Sunday, August 28, 2011

New, New Atheism

I'm kind of spit-balling this post as my thoughts on this are not as definitive as I'd prefer they be. So, I'm going to kind of 'think' publicly here on my blog and hopefully this will start a conversation to help me sharpen some of the fuzzy bits of my thoughts.

See the end for a rough sketch I have in my mind.

I want to say that being an atheist is a particular instance of a general disposition I have. To this extent, it's important to me in the same way that knowing my home address is important to me. It's not important in and of itself, and it isn't a jumping off point for a line of reasoning. These things are the conclusion of an evaluation of the data available to me, and my most earnest attempt to model those data as honestly as I can. It is then a therefore statement, with the atheism/home address coming after the therefore and not before it.

These things are important to me because of other values that I hold; notably among which, I value the congruence of my conclusions and their consonance with data, logic, and reflection.  Some conclusions are more immediately reached than others, and my reasoning leading to 'therefore atheist' was, as I've noted here and elsewhere, fairly easily reached, requiring the better part of a cup of coffee to conclude. Being the end state of a chain reasoning, it's important to me only if the antecedent chain of reasoning, and the data which bore on that, is somehow faulty.

Beyond that, being an atheist is a triviality in the same way that being male, or white, or gay is a triviality to me. These things are 'important' to know because they happen to model certain features about me, but they don't lead to anything. They are either outcomes of some causal chain, or they're simply conventions used for the sake of simplifying certain properties about me.  They don't lead to 'and therefore I am/think . . .'

This is probably why the privilege conversation is so utterly stupid to me. I'm a gay, white, well-educated, above-the-poverty-line male. Therefore what? Other than what is tautological, these things--without more--are insufficient information to determine much about me. You could say that I'm gay therefore I 'act' a certain way. I may or may not; one can't know this. Maybe I'm promiscuous. Maybe not.  You do not know, and you cannot know without knowing me. My blog would provide very little information on that either since a great deal of what I write has me as the object of my own sardonic outlook.

Returning then to atheism it is important in the same way. Those who know me know why I'm an atheist. Those who read my blog may or may not know why. The label itself surely doesn't resolve the issue. And it's this that puzzles me.

In the world of the new, new atheism what is it that their Venn diagram would look like? With what does the 'atheist' nomenclature overlap, intersect or transect?  Or, if not a Venn diagram, perhaps they've got it nested somewhere in a set? Ok then, of what set is atheism a subset? Or is atheism the set into which other subsets fall? I am somewhat at pains here to see how one can make these constructs without being overtly stereotypical, which isn't exactly a useful vector to my mind.

PZ Myers and his band of brothers/sisters see atheism and science/scientific methodology as being somehow intimately, intrinsically linked. Atheism therefore implies some aspect of that.  But this cannot be as there were atheists who long predated anything we'd recognize as science. There are atheists who are such for reasons unrelated to science; such a person might be reject both theistic claims and science. So, atheist clearly does not imply scientific acceptance.

And science certainly doesn't imply atheism as, through no lack of trying even if by some dubious means, there are many very able scientists who also are quite devoutly religious. Certainly I'd accept that their religious views are attenuated by science, but this still doesn't imply atheism.

Values. What values might an atheist have? The values that any random person might have it would seem. It is true that many atheists highly value truth. So too do many of them only care about truth and honesty in certain directions. Find their pet issue(s) and truth becomes an expendable commodity, traded at the low premium of having a particular philosophical disposition reign supreme. See feminism and elevatorgate for many examples of this.  No matter which 'side' one happens to find one's self on as being the 'right' side, one thing is undeniable:  the two sides are direct opposition. All the atheists involved, therefore, each happens to have fallen along one general vector, and one side, at least, has to be wrong.  In this rather dismal sample, all of the atheists on one side are wrong but believes himself/herself correct.

So, fully half of the positions here requires believing something on insufficient evidence. This doesn't seem to be the pathway to truth and thus discounts truth and atheism from being necessarily overlapping, or one being the subset of the other. From that, it doesn't seem that atheism implies a care for what is true.

What about skepticism being a set into which atheism falls as a subset? I think this is also a farce.  See above for that.  Also, there are the Rayliens who are atheists by definition, but who are not in the slightest degree constrained by skepticism.

