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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "D. G"
Subject: Re: Dear Cliff
Date: Wednesday, March 14, 2001 1:26 AM

I only get "in your face" if I think that's an appropriate response to how you've treated me. So, I'll get that part out of the way so I can continue with the more dignified-sounding elements of my response to your letter.

I don't care one whit what you believe, what you think about me, or whether you think my column was designed to give any more than a simple glimpse into one brief element that went into the process of my reverting to atheism -- the "faith of my fathers" for as many generations as the "gray heads" of our family were able to document and were willing to pass on to their survivors before they died.

But if you read into my writings any more than what I've stated, and if you then comment on what you've read into my work (rather than what I've actually written), I will respond accordingly. This is because I am very precise with my self-expression, and if one person can misinterpret what I say, others can do likewise. Thus I am careful to make sure that people do not put words into my mouth, in an attempt to make it appear that I've said something that I have not said and do not even think. This means clarifying previous attempts at poetry which I wrote under specific constraints, when I had neither the luxury nor the desire to tell the complete story.

That being said, I cannot say that I ever "had faith in God," because to say that would be to say that a "God" exists, and I have no reason, at this time, to think that any "God" exists. At one time, I sincerely thought that a "God" exists, but I have since come to realize that I was only fooling myself -- with the help of some slick-talking (and extremely desperate) side-show-barker types. So please do not put words into my mouth by suggesting that I once "had faith in God" when the most we can say is that at one time I sincerely thought that a "God" exists, and that, based upon this belief, I diligently pursued a personal relationship with the "God" that I thought existed.
 

The incident in Tualatin, Oregon, on November 22, 1985, triggered only the completion an unraveling process that had been ongoing since the early 1980s. This unraveling began in early 1983 and came to a peak on September 25, 1983. It is the result of my never having grasped the concept of biblical Christian "faith" to begin with, being, by nature, a thinker, rather than a believer. The entire concept of "faith" has never made sense to me, and I was only fooling myself in thinking that I might some day catch on. I held out hope for many years, and in the meantime developed several other styles of thinking that go along with biblical faith.

My attempts at exercising "faith" -- at even thinking that a god exists -- were contrived, being motivated by the delusion that I needed religion in order to survive and function as an adult in a complex and changing world. As long as I was able to convince myself that the religion was true, I did fine in everyday life (although I had few if any friends in the Church).

What began the process was a sting operation wherein I was targeted as a fence for stolen property. I purchased some equipment, telling the man (who, it turns out, was a cop) that he'd be going to jail if the stuff was stolen. They tried to bring charges, but the DA threw these out in the first round, pointing to my recorded statement to the cop and my call to the Police department asking them to check the serial numbers of the equipment. Although the cops eventually got into big trouble over this, the whole scene conflicted with my firm belief in the biblical notion that government authorities are ordained by God, and that we are to submit to them.

At the same time, a large basis for my fundamentalistic faith was conditioned on book of Second Peter being a genuine work of an acquaintance of Jesus named Simon Peter. But when we were required to defend the historicity of each of the New Testament books, nobody in our class, including me, could find any credible defense against this book being a forgery; even the most fundamentalist authors and scholars all but admitted that this book is probably not a genuine work. It certainly did not have the credibility of, say, Romans, the Corinthian epistles, or Galatians -- a work which even the strongest critics allow as a genuine work of Paul.

Since my faith was a fundamentalistic, Bible-believing faith, I had a real tough time keeping it together after Second Peter lost its credibility with me, because it was this book which provided an endorsement for Paul from the Jerusalem group. In fact, I never completed this assignment, spending weeks after the assignment was due trying to salvage my preconception that Second Peter was not a forgery. Nobody could provide for me an argument for believing in the historicity of Second Peter which did not come off as shallow and contrived -- in short, dishonest. I even stopped writing a verse-by-verse devotional commentary on Second Timothy that I had been writing. This about killed me, because this was a long poem, and was perhaps some of the most beautiful and inspiring poetry I have ever written. Abandoning this project took a lot out of me.

Several months after this, in July of 1983, I was put up for excommunication, instigated under false pretenses by a leader whose dogma overrode his natural human sense of compassion. I eventually convinced them, through no small effort, to drop the proceedings. By the time this battle and the battle with the police were won, my faith in the Bible had been lost amidst severe emotional pain and cognitive disorientation.

So the initial stages of this unraveling process were based entirely upon my gradually becoming aware that the Bible does not tell the truth about reality.

However, although one can instantly abandon the biblical basis for one's life, she or he may retain residual, faith-based elements in one's thinking that continue to impact one's ability to function as a human. Unable to go back to Bible-based thinking (realizing that the Bible gives a false picture of reality), but not yet having identified, much less shed, the vestigial elements which came along side biblical faith, I wallowed in a very strange state for several years. As a result, I did a lot of emotional damage to myself, and put myself at a great disadvantage through missed opportunities, both social and economic. Since I could not go back, I had to abandon this vestigial style of thinking entirely before I could be able, once again, to live a healthy, productive life as a human.

And I did all this on my own, without any help or guidance whatsoever. When I converted to Christianity, there were any number of resources at my disposal to help me adjust from a reason-based outlook to a faith-based outlook. The same is not true for those of us who renounce our faith: were I to open an office (or erect a website, as I have done) dedicated to helping de-converts through the process of adjusting from a faith-based outlook to a reason-based outlook, I'd receive daily denunciations from the public.

Hey! I've received several such denunciations in the e-mail just this week -- along with many, many attempts to "win" me "back" into the "fold."

One cannot have these faith-based styles of thinking without an object of faith, just as one cannot function as a fundamentalist Christian while retaining a materialistic basis of thinking. So, just as a budding fundamentalist Christian must abandon many elements of the materialistic, reason-based thinking processes in order to function as a Christian, someone who has come to realize that the basis for faith is flawed cannot retain the faith-based style of thinking and function as a rational-thinking human.

