Things Atheism Has Nothing to do with

I really disagree with sentiments like this:

I’d rather affiliate with progressive theists (although I’d be carping at them constantly about their goofball faith) than with atheists who want to rationalize women into subservience. We’re in a fight for the soul of atheism — and I want atheism to be something worth fighting for.

I disagree with it at almost every level, really.

First, it’s dead wrong about how association works: you don’t actually have to associate with only one group of people all the time. Two of my best friends in Bloomington are musicians, for example. I’m not. When we’re in the mood to drink and complain about people, we hang out. When they want to play guitar, I’m not always invited. Likewise, they don’t play board games. So, when I want to play board games, I have another group of (acquaintances rather than) friends I can hang out with. See how that works? Unsurprisingly, this works with politics too. I can go to an anti-war protest that’s attended by a bunch of people who also support an expansive welfare state. When it’s opposing military intervention, we agree and can support each other. If they want to campaign for free universal daycare, I don’t attend.

Second, there is no obvious reason to me why atheism should "mean something" over and above what it actually does mean – which is relative certainty that there is no God. What would a lack of belief in God have to do with feminism? Why nothing, of course – because there’s simply nothing about not believing in God that implies anything whatever about one’s gender politics. So why try to force a relationship that patently isn’t there? It’s like if I said "you know, it would be interesting if all airplane pilots were ferret owners." I mean, it’s not impossible to dream up a connection there, I suppose, but why put in the energy? I suspect airline pilots run the gamut from cat people to dog people to those weirdo freaks who think you can have a pet tarrantula. And you know why I think that? Because the ability to pilot a plane bears no obvious relationship to your choice of pet!

Third, why should atheism be a "movement" at all? Atheism isn’t an anything. It’s just an insistence that people meet the same burden of proof when trying to convince someone to believe in a religion that they would be required to meet for trying to convince anyone of any other kind of belief. I don’t give up eating meat until someone can prove to me that it’s healthier to live without it, and I don’t believe in God until someone can show me that it’s real. That’s really all there is to it! What’s to have a movement about? Well, OK, I can think of maybe two things. The more important of the two is that we atheists have a greater-than-average political stake in separation between church and state – which is to say, we ironically have a greater-than-average political stake in religious freedom than believers do. Because irony’s ironic like that. This is because religious fanatics seem to take more offense at atheists than they do at people who simply believe another religion. I have all the obvious theories about why that is, so let’s just note it as a fact for now. So, mkay, I guess I can see the purpose of a narrowly-tailored political lobby for that reason. But I’m not sure a special interest lobby rises to the level of a "movement," and in the United States and most of Europe, there’s really nothing to fear from religious fanatics anyway. The second one I can see is that someone might assert that the world would be better off without religion. In the absolute sense, I suppose I believe that too. But in the short term, I’m not sure I do. The root problem is irrationality more than actual belief in God, and I’m sorry to say that we atheists are guilty of that to varying degrees too. Simply convincing irrational people to direct their irrationality elsewhere than religion doesn’t seem like a solution to anything – and indeed might arguably be dangerous if it turns out that religion manages and contains impulses that believers would otherwise be unable to control. There’s a lot about the psychology of religion that we don’t understand, and so while in general I do believe that the world would be better off without religion, I’m in the camp that thinks that’s a slow process of cultural evolution rather than a change a movement can demand. So I ask again, a movement about what?

Fourth, I don’t get what’s meant to be provocative about the idea that some atheist would prefer to hang out with certain kinds of believers than other atheists. Atheism is not a religion or really even that much of an identity. All else equal, I prefer the company of atheists to believers too, but there are a heap of things that are worse than belief in God! So it really isn’t difficult for me to think up types of people who, even if atheist, I wouldn’t want to hang around with. And since that’s so easily achieved, I don’t know why this is meant to be provocative. I am an atheist, but it isn’t my defining characteristic. I’m a lot of other things too.

Fifth, it’s a pretty obvious false dichotomy to say that your choices are progressive theists and atheists who want to bind women into subservience. There’s plenty of room between what PZ Myers believes about the proper role of women in society and binding women into subservience, actually – and it’s just goofy to automatically take offense at anyone who doesn’t go exactly as far as you do on any given issue. I’m opposed to the welfare state. I have friends who are also opposed to the welfare state. Some of them nevertheless take some government handouts. It might be fair to say for that reason that they are somewhat less opposed to the welfare state than I am. But that doesn’t make them socialists. It doesn’t even make them proponents of the welfare state. And indeed, if I’m not mistaken, it’s relatively easy to find examples of progressives complaining that some mildly left-of-center position is rapidly and ignorantly denounced as "socialist" by right-wingers. So, since they clearly understand what straw man arguments are and clearly understand what false dichotomies are … why are they using them here to police their own?

So I just don’t get it.

Now, if you’ve followed the link, you’ll have noticed that this was written by PZ Myers. And as I’ve said before, I don’t understand where PZ Myers is coming from half of the time anyway. He frequently says things that strike me as the kind of nonsense that you shouldn’t have to explain to someone with an advanced degree in a hard science. To the first point, Myers should be smart enough to notice that not every one of his fellow travellers is equally enthusiastic about all of his pet issues. Indeed, he should be intelligent enough to notice that if you total the number of people who dontate to Planned Parenthood and then total the number of people who voted for Obama, the totals don’t come out the same. That’s because there is variation within the population of "progressives" about which issues are important and to what degree. There is even disagreement about which positions are "progressive." And so we find ourselves in the strange position of wondering whether a biology professor is really a stranger to the idea that there is internal variation within identified populations? He would be surprised to find that a group of frogs had precisely the same legspan, or that a group of mice always made the same decisions about which way to turn in a maze. Why should it be surprising that variable atheist is not a perfect predictor of political affiliation in humans? As to the second, again, I have to stop and wonder why a self-styled materialist scientist needs his rational conclusion about religion to mean anything over and above that the burden of proof is on the believer? This is a man who spends his professional life trying to separate out confounding factors to get at the truth of things, and yet here he’s trying to confound things. It seems like it should be more obvious to scientists than to lay people that adding things in to the mix that don’t belong is liable to obscure the point? It makes no sense to me. Given his professional pedigree, he should really know better, and yet he doesn’t seem to. The third and fourth are immaterial I guess, but the fifth is the one that scientists should have the least trouble with of all. Any scientist with even a modicum of training in analytic methods should be aware of the third variable problem. Professionally, Myers presumably has no trouble rememering that if it’s not one thing, it’s not necessarily the other thing either, it might in fact be yet another thing, and that thing might not be in direct evidence. If he can do that in the lab, why should anyone have to remind him to do that in political discussions?

But whatever motivated the messenger, I strongly reject this message. Atheism just means not believing in God. It doesn’t, shouldn’t and can’t imply anything about my attitudes toward poltical gender roles, and it’s simply silly to think it could.

One thought on “Things Atheism Has Nothing to do with

  1. Atheism is just a hypothesis about the way the world is, and obviously an is cannot get you to an ought. It certainly cannot get you to progressivism.

    I think this is ultimately a matter of tribalism. People want to belong to a team, and they want their team to win. Working toward specific goals with temporary allies is emotionally unfulfilling. It means that we are not the good guys, because we are not properly a We. Tomorrow on some other issue any one of us could be a Them. Conversely, They are not the bad guys, because hey, that girl with the misspelled poster was marching next to me last week. Where is the thrill of righteousness? Where is the camaraderie in the face of clearly identified evil?

    That’s why it is so important for “atheism to be something worth fighting for.” It must have a coherent doctrine, else how can a team be built around it?

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