by Cliff Walker
1. What Is Atheism?
"But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing. The sun needs no inscription to distinguish him from darkness." 
-- Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man
One purpose of Positive Atheism Magazine is to discuss the nature of atheism and to educate the public about atheism. We are not trying to recruit anyone to atheism. However, we deplore the misrepresentations and other lies against us, resulting in marginalization, vilification, and discrimination (they are no longer allowed to execute us in this country). It is wrong for us to feel we must lie to others about our lack of belief in order to get along peacefully in society. We borrow a metaphor from the homosexuals and think it's time that we "come out of the closet" about the nature of our atheism.
-- Cliff Walker, from the section "Atheism as Vitriolic Smear Word" of "Introduction To Atheistic Activism" (below) 
a. Regular Atheism.
The definition for atheism that we use, put simply, says that atheism is the lack of a god-belief, the absence of theism, to whatever degree and for whatever reason. The one thing that all atheists have in common, according to this definition, is that they are not theists. One either believes one or more of the various claims for the existence of a god or gods (is a theist) or one does not believe any of those claims (is an atheist). Though we do not recognize any "middle ground," we do acknowledge the agnostic position, which spans both theism and atheism: a theistic agnostic thinks one or more gods exist but can say no more on the subject than this (is a theist); an atheistic agnostic doesn't know if any gods exist (lacks a god belief, and is thus an atheist). Noncognitivists think all god-talk is meaningless, and thus lack any god beliefs (are atheists).
This, our working definition for the meaning of the words atheism and atheist, is known as the weak definition for the word atheism. We will cover several aspects of this definition during this discussion.
To assume that atheism involves more than the absence of theism is an error. Atheists are not necessarily Communists  (though some are). Atheists are not necessarily immoral or "wicked"  (though some are). Atheists do not necessarily assert that "no gods exist" (though some do). Atheism is but one component of an atheist's larger philosophical outlook and can influence that outlook, but atheism is never itself that primary outlook.
Some atheists simply lack belief (or even awareness) while others have carefully considered the various claims and have either found them unconvincing or have flat-out rejected them as pure falsehood. Even if a person has never heard someone claim that a god or gods exist, that person lacks theism and is therefore, technically, an atheist. Nevertheless, most atheists would convert to theism if presented with a convincing argument, be they people who have yet to encounter claims for the existence of gods, or be they people who have honestly and carefully considered and rejected those claims that they have encountered.
One very important feature of the atheistic position is the fact that we are dealing entirely with claims -- claims that various deities exist. In discussing claims, it is always the person making the claim who is responsible for providing evidence and strong argument. The person listening to the claim need not make any argument at all. And the listener does not need to disprove a claim in order to reject it. If the person making the claim fails to make a convincing case, the listener rightly rejects the claim as falsehood (or suspends judgment, based upon the strength of the claim). In either event, the listener ends up lacking a belief in the object of the claim. While the world's atheists have assembled a vast and powerful arsenal of anti-theistic arguments, it is never the atheist's responsibility to prove or disprove anything. That job belongs to the person making the claim, which, in this discussion, is the theist.
And in lieu of hearing a convincing argument for the existence of gods, we remain without theistic beliefs: We remain atheists.
i. Vilifying One-Fifth of Humanity.
We atheists have been vilified throughout history, to the point where many of us are scrambling to replace the word atheist with something else. But changing the word will not change the nature of our position. Be it the mere absence of faith or the strong belief that no gods exist, it is our position with respect to the god question that draws the ire of so many theists. The problem is more conceptual than linguistic, so developing new words can contribute little toward solving this problem. Our most effective weapon would probably be to popularize a particular understanding of what atheism is, and to let that understanding stand on its own merits.
We cannot change denigrating Bible passages such as: "The fool  hath said in his heart, There is no God";  "He that believeth not shall be damned";  "For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made ... so that they are without excuse ... that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God ... and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.... And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind." 
But we can explain the nature and range of nonbelief, and we can discuss our reasons for rejecting theism. We can remind believers that the theistic position consists entirely of claims, controversial and untestable claims; that the theist is obligated to prove those claims; that the listener (the atheist) is not obligated to prove anything. We can show the wide range of degree encompassing atheism, that some have yet to hear a god claim that holds water (the weak position) while others have honestly and carefully weighed the various arguments (the strong position). And we can offer the many positive arguments that favor the view that no gods exist.
An atheist can cut short much of this stereotyping by: (1) pointing out that the strength of conviction among atheists varies as widely as it does among theists; (2) emphasizing the fact that the theism-atheism discussion revolves entirely around the claims made by theists, not any denials made by atheists; (3) insisting that the burden of proof rests upon the one making the claim, not on the listener.
ii. Noncognitivism: "The God Idea Makes no Sense."
Many atheists find that the very idea of a god makes no sense. A. J. Ayer, in his classic Language, Truth, and Logic, calls this noncognitivism, as do many modern writers, including Theodore M. Drange.  Ayer said, "if the assertion that there is a god is nonsensical, then the atheist's assertion that there is no god is equally nonsensical, since it is only a significant proposition that can be significantly contradicted."  In other words, if the statement "God exists" makes no sense because we cannot define the word God, then it is absurd to counter by saying, "God does not exist."
Ayer's position presupposes that atheism is the belief that no gods exist (the strong definition for the word atheism). However, if atheism is simply the absence of theism (the weak definition for atheism), then a noncognitivist lacks a god belief simply because that claim make no sense, and thus fits snugly within the framework of atheism.
Michael Martin maintains that "a case can be made that religious language is unverifiable and hence factually meaningless when it is used in a sophisticated and nonanthropomorphic way."  But he warns against relying upon the verifiability of religious language to support our case: "The thesis that the sentences 'God exists' and 'God does not exist' are factually meaningless is only prima facie justified. This is so because a commonly accepted and fully developed theory of meaning is not yet available. Until one is, we must rest content with a partial theory and a partial justification."  Martin thus acts "as if talk about God is factually meaningful" and develops independent grounds for the case that the sentence 'God exists' is not true. He further assumes "that the sentence 'God does not exist' is factually meaningful" and makes a case for this position as well. 
