Wicked Theists
Rightly Called 'Atheists'?
Timothy Herrman

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From: Positive Atheism <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: Timothy Herrman
Subject: Re: via What is Positive Atheism?
Date: Tuesday, August 10, 1999 4:31 PM

The statement describes a common practice of religious people, and has nothing to do with what you say here. When someone who claims to be religious acts wickedly, religious people tend to claim that that person wasn't really religious after all. The have tended to call him an atheist. Nobody wants to be in any way associated with a wicked person, and people tend to divorce themselves in any way they can. One of our own could not have possibly done this. To do this, however, is to compromise the truth.

We saw this when the student shot fellow students engaged in open prayer. The press and the clergy were hot to call him an atheist, but his pastor went on television and admitted he is a Christian. Hooray for that pastor.

We saw it again when the Washington Post called the racist World Church of the Creator an "atheist group." The atheist boards lit up with every rationalization in the book: The press must be wrong. These people are secretly religious. Atheist groups advance atheism, not racism. I wrote a piece about this for American Atheists. The truth is that WCOTC uses the same arguments against theism that I do.

Although you may not have encountered this phenomenon (or may not remember having encountered it), is crucial to a discussion of the nature of atheism, considering that some theists call inappropriately wicked theists "atheists." If any revision happens to this piece, it will be to make this point more clear, and to include the examples of atheists doing the same thing.

Wrong. This definition was written by a theist. It presupposes the existence of said supreme being and then says that we deny this existence. It's like saying that there is a tree outside my bedroom window, and that I deny the fact that this tree exists. It leaves no room for me never having noticed the tree before, or me being blind, etc.

This definition also opens itself to the error discussed previously. If an atheist is one who denies God and the goodness established by Him, then is not a wicked person denying God and His goodness through his wickedness? This is precisely the thinking that Roman Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain used to argue that wicked theists are rightly called atheists. He first defined atheist as you do here, the denial of an existing god (and everything associated with that god), and then argued that wicked behavior is a valid form of the denial of that god. The atheists' definitions for "atheism" avoid these and other pitfalls.

An atheist lacks theism, lacks a god-belief. The atheist may or may not have thought about the issue (or even have ever heard a theistic claim). Some atheists have examined the claims of various theists and reject those claims. Other atheists have examined the notion of a supernatural deity and found it to be logically impossible. Still other atheists make a good case that some if not all god-talk is nonsense in that it makes no statements that can be understood. Many atheists have not thought on any of these topics, and would do a double-take if you called them an atheist. They are, nevertheless, atheists because they lack a god belief.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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From: Positive Atheism <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: Timothy Herrman
Subject: Re: via What is Positive Atheism?
Date: Wednesday, August 11, 1999 5:26 PM

I don't think you understand what I am saying.

Roman Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain popularized the notion that one is de facto a non-Christian (an atheist, in his language) if one's actions are sinful enough. Maritain insisted that this is true -- that they are atheists -- regardless of what the person in question thinks about gods. The Roman Catholic Church has a list of sins that, if committed, result in one's excommunication (and, presumably, exclusion from Heaven) but this is beside the point. The topic is Maritain (and his ilk) calling wayward believers "atheists."

This notion, though incorrect, is popular; the thinking behind it is not limited to Maritain or his followers. I have seen, with my own two eyes, correspondence from atheists who deny the possibility that the racist World Church of the Creator could be atheistic.

1. This thinking exists: some people explain sinful theists by calling them "atheists."

2. This thinking is erroneous: an atheist lacks a god-belief; a theist has a god-belief.

3. We point this out in our Mission file and will address it more thoroughly in our FAQ section which is in progress.

My definitions for "atheism" and "atheist" are in line with the majority opinion among atheistic writers throughout history.

Although my definition is inconsistent with the presupposition that a god exists, it is entirely consistent when the topic for discussion is whether a god exists. In other words, if we are arguing whether a god exists, we do not presuppose the existence of the god in our discussion. This also holds true for our definitions. To say that an atheist "explicitly denies 'the existence of a Supreme Being' and likewise denies 'that the existence, intelligibility and goodness of this world was established by this Being'" is to say that an atheist is a fool. You are saying that this being exists, but we deny that "fact." (It is not unlike saying that someone denies the existence of the sun.)

Crucial to a discussion of the definition of an atheist is the fact that an atheist does not accept the god-claims as fact. To presuppose the god-claim when describing someone who does not accept it is patently unfair. This is just one of the multitude of ways we atheists get smeared and denounced in public life, and the correction of these travesties is one of the goals of "Positive Atheism."

