Neil deGrasse Tyson: atheist, agnostic, or equivocator?

Over at The Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta has posted this “Big Think” video of Neil deGrasse Tyson discussing whether he’s an atheist or agnostic. Some of Hemant’s analysis, taken from his piece, “When did Neil deGrasse Tyson start using the arguments of Christian apologetics?” is below, and I agree with him. Either Tyson doesn’t seem to know the difference between “atheist” and “agnostic” (if, indeed, there is a difference!), or is deliberately avoiding the characterization of “atheist” because of its pejorative connotations in America.

Tyson clearly conflates (perhaps deliberately) “atheism” with active atheism: that brand of disbelief that organizes movements, writes antireligious books, and prosyletizes. And Tyson, as he says (somewhat self-servingly), is simply too busy to do that—he’s more interested in bringing people to science.  That’s a great thing to do, and Tyson does it superbly, but this explanation leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  I’m not going to tell people what they should call themselves, nor do I require Tyson to be an active atheist, but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck . .

Like Hemant, I’m disappointed.  It only takes two seconds to call yourself an atheist (you don’t have to write a book on it!), and it would do so much to help disbelief become respectable. His distinction between atheism and agnosticism (the former are “in-your-face”; the latter are not) is completely disingenuous: one can be a Republican and not be an “in-your-face” Republican, and so it is with atheists.

Here’s part of Hemant’s take:

Without going into (boring-to-me) philosophy that breaks the categories down even further (“He’s a weak atheist,” “He’s an agnostic atheist”), it sounds like Tyson is just trying to back away from using the A word.

To some extent, I understand that. He doesn’t want to be known to the public as an “atheist scientist” (like Richard Dawkins). He wants to be known as a scientist, period. There’s a huge advantage to that.

But one of the reasons so many of us respect Dr. Tyson is because he tells it like it is (and he’s so effective in the process). I have a hard time believing he just misunderstands the terminology (at least as it’s used by the general public).

He goes on to explain that one of the reasons he’s not an “atheist” is because the atheists he knows are fervent activists, fighting for that cause, debating god’s existence, etc. But again, that’s not what makes someone an atheist. You can be an atheist and never talk about it with anyone. If you don’t believe god exists, you’re an atheist. End of story. What you do with that belief is your business, but you don’t become a “bigger” atheist because you talk about it openly, and you’re not a “lesser” atheist if you don’t come out of the closet.

At the end of the video, he talks about how he wouldn’t join a group for people who don’t enjoy golf… as if all atheists do is sit around and not pray. As if there is no anti-atheist discrimination to fight against. As if we’re not opposing attempts to make this a “Christian nation.”

If people who didn’t play golf were discriminated against, then we’d make a bigger deal about that, too. But people who don’t play golf can still get elected to Congress all across the country. People who don’t believe in god are banned from even runningfor office in several states (at least in the books). . . .

I’ve never said this before, but I’m really disappointed in Neil deGrasse Tyson after watching that video.

I was a bit disappointed even before this (see my earlier post about Tyson’s equivocation about faith and his response to me).

_______________

UPDATE: Here’s one way of distinguishing atheism from agnosticism, and I agree with it:

Once it is understood that atheism is merely the absence of belief in any gods, it becomes evident that agnosticism is not, as many assume, a “third way” between atheism and theism. The presence of a belief in a god and the absence of a belief in a god exhaust all of the possibilities. Agnosticism is not about belief in god but about knowledge—it was coined originally to describe the position of a person who could not claim to know for sure if any gods exist or not.

Thus, it is clear that agnosticism is compatible with both theism and atheism. A person can believe in a god (theism) without claiming to know for sure if that god exists; the result is agnostic theism. On the other hand, a person can disbelieve in gods (atheism) without claiming to know for sure that no gods can or do exist; the result is agnostic atheism.

h/t: Grania

320 Comments

  1. Posted April 26, 2012 at 4:03 am | Permalink

    Tyson does good work in general as a science populariser. Is he actively doing bad work (like the strident accomodationalists)? It’s not clear to me he is.

    • Tyro
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

      Personally, when I see him work so hard (especially for such a busy man) to avoid the label “atheist”, I get the feeling that atheism must be something especially nasty. There are many other atheists who go to great lengths to distance themselves from other atheists and avoid this label. It all goes to further the stigma.

      • Scott near Berkeley
        Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:48 am | Permalink

        “…further the stigma” is exactly right. If the Prime Minister of Australia can make the unabashed claim, and immediately gives her reasoning, why cannot an articulate scientist?

        • Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

          Because Australia is not America.

          • Voltaire 2
            Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:03 am | Permalink

            Yes, get real – do you honestly think any political leader in the USA above janitor level could declare their atheism and not be lynched in one form or another? For most Americans it is just this side of the Salem Witch Trials.

            • josh
              Posted April 26, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

              That’s rather over the top. It’s more like being an out atheist means giving up a large enough percentage of the electorate to lose an election in most districts. In the deep south and red west you’d never get an atheist elected. In the blue to moderate states you might but it’s not an asset.

              There’s still a lot of ridiculous religious incursion into other peoples’ lives here, and there are local pockets where it’s hell to live as an atheist, but on the whole it’s not mobs with pitchforks.

            • Scott near Berkeley
              Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

              Like, uh, Culbert Olson, governor of California?

              Would not say “So help me God” for the oath of office. He said, “I will affirm” and “there isn’t any such person.” Became an atheist at ten years of age.

              More details:

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culbert_Olson

              • gbjames
                Posted April 27, 2012 at 4:43 am | Permalink

                Wow. Pretty cool. And with Pete Stark in Congress we can now count TWO in the last half century! (Both from California!)

  2. Posted April 26, 2012 at 4:30 am | Permalink

    Getting atheistic scientists to publicly label themselves atheists, while welcome, is far less powerful than this: winning the proud ground that “scientist” subsumes atheism by definition. There can be no such thing as a scientist who maintains the supernatural exists..

    As for “agnostic”, that is a shameful appellation for a rational to self-claim. Either you believe in the supernatural, and thus declare your irrationality and disqualification as a scientist, or you do not and are therefore atheistic.

    • agentwhim
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:38 am | Permalink

      “shameful appellation”: On the contrary, it is a very rational stance.

      Unless you think that you KNOW there is no god, you should describe yourself as an agnostic. Claiming that you do know this is a faith position, since there is no evidence to indicate that there is no god (maybe god exists, but doesn’t intervene at all in the universe).

      Agnosticism and atheism aren’t points on a continuum: you could be (for example) an agnostic atheist, a gnostic atheist (what I was describing above), an agnostic christian (not claiming to know god exists, but believing nonetheless), or a gnostic christian.

      Agnosticism or gnosticism are positions on what we can know and don’t depend on faith, whereas atheism and theism are positions on faith.

      • Tulse
        Posted April 26, 2012 at 7:22 am | Permalink

        Are you agnostic about leprechauns, and pixies, and unicorns, and Lemuria, and Atlantis, and etc. etc. etc.?

        Knowledge is always provisional, and always involves the possibility of error. To say we can’t “know” there is no god is to say we can’t “know” anything.

        • agentwhim
          Posted April 26, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

          Of course I’m agnostic about them (I don’t positively know they don’t exist), but I don’t believe in them, just as I don’t believe in any gods. That is really what I was trying to say: agnosticism/gnosticism is orthogonal to belief/unbelief.

          • Tulse
            Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:03 am | Permalink

            Of course I’m agnostic about them (I don’t positively know they don’t exist)

            In that case, do you positively know anything? You seem to be far more weight on knowledge about the existence or non-existence of gods than you are about any other domain of knowledge. If someone asked you about homeopathy, would you tell them that you are “agnostic” about it? What about pyramid power? Or ghosts? Or vampires?

            In terms of everyday language, it seems reasonable for me to say that “gods don’t exist”, and thus to call myself an atheist. I’m not certain of that, but I’m not certain there’s not an elephant in my fridge, yet I presume that you wouldn’t object to me calling myself an a-elephantofridgist.

            • agentwhim
              Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:36 am | Permalink

              :-)

              Sure, I call myself an atheist, too. That’s a position on whether you believe in gods or not (a lack-of-faith position).

              Logically you should be agnostic about your fridge-based elephant, at least until you open the door (unless the elephant is invisible of course).

              • gbjames
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:48 am | Permalink

                @Agentwhim: I think you are making two contradictory claims.

                1.

                Unless you think that you KNOW there is no god, you should describe yourself as an agnostic.

                2.

                I call myself an atheist, too. That’s a position on whether you believe in gods or not (a lack-of-faith position).

                In #1 you say that the atheism claim is one of positive knowledge. In #2 you say that it a matter of not believing in gods. These are different.

              • agentwhim
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:55 am | Permalink

                Sorry, gbjames I can’t reply directly to your post (the reply link isn’t there).

                They aren’t contradictory. In (1) I’m saying that if you know a god does not exist you are a gnostic atheist or that if you don’t know whether a god exists or not you are an agnostic atheist (or an agnostic theist). In (2) I’m saying that I am an agnostic atheist.

                “Agnostic” is not an intermediate position between theist and atheist.

              • Godfrey Zone
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

                This just seems like word games to me. I am an atheist, i.e. I do not believe that any god exists.There is no evidence for them, so I do not believe they exist. I do not claim to know that there is not a god. Even Richard Dawkins, does not claim to know that god does not exist. It is just so unlikely that it does not warrant belief. Why do you state that an atheist claims to know god does not exist? That would be a foolish claim, as we do not have total knowledge of everything, and likely never will.

              • agentwhim
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

                “Why do you state that an atheist claims to know god does not exist?” Because in this context there are 2 varieties of atheist. **Agnostic atheists** like you and Richard Dawkins (and me) don’t believe in god, but don’t claim to know that god doesn’t exist. **Gnostic atheists** don’t believe in god and claim to know that god doesn’t exist.

              • Posted April 29, 2012 at 6:05 am | Permalink

                Depends on the god.

        • Brygida Berse
          Posted April 26, 2012 at 8:35 am | Permalink

          +1

      • Notagod
        Posted April 26, 2012 at 8:07 am | Permalink

        You are hedging on a claim of knowledge when you frame your position in relationship to a god. You have knowledge of one, many or, any, or, whether there are Thing(s) that have characteristics unnatural to earthly creatures but are also not characteristic of notions of godishness. When you frame the discussion in relationship to one god you are moving perilously close to a christian notion of one god. None of the christian gods (the christians have many notions god and they are incompatible) exist.

        If I makeup a few words and claim that those words have special powers over you, are you willing to claim that they do not?

        • agentwhim
          Posted April 26, 2012 at 8:39 am | Permalink

          You can’t positively know whether any particular god or gods exist or not. You can say that on the basis of the available evidence there’s no reason to believe in the existence of any such thing, however – that would be a perfectly rational stance.

          “None of the christian gods (the christians have many notions god and they are incompatible) exist.” There you go, then. That’s a positive claim. If a christian made the opposite claim you might reasonably say “Where’s your proof?”. Isn’t your claim equally unsupportable? Where’s your proof or evidence of the non-existence of any god (christian or otherwise)?

          The logical, rational stance would be: There is no way to prove the existence or otherwise of gods, given the incoherent way in which they are variously defined, therefore I have to be agnostic on whether they exist or not. In the absence of any evidence or indication of their existence, I don’t believe in them, so I’m an atheist.

          “If I makeup a few words and claim that those words have special powers over you, are you willing to claim that they do not?” No, I’m willing to say that I don’t believe you. It would be open to you to provide evidence that they do, in which case I could choose to change my mind (or not, if I didn’t buy your evidence).

          • Somite
            Posted April 26, 2012 at 8:44 am | Permalink

            It is a matter of evidence. All the argument needed is that you can state that there is no evidence for a god, specially a “bible” god.

            At that point being an agnostic is irrelevant because there is nothing to be agnostic about. For agnosticism there has to be some evidence or at least plausibility. The existence of a god fulfills neither.

            • agentwhim
              Posted April 26, 2012 at 8:56 am | Permalink

              I don’t think so. Not being agnostic means being gnostic. In this case, as far as gods are concerned, you are saying that you know there is no god. How do you know that?

              Claiming that you know there is no god is as strong a claim as the theist claim that there is a god. Just as you might challenge a gnostic theist to provide evidence for their strong claim of the existence of god, you should expect to be challenged on the strong claim of the non-existence of a god.

              • Tulse
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

                you are saying that you know there is no god. How do you know that?

                There is no certain knowledge (outside of formal systems). You are demanding a level of certainty for gods that you do not demand for other entities (such as monsters under your bed, unless you are “agnostic” about those as well).

          • Cheron22
            Posted April 26, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

            Every Christian god that I have heard described includes at least the following.

            1) He’s perfect

            2) He wants us to love him as he loves us.

            Something that is perfect is without need; if this god is perfect than it would have had no need/desire for our love. I am a gnostic atheist in regards to any god defined with those to attributes…. and I have not heard of any Christian god lacking those two attributes.

