Atheists: They Exist in Modesto, California!

I love news articles where reporters write about how atheists exist in their region!. They’re always so surprised…

In Modesto, California, reporter Sue Nowicki spoke to a number of atheists about their beliefs.

Whether stable or shrinking, it’s clear that atheists are an overwhelming minority, and area atheists say there are several misconceptions about their beliefs. Several strongly make the point that they are not satanists, immoral or dumb. Those who spoke with The Bee range in age from 20s to 60s and from business owners to blue-collar workers. They’d like faith groups, especially Christians, to be more tolerant of their views.

At least the stories are interesting.

Mary Brush, a Modesto resident and teacher, 53, traces her atheist roots to her childhood in a Catholic home. “I went to catechism classes, but I gave my mother so much grief, I didn’t take confirmation in eighth grade. The nuns frightened me. They really made me afraid of dying. I thought I’d go to hell.”

Biblical accounts added to her doubts. “The stories sounded a little too fantastical to me,” she said. “It didn’t seem to go with reality. Over the many years, I’ve had (religious) friends and have gone to church and tried to pray. It just didn’t work for me. I’m more of a scientist at heart; science works for me.”

She said, though, that she’s “mellowed over the years. I used to be more militant. I believe if (religion) helps people get by in life, that’s OK. I can see how prayer can be important in other people’s lives. I think it’s helped a lot of alcoholics and people on drugs, people in hard circumstances.”

Brush wants people of faith to know: “I’m a good person. Just because you don’t have a belief in God doesn’t mean you’re not a good person. I’d like a little more tolerance.”

Of course, the picture accompanying the article shows the one person interviewed who doesn’t believe in god, but “has an altar where she occasionally practices pagan rituals”…

*sigh*

That said, good for those atheists interviewed for coming out and allowing their names to be used.

The more atheists who follow their example, the easier it becomes for everybody else.

  • http://ghostsofminnesota.blogspot.com Ghost of Minnesota

    “Overwhelming minority?”

    That seems like a rather mismatched adjective-noun pairing.

  • Malcolm

    “Whether stable or shrinking…”

    Nice way to slip in the assertion that they can’t possibly be growing, without any evidence.

  • http://www.twitter.com/sleh sam

    Don’t the surveys show atheism in the US is around 14%?

  • Richard Wade

    Oh God, Modesto. 35 years ago I lived near there for two years. It had more hellfire spittin’, heathen hatin’, Jeezus lovin’ redneck defenders of the faith per square foot than a stereotypical bumpkin town in the South. Unless it has changed radically, these people will seriously regret giving their names. A follow-up story a year from now about the ramifications they faced would be appropriate, but t’aint gonna happen. The Modesto Bee will never show the dark side of the area’s pious faithful.

    Nowicki makes misconception number one in her very first sentence: (emphasis mine)

    It’s difficult at times being a person of faith, but it can be even harder to be an atheist, someone who believes there is no God.

    (smacking forhead) Why is it so hard to write “doesn’t believe in God,” or more clearly, “has no belief in God”? None of her interviewees either have the concept of absence of belief or are able to explain the difference. I guess the more articulate atheists have already moved away.

    I took the only valuable thing I ever found there, my wife, and left at 110 mph.

  • http://calenotkale.com cale

    Though society has changed, Gardiner said, “I think an atheist would have a hard time getting elected today. I think they’d vote for a minority or a woman before they’d vote for an atheist.”

    A minority or a woman?! What is the world coming to?
    In all honesty this is the exact mindset of people in the Central Valley. The area is so religiously conservative that electing a non-white male is seen as a move towards godlessness.

    (I dislike generalizations but I was brought up there and have first hand experience with the intolerance)

  • prospero52742

    Mary Brush reminded me of the observation in Thomas Paines’s Age of Reason that no religion was acceptable that frightened the children.

  • Ron in Houston

    Send that reporter back to journalism 101. Who does she work for, Fox News?

  • Gary
    It’s difficult at times being a person of faith, but it can be even harder to be an atheist, someone who believes there is no God.

    (smacking forhead) Why is it so hard to write “doesn’t believe in God,” or more clearly, “has no belief in God”? None of her interviewees either have the concept of absence of belief or are able to explain the difference. I guess the more articulate atheists have already moved away.