Although a noncognitivist typically rejects all god-talk as nonsense, a "noncognitive approach" can be used by any atheist depending on the nature of the discussion at hand. In this sense, if I can conceptualize your description of a god, I can reject your god claim if it does not hold water. But if I can't even conceptualize your description, I may consider myself a noncognitivist with regard to your claim (though not necessarily a noncognitivist with respect to all god-talk).
Drange shows that in C. B. DeMille's film The Ten Commandments, "God is portrayed as a mighty being who knows what is happening everywhere, who speaks to people in a deep male voice, and who brings about spectacular miracles, apparently through some process akin to telekinesis. Thus, ... I guarantee that the sentence that expresses [that that being exists] is a cognitive one."  Thus, it is good policy for an unbeliever to insist upon a description of what it is we are expected to believe.
An interesting twist on the cognizability question comes up whenever a theist tells an atheist (or an other theist) that one must experience "true faith" in order to see that it's true. The implication here is that "true believers possess a secret and unseen truth that is incomprehensible to (and deliberately hidden from) all outsiders -- particularly scholars, intellectuals, and thinkers."  To this one might respond: "If I am unable to understand this, not being 'spiritual' (or whatever), why are you trying to convince me of this in the first place?"
Shri K. G. Mashruwala describes not a secret withheld from some, but an incomprehensibility through which none can reach. In his "Introduction" to Gora's An Atheist With Gandhi,  he recites two passages from the Upanishads: "Not this, not this -- beyond all that is cognizable" and "From which, along with the mind, words turn back." These, he says, show that the god of the Upanishads defies human understanding. However, Mashruwala, quips, "Ordinarily, this should lead one to expect that if God was beyond human ... comprehension, there should be very little literature about Him.... But this is not what writers and seers usually do." 
iii. Three Coordinates of Atheism.
We will examine three axes or coordinates involved in defining atheism; describing the positions of individual atheists, and understanding the nature of the debate over whether gods exist. First, the debate over how to define the word atheism takes the form of either the strong definition (that only those who assert that no gods exist are atheists) versus the weak definition (that atheists, at minimum, lack a god belief for whatever reason). Secondly, individual atheists hold either the weak position (simply lacking a god belief, but falling short of asserting that no gods exist) or the strong position (asserting that no gods exist). Finally, the question of how to describe the debate over the god question revolves around whether we are discussing claims made by theists or whether anyone is can actually describe "deep reality."
We will suggest that atheists can work powerfully to disarm prejudice and stereotyping of atheists by advocating the weak definition for atheism as a whole while pointing out that the burden of proof rests upon the one making the claim. Our goal in advocating the weak definition for atheism is not to convince people to become weak-position atheists, though we do think it's important to point out that individual atheists cover a wide range of conviction. What we seek is to rescue the public reputation of atheism as a whole -- which, in the United States, is in serious trouble no matter what you want to call it. We are not convinced that substituting a different term for the word atheism is the best solution to this serious problem.
(1) Strong Compared To Weak.
To state that atheism is, at minimum, the simple lack of a god belief is called the weak definition for the word atheism (sometimes called negative atheism). Those who use the weak definition tend to include even infants and imbeciles as atheists, based upon the fact that these people are unable to comprehend a god claim and thus lack a god belief. This definition naturally includes those who strongly assert that no gods exist -- and everyone in between.
The strong definition says that atheism is the assertion that no gods exist. Those who advocate the strong definition tell us that an atheist is "a person who maintains that there is no God, that is, that the sentence 'God exists' expresses a false proposition." 
The strong definition, however, requires that we come up with another term to describe those who simply lack a god belief. Many atheistic philosophers prefer the term nontheists.  Strong atheists, theists, and agnostics describe a middle category, agnostics, though this does not address the simple lack of belief. With the weak definition, nontheism equals atheism, and agnostics are either theistic agnostics or atheistic agnostics.
The weak definition for the word atheism, when describing the overall picture of atheism, is simple and all-inclusive: it includes within it both strong-position atheists and weak-position atheists, and yet recognizes the distinctions between the various types of atheists. We will argue that the needs of atheists are best met by using term atheist to describe anybody who is at minimum not a theist, ranging from those who have not acquired a god belief to those who have consciously and deliberately rejected or renounced all forms of theism.
(2) Definition Compared To Position.
The weak or strong position describes an individual's viewpoint, whereas the weak or strong definition argues over how to describe atheism as a whole, that is, which people to include within the category of "atheists." The difference here is between how to categorize the entire group of atheists and how to categorize an individual atheist.
Strong-position atheists state that no gods exist. Weak-position atheists, on the other hand, cover quite a range. One weak-position atheist might never have considered any god claims, while another might deliberately fall short of insisting that no gods exist. But describing someone's position is not the same as discussing whether to include various individuals under the category of atheists. In this sense, one can hold the strong position, asserting that no gods exist, and yet advocate using the weak definition so as to include weak-position atheists within the realm of atheism. 
Some philosophers, when describing the strong definition, use the term positive atheism.  This is not the same sense in which Positive Atheism Magazine uses the term (rather, the same letter sequence, as that is the only similarity between the two). Therefore, in order to avoid confusion in this respect, we stick to using the terms weak definition and strong definition when discussing atheism itself. We use the terms weak position and strong position when describing an individual's position.
(3) Claims versus "Deep" Reality.
Theists and atheists can both agree that the theist is claiming that a god exists. No one can speak to any "deep" reality, but can only describe observations, measurements, and thoughts. We are human and we are fallible, limited in our abilities to gain knowledge. All attempts at describing reality are expressed using a language system that was developed by humans, and all such descriptions are interpreted with a human nervous system. Even measuring devices are limited: "any measuring device is itself a quantum system containing uncertainty."  Any time we try to describe reality, we are making a claim, and the listener will (usually) scrutinize that claim. By keeping in mind that we are here discussing the validity of the theist's claims, our conversation remains realistic. Notice here our careful use of the word claims: this is all about the dialogue between theists and those who hear the messages of theists.
Thus, when a theist keeps in mind that theism is (at this point in the discussion) rightly treated by the atheist as merely a claim to be proven, the theist contributes to the likelihood that both participants will seek truth in all sincerity. The atheist does well to suspend judgment until hearing the theist's description and claim, and to presuppose that the theist has valid reasons for believing. By respecting the fact that people believe (though not necessarily respecting the belief itself), and by carefully inquiring as to the theist's reasons for believing, the atheist promotes honest inquiry on both sides. We both do well to keep in mind that we are all very limited in our abilities to understand.
