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Newsletter: 1998: September 1998


Internet Infidels Newsletter

SEPTEMBER 1998

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In this issue:

Personally, I'm fascinated by the communion. I've always wanted to know what the wafer tastes like. Who makes the wafer? Is there a big wafer factory somewhere? If they run out of the regular wafers, is it okay to use Necco Wafers? --Scott Glazer

§


What's New on the Secular Web?

Upcoming Events

Book of the Month

Nonbelief and Evil: Two Arguments for the Nonexistence of God By Theodore Drange

Nonbelief and EvilNonbelief and Evil is a fascinating, thorough, and persuasive presentation of two arguments for the non-existence of God: nonbelief and evil. Drange presents his own unique formulation of the Argument from Evil, along with rebuttals to virtually every theistic defense against the argument from evil, including Alvin Plantinga's Free Will Defense, John Hick's Soul-Making Theodicy, the Unknown Purpose Defense, and much more. And the Argument from Nonbelief--the argument that the mere existence of nonbelievers constitutes evidence for the non-existence of God--is an original argument by Drange. I think the book will serve as a major contribution to the philosophy of religion. Nonbelief and Evil also includes some interesting appendices on related issues including the argument from the Bible, the concept of an afterlife, and the fine-tuning argument. I enthusiastically endorse Drange's book. - Jeffery Jay Lowder

Web Scan

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Helping you to sip from the information firehose

Roll up, roll up, ladies and gentlemen to get your own stupid web awards in this month's grab-bag of strange religious web sites. See Areala the Warrior Nun! Admire the Jesus of the Week! Find out what extraterrestrial interplanetary space Jews have in common with Beanie Babies! In this month's web.scan, mathew continues to peek under the circus tent of on-line absurdity.

Gerd Lüdemann Renounces Christianity, Publishes The Great Deception

In our September 1997 issue of this newsletter, Michael Martin and Tyler Wunder reported on a debate on the Resurrection between Christian theism's hired gun, Dr. William Lane Craig, and Dr. Gerd Lüdemann, author of many controversial books critical of traditional Christian claims. Dr. Lüdemann's previous books include Virgin Birth?, The Unholy in Holy Scripture, Heretics, What Really Happened to Jesus, and the Resurrection of Jesus.

Gerd.jpg (33455 bytes)At the time of the debate, Dr. Lüdemann identified himself as a Christian, though obviously a very different sort of Christian than Dr. Craig. However, that is no longer the case. Dr. Lüdemann has informed Internet Infidels, Inc. that he no longer considers himself a Christian in any sense of the word. Indeed, Dr. Lüdemann tells II that the Secular Web is one of his favorite web sites and that he surfs it frequently! Moreover, he has written a book entitled The Great Deception: And What Jesus Really Said and Did (SCM Press) which outlines many of his objections to the Christian faith. Not surprisingly, none of the American Christian presses which published his previous works are willing to publish The Great Deception. When Dr. Lüdemann contacted Internet Infidels, Inc. about publishing his manuscript in the U.S., we immediately recommended that he contact Prometheus Books, which he did. Prometheus Books was very interested in publishing the manuscript. They have now secured the North American publication rights from SCM Press and plan to publish the book soon. We'll keep you posted on the availability of "The Great Deception" in a future issue of the newsletter.

[This report was prepared by Jeffery Jay Lowder.]

Zacharias and Ross Refuse to Link to the Secular Web

As of this writing, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) and Hugh Ross's Reasons to Believe (RTB) apologetics ministry have continued to refuse to provide a reciprocal link to the Secular Web.

On December 8th, 1997, Jeffery Jay Lowder informed RZIM that Douglas Kreuger had written a review of Zacharias' book A Shattered Visage: The Real Face of Atheism and that this review was posted on the Secular Web. Lowder asked that, as a return courtesy, they mention Krueger's book review on their web site. Lowder received two e-mail messages from a representative of RZIM stating that Zacharias has not yet had a chance to consider the request to link to Krueger's review. No further e-mails have been received from RZIM, suggesting that RZIM has no intention of linking to Krueger's review. Similarly, Lowder asked RTB to provide a reciprocal link to Victor J. Stenger's review of Ross's The Creator and the Cosmos. No one at RTB bothered to reply to Lowder and the link was never added.

