Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Atheism


On Wednesday, CFI Michigan sponsored a talk by Neil deGrasse Tyson at Grand Valley State University. His talk was hilarious and he was incredibly charming and engaging. It was a blast. I only have one complaint other than the uncomfortable metal chairs we had to sit and and that was Tyson’s answer when asked what he thought of the atheist movement.

I vaguely remember this coming up before and some atheists being angry that Tyson declared himself an agnostic rather than an atheist and very publicly distancing himself from organized atheism. I didn’t really care. And I still don’t. But I was very disappointed in his answer, which was a Sarah Palin-level word salad that literally had nothing whatsoever to do with the question that was asked. He talked about the founding fathers and religious liberty, he talked about creationism in schools. He did everything but actually answer the question, which really annoyed me. But he has answered it in the past and here’s the video of him doing so:

I have no problem with most of this answer. I couldn’t care less whether he wants to call himself an agnostic or an atheist and have no desire whatsoever to get into a semantic debate over what those terms means (yes, I believe an agnostic is an atheist, but I really don’t care what people want to call themselves). And I’m really not bothered by his obvious attempt to distance himself from organized atheism. Don’t care. Don’t see why others should either. Whether he’s doing it out of some political decision to keep himself away from controversy or not, I just don’t care.

But here’s one problem I do have with his answer. He says that he doesn’t understand why the word “atheism” exists at all, arguing that we don’t have a word or a movement for those who don’t play golf. I think he’s being disingenuous here and I think he knows it. Of course he knows the difference between atheism and a-golfplayerism. If golf was an ideology (set of ideologies, really) that influenced public policy, if people actively tried to turn non-golfers into second class citizens, and if there was a cultural assumption that non-golfers were evil and immoral, he knows damn well that there would be, and should be, a movement to counter those things.

And in reality, he is part of that movement, or counter-movement to diminish the influence of religion on public policy, whether he wants to associate with the other aspects of it or not. The work he does is important in countering the negative influence of religious belief in undermining science education and public policy. He’s on the team, whether he wants to declare that publicly or not. He knows that he has a common opponent with those atheist activists who are doing similar work to counter the influence of religion.

Which is why I don’t think people should pressure him to declare a position at all. I think that’s pointless. Let him keep doing the work he does and stop demanding that he put on a certain uniform when he does it. But still, I’d like to hear him address these questions a bit more honestly. I’d rather hear him say something like this:

“My focus is on science literacy, so I don’t involve myself in religious questions except when they intersect with science and public policy. Everyone has to choose for themselves what really animates them and if others focus on separation of church and state or direct engagement with religion or building communities for non-believers, I think that’s fine and it’s exactly what they should do. It just isn’t my focus.”

He should just say “it’s not my thing” and move on rather than dodge the question when asked or pretend, disingenuously, that he just doesn’t understand why there is an atheist movement at all. Of course he does. And if he thinks that avoiding association with that movement will help him get a fair hearing in the public square, that’s fine with me too.

Comments

  1. matty1 says

    I believe an agnostic is an atheist

    I think this is wrong on the semantics but right in practice. The agnostic-gnostic spectrum is logically separate from the atheist-theist one. A person could be agnostic (not claiming knowledge about the supernatural) but hope a religion is true and follow it on that basis.

    But in practice such a person would not probably not call themselves agnostic.

    Incidentally I am an agnostic (I do not know about anything beyond the observable universe*) and an atheist (I do not believe in anything I would call a god).
    I am also an apatheist (I really don’t care about other people’s metaphysics unless it affects their behaviour in a negative way) and increasingly ignostic (thinking many gods are so poorly defined that even asking if they exist is meaningless).

    *I’m including indirect observation and logical inference here not playing the strawman of ‘only what I can see’

  2. doublereed says

    I also believe agnostics are atheist, but don’t really care what people call themselves.

    Honestly, what I’m really bothered about in his answer is that he’s stereotyping atheists. And this seems to be the usual response of self-styled agnostics against atheism. Saying that atheists are activist, arrogant, or in-your-face is nothing more than a stereotype.

    And that’s all agnostics are trying to do: distance themselves from a stereotype. Which is awful because that actually perpetuates the stereotype.

  3. says

    “My focus is on science literacy, so I don’t involve myself in religious questions except when they intersect with science

    The problem with this is that they always intersect. Because faith is intrinsically contrary to science. You simply cannot (consistently) promote science while respecting faith.

    ***

    And if he thinks that avoiding association with that movement will help him get a fair hearing in the public square, that’s fine with me too.

    I don’t have a problem with anyone saying it’s not their interest or focus, or simply not caring for the movement or its culture. I do object to someone’s distancing themselves from atheism or atheists if that’s done in a way that allows prejudices against atheists and our marginalization to go unchallenged. At the least he should stand against that prejudice, and at the very least he should refrain from perpetuating it.

  4. blf says

    (Apologies for the lack of research here.) I was once told, yonks ago (as a child), that both words were invented by the raping children cult. Why I no longer recall, but presume as an effort to “classify” or “pigeonhole” people who didn’t believe in some magic sky faeries. even if the faeries in question aren’t the ones which approve of slavery, war, child rape, et al. As such, I’ve always been reluctant to call myself either, a reluctance reinforced by the antics of some of those who do call themselves one or the other.

    I don’t care which (if either) term people use to describe themselves.

    I presume (again, sorry for the lack of research!) that terms such as “freethinker” were invented, possibly in part, due to similar concerns (or misunderstandings?) such as mine.

