Hello world!

Just setting up the new site. I moved all the posts from my Patheos address, but apparently the comments didn’t make the trip. I’m looking into it.

—Ah. Seems it just took a while for them to show up.

American Atheist: Toward a New Definition of Atheism

The following article appears in the September 2015 issue of American Atheist Magazine.

American Atheist is sold at Barnes & Noble, and a digital version is available via iTunes. Of course you can also SUBSCRIBE to it (hint, hint).


Toward a New Definition of Atheism

by Hank Fox

Sooner rather than later, every fledgling Atheist gets swept up in the definitional debate. Atheism is this, Atheism is that, agnosticism is the other thing, and one disturbingly insistent assertion pops up in every iteration: “You can’t prove a negative! It’s impossible!”

I always joke  that I CAN prove a negative — that gods don’t exist — but the proof only works with someone who’s already open-minded. In my book, “Red Neck, Blue Collar Atheist: Simple Thoughts About Reason, Gods & Faith”, I undertake to prove one particular negative: that Batman doesn’t exist. Given the definition of Batman — a guy who lives in Gotham City on Earth, who has a butler named Alfred and a protege named Dick Grayson, a man who is himself billionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne and who swings around the streets of the city night after night after criminals — he doesn’t and can’t exist. Since the very definition of Batman provides that he lives in Gotham City, a city which doesn’t exist on Earth (DON’T give me crap about that. Batman originated in 1939; all that “infinite Earths” stuff came up only in the 1980s.), Batman — the Batman, not just some “bat man” you might make up in your own head — does not and cannot possibly exist anywhere in the universe.

All the evidence points to Batman’s non-existence. In the case of the fictional character Batman, we know the name of the man who created him: Bob Kane. We know the names of the many actors — Adam West, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Christian Bale, etc. — who have portrayed him in movies and animated features. If you asked any of those people if Batman is real, they might joke about it, but I doubt any of them would take the question seriously because they know they were portraying a man who is non-existent.

Plus, you know, fictional character.

So, in fact, you can prove a negative, under certain conditions. This type of proof is argumentatively ineffective against god because “god” is never defined in any concrete way. The concept of god probably even evolved toward a non-concrete definition so as to stave off questions about its provability.

Still, this business about the impossibility of proving a negative crops up in every discussion, over and over, with debaters slinging it out in perfect confidence at every opportunity. “If you don’t search the entire universe, you can’t prove that something doesn’t exist! It’s logically impossible! Therefore, you can’t be 100-percent Atheist!”

I often come across online postings of the Dawkins Scale, which asks the question, “Where do you stand?” I’m one of the few who answers that I’m a 100-percent, Level 7, “Strong Atheist.” Inevitably, the stated reservation of many others is that you can’t prove a negative because you can’t KNOW with 100-percent certainty that a thing doesn’t exist. There’s always that 0.000000000000001-percent possibility that the thing might exist out there somewhere. Therefore, it’s logically offensive to state that you’re a Level 7 Atheist.

But given the argued one-trillionth-of-a-percent possibility, you’re not talking about a God of the Gaps. This is a god diluted to homeopathic levels — a long, long way from the full-strength supposed Creator of the Universe. Just as homeopathy is ignorable, so is such an iffy god.

Yet, the persistence of the argument that you have to KNOW there’s no God or gods to call yourself an Atheist, and you can’t, so you shouldn’t — as well as the confidence of those stating it — is a source of perpetual annoyance. It is especially so, given the fact that the concept of gods was fairly obviously — to a non-religious person, anyway — made up by humans. You can sometimes observe the process in real time if you get into an argument about the nature of god with a religious person who usually has to make up fresh assertions on the spot.

There’s a way out of the problem, it seems to me, by side-stepping the seemingly reasonable argument and redefining “Atheism” to mean something slightly different. Something not just defensible, but inarguable and, fortunately, something it already means, but just below the level of notice.

Germane to this discussion, there’s this thing we humans started doing not too many hundreds of years ago. We call it “science.” And rather than something that needed to be logically “proved,” science was a philosophy, an outlook, a way of viewing the world around us.

Distinguishing itself from earlier ways of thinking — which included gods, devils, heaven and hell, supernatural powers, and personages — science isn’t a logical argument; it’s a thought-experiment. Up until that time, we’d had the definitive assertion of all these supernatural powers. Then we had this other idea, not so much the definite statement that those supernatural thingies didn’t exist, but the attempt to see what things might be like IF THEY DIDN’T.

Science is the thought-experiment that asks, “What if there are no supernatural forces at all? What if the world and the universe around us operates solely by real-world, natural forces?”