Our recommendations come primarily from pragmatic and aesthetic standpoints because the weak definition is more inclusive and is simpler to work with.
Whether an individual atheist holds the weak position or the strong is not really important except to show the range of conviction describing the various atheists. The only problem is that the weak position sounds more reasonable to the popular mind, while the strong definition is easily confused with dogmatism (though this connection is incorrect).
By keeping in mind that this is a discussion about a discussion, not a discussion about reality, we can more easily conduct our discussion in a civil matter.
iv. The Weak Definition: The Absence of Theism.
Some atheists may never have thought about the philosophical implications of their atheism. Other atheists are socially isolated. They live in tribes or cultures that have never heard somebody claim that a god exists. Still others have carefully considered numerous god claims, but refuse to go so far as to assert that no gods exist -- perhaps for fear of sounding dogmatic. All these people, including all infants, would fall into the category of "atheists" if we used the weak definition for atheism, because this definition uses the term atheist to describe humans who are not theists. With the weak definition, one either has a god belief or one does not, and further distinctions are made from there.
Not so with the strong definition which must create various "middle ground" categories in order to describe the vast majority of people who fall short of stating that no gods exist. In this case, we must tailor our discussions around the various positions. But since the weak definition revolves around the presence or absence of a god belief, we can easily focus the discussion squarely on the god claim. And we can we can do this whether we are of the weak-position or the strong-position persuasion.
With the weak definition, the strong-position atheist can participate in a lengthy debate with a theistic apologist without ever disclosing his or her wholesale dismissal of the entire god question, and without once ever being called upon to prove anything. (A careless presentation of the strong position could open itself to the Burden of Proof.) And the strong-position atheist can, through restraint, make much more of an impact on the listener. The main point here is that the theist is the one making the claim, so the theist must first describe what he or she is claiming, and secondly make a strong case for the claim. By showing that the claim itself is invalid, that it is not worthy of our attention, we don't need to deal with any counter-claims.
The important thing to remember about the weak definition is that it describes a group of people which includes both weak-position atheists and strong-position atheists. Though the strong definition describes only that group of strong-position atheists, the weak definition describes the entire group of those who are not theists -- including the strong-position atheists.
(1) Historical Precedence for the Weak Definition.
George H. Smith  shows that the weak definition has historical precedence among Western atheistic philosophers and writers since the Enlightenment. Most vocal atheists were put to death during pre-enlightenment times, so we do not know much about atheism before then. Also, due to the compelling nature of the Argument From Design, atheism was not an intellectually tenable position until 1859 when Charles Darwin demonstrated that natural selection is itself a form of design.  This would explain the prevalence of Deism among people who, after Darwin, might have been atheists.
Baron d'Holbach was advocating the weak definition, that an atheist simply lacks a god belief for whatever reason, when he argued that "All children are atheists -- they have no idea of God."  Charles Bradlaugh, Britain's most important crusader for atheism, stated it more completely: "Atheism is without God. It does not assert no God."  J. M. Robertson remarked on the weak definition, as used by Charles Southwell's magazine, The Oracle: "It [The Oracle] did not ... 'deny the existence of God.' ... It did not even affirm that 'there are no Gods.'" 
Others who advocated the weak definition include: Richard Carlile; Robert Cooper; George Jacob Holyoake; Annie Besant; G. W. Foote (who challenged the critic "to refer me to one Atheist who denies the existence of God" ); Joseph McCabe (who defined atheism as "the absence of theistic belief" ); Chapman Cohen. The able defender of theism, Robert Flint, wrote: "The atheist is not necessarily a man who says, There is no God. What is called positive or dogmatic atheism, so far from being the only kind of atheism, is the rarest of all kinds."  Most recently, Antony Flew said, "an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist." 
(2) The Meaning of the Word Atheism.
Some argue over how to interpret the prefix "a" in the word atheism. Does it mean "without" or "no"? To say it means "without" would place us squarely within the weak definition: "without-theism," that is, "without (or lacking) belief in a god or gods." Thus we have atheism meaning the absence of theistic belief. But if the prefix "a" means "no," as some who wish atheism to mean the outright denial of God's existence prefer, we still haven't gone very far. "A-theism," still means "no-belief in a god or gods."
George H. Smith suggests that the real problem in defining atheism lies "not in the meaning of the prefix 'a,' but in determining precisely where that prefix should be inserted.... Atheism as outright denial can be achieved only if the negative 'a' is used, not to qualify the entire meaning of "theism," but only part of it -- i.e., 'a-theism' means 'belief in no god or gods.' In this interpretation, atheism is construed, not as the absence of a belief, but as a particular kind of belief." 
Smith goes on to counter J. M. Robertson's argument that any "ism" implies a positive belief or doctrine. Smith argues the suffix "-ism" can also mean "a state or condition," refuting the notion that this suffix can have only one meaning. "Thus, the privative definition of atheism is still possible. Atheism as the absence of belief can denote an 'ism' -- a state of mind in which theistic belief is absent." 
(3) The Meaninglessness of Word Meanings.
Smith surrenders to the fact that word meaning has little significance beyond popular usage. We at Positive Atheism Magazine agree, and this admission explains our effort to popularize the weak definition for the word atheism. By widely disseminating the notion that we're talking about the absence of theism, perhaps we can undo some of what popular usage has done to this word. Atheism has been synonymous with "the evils of Communism," a view popularized by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his henchmen in America during the 1950s. Atheism also has meant "wickedness" as the Merriam-Webster's dictionary suggests. Even U.S. President Thomas Jefferson denounced "atheism," though the context shows that he most likely meant "immorality."  Most educated people of today know better, but the popular notion remains. And along with the popular notion remains the stigma against people who are not religious.
(4) Advantage Through Inclusiveness.
