Are there Atheist Extremists?

I recently posted an editorial in the Columbia Missourian concerning Rush Limbaugh and the placement of a bust in his honor in the Hall of Famous Missourians. When one of my usual detractors said that I only write about conservative screw-up, I replied that I will write about liberal and other cases of Foot-in-Mouth disease when I come across them. I have…

I am an atheist, a humanist, and a skeptic, yet I am dismayed when one in my community engages in a “straw man attack” in response to a secular complaint.

When teaching ethics in language and communication, I remind my students that both ends of the continuum are equally as guilty of violating the terms of rational discussion and resort to the madness of out-right conflict. This is as true with the religious as with the atheist communities. 

I heard this from a women who simply refuses to believe that someone addressing her during the winter holiday season with “Merry Christmas” is just being friendly. She takes that comment as a direct insult to her personally; even if the greeting came from a stranger.

I heard this from a gentleman in St. Louis who told me that it is not the atheists taking up “arms,” but the Christian fundamentalists who are the aggressors. He is only partly correct, for he seems to disregard the extremists within our own.

In both examples, the speakers were making the statement as if it were the absolute truth. At least for them.

Why? Like those of religion, atheists are also sensitive to the insults and discrimination in an attempt to prove their “faith” is wrong. In religion, it is the possibility that their god and scriptures do not exist. For the a-theist, it is the suggestion they no long use rational and critical thinking, or science as their tools.

Every group has its extremists and atheism is no different. Atheists have our own deniers, our own radicals (beyond those of the so-called “New atheist,”) and, in a very real way, our own misguided beliefs that move away from the rational base we so honor.

I teach communication; oral, rhetoric, argument/persuasion, and alike. I also teach business communication and in every class, I talk about the process of persuasion. Yes, I use my own language, but the theory is solid and understandable.

There are three levels to personal understanding. Each level maintains its own proofs and condition when and how those proofs can be modified. I draw this as three concentric circles explaining if a person’s beliefs have entered that inner circle, change is near impossible – it is improbable.

The outer most circle is “knowledge,” information that is based on facts and proofs, but can be modified is new facts are provided or the old facts are disproven. People who discuss ideas falling in this outer ring are usually rational, listeners, and purveyors of critical thinking.

The second level is when “belief” become more deeply engrained and, therefore, harder to correct if there is misinformation or a misunderstanding. People who discuss ideas falling in this circle are less willing to accept new facts and proofs. They will use arguments of emotion, slippery slope, and denial. They will beg the question or distract the discussion by changing the subject. They are more apt to call the other party names or placing blame on them to discourage the continuance of any logical discussion.

The inner most circle is “faith,” justification with proofs that cannot be proven, episodes that cannot be repeated, or simply by the supernatural. As Christian fundamentalists have told me in the past, their belief in God is based on faith and faith alone. Their God exists because they say their God exists, and like every other faith, point to their own scriptures as proof.

Any challenge to their position of faith is considered a personal attack against the unseen authority that provided the nonexistent proofs. This does not only fall on those of religion alone, but those who are a-theistic as well.

People who discuss ideas from this inner-most circle will go back to their unproven theory, thesis, or faith. Most important, they will always deny self fault in any conflict, placing blame on everyone but themselves.

The unfortunate part is that it is not just evangelical, fundamental or Pentecostals Christians, orthodox Jews or fundamental Muslims, but it does include the extremist atheists.

It is also a problem of perception versus intent versus reality.

The most recent example is a billboard the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Atheists put up in Harrisburg, PA. If you have not seen this billboard, here is the picture.

The biblical quote, “Slaves obey your Masters” in Colossians 3:22, is correct and it is certainly not the only place where the Jewish and Christian testaments endorse slavery. Leviticus 25:44–46 and Exodus 21:2-6 and 21:20-21, and Ephesians 6:5 all talk about slave ownership.

It is also fact that the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, whose majority is seeking the support of Christian conservatives in this election year, has declared that 2012 is the Year of the Bible. Declaring 2012 as the ‘Year of the Bible’ in Pennsylvaniasays,

RESOLVED, That the House of Representatives declare 2012 as the “Year of the Bible” in Pennsylvania in recognition of both the formative influence of the Bible on our Commonwealth and nation and our national need to study and apply the teachings of the holy scriptures.

I will not discuss the Constitutional violation of this resolution, but it passed. The governor need not sign.

If the billboard speaks only to facts, what is the fuss?

It is the perception of the black community, who are primarily of the Christian faiths, that the language and the accompanying illustration are demeaning and discriminatory. It was not the intent of the atheist community, but the perception of the black community that has raised the hackles of the NAACP and others.

Like Rush Limbaugh, Ernest Perce V, the Pennsylvania state director of American Atheists, not only responded to the accusations without acknowledgement, but claimed equal if not greater discrimination of atheists. He stated,

We hope people can see just a little bit of discrimination we get… We ask that you turn your anger toward the (state) House of Representatives.

I know that the quote is not complete, however, I have not been able to locate the complete quote as of this writing. I do have a call into the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers and am waiting for a response.

By the way, he is planning to place about two-dozen more billboards up in Pennsylvania. 

Here “truth” and “facts” are no longer in play. Here, the “proofs” of each side has moved from knowledge and rational, to the inner sanctum of “faith.” Not because the accusations of the racial implications are or are not true, but because of the perception of the language and imagery pushed one-too-many buttons.

This is where we can see the differences in the extremes and the moderates in the Church/State discussion.

Here is where we can see the “faith” of the radical non-believer.

Pennsylvania Nonbelievers president Brian Fields understands the image was provocative. In his note of apology, found on the PANonbeliever’s Web site, Fields says, “I want to say that I’m truly sorry that many people have misunderstood this billboard. It was never our intention to use race as our message itself.”

A full description of the reasoning behind the billboard can also be read on their site.

Mr. Fields did ask that I explain that the sign was not put up by PA Nonbelievers.

I would have urged Perce to say; “I am sorry, it was not our intent, it will never happen again and all future advertising will be reviewed as it concerns our fellow citizens’ history of discrimination.”

The billboard was ill conceived and because there are so few men and women of color within our formal ranks, the racial overtones were most likely not understood. Or seen.

I urge the American Atheists to consider this incident with the knowledge they now have gained and see this billboard as inappropriate and stick to their message. If you do not believe in God, you are not alone.

I urge the American Atheists to talk to their state directors about the secular sensitivities of our fellow Americans.

I urge that Mr. Perce and the NAACP in Pennsylvania can sit down together to discuss this issue with logic and compassion, understanding and good faith.


David Rosman’s newest book, A Christian Nation? An examination of Christian nation theories and proofs is now available through in paperback or eBook versions.

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About David Rosman

David is the winner of the Missouri Press Foundation's "Best Columnist" in 2013 (First Place) and 2014 (Second Place), the 2016 Harold Riback Award for excellence in writing, and the winner of the 2007 Interactive Media Award for excellence in editing.
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