Atheism Without Antagonism
-- Toward Slanderers
Nathan A. McQuillen

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Nathan A. McQuillen"
Subject: Re: Atheism without antagonism
Date: Thursday, February 22, 2001 9:29 PM

As a man who honors truthfulness, if you wish to levy "critiques similar to those" that I have written off as containing slander, unfair charges, false information, distorted history, logical fallacy and the like, then my response will be the same to your "critique" as it has been to the ones who have offered "similar" critiques. If your "critique" is groundless because it is based on a false premise, I will treat your "critique" the same way that I have treated the others. Calling yourself an atheist does not impress me, as I treat all people by the same set of standards: if you wish to make a case before me, if you wish to try to win me over to your viewpoint as one of truthfulness (because mine is based upon falsehood), then I'd better not find any lies in your "critique." Otherwise, you will find out the same thing that the others have found: I don't go for that behavior.
 

I don't understand why you would slander me like this: I never said I felt persecuted as an atheist. I even address this very slander in the letter from Duane Hutton. The term persecute has a unique and very specific meaning. For you to put this word into my mouth is patently dishonest.

The only thing that even remotely resembles persecution that I have endured was when I was jailed for refusing a court order to undergo religious instruction in a faith-based partnership known as the Twelve Step Program. Once I agreed to go, and once I became willing to express my atheism in that Program, I was beat up once, threatened with physical violence numerous times (I can remember at least ten instances), and even after I quit, I have been threatened since then, through messages left on my telephone and via U.S. Mail. I even quit working for Rational Recovery as a direct result of the numerous threatening telephone calls I'd receive: they finally got to me. But in the interim, Oregon state agencies are no longer allowed to send someone to a Twelve Step program unless there is a secular alternative: the victims must have a nonreligious choice or the Twelve Step program is not an option. I don't know how firmly this is enforced, but these are the rules nonetheless.

Of course I was shunned as a child for not believing in God, and held after school for refusing to pray in class. I have been "bad-vibed" out of bars, as recently as a few months ago, after it became known that I am an atheist. One print shop I'd been using for over a year suddenly cancelled our contract when a new manager came aboard. One of the workers suggests that it was the title of our magazine that got him going.

But I don't know if this is rightly called persecution: as close as I get would be the court order to undergo religious instruction (Twelve Step "treatment" and meetings), and the sometimes violent response of the religious people who were authorized by the court to provide that instruction (the members of the Twelve Step program).
 

You are very fortunate. Read some of the letters -- actually read them -- and hear the stories of those, for example, who live in the Deep South, or the person whose extended family consists entirely of Jehovah's Witnesses. Read the stories of the many teenagers who are being coerced by their parents to undergo religious instruction and, in one case, is expected to kneel during prayer and to enunciate the words of the prayers. The reason I tend to believe these stories is because I have watched it happen: One woman boasted to me that she forced her teenagers to attend her fundamentalist church if they lived in her house. Atheists, all, I tell you! Atheists all!

Also, how vocal are you in opposing, say, the slogan, "In God We Trust" on our money? Do you cross it out at the check stand? Do you have one of United States Atheists' money stamps? and do you use it on your money? -- "every dollar of it"? as the Abbot and Costello routine goes? Do you have any bumper stickers on your car? Would you, if ordered by a court to undergo religious instruction, object on religious grounds? Would you, if ordered by a fourth-grade teacher to recite a prayer in unison with the rest of the class, remain silent, lips not moving, because you thought it was weird?

When people inquire as to your religious persuasion, do you use the word atheist or mask your atheism with "nicer" terminology?
 

I agree: the Christian majority (or any majority, for that matter, they happen to be Christian here) does not single out atheist over and above other forms of non-Christian lifestyles (though atheists tend to have it worse than believers, as even liberals -- and lately Wiccans -- will shun an atheist, whereas a fundamentalist will tend to shun anybody not in the group). You wouldn't have had to read very far to notice that we make many statements along these lines. I have come to the defense of: Satanists; Wiccans; Baptists (May, 2000 issue); Jehovah's Witnesses; Muslims (August, 2000 issue); Pantheists; and many other cases.

Mostly, though, I boldly assert that I not only demand that people have the right to believe whatever they want, I go so far as to respect the fact that they'd want to believe that way (without crossing that line of respecting the belief itself). This is one of the core elements of our Mission statement, "What Is Positive Atheism?," the very first item in the list on our front page called "Overview of this Website."

So, for you to make this statement in the context of comparing your viewpoint against mine is, I think, dishonest and quite unfair. You come off as someone who has given our website a fair look, but it is quite clear that you have not seen much of what we have to say.
 

Ah, but if the violent ones are not members of religious sects, that makes them atheists! Do you see what you're saying, here?

I realize that you are trying to make a point about social norms, but the sorry truth is that many of those social norms are based in religious belief. Also, the tendency toward fundamentalism is fostered, for the most part, by the press to keep a religious dogma alive.

And I promise you that most of the ones committing these crimes are religious simply because statistically, most Americans confess religious faith (notwithstanding the Roman Catholic notion that someone who confesses but is disobedient is, by definition, an atheist).
 

I hold a different definition for freethinker, but agree that this is one element. However, there occasionally comes a time (such as my experience with the Twelve Steppers) when one is tempted to place physical safety before the right to openly declare one's position.
 

