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Posted by on Jan 8, 2013 in Atheism, Politics | 69 comments

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.

Myers continues:

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.



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  • DavidGaliel

    PZ Myers is as much a prisoner of dogmatic thinking as any theist, and shares the arrogance of certitude, the evangelical imperative and the intolerance of belief that characterizes the most strident theocrat. He also shares with his fellow A-minus-ers an obsessive narcissism that is only fed by the disproportionate attention lavished on him by well-meaning rational thinkers who only serve to perpetuate his marginal bullshit.

    • bluharmony

      The amount of cruelty exhibited in the A+ forums and on Pharyngula is pathological.

      • BethAnnErickson

        I quit reading the comments after I saw a dissenter called a “chew toy.” Very disappointing.

      • My question, honestly, is why do so many people who hate everything PZ does keep going over there? I stopped reading Pharyngula when PZ went crazy, I haven’t been to his blog once in well over a year now and honestly, don’t miss it. I also don’t read the Atheism+ forums, the Slymepit, Skepchicks, etc. Why would I want to get my blood pressure up if I already know that these people are irrational?

        Makes no sense to me.

        • bluharmony

          I rarely, if ever go to any of those places, but I occasionally hear about these things through other channels. I stumbled on this particular post accidentally, while checking out his defense of Tina Fey making “your mom is a whore” jokes. Otherwise, the last time I was there was to read his substantive rebuttals to Clint. That was interesting because he was clearly using diversion tactics and teaching bad science, yet only one person in the commentariat bothered to question it. Someone called Chas Peterson, I think.

          As to your more general question, I find the entire phenomenon fascinating since I’ve never seen or imagined how propaganda and dehumanization work up close. This actually explains a lot of my history.

          • I didn’t mean any offense, of course, and maybe that shouldn’t have been directed at you. I just see lots of people who spend a whole lot of time trying to piss off the Atheism+ crowd, they go post on their blogs and forums and no matter how many times they get kicked off as trolls, rightly or wrongly, they keep making new accounts so they can keep it up. There are an awful lot of people who stalk the Skepchicks and PZ and write extensively about everything they say, no matter how pointless. It really gets absurd.

          • bluharmony

            I don’t tweet at them, I don’t try to talk to them, I don’t follow them, I don’t typically read them, but I do get news of what they do. If I see something interesting enough to write about, then I’ll check the original source material. I’ve been wanting to criticize Myers’ use of “dictionary atheist” since his first post about it years ago, and now seemed as good a time as any. I agree with you that many people take it way too far, but it’s hard to tell where that point is once you’re involved. I first became branded a heretic for posting in the original “Slimepit’ long before it had that name. I stopped after about 3-4 months or so, because some of what was going on was too nasty for my taste, and I haven’t been back since. I tried to let the whole matter drop various times, but nasty & defamatory blog posts kept on being written about me, so I decided that I was better of defending myself and my position on these issues in my own space, and on my own terms.

            As for A Plus, they’re welcome to their safe space. I have to admit, I do giggle at some of their threads that get posted in other fora, but that’s the inevitable result of making your safe space public and then regularly attacking the people in it with an unparallelled vengeance, I suppose. 🙂

        • It amuses me when Myers, Benson & co. accuse people of stalking. It’s exactly the same charge they used to ridicule the fundies for making back when they pretended to be skeptics.Is it stalking when one attempts to correct outrageous distortions being disseminated about oneself? Was, or is Ophelia Benson stalking Sam Harris? Take this ridiculing of people supposedly complaining about Freeze Peach. It’s an absolute strawman being spread over social media and blogs, yet the perpetrators protect their themselves and their followers from rebuttal with their ‘banhammers’. Some of them tend to use frivolous complaints and flagging to shut down youtube and twitter accounts. The prime charge against Myers et. al. is that you cannot honestly claim to support intellectual freedom and open discussion when stifling opposition to the dirt you dish on others on your home turf while punishing your fans for associating with the ‘enemy’.

