Does It Follow From Atheism?
Dear Cliff Walker:
First, congrats on a monumental job of putting together an atheist site. Now, a query: I read and read your introduction to Positive Atheism, and gathered that you, like Gora, conclude that truthfulness is the highest ethic, and what's more that it is somehow a necessity in social relations.
I do not see that this follows logically from the premise of atheism. Don't get me wrong; I am both an atheist and a respecter of truth-seeking and truth-telling. It's just that in trying to construct a logical framework for the social implications of atheism (or humanism), it seems to me that you and many other writers resort to ad hoc premises.
Let it be granted that we are on our own to determine our fate. Why should it then follow that social justice and personal integrity are the goals of that determination? Why not hedonism, where individual pleasure is maximized through devious and or aggressive means? You might answer that if everyone pursued those ends, everyone would suffer. But as you point out, most people are theists and are therefore presumably constrained by their ideology from pursuing hedonism. Wouldn't that make it all the more an attractive strategy for atheists?
I suppose I am asking about the philosophical base of Positive Atheism. What justifies or tends to promote the positive, ethical tendency?
From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <email@example.com>
To: "Clayton Naff"
Subject: Re: reflections
Date: Sunday, February 25, 2001 3:05 AM
I have pondered why I prefer integrity and truthfulness, but I cannot give much of an explanation -- in all honesty. Check out "The Value Of Truthfulness" with Tyler McMillen and you'll see what I'm up against in making this assertion.
Truthfulness follows from atheism only in that if an atheist is going to call theism falsehood, that atheist does well to be truthful, at least philosophically, if not in all affairs. This is the implication of calling theism falsehood, in any event.
Gora's preference for truthfulness is, I think, and in part, derived from this concept, and part of it is a holdover from his attempt to adapt Gandhi's Satyagraha as a secular, or nontheistic outlook. In other words, Gora's "Positive Atheism" (from which our "Positive Atheism" is only loosely derived), is, in part and at minimum, an adaptation of a Satyagraha that is not necessarily derived from or based in any theistic system of ethics. Perhaps he was trying for a truer form of Satyagraha, a Satyagraha without the hypocrisy of loyalty to a creed or, specifically, Gandhi's respect for the Caste system and several other encumbrances that go along with theism. (And I think the latter is more likely to have been Gora's view, though I'd prefer the former.)
However, I see signs of Gora's almost compulsion toward truthfulness and honesty in the early stages of his life (check out the "Haunted House" story in his autobiography, We Become Atheists). Thus, I would bet that Gora himself is as much of a source of Gora's zeal for truthfulness as Gandhi's Satyagraha. Then again, Gora wrote his autobiography in retrospect, years after Gandhi and he had come under one another's influence. Thus, in his memory, Gora could easily have seen his own past through Gandhiji-colored glasses, if you will.
As for hedonism, I know that such an outlook does not increase one's chances for passing on that trait to one's progeny (if, indeed, the tendency is socially "contagious," if not partially genetic). The simple reason for this is that hedonism is a more effective way to die young than is conservative living (all other things being equal, such as health, opportunity, the absence of war, etc.). Neither does hedonism increase the likelihood that individuals or families will raise their young to the age of the procreation. Indeed, the parents' hedonism seems as if it would decrease the offspring's prospects for procreating (again, other things being equal).
And if hedonism is pure self-indulgence (what I assume you mean by hedonism), then pure self-indulgence is a self-regulating system in that a hedonist reaches the point where she or he must (1) work, (2) be productive, and (3) have a reputation for honesty in order to accomplish even small amounts of hedonistic behavior. Life is tough, and humans thrive best in social groups that emphasize cooperation among members. All social groups have tended to spurn an individual who is openly and blatantly hedonistic (unless the hedonist has convinced the others that he or she is a shaman or an artist or some other leadership figure of some sort). Liberal cultures at least require the hedonist be self-supporting; conservative cultures tend to outlaw those behaviors commonly associated with hedonism and look the other way when the hedonist is a benefit to the culture (not to mention self-supporting).
