Sunday, January 20, 2013

Atheism still isn't a thing, even if Atheism+ is

A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece (which is still one of my favorites) called "Atheism is not a thing: the stupidity of atheist infighting and the 'atheism movement'." I really figured it would be more controversial than it turned out to be, but then again, I'm still pretty invisible. Also, then again, the intensity of the atheism infighting stuff had temporarily simmered down when I had written it, I assume because everyone was too fussed with the 2012 presidential election to give much heed to who is the better atheist.

I received a comment on that post today, though, that I feel I should respond to. Normally, I would respond directly on the comment thread, but I quickly realized that what I have to say is a bit too long for the comment thread. Thus, it gets its own blog post. Here is the comment I received:
Thing is a very broad word, with a large dictionary entry. and if the one on my mac is to be trusted, ideas and abstract concepts/entities count as things.

"3 an action, activity, event, thought, or utterance : she said the first thing that came into her head | the only thing I could do well was cook.
• ( things) circumstances, conditions, or matters that are unspecified : things haven't gone entirely according to plan | how are things with you?
• an abstract entity or concept : mourning and depression are not the same thing.
• a quality or attribute : they had one thing in common—they were men of action.
• a specimen or type of something : the game is the latest thing in family fun.
• ( one's thing) informal one's special interest or concern : reading isn't my thing.
• [with adj. ] ( a thing) informal a situation or activity of a specified type or quality : your being here is just a friendship thing, OK?"

so i guess atheism is a thing, like lgbt equality is a thing. You seem to be wanting to say atheism is not a position on anything other then the existence of god. at least i hope you are. it's hard to tell ,
also what movement ever has had completely unified goals and no infighting. infighting works for science why not here? as to the two things that bind atheists together, why do you only mentions things that both religious and non-religious could agree on. being a secularist doesn't make you an atheist. A jew might want to make sure he is not harassed or excluded from his community. You forgot the key defining part of the atheist movement, the wish for the end of the nonsense that is religion. You know ,the atheism. which is a thing, like feminism.
You ask"what happens when we start trying to define a movement, then, like with Atheism+?" By design, you get a much needed schism between people who are atheists and racist/sexist and the remaining people. Why you worry about this hurting our mutual cohesion, when your two stated goals can already bridge the atheist/theist gap, is beyond me. Would letting sexism and racism go uncommented be a better public relations move.
i also would like to point out that theist misunderstanding of atheism has little to do with how atheists present themselves. rather it is based from years of what others say about atheists.
And here, I reply:

The only one of those definitions that meets what atheism "is" happens to be the second-to-last one: "informal: one's special interest or concern." Even that's not right, though, because if someone is an atheist, they are technically by definition not concerned with theism. Indeed, they may not be concerned with religion or anti-religion at all. The term for those concerned with it, the way people usually assume when they hear "atheist," is actually "anti-theist." (Due to Christopher Hitchens, if I'm not mistaken.)

My primary point in the original post, though I didn't get exhaustive with it, is that every "thing" you can find going on within atheism that is a positive cause has another name. Granted, I only focused on two big ones, but there are a lot of them as I've realized since writing that piece.
  • Morals for atheists are often, though not always, determined via humanism.
  • Epistemology for atheists is often loosely banded to science, although some philosophers among nonbelievers take things a bit further. Generally, though, considered nonbelievers are typically philosophically skeptics and empiricists, even if they don't know those words. There's no reason to assume that everyone that's an atheist subscribes to this, though. Some might be purely secular "mystics" that subscribe to a more subjective way of knowing.
  • The political effort to separate church and state fully is called secularism and is not limited to atheists.
  • The political sub-effort to get social bias removed from nonbelievers is called the "freedom from religion movement." This also includes the effort to free other people (current believers) from religion and its damages. Aspects of this could be labelled the "freethought movement," while others are better suited for the term "freedom from religion." Much of this is fueled by secularism and humanism.
  • The effort to educate people about the religions is a form of education. 
  • The "key defining part of the atheist movement, the wish for the end of the nonsense that is religion," is anti-theism, which is an extension of freedom from religion. Atheism, which has to do with lack of beliefs, and anti-theism, which has to do with being against religion, are not the same thing. There are many, many atheists who are content to let people believe. So you have mistaken the anti-theism movement for some imaginary atheist one.
  • Disclaimer: I do not intend this list to be exhaustive.
What part of any of that, exactly, is "atheism"?

