Conduct vs.Creed:
Can Some Religions
Justify Their Existence?
Mark Highfield-Smith

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Mark Highfield-Smith"
Subject: Re: A way of life
Date: Saturday, October 21, 2000 1:52 PM

Positive Atheism maintains that the question of whether or not gods exist is one of the stupidest reasons for individuals or groups to get into an argument. We speak from an atheist's position, and do not expect theists to feel similarly on this matter. We further agree to presuppose that all theists have (or think they have) valid reasons for believing the way they do. We have no quarrel with the private practice of religion. Though we don't necessarily respect the religion itself, we feel it is imperative for us to respect the fact that people believe, and to acknowledge that people have reasons for believing. We do this not only because we think this is the most proper and the most dignified way to act, but also as a positive and proactive attempt to counter the misconceptions and the stigma prevalent against atheists which so severely impairs our quality of life.

Numerous pressing problems plague each human's all-too-brief chance at living (this is our only crack at existence, as far as we can tell). We all do well to seek out allies and work together toward making this the best world that we can make it. There are many problems we can all agree need to be addressed, and chances are that most of us can come to some semblance of an agreement as to which solutions have the best prospects for changing various situations.

In light of this, we encourage atheists, particularly atheistic activists (separationists, dignity advocates, human rights advocates), to seek out allies without regard to those religious beliefs which are often merely incidental to a person's or an organization's primary struggle. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, both openly theistic, each sought the advice of Gora, long India's main spokesman for atheism. Gora, though disagreeing with Gandhi as to the role that theism played in the Satyagraha movement, nevertheless advocated Satyagraha as an effective way to make changes. He even developed his own secularized variation of Satyagraha, a variation which both theists and atheists can find useful because it is neutral on the religion question. We feel that public neutrality toward religion is the most effective way to ensure religious liberty for all. (Perhaps it is the only way, but we do not here seek to defend that notion.)

Thus, it is only when people's practice of religion spills over into our lives that Positive Atheism will take a stand. This ranges from individuals approaching us to try to convert us to theism, to groups trying to legislate morality that is uniquely religious, to groups trying to establish one sect as the state religion (or a generic theism over the simple absence of belief), to confronting bigotry and other acts of indignity toward the unchurched. We work very hard (mostly from our end) to try to address the problems of bigotry and stigma against those of us who refuse to believe (or confess to) what we see as falsehood. But we think it would be counterproductive and morally wrong for us to simply roll over and endure "the injustices which are everywhere apparent against" us (to borrow a phrase and a concept from the late atheistic activist Madalyn Murray O'Hair).
 

We likewise recognize the use of religion as a symbol of cultural identity, although we openly prefer to see cultures outgrow the use of religion as the rallying point. We suggest that cultural groups try to find more neutral, more inclusive symbols of cultural identity. We say this for two reasons:

First, we know what it's like to reject what we see as superstition and falsehood and exploitation -- as all religion appears to so many atheists. Some of us just cannot get past that point: we cannot pledge our allegiance to such concepts or institutions; we cannot make our mouths say something contrary to what our minds think is the truth; we cannot become hypocrites and still live with ourselves. A significant section of any population will be unable to get beyond this inner conflict, and will grant allegiance to the religious symbol only grudgingly -- if we can muster any allegiance at all. Using religion for cultural identity puts many of us in a very tough position.

Secondly, using religion as a cultural rallying point impairs religion because it fills the group with those who are there only for its cultural value and who do not actually believe the tenets of the confession of faith. In any group that centers around an ideology, it is the most adamant supporters of that ideology who contribute the most toward keeping the group alive. When the group liberalizes to become more inclusive, or is inundated with members who are indifferent to the that ideology, the core supporters may even leave form an independent "orthodox" group that will better meet their needs. At minimum, the group itself is filled with hypocrites rather than allowing the serious believers to practice the faith in a purer setting.

