Sep 29 2011

Plato, Linnaeus, Darwin, and Atheism. And Greta.

Earlier today, Greta Christina posted a nice piece on the negative definition of atheism. I left a brief comment there, but wanted to post this much longer and perhaps actually coherent bit on positive and negative definitions, religion and atheism. It’s long, so you might want to pour yourself a drink first.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s NPR piece, “A Bitter Rift Divides Atheists”, put two thoughts in my head. The briefer first: Taking a look at religious sectarian violence the world over, isn’t BBH impressed at how atheists handle alleged disagreements?

The second will take some time. This is where you might want that drink.

Plato’s view of reality proposed that there were ideal forms (platonic ideals) which we mere humans could not perceive—our abilities limited to seeing only imperfect copies of these ideals. We did, however, recognize kinds, as approximations to those ideals. We saw and recognized triangles because of their similarity to the ideal triangle, cats because of their similarity to the ideal cat, and so forth.

Linnaeus, in categorizing species, followed the platonic tradition. A species was defined by a representative of that species, a prototype, and by limited variation from that ideal. There was an ideal cat, but of course some are larger or smaller, striped or solid or tortoise-shell mottled or calico, with longer or shorter tails, faster or slower, more or fewer toes. This view of life made it very difficult to conceive of one species becoming another, or splitting into two.

Darwin rocked the world when, in his “Origin of Species”, he essentially rendered the word “species” obsolete, at least as it had previously been known. The average or ideal cat was no longer of any great interest; rather, the population of cats, individuals varying from one another, was what was important. There is, if I may abuse a metaphor, a spectrum of cats, a spectrum of pigeons, a spectrum of finches on each island of the Galapagos. The spectra vary for each species, but we could no more treat one individual as “the ideal” than we could suggest that any one wavelength represents sunlight, or fluorescent light, or incandescent.

Religions, arguably, may be described platonically. Using Linnaeus as our guide, we could arrive at Homo catholicus, “catholic man”; H. orthojudaicus, “orthodox jewish man”; H. australobapticus, southern baptist man, and so forth. We may do this because there does exist a set of beliefs that defines each religion (whether or not its followers adhere to those beliefs). There is no requirement for H. orthojudaicus to believe in the divinity of Christ, nor of H. australobapticus to follow the ex cathedra pronouncements of the pope. Each species of religion has its own defining dogma, so a positive definition is quite appropriate. Many individuals fall short of that defining dogma, so variation (or “error”) is also expected.

Note, though, that these positive definitions are quite limited. To know that someone is H. catholicus tells us a few things to expect about this person. Knowing only that someone is not a member of this species tells us very nearly nothing at all. The non-catholic may be Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Pantheist, Wiccan, Polytheist, Deist, any of thousands of other belief systems… or may be atheist. The non-Sunni may be Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu… or atheist. The non Orthodox Jew may be Jew, Christian, Muslim… or atheist. A negative definition (non-X) tells us almost nothing at all about someone.

Atheism is, and must be, negatively defined. It is the “none of the above” alternative to the list of thousands of religions and sects. There is no creed to which all atheists must cling, even in theory. There is no defining characteristic shared by all atheists—even “they don’t believe in god” is incomplete, as the majority of religious believers also do not believe in the other religions’ god(s). (Recall that the first people to be called “atheist” were early Christians, because they did not believe in the Greek pantheon!)

As a privative category (defined by what it is not), there is no ideal atheism from which to have schisms. There is, instead, a spectrum of beliefs. To the extent that we take this spectrum and attempt to split it into black and white (or any segments, even ROY G. BIV) , we are artificially imposing boundaries where there are none naturally. The “hard atheism” and “soft atheism” dichotomy is not about atheism, but rather about the presence or absence of a completely different and orthogonal set of beliefs—after all, the people most likely to positively affirm the statement “there is no Zeus” are people who also positively affirm that there is a Yahweh. “Hard” atheism can only be defined one deity at a time, which makes it something other than “none of the above”. It is an attempt to use the vocabulary of religion to describe the absence of same.

A Darwinian, population-centered approach, is more accurate. Atheists are bigger or smaller, smarter or stupider, louder or quieter… pretty much like the rest of H. sapiens is. And, in truth, H. catholicus varies pretty widely from its alleged ideal form, so much so that the term “cafeteria catholic” is commonplace. The entire Order Religiosa will, in fact, contain tremendous variability, both within and between species. We should not expect all catholics to behave alike, nor all jews, nor all muslims, nor all protestants (let alone all denominations within these broader groups).

The truth is, no matter where we look, we see spectra. We see variability. It is not unexpected; it is not diagnostic; it is not evidence of schism. It is nature.

Writingly, Bitingly,
B. Bradley Hagerty
Writes about Atheists,
Finding a schism;

Godlessness, organized
All of humanity
Seen through her prism.


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  1. 1

    I liked the nice nuanced treatment of categories, it reminded me of Dawkins’ riff on the enormous stack o’ snapshots in “The Magic of Reality,” which I am currently readng courtesy of the iPad app.