This is because faith, particularly biblical faith, is a whole different ball game from human reason: you cannot have both and maintain self-honesty and self-consistency. Being a man who is innately self-honest and self-consistent, I cannot endure conflicts and contradictions within my thinking, so I must either go with faith (if and only if that faith has, in my mind, a valid and truthful basis), or I must make the decision that my facilities for reason are the only tools I have for discerning truth (or remaining agnostic, as the case may be).

The foundation for my biblical Christian faith was abolished by my realization that the Bible is a political tract -- propaganda designed to keep the masses in line. This happened a full two to three years before the Tualatin incident. The vestiges in my thinking had been left over from a three-year bout with biblical Christianity, a family heritage which included extremely vague and liberal expressions of Islam, Freemasonry, and Spinoza's god (but no forms of Christianity), a recent relationship with an Orthodox Christian convert from strict Judaism, and other occult studies throughout my life. These vestiges included: the Judaeo-Christian and Twelve Step concepts of a benign or benevolent rescuing deity; the Jungian notion that all things are connected; the pantheistic notion that all is One; the animistic notion that one can pray with results or otherwise magically think situations into actualization.

What happened in Tualatin was a catastrophic experience within my mind which served to free me from these vestiges: I had already committed to rational thought, but was still plagued by the vestigial styles of thinking -- unaware that they were even affecting me. I now see, in retrospect, that these thinking styles -- and their subsequent removal -- made all the difference in the world toward consolidating my thought patterns into full-blown rationalism, which is the "faith of my fathers" and is, in my opinion, the outlook most compatible with both my inherent (biological) mind set as well as the experiential overlay derived from my upbringing, my experiences, and my personal philosophical ponderings.

In other words, I now think that liberal scientific method is the method of thinking that is best suited for me (subjectively). I also make a good case that it is the best (objective) method for (anyone) to use when trying to determine truth from the claims of hucksters and charlatans, because liberal scientific method addresses the very fallibility which marks human thought and leaves plenty of room for error, revision, and agnosticism.
 

No. People keep approaching me and telling me that the statement "A 'God' exists" is a true statement. When asked to provide reasons why I should assent to that claim, they show themselves to be liars, or to be deluded, or to not know what they're talking about -- in almost all cases, they're parroting something they heard on television or from a pulpit or in a Sunday school class.

Apart from these individuals approaching me and making these claims, I mind my own business and rarely think on the subject (believe it or not).

The main point of this website is to provide assistance for those who are trying to come down off of religion -- just like a Twelve Stepper might help someone come down off drugs.

The other point is to fight the bigotry that atheists endure from all sides, and to advocate for the separation of religion from government so that the bigotry we now endure does not revert back to the institutionalized persecution we endured on this continent as little as two hundred years ago, and which our fellows on other continents endure to this day. The only reason they don't persecute us is because the government won't let them. This is clear by the comments from theists that our organization receives in her inbox every day of the year.
 

To get me to assent to the claim "A 'God' exists," I would need only valid reasons for thinking that this statement is a true statement. I don't have to look very "deeply" to know the honest thoughts of my mind.

I do not now understand, nor have I ever understood, the distinction that some theists make between believing that a god exists and believing in that god. For you to make this distinction in your letter to me suggests that you think that I secretly "know" or "realize" that such thing as a "God" exists, but that I am being dishonest when I tell others that I don't think the statement "A 'God' exists" is a true statement. Another possibility is that I don't understand how one could possibly think that a "God" exists without acting on that belief and structuring her or his thoughts and actions as if a "God" actually existed. For anyone to think that a "God" exists, but to act as if no "God" existed, is, from the perspective of being me and of living my life, impossible.

If the former is what you are suggesting (like so many, many Christians have suggested to me in the past), then shame on you! Only I can know the thoughts within my own mind, and mine is the final word on what I do or do not believe. Nobody has any business speculating beyond my verbal and written reports of what I do and do not believe in the privacy of my own gray matter. If my impeccable record of integrity in everyday matters does not convince you that the thoughts in my mind are what I say they are, then I don't know how to respond to you -- and furthermore, I really don't want to continue this discussion.
 

I don't know anything about "most nonbelievers" because I have met only a handful of nonbelievers in my lifetime. My limited experience is not worth diddly. I can say that most of the nonbelievers that I have known seldom if ever think on religious matters, and consider religious discussion a monumental waste of the precious little time with which we are allowed to live.

I also know what it feels like when someone approaches me and tries to convince me that gods exist. I know the embarrassment of fumbling for a polite way to deal with a deluded person who is robotically parroting a prefabricated sales pitch, but who has given little if any critical scrutiny to what they are repeating to me (and expecting me to swallow -- hook, line, and sinker). The "outreach" efforts of evangelical types are truly awkward, and I have more than once succumbed to the temptation to be outright rude. I have done many things which were designed to bring an immediate end to the conversation -- ranging from telling them something that feeds into their anti-non-whatever race-baiting-like bigotry, to answering the door naked when the Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses come knocking.
 

Take my word for it, having been both places philosophically: it is much simpler to have prefabricated answers or to be able to rest on the notion that "all things work together for the good" than it is to be alone and to be without answers. This, I think, is one of the main enticements that religion offers to prospective converts. Only after one has been practicing the religion for a long time does that person eventually realize (often unconsciously) that there are no answers to certain questions. This often gets trivialized with the notions that the deity chooses to withhold certain information, that we are fallible, that we "now see through a glass darkly," etc.

