PZ Gets It

I much appreciated PZ’s post yesterday on different kinds of constructive atheists, including in particular the acknowledgment of the role we philosophical atheists play:

Give credit where it is due — philosophical atheists are the original atheists, and while they are a bit swamped by the rising numbers of scientific atheists, they’re still a major intellectual contributor to how we think. Philosophical atheists aren’t as focused on empiricism; instead they address the logic and assumptions of claims about gods. They may also have a deeper appreciation of history, and consider the causes leading to atheist conclusions.

ExamplesJohn WilkinsCamels With HammersAtheist ExperienceThe Uncredible Hallq.

StrengthsRigor. Asking hard questions. Of all the atheists, philosophical atheists are the most likely to turn on their fellow atheists and demand that they back up their assumptions. This is the team that keeps the rest of us honest, and is essential to the integrity of the movement.

Weaknesses: Long-winded, and to the rest of us, fussy and annoying. These are also probably the least charismatic of the atheists: it’s really hard to rally around a detailed discussion of modus ponens. Unless you’re a philosopher.

Common phrase: Phrase? These are philosophers. You’re more likely to get a treatise out of them.

He does a really good job summing up the strengths and weaknesses of Scientific Atheists, Humanist Atheists, and Political Atheists, and then of discussing the problems when the different camps engage in internecine warfare by refusing to appreciate each other. In this regard he specifically mentioned Scientific Atheists’ occasional hostility to philosophers as a weakness and specifically called out Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking for that. Again, much appreciated.

I think the only group that is missing is the atheists who seek to build alternative constructive institutions to the religious ones. They want to proactively help build communities and networks among irreligious people. They take an active interest in meeting the various needs that people presently turn to religion for. They encourage important discussions about values and institutions for binding people together in common values. They motivate and coordinate atheist volunteerism that helps rehabilitate our maligned public image.

Examples: Some Unitarian Universalists, Atheistic PagansHarvard HumanistsThe Secular Student Alliance, Foundation Beyond Belief, Parenting Beyond Belief, Grief Beyond Belief.

Strengths: They are forward thinking. They keep atheism from over-correcting in its rejection of faith-based, authoritarian theism such that it throws the baby out with the bathwater. They take a psychologically and sociologically realistic perspective on people and recognize that a lot of people desire, and could benefit from, institutions and communal practices that help them work out their views on important philosophical and values issues. They do not just expect atheism either to grow or to stick with the majority of people as something that is purely negative, intellectual, or a matter of only reactionary politics. They are willing to be visionary and pragmatic about meeting peoples’s religious needs through robust alternatives to faith, irrationalism, partriarchy, and authoritarianism.

Weaknesses: By trying to serve the functions religious groups do, they risk replicating the same sorts of mistakes that make religions harmful. In focusing on the positive image of atheism they sometimes shirk excessively from confrontational atheism. They sometimes fail to appreciate, and will outright denounce, atheists who are focused on anti-theist philosophy, science, or politics as counter-productive troublemakers. Wanting acceptance and recognition as positive and constructive, they will show an excessive, principle-compromising willingness to participate in joint endeavors with the religious that overly downplay points of disagreement.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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