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The principles of atheism promote a positive ethics

Last week, the Irish Times published an opinion piece that was generally quite positive about atheism, but also perpetuated a stereotype.

Ireland is seeing the emergence of a newer kind of atheist, who is anxious to dispel the myth that they are all one-dimensional, rabidly anti-religious Dawkinsians.

It then goes on to praise charitable efforts by atheists, the emergence of the Atheism Plus movement, and the ongoing discussions about ethics within the atheist community (like I said, it’s mostly a nice article saying good things about atheists). However, it’s as if the author is surprised that we aren’t all out hanging priests from lampposts and blowing up churches.

But that’s wrong. The New Atheist movement has always been about applying reason and evidence-based thinking to everything, without exception. Atheism+ was established by aggressive, out atheists who do not compromise on the foolishness of faith, and take the very same take-no-prisoners approach on social justice issues.

In 2010, atheists met and formulated the Copenhagen Declaration (see also the Irish amendment). These are entirely ‘Dawkinsian’ in spirit!

It is actually no surprise at all that atheism is taking this direction. The only people who have been surprised are that obnoxious subset of atheists who thought nobody would ever expect them to defend their viciously anti-equality views rationally and with evidence — they’ve gotten a bit of a shock when they’ve found themselves marginalized and regarded with contempt. But they are well out of the mainstream of the New Atheist movement, and are reduced to angrily lashing out on the internet against the decent human beings who make up the bulk of our godless horde.

Michael Nugent has written an excellent article rebutting some of the misconceptions in the original opinion piece, which has also been published in the Irish Times.

“New Atheism” as promoted by Richard Dawkins has always combined promotion of critical thinking and science, strong rejection of religious beliefs that are unsupported by evidence, active campaigns against the harm caused by religion around the world, and philanthropic and charitable projects such as Nonbelievers Giving Aid and Foundation Beyond Belief.

Atheist Ireland is part of this evolving project, not a deviation from it. We promote atheism and reason over supernaturalism and superstition, and we promote an ethical and secular Ireland where the State does not support or fund or give special treatment to any religion.

We reject religious beliefs that are silly in their claims about reality, such as intervening personal gods who answer prayers and impregnate virgins to give birth to themselves; and religious beliefs that are harmful in their corruption of human morality, from Catholic sexism and homophobia to Islamic floggings and executions for blasphemy.

We believe that society should address ethical issues based on human rights and compassion, and applying reason to empirical evidence, and not on religious doctrines; and that individual ethical decisions should where possible be made on the basis of personal autonomy and individual conscience, while not infringing on the rights of others.

This is not to deny that there are jerks among atheists — but the principles of the New Atheism have always been clear, and the imperfections of humanity should not be regarded as a slight against the ideals to which we aspire.

Comments

  1. Sastra says

    Ireland is seeing the emergence of a newer kind of atheist, who is anxious to dispel the myth that they are all one-dimensional, rabidly anti-religious Dawkinsians.

    Ah, the gratuitious drive-by Dawkins bashing, beloved by everyone who wants to place themselves or someone they love safely “in the middle” — somewhere between the religious and the Straw Man Atheist who is rabid, militant, and clueless. No details, no actual quotes from Dawkins himself, just the smug little swipe. What would any article or reference to atheism be without it?

    At the real heart of the general public Dawkins-bashing is not some genuine critique which actual atheists may have with anything he might have said or done within the community. No, calling Richard Dawkins an extremist is code for “atheists should not try to change minds.” That’s his real crime: a failure to “respect” what people believe about religion and leave them alone.

    It’s not a gripe about tactics — as if he complains about religion in the middle of a concert or birthday party. Dawkins Bashing is a variant of the Argument from Shut Up. Why do we believe in God? Shut up. What is the real evidence? Shut up. Why don’t we consider an alternative? Shut up. Doesn’t religion cause harm and isn’t the good in religion just as good without? Hey. Change the subject. Stop getting personal. Don’t be an evangelist. Don’t try to convert. Give us credit for where we aren’t as bad as we could be and move on.