Smith ends his discussion with two suggestions:
Perhaps atheists can find refuge from the tyranny of "conventional meaning" in what philosophers call "technical definitions." Thus, biologists are permitted to offer their own definition of "life," for example, without being overly concerned whether laymen (the conventional majority) agree with, or even know of, their definition. Similarly, professed atheists may have the epistemological right to define atheism, in the technical sense, as the "absence of theistic belief," even if most laymen (i.e., theists) disagree with that definition.
Or perhaps atheists can fall back on the rule of fundamentality, which says that a definition should identify the fundamental, or essential, attribute of the concept being defined. Obviously, the absence of theistic belief is more fundamental than the denial of theism, for the latter is a subset of the former. (One who denies the existence of God also lacks belief, but the reverse is not necessarily true: one who lacks belief in God does not necessarily deny its existence.)
According to this reasoning, one who denies God's existence is a legitimate atheist, but he subscribes to a particular species of atheism. If, however, we construe atheism as the denial of God's existence, then the person who merely lacks theistic belief is not a real atheist, but an impostor. This exclusion by definition, it seems to me, is ungracious, and it shows ignorance of what important atheists have argued for many years. 
The inclusionary element, along with the historical and etymological aspects are all compelling reasons to define general-purpose atheism using the weak definition. Logically, the weak position is easier to defend than the strong position. However, the weak definition's potential usefulness in reducing the stigma that all atheists bear is our most important reason for advocating this understanding and seeking to popularize it.
Nevertheless, those of us who hold the weak position must remind ourselves that the strong position is a legitimate and popular and very powerful form of atheism. Just because an individual defines atheism in general in terms of the weak definition doesn't mean that she or he actually holds the weak position. The language we urge is that atheism itself is the lack of a god belief, but that many atheists go much further than this, just as theism is the belief in one or more gods, though some theists hold their belief vaguely or indifferently while others adamantly insist that a specific god exists.
(5) Who Prefers the Strong Definition?
The strong definition became somewhat popular among atheistic writers during the twentieth century. While many atheists espouse the strong position and prefer the weak definition, those who mainly prefer the strong definition are theists who wish to portray all atheism as untenable. Indeed, if the burden of proof holds true, one cannot prove a negative existential claim (that is, a claim that a thing does not exist); therefore, the strong or dogmatic position does sound rather untenable. At the same time, however, the burden of proof demands that the theist prove his or her claim or the atheist rightly rejects that claim as false.
One could point out, though, that most theists aren't as dogmatic in their theism as they portray atheists as being toward their atheism. Many theists pray, "help thou mine unbelief,"  admitting that faith is not always strong, and sometimes not even there. Other theists give lip service to their religion (or to a generic "God" concept) but are inwardly and outwardly indifferent toward their religion's creeds, tenets, and implications. Why, then, do so many theists insist that atheism is the dogmatic assertion that no gods exist? Some theists do this because the strong position, when portrayed as dogmatism, sounds, in many respects, more untenable even than many theistic positions. Thus it becomes easy for theistic apologists to portray atheists as irrational, thereby making the theistic position appear reasonable.
Agnostics likewise prefer the strong definition for atheism, but the stakes for agnostics are much higher. The weak position eliminates agnosticism as a "middle ground" between theism and atheism. In fact, the weak definition divides agnostics along the same lines as the rest of humanity: theistic and atheistic. According to this definition, a theistic agnostic is one who believes in a god but knows no more than this. An atheistic agnostic does not know if a god exists, and so lacks a god belief.
With the strong definition, agnosticism becomes a safe "middle ground" between what appear to be two dogmatic extremes: certainty that a god exists and certainty that no gods exist. Indeed most who call themselves agnostics are trying to avoid the appearance of commitment on this very tough question. But we have seen that both faith and the lack of it cover the wide range between these two very rare extremes. Also, some who have called themselves "agnostic," such as Robert Green Ingersoll, are, for the most part, indistinguishable from the hard-core, strong-position atheists of today. Thus, we prefer to see agnosticism as a microcosm of the whole of humanity, a microcosm which includes both theistic agnostics and atheistic agnostics.
(6) When Theism Even Crosses Our Minds.
Robert Flint's remark (above) that "dogmatic atheism ... is the rarest of all kinds" is crucial to the mission of Positive Atheism Magazine: only a tiny minority of those who lack a god belief assert that no gods exist. Many of us would be taken aback if someone told us we were atheists -- at least until we realize that the word means "without a god belief." Most of us don't even think about the God issue at all unless someone, such as an evangelist, brings it up. Such atheists are as adamant in their atheism as those theists who give lip-service to the vague notion of an undefined god only when asked, but who otherwise live their lives the best way they know how.
And unfortunately, many of us, having thought very little upon this subject, could not defend our lack of theism against the wiles of an evangelist. We might suspect that something is wrong with the evangelist's claims, but we could not hold our own in a debate or even a lively discussion. Evangelists know this and have developed powerfully intricate ways to exploit people's apathy. Thus, Positive Atheism Magazine exists in part as a forum for learning and discussing and growing not only in our atheistic position but also in our sense of dignity about our atheism.
Positive Atheism Magazine recommends that atheists "come out of the closet," as they say, but we do not insist that people be up front and honest about their atheism, and will not denigrate atheists for remaining quiet about their lack of belief. We recognize that many situations prevent various atheists from feeling safe about discussing these issues. The stigma against us, particularly in the United States, can be vicious at times and in certain geographical areas. Instead, Positive Atheism Magazine recommends popularizing notion that atheism is simply the lack of a god belief and the notion that theism is a claim that needs to be proven. This position removes the impact of the theist's arguments, because it places the responsibility of making an extremely strong case squarely upon the shoulder of the theist.
Positive Atheism Magazine also seeks to squelch the notion that the strong position constitutes dogmatism. While it may appear this way at first glance, the strong position, properly presented, is far from dogmatic. In lieu of an accurate popular understanding of the strong position, we recommend that strong-position atheists use both the strong and the weak position when discussing the god question with at theist. It's one thing to hold one's own opinion, but it is another altogether both to make an impact for the atheistic position and to reduce the stigma against atheists.
v. The Strong Position: "No Gods Exist."
The most persistent objection to the strong position of atheism is that it sounds dogmatic, and thus unscientific. Many theistic apologists portray all of atheism as strong and thus dogmatic. Then they call upon atheists (both strong and weak) to prove the nonexistence of God, invoking the burden of proof. We have shown that the strong position of atheism, far from being the only form of atheism, is the rarest among atheistic positions.
