Slogan, Rewritten,
May Have More Impact
S. James

"Serving People With No Reason to Believe"

"Serving People With Reason to Not Believe."

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "S. James"
Subject: Re: WebMaster:_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: December 14, 2001 2:10 PM

If a much larger number of people could relate to a slogan which has what is arguably a "weaker" impact, I would think the overall impact would still, nevertheless, be much greater.

That said, the impact we seek is popularize the fact that the passive or "negative" expression of atheism is the majority viewpoint among atheists. We also wish to see atheism as a whole popularly viewd as the (passive) lack of a god belief. Therein lies what we feel to be our greatest hope for change when it comes to how the majority treats all atheists.

We deliberately try to recognize that the vast majority of atheistic (nontheistic) people just don't give a rat about religion, and rarely if ever even think about atheism. Such atheists neither have nor need a reason not to believe. Many do not even realize that the word atheist applies to them, and might feel awkward if you pointed out to them that they are atheists (or some similar word meaning nonbeliever). Nevertheless, their lives are often severely impacted in the same ways as those of us who do pay attention to these things and who do have reasons not to believe.

Thus, our reason for wording it this way is twofold: First, we wish to send the message to our fellow activistic atheists that we activists do well to include the passive atheist at least in our talk, if not in our goals for social change. Secondly, and most importantly, we wish to suggest to passive atheists that atheism is not necessarily active (having reasons not to believe), neither is it necessarily activistic.

I am still astounded at how many people I've encountered over the years who had to think about it when I suggested to them that they are atheists. After I gently showed them that this is atheism (not the spiteful, vindictive, in-your-face variety that is thankfully beginning to lose favor among atheistic activists in the West), they have responded with what I consider to be some of the most powerful contributions to this particular project (Positive Atheism Magazine). James Call, my closest friend, for example, struggled with this for a while after I announced to him that my activism had turned toward atheism. After thinking about it, finally told me, "When I think about the subject at all, I guess "atheist" is the word that describes me." Now, instead of never thinking about the subject at all, he gives it a little thought now and then. And when he does, look out! His perspective is powerful, and what I get from his brief and infrequent reflections overshadows what I get from a lot of people who ponder this subject all day long. He also engages with his religious father at Christmas rather than brushing him off or ignoring him, and he tells me he now looks forward to that one point during the visit when Dad pulls him aside and talks to him about his soul.

Most of all, we see a popular misunderstanding of atheism as being a major cause of the hatred expressed toward atheists. Most who feel this way see atheists as being actively and malignantly anti-religious. Others who are more moderate reinforce this error when they portray atheists as "denying God's existence" or, in more balanced philosophical terms, "asserting that God does not exist" or "asserting that the statement 'God exists' is a false statement." This latter set of definitions is the most popular among theists.

However, the most popular among atheists who have pondered the situation (since the Enlightenment) is that an atheist is somebody who simply lacks a god belief -- for whatever reason. We feel that popularizing this definition is not only more truthful (seeing as how it is the self-definition preferred by most thinking atheists), it also can serve to dampen the spitefulness that people feel toward atheism, which spitefulness is literally institutionalized by centuries of being told every Sunday that:

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The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.' They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none that does good."
     -- Psalms 14.1

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One of the main reasons the Roman Catholic Church has worked so hard to popularize the definition of atheism that portrays us as asserting that God does not exist, is that this viewpoint is much harder to defend. Thus, young Roman Catholic theologians can think they have easily refuted our position.

However, the view of atheism that has been popular among atheistic philosophers and writers is not really a position at all, but rather the lack of a position. In this sense, an atheist is someone who is not a theist, someone who does not hold a particular class of belief. The classic definition does not venture to explain why that belief is not held (the person in question could have just recently been born and thus lack the cognitive ability to form a god belief). Atheism, in this sense, is the default human position in regards to the god-question. To even think that atheists are not necessarily deliberately choosing atheism takes the sting out of the vitriol against atheists.

