Not A Figment
Of My Imagination
[name withheld]

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: [name withheld]
Subject: Re: WebMaster:_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: Thursday, August 17, 2000 3:47 AM

If God's existence were a fact, then it would be fact for me as well as for you; this would make it more than just a claim for the existence of God, because facts are not subjective. Also, if the claim for God's existence is controversial (that is, if not all agree with you), then it would be honorable of you to bring forth evidence and strong arguments for your claim. Until you can make your case and establish it as convincing, all we have is this claim on your part: You claim that a god exists. You have given me absolutely no valid reasons for agreeing with your claim at this point.

Remember, though, the one thing we can agree upon is that you claim that a god exists. Thus, our discussions must take place in terms we both can agree upon: your claim is (among other things) a claim. For us to frame the discussion in terms other than your claim that a god exists (the one thing that we can both agree upon up front) would be unfair to both parties:

The important thing to remember about God claims is that even if God exists (and I am not here granting that), His existence is not self-evident. It's not the same as if someone were claiming that the sun and earth exist. Only four-fifths of the adult human population claim that gods exist, the remaining do not claim that gods exist. You would not see the same figures when discussing how many people claim the existence of the sun and the earth.

Also, of that four-fifths, only a fifth of those believers claim that the same god exists with the same characteristics (Roman Catholics); slightly fewer claim that a completely different god exists, with completely different characteristics (Muslims) and fewer than that claim that God has the same name as that of the Roman Catholics, but they disagree with the Roman Catholics and with each other as to God's characteristics (Protestants). This further shows that the notion of the existence of God is very controversial. Since the claims for the existence of a god or gods is controversial, it is all the more important that those making the claims bring forth strong arguments and evidence to back up those claims.

With this, you can see the dilemma of the atheist, who listens open-mindedly to the claims of the various theists, but who has yet to encounter any valid reasons for believing any of the claims.

I must point out, here, that atheism is not the "denial of God's existence": atheism does not say "No gods exist" (though many atheists do go that far); atheism is simply the lack of a god belief for whatever reason. Many atheists simply do not know (atheistic agnostics) or remain unconvinced; other atheists have valid reasons for rejecting the entire notion of theism altogether ("strong" atheists). We at Positive Atheism Magazine acknowledge all these groups as fitting within the realm of atheism.
 

This begs the question you pretend to ask.

I have no reason to think I am going to "go" anywhere -- except to the morgue.

That is, it will not be "I" that goes there but my remains. Since "I" am the entire sum of my functioning body -- the personality established by my structures and processes of my functioning nervous system plus the body itself -- it is not proper to say that "I" will go to the morgue. "I" can only exist while my nervous system functions properly; without that proper functioning, "I" cease to exist, and my body becomes a corpse. So, I will never go to the morgue as one of their clientele, only my corpse will go there. The "I" part of me will have ceased to exist, and will be "in" the same "nowhere" that it was before I was born.

As Alan Watts said,

it would be as if you had never existed at all! Not only you, but everything else as well. You would be in that state, as if you had never been.... You couldn't even call it a tragedy because there would be no one to experience it as a tragedy. It would be a simple -- nothing at all. Forever and for never. Because, not only would you have no future, you would also have no past and no present.
            -- The Essence of Alan Watts (1974, 1977).

Or, as the Psalmist declares:

His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.
            -- Psalm (146:4).
 

No. Atheism is not a claim, but the absence of a claim. Atheism is not a belief but the lack of a specific belief. That specific belief -- that a god or gods exist -- is one that we have no business claiming (because we cannot back it up no matter how hard we try), so we simply don't claim it. People who refuse to make this specific claim (that gods exist) are called atheists.

Some atheists assert, "No gods exist," but not all atheists go this far. All atheists lack a god belief, but we differ as to why and to what extent we lack this belief. Some atheists have never heard a god claim (infants, imbeciles, members of isolated tribes); other atheists have never heard a god claim that makes sense to them (noncognitivists); still others don't know if a god exists or not (atheistic agnostics); many (such as myself) have yet to encounter a god claim that holds water with them; finally, some claim to know for a fact that no gods exist or that no gods can possibly exist. We are all atheists.
 