    Richard Dawkins, like all new atheists, approaches the question of God’s existence like one would a hypothesis. Fairly but squarely, with no backing down. This drives the religious fucking nuts. You can’t do that! And too many atheists buy into their argument that doing this is not fair. It’s shallow, rude, mean, and RABID. Be an atheist in the middle.

    At least half of the atheists I see damning Dawkins as an Extremist then go on to say things similar to what Dawkins would say. The swipe doesn’t have to make sense. It’s become a handy short cut for establishing your bona fides as someone standing in the Reasonable Middle Ground.

  2. ~G~ says

    The New Atheist movement has always been about applying reason and evidence-based thinking to everything, without exception.

    I think this is where you, PZ, and I have had strikingly different experiences. Not just online (but it’s rampant there as well), but also quite vividly in person, I see a very large contingent of atheists who consider themselves “new” atheists but who have zero interest in learning about critical thinking. They think they do, but they clearly only like getting their jollies pointing out how religious people’s ideas are stupid but hate it when someone points out their own flawed thinking.

    I am known among my local community for being “super skeptical” because I am one who will not suffer foolishness of pseudoscience, psychics, idiotic alt med claims, etc. Not most, but many atheists I know know very little about cognitive biases, logical fallacies, that Dr. Oz is not a reliable source of information, nor do they show desire to learn. For some, as long as it’s pointing the finger at religion, it’s fair game. When it’s time for self-examination or researching if that weight loss miracle is worth the money, forget it. That’s not fun, that’s work. I see far too much of this and it saddens me.

    As long as we continue as atheists (and I see this all the time) to think that the logical and psychological failings of religion are only a religious thing, and not a human brain being stupid thing, we are bound to eventually start engaging in their same evils to some degree. (e.g. sexism, rape culture, abuse of power, other forms of flawed thinking in group dynamics and decision making).

    I agree with PZs earlier posts on this matter, logically, all skeptics should be atheists and vice versa, but I just don’t see enough atheists on board with the skepticism. Probably because they are still early on in their journey through rationalism, and that’s ok. But we have to acknowledge this.

  3. Sastra says

    G #3 wrote:

    Not just online (but it’s rampant there as well), but also quite vividly in person, I see a very large contingent of atheists who consider themselves “new” atheists but who have zero interest in learning about critical thinking. They think they do, but they clearly only like getting their jollies pointing out how religious people’s ideas are stupid but hate it when someone points out their own flawed thinking.

    That hasn’t been my experience. I’ve been to a lot of conventions and yes, have met some atheists who endorse or believe in various forms of nonsense like ghosts, psychic powers, alternative medicine, etc. But none of them self-identified as a “new atheist” and most of them seemed pretty unaware of the philosophical issues behind new atheism. They were big on church-state separation, or hated the fire-and-brimstone ethics of fundamentalism — and didn’t seem particularly cognizant of groups other than the ones they were in.

    From what I’ve seen, ‘new atheism’ overlaps heavily with the skeptic groups.

    Can you point me towards any online ‘new atheist’ person or group which endorses woo?

  4. plutoanimus says

    And yet it was Dawkins himself who gave aid and comfort to the misogynistic atheists when he wrote his loathsome “Dear Muslima” letter.

    I wonder if Myers has ever asked Dawkins about that….

  5. Shplane, Spess Alium says

    I don’t think PZ is denying that people like that exist in the Atheist community, ~G~. Even you said that they aren’t “most” atheists, and PZ was talking about “most” atheists.

  6. Shplane, Spess Alium says

    @plutoanimus

    PZ has, in fact, taken Dawkins to task about that very post on this blog multiple times. It’s entirely possible to recognize that Dawkins fucked up without completely disregarding everything he’s ever said, most of which was pretty worthwhile.

