Criticizing Bush Is
Not Very 'Positive'
To: "Positive Atheism" <email@example.com>
Sent: September 15, 2001 9:52 AM
Hmmm, this doesn't sound like a very "positive" thing for an atheist to do.
Oh, I am atheist. I'm still struggling with how to cope with the rest of the humans I co-exist with (in fact I'm having a heck of a time dealing with my overly zealous catholic mom). Yeah, I'm one of those closet varieties. But really, what's the harm in everyone taking one day to acknowledge a very tragic event that affected us all directly or indirectly? Besides, religions don't have the monopoly on "mourning."
If you're looking to offend others you're on the right track.
The only way we'll gain more acceptance is to respect and accept others as we too would like to be.
Trying times like this should be an opportunity, please don't give us all a bad name!
From: "Positive Atheism" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: Response_To_Calls_For_Prayer
Date: September 15, 2001 9:36 PM
Note to readers: Please read our stated use of the term Positive before implying that we are being hypocritical. The word Positive has never meant "namby-pamby" or puppies and sunsets and chocolate icing around here: I have been a socio-political activist off and on since I was a teenager opposing the Vietnam War and draconian drug laws, and pretty much full-time for the past seventeen years.
Allow me to compare public with private, as you mentioned your conflict with your mother. I have repeatedly recommended to people that they use caution when dealing with family. Our families are, in many cases, all we have. It does not pay to rock the boat when it's your only family or your only opportunity for work, etc. These are personal situations and are ultimately personal choices.
What I am talking about (and the only thing that I am criticizing) is our government's act of directing religious ritual.
I have no problem recommending to a young man that he attend church with his parents if he wants them to put him through college, and then to suggest to the same young gentleman that he speak out against injustices and religious favoritism at the college he attends. These are two completely different aspects of life, and one cannot be used to comment on the other. This week I am talking about government, not families or individuals.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with "everyone taking one day to acknowledge a very tragic event that affected us all directly or indirectly."
The wrong is that our government has either asked or ordered the public to do this with the religious ritual of prayer. For the government to do either is not only morally wrong, it is illegal.
Religions don't have a monopoly on mourning, but atheists cannot feel welcome if the official service for mourning is thoroughly centered around the religious ritual of prayer that its very name contains the word prayer. Had they called it something else and not made religious ritual the centerpiece of the affair, I would not have received over 250 e-mails a day during this period, and I would have remained silent. There is nothing wrong with mourning, but there is everything wrong with our country telling her citizens to engage in specific religious rituals.
Had a Jimmy Carter or a John F. Kennedy or a Jesse Ventura or a Bill Bradley or a Barry Goldwater or even a Richard Nixon been president, we wouldn't have seen antics like this: none of those men were willing to exploit a tragedy in order to advertise their personal religious views like President Bush has done. Thomas Jefferson wouldn't have stood for it. Check out his January 23, 1808, letter to Rev. Samuel Miller. In it, he explains why he refused a request either to prescribe or even to recommend a day of fasting and prayer.
I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct it's exercises, it's discipline, or it's doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.
Jefferson further stated that it was his understanding of the United States Constitution that the President has not been given the authority to direct the religious exercises or rituals of his constituents:
[E]very one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, & mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the U S. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.
By the way, Rev. Miller was likewise opposed to allowing our government officials to either direct religious ritual, and simply wanted clarification of the President's views on recommending these rituals. He was not writing a letter of complaint, but a letter of commendation.
I do not seek to offend others; however, the simple word atheism on our front page is sufficient to offend numerous individuals who think we ought to remain silent about our views. The link on the front page are different from all the others so we can tell when a letter comes from those links. All of the most vitriolic and patently unfair letters we receive come from these two links.
One of the highest crimes in modern American culture is to criticize religion, and I seek to change that situation. I must start by divorcing from the popular viewpoint the notion that atheism and anti-religion are the same thing. This is why I spend most of my energy trying to popularize the definition for atheism used by the post-Enlightenment atheistic philosophers and writers (since it was illegal to defend atheism before the Enlightenment).
