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Dictionary Atheism

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismIf you follow movement atheism at all, you're probably aware of PZ Myers and his blog, Pharyngula. A few years ago, PZ coined a new term, Dictionary Atheism. You can read his full explanation in his entry, Why Are You an Atheist?, but the gist is that he doesn't like when people cling to the dictionary definition of atheism as lacking belief in gods, ignoring all the positive values that led them to their atheism, or the moral values that come out of it. He seems to think that 'atheism' should imply more than lack of belief in gods, and more specifically a liberal outlook. PZ just brought this up again in a recent entry, My lasting contribution to atheism, which has motivated me to post my opinion on this issue (note that this is recycled from a comment I left on another blog, the Digital Cuttlefish, in the entry, I Thought I Saw A Dictionary Atheist).

While I'm a liberal atheist myself, I don't particularly like the idea of trying to make 'atheism' synonymous with 'liberal atheism'. For one thing, there are already good terms for the types of social issues that liberal atheists want to promote, such as the obvious 'liberal atheism', or especially 'secular humanism'. Why try to make the term atheist mean something already defined by those other terms?

The bigger problem is that conservative atheists, while definitely a minority, aren't negligible. According to a Pew survey from 2012, "Nones" on the Rise:

The religiously unaffiliated are heavily Democratic in their partisanship and liberal in their political ideology. More than six-in-ten describe themselves as Democrats or say they lean toward the Democratic Party (compared with 48% of all registered voters). And there are roughly twice as many self-described liberals (38%) as conservatives (20%) among the religiously unaffiliated. Among voters overall, this balance is reversed.

Granted, unaffiliated isn't exactly the same thing as atheist, but note that about 1/5th identified as conservative.

A 2008 Pew survey (pdf) did break down responses to some questions all the way to atheist, not just unaffiliated, and 13% of atheists think "abortion should be illegal in all or most cases", and 14% of atheists think "homosexuality is a way of life that should be discouraged by society". That's a sizeable enough minority that it can't be ignored as a part of atheism.

I've written numerous times about the problems caused by religion. See for example, the entry, Why Do I Spend So Much Time on Religion, where I include links describing some of these problems (fire bombings, children being tried for witchcraft in the modern day, opposition to marriage equality, etc.). So, I see people leaving religion as a positive thing in that they've at least left behind this great big negative influence*. But really, that's all atheism is, is a blank slate.

The fact that so many atheists promote conservative ideologies demonstrates that atheism doesn't necessarily lead to liberal values. And while atheists like me or PZ may strongly wish for all other atheists (or even more accurately, all other people) to promote liberal ideas, you simply can't ignore all those conservative atheists or dismiss them as not true Scottsmen. Liberal atheism requires more than just atheism, like critical thinking, free thought, and especially secular humanism. Personally, I'd just stick to calling it New Atheism (or even Gnu Atheism), since that term seems to have stuck, and let the 'dictionary atheists' keep plain old atheism.


*I realize not all people are equally negatively influenced by religion. To quote myself from another previous entry, Hercules Misunderstands Atheists - Responding to Kevin Sorbo, "If religion was all soup kitchens and homeless shelters, or even just spaghetti dinners and Christmas bazaars, religious debates could be mainly academic and philosophical. As soon as religious people quit causing so much trouble in the world, atheists will quit getting angry about religion."

Updated 2016-01-29: Slightly clarified second paragraph, and clarified that children are being tried for witchcraft in the modern day, and that this isn't just a historical complaint.

Comments

The reason for this passage is to investigate how secularism and free-thought are identified with belief in higher powers and, all the more critically, to one another. This requires analyzing the shockingly argumentative issue of how best to characterize the expressions "skepticism" and "rationalism". Settling this issue, at any rate for the motivations behind this passage, will make way for talking about a significant qualification between worldwide skepticism and nearby secularism, which thus will be useful for recognizing various types of rationalism.

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