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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Atheism on Rise


Whether we admit or not, most of us have a percent of Agnostic or Atheist residing within us, and I was no exception. Mother Teresa in her letters to the Vatican had expressed her occasional doubts, and that has helped me free myself that it was Ok to have doubts. A Catholic Nun and a Saint with fervent conditioning in religious beliefs had the doubts, she happens to be one of my mentors.

I must acknowledge and give credit to the pluralistic ethos of India, where Atheism was a part of the society, and was not shunned as much as much as it was shunned in the United States a few years ago, indeed there was a movie made in India in the early fifties called Nastik (Agnostic /Atheist) and one of its Songs appeals to God to reverse the changes in the society. Thank God (!) the attitudes are changing across the globe and being an Atheist is not looked down any more.

The Atheist movement was huge in India in the sixties, Dr. Abraham Kovoor of Sri Lanka (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Kovoor ) was leading the movement and I was enthused about his rationalism and subscribed to many an ideas he floated. Those were my school days and I did not see the need to believe in God. The Bangalore University Chancellor Dr. Narsimaiah spurred by the movement wanted to initiate scientific investigations into some of the miracles claimed by the healers of the day including the Sri Satya Sai Babaof White Field, Bangalore, but the politicians did not let him proceed.

At times it is the bellycoseness of a few fundamentalist Atheists, that drives others nuts, think about it, don't the fundamentalist in all religions do the same?

As Dawson writes, “Atheists need to develop a reputation for patience and approachability”. I have always dealt with Atheist with an open mind and open heart and have valued their belief. As men and women, they are no different than a Rabbi, Pastor, Shaman, Imam or a Pundit in dealing with emotions and the sense of right and wrong.

I got thrown out of an Atheist group!

Last year, I joined a few Atheist discussion groups, particularly to invite them to the Unity Day USA program that brings together people of different races, ethnicities, nationalities, and religions. I am committed to pluralism, that is no one should be left out in public discourse, every human has the same right to be in the public square whether s/he is religious or not. Two of the four groups, kicked me out, and my membership was denied. I was told that if I believed in God, I didn’t belong there, although I have accepted their belief as legitimate as any other belief. Ironically, once upon a time, when I considered my self un-religious or ir-religious, I was not given admission to a large organization here in Dallas; they wanted me in any one of the religious pigeon holes to belong to that group. That’s when the Foundation for Pluralism was born, to be inclusive and to include every human no matter what they believed.

In my Radio talk show, “Wisdom of Religion, all the beautiful religions” I included Atheism/Humanism as one of the systems and it drew the most number of listeners and callers, same experience was found when I did the monthly workshops on Religions.

One of the thoughts I am driven to communicate in this short write up is the dumbness of “stereotyping”.

Theists are called irrational and I have witnessed in my discussion groups, that some of the Atheists were as irrational and belligerent beings as the Theists.

Morality is not an exclusive product of religion, it is the product of co-existence; Atheist are as moral as theists. Religion is not responsible for wars, it is the individuals, and every war can be traced to an individual; theists as well as atheists from Pharaoh down to Lenin.

The society, regardless of where it flourishes; in America, Timbuktu or Andaman, the pie consists of good, bad and ugly people and every society has different permutations and combinations, but every society be it religious, ethnic, racial or national has a share of 1/10th of 1% of them as plain intolerant people, who are afraid of other and scheme to annihilate those who differ. Don’t laugh at others without laughing at yourselves first, whatever group you belong you have them among you as well. It appears to be a societal norm to have that, just as Tsunami was an anomaly of our planet.

Your sense of getting along with others, having a sense of inclusion of the universe comes with your circle of friends, you ability to embrace different points of view fades conflcits and births solutions.

Mike Ghouse is a frequent guest at the media offering pluralistic solutions to issues of the day. He is a thinker, writer, speaker, optimist and an activist of Pluralism, Interfaith, Co-existence, Peace, Islam and India. His work is reflected at 3 websites & 22 Blogs listed at http://www.mikeghouse.net/

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The rise and rise of atheism
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/mar/15/global-atheist-convention-melbourne#history-link-box

The Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne was a boon for rational Australians, with only the occasional sour note Rachel Holkner (http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/rachel-holkner )
It was difficult not to make religious analogies on Sunday morning as I joined 2500 other atheists streaming into the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre for The Rise of Atheism: the 2010 Global Atheist Convention. ( http://www.atheistconvention.org.au/ )

Being a secular, literate city made Melbourne a safe choice to first take the Atheist Convention outside of the US. I saw only three protesters, despite a number of publicised church-based counter-gatherings.

