If I can recommend a most excellent book, try hunting down the elusive “Atheism: The Case Against God” by George H. Smith. Of all the theological literature I’ve read, that book provides the most sensible perspective of the world of theists and atheists. In particular, it gives a very thorough, very reasonable explanation of terminology (which is why I think you should read it).
I said that you were embarassing atheists to emphasize the “you don’t accurately portray the nature of atheism” bit. That had nothing to do with morals, on which I’ll comment in a bit.
Atheism is, as a matter of fact, a negative descriptor. This doesn’t mean it’s bad or immoral, and it doesn’t mean that it’s an empty statement. It means that atheism is described entirely by saying that it isn’t theism. This makes it an “other” category. The most popular parallel I use to explain this when I’m talking to a theist who doesn’t understand that atheists don’t worship Satan is the quality of being a cat. One can either be “a cat,” or one can be “not a cat.” One cannot be both, and one cannot be neither. Being “a cat” is a positive assertion; it gives us positive information about what one is. Being “not a cat” is negative in its nature; it is denial of the quality of being “a cat;” it doesn’t give us any information about what one is, only what one is not. In other words, a thing that is “not a cat” is free to be anything similar to a cat, nothing at all like a cat, a plant, an abstract noun, or something that doesn’t exist; being “not a cat” doesn’t say a damned thing about what we are describing, only that it is not “a cat,” and that makes “not a cat” an “other” category – if it is not “a cat,” then it is “something other than a cat,” or “not a cat.” (Also, being “not a cat” means nothing if “a cat” doesn’t exist, but that’s not nearly as relevant.) Atheism, which is a- (non-) -theism (belief), is exactly the equivalent phrase as “not a theist” (“something other than a theist”). This means that an atheist is free to have his own opinions, free to be entirely without morals… even free to dispute science as he does theism. Someone who is entirely ignorant of theism is an atheist by default, yet this does not mean he believes in science and the “rights and responsibilities” you’ve written up. A cat is an atheist by default because it is incapable of higher thought to such a degree. A rock is an atheist because it is incapable of belief. Justice and the color purple are also excellent examples of unwavering atheists. We don’t commonly use them because it’s for the most part purposeless, but it remains true. None of the things I have just mentioned believe the claim made by theism, which makes them “non-theists,” or atheists; whether or not they are capable of belief is irrelevant, and what matters is only that they don’t believe. For this reason, being called an atheist says diddly squat about your own beliefs, including whether or not you agree with science or have a moral code. It’s a damned good idea to follow science and to act morally, but it has nothing to do with being an atheist.
Then there’s agnosticism. God, how I hate it when people say they’re agnostic when I ask if they’re religious. That’s one of my biggest pet peeves. (I’m going to refer to the opposite of agnosticism as gnosticism (lowercase ‘g’) for the sake of practicality. Note that I’m not talking about Gnosticism (uppercase ‘G’), which is a sect of Christianity.) Theism describes what you believe, and gnosticism describes how much you know. They are two entirely different descriptors that are for the most part unrelated. Just as a ball can be both blue and bouncy, you can be both a theist and a gnostic, because they describe two different characteristics of your perspective of the divine. The full set of possible claims is this (where ‘X’ refers to a supernatural and/or transcending being(s) or force(s)): Gnostic theism: Belief in X because you think X can be proven as fact, or because you have witnessed X. Agnostic theism: Belief in X despite lack of knowledge of X; having faith in X. This describes most Christian sects. Gnostic atheism: Refusal to believe in X because one thinks X can be disproven or that the existence of X is impossible. Agnostic atheism: Refusal to believe in X because one doesn’t have enough information or thinks that all parts of X are beyond the scope of human understanding. (Most people, when they say that they are “agnostic,” mean that they are agnostic atheists. I hate hearing that answer to the question “are you religious” because it isn’t answering the correct question – plenty of Christians are agnostic theists, so by saying he’s agnostic the person could still be a theist. Answering “agnostic” to the question “are you religious” is like answering with your birthday to the question “what is your name” – it may be a correct answer, but it’s not what the question asked. I usually respond with “okay, wonderful, but are you religious?”) Agnostic atheists and gnostic atheists are also known as implicit atheists and explicit atheists, respectively. But saying that someone is a gnostic atheist still doesn’t say about what he believes, including whether or not he finds the scientific method rational or has his own moral code. It’s the difference between saying “I do not believe that X exists” and “I believe that X does not exist,” and that difference is tremendous. Atheism, because it is literally “not theism,” is the former. The positive assertion that X does not exist is something different altogether – theistic denial, or the belief, with or without substantiated knowledge, that X does not exist; it would be a form of theism because it describes a belief – the belief that something doesn’t exist is still a belief. Atheism describes the lack of a belief altogether; if you have a belief, whether that belief is that X exists or the belief that X doesn’t exist, you’re a theist, because that’s what theism means.
