Motto: People With
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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Rastislav Škoda"
Subject: Re: Positive Atheism, Six-and-Half-years Date: March 19, 2002 9:45 PM

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Note for second draft:

I wrote this entire letter to you and then the computer crashed and I lost it all. It was not about saving or anything like that, but the computer lost the whole letter! I cannot find it anywhere! Now I use a more stable program than Microsoft Outlook, and must discipline myself to stop using that program for so much of my writing. It is a cute little program, but when it crashes, you're in "heap-big trouble," as they used to say!

So here it is again: I wrote it a second time. It's not quite as fresh this time around, but hopefully it is every bit as powerful as my first draft. This is, fortunately for me, yet another opportunity to explain (to myself, as well as to anybody who cares to listen) what I mean when I sign the letters "no reason to believe." This signature accounts for a fair amount of misunderstanding and criticism; therefore, I do well to review my original reason for making it this way, and to ask myself if there may be a better way to express this thought or even a better thought to express altogether!

 

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Thank you for your well-wishing: I seem to be feeling better now that I have reduced my intake of fluids to almost nothing. The medicine was not working; in fact, I only put on more when I kept my intake at under four litres per day. Now that I've kept it between one and two litres per day, I am losing water and feel better. This does not mean that I am getting better! In fact, I could just be fooling myself with false hope!

But at times false hope can be better than no hope at all. On this one point I can relate to the theist. Where we differ is when it becomes appropriate to deceive oneself for the sake of comfort. I was in a lot of pain (still am) and the doctors still are not sure if I will survive this. Just the misery of that realization began to harm me, to make my condition and the symptoms worsen. So I stopped drinking all but the bare minimum, knowing that this way at least I won't be collecting any more water! Of course this is foolish, but I wanted to made the symptoms seem to reduce for a few days, to make it appear as if I am getting better. As a result, I feel much better and have been able to make much progress in the small matters, such as arranging my new apartment so that I can function.

Then, once I began feeling happier, once the initial loss of weight made me feel hopeful, I started to take better care of myself and spend more time working toward healing. What I have noticed seems strange, but it goes right along with everything I used to teach about recovery from addictions: even though I knew that the weight loss was not the result of the medication and the regimen starting to take effect, but was the result of my (foolish) decision to stop drinking fluids for several days, there is another part of my mind that only knows that I feel better physically, that I feel better emotionally. That part of my mind is not fully aware that I have literally contrived the appearance of healing, without actually being healed! But it knows that the weight is coming off, that the limbs move more freely, that the skin does not sweat and fester from being so tight, that the slightest bump is not as painful, that walking is a little easier. And my body is responding to all this.

To tell you the truth, what happened was that I simply panicked. I was not getting any better and they told me that there was chance that I won't get better, but will only get worse. When that began to be the case, when doing what the doctors told me to do did not make me get any better, but only made me get worse, I went into a panic and stopped drinking fluids. I was thirsty as all Hell, but I knew that this would take off some of the weight in fluid. And it did. Now I've progressed to the stage where they've increased the amount of medication and I have begun to respond to the medication, which is the proper way to go about it.

Perhaps I will be able to compose an editorial along these lines, although if I can manage to justify false hope I will have performed quite a feat!
 

But you have asked about my signature; that is, the slogan that follows my signature on every e-mail. I will tell you why it is that I wish more and more people would say this to one another: please use it and own it -- call it your own because it is not mine to begin with. Bertrand Russell gave it to everybody and it is ours to use freely!

That is, I wrote the original slogan, "______ years of service to people with no reason to believe." Before, I it was something like "Serving people with no reason to believe for ______ years," but this has several problems in English, so I changed it to what it is. Shortly after that, S. T. Joshi published the book, Atheism: A Reader, which contained, for the first time outside of his multiple-volume collection of writings, Bertrand Russell's unpublished 1953 essay, "Is There a God?" which contains the very sentiments I was trying to convey in my signature!

So I did write it, but so did Lord Russell and so have many others! I would venture to say that based upon how much these words mean to you, you played a part in writing this sentence as well. We all have played a part, we who recognize that our atheism can be summarized gently, by saying that we simply have yet to encounter any compelling arguments which prompt (or even allow) us to assent to the claims made by theism, while yet considering ourselves honest.

In other words, we have no reason to believe!
 

First, "six-and-one-half" is simply the correct way to write out, in English, 6 1/2 (or 6½, equaling 6.5).

The most important part of that quip, to me, is the part I sorta (but not really) lifted from an old, obscure Bertrand Russell essay, "Is There a God?" In fact, I use the final paragraph in the ménage of quotations following my signature. I had been using "no reason to believe" for longer than I've known about the Russell piece, and I placed the paragraph into the ménage of quotations precisely because it contains that line.

