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Atheism IS an Identity

Sam Harris once wrote that “atheism” is “a term that should not even exist,” because “no one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘non-astrologer’ or a ‘non-alchemist’. We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle.” In context, he didn’t seem to be attacking atheism as an identity movement, just noting that in a world in which nearly everyone accepted reality, we wouldn’t have a word for atheism (this is from A Letter to a Christian Nation). But in Julian Baggini’s new piece for The Financial Times, on “Atheism in America,” he interviewed Harris, who seems to be backing the vocal few in society who have denounced the atheist identity movement in America.

It’s no secret that I believe the atheism identity movement (represented by such projects as the Out Campaign) is a powerful and important moment in American history. But quoting Baggini:

Not everyone agrees that this is the way to go. The neuroscientist Sam Harris is one of America’s best-known atheists; his 2004 book, The End of Faith, sold over half a million copies. He agrees that the situation for atheists is “analogous to being gay and in the closet for many people”, and it is striking that virtually every atheist I spoke to talked the language of being “out” or “in the closet”. Nevertheless, Harris argues “it’s a losing game to trumpet the cause of atheism and try to rally around this variable politically. I’ve supported that in the past, I support those organisations, I understand why they do that. But, in the end, the victim group identity around atheism is the wrong strategy. It’s like calling yourself a non-astrologer. We simply don’t need the term.”

Harris is wildly wrong here. If 80% of the country were fanatical astrologers and political and social policy were being driven by or threatened by that, if non-astrologers were treated the way Baggini documents atheists are treated in many states in this country (particularly the rural midwest), if they acted the way people who attacked Jessica Ahlquist did (plus a zillion other things documented in Greta Christina’s new book, which I got an advance look at, and it’s awesome BTW; but I’ll blog all about that when it’s out), in a world like that, “non astrologer” would become a meaningful, powerful, and important word. It would be a central and crucial focal point distinguishing people who want a world full of astrologers and people who don’t. It informs anyone who hears it where you stand on the whole “faith-based epistemology” thing. It says you aren’t going to be cowed into denying who you are, into living in the closet, pretending to be an astrologer. It says you are one of those unusually sane people who realizes astrology is bullshit. In a world full of astrologers, that’s just about the most important information I could ever learn about you (not quite, but nearly).

A Christian apologist (I can’t recall who) once quipped in a debate that if his godless opponent were walking down a dark street late at night and heard a bunch of people running up behind him, wouldn’t he prefer to know they were a bunch of young men leaving a bible study class? Well, no. If a bunch of bible study nuts were running up behind me in the dark of night, as a very out atheist I would be a little worried, and certainly more on my guard than if it were, say, a bunch of random joggers. But if they were a bunch of young folk leaving an atheist meetup? I’d feel not only perfectly safe, but quite happy. It thus would mean something to me that they were wearing “Atheist Pride” T-Shirts, that they were leaving a coffee shop with an “Atheist Meetup!” sign propped up outside. The word communicates something to me that is incredibly meaningful in the social context we now find ourselves in.

This doesn’t mean I assume all atheists are nice and trustworthy guys and gals. But statistically, a group of them is not going to be up much mischief. To the contrary, they’re more likely to be picking up trash as they go, and chatting about tax policy or Dr. Who. My point is that atheism as an identity means something: it’s how we find each other (as opposed to the state of things before, when theists arranged society by various assumptions and pressures so as to isolate us, making it near impossible for atheists to know they weren’t alone, much less get together and organize). That’s just about the most important thing that can happen for freethought: Atheists finding each other. Atheists organizing. Atheists sharing notes. Atheists identifying with a movement to which they belong…not because of their gender or politics or interest in knitting, but because they don’t buy into this “astrology” thing (to keep with Harris’ analogy). They are like us, because they, like us, have admitted the emperor has no clothes. And in a world run largely by people convinced the emperor is fabulously dressed, and who socially punish everyone who disagrees with them, saying out loud that we side with the no-clothers is pretty damned important.

I won’t dwell on alternative monikers. Other words don’t work. Christians claim to be skeptics. They claim to be freethinkers. They claim to be humanists. But you will never find a Christian claiming to be an atheist. It’s therefore an ideal label: that you are willing to identify as an atheist means something very distinct from, say, only being willing to identify as a “secular humanist.” Old folks do the latter. The young, the future of this country, do the former. It proves you don’t buy into the stigma anymore, that in fact the stigmatization of the word “atheist” is precisely what’s wrong with this country, and therefore stealing that identity back and making it our own is precisely the only way we will have our victory and be accepted for who we are: people who don’t see the emperor’s clothes. Whereas, the problem with “agnostic,” for example, is that an agnostic is an “atheist,” so to prefer “agnostic” as a label tends to have a psychological, not a rational motive behind it (see my past blog Atheist or Agnostic?). In fact, it communicates that you are still cowed by the stigma. You are not free. Or you are not proud of who you really are. Or you are afraid of what it means to be who you are.