You say something about binding atheists together... what does that though? The only thing that I've observed that binds atheists together is a form of social pressure put on us from people who believe, if we want to talk generally. Often there is some commitment to one or more of those actual movements, but this is hardly required to be an "atheist," lest we get all No True Atheistman, i.e. lest we decide that there is some identifying feature to people who don't accept theism.

As a self-described "atheist," I spend a lot of time trying to sort out what that term actually means since I use it to describe myself (admittedly: I do this reluctantly and because it has a certain social necessity at present). After much consideration, I don't think it means anything, particularly. It certainly doesn't tell you anything meaningful about me, like "rational skeptic" or "secular humanist" would. I'm not alone in this exploration: several articles have been hitting the media lately in which people talk about how "humanism good; atheism bad," meaning particularly a linguistic choice, not the value of believing or not believing in God(s).

Atheism is a null position. It offers no real information about a person or his/her motivations or goals whatsoever. I have "atheist" friends with whom I'm stunningly alike on many issues. On the other hand, I know some "atheists" who are so fundamentally different from me that our experiments to be friends have failed--and meanwhile I have theist friends with whom I have so much in common that the religion question is completely immaterial. What can I conclude here? "Atheism" is not actually enough to bring people together under common values because it doesn't have anything of that kind to offer. Why? It's not a thing. I've even written another blog post here extolling the virtue of that fact that "What does atheism have to offer? Nothing--which is everything."

The big problem is that a lot of people, apparently including you, haven't thought about this enough to realize that atheism really isn't a thing. Religious people, in particular, are typically only able to conceive of positions of this sort in terms of being things (notably, positions that are not null). Atheists also apparently fall for this perceived need to rally around a banner, hence Atheism+ and Atheism 2.0. Indeed, theists and some atheists both make this error by pointing out that a "fundamental problem with atheism is that it has nothing to offer." Now would be a great time to go read that post about why offering nothing is itself a real benefit.

Perceptions matter, and so while we need to remember that atheism isn't really a thing, people see it as a thing and make judgments based upon how that "thing" is behaving. Theists are highly primed to want to find reasons to disparage "atheism," but doing so really requires them to see it as a thing or to reject the freedom of having no required dogmas.

"Atheist infighting" then is stupid because it makes a non-thing look more like a thing on the one hand, and it makes that thing look like it has major internal problems on the other. Those "major internal problems" feed the negative association that religious believers already want to have about "atheists." They also feed other common misconceptions about "atheists," particularly since most of these squabbles are over issues perceived to be tied with strong liberalism--something that conservatives (which many, many religious people are) like to pick fault with. They also feed the idea within the "atheist community" that atheism is a thing, which accelerates this feedback loop of erroneous thinking.

To really drive home this point of the stupidity of "atheist infighting," though, realize what's really going on. Atheism isn't a thing--really, it's not. That means these people are not fighting about "atheism." They're fighting about other things that happen to be espoused by some atheists. So we're seeing bad results over something that isn't even accurately labelled.

This is really a key point. Atheism isn't a thing, but mistakenly turning it into a thing really means turning it into an ideology of sorts, which is exactly the problem most atheists tend to try to strike out against. This is where I have my problem with Atheism+, not its expressed or apparent goals, necessarily, and not even its execution, but with the concept of creating a thing out of a non-thing in the first place.

Frankly, I don't care what initiatives they are rallying around, be that sexism, racism, feminism, or whatever else. I get it--there have been real incidences of these problems at skeptic and "atheist" conventions (and in the community at large). I also get it--there have been non-incidences of these problems that have been blown out of proportion. Hence the arguing: a gray area exists in which the boundaries are too complex to define with universal agreement, and skirmishes about where the lines are to be drawn are inevitable.

Don't get me wrong: I understand that sexism, e.g., is a still a common problem in our culture, and I support efforts to end that problem. I understand that women are not yet treated equally in professional or social terms, and I support efforts to correct that problem as well. I get that this happens at "atheist" and skeptic conventions where we like to pretend we're all so much more evolved than the apes that we are--while ironically remarking repeatedly that we're apes and that most people don't seem to get that, ha ha--because we're the smart, ethically superior crowd.