Perhaps then politics provides a more useful gradient to study. Except that you have people like Pat Condell, and DPRJones, or Christopher Hitchens.  This doesn't seem to have a great many points of overlap.  Condell is xenophobic (though I treat almost all of which he says as that of a comedian telling a joke), and then there's DPRJones who is very much into public service and liberal (in the US way) societies. And then there's Christopher Hitchens stance on the war in Iraq.  What about someone like Stephen Fry?

One thing seems to be on everyone's agenda, though, is not the absence of believing in a god so much as keeping that belief out of government. I can't find an atheist who wants religious laws, or religiously dictated societies. There are also many religious people who share this view.  So, while atheism might--for the sake of argument (if you have countervailing data, let me know)--imply secluarism, secularism doesn't imply atheism.

To the extent, then, that we can find some reason to form not a group but rather a movement, it would seem to be on this topic. And this, of course, requires allying ourselves with similar minded religious people.  This also has the happy outcrop of having atheists standing side by side in public, next to the religious. I am told that atheism being seen as a respectable position is important to many of the new, new atheists. Very well then. I expect if this is true that we shall therefore start to see quite a lot more cooperation between atheists and religious on matters of public concerns.  So much so one wonders why there isn't a group of prominent atheists who are working in just that way.

Oh wait, there is. Richard Dawkins is quite chummy with the religious with respect to politics and governance provided they're in agreement with secularism. Isn't he?

Instead of this what is it that we see far too much of? Oh yeah, nonsensical feel good campaigns of groups of atheists who want to shoehorn their atheist hankerings into some cohesive movement mirroring that of faith group one could care to point at say "don't be like that".  Stephen Fry makes a great a point about Quakers - who could possibly quarrel with a Quaker?

I'm sure some atheists will find a way.

I've been mulling over in mind having a blogging consortium of competent 'atheists' of all stripes. And by 'atheists', I mean, of course, the ones who aren't my kind of atheist. I'm not interested in ideological purity, or some kind of toe-the-line atheism like PZ and others have on offer. I'd like to start a place where atheists and even the religious mayhaps can have smart bloggers who write on themes on a semi-regular basis so that when we're examining any matter or considering any position, we can have in one spot a multiplicity of ideas.

Something like is a good idea in that you have the scientific-minded experts in various fields all writing on various aspects of their science. But there's no theme there. It's disparate, threaded only by the umbrella term 'science'.

I'd like to see the group I loosely describe where people can keep their individual blogs but have perhaps monthly, or bimonthly topics where each blogger (scientists, political theorist, secular religious person, atheist, well-educated random blogger who's on team whatever) all discuss the same topic both in collaborative ways, and in individual ways. Say, in the way the Supreme Court does its opinion writing:  it's available to each Justice throughout the process behind the scenes, and not made public until everyone's put on their finishing touches.  I'd like to belong to that. It prevents one group being blindsided by another, and when a given article comes out, each blogger is able to incorporate the concerns of all other bloggers on the board as needed or as is useful. Indeed, we'd all be aware beforehand what each other is thinking and thus would have the benefit of many pieces of informed articles coming out in the same week.

All without people having to go from group to another group to another group, being part of this site and that site and the other site.

There are, of course, other factors of concern - technical ability, financing, recruitment and selection, and all of that.

But first, I wonder if there's interest.

So, I know how much comes in on my blog from donations, and I'm sure, therefore, that more well-known bloggers do quite a bit better than I do. How many of you out there donate to this blog, or that blog, or the other blog and all of that?  Why not pool resources, start one place instead of having all of this wonderful talent and thought by serious thinkers spread all over hell's creation?

So, that's where I am in my thinking aloud process.

Do let me know what you think on these matters; I think this could be a very fruitful discussion.


Michael Kingsford Gray said...

I'm kind of spit-balling this post as my thoughts on this are not as definitive as I'd prefer they be. So, I'm going to kind of 'think' publicly here on my blog and hopefully this will start a conversation to help me sharpen some of the fuzzy bits of my thoughts.
Then you are duty-bound to excuse me for doing the same with my rambling response.

