May 24, 2007

Letter To The Editor

This letter ran in a newspaper in Alaska, and made the rounds of various atheist websites. Go ahead and read it before continuing on with my comments.

Oh, you say you're not particularly bothered by this letter? Substitute the word "Jew" for "atheist" and read the first and last paragraphs again.

So I got pretty steamed at it myself, wondering what sort of Kool-Aid this Alice Shannon in Soldotna, Alaska had been drinking and just what sort of bile had been spewn back at her. I thought it might be an interesting bit of interchange to mine for my own edification and arguments later on down the road.

So I looked a little deeper. Looking into the responses sent by people of faith and of atheists, I found out that the whole thing was (apparently) a hoax. Alice Shannon of Soldotna, Alaksa claims to have played a joke on all of us. The newspaper ran its own column indicating it chagrin at the situation. She said she has been thoroughly entertained by the outrage but she'd had her fill, and so had the newspaper, which pulled the plug on the whole thing.

Same question as before -- if someone had done this and used the word "Jew" instead of "atheist," and later tried to say it was all a joke, would you let that person off the hook? Ask Don Imus about that one.

One interesting thing -- in the editorial regarding Ms. Shannon's decidedly bizarre joke and commending their correspondents for their tolerance and compassion, the newspaper wrote "Some [readers] said we should be ashamed of ourselves for printing it, and that we would never have done that if it were about blacks or Jews. They’re right, we wouldn’t have. However, to be an atheist, you make a conscious choice."

Really? I guess they didn't ask many atheists that. I don't recall that I made a conscious choice to be an atheist. In fact, I recall resisting the realization that I just don't believe. I knew it would displease a lot of people, particularly my family. I knew then, as I do now, that there are a lot of people who really do think and feel the thoughts and sentiments expressed in this "hoax" of a letter.

But it was something that I just couldn't escape, and no matter how many different religions I tried to learn about, it just became more obvious to me that I don't believe any of it. And the more I contemplated it, the more I realized that I'd always thought and felt that way; all of the religious observances I'd done in my youth had just been to please the people around me.

I would suggest that you no more make a conscious choice to be an atheist than you do to be a Jew or a Christian or a Moslem -- or to be in love -- or a baseball fan or a knitting enthusiast or gay or a dog lover or to have a particular favorite color. It's just something you are or you aren't and it isn't a matter of a conscious choice.

So I'm glad the letter was a hoax. But it was still a scary read.

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