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Archive for the ‘Language & Meaning’ Category

Technology Throughout History #1

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 06/28/2010

On June 28, 1776, after emailing back and forth with a few of his friends, Thomas Jefferson sent out the following series of text messages to his entire social network.

IMHO if a guvmint isnt ur BFF it sux!

evry1 is =.
th cre8r gave us a rite 2 life, librtE and :)

K. George? NFW!
he has S4B & duz lotsa bad stuff.
hes g2g.

FYI these :Ez are now free 4eva.
CUL8R. Bring ur musket.

It’s a good thing we could communicate by cell phone back then, or we’d all be English today.

Posted in It's History, Language & Meaning, Seriously Silly | 20 Comments »

Interview with Myself

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 06/07/2010

When I told my wife that PZ Myers had worked his heathen magic on the Readers’ Choice ballot, she immediately said, “If you win, I hope you’re not going to let the paper interview you.”

Her concern is not just vague, out-of-the-blue nervousness. She knows a little something about writers. During the many years we’ve been together, I’ve spent untold hours interviewing folks for stories in both newspapers and magazines.

Usually, I’m respectful of my subjects. But believe me, if I choose to do so, I know how to make anyone sound like a jerk.

The truth is: all humans sound like jerks when we’re having normal conversations. We stammer, we add empty interjections, and we repeat ourselves. We stop to collect our thoughts and helplessly watch them leaving on a train that chugs out of our head and gets lost. We make odd gestures and ridiculous faces. We mispronounce words, misuse phrases, and accidentally say one thing when we mean something else entirely. We scratch our nose, our ear, our armpit. We fart or belch or sneeze or hiccup or snicker inappropriately.

Normally, when we talk to one another, those kinds of unimportant tics of communication become essentially invisible and inaudible. We don’t notice them in our relatives, friends, and acquaintances unless the idiosyncracies are really, really, really annoying.

A good print interviewer who wants to be fair to his subject leaves all that garbage off the page. Often, in fact, a writer will correct the interviewee’s most egregious gaffes in grammar or syntax. A particularly kind journalist might even phone a subject after the fact, and give the person a chance to correct an error that was clearly just an oral typo: “Did you actually mean to say that Charles Dickens wrote The Voyage of the Beagle?”

On the other hand, if an interviewer wants to present his source in a bad light, he can always find a way to do it.

For example: Let’s say that I’m a reporter interviewing some guy we’ll call Larry Wallberg. At the beginning of the interview, I ask him a few “softball” questions, trivial things about his everyday likes and dislikes. Maybe I feel that he needs to be warmed up, or set at ease. I might want to get to know him a little before I turn to the meaty questions, to see how he expresses himself, to listen to his speech patterns. If I’m fair and unbiased, the paragraph I write about this interchange might look like:

Wallberg always starts his day with packaged cereal. “I’ve been doing that since I was a boy,” he says. He loves the new Chocolate Cheerios because “they’re like a cross between cereal and, frankly, cookies.” On the other hand, he adds with a chuckle, “I avoid Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries because it’s a little too sweet even for me.”

Pretty innocuous, right? But what if I take an instant dislike to my source, and I feel like being a prick? There are sooooo many ways I could make that poor guy look like a complete asshole. Shall I paint him as an undecided semi-literate? Or shall I hint that he’s probably lying? How about making him look like an automaton prig? Or a grown-up child? Or a pretentious fool who’s capable of thinking only about the most mundane subjects?

Wallberg says he always starts his day with “um … packaged … y’know … cereal. I’ve been doing that since … I dunno … since I was … what? … let’s just say, since I was a kid.” He mentions that he loves the new chocolate “Cheetos … no, I mean Cheerios,” which remind him of “a cross between cereal and … Christ, what? … let’s just say, between cereal and … I guess they’re kind of like cookies, really.” He says he avoids “Cap’n Crunch with … what the hell do they call those things? … dingleberries? … I’m kidding … oh, yeah, crunchberries. Crunchberries, that’s them. It’s a little too f**king sweet … even for … hey, even for me. No sh*t.”

When asked how he starts a typical day, Wallberg pauses to collect his thoughts, shifts uncomfortably in his seat, and looks at the selection of boxes marching in helter-skelter formation on top of his refrigerator. Beads of perspiration collect on his brow. Finally, he blurts out, “I always start my day with packaged cereal.” Staring longingly at the front box, which is clearly marked “Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries,” Wallberg claims, “I love the new Chocolate Cheerios.” So why is he caught stealing yet another glance at the cereal that seemingly has pride of place in the parade? As if anticipating the question, the obese Wallberg adds, “I avoid Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries because they’re too fricken sweet.” Even for him? “No lie,” he says, nodding a bit too vociferously.