  5. iknklast says

    The problem with this is that they always intersect. Because faith is intrinsically contrary to science. You simply cannot (consistently) promote science while respecting faith

    I agree with this statement, but that doesn’t mean I disagree with what Ed said. I think that it is totally possible for this to be true, and for someone like Tyson to make a statement like Ed suggested. OK, that might mean a higher level of involvement than he admits to, but it still leaves him the opportunity to draw a broad audience, and leaves him the ability to speak with believers of all stripes about science. It might be a bit disingenuous, but it would be more honest than the stereotyping of atheists.

  6. doublereed says

    I was once told, yonks ago (as a child), that both words were invented by the raping children cult.

    There’s this thing called the Internet, which has this thing called Wikipedia inside of it.

  7. Erp says

    @blf, agnostic was supposedly coined and self-applied by Thomas Huxley who is not generally considered a member in good standing of any Christian denomination.

  8. says

    I agree with this statement, but that doesn’t mean I disagree with what Ed said. I think that it is totally possible for this to be true, and for someone like Tyson to make a statement like Ed suggested.

    Huh?

    OK, that might mean a higher level of involvement than he admits to, but it still leaves him the opportunity to draw a broad audience, and leaves him the ability to speak with believers of all stripes about science.

    That comment had nothing to do with his involvement or political considerations. It was about his statement being incorrect. He can’t limit his involvement with religious questions to a subset of areas where they conflict with science, because faith fundamentally conflicts with science (and is morally wrong and psychologically, socially, and politically harmful). In other words, there are no areas in which questions of religion and science don’t intersect (and conflict).

  9. matty1 says

    And atheist is from the Greek atheos – lit. without gods, which was being used as an insult against various philosophers before Jesus was a twinkle in the myth makers eye.

  10. says

    I recall having a quick chat with NGDT around some obscure one-day skeptic event here in Melbourne a couple years ago, where they flew in him and Shermer, and had promised Hitchens via videolink but he was too sick to attend, I forget the mob that organised it.

    He did his usual Pluto not a planet spiel but was very vague and fluffy when it came to affirming atheism, and I do remember that I was quite irritated by it all. In hindsight, probably not the best career move for him to admit to any affiliation or affinity with organised atheism. And who can blame him, really, given what that movement has turned out to be after 2011.

  11. says

    I appreciate many of the things Ed says here, but this bit I disagree with:

    But here’s one problem I do have with his answer. He says that he doesn’t understand why the word “atheism” exists at all, arguing that we don’t have a word or a movement for those who don’t play golf. I think he’s being disingenuous here and I think he knows it. Of course he knows the difference between atheism and a-golfplayerism. If golf was an ideology (set of ideologies, really) that influenced public policy, if people actively tried to turn non-golfers into second class citizens, and if there was a cultural assumption that non-golfers were evil and immoral, he knows damn well that there would be, and should be, a movement to counter those things.

    This misses the big picture in several ways. To continue the analogy, what if people who self-identified as a-golfers were currently dominated by people who had a strong emotional commitment to the idea that sport in general was evil and should be gotten rid of. Furthermore, what if the vast majority of their actual reasons for having such feelings about sport were actually complaints about boxing and similar sports with a high amount of violence and injury — complaints that are quite legitimate, but which do not really apply to all sport in any fair-minded assessment. These a-golfers often try to link the two by arguing that supporting sports (or even that those who think that sports work for a lot of people, even if they themselves do not participate) supports boxing by “enabling” the aggression and violence that characterizes it.

    Finally, if some a-golfers went around saying all that a-golfers wanted was respect and equality under the law, but they didn’t mention the much louder and more ambitious agenda discussed above, it might be more understandable why someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson didn’t think of that limited agenda as the main characteristic of a-golfers.

    As for why Tyson punted at the CFI talk in Michigan, who knows. He may have thought, accurately or not, that in front of a CFI audience it would either be rude to say such things, or would just invite acrimonious arguments that he wasn’t in the mood to have. Or it could have just been an off night…

  12. says

    He can’t limit his involvement

    Perhaps it would be less confusing if I replaced that with “One can’t…” or “You can’t…” or “It’s not possible to…” It’s meant as a general statement.

  13. says

    Matzke @11,

    This misses the big picture in several ways.

    No it doesn’t, it’s an accurate description of the flaw with this particular argument.

    To continue the analogy, what if people who self-identified as a-golfers were currently dominated by people who had a strong emotional commitment to the idea that sport in general was evil and should be gotten rid of.

    Well, analogy analogy fail.

    Furthermore, what if the vast majority of their actual reasons for having such feelings about sport were actually complaints about boxing and similar sports with a high amount of violence and injury

    Well thank god noone is actually arguing this, what a bizarrely failed analogy extrapolation. Or something. I’m not sure what.

    Finally, if some a-golfers went around saying all that a-golfers wanted was respect and equality under the law, but they didn’t mention the much louder and more ambitious agenda discussed above, it might be more understandable why someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson didn’t think of that limited agenda as the main characteristic of a-golfers.

    You mean if some atheists went about asking for respect and equality in a loud and ambitious way it might be understandable that NDGT might consider that a “limited agenda” and not want to publicly support it?

