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Happy Atheist Book

Started by Will, February 15, 2009, 09:06:37 PM

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Quote from: "SektionTen"I'd like to write an essay on the importance of striking out into the unknown, and finding your own path. Believing what you feel is right. And the importance of independence. How it's possible for everyone.

yeah. Is that all right?

Sounds good to me.


For my 2000th post, I figured I'd do something... productive.

I had a paper assignment for one of my classes a couple years back. Never actually finished it until now. It was a Communications class, the assignment in question centering on how your faith tradition influences your scholarship. It was based on a special issue of Rhetoric and Public Affairs, in which the editor of the journal asked a number of well known rhetoricians in universities across the country to answer the question. One answer in particular revolved around "17 possible answers" to questions that may be asked. I decided to take it upon myself to answer those questions as an atheist, something the assignment did not take into account: how does someone without faith of any sort answer that question?

So, here is my response which may or may not be finished. Should it be considered for inclusion in the book when it comes that time, I don't know. Either way, I hope anyone who takes the time to read it gets something out of it.

I give you...


In the introduction to volume seven of Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Martin Medhurst puts forth a request to a number of esteemed, professional rhetoricians: how are you [professional rhetoricians] "influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by the religious traditions you practice" (446). Twelve professionals from a myriad of traditions and worldviews responded with varying degrees of introspection, adherence to the "assignment" and styles. From Campbell's "afterthought" of conversion to Anglicanism (477), to the almost mathematical examination of Baptism by Reid, to Graves' history lesson about the Quakers, the issue presents a rather fleshed-out spectrum of American religious viewpoints and how they can affect one's professional life, specifically that of a rhetorician. I was given essentially the same assignment and was immediately confronted with a rather important question: what to do if I have no religious traditions? Therein, they say, lies the rub.

That I may be at a disadvantage in writing this essay slowly dawned on me. I have no religiosity, thus no traditions by which to be influenced, thus no valid response. My professional field is indirectly related to rhetoric, insofar as a teacher is a rhetorician. Then again, lemons and lemonade, as they say, so I decided to "beg, borrow and steal" from Robert Hariman, whose Presbyterian response took the form of what is essentially a questionairre of "17 possible answers" (525). In this way, I hope, I will be able to better respond to a positively-formed question with a negatively-formed answer. I have added a "background" section before beginning Hariman's 17 questions to better inform the reader of how, in a vastly religious world, this particular writer has come to wear the badge--proudly, I will admit--of atheism.


Academic affiliation: 2000-2004, Ohio University, undergraduate. 2005-2009, Ohio University, graduate.

Religious affiliation: None. My parents were both inactive in church and, from what I have been told, vaguely Baptist. There is a great deal of drama surrounding why this is. Both my parents were quite religious in their youth, but through a number of fallings-out and insults from the church, it became a topic of less interest for them. This translated to my upbringing as I grew up without any regular, compulsory church attendance, though I did sporadically attend "bible camp" or the occasional Catholic mass, always at the behest of friends. To my child mind, god was something other people did, though it was never frowned upon in our house. It was simply a non-issue. My childhood agnosticism and disinterest converted to teenage angst-driven atheism and antitheism, fueled by the rants and raves of the late comedian George Carlin. By the time I came to university, I was an avowed atheist, happy to be in a place of, as I saw it, secular learning.

Religious identity: Let's be frank: atheism isn't a road to popularity. More often than not it leads to infamy. Atheists are, by and large, despised in American society to the point that, even immediately after the 9/11 attacks, Muslims were still higher than atheists on a list of "groups we trust" (Edgell et al, 2006). There is something about atheists that can drive the religious into a fit of concern about immorality and indecency. Belief in a god or at least some sort religious conviction is seen as a sort of benchmark for humanity. Only recently has it been more accepted in the larger culture, but the reasons for this are many and varied, far too complex and interconnected for inclusion in this essay.
    There is a game that is played of who-can-we-claim between atheists and theists. For atheists, it's a way to justify and defend the position, a way of saying, "You think we're bad people, but how about X and Y and Z? They weren't bad; they were great!" For theists, it's a way to belittle the atheistic position, replying with, "Well this scientist believed in God, so did A and B and C. More people believe in God than don't. Theists have done better things." A generalization, surely, but to illustrate a point: atheists are the ultimate underdog. We deny something that, through the ages, has become not just a lifestyle or worldwide choice of the majority, but part and parcel of their lives themselves. This is mirrored, interestingly, by the Bible, currently held as a sort of guidebook for Christian morality, a way by which to live one's life, but at the time of writing (making it a pre-modern text) was not simply a description of how one should live, but a reflection of life itself, thus placing the reader in the world (Fooce and Warnick, 2007).
    The atheist point of view is one many simply cannot understand or accept. The Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian and Quaker writers mentioned above define themselves by varying degrees by their religiosity. It molds them, shapes their lives and their interests. To make an analogy that is not representative of feeling, only description, one may think of religiosity as a hole in the ground, filled by the religion of choice. A theist may see that atheism does not fill that hole, thus assume something is missing or the atheist is not complete. Nothing could be farther from the truth: the atheist does not see a hole, at all.

