Dan Jarvis And
Empirical Evidence Of God
Dave Jarvis

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Dave Jarvis"
Subject: Re: Atheism Rocks
Date: Friday, March 23, 2001 5:11 PM

and

I have only so much time during a day that I can work, and this was particularly true when I did that one. Nowadays, medicine is allowing me to spend more time sitting at the terminal each day. Nevertheless, the workload for Positive Atheism today has still outgrown my meager abilities to get the work done.

So, the Jarvis letter was posted as a first draft, like almost all the other Letters section responses. You'll see many of the letters still have either the blue or tan background, and still use the Teletype monospace typeface for the letter writer. If I have changed the links at the top to Arial/Helvetica (all except 9812-9571), and given it a different background color, chances are slightly higher that I have given that letter at least a second read.

Thus, I always appreciate when someone points out a typo. These pointers usually go by with a simple "Thank you!" followed by an immediate correction. However, this seems like an ideal opportunity to thank, publicly, those readers who have taken a moment to help make this thing run more smoothly -- even if it's just one of those "Great Website" letters. You wouldn't believe how discouraging this gets sometimes.
 

Ah! Without even knowing what you've read, I think I know what you've read, because I don't think this is a mistake I would make. When I say I read the Bible "eleven times," that's how many times I read the Bible cover-to-cover in a single sitting before renouncing my faith. I was quite proud of my accomplishment while I was in the Church, and these are figures I would never forget.

Since then, I was struck with an infection which rendered me unable to hear very well at all for several months, and then my hearing slowly came back to where I can sort of hear what people are saying in a noisy room if they are speaking clearly into my good ear. At the same time, I had tumors growing under the soles of my feet, which made it feel as if I had a dozen dried peas and lima beans in each shoe -- very, very painful!

Needless to say, since this condition lasted at least a year and quickly rendered me homeless (having recently moved to a strange town), I supported myself for several months by shoplifting. Since I couldn't run very fast, I got caught several times (a felony if you get caught twice in the same store). When I eventually went to jail, I was disoriented and very incorrigible and was, within a day or so, thrown into solitary confinement. This is where they take away your reading material, but the law allows you to demand religious "scripture," so I demanded and obtained a Gideons. It was then, I must say, that I read the thing cover-to-cover at least once more.

So, when I say "twelve times," that's how many times I have read the Bible cover-to-cover in a single sitting thus far in my entire lifetime -- eleven times before renouncing my faith, and at least once since then.
 

Shorter Graphic Rule

I don't even go that far: I want a convincing reason for believing that a god exists (that is, that this whole religion thing is not just an elaborate fantasy) before I will assent to the claim "A God exists." Remember, we are dealing with existential claims -- claims that a thing exists.

Many people confuse abstraction with reality and reflections with perceptions. Liberal scientific method is designed to address these and other specific and universal weaknesses of human reason. Among other things, liberal scientific method prevents us from considering a claim to be true simply because someone tells us it's true.

Further, reason demands that we refrain from stating that a claim is true simply because we cannot come up with an alternate explanation. Just because we cannot explain why 16-year-old Brenda Spencer shot a couple dozen school children and killed two adults in San Diego at Cleveland Elementary School on Monday, January 29, 1979, doesn't automatically mean that demons entered her body and overrode her sensibilities or that "she must have been on drugs or something." Her own explanation was good enough for some: "I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day." (The song by the Irish group Boomtown Rats is about Ms. Spencer, who has now been in prison for longer than she was alive before she went to prison.)

Most god claims are carefully designed to skirt any empirical testing, seemingly on the hope that the prospective convert does not know about the Burden of Proof. Without the Burden of Proof, the harder it is to refute a claim, the more likely it is to be true. However, the Burden of Proof eliminates this problem by showing that it is the person making the claim who is obligated to make the strong argument or to bring forth convincing evidence. The Burden of Proof also requires that a claim needs to be capable of being shot down at least in concept before we need to take it seriously as an existential claim. If you cannot think of a test we could perform to prove that your claim is false, then we really have no business taking your claim seriously: your claim is indistinguishable from those of the charlatans and hucksters.
 

The woman's love for her father and the man's love for his god are virtually the same thing and are equally valid, because we're dealing with emotions and abstractions.

To anyone else, the woman's father was no different from any other man. But to this woman, her entire life had been built up around the abstraction of this man playing the role of her father -- she probably even called him "Dad" instead of calling him by his first name or by "Mr. Jones" (or whatever). She developed a very powerful, all-encompassing abstraction about this man which was shared by few if any other humans. To her, this man was special like no other man could be (although most men are special like this to someone). She and her siblings (if any) spent more of their formative moments under his guidance than anybody else did, and depended entirely upon him for sustenance like nobody else ever had. And they probably grew quite fond of him, and even if they didn't get along, likely grew attached to him.