But remaining silent will not move us one inch toward our goal. Only when enough people see the harm that is done by government entanglement with religion will this situation start to change. The most effective method (a method protected by the same First Amendment that President Bush so gleefully tramples whenever he dons his honorary clerical collar) is to express our opinion about the President's behavior, describe how we feel about it, point out where we think he was wrong, and describe what we think would have been the right course of action for him to take. I think I have done this in what I consider to be an extremely responsible manner. If somebody can show irresponsibility in the way I have done this, I will gladly address it and even offer a retraction if I can be shown that what I did was irresponsible.
I also seek a greater level of public acceptance of atheists, but remaining in the closet has never accomplished this. It didn't do any good for the Negroes of the 1940s and 1950s to "stay in their place," as so many Whites used to put it back then: "Well, as long as they stay in their place, I have no problem with them." This meant specifically that they remain silent and not complain, and that they not try to obtain any of the advantages enjoyed by the dominant race.
The only thing that gained for them both dignity and acceptance was to rout the dominant thinking -- the wrong thinking. And the only way that happened was to make a few people such as yourself feel a little bit uncomfortable. I remember the reactions to these initial attempts, such as the response to Rosa Parks refusing to stand in the back of the bus. The infighting escalated until several activists were murdered and civil unrest (what most called "rioting") destroyed many neighborhoods across the land -- they destroyed their own neighborhoods! they disagreed as to how to accomplish their common goal and whether or not they even wanted change! Many of us who were alive back then were terrified because unrest was popping up in almost every city. Eventually, though, legislation forced people to change the way African Americans are treated and public opinion eventually contributed to this accomplishment. Public opinion did not start out on the side of Rosa Parks, however, who was roundly criticized for making a big fuss and starting a huge and protracted boycott.
The same thing happened during the struggle for Women's equality, when Ernestine L. Rose canvassed for Women's rights, most of the women responded with the same attitude you have returned to me: "We don't want any more rights. We have rights enough." In other words, nobody wanted to make any noise. Ernestine was the only one. This continued throughout the struggle and can still be seen today (because that struggle is still not over). But look what might have happened if Ernestine and her successors had heeded the advice given to her from all sides -- advice which is virtually indistinguishable from the advice you are giving to me!
The riot at Stonewall was probably the easiest mark of the armchair critic because nobody cared about homosexuals. In fact, it was entirely "proper" to condemn homosexuals as wicked, or at least self-indulgent -- but particularly the queens and prostitutes involved in the initial Stonewall arrests which sparked the riots. Even homosexuals were not united in their support of these types of gays. Besides, Stonewall was Mafia-owned and was a major center of male prostitution. The arrests which sparked the unrest were for laws that had been enforced for decades. If any vice laws are rightly seen as fair (I disagree), these laws were "fair" in that similar laws were in place against heterosexual variations of the same acts. It wasn't the homosexuality which sparked the arrests but the prostitution.
But something more was going on: While the queens and prostitutes at Stonewall may not have been unfairly singled out over their heterosexual counterparts, homosexuals themselves were singled out in just about every other area of life -- unless, of course, they remain silent and agree with society's silent mandate that they live a lie, that they "stay in their place."
In our own history, until Thomas Paine uttered some choice words against the King in his anonymously written "Common Sense" series of pamphlets, George Washington himself, as late as the end of 1775, was recommending against Revolution. When the people saw both that they could overthrow the Crown and that they wanted to overthrow England's rule (that it was in their best interests) -- and in addition, that they saw this as the right thing to do, as Paine pointed out so eloquently -- the Revolution instantly reached a point where it could not be stopped. But Paine wrote these without signing them because his name had for two years been associated with social and political activism: he had already made much noise and didn't want his name to impair the message that his "Common Sense" pamphlets would bring to the people.
I can go further, as these are just a few of the hundreds of examples I could mention, just from my own meager grasp of history; others include slavery in America, apartheid in South Africa, the migrant workers' struggle in America, the untouchables in India, and any number of Independence struggles. Every one of them started with people speaking out in the face of their own allies urging them not to make so much noise, to leave things well enough alone.