What I don't support is the idea that this has the first thing in the world to do with "atheism." Atheism+ uses the word "atheism" and then adds on some positive-position agendas. I'm glad people want to rally around a banner that seeks to remove the problems associated with religion, and I'm glad people want to stand up for being non-religious and for social equality, but it doesn't have anything to do with atheism. Therefore, the emphasized bit of "atheism-plus" has to be "atheism-plus." The plus, not the atheism, is where the battle is. All of this squabbling, though, is picked up by the media and rest of the community as being "something to do with atheism," and what it has to do with when those reports come out is that "atheists can't get their religion straight and are fighting over it, just like religious people." I'm going to separate the last sentence of this paragraph to make it stand out:

It does not matter that those people are wrong about accenting the "atheism" instead of the "plus" because misinformation is harder to unspread than butter, and that's when dealing with reasonable people with integrity who aren't out to misconstrue things to their advantage.

When you say that "infighting works for science, why not for atheism?" can you not see what you're missing? What, pray tell, needs to be discovered within "atheism"? What effort is there within "atheism"? What within "atheism" are we carefully working at getting right? Every single time you say something, someone else who considers it for a few moments will be able to identify a real positive-position effort that is a more accurate answer to those questions--usually in this context, "anti-theism." Why? Atheism is not a thing.

The last part of your comment all reflects this error that arises from pretending that atheism is a thing. Once you start defining ethics for it, it really starts to become a thing--and look how you have come to its defense! The going definition that I've read for Atheism+ is "atheism + skepticism + humanism." That's not what I think most people looking on from the outside would say it's about (identifying feminism as the primary emotive force almost immediately), but that raises three huge questions if atheism is supposed to be about being against religion.
  1. Why does it have to be exclusive to atheists in the first place? Couldn't we just call it Secular Humanism Plus, where the plus refers to skepticism, then? Maybe SSH--Skeptical Secular Humanism? It seems pretty weird that theists who rally around humanism, secularism, and skepticism, as well as they can, wouldn't have a home in this movement.
  2. As an extension of the previous question, though one that is itself meaningful, what does "atheism" add here in terms of describing what's going on? Shouldn't it really be "antitheism + skepticism + humanism"? This difference is not trivial. Not all atheists are anti-theist, and some are completely opposed to that effort.
  3. Why is it that the primary thing anyone sees from the outside of a skeptical + "atheist" + humanist movement is squabbling about or fighting for feminism if that's not what it's really about? I can tell you for certain that as motivated as I am for the goals of gender equality, as much of an anti-theist (and atheist), humanist, and skeptic as I am, I have no interest at all in dealing with this "Atheism+" thing because of how this is all playing out.
I'm all about gender equality and fairness, but if the movement is primarily concerned with feminism, or gender equality at a certain kind of convention or within a particular community, why not just call themselves something like that, do the same thing, but not make the mistake of trying to create a unifying banner for atheists to rally around while doing so? (Which community, though, are "atheists"? Are they conservative (yes) or liberal (yes), or perhaps more middle of the road (yes)? Are they scientists (yes) or "intuitives" (yes)? Are they anti-theists (yes) or coexistists (yes)? Are they activists (yes) or content to live as well as they can for themselves (yes)?)

Should there be these kinds of fights? Yes. Should they be so identifiable with "atheism"? No. They're certainly not limited to atheism or atheist-type events.

More broadly

I've often thought that what needs to be done in order to help people get away from theism is to organize the social and psychological contexts that religion is good at meeting for people and revamping them in a purely non-religious way. I feel like I have some pretty strong insights, in fact, into what those things are. I don't act upon them, though, because I can see what happens.

Once these things become organized, once a standard is raised for people to rally around, people will rally around it (supposing it matches their needs and aspirations). Once they do, especially once it is named, it takes on a life of its own. Since we seem to be pretty bad for becoming ideologues, for good reasons as it turns out, what seems to usually happen is that these endeavors become ideologies and thus become the very things that we are seeking to minimize the impacts of in our culture. An entire interesting post (or book(s)!) could be written about these topics, so I will not do them justice in a few paragraphs, but it really strikes to the heart of what's going on with Atheism+ to recognize that this is exactly what has happened. The problem with it, though, is that ideas have become conflated where they probably ought not be conflated. Atheism is not a thing, even if Atheism+ is one--even if what it is happens to be noble and right and wonderful and the right way to go about things.

