Tried, But
Just Couldn't Believe

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <>
To: Brigette
Subject: Re: PA-via_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: Sunday, September 17, 2000 7:01 PM

Sorry this is so late!

It is okay to keep one's views hidden, and it is okay to be open about one's views. There are advantages and disadvantages to each. Since I have a personality quirk that makes it almost impossible for me to pull something over on someone, I have learned to live with the consequences of wearing my views on my sleeve. Others, I imagine, endure the feelings one gets from being secretive about the true nature of their views, but (alas) probably have a much richer social life than I.

Meanwhile, if you choose to express your views, and if your views are controversial (and atheism is extremely controversial), it is important to develop methods for explaining your position to those who might misunderstand. This is part of the ongoing discussion in our forum section, how to describe to others what atheism is and what an atheist does and does not believe.

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I. First, if we choose to express our position (come out of the closet, so to speak), we must be clear to others about what atheism is. Atheism means different things to different people.

1. Miriam Webster's lists the word wickedness as a synonym for atheism. This synonym reflects the fact that many people throughout history have use the word atheist as a denigrating term, as if religious faith has a monopoly on morals and ethics (it doesn't). So, the dictionaries will list this synonym because it is commonly used as such even today; recently, Miami Mayor Joe Carollo vilified the agents who snatched Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez on Easter Sunday, saying, of the agents, "These are atheists. They don't believe in God."

All people, theist and atheist alike, should loudly and proudly denounce this use of the word atheist because it denigrates a legitimate group which is by no means a minority (though we do feel the brunt of discrimination despite our numbers).

2. Many theists, particularly Roman Catholic theologians, assert that an atheist "says that no gods exist." While someone holding this latter position is, indeed an atheist, it is improper to limit the word atheist to this group. To say that all atheists assert that no gods exist is called the "strong" definition for the word atheism." Theists like this definition and use it in their discussions because the "strong" position is very hard to defend (some say it is impossible to defend, and I tend to agree with them).

Besides being difficult to defend (unless you are dealing with someone who is versed in the philosophy of religion), this definition for atheism has very little historical precedence within the atheistic movements of the West. It also has little going for it etymologically, as shown by George H. Smith in his essay, "Defining Atheism." Thus, even though one be a "strong" or "dogmatic" atheist, I think we are all better off explaining to theists that the most popular definition for atheism among atheists is the "weak" definition (described below).

3. Though in the minority among atheists, many do hold the "strong" or "dogmatic" position; however, we recommend acknowledging that atheism means "without theism" rather than "asserting that no gods exist." This means that an atheist is anybody who lacks a god belief -- for whatever reason -- including those who flat-out assert that no gods exist.

This definition is more inclusive, but it has other advantages as well (for both the "strong" atheist and the "weak" atheist). The main advantage is that describing oneself as one who lacks a god belief (rather than going further and admitting that one asserts that no gods exist) is easier to defend, particularly among those who have not thought their theism through very deeply -- and it is these people who are most likely to misunderstand a person's atheism.

So, even though I tend to lean toward "strong" atheism within the privacy of my own mind, I always describe my views in terms of "weak" atheism. I am saying the same thing, really, that I lack a god belief, but I have found that more people accept me when I point out that an atheist is anybody who lacks a god belief for whatever reason. If the conversation gets deep, I will divulge that my doubts are very thorough, that I have investigated every god-claim I have encountered and found it wanting.

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II. When discussing one's atheism, we do well to make it clear that we are talking about claims -- in this case, claims that a god or gods exist. Both parties can agree that the theist is claiming that a god exists. Though the theist would prefer simply to assume the existence of their deity, it is unfair, in a discussion of this nature, to assume this in the course of the discussion.

Since the theist is making the existential claim (a claim that something exists), it is the theist's responsibility to make the case. The one listening to the claim need only listen, and without strong arguments to back up the claim, we listeners are under no obligation to believe the claim. I like to tell people that an invisible green leprechaun lives under my Chicago Cubs hat, and then challenge them to disprove my claim. (A few have done just that, but it's tricky!)

The point here is that the listener is at a disadvantage because it is impossible to disprove an existential claim; it is likewise impossible to prove a negative existential claim (a claim that a thing does not exist). So, since I have this disadvantage, I feel no qualms about insisting that the one making the claim must bring forth strong arguments and convincing evidence before expecting me to believe.

Theists and psychics have some strange bedfellows. So many theists and psychics have been caught perpetrating frauds among the unsuspecting masses that this naturally prejudices any discussion of God and the supernatural. Theists and psychics also have the disadvantage that if their claims are shown to be true, the entire body of knowledge in the natural sciences would be overturned. Thus, I have no problem demanding more than enough evidence from a theist or a psychic. As the "Quackwatch" home page asserts, "Extraordinary Claims Demand Extraordinary Proof."

This is because to prove the supernatural would overturn everything we know.

So, we not only demand that the burden of proof be placed upon the one making the claim, we also demand that extraordinary proof be brought forth when extraordinary claims are made. This is our role as skeptics and atheists and unbelievers of every stripe.

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III. Whenever a theist starts claiming that a god exists, our first response must be to ask the theist what she or he means when pronouncing that sound which most people spell out as "God" (though I often spell that sound "gaud" -- being most often reminded of cheap ornamentation and showy fandangle whenever I hear this word used in public).

Why this is important is shown by the following excerpt from Chapter 2 of George H. Smith's "Athesim: The Case Against God":

Some atheists assert that no god-claim is understandable because all are illogical. I don't go this far, and say that if, for example, one could produce a film portraying the god in question, we are not dealing with a completely incomprehensible claim. Sure, some gods, such as the "Not this. Not this" of the Upanishads is deliberately portrayed as completely beyond human comprehension, but the Jehovah of the Bible is nicely portrayed in DeMille's classic film The Ten Commandmanes.

When someone declares that no god claims are comprehensible, that person is usually called a noncognitivist. I still say that noncognitivism is a subset of atheism simply because the noncognitivist, by not understanding, lacks a god belief.

The obvious advantage to having the theist describe their god to you is shown in Smith's passage above. The less obvious advantage is that if we insist on a description of the god (which is our right and, some would argue, our responsibility), then it is the description of the god that we attack, rather than any vague concept. Most importantly, though, we cannot let the theist assume that we know what they are talking about. We cannot assume that the theist is talking about the common understanding. Finally, this gets the theist to thinking about what they are claiming, and it demonstrates that we are dealing with claims, rather than the realm of presuppositions the theist usually thinks she or he is dealing in.

And it is in everyone's best interest to keep this framework at the top of the conversation: we are dealing with claims that a god exists. Nobody should be allowed to get away with presupposing that everyone naturally assumes that a god exists.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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