What would geology look like if there were no all-powerful god to set it all up just so? What would physics or astronomy be like if there were no supernatural will involved? What would weather look like without evil and benign spirits (or, according to some sources, gay marriage) affecting it? How does biology work in the absence of a capricious, unknowable creator? All too obviously, science became an especially fruitful way of seeing things. Modern civilization, and pretty much everything in it, is the result. Instead of taking up the argument regarding the non-existence of gods, science just goes about exploring, experimenting, examining, AS IF there were no supernatural forces at work.

Atheism, if we want to see it like this, is that same endeavor. Scaled down to personal-philosophy size, it is the thought-experiment of seeing the world, of conducting our lives in it, as if there were no such things as gods.

WHAT IF there is no heaven and hell, no holy telepath glaring down into our thoughts and actions to see which fate we deserve? How do we understand generosity, charity, decency, moral rightness?

WHAT IF the churchly billions are mistaken about all this god business? How do we know how to celebrate holidays or which holidays to celebrate? How do we educate our kids? How do we welcome newborns or mourn the departed?

WHAT IF there is no holy-book guide to all of life? How do we figure out what to do, how to live, how to treat each other, what sorts of things we’re allowed to eat or touch, whether we can perform work on Saturday or not?

Atheism can be precisely that. Not so much the assertion that God or gods don’t exist, but the ongoing thought-experiment of asking, “What if they don’t?”

In that case, we don’t have to waffle and nitpick about minuscule possibilities. We don’t have to argue about remotely-conceivable personages hiding out in a vast universe. We don’t have to prove or verify anything. We just have to say, “I’m choosing to try this thought-experiment. For the rest of my life, I will assume there are no supernatural super-beings anywhere in the universe and see what there is to gain from that.”

If you understand Atheism as a thought-experiment, you can confidently call yourself an enthusiastic, fully-engaged, 100-percent Atheist. Every one of us can be a 7 on the Dawkins Scale.

The powerfully positive outcome of the thought-experiment of science compared to the millennia-long, pre-science era when we tried that other mode of thought, religion and superstition — which is transparently also a thought-experiment — suggests there’s a great deal to gain, both as individuals and as a worldwide society, by simply choosing to be full Atheists and following through in every part of life.

Musings on the Nature of Mind

CONSCIOUSNESS copyAnyone paying attention in the last few decades of life on Earth can’t help but think there’s something wrong in the human world. It’s something that doesn’t and, I suspect, can’t work.

I’ve thought many times this unworkable bit is our own understanding of ourselves. As in: We think we are one way, we expect ourselves and our fellows to be this one way, and yet we are very different from it. Which means a great deal of what we think of as the “should be” of human life is wrong. We get right answers about ourselves – about how we should live, how we should treat each other or the natural world – only by accident. In the main, things continue to go wrong, progressively worsening over and over through the cycles of history until we suffer each new catastrophic, civilization-wide disaster.

I wonder …

We think of ourselves, when we think of ourselves, as conscious beings. And yet most of us is UNconscious. Meaning that the real essence of what we are is, in the main, invisible to us.

We talk about our “subconscious” as if it’s some minor apparatus that does these mysterious and not-very-important things off in the darkness, but in truth, this subconscious is the largest part of us. It’s consciousness that’s the sideshow, the also-ran, the comical sidekick, the small spotlighted area of a vast, dark stage. Consciousness is an app that runs on a much larger, much more complex underlying brainframe. It does certain things very well, but only those things.

It’s also a sort of distraction. We wallow in the attraction of consciousness and ignore this huge other part. Because consciousness is what it is – the self-referential noticing and knowing of one’s conscious self – it almost by definition must exclude notice of the unknowable parts. Even understanding that we are NOT conscious for some large part of our day – in sleep, in the sort of muzzy reverie that accompanies “automatic” actions such as driving or eating, and even in the machinations that go on all the time below conscious notice – we can still fail to credit our unconscious selves. Yet because we are conscious – because we position our apparent Selfness in our small conscious zone rather than this much larger unconscious part – we are necessarily unable to imagine anything different.

Most of the endeavors of Earth life are done without anything we think of when we think of conscious mind. I observe animals doing their specific things out there in the wilds – beavers that build dams, birds that build complex woven nests, all sorts of wonderful and complex creative endeavors – and the only thing I can compare them to in the human sphere is those rare and near-unbelievable savant talents in autistics. Most animals live without consciousness, and we tend to see them as lesser and limited because of it, yet they do these amazing things – not just with mundane regularity, but with brains in some cases hundreds of times smaller. What looks out of their eyes is not a “me” in the way we have a “me,” but a silent sort of machine, beastly in nature and yet marvelously capable of conducting its survival in the unimaginably complex surround of wild nature.

