idiot of the week. Harsh.
This is a difficult issue to respond to because I think that PZMyers' post is more of a rant and seems to be conflating several issues together (namely "Why" someone might be an atheist, how atheism is defined, what it means to be an atheist in practical terms, and possibly pondering an atheistic philosophy/mindset). So I fear that I cannot really respond in full without misrepresenting PZ's position in some ways but I'll take a crack at it.
You've got a discussion going, talking about why you're an atheist, or what atheism should mean to the community, or some such topic that is dealing with our ideas and society, and some smug wanker comes along and announces that "Atheism means you lack a belief in gods. Nothing more. Quit trying to add meaning to the term."I can agree with that. PZ framed this in the context of discussing "why" and "community", etc. To just toss in a dictionary reference in that context is out of place. This is different from using a dictionary definition of atheism in order to specifically frame a discussion or debate. But if someone in that discussion says atheism means that you believe in evolution, I think it is fair to distinguish between the two. When people start making ridiculous claims like this is when I usually see people beating other people over the head with the dictionary.
PZMyers further writes:
there is more to my atheism than simple denial of one claim; it's actually based on a scientific attitude that values evidence and reason, that rejects claims resting solely on authority, and that encourages deeper exploration of the world. My atheism is not solely a negative claim about gods, but is based on a whole set of positive values that I will emphasize when talking about atheism. That denial of god thing? It's a consequence, not a cause.Fair enough here as well. I would agree with PZ that, if I ask you "Why" you are an atheist and you could only quote the dictionary at me, I would think you pretty dense. But I have never seen anyone do that. All those things you said are great. But one could reject all the claims, be skeptical, be reasonable in all other ways--but still decide that they believed in a god anyway. They would then not be an atheist despite having an 'atheistic mindset' (my term) that you described. People can hold unreasonable and conflicting beliefs. So that is why atheism means that someone doesn't believe in a god and skepticism means something else and we use both terms. We don't add skepticism to atheism even when we base our atheism on skepticism.
I cannot tell if PZ would agree with that position or not from what he has written, so maybe he doesn't have a beef with that. I don't know.
PZMyers also argues that other people are NOT atheists just because they fit the dictionary definition. But even Christopher Hitchens, in a debate, argued "Everyone in this room is an atheist, everyone can name a God in which they do not believe" and the Romans called the Christians atheists because they lacked belief in the obviously real Roman gods. The use of atheist as a derogatory term has a long tradition.
But I tend to agree with PZMyers that for a truly meaningful application of atheist to apply, it really should be a self-applied label based on the formation of an opinion or position. I can call Christians atheists all day (and I sometimes do just to taunt them) but I don't really think they have that 'atheistic mindset'. And I don't think babies and rocks are atheists because I believe that it requires at least an opinion (and I'm not really sure I want my position to be equated to that of a non-thinking rock).
So I would say that all of these things tend to lead atheists to what might be called an atheistic philosophy/mindset - but it is not part of the definition of atheist/atheism itself nor required to have reached an atheist position.
But when Myers says "there is more to the practice of atheism than [the dictionary definition]", I find this phrasing just seems wrong to me. The phrase "practice of atheism" honestly brings absolutely nothing to my mind, it seems alien and out of place. There might be the practice of science, or the practice of skepticism, or the practice of textual criticism, or many other practices but what is the "practice of atheism"? Did I miss a memo? Was I supposed to sacrifice something? :)
Myers also writes, "Calling yourself a Dictionary Atheist is like taking pride in living an unexamined life...people who can't recognize that there's more to their atheism than blind acceptance of what a dictionary says". But nobody is leaving beliefs unexamined here. That just seems like an unreasoned attack because we are just discussing the actual definition and meaning of atheism -- not "Why" someone might be an atheist. To me those are two very different subjects.
On a side note, it looks like PZMyers has a new fan in @JoeCienkowski (one of the more 'interesting' theists on twitter):
@JoeCienkowski: @RockDots I found your strawmen. Beat the hay out them! "Some atheists define atheism as a lack of belief in gods" @GodsDontExist @pzmyers
@JoeCienkowski: @GodsDontExist @pzmyers seriously, are you dumb? Are you just too ignorant to reason?? You have a belief there's no God. It's that simple.