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July 18, 2013

Atheism: Good, Bad and Ugly

By Richard Congress

Over the past few years a new crop of writers, talking heads and commentators have take up the banner of atheism. People such as Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher and Sam Harris are not lefty fringe personalities, they reach a wide audience with their atheist message. But their atheism represents a reverse in political direction from the anti-establishment, progressive atheism those of my generation embraced in the 50s and 60s.


Atheism: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Atheism in the USA seems to be on the rise, an interesting relief from the noxious religiosity that normally pervades the nation and the so-called "national discourse," which is no discourse at all but a well financed propaganda offensive. But the seeds of piety and belief in what, on the face of it, is idiot nonsense has always fallen upon fertile soil in our country, the most religious in the Western world. No one has to force Americans to believe self-satisfying fairy tales, they are eager and willing to believe things for which there is no evidence.

From http://www.flickr.com/photos/43585895@N05/8458979621/: Atheism. A personal relationship with reality.
Atheism. A personal relationship with reality. by Skeptical Deb

Mainstream media polling has shown an uptick in the percent of people who identify themselves as having no religious affiliation, or as outright atheists. Some polls have indicated that upwards of 20% reject god and or religion. Even before the media's discovery of this trend, atheism emerged as a hot topic and a saleable commodity on some talk radio and TV programs and more widely, in the form of best selling books: You have Christopher Hitchen's "God Is Not Great'" Sam Harris' more tedious tomes, Richard Dawkins has written on this topic earlier than most, and there is Bill Maher's HBO series and his movie "religulous."

As a rule, I'm in favor of atheism and the defense of atheist ideas. This is because atheism is true and all religion and related forms of superstition, other-worldlyness, and magical thinking are false. The world is a material place and we are animals who have evolved from earlier life-forms along with all other plants, animals, fungi, etc. Humanity has developed ways to try and understand all of this. It's called the scientific method, a way to, as objectively as possible, do research, test different preliminary theories and prove them more or less accurate or inaccurate. Investigating the truth or falseness of various propositions about many thing ("race," geology, evolution of species, physics--all topic about which religion has established dogmas that everyone is required to believe) need an open mind and an ability to make provisional judgements and also to revise these judgements in light of new evidence. Religion is the opposite of this method. The origins of the scientific method are not recent. Ancient Egyptians developed mathematics, The Greek Euclid studied there; Aristotle developed the idea of research and classification; the Arab world and India made scientific contributions a thousand years ago when Europe was in a state of isolated stagnation, and so on.

Another reason to favor atheism is that it liberates your mind and also opens the way to progressive social and political ideas. Or at least I thought so until I encountered the latest crop of rightwing, neo-con, close-minded "atheists" who have become minor media stars. The emergence of reactionary atheism is a new development. For me, growing up in middle America among apolitical friends and family, atheism was a way to be progressive and go against the current. There were no leftist papers to read, no older people who had been radicals; I had to figure it out for myself. Trying to be a beatnik in late 50's Indiana, I read Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, but it took Bertrand Russell's writings in defense of atheism and the pernicious effect of organized religion on society to give me something to use in arguments with rightist Republican fellow-students in high school. So I came of age with an association of atheism with liberal and later, socialist politics; it was the right wing that was religious.

Christopher Hitchens was a pseudo-leftist who bolted to the far right when it suited his inflated ego and pocket book. His rants against religion were not honest explanations of the benefits of atheism. Their main thrust was hysterical, racist, Islamophobia, and an endorsement of US imperialism's endless wars. Ditto for Sam Harris, another neo-con phoney. These people are basically rightist propagandist, hailing neoliberal pillage of the world's resources by the corporate/banking/military interests that defines the USA's permanent ruling class. We get a lot about Islamo-fascism from these guys, but the growing influence of Israeli Judeo-fascism escapes their notice. 

OK, as time went by I met and worked with religious human rights workers, and anti-imperialists, and even revolutionaries (during my time in Nicaragua in the 80s).  During the civli rights movement of the 60s I found myself in many black churches, but the movement was about equal rights. The church was about the only institution that black people controlled and could use as a base. 

Also a rounded, sophisticated understanding of history shows that many religious movements actually reflected class and social struggles (say the Reformation and development of capitalism, or various egalitarian levelers religious movements during the English Revolution), but that's another topic. 

So, that's my stand. Atheism is a good thing. I'm not going to let the neocons ruin it. They probably will get religion if it helps their careers.

Submitters Bio:

adjunct professor teaching ESL in the CUNY system. Old '60s person: active in civil rights, anti vietnam war organizing, spent time in Nicaragua in the '80 & worked against US funding of contras. Currently focused on Palestine struggle for equal rights against Israeli/US ethnic cleansing. Also in the music business: own an indy blues and jazz cd label.