Mr. Wallberg never varies his rigid morning routine, which — according to him — he has been performing since he was a child. “I always start my day with a bowl of cereal,” he intones, as if the very thought of doing otherwise would upset the cosmos. These days, the cross (his word) he has to bear is the new Chocolate Cheerios. “Frankly, they’re like cookies,” he says, making a face of self-disappointment. Mr. Wallberg may not enjoy his current daily regimen, but he’s unyielding in keeping to it.  So he scrupulously avoids other dry breakfasts like Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries, the very idea of which elicits an expletive from him.

Larry always starts his day just as every young kid would, with a heaping bowl of highly processed cereal. His current favorite he says, grinning goofily but endearingly from ear to ear as he scratches them with abandon, is the new Chocolate Cheerios. It reminds him partly of [big smile here] “cookies.” But even Larry has limits when it comes to his obvious sugarmania. Making a mock-nauseated face that wouldn’t look out of place on Beaver Cleaver, he says that he avoids Cap’n Crunch “with those things” [Note: Larry means Crunchberries], because that particular breakfast treat is “a little too [schoolyard term] sweet” — even for him [if his giddy hiccups are any indication]!

Mmmm. “Chalk. Lit.” A small dribble of saliva helps carry those two syllables out of the mouth of Mr. Larry Wallberg, and down the side of his chin. Listen carefully as you watch the flow, because Mr. Larry Wallberg is speaking about his creed, the cult of the sweetened breakfast, a religion he has practiced since he was a boy. Rhymes with “oy.” Chalk. Lit. Cheeeeeee. Ree-ohs. Kinda like cereal, kinda like Christ, kinda like cookies. No Crunchberries for him, no way! They don’t hit exactly the right spot on his tongue. No, it’s gotta be Chalk. Lit. Cheeeeeee. Ree-ohs.

Shit, I hope I’m not the interviewer.

Posted in Dangling Conversations, Language & Meaning, Seriously Silly | 20 Comments »

Who the Hell Was Murphy, Anyway?

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 05/29/2010

Yesterday, Ben Schott invited readers of his feature in The New York Times to invent new eponymous “laws.” Here’s his post.

Of course, I couldn’t resist. I’d already created Wallberg’s Law, named after myself. I immediately typed that one in, and — why not? — linked back to this blog.

But Schott really seemed to want readers to use the names of well-known fictional characters, historical figures, and present-day newsmakers.  Therefore, I came up with the following. (Note: Since originally posting these at “Schott’s Vocab,” I’ve revised one or two for maximum hilarity.)

Watson’s Law: One man’s “elementary” is another man’s “huh?”

Clarabell’s Law: Honk if you’ve got seltzer.
Marx’s Corollary: Or a harp.

Fudd’s Law: If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s pwobably a wascally wabbit.

Caesar’s Law: It ain’t over till the soothsayer sings.

Dorothy’s Law: If you wear emerald-tinted glasses, men will seldom make passes, nor will they help you find your way back to Kansas.

Benchley-Cameron’s Law: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to write about a fish, and you feed Hollywood forever.

Prissy’s Law: Talkin’ is easy. Birthin’ babies is hard.

My readers are much funnier than most of the people who pore over The Times every day, so I invite you to contribute your own words of wisdom.

Posted in Language & Meaning, Seriously Silly | 31 Comments »

Good Question, Ridiculous Answer

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 05/08/2010

I have to confess a prejudice I have. There’s hardly anything that I find as off-pissing as an atheist idiot. My emotions labor under the delusion that we atheists/freethinkers/skeptics/humanists/doubters — call us what you will — are supposed, somehow, to be smarter than religionists. Of course, that’s a ridiculous idea, because human ignorance has no limits.

Today our local rag, on its “Life + Faith” pages, ran a feature that began with a well-written paragraph about the Catholic Church “navigating the dark waters of abusive clergy and a seemingly complicitous hierarchy.” Nice. The writer then posed the following “Question of Faith”:

When dealing with abusive situations within a congregation, do churches have an obligation to do more than what the law requires? What steps, if any, does your church or congregation take to protect its membership from sexual predators, spouse or child abusers? Does your faith community have specific ministries to help such victims or to prevent such problems?

