Why I Do Believe In God
James Griffin

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Griffin, J C"
Subject: Re: Why I do believe in God
Date: Thursday, June 29, 2000 6:22 PM

First off, most Christians (and almost all atheists) have not even given a junior school-level's worth of consideration to what they believe and why. The vast majority of people simply repeat what they were taught as children and then assert that that is what they believe. End of discussion; end of inquiry (rather, not even a beginning of an inquiry).

Some of us are more fortunate in that we at least considered, at an older age, what we were taught to memorize as children. Many theists, such as Russell, rejected the faith of their fathers (although Russell's father was a Freethinker and those who the courts ordered to raise him taught him religion -- against his father's wishes -- so theism is not the faith of Russell's father).

A few of us (like Russell, myself, and yourself) have had the luxury of at least considering the whys and wherefores of our beliefs. This is one thing I respect about some elements of the Roman Catholic Church: at least they attempt to teach their older youngsters what they see as a solid defense of their creed.

Unfortunately, the Roman Catholic Church grossly misrepresents the whys and wherefores of the atheistic position, which make it difficult for us atheists to communicate with Roman Catholics; were it not for the popularity of these misrepresentations of the atheistic position, our Letters section would be much smaller than it is.

Secondly, a half-hour lecture by Russell cannot begin to be as elegant as such monumental treatises as Martin's Atheism: A Philosophical Justification or Drange's Nonbelief and Evil: Two Arguments for the Nonexistence of God or even Smith's Atheism: The Case Against God.

Nobody, even someone as capable as Russell, could, in thirty minutes, cover the ongoing philosophical and theological discussions contained in the hundreds of philosophical and theological journals which present sophisticated arguments and counter-arguments from all sides. Also, someone accustomed to the simplistic, dogmatic style of thinking that marks American Evangelical circles (and, unfortunately, many atheistic circles worldwide) would have a difficult time appreciating the subtlety and admitted uncertainty in Drange's and, to a lesser extent, Smith's and Martin's arguments.

What Russell does in this piece (and it is not my favorite piece, by the way, it is merely popular and available for posting), is to present simplifications (and at time, admittedly over-simplifications) of the points that he found to be the most important ones. I will be the first to admit that some of Russell's arguments are outdated in that these ongoing discussions have generated, in some cases, strong rebuttals to some of his points and, in other cases, stronger arguments than were available to Russell when he presented this lecture.
 

I agree: The most formidable arguments I've found are those presented by Drange in the above-mentioned book. He sees the Argument From Evil and the Argument From Nonbelief as the strongest cases one can currently make against theism, particularly against Evangelical Christianity and Roman Catholicism.

I also agree with Smith when he makes the point that the theist is the one making the claim in this discussion (the claim that a god exists), and thus the burden of proof lies on the theist. It's not like we are arguing something as simple and as cut-and-dried as the existence of the sun. We are discussing the claim, made by some people, that an invisible (and some say undetectable) god exists.

This claim is complicated by the statement (made by some) that believing the god-claim is crucial to our avoiding the agonies of eternity in hell fire. While I would never accept the threat of physical violence as proof that a claim is true or false, I am concerned enough to investigate the claims, lest I err in this matter and unwittingly find myself faced with the choice of being "regular or extra crispy" -- as the attendant at the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets always asks as we approach the counter to order lunch.
 

Again, his atheism was not one of Russell's stronger points. Russell made powerful inroads in other areas of philosophy.

I will say that "Why I Am Not A Christian" has inspired many people to re-evaluate their theism and to eventually investigate much more sophisticated arguments from both camps.

While I was appearing on a television program (which featured a one-shot, unedited taping to simulate a live program), I was committed to presenting "Why I Am Not A Christian" in an upcoming issue of the magazine. My choice was either to be rude and contradict the show's hosts "live on the air" (so to speak) or to go along with publishing the piece. I do not regret my decision to keep the piece, if for not other reason than Russell's piece does have historical value (though it is certainly not the most formidable argument against Christianity ever produced).

