Handling Marvin Heyboer's Letter
Dimitrije Kostic

"To say there is no God is to say you have enough knowledge to know there is no God."

"But an atheist can never have enough knowledge to be certain there is no God."

"An atheist would have to be everywhere in and out of the universe all at one time, because if there is anywhere he cannot be, God could be there. No atheist can claim total knowledge, therefore atheism is self-refuting, because knowing everything and being everywhere is to be like God."

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Dimitrije Kostic"
Subject: Re: Marvin Heyboer's email
Date: Wednesday, March 14, 2001 10:00 AM

It is very convenient to discredit someone's work like this without offering anything resembling a description as to why that person's work has earned your disfavor.

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

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Dimitrije Kostic"
Subject: Re: Marvin Heyboer's email
Date: Wednesday, March 14, 2001 7:40 PM

Ah! Okay!

Understand that I field approximately a dozen letters a day from Christians who level patently unfair charges against our position. I'm sure that any out-of-the-closet atheist endures the same treatment.

In this Forum I do not pretend to offer the ideal response, I merely take a crack at dealing with what I see as a patently unfair assessment of the atheistic position.

Part of what I offer is a variety of responses as examples either to follow, to improve, or to reject. Part of what this forum is about is to explore the many options available to us. It's also important to be able to chart the growth of ourselves and others, in our dealings with various types of Christians and other theists. The very point of doing this is so we can see if this or that approach is to our liking. So, it behooves us to hold ourselves to the very standards to which we hold others. In this case, since you level criticism from an atheist's viewpoint, I need to see justification for that criticism -- not simply that you did not like it. This is only fair.

Apart from that, to scrutinize what you read here is precisely what this whole thing is for. All we ask is to be given reasons for any criticism.
 

I responded only to the apparent criticism of my presentation, and asked only for a description of your objections, while simultaneously criticizing the lack of a description in your objection. That's all.
 

Of course it was! I'm tired of hearing bald criticism without justification, and I am tired of the almost universal misrepresentation of the atheist position, which is offered for the purpose of convincing us that the religious position is one of truthfulness. I hope that other types of responses are amply represented. If not in this case, then your response will be represented when I both post your response and provide cross links to and from the original document.
 

Perhaps, but is it unfair of me to presuppose that someone is deliberately baiting me? What if they're sincere, but are simply parroting a technique that they heard in a sermon or on TV, and are unaware that what they're doing could be seen as baiting?

How would you suggest I treat someone who seems to be baiting me? I did this in the Rich Zawadzki exchange and received a lot of flack from both sides (and lots of praise, as well).
 

There is no shortage of us "yielding" to points made by theists; however, when it comes to diatribes from the exclusivistic, bigoted theists, they make it hard with the conspicuous absence of points worthy of anything even remotely resembling "yielding." A notable exception is the second letter to Pastor Jeff, wherein I take some of his comments and use them as springboards to encourage reasonableness and tolerance, if not full-fledged dignity. And sure I wax emotional, because the damage done by slander is mostly emotional. The emotional elements need to be presented, I think.

Also, when the very premise of their argument is faulty, the only response is to show the flaws in the argument. If the fault involves an arrogant-sounding misrepresentation of our position, followed by the equivalent of "You gotta be pretty stupid to believe that,"

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

Graphic Rule

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Dimitrije Kostic"
Subject: Re: Marvin Heyboer's email
Date: Thursday, March 15, 2001 9:07 AM

I host a web page which prominently features the word atheism in its title and logo. This is enough for many people: the most arrogant letters we get are sent from the link on the front page, indicating that the senders got no further than the word atheism before deciding to vent their spleen. E-mail sent from links within the website is consistently more reasonable.
 

This is the crux of the biscuit, as Zappa put it. This is why we're here: to boldly go where no human has gone before in trying to discover responses to this biased criticism in ways that are both appropriate and effective.
 

How, then, do I communicate that this bigotry hurts me emotionally? Or is it even appropriate to point out that bigotry's primary damage is emotional?

Some of my experiments have been along the lines of performance art, so to speak -- poetry, of you will. The Zawadzki response was specifically and deliberately designed with this in mind, and I even reprinted it in the print edition because I was so proud of how it came out as a work of emotionally charged art. In it, I deliberately bared the core of my emotional frustration with this constant misrepresentation and belittling of atheists which is so commonplace that it has become institutionalized.

I am not running for a powerful administrative office, I am trying to make a point and popularize an idea. I am trying to show -- to atheists in particular and to the public in general -- that we all have become so callused and accustomed to the bigotry and misrepresentation we endure that whenever it happens, we deflect it like water off a duck's back. A profound injustice seems to mean nothing to us, whereas if similar comments were leveled against Jews or African Americans, we'd never hear the end of it: the outcry would reverberate into the outer edges of society.

Within our subculture there is no shortage of spokespeople (and silent people) who "stand as the coherent guardians of reason against our impassioned opponents." Perhaps I stand out as one crying in the wilderness simply because I am willing to risk my reputation a few times by jumping up and down to make a point.

And this is not simple posturing on my part: This George Bush (and Al Gore) thing had me so depressed that I sought professional help (and made some progress as a result). In addition, the antiatheist bigotry and misrepresentation which is usually limited to the Forum has recently spilled over into my personal life, affecting, at one point, my relationships with three different bars that I used to frequent. Had I remained silent, had I not expressed to someone this or that remark about the separation of religion from government, my relationships with two of these places would have remained intact; the third guy was just an asshole and would have picked on my hair color if that's what it took: he has since been fired.
 

The tough part, though, is when a potentially intelligent discussion starts off by being indistinguishable from a vicious and unfair attack. Crucial to any intelligent discussion, to me, starts of with a clear understanding of each participant's position. As I said to Pastor Jeff:

If I wanted to be unfair about it, I could define Christian as one who asserts that the Earth is flat, because as I read the Bible, the Earth's topography is clearly described as being flat, having four corners, with a lid ("firmament") above it, and with a reservoir of water above that lid. At one point, the Sun "stood still" and in another place, "one-third of the stars fell to the Earth," and in another, a Bible character was shown "all the kingdoms of the world" from the vantage point of "an exceeding high mountain." However, very few Christians today are such fundamentalists that they still take those stories literally. So, for me to describe Christian as someone who thinks the Earth is flat would be as dishonest and unfair to you as Copelson's definition of atheist is toward us.

This is why I am tempted to accept some of these unfair assessments of atheism as the result of somebody having listened, uncritically, to a sermon. They don't really believe what they are saying, as Drange's "Mumbo-Jumbo Theory" suggests, but have simply memorized statements and then learned to assert that they believe those statements to be true. This goes particularly for their assessments of the enemy position: atheism. The parroted statements don't even have to make sense upon closer examination, they are merely parroted and are then said to be a description of what the individual believes.

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

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