I disagree with Aquinas when he said,

Whatever does not imply a contradiction is, consequently, among those possibilities in virtue of which God is described as omnipotent. But what does imply a contradiction is not subsumed under the divine omnipotence..."
-- Summa Theologica, I Q25 A3

To me, the most dangerous thinking that humans have ever engaged in is the act of writing the word "God" in the blank line that follows any statement of life's grave and pressing questions. I prefer the response given by Joseph Lewis:

Is it not better to place a question mark upon a problem while seeking an answer than to put the label "God" there and consider the matter closed?
-- The Philosophy of Atheism (unpaginated)

Antony Flew put it this way:

You cannot ... transmute some incoherent mixture of words into sense merely by introducing the three-letter word "God" to be its grammatical subject.
-- How to Think Straight (p. 19)

In short, it's cold and lonely out here. It's no fun realizing that your entire existence will be less than a blip compared to the life span of the Universe, which itself may be but a brief and tiny bubble in some larger scheme. But I am no more capable of lying to myself about this than I am able to tell a woman I love her when I don't have any such feelings for her. I'd rather be alone than to live with myself after having lied, or to look upon the face of someone whom I have deliberately deceived. Whenever I say something, it's because that's what I think is the truth at the time I said it. If it turns out that I was mistaken, I have at least given these matters a lot of thought -- more than most people I've known -- and I at least know why I currently believe this way, and I can tell you how I came to hold my current position on most matters.
 

Maybe there's no such thing as a god.

Maybe it's degrading to suggest to an atheist that she or he has "a god" of some sort, when the whole point of atheism is that we don't recognize anything remotely resembling "a god."

Maybe it's degrading to the concept of "God" to trivialize it by equating it with something as inconsequential as a human fear.
 

Being a public figure, my current position is readily available to anybody who is interested in knowing what it is. Being a man of truthfulness, I am committed to publicly renouncing any position I have advocated should I ever conclude that I was mistaken in holding that position.

Since I wouldn't bother even my Mother with a blow-by-blow account of my personal philosophical journey, I'm certainly not going to go any further than this forum for someone I don't even know.

Any philosophical journey is entirely and exclusively the property of that philosopher. The only reasons I post my ponderings on this forum are so I can benefit from the scrutiny of others on similar journeys, and so that others can scrutinize my ponderings to benefit their own individual journeys.

As I said above, I could have saved myself a world of pain and loss had there been available to me what I try to provide for others who are now enduring the loss of faith that I once endured. If erecting and maintaining a Forum where people can learn from others' mistakes and chart their own and others' progress over time can help, then that's the entire usefulness of this Forum.

This magazine and website are for the benefit of atheists. Theists are welcome to visit and participate as long as they follow the simple rules of decorum described in the "About" page of the Forum. We wouldn't bar theists from this process even if that were physically possible, because atheism is a very small aspect of any atheist's outlook. Also, theists have proven to be very powerful allies in our individual quests for truth and dignity and Liberty -- be they open-minded theists who travel along similar paths and celebrate any quest for truth, dignity, and Liberty, wherever it may lead, or be they narrow, bigoted theists who either provide us with examples of how not to do this, or who prompt us to knuckle down and fight all the harder for everyone's right to pursue their own course of philosophical discovery.

If I have sounded a little brusque, perhaps it's because I opened this letter in order to bide my time while I mull over how I'm going to respond to yet another major magazine piece which equates atheism with the belief that the Earth is flat, and then proceeds to lie to the public about the success rate of a certain faith-based rehabilitation program for the purpose of convincing the public that we all ought to continue to funnel millions of dollars into this faith-based method simply because "it works" (and not taking into consideration that it is illegal for governments in America to establish religion, particularly the public funding of activities that feature religious proselytizing) -- when the truth is that this method has dismal recidivism rates. I need to think about the format, extent, and gist of my response, and also need to wait for some feedback from key correspondents who have more credibility and experience in this field than even I have -- although I am one of the more experienced in the country at arguing this particular subject. So, since I am one of the top spokespersons in this field, I am obligated to respond; however, I am not, even after these few hours, up to responding.

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

Graphic Rule
Added: March 26, 2001

Graphic Rule
Added: March 26, 2001

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "D. G"
Subject: Re: Dear Cliff 2
Date: Wednesday, March 21, 2001 6:59 AM

I have repeatedly stated that I lack only a convincing argument that such an entity as "God" exists to assent to the claim, "God exists."

The traditional meaning for Freethinker was one who shuns the alleged dogma of revealed religion. This does not describe me for two reasons: First, if I were shown that there is such thing as revealed religion, I would drop everything and follow it. Secondly, the notion of "Freethinker" omits any specific reference to whether or not I believe in the existence of deities. Thus, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson were freethinkers in that they rejected the notion of Scripture, but they were not atheists. As an atheist, I am not described as lack a god belief, but as a result, it can be assumed that I lack faith in anything resembling revealed Scripture or supernatural intervention (but not necessarily rejecting the paranormal).

Nevertheless, no part of me now thinks that there may be a god. I am not agnostic in this sense: no convincing arguments have come my way, and thus I lack a belief that gods exist, and thus rest my understanding of reality squarely upon what's left: nature with a lowercase "n."
 

By prefabrication, I mean a systematic dogma that was prepared by somebody other than yourself -- a dogma; a standardized confession of faith held by a group of individuals -- as opposed to the process of thinking for oneself and holding all ideas up to scrutiny.

By parroting, I mean repeating it simply because you heard it, because it sounds neat at first glance, and not because you spent the time and effort to test that idea against the thinking of others and, most importantly, rigorously testing that idea against what your own mind thinks and what your own senses have observed. (I constantly test my thinking against the thoughts of a whole history of thinkers' recorded ideas and ponderings. I then give my thinking a merciless shake-down to see if it can withstand even my own strict standards to which I hold myself.)

These and other destructive thinking styles are not unique to religious faith, but they are very common prerequisites to being accepted within many religious communities. If I mentioned prefabrication in response to the claims of yourself or of any others, it is because I senses this about what I heard. Ditto for parroting: I will say it if I see it.
 

