The Deep Rift in Atheism: picking a tribe

Over the last few years, a deep rift has emerged in the atheist community.  If you don’t know about it, and don’t care, then I’m not going to summarize it for you.  For sake of clarity, I am talking about the rift between the FtB bloggers (because they are a hive mind, of course) and those who refer to them at “FtBullies” or somesuch.  You know, like many at Skeptic Ink, the slymepit, or A Voice for Men (and other such places).

venn-scopeofproblemNow, I will start out by saying that I recognize the tribalism emerging here.  For a while, say around 2007, it looked like the atheist community was going to be a tribe of it’s own; breaking away from the tribes of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc and creating a space for those who were interested in science, reality, and who were skeptics.   Quickly, it began to fall apart a bit at a time.  From the fall of the Rational Response Squad, through #Elevatorgate, and to the “deep rift” which still causes trembling in the blogosphere today, there are a number of tribes within the larger community of reason.  Again, I’ll start by acknowledging this, and using it as the basis to say any more about it.

Nobody here is completely right.  In every camp within the atheist community there are people who have made mistakes, with whom I disagree sometimes, and with whom I will not choose to spend my time reading (which is not to say I will refuse to do so, I just don’t follow those blogs).  But that does not mean that the answer is (necessarily) to mediate the dispute by planting oneself in some neutral zone between these camps.  That philosophy of diplomacy is fundamentally flawed, as I think The Daily Show has shown many times over the years by demonstrating that Fox News is not Fair nor balanced.  Similarly, as PZ Myers once said (and I’m identifying my” tribe here), trying to sit halfway between the evidence and “those worshipping superstition and myth is not a better place. It just means you’re halfway to crazy town.”  That is, there is a side here which is more right than others (or, in some cases, all in-accordance-with-the-evidence while the other is all wrong).  In short, I think that there exists, within this rift, a side which is one the right side of justice, and sees the long term goals of the movement are worth paying attention to.  I think that side is the FtB people, for the overwhelming majority of examples.

Many do not agree.  Justin Vacula, for example,  has said that atheism has nothing to do with feminism.  He puts it this way:

Atheism, as it’s commonly understood, and how I use the term, is lack of belief in any gods. The lack of belief in any gods does not entail any other facts about a person. Atheism — although there may be a large percentage of atheists at least in America who share some unrelated common ideals — is no indication of political views, positions on social issues, guarantee of intelligence, educational background, ideas concerning feminism, or socioeconomic status.

Here, Vacula is technically correct.  Atheism, qua atheism, will tell you nothing about a person other than their lack of belief in gods.  Vacula is here playing the part of the dictionary atheist, as defined by PZ Myers.  And I will admit that I have a small quibble with PZ’s view here about why we are atheists.  I disagree with PZ semantically (because my mind works in such a way that the lack of semantic precision bothers me), but I think I understand PZ’s point in that linked post (from February 2011, mind you…and it’s still an issue…) and agree with it mostly.   On the other hand, I find Vacula’s semantic quibbling, some 2+ years later, to be grating and annoying.  Vacula, like some many around him, is missing the point while trying to be too technical, too lawyerly.

Here’s what I posted to facebook, quickly, before going to work earlier today (in part) after reading an update by Vacula;

Atheism has nothing to do with feminism, eh? Only in the most strict sense that the lack of belief in any gods (per se) is not directly related to the role of gender discrimination and structural inequalities therein are concerned. But the same skeptical methodology and the value for human rights which led me to care enough to take part in the atheist community led me to care about the rights of all genders, discrimination, and to work towards a better world for all people no matter their gender.

And so now I want to elaborate on this.  I want to explain why I think that the atheist community has a lot to add to and contribute to the many social justice movements, feminism included, and why people like Vacula should stop being a clueless douchemonkey about this, if possible.  It’s not that I think Vacula and his ilk is always wrong, that they have nothing worth-while to add, or that he should be kicked out of anything (although I will not seek him out when I go to Women in Secularism 2 in a few weeks).  It’s that I think that they are missing the goddamned point.


