I Need No Supernaturalism:
Life On Earth Satisfies Me
Bruce Robbins

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From: "Positive Atheism"
To: "Bruce Robbins"
Subject: Re: Positive_Atheism_Letters_Section
Date: August 13, 2002 5:44 AM

We urge using the "weak" or traditional definition of atheism, wherein an atheist is basically anybody who is not a theist. Infants cannot be theists, and thus must be atheists.

This is the best anybody can do. The theist can do no better, because they usually think that how they perform here and now will matter there and later. I say that we both use the same resources for making those decisions: our own wits. The difference is that we atheists admit this fact, but religionists often tend to give credit to some other power.

So we try to get along, presupposing (here at PAM, anyway) that all theists have or think they have valid reasons for believing, and opposing only such religious expressions that we think are intrusive, exploitative, and dangerous. When someone approaches me and makes a claim, I will usually respond, but I don't have to: since they are making the claim, they are the ones obligated to prove their claim. If it doesn't hold water, we need merely say, That does not hold water. We don't even have to explain, because we respect their right to believe in peace, and are not interested in changing their minds.

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

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From: "Positive Atheism"
To: "Bruce Robbins"
Subject: Re: Positive_Atheism_Letters_Section
Date: August 13, 2002 1:54 PM

Some of us aren't. Why, in this day and age, are so many people literally scrambling to believe the wildest superstitions on the market? Perhaps through persecution, in a process of unnatural selection, our ancestors suppressed the gene that prompts humans to question authority. No less than philosopher of science Victor J. Stenger suggests this as a possibility in one of his books. I do not fully concur but it is an interesting possibility.


If we are talking about those who are not Republicans, then infants technically qualify. Would you call an infant a "nontheist" using the language that Skeptic Michael Shermer prefers over the word atheist?

If the definition we use is "any person who lacks a god-belief" or "anyone who is not a theist," then we are forced into this awkward position. I, for one, would just as soon get the awkwardness out of the way so we can get on to more important discussions, such as (1) the historical precedent for using this definition, (2) the etymological argument that renders the other option ridiculous, and (3) the potential that popularizing this definition has toward reducing or eliminating the stigma and bigotry that is leveled against us from every side.

It is this last item that interests me the most -- so much that I have started a magazine and erected a web site specifically as a means to research ways in which we might reduce this bigotry. So far, two answers have come up as having very strong potential. One of those happens to be the "weak" or "negative" definition for the word atheism, which states that anybody -- whether cognizant of the fact or not -- anyone who is not a theist is an atheist.

Do you wait for a child to become aware before calling her African-American or French? No. So why are you so adamant in asserting that somebody must have consciously rejected something as frivolous as a religious claim before identifying that person as having not granted assent to that claim? and then where would you draw the line?

Ah, but I do not need to defend the "weak" definition! I need only to point out that it has been the majority view among atheistic writers and philosophers since the Era of Enlightenment. And, in order to be consistent with the definition, we must take the somewhat awkward position of admitting that yes, if you wish to carry it that far, then an infant, technically, is an atheist (though most people are not going to push it that far).

If atheism were a positive viewpoint, an assertion, then I would go along with you. But atheism is not a statement: atheism is the absence of a belief: specifically, the belief that a God or gods exist.

Very few people are stupid enough to assert that they can prove that no such things as gods exist. Only a handful of nonscientific types will say this. The rest of us tend toward the position that says something like, "I have yet to encounter a valid reason for going along with the claims of religion.

Theism is the acceptance of a claim. But the negative of that is not necessarily rejection of that claim. Many simply don't care. In fact, most Americans who are not theists simply don't care about the subject to give it their time. The notion is too absurd. When pressed, they will probably admit that they didn't give it much thought and that no, they cannot prove that no gods exist.

What are you going to do with these? Make up a new word that you can use to identify this group? Why? Why bother, when a perfectly good word has been in use for hundreds of years, and has been understood for all this time as meaning what I have told you it has meant to them, and what I am suggesting that it ought to mean to us.