In this section we will show that the strong position has disadvantages in public discussions at the popular level because it is easy to portray as dogmatic, unreasonable, and thus unscientific. However, these descriptions of the strong position being dogmatic and unreasonable are false.
Also note that the previous section dealt primarily with the weak and strong definition, but this section deals almost exclusively with the strong and weak position held by individual atheists -- not with the definition for the word atheism. This is because the weak position simply exists, and thus has very little to say in its favor. The only discussion in this respect involves whether someone who is an atheist on philosophical grounds is willing to take their atheism as far as the strong position. The weak position needing little defense, we will provide a defense for the strong position, and discuss the reasons some atheists have for being unwilling to take their atheism this far.
(1) The Case for the Strong Position.
Michael Scriven advocates the strong position of atheism, but "denies that the theist and the atheist share equally the burden of proof." The atheist "need not prove the nonexistence of God in order to say that God does not exist," says Scriven, rather, "the burden falls upon the theist to prove the existence of (at least one) god, and if he fails in this attempt, 'there is no alternative to atheism.'" 
Though Scriven admits that nobody can directly disprove the existence of a god, he says that "belief in such a being can be shown to be wholly unfounded, and this is sufficient grounds for atheism." An unfounded claim, according to Scriven, is "one that lacks both particular and general evidential support." The claim that the Loch Ness monster exists is an example of a claim that lacks particular support but does not lack general support. While we have not found specific evidence supporting this particular claim, discovering previously unknown species "is not contrary to past experience ... nor does it invoke supernaturalism."  Thus, we would suspend judgment, pointing to the lack of particular evidential support, rather than assert that this claim is false.
This does not hold when dealing with claims for the supernatural, claims that lack both particular and general evidential support. To invoke the supernatural is to claim something that is unprecedented in our experience. "Given the radical nature of these claims, they demand a high quality of evidence, and when such evidence is lacking, not mere suspension of judgment but explicit disbelief is the appropriate response." Scriven shows that while many of us enjoyed the Santa Claus tale as children, we eventually mature and discover that "there are no reasons to believe in the existence of this being -- and this results, not in the suspension of judgment about Santa's existence (a kind of Santa agnosticism), but in the stronger claim that it is foolish even to believe in the likelihood of his existence. Because the belief in Santa lacks particular and general support, the proper alternative 'is not mere suspension of belief, e.g., about Santa Claus; it is disbelief.'  And so it goes, Scriven argues, with belief in a god." 
When confronted with the burden of proof against the strong position, Victor Gijsbers invokes the burden of proof in addressing the notion that the strong position is dogmatic and thus unscientific:
"An atheist who holds the strong position claims that since there has not yet been found any evidence for God, it is reasonable to say that no gods exists. But should evidence for God be found, the 'strong' atheist could become a theist just as quickly as a 'weak' atheist could.
As far as I can see, the strong atheist is someone who has thought about theism and has rejected it for whatever reason, whereas the weak atheist is someone who has not thought about this question at all. This, at least, seems to be the way in which people like Drange use the terms atheist and nontheist. Thus, both you and I would be strong atheists.
This would not result in us having to prove the nonexistence of God, since we do not claim to know for certain that She does not exist; but we have thought about it, and concluded that there is no good evidence. I do not think 'strong' atheism is incompatible with [the philosophy of] Positive Atheism. Strong atheism is not the same as dogmatic atheism. I would choose the weak definition and the strong position, while rejecting dogmatism. 
Others argue that "after a while the lack of positive evidence becomes pretty strong negative evidence in itself."  Michael Martin describes how someone can scour the entire room for a missing pair of glasses, and eventually decide that they are not in the room. 
(2) Liberal Scientific Method and Philosophical Inquiry.
One formidable argument against insisting any claim to knowledge is the liberal scientific method. But even this does not prevent us from stating that gods do not exist, because liberal science presupposes that all claims to knowledge are subject to being overthrown by newer evidence. We can easily and honestly state that we think thus and so is factual according to our current level of education. This, again, takes into consideration the question of whether we are discussing our understanding of reality, or whether we are discussing any "deep reality" itself.
"Liberalism's great contribution to civilization is the way it handles conflict. No other regime has enabled large and varied groups of people to set a social agenda without either stifling their members' differences or letting conflict get out of hand.... The liberal innovation was to set up society so as to mimic the greatest liberal system of them all, the evolution of life. Like evolutionary ecologies, liberal systems are centerless and self-regulating and allow no higher appeal than that of each to each in an open-ended, competitive public process (a game)." 
The liberal scientific "game" says that all claims to scientific truth are subject to being overthrown by new evidence. In this sense, liberal scientific method has abolished the notion of inerrancy. Karl Popper said, "There is nothing like absolute certainty in the whole field of our knowledge."  Jonathan Rauch said, "in a liberal scientific society, to claim that you are above error is the height of irresponsibility.... To the law of fallibility, the law of no final say, there are no exceptions."  We think this is a good approach to philosophy as well -- particularly when discussing the god question.
Although the burden of proof demands that the one making the claim must bring forth proof or we have every right to consider the claim falsehood, we still should be open, at least in theory, to the possibility that we may be wrong. True, an atheist who holds the strong position states that since theists have not brought forth any convincing evidence for the existence of gods, it is reasonable to say that no gods exists. So, should evidence for a god ever turn up, the strong-position atheist can become a theist just as quickly as a weak-position atheist can.
We may state that no gods exist (if this is our opinion) as long as the listener understands that we do not deal in terms of absolute certainty. One crosses that line of dogmatism by bringing the notion of absolute certainty into the discussion. Since some fundamentalistic theists do deal in terms of absolute certainty, the atheist does well to make sure both parties understand the atheist's position regarding the notion of absolute certainty. Also, the atheist should not presuppose that all theists think in terms of absolute certainty, because dogmatic theists are the minority among theism just as strong-position atheists are the minority among atheists.
vi. Atheist As Vitriolic Smear Word.