The "weak" or passive position (when applied to atheism as a whole) also forces the theist's hand, in a way. With the way I express my personal view, someone walks up to me and insists that I prove that God does not exist. I ask, "What are you talking about?" because my position is that I have yet to encounter a valid reason to grant assent to any of the god-claims I've heard. I am not stating that no gods exist; rather, I lack a god belief from having never been given a reason to believe these claims (hence our slogan). With this description of an atheist, I make it very plain that since it is the theist who is claiming the existence of gods, then it is the theist who is obligated to make the strong case for his or her claim and to bring forth the compelling evidence that she or he is telling the truth. Without a compelling case issuing from the person making the claim, I not only am not compelled to even respond, much less disprove.

In fact, the whole subject is something that I don't even "own": theism (and atheism, for that matter) is their baby. I need to distinguish myself from the theist, to be sure, but that's it. The whole subject is theirs.

Until the theist walked up to me with a god-claim in his hand, I was simply minding my own business and living my life as a regular human. Theism is their business, not mine! Thus, I am an atheist only in response to their being theists. Were it not for the god claims, there would be no atheism. In this sense, I am still a regular human -- even in the face of several dozen god-claims each week.

The "weak" or "passive" definition for atheism (when used to describe atheism as a whole) brings the most dignity to the atheistic communities and the atheistic position, is easiest to justify, and takes the sting out of the vitriol that is unjustly hurled against us. For that reason, our motto was deliberately designed to reflect and even dignify "passive" atheism, advocating the use of the "weak" definition when describing atheism as a whole as well as tipping our hat to those whose personal expression of their atheism is "passive."

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

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org> To: "S. James"
Subject: Re: WebMaster:_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: December 16, 2001 11:48 AM

I am not worried about people who would pull such a cheap shot. In fact, it's a great way to find out where someone's coming from. I couldn't believe just how many people rankle me about the word positive in our name: We're not very "positive" if we don't go along with how they think we ought to be doing this. I wish I had time to respond carefully to every atheist who writes to me, and to every theist who seems sincere in wanting to know what atheists are about (or even sincere in wanting to share with us what they think is the key to a fantastic life). But I don't regret not having even the time of day for folks who would act like that.
 

Madalyn Murray O'Hair did a lot to reduce this problem, but it will never go away as long as people take the Bible and the Koran as literal instructions from on high. Call it what you want, in the Evangelical Christian scheme of things, you don't roast in Hell forever for being an Adolf Hitler or a Timothy McVeigh or a Mohamed Atta. According to Evangelical Christian dogma, you go to Hell for not being a Christian.

Those who turn to other faiths at least have an excuse, according to this thinking, because those religions have persuasive leaders and powerful social structures built into them. Who can fault someone for joining those sects (besides God, of course)? The atheist, however, has no such convenience, but is rejecting God without any of these distractions.
 

While we were developing a section of the FAQ piece "Introduction to Activistic Atheism," I was sparring with Victor Gijsbers, a long-time advisor to Positive Atheism. We needed to test one of the premises with which I had been experimenting at the time, and wanted to include in the "Introduction." I was taking the position that "strong" atheism (asserting that no gods exist) is unscientific because it is impossible to empirically disprove an existential claim. He showed me that empirical proof is not the only type of proof, and then showed me that never is a scientist 100 percent sure of anything. Then he hit me with the final coup that allowed me to, at times and in certain contexts, consider myself a "strong" atheist:

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An atheist who holds the strong position claims that since there has not yet been found any evidence for god, it is reasonable to say that no god exists. So whenever evidence for god is found, the 'strong' atheist can become a theist just as quickly as a 'weak' atheist can.
    -- personal letter, September 26, 2000

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Later in that paragraph he went so far as to call me a "strong" atheist!

("And just who is this kid, who, not a month before, was eagerly awaiting his 18th birthday, to pronounce me, Cliff Walker, Mister "Weak" Atheism himself, a "strong" atheist?" Actually, it was this "kid" who single-handedly saved the Positive Atheism web site from oblivion earlier that year when I had become so despondent over the failure of a prospective marriage that I simply couldn't function, and was so far behind that I didn't know where to even start catching up. He formatted about 250 saved-out letters into HTML for me and got the momentum going to where that same momentum still exists today.)