    Well Nick, your flawed analogies notwithstanding, then I would have to say, fuck you, and fuck him :-)

  14. says

    Nick —

    I would certainly agree that there is far too much extremism and over-simplification among atheist activists when it comes to religion, but I don’t think that really addresses my point at all. Like I said, I have no problem at all with him not wanting to associate with organized atheism, whether it’s because he doesn’t like some of the excesses of movement atheists or any other reason. I’m perfectly fine with that. But my point was simply about the disingenuousness of claiming not to understand why there would be an atheist movement at all, or even the word “atheism.” And the excesses of some atheists has nothing to do with that point. Those excesses could explain why he doesn’t want to associate himself with the atheist movement (and again, I’m perfectly fine with that), but it does not explain the absurd claim that there’s no reason to have such a movement, or even such a word, at all.

  15. rabbitscribe says

    (yes, I believe an agnostic is an atheist, but I really don’t care what people want to call themselves).

    Why is this so controversial? Words mean what we commonly agree that they mean. You are an atheist: you believe that there are no gods. I am an agnostic. I look at a universe that is fundamentally illogical and bizarre. Sub-atomic particles behave one way when we watch them and the opposite way when we go out for sushi and drop back in later to see what they’ve been up to. There’s a perfectly respectable hypothesis that our universe contains exactly one (1) magnetic monopole: a unique subatomic particle floating around out there not interacting with anything. Even math itself can be rather troubling: we’ve looked at the first fifty quadrillion even numbers and shown that each one is the sum of two prime numbers. But we can’t prove that every even number is the sum of two primes, and Dogs know we’ve tried. Might the explanation for the fatuous nonsense we call “reality” rest in some greater metaphysical reality beyond/ above/ underpinning our own? How the fuck should I know, but I can’t dismiss the possibility.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m composing a list of rules about ritually unclean foods and what you may or may not do with your naughty little tingly parts.

  16. says

    But here’s one problem I do have with his answer. He says that he doesn’t understand why the word “atheism” exists at all, arguing that we don’t have a word or a movement for those who don’t play golf. I think he’s being disingenuous here and I think he knows it.

    To be fair, he didn’t say he doesn’t understand why the word “atheism” exists, he said it is odd that the word “atheist” even exists. Just because he’s arguing that the word shouldn’t exist doesn’t mean he’s not aware of why it actually does.

  17. says

    rorschach —

    There’s no reason for such language, especially aimed at Nick. Like Tyson, Nick Matzke is a guy who has done tremendous work on behalf of science education and separation of church and state and, I’m sure, there is much more to come. If you liked the outcome of the Dover trial, he is one of the main people you have to thank for it. We have a small disagreement here, not even a big one. That does nothing to diminish my fondness or respect for him.

  18. doublereed says

    Why is this so controversial? Words mean what we commonly agree that they mean. You are an atheist: you believe that there are no gods. I am an agnostic. I look at a universe that is fundamentally illogical and bizarre.

    The commonly agreed version of agnostic that I’ve heard is that “I don’t believe there is a god” is different from “I believe there is no god.” A grammatical difference, not a logical or statistical one. They are the same thing. Therefore, I believe agnostics are the same thing as atheists. We have the exact same stance.

    You may have other reasons, but I don’t really think any of that matters, because neither of us lives our lives caring about God. The distinction between agnostic and atheist in practical terms is so minimal to be meaningless. If you want to call yourself an agnostic, go for it.

  19. Michael Heath says

    I don’t claim the atheist label though I’ve long shared their conclusions. I don’t like using the term for myself because it would have me conceding the framework of religionists, which I think is a fundamental error in logic given they’re the ones that have no basis in fact for their beliefs. So why should I refer to myself in their false framework? I realize Christian cultural dominance is what put the term atheism in play, but I’m taking the long view where I’m reasonably confident theism will eventually die out if liberalism continues to flourish.

    I don’t think any less of people using their real name and self-identifying as an atheist. In fact I respect the hell out of them for being out and cheer surveys that reveal an increase in atheism.

    Recently I’ve become increasingly aggravated that some political ideologues seek to effectively take over the term atheism where I find their defense for co-opting the term not only transparently absurd and therefore an insult to any reasonable person’s intelligence, but a useful example that atheists can succumb to the same defective thinking that religionists do. I do find it deliciously ironic some atheists are attempting to co-opt the term atheism given how much baggage the word used to have, where it’s now popular enough some want to exploit the increasing value of the term.

    Since I’d like to see atheism be an attribute that shouldn’t raise the ire of any, similar to how people are increasingly “so what” about being gay, its frustrating to see some atheists degrade the term for their political agenda before all of us “nones” can be out with no negative repercussions to our careers or societal ties. Perhaps Dr. Tyson is sensitive to this same bad behavior by some atheists.

    However, doublereed @ 2 makes an excellent point about Tyson effectively promoting stereotypes about atheists. I agree in general with his observation and share his frustration. The problem is that I also observe some atheists attempting to make such stereotypes accurate attributes of atheism as they seek to make it more of a political movement, e.g. A+, which has in turn had many in the movement depending on tribalism to advance their cause just like religionists do. So while doublereed’s point still holds, we’re increasingly threatened by some atheists making Tyson’s stereotype true for at least a large share of atheists.

    I instead self-identify as a freethinker. I’m someone who makes conclusions based on facts. The smaller the leap from facts to conclusion the better. I reject faith and belief as defectively juvenile thinking characteristics. I think our public education system should kill faith and belief. Not by directly attacking either, but instead merely teaching students to do research and develop their critical thinking skills. And then teach students to deploy their critical thinking skills in a manner where they don’t compartmentalize when to use those skills while avoiding such in other areas (politics). The latter is an affliction we even observe from some atheists who are strident in their politics.

