Support Group For Atheists?
Or Can We Emulate Theism?
Rob Hill

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Rob Hill"
Subject: Re: WebMaster:_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: August 10, 2001 3:18 AM

I always favor aggressive verbal responses to the words and actions of churches and religious leaders when their messages and behaviors are so destructive that they would come to the attention of the public. We cannot stop them from propagating or practicing their religion (nor should we), but it is both valid and necessary to counter them in the public forum when they take it so far that they've impacted the lives of others.

Aggressive verbal criticism of religion is essential for some of us if we are to remain atheists; not all of us are strong enough to withstand the forces of high-profile evangelistic efforts. The high-pressure marketing approaches employed by organized religion and parroted by the rank-and-file believers can be quite persuasive. Even I am not immune to these entrappingly seductive ploys, and few humans are as practiced as myself at critiquing religious claims. That I have a tough time in this respect speaks volumes as to just how enticing religious evangelism can be. So, unless you have chosen to politely ignore religion, you do well to keep up on the issues and the arguments. It's an added plus if you have an avenue for sharing your findings with those fellow-atheists who might be interested in what you have to say.

Nevertheless, we can and should draw the line somewhere. Three years ago I left an atheist group after seven years, in part, because way too many times the main activity was to sit around and cap on religion -- all religion -- without discriminating between benign and dangerous expressions of theistic faith. I will not go to a Benny Hinn healing crusade and try to "protect" people from his wiles (though I would, for example, infiltrate his side-show and return with a report; if he ever came to our town, I would write to the newspaper or call a talk-show, for example, and publicize my opinion that he is an exploiter).

For myself, I draw the line in that I will hardly ever approach a theist because I have nothing to say to theists. It is not my desire to see theists become atheists: I don't care if the ranks of atheism increase and I don't care if a particular theist is suffering as the result of decisions that she or he made. Rather, I almost always wait for the theist to approach me. Then and only then has the theist invited my response; that is, my criticism. By suggesting that I go along with a religious claim, the theist thereby submits that claim to my scrutiny. Had the theist simply practiced private religion, I would have had nothing to say.

The same holds when religious people try to implement policy that can be justified only with religious arguments ("God said to do this" or "the Bible teaches us not to do that"). If you cannot justify a policy change outside of a religious argument, I will usually oppose that move solely on those grounds. This is why I worked for the Oregon Death With Dignity Act: the only opposition to this proposition came from organized religion; the Vatican alone outspent our side ten to one, first opposing the initial measure and later supporting a move to overturn the Act after it passed. I hope never to have to avail myself of the protections given by this Act, but even the thought of organized religion would taking it upon themselves to tell us what to do with our own lives turns my stomach.

This makes me so viciously angry that sometimes I can barely contain myself. Before we passed this law, if my suffering father (for example) asked me for some pills, I would face a heavy prison sentence just for honoring my father's final request. Now, he need merely appear before a panel of doctors. In fact, being an heir, I am forbidden from even being involved in the decision. Had there been a battery of arguments against it, coming from several different sides and involving several ethical issues (religion being only one of those elements), I'd be singing a different tune. But the only arguments against this Act were religious arguments: "God said this" and "The Bible says that." They wanted to ban it even for the nonreligious, even for those of other faiths. The people of Oregon overwhelmingly saw through this move -- twice -- making forever infamous the idea that any public law can be established solely on religious grounds.

Here you have a few conditions under which I will speak out against religion, but no longer do I indiscriminately and gratuitously denounce religion in general.
 

This is precisely my two-prong position on atheistic activism: I try restrict my criticism of religion to only those expressions that I feel are intrusive or dangerous; I work to support and to provide resources for atheists, particularly individuals who chose not to become part of a group. Of course, groups and groupers find a wealth of information and help amidst our offerings, and I am in no way dissuading anybody from feeling welcome here. However, when I do envision a reader while I'm working on this or that project, the picture in my mind is of an individual who's trying to live and thrive and get along as an atheist, who's integrating in a situation that is slightly or moderately dominated by theists. I don't see someone who is asking very much, but who does feel uncomfortable with some of what goes on in the way of the more intrusive expressions of religion

In fact, I've attended a single atheist meeting in the past three years or so, and the leader that night revealed that he'd obtained the material for his presentation from the Positive Atheism website! I would never want to alienate anybody over what role the group scene plays in our lives.

