Thoughts On: Textbook Atheism

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.


  1. secondtofirstworld says

    Okay, so I will try to be as short as possible, but still be on point.

    I went through a cardinal change in my tweens, I deconverted from Christianity, I’ve “unsubscribed” from the idea of ultra nationalism and racial insensitivity, the belief in ghosts and extraterrestrials, things, none of which require a shred of proof to be believed. Faith in the religious sense has places of worship, rituals, a belief system, a hierarchy.

    But, and that’s an important but, on a personal level I have not given up on the supernatural per se, since I am a Buddhist since decades. Here are 2 questions: 1. Can you have a disbelief in gods, but have a belief based on the supernatural, or anything else that isn’t supported by evidence, or only by pseudoscience? Sure, that’s why there are religions which doesn’t have creation myths and deities, that’s why racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia exists. 2. Can you have a disbelief in gods, but have a belief in anything that isn’t sufficiently supported by evidence, and demand evidence for the existence gods? Sure… if you’re a hypocrite.

    The problem isn’t what atheism means, it’s not knowing what the supernatural is, which is what textbooks atheists do. Just recently I’ve had this discussion with a guy who said his mother doesn’t consider herself an atheist, because she believes in ghosts. I seconded her decision, and he called me a dense fuck, to which I replied: See, the third definition right there talks about divine and godly. In other words, no actual atheist can demand any evidence for any gods, if they believe in something with a similar standing.

    That’s why I don’t contest the merit of the faith of others, rather how it affects the world, like the recent heart rate bill in Ohio, which isn’t supported by science (and illegal and unconstitutional) just the Bible, the same can be said for the Texas stillborn babies burial law, the similar Polish one, or the Turkish attempt to decriminalize child rape, if the victim gets married off to the rapist.

    It’s not a question of time to know or not know, that gods are the supernatural personified, but one of interest. Yes, an atheist has a disbelief in the supernatural, presented through supposed actions of gods. Anybody else simply has a disbelief in gods. Now, as for what PZ is saying, that concerns the non-supernatural parts of scripture. As I’ve mentioned, I was an ultra nationalist, not every form of social conservativism comes from scripture, there are other reasons for bigotry and discrimination, and yes, an atheist can be conservative.

    However, and PZ is right in that, all atheists should oppose all discriminatory laws, which are clearly inspired by scripture even if they agree with it, since they can’t cherry pick which section they get to like or not. On the other hand, in every country atheists are neutral as the religion is weak, so they remain a product of their environment. It’s not a shocking surprise, that a lot of North American atheists are MRA because they reject the faith, but like the system it has put in place, and when somebody should be blamed, it’s always the minority’s fault. This is why they say “atheism should have no agenda” because doing more than just talking would require them to compete, as it happens in evolution.

    Not to mention, it’s blatantly false too. Atheism is a political statement, because it’s a social statement, aimed at the betterment of human life. The morbidly funny thing is, that I look forward to watching the Yemeni selection for Best Foreign Language Film, because their struggle to free that girl from child marriage was more progressive, than a lot of what atheists do in the supposedly more advanced Western world.

  2. consciousness razor says

    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.

    A few points. I’m not sure if you’d really disagree with any of them.

    The issue not the definition of atheism but what is entailed if it is true. We can have a definition of “temperature,” let’s say, a definition that will suffice for any practical purpose. We can find out what is logically and physically entailed by that thing (assuming it’s about something real of course), which other concepts are consistent or inconsistent with it, the theories and mathematical formalisms and such that we can use to describe it and understand it and so forth. That is not at all the same thing as “redefining temperature,” so there’s no real dilemma here which involves either settling on a definition or not settling on a definition because just doesn’t get us anywhere. We’re not stuck with just a word in a language here — this is a claim about the world that we’re talking about, and those facts about the world may have all sorts of ramifications, which understandably aren’t covered by a definition that only gives a clear sense of what the basic idea is without even attempting to tell you everything. So, there is “what it means” in a certain sense (what it implies, what do we do about it, etc.), but it’s a different sense of “what it means” than a definitional sort of meaning. That may be the source of a lot of the confusion, since when speaking casually people don’t tend to make very sharp distinctions when using phrases like “what atheism means” which have such ambiguous interpretations.

