Thursday, February 3, 2011

PZ Myers' Critique of Atheists

A couple of days ago PZ Myers wrote a provocative blog post called, "Why are you an atheist?" in which he critiques things about atheism that bother him. I've been meaning to respond and have finally gotten around to it. Myers begins by attacking what he calls "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."
Although Myers reluctantly admits that these people are technically correct, he appears to have created his own strawman to tear down.
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.
This is a complete non-sequitur. How does pointing out that atheism is merely a lack of belief in gods imply that atheist minds are void of anything else? The dictionary definition is used often to counter those who want to pretend that atheism is a religion, and that atheists share common values and ideas beyond disbelief in gods. I find it difficult to believe that Myers isn't well-aware of how and why the dictionary definition is cited. It seems he is just being deliberately obtuse. It also appears from his word choice, that he, like many opponents of atheism, does see it as a sort of secular religion. For example,
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.
It's pretty funny that someone who dismisses those who disagree with him or define atheism in a different way as stupid is calling others dogmatic and blind. And he's obviously wrong. There is no "practice of atheism." Disbelief in something which you consider unbelievable requires no sort of practice.There are no rituals to be observed and no creed.
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.
If you want to see atheism as your own sort of personal religion that's fine. But it has nothing to do with whether or not it is reasonable for others to point out the dictionary definition.
My point is that nobody becomes an atheist because of an absence of values, and no one becomes an atheist because the dictionary tells them they are.
This is another strawman. Who makes either claim?
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.
What movement and what organization? Atheists are in fact a mob of individuals united only by their lack of belief in gods. I'm not sure why Myers feels compelled to rage against reality and pretend that there is some sort of grand atheist movement we are all part of.
Tell me what virtues you bring, what experiences brought you here, why your values matter to society.
Those things may be of interest, but they have nothing specific to do with atheism itself. There's more, but let's skip to his next section. Here he switches gears and goes after specific arguments commonly used by atheists that he finds lacking. These sections are better reasoned and I agree with some points.
Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings. The second sentence is false. Religion does not turn you into a terrorist. The overwhelming majority of religious people have similar values to yours
That's true and worth pointing out.
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.
Yes, and it creates blind spots where religion conflicts with reason. For example, many people who would otherwise dismiss creationism and its ludicrous claims embrace it because of religious belief.

Myers goes on to criticize the use of "I just believe in one less god than you do," another common debating ploy used by atheists. I think he reads too much into this. The benefit of using that assertion is to point out to certain theists that they share the same skeptical attitude of atheists toward all other religions except their own. And Myers makes some dubious assertions of his own.
The theist you're arguing with did not go through a process where he analyzed his beliefs logically, and excluded 99% of all gods by reason and their lack of evidence; in fact, he probably never in his life seriously considered any of those other faiths
Since when? There are theists who do just that. Part of my religious upbringing included looking at other religions and analyzing why they were false. This is not uncommon for people who are serious about their religious beliefs. Myers also applies this false assertion to atheists.
Similarly, you did not go through a list of religions, analysing each one, and ticking them off as unbelievable. I certainly didn't.
I certainly did that, and so have other atheists. Myers doesn't know as much about atheists as he thinks he does.

He concludes by writing,
My main point is that one general flaw in many atheists is a lack of appreciation for why they find themselves comfortable with that label, and it always lies in a set of sometimes unexamined working metrics for how the world works.
I don't think that's true at all, at least not in my experience. In my opinion most atheists have done an enormous amount of thinking about why they are atheists and how they define themselves.
You are an atheist — take pride in what you do believe, not what you deny.
He repeats his fundamentally-flawed point. Atheism is not about belief. It's about disbelief.
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.
That's true, but also another strawman. Do most atheists believe that religious people are just stupid? I certainly don't, and I don't think that's some sort of standard atheist attitude either.


  1. Agreed. This was a rare swing-and-a-miss from PZ.

  2. "I'm not sure why Myers feels compelled to rage against reality and pretend that there is some sort of grand atheist movement we are all part of."

    I assume because enough people have told him that he's one of the 'leaders of the New Atheist movement' that it's gone to his head.

  3. It is cLear PZ's real interest these days is his liberal world view (first world feminism etc) which is fine. What's not is his intolerance of atheists who don't follow his thought route. Maybe he should call it Liberal+?