            • agentwhim
              Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

              I’m not a christian (I’m an atheist), but if I were, I’d probably say that you can’t know what a perfect being is like, so your assertion about perfect things being without need is questionable. Also, human descriptions about the christian god could be wrong, so the god could still exist with other attributes.

              • Tulse
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:08 am | Permalink

                you can’t know what a perfect being is like, so your assertion about perfect things being without need is questionable

                OK, but if a perfect being is unknowable, then how do they know that a perfect being didn’t create humans just to torture, or created the universe to produce black holes (and humans are just an unwanted byproduct)? The claim that “the ways of the Lord are mysterious” is simply incompatible with “Jesus loves me, this I know”.

              • Cheron22
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:20 am | Permalink

                A perfect test score isn’t 99%. A perfect piece of apple pie doesn’t need just a little more brown sugar. A perfect game of bowling isn’t scored as 299. The perfect doctor Who fan doesn’t ask who the Cybermen are.

                Why is it that well understood words suddenly become vague or nuanced when dealing the supernatural?

              • agentwhim
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:02 am | Permalink

                How do you know any particular god is perfect?

              • Cheron
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

                You’ve been responding like a trooper to many posts so I can see how you might forget what was said between them.

                If you look up I explained that all the god claims I have heard hold that god is indeed perfect.

                If someone is going define a god who shares the same faults as us mere humans but spends its time killing frost giants, I’d be an agnostic atheist

              • agentwhim
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

                “you might forget” Yes, sorry. :-)

                “…all the god claims I have heard hold that god is indeed perfect” I think that’s the problem. Surely some of the god claims (from non-Christian religions, at least) are not about perfect gods. Being an atheist isn’t about just disbelieving the claims of certain religions is it? I certainly believe none of them.

                But the problem is that gnostic atheists are making a claim that they know no gods exist. What I don’t understand is how such a thing can be rationally defended, since no evidence exists for such a sweeping claim. How would such a person KNOW such a thing? Certain specific claims might be incoherent, but that doesn’t help with the much more general claim that we know there is no such thing as a god, which is what the gnostic atheist claim.

              • bernardhurley
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

                But the problem is that gnostic atheists are making a claim that they know no gods exist. What I don’t understand is how such a thing can be rationally defended,

                Well, of course, it does depend on what you mean bey a God. Caesar Augustus was considered a god and he existed. I someone wants to worship a stick and call it god, I won’t say it doesn’t exist. But it is quite reasonable to say that Yahweh doesn’t exist and I would argue that the theological notion of a god outside time and space is incoherent. So one can quite reasonably say that God, in the usual sense of the word, does not exist and to claim to know, again in the usual sense of the word, this fact.

              • Posted April 26, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

                How would such a person KNOW such a thing?

                Easy.

                The exact same way we all know that there are no married bachelors, and that “the largest prime number” (or, for that matter, “the largest integer”) doesn’t exist, either.

                Or are you agnostic about married bachelors, as well? If so, how do you get out of bed in the morning? What are you doing typing on a computer?

                b&

              • agentwhim
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

                Gnostic atheism doesn’t claim the non-existence of just a particular god, but the non-existence of any god. As you’ll doubtless know, when people discuss gods they’re talking about supernatural beings, not sticks or kings.

          • Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:14 am | Permalink

            You can’t positively know whether any particular god or gods exist or not.

            Oh, yes I can!

            If the god in question is nothing if it’s not a married bachelor, then that god most emphatically does not exist. And if the god in question was clearly made up as part of a fantasy, such as Superman or Luke Skywalker or Jesus, then you can be damned sure that the god doesn’t exist.

            And, the thing is, those two criteria cover all the gods.

            One good thing the Christians did for us was to raise the bar for deities. It used to be that gods had limited domains; this one god controlled the weather, and this other god made the sun move across the sky. There then began an arms race with bigger and badder gods subsuming more and more powers unto themselves. The Christians took that to the ultimate with omnipotence; their god is so powerful that it can do everything all the other gods can do and then some.

            You know what? It’s kinda hard to back down from something like that. You can’t really go from worshipping an all-powerful god to the god responsible for dryer lint.

            And, as it just happens to turn out, omnipotence doesn’t even pass a sniff test. An allegedly-omnipotent god, for example, can’t even commit suicide — let alone make a rock too heavy to lift or a square triangle.

            So, no. There are no gods. Period, full stop, end of story.

            And, not only am I absolutely certain of this, but I’ll bet you are, too. You just like the political correctness of remaining open to all possibilities.

            Cheers,

            b&

            • agentwhim
              Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:49 am | Permalink

              I don’t think it is political correctness.

              The title of this web site is “Why Evolution Is True”, but I’m sure that if pressed even Jerry would admit that it is possible that in the future some evidence could be discovered which would disprove some aspect of the theory, however unlikely this might be. In science generally the best we can do is continually refine our understanding and improve our models of the universe.

              I don’t believe in anything supernatural at all, but that’s a different question from whether I know those things don’t exist. That is a faith position and I try not to hold any faith positions.

              Prove Superman doesn’t exist.

              • gbjames
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

                …it is possible that in the future some evidence could be discovered which would disprove some aspect of the theory, however unlikely this might be.

                Actually, it is a certainty that “some aspect” of the theory will be “disproved”. (Ignoring the fact that “proof” is a mathematical term, not one often used in the context of scientific theory.) Refinements to the theory happen all the time. Every time this happens some aspect is “disproved”.

              • Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

                I sincerely doubt and very much hope you’re not agnostic about Superman. But, if you are, then you should not be permitted a checkbook, let alone a driver’s license.

                b&

              • agentwhim
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

                :-) I notice you didn’t prove his non-existence.

              • Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:28 am | Permalink

                @agentwhim

                You have an obsession with throwing ice water on the very valuable and positive stance of truth: “the burden of proof is on the speaker making the claim.”

                Why do you do that?

              • Scott near Berkeley
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink

                Prove and proving doesn’t apply. Proof is for closed systems, like the law, and mathematics. There is no “proof” in reality. Only in closed systems, where “proof” is a defined construct.

                Don’t use that term “proof” in metaphysics. It is no more relevant than showing up in a court of law with the largest giraffe anyone has ever seen.

                Certainty is the correct term about gods and the supernatural. If you have =no uncertainty= that gods do not exist, that Zeus, Yahweh, etc are imaginary, that means you’re an atheist. There’s no gradation of that definition (e.g. “agnostic atheist” or “super atheist”, “colossal atheist”.)

                The earth has a gravitational constant: we don’t have to “prove” it by measuring it everywhere on the planet. We are certain, 100%. The fact that your memory ceases to function, or to transmigrate, go anywhere, when you die, means no afterlife. And where is god(s) in the natural world? 100% missing.

              • agentwhim
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:11 am | Permalink

                Fair point. I should have said “What is your evidence for the claim that god – or Superman – doesn’t exist?”

            • Old Rasputin
              Posted April 26, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

              I will suggest that no one really believes in a god who can produce married bachelors and square circles. I suppose if you went around asking the religious whether their deity could make a married bachelor, you would find a rather frequent occurrence of ‘yes’ answers. However, I will argue that although they managed to move their tongues in the appropriate way to articulate a response, they haven’t understood what they are responding to.

              Asking such a question is akin to asking something like, “Can your god robust a carpet turnip at the knee?” You can answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ if you really want to, but unless we re-define some or all of those words, the “question” remains devoid of any semantic meaning, and a yes/no/true/false “answer” is simply inappropriate.

              If the word “omnipotent” is to mean /anything/ it can’t mean “able to crank out married bachelors”, because no word can truly mean that; it’s not a thing capable of being meant; it’s a category error, right? I guess what I’m saying is that such omnipotence is not a “kind of omnipotence worth wanting.”

              Perhaps I’m beginning to see where the compatibilists are coming from…

              • Posted April 27, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink

                If the religious are lying about their beliefs, then I have absolutely no sympathy for them whatsoever. If they’ve built an indefensible straw man and are themselves trying to defend it, then they damned well deserve to get vociferously laughed at for their multiply-compounded idiocy.

                Besides, there’s no need to even go so far as married bachelors. As I’ve pointed out plenty of times: if you’re omnipotent, you can’t commit suicide. Oops.

                b&

              • Old Rasputin
                Posted April 27, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

                @Ben
                Oh yes, I largely agree, and would in fact state that calling their position “an attempt to defend an indefensible straw man of their own creation” is being generous.

                My own attitude could be variously construed as “sympathy” or “condescension”, but either way, my claim is that they do not understand their own beliefs. Either they’ve never taken the time to examine them, or they are simply too emotionally invested in certain combinations of words to recognize their incoherence.

                No one believes the impossible is possible (given one consistent definition of “possible”). Anybody who says they do does not understand their own words. As you said somewhere else in this thread, it’s merely an abuse of language.

          • Notagod
            Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:38 am | Permalink

            Christians make certain claims regarding their gods, they have one source document that they claim is the “word” of a god. Christians claim that their gods are perfect. The christian holey book is in no way perfect. The christian holey book contradicts itself. The christian gods cannot be perfect because they would have been guilty of creating imperfection which is not perfect. There cannot exist an entity that has all the attributes the christians describe as “god”. There are many different ways to come to a legitimate conclusion that christians gods do not exist, I’m not willing to get into an in depth analysis so I’ve presented some simplified forms or problems with christian gods.

            Also, you should pay more attention to what Tulse is writing. I think you would make yourself insane, literally, if you forced yourself to apply your doctrine for gods to all aspects of your life, therefore, I consider your analysis unreasonable. It is reasonable given the overwhelming evidence for natural causes and no evidence for unnatural causes, to assume positively that no diddling gods exist.

            Furthermore even if, beyond reason, some unnatural entity(s) did exist there is no basis for referencing it as a god, for it would certainly, by necessity of the known facts of reality, be evil.

            • agentwhim
              Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:57 am | Permalink

              I don’t think it has driven me insane yet – at least that’s what the nurses tell me.

              I’m only applying this to the existence of god, because it is a particular field where there is no good evidence either way.

              I know where my house is, because I go there and find my house. Evidence is provided and it is reasonable to say that I know something about the location of my house. If someone claimed my house was in the ocean we could go and have a look and come to a conclusion about their claim (it isn’t!).

              In the case of god, people claim all sorts of things – that there is one, that there isn’t one, that they know this or that about them – but all without evidence. This seems irrational to me. Why would you think it rational to agree with a claim of knowledge without evidence?

              • Notagod
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:19 am | Permalink

                We have large quantities mounds even of evidence for natural causes why do you insist on discounting or ignoring it? No evidence not even a tiny speck for unnatural causes.

                If you are willing to weight that no evidence as strongly, in all aspects of your life, you should be spending all your time checking for ocean lapping at your door to the exclusion of writing comments! After all, there is at least a speck of a possibility that the ocean is there or will be soon.

      • Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:51 am | Permalink

        Strong disagreement.

        As subsumed in my post above and also remarked by others, being a Rational INCLUDES intrinsically the root of “open to new evidence.” Reason consists of facts+logic and the Rational is a hypocrite if he stonewalls incoming facts.

        The construction of a hedge concept “agnostic” is not only unnecessary, it is very damaging; in order to “comfort” the agnostic in his hideout, it shoves a rude elbow in the face of the fully consistent and powerful Rational/atheist. “Rational” states his full paradigm of reason as an absolute and “atheist” is a very minor codicil that would be completely unnecessary to even speak, but is useful when theists go flailing about: you let them know you have no god.

        • agentwhim
          Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:58 am | Permalink

          OK, so what’s your evidence for the non-existence of god, then?

          • Somite
            Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:03 am | Permalink

            No need for evidence for non-existence in the absence of evidence for existence. Agnosticism skips this step.

            • agentwhim
              Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink

              Absence of evidence? You think that proves the non-existence of something?

              • Somite
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:13 am | Permalink

                It makes proving non-existence irrelevant.

              • Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:18 am | Permalink

                Oh, yes. Most assuredly.

                The absence of evidence for the elephant in your ‘fridge is proof of the nonexistence of your ‘fridge elephant.

                Absence of evidence is always evidence of absence, and it becomes proof when the evidence is required for existence and the search is sufficiently thorough.

                b&

          • Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:13 am | Permalink

            Before we can provide evidence about the existence a given entity or phenomenon, we need to know what it is whose existence we’re trying to establish.

            (Alternatively, of course, and preferably, we could start with the evidence and try to come up with the best explanation that fits the evidence, but that’s not what you’re asking.)

            So, what, exactly, is a god? Please provide one or more characteristics that one can point to and say, if entity E has (or doesn’t have) property P then it certainly is (or isn’t) a god.

            b&

            • Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:37 am | Permalink

              You are right Ben. However, this should be taken further. The claimant needs to identify one or more existents that are the thing, if he wishes others to discover more truth about it.

              A made-up definition with no existent to point to possesses made-up characteristics. There is no need — and no point — in any Rational discussing it. The burden of proof is on the claimant to both point out an existent of the thing and identify the essential characteristics of the thing in a way accepted by other Rationals.

