Stories Of Truth,
Truthfulness,
And Why We're Here
Gregory Waggoner

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Gregory Waggoner"
Subject: Re: Positive_Atheism_Letters_Section
Date: February 16, 2002 10:03 AM

Sure, that would be great!

A story is a story is a story (he says in reply, in as much of an "I'll-show-you-mine-if-you'll-show-me-yours" tone as we've heard from him since this whole thing began). All stories are attempts by one party to convince the other to grant assent to the story as factual; thus, all stories are claims. We all hear them, we all tell them, and we're all responsible for assessing those stories we hear and deciding whether there's enough to them to warrant our assent. If someone telling a story does not provide sufficient reason for the listener to grant assent, it is, then, irresponsible (in my opinion) for the listener to grant assent to the story. It's okay to pretend to go along with it in certain cases, as a matter of politesse, but to assent to a story without sufficient grounds for doing so is, in my opinion, immoral; therefore, I will be reluctant to go along with most of the stories people tell me.

Also involved is the question of how important it is to believe this or that story. For example: a missionary recognizes the smell of a microscopic parasite infesting the melon that an indigenous tribal leader is about to eat. He tells the leader, "Do not eat that melon! It is poisoned and you will die!" Even if the missionary does not have a record of having successfully detected poisoned food that does not appear poisoned, the tribal leader does well to at least alter his behavior as a result of the missionary's words, even if he does not grant assent to the "story" of the melon being poisoned.

On the other extreme, my neighbor's teenage son stumbles over to my front porch, his eyes reddened from years of heavy marijuana use. He's a cool kid -- a bit stupid in some respects, but I've always liked him and actually enjoy his company. He's never had an unkind word to say either to or about anybody. Whatever he eventually does with his life, that alone will carry him much further than even a more highly skilled man with a touchy disposition.

He sure knows his music, though, particularly the psychedelic blues-powered rock from the mid-1960s through all the threads that claim to have roots in that era, on up through the latest acts to emulate that era. I don't know how he does it, but he can tell you where the Grateful Dead were playing on any particular week in 1973 (or any year), who was on stage with the band that night, playing as a guest, and he can even rattle off the set-list for you. Amazing! He can do the same for a number of bands, including Janis Joplin's bands, Hot Tuna, Jimi Hendrix, and many others.

Well so what!? What on Earth does it matter whether Sammy Piazza or Papa John Creech who payed with Hot Tuna when they did the California Marijuana Initiative benefit at Winterland in the spring of 1972? or whether they both were playing, for that matter!? If he tells me they both made the scene, or even that it wasn't uncommon for them both to show up at a Tuna show, I might as well believe him, because whenever anyone has checked this cat out (I've quizzed him on several shows that I attended during the era), he happened to be right (for what that's worth)! At least, it does not pay me (at all) to tell him that I don't believe him! What good would that do?

Besides, I really like the guy! I think he's cool and I like it every time he comes over. It's like the only inter-generational friendship I've got that really cooks! Compared to how worthless the claims he makes are? Forget it!

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All this has everything to do with truth-telling and absolutely nothing to do with the subject of your letter, "the truth" (whatever that is). Herein is where you have me wrong: I do not strive for "the truth" as meaning anything other than not telling lies, that is, not lacking in candor. "The truth," to me, means that what someone told me squares with verifiable fact. If it is not verifiable, I have no business agreeing that it's "the truth." I'm not sure what I would call it, but it would be irresponsible for me to call "the truth" a story that cannot be verified.

This goes even if the claim, unbeknownst to me, happens, incidentally, to be factual!

Suppose someone tells a story and we don't know whether or not the story squares with the facts. For example, crime fiction writer Patricia Cornwell is "100 percent" certain that Walter Richard Sickert, an Impressionist painter, was the infamous serial murderer "Jack the Ripper." Cornwell has now spent not quite £3 million on this little obsession of hers. The key piece of evidence pointing to Sickert is not the pun in his name, of course, but the fact that some 20 years later, he produced a series of grisly paintings whose subjects are murdered prostitutes. But others have had different ideas over the years.