    Suppose we say that “Smith believes that God does not exist.” Is Smith an atheist? Of course. Suppose we then say, “The planet Neptune has no belief in God.” That is surely a true statement, but are we then warranted in saying “The planet Neptune is an atheist”? If so, why?

  • Richard Wade

    Gary:

    Suppose we say that “Smith believes that God does not exist.” Is Smith an atheist? Of course. Suppose we then say, “The planet Neptune has no belief in God.” That is surely a true statement, but are we then warranted in saying “The planet Neptune is an atheist”? If so, why?

    So far all the definitions of “atheist” I’ve seen start with the words “a person,” whether they continue with “who believes there is no God” or “who has no belief in God.” By pointing out that the idea that inanimate objects are atheists is a ridiculous idea, are you implying that a person who has no belief in a god or gods is not an atheist? What is your point?

  • Gary

    So far all the definitions of “atheist” I’ve seen start with the words “a person,” whether they continue with “who believes there is no God” or “who has no belief in God.” By pointing out that the idea that inanimate objects are atheists is a ridiculous idea, are you implying that a person who has no belief in a god or gods is not an atheist? What is your point?

    My point is that having no belief in a god or gods is a necessary condition to be an atheist, but not a sufficient condition.

    Consider the following proposition: “Baby boy Smith has no belief in a god or gods, therefore, baby boy Smith, being a person, is an atheist.” I consider this to be as ridiculous a proposition as the the proposition, “The planet Neptune is an atheist.” Obviously I have no sympathy with the claim advanced by some that infants are “implicit atheists,” a claim that I consider to be an abuse of the word “atheist.”

    Wikipedia has an interesting brief discussion of the suffix “-ism” which is worth reading in this context.

  • Richard Wade

    Gary,
    Okay, I’ll play along. Firstly, I agree that the term “implicit atheist” applied to infants is basically silly and useless. But when baby boy Smith grows up to adulthood where he has been exposed to the wide variety of beliefs proposed and having at least an average level of intelligence finds that he does not have an active, declarative belief that there is no god or gods, he finds instead that he simply has no belief in god or gods, then are you saying that according to you he lacks the requirements to call himself an atheist? What instead would you call him?

  • Gary

    But when baby boy Smith grows up to adulthood where he has been exposed to the wide variety of beliefs proposed and having at least an average level of intelligence finds that he does not have an active, declarative belief that there is no god or gods, he finds instead that he simply has no belief in god or gods, then are you saying that according to you he lacks the requirements to call himself an atheist? What instead would you call him?

    What does it mean to say that he “simply has no belief in god or gods”? Does this imply the possibility that he also “simply has no belief in the non-existence of god or gods”? If so, and if we insist on the peculiar negative definition of an “X-ist” as “one who has no belief in ‘not-X’”, wouldn’t that make Smith an atheist and a theist at the same time?

  • Richard Wade

    Gary,

    What does it mean to say that he “simply has no belief in god or gods”? Does this imply the possibility that he also “simply has no belief in the non-existence of god or gods”?

    Yes! That is exactly what I am saying.

    When a person does not have a belief in “A” that does not require or imply that he has a belief in “not A” in its place. It is possible to be free of belief one way or the other. For clarity, the definition of belief I am using here is the persistent assumption of the truth of something in the absence of evidence.

    Grown-up Smith, having no belief in the existence of God and having no belief in the non-existence of God is not therefore a theist by default, nor is he both atheist and theist at the same time as you were asking. To be a theist he would have to have a belief in God. Being empty of belief on this topic he is what has been called a “weak atheist” as opposed to a “strong atheist” who assertively holds the belief that there is no god. (I dislike those terms because of the distracting connotations of the words “weak” and “strong,” but there it is.) Both weak and strong are within the category of “explicit atheist” as contrasted to “implicit atheist.” So all atheists are weak atheists and a few of them are also strong atheists. Austin Cline does a very good job succinctly explaining this.

    Belief is not a general condition permeating the entire mind. It is a distinct, identifiable activity, like counting up by threes. You can either be counting up by threes or not. If you’re not busy counting up by threes that does not mean that you must be counting down by threes instead. Belief is not something that the mind has to be busy doing. It is possible to be empty of belief, to be just not doing it.