  7. Sastra says

    In the article, Dawkins was not accused of misogyny. He was accused of being “one-dimensional, rabidly anti-religious.”

    Unlike GOOD atheists, I assume — who recognize that the religious aren’t all alike, and some are better than others.

    Which is bull. Not because it isn’t true, but because it IS true, and everybody, including Dawkins, understands the bleeding obvious. But the ROOT causes and approach and justification of religion makes it impossible to explain why moderation and liberalism in religion makes it any more true. One might as well praise astrology for the reasonableness of the advice given in the newspaper columns, and admit that astrologers “aren’t all bad” and attack only those who choose to go “too far” in how they interpret secret messages in the stars.

    It’s very tiresome.

  8. toro says

    “Strident” used to be the standard adjective referring to Dawkins. So now he’s moved up to “rabid”? I’m sure “vicious”, “bigoted” and “tyrannical” won’t be far behind.

    Of course, atheists are frequently told they’re being bigoted just by stating their viewpoints clearly. I’m reminded of a PZ classic about the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ strange little magazine, “Awake!”:

    Redefining irony

  9. Sastra says

    Of course, Dawkins’ problems with Elevatorgate are mentioned, but that’s not why he’s considered rabid or militant. It’s simply too easy a trope.

  10. abb3w says

    @0, PZ Myers:

    Atheism+ was established by aggressive, out atheists who do not compromise on the foolishness of faith, and take the very same take-no-prisoners approach on social justice issues.

    Sorry, I’d slightly disagree on that.

    In my experience, the “New Atheists” are relatively willing to take on anyone who wants to challenge the “God probably doesn’t exist” conclusion via Hume’s problem of Induction. Even cheerful about it. Mention of Hume’s “Is-Ought” problem to the Atheism+ types, however, seems to trigger much less friendly hostility, especially in the context of the most fundamental underpinnings of social justice. Apparently, the notion of having defend viciously pro-equality views rationally and with evidence also can be a shock, especially when all the way from first principles. I think it can be done. I just don’t think it’s being done particularly well, at present.

    I admit, there’s practical reasons not to put a lot of effort into such defense. For one thing, many of the people raising the issue may well simply be doing so as a means of persuasion resistance, and won’t accept any answer that contradicts their preconceptions. For another, it’s a lot of brain work, which seem likely not to have much in the way of practical impact on the process of social engineering on the practical end, any more than the technicalities of why the problem of induction is resolved via science has much practical implications to the engineering of building moon rockets or proton smashers.

    Still, it seems Atheism+ could be more effective at its apparent ends if there were some few Philosophical specialists, that people raising such issues could be handed off to. “You want to talk fundamental philosophy, go talk to ______________. They can let us know if anything interesting comes up. The rest of us are busy working to get shit done.” It’s hard to get an honest day’s work out of a philosopher, but at least they could field the more philosophical quibbling reactions to Atheism+. And who knows, maybe a hybrid model political-philosopher of the mold of Paine or Jefferson may turn up, and hand over a blueprint for major revolution.

  11. Tony–Queer Duck Overlord of The Bronze– says

    PZ:
    You’re just itching for the MRAs, anti FtBers, and anti A+’ers to come out eh? This post if like bait for them.

  12. Tony–Queer Duck Overlord of The Bronze– says

    ~G~:

    As long as we continue as atheists (and I see this all the time) to think that the logical and psychological failings of religion are only a religious thing, and not a human brain being stupid thing, we are bound to eventually start engaging in their same evils to some degree. (e.g. sexism, rape culture, abuse of power, other forms of flawed thinking in group dynamics and decision making).

    I used to be like this. When I realized there was no god, I pointed and laughed at theists. I acted like I was better than them-like I found the secret decoder ring of life and was more enlightened. I didn’t know anything about logical fallacies or psychological failings. It wasn’t until I came to FtB that I realized I didn’t know squat and that simply being an atheist didn’t make me better than *anyone*. In fact, in the time I’ve been here, I’ve come to realize there’s a metric fuckton of stuff I *don’t* know. The difference between the me of now, and the me of 10 years ago is that I’m willing to listen, read and learn before I open my mouth (not *always*, but far more than I previously did).

