Atheism, Agnosticism, Theism,
And Keeping A Level Head
Johan Grahn

This first exchange (Johan's first letter and Cliff's initial response) was published in the June, 2000, issue of Positive Atheism and thus has been edited to correct grammar and spelling. Cliff's original was also edited to clarify a few points. Further exchanges are presented pretty much as is, except for a few spelling corrections and other changes here and there.

I have always had a problem with calling myself an atheist since it requires knowledge of the unknowable, but now I will since, in my opinion, the possibility for the existence of a god is so small that I don't want to waste my time on it.

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Grahn, Johan"
Subject: Re: Positive_Atheism_Letters_Section
Date: Friday, July 07, 2000 1:43 PM

Shermer's letter was a reply to my column "Atheism And Fundamentalism," which was a comment on some remarks made in his latest book. I had no response to his response, and left it at that, as per my initial agreement with Shermer when I offered him the rebuttal space. This was a very important turn in a discussion that Positive Atheism and its predecessor (under my editorship) have been having for years.
 

So, are you suggesting that the "strong" atheistic position could be logically impossible? This could be true if the "strong" atheist accepts the concept of the Burden of Proof. Interesting!
 

This is why the theist's definition for the term God must precede any discussion of the god claim, or any debate between a theist and an atheist. On one end of the spectrum, we can easily dismiss very specific god claims such as those made by most Evangelical Christians. On the other hand, one whose "God" is simply the universe (the pantheist) must grapple with the fact that we have a perfectly good term to describe the pantheist's "God": the universe; the pantheist must explain why we should confuse the discussion by using the term God when the universe works just fine.

Off to the side, we have certain god claims that are unfathomable, such as the "Not this. Not this" and "From which, along with the mind, words turn back" of the Upanishads. In cases like this, I become tempted to consider the ideas described by Theodore M. Drange in his book, Nonbelief and Evil: Two Arguments for the Nonexistence of God. He says that if one cannot fathom a god claim, one cannot be an atheist, but is rather a "noncognitivist" in regards to that god claim. At this point, though, I still favor keeping it simple by stating that since I cannot understand the "unfathomable god" claim, I cannot believe it, and thus lack a belief in any "unfathomable god."
 

I don't understand the meaning of this term.
 

Only if we are pretending to discuss the "really real."

If we stick to discussing claims and perception and the ability to detect phenomenon and the open discussion which is the liberal scientific method, then we can go much further than simple I-don't-know or we-cannot-know agnosticism. In keeping the discussion about claims for the supernatural, we are justified in placing the burden of proof upon the one making the claim.
 

I like to be more specific: Either you have a belief or you lack one.

Even more specifically: Either you have a belief (however vague) or you lack one (however vaguely).
 

Agnosticism is a legitimate position, and I accept the distinctions within agnosticism: theistic agnosticism ("There is a god but we cannot know any more than this" or some variation) and atheistic agnosticism ("I don't know if there is a god, so I lack a god belief" or some variation).
 

Shermer wants to give up the fight, but I and many others are not ready. If Shermer's position (or a similar position) prevails, then I am an agnostic simply because you cannot prove a negative. However, I think George H. Smith's case that a-theism means "without theism" rather than "no god-ism" is very strong.

Meanwhile, we must remember that atheism exists only to counter the claims of theism.
 

Yes. It has enough hard information to challenge the assumptions on both sides in the theism-atheism argument.

My only beef was to challenge his distinction between nonbelievers and atheists. This is a discussion that has been dear to my heart ever since I became an atheistic activist.
 

He still seems to want to regain Dr. Laura's graces. I can see his point: Positive Atheism has more than one member of the clergy as close advisors. Although this can be seen as prestigious for a publication whose target audience consists of atheists, I think it is practical to the point of necessity for this publication.
 

Ideas and actions need to be attacked. Some ideas need to be stopped through refutation, just as some actions need to be stopped through intervention (such as throwing a culprit in jail or killing an attacker through justifiable homicide). If this is seen as an attack, then I agree. However, I prefer simply to describe the situation as I have done here rather than use a vague term like attack.
 

The Pope is doing his job by defending theism in general and defending the Roman Catholic religion in particular. As Pope, he has shown himself to be brilliant at what he does (that's why he became the Pope). His position may be untenable, but he has convinced one-sixth of the world's population that the Roman Catholic position is tenable. This is not the work of an idiot, but the work of a brilliant man (or, rather, a long succession of brilliant men).

