The Vice Of Religion
Is Firmly Behind Me
Jeremy Franke

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine"
To: "Jeremy Franke"
Subject: Re: WebMaster:_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: Wednesday, February 21, 2001 5:03 PM
 

Religious People Are Concerned, Too

Even religious people are very concerned with this religious revival sweeping across America -- even Christians! This is not true Christianity, many tell me, and it certainly is not American for them to inflict their views on us through their offices of public trust. At least one European relates fears in Europe that this will set a very bad example for the leaders of smaller nations, because America has always been the symbol of state-church separation (except for British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, of course!).

As for where to go and what to do, go where you've been going and do what you've been doing -- even to church if you think that might help your situation with Mom. Even though the religion itself bothers us, we keenly understand what it's like to be that way. Most of all, we know precisely why we choose not to be that way. I once heard an evangelist say that on becoming a Christian you don't automatically start sucking lemons (even though that's what some appear to be doing). In the same sense, we don't need to start a crusade to try to deconvert everybody and set them straight.
 

Combating the Stigma

As atheists, our biggest problem from the outside is, of course, that atheists are a widely and viciously despised minority. Many of us feel more comfortable just remaining silent unless asked, and some even feel the need to continue to pretend. Many of us have made a game of it just watching people's reactions when we wear Freethought slogan on our lapel or bumper, and trying to think of polite but effective responses to various religious urgings that we all endure -- from the inevitable result of sneezing to open urgings to repent.

Our letters and responses are a good source of ammo for all this, but please do not assume that just because it's here (or even just because it's our editorial response) that such a line of reasoning is right for you. This is all a big experiment, and some of this stuff ended up not even being right for me! So we read through the letters and the "De-Conversion Stories" and try what we think might work and avoid what we feel uncomfortable with. The "De-Conversion Stories" are here to display ourselves to one another as food for learning -- but not necessarily as an example to be emulated. There are no step-by-step textbooks, how-to videos, or No-Step support groups on how to come down from religion. So, we've all had to stumble through this experience alone and wing it the best we can. Each of us has written the book anew. A few of us have related our stories, and even fewer describe methods and attitudes that many of us consider healthy.
 

Assuming That Their Reasons Are Valid

My biggest current recommendation is that we deliberately take the position (even if it seems contrived) that all theists have (or think they have) valid reasons for believing how they believe. Regardless of whether we actually think this way, I think it is very helpful to treat people as if this were the way we feel. Confronting our own tendencies toward bigotry is, to me, the first step toward dealing with bigotry on a larger scale, whereas if we congregate into our own little world and foster our own little us-vs.-them mentality, we will not get very far with those theists who are themselves consciously addressing their own tendencies toward bigotry. Rather, we are likely to scratch that fragile surface and could make it difficult if not impossible even for sensitive people to cross over from tolerance to acceptance and respect. We all have so many great and noble things in common that it seems monumentally stupid (to me) to get into an argument over whether gods exist.
 

A Small Part: The Nature of Atheism

Another thing I've found quite helpful is explaining the nature of atheism to those who ask or those who make slanderous remarks about atheism (either deliberately or unwittingly). Contrary to the Roman Catholic message, an atheist does not necessarily assert that no gods exist; rather, an atheist, at minimum, simply lacks a god belief. While many atheists do assert that no gods exist, most atheists simply and silently lack a god belief and most of them seldom if ever think upon the subject. Many are even taken aback when they're called an atheist the nature of atheism is described to them -- then they usually say, "Okay, I guess I'm an atheist, then." Journalist Wendy Kaminer puts it succinctly and very poetically:

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I don't spend much time thinking about whether God exists. I don't consider that a relevant question. It's unanswerable and irrelevant to my life, so I put it in the category of things I can't worry about.
     -- quoted from Natalie Angier, The Bush Years: Confessions of a Lonely Atheist, New York Times Magazine (January 14, 2001)

 

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While this may not be true for all of us, it is, I think, a healthy goal toward which to cultivate our attitudes. I do not currently spend much time thinking about whether gods exist, but I have thought long and hard on this question in the past. My current position is that I have yet to encounter a valid reason for thinking that gods and the supernatural do exist. To say, like Kaminer, that the question unanswerable is to say that we can never know (atheistic agnosticism, in that it lacks a god belief). I prefer to stick to considering specific claims and assessing whether they're compelling enough to warrant my assent; if not, I remain an atheist. And this, to me, is the true definition of an atheist: I have heard no god claims that I find convincing, so the default human position -- atheism, the lack of a conversion to theism -- remains my position: I have yet to cross that line to become a theist.
 

