Ol' Tom Cat
by Erwin L. Bailey

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The Atheist's Certainty
by Peter D. Wilson


Neither atheists nor agnostics believe in gods. Whether or not this lack of belief is itself a belief has long been debated and forms part of the disagreement between atheists and agnostics. The atheist confidently proclaims "God does not exist" while the agnostic admits uncertainty and believes nothing (for now). On what do atheists base their claim of nonexistence? Can atheists prove God does not exist? No. They cannot. In fact, it is impossible to prove any nonexistence claim. The reason why is well illustrated by James Randi's 'flying reindeer' experiment.

In American culture there exists a popular story of a man traveling the world one night every year delivering presents to children. This man makes the trip in a sleigh pulled by 8 flying reindeer. Because they lack wings and there is no other known way by which they could fly, flying reindeer appear to violate the laws of nature. What sort of experiment can I do to prove "Reindeer can't fly"? Let's take a bunch of reindeer to the top of a tall building and start pushing them off. How many reindeer must be pushed and killed before we consider the statement proven? After seeing the first few fall to their death I'm willing to accept the postulate without further slaughter but I would not have absolute proof. The possibility still remains that the reindeer we tested were freaks in their lack of ability to fly. Or, they could fly but either chose not to or were prevented from doing so by the features of the experiment like the building not being tall enough or it not being Christmas Eve and hitched to Santa's sleigh. Every reindeer on the planet could fail the test under any number of varying conditions without eliminating all uncertainty. It will always be possible to come up with explanations after the fact as to why the reindeer didn't fly while keeping the central tenet. Eventually as the failures build one must start doubting the entire set of hypotheses and wonder how the idea got started if it is so difficult to find evidence for it. It becomes easier to believe that someone in the past either imagined seeing a reindeer fly or made it up. Regardless, it caught the imagination or met the needs and desires of people and the story was passed on to subsequent generations. So I reject flying reindeer without rigorous proof.

I also cannot prove that ESP and UFOs don't exist, that a god doesn't interfere with the universe, nor even that there is no place on Earth where conservation of energy doesn't hold. There is enough evidence consistent and none inconsistent with these statements in my opinion to consider each highly probable. Therefore, until there is evidence to the contrary I'm willing to accept them as true while fully acknowledging the lack of absolute certainty. The believer, on the other hand, must accept flying reindeer without evidence, i.e. it becomes blind faith. The agnostic is left in the quandary of having to allow for the possibility of anything existing regardless of how outrageous it may be.

I feel justified in accepting or rejecting these claims because they all fall in the realm of the knowable. The reverse of each claim could easily be proven if true. It takes only one reindeer pulling out of its nose dive and soaring through the sky to prove reindeer can fly; only one 10-mile high cross hovering over Ithaca with the words "Believe or Burn!" to convert even the most dedicated atheist. Even without such extraordinary events some level of proof can be obtained through the many claims of religion (special creation of humans, world-wide flood, prophecy, etc). If any of these claims could withstand scientific scrutiny and not be more likely explained by delusion or deception, theists would have a large leg up on atheists. The level of scrutiny, however, is admittedly very high and some theists do cry foul. They would have us judge their claims based on credence of character rather than the weight of evidence. But by their very nature divine interventions violate the laws of physics. Therefore, claims of interventions carry the same demand for evidence as claims of violations of the conservation of energy. Theists' failure to verify or substantiate their claims and the clear disproof of many of them lead people to start questioning the whole theist paradigm. How could a god capable of creating the universe out of nothing be so incompetent when it comes to making its presence known? And why is the creator's handiwork so obviously absent from its creation? Atheists consider the failures of religion to be so complete as to justify rejecting the claim that a deity is influencing the workings of the universe and demanding our obedience and worship. This decision is not made with 100% certainty but rather a certainty near that for accepting the conservation of energy. So until I'm shown a perpetual motion machine that works only when a priest is praying nearby I'm confident a godless universe is so highly probable as to be quite certainly true. And, I'm willing to stake my imaginary, immortal soul on it.

On the other hand when asked how the universe came to be, the most intellectually honest answer is "I don't know" because there is absolutely no evidence upon which to make a judgement. There is no test that can prove, disprove, or even distinguish the different proposed origins. Cosmology can follow the universe back in time to a fraction of a second after creation but might never reach the actual instant of creation. Therefore, to claim as true an origin with or without a god is to step into the unknowable and to base one's beliefs on faith instead of evidence. The First Cause argument works its way back to creation and then defines God as "that which created the universe." One could just as easily define this as Uncle George or Proposition 3 of the Wilson Cosmological Principle. As such the First Cause god is purely definitional and meaningless. Likewise, a god that creates the universe and then sits around but never interferes -- a roi faineant, a do-nothing king -- is meaningless because it is indistinguishable from the First Cause god. The agnostic holds this unknowable god as the hole in the atheist's argument. While a roi faineant is completely consistent with all the evidence (or lack of it), this is not the god in which unbelief defines the atheist. Disbelief in this god is an extra step made on faith that the atheist need not make.

