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.

Double standards

This video is both awesome and sad at the same time.

in life, in wonder, in people

in discovery, in love.

Punching bags

Aaaand the very first winner of my new series Punching Bags is Wintery Knight. Congratulations, Mr. Knight! This is the probably the greatest thing you’re ever going to accomplish in your blogging career.

There’s a lot of silliness out there, but what really grabbed my attention by standing heads and shoulders above the rest was a series of posts by Wintery Knight about atheism and morality. It’s astonishing just how poorly pieced together it all is. Let’s take a peek at WK’s methods:

First of all, I wrote up a list of questions to use to interview atheists about their views.

Second, I posted the raw results of my survey.

Third, I listed the minimal requirements that any worldview must support for in order to ground rational morality.

Fourth, I argued that atheism does not ground any of these requirements.

Fifth, I argued that Christian theism does ground all of these requirements.

Sixth, I posted my own answers to the questions.

I really recommend taking a look at that first link; the arrogance and snobbery drip from every word:

Who is safe to talk to?

In this post, I am going to explain to you clearly how to engage your atheist friends on these issues. But be careful. Some atheists have fascist tendencies – when they feel offended, some of them want to bring state to bear against those who make them feel bad. Atheists struggle with morality, it just doesn’t sit well on their worldview, even though they sense God’s law on their hearts, like we do.

1) Thank goodness WK is here to help everyone know which atheists are okay. Some of us bite, don’t you know.

2) It’s good to know he has already defined morality when he declares that atheists struggle with it. Of course, we all know this is just another case of a theist assuming “objective” in front of “morality”.

3) Of course atheists sense God’s law in their hearts. Just like how Christians really hate science and reason deep down, amirite?

But WK’s interviews appear to be entirely irrelevant. They aren’t necessary to any of his further posts in any way. Besides that, his questions are statistically meaningless since he, um, doesn’t obtain any statistics; his ‘survey’ holds no value and is nothing more than an exercise in condescension. Let’s move on.

His next move (third link) is to try and tell us what is required for “rational moral behavior”. Gee, I wonder if he’s going to assume “objective” anywhere, gaming the issue in his favor.

1) Objective moral values

There needs to be a way to distinguish what is good from what is bad. For example, the moral standard might specify that being kind to children is good, but torturing them for fun is bad. If the standard is purely subjective, then people could believe anything and each person would be justified in doing right in their own eyes. Even a “social contract” is just based on people’s opinions. So we need a standard that applies regardless of what people’s individual and collective opinions are.

Whoa! My whole world view has been devastated! And in only 5 sentences. How could I have been missing something so obvious?!

Oh. Wait. Woulddya look at that. We need a way to tell good from bad. Well, wouldn’t that require that there is an objective good and bad in the first place? Or maybe WK is just making an assumption, causing him to beg the question. Could it be that our ideas of “good” and “bad” have a basis in our cultures and societies and human nature and our emotions and physical bodies and relationships and intelligence? And if so, couldn’t we use ethical and moral theories, applying them to the facts of the world and our derived definitions of “good” and “bad”, thus shaping how we behave? And wouldn’t this be the very definition of rational? (Hint: The answer to all of my questions is “yes”.)

But despite being so far off, WK trudges onward:

What difference does it make to you [an evil stupid dumb butt atheist] if you just go ahead and disregard your moral obligations to whomever? Is there any reward or punishment for your choice to do right or do wrong? What’s in it for you?

Bracketed clarification added.

I’m not so sure I would trust someone who thought the point of morality was to get something for himself. (Oh, who am I kidding. I trust a ton of Christians and they all necessarily believe that the point of being good is to get a big pretty prize at the end of the road.) I guess I just prefer to act out of genuine reasons, not for the sake of enriching myself in some unevidenced afterlife.

Anyway. WK goes on and on with his blog, sometimes saying dumb things about evolution, other times promoting science that makes him feel special. He’s an old Earth creationist, perhaps the most nebulous of all creationists (tell me again, when did humanity begin?), but in the end he’s just another punching bag.

Don’t forget to submit other potential punching bags.

