Aside From The Obvious,
What Is Positive Atheism?
Mara Franz

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "mara franz"
Subject: Re: Read your letter regarding cryogenics in Skeptic email
Date: August 27, 2002 2:26 PM

First of all, someone finally sent me that letter from Skeptic, but you know what? I never received that thing! I have the original, which is more intact than the copy I have. I will change the location of a few parentheses, make some other minor adjustments so that it will be at least a second draft (Shermer printed a corruption of the first, at least two lines having been inadvertently dropped off in transmission from what I sent to what I've seen) and post it in Letters real soon, linking it from the Cliff Index as well. First I think I might put it in the Print Edition.

When I first started reading it, I had forgotten that the guy who sent the copy to me had said it was mine. Within half a paragraph, I started recognizing not only the opinions, but the vehemence with which they had been expressed! Then I looked back and saw a grammatical Cliff-ism -- I really didn't know what to think, then. So when the second paragraph began with "Dig this," it took but two or three more seconds and the visual perusal of the next parenthetical clause and it all came back to me! Hey! I wrote that thing! Where did THIS GUY get it? Oh, yeah! Experiencing that process of realization was indeed quite pleasant!

As you may or may not know, these Edema attacks have torn my sleep pattern to shreds, and that seriously affects certain specific aspects of my memory.

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Introduction (written last)

Like my experience, this starts out a bit rough. However, the way you worded your question requires that I set some groundwork before I address the specific elements in your question that stopped this from being a simple five-paragraph list describing the editorial outlook and required that it be a carefully told story of what went into both the current version as well as what is surely slated for the next revision.

Positive Atheism, as a name, is the best I could do during the two-and-one-half hours I had in which to change ALL the links of the then-40 megabyte web site when I learned I was to be unjustly driven from of the group where I had been a loyal, active, and honest member for over seven years. I picked the name up from the writings of Gora, which I have featured on my web site from its beginning, even while I was still part of that group. To Gora, Positive Atheism equals atheism as a method of social reform. To Gora, atheism includes the rejection of all notions of the supernatural plus a skeptical approach to claims of the paranormal. Gora's Positive Atheism is tempered by the philosophy of his friend, Mohandas K. Gandhi; but more than that, it is strengthened by Gora's own, much stricter ethic which is centered in truthfulness as the highest personal ethic one can hold. A personal ethic centered in truthfulness, to Gora, is required of any atheist desiring respect from anybody and is a prerequisite to any success toward deliberately implemented social change. Atheism acknowledges humankind's power, however limited, over the natural course of events that we can expect to transpire should we default to, as John Lennon put it, "Watching the wheels go round and round." Unlike the character in the Lennon song, Gora considers active intervention a social obligation if poverty or injustice exists anywhere in the world.

As you can probably guess, my attempts at modernizing and Westernizing Gora's outlook, having been borne in America a half-century after Gora thrived, is anything but a comprehensive social plan. Gora's Positive Atheism ended up, for the most part, being Gora's personal philosophy; that is, how Gora himself led his life. Gandhi's Satyagraha was the same thing, except that Gandhi was able to turn it into a religion and thus he made disciples in his ashram, where those who lived at the ashram were required to live like Gandhi did. I'm not sure Gora went that far, and I have no intention of going even as far as Gora did.

Instead, I hope to study three (for now) elements of what is, for the most part, the common experience of being an unchurched American. In so doing, I hope to consider how some of that experience might be changed through specific action on our part as atheists. I intend to address the experience of enduring bigotry specifically, even if I end up focusing on nothing else.

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Beginning (written first)

By the time I had completed my call to India (on the day of my ouster from the group), obtaining permission from Gora's son, Lavanam, whom I'd met a few years earlier, I had a vision of an experimental philosophy seeking to address or perhaps even end the serious problem of bigotry against those of us who lack a god-belief. Lavanam understood that this expression of Positive Atheism would be mostly inspired by Gora, basing a few of its ideals on a few of his and, for the most part, modernizing and Westernizing some but not all of the elements and goals of Gora's outlook as pertains to a personal ethic, which he eventually began simply calling "atheism." Since the problems in America have more to do with the behavior of hoards of individuals rather than anything institutionalized into the fabric of society, and because of the vast differences in economic opportunity as well as assistance for when such opportunity escapes one's grasp, much of Gora's social reform program is probably moot in the United States.

