When getting involved with discussions, especially on twitter, I keep hearing the phrase ‘The McRae Virus’ – often when discussing definitions or logic. I find this a strange way to dismiss a logical argument that doesn’t fit one’s narrative.
Before entering the world of internet debates and things, I thought that an atheist was someone who believed or claimed gods do not exist. When I joined the debating world on Facebook many years ago, I was ‘corrected’ by many fellow atheists who said ‘no, its disbelief or lack of belief in gods’.
I adopted this usage, and even argued against theists for a while who said atheism was an irrational belief etc. Stating that it was not a belief, just a lack of one and all that standard rhetoric.
A few years back I spoke to a guy on twitter who seemed very wound up by folks using agnostic atheist, saying it was nonsensical etc. I must admit, I was at first put off by his manner, and dismissed the article he posted on SEP due to a number of anchoring/cognitive biases I had.
I then re-read the article in my own time and spoke to TrolleyDave whom I knew was doing his masters in philosophy. It was actually the start of Dave and I building quite a good e-friendship, having not really spoken to each other much before.
We spoke of propositional logic at first, which I loved and found quite easy as a programmer, even if I have yet to learn all the symbols and look them up as needed, I understand what they mean.
We discussed a number of things from epistemology, like how a belief is just something you accept as true or a positive attitude towards a proposition, and the whole ‘accepting something without evidence’ is yet another atheist tactic to dismiss theists without good reason. When we speak of beliefs or lack of beliefs, we are describing psychological states. If we say x lacks a belief in y, we are already assuming x has the ability to have psychological states, otherwise, we wouldn’t be describing x in terms of psychological states.
From this I considered the SEP article again.
“Atheism” is typically defined in terms of “theism”. Theism, in turn, is best understood as a proposition—something that is either true or false. It is often defined as “the belief that God exists”, but here “belief” means “something believed”. It refers to the propositional content of belief, not to the attitude or psychological state of believing. This is why it makes sense to say that theism is true or false and to argue for or against theism. If, however, “atheism” is defined in terms of theism and theism is the proposition that God exists and not the psychological condition of believing that there is a God, then it follows that atheism is not the absence of the psychological condition of believing that God exists (more on this below). The “a-” in “atheism” must be understood as negation instead of absence, as “not” instead of “without”. Therefore, in philosophy at least, atheism should be construed as the proposition that God does not exist (or, more broadly, the proposition that there are no gods).Draper 2017
This made much more sense having an understanding of propositional logic, and I continued to read the rest of the article inclusive of a few different references it has about how Agnosticism was coined, its use as the withholding judgement position between two propositions, and how Flew tried to redefine atheism in 1972 to anyone not a theist.
I also looked into the history of the word atheism, which was derived from the word ATHEOS. Whilst there is a bit of contention over if the literal translation means ‘not gods’ or ‘without gods’, its usage meant someone that did not believe in the Greek/Roman pantheon and Christians were regarded as atheos.
I got my philosophy bug back, something I had lost when I started to do an A-level in it and found the teacher didn’t actually mark papers properly, just gave grades based on how long they looked, and it was all Christian apologetics – booooooriiiiiiing.
I had many conversations with Dave, he pointed me at articles generally letting me make up my own mind on various topics and then we discussed them at length. (I started to learn how much I really didn’t know and still had to learn.)
Having understood this and so much more, and realising how much of the standard atheist reasoning was wrong on so many topics, especially things like epistemology, rationality, morality etc I started writing articles and engaging in conversations about it.
Dave and I started to do the Fresh AiR podcast and nodded to Steve. Even though my first interaction with him wasn’t a positive one, without it I wouldn’t have looked into the topic more and realised there were more definitions that the commonly held one on the internet. There are ones that are far more logical that provide clear epistemic answers to the proposition ‘God Exists’. Morality and value are far more complex than this whole subjective vs objective thing.
I also found Steve again, and noted on a few of his posts that I though I could help explain his reasoning. I figured they may respect a fellow atheist more than they might Steve, especially as this was a topic he did seem to be quite frustrated with.
Over time, I think I have become just as frustrated as Steve about people not accepting basic logic or considering anything other than what their favourite YouTuber says on a topic that clearly hasn’t spent much time researching.
I’ve since enjoyed many a conversation with Steve, we disagree on some topics, agree on others. One thing I can say is, his use of propositional logic is accurate.
Another thing I find funny is people call him a prescriptivist, even though he actually argues against prescriptivism. There are many who want to force the definition that anyone not a theist is an atheist. He will use the terms people prefer, and explain why there are better terms. Yet others want to tell him he is an atheist.
Whilst not prescriptive with what is considered the normative definitions in philosophy, we both seem to argue against other folks prescriptivism with the term atheist. If your position actually resembles that of an ignostic or an agnostic, for example, but you want to be called an atheist, fine. But if someone is ignostic and doesn’t want to be known as an atheist, you ought not tell them they are based on your definition.
I’ve even had people tell me that I am not an atheist because I hold the belief ‘gods do not exist’ and am in fact an anti-theist. An anti-theist is one who believes no one should believe in gods, not just holds the belief gods do not exist… of course, if you redefine an atheist simply to be the lack of belief in gods definition, I guess you need to find a pigeon hole for the normative definition.