In a recent exchange with a physician living in Greece, she agreed with our suggestion that the Greek Orthodox Church serves primarily as a cultural symbol and rallying point, telling us that the Church is "touted ... as a shield against globalization, exploiting the not unfounded reservations that many have (including myself) about the latter." She adds that, "many Greeks have told me in confidence that they don't know or care if God exists, they just want the document to state affiliation to the ethnic church." When we asked her to suggest more constructive sources of ethnic pride, she replied: "The scientific, philosophical and artistic achievements of ancient Greece satisfy my ego needs, thank you very much!"

Much of America's state religiosity was added during the Cold War for these very reasons. It was in 1957 that "In God We Trust" replaced, as the National Motto, Thomas Jefferson's original U.S. Motto, "E Pluribus Unum" ("Of the Many, One" -- or perhaps nowadays, "Though Diverse, We are One People"). (See "What's Good For The Goose," our editorial column for July, 2000.) The first currency to carry this lie was issued in 1964. I call it a lie because it says "we," and I, for one, don't trust any gods -- certainly not the one to which the United States Treasury obviously refers. Likewise, the words "under God" were added to our Pledge of Allegiance during the 1950s; I can remember my kindergarten teacher, in about 1960, mentioning that she kept forgetting that they changed it, and that she was having a hard time learning the new version. All this and more was done in response to the anti-Communist hysteria generated by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his henchmen. The Soviet Union responded in similar manner. My favorite quip from their end came from the lips of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man to orbit the Earth. Speaking from orbit in 1961, he said, "I don't see any god up here." As a cultural rallying point, the atheism of the Soviet Union became a politicized dogma, and probably was, for most Soviets, no more heartfelt than the "In God We Trust" of most (McCarthy-terrified) Americans -- which I doubt was any more heartfelt than the religion of the "many Greeks" described by the above-mentioned Greek physician.

So, we do not openly fault an individual for signing allegiance to an ethnic or state church. Indeed, many atheists in the Deep South of the United States refuse to "come out of the closet" with their atheism for fear of retaliation. We do, however, openly denounce this concept as fostering hypocrisy and bigotry: hypocrisy in those who join for reasons of cultural identity, and bigotry against those who refuse to join out of a sense of truth.
 

We do not see religion as having any advantage over human rational thought, and we see it as having several disadvantages. (I would be more than happy to discuss some of these findings in detail with you if you wish.)

Nonetheless, religion is the vehicle that will inspire certain individuals toward morality where nothing else will, and for this reason we acknowledge that religion does play a legitimate role in human life. However, to assert that religion itself is de facto more conducive to overall morality than human reason is to state falsehood.

Similarly, Alcoholics Anonymous is touted by many authoritative figures as being an effective way to overcome a drinking problem. "Keep coming back: it works!" they tell us. Unfortunately, AA admits in its own surveys that after one year, only five percent of those who try AA are still in AA (and even then, they're not necessarily sober). This is significant in that AA urges a lifetime commitment to the Program. These figures are dismal, as recidivism rates go. Meanwhile, more than one survey has been conducted of the general population that asked both "Have you ever had a drug or alcohol problem?" and "If so, and if you have resolved this problem, how did you resolve it?" The results are that a whopping 70 percent of those who ever had problems either quit through their own efforts or naturally outgrow the problem. Nevertheless, even though AA doesn't work for more than a very tiny minority, it has been institutionalized in America to the point that a judge can order someone to undergo religious instruction in the AA program and can jail anyone who objects -- even though it can be shown that AA doesn't work for very many people. But, I would never seek to abolish AA simply because it does work for that tiny minority; for this reason, AA deserves to exist. I only wish people who know better would stop telling the public that AA works.

We do not see the situation with religion differing very much from the situation with AA. Religion is popularly touted as being very conducive to the overall morality of the populace, and as tending to promote morality in individuals. We will agree that certain individuals have shown a drastic change after a religious conversion experience, and for that reason would never seek to ban or denigrate religion. (However, the change need not be religious: any drastic rearrangement of ideology will do this in some people. The Marxist groups on the University campuses know this and use this knowledge to their advantage.) Nevertheless, we suspect that religion is not what it's cracked up to be in this respect, and we are prepared to argue this case whenever the contrary is presented in the public discussion.

If you have any further questions or would like to discuss some of the details, feel free to write again.

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

Graphic Rule

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