The philosophical base for our philosophy of "Positive Atheism" is outlined in our Mission Statement, "The Philosophy of Positive Atheism." You may first want to read the introduction to the part about discussing regular atheism.
Basically, I see it this way: I am a human. As such, I have certain abilities and certain responsibilities. Two of my responsibilities as a human are to discover my abilities and limitations, and to learn my responsibilities. To do this, we humans spend a larger fraction of our lives being nurtured by our parents than any other species.
So here I am, honing my skills and finding out what I must do to live (at minimum) and to thrive (if I can afford it). Then some hawker or barker comes up to me and announces that he or she (or some other individual, living or dead) has extra skills or abilities that I don't have, that nobody else has. This uniqueness (claims the barker) qualifies the special individual in a very important way, in that I therefore ought to listen to him or her. These people tell me that gods exist (which I cannot detect apart from their mere descriptions), and they make a slick (or not so slick) argument for their case.
Until that point, atheism has not been part of the picture; clearly, theism is an added attraction: it is not a natural aspect of humanity. (This is hard to see because theism is so common in our culture that it seems natural!) So-called negative (or "weak") atheism is the default position, before theism enters the scene, and so-called positive atheism (lowercase, also called "strong" atheism) is the response to the claims of theism, a response that sees those claims as falsehood.
Many (negative, that is, default or "weak") atheists simply demand the same proof that one would normally demand of anybody making an odd claim such as that gods exist. In my case, I tried theistic faith -- several times -- and found the basic premises of theism to border between the absurd and the logically impossible.
I also noted that almost all theists who try to make the case for theism find they must lie in order to justify their position. The exceptions tended to be those whose religion is private and therefore none of my business. Such "passive believers," as I call them, explain their beliefs only when asked. None want to be in the position of having to defend their faith against my probing questions. But the former group of theists, whom I call "evangelistic believers," enter into the public forum with the purpose of convincing the rest of us to go along with them in their theism. They differ from passive believers in this sense: the evangelistic believers try to publicly justify their faith publicly with those who do not agree with them.
It is a lot more complex than that, of course but this is basically how I see atheism's two roles in life: the default (negative; "weak") and the philosophical (positive; "strong"; having been thought through). Were it not for the claims of theism, the word atheism probably wouldn't even be in the dictionary: it would be like trying to find a word that means "a person who does not compulsively pick at the scabs on his body." Only the presence of theism makes atheism an issue, and only the dominance of theism makes atheism controversial.
Positive Atheism (capitalized), as I use it, began (quite honestly) with the need to name my magazine, after I was driven out of the atheist group for whom I used to edit "Critical Thinker." I had recently read most of Gora's works, because I was very impressed that Gora had developed a network of atheistic charities. I found that Gora knew Gandhi, and that they spoke at length about their differences and that they had agreed that their similarities outweighed any differences they had. Both held truthfulness in very high regard, though Gora criticized Gandhi for cloaking his ideas in religious terms and pretending to be religious when, in fact, he was not very religious and could have expressed his ideas using entirely secular language.
This struck me because I have always had a difficult time trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes. I have never been much of a bullshitter. So, I cannot tell you which caused which, I only know that I am an atheist, I am an honest man (almost to a fault), and I do see a direct correlation between atheism and truthfulness in the sense that positive or "strong" atheism calls theism falsehood.
But I have endured many hardships as the result of being openly nonreligious. I've also noticed many intrusions wherein religionists enjoy not only the support of government but also the support of social convention. The government support ranges from "In God We Trust" printed on American coins and currency (since 1964) to my having been jailed for refusing a court order to pay good money to undergo religious instruction at a Twelve Step-oriented "faith-based" treatment facility (mind you, with no drug-or alcohol-related charges -- much less a conviction). The government collusion continues through tax exemption. A sizable chunk of otherwise taxable property is exempt because the people who own it are an organized religion; with this setup, the rest of us must make up for the defecit through higher taxes. Now, we are going to have to pay money to "faith-based partnerships" so that church groups can not only be selective about who works for them, but also have an opportunity to proselytize the vulnerable people who would otherwise obtain necessary services from a neutral government agency. I was reprimanded for remaining silent, lips closed and looking forward, while the rest of the class obediently recited the daily prayer.