Again, this is slander and slander: I never said I encountered persecution (except one oblique suggestion that the court order to undergo religious instruction might qualify as persecution); I never said that I encountered any problems for claiming no religious affiliation. My problems stem mostly from my use of the word atheist in describing myself. In fact, I have stated repeatedly that my parents solved this problem by telling people, "Oh, we're not religious," when asked about our affiliation: this served them just fine. I go much further than my parents in that I am not afraid to suffer the consequences of using the word atheist. I am not afraid to boldly oppose such institutions as court-mandated Twelve Step involvement, and to work so hard as to seriously impact policy in a way that the Steppers could no longer let the government do their recruiting for them. I am not afraid to stand there with my pen and cross out the word God on my money at the bar or the checkout stand (and most people give me a "thumbs up" -- but those who have become offended have become really irate with me, even going so far as to give me merchandise for free so I won't do it again, and, later, beginning a campaign of extremely lousy service, such as the woman who would not take my order for food the next time I showed up).
 

I cannot help you unless you become willing to be more truthful.
 

I cannot speak for the motives of others, and will not try. However, as stated above, this "smokescreen," as you call it, is not something you have encountered in the context of a the Positive Atheism Magazine editorial position: you have not heard me give this position.
 

Well, I do not fear religion itself (and don't know where you came up with the idea that I do, or that I use this straw-man "fear" of yours as a "smokescreen" of some sort).
 

Ah, let me get this straight: Your a historian, but you connect the slogan "In God We Trust" to the days of the Founding Fathers? I may be a layperson, but I have read the United States Treasury's official history of the slogan that appears on our money (a lie that purports to include me as one of the "We" who allegedly "Trust" a "God" of some sort). I have not encountered an instance of this slogan in any of the writings of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, or Paine. As far as I can tell, the slogan became popular during the Civil War, and was the result of lobbying by devout Christians, particularly the Rev. M. R. Watkinson, Minister of the Gospel from Ridleyville, Pennsylvania, who invoked Christian reasons for placing a slogan honoring the Christian god on our coins.

Finally, for you to assert that I have "written off" people "due to their religious beliefs" is pure slander on your part. I only ever write off people who have threatened me with physical violence or who have stolen something from me. I never even marginalize someone for their religious beliefs, but will hold someone accountable to truthfulness when trying to convince me to go along with those beliefs.
 

To expect an atheist to swear a god-oath on some holy book (or to require a Muslim to swear on a Bible, for example), is not only morally wrong, in my opinion, but is, as far as I can tell, unconstitutional. Regardless of any decisions that have come down, I feel it an infringement of what I understand to be my First Amendment right to religious Liberty.
 

I do not claim infallibility, so that makes me ignorant. I'm not sure what you mean by "sizable doses" of ignorance. However, I take offense at this, because the last time I appeared before a Grand Jury, I asked the District Attorney if I could "affirm" rather than "swear," which is my right. One member of the Grand Jury even remembered my activities in the Twelve Step program, when I'd demand dignity for atheists and would write articles along those lines for the local, statewide, and national Twelve Step journals. He looked at me and gave me a wink and a smile. I bumped in to him much later and he explained that he was real glad to see me "walking my talk" (as they say in the Program) even in the face of appearing before a Grand Jury!

While I can understand how he might think that it took quite a lot of guts for me to do this in the courtroom, I don't see it that way. For me, to go against what I think is right, or to compromise my dignity or to forego what I know are my rights, is what takes the guts. I don't think I'd have the nerve to invoke a god-oath in the face of my own conscience, which tells me that to put on the appearance of being religious when I am not religious is for me to tell a lie -- to mislead others into thinking that I go along with that travesty when I do nothing of the sort.
 

This makes no sense to me, either. In fact, I have not encountered any atheists who think this way, leading me to suspect that this suggestion on your part is simply the product of a fruitful imagination -- perhaps linked to an agenda of some sort. You certainly put words into my mouth, though; you do not here or elsewhere describe my actual viewpoints in your "critique" of my views!
 

No atheists have accused me of thinking this way. No theists have accused me of thinking this way. This is a charge that only you have lodged against me (at least that has come to my ears).

In fact, I cannot even tell what you're trying to say. And I'll bet I'm not alone.

I don't understand how the very lack of faith is rightly called a faith. I get this slander all the time from theists, but you're the first atheist who has leveled this charge against atheists.

Then again, more than one theist has written to us claiming to be an atheist (or, rather, not to be a theist), but who have later admitted to us that they were lying, that they were Christians after all. Gregory Auman did this, as did Chad Baxter.

Also, some forms of belief that are technically atheistic in fact contain many of the key elements of a religious dogma save one: a belief in a supernatural deity. Communism is a classic example of an atheistic philosophy which had many elements of a fundamentalist religion in trying to protect its supremacy as a viewpoint among the people. The World Church of the Creator is a godless "religion" of the White Supremacist variety, whose rhetoric about "mud people" and the like differs only from the Christian White Supremacists in that it denounces faith in a deity. The Raëlians are atheistic creationists whose anti-Darwin rhetoric would make a fundamentalist Christian proud.
 

I don't either. My target audience consists of people who are already atheists, as is clearly stated in several key points in our webiste. You cannot navigate very far without encountering this statement.

As such, I clearly and repeatedly and vigorously advocate that my fellow-atheists stop trying to de-convert theists from their religious views. I have done this in my monthly editorial column, and repeatedly in the Letters section. I even state as much in our FAQ section.

