Removing Questionable Material

from The Big List of Quotations

'Tis a Sign, I Apprehend,
of its Being a Bad One

Richard Whitner

(The title is from a Ben Franklin quip.)


The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.
-- James Madison, letter objecting to the use of government land for churches, 1803, quoted from James A. Haught, ed., 2000 Years of Disbelief


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From: "Positive Atheism"
To: "Richard Whitner"
Subject: verification of a quote
Date: November 22, 2004


Thanks for writing!

I will look into this quotation and, if those who work on these things cast sufficient doubt, I'll either remove it or move it over to the "Phony Quotes" portion of the Madison section. But I'm sure you can see why I cannot act on a single e-mail unless the problem is entirely self-evident (such as when the lifespan I listed for a man had him dying 23 years before he was born -- whoops! wrong century!).

Meanwhile, if you doubt a quotation's authenticity, even if you have the slightest questions about it, then by all means stop using it! Anybody who would make a case by using quotes should (I think) be very, very selective about the quotes she or he uses.

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Are the Founders' Views Valid for Us Today?

In any event, I'm not sure about the role that quotes play in an argument. Yes, your Christian adversaries are fond of using them in their attempts to recruit your teens, but this behavior seems to be, more than anything else, an extension of their propensity for hurling Bible passages at one another than anything else! (Ahem!) To me, arguing a point involves, more than anything else, my ability to see that the point in question is a superior idea. For that reason, I would hope that the idea itself could be made to shine on its own merits.

Paine said that it doesn't matter who said something, because the words themselves are what carry the message anyway. The ancient Pharisees would attribute new wisdom to some obscure historical figure to prevent the identity of the real author from biasing the message's recipients. In this sense, if you think the Madison (mis)quote is an excellent idea in and of itself, then run with it -- but -- use it strictly on its own merits, not as the opinion of an American Founding Father!

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What Might the Founders Have Thought?

One thing I try to keep in mind about the Founding Fathers is that according to their own words, their opinions shouldn't mean diddly squat to those of subsequent generations except as historical points of interest (or perhaps to garner arguments or perspective regarding this or that viewpoint). We must always guard against committing the Genetic Fallacy, saying an idea is valid simply because of its origin. Is an opinion valid simply because Einstein (for example) said it or Lincoln would have agreed? (What Would Jesus Do? What Would YOU Do?)

The genetic fallacy is a tough call: that a Founding Father held an opinion does not, in itself, make the policy behind it appropriate for us today. The Founders were making a country (laws, a Constitution, and a Bill of Rights) that was, for them, "good enough," considering the short amount of time they had for working these things out. Almost to a man (Madison being the exception) they said that the work they did was for their generation. We, the members of a subsequent generation (they said), need to work out our own government designed to suit the needs of a subsequent day.

The Founders who said these things were, back then, guarding against the very mistake that both the Christians and the Separationists are committing today. From both sides we hear people taking the laws framed by the Founders and the ideas spoken by the Founders and setting them in stone for all time.

Franklin, the only one I would consider "middle class," predicted that the Americans would eventually take the Liberties wrought by his generation and exchange them for things like safety and protection from harm. Ultimately we would embrace some form of tyranny as the true cost of ensuring our destinies. See Gore Vidal's recent book, Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, for an eye-opening (and hair-raising) look at Early America. The LA Weekly Interview, "Uncensored Gore Vidal," gives an ample peek at what Vidal found in his studies.

Readers don't like me talking like this, but we need to guard against the idea that "The Ten Amendments" are something that's "Set in Stone" or written by the finger of The Founding God. Christians and other religious folks are accustomed to thinking that way, but that thinking is inappropriate for human-made documents. Our laws and protections require that we think of them as such. To me, this would mean re-examining each of the ideas in question and arguing for retention only of those ideas that are worthy of our generation today.

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Regarding The Big List of Quotations

... the editor of the "James Madison Papers"...[could not] find the original source of that quote for me.

As a historian of no small stature, his opinion would be worth much. Of course this quip reflects the ideas of Madison, even if they are not the exact words that came forth from his pen (see under Haught, below). What did the Madison historian he think of the statement? Did he say whether or not he thought it might be genuine? does he doubt its authenticity on grounds other than the fact that he hasn't found it?

On giving it a good look, the term "separation of church and state" looks out of place right off the bat. Madison's preferred language seems to be "separation of Religion from Govt.," with the words capitalized and abbreviated as I have written them here. My local copy of the Big List is dismantled right now, but if you would be willing to send me the dialogues you had with the "Madison Papers" editor, I'll move it or remove it when I put the Big List back together.

It's generally impossible to prove that someone did not say this or that, unless the individual in question had special circumstances, and this is rare. To show what I mean, I'll review the example of physicist Stephen Hawking, who cannot speak without the aid of a machine. If someone with similar limitations rigs the machine to keep a record of what he says (via the machine), then we can easily prove that this individual did not say what he, in fact, did not say. Courts are another example: in court, whatever anybody says gets written down, allowing an observer to assert, for example, that "The judge did not express an opinion while deciding Saul Lipcyst's suit against the city."

