For Peace Of Mind
After reading "Why Advocate for Individual Activists?" in the August magazine, I have been pondering my rather sour attitude toward those who do not share my Atheism. Yes, I feel that Beliefs are at the root of most of the world's ills, and since Believers are in the majority, I have to go through life living among fools.
Now this attitude of mine, true as it may be, is causing me to alienate people who otherwise might be socializing with me more. My recently deceased husband and I were in agreement about these matters, but now I need to reach out for friendship, and I am having a hard time keeping quiet about my displeasure with religion.
For instance, this afternoon I expressed to a neighbor that the Yankee Stadium prayer service sure did leave out the likes of me, and I wished they wouldn't make so much of "One nation under God." She got hot under the collar and said I didn't have to watch it.
Your writing got me thinking that I need to change my attitude for my own peace of mind as well as for the good of the cause. But that isn't easy for me, because I am truly disgusted that most of humanity is wasting away their mental resources on an illusion. Any further suggestions for me?
Our response has been edited for the print edition.
From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: "Dee Crowe"
Subject: Re: WebMaster:_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: September 24, 2001 6:14 AM
We may think whatever we wish, it is only our actions which can get us into trouble (or do anybody any good). So, while it would do us good to recognize the harm inherent in religious expression, we do well to think very carefully about how we will respond to the various forms of religious expression.
Drawing a Line
It seems as if a lot of us are changing. I don't think we're all changing in similar ways, but many of us see that what have been the various situations for us as individuals aren't working any more. It could also be that we're just not comfortable in any position these days and we're interpreting that as a need to change specific areas of our lives. I say, go for it. Once we've been through the changes, we will at least have two different perspectives!
Several wrote this week to tell me that they're completely rethinking the way they relate to theists. Some are even bouncing their ideas off me to see what I think. This makes sense: we are all pretty shaken up by what we're going through. From what I know about changing habits and such (from my experience in the field of addiction, plus all the socio-economic and lifestyle changes I've been through in my own life), changing one's habits is a much simpler process during these times of crisis or sudden change, when we don't really know what might happen, and cannot depend on what we have taken for granted in the past. Also, during a crisis, that "survival mode" tends to put us more in tune with the need to make certain changes in our lives; when things are very much routine, we're much less apt to prioritize any desired changes into effect.
Now that I've decided to change my approach to theists and theism (among other things), should I simply go with the flow and tell myself that I am completely okay with religion? No. What's been happening for me these days is that I've been thinking over a set of priorities for a long time, and some drastic changes have been slipping into place for me over the past several months. I have already changed much of my attitude toward mainstream and benign expressions of religion; I've been working on that one for quite some time, though I will continue to speak out against violations of the separation of religion from government. Likewise, I will continue to speak up about intrusive and exploitative and dangerous forms of religious expression.
This, of course, involves trying to draw a line between benign religious expression and those that are intrusive, exploitative, and dangerous. We have discussed intrusive religion from several different angles. What do you do, for example, when some stranger says "God bless you!" after you sneeze? Well, this bugs quite a few people (not just atheists), but there's really not much you can do without coming off like an ass. So I wrote a funny little bit about it so we could laugh about it and hopefully reduce, for a moment, what little stress that one quirk of Western humanity generates. (And hopefully everybody who read it caught on to the fact that I had written a comedy bit, not a Miss Manners column.)
One of my pet peeves has been that a lot of people tell me that they're praying for me -- for no other reason than because I'm an atheist. They just log onto the web site, see the word atheism, click the e-mail link on the front page, and dash off a note telling me one thing and one thing only: they are praying for me. Because he has just submitted an editorial comment to a printed magazine, I get to go to town on the guy if I choose. After all, this is an educational project, and people also do this to me in person. Therefore, I have the opportunity to provide what could be the the first (or even the only) analysis of the ethics behind this one action.
I certainly hope nobody reads my discussion of the indignity of a theist's behavior and takes it as a recommendation that we respond like this in everyday life! As a website dedicated to educating the public about dignity issues relating to atheism, this is one of the only legitimate settings for such a response on the part of an atheist. If not, then it's time to work on my reaction to perfect strangers who find out I'm an atheist and immediately announce that they're praying for me!