It is the position of the Internet Infidels that the pursuit of truth cannot begin in earnest unless and until an organization makes its readers aware of viewpoints that do not necessarily conform to its own. Intellectual honesty requires that we provide a reciprocal link to any article on the web that critically engages with a paper published on the Secular Web. As soon as we are made aware of such articles, we place a link to it so that the reader can see the other side of the story. To do anything less is to insult the intelligence of our readers, for the only way to make an informed decision is to consider opposing viewpoints. Remember, we are supposed to be after the truth here, not a successful propaganda campaign.

The intentional suffocation of opposing viewpoints has been an ongoing problem. William Lane Craig initially blocked electronic publication of his debates until, prodded by Helen Mildenhall, he finally changed his mind. The Southern California Center for Christian Studies (SCCCS) steadfastly refuses to link to anything published on the Secular Web. (See the latest report on the SCCCS below.) If Ross and Zacharias have confidence in their arguments, they should not be afraid to subject them to critical (or even hostile) scrutiny. This is the only way readers can fashion fully-informed and responsible conclusions about important matters such as theology and science. Indeed, if Ross and Zacharias are truly confident in their position, one would think that they would want to link to their leading critics. So far this does not seem to be the case. If anything further develops, we will keep you updated in this newsletter.

[This report was prepared by James Still.]

How You Can Help: Amazon.com Book Reviews

Do you have an opinion about one or more freethought books? Internet Infidels, Inc. is calling on all freethinkers to submit book reviews to Amazon.com on the various philosophy, religion, science, and other freethought-related books they have read. Even if you didn't purchase the book through the II Bookstore, it is important that you post your book review at Amazon.com. As the world's biggest on-line bookstore, Amazon.com's prominence will give your review the exposure that makes it worthwhile to write as well as helpful to those considering whether or not to purchase the book.

Needless to say, theists--especially inerrantists, old-earth creationists, and other members of the Radical Religious Right--are not shy about praising their own books while condemning the books of freethinkers. Agnostics, atheists, humanists, and other freethinkers should likewise contribute their own reviews of both nontheistic and theistic books.

To contribute your own reviews, simply visit the II Bookstore at http://www.infidels.org/infidels/products/books/ and find the in-print book you want to review by clicking on the appropriate category or by using our search engine. Clicking on the book will take you to Amazon.com, where you can click on "Write an online review". There is even an option to have your review posted anonymously (e.g., without your name or e-mail address displayed at Amazon.com). Be sure to follow Amazon.com's review guidelines or your review will not be published.

And remember to purchase your freethought books through the II Bookstore. II relies heavily on revenue from Amazon.com book sales to make all of our electronic services available free of charge.

[This report was prepared by Jeffery Jay Lowder.]

Announcing an Important New Philosophical Journal

I recently had the opportunity to read Philo, the official journal of the Society of Humanist Philosophers. If you've enjoyed reading the writings of the professional philosophers who have contributed essays to our Modern Library, then you'll definitely enjoy Philo. (Indeed, some of the recent additions to the Modern Library were articles originally published in Philo.)

ImageIt gathers some of the best minds in the world to provide rigorous critiques of religious ideas and doctrines and to examine issues in humanistic and naturalistic ethics. Prominent philosophers offer penetrating assessments of arguments for and against the existence of God, traditional church dogma, naturalistic vs. theistic explanations, atheism, naturalism, and humanistic values. The articles (for the most part) appear quite accessible to lay readers, so I recommend the journal even to interested non-philosophers.

The editor is Keith Parsons, author of God and the Burden of Proof, and contributors include Adolf Grünbaum, Richard Gale, Michael Martin, Ted Honderich, Kurt Baier, Daniel C. Dennett, W.V. Quine, Antony Flew, Quentin Smith, Kai Nielsen, Theodore Schick, Jr., Paul Kurtz, and more.

