary of them, are the result of working on the front line for several years and of the discussions I have held both with bigoted theists and with others, including theists who are not bigoted and atheists of both persuasions.

All I am suggesting here is that I think individual atheists ought to be very cautious in how they present their atheism to others -- if we ever hope to end the bigotry against us. I think changes are more likely to come with widespread action on the part of individuals than from the work of advocacy groups and organizations and legislation (which are also necessary, but are limited when it comes to changing people's opinions of us).

Whether individual atheists use my methods or some other methods is irrelevant to me; the important thing, to me, is that I think it is the individuals who can accomplish the most change in the minds of their fellow humans.
 

I had been under the impression that the point of your program was to work toward ending the bigotry against atheists, and if this were the case, I would be interested in your ideas to this end. However, I have no use for covering the formation of what you now describe as a simple "Freethinker Youth program." One of our main points, here, is ending the bigotry. Thus, we would scramble to cover any new move in that direction.

I was once part of a group, thinking my involvement might do some good. I left because the group seemed to thrive on getting together and denouncing theists. They were bold in their proclamation that the point of the group was to be an "oasis" of sorts, a place to get away from theism. That the group-think fostered by this approach might actually be detrimental to the cause so dear to me came home when a Mormon woman visited the group and asked, "Is this another hate group?" At that moment, and even today, I could not distinguish between the two.

This is part of the reason I now advocate individual activistic atheism. The only role a group would play toward this end would be to discuss what we can do in the real world, how we can change our own behavior (since we cannot change the behaviors of others) and how to do this to make the greatest impact toward ending bigotry. But I have begun to suspect that groups, in an of themselves and without this as a specific focus, do little toward ending the bigotry and can even unwittingly work toward fostering it.

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

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

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.