Tuesday, February 01, 2011

PZ Myers: Types of Atheism

PZ Myers decided to get some atheists mad at him by mocking certain common atheist claims.

Why are you an atheist?

Among his criticisms.

Those who define atheism as somebody who lacks a belief in God.

Those who hold that babies can be atheists.

And, my favorite, those who hold that, for example, "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!


Villa said...

That article felt like a rare miss from PZ, particularly the bits about dictionary atheism.

There's no need to turn 'atheism' into a vague and complex thing. It's a useful term for a useful class.

Sure, 'atheists' have no particular commonalities, but neither do 'theists'.

If we want to talk about the people who value skepticism, dislike homeopathy and value science, then we're no longer talking about 'atheists'. We're talking about a specific subset of atheists. The term 'Gnu Atheists' works as well as any other.

And this makes his point about babies. All babies lack god belief. No babies understand the Gnu Atheist position.

Stephen L Gibson said...

Those pesky dictionaries.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

As I see it, Myers view isn't that the dictionary definition of atheist is not accurate.

(Which, by the way, when accurately states is "a belief that the proposition 'A god exists' is certainly or almost certainly false. It is not 'the absence of a belief in God' for reasons that Myers states.)

Anyway, the point is not that this definition is not true. It is that the definition is not important.

If you are asserting that you are certain or nearly certain that no gods exist, then you can't refer to the dictionary definition as a DEFENSE of that belief, nor does the dictionary definion identify anything that is at all important. The defense, and the importance, of self-identifying as an atheist has to appeal to something else.

Mike C said...

Alonzo said "Anyway, the point is not that this definition is not true. It is that the definition is not important."

I think that is exactly the point. I'm not sure PZ really made his point well because I think it is helpful to separate atheism from a person's moral code.

I think what he is reacting to is the fact that when people ask you why your an atheist answering with the definition is not really answering the question they are asking you.

What the questioner is most likely asking is, who do you live a moral life? How do you understand ethics?

So while I might start or include in my response the definition of a lack of a belief in gods, I would do so only to point out that my morals don't depend on gods.

Michael said...

Nobody decries PZ Meyer's desire to include positive values into the identity of atheism, but to bastardise language is the wrong way to go about it.

Alonzo's dictionary "when accurately states" definition of atheism appears to defy the normal use of words such as asymmetrical, atypical, amoral. That normal use would define atheism as: without belief in God.

And Alonzo's "accurate" definition excludes the majority of atheists because I don't believe you could pin most of us down and extract a confession of "a god exists ... is almost certainly false". Most atheists won't put a percentage on it. We just don't know. It also excludes people who don't have a considered/conscious opinion of God. The "accurate" definition thus attempts to put words in the mouths of atheists that simply aren't there.

I agree with Alonzo and PZ that positive atheism has to "to appeal to something else". In which case Sam Harris is correct: the use of the term atheism should hopefully fade away. And something else should take its place. Desirist-acting-on-reliable-evidence would do me.

PZ is just lazy is not wanting to define his "positive values" by another word or system. Rather, he wants to stuff meaning into the word atheism by bastardising language. I don't know anything about PZ but, judging by his provocative swagger, I'd guess he's too scared to define atheism by desires, hence he immaturely clings to the word atheism.

So, I'm with Villa, we should use the word atheism in its limited sense - consistent with the language of asymmetrical, atypical, etc. And everywhere else we should use words which reflect people's values.

Stephen L. Gibson said...

Thank you Michael. Exactly. (Hence my post about "Those pesky dictionaries.")