To identify as an atheist is brash, it’s self-affirming, it’s the identity of choice for the young, the new generation, the people who are going to change everything (because they are literally going to inherit the earth from us). It’s a direct challenge to the status quo. And being willing to openly join a movement posing that challenge means something. For example, a meeting billed as “skeptics” this or that usually means they want to be inclusive and non-offensive; but I don’t want to have to censor myself; I want to be with people willing to call themselves atheists, with whom I can be completely who I am. I can only have that at meetings billed as “atheists” this or that. And that’s a real, tangible difference, one I experience year in and year out. It thus clearly does matter.

Many studies had once been done that religion was good for your health and happiness. But due to a variety of methodological flaws (such as conflating all “nones” as a single category rather than distinguishing apatheists from philosophically committed or even organized atheists: see my comments on Atheism and Depression) these studies were subsequently refuted by another round of studies that identified church attendance as the thing that was good for your health and happiness. But those studies were flawed by not asking the more fundamental question: what is it about church that would have such an effect? And so the latest studies have found that church and religion actually have nothing to do with it: in fact, anyone who identifies with a movement and who regularly socializes (e.g. bowling clubs, atheist meetups) gains exactly the same benefit. See Chaeyoon Lim and Robert Putnam, “Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction,” American Sociological Review 75.6 (2010): 914–33. Lim and Putnam concluded that “religious belonging, rather than religious meaning, is central to the religion–life satisfaction nexus.” Thus we don’t have to believe in god, we just have to belong to a community sharing a common identity and worldview.

When I see the science showing group identity and socialization as keys to health and happiness, the latter I knew, but it’s the first of those that catches my eye: human happiness depends on a feeling of belonging, of social identity, of not being the “only” one who doesn’t see the emperor’s clothes. Thus our happiness depends on creating an atheist movement all atheists can identify with and draw comfort and meaning from. In fact, studies suggest you don’t even have to go to atheist meetings to benefit from having an atheist movement to identify with: just having a community you strongly identify with alone conferred psychological and health benefits; getting out and socializing on a regular basis, only more so. And where else will you be completely comfortable socializing? Atheist groups. How will there always be an atheist group near you that you can regularly socialize with? Only if there is a broad, strong, and growing national atheist movement.

Sure, maybe in a hundred years all our atheist clubs will segue into philosophy clubs and Harris’ dream of no longer needing the word will come to pass. But we’re nowhere near there yet. For now, what separates us from the deluded and irrational masses is our common realization that the emperor does indeed have no clothes; and our sanity depends on socializing with others who see that, too. And not only that. Even just the existence of the movement contributes to human happiness, as that fact alone consoles and uplifts atheists who can’t socialize with other atheists (for whatever reason). It even adds to the happiness of those who already do socialize with other atheists. It really is a rising tide that lifts all boats.

So we should rally around this identity, use it to find each other, and to create a distinct community, and thereby create an identity and a sense of belonging. It’s not a victim thing (as Harris mistakenly presumes), but a power thing, a freedom thing, a belonging thing. Once we rally around this as an identity to build a movement around, we just need to make it as inclusive as makes sense, so everyone can be “completely who they are” at atheist meetings. We have people working at making atheism more inclusive of women and LGBT, for example (Greta Christina, Natalie Reed, etc.), and black Americans (Black SkepticsThe Crommunist, etc.), and others. Yes, we do need some core moral values, and we haven’t settled on any agreed set yet (honesty, reasonableness, and compassion are obvious, but the devil is in the details; just how much and what kind of honesty, reasonableness, and compassion is the “minimum entry requirement” to belong and do well), but that’s another thing we are working on. In the meantime, atheism as an identity is creating a movement, it’s creating networks, organization, knowledge. It’s creating, in other words, power. Something atheists never had. And will never have by any other means. That’s what the New Atheism is really all about: taking back who we are, becoming something as a movement.

Our comfort and sanity also depend on our not being disenfranchised, on having a recognized voice in the political discourse deciding our fates by deciding how our country gets run and what we do with its public resources. And that means we need to show our numbers, and the strength of our commitment and motivation, as well as show we have a political voice, a public presence and a lot of votes. Thus it is that the Reason Rally next month is crucial, not just for sending a message to Washington, but to America, that we aren’t a fringe minority but a fast-growing minority with as much legitimacy as Jews or Mormons or LGBT. To show them that, we need physical numbers.

So if you can go, you should go (there is a network of charter buses in place to help you do that), not just to enjoy all the speakers and entertainments and fellow like-minded non-astrologers, but to represent us all, those of us who can’t make it (because, like me, they can’t afford it; or like my wife, they can’t get time off from work), and to up our physical presence as an identity in this country, to show the nation that we are not insignificant and we do talk to each other and we organize. And if you can’t go, you should donate, to help them recover the costs of putting this on and making this statement to the government and the nation, because this is doing you a big favor, and so it is worth your while to back it (not least so that future efforts will know the support is there). You can also buy their swag, if you are more into the free market thing.

Yes, this is one of those “inclusive” things, but not in a “shush the atheist” way. Atheists will be as welcome, and can be as out as anyone there, and feel completely themselves, represented and supported.

So go! Or support it some other way. PZ posted a video that he says will persuade you: Time to Stand Up.

Comments

    • deanbuchanan says

      My Maryland family will be going too…
      I may have even talked my in-laws into coming with us to share the experience with their grandchild.

      Ahhh the guilttrip love bonds of family.

