Let me start by stating that “Atheism isn’t a philosophy, it simply means that we don’t believe in god” isn’t wrong. It’s accurate on a definitional level (defenders call it “definitional atheism”). But, I think using it as an argument is harmful for the below two reasons.
When Used to Discredit Fellow Atheists
The first way that using this argument is harmful is when it’s used against fellow atheists. Atheist A says “Atheists shouldn’t poop in other people’s cereal bowls! Atheism should be against pooping in other people’s cereal bowls!” on the Internet, and it’s almost a given that Atheist B will pop up and say “But, Atheism isn’t a philosophy, it simply means that we don’t believe in god, therefore Atheism can’t be against pooping in other people’s cereal bowls”. Apologies for the immature example; it usually involves denying women rights or deifying capitalistic greed. Atheist B, by stating this, is trying to burn down any evolution of what it means to be atheist, what atheism stands for, because apparently they’re incapable of having an actual discussion about the merits, or lack thereof, of “pooping in other people’s cereal bowls”. Of course, whether consciously or not, this type of well poisoning, this squashing of discourse, results in maintaining the status quo. If you like the status quo, then defend the status quo. Explain why you think this “pooping in other people’s cereal bowls” is something that should be maintained.
When Used to Explain Why Some Atheists Do Bad Things
The second way that using this argument is harmful is when it’s used to explain why an Atheist, or group of Atheists, could do something horrible. Theist says to Atheist A that “Atheism is bad because Atheist B did something horrible”. If you respond back with the definitional atheism argument, then you’ve just conceded the point to the Theist that Atheists can be horrible. A much better response is to just flip their statement “Theism is bad because Theist B did something horrible”. Any group of people of sufficient size is going to have some people that do horrible things, regardless of which group they belong to. But, any self-respecting group wouldn’t publicize say that the nature of their group is such that they have to accommodate people who do horrible things, because definitions.
If Atheism is to become a respectable descriptor, you staunch definitional atheists need to stop scuttling the ship. In fact, I think if you do either of the above, I’m going to call you out.
Definitional Atheist – An atheist who whines when somebody tries to attach human decency to Atheism.