So, for you to make this statement in the context of comparing your viewpoint against mine is, again, patently dishonest -- notwithstanding the fact that you have cloaked the focus of your statement in the terms of "in general." You have introduced yourself as "an atheist" who is offering "a critique" of my views. But it is clear by this that you are either almost completely unfamiliar with my views or that you deliberately intend to slander me for some reason or other.

I will say that if you actually are an atheist, you are the first one who has gone to such lengths to slander me in this way: the others who have done this have been theists and a few agnostics.
 

I don't know anything about "experiential data." Data, as I have come to understand it, is something that we can show each other, something that we can all count or measure, etc. To me, the concept of "experiential data" is oxymoronic at best.

And I don't understand the concept of someone having "less than no understanding" of anything. To me, "oblivious" equals zero understanding, and that's as low as it gets. If you merely try to wax poetic, here, through your exaggeration, then you serve only to show your agenda in that you actively seek to discredit me regardless of whether my position is credible (if the simple absence of theistic belief can rightly be called a position at all).

As for discrediting religious belief, my position has always been that I am willing to listen to the claims of religious people, and to assess whether their claims are worthy of my assent. If they are, I convert to theism, pure and simple. If not, I remain an atheist like I was when I was a little boy, without any belief in any gods.

But for you to accuse me of "seeking to discredit faiths" is to portray me as trying to de-convert theists to my point of view. This is simply not the case with me, and hasn't been since 1978 when I consciously and assertively promised myself that I would not do that any more, that I would respect people's right to believe however they want, and that I'd respect the fact that they think they have valid reasons for believing the way they do.

In short, I think you have your head up your ass.

I say this because you have launched a "critique" of me based entirely upon your own fantasy of my position, never once bringing my actual position into the discussion. Unlike other atheists who have criticized me for this or that, your "critique" of my position is based entirely upon a false portrayal of my position.
 

All the criticism from atheists (except bad links, typos, etc.) is posted in our forum. I have never failed to post a criticism from an atheist (and have posted all legible criticisms from theists). Since you show yourself too lazy to have investigated my actual position before launching your salvoes against me, I will summarize for you the most popular criticism and how I handle it: this criticism has been launched more times by atheists than all other criticisms from atheists combined.

The big thing that atheists have written to me to protest is my use of the "weak" definition for the word atheism: that an atheist is one who simply lacks a god belief for whatever reason, and is not necessarily one who asserts that no gods exist. This definition is awkward only in that it includes infants and imbeciles within the umbrella of atheism, because one either has a god belief or one does not. The nineteenth-century Secularists had no problem with this quirk about the infants, though it opens itself up to the charge of "recruiting by definition." I say so be it.

Those atheists who oppose my use of the "weak" definition fail to realize two things: First, I recommend it in its traditional sense, inclusive of "strong" atheism, so I am not trying to shut them out of the picture or even call "strong" atheism inferior (I am a "strong" atheist in some respects and by some definitions). Secondly, I am not advocating that the atheist communities adopt the "weak" definition as a working and exclusive definition within our ranks, I am merely suggesting that we popularize the idea that an atheist does not necessarily assert that no gods exist, but that atheists, for the most part, simply lack a god belief and rarely if ever think on the subject of theism unless asked.

I do this because I think it might contribute toward reducing the stigma that we atheists endure from all sides. However, it will do us no good if people continue to slander us and try to discredit us based upon things that we haven't even said.

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

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Note:

This particular dialogue is more about the honesty of the letter writer than it is about a postmodernist "critique" of our views -- simply because the views critiqued are not ours and are, for the most part, not even atheism. And when it boils down to it, the bottom line is not atheism or even my approach to atheism, but about my psychological make-up.

I post stuff like this and the Rich Zawadzki letter for a reason: I wish to express my respect for honest discourse, and my disdain for the practice using dishonest means to convince others to believe that one's view is a position of truthfulness, or that one's opponent's view is a position of falsehood. I also wish to display -- in action -- the acts of people who prefer this method of discourse.

Mr. McQuillen started out his first letter with the following statement:

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"I am appalled and disturbed by the general attitude of your site and the tone of your correspondence with those who do not share your rather narrow beliefs."

 

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Then he proceeded to write an extremely long letter which continues along these lines.

Now, he winds his second message (his response) by saying,

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"I don't particularly like the way you're so quick to assume I'm being inimical and accusatory. It sounds a little bit like the paranoid episodes I've sometimes helped friends through."

 

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Hmmm! Does this sound like "baiting" to you?

If you pull a cat's tail, will she scratch you?

Let's approach a man who has a reputation for demanding honest discourse and then proceed to lie both to him and about him. Then, when he defends his position or shows us to be liars, we'll suggest that he's having "paranoid episodes" -- in the same breath in which we accused him of assuming us to be accusatory! I wonder what my psychological diagnosis would be if I'd sent this thing to the Deleted Items folder?

Why did I initially suggest -- out loud -- that he had not explored much of our website before writing this tirade? Because there is plenty of legitimate criticism that can be lodged against my views and my approach. But why did I quietly suspect (in my mind) that all he'd done is bump into our website, go to the Front Page, and then click the link to the Zawadzki letter? (And why does he relate to that most brutal of Lou Reed songs which I quoted -- the one about baiting?)

Like Rich Zawadzki, he might just be doing this to gain fodder for his quest to portray atheism as "a faith unto itself" which tends toward "intolerance commensurate with any other religious zealotry" with its "tactics and techniques adopted by many dogmatic groups." I can see why he expresses such a kinship with Mr. Zawadzki!

