Monday, February 7, 2011

Dictionary Atheism

Two posts from PZMyers on his fantastic blog, Pharyngula, have the world of #atheism in a bit of a tizzy:
Which even got PZMyers named 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.

PZMyers writes:
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.

29 comments:

  1. One more point I missed in the blog entry... PZ Did also write "I don't claim that my values are part of the definition of atheism" and "My point is that nobody becomes an atheist because of an absence of values, and no one becomes an atheist because the dictionary tells them they are."

    So I hope I'm not pulling too big of a "Ray Comfort" in my post :)

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  2. Yeah - I don't think I'd classify Joe Cienkowski as interesting. The rest of this post is excellent. I've often wondered about the phrase "the practice of atheism". I don't "practice" my atheistic tendencies. I am atheist and nothing more. There's no standards, no rules, no regimen. It simply just ... is.

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  3. I have argued before, jokingly (i am an absurdist after all), that technically everyone is an atheist. All christians are atheists. All buddhists. All hindu. All scientologists. Everyone. Cuz nobody believes in one of the many gods that have been bandied around over the centuries.

    If one took this approach to heart, this effectively diminishes the word "atheist" entirely. It has no meaning at all, if everyone is atheist. THAT WAS MY POINT.

    This is the opposite of that. PZMyers is trying to ADD to the definition of atheism qualities that HE thinks typify an atheist as HE & presumably his close circle of friends perceives it. This is a precursor to stereotyping. All blonds are stupid. All blacks have rhythm. All atheists are also secular humanists or believe in evolution or eat oatmeal. Whatever. It's absurd.

    It's metaphorically a dark hallway w/a crazed serial killer at the other end and I'm staying on this end yelling at everybody DON'T GO DOWN THERE! THE LAST TIME SOMEBODY WENT DOWN THERE THEY TURNED INTO A STEREOTYPE! IT WAS HORRIBLE! BLOOD & GUTS EVERYWHERE! RUN AND GET THE POLICE! GRRR! ARGH!

    When I say I am a dictionary atheist, I am not "taking pride in living an unexamined life," I'm saying examining my life does not define atheism, any more than examining one's clothes colors them.

    PZed's got a PhD. I can't believe he's this dense. He must be yanking my chain.

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  4. Sigh. PhDs have nothing to do with it. You've simply locked your brain onto this false claim that I'm trying to add a specific set of criteria onto the definition, when I've done nothing of the kind.

    Keep flogging that nonsense of your own invention, though. I guess it keeps you occupied.

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  5. You still haven't answered my question from Twitter Dr. Myers. What can you add to the dictionary definition of atheist that would apply to ALL atheists? What can be added that isn't someone's agenda, being pushed on me whether I happen to agree or not?

    I'm responding to YOUR claim. This isn't something I've made up. You claim there is a difference between "dictionary atheists" and whatever you are. If you're not a dictionary atheist, if you're not getting YOUR definition of atheism from a dictionary, I'd be interested to know from where it is derived.

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  6. Your problem is this insistence that I'm trying to modify or add to the dictionary definition, or that I'm arguing for a universal commonality between all atheists beyond disbelief in gods. I'm not. That's YOUR claim.

    If you actually listened to the video that got you all irate, you'd know that I listed a set of positive values that led me to atheism. You'd also know that I said other people could and would have different values.

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  7. Did you not listen to your own Montreal speech? Were your ears in another room when you left your mouth running?

    I'm going by what YOU said about hating 'dictionary atheists' and now you're deflecting; accusing me of making this up. The record is there. Anyone who wants, can listen to your speech and know I'm not making this up.

    Yes I DID listen to your speech which is why I'm opposing you. After your snooty remarks about "dictionary atheists" you then listed at length "positive values" that I would attribute to critical thinking or secular humanism or other descriptive words or names. Very plainly you explained these values are for you a part of what atheism means to you. Objectively speaking, they are not a part of atheism, and how dare you expect me to change MY definition of the word to suit your purposes!

