December 7, 2013

Discussing the Questions That Divide Atheists

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In my recent post, 'What Are The Big Questions That Divide Atheists?', I listed six of the biggest and most enduring areas of disagreement among atheists I have encountered. I asked readers what I had missed, as I would be very surprised if this list turned out to be comprehensive in any way.

A perusal of the comments received at the time I am writing this post suggests that many readers were not terribly interested in this question. Many of the comments were responses to one or more of the six areas of disagreement or criticisms of the idea of addressing areas of disagreement among atheists. I am not going to address any of the six questions yet because I had planned to write posts about each of them. Instead, I'd like to address the criticism about how the entire enterprise is flawed because we can't meaningfully talk about disagreement (or agreement) among atheists.

Cephus wrote:
The problem is, there aren't any questions that divide atheists, there are questions that divide people who happen to be atheists. Atheism is the lack of belief in gods. That's it. Full stop. There is nothing else to being an atheist. There are no questions involved. The only way to fail at being an atheist is to believe in a god. Then there are subjects that people who happen to be atheists may or may not agree on. Those are not atheistic subjects. They are not related to atheism. They are something else and need to be treated as such.

That's something all of these activist, political, social-thinking atheists need to get through their heads.
There aren't any questions that divide atheists? I disagree. I think there are several.

What is an atheist? An atheist is a person who does not believe in gods. Wait a second! Read that sentence again. An atheist is a person who does not believe in gods. So, atheists are people who lack belief in gods. If "there are questions that divide people who happen to be atheists," and I believe there are, is there a meaningful difference between the two statements which follow?
  1. There are some questions that divide atheists.
  2. There are some questions that divide people who happen to be atheists.
I don't think so. I think these statements are functionally equivalent. I'm not talking about the meaning of atheism here; I'm talking about issues on which atheists (i.e., people who lack god belief) tend to disagree.

The argument which Cephus has made in comments left on countless posts is that atheists have nothing in common besides our lack of god belief and that it is meaningless to talk of an atheist community, an atheist movement, shared goals, or anything of the sort. While I share his definition of atheism and agree that the meaning of atheism is limited to the lack of god belief, I continue to reject the suggestion that there can be no community, movement, goals, etc. When I refer to things that most atheists have in common, for example, I am talking about opinions shared by most people who are atheists. I am not attempting to broaden the definition of atheism in any way, and I think I have been quite clear about that.

Suppose I were to say, "Most fishermen are interested in protecting river and lake ecosystems from pollution." I have no idea if this is true or not, but I think it is generally understood that in making such a statement I am making a generalization about men who fish and not trying to redefine what is means to be a fisherman. It is no different when I talk about how most people who are atheists have a few other things in common or regularly disagree about a set of issues.

But is it meaningful to discuss sources of disagreement among atheists? We really can't ask this question until we've asked an answered a few others. Are there atheists (i.e., people who do not believe in gods)? Yes, there are obviously atheists. Do any of these people live their lives thinking about nothing besides atheism, having no feelings, opinions, or beliefs about any topic other than atheism? No, I don't imagine there are. So, it is at least possible - if not likely - that there are atheists who have feelings, opinions, beliefs about a great number of things. If so, it seems like it might be meaningful to discuss sources of disagreement among such people.

But there is a very different way to answer this question that should be far more informative than anything I've just said. Here you are reading an atheist blog, and it is probably safe to assume that you consume other atheist-oriented material online (e.g., other blogs, websites, social media accounts). Have you, across all that media, found some diversity of opinion? In other words, does your direct experience tell you that all atheists agree on all subjects or that some hold different opinions on some subjects?

The questions of whether atheists have other things in common besides atheism and whether atheists differ in some important areas are empirical one. The question of whether there are big questions that divide atheists is also an empirical one. I suspect that avid consumers of atheist-related media will agree that there are questions, including those that I previously identified, that have divided and continue to divide atheists. They are addressed regularly, debated hotly, and may even lead to some rifts. Again, none of this changes the definition of atheism in any way. It amounts to little more than the observation that people who have one thing in common (i.e., atheism) tend to have different opinions on a set of issues.

As to whether talking about such differences is meaningful, I suppose there will be different opinions about that too. I happen to think that is is usually better to acknowledge and discuss our differences and areas of disagreement than to ignore them. Ignoring them rarely makes them go away, and it can be useful to know they are there. Perhaps we will resolve some in time, and perhaps others will simply need to be acknowledged and worked around.

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