My Old Kentucky Homesite

Hey, Look Who’s Just Like You and Me!

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 05/27/2010

Tribal mentality may be evolutionarily wired into our DNA. Humans — most of us, anyway — apparently have a longing to group ourselves into easily differentiated categories. Religion being one of those categories, it stands to reason that atheists would feel a common bond with one another.

With that in mind, I hereby list twenty famous people you may not have known were atheists. I assume you’ll feel proud about at least some of them.

  1. Harry Truman
  2. Mickey Mantle
  3. General William Tecumseh Sherman
  4. Queen Elizabeth I
  5. Daniel Boone
  6. Bob Kane (creator of Batman)
  7. Marilyn Monroe
  8. Zebulon Pike
  9. Johnny Weissmuller
  10. Ernest Lawrence Thayer (writer of “Casey at the Bat”)
  11. Pancho Villa
  12. Lucille Ball
  13. Ludwig von Beethoven
  14. Moe Howard (of the Three Stooges)
  15. Annie Oakley
  16. Otto von Bismarck
  17. Chief Justice John Marshall
  18. Jane Austen
  19. Cliff Edwards (“Ukulele Ike,” the voice of Jiminy Cricket)
  20. Amerigo Vespucci

That’s quite a collection of individuals, eh? And all of them shared our worldview!

Um … nope. First of all, atheism isn’t a worldview. It’s not a religion. It isn’t a tribal designation. It’s not an indication of any specific kinds of thought-processes. Hell, atheism, in and of itself, isn’t even an idea; it’s merely the rejection of a particularly stupid notion: theism.

But still, we’d like to feel some sense of kindred, whatever that means, with the twenty people named above. If nothing else, perhaps we can claim them as intellectual colleagues, right? Isn’t there something intangible about atheism that makes those of us who are faith-free look at one another with a glimmer of self-recognition? So tell the truth: You see those folks in a new light now, don’t you?

Well, you can turn off that bulb in your dim brain. Because I made that list up. I have no idea whether any of those famous men and women were atheists. But I doubt it.

I repeat: the only thing that atheists have in common is our rejection of a particularly stupid notion. If we need to organize to fight theocracy — and I, for one, think we must — then we ought not have false expectations of one another. None of us should ever make assumptions about what other atheists think or feel, what anyone else does or does not believe. Instead, we should probably just acknowledge that we’re held together by a very thin bond indeed, and keep our focus appropriately tight and rooted in the real world: Keep religion out of government.

[H/T to John Evo & vjack, both of whose linked posts started me on today’s rant.]
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41 Responses to “Hey, Look Who’s Just Like You and Me!”

  1. John Evo said

    You don’t wear a hat! I, however do (as all GOOD atheists should), so I’ll tip mine back at you.

    Didn’t Poncho Villa say: “Dogma? We don’t need no stinking dogma”!

  2. Evo:
    Is that what “H/T” means? Hat-tip? I was under the impression that it was short for “Holy Toledo!”

    I think you may have Pancho Villa mixed up with Bob Vila (another person for the list!), who said “Botches? We don’t need no stinkin’ botches!”

  3. the chaplain said

    Well, you can turn off that bulb in your dim brain.

    I always keep a spare bulb handy, just in case you pull a(nother) fast one on us.

  4. Chappy:
    I’m always happy to be credited with reinforcing a person’s skepticism. Just call me “Johnny Applesauceseed.”

  5. Moe had to be an atheist. Always angry and having to deal with idiots sums up the atheist worldview, doesn’t it?

  6. Philly:
    Exactly. Oliver Hardy was definitely an atheist, too; so was Bud Abbott.

    OK, so taking a quick count of those who definitely have the atheist worldview: We’ve got you, me, Moe, Hardy, Abbott, Dickie Smothers, Dean Martin before he and Jerry Lewis split, George Costanza’s mother, and Granny Clampett. If we can find three people who ever had to deal with Gilligan, we’ve got an even dozen to start the Church of the Appropriately Angry Atheist. Our symbol could be the right cross.

  7. You had me thinking Tarzan was an atheist, and who wouldn’t want Tarzan in his tribe? I’m sad now. My tribe declares war on Larry.

