Apologies again for my prolonged absence. I really need to learn how to budget my time better, especially when I am in the damned weeds at work as I am now. Despite my losing track of time in my endless nights of working, there have been some things that I have been pondering as topics of discussion to put out here.
One of the topics that I have been musing over for the past week is the ever ongoing discussion about what is often referred to as “textbook atheism”. What I mean by that term is when atheists use the textbook, or dictionary definition of atheism to describe themselves. An atheist is a person that does not believe in one or more gods. That’s it, that’s all, and there is nothing else that is associated or implied with the term.
Many people on this network, most famously being probably PZ, have railed against the so-called “textbook atheists”. Generally speaking, the argument (to my understanding) is that a rejection of a deity and/or organized religion brings with it certain implications. For example, not believing that a divine creator made certain humans stronger, smarter or more powerful than certain other humans implies a rejection of racism and sexism. Not believing in a creator without evidence implies not believing in other things without evidence either, whether it be silly evolutionary “explanations” as to the biological superiority of one race over the other, or general woo. Unfortunately, as we all know, there are plenty of atheists out there who reject this principle, simply wailing “look at the dictionary dummy! Atheist just means I don’t believe in god! It doesn’t mean I have to be no stinking feminist!”
Overall I agree that, philosophically speaking, it makes sense that a rejection of religion is the first step along a path that leads you to a humanist and rationalist perspective, and I have also been disgusted and frustrated with the racist sexist atheist faction that invades the internet. However, in my life I have found myself, on more than one occasion, blurting out the “textbook atheist” line in defining myself.
Oh dear. Am I a textbook atheist? Where does this internal discord come from?
I think the main reason why I have found it useful at times to go back to the textbook definition of atheism is because there still exists a fundamental misunderstanding of what atheism means. Sometimes this is a dishonest misunderstanding, and stems from people who are trying to argue in favor of religion and are deliberately straw manning what it means to reject it. However many times it is a genuine misunderstanding, and it is towards those people that I rely back on what the term actually means. This mixed population of believers is one that is also found amongst creationists: there are the Ray Comforts and Ken Hams of the world, that have heard all of the counterarguments to their ridiculous claims so many times that they must have at least a rudimentary understanding of the principles of evolutionary theory by now, and yet they plod on with the same old straw men over and over in the interest of money, fame and ego. On the other hand, there are other people who are genuinely ignorant of evolutionary theory, and actually do believe that biologists think that dogs came from rocks or humans came from chimps or whatever other such nonsense. When talking to those people, I find myself going back to the basics. We have to start by unlearning some things, before we can then have a meaningful discussion about how we build on those very basic principles.
The problem is, you don’t always have hours, or days, or weeks, or your counterpart’s extensive interest in the subject, to get into the details that you might find so interesting to talk about. Sometimes you’re out in the pub, or you’re talking to a friend of a friend at a dinner party. In these situations, I find that overloading the conversation ends up being counterproductive and coming off as snobbish. When it is a short encounter, I often find myself thinking that if there is only one thing I want you to take away from this conversation it is this: Evolution is NOT the spontaneous generation of mammals from minerals, but rather it is change over time. Evolution does not provide explanations for the origin of life or the origins of the universe, these are different bodies of science. Evolution means that organisms capable of reproducing will change over time for many different reasons. Similarly, Atheism is NOT a dogmatic religion, one that seeks to indoctrinate its followers into a belief that man is god, or that gods don’t exist no matter what evidence is presented. Atheism makes no comment on eugenics, social programs or good and evil. To be an atheist simply means that one does not believe in a supernatural entity.
In that respect I suppose I am a textbook atheist, in that I find that definition to be useful in this context. Of course, being the chatty person that I am I am perfectly happy to not leave the conversation there, but often it involves me leaving a number or email address to said person (depending on how well I know them) and letting them contact me once they have digested the conversation better. People often underestimate how much effort unlearning something requires. In my experience, I have found leaving the first chapter of the discussion with a simple textbook definition to be the most conducive to further discussion on the topic. I have had people mulling over our conversation, turning it over in their minds, and then contacting me later for further clarification and questions. I have had conversations with the same person, the first time finding me in my inexperience bombarding them with information and trying to fit every counterargument to creationism in a single night out, only to have them dismiss it all as silly after watching a couple Ken Ham videos. But then I took the slower approach only to have them, after many questions and different talks over several weeks, finally come to me and sheepishly tell me that they get it now, and that they no longer consider themselves young earth creationists.
However, not all discussions on these topics spring from a genuine misunderstanding. Often times, everyone at the table knows perfectly well what atheism means. So, once that has been established, what should atheism mean?
At this point, simply repeating the dictionary definition of atheism over and over again brings the conversation absolutely nowhere. However, I think that sometimes we all forget that the “how” is often just as important as the “what”. By that, I mean that “Are you an atheist?” is a much more simplistic question than “Why are you an atheist?”. Sometimes, in our own bubbles we forget that people might happen upon the right answer for different, and sometimes absolutely ridiculous reasons. Some people are atheists because they realized that there is no evidence to believe in a god, and therefore they don’t. Some people reject organized religion because they don’t believe in god, but not because they find authoritarian theocracy distasteful. You can reject a belief in a deity without rejecting authoritarianism, and vice versa. Some people were simply raised without religion, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they were raised to be critical thinkers.
I guess what I am trying to say is that, while I understand the frustration with people who refuse point blank to concede that atheism and humanism are fundamentally linked, I still find some value in a definition of terms. While it would be wonderful if all atheists were also humanists, unfortunately that is not the case, and I am afraid of No-True-Scotsman-ing the atheists who insist on being douchebags. At this point in time, knowing someone is an atheist doesn’t really tell you a whole lot about their character. I don’t want to fall into the attractive trap of saying “well, those goons over on reddit aren’t real atheists because they’re white supremacists. Real atheists believe that someone’s race, gender, or sexual identity have no bearing on their value as a human being!” The reality is, those people are atheists. They might be “bad” at being atheists, and that is a very interesting debate and one that I believe is at the heart of the rejection of “textbook atheism”, but they still are, technically, atheists.
So, if you see me whipping out the dictionary definition of atheists, please understand that I do not think that means that atheism, as a concept, does not have profound humanist implications. I agree that the logical path to atheism is the same that leads to humanism and critical thinking. All I am saying is that, when in a debate, an agreement on the definition of terms is necessary if there is any possibility of going forward (unless the debate is about what the definition should be, but that’s an entirely different story). I am saying that sometimes, when someone is new to the topic, a textbook definition is a good place to start from and build on. Finally, I am saying that just because someone is an atheist for a stupid reason, or is simply illogical about everything else besides their atheism, that doesn’t mean that they are not still an atheist. In those cases I guess I do give some value to textbook atheism, but other than that? Bring on the secular humanism, cause I wear the SJW label with pride.
This is the part where I ask you, or those few of you who made it to the end of this long and meandering blogpost: where do you stand on textbook atheism? Is there a part of this debate that I have overlooked, or misunderstood? Your thoughts are welcome below.