PHILO is published twice per year, 80+ pages per issue. For individuals, a one-year subscription is $35 (add $10 for foreign orders). To subscribe, contact the Council for Secular Humanism at:

Philo, Council for Secular Humanism
P.O. Box 664
Amherst, NY 14226-0664  USA

Tel: (800) 458-1366 (in the U.S.)
Tel: +1 716 636-7571 (outside the U.S.)
Fax: +1 716 636-1733

You may either mail a check (payable on a U.S. bank), or you may contact the Council for Secular Humanism to subscribe with your MasterCard or Visa.

[This report was prepared by Jeffery Jay Lowder.]

Congressman Blasts "Super-Cerebral" Professors

ImageA U.S. Congressman recently blasted scientists who do not believe in God. On August 3rd, Congressman James A. Traficant, Jr. (D-Ohio), who was given one minute to address the House, used his time on the house floor to attack nonbelieving scientists.

Citing a new report in which only seven percent of scientists reported that they were believers, Traficant remarked, "most of these absent-minded professors cannot find the toilet." Continuing his anal retentive theme, Traficant remarked, "I have one question for these wise guys to constipate over," before asking his "super-cerebral" foes to explain "how can some thing come from no thing?"

Traficant finished his address with the observation that "all the education in the world is worthless without God and a little bit of common sense." Ironically, Congressman Traficant is a member of the House Science Committee and the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.

[This report was prepared by James Still.]

Followup on Michael Martin, Michael Butler, and SCCCS

In the May 1996 issue of this newsletter, I reported on the Southern California Center for Christian Studies (SCCCS), their aggressive anti-atheist campaign, and their attacks on Gordon Stein, Edward Tabash, and Michael Martin. In a spirit of fairness, we subsequently published in our Newsletter a reply from Michael Butler, an instructor at Bahnsen Theological Seminary. Since that initial exchange, there have been a couple of developments.

First, I am not sure exactly when, but sometime after this exchange, SCCCS created a "Response to Atheists" section on their website, available at http://www.scccs.org/response.html. This web page contains the essence of the SCCCS response to II but it also claims that "we [SCCCS] welcome these men to respond to our response." II has responded to SCCCS and repeatedly asked SCCCS to acknowledge that fact on their website. But, alas, they have not. In fact, all of our e-mails have been ignored.

Second, II has learned that Butler published a response to Martin's article, "Does Induction Presume the Existence Of The Christian God?", but we have been unable to obtain a copy of Butler's response. We have repeatedly asked Butler for a copy of his response, and several months ago we finally received a reply from Butler indicating that his article would be forthcoming. Yet we still have not received the article.

If there are any further developments, we will document them in a future issue of this Newsletter.

[This report was prepared by Jeffery Jay Lowder.]

Authors Coming to a Web Site Near You

Internet Infidels' long list of distinguished authors is about to get longer. Over the next several months, Internet Infidels will be adding articles to the Secular Web by several distinguished scholars:

  • Adolf Grünbaum, the Andrew Mellon Professor of Philosophy of Science, Research Professor of Psychiatry, and Chair of the Center for Philosophy of Science, all at the University of Pittsburgh.
  • Richard Gale, another distinguished philosopher and author of On the Nature and Existence of God (Cambridge University Press, 1991), also at the University of Pittsburgh.
  • Kai Nielsen, a retired philosopher who has published widely in the philosophy of religion, especially on the interface between ethics and religion.

Campus Freethought Alliance Needs Your Signature

The Campus Freethought Alliance is currently involved in a very important project, and needs your immediate help. In mid-September, they will be taking their "Bill of Rights for Unbelievers" to Washington, D.C. In the meantime, they are collecting signatures for the Bill at http://www.secularhumanism.org/cfa. Every single signature they can muster will make the Bill a more persuasive, forceful document, and brings us that much closer to getting "In God We Trust" off the currency, "under God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance, and gaining the same respect and treatment currently afforded to believers. Please show your support for the Bill by adding your signature to it. It will only take a minute of your time and every signature counts. The more signatures the CFA can collect, the more Congress will be made to realize the number of atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers who vote and stand up for their rights.

Editorial

There is a nefarious conspiracy at work in Portland, Oregon where I live. But perhaps I should start at the beginning. Like most of you, I have to set my television to channel 03 before I can record or play a videotape on my television. I guess I should admit that it is my wife Katherine who sets up the machine to do these things--to this day I am completely baffled by the blinking zeroes and tiny remote control buttons. In any case, here in Portland channel 03 is the proud home of California-based Trinity Broadcasting Network. Great. The most valuable real estate on the dial, where every Portlander must turn in order to watch a taped movie, is devoted to bulbous bouffants, singing faux cowboys, and animated dramatizations of Christ's expected descent from the clouds.