The hardships involve stuff like being ostracized in the second grade because I was neither Catholic nor Protestant (the Jews went to their own school). I have met really nice people who suddenly turn cold when they find out that I am an atheist and that I've already considered joining their religion. Now I restrict these discussions to our forum.
On this forum, I get lied about and called every form of evil imaginable -- equated with Hitler and the whole nine yards. I don't blame them, really, because antiatheist bigotry is literally institutionalized into the very fabric of American society. For example, when the INS agents seized Cuban child-refugee Elian Gonzalez, Miami mayor Joe Carollo vilified the agents by saying, "These are atheists. They don't believe in God." The United States Congress awarded the Roman Catholic Pope a medal because of his aid in eliminating "godless totalitarian regimes." Even the Merriam-Webster's dictionary has a slanderous and very biased definition for the word atheism.
Most atheists have become so accustomed to "staying in their place" that they no longer speak out -- many no longer even see that something is wrong. Those that do see something wrong have a tough road ahead, should they decide to stand up and do something about it.
Positive Atheism, the philosophy, as we advocate it, first of all renders null and void any notion that atheists are somehow inherently evil because of their atheism: we advocate that our fellow-atheists practice truthfulness in all our affairs. We say this because to call oneself an atheist (to assert one's atheism, as opposed to being a default, negative or "weak" atheist), is the equivalent of calling theism a form of falsehood. This implies a respect for philosophical truthfulness. Thus, it's only right that we be consistent with the implication behind "strong" atheism and be truthful whenever we can. Gora went so far as to demand the right to insist on truthfulness from others: nobody gets away with lying to someone practicing Positive Atheism -- at least in a philosophical discussion.
Secondly, Positive Atheism stands up and demands equality and dignity.
As for equality, Positive Atheism stands aghast at the government-sponsored religious intrusions into our private lives and our public treasuries. Positive Atheism recoils at the thought of religious rituals in the halls of government and in court -- especially when it is the atheist who is expected to engage in the ritual, to solemnly place one's hand on a phony religious icon and to invoke the name and "honor" of a make-believe deity, as assurance that the atheist will testify to the truth. Positive Atheism is appalled whenever a government representative speaks as if religion is superior to irreligion.
Positive Atheism disdains the favoritism and "special rights" granted only to religious people (through the various Religious Freedom Restoration Acts that have come along over the past decade, and though tax exemption), and the tax exemptions and handouts that only organized religions enjoy. Why does a Native American religious person get to eat peyote without fear of incarceration, but an atheist must serve time in prison and risk confiscation of her property if caught committing the same act?
As for dignity, Positive Atheism does not stand for theists determining for us what atheism is and is not, and then denouncing us as being something which exists exclusively in the theists' imaginations. If a Christian gets to define and describe what it is that makes her a Christian, then it is wrong for an atheist to judge her; likewise, it is wrong for a theist to define atheism and then hold the atheist to those (usually false) standards. Positive Atheism grieves over the fact that the word atheism is still used popularly as a synonym for wickedness (see Merriam-Webster's, again); we are not second-class anything simply because we don't and won't go along with the claims of the popular religions.
Positive Atheism, finally, reserves the right not to treat theism's claims as above criticism because of social convention or some other twisted form of well-learned politesse. H. L. Mencken says that an evangelist "has a right to argue" his views "as eloquently as he can," but "certainly ... has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. He has no right to preach them without challenge.... They are free to shoot back. But they can't disarm their enemy."
