by Cliff Walker
(revised October 2, 2000)
3. Discussing Atheism with Others.
"Any thinking man must agree!"
-- numerous writers to the Positive Atheism Forum
"We often try to support views by citing experts. This appeal to authority is perfectly valid -- provided that the person cited really is an expert in the field in question. If not, it is fallacious."  "In other words, who is making the claim makes a difference."  "Authorities, by virtue of their expertise in a field, may have a better chance of being right in that field, but correctness is certainly not guaranteed, and their expertise does not necessarily qualify them to draw conclusions in other areas." 
"While expertise is useful for separating the wheat from the chaff, it is dangerous in that we might either (1) accept a wrong idea just because it was supported by someone we respect (false positive) or (2) reject a right idea just because it was supported by someone we disrespect (false negative)."  "Arguments from authority carry little weight -- 'authorities' have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts." 
"We appeal to tradition when we argue something must be true (or good) because it is part of an established tradition."  Moralistic Christians often tell Americans they need to return to our "Christian roots." The unconstitutional "National Bible Week" and "America's Christian Heritage Week" celebrations, usually held in late November across the United States, are said to be "designed to remind people of the real roots of this country and help America return to her spiritual foundation." 
Never mind the fact that the United States is much more churchgoing today than it ever has been in the past, as I write this section (August 12, 1999), these crusaders are posting (some version of) the Ten Commandments on the schoolroom walls in Kentucky. By practicing this modern-day manifestation of animism, "officials in this eastern Kentucky school district hope that ... they can prevent violence and other problems that have plagued schools nationwide." 
Never mind that the framers of United States Constitution insisted that upon the complete separation of church and State, as I write this portion (August 12, 1999), these self-appointed Harbingers of Truth take us back to the stone age by severely limiting the teaching of evolution in public schools across Kansas. The policy "excludes mention of the age of the Earth or universe, suggesting the standards allow schools leeway to teach a young Earth and universe of 10,000 years old."  This is not 1925 when John Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution in a Tennessee school and the entire civilized world had a good belly-laugh,  we are on the brink of a new millennium.
The fallacy of an Appeal To Tradition "becomes obvious when you consider that slavery was once an established tradition. The fact that people have always done or believed something is no reason for believing that we should continue to do or believe something." 
"If everyone jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?"
-- bumper sticker seen in California in the 1970s
A remarkably common fallacy is the appeal to the masses. If the vast majority of the world's population believes something to be true, that's a pretty good indication that it's true, isn't it? Not necessarily. Nevertheless, this is a common argument for the existence of God in Positive Atheism's Letters Section. "The majority of humans believe in a god" (to which one could respond, "but the majority of those people believe that your god is a false god").
For over 1300 years, most Europeans thought the world was flat. Magellan said, "The church says the earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow than in the church."  Throughout history, people have thought that it is right for men to subjugate women. This practice is alive today in the Islamic Taliban militia which now desolates Afghanistan.  Hints of the same have arisen from the Southern Baptist Church in the United States. 
At one point, most Americans thought slavery was a good idea -- ordained by God through his Bible. Paul allegedly said, "All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God's name and our teaching may not be slandered. Those who have believing masters are not to show less respect for them because they are brothers. Instead, they are to serve them even better, because those who benefit from their service are believers, and dear to them. These are the things you are to teach and urge on them."  Only a handful of people today take that passage at face value.
"Even an ignorant man will not blunder in a true story -- nor can an artful man keep a false story straight."
-- Thomas Paine 
An ad hominem ("to the man") attack challenges the validity of an argument by criticizing or denigrating the person presenting the argument rather than by dealing with the argument itself. Carl Sagan gives this example: "The Reverend Dr. Smith is a known Biblical fundamentalist, so her objections to evolution need not be taken seriously."  However, Michael Shermer cautions that "it might be helpful to know whether someone is of a particular religion or holds a particular ideology, in case this has in some way biased the research, but refuting claims must be done directly, not indirectly." 
Can you imagine the World's ornithologists declaring as false everything that Robert Stroud, the so-called Bird Man of Alcatraz, discovered, simply because he was a murderer? Such would be an example of the ad hominem attack.
