Pharyngula

Why are you an atheist?

Once again, I have proven my ability to drive people into a frothing rage against me. Only this time it isn’t a mob of religious fanatics and anti-choicers who have called me pond scum who will go to hell, an insect souled vile man, a black-souled amoral monster, pure evil, morally depraved, with a depraved mind, descend[ing] down the various stages into madness, and so forth…but I have this time managed to antagonize a bunch of atheists. Feel my pain.

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All right, to be honest, it really doesn’t sting that much.

The godless raged at me on youtube and twitter, thanks to the recent broadcast of my talk in Montreal. I have a tangent in that talk where I deplore Dictionary Atheists, going so far as to say I hate those guys, because they’re so superficial. Apparently some people identify with shallow atheism, because they took it personally and got rather upset.

I had to think about this. Should I back down and apologize, and maybe revise my opinion of this subset of the atheist community? Have I gone too far?

Nah. Obviously what this calls for is an escalation. I think I need to summarize all the things about atheism that bug me, and that I wish people would stop doing. There simply aren’t enough atheists angry at me now. So let’s get to it and piss everyone off! It’ll be fun! Here’s a list.

Dictionary Atheists. Boy, I really do hate these guys. You’ve got a discussion going, talking about why you’re an atheist, or what atheism should mean to the community, or some such topic that is dealing with our ideas and society, and some smug wanker comes along and announces that “Atheism means you lack a belief in gods. Nothing more. Quit trying to add meaning to the term.” As if atheism can only be some platonic ideal floating in virtual space with no connections to anything else; as if atheists are people who have attained a zen-like ideal, their minds a void, containing nothing but atheism, which itself is nothing. Dumbasses.

If I ask you to explain to me why you are an atheist, reciting the dictionary at me, you are saying nothing: asking why you are a person who does not believe in god is not answered when you reply, “Because I am a person who does not believe in god.” And if you protest when I say that there is more to the practice of atheism than that, insisting that there isn’t just makes you dogmatic and blind.

In that Montreal talk, I explained that there is more to my atheism than simple denial of one claim; it’s actually based on a scientific attitude that values evidence and reason, that rejects claims resting solely on authority, and that encourages deeper exploration of the world. My atheism is not solely a negative claim about gods, but is based on a whole set of positive values that I will emphasize when talking about atheism. That denial of god thing? It’s a consequence, not a cause.

Now I don’t claim that my values are part of the definition of atheism — I just told you I hate those dictionary quoters — nor do I consider them universal to atheism. I’ve met plenty of atheists who are in our camp over issues of social justice — they see god-belief as a source of social evils, and that’s why they reject it. That is valid and reasonable. There are atheists who consider human well-being as the metric to use, and we call them humanists; no problem. There are also atheists who are joining the game because their cool friends (or Daniel Radcliff) are atheists; that’s a stupid reason, but they are atheists.

My point is that nobody becomes an atheist because of an absence of values, and no one becomes an atheist because the dictionary tells them they are. I think we also do a disservice to the movement when we pretend it’s solely a mob of individuals who lack a belief, rather than an organization with positive goals and values.

Oh, on a related note, I also get a lot of comments that atheism is a privative attribute which strictly speaking, lacks any specific positive qualities. This is true of the dictionary definition. It is not true of atheism in its actual usage: it carries a lot of accreted baggage, as this little cartoon illustrates.

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Babies are all atheists or I’m an atheist by default, because I was raised without religion. Nope. Uh-uh. Same problem as the Dictionary Atheist — it implies atheism is simply an intellectual vacuum. Babies aren’t Christians or Muslims or Hindus, and they aren’t atheists, either, because we expect at least a token amount of thought is given to the subject. If babies are atheists, then so are trees and rocks — which is true by the dictionary definition, but also illustrates how ridiculously useless that definition is.

Babies might also have an in-built predisposition to accept the existence of caring intelligences greater than themselves, so they might all lean towards generic theism, anyway. Mommy is God, after all.