It's enough to make media mogul Rupert Murdoch green with envy. Why does the cable company put such an outrageous network on channel 03 anyway? My friend Hamid, who, while Iranian, has come to appreciate the curious foibles of American kitsch, suggested that the cable folks just want to entertain us while the movie is rewinding. I have to admit that he has a good point. Where else can you see men with feathered hair styles that look like three Frisbees perfectly balanced atop their heads? Or women with eyelashes that reach right out to the camera? How much did that Italian suit cost anyway? Never in my life have I seen such an obsession with money. Of course, there's the ever-present contribution phone line at the bottom of the screen (endless fodder for standup comic routines) but also you hear the most outrageous things from the men who preach about money. Some claim that God wants his children to be rich, indeed filthy rich, and why not? You deserve it baby. It is Satan, not God, who wants to keep you poor. Others worry that once you've made it to the mother-of-all tax brackets Satan will start keeping track of your purchases with a computer chip on your hand. All of this hand-wringing over money seems to produce a great anxiety. Every few minutes someone is either crying in absolute misery or jumping up and down like a giddy schoolboy. Emotional boom or bust on the holy roller coaster.

I'm sure that Trinity Broadcasting is bringing Portlanders to their knees. Not in tearful prayer as TBN hopes, but in desperation as we each crawl to the VCR to push the play button while yelling, "why doesn't the tape start!?" While I'm pushing buttons at random my wife is yelling for me to get out of the way of the remote control signal. Meanwhile, the grinning man who chimes the requisite paeans to the Lord while hawking his self-help tapes looks down on us in mockery. Ah yes, the conspiracy widens and will soon engulf us all. It's just a matter of time before Trinity Broadcasting is on channel 03 in your town too. For my part, I plan to get one of those V-chips that allows you to block out objectionable programming. I can hear the cable people already:

"Would you like to block V for violence or S for sex, sir?"

"Gimme H for hucksterism, please." 

"Oh I'm sorry, the hucksters are there to entertain you while the tape is rewinding."

[James Still is not really a VCR-junkie but plays at one when writing sophomoric editorials.]

Essay

What an Atheist Ought to Stand For
by Richard Carrier

A Justifiable Lament

There is a common and justifiable lament that atheists are so preoccupied by naming and arguing what they are against, that people rarely hear what atheists are for. This is not only heard from the religious critics of atheism, but can be found in the voices and private thoughts of atheists themselves. Even the very names we take emphasize what we are against rather than for: a-theist, a-gnostic, non religious, etc. Even the term free-thinker straddles the fence: to stand for freedom of thought still implies that our thoughts should be free from something.

Of course, these terms are not meant to encompass entire value systems. They merely identify a narrow position on one particular point of fact. I am like all other atheists only in that I do not believe there are any gods. Beyond that, I may differ dramatically in my values and beliefs from any other atheist. On both sides of the political spectrum, one can find the neo-conservative Objectivists and the ultra-liberal Communists, both of whom hate each other. These two factions take up nearly opposite sets of values, yet both are comprised of unabashed atheists. I agree with neither. Similar diversity can be found in any other group -- agnostics include devout Christians, freethinkers include New Agers, and the nonreligious include among their ranks everything from nihilists to flakes.

There has long been a solution to the above problem that too few people have taken advantage of. The term "Secular Humanism" is a clear statement of what one stands for as well as against: being secular, one stands against religion, but being a humanist, one stands for humanity. Naturally, religionists have maligned and cursed and slandered this term beyond all measure, and have so equated it with atheism that even the public at large cannot see any difference between the two. Since too few have successfully defended the term and what it stands for, the advantage of the name has been lost in public discourse. But more importantly, it is incorrect to assume that all secular humanists are atheists. Being against religion is not quite the same thing as not believing there is a god.