    I understand my self-identifying as a freethinker rather than an atheist can be perceived as cowardly by those who are publically out. I think the argument my position is cowardly is compelling; so it’s something I’ve wrestled with for a long time. The one accommodation I’ve made because of this is to note that I share the same conclusions atheists make on Dawkins’ scale that are at level 6 out of 7. It’s one I’ve held for decades, but I didn’t publically point my conclusion out until after reading about his scale in The God Delusion.

    *doublereed @ 2:

    Honestly, what I’m really bothered about in his answer is that [Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s] stereotyping atheists. And this seems to be the usual response of self-styled agnostics against atheism. Saying that atheists are activist, arrogant, or in-your-face is nothing more than a stereotype.

    And that’s all agnostics are trying to do: distance themselves from a stereotype. Which is awful because that actually perpetuates the stereotype.

  20. Michael Heath says

    doublereed writes:

    The commonly agreed version of agnostic that I’ve heard is that “I don’t believe there is a god” is different from “I believe there is no god.” A grammatical difference, not a logical or statistical one. They are the same thing. Therefore, I believe agnostics are the same thing as atheists. We have the exact same stance.

    This is not my perception of what’s commonly agreed to in regards to these terms. In addition, I don’t think either group’s positions are accurately defined using the word ‘believe’. That word carries the baggage where faith is a strong component of one’s beliefs.

    Instead, my understanding is that agnostics don’t know if a god(s) exists but conclude the possibility competes with the odds no god(s) exist. An atheist is someone who concludes the possibility of the existence of gods is at best improbable and most likely highly improbable, that the current evidence weighs in heavily no gods exist. Dawkins’ scale promotes a similar definition though I think he’s too harsh on agnostics: http://goo.gl/trQYnL.

  21. Pierce R. Butler says

    … if people actively tried to turn non-golfers into second class citizens…

    Too late, at least in the worlds of business and politics: no golfing, no allies, no career.

  22. matty1 says

    For what it is worth Huxley wrote a fair bit on how he intended his term to be used, not that we are obligated to copy but it does at least give pause to anyone wanting to claim another usage as the one correct definition.

    For example from what may be the earliest essay on the subject by a proponent ( I have highlighted the bits that seem to come closest to a definition).

    Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, “Try all things, hold fast by that which is good;” it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him; it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect follow your reason as far as it will take you without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.

  23. doublereed says

    This is not my perception of what’s commonly agreed to in regards to these terms. In addition, I don’t think either group’s positions are accurately defined using the word ‘believe’. That word carries the baggage where faith is a strong component of one’s beliefs.

    Instead, my understanding is that agnostics don’t know if a god(s) exists but conclude the possibility competes with the odds no god(s) exist. An atheist is someone who concludes the possibility of the existence of gods is at best improbable and most likely highly improbable, that the current evidence weighs in heavily no gods exist.

    You are getting caught up in the semantics and grammar of the issue rather than the actual question. Which is generally how agnosticism works. If you understand what I’m saying then clarifying the connotation of ‘believe’ has no purpose.

    Replace it with ‘think’ or ‘know’ if you want. Athiests say “I think there is no god”, and Agnostics say “I don’t think there is a god.” A grammatical distinction without a difference.

    Dawkins’ scale is a pointless simplification of Bayesian Reasoning. Everyone already understands percentages so 1-7 is just adding unnecessary crap on.

    If you can get a straight answer out of an agnostic (admittedly not easy), they will say exactly what any atheist says. We believe the same thing. The difference is that agnostics do not want to be associated with the stereotype. That’s almost precisely what Tyson is saying. Tyson is far from the only one expressing this.

  24. colnago80 says

    Re MH, doublereed, and Brayton

    I prefer the term non-believer which is really what Dawkins is. Dawkins’ position is that he considers the existence of god to be a scientific proposition and thus far has observed no scientific evidence supporting it. Thus he has tentatively concluded that there is no god, although he would consider revising his view if such evidence was found.

    In this regard, he differs from PZ Myers who makes a claim that no evidence for the existence of god is possible. I would not agree with the sage from Morris, MN. in that evidence that the Sun actually remained stationary in the sky for a day would constitute evidence of divine intervention in one way or the other.

  25. says

    Nick –

    I would certainly agree that there is far too much extremism and over-simplification among atheist activists when it comes to religion, but I don’t think that really addresses my point at all. Like I said, I have no problem at all with him not wanting to associate with organized atheism, whether it’s because he doesn’t like some of the excesses of movement atheists or any other reason. I’m perfectly fine with that. But my point was simply about the disingenuousness of claiming not to understand why there would be an atheist movement at all, or even the word “atheism.” And the excesses of some atheists has nothing to do with that point. Those excesses could explain why he doesn’t want to associate himself with the atheist movement (and again, I’m perfectly fine with that), but it does not explain the absurd claim that there’s no reason to have such a movement, or even such a word, at all.

    Thanks for the comments. I’m just guessing, but he may be taking the view that he doesn’t see too much point in having “being against something” as a dominant part of one’s identity. He’d prefer to primarily be for something — science, education, etc. — preferring intellectually constructive pursuits to intellectually destructive ones. Of course, both sides of intellectual activity are important in certain contexts, and individuals may have different personal preferences and that’s fine. If Tyson had this view previously, I think the various epic blowups in the skeptic/atheist communities — compared to, say, any number of professional science groups — would tend to confirm his earlier preference.

  26. enki23 says

    If a large majority of people decided a lot about your value as a human by your golf handicap, and it was considered an act of civic virtue and patriotism and all the rest to golfing once a week, you can be damned certain we would have a word for people who didn’t play golf. Probably a lot of words.

