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Although the term "atheism" originated in the sixteenth century – based on Ancient Greek ἄθεος "godless, denying the gods, ungodly" – and open admission to positive atheism in modern times was not made earlier than in the late eighteenth century, atheistic ideas, as well as their political influence, have a more expansive history.
Philosophical atheist thought began to appear in Europe and Asia in the sixth or fifth century BCE. Will Durant explains that certain pygmy tribes found in Africa were observed to have no identifiable cults or rites. There were no totems, no deities, and no spirits. Their dead were buried without special ceremonies or accompanying items and received no further attention. They even appeared to lack simple superstitions, according to travelers' reports. The Vedahs of Ceylon only admitted the possibility that deities might exist, but went no further. Neither prayers nor sacrifices were suggested in any way.
- 1 Indian philosophy
- 2 Classical Greece and Rome
- 3 Ancient Levant
- 4 The Middle Ages
- 5 Renaissance and Reformation
- 6 The Age of Enlightenment
- 7 Modern history
- 8 See also
- 9 Footnotes
- 10 References
- 11 External links
In the East, a contemplative life not centered on the idea of deities began in the sixth century BCE with the rise of Jainism, Buddhism, and certain sects of Hinduism in India, and of Taoism in China.
Although these religions claim to offer a philosophic and salvific path not centering on deity worship, popular tradition in some sects of these religions has long embraced deity worship, the propitiation of spirits, and other elements of folk tradition. Furthermore, the Pali Tripiṭaka, the oldest complete composition of scriptures, seems to accept as real the concepts of divine beings, the Vedic (and other) deities, rebirth, and heaven and hell. While deities are not seen as necessary to the salvific goal of the early Buddhist tradition, their reality is not questioned.
The principal text of the Samkhya school, the Samkhya Karika, was written by Ishvara Krishna in the fourth century CE, by which time it was already a dominant Hindu school. The origins of the school are much older and are lost in legend. The school was both dualistic and atheistic. They believed in a dual existence of Prakriti ("nature") and Purusha ("spirit") and had no place for an Ishvara ("God") in its system, arguing that the existence of Ishvara cannot be proved and hence cannot be admitted to exist. The school dominated Hindu philosophy in its day, but declined after the tenth century, although commentaries were still being written as late as the sixteenth century.
The foundational text for the Mimamsa school is the Purva Mimamsa Sutras of Jaimini (c. third to first century BCE). The school reached its height c. 700 CE, and for some time in the Early Middle Ages exerted near-dominant influence on learned Hindu thought. The Mimamsa school saw their primary enquiry was into the nature of dharma based on close interpretation of the Vedas. Its core tenets were ritualism (orthopraxy), anti-asceticism and anti-mysticism. The early Mimamsakas believed in an adrishta ("unseen") that is the result of performing karmas ("works") and saw no need for an Ishvara ("God") in their system. Mimamsa persists in some subschools of Hinduism today.
Jains see their tradition as eternal. Jainism has prehistoric origins dating before 3000 BCE, and before the beginning of Indo-Aryan culture. Organized Jainism can be dated back to Parshva who lived in the ninth century BCE, and, more reliably, to Mahavira, a teacher of the sixth century BCE, and a contemporary of the Buddha. Jainism is a dualistic religion with the universe made up of matter and souls. The universe, and the matter and souls within it, is eternal and uncreated, and there is no omnipotent creator deity in Jainism. There are, however, "gods" and other spirits who exist within the universe and Jains believe that the soul can attain "godhood", however none of these supernatural beings exercise any sort of creative activity or have the capacity or ability to intervene in answers to prayers.
The thoroughly materialistic and anti-religious philosophical Cārvāka school that originated in India with the Bārhaspatya-sūtras (final centuries BCE) is probably the most explicitly atheist school of philosophy in the region. The school grew out of the generic skepticism in the Mauryan period. Already in the sixth century BCE, Ajita Kesakambalin, was quoted in Pali scriptures by the Buddhists with whom he was debating, teaching that "with the break-up of the body, the wise and the foolish alike are annihilated, destroyed. They do not exist after death." Cārvākan philosophy is now known principally from its Astika and Buddhist opponents. The proper aim of a Cārvākan, according to these sources, was to live a prosperous, happy, productive life in this world. The Tattvopaplavasimha of Jayarashi Bhatta (c. eighth century) is sometimes cited as a surviving Carvaka text. The school appears to have died out sometime around the fifteenth century.