I am not talking about "catch phrases," I am talking about dogma. True, many "catch phrases" reflect dogma, and most "catch phrases" are accepted and repeated without scrutiny, but there's a difference between embodying a dogma into a "catch phrase" and reflecting a universally accepted, demonstrable truth with a "catch phrase" -- or, rather, an aphorism, because "catch phrase" implies a hook, and I am not trying to "hook" anybody to the truth. I merely state it as I see it and offer my responses to objections to my position (and frequently change my position as a result of thinking upon those objections).
 

I cannot answer this, because the point is that you are making the claim that a god exists, I am merely the listener. I can provide specific objections to your specific claims, but that's as far as I can go.
 

Because you're the one who brought it up in the first place. Until you came along and started talking about gods, I was simply minding our own business.
 

I am not making a statement. I am merely examining the claim that you offered to me. Since you have (thus far) failed to make a case for yourself, my only proper response -- my only truthful response -- is to refrain from assenting to your claim.

You have it backwards: Since you are the one making the existential claim (a claim that a thing exists), then you are the only one who can offer anything resembling proof. I cannot offer anything of the sort, because it is impossible to disprove an existential claim. I may be able to show flaws in the claim, or I may be able to show why the claim is insufficient to warrant assent, but I cannot disprove it.

My hands are tied in this matter. The only hope I have against any and all hucksters who wish to claim that this or that anything exists is the Burden of Proof, which rests squarely upon the one making the claim. Otherwise, without the Burden of Proof, I would have to believe whatever you claimed simply because you claimed it. Were it not for the fact that a claim must be falsifiable at least in concept before we rightly even begin to discuss it, then the more unprovable the claim, the more truthful it becomes.

If we had no burden of proof, if we had no requirement that a claim be falsifiable in concept, then a belief would become more reasonable as it became less vulnerable to falsification. If a belief could not be proven false under any circumstances, then it would be the same as saying that the belief has been proven true.

So, I could tell you that I have an invisible green leprechaun living under my Chicago Cubs cap, and you'd have to believe me because there's no way for you to disprove my claim because my claim is not falsifiable. I am fully prepared to explain away any objection you may have to my claim. And because you don't recognize the Burden of Proof as being one of the most clear and incontestable of philosophical procedures, I could get away with accusing you of intellectual dishonesty for refusing to assent to my claim that there is an invisible green leprechaun living under my Chicago Cubs cap.

Fortunately, the Burden of Proof is available to prevent this from happening to you. I'm sorry that you fell for the ruse that just because you could not disprove the existence of a god that therefore the god must necessarily exist. Things like that happen sometimes, even to the best of people.
 

You are correct in observing that I don't like untrue or unfactual statements.

But you are incorrect in assuming that I have made the statement you here represent me as having made.

If you will read the letter that I so carefully prepared for you last week, you will see this to be the case. I have not stated that there are no gods: I have simply failed to assent to your claim that gods exist. There is a difference -- a big difference.

This is the one thing about atheism that more people get backwards than any other aspect of atheism -- and I can understand why they'd want to slander us like this. To portray us as people who "factually say there is no god" is to call us both stupid and intellectually dishonest. The Roman Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain realized this, and made sure that this definition for the word atheism was popularized to the point of making it into the dictionaries.

Maritain is not the only one, neither was he the first, but he was the most influential of pre-modern Roman Catholic philosophers to misrepresent atheism in this way. Maritain also argued that even though someone may assent to the existence of the Roman Catholic godhead, if that person does not obey the Roman Catholic godhead, she or he is rightly called "an atheist" regardless of that person's ideas about the existence of gods. So, any evil Roman Catholic is not a Roman Catholic at all, but is actually an atheist. You see the slander that we endure? Atheism is a catch-all of evil in the Roman Catholic mindset, and Protestantism has latched on to Roman Catholic thinking almost verbatim -- except for the Mary part and the Pope part. But Roman Catholicism's slander of atheists has shown itself to be an effective tool at discrediting us and thereby silencing us. So Protestantism saw the advantage that could be had by imitating the behavior of Roman Catholicism, and we atheists suffer doubly as a result.
 

Where did you get that?

I spent several hours carefully explaining to you what happened, and how this complex series of events led me to reject the Christian god claim. Did you not even bother to read what I wrote? or are you simply translating what you are reading into something that you can understand, rather than taking my report at face value?

(No wonder it doesn't add up!)

As for the notion that I want others to believe this or that, let's go over it one more time -- real slowly, so you won't miss the point this time:

"I do not care what others believe."
     -- Cliff Walker, numerous places throughout his writings

Got that?

"What you or anybody else believes doesn't mean shit to me."
     -- Cliff Walker, numerous verbal encounters

Let me put it this way, because you asked for it by not paying attention the first time:

"The entire population of the planet (except me) could suddenly start worshipping a giant plastic replica of an erect penis that spurts whipped cream out the end in a pulsating rhythm, and I would remain unaffected -- except that I might find a good chuckle behind the concept."
     -- Cliff Walker, March 21, 2001

This was the very first point I made to you in my first response to you. This is, actually, the main gist of what I had to "get out of the way" before I would be willing to continue discussing with you -- and I don't treat anybody any differently from this. In order to discuss philosophy with me, a person must following these simple rules that I have set down for myself:

  • You must understand and accept that I don't care what other people believe.
  • You must understand and accept that I simply have not encountered a compelling reason to assent to the claims that gods exist.
  • You must understand and accept that I do not assert that no gods exist.
  • You must refrain from misrepresenting me as thinking any other way than I have described here.