But I am convinced that most atheists, even active ones, would never consider getting involved in a group or any organized situation. So, I do what I can to show ways that individuals can make a difference. To do this, of course, I must seek out other atheists and see if they will describe for us what they do and how they do it. We post these and compare notes and see what comes up.

There is no right way to do this, nothing written down and agreed upon, anyway. This is truly the antithesis of religion in that we don't have a boss (except the limitations imposed on us by physical reality) and we don't have a "scripture" and we don't have a confession and we don't have any set rules. We are truly on our own, and this (Positive Atheism) is, for the most part, just a big experiment. Last year I took a lot of flack for my response to Rich Zawadzki, a Christian who wrote what I felt to be quite a condescending letter to me. My response, called "Let's Go To The Atheist Page Just For Laughs" saw a lot of things in his letter that many might have overlooked. But I saw them and still see them when I re-read the exchange. I finally resigned to the position that I was experimenting in my response (I liked it enough to publish it in the print edition), and I trust people to read it and decide for themselves whether this is the response they would have given to the same letter had it been sent to them.

At that point, I realized that everything we do here on the PAM Forum is an experiment. We all benefit from each person's writings, if for no other reason than we can think about how we might have done it differently. Finally I decided that this is what the De-Conversion Stories section is all about. People who leave a religion are in a very precarious spot: we know that religion isn't the right thing for us, but we usually know little more than that. Meanwhile, the religionists use some very sophisticated techniques to prey on the minds of those of us who have left, in an all-out attempt to entice or coerce or bully or bluff or buffalo us back into the fold. The religionists doing this may not know what it's like, but the techniques they've learned in their Tuesday night Evangelism classes were developed to play on these very emotions. The most successful evangelists are those who can manipulate these emotions in members of his audience. With all this going on, the newly deconverted atheist is trying to learn to operate with a reason-based outlook of thinking -- often without even realizing that this is what's going on.

Those of us who don't unlearn the faith-based styles of thinking are in for some trouble: if we bring these thinking styles with us into atheism, we risk becoming even more miserable than we had been as theists, because it is the fundamentalistic thinking styles that cause all the pain in religion. So we get rid of what little is beneficial about religion, usually the camaraderie of fellowship, but take with us the destructive elements encased in the fundamentalist mind-set: Instead of being a miserable fundamentalist who at least has some company, we become even more miserable as a fundamentalist who is also a loner, unwanted by the theists for being a traitor and not really appreciated in atheistic circles for retaining the theistic and fundamentalistic mental habits and the associated magical thinking. This is not an easy transition and there really is no help available (like there is when you decide to become a Christian). So, the best we can do, sometimes, is to log on to a forum where people talk about what it was like and then compare notes to see how we might have done it differently.
 

The problem is that due to the very nature of atheism, we will never see a successful example of what you envision. Alcoholics turn to AA because AA is a religion that teaches the total depravity of the alcoholic in the form of the doctrine of powerlessness and unmanageability. AA teaches the alcoholic that without the group, without AA, the alcoholic will "relapse" and go back to the bottle. Talk about a captive audience of impaired people!

Our situation is not like that at all. We are independent, and the key to our success as atheists is associated (in part) with our ability to think for ourselves. Of course nobody can get along without other people, so I am speaking in a very limited sense; but, within that spectrum of very dependent personalities on one end and very independent spirits on the other, we atheists definitely lean toward the edge of the independent end of the spectrum. That is the very nature of atheism. Those who tend to gravitate toward dependency usually find a nice, secure, very theistic situation for themselves.

Gora spoke of theism as being the tendency to surrender to anything, and thus called atheism the unwillingness to surrender to anything. Gora even described certain expressions of materialism and called them "theism." Ironically, while teaching this view of atheism, Gora founded the most successful atheistic organization that the world has probably ever seen: Atheist Centre, in Vijayawada, India. Their charity system puts to shame what Mother Teresa's charity system was lauded to be -- the truth is that Mother Teresa's system is, in reality, not even close to what it is said to be by her supporters and admirers. Atheist Center is, in India, what many major American charity organizations could only hope to become here. He and his wife and children and supporters and associates did this all while teaching against the notion of dependence and surrender. I'm not sure what is going on over there, but hope to visit next February, as I've been invited to speak to the convention of Gora's 100th birthday celebration (in India, they celebrate your birthday even after you die, and they celebrate your life on the anniversary of your death). If I do go over there (money is not as much of a problem as the fact that I do not want to travel alone), I am sure to come back with some radically new perspectives.
 