  13. Tony–Queer Duck Overlord of The Bronze– says

    plutoanimus:

    And yet it was Dawkins himself who gave aid and comfort to the misogynistic atheists when he wrote his loathsome “Dear Muslima” letter.

    I wonder if Myers has ever asked Dawkins about that….

    Richard Dawkins’ letter “Dear Muslima” was and remains a low point of critical thinking for him. That sexist, privileged bullshit he shat out wrongly sought to dismiss what Rebecca Watson was (and is) going through because someone else, somewhere else, had it worse than she did (of course Dawkins is the one who gets to determine what “worse” is). Rebecca’s problems (and US society) don’t magically disappear because there are women who are suffering to a greater extent elsewhere. Yes, Female Genital Mutilation is vile and despicable. But institutionalized sexism and male privilege are *also* a problem. We can-and more importantly SHOULD-criticize both.

    Given that Dear Muslima was posted by Dawkins as a response to one of PZ’s posts, I’m sure PZ read Dawkins’ response. I don’t know if the two have ever spoken about it. I don’t know if the two even know each other (I suspect they do, but I’m not certain).

    Sexism and misogyny can manifest in varying degrees. Despite the fact that many people feel they’re enlightened about them, both sexism and misogyny are pervasive in various cultures, and it’s darn near impossible to fully escape from their influence. Simply because someone is an atheist (or seen as a leader in the movement) doesn’t make them magically immune to either one.

  14. Ichthyic says

    I don’t know if the two even know each other (I suspect they do, but I’m not certain).

    Yes, they do, and have spent time together.

    PZ thought it best to stay with the trophy wife though.

    ;)

    no seriously, they are well acquainted.

  15. ~G~ says

    #4

    Can you point me towards any online ‘new atheist’ person or group which endorses woo?

    I’m really talking about my experiences with individuals in person or online, not organizations, and I’m really talking more about the dearth of teaching people how to better challenge their own thinking than actively promoting woo. I’m glad that your experiences have been better, though. It gives me hope.

    I think usually one can learn about meta-cognition and logical fallacies in atheist circles (the ACA does a very good job of integrating these things into their podcasts) by osmosis, so to speak. However, when a blog, org, or other atheist community really only ever talks about arguments against religion and for science as it relates to religious claims (like evolution and cosmology), people are only learning to use these tools in a narrow context.

    I think as the atheist movement has grown, we are getting an influx of more and more people from all walks of life with many different beliefs and backgrounds, maybe often with less exposure to say, science, logical argumentation and psychology. Maybe they went atheist after many arguments on facebook, not from watching Cosmos. It’s less so just those people who were already science/logic nerds. :) So it’s more important than ever that atheist communities, if we stand for rationality in all areas teach each other to apply it actively, challenge our own ideas, and to most of all, learn to be humble and wrong.

  16. chigau (棒や石) says

    PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins have, on at least one occasion, been spotted going to the cinema together.

  17. Ichthyic says

    PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins have, on at least one occasion, been spotted going to the cinema together.

    …if not actually seeing the movie together.

    ;)

  18. Sastra says

    G #17 wrote:

    So it’s more important than ever that atheist communities, if we stand for rationality in all areas teach each other to apply it actively, challenge our own ideas, and to most of all, learn to be humble and wrong.

    I agree. That’s a very wise and agreeable sentiment, after all.

    But your original complaint seemed to be directed at the new atheist ‘movement’ in particular, as being too friendly to woo in its effort to focus on criticizing religion. I don’t see that as a problem with new atheism itself at all. New atheists are as fierce in their denunciation of pseudoscience and more ‘secularized’ forms of supernaturalism as more traditional forms of religion, because new atheists are, as PZ wrote, “predominantly scientific atheists.”