    These other "positive values" should be what they already are. Critical thinking. Secular humanism. Whatever. You wanna enlarge the atheism basket to include these values, and I'm saying no. Are ALL atheists critical thinkers? I'm not. Are all atheists secular humanists? I'm not. I'm an absurdist atheist, and I take offense that you're trying to kick me out of your little atheists club.

    Now that I'm calling you on this, you're backpedaling! If you're gonna fight me on this dammit STAND YOUR GROUND!

    The dictionary definition of atheism should be sufficient for all atheists. Obviously it's not enough for you, based on what YOU yourself said at Montreal. You yourself said you "hate" anyone who insists on holding ppl like yourself to the dictionary definition. WHAT OTHER DEFINITION IS THERE? What use is communication if we can't hold one another to these definitions?

    If there's no other definition, then you too are a 'dictionary atheist' and you shouldn't have made such blatantly absurd statements against YOUR OWN KIND in your speech!

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  8. There's a difference between WHAT an atheist is and WHY one is an atheist. I'm an atheist because I don't believe in god(s). The reasoning that leads me there, that's my skepticism.

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  9. Again.

    Your problem is this insistence that I'm trying to modify or add to the dictionary definition, or that I'm arguing for a universal commonality between all atheists beyond disbelief in gods. I'm not. That's YOUR claim.

    You are doing a very good job of demonstrating why I think Dictionary Atheists are kind of stupid.

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  10. You WERE modifying atheism in your speech by aligning "positive values" that you equate with YOUR atheism. Now that I've called you on it, you're backpedaling, but the truth is in the record of your speech.

    Calling me stupid is like one religious person calling another "infidel." You're dismissing my contribution to this discussion, just as you dismiss those atheists who disagree with you on secular humanism.

    Atheism is not one big happy family of like-minded individuals. One day I will wake up and find that it's been turned into that by people like you, and the tent will no longer be over my head. The banner will be waving somewhere else.

    I won't be an atheist anymore. I'll just be other words like an apostate, or godless, until someone else comes along and takes those banners away, by chipping at definitions when they think no one was looking.

    I got you to retreat this day. I take that as a win, but English is a living language. Language is a virus. Someday your ilk will succeed in making everyone think secular humanism and atheism are for all intents and purposes synonymous. You will win this war, even tho I have won this battle.

    That doesn't mean I have to like it. And it doesn't mean I'm gonna shut up about it when I catch you chipping away.

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  11. PZ, I refer you back to the ancient Law of Identity. A is A. Atheist is Atheist. Atheist is not positive values you choose to create your cult of personality around. It means what it means. Your ad hominem attack on Zach does not do your obvious intellect credit.

    As someone who is Objectivist leaning in thinking, I refuse to submit to your adding, what I perceive to be, humanist values to what Atheism means. It is a historically very dangerous position, one that is easily twisted by those less noble than yourself. If that is not what you meant, you should publicly retract it. But by closing your last comment with that ad hominem remark on "Dictionary Atheists" you have dug yourself into a deeper hole, and make another intellectual enemy: me.

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  12. most people are more than just atheists. They hold values, political views and have emotional attachment to kith and kin. But their being atheist only describes their disbelief in gods. I am an atheist because I do not not have a belief in a deity of any kind. Besides that I find that I do differ from many atheists on a host of topics. What makes us all atheist is the absence of the belief in deities. It is really that simple.

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  13. I think PZ would change the "dictionary definition" of atheist in the following way.

    "Person who does not believe in deities because of some positive values."

    In this case, PZ is arguing that the commonality between all atheists is NOT JUST THAT they do not believe in deities...but also that there is some positive reason they do not. The positive reason may vary, but must exist.

    In this way, PZ is only kicking out people without positive reasons/values for their atheism from the atheist club. (Which he basically does when he goes on about babies/rocks/whatever. It is an attempt to kick out [as stupid or silly or whatever] some subset of nonbelievers in deities.)

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  14. This may seem like a pointless question, but

    How is "atheism", as suggested by P.Z. Myers, different from NATURALISM?

    I haven't seen anyone bring up naturalism (philosophy).

