The Mythical Dictionary Atheist
In a recent blog post, PZ Myers writes:
Dictionary Atheists disbelieve in gods and dislike religion, but that’s it. The fact that the universe is an uncaring place, that we’re products of chance and necessity rather than benevolence, that we only have each other to help ourselves through this life…none of that matters. So when you say that reason demands equality, when rationality dictates community, when justice ought to be part of the godless agenda, they reflexively throw out that dictionary definition to deny any expectation that there ought to be more to atheism than cussing out gods. They’re intellectual cowards who run away from the full implications of living in a godless universe.
You probably don’t need me to tell you that this is nonsense. There isn’t a single atheist I know who doesn’t care about the implications of godlessness in their lives. It’s just that for every person, these implications are different. Godlessness does not demand a particular set of values; rather, it causes us to reexamine our values in the context of a world without gods. Further, it is patently untrue that atheism demands reason, equality, community, and justice. While all of these are noble and worthwhile goals, they do not necessarily flow from a lack of belief in gods. Also, to state that atheism requires reason is to assume that most people arrive at atheism through a certain reasoning process or by examining the scientific evidence. This is not necessarily true. And finally, it is not intellectual cowardice to accept atheism for what it is — a lack of belief in gods — it is intellectual integrity.
There’s the step the Dictionary Atheists don’t want to take — that once you’ve thrown off your shackles you’re now obligated to do something worthwhile with your life, because now all of our lives shine as something greater and more valuable and more important. That with freedom comes responsibility.
How exactly does Myers, self-proclaimed man of reason, know what steps “Dictionary Atheists” don’t want to take? Is he a mind-reader? While I can’t speak for others, I can say that personally, I’m strongly committed to reason, equality, community, and justice. But a better concept to encompass such beliefs already exists, and it’s called Secular Humanism. To change the definition of atheism to accommodate your own idiosyncratic, inconsistent, and value-driven political agenda is corrupt and coercive. There is no valid reason to limit atheism in this way or to exclude people whose politics differ from your own. For the atheist movement to have any momentum, it must attract a sufficient number of individuals with common goals, such as the separation of church and state and ending discrimination against the non-religious. On the other hand, different political goals can be achieved through other means and alliances; for example, that’s why I’m also a humanist and a liberal. But these affiliations are not necessarily related to my atheism. In fact, there are humanists and liberals who are not atheists, and I’m happy to work with them toward the goals we share. There’s no valid reason that I can’t associate with all three of these groups, and many others, just as there’s no valid reason to alienate a broad swath of atheists when I work toward the goals I share with them.
In sum, it is short-sighted and counterproductive for Myers to reaffirm the erroneous religious misconception that atheists lack meaning in their lives. Just because you accept the correct definition of atheism doesn’t mean your life lacks morality, purpose, caring relationships, a political agenda, or worthwhile goals.