P. Z. Myers vs. the dictionary atheists

March 2016

Two officers of the American Humanist Association last month published an online article grousing a little bit about a perceived association between them and "the New Atheism, which, rightly or wrongly, is critiqued as being not vocal enough or downright anti-progressive when it comes to social justice issues . . . ." The confusion is understandable but easily corrected. As the authors point out, "Atheism is what we don’t believe; humanism is what we do believe." That was a logically inept way to put it, but excusable for its rhetorical felicity. That which atheists don't believe is actually theism, but the point remains: atheism per se is not a belief. It is in particular not a theological belief, but also not any other kind of belief. It is not a belief about social justice, or about ethics, or about political progressivism, or about the virtues of scientific thinking or any other kind of thinking.

Most atheists get this, as far as I can tell. The objections I've seen have usually come from a certain variety of theist. But not always.

This is not about the argument over whether atheism, properly defined, is a denial of God's existence. That can get interesting, too, but it's beside the point of the AHA essay. Within the atheist community, it is about whether or to what extent atheism should be associated with a commitment to rationalism, science, skepticism, or various other -isms. I haven't heard anyone say that the word itself should be redefined, but there are those who speak with more or less contempt about "dictionary atheists." One manifestation of this attempt to have cake and eat it too was the formation of the Atheism Plus movement, one of whose most vocal members is P. Z. Myers, biologist and author of the Pharyngula blog on Freethought Blogs. This essay was prompted by his response to the AHA article.

Myers has a problem especially with atheists who claim that atheism has nothing to do with moral issues.

Atheism doesn’t have a moral code, they will say, it’s nothing but the absence of a supernatural moral authority. That’s what they tell themselves, anyway, but it’s all a lie—they’re humans, and they’re simply loaded with moral assumptions.

I'm about to criticize his logic here, but first a digression. Later in his essay, Myers claims to believe that "logic is an excellent tool." OK, but excellent for what? Well, he says, "[I] also know that logic is a great tool for false rationalizations." Uh huh. And so what tool would he use if he wanted a true rationalization?

Very well, enough with the quote-mining. Here are both of his statements in context:

I like science, too, I know humans evolved, and I think logic is an excellent tool. It’s just that I also appreciate other ways of seeing the world (they’re inevitable, since we’re not robot clones), see evolution as a chaotic clusterfuck of chance with a ribbon of selection providing multiple ways forward, and also know that logic is a great tool for false rationalizations. Probably the most logical, successful, long-lived human institution on the planet is the Catholic church, and they are masters at using logic to back up odious, false, and harmful decisions.

It is not clear what he has in mind when referring to "other ways of seeing the world." Obviously, there are worldviews that reject science or logic, if not both, but I doubt that Myers has any of them in mind. I'm going to suppose, charitably, that he means to endorse the view that science and logic are inadequate for the task of answering moral questions. This is quite the intellectual fashion nowadays: Science can tell us how the world is, but it can't tell us a thing about how it ought to be; and the attempt to apply logic to moral puzzles gets us nowhere except befuddled.

I would beg to differ on both points, but I don't have to here. Myers made a claim about how the world is, so the claim is subject to scientific analysis, and logic is indispensible to science. His claim was that atheists lie if they say, "Atheism doesn’t have a moral code . . . it’s nothing but the absence of a supernatural moral authority."

I'll not try to guess whether Myers sees any relevant distinction between a lie and an error. In any case, he is asserting that the quoted statement is a falsehood. Therefore, according to Myers, atheism does have a moral code, a code without supernatural authority. And how does he know this? Because, he says, since atheists are human, "they’re simply loaded with moral assumptions." So then, here is his argument:

Premise: All atheists are human.

Premise: All humans have moral assumptions.

Conclusion: Atheism has a moral code.

It might be gratuitously pedantic of me to explain why that argument is fallacious, but I'll take that chance. If it were valid, it would presuppose that anything true of all human beings was true of atheism. (It also assumes a logical equivalence between a moral code and a set of moral assumptions, though they're not the same thing.) Now, it is certainly true that whatever is true of all humans is true of all atheists, but atheists are not logically equivalent to atheism. No belief, and no lack of belief, is a human being. Humans all have beliefs, but they also all have hearts, and it is not the case that whatever is true of all humans is true of all hearts.

Many Christians, and theists of other kinds, claim to derive their moral assumptions from their belief in God, and maybe they do, but the premise that all humans have moral assumptions entails that theism is not necessary for having such assumptions, and Myers clearly agrees with that. But if we don't get our morals from our theism, then where do we get them? From our atheism, says Myers, but why should anyone think that?

There is one possible reason to think it.

We don't all have the same moral code, but we all have one. We all intuitively get it that there is some difference between right and wrong. We don't all agree on what that difference is, but we do all think that a difference exists. We all make certain assumptions (not the same assumptions, but some assumptions), maybe consciously, maybe subconsciously, that certain behaviors or kinds of behaviors are right and others are wrong. And, those assumptions must have a source. Theists typically claim that that source is God, and an atheist could agree that their belief in God is their source, even if an actual God is not. But if we don't have that belief, then we must have another source for our moral assumptions. It could be argued that we must use whatever replaces God in our belief system. So, if atheism replaces theism, then atheism must be the source of our moral assumptions.

But atheism is not a replacement for anything. A motor vehicle needs an energy source, and most use gasoline. Any vehicle can use some other source if the engine is suitably modified, but if theism is gasoline, then atheism is just an empty gas tank. 

According to Myers, those of us who claim that atheism has no moral code are asking for an ethical "blank check . . . an absence of any kind of moral imperatives or any prior suppositions" so that we can "assume the mantle of objective, bias-free decision making which, by the assumptions they claim that they don't have, makes their moral decisions superior." I'm not about to claim that no atheist does anything of the sort, but lots of us do not. We do not claim that there are no moral imperatives and we do not deny having some prior suppositions. I for one believe that nobody makes moral decisions objectively or free of biases, and I'm not at all convinced that anyone should even try. But none of this has anything to do with whether atheism has a moral code. It has everything to do with our nature as social animals capable of rational thought. It's a nature that we have, because of our biological origins, whether or not some god exists.

Myers's real problem is not with dictionary atheists but with any atheist whose moral code does not coincide with his own. Of course, he doesn't say that in so many words. What he says is that he has a problem with people who "prefer that their implicit biases be invisible." But that is a problem in any debate about any subject of controversy, and it's one we all have to contend with all the time. Whatever the venue or the topic, our arguments will always include assumptions that we have not stated, and to call those assumptions "biases" is to say no more than that we disagree with them. Perhaps our disagreement is justified and perhaps it isn't, but that requires its own debate.

Myers is perfectly within his intellectual rights to say, "Your argument implicitly assumes X, but X is wrong," but his saying so does not make it so. His interlocutor is not assuming X just because Myers says so, and even if he is, X is not wrong just because Myers say so. It is up to Myers to prove both conjuncts, and if he can't be bothered to do that, then he has forfeited any right to claim the high moral ground.


(This page last updated on March 8, 2016.)

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