Points (for once) to P.Z. Myers

I’m not normally a fan of P.Z. Myers, since, although I appreciate his pro-education, pro-science activism, his agent provocateur shtick tends to be grossly offensive for the sake of being offensive.  His deliberate sacrileges make it impossible for him to have any positive impact on religious people, and, if his demonstrations are intended to stir up atheists, he’s catering to the lowest denominators of distrust and anger.  It’s poisonous for everyone involved.

So with those rather large caveats, and keeping in mind that I haven’t changed my general opinion of him, I want to give Myers credit where it’s due.  While speaking in Montreal, Myers drew the ire of some atheists when he started ragging on ‘dictionary atheists.’ In response to complaints, he expanded his critique:

Dictionary Atheists. Boy, I really do hate these guys. You’ve got a discussion going, talking about why you’re an atheist, or what atheism should mean to the community, or some such topic that is dealing with our ideas and society, and some smug wanker comes along and announces that “Atheism means you lack a belief in gods. Nothing more. Quit trying to add meaning to the term.” As if atheism can only be some platonic ideal floating in virtual space with no connections to anything else; as if atheists are people who have attained a zen-like ideal, their minds a void, containing nothing but atheism, which itself is nothing. Dumbasses…
In that Montreal talk, I explained that there is more to my atheism than simple denial of one claim; it’s actually based on a scientific attitude that values evidence and reason, that rejects claims resting solely on authority, and that encourages deeper exploration of the world. My atheism is not solely a negative claim about gods, but is based on a whole set of positive values that I will emphasize when talking about atheism. That denial of god thing? It’s a consequence, not a cause.”

Hurrah!  As you may remember, I feel really strongly that atheists need to put up or shut up when it comes to their own moral beliefs.  (I’ve talked about it here more than once).  Defending ‘dictionary atheism’ is a waste of time.  Unless dictionary atheists are only troubled by religion inasmuch as they think it is inaccurate (as homeopathy is false), they have plenty of moral critiques of the consequences of religion, not just its foundations.  It’s worth talking about them, especially since some branches of the a/theism debate (historical Jesus particularly) are hard to judge as a layperson.  Moral questions are universally accessible.  As many other problems as I have with P.Z. Myers, I’m glad a big-name atheist is calling out dictionary atheists and others.

I’ve only been following P.Z. Myer for about half a year, so if anyone knows his writing better, can you do me a mitzvah?  Does he talk about his values in detail or with a philosophical bent anywhere?  I know he hates dualism (sigh) but I’m not sure if his commitment to empiricism represents the whole of his set of positive values.  Anyone have a link for me?

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  • Aristarchus

    I really disagree with you here, which is sad because I agree with your larger point. I agree that atheists need to have clear moral beliefs and defend them. I would be all for some sort of moral society type thing that fills the place religion often has, but without the supernatural beliefs. I agree with all of that.I don't, however, think that you should conflate the need for those things with the definition of being an atheist. Some atheists will have great morals, others will have bad ones. They should have good ones. Formalizing it would be even better. But if atheists form some sort of moral society, that will be a subset of atheists. You are totally correct in criticizing atheists that don't take clear stances on moral questions, but those people are still atheists. Everyone, atheist or not, has a duty to have opinions about moral questions, but that doesn't mean you aren't an atheist without them.

  • Yeah, my strong inclination here is that Myers isn't arguing "make sure you don't let the basic fact of your denial of God prevent you from putting up positive moral beliefs" so much as "Atheism IS rational-empiricist-scientism!", which makes me want to roll my eyes until they fall out of my head.

  • Patrick

    I don't think PZ was talking about morals. I think he was talking about epistemic commitments.

  • @Aristarchus: I don't think shying away from having moral positions makes someone not an atheist (and I didn't mean to sound like I was disqualifying them from claiming the word). I do think that 'atheism' is a silly thing to pick as an adjective to describe yourself if you don't think it describes anything but lack of belief in God.@Dom & Patrick: Unfortunately, I think you are both right.

  • 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.Actually I'm sure PZ and myself have far more in common than that, but for the sake of argument he's an overly left-leaning, government-loving, rabble rousing, scientist.

  • PZ does not get high marks for clarity in that post, and the murkiness begins with the title. He asks, "Why Are You an Atheist?" What he should have asked is "Why Don't You Believe in God?" (or perhaps, "Why Do You Believe that God Does Not Exist?"), because that's what he meant. He rails against the "dictionary atheists," not failing to understand that in many cases, for whatever reason, they think the question "Why Are You an Atheist?" means "What Does the Word 'Atheist' Mean, and Why Are You Entitled to Use That Word in Reference to Yourself?"What PZ is NOT asking in his post is, "What is Your Ethical Philosophy?"

  • Leah, you're conflating morality with god-belief (or lack thereof in this case).The two are very emphatically not the same.

  • Roger, I don't really understand what you mean. Can you flesh out that idea?