Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Cline, Barton, and Atheist Whackjobs

I would like to thank Austin Cline at for effectively countering the bigotry in Melinda Barton's column on Raw Story entitled "The Left's Own Religious Whackjobs." The group that Barton said is deserving of this title are "atheist extremists."

Cline's response to this was effective enough to initiate a debate on the subject. Raw Story pulled the column, temporary, allegedly so that they can repost it later with critical responses attached.

I want to say that I am very pleased with what Cline has accomplished here. For months, I have wanted to see a major challenge to anti-atheist statements. My attempts in that regard have mostly been ignored.

In this entry, I have no interest in pointing to Cline's article and saying, "Yeah! What he said." I want to make some comments about Cline's response that I think were not entirely accurate.

Stipulated Definitions

Cline writes, [Y]ou know that you’re in trouble when you find an author making up new definitions to suit their ideological agenda.

No, you are not in trouble.

These are called 'stipulated definitions' and they are a perfectly acceptable and legitimate part of an argument. The requirements for a stipulated definition are that the author must stipulate, "I will be using this term to mean X", and then the author must stick to that definition. Anybody may do this at any time with any term they wish without calling into question the quality of his or her reasoning. Stipulated definitions are given.

Scientists do this all the time -- both with new words, and with existing words. This is how we come up with words like 'Pennsylvanium', 'Homo Austropitecus', 'Plank's Constant', 'Oort Cloud' or 'globular cluster.' Every time scientists want to talk about something, it is convenient to have a word for it. If no word exists, then they invent one. Usually, they invent a new term. Sometimes, they use an existing term.

The latter is illustrated by the logician's use of the term 'argument.' To a logician, and 'argument' is a set of two or more propositions where one (conclusion) is claimed to follow from the others (premises). The fact that logicians have hijacked a term that means something quite different in popular language raises no objection to the practice of logic.

I do this constantly in my own writing. The "desire utilitarian" theory that I employ refers to entities that are not to be found in common language. For example, I offer a technical definition of what it means to fulfill a desire. Since a 'desire that P' is a propositional attitude that takes the proposition P as its object, I say that a desire is 'fulfilled' in any state of affairs in which P is made or kept true. If Cline's objection is sound, then this would be an instance of an author making up new definitions 'to suit their ideological agenda'. My agenda is to explain and defend desire utilitarianism. Yet, this is not at all problematic. I am not doing anything that tens of thousands of theorists have done in the past.

Now, there is a certain risk with using a stipulated definition -- particularly if one stipulates a new definition for a term that exists in common language. The risk is that the author will equivocate and slide off of her stipulated definition and into common language. Equivocation is a logical fallacy, and can be legitimately criticized. Note, here, that the problem cannot be found in the fact that the author stipulated a non-standard definition, but in the fact that the author did not stick with her non-standard definition.

For Cline to raise this type of objection, he would have to identify some place in the argument where the author has shifted meanings.

In the case of Barton's article, the equivocation may come from stipulating a narrow definition of 'secular' so that all secular individuals are atheists. Yet, inviting the reader, through the rest of the article, to think in terms of the broad definition -- anybody who argues for separation of church and state. I do not think that Barton is guilty of this, though she gets close to the line from time to time.

Addendum: Austin Cline pointed out to me in an email that an author does not actually have to equivocate in an article. It is sufficient to note that readers will be tempted to substitute the common definition with Barton's stipulated definition in their reading, and read Barton's comments about a specific type of atheist as comments against atheism generally. This is true. Though it would not count as a logical error, it does inflict undeserved harm on others, so it does qualify as a moral transgression. Yet, the accuser needs to be clear in identifying the specific nature of the transgression.

Mistaken Definitions

We can contrast Barton's use of the word 'secular' (where she stipulates a definition) with her use of the word 'fallacy,' where she does not stipulate a new definition. Yet, she uses the term 'fallacy' in a non-standard way. She uses it to mean 'false', where it is supposed to mean 'violating the standard rules of inference.'

Yet, a mistake like this -- in which one uses a term incorrectly -- is not sufficient grounds for serious criticism. This is no worse than misspelling a word. Granted, it makes the essay a little difficult to decipher. However, if the reader can correct the misused term in his own mind, and the author's mistake is consistent, then this does not affect the quality of the author's argument.

This type of mistake deserves nothing more than an, "Oh, by the way. Technically, this is not called a 'fallacy,' combined with an explanation as to how to use the term correctly. An author's misuse of a term cannot be used to claim that the author is a poor thinker or that her own arguments are to be rejected.

Definition of Atheism

I also have to say that I dispute what many people claim to be 'the' definition of Atheism, as a person who lacks a belief in God. As I said above, there is no problem with a stipulated definition as long as a person uses it consistently. My issue here is that I do not see atheism as being worth much discussion.

On this definition, the chair I am sitting on, and the cat that is sitting next to my computer, are both atheists. So is the tree and the rock outside of my front door. I find such a broad definition to be useless, so I do not use it.