  8. Sarge said

    Sooo…”Hoongowa tarmagani. Yud”! is Great Ape talk for “There is no god”…who knew? ;-)

    I actually got to eat breakfast with Moe Howard when I was a kid and my father was stationed in Baltimore. Well, me and about two hundred other kids, but I actually did get to talk to him for a second or two.

    I tell people who seem to want to know (why is beyond me) how I became “godless” that I became an “atheist” at age five. Oh, I didn’t know what such a creature was, never even heard the word until I was in my pre-teen years, but, I was certainly a non-theist.

    I have been told by some people that my lack of education (actually, two of these people are, in fact atheists)and the fact that I can’t explain my viewpoint in academic jargon citing “sources” means that I can’t be a “real” atheist.

    Apparently, one requires a course of study, tests must be taken, evaluations must be made but the already qualified, and credentials must be issued before one is authorised to identify oneself as a “real” atheist.

    I asked one of my “fellow(?)” atheists why simple lack of belief didn’t foot the bill, and he turned this look of amused, pitying contempt on me and said, “well, just because you can add two-plus-two and get four, that doesn’t make you a mathematician, does it”?

    So, if he had his way, all atheists would be identified by their paperwork.

  9. Postman said

    Damn it, Larry! I was looking forward to seeing Daniel Boone and Moe Howard in Atheist Heaven. Now what the hell am I going to do after I die, eh?

  10. John Evo said

    @ At Philly – yeah, I used to think so until I found out that the atheists were just as idiotic as everyone else. (Notable exceptions, of course)!

  11. Well Moe was a stooge, too. ;)

  12. Des:
    You had me thinking Tarzan was an atheist, and who wouldn’t want Tarzan in his tribe?
    Well, Johnny Weissmuller is the Tarzan, but not the only Tarzan. Sort of like Yahweh in the oldest books of the bible. Perhaps Buster Crabbe or Lex Barker is in our tribe. If we’re really lucky, we could have Elmo Lincoln with the voice of Tony Goldwyn.

    Sarge:
    [I]f he had his way, all atheists would be identified by their paperwork.
    Maybe we’d have to pass the SAT (Standards of Atheism Test).
    Your comment points up exactly what pisses me off about so many self-proclaimed atheists. They have a compulsion to divide the world into true believers and apostates.

    Postie:
    Now what the hell am I going to do after I die, eh?
    You’ll just have to learn how to play the harp, like the rest of us. Fortunately, in Atheist Heaven, there’s a damn good harp arrangement of this, which — as all true atheists know — is our tribal anthem.

    Evo:
    Obviously, you’re not an official atheist if you think that any other atheists are idiots. It’s people like you who hurt The Atheist Cause™.

  13. srsny said

    OK, so you write a blog that is read by a lot of atheists (and perhaps some non-atheists). So you have created a list of 25 famous people, identified as atheists, about whom you say, “I assume you’ll feel proud”

    So tell me how this is different from your local paper, read primarily by Kentuckians, calling a famous person “Kentucky native Johnny Depp?”

    Just saying …

  14. Srsny:
    No different. My point exactly, although I didn’t make it quite so articulately.

    In fact, you’ve given me quite an insight into why I can’t stomach local rah-rah of any kind anywhere. Not only am I an atheist, but I’m an antitribalist. That’s probably why Lexington is such a mentally grating place for me to live: the city is steeped in a long-standing tribal culture.

  15. If H/T means Hat-Tip, shouldn’t it be abbreviated “H-T”?

    And I thought it was Pancho Villa who said “Borders? We don’t need no steenkin’ borders!”

    Of course, he shopped at Barnes and Noble.

  16. SI:
    Oh, you’re on a humor roll today! ROFLMH-TO.
    I tip my sombrero to you.

  17. Sarge said

    I am a Ham radio operator, and I always thought an H/T was a “Handy?Talky” or handheld rig.

    Old as I am, I learn…I learn…

    “In fact, you’ve given me quite an insight into why I can’t stomach local rah-rah of any kind anywhere. Not only am I an atheist, but I’m an antitribalist. That’s probably why Lexington is such a mentally grating place for me to live: the city is steeped in a long-standing tribal culture”.

    Amen, brother, amen!

  18. Sarge:
    When you call me “brother,” I assume you’re acknowledging that we’re from the same tribe.

  19. John Evo said

    “I assume you’re acknowledging that we’re from the same tribe.”

    Troop.

  20. Evo & Sarge:
    Excellent point. In future, should we refer to Sarge as a “militant” — or just “military” — atheist?

