What does atheism entail?

P.Z Myers has, for quite some time now, been talking about atheism and what it entails. Basically, he’s continually railed at “Dictionary atheists” who insist that atheism means nothing more than “Lacks belief in gods” and insisting that it does and should mean much, much more … and usually, that “much, much more” means liberal values. He insists that this follows from atheism, essentially arguing that once you stop getting your values from gods, you have to get them from yourself and other humans … and that this then leads to the values that he holds.

So it should be clear that for Myers — and, I’d suggest, most of the others on the side of this “revolution” in atheism — his atheism and his liberalism (for lack of a better word) are deeply intertwined. He doesn’t seem capable of seeing one without the other. And so, to him, it seems like his atheism entails his liberalism, and essentially that his atheism caused his liberalism; he takes those stances because he can’t help to as an atheist. The problem is that for him and Benson and most of those people, it’s almost certainly the other way around. Instead of them becoming atheists and then waking up to issues of race and gender and sexuality and all of those other liberal goodies, they most likely became atheists because they started waking up to liberal issues and noticed that religion didn’t fit that. Or for a completely different reason altogether, such as they never were theists or were sick of the clashes between religion and science or, well, whatever. And since these processes might have all been happening at the same time, it’s easy to see why they might think that their atheism caused their liberalism, even though it likely didn’t.

Because that’s what Myers is going on about again in this post, claiming that atheism does or should entail liberal values, and decrying those who think that there is no essential relation there. He first addresses a tweet that he thinks is incredibly stupid:

Im just dont agree with the whole trying to make atheism into some kind of belief system.

Myers replies:

I guess we atheists are just so especially special, that none of our ideas are beliefs, but just simply embodied reality. I have gotten so many emails from atheists insisting that we can’t acknowledge a speck of opinion or mere belief or even emotion, or it means that atheism is exactly the same as a religion. We must insist on complete denial that what atheism is is an interpretation of the nature of the universe.

When you’ve built your entire movement around not holding mere “beliefs”, but instead basing your views on reality, yeah, you probably should expect people to react badly when you start defending having a “belief system”. And it’s probably not a good idea to then turn around and say, essentially, “Pfft. Facts.” Or imply that atheists might, in fact, hold things that are just beliefs but are not based on reality, or that some of the things that you think are true are just opinions, or are based on an emotional reaction. Especially in the middle of a discussion where the biggest problem people have with you is that you are trying to drive an agenda based on belief and emotion rather than on facts. Seriously, in what world is it reasonable for a rationalist of Myers’ stripe to say in response to “I don’t want us to turn into a belief system that is self-supporting rather than fact-based” that, hey, sometimes you just gotta be one of those?

Sure, atheism is an interpretation of the nature of the universe. It’s an interpretation that says that there ain’t gods in it. What does that have to do with anything else?

I think it’s a really good interpretation, and it has the advantage that it’s built on a framework of evidence, and it’s a far better and more thorough explanation than anything religion has ever had to offer, but let’s not pretend that it can be somehow absolute. Jeez, next thing you know, someone will reject the entirety of philosophy, or tell us that science isn’t a philosophy.

Okay, first, a lot of atheists have been doing the former. Second, science itself almost certainly isn’t a philosophy; you can have a scientific philosophy, or science can be naturalistic, but science itself is a method for discovering things about the world, not a worldview itself. And finally, what sort of explanation is atheism beyond, again, there ain’t gods there? Atheism is not inherently naturalistic, and so while you can come from naturalism to atheism that isn’t necessary. Thus, it is possible to be an atheist and believe that ghosts exist. Naturalists who come to atheism through naturalism would have a contradiction there, but atheists that don’t come through naturalism wouldn’t. Myers yet again is tracing his own personal path and personal beliefs and the worldview that he holds that contains atheism and insisting that atheism entails that worldview. And that’s just plain false … and is precisely what the people Myers is mad at are complaining about, the conflation of a specific worldview with atheism coupled with the insistence that that is what atheism really is.

And, again, how can he think it a good argument to say that his view isn’t somehow absolute, in a way that implies that it might not be factually true … when disagreeing with people who don’t want to adopt it because they don’t think it necessarily true?

He then moves on to an article by Michael Luciano. He quotes Luciano saying this:

There’s a weird trend that’s been slinking its way through the social justice community, whereby so-called New Atheists are being denounced for supposedly failing to embrace liberal causes such as diversity and equality.