I don't think you would want Madalyn Murray-O'Hair to write the article on "Christian" in the dictionary, or you might look it up and read: "a person who actually has the audacity to believe silly myths." Likewise, we do not appreciate the fact that people who presuppose the existence of a deity form the language defining "atheist" that winds up "in almost every commonly accepted authority." That these reference books have missed a crucial point when defining "atheist," and have retained an inaccurate and demeaning bias in their definitions, is an issue that we have brought up with more than one reference book publishing company. A thorough discussion of this issue, and the issue of just how hard it is to define the word "atheist" is "Defining Atheism" by George H. Smith. I highly suggest you read it.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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From: Positive Atheism <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: Timothy Herrman
Subject: Re: via What is Positive Atheism?
Date: Friday, August 13, 1999 12:48 AM

I surely enjoy discussions such as this one more than most of the ones posted in our Letters section. I am trying to finish up the Introduction to our FAQ section, but will take some time out for this discussion. (Please be aware that due to medical problems, I cannot spend much time per day at the terminal, and must be sure I can keep my schedule. When I figure out how to do this in the recliner [I'm saving up for a solid-state monitor and one of those swinging arms like they have in a dental office], my body will allow me to spend more time. As it stands now, my legs and feet swell up when I spend too much time in the vertical position and especially in the seated position.)

I got it from George H. Smith "Atheism: The Case Against God"; Chapter 1, "The Scope of Atheism"; Section V., "Jacques Maritain and the Slander of Atheism."

It starts out:

"In The Range of Reason, Maritain devotes more than one dozen pages to the varieties of atheism, and since his classifications are widely used by other Christian sources (such as the Catholic Encyclopedia), it is instructive to examine his approach. Maritain typifies the unfair treatment that atheism has received at the hands of theologians and religious philosophers. Although Maritain presumably intends his classifications to be fair and impartial, they wreak of his personal dislike for atheism. Under the guise of categorizing, Maritain stacks the cards against atheism by assigning to it an inferior moral and psychological status.

"Consider the case of what Maritain calls 'practical atheism.' Practical atheists 'believe that they believe in God (and ... perhaps believe in Him in their brains) but ... in reality deny His existence by each one of their deeds.'..."

This portrayal of atheists is so popular and so long-standing that it has even worked its way into the "Merriam-Webster's" dictionary. MW has, as a synonym for "atheism," the word "wickedness." They call it "archaic" but I challenge that notion, too. In the mind of the common theist, atheism is seen as wickedness, and wickedness is seen as atheism. The two are seen as going together. Remember Psalm 14:1: "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God.'" (At least the psalmist does not make the error of using language that presupposes the theist's side of the discussion when discussing the atheist. It's one thing to call us "fools"; it's quite another to introduce language which answers the very issue under discussion.)

It is precisely this presupposition of the existence of a god that we atheists want removed from the definitions for "atheism." According to Smith, atheistic philosophers have been working on this for a few hundred years, and some of the splinter groups from Madalyn Murray-O'Hair's organization are sponsoring discussions on this matter as we speak. To "understand" is to presuppose, to believe; the very existence of atheists keeps this discussion from being settled in the manner portrayed by your language.

In other words, "wickedness equals atheism." The Church has defined it that way in the mind of the common man, and we atheists, who have done nothing wrong except to reject the claims of the Church, suffer for it. We have to leave the Boy Scouts (unless we're willing to lie); we get beat up in grade school; we are written off by meddling neighbors to the point where other neighbors follow suit; we get passed over for promotions or even let go in a pinch. Theists, mistaken for atheists through the "wickedness equals atheism" doctrine, suffer for it, too.

The Church even absolves itself, I see, by defining excommunication as something the sinner does, not something the Church does.

I will never convince you that it is erroneous, me being a "wicked" atheist, you know! How could I convince you that for you to presuppose your side of the discussion in the very act of making your case is begging the question?

However, I think I have shown (and you appear to have concurred) that the thinking is popular among theists, particularly among Catholics. If nothing else, the existence of the synonym "wickedness" in MW makes the case quite soundly. The prevalence of definitions along the lines of "denies the existence of God" makes this case also. I will agree with MW and the others that "denies the existence of God" is the popular definition for "atheist"; where I disagree is upon its accuracy and its fairness. This definition is both inaccurate and unfair for the same reason: it begs the question.

But the language of your definition for "atheist" does just that.

In an existential argument (where one party claims the existence of something) it seems best to me (and to others) that the burden of proof fall upon the one making the existential claim. In lieu of strong arguments in favor of the existence of something, the presumption would then be toward doubt. This is the case that Antony Flew makes in his famous essay, "The Presumption of Atheism."

