As I mentioned a few days back, I used to be what PZ Meyers terms a dictionary atheist. in that post PZ is quite disparaging of “dictionary atheists” – this people who simply don’t believe in god/s and by definition then describe themselves as atheists.
For PZ this is not enough. He describes it as “taking pride in the unexamined life” (that might or might not be a direct quote, depending on how well memory serves). He thinks there should be more: thinking actively and philosophically about existence, the evidence, the science, and coming to a positive conclusion – as opposed to the negative position of “dunno, but I don’t actually believe in god”.
Well … yeah. Kind of. I share PZ’s regard for an examined life. I do think it is better to think about the universe and one’s place in it. I do think it better to be rational an critical about these incredibly deep and important questions about how we got here, what drives us … the meaning of life, really.
But … that is not atheism, and atheism need not be that. PZ is conflating a lack of belief in god (for whatever reason) with a philosophical position of active enquiry and scepticism. While I value both, they are not the same. I do think the former is an inevitable result of the latter (applied honestly), but the reverse is not necessarily true. Even if it were, that wouldn’t make these two positions the same.
Conflating “I don’t believe in god” with a philosophical and sceptical examination of the world does not help in any way, and in fact confuses the issue. I’ll argue vehemently for the latter, and be clear about my own atheism, but I won’t argue for atheism. Someone who believes something (like god) so deeply is not going to be able to simply stop believing – any more than I could start. However, if led to a rational approach to life, and to apply that scepticism to all areas, a person might find for themselves a reason to accept what is almost certainly* the true nature of the universe.
I might add here that I don’t think they would lose anything. Not only would they have a more rational (and … well … true) view of the world, but one needn’t lose the spiritual and mystical aspect of oneself just because one loses god. I’ve never had god, but at age 18 (I think) I had an experience that was profoundly spiritual/mystical/”religious” in the sense that Joseph Campbell uses that word: “linking back” (or similar), rather than organised worship. it was evening, dark, I was walking home after my crappy supermarket job, and looking up I suddenly experienced the immensity of the universe. I felt at once completely insignificant and completely connected to it all.
I have never lost that feeling. I do not need god or men in archaic costumes to recapture it. I look into the night sky and there it is. I look at clouds, at the Sun (indirectly or through thick clouds). I look at trees, at animals – even human animals. I look at my wife, and at our children.
You know what, I even get that spiritual feeling out of some cool bits of maths and science. That feelin is part of us. That is why we create gods. I do understand that impulse, that urge – but rationality doesn’t mean letting it go. I would argue (in fact I think I have somewhere) that this feeling could be truer and more powerful if freed from the shackles of religion.
Well, that was a hell of a digression. If you’re still with me I’ll continue….
In summary, I (like PZ) think that the most fulfilling approach to life – and the most virtuous in an Aristotelian sense – is an active one, based on philosophy and scepticism. However, while such an approach to life may lead to atheism, the reverse is not necessarily true, and they are two distinct positions.
Certainly “dictionary atheism” (or just “atheism”) is a position with no force or power behind it (kind of the point really ), but that’s ok. Not everyone is going to live the examined life. Many people examine their life by the grease under their nails and the ache in their bones – or their bellies.
PZ also talked about the atheist movement – a term that gives me some disquiet. Sceptical movement: great. Rational movement: choice. Atheist movement … based in what, exactly? United in our not-believing? Perhaps PZ’s conflating of the two positions works here, in defining the “atheist movement”, but I still think it’s philosophically messy.
I think the words we use are important, and we can’t appropriate “atheist” for this specific purpose (not that PZ was seeking to redefine it, I might add). Maybe there isn’t a word that means “a rationalist sceptical humanist who doesn’t believe in god and is actually for all intents and purposes pretty certain there isn’t one”.
Maybe we should invent one … submissions below, or on twitter
*(so close to certain that for all intents and purposes it is; I certainly live my life without worrying over it)