This fallacy has even been institutionalized and justified in the name of party unity. The ancient Pharisees scorned any individual who went against the consensus of the community -- that is, who thought for himself. One shocking tale from the Mishnah tells of a leader, Eliezer ben Hyrkanus (a Pharisee whose career spanned the destruction of the temple). The assembly rejected his opinions and excommunicated him even in the face of (allegedly) miraculous signs and heavenly voices expressing God's displeasure. Robert M. Price notes:
"How can the Mishnah possibly record all this and yet still hold that Eliezer was in the wrong? ... The problem was not so much with the specific opinions of Eliezer, many of which were in fact accepted. Nor was Eliezer deemed a heretic or even wrong! Just the reverse! God himself agreed with him! The opposition is between the consensus of the sages and the 'loose cannons' of charismatic authority, of which Eliezer serves as a symbol....
"This is precisely why we can never be sure if the Mishnah is accurately attributing the right opinion to the right sage. One story has Akeba falsely attribute Eliezer's sayings to others after his excommunication, so that either the sayings may be allowed to continue without being disqualified by association with the heretic, or they may win their way on their own merit, not riding on the coattails of the charismatic authority." 
Madalyn Murray-O'Hair was seen by many as a very angry woman. Theists often used this to discredit atheism. Charles Darwin's personality quirks have been used in attempts to discredit the theory of evolution. More than once, theists have even tried to detect anger or bitterness in our responses in Positive Atheism's Letters Section! (How does one react to the underhanded use of dishonesty in attempts to discredit that person?) Nevertheless, you do not discover the truth or error of a proposition by appealing to the person making the argument.
Some atheists, in attempting to discredit theism, point out how often clergymen (and other outspoken theists) are convicted of criminal behavior. This would be an ad hominem were it not for the fact that most theists portray religion as an effective method for making people act morally (often calling it the only method), and that without religion, people will act immorally. This point is particularly poignant when the "black-collar criminal" is himself a staunch moralist -- as was the case when the Rev. Jimmy Swaggert was caught patronizing a prostitute and the Rev. Jim Bakker was imprisoned for defrauding his flock.  Since so many religionists point to America's "abandoning its faith" as the cause of a "decay in morals," it is proper to give examples of religion's failure to make people moral. The context of theism's claim to make people moral is probably the only proper use of this argument style; in any other context, we're most likely dealing with an ad hominem attack.
"To argue that a claim is true or false on the basis of its origin is to commit the genetic fallacy.... Some of our greatest advances have originated in unusual ways. For example, the chemist August Kekulé discovered the benzine ring while staring at a fire and seeing the image of a serpent biting its tail. The theory of evolution came to British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace while in a delirium. Archimedes supposedly arrived at the principle of displacement while taking a bath, from which he leapt shouting, 'Eureka!'" 
Some very unpopular groups originate great ideas: "The Communist Party USA was the first political party to call for complete racial equality in this country."  Meanwhile, the science (particularly biology) is being written off as falsehood by post-modernist intellectuals because "the experimental method is the brainchild of white Victorian males."  Schick and Vaughn summarize: "The truth or falsity of an idea is determined not by where it came from, but by the evidence supporting it." 
Similarly, to call a view false because someone once held it only to repudiate it latert on is to commit the genetic fallacy, says Bible historian Robert M. Price: "I do not expect that the mere fact that I was once an evangelical apologist and now see things differently should itself count as evidence that I must be right. That would be the genetic fallacy. It would be just as erroneous to think that John Rankin must be right in having embraced evangelical Christianity since he had once been an agnostic Unitarian and repudiated it for the Christian faith." [122b]
To say that human reason is fallible, therefore reason cannot be trusted, hints of the genetic fallacy. Human reason, according to many Christians, is tainted by "Original Sin"; thus (they say to us),"God's ways" are higher than man's ways. "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding."  To say that reason is fallible is one thing, but to say it should be distrusted because it comes from humans (even if we were tainted by "Original Sin") is to commit the genetic fallacy.