Also, it is one thing to show that his position is untenable, or perhaps even dishonest (if such a case can be made: I'm not saying here that it can). It is another matter altogether to call him "an idiot." This is the fallacy of Name-Calling, and we recommend avoiding it at all costs.
 

Just as pain can sometimes "punch through" the influence of an anaesthetic, your emotion appears to be "punching through" the influence of your reasoning. While this response is perfectly human, I cannot call it healthy. I try, at all costs, to avoid this type of thinking. If I have to, I will walk completely around such an accusation, taking several trips around it if need be, but I try as hard as I can to avoid the error of Name-Calling.
 

The chain of causality is multiple, and the finger of culpability does not point in any single direction. John Paul is not single-handedly responsible for the suffering you mention, but is one of a long line of men who has held this position. And, when given the chance to throw off the yoke of the Papacy's influence during the Reformation and Enlightenment, millions of people chose to allow it to remain. Even in today's age of science, one-sixth of the world's population chooses to follow the Roman Catholic Church rather than free themselves from it.
 

It would accomplish little with the Catholic, that's for sure.

Again, no idiot would be capable of thought complex enough to scream at a Catholic over his or her Catholicism. Immature? Perhaps. Ignorant of a more dignified way? Definitely. Frustrated? You bet!

The big problem here is that most of us tend to think that we have a better way for others. We forget that others have their reasons for believing the way they do. This amounts to a form of superiority complex -- but the problem is that whether a god exists is (in my opinion) one of the stupidest reasons to get into an fight.

I would prefer to approach the Catholic and pick his or her brain on issues that really matter, such as human justice. While engaged in dialogue over the weighty day-to-day issues of living, we have a great opportunity to form a bond and work together to make this a better world.
 

Yes. Advocating for a liberalized attitude toward contraceptives is a legitimate (and crucial) pursuit. I'd wager that many Catholics are quietly fighting the good fight within their church on this front and many others.

Contraception is especially important because a repressive stand toward it endangers the public health (and could conceivably destroy the planet -- though to take it that far would involve the Slippery Slope fallacy). Thus, the availability of contraception is everybody's business, in a sense.

While Roman Catholics can put pressure on the Church from within, we all can put pressure on the Church from without. We do this with arguments, such as statements and proclamations issued by the United Nations, and we do this physically, such as when a predominantly Roman Catholic country legalizes contraception or initiates a program to make contraception more widely available to the public or even to youth. In doing this, we are not calling anyone evil or stupid, but are working toward a specific goal.
 

This is a two-sided coin, since any group of people can establish a nation (however theistic) and apply for membership in the United Nations. It also gives the U.N. clout with the Vatican, where it might otherwise have no official audience with the Pope.
 

The quotation, as far as I can tell, is as follows:

"I am an atheist, out and out. It took me a long time to say it. I've been an atheist for years and years, but somehow I felt it was intellectually unrespectable to say that one is an atheist, because it assumed knowledge that one didn't have. Somehow it was better to say one was a humanist or agnostic. I don't have the evidence to prove that God doesn't exist, but I so strongly suspect that he doesn't that I don't want to waste my time."

Yes. Though it slightly misses our point on the definition of atheist (or, perhaps, recognizes that such confusion prevails among our fellow-humans), it does highlight another crucial point: Put into practice, this means that we can safely live our lives without fear. We may do what we think is right without wondering if "God" might disagree.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Grahn, Johan"
Subject: Re: Positive_Atheism_Letters_Section
Date: Monday, July 10, 2000 2:05 PM

To me, it's not unlike the fact that I live on the Pacific Rim and thus live in earthquake country. At any given moment there is the possibility that The Big One may strike, so you'd think that I'd stay away from tall buildings and stay out of old brick buildings (which abound in Oregon). I don't, because the likelihood of an earthquake striking at any given moment is so unlikely as to be a monumental waste if I were to order my day-to-day around this possibility. Yes, eventually a big one may strike in my lifetime, and I may be unfortunate enough to be caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. And yes, if I were to buy a house, it would be a wooden structure or one that is more likely to survive a quake.

The likelihood that no gods exist (or at least that no god exists who is going to hold me accountable for my lack of belief) is, in my mind, so great that I can justify my lack of fear. I can live my life as if there is no god who is going to roast me for thinking for myself.
 
 

I'm assuming the final letter in this word is an accented "e" and not an apostrophe (at least that's how I typeset it).

The problem of evil works best when God is said to be both all-powerful and loving, and doesn't work as well against, say, the Deism of the American Founding Fathers. Basically, the problem of evil points to the likelihood that no loving, all-powerful gods exist.

