"Should Franks be elected in November, one would have to conclude that he will hold true to his out of touch 'atheist' belief system and ignore the laws and Constitution of Texas."
—Mary Alice Robbins, "GOP Raises Religion in Court Race, Calling Democrat an Atheist." Law.com, 9 October 2006.
In Paradise Lost, published in 1667, John Milton labels Satan and the other rebel angels "the atheist crew", despite the fact that they were in Heaven at the time fighting against God and the faithful angels. Presumably, their belief in God's existence was not in doubt, and Milton meant the term as a generic synonym for wickedness. This tactic is still in use today: witness the Republican political attack cited above, or professional media troll Ann Coulter's recent book, Godless. From the way she uses the word, one would almost think she meant it as a bad thing!
Islamic fundamentalists have adopted this tactic as well, such as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declaring the Western nations' "atheism" as the cause of humanity's problems (source), or the now-deceased terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in a tape from June, denouncing Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as an atheist (source). This claim is especially ridiculous, since al-Sistani is one of the supreme religious authorities in post-war Iraq and is probably the closest thing in the Muslim world to a pope. As far as Ahmadinejad's claims, it is if anything militaristic, intolerant right-wing Christianity, not atheism, that has led to the Iraqi civil war in which America is embroiled. However, Ahmadinejad apparently believed that denouncing his American adversaries as atheists, rather than as crusading Christians, would win him more popular support.
Clearly, the term "atheist" has acquired a substantial weight of negative connotation. How can real atheists fight back against this?
As the name of my weblog suggests, we atheists can only fight prejudice by stepping into the light. It is easy to demonize the unknown and the invisible. Only by keeping nonbelievers in the closet for so long have members of the believing majority been able to perpetuate such slurs; when we are not there to counter them, they can say whatever they like without fear of contradiction, and with no counterevidence in sight there is no reason for ordinary people to disbelieve them.
However, when actual atheists are visible to contradict these smears, they do not stick. We do not need to display superlative moral virtue to disprove the ugly stereotypes that equate atheism with wickedness (although it wouldn't hurt). We just need to show that we are ordinary, decent people, just like everyone else, who differ from other people in that we believe in one less god than they do. If more atheists came forward to express such sentiments as these, the use of the word "atheist" as a term of insult would dwindle and die on the vine.
In this respect, I disagree with efforts (like those of the Brights) to coin a new term. We already have a perfectly good one: atheist. We should say what we are plainly and not allow our enemies to usurp or pollute the word. If we avoid using it to describe ourselves because we fear the repercussions, we play into their game. We harm and hinder our own movement when we abandon these words to our enemies as a way to tar us, and what is to stop them from similarly smearing any new word we come up with?
This tactic cannot succeed without our consent. The use of "atheist" (or "liberal", for that matter, or any of the other descriptive words that have been distorted and demonized by the hosts of ignorance) as an epithet can only work if we buy into it by fleeing from the word when they use it that way. If instead we stand up and proclaim our pride in who and what we are, we will win every time; and if our enemies have polluted our words with propaganda, then we must reclaim them. In that spirit, I have some remarks to offer by way of response to Coulter and others:
Yes, I am godless. I am an atheist, and I am proud of it. I am proud of the fact that I do not fearfully bow down to noises in the night. I am proud of the fact that I value evidence and do not believe just because tradition or authority tells me so. I am proud that I value human well-being as the highest good and do not prize obedience to ancient superstitions more highly than the lives and happiness of real people alive today. I am proud of the fact that I think for myself and do not blindly subordinate my will to the pious mutterings of costumed charlatans or the shrill voices of bigots who think they have some magical power over my eternal destiny. I am unapologetic about this, and I think everyone else should join me. You hurl the term "godless" at me, but I wear it as a badge of pride, and if you think you will ever be able to make me ashamed of who I am, you have disappointment in store.
