The Gilda Radner Polemic
of the Sacred Chao
Jeff Trojek

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <>
To: "Jeff Trojek"
Subject: Re: WebMaster:_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: August 26, 2002 9:37 PM

Think what you want. It is not my burden to clarify for you my thoughts on this matter. Judging by this letter, my time would be much better spent realigning the perimeter pixels in the .gif graphic that I use as a tiled background in the frames version of my "Introduction" essay.

I don't understand why it seems so important for you (and yours: you're not alone) to portray atheists as dogmatically insisting that an existential claim is falsehood, when only a handful of us go that far. I thought that everybody knew that it is impossible to empirically disprove an existential claim. But just when I thought we'd made this clear, it appears that the lone hold-out descends from the baseboards and writes me an e-mail.

The Gilda Radner Polemic

What really baffles me more than anything you've written is this:

First you tell me the equivalent of: "Your use of the word atheist is improper; the word atheist means something other than what you say it means: there is another word that means what you are saying when you describe yourself (improperly) as an atheist."

Then you proceed to treat me as if my verbal descripition of my outlook is moot. Worse than that, you act as if the meaning of the word that our social class uses for self-identification actually determines what I think, do and say. It's not as if the word is simply describing me, you're talking as if my use of the word atheist literally turns me into what that word means to you. In other words, even though I think that I am reflecting upon my experience as a human and then describing how I tend to respond to various god-claims and how far I typically run with certain abstractions, you're saying that what I think I have experienced is not the case at all.

Rather (I hear you saying), because I have used the word atheist to describe myself, I must consult the dictionary of your choice in order to find out what my experience as a human -- as an atheist -- has been like, to learn how I tend to respond to various god-claims, and to discover how far I typically run with certain abstractions. You're saying (for instance) that how far I run with certain abstractions is determined by what your dictionary says an atheist is; I cannot simply reflect on my experiences as a human and thereby come up with a description of my typical behavior and outlook.

(This is what your written words mean on close examination! But for me to think that you're willing to justify this scenario and defend what you've said would be to pull the same stunt on you that you appear to have pulled on me -- and that I will not do!)

Now, here's where I keep expecting someone to explain to Gilda Radner which of a word's 25 different definitions the focus of her commentary had intended to convey. Here's where I keep expecting her to shake her fist in frustration and scream out, "Never mind!"

By calling myself an atheist, then, the appropriate way for you to engage in discussion with someone is not to verify that the two of you have the same or a similar understanding when each of you utters the same sequence of letters; rather, the dictionary of your choice makes the determination as to what your opponent thinks, does, says, and thus any assessment or refutation of what that dictionary describes constitutes a successful argument on your part.

This of course holds true even in the event that your opponent is mistaken in his use of the word with which he describes himself!

One of the most perplexing observations that I've made since I opened this Forum almost seven years ago is that you aren't the only one to have pulled this very stunt on me!

I will not explain to you the various ways in which the word atheist has been understood and used by various individuals, groups, and classes over the past 2,700 years or so. This project is an an attempt to end bigotry against a class which uses, among other monickers, the word atheist in its self-definition. Somehow, the thought of soliciting the aid of a bigot in this endeavor does not sit well with me, so I intend to drop this matter at the very first opportunity.

Finally, the single most common Abjectly Embarrassing Mistake that gets posted to this Forum involves dashing off a cocksurely scathing Bronx cheer of a castigation along the lines that I'm somehow "not being positive" (in some way or another). All the while, our friend, the Abject Embarrassment, has presupposed that I must be just plain stupid or something, in that I have been using a name for several years, but never once have I bothered to inquire as to its meaning, never once have I asked myself whether I'm using it properly. I must be pretty stupid if I'd do that, eh?

Of course! Is it not obvious to everybody with half a brain that I'm not even trying to conform to the first of 25 different definitions listed for the word positive in Encarta World Dictionary alone!

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Almost seven years of service to
     people with no reason to believe
P.O. Box 16811
Portland, OR 97292

"My conclusion is that there is no reason to
     believe any of the dogmas of traditional
     theology and, further, that there is no
     reason to wish that they were true. Man,
     in so far as he is not subject to natural
     forces, is free to work out his own destiny.
     The responsibility is his, and so is the
        -- Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), from an
           unpublished essay, "Is There a God?"
           (1952), being the religious opinion of
           Russell, of this journal, and of as many
           as one-fifth of the world's adults and
           perhaps one-seventh of Americans

"The legitimate powers of government extend
     to such acts only as are injurious to others."
        -- Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), in his
           "Statute for Religious Freedom," saying
           government has no authority over one's
           religious opinions, thus defining "crime"
           as the injury of a person or his property

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain
     a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty
     nor safety."
        -- Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), from the
           "Historical Review of Pennsylvania," which
           warns, among other things, that if we don't
           use the Liberty to hold and express our own
           religious opinions, even if out of the fear of
           reprisal, then we rightly forfeit that Liberty

Graphic Rule

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