An atheist is a person who believes that the proposition "One or more gods exist" is false. This does not apply to my chair, or my cat, or the tree or rock outside of my door. It does apply to me.

Barton claims that this must be an article of faith, no more firmly grounded than the proposition, "God exists." Not only do I dispute that claim, I hold that even Barton (and others who try to use that claim against atheists) do not really believe it either -- except when they find it convenient to do so.

I do not believe that there is an alien space ship that will crash into the Earth, whereby its subspace engine will explode and ignite our atmosphere, killing all life on Earth, unless all of us jump around on our left leg for an hour while singing the theme song to Gilligan's Island. I cannot prove that no such spaceship exists. Yet, I deny that it is an article of faith that is just as valid as the belief that such a space ship does exist.

In fact, Barton, and all of those who use this argument against atheists, reject an infinite number of propositions that cannot be proved false, simply based on the fact that there is nothing to indicate that the proposition is true. They disbelieve propositions such as, "There is an invisible knight who will stab if I should ever use the word 'click' in an essay" or "this food has been poisoned" or . . . like I said, the list is infinite.

Yes, there are many atheists, myself included, who think that the claim that 'there is a man in the sky who will send hurricanes to destroy our cities unless we close all of the abortion clinics and execute all of the homosexuals like the bible tells us to' is just as ridiculous as the flying saucer story.

Now, the important difference here is that anybody who believes the flying saucer story is not a threat to me. I may think it weird that they are hopping around on one foot, but so long as they are harmless, I have no reason to interfere. The people with the hurricane belief are a threat to others.

This is what distinguishes whackjobs from others. It is determined by whether their beliefs make them a threat to others or not. We do not need Barton's list of six qualities to identify a whackjob. We only need one. "Does this person have unwarranted or unjustified beliefs that he may act in ways that are harmful to others?" Some atheists have these beliefs. Some theists do as well. Both are dangerous. But the danger has nothing to do with atheism or theism. It has to do with a willingness to do harm.

Application to Barton

In order to examine where there are problems with Barton's essay, I would like to offer an analogy. Using one of Cline's own techniques, let us assume that Barton was talking about homosexuals.

First, what is a homosexual whackjob? The term 'homosexual' for the purposes of this article will refer to those who are sexually attracted to others of the same gender. Although all homosexual extremists are homosexual, not all homosexuals are homosexual extremists. A homosexual extremist is a special sort of homosexual. One who .

To me, this clearly indicates that the author is talking only about a subset of the main group that shares certain characteristics, not the whole group. It applies only to those having the derogatory characteristics that Barton then identified. At this point, there is no ground for complaint.

As is usually the case, the problem comes when Barton gets into specifics. Her "list of derogatory characteristics" is such that it would be difficult to find anybody who actually fits that description. In other words, her article expresses concern about no real person, but a specter that she has invented.

She then breaks her list down into six 'outrageous claims' that her opponents hold.

Here, there is an important ambiguity. Is it the case that a 'secular whackjob' must accept all of these six propositions, or is accepting any one sufficient to earn the individual such a label. If the latter, then any and every atheist qualifies as a "whackjob" under his definition. In fact, there is no such thing as a good atheist.

A 'secular whackjob' is a person who believes that 'atheism is true; religion is not'.

If we accept this definition, then a 'religious whackjob' must be one who believes that religious claims are true, and atheism is not. Either Barton must be willing to claim that everybody who believes that God exists is a 'religious whackjob,' or there is something curiously asymmetric about her claim that the belief that "God does not exist" classifies one as a whackjob, while the claim "God exists" does not classify one as a whackjob.

This asymmetry -- this 'unequal treatment of equals' -- is the very essence of prejudice and bigotry. Fairness demand that Barton either classify those who assert that God exists are whackjobs, or deny her classification of those who assert that God does not exist.

Back to Cline

Cline goes through the rest of Barton's classifications in detail. I see no reason to repeat his arguments. I hope that this essay may have clarified some of those issues.


Simon said...

Hmm, I see what you mean by your definition of atheism. However, our belief in aything of which we can't be 100% certain does require an amount of faith - even the absurd episode with the flying saucer.

Your "faith" that that won't occur is based on your experience of life. That sort of thing has never happened in your life, or in recorded history, and there's no other evidence for it to have once happened. But, still, you can't be 100% certain it won't happen.

To me my being an atheist is a lack of belief - pretty much the same way my cat or a stone lacks belief. My belief in that idea does not exist.

The difference is I have understood the idea of god and dismissed it.

Atheism is not like belief because people are not motivated by what they don't believe in.

An atheist can believe he is the master of a superior race of beings who are destined to rule the world. That person wouldn't be motivated by his non-belief in gods, he would be motivated by his belief in his imagined destiny.

That belief is just as irrational as a Christian's. But somehow the term atheist has come to mean "rational-minded thinker" which is of more use to theists than atheists.

Christianity is merely a socially accepted delusion.

