Some Words Clarified
I have spent some time reading various essays and articles on atheism which are contained in your web-site. While reading, I noticed the use of several terms which I do not fully understand. Would it be possible to get a brief definition of some of these? I would sincerely appreciate any help you could provide.
Could you supply a definition of the following terms from a positive atheist perspective:
Thank you for your assistance.
From: Cliff Walker <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: Mike Calvert
Subject: Re: PA-via_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: Monday, May 17, 1999 4:50 PM
I don't understand your question. Are you asking me to search for every instance of each of these words, discover the context in which it was used, and then try to decipher what the author probably meant by it?
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
From: Mike Calvert
To: Cliff Walker <email@example.com>
Date: Tuesday, May 18, 1999 7:01 AM
Thank you very much for responding so quickly to my questions. Let me try again ... sorry I was not clear the first time around. I guess what I am searching for is an understanding of what is meant by terms such as "truth," "honesty," "morality," etc ... from the perspective of positive atheism. In other words, what is the foundation for such terms? If an atheist appeals to "truth" or "good," for instance, what does he or she mean? Or to put it yet another way, is there some standard of measurement for determining what is good, true, honest, moral or right?
I sincerely appreciate your assistance and look forward to interacting with you on this subject.
From: "Positive Atheism" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: "Mike Calvert"
Subject: Re: Questions
Date: Sat, 22 May 1999 05:26:34 -0700
As stated on our Mission Statement page, Positive Atheism, as we use the term, derives from the philosophy of Gora, a friend of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhiji developed an ethical system called Satyagraha which, among other things, insists upon the right to insist upon truthfulness in all discussions and transactions. Gora says that Satyagraha applies with or without the theistic elements Gandhi placed into his system. Both systems, that of Gora and that of Gandhi, go much further than we intend to go here, describing elaborate socio-political systems that would never fly in the West.
Among other things, we want to challenge atheists to think about how their atheism affects their sense of ethics and, if pertinent, how their sense of ethics brought about their atheism. Positive Atheism has, as its stated goal, to discuss issues surrounding theism and atheism for the benefit of people who already reject theism. We welcome theists to observe the discussion and to contribute to it, but we do not seek convert theists to atheism. Over the centuries, the many popular theistic philosophical systems have themselves done a fine job at making non-theists of about 20 percent of the world's population. Other factors have prompted a total of about 45 percent to be non-monotheists (1996 World Almanac).
Positive Atheism, of course, advocates state-church separation and the removal of religious ritual from government processes. Most people who support us work hand-in-hand with such groups as the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Joint Baptist Committee.
We try not to go out of our way to alienate theists unless they contact us and treat us arrogantly. Admittedly, we have, at times, had fun with some of the more arrogant theists who write abusive and dishonest letters to us. We do this primarily to showcase the abuses of logic and decorum described in our Clues Index.
Again, I cannot do justice to the terms you want me to define without
a context. Allow me to summarize what I think in general, how and when
I use these terms, and what I usually mean by them. I cannot speak for
anybody but Cliff Walker, a man who raises cats, sings, publishes a tiny
magazine, administers a private website, and studies philosophy, ethics,
and atheology as a hobbies.
I use the word truth most often in the context of conversations and discussions. When I insist upon truthfulness in discussions, this means I don't want anybody to lie to me. For example, if I asked you if you have ever worked as an Associate Pastor at First Baptist Sweetwater, in Longwood, Florida, and if you told me, "No, I have not," I would have very good reason to doubt the truthfulness of what you told me.
The dictionaries also talk about truth as "being in accordance with reality," but we all know that any understanding of "reality" comes filtered through the human nervous system, and ultimately gets interpreted by the human brain. My nervous system differs slightly from yours; we have lived under substantially different circumstances. You may never have experienced going broke and becoming homeless and friendless in a strange city; I never got married and will never get pregnant. Thus, we all have different criteria for interpreting what comes to us via our senses.
Therefore, rather than speaking in terms of truth in this context, I prefer to speak in terms of perception (in the case of the senses) and detection (in the case of instruments) versus the abstract and the imagination (what occurs entirely within the mind). With my hearing impediment, I lack the certainty of whether I have perceived a sound accurately (and sometimes, whether I have perceived it at all). Likewise, I become very frustrated when I have carefully chosen my words, only to have the listener completely misunderstand me anyway.