    Either you were just talking about atheists in general, then — or you’ve been running in to people who adopt a label without really understanding or knowing what it’s about.

    I also attend skeptic conferences, and once ran into a cheerful ‘first-timer’ who proudly told me that they were just thrilled to be there because they’re ‘skeptical’ of allopathic medicine. I did not conclude that the skeptical movement is in danger of irrationally failing to apply its standards consistently. I assumed this nice woman had failed to “read the brochure” before she bought her ticket.

  19. Rich Woods says

    However, it’s as if the author is surprised that we aren’t all out hanging priests from lampposts and blowing up churches.

    *wipes ash off face*

    Eh? What have I missed?

    *treats rope burns on hands*

  20. ~G~ says

    Either you were just talking about atheists in general, then — or you’ve been running in to people who adopt a label without really understanding or knowing what it’s about.

    Perhaps the latter is the issue then. I do know a fair number of people who went to the Reason Rally, cheer on Dawkins, rant and rave of the evils of religion, wave their aggressive atheism as a badge of honor, but that’s it. I think they’d be unpleasantly surprised to be stripped of their “New Atheist” label if that’s how they see themselves, and I’m betting they do.

    Perhaps a singular experience for me hopefully. It’s very frequent that an atheist in meatspace argues with me that, “But I had a psychic who was really good…” or “An electron-free diet cured my aches!” or praise Zeitgeist and make blatant logical fallacies and deny them to the bitter end. But no, most of them aren’t like that and I know tons in meatspace, thank FSM. :)

  21. Ichthyic says

    erhaps a singular experience for me hopefully. It’s very frequent that an atheist in meatspace argues with me that, “But I had a psychic who was really good…” or “An electron-free diet cured my aches!”

    I’ve been posting on Pharyngula, Ed Brayton’s old and new blog, butterflies and wheels, Panda’s Thumb, and Jerry’s blog for over 6 years now.

    I have NEVER EVER seen any of the things you just described on any of these blogs.

    not.

    ever.

  22. Sastra says

    Ichthyic #24 wrote:

    I have NEVER EVER seen any of the things you just described on any of these blogs.

    Neither have I. But I fear that, as bad as we often are, the atheists who hang out in FtB and science blogs and other internet forums are more … educated? astute? … than atheists in what G calls “meatspace” often are.

    It can run the gamot, because some “village atheists” have read, maybe, one book. Some of them, upon questioning, DO believe in God: they just don’t believe in the fundamentalist Christian God. I’ve got one local acquaintance who tells people she’s an atheist — and she avidly reads Deepak Chopra and advocates homeopathy, enneagrams, and vitalism, ffs. I tell her to stop that. All of it — including identifying as an “atheist.” She likes to piss people off, though, and ‘atheist’ works. Lovely.

    I suspect the atheists who go to atheist conventions are more philosophically/scientifically grounded than average. And the internet atheists may have a slight edge over that.

    With Pharyngulites at the top, of course. But we know that.

  23. ~G~ says

    With Pharyngulites at the top, of course. But we know that.

    I agree. :) I think FTB blogs are the first I’ve repeatedly posted on outside of ones run by groups I was actually involved in IRL and knew the people involved. I read Pharyngula for over a year first to learn the culture, but it was the first one to suck me in to wanting to co-mingle. I haven’t felt overly interested in many outside of FTB with the exception of Mano Singham’s before he came here. (And again, I know him IRL, and he’s now here.) Is that sad, or just smart? :)

  24. pipenta says

    You know one nice thing about the article? Readers of the Irish Times are being clued in to the fact that there are different groups of atheists with different approaches which means, which means, which means…

    THERE ARE LOTS AND LOTS OF (GASP!) ATHEISTS!

    And so it snowballs…

    Why yes Virginia, atheists are real people and there are lots of them, lots and lots and lots of them!