(November, 1998: updated from, "What is Positive Atheism?")
(September, 2004: enlarged with third segment: )
Since the purpose of Positive Atheism magazine is to engage in discussion, it's okay to say that we aren't exactly sure what we mean. That is the whole point: we don't have any revelation, written in stone, once and for all, that pretends to be a guide for living. We, as atheists, must come up with our own answers to the tough questions in life. We may also find the need to leave such questions open for discussion.
The initial ideas inspiring Positive Atheism magazine involve atheism as the basis of one's outlook on life and the motive for action. At the same time, we recognize that, for many people, atheism may be the result of one's pre-existing zeal for truth, and not necessarily the cause.
How does the fact that this is our only crack at living influence my decisions and my behavior? Am I awed by the thought that this DNA-based life form has evolved to a point to where it is able to be awed by such a thought? If theism is falsehood (and thus atheism, truth), then how do I respect truth in everyday matters?
Positive Atheism magazine sees atheism as being a positive, healthy outlook -- much healthier than any theistic approach to life. As such, this magazine goes beyond the denunciation of theism and the advocacy of socio-political issues such as separation of state and church and civil rights for atheists. In addition, we explore atheism as a basic component in one's personal ethical system and as an important source for socio-political progress throughout history.
In the forefront of these discussions is the fact that people, cultures, and times differ; therefore, it is impossible to have a single outlook or set of values fit every person, society, or era. A "Unified Theory" in this respect is probably impossible, and certainly not desirable. If two people agree on absolutely everything, chances are that one of them is doing all the thinking.
(These questions are not mutually exclusive: either, both, or neither may be relavant to your experience.)
Does your atheism impact your outlook on life? If so, describe how.
Is your atheism the result of your outlook on life? If so, describe how.
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Positive Atheism, as we use the term, is atheism that walks its talk and talks its walk. In his book Positive Atheism, Gora said, "The insistence on truthfulness does not disturb the freedom of the individual. An atheist is free to say or to do what he likes, provided he does what he says and says what he does."
A person practicing Positive Atheism does not merely profess atheism, but also acts as if atheism is true. This pulls atheism down from the dusty shelves of philosophy and metaphysics, and plants it squarely into the real world of everyday life.
Before we explore how an atheist can act inconsistently with atheism, we will examine ways theist are said to act inconsistently with theism or, in other words, to act like atheists.
It must be remembered that any discussion of theism gives the impression that we are working with a valid definition of theism. Many atheists deny that there is such a thing as a valid definition for theism. A few theists are also beginning to wonder about this. In addition, all atheists recognize that every system of theism is man-made, just as all atheistic systems are man-made.
Theism, when it submits to a Scripture or Revealed Dogma, sets its followers up for hypocrisy. This is because a Scripture is usually a set of rules or laws, written in stone, for all people, for all societies, for all time. End of discussion. The only discussion to remain concerns how to interpret the words, never whether the Scripture itself is true or applicable. The truth is that times change and people and societies differ. They cannot obey because no single system can be tailored to a given individual or society or situation. A theistic system, allegedly coming from a so-called Higher Power, is not negotiable.
Some theologians within Western Protestantism admit this and have begun to question the validity of the Bible itself. Most notable among these are American Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong and German Lutheran theologian Gerd Lüdemann. Lüdemann, we are told, recently became consistent with his findings and renounced Christianity altogether. The brilliant English scholar Michael Donald Goulder, after having been considered for the position of Anglican bishop, suddenly resigned both the priesthood and the Christian Church in 1981 to become what he described as "a nonagressive atheist." (from Why Christianity Must Change Or Die by John Shelby Spong, Chapter III, Page 44)
Are Christians who do not believe in the divinity of Christ or the inspiration of the Bible better off becoming atheists? Are they really atheists proper, who simply have not faced up to this "fact"?
Many theists think other theists act like atheists when they disobey the religion. If "true faith" either inspires or displays certain moral standards, then theism is forced to account for how believers can disobey the creed and still be counted among the faithful. Plato described three reasons why people would speak or act against the dictates of religion: First, such people do not believe that the gods exist. Secondly, such people do not think the gods are concerned with the affairs of this world. Finally, they think the gods can easily be bought with prayers and sacrifices.
When a believer does not meet the standards of a religion, other believers tend to think he somehow does not really believe. After all, "ye shall know them by their fruits." So a defiant believer is called a very derogatory name: "atheist." This tendency to purify theism by defining its undesirables and problem children into the atheistic camp betrays the knotty problems resulting from the surrender to an impossible dogma that cannot be altered. The redefinition technique is as old as the Bible and is still in wide use today.
A very real way theists act like atheists is by taking certain things into their own hands. In most systems, the deity supposedly takes care of his children. Theists who go to a doctor for healing or who save money for the future are acting like atheists in this respect, regardless of their profession of faith.
In Benjamin Franklin's day, to erect a lightning rod was to deny that God directed the lightning -- and to suggest that the other previously god-ordained events have natural explanations. Charles Darwin showed that mankind had no creator, and Ivan Pavlov suggested that mammals (including humans) are much more machine-like than any of us care to admit.