If you believe in flying saucers and make an big deal about it, you will most probably not be voted in as president. If you believe in a big god man in the sky and make a big deal out of it, you will increase your chances of becoming president.

Some "wackjobs" are socially accepted, some aren't.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I hold that it is absurd to apply the term 'atheist' to somebody who has not considered the proposition "God(s) exist(s)" and answered it "no". A person who has not considered the question is not an atheist, nor is he a theist. He is simply a person who has not considered the question and given it an answer.

You seem to be agreeing that the 'lack of a belief' definition means that cats and rocks are atheists. I simply assert that this makes the definition worthless -- at certainly at odds with the common 'man on the street' definition of the word.

As for Christianity being a 'socially accepted delusion' -- I simply consider it an error. The preson who believes that there is chocolate cake left in the kitchen when it is no longer there is not suffering from a delusion. He is just mistaken about the facts.

Whether a delusion or a mistake of fact, the only criteria for society to use in deciding one to accept is whether those who have it pose a threat to others.

That criteria applies equally to those who believe that 'God exists' is true, and those who believe that 'God exists' is false. There are clearly some in both camps who are a threat to others.

Simon said...

There's always the "passive atheist" and "active atheist" terms I've heard used. If people live on a desert island and have never been introduced to the idea of gods - surely they are atheists too.

Also, I can't see how belief a god exists as a simple mistake akin to thinking you had cake left in the kitchen when you hadn't - which is quite rational. I'd say it's more like going into the kitchen to find cake and believing you could see it, even though everyone can see there's nothing there.

If this happened to a close friend or family member, you wouldn't just think "If they're not dangerous, everything is ok", you'd be seriously worried for their mental health.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Actually, I would not consider the desert island person an 'atheist'.

More importantly, I predict that most people would not.

As I said above, one cannot raise objections to a stipulated definition. However, one cannot use a stipulated definition to claim to others, "You are not using the word correctly." The concept of the 'correct' definition refers to what the term calls to mind in competent speakers of a particular language.

Competent speakers of English, I assert, apply the term 'atheist' to 'one who believes that the proposition 'God exists' is false.' Those who use the term this way ARE using the term 'correctly.' Those who use the term in a way that refers to rocks, trees, and chirping birds (or people on a desert island who have had as much interaction with the concept of God as a rock, tree, or chirping bird) do not qualify.

Also, your cake analogy is faulty. It is not the case that 'everyone can see there's nothing there.' With respect to God claims, almost everybody is saying that there IS something there. Psychological research shows that most subjects, placed in a room with a group of people who deny even the most obvious fact (e.g., which of two lines is longer), will come to doubt the obvious fact. That is, if everybody else in the room is in on the experiment, and says that the shorter line is longer, the subject will also come to believe that the shorter line is longer but that he simply perceives it incorrectly. This is not a sign of mental illness, it is a part of the way our minds work.

Yet, it is still a mistake of fact.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that both definitions of "atheist" (one who doesn't definitely believe in any god, and one who believes that there definitely are no gods) are in common use. This creates an unusually high danger of ambiguity and equivocation, but as long as one or the other is stipulated in any particular argument *and stuck to*, it's not necessarily harmful. Language is arbitrary. If a word has a well-defined primary meaning in common discourse (for example, "three" or "horse"), using the common meaning allows you to avoid the inconvenience of defining it before you use it, and in that sense, standardization is convenient; but at any particular time in any particular language, there may be many words that are not well-defined because they have multiple, often inconsistent, meanings (e.g. "good", "reasonable", and as we've just seen, "atheist").

The fact that perception can be warped by peer pressure and it's "a part of the way our minds work" doesn't necessarily mean that it's not a sign of mental illness - depending, of course, on how you define mental illness. But if everyone around you thinks that drinking poisoned Kool-Aid will transport you to the spaceship right behind that comet, and you come to believe it too, that's a belief that is clearly harmful (in the ordinary sense of the word, at least, since it leads to your death). Doesn't that make it a form of mental illness, in addition to a mistake of fact?

Ultimately, I think equivocation is the foundation of Barton's "argument". She defines a (possibly empty) set of "extreme atheists", describes some characteristics of them, and then invites the reader to jump to the conclusion that many, or most, or all atheists share those characteristics. Well, I guess you'll have to mark me down as a moderate atheist.

Simon said...

There are infinite things I don't believe in. It just so happens, in this world, in this language, there is a word to describe a particular non-belief.

Would you describe an object by what it isn't?

The reason I object to being labeled an atheist, is because it implicates me in lie of theism. You can't have an atheist, without first having a thiest. I don't merely want to be what a theist isn't - if you see what what I mean. I become everything that they're not, instead of everything that I am.

My suggestion that seeing the cake while others can't see it was a mistake. Really, I should have just said - you think you see the cake but the cake is not there.

In most religions, believing the cake is there is almost totally based on wanting the cake to be there. "I believe in God because I want an afterlife".

And people are happy to put that forward as a logical argument.