  27. Minestuck says

    Tyson has in the past, in various interviews that you can find on youtube, expressed negative (and I feel offensive) views towards atheism and atheists beyond simply not wanting to associate with them; it’s his continued demeaning behavior towards atheism and atheists that bothers me about his position, not his choice to call himself agnostic. I do believe that he has asserted more than once the false claim that atheists positively believe god doesn’t exist. He may stubbornly believe (or claim to believe) that atheists are all gnostic atheists.

  28. Minestuck says

    I should clarify that I love Tyson and I love the work that he does. It just bothers me when good and smart individuals who do great work for public education and who are basically atheists say stupid stuff about atheism.

  29. says

    I’m not bothered by Dr Tyson calling himself agnostic or even seperating himself from the atheist movement as much as I am by the way he demonizes atheist activists. I went to see Dr Tyson speak at my college one year and I mostly enjoyed it but I was bothered by the way he stereotyped all atheists as evil angry militants that are obsessed with removing God from dollar bills.

  30. says

    I’m a huge fan of Dr. Tyson’s and I think that Dr. Tyson is playing a smart game. The wider american population is wary of “Atheists” and anyone who associates themselves with that label. As a “science communicator” it’s his job to communicate science to as large proportion of the population as possible. By being a prominent “atheist” and being known for being such, his communication would be instantly dismissed by Americans.

    He’s involved with the NSBA and by avoiding the “Atheist” label, he can slip under the radar slightly and push science without getting caught up with people saying he has some kind of “Atheist agenda”. Imagine if Richard Dawkins was in the same position. As a prominent atheist, many people simply wouldn’t even listen to what he said. I think Dr. Tyson is avoiding the label because he realises that it would impede his job as a science communicator slightly and stop the good (Secular, Reason based) work he does.

    He’s obviously a smart guy. Let him do his thing, he knows what he’s doing.

  31. doublereed says

    Agnostic, freethinker, atheist, skeptic, secular humanist, non-believer, bright, whatever. The label does not matter. These are arbitrary distinctions which do not constitute anything significant. Look, we’re individuals which means we’re going to disagree about all sorts of trivial things. And that’s what these distinctions are: Trivial.

    I don’t really care what you call yourself. I don’t care if Tyson calls himself an agnostic. Whoopdeedoo. We should work side by side regardless of petty differences like this. Tyson makes that slightly harder when he stereotypes atheists like this. But even this is a pretty minor disagreement. I’m a big fan of Tyson and I still am. Because he’s awesome.

  32. says

    Of course he doesn’t want to associate with (or be associated with) atheists. Awful, awful people. I do my best to stay away from them, and to associate with groups more aligned with my tastes.*

     
    * It should be noted that I rank groups by the quality of their covered dishes. Black Baptists (#2) have the best gumbo. Episcopalians (#1) have the best casseroles. What do atheists have? Lazagna? Hah! Good luck competing with the [Italian] Catholics (#9)! Heck, even the [Irish] Catholics (#21) have better beef stew than atheists, and theirs is practically inedible!

  33. leni says

    Michael Heath:

    This is not my perception of what’s commonly agreed to in regards to these terms. In addition, I don’t think either group’s positions are accurately defined using the word ‘believe’. That word carries the baggage where faith is a strong component of one’s beliefs.

    Instead, my understanding is that agnostics don’t know if a god(s) exists but conclude the possibility competes with the odds no god(s) exist. An atheist is someone who concludes the possibility of the existence of gods is at best improbable and most likely highly improbable, that the current evidence weighs in heavily no gods exist.

    I understand not knowing and not believing as being effectively the same thing. Even if an agnostic thinks the chances are 50/50 (as opposed to very likely or very unlikely), that doesn’t change the fact that this person still has exactly the same amount of belief as as an atheist, which is to say none.

    If people want to call themselves agnostics, that’s fine, but I see it as something similar to Bill O’Reilly calling himself an independent. I’ll accept it, but there will some amount of eye-rolling because to me it looks like self-serving maneuvering. Especially when it’s accompanied with a certain amount of finger-pointing. I can happily accept the practical reasons someone would do this, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s accurate, useful, or (in some circumstances) principled.

    I do like non-believer, though. It’s a fair blanket term without the baggage of atheist and agnostic.

  34. Christoph Burschka says

    I’ve seen atheism defined as the lack of belief in any deity, and agnosticism as the belief that the existence or non-existence of a deity can not be proved. By those definitions, I’d say nearly all atheists are agnostics and vice versa.

    When I call myself agnostic, that doesn’t mean “on the fence”; I’m just acknowledging that deities are unfalsifiable by definition.

  35. says

    I’m just acknowledging that deities are unfalsifiable by definition.

    Strongly disagree. 6000 years of claims of gods and their effects in the real world, and none have ever been seen or noticed, apart from images on slices of toast. I’d certainly call that more than just a trend. I’d call that pretty much falsified.

  36. francesc says

    He says that he doesn’t understand why the word “atheism” exists at all, arguing that we don’t have a word or a movement for those who don’t [agree with capitalism].
    Uh, wait. I mean, we don’t have a word for people who don’t eat meat. Nono, I mean we don’t have a word for people who don’t like cat’s videos in youtube. Seee?

  37. Alex says

    Strongly disagree. 6000 years of claims of gods and their effects in the real world, and none have ever been seen or noticed, apart from images on slices of toast. I’d certainly call that more than just a trend. I’d call that pretty much falsified.