See the end for a rough sketch I have in my mind.
I want to say that being an atheist is a particular instance of a general disposition I have.
Bzzt! It is the exact opposite. It is the absence of a disposition.
These things are important to me because of other values that I hold
Atheism is not a value.
It certainly often derives from the values that you enumerate, but it is not in itself a value.
Beyond that, being an atheist is a triviality in the same way that being male, or white, or gay is a triviality to me.
Nope. Those attributes are positive assertions. Atheism is a logically negative assertion.
This is probably why the privilege conversation is so utterly stupid to me. I'm a gay, white, well-educated, above-the-poverty-line male. Therefore what?
That says zero about an absence of belief in deities.
Returning then to atheism it is important in the same way. Those who know me know why I'm an atheist. Those who read my blog may or may not know why. The label itself surely doesn't resolve the issue. And it's this that puzzles me.
Be puzzled no longer! Buy new improved PuzzleAway® brought to you by the vast benevolent research Laboratories of the EAC (ntie) LTD.

Just as your (almost) universally shared lack of belief in the Kqwergf-Van der Hqwergf that is circling the wobbly custard asteroid Qaaagar, your lack of belief in such is as valid.

The ONLY deifferential factor is that your tribe-members profess[1] to be suffering from the juvenile, nay infantile, delusion that not only IS THERE A Kqwergf-Van der Hqwergf, but that she is actually circling the wobbly custard asteroid Qaaagar!
In iother words, your confusion is not innate, but a direct result of tribal interactions with (professed) delusional ignorant mental-infants.
In the world of the new, new atheism what is it that their Venn diagram would look like? With what does the 'atheist' nomenclature overlap, intersect or transect?
There are 4 circles: 1) Professed Theists (who may be liars). 2) Meek Atheists who kow-tow to theocratical oppression. 3) Gnu Atheists, who accept no deities sans evidence. 4) PZ Atheists who forcefully abduct (3), and staple on a bizarre concoction of random philosophies that have no connection whatsover with an absence of belief in deities, but do have a common causal connection with the most usual rationale for atheism, vis: aplication of educated thinking. In other words, it confuses a common cause (education) with an "ought". Two logical fallacioes for the price of one!
PZ Myers and his band of brothers/sisters see atheism and science/scientific methodology as being somehow intimately, intrinsically linked. Atheism therefore implies some aspect of that.
No. Not by any means. Extreme counter-examples are my didactic weapon of choice. Take, for example, the case of the Raelians. Atheist, but scientifically woo-woo bonkers!

I choose to leave it at this early point of my analysis of your conundrum. Both because I assume that I have 'nailed your point' and, alas, because of HTML fatigue.

Post Scriptum: No "blockquote", no "sup" on your comments? How am I to continue living?!

(Kicks up white well-fed hetero antitheist grammar-school-educated privileged-male tantrum! Beccy would be proud.)

Justicar said...

I'm differentiating a couple of nuances here. The definition of atheism is a non-belief in x. An atheist one who has no belief in x. With respect to the disposition that I have and atheism being an particular instance of it derives from my disposition to withhold provisional assent to a proposition until such time as some reason exists to entertain said proposition. To that extent, my conclusion there is insufficient evidence justify accepting the claim is a result of my general disposition.

I explained this later on by saying that my being an atheist is the end-state of a chain of reasoning. The atheist bit comes after "therefore" not before it, so in my case it's a conclusion. In other words, the absence of evidence to imply a god is a value-free state of affairs. My saying I am an atheist because I've evaluated the stock arguments and rejected them doesn't mean a great deal.

However, that I undertook evaluating the claims is the thing reflects my disposition on affairs. So, to the extent that I evaluate claims against the evidence and arguments bearing on them is a positive statement about my disposition. My being an atheist is a consequence of that. So too is my not believing in Santa or reincarnation. To say I don't believe in those is important, as I said, only to the extent that it's a particular representation of my disposition on things; the claims themselves really imply nothing other than the tautological.

I do not claim that my being gay, white, educated, male, not under the poverty line say anything about not believing in deities. Indeed, reading what I wrote seems to suggest that I'm arguing these things imply nothing about me except the tautological. They are important only to the extent that they are true descriptions; they are beyond that quite literally meaningless.

Michael Kingsford Gray said...

We appear to be in agreement.
If I may summarise your somewhat loquacious response:
You seem to "understand" my referents, in that you accept that they are consequent, rather than imperative.

Or, to cut the bullshit:
The "important" affects of your existence convey a consistent attitude:- honesty, and personal integrity trumps all else!

Michael Kingsford Gray said...

