How Does One
Go About Becoming
An Atheist?
Susan Roundtree

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Susan Roundtree"
Subject: Re: Question
Date: Friday, September 01, 2000 10:03 PM

All people start out as atheists, because an atheist is one who lacks a god belief. No infant has the cognitive skills to understand claims for the existence of gods, so all infants are technically atheists. Many religions that require a confession of faith to accomplish salvation cover for this problem through such rites as infant baptism, etc. Otherwise, the infant is a nonbeliever, an atheist, if you will.

Most people pick up their god beliefs at a very young age and live their entire lives never questioning what they were taught shortly after they learned how to speak.

Most atheists have considered and rejected the theism taught to them in childhood, though some atheists (such as myself) were never taught theism to begin with. Many who were never taught theism as children do encounter religious claims as children or adults, and consciously reject those claims.

Since atheism is either the natural lack of theism or the conscious rejection of it, we can call atheism a normal state -- a default, if you will. In this sense, one is an atheist mainly in the face of a specific god claim. Thus, the person making the claim is obligated to describe what she or he means when using the term "God." We cannot reject an idea that we do not understand, although we can lack that specific belief without understanding it. If somebody tries to tell me about "God" I always ask them to describe what they mean when they use this word. Once they do this, I can consider their description and even attack or reject the description if need be.

Also, since atheism is the default state (no god claims), the person claiming the existence of a god must back up that claim with evidence or strong argument. Otherwise, we listeners are perfectly right in not believing the god claim. The Burden of Proof tells us that it is impossible to disprove an existential claim (a claim for the existence of something), so the only party that can bring forth evidence or argument is the one making the claim. Thus, if someone tells me that a god exists, I first ask for a description, and then let them give me reasons why I should believe that what they are telling me is true. If their reasons don't cut it, I rightly dismiss their god claim.

An agnostic is either someone who does not know whether a god exists (atheistic agnostic; thus, an atheist) or thinks a god exists but does not or cannot know any more than this (theistic agnostic; thus, a theist). If an atheist is someone who lacks a god belief, then an agnostic who does not know if there is a god lack a god belief and is thus an atheist.

A noncognitivist is someone who thinks the entire concept of gods (or a particular god concept) is incomprehensible, and acknowledges that one cannot reject what one does not understand. But if the noncognitivist cannot understand the claim being made, then that person lacks a belief in said claim; thus, the noncognitivist is an atheist.

A pantheist is someone who thinks the entire universe is God or that God is the universe (the two are not quite the same). Some pantheists go so far as to posit an intelligent principle or force at work throughout the universe that is the sum of the universe (or something like that). Other pantheists simply hold the universe and nature in reverence, and choose to express that sense of awe by using theistic language -- thus calling the universe "god" (with lowercase and quotation marks to indicate that they don't intend to convey the traditional meaning or sense of the word god). Still other pantheists hold the universe and nature in awe but refuse to use theistic language.

Only people within this last group are rightly called atheistic pantheists. This is because the first groups express a concept of god or deity or supreme being or supreme force or supreme intelligence. Even though these concepts are quite unlike traditional theism, the language they use is the language of theism. Though they may actually believe precisely the same way as an atheist, they use theistic language, and their god claim is the only thing we outsiders or observers have to go on, not what's really going on inside their minds.

Also, we do not judge whether or not someone's god claim is valid or even makes sense before we call them a theist. For example, some tribes have claimed that the local volcano is a god. We know that the volcano is a volcano, but we would still call them theists even though their god is not really a god. This idea can extend to gods such as Jesus: nobody can make a good case that Jesus even existed, much less that he was a god, but anybody who claims that Jesus is a god is a theist. The same holds true for people who call the universe God (or "god") or who say that God is the universe. All we have to go on is their claim, and we cannot make a judgement as to the validity of their claim.

