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Atheism Is The Way
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From: "Positive Atheism" <>
To: [unsigned]
Subject: Re: positive
Date: December 05, 2002 11:57 AM


You have a clearer grasp of what we've been trying to say about "Positive Atheism" than even we do, at times!

Every so often I like to write down an overview of my position, mostly to compare where I've been over the years. I also secretly hope that one of these times I will pull off the definitive position paper that ends up becoming so intuitively useful that I never have to write another one as long as I live: I can simply point to the good one.

That'll never happen (I hope) so here I go again, setting out to overview what "Positive Atheism" and positive atheism (lowercase, that is, atheism mean to me. Since I mean one of two separate things when I put these two words together, I shall offer a brief distinction: "positive atheism" (lowercase) is atheism which can be described as "positive" -- whatever being "positive" involves, "positive" having a personal meaning that differs from individual to individual; "Positive Atheism" (capitalized) is our philosophy, by name, or the original philosophy from India, put together by Gora, upon which our version is very loosely based. I do this as a return favor to you for your having shared with us what "positive atheism" (the lowercase one, of course) means to you. May we all learn from what you have told us today!

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Truthfulness and Dignity Among Humans

In our FAQ piece, "Introduction to Activistic Atheism," you will find our latest expression of the meanings of "Positive Atheism."

In it, we describe the primacy of truthfulness among ethics. While we cannot afford to scrimp on any ethics (that is, we cannot afford for their accusations against us to be accurate), being an atheist implies that we are calling theism false (or are at least throwing doubt upon the claims of theism). And by calling theism false, we strongly imply that we hold truthfulness in very high regard.

We also encourage a dignified and respectful view of theists and theism -- or at least a dignified expression in any public statements we may make. Face it: theism is, for the most part, benign. Only a handful of theists cause all the trouble coming from theism's camp. We suggest calling the problem precisely to the extent of where the problem lies and no further. We likewise encourage atheists to refrain from lumping all theists into a single group. When it comes to our own dignity, we do well to consider somebody a fellow-human first and a theist if and only if that fact starts to get in the way of getting along with our fellow-human. Otherwise, it's none of our business what others believe in the privacy of their own minds. We attack only those expressions of theism which we feel are intrusive, exploitative, or dangerous.

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Understanding Atheism Disarms Antagonism

In another section, "What is Atheism?" the "Introduction" introduces an element that has since become one of the more important (and indeed more successful) moves to end the stigma against atheists: our quest to find and popularize a definition for atheism that comes from the atheistic point of view. We feel that the "weak" definition, historically favored by atheistic writers and spokespersons, describes of the common denominators of the atheistic position.

Much of the hostility leveled against atheists is motivated out of a picture or portrayal of the atheist that is wholly inaccurate; most of the accusatory letters we get denounce us for believing ideas that we don't even hold, that very few atheists hold. Most tell us that we believe, positively, that "God does not exist." In neutral, unbiased language, this means that atheists assert that all god-claims are falsehood. This would mean that we have investigated all god-claims, have understood them all (yeah, right!), and have rejected them out of hand. Not even the Dial-an-Atheist Guy has done that, I promise you!

The "weak" definition for atheism, that is, "the lack of a god-belief for whatever reason," and the "weak" definition for atheist, namely, "anybody who is not a theist," is much more accurate for numerous reasons. In this sense, the atheist says, "I have yet to encounter a god-claim worthy of my assent." Being more accurate, this description is that much more disarming.

First, this statement refers to the god-claim, something both sides agree exists, rather than talking about "God," which only the theist can do. Secondly, it places the burden of proof back onto the shoulder of the theist where it belongs: the burden of proof being the obligation of the one claiming that a thing exists. Furthermore, it neatly divides humanity into two groups: theists and atheists, handling the Agnostic question in the same manner: theistic agnostics and atheistic agnostics. Finally, it brings all nonbelievers under the same umbrella of "lacking a god-belief," with the various "shades" of unbelief fully represented.

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Positive Atheism: Constructive and Proactive

Besides eventually using positive to mean "constructive," as you have, we originally set out to have it mean "proactive." It's the same difference, in one sense! The "proactive" element ranges from stressing responsible use of our atheism to becoming involved in the struggle for dignity and fair play in the public square.

Often when I find I must take someone to task for their attitude toward atheists, they say, "You're not being very positive!" On the contrary! This is precisely what we set out to mean when we began using the word; this is what our ideological predecessors in India meant as well. "Positive," in this sense, means working to bring about an end to bigotry, to replace superstition with the ability to use one's own powers of reason, and to cut loose the shackles that the practice of both bigotry and superstition brings upon the perpetrators as well as the victims.

Progress such as this is often not much fun and not always "positive," by the popular definition of the word. But in the end, struggles such as these bitter struggles, at times) can bring about changes which can only be described as "positive." And what Gora wrote about economic systems applies, I think, to almost any human situation, with but a handful of exceptions which some of us tend to call "flukes":

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economic systems ... have never arranged themselves by themselves. 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.