Sir Melville Macnaghten, the highly respected Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in 1889 named the following three ripper suspects: Montague John Druitt, born to a well-off family marked with depression and suicide, was found floating in the Thames River a little more than a month after the last ripper victim, Mary Kelly, was found. The commissioner said, "From private information I have little doubt but that his own family believed him to have been the murderer." Aaron Kosminski, a Polish Jew known to have had a great hatred for women and strong homicidal tendencies, was positively identified by an eyewitness to the Ripper's Mitre Square murder. Other investigators think Kosminski may simply have been an insane man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Michael Ostrog, a supposed Russian doctor, spent most of his life in prison and later transferred to a lunatic asylum where he called himself a Jewish doctor. However, no evidence exists that he was even in the Whitechapel area during the time of the murders.

Many thought Commissioner Macnaghten was simply broadcasting his hunches to a hungry press in a desperate attempt to maintain his reputation and that of the Metropolitan Police. Inspector Abberline, the head of the "Jack the Ripper" investigation, suspected George Chapman, whose real name was Severin Klosowski, a Polish surgeon working as a barber's assistant. Renowned as a "lady's man," he was known to have cheated on and otherwise abused his various wives. He is strongly suspected of having poisoned three of his wives and was finally hanged for the murder of his last wife. He lived in the Whitechapel district during the period when the murders took place, arriving in London shortly before the murders began and moving to America shortly after the murders ceased. After he arrived in America, another prostitute was killed in a fashion that could be described as a "Jack the Ripper copycat murder."

Phillippe Jullien published his book Edouard VII in 1962. Since then Prince Albert, by then in advanced degradation from syphilis, joined the list of "Jack the Ripper" suspects. Although Jullien's book may have enjoyed brisk sales, its scandal tickling the intrigue of highfalutin busybodies in London and elsewhere, Prince Albert was in Scotland at the time of two of the murders, and he did not possess any medical knowledge. That the prince was not known to be violent says nothing, though, when we consider the "Jekyll and Hyde" personalities of criminals known to have been exceedingly brutal while on a crime spree, such as the otherwise "terribly shy" Ted Bundy.

Interestingly, it is a simple matter to demonstrate that our crime fiction writer, Patricia Cornwell, is not seeking "the truth" in this matter. She is not trying to find out who actually played the "Jack the Ripper" role; she is interested, rather, in being vindicated for having picked Sickert after having spent more time and money on this case and having launched a more sophisticated investigation of these murders than anybody else ever has. I might suggest a desire on her part to justify having tracked down and purchased 30 of Sickert's paintings, some approaching a cost of £50,000, only to tear a few of them to shreds looking for clues. Cornwell also bought his painting table and had it analyzed for fingerprints (even though the science of fingerprinting was unknown 100 years ago).

Though she did spend time visiting both the crime scenes and the gravesites of his victims, the bulk of her investment has gone toward fingering Sickert as the brutal murderer. She has nothing to gain by finding the real culprit unless it turns out to be Sickert; she can only lose by being shown to have been wrong. Cornwell says her opinion on this matter "is so serious to me that I am staking my reputation on this." If the truth is discovered and if the culprit turns out not to have been Sickert; that is, "if somebody literally proves me wrong, not only will I feel horrible about it, but I will look terrible." Mimicking her folly, certain observers might grant additional credibility to her conclusions based entirely on the sheer sophistication of her investigation. This surely buys additional credibility, though it doesn't necessarily render her opinion "the truth": proficiency at a craft does not always equal integrity of values.

Ah! I'm glad Cornwell is a fiction writer and was not a scientist in the late 1970s, trying to track down the cause of death of thousands of homosexual men in New York, San Francisco, and Toronto. Thousands more could have died while, at "Dr." Cornwell's insistence (and based upon a powerful reputation she might have had as a scientist), we followed the potentially dead leads of her pet theory! The one thing that intrigues me the most about science is that to have one's "pet theory" -- one's life work, even -- utterly demolished by a graduate student over the course of a single lecture could easily be one of the highest honors a scientist could imagine: "To hell with my 'pet theory'! We have just come that much closer to having an accurate understanding of what's going on!"

And I'm really glad Cornwell's "investigative" work is limited to the mystery novel and is not going to affect the detective work of any crime that I might be falsely accused of having committed! Even in our Constitution it is not the State's job to try to prove that I did it even if I am the prime suspect. (That's not how it works very often, but that's how it's supposed to work, anyway!)