The piece begins with a bracketed comment stating that "the editor is willing to share full responsibility with the Hon. Bertrand Russell in that he is in accord with the political and other opinions expressed." This is not the opinion of the editor of Positive Atheism but is from the original Haldemann-Julius publication. I have added a note after the original editorial comment (in dark red, the standard color of editorial notes made by Positive Atheism) stating that that comment was in the original and is not the opinion of Positive Atheism. This should clear up any misunderstanding to that effect.

This piece is included for its historical value, not because it is a masterpiece of philosophical pondering. To me, everything else in the Russell section is merely a backdrop for the two pieces, "A Free Man's Worship" and the hilarious "The Theologian's Nightmare." Even these are somewhat outdated in that the ideas they attack are not nearly as popular as they once were. Such attacks may hold some sway in Kansas or Kentucky, as they did for much of the world in 1927, but they certainly have little meaning in today's Europe.
 

A better way to say it is that the theist is making an existential claim -- a claim for the existence of a god. Since the theist has not (to my or Russell's satisfaction) proven his claim, we don't have to believe the claim.

If Russell (or anyone) says something to the effect that "You cannot prove your claim, therefore God does not exist," he goes much further than I do. I would simply say, "You cannot prove your claim, therefore I don't have to believe it." This is the most popular historical definition of atheism.

Drange goes further and says that if a god-claim is meaningless, the response is not atheism but noncognitivism: one can neither believe nor disbelieve mumbo-jumbo. My position is much more clear-cut: since I lack a belief in a god (understandable or otherwise), I am an atheist (one who lacks a god-belief).
 

Yes! Yes!!

This is what Positive Atheism and its predecessor (under my editorship) has been saying all along!

It is refreshing to hear someone speaking as a Roman Catholic who is not parroting the party line that roughly states that atheists "fiercely believe that God doesn't exist" and is willing to discuss our atheism with us, in the same terms in which we see our atheism.

To reiterate: I have been given no compelling reason to believe the various claims for the existence of the deities that mankind has endorsed throughout history; therefore, I lack a belief in the existence of any gods.

A recent letter contained the accusation that we atheists must have some sort of complete understanding of all things in order to state, categorically, that God doesn't exist. Unfortunately for that writer, we have never stated, categorically, that God doesn't exist. Although some atheists do go this far, they are in the minority among atheistic thinkers and writers.
 

Except that the phenomenon conceptualized as photon can be detected and those experiments can be independently verified.

I can know that the claims for the existence of what we call photons is likely to be true, and still have no clue as to what a "photon" really is.

If I could detect (and others could independently verify) the existence of a God, or even show that there exist various phenomenon that can be best conceptualized by the notion of a god (and not simply by coming up with a synonym for universe or Big Bang or even super-universe), then it likewise wouldn't matter, at that point, who that God is or what that God is like. In other words, to verify the existence of a God would not be the same as understanding the nature of that God.

Verifying the existence of a God (or, rather, validating the claims for the existence of that God) would come first, though.
 

You know as well as I do that if we could verify the god-claims, this would hold true; however, it does not follow from this that a God exists.
 

I agree with this in general terms: it is an excellent approach to understanding our world.

However, we must keep in mind that when it comes to the existential claims (such as the ones claiming that a God exists), we still must face the problem of the burden of proof: the one making the claim must bring forth a strong case for its validity (particularly in lieu of obvious or at least detectable phenomenon). Unless the existence of the thing being claimed is obvious or at least detectable and independently verifiable (in other words, a skeptic can and will make the same or similar observations), we rightly suspend judgement (or even doubt) until we can make such observations and independent verifications.

Even then, according to liberal scientific method, any "knowledge" is always held up to public scrutiny. No "truth" is too sacred that it is not subject to revision or even being overthrown by new evidence.
 

I cannot begin to define any of these things, but can find these terms useful in my day-to-day life. That's all I can say about those things.

Again, though, it does not follow that one's claim for the existence of a God (or for "truth" or "happiness" corresponds with any real object or condition or situation -- that is, these things could all simply be abstractions.