        • I honestly visit PZ’s excuse for a blog about once every 6Months purely out of curiosity & the forlorn hope that something’s changed, (It never does of course). It’s like an itch & at the risk of mixing metaphors, i look at the comments in the same way people look at auto accidents (fascinated & disgusted in about equal measure). Remember there was a time that he did have quite an online presence & was taken seriously by many. That may be long gone by now & from what i can tell from Google analytics the whole FtB network hardly matches the searches Pharyngula once got on it’s own. The same (fewer by the month) names appear stroking his ego on each visit & since his recent flounce stating that he’s “no longer a skeptic” (I could of told him that a long time ago) he can only become even less relevant. All i can hope for is that the door doesn’t hit his ass on the way out.

          • bluharmony

            Hopefully enough, they’ll all soon fade into obscurity. The last thing we need from women (and feminist men) at this point is irrationality and histrionics.

    • Ronlawhouston

      Wow, so true. The beauty of your comment is that you brutally savaged the guy without the least bit of snark.

    • Jeff Hansen

      He’s an atheist Jerry Fallwell on every level. I”m shocked that more people don’t notice the obvious parallels. Maybe it’s an age thing & they’re too young to remember the whole Moral Majority deal back when the Christian Right was at it’s peak.

  • The Church of Peezee Myers and the Latter Day Aints

  • ThePrussian

    For crying out loud… has he ever heard of “Whoever smelt it, dealt it”? This is what they call “projection”. Especially this:

    “that once you’ve thrown off your shackles you’re now obligated to do something worthwhile with your life”

    Couldn’t agree more. Wake me when it applies to anyone on FtB (honourable exception: Maryam Namazie).

    Just send him a little message saying Muslims are “offended” by his post and watch him scuttle to cover.

  • zenspace

    Excellent article. One of your best yet, short, sweet, succinct and right to the point. All without a single cuss word!

    The High point, if a bit understated given the behavior of the FtB crowd: “To change the definition of atheism to accommodate your own idiosyncratic, inconsistent, and value-driven political agenda is corrupt and coercive.”

    • Ronlawhouston

      Great comment. Not only are they trying to define atheism but they’re also trying to purge those who don’t meet their definition.

  • Karmakin

    That’s where PZ and crew go horribly wrong. My atheism really does inform the rest of my mindset/beliefs. It just informs me to oppose sexist, pro-hierarchy creeps like…PZ Meyers and crew.

    • bluharmony


  • Copyleft

    I recall in the Civil Rights days when black activists would argue that “being a successful black person gives you a special obligation to join our movement and support our cause.” Some feminists told women the same thing: “being a woman means more than just having a uterus–it means you have a DUTY to become a feminist and work for feminist causes, specifically mine.”

    It was a crap argument then and it’s a crap argument now. If your cause is worthwhile you don’t need to blackmail people to join it.

  • Clare45

    This. Just this.Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  • David has it right … Gnus are fundies of a different stripe. Some of them even live up to the old “village idiot atheist” epithet.

    • bluharmony

      I think you’re overgeneralizing, since many “gnus” strongly disagree with this behavior.

      • Us Gnus aren’t soffisticated filosaffahs, The old courtier’s thingy again. One of the few good things the Big Bloviator came up with, The Courtier’s Reply.

    • Ronlawhouston

      “Gnus?” Can someone please help me overcome my ignorance?

      • bluharmony

        Another name for New Atheists, largely but not entirely, of the PZ Myers flavor.

  • Mel

    Ironically, it’s the atheist community outside of Pharyngula/Atheism+/Skepchick that’s the most active in making the world a better place for everyone, via lobbying, fundraising, volunteer work, etc. Even more ironically, Myers’ gang puts more energy into opposing those efforts than doing anything positive themselves.

    • bluharmony

      What worries me is the role model he’s providing for the younger generation — those people who spend all their time on Reddit or reading Pharyngula and FTB — for example. All of his self-aggrandized blubbering is much ado about nothing and about lining the pockets of those he supports. Yet he manages to persuade the stupid that they’re somehow doing something worthwhile by merely attacking others online. Obviously, they’re not, and they don’t even have a career in blogging to look forward to. Their imagined “social justice” movement is nothing more than an illusion, because no one outside their circles considers them either social or just.

      • Mel

        What worries me is the role model he’s providing for the younger
        generation — those people who spend all their time on Reddit or reading
        Pharyngula and FTB — for example.

