Letters — Vol. 40, No. 3

Overall

I am amused by the fact that the writers published in your magazine seem to think that expressing themselves in a “professorial manner” ratifies their intellectual abilities, i.e., never say in a short sentence what can be said with “big words” in long paragraphs.

As an agnostic who suspends judgment concerning the existence of a supreme being, I particularly appreciate the “principles of humanism” described on your inside back cover. I also agree with one writer’s statement that the United States is not a Christian nation, especially now that only a minority practices that faith. In today’s multicultural society, no religion should be mandated in any country.

We should not need a “supreme being” to get us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Why should one who does not believe in the existence of gods feel threatened by the occasional public display of a symbol identified with a religion? Perhaps it is remembrance of the tyrannies and injustices conducted through history under the auspices of religious leaders.

Phoebe Bickhaus
Naperville, Illinois

In the December 2019/January 2020 issue, Tom Flynn wonders why more nonbelievers are not joining organizations such as the Center for Inquiry (CFI). In the same issue, both Shadia B. Drury and James A. Haught attack the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the right to bear arms. I guess it has never occurred to them, or Flynn, that many nonbelievers also subscribe to natural rights, the first of which is self-protection. It is likely that many are put off by such articles and CFI’s apparent hostility toward natural rights as outlined in the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Drury should also note that the NRA is not a “lobbyist” group; it has a dues-paying membership of over five million, which considers the Second Amendment the final bulwark against both dictatorship, socialist or theocratic, and foreign invasion of the country. Given that NRA membership far exceeds the combined number of actual Republican and Democratic party members, it is no great surprise that it has substantial political power.

Now, a few simple facts concerning the rants about “gun control.” According to the 2018 FBI Crime in the United States report, violent crime in the country has continued an almost thirty-year decline despite the fact that the number of citizen-owned guns more than doubled in that time period. Even looking at semi-automatic rifles, incorrectly termed assault weapons, only 2 percent of homicides were done using a rifle of any kind. In contrast, knives were at 11 percent, hands and feet at 5 percent, and blunt objects at 3 percent. Do I hear any calls for banning these obviously deathly weapons? Mr. Haught, let’s be objective about gun massacres; they are really quite rare and have little impact on the overall homicide rate. If you want to reduce the overall homicide rate, elimination of gang violence would be the first place to start.

Timothy Keister, CWT FAIC
Brockway, Pennsylvania

Spotlight into the Chasm

Tom Flynn’s “A Spotlight into the Chasm” op-ed (FI, December 2019/January 2020) was contemptuous of those with a “don’t be a dick” ethical platform. It suggests the humanist/atheist movement might be better off avoiding them. I grant that it is hardly the deep truth that answers all moral and ethical questions and that ethical values need to be frequently evaluated in light of new circumstances. However, as a simple heuristic to use in day-to-day life situations, one could do worse than “consider the welfare of others in your speech and behavior.” I find it hard to imagine in the future it will be considered ethical to “be a dick” despite the trend-setting behavior of our current White House occupant.

In a perfect world, every person would always do their best to discern the highest moral standards and live by them. My belief is that the real world would probably benefit more from more people trying not to be dicks than more people deciding “You don’t meet my standards of moral curiosity and ethical philosophical engagement, thus I want nothing to do with you.”

Gordon Douglas
Bisbee, Arizona

Tom Flynn and Bruce Cathey seem to be very critical of atheists who do not “join up” in the movement of some kind of organized militancy, which they envision is needed to fight religion. In both the editorial and the article, what was bemoaned was that these freethinkers were not allowing themselves to be instructed in the proper way to be Nones. Perhaps they have lost sight of the difference between religion and atheism in that the former is selling a product, while “we” are attempting to sell a vacant lot and are surprised that there is a lack of enthusiasm from prospective purchasers. I have been an atheist since the age of twelve and did not learn of the organizational part for fifty years, but when I have gone to some of the meetings, I have found them to be rather exclusive and not particularly stimulating. My energy is devoted to promoting science through environmental organizations, and I feel little need to justify my way of life to these highly opinionated writers.

Robert J. Simpson
Flint, Michigan

In his editorial “A Spotlight into the Chasm” (Free Inquiry, December 2019/January 2020), Tom Flynn notes that in previous essays he “probed the differences between older humanists, most of whom had cast off a traditional religious upbringing at measurable personal cost, and their young counterparts for whom nonreligious identity comes more easily.” Surely one reason this identity comes more easily to the “young counterparts” is that they were raised by parents who were themselves either nonreligious or lukewarm in their religious beliefs and practices.