I do not say, here, that we cannot deem something a fact, I merely warn myself against reaching premature conclusions. Reason acknowledges human fallibility and aims to address that very fallibility. Disagreement spurs argument, with the goal of reaching a common understanding. Confusion and muddled thinking undermine our prospects for understanding; precision of thought strongly counters confusion.
The more I have studied the philosophy of science, the less apt I have
become to use words like truth and reality in an existential
sense. I think it more "truthful" to speak in terms of observations,
measurements, discussions, and opinions. Of course, to use such language
in everyday life could alienate many people (and I'd like to have as many
friends as I can), so I revert to the common language when dealing with
most people. However, the above accurately describes how my mind thinks
much of the time.
I use justice mostly in the legal sense: a society sets up a system of criminal justice. However, the term describes an archaic and outmoded philosophy concerning what we now call the Correctional System. To me, punishment accomplishes nothing except to appease the vindictiveness of a victim or a society. We can never right the wrongs. I can see, for example, a graffiti artist paying money toward clean-up efforts, but nothing will satisfy "justice" (the abstract, philosophical concept) in tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.
The closest we can come to "justice" in the criminal sense has to do with prevention, correction, financial recompense, and the isolation of certain people from society. What the prisons do with them once they isolate them does not concern me: whatever makes the jailers job easiest and prevents inmates from preying upon one another. I do like the idea of prisons going into business to offset costs, and I own a few pairs of Prison Blues jeans for that reason. Torture went out with the Inquisition, and the philosophy behind torture -- punishment -- has shown itself ineffective at solving the crime problem.
As for prevention, I would call financial opportunity the biggest factor overall, although we will never stop a certain number from committing crimes under whatever circumstances. Another strong factor has to do with population density. We do well to address these problems as a society. I also advocate teaching youngsters to think for themselves. This includes learning how to question claims made on television, by politicians, and even by their peers.
We also would do well to stop prosecuting victimless "crimes," such as sex between consenting adults and use of certain drugs. I think we should approach the use of drugs the same way we approach the use of guns: we leave people alone with their guns, but if you use a gun in the commission of a crime, additional incarceration results. With drugs, I think we should leave people alone unless they commit a crime against person or property (DUI; child neglect; assault; theft). Then, if it turns out that drugs inspired the crime, they get extra time for the additional crime of abusing drugs (abuse meaning resulting in criminal behavior). We could even have it so that people who chose to use various "recreational" drugs forfeit certain advantages with their health plan, such as priority for liver transplants. Having worked with hundreds of people charged with drug crimes over the past ten years, I think the single move of stopping America's War on Drugs would change the face of our society for the better, and remove much of the socio-economic motivation for using drugs.
Many people use the word justice almost flippantly, obviously not caring what they mean by the word. I prefer to think in terms of fairness, equity, and perhaps redress, but these all must have a specific context to mean anything. We certainly cannot put the concept of justice into practice with any precision. We can only try.
I've found it helpful to stop using emotionally charged and widely abused words, and to substitute in their place more specific words or descriptions. For example, I worked helping problem drinkers and addicted people for seven years without using the words "alcoholism" and "alcoholic" except to explain why I do not use those words.
Of course, I don't believe in an afterlife where all wrongs get righted: I reject the notion of a precise "karma." Maybe the afterlife that (I assume) you believe in does not work this way either. Even if I did believe in an afterlife, I don't see how it would work toward any conceivable justice. For example, the thought of justice in an afterlife seems to belittle the Holocaust victims' experience. And just what kind of punishment would a man like Timothy McVeigh or Adolf Eichmann earn if a god applied precise justice to either situation?
For these and other reasons, I avoid the use of the word justice
and prefer to use other, more specific, more direct words and definitions
to communicate my thoughts and ideas.
I use ethics and morality interchangeably in my own thoughts and in much of my writing. However, many atheists do not like the term morality, so that influences my use of the word somewhat. Many call ethics a science; morality seems to describe behavior of religious or traditional nature.
Many theists who write here accuse us of having no source of morals. I disagree. We should teach and study the ability to make morally right decisions as a skill rather than palmoff morality as a set of Dos and Don'ts handed down from ancient times. In fact, I challenge theists, armed with a set of commandments, to describe to me how they would decide how to act in a tough situation they have never encountered.
Theism has many other problems that prevent me from calling it a universally valid source for morals. Does a theist consider God as the source of good or does God merely know good from evil? With God as the source of good, then we simply take God's word for it, making obedience the only good. Why does God gives humans the ability to develop moral systems and make moral decisions unless she or he intends for us to make use of this ability?
