PZ Myers on the Great Nothing of New Atheism

PZ MyersReason is not enough. Reason can show you the best way to achieve a goal, but if your goal is mass murder, or denigration of women, or the perpetuation of an oppressive hierarchy, it’ll help you do that, too. We need purpose and value and meaning as well, and if a prominent Leader of atheism is saying that atheism doesn’t do that, that’s a declaration that atheism is bankrupt, and has failed totally. It has become a Great Nothing.

That’s not my atheism, though. I argue that the absence of gods gives greater prominence to the interdependence of the human community, and adds greater weight and urgency to the importance of empathy and equality and all those human values — but if atheism is now a label that allows us to nonchalantly disavow responsibility for the actions of those within our own group, perhaps it’s time to disband the whole idea of an atheist community.

But then it’s also clear that my vision of what atheism ought to be is a minority view. The majority are doing their damnedest to confirm the poor opinion the believers have of us.

—PZ Myers
Is Atheism Bankrupt?

20 thoughts on “PZ Myers on the Great Nothing of New Atheism

  1. IMO the problem with this is that Myers is doing, in essence, what the various god-pesterers do; insisting that humans are moral, have purpose and meaning and a sense of values BECAUSE they have some sort of faith in some version of magical sky beans. Myers’ point seems to be that atheism HAS to substitute it’s own purpose and meaning and values because it’s removed the purpose and etcetera by putting the kibosh on the MSBs…which circles back to the original point of deriving said purpose etcetera from the MSBs…

    ISTM that “atheism” is just a sort of punctuation mark at the beginning of one’s expression, like the inverted exclamation point in Spanish that announces what’s coming; the starting point is that this isn’t going to be about god(s). From there, well, ISTM that it’s up to you whether you get your purpose, values, etcetera from atheism or from stoicism or from nature or from contemplating your navel. Those don’t HAVE to come from not believing in a god, no?

    Myers’ seems to be hauling water here for the god-pesterers he claims to have no truck with…

    • I don’t think that’s what he’s doing at all. I think the article comes, psychologically speaking, from the same place I do: annoyance with the behavior of the standard-bearers of the movement. And he rightly points out that many atheists follow the “leaders” in an uncomfortably authoritarian way. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter that much what to me what reasons people have for creating the humanist utopia; having the humanist utopia trumps the other stuff. I know a lot of good, humane Christians. And I know a lot of vile atheists. This isn’t to put down atheism. But if there is no moral basis to it, what good is it? If it is good just to fight the theists, then the assumption is that creating atheists is a good in itself. But what is that good? To create even more? And then more? And then when everyone is an atheist we have… What? If Sam Harris is in charge, I think I’d rather keep the current system.

  2. In the name there’s the destiny.

    ‘Atheism’ is a word coined to represent the rest, like in many pie diagrams:
    – Student, Employed, Self Worker, Other
    – Labour, Tory, Liberal Democrat, Other
    – Male, Female, Other

    What should a rest form a community?

    In my opinion, the concept had firstly to be positively defined, in order to gain value, meaning and purpose.

    It’s likely this would lead to a thiner community than today’s atheists but one at least.

    • You are getting at one of my complaints about many of my fellow atheists: that their understanding of the concept of “God” is as limited as that of the most basic of fundamentalist. Thus: what are they against? The idea of God on a cloud? Thor? This is such a simplistic atheism that I’m not interested.

      I saw a Facebook meme the other day that said two things. The first was (more or less), “I’m an atheist because I don’t believe in things I have no evidence for.” Well, that is simply not true. I’m so sick of hearing from atheists that they are pure rationalists that I want to scream. But then it said, “I am an anti-theist because theism is a cause of harm in the world.” What? Humans are a cause of harm in the world. Is the poster anti-human? It’s simple minded — typical tribal BS.

  3. Actually Myers is hauling water for SJWs and third-wave feminists. In service of this he insists that atheism should have its own dogma — a very perverse notion. I see this mostly as a side effect from the recent project of some feminists to extend “intersectional feminism” into an umbrella under which they can exert moral authority over all social interactions, rather than just over gender relations or women’s legal rights. Never mind though — whatever the origin, it’s a stupid idea.

    Note also his reference to “a prominent Leader of atheism”. Well there are no prominent Leaders of Atheism, only prominent atheists, Because atheism isn’t a religion or even a true community; it’s just a philosophical position. Yes, some atheists have formed affinity groups, some of which try to promote atheism or end anti-atheist discrimination, but in general the only thing atheists really have in common is lack of religion. There’s certainly no reason to feel “responsible” for other atheists.

    • I’ll have to respectfully disagree with both of you, as much as I appreciate your posts.

      If atheists aren’t loud and proud about a political stance, than what the hell are they doing? It’s not like atheists are being persecuted in Europe or America. Why bother announcing one’s beliefs at all?