Anybody who is not willing to understand and accept these things about me and to refrain from reporting otherwise about me -- especially to my face, and especially after I have told them thus -- is not welcome to hold a philosophical discussion with me. I have some wonderful discussions with a wide variety of people. I have lots of fun even with those who disagree with me (and I challenge you to find anybody who agrees with me on very much). But I will not respond to the claim that I believe thus and so after I have already taken the time to carefully explain in very simple language that I don't believe thus and so.

I don't care what you think about me, but these are my rules. If you wish to rephrase the remainder of your letter in this light, I'll be more than happy to take it on. However, to let me have it for having said something -- when I didn't even say it -- is below-the-belt philosophy.

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

Graphic Rule
Added: March 27, 2001

Graphic Rule
Added: March 27, 2001

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "D. G"
Subject: Re: Dear Cliff-Round 3
Date: Friday, March 23, 2001 8:16 PM
 

Nobody ever accused atheists, as a group, of being inconsistent, that's for sure.
 

Clarity is crucial to discovering whether somebody is trying to pull your leg, or whether certain people even know what they're talking about when trying to convince you of this or that claim.
 

There's something to be said for making an effort to be unambiguous when discussing philosophy or when making claims. Unfortunately, many religious claims are based in ambiguity, so it becomes difficult if not impossible to state such claims with clarity. Other religious claims are based in faulty logic, and therefore it is in the theist's best interest to muddy the waters of the discussion. Atheists of the philosophical variety realize this fact, and will usually try to bring these ambiguities to the fore during a discussion with a theist who is claiming the existence of either an allegedly ineffable god or a god whose stated characteristics appear, by any stretch, to be mutually exclusive.

With the claim for the existence of an ineffable god, the theist usually crawls back into the corner of, "How can we mortals (or sinners) know the ways of God?"

The atheist replies, "How can we be convinced that you even know what you're talking about?" or "How can I even understand what I'm being asked to believe and assent to, seeing as how you even admit that you don't understand what you're saying?" or, in essence, "Why should I assent to what you tell me?"

With the claim for the existence of The God Of Mutually Exclusive Characteristics (the classic example is the god alleged to be both loving and all-powerful; less known is the problem with the god who is supposedly both all-knowing and all-powerful), theists tend to resort to the ineffability described above.

How they can state anything about a subject that admittedly defies comprehension, however, escapes the atheist every time.

You are very fortunate because your philosophical opponents are atheists: we tend only to misunderstand ambiguous statements, as it is never in our best interest to deliberately misconstrue a clearly worded statement. We atheists have a serious problem, though, in that our opponents are usually fundamentalist Christians who have a religion to sell and, seemingly, a quota to meet. Many such people display a nasty tendency to take completely unambiguous statements and deliberately twist them to suit their needs. Nobody can properly or truthfully take such a statement any way other than how the speaker or writer intended, but they somehow manage to do just that. You don't have to read very far in our Forum to find Christians doing this with statements I've made -- statements which can be shown to have been carefully crafted with the specific end in mind of avoiding ambiguity.

True, for every time this happens, I will make a clear and unambiguous statement and my opponent will simply drop the subject and move to something else: I am not calling all fundamentalist Christians liars who come here pitching their religion, because many of them fall short of doing this.

But a very clear and unambiguous statement -- a statement that can, in concept, be falsified -- is a very formidable weapon against claims that are steeped in ambiguity, and claims for which a person must resort to such tactics as suggesting that we humans are incapable of knowing things about this realm (ineffability) and the like.

In my case, as an atheist, if you cannot state your claim for the existence of a god in clear and unambiguous terms, then I am under absolutely no obligation to assent to your claim. I am not denying your claim -- I am not calling it false (such claims are often unfalsifiable) -- I am merely refusing to agree with you that your claim is truthful. I do not live in a black-and-white world where something that cannot be shown to be the truth is de facto a falsehood, or something that cannot be shown to be falsehood must therefore be true.

According to my current understanding, to fall short of assenting to a claim is not to call it falsehood or even to suspend judgement. To me, not assenting to a claim is itself a separate category of possible responses to a claim, along side suspending judgement and pronouncing it to be falsehood, and actually encompassing both.

If I were to draw a large circle and call that falling short of assenting to a claim, two smaller circles would fit within that circle: one would be suspending judgement (and thus failing to assent); the other would be calling it falsehood (and of course not assenting to the claim). Also within this big circle would be area that represents simply not buying the story. I can refuse to assent to a claim without showing it to be falsehood and without shrugging my shoulders and saying, "Well, I don't know either way." In this case, your claim simply does not have what it takes to earn my assent, that's as far as I go with it. A third circle within the big one would represent those who have not heard the claim, and a fourth would represent those who lack the abstract reasoning abilities to even comprehend a god claim. In the context of god claims -- actually, in response to god claims (because, after all, it is the theist who is doing all the talking) -- the big circle is called atheism.

In short, a claim needs to be clear and worthy of my assent or it does not earn my assent. What the claim actually is (false, ambiguous, etc.), is of little concern to me: the argument is not convincing enough to warrant my assent -- I've sent it back to the drawing board, if you will -- and I have now gone on to grapple with other concepts and to consider other claims.

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

Graphic Rule
Added: March 27, 2001

Graphic Rule
Added: March 27, 2001

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "D. G"
Subject: Re: Dear Cliff (again)
Date: Tuesday, March 27, 2001 2:22 AM

The main clue is whether or not the claims for the existence of the god make sense or hold water. This can be seen as reflecting on the one making the claim, but I have come to the conclusion that it reflects on the subject of the claim: the gods that do not exist.

The behavior of individual followers of various religions reflect only on the claim that such religions are effective toward making people moral.

Those atheists who carry this further, who take the behavior of individual religionists as evidence that gods do not exist, carry it further than is justified, in my opinion. For example, one could claim that since all Satanists tend to be self-indulgent and artistic, and since that is the expressed will of the Satan figure in Satanism, then the Satan figure must therefore exist or otherwise be valid. (The Satan figure is admittedly symbolic, by the way; few if any modern Satanists believe that a personal Satan exists.) Ditto for Janism and many other religions which have managed to inspire the adherents to follow the expressed will of the religion's figurehead (although Janism, too, is atheistic).