Unwilling to add to the term atheism a specific or unique meaning, I quickly made it my goal to distinguish between atheism and "Positive Atheism." I saw in the "weak" definition for the word atheism the potential of softening some of the blows leveled against atheists and atheism. Having already decided that I think this to be the most accurate use of the word, I set out to popularize the "weak" definition, as described in George H. Smith's essay, "Defining Atheism."

The new, experimental philosophy of Positive Atheism, a modernized, Westernized remnant of the traditional viewpoint which has been working quite well in India for over 60 years, now has four distinct elements, all of which are suggestions made in the hope of reducing the impact of bigotry against atheists, improving the quality of life of atheists, and effecting a widespread understanding of what atheism is and is, both in the context of reducing bigotry and in a general context.

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Truthfulness: The Highest Personal Ethic

First, I chose to advocate making honesty and truthfulness the most important personal ethic for any atheist. By the very act of being an atheist (is it even an action?), she or he calls theism a form of falsehood. This implies a respect for truthfulness; thus, to be a self-consistent atheist, to be the kind of atheist that others can take seriously as both an atheist and a human, the atheist must practice truthfulness in all of his or her personal affairs.

In America and elsewhere, theism has the warped luxury of being able to "sin with impunity," that is, religious leaders, groups, and individuals can sit there and commit travesty after travesty and such behavior will have little if any impact on their credibility. As I have said, a religious group can boldly assert that the Sun and Moon do not exist and its credibility will not suffer one iota.

Atheists do not have this luxury. Even if we were to somehow magically (ahem!) achieve a state where no atheist speaking against theism or in behalf of atheism ever again made a misstatement or told an untruth, either deliberately or unwittingly), atheists, as class and to a man, would still be treated as if we were pathological liars every one. A recent poll from the Barna Research foundation, a "Gallup Poll," says that fully 98 percent of Evangelical Christians, whether all they know about a person is his or her atheism or whether they know this person well, will consider that person "untrustworthy."

We atheists simply cannot afford to practice anything less than impeccable trustworthiness.

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Self-Identity: What's In a Name?

Secondly, I chose to advocate that we agree to see the overall big picture of atheism (as a whole) in terms of the "weak" or "negative" definition of the word. Thus, when speaking of "atheism" in general terms, or when speaking of someone as "an atheist" -- about whom we know nothing more, including even what variety of atheist she or he even is -- we do well to think of atheism as "the lack of a god-belief" or "the absence of theism" and to think of the (nonspecific) atheist as "lacking a god-belief," that is, "anyone who is not a theist."

Of course, as individuals, we all have our own lack of understanding, so Positive Atheism became unwilling to tell individual atheists how not to believe! Thus, we encourage that individual atheists come up with their own atheism, each with its own size, shape, color, feel, strength, texture, curve, velocity, timbre, plane, saturation, slope, thrust, aroma, backspin, voltage, acceleration, language, inertia, flavor, hue, pitch, momentum, temperature, tone, accent, viscosity, timbre, modulation, luminance, angle, warp, woof, weft, weave, web, and, of course, amount of "English."

Most importantly, though, with all that talk about "weak" and "strong," we needed to explain to more than a few readers what we were aiming for in describing the overall big picture in weak terms. Many were concerned that we were accepting only "weak" atheists, others that we were denounced "strong" atheists. All of this went on in a state of experimentation, of course, not really knowing what would work, what was proper, or whether we were being understood by very many.

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Atheism With -- A Smile!?

Thirdly, as more and more people joined up and the front page started coming together, many wrote to the effect that they liked the idea of a brand of atheism that wasn't bitter, spiteful, and vindictive, but was all about sunrises, puppies, and getting along with LA cops.

I'd rest my fingers on the keyboard and think to myself, "Wha...?"

