The Atheist Crew

“Should Franks be elected in November, one would have to conclude that he will hold true to his out of touch ‘atheist’ belief system and ignore the laws and Constitution of Texas.”

—Mary Alice Robbins, “GOP Raises Religion in Court Race, Calling Democrat an Atheist.” Law.com, 9 October 2006.

In Paradise Lost, published in 1667, John Milton labels Satan and the other rebel angels “the atheist crew”, despite the fact that they were in Heaven at the time fighting against God and the faithful angels. Presumably, their belief in God’s existence was not in doubt, and Milton meant the term as a generic synonym for wickedness. This tactic is still in use today: witness the Republican political attack cited above, or professional media troll Ann Coulter’s recent book, Godless. From the way she uses the word, one would almost think she meant it as a bad thing!

Islamic fundamentalists have adopted this tactic as well, such as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declaring the Western nations’ “atheism” as the cause of humanity’s problems (source), or the now-deceased terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in a tape from June, denouncing Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as an atheist (source). This claim is especially ridiculous, since al-Sistani is one of the supreme religious authorities in post-war Iraq and is probably the closest thing in the Muslim world to a pope. As far as Ahmadinejad’s claims, it is if anything militaristic, intolerant right-wing Christianity, not atheism, that has led to the Iraqi civil war in which America is embroiled. However, Ahmadinejad apparently believed that denouncing his American adversaries as atheists, rather than as crusading Christians, would win him more popular support.

Clearly, the term “atheist” has acquired a substantial weight of negative connotation. How can real atheists fight back against this?

As the name of my weblog suggests, we atheists can only fight prejudice by stepping into the light. It is easy to demonize the unknown and the invisible. Only by keeping nonbelievers in the closet for so long have members of the believing majority been able to perpetuate such slurs; when we are not there to counter them, they can say whatever they like without fear of contradiction, and with no counterevidence in sight there is no reason for ordinary people to disbelieve them.

However, when actual atheists are visible to contradict these smears, they do not stick. We do not need to display superlative moral virtue to disprove the ugly stereotypes that equate atheism with wickedness (although it wouldn’t hurt). We just need to show that we are ordinary, decent people, just like everyone else, who differ from other people in that we believe in one less god than they do. If more atheists came forward to express such sentiments as these, the use of the word “atheist” as a term of insult would dwindle and die on the vine.

In this respect, I disagree with efforts (like those of the Brights) to coin a new term. We already have a perfectly good one: atheist. We should say what we are plainly and not allow our enemies to usurp or pollute the word. If we avoid using it to describe ourselves because we fear the repercussions, we play into their game. We harm and hinder our own movement when we abandon these words to our enemies as a way to tar us, and what is to stop them from similarly smearing any new word we come up with?

This tactic cannot succeed without our consent. The use of “atheist” (or “liberal”, for that matter, or any of the other descriptive words that have been distorted and demonized by the hosts of ignorance) as an epithet can only work if we buy into it by fleeing from the word when they use it that way. If instead we stand up and proclaim our pride in who and what we are, we will win every time; and if our enemies have polluted our words with propaganda, then we must reclaim them. In that spirit, I have some remarks to offer by way of response to Coulter and others:

Yes, I am godless. I am an atheist, and I am proud of it. I am proud of the fact that I do not fearfully bow down to noises in the night. I am proud of the fact that I value evidence and do not believe just because tradition or authority tells me so. I am proud that I value human well-being as the highest good and do not prize obedience to ancient superstitions more highly than the lives and happiness of real people alive today. I am proud of the fact that I think for myself and do not blindly subordinate my will to the pious mutterings of costumed charlatans or the shrill voices of bigots who think they have some magical power over my eternal destiny. I am unapologetic about this, and I think everyone else should join me. You hurl the term “godless” at me, but I wear it as a badge of pride, and if you think you will ever be able to make me ashamed of who I am, you have disappointment in store.

