Our Identity As Atheist Organizations
by Cliff Walker
copyright 1999 by American Atheists
used with permission

The "Washington Post" and its use of the "A"-word

Much heated discussion has revolved around the July 12, 1999, article in "The Washington Post" [1] that called the racist World Church of the Creator an "atheist" group. Other articles, particularly those in "The New York Times" and "U.S. News and World Report," fell short of using the word "atheist." Both journals chose simply to describe the situation, saying that the group "does not worship any God" ("Times" [2]) and "doesn't believe in God" ("U.S. News" [3]).

American Atheists' president Ellen Johnson quickly responded to the "Post" article, saying that its "characterization of the World Church of the Creator as an 'atheist group' was 'a cheap shot.'" The "Washington Post" religion editor, Jo Rector, who was responsible for the wording, staunchly defends her use of the word, insisting that they are atheists. My attempts to discuss various uses of the word "atheist" and to ask if this usage was proper were met with the accusation that I was "splitting hairs." Rather than discuss my concerns with me, she asked to end the conversation.

Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between the positions of Ms. Johnson and Ms. Rector. I will explore the nature of the World Church of the Creator and discuss why I think the "Washington Post's" use of the word "atheist" was technically accurate yet patently irresponsible. Finally, I will explain why I think atheist groups could harm atheism's reputation by denying that this group is, from all appearances, atheistic in its outlook.
 

Journalism and its use of the "A"-word

When the "Post" ombudsman returned my call, I asked if this was responsible use of the word "atheist." According to Wendy Kaminer's "New Republic" article, "The Last Taboo," [4] more Americans think it is okay to discriminate against atheists than think it is okay to discriminate against homosexuals. I don't think the "Post" sees much validity in this point -- although continued public misunderstanding about the nature of atheism could lead to more of the very hate crimes with which this story deals. Almost every major Holy Book denounces atheists. Sects that agree on nothing else have been known to join forces in combating atheism -- and, at times, atheists. Theocratic states have executed atheists for their atheism throughout history. We err if we think that the current generations are any more enlightened than those of the past.

American writers usually use "Mirriam-Webster's Tenth Collegiate Dictionary" as their reference. The "Washington Post" used one of the "Random House" dictionaries for this story. This is fortunate only because "Mirriam-Webster's" has, as a synonym for "atheism" the word "wickedness." They say this is an archaic use of the word, but that does not mean that anybody has stopped the habit of equating atheism -- and atheists -- with wickedness.

Journalists cannot be faulted for using the accepted reference books; however, they can and should be faulted for refusing to listen to a member of a subculture that is described by a word in question. They should also be faulted for gratuitous or irrelevant use of language that could be understood as derogatory to a larger group.

Nevertheless, the "Random House" dictionary that Ms. Rector read to me says that an atheist is one who lacks a belief in God. Excuse me? Doesn't this definition presuppose the existence of God? Would not "one who lacks a god-belief" or "one who lacks theism" be more accurate? Ms. Rector did not even let me finish this question. I was reminded of Lavanam, [5] who told me that the encyclopedia article on "atheism" is usually written by a preacher. Microsoft "Encarta" is the lone exception that I know of; the well-known atheist philosopher Michael Martin contributed a wonderful article on atheism. [6]

True, the World Church of the Creator arguably fits one dictionary's definition of "atheist," but there's more to this group than what we ordinarily think of when we hear the term "atheist group." It certainly is not the main purpose of this group to propagate atheism or to advocate for social issues such as atheist dignity and state-church separation. This "Church" is unique, and its atheism -- rather, its lack of a god-belief, is, at best, a side issue. If nothing else, their peculiar use of religious terms such as "Church" and "Creator" should tip people off that this is a group to which ordinary buzz-words do not apply. Descriptive language, such as "he drinks all day long," always speaks more precisely than a malediction such as "alcoholic" -- which stigmatizes without actually saying a thing.

Furthermore, we "regular" atheists aren't the only ones whose opinions should be considered when deciding whether to call this group "atheist" or simply to describe it. The church itself disdains the word "atheist." When asked, "Aren't you afraid of being called an Atheist?" Matthew Hale replies: "Not at all. We recognize the term 'Atheist' for the derogatory smear word that it is." [7] So, when the group itself says, "We don't believe in any gods," shouldn't precise reporting go no further than that statement?
  

The "A"-word, awareness, and dignity

In researching the group, I came across the websites of several anti-hate organizations. I noticed that a new buzz-word seems to have come in vogue: "antireligious." What!? For being, in some respects, antireligious, are we now a hate group? Is this what the activists and the public see when we criticize religion and oppose its intrusions into our public life? We need to think long and hard on this one. This cannot be taken lightly.

Atheism does not have a very good reputation with the public. If we want people, especially the press, to use sensitivity when discussing atheism and atheists, we need first to discuss the word among ourselves and agree to agree on what the word does and does not mean. Then we must push for awareness and continue to insist that this word be used only after much thought has been given to its use.

In this case, I think "U.S. News" and "The New York Times" were wise in sticking to the description rather than using the word. These journals, and any others that refrained from using the "A"-word should be thanked and lauded for practicing sensitivity, even if it turns out that avoidance of the word "atheist" was merely an "oversight" on their part. Just pointing out that the word has been misused in covering this story could make quite an impact. Add to this the fact that the story is about groups that we atheists rightly fear, and we could make quite a stride toward our goal of atheist dignity.