At this point, I will attempt to answer the the 17 questions Hariman asks himself in order to respond to Medhurst's inquiry. Some will receive more detailed, thoughtful responses than others. And, as Hariman says, "The reader is welcome to stop at any time" (527), though I hope the reader will choose to enjoy rather than abandon.

1. There is no relation.
    There is a relation like anti-racist pedagogues have a relation to racism. Some people study what they love, some people study what they love to hate. I suppose I fall into the latter camp.

2. There is an unconscious relation.

    This is precisely what I try to avoid. Introspection is as important to honest, scholarly writing as research. The relation may have been unconscious when I was a child. It has sense come to the fore with a fury.

3. There are incidental relations.
    Absolutely. A number of incidents in my life (and my family history) have attributed to my direction as a scholar. I participate frequently in online discussions and communities run by and for atheists, networking with other secularly driven scholars. My life is full of these events. I make it so.
4. There is a relation of minor utility.
    The phrase "herding cats" comes to mind. Atheists have no common meeting place, no way to spread "common" beliefs throughout the population. We are largely not a "we." To illustrate, how does one define people who do not believe in Santa Claus? Is there a special term for that? Do those people get together every week and talk about how much they have no interest in Ol' Saint Nick, how fulfilling their lives are without stories of the North Pole? Only recently has the atheist "cannon" begun to take form: works by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and, going back to the classics, Charles Dawrin and Carl Sagan. These authors are not, and never did, set out to define or codify how one should live. Atheism is a conclusion about the world; it is not a means to an end.

5. There is a personal relation.
    Obviously. The population of agnostics, atheists and "no religion" respondents in nationally representative surveys comes in right around 15-20% (Edgell et al., 2006). Of that, atheists make up about a third. Being a part of this makes me a minority, an odd feeling for a young, White male, though I wish to be perfectly clear  that the assumption "I know what it's like" in regard to being Black, female or gay in American society is one I am not willing to make.
    How could there not be a personal relation? My position as a non-believer is very personal, though I choose to make it public in my scholarship. Not everyone is Tom Wolfe. Not everyone can hide and still express themselves in the ways they must.

6. There is a psychological legacy.
    In concert with Hariman, even the most cursory scan of my work will display an obvious atheistic (or, at the very least, secular and skeptical) theme. However, I disagree with his assertion that "Work and faith are both reifications of long trains of experience, and both develop late within a process of personality formation" (527). This makes the assumption that personality formation will reach an end, a point where one's personality becomes static, fixed. Even if Hariman doesn't mean this, and is simply stating that "work and faith" develop later in life, I disagree. Perhaps he is asserting that faith grows and matures alongside one's interests in one's work and profession. Still, what of those without faith? Do I become more "atheisty" as time goes on? Surely not.
    There are, of course, certain traits commonly found amongst atheists, the most frequent of which most likely being an adherence to logic and reason above superstition and unsupported claims of belief of faith. It's no secret that some of the greatest scientific minds have been atheists. On the other hand, Dr. James D. Watson, who along with Dr. Francis Crick discovered the double helix structure of DNA, was a stone-cold racist. Atheists, it seems, are no less susceptible to the flaws of humanity than any other group.
7. There is a deep structure.
    Hariman says something interesting in his response to this: "Religion is though to be foundational and constricting, something that stabilizes the person while limiting the thinker" (529). At first, I was struck by a pious person's willingness to admit what is, to many atheists, a flagship argument against religion. For the religious, there is a structure that goes back (according to scripture) to the beginning of time, itself. As Hariman later points out by paraphrasing scripture, "In the beginning is the Word (logos)" (529). For secularists and non-believers, we must understand that the structure by which we can develop our identities and language has been systematically quashed by religious institutions. It is no secret that scientific progress has been retarded by religious fervor for well over a thousand years. The most obvious and frequently cited example is the so-called "Galileo affair", which typifies the antagonistic relationship between science and religion. This has effectively prevented the secular or atheist "structure" from growing until just recently with the rise of the "New Atheists" (Wolf, 2006).