Ben Franks, mentioned in the quote at the start of this article, may or may not be an atheist; he has said that he is not. The Republican party’s major line of attack seems to consist of the claim that an atheist, if elected, could not take the Texas oath of office, which includes the term “so help me God”. This line of attack neglects the fact that Article VI of the U.S. Constitution states that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any public office in the United States. (It seems to be asking too much of the Republican party these days that they read or understand the Constitution.) However, whether Franks is an atheist or not, what he should be saying is that it makes no difference to his ability to represent the people of his state, and that atheists have every right to hold public office in America, just as theists do. The output of bigots will not necessarily fade away in the face of strong and principled opposition, but we can undercut them and take away their support by showing, both by our speech and by our lives, that their hateful claims bear no relation to reality.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com Alonzo Fyfe

    Okay, I have named my blog ‘Atheist Ethicist‘ to combat the prejudice in the way that you mention here.

    However, you are wrong to claim that this has much power.

    It would be absurd to argue, for example, that the only thing that African Americans needed to do before the civil rights movement of the 1960s was step into the light and freely identify themselves and the prejudice would disappear – that the prejudice against them could only succeed with their consent.

    Nor does it make sense to argue that the Jews of Nazi Germany only needed to step into the light and freely identify themselves in order to remove prejudice against them. In fact, the Nazis wanted Jews easily identified, and passed laws requiring such things as openly wearing a large yellow star on their clothing to HELP in easily identifying Jews.

    In this country, I suggest that the Pledge of Allegiance (with its ‘under God’ provision) is partially favored because of its ability to serve the same function as the yellow star served in Nazi Germany. It easily identifies those who are ‘not us’, asserts that they have no allegiance to America or to the principles of union, liberty, or justice, and symbolically represents their exclusion (ostracism) from civil society by excluding them from participation in the prayer/pledge exercise.

    It is going to take more than just identifying ourselves to fight this prejudice.

    It is going to take atheists willing to engage in acts like the sit-ins and (non-violent) demonstrations of the Civil Rights movement.

    It will take statements like that cited in this article causing atheists to gather with signs to protest the party who dares say that asserting that atheists are not fit for government is no different than saying that Jews are not fit for government.

    It will take actions like atheist students or atheist attendees at a government meeting – waiting for others to finish the traditional Pledge of Allegiance and sitting it out – then standing to give their own Pledge of Allegiance without the words ‘under God’. Saying the Pledge at the same time as others while leaving the words ‘under God’ out communicates nothing to others. They can ignore this. On the other hand, this separate act does communicate to others.

    It will take actions like telling the local newspaper, “On I will walk from my house to the local post office/school/public building where a plaque with the phrase, “In God We Trust” is posted. I will put a sticker over the top of this plaque that will read “E Pluribus Unum.” This is to symbolize my belief that we are a better and stronger country that unites several different people, than we are as a country that asserts that the most important principle to live and die for is the principle of dividing the citizens of this nation into groups of ‘we/us’ and ‘they/them’ according to religious belief.” And then carrying out the act.

    Until and unless atheists are willing to actually protest this type of treatment – if they merely identify themselves as atheists and leave it at that – then they will find their works as ineffective in fighting discrimination sewing on yellow stars was in combatting the evils of Nazi Germany.

  • http://stupac2.blogspot.com Stuart Coleman

    Amen.

  • Infophile

    If more atheists came forward to express such sentiments as these, the use of the word “atheist” as a term of insult would dwindle and die on the vine.

    I’m not so sure this will work. The term “Gay” is still used by many as a generic insult, despite all the coming out of homosexuals and despite all that man people have done to discourage its use in this manner.

  • Freeyourmind

    Excellent article and well written. I also agree with the points of the first comment in that we need to do a lot more than simply stand up and say that we are atheists (of course I realize that Ebonmuse realizes this too, I believe he was simply making the original point in the article).

  • Mikidu

    As the word “atheist” has been so maligned by theists and associated in the popular mind with wickedness, perhaps we should take a leaf from the creationist’s book and fly under a new name. Partially taking the creationist’s example we could call our view of the world “Intelligent Weltanschauung”. Maybe others have some better or less Teutonic suggestions.