Then I'd start explaining the need for honesty and how sweeping our own side of the street every morning (literally, in some cases) could only do us and everybody else a world of good. I'd mention the jinx inherent in our name and would make various suggestions involving public awareness regarding the word atheist, at least, and sometimes a lot more (depending on my mood and occasionally on what I felt, at the time, was needed to fill out the FAQ section). If we'd simply discuss, clarify, and even adjust the meaning of the word, I would reiterate (time and time again), it seems as if we could go a long way toward straightening out public awareness regarding our class. People have the right to hate us, I'd sometimes say, but more than that, they deserve an accurate representation of who we are when deciding whether to accept us or discredit us.

I even tried saying that "Positive" initially meant "proactive" so that "Positive Atheism" is not above putting the foot down when some theist wants to pull any of the numerous slippery stunts we've been hit with over the years. The philosophy of "Positive Atheism" is proactive but it's a lot more if you're ready for something like that.

This always left me with an empty feeling.

If you first thought that the "Positive" entails getting along with theists or honing a nice pleasant disposition for the debate club or something along those lines, then join the crowd: just about everybody who has written to the Forum or requested to be on the e-list or subscribed to our print edition has thought similarly at first. Many still do and always have, regardless of what I've ever said about the matter!

With that, I began to open up to the idea of letting this mean more along the lines of what people want to think it means, though not at the expense of its initial definition of "proactive," which will always remain the primary meaning.

I remembered my days of eating at the Rescue Mission. Yes, they can feed you and get the job done. This is true with just about anything. But when they do so with indignity you don't really want to eat. Eventually, if the town is big enough, you find a place that better meets your needs: if dignity and food quality, the Roman Catholic place; if shorter lines (fewer crowds), the Protestant "ear-bangers" where you gotta listen to an hour-long sermon. Even at that level, you pay for your dignity with a place that's more crowded. But when it comes to getting grants from the government, they do well to draw a bigger crowd, because the money goes out according to the numbers. But then, even religious groups have been known to cheat the tax man.

(Bush and Gore's "faith-based" charity schemes are nothing new: we've been supporting the "ear-bangers" for decades: they do it because they can get away with it: they provide a service the government doesn't want to deal with, and the government "rewards" them by looking the other way at the illegality of their state-funded propagandizing efforts.)

I started to accept that someone seeing the word "Positive" will read into that term whatever it has generally and typically meant to the person reading it. Often people stretch a concept to fit their vision or stuff it into a box shaped by their limitations, especially if the context is new and different. "Positive Atheism" also has the disadvantage of sounding self-contradictory when seen from a hostile theistic perspective.

Our name, "Positive Atheism," when seen at first glance, has meant many things to many different people, ranging from impossibly oxymoronic to inordinately redundant ("Of course atheism is positive!"). As long as it also means "proactive" as in taking initiative when change is in order and taking responsibility when change was out of order, we're now willing to consider just about anything else that might make sense to more than one or two people.

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In Tune With? In Awe Of? At One With?

Finally, the most recent adjustment to my concept of the Positive in Positive Atheism came to me during the final two paragraphs of our Forum section's longest-yet dialogue, "The Semantic Dance of Pantheism." The "Semantic Dance" dialogue was an exercise wherein I tested one of the limits of the "weak" definition for the word atheism. According to the "weak" definition, all of humanity falls neatly into two categories: theists and atheists.

"Babies too?"

"Yes, babies too!"

"Toto too?"

"No, I'm sorry, Toto is a dog. Besides, he's most assuredly dead by now."

Eljay (John Love-Jensen) is quite a friendly character, sharp as a tack, too. He wrote a few quips here and there and then mentioned to me that he is neither theist nor atheist.

Wha...?

Okay, this I've gotta see! What's best? let's put it to the test!

So we went back and forth, producing the longest dialogue to date. We wrestled and tested and went back and forth and both learned a lot. It turns out that he and I were virtually indistinguishable as far as each one's overall world view goes; in other words, we are equally materialistic.

Why, then, did I decide to call him a theist "according to the theism-atheism dichotomy implied by the 'weak' definition for the word theism"? He's probably an atheist by any stretch, if you have to pick one; however, one special situation had to be considered: John uses theistic language to describe how he feels about nature and the Universe. This needed special attention because the Christian uses similar language, and often even the same words and phrases, to describe how she feels about Christ.