The non-adherence to the notion of a supreme deity or a prime mover is seen by many as a key distinction between Buddhism and other religions. While Buddhist traditions do not deny the existence of supernatural beings (many are discussed in Buddhist scripture), it does not ascribe powers, in the typical Western sense, for creation, salvation or judgement, to the "gods", however, praying to enlightened deities is sometimes seen as leading to some degree of spiritual merit.
Buddhists accept the existence of beings in higher realms (see Buddhist cosmology), known as devas, but they, like humans, are said to be suffering in samsara, and not particularly wiser than we are. In fact the Buddha is often portrayed as a teacher of the deities, and superior to them. Despite this they do have some enlightened Devas in the path of buddhahood.
In later Mahayana literature, however, the idea of an eternal, all-pervading, all-knowing, immaculate, uncreated, and deathless Ground of Being (the dharmadhatu, inherently linked to the sattvadhatu, the realm of beings), which is the Awakened Mind (bodhicitta) or Dharmakaya ("body of Truth") of the Buddha himself, is attributed to the Buddha in a number of Mahayana sutras, and is found in various tantras as well. In some Mahayana texts, such a principle is occasionally presented as manifesting in a more personalised form as a primordial buddha, such as Samantabhadra, Vajradhara, Vairochana, Amitabha, and Adi-Buddha, among others.
Classical Greece and Rome
In western Classical Antiquity, theism was the fundamental belief that supported the divine right of the state (Polis, later the Roman Empire). Historically, any person who did not believe in any deity supported by the state was fair game to accusations of atheism, a capital crime. For political reasons, Socrates in Athens (399 BCE) was accused of being 'atheos' ("refusing to acknowledge the gods recognized by the state"). Despite the charges, he claimed inspiration from a divine voice (Daimon). Christians in Rome were also considered subversive to the state religion and persecuted as atheists. Thus, charges of atheism, meaning the subversion of religion, were often used similarly to charges of heresy and impiety – as a political tool to eliminate enemies.
Western philosophy began in the Greek world in the sixth century BCE. The first philosophers were not atheists, but they attempted to explain the world in terms of the processes of nature instead of by mythological accounts. Thus lightning was the result of "wind breaking out and parting the clouds," and earthquakes occurred when "the earth is considerably altered by heating and cooling." The early philosophers often criticised traditional religious notions. Xenophanes (sixth century BCE) famously said that if cows and horses had hands, "then horses would draw the forms of gods like horses, and cows like cows." Another philosopher, Anaxagoras (fifth century BCE), claimed that the Sun was "a fiery mass, larger than the Peloponnese;" a charge of impiety was brought against him, and he was forced to flee Athens.
The first fully materialistic philosophy was produced by the Atomists, Leucippus, and Democritus (fifth century BCE), who attempted to explain the formation and development of the world in terms of the chance movements of atoms moving in infinite space.
Euripides (480–406 BCE), in his play Bellerophon, had the eponymous main character say: “Doth some one say that there be gods above? There are not; no, there are not. Let no fool, Led by the old false fable, thus deceive you.”
In the fifth century BCE the Sophists began to question many of the traditional assumptions of Greek culture. Prodicus of Ceos was said to have believed that "it was the things which were serviceable to human life that had been regarded as gods," and Protagoras stated at the beginning of a book that "With regard to the gods I am unable to say either that they exist or do not exist."
Diagoras of Melos (fifth century BCE) is known as the "first atheist". He blasphemed by making public the Eleusinian Mysteries and discouraging people from being initiated. Somewhat later (c. 300 BCE), the Cyrenaic philosopher Theodorus of Cyrene is supposed to have denied that gods exist, and wrote a book On the Gods expounding his views.