    I think I disagree because it’s such a mess. Because “God” or “Deities” is just not a well-formed claim that makes it approachable by empirical tests. It’s like nailing jelly to the wall. There are many many claims of divinity that have been falsified due to the nonobservation of supernatural intervention, but defenders of the concept of Deity can simply claim that that wasn’t the one we are discussing, that the deity they are talking about just didn’t choose to intervene then.

  38. Olav says

    Michael Heath #21:

    I don’t claim the atheist label though I’ve long shared their conclusions. I don’t like using the term for myself because it would have me conceding the framework of religionists, which I think is a fundamental error in logic given they’re the ones that have no basis in fact for their beliefs. So why should I refer to myself in their false framework?

    It would only work that way if you used “the atheist label” to define the whole of you. As if not-a-theist is all there is to know about you and your views. That would be a very sparse and negative description of yourself, indeed.

    For me, i feel my atheism is just an element, or a facet, of my worldview. It is informed by other elements and in turn it informs other elements. The atheist in me comes out when discussing matters concerning religion and such. But at other times, atheism does not play a huge (or any) part in my life.

    I hope that came out clear, I haven’t much time to expand on it now.

  39. Olav says

    Correction, this:

    The atheist in me comes out when discussing matters concerning religion and such. But at other times, atheism does not play a huge (or any) part in my life.

    Should have read:

    The atheist in me comes out when discussing matters concerning religion and such. That’s when I start (unashamedly) wearing the label as well. But at other times, atheism does not play a huge (or any) part in my life.

  40. Michael Heath says

    Me @ 21:

    I don’t claim the atheist label though I’ve long shared their conclusions. I don’t like using the term for myself because it would have me conceding the framework of religionists, which I think is a fundamental error in logic given they’re the ones that have no basis in fact for their beliefs. So why should I refer to myself in their false framework? I realize Christian cultural dominance is what put the term atheism in play, but I’m taking the long view where I’m reasonably confident theism will eventually die out if liberalism continues to flourish.

    […]

    I instead self-identify as a freethinker. I’m someone who makes conclusions based on facts. The smaller the leap from facts to conclusion the better.

    Olav at 40 in response only to the first paragraph from my post @ 21:

    It would only work that way if you used “the atheist label” to define the whole of you. As if not-a-theist is all there is to know about you and your views. That would be a very sparse and negative description of yourself, indeed.

    No, this is wrong and completely misses the point. My rejection of the atheist label has nothing to do with atheism not adequately describing all of my attributes. That’s irrelevant in the context I use here. Instead I’m describing myself as a freethinker based on how I think. That’s opposed to defining myself as a post hoc reaction to the beliefs of theists who are dependent on their faith.

    Again, I have no motivation to describe myself based on theists’ beliefs. Instead I’ll define myself based on what I think and do.

  41. says

    “I’m a huge fan of Dr. Tyson’s and I think that Dr. Tyson is playing a smart game. The wider american population is wary of “Atheists” and anyone who associates themselves with that label.”

    Yeah, well, that’s the FUCKING PROBLEM.

    I’ve not listened to Dr. Tyson nearly as much since the whole Templeton Foundation thing.

    There is no “I” in “Team”. There is no “GOD” in “Science”. Anybody who can’t figure that out can’t really be a scientist or they can be a dishonest scientist.

  42. says

    He’s obviously a smart guy. Let him do his thing, he knows what he’s doing.

    Yeah, just like other smart guys like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens — they all knew what they were doing, so let’s not look any closer to see if they really did know what they were doing. How did that work out again?

    As others have already pointed out, Tyson doesn’t seem as consistently brilliant as he’s made out to be. His semantic quibbles I can forgive, but his harping on bogus stereotypes of atheists is harder to overlook — that goes to his credibility.

  43. AnatomyProf says

    I’m an a-golfer. It is not because of golf’s facilitation of more evil sports but because of its own intrinsic evil. I would think that any desert lover would be an a-golfer. I think it is about time for a more vocal movement. Perhaps, in the interest of habitat preservation, we can join with the anti-cemetery movement.

  44. jamessweet says

    Heh, I was reading a bit quickly, and I didn’t realize at first that the last blockquote was what Tyson could hypothetically say — I thought you were actually quoting him at first. I was like, “Wow, good for him, why doesn’t he say that every time he is asked?” heh… Oh well.

    Yeah, I agree. If Tyson doesn’t want to call himself an atheist, that’s fine. (Even though he has made it pretty clear that he is one, by any meaningful definition, but like you say: People choose their own labels, and I have no problem with that) If Tyson doesn’t want to comment on these issues, or associate himself with the atheism movement, I’m fine with that too. Just don’t throw the rest of us under the bus. Which he sorta has at times. It could be worse, but he also could do better in that regard.

  45. Jordan Genso says

    @36

    I’ve seen atheism defined as the lack of belief in any deity, and agnosticism as the belief that the existence or non-existence of a deity can not be proved. By those definitions, I’d say nearly all atheists are agnostics and vice versa.

    That is how I use the two terms. And the analogy I use is The Matrix.

    I accept that it is impossible to know with certainty if the Matrix exists (unless it is demonstrably proven to, but you can’t prove it doesn’t). In that regard, I am ‘agnostic’ about the Matrix.

    But if you asked me, I would say that I don’t believe the Matrix exists. So in that regard, I am ‘atheist’ about the Matrix (or ‘aMatrix’).

    With those definitions, I think it is very possible for there to be Christian (or Buddhist, etc) agnostics, that openly admit that they have doubt, but still have faith and believe in their religion. Likewise, there could be someone who believes the Matrix is real while accepting that they don’t know it with certainty.