              • agentwhim
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:48 am | Permalink

                This is weird.

                John, you are indirectly saying that you know that there is no god. That is a claim of a truth. As you point out, a rational position would be to expect evidence for claims of truth. We both know there is no evidence for the claim you are making, so it is irrational to make it.

                Of course, the same is true of theists. They claim that god exists and atheists rightly ask for some evidence. Why should the claim that god doesn’t exist be exempt from this kind of process?

                Just for completeness, agnostic atheists might reject the claim of the existence of god for the same reason: the lack of evidence.

                Elsewhere in this thread you said “You have an obsession with throwing ice water on the very valuable and positive stance of truth: “the burden of proof is on the speaker making the claim.”” That is exactly the opposite of what I’m doing – the burden of proof is on YOU for claiming the non-existence of god.

              • Tulse
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:01 am | Permalink

                John, you are indirectly saying that you know that there is no god. That is a claim of a truth. As you point out, a rational position would be to expect evidence for claims of truth. We both know there is no evidence for the claim you are making, so it is irrational to make it.

                agentwhim, you are indirectly saying that you know that there are no elephants in your refrigerator. That is a claim of a truth. As you point out, a rational position would be to expect evidence for claims of truth. We both know there is no evidence for the claim you are making, so it is irrational to make it.

              • agentwhim
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:07 am | Permalink

                Just checked my fridge: no (visible) elephants. I think I said it would be rational to be agnostic on the whole elephant issue until evidence was available. Now I have it.

            • agentwhim
              Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:01 am | Permalink

              But the gnostic atheist has already made the claim of the non-existence of god. It is too late now to ask someone else to define the think which you have already claimed doesn’t exist. Why did you first claim the non-existence of something when you didn’t even know what it was?

              • Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:30 am | Permalink

                Oh, believe-you-me, I’m well aware of what people claim gods to be.

                Since you really want me to go first, I’ll do so. But, if you don’t like me definition, you’ll have to supply one of your own in order to continue the discussion.

                A necessary attribute of a god is the ability to perform miracles.

                (There may be other necessary attributes, and there may be other entities which necessarily must perform miracles; all I’m stating is that, if the entity isn’t a miracle-worker, it’s not a god.)

                And miracles are nothing more nor less than instances of the impossible. Toast popping up out of your toaster isn’t a miracle; turning water into wine is.

                But here’s the thing. If, say, one Jesus of Nazareth were to be reliably demonstrated to have turned water into wine, then we know it’s not impossible — for, right there, is the proof that he did so. It may be something he can do that we can’t, but that’s no biggie; I can’t run a four-minute mile, but that doesn’t mean that it’s miraculous when somebody else does the trick. By actually performing the miracle, the miracle-worker reduces the miracle to the mundane.

                Ergo, there are no such things as miracles; therefore, no miracle workers; and no gods, either.

                And my definition and demolishment of miracles isn’t simply some trick of logic or language. Indeed, gods and miracles are best understood as literary, not literal, entities, and the whole point of that type of literature is the exploration of the impossible. There’s a reason the Christians keep harping on Jesus’s miracles, and it’s not because they think any of that could possibly ever really have happened.

                Cheers,

                b&

          • Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:30 am | Permalink

            I did not bring up God. You did. please identify god before you request I discuss it.

            You have an obsession with throwing ice water on the very valuable and positive stance of truth: “the burden of proof is on the speaker making the claim.”

            Why do you do that?

            • agentwhim
              Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

              If you are an atheist and you believe that agnosticism is irrational, then you must believe that the converse – gnostic atheism – is correct and rational. That is the claim that there is no god. If that is a rational claim, then you must have evidence for it – what is it?

              • Scott near Berkeley
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:19 am | Permalink

                Here is the evidence: If I call out, “God, present yourself if you are real, if you exist” and nothing happens, if god does not present himself, then god doesn’t exist. Even with the meager powers of humans (compared to the features of a god) humans can readily step forward and present themselves when called. If so inclined. But if a god is =never= so inclined, it means he is absent, 100% of the time. He doesn’t exist.

                Just like the speed of light has been measured and remeasured, and found to be as constant as anything, god has been asked to appear millions of times, and never has. It is certain, by evidence, that there are no gods.

              • Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:38 am | Permalink

                @agentwhim

                Once again, I made no claim “there is no god.”

                The idea that by not mentioning god I “imply” I claim “I know there is no god” is not only unwarranted and fallacious — argumentum ad ignorantiam — but insulting.

                There is no requirement to “prove the negative” on my part.

                Astonishing anyone would actually attempt to stonewall this Logic 101 fallacy.

                Hmmmmmm…RE: that prior thread where so many people dissed philosophy….perhaps the lack of respect and education in non-fallacious thinking is a marker for the loss of respect for philosophy.

              • agentwhim
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

                I don’t know how you’d think that’s insulting. I’m sorry you feel like that.

                You said it is “shameful” for a rational person to call themselves “agnostic”. If you didn’t mean by this that rational people should call themselves “gnostic”, then I don’t understand your point. If you meant that rational people should be gnostic atheists, then you are making a claim, specifically “There is no god”. Surely that is what gnostic atheism means. Asking for evidence of this is not asking you to prove the negative, but to provide some evidence for your positive claim about the non-existence of something.

                If I said “There is no such thing as Africa” you might reasonably say “What evidence do you have for that?” If I responded “I don’t have to provide evidence for the negative” that would be a very weak position, since I have actually made a definite claim. Asking for evidence to back up my claim is perfectly reasonable. The same is true if you claim “There is no such thing as god”.

                You go on to say “Either you believe in the supernatural, and thus declare your irrationality and disqualification as a scientist, or you do not and are therefore atheistic”, which I completely agree with, but this is not a point relating to agnosticism. As I pointed out several times, “agnostic” is not a position between “theist” and “atheist”, it is an epistemological position on the question (here) of whether we can know whether a god or gods exist.

              • bernardhurley
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

                agentwhim said:

                If I said “There is no such thing as Africa” you might reasonably say “What evidence do you have for that?” If I responded “I don’t have to provide evidence for the negative” that would be a very weak position, since I have actually made a definite claim. Asking for evidence to back up my claim is perfectly reasonable. The same is true if you claim “There is no such thing as god”.

                I have never been to the USA so from my point of view it is logically possible that it does not exist and that I have been the victim of some sort of hoax. However the evidence that it does exist is overwhelming and comes from thousands of sources which I have no reason to believe are not independently reliable. If I were to say “There is no such place as the USA.” the counter to that would be to show me some of this evidence. If you told me you were going on holiday in Wiggawoggaland and I was dubious about its existence the burden of proof would be on you to show it existed.

                All your example does is show that it would be a bit odd for someone not to believe that Africa existed and as a consequence we would be curious as to why. It does not affect where the burden of proof lies; that is with the one who claims it does exist.

              • Posted April 26, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

                @agentwhim

                You persist in argumentum ad ignorantiam. That makes your position void.

                You are compounding your error by insisting I made the claim “there is no such thing as god” or “I know god does not exist” and that I am a “Gnostic atheist.” I do not stipulate the term “Gnostic atheist” and decline your attempt to conscript me into that group, whatever it is. I have long maintained that anyone calling themselves atheistic and attempting the claim “i can prove that god does not exist” (or any variant) is a dangerous fool.

                a-theistic means: without god, or abesent god. All you know from my self-label as an atheist is that my convictions of what is true and what exists does not include god. That I am a-theistic tells you nothing about the judegement of my intellect as to what exists and how truth is validated.

              • agentwhim
                Posted April 27, 2012 at 3:54 am | Permalink

                Why are you complaining about people calling themselves agnostic, then? As I’ve explained, it is possible to be both agnostic and atheist (I am, so is Richard Dawkins). What is shameful and irrational about it?

              • agentwhim
                Posted April 27, 2012 at 4:06 am | Permalink

                By the way, I’m not shifting the burden of proof as you suggest.

                A classic theist move is to say: “I know that god exists. Prove me wrong.” That is an example of making a claim and then expecting someone else to disprove it, rather than taking the rational approach of expecting the person making the claim to provide evidence for it.

                A gnostic atheist claims: “I know that god is non-existent.” If such a person then demands that someone else provides a disproof then they are in the same position as the theist in my example above and they’re shifting the burden of proof as well.

                The rational stance is that if someone claims to know something (for example, the existence or non-existence of something), then we should expect them to be provide evidence for the claim to that knowledge.

                The agnostic atheist is someone who is not a theist (doesn’t believe in god), but doesn’t claim to know the non-existence of god to be a fact.

              • bernardhurley
                Posted April 27, 2012 at 7:18 am | Permalink

                agentwhim, I think you are shifting the burden of proof. The point is that with a negative existential claim (x does not exist), all that is required to show that the claim is reasonable is to show that any purported reasons to believe its negation (x exists) are, in reality, not reasons at all. It is quite reasonable to say “I do not believe in God because I see no good reason to do so.” If we contrast that with another negative existential claims, e.g. “Evolution did not happen”, the burden of proof is still with the person who says it did happen. However in this case the burden has already been discharged; In this case anyone who seriously wants to hold that it did not happen is required, on pain of being irrational, to say why the purported evidence for evolution is not evidence at all. The difference between the claims is not that burden of proof is with a different party but that in one case the burden has been discharged while in the other it has not.

              • agentwhim
                Posted April 27, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

                >>It is quite reasonable to say “I do not
                >>believe in God because I see no good
                >>reason to do so.”
                Yes, that’s correct, but it isn’t the statement which gnostic atheists make. That statement is “I know god does not exist”. It is indeed entirely rational to disbelieve assertions of the existence of something for which there is no evidence, but when you claim to know that it does not exist, you voluntarily shift the burden of proof onto yourself.

                >>If we contrast that with another negative
                >>existential claims, e.g. “Evolution did
                >>not happen”, the burden of proof is still
                >>with the person who says it did happen.
                Why? If someone said “I don’t believe you when you say that evolution happened” then I’d agree that the burden of proof is with the evolutionist, since the person hasn’t claimed to know something. If someone makes the statement that they know it didn’t happen then it would be reasonable to expect them to explain why they claim to know that and to ask them for alternative explanations and evidence of the incorrectness of the theory of evolution.

                >>The difference between the claims is not
                >>that burden of proof is with a different
                >>party but that in one case the burden has
                >>been discharged while in the other it has
                >>not.
                I don’t agree. If somebody makes a claim, whatever it is, they should rationally have some evidence to back it up. I don’t see why it should be different if that claim is phrased as a negative or a positive, existence or non-existence, they are still making a claim.

              • Posted April 27, 2012 at 10:07 am | Permalink

                @agentwhim

                You persist in your construction that the atheist makes the claim “I know god does not exist.” You are determine to pull a hell of a lot of atheists under that tent. Despite my own demur, followed by sharp insistence that you stop in my case, you continue to force feed this position. That is your choice.

                However, sorry, few atheists make that claim, or need to.

                Nor is there any benefit, need or justification in the tern “agnostic atheist.” All normal atheists, who make no claim that “god does not exist” do not need that term and anyone calling themselves “atheist” who also proactively self claims they can prove the negative has disqualified themselves from the honorable term “atheist” because they are dicking around with god. By the way, that also shuts down your category “Gnostic atheist”.

                What me to spell it out another way? Atheists have no god, see no god, speak no god. They do not need to be labeled “Gnostic” or “agnostic” because there is nothing to know or not know. People who attempt to prove that god does not exist do not need your terms either: they are not atheists.

                And your entire project in this thread, in my opinion, is indeed an attempt to shift the burden of proof.

              • bernardhurley
                Posted April 27, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

                agentwhim, you clearly haven’t understood what I am saying:

                A positive existential claim is the claim that there exists some object O that satisfies some property P. In the absence of any evidence this claim is incoherent.

                A negative existential claim is denial that there exists some object O that satisfies the property P. This claim is coherent whatever the state of the evidence although given enough evidence that the object does exist it would be irrational to make that claim.

                If you call the negative claim N and the positive one P, then in a situation where there is no relevant evidence of any kind then it is rational to accept N but not rational to accept P. This is what is meant by saying that the burden of proof lies with the person who asserts P.

                The question of whether a body of evidence E discharges the burden of proof is an entirely different matter. In some cases there is overwhelming evidence for P and in some there is none.

                If someone asserts N in the face of seemingly overwhelming evidence E for P, then to make their claim rational they have to show why E is not actually sufficient evidence. But having done that this is sufficient, they do not need to go on and prove N. It is still rational to believe N without any evidence for it.

        • Tyro
          Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

          That’s why Tyson’s comments are so insulting. He seems to be accusing us of dogmatism, insensitivity to evidence/reason, and irrational certainty.

    • Frank
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 8:29 am | Permalink

      It is hard to believe that any thinking person can say that he or she KNOWS there is a god. Similarly, it is hard to believe that any thinking person can say that he or she KNOWS there isn’t one. Atheism and theism are then added, as Jerry notes, strictly in terms of BELIEF. Therefore, all people who think for themselves are either agnostic theists or agnostic atheists, and hence the added label of ‘agnostic’ becomes almost unnecessary. We are all agnostic, but some of us are theists and some of us are atheists. Agnostic is therefore NOT part of a “continuum”.

      • Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:05 am | Permalink

        See, the thing is, we are none of us “agnostic” about the existence of the largest prime number — or even, for that matter, the largest integer. Yet we’re supposed to be agnostic about the existence of the most powerful power? Please.

        The whole point of gods is that they can do the impossible. Yet, if they actually manage to do the impossible, they simultaneously demonstrate that it wasn’t in fact, impossible. Maybe it was really hard, but it sure wasn’t impossible.

        So what kind of sense does it make to say that you’re holding open the door to the possibility that something truly impossible will ever occur? That sort of thing is nonsense, and an abuse of language.

        Not convinced? Then riddle me this: how is an omnipotent god supposed to commit suicide? Either it can commit suicide, in which case it becomes powerless to do anything (let alone everything); or else it can’t commit suicide, in which case it can’t do something that far too many mere mortals do every day.

        You can reasonably remain agnostic about Russell’s Teapot, but not about entities whose very definitions rely upon absurdities and contradictions.

        Cheers,

        b&

  3. gbjames
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 4:31 am | Permalink

    sub

  4. Posted April 26, 2012 at 4:32 am | Permalink

    It sounds like he doesn’t want to get drawn
    into a movement, which I can understand, but
    it also sounds like he’d rather avoid the whole theist/atheist conversation altogether. I can appreciate his desire not to be pigeonholed or to be made part of a sound bite driven “debate”, but a better answer might have been,
    “I’d rather not discuss that”.

    [Nitpicking Dept.]“I’m not going to tell people what to can call themselves, not do I require Tyson to be an active atheist, but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck . .”
    Reads better if you can “can” and make “not” “nor”, but I know what you mean and agree completely!

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 4:37 am | Permalink

      Whoops, that was pure typo. Fixed, thanks!

  5. NotTheFace
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 4:37 am | Permalink

    Neil is a legend.
    He does so much for science, which probably by proxy, does a great deal for the promotion of non-religious thought. If he can’t be bothered to get involved in the athiest / religion argument then that’s deal.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      He =does= bother, in my opinion. He does these long soliloquies declaring wonder and amazement, and he frames it in terms that balance on the fence, without jumping to one side or the other.

      To me, he bothers.

  6. Posted April 26, 2012 at 4:38 am | Permalink

    Of course the whole point of the word “agnostic” is that one can use it to avoid the bogey word “atheist”. If you read Huxley’s writings on this, it’s clear that that’s why he originally coined the word.

    Those who opt for this cop-out should have more courage. Take a blank bit of paper and write on it all the names (or a description) of god/s that you believe exist (note the word “believe” not “know”). If the paper remains blank then you’re an atheist. End of story.

    And if someone doesn’t have the courage to ask themselves this question and report accurately whether they would write on the paper is being intellectually cowardly. The only way the word “atheist” will stop being demonized is if people stop looking for excuses to avoid adopting it.

    • Grania Spingies
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 4:49 am | Permalink

      While I can understand that a lot of people, particularly educators, feel that they need to sit on the fence so as not to alienate the religiously inclined, I do take issue with people who seem convinced that this makes them better than people who are prepared to get off the proverbial fence.

      Plus, I think one can make a convincing case for the fact that the longer people feel they have to hide what they really think behind words and pseudonyms (or outright denial); the longer the sense of entitlement by the religious majority is going to continue.

      • Christian
        Posted April 26, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

        …I do take issue with people who seem convinced that this makes them better than people who are prepared to get off the proverbial fence.

        I agree with you but they have to do that because if they skipped all that tap-dancing and simply agreed with the rest of us atheists, except that they prefer the label “agnostic,” then they can no longer uphold the façade of sitting on the fence.

        They would implicitly admit that they are atheists just with a different label. And that’s why they have to do a bit more to distance themselves from those who accept the label ‘atheist’, even if it looks rather strained and often quite disingenuous.

  7. Posted April 26, 2012 at 4:56 am | Permalink

    Neil’s priority is Neil. I think he’s an atheist who doesn’t care that much about atheism . . . at least, not as much as he cares about his career.

    And I don’t have a problem with that.

    • S A GOULD
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:44 am | Permalink

      Me neither.

      • herewegoagain
        Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

        Me neither as well. I think he doesn’t want to get drawn into the debate which is fine.

    • Tyro
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink

      I don’t think that anyone – not JAC, not Hemant, not anyone here – is expecting him to care about atheism. The problem seems to be that he does care, he cares about not being an atheist.

      Incidentally, in interviews he’s said that he’s gone so far as to repeatedly edit his own Wikipedia entry to remove all mentions of atheism. That sure doesn’t sound like someone that’s too busy or that doesn’t care.

    • Scote
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

      “Neil’s priority is Neil. I think he’s an atheist who doesn’t care that much about atheism . . . at least, not as much as he cares about his career.

      And I don’t have a problem with that.”

      Yeah, but I think he is hurting himself. His dodge probably doesn’t fool the faithful–they all would consider him an atheist–but by showing how afraid of the term atheist he is, he does serve to further stigmatize atheists, which the faithful all while letting the faithful know he actually is an atheist by their thinking.

  8. Ludo
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 5:35 am | Permalink

    Aren’t there many people who do not like being called “atheists” for the reason that it refers to a theistic worldview? Does the term “a-theist” not somehow imply theism being the default position, and a-theism an anomaly? Letting your opponents decide which terms are used in a debate, puts one at an disadvantage, I think. So why not try (as in my opinion Tyson does) to define ones position regarding supernatural belief systems without recourse to supernatural vocabulary?

    • Posted April 26, 2012 at 5:42 am | Permalink

      I agree. And the term is already in play, as follows:

      “You call yourself a scientist, so that means you are an atheist, right? Or maybe you believe in God?”

      “No, I am a rational; I hold reason as an absolute. Then, beyond that, I am specifically a scientist.”

  9. gbjames
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    Many atheists have been hiding from this label for a very long time (check out Susan Jacoby’s “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism”).

    Religious people have for centuries used the word as a pejorative, loading on to it all manner of nasty connotation. And many non-believers have squirmed when confronted with the word, fearing that they would be admitting to dining on babies and such.

    It hasn’t worked. Avoiding the label is, when you get down to it, just another bit of dishonesty. It is one thing to go about your life as a “quiet” atheist, advocating for the good things. It is another to deny that you are what you are. All credit to NdGT for the marvelous contributions science education he has made. May he continue to make them. But shame on him for engaging in make-believe regarding the fact that he is, in fact, an atheist.

  10. John K.
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    Dr. Tyson has long seemed to want to avoid the theist/atheist debate because of the hurdles it presents. As he says, he is more interested in communicating science. When sufficiently cornered it is clear he does not believe, but he makes efforts to avoid the conflict.

    I have to disagree with him though. Knocking back religious thinking is very important to science education. I think there are those who see people navigating their lives nobly enough while maintaining religious beliefs and want to leave them to it, but just because there are some people who manage not to be injured driving around without seat belts does not make neglecting the use of seat belts OK. Evidence based reasoning is essential to everyone in all types of disciplines.

    As an educator you are doing a disservice to those you are educating if you allow bad reasoning systems to remain unchallenged. Dr. Tyson can do better.

  11. Hamilton Jacobi
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    If Tyson has bothered to speak at length about this, he probably knows that “agnostic” and “atheist” aren’t two points on a line, but rather two orthogonal axes. I assume he made a deliberate choice to endorse the common simplistic misconception just to keep his audience as broad as possible.

    But I suspect at heart he’s a gnostic atheist (insofar as it is possible to know anything) and an agnostic adeist, just like me.

    • josh
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

      “… “agnostic” and “atheist” aren’t two points on a line, but rather two orthogonal axes. ”

      I’m getting tired of people stating this as a fact, of which others are supposedly ignorant. It’s one way to use those words, and if you think it fits your way of thinking well then feel free to describe yourself in those terms. But they aren’t the only correct usage of agnostic (or atheist), and not everyone subscribes to the idea that ‘two axes’ is the end all and be all of epistemology.

      Huxley coined the term agnostic to express the fact that he didn’t identify as an atheist or a believer. Although he admitted the church had reason to consider him an atheist, he didn’t describe himself as an agnostic atheist. Since his time the word has entered casual usage and a variety of meanings apply.

  12. godskesen
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    I’m growing increasingly disappointed by Tyson and this video is the worst that I’ve heard from him yet.

    He defines the word agnostic to mean “someone who doesn’t know [whether there is a god], hasn’t yet seen any evidence for it but is prepared to embrace the evidence if it is there, but if it is not then they won’t be forced to think something that isn’t otherwise supported.” That’s about as a clear an example of throwing atheists under the bus as I can think of. It quite clearly implies that atheists unreasonably think that they know to a certainty that no gods exist and would be unwilling to accept any evidence. Fuck that! I agree with others who have commented that Tyson doesn’t have to be an outspoken critic of religion. But the hell does he have to play into the hands of a religious fascists?!

    I think it’s fair to question philosophically whether there could even in principle be evidence for a god. And, as we know, some argue that there couldn’t. But that’s a (more or less) well-reasoned stance on the possibility of evidence and definitely not an irrational unwillingness to consider evidence. Personally, I haven’t come to a conclusion about the possibility of evidence for a god.

    • Toni Clark
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:34 am | Permalink

      I’m not defending Tyson’s position, but I don’t think the words you quote imply that atheists unreasonably think that they know to a certainty that no gods exist. They just don’t believe in any. Most atheists I know are agnostic as well. I don’t know (because how could anyone possibly?) AND I don’t believe.

      • godskesen
        Posted April 26, 2012 at 7:00 am | Permalink

        Well, thank you for that absolutely basic tutorial on the meanings of the words “atheist” and “agnostic”. I’m well aware of them. I suspect Tyson is too. But he chose not to define them the way you and I would. However, the correct definition, which you provided, doesn’t mean that Tyson’s wrong definition doesn’t have the implication that I described. I still think that what Tyson said supports the widespread, prejudicial misconception that atheists are unreasonably certain and fundamentalist and all the rest of it whereas agnostics are an altogether group of open-minded people who are willing to consider arguments for a god. As I also said, Tyson doesn’t have to be an outspoken atheist if he thinks his goal as an educator are best served by avoiding those discussions. I’m just angry that — as I see it — his way of avoiding it throws us outspoken atheists under the bus.

        • godskesen
          Posted April 26, 2012 at 7:07 am | Permalink

          should be: “…agnostics are an altogether different group of people…”

  13. Living Fossil
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    In an exchange with one of the foremost accommodationists as to why he included non-theists in his list of God-believers, he replied, “I don’t tell people how to characterize God.” If a theist is free to define god as they please, the term is meaningless.

    As the definition of God becomes more vague, so too, the idea of atheism. I am a religious participant in a UU community where belonging to the group and participating in the social action programs is the epicenter of the group. Whether you are a theist or atheist is a non-issue.

    • sbrickner
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      Perhaps that’s true in your UU community — or even in most UU communities. It’s not quite the policy of the central UU figures.

      You might try (re-)reading “A Chosen Faith” — which tries to outline what UUs believe — with a more critical eye. It doesn’t leave much room for atheism.

      Adam Lee had a couple of good articles on it at Big Think… http://bigthink.com/ideas/41021

  14. edhensley
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    I asked if we could use Neil’s picture at the KY State Fair booth of the Louisville Coalition of Reason. His reply is below. We included his photo with a quote from one of his books and did not label him.

    ====Neil DeGrasse Tyson===================
    Thanks for checking in advance.

    I have always objected to labels. They give others an excuse to not explore the depths and nuances of a persons thoughts and ideas. So I’d rather not be labelled at all, other than via these blunt categories.:

    Neil deGrasse Tyson:
    Human
    Male
    American
    Scientist

    There’s otherwise surely no shortage of people to include on your photo table.

    Thanks nonetheless for your interest.

    -Neil

  15. Pray Hard
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    Being the contrarian, I enjoyed it and I think I understand what he’s saying. Avoiding being pigeonholed by the public is a good thing, in my mind anyway. As evidenced by the many videos I’ve seen, Prof. Dawkins can hardly get a word in edgewise about his science when he’s interviewed. It’s wonderful when he can, but the questions from the typical interviewer are relentlessly about his atheism and his science is dismissed or given minimal lip service. Thus, the interviews seem to me to just go over and over the same old ground and get boring. Richard’s not boring and he’s almost always very polite and gracious, but the interviewers begin to seem idiotic. I usually sit there and yell at the interviewer on my monitor to ask him questions about SCIENCE, but, alas, they hardly ever do.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      The problem is that Tyson seems perfectly willing to shove “militant”, “in your face” atheists into the pigeonhole in order to keep himself out of it.