Euhemerus (c. 330–260 BCE) published his view that the gods were only the deified rulers, conquerors, and founders of the past, and that their cults and religions were in essence the continuation of vanished kingdoms and earlier political structures. Although Euhemerus was later criticized for having "spread atheism over the whole inhabited earth by obliterating the gods", his worldview was not atheist in a strict and theoretical sense, because he differentiated that the primordial deities were "eternal and imperishable". Some historians have argued that he merely aimed at reinventing the old religions in the light of the beginning of deification of political rulers such as Alexander the Great. Euhemerus' work was translated into Latin by Ennius, possibly to mythographically pave the way for the planned divinization of Scipio Africanus in Rome.
Also important in the history of atheism was Epicurus (c. 300 BCE). Drawing on the ideas of Democritus and the Atomists, he espoused a materialistic philosophy where the universe was governed by the laws of chance without the need for divine intervention. Although he stated that deities existed, he believed that they were uninterested in human existence. The aim of the Epicureans was to attain peace of mind by exposing fear of divine wrath as irrational.
One of the most eloquent expressions of Epicurean thought is Lucretius' On the Nature of Things (first century BCE) in which he held that gods exist but argued that religious fear was one of the chief causes of human unhappiness and that the gods did not involve themselves in the world.
The Epicureans also denied the existence of an afterlife.
Epicureans were not persecuted, but their teachings were controversial, and were harshly attacked by the mainstream schools of Stoicism and Neoplatonism. The movement remained marginal, and gradually died out at the end of the Roman Empire.
Some believe the concept of atheism was apparently known to the ancient Jews and viewed negatively by the authors of the Biblical texts. Psalm 14:1–3 reads "The fool says in his heart 'There is no God.' They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.".
The Middle Ages
In medieval Islam, scholars recognized the idea of atheism, and frequently attacked unbelievers, although they were unable to name any atheists. When individuals were accused of atheism, they were usually viewed as heretics rather than proponents of atheism. One notable figure was the ninth century scholar Ibn al-Rawandi who criticized the notion of religious prophecy including that of Muhammad, and maintained that religious dogmas were not acceptable to reason and must be rejected. Other critics of religion in the Islamic world include the physician and philosopher Abu Bakr al-Razi (865–925), and the poet Al-Ma`arri (973–1057).
In the European Middle Ages, no clear expression of atheism is known. The titular character of the Icelandic saga Hrafnkell, written in the late thirteenth century, says that I think it is folly to have faith in gods. After his temple to Freyr is burnt and he is enslaved, he vows never to perform another sacrifice, a position described in the sagas as goðlauss "godless". Jacob Grimm in his Teutonic Mythology observes that
It is remarkable that Old Norse legend occasionally mentions certain men who, turning away in utter disgust and doubt from the heathen faith, placed their reliance on their own strength and virtue. Thus in the Sôlar lioð 17 we read of Vêbogi and Râdey â sik þau trûðu, "in themselves they trusted",
citing several other examples, including two kings.
In Christian Europe, people were persecuted for heresy, especially in countries where the Inquisition was active. Thomas Aquinas' five proofs of God's existence and Anselm's ontological argument implicitly acknowledged the validity of the question about God's existence. Frederick Copleston, however, explains that Thomas laid out his proofs not in an effort to counter atheism, but was addressing certain early Christian writers such as John of Damascus, who asserted that knowledge of God's existence was naturally innate in man, based on his natural desire for happiness. Thomas stated that although there is desire for happiness which forms the basis for a proof of God's existence in man, further reflection is required to understand that this desire is only fulfilled in God, not for example in wealth or sensual pleasure.
The charge of atheism was used to attack political or religious opponents. Pope Boniface VIII, because he insisted on the political supremacy of the church, was accused by his enemies after his death of holding (unlikely) atheistic positions such as "neither believing in the immortality nor incorruptibility of the soul, nor in a life to come."