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But let's get back from our parenthetical detour, back to whether or not we can call Patricia Cornwell's hypothesis "the truth." Let's grant the following, not to call them "true" but simply for the purpose of holding a discussion. First, let's grant that we don't know who really was "Jack the Ripper," although we have all given Cornwell's case a more than ample listen; let's say that nothing even close to a consensus can be found among "Jack the Ripper" buffs and investigators. Secondly, let us grant, for a moment that she happens to be correct in her assessment of the case: Sickert was "Jack the Ripper." Ten years from now (we'll say), indisputable evidence comes forth that is so overwhelmingly convincing that all but the most knee-jerk reactionary "Jack the Ripper" conspiracy theorists agree to close the books on this case. We don't know this, now, though.

Granting that we don't know, and granting that Cornwell just happens, incidentally or otherwise, to be correct in accusing Sickert, we cannot, today, call her assessment "the truth" even though it ends up, in the long run, being correct!

In other words, I will not call a claim or story "true" or "the truth" unless we can show it to be correct: the incidental nature of it being correct is not enough for me. This is because "the truth," as I use the term (applying to what people say and whether or not their testimony squares with the facts or lines up with reality), is by definition verifiable. If we cannot verify it, we cannot, at this time, call it "the truth."

Thus, I have often quoted a maxim supposedly favored by Abraham Lincoln:

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It is an established maxim and moral that he who makes an assertion without knowing whether it is true or false is guilty of falsehood, and the accidental truth of the assertion does not justify or excuse him.
    -- Abraham Lincoln, chiding the editor of a Springfield, Illinois, newspaper, quoted from Antony Flew, How to Think Straight, p. 17

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This one is most instructive!

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As for your desire to tell me what you call "a series of events," I would prefer if you would limit your use of that language to apply only to alleged events that can be established with such sufficiency that we both can be satisfied that we are here dealing with "the truth." If we are dealing with "events" then we have before us "the truth" in the form of a claim that these alleged "events" occurred as described in the claim.

Regardless, I don't see the point. I will need for you to explain to me the point of your relating stories (or whatever you wish to call these claims) to me. We are not here to discuss religion (as you informed me in your letter is a topic you wish to discuss). Neither are we here to respond to claims that gods exist or that certain claims of supernatural events are truthful.

That is not what Positive Atheism is about. Rather, we're far more interested in seeing what we, as atheists, can do to join the mainstream of American culture. We want to see if we can figure out how to reduce the stigma against atheists and the bigotry we endure every day and from all sides. What is it that we can do or think or say (besides, "Okay! Okay! Gods exist, already!") that will enable us to live even a semblance of a normal life?

If you can talk about that, I will gladly drop everything and promise to be "all ears." That is the real and only point of this web site. Everything else is just filler.

So while you're deciding whether or not you wish to convince me that I'm wrong and you're right, or to entice me to think about your position, or whatever is your motive for writing to my web site and asking for a pair of ears, I will tell you exactly what went into my doing this work. Then, if you still think it is appropriate to try to watch me change my core values over to resemble or even equal your core views, you are welcome to go ahead and write away. Remember, though, that such is not the reason I'm here and that is clearly stated not only on our Front Page but in our Guidelines as well.

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I was turned into a full-time atheistic activist by a court order. A judge's order is why I created this web site and why I publish this magazine. What happened was that I was jail for 24 days for refusing, on religious grounds, a court order to undergo religious instruction by spending nine months in a inpatient faith-based rehabilitation center for drug and alcohol addiction with several hours of high-intensity religious and psychological indoctrination each day. Never mind that neither drugs nor alcohol played a role in either the charges leveled against me or the convictions handed down to me. So because of my core values, which aren't much different from the way they ever were, I am literally forced -- morally, by my own conscience -- to respond to this injustice leveled against me and, as a result, against every American. This injustice continues, though thanks to the work of myself and a few dozen others, it is not nearly as prevalent as it was when I was hit by it.

Bigotry is, I believe, at the core of what is happening, here, and what is happening in many different contexts across the land. Bigotry moved the hand which signed the court order. Years of repeated, institutionalized bigotry set the situation up so that the judge whose hand signed the order didn't have nearly as much choice as I think every American of voting age, had they studied this situation, would probably have liked for that judge to have. I'd like to see this bigotry reduced, or at least exposed for what it is.