I want to talk about atheists, in as general a sense as I can. Although no one can write a truly general statement about what atheists stand for -- since there are too many different kinds of atheists -- it is still possible to describe what certain atheists stand for, and I have in mind the garden variety American atheist whom I have met many times in my life. It is also possible to suggest what all atheists ought to stand for, and this is ultimately what I intend to do. For there are certain values that have been held by almost all the atheists I have known and studied, values that I believe are not only compatible with atheism, but necessary to it. Besides, whenever we are asked "What do you stand for?" it is helpful to have a ready answer to that question.

The Ethics of Thought

It is probably true that almost all atheists stand for the values of reason and freethought. I will attempt to put these values in more substantial terms. There is the belief that inquiry and doubt are essential checks against deception, self deception, and error. There is the belief that logic and the scientific method is the only way the world can arrive at an agreement on the truth about anything. And there is the belief that it is better to be good to each other and to build on what we all agree to be true, than to insist that we all think alike. The words I have put into italics above are the very things I believe all atheists should stand for.

First is the belief that "inquiry and doubt are essential checks against deception, self-deception, and error." Even religionists will sometimes give this value lip service, but very often they do not abide by it. And insofar as anyone cherishes this value but does not live up to it, they are living immorally even according to their own value system. I cannot count the number of times I have heard Christians declare this value as a reason to read the Bible, yet blithely ignore it when I ask them to read the Tao Te Ching. We must accept that we are vulnerable to error in any matter in which we lack all doubt or have not led a meaningful inquiry. The honest atheist will regard willful ignorance and blind faith as the more dangerous of sins.

Contrary to theological polemic, it is not absurd to say that you stand for doubt. You should be open to falsifying evidence for any belief you hold, and you should commit to the rule that you will sway your opinion by the preponderance of evidence, and not by the preponderance of faith. Even when your faith in some belief is unusually strong, caution is in order. Rather than reject opposing evidence, and rather than give an unjustified weight to confirming evidence, if you believe the facts are incorrect or incomplete, then you should make a solid inquiry into those facts. You should admit your uncertainty, and accept that the preponderance of evidence must always decide. All of science has been driven by this principle. It has never been enough for a scientist to have faith in a theory. Rather than employ that faith as justification for belief, the scientist employs it as justification for inquiry. Belief is not declared, one way or the other, until some respectable measure of inquiry has been completed. This is why science makes progress and religion does not. I believe this is more than a method. This is the way one ought to behave, and I think most atheists would agree.

Next is the belief that "the scientific method is the only way the world can arrive at an agreement on the truth about anything" and that "it is better to be good to each other and to build on what we all agree to be true, than to insist that we all think alike." These are related truths, which atheists are well-suited to accept and adopt, for both are generally rejected by believers in god. It is hard to dispute the fact that almost all atheists stand for science and reason. They believe in perfecting their grasp of scientific discoveries as well as scientific methods, and in honing their ability to apply reason and critical thought to every field of endeavor. All the hours and years that theists apply themselves to prayer and devotion and the perusal of scripture, atheists apply themselves to the study of the universe, to the refinement of their understanding of things, and to their mastery of clear and successful thinking.

It is beyond rational dispute that whenever there is any disagreement about any matter of fact, the methods of science and logic must be brought to bear to decide the question. For science and logic are the only methods we know that can reveal to everyone the same decisive evidence. If neither science nor logic can be applied to a question, then both sides of the dispute must honestly admit their mutual ignorance. For it is dishonest to maintain that someone is wrong when you have nothing at hand to prove it, and logic and science provide the only known ways to prove anything. So it is that the humility to admit your own ignorance, and the wisdom to not assume too much, are virtues that atheists should not forget to hold dear. And this will affect how we treat our fellow humans, because it leads us to the conclusion that it is better to preach the gospel of 'be good to others even when you disagree with them', than to preach the gospel of 'believe in our religion or be damned'. The former brings only peace, life, and happiness, and teaches us the value of respect and negotiation, but the latter brings only division, death, and misery, and teaches only tyranny and hatred.