I wonder if civilization itself isn’t an artifact of consciousness, a perpetually conscio-centric socio-cultural structure that could only be possible to beings who have this add-on “Me” app.

I wonder too if we haven’t made a very basic mistake in creating this sort of civilization. If, as I suspect, we’ve built civilization according to conscious needs, conscious mandates, largely ignoring our larger, quieter, apparently more secret selves, we have, in a way, built something that isn’t quite human – worse, something that can’t work for humans as a whole.

To us here in civilization, the subconscious is “other,” something separate from and subordinate to – or rebellious from – the real you, the real me. The relationship is one of separation rather than of solidarity, cooperation, or wholeness.

Given the nature of consciousness, I doubt we could have done any different, here in our infancy. But I imagine that if we recognize the subconscious as the main “us” – if we built entertainments and accommodations meant to nurture and comfort our larger selves, and societal understandings that recognized and accepted this Self-Other in our fellow men – a lot of things would become possible, both within our individual selves and in the larger world.

Such as this bit that isn’t looking good at the moment – the survival of the lot of us.

Help (Really, Sort-Of, But Often Maybe Not Really) Wanted

I know from my own experience of reading blogs that I generally expect the voice behind the screen to TELL me something, to clarify or assist me in understanding. Which builds a sort of weight into the fact that I’m a blogger myself.

I do try to live up to that sort of expectation. I look at larger issues – mainly atheism, sometimes politics, but lately also Beta Culture – so I can present more understandable or balanced analyses of each subject for readers.

At the same time, I’m also very much at sea on certain important aspects of life. Sometimes I feel like an alien dropped down into human society, trying to figure out why people do what they do, what I need to do to understand them, or fit in.

So I’m asking for some input. I’m hoping you’ll read this and reply, offering advice or perspective that will help me better understand this particular life skill. So:

How do you feel about accepting help from others?

As for me, I love GIVING people help, but I find it almost impossible to accept it. I feel guilty when I do, so I usually don’t allow people to help me. And yet, sometimes, I think I’m making a mistake by not accepting, or even asking for, help.

The danger, of course, is that you can become a manipulative leech about it. We all know some of them, and damn, I never want to be one. On some level, I feel I’ve consumed my lifetime’s share of other people’s energy, money, concern, etc. I tend to think adults should be givers of help rather than takers.

But the other danger is that it’s very difficult to get anything done without other people involved. If you DON’T ask, DON’T get others involved, you’ll be sharply limited in the things you can accomplish.

I’ve known since I was a kid that certain of my plans and goals will forever go wanting because 1) I can’t do them all by myself and 2) I can’t bring myself to ask for help.

Face it, when the thing you want to do requires an organization of people, but you’re habitually a one-man team, nothing happens past the idea stage.

You also close off certain possibilities of closeness. If you turn down offers of help or other sorts of gifts – which are usually, on some level, offers of closeness – you disappoint and distance the giver.

Your thoughts?

Philosophy for Two?

Ten points if you recognize the Monty Python reference in the title of this post.

But seriously, here’s something you don’t see every day, and it might be something you’d want very much.

Fellow blogger (Camels With Hammers) Dr. Daniel Fincke is once again offering real-time online video courses in philosophy for atheists:

Hammer Out Your Philosophy Face to Face with Dr. Daniel Fincke This Summer

They are ideal for our ex-believing atheist readers who would like to piece together a positive philosophy on all sorts of matters that they used to rely on their theistic religions for.

From past classes:

I have found an extraordinary group of students who I love spending hours with every week talking about philosophy. A couple of the courses have discussions that are so engrossing for all involved that we regularly decide on the spot to do an extra hour or two long session rather than stop. One of the groups gets along so well that a couple of times when class has already gone over time and been declared finished, we have still just decided to hang around continuing to talk on and on about non-course topics.

If you’d like to know more about Dr. Fincke’s qualifications and experience, it’s here: Classes and Counseling.

Class scheduling is happening now through mid-May, classes start in June or July. It starts with the attached Admission Survey, where you tell the Prof what classes you’re interested in, and when you can fit them in.



Drum Roll, Cymbal Clash, Fanfare of Vuvuzelas!

picture of red fox

Hey there! Say hello to another FreethoughtBlogs alumnus, moving over to further infiltrate Patheos with steely determination, pointed wit, and violent, wanton godlessness.