I don’t participate in the A+ forums.  My wife (Ginny) is a moderator there (although I think her graduate school works and upcoming website project have made her participation there nonexistent recently).  I don’t know enough about what goes on there to speak with great authority, but I agree with their general goal as I understand it.  And despite what anyone will say about the Matt Dillahunty affair which occurred there (Matt is seemingly still on board with A+, so that should tell you something), they are a dedicated group of people who care about social justice and they are people with whom I’m willing to ally myself generally.

What is the point of atheism+? We know that atheism, per se, is simply a conclusion; the answer “no” to the question “do you currently hold an active belief in any gods?”  So why that title? Simple; it caught on from an organic conversation, and that’s how terms come to be.  It came into form here, with Greta Christina pulling together an idea that was initiated by Jen McCreight about how there is more for us to do, as atheists.  We don’t only disbelieve in gods, we have values and positive beliefs.  Granted, not all atheists share the values which the atheism+ movement embraces, but that is the nature of addition; those who don’t fall into that category are not being counted here.  If you don’t add those values, then you are not part of the set that is defined by atheism + social justice.  There is no attempt to re-define atheism, just to FUCKING ADD TO IT! Nobody has to count themselves as part of it if they are not in agreement.  Personally, I’m glad to leave some atheist dipshits behind here…OK, perhaps it would be better to educate them and bring them along, and I’m juts being cynical and negative.  Fine.

If I had my say, I’d call it skepticism+ (as I think that skepticism is the more fundamental position, compared to atheism).  But the boat sailed on that, so I’m sticking with the term until the unpredictable direction of cultural movement carries it another way.

Atheism is boring

It pains me to do it, but I will mention that Alain de Botton said that the question of whether a god exists is boring.  I detest Alain de Botton’s perspective for many reasons, and wish him the obscurity he deserves for his flat and vacuous philosophy.  But I will partially agree with him here.  It’s not the question per se  which is boring, but rather it is the way we are still answering it, the way we have been doing it for a long time, which is boring.  I’ve been around this block for more than a decade now, addressing theological claims, accommodationism, etc and it’s getting old.  Hence the need for the “third wave” of atheism which started this whole atheism+ thing.  I’m glad that there are people still handing the 101 atheist questions (my good friend Staks, who disagrees with me very strongly about the issue at hand in this post, does a good job of that even still).  In my opinion, basic atheism should no longer be the focus of anyone’s efforts within the atheist community, but should be an occasional peg to be smacked down when it becomes occasionally relevant.  We need, as atheists, to recognize that we should be concentrating on what we are for, and not merely what we are against.

I’m for feminism.

I loved Evid3nc3’s videos.  I thought his voice was remarkable and fresh, and I was glued to the monitor whenever a new video in his series about his conversion came out.  But recently he started a blog, and one of his posts from last year, entitled “Why I am not a feminist” missed the point, hard.  Being a feminist is not about ignoring the rights, plights or hardships of men [edit: Evid3nc3 wants me to clarify that his issue is that his”problem is with the word “Feminism” and the way it alienates people. It isn’t a good common banner to unite around.”  Apologies to him for misrepresenting his view.].  It’s not about focusing on women only (again, Greta Christina has said it well; the patriarchy hurts men too.  Also, see part 2).  This mistake is exactly the same as that which I identified above in discussing atheism+.  The name stuck because of the history of the subject; by studying the cultural positions, experiences, and structural discrimination of women, we learned about the problems we have with gender assumptions and the effects of those assumptions.  Feminism, as I use it (and as it is used within the atheism+ sphere) is an attempt to fix the problem for everyone, and is not misandric.  Those who identity as Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) who argue that feminism seeks to hurt men, are simply missing the point, and often will conflate some (2nd wave) forms of feminism with what people like Rebecca Watson, Stephanie Zvan, and others espouse.  It’s not called feminism because it’s anti-man, man-apathetic, or even because it seeks to reverse sexism, but because that’s the historical title that stuck.  We could try to change it, but given how cultural memes work that seems harder than just realizing that basic point that the title is historical, and not normative.

