Positive Atheism Forum
Graphic Rule
Is Rational Doubt
Weaker Than
Emotion-Based Doubt?
Wim Koornneef
Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Wim Koornneef"
Subject: Re:
Date: Saturday, January 06, 2001 12:51 AM

I have been saying for some time that the "weak" definition is inclusive of the "strong" definition. While I don't remember George H. Smith spelling this out in his previous books, he makes a clear statement along these lines in his latest book.

In his new book, Why Atheism? (chapter 2, footnote 4, as reprinted in the current issue of Positive Atheism, January 2001), Smith does an interesting turn from his previously held position, showing how the "strong" definition ("positive atheism") is a subset of the "weak" definition ("negative atheism"). The example he uses is Annie Besant, who argued that "never yet has a God been defined in terms which were not palpably self-contradictory and absurd." Besant's noncognitivism (saying that the god idea is nonsensical and as such must be rejected) is, according to Smith, a form of "strong" (or positive) atheism. At the same time, however (says Smith), Besant embraced the negative definition of atheism as the lack of theistic belief.

This is along the same lines as a discussion a contributor and I have been having offline, in that we suspect that "weak" atheism, being the lack of a god belief for whatever reason, is inclusive of "strong" atheism, being the rejection of the various god claims one has encountered, or the flat-out rejection of the god idea as a whole (which results in the lack of a god belief). In other words, the one does not contradict the other, but is a form of the other. But Smith, in this footnote, brings some clarity to the discussion:

A good deal of the confusion about this issue is owing to the fact that positive atheism and negative atheism are answers to two different questions, namely, "Does God exist?" and "Do you believe in the existence of God?" The positive atheist says no to former question, whereas the negative atheist says no to the latter. And since Christians typically stress the need for belief as a precondition of salvation, most atheists within Christian cultures have defined themselves in negative terms, as people who do not believe in God. Properly considered, therefore, positive atheism is simply a possible justification for the nonbelief of negative atheism rather than a competing definition.
 
 
 

I would consider your current position stronger than your previous one, in that your current position is, at least now, falsifiable (where someone describes a way in which one might -- in theory -- disprove the claim). I wouldn't consider an emotion-based position to be necessarily falsifiable: it could be falsifiable for other reasons, but it would not be falsifiable if your only reasons for doubting were the emotion-based reasons you describe.

So, with your position being falsifiable, now, at least, you have ground to stand on. The reason for this is tied in to the Burden of Proof. This says that the one making an existential claim (a claim that a thing exists) is responsible for bring forth evidence or a strong argument for her or his position. Smith (again) points out that were it not for the Burden of Proof, the belief that an invisible green leprechaun exists would be on equal footing as the absence of that belief, because the claim would stand simply on the ground that we cannot disprove it (and who can disprove the existence of invisible green leprechauns?). With the Burden of Proof, however, the one making the claim must at least provide a way that such a claim can be falsified.

If nothing else, your position is stronger because it is no longer based on the whim of your emotional state of mind, which is subject to change for any number of reasons. You now have at least considered some of the philosophical implications of your position.

Ultimately, though, the only valid reason for believing in the existence of a god or gods would be a convincing argument to come your way. Unless and until you encounter and accept such arguments, you remain an atheist -- that is, a person who lacks a god belief. You may, along the way, find many reasons for rejecting the various god claims or the god idea in general (I know I have), but you are an atheist unless you go ahead and believe one of the many god claims floating around human cultural circles.

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

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org> To: "Wim Koornneef"
Subject: Re:
Date: Saturday, January 06, 2001 6:32 PM

I am constantly developing my own conceptions of the weak and strong definitions for atheism. Now, I am trying to develop my conception of the role that the Burden of Proof plays in our discussions with theists and in the ponderings in our own minds.

Philosophy is not a cumulative science -- it is not a science wherein we each contribute to a larger body of knowledge -- but is a discipline wherein we each test the musings of the other philosophers within the context of our own thinking and experience.

Thus, I would be willing to go a few rounds with you on just where you stand at this point in your personal philosophical education. Doing this would help me in my education, and might help others who end up reading this exchange. So, if you have any questions or doubts, particularly about the Burden of Proof or why having a philosophical basis for your doubt makes it feel as if your position is weaker, let's have at it!

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

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Wim Koornneef"
Subject: Re: discussion
Date: Tuesday, January 09, 2001 9:26 AM

I don't think Burgess's "vestigial fear of Hell" was rational, because all the reading of rationalist literature did not banish those fears in him. I suspect that he was dealing with something more primordial, perhaps from childhood or perhaps even a genetic predisposition that was aggravated by childhood religious training.

My "vestigial fear of Hell," I think, may have been more rationally based than Burgess's, because my religious training did not start until I was in high school, and that religious training lasted only a few months. After that, I was exposed to very cultic religious training for about three years as an adult.

A few years after leaving the cultic group, I studied the Jewish historical explanation of the Jesus myth. This immediately and completely removed the entire basis for any "vestigial" faith that I had; before, I had been wandering in a sort of fog. At the same time, I studied several books on evolution (particularly the anti-creationist books of Stephen Jay Gould and later Richard Dawkins), and then finalized it with a new perspective on Christian history, starting with a cover-to-cover reading of White's Warfare of Science with Theology set. Shortly after that, I found it necessary to describe myself as "an atheist" (in court) and could do so in all sincerity (though I'd never used that word before).

As I mentioned in the Burgess piece, these "vestigial fears" occasionally arise, but they have, for the most part, vanished. Mine could be biological (as I hinted in the Burgess piece) because since then I have begun treatment for panic disorder, and the second round of experiments along those lines proves rather successful in other areas: come to think of it, the remaining "vestigial fears of Hell" seem to be gone as well. Until now, I hadn't even thought about it.
 