Tough question. Religious “leaders” — ha! — have access to hundreds, maybe thousands of vulerable kids.  In many cases, this access occurs with the encouragement, or even the connivance, of the youngsters’ parents. If “leaders” happen to be pederastically inclined, they can easily use their alleged moral authority to prey on some of the children with whom they come into contact, and then hide their despicable criminality behind a veneer of piety.

As you might expect, most of the answers contained some claptrap about the essential goodness of the church, and how there are, unfortunately, some bad apples in every serving of applesauce.  But, yes, churches do have a commitment … etc., etc., etc. Some of the responses were quite articulate, others not.

But the stupidest one by far came from “Alex Grigg, assistant organizer, Lexington Atheists Meetup.” I don’t wanna say “I told you so.” (who’m I kidding? Of course I do!)

Anyway, here’s Grigg’s response in all its semi-literate glory.  Note that I’ve highlighted some words and phrases that particularly made my sparse hair stand on end. The notes explain why.

It is the responsibility of every organization, faith-based or not, to at least meet the minimum requirements of the law.1

Atheist organizations don’t have the problem of abusive leaders very often2 because we don’t see our leaders3 as being much4 different than the rest of us.

We also don’t consider our organizations to be representative of the will of a higher power, so it is easier5 to acknowledge and correct any mistakes6 that are made.

We believe7 that all of us8 are equal under the law and that any abuser should be reported immediately. We don’t have many9 official policies with regard to abuse, because there are very few10 atheist groups with formal child care or meetings geared towards children. Our events11 like Camp Quest, which are specifically aimed at children, do require criminal background checks of the leaders and would not tolerate any hint of inappropriate activity.12

1 Not responsive to the question, which specifically asks whether churches have an obligation to do more than what the law requires.
2 The implication is that there are some examples of atheist organizations that have had such problems, and that the writer knows what they are.
3 Atheist organizations have officials, officers, spokespersons. But they have no leaders, at least not in the same sense as “religious leaders.”
4 In what way are those non-existent atheist leaders different at all from other atheists?
5 “Easier” than what?
6 Is child abuse merely a mistake to be acknowledged and corrected? Sheesh.
7 Who are “we”? And how does the writer know what “we” believe?
8 Is there an “us”? Who are they? All humans? Americans? Atheists only? Or just members of the Lexington Atheists Meetup?
9 Can the writer name even one such official policy?
10 How does the writer know how many atheist groups in the country offer formal, or even informal, child care? How does he know how many of these organizations have meetings specifically geared to educating and/or entertaining children?
11 A camp is not an event.
12 The question is about sexual predation. Why gloss over its seriousness by calling it “inappropriate activity” that’s not to be “tolerated”?


The last paragraph is barely English, but never mind. I was far more concerned that Grigg’s response, merely by appearing in the “Life + Faith” pages, spread any number of false notions about atheism and atheists. So I immediately tossed off an email to the editor of the section. In a short personal introduction addressed to her, I let her know that Mr. Grigg was not empowered to speak for anyone other than himself. In fact, I wrote, a number of group members had made it quite clear to him that he was not to pose in any way as “an atheist leader,” nor to pretend to represent “atheists.” Then I suggested she print the following:

I’ve been an atheist all my life, and I must say that the response by Alex Grigg to your recent “Question of Faith” gives a number of false impressions about atheists and atheism.

Atheism isn’t an “-ism” in the sense of a religion or a worldview. Atheism is merely the rejection of a particularly pervasive idea, theism. Many self-proclaimed atheists, although not all, are faith-free. Most of us, again not all, put no credence in the concept of a “higher power.” But we share no set of specific beliefs. There are no sacred books of atheism, no tenets or credos, no orthodoxies or established hierarchies, no ultimate authorities whatsoever. Atheist organizations, per se, are not comparable to churches because we don’t gather together to worship or to pray. Some atheist organizations, like the Lexington Atheist Meetup, are loosely formed social groups, comparable to bridge clubs or quilting bees or coworkers joining one another after hours for a few beers. Other atheist organizations are essentially legal action committees, working to ensure the rights of all Americans to think and speak freely. But atheists have no leaders in the way that followers of religions have leaders. Our organizations may have elected officers or duly appointed spokespersons, just as do organizations like the Audubon Society or the Chamber of Commerce, the Symphony Guild or AARP. But unlike religious leaders, our officials are not expected or empowered to claim universal atheist truths. There are none.

