To: “Positive Atheism”
Subject: Positive Atheism Letters Section
Date: Wednesday, December 01, 1999
To whom it may concern,
I live in Paducah, Kentucky as a seventeen-year-old girl still trying to cope with the murders that my friend Michael Carneal committed exactly two years and one day ago. I stumbled upon your website as I was trying to find someone who had actually offered words of wisdom when this tradgedy occurred — and I have found him. Mr. Walker said the only realistic things about Michael that I have ever heard (or seen). I do not know what exactly Michael’s religious preference was, although he never had a good thing to say about trademark Christians, but I do know that the attitudes that the people in the prayer group had towards him (spitting on him, knocking him down, calling him a faggot, a satan-worshipper, a Nazi, etc.) couldn’t have had a good effect on what was already his crumbling psychologic — and also says a little something about what good Christians they are. I thank Mr. Walker for setting the record straight a little bit, and I am sorry for the extreme delay in my gratitude.
Subject: Positive Atheism Letters Section
Date: Thursday, December 02, 1999
There is no need to apologize for any delay; this website and magazine is an ongoing discussion of many serious problems that will not be solved in a day — and may never be solved at all. I have made some notes and placed some links to some more recent columns which may or may not relate to what happened in Paducah. I’d like to hear your ideas: yours is a unique perspective that could contribute much to this discussion.
Writing the piece, “Taking A Cheap Shot At Atheism,” took a lot out of me, and it is good to see that my loss in this respect was not in vain. Although the surface theme is the fact that many people called Michael an atheist, the real gist of this piece is the very part I think you are describing. I am honored that you were able to see in it what I think I tried to put into it, because I made a great personal sacrifice in order to write that column. To make the point I wanted to make, I bared open a very dark, very private part of me. My original hope was to perhaps temper the fierce polarity coming from several camps. I now see that what I was also doing was trying to place myself in Michael’s shoes, in hopes of understanding just a little more about what went on in my own mind as a teenager.
I spent several months in high school on the fringe of the Christian movement, and I know what it’s like when your only basis for “friendship” is loyalty to an ideal. When you decide you don’t agree with the ideal, and then either announce this or quietly leave the group, you are inviting trouble for yourself. Most of us can handle it, but some of us can’t. From what I’ve read of the student discussions at Columbine, open communication, mutual understanding, and learning acceptance seem, to many students, to be important factors toward preventing similar disasters.
I am not convinced that the Christianity is the ultimate culprit in the Michael Carneal case (although some forms of Christianity, just like some forms of almost any ideology, lend themselves to fundamentalistic thinking and loyalistic behavior such as the spitting you described). It might just as easily have been any other loyalistic group; perhaps the Christian groups just happened to be what was going on in Michael’s life when he snapped. Although I am an atheist, I had a disagreement with the leaders of the local atheist group here in Portland, and was hounded out of the group through whisper campaigns that portrayed me in a false light. Never again will you hear me make the claim that atheism is superior to religion in this respect.
The most important observation for me to remember is how I described the Christians in my high school: “They don’t know any better.” My most cherished hope in all this is that people can learn to “know better.” I hold this much hope for the human race. I think we can and will figure out how to reduce the chances of this happening again.
Fundamentalistic thinking is the topic of my December 1999 column, “Atheism & Fundamentalism,” and I will try to post it by this morning (Thursday). I would like to hear what you think. In it, I only touch the surface of fundamentalistic thinking, a tendency that all humans seem to have. I recommend the book, The Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought by Jonathan Rauch as one of the most lucid presentations of the problem of fundamentalistic thinking. Most importantly, it presents suggestions for guarding oneself against this tendency that seems to be in us all. This one small book has prompted me to rethink my entire outlook.
Please also read the November, 1999 editorial column, “Opportunists Run Amok,” and send me some comments if you want (perhaps you’ll want to do these things later, after the pain of the anniversary has subsided, but to hear your opinions would mean the world to me). In this piece, I mention an age-old theory regarding why some people “run amok.” Although I ultimately use the concept of “running amok” as a metaphor to describe a certain type of group-think, I think what I said about when an individual snaps is on solid ground. The resource for my ideas on “running amok” is Stephen Pinker’s book, “How the Mind Works” which is a thorough (and wonderful) summary of the latest research and thinking on how the human brain works. Like the above-mentioned book by Ruach, Pinker’s is both compelling and relatively easy to grasp. I have no education beyond high school, and no parts of either book went over my head. Perhaps you can grab a copy of Pinker’s book in a library or bookstore and look up “Amok Syndrome” in the Index.
I also have drafted some notes on the Cassie Bernall “martyrdom” as part of “Atheism: A Position of Convenience?” with Mike Boston, which I am not [at this writing] ready to compile into a formal article [but which I later put together as “Cassie Bernall ‘Martyrdom’ Hoax”].
Again, I thank you for letting us know how you felt about the column, and I most certainly hope to hear from you again. In any event, I hope that you can make progress toward coming to grips with what happened to you — understanding, of course, that this is something you will carry with you for the rest of your life. The memories are painful and may always bring tears, but it is my hope that you reach a stage that the memories don’t harm you any more. Yes: we feel pain. But it is possible to find ways to prevent the painful memories from causing further damage.
“Positive Atheism” Magazine