So, how does one "become" an atheist? It's kinda like that old religious tract from the 1970s, which says, "What must you do to go to Hell?" When you open it up, it's blank. On the back, they tell you that you must join their religion in order to avoid being sent to Hell by their vicious volcano god. They are right about one thing: without a conscious and deliberate confession of a god belief, I have every reason to think that you are not a theist, and are probably an atheist. And without a conscious belief in a god, you have every reason to consider yourself an atheist.

If you are a member of a religious body, there are several things you might do if you think you are an atheist. Some religions are very family oriented (such as the Jehovah's Witnesses) and will reject you from the family if you become an atheist. Such people might do well to pretend to still believe. Many atheist go through the official motion of removing their names from the church roster; many Mormons do this, as the Mormon church counts as its members any who have ever been members and who have not done this (and even some who have done this). Madalyn Murray O'Hair used to sell "De-Baptism Certificates" that she would sign and send to your church announcing your atheism. (Imagine being a pastor and getting a letter from Madalyn Murray O'Hair!) Sometimes, though, you want to be careful, because announcing your atheism will make you "fair game" for the religion's high-pressure missionary force. This is particularly problematic within the Twelve Step religions, where people have actually been kidnapped by their families under the guise of "Intervention" and "Treatment" -- cloaking its religious motives in a camouflage of medicine and sociology.

Finally (and this might be your real question, here), if there are not gods who have all the answers, it is our responsibility to find the answers ourselves. This is why I support science and public political and sociological and ethical discussion forums. If there are no gods who are going to forgive us for any evil that we do, then it is our responsibility to do what we can to refrain from committing evil. If there is no afterlife, then we do well to make the most of what little time we have here, because there is no "there" for us to go to when we die.

I highly recommend learning the concept of Liberal Scientific Method and also learning the ways in which deceivers try to hook you with their lies. We have an entire section of this kind of stuff listed in our "Clues" section. I have also written a very thorough section called "Discussing Atheism with Others." Since it is their responsibility to provide you with reasons to believe, and since they probably think they get "Brownie Points" for convincing many to believe, you can bet that someone will resort to almost any falsehood or contraption to try to gain your allegiance.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Susan Roundtree"
Subject: Re: I am interested
Date: Saturday, September 02, 2000 8:37 AM

The only thing that differentiates (not separates) a believer from one who lacks that belief it the belief itself. Whether a god exists is one of the stupidest things we can get into a fight over.

I must remind you that very few atheists say that no gods exist. Those are in the minority. Most of us simply lack a god belief. There is a big difference. Just like the faithful, you will find all ranges, from the dogmatic ones who "know" there is a god and who "know" which god that is, etc., to the skeptical, who must take the whole thing entirely on "faith" because they haven't even had so much as a religious experience. With atheists it's the same way: some are very dogmatic in their assertions that no gods exist, but most of us haven't given it much though or are simply repulsed by the idea. Even agnostics who don't know are atheists.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org> To: "Susan Roundtree"
Subject: Re: This IS Good!!
Date: Saturday, September 02, 2000 5:03 PM

To be open-minded, considerate, and reasonable is inimical to all forms of dogmatism -- unless one is putting on the façade of open-mindedness, consideration, and reasonableness.

This is the Liberal Scientific Method: all claims of knowledge are up for grabs at all times. True, some claims to knowledge rest upon entire schools of thought to the point where the entire school of thought would need to be overturned for that claim to be overturned, but no scientist or philosopher of science rightly claims anything as The Truth -- set in stone and no longer subject to scrutiny. One practicing Liberal Scientific Method offers all ideas up to the public forum for the purpose of encouraging the public to scrutinize those ideas, and try to disprove them.

Unfortunately for the cause of organized atheism, many atheists have not shed the dogmatic thinking style they learned growing up as theists (and that a few learned as atheists). Many forms of theism tend to foster the dogmatic thinking style, some depending entirely upon it (the so-called cults; fundamentalist Islamic military coups; Evangelical Christianity; most forms of Roman Catholicism), but I don't see how the fundamentalistic style of thinking can do any good for someone with an atheistic outlook -- and this style of thinking, I fear, can only do harm to the cause that most atheists support in common.

