PZ has decided he hasn't peeved enough people, and made a list of atheist arguments he dislikes. And he's right. For instance, he's down on:
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.
â¦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 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 â¦ nor do I consider them universal to atheism. â¦
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.
I don't disagree. Where this could get problematic is if atheism became a label for a movement uncoupled from the dictionary definition. Or if an atheist movement driven by a set of additional values excluded other people who share those additional values just because those other people didn't agree about the god thing. To me, this raises questions about whether we need an atheist movement per se (beyond a movement to defend the rights and concerns specific to dictionary atheists, naturally), or atheists would be better served by joining or forming coalitions with non-atheists who share the same values and goals. But that's a different discussion.
PZ's other pet peeve arguments:
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 â it implies atheism is simply an intellectual vacuum. â¦ If babies are atheists, then so are trees and rocks â 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. â¦
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. â¦
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!â¦
"I just believe in one less god than you do".
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.
This all makes sense to me, and it's nice to see atheists critiquing their own bad arguments.
PZ has a point for each of his complaints, yet those arguments are not meant to be logical proofs. Those are slogans or catch phrases, not formal arguments. They have utility for making specific points.
For example "science flies to the moon, religion flies into buildings" is not an argument that all religious people have bad values. Rather, it is a starting point for pointing out how disastrous anti-social actions can be founded on the scriptures of their religion.
"All babies are born atheist" makes the point that theism is not the default belief for humans. The atheist is not saying that atheism is a vacuum, he/she is making a different point, one that many theists have not considered because theism is presumed in their culture.
The catch phrases are meant to get people's attention, it is the responsibility of the speaker to provide the context necessary to complete the message. PZ is being unduly critical, again.
"For example "science flies to the moon, religion flies into buildings" is not an argument that all religious people have bad values. Rather, it is a starting point for pointing out how disastrous anti-social actions can be founded on the scriptures of their religion."
Yes, but as PZ said, you can found disastrous anti-social actions on atheism or science too. So you're saying nothing.
For example "Religion cares for the disabled, Science eugenicises them" is equally as true as your favoured saying. Which is to say that it badly distorts the issues in a dishonest attempt to gain the rhetorical upper hand.
I have to completely agree with both you and PZ on these points. I've been critical of these arguments myself for years (for the record, in PZ's ongoing argument with Coyne over What evidence would make you believe in G?, I tend to side with PZ; it wasn't simply a lack of evidence that made me an atheist and I can't imagine what type of mere evidence could make me change my worldview.) My only nitpick is with your last sentence:
... it's nice to see atheists critiquing their own bad arguments.
It's a grammatical/semantic quibble, but when I read that, it sounds like you're saying that individual atheists are critiquing their own arguments (which is what a True Skepticâ¢ should do all the time) rather than critiquing the arguments of fellow atheists. [/nitpick]
Josh Rosenau: Where this could get problematic is if atheism became a label for a movement uncoupled from the dictionary definition.
Which is where it's useful to distinguish between atheism as a Philosophical position with a lack of belief in Gods (or the class of such philosophical positions, including variants as divergent as Soviet Communism and Randite Capitalism), and atheism as an Anthropological grouping, which includes certain beliefs, behaviors, and practices not solely limited to the question of God's existence, but also (say) emphasis on validity and use of certain kinds of inference (science, math, propositional predicate logic) as a means of testing understanding.
Unsurprisingly, the Pew Forum has found not all those whose philosophical position is atheist self-identify anthropologically as Atheists. Rather more surprisingly, the Pew Forum has also found not all of those who anthropologically self-identify as Atheist are atheist in the philosophical sense. Or in other words: it's already somewhat uncoupled.
The question, then, would seem to be what other philosophical labels are appropriate to characterize the anthropological grouping PZ is thinking of as "Atheist"? PZ would probably get behind "skeptic" and "humanist", I suspect - although he's fond enough of cephalopods that the latter is uncertain.
I'm really glad he's taking the time to analyze atheist arguments, too. It's great that he emphasizes the need for atheism to stem from a science-based, rational worldview.
That being said, I think he's very wrong about "Dictionary Atheists". Sure, HIS atheism stems from his worldview. So does mine. But there are plenty of atheists who do not share that worldview. They do not believe in any gods, but are more than happy to believe in plenty of other random pseudoscience. They're still atheists.