  21. Freddy said

    Lovin’ the blog, courtesy of PZ Myers’ shout out.

    Just some input for you…I’d love to say otherwise, but there’s no evidence that Beethoven was an atheist so you’re spot on in suggesting we don’t know. I’ve been studying the ol’ guy for a little over 15 years and even though he had ties to Catholicism until his death and seems to have believed in a personal god much of the time, he also seems to have believed in a kind of deism, which is akin to many of the Enlightenment which inspired him in his youth.

    Stay well. Look forward to reading more. ;)

  22. Freddy:
    Re Beethoven: There’s always that troublesome Missa Solemnis. On the other hand, the “Ode to Joy” is pagan, if anything; there’s certainly no happyface Jesus there.

  23. J Random said

    “It’s not an indication of any specific kinds of thought-processes… it’s merely the rejection of a particularly stupid notion: theism.”

    So that rejection must occur, uh.. spiritually, if it doesn’t occur in one’s thought processes ;) Atheism is the stamp of those who have a) been fortunate enough to be exposed to decent education, the concepts of scientific method, formal logic and critical/skeptical thinking and more than one strictly narrow way to see the world/reality and b) been intelligent enough to absorb and use this exposure to see the errors implicit in religious/magical thinking.

    Without assuming anything further, I think it’s fine to feel a sense of unity with fellow atheists to that degree – that you know that at least they possess some of the same mental tools as you and that you can agree on at least one fundamental thing. It’s also not unreasonable to hope that since they have the aptitude to reach the conclusion that rational arguments and empirical evidence matters, that they’re likely to agree with you on other issues. If you reject theism because it makes no sense and has no evidence, then you’re not likely to blindly believe in dousing or ESP. Similarly, if you can see most religious orgs for the hypocritical, moralising money grubbers they are, you’re not likely to take political rhetoric at face-value. I’d place a bet on there being many more left-wing pro-choice atheists than right-wing right-to-life atheists (because the latter position is usually religiously motivated) which means when I discover someone is an atheist I am statistically allowed to assume they probably have much more in common with myself than a theist.

  24. Yeah, well that’s one way to be an atheist, J. There are those who are atheists because they just know in their guts that there aren’t any gods, or they read it in some tea leaves, or their religion (ie – Buddhism, Scientology, Raellians) says there are no gods, or any number of other reasons decidedly NOT like what you described. To further muddy the waters, I’ve seen so-called atheists believe in crazy shit like universal energy which may be sentient as well as say they pray to various gods. Yes, you heard that right, atheists who pray to gods. In short, you can’t automatically assume anything about someone when they say they’re an atheist, therefore, a sense of unity is ill-advised based solely on that self-proclaimed label.

  25. John Evo said

    To add on to Philly – imagine a child who was abused by the clergy and is now (2010) an adult in a society that has made it much more comfortable to question and even reject theist claims. With not much more to go on but that, our now adult abuse victim might assert – there is no god. That person could very well believe that abortion is murder, some people possess extra sensory perception, Yeti exists because some nice Buddhist monks have confirmed it and that the twin towers came down in a controlled demolition.

    So you feel comfortable with their rational minds because they have come to conclusion there is no god?

    I don’t think this is an extreme case. My time among the atheists of YouTube indicates that it’s fairly common. While this is anecdotal, There is a much larger sampling of atheists than we find in the blog world (or the academic world – which is also very deceiving when trying to compare to the larger population of atheists).

    I suppose that all other factors about a person being marked “unknown”, I’d prefer to run into an atheist. I’d just advise quickly finding out where that person stands on other issues before sliding off into some brotherhood with them.

  26. J:
    So that rejection must occur, uh.. spiritually, if it doesn’t occur in one’s thought processes.

    Philly and Evo have both given excellent responses. I don’t really need to add to what they’ve said.

    But, hey, I hate to have readers misrepresent what I’ve written. I didn’t say that the rejection of theism doesn’t occur in one’s thought-processes. Although, now that you mention it, sometimes it doesn’t.
    But what I did say was (and you yourself quoted me):
    It’s not an indication of any specific kinds of thought-processes.

    The key words are specific kinds. One atheist’s thought-processes may be entirely different from another atheist’s. In your alleged paradigm, you seem to be starting with an assumption that atheism always springs from doubt or skepticism, that all atheists reach a “conclusion.” But that’s not necessarily the case.