So I will not let tragedy stop me from saying what I would say under other circumstances. In fact, if I am right, they are exploiting a tragedy for the purpose of furthering their agenda of mingling religion with government. I fully expect the "Christian Nation" revisionists to point to yesterday's events as yet another false precedent for continuing this behavior. Of course! Who but crazy Cliff Walker and a few of his readers are going to say anything about it -- not in times of trouble such as this! Who would dare? So naturally they know they can get away with this more easily during these times than they can on almost any other occasion.
This same thing happened during that terrifying period known as the McCarthy Era, the 1950s, when nobody dared to speak a word against Christianity or in favor of atheism. During this time, the words "In God We Trust" began to appear on all our money (rather than a small handful of coins over the years along with other slogans such as "Mind Your Business"). Also, the words "under God" appeared in our Pledge of Allegiance, which had previously read,
I pledge allegiance to the Flag
Numerous other acts were carried in the House and Senate which gave unfair financial advantage to religion, such as special bulk mailing rates for religious groups above and beyond those discounts granted to regular charities.
I'll grant that Bush is afraid of being criticized by Pat Robertson, who said that "we have insulted God at the highest levels of our government" in explaining why Tuesday's tragedy happened. Bush is not about to set himself up for similar criticism. Then, perhaps, if his war campaign works and terrorism is squashed and we have no more terrorism, then they will be able to point to yesterday as the cause (not truthfully, but they've never had a reputation for letting truth get in the way of their sales-pitching for The Lord).
I don't care if you agree with me on this, perhaps your role in improving the lot of atheists covers completely different territory than mine. I only hope that I have made my position understood, because I don't think you understood what I was trying to say. This makes sense because I was so completely shattered last Tuesday that I came very close to being hospitalized. I was able to receive counseling, twice on Tuesday and once again on Wednesday. It has been a slow recovery since then, and I am surprised at my ability to assess this situation as well as I have and to express what I feel are the opinions I'm hearing from the readers as well as my own views that I think the readers will want to consider.
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
people with no reason to believe
Added: September 18, 2001
Thanks so much for the immediate response. I actually didn't even know if the message got sent or not (I was trying to back out at the time it went). I have a lot to learn, thanks for your patience & food for thought.
Are you aware of many atheists like me that aren't anti-religion? Have I mislabeled myself altogether?
I do intend to research this all more as my main concern is the separation of church & state.
Take care & hope I didn't piss you off too much!
From: "Positive Atheism" <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: Response_To_Calls_For_Prayer
Date: September 17, 2001 8:55 AM
Thank you for your kind response. I wish to reiterate that I do not dislike religion. It's not for me, of course, I cannot fathom being religious (neither can I picture myself liking American football), but I am not anti-religion by any respect (any more than I would want to shut down football season).
Then I will explore what led to my anti-Bush statement, even though that is no longer part of the question. I merely wish to use this as an opportunity to put these thoughts together, and you're welcome to read them or line your bird cage with them.
Are you aware of many atheists like me that aren't anti-religion? Have I mislabeled myself altogether?
I am not anti-religion. I don't think it's healthy for anybody, but I do respect the fact that most people either have or think they have valid reasons for believing the way they do.
Atheism, to me, means "without religion" -- not "anti-religion" or "denies the existence of God." Most of the time when I am not working on PAM I am not thinking about religion or atheism. Rather, I have a very full life and most of the people I know are somewhat religious if not very devout (various faiths). Only fundamentalist Christians feel uncomfortable around me, and only after finding out the role I play in organized atheism.
The religion that I will lash out against is that which is intrusive or exploitative or outright dangerous. This is why I spoke out against President Bush: his expression of religiosity the other day was, in my opinion, all three. I do not think national tragedy is a valid reason for me to remain silent -- particularly since my role, in part, is to express opinions and make suggestions whereby atheists may benefit.
In fact, I feel for the many honestly faithful Americans whose faith is being trampled by President Bush by his move to exploit religion to further his own agenda. Religious faith is beginning to seem like some sort of football contest! The religious people of America are being used as spiritual cheerleaders, of sorts, and I feel for them. That is how much I respect the private expression of religion! No! I am not against religion itself, but the use of religion to exploit people for personal, economic, and political gain.