Be careful: We are here talking about knowledge claims, not any "deep reality." To say that it doesn't exist until we prove that it exists is to carry things way too far. It is proper to say that we cannot know something exists until we prove it, however.

With the burden of proof, it is the basis for a knowledge claim that doesn't exist until proven. Without proof, a statement, a claim of knowledge, is merely the description of a person's state of mind:

If the person making this statement wants others to take the statement as more than simply a description of what is going on within that person's mind, that person must bring forth valid reasons for believing.

All knowledge claims that are worth discussing will be based upon either someone's perception (Locke's sensation) and/or someone's rational analysis (Locke's reflection). Knowledge claims that are alleged to be an exclusive revelation to a single individual or group (and thus not available to those outside this exclusive domain) cannot be discussed because they can be neither verified nor falsified.
 

Yes, there is a difference between possible but unproven, and impossible. A claim for the existence of the Loch Ness monster is possible but not proven. A claim for the existence of a square circle is not possible.

Although many atheists think the known claims for the existence of gods are not possible, but we cannot start a discussion on these grounds. It is much better if we don't assume we know what a theist means when using the word "God." In other words, we do well to demand a description or definition of that term, and then ask questions about the definition -- the description of the concept -- and not the concept itself. We cannot let them assume that we know what they're talking about.
 

But the Burden of Proof inverts all this: Knowing that no god concept have been proven leaves no room for rational doubts (or non-doubts, as the case may be with skepticism).

With the Burden of Proof, the believer (the person making the claim) must make a case that her or his claim is worthy of our assent; otherwise, we have no business believing their claims. We remain atheists. Atheists do not make claims, but merely listen to theists making claims.

To properly consider a god claim, we must first demand a description of what the theist means when using the term god. If that description is logically inconsistent (or patently illogical, such as the square circle), then we can dismiss the claim as invalid -- unworthy of our assent.

This takes care of our rational side, but for many people (such as Burgess) it does very little for the emotional side. However, my rational side is infinitely more trustworthy in determining truth than is my emotional side. The "cognitive" school of psychology exploits this and teaches that we can gain control of certain emotions by demonstrating, rationally, that our emotion-based fears are unfounded. Sometimes this works, and sometimes the emotional fears cannot be touched by the rational side.

When I worked with drug addicted people, I taught that the craving for drugs was a hallucination coming from the primordial (non-rational) part of the brain. (See my article called "The Chocolate Easter Beast.") I'd ask the individual whether it was in his or her best interest to stop using drugs (or alcohol). If the person considered the advantages and disadvantages, and concluded (based on perception and reflection) that abstinence was the best route, this became that person's basis for behavior. We'd then enact a Drug Use Policy: abstinence. Any thinking (craving) that contradicted the Drug Use Policy was by definition originating from somewhere other than the rational part of the mind. The clincher was realizing that it's the rational part of the human mind that controls the voluntary muscles (arms; legs; lips). We would identify the rational part of the mind as the Self and the appetite center as an "It" part of the mind. We found this head-game very effective because it is so realistic.

I have been able to use a similar angle on several parts of my life, enabling me to overcome a fear of flying (I witnessed an airline crash in 1978): my rational side realizes (based on perception and reflection) that flying is statistically the safest mode of transpiration. I also diffused a weird pang of loneliness that used to feel whenever I drove by a church: my rational side remembers that my church years were the loneliest of my life. My rational side knows (based on perception and reflection) that joining a church could only worsen my current situation.

Regardless of all that, my doubts (the doubting of my doubt) are not based in any consideration that I've made regarding the various god claims, but are coming from a different part of my mind altogether. They are not based upon reason, they are not realistic, but are irrational. This does not stop the doubts (the doubting of my doubt) from bothering me on occasion, but it does prevent me from acting irrationally -- from making serious mistakes. And that's all that really matters: what goes on within my mind cannot hurt me; only what I do (or don't do) will cause me harm.

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

Graphic Rule
Graphic Rule
Graphic Rule

From: "Carey Sherrill"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Is_Rational_Doubt_Weaker_Than_Emotion-Based_Doubt?_9326
Date: Wednesday, January 10, 2001 5:47 AM

A thought about the Burden of Proof in god claims: no two individuals may have the same threshold of proof. At one extreme, no perceptual evidence is convincing enough to validate a god claim. At the other, a badly flawed book of uncertain authorship is enough. Proof is as subjective as god. Herein grows doubt as one thinks, "What if I've set the Burden of Proof too high?"

I argue that there is no reason for doubt, emotional or rational. There is no way of predicting what proof you will require to accept a god claim. You may someday encounter the one that's right for you or you may not. Without knowing in advance what proof is required, there is no way to evaluate your preconceived perception of that proof. If you can't evaluate, there is no reason to doubt. I argue that the important thing is not to be afraid to keep your perceptions and reflections fluid. Update your existence in 'real time', so to speak. Believe as you believe from moment to moment. Make your choices with the information available and keep going.

-- Carey Sherrill

Graphic Rule

Material by Cliff Walker (including unsigned editorial commentary) is copyright ©1995-2006 by Cliff Walker. Each submission is copyrighted by its writer, who retains control of the work except that by submitting it to Positive Atheism, permission has been granted to use the material or an edited version: (1) on the Positive Atheism web site; (2) in Positive Atheism Magazine; (3) in subsequent works controlled by Cliff Walker or Positive Atheism Magazine (including published or posted compilations). Excerpts not exceeding 500 words are allowed provided the proper copyright notice is affixed. Other use requires permission; Positive Atheism will work to protect the rights of all who submit their writings to us.