So, not wanting to sound like a broken record, this "definition between agnostic and atheist" that you seek is, in my opinion, the result of what I call the Roman Catholic definition for atheist: their theologians tend to insist that all atheists assert the nonexistence of gods (specifically, in their language, that God doesn't exist, or that we "deny the existence of God").

With my definition of atheist, however, one question remains: "What variety of atheist is this woman who is consciously aware that she would convert upon encountering sufficient evidence for the existence of a god?" I don't know, off hand, and don't think it really matters all that much. Here is a woman who is thinking about her ideological position: she can trace the steps she took to get to where she stands today; she can tell you what she finds objectionable in the claims she's heard; she can put together a semblance of what it would take to change her mind, what kind of evidence would convince her that a god does exist; she knows which arguments will not convince her (usually those she has already pondered) and why they have shown themselves inadequate, and yet is willing to take one more look in case she has overlooked something. Furthermore, she has expressed the willingness to follow truth wherever it may lead.

It is this trait that distinguishes the philosopher from someone who is not a philosopher.

If you will examine the Letters where people write and try to coax me into believing, you will see this very same atheist at work: willing to believe if and only if the theist makes a strong enough case to warrant my assent to the god-claim. You have described me to a tee!

At one time I was offering to spend as long as it took -- two years, full-time, if that's what it takes -- to listen to someone's argument for the existence of God. I first made this offer to a food-service worker up by NE 47th and Glisan who was working his way through the local Baptist Seminary. The catch was, that if they convinced me of the existence of God, I would become a believer; if not, though, the Seminarian had to agree to renounce his faith. Pretty interesting offer, eh? Nobody ever took me up on the offer, so I stopped making it.

Only recently, only within the past two or three weeks, actually, have I started to add that I have been pondering this question long enough that I think I have encountered all the strong arguments for the existence of God. Thus, I have pretty much given up hope of ever encountering a strong enough argument. Nevertheless, if I do, I will instantly convert. I may not want to! (Who wants to think that, for example, a fickle Volcano God like we hear about in many churches is He Who rules the Universe?) But I don't believe a proposition simply because that's what I want to be true, and I seriously doubt that you're that way either.

In short, I think that almost all atheists who have pondered their atheism (active atheists) are this way: In other words, I have yet to meet an atheist who was willing to admit that they would still refuse to believe even if God came down and shook his hand!
 

It doesn't matter, because you know pretty much who (what) you are. To be able to use the label effectively is, at best, a handy and potentially powerful tool. But none of this is crucial, especially in your case, because you have a better grasp on where you stand than most people I've met.

Besides, in the eyes of the rank-and-file fundamentalists, if you're not "orthodox," then you might as well be an atheist. Even though the City University of New York's recent study showed us growing faster than any other religious group, another study shows the gap between the atheist and widespread public acceptance widening since the September 11th bombings -- even though acceptance of Muslims is improving. I lay the blame for this at the feet of one George W. Bush: "Freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion."

At least with "weak" atheism, I can accept you as an atheist (as I understand atheists, being anybody who is not a theist) and still address you with whatever classification you wish (if any at all).

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My whole point in wanting to dignify the "passive" atheist is so that you and others like you can more easily feel comfortable with at least examining our situation in the social structure (which still does not look very good despite having taken some surprising strides forward).

While I was a "passive" atheist -- a floater, you might say -- I'd catch Madalyn Murray O'Hair and her son on TV every so often (I was living with my Dad, having spent three years on religion and subsequently having come down from that with a loud and painful thud). I can't say that I've encountered a less attractive pair. I could not get past their unattractiveness (personal as well as physical -- down to the sounds of their voices). I could not hear what they had to say. Whatever they were saying, it had this haughty, arrogant, bitter, spiteful, vindictive tone to it. And I just couldn't hear what was going on. The next time I encountered organized atheists this one guy who was the leader was just as ugly -- both inside and out. It was like he was so filthy on the inside that he was trying to distract from that by the way he talked, what he said, the clothes he wore and the way he held himself. But this was clearly his show (his money was holding this thing together), and that was clear to me before the evening was very much underway.