Ben Franks, mentioned in the quote at the start of this article, may or may not be an atheist; he has said that he is not. The Republican party's major line of attack seems to consist of the claim that an atheist, if elected, could not take the Texas oath of office, which includes the term "so help me God". This line of attack neglects the fact that Article VI of the U.S. Constitution states that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any public office in the United States. (It seems to be asking too much of the Republican party these days that they read or understand the Constitution.) However, whether Franks is an atheist or not, what he should be saying is that it makes no difference to his ability to represent the people of his state, and that atheists have every right to hold public office in America, just as theists do. The output of bigots will not necessarily fade away in the face of strong and principled opposition, but we can undercut them and take away their support by showing, both by our speech and by our lives, that their hateful claims bear no relation to reality.
Now that Ebon Musings is up and running at its new host, it's past time for a new article, and by an amazing coincidence, I've just posted one there. The essay's title is "Turning Away Anger", and it deals with the stereotype that atheists are intrinsically angry people.
This is an open thread. Comments and discussion are welcome.
Ever since the liberation of Germany by the Allied powers in World War II and the discovery of the horrific crimes committed by the Nazi regime, Adolf Hitler and his followers have become synonyms for evil in the annals of human history. As such, it is not surprising that some religious apologists have attempted to discredit atheism by linking it to the atrocities of the Nazi regime and claiming that Hitler and his followers were atheists. Here is one Christian claiming this; here is another. The ever-dependable fountain of hatred Ann Coulter has said so as well:
Interestingly, this was the approach of all the great mass murderers of the last century -- all of whom were atheists: Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.
Even before today, there was more than sufficient evidence to lay this falsehood firmly to rest. Regardless of what Hitler really believed, he was emphatically not an atheist: he said so himself numerous times, and in fact firmly declared his opposition to atheism. Here is a quote uttered by Hitler in April 1933:
Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without religious foundation is built on air; consequently all character training and religion must be derived from faith...
And from a speech given in October of that year:
We were convinced that the people need and require this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.
However, an article released today by the United Press, Hitler bested God by 2 commandments, should be the final nail in the coffin of this spurious claim. This brief article concerns the discovery of an extant copy of "Germans with God", a version of the Bible written by the Third Reich and distributed to German churches in 1941. The Nazi version contains two additional commandments to add to the standard ten, neither of which should be very surprising: "Honor your Fuhrer and master" and "Keep the blood pure and your honor holy". Here is its rendition of the original decalogue:
- Honor God and believe in him wholeheartedly,
- Seek out the peace of God,
- Avoid all hypocrisy,
- Holy is your health and life,
- Holy is your well-being and honor,
- Holy is your truth and fidelity,
- Honor your father and mother -- your children are your aid and your example,
- Maintain and multiply the heritage of your forefathers,
- Be ready to help and forgive,
- Joyously serve the people with work and sacrifice.
Christian apologists fond of Nazi comparisons might want to take a closer look at that first one: "Honor God and believe in him wholeheartedly". Again, this is a Bible that the Nazi regime, and this almost certainly means Hitler himself, wrote, edited and approved of.
Of course, religious apologetics have never been about the facts, and some Christians will doubtless continue to claim that Adolf Hitler, despite announcing his opposition to atheism on multiple occasions, despite declaring his intention to "stamp out" atheism, and despite presiding over the distribution of Bibles urging their readers to believe in God "wholeheartedly", was an atheist. But of course, there are always people who will believe things on the basis of no evidence whatsoever and that all the available evidence contradicts.
There seems to be a perception among religious people that atheists believe all religious people to be stupid, ignorant, or deluded. (Witness a recent question on the Yahoo Answers service.) Where this perception comes from is something of a mystery - given how severely underrepresented atheists are in the media, it is almost certain that it does not actually come from anything we have said. Nevertheless, there is no question that a large number of theists take the statement "Hello, I'm an atheist" as a personal insult. What can be the reason for this?
The most obvious answer, and the one I think many religious people themselves would give, is that atheism is an insult to the believer because it rejects the believer's most cherished principles of faith as untrue. This answer seems simple and logical, but I am convinced that it is not the correct one.