The single most effective way to learn about bigotry, to obtain an accurate picture of what it is and what it is not, is to deliberately set yourself up to become a target of bigotry. Today I do this with a single .gif file, named:
http://www.positiveatheism.org/pix/pambluu.gif
that I place conspicuously at the top of my front page. This .gif file contains one key word, atheism, set in large letters in a rather bold, blunt typeface, the word itself spanning 604 pixels, enough to almost completely fill the lowest resolution screen set to the lowest resolution.

Moreover, I have placed this word into a context that many people consider not only oxymoronic, self-contradictory, but dishonest and flat-out offensive. (I suspect that over half of adult Americans, by my analysis of two key opinion polls, would remove this page from the Internet if they had the power to do so without having to suffer any consequences for so doing.)

But you're still wondering what I was doing in jail in the first place!? What happened was that I had, two years earlier, contracted two infectious diseases. One attacked both ears, permanently damaging the aural nerves and rendering me barely able to hear unless the surroundings are quiet. I have a hard time hearing to this day, but my right ear slowly regained some of its functionality over the years. I was in quite an awkward way, at first: I constantly needed to ask people to speak very loudly so I could hear them. The County Health Department tried to have me locked away because I was "pretending to be hard of hearing, though completely unfamiliar with even the most basic sign language." Duh! I'm down here to get some antibiotics because this thing is still raging and I want to get it under control before it does some real damage! Why don't you take my temperature!? When I realized where they were sending me, I took a right turn -- right out the door. I never got a chance to treat this infection which has ravaged my ears every summer of my life, but which remains under control if I can get my hands on some antibiotics.

A few days later, I bumped into friend I'd known for a couple of years, singer-songwriter Screamin' Jay Hawkins, that evil clown of R&B whose big hit was "I Put a Spell On You." His second-most famous non-hit was "a song about real pain" called, "Constipation Blues": "Got a pain down inside / Can't be denied / Every time I tried / Can't be satisfied / Let it go, let it go! / Who-o-o-oa! Let it go-o-o!!" etc. This was truly one of those You-Had-to-Have-Been-There acts, so I won't even try to describe it, but the first time I saw him work I was standing next to my buddy at the time, Mojo Nixon, whose act eventually impressed even Jay. Anyone who has seen both acts might want to try to imagine what that experience might have been like. Jay now told me he was going to Portland and thought it would be cool if I went to work for him. Perfect! You can't hear during a Rock and Roll show anyway, so you must learn to depend entirely on visual cues. Portland was where Jay let me go and Portland is where I remain to this day. Jay ended up pulling the most unimpeachably classic example of cosmic irony that there ever was or ever will be when he died following surgery to relieve a colon obstruction. "Constipation Blues," anyone?

Not long after that, a virus I'd caught in the sole of my feet while painting anti-apartheid signs (using my feet as a paintbrush) started to kick in. Within weeks, I had 17 or 18 plantar warts imbedded under the sole of my right foot and at least 12 in the front part of the left. Only my left heel remained uninfected. These ranged in size from that of a lentil to that of a lima bean, though most of them were like having split peas super-glued to the soles of my feet -- and then having to walk around like that all day, every day.

This combination took about 15 months to clear up to where it is today. The hearing improved about as slowly as I grew accustomed to the loss. It took me well over ten years to fully adjust to the missing sound that had been replaced with a loud whistle. The volume level of that constant high-pitched squeal was exceeded only when I was at the airport or at a Rock and Roll show. I had become: (1) unable to walk without severe pain; (2) unable to hear people talk without great difficulty and the assistance provided by lip-reading; (3) knocked completely out of my environment with no chance of going back home because there really was no "back home" to go home to. So I just sat there. Then winter came and I had to learn how to get along with at least one of the Rescue Missions in town. No such luck. So I squatted in unoccupied homes that had been repossessed by the VA Home Loan program. And I shoplifted my food, clothing, an occasional bottle of Tabasco Sauce as a peace offering to the Latinos, and carton after carton of cigarettes, both to smoke and as a handy substitute for the cash that was so poignantly absent from my existence. Jail overcrowding prevented my incarceration until I'd racked up 16 counts, including what is on record as the only "Ocean Burglary" conviction in the history of Oregon jurisprudence. (When you get caught, they tell you never to step foot on their property again or they'll prosecute for burglary, a felony; if you resist, it's robbery, a big-time felony. This usually works, and the only Internet references to this contraption state that they never prosecute for this.)