      • Roz
        Posted April 27, 2012 at 2:00 am | Permalink

        Yes I think you hit the nail on the head there Gregory. It’s one thing to avoid the label, but to get up there and actively distance himself from atheists as if they’re clearly something to be avoided, and in the process reinforce a misunderstanding about atheism..not wise

  16. Brian
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    I’m frankly disappointed that you are disappointed. I identify as an atheist and I agree with nearly everything Neil said.

    The only thing I disagreed with is that I want to participate in the god/no god debate and he doesn’t. So he has a different goal and a different way of labeling himself. Big deal.

    Neil starts the video mentioning that the moment you label yourself as a something-ist, they immediately assign to you all the philosophical baggage that comes with the label. He is exactly right! I notice this all the time! I say I’m an atheist… and then I am assumed to 100% certain no God exists. I say I’m a determinist… and then I am assumed to deny free will. The worst of it is that’s not even the correct philosophical baggage, it’s just the baggage of people’s misconceptions about the philosophy. Almost all atheist philosophy (I use the term loosely to include Dawkins, Hitchens, etc) I know of denies 100% certainty about there being no god. There is a rich literature of compatabilism. So it is frustrating in a conversation when I give a label just to indicate I’m no theist and then they assume all that nonsense about me that neither I nor most people like me actually think. Neil is right, that is no way to have a conversation. It just results in people attacking a bunch of straw men.

    If you bothered to ask me what I think about things, I don’t fit any of the labels. I like insightful ideas whereever I find them and I agree with a diversity of opinions, many who on the surface seem contradictory. I agree a lot with Jerry on free will, I also agree with Dan Dennett on compatabilism. I am more of an ignostic (with an “i” not “a”) though I do identify with the political and social change movement of atheism. I am an atheist in the sense that I worship no particular god. But I still appreciate the arguments of Victor Stenger or Dawkins’ insight with The God Hypothesis. I have agree and have disagree with them. Maybe Neil is right, I shouldn’t use the term atheist. I’m not an atheist. I’m a mathematician (-ist?). I’m a Brianist. If you want to know what I think — not what straw man to attack but what I actually think — I am a complex thinker and you are going to have to simply ask.

    To be blunt, atheist, agnostic, ignostic, etc are stupid labels anyways. They refer to the same big body of several philosophical perspectives.

    Beyond that Neil just said what Sam Harris has said. Atheists are now people who do meet in ballrooms regularly to discuss how they believe something doesn’t exist. I appreciate and support that social change movement, I listen to the lectures online. I even, at least up to writing this comment, label myself atheist. But I recognize that they have a very good point and are largely correct.

    I don’t care whether some person labels themselves atheist. As long as the opinion they express is correct and they aren’t some faitheist bashing Dawkins, Jerry, etc just to show atheists are nice (Neil isn’t, he’s being an educator with an intelligent view) and as long as they accept reality as it is, I don’t care what stupid label they use. Neil is right and made some excellent points. Get over yourselves.

    (Sorry for being lengthy and blunt. This is how I feel.)

    • Caroline Packard
      Posted April 27, 2012 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

      I totally agree with you. Thanks for taking the time to lay these thoughts out. I dont think you were too lengthy or blunt. You had to comment at some length because no one else seems to have said these things, though to me they were obvious. You said exactly what I was thinking as I read through the other comments here.

  17. Callum James Hackett
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    I’m similarly disappointed, and this is not the first time I’ve seen Tyson say things like this. In an interview with Roger Bingham for the Science Network, he accused the entire atheist movement of being obsessed with “petty” things like removing “In God We Trust” from U.S. currency.

    I think Tyson is intelligent enough to know what the terms “atheist” and “agnostic” mean, and I also think he knows better than to characterise a simple position on the existence of god by the actions of the most vocal proponents (I’m sure he wouldn’t decry Christianity just for the sake of the Westboro Baptists, not that there is any such analogue in the atheist movement).

    I personally find his arguments disingenuous, and I believe he makes them because he is a populariser and wants to remain as popular as possible, and assumes that openly acknowledging the fact that he doesn’t believe in a god will turn people away from him. Even if he doesn’t want to use the label, I’d find it more respectable if he would just openly state, “I do not believe in the Christian god, or in any other theology” rather than this sly, ambiguous pussy-footing.

    • Toni Clark
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:49 am | Permalink

      Yep, your last paragraph nails it. Just say you don’t believe in supernatural beings — fairies, elves, ghosts, goblins, angels, demons, gods, and goddesses.

    • Brian
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink

      If he said that he thinks suing over “In God We Trust” is petty, I would be disappointed by that. It depends on what precisely Tyson says. If Tyson starts accusing atheists of being fundamentalists and saying we need to focus on things other than what is true like Alain de Botton or Chris Stedman, I’d agree that is bad. Saying the 1st Amendment lawsuits are petty is sort of like that and just shows that he is ignorant of what the lawsuits are about. But in this video I don’t think he said something like that.

      • Callum James Hackett
        Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:03 am | Permalink

        Here’s a link to the talk with Bingham, the relevant portion starts at 1:05:50: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKOoTRE1HUc

        He begins with the same anecdote about the Wikipedia page and him being claimed by atheists, and then goes on to describe atheists as a community of people who are pedantic with phrases like “God speed”, who cross out “In God We Trust” on every bill they come across, and who would not listen to Handel’s Messiah or a Bach Mass. Afterwards, he is a little more explicit with the fact that he labels himself an agnostic *not* because of what the labels mean, but because of stereotypes – he states that he doesn’t call himself an atheist because he doesn’t care enough about the cause to be an *active* atheist. None of this has anything to do with intellectual honesty regarding the meanings of the terms, it’s about his pet peeve for pedantic atheists, and his concerns about public perception.

        • Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink

          Considering that my favorite recording is of Chrispian-Steel Perkins playing the Christmas Oratorio and that I’m always on the lookout for a bass who wants to sing The Trumpet Shall Sound, I guess that means I can’t be an atheist.

          Neil, you’d (inwardly, silently) laugh at anybody else who spouted such specious nonsense, and you’d most graciously and patiently correct the fool.

          Physician, heal thyself.

          b&

        • Tyro
          Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:54 am | Permalink

          Indeed. I assume he doesn’t consider himself “black” either because everyone knows how bad they are.

          [/sarcasm]

          So if I get this right, he doesn’t like labels like “atheist” because labels promote negative stereotypes, such as, well, all of those negative sterotypes that he just listed.

  18. Barbara
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    I’m not disappointed in Tyson’s choice to avoid the atheist label. Why?

    I’ve taught beginning biology students for years, many of them at the fringe of the Bible belt. I insisted that evolution is true and provided evidence (not as well as in Dr. Coyne’s book, but well enough to disturb some students). I explicitly argued against the young earth creationist (YEC) story. I quoted the Bible to make it as clear as I could why much of it isn’t to be read as history. (I was sometimes shocked when these supposedly Bible-aware students would say, “It doesn’t say that!” when it does.) I agreed that the stories can have value as metaphor. I explicitly told students that there are many ideas of God, and they shouldn’t be stuck in one that can be disproved so easily. My students engaged in the discussions. I think I made some inroads.

    My students would have dismissed my arguments if they’d thought of me as atheist. If we’d had a dialogue at all, the discussion would have gone in a direction useless to my goal.

    Seeking a potentially attainable goal, I tried to help them out of the YEC hole. I figured that old earth creationism, theistic evolution, etc., was a big improvement on where they were. And I am certain that internalizing the idea that the Bible might not all be literal history would have long-term beneficial effects on the students’ ability to think well.

    It’s great that there are “out” atheists actively working to spread the non-news. That’s important! But it’s not the only way to help.

    (And remember, there are atheist creationists out there. I’ve argued with them.)

    So, go Tyson! Teach those students the wonders that science has helped us see. And go, Coyne, too.

    • gbjames
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 7:10 am | Permalink

      My students would have dismissed my arguments if they’d thought of me as atheist.

      But are you an atheist? And, assuming you are, if they ask you if you are an atheist will you say “no”?

      I don’t find lying an honorable thing whether the lair is a believer or a non-believer.

      • Dave Ricks
        Posted April 26, 2012 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

        Are you calling Barbara a liar?

        If you asked me for personal information (like my Social Security number), I would decline to tell you — not because I’m a dishonorable liar, but because I only give out my personal information under some conditions.

        Your ethical standard is impossible.

        • gbjames
          Posted April 27, 2012 at 4:40 am | Permalink

          I fail to see the equivalence between Social Security numbers and beliefs in deities. It is anyone’s right to conceal their thoughts regarding the divine. But that does not make the exercise of that right by dishonestly answering straight-forward questions any less dishonest. I don’t honestly know whether or not that applies to Barbara. She doesn’t say. But I believe it does apply to NdGT in the video above.

          The fact that you think it an impossible standard for non-believers to admit to being non-believers is precisely the problem we are faced with. It is the response of someone who is ashamed and feels that they have something to hide. It reinforces all of the negative stereotypes that marginalize atheists. It is a bad thing.

    • Brian
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 7:53 am | Permalink

      Sounds good to me. Sounds excellent in fact.

  19. S A GOULD
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    Today’s atheists remind me a lot of the “outings,” that happened in the70s. Activists publicized someone’s sexual identity without their consent. For the good of “The Movement.” (Wiki Oliver Sipple to see the unintended consequences of that.)

    I have never heard Randi the magician actually say “I am an atheist.” (Even though I have seen him at three lecture/workshops.) Should he start billing himself as The Atheist Randi? Would that be helpful? When exposing faith-healers like Peter Popoff, should he first issue a disclaimer “I’m doing this mainly because I don’t believe in god?” Or is it OK if he does it just because it’s wrong?

    All of my friends really like Tyson. Please stop trying to “out” him- and other public figures- who have chosen not to be outed.

    • Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:54 am | Permalink

      Sorry, but I don’t think you understand what we’re trying to do. Tyson has chosen himself to discuss his religious beliefs–on a huge venue, the Big Think videos. He is not keeping his views private, and he hasn’t before (I’ve posted on his public pronouncements twice before).

      Tyson claims he’s an agnostic and not an atheist. But his distinction between the two doesn’t comport with my (or many other peoples’ distinction between agnosticism and atheism): see my update above. Moreover, he completely mis-defines “atheists” as “active atheists.” Thus is perfectly fair for us to argue about 1) whether Tyson is an atheist according to our own definition (which then leads to a discussion of the difference between agnosticism and atheism); and 2)to discuss the reasons why Tyson’s avoiding the label.

      We can hardly “out” Tyson: people will abide by whatever he calls himself.

      • Posted April 26, 2012 at 7:41 am | Permalink

        Indeed, the situation with Neil isn’t at all like revealing that a given person’s private life, carefully kept private, involves particular preferences.

        Consider the case of “Jane Doe.” She doesn’t go out of her way to make her private life public, but it’s no secret that she’s dating another woman. They’re often seen in public, even holding hands and lovingly staring into each others’ eyes while sitting on the park bench. Were you to ask her if that relationship were intimate, she’d tell you her private life is none of your business — as would most people.

        But you then refer to Jane as a lesbian, and she gets upset. The fact that she’s openly in a committed relationship with another woman is irrelevant, because neither of them are bull dykes and they don’t march in pride parades. And, if she were to admit that she’s gay, then everybody would identify her as that lesbian and immediately dismiss everything she has to say on any other subject.

        That Jane doesn’t want to make a big deal out of her public life is perfectly fine by me. But she’s lying when she’s denying that she’s gay, and I simply can’t respect her for that.

        Neil, if you’re reading this, I hope you’ll reconsider. We’re not trying to co-opt you. I’m sure you’d join with me in encouraging Jane to simply say, “Yes. I like women. I guess that means I’m a lesbian. So what? Now, can we please get back to the discussion of the load-bearing capacity of this walkway? The client wants to know if it’ll support that iron sculpture….”

        Similarly, all we’re asking you to do is to say, “Yes. I don’t believe in any gods, including the popular ones of today. The dictionary term for that is, ‘atheist.’ So what? Now, about that asteroid that’s headed towards the Earth in a decade….”

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink

          Like the last paragraph. :-)

      • S A GOULD
        Posted April 26, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

        NOTE: “Sorry, but I don’t think you understand what we’re trying to do.” This may be quite true! (Much of what goes on here is too technical for me to follow closely.) I come to WEIT for the stuff on evolution, but I’ll also stay the stuff on atheism. “Thus is perfectly fair for us to argue about..” Of course it is. And I would never think otherwise.

        BTW… saw one video clip where you were explaining the horses hoof in terms of evolution, where you ended up “giving the finger” (to creationists, I believe) which I think was quite appropriate and brilliant.

    • Toni Clark
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:59 am | Permalink

      I just heard Randi say it (with make-no-mistake passion) on Saturday at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism in NYC. And more people should come out and say it. That’s the only way to get rid of the fear and prejudice.

      • S A GOULD
        Posted April 26, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

        I actually did suspect that Randi IS an atheist even though I personally have never heard him say it. But IMO, atheism is far down on the list of what makes Randi special.

