What is Atheism?
David Robb

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[This response was modified slightly on September 27, 2001.]

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: PA-via_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: Wednesday, March 22, 2000 8:10 PM

Most atheists do not "denounce, spurn, or just reject" religion, but simply remain unconvinced of religion's claims. When you begin your "research" with such extreme (and extremely false) presuppositions, you run the danger of continuing in your error and likely making some wildly erroneous conclusions and recommendations.

Simply, I am an atheist because I have never encountered an argument for the existence of gods that holds water. Many theistic arguments do not even make sense, and thus can be neither accepted nor rejected. While some atheists claim to know for a fact that there cannot be a god, I have a hard time respecting that position. It certainly is as unscientific as those who claim to know for a fact that there is a god. Most atheists, believe it or not, are barely aware of their atheism -- if at all! The vast majority of those who lack a god belief just don't care about the subject of religion and atheism: we simply don't think about the matter once we've left high school, once Mom has packed our Ayn Rand novels into a box and placed them in her attic.

True, many atheists are bitter or even outright bigoted. Positive Atheism is working very carefully to try to shine some light on this situation. Just as not every Christian is a Jerry Falwell or a Rev. Tim LaHaye, not every atheist is a Madalyn Murray O'Hair or a Jerry Billings. Most of us -- on both sides of the discussion -- are wonderful people when we are (as Mencken would say) "off duty" in our theism or lack thereof. (Mencken came up with this word-picture while describing what William Jennings Bryan was not -- an "off-duty" evangelical Christian: "But even evangelical Christians occasionally loose their belts and belch amicably; I have known some who, off duty, were very benignant.")

The best and most readable presentation of what atheism is and is not is the book Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith (Prometheus books, still in print and selling very well both to atheists and to theists who wish to know the definitive modern argument for atheism). A very simple rundown of the basic arguments against theism is Douglas E. Krueger's 1999 book, What Is Atheism?: A Short Introduction. While Krueger admits that he oversimplifies his position, it is a wonderful overview of what most atheists accept and why thinking atheists reject the various arguments for the existence of gods. To struggle with the arguments themselves, you would need to spend some serious time in deep study, observation, and self-reflection.

As for modern atheism's roots, until the Age of Enlightenment had taken root in Western culture, to speak or write sympathetically about atheism meant certain death. Even then, until Charles Darwin published Origin of Species and explained the appearance of design in living organisms, atheism was not intellectually viable simply because the Argument from Design was so formidable. Before Darwin, those who would have been atheists were Deists or Spinoza-style pantheists. Edwin Hubble's confirmation of the expanding Universe further eliminated the need of a supernatural deity to explain the existence of pockets of complexity in the face of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The Inflationary Big Bang Theory, which says that the Universe started with zero energy and today contains approximately zero energy pretty much did away with the need of supernatural intervention to explain existence. Nevertheless, any historical move away from Orthodoxy has rightly been considered one of the numerous precursors to modern atheism. Before the rise of Christendom suppressed learning in the Roman Empire, of course, atheism was very popular among the Romans, expressed most fluently by Cicero and Epicurus.

Be sure to remember that atheism (the simple lack of a god belief) is the default position as regards religion, that theism is learned. Also, theism is making the claim, the claim that a God exists; as such, it is theism which must be proved. This is called the Burden of Proof. Atheism makes no claim, but simply listens to the claims of theists and decides whether to believe those claims.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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