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The Launching of The Big List

PAMBLOQ is short for Positive Atheism Magazine's Big List of Quotations, which is now an online book in its own right. I've called it the "Big List" from the beginning, ever since it was nothing more than one large file filled with quotations, arranged alphabetically by the speaker. At the end were three "Scary Quotes" to exemplify what some of the more radical Christian activists were thinking. I got them (and the name) from a pamphlet of some sort that I found at an atheist meeting. At first, to make the "Scary Quotes" section, the saying had to be something that would have embarrassed me to no end had I still been a Christian when I first heard the quip. (Often, I'm embarrassed even as an atheist -- embarrassed that my fellow humans could be talked into thinking this or that way about us or about others!)

The Big List became very big very quickly. During those months when a 56k modem was a status symbol, I had to split the pages up several times, carefully trying not to allow each page to go over 20k -- which was twice the size that Web Monkey was recommending at the time. Thus, the Frames version was born. (A few afternoons on Web Monkey is as close as I come to getting any formal HTML training!)

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Setting the Standards

When I select a quotation from a collection or excerpt it from a book or article, I try to provide the secondary source citation whether or not I know the primary source. If the secondary source gives a primary source or another secondary source, I include all the information I can get my hands on, in case anybody needs to verify the quote. After all, without the primary source, I am trusting the work and judgment of others!

By including secondary citations, I give credit and responsibility to the secondary work's editor or author. In one sense, I am saying, "My trust in this person's work is my justification for using it in mine"; in another sense, "This is really all the information I have." With that, I rest on my decision in lieu of a valid reason for doubting the decision. For example, I now have reason to doubt that Madison quotation (and because of this, I'd like to see information you've come up with).

I'm hoping that my practice of including all the information I have helps readers trust that I'll candidly report whenever I get wind that some find this or that quote to be questionable. "When in doubt, leave it out!" is the rule with lists of quotations. At one time I had planned to remove quips for which I had no source information. Instead, I decided to let readers decide what to do with these; meanwhile, the idea is available, which, as I stated above, is more important than whose idea it was to begin with.

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Why I Created a List of Quotations

When I started this work almost ten years ago, I didn't see many collections of any kind that consistently tried to provide source citations. The specialized, "scholarly" collections had them, but that's about it. The situation today isn't much better: most collections still do not provide any source citations at all! Back then, I got the impression that nobody cared. But I decided that I care and hence tried to track down as many sources as possible, sometimes spending an entire afternoon on one quote!

What was available for atheists (etc.) was this huge, unresearched pile (literally) of sayings, some of which probably tickled the imaginations of certain atheists -- but most of these didn't impress me in the least. It was clear that a great many of these quotations were included precisely because they contained sentiments that one might hear from an atheist of the village variety. Source citations were incidental, at best. Many of the quips were flat-out anonymous. (I certainly wouldn't admit to having said some of these things!) Some of them even I knew to be false (and I was no expert at the time, believe me). Many were in all caps or had other idiosyncrasies. All were hastily (or even automatically) pasted into a huge seven-bit ASCII file that occasionally grew bigger.

Ah, but that was fine for me, because I wasn't interested in quotations, anyway. Every atheistic web page had an ample supply of "atheist quotations."

Then I noticed something that got me thinking: all the collections I saw used this one big file as its resource! Hmmm! Uh, no: I've already got my hands full.

Then I lost a bid to do a small project for a group, a project that I considered important both for me, in doing the work, and for the group, in that I had the patience to do this thing right and create something pleasing as well as useful. The group wanted me to find quotations and print or trace them onto sheets of fine paper for posting on their walls! After agreeing to do it, I put ten or twelve hours into the project, coming up with several dozen outstanding quotes. I assembled these into a list for them to review so they could tell me which ones they wanted. That's when I was told that somebody else had wowed the group leaders with this huge list. They grabbed the job right out from under me!

When I learned of this, I checked the huge online list for duplicates and removed those from my list (out of sheer spite over the group's having chosen this over the work of their own members). I called it, "The Big List of Quotations," and posted it on my budding atheistic web site. A day or two afterwards, someone noticed the list and, thinking I was serious, suggested that I include sources: "At least now we might have a list that we can find halfway useful" were the sentiments I remember reading in this very polite letter.

I decided to create PAMBLOQ exactly backwards from the way this online list was put together. No more blindly posting whatever anybody submitted (or removing what they didn't like). Most importantly, no more including something simply because the topic was somehow remotely related to atheism!

I started with ten general topics, eight of which made the list. The ninth was, at first, a somewhat popular threesome of chilling sentiments from television preachers and anti-abortion activists that I had seen somewhere in the print media, simply called "scary quotes": "I want you to let a wave of hatred come over you!" Yeah! That guy! The tenth category, gratuitous ridiculing of theists, solely on general principles and for no good reason, was, at first, my Windows Recycle Bin. Then it necessarily became a file on my computer wherein I documented why I had rejected this or that quip. Today it lives in my mind, because I have a very good idea what I do and do not want to do with PAMBLOQ!