As Goulder put it, the god of the past "no longer [has] any real work to do." (from Why Christianity Must Change Or Die by John Shelby Spong, Chapter III, Page 44) Should such theists profess atheism because they are behaving (in this way, at least) as you would expect atheists to act?
Are there people who profess no faith, but who act like theists? Gora, an atheistic leader in India during the mid-20th century, says that when people surrender to something they are practicing theism. In this sense, Materialism, Capitalism, and Communism can be called forms of theism, and are called just that in Gora's works.
Many Western atheists would not agree, and would limit theism to the belief in a god. Of course, questions arise as to whether there exists a legitimate definition for the word "god"? Gora's ideas are food for thought nonetheless. Gora coined the term "Positive Atheism" and, in his writings, it has a specific meaning.
Can you think of ways in which a theist acts as you would expect an atheist to act?
Can you think of ways in which an atheist acts as you would expect a theist to act?
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The most basic component of atheism that separates it from other elements of an individual's outlook is that if atheism is true then religion and theism are falsehood. Of course, theists think their religion is true and atheism and other religions are falsehood: every sane person is this way in at least some respects.
What does this mean for atheists? To reject a religious claim as falsehood is to imply that one respects truth. If we wish to be consistent, then those of us who respect truth must deal truthfully in everyday matters as well as when engaged in a philosophical discussion. Mahatma Gandhi called this consistency Satyagraha. In his book Positive Atheism, Gora, described Satyagraha, as follows:
Satyagraha means insistence on what one knows to be the truth. The insistence implies the exercise of free will as the need of social obligation. If one is content to know the truth himself, he does not become a votary of Satyagraha. A Satyagrahi should not only know the truth but should insist upon it in social relations. So Satyagraha is activation of truthfulness. [from Chapter III, "Atheistic Philosophy"]
Gora further elaborates:
... Satyagraha is basically atheistic inasmuch as a votary of Satyagraha insists on his right to insist on the honesty of another in social relations. Further, truth is demonstrable and verifiable. So it is open. [from Chapter III, "Atheistic Ethics"]
Simple atheism is the lack of theism, and most of us who think about our atheism reject theism as a false way to describe metaphysical matters. Positive Atheism, however, seeks self-consistency through insisting on honesty in all social matters, not just philosophy. This goes hand in hand with our insistence on honesty in metaphysical matters: the two are consistent. Without one or the other, we are inconsistent.
U.S. founding father Thomas Paine tells how dishonesty in social matters can impair other endeavors (in our case, the advocacy atheism as a metaphysical viewpoint):
A man will pass better through the world with a thousand open errors upon his back than in being detected in one sly falsehood. When one is detected, a thousand are suspected. [quoted from Joseph Lewis' book Inspiration and Wisdom from the Writings of Thomas Paine, page 201]
Positive Atheism does not simply say, "There are no gods!" or "Religion is bunk!" Rather, Positive Atheism, simply by calling theism a false system, posits atheism as truth. If atheism is truth, if atheism is truly a superior outlook, then we will inevitably show it in our actions, in our dealings with others, and in our respect for truth. Otherwise, it's all just talk.
(These questions are not mutually exclusive. Please read them all before answering any of them: a few may become redundant depending upon how you answer them.)
Is truthfulness necessarily the highest ethic or moral? Are other morals or ethics necessarily higher than truthfulness?
Do you hold truthfulness to be the hightest moral or ethic? (Why?) If not, what is your top ethical or moral priority? (Why?)
What ethics might certain individuals rightly hold as higher than truthfulness? What aspects of these values might put the values ahead of truthfulness in a person's list of priorities? what allows them to rightly fall ahead of truthfulness in one's list of priorities?
As with the questions above, Does your atheism inspire your current system of values? Does your system of values impact your atheism?
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I literally tossed this page together in a matter of 30 minjutes or so. We'd just been informed that Bobbi and I (who published PAM's predecessor) would not be allowed to oppose the move (by two members) to drive me out of the atheist group that I'd loved and supported for the previous seven years. This was just as well, really; our attitudes toward organized atheism are described and discussed in PAM's FAQ essay, "Why Advocate For Individual Activists?" with Juan De Gennaro).
While discussing our later participation in a statewide Symposium of atheistic groups, we realized that we could not think of a single valid reason why atheists ought to organize at all, why atheists ought to join together to form a group whose membership is limited to atheists -- even though we thought of plenty of reasons why our religious counterparts (if you will) ought to do just that!
Our reasoning is based on the premise that atheism is nothing, really. For almost every man who is an atheist, his atheism is way down toward the bottom of his list of traits by which he thinks about himself, by which he identifies himself in his own thoughts and, more importantly, by which he wishes to be identified by others. Unlike many theists, most atheists rarely if ever even think about their own thiesm. Of course! Their atheism is not about themselves but about other people! Their atheism is not about their own lack of religion (that's normalcy, really), but about other people's adherence to religion, and how the atheists distinguish themselves from the theists *in this one respect*!
