Is Atheism Based On Faith?
Jean Paul Gove'

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Jean Paul Gove'"
Subject: Re: Is atheism based on faith?
Date: September 21, 2001 8:21 PM

Here is a roundup of your questions plus some answers you probably didn't expect, as we advocate a different understanding of atheism and agnosticism than what you describe or presuppose in your letter. We're hoping you'll see this understanding to be much simpler when dealing with all the various issues. We're also hopeful that by popularizing this understanding we can reduce the stigma and bigotry against atheists which predominates American life.

I try to avoid the word believe because even though it has at least two clear and common definitions, some theists will take a sentence whose context clearly demands one definition and insist that I've just admitted that I have religious faith by saying that I believe something. Because this form of dishonesty (equivocation) is so common, I try to avoid using that word here.

Most atheists don't say they know that no gods exist, we simply lack a god belief and leave it at that. I, for example, have yet to hear an god belief that holds water. Hardly any of us even pay attention to the god question at all, only vaguely aware that we don't believe -- most often immediately we've been reminded that such things as theists exist.

Many atheists deliberately fall short of asserting that no gods exist because we follow the logic which says that it is impossible to disprove an existential claim, that is, a claim that a thing exists. This is controversial because it is possible to say that the chances of a thing existing are so slim as to be negligible, and it is also possible to show that certain things are, as described, logically impossible. Briefly, Bertrand Russell states that a china teapot orbits the Sun between Earth and Mars, but is too small for even the most powerful telescope. So, then, can we disprove his claim? No. But the Burden of Proof says that we don't have to: rather, if Russell cannot prove his claim, we don't have to believe it.

I didn't "become" an atheist, I still have the same outlook regarding gods as the one with which I came into this world: I lack a belief in the existence of gods. I grew up not having been taught that gods exist, and still maintain that default human outlook known as atheism, that being the absence of theism. Yes, I did believe, briefly, as a teenager, and again as a young adult. But this "faith" was contrived and perhaps even contorted. I was not like the other Christians in the various groups I wound up in before I finally jettisoned the entire concept and didn't think about the subject for many years. Only after suffering abuses for being a nonbeliever did I decide to focus my activism on learning how to identify and squash bigotry against atheists. Little did I suspect at the time that there are no books you can read or courses you can take on this subject.
 

The agnostics are neatly divided into two camps just as the rest of humankind is: theistic agnostics and atheistic agnostics. Theistic agnostics say that a god exists but know no more than that (and know that we will never know either). Atheistic agnostics don't know if gods exist or not. Such agnostics lack a god belief, and are thus fully and firmly within the camp of atheism. The agnostics who say that we cannot know are, to me, more dogmatic than the atheists who simply lack a god belief.

I will say that a rather high percentage of the agnostics who have written to us have tried to paint atheism as the dogmatic assertion that no gods exist, and have portrayed me as a Humpty Dumpty for disputing their claims. Ever since the Age of Enlightenment, when defending atheism stopped earning a capital punishment, atheistic writers have defined atheism the way we do at PAM (rather, it is we who follow their lead), with a resurgence of popularity during this past century even amongst atheists for what I call the Roman Catholic definition of atheism: one who asserts that no gods exist.

It is necessary for such agnostics to paint atheism as one dogmatic extreme and theism as the opposite dogmatic extreme in order to coax people into thinking that agnosticism is some sort of safe, neutral "middle ground" between the two. It's unfortunate that they do this (unfortunate for their own credibility), because it's easy to show that theism is represented by a complete range when it comes to the degree of certainty with which theists hold their belief in God. Some are more sure of God's existence than they are of their own "waking reality," while others have only a vague notion that there might be "somebody, somewhere out there." The same applies to atheism: some atheists will tell you that it's impossible for God to exist, others will tell you that they cannot say yea or nay because the notion of God is incomprehensible (noncognitivism, but this is still an absence of a god belief), still others have never heard of God or lack the cognitive powers to form a god-belief (infants and imbeciles). The traditional 19-century definition for atheism unashamedly included infants as atheists, since they have no god-belief.
 