I am content (there's that word) to suspend judgement as to whether contentment is real or merely an abstraction; I can at least describe my contentment and can share it with others who know precisely what I am talking about. With the claims for the existence of a God, though, it is not the same: I, for one, have no clue what most of them are talking about. Perhaps I am one of Drange's noncognitivists after all! Those which I can conceptualize (such as the God character in DeMille's film The Ten Commandments) tend to seem so unlikely as to be unworthy of serious consideration. This is where I remain -- unconvinced -- and thus I remain an atheist (one who lacks a god-belief).
 

This is unusual among Western theists.

I don't see why one would need to complicate the discussion by defining all good as "God" and all evil as "Satan" when the terms good and evil sufficiently convey those two (very abstract) concepts.

If all you are saying is that good and evil exist (at least as abstractions, or even as more tangible realities), then how does your outlook differ from mine -- except that you choose to use the word God to describe something we both agree exists (at least as an abstraction)?
 

If your definition for God is more complex than simply "a collective term representing all things good," then we face a much more complex discussion.

As it stands, I merely disagree with your use of the term God to describe an abstraction that is more easily conveyed through more traditional language.

I've heard this from Fundamentalists and Evangelicals in America. At the risk of offending you, I would call this the only botch in your otherwise fine, fine presentation.

Please write back: it is the all-too-rare discussions such as this that keep me wanting to continue this project. To understand what I mean, simply check out some of the tirades we've posted in our Letters section within the past month.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Griffin, J C"
Subject: Re: Belief in God
Date: Friday, June 30, 2000 1:37 PM
 
 

I think there is a time and place for both, and I think elements of both can be worked into an understanding or a presentation; however, a successful communicator (who is concerned with communicating accurately to a large percentage of those listening) will always be careful to ensure that when something is metaphor or describing the tangible, this distinction is clear to the audience.

For this reason, I reserve the use of such words as God for their traditional, popular meanings. When I say "God" in the United States, and when I say it without qualifying it, I am thinking along the lines of the "God" character in DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" or something similar. (Thus, when such language comes out of my mouth, you can be sure I am speaking of a fictional character, and that many disagree and think this character is real and tangible.) If I were to use the word God in the sense you have described, I would need first to qualify what I am saying.
 

But so many Christians, throughout the centuries, have intimidated one another (and others) by insisting that such places as "Hell" are very real, and that you will literally roast forever if you don't tow the party line. This is why I have always preferred making myself clear and have refused to go along with something unless it can be clearly demonstrated to the point of warranting my endorsement. I will not speak in metaphor unless it is clear to all that I am speaking poetically. Otherwise, I am speaking literally, I am speaking as if what our senses tell us is actually real, I am speaking in what I think is the normal context of human perception and understanding, which happens to be very literal (our use of abstractions notwithstanding).

Sure, I did experiment with Korzybski's post-Einsteinian language, writing several pieces without resorting to any form of the verb to be, and found those essays to be quite effective in accomplishing their goals, but it is much simpler to try to communicate in the language commonly accepted in the Western world. This language presupposes that what we perceive with our senses actually "is" in "reality" and is more than just our perception, interpreted into our minds as abstraction.
 

Gandhi was similar. I hear he was not a believer, but he used the language and metaphors of faith, so he put on the appearance of being extremely devout. His associates became frustrated with this at times.
 

Since we are not going to be able to change the tendency of many to be fundamentalistic in their approach to the Church, I think trying to change the church is futile. Let the fundamentalists have it, as far as I am concerned; I will go on to something else, such as trying to understand and develop humanistic values, and learning ways to communicate those values in humanistic terms so that even those with a religious upbringing can understand and benefit. I have enough faith in humanity to think that most of us can easily make the transformation to seeing life from a human perspective rather than trying to understand it in terms of what most people think of as supernatural, and what many think of as despotic, and thus outdated.
 

If Christ was not really the literal Son of God, then what he actually did can happen again today many times over -- if for no other reason than that there are that many more people alive today from which a man of the caliber of Christ can rise.