Myers replies:

That’s a lovely sentence. What “weird” trend? Why, the weird ideas of diversity and equality. How freakish! Such absurd, alien ideas would have to “slink” to sneak their way into the company of true rationalists, like atheists. Mr Luciano seems to think this is causing some phony problems.

Or, perhaps, that “supposedly” was a really, really important word, and his main thrust was that these people were being accused of failing to embrace those causes either because they a) didn’t immediately agree with everything the social justice community suggested had to happen or b) didn’t think that going out and doing every single social justice thing suggested was something that atheism qua atheism was supposed to do. The evidence, for example, that Harris doesn’t embrace these issues wrt women? That his language use isn’t inclusive and he thinks that an aggressive and combative environment might appeal more to men than to women. That’s pretty much it. And for whatever Dawkins has said, for the most part the most you can say about him is that he gets some things wrong … and you have to ignore the things he has done, like funding childcare at atheist conferences to help ensure that more women could attend. Whatever else D.J. Groethe might have done, he also was in charge of a push to include more women speakers at TAM. It’s funny that none of that should be considered when they happen to disagree over harassment policies or whether there can be degrees of rape or why there are fewer female active atheists than men.

Luciano again:

Apparently, atheism has a “race problem,” or maybe it should be called a “white male problem.” Whichever the case, it appears atheism also has a “shocking woman problem.”

Myers replies:

All of these problems must not be real, since they’re only apparent and all get the scare quote treatment.Apparently, we must diminish these so-called problems so that we won’t have to deal with them. This is an astonishing degree of denial, especially since the next thing he does is quote Sikivu Hutchinson, a black woman, talking about the things that white atheists fail to address. Luciano verifies her point by continuing to ignore them, and further asserting that these aren’t real problems that atheists must deal with.

So, let’s assume that Luciano doesn’t think that these are necessarily problems, or at least are necessarily problems that atheism itself has to or take the lead in fixing. Myers response is … to rant about how dare Luciano quote someone saying that these things are problems and then act as if those problems aren’t really problems, or at least problems for atheism … despite the point of the article being to argue that they, well, aren’t problems. What in the world has Luciano done there, at that point in the article, that that’s bad except disagree with this:

“It is a privilege of the white atheist movement to disavow issues of economic inequality,” Hutchinson said. “We should be looking at these issues of social justice and secularism in an intersectional way.

“By addressing issues that are culturally and politically relevant to communities of color, we are addressing a range of things that are not typically addressed within the mainstream atheist movement.”

Remember that, as Myers quotes Luciano again:

Did I sleep through some radical redefining of the word ‘atheist’? It’s always been my understanding that an ‘atheist’ is someone who simply lacks belief in deities. That’s it. Somehow, though, it’s suddenly incumbent on atheists to take up certain social and political causes, and that’s just silly.

Essentially, the reply is that atheism doesn’t entail, say, having a certain position on economic equality. Or having to be intersectional. Or looking at issues that are relevant to communities of colour, just because they are relevant to that community. Atheism is about not believing in gods, and an atheist movement should be about the issues that are specific to the group that doesn’t believe in gods. Sure, it may have to care about economic inequality to do so — because some of their members might not have the money to participate and they might want to do something about that — and there may even be some intersections between the various groups that impact how to go about promoting the interests of atheists, but that doesn’t seem to be what Hutchinson is after. She and the others seem to want atheists, as atheists, and as part of the movement to advocate for social justice issues, even if that doesn’t directly impact most atheists, or atheists as atheists. And the immediate reply to that is the one that they’ve been getting: if you want to do that, that’s fine, but it shouldn’t be something that is officially part of the atheist movement … especially actually adopting the ideas as some kind of official doctrine.

Myers’ reply to the above quote:

No, you didn’t! You just conveniently ignore some of the words. Here’s a definition for you: “a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods”. There is an important word in there: “person”. Atheists are people. These dictionary atheists are always quick to forget that. People have responsibilities to each other, and further, the rejection of religion and the understanding that the universe, and we human beings, lack any kind of grand purpose, shapes the pattern of those responsibilities. You simply cannot pretend that atheism is meaningless outside one philosophical abstraction.