8. It is a deep source of inspiration and invention.
    I grew up a student of the School of Carl Sagan. Prominently displayed on my parents' bookshelf in the basement was a copy of Cosmos, Sagan's trip through the universe, history and the human mind. I watched the series on PBS. That led me to watching Nova, which in turn led me to reading books about science, which in turn led me to reading books about philosophy. I saw the beauty of nature, the dwarfing size of space, the intricate nature of human neurobiology. I studied Archimedes, Eratosthenes, Kepler, Gan De, Copernicus, Hawking. I studied Lao Tze, Socrates, Plato, Mencius, Hegel, Kant, Hume, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Lacan, Kristeva, Kierkegaard. Throughout all this, I was agnostic, at the very least. I succumbed to what many theists (evangelical Christians, especially) fear: science and reason showed me that God was nothing more than another failed hypothesis. God created the earth? The earth formed out of coalescing discs of interstellar gas and solids. God created man? Homo sapiens sapiens evolved over millions of years from lower lifeforms via natural selection, chance, and a whole lot of luck. Jesus Christ was the son of God and sent to save all of mankind? Yeshua ben-Yosef the man may have lived at that time, but the mythology of Jesus is an amalgamation of a number of different messianic stories like those of Mithras, Horus, Appolonius of Tyanna and a number of others. At one time we needed Zeus to explain lightning. Now, we trust Willard Scott.
    Where is the invention, the inspiration? I have been, am, and continue to be amazed and astounded at the voracity of the human desire to know. Man saw birds and felt the pang of jealousy, and so we constructed airplanes. That wasn't God; it was aerodynamics. Two thousand years ago man believed the sun floated across the sky while we frolicked about on a flat earth. That is, until one day when a rather observant Greek noticed that at the same time of the day two poles cast unmatched shadows in different locations. How could this be possible, if the earth is flat?
    Curiosity. Unwillingness to settle for "it's a miracle" or "God works in mysterious ways" or "because I said so." That is the source of inspiration and invention.

9. It is a source of nostalgic or utopian ideas.
    Of course. Each faith, religion, worldview, what-have-you has its own goal, per se. It posits a perfect dreamworld in which all its assumptions, claims and tenets are fulfilled naturally and happily. Adherents to those worldviews will most likely agree with that end. There is no evangelical calling for those with secular worldviews, though. Maybe there should be.
    John Lennon sang it best.

10. It is a source of ethical and spiritual values.
    Dogmatically, no. There is the Humanist Manifesto, which says, essentially, "We can be nice to each other and free of dogma at the same time" but that's it. It's this sort of question that makes my position rather interesting and unique, like all non-believers. All worldviews have rules, tenets. Suggestions, at the very least. Atheism is the exception. It was explained by an anonymous internet user years ago, to which I alluded to earlier: do they have a name for people who don't believe in Santa Claus? Of course not. This struck me. Christians are Christian because they ostensibly follow the teachings of Christ. Buddhists, Buddhists because they follow the teachings of the Buddha. Muslims, Muslim because they follow the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. Atheists are atheists because they don't believe in a god or gods. One doesn't have to be a master of pattern recognition to see that, as the jingle goes, one of those things is not like the others.