        I cringe seeing his supporters parrot his logical fallacies (strawman, ad hominem, countless others) thinking these must be valid arguments because he uses them. They believe this is “critical thinking” because, of course, it must be. This is PZ Myers the famous skeptic and critical thinker!

        I wonder what his colleagues must think of him? Myers is to science what Orly Taitz is to the legal profession.

        • bluharmony

          Ha! Totally.

        • MosesZD

          No, he was a better scientist than Taitz is lawyer. But let’s just say it wasn’t a distinguished career. Which is why he teaches undergraduate biology at a third-rate college that lacks any presence in biological research.
          In short, he’s a has-been that never-really-was.

          • Mel

            No, he was a better scientist than Taitz is lawyer.

            I was talking about what they both are now. I agree, he was a better scientist. Even without the “better,” he was a scientist. I wouldn’t call him that now. The PZ Myers I once respected and admired is long gone. It’s been sad watching his deterioration but I’m getting more angry than sad because I think he knows better. I can’t be sure, but I think so.

          • MosesZD

            Oh, I wouldn’t call Myers a scientist now. He’s done nothing publishable, if anything, for over 20 years.

            As for knowing better… I think this old clip from The Big Chill is as honest and explanatory of movement zealots and their rationalizations today as it was then:

          • Very true about PZ and research – I actually did take the time to chase down his publication record via Google Scholar. He was very active in some early “evo-devo” research during his grad student and postdoc days, but his publications on anything other than science education policy stop dead somewhere around 1998. One reason Jerry Coyne is so much better of a science bloggers – he’s still an active principal investigator in the thick of the science, and has published several review and research articles in just the last few years, even while also being pretty busy as a popular science writer.

        • Chill Chick

          Or Fred Phelps to christianity. At least now, when christians call us “militant” and “fundamentalist”, we can say, “well, admittedly, there are atheists like PZ Myers, but we’re not all like that.”

      • Ronlawhouston

        Yeah, the “higher purpose” of attacking those who disagree with you is not much of a “higher purpose.” But, hey, we all have our delusions.

      • ThePrussian

        This is why I was glad to join this community – there has to be an alternative to this piffle.

  • So, does PZ Myers have a specific problem with humanism? Did humanism run over his dog or something?

    • bluharmony

      I don’t think he has a dog. Which, I guess, would be consistent with your hypothesis.

    • His problem, I posit, is that he’s a nobody in Humanist circles. He still imagines he’s a respected player in the internet godless game. As long as atheism is a broad church and doesn’t exclude on the basis of politics, he has no chance of co-opting the ‘movement’ for his political agenda. Atheism is the only arena where he has any chance, so he thinks, of having a major influence.

      • bluharmony

        Not so sure. He’s one two “Humanist of the Year” awards so far. See his Wiki page. (He shared one of them with someone else, but never mentioned that part in his blog, and similarly, it’s not mentioned on his Wiki.)

        • ThePrussian

          This is exactly why I don’t go by “humanist”.

    • Chill Chick

      I think he regards humanism as “faitheism”. It isn’t angry and divisive enough for his taste.

  • MosesZD

    Reading PZ Myers is like watching Animal Farm unfold in real-time. Before much longer, I expect to see him in a dress with a funny hat.

    • bluharmony

      I can thank him for this much: I now have a better understanding of how totalitarian regimes come to power, and of how genocide and other horrors occur through systemic dehumanization. Thank goodness his antics are contained within a minor and already-marginalized community. But there can be no doubt about the fact that he’s hurting us and not helping anyone (except for Rebecca Watson and some Skepchick/FTB bloggers).

  • Ronlawhouston

    An excellent (and I’d say accurate) deconstruction of PZ’s world view. What I can’t figure out is how he ever became even remotely known. Are there that many atheists that are angry and disaffected to give some very small and angry guy like Meyers a voice?

    • bluharmony

      Apparently. A lot of atheists really lack perspective, and people in general seem far too ready to passionately attach themselves to an ideology, be it religious or otherwise.

    • MosesZD

      Many times being first into the market makes you the market. When PZ started his stuff, he was (except those of us who used to frequent TalkOrigins) an unknown. Basically a failed research scientist turned teacher and at a third-rate college.

      But when he started, there really weren’t any ‘knowns.’ Then when he got on Seed (later science blogs and now Nat. Geo.) his fame took off due to the exposure and lack of competition (vacuum) in the atheist blog niche.

