Awareness Of Atheist's Plight
Will Grow, Albeit Slowly
Landis Schmitt

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Schmitt, Landis"
Subject: Re: WebMaster:_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: May 04, 2002 2:18 PM

A day or two after the 11th, I visited my computer man, a Lebanese. While there, I pulled him aside and asked him if he or anybody within his community was having any problems. He said, no, and described precisely the same support for his people that you're describing for ours: people immediately saw the situation, noted the potential for problems, and almost "overreacted" in countering these potential tendencies. In other words, my pulling him aside and expressing concern was the rule, rather than the exception! In fact, America -- almost all of America -- is to be lauded for immediately stepping in and taking upon herself the plight of the Muslim, post September 11th. That this reaction was so common probably prevented those potentials from occurring: many fringe elements will act only if they think they'll have at least a small "cheering section" off to the side. There would have been none at all for them in September!

It has long been my hope that what happened in Europe during the past century happens in Australia and America this century (although Australia is arguably closer to Europe than to the States in this respect). Similarly, it is my hope that what happened to you, what you describe as having taken place in that most progressive of geographical vicinities, the Bay Area (where I was born, and where I'd just love to return!), will soon start showing up in other "hotbeds" of diversity (what I call "acceptance"). Such locales as Oregon and Washington would be natural settings for reactions such as you received. Ditto for parts of Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado, as well as Warm Springs and vicinity, the greater Austin region, and the vicinity surrounding New Hampshire. Surely there exist other pockets of acceptance.

I am wanting to see a program of Atheist Awareness similar to those for teaching Muslim Awareness that have been so successful in the schools and elsewhere. What happened, though, was that it became too easy to explain away the apparent religiosity of the terrorists by saying, "These were not real Muslims," meaning, "No real God-believers could have done such a deed," and ultimately meaning, "Only atheists could have been responsible for this." With a small amount of effort on somebody's part (though more than you or I could handle as individuals), this progression could have come out vastly different.

I am suggesting, first, that the redeeming of the name of Islam in the eyes of Americans could have followed a course such as this: "These were not real Muslims," meaning, "Some people think they have the true expression of Islam, but the vast majority of modern Muslims will tell you that those individuals are dangerously mistaken," ultimately meaning, "Just as Judaism's history involved the bloody conquests of the Midianites and 'the taking of the land,' those practices do not in any way resemble modern Judaism. Similarly, just as Christianity's history involved the crusades, the Inquisition, and the Witch Hunts, those practices do not in any way resemble modern Christianity. Therefore, just as Islam has some bloody parts in its history, those practices do not in any way resemble modern Islam. All three groups have 'grown up' considerably since they began.

"Unfortunately, certain elements within each of these traditions still cling to what they think are 'the good old days' (if you will). These individuals and groups try to practice their tradition as if those bloody times are still with us, as if those practices are still valid, still needed, still appropriate. The vast majority of us in each of the three traditions will disagree most vehemently with these fundamentalists, and will tell you that modern Judaism, modern Christianity, and modern Islam, are not like this at all. Some will go so far as to argue that those so-called good old days were never supposed to be that way, saying that certain previous generations of each tradition, including some founding generations, could have seen the religion succeed without having had to resort to violence."

This would serve a dual purpose. First, we need to present to the public an accurate picture that distinguishes between modern Islam and the views of the terrorists. Secondly, we must refrain from presenting to the public a patently false picture of atheism, that is, nonreligion, the absence of theism, or whatever. This false picture is currently being presented from almost all sides simply out of convenience, simply because to say "this is not real religion" takes three fewer sentences than what I described above. Unfortunately, when somebody has it easier, all too often somebody else has got to pick up the tab! And what a price we atheists paying, especially when this never needed to be the case!