Overall, Christianity is not the primary target of my critiquing. It is simply the god claim that I most frequently encounter on this forum.

Another god claim I have encountered extensively is that of the Twelve Step programs, and this is the god claim that has received more of my critiquing than any other (verbally, but not in writing). The Twelve Step religion is the one that a court ordered me to join, and I have spent more of my time critiquing that religion than all other religions put together.

Meanwhile, the popular forms of theism endorsed throughout the world have received equal treatment in the "What is Theism?" section of our FAQ, which is slated for revision later this year.

You see, I am not an atheist except in the context of a god claim. When someone comes up to me and claims, "God's existence is a fact, not a figment of my imagination," then I must ask a few questions: First, what do you mean when you use the word "God"? Once you have described your God's characteristics to me, then I can asses your claim and see if it makes sense to me. If it doesn't make sense (for example, if your God is simultaneously omniscient and omnipotent -- a logical impossibility), then I am a noncognitivist (which, to me, is a form of atheism -- though some disagree with me on this). If your god claim does make sense, then I assess wither there is sufficient reason for me to believe your claim is true. If I cannot find reason to believe it is true, I have no business believing it or claiming that it is true. If I can show that your claim is groundless, that is, if I can show that your claim is false or is based upon falsehood, then I am justified in pronouncing your claim as pure, unadulterated falsehood.

The Evangelical or fundamentalist Christian god claim is patently false: of the god claims I've encountered, it is the easiest to disprove. I will not confute it here, because you pointed out that Christianity is "the primary, if not only target" of my critiquing, so I assume that you have stumbled into at least some of the reasons why I reject the Evangelical Christian god claim outright. (Why your questions do not reflect even a cursory understanding of my basic objections to the Christian religion escapes me, though; your questions more closely resemble the pat objections to the straw-man "atheism" portrayed from many American pulpits and by American Christian television evangelists, than they resemble thoughtful objections derived from having assessed Positive Atheism's position.)

To answer your question, then, since the Christian god claim is the one that I most frequently encounter on this forum, it is the one I end up critiquing the most on this forum. If the Christians who have written to us would have minded their own business (like we mind ours: we don't go to Christian websites and critique their claims on their forums), Christianity would have fared much better on our forum than it has. Since the Buddhists who have written to us have not tried to convince us of the truthfulness of the Buddhist claims, we have not critiqued Buddhism. We have nothing to say to a Buddhist unless and until he or she comes her and makes claims. We are only atheists when we are faced with claims for the existence of gods. We are never atheists in any other context.
 

When I say evolution, I mean the natural selection of random mutations.

I don't believe in evolution, I accept evolution as the most valid explanation for the origins of species that mankind has devised. This is not a matter of faith, but of observation. The Theory of Evolution so thoroughly fits our observations in all the branches of the scientific discussion which have anything whatsoever to do with whether the Theory of Evolution is valid or applicable that I seriously doubt it will never be overturned -- just like I doubt the Law of Gravity or the Laws of Thermodynamics will ever be overturned.

It's not "just a theory" in the popular sense of the word: to scientists, the term theory has an entirely different meaning than we regular people use. Evolution accurately predicts many things, and neatly explains many observations. This is why I accept evolution (that is, the natural selection of random mutations) as the most valid explanation.
 

Please name them, quote them, and provide references for those quotations. Also, please list the published articles (from refereed scientific journals) written by each scientist you list, including all articles pertaining to whether the Theory of Evolution is valid. Since you state "many scientists," it shouldn't be hard for you to track them down, they being plentiful (according to your claim).

If you cannot do this, I ask that you retract this claim of yours.
 

I don't really care about C. S. Lewis.

If C. S. Lewis, a famous Christian apologist, has made some strong arguments for the existence of the Christian god, you are welcome to summarize them and send them to me for critiquing. (I will not accept any submissions that contain extensive quotation of entire blocks of material, but welcome material that interjects snippets of quoted material within a larger presentation which has been authored by yourself.
 

The only offense is your continuation of the practice (popular among Christians who have written to this to this forum) of useing dishonest forms of argument while trying to convince us of the truthfulness of the Christian god claims. I realize that most of the rank-and-file Christians who write here are simply parroting what they've heard on the 700 Club or from the pulpit, but this is still no excuse for making false claims on our forum, or for using dishonest or otherwise fallacious rhetorical methods in trying to make your case with us.