I haven't been able to decide yet if this kind of consequence is necessary or desirable. It seems that it is inevitable, though I'm not sure. People define a great deal about themselves in terms of how well they fit into social norms and values structures that they define across communities. Moral normativists suggest that this is unavoidable and even desirable, but the problem there is that moral norms will not match across communities and will create friction when those communities interact. Moral relativism, for that reason additionally to others, has a core problem--part of the reason moral norms work is because they are essentially universal within the social group, and those norms define right and wrong, and that structure gets threatened severely by the very existence of other such structures with different value systems. Indeed, this is exactly the problem we see with all of the religious fighting, hate, and war. It's that their values structures (which protect core fears as well) mutually threaten one another's validity.

The fundamental problem is that we all, save a very few relativists (who have to deny certain aspects of social reality to succeed in their view), believe that there is some "right morality," or some small set of equivalent ones. This may be the case, and such a thing may be able to be determined or at least informed by scientific investigation--this being the main theme of Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape, a point most of its critics seem to have missed. Even if there is such a thing (or number of things that can be agreed are equally salient and successful), we don't know what it is or even what its parameters really should be. Thus, we're trapped in a realm of having to subscribe at least to some moral normativism until we can know more about which approaches are saliently right and wrong and for what reasons.

Because I'd rather not see any of my own "enlightened" attempts to create a movement turn into an ideology every bit as warped and damaging as Christianity has become, with over 40,000 distinct ways of doing it right (or wrong, depending on your perspective), I'm not so bold as to try to create a banner for people to rally around until I'm more sure of what I'm getting into.

To bring this back to the specific allegation about Atheism+, by which at this point I mean feminism and an equality movement within a restricted community of nonbelievers, it rapidly becomes very easy to start to tear apart the foundations for these movements when we take the time to examine them closely. It's easy, for instance, to say that I favor gender equality. It's very difficult to know what that means. We can say it means that we pretend someone's gender doesn't matter, but that flatly ignores biology, so context has to be added. When can that be achieved? When can't it? If we were to achieve a perfectly null state of consideration with respect to gender, what would we see given the real differences in biology that exist? I don't think, for instance, that it is in any way likely that we'll see a neutered, sterile environment in the world at large or in most specific subsectors of it, including the professional world. In fact, I don't think such a state would be desirable.

These questions are enormously harder and more complex than any ideology can possibly handle. Indeed, ideology could be defined as the sub-critical acceptance of various propositions for the purpose of simplifying very difficult questions. With regard to your comment, then, I suggest that as atheism is the rejection of a consequential and broad swath of ideological positions, attempting to identify positively defined social movements by that name is a fundamental error that does not suit the actual goals of the movement it claims to be.


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  1. The fight against Theism isn't won, yet i see 1st world (so called) Atheists/Skeptics act as if it is. Why else would they be focusing so much on 1st world Feminism & treat it almost as if it's the biggest problem facing the Atheist community (such as it is)? In the words of my old Mum, they don't know they're born. It's sad & pathetic to see Dawkins, Harris & Hirsi-Ali get attacked by the idiot bloggers at FtB for pointing out that there are bigger problems in the world than shoes & who invited who for coffee. I can't stand what Myers & his cronies have tried to do to a community that i once thought actually had a chance at overcoming some of the REAL problems religion has wrought on this Earth. I hope they're proud.

    1. This is interesting. I've recently been reading a book by Jonathan Haidt (The Happiness Hypothesis), and though I can't say I agree with all of his positions, I will say that he makes an interesting case.

      In particular to this, he posits that humans actually (psychologically) need adversity and therefore suggests that an adversity-free utopia would be a nightmare. Normally, we would encounter plenty enough diversity simply by living in a challenging world, but the first world presents an interesting situation in which many people can actually avoid ever having faced enough adversity, at which point they will manufacture it out of psychological need. People who have experienced "real" adversity will usually see this manufactured adversity for what it is and will therefore see it as petty.

      Maybe this analogy is too loose, but it feels sort of like a psych version of the hygiene hypothesis on allergies, I suppose.

      In any case, as I note, I don't think these people are necessarily firing their guns at the wrong things--gender inequality is still a problem, even if it is dying out, and even in the first world--but they're firing them in the wrong places. I'm not sure that qualifies them as "idiots," by the usual definition, though. Essentially, they perceive a problem and are attempting to influence it within the community where they feel like they have some sway (read: control). I do wish they'd step out of the situation for a bit and consider it from the outside.

    2. Pardon that. The second sentence of the second text block should say "adversity" and not "diversity." My brain seems to be doing one of those things where it substitutes one for the other every time I try to type (or say) it.