I have a fun surprise coming down the pipeline as part of my series on G.K. Chesterton, but, in the meantime, I wanted to spend a little more time on what it means to be an atheist.
I think that Myers (and Leah’s) broad point is entirely correct, but on the specifics PZ is way off the mark.
Atheists can be rebellious against society, against their parents, against their specific religion, they can be scientifically literate, they can have examined the evidence in great detail or they can just not have thought about it. All these are real reasons for being an atheist but only two of them would pass muster according to Myers.
That is not to say when someone is making their point about why they are an atheist and making points for their philosophy and against religion that anyone else should come along and point out the dictionary definition of atheist.
However, when someone tries to paint me with PZ’s philosophy it is entirely fair to point out that the only thing we have in common is that we don’t believe in god and that fact, in and of itself, does not entail a commonality of morality.
I’m with Myers on this one. It’s possible (and sometimes necessary) to say “So and so is believes X but does not have a valid grounding for that belief” or “So and so calls himself an atheist but his position makes no sense” even without saddling atheism with any moral systems. I can say this as long as I have an epistemology that I think is universally accessible and ought to be universally adopted.
Neither I, nor Myers, nor March Hare is likely to believe “how much a claim will tick off our parents” is a reasonable proxy variable for truth. So why shouldn’t we be comfortable saying that someone who comes to atheism out of a sense of youthful rebellion is wrong even if his conclusion happens to be true?
I don’t promote atheism because I think believing that God does not exist is a good unto itself. I think that, if we want to act morally, we have an obligation to align our beliefs about the physical and metaphysical world with truth as closely as possible. Lazy epistemology anywhere will get in the way of that goal and correcting bad reasoning wherever we find it will help us along.
In the U.S., atheism often is a decent proxy variable for not falling into some common epistemological follies. Because atheists have been on the front lines of the evolution wars, plenty of us have gotten a crash course in scientific empirics and the uses and abuses of statistical inferences. As a result, I am less suspicious of the epistemology of a self-described atheist than of a self-described evangelical. But, when I find logical gaps in either’s epistemology, I’m going to pick a (respectful and constructive) fight.
After all, they vote.