The Bottom Line: The Burden of Proof

The bottom line, really, is that it's the theist who makes a god claim. An atheist (usually) is not asserting that gods don't exist. Atheism is the default position, and theism is an added attraction that comes later for some people. A logical rule called the Burden of Proof comes to play, here: Since the theist is claiming the existence of something, it is the theist who must present a compelling reason to go along with that belief; if no such reasons come forth, we remain atheists, having yet to encounter a valid reason for adding theism to our system of outlook. Because the Burden of Proof requires that the one making an existential claim (a claim that a thing exists) produce a compelling reason to believe that claim is true (rather, worthy of assent); the listener cannot disprove an existential claim and is not obligated to try. The burden rests squarely upon the shoulders of the one making the existential claim.

While it may seem to the theist that we're taking a position of convenience in that we don't even have to present an argument, this is not the case: we cannot bring forth a valid argument because you cannot prove, empirically, a negative existential claim (a claim that a thing does not exist). We can merely attack the validity of this or that claim for the existence of something. We are, in a sense, at a disadvantage, and would be at a complete disadvantage were the Burden of Proof. If Bertrand Russell were to claim that a china teapot orbits the sun in an elliptical orbit between Earth and Mars, nobody could disprove his assertion, especially if he added that the teapot is too small to show up even in a telescope. But, as Russell notes,

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If I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.
     -- "Is There A God?" (1952)

 

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We all can agree on this one. And if this were all they did, we atheists wouldn't be having this problem. Russell continues:

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If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time. It is customary to suppose that, if a belief is widespread, there must be something reasonable about it.
     -- ibid.

 

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This is similar to another statement made by Wendy Kaminer:

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What makes fantastic declarations believable is, in part, the vehemence with which they're proffered. -- "The Latest Fashion in Irrationality,"
     The Atlantic Monthly (July, 1996)

 

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But, George H. Smith points out in his new book Why Atheism? that if the tables were turned and if the one denying the existence of (say) Russell's orbiting china teapot were required to prove Russell wrong or else we would have to believe him to be right, you can see how this would overturn much of what we know and most aspects of how we conduct our daily affairs. Smith suggests in his earlier book, Atheism: The Case Against God, none of us know any adult "Santa agnostics": not even the most die-hard theists will admit that they still suspend judgement on the existence of Santa Claus simply because we cannot empirically disprove the claim that he does exist. But for some reason, they all seem to want us to abandon our rejection of their god claims on the basis of our not being able to disprove them empirically.

They often taunt, "Have you scoured the entire universe?"

I don't have to. I will examine your claim, and if there's enough there to warrant my assent, then you have a convert. If not, I remain an atheist. The Burden of proof makes the existential claim a one-way street: the person claiming must prove the claim; the listener not only doesn't have to disprove the claim in order to reject it, but cannot empirically disprove any existential claim.

You may not be able to make this point with an antagonistic evangelist bent on your conversion and unwilling even to entertain any notion but his own carefully memorized line of unreasoning, but pointing this out to a disinterested observer or liberal theist (who has not considered the atheistic position) will go far in helping you to neutralize the culture-wide tendency to see atheism as a dogmatic position rather than a default position upon which (in many) theism is later built. That atheism is popularly seen as a hard-line position asserting that no gods exist, rather than the "show me" that it is probably accounts for most of the natural opposition we bear; we cannot do anything about the Scriptures and commandments which denounce and discredit us and, in some cases, order that we be put to death and the thumbs be cut off our corpses.
 

Further Study and Practice

As for books on the nature and basic arguments of the atheistic position, this depends on your level of education and how much reading you like to do. A teenager can get by with Krueger's What Is Atheism? but I found it to be remedial to the point of omitting mention that some of these arguments can be carried only so far: Kruegers's book containes many bold assertions and premature conclusions that are better seen as degrees of strength. If the reader is aware that Krueger is giving just the gist of some of the positions and is generalizing, this book serves well as a handbook of the atheistic positions and a good overview of what atheists do and do not believe, and why this position is on solid ground. The other end is Michael Martin's Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. This one definitely goes into more detail and covers more ground than you'd probably want in your first book, and you best be prepared to already know some of the "shorthand thinking" (language heard only within a specialty) that advanced students of the history of philosophy take for granted. However, if you're interested in studying the history of your heritage as an atheist, this book is an eventual must.

Two books that I do highly recommend are Atheism: The Case Against God and Why Atheism? by George H. Smith. The former is a point-by-point definition for and defense of the atheistic positon, while the latter covers several threads of the history of skeptical tendencies in Western thinking, most of which led to modern atheism. Both are very readable and are on solid ground. When an Evangelical Christian author is commissioned by a Christian magazine to write one of those "Atheism Refuted" pieces, they invariably attack books other than Smith's.

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

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