I am not sure if a Christ even existed, or if he did, how much of his life story is fiction; thus, I usually don't bother even to speak of a Christ. However, if there was a Christ, and if he was entirely human, and if he did have great influence upon the people who met him and studied under him (as opposed to the resulting myth about him being what influenced later generations), then I see no reason why we could not have many leaders today with influence comparable to that of Christ (tangible influence upon the people who knew him or knew of him, not later influence such as what resulted from the Christ myth being propagated many decades after his death). We don't really need to look to him, even if he was one of the greatest men who ever lived (which I seriously doubt, anyway).

If "Christ" is pure myth (or even mostly myth), then we needn't really change anything except our acceptance that this is myth.
 

There may or may not be any higher intelligence in this universe, but we have yet to encounter one greater than the human mind: the human is the most intelligent entity with whom we can communicate at this point.

This is why I am careful not to speak in Pantheistic terms, and why I am not a Pantheist. All we know that we know, at this point, is that the human, as feeble as the human mind may be at times, is the best company we've got.
 

Is it or is it not a world of disembodied "spirits"? That, to me, is what "spiritual" refers to, because that is the traditional Western understanding of that language.

If it is not a world of disembodied "spirits," then why not use language that more universally describes what you are talking about, such as ethics and morals?
 

I agree with the discipline part, I work very hard on myself to this day.

However, I don't have a clue as to what faith may be -- particularly when you use the term, because you have had some very unique uses for similar words that are commonly understood in terms of the superstition of our ancestors.
 

Surely you don't mean that since I cannot see it, therefore it does exist!?

True, there may be more than I can possibly imagine -- or, it may be a case of what you see is what you get. The question is, should I trouble myself with any of it? (Another question I wish others would address is, do people have any business making specific pronouncements about things that fall in the category of "more than we could possibly imagine," that fall beyond the realm of what we know, or even can know.)

Since some claim the tangible existence of what I cannot see (or even imagine), I must resort to the burden of proof. When someone makes an existential claim, when someone claims that a thing exists, it is the responsibility of that person to make the case that such a thing exists. The doubter is not required to make any case for proving that such a thing does not exist, because no such proof can be brought forth (except in the case of something that is logically impossible, such as an invisible green leprechaun, which cannot be simultaneously invisible and green).

Because of this, I satisfy myself with making claims only for those things which I can easily demonstrate (or, at minimum, referring to an authority, such as when I tell someone what particle the leading physicist Victor Stenger told me about the Inflationary Big Bang model or the then-current consensus within his field of science). I will not make speculative statements about "spiritual" things. I do this in all honesty, and don't understand why so many people speak with such assurance about things that, upon further investigation, they really know nothing about, but are relying on this thing they call "faith." (I don't even know what "faith" is.) If I need to speak about ethics or morals or hope for a better future, these are concepts that almost anybody can relate to.
 

I still don't see anything in the original (alleged) teachings of Christ that are even worth revising. The values taught by Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll are, in my opinion, vastly superior to anything attributed to Christ.

Also, if we are going to "rework" the teachings of Christ, we will need, first, to verify that they are, in fact, the teachings of Christ, and that Christ was, in fact, so vastly superior as to warrant his teachings being the model or basis or foundation for any reworking.

As it stands, I don't think Christ (if such a man even existed) was anything special. I think we all do well to realize that we all have minds similarly capable of deciding how we will run our lives in this generation. This includes deciding whether any ideas that have been spoken in the past are still relevant. Reinvent the wheel? By all means! Have you compared the wheels on a covered wagon with those being produced on cars today?
 

I will agree only after such a "higher intelligence" has been discovered and I can verify its discovery independently. Unless and until that happens, I think we have more than enough with which to get by.
 

Just because an idea is unthinkable to certain minds does not mean it "just can't be right." I have the advantage of having started out without religion: my parents were atheists and still are. I grew up realizing that we very well could be the highest intelligence in the universe, and almost certainly are the highest intelligence that we will ever encounter (space being vast, and travel and communication being limited by the speed of light).

It's cold and lonely out here, but we do have the finest company available, our fellow humans. As feeble as human reason sometimes is, and as fickle as human endearment sometimes is, it's the best we have and, I speculate, the best we possibly could want. If you're curious about this, check our my editorial column for January, 1999, called "Better Than Paradise? You Bet!"

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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