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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: WebMaster:_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: Sunday, December 12, 1999 5:41 AM

In order to answer your question properly, I need to know what you mean when you use the word "God." This word can mean any number of things, depending upon who is using the word. Nevertheless, I will do my best to answer your question using a generic "creator" which is commonly believed among humans.

It is important to examine the sources of the various claims that a "God" exists. All of them, without exception, have all the markings of mythmaking. They all have an agenda, usually involving one group having control over a minority group or the rest of the populace. When we examine the origins of religious faith, we can learn much.

It also does us well to note that for the history of modern civilization from clans to the Enlightenment, credulity and faith enhanced one's chances for survival. Skeptics were routinely executed by the State Church. This was true for all groups: to rebel against the community was to endanger the entire community. Since superstition is a very efficient method for controlling large groups of people, organized religion became the preferred method for keeping the peace.

If the tendencies toward credulity (versus the tendency toward skepticism and critical thought) are genetic (and they probably are, at least to some extent), then we would see the tendency toward credulity and faith come to dominate in the human gene pool. This is a very realistic explanation for why, in this day and age, we see superstition of all kinds running rampant among humans: the tendency toward credulity has been selected into our gene pool, and a large number of people naturally tend toward superstition and religion.

This combines with another problem. It is still popular to stigmatize atheists and skeptics and unbelievers. There are places and situations in America today were I dare not reveal my atheism if I want to get along, if I want to have friends, or if I want equal opportunity for promotion or equal treatment when it comes to downsizing. Someone wrote from Iran and told me that he thinks a solid 40 percent of Iranians are flat-out atheists, but dare not express these beliefs to any but one's closest confidants. They go through the motions of ritual prayer and tell people that they believe, but they privately disbelieve. While I cannot verify or refute his claim, it makes perfect sense to me. I know many who do this in America, where one's atheism is not subject to criminal punishment. How much more prevalent would this be where admitting atheism means certain death?

Here is why I lack a belief in the existence of a "God": The purported existence of a deity (sometimes called "God") is a claim that is made by certain people. They tell us that this deity exists even though we cannot see it or otherwise verify that their claim is truthful.

Nobody has to claim that the sun exists because the sun's existence is self-evident to all but the most severely mentally impaired. When discussing the claims that atoms and molecules exist (though we cannot see them), we can verify these claims with instruments and through abstract thought.

However, nobody has ever given me a reason to believe that a "God" exists. Of course, I can see no "God," and a "God" cannot be detected or measured through instrumentation. So the theist (one who claims that a "God" exists) is left with abstract reasoning to make his or her case to me. Not one of the arguments presented to me for the existence of a "God" has held water.

The theists' arguments do not drive me to conclude that they are true, and they all leave open the possibility that various things (such as the existence of the Universe and the existence of live) can be explained through natural means. We don't need a "God" to explain the existence of either the universe or the existence of life. (This is why, among scientists, biologists have the lowest per-capita incidence of theists.)

Thus, without a belief that a "God" exists, I remain an atheist.

You may ask why I don't bother to disprove the theists' claims. The answer, as you probably know from studying philosophy, is that I don't need to do this to be an atheist. If a visiting distant uncle tells a child that Santa Claus exists, he would need make his case to the child (assuming the child was raised without a belief in Santa). He would need to show the child why she should believe that Santa exists, or the child rightly doubts.

There is no way for anyone to disprove the claim that Santa exists (or the Easter Bunny, or green leprechauns, or UFOs). We cannot scour the universe and fail to find a Santa. Therefore, when dealing with existential claims (claims that a thing exists), it is the responsibility of the person making the claim to bring proof. Otherwise, the listener need not believe the claim. The child can say, "I don't believe that Santa exists, but if you can show me that Santa exists, then I will believe."

However, there are two things we can do to tip the scales a bit.

First, we can examine statements relevant to the existential claim, and see if there are other aspects to the story (or elements in the argument) that lead us to suspect that we are dealing with a tale or some other kind of fiction. In the case of Santa, I'm sure you've read the piece floating around the Internet that is sometimes called "The Physics of Santa" or "Santa Claus: A Scientific Perspective." In it, the writer shows that for Santa to visit 108 million homes in 31 hours with an average distance of 0.78 miles, he would have about one thousandth of a second for each home. The writer then describes what would happen to a sleigh travelling at 650 miles per second in an atmosphere such as ours, and would become of a 250 lb. organism subjected to 17,500 g's of force during the first acceleration. Thus, the Santa story, as described by the uncle, is highly implausible.

"But," the uncle tells us, "Santa is magic. He is not subject to natural laws." A supernatural Santa, eh? Now that's a whole 'nother ball game! By definition, the supernatural is not testable. I can neither confirm nor refute the claim of a supernatural Santa because the supernatural is, by definition, not subject to natural means of verification. We are then back at square one.

Secondly, the uncle needs to explain the existence of the presents under the tree, leading to the conclusion that Santa exists. To do this, he must eliminate all other alternate explanations. Naturalistic explanations include the likelihood that the parents put the presents there. Even if we could eliminate all naturalistic explanations as possibilities, we still don't know that it is Santa who brought the presents, or some malevolent Easter Bunny simply posing as Santa and chuckling over our stupidity for believing his yarn about Santa.

All this is very relevant to the arguments that a "God" exists. First, proof must be brought forth by the person making the claim. Secondly, most theists include in their god-claims statements that can be tested (since the god-claim itself cannot be tested), and if these testable statements fall short, the untestable claims can readily be dismissed. The Bible, for example, describes the earth as being flat and having a lid, and that "God" lives above that lid. In Islamic legends, people are said to have visited this abode by flying up there on a winged beast. We know that this cosmology is inaccurate, so we rightly question even the modern conceptions of "Heaven" -- which were derived from these ancient myths. Thirdly, we must take into consideration the reasons why superstition ever existed in the first place, by examining the myths and their origins. Finally, we must explain why the tendency toward superstition dominates humankind today. To say that this is because the myth is true, and that the majority simply see the truth will not do. This argument falls apart when we note that each of the superstitions make different and contradictory claims.

I hope this makes sense to you. I am not trying to convince you of my position, I am simply trying to explain why I hold it. I apologize that it is so disjointed, but it is all there. I am very tired right now and somewhat ill, and my thinking skills are not at present as sharp as I would like them to be.

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: WebMaster:_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: Sunday, December 12, 1999 12:06 PM

Please remember that an atheist does not necessarily state "There is no God." The traditional definition for "atheist" is one who lacks a god-belief (for whatever reason). In this sense, if one is not a theist, he or she is an atheist.

You can see this view defended quite handsomely, and I suggest that you at least puruse this piece and its companion so that you don't fall into the trap that many theists (and agnostics) do in defining atheism as the positive belief that no gods exist. Such atheists exist, but these are but a small fraction of us.

My whole point (and Smith's) is that the theist must make the case for theism or else the listener rightly defaults to atheism.

For another view, see "Skeptic" Magazine's publisher Michael Shermer's rebuttal to my December, 1999, editorial. In it, Shermer advocates (among other things) that atheists and nontheists best point out the origins of faith, myth, and superstition.

However, I still think it all boils down to theism being a set of abstract statements (claims): some believe these claims and others do not.

In either case (Shermer's or Smith's), theism is learned and atheism is the default.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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