To say that a god doesn't exist because we don't like the behavior of the religion's adherents is to set ourselves up to having to admit that a god does exist when we do find adherents who follow the dictates of the religion to our liking. However, this does not eliminate all other possible explanations for the moral behavior of the adherents, and thus is an invalid method for determining the existence of the god. It's usefulness is limited to assessing the claim that such-and-so religion is effective at making people moral.

To me, the question of the existence of gods lies entirely and exclusively in the claims of those who assert that gods exist.
 

The NIV is famous for "fixing" broken scriptures. Passages that have grievous errors in them (by any stretch) have been "covered up" by the NIV translation. Their use of "immediately" shows only that they were unaware of the problems with the fig tree passages, otherwise, we could expect them to have tried to "fix" it in accordance with the translating team's presupposition that the original drafts were infallible.

I discovered this doing a study of mathematical errors in the Hebrew Scriptures, and noticed that the NIV "fixed" almost all the well-known mathematical problems and seldom noted a valid reason for changing the reading from what the extant manuscripts say to the way they have rendered it. Although I have never checked out "The Book," I suspect it to have done the same thing, only more thoroughly -- seeing as how Pat Robertson provided much of the funding for this project. Soon, these "fixed" versions will be the only ones around, or the only ones with any credibility within Evangelical circles, and then those of us who know better will look like fools or liars for showing problems with the extant manuscripts.
 

Regarding the fig tree passage, the big problem is that it was not fig season. It doesn't matter what the so-called experts say about whether this species can be expected to have palatable fruit by late March or early April, the passage in Mark explains that the reason there was no fruit on the tree was because it was not fig season. So, according to Mark, one could not expect a tree to have fruit by them.

Also, no retranslation or rendering by the NIV committee of Bible fundamentalists can rescue that passage from the fact that one Gospel says that they marveled right then and there, and the other Gospel says that they marveled the next day. One cannot expect Simon Peter and the others to marvel that it had withered on Tuesday, and then to act surprised again on Wednesday that it had withered.

No. There are some serious problems with this passage. I suspect that the story of the Triumphal Entry, the cleansing of the Temple, and the cursing of the fig tree originally took place at the Feast of Tabernacles (when one can expect a tree to be dropping its fruit), and that the original editors telescoped this into Passion Week, placing Jesus in jail for less than a week rather than for half a year. Then, later, it was noticed that no figs are on any trees during Passover, so a later editor added the parenthetical explanation that it wasn't fig season -- although an attempt to cover up a forgery seldom accomplishes anything but to cause more problems, as has happened here: leaving it alone would have given Christian apologists more ammunition than did changing it.

Hebrew scholar Hyam Maccoby noted this problem in passing, and I simply took it and ran with it as a problem that over the sixteen years that I've known about it, nobody -- nobody -- has come close to solving for me.

The only reason I even bring it up is because the very notion of infallibility crumbles upon discovery of a single error. It is not Christianity that I disdain as much as fundamentalism -- and that goes for fundamentalist anything.

The only way to recover this passage, I suspect, would be to remove the parenthetical "it was not fig season" part and then restore to the time of the Feast of Tabernacles the following sequence: the Triumphal Entry; the cleansing of the Temple; the cursing of the fig tree; the Last Supper (which, by the way, does not at all resemble a Passover Seder but does remarkably resemble the Feast of Booths); the garden prayer; and the arrest. This would have Jesus languishing in jail for half a year until the spring Festival, when it was common to grab a condemned prisoner or a "beardless yokel," mockingly crown him king for a day as the star of a big feast of debauchery, and then run him out of town or execute him to appease the gods in hopes of fruitful crops for the year. This practice of executing a mock king remained long after the practice of executing the real king for the same purpose became passé.
 

This falls apart for two reasons:

1. Suppose a figure in a story is alleged to have symbolically cursed a American Eagle out of the sky as an editorial statement about the condition of America. And let's say that that story is alleged to have taken place no earlier than, say, the year 2112. Now, let's say our future historians studying this story come across indisputable proof that by the year 2078, the American Eagle had become extinct. In fact, let's say that elsewhere in the same story thextinction of the American Eagle is mentioned as having occurred almost half-a-century earlier! This scenario would not be any more problematic than our story of Jesus expecting to find edible figs on a tree during the off-season.

2. The metaphor would show Jesus (symbolizing God) to be most unfair: here he curses "the Fig Tree" (Israel) for "not bearing fruit" (remaining sinful? not believing?) during a time or situation when they were admittedly not expected to "bear fruit" (come to righteousness? believe?). This would be morally indistinguishable from whipping a legless man for not walking fast enough.
 

It cannot possibly be this tedious just to believe in God; this is why neither Gnosticism nor the occult ever gained credibility with me. The very nature of the Christian god, "suffer the children to come unto me," and "when your children ask you why you perform this service, you shall tell them," refutes the notion that believers must have accurate doctrine in order to consider themselves faithful.

But just where do you draw the line as to what doctrine is okay to deviate from and what tenets of belief identify you as one of the faithful upon confession of those tenets? Do you have to actually understand the doctrine of the Trinity in order to honestly say that you believe it? or is it acceptable simply to parrot the Trinitarian formula and then assert that that's what you believe?

This is where the entire system of monotheism crumbles, as monotheism tends to insist upon exclusive claim to truth. And since that "truth" necessarily comes via a pronouncement from God, the pronouncement therefore must be infallible. But since we are fallible, there's no way that we can keep a story entirely straight, so any story that we create and later call "infallible" will have problems. Those problems are easily solved by referring or conceding to the priests and scholars: 'We'll trust their judgement." Or, the mysteries are relegated to the future: "Now we see through a glass darkly, but then we will see face-to-face."