It’s time to move on

Fighting for civil, social, and human rights of atheists is a grand cause which I was glad to be a part of, and want to see continue.  I support all of the people who continue to try ato make a better name for atheists in the world, and would love to see our status as a trusted and understood group improve.  And the fact that this will continue makes me happy.  But some of us need to move on and do more—to add on—than mere atheism   Mostly, this is because it is not sufficient to merely grow our community, it is also important to make our community stronger, more mature, and more broad.  We need diversity of opinion, perspective, and experience and we cannot do so by ignoring what those potential others may teach us.  We need to open our skills up to challenges beyond mere theological claims, and be broad skeptics who understand that there are other causes and effects to the problem of religion than theology.  The role of gender is an important narrative to trace in religious history, and so is race, physical ability (ableism), colonialism, economics, etc.  As a larger community of reason, we need to open ourselves to the various disciplines from all over the social sciences, including history and feminism.

I’ve been paying attention to all sides of this deep rift over the last few years, and they all claim the same crimes of the others, and I’m sick of it.  But the truth is that I’ve learned much more from one side of this than any other. Those at Skepchick, FtB, and even Patheos have been a source of great personal education in recent years, and rarely have I read anything which has brought about personal growth or understanding from anything written elsewhere within the atheist community in recent years.  It’s not so much that one side is right concerning the deep rift per se, but that they have been attuned to ideas which have raised my consciousness more, while other places have just been doing either the same old boring atheist blogging (and not much else) or vilifying the so-called “bullies” elsewhere.

I get it; your feelings are hurt, and you don’t like the people over there.  I don’t give a shit because your blogs are boring, your perspective parochial, and your continuous victim-playing as old as your blogging style.

I’ve moved on and think mostly about the intersection of atheism, skepticism, and polyamory.  Some others are thinking mostly about the intersection of race, feminism, etc with skepticism and atheism.  But at least they have moved on.  You, my atheist brethren who are complaining about the bullies, have not.

It’s time to do so or become irrelevant, at least to this blogger.

PZ Myers and Michael Ruse’s mis-attribution of the fault in our wars

I have been writing, reading, and thinking about the issue of accommodationism for some time.  Type ‘accommodationism’ in the search box above for some context, as there are too many posts to link to here.  I will say that  I have tended to agree with Jerry Coyne’s views about the relationship between religion and science most of the time, and I tend to agree with PZ Myers more often than not.

Yesterday, PZ Myers put up a post about Michael Ruse which I largely agree with, but I want to address something, not because it makes me disagree with the point PZ makes, but because I think it takes a step back and gives some larger perspective on this issue.  Here’s the relevant section from PZ’s post, quoting Ruse:

But wait! There are more paradoxes! One of the big problems with the New Atheism, says Ruse, is the way we idolize and support our leaders unquestioningly.

There are other aspects of the New Atheist movement that remind me of religion. One is the adulation by supporters and enthusiasts for the leaders of the movement. It is not just a matter of agreement or respect, but of a kind of worship. This certainly surrounds Dawkins, who is admittedly charismatic.

We worship Dawkins? And possibly Hitchens and Harris? Has he ever noticed how much we all freaking argue with each other? There are no saints and popes in the New Atheist movement.

Oh, wait, yes he has noticed. In the very next paragraph.

Freud describes a phenomenon that he calls ‘the narcissism of small differences’, in which groups feud over distinctions that, to the outside, seem totally trivial. It is highly characteristic of religions: think of the squabbles about the meaning of the Eucharist, for instance, or the ways in which Presbyterians tear each other apart over the true meaning of predestination. For those not involved in the fights, the issues seem virtually nonsensical, and certainly wasting energies that should be spent on fighting common foes. But not for those within the combat zone.

The New Atheists show this phenomenon more than any group I have ever before encountered.

So which is it? Blind, unquestioning worship of our leaders, or incessant fractiousness and dissension? It doesn’t matter. Ruse is just spinning his wheel of deplorable sins and accusing us of whatever random flaw pops up.

I will point out that PZ has missed that these two ideas are not, in fact, in necessarily contradiction, even if Ruse’s argument is ridiculous (which it is).  It is logically possible that people in the atheist movement idolize atheist leaders and that fractious arguments also result, just like with religion.  All it would take is a hypothetical Dawkins follower to argue with a Sam Harris follower, insofar as Harris and Dawkins would disagree.  And there are some people I have met who do seem to look up to some atheist “celebrities” with some level of idolization, but this is to be expected.  We are human, with personal flaws, after all.  The ideal, however, does not have anyone idolizing anyone.  I, for example, respect some people more than others, but I’ve never been a person who idolizes anyone, and never get fanboyish around well-known people, nor do I understand why other people do.