  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    A Christian apologist (I can’t recall who) once quipped in a debate that if his godless opponent were walking down a dark street late at night and heard a bunch of people running up behind him, wouldn’t he prefer to know they were a bunch of young men leaving a bible study class?

    ‘Twas Dennis Prager, according to this New Yorker article:

    [Christopher Hitchens] … recounts how, a week before September 11th, a hypothetical question was put to him by Dennis Prager, an American talk-show host. Hitchens was asked to imagine himself in a foreign city at dusk, with a large group of men coming toward him. Would he feel safer, or less safe, if he were to learn that they were coming from a prayer meeting? With justified relish, the widely travelled Hitchens responds that he has had that experience in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad, and that, in each case, the answer would be a resounding “less safe.”

  2. says

    Richard, I see a problem: How is constructing an identity around a belief (or a philosophical position, for that matter) different from believers committing to a dogma? Precisely this link between identity and belief is what creates a giant obstacle for them to surmount when trying to critically think about their own beliefs. In my opinion, free-thought implies being open to question one’s beliefs at any time. Constructing an identity around a belief that you’re willing to revise over time, that you’re willing to doubt if evidence arises otherwise is problematic.

    It’s true in my opinion that we are a minority that is under pressure by societal ‘forces’, and that a movement is necessary, even if under the label those same forces put on it. This doesn’t mean however that we need to build communities and identities around our common beliefs or philosophical positions. I wouldn’t go searching for friendship and a sense of belonging among those that shun or chastise me, but I can get that sense of belonging from, say, a social club or a sports team.

    • says

      Just in case: I use the term ‘belief’ in the ‘epistemological’ sense, not in the ‘faith’ sense. A proposition one holds to be true.

    • says

      juangelos How is constructing an identity around a belief (or a philosophical position, for that matter) different from believers committing to a dogma?

      Identification is not dogma. Dogma is a belief held without justification. An identity can be a dogma, but is not necessarily so.

      Identifying oneself as having a justified belief, which one has investigated and verified is probably correct (evolutionist, anti-fascist, Bayesian, atheist), is routine and appropriate.

      If one revises their belief, they revise their identification (hence if I became a Christian, I would identify as a Christian and not an atheist).

      That’s how it works.

    • says

      Richard,

      Yes, I take your point. But there’s still an equivocation going on, I think. I can identify myself as a moral realist, or a logical relativist, but this is just a label one uses so as not to explain one’s whole philosophy starting from basic premises and axioms. I’m fine with this.

      Contrast this with identifying yourself as a Muslim. In this sense, ‘identity’ has deeper psychological connotations. We can call this ‘psychological identity’. Some of this connotations include that you place much emotional value on your Islamic beliefs. It sometimes goes to the core of whom a person thinks she is.

      I think in your article there’s no clear differentiation between these two meanings of ‘identity’. You compare atheism as a minority with Jews, Mormons and LGBT, and you talk about it being the identity of choice for the young, the people who are going to change everything. I don’t think I’m cherry-picking here, but that I’m talking to the core of what you’re saying about identity. My point is then that the meaning you try to convey when using the word ‘identity’ is prone to equivocation. Are you saying that atheism is an identity as psychologically deep as gay, jew, or muslim? Or is it just a label like bayesian? Or an intermediate like conservative?

      (Please don’t take this as a naive attack on your call to action, I agree with that part, and I’d probably go to the rally if I were in America. My concern is that I regard any of my philosophical positions as being held dispassionately, not placing too much emotional value on them, and that this is appropriate.)

    • says

      juangelos: Are you saying that atheism is an identity as psychologically deep as gay, jew, or muslim? Or is it just a label like bayesian? Or an intermediate like conservative?

      Emotionally deep commitments are nothing to disparage. I think what you mean to be concerned about is dogmatism: when emotional commitment trumps rational reflection and thus prevents relocating one’s identity if the facts turn out differently. An analogy is someone who is a deeply committed Republican but from gradual experience with the world becomes a deeply committed Democrat: in neither case was their emotional commitment intrinsically “bad,” particularly insofar as evidence was still able to persuade them to relocate their identity.

      So, I think perhaps you’re drawing the wrong distinctions. The concern is not whether someone is an emotionally committed Muslim, or even how committed they are. The concern is whether being emotionally committed prevents them from being rational and consistently questioning. And insofar as that is the real concern, the response is not to denigrate or avoid emotional commitment, but to make self-questioning and objective skepticism a core value of the identity being affirmed.

      Which is (so far) what the atheist movement has actually done. That makes it qualitatively different from other core identities, like Christianity or Islam (or even LGBT, although that’s not as apt an analogy since that identity does not concern worldview per se, and is thus compatible with almost any, including atheism or any other worldview that embraced self-questioning as a core value).

      So the answer to your question is that atheism can be a psychologically deep identity. But that doesn’t mean atheism should be an identity resistant to evidence and reason and thus incapable of exit (if the facts should require). To the contrary, atheism as a movement in this country identifies with skepticism as a virtue, including self-questioning and self-testing skepticism. We should maintain that core value. As long as we do, we can have as deep an identification with atheism as we want or need.