Flynn’s editorial is largely a warm-up act for Bruce E. Cathey’s article in the same issue, “The Chasm of Humanism: A Heuristic Response” (though practical would seem a more accurate word than heuristic). Especially striking in Cathey’s piece is the fervently evangelical tone he takes toward the “chasm crisis.” Beneath his useful suggestions for improving humanistic websites flows a strong undercurrent of anxiety over the “deconverts” who are slipping past the established organs of old-time irreligion (my term, not his). As I read, I recalled the pulpit-pounding and garment-wringing jeremiads of late seventeenth-century New England pastors, lamenting the “declension” of the true faith and the insufficient fervor of the younger generation.

One source of Cathey’s anxiety is his concern that “much current research projects that unbelief, which has much lower fertility rates than the leading world religions, will lose ground again to Christianity and especially Islam, through at least mid-century. This trend has to be reversed if unbelief is to remain a fully viable option for future generations.”

This anxiety seems an unsettling echo of current white supremacist worries about “replacement” by tides of foreign and domestic brown and black folk—or Christian nationalists’ distress over the proliferation of non-Christian babies. But if we recall Tom Flynn’s comment cited above, perhaps Cathey needn’t worry about birthrates.

Flynn assumes that most readers of Free Inquiry have at some point in their lives clawed their way out of a repressive religious background into the pure light of reason. If he is right about this (though he ignores us cradle-atheist subscribers), he should welcome precisely what Cathey fears. Cathey’s burgeoning brood of believers would seem Flynn’s best breeding ground for future “deconverts.” The humanists of the future should have more luck “deconverting” the religious than firing up the blasé offspring of the irreligious, such as the Nones of our day for whom Flynn and Cathey feel the way John of Patmos did about the “lukewarm” Laodiceans of his day (see Revelations 13:14–16).

David A. Lupher
Tacoma, Washington

If I may presume to reply to Bruce E. Cathey (“The Chasm of Humanism: A Heuristic Response,” FI, December 2019/January 2020), obviously a deep thinker and tinkerer with the English language, let me enter the fray.

Mr. Cathey’s article is a mirror image of articles howling about the decline of religious fervor in today’s world and the consequent shrinkage of church attendance. Substitute the word believer for None, and the word church for humanist organization to see my point.

As a “lay atheist,” I have been blessedly (oops!) free of religious leanings all my life. This scandalous attitude has protected me from prejudice, dreary sermons, phony people, and spooks hidden in the clouds watching my every move. Life is wonderful, if dangerous. Living has required no “reason for being” except that of reveling in a world perfected by evolution and the joy of seeing and smelling and feeling the earth around me.

Mr. Cathey, it occurs to me after seventy-seven years of such a life that the movement against religion has been enormously successful, as per your own joyful statistics. We’re winning, slowly, a generation at a time. That’s why the desperate cry for joining a substitute worldwide organization to replace churches is so surprising.

The words free thought suggest to me a world free of dominating, judgmental, and demanding organizations. As you state, “the hyporeligious Millenials … will deconvert or remain nonreligious with, without, or despite our intervention.” In fact, you suggest that these “inconsequential” unbelievers need guidance through the “sprawl of humanist, atheist, and various other freethought-perspective websites.” How condescending.

Leave these young people alone, sir. They are leery of organizations, work long hours every day, have to glean precious time with their spouses and children, and seem to be happily comfortable with their nonchurchiness. Amen.

Jan Sage, Educator
Freeland, Missouri

Trump’s Silver Lining

As always, Shadia B. Drury’s column “The Trump Presidency’s Silver Lining” (FI, December 2019/January 2020) totally confounds me. In the column, she actually voiced the opinion that Congress might actually remove Attorney General William Barr and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh as a result of regaining its honor. I know of no realistic scenario under which Barr could ever be removed outside of Trump not winning re-election, and surely Ms. Drury knows that it would take sixty-seven Senators, many of them Republican, to convict Kavanaugh after an impeachment. What are the chances of that? What is she talking about?  If these are the silver linings to Trump’s presidency, then there are no silver linings.

