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.

Red Neck Tales: Green Bean Jean (repost)

Her name was Jean Mullen, but she called herself Green Bean Jean. She played bars in the small California mountain town where I lived at the time, and I first saw her on a night out with some of my mule-packer cowboy friends.

She was either skinny and gawky or model-thin and infinitely elegant — it was a time in my earlier life when I was between opinions on women — they might be little girls or alluring goddesses, either one. Eventually, I came down on the side of the goddess.

She sat on a tall stool, played a guitar and sang. She had an incredibly broad vocal range, from deeper-than-deep to glasses-shivering-on-the-table high. Four and a half octaves — does that sound right? It’s what I remember, but I could easily be wrong, this many years after.

I came night after night to see her, sat down quietly at a table and blew out the candle, and there in the dark was touched by her presence and her music. On braver nights, I’d sit in front and request some of her songs.

Live music has always had a profound effect on me. Put a song on the radio or CD player and I might sing along in my broken voice or slap the table in syncopation, jig around in my chair or car seat and become one with the music. But put me in front of live musicians and I sit there frozen and slack-jawed, banjaxed, perpetually astonished that, right here and now, these people are creating music.

As for Green Bean Jean, I was in love with her.

She never knew it. I was too shy at the time to even think about telling her, and besides she was a goddess and I was a little nothing-special cowboy, a comparative toad.

But for a time, in the lonely way of barfly music fans, I came in from the cold, huddled up to the warmth of her voice, and had her for my very own.

She spoke often of her music. “This is a song from my fictitious album,” she’d say, and launch into Owens River Symphony, or Sierra Minstrel, or Daddy.

She’d had offers, she told us, but they always came with strings. She was waiting for the real offer to make that first album. And we all knew, if that break ever came, she’d rocket to the top.

Even looking back on it so many years later, I’m absolutely certain that her presence, her elegant beauty, her incredible voice would have placed her in short order at superstar level. Really. I can’t think of anyone she couldn’t have equaled for talent, for stage presence, for beauty.

The offer came.

She drove east with the band she’d gathered together.

She recorded the vocal tracks.

She started back.

And somewhere out on the interstate, far from home, she died in a car wreck.

Friends and family took orders on the album, and pooled their money to complete it. The Green Bean Jean Album.

I didn’t have the money to afford one, but I borrowed one from friends, and listened to it many times over the years.

In my head, I have perfect pitch. Even without the record, I can still hear the vivid tones of her incredible voice. Thirty years dissolve away, her voice peals out in perfect clarity, in piercing high notes and soul-touching lows, and she sings for me.

My Green Bean Jean, my Sierra Minstrel, my once-upon-a-time Secret Love.

A Young Artist’s Heartbreak

You ever have the experience of finding something in your head you didn’t know was there?

I just had one of those moments. I’m not totally surprised to find it there — it’s based on a memory, after all. But it’s a leftover from, oh, about the age of 6 or so, and at my current age of 60, it’s just curious to find it still in there somewhere.

It has to do with how I felt about Crayola crayons. And the memory bubbled up at this bit on the ColourLovers site: All 120 Crayon Names, Color Codes and Fun Facts.

You remember when you were a kid how much you loved your Crayolas? You could do anything with those great colors. I wasn’t much of an artist when it came to creating original works on blank coloring paper, but I was pretty good at picking realistic colors to fill in pictures in coloring books.

I couldn’t match Michelle, of course. Michelle was the little girl in my class – maybe in every class – who could color things perfectly. She was the Winslow Homer of coloring books, so good at coloring she wowed even adults.

I still remember the alien perfection of her coloring. She not only picked the right colors, she had this way of bearing down at the edges of each coloring block so that it gained a special brilliance. Under Michelle’s hand and eye, simple line drawings in coloring books took on a life beyond what their creators dreamed, leaping off the page at you in smooth chromatic brilliance. She even put in extras, added lines of shading or definition to give depth to the flat images of kittens and frogs and cowboys.

And whereas I, with my 6-year-old hand-eye coordination, sometimes slipped and let the waxy color wander over a line, when the Crayon was in Michelle’s hand, not an atom of color lapped over.

Worse, she wasn’t even snotty about it, so I don’t get to remember her as a nasty little brat. She was sweet, even generous, about showing others how she did what she did. (Pfft. Rotten little minx. Today she’s probably on the board of Crayola, or a member of the Presidential Commission on Coloring Books.)

Anyway, coming across that listing of all the crayon colors, I felt a moment of … hurt.