This is all I have to say. Those who are familiar with my style of not tolerating false accusations can use your imaginations to fill in the blanks where I have chosen not to respond.

The sad part is that this fellow probably has some interesting points to make; however, he started off in an extremely inimical and accusatory tone, then denied that he was being this way. In short, by being so dishonest about what we can read right here in this letter, he has squashed his credibility and we now cannot tell if he is being truthful about anecdotal matters.

If someone else who favors postmodernism wishes to make an attempt at advocating those views in a more honest discourse, we would be happy to offer our response if we have any. But as particle physicist Victor Stenger once assured me, we have nothing to worry about postmodernism, as it does not exist outside of certain universities because it cannot thrive in the open marketplace of ideas.

-- Cliff Walker

 

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  "Remember, arguing over whether a god exists is one of the stupidest reasons to get into a fight, and our energy is best directed elsewhere. An atheist we know once loved to go downtown to heckle street preachers -- until he asked himself, "What if that's how this poor clown stays off drugs?" Now, a street preacher, technically, is inviting trouble even from someone practicing Positive Atheism, but this man's sentiments still show the beginnings of a compassionate outlook toward theism." 

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So, your remark raises a serious question for me: What is it about Christianity that makes so many Christians talk as if they're somehow superior to the rest of us when it comes to morality? I don't get it. It's not like there's any truth behind this assumption, and this behavior serves only to make the Christians in question appear arrogant.

It's this arrogance, more than anything else, which prevents me from even giving lip-service to Christianity (as doing so would surely reduce the bigotry that I endure on almost a daily basis). I'm too much of a man of truthfulness to assert what is flatly false simply because it might bring me gain. I would like to be able to find some redeeming feature in the Christian religion, though. If I found even one good thing, I would emphasize that feature in hopes of reducing the bigotry that I endure almost every day.

But no: I cannot find anything I like about the Christian religion -- anything. So, when asked, I will give the honest opinion of my mind and will suffer the consequences of being truthful.

 

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    And this is America where a Christian is free to cast doubt on the integrity of an atheist spokesperson without coughing up a good hard case against that atheist. In America, a theist need merely find an atheist's words "amusing" or "offensive" and the matter is settled. In America, the Christian is not required to make a solid case against the atheist, but may simply slight the atheist without fear.

But let the atheist try to do this to a Christian in America and see what happens! We never hear the end of it!

 

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    I have 3 humorous questions (My opinion) and 1 serious question: (The tone is jovial, not spiteful-Sometimes it's hard to read that in e-mails)

Sounds like fun!

(I wonder why I'm not laughing.)

Could it be that I've had to change bars one more time due (once again) to the fact that it got around that I'm an atheist? so I'm staying home on a Friday night rather than grabbing a well-deserved reprieve from this cracker-box apartment where I live and work? I just don't have the nerve to go out there tonight. Maybe tomorrow, but not tonight.

 

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    1. Do atheists exercise faith in any area of life?

If this is a joke, do you want me to answer it?

Or are you just making fun of atheists because you're so superior to us that you can act this way and fear no consequences? Do you think that not even your credibility will be tarnished by your behavior?

Don't you realize that acting this way speaks volumes against the claims that the Christian religion is effective at turning people into moral citizens?

Next question.

 

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    Although you sound like a very bitter and unhappy man.

I get this ad hominem every time I respond to someone who is such a flaming bigot that to even try to contain my contempt toward that person would be an inappropriate response on my part

 

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    (BOWING IS NOT AN OPTION, THE QUESTION IS WHEN")

Your adherence to The Religion Of Brutality has turned you into something that barely resembles a human.

 

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Nathan A. McQuillen"
Subject: Re: Atheism without antagonism
Date: Friday, February 23, 2001 4:22 PM

To slander is to lie about someone, publicly, for the purpose of discrediting that person. You have done all three, as this is a public forum.
http://www.positiveatheism.org/mail/eml9242.htm

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

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Nathan A. McQuillen"
Subject: Re: Atheism without antagonism
Date: Friday, February 23, 2001 10:39 PM

I told you how you misrepresented my position and proceeded to try to discredit me for holding (your fantasy of) my opinions.

Meanwhile, your gripe appears to be more about my personality quirks than about my ideological position. My personality quirks would still be there were I to join the Hare Krsna Temple or convert to fundamentalist Christianity: these are not a reflection of the validity of my position, either as the cause or the reflection of my quirks. I may have ideals about being able to sing like Paul McCartney even though my range is more along the lines of Joe Cocker. I can shoot for a certain goal though my abilities fall woefully short of ever reaching that goal.

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

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Nathan A. McQuillen"
Subject: Re: Atheism without antagonism
Date: Saturday, February 24, 2001 5:35 AM
 

So, then, everything you said about my tone and my attitude toward Rich Zawadzki -- I can take that to refer exclusively to my philosophical position? my brand of atheism or the atheism itself?

In other words, several Christians have written to me and accused me of being bitter. You know what? I am bitter! I can barely function sometimes due to a life-long depressive disorder, which has recently been aggravated by a solid year of major set-backs and other problems. Last year, it was my absolute inability to convince the other party that I wanted to end an amorous relationship. The year before that, I was driven out of the local atheist group as part of a political shake-up -- lied about just to accomplish this other thing that had nothing to do with me.