      (There is the separate question of worldview, and thus of identification with a worldview; atheism as such is not a worldview; but since you gave non-worldview examples, I assume that isn’t the point you were making.)

  3. Brad says

    The “young men leaving a bible study” question is a favorite asked by conservative radio host Dennis Prager (Jewish, not Christian). It normally goes something like:

    If you were in a bad part of the city at night and ten strange men were walking toward you, would you or would you not be relieved to find out that they had just attended a Bible class?

    Christopher Hitchens was a frequent guest on his show, and here was Hitchens’ response (he even included this response in his book, “God is Not Great”):

    Just to stay within the letter B, I’ve actually had that experience in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, Baghdad and in each case I can say absolutely and can give my reasons why I would feel immediately threatened if I thought that the group of men approaching me in a dusk were coming from a religious observance.

    A little twist on the original question, but still a fair response :)

  4. vinnyjh says

    If people were showing up at the local school board to demand that the economics classes include a discussion of rainbows and pots of gold, I would probably need to identify myself as an a-leprechaunist.

  5. mojo.rhythm says

    I agree 100%. Sam Harris seems to think that, when it comes to belief or disbelief in gods, you are unable to identify yourself by properties that you lack or are against, even though people do it all the time.

  6. says

    It was a nice bone-headed thought on Harris’ part. It seems he wanted to take the “easy” way out in bypassing all the ugly emotional/moral/philosophical politics associated with the term “atheism” in hopes that “let’s just be reasonable about random topic x” could just happen on its own. To be sure, atheists aren’t coming from atheism on social issues in the same way that Christians are coming from Christianity. But practically or politically it doesn’t really matter. Harris’ idea made so much sense on paper, but absolutely no human sense. Frakking robot. As you point out, the social cost of the atheist movement is worth it *for the atheists* doing the job. Rational arguments need to be made in addition to catering to the human community making them in this particular cultural context.

  7. lpetrich says

    There is an exception to the rule. A certain No Robots, at FRDB and elsewhere, has celebrated Jesus Christ as a great atheist, and he’s claimed that the God of the Bible is not really what one might think, but “being”. He attributes these odd notions to philosopher Constantin Brunner.

  8. Elle says

    I agree. I have also noticed that people tend to somewhat fear the atheist movement, to the point they are willing to censor inoffensive advertisements, while religious billboards saying “Saturday is the true Lord’s day, Antichrist changed it, avoid its mark” obviously can be freely shown in public:

    http://midohioatheists.org/?p=1120

    This is even more ridiculous:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2012/02/28/the-most-inoffensive-atheist-bus-ad-ever-rejected/

    Looks like the really abhor that word…

  9. Mark Erickson says

    Rieux, we agree! How’s it going? Yes, an extremely good post. But, my second favorite word is but, so I have to take issue with the compassion criteria. Hitchens has a great bit about how giving others freedom/liberty is much better than compassion, using Mother Theresa as the example. As the Prager bit was quickly recalled, maybe someone else can find this reference as well.

  10. says

    Richard it is always a pleasure reading your material. I am always inspired by it. You are truly one of the strengths of the New Atheist movement. I don’t think you get enough credit for your work. I’ve read two of your books and your work with John Loftus also. I recommend them to all my Atheist friends. Thanks for your work in the movement.

  11. baal says

    Whereas, the problem with “agnostic,” for example, is that an agnostic is an “atheist,” so to prefer “agnostic” as a label tends to have a psychological, not a rational motive behind it (see my past blog Atheist or Agnostic?).

    My glib formulation (hope it’s not elsewhere) is that an agnostic is a cowardly atheist. That said, I’m not out as an atheist with everyone at work or with my family…it’d not go well.

  12. Anteprepro says

    Somewhat random, but thank you so much for finding and bringing up that Lim and Putnam study! Since I had also known about the effect of socialization on happiness from other studies, every time I’ve heard about religious service attendance correlating with happiness, I’ve always suspected that it was mediated by the independently determined effect of social involvement. And with that study, my suspicion is confirmed. It’s a very important piece of data, and I thank you for it.

  13. qo says

    Regarding atheism as an identity, I think one could make the case that the secular movement (if we can call it that) and the civil rights movement are similar.

    I CANNOT believe what Christians believe. I cannot force myself to believe in gods, virgin births, talking snakes, etc, without evidence that we all know is simply not forthcoming. In that respect, I’m like the African-American who will never be white, or the gay person who will never be straight.

    So, hell yes, atheism can be an identity and I see nothing odd that it might be the impetus behind a movement.

  14. says

    “It informs anyone who hears it where you stand on the whole “faith-based epistemology” thing.”

    Does it really? I’d say it tells you nothing about a person’s epistemology. It’s a pretty tall order to claim you can determine someone’s epistemology based on hearing them tell you what they don’t believe in.

    This sound to me like the achilles heel in your argument. Unless you can somehow draw a necessary inference of a reason-based epistemology from a professed disbelief (any disbelief will do), this point is a straight-up error.

    It’s seems axiomatic to me that any belief, or lack thereof, may be held on faith or simple tradition. Therefore the identification “atheist” tells you nothing about a the foundation for one’s beliefs. That makes it bad intellectual and social policy.