Merriam-Webster's Tenth Collegiate Dictionary  lists, as a synonym for atheism, the word wickedness. To be fair, they mark this synonym as "archaic"; however, its very existence speaks volumes about the public's attitude toward atheists. Many people throughout history have used the word atheist to insult and degrade those people they do not like. Others have used atheism to denote lawlessness and rebellion. As recently as April 22, 2000, U.S. Immigration agents seized 6-year-old Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez from a home in Miami. Miami Mayor Joe Carollo, outraged by the raid (and possibly engaging in some posturing at atheists' expense), vilified the INS agents by saying, "These are atheists. They don't believe in God."  Mayor Carollo not only used the word to scandalize the agents, he invoked the very concept of atheism as well (showing that changing the word atheist to something else, such as nontheism, won't accomplish much).
Author Wendy Kaminer reported that as late as the 1980s, "intolerance for atheism was stronger even than intolerance of homosexuality."  Being an atheist was still "the most discriminated-against characteristic of the eight tested in the research," according to a March, 1999, Gallup poll  asking Americans how they would vote in a presidential election. Only 49 percent would vote for an atheist, while 59 percent would vote for a homosexual, 92 percent would vote for a black, and 95 percent would vote for a woman. This figure is up from 1958, the peak of Senator Joe McCarthy's crusade to Christianize the United States, when only 18 percent would have voted for an atheist. No other group has ever gone lower than 26 percent, which was how many people would have voted for a homosexual in 1987 (when Gallup established the homosexual category for this poll). As for religious preferences in 1999, 94 percent would vote for a Roman Catholic (John F. Kennedy), 94 percent would vote for a Baptist (Jimmy Carter; Bill Clinton), and 92 percent would vote for a Jew (Joseph Lieberman), but only 79 percent would vote for a Mormon (Orrin Hatch).
We definitely have our work cut out for us.
One purpose of Positive Atheism Magazine is to discuss the nature of atheism and to educate the public about atheism. We are not trying to recruit anyone to atheism. However, we deplore the misrepresentations and other lies against us, resulting in marginalization, vilification, and discrimination (they are no longer allowed to execute us in this country). It is wrong for us to feel we must lie to others about our lack of belief in order to get along peacefully in society. We borrow a metaphor from the homosexuals and think it's time that we "come out of the closet" about our atheism.
Positive Atheism's publisher and contributors, and other atheists, work tirelessly to establish dignity for atheists, to restore civil liberties for atheists, and to end the government-sponsored encroachment of religion into our lives. This encroachment ranges from the slogan "In God We Trust" on our money  to funneling tax dollars into church treasuries in the form of tax exemptions and outright funding of religious charities to holding people in jail because they refuse to practice the Alcoholics Anonymous religion. 
Nevertheless, not all atheists care about these things. The only thing you can say with certainty about any atheist is that she or he lacks a god belief. Beyond this one point, two particular atheists do not necessarily have anything in common. Next, we offer a philosophy through which we hope to reduce the stigma and the injustice that is every against atheists.
b. The Philosophy of Positive Atheism.
The philosophy of Positive Atheism was begun by Gora in India. Gora founded Atheist Centre and worked to end untouchability in India. He eventually met Mahatma Gandhi and they later worked together toward India's independence, which occurred in 1947. He also worked with India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, an atheist, urging him to support the formation of a secular government in the then predominantly Hindu nation of India. He later worked to establish a network of charitable organizations rivaling those in the United States, and putting to shame claims made about the allegedly wonderful work of Mother Teresa. 
In his book Positive Atheism, Gora urges many social institutions that we do not advocate here. We prefer, instead, to focus upon a few of the personal elements within Gora's ethic. The philosophy of Positive Atheism, as we advocate it here, is not a parroting of Gora's philosophy at all. We are using the same name to launch a new variation of atheism. Initially we were inspired by several elements of Gora's and Gandhi's original philosophy, but our philosophy is tailored more to the cultural situations in the West, modernized to meet the challenges of the 21st century. We also take into consideration the controversies that have faced both personal and organized atheism since Gora flourished.
Finally, many elements of today's political and cultural situations differ vastly from the one Gora tried to change. Some things Gora didn't know fifty years ago are common knowledge even to middle-school students today. To simply parrot Gora's philosophy would be to dogmatize it -- and dogmatic thinking is what we seek to minimize in ourselves and (hopefully) in those around us. One important element in Gora's outlook will probably never change: that is the importance of truthfulness in one's personal ethic. So, we took Gora's unique views on truthfulness as a springboard upon which to develop a new philosophy, and obtained permission from Gora's son, Lavanam, to use the name "Positive Atheism" both for our philosophy and for our magazine.
i. Insisting upon Truthfulness: The Highest Ethic.
The core of Gora's personal philosophy is the notion that the very nature of the atheistic position implies a proactive ethic. Since no gods exist, if anything is to be accomplished we must do it ourselves. "Hallucinations and illusions are not facts useful for scientific investigation," he says.  True morality, Gora says, is based entirely in the real world. "Because morality is a social necessity, the moment faith in god is banished, man's gaze turns from god to man and he becomes socially conscious. Religious belief prevented the growth of a sense of realism. But atheism at once makes man realistic and alive to the needs of morality." 
The key element of Gora's personal ethic is personal integrity. The English word integrity means, primarily, wholeness, but it is often used as a synonym for honesty. We intend the latter meaning when using the word integrity. Gora stressed personal honesty, truthfulness, and self-consistency in all affairs. He implied that an atheist is hypocritical if she or he sits at the philosophical roundtable and calls theism falsehood but then turns around and practices deceit in her or his personal affairs. Gora's ethic also integrates individual freedom with the responsibility of humans to work toward correcting the wrongs in our lives, in much the same way that the eighteenth-century Colonial American concept of Liberty always implied personal accountability. 
Gora based his ethic, in part, on Gandhi's Satyagraha. What Gandhi cloaked in theistic terminology, Gora saw as essentially secular. "The language of theism which was familiar to the people, gave him the advantage of easy communication with the people," he said, but "it is atheistic in principle. It could have been the starting point for the atheistic movement in the modern age."  "Satyagraha," says Gora, "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." 