So, it does become rather amusing where one has a conversation about logic and beliefs, and discusses how the ontology of a rock doesn’t allow for a mental state and therefore cannot believe or lack belief, and therefore is not an atheist under either definition.. and people chime in ‘I’m watching the McRae virus take effect’
Apparently, encouraging logical thinking, the use of propositional logic, and spending more time looking into the concepts people are discussing, poorly, is now known as the ‘McRae Virus’.
Well, if this is the case, I hope it spreads. I have a number of topics we disagree on, and we have a different ontological position, but I have enjoyed my conversations with him, and being in his debate group with others.
People always seem to then bring up irrelevant information in regards to this too, the drama with Katie Joy Paulson (YouTuber) or Kyle Curtis (Steve’s former partner on the Non-sequiter show), or things he [Steve] has supposedly said or done, and never have they been able to support these statements past their assertions, or something taken out of context.
What’s more, we’ve all been wrong before, right? Sometimes we have said something either as a joke, or perhaps not fully thinking it, or our audience, through and come off poorly. Just because I might have once thought morality was wholly subjective, doesn’t mean I haven’t come to realise it is far more complex than that. You could probably find a tweet from me saying it was 4 years ago. That doesn’t mean I still think that, it just means I realised I was wrong.
Honestly though, I don’t and can’t know the truth about some of the events surrounding the drama with Steve. What I can say is, my interactions with him, past the initial headbutt, have always been positive, even when we disagree. Even if every negative thing said about the drama was true, does that invalidate his position on things like logic? Why should whether you think he is a good person or not cause you to reject him when he is correct? This is a bit of a genetic fallacy. Consider if you would reject him saying 1+1 = 2 just because it comes from him. If you wouldn’t then I can assure you you ought not to reject his use of propositional logic either.
So yes, even if every bad thing ever said about Steve was true, which I don’t believe to be the case as I have never been provided anything to convince me of such, that still doesn’t detract from the fact that he is correct in a large number of things he says. Whilst I cannot say for definite, I feel the personal attacks are done for ideological reasons. When you can’t refute someone’s logic, because it is better than yours, attack attack attack.
It’s easy to get swept up in the attitude of a crowd. Many internet atheists hate Steve, but this comes down to how many of us atheists see ourselves. Atheism is just supposed to be a position on a topic, but we are frequently telling each other atheists are more smart and rational and logical and moral etc than theists. This builds a bit of a cognitive bias that ‘I am an atheist, therefore I am rational and logical, therefore anything I say is rational and logical, therefore this person must be using logic wrong’.
What we ought to do as good sceptics is, when presented information contrary to our own, take the time to fully understand it and weight it up against what we already know. In fact, TrolleyDave wrote a great article on this: Descartes, Scepticism, and You. Unfortunately, most sceptics I interact with on the net seem to fit more in the category of Denialism and Pseudoscepticism.
- Dismissing any argument Steve makes because Steve makes it is poisoning the well/genetic fallacy.
- Dismissing any argument that sounds similar to one Steve makes, is a genetic fallacy.
- Not taking the time to understand things, and instead being more interested in the fight is a poor show of scepticism.
- Your personal feelings about Steve do not change if he is right or not.
- Assuming people are wrong because they are e-friends of Steve is a guilt by association fallacy.
Why is this relevant to Answers in Reason?
Well, for one I personally promote the use of logic to reason. I think we should all try to be as rational as possible. Many dismiss this logic, and sometimes do it purely because it is something McRae says.
Recently I got into a conversation with Aron Ra and his claim that rocks are atheists. I cover this a bit in Ontology and the things we lack… and Dave explains why Aron Ra’s prescriptivism is wrong in Rockin’ Atheism Pt. 1: The Wrongness of Aron Ra.
Off the back of this, I was informed that some bloke called UNIRock on a live stream started asserting all sorts of false claims about us. For one, he apparently said that AiR was only set up to troll Aron Ra. This is demonstrably false, we respect a lot of the work he does and even met him a few years back. This is covered in Alan’s article Aron Ra and the “state” of Texas.
He [Mr Rock] also made assertions that we are just a swarm of Steve’s followers, essentially a troll army, that he sends out with missions to take people down.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. I cannot speak for anyone not part of AiR, but he has never asked me to do anything, except for a couple of times asked me to check an article he was writing.
Also, through this conversation where I was arguing against Aron’s prescriptivism and explaining the logic behind the normative definitions of atheism, what a belief was and how rocks cannot be described as if they had mental states, frequently people came in with dismissive claims about ‘The McRae Virus’.
As I mentioned, I have had many conversations with Steve McRae. We don’t always agree, but generally that’s when there is something where there is no certainty there. There are certain things, like his use of propositional logic, and how he describes the normative uses of atheism and agnosticism that are correct, and people ignore. Please note, describing how these things are defined through the rules of logic is not being prescriptive, because he is not forcing you to stop calling yourself ‘agnostic atheist’ even if we understand that the terminology is technically nonsensical. What he is trying to do, is give you the tools to reason in a rational way.
Summary of ‘The McRae Virus’
Even if you buy in to every nasty thing said about the guy from folks that post intentionally misleading and inflammatory stuff for views and likes, and in fact even if any of the stuff said about him has some truth to it, discounting an argument because Steve makes it or it sounds like one similar to Steve’s is fallacious thinking.
Most folks who have even a basic understanding of propositional logic, beliefs, knowledge etc will agree on his use.
Attacking his character rather than addressing the argument is not helpful in the slightest.