    I have a quibble with the negative definition of atheist, though. It’s very handy for clear thinking and speaking, but as a way of identifying a member of a community (as in ‘Atheists really need to build community’) it leaves some things out. I don’t think people really read each others blogs, go to conventions and volunteer with each other because of something they’re NOT. It’s because of something they ARE that they think they have in common. If you ask most people, “Hey, do you want to get together every so often and talk about how we’re not those other people?”, most people, and I bet most atheists, answer “Not so much.”

    Besides that sense of core motivation, the other thing the negative definition of atheist leaves out is a sense of community boudaries. Does an ‘atheist community’, however broadly conceived or loosely defined, include Stalin, Pol Pot (or retreads of same)? For that matter, does it include the jerks harassing Rebecca Watson? (See Pharyngula, BlagHag & XBlog).

    Having said all that, perhaps it’s politic (not to mention simpler) to stick with a negative definition and let nuance and community pressure cover the gaps.

  2. 2

    Thanks, Martha–

    A few initial thoughts… It does seem odd to get together as a community to talk about something we are not ( http://freethoughtblogs.com/cuttlefish/2011/09/04/nothing-to-talk-about/ ), and in fact I read a great many comments hither, thither and yon (comments sections of news articles about atheism, mostly) by atheists who feel no need to get together with other atheists. It is most decidedly a subset, perhaps a small subset, of non-believers who have any desire to be an “atheist community.” The subsets that do get together, I agree, tend to be organized around positively defined attributes–atheist AND fan of science; atheist AND knitter; atheist AND Cleveland Browns fan; atheist AND humanist–and a small handful of those become “the atheist community” in the public eye.

    In reality, I suspect that a majority of atheists are not part of any “atheist community” in an organized sense. I have, for instance, no interest in joining American Atheists, even though we clearly have at least some similar goals. My brothers are and were (one is dead) atheists and active in their communities; neither of them are/were part of atheist organizations. Most of my godless students feel like they are the only ones; maybe they would join an organization, maybe not, but they don’t even know they have that option. As a commenter on Greta’s blog pointed out, the “no religious affiliation” group is quite different from the self-identified atheist group in opinion polls.

    The negative (“dictionary”) definition is a minimal definition; it really does not define the “atheist community”. The positive definitions (like PZ’s, or like AA’s) do not encompass all atheists, but they may well define “the atheist community”, or at least “an atheist community”, which is close enough, or all that’s there.

    Lastly, Two (at least) groups get to define the atheist community–those on the inside, and those on the outside. Those community boundaries are funny things; we will not include Stalin or Pol Pot, but others will never fail to include them. Maybe (hey, it’s the future, I don’t know) if atheists self-identify, we’ll get past that, but for now at least, that’s where we are. For me, I am trying to own my identity. I have plenty of people for whom I am their “atheist friend”; I’ve changed their view of atheists. It’s a start.

  3. 3
    Pierce R. Butler

    Theologians enjoy have a term for describing something (well, they may call it not-a-thing; we may call it nothing) by negatives: apophatic.

    Thusly, Yahweh is not mortal, not finite, not describable, etc.

    (Only a not-nice person would ask them, as they wax eloquently negative, about that “man created in image of god” schtick.)

    Yet another reason atheists deserve censure from all Right-Thinking People is their not-respectful implicit assertion that the theos have a not-monopoly on this trope.

  4. 4

    I pretty much have to agree with teh Cuttlefish here.

    If one wants a nominally positive identification, choose humanist, or rationalist, or feminist, etc. These are the linguistically “positive” names, with “positive” views. Not all atheists are these things (dictionary atheists) or are part of communities or movements other than that they can occasionally bump into other atheists and note to themselves or declare: “I’m like you,” or “I support those ideas”.

    You can’t just make a concept which is negative or neutral by its very construction to mean something else, except inside a limited community. Of couse, others outside may also claim positive definitions of “atheist” to be “satan worshiper” or “god hater”. But if the vast majority of all atheists in fact did have a more or less unified view on, say, promotion of humanist ideas, then the connotation (never the denotation) of “atheist” would be positive for a certain set of values. Those who would have it otherwise are very welcome to keep pushing for it to become true.

    Now, if you want to throw a modifier on that – Gnu Atheist – with attendant capitalization of a proper name, I’d say that there indeed is a positive identification. There is definitely a constellation of values other than non-belief associated with this. (Never mind that taking the name was inspired by jokers using the term “New Atheist” as an insult.)

    OT, I feel I’ve been slacking for a while in complimenting teh Cuttlefish on its poesy and prose. (Cuttlefish is no Vogon.) So here’s my *clenched tentacle salute*!

  5. 5

    F (you sweetie…)

    I agree (of course), but note that choosing humanist, rationalist, or feminist is quite possible (and evident) even without being atheist. The vast majority of the positive definitional categories we can choose cut across theist/atheist lines (certainly, some categories are far from 50-50).

    I really really like your middle paragraph.

    The “Gnu Atheist” (or even “new…”) or “Bright” or any Capitalized Noun might well earn (and/or deserve) its own positive set of characteristics. It might take some doing to make certain the ingroup is defining it rather than the outgroup. And the term “constellation of beliefs” is one I use in real life, so get out of my head!

    And of course, thank you!

  1. 6
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