Asking an atheist to address a tendentious question on the “Life + Faith” pages is the same thing as asking a vegetarian to respond to a question on the “Life + Meat” pages. Why not occasionally run a “Life + Reason” feature? You could ask a question of various atheists, freethinkers, skeptics, and humanists in the area. There are plenty of us here. Or, alternatively, you could commission essays now and then by Lexingtonians who live a faith-free life. Our writings might provide a fair balance to the overwhelming Saturday religiosity of the Herald-Leader, and perhaps even help our fellow Kentuckians understand what some of us non-Christians think.

I doubt that my response will be printed, or my suggestion given serious consideration. Although I wrote very carefully, avoiding words like numnuts and peabrain, I was still probably not genteel enough. How could I be? Seven answers were published in response to the “Question of Faith.” Having read them all, I was embarrassed that the least articulate, worst reasoned entry came from a fellow atheist. But that’s just my prejudice in action, isn’t it?

Posted in Freedom from Faith, Language & Meaning, Random Rants | 23 Comments »

If You Want a Church-Like Community, Join a Church

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 04/14/2010

Allow me a not-so-brief rant. I’d be interested in hearing what my intelligent readers have to say about this.

Atheists, skeptics, doubters, whatever word you’d like to use for those of us who think the very concept of gods is ridiculous, have to be on guard constantly. The naive and ignorant among us have to to be very careful not to broadcast their own kneejerk opinions when dealing with religionists. Unfortunately, in today’s America, any atheist who claims to speak for a group of “non-believers” is automatically assumed by theists to speak for us all. Just as many atheists assume that the fundamentalist idiots and/or the Pope speak for Christians everywhere.

Obviously, that’s a stupid assumption, but god-believers have been known to jump to some really ridiculous conclusions.

So I was annoyed last month when the assistant organizer of the Lexington Atheist Meetup announced that he’d somehow wangled the authority to speak for atheists in our local rag’s “Questions of Faith” feature. Most of you have probably seen inane space-fillers similar to “Questions of Faith.” An editor poses a question to religious “leaders” — ha! — and asks them to submit short answers suitable for publication. When our “representative” asked by email if anyone in the Lexington group had an objection to his speaking on our behalf, I responded:

I do have an objection — a strong one, in fact — to your presenting yourself as an atheist leader, or someone who has been empowered to speak for other atheists. We don’t have leaders, because we’re not an organized church and we have no agreed-upon dogma. Let’s not give the idiots the wrong impression. You should probably make it absolutely clear that you speak only for yourself, and not for anyone else.

But I have no objection if, in order to give yourself credibility, you present yourself as exactly what you are: the Assistant Organizer of the Lexington Atheist Meetup. (Can we find a better word than “Meetup”?)

A few responders to the email agreed with me, but most of them said things like, “Oh, lighten up, Larry.” Lexington, as most of you probably know by now, is an excellent place for lightening up, but not such a good one for enlightening.

Anyway, today, the group’s email list was informed that our “representative” was asked to respond to the following question:

The Catholic Church has now issued a directive that explicitly requires church officials to report some crimes to the police. When dealing with abusive situations within a congregation, do communities of faith have an obligation to do more than what the law requires? What steps, if any, does your church or congregation take to protect its membership from sexual predators, spouse or child abusers? Does your faith community have specific ministries to help such victims or to prevent such problems

He suggested that he’d like to make these points: (1) Atheist groups have no problems with leaders because these leaders don’t speak for god, and (2) he’s not aware of any sexually abusive Atheist (sic) leaders, etc.


My response was:

You can’t be serious. Have you fallen into the mind-trap that atheist groups are comparable to churches? The next thing you’ll be doing is asking members to bring lime Jell-O molds and tuna casseroles to our Meetups.

The editor’s question is beneath contempt. It’s insulting even when aimed at religionists. That should be the sum total of your answer.

For you to answer it further would imply all kinds of things that are bullshit.

