I feel like I’ve made this post about a thousand times, but there seems to be a constant need for it: Atheism is descriptive, not normative. It neither includes nor excludes any values. (It may exclude a basis for a particular value, but the value itself is not excluded.) There simply is no way it could, no more so than my belief that rocks are hard could bring me to think that ancient toolmaking methods are important things to know. I can think both of those things, but that doesn’t mean one flows from the other. If it did, then that would mean a person couldn’t logically think that because rocks are hard, ancient toolmaking is useless to know. Just the same, two people can be atheists and have mutually exclusive views on the importance of, say, religion.
Now, let me get to the inspiration for this post:
I’ve never heard of J. Michael Straczynski, but I saw this picture pop up on my Facebook feed. What ensued was an entirely dismaying discussion where a fellow atheist first contended that my argument comes down to semantics, then he said Straczynski was at most using imprecise language, and finally he made a status where he encouraged people to make statements that began, “As an atheist…” I’m convinced this person has not considered the difference between normative and descriptive positions.
Let’s look at the quote in the picture. The author is saying that as an atheist he believes life is precious, but that isn’t really true. He is an atheist and he believes life is precious, but he does not believe life is precious because he is an atheist. Indeed, the sequence here is exactly backwards. What led him to be an atheist is what led him to also believe life disappears forever after only a brief time. He may as well say, “As someone who knows the Sun is hot, I believe life is precious” or “As someone who knows rocks are hard, I believe life is precious” or “As someone who knows the scrotum of a goat makes for a delicious snack, I believe life is precious.” His second clause does not follow from his first clause.
One of the reasons this is so important is that, aside from it being absurd to say that any given value derives from atheism (on what frickin’ basis?), this is exactly the same reasoning Christians and others use when they argue that Stalin did what he did because he was an atheist. That is, they are saying there are certain values a person must either include or exclude (or both) because of atheism. When that person, so the argument goes, comes to great power, Stalin is a logical result. And they would at least have a valid premise if atheism was actually normative.
Good thing it’s only descriptive.
I think the above argument makes a pretty solid case for why Straczynski’s statement is completely incoherent, but my favorite thought experiment on this matter is this one: Imagine I have in my hand a quote. This quotes comes from someone living in Anywhere, USA. The person may be black, white, male, female, born in the US, an immigrant, tall, short, fat, skinny, beautiful, ugly, smart, dumb, polite, crass, young, old, whatever. We have no facts about this person or his/her background. Not a single thing. All we know is what is contained within the quote. It is as follows: “I am an atheist, therefore I believe…” Now try to finish that sentence.
Go ahead. Try.