A basic point about evolution

Evolution is an entirely natural process. It occurs through well understood mechanisms for which we are gaining ever improving detail. The belief in theistic evolution runs counter to all this; it is not compatible with the theory. Yes, yes, there are people who say they accept both their interventionist god and evolution and therefore their views are not contradictory, but that holds no relevance here. Things don’t become compatible simply because a lot of people believe them simultaneously.

In order for one’s views to be consistent with evolution, one can only hold two positions: atheism or a sort of deism. By “a sort of deism” I mean either exactly deism or something where, okay, there is a god who intervenes in human affairs, dictates our morality, and does all that other magic bigoted thought-crime sort of thing, but this god does so incidentally. That is, since no particular form of life, much less characteristic, much less species, was ever destined to exist by any law of biology, a god which it is believed made humans (or intelligent life, a la Miller) inevitable is necessarily false. Only a god which had no part in evolution is tenable; evolution is a miracle free process.

So let’s break it down:

Atheism: Entirely compatible with the theory of evolution. The process of natural selection is miracle free and excludes all directed intervention.

Traditional Deism: Compatible, but likely unsatisfying. By “traditional” I mean the deism which says there was a creator with intention that began the Universe, but that creator’s interest ended there.

Other Deism: Compatible, but still unsatisfying. I use “other” because there is no particular name for this sort of deism as far as I am aware. This is the deism which says we have a moral lawgiver and all that swell BS, but it can only be incidental. The theory of evolution tells us that humans were not destined to exist, therefore we cannot say that this interventionist god planned on us, as if we’re somehow special.

Theistic evolution: Not compatible. No species are destined to exist. That includes humans.

Creationism: Moronic anti-science nonsense. It isn’t compatible with any major branch of science.

I have excluded agnosticism because it doesn’t mean much to say that this or that is or is not compatible with “idunno”.

This guy is good

I’ve been reading The A-Unicornist by Mike D a lot lately. He’s the same guy who recently embarrassed a certain theist (who resorted to lying, as usual). What I really like is the great clarity in his writing. Every time I read one of his posts, I know exactly what he’s saying. Take this one, for example.

2. Genetic fallacy

I hear this one from believers a lot, most commonly misattributing it to statements like, “The main reason you’re a Christian instead of a Buddhist is because you were raised in a predominately Christian culture”. This may be an erroneous statement depending on the believer, but it’s a logically valid proposition – people do tend to adopt the prominent religion of their culture, though of course not all of them do.

Richard Dawkins and John Loftus have often talked about the powerful familial and sociocultural transmission of religious beliefs (it’s the basis for Loftus’ “Outsider Test for Faith”), but this is only meant to spur critical thinking in the believer, not to disprove the tenets of Christianity. The genetic fallacy would say, “Because Christianity is most commonly transmitted through familial or sociocultural tradition, its tenets are not true.” A proposition can be true regardless of how people come to believe it.

This isn’t anything that is difficult to understand, but I can’t help but appreciate how concise Mike has made it. Besides that, I’ve run into that exact misunderstanding with believers myself.

5. Special pleading

Special Pleading occurs when someone tries to justify a claim as being exempt from well-established logical principles, without justifying the exemption. It’s very subtle, but I encounter this one frequently with regard to religious experiences and Biblical history. For example:

* “If you do not believe in the historical evidence for the death and resurrection of Christ, you ought to disregard the historical evidence for George Washington.” The special pleading in this case is assuming that we ought not to be any more skeptical of supernatural historical claims than we should be about mundane historical claims.
* “The real proof to me that God is real is that I have experienced His presence.” This special pleading fallacy assumes that one’s subjective experiences constitute valid objective knowledge, when they may be tainted by a variety of assumptions and biases. Indeed the entire spectrum of scientific inquiry isn’t designed to eliminate bias from the researchers, but methodologically account for the fact that we are all highly biased so that invalid conclusions can be identified and disregarded.

I really appreciate this one as well, not because I’ve come across the same problem, but because I’ve come across the exact same example in the problem. A theistic friend of mine gave me that George Washington example when I told him that there was not solid evidence even for the existence of Jesus. (I do find it perfectly plausible that Jesus existed, though he was certainly not divine; but that doesn’t mean the evidence is solid.)