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  15. Yes, Andrew, I agree that PZ's attempts aren't anything necessarily malevolent. However, he oversteps by doing that. So what if positive values led him and many others to atheism? I mean, that's nice, but it's not universal. The connection is individual and subjective to the person. There is no objective link between the definition of atheism and critical thinking. There are words to describe those positive values. By trying to take all those other words of the English language and condense it into one word, he's (perhaps unconsciously) creating Newspeak. Doubleplusgood Atheism.

    We may disagree on what things should and should not be, but the ad hominem attack on those who don't agree with him is out of line.

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  16. Ryan,

    But here, I can see where some of PZ's other comments on the subject come into play (assuming I understand his point correctly.)

    It's very important that my proposed definition (which, even if PZ says he's not proposing a new definition, this new definition hits upon his problems with "dictionary atheism") says "*some* positive values" or even "*any* positive values."

    PZ is not saying, "Atheists are atheists because of the same values." So, atheist =/= skeptic, empiricist, rationalist, naturalist, etc., etc.,

    So when you counter:

    So what if positive values led him and many others to atheism? I mean, that's nice, but it's not universal.

    Then what you are saying is, "It's nice that some people have reasons for being atheist. BUT it's not universal. Some people have no reason at all for not believing in gods"

    And this is why I see PZ making denigrating comments about "taking pride in an unexamined life."

    If there is someone who happens not to believe in god, but has no positive reasons for it, then by "dictionary atheism" or whatever, yep, that guy/girl's still an atheist.

    But this person certainly is living an unexamined life with respect to his atheism if he can't find any positive reasons for his atheism. And PZ is making a value judgment about that -- but then again, are you going to oppose it? Are you going to say, "Hey, unexamined lives aren't bad?"

    Now, PZ is not saying that people have the SAME positive values. So, he's not saying, "Atheists are people who do not believe in gods because they are critical thinkers" (or insert any SPECIFIC value there.) He's saying, "atheists should have *some*...*any* positive reason for their atheism. Otherwise, they are taking pride in an unexamined life."

    So, yes, we can describe a multitude of potential positive values...and they may differ or even be contradictory to one another. Yet, even if I don't agree (I have no problems admitting of atheists who haven't thought about it and are living "unexamined" lives wrt their atheism), I don't think it is ludicrous to redefine atheism so that someone has to have at least SOME reason for it.

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  17. I see the point. You present it in a much more nuanced way.

    However it brings up other problems. What if a person became an atheist because he wanted to insert himself into the void left by a lack of god or gods? What if he became an atheist for power-grabbing reasons? It's conceivable. Is that life unexamined? I would argue those values or reasons are not positive. That's what I mean by saying positive values are not universal. Objectively atheism has no link to anything other than what it means. Subjectively there are tons of links. For me, atheism links to Objectivism, Secularism, etc. For PZ, it's something different. For Kim Jung Il, something different still. And for Christians, who attempt to keep their flock by saying we've just replaced one religion with another, this redefinition plays directly into their hands... even more so than the actual label does.

    It seems as though PZ has a pet peeve with being chided on vocabulary and has taken to coining a new phrase because of it. Dictionary Atheist is redundant. We have other words.

    The argument here is a semantic one, and one that I find highly entertaining. Some may call it trivial, but I think it's important, and considering he spent a chunk of his speech on it, PZ must too.

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  18. What if a person became an atheist because he wanted to insert himself into the void left by a lack of god or gods? What if he became an atheist for power-grabbing reasons?

    Firstly, I'd want to probe: "why does someone think there is "a lack of god or gods?" (The answer is going to be a positive reason.) But your second guy (power-grabber) absolutely has a "positive reason."

    I guess the real issue is in the minimal nature of a "positive reason." "Positive" doesn't necessarily mean "good" or "uplifting"...it just means there is a position to back up the atheism...whether it be, "I want power" or "I believe in following the evidence where it goes and I believe that evidence is natural/empirical/etc.," we can say, "OK, so you do not believe in god because of some other position you have taken."

    Is that life unexamined?

    This is where we'd quibble...but we could only quibble from SPECIFIC vantage points. From a general vantage point, we can say, "Yes, that life is examined. This person has a belief system relating to power that he has thought through in some way...and as a result he has an internal argument chain to atheism from this."