These experiences cling to my memory as I sit here and do this work. I think of ways I can make myself attractive, inside and outside (my thinking and the work I do -- nobody sees me in person, and one of my medical conditions limits the kinds of clothing I can wear and I've received stern and unjust criticism from the local atheistic communities for this). So the Letters section and the Quotes section, the two parts of this web site that I still put a lot of time into, at least look pretty. The print edition is meticulously typeset with the finest fonts you can buy and printed on the best system that we can justify using for the size of our press run. I go over each piece, line by line, adjusting the letter-spacing so that the ragged-right margin is not so ragged and so that all the quirky problems that are mentioned in the typesetting books are reduced to a minimum (no words divided across columns or pages; no widows or orphans, etc.).

And I seek way to make my philosophy attractive. I emphasize personal dignity and Liberty. I urge people to make their own decisions and to do their own work. These are ethics that not only go way back to our childhoods, but are also rooted in atheism (that is, they contradict the magical thinking of religion). Religion has many elements in its outlook that I find quite unattractive, and I emphasize the counter of those things in atheism.

One thing I am doing is trying to show just how important the younger generations are to this whole thing: atheism is the one scene where we do well to place all our hope in those still in school and those who recently graduated. I don't treat kids like they gotta take the cotton out of their ears and put it in their mouths, but I treat them as I see them: the people who hold the keys to solving the problems we all face as atheists.

And most of all, I don't approach atheism as if we've got all the answers for the world, or theism as if it's the source of all the world's problems. Neither of these things are true, so let's stop repeating them. Instead, I see all humans as being pretty much the same in most of the important respects, with minor differences that make us each unique and special. To me, what makes everybody special is that she or he is alive. Each human is a person who is aware and has feelings.

Yeah, I lash out when people lie to me or about me on this Forum, but I currently think this is the proper way for me to respond to such behavior, considering that I have a point that I'm trying to make ("an agenda," as one recent writer accused), and considering that I follow Gora and Gandhi in insisting on the right to insist on truthfulness in all our affairs.

But most of all, I think I run the complete spectrum of human emotions here. I lash out against one person and rejoice with pride with the next. I gently coax the third toward a slightly different way of thinking and flirt unashamedly with the fourth.
 

This is not unlike a few theisms that I have enjoyed over the years. One was told to me by a woman who was visiting her father and they showed up at the bar where I was hanging at the time.

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"If God were to choose to reveal Himself to mankind, he would do so in a way that even the scientists would be able to see him."
    -- from Cliff Walker, "And The Scientists, Too" January, 2000

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The God she believes in would not hide from those who seek to understand our world.

The other theism I respect (to the point of having made this quip one of my favorite, if not most oft-used quotes in this project), was stated negatively by Joseph Lewis:

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A precept claiming infallibility should certainly possess the universality of the law of gravitation and the perfection of the arithmetical table.
    -- from Joseph Lewis, The Ten Commandments, "Seventh Commandment," "A Provincial Taboo"

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I also love the viewpoint of the Deists, who say that the will of the Creator can be discovered by studying His creation. This was the beginning of modern science as we know it today.

What is most fascinating about this idea can be found by discovering just what happened to the religion of Deism. Why is Deism pretty much a dead religion? Where did it go? Franklin, Paine, Jefferson -- Deists all, scientists all: what became of the religion that inspired so many people to become scientists as well as whatever else they did for a living?

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

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Added: December 17, 2001

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "S. James"
Subject: Re: WebMaster:_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: December 17, 2001 5:10 AM

¡Igualmente!