For those of you discovering Hank Fox (me) for the first time, an intro:

I’m the author of Red Neck, Blue Collar, Atheist: Simple Thoughts About Reason, Gods & Faith. I’ve blogged as the Blue Collar Atheist at Freethought Blogs and elsewhere for a couple of years, but I recently changed my blog banner to A Citizen of Earth to reflect some new conceptual territory I’m venturing into.

[ Shameless self-promotion: I have two other books upcoming – and hopefully even a third one I’ll mention later in this same post. The first should be out in late May, early June: “BrainDrops: The One and Only Ungodly Bathroom Reader – An Astounding Compendium of Wit, Wisdom & Complete Goddam Nonsense from a Complete Goddam Atheist.” The second, “Saying Goodbye To Dan: An Atheist Deals With Death,” should be out sometime in early 2014. ]

In case it escapes you, yes, I’m an atheist. More than that, I’m an antitheist. I started calling myself that way back in the last century, before I’d ever heard anyone else use the term. I still pronounce it in my own peculiar way: An-TITH-ee-ist, rather than the upstart modern an-tee-THEE-ist.  To me it means “Not only do I not believe in gods, I don’t think you should either.”

As the book title and former blog name indicate, I got into atheism from a slightly different direction than most: I grew up in Texas with rodeo cowboys and hard-core religious types, working as a truck driver, roofer, carpenter and a lot of other blue-collary and outdoorsy jobs. The cover of my book sports a picture of me riding a bull (my brief dalliance with rodeo included getting on – and coming off! – eight of them) but cowboying was also one of my formal professions: For years I worked with riding horses, draft horses and mules in the wilderness of California’s Eastern Sierra mountains.

Later I got to be a newspaper and magazine editor, but I have golden memories of my days in the saddle, and still think of myself as more blue-collar and red-neck than white-collar and citified.

Growing up in an East Texas home with a Southern Baptist mother, a Jehovah’s Witness father and later, a Born-Again Christian stepfather, I also had something of an unusual home life. From about the age of 13, I started having my doubts about gods and the supernatural, but after one slip with my stepfather that resulted in years of low-key torment, I kept it wholly to myself for years and years.

Completely on my own, I gradually became a full nonbeliever. Watching myself change, observing my own thoughts on the matter of gods and such, and eventually blogging about it, I realized there was an unfilled niche in the atheist library, a book that spoke not just to the Why of atheism, but the How. So I wrote Red Neck, Blue Collar, Atheist, a sort of handbook on how to think as an atheist – the kinds of things that do, or maybe should, go through one’s mind as you make the Atheist Journey.

As to the question of the logical defensibility of atheism, I am comfortably and absolutely certain there are no such things as supernatural superbeings – no gods or devils, no heavens or hells for them to inhabit – but also no ghosts, spirit mediums, telepaths, garden fairies, or zombies (although I’m still watching John McCain and Dick Cheney with interest, and would not be surprised to see shambling, lurching brain-tropism at any moment).

For me, the questions don’t even arise. Because I realized some time back that a great deal of each of our lives consists of thought experiments – the proffering of one concept or another as a guiding principle, and then living that idea to see what sort of fruit it bears.

The simple fact is the thought experiment of god-free reality and reason has, in the fields of science and technology, produced true miracles. I’m communicating with you, across an entire world, with a number of them right now. Computers, the Internet, lasers, fiber optics, satellites, microwaves, so many real things working together to produce this seamless technological feat of me writing this blog, and you reading it.

NONE of those things were possible through the thought experiment of religion. As to actual technology that arose from religious mindsets, it consists, unflatteringly, of torture devices that flourished during the Inquisition and the witch hunts of Colonial America. Speaking of Colonial America, even something so apparently primitive as the Native American birchbark canoe comes into being only through a technology undergirded by a mercilessly real-world mindset; faith plays no part in its invention or construction.

The thought experiment of reality and reason bears equally useful results in individual lives, and I’ll tell you some of my own experience of that as we blog along together.

My stock in trade is commentary on current events, ventures into amateur philosophy, and my own doofus-level survey of the state of the world. But it is also very much this new idea I have – that there’s a next step for the atheist community

That next step is probably already being taken without us being aware of it. Which means it is undirected, largely accidental, and probably hugely less effective than it could be.

One of our underlying atheist assumptions is that when you get religion out of your head and out of your life, reasonableness and goodness somehow flows in and fills the hole. But as I know from watching the atheist community, and those on the cusp of abandoning their home religion for something else, that process is never a given. One craziness can all too easily be replaced by another; witness the number of people who become uncomfortable with their sedate hometown church but who think the solution is to join a born-again evangelical megachurch.

