Atheism and Theism are not worldviews …

So, there’s been a debate (re)started over what it means to be an atheist, and if a specifically atheist identity can go beyond the mere lack of belief in gods. Which is what P.Z. Myers titles his latest post on the subject, where he goes after a set of Twitter comments by Russell Blackford on the subject.

Myers assembles Blackford’s tweets into a paragraph like this:

Just to be clear. My stance as a pro-feminist man does NOT follow from the fact that I am an atheist. Even if I became a philosophical deist overnight, I would maintain the same stance. Let’s not oversellMere atheism what mere atheism entails. None of which is to deny that actual religions can be used to provide false rationales for some abhorrent views.

Myers starts his reply this way:

That’s a bit of a mess, so let’s unpack it. I find interesting because my pro-feminist stance does follow from the fact that I am an atheist; perhaps we ought to recognize that there is more than one way to be an atheist, something I’ve been saying for a long time, and apparently Blackford and I are very different kinds of atheist.

Casting this as being able to be different kinds of atheist is quite revealing. The underlying argument throughout all of this has been that certain things follow from atheism, or at least from atheism for certain individuals. But if Myers is going to concede that there can be different types of atheists that can all legitimately be called atheists, then it seems that it doesn’t really follow from atheism qua atheism, but instead from your other beliefs and your worldview in general. Which would be what those who talk about “mere atheism” are trying to argue.

This becomes clearer when Myers talks about how these things follow from his atheism, as he repeats what he’s said before:

In my case, the absence of a god invalidates all truth claims by revelation and all the traditional authority of holy books. It creates an epistemic gap, which I suppose someone could fill with just about anything: whim, utility, emotional needs, dice-rolling, whatever. I have no idea how Blackford explains cause and reason, but I know how I do: by an acceptance of natural causes which can be examined empirically and by experiment…by science. I also concede that where I can’t apply science in evaluating human motives, I use empathy and the principle of equating another’s condition with my own.

My atheism entails using those methods to resolve ethical decisions, for instance. That’s my toolkit. My atheism has stripped me of the tools of dogma and authoritarianism (and good riddance).

But then, I don’t need any other mechanism — it seems to me that science and love of my fellow human beings is more than sufficient argument to guide the entirety of my life. And those are necessary axioms that I am compelled to accept by my atheism, even if there could exist alternate axioms that would also fill the gap left by the absence of gods.

So what he’s really saying here is this: When I become an atheist, I have to give up the worldview I had that depended on it. At that point, I need to adopt a new worldview, and thus have a new basis for my worldview. Once I have that worldview, then I can go on acting in the world according to that worldview. So, becoming an atheist has forced me to change my worldview, and this is the worldview I ended up with. Thus, my worldview follows from my atheism.

In a sense, this is correct, in that if someone had a worldview that relied on a God existing and then came to believe that no gods exist, then one would have to — to be rational — abandon that worldview and build a new one. This, of course, would only happen for people who started with a religious worldview and then became atheists, as people who never had a religious worldview would have developed a worldview that didn’t depend on a belief in God at all — even if they did believe in God.

However, where it goes wrong is that it implies that the worldview that Myers adopts is, in fact, derived from atheism. It isn’t. Myers could have built his new worldview on dogmatism and authoritarianism (and some might accuse him of having done just that) and still claimed to derive it from atheism in just the same way as he claims to have derived his undogmatic and anti-authoritarian from atheism. His view, therefore, is consistent with atheism, but not derived from it. In fact, it would probably be more reasonable to say that his atheism likely followed from those values, rather than the converse. Note that Myers concedes here that this is the case and that there are other axioms he could use to fill that gap, but these are the ones he chose. Saying that he is compelled by his atheism is just false; interpreting him as charitably as possible, it sounds like it is more empathy and naturalism that does that, not atheism.

And the reason for this is clear: atheism and theism are, at their heart, beliefs (or lack of beliefs) about a specific proposition: There exists a god. They aren’t worldviews in and of themselves, and as such can’t be used to replace a worldview. If you say that you’re an atheist, no one can say anything else about you other than that you lack a belief in gods; if you say that you’re a theist, all someone can say is that you believe in one or more gods. They can’t say anything about your other views. Does it mean that you’re a feminist, or a misogynist, or a liberal, or a conservative, or a moral relativist or a deontologist or a consequentiast or someone who is interested in socal justice or anything else? No. Not at all. Those follow from your worldview, and atheism and theism are not worldviews. If you are an atheist, you don’t even have to be a naturalist, as you can accept that some supernatural things exist … just not gods.

The issue, then, with the people like Myers who are advocating for atheism to be something more is that they want to turn atheism into a worldview. But if you do that, then you’re going to have to insist that people who call themselves atheist accept certain things, things beyond just lacking a belief in gods. And this worries those who don’t consider atheism to be a worldview. It’s one thing when the things that people are saying are part of atheism are just obvious facts, but if you hold a more radical view — Myers, for example, is on the far end of the liberal scale, it seems to me — then you would be saying that things follow from atheism that other atheists disagree with. If Myers wants to represent atheism a certain way, then it would mean that he would represent atheism as being something that a lot of atheists don’t accept, not merely as part of atheism but even as part of their worldview. Now, Myers can claim that he is just speaking for himself … but then he has no reason to object to the “merely atheists” who say that atheism just is that. Myers can easily claim that he has an atheistic worldview, where his lack of belief in gods plays a much stronger role in justifying and defining his worldview than it might in others while still accepting that atheism itself is indeed just that “mere lack of belief”.

That he seems resistant to doing that seems like he’s after the former more than the latter. And that’s precisely what the “mere atheists” don’t want to happen.


3 Responses to “Atheism and Theism are not worldviews …”

  1. Crude Says:

    Is it just me, or does Myers seem to be in a downward spiral? I saw he supposedly left the skeptic movement recently – I think on the grounds that not enough people were jumping onboard his politics train. I get the impression he’s becoming the Cult of Gnu atheists even other gnus don’t really want to be associated with.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I’ve been following the general kerfuffles becuase all the sites that I love to hate are talking about it, and it seems that the movement is fracturing itself, mostly due to the fact that most of the people in it are generally uncompromising and treat people who disagree strongly with them as actual enemies as opposed to people who disagree with them. I’ve been meaning to comment on the latest thing with Ron Lindsey, but at one point he was considered a great person and very supportive and now when he says something that they disagree with — that might have been at an inappropriate time, I concede — suddenly he’s terrible and CFI is horrid and sholudn’t get any support at all unless they drop him. The same thing happened to D.J. Groethe, who helped TAM get many more female presenters but when he objected to Watson’s claim that TAM wasn’t a “safe space” — which was essentially a misunderstanding — then he was horrible as well. And Dawkins has long extolled the virtues of feminism, and yet his one comment — which was both right and wrong — had Watson et all saying that they wouldn’t even recommend his science anymore.

      Now, I think it reasonable to say that none of them handled the criticism properly, but as someone who is on the outside looking in that’s a charge that can be laid at Myers et al as well. And it looks bad for atheism because if people who seem to agree on so much can’t work together over differences that at times can seem petty, how can we expect them to work with people with radically different worldviews?

  2. Does the Atheist Movement Have a Sexism Problem? | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] Freelance Philosopher « Atheism and Theism are not worldviews … […]

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