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Reducing Our Own Stigma - by Cliff Walker

When I first began to edit an atheistic magazine over five years ago, I was heavily involved in a group. At the time, the group was my primary social outlet. When word came that I'd best move on, I was left with no structured social outlet. So I swore to myself never again to use an ideological affiliation as grounds for social relations.

I lost several casual friendships whose only basis was our mutual affiliation with the group. Other than that, I see it as no big loss. Groups rallied around an ideology foster an us-versus-them outlook, making it hard not to look bigoted. Atheists don't do well at organizing into groups, anyway.

Besides, I can meet new friends almost anywhere. I've since learned to marginalize such questions as whether gods exist while I'm with friends. Well, I do this on my end; I still don't know how to deal with others' bigotries -- besides just keeping quiet.

So, one of the points I try to make with "Positive Atheism" Magazine is that the existence of gods is one of the stupidest things over which to get into an argument. I have also decided to presuppose that all theists have (or think they have) perfectly valid reasons for believing that gods exist. Most theists cite the wonders of nature as the main reason they believe in a creator.

Besides giving theists these two benefits of the doubt, I'd like us to popularize the notion that atheism is simply the lack of a god belief, the absence of theism, religion unmissed, and is not necessarily the belief that no gods exist. I suggest that bringing repute to this understanding of atheism -- the all-inclusive big picture of atheism -- could significantly reduce the stigma we atheists endure. It just sounds like a more reasonable position than "No gods exist," and might change how others see us.

The polls showing Americans' readiness to discriminate against us frighten me. Are there things we atheists can do to reduce it? Yes! And discovering those things and putting them into practice is what I mean when I use the term "Positive Atheism."

I also like to think I have a few things to offer directly to individual atheists. I have been an atheist most of my life, and can easily recognize those left-over styles of thinking that don't automatically go away the moment someone renounces theism. I also worked my way out of the tangled web of theism after a brief stint, so I know what that's like as well. Involvement in a group today would detract from the work I began as part of a group five years ago.

I promised myself that after five years I would decide whether to continue. The only question I now have is where to get the resources to do this more effectively.

I asked a friend what she thought was the point of this magazine and website. She mentioned serving those who do not belong to a group. Aha! I hadn't seen that! I shun groups for my own reasons: isolating in a group can't help me learn to get along. My bug about groups has meaning after all.

Individual activistic atheists mixing with all types could effect popular acceptance for atheists where groups could not. Since atheists don't have an easy time in groups, this might be the individual's job. What I once saw as my weakest point I now see as my greatest strength. And I'm not alone.

Graphic Rule
Copyright ©2000 Cliff Walker; Portland, Oregon