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If the "positive" involves interference with material conditions, and if the material conditions happen to be social systems upheld by the majority (theists), social systems constructed to give the advantage to theists at the expense of nontheists, then almost anything that we do which we would deem "positive" will bring about violent opposition from the status quo. Albert Einstein, a genius in understanding social situations as well as a genius in understanding physical reality, remarked,

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Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.

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Surely he is not saying that opposition is a sure sign of being a great spirit! I think there's more to it than that, and a glance at his philosophical writings shows that Einstein thought similarly.

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Atheism: The Big Nothing

We have recently begun to suggest that atheism is, for the most part, a nonissue. My father is as adamant as Madalyn Murray O'Hair could ever have hoped to be, yet he has probably used the word atheist all of five times in his life -- never once to describe his own position. To him, theism is something that is so meaningless that it is not worthy of his attention at all.

Even when they parade the religious nuts on TV over some crime or another, he sees right through the religious façade to the opportunism, the poverty, and whatever other physical problems were at work in prompting what the TV networks are calling religiously motivated. Yes, religion plays a role, but usually it is used as a tool to gather followers and whip them into a frenzy: what is going on to prompt them to use religion this way?

The last thing my father cares to discuss is what the religious people actually believe.

Theism has an object: God (regardless of whether He is real or make-believe). Atheism has no corresponding object, but is a lack, or absence.

Theism usually involves a great deal of learning; indeed, theism is always learned. Atheism, to me, is the default position among theistic viewpoints: it is the position we start out with (no god-belief). If anything, atheism involves unlearning theism, but again, this is unlearning, not learning.

Theism takes up quite a bit of a theist's attention and time, and is rightly a relatively big part of one's life. Atheism is not involved in this way. If an atheist is as "into" their atheism as most people are "into" their theism, I'd suggest that we have a problem.

Even as a full-time atheistic activist, I rarely think about atheism except to explain what it is. I never ponder the god-question any more. I don't have to, because I've fielded enough god-claims for a small city's worth of people. Most of my work involves sentence structure and HTML tags. Even the thinking portion of my work is about bigotry, politics, and ethics, not atheism.

I'm even at a loss as to how we might symbolize atheism, such as on jewelry, on clothing, on window decals for our cars, as shorthand identification in editorial cartoons, etc. Not only do I not see how we might symbolize (literally) nothing, I cannot fathom why we would do it. Think about a person's possible motives for wanting to publicize or even advertise the fact that she or he does not believe the religious claims that most hold dear: "I'm not like you folks!"

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Ending The Social Religious Test

If you can see what I see as wrong with this picture, you can see why I think our best move is to try to fit in with our fellow humans (abandoning any religious test), ignore their quirks (we all have them), and join together to address the grave problems endangering us all.

Occasionally someone will bring it up, and we may then decide whether discussing it will be productive or divisive. I have productive and entertaining discussions all the time, and have for most of my adult life. None of them have been degrading in any way for either party: once I sense that starting to happen, I change the subject.

Finally, we encourage active atheists to join regular culture even if it does lay on the spiritual syrup a bit heavy at times. This is not to say, "I am a theist," but to proudly deflect any curiosity toward bold expression of, "I am alive; I am human." While we have questioned the need for organized atheist groups, we do recognize that many atheists would have a seriously tough time without them. Our piece on atheist groups is called, "Why Advocate For Individual Activists?"

We have scattered throughout these letters numerous tips on how to gracefully avoid confrontation, how to change the subject if need be, and how to know when it might be wise to go ahead and say, "I am an atheist." Our most concerted effort at this, of course, is a Forum (Q&A) piece, chock full of tips and suggestions from our readers. This piece is called, "Moving Beyond Just A Polite Response?" Linked from it are about a half-dozen others along the same vein.

The reason we so strongly encourage assimilation rather than separatism is because we recognize that the vast majority of those who lack a god-belief rarely if ever think upon the subject. When religion comes up they quietly cringe or patiently wait until the conversation takes a more interesting turn. There is no point in antagonizing people simply because they belong to a certain class -- no matter what that class may be. Nothing we do or say is likely to change a soul, and what others believe is none of our business to begin with (neither is what we don't believe any of their business!).

So we rest in the comfort and knowledge that we don't have to live life under the thumb of a religious group, an experience that many of us know first hand as a fierce hardship. It is not a reason to gloat. More often, the feeling is similar to the way one might, upon seeing a blind person, be reminded, out of sheer appreciation for the sense of vision, that his or her optical exam is way past due, and to make a mental note to schedule an appointment. We might then approach the blind person in the hope of exchanging some informal, lighthearted chitchat while waiting for that bus or whatever, motivated, of course, solely by our mutual humanity.

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Thanks for Writing!

It is always a pleasure to hear from those who have thought about their atheism.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Seven years of service to people
    with no reason to believe

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