Being an impartial observer, I cannot second-guess what that language actually means in either case, beyond identifying it as theistic language. The use of certain language in certain ways under specific contexts is simply one of the identifying marks of a theist. If I were allowed to second-guess its meaning, I could easily conclude that the tribe who bows to Volcano God is atheistic because a volcano is not a god. But then, I can make a case that Jesus Christ is not a god, either, so does that make Christians atheists? (Noncognitivists, who insist that nobody can make sense of any god-claim and thus all are without a god-belief, have pushed me to the limit on this point.)

Eljay, since I was unable to second-guess his use theistic language, fell onto the side of theism that day. No big deal, it's just a thought exercise to keep my brain in working order and has provided me with the ability to give a much more abbreviated description of "strong" and "weak" than I had before. Also, if anybody thinks there is necessarily any difference between atheist and theist, if someone wants to play hardball with it, that is, this dialogue is a real hoot as far as bringing that whole argument down to size.

So we decided that we were basically indistinguishable but for this one quirk. He was saying that he could conceivably practice "Positive Atheism" (which was not very distinct back then, as if it is much more distinct today!) and I could be an atheistic pantheist.

In the final paragraphs of my final letter, I said I stand in awe of Nature in a poetic sense, and if the poetic sense could be seen as valid then I could be seen as an atheistic pantheist (he had said that half in his congregation ARE atheistic, but shun the theistic language as a gesture of some sort).

"Nevertheless," I said, as I reiterated what I had been saying since about the first or second exchange, "I would prefer to come up with altogether new language to describe how I feel toward the universe."

I say this because theistic language, for me, has always seemed inferior; I've always been acutely embarrassed by the whole concept of church, having grown in an atheistic family. But I will respect the notion of a sense of nobility found in theistic language to those who think they sense that nobility. To dispute it's intrinsic value is not something that I can do in the first place, so there's no point in holding any attitude but respect toward those who think there's something in it for them.

I've always preferred language that coincides with what I've considered real, which for me has been science, not religion. The work which as inspired me most along these lines is Richard Dawkins's recent book, Unweaving the Rainbow. In it, Dawkins tries to restore a sense of awe for nature. What got me is he starts with a very lofty concept that I used to ponder as a kid, a concept that most religious people I've known would just as soon avoid:

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We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here....

The lottery starts before we are conceived. Your parents had to meet, and the conception of each was as improbable as your own. And so on back, through your four grandparents and eight great grandparents, back to where it doesn't bear thinking about....

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I had pondered many permutations of that one from about the age of seven or eight. But Professor Dawkins carried the concept much further than from where my short-lived mind had ventured to wander. My comparative blip of a life had not lasted long enough yet to accept the BIG notions about time:

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This is another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than a hundred million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, 'the present century'. Interestingly, some physicists don't like the idea of a 'moving present', regarding it as a subjective phenomenon for which they find no house room in their equations. But it is a subjective argument I am making. How it feels to me, and I guess to you as well, is that the present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. In other words, it is overwhelmingly probable that you are dead.

In spite of these odds, you will notice that you are, as a matter of fact, alive....

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With all this and much more running through my mind in recent days, I sat at my desk, inspired by Eljay's and my mutual "awe" and "reverence" and sheer wonder over the Universe, over Life, over Existence, over Sentience, over what Eljay called "god" (his lowercase and quotation marks), what Richard Dawkins described with science, over what I yet lacked the language to express, even to myself --

Ah, but then I had a bold thought, right there, fingers flailing away at the terminal keyboard:

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Perhaps popular opinion will one day abscond with the term Positive Atheism and, using it differently from the way I now use it, will use it to describe (among other things) that sense of awe that I have for the universe.

Perhaps this would not be a bad idea! Let me think about it a while.