Start giving this blog, now featured on the FTSOS blogroll, a look.

Atheism does not lead to hatred

At least that was the argument I put forth in my most recent letter to the editor.

On Jan. 15, Marie-Anne Jacques wrote that there has been increasing hatred over the past decade because people have completely lost faith in God. As one piece of evidence, she points to the throwing of an egg at her manger scene over the holidays.

I would like to say that I am offended only as an atheist. I could make a pretty good letter on that basis alone, I think. Unfortunately, I have to take some of my valuable space to point out how offended I am just on a purely logical basis.

Someone throwing an egg at her manger scene could have been motivated by any number of things. Maybe someone found her display gaudy. Or maybe someone in her neighborhood dislikes her. Or maybe someone was just looking to throw an egg. I don’t think Christians are somehow inherently above any of these motivations.

But more important than Jacques’ shortcomings of logic is the fact that she is equating atheism with hatred. Can anyone tell me what philosophy derives from atheism? Can anyone tell me how atheism could ever possibly drive anyone to do anything?

Last time I checked, atheism was a descriptive position, not a normative one. (And let’s nip this one — Adolf Hitler was a Christian creationist who was motivated by racism and nationalism, not atheism or religion.)

Atheism is a perfectly rational position that does not somehow magically lead to hatred or random acts of vandalism. Our neighbors, our friends, our families, they all have among and within them atheists. I, for one, am unprepared to call such a massive group of people inherently hateful.

Michael Hawkins

Augusta

forthesakeofscience@gmail.com

I think my next letter will make the point of further explaining how atheism is descriptive. At least, it will if people in the comment section show a severe misunderstanding of the difference between a descriptive and normative position.

The letter to which I was responding can be found here.

LOL, theist gets bitch slapped

I don’t like “lol”. But I really did laugh out loud at this one.

Typical for believers to jump on this without understanding the context. Here’s what one of the study’s authors had to say about the finding:

* The idea of anger toward God can be relevant for SOME (not all!) people who don’t believe in God (e.g., atheists, agnostics).
–For example, some nonbelievers have anger toward God as part of their history, and some report anger when prompted to focus on a residual or hypothetical image of God. (The thinking might be like this: “If God did exist, then he would be a jerk.”)
–IMPORTANT: ** We are by no means claiming that all nonbelievers are angry at God.

More deets:
http://www.examiner.com/atheism-in-philadelphia/atheism-101-are-atheists-angry-with-god

Sorry, we’re not angry at your imaginary friend.

This comes from Mike D, one of those blogging atheists who does his homework. He was replying to a post that gave an intentionally false impression of a study about atheists. Why do I say intentionally false? Doesn’t that imply lying? Yep. It comes from the biggest liar I have ever encountered, after all. (And he has a history of distorting studies.)

(If the link to Mike D’s post doesn’t work, don’t be surprised. The liar who runs the site is a coward who hates to be embarrassed. He may delete the comment or alter the link slightly.)

To give some background, the reason for the post distorting what atheists believe is that it is a direct response to my post about Christians deep down. (My original posts seem to be the primary lifeline for that site – even if I never get credit.) In my post I made the clear point that it is not okay to say atheists are atheists just because they hate God. That’s tantamount to saying atheists really believe in God, and if that’s true, then they aren’t really atheists. It’s just bullshit rhetoric designed to create a strawman.

And that’s what that whole post goes on to do. And, as usual, it does it in a fundamentally dishonest fashion. I’m not surprised. In fact, my usual reaction is literally to just roll my eyes. But I found Mike D’s honest post to be such a thorough bitch slapping that I couldn’t help but share the joy.

“They haven’t a monopoly on good.”

Ricky Gervais is fast making himself one of my favorite celebrities.

Why I am an atheist

Why I am an atheist:

  • The burden of proof lies on the one making a positive claim.