    (I realize that the context of the line I cited was in reference to astrology, but I’m assuming that your intent was to illustrate similar logic for atheism).

    “It says you aren’t going to be cowed into denying who you are, into living in the closet, pretending to be an astrologer.”

    Or it may say that you are someone who believes in astrology, and have been cowed into denying it.

    “It says you are one of those unusually sane people who realizes astrology is bullshit.”

    No it doesn’t! It could VERY well mean that you have rejected astrology because you hold some equally arbitrary, equally ridiculous alternative belief! Failing to hold one particular insane belief says nothing about the state of your sanity. Can’t you see that this also applies to atheism?

    “In a world full of astrologers, that’s just about the most important information I could ever learn about you (not quite, but nearly).”

    I’d call it relevant information, but hardly enough to conclude that the person to whom you’re speaking is an adherent to a reason-based worldview.

    There is absolutely no logically consistent method to demonstrating that you CAN determine what someone’s method of epistemology IS simply by knowing one single belief that the person in question has rejected. It’s simply not possible. ALL beliefs and non-beliefs may be arrived at via faith. And any atheist you meet may have rejected belief in god in favor of some equally arbitrary, equally absurd alternative.

    That is the flaw in the logic. And that is why no advocate of reason ought to identify themselves *primarily* with atheism. Atheism ought to be considered a derivative belief based on the foundation of reason, subject to change if newer evidence is discovered, no different than ALL such believes from all such adherents. Reason should be the primary identifier.

    • says

      kacyray:

      [re: “It informs anyone who hears it where you stand on the whole “faith-based epistemology” thing.”] Does it really? I’d say it tells you nothing about a person’s epistemology. It’s a pretty tall order to claim you can determine someone’s epistemology based on hearing them tell you what they don’t believe in.

      Certainly, it does not tell you everything about their epistemology; but it certainly doesn’t tell you nothing about their epistemology.

      I did not mean to imply that all atheists have ideal epistemologies. Only that their epistemologies, however flawed, are uniformly better than those commonly employed by godists (particularly godists who have a “problem” with people openly calling themselves atheists).

      For example, it demonstrates rejection of argumentum ad populum in matters of religion. Even atheists who still resort to it, can be shamed by calling them out for it, because that creates cognitive dissonance–in a way it doesn’t in most godists, who actually believe argumentum ad populum in matters of faith is reasonable and don’t even understand the idea that it isn’t.

      Or it may say that you are someone who believes in astrology, and have been cowed into denying it.

      Our society isn’t at that stage yet. Certainly, there will come a time when theists will be in the minority and might feel pressure to “become” an atheist to fit in. But we’re nowhere near that now. Theists who find themselves in enclaves like that, either leave, practice public neutrality (the California standard: don’t talk about your religion in front of me, and I won’t talk about mine in front of you), or stand their ground.

      I would be interested in the perspective on this from anyone who lives in a highly atheist (but otherwise democratically free) country, and thus can assess if anything like this operates there.

      No it doesn’t! It could VERY well mean that you have rejected astrology because you hold some equally arbitrary, equally ridiculous alternative belief!

      Give me an example of an atheist (an actual atheist, not a hypothetical one) who is an openly self-identified atheist because of “some equally arbitrary, equally ridiculous alternative belief.”

      Failing to hold one particular insane belief says nothing about the state of your sanity.

      Yes, the base rate of insanity always remains, no matter one’s identity. But that makes no difference (i.e. the base rate is the same regardless of faith affiliation). Thus, my observations is that given the two populations, theists and atheists, the net rate of delusion and irrationality in the second is considerably reduced. This holds up in my experience, where the ratio of delusional and creepy and crazy and illogical is always a great deal higher among religious crowds than atheist crowds (self-identified atheist crowds; an important distinction, since I am not referring to apatheists or atheists who don’t consider themselves atheists or don’t want to identify as such).

      I’d call it relevant information, but hardly enough to conclude that the person to whom you’re speaking is an adherent to a reason-based worldview.

      In my uniform experience, it does predict that, to a high (but not total) probability. That’s my point. And I have met and mingled among thousands of atheists across the whole country and beyond.

      Reason should be the primary identifier.

      Except that doesn’t work in practice. Most Christians claim to be reasoners, reasonable, and advocates of a reason based worldview (those who actually denigrate reason are the scariest, but not the majority). Thus it fails to demarcate. The only thing a Christian will never claim to be is an atheist. That is what makes the moniker a useful one.

  15. kacyray says

    Certainly, it does not tell you everything about their epistemology; but it certainly doesn’t tell you nothing about their epistemology.

    You’re right. I’ll revise. It tells you “not enough” about their epistemology.

    I did not mean to imply that all atheists have ideal epistemologies. Only that their epistemologies, however flawed, are uniformly better than those commonly employed by godists

    I will right up front concede that you are right about this. If someone tell you they are an atheist, the chances are very good that they embrace reason, at least to the extent that they understand it. I grant you that.

    The danger lies in assuming that this frequent correlation implies some sort of inverse causation. I am an atheist because I embrace reason, not the other way around. Reason ought to be primary – I don’t think you and I disagree on that.

    Our society isn’t at that stage yet.