Abraham Lincoln, in chiding the editor of a Springfield, Illinois, newspaper who printed an unflattering editorial about him, said:

It is an established maxim and moral that he who makes an assertion without knowing whether it is true or false is guilty of falsehood, and the accidental truth of the assertion does not justify or excuse him.
          -- quoted from Antony Flew,
               How to Think Straight, p. 17

The philosophy of Positive Atheism, as we advocate it here, places truthfulness as the highest ethic. This is because we are discussing philosophy here, and are not trying to enact legislation or gain advantage in a business deal or win a highly publicized debate: we seek truth, and in doing so, we do well if we act truthfully, honor truthfulness, face the truth when we encounter it, and expose falsehood whenever and wherever we detect it.

If what we seek is truth, then it behooves us to make sure that all our ideas have undergone the most thorough of tests. On this forum, we base our discussions on Liberal Scientific Method; that is, we try to model our quest for truth in philosophical matters after the manner in which Liberal Scientific Method pursues truth in physical matters. Thus, we express our ideas into words and then present those ideas to the public specifically so that our ideas can be scrutinized by others.

No single individual can see very much of the big picture, so I will always take my ideas and present them to others to see if they can find any holes in them. This is why almost ever motion I've ever brought before a committee has carried: I have subjected every idea to vicious scrutiny by myself and others before I've ever even considered handing that idea over to a committee chair for consideration by the committee. If my scrutiny or the scrutiny of others shows my idea to be flawed, I will reject it without any regrets -- even if it is something I wish to happen.

Because I practice a variation of Liberal Scientific Method in my quest for philosophical truth, I have revised my philosophical outlook more than once during the past month alone. I follow truth (as I currently understand it) wherever it leads, and I do not care how I feel about it. I call this "facing reality."

I agree with playwright George Bernard Shaw who wrote, in his Preface to Androcles and the Lion:

The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality.

Since (as far as I can tell) this is the only life I get to lead, I want the best that life has to offer. If someone had presented to me valid reasons for believing that there is more to life than what we get and give between the time we are born and the time we die, I would follow that model wherever it leads me. So far, though, nobody has even come close to making their case with me. Thus, I remain an atheist.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: [name withheld]
Subject: Re: WebMaster:_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: Friday, August 18, 2000 1:47 AM

I am not sure what variety of atheist Lewis was (or claimed to have been). Without knowing the specifics in Lewis's case, I can comment on others who have converted to theism, who then make a big thing about their being a former atheist. I have noticed that calling oneself a former atheist is very popular among Christian apologists -- as if this makes them more qualified to apologize for the Christian faith. (Should we atheists take this as a back-handed compliment?)

If Lewis had been a dogmatic atheist, boldly proclaiming that no gods exist, then I can readily see someone holding this outlook converting suddenly from atheism to theism. Atheists of this variety tend to fall into two categories: either they are extremely skilled in philosophy so as to work around the problem with the Burden of Proof (and this can be done), or they are relatively ignorant of how philosophers arrive at conclusions (or, more often, refrain from arriving at specific conclusions). (The philosophers I have learned the most from tend to use language such as "this is a strong argument" rather than saying something like "this is the truth" or "this is the way it is.") The latter category of dogmatic atheist is very common, and I have seen many such atheists later convert to dogmatic theism (usually having come from a dogmatic theistic upbringing in the first place). The key here is dogmatism versus scientific inquiry, rather than theism versus atheism; dogmatic theists who deconvert to atheism, who never learn to shed their dogmatic thinking habits, really haven't changed anything except switching their loyalty away from religion.

I don't know if Lewis was even telling the truth about his former atheism (I haven't studied his life, so forgive me for using this as an example if he had once been a prolific writer and deep atheistic thinker who later converted to theism; I am here assuming that he was never anything resembling an atheistic activist or spokesman). Popular Christian apologist Josh McDowell claims to have once been "a skeptic." However, we have no extant writings from that period (this doesn't mean much: I wrote extensively during my Christian phase, but all those writings were stolen from me when I was robbed at gunpoint in 1985 while hitchhiking to San Diego). Most telling, though, is McDowell's utter lack of those skills and thinking patterns which mark a true skeptic. Had he once been a skeptic, he would never forget these thinking skills, and they would be evident in his writings today, even as a Christian.

