Atheism is not normative

I don’t know how many times I need to say this: Atheism is not normative. Atheism is not normative. Atheism is not normative. Am I to the center of the Tootsie Pop yet?

PZ has a post about so-called dictionary atheists that is just inane. He uses an analogy with humans, pointing out that when we talk about humans we don’t define them merely biologically:

He also noticed that every single human being he ever met, without exception, was more than a perambulating set of chromosomes. Some were good at math and others liked to dance and others were kind and yet others liked to argue, and these were the virtues that made them good and interesting, and made them…human, in this best sense of the word. So when he praised being human, it wasn’t for the accident of their birth, it was for the qualities that made being human meaningful.

PZ is confused. There is a fundamental difference between the concept of “human” and the concept he is describing – personhood. We do define the former merely biologically. The latter, however, is far more complex. We need to all get on the same page if discussions of atheism and atheists are to ever bear any fruit.

But I can agree with some of the sentiment behind PZ’s post. He’s saying that atheists are more than people who simply lack belief in gods; atheists have come to their beliefs for a whole slew of reasons and they are composed of a wide set of values. Or at least PZ ought to be specifying “wide set”. What it seems like he’s actually doing is imposing his specific values onto what “atheism” means:

I think we sell ourselves short when we pretend atheism is an absence of values rather than a positive and powerful collection of strong modern beliefs, but also because there are distinct differences in the way atheists should think, relative to theists.

Wrong. Atheism is not a philosophy and thus does not lead a person into any one way or general way of thinking. That’s why Jerry Coyne has to always go on about accomodationists. It’s why no one is conflating Raelians with anyone who has been a part of any atheist movement. Atheist beliefs are defined by the individual atheist, not by atheism. One Pharyngula commenter makes this whole point succinctly:

“I’m an Atheist, therefore I believe…” Knowing nothing else about me, finish that sentence.

I bet I can finish that sentence for a humanist. Or a nihilist. Or a Raelian. And for myself. But I can’t finish it for any atheist I do not know.

I’ve taken the time to define atheist-related terms in the past. My post certainly was not exhaustive, only providing for broad categories, but it provides for a good starting point. Importantly, it distinguishes between what “atheism” simply is versus what something like “new atheism” is: The former is descriptive while the latter is normative. I can understand when theists confuse these categories, but PZ ought to know better.

Or maybe someone wants to tell me what Joe Blow the Atheist from Northeast Bumfuck believes. PZ thinks he can.

24 Responses

  1. PZ has gone off the deep end lately. I really used to like reading his stuff, but it seems like being popular has gone to his head, and he now thinks himself some sort of leader of atheism.

    It’s not the first time I’ve seen him trying to redefine common words.

  2. I’m not disagreeing with anything but you would have a hard time finishing that sentence for any catholic or Buddhist or anything else too, including the things you list that you think you could finish it for.

    Sure you’d get some things right, but not all Catholics believe exactly the same things. I have to assume that its the same with any world view.

    I’ve always thought he was crazy.

  3. but you would have a hard time finishing that sentence for any catholic or Buddhist or anything else too

    Really? Here’s one: All Catholics believe that there is a God and he had a son named Jesus.

    Can you be a Catholic without believing that? No. Some may call themselves that anyway, but that shows a lack of understanding of what it is. Religion is not a culture or something you can inherit, regardless of how many people misunderstand it.

    But being a returning customer on this blog, you really should know the difference between normative and descriptive positions by now, Nate. There’s little doubt that’s one of Michael’s biggest pet peeves.

  4. Well, I should probably have left out the “named Jesus” part, as many Catholics hopefully recognise that his name, if he existed, was Yeshu or the Aramaic equivalent of that, but… you know.

  5. Unless I’m mistaken, I didn’t mention the atheism part, because I quite agree. I’m talking about the descriptive positions only, if you’ll notice.

    As far as catholics believing this or that, sure, I’m just pointing out that since I’d be extremely surprised to hear that two humans believed all the same things, that its going to be a difficult sentence to finish no matter who is named.

    As a return customer I would have assumed you’d have read more carefully before attempting a ‘gotcha’ moment. :0)

  6. Normative positions* sorry

    There’s you’re gotcha moment, haha.

  7. No attempts at any gotchas here, I’m just talking to you.

    No one has, to the best of my knowledge, claimed that this is about two people thinking exactly alike. It’s about being able to mention anything that a person must believe merely by the fact that they are atheists – and no “not believing in god” is not a belief.

    You can do that with a Catholic or almost any other type of religion. Buddhism may be an exception, as IIRC it’s mainly a set of teachings you are pretty much free to pick what you like from.

    An exhaustive list of beliefs would be impossible to name for any more than one individual, but the sentence “Person A believes…” is not hard to finish without any other knowledge than that he is a Catholic, but becomes impossible to finish if all we know is that he/she is an atheist.

  8. “and no “not believing in god” is not a belief.”

    Come on, that pure semantics.

    While I agree with you on the whole, I still think there is a lot of variation outside of base requirements in any religion or similar world view.