  • Alex Weaver

    As the word “atheist” has been so maligned by theists and associated in the popular mind with wickedness, perhaps we should take a leaf from the creationist’s book and fly under a new name. Partially taking the creationist’s example we could call our view of the world “Intelligent Weltanschauung”. Maybe others have some better or less Teutonic suggestions.

    I think the points Adam raises about this are valid ones.

    In this respect, I disagree with efforts (like those of the Brights) to coin a new term. We already have a perfectly good one: atheist. We should say what we are plainly and not allow our enemies to usurp or pollute the word. If we avoid using it to describe ourselves because we fear the repercussions, we play into their game. We harm and hinder our own movement when we abandon these words to our enemies as a way to tar us, and what is to stop them from similarly smearing any new word we come up with?

    As for taking a leaf from the creationists’ book, I have serious misgivings about this idea. It would feel a bit too much like gaining popularity by promising land to farmers, bread to workers, and peace to soldiers.

  • Christopher

    I can see no harm in adopting a title that has less stigma associated with it (for the time being anyway) so we can gain popularity. It would make a good marketing strategy, and marketing is what always sells the hottest ideas to the gullible masses.

    I know, most of you wish to enlighten the masses. But they have been duped into believing the nonsense preached from pulpits. The solution: dupe them again, but only to your side this time. Once duped again, you can begin enlightening them.

  • Alex Weaver

    I’m just going out on a limb here… “you can begin enlightening them…but why should you, when you have the opportunity for great monetary and personal gain by continuing to exploit their gullibility?” Do I win anything?

    Even ignoring the qualifier which your repeatedly stated positions imply…at the risk of inviting (perhaps incompletely unfounded) accusations of “ad hominem,” considering the list of philosophies, attitudes, and agendas in which you see no harm and of which, in many cases, you even openly approve, the fact that you see no harm in this does little to recommend it. More objectively, do you really believe that people are going to be amenable to being “enlightened” by us after we’ve enlightened them to the point where they realize we’ve cynically duped them, too? Or that, having duped the gullible masses, no part of the atheist community will fail to resist the temptation to resist abusing their power over the people? You’ve read Animal Farm, I assume…the course you describe would have the same potential problems and probably the same outcome (though I will concede that there probably would be a minimum of windmills involved).

  • http://www.anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    I e-mailed the Texas state GOP a little while ago and gave them a piece of my mind. I almost wish I lived in Texas just so I could vote for Franks.

  • M. Domsky

    Your paragraph beginning,”Yes, I am godless…….” is sublime.
    You have fashioned a meaningful and succint statement that converts an awkward moment of self revelation into a masterful exclamation.

  • stillwaters

    Indeed, I wholeheartedly agree with M. Domsky in regards to that one particular paragraph, “Yes, I am godless…”

    I find myself filled with a great sense of worth when I read it. I feel honored to be an atheist.

  • TheBearr

    I, too, totaly agree with M. Domsky in regards to his paragraph, “Yes, I am godless….” I have been looking for a quick, concise statement that gives me a sense of being proud of what I believe. I have now found it! I am recently an atheist and now I can illustrate my pride in being so.

  • Linda A

    I know for a fact that he claimed to be an atheist. I read the 2002 El Paso Times article where he made that statement.

    What I find disturbing is that with a little heat, he denies making that claim, instead saying he was misquoted. Reporters don’t lie, and don’t write things like that unless they can back up those statements. Benny Franks’ back-pedalling lies don’t even make sense in this article. He made the statement in El Paso, not Bowie County, out of the hopes that he wouldn’t get caught. It didn’t work.

    Poor Benny Franks is a typical Democrap. He’ll tell people in El Paso one thing but won’t tell the truth in Bowie County, since he doesn’t want to upset anyone in the Bible Belt. He’s a terriffic liar. If he thinks that’s what they want to hear, he’ll say it.

    Should be a good year for Bowie County Republicans.

  • Alex Weaver

    Reporters don’t lie

    …you can’t be serious. (Unless you would contend that nothing less than complete fabrication of information constitutes “lying”).

  • Alex Weaver

    Bleh, hit enter too soon.

    Anyone else think we should adopt “The Atheist Crew” as a collective label for the site community? ^.^


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