Finally, why should we honor a despicable ruse on the part of a handful of Roman Catholic theologians, who sought to make atheism appear to be an abjectly stupid philosophy, an outlook that nobody in their right mind would hold? Why should we allow this group to change the definition that we have used for our selves simply because they have succeeded in placing it into a few Roman Catholic-owned dictionaries, and have convinced Protestants, Christian Scientists, and several other sects to go along with their description of who we are? I, for one, having studied my heritage as an atheist, will honor that heritage regardless of what the Roman Catholic theologians have had to say.

But most of all, I will honor my heritage by going with the definition that seems most correct. And that definition happens to be the "weak" definition. The "strong" definition, when applied to the overall, big-picture of atheism as a whole falls apart upon just a slight amount of scrutiny. The problems with it render the "infant objection" almost meaningless by comparison.

Then your atheism ended, or was put on hold, as you were taught religion while a youngster, and then materialized for good when you read these passages. Just because the majority of atheists are barely aware of their atheism does not limit atheism to that group: many atheists are only too aware of their atheism (we endure the bigotry every day) and a few atheists will even jump up and down and boldly assert that no gods exist, that all gods are make-believe. That is very close to my position, except that having submitted to liberal scientific method, I will not carry it that far when pushed. For all practical purposes, for me, there are no gods; technically, for me, I have yet to encounter a god-claim worthy of my assent.

The bottom line in this whole discussion (the whole theism-atheism discussion, not just the "weak"-"strong" discussion) is that theism is a claim. The two sides cannot agree on any more than this: theists make a claim. To actually speak of "gods" is for me to carry it too far: I have no knowledge of such things: I have heard people use the word, but I am not sure I even understand what they are trying to say. And because I don't understand what the theist is saying (just as the infant likewise does not understand what the theist is saying), I remain an atheist (just like I was when I was an infant, a child, a young adult, with the exception of three years as a Fundamentalist Christian, when I still cannot tell you that I fully believed. Hey! Because I did not fully believe, does that mean I was not a theist? Hmmm!

Most dangerous indeed!

Not necessarily. Enough Christians have had a BIG problem with this one that they have erected sect after sect for the purpose of making various exceptions to this one. Because they cannot agree on which exception, this is why there are so many different sects. But many of the sects arose to deal with this very, very sticky practical problem with what Paul taught as "soteriology" (the Dogma of Salvation). Check the Victorian-Era objection to the Christian religion: much if not most of it had to do with the base immorality behind the core doctrines of the Christian faith. The one that gets mentioned the most, in my studies, has been soteriology and those teachings related to Salvation (such as the Christian Hell, which we are supposedly being saved from although the Christian God created the Christian Hell from which He might save us!).

If morality is what many Christians tell us it is -- obedience -- than you might have a point.

However, I do not consider obedience to equal morality. At all! Thus, I do not have a temptation to think in terms of "there is no accountability." I perform acts of morality for an entirely different set of reasons, in an entirely different system of motives. Being a naturalist (both kinds, actually, until skin growths put the lid on the nudism), I submit to what I (and most biologists) see as the bottom line in our physical existence: the procreation of the human DNA code.

Now, I have not fathered any children and have no intention of fathering any children (though it could happen and I am still young enough to change). However, fathering children is not the only way to help ensure that this species continues. So I live my life making decisions that, whenever applicable, promote the survival of the species. This includes promoting peace, as one of the biggest threats to our survival is war, violence, and terrorism. And since unrest, which causes terrorism, is directly related to economic stability, I promote economic stability.

But most of all, I simply default to making decisions that cause the least amount of damage overall, to the widest group of people (meaning, specifically, not necessarily making decisions that will save my own ass at the expense of others). This is the basis of my moral code, though it is a lot more complex and more involved than what I've been able to describe here, considering that many of my values are only secondarily related to human endurance, such as dignity and truthfulness.