However fallible reason may be, it is our only tool for distinguishing true from false. It is not one of many tools," it is the entire toolbox. "I admit that reason is a small and feeble flame, a flickering torch by stumblers carried in the star-less night, -- blown and flared by passion's storm, -- and yet, it is the only light. Extinguish that, and nought remains." 
The appeal to ignorance is "the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa."  "In science, belief should come from positive evidence in support of a claim, not lack of evidence for or against a claim." 
Some appeals to ignorance use the opponent's inability to disprove a claim as proof of the claim's accuracy. The most common form we atheists receive is the accusation that since we cannot prove that no gods exist, therefore gods must exist. However, nobody can "prove" the negative of any existential claim (a claim that a thing exists), unless that claim is shown to be impossible (such as a square circle). In the case of existential claims, the one making the claim is responsible for proving that the thing in question exists. In lieu of proof, it is reasonable to doubt a claim, especially if it seems to contradict what we know about nature.
After admitting that he cannot disprove the claim that a god exists, Richard Dawkins added: "the virtue of using evidence is precisely that we can come to an agreement about it. But if you listen to two people who are arguing about something, and they each of them have passionate faith that they're right, but they believe different things -- they belong to different religions, different faiths, there is nothing they can do to settle their disagreement short of shooting each other, which is what they very often actually do." 
Other appeals to ignorance use the opponent's inability to prove a conclusion as proof of its incorrectness. Creationists claim that scientists cannot "prove" evolution, therefore it must be false. However, evolution has been firmly established to the point where it is now used to make predictions in developing hybrid plants and vaccinations. One wonders what the creationists mean when they tell us that we cannot "prove" evolution.
Any time the appeal to ignorance is used, it can be turned upon the one using it, as Michael Shermer explains: "The absurdity of this argument comes into focus if one argues that if you cannot prove that Santa Claus does not exist, then he must exist. You can argue the opposite in a similar manner. If you cannot prove Santa Claus exists, then he must not exist." 
"To use the threat of harm to advance one's position is to commit the fallacy of the appeal to fear. It is also known as swinging the big stick. For example: 'If you do not convict this criminal, one of you may be her next victim.' This is fallacious because what a defendant might do in the future is irrelevant to determining whether she is responsible for a crime committed in the past. Or: 'You should believe in God because if you don't you'll go to hell.' Such an argument is fallacious because it gives us no reason for believing that God exists."  "A God meting out punishment and reward must exist, because if He didn't, society would be much more lawless and dangerous -- perhaps even ungovernable." 
"A more cynical formulation by the Roman historian Polybius: 'Since the masses of the people are inconstant, full of unruly desires, passionate, and reckless of consequences, they must be filled with fears to keep them in order. The ancients did well, therefore, to invent gods, and the belief in punishment after death.'" 
The inversion of this fallacy posits believing a proposition because doing so will make one happier: "Life would certainly be depressing and meaningless if there was no hereafter. I feel so sorry for those with no hope, who thinks life ends at death, how hollow of a belief I remember that being." 
Believers seem to be telling us that we should believe their propositions simply because believing so makes people happy. This has nothing to do with whether a given proposition is true. George Bernard Shaw said, "The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality." 
Special pleading is sometimes used as an attempt to rescue a proposition that is in deep rhetorical trouble. In law, it is the "assertion of new or special matter to offset the opposing party's allegations, as an alternative to direct denial."  Elsewhere, it is a "misleading argument that presents one point or phrase as if it covered the entire question at issue." 
Carl Sagan gives the following examples of special pleading: "'How can a merciful God condemn future generations to torment because, against orders, one woman induced one man to eat an apple?' Special plead: 'You don't understand the subtle Doctrine of Free Will.' Or: 'How can there be an equally godlike Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the same Person?' Special plead: 'You don't understand the Divine Mystery of the Trinity.' Or: 'How could God permit the followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- each in their own way enjoined to heroic measures of loving kindness and compassion -- to have perpetrated so much cruelty for so long?' Special plead: 'You don't understand Free Will again. And anyway, God moves in mysterious ways.'" 
"An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public."