Thus is my response to the only objection you raised that I feel really needs an answer: I am not anti-religious by any means: I don't think about religion or atheism much when I'm not at work on PAM.
The rest of this is an explanation of what led to the Bush dispatch to which you initially objected, plus some scattered thoughts and feelings.
I had received over 600 total e-mails in between the attacks and your letter. Of those, only two had specifically spoken out against my statement regarding George Bush (with one more coming in since then). Many theists, particularly Evangelical Christians, will take any opportunity they can to either politely or not so politely encourage me to "get right with God." Of course! That's their "job," so to speak! That's what an "on-duty" Evangelical Christian does. But even though our e-mail has increased up to ten-fold, we've actually seen a drastic drop in the number of gratuitous "messages" from Evangelical Christians. That's a drop in the number itself, not just the percentage; where we'd normally get ten to twenty in the course of four or five days, we've received two, even though the incoming e-mails over that period is up by ten times our normal influx of letters.
I think we've been real lucky in this respect, with three objections to the Bush dispatch and two Evangelicals who, for the most part, appear to be oblivious to the fact that several thousand of their fellow Americans just had their lives cut short in a senseless expression of hatred against a nation of Christians. I think much of the world is in shock and has laid down their ideological arms in this respect -- for now.
I have not changed, though, simply because I do not lash out at religion in general. I do nothing under normal circumstances that I would want to stop doing in "honor" of anything. Were I an atheist who gratuitously attacked any and all expressions of religion, I might do that, but I only attack the most exploitative expressions of religion. In this I have my hands full, because this tragedy is bringing out a plethora of opportunists. Since my job is to comment on corrupt expressions of religion, my work appears definitely to be cut out for me.
On the day of the attacks a lifelong medical problem was set off by the news of the attacks and I was not thinking very clearly for the first several hours (I only found out about it at 11 o'clock Pacific time). So I did not say much as far as statements go. But I did get a chance to listen to many of our readers (and many others) tell me what they think. Many of those letters are now posted on our website (both friendly and unfriendly). This way, I was able to think about what was happening and to see some things that I felt needed to be said to members of the atheistic communities who sought food for thought (since atheists, in my opinion, are responsible for coming up with their own answers -- even in a situation like this).
So I issued several dispatches and carried several messages that I had heard, and several others that had come from my own heart. I was not in very good shape, and for a while I didn't even know that the problems had been restricted to New York and Washington. For a short period of time, I thought the whole country was going up in flames. I even sent out a cry for help for myself, knowing that I was not the only one hurting and knowing that others can heal themselves by helping others. True, I needed some comforting right then (I was falling apart emotionally, to tell you the truth), but at the same time I was cognizant enough to know that I was also providing an opportunity for others to give, plus a gentle welcome to anybody who was as bad off as I was to reach out for help themselves. I've been in the helping business off and on for many years, and some things eventually come naturally no matter how bad off you are yourself.
When I lived in San Diego, a passenger jet crashed in a nice neighborhood almost within hearing distance of where I lived and worked. Immediately, looters hit the scene and took people's wallets and the watches and rings right off the severed hands of the corpses. I will never forget that sight: I was almost insane with rage, and had never been that way before. I was about to turn 21 at the time, and this behavior influenced me profoundly as to what is right and wrong and as to speaking out against despicable behavior. Some people are just not human, and I learned that lesson watching these -- er, never mind.
Back to last week: By the time the shock and fear had begun to wear off, we (the readers and I -- and others) noticed several groups immediately step in to exploit the tragedy. First to hit the Inbox were the reports of phony "pay stations" for the Red Cross: Pay here and we'll see that the money gets posted immediately to their account. Yeah, right! Some people are just not human.
