Sunday, February 20, 2011

Dictionary atheists

I've been watching some atheists getting their knickers in a knot about PZ Myers deprecation of Dictionary Atheists. It's amusing (and kind of depressing) how many atheists seem unable to read simple declarative sentences in the English language. If you go back and read the original, you will — if you can indeed read English — discover that Myers is not criticizing people who define atheism as "lack of belief in god." Let me quote the relevant part of the post:
You've got a discussion going, talking about why you're an atheist, or what atheism should mean to the community, or some such topic that is dealing with our ideas and society, and some smug wanker comes along and announces that "Atheism means you lack a belief in gods. Nothing more. Quit trying to add meaning to the term."
In other words, a "dictionary atheist" is not a person who defines atheism in a particular way. A Dictionary Atheist is someone who intrusively and dogmatically insists on his particular definition, someone who limits and restricts the definition of atheism.

There's a time and a place for a narrow dictionary definition of atheism, usually when theists are making broad, unsupported generalizations about all atheists. We are a diverse group, and the only thing you can say about all of us is that we all — for a variety of reasons and with a variety of intellectual consequences — do not hold the belief that any god exists. But this definition serves only one purpose: to say what we all at minimum have in common. After that, the dictionary definition is useless.

Essentially, Myers is arguing against a narrow, blinkered view of atheism among atheists. More importantly, he's arguing against the dogmatic assertion of that narrow, blinkered view:
My main point is that one general flaw in many atheists is a lack of appreciation for why they find themselves comfortable with that label, and it always lies in a set of sometimes unexamined working metrics for how the world works.
If you want to argue that atheism really is nothing more than the lack of belief in God, that there cannot be anything more to atheism, there cannot be anything more interesting to say about each and every atheist than that he or she simply lacks some belief, then fine: argue the point. Otherwise, you are simply not addressing Myers position; you are simply sensing that you might somehow disagree with him and reacting unfavorably. You're supposed to be smarter and more honest than the average bear. Please make an effort to live up to expectations.

1 comment:

  1. Surely definitions exist expressly so people can agree about what is being discussed. I would argue that while PZ has a point that most atheists are so for more diverse reasons than an arbitrarily chosen position on the existence of gods, it is still an unfair generalization to suggest that atheism must involve deeper ideas. I have encountered a fair few atheists who believe in many other kinds of bogus crap like reincarnation, karma, ghosts etc. Atheists who have no understanding or respect for the kinds of metrics PZ is talking about.
    When you want to discuss similarities that exist between sub-groups of atheists that is fine but trying to invest "atheism" with more than it is doesn't seem like the best way to do it. This would be my approach to the discussion in its broadest sense anyway.

    I took PZ to be speaking in the context of that sub-group (the kind of folk he generally meets at the various gatherings he attends. In that context, where you are amongst the particular sub-group in question, the generalisation is fine. Perhaps we need a term to describe people who derive their atheism from the kind of thinking PZ is alluding to?

    Atheism is as narrow as its definition. I would suggest that PZ isn't just talking about atheism though. He is clearly talking about an evidential, scientific approach to reality. Atheism is just the "lack of belief in gods". I don't think there is anything more to "atheism". That is not to say that there is not more to the community whose principle common ground is atheism. In my experience many atheists tend to be evidentially focused, scientifically minded people. This is definitely not universally true. Less and less so as time goes on, in my experience. People are not scientifically minded, evidence respecting sceptics because they are atheists, usually the reverse. It might be better to elaborate on these qualities rather than try to invest a single idea with all of this and more. In other words atheism is a single common bi-product amongst many for this kind of thinking. Atheism is a facet of something greater rather than encompassing more than what it is. As I say, in the context of other atheists the implication is fine but it might be a bad habit to start insisting that being an atheist means you subscribe to a whole list of other ideas or traits. If we take that tack, saying you are an atheist will be like saying you're a Christian. You’ll have to spend the first few minutes of any conversation uncovering the presumptions any particular atheist holds about what it means to be atheist.

    For some atheists the “why they find themselves comfortable with that label”, does not “always lie in a set of sometimes unexamined working metrics for how the world works.”
    Atheism for many may just be the revolution du jour. There are many crap reasons to be an atheist. You yourself have endorsed the position in the past that atheists often just “hold one less stupid idea”. This seems to be increasingly true in the atheist community to me. I suppose a drop in standards is inevitable as any idea is endorsed by larger and larger groups.

    I think agreeing or disagreeing with PZ on this is a matter of context. If you are surrounded by atheists who by context are the kinds of atheists PZ is alluding to then I think that certain assumptions can be made without the need to get anal about the definition. In a broader context though, I think we should be careful about assuming too much. It is definitely a mistake to invoke words like always in assuming the process that produces an atheist.


Please pick a handle or moniker for your comment. It's much easier to address someone by a name or pseudonym than simply "hey you". I have the option of requiring a "hard" identity, but I don't want to turn that on... yet.

With few exceptions, I will not respond or reply to anonymous comments, and I may delete them. I keep a copy of all comments; if you want the text of your comment to repost with something vaguely resembling an identity, email me.

No spam, pr0n, commercial advertising, insanity, lies, repetition or off-topic comments. Creationists, Global Warming deniers, anti-vaxers, Randians, and Libertarians are automatically presumed to be idiots; Christians and Muslims might get the benefit of the doubt, if I'm in a good mood.

See the Debate Flowchart for some basic rules.

Sourced factual corrections are always published and acknowledged.

I will respond or not respond to comments as the mood takes me. See my latest comment policy for details. I am not a pseudonomous-American: my real name is Larry.

Comments may be moderated from time to time. When I do moderate comments, anonymous comments are far more likely to be rejected.

I've already answered some typical comments.

I have jqMath enabled for the blog. If you have a dollar sign (\$) in your comment, put a \\ in front of it: \\\$, unless you want to include a formula in your comment.