My family was poor. Not starving and freezing poor, but raggedy-ass hand-me-down poor. Occasionally even charity-case welfare poor. I never lacked for my own socks and shoes, but until I was 13 or so I don’t think I wore a single shirt or pair of pants that hadn’t been worn by one or both of my older brothers. My “rich” uncle once bought me a chemistry set for Christmas that cost all of $15, and I felt like I was king of the world for months after.

The relative poverty played out in other ways. Toys were all hand-me-downs, or Goodwill acquisitions, and even so, there weren’t many.

Which leads me to Crayons.

They came in different-sized boxes. Still do, in fact, but I’m relating the memories of the 6-year-old at the center of this memory.

There was the 8-crayon box, which anybody could afford. Crayola says “8 ct. Crayola Crayons are the classic kids’ art tool. They are the colors generations have grown up with — includes red, yellow, green, blue, brown, black, orange and purple!”

There was the 16-crayon box, which included the coveted gold, silver and copper. There was the 24-crayon box, and then 48, which moved into ethereal realm of colors called yellow-green and sky blue and flesh.

There was the 64-crayon box, which I think I saw only a handful of times in my entire life, so I can’t say what colors it contained.

And then there was a box that contained 96 crayons. Ninety six!! Tangerine! Jungle Green! Fuschia! Red Violet! Royal Purple! Pacific Blue! Sea Green, Dandelion, Sepia!

The colors were ranked in disciplined rainbow rows in the huge box, like an invading Crayola army.

This was WEALTH. Raw, in-your-face goddam opulence.

Only two kids I ever met had it. Michelle was one. (The other was a kid in the 6th grade, long after any of us really cared about such things, so he doesn’t count.)

The first time that box came to school, it nearly caused a riot. Unheeding Miss Calvert’s orders, we left our seats to crowd around and gawk. There were gasps. There were wows. Even fat old Miss Calvert waddled over to marvel.

When Michelle opened that box for the first time, a kind of glow emerged, something like really religious people might imagine emanates from holy shrines. It wasn’t just glorious, it was Glory itself. Thinking about it now, I even seem to remember a sound, the distant choral notes of a heavenly choir (although this may only be the constant tinny whine in my aged ears) that accompanied the opening of the full 96-crayon box.

A brand new box of 96 crayons, in untouched splendor. Pristine tips. Not a scratch, not a tooth mark. Perfect, unpeeled paper covers. Unbroken. And the colors! None of us dared touch them, but Miss Calvert and Michelle read off their names as the rest of us stood in stunned, slack-jawed silence. Periwinkle? Cerulean? We’d never even heard of them.


Eventually I went back to my desk and my own coloring book. I opened the page to the horse. I opened my own box of crayons. They were new and perfect, just as unbroken and unblemished as Michelle’s. But when I looked at my color selection, there was only red, yellow, green, blue, brown, black, orange and purple.

I had the 8-color box.

Sweet, wealthy Michelle might have colored her horse brick red or mahogany, desert sand or almond, but I had only brown.

The memory ends there. Surely I picked up the brown and started coloring, doing the best I could with what I had. Even at the age of 6, you know life doesn’t end just because it hurts. And there’s a hazy something in my head that suggests that later in the year, Michelle even lent out certain colors to special friends, and that once or twice I qualified to borrow her sunset orange, or silver, or even copper.

But carried unnoticed and unsuspected across half a century, there’s still a tiny little wound on the heart of that 6-year-old boy.

Being poor sucks. Certainly there are plenty of children in the world who have less, and the sensible-adult me of today well knows it.

But 50-plus years later, there’s a 6-year-old in me that still yearns, impossibly and hopelessly, after Crayola’s Big Box.

And I still have no idea what periwinkle looks like.


[Afternote: I looked up the history of Crayola on Wikipedia, and I’ve misremembered some of this. The 96-box came along well after I was in first grade. It was the 64-box I recall.]

Beta Culture: Earthman’s Journey – Part 2 of 8

[ Part 12345678 ]


The early end of the beef industry involves a lot of labor at identifying and altering young bovines from their original, mint-condition wholeness to something more in line with human designs, as they make their first transition from free beasties to hamburger-on-the-hoof. The work can be done in sheer industrial efficiency, with metal chutes and shock prods and unconcerned hourly workers, or it can be done by working cowboys, in tune with a romantic but very real vision of the American West.

On this day, with this herd of calves, I’m one of those cowboys. And though I don’t know it quite yet, I myself am undergoing a transition: I’m on the threshold of a new and grander phase of my life. My hand is on the doorknob and here and now is the moment in which I begin to turn it.