    One advantage of this belief-free state is that in any discussion, the holder of a belief faces the challenge of providing evidence for that belief. The belief that there is no god has no more evidence in its favor than the belief that there is a god. Why take on a stance that requires a futile search for evidence that has failed for as many centuries as the search for the opposing view? I don’t go to theists saying “There is no god.” They come to me saying that there is. Then I politely ask them for their evidence. They have to do the futile work, not me.

    Belief is a kind of lunacy. A waste of time and thought. A bad habit. It gets people to do awful things. We’re not stuck with it, we can be free of it. It takes diligence and patience but it can be cleansed from your mind. To be clean of it feels light, free and healthy.

  • David D.G.

    Gary wrote:

    My point is that having no belief in a god or gods is a necessary condition to be an atheist, but not a sufficient condition.

    That is patently absurd. Having no belief in a god or gods is the very definition of atheism.

    Some atheists go on to make a positive claim that no gods exist, but this is not the case with all atheists (and in my opinion it is a logically untenable position as well as simply an unnecessary one).

    But whether they do or not, the lack of belief in a god or gods is all that is needed to qualify one as an atheist. There is nothing “insuffient” about that whatsoever — that’s exactly what an atheist IS.

    ~David D.G.

  • Gary

    For clarity, the definition of belief I am using here is the persistent assumption of the truth of something in the absence of evidence.

    Your use of this particular definition of “belief” is, I think, at the root of our disagreement. Let me tweak your definition a bit, so that it reads as follows: “Confidence in the truth or reliability of something without absolute proof.” I think that this latter version is closer to the common English usage of the word “belief” than your version, which sounds more like a definition of “blind faith.”

    Belief is not something that the mind has to be busy doing. It is possible to be empty of belief, to be just not doing it.

    Does this mean that Christians are atheists whenever they’re not thinking about God?

    I don’t go to theists saying “There is no god.” They come to me saying that there is. Then I politely ask them for their evidence. They have to do the futile work, not me.

    I think this is why the concept of “weak atheism” was invented — the belief (if I may be so bold to use that word here) that it shifts the burden of proof to the theist, and thus, in debate, allows the atheist an opportunity to score a win by default. But the price to be paid in taking this approach is that, not only can’t one “go to theists saying ‘There is no god,’” but one can’t say “There is no god,” period. That is, you must refuse to say (or believe) that the statement, “God exists” is false. You can neither express nor have an opinion one way or another about the truth of that statement.

  • Gary

    Having no belief in a god or gods is the very definition of atheism.

    It may be your belief that this is “the very definition of atheism,” but your belief about the matter is scarcely sufficient to establish it as a matter of lexicographical fact.

    The dictionary at my desk defines “atheism” as “the doctrine or belief that there is no God or gods.” Are you prepared to offer absolute proof that this definition is incorrect?

  • http://www.mindblink.org Linda

    Some atheists I know believe “there is no god.” Some have “no belief in a god.” Some are open to the possibility of a god but still call themselves atheists. There are many, many different views and opinions about what atheism is even to the atheists themselves.

    When you go over the theism side, it gets even more confusing.

    My point is… a word is just a word. Do we really need to continue to define, redefine, and define the word again? Belief or lack of belief in God should be a personal thing and no one else’s business. No matter how many times we rehash and redefine the words, we cannot prove or disprove the state of our spirituality to each other.

    In my experience, the word atheist (or Christian for that matter) is the least significant thing that defines that person as a fellow human being.

    I don’t know… I’m just getting tired of seeing the same things over and over again.

    Will things ever change? Do you think that the religious community as a whole is capable of getting rid of the elitist mentality?

  • Richard Wade

    Gary,

    Does this mean that Christians are atheists whenever they’re not thinking about God?

    That is so asinine a question that I am beginning to think you are trolling. I’m losing interest in this very quickly.

    I think this is why the concept of “weak atheism” was invented — the belief (if I may be so bold to use that word here) that it shifts the burden of proof to the theist, and thus, in debate, allows the atheist an opportunity to score a win by default.

    Yes. Clever isn’t it? The burden of proof is and should always be on the claimant.