Um, they don’t forget that atheists are people. They know that. They understand that atheists are people, and as such have responsibilities to each other … and also, as Myers seems to forget, that they have their own values and opinions and beliefs. Again, atheism does not entail any specific set of beliefs, beyond lacking one in gods. Sure, being an atheist cuts off certain options, but there’s still a lot of room to maneuver there. For example, atheism doesn’t entail any particular morality. An atheist can be an Egoist, a Utilitarian, a Virtue Theorist, or even a deontologist. The only thing they can’t be is a Divine Command Theorist. So, no, atheism is not meaningless … but it’s not determinate either. Atheism is part of a worldview, but there ain’t enough there to make it a worldview in and of itself.

But it’s the next sentence that really drives it home:

Well, I suppose you can…but then how can you find any reason to even be an atheist?

What reason do they need beyond, at a minimum “I don’t find the evidence for the existence of gods compelling”. Even to identify oneself as an atheist the only reason they need is “I am one, and I’d like you guys to a) know we exist and b) stop trying to impose religion on me, please”. What other reasons should they need? No, I think it reasonable to translate Myers’ statement here to this: If being an atheist doesn’t make us superior to theists, morally, socially and intellectually … why be one? In short, unless being an atheist makes Myers feel superior to others, like a better person than others, then he’s not really interested in being one. This interpretation does seem a bit harsh … but it’s the most reasonable one given a claim that one has no reason to be an atheist unless being one entail not only a worldview, but a worldview that Myers does think is overwhelmingly superior to the alternatives.

The others are pointing out that being an atheist doesn’t make one inherently better than anyone else … and that hinting that it does is the first step to being the sort of belief system that you’re fighting when you fight theism.

Myers continues:

There’s also a really low bar set here. Valuing diversity — the idea that atheism should be equally welcoming to all races and sexes — and valuing equality — that everyone in that community should have the same status — are such basic ideas that it’s shocking that anyone could regard their promotion as a sign of a corrupting conspiracy by Social Justice Warriors. Who the **** would argue with those ideas? Virtually no one. Definitely no one that we would want to accommodate in the atheist movement.

Including most of the people you’re arguing with. They don’t want to build a movement that excludes people, they just don’t agree on what has to be done to do that. In some cases, they’re wrong. Heck, even if they’re wrong in almost all cases, that’s what the debate is about, to that extent. The other thing they’d like is to not be rejected as an atheist because they don’t accept the same notions of social justice as you do.

Demanding that part of the responsibility of being an atheist should also mean being a decent human being who wants to build functional, useful communities doesn’t sound like a particularly onerous expectation to me.

Build a functional, useful atheist community? Sure. Build society that way, and to the standard that you set? Nope. And you can ask how functional and useful you’ve made the community with these rifts that you arguably started but that you certainly want to maintain, by refusing to accommodate those who don’t agree with you?

That’s also a pragmatic reason to support diversity and equality, even for the Libertarians among us. The issues that many white males care about — such as separation of church and state and science education — becomes an easy no brainer if we’ve got 100 million atheists in the US. But the only way to get to those large numbers is to also recognize that there are other issues that people would like us to work towards. Ignore that and be forever marginalized and frustrated.

So, considering that religious people tend towards conservativism … how good do you think you’ll be at converting people to the movement if you make it synonymous with liberalism? Conservative atheists, I’m sure, would love for you to take on, say, high taxes, or advocate for the war on Isis, or all sorts of things. Are you going to accept that argument from them as a reason to adopt those values? Of course not, because you think them wrong. So why should they accept that argument from you if they don’t think you’re right?

If you want those 100 million atheists, the best way to get that is to advocate for atheists, on the issues that impact all or most atheists. All atheists, no matter whether they are liberal, conservative, or libertarian, whether they are pro-life or pro-choice, whether they support same-sex marriage or not, whether they support Occupy or not … no matter what worldview they personally adopt. This doesn’t mean that you can’t criticize their other positions, but that you can’t criticize them as not being good or proper or right or respectable atheists because of it.

Also, as an aside, isn’t it a bit odd for Myers to describe separation of church and state and science education as “issues that many white males care about”? Aren’t these just issues that atheists in general care about? Sure, non-whites may care more about racism, and women may care more about feminism, but isn’t that something to be settled by them prioritizing instead of them trying to push those issues in the group that really should care more about those concerns? If atheists won’t push for those things that directly impact them as atheists, who will?

The real problem isn’t sneaky liberals in the atheist movement. It’s lazy thinkers who see atheism purely as an entitlement for their social group rather than a responsibility to the whole of humanity.

Or, rather, people who see atheism as a position on one topic as opposed to a position on all topics that have ever been relevant to humanity.