And I agree that there are arguments within the community, but I see this as largely a good thing even though in some cases it is evidence of bad ideas remaining among atheists (such as misogyny and privilege).  There is a lot of work to do before our culture matures emotionally, cognitively, and in terms of being aware of our privileges and biases.  And as a result of that, many atheists will tend to be stuck behind their own blindness, and fractures will exist which we need to addressed in the form of criticism and education of those people.  Hence Atheism+.

But what Ruse is identifying here is not so much that the atheist community is like religion, but that when groups of people gather for any common cause, belief, or lack of beliefs, they tend to have similar behavior patterns of idolization, arguing, etc.  So yes, the atheist community has some behavioral issues which are reminiscent of religion, but once again the error is in mis-attributing such things to religion, when in fact religion is the result of human group behaviors not the cause of it.  Ruse is showing how atheist communities are acting human, just like religious groups.  Why does Ruse make the (apparently unconscious) assumption that these behaviors fundamentally belong to religion?

Our goal—as skeptics and atheists concerned with our culture, our beliefs, and our actions—should be to improve how we all think, behave, and interact.  Those working on including social justice in their actions, whether atheist or religious, are taking a step in the right direction in such terms.  But what new/gnu atheism is about, Michael Ruse, is about asking whether the views some group has are true or not.  We must take as a given that we will err in how he think, behave, and interact, but the question which concerns us is whether our ideas are true, not whether our community is perfectly ideal.

That’s the long-term goal, and it will take time to get there.  And, as I understand it, this is what efforts such as Atheism+ were developed to answer.  Because if we want to address the human flaws and how they emerge in the atheist community, we have to understand how psychology turns into sociology; how our personal flaws turn into groupthink and tribalism.  The problem with religion is not that it fractures, idolizes its leaders, and then fights among themselves.  No, that’s a human problem which we all have to deal with.  The problem with religion is that it isn’t true; that they are arguing over fantasies.

Skeptical atheists, at least, are arguing over what is true with a methodology which works; science.  And if they are not using science and skepticism well enough, then we can use skeptical criticism to point out how and why.  When does religion do that? Religion uses logic on top of the assumptions of its theology, but it rarely, if ever, appropriately uses empirical methodology and good skepticism.

Michael Ruse is stuck comparing religion to atheism in ways which must be true because they are activities done by humans.  Where atheism and religion are alike, it is attributable to anthropology (what I have my undergrad degree in).  What Ruse misses, and what PZ does not articulate well in this case, is that what does separate religion from atheism is the concern for truth of worldviews rather than behavior of participants.

Because sure, some atheists go around  idolizing people and arguing over small details, but our goal is to help them personally grow until they are mature, skeptical, knowledgeable people with good cultural and personal perspective.  And unlike religion, we actually have real ways to achieve that because we do not have any scripture, doctrine, or limitations of criticism.

We have the best methods in our hands, no rules about where we cannot inquire, and only our personal flaws to hold us back.  That tempered by caring about what is true, rather than what is comforting, preferable, or sanctioned is a good road to progress.

Mere atheism

I’ve been having a long conversation in the comments of another wordpress blogger recently.  I was perusing the religion section of wordpress and ran across this post.  The comments are where it gets interesting. If you are interested in such conversations, I urge you to take a look.  Much of the following will reference that discussion, although you will be able to follow without reading it).

During the conversation, which touches on skepticism and the definition of ‘atheist,’ the blogger jackhudson said that “there is no such thing as a ‘mere atheist’,” and I was forced to agree.  Actually, I quite enthusiastically agreed, as I had never made such a claim that such a creature existed (see the comments there for the details, if you like). But I immediately liked the term and it gave me a little insight into the nature of our disagreement.  It also reminded me of a discussion within the atheist community some time back.

Remember that now infamous PZ post about “dictionary atheists” with which many atheists, including myself disagreed?  Well, I do believe that the definition of “atheist” is still merely the lack of belief in any gods, but I also agree with PZ’s larger point which, ironically, is basically the point that jackhudson is making in the comments I have made reference to in this post.  Ironic because the post is about PZ Myers being wrong about something.  Well, it’s a little ironic.