    But the price to be paid in taking this approach is that, not only can’t one “go to theists saying ‘There is no god,’” but one can’t say “There is no god,” period. That is, you must refuse to say (or believe) that the statement, “God exists” is false. You can neither express nor have an opinion one way or another about the truth of that statement.

    I can state that the statement “God exists” has no evidence to support it, but that’s not the point as far as I’m concerned anyway. I’m not interested in attacking someone’s belief in God. I don’t care about what goes on between their ears. The weak atheist position does not mean he has to be passive or uninvolved in controversy over religion’s unwanted intrusions into our lives. From this stance I can have plenty of opinions about issues that matter to me and I can defend them well. I’m interested in defending against and counterattacking things theists want to do to society, to schools, to science, to government and to our civil liberties, all rationalized by their religious beliefs. Making them have to support the root assumption of their rationalizations is an effective strategy and certainly not the only one.

    Gary, if you actually get into these debates with theists where you state your belief that there is no god, then the burden of proof falls on your shoulders to support your claim. I’d be very interested to hear what evidence you offer. You may be the first in hundreds of thousands of attempts to finally succeed.

  • Richard Wade

    Linda, thank you for your attempt at peacemaking. As always, your heart is in the right place. You asked,

    Will things ever change? Do you think that the religious community as a whole is capable of getting rid of the elitist mentality?

    No. I think one of the main purposes of religion is to create and perpetuate an elitist mentality. From God’s chosen people to the Elect to the followers of the true faith to the saved, religion offers a tantalizing, almost irresistible way for people to feel superior to other people. A few adherents may be free of that, but the claims of exclusive possession of absolute truth are built into religions and foster that elitism.

    What I really find disappointing is the elitism that seeps into atheist communities, such as people who say or imply that because they make the positive claim that there is no god, that they are more genuine atheists than those other “insufficient” (read inferior) atheists who only lack belief in god and who hardly have the right to even call themselves atheists.

    I suppose we will have to battle “I’m better than you” everywhere forever. The problem is that in the process the bullshit rubs off on all of us.

  • Gary

    That is so asinine a question that I am beginning to think you are trolling.

    You had said,

    Belief is not something that the mind has to be busy doing. It is possible to be empty of belief, to be just not doing it.

    The two sentences appear to contradict one another. Most Christians, I suppose, spend most of their waking hours NOT thinking about God. According to your first sentence, that would not mean that they do not believe, since “Belief is not something that the mind has to be busy doing.” Yet when Christians are not consciously thinking about God, are their minds not “empty of belief”? Are they not “just not doing it”? My question was not meant to troll, but to probe that apparent contradiction.

    I liked your first sentence much better than the second, by the way, which accounts for the way I phrased my question.

    The burden of proof is and should always be on the claimant.

    So you claim. If you are correct, you are now obliged to prove that you are correct.

    I think that the whole concept of “burden of proof” is entirely misplaced here, a misapplication of a principle that, strictly speaking, is relevant only in a court of law or in a formal academic debate. While it may be tiresome of me to once again refer to my desk dictionary, I will do so anyway: “Burden of proof: Chiefly Law. The obligation to offer evidence that the court or jury could reasonably believe, in support of a contention, failing which the case will be lost.”

    Does the case to be made for weak atheism rest on nothing better than its alleged but dubious utility in serving some purely forensic purpose?

    I can state that the statement “God exists” has no evidence to support it….

    Yes, you can, but notice that you have painted yourself into a philosophical corner whereby, if you do say it, you are forced by your own argument to prove that your statement is true. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

    . The weak atheist position does not mean he has to be passive or uninvolved in controversy over religion’s unwanted intrusions into our lives. From this stance I can have plenty of opinions about issues that matter to me and I can defend them well.

    But as far as I can tell, one opinion that you cannot have, as a “weak atheist,” is the opinion that God does not exist. That seems a bit strange to me. Or is the weak atheist position that you can think that God does not exist, but you just can’t say it? That seems stranger still.

    Gary, if you actually get into these debates with theists where you state your belief that there is no god, then the burden of proof falls on your shoulders to support your claim.

    I contend again that the concept of “burden of proof” is not applicable here.

  • Darryl

    From God’s chosen people to the Elect to the followers of the true faith to the saved, religion offers a tantalizing, almost irresistible way for people to feel superior to other people.