Renaissance and Reformation
The term athéisme was coined in France in the sixteenth century. The word "atheist" appears in English books at least as early as 1566. The concept of atheism re-emerged initially as a reaction to the intellectual and religious turmoil of the Age of Enlightenment and the Reformation – as a charge used by those who saw the denial of god and godlessness in the controversial positions being put forward by others. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the word 'atheist' was used exclusively as an insult; nobody wanted to be regarded as an atheist. Although one overtly atheistic compendium known as the Theophrastus redivivus was published by an anonymous author in the seventeenth century, atheism was an epithet implying a lack of moral restraint. How dangerous it was to be accused of being an atheist at this time is illustrated by the examples of Étienne Dolet who was strangled and burned in 1546, and Giulio Cesare Vanini who received a similar fate in 1619. In 1689 the Polish nobleman Kazimierz Łyszczyński, who had allegedly denied the existence of God in his philosophical treatise De non existentia Dei, was condemned to death in Warsaw for atheism and beheaded after his tongue was pulled out with a burning iron and his hands slowly burned. Similarly in 1766, the French nobleman Jean-François de la Barre, was tortured, beheaded, and his body burned for alleged vandalism of a crucifix, a case that became celebrated because Voltaire tried unsuccessfully to have the sentence reversed.
The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was also accused of atheism, but he denied it. His theism was unusual, in that he held god to be material. Even earlier, the British playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe (1563–1593) was accused of atheism when a tract denying the divinity of Christ was found in his home. Before he could finish defending himself against the charge, Marlowe was murdered.
In early modern times, the first explicit atheist known by name was the German-languaged Danish critic of religion Matthias Knutzen (1646–after 1674), who published three atheist writings in 1674.
The Age of Enlightenment
Arguably the first book in modern times solely dedicated to promoting atheism was written by French Catholic priest Jean Meslier (1664–1729), whose posthumously published lengthy philosophical essay (part of the original title: Thoughts and Feelings of Jean Meslier ... Clear and Evident Demonstrations of the Vanity and Falsity of All the Religions of the World) rejects the concept of god (both in the Christian and also in the Deistic sense), the soul, miracles and the discipline of theology. Philosopher Michel Onfray states that Meslier's work marks the beginning of "the history of true atheism".
By the 1770s, atheism in some predominantly Christian countries was ceasing to be a dangerous accusation that required denial, and was evolving into a position openly avowed by some. The first open denial of the existence of God and avowal of atheism since classical times may be that of Baron d'Holbach (1723–1789) in his 1770 work, The System of Nature. D'Holbach was a Parisian social figure who conducted a famous salon widely attended by many intellectual notables of the day, including Denis Diderot, Jean Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Benjamin Franklin. Nevertheless, his book was published under a pseudonym, and was banned and publicly burned by the Executioner. Diderot, one of the Enlightenment's most prominent philosophes, and editor-in-chief of the Encyclopédie, which sought to challenge religious, particularly Catholic, dogma said, "Reason is to the estimation of the philosophe what grace is to the Christian", he wrote. "Grace determines the Christian's action; reason the philosophe's". Diderot was briefly imprisoned for his writing, some of which was banned and burned.
The Cult of Reason was a creed based on atheism devised during the French Revolution by Jacques Hébert, Pierre Gaspard Chaumette, and their supporters. It was stopped by Maximilien Robespierre, a Deist, who instituted the Cult of the Supreme Being. Both cults were the outcome of the "de-Christianization" of French society during the Revolution and part of the Reign of Terror.
The culte de la Raison developed during the uncertain period 1792–94 (Years I and III of the Revolution), following the September Massacres, when Revolutionary France was ripe with fears of internal and foreign enemies. Several Parisian churches were transformed into Temples of Reason, notably the Church of Saint-Paul Saint-Louis in the Marais. The churches were closed in May 1793 and more securely, 24 November 1793, when the Catholic Mass was forbidden.
The Cult of Reason was celebrated in a carnival atmosphere of parades, ransacking of churches, ceremonious iconoclasm, in which religious and royal images were defaced, and ceremonies which substituted the "martyrs of the Revolution" for Christian martyrs. The earliest public demonstrations took place en province, outside Paris, notably by Hébertists in Lyon, but took a further radical turn with the Fête de la Liberté ("Festival of Liberty") at Notre Dame de Paris, 10 November (20 Brumaire) 1793, in ceremonies devised and organised by Pierre-Gaspard Chaumette. The Cult of Reason centered upon a young woman designated the Goddess of Reason.
