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 scienceblogs.com 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.