For one thing, if this were true, then believers should be equally offended upon meeting other believers who share none of the key tenets of their faith. But this does not seem to be the case. Although our heavily Christian society strongly distrusts atheists, it is not equally distrustful of other religious groups who reject fundamental Christian claims - for example, Buddhists or Hindus, who just like atheists reject Christian claims about the nature of the afterlife, the divinity of Jesus, salvation by faith alone, and the rules given by God for living. Nor do Christians seem to be equally offended by Jews and Muslims who reject the single most important part of all of Christianity, the incarnation and resurrection of the Son, as well as the trinitarian nature of God. Even groups within Christianity disagree fiercely about vital areas of doctrine, such as whether baptism is necessary for salvation, whether communion involves the literal or only symbolic presence of the divine, or whether the Vatican is a legitimate inheritor of Jesus' promise to Peter. But despite their vast differences, in general none of these groups seem to take the others' existence as a personal affront. This persistent attitude of distrust and dislike seems to be concentrated solely on atheists.
One might also suggest that it is the atheist's lack of belief in God that inspires resentment among theists. This idea does have the virtue of explaining why theists usually do not view other kinds of theists with similar suspicion, but I think it falters on similar grounds. Again, what can it possibly mean to say that two theists of different traditions "both believe in God" when they differ on every significant aspect of God's character? Are Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu really equivalent in any meaningful way to the Christian trinity? Do the Zoroastrians' opposing good and evil deities, or the Buddhist view of gods as finite beings subject to the law of karma just like humans, compare to the all-powerful god of monotheism? What about religious views that depict God as an impersonal, cosmic force, as opposed to ones that depict God as anthropomorphic and personal?
I have another proposal, which I believe explains the facts more convincingly. The religious dislike for atheists is not because atheists reject God - it is because we reject religion.
Despite their differing creeds, all religions are alike in that they give their adherents a sense of community, of belonging, and of identity: a social support structure, if you will. Atheists have nothing comparable, and this is easily interpreted as - in fact, in a way, it is - a statement that people do not need the structure of religion.
This is what angers and upsets believers who encounter atheists. They have devoted so much of their lives to their support structure, and their identity is so intimately bound up with it, that meeting a person who needs none of those things is naturally threatening to them, because it suggests that all their effort was unnecessary, even wasted. And from there, it is only a small step to the conclusion that atheists must think them deficient in intelligence not to have seen the better way, if there is one. In my experience, even people who care nothing for dogma and doctrine, who disagree with their church leadership on virtually every issue, often react with anger or incredulity to the suggestion that they leave their religion, because they have been brought up in it and participated in it for so long that it has become part of how they see themselves.
This hypothesis explains why believers are generally not offended by the existence of other believers: even if two groups of theists differ drastically about their actual beliefs, each can see that the other group provides its members with the same kind of social structure that their own religion provides them. In its way, this is a tacit affirmation that belonging to religious groups is normal and desirable and is how human beings are meant to live, and therefore reassuring. But the existence of atheists threatens to wreck this whole gentleman's agreement (and religion is very much a gentleman's agreement), and so it is no surprise that theists mistrust and fear us. They are offended and angered not so much by what we say or do, but by what we represent.
Is it possible to change this reaction? Certainly, if atheists want to be heard, we will have to improve our public image. But how can we do that if the negative perception of us stems from nothing we do but from our very existence?
Happily, the solution to this dilemma is the same as the solution to many other issues facing atheists: organize. Just because atheists reject the social structure of religion does not mean we lack any need to associate with others. No person, not even an atheist, is an island. Rather, we reject religion because a higher virtue, allegiance to the truth, compels us to stand apart. But so far, though many of us stand apart from religion, we have not taken the obvious step of standing together with others who do so. We can and should do this. Not only will it magnify the power of our individual voices, it may well improve our image in the eyes of the believing mainstream who see us as dangerous and strange iconoclasts.
I do not suggest that we form a "church of atheism" that mimics the tone and style of religious organizations without the content. That would strike me as silly and pointless, an opinion in which I trust I am not alone. But in addition to advocating political organization, I do not think it would be a bad thing for atheists to achieve a greater level of social organization as well (and of course the two are strongly linked). Why aren't there more atheist groups that can organize excursions to museums and science lectures, nature hikes, and other worthwhile activities? There is a whole world to know and experience, and atheists have every reason to want to drink as deeply from it as they can. And the more worthwhile and enjoyable we make our lives, the more likely it is that others will see this and want to join us!