It's one thing to pray for me if I'm sick or hurting, especially if you don't really know that I'm an atheist (perhaps I work a few cubicles away). In fact, if you know that I believe in prayer, it's a wonderful gesture. But to tell me that you've done this -- especially when all you know about me is my atheism -- that, to me, crosses some kind of line (although I'm not sure if I can tell you which line it crosses). So, I've at least done some thinking about it: I've prepared a few responses, practiced their delivery, and have them tucked away just in case I ever feel like responding.
More and more, though, I'll simply ignore behavior like this, regardless of their motive. Most people mean well and don't realize they're offending; since I do know, and since this is not deliberate bigotry, I can afford to cut them some slack. It only approaches rudeness or bigotry when someone who already knows about my atheism announces to me that they're praying for me (suggesting that I need straightening out or something). Even then, it's not my burden to straighten them out on anything. Maybe they'll stop and I'll have spared other atheists this embarrassment, but I doubt it.
As a social critic, I've had to grapple with a really sticky one this past week: Should I say something about President Bush's blatant religiosity so soon after the Day of Atrocity? Upon his announcement of the Day of Prayer and Remembrance, September 14, I decided that I should lift my self-imposed ban for two reasons: First, as a state-church separationist, it is my role to make statements like this. Some of my colleagues have remained silent, and this silence on their part is already being used to justify calls for more and more government-sponsored religiosity. So, while everybody else was watching Billy Graham and George Bush hawking the Gospel, I was posting the immediate reactions that were coming into our inbox from around the world.
Secondly, Bush, I think, had already carried his disregard for the United States Constitution way too far, and this fact needs to be pointed out. For almost a year, now, we've been running pieces that describe the consequences of a leader bringing her or his personal religious views into how she or he deals with the citizens. We covered the Inauguration several different ways. When you invite the public to engage with you in a specific religious ritual, the rest of us feel left out or underrepresented. Of all the times President Bush cannot afford to take risks such as this, now is the time. But what does he do right when this crisis hits and he needs to unify the country!? He is doing the one thing that could permanently damage our country, the one thing from which we may never be able to recover.
The only question I really have is this: just how far can I carry my criticism of the President before I've crossed a line of some sort by laying into him during a so-called national emergency? In other words, where does my role as a citizen end and my role as an activist begin? As a citizen, I want to support my country, no matter how alienated my President has made me feel. But as an activist, trying to see the bigger picture, over the long run, how do I remain silent when the issues over which I happen to be a watchdog are being taken to unprecedented levels of abuse? And as a man of morals, how can I not notice that Bush is exploiting this crisis by pushing the one agenda item which marked his presidency up until a few weeks ago?
People these days seek a more tolerant expression of just about anything they do. Bigotry, and even the appearance of bigotry is taboo: the spiteful, vindictive atheism popularized by Madalyn Murray O'Hair is dead. This makes it very tough for atheists because what is atheism but the absence of, or denial of, or otherwise a negation of religious faith? Almost our entire point is in reference to religious faith: at minimum, we're simply not religious; at times, we can be seen as downright antireligious.
My question should be, how would an atheist group realistically distinguish itself from a hate group?
Atheism, as atheism, really has no positive statement. (Positive Atheism Magazine uses the word Positive in reference to a proactive ethic which itself is above and beyond mere atheism and is not exclusive to atheism; we do not use this word in the philosophically positive sense we are discussing here.) Any statements that we may make, such as, for example, proclaiming the supremacy of the human as expressed in some forms of humanism, is no longer exclusive to atheism. Skepticism is in the same boat, because almost all sects are skeptical of one another's claims.
If we are to make statements or take action as atheists, we must choose our battles wisely, making sure we avoid gratuitous and indiscriminate antagonism toward religion and religious people. Over the past several years I have learned to limit myself to speaking out against either violations of the separation of religion from government, or propaganda which seeks to overthrow, unravel, or even misrepresent the Constitutional guarantees of Religious Liberty in the form of the Establishment Clause. I will also go up against those expressions of religion that I feel to be intrusive, exploitative, or dangerous.