Thus you can see that this conversation, like many similar ones, has turned from a theism-atheism dichotomy to a fundamentalism-rationalism dichotomy. To me, the latter dichotomy is the more important. To me, I think this is what separates the philosophy of Positive Atheism from most current efforts at advocating the atheistic viewpoint.

Madalyn Murray O'Hair and Joseph Lewis and James Hervey Johnson and a few others (including, most likely, the posthumous influence of Robert Ingersoll) popularized a very spiteful, vindictive style of atheistic activism and accomplished much good with it during the middle of the twentieth century. We were able to ride on the coattails of the civil rights movements and the sexual revolution to gain at least tolerance for the most part.

Fortunately for atheists with a disposition similar to mine, times are different today; racial slurs have replaced four-letter words as the taboo language, and we are having to do things differently. I discovered that it is nigh unto impossible to not look like a hate group when the outspoken members of that group utilize a dogmatic thinking style.

So, I have thought long and hard on this problem of atheists appearing spiteful and vindictive and of atheist groups coming off as hate groups -- especially considering that atheists are still the most widely despised group in the United States (excepting, of course, lawbreakers such as junkies and child molesters; ). I currently think (and this thinking is always up for grabs, you know) that we do well to make some specific changes to our approach to dealing with theists, both on a one-on-one basis and as spokespeople for an entire subculture.

The basis for this thinking, right now, for me, is Liberal Scientific Method as the most superior thinking style humankind has thus far developed: All claims to knowledge are up for grabs at all times. Nobody holds the key to knowledge and nobody is exempt from the knowledge game. All ideas are submitted to the public forum for scrutiny, with the unspoken agreement that we will accept the results of that scrutiny for the time being. The real Pharisees (not the straw-man Pharisees portrayed in the Gospel stories) thought along similar lines, and described a God who supported this style of thinking.

Applied to atheism, this, to me, means that my approach to theism is best described in terms of the "weak" definition for atheism that I gave you previously: an atheist is simply someone who lacks a god belief for whatever reason (acknowledging that some atheists hold their atheism in terms of the "strong" definition and that they have their reasons for being this way; I am trying to define the term atheism as a whole, here, and am including with the group of atheists those who hold the "strong" position). Thus, my atheism is not a claim of knowledge, per se, but the lack of knowledge. I don't see it, I doubt that I ever will see it, but I at least go through the formalism of being open-minded to new god claims (and in my case, this formalism is not merely showmanship, but is my genuine position on the matter).

The advantage to this approach to atheism is that it prevents me from thinking dogmatically upon unprovable and seemingly untestable matters such as god claims. This does not mean that I avoid all presuppositions. I am somewhat doctrinaire when it comes to the supremacy of the Liberal Scientific Method as a style of thinking, because I can make a very strong argument for the validity and effectiveness of this style of thinking. I also make a few other presuppositions, sometimes just for the sake of discussion and having an easier time at living life and getting along with others.

So, if I am not thinking fundamentalistically when it comes to the god question, then it matters little, to me, how someone else thinks on the god question. Thus my deliberate presupposition that all theists have their reasons for believing the way they do, and my claim that the god question is one of the stupidest reasons for getting into a fight. This frees me up to accept all people as potentially dignified and intelligent humans with whom I can strive toward making this world a better place to live. With this approach, with these presuppositions, it becomes very hard for me to write somebody off simply because they believe something that I think is superstition.

This style of thinking prevents me from being a bigot and impedes the tendency of others to see me as a bigot (once they begin talking to me; once they get past the word atheist and all the stigma that goes along with it). Crucial to an atheist actually being a bigot is a hard-core stance that holds itself superior to the other position.