"An atheist one who has no belief in x"
An atheist is one who is not convinced that theism is warranted.
The difference between "no belief" and "yet to be convinced" is a vast gulf.
The geography between "Absence of evidence" and "No belief in" is a vast chasm.

Brad said...


In a pragmatic sense, I see no difference. In an epistemological sense, well . . . .

PS Did anybody notice my post below? I do think it is relevant or am I full of shit?

Justicar said...

Michael, I think we are largely agreed. The point is lamentably more subtle than it appears to me to be; so much so, that the PZ clan fail to appreciate it. They live life in some very odd color scheme.

Integrity and honesty are very important to me, but there are other things more important to me. My personal integrity is up for grabs in certain situations, particularly if it's a necessary transaction to protect someone from danger. Fortunately, the instances in which I'd have to forgo said integrity are quite rare.

Brad, I noticed your post on the other thread, which is what inspired me to write this one. I've thought about it off and on, but your comment gave me a good reason to write about it.

What do you guys (all both of you!) think about my idea for a blogging group the likes of which I've loosely sketched?

Justicar said...

I don't seem no belief and not yet convinced to be at all separable. One implies the other in my mind. Yet to be convinced is one possible reason for my having no belief. There are others, but it definitely is a subset of not belief to my mind.

Absence of evidence is a trickier issue; its relevance is highly fluid and entirely contingent on the claim or proposition under consideration, as well as how that proposition is structured.

The Armchair Skeptic said...

I think I'm following your train of thought... there's complexity here that requires some nuanced thinking to sort out, and you're off to a good start.

Part of the problem I see is that terms like "atheism" and "skepticism" do mean different things to different people. So you'll get answers about overlap among the various groups that differ based on how people interpret those terms. It's even worse as people label themselves as "atheist" and/or "skeptic," binding up their identity with those labels; rather than modifying their beliefs in the face of cognitive dissonance, there's a tendency to modify the definition of the label to align with their self-image.

And of course, it's far easier to recognize that kind of behavior in others, particularly those one disagrees with, than to recognize it in oneself.

I like your concept for a blogging group, but the devil would be in the details of implementing it, for all the reasons you point out. But having one-stop shopping for thought-provoking, well-written, and diverse views on interesting topics would be great. It's so hard to find the wheat lurking amidst the vast amount of chaff out there.

Justicar said...

Ah yes, the ever provincial when I say 'atheism' it means . . .

I wonder why when I asked in response what about counter example x people still persist in the logically dubious no true scotsman fallacy.

Atheism means you're a reflective thinker! Yes, like those Rayliens and their hankering for them there aliens, huh? They're so smart that they don't believe in a god, just space aliens anally probing our cattle. Yes, clear thinking there.

I think if we (I?) could find a group of half a dozen or so well spoken bloggers we could give something a go. Hrm. Now to find people who are a.) capable and b.) willing!

Brad said...


A blogging Magic Sandwich Show?

Or do we really use SCOTUS as a model?

Justicar said...

Well, Brad, I'm not certain if the bloggers would be blogging while drinking/drunk like Thunderf00t and Aronra sometimes do (seriously, watching them get fairly drunk and try to 'debate' something is sad), but since it's in print it would wind up being like the SCOTUS model anyway. The only other alternative would be that one person writes a blog, then everyone responds, and then the original person responds and so on.

If it's behind the scenes, then more reflective articles taking account of a wider variety of thoughts marshaled all into one original piece is, I'd hope, a more intelligent way for written work.

A blog article while casual isn't a conversation in the way that comment sections are. So, unless someone is going to edit the shit out of their original article to make it conversational the better method is, in my estimation, to have a well-written piece that is thought out (unlike some of what I post here).

To be clear, I wouldn't want all of the articles on the blogs to come out that way as I'd like to have people blog about whatever they want and already do. Still, it would be nice to have maybe a bi-monthly themed joint venture, or maybe even monthly where half a dozen or so people post on the same day different aspects of the same topic as they see it. Of course, with the benefit of being able to take stock of what others are thinking so that each person has the benefit of knowing how better to craft a piece to either not reproduce work, or perhaps strengthen a line of reasoning. Or, who knows, maybe in that process someone will change his/her mind.

Brad said...

So, essentially one place with a majority opinion, dissenting view and links to satellite blogs?

It's an intriguing idea. I can see a lot of problems (not a lot, really just one, time) but it might be fun to give it a shot.

Are you accepting nominations yet?

Justicar said...