When I say, "Atheism means you lack a belief in gods. Nothing more. Quit trying to add meaning to the term" - and I have told people just that - I mean to implore them to not confuse atheism with skepticism. Some atheists, some people who do not believe in any gods, are extremely credulous on other matters. Atheism is a form of skepticism; skepticism is NOT a form of atheism.
I have a peeve against annoying arrogant pricks like PZ Myers.
Marshall: "Atheism is a form of skepticism; skepticism is NOT a form of atheism."
Well said. "Atheism" means the absence of theism; nothing more.
Definitions are critically important, especially when many are eager to twist definitions in order to win discussions.
"Atheism" does not mean the lack of belief in ghosts or Sasquatch. Atheism only means the lack of belief in gods as depicted by religions.
I like the term "skeptic" to cover lack of belief in Sasquatch and other entities lacking adequate evidence (including, of course, gods), but that's too common a word to really convey the intended meaning. One can be skeptical that one's elected official will vote as promised. One can be skeptical that one's date's proclamation of chastity is true.
Skepticism of supernatural claims deserves its own word.
I request that an effort be made to solidify critical definitions so that they won't be twisted as have so many religious definitions been twisted over millenia.
"Love your enemy as yourself" remains true to its original intent. "Just war" gains a new meaning with each new generation. Rigid definitions of pivotal words are critical.
First and foremost, I request that a "god" be defined as a supernatural being, with awareness and intent.
Saying that the universe is "god" because it is so vast and wonderful must fail the definition. Saying that humanity is "god" because of the amazing things some humans have managed to do fails the definition.
Using the word "god" in a sloppy manner confuses discussion.
Likewise, rigidly defining the word "atheism" is needed for useful discussion. Saying that one who believes in YWHW but doesn't believe in Ra is an atheist fails the definition.
Marshall: Sure, HIS atheism stems from his worldview. So does mine. But there are plenty of atheists who do not share that worldview.
In my case, a significant part of the "science" basis of my worldview tends to result from more fundamental propositions. This is subtly different from taking such a view as valid a priori â akin to (say) the difference between accepting Relativity experimentally, versus accepting Relativity as the One True theory.
Blizno: First and foremost, I request that a "god" be defined as a supernatural being, with awareness and intent.
That would seem to NOT be first and foremost, as it leaves ambiguous whether "awareness" and "intent" are necessary and/or sufficient conditions to status as "supernatural".
Personally, I've grown averse to the terms "natural" and "supernatural"; I prefer "experiential" - that which is experienced, or which produces it. Without intending personal offense, your use of the term "supernatural" itself seems sloppy.
Blizno: Likewise, rigidly defining the word "atheism" is needed for useful discussion.
Or at least at some point defining the limits of some manner of rigidity. (As I alluded, the term already has some ambiguity.) Something in the nature of AM-polynomial probabilistic uncertainty might be nice.
There's also the question of what is-ought bridge is implicitly taken in "useful"; "semantic" or "communicative" might be a more exact choice of phrase.
Mind you, I may be a little mad.
I DO think the definition "atheism is a lack of belief in a god" is the most accurate, although I don't get vehement about it. It best describes my own atheism, and explains why atheists are not well organized. It is hard to get too excited about a LACK of something and organize around it. It also fits in with those experiments where certain parts of the brain were electrically stimulated, producing religious feelings in many subjects, although not all. Maybe those of us who lack a belief in any gods lack that part of the brain that produces these feelings. Now, you can certainly add to it- you can be a secular humanist, or strongly anti-religion, or an advocate for church-state separation- but these are not essential. At the core is the absense of belief.
I second most of the points made by Harold (comment 1.)
I see where PZ is coming from but I completely disagree with his take on "dictionary atheists." Atheism is simply not believing in gods. There are a number of reasons to stick with this strict and limited definition.
For starters, as Josh pointed out, the word shouldn't be confused with any particular popular movement. Whatever values we may have, they are not functions of our atheism and they are certainly not universally shared among atheists. Equating atheism with humanism, skepticism or some epistemological fundamentalism just isn't useful.