-- Charles Maurice de Talleyrand 
Carl Sagan calls these new words "weasel words." He gives an example: "The separation of powers of the U.S. Constitution specifies that the United States may not conduct a war without a declaration by Congress. On the other hand, Presidents are given control of foreign policy and the conduct of wars, which are potentially powerful tools for getting themselves re-elected. Presidents of either political party may therefore be tempted to arrange wars while waving the flag and calling the wars something else -- 'police actions,' 'armed incursions,' 'protective reaction strikes,' 'pacification,' 'safeguarding American interests,' and a wide variety of 'operations,' such as 'Operation Just Cause.' Euphemisms for war are one of a broad class of reinventions of language for political purposes."  Another example that comes to mind is the recent use of the term "undocumented immigrants" to describe people who are more accurately called "illegal aliens." We could easily reach our quota with the web host by listing the many examples of this ploy.
Some people argue that we ought to do just this with the word atheist. Since the terms atheist and atheism evoke the ire of so many people, perhaps we ought to start calling ourselves something else: Michael Shermer suggests "nontheists."  The questions we raise are: How close is this move to what Sagan calls "weasel words"? Is not an atheist an atheist by any other name? And would it not be better to popularize the fact that most people have a misguided understanding of what atheism even is?
A variant of the weasel words ruse is oxymoronic language, which merges two different terms or concepts to form a self-contradictory phrase. The dictionaries give some poetic examples of oxymoronic language: "deafening silence"; "mournful optimist"'  "cruel kindness";  "faith unfaithfully kept him falsely true."  Rap stars The Disposable Heroes of Hiphopricy (also known as The Beatnigs) give examples of how television uses oxymoronic language in an exploitive way: "virtually spotless"; "fresh frozen"; "light yet filling"; "military intelligence." 
Can God make a rock so big he cannot roll it? Very few theologians teach that omnipotence includes the logically impossible. "If there is such a thing as an irresistible force there can be no immovable objects, and vice versa."  Robert Anton Wilson cites, as "the classic Strange Loop,"  a passage from the Bible: "Even one of their own prophets has said, 'Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.' This testimony is true."  Wilson comments: "If the egregious Cretan is telling the truth, he is lying."  Unfortunately for Bible believers, Paul concurs that "this testimony is true."
Wilson points out a variation of the strange loop by examining the claim that the Nazis killed 6,000,000 Jews: "it is believed by almost everybody and rejected by a vehement minority called Holocaust Revisionists. The case for Holocaust Revisionism is that there is a Vast Worldwide Conspiracy that has faked all the evidence which the rest of us naively accept.
"Holocaust Revisionism or HR can hardly be called 'false' in a historical sense because it is not part of the History Game; it rejects the rules of evidence that historians play by. This can be seen by comparing it with the thesis that President Richard Nixon never existed and all evidence of such a man was faked by another Vast Worldwide Conspiracy. One cannot disprove either HR or NR (Nixon Revisionism) since all historical evidence relevant to the dispute is defined as tainted.
"I think it is safest to regard HR as another Strange Loop. By assuming all inconvenient evidence is faked, one opens an infinite regress, and one can logically ask next if the evidence that Holocaust Revisionists exist might have been faked (i.e. did the ethnomethodologists or other sociologists interested in 'breaching experiments' on reality-tunnels manufacture the books and pamphlets of HR as an experiment, to see if we would believe people would write such documents seriously?)
"I leave it an open question whether Creationism (which alleges the evidence for evolution has been faked) is another Strange Loop." 
"Philosopher Francis Bacon called this counting the hits and forgetting the misses."  "We forget most of the insignificant coincidences and remember the meaningful ones. Our tendency to remember hits and ignore misses is the bread and butter of the psychics, prophets, and soothsayers who make hundreds of predictions each January 1. First they increase the probability of a hit by predicting mostly generalized sure bets like "There will be a major earthquake in southern California" or "I see trouble for the Royal Family." Then, next January, they publish their hits and ignore the misses, and hope no one bothers to keep track." 