There are a fair number of adults who ought to know better who insist on the dictionary definition, too. They’ve been brought up without god-belief, and some of them may not have even considered religion much at all. Unless they are real lightweights, genuine feathers adrift in the wind, they also carry a set of values that incline them towards godlessness…otherwise you’d expect them to fall on their knees and turn Christian the instant they first hear about Jesus. They don’t, and why? Probably because they learned some critical thinking skills from their parents. They carry positive values that make them resistant to the cheap promises of faith.

The “I believe in no gods/I lack belief in gods” debate. I have heard this so often, the hair-splitting grammatical distinctions some atheists think so seriously important in defining themselves. All you’re doing is defining yourselves as anal retentive freaks, people! Get over it. Either way, you’re an atheist — and that goes for the over-philosophized fussbudgets who insist that they’re agnostics, not atheists, because they aren’t 100% positive there aren’t any gods, only 99 44/100ths positive. Atheism is such a general club, and it’s so easy to fall into the definition, that it’s silly to sit around arguing about how close to the fence you’re sitting.

I don’t care. Tell me what virtues you bring, what experiences brought you here, why your values matter to society. The fine-grained shuffling about to define yourself so precisely is simply narcissistic masturbation.

Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings. The second sentence is false. Religion does not turn you into a terrorist. The overwhelming majority of religious people have similar values to yours; my church-going grandmother would have been just as horrified at people using their faith to justify murdering people as the most hardened atheist, and there have been atheist individuals who also think they are justified in killing people for the cause. So stop saying this!

I would say, though, that religion does make one more susceptible to bad ideas. After all, if you’ve spent your whole life learning to dampen your critical faculties and avoid questioning the Holy Trinity and the Magic Mother of God, it’s not so hard to accept that the people in the IRS building are plotting to put a mind-control chip in your head. I oppose religion because we can see its effects on even otherwise brilliant people: it short-circuits skepticism and leaves them open to dangerous and erroneous ideas. It’s just that usually we can trust in the cooperative social nature of human beings, and the kind of dangerous idea usually plopped into their brains is that it is good to bring sugar cookies made with a pound of pure butter to the church social.

“I just believe in one less god than you do”. OK, I don’t hate this one. There is actually a germ of a valid point in there: disbelief in itself is good and normal social practice, and even the most zealous theist actively disbelieves in many things. That’s a good point to make in a world where people cite blind faith as a virtue.

But that’s the only point that can be made from it, and it has its own perils. It implies many things that are not true. The theist you’re arguing with did not go through a process where he analyzed his beliefs logically, and excluded 99% of all gods by reason and their lack of evidence; in fact, he probably never in his life seriously considered any of those other faiths (he is 99% Dictionary Atheist, in other words). He came to his personal faith by way of a series of personal, positive (to him!) predispositions, not by progressive exclusion of other ideas, and he’s simply not going to see the relevance of your argument. Would you be swayed if someone pointed out that you disbelieve astrology, homeopathy, tarot, witchcraft, and palmistry, and he has simply gone one step further than you, and also disbelieves in evolution?

Similarly, you did not go through a list of religions, analysing each one, and ticking them off as unbelievable. I certainly didn’t. Instead, you come to the table with an implicit set of criteria, like evidence and plausibility and experimental support, and also a mistrust of unfounded authority or claims that are too good to be true, and they incline you to accept naturalism, for instance, as a better explanation of the world. Turning it into a quantitative debate about how many gods we accept, instead of a substantial debate about the actual philosophical underpinnings of our ideas, is kind of lame, I think.

I could probably come up with a few more peeves — I am genuinely a world-class expert in finding fault — but let’s stop there. My main point is that one general flaw in many atheists is a lack of appreciation for why they find themselves comfortable with that label, and it always lies in a set of sometimes unexamined working metrics for how the world works. You are an atheist — take pride in what you do believe, not what you deny. And also learn to appreciate that the opposition hasn’t arrived at their conclusions in a vacuum. There are actually deeper reasons that they so fervently endorse supernatural authorities, and they aren’t always accounted for by stupidity.