Recently, it seems as if my country is over with, and this is very stressful for me: I still haven't completed the magazine that's due out on February 1st. I have, for now, stopped covering the travesty that is the Bush administration not because it doesn't need covering but for personal reasons which should seem obvious. I don't do this for the money (this project actually costs me money); I do this because these things mean a lot to me, and I'm hoping it's possible to make a difference simply by working at it hard enough.

Then yesterday, right before I received your letter, I found out that a multi-national corporation, Adobe software, which takes in more in a day than I'll realize in my lifetime, took me for a third of a month's income by representing their Acrobat 4.0 program as being able to do what I need to do, and then informing me that in order to do what I actually want to do, I need to purchase an additional plug-in called Quite Imposing -- which is available only from Adobe and which costs $300. "I'll escalate your complaint to the Executive Department, Mr. Walker, but I'm telling you they'll say the same thing that I've told you today!" In other words, no hope of a refund from Adobe or the reseller: I now own a useless program license.

Also yesterday I finally prevailed in a nine-month-long struggle to have my telephone numbers changed from one jack to the other, so that the telephone number I use is on the DSL line. Yesterday, after spending probably 30 hours of my life going around and around on the phone trying to get this done, they agreed to do this. I had to call the Executive Department, a number that the front-line workers won't give you, but you can only get from the Public Utilities Commission.

When I experimented with Christianity during my mid-20s, they'd all say, "Brother, you got no joy! You need some joy, Brother!" Ideology has nothing to do with my disposition, although I have found some activities more conducive to living with my particular disposition than others.

Karaoke, for one, is a hobby I've enjoyed for almost four years. It's a great way to express anger: you should see me out-Mick Jagger Mick Jagger and out-Joe Cocker Joe Cocker. You should hear me do the hopeful-to-frustrated-to-betrayed transitions in the refrain to Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car"; I bought a $240 set just to get the complete version of that song, as the cheapies leave out the last refrain -- which is crucial to the song. And the rendition of Steppenwolf's "(God Damn) The Pusher" that I did the night I found out a close friend had died of an overdose -- those who don't even like the anger I normally put into that song came up and shook my hand when it was done! Gary's death hit me, and the tears started welling up -- and the DJ called my name to sing at that very moment. I hear it was great, but I wasn't there to enjoy it. It was pure Pain who was singing that night. No, I cannot sing nearly as well as any of them, but I got the emotional aspect down pat.

Another thing that I've found this disposition to be helpful in doing well is calling people's bluff. I am experienced enough with the history of the skeptical trends in philosophy and with the various arguments used both to bolster a theistic position or to try to refute what some see as the atheistic position (which, to me, is a non-position -- the lack of a position). I wrote an entire piece on rhetorical fallacies, and have learned enough since the last major revision to justify yet another major revision. I've studied all the tricks used by the various evangelists and the carnival barkers and the dope pushers, and I have encountered many of these tricks on this forum.

And I've not only studied the cultic techniques but have been (I believe) a cult member myself -- at least I have practiced religion in a cultic fashion, needing to do it this way lest my powerful tendencies toward skepticism creep in and crumble my faith. I have gone so far as to spend two hours at the feet of Ted Patrick, the man who invented the controversial practice of Cult Deprogramming. He must have found me to be a refreshing interview, because rather than attack the controversial elements of his practice, I was interested only in what's going on in the mind of a cult member and what it is about his methods that he finds effective and how those methods work.
 

Like the guy who wrote to "Editor" at Time magazine and was shocked that Time had the audacity to print his letter. Uh-huh! Like the guy who clicked "Post" in an AOL board and then became frustrated that the thing is there for all to see! Right!

You've shown us that you have seen the Rich Zawadzki letter, you even quoted extensively from it (unless someone is illegally posting this thing elsewhere). Right at the top of the letter, you'll see the very first link, "About." (In fact, once I post it, it'll be at the top of this letter.) I highly recommend that you click that some time, because it explains that we do this thing the way most magazines who solicit input from the readership have historically done this type of thing.
 

Oh, that's right! You introduced an entire segment with the language: "It seems (and you must have heard this one a lot from other atheists who're irritated at your approach) that you have managed to..." and then you proceeded to describe (what you reiterated in your second letter) certain atheists, but instead of accusing me, directly, you cloaked the rest of this section in terms of "in general" and "most." But now this was derived "as a direct result of reading [my] communication with others." I see!

You now deny that you were actually taking shots at me in the "in general" parts of this section (in this "private" communication that you was not submitted to an organ called Positive Atheism Magazine but was addressed to me, exclusively, with a message for my eyes only). However adjectives you use to describe these "most ... atheists," such as intolerant, are the very adjectives you elsewhere use to describe me (in this "private" communication that you claim you think was not submitted to a magazine that hosts a website which posts e-mail).

However, I'd like to know what you read other then the Zawadzki letter which prompted you to come to the conclusions that you do, because I try to practice the most tolerant form of atheism I've seen to date: I leave people alone and don't try to de-convert them, I actually respect the fact that most theists have valid reasons for believing the way they do (in a way that ought to make a Social Text reader proud). I am even involved with (but don't qualify as a member of) the Center for Progressive Christianity.

I want to know what you read besides the Zawadzki letter, which I still defend as an appropriate response to someone who wants to act like a jackass and start describing "some ... atheists" -- "in general" -- in a language that naturally reads as if I am being called upon to defend these actions as my own -- these actions which exist somewhere other than our website.

I'd like to know how you think that my struggle toward the separation of religion from government, or my struggle to minimize government endorsement of ideas I find patently offensive (such as trusting the Christian god), is rightly described as "rather narrow."