    It doesn’t have to be. I can still imagine plenty of reason why it would happen, even today. Just to provide one hypothetical – a child may believe in god because he hears about it from a friend at school. But his father is an adamant atheist who has no philosophical foundation to his position (he just disbelieves in god because he just damn well does!). This child doesn’t want to disappoint his father, so throughout his childhood he calls himself an atheist, even though all his life he has secretly believed in god. This hypothetical isn’t really that far fetched. The point is – even a professed atheist could potentially be a theist that has been cowed into denying who they really are. It’s simply not outside the realm of possibility. Are the odds against it? Of course. But the fact that it’s possible means you can never be sure.

    Give me an example of an atheist (an actual atheist, not a hypothetical one) who is an openly self-identified atheist because of “some equally arbitrary, equally ridiculous alternative belief.”

    Solipsists. Nihilists. Astrologers are mystics, but not necessarily theists. Same goes for New Agers. In fact, I don’t think Scientologists qualify as theists, strictly speaking (even though they do consider their brand of insanity a “religion”), because they believe in physical aliens, not supernatural gods.

    (I realize you asked for self-described atheists, but it’s important to point out that even some who reject that label are still atheists-in-fact, with beliefs based on faith).

    Some people adopt atheism arbitrarily, with no philosophical foundation whatsoever, just going through life believing whatever they desire to believe, arbitrarily. Arbitrary beliefs are as anti-reason as faith-based beliefs. There is no shortage of people who do not believe in a god or gods that hold beliefs based on something other than reason.

    Your average nihilist doesn’t go around wearing an “Atheist Pride!” T-shirt, but they are atheists to be sure.

    Thus, my observations is that given the two populations, theists and atheists, the net rate of delusion and irrationality in the second is considerably reduced.

    I will grant you that, and I’ll go one further… my observation is that given two subsets of the latter of those two populations, atheists and advocates of reason, the net rate of delusion and irrationality in the latter subset is almost eliminated. In fact, a true commitment to a reason-based epistemology generates a continually self-correcting worldview throughout the course of one’s life, so you might say that the rate of irrationality is eliminated entirely.

    And when we assemble under the broad umbrella of atheism, we are deliberately including those atheists who hold faith-based or arbitrary worldviews. Why? How can that possibly be advantageous when you have the option to specifically identify onlywith those who share your actual views, and not with all those who merely share a disbelief.

    In my uniform experience, it does predict that, to a high (but not total) probability. That’s my point. And I have met and mingled among thousands of atheists across the whole country and beyond.

    I can appreciate the value of experience and of having been out in the world and having such a wide perspective. But even if it’s true that the predictive value of one’s self-description as an atheist is a generally reliable indicator of one’s inclination toward reason, it still doesn’t change the fact my primary commitment is not to atheism, it is to reason, and I suspect you fall into that same category.

    To find out, you only need to ask yourself – If one day someone were to present you with evidence that some sort of supernatural god does in fact exist, and that evidence was validated through scientific consensus and rigorous testing… would your worldview then become theistic (not necessarily religious)? If the answer is yes, then your primary commitment is to reason, not to atheism.

    But when identify ourselves primarily as atheists, what we are saying is that we are committed first and foremost to atheism. If this is true for you, good to go. But it isn’t true for me. I am an atheist because reason demands it. If reason were to one day demand otherwise, I would follow suit.

    Except that doesn’t work in practice. Most Christians claim to be reasoners, reasonable, and advocates of a reason based worldview

    That’s the great thing about reason, isn’t it? They can claim to adhere to reason all they like. All it takes is one good injection of scrutiny to demonstrate that they really don’t.

    Anyway, it’s not hard to demonstrate that they don’t. Just ask them the same question as before – “If I could one day produce evidence that no god could possibly exist, would you change your worldview?” They pretty much say no every time, but on the rare occasions when they say yes, then you only need to ask them what their falsification criteria is, and they fall flat on their face. In that way, one can quickly dispatch their claim to be advocates of reason.

    Thanks for the well-thought-out response.

    • says

      kacyray:

      You’re right. I’ll revise. It tells you “not enough” about their epistemology.

      That depends on how much you need to know for the purpose at hand. In my experience, it has consistently told me enough for the purposes I describe. (Its failure rate is the same as that of any designator; e.g. a lunatic will call himself a Rationalist just as easily as an Atheist, so there is no self-identifier that will avoid that; whereas no godist will call themselves an atheist, so unlike any other epithet, this one eliminates a lot of delusional people from its roster, and it is precisely the effect of that that I consistently enjoy at public meetup after public meetup).

      The danger lies in assuming that this frequent correlation implies some sort of inverse causation. I am an atheist because I embrace reason, not the other way around. Reason ought to be primary – I don’t think you and I disagree on that.

      And you’re right, it’s always worthwhile pointing that out. Atheists can be idiots, lunatics, criminals, and douchebags, same as anyone. And we should always be on our guard against that.

      It doesn’t have to be. I can still imagine plenty of reason why it would happen, even today. Just to provide one hypothetical – a child may believe in god because he hears about it from a friend at school. But his father is an adamant atheist who has no philosophical foundation to his position (he just disbelieves in god because he just damn well does!). This child doesn’t want to disappoint his father, so throughout his childhood he calls himself an atheist, even though all his life he has secretly believed in god.