If you insist on doing so, you must make these points:
(1) There ARE no atheist leaders.
(2) Atheist organizations are not comparable to churches. They’re comparable to bridge clubs or quilting bees or a group of co-workers getting together for a few beers after hours.
(3) There’s no uniform atheist faith or spirituality or even agreement on any single idea.
(4) The word “atheism” should not be capitalized.
(5) While there may be sexual predators who happen to be atheists, there are no atheist sexual predators. Sexual predators in religious organizations get close to children (and adults, too) by deceitfully using their feigned authority to speak for their imaginary god. As leaders of their flocks, they become Catholic sexual predators, or Southern Baptist sexual predators, or Jewish sexual predators, or Muslim sexual predators, etc. But there’s no comparable situation for atheists because none of us has any authority to speak for anyone other than him- or herself, and there’s definitely no atheist flock. [When challenged with “of course, there are atheist sexual predators,” I embellished my answer to make it easier to understand.] No, there are no atheist sexual predators. There are also no “rationalist sexual predators” or “liberal sexual predators” or “existentialist sexual predators.” Conflating one’s philosophy with one’s criminality is ridiculous — except in the case of religious leaders whose criminality is tied inseparably to a philosophy that enables and even encourages that criminality. To speak of “atheist sexual predators” is as stupid as it would be to speak of “computer-consultant sexual predators” or “Dickens-loving sexual predators” or “Cheerios-eating sexual predators.” The adjective has nothing to do with the compound noun it modifies. We should not blithely accept this term when used by others, and we should definitely not use it ourselves.

Also, if you DO insist on answering this question in print, please let me know so I can write an op/ed piece about “Why I Quit Going to the Lexington Atheist Meetup.”

Again, one of the responses began “Larry, man, take a deep breath.”

Unfortunately, I can’t. I don’t want to fill my lungs with Stupid. As I’d feared, it turns out that the Lexington Atheist Meetup is not an organization for a serious exchange of ideas; it’s one of these.

The sad truth is: We’re living in perilous political times. What atheists need most in Kentucky and elsewhere in the United States has nothing to do with being admired or being loved. We just need a nationwide respect for, and adherence to, the Establishment Clause,  and the recognition that all Americans have the freedom not to have religion foisted upon us.

What we definitely don’t need is to give the superstititous rabble the erroneous idea that we’re all members of the Happy Church of Atheism.

Posted in Freedom from Faith, Language & Meaning, Random Rants | 49 Comments »

“Unborn” Again

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 03/11/2010

Every now and then I go on a rant about our failure to challenge specific language used by politicans.

What got me started today was this story in our local rag.

It seems that two Jesublicans in the Kentucky House of Representatives have stalled a number of bills by attempting to attach completely unrelated anti-abortion amendments to them. The halted pieces of legislation, which are supported by most Kentuckians and their elected representatives, deal with issues like, among others, disclosing information on child fatalities, lowering case loads and improving security for state social workers, regulating physicians’ assistants, and collecting data to review alternative education programs for “at-risk” students. Even the executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky opposes adding anti-abortion obstructions to those worthy bills.

Why are those bills stalled? The oh-so-craven Democrats, fearing a prolonged fight on the anti-abortion amendments, have chosen to return the bills to committee. That’s the governmental equivalent of hiding your dirty laundry in the back of the closet. I could — but I won’t (at least not here) — go off on a tangent about how useless Democrats are when allegedly fighting for the people. One rant at a time is enough.

By cleverly handicapping the passage of needed laws, the two men — David Floyd and Tim Moore — are holding up the legislature because of their own religiously driven agenda. On David Floyd’s Web site, he promises always to “Defend the rights of the unborn.” Similarly, Moore said that in his proposed amendments, he’s trying to “protect the rights of the unborn.”

No matter how sneakily anti-abortionists couch their terms, they’re always talking, ultimately, about human souls. That’s what “the unborn” means: live souls that have yet to emerge into the world from the insides of their mothers. If you dismiss the specifically religious concept of “souls” — as the First Amendment says the government must — then the term “unborn” is meaningless. You might just as well apply it to children that will first see the light of day 100 years from now, or to wild animals, or to rocks, for that matter. An egg is not a chicken. Any creature or thing that hasn’t been born is, obviously, “unborn.” Such an organism is not a person, or a pig, or a dinosaur, or even a dung beetle, until it’s been born (or hatched). Before that, it’s merely a potentiality. No matter how loony your interpretation of the Constitution is, you can’t find in it any guarantees about the rights of non- persons, mere potentialities. So, really, all anti-abortion laws are unconstitutional, because anyone who even speaks about “the rights of the unborn” is clearly seeking to establish one religious viewpoint over others.

One of the things that got me angriest about the story was a response by Terry Brooks, the Executive Director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. Brooks said, “I find it sadly ironic that the same voices that want to protect unborn children are willing to put children at risk after they are born.”