I don't see Flew's position as any kind of "cop out." On the contrary, I think it is a good working position for arguments of this type. Otherwise, we observers would be obligated to remain neutral on arguments ranging from claims of the paranormal to claims that the Holocaust occurred to the theory of evolution. No. Evolution, if accepted, would have turned our understanding of reality on its ear. The public and the scientific community rightly demanded extraordinary proof. In the case of evolution, that proof came forth and evolution is now accepted as reality. Ditto for the Holocaust. As shocking (as devastating) as that event was to the collective human mindset, we had to fact the facts as they came forth. Some still deny, but the presumption no longer falls on their side, because of the outstanding arguments made by their opponents in this discussion.

This is precisely what makes Aquinas' arguments so formidable. This is one of many reasons why Aquinas is rightly called the most brilliant philosopher of theology that is ever known to have lived. (I would question calling a philosopher "brilliant" who did not take this burden of proof seriously.) Aquinas understood why the burden of proof falls on one making the existential claim. Arguments that take this into consideration -- up front -- are the ones that are most formidable.

Other possibilities: We cannot adequately verify the god-claim, thus rendering the matter inconclusive (with the burden of proof falling upon the one making the claim, and making doubt [one form of the lack of belief] a reasonable position in lieu if that proof); We cannot agree as to the definition for "God" (the main problem with all interfaith discussions); The one making the god-claim cannot make the nature of the claim understandable to the listener (making noncognitivism [another form of the lack of belief] a reasonable position).

Yes. The existence of atheists means that the question of whether a god exists is unsettled. Therefore, to use language to define "atheist" that presupposes one side or the other of the question is beyond the intelligible limits of the fact that we are dealing with a question -- an argument -- that for the purposes of our discussion -- the meaning of the word "atheist" -- has not been settled.

In other words, the words "theist" and "atheist" have, tightly bound into their meaning, the fact that there is an argument going on. To define one or the other with language that presupposes one or the other position is patently biased against the contrary position. To define these words with language that admits that this argument is not settled is within the intelligible limits of the fact that we are dealing with a question.

No. My cat has no understanding of the term "cat" yet it is proper for me to call her a cat nonetheless. I was a libertarian [small="l", as opposed to a member of the Libertarian political party] for years before I understood that there was a term for what I was. Ditto for atheism: I was pleased to discover that there is a term for what I have been most of my life.

Terms are very useful. I floundered my way around the chessboard until I learned that the various situations in a chess game have names. I was already good at the "fork" but now can think in shorthand using the terms for the situations I hope to accomplish, and no longer have to think move-by-move for the entire game. I could still play a mean game of chess before I learned this, though.

Now that I know that I am an atheist, I no longer flounder and blush when an evangelist approaches me. I know that atheism is a respectful (if not valid) way to think, and I know its name, and I now have a concrete picture of my lifelong reaction to the evangelist. I not only know the name but the issues involved in most discussions of this sort. I also know the history of how theists have treated atheists (which history concurs with the way I was treated as a child and a young adult and beyond).

Until the 1990s, we did not have the term "sexual harassment." Until then, women put into this position had to "wing it" -- if you will. Now, we have concretized this situation with a term and have developed appropriate and effective responses to men who put women (and, occasionally, vice versa) into such situations.

You will agree that to "demonstrate the existence" (if you will) of an invisible and undetectable being whose attributes (omnipotence; omniscience; omnibenevolence) contradict some of our observations, is much harder to do than to demonstrate the correlation between playing in traffic and the likelihood of injury. This would be tougher even if we were to rely solely on abstractions for either argument.

If you can demonstrate to me the existence of the god of Christianity with the same degree of assurance that I have toward the correlation between playing in traffic and the incidence of injury, I will admit that I was a fool. Some things are self-evident to the point where I have yet to meet a person, aged eight or above, who is not demonstrably retarded or crazy in respects other than this, who disagrees with me over the correlation between playing in traffic and the incidence of injury. I think you will agree with me that the existence of the Christian deity is not as self-evident as this. The god-claim needs either more meat to it, or it needs to be instilled from childhood. You will not walk up to many people and convince them based solely on your argument, simply because the object of your claim is not self-evident.

Again: The language of the latter presupposes one side of the argument; the language former merely describes an aspect of the argument without siding with one or the other party. In this, the former is more honest and thus more accurate. It does not go any further than is the case: an argument ensues; one denies the claims of the other.