The other theistic possibility, deeming God independent of, and thus subject to, good and evil does not sound very good for the theist. This means that we can discover good from evil without God's guidance, because good and evil exist independently of God.
If obedience constitutes good behavior, then the theist must find a reliable way of knowing God's will. Would God implant a thought directly into my mind? How would I distinguish such a revelation from my own thinking and my own imagination? On the other hand, if God uses a prophet, then we deal with nothing more than hearsay. God may have spoken to the prophet, but he or she said nothing to me; thus, I have no obligation to believe it.
I would consider the words of a dead prophet even less trustworthy than those of a living one. The gods of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism entrusted their Scriptures into very questionable hands. Political maneuvering, suppression, the gradual but constant evolution of language, and the need to translate and interpret all would render even a bona fide scripture completely untrustworthy.
The modern "What Would Jesus Do" movement among young Christians wins my limited respect. It seems to reflect the notion of developing the skill of making moral decisions. This works in spite of the atmosphere of tyranny and fear that prevails in the Bible.
The biblical Jesus said very little about morality, his main precepts including: love God, beleive in Jesus, love man, have purity of heart, and practice humility. (I would reject the first two, seek a context for the third, and practice the last two only under specific conditions.) Nevertheless, the WWJD kids probably base their ideas of morality on their own conceptions of Jesus. Most see Jesus as (among other things) the ultimate example of morality that has ever lived. Thus, they likely think to themselves, "What would the ultimate example of morality do in this situation?" By seeing Jesus (thus described) as a role model, rather than in a master-slave relationship, these kids have a good start.
Even with the exploitation and commercialization that the WWJD movement has attracted, I still respect it as one method for developing moral decision-making skills. It lacks the elements for dealing directly with complex ethical issues, but I think it makes for a good start for Christian youngsters.
Meanwhile, there exist other systems for learning how to make moral decisions (even complex ones), many of which do not necessarily involve any form of theism or any notion of a god or gods. Like all theistic systems, the nontheistic systems have their strong and weak points. However, theism by no means has an exclusive claim to morals.
Immanuel Kant spoke of good will as the ultimate measure of good behavior. He also distinguished between ethical imperatives that require a further goal before they can have any force, and imperatives that apply regardless of any context or circumstances. An example of the former includes the fact that I seek friendliness from others; thus, I try to act friendly and peaceable toward others. Within the latter class, I would include "Thou shalt not steal." I cannot call stealing morally permissible without contradicting myself, because I would set myself up to becoming a victim of theft. Perhaps the item I stole would, in turn, get stolen from me! Kant's system, though it has its limitations (like any system does), requires no god-concept.
Jeremy Bentham developed a system later popularized by John Stuart Mill, called Utilitarianism. Mill advocated making decisions that bring the least amount of pain (or the greatest amount of happiness) overall, even if you stand to lose out by making such a decision. Utilitarianism, like Kant's system, provides a powerful basis for making good ethical decisions, without need of theism.
The virtue-based systems, focusing more on the community than upon the individual, date back to Aristotle. Modern advocates include Edith Hamilton and Paul Kurtz. Virtue-based systems focus not on a list of right and wrong behavior, but rather on the character of the one making the decision. Instead of one's character counting as that which distinguishes an individual from the rest, a virtue-based system sees character as involving one's share in the qualities partaken by all. A society works to instill in its youngsters the habit of responding appropriately to moral choices. With this method, a list of laws almost sounds inappropriate.
Paul Kurtz, in his book Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism,
he lists several "common moral decencies": integrity, including
truthfulness, promise-keeping, sincerity, and honesty; trustworthiness,
including fidelity and dependability; benevolence, including good-will,
refraining from harming others, respecting the property of others, sexual
consent, and beneficence; and fairness, including gratitude, accountability,
justice, tolerance, and cooperation. I concur with each and all of these
decencies. Our mother strongly emphasized this system when raising us,
though we did get strong doses of other nontheistic systems from our father.
Plato asked, "What is the good?" I don't limit good to any single thing. Can we properly call something good in and of itself? This would involve divorcing the thing in question from its context and environment, and seeing if it has the intrinsic quality of "goodness." Even if we could do this, I don't see how it would apply to us as humans, living always within an environment.
The most tangible good involves searching for good things. Happiness and misery determine goodness and badness. All good things do some harm, somewhere; nevertheless, the pursuit of good pays off.