And I'd like to see why responding to dishonesty and indignity and baiting the way I did in the Zawadzki letter (and others) seems, to you, inappropriate. And what would you have done? posted it without comment? when it was a well-constructed and powerfully executed attempt to discredit atheists everywhere?

I'd like to know where you come off calling my lack of faith a "dogma" or "a faith." That was my big objection to the Zawadzki letter (aside from his initial and subsequent arrogance and slander), and these are my primary objections to yours. I see you two as being cut from similar cloth.

Yeah, my hat is officially off to Zawadzki: he and his friend Hovind have been practicing, and gaud hemp those they've been practicing on! He did such a good job at playing the clown who went "slumming with the atheists to get his kicks" -- as if that's appropriate or dignified or otherwise not bigoted -- that three or four ardent supporters were taken aback until I showed them why I came to the conclusions that I did. I sit here and take this gruff every day. I have learned to recognize when someone is probably pulling my leg, when someone appears to be setting a trap, when someone is probably being inimical and accusatory, and when someone is pretending to be cordial but instead have an ideological stiletto waiting for me. I have also learned to recognize people who are genuinely curious about a position with which they're not all that familiar, about which they may or may not know very much but want to hear from me.

Unfortunately, I spend so much time defending my position against the many liars and slanderers who write here, and then defending my actions before the objections of my allies, that I don't really have much time to spend with the few good letters I get. Thus (unfortunately) I have made stricter the guidelines for letters I will accept -- letters that will not go immediately into the round file). Another tier will get put on hold, and a polite boiler-plate message will be sent that we are backlogged and will get to it when we can. If these last beyond a certain time, I'll just post the letter and my response, without engaging in any more conversation.

Meanwhile, The only clues people at the bar get are when I hand over a bill that has "In God We Trust" crossed out, or when I follow a sappy religious song with a song such as "And When I Die" (I swear there ain't no Heaven / I don't pray there ain't no Hell ... Ain't gonna go by devil / Ain't gonna go by Satan"). I also sing "Sky Pilot" and remind everyone who hasn't noticed that the Sky Pilot is the army Chaplain. Then, at the climax, during the final refrain after the soldiers go off to war and the Sky Pilot lies back on his cot and prays, I give the Sky Pilot a big one-fingered salute. Other than that, I'm the guy who brings in his private collection of karaoke CDs which, at many places, is larger then the house collection, so people have every reason to want me around.

I mind my own business unless somebody approaches me. Then I politely answer any polite and respectful questions, I consider any politely worded criticism, and I let people have it if what they write is both dishonest and accusatory. This, to me, is one of the core elements of the philosophy of Positive Atheism, where it distinguishes itself from regular atheism: I insist on the right to insist upon truthfulness in all my affairs. I do what I say, I say what I do, and I have nothing to hide. We are all here to learn.

But I think it is you who has taken a single letter, which was linked from our front page and published in the print edition specifically to elicit comment because it is admittedly experimental, and used this one letter to paint my philosophy and "most ... atheists" with a broad brush.
 

What I was trying to suggest is that the lofty language in our Mission statement are great ideals to shoot for, but we live in a real world and are all too human. If you had a tail and claws, in addition to everything you now have, I'm sure you'd hiss and scratch if someone pulled that tail. I know I would.

What do you so when someone like Rich Zawadzki or a Gregory Auman or a Chad Baxter starts baiting you (or it seems like they're baiting you, either because they're clumsy at trying to come off as friendly, or because they're actually quite practiced at the art of baiting the opposition)? How do I respond to these people who weave paragraph after paragraph of the same old lies, and then accuse me of being a weenie when I tire of their arrogance? How do I do this without compromising my identity as one who needs to be shown before I'll believe; as one who will not accept dishonesty in a philosophical discussion; as one who has suffered needlessly, many times, because I am one of those who refuses to "stay in their place." This, I think, is the real question I have from this dialogue.

You didn't grow up in the 1950s and 1960s, so I don't blame you for being less than acutely aware of what things used to be like for African Americans, Women, Jews, homosexuals and others, and the way things still are for atheists -- except within a single subculture: the under-30 crowd seems, for now, to have overcome the tendencies that I find myself fearing. I think a generation has finally come along that has finally overcome this one problem (though they have not overcome all problems and will, naturally, have a few problems unique to their own generation). I can only hope I'm right, and that I can live long enough to enjoy this one benefit when that generation grabs the helm.

But I grew up in the wake of McCarthyism, during the heat of the Cold War, when atheism was equated with evil to the extent that even atheists used other terminology to describe ourselves -- and only when asked -- or we simply went to The Church Of Our Fathers and became the class of hypocrites who find pretending to be much easier than enduring the stigma of being "godless." We were told to pray together in school, and didn't even know it was illegal for them to do that because we knew what happened to the reputations of people who asked certain questions. (I sure found out young enough!) I came of age the moment Nixon resigned, and that was the last I ever valued anything remotely resembling reputation and the manicured lawn. Now, being honest is more important than anybody even realizing that I'm telling the truth. I don't care what anybody thinks about me -- except me.

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

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"I must preface further comments by confessing that I am appalled and disturbed by the general attitude of your site and the tone of your correspondence with those who do not share your rather narrow beliefs."

 

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Note:

This particular dialogue is more about the honesty of the letter writer than it is about a postmodernist "critique" of our views -- simply because the views critiqued are not ours and are, for the most part, not even atheism. And when it boils down to it, the bottom line is not atheism or even my approach to atheism, but about my psychological make-up.