The importance of meaning that I derive from this phrase is based upon my use of the word atheist. Most (Western) people, when they hear the word atheist, think of somebody who says to himself, "No gods exist. All gods are make-believe!" I like to "weaken" this stand, philosophically, in order to improve my standing when discussing my beliefs with a theist. In this sense, an atheist is one who simply lacks a god-belief. Perhaps a specific atheist goes further than this, but that is not for me to say; I simply say, "an atheist lacks a god belief."

In addition to softening my stand with the theist, making me appear more reasonable to the theist (among other things), to say "an atheist lacks a god-belief" is more inclusive: I am describing a larger group of people. I see humanity divided into two groups in this respect: either you have a god-belief or you do not; if you believe, you are a theist, otherwise, you are an atheist.

Furthermore, I have stopped pretending to make claims about any "deep" reality that may or may not exist. Instead, I speak entirely and exclusively about my own opinion: "my collective opinion (my world view, if you will, or my viewpoint) does not contain a belief that gods exist." This has the dubious advantage of deflecting certain attacks by the theist in that my opinion is just that: my opinion. Nobody can say much more than "It is very interesting that you hold that opinion." But this is not why I do it, and this would be a "cheap" way out of a discussion. Still, there is much to be said about keeping my statements within the realm of describing my observations rather than pretending to describe any "deep" reality.

Most importantly, though, for me to say "I lack a god-belief" is to bring to fore the single most important (and in my view, the most forgotten) element crucial to any discussion between a theist and an atheist: by saying this, I remind myself (and any listeners) that it is the theist who is making the claim, not I. Since the theist makes the claim, the theist is obligated to provide evidence and strong argument; that is, to provide me with a compelling reason to consent to his claim, to think that his claim is truthful. As the person who is listening to the theist's claims, my obligation falls short of trying to prove or disprove anything.

Indeed, I cannot empirically disprove an existential claim, that is, a claim that a certain thing exists. I can make strong attacks, to be sure, and show specific elements of the claim to be impossible (be that the case). But I cannot go all the way in empirically disproving any claim that a thing exists.

This would seem like a disadvantage at first glance, but it turns out to be quite the advantage when we look at it from another perspective. It is precisely because I cannot disprove his claim that he is obligated to formulate the argument and try to make his case. The burden of proving his position rests squarely upon his shoulder because he is the only one who can do any proving at all!

If he cannot make his case to my satisfaction, I am under no obligation to believe his claim. Indeed, I am fully justified in continuing about my business (unless, of course, he has more soldiers and bigger guns than I do, but that's another matter altogether!).

Let's see what would happen if this were not the case, if it were not the burden of the speaker to prove his own claims that a thing exists. (This is the "burden of proof.") If my opponent made a claim that I could not disprove (because it is impossible to disprove these kinds of claims, remember) then my inability to disprove his claim would appear to make his case that much stronger. But if this were the case, if my inability to disprove his claim could strengthen his case, then my opponent could make any sort of claim whatsoever (nonsense, even) and my inability to disprove him would obligate me to accept his claims as true! (And indeed, you cannot even discuss nonsense, can you?) But how many times has a theist suggested that since you cannot disprove his claim that God exists, therefore God must exist?

Fortunately, the Burden of Proof is one of the most solidly established rules of logic and discussion, and it is this rule that prevents our discussion from degenerating into the awkward situation described above.

But does not the strong atheist make an existential claim? Does not the strong atheist therefore have the burden of proof? When I say, "No gods exist," I am not making an actual existential claim; I am not claiming that a thing exists. Nevertheless, I am putting on the appearance of making a claim of some sort. Since not everybody is fully in touch with the finer intricacies of logic and discussion, an appearance can mean a lot!

However, I can easily weaken even the appearance of my statement by limiting its scope. I speak only of beliefs when I say that I lack a belief in something, rather than the stronger pronouncements pretending to speak on what is and what is not. It requires very little further elucidation to get almost anybody to see the difference. I can further weaken its appearance, even to the novice, by turning my statement it into an observation that is entirely personal. In this sense, I am making a report about what my senses observed, what instruments detected, and what reason thought, rather than claiming to make statements about "deep" reality.

When I say, "I lack a god-belief," I am simply describing my own outlook; I'm saying that my viewpoint does not include a belief that gods exist. This should make it less tempting for the theist to challenge me to prove that no gods exist, although that is not generally what happens on our Forum!

I can take this one step further, if I wish: To say "I lack a god belief" simply shifts the burden of proof onto the shoulder of the theist; however, if I were to say, "I have been given no reason to believe," I would be shifting the responsibility for my unbelief onto the shoulder of any theist who adheres to an evangelical religion (that is, a religion which requires followers to recruit new members). I am saying, in essence, that since this discussion is entirely about claims, the fact that I have been given no compelling reason to assent to those claims suggests that they have been remiss in making those claims effectively!

