Pictured is some turbulent water by the damn in downtown Beloit.
I have been an atheist most of my life, ever since I first asked the question "what do I believe?" It was a documentary by Jonathan Miller called "Brief History of Disbelief" in which Miller asked why we have a word that describes not believing in something. An "atheist" is "Someone who denies the existence of God" (8). But there is no such word for someone who "denies the existence of unicorns" or "denies the existence of bigfoot." British evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins points out in his documentary "The Root of All Evil?" that "we are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further." (17)
The term agnostic is define as "A person who doubts truth of religion" (9), or more over that "theological claims regarding the existence of God, gods, or deities are unknown, inherently unknowable, or incoherent, and therefore, irrelevant to life." (10) There are some who believe a agnostics simply haven't found or subscribed to a belief in god. If that were the case, they would more accurately fall under the category "theist," which is "One who believes in the existence of a god or gods". Note being a "theist" does not carry with it any assumptions of the god or gods other than their existence. Therefore, a Wiccan witch and a Catholic priest are both theists, sense both acknowledge deities. (11,12) Atheists and agnostics then share the view that god is irrelevant to life. There has been some misunderstanding regarding weather one is an atheist or agnostic. Some simply claim agnostic because while they do not think there is a god, they believe claiming to be an atheist means they have proof that god does not exist. The majority of atheists don't claim to know god doesn't exist-- they just don't see any proof god does, or reason why god needs to. Still others choose the title of agnostic because it's less radical and therefor less shunned then being an atheist. Indeed, there is reason to question openly being an atheist.
Atheists have been disliked throughout history. In 1677 England there was "An act for the punishing of atheism and blasphemy" which stated that "for any person being the age of 16 years or more, not being visibly and apparently distracted and out of his wits by sickness or natural infirmity or not being a natural fool void of common sense shall after this act by word or writing deny that there is a God ... there shall be judgment of death pass upon him and execution shall follow without pardon or reprieve" (1) While you won't find such laws in western countries today, there are countries like Iran where being a non-believer is punishable by death. Indeed, "Among the seventeen great sins, unbelief is the greatest, more heinous than murder, theft, adultery and so on." (2) In the U.S., there are laws that are suppose to guarantee freedom of religious choice, in which atheists, agnostics and the like are covered. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; ..." (3) This does not stop people from discriminating. In Guymon, Oklahoma (which, despite being a town of 10,000-- I've been there), Nicole Smalkowski was kicked off her high school basketball team for refusing to recite the "Lord's Prayer." Her father, Chester Smalkowski, went to the house of the school principal, Lloyd Buckley. Buckley struck Smalkowski, starting a fight between the two men. Buckley then filed misdemeanor criminal assault charges against Smalkowski. The District Attorney told Smalkowski the charges would be dropped if he and his Atheist family left the county. Smalkowski refused and the charges were elevated to felony. Over the course of almost two years, Smalkowski and his family were harassed and spent tens of thousands of dollars for their defense. The jury found him not guilty on all charges. (4,5,6,18) This isn't an isolated event. A study by the University of Minnesota Department of Sociology found "Atheists [are] identified as America's most distrusted minority." (7) The report continues, "Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years."
The world doesn't like us and it never has. Yet to repress our true beliefs because we fear being outcasts, or the subjects of discrimination, only allows the perpetrators to continue to oppress. We live in a time were religious dogma is not only ridiculous, but harmful and dangerous. The Catholic Church continues to fight against condom use in AIDS ridden areas of Africa (13) where programs that include condom use have clearly been working to combat this epidemic. (17) Fundamentalist extremists like Osama bin Laden direct suicide bombings "to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque (in Jerusalem) and the holy mosque (in Makka)." (14) World-renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking was asked by Pope John Paul II "not [to] study the beginning of the universe because it was the work of God." (15) The Pope is suggesting rather then trying to gain an understanding of the fundamentals of how the universe works and possibly upset a said deity by treading on forbidden ground, it is better to stay ignorant.
Sam Harris, author of the book "The End of Faith," argues in the documentary "The God Who wasn't There" that "it (religion) is perfectly maladaptive to planning for a sustainable future of the human race. It is maladaptive, certainly, when it comes time to avoid global conflict because by the likes of these prophecies (referring to Revelations), global conflict is the pre-cursor to Jesus coming back". (16) Harris continues, "When the president of the United States says 'I plan to appoint common sense judges who know that our rights our derived from God', I think someone in the White House Press Core should be able to stand up and say 'How is that different from thinking your going to appoint common sense judges who think our rights are derived from Zeus?' That's clearly an impotent question, but a totally reasonable question". Harris is pointing out how irrational beliefs go unchecked because it's a social taboo to question someone's religious beliefs, even if that someone holds the most powerful office in the world.
I believe we atheists, agnostics and religious skeptics have to speak out. We have to dispense with the idea that religion is a harmless act we choose not to be a part of. It is having an effect on our world, and it isn't always positive. So take a stand and don't let others run you over with 4th century rhetoric; stop backing down and attack these ridicules ideologies.
September 11th, 2006
"Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?"
Epicurus, BC 341-270