Many participants came looking for techniques to discuss atheism with religious family, friends and door-knockers. Others sought like-minded people, and some came questioning their own position, preferring to describe themselves as agnostic. Even atheist poster boy Richard Dawkins, on a scale of 1 (believes in god) to 7 (atheist) describes himself as a 6.9.

It is difficult to organise any group under the umbrella of non-belief, but the Atheist Alliance International ( http://www.atheistalliance.org/ ) and the Atheist Foundation of Australia (http://www.atheistfoundation.org.au/ ), convention hosts, achieved just that. The terms freethinker, humanist and rationalist were also frequently heard, used to alter the emphasis from being "against" theism and instead "for" scientific reasoning and logical thought.

Churches are social groups for many people, which is something atheists do not have, hence the popularity of this event which sold out six weeks in advance. Many small atheist groups were in attendance, raising their profile among the largest group of like-minded people ever gathered in Australia.

Several speakers commented that they had never addressed such a large group of atheists before, and there were a far greater range of topics presented than many expected. A question put to many attendees before the convention was, "But what can you possibly have to talk about? Nothing?"

The presenters shared some truly horrific stories of things done in the name of God or as part of some religious organisation, but the overall effort was not to paint all religions as always forces for bad. Much was made of the charitable works religious organisations do, but then, alternatives were presented. Charitable works do not need a veil of the supernatural in order to be effective, and you should not need a god looking over your shoulder, monitoring how much you are donating to disaster relief or to alleviate poverty. Peter Singer in particular talked about the evolutionary imperatives for fairness and for rendering aid.

It was not all serious discussion over the weekend. A lot of care had gone into the event to make the The Rise of Atheism a positive experience. There were comedians, and some wag had prepared a themed playlist to play in the background between sessions, including "Superstition" and songs from They Might Be Giants' "Here Comes Science".

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins closed the convention with a discussion on the probability of our existence, the luck of individual existence, gratitude, evolution and the illusion of design. This is potentially very dry and difficult subject matter yet Dawkins, known for his showmanship, conducted the audience skillfully through his argument. True, he was unable to mention the words god or creationism without trying to making the audience laugh, usually by the use of crude puns, but this is basic psychology and it is why he is so popular among atheists and why he received a standing ovation at the end of his talk.

However, when a Christian stood up to ask a question of Dawkins, there was a vibe not only of hostility, but impatience and frustration – even a sense of violation, as no one expected anyone with honest-to-god beliefs to pay the not-inconsiderate ticket price to learn about atheism. This was a great shame. Part of the challenge of atheism is extending our visibility and educating theists on rational thought. Continuing to play to the stereotype of being scary and intolerant will not help anyone.

Atheists need to develop a reputation for patience and approachability. "Out" atheists are a tiny minority, and public figures even fewer. As Dawkins said in answering a question of how to critique Islam without fear of reprisal, "We will not provoke you. Not out of respect for your beliefs, but out of fear." A reputation like that is the last thing atheism needs.



2 comments:

  1. I think that you are being more negative than strictly necessary. Yes, there was a vibe of frustration when, with very little time available to ask Dawkins questions, the Christian started on a hostile note, and then rattled off a number of questions, the main one being "What is DNA?" - equivalent to asking a renowned visiting architect what a house is.

    If the Christian had asked a question that was close to her heart, such as "How can you live without God?", it would have been seen as a valid question. But she was not interested in the answer to her own question.

    Dawkins gave a beautiful 10 minute reply, turning it into a very good biology lecture - possibly more riveting than his talk. Somebody sitting near her reported that the questioner sat down, and said to her friend "He doesn't know."

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  2. A great, thought provoking post. For those of your readers who may be interested in learning more about interfaith, visit us at Tree of LIfe Interfaith Seminary. We offer a 2 year seminary course, culminating in ordination as an interfaith minister - ordained by The Tree of Life Interfaith Temple. For those individuals looking to find and cultivate their truth and gifts in service toward the greater good. We are rampling up to begin our second successful class of new seminarians in September!

    Amy

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