Theodore Drange, in his book Nonbelief and Evil, points to the parallel problem of nonbelief: the existence of atheists (almost one-fifth of the world's population) points to the likelihood that no god exists who is both loving and all-powerful, and who also wants humans to have a relationship or fellowship with him. This argument becomes stronger when one considers that those religions which teach that God wants us to know about him tend to have a narrow, tightly defined picture of God, and that other religions teach a different concept of God. Then, the theist must face the fact that even more people disbelieve their particular concept of God (either as atheists or as theists who advocate the existence of a different god).

The big counter-argument to this one involves the notion that God wants us to come to him freely. This still leaves the problem that many people would believe (and would "cling to God") if only their senses and their reason told them that such a being existed
 
 

The first position goes further than classic Deism, which often included the notion that God is loving or that God is benign. Today, some Deistic and Pantheistic types teach that God is, among other things, a cannibal (such as in Tennessee Williams's 1968 film "Suddenly Last Summer" -- which is a wonderful treatment of the notion of a naturalistic god who is not benign, and which is available on video).

Thus, theistic agnosticism says either that we do not no any more than the fact of God's existence, or (more commonly) that we cannot know more than the fact of God's existence. My problem with the latter is that to state that God is unknowable is to state a characteristic of God.

The second position is the very definition for atheism (the "weak" definition) that I advocate.

Thus, with this definition for atheism, even agnosticism aligns to the very same theism-atheism dichotomy that the rest of us align to: either you have a god belief (however vague) or you lack a god belief (however vaguely).
 

In the Introductory section, Shermer notes that his organization is so open-minded as to have attracted arch-conservative talk-show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger on the advisory board! She later left because of the "God" article in Skeptic Magazine, but he defends his position of allowing outspoken theists to have control of the magazine.

I cannot argue against his position from an ethical or moral standpoint, though I would at least bring up the practical objections to having theists determine what an atheistic or skeptical magazine's editorial policy might be.
 

So, I described what I meant and then wondered aloud whether the word attack is proper. This is a good habit to form when discussing any complex matter -- and is a prerequisite when forming or interpreting law.

This is precisely why we always need to be sure that both sides in a discussion understand the meanings of the various words we use. The problem is not just a language barrier (Swedish-English) problem, but is also a philosophy barrier (theism-atheism) problem as well. We need to set down -- in the beginning -- at least what we mean when we say "God" and we also do well to set down what we mean when we say "atheist."
 

Sometimes a person's bigotry is oozing forth so profusely that I will point it out by using that term. Occasionally, when someone is being both bigoted and arrogant, I will flat-out call that person "a bigot." This is to say that this person is someone who practices bigotry.

At most, I would call the Pope dishonest if and only if I could demonstrate that he knew better, but was towing the party line anyway. However, I cannot determine that he knows better, so I default to the position of giving him the benefit of the doubt. Thus, the most I can say is that I think his positions on certain matters are untenable. I can, with Shermer, express surprise that someone who has attained the position of Pope would display such apparent lapses in judgement, but at this point, they are only apparent lapses. I cannot state that they are bona fide lapses simply because I cannot tell whether he knows better. I can only wonder aloud why he doesn't appear to know better.
 
 

So, John Paul is on record as being vehemently anti-contraception!

If he suddenly changed his mind, what would that do to his credibility before the Church and before the world?

Would it not be a superior political move to wait until the next Pope takes office to start making big changes on this one?
 

That he could conceivably end certain suffering is not necessarily the same as holding him responsible for it. He did not institute the prohibition in the first place, and he is only one in a long line of leaders to uphold it.

Either way they go on this one would cause hardship for the Church. For now, the liberals have yet to prevail on this one. The Church has changed in the past, and I predict that they will eventually change on this one as well -- hopefully within my lifetime!
 

And Germany is still suffering for the decisions of the previous generations, just as America is still suffering for our forebears' decision to practice human slavery.

I do offer any individual Catholic an alternative to strict adherence to Catholicism: thinking for oneself.
 

I don't know the U.N.'s rules for excluding a nation. If such rules exist, and if the nation of the Vatican is violating those rules, it should be excluded just like any nation that violates those rules ought to be excluded.

This is tricky, because the nation of the Vatican consists almost entirely of people who work for the Pope. It is a contrived nation if I have ever seen one. Are you ready to see the U.N. adopt some rules that would exclude the nation of the Vatican on the grounds that its "nationhood" is contrived, that would also exclude other nations on the same basis?

In other words, how would you exclude the Vatican and still be fair about it? How would you pull it off (and never mind what public opinion says)? On what grounds or on what basis would you do this?

