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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Silver Lining.

Some months back the following letter to the editor appeared in the Peninsula Clarion, an Alaskan newspaper. On reading it, I think you'll understand why I find it notable:

Pleasant, eh? Well, as it happens, the newspaper has published a new editorial claiming that the letter is, itself, a hoax. You can find the full article here but the most important passage is probably this:


Weeks later we received the following letter from Ms. Shannon:

“While I’ve been thoroughly entertained by the overwhelming number of passionate responses to my January 29th letter, it should probably be noted that, as at least one writer speculated, it was a complete joke. I think it has run its course and at this time space in the Letters to the Editor section should be reserved for more important issues.”

Now we were angry. Numerous attempts to contact Ms. Shannon proved the letter was a hoax, and we stopped printing any letters referring to hers. Shortly afterward, we received a letter from a person telling us the same letter was found in a blog from a woman from South Carolina, and he sent us the Web address.

A hoax? Riiiiight. I find it hard to believe that someone would do such a thing, allowing it to run over a span of weeks, if it was just a joke. I somehow suspect that, instead, it was a serious letter that the author ultimately wanted to deny responsibility for.* This isn't the real focus of my comments today, however.

If we follow this letter deeper into time we discover that it did not originate on some anonymous blog but, rather, came from another newspaper. Specifically, back in October of 2001, a month after the September 11th attacks against the United States, a number of papers, including the Augusta Chronicle and The Daily Vidette, a college paper serving Illinois State University, published an article dealing with the sense of exclusion felt by atheists in the wake of that national tragedy. The article is actually pretty interesting:

As America mourns the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Gail Pepin can't help but feel left out when everyone else goes to worship.

An atheist, Pepin covered for her co-workers as they attended a prayer vigil. She tuned in when President Bush spoke to the nation about the attacks, but shrunk back each time he mentioned God.

"I'm feeling very excluded from this. There's this big unity, but it's all under God," said Pepin, a nurse from the Chicago suburb of Rosemont. "I feel just as strongly about this as everybody else."

Like Pepin, other Americans who don't believe in a deity are struggling to find their place at a time when "God Bless America" is being sung everywhere. Some worry that the line between church and state is becoming blurred, while others hope to show patriotism doesn't have to equal prayer.


Atheists are dealing with the tragedy by donating blood, money or services to the relief efforts, Barrier said. But many are not comfortable participating in public gatherings that revolve around prayer, such as the national day of prayer and remembrance Bush declared three days after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

Catharine Lamm, who works at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, has avoided remembrance services held at campus churches but respects those who find strength in their faith.

"What I object to is the feeling of exclusion for me, particularly when the president addresses the nation and doesn't leave any room for people who find their strength in other places," Lamm said.

In response to this article, however, the Augusta Chronicle received the now-infamous letter to the editor which is nearly identical to the one that saw publication in Alaska:

It's time to stomp out atheists in America. The majority of Americans would love to see atheists kicked out of America. If you don't believe in God, then get out of this country.
The United States is based on having freedom of religion, speech, etc., which means you can believe in God any way you want (Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, etc.), but you must believe.

I don't recall freedom of religion meaning no religion. Our currency even says, ''In God We Trust." So, to all the atheists in America: Get off of our country.

People like Gail Pepin (The Chronicle, Oct. 11) have caused the ruin of this great nation by taking prayer out of our schools and being able to practice what can only be called evil. I don't care if she has never committed a crime, she is the reason crime is rampant.

To The Chronicle, please do not give atheists a voice. You do more harm than good.

This letter is followed by two more which are, if anything, equally charming. My favorite is the second letter:

As a Christian and a nurse, it was with great sadness that I read the article regarding Gail Pepin in the Oct. 11 The Augusta Chronicle. She feels left out and unable to find her place because she's an atheist.

Not only am I sad for her but for her patients. What kind of nurse can work in a hospital and not see God's hand? Miracles only he can perform are done every day. How can you see a baby born and not believe?

You can donate all the blood, money and time you have, but until you have your life right with God your destiny will make the World Trade Center attack look like building blocks. Once again, we have had a wake-up call. Once again, so many refuse to wake up.

Binnie Jones, Hephzibah, Ga.

Indeed. An attack by religious extremists on the World Trade center is definitely a great argument relating to religion, but I don't know that I think it works against atheists if you catch my meaning.

Now in bringing this up I unavoidably draw attention to the very real dislike for atheists that seems to percolate in American society- a dislike that has only been validated by academic work. This is not, however, my point. Rather than dwell on the popularity of this kind of virulent hate, let me instead consider some of the responses that the letter in Alaska received. For example there is Erik Huebsch:

When I first saw Alice Shannon’s letter in the Jan. 29 edition of the Clarion, I thought, “Wow, it’s rare to see such ignorance, bigotry and hatred without having the TV tuned to the Fox News channel.”

Then I realized maybe she was trying to use satire. Maybe she was trying to be funny. After all I’m sure Ms. Shannon would consider herself a Christian, yet the values she expressed more closely resemble those of a fundamentalist Muslim, certainly not those so called Christian values.