Bible believers do this with Bible passages, ignoring those statements that don't make sense or are patently false. To see this, one need only to open any book on biblical end-times prophesy that is more than a few years old. If any predictions actually came true, the likelihood is that anyone could have seen this event as inevitable.
This is the act of observing a small number and concluding that your observations apply to all. Carl Sagan gives these examples: "They say 1 out of every 5 people is Chinese. How is this possible? I know hundreds of people, and none of them is Chinese." Or: "I've thrown three sevens in a row. Tonight I can't lose."  Finally, "Christians do not believe that a newborn child that dies will go to hell. I just wanted to clarify that. I don't know any Christians who believe that." 
"Composition is assuming that what is true for one is true for all.... This argument is fallacious because a whole may be greater than the sum of its parts; that is, it may have properties not possessed by its parts. A property had by a whole but not by its parts is called an emergent property. Wetness, for example, is an emergent property. No individual water molecule is wet, but get enough of them together and wetness emerges...." 
This fallacy is particularly insidious when it is used to generalize about groups of people based upon the acts on a few individuals in that group. This is the primary rationalization behind all bigotry.
"Not all arguments from part to whole are fallacious, for there are properties that the parts and wholes share. The fallacy lies in assuming that what's true of the parts is true of the whole." 
"Division is assuming that what is true for all is true for a given individual."  Not everybody in a group acts like the "typical" member of that group. There are always exceptions, and we must be careful not to judge an individual based on what we think the group is like.
Carl Sagan relates the case of "President Dwight Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence."  Creationists use this fallacy when they describe the "astronomical chances" that make life unlikely. In doing this, they ignore just how vast the universe is, and how long it has been around. They also forget that "the chance of life occurring somewhere in this universe is exactly one: life has occurred in this universe, and we cannot compare this universe with any others to determine how unlikely it would be for life to occur in this universe." 
iv. Problems in Pseudoscientific Thinking. 
"Anecdotes -- stories recounted in support of a claim -- do not make a science. Without corroborative evidence from other sources, or physical proof of some sort, ten anecdotes are no better than one, and a hundred anecdotes are no better than ten." 
"Most of us wouldn't pour a newfangled alcohol solution into our gas tanks, unless it had been widely tested, widely publicized, and widely accepted. But what kinds of herbs and chemicals do many of us put into our bodies -- not knowing what they do or don't do -- simply because a book made lofty claims and gave glowing testimonials about the alleged health benefits? This is especially shocking when we note that such remedies often admit, right on the label, that the health claims are folkloric: 'Such and so tribe used this.' But we would never treat our TV sets that way." 
"Dressing up a belief system in the trappings of science by using scientific language and jargon, as in 'creation-science,' means nothing without evidence, experimental testing, and corroboration. Because science has such a powerful mystique in our society, those who wish to gain respectability but do not have evidence try to do an end run around the missing evidence by looking and sounding 'scientific.'"  Like "creation science," the New Age movement is guilty of using lots of scientific terminology to say absolutely nothing.
In the ultimate commentary on this and similar problems, Physicist Alan Sokal decided to try an unorthodox experiment: "submit to a fashionable American cultural-studies journal, Social Text, a parody of the type of work that has proliferated in recent years, to see whether they would publish it. The article, entitled 'Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity', is chock-full of absurdities and blatant non-sequiturs.... By a series of stunning leaps of logic, it arrives at the conclusion that 'the p [pi] of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone'. The rest is in the same vein.
"And yet, the article was accepted and published. Worse, it was published in a special issue of Social Text devoted to rebutting the criticisms leveled against postmodernism and social constructivism by several distinguished scientists. For the editors of Social Text, it was hard to imagine a more radical way of shooting themselves in the foot." 
"Something is probably pseudoscientific if enormous claims are made for its power and veracity but supportive evidence is scarce as hen's teeth."  Here are some examples of bold statements that contribute nothing to proving the accompanying theories true: "The creation of Dianetics is a milestone for man comparable to his discovery of fire and superior to his invention of the wheel and arch."  Wilhelm Reich called his theory of Orgonomy "a revolution in biology and psychology comparable to the Copernican Revolution." 
