Atheism is descriptive. Atheism is descriptive. Atheism is descriptive.

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.

A hugely pathetic understanding of evolution

One of the creationists favorite pieces of bullshit rhetoric is to say to anyone who accepts the facts of evolution, “You are beholden to your evolutionary past! Why would you do anything good if the point of life is to merely survive? Checkmate, atheists.” It’s an awful line that just won’t go away, but I figure if I make a post like this, at least I will have an easy stock response on hand. So here’s why it’s so awful.

First, it is a conflation of descriptive and normative claims. (I am thoroughly convinced most Christians do not understand the difference.) Evolution deals with the facts of biology as discovered via the powerful methodology of science. It’s a description of observation; it does not have a say on how one ought to act. Morality, on the other hand, is nothing but normative claims. It is the way in which we say what is right and wrong. It is the precise opposite of descriptive claims like those made by science.

Second, it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution. Simply because the history of all life is marked with ruthless struggle does not mean that we must display such ruthlessness at all times. Or any times. In fact, I think we would want to do just the opposite at most times. But none of that is really pertinent. The facts of our evolution do not mean we must act in this way or that way. It would be like saying all Americans must love the French now and forever because we got so buddy-buddy with them during the Revolutionary War. Could you imagine how upset FOX Noise would be if that were true?

This line of argumentation from creationists is really just an excuse to disengage. Rather than openly debate the merits of this or that moral position, they just appeal to a red herring of an argument. And it isn’t merely creationists. The same tactic is often used by theistic evolutionists. It does a disservice to logical, philosophical debate, but perhaps worse, it undercuts the science at the heart of it all. Ultimately, it is a misunderstanding of the issues: Evolution is a descriptive fact; morality is normative. No matter what moral conclusions one draws, evolution still remains true. Even if one draws conclusions about morality (i.e., not moral positions, but ideas concerning the concept of morality) which conflict with the descriptive fact of evolution, Mr. Darwin’s great idea, with all its modern day modifications, still remains true. And should someone think that evolution leads to particular consequences such as ruthlessness and mayhem (which, incidentally, is an invalid reason to reject acceptance of evolution), even that is immaterial. In addition to those people being wrong on the facts, evolution, once again, still remains true.

So, no, logically inept creationists and friends, you haven’t added anything of value here. As usual. Evolution is descriptive and so has no say on morality. Moreover, even if it did dictate how we ought to live, we would not therefore be beholden to our past anyway. Even if you were right, you’re still wrong. Or as I really need to say more often, you’re wrong in your wrongness.

Ignoring the facts about morality

One of the things that has always bothered me about morality debates with Christians is their common inability to distinguish between normative and descriptive claims. (Really, the issue extends beyond Christians, but it seems especially prevalent within that group.) It’s always possible to quickly identify someone who does not understand the distinction when a question is raised about the morality of a group or individual that has committed great atrocities. For example, “What makes the morality of the Nazis wrong if there is no god?” Oh, no! My worldview has been shattered and the Christians win! Please.

There are two obvious problems with this. First, it’s an annoying argument from consequence. It is being implied that an argument for subjective morality must be wrong because it leads to bad things. Second, and this is the real kicker, the whole point of this post, it confuses value claims and factual claims. Mike at The A-Unicornist has it covered:

Although it is in our nature to desire fairness and to feel compassion, we must reconcile those feelings with objective information about the natural world. So in forming rational moral judgments, it becomes absolutely vital that the information to which we have access is accurate.

And that, quite simply, forms a solid foundation upon which to reject “Nazi morality”: the beliefs underpinning the Nazi’s attempt at global domination and extermination of Jewish people are false. The German people were not a genetically superior “race” of people, but were every bit as human as the Jews they so villainized. The notion that the Jews were partly, if not entirely, responsible for Germany’s economic woes was similarly pure nonsense. That’s how you get Nazi morality: you have people who passionately believe information that is patently false. It’s quite plausible that many Nazis, if not most, took no delight in the suffering of other people; but, by adopting the false belief that Jews were not actually people, they were able to overcome their natural human empathy, to the point that great atrocities were committed.

So the Christian really has asked a non-question. It is trivially resolvable – X group was factually incorrect – and nothing has even been said to advance the discussion. There are far more interesting ways to dig into the question of morality (presuming the theist can avoid begging the question with the assumption that morality is objective), but it takes the right sort of person to ask the right sorts of questions. Someone who may have a background in theology and religious ‘philosophy’ is going to ask shallow, remedial questions, and is far from the right sort of person. That’s why, even though this stuff is not that hard, Christians tend to be more of a detriment than a help in these kind of talks.

How many times do I have to say it?

Is seems that no matter how many times I say it, stubborn theists insist that atheism is somehow magically normative. It isn’t. Nor do positive claims flow from atheism. Indeed, there has never been a single atheist who has made a normative or positive claim as a result of atheism.

I am thoroughly convinced that any theist who claims otherwise is either ignorant, stupid, or dishonest. And I would apply all three labels to a few people out there.

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.

Atheists never…

There are a lot of terrible things atheists have never done. And there are a lot of great things atheists have never done. And then there are plenty of terrible things and plenty of great things they have done. But at no point can we say any action by an atheist has been done because of atheism. The whole worldview is descriptive, not normative.

That said, there is a site that lists out the things atheists have never done, providing links to each item. It’s worth a look.

Thought of the day

Here is a descriptive claim:

Many people think bugs are gross.

It is not a value statement. Now here is a normative claim:

Bugs are gross.

It passes judgement on bugs and is therefore a value statement.

I wish more people could separate these two types of claims.