Atheists and agnostics differ in where they draw the line between probable but uncertain and sufficiently probable to be very certain. Because the atheist's position can never be proven, this division is unavoidable. For the theist, however, the two may as well be one since both demand the theist provide evidence for God's existence. The burden of proof is clearly on the theist.

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McQueen left money
to Gaylor's group
Wisconsin State Journal
December 30, 1995


Butterfly McQueen, famous for her Academy Award-winning role as Prissy in the classic film "Gone With The Wind," left the contents of a New York bank account to the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, an organization dedicated to the separation of state and church.

"It was kind of her to remember us," said Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. "It was kind of sweet. It was comforting after her horrible death. We will miss her."

McQueen, a longtime atheist who lived in Augusta, Georgia, died on December 22 of burns suffered when her three-room cottage caught fire.

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Freethought Today
January/February 1996
edited by Annie Laurie Gaylor.

Butterfly McQueen Remembered

Butterfly McQueen, a Life Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and a member since 1981, died tragically of injuries suffered in a kerosene-heater accident at her Augusta, Georgia home on Dec. 22, 1995.

Revelations that Ms. McQueen had remembered the Freedom From Religion Foundation in her will brought surprised nationwide coverage.

Ms. McQueen, 84, was best known for depicting Prissy in the movie "Gone With the Wind."

But those who knew her were familiar with her freethought views. Ms. McQueen, who also contributed to the acquisition of the Foundation's Freethought Hall in Madison, Wisconsin, was nearly a lifelong atheist.

In 1989, the Foundation honored her at its Atlanta convention, coincidentally held during the 50th anniversary of "Gone With the Wind," with a "Freethought Heroine" award.

After brief remarks and a poetry recitation before that audience, she sang "Paper Moon" accompanied by Dan Barker on the piano.

She had also made an appearance at a gathering of the Foundation's New Jersey chapter, organized by Jo and Charline Kotula.

She told Gayle White, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution (Oct. 8, 1989):

"As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion."

Although she was raised a Christian, she began to question the value of organized religion as a child. She related one eye-opening experience with clergy as a youngster, when she was riding a train to New York and offered to share her lunch with two young preachers. Instead of taking "one sandwich and one piece of cake, they took the whole thing."

"If we had put the energy on earth and on people that we put on mythology and on Jesus Christ, we wouldn't have any hunger or homelessness."

Christianity and studying the bible has "sapped our minds so we don't know anything else."

She said she tithed not to religion but "to my friends," spending her energy cleaning up the slums.

"They say the streets are going to be beautiful in heaven. I'm trying to make the streets beautiful here. At least, in Georgia and in New York, I live on beautiful streets.

"When it's clean and beautiful, I think America is heaven. And some people are hell."

Born in Tampa, she gained her unusual name after dancing in a butterfly ballet as a child in a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Interested in purchasing some new furniture, she auditioned for the part of the simple-minded slave Prissy at age 26, and was initially rejected as too old, too plump and too dignified.

"I was the only unhappy one," she reflected years later about the movie shot when she was 28. "It was not a pleasant part to play--I didn't want to be that little slave. But I did my best, my very best."

Her best was very good indeed. Ms. McQueen stole every scene she was in, whether opposite Vivien Leigh or Clark Gable. She was offered a succession of "maid" roles in such movies as "Duel in the Sun," "Mildred Pierce" and "Cabin in the Sky." She once played a WAC sergeant in "Since You Went Away."

She quit movie-acting in 1947 to avoid further typecasting, although she returned as a maid on the TV show "Beulah" in 1950-1953. She appeared occasionally on Broadway, and supported herself in a succession of jobs as a real-life maid, a companion to an elderly white woman, a taxi dispatcher, a saleslady at Macy's, and a seamstress at Sak's.

She told The Guardian during a visit to Great Britain in 1989: "Any honest job I have taken."

"Now I'm happy I did 'Gone With the Wind,'" she once told The Washington Post. "I wasn't when I was 28, but it's part of black history. You have no idea how hard it is for black actors, but things change, things blossom with time."

She returned to films in 1974, playing Clarice in "Amazing Grace" and Ma Kennywick in "Mosquito Coast" in 1986 with Harrison Ford. That same year she appeared in a PBS version of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

She was a continual student, taking classes at five universities and even reading "Gone with the Wind" in Spanish.

In 1975, at the age of 64, Ms. McQueen received a bachelor's degree in political science from New York City College.

An off-stage role she enjoyed was that of Santa Claus at children's hospitals. She reported that children were delighted with a black female Santa with a high voice.

In later years she "adopted" a public elementary school in her beloved neighborhood of Harlem, where she patrolled the playground, picked up litter and looked after the children.

She lived in New York in the summer and Georgia in the winter. Neighbors interviewed after her death said she was known just as "Thelma" by many who did not realize her identity, and as "Momma Mac" to friends.