My atheism describes what other people think, do, and say, and then distinguishes me from those people. My atheism says absolutely nothing about what I think, do, and say -- beyond this one very minor distinction, of course, this remarkably unimportant way in which I differ from most others. Who I am, what I think, do, and say, my identity, if you will, is not as "an atheist" but as something else -- as anything else, really. Literally, my identity is as anything but "an atheist" (although I draw the line when people start presuming I'm a theist: there lies the usefulness of my atheism in its entirety).
So if I'm not "an atheist" in the sense of my self-identity, then who am I?
I sing, I write, I am a social activist; I prefer the company of my animals to that of virtually all humans I've met. (Sorry.) I'm also a deep thinker and speak with great precision. The observant person who spends a lot of time with me will notice a few idiosyncracies with my speech: I have a mild stuttering problem, but have spent so many years in gruelling self-therapy that hardly anybody would identify it as such. In fact, I have suffered from -- and overcome -- numerious disabilities during my lifetime.
To see me today, the first thing one would notice, unfortunately, is that I have a moderate mobility impairment: I walk with difficulty and a cane, and use my arms for much of my vertical locomotion (getting out of chairs, etc.). With this comes a powerful set of arms hung upon a more-than-ample skeleton. A curvature between the shoulder blades can be seen through all but the most overstuffed ski jackets. In order to get around at all (with my arms, mostly), I treat the spinal curvature problem medically; this puts a jovial and carefree air about me.
All this is very recent, however. Four years ago, you would have seen a large man with an ample skeleton and huge, muscular legs from years of walking, bike-riding, and working ou.t The curvature, severely limiting my bodybuilding choices. This is just as well, because my legs have always been thicker than normal. On top of being big and strong, I have always been a bit bit clumsy, like a teen who still hasn't gotten used to his new body.
Add to this a powerful voice, trained in singing, poetry reading, and radio-TV announcing, with an upper range along side that of Eric Burdon or John Lennon but a lower range down there with John Wayne or they guy who sings lead on "Big Bad John." No wonder a significant number of people are intimidated by my presence until they get to know me. This is part of the reason I kept my hair long: it kept me from seeming like the cop or the military man that I most definitely am not!
Extraordinarily healthy for my age (until three years ago), I was "closing in on 40" when I crossed paths with a well-to-do man who, it turns out, is at least five years my junior. Balding and well on the road to muscular atrophy, he seemed as much at home in his late-model convertable something-or-other as I was on my 1968 Schwinn Continental (with the classic round fork tubing). At least twelve miles from civilization plus twice again that far from the city, he made a remark about how he'd probably be capable of doing what I was doing "if I were still your age."
"How old do you think I am?" I asked him -- in a spirit of curiosity, rather than an air of braggadocio.
Surprised at this, he gazed intently at my face (for crow's feet?) and asked, deliberately and very methodically, "Well, how old are you!?"
I flashed an almost-wink and smiled, "Put it this way: I'm rapidly closing in on The Big Four-Oh!"
His face fell, but his eyes remained focused on mine as he placed his hand on the door to his convertable, not quite fumbling for the latch to let himself back in, but not really looking at what he was doing. As the door opened, his eyes still fixed on mine, he shook his head "no" in disbelief as he half-muttered, half-hissed a barely audible, "Fu-u-uck yo-o-ou-u!!" It was like he knew better than to check my ID!
I walked over and said, "I notice that you've had some goals for yourself and for your life, and have been more than fortunate in accomplishing those goals -- and then some. You have many things that I couldn't even *dream *of having: to do so would simply tear me apart. curious than made a , greying, : he cussed me out upon learning that I was not, as he suspected "many years" his junior, as I was still putting between 60 and 120 miles per day on the old Schwinn. I have also spent most of my adulthood with a full head of butt-length hair.
I am an odd man with very unusual tastes, accented by the fact that I never bothered to buy a television set after moving out of the parents' house 30 years ago.
I could go on, but I won't, except to say that none of this, absolutely none of it, has anything whatsoever to do with my atheism except that -- incidentally -- I'm not religious. But you wouldn't see that about me if you met me in person.
I'm doing this only to show that what I have in common with other atheists is -- umm -- er, uh -- my humanity.
And only my humanity!
This being the case, what is there about atheism that causes me to be similar to or more compatible with another atheist? In other words, why might we stand a better chance in a social setting? Religion does not cripple or impair a religionist's social skills or prospects for being a good friend. Okay, Evangelicalism, with its mandate to constantly be recruiting new members, often provokes religionists to make friendships as a means to widen thier field of propagandizing -- but this is about the only exception. And religious nuts are just that: nuts. They are not religious; rather, their illness or obsession just happens to have manifested itself as a religious expression. Meeting people is not a valid reason to create a social situation that is based upon mutual atheism.
Neither is activism a valid reason for creating an atheists-only group. I cannot think of any issue, besides the propagation of atheism, that is not better off by opening up the field to theists. Even reducing the bigotry against atheists is something that would interest a great number of religious congregations. If nothing else we could get come great pointers from other sects.
Would you rather socialize in a setting where there were no theists, where everybody was the type of atheist who would join a similar group?
Can you think of any form of social activism that would be improved by eliminating theists from the volunteer force?
This Entire Page is Open to Revision.