As I start the day, I feel deep western pride on the one hand, the heartfelt assertion that the people around me – the men and women in cowboy hats and spurs and chaps, working shoulder to shoulder with me and joking with each other in the solid, friendly voices of the west – are my people, and the things we do are a part of my native culture, a  culture of Texas and points west.

The men and women I work with are close friends, and we’re teamed up in a difficult, dirty and physically demanding job. We work side by side in blood and the smell of burning hair, and every hour of such work under the beating western sun is a rite of passage, a bringing-together as profound as any formal ceremony of brotherhood. This is a job, yes, but it is also a way to become one with each other.

Along with that pride, though, is another feeling, something darker. I have yet to identify it, but it ebbs and flows within me throughout the day, the beginning of a quiet guilt, a murky disturbance at doing what I’m doing.

The cattle, by contrast with the many-become-one social consolidation we humans experience on this day, journey in the opposite direction – from oneness to separation. Forcibly parted from the safety and comfort of their herd, a couple of hundred calves are trapped at one end of a large wire holding pen. With their four-legged moms just outside the corral making continuous loud protests, they mill around in confusion.


The kid in the blue cap? Me.

A cowboy on a horse cuts small groups of them out, to drive a dozen or so at a time into the main corral. Separated now at two removes from the main herd, this small group huddles together even more closely.

Two ropers on horseback work the branding corral. They take turns tossing ropes at calf heels, hopefully snagging both back feet of one specific calf, then instantly dallying up and spurring away to trip the calf onto its side and drag it through the soft arena dirt to the branding fire. There one cowboy jumps on top to hold it down, while several others come forward with syringes, knives and branding iron to inject, inoculate, earmark, de-horn, castrate and brand the little beast.

Every pen of calves has a different pair of ropers working it. Horses and cowboys tire and have to rotate out, to have their places taken by a new team.

It’s not the epitome of efficiency, operating this way. Not every cowpoke on horseback is at the peak of western form. For most of them, this is practice as much as it is work. They only get to do it a couple of times a year, some of them, and it takes a while to work through each pen of calves. The ground helpers spend a certain amount of their time just standing around, waiting patiently as the ropers miss repeatedly. Still, there’s a quiet recognition that everybody has to learn sometime, and a certain amount of friendly joshing helps to pass the time.

Here are the various jobs that must be done and the qualifications it takes to be accepted to do them:

Roping is the most demanding. You’re usually expected to have at least some experience in the sport. Since the object of all this is to get the calves processed with the least stress on them and the least strain on the crew, the quicker the better is the plan. The ideal is a quick toss just in front of a moving calf’s hind legs, so the little critter more or less steps into the open loop himself, then a snapping tug that snugs the rope around both ankles, with a simultaneous dally around the saddlehorn so the roper can spur his horse away with a captured calf dragging at the end of the rope.

Ropers can be older hands who are experts, second- or third-generation youngsters who grew up in the culture but are just learning the craft, western wives or girlfriends who want to try their hand, or rodeo-cowboy friends there to keep in touch with the roots of their arena skills. On days short of manpower it can be friendly neighbors who are drawn by the camaraderie, romance and dust.

Wrasslin’ and pokin’

Wrestling calves is the least demanding of skill, the most demanding of muscle, and kids and neighbors and wanna-bes all get their turn at this. It’s a kind of unspoken testing ground for the newcomers. This is where I got my own start, “throwing” roping calves in practice pens with cowboy buddies back in Texas.

If a dragged calf comes right to you already on its side, all you really have to do is put one knee on its neck, grab the uppermost foreleg and pull it back and up, and hope that the heel rope holds so that flailing back hooves don’t come slashing up at you. A bit of weight helps here, but if you have the technique down, a lightweight like me can do just fine.

If the calf is still on its feet – maybe the rope only caught one back leg – there’s a little cowboy judo thing you can do: snatch the near foreleg below the knee as the calf passes by, whirl the leg back backward and outward, and the calf falls almost magically onto its far side, allowing you to step over its body with the leg still in hand and proceed to the same knee-on-neck posture. Otherwise, there’s a more difficult reach you have to do, more or less enveloping the calf with your arms and body from the top, then picking it up and rotating it in the air so it falls onto its side.