I’ve even met a few atheists – not a lot, but some – who have seemed nutty as hell. And certainly the reasonableness we seem to think ourselves blessed with doesn’t make us unfailingly capable of calm communication, even with each other. I’ve seen people who self-identify as godless uber-rationals spit out ad hominem insults like a machine gun, and never notice.

But hey, we’re young. A young movement, a young community and, as I’ve realized, a young culture.

It’s that last I want to focus on in the coming years. I’m convinced that something special is happening right now, something never-before-seen on Earth, and something probably necessary to human survival.

It’s just this: Us. We atheists. Not as individuals, but as this community, and beyond it, this new culture. Something to fill the hole left by dying organized religion.

While speaking in Ottawa at Eschaton in November, 2011, I was on a panel that was asked if we were optimists or pessimists about the future. All the other panelists said they were optimists. In my own answer (which I worded badly, and still flinch when I recall it) I tried to express that the question necessitates a more nuanced answer. Optimism can be misused, I said, because … well, because bad things happen all by themselves, but to have good things happen, you have to MAKE them happen.

Which means a negative future may well be a greased-chute certainty in a very few years, whereas a positive future demands a shit-ton of very hard work and some damned difficult decisions. The optimistic idea that “something good is going to happen” – whether we lay it at the feet of miracle-working Jesus or of miracle-working Science – can be poison to the understanding that we have to put on our big-boy boots and DO things.

I started exploring the idea of an atheistic culture back in 2010. I’ve blogged about it briefly and infrequently, but I’ve done a LOT of conceptual work on it. I have something like 500 pages of notes I want to turn into blog posts, public talks and eventually – after I get input from a great number of people – a book.

More than that, I want to see progress toward that culture. As I say in my first book:

There is a saner, more reasonable future awaiting us, a time and place where a majority of people aspire to see things for what they are and then choose to deal with them realistically. It will replace what we have now, where too many of us can’t get over believing that some eternity-spanning fantasy makes our own lives cosmically important and everything else – distant stars, a broad universe, and even the civil rights of our neighbors – totally insignificant.

More than anything, I’d like to live in that sane future. Failing that, I’d like to think I can help make it happen.

Anyway, here I am. If you’re new to me, welcome, and I hope you’ll enjoy my writing and my ideas. If you’re a reader following me over from FTB, double welcome.

And away we go.

Interlude, With Gall Bladder

roboticIf you’ve been wondering why I haven’t been posting, I’m having a certain amount of pain pretty much every day, and it’s sharply diminished my writing output.

I feel like a sissy saying it, considering what Greta Christina and Ed Brayton have gone through recently (and kept writing!), but … you know, you have deal with your own experience, and this has been a low-level but definite ass-kicker.

In a few days, I’ll be going to the local hospital for the preadmission tests. My gallbladder and I are parting company a week from Friday.

I’ve had two actual attacks, and you DON’T want to know what it’s like. Women who’ve had ‘em have said the pain compares to that of childbirth. In my case, the last time it happened, the stabbing, blooming, attention-consuming pain radiated into my back and chest and just left me gasping. Continue reading “Interlude, With Gall Bladder”

Brushing Up My Redneck Credentials

Hank saddling pack horses, 1976

Nothing to do with atheism here — this is me being rustic.

Bishop, California, a town on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada (a range of mountains that runs north-south through the heart of California), has a big Memorial Day weekend bash every year called Mule Days. Mules have been a part of the local scene for … well, a damned long time, having long been used as cargo carriers for people interested in seven-elephants camping in the John Muir Wilderness. Continue reading “Brushing Up My Redneck Credentials”

Go List for Unbelievers

Looking for reader contributions here.

Say there are two or three levels of atheism – like Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, or maybe Novice, Intermediate, Advanced. Or possibly Apprentice,  Journeyman, Master.

And say there were some things you should probably do at each level in order to qualify – in your own mind if nowhere else.

What would those things be?

Here’s my tentative list for the Novice Class: Continue reading “Go List for Unbelievers”

For Christian Teens: Getting Beyond the Unthinkable

I’m thinking of some tri-fold fliers to be handed out to Christian teens. Here’s a first approximation of one of them. Tell me what you think of it, what you’d add, take away, change.


What If … ?

When you think about it, it’s the nuances that have helped we humans advance. The search for all that stuff obscured by the standard wisdom, the common knowledge, the things every sane person knows. Continue reading “For Christian Teens: Getting Beyond the Unthinkable”