Materialism and existentialism also played limited roles in Gora's outlook. "Existentialist philosophy," says Gora, "recognizes the existence of the individual as the real purpose of human life. The recognition is basically atheistic and it encourages the individual to free himself from the impositions of custom, governmental authority, economic pressures, and cultural inhibitions."  But he complains that existentialism lacks social responsibility, having been lopsided in its development. "The love of individual freedom has stood in the way of the appreciation of social obligations." 
Two things emerge from this aspect of Gora's outlook:
First, to right the wrongs in our world and the wrongs committed against us requires effort; no gods will do this work for us. In addition, no effort toward changing our environment will come up entirely fruitless. Human cultural and economic systems "have never arranged themselves by themselves," says Gora. "It is men who do the ordering according to their attitudes, desires and understanding of things. Changes take place, not independent of man's will, but on account of man's wills. Civilization has progressed by man's interference with material conditions."  Or as Colonel Ingersoll said, "Labor is the only prayer that Nature answers; it is the only prayer that deserves an answer -- good, honest, noble work." 
Secondly, we are free as long as we submit to the integrity of truthfulness. "The insistence on truthfulness does not disturb the freedom of the individual. The social obligation implied in Satyagraha turns the freedom of the individual into moral freedom. An atheist is free to say or to do what he likes, provided he does what he says and says what he does. So, in the context of social relations, the freedom of the individual is moral freedom." 
If atheists in the West and elsewhere are to gain widespread social acceptance, we must at least be able to point out that atheism is not inferior, morally, to theism. We would do well to be able to show atheism to be superior to theism, but this is not likely, and not necessary. No sect or group or ideology has shown itself to be superior in making people moral, and very few outlooks have shown themselves to make people patently immoral. Most wars have been waged in the name of loyalty to a creed, but strip this aside and the people of the various creeds are pretty much the same.
But atheists have been maligned from every side throughout the centuries. Religious sects and groups that would otherwise have nothing to do with each other have been known to join forces in denouncing or even persecuting the atheist. If they call us evil or wicked, we do well to act so that these accusations are false. If they say that atheists cannot be moral people, we do well, at minimum, not only to show that we can be moral people, but to be able to describe precisely how our atheism works toward making us honest, upright, dignified people. We can go further by insisting on truthfulness, but this only works if one is exceedingly careful to be honest from the start. "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." 
Nothing will be accomplished in this respect unless and until we stand up, assert our dignity, and demand respect and equal treatment. We must stop the lies told about us every week, from the pulpit and from the floor of Congress, and this will happen most quickly if we live a Satyagraha-like sense of integrity in our own lives and demand it from those around us. Madalyn Murray O'Hair made a very poignant remark: "Actually, I don't like Atheists very much -- at least most of them -- because they are not motivated to move into the community and attempt to correct the injustices which are everywhere apparent against them."  It takes work to move into the community and attempt to correct these injustices. And if we don't do it, it won't get done. God is certainly not going to do it for us.
Thus, if anyone is looking for a term to describe that brand of atheism which demands ethical behavior of oneself and of one's associates, we hereby encourage people to use "Positive Atheism" as that term. To us, "Positive Atheism" means all this and much more.
ii. Seeking a Dignified Expression of Atheism.
Ever since we began modernizing and Westernizing the core elements of Gora's philosophy of Positive Atheism, many have misunderstood our intentions. They took "Positive Atheism" to mean a brand of atheism that is cooperative or uplifting or some other concepts associated with the word positive. People seemed to think "Positive" meant we were doing something to confront the negative image that atheists endure from much of society. A few even recognized that several past and present atheistic leaders have inadvertently brought about part of this negative image through their spiteful and condescending attitude toward theists and theism, and thought "Positive Atheism" might be about countering this behavior.
We have, in the past, tried to steer such suggestions back to the topic of ethics and truthfulness: "We do this, but that's not 'Positive Atheism,'" we'd say. Later we decided to go ahead and let people be mistaken on this matter, humor them, if you will, and remain silent whenever someone construed "Positive Atheism" to mean anything other than what we'd said it meant.
We now admit that we're the ones who have been mistaken. Any philosophy called "Positive Atheism" needs to fit the intuitive meaning of its name! We make this admission in harmony with the above sentiments on doing what we say and saying what we do. So, we continue to work toward developing more dignified public expressions of the atheistic positions, but now we call this an element in the philosophy of Positive Atheism. In addition, we encourage atheists to seek out allies of all persuasions with whom we can work to make this a better world. In doing this, we shun engaging in the god question unless specifically approached by someone seeking to convert us. To us, the question of whether a god exists is one of the most foolish issues to fight about. Almost every other controversy imaginable is more important to our quality of life than this one.
One example of how we try to dignify theists (thereby dignifying both ourselves and our atheism) is our editorial policy of presupposing that every theist has a valid reason for believing the way she or he believes (at least they feel they have valid reasons).  A study reported in Michael Shermer's book How We Believe shows that the largest group of American theists believe that a deity exists because of arguments based upon the good design, natural beauty, perfection, or complexity of the world or universe.  We found this information so surprising that we immediately asked Shermer for permission to excerpt the segment in our print edition.  We explained to him that these findings fly in the face of much of the atheistic rhetoric we'd been hearing. Shermer admitted that he and his partner were likewise surprised by the results of their work, although the study itself shows Shermer's and our reaction to be typical: most Americans think that theists believe for reasons other than the design argument.
But we should not be surprised that theists think they're right, or that theists have given great thought to these questions. Thus, we grant theists several forms of dignity:
(1) Faith as a Product of Evolution.
We try to understand that faith is a natural response in humans. Victor Stenger, in his book Physics and Psychics, raises a tough question: "If supernatural beliefs were simply the product of the unsophisticated thinking patterns of early humans, then they should have largely faded away in our scientific age. Yet every survey of people's beliefs continues to indicate a strong majority who believe in God, angels, the devil, astrology, and various other occult and supernatural phenomena." 
A possible answer, says Stenger, comes when we consider the advent of the city, which "forced people into greater dependencies on one another." He continues, "Humanity became social. Leaders were now needed to keep some kind of civil order, and the village shaman and temple priest, with their supposed supernatural powers, proved to be effective in keeping everyone in line."  Stenger suggests that we "call upon materialism for a reasonable hypothesis: religion evolved by a process analogous to the natural selection that produced us and every other living species. Religious belief may now be deeply programmed in our DNA. This may have happened because, at one time, such beliefs provided a survival advantage for the people who had such coded information in their genes." 