    We may disagree with the premises or arguments along the chain...but then our disagreement is, "I don't agree with your reason. I have different reasons and prefer them to yours." Our disagreement is NOT, "You don't have a reason."

    I guess I'll try to address this in a different way, using your own language:

    Subjectively there are tons of links.

    You note that there are tons of links subjectively. I agree. (I also agree that these subjective links are NOT objective links.) A question we could ask from here would be: Could we say though that EVERY person who has examined (or, "thought about") his atheism will make a subjective link to *something*?

    If we can say this, we have a universal. I'd say that PZ would argue that, yes, every person who has examined his atheism will have a subjective link (a "reason"), even if one person's link will differ from another. And the people who have not examined their atheism (or who defend them) should be ad hominem'd on twitter and on Pharyngula.

    And for Christians, who attempt to keep their flock by saying we've just replaced one religion with another, this redefinition plays directly into their hands... even more so than the actual label does.

    I think it's important to note that people have replaced on religion with another, if we think of religion as dealing with the causes, nature, and purpose of the universe. (If you don't like the term religion, say "worldview" or "belief system".) I agree with pro-"dictionary atheists" that atheism is NOT the religion...but certainly, the positive reasons one has address the same sorts of things that religions/belief systems/worldviews try to.

    In this way, the only way you get out of having a religion is by living an unexamined life.

    Interestingly, I don't think the argument is semantic to PZ. It's semantic to so-called "Dictionary atheists" (and so I'm interested in it too), BUT PZ's argument is more political or ethical. His argument isn't, "Atheism means x." It's more, "As an atheist, you should celebrate the positive reasons that got you to atheism. You should not decouple the two, even though atheism is separate from (enter whatever reasons you have.)"

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  19. PZ, I think the main point of contention is where you say "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 this is completely not what we are saying.

    Our point is that we can discuss the DEFINITION of atheist as well as our REASONS for being an atheist. But those are necessarily two different discussions (where are you going, and how are you going to get there).

    I can honestly say that I have NEVER met someone who says that they ARE an atheist because they fit the dictionary definition. The reason people drag out the dictionary is (almost invariably) when someone says atheists believe "X" (where X is something like "nothing comes from nothing", "that small children should be eaten", "evolution must be true or atheists have no position", etc).

    And in those cases, it is ENTIRELY appropriate to beat them over the head with the dictionary definition (or at least the version of the definition that person ACTUALLY believes fits their understanding of atheism).

    This is a COMPLETELY different discussion as to WHY I'm an atheist.


    But I will also say that ZachsMind needs to quote the specific statements from PZ that he is taking issue with and why he feels those statements are problematical because there seems to be a lot of talking past each other without trying to see where the other side is coming from (and that's "bad", not crossing the streams bad, but not conducive to clear communication).

    But being realistic here, Theists aren't going to stop conflating atheism and every other subject under the sun even if you two hugged and made up. Just NOT going to happen. So no need for emotional appeals and ad hominems.

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  20. Here's the PZMyers speech on Science and Atheism as natural allies to which I have repeatedly referred. I will not go through it yet again and quote it exactly. I would prefer people listen to his speech themselves so nobody can claim I'm taking his words out of context. Each interested person should decide for themselves if they hear what I hear. If memory serves, he first mentions dictionary atheists about eighteen minutes in, and after chiding ppl who use the dictionary to define atheism, he then espouses "positive values" that he equates to atheism.

    Why I'm an atheist should not be relevant to what atheism is objectively speaking. Myers' list of positive values, while well intentioned, should also not be attributed to atheism from an objective viewpoint. That's what atheism means to him, subjectively. Fine.

    Without boring you with the details, my reasons for being atheist are not what I would call "positive values." I didn't choose to be atheist. I'm an atheist despite my best efforts NOT to be. I'm an absurdist. NOT a secular humanist. How I would subjectively define atheism would also take an hour long speech to explain, and would objectively matter just as much as Myers' explanation; i.e. not at all.

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  21. OK. Let's say we go with PZ's notion (if I understand it correctly).