    I think you’d like to believe that all atheists are somehow intellectually a cut above all theists. You said that atheism takes a particular “aptitude.” I confess that I sometimes have the very same mental tic, an imagined list of positive expectations when someone says to me, “I’m an atheist.” But I’ve come to recognize my knee-jerk reaction as nothing but an unfounded prejudice. Because you know what? There are plenty of atheist idiots out there.

    By the way, how did you feel when you scanned the list of “atheists” in my post? Did you get a warm, fuzzy glow to be part of that superior club? Be honest.

  27. J Random said

    Pretty much agree with the points raised, especially PChief’s notion that the world has a much larger sample size of atheists, which will probably widen their range of “typical traits”, if we can be said to have any beyond rejection of theism (which is what the whole argument is about). It really would be interesting to survey atheists in this regard, to see how the majority of atheists come to reject theism. I can see this is where the “real atheist” idea comes in. It may not be overly semantically correct, but you can see how one might think it’s valid to describe someone who applies the same critical thinking to all things, rather than someone who simply says “i got raped by a priest, therefore there is no christian god” (which doesn’t actually logically follow) and still believes in any number of oddities.

    @Larry: “Although, now that you mention it, sometimes it doesn’t.” Not quite sure i understand – doesn’t absolutely everything we think occur in our thought processes? If it’s not something we think about (ie. breathing) then it’s not really a thought process. I do take your point on the specificity, though. I still think there is a statistical case to be made (PChief’s global sample size notwithstanding) for allowing yourself to make an assumption as to the types of thought processes a “typical” atheist has. This doesn’t mean your assumption will always be born out, and you understand that when you understand you’re making an assumption – you realise it may not be the reality, it’s just a bet, and we do that type of thinking every day.

    To be honest about the list, a) I’m Australian, so i don’t know much about or care about those on the list, let alone find them superior, and b) since I don’t really care about hollywood or sporting fame and the like, i’d be more likely to get warm fuzzies from people with good arguments, ala Dawkins and PZ, who we already know are strong atheists. You’re correct that i do tend to see atheism as a sort of intellectual superiority – coz hey, if you can’t get the argument, and the argument is cogent, then it’s akin to not understanding a mathematical proof.

    I do like to hear about notable atheists, but that’s only because i like to hear about ANY atheism – one more atheist means one less theist. If they are in a position to influence others to be more critical of religion, even better, but i don’t really care about their level of fame, past that.

  28. J:
    …doesn’t absolutely everything we think occur in our thought processes?
    Yes. I was merely being facetious. Sorry. I’ll be absolutely literal with you from now on.

    I still think there is a statistical case to be made … for allowing yourself to make an assumption as to the types of thought processes a “typical” atheist has.
    I don’t accept your “statistical case” because I don’t think there’s such an entity as a “typical atheist.” I think its a construct you’ve made up for your own convenience, and I have a pretty strong suspicion that your typical atheist would be mostly like you. So, given that you’re hereby forbidden from claiming that you represent the “typical,” who would your statistically sampled atheist be? Me? Philly? Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens? Butterfly McQueen or Bruce Lee or Gypsy Rose Lee? Perhaps Sinclair Lewis or George Eliot or Percy Bysshe Shelley? Or maybe it’s the guy in Lexington who thinks that atheism is a religion? Could it be the newbie atheist who says she “hates god,” or maybe the lifelong non-theist who doesn’t believe in a supernatural being, per se, but is pretty sure there’s “some kind of force out there”? Hell, it might even be my cat, who clearly doesn’t believe in any gods other than himself.

    I suggest you read my three-part series “You Say You’re an Atheist.” (Here’s the link to Part I.) When you’re done, come back and paint a word portrait of the “typical” atheist for my readers, and using it as a model, we can vote to see who’s in the tribe and who isn’t.

  29. John Evo said

    @ Larry – Having met (virtually) more atheists in the past year than I knew in my entire 56 years previous, I _know_ I’m not the typical atheist. And I say that with a cocky smile.

  30. Evo:
    I’d have to disagree, as would the typical atheist, at least statistically speaking.
    You’re actually my nominee for the atheist archetype. (Of course, the cocky smile is a must.)

