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"On Proving a Negative"

     A reader who found us through the wonder of the public
library system invited me "into the fray."  An article in SLATE,
an on-line magazine, written by one Jim Holt, challenges atheists
to prove that there is no God. He berates writers like Katha
Pollit, Gore Vidal and Christopher Hitchens, who don't prove it,
as philosophically off-base, or immature, or not thoughtful, or
     Holt himself is quite inconclusive, especially at the end of
his article, where he seems to agree with Harry Emerson Fosdick's
thesis, which stated that God went away and left the operation of 
the universe to his half-witted younger brother, except that Holt 
makes the younger brother malevolent as well.
     But the demand for proof is itself unreasonable.  Holt uses the
argument for God's existence from universal, or nearly universal,
agreement. That is older than Thomas Aquinas and invalid, 
especially when it is noted that most of the ninety-some percent 
of Americans who profess to believe in a deity can't define what
they mean.
     I hesitated for years before labeling myself an atheist. 
No one can prove a negative, especially in an infinite universe,
which is what we seem to be part of.  "Agnostic" seems to be a
better, safer word -- it means simply, "I don't know."  But for
me, it finally became unsatisfactory, because it doesn't take into
account the things I do know, things I know by direct experience.
     Ashleigh Brilliant has a beautiful potshot on this subject. 
"Many people have taken positions for and against atheism but as
yet God has made no comment."
     Some of God's own prophets admitted to having bad moments,
when the going got rough.  "Truly thou art a God who hidest
thyself."  I'll say.  Some of us concluded finally that he is
hiding in the midst of his pristine non-existence.  
          "I'm hiding, I'm hiding,
           And no one knows where."
     Holt wants to do philosophy, and then makes his impossible
demand that someone prove a negative.  For practical purposes,
not abstract unimportant philosophical purposes, the whole matter
is quite simple.  When asked, "Do you believe in God?" ninety-
some percent of Americans answer, "Yeah, sure, doesn't
     When I'm asked, "Do you believe in God," I answer, "Define
God."  Usually the conversation flounders, and sometimes never
returns to the original question.  When it resurfaces, I ask,
"Must I answer in one syllable, or may I have 213 pages?"  If all
those pages are allowed, I refer them to FREEDOM FROM GOD:
RESTORING THE SENSE OF WONDER.  It took more than thirty years 
to think it out and write it down, but there it is.  
     If I'm allowed only one syllable, then I say, "On the
assumption that you mean the God referred to in the Bible and all
the theologies of the last 2000 years, I must say -- 'no.'  That
God does not exist.  I know because I tested it.  I am not a
theist.  I guess that makes me an atheist."
     Is there an entity that made me, and you, and who has a plan
for each of us?  Is there a cosmic Being, who hounds you until
you get in line with the plan, and punishes you when you are not
in line?  Is there a divine being whose love for you includes the
possibility, even the probability, that you will spend eternity
in conscious torment?  Is there a God of Justice, who forgave the
sins of the world by condemning and executing one who was
innocent?  Does that God exist?  I must say it was a relief when
it came clear to me that there was no such God, that perhaps the
universe makes sense after all, without such a nasty entity in
charge of it.
     The closest thing to proof can be found in the on-going
existence of Patrick Robertson, Gerald Falwell and all that ilk. 
If God existed, he would zap them instantly for hypocritical
     So, the philosopher asks, if there is no God, then what? 
Then we are left with a marvelous, huge, probably infinite,
obviously intelligent universe, an inexorable flow.  In other
cultures, where no God intrudes, they call it The Tao.  I call it
What There Is, which continues to do what it does, where our
paltry little egos matter somewhat less than we used to think
they did.
     "And why does this discussion matter at all?" a non-
philosopher could ask.  The question of atheism matters because
some very dangerous theists have found themselves in
astonishingly high places with incredible quantities of power in
their hands.  Some are at the White House and the Pentagon,
threatening the on-going life of the planet, because of their
irrational and dangerous belief in the myth of Armageddon, the
Last Battle between good and evil, which will bring about the End
of the World.  That belief needs to be discredited.
     Other theists are in high places in the U.S. Department of
Justice, so-called, with their belief in punishment and in their
own arrogant position of authority.  They are God-appointed, they
think.  They can do no wrong.  They are the Good Guys, and
everyone who is not on their side is "evil."  They hold the same
views as the U.S. soldier in Korea, fifty years ago, who said,
"Kill 'em all, and let God sort 'em out."  They have you and me
in their sights.  This is a negative that needs to be proven 
cruel and wrong and dismantled, and those who believe it need to 
be disarmed.

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Copyright © 2003 Harry Willson

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