    If atheism were to mean something with positive values, what would we call an atheist who hasn't examined his/her decision (i.e., someone who was raised atheist)? Would s/he still be considered an atheist?

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  22. Watching the video:

    "Atheism is a belief system of positive values and here are those three values: bad brains, reliance on evidence, and asking good questions."

    This is where he's wrong.

    That being said, here's what I will say further:

    Without boring you with the details, my reasons for being atheist are not what I would call "positive values." I didn't choose to be atheist. I'm an atheist despite my best efforts NOT to be. I'm an absurdist. NOT a secular humanist. How I would subjectively define atheism would also take an hour long speech to explain, and would objectively matter just as much as Myers' explanation; i.e. not at all.

    That you don't choose to be an atheist is irrelevant. I don't choose to be an atheist either. I don't choose my beliefs. But why is that? That's because I process information a certain way -- and I don't choose that.

    What is absurdism but a positive value? How you would subjectively explain your atheism would be different than how PZ does (and it wouldn't "define" atheism), but the fact is 1) you can subjectively explain your atheism and 2) it does take time, because there are positions you espouse.

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  23. I transcribed the main section in question, from around 18:30

    PZ Myers speaking (any errors are my transcription errors & I skipped a few bits): pet peeve, just briefly, and this is one of those things that annoys me no end, I bring up (...blog...) and, and when I start talking about the positive values of atheism, there's always somebody who pops up in the comments and he says "atheism is just the lack of belief in gods, nothing more, nothing less, that's all it is", and I hate those guys. Their wrong. I call them dictionary athiests. These are the people who look in the dictionary for the meaning of atheism they say "ah well, all it says is 'the theory or belief that god does not exist', therefore that's all there is to atheism, we're done with atheism, we just completely summarized the entire philosophy of atheism" -- and that's wrong. Because, I don't care what kind of athiest you are, you are an atheist because of positive values that you hold. Positive understanding of how the world works, that informs your opinions that affects your interpretations of the world. That, when you say you are an atheist, Yes you are saying "I don't believe in god", but you are also saying a whole bunch of things about how your brain is processing what it sees in the universe around you. And I would say that Gnu Atheism is something more, it's, it's a positive explination of the world, based on scientfic thinking. So don't give me that dictionary crap, I don't care. That when I talk about atheism I am using a loaded word that has a lot of other content.

    So my comment would be that there is a lot of mixing up of: atheism, "Gnu Atheism", and "philosophy of atheism"... A generous reading of this, in light of PZ Myers additional statements, I would say he's more defining his own brand of Gnu Atheism, based on positive values supporting a non-belief in god. That sounds a lot like "old" atheism to me, but ok.

    I still stand by my original blog entry. For ME, the definition of atheism is the destination (a single-issue, position statement on your non-belief in god), and all this other stuff is the journey (how you arrived at your atheism and by what is it best supported).

    I only posted at all because I constantly see theists trying to conflate atheism with just about anything else and it's annoying because it just wastes time. I would personally prefer to avoid an argument about defining "Truth" when just establishing that, no, I don't believe in their god.

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  24. Would everyone calm down if the frame of the discussion was moved to "rebranding" ?

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  25. ZDragomir (DumneZero),
    Possibly. I think there's possibly a miscommunication going on here. Maybe a clarification post would make all the difference?

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  27. EDIT: some bad grammar. Wanted to fix.

    Andrew, we are on the same page (I think). If PZ had said, what you had said, I think there would be no argument... at least from me.

    But that is not what PZ said, and he's making a big stink out of it. Perhaps a roundtable discussion is in order to figure out exactly what he means, or a clarifying blog. But even a clarifying blog isn't all the way there. He needs to swallow his pride a little bit and apologize for attacking those who don't "get it" when he was not making himself clear. This entire paragraph is also dependent (perhaps falsely) on the notion that what you are saying here is what he really meant.

    "For ME, the definition of atheism is the destination (a single-issue, position statement on your non-belief in god), and all this other stuff is the journey (how you arrived at your atheism and by what is it best supported)."

    Exactly. Very well put.

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  28. "Atheism is not one big happy family of like-minded individuals."
    Well, that's for sure.
    But remain atheists nonetheless!

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