Once you get it on the ground and secured, inoculations come next. A spritz of biological armor goes into both the calf’s nostrils, a human-engineered defense against various respiratory ailments. The spritzer has to have a fresh plastic nozzle for every calf, to keep from inadvertently spreading bugs from one animal to another, so if two efficient ropers are working the pen, the guy doing it can be kept hopping. Still, it’s not very tough work. Getting the plastic nozzle into a struggling calf’s nose is the only tricky part, and an agile young’un can do it.

A complex of bio-active goop – several different kinds of protective and growth-enhancing antibiotics – goes into another shot, this one into muscle on the calf’s shoulder or rump. Yet another shot will contain vitamins, or trace elements missing in the range on which the calf will spend most of his growing time, to be injected under loose skin such as that between the elbow and chest.

Shots take a bit more skill, as the person wielding the needle-gun has to be careful to poke it into the calf at the correct angle and the right place, making sure the full measured dose of medicine goes in, and at the same time missing the rumps and elbows of the four or five other people busily working the calf over. The syringes also have to be kept full of the appropriate stuff. A solid cowpoke or dependable ranch wife usually takes charge of the needlework.

Burnin’ and cuttin’

Branding is another task only allowed to experts. The iron, heated either electrically or in a propane furnace, has to be the right temperature – hot enough to scorch down to the skin, not so hot it burns holes in it, exposing the flesh underneath. It has to be applied at the right angle, to get the whole brand image onto the calf, and held for the right length of time to do the job right. The brander wears heavy leather gloves, and takes care to warn everybody “Hot iron!” before stepping up to the calf. The sharp, thick odor of burning hair coats everything and everybody by the end of the day, but the first choking stench of it disappears into the background after only a short while.

Dehorning takes a tubular tool that fits down over the horn buds one at a time, providing a circular cutting edge for scooping the buds right off the calf’s skull, leaving a little pit that will heal in time into a hornless scar. Dehorning can take up to three people working together to get it done quickly and right. The cowboy on the neck of the prone calf leans out of the way while the top horn bud is popped out, then grabs under the calf’s nose and bends its head back so the dehorner can get to the bottom one. The third person is usually standing by with a spray can of disinfectant for the dehorning wounds.

The last chore, knifework, also falls only to trusted hands. There are a variety of cuts that can be made on a calf’s front end, but the ones most often used on ranches where I worked were either ear-marking, which requires a large triangular slice to be taken out of a calf’s ear, or ear-tagging, which is basically ear-piercing scaled up to cattle-size: a bright plastic tag is slotted onto an instrument that cuts a slit in the ear and inserts it, the big tag on one surface of the ear, a round plug on the other.

As for cuts on the back end, heifer calves (females) will grow up to be breeding or milking stock and need no trimming of any kind. In one of the many ouchy realities of both beef and dairy cattle commerce, however, only a tiny percentage of purebred males are saved for breeding. Since most bull calves will grow up to be meat, they do not need the essential tackle of reproduction.


Tito the Mighty Hunter: Good Dead Things


Thinking about dogs tonight, so I’m reposting this bit from 2008:

In most dog-related things, I was a fairly indulgent dad. But having my four-leggers roll in dead stuff, or go off into the brush and bring back something rotten, I had a hard time with that.

Tito was especially bad about it.

One summer day we were out along Varmint Creek hiking. I have this thing I sometimes do – I think of it as my super power – I hike and read at the same time. The subconscious Guardian Idiot that resides in all our heads, in my case has terrific peripheral vision, and I’m able to read and navigate along a trail, even rough mountain terrain, at the same time. I never fall down, I never walk into trees, I never even stumble. Continue reading “Tito the Mighty Hunter: Good Dead Things”

The Brassican Heresy (repost)

Warning: The following post is long, and may contain insults to French people. And Christians. And probably frogs.

[Repost from Jan 18, 2012]


I’d like to propose to you a daring hypothesis.

You may be surprised by it. You may be stunned. You might even be shocked. Because this is such a daring idea, some of you reading this right now may actually be horrified. There’s even the possibility – distant, but real, so I have to warn you – that one or more people about to read the following hypothesis will suffer deep psychological damage and end up under permanent psychiatric care, or possibly even comatose.

I don’t really want to just spring it on you suddenly. This is something so new, so different, so deeply significant, that I feel very strongly that it should have its own screen. It’s just not something I feel okay with plopping down in a sea of insignificant words, as if it were one common grain of sand on a vast beach.

This is something so special it demands treatment you’d immediately consider … unusual.

So. If you think you’re ready for it, brace yourself and look below the break. Here it comes: Continue reading “The Brassican Heresy (repost)”