Naturally, we can expect evangelists to exploit any tragedy, twisting it and interpreting it in whatever manner that might coax or frighten or coerce just a few more people to join the flock. Of course. They've been doing this for as long as anybody can remember. Just go to almost any funeral and see what I'm talking about. Even a preacher who was hired on the spot because somebody died unexpectedly and the family has no religious ties so the funeral home made the arrangements just has to slip in the get-right-with-God angle. Since they do this with no qualms when individuals die, it's easy to see them doing this during a disaster. And I have noticed religious people doing this during disasters. I consider the statements by Falwell and Robertson to be just this type of exploitation. I also consider the sheer religiosity of Bush's Day of Prayer and Remembrance to be similar. Though to a lesser degree in action, Bush's act stands to do much greater damage in the long run.
If you follow my dispatches, I really did not have anything to say until we started seeing the Chaplain at Congress and Bush on TV talking about God and the Day of Prayer. My first was the mirror of Randy Cassingham's column: a combination of an offer of solace plus a very feeble call for help (asking people to write to me and tell me how they were coping). The second was a thanks and a reminder that I wouldn't post anything in response without expressed permission. The third was the warning about the hucksters scamming money for the Red Cross. Only the fourth dispatch, at 1:00 A.M., Greenwich time, on the 14th (5:00 P.M. Pacific time on the 13th), a full two-and-a-half days later, had anything even remotely resembling an opinion about anything.
In other words, I was offering solace to those I know and reaching out to those I know for solace of my own. I didn't really want to explore beyond my own "neighborhood" or "family," if you will, and kept my communications within the readership and a few other friends and my Father. I was also offering very mild suggestions regarding where to give if people wanted to help out (the Red Cross) and then warning people about the Internet scammers.
Within these few days, though, Bush had geared up to inject his religious agenda directly into this most tragic situations that any of us had ever lived through! I was feeling it but was keeping my mouth shut for the most part, except in responses to individual letters that had, for the most part, remained unposted (because I was still in such a state of shock that my fingers still couldn't type very well). Yes, I was shocked when I saw the chaplain on TV at the restaurant where we ate on the 12th; I even asked to move to the other side so I wouldn't have to hear it because they had it up very loud. Even with what I knew about Bush, I completely didn't expect to see this! Still, I kept my mouth pretty much shut except in response to the various individuals who had written to express their shock.
Then came the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance, which was almost always abbreviated by its supporters as the National Day of Prayer. Seeing as how up to twenty percent of Americans do not pray at all (or even believe in the power of prayer), my feeling was that this ought to have been called the National Day of Remembrance, and ought to have been an even that we all could have felt comfortable not only participating in but also supporting and endorsing. When prayer is the central activity, you cannot help but make certain people unwelcome. I have felt this way since I was a child, having been disciplined for refusing to pray in the 4th grade, and having spent several years as a conscripted member of the Twelve Step Program. I've even had to duck out of family get-togethers because this or that relative just had to "send a message" to the rest of us through prayer (and rightly so, in their eyes, because there are only two or three overtly religious folks in our entire extended family).
Since I've written extensively on the intrusive nature of many popular religious expressions, particularly prayer, and because Evangelical Christians in particular seems to be oblivious to the intrusive nature of their own religious expressions, many who were familiar with what I've had to say over the years wrote to tell me what they felt about what some have dubbed "prayer bullies." A "prayer bully," in this sense, is somebody who insists that they have every right to turn any gathering into a prayer meeting, no matter who is sponsoring the gathering (in this case, the United States government) and no matter who is attending (in this case, the entire World). "Prayer bullies" include those who "organized" those "spontaneous" outbursts of the Lord's Prayer at school football games last year, making sure that we all had to endure what their very own Jesus instructed His followers to do in their closets! (Matthew 6:5-8.)
So, here we are, still reeling from having our sensibilities -- our sense of security and our very humanity torn out by its roots by these terrorists. It looks like war, like it or not, and we're all scared. Then comes the time when we get together as a nation -- as the entire civilized World, to mourn the loss of a large and undetermined number of our fellow Americans. But something makes many of us cringe rather than helps us let go and process those feelings that ought to be processed at a time like this. Part of what irks us is that we know our government is supposed to be protecting us from precisely what our government is dishing out to us! So instead of being able to participate like we ought to have been able to do, we're shoved aside once again, the objects of so many subtle and not-so-subtle messages implying that it's people like us who are responsible for God having refrained from protecting us this time around.