American politician Rep. Scarborough of Florida boldly asserted that American Founding Father James Madison stated, "We have staked the future of the American civilization not on the power of government, but on the capacity of Americans to abide by the Ten Commandments of God."  No such quote can be found in the archives of James Madison's known writings.  The man responsible for popularizing this bogus quote, David Barton of the WallBuilders organization, had, at least a year earlier, issued a statement admitting that this and several other popular quotes are "false." 
Nevertheless, on the floor of the United States House of Representatives, in introducing this false "quote" into his argument in favor of allowing Judge Roy Moore to prominently post the Ten Commandments in his courtroom, Rep. Scarborough of Florida said, "it is humorous watching people doing historical cartwheels, trying to rewrite history as radical revisionists have been doing for the past 30 years, trying to tell us that the Ten Commandments is some political gimmick." 
Does Scarborough here appear to think that using bold claims about "historical cartwheels" and "radical revisionists" to introduce the false Madison quote will somehow magically change the fact that Madison never said this? Probably not. Through repetition, people who don't know any better (like most members of Congress) will come to believe a false statement to be true. Scarborough appears to be using the bold claim about "radical revisionists" as a bluff, to distract from the fact that Madison never made the statement the Representative from Florida has put into the former President's mouth. Some politicians resort to this and other bluffs when the special-interest position they are elected to uphold cannot be defended through reasoned argument.
Nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said,"All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident."  However, not all truth goes through these states. Also, many propositions that go through the first and second stages never become "accepted as self-evident."
Robert Anton Wilson tells of the persecution of Dr. Wilhelm Reich: "In October 1957, agents of the U.S. government went to the Orgone Institute Press in New York City; they seized all the books; they loaded the books into a comandeered garbage truck; they drove to the Vandivoort Street incinerator; they burned the books.
"This was not 'back in the dark ages'; it was only a few years ago. It did not happen in a fascist or Marxist dictatorship but in a nation whose constitution specifically forbids that pyromaniac way of disposing of unpopular ideas. And it was not instigated by religious fanatics but by those 'scientific' fanatics whom J.B. Priestly dubbed the Citadel.
"The books were by Dr. Wilhelm Reich, a former student of Freud and a political radical....
"Members of the American Medical Association and American Psychoanalytical Association pressured the government to prosecute Reich as a crank or a 'charlatan.' Dr. Reich, either out of delusions of grandeur or out of principled commitment to libertarian ideals -- take your choice -- refused to admit that the government had any right to pass judgment on scientific theories, and as a result was convicted, only of contempt of court. Nonetheless, the government followed this with the book-burning, and with the destruction by ax of equipment in Dr. Reich's research laboratory, and then threw him in prison, where he died of a heart attack after a few months. Reich's co-worker, Dr. Michael Silvert, subsequently committed suicide." 
The injudicious and reprehensible treatment of Dr. Reich in no way proves that he was not a quack. That cannot be done until after other scientists repeat his experiments. "I have no idea how much of that 30-some years of work was sound, how much unsound."  None of Reich's detractors admit to having repeated his experiments before this modern Inquisition took place. Nobody could repeat his experiments afterwards, because "none of Dr. Reich's books could legally be printed in the U.S. until 1967. Those who would have liked to have formed an independent opinion of the scientific issues were legally unable to see or touch or even smell the verboten pages." 
You've surely heard that Madalyn Murray O'Hair (of American Atheists) has petitioned the FCC to ban all religious broadcasting. Not only that, there is a proposal before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that, if passed, would result in a surcharge for the use of computer modems on the telephone network, and the United States Postal Service plans to place a charge on e-mail. Proctor and Gamble's logo is a satanic symbol. There is a scene in Disney's "Aladdin" where the title character murmurs,"All good teenagers take off your clothes." Gay men kill gerbils for sexual pleasure.
Each one of these stories is pure fiction. Nevertheless, they have severely impacted the individuals, groups, businesses, and agencies in question. The amount of resources used by the FCC to counter the Madalyn O'Hair petitions staggers the imagination. Proctor and Gamble bowed to pressure and removed its logo from products, and has sued Amway over its role in spreading the rumors. Here are the truths regarding these rumors as far as we can tell.