    That is why I first identify as atheist. If anyone incorrectly assumes that means I “know” the supernatural does not exist, I correct them by saying I am agnostic as well. Obviously, my definitions are not authoritative, since this discussion alone shows different people use the words differently, but I try to be consistent when I use them.

  46. mesh says

    @colnago80

    In this regard, he differs from PZ Myers who makes a claim that no evidence for the existence of god is possible. I would not agree with the sage from Morris, MN. in that evidence that the Sun actually remained stationary in the sky for a day would constitute evidence of divine intervention in one way or the other.

    The problem is that this “evidence” is merely a lazy teleological ascription. One could just as easily assert that a hurricane constitutes evidence of divine intervention in one way or the other. Without examining any underlying facts all you are left with is the bare association of an event with the outlandish claims of a particular supernaturalistic camp. PZ Myer’s epistemological position isn’t mutually exclusive with Dawkins’ stance of provisionalism. The limits of our knowledge do indeed make it impossible to properly evaluate supernatural claims. Believing in the existence of the divine on the basis of the Sun hanging in the sky is functionally no different than converting to Christianity because your mother’s cancer went into remission; in each case you are simply taking something you can’t explain and appealing to an ad hoc narrative to sate the ego in the absence of a reasonable explanation.

    “Goddidit!” doesn’t explain anything. At best in the case of divine intervention you are presented with things beyond your comprehension which is only testament to the limits of your understanding.

  47. Pseudonym says

    I have a suspicion that NdGT might have a similar opinion to Carl Sagan. Sagan pointed out in his last book (Billions and Billions) that the world’s religions (the sufficiently liberal ones, at least) have a role to play in promoting good science education and evidence-based public policy, and in helping address the great moral challenges of the day, which in his day meant such things as nuclear disarmament and climate change.

    There are a lot of religious people and religious institutions who want religion out of government. Just look at AU. You might not consider yourself to be on their side, but for better or worse, they are on your side. There are different motives, but the same goal in mind. No effective advocate or activist would deliberately alienate such an ally over an irrelevant difference of opinion.

    Vive la différence, and all that.

  48. says

    Heath blithered thusly:

    The problem is that I also observe some atheists attempting to make such stereotypes accurate attributes of atheism as they seek to make it more of a political movement, e.g. A+, which has in turn had many in the movement depending on tribalism to advance their cause just like religionists do.

    Excuse me?! I haven’t seen nearly as much stereotypical behavior from the A+ crowd as I’ve seen from their mindless, mean-spirited, downright babyish haters. Your dig at A+ is as ignorant and dishonest as it is gratuitous.

    One common negative stereotype of atheists is that of the mean self-centered wanker who has no morals and who attacks religion without doing anything good himself. So tell us, Heath, who embodies that stereotype more — the A+ crowd who routinely talk about moral issues that affect the rest of us, or the junior-high misogynists who can’t stop attacking the A+ crowd for doing so (and can’t stop adding stupid jokes about female anatomy to the mix)?

  49. says

    I accept that it is impossible to know with certainty if the Matrix exists (unless it is demonstrably proven to, but you can’t prove it doesn’t).

    Generally speaking, if you can’t disprove an assertion, then for all practical purposes, the assertion is meaningless, and should probably be considered false, at least until more evidence come to light.

    As for the meaning of the words “atheist” and “agnostic,” I’d say, first, that there has to be some meaningful difference between those words, otherwise we should just stop using one of them; and second, MY meaningful distinction is that an atheist has at least decided not to firmly believe in any gods, while an agnostic is someone who simply has no opinion, and has made no decision, one way or the other.

    With those definitions, I think it is very possible for there to be Christian (or Buddhist, etc) agnostics…

    Those aren’t agnostics, they’re just less-adamant Christians or Bhuddists. They’ve chosen a belief (if only as a lazy default), they just aren’t that pushy about it. My dad was a Catholic, and the fact that he wasn’t 100% certain of it did not make him an “agnostic.” It only made him a more open-minded Catholic.

    That is why I first identify as atheist. If anyone incorrectly assumes that means I “know” the supernatural does not exist, I correct them by saying I am agnostic as well.

    Here you’re muddling the words to a point where they’re almost meaningless. If you identify as an atheist, then you’re an atheist, not an agnostic, because you’ve at least stated a decision: you’ve chosen to reject the idea that there are gods; and the fact that you don’t claim to know FOR CERTAIN doesn’t mean you haven’t made a choice. (A Christian can still be a Christian even if he doesn’t claim to know FOR CERTAIN that Jesus is God.)

  50. Michael Heath says

    Me earlier:

    The problem is that I also observe some atheists attempting to make such stereotypes accurate attributes of atheism as they seek to make it more of a political movement, e.g. A+, which has in turn had many in the movement depending on tribalism to advance their cause just like religionists do.

    Raging Bee writes:

    I haven’t seen nearly as much stereotypical behavior from the A+ crowd as I’ve seen from their mindless, mean-spirited, downright babyish haters. Your dig at A+ is as ignorant and dishonest as it is gratuitous.

    One common negative stereotype of atheists is that of the mean self-centered wanker who has no morals and who attacks religion without doing anything good himself. So tell us, Heath, who embodies that stereotype more — the A+ crowd who routinely talk about moral issues that affect the rest of us, or the junior-high misogynists who can’t stop attacking the A+ crowd for doing so (and can’t stop adding stupid jokes about female anatomy to the mix)?