I'd rather not look at it as 'majority' versus 'minority'. I'd much prefer to think of it, rather, as smart people writing about difficult, complex, important, funny, and interesting topics. Or some combination of those.

As far as nominations, sure. I'm open to anything right now, but only two people have responded to this thread. I think it'd take a little more than two people having interest to make something like this work - there are a lot of issues that would come into play, not the least of which is hosting, design, naming, advertising, financials, good bloggers and, of course, an audience who would congregate there.

I was just walking and thinking about structure, the name, setting it up, and the financial stuff. What a relaxing walk that wasn't!

(As anyone can tell you, I'm not very savvy at all with internet media, or programming. I get quite a bit of crap about it in real life given my field. I just never had any interest in programming, or web design. Sue me.)

I am, however, considering going back to college to take some classes in web design. There are a few things I'd like to be able to do online, and I know how to do precisely none of them with any competence.

So, I guess life is laughing at me now.

John Greg said...

I think you've got a pretty good idea Justy. It could probably use some finessing here and there though.

I think the concept of several (though perhaps less than 7 and always an odd number in case of potential ties on theses arguments) writers writing on one article, and passing it back and forth for additions, clarifications, and one would hope some good quality snipping, proofing, spellchecking, and grammar checking, is doable.

However, looking for the moment only at the issue of who the contributors might be, and the general setting up of an agreeable site, I suspect you'd be looking at several month's worth of work to really get it together.

I also suspect that building a good sized audience could take years.

I couldn't contribute 'cause I'm nobody and don't have much to say that would interest anyone, but I would certainly enjoy being an audience member and commentor.

Michael Kingsford Gray said...

Mmm... A potentially attractive constellation of concepts.
I have a few commercial web-servers that I could employ at nearly no expense, provided the traffic is lightish. (In Oz, as captives of the Telstra monster, we pay through the nose for bandwidth. It is twice as expensive for outgoing traffic on a server than incoming traffic!)

I'll give it some thought.

Justicar said...

Michael Kingsford Gray: given the pristine responses present so far here, I think I can all but guarantee any traffic would be 'lightish', if extant at all.

One of the things that makes a blog 'work' or popular or whatever, John Greg, is the commenters. Most blog articles themselves aren't 'discussions' in a conversational sense. They're more along the lines of a virtual 'howdy' at the local do-drop-in.

I'm aware that it's not an overnight kind of deal; success (however one cares to define it) will be the product of persistent effort. I am unafraid of that prospect.

All that's required to have a worthwhile blog is to write about things you know about. Someone out 'there' somewhere will have an interest in it. Hopefully, I occasionally do that. Hopefully, most of what I say is reasonably plain and coherent.

Hopefully, I won't get struck by lightning tonight! (at least one of these hopes is a sure thing!)

Anonymous said...

You pretty much said what i could not effectively communicate. +1

My blog:
DSL Vergleich

Michael Kingsford Gray said...

I am currently reviewing my/out web server allotment in the coming fortnight, and will keep this potential venture in mind.
I s'pose I always have the very viable option of throttling the traffic if it becomes onerous.

I especially like the idea of it being an uncensored[1] 'virtual pub' conversation, as it were, rather than a blog, where one voice is dominant by default.

Any suggestions as to a domain name? is available, as is:

[1] I really liked the idea of one 'blog', which maintained two distinct threads, to deal with spammers such as Dennis Markuze.
One thread was untouched, and the others were redacted to remove obvious trolling and spam, but one has the opportunity at the click of a button to inspect the redacted posts.
This struck a nice balance between readability, and an open forum.

Brad said...

I know this isn't the main thrust of this thread but I wanted to touch on it.

I'm uncomfortable calling the Raelians atheists.

They don't believe in the Abrahamic God, true enough, but I still think that the elohim, the aliens, can be seen as gods.

I've read one book from Rael and found it staggeringly ignorant on physics (even more than I am), there is tithing, and an attempt in a rather unbelievably superficial way to unite all "previous" religions.

The sole claim to atheism is perhaps a-supernaturalism (also rather dubious if you ask me) but I don't think support for a steady-state universe or the cyclical nature of sentient creation necessarily disqualifies you from theism (CLarke's third law?).

I could go on but my general point is that the difficulty of defining atheism is always and forever the difficulty of defining God, god, and gods.

The problem isn't ours, it is theirs.