That riposte is cute, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. It’s time for all of us who are not anti-abortion to stop allowing words like “unborn” to go unchallenged. Opponents of people like Floyd and Moore must not accept their linguistic sleigh-of-hand. We must make them define their terms clearly. When we call them to task, especially if they’re the smug Christian bullies I suspect they are, they probably won’t be able to avoid demonstrating the blatantly religious underpinnings of their ideas, as expressed in the very words and phrases they use. Their unconstitutional notions are nestled comfortably into their language choices.

Let’s not just nod dumbly when the religious zealots sneak terminological razzle-dazzle into our public debates.

Posted in First Amendment, Freedom from Faith, Language & Meaning | 38 Comments »

You Say You’re an Atheist: Part III

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 03/01/2010

This post is the final installment of a discussion begun here and continued here. I’ve titled the series “You Say You’re an Atheist,” but I might better have called it “You Can’t Tell the Players Without a Scorecard.”

Before jumping into my description of Category 4 Atheists, I must again remind you that — for purposes of these posts — I’ve defined “atheist” as anybody who claims to be one. I have to point that out emphatically here, because the following classification will probably be objected to by at least some of my readers. Hell, I kind of object to it myself.

Category 4 Atheists:
People who are pissed off at their god (or his representatives)

Most of us who have tootled around the Atheosphere have come across these folks, and some of us have even met them in person. They’re theists who have become mad at, annoyed with, or disappointed in their SuperBud. When they say “I’m an atheist,” they’re issuing a challenge. But not to other humans. Category 4 Atheists fall into three subcategories, but there’s a good deal of overlap. If you’re so inclined, feel free to try to disentangle them into three distinct piles. I can’t.

The Forsaken are those self-identified atheists who have grown to hate their imagined supreme being, or, at very least, become majorly disappointed in him. There are dozens of reasons why their prior love might go sour, but you can usually find an unfulfilled expectation floating around somewhere. The announcement of their atheism is likely to follow a period in which they have, either figuratively or literally, looked up at the sky, and complained “But I’ve done everything you commanded.” Other forsaken types may feel that their god has acted unjustly in causing a natural disaster, or in not preventing it.

Screwyou-ers are Category 4 Atheists who have fallen out with ultra-religious family members, friends, or church officials. Their basic attitude is “I’ll show you!” People in this subcategory are usually eager to come out.

Godbaiters are folks who challenge their god to prove his existence. Some godbaiters have been on a long spiritual quest, and they’re merely trying atheism on for size. Others, are actively looking for either a sign of disapproval or an indication of love despite the fact that they’ve strayed; they assume that the easiest way to get such a message from on high is by announcing that they’re atheists. Godbaiters often live in both fear and hope.

A Further Note on Category 4 Atheists:
Most atheists can’t stay in this category for long. It should come as no surprise when Category 4 Atheists return to the god from whom they’ve fled. Many of them do, usually sooner rather than later. However, as difficult as it may be — and I must confess that I, myself, find it extremely hard — we have to recognize that these people believe themselves to be atheists, even though they’re clearly using a definition of “atheism” that most of us would find … um … paradoxical. But who are we to judge? In any case, not all Category 4 Atheists go screaming back to the religious fold. For some, their announced atheism is like painfully ripping off a bandaid; when they’ve finally done it, they discover that the damaged place (in their brains) has healed.

In Conclusion:

Now that I’ve gotten a good look at the real U.S.A., as embodied in Jeezucky, I’ve become convinced that American atheists must insist immediately on having a voice in politics, government, and education. We also need to take an active role in shaping cultural attitudes. Obviously, in order to demand effectively that our collective voice be heard, we atheists are gonna have to organize. So it’s imperative that we work hard to find areas of commonality among our various viewpoints. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. How can such a disparate group of individuals agree on anything? I think we have to start by recognizing who we all are, and building from there. Hence, this series of posts.

Posted in Freedom from Faith, Language & Meaning | 14 Comments »

You Say You’re an Atheist: Part II

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 02/28/2010

Because I know how carefully everyone in America reads, I’m sure that it isn’t necessry to restate something I’ve already written at the beginning of Part I. But to avoid any misunderstanding, I’m going to make a brief explanatory digression here before I continue with Categories 2 through 4.

In this discussion, I’m attempting to classify those people who describe themselves as atheists. I’m not doctrinaire about who is and who isn’t one; I don’t think like a rigid religionist. It’s not my place — or yours — to say whether these folks are “true” atheists or not.

So keep in mind that I’m not concerned with whether it looks, walks, or quacks like a duck. In this discussion, if it says it’s a duck, it’s a duck.