We also need to stop and think before we react to having something in common with a group we abhor. Thinking that they can't possibly be atheists -- that they secretly believe, or that the press is entirely mistaken (rather than only slightly mistaken) -- cannot but impair our goal of being accepted into the mainstream of American culture. I will admit that this realization hit me like a ton of brick. At one point, the anxiety prompted part of me to want to throw in the towel when it came to my activism.

Facing the fact that this group uses many of the same arguments against theism that I do, helped me, ultimately, to strengthen my resolve to continue my work. It also helped to remember that the Truth Seekers was, according to one former member, composed of many racists. Yes. Atheists are atheists because they lack a god-belief and the similarity ends there. Humanists have more to their common philosophy than just their atheism, and thus run a lower risk of "having strange bedfellows." At "Positive Atheism," we advocate self-consistency as being the ultimate ethical or moral value. One's rejection of theism as falsehood can be the first step toward a respect for truthfulness and, ultimately, the habit of insisting upon truthfulness in all one's dealings.

And as Kevin Courcey, of Eugene, Oregon, told me: "We're going to have to get used to this as more and more people admit their disbelief and then go on to commit crimes. Just like the fact that being a Christian doesn't keep you from committing crimes, being an atheist doesn't either." We are all people. Kevin continues, "Most of us are decent human beings, some of us are [jerks and worse]. Oh well. The distinctions to be made are in what we say we stand for."
   

World Church of the Creator and atheism

Having digested some of the material put out by Matthew Hale, leader of the World Church of the Creator, I can see why it is "Number One with a bullet" in the world of white supremacist groups. Matthew Hale has mastered techniques of both Minister Louis Farrakhan and an off-beat collection of "religions" known collectively as Discordianism.

Like Farrakhan, Matthew Hale deftly mixes fact with fiction, and ultimately uses (abuses) truth to make his case for falsehood. Both have some very important and compelling things to say, and both know precisely what their target audience wants to hear. These "truths," however, are used as "hooks" to bring the mark over to a view that is based entirely in falsehood. I haven't studied enough of the material to say which is the more skilled at doing this, but I have read enough to see that both are very good at what they do.

Hale's use of the "Church" motif probably has its roots in the mostly liberal-minded Discordian movement. Discordianism began in the late 1950s, shortly after Rev. Kirby Hensley [8] began ordaining anybody and anyone (and their dogs and cats) as ministers of the Universal Life Church. The Internal Revenue Service has had its hands full trying to track down people using Kirby's ordinations as tax dodges, though the IRS has been mostly unsuccessful. Freethinking College Students [9] used Hensley's ordination ruse to create "groves" of Druids in order to avoid chapel and, instead, romp in the woods and drink Irish Mist. The schools couldn't touch them because they were a bona fide religion.

In several cases involving Hensley's ordainees, it has been firmly established that the U.S. Government has no business determining what is and what is not a religion. Matthew Hale knows this, and exploits this fact to the hilt. It looks like all the religious talk is just that: talk. I'm sure Scientology's L. Ron Hubbard played a passive role in inspiring Hale to use the "Church" angle. Hale is no dummy: he has a law degree, but has been thus far thwarted in his attempts to get a licence to practice.

Are they atheists? Only they know for sure, and only they have the right to use this word to describe themselves. The atheistic elements of their rhetoric (sans the racism) sound like what you'd hear at any meeting of a local atheistic group.

What strikes me as odd is their use of white supremacist terminology that necessarily has a religious base. One example is their use of the term "mud people" to describe nonwhites. The "mud people" myth says that several "races" existed before Adam and Eve, and are rightly seen as animals. Cain, who slew Abel, was the first Jew. The World Church of the Creator has altered the myth to make the "mud people" missing links in the chain of evolution -- but they still use the phrase "mud people." Whether this is just another case of Hale absconding with religious terminology is anyone's guess.

They will prosper if they learn to walk on both sides of the fence. Hitler did this as expertly as anyone ever has. I can pull page after page of quotations from "Mein Kampf" and show, conclusively, that Hitler was a Christian. A theist can pull many, many quotes out of the same book and show, equally conclusively, that he was an evolutionist. The truth is that Hitler bastardized and exploited both Christianity and the theory of evolution -- and any other concepts he felt might do the job. This, to me, is probably the most important thing to remember when studying or commenting on Matthew Hale and the World Church of the Creator.
 

Conclusion

It is important to remember that having one thing in common with this group is not cause for alarm. This is a cause for action.

I am arguing that we describe them the way they describe themselves -- they "don't believe in God" -- and that we go no further than that. Crucial to this are two things: (1) Hale seems to want the press to use the epithet "atheist" against his group; (2) "Atheist group" is most likely to conjure imagery of an organization that propagates atheism and struggles for atheist dignity and separationism.

As more and more people shed their theistic cocoons, we see more and more people who talk like atheists out of one side of the mouth yet have a deadly agenda. Christianity has had its share of losers and exploiters. I'm sure atheists are among the first to point out that Rev. David Trosch (who advocates killing abortion providers) is a Roman Catholic priest. Now the shoe is on the other foot.

We still have to deal with the responsible use of the word "atheist" in the press. To this I say that a few carefully worded letters of praise to the journals that fell short of using the "A"-word will do much more than ten thousand angry letters to the "Post." This didn't stop me, however, from letting the "Post" know what I think.
  

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