Striking a Balance
For me, the important part (and the hard part) will be in striking a balance. Those who are not activists but are simply living life will want to go a different route than they see me display on this Forum. I am having limited success by asking myself what I am willing to sacrifice to obtain the "right" to express my opinion (and hopefully change a few minds). Certainly if you keep your mouth shut and play the game, you open many doors that are not available to the rabble-rouser. If what you want to do is raise a family, then this is probably your best option.
For the most part, my opportunity to express myself and to experiment with ideas begins and ends at this computer terminal. It also includes several select friends who know I'm an atheist but still choose to be friends with me. When I visit family, I am asked to keep my mouth shut -- even my family! At times I will get frustrated and will speak out, usually to my own detriment. But mostly I try to keep my mouth shut unless I think saying something will do good and cause no harm. It must do both: one or the other is usually not good enough for me. That is my current approach, my current ideal, anyway, which differs from how I did things two months ago, and will probably differ from how I will be doing things two months from now.
With this Forum, I provide opportunities for others to speak out, anonymously, if they'd like, and I only wish I had the ability to format and post these things faster than I currently am able, so I could get more Letters done in a day. But what we have here, I think, is a wonderful opportunity to watch ourselves and each other grow into this new attitude which some of us call "Positive Atheism," an attitude which everybody who contributes to this Forum is inventing right before our very eyes.
Positive Atheism, to me, is still an outlook which insists on the right to insist on truthfulness in all our affairs. In that respect, Positive Atheism is very Gandhian, willing, at times, to go to great lengths for the sake of justice, and to make great sacrifices for the sake of truth. Since I need more than six spinning wheels, a satchel, and four cans of goat's milk to get by, I find myself having to sacrifice in the other direction, keeping my mouth shut for the sake of keeping a roof over my head. We discussed this balance in the Forum piece, "Moving Beyond Just A Polite Response?" Here is where we got to see just what we wanted, truth or convenience, dignity or camaraderie, and how far we were willing to go and what sacrifices we were willing to make to get what we wanted.
The most important discovery I've made in the twelve or so years I've been an activistic atheist is not how I feel about theists but how I feel about my fellow atheists. When I was with an atheist group, certain members constantly criticized our fellow atheists who choose to remain in the closet. I disagree, as I did back then. But this attitude was prevalent and very persuasive; I couldn't help but be influenced by it to a degree. Unhappy with where I was starting to go with it, I spent some time making myself aware of its influence. I then focused those impressions into a response.
After leaving the group I sat down and thought carefully about the activism (or lack thereof) of other atheists. This discussion between myself and a few others grew and changed over the years as we whittled from our routines whatever held us back and added things we thought might work (or might not work -- only time will tell). Several years later, that discussion ended up becoming the centerpiece of the letter printed in the August, 2001, issue, "Why Advocate for Individual Activists?"
This is the letter that sparked you to make the changes you mentioned. The charm of that letter comprised of seeing myself as an individual activist, changing myself and the world around me on my own terms and at my own pace. That, in turn, derives its power from my decision to view other atheists the same way: working at our own speed, according to our own values, limited only by the limitations of our own resources. The charm is in realizing that my atheism is not really atheism, per se, but is my humanity.
This is the letter that sparked you to make the changes you mentioned. The charm of that letter comprised of seeing myself as an individual activist, changing myself and the world around me on my own terms and at my own pace. That, in turn, derives its power from giving other atheists the benefit of the doubt by seeing them the same way: we work according to our own values, limited only by the limitations of our own resources. Thus I delight in seeing my atheism not as atheism, per se, but as my very humanity, since it is my atheism that characterizes me as admitting that I derive all resources from myself and from my fellow humans: nothing about me alleges to come from "elsewhere" -- making me as "human" as humans get.