In your definition for the word "atheist" you presuppose the existence of a deity. Further, you presuppose that what you see as a "rational demonstration" is clear to all. If this was the case, then we wouldn't have discussions such as this. Obviously, this is not the case. Therefore, your definition for "atheist" is both biased and inaccurate. All we can say when describing the unsettled argument is that one group makes a claim and the other does not accept that claim as truth. This falls short of siding with one or the other. To go further is to engage in the argument itself. We are not talking about which side of the argument is true or false; we are trying to find a proper and fair and accurate way to define one party involved in the argument.

It is the meaning of the word if and only if everyone involved sides with the theistic viewpoint. However, there is one party involved who disagrees with the theistic viewpoint: the atheist. The very subject of this discussion is being slandered by the given definition of the word describing him. This is happening because the language "one who denies the existence of God" presupposes that "God" exists, and then says that someone denies this "truth." The atheist more accurately sees this as a matter of one party making a claim and the other party disagreeing with that claim.

Theism is, in fact, all about claims. "Faith comes by hearing."

But I am not a naturalist. I am not a humanist. I am a secularist (among other things) in my politics, but refuse to deny a religious person their right to -- and the dignity of -- their religion, I am not a relativist (and to suggest such, in the context that you did, by the definition that you use, is rightly seen by me as slander).

At this point you are simply making statements. You have said, over and over, that theism can be "rationally demonstrated." I have yet to see a demonstration of theism from you, and am beginning to question whether there is a demonstration or rationality here. You have simply stated that the theistic position has been rationally demonstrated. You have made no effort at rationally demonstrating your position.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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From: Positive Atheism <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: Timothy Herrman
Subject: Re: via What is Positive Atheism?
Date: Friday, August 13, 1999 12:46 AM

Now we're talking! An atheist denies the claims -- and disagrees with the arguments and conclusions -- of the theist. This definition does not presuppose the truth of theism, but merely states facts upon which we can both agree: Theist make claims and puts forth arguments and reaches conclusions; atheists disagree with the theist regarding those claims and conclusions. To go further than this is to beg the question.

Name an atheistic philosopher from before the eighteenth century who wasn't executed for his beliefs. Name one who lived long enough to have the luxury of discussing this issue, whose writings have survived. Name a society before the eighteenth century where an atheist was paid by the community to think (like priests are paid by the Church to have the luxury of pondering such issues).


I don't accept it. Rather, I think (like Drange) that noncognitivism is a product of the god-claim [not dependent upon the atheist, but the claim]. Drange gives an example that I think is an excellent test whether a god-claim qualifies for the response of noncognitivism: Can the story be cast into a film (such as "The Ten Commandments")? If so, the claim has some semblance of understandability and qualifies for discussion. If the claim cannot be made into a film that the majority of unlearned viewers can conceptualize (excluding, of course, fans of the ultra-abstract), then it qualifies for the noncognitive response.

One example I like to use is the "Not this. Not this" of the Upanishads, discussed in the Introduction to Gora's "An Atheist with Gandhi." Before I became familiar with the noncognitive element of atheistic philosophy, I read this piece. I found it very formidable because it made claims that were not up for discussion, because its claims transcend comprehension (and thus do away with the notion of discussion).

I go further than this in my criticism of Scriven's position: He is dead wrong. [When have we ever] not had claims of the supernatural? I think Scriven intended to say (and I agree with this) is that independently verifiable supernatural events are without precedence in our experience.

The difference between Santa and God, in regards to an existential claim, is that the Santa claimants admit that the claim is fiction.

Meanwhile, every claim is an abstraction. The task is to demonstrate that that abstraction is an accurate description of reality. The menu is not the meal, but we can (usually) use the menu to accurately anticipate what kind of meal we are getting. The map is not the city, but we can use a map to navigate our way through the city. Most architects will make very similar floor plans of a given building, although those floor plans are abstractions and do not represent any view of the building that we can actually observe.

This is why I do not accept a theist's use of the word "God" at face value. There is no face value when everybody has a different understanding of the meaning of that word. I almost always insist on a description for the word. It is the description (an abstract yet very useful description) that we can discuss.

I fail to understand your objection, please recast it.

Also, if "atheism" means one who lacks a god-belief, then your friend fits squarely within that definition. With this definition, one has either learned and accepted a god-claim, or one has not. Smith is challenging the notion of a middle ground, a third category somewhere between theism and the lack of theism. The method used by theists (and some atheists) to establish this middle ground is to insist that an atheist has heard the god claim, [and understood it,] and considered it, and denies it. I have not studied Zoroastrianism. I am still a non-Zoroastrian even though I have not considered the doctrines of Zoroastrianism. I do not hold the Zoroastrian beliefs (as far as I know).

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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