11. There is a radical bifurcation.
    There must be. I agree with Hariman about how one "can bracket their religion from their work, and how useful that is" (532). Were I to never separate the two, I'm not sure how scholarly I could stay. This is the nature of passion, and passion, I have. As for a philosophical rift between the two, there is not. The two actually support one another quite well. For me, the point to obtaining this degree is to help people. I am passionate about the rights and wellbeing of non-believing and freethinking students. I want to make sure they are given the same opportunities as those students with faith, those who make up the status quo. Still, if I simply allowed my passion to run rampant, it wouldn't be very productive. I would do nothing but complain and, while this may be a lucrative positition for some people, I fear I am not one of them.
    Contrary to the predominant belief, the atheist is not an angry, Communist, value-destroying, American-way-of-life corrupting heathen. For the most part (though, just as in any other population, there are exceptions) atheists are good, happy people who live ethical, moral lives, hoping for nothing more than for other people to be as happy as they. For most atheists, there is no contradiction between their worldview and the world they live in. A world without a creator has none of the in-born inconsistencies or paradoxes modern life presents to believers. They needn't make a choice between what they want to believe and the reality they experience daily. It is, simply, life. Hariman says the "modern, bifurcated self can be both religious and rational, a believer in God and a scholar" but the freethinker has no such hurdle to overcome.

12. There is a failure to respond to a call.
    Again, there is no "call" to which to respond. The nonbeliever in me and the scholar in me are one and the same, but there is no dogmatic instruction about how to live my life, or how to do my work. If anything, my scholarship is a response to the direction my non-faith has led me, and vice versa. The more I read, the stronger and more comfortable I feel in my station. Maybe therein lies the evangelism, the call.

13. There is a relation of doctrinal guidance.
    Quoting Hariman, "No" (534).

14. There is a hermeneutic.
    Of what? The secular worldview has nothing to interpret, no scripture to pour over, no "Word" to pull apart and engage. Going back to Cosmos, are we to interpret Sagan's words for the sake of having something to interpret? The freethinker--especially the freethinking scholar--strives to avoid interpretation and assumption if at all possible. The words should be clear, concise, full of meaning and unambiguous. Interpretation, hermeneutics, should not be needed.
    But what of the classroom? Being an educator is, in part, being an interpreter. Educators are filters. Does the teaching of Shakespeare differ significantly if the teacher is atheist or theist, Montague or Capulet? Probably, but is that necessarily undesirable?

15. There is a historically specific social type that underwrites modern scholarship.
    I agree with Hariman on this point, and I am somewhat surprised at the number of times I have said that. I wondered, 'What is the "historical specific social type" in my field?' What is the "historical" view of the atheist or freethinker? The "angry atheist" that I mentioned earlier? The evil Godless-one that rips Christ from the school system and throws him out of the White House? I wonder, because historically there is not another real "social type".
    Atheists' images aside, the only "social type" that comes to mind isn't a social type at all but a sort of profession: it's the scientist. It's the idea that decisions should be made and conclusions reached by a systematic method that is tried, true and testable is one that is held above all others (some theists even say it is held religiously but, though this is poetic and rhetorically interesting, it is illogical). Gone is the freedom to use tradition or ritual as justification for policy or prescription. We are able to ask why and be unafraid. We are not only able, but obligated.
    With this comes an aspect of not tolerance but indifference. Simple, specific and focused apathy. Secular scholars don't care if an author is Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Shinto or atheist, as long as they are scientifically sincere, serious and committed. The world could do with a lot more of this kind of apathy.

16. There is a blockage.
    I will quote Hariman, edited to suit my station: "This consideration will be where some readers would have started. Does [secular] sensibility inhibit understanding of [scholarship in education]?" (536). Possibly, only insofar as the atheist teacher or guidance counselor may be unable to truly sympathize with students of faith. This problem can be remedied easily. In fact, I am led to believe that this only a problem potentially. During the Civil Rights Movement it was often said that Blacks don't need to learn how to live with Whites; they already know. The same could be said for atheists, agnostics and other freethinkers: they--or, rather, we--do not need to learn to live with the faithful. We do it every day of our lives.
    Freire said, "apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human.  Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other" (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p. 72). Thus, one aspect I do see needing more of, especially in the future as the world becomes smaller and countries (ahem, the United States) become more pluralistic, is not more religious education, but more education about religions. Misconceptions abound, though maybe this statement is best left for the next question.

17. There is the road ahead.
    There is always a road ahead. For the secular scholar, the road ahead becomes clearer with every passing day.The work is to, as they say, keep on keeping on. From Socrates and his hemlock to Scopes and his textbook to Yaa Asantewa Nzingha and her words, educators have always had to worry about what they taught. It seems, to this educator, at least, that the road ahead is indeed a brighter one.