One final note on the definition of the word atheism. To say that atheism means "without theism" is called the "weak" definition for atheism, and we advocate this definition when referring to atheism as a whole. This makes atheism much more inclusive, since even those who are "strong" atheists at least lack theism and are thus included in this general picture. This definition for the overall "big picture" of atheism tends to take the bark out of any theist's objections to atheism, since it places the responsibility back onto the theist for bringing a convincing argument for the existence of gods.

However, the definition of the word is not the only sense in which we distinguish between "strong" and "weak"; when it comes to individual tastes, we, as individuals, hold differing positions. One person my hold the position of atheism "strongly" while another will hold the position of atheism "weakly." The former, of course, asserts that no gods exist while the latter either doesn't know, doesn't care, or, like me, deliberately falls short of asserting that no gods exist. Positive Atheism doesn't care one way or the other whether an individual is "strong" or "weak," that is, whether she or he asserts that no gods exist or simply lacks a god belief (or, perhaps, deliberately falls short of asserting that no gods exist). However, we do encourage atheists to advocate the "weak" definition of atheism as a whole, being more inclusive as well as being much harder for theists to attack unfairly.

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

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Jean Paul Gove'"
Subject: Re: Is atheism based on faith?
Date: September 22, 2001 2:22 AM

We all do well to strenuously test our philosophical positions. The mark of a philosopher is that she or he can describe for you what steps she or he took to arrive at a certain position, and can even tell you what it would take to prompt him or her to change his or her mind. This is much of the motivation behind my working this Forum: I want to test my own viewpoint against the scrutiny of others, and I wish to help others to see what this even is (because I don't think this style of thinking is very popular, at least in America, which is probably why we're so religious over here).

Liberal Scientific Method says that nobody has the key to knowledge and anybody can submit evidence in an attempt to overthrow the dominant viewpoint on any matter. The best book with the easiest to grasp definition of Liberal Scientific Method is Jonathan Rauch's The Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought. I am hoping to eventually incorporate much of this information into an FAQ piece, but first I hope to be working on an FAQ piece with physicist Victor Stenger regarding creationism and the origin of the Universe. I have placed a link to SICEC in the Science section of our Web Guide, and will also put one in the Regional (Local) section.

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Jean Paul Gove'"
Subject: Re: Is atheism based on faith?
Date: September 22, 2001 6:27 PM

You are talking about postmodernism, are you not? I am not afraid of postmodernism getting very far. As I have said several times, it won't get very far from the "soft" end of the university campus! Postmodernism will never make accurate predictions in physics or find the antibiotic for a new infection.

New Age, as we know it here in the States, is astrology and meditation and Wicca and pop ecology blended with banal, insipid music and various other occult and quasi-occult practices presented in a commonality of acceptance (though not necessarily a commonality of practice).

Liberal Scientific Method, of course, is traditional science -- the good guys! Liberal Scientific Method is best seen as an ethic or moral which places truth above all things in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. All it does is prevent any specific class from having final say as to what "knowledge" is or what is known.

First, nobody holds a position such that his or her claim to knowledge is "sacred" or above scrutiny. Secondly, anybody is allowed or qualified to approach the scientific community with evidence that would overthrow any accepted claim to knowledge. I like to point out that a lowly patent clerk is qualified to overthrow the entire science of physics. Hey, wait a minute! a lowly patent clerk did overthrow the entire science of physics: his name was Albert Einstein, who worked as a patent clerk when he published his first papers on Relativity.

Liberal Scientific Method is what seeks truth and follows her wherever she may lead; Liberal Scientific Method is a professor joyously abandoning his pet theory, his life-long project, because a whip-start graduate student just stood up and showed him to be in error. Science considers it a great joy to be shown wrong because this means we all are just that much closer to the truth.

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

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