        At least once a month, I read about some atheist who suggests that people ride the el train with a bible and befriend/confront someone who is quietly reading their own bible. I find that offensive. What I like about Randi is that he has devoted his life to going after the WORST OF THE WORST religious scum.

        Saw Randi yeaaaars ago at the CSICOP convention in Chicago. On the way, one young guy said to his friend: “Yeah, I don’t know what WE’RE gonna do after he’s (Randi) gone.”

        And I thought, “F*** you. What’s stopping you from doing something?” Later in the evening, Randi, and about 10 others sat in on a sermon/lecture by televangelist V W Grant. (Just observed.) And I thought, “Why doesn’t Randi do something?”

        And I thought, “F*** ME. What’s stopping Me from doing something?” So I joined VW Grant’s mailing list, and for a year posted all of his appeals- with rebuttals and explanations on the wall outside my office. Grant specialized inexpensively printed and well-done graphic frauds. (Best was a prayer placemat with a head of Jesus that opened and closed it’s eyes.)

        Since taping one piece of paper to the wall would never last- or get much attention on it’s own, I turned the whole wall into a bulletin board, marked off with colored tape, and added articles on optical illusions and such. It became popular enough that the university actually installed a real plastic canvas bulletin board. And then it became a CURRENT SCIENCE bulletin board.

        It did that because I am good at that, and I could get away with that. But EVERYONE has their own special skills and talents. I just wish more people– not just atheists– would stop looking for a public figure to do more, rather than looking within.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 8:34 am | Permalink

      Ithink it’s interesting that Randi outed himself as an atheist long before he outed himself as a homosexual.

  20. Kevin
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    I am a big fan of Neil and I have no qualms about him avoiding labels, but I think that Hemant has it just right when he said:

    “Had he just stuck to his opening statement of explaining that he doesn’t like labels — “the only ‘ist’ I am is an ‘scientist’” — it would’ve been fine. A copout perhaps, but a respectable copout.”

    The disappointment comes in when Neil misrepresents what the label means as applied by the majority of atheists. I have never once heard ‘atheist’ to mean being active about it, except for this instance.

  21. Jeff Sherry
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    He doesn’t want to be labeled atheist, okay. I take satisfaction that his promotion of science exposes a larger group of people to science, which in turn leads to atheism.

    He isn’t Sagan and he doesn’t want to be.

  22. MAUCH
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    I am not a golfer but I don’t go about my daily life worrying about fundamentalist golfers beaning me on the head with their slices.

  23. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    So it would follow that NDT is pro -Templeton?

    Would he like to carry that “baggage”? Because now he is.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 8:25 am | Permalink

      put another way :

      what do you think NDT would say when Templeton asks to share ISS space for conducting its “research” to obtain “evidence”?

  24. Peter Beattie
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    Tyson’s point about slapping labels on people and then assuming to know everything about them is valid and important. However, you can also say: ‘Of course I am an atheist, because the God idea is a no explanation for anything and there is no evidence to support it either.’ And you would have, in the same breath, explained the fundamentals of scientific thinking.

    One thing that Tyson gets wrong in a way that matters, I think, is the idea that we can pick and choose which bits of our lives we can think scientifically about. That is to misunderstand science—exactly in the same way that to believe in theistic evolution is to misunderstand the scientific evidence and methodology. What matters is not that people profess this or that belief; what matters is that they understand. Science requires consistency. If you think you can turn it into a pick-and-mix, you don’t understand science.

  25. gravelinspector
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Moving somewhat sideways from Tyson’s choice of terminology and it’s precision (or not) …
    Towards the end of the piece, JAC purred about how some states (of the US) ban people for standing for state offices if they’re atheists. I went on to RTFLA, out of academic interest, and note that in two of the cited 7 states, Jerry would probably be able to stand for office. Mississippi (speelung? The Indians are taking their revenge!) and Texas apparently have a requirement for candidates to “acknowledge the existence of a supreme being”.
    Ceiling Cat fits that bill. You could even bring along an incarnation of Ceiling Cat to the lynching and ask the hangman to deny that $INCARNATION_OF_CEILING_CAT$ is, truely a supreme being. You’d probably still dance an air fandango, but you’d have a moral victory.
    Or does it not appeal?

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      I don’t know about Ceiling Cat and if he “fits the bill”. I’d say Santa Claus has a lot going for him as a supreme being. He is instantly recognized, has performed miracles annually (down chimneys, and often goes where there was no chimney) as is adored by millions! He never “h8tes”, he just endorses!
      He has known supernatural powers (“knows when you’ve been sleeping, He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good..”)
      Santa…ftw!!

      • gravelinspector
        Posted April 27, 2012 at 6:26 am | Permalink

        Can you sit in a court room with a purring Santa-incarnation on your lap and challenge the audience (whoever the audience is – judges, juries, advocates, executioners) to deny that this isindeed an example of a Supreme Being.
        Actually, you probably could, but the beery flatulence and “fellow travellers” of your Santa is likely to weaken your case.

  26. TheMuse
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    I’d rather have a Neil Degrasse Tyson that can effectively communicate science concepts to laypersons and who is affable because he does not seem to take himself too seriously than one who insists on wearing the atheist label wherever he goes and is likely to be tuned out by a general audience. Both atheists and theists can do good science. It is really not that serious.

    • josh
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

      I’d rather have a Neil Degrasse Tyson that can effectively communicate science concepts AND who doesn’t run away from the atheist label. (Or at least avoids slandering those who don’t.) But I hear that’s a more expensive model. :)

      • S A GOULD
        Posted April 27, 2012 at 6:45 am | Permalink

        Wull, gee, as long as you’re putting together a perfect public atheist, please add some Ricky Gervais. Funny is very effective.

  27. magster2
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    I wonder if Tyson’s reluctance to call himself an atheist is associated with a perception of himself as a promoter of science within the African-American community. He may think that publicly identifying himself as an atheist would compromise those efforts, given the high level of religiosity in that community. It reminds me of Obama’s dancing around the issue of same-sex marriage, which looks to me to be at least partially due to the higher opposition to it among African-Americans.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      I think this is exactly the issue.

  28. Zugswang
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    I’m not really disappointed. While I admire the more firebrand atheists and most readily identify with them, I don’t think one has to feel compelled to choose a label, if indeed Tyson even has one for himself.

    I think that, for someone who wants to primarily concern themselves with science education, he does not necessarily need to publicly don the atheist label, or really, any label other than that of a scientist. He also avoids discussing things like race discrimination, despite having dealt with it quite a lot of it in Texas, and I’ve not heard of anyone faulting him for that. I think it’s because he doesn’t want to be drawn into those kinds of discussions that necessarily distract from his advocacy of sound science, because when you indicate a willingness to openly identify with such things, those communities will invariably try to pull you more towards advocacy for their particular cause, whether you publicly ally yourself with LGBTs, atheists, Republicans, Red Sox fans, etc.

    As I understand it, this blog was originally intended to be primarily about evolutionary biology, but it has evolved into more than that, perhaps most significantly, atheist advocacy, philosophy, and adorable cats. I obviously can’t speak for Dr. Coyne, so I wonder if he saw his blog becoming so multifaceted, and having to split time between all these different topics?

    Likewise, PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins have become identified by the general public as atheists who also happen to be scientists, as much of their public advocacy is towards the former. And this is not a bad thing; we need people like Coyne, Myers, and Dawkins to be advocates for atheism, but I think we also have to recognize that, while there’s nothing wrong with wearing multiple hats, it is difficult for the general public to take a nuanced view, and will invariably see the only the most colorful hat.

    Tyson has picked his niche, and it’s a good one to fill. We don’t need to ask him to publicly acknowledge or support every cause with which he feels an affinity if he doesn’t want to split time between science advocacy and something else.

    • Posted April 26, 2012 at 8:01 am | Permalink

      This is an excellent point. Tyson has his job – popular science – and he hammers that one note, and does it brilliantly. He doesn’t have to wear every other badge he could wear.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:01 am | Permalink

        Nobody’s saying he has to wear the atheist badge. But in this video and others he’s gone beyond declining to wear it; he’s publicly contorting himself to avoid any contact with it, like it has cooties or something. He’s implicitly endorsing the idea that atheists are people one should not associate with. That’s what Jerry and Hemant are complaining about.

        • Scott near Berkeley
          Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

          Yes, instead of contortions, why not simply say, “I want to stay on-message about science, and discussing what else I feel, I believe, dilutes that message.”

          Instead, Prof Tyson often promotes what is “Wow!” “Fantastic!” “Incredible!” and his strong strong feelings.

          Recall that video JCoyne posted, where 50 or 100 scientists discussed why they didn’t believe in the supernatural. It was done many, so many, different ways. Sometimes, just a headshake.

  29. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    The video is badly produced. What’s with all the random changes of camera angle? You’re not making a music video. If you think it’s too boring for people to look into Tyson’s face for a couple minutes, mix in some photos of galaxies or something.

  30. Somite
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    It’s ok to dislike labels but what I can not abide is the ambiguity about what we know about god. Any educator that discusses god should be honest and say:

    “there is no evidence there is a god and no need to make that hypothesis or have that particular belief”.

    If people that object to the label of atheist would make that simple clarification everything would be well.

    My feeling is that NDT wants to avoid confrontation. When head to head with climate change denier Bob Lutz he did not contradict Lutz or said he was wrong. NDT just framed it as a bet to see who was right in the long term. Obviously the problem with this approach is that climate change is real and there can be no winners for that bet.

    This video contrasts his position with RDs very well:

    http://onegoodmove.org/1gm/1gmarchive/2006/11/beyond_belief.html

    Then again NDT has said this:

    http://twitpic.com/9e0r1j

  31. Posted April 26, 2012 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Ideology is all about sales and marketing and money/influence.

    Use the A word in America, you are shunned in media as politically incorrect and it’s true.

    Not a smart career move.

    • bernardhurley
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      But that is no excuse for politicians not to do so. It makes people in the rest of the civilised world see American politicians as cowards.

  32. docbill1351
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    GoGreen18 has been a YouTuber for many years. She might have been 15 or 16 when she made this video. She has since graduated from college.

    That is all so you won’t be shocked and surprised to see a young girl take on this topic.

    Take it away, Lacy!

    • MadScientist
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

      Well, with any luck she’ll eventually understand that the statement “there is no god” is not dogma like “there is a god” just as it’s not dogma to say “Bertrand Russell’s Celestial Teapot does not exist”.

      • Posted April 26, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

        I reject that being an atheist implies I am automatically responsible for claiming “i can prove there is no god.”

        However, that being said, I am okay with “There is no god,” because I never say it that way….I say “There is no god until and if it shows up.”

        • docbill1351
          Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

          I’m not going to quibble with a young person who takes the time to post a video like this.

          My fantasy is to take Spong’s hand and say, “Let’s take that step” and do it.

  33. phosphoros99
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    “….it would do so much to help disbelief become respectable”.

    Disbelief will become respectable when its proponents contend with all ideas and demonstrate that of all perspectives disbelief is the most coherent.

  34. Myron
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    There surely is a third position between theism and antitheism: neutralism (= neither theism nor antitheism). And “agnosticism” is in fact very often used in this sense, with there being nothing illegitimate about doing so. Neutralism is identical with what I call doxastic agnosticism. There is also what I call epistemic agnosticism, which ism is different from neutralism. Doxastic agnostics (agnostic neutralists) neither believe nor disbelieve in the existence of God/gods, whereas epistemic agnostics don’t claim to know or aren’t (100%) certain that God doesn’t exist/gods don’t exist.
    It is obvious that doxastic agnosticism is incompatible both with theism and with antitheism, and that epistemic agnosticism is compatible both with theism and with antitheism.

    • Myron
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      I forgot to mention that doxastic agnostics aka (religious) neutralists are atheists without being antitheists.

  35. Arnie
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    Good to know I’m not the only one who thought Tyson’s video was extremely disingenuous, incoherent and nonsensical.

    Such deceit/ignorance about such simple stuff from him is actually quite astonishing.

  36. Stan
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    All this equivocation on Tyson’s part could have something to do with the new version of the Cosmos series he is reportedly making with Fox. We all know how politically incorrect it is to identify yourself as an atheist, especially if you want to make large sums of money on future DVD sales, and especially if you’re working with Fox. He may actually be contractually bound not to stir up any anti-religious controversy which could be damaging to ratings.

  37. Journalmalist
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    This comment thread doesn’t seem to have many scientists or students of science in it. What we “know” in science is provisional. Except for a few equations, there is nothing that is or can be “proven.” (And some have argued even against mathematical proofs.) Agnosticism is inherent in all scientific investigation — not just beliefs in deities.

    agentwhim is correct, of course: agnosticism is about what we know, and atheism is about what we believe (or not). The terms are not part of a continuum, nor are they mutually exclusive. Everyone is an agnostic, including Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins (as he has said), you, me, and the Pope.