The pamphlet Answer to Dr. Priestley's Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever (1782) is considered to be the first published declaration of atheism in Britain – plausibly the first in English (as distinct from covert or cryptically atheist works). The otherwise unknown 'William Hammon' (possibly a pseudonym) signed the preface and postscript as editor of the work, and the anonymous main text is attributed to Matthew Turner (d. 1788?), a Liverpool physician who may have known Priestley. Historian of atheism David Berman has argued strongly for Turner's authorship, but also suggested that there may have been two authors.
The French Revolution of 1789 catapulted atheistic thought into political notability in some Western countries, and opened the way for the nineteenth century movements of Rationalism, Freethought, and Liberalism. Born in 1792, Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, a child of the Age of Enlightenment, was expelled from England's Oxford University in 1811 for submitting to the Dean an anonymous pamphlet that he wrote entitled, The Necessity of Atheism. This pamphlet is considered by scholars as the first atheistic ideas published in the English language. An early atheistic influence in Germany was The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872). He influenced other German nineteenth century atheistic thinkers like Karl Marx, Max Stirner, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900).
The freethinker Charles Bradlaugh (1833–1891) was repeatedly elected to the British Parliament, but was not allowed to take his seat after his request to affirm rather than take the religious oath was turned down (he then offered to take the oath, but this too was denied him). After Bradlaugh was re-elected for the fourth time, a new Speaker allowed Bradlaugh to take the oath and permitted no objections. He became the first outspoken atheist to sit in Parliament, where he participated in amending the Oaths Act.
In 1844, Karl Marx (1818–1883), an atheistic political economist, wrote in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right: "Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people." Marx believed that people turn to religion in order to dull the pain caused by the reality of social situations; that is, Marx suggests religion is an attempt at transcending the material state of affairs in a society – the pain of class oppression – by effectively creating a dream world, rendering the religious believer amenable to social control and exploitation in this world while they hope for relief and justice in life after death. In the same essay, Marx states, "...[m]an creates religion, religion does not create man..."
Friedrich Nietzsche, a prominent nineteenth century philosopher, is well known for coining the aphorism "God is dead" (German: "Gott ist tot"); incidentally the phrase was not spoken by Nietzsche directly, but was used as a dialogue for the characters in his works. Nietzsche argued that Christian theism as a belief system had been a moral foundation of the Western world, and that the rejection and collapse of this foundation as a result of modern thinking (the death of God) would naturally cause a rise in nihilism or the lack of values. While Nietzsche was staunchly atheistic, he was also concerned about the negative effects of nihilism on humanity. As such, he called for a re-evaluation of old values and a creation of new ones, hoping that in doing so humans would achieve a higher state he labeled the Overman.
Atheist feminism also began in the nineteenth century. Atheist feminism is a movement that advocates feminism within atheism. Atheist feminists also oppose religion as a main source of female oppression and inequality, believing that the majority of the religions are sexist and oppressive to women.
Atheism in the twentieth century found recognition in a wide variety of other, broader philosophies in the Western tradition, such as existentialism, Objectivism, secular humanism, nihilism, logical positivism, Marxism, anarchism, feminism, and the general scientific and rationalist movement. Neopositivism and analytical philosophy discarded classical rationalism and metaphysics in favor of strict empiricism and epistemological nominalism. Proponents such as Bertrand Russell emphatically rejected belief in God. In his early work, Ludwig Wittgenstein attempted to separate metaphysical and supernatural language from rational discourse. H. L. Mencken sought to debunk both the idea that science and religion are compatible, and the idea that science is a dogmatic belief system just like any religion
A. J. Ayer asserted the unverifiability and meaninglessness of religious statements, citing his adherence to the empirical sciences. The structuralism of Lévi-Strauss sourced religious language to the human subconscious, denying its transcendental meaning. J. N. Findlay and J. J. C. Smart argued that the existence of God is not logically necessary. Naturalists and materialists such as John Dewey considered the natural world to be the basis of everything, denying the existence of God or immortality.