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Grahn, Johan"
Subject: Re: Positive_Atheism_Letters_Section
Date: Tuesday, July 11, 2000 3:29 PM

With the purest concept of Deism, God got the universe going and is no longer interfering with it. The Founding Fathers tended to thing that God is at least watching.

Even if God only interfered at the inception, we (theoretically) ought to be able to detect that this has happened. Unfortunately for this position, particle physicist Victor J. Stenger makes an excellent case that our Universe could have started with zero energy as a quantum fluctuation within a much larger super-universe. Thus (according to this model), the fluctuation escaped into a vacuum, and a few irregularities caused an imbalance between what we now know as matter and what we know as anti-matter -- thus, there is enough matter left over for us to see stars and galaxies and the like.

But you are right: if God doesn't pay attention to us, we don't have to pay attention to Him. And, if he so successfully "hides" Himself from us, we cannot be held accountable for not believing that He exists.

This is an inversion of the Argument from Nonbelief that Theodore Drange discusses in his book "Nonbelief and Evil." The Argument from Nonbelief states that if God wants humans to know that He exists, why are there so many unbelievers in the world? The existence of atheists, therefore, points toward the conclusion that, at minimum, God has not done a very good job at making Himself known (is not omnipotent), or that, at most, that no such God exists. The Argument becomes much stronger against religions such as Christianity, which tell of a loving God who wants us to know him and, on top of that, will punish each of us with more pain than will ever be experienced, collectively, by all the creatures throughout the history of our Universe.
 

This is very true (almost elementary) but is different from what I was saying.

The problem I see here, in your encounter, is that you assumed that every conceivable god cannot be defined. You brought this assumption against one of the more easily defined concepts of God, the Hebrew Yahweh.

What I recommend is assuming that since there are as many as 6,000,000,000 different concepts of "God," we at least need to know which one we are dealing with, because if we don't, then we are using a word ("God") without knowing its meaning in the specific context of a particular discussion. Secondly, we are not the ones making the claim, the theists are. Thus, we must require that they describe what they are claiming, because they cannot assume that we know what they are talking about: "God" is, until the theist defines it, a meaningless sound in the ears of a truly baffled atheist. Finally, and this is the practical side, it is much easier to grapple with a description or a definition than it is to grapple with a word whose meaning is controversial or disputed.
 

I don't know what word you are looking for, here. I think Shermer was trying to point out that his grasp of logic was, at minimum, flawed. This would make him ignorant but not necessarily dishonest, thus not deliberately committing evil, thus not (in my view) immoral. I was suggesting that the possibility exists that, at maximum, the Pope has as clear a grasp of logic as anybody, and is being dishonest. This would make him immoral or culpable, not the former (even though both situations would cause harm).

Part of the study of ethics involves whether the person knew if what he or she was doing wrong, whether they knew that what they did would cause harm. In America, if a person is not capable of knowing right from wrong, and, say, kills someone, we still must lock that person up and remove him or her from society. However, we lock that person in a hospital and declare her or him sick, rather than extracting the punishment of a specific number of years in prison.

Three classic cases come to mind to show this concept: David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam" killer convinced much of the public (but not the jury) that he was sick; he later stated (admitted?) that he was lying about his insanity defense. Methinks we will never know the truth. Meanwhile, Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon in 1980. Filled with remorse, Chapman refused to allow his attorneys to use the insanity defense, and accepted the full force of American justice. Again, I don't think we'll ever know. Finally, Patricia Hearst was kidnapped and brainwashed by the extremist political group the Symbionese Liberation Army, but was convicted of bank robbery. The question of her legal culpability was decided by a court, but the question of her actual culpability (had she been brainwashed?) is still fiercely debated in legal and psychological circles, especially those who deal with religious and political cults.

But, the question is about culpability. The question here is whether the Pope is lying or merely ignorant. This question does not affect the actual harm done by the Pope's acts (be they out of ignorance or out of malice or greed), it only examines his culpability.
 

I've heard a lot of rhetoric from atheistic circles (and others) asking why this tiny, obviously contrived nation should be allowed to represent an entire religion in the U.N. Perhaps I feel the same way about it as the others. However, I cannot see a fair way to deal with the situation, so my sympathies align with yours: "If I ever find a good reason for excluding them, I'll let you know."

In the mean time, I don't say much about the subject, except to occasionally challenge the rhetoric that argues to exclude them. Until we find a fair way to exclude them, the rhetoric is empty, except to point out that something seems to be very wrong, here. At most, I will use it to point out that the Vatican may have pulled a fast one on us all.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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