The Ethics of Life

The values that play the most important role in any person's life are those which stem from the meaning they have found in their lives. It is the standard rhetoric of the religious that only god gives life meaning, but to really believe this one must first believe that human life, thought, happiness, even love, are all in themselves worthless and void of meaning. I think any atheist would agree this is absurd. Even if I were the accidental byproduct of a giant rubber tire machine, the mere fact that I live and know that I live would give my life meaning at once. And the moment I felt happiness or love, their meaning and value would be immediately obvious. Anything else would be unnecessary. And as all atheists know, all of these things would exist even without a god. For all that is needed is a person, who is capable of living, loving, and knowing happiness.

The ultimate meaning of life is to live it. There is no big mystery about that. But life would not be worth living if it knew no happiness or love. It has been well argued since Aristotle that happiness is the ultimate aim of living, for it is the only thing we seek for itself. Everything else we pursue for some other reason, but we seek happiness for no other reason than to be happy. And though the preacher loves to attack the hedonism which he thinks this entails, in actual fact his own religion is based on the very same principle. For all the goals of religion are sought for some other reason, except the ultimate goal of eternal happiness. For when a preacher says "worship god" and the congregation asks why, and continues to ask the why of every answer he gives, he can only end the interrogation by answering with the same ultimate answer: "because it will make you happy."

Thus, happiness is the ultimate value that all atheists stand for. They may vary in endless ways as to how happiness is to be pursued, but all will agree to the ultimate value of the end product. It is here most of all that enlightened religious philosophy is often studied by the atheist. For it is not in belief or ritual that happiness is achieved. It does not come from a god, and organized religion is useless. Rather, happiness comes from understanding and accomplishment, and the wise atheist stands for these two things as surely as anything else. Happiness comes from perceiving what is both good and easily obtained, such as the experience of love and beauty and friendship, and the joy of many other simple pleasures, and from seeking and following the various ways we can have these things in our lives. It comes, also, from perceiving how evils and obstacles can be removed or avoided, and from acting on that knowledge. This is how understanding and accomplishment lead to happiness, and this is why the atheist values all three, and strives to embody and master them.

The Ethics of Ethics

Morality is the favorite watchword of the religious. It is also a popular polemic to equate atheism with the complete absence of morality, as if a disbelief in god meant at the same time a disbelief in moral standards. Any inquiry into the beliefs of actual atheists in the matter of morals would prove this assumption wrong. Indeed, the atheist is often possessed of stronger moral convictions than the most devout believer. Abraham, so the Old Testament claims, abandoned his morals at the mere command of his god. He was prepared to commit murder, even kill his own son, and this was proof of his religious devotion. Like him, many a religious man is willing to push morals aside if he thinks his god has asked or allowed him to, if he thinks it is for "the greater good" of god. Not so the atheist. If god appeared to me and asked me to kill my son, even though I would have undeniable proof that god exists and was the supreme creator and the ultimate power of the universe, I would spit in his face. I would prefer death to the defilement of what is right. To want murder is evil, and if God wanted murder, he would be evil -- and no good man accepts a wicked master.

The question of what is good, what is moral, is complicated by the fact that we are ignorant of most of the things we would need to know to answer the question. Our capacity to predict the future is greatly limited, yet it is entirely essential to any decisive answer as to what is right and wrong. Our ability to know the secret thoughts of others is also limited, and just as essential, and so on. Thus, the ability to do the right thing, to even know what the right thing is, will depend upon one's wisdom and knowledge, which will never be complete. The degree to which you really know the consequences of what you do, and the significance of what you embody when you do it, will determine the degree to which you can ascertain what is right or wrong in any given case, and that is hard to put down on paper.

The complexity of moral thought, like the complexity of other crafts and enterprises, is thus often replaced with rules which various experts have learned to be the most useful or universal. But just as no man can be good at anything simply by learning the rules, true morality cannot be found in them. Rather, it is found in wisdom and intuition. Even a chessmaster must know much more than the rules of chess if he is to be a skilled player. But in morality, the rules cannot even be fixed. Any set rule can fall upon an exception. Thou shalt not murder -- but what if you must kill a villain to save an innocent? And any set rule suffers from the flaw of ambiguity. What if you kill by mistake? Rules are useful because they allow us to act quickly when we lack the time to think something through. And when we practice at the rules long enough, they become instinctual, and thus even more effective -- assuming the rules were good ones in the first place. For there are such things as bad ideas which seemed at first to be good ones, and these can become bad habits which are hard to break, even when we discover their faults.