The twentieth century also saw the political advancement of atheism, spurred on by interpretation of the works of Marx and Engels. State support of atheism and opposition to organized religion was made policy in all communist states, including the People's Republic of China and the former Soviet Union. In theory and in practice these states were secular. The justifications given for the social and political sidelining of religious organizations addressed, on one hand, the "irrationality" of religious belief, and on the other, the "parasitical" nature of the relationship between the church and the population. Churches were sometimes tolerated, but subject to strict control – church officials had to be vetted by the state, while attendance at church functions could endanger one's career. Very often, the state's opposition to religion took more violent forms; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn documents widespread persecution, imprisonments and torture of believers, in his seminal work The Gulag Archipelago. Consequently, religious organizations, such as the Catholic Church, were among the most stringent opponents of communist regimes. In some cases, the initial strict measures of control and opposition to religious activity were gradually relaxed in communist states. On the other hand, Albania under Enver Hoxha became, in 1967, the first (and to date only) formally declared atheist state, going far beyond what most other countries had attempted – completely prohibiting religious observance, and systematically repressing and persecuting adherents. The right to religious practice was restored in the fall of communism in 1991.
In India, E. V. Ramasami Naicker (Periyar), a prominent atheist leader, fought against Hinduism and the Brahmins for discriminating and dividing people in the name of caste and religion. This was highlighted in 1956 when he made the Hindu god Rama wear a garland made of slippers and made antitheistic statements.
During the Cold War, the United States often characterized its opponents as "godless communists", which tended to reinforce the view that atheists were unreliable and unpatriotic. Against this background, the words "under God" were inserted into the pledge of allegiance in 1954, and the national motto was changed from E Pluribus Unum to In God We Trust in 1956. However, there were some prominent atheist activists active at this time. Atheist Vashti McCollum was the plaintiff in a landmark 1948 Supreme Court case that struck down religious education in U.S. public schools. Madalyn Murray O'Hair was perhaps one of the most influential American atheists; she brought forth the 1963 Supreme Court case Murray v. Curlett which banned compulsory prayer in public schools.
The early twenty-first century has continued to see secularism and atheism promoted in the Western world, with the general consensus being that the number of people not affiliated with any particular religion has increased. This has been assisted by non-profit organizations such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation in the United States (co-founded by Anne Nicol Gaylor and her daughter, Annie Laurie Gaylor, in 1976 and incorporated nationally in 1978, it promotes the separation of church and state), and the Brights movement, which aims to promote public understanding and acknowledgment of the naturalistic worldview. In addition, a large number of accessible antitheist and secularist books, many of which have become bestsellers, have been published by authors such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Victor J. Stenger. This period has seen the rise of the New Atheism movement, a label that has been applied, sometimes pejoratively, to outspoken critics of theism. Richard Dawkins also propounds a more visible form of atheist activism which he light-heartedly describes as 'militant atheism'.
In August 2012 Jennifer McCreight founded a movement within atheism known as Atheism Plus, that "applies skepticism to everything, including social issues like sexism, racism, politics, poverty, and crime."  It has a website.
In 2013 the first atheist monument on American government property was unveiled at the Bradford County Courthouse in Florida; it is a 1,500-pound granite bench and plinth inscribed with quotes by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Madalyn Murray O'Hair.
- Atheist feminism
- Continuity thesis
- Lists of atheists
- New atheism
- Psychology of religion
- Rationalist movement
- Sociology of religion
- Theory of religious economy
- Armstrong, K. (1999). A History of God. London: Vintage. ISBN 0-09-927367-5
- Berman, D. (1990). A History of Atheism in Britain: from Hobbes to Russell. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-04727-7
- Buckley, M. J. (1987). At the origins of modern atheism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Drachmann, A. B. (1922). Atheism in Pagan Antiquity. Chicago: Ares Publishers, 1977 ("an unchanged reprint of the 1922 edition"). ISBN 0-89005-201-8
- McGrath, A. (2005). The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. ISBN 0-385-50062-9
- Thrower, James (1971). A Short History of Western Atheism. London: Pemberton. ISBN 1-57392-756-2
- The History of Freethought and Atheism – by Dr. Gordon Stein at Positiveatheism.org