 

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I post stuff like this and the Rich Zawadzki letter for a reason: I wish to express my respect for honest discourse, and my disdain for the practice using dishonest means to convince others to believe that one's view is a position of truthfulness, or that one's opponent's view is a position of falsehood. I also wish to display -- in action -- the acts of people who prefer this method of discourse.

 

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Mr. McQuillen started out his first letter with the following statement:

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"I am appalled and disturbed by the general attitude of your site and the tone of your correspondence with those who do not share your rather narrow beliefs."

 

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Then he proceeded to write an extremely long letter which continues along these lines.

 

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Now, he winds his second message (his response) by saying,

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"I don't particularly like the way you're so quick to assume I'm being inimical and accusatory. It sounds a little bit like the paranoid episodes I've sometimes helped friends through."

 

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Hmmm! Does this sound like "baiting" to you?

If you pull a cat's tail, will she scratch you?

 

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Let's approach a man who has a reputation for demanding honest discourse and then proceed to lie both to him and about him.

 

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Then, when he defends his position or shows us to be liars, we'll suggest that he's having "paranoid episodes" -- in the same breath in which we accused him of assuming us to be accusatory!

 

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I wonder what my psychological diagnosis would be if I'd sent this thing to the Deleted Items folder?

 

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Why did I initially suggest -- out loud -- that he had not explored much of our website before writing this tirade? Because there is plenty of legitimate criticism that can be lodged against my views and my approach.

 

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But why did I quietly suspect (in my mind) that all he'd done is bump into our website, go to the Front Page, and then click the link to the Zawadzki letter? (And why does he relate to that most brutal of Lou Reed songs which I quoted -- the one about baiting?)

 

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Like Rich Zawadzki, he might just be doing this to gain fodder for his quest to portray atheism as "a faith unto itself" which tends toward "intolerance commensurate with any other religious zealotry" with its "tactics and techniques adopted by many dogmatic groups." I can see why he expresses such a kinship with Mr. Zawadzki!

 

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This is all I have to say. Those who are familiar with my style of not tolerating false accusations can use your imaginations to fill in the blanks where I have chosen not to respond.

 

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The sad part is that this fellow probably has some interesting points to make; however, he started off in an extremely inimical and accusatory tone, then denied that he was being this way. In short, by being so dishonest about what we can read right here in this letter, he has squashed his credibility and we now cannot tell if he is being truthful about anecdotal matters.

 

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If someone else who favors postmodernism wishes to make an attempt at advocating those views in a more honest discourse, we would be happy to offer our response if we have any. But as particle physicist Victor Stenger once assured me, we have nothing to worry about postmodernism, as it does not exist outside of certain universities because it cannot thrive in the open marketplace of ideas.

-- Cliff Walker

 

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Nathan A. McQuillen"
Subject: Re: Allegations and corrections
Date: Sat, 24 Feb 2001 07:32:02 -0000

If you had clicked the About link (the very first link on the Zawadzki letter which you claim to have read) you would have read our complete stated policy on this. If you had reached the Zawadzki letter from the link on the front page, you would have seen the statement called "And Think Before You Click!" The only legitimate ways to get the address
     editor@positiveatheism.org
are clearly marked as "Editor." (Duh! Even the e-mail address is "editor"!)

And what made you think I'd post Zawadzki's rant and not yours? Meanwhile, read the About page. You might find some interesting things on there. I'm much more lenient than the big boys.

As for grandstanding, call it what you want to call it: the only element that interested me in your initial letter was the aspect of your vicious attack of my position, which eventually became personal. When somebody misrepresents my position and then attacks that misrepresentation, without attacking what I have actually said, or what my position actually is, I generally write that presentation off and try to move on to the next letter.

People are fond of calling me the equivalent of a weenie for ducking out of a challenging-sounding attack of my position, when the truth is that I have a set of standards that I use to determine how involved I will get in a dialogue. (See the About page.)

Let 'em think what they want: I'm not here to impress anybody, and sometimes it becomes clear that a person has nothing better to do, so she or he will write page after page of drivel (or worse, copy it from other people's web pages and paste it into their e-mail engine as their own writing) and send it to me -- and then accuse me of being unable to meet their formidable challenge, thus proving that a god exists (or that I'm a weenie). I have about six of these in my Drafts folder right now; they have to wait until I'm done with you.

The truth is, I am willing to listen to any god-claim, but I don't really like to endure dishonest rhetoric or unjustified attacks. I don't think any mistake I've made on this website warrants much of the vitriol that I often get (including the first paragraph of your first letter and the condescending remarks, cloaked as questions, of Zawadzki's letter). Occasionally, I will get something that is choice, like the Zawadzki letter, and I'll display it for all to see. If you read through our Letters section, you'll see that I spend more time calling theists' bluffs than I do answering any bona fide claims -- simply because such claims are conspicuous by their absence in most of the mail we receive from theists who are trying to set us straight.

My question to Stenger was about Sokal, not postmodernism! What he offered as a response is his business and his responsibility. If you read the interview, you'll notice that that segment landed on my cutting-room floor. What was left was one long uninterrupted segment with the two ends lopped off, which segment lent itself nicely to being divided into three parts of almost equal length -- an editor's dream. By the way, Stenger has chosen to "minor" in the art of confronting pseudoscience, so to comment on people who claim that science says this or that is well within his field of expertise. He's been at it for over twenty years, now.