    It’s a very human thing to enjoy the feelings of togetherness and superiority of the group. This is primal; this is tribal/clan thinking; and this is tapped into and reinforced by religion and politics. It’s why so many love sports and war.

    Some people get their meaning from their difference and opposition to others that differ. They feed on that feeling; it’s the only excitement in their lives. That’s shallow and primitive thought and living, but it’s out there by the millions (billions?).

  • Gary

    What I really find disappointing is the elitism that seeps into atheist communities, such as people who say or imply that because they make the positive claim that there is no god, that they are more genuine atheists than those other “insufficient” (read inferior) atheists who only lack belief in god and who hardly have the right to even call themselves atheists.

    I get the distinct impression, Richard, that you think that weak atheism is an intellectually superior position to strong atheism. David D.G. certainly made such a claim upthread:

    Some atheists go on to make a positive claim that no gods exist, but this is not the case with all atheists (and in my opinion it is a logically untenable position as well as simply an unnecessary one).

    Was this an expression of weak atheist “elitism”?

  • Darryl

    Gary, you remind me of me 25 yrs ago. But, I’ve changed (somewhat) for the better. I still have one flaw though: I can’t resist speaking my mind. I’m not as tolerant of stupidity as Richard, so I’ll say what everyone’s probably been thinking:

    Gary, “you ignorant slut,” you’re an insecure, pedantic, fatuous, quarrelsome bore who’s probably had an intro. to logic course or PHI 101 and thinks that that qualifies him to bother people with his pointless banter.

  • http://www.mindblink.org Linda

    Darryl,

    You are so funny. :-)

  • Darryl

    Thank You, Linda, I’ll accept your compliment and try not to let it go to my head. As for me, my favorite funny person on this blog is Siamang. I’ve done more belly laughs reading his stuff than I can say.

  • http://www.chedstone.com Roy

    Sue Nowicki is an idiot. She is a terrible writer for a paper that is even worse. She is the faith and values head writer (im just upset we have that section in the paper here) and constantly writes crap like Richard Weikart being such a noble inspiration for the movie Expelled and his connection between atheism and hitler…idiotic.

  • Gary

    Gary, you remind me of me 25 yrs ago. But, I’ve changed (somewhat) for the better. I still have one flaw though: I can’t resist speaking my mind. I’m not as tolerant of stupidity as Richard, so I’ll say what everyone’s probably been thinking:

    Gary, “you ignorant slut,” you’re an insecure, pedantic, fatuous, quarrelsome bore who’s probably had an intro. to logic course or PHI 101 and thinks that that qualifies him to bother people with his pointless banter.

    I notice, Darryl, that you are quite bold in your willingness to assert your opinion as to what “everyone’s probably been thinking,” in the absence of evidence as to what all but a few people are thinking. Is this a positive assertion that shifts the “burden of proof” to you to demonstrate that everyone has actually been thinking what you claim they have been thinking? Or does the use of the word “probably” hedge your bet sufficiently as to relieve you of that intolerable burden?

    Allow me to hypothesize that “everyone” who says that he is a weak atheist is “probably” in fact a strong atheist who is so frightened of, or offended by, the word “believe” that he wants to take the position that he believes precisely nothing. Note Richard’s eccentric definition of the word “belief”: “the persistent assumption of the truth of something in the absence of evidence.” How about “The psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true” instead? Seems to me that’s a better definition.

  • http://thatatheistguysblog.blogspot.com/ NYCatheist

    Do I smell a debate about the definition of atheism? I can’t resist joining in.

    I suppose I agree with Austin Cline on this issue, but the whole “belief vs. lack of belief” discussion can get pretty sticky. Here are some points:

    1. For me atheism is just a disagreement. A believer makes a claim about God and the atheist will say “I don’t believe that.” Weak atheists aren’t making any claims themselves. Disagreement does not necessarily imply that the one doing the disagreeing is promoting the opposite position. Some folks will say that’s just agnosticism, which is fine too, but I’ve found that people misunderstood me when I said I was an agnostic. They thought I was claiming it’s impossible to know things about God (which I disagree with) or that I was somehow on the fence about Jesus (the idea that an agnostic just hasn’t made up their mind yet.)

