Equivocating atheism

One of the difficulties I have with the atheist movement is that I often think that everyone else in it is wrong, and obviously wrong too.  For instance, one very basic issue is the definition of an atheist.  There’s clearly more than one.

An atheist is merely someone who lacks belief in gods.

An atheist is someone who rejects religion.

An atheist is someone who supports the atheist movement.

And there are more.  So when someone like Sam Harris endorses the first definition, he’s right, and anyone who disagrees with him is wrong.  But also, Sam Harris is so so wrong for thinking it’s the only definition.

In fact, Sam Harris himself uses the different definitions of atheist in the very same post.  He says,

…to know that someone is an atheist is to know almost nothing about him—apart from the fact that he does not accept the unwarranted claims of any religion.

It is definitively false that people who lack beliefs in gods always reject unwarranted claims of all religions.

If a belief in astrology were causing people to go berserk—to deny medical care to their children or to murder unbelievers—many of us would speak and write about the dangerous stupidity of astrology.

Who is “us”?  Of the people who don’t believe in gods, only a small fraction speak up about the dangerous stupidity of religion.  I may be part of that small fraction myself, but that doesn’t mean I need to have illusions about the demographics.

I would simply blame this on Sam Harris’s philosophical incompetence, but people in the atheist movement have been saying the same things for as long as I remember.

We reject the supernatural.  We don’t think religion is the source of all evil, just a major source of evil.  We think religious beliefs should not inform politics because those beliefs are wrong and harmful.  We, we, we.  Actually, it’s fine to say “we”; I say it too.  Atheism is a social movement, and we need to be able to refer to it.  There isn’t a better alternative to “atheist” (although “humanism” and “freethought” are attempts) because the movement is basically defined by people who rallied around that particular word.

But whenever convenient, we switch to the “lack of belief in gods” definition, sometimes mid-sentence.  This definition is correct, but it’s disingenuous to pretend that it’s identical in concept to what we were talking about before.

I believe there are two major motivations for the equivocation.

First, there are the external politics.  For instance, Sam Harris wants to say he represents a large group of people.  But he also doesn’t want to accept responsibility for any of them when one of them becomes a shooter (which was the context of his post).

Second, there are the internal politics.  Some people want atheism to stick to a few topics that they are personally most interested in, such as separation of church and state and debunking religion, and either feel uncomfortable with or outright oppose encroaching discussions, such as feminism and liberalism.  So whenever convenient, they’ll say that atheism is nothing more than the lack of belief in gods.  Never mind that if we took that definition seriously as the only definition, we would also have to drop most issues previously raised by the atheist movement.

When people talk about atheism as if it can only have one definition, they are flatly wrong and it completely obscures the issues.


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