So, when they finally got me, the bail had grown to over five-hundred fourty thousand dollars ($540,000.00) after skipping court was factored into the equation. (I included the decimal point and cents -- and wrote it out -- so nobody would think that's a typo: my bail was over half-a-million dollars -- for shoplifting!) They sentenced me to 180 days, twice as long as the DA had recommended, with no time off for good behavior or working. Fair enough. (I had the same lawyer that Tonya Harding's husband, Jeff Gillooly, later had; Gillooly ended up getting twice what the DA recommended too, the same thing that the same lawyer obtained on my behalf! The moral: If you're facing time in Portland, Oregon, you do well to look up the coverage of Jeff's case in the public library's newspaper morgue to find out the name of his lawyer before making serious plans for your future!) By that time, I was so utterly depressed that jail actually sounded like a wonderful opportunity for social advancement and personal growth! I am serious! I knew I wasn't going to live much longer as things were going, and I simply didn't care any more.

On the 179th day, I was hauled off to court and informed that I would be sent to one of those cloistered faith-based alcohol rehabilitation programs for nine months. Wha...!? I don't even drink! Well, a little now and then, but this is nothing I've ever had a problem with! I had no drug-or alcohol-related charges, much less convictions: I was your classic case of a man who had fallen apart, emotionally, someone who had crumbled under a long series of severely tough breaks. Sure, when you're on the streets, you pick up a bottle or whatever, just to numb the pain and to ease shock of your situation! I didn't mind them sending me off to another lock-up, except that this one involved religious instruction. In fact, my lawyer (same clown who defended Jeff Gillooly), had his paralegal call all the qualified facilities in both Oregon and Washington, and found out that all were based either on the Twelve Steps or the Christian religion. Anti-trust, anyone? This entire field is not simply dominated by Twelve Steppers: until only a few years ago, you had no chance of even holding a job unless you were active in at least one Twelve Step proogram.

Although I'd been an atheist my whole life (except for a few years when I "experimented" with Christianity), this was the first time I ever called myself "an atheist." Hell! That's what I was! That's what I am! That's the "faith of my fathers," if you will, and the heritage of my family for as far back as anyone can remember. Some of us were Unitarians, Spinoza's god Deists, but that's as far as it went. The rest of us were plain atheists: barely aware even of our atheism because religion is not a topic that interests us at all. At all. Talking about religion, to us, was almost like talking about Grandma's bunions.

So back into jail I went. A loophole (of sorts) allowed the judge to place me on a 30-day "hold" and the stated reason was so I could "think about it." No need. (1) I'm an atheist; (2) This is America (3) I don't have that kind of a problem; (4) That stuff doesn't work even if I did have that kind of a problem; (5) Even if it worked and even if I had that kind of a problem, it doesn't work for uncooperative individuals ("You gotta wanna"). I'm as far as you get from being someone who thinks in terms of absolutes, but this time I didn't feel the slightest bit of discomfort or strangeness about being absolutely sure: there was absolutely no need for me to think about this one at all.

End of discussion.

End of my bid for freedom, as well.

But, really, I was probably one of the freest people in the entire State that day. There was nothing that could buy my loyalty to my country, the original country, that is, as idealized in our Constitution and explained by Jefferson, Madison, and Paine. There was nothing that could buy my loyalty to what I saw as the truth, and that truth is this: As an American citizen, I'm not required don't to undergo religious instruction no matter what kinds of crimes I might have committed. You cannot make me do this in America! Several major court cases have since reiterated what occurred to me that day: Although conviction of a crime costs you certain Liberties, there are certain Liberties that you cannot forfeit no matter how hard you might appear to be trying. Religious Liberty, an extension of the Liberty of Conscience and neighbor to the Liberty of Speech and Liberty of the Press, is never one of those Liberties that you forfeit simply because you've been convicted of a crime. This would be considered "cruel and unusual punishment" as far as I was concerned, and as it turns out, several Circuit Courts have agreed with me in applying those principles to this particular case! They cannot force us to even attend religious self-help meetings, where "God" or "Higher Power" is a frequent topic of discussion, where people pray out loud or up front, where anyone who joins can eventually be expected to proselytize for the group, where one's success at "working" the "program" is (informally) measured by one's religiosity ("How 'spiritual' are you, brother?").