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I thought about it for perhaps as long as three seconds: long enough to tap out a short side-note to Eljay and send it to him, explaining what had just happened, what I had just written -- that I'd literally written it before I'd even had a chance to fully grasp what I meant by it

I told him I'd send my final response that evening. I assured him that he'd agree to this wind-up of mine as a most appropriate note on which to end such a long and momentous dialogue, knowing that would have to wait to discover how momentous the dialogue had just become.

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Summary as the Beginning of the Next Step

Finally, at the time I had been working very closely with one of our advisors on the update to the essay, "Introduction to Activistic Atheism." (Indeed, that thing would have turned out most amateurish had I settled for my initial thoughts on that piece!) The things we hammered out were legion. However, one thing that came up that was no controversy at all (except that certain wording of one part was unclear and led to a false conclusion) was that any of these things are requirements for the practice of the philosophy of Positive Atheism.

These are the recommendations that this project has thus far made. We make these recommendations because we think that they might in some way contribute toward the reduction of the impact of the widespread vilification of unbelievers in our country. Notice all the emphasized words in that last sentence: note that they fall short of making bold or dogmatic statements (what Count Alfred Korzybski and Robert Anton Wilson might call "IS statements") but merely hope and suggest, speaking hesitantly of adjustment of our experiences rather than predict and assert, speaking confidently of accomplishing change of their behavior.

At the time I was developing the second edition of "Introduction," I had not been exposed to the concept of Liberal Scientific Method to the extent that I have since. I have had quite a firm grasp of Korzybski's General Semantics for years, if not decades (who's still counting at my age?) Korzybski recommends omitting forms of the word is, the verb to be, from our vocabularies because this language implies knowledge of a "deep" reality, as Wilson calls it, and both suggest that since Einstein showed us what he did about Relativity, and since several subsequent discoveries have raised further about what "is" "really" "out there," the best we can do is speak of our own observations what we have detected with our senses, measured with our instruments, and reasoned with our brains. We can go no further than this and still remain honest.

I have done Korzybski's experiment several times,now, which is to write a work of prose without once using any form of the verb to be. This is no easy deal, I tell you, because if you cannot find a "post-Einsteinian" or "Relativistic" way to express a certain concept, you've got to jettison the whole concept and move on without it. I will say that all of the works I have written this way ended up powerfully persuading a large fraction of the readership.

However, since reading Jonathan Rauch's wonderfully short book, The Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, I have used his description of Liberal Scientific Method in quite a few of my writings. Of course I have been able to make a vivid and forceful explanation of what Liberal Scientific Method is. In addition, I've been able to work into my writing style (and thinking style) the very methods of the Liberal Science ethic (that's the best way to describe it: Liberal Scientific Method is, among other things, a powerful ethic).

In a nutshell, Liberal Scientific Method, says Rauch, is an ongoing discussion involving a community containing representatives from every nation and almost every class. In it, anybody is allowed to submit his or her ideas to the scrutiny of the rest (and indeed the world) as long as she or he is willing to abide by the results of that scrutiny. Similarly, anybody is allowed to challenge and try to overturn any idea that the rest consider to be firmly established -- again, as long as she or he is willing to abide by the results of the tremendous amount of scrutiny a challenge will get before it successfully overturns a long-respected idea, hypothesis, theory, or law. In this sense, we can say that the laws of thermodynamics are true insofar as they have not been overthrown. Yet.

But like Korzybski's "Relativistic" language, a scientist cannot state that an idea is unconditionally true. The minimum condition is always that we are fallible and this method allows us to gauge how certain we can be in pronouncing a given idea to be true. This is because this method tells us what it would take to overthrow the idea. Without that, the idea is not science.

I'm suspecting that eventually I or somebody in discussion with me will find a way to work aspects of these concepts into direct elements of what we are doing here at PAM. Thus far, I'm not there, yet. But these are the ideas and concepts that I've been trying out on myself and in the Forum since the latest revision of the "Introduction." And this is such ideas have thus far made it into the larger description of "Positive Atheism": since I most often toss an idea the moment I decide that it doesn't work, it's those ideas that keep coming back, that I keep toying with, which make it into the semi-permanent description. After all, nothing is above scrutiny, and every idea, no matter how firmly established, is subject to being overthrown.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Seven years of service to people
    with no reason to believe

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