Category 2 Atheists:
People who oppose theists or theism

Nowadays, many of us refer to Category 2 Atheists as anti-theists. But I’m not sure whether that nomenclature has been widely accepted; not all of us get the memos. Even if it were universally used, though, I’m not convinced that “anti-theist” is appropriate. It doesn’t reflect the differences of attitudes covered by Category 2, which has two subcategories. Once again, please bear in mind that I’m defining terms specifically for the purpose of this discussion.

Contrareligionists are those atheists who are against all practice of religion. These atheists think that any supernatural system of beliefs is harmful to the future of humanity, and that religion should be eradicated as soon as possible. They differ from Category 1 non-believers and dis-believers in that contrareligionists focus on the way religion affects others, rather than themselves.

Anti-theists automatically oppose all theists. However, they don’t concern themselves with beliefs, only with believers. Without thinking, they judge all theists as idiots. Anti-theists fall into the small sub-category that bullies like Bill O’Reilly choose to use when defining all atheists. At their mildest, anti-theists are knee-jerk contrarians; at their extreme, they’re haters.

A Further Note on Category 2 Atheists:
Can a person be both a contrareligionist and an anti-theist? There may be some small number of atheists who do straddle those classifications, but, in general, I don’t think so. It’s a question of focus. Contrareligionists oppose all religions, but are not necessarily antagonistic to everyone who follows a religion. Anti-theists oppose religious people, and might well argue that without religionists, religion couldn’t exist.

Category 3 Atheists:
People who aren’t theists, but …

Ok, now things get curiouser and curiouser as we fall farther down the hole of terminological inadequacy. Before talking about people who aren’t theists, it might be a good idea if we decided what we mean by “theist.” The standard company line is that theists believe in one or more personal, present (although not necessarily omnipresent), currently active, and controlling gods. Actually, I think that’s way too narrow a definition, but let’s start with it. My first subcategory, then, is a no-brainer.

Deists believe that there was a “prime mover,” a big banger, a “something out there.” They can’t say for sure whether their “god” still exists or not, but they claim it doesn’t matter. Their supernatural entity certainly has no interactions with anybody on Earth, including the churchgoers clogging up the roads on Sunday mornings.

I must confess that I’ve read a lot of philosophical nonsense purporting to differentiate theists and deists. As I see it, if you claim to believe in a god, you’re a goddist, whether you call your supernatural obsession “Theo” or “Deo.” I’ve never met a deist who flat-out says, “I’m an atheist.” Still, I haven’t met everybody. So I’ve included “deist” as a subcategory of Category 3 Atheists.

Wooists are the kinds of men and women who talk a lot about “higher spirituality.” Unlike deists, they don’t believe in the existence of an actual entity, so they can — and sometimes do — define themselves as “atheists.” You’ll hear them using words like “essence” or “force” a lot, occasionally even “a higher power.” Many of them are fascinated by Eastern religions, while others subscribe to some form of mysticism. Each of them may even have invented his or her own personal benign questing beast.

Irrationalists are atheists who allow themselves, at least sometimes, to be ruled by superstitions or wild beliefs for which they can offer no solid evidence. In my experience, almost all of us atheists are irrational once in a while: the woman who wears her lucky pin for an important meeting at work, the guy who won’t shave on a day his favorite team is playing a crucial game, the person who unthinkingly puts credence in a political statement just because it was made by a favorite celebrity. I chuckle at avowed atheists with those kinds of superstitions, just as I laugh at myself when I automatically say “g’bleshyu” when someone sneezes. But I wouldn’t classify an atheist as an irrationalist unless a superstition or unreasonable belief took over a major part of his or her life. Irrationalists are atheists who subscribe to conspiracy theories, or who attribute crypto-magical powers to some person or animal, or who nurture any idée fixe that conflicts with available evidence.

A Further Note on Category 3 Atheists:
I’ll confess that I always find it difficult to deal with an atheist who has what I consider to be a completely nutty idea that affects his or her worldview. For me, Category 3 Atheists can be just as exasperating to talk to as Fundamentalists.

Obviously, I’d love all self-proclaimed atheists to think pretty much the way I do. But screw me! They don’t. As I’ve tootled around the Atheosphere and met more and more atheists, I’ve come to accept the fact that we can’t be divided into groups of “true” and “false.”

On the other hand, I don’t need to show any special deference to a wacky notion just because it’s propounded by a fellow atheist. I’ve finally grown comfortable acknowledging that “we,” too, have our share of loonies.

