First Person Revolutionary — Part 2

[ Read Part 1 first. ]

Atheism (more broadly, freethought) isn’t new, of course. Just in this country alone, it’s as old as Thomas Paine (although Paine was a deist, he was widely accused of being an atheist, and I’m confident he would’ve been one of us if he lived in a society in which it was possible to actually think about such things), and has had its bright sparks all along the way, right up to Carl Sagan, who published The Demon Haunted World only 15 years ago.

But it has always been a social cul de sac. Even Paine, champion of the Revolution, died hated and reviled by large numbers of the people in the nation he had helped create. His funeral was attended by a mere 6 people.

And despite its bright sparks through the past 200 years, it has always failed to really catch fire. I have wondered many times why it didn’t catch and burn on its own. I mean … it’s freedom, isn’t it? Freedom from religion, freedom of thought! Here, of all places, how could that idea not blaze skyward?

Freethought had a half-century heyday in the 1800s, the Golden Age of Freethought. As Wikipedia puts it:

The golden age of freethought describes the socio-political movement promoting freethought that developed in the mid 19th-century United States. Freethought is a philosophical position that holds that ideas and opinions should be based on science and reason, and not restricted by authority, tradition, or religion. It began around 1856 and lasted at least through the end of the century; author Susan Jacoby places the end of the Golden Age at the start of World War I. The Golden Age was encouraged by the lectures of the extremely popular agnostic orator Robert G. Ingersoll, the popularization of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, the push for woman’s suffrage, and other political, scientific, and social trends that clashed with religious orthodoxy and caused people to question their traditional ideas about the world.

And then it just … died. Swept under by the aggressive, ever-present tide of religiosity. “The Great Agnostic,” Ingersoll himself, who passed away at the age of 65 in 1899, and who helped discredit blasphemy laws in the United States, just seemed to vanish from the popular consciousness.

Whereas you can find icons of Jesus and Mary in every neighborhood in the country, there appears to be a single statue of Ingersoll. Not in Washington, DC, or Times Square, but in Peoria, Illinois.

The small town of Ingersoll, Texas, founded in the mid-1870s by two high-minded brothers who named it to honor Ingersoll, lasted a mere 10 years before it was renamed Redwater. A traveling revival meeting converted most of its citizens into evangelical Christians, and they chose to rename the town in decidedly non-high-minded fashion — “red water” after the iron-rich mud-water of the newly dug town well. I can imagine the smug thought process that attended the renaming: THAT to the damned atheist.

From my slightly distant and unlettered awareness of our history, I suspect the reason freethought never caught on was because it was always a solitary endeavor. Privately, you could style yourself an atheist, but you’d better stop there. Even passing it on to your kids could have a high cost to it, both to you and the kids. And though you might cover your car in Christian “fish” magnets and “abortion is murder” Catholic stickers, plenty of us even today hesitate to slap on a small “God is Imaginary” or “Good Without God” sign on our bumpers. (We are also extremely leery about proselytizing, attempting to actively convert believers.)

Along came the Internet! We timid agnostics (whisperatheistswhisper) discovered we could talk to each other. But even that was no overnight revolution.

Heh. I have to tell you this long aside about my experience in Yahoo chat rooms in the mid-1990s.

Early on, I was drawn to Yahoo’s “Religion” rooms, which would allow … well, damn, how many was it? – 15 people? 25? – something like that. You’d enter a room with a name like “Religion: 6” and talk to the people there. If the lower-numbered rooms filled up, the system would generate a new higher-numbered room – Religion: 7, Religion: 8, Religion: 9, etc.

So why was I in a Religion room to chat? Because there was nowhere else to go. You could user-create rooms up until about 2005, but if you started a room called “Atheists Only” or “No Christians Please” – which I did many times – you’d be creating something any fishermen would kill for: the irresistible lure. Only this lure worked on Christians rather than fish, so you’d be stomped flat by a stampede of simpering bliss ninnies who just HAD to pop in and tell you (cue Forrest Gump voice) “Jesus loves you anyway! I will pray for you.”

In defense of your own sanity, you’d have to just sign into one of the general Religion rooms, and hope for the best.

When I first entered the Religion chat rooms, there were no atheists. None. For several months, as I remember it, I was the sole voice in those rooms talking to Christians about the unbelievability of gods and the Bible. About atheism.