This is how it startedv Since then I have, almost daily at times, spent multiple hours carefully assembling this thing. The story of how it (almost) ended is written between the lines in the copyright notice at the bottom of each main page.

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To James Haught and Many, Many Others: Thanks!

James Haught is a writer, a scholar, and a man whom I consider a remote friend (I've never met him in person). Generally, he's an associate in the activism that we both do and we've had several conversations that have greatly influenced the quality and direction of my work on PAM. It was James who initially got me off the ground by allowing me to quote liberally from his book and other writings. Indeed, his book has led me astray on (now) three occasions (if this quote remains unverified). This is, actually, a very good record for a work by a single individual, considering how many of his quips I converted to e-text.

After completing the first of two major phases of converting material from Jim's book, I discussed with Annie Laurie Gaylor excerpting passages from her then-brand new Women Without Superstition: "No Gods -- No Masters" (1997). The task of excerpting quips from this volume is monumental, to say the least, as it is not simply a collection of quotations, like 2000 Years of Disbelief, but, rather, a collection of complete (short) works and excerpts of longer works: essays, pamphlets, book chapters, and the like. Needless to say, excerpting "by hand" is the toughest way to go about building a collection of quotations, and the project of adding material from Women Without Superstition continues, off and on, to this day (as I find time to pull it out and read it).

About the same time, I found a wonderful little self-published paperback volume in a used bookstore titled, The Great Quotations on Religious Freedom edited by Albert J. Menendez and Edd Doerr. I converted about one-quarter of this book, including material from the sections of quips by people, institutions, and governments. A few years later, a reader asked me to help him come up with a copy of the book. After several months of diligent search, I finally found a used copy on the East Coast, and with that I justified posting what remained of the quotes from people (leaving the institutions alone). Happily, this little gem has since been picked up by Prometheus Books, and you can now buy a brand new copy from them! I like to think that our Big List had something to do with the decision to reprint!

Others have joined the fray, sending in quotes and lists for our use, including Laird Wilcox, who has built several large volumes of quotations about subjects that are, in a way, tangential to the goals I have for PAMBLOQ. Certainly Liberty of Speech is of concern to anybody interested in Liberty of Religion: they all fall into the larger category of Liberty of Conscience and they all fit into our scheme of things.

My two favorite contributors, by the way, have asked me not to include their names due to conflicts of interest with other writing gigs they have with other atheistic groups.

I also have at least one "milk crate" full of books either suitable for excerpting or collections themselves, another milk crate filled to the rim with old Humanistic, Atheistic, and Freethought magazines, and a third filled with locally produced newsletters. Then there are the files: I have been saving out the e-list dispatches from several atheistic and skeptical foundations and writers, and these are a literal goldmine for quotations that are not to be found online.

And there's where I'll leave this description: Positive Atheism Magazine's Big List of Quotations accepts only quotations that are not already online somewhere. This isn't always easy to check out: Google and the others don't find everything. The main point is that the Internet is the one place where we do not go looking for material to post.

This, by the way, is precisely why I have not been working on PAMBLOQ for the past three years: why should I do all this work, desiring to create a reason for readers to come spend some time at our place, when the moment I post these quotes I have typed, by hand, into my computer, some shiftless ne'er-do-well will come by with his fingers lazily poised on the Ctrl+C key and paste all that work I just did into his web site! Why should I work so hard just to bring attention and glory to someone else's web site (especially someone like that)!?

So I stopped producing new material for PAMBLOQ. When I stumble across a new quip and have the fifteen or so minutes it takes to drop what I'm doing, format it and paste it into the right file, update the "What's New?" list, and upload everything, I'll do it. But I might as well give it up if it comes to simply saving the quip out into the "To-Do" folder, 'cause I'll probably never get around to it.

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Hey! Thanks for writing, and thanks for the heads-up!

I hope this didn't bore you too much! I wrote it mainly for posting and will probably rewrite much of it -- but thanks for the opportunity to finally get this story "on paper."

Again, I'd be interested in seeing whatever information you come up with.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Entering our 10th year of service
    to people with no reason to believe

"Those who are not theists are atheists."
    This definition is favored as a generic
self-definition for our social class by a
majority of the atheistic social critics,
philosophers, writers, and reformers who
ventured an opinion on the subject.
    We recommend the popularization of this
definition as a potential means to reduce
the stigma that is leveled against atheists
from virtually every corner.
    Don't let antagonists tell us who we are!
                 -- Positive Atheism Magazine

"My conclusion is that there is no reason to
   believe any of the dogmas of traditional
   theology and, further, that there is no
   reason to wish that they were true. Man,
   in so far as he is not subject to natural
   forces, is free to work out his own destiny.
   The responsibility is his, and so is the
       -- Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), from
            "Is There a God?" (1952), being
            the minimal religious opinion of
            one-fifth of the World's and of
            one-seventh of America's adults

"The legitimate powers of government extend
   to such acts only as are injurious to others."
       -- Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), from
            "Statute for Religious Freedom"

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain
   a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty
   nor safety."
       -- Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), from
            "Historical Review of Pennsylvania"

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