I'd learned this one as early as the fourth grade: they can't make me do anything that has anything to do with religion! And if they try, the lose all their credibility with me. They couldn't make me pray in the fourth grade, try as they may: let them hold me after class if they want, I'm not going to close my eyes, I'm not going to fold my hands, I'm not going to bow my head, I'm not going to move my lips, I'm not going to enunciate my voice, I'm not going to pretend, anything. Two years earlier, in a similar bid for dignity, I had learned something that I was been able to carry with me throughout my school career. I learned, through firsthand experience, that the school secretary eventually has to go home and eat dinner: they can't keep me after class forever. Besides, the building has this little problem with ants, and those guys are cool to watch! I also learned that no matter how many ants the secretary comes by and kills with her finger, another always comes by to take its place.

So the court make a clerical error of some sort and let me out in 24 days instead of 30. I felt like rubbing it in and going back to the Judge's office, sticking my thumb against my nose, wiggling my fingers at her, and singing, "Nee-ner Nee-ner Nyah Nyah!" But a chill in the September air sent getting a safe place to lie down skyrocketing off to the top of my list of priorities. Before I knew it, the time had come to ride the bus up the hill a couple blocks past the state hospital for my intake at the Secluded Monastery of Relinquished Noetic Autonomy, Professing Imponderable Deficiency, Unastonished Inelegance, and Tardigrade Tutelage, and Practicing the Vulgarian Ritual of the Bridled Redaction in Asthmatic Antiphon and a Fettered Castigation Bearing Rein. I must have been in rare form, because the assistant intake manager forthwith asked me to leave the premises. I had to think about that one: if it's the loser who get sent to drug and alcohol "treatment" for getting 86ed out of too many bars, what do they call someone who stops off at a bar to ponder having been tossed out of substance abuse rehab?

I went into a restroom and spent some time in front of the mirror boning up on my remorsefully aimless mope. The clipboard at the courtroom door said the judge's court was already in session, so I walked around back and tapped gently on the office door. The judge's secretary appeared and in the most baffled sounding whimper I could muster (without falling on the floor in acute laughter), I explained the situation to her: this place (where the judge sent me, that's nine months of full-time indoctrination) won't take me, but this other place (that's three months, with two lectures a week because everybody works) said they'd take me next Monday. The judge's secretary said, "Wonderful!" She pulled out a new form and filled it out, stamping the judge's signature at the appropriate spot. I doubt that the judge was ever any the wiser.

Fortunately, I was allowed to study rather than work, since I was undergoing beaucoup medical treatment and wouldn't be be working any time soon. Unfortunately, though, I soon became quite accustomed to the Twelve Step program, as can be expected when you spend lots of time exposing yourself to the teachings and the members of a specific sect. Though I never quite picked up on any of the God part and readily admitted that I couldn't figure out what the word "spiritual" means, I attend meetings regularly for the next 25 months, dutifully signing each meeting off on my verification slip. I continued this habit until the probation officer released me of this obligation. During that time, I managed to erase from my mind the gross injustice that was my final court hearing. (It was this or go crazy from the sense of contradiction inherent in having your own country order you to break her own laws and trample your own Constitutional Liberties!)

I actually got along quite well with the Program, though to say that many in the Program didn't care for me me all that much would be an exercise in abject understatement. If atheists are already the most hated and vilified innocent social group in the country, imagine how we are received in a self-sequestered subculture who holds that anybody who doesn't believe in God stands a good chance of physically dying (from a medical condition they call "a relapse") at any moment.

The bulk of the "help" I was getting was definitely coming from the nurse at the clinic run by Ecumenical Ministries. A lesbian, she was right up my alley, as I have always preferred the company of lesbians to that of practically anybody else. I realize now that she kept steering me toward "spiritual" Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum, I tell ya!matters, such as the rare William James material that she photocopied and gave to me. I loved her like nothing else, nonetheless, and followed all her every suggestion, though I kept finding my own path, as they say.

In all this, I was not thinking of myself as an atheist. I didn't believe in God, to be sure, and didn't call my "Higher Power" anything -- except We'll all be unconscious when we die!Santa Claus or Jiminy Cricket, on occasion (symbolic of the giver of good things to good boys and girls, and your conscience, which you should always let be your guide, respectively).