      The only reason I can fathom is the one Myers lists here — to share how disbelief in an afterlife makes it imperative to work for less suffering right here, right now. Does that make him a “SJW”? Perhaps. I fail to see how that’s a negative thing.

      • In his defense, he didn’t say he was an SJW, but simply carrying water for them. Otherwise, I completely agree with you. You summarized Myers argument brilliantly.

        But I don’t like the term SJW. It implies a group, and it isn’t. But I’m not going to get into it here.

    • I didn’t see Myers calling for any dogma. I saw him saying that the atheist community needs to have values — and not the pretend values of “I only believe in things I have proof for!” Myers, like all of us, has his own ideas. But if you have a problem with third-wave feminists, you’re gonna hate my morning post tomorrow. I really do hope you will come by for it. I haven’t been thinking about it a lot, so I’ll be interested in another take on it.

      But you are straw-manning Myers. He is not talking about atheism the philosophical position. He is talking about a very clear community. That community would be very surprised to learn that it doesn’t exist. All that wasted money on all those stupid conferences!

      And it doesn’t have leaders?! Are you saying that the massive group of Sam Harris Protectors doesn’t see him as a leader? And who gets to speak at those conferences? Philosophical positions may not have leaders, but communities (unfortunately) always do.

      • Does it really make sense to talk about The Atheist Community when you’re referring to a group that has no connection to the vast majority of atheists? It isn’t “just semantics” — semantics are important. Sure, maybe I know what you’re talking about, because I’ve taken an interest and followed some of this stuff (without actually being involved) but — well, how to put this without being too long winded? — Conflation Happens? I expect that for the majority of the atheist population, the pronouncements of “Leaders” are not only irrelevant, but unheard. Yes, even in the Internet Age. If it were otherwise, the local atheist Meetup group might actually be able to muster a get-together once in a while.

        • Conferences are well attended. Some videos get millions of views. Did you see the commenter calling me a “lying shit” (Twice!) for saying what Sam Harris wrote what Sam Harris did, in fact, write. That was today. I’m an atheist, so obviously, I’m not against it philosophically. Neither is PZ Myers! But if Sam Harris is not offering some meaning behind atheism, who is? Does atheism imply no kind of morality? I think Harris is aware of the problem, because he addressed it in Waking Up. But it was such a trivial book that it made the problem all the more apparent.

          I’m very interested in what serious theist and atheist thinkers have to say. But I’m in the minority. What sells is “Our side is right!” sort of books. I should probably read Sense and Goodness Without God. I’ve been meaning to for years. Not that I’m suggesting that Richard Carrier is an intellectual giant. My opinion of him has gone down a lot over the years. But he’s had some good ideas, is thorough, and often thoughtful.

  4. The thing that comes to mind with the Myers schtick is the old “Last Man” trope from Nietzsche; about how now that God was dead that everybody but the truly heroic would sort of schlump around doing nothing but being happy doing it, and how it would only be those rarest and most heroic of humans – the Ubermenschen – who could invent their own morality and meaning. P.Z. seems to be worrying that old bone here.

    ISTM that this is either a heinously pessimistic assessment of how difficult it is to find “meaning” in human life…or a massively ambitious definition of “meaning”. I mean…how the hell hard is it to find a fairly good, productive, decent sort of life? Doing good and satisfying work, caring and loving for others, taking pleasure in your surroundings and working to make them even more pleasant…it’s not fucking subatomic particle physics, fercryinoutloud…

    Now that’s not building pyramids, true. I agree that not having some sort of “higher calling” – whether it’s a religious faith or some sort of self-created ambition or goal – tends to make “meaning” fairly lower-case. But how many of us would want to walk those rarefied heights for very long? It’s all well and good to say that “I’d rather burn out than fade away”…but how many of us actually live that way?

    And as far as this being some sort of feminist deal…WTF? Myers is quoted here as saying that the “…absence of gods gives greater prominence to the interdependence of the human community, and adds greater weight and urgency to the importance of empathy and equality and all those human values.”

    Unless somebody snuck in and switched the definition of “human” in my Webster’s Unabridged to “woman” I don’t get this as even a thing.

    • “[H]ow the hell hard is it to find a fairly good, productive, decent sort of life?” In the modern world, harder than it should be. There is less and less time for real human interactions, even as our technology makes it possible to have more and more time. Still, people do find meaning because it is in our nature.

      But I think you have to distinguish between an individual’s meaning and and social movement’s. If the atheism community believes in social Darwinism, then count me out. If it believes in humanism, then count me in. If it means TBA, then also count me out, because that kind of vacuum at the center of a group normally leads to bad things, not good.

      • It’s insanely fucking hard. Maybe for some people, it’s not. I can’t even begin to grasp what job searches are like for office types. You aren’t remotely qualified for a job, no worries, your resume says you’re eminently trainable. Nice spot to be in!