Similarly Christian apologist Patrick Glynn makes a big deal about being a former atheist. However, when you listen to his description of those days, you see a nihilist rather than someone who simply lacks a god belief or someone who has studied philosophy and who has considered the God question. Atheism is an incidental byproduct of nihilism, and people tend to become nihilists for reasons other than having considered the God question. Glynn's nihilism (and his atheism) seems more the result of rebellion against his parents than anything else. If his parents had been the fundamentalists that he makes them out to have been, then it makes sense that he would lack the experience in critical thinking, particularly when it comes to the God question: his writings display this lack.

I will say that what little I've read of Lewis's writings betray a familiarity with the classic historical arguments within the philosophy of religion.
 

The point I was making here is that I think someone is pulling your leg. I doubt very seriously that you can demonstrate a situation that even remotely resembles this muddily conveyed claim of yours, and I strongly suspect that this is a bluff -- either on your part or (more likely) a bluff from the pulpit that you have unthinkingly bought into. I do not think this is a language thing, it is the very idea; I doubt even the best writers could rescue this claim from serious problems.

First, the fact of natural selection of random mutations is one of the least controversial subjects within the branches of science most affected by the Theory of Evolution. Perhaps an astronomer might have doubts, since astronomy has very little to do with the Theory of Evolution, but very few biologists have doubts about whether the Theory of Evolution accurately describes biological processes.

Secondly, your summary lacks any specifics as to the nature of the alleged doubts. You simply say, "many prominent scientists have said that they believe that simply because they have nothing more to believe in" and leave it at that. We have no idea what you mean by "they have nothing more to believe in" and this could mean almost anything -- including the healthy scientific skepticism which says that all claims to knowledge are always subject to revision, which is the basic tenet of Liberal Scientific Method. One specific example from one "prominent scientist" would express what you are trying to say better than this vague generalization -- and it would also make your case much stronger if this objection is, indeed, as common among scientists as you claim.

Lastly, your summary betrays the thinking used by some people who try to make a point, but who lack a solid foundation for their case. You talk about "many prominent scientists" rather than giving one or two specific examples. You use unclear, unspecific language ("simply because they have nothing more to believe in") which suggests that you are not trying to convey any specific idea except to cast doubt upon the Theory of Evolution. I have seen this a lot, and nobody who has conveyed this vague of an idea to me has yet coughed up even one specific case of what they seemed to be suggesting.

Thus, I doubt you will be able to back up this claim of yours, and suggest that you are simply using this language as a bluff, in order to cast (a vaguely worded) doubt upon the Theory of Evolution. This may work with those who already object to the philosophical and moral implications of the Theory of Evolution, or who misunderstand the Theory of Evolution or Liberal Scientific Method, but it will not work here. If you wish to try to cast doubt upon (or even overthrow) something as solid as the Theory of Evolution, you have your work cut out for you.
 

I dropped lots of acid in the 1970s, and if I learned nothing else from those experiences, it is the difference between perception and imagination.

I once thought I was in love. It turns out I was not. Was that love real? No.

Similarly, I once thought (or tried to think) that a god exists, and now realize that I was mistaken (rather, I had been taken in by clever fakes). Have I now turned my back on an existing god? No.

I suffer from tinnitis (loud ringing of the ears) and as a result, hear "sounds" that aren't there (often popping or bumping sounds) and fail to hear sounds that are there. Since the onset of this condition, I have always owned cats. Cats have extraordinarily good sense of hearing, so, when I think I hear something at night, I simply look over to one or more of the sleeping cats. If their ears are pricked up, I probably actually heard something. If all of them have their ears focused in the same direction, I definitely heard something, and I get up to investigate. If no cats' ears are pricked, does what I think I heard actually exist?