There's a very strong argument in favor of there being a genetic factor reducing the incidence of this form of abject selfishness. Loren Eiseley wrote about it in "An Evolutionist Looks at Modern Man" in the 1950s. Shortly after the WTC attack, Natalie Angier wrote a piece called, "Of Altruism, Heroism and Evolution's Gifts" which makes a strong case along these lines.

With religion to tell us what to do, what we are doing is forfeiting our own opportunity to decide for ourselves what is the best way to live our lives. Ah, but nobody but I am responsible -- accountable, if you will -- for how I lead my life! But to exchange the autonomy of making my own decisions (and living with them) just to let some exclusive recluse of a religious leader (read "political opportunist") tell me what is the best way to live my own lives!? He is not the one who gets the rewards of my labor! He is not the one who has to pay the penalty for my mistakes! Why would I let him decide for me how I should live?

On average, perhaps I'd go along. However, I'd need more, because one of the biggest surprises for me in this study is that just as most atheists are barely cognizant of their atheism, a large chunk of the theists are barely in tune with what their religion really teaches, and as a result they make up their own morality just as you and I do. Thus, I would need more than this to make such a call.

If all theists were "thinking" theists, or, as H. L. Mencken has put it, "on-duty theists," I would tend to agree. However, the fact that most theists are technically theists, but in reality are essentially indistinguishable from thinking atheists (as opposed to those who do not pay attention to theism or atheism).

Perhaps this might look good in our quotes collection!

Not that I agree with it one hundred percent, but then, I don't fully agree with most of what's in the quotes section. I put it there as food for thought and because many atheists will agree with it and some may want a quote to make their point in a Letter to the Editor or something.

I still like to think that some who practice religion do so in all sincerity, and as the consequence of careful thought. Such outlooks as pantheism, Spinoza's god, eighteenth century Deism (old-school Unitarianism), and, most recently, this relatively new movement with which PAM is affiliated, Progressive Christianity (though we cannot join, because we hold Jesus to be no more than simply a well-meaning but misguided man, if a historical Jesus figure existed at all).

Secondly, I would add morality (ethics?) to Truth and Reason (though "Truth" probably covers that sufficiently). To me, Liberal Scientific Method is, more than anything, a moral system. When we submit to Liberal Scientific Method, we agree to follow truth wherever she may lead. We submit our findings, our ideas, to the scrutiny of our peers, agreeing to abide by the results of that scrutiny. This is Liberal Scientific Method, and this is the basis of my personal moral system.

The description of Liberal Scientific Method that I use comes mainly from Jonathan Rauch's book, The Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought. This tiny book completely revolutionized how I do this work here at PAM.

(I realize that many atheists do not like the word morality, but I have no problem with it. It's a great word that has a specific meaning when seen for what it is.)

Again, I'll agree if you're talking about Fundamentalist theists. Many theists are entirely reasonable, and I've enjoyed some very stimulating discussions, played with the game rules you'd expect only atheists to honor.

The reason I do this it is to showcase bigotry. To showcase bigotry is one very important factor in any quest to reduce it. I model this very important element of my antibigotry activism after the work of former gay rights activist Luke Sissyfag. What Rauch did for my understanding of Liberal Scientific Method (providing precisely the right imagery to enable me to grasp this otherwise complex subject), Sissyfag gave me some sparks of understanding regarding the work of antibigotry activism. Each turned a vague, almost unfathomable subject into a nuts-and-bolds concept that I can hold in my hand and work with, so to speak.

This does not stop me from having fun, neither does it stop many of our associates and ideological colleagues from coming up with some really powerful abstract arguments. Not everything can be proven and nothing can be empirically disproved, but we can make abstract arguments that hold certain degrees of weight. Thus, the Argument from Evil, in my opinion, has a strength of about 90 percent when dealing with biblical Christians and a strength of absolutely zero when dealing with pantheists and Hindus.

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Thanks for writing! Hope to hear from you again! Sorry some of this is so rushed.

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

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