By the time I was getting out of the Twelve Step program, I had been diagnosed with spinal curvature and was spending much of my time doing my own physical therapy (which may or may not have backfired into the current situation I find myself in, of barely being able to move, at times, and being unable to function any more without powerful drugs; ah, but it can't be changed now, so it matters not why, eh?). I also had discovered Rational Recovery and was becoming involved in that. While I was awaiting an opportunity to teach my own Rational Recovery class (they were still participation meetings at the time), I found out about the Atheist Community Center. They were just starting, and I liked it because their building was once Bob Lindahl's historic recording studio, where several popular versions of the Lindahl's favorite song, "Louie Louie," were recorded, including the Kingsmen and the Paul Revere and the Raiders. I eventually met the original Kingsmen and spent a couple of hours picking the brain of songwriter, master bluesman, and one-time doo-wop sensation Richard Berry, who told us how he got Little Willie John's apartment when the latter died, although the official records tell us John died in prison. Now that Berry is likewise pushing daisies, I can't get the story straightened out -- as if I'd want to confront Richard Berry about that in the first place!

It was here, while giving a brief lecture on the Center's opening night, that my experiences in the courtroom all came back to me. Literally, I was standing there behind the podium, describing what I was planning to do with the opportunity they were offering me and explaining my motives for being involved in this work. Suddenly, things that I had forgotten for years came flowing out of those cavernous recesses and into my mouth like a Chatty Cathy doll, or the Talking Teenage Barbie, altered by politically correct hackers to say, "Vengeance is mine!" and placed back on toy store shelves in an act of reverse-shoplifting. Like the similarly altered talking G.I. Joe "action figure" (who now simpers, "Let's have a pajama party!") I was like a different person for those several moments.

I'm glad it happened this way, I'm glad my mind blocked out the truth of my enforced attendance and hold-time sentence, literally placing me "in denial," as they say. Had my brain remembered that courtroom drama during my stint "in recovery," I might not have survived the Twelve Step program like I had. But then, had my brain not delivered up the past it was hiding form me in such a bold, flamboyant fashion, I could easily forget why I do this work today. Especially today, literally, February 16, 2002, as I prepare, emotionally, financially, and physically, to move for the second time in as many months; behind by over a month-and-a-half with the print edition; closing in on 500 unposted Letters files just in the primary folder, not to mention another folder that has a couple hundred files that someone tried to format but now need more work fixing than they would have originally needed just to format, so I now must track down the original letters and save them out again and start from scratch only because doing that will be easier. Also, I'd like to have added between four and six thousand new quotations to our Big List of Quotes since the beginning of December, but have added, instead, perhaps two hundred, tops; I'd like to study perl script so I can write the new version of PAMBLOQ, our quotes engine, or at least decide that the topical listing will have to be a redundant second set of files. And my health is barely hanging on, as is my mental outlook, with a severe case of depression caused by both the moves plus the reasons I had to move in the first place -- both times the reasons I had to move.

It took years to gain the trust of the atheists, but eventually I was asked to publish their newsletter. My only question was why did it take so long for them to ask me? I had already shown my abilities at writing and also demonstrated my typesetting skills (not to mention a by-then $4 thousand investment in sophisticated desktop publishing software and equipment). The answer is quite simple, and was the key not only to my understanding where this particular group of atheists were coming from (and where they eventually went) but also to what is the key point of atheistic activism: bigotry. The atheists didn't trust me because I was the Rational Recovery guy. It took them nine months to trust me with a key to open the door so I could hold my meetings. I was, more than once, sternly questioned when things had disappeared (and each time it turned out [to my satisfaction] that the guy who thought I had done it had absentmindedly misplaced whatever was missing because, it turned out, he never paid that close attention to details like how much money was in a certain box at any given time).

None of them realized that my personal ethic, even while shoplifting to support myself, was always relatively impeccable. Although I shoplifted from large grocery chains, any individual could trust me with hundreds of their dollars, even if I was so hungry that it was physically painful. This doesn't exonerate me, but it does show that I still kept my morals relatively in line. like, I think, everybody does. By the way, are you living on stolen land, or has it always belonged to your ancestors? I could ask any number of questions along these lines and all most people could do would be to justify.

When I am living comfortably, that is, when I am not wanting for food, clothing, shelter, and at least some simple form of diversion, I am as honest as they come: "cash-register honest," as they say in the Twelve Step programs. More than that, I have never had a problem confronting the tough philosophical and moral questions that we all face. This is because being right has never meant much to me. It has never been a goal of mine to be the one who came up with the answer or who taught the lesson or who delivered the message; all that ever mattered was that the answer came and that we recognized it as such, that the people needing to learn came to an understanding, and that whatever needs to be said is said in a way that gets the message across.