In other words, PZ Myers was right to say that we, as atheists, are not atheists because we lack a belief in gods.  At the time he wrote that post, I disagreed by arguing, as did many pothers, that being an atheist was nothing more than this lack of belief in gods.  But as I came to understand it, PZ had a larger view in mind, one which jackhudson is also making; none of us are merely lacking belief in gods.  We have other things we do believe in and those things inform our worldview and tell us about how we are atheists.

Even if the definition of atheism is, in fact, the lack of belief in any gods we are so much more than that.  It’s a nuanced point, and I think worthy of further exploration.


Finding your inner atheist

People come to find that they are atheists in a number of ways.  As they do so, they carry all sorts of beliefs, assumptions, and worldviews (all of which may change, of course).  But an essential moment for people who consider their beliefs is when they first realize that they no longer (or never did) believe in a god.

Some of these just of shrug their shoulders and go on with their life.  Others experience a great emotional relief, anxiety, or even anger upon realizing this.  I imagine that some people even repress this and go on as if they do still believe.   The reaction is dependent upon many personal factors which are relevant to a person’s worldview, but are not really relevant to the term ‘atheist’ per se.  That is, if they accept that title as part of their identity, that title merely tells others what they do not believe (gods), but nothing about what they do believe in.

Other labels and titles can do that, in most cases.  Sometimes new labels have to be invented. But no information about what one believes can be gleaned, necessarily, from “I’m an atheist” by itself.

So, I think that PZ’s objection is more about the existence of “mere atheists” rather than “dictionary atheists” (although I’m sure he is still annoyed with people reminding everyone of this definition, as his post indicates).    Having heard him talk about this issue a few times however, I don’t think he disagrees that atheism, per se, is merely this “dictionary” use, only that this lack of belief does not tell you anything anything about what is important.

And while I think it is still important to clarify one’s philosophical opinion (I am a philosophically-minded person, after all), I think that PZ is largely correct.  I will continue to explain the definition when the clarification is warranted, but I think that this is becoming a secondary consideration for me.  It is a bit of a transition I have been noticing for a little while; a bit of atheist maturing, perhaps.

At this point, my concern is to not argue what the definition of atheism is so much as to answer the question that Matt Dillahunty has become known to ask (What do you believe, and why do you believe it?) for my own skeptical views.  That is, I am more interested in explaining my views rather than labeling them and having arguemnts which are purely about those labels.

It is true that I don’t believe in any gods.  It is still true that to claim that no gods exist is beyond my epistemic powers.  It is also true that in some cases (like with the Christian god) I do believe that ‘God’ is not real.  But I think the fundamental point is to show that a skeptical position is where to start, and that I simply do not see reason to believe in people’s religious ideas.

My motivation for all of this is not derived from being an atheist, but rather from being a skeptic who cares about having beliefs which are true.  My being an atheist is not my motivation for writing this blog, being active in godless communities, etc.  My motivation is what I do believe.

I do believe that the truth matters.  I do believe it’s important to want to have reasons for what we believe.  I do believe that skepticism is the best methodology for finding what is true.  I do believe that having a good level of certainty about truth is possible.  I do believe that people can educate themselves towards freeing themselves from delusions of all kinds, including faith.  I do believe that the efforts of the skeptical community are helping our culture move away from religious commitments, even if more slowly than many of us would like.

So no, I’m not a mere atheist, and I don’t think any person is.  To be a person is to have beliefs, even if only tentatively, and nobody is defined by a simple lack of a belief.

But I still believe that identifying openly as a person who does lack that belief, in this cultural context, is important for the ongoing cultural conversation.  I do think there will be a time when identifying as an atheist will no longer have a use (it will still be true, but only useful in the way that identifying as an a-Santa-ist is now).

We are not there yet.


Atheist clones and “stock responses” in the evolution of the atheist community

Dawkins Clones?

In a conversation at another blog, especially the comments, a criticism I have seen before arose; we atheists are all repeating the same arguments that we hear from the arch-bishops of atheism make, and we are all Dawkins clones (or PZ clones, or whatever).  This got me thinking about how the atheist community has, over the last several years, started to coalesce.  I have seen the community start to come together in social, political, and memetic ways that may look like clones to the outside, but from the inside speaks of our growing unity, even among the various in-fighting about tone, strategy, etc.  Ultimately, I believe that our clone-like behavior is indicative of a strength, not in itself, but in that it is a symptom of that growing unity.