If we can get over the hurdle of being seen as a hate group, if we can restore the criticism of religion to its rightful position of valid philosophical inquiry, we might be able to get somewhere as activists. We won't get very far even in our quest for dignified treatment from others if we continue to hold theists in contempt simply for their theism.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Susan Roundtree"
Subject: Re: I See,
Date: Saturday, September 02, 2000 6:01 PM

I don't have to respect their beliefs (otherwise, I might as well subscribe to those beliefs), but I do respect the fact (a deliberate presupposition on my part) that they have their reasons for believing the way that they do. Hopefully, theists will at least accept my statement that no god claims that I have thus far encountered hold water with me. If I don't care what others believe, then winning the argument ceases to be my goal; I can relax and enjoy a thoughtful discussion with someone who (I hope) agrees to disagree with me.

Most theists hold the misconception that an atheist denies the existence of God (which presupposes that God exists) or asserts that no gods exist. The truth is that the assertion that no gods exist is itself a form of existential claim (a claim that a thing exists) and is thus subject to the Burden of Proof. And it is impossible to prove a negative existential claim (a claim that a thing does not exist). So, if a theist is trying to bolster the theistic position, the theist has an advantage in (falsely) portraying atheism this way. However, as is described in George H. Smith's essay "Defining Atheism," this is not the definition for the term atheism that has been used by most atheistic philosophers and writers. With history backing our position, we advocate the definition that atheism is the absence of theism, and does not mean "no-god-ism."

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Susan Roundtree"
Subject: Re: Cliff,
Date: Saturday, September 02, 2000 7:46 PM

Unfortunately, quite a few atheists (who would bother calling themselves an atheist) are very narrow-minded in their atheism. It is my goal to urge open-mindedness among those who pretend to speak for atheism. I do understand, though, the bitterness of being a despised minority, and so don't hold this against atheists, I simply urge a better way.

Although I am very opinionated, I have taught myself how decrease the chance that this will get in the way of me getting along with others. I have also learned how to present the atheistic position (which I always call my position) in such a way as to defuse the animosity that so often accompanies the term atheist -- which animosity, unfortunately, comes from both sides.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "JOHN ROUNTREE"
Subject: Re: Realitivity,
Date: Saturday, September 02, 2000 8:05 PM

Before Einstein and Heisenberg, scientists thought that all physical laws were absolute. Einstein showed that what we can say about the physical world is always relative to our perspective (our speed, position, etc.). Heisenberg taught that the more precisely you know the speed of a particle, the less you can say about its location; similarly, the more you know about the particle's position, the less you can say about its speed. We cannot simultaneously know the speed and position of a particle.

Notice my language, here. I use words terms like what we know and what we can say. These discoveries turned the science of physics on end, because it have previously been assumed that the laws of physics demanded a fundamental law of cause and effect. Einstein still held the fundamentals of cause and effect, while others abandoned this fundamental, but the concept of cause and effect can no longer be seen the way it was seen previously.

Basically, what it says is that there are limits to what we can observe, and this speaks volumes about whether we can even use the word is any more. Count Alfred Korzybski took these principles and developed the discipline called General Semantics, which shuns the use of absolutist language altogether. While I have learned to shun absolutistic language in my philosophical thinking, I have found this discipline impractical in my day-to-day life.

Dogmatic thinking assumes that a certain body of knowledge (such as the Bible) or a certain claim of fact (such as, "No gods exist") is unimpeachable. Liberal Scientific Method says that all claims of fact are subject to being overthrown by new evidence, and that anybody is qualified to try to overthrow the current understanding of reality. Dogmatic thinking shuns open discussion (or disguises highly developed rhetorical skills as open debate), whereas Liberal Scientific Method actively encourages such debate. Here is the classic example of Dogmatic thinking: "God said it, I believe it, that settles it!" Science says, "Here is my idea, you give it the most grueling tests you can muster, and if you can show me wrong, I will gladly submit to your findings."

