What Did Atheists Do
Prior To 1995?
Dr. Dale McGowan
American Humanists Association; Humanists of Minnesota

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Dr. Dale McGowan"
Subject: Re: Praise for PAM
Date: October 02, 2001 12:52 AM

Thank you for your comments! Sometimes, when we get a dozen or so scathing denunciations in a row, a letter like this makes all the difference in helping pick ourselves up, move forward, and continue our work. To be fair, I would like to discuss a few of the other resources that have been around and try to show where PAM fits into the bigger picture, because we were neither the first at anything nor have we ever been the biggest at anything. We have, however, chosen a few aspects toward which we strive to excel and become the favored resource for a specific kind of atheistic activist.

What makes PAM unique, I think, is our attitude toward atheistic activism. Not satisfied that simply organizing and lobbying will accomplish the goals that almost all atheistic activists say they seek, we urge atheists, and particularly atheistic activists, to incorporate a strong ethical element not only in their work but also in their personal lives. Unless atheistic activists place a high value on truthfulness (at minimum), we will not get very far in our struggle either to separate religion from government or to reduce the stigma and bigotry that has been leveled against atheists throughout recorded history. But with a powerful ethic as our foundation, PAM suggests that we don't really need to do all that much organizing, but that individual atheists, standing up and speaking out, can make all the difference in the world -- if and only if we have a powerful ethic guiding our activism. That is PAM's main message.

The year 1995 is monumental because, in fact, that's about when Internet Infidels began posting the Bank of Wisdom series. So, we were not the only ones, neither were we the first. We decided to take a different tack mainly because the BoW series was (and is) so poorly done that it is not useful as a resource for citing quotations. When PAM posts a historical work we either do our own OCR and editing or (at minimum) correct another e-text version against the original from the library (or wherever). Ours are not perfect, but are close enough that we feel confident in welcoming students and scholars to use our editions for reference and quotation. This element of accuracy, we think, goes along with the ethic of truthfulness described above.

While many specialty quotes lists have come out which feature thorough source citations (Ed and Michael Buckner's "Quotations that Support the Separation of State and Church" comes to mind as one of the most thoroughly documented specialty lists we've seen), Positive Atheism's Big List of Quotations is the first (and still the only) collection of general Freethought quotations online which strives to find the source citation whenever possible, or at least give a secondary citation (such as Encarta Dictionary of Quotations or James A. Haught's 2000 Years of Disbelief). Without sources, a list of quotations becomes simply a collection of ideas, but with the sources, a list of quotations becomes a powerful tool for writing letters to the editor or making speeches, etc.).

Wayne Aiken's quotations collection was already huge when I started mine, and is probably still the largest, but again, we strive more for usability (that is, being able to use a quotation wisely by having the source citation handy) over quantity. We will post quotations on without sources if we trust that they're real and if we think the quip is fantastic, but we have scads of lists of quotations that won't go into our collection simply because the don't come with a source citation. Others won't go in our collection simply because we don't like them. (How many times have I actually removed a quotation from our list because it's an idea that I decided I'm not proud to be associated with?)

Both elements, I think, go along with the ethic of truthfulness: knowing that a quotation is real and being able to cite its source makes a more believable letter to the editor (or whatever). Also, many quotations that we've seen on the various lists appear to bolster atheism at first glance, but when examined for what they say, they only diminish the dignity of the atheistic position. This is why we try to avoid (for example) what we feel are patently bigoted atheistic statements.

So, to address your (admittedly rhetorical) question, we did the best we could with what few resources we had. Nobody can do more. A few of us took a look at what we had and told ourselves that we could fill a need that was not being met, or perhaps we could significantly improve on an existing situation. Positive Atheism is one man's attempt to do both.

Today, there are numerous resources where the active atheist may obtain and use any number of tools to make the many statements that need to be popularized and publicized if we atheists expect to get anywhere in today's world. Not only that, but there are several different attitudes on display, from the cautious to the unrelenting, and from the serious to the absurd. Positive Atheism has chosen the attitudes and the resources that we feel can make a big difference, but we have by no means tried to exhaust what is available or what is needed. We are just one collection of information, and we represent just one way of seeing things.

Hopefully there is enough out there for everybody. If not, domain registration is very cheap these days, and if somebody cannot find something they like out there (like me, six years ago), they can create their own Internet community (like I did). It's not easy, by any stretch, but everything depends on what you want and what you're willing to give in exchange for it. I want a community where we can try to beat some of the serious problems that beset atheists, because most of the evils I've endured in my life have been due to my atheism. And if enough people likewise become interested in licking this problem, perhaps it just might go away!

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

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