While I am not usually one to voice my opinion when it comes to controversy (/sarcasm), I feel compelled to say something in defense of PZ Myers’ recent flap about dictionary atheists. In a nutshell:
Dictionary Atheists. Boy, I really do hate these guys. 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.” As if atheism can only be some platonic ideal floating in virtual space with no connections to anything else; as if atheists are people who have attained a zen-like ideal, their minds a void, containing nothing but atheism, which itself is nothing. Dumbasses.
I had the great pleasure of meeting PZ Myers in person when he came to Vancouver back in August, and we had an in-depth discussion about this very issue, because I wasn’t sure I agreed with him:
My feelings were a bit hurt, because I have been advocating that exact position. However, as I was to discuss with him later, he makes an important point, which is the basic underscoring of his presentation – namely, that Atheists (note the capital A) dobelieve in things. We’re not Atheists by accident, or because we haven’t yet heard how awesome YahwAlladdha is, but because we reject superstition and appeals to invisible authority as a basis for building a functioning society. We believe that evidence, reason, and an abiding respect for humanity is a much higher standard to which human beings should be held than the fear of a paternal sky-genie.
When explained like that, it’s actually a fairly straightforward and reasonable position. Atheists aren’t atheists simply due to the accident of not believing in God, but because we believe in other things – these things are what brought us to our atheism. Put another way, atheism is the result of a series of positive beliefs, not simply a hazard of non-belief. Well… not being a community that enjoys even slight criticism, atheists have been dumping all over a strawman version of PZ’s position. I am going to make the assumption that this comes from a place of genuine misunderstanding rather than malice, and (as is my custom) will try to expand on it a bit using an analogy.
Imagine for a moment that your formerly sexually active friend announces to you that she is now celibate. Despite having a plethora of convenient, enjoyable and safe sexual opportunities, she is choosing instead to abstain from sexual contact altogether. Surprised at this turn of events, you inquire as to why she is becoming celibate.
You: So why are you celibate?
Her: I’m celibate because I’m not having sex with anyone
You: Yes, that is the definition of celibacy. Thanks for that. What I mean is, why have you chosen to abstain from sex?
Her: Stop trying to make celibacy mean more than it does! It is simply a person who does not have sex!
While she is technically true, her response is a tautology that in no way addresses the spirit of your question. You are inquiring as to the event or value or other stimulus that convinced her that celibacy was the way to go, not for a definition of the phrase.
If you’ll allow me to take this thought experiment a bit further, imagine you were yourself a person who is a staunch advocate of the benefits of celibacy. For a bunch of positive reasons, you are passionate about the merits of living a celibate lifestyle, even touring the country to give talks and seminars about why celibacy is a good thing. Hearing your friend give such a shallow definition of something you care deeply about would probably irk you more than a little. You might even be moved to call her a “dumbass” for failing to recognize that she herself has a variety of positive reasons for her choice but instead prefers to spout of a meaningless truism.
Atheism is the same way. We are not atheists because the dictionary definition describes us – we have a set of positive beliefs about the world, the importance of truth, the value of skepticism when it comes to religious claims, a whole variety of things. To deny that, or paint over it because there is a dictionary definition that is more parsimonious is a shallow representation of the real set of values that we undoubtedly share.
There is a reasonable criticism of PZ’s position, which is this: many people aren’t even aware of what the definition of an atheist is. They mischaracterize us as people who have an active belief in the absence of a deity, which is only true of some of us. The majority (I would suspect) simply doubt the claim that there is a supernatural entity that governs the universe, and live their lives as though there isn’t. When someone asks you “why are you an atheist?”, they may in fact need to be told what an atheist actually is. However, the question of why is not merely an invitation for a description of the population – it is asking for a set of values; a reason for your atheism.
But of course, the position has all but been completely subsumed by the rancor and arm-flailing that inevitably occurs whenever someone takes a poke at atheists. I am incredibly proud to be part of a community that doesn’t take criticism sitting down and is willing to fight for its identity; however, we should not let that passion consume our good sense when an idea is put before us.