In a similar sense, this man's "God" is an abstraction. The only difference is that we can show that the woman was fathered and perhaps raised by her father, but we cannot show that her associate's God exists. Nevertheless, the "God" has played an integral part of this man's life -- possibly his entire life past infancy -- and thus the "God" plays a complex and very powerful role in his life, just as the father plays holds a key position in the eyes of the woman. In fact, most of the attributes given to "God" are derived from attributes given to the father figure. The modern "God" is a "Dad," only bigger, and invisible.

And we all know that the role of "God" can be played by a "being" whose existence is limited to someone's imagination. Almost all theists will grant this about at least some other people's gods.

Even the abstraction "Dad" is not necessarily an accurate picture of the man who is that person's father, because Dad probably acts differently around his kids (and because of his kids) than he would ordinarily act if he had no kids or wasn't in their presence. For example, I never knew that my father was a connoisseur of salty humor until I became an adult and some of my friends went to work for him and gave me this report. He still, to this day, tends to hesitate with the salty humor when in my presence (possibly because Mom is usually there, too).

But to ask whether someone loves her father or his god is not the same as asking if the god exists or if the father is still alive (she loves him in memory only), if the woman ever knew her father (she can only guess as to what he was like -- but he's still her father), if the father figure was the actual biological father or was pretending (this happens), or if there even was a father figure, real or abstract.
 

Occam's Razor can show the god claim to be insufficient to warrant assent to some god claims, but it still does not show that no gods exist. This is because the "ineffability" idea is used to describe "God" as somehow "beyond our grasp" as humans -- thus conveniently evading empirical verification.

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

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Dave Jarvis"
Subject: Re: Atheism Rocks
Date: Saturday, March 24, 2001 5:23 PM

When it's all you have, you tend to get very creative with it. Scrawling degrading messages in a dialogue balloon on the door, pointing to the little window that the guard peeks through, is a very limited form of entertainment.

But I can see how someone would have a tough time with this book in light of how seriously many Americans take it.
 

Sometimes this is just to limber the fingers (and the mind), and other times I am developing some themes and find wonderful opportunity to practice them in a real-life philosophical dialogue. Occasionally, I will be so impressed with the way a dialogue went that I will publish it in the print edition.

Ultimately, though, those who visit will see our strengths and weaknesses and will note our brilliancy and our failure and will learn thereby. A lot of our focus here is unprecedented, at least in the West and as it applies to atheism. The big thing I'm working on is not the defense of atheism against theism but the ability to present atheism with the goal of reducing the stigma against atheists. This is where the "De-Conversion Stories" section comes to play: by reading the tales of others, and by reading our own tales at a later point in time, we can chart our progress and learn from the mistakes of ourselves and our fellow-atheists. The exchange called "Looking At Some De-Conversion Stories" with Brian Marchand shows most vividly my goals with that section.

I also caught a lot of flack for the Rich Zawadzki exchange, and have learned a lot since then (though I still like the way I handled Zawadzki). I even deliberately left it linked from the front page longer than I ordinarily would have just to increase the likelihood that I'd catch more flack from sporadic readers and first-time visitors, and thereby learn to do this just a little better. For example, one guy who's currently giving me the big runaround writes, and then I begin my response by saying, "I told you that I don't want to hear from liars any more!" Then, when I've finished I delete the first sentence, and end up with a more cordial sounding piece, because I've got it out of my system with that first sentence. There's got to be a way to shine a light without seeming like a Madalyn Murray O'Hair or a James Hervey Johnson, but I suspect that the person who discovers that method will get the Nobel Prize.

In this sense, I see my role not as that of an example to follow, but an experimenter whose data is displayed for all to see.

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

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[Some portions of this dialogue are missing.]
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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Dave Jarvis"
Subject: Re: Atheism Rocks
Date: Monday, April 16, 2001 5:17 PM

I walked completely around Zawadzki's "factorial" blunder by waiting a paragraph or two and simply listing a factorial equation among several examples of what I mean when I say, "fact" -- omitting mention that the very equation I used is a factorial equation! This is easily my favorite subtlety in the whole Forum, even though I'm not sure if anybody else even saw what I was doing with it. (I used to write comedy bits for a morning drive radio show, and tried to take a gut-level slapstick bit that everybody got and work in an oblique angle that perhaps 50 listeners in all of Southern California could appreciate -- if that many.) I was hoping that one or two readers would have picked up on it, but if they have, nobody's informed me about it.

As for working with people, it's one thing to do it in person and it's another thing altogether to do it in writing. While I think just as quickly either way, people do not interrupt me when I'm writing. Also, on this Forum, I'm not dealing with anyone whose friendship means anything to me, so I can get away with more than I would if I were discussing these topics over the Easter meal. Also, on this Forum, for a third party to shush me would be inappropriate. But most of all, I need to keep certain relationships intact, so I reserve my discussions for this Forum. It's one thing to know what you do and do not believe, and that ought to suffice for most of us. It's another thing altogether to prevail in a discussion with another person. The only discussion that really matters, though, is the one with yourself, in the privacy of your own mind.

