Your Style Of Atheism
Could Reduce Atheists' Stigma
James Darpinian

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "James Darpinian"
Subject: Re: PA-via_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: Sunday, July 23, 2000 9:50 PM

Thanks for writing. You are the first to mention the article who was not trying to evangelize me to some extent. Lisa wrote the article for the nonbelievers in San Joaquin, and suspected that such an article might raise a stink amongst a part of the country she described as culturally similar to the Bible Belt. I don't think there will be much of a furor, though, because I think most people (including theists) are pretty reasonable folks. Some may feel a twinge of anger or even righteous indignation, but even among those, very few act out their feelings. This is good.

To address your comments about stigma:
 

1. Keeping The Theist-Atheist Dialogue In Focus

I find that if I explain to people that an atheist simply lacks a god belief (that is, I have heard many claims for the existence of various gods but remain unconvinced by any of those claims), people tend to understand. Notice my careful use of the word claims: this is all about the dialogue between theists and those who hear the theists' messages. It is not about any "deep" reality, real or imagined, but about a dialogue, a discussion about claims being made. After all, the only thing anyone can say about anything involves observations or measurements, and abstract thought: I can only tell you, "This is how I see it." I cannot say, "This is the way it is" and still remain honest.

It seems that if we keep the dialogue focused on the subject of claims -- people claim that a god exists -- the conversation remains realistic. Once we allow the dialogue to focus on this or that "deep" reality (such as, "a god exists and people simply don't acknowledge this 'fact'" or "no gods exist but people believe anyway"), we lose track of the fact that this is a dialogue.

Most importantly, we tend to lose track that we are all humans, whose senses and powers of reasoning are fallible. I like to think that people who believe in a god think they have perfectly good reasons for believing. Once I acknowledge my respect for the fact that people believe (and it is genuine respect, on my part, not simply politesse) and explain that I think every believe has good reasons for believing, and once I admit that no claims that I've heard sound convincing to me, I have immediately focused the dialogue on the fact that we are talking about claims and not about any "deep" reality.

If we allow the dialogue to consist merely of buzz-words and monikers (atheist or god believer), and if do not take the trouble to describe our position, then we aren't even communicating because so many people have different meanings to the words god and even atheist. Unfortunately, this tends to be the language of party loyalties rather than the language of serious inquiry or the language of cooperation.
 

2. The "Weak" Definition Helps Maintain This Focus

To keep this perspective of claims and dialogue in focus, I advocate that atheists accept what is called the "weak" definition for the word atheist. In this sense, an atheist is someone who simply lacks a god belief, for whatever reason. More explicitly, the atheist may have heard claims that a god or gods exist, but remains unconvinced (remains an unbeliever, an atheist) or an atheist may have never heard a god claim at all (and still remains an unbeliever, an atheist). This definition has strong historical precedence, as is shown by George H. Smith in his brilliant study of the history of the word atheist called "Defining Atheism." In this sense, atheism means "a-theism" ("without theism") rather than "no-god-ism."

I am becoming increasingly critical of the other major definition for atheist, the "strong" definition. With the "strong" definition, an atheist says that no gods exist. This, to me, is almost an untenable position, because it is logically impossible to empirically prove a negative existential claim (a claim that something does not exist -- an existential claim is a claim that something does exist). I realize the arguments against it being untenable, but these are complex; most who are even aware of existential claims and empirical proof still have not advanced to familiarity with the more involved arguments. And unless someone is familiar with these arguments, I do best to state my simple lack of belief, which is already included in the other arguments anyway.

Theists love to paint all of atheism in terms of this "strong" definition; however, only a small minority of atheists think this way, and only a fraction of them use the complex arguments mentioned above. The vast majority of those who've called themselves atheists fit within the "weak" definition that we advocate. Perhaps they do this because the "strong" position is, on the surface, even more untenable than most forms of theism. If they can paint their opponent as unreasonable and then label that unreasonable position with a buzz-word such as atheists, then all atheists become unreasonable -- even though most atheists reject the "strong" position.

The truth is, though, that most theists are much less adamant in their faith than they portray atheists as being adamant that no gods exist. Some theists say, "I cannot see Him, so I must take it on faith" -- as if faith is a rival of some sort to empirical investigation. Others are like the character in the Bible who said to the Jesus character, "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief" (Mark 9:24).

Agnostics also tend to like the "strong" definition for atheism, for different reasons: it leaves room for agnosticism as a "middle ground" between theism and "strong" atheism. With the "weak" definition, agnosticism divides itself neatly into the same two groups: theistic agnosticism ("There is a god but that's all I know") and atheistic agnosticism ("I don't know if a god exists or not, so I lack a god belief and thus am an atheist"). Even though the theism-atheism question is binary (you either have a god belief or you don't), the range is wide and the spectrum is widely varied. Some theists think they can prove to you that a god exists, or that the reality of God is "more real" than regular reality, while others only have an inkling of a suspicion that a god exists -- and everywhere in-between. Likewise, some atheists say they know for a fact that no gods could possibly exist, and others admit they simply don't know if a god exists. I think most atheists who have pondered the question think that all the god-claims they've heard are either groundless or meaningless, and choose not to think about the subject any further. I differ from those atheists only in that I continue to think about the subject -- because it's my job!

So, not only is the "weak" definition very useful for our side, but it has strong historical precedence and is very reasonable. The "strong" definition is useful for the other side (not our side), it has very little historical precedence, and is (on the surface) untenable. When I explain to a theist that I simply lack a god belief because I have never heard a convincing argument, I can be a proud atheist and possibly even enjoy the respect of that theist. Those theists who think (and these are many) can see that I am not "denying God" or anything like that.

The only theists who tend to further the stigma against us are those who would probably resort to foul play in any discussion if that's what it took to "win" the argument. There is nothing we can say to convince them of anything: our word means nothing to them simply because we are atheists and for no other reason. As long as this thinking does not become government policy, I have nothing to say to theists such as this.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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.