    Saying that deGrasse Tyson is “using arguments of Christian apologetics” is silly, and it exposes Hemant (and anyone who seconds the sentiment) as being a bit shrill without really understanding some rather basic concepts in epistemology.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      This comment thread doesn’t seem to have many scientists or students of science in it.

      More than you realize.

      What we “know” in science is provisional. Except for a few equations, there is nothing that is or can be “proven.” …

      Are you sure you want to go there? Deductive logic only shows up in mathematical proofs and such, but science relies upon inductive logic. And it allows for probabilities. Sure, we can’t “prove” that the Earth is not flat, and we can’t even be 100% certain – but we can be certain enough. YOu can’t even prove that you exist – but I’ll bet that doesn’t stop you from getting up in teh morning and doing whatever it is that you do.

      Now, is there some reason you think our uncertainty about the existence of deities is different than our uncertainty that the Earth isn’t flat?

      • Journalmalist
        Posted April 26, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

        More than I realize ? Come now, Reg, you might want to look into sarcasm. It can be a young lad’s best friend on the internet.

        Are you sure you want to go there?

        Let’s dance. There was a time when declaring the Earth flat was a scientific proposition. Good thing that real scientists weren’t too wedded to the idea, eh?

        One difference between these “certainties” is that whether or not the Earth is flat is a (fairly) well-defined question, whereas the existence of undiscovered things — like undefined deities — it rather open-ended, wouldn’t you say?

        DeGrasse Tyson is guilty of saying he’d be open to examine evidence for a deity if anyone ever produced any. That’s the correct position for a scientist, especially given the fact that he’s not wasting time looking for evidence himself, or obsessing over idiotic labels.

        I can understand why he was slimed by Hemant, who sometimes lets a (fictional) atheist “movement” cloud his judgment, but I’m disappointed in Jerry.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted April 26, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

          “Tyson is guilty of saying he’d be open to examine evidence for a deity if anyone ever produced any.”

          He’s also guilty of implying that self-described atheists would not be open to evidence. That’s insulting, and that’s what Jerry and Hemant are complaining about.

        • Reginald Selkirk
          Posted April 26, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

          … whereas the existence of undiscovered things — like undefined deities — it rather open-ended, wouldn’t you say?

          Undiscovered things that claimants have been touting the existence of since pre-history; and not just the existence of, but the properties of as well (pretty much no one worships an undefined deity, so that argument is a straw deity). And almost every testable claim they made about it turned out to be wrong.

          And it would be unfair to say that the methods they rely on – scripture and personal revelation – are not known to be reliable. It would be more fair to say that these methods are known to be unreliable.

          And most of the phenomena for which they invoked these deities as an explanation turned out to have natural explanations.

        • Reginald Selkirk
          Posted April 26, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

          DeGrasse Tyson is guilty of saying he’d be open to examine evidence for a deity if anyone ever produced any. That’s the correct position for a scientist…

          It is also the correct position for an atheist, as almost every one else in this thread has already pointed out.

      • Peter Beattie
        Posted April 26, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

        » Reginald Selkirk:
        Deductive logic only shows up in mathematical proofs and such, but science relies upon inductive logic.

        Since it seems you want to give the impression that you know something about logic, you are aware that inductive logic in the sense that you imply is invalid?

        • bernardhurley
          Posted April 26, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

          You are of course technically correct in the sense that logicians since Aristotle have used the term “valid” only of arguments whose conclusions follow necessarily from their premises. That does not stop one for regarding inductive reasoning as highly reliable. Of course not everyone does or has done in the past. Worries about the invalidity of induction are what lead Popper to formulate his falsifiability criterion.

          • Peter Beattie
            Posted April 26, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

            Popper has actually done much more than that. He showed not just that induction cannot be part of the scientific method, he also elaborated on how scientists may have made themselves believe that they proceeded inductively but actually largely didn’t. Any reliability that derives from induction must be a product of chance; the pertinent analogy here is a game of roulette: if red has come up ten times in a row, that says nothing at all about the eleventh time. Only if I can come up with an explanatory theory for why the eleventh time shouldn’t be different do I have any basis at all to consider my thinking reliable. And these explanatory theories, of course, must be subject to rigorous tests, i.e. attempts at refutation, to bolster their reliability.

          • Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

            “Worries about the invalidity of induction are what lead Popper to formulate his falsifiability criterion.”

            How do you know that about Popper. And I don’t mean just any “explanations he gave.” I could give a different physchologizing motivation, but I won’t.

            Since Hume had already assasinated induction, why would Popper need to double down?

            I am with Reginald Selkirk: science is done by induction. When Mr Selkik pointed out “good enough” I think he is citing “context.” When you reject the boogy man of onmiscience, a virus inherited from religion and elsewhere, and settle instead for “within the current set of proven facts in the knowlege base of rational humanity,” then your limit is right-sized: life of man on this earth.

            • Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

              [whoops, my first draft accidently posted. I see no way to edit or delete. This is my full response:]

              “Worries about the invalidity of induction are what lead Popper to formulate his falsifiability criterion.”

              How do you know that about Popper? And I don’t mean just any “explanations he gave.” I could give a different physchologizing motivation, but I won’t. It is curious, however: Hume had already assassinated induction, why would Popper need to double down?

              I am with Reginald Selkirk: science is done by induction. And deduction. When Mr Selkik pointed out “good enough” I think he is citing “context.” When you reject the shibboleth of omniscience, a virus inherited from religion and elsewhere, and settle instead for “within the current set of proven facts in the knowledge base of rational humanity,” then your limit is right-sized: valid for the life of man on this earth.

              Within that context, we know many things with absolute certainty about objective reality, and we have induction to thank.

  38. michaelbradycpp
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Last I checked Tyson does not self-identify as a:

    Male Scientist
    Heterosexual Scientist
    Middle-aged Scientist
    Africa-American Scientist
    U.S. Scientist

    You’re all welcome to your opinions, but by what right does anyone insist Tyson submit to a test of his religious convictions? For that matter, what grand prize is on offer for being forthcoming enough to suit the Atheist Block – WEIT Contingent? A more detailed grilling, that’s what. Is he a hard Atheist, a soft atheist? Was he accidentally misusing the definition of Agnostic or was he engaged in credibility-shredding evasiveness? Was he ever an Accomodationist or has he ever appeared on panels with those judged to be accomodationists? Tyson has made it abundantly clear he doesn’t care to be pigeon-holed by the religious or the non-religious. If anyone tried to assign a definition or a label with which you disagree to your worldview you’d resist too, quite probably with must less grace than Tyson does. The man is a gifted science popularizer unlike any we’ve had since Sagan; let his work speak for him.

    • Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:16 am | Permalink

      Actually, you’ll find in this very thread where he does, indeed, self-identify as all those things. Post #14 by edhensley.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • michaelbradycpp
        Posted April 26, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

        More like two out of five:

        Male CHECK
        Heterosexual
        Middle-aged
        Africa-American
        U.S. CHECK

        Plus a bonus self-identifier “Human” CHECK

        Plus his concise explication:

        “I have always objected to labels. They give others an excuse to not explore the depths and nuances of a person’s thoughts and ideas.”

        Some people are assigned more labels that they care to wear. Tyson doesn’t care for a label many here prize.

        • gbjames
          Posted April 26, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

          You know, I don’t like the fact that I’m a upper-middle-age guy. It’s a label I prefer didn’t exist. But you know what? I don’t get to change the universe and become a 32 year old again just because the label makes me sound older than I wish I was.

          This is really not about labels, it is about honesty. It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference whether NdGT doesn’t like the baggage that clutters up believer’s minds when they hear the word “atheist”. It is just make-believe to think he isn’t what he is just because he doesn’t like “labels”. They are the words by which we communicate about reality.

          • Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

            Mr. GBJames – just my humble thoughts, there is probably a huge difference though than age and gender versus an “ism” such as atheism. You’re a guy, but most people can tell that by your name and looking at you. You age, maybe not exactly the same but you don’t go around proclaiming “Hey everyone, I’m middle aged!” nor would you expect Tyson to announce such things.

            Yet I’ve seen at least two if not more posts complaining that Tyson does not announce or emphasize that he’s an atheist. It is downright controlling and a bit bizarre. No offense to anyone, I just see it from the outside and think it’s counterproductive.

            And he’s right – if some scientist or professor is up there discussing theory or data, the very last thing they should be doing is discussing belief.

            Some politicians say very loudly they believe in global warming. Some say they don’t believe in global warming. The point is, no one gives a crap what anyone believes. Global warming is based on theory, on the data. Whether Tyson is a man, woman, black, white, atheist, whatever, that should not come up. At all. When discussing science.

            Religionists relish calling all scientists “atheists”. Some are secular, some are Buddhist, some are Wiccan, some never bothered to think about it. The point is, science is harmed by being attached to a label. Yes, even atheism. Science is about data, not isms.

            • gbjames
              Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

              Ms. Amelie (why the formality?) – I really think you are missing the point. This is not a case of a scientist going about his business promoting science (very well) in the public interest. It is not about a bunch of angry (a.k.a. shrill and strident) atheists demanding that every scientist toe the Gnu Agenda. And it really isn’t about what NdGT feels is the best way to give a science lecture. I think this is really about two things.

              One is whether someone like Dr. Tyson can put together a presentation like the one on the video above (did you view it?), the purpose of which is to describe people (like many of us here) in rather demeaning terms AND then be surprised that a hornets nest has been kicked over. Why anyone would find this unusual is beyond me.

              Second, while NdGT might not like the implications of the words that we all use to describe our universe, the words apply nonetheless. And the word “atheist” is relevant to a person speaking publicly as he does. The label applies if it reasonably describes what it refers to. None of us gets to just wish labels away.

              Tyson insists in this video that he is prefers the word “agnostic”, and I trust he does. But in what way is that word any less of a label than “atheist”? It isn’t, of course. He just prefers it because it lets him dance around an issue and lets him publicly ignore the implications of the science he promotes.

              Having seen many NdGT video bits over the years (I actually love them), I am convinced that he no more believes in sky fairies than I do. He doesn’t like the word, but I don’t think it is because the word is inaccurate. I think it is because the social consequences of using it makes him uncomfortable. Fine. But let’s be honest.

              Finally, claiming that science is just about data and not “isms” is simply untrue. Of course data is useful to science. But it ain’t nothing but a pile of numbers. EmpericISM drives the generation and analysis of those data. That not what science about, no? Without that ISM data would never be generated. Atheism does not float by itself somehow independent of science. It is a consequence of a scientific, naturalistic, world view. And it takes a certain amount of make-believe to ignore that fact.

              • Posted April 26, 2012 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

                +1

              • Posted April 27, 2012 at 7:39 am | Permalink

                The formality was so I did not sound like I was being a wiseass or attacking you due to lack of respect. Sorry if you were somehow offended by it.

                I did watch the video. I don’t know Tyson’s personal experience; but if it was anything like mine, he may have been showered with demands that he call himself an atheist. That is obnoxious. Pure and simple. He wants to use the “ist” of scientist. So why hammer him over the head with objections? Atheists should be 100 percent thrilled he’s teaching science, especially if he speaks out against Creationism.

                Did he sound condescending? I don’t think so, but if atheists too offense maybe they should not have forced him into a corner where he had to address the issue.

                Mostly I object to my personal experience and that of other scientists; that we never had the desire to be labelled. Who knows, maybe Tyson started that hornet’s nest all on his own, but that is not my point. It’s the general demand that we label ourselves.

                Empiricism is a philosophy, not a science. As I said, I tell people who ask, “I have no religion.” They then demand I call myself an atheist. I say, “My career is as a scientist.” The demand comes up again. I say, “Okay, if I must label myself, I am secular”. They demand AGAIN I use the term atheist. Can you see how obnoxious that is? I don’t know how people expect to get anywhere with that.

                Bottom line: one of my goals is to defeat Creationism, and other people’s goal is to get rid of religion. Anyone can do that without gluing a label to themselves.

              • gbjames
                Posted April 27, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

                We can both relax on the formality and wiseass front. I have taken no offense and I trust the same is true for you. I’m inclined to treat these conversations as if they were taking place over a nice cool brew at the local pub.

                I don’t really know what sorts of “demands” he is showered with. I suspect what he is actually showered with are questions that logically flow from the (excellent) presentations he makes about the cosmos. One of these is reasonably: “So, if that is how the universe is, then what role is there for Jesus?” (and a gazillion variants of this “so what do you think this means for those of us who believe in deities”). This is not an unreasonable question to ask a scientist.

                He has chosen to respond by saying (may I paraphrase here?): “I don’t want to answer that question and atheists are nasty folk who I don’t want to be associated with”. And so, with the hornets nest kicked his defenders rush in claiming that those of us who recognize the incoherence and obnoxiousness of that response are out of line for pointing it out.

                And, no, I do not think it is obnoxious for people to ask “so what is wrong with using the word atheist to describe your position?” any more than it would be for me to ask why you might not want to use the word “red” to describe the stripe over on the left side of the WEIT page. “Red” is the word we all use for that color. The fact that you don’t like the word doesn’t make it inappropriate.