Your best defense is to be grounded in logical fallacies, and to be able to identify one coming your way before your opponent even finishes unraveling it. Our collection of "Clues" is a great resource for this, and part of my skill in this respect is having put together the "Sophistry" section of "Introduction to Activistic Atheism." This works both ways: by formulating your argument so as to avoid these mistakes, you do well; also, by when you catch your opponent relying too heavily on these dishonest rhetorical techniques, chances are that they do not have much of a case.

As for tact, how tactful can it be to catch someone in a lie? to catch someone using falsehood to make the case that theirs is an outlook of truthfulness? In the marketplace of ideas, you'd better be selling good product.

I don't know how to carry the "business" end of this situation over into my personal life, so I try to avoid religious discussions amongst friends. In California, I might more easily get away with this because nobody ever asked me, "What do you do?" But in Oregon, where the fact that you're working for it in a "legitimate" "job" is more important than whether or not you have it, I've learned to become very clever -- ranging from, "I work in an office" (I do work in an office! -- my office), to, "I write" (which always raises the question, "What do you write?"), to, "I'm a social activist" (very respected work in very neo-Liberal Oregon: no further questions), to, "I publish an atheist magazine" (at which point the newly formed friendship usually ends -- even if the person who is interrogating me is himself an atheist -- go figure).

We have two powerfully important tools: the "weak" definition for atheism and the fact that the theist is making a claim.

The first tool is the "weak" definition for the word, atheist: anyone who lacks a god belief -- including those who hold the opinion that no gods exist. Someone wishing to inflict the Roman Catholic definition for atheism on me is usurping my right to self-definition as an atheist. However, I'll let them get away with calling me a "nontheist" if that makes them comfortable; if Michael Shermer has his way, this term might eventually prevail -- which is fine with me: I'd change the magazine to "Positive Nontheism" and take a dive with Web Trends for a couple of years with having to register two domains instead of one.

The second tool is to realize for yourself (and to keep reminding your opponent, 'cause they'll try to wiggle out of this one if they can) that the theist is claiming that gods exist and that the atheist, until that point, was minding her own business. The importance of this cannot be understated: they will always call on you to prove your case. "What case!? No! You're the only one talking about gods, here, not me!" If you can make a case that I should assent to your claim, I'll go for it. Until then, just as some men are "girl watchers" and others avidly watch sporting events and still others call themselves "bird watchers," I enjoy observing the mental habits people use to preserve cherished religious beliefs, vanquishing every disquieting fact, impervious to any contrary line of reasoning. I find this much more entertaining that watching a bunch of goons chase a football.

I am not an agnostic in either sense of the word:

1) I am not undecided, capable of going either way and seeing merits in both sides of the argument. Rather, I have yet to hear any argument worthy of my assent. Agnosticism presupposes that atheism even has an argument. As I understand atheism, we are not necessarily offering any argument at all (although some atheists do make a very strong case that no gods exist).

2) I do not assert that we cannot have answers to this question (for example, the God of Christianity could reveal Himself in Blazing Glory on Mount Cyanide, and then we'd know -- so to say we cannot know is to go much further than I feel is right). We could also discover that the Big Bang is a unique event, and that there is no "super-universe" within which countless "Big Bang-like" occurrences continually take place. If that's the case, then were is your god? We could so convincingly rule out the notion of the supernatural that metaphysical materialism is as obvious as the sphericity of the Earth. Then where is your god?

But it doesn't matter what word I use or what that word means to me or to my opponent: I lack a god belief. It's not like I'm undecided. No. I do not believe in gods. I do not go so far as to say that I can empirically prove that no gods exist, and I don't bother with the old line, "Well, we've searched the entire house and cannot find your glasses, so I think we can safely say that your glasses are not in the house." I don't need to go that far.

With atheism, as I understand atheism, I am minding my own business as a human, and someone comes along and insists that gods exist. "Oh, really? That's interesting! Tell me more!" If they can make a convincing case that gods exist, I'll go along with the idea. Unless and until they do that, I continue with business as usual. Agnosticism says, "I don't know and you don't either," or "I can't know and you can't either"; atheism says, "You have not given me a convincing reason to believe your claim, so I remain an atheist -- I remain a person without theistic faith." In fact, atheism calls agnosticism a subset of atheism, because if they don't know, they lack a belief (unless they're that somewhat rare breed of agnostic known as the theistic agnostic, who thinks there's a god but knows nothing else on the subject).

Whatever you want to call that (and I call it atheism), that's my position: I have no reason to believe, so I don't believe.

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

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