  31. I can’t stand behavior which is irrational, lazy, ignorant, and generally bereft of thought. Whether it’s in reference to gods or even changing lanes on the highway, it all makes that blood vessel in the right temple throb.

    Those who happen to agree with one or more of my positions aren’t suddenly immune from my rage over the positions where they don’t agree with me, and I may take issue with them over how they’ve come to share my positions (ie – those annoyed with Obama because he’s black rather than because of what he said or did or those against Shari’a because they’re rabid Christians rather than because Shari’a is an affront to humanity).

    So if you say you’re an atheist, that’s nice, but we may fight over what that means or why one should be an atheist, and of course there’s probably a host of other things we’d fight over where you have all the wrong positions. ;)

  32. I envision the day when atheists are in the majority, and bickering about what a “True Atheist” is.

    Wait…we’re there. Except for that majority thing.

  33. Philly, SI:
    Many atheists would disagree with you both, because they think that all atheists should always agree with one another.

  34. I don’t agree with you.

  35. SI:
    Obviously, you’re not a True Atheist™, or else you’d statistically agree with our paradigmatic typical prototype.

  36. J Random said

    I get it – there are different kinds of atheists, and just because someone identifies as atheist any other assumptions you make about whatever else they may believe or think are exactly that – assumptions, that may turn out to be incorrect. I already stated that i understood this point, so there is no reason to labor it. Reading part 1 of “You Say You’re an Atheist,” only reinforces the same point.

    The “statistical case” is not separate from the “typical atheist entity,” it is the entity. You’re saying it’s impossible to define a typical atheist, when it’s actually not. It’s entirely possible to take a survey of a random group of people and of those who self-identified as atheist, no matter what their definition of the word (or yours), you could then proceed to ask them their opinions on other issues, even ask them how they DO define atheism and just about anything else you cared to. In the end you would get a picture of the average “atheist”, even if you had some outliers who defined atheism as a strong liking for pie and who believed fervently in several gods. This kind of scenario would even account for the “evolving language” issue you raised in “You Say You’re an Atheist,” precisely because you’d be using people’s own definition of the term.

    Now i haven’t done the survey, but then i was talking speculatively in the first place. There is nothing logically wrong with me saying “I reckon there is a good chance that if you took a survey of all basketball players, the majority would say they wore basketball shoes and believed in a person’s right to play any ball-sport of their choice”. Individually, sure, it may not always be the case, but based on one fact, you can assume the other facts with a degree of certainty (that actually doing the survey would quantify).

    The take-home message of your post was not to assume anything further about a self-identified atheist than that they don’t believe in a “particularly stupid notion”, probably because you’ve done so at times and been disappointed. Whilst i fully acknowledge that that can happen, it’s an “absolute” kind of view. From a statistical probability view, i think it’s justifiable to assume, say, that the person who just self-identified as an atheist has a good chance of being pro-choice, or something like that. You’re not saying that one ideal is inextricably linked to the other, but that they often go hand in hand.

  37. 1. The fact that a survey could be conducted is no warrant for acting as if it already has and returned the results you anticipated

    2. Your analogy fails because we actually do know things about basketball players and there are preconditions that exist in order to be a basketball player, whereas neither is true for atheists (see #1)

  38. There are a few surveys from which you could tentatively draw some conclusions, here.

  39. J:
    I think it’s foolhardy to depend on statistical averages. But then, I’ve never actually met an “average” person of any kind.

    Philly:
    The important question on an atheist survey would be: Do you believe in basketball?

    SI:
    I’d say that the survey is skewed in at least one category because of faulty definitions and, perhaps, an unclearly stated item. For “Political Stance on Social Issues,” atheists would naturally favor “Strongly Liberal” and “Liberal” because in this particular questionnaire, self-identified atheists would probably tend to think of “social issues” as lying on the Complete_Separation____Total_Theocracy continuum. In that sense, J is probably right: most of us, by definition, would lean toward the “left.” But if the questionnaire were not burdened by its division of respondents into “Atheist” and “Christian,” I strongly suspect that the great variation in results would disappear. I know of quite a few “strongly conservative” atheists and even more “strongly liberal” Christians.

  40. I’d say the survey is skewed by the fact that it self limits to a sample size of only those who are willing and able to find the survey online and respond.

  41. Philly:
    All surveys are skewed.
    (That was the top answer in our survey asking what percentage of surveys are skewed.)

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