But this is not the most frustrating aspect of her column and many previous columns. Drury obviously is not a fan of democracy because she criticizes it often; that would be an acceptable approach if only she outlined a better way or pointed to another government that operated under a better system. She never tells the reader what she supports but never fails to blame the United States, whether it’s Barack Obama or Donald Trump acting to reverse everything Obama accomplished. She claims that the United States or Europe provoked Russia into invading Crimea, probably due to the existence of NATO, but that does not explain why Putin has created a kleptocracy in Russia or why he assassinates journalists and dissidents and works to spread disinformation and social unrest around the world.

In her view, it is good if the United States is in disarray and less relevant. I guess it is good, in her opinion, that the country is so polarized and divided, as is much of the rest of the world, by the way. That does not sound too good to a rational U.S. citizen, but her argument would not be as ridiculous if only we knew what she thought would be good for the United States and the world as far as a way to structure society or deal with autocratic and despotic countries. But she never tells us.

Gerry Dantone
Cofounder of CFI Long Island
Greenlawn, New York

I’ve grown accustomed to Shadia B. Drury’s contempt for America, and I generally dismiss her columns as the fulminations of a jealous Canadian who misunderstands us, but the prejudices in her December 2019/January 2020 column (“The Trump Presidency’s Silver Lining”) are so dangerously absurd that they beg a rebuttal.

              She concludes her article by praising Trump for withdrawing America from the world stage and making the “indispensable nation … dispensable. Even if this is only a temporary reprieve from a smug superpower with a messianic vision of its role in history, the world has reason to rejoice.”

              Rejoice about what? Has she no understanding of America’s role in maintaining a Pax Americana after winning World War II against two imperial powers, then winning the Cold War, a victory Trump seems determined to turn into defeat?

              America’s strength, and our willingness to use it, has restrained tyrants and maintained the world order. We have blundered badly at times but never with any desire for conquest. With America off the world stage, we will all—Canada included—reap the whirlwind. Brexit could be followed by the dissolution of NATO, the breakup of the EEC, a Russia-Turkey peace pact, a full Russian invasion of Ukraine, a Chinese takeover of Taiwan, the resurgence of ISIS, etc.

              Would that please Drury? It seems she would rather live in a world controlled by autocratic nationalists such as Putin, Erdogan, Xi, and Modi and Muslim fanatics. I would not.

Lawrence I. Bonchek, MD
Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Shadia B. Drury responds:

I confess that it was pure wishful thinking on my part to imagine that the overt corruption of Donald Trump would lead Congressmen and -women to take a good hard look at their own corruption—no term limits, the corruption of politics with money, and the revolving door between high office and lobbying for corporations. Mr. Dantone is also right that there is no getting rid of Kavanaugh. However, it was not wishful thinking to believe that Democrats can get rid of William Barr and the many evils he represents, if they win the next election, and they can win the next election if they begin to address the issue of contempt for the establishment, which was a significant factor in the support for Donald Trump and the rejection of Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The silver lining of the Trump presidency is mainly on the international front. And here is where I part company with Mr. Dantone and Mr. Bonchek. I believe that there has always been a dangerous romanticism at the heart of the American nation that has been totally unbridled at the end of the Cold War. George W. Bush articulated this naïveté in his second inaugural speech when he said that the American mission is to abolish evil from the world. In a speech for the Annual Conference of the International Institute of Security Studies, held in London in 2003 shortly after the invasion of Iraq, Condoleezza Rice suggested discarding the Westphalian system of sovereign states in favor of American global leadership. Barack Obama expressed the same naïveté when he defined “rogue nations” as those that defy the United States.

In my view, a global empire is both unattainable and undesirable for at least two reasons. First, a global order, with a single set of values, provides no outlets for dissent and, as a result, inspires radical fanaticism—the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria is a case in point. Second, such gargantuan projects invariably lead to ruin. The story of America’s unipolar decades is a tragedy in the classic Greek sense. It is the story of great wealth, fortune, and success that is squandered by hubris. In other words, excessive pride leads to overreaching that ends in a self-destructive catastrophe. Americans are neither the first nor the last people to have been seduced by a project that is as titanic as it is seductive. What crimes would human beings not commit to attain glory for themselves while transforming the world and securing the eternal happiness of mankind?

Mr. Dantone wonders: What does Shadia Drury believe? Clearly, I do not share either Mr. Dantone or Mr. Bonchek’s faith in the singular supremacy of liberal democracy. I believe that such faith inspires a militant zeal that is unbecoming to secular humanists because it mimics the dualism that feeds the fanaticism of faith.