I promise I’ll finish this discussion in Part III, which will be arriving shortly.

Posted in Freedom from Faith, Language & Meaning | 21 Comments »

You Say You’re an Atheist: Part I

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 02/27/2010

Too often, I’ve read or heard some variant of the following statement: “The only thing that all atheists have in common is that we don’t believe in any gods.” I, myself, have made that claim hundreds of times.

But lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “atheist,” and what a person means when he or she self-identifies as one. The truth of the matter is: the old simplistic categorization is false.

“Atheist” means different things to different people. I’m not talking about dictionary definitions here, so don’t trot out your OED. Languages evolve; lexicons get revised. If enough people use a word to carry a certain meaning, then voila!, it does.

It’s obvious that the word “atheist” resonates in different ways with theists than it does with those of us who use it as a self-descriptor. I’m not going to concern myself in this series of posts with what non-atheists (shall we call them “aatheists”?) think an atheist is. I’m only going to address what the word means to a person who proudly declares “I’m an atheist.”

There are areas of overlap, but self-professed “atheists” tend to fall into four different broad categories, each of which has a number of subcategories.

Category 1 Atheists:
People who have no (i.e., don’t believe in any) gods

This is the category that fits the “definition” with which I started this post. Category 1 Atheists share an idea about the universe: there aren’t any supernatural entities that control it.

Actually, these atheists — and I’d count myself as one of them — fall into a number of subcategories. For want of better terminology, I’m going to call them un-believers, non-believers, and dis-believers. Note: These are not exact terms, so don’t start Googling. I’ve merely created a linguistic convenience.

Un-believers are people who simply don’t believe in any gods. Newborn babies, are (obviously) un-believers. If there were a society in which gods had never been invented, the members of that society would be un-believers. Those rare individuals who, without giving the matter any thought, move through their lives blissfully unaffected by religion, are also un-believers. Un-belief is passive; it’s a non-activity. So un-believers would probably not announce, “I’m an atheist.” They’d more likely say, “I guess I’m an atheist.”

Non-believers actively do not believe. They’re the atheists who challenge theists’ god claims by asking for evidence, the ones who most often use logical and scientific refutations of theistic assertions. Non-belief often extends into other areas of existence besides religion: politics, work, education, culture, even relationships with family and friends.

There are various kinds of non-believers, but they all fall somewhere along a continuum. On one side can be found the “mildest” of them, the doubters, who might say: “Let’s see proof.” Farther along the imaginary line are the skeptics: “Let’s see solid proof.” At the extreme end of the range, you’ll find the cynics, whose secret mantra could be: “Let’s see solid proof … but I expect you to lie, so I doubt that you can make it solid enough to convince me.” Cynics are often lapsed idealists, folks whose bubbles of trust have been burst again and again. Although both skeptics and cynics would probably characterize themselves as “rational,” cynics often base their attitudes on negative gut feelings. Those of us who are automatically suspicious of religionists’ motives, have at least a touch of cynicsm. If I were asked to plot myself on the non-believer continuum, I’d say that I sit comfortably somewhere on the cynicism side of skepticism.

Dis-believers are the third variant of Category 1 Atheists. Those atheists who assert with absolute conviction “There are no gods” are dis-believers. In a debate, they may ask theists for evidence, but they know beforehand that none will be forthcoming. When you hear someone say, “I can’t believe that” or “It just doesn’t make any sense,” you’re likely dealing with a dis-believer. They’re the flip-side of unquestioning religionists who are convinced that all the proof for evolution (or the big bang) is a communistic plot.

A Further Note on Category 1 Atheists:
Remember that my classification system is unscientific, even artificial. So none of us Category 1 Atheists is locked into a particular subcategory. To give you my personal example: I’d say that during the first three or four years of my life, I was an un-believer. As I grew older, and I learned that most of my friends and relatives had a magical being in their lives, I jumped forcefully into the dis-believing camp. By the time I was nine or ten, I was telling other kids that they were idiots for believing in a god. As I matured, both physically and intellectually, I became more and more of a non-believer, starting as a complete cynic and slowly moving toward the skeptical position . Today, as I said, I’d identify myself as a cynical-leaning skeptic. But I must confess that I still have knee-jerk dis-belief outbursts now and then.

Watch for Part II of “You Say You’re an Atheist,” coming soon to a computer near you.

Posted in Freedom from Faith, Language & Meaning | 16 Comments »