Exploring Positive Atheism in Action
By Eric Jayne
The concept of positive atheism in action is undoubtedly a valued principal among members of Minnesota Atheists (MNA). Some members have suggested that positive atheism in action precludes some events from happening in order to spare the feelings of religious believers who might be keeping track of our events. This was the main reason why 34 cents was recently added to the $6.66 recurring Spaghetti Dinner admission fee. The concept of positive atheism in action was also invoked by a few members who made requests to discontinue debaptisms and ban a particular book from a book club discussion. This all begs the question: What, exactly, is positive atheism in action? The mission statement of Minnesota Atheists says the organization is “dedicated to building a positive atheist community that actively promotes secular values through education programs, social activities, and participation in public affairs” with a purpose “to promote the atheist viewpoint as a valid contribution to public discourse.” That sounds good, but what are secular values and the atheist viewpoint? Maybe if we define our shared values and viewpoints we will have a better understanding and consensus of what is meant by positive atheism in action.
In her book, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism , Susan Jacoby suggests that in spite of a diversity of opinions among 19th century freethinking secularists, virtually all were dedicated to the causes of “free political speech, freedom of artistic expression, expansion of legal and economic rights…dissemination of birth control…and the expansion of public education” (p. 154 ). I believe that virtually all 20th century and 21st century humanistic, freethinking atheists are dedicated to these secular values as well. In fact I submit that atheists particularly depend on the constitutionally protected principal of free speech and expression in order to survive! Those who have a nominal knowledge of history are well aware of the brutal and savage torture inflicted upon “heretics” by Protestant and Catholic rulers, not to mention the inhumane treatment applied to violators of Sharia law in the Muslim world today. Without the protection of our first amendment rights, we might still be living under a draconian theocracy that would severely punish us atheists.
Besides protection, our first amendment rights also grant us the freedom to actively ridicule ideas, philosophies, and institutions no matter the source and no matter how innocuous or toxic they might be. Since religious organizations, religious teachings, and religious leaders hold far too much power and wield too much influence in our culture I can think of no better institution to ridicule than religion. I’m not suggesting that we stand outside of a church shouting Linda Blair lines from The Exorcist, but the way I see it, it’s healthy to irreverently mock institutions that indoctrinate children, control minds, and campaign against gay rights, birth control, science, and other humanistic causes. Harmless displays of religious mockery within the Minnesota Atheists organization is a secular value that we should all feel free to celebrate.
Of course members are free to hold different opinions and question some of the practices within the Minnesota Atheists organization. We’re atheists after all, not a pious group of orthodox-following automatons. Demonstrating this point, I was recently contacted by a MNA member about his concerns over the Burnsville Book Club reading and discussing The Satanic Bible by Anton LaVey. I listened as he argued that the book discussion would damage our public image because it plays into negative stereotypes some Christians have about atheism being synonymous with Satanism. Therefore, he argued, the book discussion is inconsistent with promoting positive atheism in action. My response was that banning controversial books from MNA book discussions is a troubling precedent to set and that submitting to ridiculously false misconceptions held by Christians, who also have false misconceptions about many other subjects, does not reflect positive atheism as I know it. To be sure, our exchange was respectful and we agreed to disagree. Interestingly, those who actually read the book and participated in the book club discussion discovered that they, themselves, had a misconception about Satanism. One member mused that LaVey’s Satanism “is like humanism with brass knuckles.”
From the viewpoint of freethinking atheists, freedom of thought, inquiry, speech, and expression are secular values that we hold dear. It should follow then that our organization should value the free secular expression displayed at book discussions, debaptisms, and spaghetti dinners without accommodating the religious beliefs of theists. Speaking as former Christian, I found myself drawn to more piously taboo subject matter as I began to develop skepticism. So it might very well be that sacrilegious mockery is more likely to appeal to a skeptical theist who is contemplating the merits of his/her religious beliefs. If we hold true to the atheist viewpoint and secular values not only will we demonstrate our genuineness, but we might even attract more skeptical leaning theists!