    Also, I’d be careful not to equate “humanism” with any sort of atheistic moral system, because that’s just not how it is. (That’s apart from the fact that humanism has meant lots of different stuff throughout history, but just in terms of secular humanism or some kind of moral view that’s called “humanism.”) There are for example questions about how we ought to treat non-human animals or aliens or AIs (as well as numerous other types of issues), which aren’t handled well or even approached with “humanism,” if that’s understood as restricting moral concerns to concerns about human beings (or is merely a subset of all moral views, if not a restriction on them). And if it shouldn’t be understood that way, then what exactly is the word “human” doing in the name? It might be doing something for all I know, but it’s not clear what that would be.

    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.

    As should be clear from the first points above, the substantive issue is about atheism, not atheists. The former is an ideology or a set of ideas, while the latter refers to people. Somebody who believes there is such a thing as temperature may not know or understand or care about all of the temperature-related facts in the world, theories of thermodynamics, how to do the math, etc. They may not do a great job of believing all of the temperature stuff, even though they do in some sense believe certain things about it.

    But what does that actually tell us? Does that imply there is no fact of the matter about all of the things that depend on temperature, because people who have some shared views about it disagree? Of course not. We just shouldn’t assume people must be experts about a topic or have fully-worked-out coherent ideas about it, simply because they hold a particular view that meets just a few simple criteria. The fact that people are not infallible authorities on a subject doesn’t tell us much about the subject — many people have and continue to develop ideas about it, and there’s no need for it to depend on whatever is the least common denominator among every single individual out there who has had some thoughts about it. So you can take them seriously as atheists without engaging in any fallacies, and it would be rather fallacious to think that they must be able to dictate what the whole subject is about and what it means and what it implies and always be perfectly correct about that.

  3. enkidu says

    I agree with secondtofirstworld, more or less.

    Atheism is not defined by attention to social justice or any other ” progressive” cause. I am not christian or of any other religion, but I have known christians who were highly committed to justice, feminism, socialism, whatever. Not all christians are fire breathing fundamentalists you know. We may wish that atheists were all progressive, but it is unlikely to ever be the case.

    • secondtofirstworld says

      I was Christian, a Calvinist to be exact, but I have chosen faith for myself both times. I’m a Buddhist for decades now.

      However, I also contest the idea, that Marxist-Leninist societies were atheists in the sense most mean atheism. I lived it, when organized faith is being replaced for organized culture and a state policy, than it’s something that replaces faith. In a much broader sense, one has to get acquainted with the idea, that the totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century were ran by people whose families were religious, as per custom of the time. They formed their parties like its a place of worship to convene, they had persecuted heretics, “borrowed” symbolism from organized religions, and much like a crusade or a jihad, a lot have died for it.

      Springing back to being Buddhist. I’m a humanist, not a hypocrite. What grounds would I have to require evidence of their faith, when I believe in something I can’t prove either? Thus why I’m a secularist, my concerns are when and where faith is being used to enact a law, that discriminates. Like I said, faith need not to be any religion, just look at pizzagate, it’s the ’80s Satanic mambo jumbo all over again without a shred of proof, and clearly someone thought, a person should have an AR-15 and go in there to check a nonexistent basement.

      The irony is that the “we are just concerned for the children” is as valid a claim as was “we only care about journalistic ethics”. I’m having this educated guess, because their subreddit was banned after they started doxxing people.

      I might get anger for this, but I do think theists do have a right to know, that the person demanding evidence has any supernatural or pseudo scientific belief, as “I don’t believe in gods because my grandma’s ghost told me not to” is not a valid reason. Scientific evidence is one except PZ is right, one does not get to cherry pick, when to use science or not.

      Then again, it also depends on societal culture. If life were fair, the majority of North American atheists wouldn’t be white, as the freedom of thought and liberty would migrate to the most oppressed. Yet, the opposite happens, and the second they have realized going through with convincing people to drop faith would endanger or contest their position, they turned on them.