    Well, to state the obvious. Your personal observations are not necessarily representative. And your noting the bad behavior of one group I didn’t even reference in no way excuses the bad behavior of the group I did reference. This is something we should learn by the time we reach what; age 10? To spell it out, two wrongs don’t make a right.

    Serving up a red herring to defend your tribe is a nice illustration of the bad behavior of the group I did reference. So thanks for that.

  51. says

    Your personal observations are not necessarily representative.

    They’re better than any information you’ve offered so far. If you have information to disprove my observations, go ahead and cite it here. In the meantime, my personal observations stand. YOu can’t replace something with nothing.

    Serving up a red herring to defend your tribe is a nice illustration of the bad behavior of the group I did reference.

    I refute your allegation, therefore that proves your allegation? Really? That’s the best you’ve got?

  52. says

    BTW, Heath, A+ is not “my” “tribe.” I’m a polytheist, not an atheist, and accusing me of “tribalism,” without disproving any of my comments, really makes you look stupid.

  53. Michael Heath says

    Raging Bee,

    You demonstrate close alignment with A+ politically where tribes do have alliances and act when their allies are criticized. I’m perfectly comfortable with my observations here and amused at your reaction, which is unfortunately for you, predictable. I.e., criticism of your political allies frequently has you using many of the same absurd rhetorical fallacies we see from conservative Christians.

    When we see Catholics, i.e., not theologically conservative Christians, act out in the same way when their conservative Christian allies are credibly criticized in areas where they share a political agenda, we are still seeing an illustration of tribalism. So not only do you provide a vivid demonstration of what I originally described, here you provide the nuanced illustration as well.

  54. says

    Heath: without addressing the actual substance of the “criticism” of A+, or my responses to such “criticism,” your allegations of “tribalism” are nothing but an empty buzzword. If you can’t show where I’m actually WRONG, then “tribalism” doesn’t work as an explanation of my actions. The only “tribalist” I see here is you, the guy mindlessly throwing the “tribalism” label all over the place and pretending it’s sticking to something.

  55. Michael Heath says

    Raging Bee writes:

    without addressing the actual substance of the “criticism” of A+, or my responses to such “criticism,” your allegations of “tribalism” are nothing but an empty buzzword. If you can’t show where I’m actually WRONG, then “tribalism” doesn’t work as an explanation of my actions.

    I realize this is a blind spot for you, which you demonstrate once again since your post @ 52 is a vivid illustration of your demonstrating tribalism; which requires only remedial understand to note logical fallacies as I do in my post @ 54.

    Raging Bee writes:

    The only “tribalist” I see here is you, the guy mindlessly throwing the “tribalism” label all over the place and pretending it’s sticking to something.

    Now you descend into Orwellian depths of psychological projection. What tribe am I supposedly defending here?

    It’s possible I’m wrong in regards to your demonstrating tribalism @ 52; though I’m confident I’m not. But it’s ludicrous to assign me to any tribe for what I write here. What tribe could that possibly be? I’m not even aware of a group which makes the same criticisms I’ve been making about A+ (and Secular Woman*); criticisms I’ve consistently noted here in Ed’s venue since both groups started.

    And somebody who defectively assigns the term tribalist to an undeserving other is not necessarily a tribalist. To think so is idiotic, to assert so in public by writing it out is just . . . wow, just . . . wow. Words do have definitions.

    *In Secular Woman’s case I’m annoyed they seek to usurp the name ‘secular’ for women who are not religious: http://www.secularwoman.org/about. History reveals that some of the most important secularists of all time were religious, including secular women. E.g., some of the most influential women in my local community that advance secularism here are Congregationalists, and we still have influential religious people that advance secularism at the global level, e.g., Karen Armstrong. Armstrong’s 2000 book, The Battle for God, was prescient at describing the threat fundamentalism posed as we entered into the 2000s.

  56. colnago80 says

    Re Mesh @ #48

    IMHO, Myers is wrong. As a for instance, if strong evidence was found that the Sun physically stood still in the sky for a day, as claimed in the Book of Joshua, which would require slowing the earth’s rotation to once every 365.25 days, and 24 yours later speeding it up to once per day, with none of the concomitant consequences, that would be evidence of supernatural intervention, since it would require suspension of the laws of physics.

  57. says

    I realize this is a blind spot for you, which you demonstrate once again since your post @ 52 is a vivid illustration of your demonstrating tribalism; which requires only remedial understand to note logical fallacies as I do in my post @ 54.

    Still no actual refutation of anything I said; so your “tribalism” schtick is still bogus.

    But it’s ludicrous to assign me to any tribe for what I write here.

    I’m not “assigning you to any tribe,” I’m saying you demonstrate tribalistic thinking (or at least tribalist talking-points) when you try to pretend that other people’s views are based on nothing but tribalism.

    Let me repeat: if a statement is not demonstrably wrong, then you can’t ascribe it to “tribalism” or any other flawed thought-process. Show us where I’m actually wrong, and THEN we can talk about “tribalism.” Horse before cart, remember?

    In Secular Woman’s case I’m annoyed they seek to usurp the name ‘secular’ for women who are not religious…

    And that quote supports your lazy demonization of A+…how? I just read the page you cited, and it says ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about “usurping” the word “secular,” or denying anyone the right to use that word. Seriously, your cite doesn’t support your allegation, and the allegation doesn’t support anything else you’ve said. What the fuck are you talking about?

  58. colnago80 says

    Re Raging Bee & Michel Heath

    One might almost think that the Michigan meathead is a libertarian given the vehemence with which Fairfax flogger is going after him.

Leave a Reply