My atheism may be what makes me the villain in the eyes of many, even though atheism is little more than the distinction between myself and one specific group of humans. Apart from that one distinction, I have more in common with all humans than we could ever have differences. It is they who seek to push me away, not I who seek not to belong. It is they who wish to count me out and trample underfoot any right I may have to be me. Only because I wish to get along and continue to be me does my atheism even become an issue. And I make it an issue for their sakes: it is not an issue for me, and never has been.
You ask how we can change our attitudes. I cannot tell you what to do or how to do it, but I can share some of my thinking on the subject and explain how I think it applies.
I said that I am not willing to let go of my struggle for Religious Liberty, specifically, the separation of religion from government. This is a political battle, not a personal issue or a family quarrel or a matter that rightly comes between friends or even coworkers. If it does interfere with personal relationships, we've got more problems than we realize, and we need to take a good look at it.
I said that I will still go up against what I see as intrusive, exploitative, or dangerous expressions of religion. At the same time, I am willing to grant theists the dignity of their belief, agreeing to presuppose that all theists have (or think they have) valid reasons for believing they way they do. Here is where an individual needs to decide where to draw the line and how to come up with some balance. In other words, what do I want and what am I willing to do to get it? The balance between truth and convenience is an axis: where do I want to be between these two extremes? The balance between dignity and camaraderie is another axis. None of these axes are cut and dried, these are just examples. Each situation offers a range of possibilities; by doing certain things, certain results follow.
Fortunately, life doesn't come with an owner's manual. We spend a larger fraction of our lives totally dependent upon our parents and family than any other species. It is here that we learn how to live. How anybody could reduce that to a one-size-fits-all set of dos and don'ts and thou shalt nots is beyond me, but I don't have to press that one any further than to be glad that by the time we grow up we have acquired quite a set of talents. Included is the ability to seeing these various axes, these ranges between two extremes. We then have practiced long and hard at determining what we can get away with, what probably will not work, what actions on our part bring us the best prospects for achieving specific goals.
Now you bring up an axis which has peace of mind on one end. You'll need to define this: it probably means a number of things put together, so you do well to deconstruct "peace of mind" and identify the components that make up "peace of mind" for you. On the other end of this axis lies the good of the cause. For this you will want to identify the cause's goals as well as map out what actions are conducive to achieving those goals.
You also may want to toss in a few questions of what I call the "monkey wrench" variety: these questions are designed to deliberately challenge your base assumptions. I'll toss a few "monkey wrench questions" into your works and we'll see how it stands up, okay? You say you're "truly disgusted that most of humanity is wasting away their mental resources on an illusion." Why? What is it about what "most of humanity" does that's so important to you, as opposed to paying closer attention to your own sphere of living? What can you do, instead, to help yourself and those who are closest to you? Besides, what can you do to change this other situation?
Furthermore, is the situation as bad as you think it is? I talk to the "under-30 crowd" a lot, and am discovering that this group of Americans is almost completely devoid of that brand of fundamentalism which makes me wonder if my country is over with. Most of the fundamentalists in America are among the poor, the uneducated, and the elderly -- those who either don't have much control or won't for very long. Then I talk to people in Europe, most of whom are astonished at how blatantly and patently religious we Americans are. Victor, one of our correspondents who has helped us out on the web site quite a bit, told me of a survey among University students in his homeland of The Netherlands: fully 64 percent of the students checked "Atheist" as their religious preference! Even most religious people harbor illusions only when it comes to religion, and live in a very sane and rational world when it comes to just about everything else.
Enough of that, though; I hope you find what you need to make the changes you think you need to make. I am honored to have played the role that I apparently have played in all this, and am honored still that you would return for further perspective. I only ask that when you do find some answers, that you take as full of advantage of them as you can, and if you have some time, drop us a line and let us know what you learned and how it worked (or did not work, as the case may be). I have what I have only because hundreds of people have written to me and shared their knowledge. If not that, then they challenged me with questions, prompting me to come up with my own answers. This is the best I think we can hope for, and as far as I'm concerned, that is quite enough!
Thanks for writing!
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