So. Atheism doesn’t say anything about supporting science, but it’s still a very good idea. Atheism also doesn’t say anything about following any kind of moral code, but that’s also a very good idea. HOWEVER, saying that atheists believe science by definition, or that they follow a moral code by definition, is categorically false. And that’s why I asked you to “take that shit down” and to stop embarassing atheists. I don’t mind if you suggest it, so long as you don’t say that being an atheist even implies it.
I didn’t even read your suggested list of rights and responsibilities, actually, because I follow the moral code of LaVeyan Satanism, which is basically Humanism spiced with Epicureanism. The core of that philosophy is “do whatever makes you happy as long as you don’t hurt anyone,” where that hurting extends to direct and indirect harm as well as physical and emotional harm. This basically serves to cover assault, murder, theft, and adultery, among other things. Satanic behavior is a modified version of the Golden Rule: “at the first meeting, treat others as you wish to be treated, and from that point forward treat them as they treat you.” (If I may: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zju8wSDAdXY)
Anyway, I’m sick of typing. I hope this has been a learning experience, cuz otherwise I’ve basically wasted an hour of my life. Not that I was going to do anything much better with it though, I guess.
If you’re interested in discussing this matter in more detail or similar subjects, I invite you to join the Metanet forums (http://metanet.forumer.com). The forum is actually for a very addicting platform game called N, but the community is large enough that the Off-Topic section is the home of many involved discussions and debates. (I actually haven’t touched the on-topic section of that forum for quite some time. For that reason I was given moderator status of the off-topic sections exclusively, though my jurisdiction has spread a while back to include the entirely of the forums.)
Thanks for mentioning “Atheism: The Case Against God” — that was one of the first books on atheism I read, way back in the day, and I agree that it is one of the best.
Your discussion of the scope of atheism and theism is very good and helpful. I have only two minor quibbles:
1) I would hesitate to say that a rock is atheistic. I understand where you are coming from on this, and you are correct that a rock is without theism, but I would hesitate to assign a term like this to something incapable of thought just as I would hesitate to call a rock amoral. I would say that the rock simply does not have a context in which the terms are meaningful. In the large scope of things, our difference of opinion on this point probably makes no difference.
2) I would not use the phrase “refuse to believe in X” in the discussion of the types of atheism, because for many people this would imply that there is something in existence that is being refused. I would say, perhaps, “lack of belief in X”.
Now, for my list of atheistic responsibilities.
The page is in the form of the Ten Commandments, and the point (which you will see if you have a chance to read it) is that some Christians say that atheists are immoral, but most atheists agree with Christians on the bulk of morality. You will also see that the list is pretty compatible with the practices of LaVeyan Satanism. This shouldn’t be too surprising because, as I read it, the Church of Satan is pretty much a subgroup of atheism. As a Satanist, I hope that you would also enjoy the mild mockery of Christianity (in that LaVey did the same type of thing). (An aside — I am a bit surprised that you follow LaVeyan Satanism, in that your original e-mail to me did not seem in keeping with this philosophy. It came across as abusive in the face of what at most could be a disagreement about vocabulary, and if I recall correctly Satanists don’t believe in throwing the first punch.)
You and I diverge in our vocabulary even further in that when I speak of atheism I am speaking in the context of American atheism (in particular weak or, in your terms, agnostic atheism). I do not pretend to speak for all atheism, but for rather the “Platonic ideal” of atheism, as I see it. I do not concern myself with non-human atheism, but I think that humans have certain moral responsibilities and human atheists are subject to them. My list of atheistic responsibilities is simply a list of human responsibilities (as I see them) with a couple of statements about non-religion attached at the top to make them atheistic.
So, to sum up, the content of my site was created with a certain amount of pragmatic shorthand. Although I understand your point and agree with much of it, spelling out such details would make my site more difficult to access for the average person, and I would much rather over simplify to get people interested in discussion so that they can learn deeper truths later than risk alienating them at the outset.