Where North American domestic politics is concerned, I am a liberal, but not necessarily a democrat, for reasons I have explained on several occasions—including a response to the same question by Mr. Dantone in Free Inquiry, April/May 2019. Suffice it to say here that no liberal in her right mind could possibly hate the United States.

Where international politics is concerned, I am not a realist. I believe in a multipolar world with balance of power. A unipolar order is not good for the world because any nation with this much power is bound to abuse it. It follows that a unipolar world is a great misfortune. No nation, no matter how exalted its values, should wield that much power. The United States is unsuited to lead the world because it has always harbored messianic delusions. This is why it needs to be balanced by realistic, inward-looking countries that have never fought wars to spread their values. This balance of power might restrain American hubris. This is the silver lining of the Trump presidency—not only for the world but also for the United States. It follows that Trump’s “America First” policy is not an altogether bad idea. The United States has been so busy remaking the world that it has neglected its own affairs.

Contrary to Mr. Bonchek’s claim, there are no jealous Canadians. Our fate is intimately linked to yours. We reap your whirlwind—for good as well as ill.

The United States Is Not a Christian Nation

Brian Bolton’s list of differences between America’s founding documents and the Bible (“The United States Is Not a Christian Nation,” FI, December 2019/January 2020, p. 26) unfortunately omits one of the most fundamental and glaring differences: the ideal form of government.

The entire purpose of the Constitution was to establish a form of government, and the form of government that it set up is radically different from the government outlined in the Bible. In the Bible, the ideal government is the “Kingdom of God,” headed by a king (“anointed one”) selected by God or by a prophet of God. The people have no voice in the selection. In such a government, the laws are handed down from God’s king or God’s prophets, and they are imposed on the people. In marked contrast, the Constitution sets up a government headed by representatives of the people, selected by the people. The laws are made by representatives of the people by vote of the majority. The Bible envisions a theocracy, where the Constitution envisions a democratic republic.

That difference should be at the top of any list showing that the American system is not based on any biblical or Christian principles.

Instead of trying to make the Constitution Christian, the radical Right conservative Christians should be arguing that the Constitution is not biblical, not that it is, because their ultimate goal should be the kind of theocracy outlined in the Bible.

Richard Packham
Roseburg, Oregon

While I appreciated all the valid points made by Brian Bolton in his article on why the United States is not, and never has been, a Christian nation, I feel his argument was incomplete. Back in 2007, I attended an exhibition at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia called “Ancient Rome and America,” which highlighted the extent to which the rebelling colonists were inspired by the legacy of the pre-Christian Roman Republic during the Revolutionary War and the years immediately following. The fact that Rome overthrew a monarchy to become a republic inspired the colonists to do the same and not to replace one king with another.

The fact that the Roman Republic endured despite various military disasters further inspired the colonists after brutal defeats in the early years of the war. The institution of the Senate, found on both the federal and state levels, was modeled after the Roman Senate where men such as Cicero once held sway. After the war, when George Washington retired from the military to return to civilian life, refusing high political office, he was not compared to some Christian saint but to the Roman general Cincinnatus, who also turned his back on political power to tend to his farm.

Indeed, paintings, busts, and statues of leading Founders from the country’s infancy do not show them sporting halos or nimbuses but Roman laurels, tunics, and togas. And need I cite the immense influence of Roman architecture, as opposed to Christian churches and cathedrals, on our government buildings, such as the Capitol and Supreme Court, not to mention Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia? It is clear that the United States owes a great deal more to the pagan Roman Republic than it ever has to the Bible!

Dennis Middlebrooks
Brooklyn, New York

Climate Change sans Overpopulation

Karen I. Shragg makes many good points regarding overpopulation (“Telling and Selling the Overpopulation Issue: Why Climate Change Gets So Much More Attention,” Free Inquiry, December 2019/January 2020). However, she fails to mention what I see as a major problem in this regard. Virtually all the countries with high fertility rates, that is to say with growing populations, are in sub-Saharan Africa (see, for example,  en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sovereign_states_and_dependencies_by_total_fertility_rate). Anything that we do to bring down the population of the world smacks of white people telling black people what to do. It is surely the case that giving women more power, providing access to contraception, and reducing child mortality would lead to lower fertility through the free choice of the women in question. But while I believe that we should do all we can to achieve these things, it is still white people telling black people what to do.