Atheists know this. They seek moral truth not in rules, which are merely man made expedients devised for those cases when one must act without thinking. They seek it in broader principles. No matter what language or what philosophy an atheist uses when he outlines his moral beliefs, every atheist I have known has always fallen back upon the one concept echoed worldwide, and taught by religious and secular leaders throughout all time: the so-called "Golden Rule." Jesus was repeating an old Jewish proverb when he said "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and Confucius was recording an old Chinese saying when he wrote "Do not do to others what you would not want done to you." All atheist systems of morality seem to derive in various ways from this core principle, and so it would be appropriate to say that atheists stand for the Golden Rule in its fullest meaning and significance. I believe that any rule or belief which violates this principle is discarded by most atheists as immoral, and they live up to that ideal more than a great many believers do.

I have my own belief as to why this is so, and I will end with this. For the religious are always charging that atheists have no reason to be moral, no reason to hold the Golden Rule as their highest moral ideal. It could be proven at length that the religious actually have no better reason to be moral than atheists do, but I'll devote myself to that task at another time. For here it is enough to explain why I think atheists stand for the Golden Rule, or at least why they ought to. When we see a wicked person, someone who disrespects or mistreats another, who causes misery rather than happiness, we hate them. These feelings of loathing are natural and inescapable -- for we could never be happy ourselves if we did not loathe the enemies of happiness. But it is not the actual evil doer that we hate as much as the kind of person who does such a thing. And there's the rub. For as soon as we become such a person, those same feelings of loathing will again be inescapable, but now they will be feelings of self-loathing, and one who hates himself, at any level of his being, will always be handicapped, even sabotaged, in his own quest for happiness. Indeed, he will find himself falling too easily into misery, and his life will always seem difficult and unsatisfying.

But look to the other side of the matter. For when we see a good person, someone who embodies virtues we love to see, who causes happiness rather than misery, we love them -- indeed, we love even more the kind of person who would do that. And when we become such a person, we come to love ourselves -- in the way we ought to, with respect and satisfaction. We will then not have to work for our happiness nearly as much, for genuine self-respect brings its own happiness. And the return in love and affection and respect from others that our virtues generate will also expand and protect our sphere of happiness. Unlike the wicked, the good man will find himself literally stumbling into happiness, and he will bounce back from misery almost by nature. And even when miserable, if he has paid attention the good man will already know what must be done to recover. And so it is that the Golden Rule is merely an expression of a basic fact of human psychology: if we embody what we already hate, we will hate ourselves, and be hated by others, but if we embody what we love and respect, we will love and respect ourselves, and be loved and respected by others in turn. One might thus restate the Golden Rule most simply: be a hero, not a villain. For this is the way to happiness

Conclusion

Atheists ought to stand for inquiry and doubt. They ought to stand for logic and the scientific method as the only things capable of sorting true facts from false. They ought to stand for the humility to admit ignorance, and the wisdom to not assume too much, as well as the consequent political reality that finding common ground and negotiating differences is far wiser, and better for all, than maintaining adamant opposition on matters that do not even warrant an adamant opinion in the first place. The atheist ought to stand for using faith as justification for inquiry, not belief. And the atheist ought to stand for happiness, and the understanding and accomplishment that are needed to achieve it. Above all, the atheist ought to stand for being a hero to himself and his fellow humans, rather than a villain. I believe that when the reasons for these values are truly understood, any man would hold to them and keep them, even if god himself appeared and ended all dispute as to his existence. Indeed, I believe an atheist ought to live her life so that she can say this: "even if God's existence were proven, I would change only my understanding of the facts, and not the values by which I guide my conduct and thought."

[Richard C. Carrier received his Master of Arts from Columbia University where he is currently a Richard Hofstadter Fellow working toward the doctorate in Ancient History. His research emphasis is on skeptical thought in the ancient world, particularly within the Roman Empire. After earning his Ph.D., Carrier plans to teach at the university level, to write textbooks, and to continue advanced research in the life and thought of ancient Rome. He can be contacted on his web site located at http://www.richardcarrier.info/ft.html or by e-mail at Richard Carrier.]

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