Thursday, January 1, 2009

Positive Atheism

I have been meaning to write about this article regarding "positive atheism” for about a month now. Turns out my uneventful New Years was just what I needed to get on it.

Mindful of atheism's reviled reputation, a new current in non-belief is intent on showing the public what atheists are for. You might be surprised by what's on their short list. Because, save for the belief-in-a-deity part, it sounds a lot like what most Americans value. Care for one's community and fellow human beings, love of country and cherished American principles, the pursuit and expansion of knowledge — these are the elements of the new "positive atheism."

The reputation of atheists has not been well-served by the surly attacks on religion by some of atheism's highest-profile torch carriers. From the best-selling atheist manifestos of recent years to Bill Maher's new Religulous movie, the loudest voices of non-belief have exhibited much of the same stridency and flair for polemics as the religious fundamentalists they excoriate.

But if Margaret Downey keeps making progress with her campaign to show a different face of atheism, it's possible to imagine the day when avowing one's non-belief will not be political suicide. (It seems to be just that today, given that only one member of Congress, Rep. Pete Stark of California, has revealed that he does not believe in a deity; in view of polling data suggesting that some 5% to 15% of Americans are atheists and agnostics, it seems certain there are at least a few more non-believing senators and representatives in the halls — and closets — of Congress.)

Downey, having recently finished a stint as president of the Atheist Alliance International, is now organizing a non-believers' unity convention to take place in 2011. She is the poster person for positive atheism, a term she uses for a new face of atheism that emphasizes the good things in which non-believers do believe.

Downey does not move in the ways of the late atheist spokesperson Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who was known for her caustic mockery of religion and its followers. And despite Downey's friendship with the outspoken atheist author Richard Dawkins, of The God Delusion fame (who likens the religious indoctrination of kids to child abuse), Downey is more interested in building bridges than walls.

In an episode earlier this year in the Philadelphia area, where Downey lives, the stage appeared set for an atheist-vs.-Christian billboards shouting match: Downey and colleagues had posted a billboard on Interstate 95 saying, "Don't believe in God? You're not alone," prompting a local Christian congregation to erect signs with a counter-message promoting God. Instead of escalating the billboard battle, Downey and company asked those who put up the pro-belief sign to join forces and volunteer with them for a Philadelphia charity. The people from the Light Houses of Oxford Valley congregation accepted the offer and teamed up with the atheists to spend a half-day sorting and packaging food for the needy.

"My goal is to teach by example that we believe in the importance of helping improve the human condition," Downey says. "We atheists simply add one more 'o' to our belief system — we believe in good."

The spirit of positive atheism infused this fall's convention of the Atheist Alliance, which comprises nearly 60 U.S. atheist groups with combined membership of about 5,000. Attendees gave blood and had their hair shorn for use in cancer patients' wigs. At last year's convention, Downey presided over a baby-naming ceremony, where parents and their supporters exalted wisdom, love, honesty and the beauty of nature, and the newborns were given not godparents, but "guideparents."

The leader of positive atheism certainly is not above going to court to protect the rights of non-believers. But in a holiday-season episode last year, Downey and her free-thinking allies responded to a crèche and menorah in front of the Chester County Courthouse outside Philadelphia not with a lawsuit, but a display of their own — a "Tree of Knowledge."The 22-foot-high evergreen was decorated with color copies of book covers, the titles included the Bible, the Quran and numerous other works on religion, atheism and evolution.

When it comes down to it, the positive atheists aren't inventing something new so much as highlighting something that has long been true about atheists. Namely, that non-believers have always stood shoulder to shoulder with fellow citizens doing the things Americans generally do: working hard, obeying the laws, helping the needy and doing what they can to improve their communities.

First off, can we give the whole religion equals child abuse crap a break? That’s not what Dawkins said. All he was trying to point out was that scaring your children into believing in a fiery torment for all eternity can be psychologically damaging. People have made so much brouhaha over this one fact, it pretty much reflects the bitter truth of that statement.

Another thing that irks me, why do people think atheists have to be nice? I get that it’s good for our image, but I don’t feel the need to try and convince people of how tolerable and “good” I can be. I just don’t give a damn and I’ll mock a ridiculous sky fairy if I feel like it.

I don’t understand why we walk on egg shells around religion. I think its bullshit and I most often sometimes like to voice that opinion. I’m not going to censor myself out of fear of someone’s delicate sensibilities. Bugger off.

"We atheists simply add one more 'o' to our belief system — we believe in good." That doesn't make sense to me. I don’t “believe” in good. It just IS.

I also don’t understand the idea of atheist conventions. I don’t want to be herded into any group of people. I don’t care if it’s for left handed redheads or crazy liberal heathens. Even though I have a few atheist friends, whom I love, I can’t see anything positive about being surrounded by people who think the same way as I do.

In fact, it’s kind of frightening.

1 comment:

  1. Here in Great Britain we dont have this Religious non-Religious War going on. I dont really get it. I'm Atheist that is my own personal belief! My mother believes in God that is her Personel Belief! That is what it is at the end of the day, a person is free to beleive what they want. And if you agree with the great John Stuart Mills which i do, you dont interfere with other peoples beliefs unless there harmful to society or another individual. Which niether being Atheist or Religious does unless your already one of those people who are pushing your beliefs onto others.


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