In other words, Falwell and Robertson are not that far off the mark: they are just much more overt in how they express it than are the more mainstream religious leaders. While dissociating themselves from Falwell and Robertson, the message seems to be almost unanimous: we, as a nation, need to "get right with God." and this is what He is telling us in this tragedy. In other words, those of us who are not religious are somehow partially responsible for this tragedy (just like Falwell said). They're not saying it in the same language or with nearly the same force that Falwell and Robertson are using, but this message is nonetheless present in much of the rhetoric I've been hearing this week: we need to "get right with God."
It would be fascinating to watch this dance of rationalization issuing forth were it not so utterly tragic from so many different perspectives.
The bottom line, though, is that Bush claims he wants unity. He's not going to get it by shutting out twenty percent of the American population and most of Europe with his religiosity. This is so plain that I cannot help but think he's deliberately exploiting this situation to further his religious agenda.
Why do I think he's deliberately doing this? Because this one tragedy is enough to cripple faith in a rescuing deity on a wide scale. The Evangelical Christian view of divinity is in big trouble, and God's reputation needs some serious spin control after this tragedy.
Why does religion need spin control? Why not just let people go ahead and come to their own conclusions about reality?
Apart from the obvious advantage of having a religious populace who strongly supports an overtly religious President, and apart from having a populace who can easily be manipulated through religious rhetoric, this is a crucial issue.
Ever since the time of Washington, Adams, and, to some extent, Jefferson, a big lie has been believed by many intellectuals and leaders who themselves were not very religious. That lie is as follows: We don't need religion because we are educated and intelligent and of good stock. However, the masses are not this way. Without religion, they told themselves, the world would be a bedlam or worse.
So, Washington, Adams, Lincoln, Jefferson, Madison, and many others who were not themselves very religious at all gave lip service to religion in their public utterances. If you compare their speeches and their proclamations with their private letters to friends and loved ones, you see what almost amounts to a case of schizophrenia. Publicly, these men were all very pious; privately, almost to a man, they laughed at the various religious views that were popular during their day. Check our Big List of Quotations under Adams and Jefferson and see what I mean.
The most telling quotation is one that is often taken out of context by atheists on the various quotes lists I see on the Internet. Adams is writing to Jefferson and they had, for some time, proceeded to tear apart the very foundation of the Christian religion, leaving only a handful of moral tenets worthy of honor; the rest of it was pure balderdash to them:
The Christian god can easily be pictured as virtually the same god as the many ancient gods of past civilizations. The Christian god is a three headed monster; cruel, vengeful and capricious. If one wishes to know more of this raging, three headed beast-like god, one only needs to look at the caliber of people who say they serve him. They are always of two classes: fools and hypocrites.
This and a few Adams quotes were recently banned from book covers at a high school in Texas as "hate literature." The case against the ban prevailed -- but, hate literature! Imagine that!
Adams, in one of his letters, tells Jefferson:
Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, "This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!" But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean hell.
As much as Adams hated the sheer exploitation on the part of the clergy almost everywhere, he firmly believed that without religion, the world would literally go to pot. Religion, to Adams, was a necessary evil. Jefferson replied:
If by religion we are to understand sectarian dogmas, in which no two of them agree, then your exclamation on that hypothesis is just, "that this would be the best of worlds if there were no religion in it."
However, Jefferson likewise believed that the masses needed religion. So did Washington, even though he used to duck out of service whenever Communion was served, and none of the arguments that Washington was a pious Christian hold water.
In this day and age, Bush makes the same mistake: Bush firmly believes that religion is good for the masses -- notwithstanding that most of the wide-scale carnage wrought in the world today -- and throughout history -- has been done through religious motivation. So, Bush thinks it is his duty as President to salvage the reputation of religion.
Methinks he knows only too well that many Americans will be questioning the validity of the standard god-claim.
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
people with no reason to believe
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