Besides, the mathematical problems I mentioned earlier are in the extant manuscripts: the NIV and other translations are covering up serious problems that exist in the original languages. Also, the extant manuscripts are not the original drafts, so we could never know what those original drafts said, even if we could show the original drafts to be infallible (which we cannot do because we don't even have the originals in order to show them to be infallible).
 

You have this time caught me at a moment when I am physically exhausted, but to lie down only aggravates my condition, so I must keep vertical and keep moving. So, I will tell you that story to the best of my ability, because I think it's important for me to put this one down in writing. I have mentioned it briefly a few times, but here's about as much as I'll probably ever be willing to say about it:

Paul's role in the New Testament is conspicuous as an intruder, of sorts, one who is off on his own, claiming that he learned from no man but that he received his information through dreams and visions (thus nullifying the notions of witnesses and testimony and independent verification and public demonstrations of God's revelation that are so crucial to the Hebrew understanding of how religion works), and insisting that his version of the Gospel is the final word -- even in the face of testimony from the apostles, and even in the face of a revelation from the angels themselves.

Paul clearly has a disputation with Cephas in Galatians, easily the earliest of New Testament writings, and this dispute is barely recognizable by the time it was described in Acts, which was written perhaps forty years later (to the point where many commentators insist on two separate disputations -- though none cannot pinpoint the Galatians incident within the timeline of Acts).

Also, much of what we believed as Christians, particularly the doctrine of the Atonement, was found mostly in Paul's writings, and conspicuously absent from writings such as the Gospel of Luke.

So, it would seem that Paul could use some independent verification, considering that Acts is either allegedly or admittedly written by one of Paul's followers (depending upon which commentary you read).

But there is nothing to fear, because Paul gets this independent verification in II Peter 3:15-6 -- even more than just validation from Peter, because the author equates Paul's writings with "Scripture":

[15] And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you;
[16] As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.

For years, whenever the question arose as to how we can know that the New Testament even considers itself to be Scripture, I would point to this passage, and say to my self that Peter equates Paul's letters with "the other Scriptures." So, I rested on this independent verification of Paul's legitimacy to suppress what was a clear problem for me early on: Paul's credibility.

When Paul's credibility eventually unraveled (after I could not find anybody with a credible argument for thinking that II Peter was not a forgery), I was unable to rescue my faith because the whole picture of my accumulated but temporarily suppressed doubts fell into place for me. In short, I suddenly realized that I'd been had, that Christianity was one of the most cruel and monumental hoaxes ever perpetrated upon any human.

One big problem that kept recurring for me was that many of the sayings which Paul insisted were supposed to make sense just flat-out did not make sense to me -- or to anyone else I knew. And I would have simply relegated these passages to the realm of "mystery," except that Paul repeatedly insisted that we ought to be able to understand what he was saying. A case in point is Romans 7:1-6:

[1] Know ye not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth?
[2] For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband.
[3] So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man.
[4] Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God.
[5] For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.
[6] But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.

Two studious Pastors, at different times, came to me and admitted that they were baffled by this passage (one of whom was close to retirement). The main gist was clear enough, and most Bible students satisfy themselves with grasping the main gist, but nobody I knew could follow the sequence of logic in this passage. We even speculated as to the possibility of scribal errors, but none of the scholars placed this section under suspicion. But we all thought we knew enough about the Law that we ought to be able to identify each of the points made here -- but instead, we were at a loss to identify any of these points in the Hebrew Scriptures, or in reference to what we knew about the Plan of Redemption

I had read the entire six-volume work on Romans 3:20-8:39 by D. M. Lloyd-Jones, in part, to address this and several other questions, but was not impressed with is treatment of this passage, though I was not the only one who was thoroughly in love with Dr. Lloyd-Jones's works. (The older of the two pastors said he'd studied under Dr. Lloyd-Jones; we were considering trying to get copies of the rest of his lecture series on Romans, which, we heard, had covered the entire Epistle: we wanted to see how Dr. Lloyd-Jones had treated the very controversial chapters 9-11. I understand six other volumes have been published, now covering the entire Epistle, although I am no longer interested in discovering the good doctor's views.)

Rabbinical scholar and historian Hyam Maccoby, however, gives a startlingly clear treatment of this extremely baffling passage, Romans 7:1-6, and in a few paragraphs answers every question I had ever had about this section:

Some passages in Paul's Epistles have been thought to be typically Pharisaic simply because their argument has a legalistic air. When these passages are critically examined, however, the superficiality of the legal colouring soon appears, and it is apparent that the use of illustrations from law is merely a vague, rhetorical device, without any real legal precision, such as is found in the Pharisaic writings even when the legal style is used for homiletic biblical exegesis. An example from Romans is the following:

    You cannot be unaware, my friends -- I am speaking to those who have some knowledge of law -- that a person is subject to the law so long as he is alive, and no longer. For example, a married woman is by law bound to her husband while he lives; but if her husband dies, she is discharged from the obligations of the marriage-law. If, therefore, in her husband's lifetime she consorts with another man, she will incur the charge of adultery; but if her husband dies she is free of the law, and she does not commit adultery by consorting with another man. So you, my friends, have died to the law by becoming identified with the body of Christ, and accordingly you have found another husband in him who rose from the dead, so that we may bear fruit for God. While we lived on the level of our lower nature, the sinful passions evoked by the law worked in our bodies, to bear fruit for death. But now, having died to that which held us bound, we are discharged from the law, to serve God in a new way, the way of the spirit, in contrast to the old way, the way of a written code. (Romans 7: 1-6) [New Jerusalem version]

The above passage is remarkably muddle-headed. Paul is trying to compare the abrogation of the Torah and the advent of the new covenant of Christianity with a second marriage contracted by a widow. But he is unable to keep clear in his mind who it is that corresponds to the wife and who to the husband -- or even who is supposed to have died, the husband or the wife. It seems that the correspondence intended is the following: the wife is the Church; the former husband is the Torah, and the new husband is Christ. Paul tells us that a wife is released by the death of her husband to marry a new husband; this should read, therefore, in the comparison, that the Church was freed, by the death of the Torah, to marry Christ. Instead, it is the wife-Church that dies ('you, my friends, have died to the law by becoming identified with the body of Christ') and there is even some play with the idea that the new husband, Christ, has died. The only term in the comparison that is not mentioned as having died is the Torah; yet this is the only thing that would make the comparison valid.

