Professor David Eller, who teaches Anthropology of Religions at Community College of Denver, believes it’s time to rehabilitate the image of Atheists in America. “We’re not just a bunch of angry guys in their basements shaking their fists,” he said. “We’re trying to be constructive and contribute positively to society.”
To that end, he argues in favor of non-theistic alternatives to priests and ministers as officiants at weddings and funerals. He’d also like to see an Atheist holiday at the end of the year instead of Christmas. How about Rational Recovery vs. Alcoholics Anonymous, and maybe a National Day of Reason to counter the National Day of Prayer?
“We’ve started placing signs on the sides of buses to send the message that religion can’t monopolize the public space,” he said. “We sponsor Atheist blood drives and we’re publicly out there doing good things like cleaning up the highways. We also have a booth at the People’s Fair and other events.”
Atheism as a public stance began gaining traction, both nationally and here at home, with the inauguration of George W. Bush in the year 2000. “With the Faith-Based Initiative, and their attacks on science, they were starting to tear down the wall between Church and State,” Eller said. “They were trying to push their religion on the rest of us. Some of us felt the need to push back.”
That year, Eller founded Atheists and Free Thinkers of Denver, an organization dedicated to promoting discussion and to building bridges to like-minded groups in the area: Humanists of Colorado, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and Denver Atheists and Free Thinkers (DAFT). “Mainly we’re about consciousness raising,” he said. “I think of myself more as a teacher than an activist.”
As a kid growing up, Eller went to church and Sunday school. His grandmother had pictures of Jesus on her walls, and even played the accordion at Evangelical tent revivals. “Christianity was in our background,” he said, “but it was not an explicit force in our lives. I never believed any of it, but I didn’t think of myself as an Atheist. I was more of a cultural Christian.”
As fate would have it, his college academic advisor turned out to be a professor of Religious Studies. Eller became fascinated by the subject and went on to create his own undergraduate degree in what he called “Patterns of Human Experience,” focusing on religion, philosophy, and psychology. But the more immersed in the subject of religion he became, the less he believed in it. “It never made any sense to me,” he said. “If you have a hundred religions, how can you say that ninety-nine of them are false? It seemed arrogant to me. The best argument against religion is all the other religions. If you let them argue with each other, they will implode under their own weight.”
In 2004, Eller published his first book on the subject. Entitled “Natural Atheism,” it argued that “Atheism is the default position.” In other words, we’re born Atheists and “catch” religion. “Most people catch religion before they know anything about it,” he said. “That’s why they try to indoctrinate kids when they’re really young. But Reason is like a vaccine against religion. Once inoculated against it, you can’t catch it.”
So why study religion if you don’t believe in it? “Religions are an important part of the way people behave in the world,” Eller explained. “So, if you’re going to understand people, you have to understand what motivates them. Religion is one of those elements. It’s a little bit like language. To understand people, you have to speak their language, but it’s not necessary to adopt it as your own.”
And Atheism’s effect on how Eller lives his life? “It’s reaffirmed my basic humanity,” he said. “It’s freed me from other people’s dogmas and 2000 year old beliefs that don’t really help in the modern world. Atheism helps me to appreciate the world and my fellow creatures because in the end that’s all we’ve got. Make this life meaningful. It’s the only one you’ve got.”
For more info:
Books by David Eller: 1) Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence, 2) Atheism Advanced: Further Thoughts of a Freethinker, 3) Violence and Culture: A Cross-Cultural and Interdisciplinary Approach, 4) Cultural Anthropology: Global Forces, Local Lives, 5) Natural Atheism, 6) From Culture to Ethnicity to Conflict: An Anthropological Perspective on Ethnic Conflict
Atheism in Denver www.atheistsofdenver.org
Click on “Subscribe” at top of page for free email notification whenever a new article is published.