Neither Madalyn Murray O'Hair nor American Atheists has ever had anything to do with an unsuccessful petition filed on December 5, 1974, by Jeremy Lansman and Lorenzo Milam. The men were helping minority groups set up non-commercial FM stations, and were frustrated with the relative ease that religious groups have in setting up stations. Lansman and Milam, by the way, were described by Madalyn Murray O'Hair as "both religious young men."  The petition (RM-2493) said, in part, "Request for 'Freeze' on all Applications by Religious 'Bible', 'Christian', and other Sectarian Schools, Colleges, and Institutes for Reserved Educational FM and TV Channels." 
By summer, 1975, the FCC received half a million letters protesting O'Hair's non-existent petition.  In April 1977, the Senate of Illinois, at the goading of Sen. LeRoy Lemke, passed a resolution condemning O'Hair for the petition.  The largest number of letters registered in one day is 60,000, in 1980, prompting the FCC to ask the U.S. Congress for a appropriation of $250,000 to help cope with the flood.  In total, over 20 million letters have been received by the FCC, denouncing Madalyn Murray O'Hair for something she never did.  "The important outcome of all this is that the religious community used those letters, which they had incited by a calculated lie, to bring pressure upon the FCC to permit them to have unlimited access to the media."  The sad part is that the rest of us, the nonreligious, do not enjoy the advantages that these powerful religious groups have when it comes to obtaining and using Reserved Educational FM and TV Channels.
Not two weeks before the original writing of this section, Positive Atheism received a warning about an internet tax -- from one of our colleagues, no less. In February, 1999, The Federal Communications Commission issued the fact sheet, "No Consumer Per-Minute Charges to Access ISPs"  denying any proposed changes in the way people access the Internet. On May 21, 1999, the United States Postal Service issued a press release called, "E-Mail Rumor Completely Untrue"  which calls the rumor "completely false." Positive Atheism once placed links to these releases toward the top of its front page.
During the nineteenth century, Proctor and Gamble would ship candles down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans, where jobbers would unload the river barges and ship the candles worldwide. Crate makers invented their own marks that they would carve or burn into the crate. Some crate makers waxed artistic, until one of the bosses ordered the crate makers to stop marking boxes. When the shipments hit New Orleans, the jobbers refuse to accept them thinking they were counterfeit product -- not having the familiar marks. Once P&G heard about this, they decided to allow the crate makers to mark their work, but wanted them to choose just one symbol that everybody would use. A contest was held, and the moon-and-stars symbol used by one guy was chosen as the winner. This crate maker's mark eventually became an internationally famous trademark. 
In an October 24, 1995, article in The Wall Street Journal, staff reporter Lisa Bannon exposed the sources of the various Disney cartoon rumors. Tracing a long line of sources from various Christian publications, she finally came upon one Matthew Ford, a college senior at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He told Bannon, "We watch movies to try to find mistakes all the time. Like, there's a car in the background of 'Maverick' when Mel Gibson is talking to the Indians.... We were all sitting around the dorm back in January watching 'Aladdin' and I couldn't figure out something he was saying.... I said, 'Rewind that,' and then we heard it.... My friends think it's funny because it's a Disney movie." When the "Aladdin" rumor eventually landed on the national news, Ford never imagined he helped start it all. 
Cecil Adams, in his "Straight Dope" column says that all attempts to track down a real case of "gerbilling" have been unsuccessful. Jan Harold Brunvand agrees that this rumor is false in his book on urban legends, The Mexican Pet. Chuck Shepherd of "News of the Weird" published a list of objects found "up the down staircase" which included a rodent. On being asked for a source, he admitted mistaking his original query for such a cite as being a cite.  Nothing has been published in the medical literature, according to Medline.  Requests on various medical newsgroups have turned up no eyewitness accounts, although the topic of rectal objects abounds in medical literature. "After a while the lack of positive evidence becomes pretty strong negative evidence in itself."  Still, religious bigots continue to spread this rumor and thus paint an entire group with this filthy and despicable broad brush.
[End of "Introduction To Activistic Atheism"]