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Susan Roundtree"
Subject: Re: Hi !!
Date: Sunday, September 03, 2000 11:47 AM

I don't think Liberal Scientific Method and dogmatism are compatible. However, as one who practices Liberal Scientific Method, I must remain open to the possibility that someone, some day, might discover a way to integrate the two. I seriously doubt this will happen, and will continue to bet my life on Liberal Scientific Method.

Meanwhile, all I've done is give you the best synopsis of the best thinking that has meant the most to me in my struggle to understand and to find a workable solution to this serious problem that has plagued me my entire life. If I really like what someone says (Smith; Dawkins; Rauch), I incorporate what I have learned into my schtick. If what I read or discuss doesn't affect me or rubs me the wrong way, I consider it, and it still doesn't cut the muster, I leave it out.

But I'm just me.

I like what Jefferson said:

"Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a censor morum over each other."
-- Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-82

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "JOHN ROUNTREE"
Subject: Re: Einstein
Date: Sunday, September 03, 2000 11:52 AM

Visionary thinking is one of the many forms of thinking that have enabled some of us to overthrow previously held "truths." Visionary thinking is not incompatible with Liberal Scientific Method. What distinguishes Liberal Scientific Method is that it agrees to go along with the findings of a visionary or a reactionary or whoever comes up with the most plausible answer to the question at hand. To remain "visionary," to continue to look "beyond" what the facts tell us after we have examined a question as best we can with our current body of knowledge, could end up being foolish. Liberal Scientific Method, while it encourages any style of thinking that will lead to answers, puts a lid on us continuing to assert that something is true when, in fact, we have no reason to think it is true. Possible does not always equal real -- or even likely.

You don't have to understand Einstein to see the philosophical implications behind what he discovered: we cannot make absolute pronouncements about reality. We can only speak from our perspective, we can only describe what we have perceived or measured or deduced. If I stick to the realm of what I can detect or measure or deduce, and if I refrain from calling my observations, measurements, or deductions "deep reality," I do well.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Susan Roundtree"
Subject: Re: 'Appreciate this and
Date: Sunday, September 03, 2000 12:24 PM

I need to be asking advice of you: What can we atheists do to get along with theists? We are the most despised and discriminated against group in the country (excluding, of course, outright lawbreakers). What can we do to minimize this stigma?

This is why I am so careful in answering your questions about what atheism is: I need to figure out what I do and don't do right when it comes to describing the atheistic position.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Susan Roundtree"
Subject: Re: Cliff
Date: Sunday, September 03, 2000 2:18 PM

No problem. I get a lot of trick questions (questions which are intended to be trick questions, intended to trip me up) and it is refreshing to get honest questions now and then.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

Graphic Rule

From: "Susan Roundtree"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Thumbs up !
Date: Sunday, September 03, 2000 3:17 PM

I enjoy conversing with you on this subject. I gets me back into my old stomping ground of deep thinking. I like picking up things dealing with things in the realm of relativity. You cause me to brainstorm on things and this causes me to think.

Free speaking opens up a realm of thinking and exploring new ideas and learn. This is why I used to follow agnosticism boards. They would actually debate mostly scientific and mathematical things. It got too contentious and I stopped reading.

One thing that came up a lot was the straw man argument. What is that?

Also would you make up a list of words that would help me to understand the realm of relativity and some of the terms that you were sharing about atheism. I will help you out if you can help me out on this and I will give you a good report on all this. I guess that I am at your mercy on this because I want to have a understandable knowledge of atheism so that the theists and atheists will dwell together in peace. Making it happen can . Susan

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Susan Roundtree"
Subject: Thumbs up !
Date: Sunday, September 03, 2000 6:24 PM

The Straw Man paints a false caricature of the opponents position, a picture that is more easily refuted than the opponent's actual position, and then proceeds to refute the caricature rather than the opponent's real position. I have reviewed the Straw Man in our FAQ section.

If you wish to come up with a list of words I have used here and elsewhere, and grab the paragraph in which I used the words, I would be happy to try to define them for you.

Graphic Rule

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.