Does One's Former Religion
Affect How Strongly
They Oppose Religion?
Tricy Simmons

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The second draft of this reply was created September 13, 2004.
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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Tricy Simmons"
Subject: Re: Does An Atheist's Former Religion Factor Into How Strongly They Oppose Religion?
Date: December 29, 2003 7:17 PM

Thanks for writing and for your patience in waiting for an answer.

This question cannot be answered, only addressed. I will provide some perspective along with a few of my opinions, but to say that I can answer this a question like this would be dishonest and thus irresponsible. I will do my best at providing food for thought, however.

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I think that part of the problem is due to resentment and the sense of betrayal that many feel upon leaving religion. Not all tend to act on this feeling. When I left religion in 1982 or so, I felt an overwhelming sense of betrayal and experienced untold resentment. However, I never became militant in my atheism.

Later (much later, between four and eight years ago), as the member of an atheistic group, I became acutely aware of my identity as an atheist (and my heritage, too, by studying the history of the Christian Church in Europe and the Americas and the history of Islam). At this time, I found myself having to adjust to my newfound awareness. This adjustment was more about me than it was about my atheism. I'd prefer to keep those thoughts private for now. I will say that as I was able to work out these personal problems therapeutically, my "issues" with religion went the same way as the other personal problems -- meaning that the "issues" with religion were, in essence, personal problems manifesting themselves in a most peculiar way!

Indeed, I had never called myself an atheist until an entirely unique situation arose. Fully five years after leaving religion, I found myself in handcuffs, standing in a courtroom. I was flanked by deputies on one side, and my attorney stood beside me on the other. The judge had just ordered me to take up residence in particular faith-based rehabilitation program for the better part of a year, a program which, by the way, more than one Circuit Court found to be, and I quote, "unequivocally religious." And even then I knew about this program's religiousity and roots as the ministry of what today would be widely thought of as a "religious cult." Undergoing religious instruction in a sequestered environment was to be a condition of my release from jail. (Keep in mind that I had already served every single minute to which I had earlier been sentenced: I had shoplifted to support myself while crippled by dozens of plantar warts on the soles of my feet and simultaneously deafened by a massive ear infection that I had been unable to treat in time and still significantly impairs my hearing to this day.)

Although I felt both the betrayal and the resentment (and felt them acutely, I might add), I did not act out on these feeling any more than to squash the occasional urge to heckle a street preacher and to engage in artistic expression that some might deem mildly irreverent. In short, my identity as an atheist was nonexistent and thus the sense of polarity just was not there.

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Another situation that I see as being more consistently a cause of the problem you mention is church involvement itself. Rather than deconverting to atheism, many people simply switch "religions" (as if atheism is a religion -- and in the minds of such people I think atheism is indistinguishable from religion or, rather, "a religion in reverse"). And as I hinted at in the beginning, I think this is most commonly the direct result of joining organized atheism after leaving organized religion.

In fact, I would place organized atheism as the primary unnatural cause of the tendency of some atheists to vehemently oppose the religious practices and sentiments of other people (and I cannot overemphasize the "unnatural" part). In fact, my exodus from direct involvement in organized atheism was keyed directly to the reduction and eventually the virtual elimination of my anti-religious sentiments.

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Mostly, though, the problem is just plain old bigotry, pure and simple. As organized atheism is an "unnatural" cause of the tendency to oppose religion, then bigotry is a "natural" cause. (I use quotation marks to bring out the sense of irony here, rather than out of any disagreement with the concepts themselves; I agree fully with what I am saying, here, it just sounds ironic when worded this way!)

Bigots often see themselves as under-represented in society in general and in the media in particular. (Even Evangelical Christians in the United States, who have a President practically at their beck and call, whine about being "persecuted." Go figure!) It thus becomes urgent in the bigot's mind to "get the message out" -- almost to messianic extremes! You won't see your local neighborhood being flyered by people who want to reiterate for you what Dan Rather just said on the evening news program. Those who place political messages under windshield wipers, staple them to telephone poles, and glue them to the walls of unoccupied businesses represent unpopular viewpoints exclusively. These are the views that won't be covered sympathetically on the Op-Ed page: the racists, the anarchists, the extremist environmentalists, the religions with recent Third World origins; and the like.

I'm not here calling these viewpoints incorrect, per se, they're just unpopular, that's all. Some unpopular views are right on the money, in my opinion.

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Although we seem to hear a lot from these hate-filled atheists, they are, in fact, the tiniest minority in all of atheism. They are, to atheism, at least as tiny of a minority as Rev. Phelps and his gang of homophobic thugs is to Evangelical Christianity. I'm not saying the rest of us like religion, we mutter about it like you'd expect. We just don't stand up and take a vocal stand.

Mostly, though, we hear from such a large chunk of such atheists because they are usually the only atheists who have much of anything to say about atheism! Really! Almost all atheists rarely (if ever) even think about their own atheism!

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Okay, this is how it has been, how it usually is. However, in recent times a significan exception has arisen. With the onslaught of Evangelicalism in America, this is changing -- in America, but not very many other places. We are hearing from "the opposition" because of the attempts to coax or browbeat our government into giving free advertising to the Christian religion in the form of Ten Commandments postings in government places and in the form of teaching an obscure interpretation of Genesis in the science classroom. We also hear from "the opposition" when the Evangelicals want us to put tax dollars into religion's already bursting treasuries.

As I mentioned in "Why Advocate For Individual Activists?" (with Juan De Gennaro), I fail to see any social cause that is the exclusive property of atheists. Even the cause of stumping for atheist dignity is one that theists will find in their own best interest to support -- if not part of their overall agenda against hatred of people for their membership in certain social classes. While I can respect a group of atheists for forming an organization in an attempt to remedy this or that social ill, I simply do not agree with them when they tell me that they need to do this as atheists exclusively, that they cannot achieve their goal when theists are part of the picture. Thus, addressing the onslaught of Evangelicalism in America is in the interest of any number of people, not just atheists. I would think that the Christians themselves would have the greatest interest in this, seeing as how the busybody behavior of many Evangelicals serves to taint the reputations of all who identify themselves as Christians.

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Again, the hate-filled atheists of which you speak are the tiniest minority among atheists as a whole, even though they are the most visible as atheists. The vast majority of atheists are barely aware of their own atheism! We are so comfortable with our atheism -- with ourselves, really -- that the subject of religion and thus the subject of our own atheism seldom even crosses our minds!

Atheism, to us, isn't even atheism at all, it is us -- just us. Being nonreligious is so transparently natural to us that we don't even think about it. If we do think about it at all, we don't think of it as a lack of any kind, any more than a healthy person thinks he or she is missing out on life by being free of debilitating disease! Like the "bulletproof" teenager, the prospect or our becoming religious does not enter even the realm of the possible, much less the likely. Devout and pious religionists are a completely alien "them" to whom we can barely relate. We can accept that some people are religious but the idea of ourselves becoming religious is not simply unthinkable, it is flat-out unthought!

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Atheism, the word (and even the concept), describes who we are not; it says nothing about who we are! So when we tell others who we are, what we're about, and so forth, when we talk about what we do, our likes and even our dislikes, the subject of atheism never even comes up because the subject of religion could not be further from our minds. Religion doesn't even make our list of dislikes, so indifferent are we to the subject. This is the majority -- I think the vast majority -- of the atheists in the West and probably in the World.

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Thanks for writing. If you have any comments or even any further questions, please feel free to write back.

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

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