        I’m sure FD didn’t mean his comment this way, but to those of us who are desperately poor, the notion that good jobs are easy to get is a huge slap in the face. Shit, no wonder people vote Republican and hate liberals. I don’t think either choice is rational, but I do understand the frustration.

        • I do think meaningful work is hard to find. Well: paying meaningful work. In the internet world, work is too much like a game. There was a Bizarro cartoon with a dog in a business suit walking down the street talking to a human in a business suit. The dog says, “I got into the human world to find purpose, but this whole thing is just an elaborate version of fetch.” That better sums up my feelings about the world than anything else. At one point, we needed to worry about just surviving. Now, everyone can survive. We have the technology to feed and care for everyone. But we don’t. Because we’ve turned accumulation into its own meaning. It’s not about the accumulation; the accumulation is how the meaning is measured. It is seriously screwed up.

  5. This is an old post, but here’s my two cents on a small part of it. Keep in mind that the most vocal are not necessarily the majority. I think most atheists don’t subscribe to the sort of vacuous Atheism with a capital “A” that you’re referring to. When I was in Charleston to see the eclipse, the hotel we stayed at was, by coincidence, having an American Atheist conference with quite a few speakers. The only name I recognized was James Randi. At least one was a theologian and another was a professor of religious studies. No one i met proselytized, and keep in mind no one knew I was a fellow atheist. The sense I got from most attendees was that it provided them a place to get together with likeminded people. Is that tribal BS? I don’t think so. In fact, I get it. Most people are religious in this country and I know from experience that few people are interested in discussing the big questions at all, much less in a way that doesn’t invoke a deity. As someone who gets anxiety around people, I was actually somewhat comfortable sitting at the bar and talking to the attendees. They were all–invariably in my experience–nice, tolerant people. No pure rationalists, no anti-religious demagoguery, no islamophobia. I’m sure there were idiots there, as with any group, but most were not. Most just came off like the type of liberal that would frequent a site like this. And based on one of the discussions I heard they were most certainly NOT ignorant of belief in God. One guy in particular was like a Bible encyclopedia, and not in a condescending kind of way. He was genuinely interested in religious origins and sacred narratives.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not disagreeing with you about the New Atheist “leaders,” I’m just pointing out that most people going to that conference were there for connection, not tribal sectionalism. Were they signaling to their group in certain ways? Sure, but we all do that. Most of the people there were just happy to get a chance to be open about their disbelief without consequence. I can tell you from experience that, outside of liberal areas, it isnt always wise to admit to lacking a belief in God, and especially to admit to being an atheist (I know they’re the same, but atheism might as well mean you have a Hitler fetish; it has no context for them).

    Maybe James Randi is one of those Atheist leaders like Harris. I don’t know much about him. He only spoke once for an hour during the three day conference. I always thought he was more into debunking weird superstions and the predatory industries that exploit them. In the case of anti-vaxers and certain new age healing movements it doesn’t really bother me. I’m just too cynical to think his demonstrations have any effect. In any case, I’m off on a tangent and thus I’ll end my rambling here.

    • @Mack — Randi is great. He was a practicing magician and got started in debunking by pointing out how psychic charlatans were using tricks every magician knows.

      And this stuff is always useful. Anybody who takes apart TV preachers or other scam artists who prey on human willingness to trust others is doing good, important work. Nor is there anything wrong with criticizing the dogmas or public actions of any religion.

      Some of the New Atheists, though — Dawkins and Harris in particular — assume an intellectual superiority over people of faith which is harmful, and completely undeserved. It often goes hand in fist with Islamophobia, which tends to ignore the crimes against humanity committed by Western governments. As if a lunatic who suicide bombs a bus of schoolchildren for supposed religious reasons is somehow more deeply irrational than powerful men who order the death of hundreds of thousands to secure geopolitical power.

      Like you, I’ve had good experiences with atheists — almost all of my friends are atheists — and I’m glad they’re not burned at the stake anymore. My friends, however, don’t look down on honest believers. We simply don’t agree with believers. I think that’s an important difference.

      • @James: Agreed. As for Randi, he was certainly a gracious and wonderfully nice man to meet in person. Despite his celebrity and the constant attention of the attendees it brought with it, he still sat in the bar to entertain anyone who wanted to talk to him. I got the distinct impression that he was a caring person. Can’t always go by personal encounters, however. In any case, I regret not making time for his talk.

        • @Mack — no, you certainly can’t go by personal encounters. The classic example is you meet some rude individual, and it turns out they just learned a family member has cancer. Almost anybody is snippy in such a situation.

          In my experience, though, when people are friendly for no reason (not trying to scam you), they’re probably pretty decent folks. Glad you enjoyed your encounter with nice atheists!

  6. I woke up this morning with a decent atheist joke. “Any God worth half a damn wouldn’t have created my sorry ass.”

    Ups and downs on the setup/punchline, but it’s a pretty good joke.

    • It’s good. It’s a variation on “I wouldn’t want to be part of any club that would have me as a member.”

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