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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "nosher.... "
Subject: Re: hi
Date: November 02, 2001 9:36 PM

Positive Atheism is more of an ethic than anything.

First of all, atheism is simply the absence of a god belief. Either you have a god belief or you do not. If you have a god belief, you are a theist; if you don't have a god belief, you are an atheist. Some people go further and assert that no gods exist, but this is unimportant. The important thing to remember is that atheism, itself, does not say anything about you except that you do not hold this one opinion which is common among humans. It is a way for us to distinguish ourselves from these other humans, if need be, but usually there is no need for this and we simply consider ourselves regular humans. Besides, if theism is a learned behavior, that is, if theism is something that people add to their humanity, then atheism is the default position when it comes to religious belief. Many of the atheists who came out of the Age of Enlightenment (and many today) would say that an infant is an atheist, having no god belief.

Positive Atheism, loosely, is the name of a book by Gora, an atheistic activist who lived in India from 1902 to 1975. He worked for years trying to abolish the Hindu social institution of untouchability, and did this by debunking the religious trappings which kept the people thinking that untouchability and the caste system had meaning. If a convention has no real meaning, then we are not morally obligated to follow that convention. To emphasize this, Gora abandoned his own surname and began calling himself "Gora," which is a contraction of that name and had served as his nickname. Gora eventually worked with Mohandas K. Gandhi, and was able to convince Gandhi that his own philosophy, Satyagraha, is essentially nontheistic. In other words, no theistic belief is needed to practice Satyagraha. To this, Gandhi wholeheartedly gave his assent.

The core value of Satyagraha is, of course, nonviolent passive resistance to any corrupt government. The other core value, the one which Gora found useful and which we, likewise, can find useful today, in any situation, is that the ethic of truthfulness is paramount to personal Liberty and to getting along. Gora said that we insist on the right to insist on truthfulness in all our affairs, and this was modeled directly from Gandhi's Satyagraha. Gora eventually added several elements of political philosophy which we choose to ignore simply because our expression of Positive Atheism is being developed for the West at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and Gora worked in India during mid-twentieth century. Also, some of the political trends upon which Gora placed a lot of hope, such as Marxism, have since undergone many changes and are, nonetheless, not nearly as popular in the West as they were for the impoverished classes of India. So, we use Gora's philosophy more as a stepping-off point than even a model for living.

This is a crucial because Gora himself would not have enjoyed seeing anybody submit to a philosophy in that respect. Gora's most important point, I think, has to do with the freedom of the individual. To drive home his view about individual freedom, Gora said,

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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.
    -- Gora, Atheism Questions and Answers, p. 83

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Gora also emphasized this point by facetiously calling "theism" anything before which any human would submit. Thus, a certain social or political ideology, if that's what an individual allows to control and direct one's thinking and actions, could be seen as a form of theism in Gora's often wry sense of seeing things. This idea is, of course, more inspirational than it is practical or even philosophical. Materialism is not a form of theism, but Gora showed that a blind submission to the fate of the elements and their properties could be just as debilitating as submission to any of the popular religious dogmas. This is not uncommon: as theists, many of us heard certain things referred to as a person's "god." Occasionally some theist will write to our Forum and accuse me of following atheism as a religion and of making my atheism my "god." Even these theists (I would hope) do not intend for their words to be taken literally.

Gora's zeal for individual freedom took some interesting turns. The one that has influenced me most profoundly was:

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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.
    -- chapter ii of the book Positive Atheism

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But simply thinking or knowing something will neither hinder anything from happening nor help anything to happen: there is a difference between simple knowledge and putting that knowledge into practice:

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Satyagraha 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.
    -- chapter ii of the book Positive Atheism

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There are other elements of Positive Atheism, all of which are merely thing that we advocate and encourage among atheists. To submit to a philosophy such as Positive Atheism would be counter to everything upon which it is founded: an individual acts according to what she or he thinks is right, within the limitations of one's own abilities, of course.

A more comprehensive description of what we mean by Positive Atheism can be found in our FAQ piece called "Introduction to Activistic Atheism." You are also welcome to study the philosophy of Gora, although that is not what we are advocating.

As for an ethical system, a philosophical outlook, the best recommendation that I can give to anybody is to open your eyes and take a look at the world around you. This is our environment, the world within which we have to live. Then take a good look at yourself and see that your ability to build upon what and who you are is almost limitless in comparison to your ability to change others and the things around you.

Many ethical systems have been developed over the years which not only do not require there to exist a deity of any sort, but show themselves to be significantly more effective at teaching people to make wise decisions. The book that has most influenced me in this respect is Richard Robinson's rare little gem, An Atheist's Values. Because this work is almost impossible to find, and because it has so profoundly changed me in regards to my ability to think through situations and see what my options are (to see that I even have options!), I set aside a few weeks and converted the entire book to e-text and posted it on Positive Atheism's web site.

Another piece that I spent a lot of time on, and intend to publish in the October, 2001, print edition, is this little gem in response to questions by Rebecca Donnarumma.

A brief overview of atheistic ethical philosophies (some of which is covered in the Rebecca Donnarumma letter) is in Krueger's book What Is Atheism?

If you have any specific questions, I'd be glad to go into more detail about just about anything. However, I think this pretty much covers an overview of your questions. Thanks for writing, and by all means do not hesitate to send some more specific questions our way: this is the way that we all learn, is to encounter and ponder one another's questions. Thanks for the opportunity to ponder your questions once again.

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

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Material by Cliff Walker (including unsigned editorial commentary) is copyright ©1995-2006 by Cliff Walker. Each submission is copyrighted by its writer, who retains control of the work except that by submitting it to Positive Atheism, permission has been granted to use the material or an edited version: (1) on the Positive Atheism web site; (2) in Positive Atheism Magazine; (3) in subsequent works controlled by Cliff Walker or Positive Atheism Magazine (including published or posted compilations). Excerpts not exceeding 500 words are allowed provided the proper copyright notice is affixed. Other use requires permission; Positive Atheism will work to protect the rights of all who submit their writings to us.