This proves quite an embarrassment to the many Christians who live in my country, to be sure! Of course it's their obligation, logically and rhetorically, to make the strong case, to prove their position; this is true simply because they are the ones making the claim. In addition, though, with Evangelical Christianity (and many other forms of religion) it is the theists' obligation in obedience to their religion to try to persuade me to go along with their claims through reasoned argument. The Christians' own Bible, in I Peter 3:15, commands the Christian to "sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear." I never push it that far, as it is none of my business whether or not they are being obedient to the tenets of their religious faith. This is why I'll never call a religious person a hypocrite; I prefer, rather, to observe that the religion itself failed to make a certain follower moral according to my understanding of moral!

But, if I back up a bit, I can see that this entire discussion is about claims. Nothing about "deep" reality is being said upon which we both agree. All we can agree about is that the theist is making a claim about "deep" reality. Thus, since it is the theist who is even interested in gods and god-claims and god-beliefs, and since I was simply minding my own business until the theist came up and told me to believe in gods, it is still mostly if not entirely a reflection of the theist not having made those claims effectively.

I realize that during the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages, it was popular for Christian to use force to increase Church membership. Indeed, the popular proof text for a thousand years or more was Luke 14:23: "Compel them to enter in." This Scripture was even inscribed upon torture devices that I once saw displayed in a book!

But that was how they did it back then. While numerous Evangelicals have been known to use deception and trickery to gain converts, nobody can be said to be using force, the coercion of violence. Au contraire! The proselytizing techniques that had, during James Madison's life, been standard procedure only within the recent memory of his own childhood are today all but forgotten, with only a few scattered exceptions "somewhere overseas."

Throughout my lifetime, I Peter 3:15 has been the clarion call for Christians: "always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence" (RSV); this is the same as saying, "be ready always to give an answer to every man who asketh you a reason for the hope that is in you" (KJ21). According to this, it is through reason and sound argument that Christians are to "make disciples of all nations."

Never have I heard Luke 14:23 used at all; never have I heard anybody advocate anything more forceful than coercion via threat of Hell-fire and brimstone or the indoctrination of children too young to have developed their critical thinking skills. Of course the democracies and the democratic republics have succeeded in making it illegal to persecute people into compliance with church dogma. The separation of religion from government did a lot to prevent any tendency to "relapse" back to the old ways. But this trend against coercion of force did not happen in a vacuum: there were reasons for this becoming universal.

Maybe it is as Lecky says, and the "Rise of the Spirit of Rationalism" has taught our species a lesson; maybe the Era of Enlightenment has found itself influencing not just the arts, culture, and government, but influencing the very church! As the people awakened to more and more the Rationalism and Humanism of the Enlightenment, the church found herself able to get away with less and less of what she had taken for granted for lo these many centuries!

In our Forum I play with the concept that even the most fundamentalistic of sects had to bow to the march of Rationalism brought on by the Enlightenment. The two Letters where I focus specifically on this concept are "Ten Commandments And Absolute Morality" with Troy Dyck, and "Human Suffering Proves God's Love" with Jeremy Biffert. Responding to both men, I showed the depths of depravity that pure, unchecked fundamentalism will take a Christian. But then I repeatedly bring in a ray of hope by showing that the influence of the Era Enlightenment has left its mark even on the Church!

Unfortunately, as eloquently as I managed to weave my argument and make my case, each time my Christian opponent ended up making a stronger case for my position through the sheer vacancy of his own position of Christian Fundamentalism! The fact that Christian Fundamentalism has had to change over the centuries is what refutes that position most powerfully. When Christian Fundamentalism stooped to the point of "keeping up with the times" it showed its utter vacancy as an absolute pronouncement on morality. Christianity may have something to say about morals, but in no sense is it the final word on anything.

Each opponent placed the laurel upon my head through his own inaction. Neither Christian used anything stronger than the "reason of the hope" invoked in I Peter 3:15; neither man came close to the Luke 14:23 method of "compelling" me to "enter in"! The only smoke to rise came from the end of my cigarette. Would they, if they had the power? I like to think not: I want to suggest that the Spirit of Rationalism that sprang forth during the Enlightenment has all but ended the practice of compulsory religion in the West. We see pockets of it now and then, but the day of wholesale religious persecution in European cultures is gone. and it will not return for a long time, if ever again. I think we have simply learned too much. I think we cannot and will not allow this to happen to us, we cannot and will not allow ourselves to do it to anybody! The Enlightenment, I think, has taken us too far, and there is no turning back. This is my hope in Human Reason.
 

So with no reason to believe, I live my own life to the best of my ability with what resources I have and can muster. If somebody doesn't like it, then with no reason to believe, I challenge this opponent to do something about it: bring me a reason to believe. In the years that I have been issuing this challenge, many have tried to convince me of the claims of the Christian religion. But nobody has provided me with that one key element which would make a convert of me: a reason to believe that what they're telling me is the truth. Without that one key element, I remain an atheist.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six-and-a-half years of service
    to people with no reason to believe

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