Sep 172011

Before I started this blog, PZ Myers had been critical of “dictionary atheism”, for example:

Why are you an atheist? (2011-02-01)
You don’t really want to be like Ray Comfort, do you? (2011-02-06)
Oh, no, not that annoying dictionary atheist argument again! (2011-04-14)

Although I have sometimes commented at (old) Pharyngula, I kept out of that discussion. Things sometimes got heated.

Could it be that PZ Myers, outspoken advocate for clarity of thought, speech, and writing, communicator par excellence, has finally flipped, and forgotten how important it is to speak in a language that the audience can be expected to understand? Hasn’t he been getting enough bacon?

Now that I have my own blog I can express my own views without constraints on size or format. Then go on to see if they are in any way compatible with what PZ Myers or others say.

Things I have said

I say a number of times on my personal website (to which this blog is an adjunct):

“The only safe generalisation about atheists is “we do not believe that gods exist”.
(Plus logical consequences of this)”.

That sounds like a “Dictionary atheist” position, and I certainly derived that statement from a dictionary. I also say there:

“”Atheist” is a word that summarises my beliefs about gods. It doesn’t dictate my beliefs.
I don’t get my beliefs from a dictionary or from anyone else”.

Types of atheist

There are hundreds of millions of people in the world who don’t believe gods exist. (I won’t include children. We are not entitled to make claims about their beliefs, and any claims of their own are provisional). We can validly call these people “atheists”, just as we can validly call people without hair on their heads “bald”. It is a descriptive, non-judgmental word, and this use is compatible with dictionaries. Dictionaries don’t define words, they identify their use.

But if we stick a microphone under their noses, and ask them “do you believe in any god?“, we will get a vast range of answers. In order to make progress, I’ll identify two stereotypical answers:

  1. “Er, no, but I don’t spend time thinking about this, and I haven’t much to say”.
  2. “No – I’m an atheist!”

There is little we can say about the first person, other than “The only safe conclusion is: “they do not believe that gods exist”. (Plus logical consequences of this)“”. This person is a genuine “Dictionary atheist”, and we have no justification in drawing further conclusions. Neither should we criticise that person. We all let some things slip below our horizon: how many of us spend lots of time each day addressing the fact that 18 children die every minute?

There is a lot we can suspect about the second person! That is an answer from someone who has thought it through, and placed themselves into a clear category. And when an intelligent person places themselves into a category, they will probably have considered the consequences, and analysed their relationship with people outside that category. They are likely to have views about the relative privileges of their category and the rest.

With a high probability, that person is something like a secular humanist: unwilling to let people outside that category have political privileges, and living according to principles and values that are derived from being a human being, not from reading ancient texts. (I’m largely taking about myself, of course!)

Now we can express preferences about people who self-define as atheists. We can expect them to think things through, and if they haven’t, tell them to do so.


I think that PZ Myers was only addressing the second person. The sort of person who comments on Pharyngula; the sort of person who attends an atheist conference. In particular, self-identifying atheists, as in his following statements:

[my emphasis throughout] “Everyone who is an atheist is so because of other, prior ideas. I’m not saying that there is one set of ideas that make for a True Atheist™, but rather that if you claim there are not, if you pose as someone who is an atheist simply because you don’t believe in gods, you are failing to consider your own philosophical foundations. Calling yourself a Dictionary Atheist is like taking pride in living an unexamined life. That’s it. And that’s what really annoys me, people who can’t recognize that there’s more to their atheism than blind acceptance of what a dictionary says.”

I empathise with Scote, here and here and here and here and here. Scote got flak for those statements, but was one of the few to get back to basics. We do need to distinguish between the different sorts of people who don’t believe in gods. And, (having spent much of my career reading and writing technical specifications), I believe we need to be clear about how we are using words and terms. Diplomats want to be able to give the illusion of more agreement than there actually is, in order to make progress. Politicians often hide behind ambiguity. But the rest of us don’t have to take these as precedents.

I think Skatje Myers had a pretty good position; I am registered as a Bright, and I am a paid-up member of the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society. Some people are in danger of overloading the word “atheist” with things we want to be true about atheists. But if atheists overload the word, this gives theists an excuse to overload the word too.

There is no particular reason why an atheist should know a lot about science, or even take much interest in it. I have a degree in Mathematical Physics, and science books and magazines and websites and blogs provide much of my reading. But why should every other atheist share this passion? We are talking about non-belief in gods, not talking about all aspects of the nature of the universe. There are lots of reasons why people don’t believe, and they are not all driven by (say) evolution.

Some conclusions

Keep the dictionary to hand! But distinguish between what we can say about someone who we simply know is an atheist according to the dictionary, and what we want to be true about someone who self-identifies as an atheist. We can hold the latter to a higher standard.

That doesn’t mean we should be trying to expand the meaning of the word “atheist”. It currently has a pretty useful meaning. Instead, it means that we want self-identifying atheists to be more than “just” atheists. I suggest that target should not simply be an enhanced form of atheism, but “enlightenment“.

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