To me, the greatest good, the greatest virtue (the greatest "gift" if you will), involves our ability to reason, our ability to make good use of our capacity to think. Reason seems to command a love of truth so that we believe, disbelieve, or suspend judgement based upon the balance of reasons available. Good reason looks for the practical and for balance. I often suggest to people that they take note of both the causes and the consequences of their beliefs. Some people depreciate reason by thinking of it as one of many tools in a toolbox. To me, reason -- thinking -- makes the entire toolbox. We don't have anything else to go on.
Religion, when inimical to reason and truth, produces more evil than
good. Religion as a whole provides no good reason for behaving morally,
and never appears as the only inspiration for people behaving ethically.
Alone, insecure, and doomed to close our eyes forever after only a few
moments of life, the human race can (if we want) meet this situation with
cheerfulness, courage, love, compassion, and dignity, by seeking, discovering,
affirming, and pursuing our ideals. In other words, we make the best we
can with what we've got. No one can do more.
Honesty, a subordinate of integrity, means doing what I say and saying what I do. (I would add to this that I keep no secrets when negotiating with others.) When people lie, every attempt to adjust the story to fit the lie only makes the lie more apparent. I have no use for people who do this. I avoid them whenever I can, and I call them on their lies when I feel I must.
We should only define lies as deliberate falsehoods. Sometimes we do not know when make untruthful statements, because we work with faulty information, though we think we tell the truth. I try to practice patience and give people the benefit of the doubt when this happens -- especially when it comes to a theological discussion.
Many theists have learned to repeat a certain creed from childhood, and then to assert that they believe in the truthfulness of the creed. Some live through life without ever examining what the creed even means, let alone whether it holds water or whether it even makes sense. The creationists who have written to tell us about the Second Law of Thermodynamics probably have never examined any of the basic atheological arguments, such as the Argument from Evil and the Argument from Nonbelief. (One poor fellow probably couldn't state the Second Law of Thermodynamics to save his life!)
I avoid putting myself in this situation by trying never to assert something
unless I believe it to be true.
A political authority establishes a system of laws, and enforces them through its might. Such an authority may or may not have the consent of the governed.
I tend to agree with Thoreau: "Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient" (Letter, 31 July 1849, to Ellen). In his "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience," Thoreau said, "that government is best which governs least," with which I also concur. Thomas Paine had similar sympathies.
In my personal life, I try not to disobey any laws that I know exist, and I respect others who do likewise. The only exception I make for this occurs when my disagreement with a law outweighs my fear of any consequences that may arise from my disobedience. (I never think in terms of, "Can I get away with it?") In this sense, I acknowledge that the government has more and bigger guns than I, though not necessarily more sense.
For example, I have toyed with an idea ever since the Flag "Desecration" Amendment became popular. (If one can "desecrate" a flag, how does that differ from treating the flag like a sacred idol, thereby violating the First Commandment? And what happens if I incinerate a letter that has on it a flag stamp as postage?) Anyway, I fantasized going to the State Capitol (assuming the amendment passes), calling all the press, and burning a flag to symbolize that the true meaning of our flag had just died, that we no longer have the Liberty to speak against our government. Our flag and what it really symbolizes means enough to me to become a test case for that stupid law. Now, since my health went south, I no longer feel I can afford to spend the time in prison required to become such a test case. Besides, the amendment probably will not pass.
I also use the word law in science. A law describes a way in which the universe operates, in a manner that we can test. We cannot test a principle, though some scientists carelessly use the two words interchangeably. We can verify the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle through experimental testing; thus, they should have called it the Heisenberg Law of Uncertainty, or some such name. The law of gravitation says that an iron axe head will not float unassisted in water, and that a man cannot walk unassisted on water as he can on dry land. No amount of testing has overthrown the law of gravitation: you can hang your hat on it.
Similarly, a theory refers only to a set of hypotheses and predictions
that we can test, and preferably that we have already successfully tested.
To a scientist, a theory has everything to do with the facts. Outside of
science, people use the word theory much differently: once we establish
a statement as fact, we stop describing it as "just a theory."
Not so, in science: theory means much more than that.
I hope this helps. If you have any further questions, please feel free to write back. I always enjoy a thought-provoking question or discussion. Be aware that I spend the last week of each month working all my available hours to put together the magazine, so some mail gets buried in the Inbox.
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.