Thursday, July 31, 2008

Doggerel #160: "We Got More Famous People on Our Side!"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

Well, this doesn't happen all that often, but my brother and I currently agree PZ messed up on a recent post. Should have put some of his comments in the main post for one. Anyway, for those who don't read the comments, the atheism of a lot of those figures is quite debatable. The underlying problem, though, is a bit more fundamental. A little ego-stroking preaching to the choir on occasion can do a little good in rallying the troops and insert other cliches...

But it doesn't matter how many famous people agree with you. What matters is why they agree with you: Are your arguments sound? Does the evidence support your stance? Does your theory make accurate predictions? If you're supporting a null hypothesis, are your opponents' arguments consistently flawed and/or unsupported by evidence?

Yeah, it fills me with pride when I find out some great guy from the history books had atheistic, scientific, or whatever leanings. Nothing wrong with that. Please whack me with a rolled-up newspaper if I start using that as a premise in an argument, though, because that's not how arguments are won. Yeah, you can bring it up once in a while to make us feel better, but don't do it too often, and don't bother using the same method as a counterattack to a woo/fundie counterpart.


King of Ferrets said...

Yeah; I thought of the same thing as soon as I saw that.

Tom Foss said...

The thing PZ's post and the (flawed) poster reveals, though, is the host of problems involved in assigning labels to people. On one hand, it's probably best and easiest to use the labels that those people applied to themselves--and so Paine and Jefferson are Deists, Einstein's a pantheist, and Sagan's an agnostic.

On the other hand, the term "atheist" has a fairly specific meaning that many misunderstand. It is, simply, the absence of theism (belief in a god or gods); everything that is not theistic is, by definition, atheistic. And in that regard, a lot (if not all) of those people are, in fact, atheists.

Take Sagan, for instance. His position was that he does not believe in God because he has seen no evidence for it. He calls himself an "agnostic," but gnosticism and agnosticism address knowledge, not belief. That he does not believe in God makes him an atheist--specifically, an agnostic atheist, one who does not know if there is a God, and does not believe in one.

The matter of deism is trickier; it rejects (for the most part) a personal God, as does Einsteinian pantheism. Where does that fall on the spectrum?

The problem here is not necessarily that these people were not atheists, but that they did not call themselves atheists. From an outside perspective, we can't know what they actually believed outside of what they said. And yet, from that same perspective, we may be able to apply labels accurately that they would have rejected for various reasons.

And that's why understanding the meanings of words is so important.

King Aardvark said...

It gets even worse when you consider that, even if they do inwardly consider themselves atheists, that, due to the stigma attached to the word, they might not label themselves as atheists in public. Then you really have no idea what they actually are.