On the other hand, there is also present in the passage an entirely different idea: that a person becomes free of legal obligations after his or her own death. This indeed seems to be the theme first announced: 'that a person is subject to the law so long as he is alive, and no longer.' The theme of the widow being free to marry after the death of her first husband is quite incompatible with this; yet Paul confuses the two themes throughout -- so much so that at one point he even seems to be talking about a widow and a husband who are free to marry each other and have acceptable children because both widow and new husband are dead. Confusion cannot be worse confounded than this.

Thus what we have here is a case of someone trying to construct a legal analogy and failing miserably because of his inability to think in the logical manner one expects of a legal expert. The passage thus does not prove that Paul had Pharisee training -- just the contrary. What we can say, however, is that Paul is here trying to sound like a trained Pharisee. He announces in a somewhat portentous way that what he is going to say will be understood only by those who 'have some knowledge of law', and he is clearly intending to display legal expertise. It is only natural that Paul, having claimed so often to have been trained as a Pharisee, should occasionally attempt to play the part, especially when speaking or writing for people who would not be able to detect any shortcomings in his performance. In the event, he has produced a ludicrous travesty of Pharisee thinking. In the whole of Pharisee literature, there is nothing to parallel such an exhibition of lame reasoning.

What Paul is saying, in a general way, is that death dissolves legal ties. Therefore, the death of Jesus and the symbolic death of members of the Church by identifying themselves with Jesus' sacrifice all contribute to a loosening of ties with the old covenant. This general theme is clear enough; it is only when Paul tries to work out a kind of legal conceit or parable, based on the law of marriage and remarriage, that he ties himself in knots. Thus he loses cogency just where a Pharisee training, if he had ever had one, would have asserted itself; once more, he is shown to have the rhetorical style of the Hellenistic preachers of popular Stoicism, not the terse logic of the rabbis.
     -- from chapter 7, "Alleged Rabbinical Style in Paul's Epistles" of The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (1986) pp. 68-70

Only five or six years later did I read Maccoby's book on Paul, which verified for me in a revolutionary way what I had initially seen when Paul's credibility unraveled: Paul was an opportunist who had a hard-on for the Jews; Paul wasn't really a Pharisee as he is said to have claimed (but never overtly claimed in any of the four undisputed Epistles) and was inept at even reciting Hebrew Scripture (as was Matthew); Paul told the Jerusalem believers one thing, but told the Gentile world something completely different (and without easy travel or communication, neither group could verify what the other had been told by Paul); all the writings subsequent to Galatians, I & II Corinthians, and Romans (the four undisputed Epistles) were either written by Paul's followers (they all being widely considered forgeries), or they were later edited by churches that had been founded by Paul; all of the New Testament writings except Paul's undisputed Epistles and perhaps James were written after Jerusalem had been leveled by Titus and his armies -- after there was nobody left to dispute Paul's version of the story. Remember, all this came to me before I read Maccoby's book, and Maccoby only provided independent corroboration of my Paul-wasn't-a-Pharisee suspicion plus the Ebionite angle, which was new to me.

So, it all falls on the credibility of Paul, since it is from Paul that we get our clearest and certainly our earliest elucidation of the doctrine of the Atonement -- the bottom line in Evangelical biblical Christianity. The three Gospel accounts that even mention the Atonement (Luke omits mention of it entirely) appear to have been written in light of Paul's teachings, not in anticipation of them. In the other books, the importance of the Atonement is marginal at best (except, perhaps, the very late Gospel of John), but in Paul's works, it is always front-and-center.

In any event, if Paul was not singing the same tune as the Jerusalem Christians (and I think he was not), then we really know nothing about the man they called Christ.

Another problem that I had was that the earliest sect to even grasp the concept of the Atonement was patently heretical by today's standards. But that's another study.

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

Graphic Rule
Added: June 15, 2001

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "D. G"
Subject: Re: last dance (for awhile anyway)
Date: Wednesday, March 28, 2001 8:18 AM

If you will compare our dialogue with any number of the others, you will see that I do enjoy a dignified sparring match where what we discuss are ideas and nothing more. I try to stay no more personal than to call someone a liar, and only if I am sure that they are speaking about something that they do not know -- such as what's going on in the privacy of my own mind. But I get called "fool" and get my personality profile assessed several times per day.

Mull over what I've said, and if you see something that doesn't sit right, give me a holler.

Hopefully (if nothing else) I've been able to show you that atheism is about sitting here and listening to claims, but none of the claims we've thus far heard hold water (otherwise we would no longer be atheists, but would have converted to theism). It is not the atheist's responsibility to try to disprove the theist's claim, because it is the theist who is making the claim. The atheist's only responsibility is to assess the theist's claim to see if it justifies giving our assent to it.

If I can popularize this understanding of atheism -- which is the traditional understanding of atheism -- just a little, I will have done well. More and more, I think this is the main reason for the stigma and the bigotry that we atheists endure: our position is so widely misunderstood and misrepresented that this misunderstanding has been institutionalized even in the dictionaries (except Encarta and a few others).

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

Graphic Rule

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.