I think Muslims stand to benefit more than atheists. One of the toughest aspects of this whole mess has been to explain the difference between modern Islam and the religious expression of the terrorists, to do so in a way that anybody can understand, and to do so in a way that anybody can accept (as in "buy," as in "find plausible or realistic sounding"). The sticky part has been the fact that by looking at Islam's history and looking at certain passages of the Koran, it is easy to misrepresent the terrorists' viewpoint as straight-up Islam. Indeed, many atheistic activists and writers have been guilty of this, and even a few pieces carried in Positive Atheism ventured into this territory. However, we can easily place the bloody parts of Islam's history back into the context of the whole history of Islam plus the histories of the other religions. We can almost as easily place the bloody-sounding passages back into their rightful contexts of the entire Koran plus as well the bloody-sounding Scriptures in the other religions. Indeed, the other religions have their bloody histories and their bloody-sounding passages.

We can offer a challenge: "If you are so eager to portray that rival faith Islam as being essentially violent and bloody, are you therefore ready to see Judaism and Christianity as likewise being violent and bloody? The standards which you apply to Islam to conclude that it is essentially violent, if applied to Judaism and Christianity, will portray both faiths as being just as violent and bloody, if not more so! You wish that a different set of standards be applied to your own religion, standards which show your faith as having grown up, as having learned a few things, as having balanced itself out over the centuries. These standards relegate the violence in your sect's past and in your Scriptures as being of a different time and as being out of context in today's expression of your faith. But these very same standards, if applied to Islam, likewise show it as having grown up, as having learned a few things, as having balanced itself out over the centuries. Those standards likewise relegate the violence in Islam's past and in the Koran as being out of context in today's expression of Islam!

Finally, if we're lucky, if we pay close attention, we might be able to see how easy it would be to think of oneself as a devout follower of God. You can easily think of yourself as having discovered "the original expression of our faith." You could, perhaps, step into the shoes of these terrorists, who thought they were doing the will of God, who thought that the vast majority of the world was in abject apostasy and that it was your responsibility, given to you by God Himself, to awaken the sleeping masses!

Yes, if we take what appear to be enigmas and place them into their proper context, these questions stop being a big puzzle, to the point where they hardly even need explaining: they take on a very natural stance. In addition, what explaining there is left to do certainly will not need to involve making life harder for a group of people who already have a very tough time as it is: those who do not follow any of the religions!

Once we have stopped palming the blame off onto unbelievers by accepting that there are such things as mistaken believers, we have actually opened the door to beginning to understand that unbelievers are not against god, but simply not religious. Many of us were raised that way. Others had bad experiences, and still others genuinely think it is the right thing to do! True, atheism has its "fundamentalists" and "radicals" just as Islam, Judaism, and Christianity has their fundamentalists and radicals. Atheism's history is not squeaky clean, either, having had the dubious distinction of being made the state religion of the Soviet Union, of being the dogma advocated by Stalin! But atheism is not a dogma, it is a tradition, just as modern Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all rightly seen as traditions as well: this is how we've done things, and this is how we have communicated certain precious, live-saving, and life-fulfilling values to our communities and to our children. The viewpoints that result from atheism are, in this sense, indistinguishable from the major religions as traditions, as ways to communicate values to one another.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six-and-a-half years of service
    to people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule

 

PostScript

On Becoming Familiar With the Word Atheist

It's a good thing any time the word atheist gets published in the newspaper. I was sad but beaming a few years back when this kid lost a Boy Scouts case. I was sad because the boy cried, and I would, too, had such an injustice been done to me. But I was beaming because the word atheist was splashed across the front page in very large letters, and proudly displayed in every newspaper machine in town! Any time we can put that word into use, we will give our culture one more opportunity to become that much more accustomed to hearing it the word.

Pavlov's experiments weren't about seeing if he could get the dogs to salivate, he knew he could do that; he wanted to know if he could get them to stop salivating. The answer was yes, he'd ring the bell but not feed the dogs, and they eventually stopped salivating for the bell. This gives me hope. Humans are mammals, too. It has been verified (to my satisfaction) that various aspects of our thinking operate, to a small degree, on conditioned reflexes.

If just hearing or reading the word atheist creates a strong reaction in many people, and if part of that reaction is tied in with the mechanism that creates the conditioned reflex Pavlov studied, then there is hope in exposing ourselves to the word. If we hear the word again and again and that sound is not followed by lighting striking (or Mom fuming, or steam coming out Dad's ears, etc.), perhaps we have hope.

 

Graphic Rule

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