Buddhism: Is It Atheistic?
Robert Webster

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Robert Webster (Volt Computer)"
Subject: Re: Positive_Atheism_Letters_Section
Date: Friday, December 03, 1999 2:43 PM

I hope to revise the segment of our FAQ section which discusses forms of theism which cannot readily be distinguished from atheism. In it, I discuss pantheism, although I have been roundly criticized by at least one pantheist for this section.

To some, atheism is the flat-out denial that any gods exist (strong atheism); to me, it is the simple lack of a god belief (weak atheism). Some in the weak atheism camp distinguish between the absolute lack of a god belief and belief in what people sometimes call "Spinoza's God" (the impersonal "force" that is the universe; the "force" or "intelligence" that is or is in nature). Others make the distinction between faith in a personal god (such as Allah or Jehovah) and the lack of such faith -- which includes belief in the impersonal "Spinoza's god."

Since the definitions for the term atheism are controversial (they are not a settled issue, as you can see from the December column) I think the bottom line was best expressed by Michael Shermer (mentioned in the December column), who wrote a response to this column: "mostly I avoid labels altogether. It is best to just say 'I do not believe in God.'" This has been my position for many years on a variety of subjects, including atheism.

So, then, you may find yourself in a position where it would be useful for you to use the definition which relegates pantheism to the realm of atheism, and to call yourself an atheist. This would be proper according to some. In a similar vein, we atheists often find ourselves needing to find a synonym for the word atheist in certain conversations. When I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, our family said, "We're not religious." To use the term atheist back then was social suicide. Thanks to Madalyn Murray O'Hair, this situation has changed slightly, although in many circles, it is still social suicide to call yourself an atheist.

As for do I think you are an atheist? It only matters in a technical sense: there are times when I will use, in a discussion, the definitions I described above and state that pantheism is philosophically indistinguishable from atheism. Certain uses of the word allow that.

However, here is the bottom line: When I am dealing with a fellow human, I am dealing with just that: a fellow human. Theism and atheism never enter into the picture unless and until the theist starts trying to convert me to his or her views. (It's never the other way around: I never try to "de-convert" anybody or anything like it -- unless they first approach me.) So, it matters not whether I think you are an atheist, because you are alive and you are human and that's good enough for me.

This is what bothers me and what is the focus of many of our discussions here: It matters naught to me whether somebody is a theist, but it sure matters to a lot of theists whether I am an atheist.

Finally, much of our discussion revolves around such issues as "Can someone have morals without divine commandments?" and "Should state and church be separate in all respects?" We would hope that some if the finer details of whatever differences may lie between us would vanish when discussing these crucial issues that are beginning to encroach into our everyday life. Many Americans have faith in a personal and very vindictive god, and they seek to enforce faith in that god upon us all. They do this through attempts to legislate the use of religious symbols on public land and the use of religious commandments in public schools and in courts, etc. They also work more subtly, trying to make the case that someone who does not have the "Spirit" of their particular personal deity (or sometimes someone who does not believe in a personal god at all) cannot possibly be moral. These are things I would hope we could join forces and try to counter, either as a group effort or as individuals.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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