It also plays into the whole "atheism as religion" meme. There are people who actually believe there is a grand conspiracy or some "Atheist Agenda" to promote abortion and homosexuality and who knows what else. Atheism simply meaning "no belief in gods" helps pull the rug out from under them.
I find myself providing that dictionary definition quite a lot. But then I'll continue the conversation by elaborating on my values, philosophies, and epistemological foundations.
I do think PZ is overlooking the value of the "I just believe in one less god than you do" argument. He writes,
"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 [...]"
Yes, that's exactly what I'm trying to make the theist see. This usually starts when the theist asks me, "How can you dismiss God so easily when you admit you can't prove he doesn't exist?" I point out all the gods *he* dismisses without (dis)proof, so he realizes he does the same thing, and also understands why it makes sense.
"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?"
Of course not. But I would be forced to explain why evolution is not in the same category as those others. That means I have to understand the differences myself.
If I point out to a theist how many gods he disbelieves in, it requires him to explain (and understand) why his god is different from all the others. And as PZ points out, most theists haven't really thought about it. I think that if they ponder why their god is different from Zeus they will run into problems. The only answers they'll get are "more people believe in my god" or "my god's promises are better than Zeus's" or "my god just *feels* true to me."
If they are basically rational they'll realize that none of these are compelling reasons. And if they aren't rational, it was a waste of time to argue with them in the first place.
Regarding the "science flies to the moon, religion flies into buildings" statement, I think that you need to consider the context in which it occurs.
Many theists I've argued with begin with the premise that belief in their god imparts values that atheists lack. That's a very nasty tactic: it amounts to dehumanizing atheists. I won't stand for it, and indeed, you can't have a discussion with someone who thinks you're that alien.
So I use statements like this to demonstrate that simply being religious doesn't guarantee good values. I can ask, "Who has better values, an atheist or Osama bin Laden?" This also forces the theist to realize that when he said religion imparts values, he was only thinking of his own religion.
The fundamental flaw in PZ's "Dictionary Atheist" peeve is that it will ultimately requires him to use the "no true Scotsman" fallacy at some point or another.
He talks about "his atheism", but for words to have meaning multiple people must know them. By insisting on his own definition, he ends up insisting on a word that no on else understands. What other people think they understands is a word that includes more than just the modern western idea of atheism.
The "no true Scotsman" fallacy comes into play when lots of people (a LOT of people) have already made the connection between atheism and communism. That old tired canard, as annoying as it is, does have one correct point. Stalin really could have been an atheist.
At this point, PZ is left with either identifying with that atheism (I don't see him doing that) or pointing out that Stalin wasn't a "rational" atheist. Not a "true" atheist.
The truth is that atheism is not necessarily a rational position. Babies aren't atheists because is makes sense, but they are still atheists, not rational ones, not PZ'z "true" atheists.
So it's PZ's hill to climb if he wants the world to start using atheism his way, but until that happens we are stuck having to re-explain it every time we use the word. Now we have to use HIS definition!
PZ should accept that the word is inadequate to convey what he wants it to and come up with a new word, because the fresh confusion is much worse than the old confusion.
Use Humanist, or New Atheist. New words don't come with those preexisting misunderstandings.
I rather enjoy keeping it simple.
"That guy over there is a theist. He found out that I don't think his deity is real. When he asked me about my deity, I told him I don't have one. He then pigeon holed me as an A-theist."
I kept calling him a theist even though he told me he is Catholic. When he finally asked why I kept calling him this term, I explained that he has defined me in the negative. It does not say anything about what I think. Why should I refer to him as a Catholic when he has not taken the time to ask me about how I define myself in the positive.
When he finally asks me... I tell him that I am a secular humanist. Now we can start to examine my philosophical, metaphysical, ethical and scientific stances compared to his.
The GAY community was given that name as a negative connotation. They embraced the term and gave it their own positive spin. I get that PZ and others want to do this. I don't think this is a good idea for one reason. My goal is to change hearts and minds. A homosexual is a homosexual. It is not a choice. It's not like you are going to change their minds. So, the gay community embraces the term.
A theist can change his mind. However, they are not going to let go of their death grip to the side of the mountain unless they are shown that two feet under the fog is is a sturdy long expansive landing. In fact, I would like PZ to post why he is not a secular humanist. Check out Council for Secular Humanism.