  9. Oh and I have no idea what the hell Buddhism is all about.

  10. It may be semantics, but it’s an important bit of it. Atheism is the lack of belief in gods, which includes those who have never heard of gods or just haven’t made a decision either way.

    If that’s a belief, then we all have an infinite number of beliefs. One for not believing in Santa Claus, one for not believing in leprechauns, one for not believing that petrol is made from old boogers, one for not believing that all paper is square, etc.

    This is the whole point. This is why you cannot say anything else about a person merely by knowing he or she is an atheist.

  11. There is a big secular element in the libertarian camp, and there is a pretty big divide in vision and philosophy between them and, say, progressive or socialist atheists. The two could not be further apart.

  12. Slater, there isn’t even a molehill here let alone a mountain.

  13. @Michael,
    Atheism as “a lack of belief in gods” is descriptive. Atheism as “belief gods do not exist,” the most common definition, is normative.

  14. Nate/Slater…Nater,

    While it’s true that no one can know everything about a person based upon any given label, certain labels can tell us what general values a person holds. We know Catholics believe that murder is a sin, for instance.


    That’s two sides of the same coin. In each case, no values come from the given position.

  15. @Michael,

    What values come from “belief that god/gods exist?”

  16. If we’re talking about deism, none. If we’re talking about a theism, however, then it’s a whole load.

  17. @Michael,

    If we are going to define atheism in the broadest sense (i.e., the so-called ‘dictionary’ sense), then it would be fair to define theism in the broadest sense (i.e., the actual ‘dictionary’ sense). Theism is simply a “belief that god/gods exist.” What specific values come from that? I can certainly see no values which come from that belief alone. It seems to be necessary to add more beliefs before values can come. And so, it certainly looks like you’re engaging in the same activity regarding theism for which you are accusing PZ for doing with regard to atheism.

    Without evidence that values come from theism, defined broadly and following your notions of normative and descriptive, I am forced to accept theism as descriptive. What makes theism normative? What values come from theism?

  18. I disagree with your definition of “theism”. A theist is someone who adheres to some particular way of religious thinking, someone who attributes characteristics to his god(s) that concern how one ought or ought not to live.

    What values come from theism?

    It depends upon the particular theism. As I said above, we know that Catholic theology says that one ought not to sin. Or one ought to be baptized. Or one ought to ask God to be part of one’s life.

  19. Atheism is not normative i agree,, but then again neither is theism. The issue here tho is that theism is too general. It’s hard to find a theist who doesn’t subscribe to one of the many popular religions (Catholicism, Christianity, Judaism etc..). Because of this, the vast majority of theists have a doctrine or value system attached to them. In contrast, there can’t be multiple ways to “not believe” as is the case in atheism. So simply saying that somebody is an atheist says nothing about the person besides the fact that they do not believe in god(s). However, it’s pretty safe to say that when speaking with an atheist you can assume they enjoy logic, reason, science and a fairly strong lack of superstitious tendencies.

  20. Theism is nothing but normative.

  21. However, it’s pretty safe to say that when speaking with an atheist you can assume they enjoy logic, reason, science and a fairly strong lack of superstitious tendencies.

    Unfortunately not. Being from Denmark, a country with at least 2/3 atheists, I can tell you from experience and statistics that this is not the case. A scary large amount of atheists around here believe in homeopathy, astrology, ghosts, reincarnation and other just as absurd things.

    If you’re American, I can see why you would think that, but unfortunately(?) lack of belief in gods has no necessary connection to a generally sceptical mindset.

  22. @Michael,

    I believe some ground clearing is necessary. If theism is simply the belief that god/gods exist, then is theism descriptive or normative? It seems to me such a definition would be descriptive. Do you agree? If not, why not? With the ground cleared, I have a few issues with your post.

    1. The definition presented is a common usage of the word as represented by its existence in many dictionaries (c.f., Random House, MacMillan, Oxford, Merriam-Webster, WordNet, American Heritage, Collins English, and -Ologies & Isms).

    2. Because of your insistence on the broader definition of atheism, it seems only fair to take the broader definition of theism.

    3. You have conveniently defined theism to include your conclusion.

    4. When asked what values come from theism you point to values which come from specific theisms rather than theism itself. How would this be different than PZ adding to atheism?

    A final note, I am willing to agree some varieties of theism are normative. However, I also believe the case presented for theism being normative is weak at best, if applied to the general sense, and fallacious at worst, if applied to the more narrow sense.

  23. Walter,

    If theism is simply that belief, then yes. I say it isn’t, though. That’s deism; I see theism as referring to a set of doctrines (whatever they may particularly be), and those doctrines contain value claims. But I think we’re getting too deep into the semantics now. If you want to call theism descriptive because you define in the same way I define deism, then I can agree.

    P.s., Your post didn’t immediately show up because of the 5 link limit. Anything over that goes to Pending Comments and I have to approve it.

  24. […] Oh, and drawing an analogy between atheist signs and this non-incident? Aside from the fact that Myers and others have already lied and acted like it has been “teh menz” who have made this into a big deal, feminism has nothing to do with atheism. Nothing. But then, this borders on philosophy. And as we’ve seen, Myers is to philosophy as creationists are to science. […]

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