In conclusion, to the theist reader, this may seem entirely misguided. It may, depending on the vivaciousness of one's theistic beliefs, seem an interesting glimpse into the workings and background of someone simply different, or a map of a backward wasteland of devilish thoughts. To the atheist or non-believing reader, it may seem strikingly familiar. In any case, it is my hope that this has been enlightening, both personally and professionally. My non-belief has been just as much behind my scholarly drive as my love for all things education. I truly hope this has come across.

John Angus Campbell, “On the Way to Canterbury: A Rhetorician's Tale,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 7, no. 4 (Winter2004 2004): 469-486.
Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann, “Atheists As "Other": Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society,” American Sociological Review 71, no. 2 (4, 2006): 211-234.  
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New expanded ed. (New York: Continuum, 1993).
Robert Hariman, “Apologia Pro Curriculum Vitae,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 7, no. 4 (Winter2004 2004): 525-538.
Martin J. Medhurst, “Introduction,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 7, no. 4 (Winter2004 2004): 445-448.
Bryan R. Warnick and C. David Fooce, “Does Teaching Creationism Facilitate Student Autonomy?,” Theory and Research in Education 5, no. 3 (2007): 357-378.
Gary Wolf, “The Church of the Non-Believers,” Wired Magazine, November 2006.


That is an epic 2000th post. Congrats :D
"The fool says in his heart: 'There is no God.' The Wise Man says it to the world."- Troy Witte


Quote from: "templeboy"That is an epic 2000th post. Congrats :) Especially those of us whose scholarship or professions have something to do with a secular worldview.


Well here comes my far more concise contribution.

Religion is stupid. I'm glad that I live in a place where religion is a private matter, and I sympathize with those who have it forced down their throat. :bananacolor:
"The fool says in his heart: 'There is no God.' The Wise Man says it to the world."- Troy Witte


I definitely want to contribute.  I have both talks I've given and some brief poetry Here's the briefest:    What a wonderful feature,      For such a small creature,   to have my own mind as a teacher!!!  


bump...this will eventually happen...anyone new since the last post want to contribute?


Oh! I would!
I just finished writing a piece I've had in the mix for a non-fiction contest. I need another project  ;D

Edit: I don't know if the format of the book would already be "iron-clad" at this stage, but I was thinking a collection of personal essays may be the best way to distill what's really great about this forum and put it in a book. There are a lot of different experiences, from all over the world, and I think that's our greatest strength here.

When I was getting married, I came across a book called "Altared", which had a similar concept: it was a collection of personal essays about the process of getting married. Some of the accounts were from newly engaged people, some accounts were from divorcees, some accounts were from people who had been married for 10+ years. It gave a socially ingrained "institution" a sense of humanity. I think something similar could be very "HAF"ish

My two cents :)
"We've thought of life by analogy with a journey, with pilgrimage which had a serious purpose at the end, and the THING was to get to that end; success, or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you're dead. But, we missed the point the whole way along; It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing, or dance, while the music was being played.


I think that's a great idea DJ.  I would be happy to contribute a personal essay as well.


welll there is no real format yet because this is one of those projects that got started but didn't really go very far...I like the collection of writings idea.


We could stick the book on amazon for free and it can also be listed as free too (or maybe just a very small price to cover haf hosting).


Quote from: Whitney on January 30, 2012, 12:35:41 AM
We could stick the book on amazon for free and it can also be listed as free too (or maybe just a very small price to cover haf hosting).

Yes, I think that a small price to help pay for the website hosting would be appropriate.


Quote from: Ali on January 30, 2012, 03:52:39 PM
Quote from: Whitney on January 30, 2012, 12:35:41 AM
We could stick the book on amazon for free and it can also be listed as free too (or maybe just a very small price to cover haf hosting).

Yes, I think that a small price to help pay for the website hosting would be appropriate.

Agreed! :)
"We've thought of life by analogy with a journey, with pilgrimage which had a serious purpose at the end, and the THING was to get to that end; success, or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you're dead. But, we missed the point the whole way along; It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing, or dance, while the music was being played.

Hector Valdez

May I contribute some poetry to this book?


Quote from: RenegeReversi on May 27, 2012, 10:19:02 PM
May I contribute some poetry to this book?
Don't see why not.
If religions were TV channels atheism is turning the TV off.
"Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt." ― Richard P. Feynman
'It is said that your life flashes before your eyes just before you die. That is true, it's called Life.' - Terry Pratchett
Remember, your inability to grasp science is not a valid argument against it.