Atheism: The Great Nothing

For a long time now, P.Z. Myers has been railing against “Dictionary Atheism”, the idea that atheism, in and of itself, means nothing more than a lack of belief in gods and so in and of itself entails no particular philosophical or moral viewpoint. Many of those Myers (and others as well) have complained about are people who say that if they want to promote a specific moral or philosophical view, why don’t they (say) call themselves humanists instead? If they want to promote feminism in atheism, why not do that as feminists instead of trying to argue that those ideas follow from atheism when they really don’t?

Myers has never accepted that, and in light of the shootings in Oregon he’s talking about it again. The argument he’s trying to make in light of comments that you can’t say that the shooter in Oregon was caused to do that by his atheism because atheism itself posits nothing more than that gods don’t exist is this:

Humanity is suffering under a collection of half-assed ethical and moral principles, assembled with no rational foundation but superstition, and with awful, damaging, exploitive rules mixed in with a few good ones. Religion is primitive and lacking in any tools to address deep injustices and correct errors in its formulation. I am all in favor of tearing it down and replacing it with…what? According to Harris, nothing. Atheism has nothing constructive or productive to replace the bad system most people are limping along under — rip it all out and apparently, brute reason can then be trusted to evolve something better.

We need purpose and value and meaning as well, and if a prominent Leader of atheism is saying that atheism doesn’t do that, that’s a declaration that atheism is bankrupt, and has failed totally. It has become a Great Nothing.

Well, atheism always was in that sense, a “Great Nothing”. From the start, one of the stock and standard ways atheists avoided having the burden of proof in discussions with theists was to say that atheism doesn’t have a burden of proof because it was, in fact, simply a lack of belief in the existence of gods, nothing more. The comment that babies, for example, were born atheists and educated into becoming theists relied on atheism being nothing more than a lack of belief in gods. The widely disseminated claim that religious people were just one more god away from being atheists relied on that assumption as well. Atheists, then, for the longest time based a ton of their rhetoric on atheism being, essentially, nothing more than a lack of belief in gods, implying nothing else in and of itself. Nothing morally, so you couldn’t say that atheists were simply immoral. Nothing socially, so you couldn’t lump them in with political groups. Heck, here Myers is insisting that atheists need meaning and value and purpose which has been one of the major criticisms theists raised against atheism: you can’t get to those things from atheism in and of itself. The counter to that is that atheists can get those things from other secular sources, not to insist that atheism, in and of itself, provides all of those things.

So, in a real sense, atheists have been advocating what Myers calls “the Great Nothing” for ages now, and relied on that to make their arguments. Myers himself seems to have adopted some of those arguments in the past, as have many of those who rail against “Dictionary Atheism”. So what, then, has changed? Why has atheism moved from being a perfectly acceptable and reasonable nothing, based on nothing more than a reasonable skepticism that says that you ought not believe something until you have sufficient evidence, to a “Great Nothing” if it doesn’t provide your life with meaning and purpose just from atheism?

In my opinion, it’s all about identity. They’ve formed an Atheist Community, and discovered that, horror of horrors, just having the rejection of the existence of all gods in common doesn’t mean that they agree on everything … or even, sometimes, most things. And a lot of those things are things that are really important to them. But instead of understanding that just because you agree on one thing that you think really important with someone it doesn’t mean that you agree — or need to agree — with them on everything, their response was to insist that those others were just wrong and really, really have to agree with them on that. I agree with Myers that it started from an insistence that atheists were just more rational than theists, and moved on from there … but people like Myers are just as guilty of that presumption as those who insist on the general use of reason are. To pretty much everyone, atheism followed from basic rationality, and those other positions — on all sides of all of the divides — followed from basic rationality as well, and so anyone who didn’t agree with their position was therefore not applying simply rationality.

The problem, then, was not really with atheism itself, but with the idea that skepticism and atheism were identical. They applied what they considered skepticism to various claims, came up with answers — often answers that aligned with their overall worldview, in a similar way to what they accused theists of doing — and then were convinced that those answers were just plain right. And since atheism and skepticism were aligned — which they aren’t — then atheists themselves had to come to the same rationally skeptical conclusions. And when people like Myers were met with push back from people who argued that they were applying pure reason and skepticism to the answer that Myers et al were very attached to … well, you get this:

Reason is not enough. Reason can show you the best way to achieve a goal, but if your goal is mass murder, or denigration of women, or the perpetuation of an oppressive hierarchy, it’ll help you do that, too.

The denigration of reason in favour of emotional or “empathetic” approaches. Except that while reason will help you achieve your goals no matter how horrible they are, to say this implies that you can get goals — and by extension, values and purpose and meaning — without using reason, or aiming for rational goals first. So, then, how do you determine those things? Just by how it feels to you? That’s what gives people the goal of serving God … or mass murder, or denigration of women, or the perpetuation of an oppressive hierarchy. Myers would be forced to claim that those things are not or cannot be rationally proven wrong, that it’s only something else other than reason that can push us into, well, not having those as goals anymore, but that’s, well, rather ridiculous.

From other posts of his, Myers has said something right: for most atheists in this world, becoming an atheist means that you have to find new goals, values, meanings, and purposes, because for most people those were formed intertwined with religion and with God and when you reject that, you have to find something to replace it. But where he is wrong is in insisting that atheism, in and of itself, has a preference for what those things are. Atheism equally supports many worldviews, only excluding — maybe — ones based on religion. Atheism is nothing more than a belief about the state of the world, and so Myers’ comments here are like someone insisting that evolution is a “Great Nothing” if it can’t be used to form some kind of Social Darwinism. If we can’t use evolution to create our values and goals and purposes and meaning in life, what good is it? Well, it’s a true fact about the universe; how we react to that is up to us.

The same thing applies to atheism. Assuming they are right, then they have a belief — or lack of one — about how the world is. That, in and of itself, is not nothing. How we respond to that fact does not follow from it, but is instead something that we have to work out philosophically. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t better or worse answers, but those answers do not follow from atheism itself; just like evolution, atheism itself can’t tell us how to live. It can constrain certain choices if we value the truth and living in accordance with it, but in and of itself it isn’t a worldview and doesn’t create one. There are myriad worldviews compatible with atheism, so maybe Myers needs to find one and take that one on, instead of insisting that there should be One True Atheistic Worldview and trying to force others to conform to it.

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One Response to “Atheism: The Great Nothing”

  1. Crude Says:

    I’ve seen this tried out recently: some atheists say they have no beliefs, they merely lack beliefs. Alright; then nihilists have no beliefs. They just lack beliefs about morals. And pedophiles have no beliefs, they just lack one particular kind of belief about decency and sexual mores.

    I wonder if modern atheism could survive that comparison, and if modern atheists could learn from it.

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