(In Mexico, we would exclaim this when we wanted to say, roughly, "The complements you just paid to me, I already feel those exact sentiments toward you!" That you would recite to me, poetically, some of my deepest thoughts is, to me, among the ultimate complements.)

I have found that what little we can understand about the natural world simply by making our own observations is much more "enlightening" (and certainly much more useful) than any of the contrivances that I learned about in any of the religious or philosophical systems I studied. These are my sentiments precisely, down to the resentment I feel when I think about the years I was robbed of curiosity and an opportunity to seek by having been informed that I already know the answers and am allowed to stop searching.
 

Yesss!

This is singly the most profound, most enlightening, and most poetic message yet to grace my Inbox. This is the very dilemma of atheism, the very struggle which has enveloped me for most of my life (having been raised in an atheistic home).

To this, I can add nothing.
 

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(Indeed, I think I have caught the irony of your entire message. However, I'd like to turn back and isolate this one challenge -- this stress, if you will -- pretending that I have yet to catch on to your intended sense of irony. Then, while still caught in the "difficulty" posed by this one thought, I would like to make a few observations. Please understand that I am deliberately taking this thought out of its intended context because I see it as a wonderful opportunity to put together some ideas I have had for some time, but which [I admit] did not form themselves into English until I did, in fact, come to a premature conclusion while reading this paragraph.)

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To me, atheism is not something that I "embrace" but is, rather, something to which I have defaulted. Atheism is what was left over when all the god claims ended up not holding water.

But I fail to see how admitting the possibility of something outside of myself, something over which I had no control, can rightly be seen as "defeat."

I can see (and have experienced) the emotional turmoil that results from becoming aware of this possibility.

Furthermore, the act of becoming aware of this situation, and the associated act of adapting and adjusting to my newfound awareness has been nothing short of a victory, for me.

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Yes, it is possible that no organizing source exists: the sheer randomness and the unspeakable waste that exist in the Universe even suggest this, as do the initial stages of chaos and the likelihood that the Universe came to be without any energy at all having been spent. (The Universe is what particle physicist Victor Stenger calls "The Ultimate Free Lunch.")

And yes, I, likewise, find these prospects frightening (at times). Perhaps this is because I spent my childhood with everything under control. My father even held the same job from the time he graduated to the time he retired, and only two years ago sold the house where we grew up.

But my life, today, as I live it, moment by moment, is only slightly less organized than it was when my father and mother were taking care of me. The life that I live, in this warm, vibrant corner of the Universe, is very far removed from the Universe as a whole.

This is the point I try to make when religious people accuse atheists of having no purpose in life: the Universe, as a whole, has no purpose that I can detect; however, we are living, sentient beings and we not only delight in giving purpose to our lives (and those of our family members and friends and associates), but I think to do so is built into us by evolution. To assign value and purpose to our lives and those of others is part of our nature!

Similarly, we live in a corner of the world that is full of order. Despite what some social critics might have us believe, human life is anything but chaotic. For the most part, we live in a peaceful world. The World Trade Center bombers are a tiny minority that will never be able to organize on a wide scale. Communication today provides a global system of checks and balances so that world opinion will prevent any atrocious situation from getting too far out of hand. Despite how tough life is and can be, we have it pretty good, here on Earth, living as humans in the 21st century.

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Once again, I thank you from the very source of my being for taking me on this journey so I could have another look at what I have been struggling with for oh, so many years -- almost as long as I can remember, in fact.

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

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Material by Cliff Walker (including unsigned editorial commentary) is copyright ©1995-2006 by Cliff Walker. Each submission is copyrighted by its writer, who retains control of the work except that by submitting it to Positive Atheism, permission has been granted to use the material or an edited version: (1) on the Positive Atheism web site; (2) in Positive Atheism Magazine; (3) in subsequent works controlled by Cliff Walker or Positive Atheism Magazine (including published or posted compilations). Excerpts not exceeding 500 words are allowed provided the proper copyright notice is affixed. Other use requires permission; Positive Atheism will work to protect the rights of all who submit their writings to us.