"In the early days of the human race, we were few in number and struggled in competition with other species to survive. In that precarious situation, special advantage would accrue to those people living in communities with strong tribal rules forbidding behavior patterns threatening to the survival of the community. These ranged from taboos against incest and murder to special dietary prohibitions.
"By attributing these taboos to supernatural command, the leaders and their priests could enforce them more effectively. Individuals with a genetic disposition to question or disobey the rules would be suppressed, ostracized, or even killed. So they were less likely to pass their skeptical genes on to the next generation...." 
So, while recognizing that "the genetic programming in favor of supernatural belief does not have the value for survival it once had -- in fact, quite the contrary,"  we can, in the interim, at least recognize that the tendency toward faith is a natural product of evolution. Stenger does offer hope, though:
"Fortunately, by the same process of evolution, we humans have developed a unique quality that gives us the power to overcome our instincts. This power resides in our intellect. Only through the application of intellect to overcome the dangerous behaviors programmed in our genes can we expect to survive. And our intellect is pointing the way for us to reprogram our own genes, to rid them of the transcendental temptations that now threaten our very existence." 
(2) The Theist Has Reasons to Believe.
Since the tendency toward faith and credulity is natural at this point in human evolution, we presuppose that theists have, or think they have, valid reasons for believing.  By doing this, we are choosing to call the theist sincere in his or her belief (though not necessarily honest in their evangelistic methods, as discussed below). In other words, we do not consider theists stupid or brutish simply for being theists. The spiteful, vindictive brand of atheism popularized by Madalyn Murray O'Hair and others is thankfully passé. (Even the organization she founded, American Atheists, has changed its tune in this respect since O'Hair's unfortunate demise.) This change was inevitable because racial slurs have replaced four-letter words as the taboo language in the West. We may not think we're being bigoted, but it sure is easy to sound bigoted if we're not extremely careful in our approach to atheistic activism.
We atheists, being one of the most widely despised ideological minorities in the United States, cannot afford to give people legitimate reasons to call us bigoted. The most effective way we've found to avoid this label is to start dealing with all theists according the above presupposition. We grant each theist this one benefit of the doubt -- on an individual basis -- unless and until that theist gives us sufficient reason to think otherwise. And we won't have reason to think otherwise unless that theist begins to evangelize us because, in presupposing that they have valid reasons for believing, we're not out to change them.
(3) The Atheist Who Wouldn't Evangelize.
Having noted that faith is natural, and having presupposed that people at least think they have reasons to believe, we try to refrain from actively "evangelizing" atheism to theists. Although we do recognize the dangers in theism, we are not crusaders, out to "educate people as to the follies of religion and superstition."  Instead, we are more likely to focus on specific events and issues in a wiser use of our energy and in an attempt to shed the image of the indiscriminately antireligious atheist.
We will let people know we are atheists (we "come out of the closet," so to speak), and we will explain to those people who seem to misunderstand that an atheist is usually someone who simply lacks a god belief, who simply remains unconvinced by the god claims. We will volunteer strong assertions as to the benefits of state-church separation, even going so far as to argue that state neutrality toward religion greatly benefits all religion. We will forcefully challenge anybody and any institution that seeks to harm us (or relegate us to second-class citizenship) because of our atheism. And we will insist upon truthfulness in all affairs.
But we try to wait for a direct intrusion from a theist before engaging in a private discussion or a public argument about the existence of gods or the lack thereof. We respect private religion, but religion stops being private the moment someone tries to entice or coerce or force their religious ideas upon others. Think of it as being invited or think of them as asking for it! Unless someone tries to convince us of the "truthfulness" of their religious beliefs, we try to leave them alone.
Remember, arguing over whether a god exists is one of the stupidest reasons to get into a fight, and our energy is best directed elsewhere. An atheist we know once loved to go downtown to heckle street preachers -- until he asked himself, "What if that's how this poor clown stays off drugs?" Now, a street preacher, technically, is inviting trouble even from someone practicing Positive Atheism, but this man's sentiments still show the beginnings of a compassionate outlook toward theism.
We do need to be careful not to fit the image of the "arrogant" and "intimidating" atheists, "making people who do believe in God feel like they're being put down."  "The result of denigrating the beliefs of others, no matter how silly they seem to us, is bigotry and intolerance.... There are some -- atheists and theists alike -- who have already decided down to the last detail what is true and false and thus busy themselves with ridiculing those who do not yet know or agree. But for most of us the search continues. That is as it should be." 
(4) Standing Our Ground.
This does not mean that we silently allow people's religion to freely intrude into our lives. H. L. Mencken did not mince words in this respect. In Western culture, we presuppose that "even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. He has no right to preach them without challenge." 
Thus, when theists, whether by invitation or by intrusion, choose to make their religion our business, we respond. Any rejoinder would prominently feature our insistence upon truthfulness in such discussions -- just as we would under any discussion. But we especially emphasize truthfulness in a discussion about religion because these are philosophical inquiries. In philosophy, we are, at least putting on the pretense of discovering truth (and hopefully those involved are actually trying to discover truth). Conversely, when shown that we are wrong in such discussions, or that we don't have a point, we promptly admit it.
To tolerate the use of falsehood in these discussions is to admit that we are not actually seeking the truth but rather are attempting to gain something by winning an argument. As Gora would put it, such people "betray their vested interests in inequality of some kind of other."  And seeking to win an argument falls into the trap of loyalism: it is not science at all. Thus, when a theist lies to us (or uses other forms of rhetorical trickery) while trying to convince us of the "truthfulness" of their religion, we always call attention to these stunts. Elsewhere in our FAQ, we cover all the major logical fallacies and other forms of rhetorical trickery.
Surely there are many other aspects that people imagine when presented with the term "Positive Atheism." We are entirely open to considering any other angles that would fall along these lines, as the above is just one example of what we have put into practice.
Thus, if anyone is looking for a term to describe that brand of atheism which counters the spiteful and vindictive image that we atheists have endured (and, at times, we have brought this image upon ourselves), we hereby encourage people to use "Positive Atheism" as that term. To us, "Positive Atheism" means all this and much more.