      It’s more of an accident than anything else.

      Plus he does cater to the young, beligerant, just fresh-into-atheism zealots most of whom are young men between 18 and 24. They come in, the breath fire, yell, scream, run in groups, pontificate to no end about shit they don’t understand and after six-months burn out and start looking around or just drop it.

      Of course, because time does not stand still, there is a constantly replenishing supply of these young men. But for long-term staying… It’s not there.

      And when you go out into the larger community… He’s not that well respected. He’s not a big thinker. He’s a rabble-rouser. A shit disturber.

      Now, if we’re talking staying power, Jerry Coyne is showing you how. At this point in time Why Evolution is True is probably larger than Pharyngula even though it started later and was (originally) just about the book.

      Its Alexa rank isn’t as high as FtB, but it’s one blog, not 40. And when you consider that Pharyngula isn’t the only ‘big blog’ over there (just the most annoying) you get a better feel about what’s really going on…

      • “Plus he does cater to the young, beligerant, just fresh-into-atheism
        zealots most of whom are young men between 18 and 24. They come in, they breath fire, yell, scream, run in groups, pontificate to no end about shit they don’t understand and after six-months burn out and start looking around or just drop it.”

        That about nails it, except that I’d say it includes more than a few young women as well, no doubt regular “feminist blogosphere” readers full of all the moral solipsism, self-righteousness, and dogmatism that milieu fosters. And, more than a few zealots who are well past that age group and you would think would be old enough to know better. Greta Christina is a prime example – somebody who’s absolutely regressed intellectually and emotionally from full immersion in the whole A+ pigsty, and this was somebody who’s writing used to be very intelligent and nuanced about a whole lot of issues.

        • Lorenzo Benito

          Yeah, the case of Greta Christina is really sad. Though I wouldn’t have predicted PZ’s trajectory, in hindsight I can understand what happened, but I honestly have no idea how she ended like this.

    • Lorenzo Benito

      He wasn’t always like this. At least, he kept it hidden better.
      I must admit that there were signs of this even years before I finally got fed up with FTB and left, but those signs were few and far between, so someone who wasn’t specifically looking for them could very well not notice. Most of the time, what he said made good sense (even now, there’s the occasional post on Pharyngula that I find myself agreeing with).
      He has deteriorated very much in order to become what he is today.

  • Ingemar Oseth

    Myers is a narcissist with delusions of relevance. He is, by definition, irrational. Viewed from a historical perspective, the nature of his rants are reminiscent of another, although greater narcissist; Adolph Hitler.

  • MosesZD

    Just a thought… But I do recollect Myers taking the opposite stance many times when Christians try that crap…

    • bluharmony


  • I agree with PZ Myers. He’s referencing “dictionary atheism”, whereas the author here is talking about “my idea of how atheists should act/think”. That’s just personal opinion in place of literal meaning, as far as I’m concerned.

    • bluharmony

      You agree that atheism shouldn’t mean what it does? Then what should it mean?

      • It means the absence of theistic belief. I don’t believe there are any further bullet-points you can add to that definition without excluding people who are atheists, but don’t embody your revised definition.

        Of course I have my idea about how humans should behave, but I don’t believe they belong under the definition of ‘atheism’. They’re distinct traits which may often meet, but they’re not part of the same terminology.

        • bluharmony

          So then you’re agreeing with me and disagreeing with Myers.

  • Jeff Hansen

    Myers is a buffoon. My atheism doesn’t inform my worldview any more than my disbelief in unicorns does. I’m a “Chris Hitchens atheist” who just noticed that I didn’t believe in god or the supernatural early on. For those of us who never believed it’s just a common sense observation that shouldn’t even need a name.

    Richard Carrier kept pulling this move shortly before his A+ manifesto post when I quit following him. It’s a habit of his. He’d essentially say that if you didn’t arrive at his conclusions you weren’t doing philosophy, atheism, or whatever right. Maybe he learned it from Myers.

  • I guess what irritates me the most is where he states that I am “obligated to do something worthwhile” with my life, as in saying before I became an atheist, my life wasn’t worthwhile or that now that I am an atheist, unless I embrace his agenda, my life is not worthwhile?