      I am unaware of this ever actually happening. Like I said, you can’t prove a point with a non-existent hypothetical. If it happens, it happens so rarely as to be predictively of no value.

      Every atheist parent I know allows their kids freedom to explore their religious beliefs. And then kids grow up and can leave and do what they want. So when we’re talking about adults, even your hypothetical doesn’t pertain.

      In terms of predictive sucsess, it works far more the other way around.

      It’s simply not outside the realm of possibility. Are the odds against it? Of course. But the fact that it’s possible means you can never be sure.

      That’s a fallacy. “Possibly, therefore probably” is invalid (as you acknowledge), but we have no reason to believe improbable things. It’s “possible” an atheist will be an armed robber and steal your car. But is it even remotely probable, to the point that you can’t trust any self-identified atheist, lest they steal your car? Same for anything else, even what’s more likely (like a nut who is obsessed with circumcision, or an irrational libertarianism, or angry vegetarianism).

      We adjust our priors as we get new information. But until then, we ride with the priors. That’s the value of atheism as an identity: it is a guaranteed reference class marker (because godists will never pretend to be or think they are an atheist).

      [re: "Give me an example of an atheist (an actual atheist, not a hypothetical one) who is an openly self-identified atheist because of “some equally arbitrary, equally ridiculous alternative belief.”"] Solipsists. Nihilists. Astrologers are mystics, but not necessarily theists. Same goes for New Agers. In fact, I don’t think Scientologists qualify as theists, strictly speaking (even though they do consider their brand of insanity a “religion”), because they believe in physical aliens, not supernatural gods.

      But apart from nihilists, few of these people openly identify as atheists. That’s my point. And nihilists in my experience are often sane, rational people who often even have high moral values (perhaps you are running on caricatures of nihilists and not what actual nihilists actually believe; or the occasional jackass). (And solipsists aren’t atheists because by definition they believe they are God; not that I’ve ever met one, although I hear there are a lot of them in Finland. I’ve met radical postmodernists, who were practically solipsists, but they didn’t identify as atheists, and were extremely rare, and easy to weed out.)

      I’ll go one further… my observation is that given two subsets of the latter of those two populations, atheists and advocates of reason, the net rate of delusion and irrationality in the latter subset is almost eliminated.

      Like I said, I’m not sure that’s true (everyone wants to claim they are an advocate of reason, especially those who aren’t).

      I would conjecture your prediction would be more true of self-professed Bayesians, for the same reason that “atheist” works: you have to really be counter-culturally committed to it to claim it. Few people profess to be Bayesians who don’t really understand it, and those who really understand it are intrinsically armed against excesses of delusion and irrationality, precisely because Bayesian principles (updating priors, acknowledgement of cognitive biases, etc.) make one aware of it, so you can’t “claim” to be a Bayesian and understand it and not be affected positively by it, whereas one can claim to be an advocate of reason whether one understands what that means or not, and in fact people will often be inclined to claim that, for the same reason they are inclined to be believers: because it is shamefully unpopular to claim to be against reason (whereas it has not yet become shamefully unpopular not to claim to be a Bayesian). Not that there aren’t extremists who do claim to be against reason (the most extreme fundamentalists, and the most wishy washy woos), but they never claim to be atheists.

      And when we assemble under the broad umbrella of atheism, we are deliberately including those atheists who hold faith-based or arbitrary worldviews. Why? How can that possibly be advantageous when you have the option to specifically identify only with those who share your actual views, and not with all those who merely share a disbelief.

      There is no identifier for my actual worldview, so I don’t have that option. For example, secular humanist means ten different things, many of which I don’t align with, and naturalism or even metaphysical or philosophical naturalism means ten different things, many of which I don’t align with.

      Moreover, I don’t want to only associate with such people, since I benefit from mingling with diverse worldviews. As long as we share a core set of values (moral and epistemic), we get along. So far there has been only one identifier that reliably puts me in agreeable company that way: atheist.

      (For an example of a naturalist, for instance, whom I doubt I would enjoy the company of, although whom nevertheless I would trust the company of more than most godists, see my interaction with Rosenberg.)

  16. says

    you can’t “claim” to be a Bayesian and understand it and not be affected positively by it, whereas one can claim to be an advocate of reason whether one understands what that means or not, and in fact people will often be inclined to claim that, for the same reason they are inclined to be believers: because it is shamefully unpopular to claim to be against reason

    Okay, this is persuasive. I suppose I would only rely on the fact that true adherence to reason is the sort of thing that can be fleshed out. In other words… it wouldn’t take very long to demonstrate that a rain dancer who claims to be an advocate of reason is being either dishonest, inconsistent, or simply doesn’t understand reason. With a theist, it may take a bit longer, but it still quite doable.

    But you’re right… I haven’t met a theist yet who claims to disavow reason. Instead what they do is claim that it is perfectly congruous with faith.

    It sounds like your position boils down to “Atheism is the best option because no other identifier has the predictive value or yields the best results when assessing someone’s level of rationality.” I would cede this contention. Still, I can’t accept that saying “I’m not one of them” translates to “I am one of you”. Sure, atheism and reason may often correlate, but in the mind of someone truly dedicated to reason, atheism is where reason leads – not where beliefs begin.

