By Seth Richardson
One of the most common canards heard from atheists is the claim “atheism isn’t a religion.” True enough, from the lexicological point of view, but the canard is not intended as a definition of atheism, it’s dragged out as a means of evading criticism of the ideological, and frequently religious actions of Atheists in the real world.
It’s supposed to be a debate-stopper in response to the common theistic canard “atheism is just another religion, so it’s no better than any other religion.”
The cognitive disconnect in both sides of this “is too, is not” byplay is that everybody seems unable to distinguish between religion and theism, particularly Atheists. It’s not really that they cannot distinguish, it’s more that they refuse to do so, and they refuse to acknowledge that in many instances, atheism is expressed as a religious belief every bit as much as belief in God is.
But Atheists hate to be lumped in with religion, in part because they consider themselves to be the intellectual superiors of anyone who holds theistic religious beliefs. It would be demeaning to their reputations, and harmful to their anti-religious rhetoric to be classified as “just another religion.”
Ignoring for the moment the hubris of claiming intellectual superiority over historical religious philosophers like St. Thomas Aquinas, it may be observed that religion is as religion does.
Religion, in fact, is not what you believe (whether you believe in Jehova, Zeus or Thor is irrelevant), it’s how you practice your beliefs, whatever they may be.
How does PZ Myers enter into this discussion? Well, it seems that Myers has seen the light and is not just admitting to his religious anti-theistic, anti-religious beliefs, he’s proselytizing and exhorting his minions and acolytes that they too should acknowledge their status as religious believers.
In a blog entry at his website, “Pharyngula,” Myers writes,
“…nobody becomes an atheist because of an absence of values, and no one becomes an atheist because the dictionary tells them they are. I think we also do a disservice to the movement when we pretend it’s solely a mob of individuals who lack a belief, rather than an organization with positive goals and values.”
Good boy! You get a pat on the head for engaging your reasoning faculties.
Myers is exactly right. Nobody “becomes” an atheist without forming a set of beliefs and associated practices. The trick to understanding this is that there is a difference between “atheism” and “atheist.” Atheism is, in dictionary form, “a lack of belief in gods.” But atheists are more than dictionary definitions. They are, to murder a metaphor, what they eat.
Myers agrees with me and goes on to say,
“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.”
Dumbasses indeed, and the world is chock full of them. Thanks for having the courage to point this out, PZ, it puts you head and shoulders above most other Atheist “philosophers.”
Of course, it’s likely that Myers cribbed this notion from me, since I’ve been expounding this sort of argument for several years now, including at the now-defunct Richard Dawkins discussion forum, and at the “lifeboat” replacement, Rational Skepticism. I wonder if the opprobrium heaped on Myers is anything like the truckloads heaped on me for having the temerity to challenge Atheist dogma. It’s pretty much like calling Mohammed a pederast, without the strap-on bombs.
But I digress.
In philosophy, there are several flavors or varieties of atheists or atheism, which is to say the practice of atheistic beliefs. The most convenient in this context is the distinction between “implict atheism” and “explicit atheism.” As described by Libertarian and atheist author George H. Smith in his book Atheism: The Case Against God, “Implicit atheism is the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it”. Explicit atheism is the absence of theistic belief due to a conscious rejection of it.”
Implict atheists are infants and children, the mentally defective, and the exceedingly rare person who has never been exposed in any way to theistic concepts. Explicit atheists are everyone else who have been exposed to theistic concepts and have evaluated those concepts and claims, and have made a decision to reject them as untrue.
Myers has more than a little contempt for those who claim implicit atheism when clearly they are explicitly atheistic,
“If I ask you to explain to me why you are an atheist, reciting the dictionary at me, you are saying nothing: asking why you are a person who does not believe in god is not answered when you reply, “Because I am a person who does not believe in god.” And if you protest when I say that there is more to the practice of atheism than that, insisting that there isn’t just makes you dogmatic and blind.”"
Right on PZ! Myers goes on to do the unthinkable in atheist dogma, he acknowledges that theists are not simply deluded boobs incapable of rational thought,
“You are an atheist — take pride in what you do believe, not what you deny. And also learn to appreciate that the opposition hasn’t arrived at their conclusions in a vacuum. There are actually deeper reasons that they so fervently endorse supernatural authorities, and they aren’t always accounted for by stupidity.