    • Clare45

      I agree. I wonder if relatively recent converts to atheism- especially those who were previously fundamentalists or evangelicals-have a hard time trying to live their lives without some sort of moral “purpose” ?

  • MosesZD

    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.

    I keep reading this and keep laughing. The universe, literally, makes no demands of us. Athiesm makes no demands of us. We’re all born atheists. Some of are never conditioned to believe in false things while most of us are. As we grow, we set down these false things because they make no sense. But laying down these false beliefs does not impose anything upon me.

    The only implication of living in a Godless universe is that there is only this life and nothing more. There are no arbitrary or capricious rules that I must follow to get into the ‘afterlife.’ Rather, I will live. I will die. All the rest is hubris and dogma. And to believe I must live by someone’s often-false set of rules about what atheism is…
    No. It does not follow.
    And, except for being a blowhard and leading the pack of screeching baboons, wtf do they do at FtB? They’re nobodies living in a cult all thinking they’re somebodies…

  • Azkyroth

    Two thoughts:

    1. Your commenters are really, really sycophantic. It’s kind of embarrassing.

    2. This is a willful misrepresentation of PZ’s point. In fact, he was explicitly attacking “atheists” who refuse to stand for anything meaningful, or to connect it to their atheism.

    • bluharmony

      He showed slides at recent presentations redefining atheism. Otherwise: Pot. Kettle. Black. If you’ve been following along at all, you’d have noticed that most of the things PS says misrepresent and distort reality, or show him to be exactly what he hates. He’s the definition of projection.
      P.S. Direct quotes are not a misrepresentation.

    • Really? Because from what I’ve seen, PZ is pretty explicit about attacking atheists who don’t share his set of politics, is if that was somehow the inevitable and rational outgrowth of a rejection of the idea of God. In fact, there are many positive goals one can move toward after the negative rejection of the supernatural. PZ seems to think there’s one true set of beliefs that are an inherent outcome of that. Not only is that a falsehood, PZ has too damn lazy to even attempt to lay out a set of clear, logical arguments as to how you go from rejection of the supernatural to his set of sociopolitical prescriptions for what is right for this world. Which is probably why his ideas are so slipshod and dogmatic, because if he even tried to put more than a few minutes of thought into it, he’d realize that his particular positions are not the only logical conclusion one could come to from that starting point.

    • Sarah

      Ha! Her commenters are sycophants? Have you even seen PZ’s ‘Horde’? A more craven bunch of whiny lickspittles you’ve never seen. Necessary though it is (challenge him on the wrong thing and insider or not – you’re out!) it’s shameful to watch.

  • MichaelYHC

    Well said Maria.

    I reject the definition and terms of “justice” that PZ adopts, so in his world that means I reject the concept of Justice. What hubris he has.

  • Ik

    I am so glad I have found this arena. I left FTB ’bout 2 weeks ago after a couple of years lurking. The blatant zealous bullying always left me as an observer and I rarely bothered with the comments. The recent move to A+ is too much. Why can’t we try new ideas on and politely discard the ones that don’t fit? Surely honest logical thought is the goal not polemics? There is real value in constantly challenging our own premises. I much prefer Steve Novella, Nurologica and Robert M Price to the crazies at FTB. I just wish Thunderf00t had simply walked away with a sniff. Starve the trolls!

  • This kind of reasoning appears to follow from the line of thought that, starting from the rebuttal of the religious viewpoint “all atheism is necessarily evil” cannot brake before skidding full speed into “all atheism is necessarily good”. (I have detected this in Dawkins and Harris too). I wonder what they make of (Verdi’s) Jago atheism? (“Credo in un dio crudele” )

  • Christopher Moss

    I used to be a fan of PZ back in the good ol’ days. But since he started falling for the PC tropes (is UMM so far back in time they just got there? I learnt to deal with much more adeptly inflicted PC nonsense in the 1970’s at UCL) I have lost patience with him and the ridiculous nonsense with Michael Shermer has been the last straw. I girded my loins and entered the comments and promptly got banned for pointing out the kind of thing that would have got Voltaire banned too!
    Sorry to wake up a dead thread, but I’m searching for better voices to read and this place looks very hopeful, except for the recent quietness…..

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