More importantly, is the "reality" of what I heard but what the cats did not simply "true for me" and not for the cats? No. I am trying to discern if (for example) someone is on my front porch. I am trying to establish or refute the possibility that an intruder or an uninvited guest exists on my porch. Until I go and look out the window, the existence of this urchin is only a possibility -- I don't know until I look.

Whether this interloper exists or not is independent of whether or not I think there's someone out there. I could conceivably trust the cat trick and, if they are soundly sleeping, I would, in this case, roll back over and continue my nap. If the trespasser is actually there, then I would end up with a false sense of security.

If it turns out that there is nobody on my porch, I would have assessed the situation accurately, but I may not have assessed the situation properly. I may not be very wise in trusting method of using cats to help me distinguish real sounds from imaginary impressions, and to distinguish real sounds of the dangerous variety from real sounds of the routine type; that is, I may only be right by accident -- this time. The only sure way to see if someone is on my porch is to go out and look until I have eliminated the possibility that a human being is on my porch (or to install some other form of detection device, such as a camera or a motion detector, my eyes and ears being two other methods for detecting the presence of humans).

However, the existence of an attacker on my porch is independent of whether I think one is there -- unless I have thoroughly investigated the question. Then, once having investigated the question, what I think usually lines up with the real situation. The situation never simply aligns itself with what I think. It doesn't work that way.

Some people think that a god exists. I don't. Some who think that a god exists have not investigated the question very thoroughly. In fact, I'd wager that most people who think a god exists have not investigated the question as thoroughly as I have. Whether or not a god actually exists is independent of whether we think a god exists. When dealing with existential claims, we must be able to develop a way to detect the existence of the object whose existence is being claimed. It is possible to think that a god exists without actually detecting the existence of the god, but should we detect the existence of a god, our thinking will likely conform to what we have detected. This is the main reason why I am always skeptical -- as a policy -- when dealing with claims for the existence of things that evade detection (such as gods).

I cannot speak to those who develop imaginary "relationships" with a figment of their imagination or symbolic "relationships" with an ideal, except to say that I once thought I was in love with a woman but later realized that I was mistaken. I do suspect that you will agree that some people who think they have a "relationship" with a god are mistaken, because I assume you agree that at least some god claims are falsehood or hallucination or the like. Do some Rastafarians actually have a "relationship" with the late emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, whose photograph I have attached to this letter? Do some Christians have a "relationship" with a first-century Jew whose historicity is nearly impossible to establish? Does the fact that Haile Selassie actually existed make Rastafarianism any more real than Christianity?
 

If anyone is skilled at doing this, it is the person who runs this forum. We get letters from around the world, and quite often the thinking is much more precise than the wording. As that old song by War goes, "Sometimes I don't speak right / But then I know what I'm talking about." While we encourage and sometimes demand precision of thought on this forum, we try to be generous when it comes to a lack of precision with wording.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: [name withheld]
Subject: Re: WebMaster:_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: Sunday, August 20, 2000 4:51 AM

Ah, there you have it! If this is the case, I can see Lewis's mistake in his approach to atheism: you cannot prove a negative existential claim (a claim that a thing does not exist). In other words, if you tell me that a god exists, I cannot disprove your claim, I can only ask that you bring forth evidence or strong argument to back up your claim. Then, I weigh your argument to see if it is worthy of my acceptance. If I find it lacking, I don't have to believe your claim. However, if I try to prove that your god does not exist, I am going up against the impossible, because I cannot search the entire universe and beyond in order to eliminate the possibility of there being a god.

This is called the "Burden of Proof" and it holds for theistic claims as well as the assertion that no gods exist. If I claim that no gods exist, I am responsible for bringing forth evidence and strong argument to back up my claim that no gods exist. But, as I explained above, this is impossible, because it is impossible to disprove any existential claim (a claim that a thing exists).

Lewis (if this is how he was, I don't know much about him) was what I would call a dogmatic atheist. I, like most atheists, am an atheist of the "weak" variety: I lack a god belief. I have yet to hear a case for the existence of a god that makes sense or that is strong enough to justify my accepting it.