So while these folks were starting an organization under the auspices of fighting bigotry, they were hurling bigotry directly upon someone who, unbeknownst to them, had the experience and the willingness turn their little social club into a major world-level operation. He had the skills the contacts, and the know-how, his perspective only lacked what the rest of them were more qualified to give and to do in the first place, and that would be to manage the money. Eventually, though, four years later, they did ask me to publish their newsletter. One by one others had been given the post, and one by one I watched them work and predicted to myself the circumstances of their respective downfalls: I have a keen eye for what is involved in doing this work and I also have a lot of experience predicting what things will turn lots of people off cold versus which things might agitate a few people but be enjoyed by several others to say that we ought to run this or not run that. Most importantly, I knew how to keep my agenda out of the picture unless it was an appropriate place for my agenda to show (such as when I advocated several key issues that others might not have advocated, but had the others been doing their jobs, I might have written guest editorials saying the same things: what's the difference there?

Eventually, something happened that I still cannot explain, but my presence was not welcome any more. I saw it coming and continued to put forth my best effort, as is evidenced by the quality of the final several issues of the Critical Thinker. That story is already told, but the bigotry issue is the big one: why was I forced to undergo religious instruction? Because nobody in the industry would allow anybody into the field unless they were Twelve Steppers, that's why! The judge really had no choice (except to investigate the case a little more thoroughly and see that drug rehab was not even appropriate in the first place, but had it been, what happened would have been no less wrong. Why was I so eager to find a replacement for the Twelve Step program as an activistic project? Bigotry! The vast majority of Twelve Steppers will not trust an atheist. Many will give lip service to the concept, but when it comes down to it, if you go and talk about your atheism like the others talk about their spirituality, you won't have any friends, but the religious folks doing the exact same thing but with religion will have beaucoup friends.

Why was I not welcomed into the Atheist Center soon after it became apparent that I was both harmless and talented and a nice guy? Bigotry against druggies, of course! I came in to explode the myth of once-a-druggie-always-a-druggie but they weren't listening to me when it came to how they dealt with me! Neither were they listening to the calmer heads that prevailed, there. And how on Earth was it possible for those who sought my ouster to get the facts so dead wrong -- dead wrong -- as in, the complete opposite of what was printed, when the facts were there for all to see, set in black-and-white with almost 200 copies in print? How could not one but three of them get the facts backwards, when all they had to do was read what I had said?

I'm ready to suspect bigotry, except that I cannot pin down a motive at all -- at all. Bigotry would mean some sort of superiority complex, but I don't see that. I see all the other symptoms involving the same thinking style, but I cannot evidence of them lumping me into a group or a class -- unless it has to do with my disabilities, which were starting to become quite prominent back then over the past several months. I had reached the point where I could not fit my feet into shoes, so I wore sandals even in the dead of winter. As recently as late last year, I intercepted an e-memo wherein one of the persons involved in my ouster had severely criticized me for wearing sweats and sandals to a convention -- when this person knew better than anybody else on the list that I sometimes cannot put my feet into shoes for months at a time, that sometimes I have no business wearing a belt or anything tight-fitting, and I might as well wear robes!

So today I work until my body either hurts too much so I gotta lie down, or starts to twitch and there are a few long rows of the letter "k" on the current document, and then I go catch a few winks before I'm back at it again. Why? Bigotry, that's why! I want to find out something about bigotry and give those secrets, this new knowledge, to my fellow atheists. Really, it doesn't even have to be me who does it, I just want to see some changes: I don't want anybody else to have to go through what I've been through. Actually, I wouldn't really mind if someone reads something -- just a few words in an obscure letter file, and then lets them ferment for a few years, and then those words come back, in a way that prevents our budding hero from even remembering that it was I who said it way back then, as an experimental work that for years I had thought was an utter failure. Let this happen! I don't need credit! I don't even need to have done it! What is wrong with struggling all your life to find some answer and then some whip-start graduate student finds it the very year after you retire? Or even if someone else comes up and finds out that I and several others have been doing it all wrong and that we need to do it this way!

Short Graphic Rule

I thank you for the opportunity to get a few parts of my story written down that have never been set down before. I would thoroughly enjoy hearing yours.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six-and-a-half years of service
    to people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule

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