Arguing there was good practice, actually. Since it was writing, I was in my element, and I got to engage the nice Christians night after night. No, there was no Adam and Eve, no Garden of Eden. Ever. Yes, evolution works, and we are related to apes. No, there was no worldwide flood, and I’m sorry but the Grand Canyon really was formed by erosion over millions of years. No, we don’t need prayer in schools – besides the fact that there are plenty more churches than schools, kids can already pray anytime and anywhere they want, and only an idiot would think otherwise.

Eventually, though, another guy showed up willing to argue the unbeliever line. It felt good to have an ally, but we were still badly outnumbered. Then another guy showed up, and another, then a couple of women. We started poking fun at the Christians, backing each other up in comedic attacks on the silly stuff in the Bible, calling Christians on logical errors and demanding that arguers actually support religious claims with evidence.

More atheists popped up. The tenor of the chat rooms started to change. The ridicule grew, the smug religious simpering began to lose steam. Eventually, the only Christians there were the in-and-out bliss ninnies and the hard-core god-idiots who would not listen to any rational argument and would pontificate indefinitely on the fantastically positive aspects of Jesus and God and church. (Actually, there was a third group, usually a single individual in any one session, definitely a Christian but someone who seemed to be there purely for the negative feedback. Believe it or not, there are people who get off on being disliked.)

In only about 6 months, the Religion rooms were filled with skeptics. The “I’ll pray for you crowd” were in the minority, and they could expect a sound ribbing anytime one of them showed up.

Eventually I got bored with chat rooms and dropped out, but I’ll always remember the time there as my training ground for arguing atheism.

One of my favorite all-time arguments was about the definition of “theory.” I’d realized early on that there was a colloquial definition of the word, and then there were one or more technical definitions. My argument went like this.

Me: You’re familiar with the word “strike,” right?

Christian Bliss Ninny: Well, sure.

Me: Okay, what does it mean?

CBN: I’m not sure what you’re asking. It means different things, depending on what you’re talking about.

Me: Exactly! If you’re talking about bowling, it means this one thing: you knock down all the pins with one ball. If you’re talking about baseball, it means this completely different thing – the baseball gets by the batter, in the strike zone, without him hitting it. With me so far?

CBN: Yes.

Me: Okay, the thing to remember is that the word has a different, distinct meaning, depending on the subject of the conversation. “Strike” means one thing to a bowler, another thing to a baseball fan, something else to a labor organizer, a totally different thing to a weather scientist talking about lightning, yet another thing to a Boy Scout talking about starting a campfire with matches. Still with me?

CBN: Yes.

Me: The deal is, you can’t use the baseball “strike” when the subject is bowling. “No way was that a strike! Not only is the ball way too big, there isn’t even a batter down there to swing at it!” Okay, follow me on this …

CBN: I’m listening.

Me: “Theory” has a colloquial definition, the one you use when you’re talking loosely about a wild idea you’ve had. And it has this whole other technical, scientific meaning, the one you use when you’re talking about science such as evolutionary biology. When you’re talking about science, YOU CAN’T USE THE COLLOQUIAL DEFINITION. You have to use the technical one. Get it?

CBN: No! You’re trying to trick me! Theory means a guess!

I still chuckle about that. Not only had I led the horse to water, I’d motored him out to a tiny island where he couldn’t move without bodily falling into it. He still refused to drink. It happened over and over and over.

(Another chuckle: I’d often ask Christian trolls the question “Not counting the Bible, how many books have you read all the way through in the past five years?” The answer was almost always a totally unselfconscious “None.” I chuckled about it, but it was a darker chuckle.)

Over the year or so I was there, I got a few people thinking. I may have actually converted one or two. But every once in a while, I’d have someone who was sympathetic to my views tell me “You don’t have a hope of converting these idiots. Why do you waste your time here?”

Me: Because it isn’t a waste of time. I’m not just trying to change minds. I’m also here to PRACTICE thinking about this stuff. I get to explore and solidify my own understanding of the subject. Hopefully the people who are already on my side of the argument get to read and remember the words I use to fight this nonsense. If it helps somebody past their own uncertainty, to where they understand that they, too, are atheists, so much the better.

But back to the subject of atheism/freethought, religion and society:

Guys, I’m worried. Because I’ve recently realized atheism – the entire New Atheist revolution – has certain limits. Those limits are coming rapidly into play and threatening to fracture or kill – yet again – the movement.

[ Continued ]

First Person Revolutionary — Part 1
First Person Revolutionary — Part 2
First Person Revolutionary — Part 3
First Person Revolutionary — Part 4


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