But here’s where Myers goes astray in his otherwise rational examination of the conceits of atheism.
“…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.”
Here’s what makes Myers’ position an expression of religious belief; The only thing that science can say about the existence or non-existence of God is that there is insufficient critically robust scientific evidence in the record upon which to base any conclusions, pro or con.
This is true because while it is true that theists have not provided science with critically robust scientific evidence for the existence of God, that fact does not infer that God does not or cannot exist.
“The absence of evidence,” goes the aphorism, “is not evidence of absence.” In fact, it may merely be evidence of the primitive state of humanity’s understanding of the physical universe, much less our complete and utter ignorance about the nature of any other universes or dimensions that may exist.
Theoretical physics has many theories, which are actually nothing more than educated speculations, about the possibility of alternate universes and their configuration, from bubble universes to membrane universes, to the “multiverse” theory of ever-expanding forkings of this universe.
Because we have so little actual knowledge of our own universe—we cannot even explain how it came into being with any certainty—and we have less understanding of other universes, no one can say with any credibility that the physical properties of another universe, or even this universe (and it’s many postulated dimensions), preclude the existence of some intelligent entity that has the capacity to manipulate time, space, matter or energy in this universe that might reasonably be defined as “God” by human beings.
Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Or, if I may be so bold, indistinguishable from divine action.
And it is this evident scientific ignorance that makes Myers’ assertions about “scientific attitude(s) that value evidence and reason” and “positive values” into religious beliefs. Value evidence and engage in reason, by all means, St. Thomas Aquinas and a host of other philosophers have done so, so you’re in good company, PZ. But do not succumb to what I’ve coined the “Atheist’s Fallacy.”
This fallacy is a fallacy of circular reasoning in which one of the premises of an argument against the existence of God is drawn from one of many human-created theistic claims, which premise is presumed to be true in reaching the conclusion that God does not exist:
The error in reasoning should be obvious. The premise falsely presumes that the Christian claims about God’s actions are true. If the Christian’s claim is false, or erroneous, the conclusion fails because one cannot base a rational, logical conclusion on false premises.
The circular reasoning is seen in the “God doesn’t exist because what Christians say about God isn’t true.” Whether or not the claims of Christians are true has no effect on whether God actually exists, or doesn’t.
God, it must be recognized, if He exists, is not constrained or created by man’s observations or claims. God must be greater than our dim, fallible view of him, or He would not be God. To constrain God to the boundaries of human understanding or description is plain error.
But how is it that Myers and his ilk can be defined as being “religious” about their atheism merely because they hold “positive views” about theism and religion?
Religion has a number of accepted authoritative definitions, and naturally the primary definitions include references to theistic concepts, but that’s not the only definition of religion, and it is generally acknowledged that a number of “atheistic” religions exist, including Buddhism and Secular Humanism.
As I said before, theism is what you believe, religion is how you go about practicing your beliefs.
The relevant definitions that apply to Myers and innumerable other self-professed (and therefore explicit) atheists include:
“Something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of ethics or conscience;”
“A specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects;”
” The body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices.”
Myers and his fellow-travelers indisputably hold beliefs about theism and science, and Myers in particular strongly believes in and devotedly follows his atheistic beliefs as a matter of ethics and conscience.
“I oppose religion because we can see its effects on even otherwise brilliant people: it short-circuits skepticism and leaves them open to dangerous and erroneous ideas.”
He’s so devoted to his beliefs that he’s made something of a pest of himself to legislators and theists, and he regularly proselytizes the faithful at his web site, Pharyngula.
And that’s why PZ Myers, and a whole bunch of other Atheists (and I use the capital “A” to denote those atheists who qualify as members of the Atheist religion deliberately) are in every relevant respect, persons of religion and members of a religious congregation. So are his acolytes, sycophants, minions and worshipers. So are hosts of other Atheists who hold similar beliefs and engage in similar religious practices.
So, next time you encounter an Atheist, go right ahead and tell them that their belief set is “just another religion,” because it’s true. They have no better hotline to the straight skinny on the existence, or non-existence of God than you do, or anybody else does. When they object, refer them to me, I’ll help set them straight about their apostasy and heresy.
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