Yes, Ms. Shannon you are about as funny as the Taliban.

Or Charles Winston Bolen III of Georgia:

Thanks to the power of the Internet, a letter published in your paper, written by Alice Shannon (Jan. 29) attacking atheists, made its way onto my screen. It’s good to know that ignorance and intolerance aren’t limited to the Bible belt but can be found all over this nation.

I’d like to let the writer in on something: America isn’t just for Christians and freedom of religion also means freedom from religion.

Contrary to Ms. Shannon’s distorted view of the world, atheists are not the threat to America she makes us out to be. In fact, people like her, full of bloated self-importance, spewing hate and ignorance in the name of the great delusion in the sky, creating division with lame duck arguments, are the real threat to the freedoms this country were built on.

Her words echo the hate toward blacks in earlier times and reminds us also of the hate that still gets thrown at homosexuals. In both cases, such hate is wrong, as it is now in this case.

Were the word “atheist” replaced with “black” in this letter, I seriously doubt her letter would have been printed. In any case, it was printed and the entire world is being shown the religious bigotry and hate speech of Alice Shannon.

Thank you Ms. Shannon for reminding us all that freedom of speech is alive and well in this country, even if it means ignorance and hate are just as alive.

Or this one from Carrie Henson:

Alice Shannon’s letter to the editor (Jan. 29) is the most ignorant and unconstitutional thing I have ever read!

It has often been seen on the Internet that to find God in the Constitution, all one has to do is read it, and see how often the Framers used the words “God,” “Creator,” “Jesus” or “Lord.” Except for one notable instance, none of these words ever appear in the Constitution, neither the original nor in any of the Amendments.

The notable exception is found in the Signatory section, where the date is written thusly: “Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven.” The use of the word “Lord” here is not a religious reference, however. This was a common way of expressing the date, in both religious and secular contexts. This lack of any these words does not mean that the Framers were not spiritual people, any more than the use of the word Lord means that they were. What this lack of these words is expositive of is not a love for or disdain for religion, but the feeling that the new government should not involve itself in matters of religion. In fact, the original Constitution bars any religious test to hold any federal office in the United States.

The First Amendment clearly states a separation of Church and State. Religion or the lack thereof has no bearing on citizenship.

Crime is rampant because of hatred. Don’t be a hater Alice.

And even Nick Swain's:

I am an atheist. On Jan. 29, I had the privilege of reading a letter sent to you telling me to get out of the country. I do not feel like arguing about the justifications of such a notion, but I do not feel it is right that my lack of religion should be used as a scapegoat for crime in America.

Like most people who are stereotyped, I find it unfair that my lack of religion should be accused of such a thing.

Alice Shannon is entitled to her opinion, like anyone else. She has had experiences in her life that made her hate my lack of religion and me as a person. Yet, she does not know me. In my defense, I would like to explain a little more about my life. I can only hope Alice has the same privilege I had and will read my words.

I am 16 years old and have three brothers in the military, one of which is serving in Iraq right now. I do not blame the religion of the good Christian men who wished to wage their war that has forced him to be on the other side of the planet. I do not blame God for anything bad in my life, nor do I credit him for the good. I am not full of hate and I do not look down on people with a religion. Events in my life have caused me to believe in human ability rather than the will of God. Alice would detest this, but there is no denying that our own actions make our lives.

I feel no higher power moving through me when I do something right, just content in myself. When I do wrong, I do not feel the need to repent, only a natural sense of guilt. These are my own judgments. I have my own reservations about people, but I do not take their religion into account. My lack of religion allows me to hold no one religion in greater respect than any others and I do not view any religion as beneath me. I merely do not believe.

I am given the right to this choice. Even Alice agrees, but only if my choice involves God. To quote her directly, “You can believe in God any way you want (Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, etc.), but you must believe.”

Actually, that is all her argument really amounts to. She pointed the finger at atheism when she meant to blame all other religions. If anyone were to really look at the words she wrote, they would find nothing about any other religion; her list of examples only names different renditions of Christianity.

It is sad to see this kind of self-righteous attitude. There are such a wide variety of people with their own beliefs, so what makes Alice’s beliefs better than anyone else’s?

I’ll never understand why it is so hard to accept the differences in others. Maybe some day in my blasphemous life, I’ll find the answer.

What I'm trying to say is: if these letters mean that intolerance is alive, they also mean that there are good, generous, and decent people of all religions who are willing to stand up for those of us who have none. To all of them, for their generosity, kindness, and decency I can only say this:

Thank you.

* Along the same lines as, "Hey, man, racist jokes are just funny. Lighten up!

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Blogger SARA said...

I have a friend who's an athiest.. I don't try converting them, but keep loving them ..we're on this planet together and because I am a Christian and I do believe,I'm called to love my heart it's the right thing to do , to love everyone regardless of color, religion, or lack of it,.. a mutual's wonderful that we're all so live your life the way you do and I live mine the way I do...difference is, I'll pray for you...because I believe in prayer and you can't fault me for my belief just as i would not fault you for your non belief...and we can live side by side.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007 11:01:00 PM  

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