Alwyn Eades
Hellertown, Pennsylvania

Although I do not differ with the overall theme of Karen I. Shragg’s article, as a retired teacher of mathematics this note is to point out a misuse of mathematics. Ms. Shragg cites the Global Footprint Network statistic that the global per-person carbon footprint is 4.9 metric tons per year; so far so good. Further, citing the World Population Balance statistic, we add (net gain) 82 million persons per year, the erroneous claim is made that by simple multiplication one gets an estimate of 402 million metric tons of additional carbon emissions added annually (emphasis in original). Not so.

An average per person figure does not apply to each person individually. Therefore, it was incorrect to multiply this figure by 82 million persons. Consider a simpler case: ten persons produced fifty widgets. Five of them produced one widget each; the other five produced nine widgets each. The average per person is five widgets. Now suppose two additional persons, producing one widget each, appear. The total is now a production of fifty-two widgets; it is not proper mathematics to multiply two times five and conclude that they are now producing ten additional widgets for a total of sixty widgets.

In short, back to the carbon emissions, it would be necessary to know something about the carbon footprint of various populations around the globe and the various birth rates. As has been well documented elsewhere, the carbon footprint of wealthier areas is far greater than that of more impoverished regions. And such regions may well have higher birth rates. More analysis is needed for the claim made of 402 additional metric tons annually.

Ken McCaffrey
Brattleboro, Vermont

Karen I. Shragg’s article is FI‘s latest about overpopulation. Anyone still believing that overpopulation is small fry compared with climate change is certainly made to abandon this position, for eventually it is the product of footprint and number that counts! Yet I am less enthused about how it is related to climate change, because, I think, it is overpopulation and overconsumption together that are the two causes of the continuing degradation of human-scale nature, of which climate change is one consequence. When Shragg calls overpopulation “the fuel” and climate change “the fire,” this implies too that the one is not a subset of the other.

More serious, I find, is that no clear distinction is drawn between permanent and temporary solutions to the problem. The permanent solution is a natural equilibrium with two biological children/four grandchildren/eight great-grandchildren on average per human being. (In practice, the first number will be somewhat larger than two.) In a temporary solution, it is hypothesized that even the present number of humans is not sustainable, a claim that is far more subjective or speculative than the two or more claim. Recognizing temporary solutions exclusively will be disastrous, because it directs all attention away from how people should be conscientized in the first place.

Unfortunately, the emphasis of the organizations mentioned by Shragg is on negative growth: A promotes a childless family, B a one-child family, and C a family with something like 1.5 children, none of which will sustain a permanent equilibrium (with a two-child family). Not a “negative” but a “balanced” approach should help humanity make up for what is, unlike the unqualified injunction to multiply, conspicuously absent in the Abrahamic tomes: a central notion of equilibrium in general and of living in harmony with nature in particular.

M. Vincent van Mechelen
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Although I share Karen I. Shragg’s generic talking points on overpopulation, her naive “logic” linking population decline to climate change mitigation makes no empirical or statistical sense against the trajectories of these two existential threats to the twenty-first century. (Disclosure: I argued vigorously for Ms. Shragg’s position in the past until I examined the divergent dynamics of the problems and did the math.)

Climate change poses technological challenges demanding radical carbon dioxide reductions within a narrow time frame of several decades. In a nutshell, the strategy calls for changing out fossil fuel power with carbon-neutral renewable energy on a worldwide economy of scale. According to some climate change scientists and activists, the fatal timeline for averting planetary catastrophe from atmospheric warming—species extinction, drought, flooding, hurricanes, wildfires, polar ice melting, and sea level rise—falls between ten and fifty years. Obviously, rapid development and build-out of a zero-emissions energy infrastructure within such time constraints cannot count on population reduction to facilitate the process. Instead, the model necessarily accepts population growth as a given and strives to decouple greenhouse gas emissions from energy consumption independent of economic and population growth.

By contrast, population growth, stabilization, and decline in the twenty-first century involves human reproduction outcomes contingent on the gradual transition to low mortality and low birth rates world wide—threatened mainly, or perhaps only, by the troubling persistence of high fertility in the Sub-Saharan region of Africa. In 2019, UN demographers projected a likely “medium variant” scenario for 2100, at once hopeful and dreadful: World population may stabilize at 10.9 billion, and fertility may fall slightly under replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. Any decline in world population from a peak between ten and eleven billion people by 2100 would require thereafter at least another century of effective sub-replacement fertility to achieve significant results.

