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There’s no need to look for ways of dividing atheists. As I mentioned on more than one occasion atheists share only one trait – their lack of belief in a deity. Everything else divides them. Setting this one thing aside, within the atheistic conglomerate you can find literally any group of people believing the weirdest and most bizarre ideas and people of vastly different world views. There is one classification, though, which in my opinion sieves good atheists from the bad ones.
Who is the bad atheist? Tough question – since the answer is as wide as a river [don’t really know the English idiom for this one…]. Most and foremost bad atheist is the one that have become an atheist for bad reasons – reasons far divorced from rational thought. It’s a person, whose atheism is build on weak foundations and will crumble upon itself should a faintest blow of treacherous winds come. It’s a person, who’s not particularly well-read and doesn’t have even basic philosophical knowledge regarding his atheism. And also – it’s an atheist whose stance harms other atheists.
There are many of those. Starting with philosophers-wannabes who in the act of mental onanism create epistemic monsters of various kinds and attempt to spread them using social media and such, oftentimes to the applause equally lost ateo-crowd, to accomodationists sitting on their moral high-grounds they themselves constructed and frowning upon anyone that doesn’t want to follow their lead and ‘just be friends’ with theists, to ‘ex-atheists’ of the ‘I was also an atheist, but I asked God to show me the way/I’ve seen miraculous healing of a man unable to walk/also doubted, but science requires more faith than God, so I converted back to religion’ kinds. There is abundance of each and every of those groups among open and active atheists.
How does the bad atheist end up? Oftentimes back in the church believing in a God he supposedly didn’t believe prior to that (personally I believe that people mistake doubt for lack of faith and stick the atheist label to their forehead in order to show they sympathize with potential victims of future evangelizing). And even if they don’t – they tend to harm the general atheist movement by believing all kinds of bizarre conspiracy theories and propagating myths, half-truths and lies.
Science based skeptic tends to question statements, hypotheses and various ideas against their compliance with empiric evidence as well as check whether those ideas can be verified through empiric application of published results. In other words – science based skeptic withholds his acceptance of a given proposition until sufficient, reliable and verified proof is provided. But he follows the evidence and doesn’t spin of definitions and such.
If we apply skepticism to the question of the existence of god – we will get an atheist. An atheist, according to the nomenclature used here, is a person who does not accept the ‘god exists’ proposition due to insufficient evidence to support such claim; he/she is a skeptic with regards to the existence of a god.
Therefore if we take the skeptic approach in this domain, why on earth wouldn’t we take it in others? The Moon landing is a sly manipulation by secret American agencies? Until reliable proof is provided – I don’t believe it. 9/11 2001 was an Inside Job of US administration? Sure, and where’s your proof? Until you get them – I don’t believe it. Monsanto bullies farmers who had their fields accidentally wind-pollinated by patented crops? Proofs? Court entries? None? So I don’t believe it. Circumcision decreases the number of HIV infections? Poor quality research and no verifiable evidence? Don’t believe the hypothesis and even more so – don’t base your health policy on it. Vaccinations cause autism? But since there’s no proof for that, meta-research shows overwhelming evidence to the contrary and that there’s no connection between MMR and autism, and since the person that came up with the idea turned out to be a simple quack, therefore you should not believe it… And so on and so forth, I could go like this for an eternity…
If you look among atheist you can find believers in all sorts of baloney. From the idea, that public, non-restricted access to arms decreases the number of armed assaults and guarantees your safety, to anti-vaxxers, global warming-deniers, to believers in homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine or all sorts of superstitions and legends. Bad atheism does not protect you from that. Good atheism does.
It’s quite strange to me that even though there are so many atheists in the world, so few of them implement scientific skepticism rules in their daily life. The number of myths I happen to debunk during my day-to-day chats with acquaintances goes in tens if not hundreds. The number of people, who suffer in one way or another, or even die because of stupid beliefs held by atheists is too damn high. The lack of belief in a god does not imply the lack of belief in a soul, and it is a gateway to all sorts of superstitious idiocies, which some atheists do believe in. Idiocies like reincarnation, astral projections, homeopathy, acupuncture, etc.
On the other hand I can understand that the way to the good atheism may be a long one. I actually didn’t know how it’s called, but I have abode by scientific skepticism rules as early as in my teen years – curing myself out of faith started with rejection of all bizarre claims about god since there was no evidence to support them. But it was only after a long and quite tedious journey that I managed to get through the forest of scientific research, control groups, blinded and double blinded studies, statistically significant values, p-values and many many other creatures that seemed really strange to the untrained eye. Creatures that actually let you learn about reality giving you maximally possible certainty that our knowledge reflects reality as best as it possibly can.
Problem is – since I expect more from me, I expect more from my co-atheists. At least those open and active, vocal ones. Let’s face it – if your atheism is bad, if it’s based on feeble and faint foundations, if it is just an emotional reaction to some hard life event and it doesn’t have a support of the rationalist-skeptic world view, your activity in the atheism domain will be harmful. Or rather – it’s balance will be all the way in red. And we don’t need that. It’s tiresome and energy-consuming enough to fight religion, various churches and generally aspire for better, secular tomorrow, in which everyone can believe what they actually want and it does not influence other people in any way, in which there’s as few religious people as possible (since we know, that faith is not a positive thing, or rather that it has many more cons than pros) – it’s tiresome enough that we don’t need to spend time and energy on fight within the atheistic conglomerate (even though those fights are there, but some of them are simply not worth having).
I don’t claim that materialistic-naturalistic approach is the only proper one. I claim, that it is the only one that we have empirical, material evidence for. So since basing on that evidence we reject the idea that god exists, we should use those very same tools in case of other ideas. Scientific skepticism should lead atheists not only in the matter of existence of a god, but in every other issue that has any impact and influence on both ours as well as other human beings’ life.