February 5, 2011

Idiot of the Week: PZ Myers

PZ MyersI do not think I've ever selected an atheist as Idiot of the Week, and I do not remember selecting a blogger, although it is certainly possible. What I am fairly sure of is that Idiot of the Week has never gone to a fellow atheist blogger. And no, I don't really think PZ is an idiot. I have way too much respect for him even though he has declared his hatred for people like me and even though I think he's wrong about the meaning of atheism. But the thing about PZ is that he often manages to be thought-provoking even when he's wrong.

Not satisfied with antagonizing religious believers, PZ has decided to go after those of us who understand the meaning of atheism. We are "superficial," and he hates us. Rather than say that he disagrees with us or that he thinks we are wrong, PZ decided to jump directly to hate.

Atheism is Lack of Belief in Gods

I understand that PZ's atheism means more to him that the absence of god belief, and I have no quarrel with that whatsoever. My atheism means more to me than this too, and I suspect you are no different. But PZ's atheism, my atheism, and your atheism are not identical either. I am nowhere near arrogant enough to pretend that my atheism is or should be synonymous with atheism. I can put whatever idiosyncratic spin on it I like, but that does not change the meaning of the word for everyone else.

Atheism refers to the absence of theistic belief. Nothing more. That PZ has decided to hate us for stating this does not make it any less true.

Atheism is not a worldview, although it can be one part of a worldview. Atheism does not entail skepticism, critical thinking, reason, or any similar concept. PZ's worldview, of which atheism is a part, probably does include these other constructs. Mine does as well. But it is a mistake to confuse any of this with atheism. There are many worldviews of which atheism is a part, but there is no such thing as a single atheist worldview.

The Definition of Atheism Does Not Explain Much About People

Of course, PZ is absolutely correct to point out that trying to answer the question of why one became an atheist by reciting the definition of atheism is not particularly useful.
If I ask you to explain to me why you are an atheist, reciting the dictionary at me, you are saying nothing: asking why you are a person who does not believe in god is not answered when you reply, "Because I am a person who does not believe in god." And if you protest when I say that there is more to the practice of atheism than that, insisting that there isn't just makes you dogmatic and blind.
I agree completely with the first sentence. The person asking why someone is an atheist wants more than the definition of atheism. He or she wants to hear about what makes atheism attractive, etc. PZ is right to point this out. But the second sentence - the claim that preferring to stick to the definition is "dogmatic and blind" is silly. It is certainly incomplete, and it may even be based on a misunderstanding of the meaning of the original question. But dogmatic or blind? I don't think so.

Again, PZ is right to say that there is more to his atheism than the dictionary definition. I feel exactly the same way about my atheism. But PZ's atheism is not everyone's atheism, and neither is mine.

When I say I am an atheist, I am communicating that I do not accept the theistic belief claim (i.e., that gods exist). If I want to communicate more about myself than this, I need to go beyond atheism. I can do this by saying that atheism is part of my worldview and then explaining other parts, or I can do it by using additional labels to describe myself (e.g., skeptic).

The Atheist Movement is About Far More Than Atheism

It is clear that PZ's atheism is based on skepticism and the scientific method. So is mine. But these are not part of atheism; they are additional aspects of our worldview. PZ seems to agree with this when he acknowledges that atheism is a consequence and that people reach it through a variety of different paths.
My point is that nobody becomes an atheist because of an absence of values, and no one becomes an atheist because the dictionary tells them they are. I think we also do a disservice to the movement when we pretend it's solely a mob of individuals who lack a belief, rather than an organization with positive goals and values.
Once again, I agree with his first sentence. And once again, he loses me with the second. Nobody is claiming that the atheist movement is nothing more than people who lack theistic belief. Nobody. But then again, what many of us have labeled "the atheist movement" is about a hell of a lot more than just atheism! Atheism (i.e., the lack of belief in gods) is not by itself bringing people to conferences to hear PZ speak. It is not leading people to donate money to political causes. It is not the driving force in why people join freethought organizations. We come together because some atheists also give a damn about the separation of church and state, the toxic effects of religious belief on society, civil rights, reality-based education, social justice, etc. And yet, none of this is part of the definition of atheism.

Tell Me About Yourself

If PZ wants to hear about who you are as a person, he is asking the wrong question by asking you about your atheism. As he himself acknowledges, atheism is the outcome of a life journey. It sounds to me like he's getting upset when people answer the question he's asked instead of the one he really wants answered.

If you want to get to know someone and find out what brought them to atheism, what makes them identify with the atheist movement, what they want out of live, etc., ask them. Do not simply ask about atheism and expect more.

I know a scientist like PZ appreciates the importance of classification and operational definition more than most people. For some reason, he seems to resent their application to atheism. I find this puzzling because we could certainly benefit from clear definitions of our terms. It seems like he is becoming frustrated because he expects people to know what he means instead of what he's saying.

Knowing What Atheism Means Does Not Preclude Being Proud to be an Atheist

PZ concludes his list of pet peeves with the following:
My main point is that one general flaw in many atheists is a lack of appreciation for why they find themselves comfortable with that label, and it always lies in a set of sometimes unexamined working metrics for how the world works. You are an atheist — take pride in what you do believe, not what you deny. And also learn to appreciate that the opposition hasn't arrived at their conclusions in a vacuum. There are actually deeper reasons that they so fervently endorse supernatural authorities, and they aren't always accounted for by stupidity.
Unlike PZ, I am not a professional atheist. He has undoubtedly met tens of thousands more atheists than I will ever meet. So when he says that many atheists do not appreciate why they are comfortable identifying themselves as atheists, I have no reason to doubt him. While I have never met one, even online, I cannot assume that PZ has not.

But once again, PZ seems to be disregarding what he recognized earlier - atheism is an outcome and not a cause. I do take pride in being an atheist even though I recognize the limited meaning of atheism. I am proud in having arrived at the consequence of atheism. I am also proud of all the things which helped me get there - things that have nothing whatsoever to do with the meaning of atheism - (i.e., skepticism, application of the scientific method, critical thinking, study of philosophy, etc.).

I hope you take this post for what it was and do not misconstrue it as an attack on PZ Myers. He chose to label his feelings toward many of us "hate," and while I do not think he means it for one second, I wanted to play too. I needed to write an Idiot post and a post about PZ. Given my time constraints, I thought it would be fun to combine them.

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