    I don’t want to beat this thread to death – I have one question left:

    Do you agree that by identifying yourself primarly as an atheist, you are sending the message – not only to theists, but to anyone who hears it – that atheism is your primary absolute? Or do you rely on the listener to deduce that it is a derivative position, arrived at through the careful use of reason?

    If the former, how much effort do you put into to ensuring your audience realizes that atheism is not a primary belief, but a derivative position? Or do you even feel that is important?

    If the latter, doesn’t that make you vulnerable to the misinterpretation of your actual position? After all, most theists actually believe that we atheists are simply rebelling against the still small voice of god crying out within us – they have no idea that our atheistic position was arrived by carefully weighing all available evidence, using reason as a guidestick, and coming to a decision based not on what was comfortable and popular, but on what reason demands? By starting the conversation off with “I’m an atheist”, don’t you feel that basically cements this (mis)perception in their minds?

    • says

      kacyray:

      But you’re right… I haven’t met a theist yet who claims to disavow reason.

      BTW, I have. It’s one of the main agendas promoted throughout the panels in the Kentucky Creation Museum. But these views are among the most extreme (and the scariest). They aren’t typical.

      I can’t accept that saying “I’m not one of them” translates to “I am one of you”.

      Right. It communicates only that they aren’t one of them, and are bold enough to say so, and hang out with us. The rest we have to determine on a case by case basis, same as any social networking.

      Do you agree that by identifying yourself primarly as an atheist, you are sending the message – not only to theists, but to anyone who hears it – that atheism is your primary absolute?

      It doesn’t matter, because either they will be smart and honest enough not to think that (e.g. they’ll inquire what my beliefs are, or what our beliefs are, as a movement; which inquiry will turn up humanism and naturalism as near universals among us, and as our primary hypotheses, from which atheism is merely derivative), or they will think that no matter what label I use (e.g. if I call myself a humanist or a naturalist, they will hear “godless commie who believes life is meaningless and will rape babies and skeet-shoot kittens if given the chance”; in other words, exactly the same thing they hear when I say I’m an atheist). I know this from experience.

      We need to force them to inquire (by making our very existence known), and mock them when they don’t.

      If the former, how much effort do you put into to ensuring your audience realizes that atheism is not a primary belief, but a derivative position? Or do you even feel that is important?

      It would always be important, no matter what labels we used. It’s one of my aims in life to help atheists think about and articulate this (many of my books and articles serve this aim), and I think it’s an important goal of our movement to make our foundational beliefs, or references to them, a central component of our books, websites, conferences, and conversations. More so than even Christians do (e.g. their foundational beliefs are really fear of death, fear of social chaos, and longing for justice, coupled with a faith-based epistemology, to all of which belief in God is derivative; but unlike us, they can’t admit this, even to themselves, because it would expose their fallacies).

  17. dhoelscher says

    “But you will never find a Christian claiming to be an atheist.”

    Not true. See Thomas Altizer’s book The Gospel of Christian Atheism, and Don Cupitt’s Taking Leave of God. According to Gavin Hyman (see his book A Short History of Atheism) the aforementioned theologians see themselves as having reconciled atheism and Christianity. In chapter 8, Hyman discusses a half-dozen other thinkers, whom he says are representative of a large swath of contemporary theology, who believe in a medieval theological conception of a transcendent God but are atheist with respect to the personal God that most Christians have worshiped in the modern era. From the standpoint of today’s lay Christianity, these people are, I reckon, Christian atheists.

    http://www.amazon.com/History-Atheism-Library-Modern-Religion/dp/1848851375/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1335527792&sr=8-1

    See also:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_atheism

    As it happens, just the other day, while doing research for a book I’m writing, I discovered that one of the most valuable academics we have here in the U.S., Robert Jensen, has called himself a Christian atheist:

    http://www.counterpunch.org/2006/09/28/finding-my-way-back-to-church-and-getting-kicked-out/

    Dave H.

  18. dhoelscher says

    I’m not going to speculate here on why you refuse to admit that you’re wrong, but Hyman’s point is precisely that Altizer and Cupitt do call themselves Christian atheists. And whatever you may think of Jensens’s self-identifications the man did in fact call himself a Christian atheist, as Ernst Bloch did in the past and Slavoj Zizek and others have done in our own day. You say that the other figures are not atheists in the sense that you are, but I did not say that they are. My correction of your mistake will be stronger once you (hopefully) approve my second reply, which interested readers can use as a staring point to explore the subject further.

    “They are therefore not a counter-example to my point.” The point I responded to was this: “But you will never find a Christian claiming to be an atheist.” You did not say that nobody who would “come to our events and promote atheist pride” would call themselves Christian. The statement you wrote is different, and as I’ve shown it is false.

    “supernaturalist atheists are extremely rare in the West.” Again, not true. Although there are plenty of animists in Central and South America for whom gods and demigods do exist, there are millions of other animists in that part of the western world who do not hold such beliefs.

    Dave H.

    • says

      Do they actually identify with the atheist movement? And believe in the supernatural? If they meet both conditions, then I concede there are a few such persons, but so rare as to be all but socially invisible.

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