My current suggestion is to do this as individuals, integrating in our own communities. We can do this working side-by-side with theists who are themselves as concerned about the material world and their fellow-humans and fellow-creatures as any atheist could hope to be. We are all human. We all have more in common than any two of us have differences. We all need to do certain things in order to survive and get along in this world -- and, we all know this (even the most magical-thinking of theists believing in the most benevolent of rescuing deities).

While we're doing this, as individuals, we are demonstrating first-hand that the myths about atheists are just plain false. But any people you will get this close to, folks who are working to make their world -- our world -- a better place, such people will not need much if any convincing in this respect. Most of us are good people. Most of us think privately what you'd hope people would be thinking. Only when people isolate off to themselves in a group who distinguishes itself by it's unique ideology do they tend toward an us-versus-them perspective. While we're busy slopping stew for the homeless or sandbagging against a flood, we're all in this together and there but for the happenstance of reality go I.

When we're pulling children out of a burning building, we're not wondering about what kind of god would allow this to happen. That comes later, usually if we're watching it on the news rather than in the thick of it with our minds on the job at hand.
 

Now, art you thinking of a centralized information source, so that we can study our heritage as atheists? I think that's what the library is for: Why do we have to be special and have this stuff off to the side for ourselves? Why are we singled out to be underrepresented in so many libraries and facilities who refuse to stock titles of interest to atheists? At my local bookstore, they once had a nice Freethought section. I went one day, and they'd assimilated it into Philosophy to make room for six extra shelves of the Angels section! Six shelves of books about angels wasn't enough. So, now I must do some extra research to find these books -- basically I must already know what I'm looking for. But within the bigger store, we had our own section. Amidst the bibliographies there are lists of books that are of interest to an atheist seeking to learn more about her or his heritage as an atheist. To me, a website is along the lines of a book or a magazine, and thus it is entirely legitimate for a website to restrict itself to atheism just like a book or a magazine will cover atheistic topics. But we are not in some atheism section of the web. (I won't even join the "Web Rings" that seem to be so popular, but have my own reasons for doing this.)

I'm sure that people will always want to form and join atheistic groups and societies, and I see a place for advocacy groups such as American Atheists and Freedom From Religion, but I am not much of a joiner. I gritted my teeth and did my time with the group I used to be in. The most vivid lesson I learned from that and a few other experiences is why I (and most likely others) fare better as individuals integrating into the regular world.
 

Helping out the big picture is, I think, best accomplished by doing what I described above: integrating into the greater society that's already there waiting for more regular people to join in and get involved. The trick is, we just happen to be atheists. Hopefully some of them will be responsible enough that we can entrust them with this fact.

As for PAM, we ask very little. The Forum is an important element and we get a lot of miles just from a simple two-paragraph opinion piece that needs no response. We also get a lot out of a provocative question either that I can tackle myself or send out to the list. And you wouldn't believe what a quick, to-the-point cheering-up will do when I've fielded eight letters in a row from people who make me want to reconsider my current stand on free speech.

I always need help with HTML formatting, research for the Big List of Quotations, and proofreading both for the print edition and the e-text conversions. With half-a-dozen proofreaders working occasionally on e-text conversions, I could drastically increase our output in that section of the website. At my current pace and doing it alone, I won't be able to convert all the material I've set aside by the time I die. With a little help, two or three people putting in, say, six hours a week each, or half-a-dozen people each setting aside two hours a week, we could get all that posted within a year. That's the difference a little help makes. The problem is that with my impairments, I put out about one-third the amount of work that a similarly skilled able-bodied person can do in the same time. With helpers, I'd do the stuff that can only go so fast anyway and let the volunteers do the parts that I'm real slow at. I'd love to get some trustworthy editions of some of this classic Freethought and social change literature on the Web.

The only way we support PAM financially is to subscribe to the magazine. This year I project to put in close to $700 of my own money just to keep it afloat -- and I'm not paying myself or anybody else.

Thanks for your interest and sorry about the delay.

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

Graphic Rule

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