I remember back in the days of yahoo chat (does that still exist? I’m too lazy to find out right now…), while in the religion debate chat rooms, discovering the atheist community online (this was before the days of 9/11 or around the time of the start of the Infidel Guy show).  I remember how after a few weeks of listening to and talking with people who came in, I saw the same arguments occur again and again.  Christians (and sometimes Jews, Muslims, or even some pagans) would come in, make their arguments, and the atheists in the room would seemingly repeat what they said 5 minutes ago to another theist chatter.  What I began to realize was that these atheists who came in night after night were responding to a small set of claims, or set of related claims, made by theists of many different conclusions.  In other words, it didn’t matter what they believed, they had similar arguments, emotional appeals, and experiential anecdotes to present as proof.  There was very little actual difference between theistic claims in general.  It was around this time I discovered that I had always been an atheist, and that I just didn’t know it because I had misunderstood the term and its relation to religion and belief.

Once I started to become active in the IRL community (around early 2002), I saw a lot of the same thing happening.  And so finally, in around 2005-2006, the various atheist books started to be published by Sam Harris and so forth, I started to see, in print all over book stores, all the arguments I had been seeing for years.  Yes, the arguments were often a little different, sexed up, and given flare that they may not have had in yahoo chat and in my experience with the community at the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia (now just the Freethought Society).  But they were really essentially the same.

Since then, atheists will freely refer to a concept of Harris, a quip of Hitchens, or a witticism of Dawkins when at meetings or in conversation with theists.  They do so for a number of reasons, whether because they like the way that person said it, that was the first way they heard it put, or because they are trying to identify themselves as being familiar with the work of said person.  But in the end, these memes that have become part of the atheist community are evidence that we are really a community with our own language, developing history, and shared experiences.  In many ways we atheists are often fiercely independent and strong minded (hopefully not stubborn, because many people think they are strong minded when they are actually stubborn), but we have developed a community that has shared ideas.  We share them because they work.  We are not repeating them merely to copy other people, but because we find them useful in conversation or debate.  It is a kind of evolution of atheist arguments, where memes which have a better zing or are more affective remain as part of our shared language.

Does this make us clones? No.  Yes, there is some fanboy behavior that occurs around Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, etc, but that is part of human behavior and is to be expected, even if it is silly.  Atheism, for good or ill, has celebrities, minor and major.  (As a side note, I was recently talking with a long time friend about the issue of science and morality, of which we share very differing opinions, and brought up Sam Harris to which he responded “I don’t know who that is.”  It just put things in perspective for me).  The fact that I may make a point in response to a theist that sounds like something Dawkins has said does not mean I am trying to emulate him or that I idolize or worship him.  It may mean I respect him and think the point which he has uttered is a good one, but that may be accidental;  remember that many of the counter-points to theists that Dawkins and others use in their books, lectures, or debates are not all original to them.  The fact that they made many of these ideas popular for the growing atheist community, as well as much of the general public, does not mean that when I use them I am a Dawkins clone.  The simple fact is that many of the points people like Dawkins make I knew of well before I knew Richard Dawkins was an atheist.  In fact, it is not impossible that the community I was a part of might have influenced Dawkins’ writing, or (more likely) the ideas were conceived independently or drawn from the many atheist books, communities, or internet resources from before the 21st century began (George H. Smith anyone?).

But, perhaps most interesting, the fact that our arguments are similar is possibly attributable to theism itself, at least n part.  After all, the atheist community is mostly a response to the largely theistic world in which we live.  Theology is old, complex, and erudite but in every day religious conversations the arguments foisted upon us (or invited) are simple and pretty similar themselves.  Sophisticated theology (which in my opinion is philosophical gobblygook, in most cases) is not exempt from this, but at least theologians make the attempt, in some cases, to dig into good intellectual soil.  And much of the popular atheist responses to theistic claims are mirroring the simplistic reasoning that we see day to day, which is largely poor reasoning or the simple lack of serious consideration of one’s beliefs.  Therefore, our clone-like memes and counters will seem repetitive…because the claims we are responding to are assertively repetitive.  What is worse is that when we try to engage with intelligent theists, their arguments are not much better; unsophisticated rationalization dressed up for the party, but essentially the same poor reasoning under the makeup.  They have good vocabularies, are educated, and present themselves well, but their reasons for belief are as weak as anyone else’s belief, but they have rationalized it by this dressing-up game they play with their explanations.  William Lane Craig is a great example of this.