Atheism is not the claim that there is no god. That is a common misconception. And I can understand why people might think atheists are saying that. First, it’s a common tactic of believers to try and create this strawman. It forces atheists to defend a position they don’t hold, and if the atheist is aware enough to say, “No, no, I am not making that claim”, then the believer is going to have the upper hand in the rhetorical department; at this point, the believer can accuse the atheist of moving the goal posts. That isn’t what is really happening, but to explain as much would start to burden the atheist with too many arguments. They can all be successfully made, but most people aren’t too interested in hearing anything beyond some hollow talking points. Second, for all practical purposes, it makes sense to say there is no god. It’s convention to speak in such concrete terms. It’s exactly like when everyone says unicorns don’t exist. If we got down to the nitty-gritty, of course (I hope) we’ll all say unicorns could exist. But then we’re practically inviting people to misinterpret our position. “Oh, so you think maybe there are unicorns out there? Ha!” And when once again it becomes necessary to explain a nuanced position against such short rhetoric, the explanation is left in the dust; people are susceptible to talking points. See: The number of articles about ‘Climategate’ when the ‘story’ first broke versus the number of articles when the lengthier explanation of exoneration and confirmation of scientists was released.

  • Science has been consistently filling holes in our knowledge.

Since humanity began to emerge from the science-killing grip of the Church, discoveries have  routinely been made which eliminate the need for gods as explanations. Motion of the planets? It’s a product of gravity. Lightning? It’s a product of how our atmosphere works. Life? It’s a product of evolution. At no point do we need to invoke any god. There is no reason to think science will not continue to do this; its power is only limited by our imagination.

  • God is not an explanation.

I accept that God is a possible explanation for the Universe, but I reject that he is a plausible explanation. If we’re going to use principles of the Universe in order to posit a God – every force requires an equal and opposite force – then we need to apply all the principles of the Universe. God therefore requires a force. That brings us to an infinite regress. One solution would be to say God is eternal, but why claim that? Because we need to claim it? That is no reason at all. And how about all the other principles? We know complex things only come from simpler processes. Everything eventually breaks down into simplicity, so to propose something that is necessarily complex (he had to create a Universe, after all) is to explain nothing. And finally, why are we inserting intention into all of this? We have no evidence of it. Why not propose an exo-verse sort of Nature, a Nature which always existed? If we’re going to just start making it up, let’s at least keep it simple.

  • Humans attribute cause where it does not belong.

Humans have the unique ability to understand causality on a deep level. We evolved the ability probably for tool use and social purposes mostly (Lewis Wolpert would be a better source on that than I). From its original use, we have used a perception of causality to believe a lot of ridiculous thing. That’s why we have such problems with separating our anecdotal experiences (‘My 95 year old uncle smoked all his life and never got cancer! Cigarettes aren’t so bad!’) from real sources of cause (Cigarettes kill). We used to do it with the weather (and some of us still do). We constantly do it with mundane everyday events (‘I was late getting to work, so I avoided the pile up accident. It was fate.’) We even see it on those Facebook profiles that say everything happens for a reason. We see cause everywhere; we don’t always attribute it correctly. I think that’s the case with belief in God. See: Paley’s Watchmaker.

  • People lie.

I find it more believable that someone would lie about talking to a god than the claim that a god actually exists and talks to humans. And sometimes people are delusional. And sometimes they are mistaken. And sometimes they tell stories with good intentions, and one huge game of Telephone later, we have all these holy texts. And as Bart D. Ehrman taught us, sometimes even the most well intentioned of scribes mess up. (Other times they have their own agendas.)

  • The purpose of Life.

Simply stated, the purpose of Life is to reproduce for the sake of replicators – that is, genes. That isn’t the purpose of human life. We create our own purpose. And maybe a few other unique species create their own purpose in a sense. But I’m not talking about life. I’m talking about Life. We are machines driven by the genes within us. Those genes are there to exist. They aren’t consciously concerned with anything. They are just chemically engineered by nature to replicate. And they do it damn well. In fact, most of the best ones to ever be able to do it are gracing the Earth right this moment. That is the why to Life: genes replicate. That’s their story in a nutshell. How they replicate is a pretty interesting tale, too, but that’s a different chapter. It’s the part of the story that says gene replicate because that’s what genes do that is one of the reasons I am an atheist.

This list is not exhaustive.