    2. As usual a lot hinges on the particular god under discussion. Some descriptions of God are self-contradictory and a good case can be made for the positive claim of such a god’s nonexistence. I prefer the ignostic position. The ignostic has no idea what people mean by the word “God”. If I ask you, “Do you believe Zrefyup exits?” how can you even answer that question with a yes or no? I know definitions of God exist (the omnipotent omniscient creator of the universe) but I feel such definitions are empty, and no more useful than the new-agers use of the word “energy”.

    3. Although I said I agree with Austin Cline, and therefore Richard’s comments above, I do still have some trouble with the whole “lack of belief” line. How do we differentiate between people who lack a belief in X because they have never heard of it, and people like weak atheists who have heard of God? (Eg: Do you believe Mary Jones exists? But I don’t know who she is, so I guess I lack that belief(??) Can I lack a belief in the nebulous concept of gods in general, but believe in the non-existence of specific gods like Yahweh or Allah? Or isn’t my belief that believers are mistaken also a belief?

    Besides all that, I also have trouble with the English grammar behind the two forms: “believe X is not” and “don’t believe X is”. This issue usually comes up with atheists claiming “I don’t believe God exists” is different from “I believe God doesn’t exist”. Sometimes I get it, but then sometimes it seems they are the same. Is there really a difference between “I believe Mary doesn’t live in Seattle” and “I don’t believe Mary lives in Seattle”? Is it true that “don’t believe” = “lack of belief”? It doesn’t seem right.

    What do you think?

  • monkeymind

    Hi:

    I’m late to the party but I have to agree with Darryl that I’m getting a “I know logic and I’m not afraid to use it!” vibe from Gary.

    Gary did say one thing that intrigued me: “Does this mean that Christians are atheists whenever they’re not thinking about God?”

    I think that in fact a lot of believers are functional atheists. Their belief in God does not affect their behavior or decision-making in any meaningful way. This was the point, as far as I remember, of Nietzsche’s parable about the death of god. The man who discovers that god is dead is overcome with grief and runs into the marketplace shouting “God is dead!” However, the people in the marketplace couldn’t care less whether god is dead or not, because they never really believed that he was alive. What matters to them is keeping up appearances.

    To use a culinary metaphor, I think religious belief for a lot of people is like the fancy food processor on the top shelf of the cupboard that you only dust off for special occasions. In this context, due to the marvelous flexibility of human language, when I hear Richard say, “I don’t believe in food processors,” I don’t conclude that he believes food processors don’t exist, but rather that he is handy with a knife and is not convinced that food processors are worth the time or trouble.

  • http://www.mindblink.org Linda

    To use a culinary metaphor, I think religious belief for a lot of people is like the fancy food processor on the top shelf of the cupboard that you only dust off for special occasions. In this context, due to the marvelous flexibility of human language, when I hear Richard say, “I don’t believe in food processors,” I don’t conclude that he believes food processors don’t exist, but rather that he is handy with a knife and is not convinced that food processors are worth the time or trouble.

    Monkeymind,

    I LOVE that metaphor. Anything to do with food!! Very sharply put. ;-)

    Too bad that the food processor on the shelf is most likely an imitation. :-(

    Have you ever considered the idea that it’s not the food processor or the knife that’s the driving force that produces the results? Worshipping and/or criticizing the processor is what we often end up doing, though. I think we can end up with gourmet meals regardless of what tool we use.

    My wandering mind again… just throwing a thought out there… (sorry)

  • http://www.mindblink.org Linda

    To use a culinary metaphor, I think religious belief for a lot of people is like the fancy food processor on the top shelf of the cupboard that you only dust off for special occasions. In this context, due to the marvelous flexibility of human language, when I hear Richard say, “I don’t believe in food processors,” I don’t conclude that he believes food processors don’t exist, but rather that he is handy with a knife and is not convinced that food processors are worth the time or trouble.

    Monkeymind,

    I LOVE that metaphor. Anything to do with food!! Very sharply put. ;-)

    Too bad that the food processor on the shelf is most likely an imitation. :-(

    Have you ever considered the idea that it’s not the food processor or the knife that’s the driving force that produces the results? Worshipping and/or criticizing the processor is what we often end up doing, though. I think we can end up with gourmet meals regardless of what tool we use.

    My wandering mind again… just throwing a thought out there… (sorry)


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