Jim Valentine
Woodland Hills, California

What Christmas Means to Me

Re: “What Christmas Means to Me” (FI, December 2019/January 2020). It says in the Bible that God chose his prophets to speak in his name. But he never entrusted a mob (which is the same as a mindless beast) with authority to condemn and mercilessly punish all future generations of Jews for killing Jesus.

Why, then, I wonder, did Christians succumb to the bloodthirsty impulse of a mob, as told in Matthew 27:25: “Let his blood be on us and on our children,” instead of believing what Jesus himself said in John 17–18: “The reason my father loves me is that I lay down my life only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again”?

This explicitly tells us that Jesus orchestrated events so that he would die exactly as he wanted. Therefore, no one but Jesus himself was responsible for his tragic death. Moreover, in John 4:22, Jesus says: “salvation comes from the Jews.”

Imagine! If Christians had listened to their savior instead of emulating the mob, Jews would never have tasted the poison of Christian hatred—and Christians would never have tormented Jews down through the centuries, which culminated in the Holocaust.

Let’s reflect for a moment: if Christians hadn’t branded the children of Abraham as “Christ killers,” wouldn’t our world be a better place?

David Quintero
Monrovia, California

Sheldon F. Gottlieb responds:

I thank David Quintero for his obvious understanding and compassion. I hope other readers had a similar civilized reaction. Quintero does raise a very insightful and important question that has great relevance to current events in the United States and throughout the world: “Why, then, I wonder, did Christians succumb to the bloodthirsty impulse of a mob … instead of believing what Jesus himself said?”

Christians, and others, are still succumbing to the easily appealed to and accepted bloodthirsty impulse of the mob. To supply only a partial answer to his query, one must realize that based on his or her own (Christian) religious philosophy, the existence of a single Jew gives lie to the age-old philosophy of Christianity.

Rigor and Controversy

Re: Tom Flynn’s review of Graham Oppy’s book Atheism and Agnosticism in December 2019/January 2020 Free Inquiry (“Rigor and Controversy”).

Another category of atheism would be gnostic atheism. An agnostic atheist does not know whether there is a god and does not believe there is a god. An agnostic atheist knows there is no god and does not believe there is a god. Not knowing that God is a made up fictional character is like not knowing that Superman is a made up fictional character. Supernatural existence, supernatural being, is a contradiction in terms. A contradiction is a condition that is always false. This means the probability of supernatural existence is precisely zero—not even infinitesimal. This is why supernaturalistic hypotheses have a 100 percent failure rate. There cannot be a supernatural being any more than there can be a three-angled square in Euclidean Geometry.

Paul Keller
Menomonie, Wisconsin

A definition may be confusing (and hence a poor definition) or hopelessly muddled in some respect (and hence not a definition), but it cannot be right or wrong. It’s not a statement about how things are; it is a declaration by users—an individual or a group—as to what they mean by that word or phrase. Therefore, I’m not claiming to have the correct definition for atheist. Rather, I’m explaining why the popular definition, as expressed by Tom Flynn in his review of Oppy’s Atheism and Agnosticism, doesn’t appeal to me.

Calling a newborn baby (to which we may attribute an absence of god-belief) an atheist doesn’t make sense to me. I see “atheist,” “agnostic,” or “theist,” as labels for positions taken, and newborn babies haven’t given the matter much thought. I feel that an atheist is more than a blank slate.

An “atheist” is (for me) someone (and we could include intelligent aliens!) who rejects god-belief and all its supernatural trappings. That rejection may take the form of a positive argument (incurring the burden of proof) or it may take the form of “Where’s the beef? I’m not convinced.”—which carries no burden of proof.

The salesman who wishes to sell a vacuum cleaner or a theologian selling god-belief must make a sales pitch. The customer is hardly required to buy that vacuum cleaner should she fail to give adequate reasons for not doing so! The default position is “no sale.” And that’s how it is among rational minds—and the scientific world—where a sales pitch must be based on evidence and sound reasoning. Call it the burden of proof.

Whenever an atheist is put upon to accept god-belief, by argument or by social pressure, he or she is dealing with a salesman. It is the salesman who makes the sales pitch, who has the burden of proof. The atheist, as the intended customer, is under no obligation to poke holes in god-belief. The person who is not selling something does not need a sales pitch.

Dave E. Matson
Pasadena, California


Overall I am amused by the fact that the writers published in your magazine seem to think that expressing themselves in a “professorial manner” ratifies their intellectual abilities, i.e., never say in a short sentence what can be said with “big words” in long paragraphs. As an agnostic who suspends judgment concerning the existence of …

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