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

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Nathan A. McQuillen"
Subject: Re: Atheism without antagonism
Date: Saturday, February 24, 2001 6:44 PM

I don't up and tell people what to believe.

Also, well-meaning does not mean they're telling the truth -- they may think they're telling you what you need to know, but that is not always the case. Example: Mormons, in Brigham Young's day, taught that people lived on the Moon, and wore outfits such as the old Quakers used to wear. They sincerely believed this nonsense because their prophet told them it was true, and they had no reason to doubt their prophet. Young's predecessor, Joseph Smith, taught that "gold grows" like the wheat in the field, only much more slowly. Yeah, perhaps it grows as a hedge against inflation, but his guy was clearly talking literally -- making a statement about physics. This was Aristotle's beef with the Sophists: they thought that the truthfulness of a proposition was directly proportional to how vehemently someone advocates that proposition (and not the other way around).

However, when I asked a medical professional neighbor about which clinic to go to (to manage a medicine I take) I got an odd answer: "Have you tried acupuncture?" Er, uh, no. The medicine works just fine, except for a few minor side-effects which I know can be reduced through management of dosage and selection of medicine. She pressed it, and I merely expressed my skepticism of acupuncture (I didn't detail the frauds I've discovered, including, most recently, a photo in "Parade" magazine of a woman undergoing open heart surgery without any IVs attached -- right!). At this mere mention that I'm skeptical, because nobody has been able to explain the mechanics of the process, she rolled her eyes. Eventually, she unwittingly gave me the answer I wanted: "I don't like the (so-and-so) clinic (in the complex where she works) because they hand-out way too many drugs, and you know that I'm viciously anti-drug!" Ah! Just what my doctor ordered, management of the medicine! Now I know which clinic is the least likely to steer me away from what I know works just fine -- what I know enables me to sit in this chair for hours at a time without having to go lie down, what I know will allow me to keep up with my able-bodied friends when we're walking through the shopping mall.

However, I did not recount for her the several major frauds I've noted in the promotion of acupuncture in the mainstream press -- that discussion is reserved for legitimate forums: this and other organs of the press, and lobbying for or against the public funding of these methods. Acupuncture, part of a larger system of "alternative medicine," and that system is her whole life (and her career). It does her well, and I'm not out to "rescue" anybody from being victimized by "alternative medicine" because I know there are problems with Western medicine as well, because the experimental method can only show trends, it cannot tell you what I will or will not respond to. As the old joke goes, the doctors really are "just practicing" -- albeit with a huge knowledge base of information as to which methods have done what for how many percentage of people who tried it, combined with a rather intricate understanding of the basic biological functions of the human body, and how various things affect most (but not all) bodies, combined with a vehicle for disseminating and scrutinizing any new information that might come along, overseen not only by a world community but also by government agencies which (supposedly) investigate any claims of fraud, etc.

I will trust my health to this system rather than the claim that "the Chinese have been around a lot longer than we have" (her words exactly). But, I will not tell her what to do, and even refrained from telling her what I thought.
 

Smug? Dismissive? Ah, there's a word to describe why these words are accurate but completely miss the point entirely! (But I will not use that word this time, because I have something else to say, which would be overshadowed by my use of that word.)

I get "dismissive" if and only if somebody comes up to me and tells me why I should go along with their viewpoint or why I should abandon men. After that (not before), I will verbally examine their claims. If and only if I fail to find sufficient reason either to go along with them or to abandon my current understanding, I will "dismiss" the claims and remain an atheist. More often than not on this forum, the claims I hear are the same claims I've heard my whole life (Jesus died on the Cross, etc.), and I've already examined that particular set of claims more thoroughly and from more perspectives than has a small congregation put together: this person is not telling me anything I haven't already gone over a hundred times or more; this person has presented no new angle except that any given person who approaches me, should I convert upon hearing this person's presentation, will become a special, unique "comrade" or "brother" who led me to Christ. So, this unique comradeship, my becoming a "feather in their cap," so to speak, is the only thing that an individual offers that another (or a book or a preacher) cannot, and it's the only thing a given individual has offered as a new reason for believing: their arguments have all been practically identical. The New Testament is a very small book, practically a pamphlet, and they usually use the same few-dozen passages from that book to derive their dogma, so there's not much chance of hearing anything new from a Bible fundamentalist. I have heard it hundreds of times, and I rightly dismiss it after explaining why I dismiss it (but not before). Remember, I could simply send these things to the "Deleted Items" folder (where more and more of them are going, lately). Do you know a third alternative?

Smug? Only in response to what I see as a smug, condescending denunciation of my position (without good cause for acting that way), or a haughty, arrogant superiority complex (again, without good cause). You'll notice a huge difference between those who come here and go, "Aha! Thou FOOL!" and those who say, "I'm a Christian, and that's what I believe, and I don't want to get into that, but I have a few questions," or "I would like to discuss with you (for example) the separation of religion from government as it applies to everyone's Religious Liberty," or even, "My pastor was saying (thus and so) about atheists, and what he said rubbed me the wrong way, but I cannot pin it down, so here's what he said, and I'd like your comments."

Even you might have noted (in your first letter) that I do not necessarily assert that no gods exist and that I do not press my views onto a theistic audience before coming around to your criticism. If that is your position in the first letter, I still don't see it. Perhaps it's time to preface responses to all hostile letter writers with this brief description of what atheism is and is not, and what my approach to atheism is and is not.

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

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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.