It’s the same old story: ever since I introduced the idea of dictionary atheism, I’ve been accused of trying to redefine the word.
— Archaeopteryx (@Acunteopteryx) July 20, 2014
Wrong. Although I should have noticed their twitter handle and realized that they weren’t worth talking to.
What I advocate is taking atheism seriously, owning the word and recognizing the implications and the causes behind your ideas. A flippant “I just don’t believe in god” is only the middle of the story: it’s actually “because X, I just don’t believe in god, therefore Y.” Yet so many people just make that statement, and then argue that there are no antecedents and no consequences of atheism — a revolutionary idea for which people have been executed, which is in opposition to the premises used to establish many of the powerful institutions in our culture, which directly contradicts what many people consider the basis of all morality in society, is treated as casually and cavalierly as the statement, “I don’t much care for Justin Bieber’s music”. So what we get are people who jump on the bandwagon, assert their atheism, and then continue to perpetuate the same old injustices and prejudices as before. Which is not at all unexpected in any movement, but still doesn’t sit well — I think it’s important that we remind everyone that taking on a major philosophical position isn’t the same as getting the latest shoe from Nike. There’s baggage. There are implications.
I’ll also say something that will irritate much of the readership here: you may not like some of their interpretations, but Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, and Hitchens definitely take atheism very seriously, and see it as a transforming principle for society. They’re right about that. If we do take responsibility for what atheism actually means, it has a host of consequences: it means that naturalism is the only principle we should use in making decisions, no waiting for miracles. It means that there is no afterlife, so causing death is a problem of far greater magnitude, no cop outs that they’re going to a better world. It means justice isn’t something imposed on us from above, but arises from our relationships with one another. It means we have to work together to build a better society, and clinging to old biases will not work.
Obviously, this does not mean atheism needs dogma — the disagreements we have are actually a good sign that we recognize that making a post-theist society takes work, and there certainly is no unity within the movement. But I think an important first step is to realize that some people are responsible atheists, and others are not. And for me, the first sign that I shouldn’t even bother arguing with someone is when they pull out the dictionary and declare that atheism only means that you don’t believe in any gods. Well, good for you, you’re nominally atheist, we’re all done, come back and talk to me when you’ve grown up a little.