In my last post I presented a silly little comic based on “dictionary atheism”, a term coined by PZ Myers to refer to a brand of atheism that rejects the idea that disbelief in gods has any inescapable positive implications. A dictionary atheist, in other words, fits the dictionary definition of the term – a person who denies the existence of any gods – but insists that this does not oblige him or her to adopt any other specific political or philosophical position.
I think it’s fair to say that Myers doesn’t much like this viewpoint. His best assault on it, at least as far as I’ve seen, is the following:
Dictionary Atheists disbelieve in gods and dislike religion, but that’s it. The fact that the universe is an uncaring place, that we’re products of chance and necessity rather than benevolence, that we only have each other to help ourselves through this life…none of that matters. So when you say that reason demands equality, when rationality dictates community, when justice ought to be part of the godless agenda, they reflexively throw out that dictionary definition to deny any expectation that there ought to be more to atheism than cussing out gods. They’re intellectual cowards who run away from the full implications of living in a godless universe.
Myers is making an important point here. Yes, the uncaring nature of the cosmos matters. Of course it does! One would have to be unreflective in the extreme to seriously argue that it would be reasonable to live and think in the same way regardless of whether gods existed or not. Even if I believed in just a single measly non-interventionist god, a deistic sort of entity who had set things in motion at the time of the Big Bang and then buggered off to play solitaire, I would look at the night sky rather differently.
Given that Western culture was more or less saturated with religion until quite recently, our artistic, moral and philosophical traditions bear a strong Judaeo-Christian stamp alongside a weaker pagan one (which comes through, for example, in the allusions to Classical mythology that are scattered throughout our literature). The pagan influence is already vitiated in the sense that hardly anyone seriously believes in the Greek, Norse or Celtic gods, or considers myths about them to have any value beyond the symbolic, inspirational and possibly proto-historical. By discrediting Judaeo-Christian mythology in the same way, atheism really does demand a lot of novel thinking about the universe, our place in it, and how we might go about relating to each other.
Like Maria Maltseva, though, I think Myers goes wrong in his assumption – I don’t know what else to call it – that atheism leads specifically to a heightened concern for equality, community and justice. Rather than saying that living in a godless universe has implications, it would be more accurate to argue that the existence of gods would have implications if it were a valid proposition. Atheism just takes those implications off the table (agnosticism leaves them on the table, whereas deism and theism dump them in one’s lap), leaving us to find our own way in a world ruled by chance and necessity.
However, relegating the gods to the status of cultural furniture still leaves plenty of live options on that metaphorical table, beyond the brand of humanism that Myers consistently espouses and the “relentless insistence on purity in thought and action” proposed by Eric Steinhart. My own mental list of some attitudes that one might adopt after rejecting the existence of gods includes the following:
1. With no divine being to care for us, we must humans must all help each other to lead lives that are as satisfying and free of suffering as possible.
2. The universe is full of mysteries, not least of which is the workings of the human mind. Our first priority should be to understand ourselves, and the reality around us, with the tools of science and philosophy.
3. Life is short, and I must learn as many interesting things and have as many exciting, astonishing and fulfilling experiences as I possibly can.
4. My existence will be pointless and insignificant unless I can achieve something remarkable that will be remembered long after I gasp out my final breath.
5. Although I will die, particular groups with which I may identify quite strongly – my family, my professional colleagues, those who share my race, sex, nationality, political views, aesthetic tastes, or philosophical standpoint – will hopefully continue to exist long into the future. I must strive to defend the interests of at least some of these groups, even if this means attacking the interests of rival ones.
6. I have no deity or guardian angel to protect me, so I must do whatever is necessary to minimize the odds that I will fall victim to some terrible crime, illness or accident. I cannot afford to take needless risks or extend too much trust and generosity to others.
7. In a godless universe all things are permitted. I might as well pursue my own profit and pleasure, constrained only by the need to stay out of prison and maintain social relationships that work to my benefit.
8. In the absence of divine justice, only we humans can see to it that those who behave in destructive and disgusting ways are adequately punished. I will try to persuade the government to bring back the lash and the noose, and I might just take matters into my own hands if my calm and reasonable advocacy proves unsuccessful.
9. No gods? I have to put up with all the indignities and frustrations of mortal existence, and I don’t have any chance of being reincarnated as a billionaire’s kid, lording it over a harem of 72 virgins, or even being a soloist in some heavenly choir? Fuck this. Let it all burn.
The list begins with a couple of possibilities that are rather gentle and humanist in character, continues with ones that are more individualistic, and eventually slips into territory that I imagine only a sociopath could comfortably inhabit for very long (even if those last few were rather fun to write up). It isn’t meant to be exhaustive, but I think it does illustrate that dictionary atheism – the bare fact of not believing in gods – is a starting point from which one could proceed in many different directions. Some of those directions are undoubtedly more reasonable than others, and/or likely to appeal to a greater number of people, but none of them follows inevitably from basic godlessness. If by some (anti-)miracle atheism takes over the world, there will still be plenty to argue about – fortunately, it has to be said, for us bloggers.