We are not clones.  We are a community that is still evolving and finding our common voice in society.  Often, that voice will have focal points in people who use them and receive the most attention.   In many cases the atheist celebrities are channeling the larger community, sometimes the community channel the voice of individual leaders, but in most cases the distinction is irrelevant.  The question is whether the content of our voice is rational or not.  It does not matter who says it or how many people say it precisely some way.  It matters only a little how it is said, but the essential question is whether the idea is true. Responding to points made by atheists (or anyone else, for that matter) with anything except a criticism of the truth value of our claims is simply playing politics and rhetorical games.

I have little patience for those games.

Missing the dendrology for the Trees: PZ Myers and evidence for gods

I have been following the recent discussion occurring between such epic bloggers as PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, and Ophelia Benson about the issue of whether there could be any convincing evidence for there being a God.  It started last Fall with a post by PZ and went from there, and I have not weighed in because I thought many of the points were covered by others and nobody really reads this blog anyway (not even my mom reads my blog…).

Now, I generally agree with PZ, especially his views about how we should deal with religious people and their beliefs.  His views on accommodationism are pretty on-target, from my point of view, and it has helped clarify my own views in some cases.

But I think that PZ Myers is missing something in this conversation about possible evidence for gods, something which overlooks the larger question and replaces it with a smaller one.  I feel like PZ is trying to apply a general observation from a set of particulars, and is thus missing the dendrology for the trees.  The issues I have can be traced to comments such as this from PZ today:

Religion has had a couple of millennia to make a case for its fundamental concepts: the existence of the supernatural, the existence of deities, the effectiveness of priestly intermediaries, etc. It has failed. It does not provide support in the form of evidence or logical consistency; it also fails to show any pragmatic utility. Religion never does what it claims to do. At what point do we learn from experience and simply reject the whole worthless mess out of hand?

Now, I am not in disagreement with this statement.  Religion has failed to make its case over the millennia, and while it will most-likely not go away anytime soon, people would be better off rejecting the whole enterprise.

But my issue is not with religion per se.  My issue is with faith, theology, and the spiritual feelings (what Nietzsche calls the ‘metaphysical need’) that people have and which was probably the original cause, current maintainer, and future transformer of religion.  Yes, religion has failed to make it’s case, but belief in god precedes and is not necessarily contained within religion.  The question of the existence of god(s) is a general philosophical question that religions contribute to, rather than own.

So while religion may have failed, this does not necessarily discount god (although it is certainly not working in the favor of each).  The question of divinity is a more fundamental problem than the many trees of religion.  Religion discusses specific conception of gods.  Religion may play at trying to show a generic god, and especially among ecumenical and liberal theological schools it certainly does attempt to do so, but these games are constrained by the traditional definitions of gods that act as a restraining force against the larger philosophical question which is usually eschewed due to these traditional limitations.

So while I will agree that (to continue quoting PZ)

Religion plays Calvinball. There are no rules except what they make up as they go.

I do not think that the philosophical question of the existence of god always does this, even if it does very often.  I think that the question of god, being ultimately a question that must (if it is to be taken seriously) utilize rational means (including the scientific method and logic), the issue cannot be said to be a failure simply because religions have not made their case.  The case must be made rationally, and this is an endeavor that transcends religious ‘calvinball.’

So, could there be evidence for any gods?

Could there be evidence for a god? I doubt it.  My certainty of this doubt is pretty damned high.  I’d be a 6.9 on Dawkins’ scale as well.  But the issue is a philosophical and scientific one, and cannot be proven with absolute certainty.  It is logically possible that a god exists that does not want us to know about it or the evidence for which is still beyond our capability to comprehend.  This would not be the god of Abraham, of Hindu mythology, or of the ancient Olmecs, but a ‘god’ is not logically impossible in general.  This god may decide to reveal itself at some point, and perhaps its attributes would not be the traditional omnimax god (omniscient, omnipotent, etc), but THAT IS PRECISELY THE POINT!