She liked to ride a bicycle with training wheels around the neighborhood, was a health food advocate and usually lunched at the Belle Terrace Senior Center, where she played and sang from an impressive repertoire of classical music, jazz, and show tunes.

Only the blackened floor and roof of her small wooden cottage, built in back of her larger stucco house which she rented out, remained after the fire. Explosions, probably from two five-gallon containers of kerosene kept for two portable heaters, blew out windows and burned half the house down to the studs.

She ran from her house during the fire, engulfed by flames, suffering second- and third-degree burns over 70% of her body. She was conscious when firefighters arrived and told them how her clothes had caught fire.

One Christian neighbor, Mary Harden, was quoted in the Atlanta Constitution shamelessly exploiting Ms. McQueen's suffering: "I believe she made it into heaven. She threw up both her hands as she was coming out of that burning house, and made it in with Jesus."

In her will, Ms. McQueen named the Foundation as the beneficiary of her Augusta checking account. The amount is not known and it is expected to be months before probate is completed.

In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Foundation President Anne Gaylor recalled how Ms. McQueen stayed in touch over the years through exchanged notes, calling her "gentle and kind," and someone willing to speak freely about her atheistic beliefs.

"She lived very frugally because actors and actresses work sporadically. I was surprised there was money there to leave anyone.

"It was sweet of her to remember us and to regard the separation of church and state and freethought important enough to be remembered."

A cat-lover, Ms. McQueen also remembered the Humane Society, among other groups, and deeded property to renters.

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Detroit News
Newsmakers Sunday

Butterfly McQueen:
A giving person to the very end

December 31, 1995

Butterfly McQueen will be remembered for her role as Prissy in Gone With The Wind -- and for her many bequests. She left her rental homes to the tenants who lived in them, her bank accounts to friends and organizations, and her body to the Medical College of Georgia. McQueen, 84, died Dec. 22 of burns she suffered after her three-room cottage in Augusta caught fire. It's too early to estimate the value and extent of McQueen's estate, said executor Justine Washington.

McQueen requested that awards she has won go to the Schomburg Center for Research of Black Culture at the New York Public Library. She instructed that one savings account be given to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. And she left the contents of another New York account to the Freedom from Religion Foundation Inc. in Madison, Wis., an organization dedicated to the separation of church and state.

Copyright 1995, The Detroit News

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Time Magazine
Milestones

DIED. BUTTERFLY MCQUEEN, 84, actress; of burns received while lighting a kerosene heater; in Augusta, Georgia. In 1937 the New York Times theater critic noticed "the extraordinary artistry of a high-stepping, little dusky creature who describes herself as Butterfly McQueen." Two years later, the world saw McQueen as Prissy, the comically incompetent slave in the film classic Gone With the Wind. Her panicked "Lawdy, Miz Scarlett. I don't know nothing about birthing babies!" became one of the most quoted lines in movie history -- and in later years, a focus of criticism for fitting an "Uncle Thomasina" stereotype. Ironically, McQueen herself fought to humanize the role, refusing to perform even greater indignities like a watermelon-eating scene. By 1947 McQueen decided she would no longer play servants -- a stand that effectively ended her movie career.

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Einstein:

"God does not play dice"
(source unknown)

Einstein did once comment that "God does not play dice [with the universe]." This quotation is commonly mentioned to show that Einstein believed in the Christian God. Used this way, it is out of context; it refers to Einstein's refusal to accept the uncertainties indicated by quantum theory. Furthermore, Einstein's religious background was Jewish rather than Christian.

A better quotation showing what Einstein thought is the following: "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings."

Einstein was unable to accept Quantum Theory because of his belief in an objective, orderly reality: a reality which would not be subject to random events and which would not be dependent upon the observer. He believed that Quantum Mechanics was incomplete, and that a better theory would have no need for statistical interpretations. So far no better theory has been found and evidence suggests that it never will be.

A longer quote from Einstein appears in Science, Philosophy, and Religion, A Symposium, published by the Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, Inc., New York, 1941. In it he says:

The more a man is imbued with the ordered regularity of all events the firmer becomes his conviction that there is no room left by the side of this ordered regularity for causes of a different nature. For him neither the rule of human nor the rule of divine will exists as an independent cause of natural events. To be sure, the doctrine of a personal God interfering with natural events could never be refuted, in the real sense, by science, for this doctrine can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot.

But I am convinced that such behavior on the part of representatives of religion would not only be unworthy but also fatal. For a doctrine which is to maintain itself not in clear light but only in the dark, will of necessity lose its effect on mankind, with incalculable harm to human progress. In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests. In their labors they will have to avail themselves of those forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself. This is, to be sure, a more difficult but an incomparably more worthy task ...

Einstein has also said:

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

The latter quote is from Albert Einstein: The Human Side, edited by Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman, and published by Princeton University Press. Also from the same book:

I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it.

Of course, the fact that Einstein chose not to believe in Christianity does not in itself imply that Christianity is false.

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