Language and Logic: You’re Doing it Wrong

One of these days I’m going to learn to stop reading PZ Myers, but it seems like every time I’m almost there, Noah reaches up from Hell and drags me back down with a link to one of his posts.

Today, that would be I approve this message , which is yet another thing about how the atheist movement needs to be something besides just, you know, the atheist movement. As usual, it’s transparently irrational in ways that leave you wondering how the man manages to function as a professional scientist.

For example:

It’s not enough to just be an atheist. We have to stand up for something, rather than just being against something, and that means that atheism has to find a conscience.

Actually, no, not at all. It’s eminently possible to be for something rather than against something without having a conscience. Just like it’s eminently possible to be against something rather than for something because you have a conscience. I hate to pull this old internet trick out of my hat but, you know, it was the people who were against slavery rather than the ones who were for it who are generally believed to have had the consciences. And it’s the people who are against eating meat rather than the ones who are for it who generally speak of themselves as "ethical." At least, in my experience I’ve never encountered anyone who claims to be an "ethical carnivore." (Full disclosure: I LOVE EATING MEAT! And I do it for flavor and nutrition rather than to appease my conscience.) And, what the hell, since this is still a blog post on the internet, I don’t think anyone who was for the Holocaust is really considered ethical. That was more of a "might makes right" thing, unless I’m very much mistaken?

But again, the real point here is that anyone with a PhD in a hard science should be capable of better reasoning than this. Being "a (something)" has never implied that one must be for something rather than merely against something. All sorts of things – including especially ethical things – are defined by what they’re not.

Individual atheists can, of course, have wildly divergent views, but the atheist movement, if it is to have any political clout at all, must focus on some key issues and make those part of the message. If we are going to claim to have positions based on reason and the intelligent interpretation of the evidence, then the climate change denialists, the sexists, the racists, the narcissistic worshippers of the Holy Market…they cannot be regarded as representative

The first sentence is true, of course. Any movement that is going to have any political clout has to focus on some key issues – that’s what special interest groups do. Which is why it’s hillarious to follow up that opening no-brainer with an entire laundry list of issues that have nothing to do with atheism whatever. It’s like he just decided to flip the definition of "focus" and "key" to mean something that is entirely the opposite. In any case, this assertion is ahistorical. We have but to look around us to realize that the most successful lobby groups today are the ones that – gee, who knew? – pick a narrow issue and focus on it. Do you honestly see the NRA denying climate change? Fighting the welfare state? Backing abortion bans? I have no doubt that a lot (to the point of "most") of high-profile members of the NRA do indeed donate time, money and effort to those causes, but the NRA does not. The NRA champions Second Amendment rights, and it does that very well. It is happy to give left-wing legislators high marks for voting the way it likes, and it doesn’t hesitate to come down hard against conservatives who don’t. I have never seen a press release from the NRA that says things like "Well, Sen. X voted against the assault weapons ban, but he also supports distributing free condoms in schools, so while he may be a gun rights supporter, he’s just not NRA material. Vote against him." And yet the analogous thing is exactly what PZ Myers thinks atheists should do. In the name of "focus."

The ones who think the solution to Islamic theocracy is to bomb Muslim countries or deport brown people should be considered as lunatic and beyond the pale as atheists who advocate nuking the Vatican or ostracizing Catholics.

I’d love to know where this line gets drawn – and who gets to draw it – since the author once famously desecrated a piece of the Host. I suppose he would say there is a difference between "ostracizing" and "alienating" Catholics, and that "alienating" is OK. But then he’d be in the unenviable position of explaining why it’s OK to alienate Catholics by pissing on their religious traditions but not, say, women by riding the same elevator with them after a conference speech and inviting them to your room for coffee. Taking the most sacred earthly object a Catholic comes into contact with and desecrating it is permissible alienation, but riding the elevator alone with Rebecca Watson and asking her to have coffee with you is a grave social injustice that creates an atmosphere that keeps women out of Science. Or something.

And then he finishes up with this, which would just seem to underscore my point:

I would broaden the mission [from what the article he linked suggests] a bit, though. On economic issues, atheists as a whole ought to be behind reducing the rich-poor divide — it’s the only rational position to take — but I would consider it legitimate to regard human rights as an umbrella topic to be more important, or to make the even bigger issue of environmental degradation the major crisis of our time.

So, he can’t even agree with the article he’s quoting about what the "key issues" are, and again, far from "focusing," he’s advocating we "broaden the mission" and adopt an "umbrella topic." Which just illustrates the problem. Look, there is always a tradeoff between clarity of mission and strength of numbers, and I’m well aware that you can’t (and so shouldn’t try) to please everyone. But this seems like a really bad way to start. If only there were something we could do to try to get a bunch of atheists to agree on some key issues…

…oh, wait, I have an idea! We could limit ourselves to things that have to do with atheism!

Atheism is ultimately going to have to be a progressive political force, fighting for inclusion, evidence-based policy, humanist values, and the goal of expanding knowledge and power for all.

No, atheism is going to be atheism, and conflating it with progressivism is at best going to force people to come up with a new word for atheism. And yet again, this is one of those points that we shouldn’t have to explain to a biologist, but neverthless do. You can call a cat a fish all you want to, but cats are not fish. When we decided to call this thing a cat and this other thing a fish, then because they had salient differences that made it worth having two separate terms. Likewise, when it became convenient to have different terms for different kinds of cats, it wasn’t because we said "hey, look at all these cats – let’s make smaller groups." No, it was because there were salient differences between the groups of cats that made it convenient to have separate terms for them. Now, you can well say that Maine Coon cats are cats, and you’ll be right – just as you’ll be right if you say that progressive atheists are atheists. But what you cannot reasonably maintain is the illusion that because Maine Coon cats are cats, that you only need to study Maine Coon cats to know about cats, forget the lions and leopards and even the Siamese cats and such. No. Likewise, if you want to have a progressive atheist movement, then fine, have a progressive atheist movement. But you’re not going to fool anyone by calling it an "atheist" movement instead. People will see through the deception every bit as easily as they would if you tried to tell me that no cats have tails because Manx cats, which you’ve decided are definitive, have no tails.

Ladies and gentlement, this is a professor of Biology who needs these lessons.

To be fair, I have lessons of my own to learn: such as not to waste time on such people. OK, fresh start tomorrow.

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