Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The bad kind of atheist

PZ has an interesting post about the types of atheist he dislikes.  I see where he’s coming from and agree with him for the most part, but I also have some sympathy with all the categories and I can’t summon the energy to hate them. There’s another closely-related category he doesn’t mention, however, and I really hate those guys.

Dictionary atheists

I understand the appeal of understating the values and causes of atheism.  We argue that religions are silly because they are not based on reason, so it’s nice to have a reasonable argument of our own.  We don’t want our atheism to seem like an emotional response.  However, I’m largely with PZ on this one.  I don’t want my atheism to seem without conviction or passion.  Some of the most painful arguments I’ve had with my parents over my atheism have been difficult precisely because they didn’t take my atheism seriously.  They saw it as a phase I was likely to get over.  If I’d taken a more passionate stance at the time (as I would now), they might have questioned my reasoning, but they would not have questioned my conviction.

Babies are all atheists or I'm an atheist by default, because I was raised without religion.

I think people make this argument to demonstrate that nobody is born religious, which is itself an excellent point.  I don’t have a problem with it.  It’s true that my atheist as it exists today is based on a lot of experience, argument and changing attitudes.  It’s far from my default setting.  But the argument as I see it is more that it kinda should be the default setting.  There shouldn’t be people trying to program gods into us, and that’s a point that can’t be made often enough.

The "I believe in no gods/I lack belief in gods" debate.

I agree that the pedantic guys can be tedious.  Yes. We KNOW. We’re just not that interested.  But I understand the position.  The argument that out-and-out atheism is as dogmatic a position as theism can be persuasive.  There’s no way to prove gods don’t exist, so believing there aren’t any is a position of faith.  Therefore, the only logically tenable position is agnosticism.  The problem with this argument is that every single thing we see in the universe screams at us that there are no gods and the stories of religions are demonstrably false and lacking in ambition. 

I used to be quite careful about saying that I was technically agnostic but identified as an atheist.  I’m sure the only thing this achieved was to bore people.  My position now is that I’m 100% atheist.  I have no reason to believe in gods and loads of reasons not to.  If evidence turned up, I’d change my mind – I’m not an idiot – but I am perfectly sure that there’s not the slightest chance of that happening. And I don’t even know what such evidence would look like anyway.

But I don’t think my former position was unreasonable, just not particularly helpful.  Slaving yourself to technicalities in an argument doesn’t really get anyone anywhere.

Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.

I’m a little uncomfortable with this argument, but I think that’s just because it sounds so pompous rather than because I disagree with the statement or its tone.  Religion is the sort of thing that can motivate large numbers of people to coordinate their activities to achieve some atrocity like 9/11.  In fact I don’t know of anything other than promises of an afterlife and divine favour plus the feeling of unity that comes from shared faith in a ridiculous story that could lead to this kind of motivation.  Atheist suicide bombers?  I certainly wouldn’t rule it out.  Atheists are as susceptible as anyone else to emotional or political motivations.  But religion certainly makes it a lot easier, especially if coordinated effort and huge numbers of deaths are involved.

I don’t dislike the argument, other than it’s pomposity.

"I just believe in one less god than you do"

I’ve no problem with this argument at all.  I don’t think it implies, as PZ suggests, a logical process of comparing and rejecting gods.  I think it points out that there are lots of other putative gods and it’s absurd that a person happens to believe in just one, especially if they haven’t gone through the process of comparison, which almost nobody has.  Many people see their religion as the default position, with a vague awareness that there are other religions.  A lot don’t really believe in atheists.  Reminding people that they believe in a particular god because they were brought up in that religion can be instructive.  It’s a very different argument from PZ’s hypothetical one:

Would you be swayed if someone pointed out that you disbelieve astrology, homeopathy, tarot, witchcraft, and palmistry, and he has simply gone one step further than you, and also disbelieves in evolution?

The answer is easy: there’s no good reason to disbelieve evolution, but every reason to disbelieve the others.  The same is not true of religions.

Default atheists

This is my category.  The atheists I really hate are the ones who haven’t thought about it at all.  They genuinely don’t know what there reasons for being an atheism are and they don’t care.  There are two main reasons I hate these guys. The first is largely emotional: as I said, when I was growing up, nobody took my atheism seriously. I think my parents probably still think it’s something I’ll grow out of. The most enragingly condescending thing one person can say to another is that they will change their mind on their deathbed and this was used liberally whenever I made a point my parents couldn’t answer.  Atheism is a big and important part of my life and if you don’t take it seriously, I’m insulted.  Mock my position if you like, but don’t think for an instant that it’s not a serious, painstakingly-thought-out one.  And if you’re an atheist, frankly you should know better.

Second, atheism is hard for some people.  Mine certainly caused rifts in my family, but it’s nothing compared to some of the horror stories I’ve heard.  For many people, atheism is a position that requires enormous conviction and strength of character.  I don’t begrudge anyone for having it easy, but we part company if they assume that everyone else has it similarly easy or they lack sympathy for those who don’t.

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