The God that PZ Myers sees as impossible to find evidence for is the traditional western concept of a god, not any possible being that would deserve the name (an issue that becomes important in this discussion, but which will nonetheless be left for another time).   If the traditional western concept of god were all that this discussion were about, then I would agree with PZ Myers (as Vic Stenger did with his God: The Failed Hypothesis) and I think Jerry Coyne might as well.

The issue is that there are a plethora of other potential gods that might exist, be logically non-problematic, fit the naturalist worldview, etc whom decided to hide itself for whatever reason.  I don’t believe in such a being because I’m a skeptic and the evidence does not exist for such a being and I reserve belief for such presented evidence.  But if such a being existed the evidence could exist at some point (perhaps), and we would have to reserve our belief until such potential evidence presented itself.  I’m not holding my breath, and neither should anyone else, in my opinion.  The evidence as it exists now leads me to say that everyone should be an atheist now unless they 1) have said evidence already or 2) are delusional.

And those who claim to be have #1 have not convinced me because their attempts at evidence has, as PZ points out, failed for millennia.

PZ continues:

In science, we’re used to incremental progress and revision of our ideas. Evidence is our currency, it’s how we progress and it’s what gets results. It is a category error, however, to think that the way to address free-floating word salad and flaming nonsense is to take the scalpel of reason and empiricism and slice into it, looking for definable edges. No, what you do is look over the snot-ball of self-referential piffle, note that it has no tenable connection to reality, and drop-kick it into the rec room, where the kids can play with it, but no one should ever take it seriously.

Again, I agree.  But this is NOT addressing the real issue.  PZ is still addressing the existing traditional theological parameters for a god and declaring that they have failed, and I agree.  Further, evidence for a generic god has failed as well, but this is not the same as saying that evidence cannot exist to convince me, Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, etc ever.  But the fact that we should not take it seriously is due to the accidental circumstances of lack of evidence that is not the logically necessary state of affairs for all times.  We simply do not know what will come in the future, no matter how certain we are.  That claim that no evidence is possible to convince someone like PZ Myers is not, as Jerry Coyne observed, the proper application of the scientific method.  God is a scientific (or at least a rational) proposition, and science deals in probabilities.

Perhaps an analogy would suffice.  Let’s pretend that, for whatever reason, we lived in a world where fossils simply did not survive.  For whatever reason, the evidence of ancient and prehistoric animals simply did not exist, or at least extraordinarily more rarely than they currently do. What if someone were to propose that at some point in the past large reptiles roamed the planet for millions of years?  In such a case, someone like PZ Myers would come along and say that the proposition simply failed to make its case, that no evidence exists, and the particular drawings of potential large reptiles were nonsensical.

Would it be logically justifiable to then declare that no evidence could surface to prove the proposition?  Would this analog to PZ Myers in this hypothetical world be justified in claiming that the proposed prehistoric reptiles, with their hypothetical body-structures and subsequent descriptions and drawings are failures and therefore ANY large prehistoric reptiles of these types did not exist?  Further, that no evidence could exist for them? The fact that evidence is not available does not mean 1) that the thing cannot exist or that 2) some evidence might surface in the future to support such propositions.

The argument that specific religious concepts of gods have failed, theologians have not presented sufficient evidence, and therefore any evidence for all possible concepts of gods could never be convincing is simply an egregious logical fallacy.

I’m an atheist because evidence for any concept of gods is lacking.  From this, I am willing to declare that belief in any gods is not justified.  This, as Jerry Coyne says, is a tentative conclusion, just as the theory of natural selection and gravity are tentative.  Do I think that evidence will surface which will convince me of a god existing? No.  Do I think it logically possible that it could happen? Yes.  But until it does, I’ll remain a committed atheist.  I’ll continue to consider new evidence as it come along.  But as PZ Myers has noted, all the evidence so far goes the other way.  Therefore atheists are justified to lack their belief, and theists are not justified in their belief.

But we wait for potential evidence, remaining skeptical and appropriately atheistic in the mean time.