The final “criticism” is vintage Myers. Luciano has an image of ten people that he thinks were criticized in this manner, with the caption “They’re right. You’re wrong”. Myers’ reply:

Really? They’re just “right”? On everything? Yeesh. That’s an appallingly stupid image.

Can we also purge the hero-worshipping authoritarianism from this movement?

Um, no, given the context, Luciano seems to think that they’re right in this case and you’re wrong. Perhaps, like the tweet referenced higher up, this is something that Myers will eventually delete.


5 Responses to “What does atheism entail?”

  1. Crude Says:

    Atheism is about not believing in gods, and an atheist movement should be about the issues that are specific to the group that doesn’t believe in gods.

    Actually, just to throw this out…

    It makes no sense for there to be an ‘atheist movement’. At least going on the view that atheism is just ‘the lack of belief in God or gods’, which is the very popular one that a lot of internet atheists like to throw out there.

    On that view, atheism isn’t just a singular negative belief – it’s not even a belief. It makes exactly zero claims. How can any movement be built up around such?

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I think you can build up an advocacy movement around it, arguing that they have certain linked wants or needs and ensuring that society recognizes them and doesn’t discriminate against them on that basis. What I’d say you can’t is build a worldview around atheism, which is what Myers wants to do. You can’t have a worldview based solely on not believing something. Your worldview can contain it or even entail it, but it can’t be based on it, because there’s nothing there to base it on.

      • Crude Says:

        I think you can build up an advocacy movement around it,

        See, I get what you mean, but I think at that point it’s not the atheism whatsoever doing the heavy lifting. There’s no wants there, or needs there, in atheism itself – at least according to the definition of atheism I see advocates insisting on. (Which I think is problematic, but I think a good share of the problems are solved by talking about anti-theists.) I think it’s straightforwardly the case that an atheist can support a society that -discourages- atheism. In fact that seems key in Pascal’s Wager – the atheist can decide their atheism, and others’ atheism, are burdens and even evils to be done away with.

        That said, I agree with much of what you say in the post. Myers seems to want atheists to be something to ‘really be atheists’, but what he wants just.. is not required for the atheist. It’s actually a sight to behold.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        Well, can you be an atheist and not want to be? Sure, I guess, but that would be in the same way as someone who is, say, visually impaired and wants to get rid of it. But they still don’t want to be discriminated against because of that state, and so atheists can say that they don’t want to be discriminated against simply because they don’t believe in something that most other people do, or that they have to act as if they do believe even though they don’t. So I don’t mean advocating for more atheism — although that is something that you can attach to an atheistic view coupled with the normal human desire that everyone share the beliefs that you think are right — but for how atheists, no matter what their opinions ON that atheism, are treated.

      • Crude Says:

        But they still don’t want to be discriminated against because of that state,

        Insofar as discrimination means atheism is discouraged and theism encouraged, even expected – again, I question that. Obviously no one likes to be treated meanly, but discrimination goes well beyond that. The Pascal atheist could and may well endorse discouraging public displays of or acceptance of atheism.

        or that they have to act as if they do believe even though they don’t.

        But that’s going to depend on the atheist crucially. Pascal’s atheist -wants- to act as if they believe even though they don’t, because acting-as-if is a route to actual belief. Or an atheist may think it’s better for society if theism is expected of others.

        And what’s key in every case is that atheism, in and of itself, is nothing – especially as defined by typical modern atheists. It is a mere lack of belief. Opinions about what people should believe, how they should act – that’s another situation.

        the normal human desire that everyone share the beliefs that you think are right

        I don’t think that is normal. For some beliefs or classes of beliefs, maybe. Others, not so much – many people have beliefs they are quite content are theirs alone. And remember: atheism is typically defined as a lack of belief. So talking about sharing beliefs you think are right, doesn’t work with that.

        I know it seems like I’m being pedantic and argumentative just for the sake of being so. But really, my claim is sincere here. I think there is an emptiness to atheism – at least the common, modern, and frankly at times insincere definition of atheism – that aligns with your view, but goes even further. If atheism really is just a lack of belief, then atheism is, how to put it… “radically inert.” It can’t demand much of anything at all. It’s compatible with just about everything.

        I keep using the Pascal atheist example, but I think others are just as viable. What was that old quote? “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”? Uttered by a deist, I think. But I think an atheist could have much the same attitude.

        This all may go some way towards getting atheists to admit that no, they’re not atheists in that sense – but that would be progress anyway.

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