      I don’t like the president elect, it’s not a shocker, but even I don’t believe just everything people say about him without fact checking. I might share a common bond with a lot of people, but I share reality with even more, ergo I’m a secularist. The number one reason I stopped being an ultra nationalist is simple and twofold: one, people are being told a lot of things without verification, and two, ever notice, how, regardless which radical organization or movement we take under the microscope, its leaders never engage in any conflict they demand from others? (By the way, that’s why I’m skeptical about the whole let’s dis BLM, their leaders are transparent and engaging, very uncharacteristic for a supposed evil organization) Being played for a fool is tiring, not to mention hate eats one alive.

  4. cartomancer says

    It has always puzzled me why this issue causes such fuss. It seems to me that those who get most riled about “dictionary atheists” have some kind of desire to make atheism equate with being a good person – that being an atheist must logically imply holding certain progressive values as well. I’ve never seen why this should be so or why people would want this to be so. There are plenty of atheists who are good people, but I don’t think the two things are at all linked. Being a bad person doesn’t mean being a bad atheist. I don’t actually think that whether someone is an atheist or not is at all interesting – it’s one, rather esoteric, fact about them with as much relevance as whether or not they like cheese. It is certainly not a marker of any particular moral stance in and of itself.

    A lot of the arguments made in this vein tend to go along the lines that someone who rejects belief in gods should also reject the regressive social attitudes that go along with belief in gods. The problem I have with that is that not all theists hold regressive social attitudes. People’s religion tends to be moulded to fit with all their other beliefs – if they are keen on social justice they will imagine their gods in favour of it, if they are not they will imagine them otherwise. Indeed, I think that this approach concedes the quite misguided notion that religion is somehow the foundation and prime mover of culture and beliefs, rather than just another malleable and easily influenced part of them.

    In some ways I note that this whole issue comes from a peculiarly American perspective. It often seems premised on the notion that atheism is a rejection of American evangelical fundamentalism – the normal mode of religious observance in that country. It seems framed as “hey, you’ve not gone far enough – you’ve rejected the main tenet of religion, but you also need to reject the other social attitudes it professes”. But atheism looks very different elsewhere. I and everyone I know were never religious. There was never a ubiquitous cultural force to consciously reject – religion was just a bit of quaint olde-worlde theatre at the fringes of everyday life, like castles and folk music. Rejection of religion, to me, is not intimately bound up with liberal, left-wing cultural rebellion and progressive values – it’s just something that sad weirdoes do in private. Progressive values are something quite separate and unrelated to whether one indulges this peculiar niche hobby or not.

    • secondtofirstworld says

      You’re almost right, but I beg to differ. The former Soviet bloc and Non-Aligned countries show such signs as well. Americans aren’t the only Bible thumpers, heck my birth country’s constitution both contains a preamble offering the country to god, and a definition of marriage being exclusively between a man and a woman. The society by far and large has a concrete role for women, and LGBT are just mentally ill, fueled by liberal propaganda, but once their time comes, as they promise, they will turn the EU away from that direction.

      In recent months, there hasn’t been one European country that isn’t marred by populism, and if they can win key economies (the British, Italian, German or French) then the union is toast. It’s an open secret that far right parties are being funded by Moscow, the question is are we headed toward a new colonial era (actual colony, not globalism) or a new global conflict?

      Like I said, an atheist can be conservative, but that doesn’t mean they can support laws based on holy books. It’s a no brainer that fetus or stillborn burials serve no purpose, and are also fiscally irresponsible, it should be, yet such laws have been proposed and action groups created to support it. In most European social democracies, there’s an agreement between sides along the obligation of secularism what they can and can’t allow, and what values are to be protected. Even the church cooperates in it, as both fascism and communism had seeked to oppress dissenting voices, including theirs, and by default no one is that stupid to elect a new Hitler.

      The difference between America and Eastern Europe is simple (no, it’s not wealth), the latter doesn’t care if they’re being dictated again. The former might get its first taste in how such a regime sucks both socially and economically (starting with Carrier who had learned, nothing changes, most jobs will go away as planned) for the majority. It’s beautifully and sadly written in that German poem, when they come for me, there will be no one left to speak up for me. It’s up in the air, if he will strengthen organized faith, or its polar opposite, the far right, but both can’t coexist. Won’t either, it will be a question of Christian first or white first.

  5. cartomancer says

    Oops, missed out the negative there. I meant that religion is the thing sad weirdoes do in private, not rejection of it.

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