The best way to demand dignity, though, is to dish it out wherever appropriate. This is why Positive Atheism suggests that we presuppose that all theists have (or think they have) valid reasons for believing the way they do. Most American theists believe because of the Argument from Design (natural selection as a design force notwithstanding). Okay, I can see why someone would think that way (without having achieved a formal education in the science of biology, etc.). And I am only too keenly aware of the social pressure against being an atheist, so I understand why people would not only say they are theists but can actually convince themselves that this is the way things are (been there; done that). And if religion makes people happy, more power to them; I cannot do this, I am unable to fool myself, but if people can make a happy life for themselves, I'm not going to say anything. I'm certainly not going to try to de-convert them or "educate people on the follies of religion." Just let me be an atheist in peace, that's all I ask; just grant me the dignity of not going along with your claims. That's all.
So this magazine and website is targeted for people who are already atheists, as a resource for learning about our cultural history as atheists and for learning how to cope in a world that is still very hostile toward atheism and atheists.
By participating in the forum, we can tell of our fears and of our victories in learning how to do this thing. There are no "programs" or "ministries" which help someone to cope with the nightmare of change which is the de-conversion experience. We are on our own, here, so we tell our stories and read other people's stories. We see in the other stories the mistakes we've made, and we see in them mistakes that we can avoid. We also can notice in ourselves and each other the vestigial theistic thinking that often remains once we've rejected the theistic model.
My comments come from the unique position of having been raised an atheist, having converted as an adult, and having undergone a terrible five years or more of self-rehabilitation from a very cultic world view. And I have the time, willingness, and some think the ability to do this project (whatever it is, I'm not sure I really know). So here I am.
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
people with no reason to believe
Thank you for your thoughtful response. It took me some time to get through that and the links you included. I'm impressed, but, from my own vantage point, I sense that you have not yet thoroughly grounded your value of truthfulness in much more than personal choice.
If I may, I'd suggest pursuing a Darwinian line of argumentation about why both truth-telling ("there's a snake in those bushes," if it's your mate) and lying ("there's no snake in those bushes," if it's your rival) would have survival value and come down the ages to us. Given such a background, it's up to us to decide, with our cultural machinery, what to do with it. Clearly, in a just society, truth-telling has a positive value. The question is perhaps which comes first.
From: "Positive Atheism" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: "Clayton Naff"
Subject: Re: reflections
Date: Tuesday, February 27, 2001 8:28 PM
Well, my personal choice didn't just come from the sky, though I cannot pinpoint the exact source -- if there be but one source! I didn't just up and decide, one sunny afternoon, that I would be this way. My decision to advocate this ethic as an aspect of a system of atheistic ethics did occur one afternoon (and the sun was indeed shining that day, if memory serves). But my decision to be this way did not happen like that. I will leave open the likelihood that being this way is not entirely a choice, though the decision to nurture this ethic in myself was and is a deliberate choice, and each decision to practice it, each time I'm faced with the option to act otherwise, is a personal choice.
What I'm saying is that perhaps some of it has to do with natural selection and my own sense and degree of biologically driven preference or compulsion. Perhaps some of it is cultural: honesty was pounded into me at a very early age by parents who were honest (in the Gandhian-Positive Atheism sense of "I do what I say and I say what I do" -- down to the point where my parents were not religious even in the face of the not-so-post-McCarthy Era pressure to conform: my parents were not religious simply because they did not think religion was true). A lot of this, in me, could just be thoroughly ingrained thought-habit, but I'm not so sure about how much of it is this aspect, because I've been able to abandon equally strong thought-habits even when I was starving and too sick to hold down a job, I had a tough time using dishonest means even to eat. Perhaps some of it is loyalism: I'm proud of the ethic that I advocate and I'm proud that I advocate this ethic.
I will say that, for me, to be honest even at a great expense to me is not a difficult effort at all. When I compare it to the opportunities to be dishonest, I find being dishonest to be a tremendous effort. At least one person has found this quirk to be so preposterous as to openly accuse me of lying when I described it to her. So perhaps this is not universal or even common, but it's all I know.
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
people with no reason to believe
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