To me, dogmatism is dogmatism whether it be coming from a theist or an atheist or a Communist or a Republican or a Democrat or an environmentalist or whatever. I denounce dogmatism as dogmatism whenever I encounter it. Although many forms of theism cultivate a very dogmatic style of thinking, not all theists are dogmatic in their theism. Most Christians I have known "take it on faith" and don't really know. Most atheists I have known likewise rest on the fact that they haven't found any of the theistic arguments to be convincing. In both cases we see a lack of dogmatism.

I have been denouncing the dogmatic style of atheism since I began working as an atheistic activist, and it looks as if Lewis was this style of atheist (assuming your description of him to be accurate). This, as I pointed out in a previous letter to you, is the downfall of many outspoken atheists. It is, I think, contrary to the basic gist of the atheistic and rationalistic and skeptical position. It certainly is contrary to all successful methods of scientific and philosophical inquiry, being contrary to the fundamental principle of inquiry itself.

Many dogmatic atheists were raised in fundamentalistic and dogmatic religions. They learn the dogmatic style of thinking, and when they discover that the religion is false, they become atheists. Unfortunately, they never unlearn the dogmatic style of thinking, and carry this thinking style into their atheism.
 

For me to insist that you back up a claim you made to me is not an attack by any stretch of any imagination. In fact, for you to make this claim is an attack against the Theory of Evolution.

I have very strong reasons for suspecting that your claim is untrue, and wish for you to tell me the names of the "many scientists" who allegedly said what you say they said. I want to know their names and which branches of science they specialize in and what exactly they said. Evolution is a very solidly established theory, and for there to be "many prominent scientists" who "said that they believe that simply because they have nothing more to believe in" goes against everything I know about how widely accepted the Theory of Evolution is. The theory is not nearly as controversial as the Christians and the Raelians and the postmodernists make it out to be.

And my request still stands: if this is just a statement that you remember reading in a book, all you have to say is, I'm sorry, I read that in a book somewhere, but I really don't know how true it is, so I'll retract it and would like to discuss this issue from a different angle.

If you cannot back up this claim by answering the questions I have raised, then neither you nor I (nor our readers) have any business believing it.
 

Distinguishing between who shared what experience is not the same thing as claiming that a thing exists. Sometimes we can think we experience something and it turns out that we are mistaken. Sometimes many of us can think we experience something, and we can even go so far as to thoroughly investigate our doubts and still come up thinking we experienced that thing, and it later turns out we are mistaken.

Many people used to share the experience of thinking the earth was flat. That doesn't mean that the earth is flat, or that it was flat during the centuries and in those lands when the Roman Catholic Church reigned supreme. Many others once shared the experience of thinking that life was created by a god. (Richard Dawkins points out that until Charles Darwin published Origin of Species, atheism was an intellectually untenable position because the Argument from Design was so compelling.) This doesn't mean, though, that a god created the universe or life. Before Hubbell discovered that the universe is constantly expanding, our most brilliant scientists thought that the universe needed to be sustained by a god in order for there to be any occurrences of complexity in it, because the Second Law of Thermodynamics stated that entropy always increases in a closed system. Now that we know that the universe is expanding, we can explain the occurrence of tiny pockets of order without having to resort to the supernatural, because the expansion makes room for order to form.

True, those who survived the Holocaust share an experience that I could never imagine, but I do not deny that the Holocaust occurred. I think you are talking about apples and I am thinking in terms of oranges, here.

I think my question is this: Does a god actually exist? or is your perception of God better described as a figment of your imagination? Your discussion of how some experiences are real to some but not to others prompts me to suspect the latter. The fellow who is writing to me about Fatima and other alleged miraculous occurrences, though he is bolstering his claim with hearsay evidence, is at least attempting to demonstrate to me his reasons for thinking that a god actually exists -- a god that he thinks everyone can experience through their senses (not just within their imaginations). I agree with him that if such a god exists, and if that god acts the way he tells me his god acts, then anybody and everybody would be able both to detect the existence of that god and to experience a "relationship" with that god.

His main problem in convincing me is that his arguments are based upon hearsay evidence, testimony that publicly performed miracles occurred long ago. This type of argument is very weak: it certainly is not strong enough to warrant me abandoning almost everything I know and replacing it with the model he proposes.

Since I don't really understand the point you are trying to make, here, perhaps it's time to ask you what you mean when you use the word "God."

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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