          • Posted April 27, 2012 at 10:20 am | Permalink

            Please allow me to reply at the end of the page, to your last reply. :)

    • gbjames
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      If he is going to discuss the subject, especially in terms that describe the rest of us in unpleasant terms, then it is entirely appropriate for his views to be discussed in as much detail as any interested party feels is warranted. There is absolutely nothing inappropriate about this discussion.

      NONE of the criticism directed at him on this topic in any way disrespects his accomplishments or shows any less appreciation for his popularization of science. (Well, NONE that I picked up on, anyway. Please provide examples if I am wrong.)

      • michaelbradycpp
        Posted April 26, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

        He does not bring this topic up. He is confronted by pigeon holers who want him to submit to an examination of his religious beliefs.

        • gbjames
          Posted April 26, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

          Are you kidding? Did you watch the video? This is a commentary the he decided to create. Nobody forced him to produce this video.

        • Peter Beattie
          Posted April 26, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

          Tyson is confronted by people who point out that a) he does not believe in godly being, b) he does not think that there is any evidence whatsoever for such a being and a lot of evidence to the contrary, and c) he presumably wouldn’t call himself a vampire agnostic but simply say, ‘Of course I don’t believe in vampires, now let’s get back to the important stuff.’

    • Ludo
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      Yes, well said! This tendency to try to outdo each other in ‘pigeon-holing’ shown by some is surprising, and in my opinion quite regrettable.

  39. Posted April 26, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I don’t have a problem with this – especially given his role as a science communicator. As noted by others, the “atheist” label is a *huge* impediment in communicating science to the unwashed masses, especially in some parts of the US (I live in Georgia). I do a lot of public presentations on climate and natural disasters, and increasingly I’m challenged that science is a tool of atheism to corrupt believers. I’ve done some small scale experiments when talking to people after my presentations – around here, faith is never far from the conversation. If I say I’m Christian (culturally I am), the conversation can stay focused on the science. If I say I’m Buddhist (Zen Buddhism, without the supernatural trappings, is probably closest to my real philosophy), the conversation stays civil, and the conversation can be steered back to the facts and science. But if I say the A-word, any possibility of discussing science is over. Haven’t (and won’t) tried the Islam card; way to chicken for that(and it’s not “true” in any sense as the other two are), but I’d bet they would accept a Muslim “scientist” more so than an atheist.

    To sum up my experience, a religious person will listen to science presented by someone who they feel is religious in some acceptable way, but if it is presented by a known atheist, it just won’t get through. So if the goal is science education, I have no problem with trying really hard to avoid labels, which NdGT seems to be doing.

    • Christian
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      Have you also tried the other A-word (agnostic)?

      If yes, did the sheeple react significantly less hostile or was there no real difference?

      • Posted April 26, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

        Not directly. When discussing Buddhism I point out that it is “non-theistic” and that in the Zen schools the issue of the existence of God(s) are basically considered irrelevant. That usually gets a blank stare, followed by “but you’re not one of them atheists, right?” That is what seems to set people off. My sense is it is ok to have doubts about God, even not care about God, but just don’t ever say “there’s no God”.

        • Christian
          Posted April 26, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

          Which is funny, since a-theistic and non-theistic are practically the same.
          It seems to the common yokel the ‘a’ in atheism has as much significance as the one in apple.
          They are probably neither acquainted with the word ‘theism’ (they only encounter it as a part of ‘atheism’) so I’m sure that if you ever ask them if they are a “theist” you might risk a black eye or an indignant reply that they are not one of them thar dirty theists but Gawd-fearing Christians.
          And you won’t have more luck with ‘mono-theist’. I bet they think it’s some pagan cult.

          • Posted April 26, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

            Yeah, it’s a fine distinction, but in their eyes, a non-theistic religion is not a challenge to their beliefs, whereas atheism is.

            I wouldn’t call the folks I interact with “yokels” (well, most of them). In some cases they are thinking about this stuff. I think a big issue is that they equate atheism with immorality. And that is what scares them; they don’t accept that a person can be “moral” outside of a religious framework – even an unfamiliar one like Buddhism.

            With respect to this thread, NdGT’s primary goal is science education. The whole atheism/agnostic/whatever debate gets in the way of that, so I don’t fault him for ducking it. So do I on my much smaller stage.

            • Christian
              Posted April 26, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

              Yeah, sorry, ‘yokels’ was probably not quite the right choice. The real problem is that it’s not just the yokels who think that way but people who you’d consider quite educated.

              I can also understand NdGT and why he wants to avoid being labeled an atheist and that he can’t be straightforward about it without destroying any plausible deniability.
              On the other hand I’m sure he could have done so without painting all those who don’t have a problem with labeling themselves atheists as close-minded (as if most atheists wouldn’t change their minds if they see compelling evidence) or being activists who openly fight religion.

              • bernardhurley
                Posted April 26, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

                The real problem is that it’s not just the yokels who think that way but people who you’d consider quite educated.

                I guess that depends on quite how educated one needs to be to be considered quite educated.

        • Darth Dog
          Posted April 26, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

          I have had several conversations like this with religious friends and relatives. It seems that atheist is threatening because it is equivalent to saying that the religous person is wrong. An agnostic, someone who isn’t sure, doesn’t seem to bother someone who is sure.

          • gbjames
            Posted April 26, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

            This is a good point. One that was explored by Greta Christina on her blog:

            http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2011/10/24/were-telling-them-theyre-wrong-why-coming-out-atheist-is-inherently-oppositional/

          • bernardhurley
            Posted April 26, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

            But the religious person is wrong!

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted April 27, 2012 at 5:19 am | Permalink

            Yes, ‘atheist’ is definitely a verbal hand grenade (whether it should be or not). I’ll say I’m atheist if I want to make a point, but if it would just be a distraction from the subject at hand, I just say I’m ‘non-religious’ – which means the same thing in practical terms.

            I actually doubt whether most religious people know the difference between ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’, they just think it’s a matter of degree (like the difference between moderate believer and fundamentalist). They’re technically wrong, of course, but edjamacating them about the difference is usually not particularly useful.

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      » Chuck Watson:
      I do a lot of public presentations on climate and natural disasters, and increasingly I’m challenged that science is a tool of atheism to corrupt believers.

      And the correlation certainly seems to be an empirical fact (see polls on religious believers among scientists/NAS members). I would submit that there is value in being honest about that.

      To sum up my experience, a religious person will listen to science presented by someone who they feel is religious in some acceptable way, but if it is presented by a known atheist, it just won’t get through.

      And I very much doubt that actual understanding will get through. Maybe you can get people to profess belief in this or that word, but that’s not science education by anybody’s definition. (See also this comment above.)

      • Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

        I disagree. If I get someone to go from “climate change is a conspiracy” to “humans can impact climate”, that’s real progress, and it’s happened enough that I stand by the above comment. Religion is a huge obstacle to science education. Avoiding that conflict until the person starts thinking is a valid tactic imnsho.

        • Posted April 26, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

          Perhaps.

          Some (many? most?) theistic religious people may be amenable to being educated about science to some degree.

          But at some point, their faith will get in the way. As a survey frequently cited here has shown, some will stick to they faith even when confronted with contradictory evidence.

          So for some, the bar is so high, no amount of good science education will move them from their faith position.

          They won’t start thinking until you’ve had that confrontation.

          /@

        • Peter Beattie
          Posted April 27, 2012 at 3:17 am | Permalink

          You may very well have a point there. It would be unrealistic to expect somebody to understand the whole scientific concept of climate change, for example, in one fell swoop. So, taking some intermediate steps is in fact a worthy goal.

          But Ant’s point is also correct, I think. For lots of people, thinking doesn’t happen without confrontation. I would even go so far as to say that this is a principle of epistemology: that you cannot learn unless and until you really see what was wrong in your own thinking before.

          • Posted April 27, 2012 at 4:31 am | Permalink

            “Unlearn you must!” ;-)

            /@

  40. Silvia Planchett
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Tyson is certainly being disingenuous.

    • Posted April 26, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

      Almost certainly. ;-)

      /@

  41. rhaguirrem
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, your update sums up my opinion about the subject. In most cases, to call ourselves “atheists” leaves the wrong impression that we have the equivalent of faith in the untestable assertion that there’s no god. I’m just guessing, buy maybe that is what Neil Tyson is trying to avoid.

    In my case, I’m an atheist as a consequence of being a skeptic, therefore it’s far from boring to specify that I’m not just an atheist, but a weak/agnostic/skeptical atheist.

  42. Curt Nelson
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    I think your definition of agnosticism – not knowing whether or not god is real – is empty because that is what everyone must say if they are being scientific about their use of “know.” The pope can’t prove god is real and no one can prove he is not, so we’re all agnostics. Where does that get us?

    I’ve always thought agnostic means essentially “haven’t made up my mind about god.” To me, that is a helpful and understandable position to take about a belief issue, which is what the god question is (not a scientific issue, really).

    • Posted April 26, 2012 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

      No, it’s unhelpful and confusing. Do you believe in any god(s)? How can you not have made up your mind about your own belief? If you can’t answer “yes” to the first question, how can the answer not be “no”? Unless you see agnosticism as some kind of “Schrödinger’s belief” … ?

      /@

      • Curt Nelson
        Posted April 27, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

        Theists believe in god, atheists don’t. Some haven’t made up their mind. As a kid I didn’t understand about god and would have called myself agnostic, and then I decided all gods are bogus and I now call myself atheist. What’s the difficulty with that? Do you deny that many go through a period in their lives in which they are not sure what they believe?

        Defining it in terms of what one “knows” is so slippery it’s meaningless.

        • Curt Nelson
          Posted April 27, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

          If someone were to tell me they’re agnostic (in the “know” sense), I’d understand that I’m talking to a philosophy minded person who over intellectualizes a topic that is about belief, not fact, and wants me to know they’re a deep thinker but not what they actually think about religion.

        • gbjames
          Posted April 27, 2012 at 10:03 am | Permalink

          What you are can be very different from what you call yourself. Either someone believes in god (by some definition of the word) or one does not. Not understanding the subject, as in the example of your youthful self, doesn’t seem to me to be relevant to whether you did at the time actually believe in one (or more) or not.

          Being unsure of whether you believe (x) or not strikes me as just another way of saying that the (x) isn’t clearly defined. It does not seem a statement about whether you do in fact believe in it.

          • Posted April 27, 2012 at 11:04 am | Permalink

            Since there is no empirical referent to the word god, it is a nonsensical statement. It means as little as do you believe to tooth fairees or hdnhyt.

        • Posted April 28, 2012 at 8:25 am | Permalink

          Who’s defining it in terms of what one “knows”?

          Sure, people do have doubts, but I’m having trouble conceptualising this state of mind between belief and absence of belief. Pace what James says, if someone hasn’t made up their mind, that still sounds like an absence of belief to me…

          When you were a kid and “didn’t understand about god”, did you believe in god?

          /@

  43. MadScientist
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Tyson has also poo-pooed atheists on a number of occasions just to get a laugh. He does the same to religion in the right environment.

    I see Tyson as an entertainer and an educator who is interested in presenting science but who doesn’t want to be perceived to be anti-religion or to upset the religious audience. He’s living out the ideal situation where there is no need to mention religion when presenting science. Now you can always press just the right buttons … push a creationist argument against standard cosmology and sit back and enjoy.

  44. Darth Dog
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    I think Bertrand Russell identified the key issue with the use of the terms atheist and agnostic years ago.

    “As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God. On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think that I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because, when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.”

    In my experience, most people have a fuzzy and fairly sloppy understanding of the term agnostic. They do see it as a point on a continuum between atheist and believer (sorry agentwhim). So using that term in a technically correct fashion will result in a miscommunication.

    For example, when someone visits my workplace and asks me if they need a password to connect to our wifi network, the technically correct answer is “no”. But I can guarantee that if I tell them that they will be back in my office in five minutes complaining that they can’t connect and are being asked for a password. “No you aren’t. You’re being asked for an encryption key.” So when I am asked that question I do not give a technically correct answer. I do not give the person a lesson on encryption, user accounts and session. I give them the informationt that they are looking for. Using a term in a technically correct fashion when you suspect that the person you are talking to does not share the same definition that you do is not good communication.

    For me a good test is to ask someone if they are agnostic about the existence of vampires and leprachauns. If someone says “no” then you will not communicate correctly if you claim to be agnostic on the existence of God or gods.

  45. Pete Cockerell
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    I think essentially he’s saying, “I’m an agnostic atheist scientist, but for God’s sake (sic) please don’t lump me in with PZ Myers!”

  46. JH
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Personally I believe in the “war on many fronts” approach. Not every single person wanting to promote reason, rational thought, and science need to declare their staunch atheism and fight the atheist fight.
    Neil DeGrass Tyson does amazing things for science education and reason, he is a promoter of rational thought and critical thinking. Demanding that he do this by declaring he is an atheist and fight in the same manner Dawkins or Hitch have fought may not help his purposes.
    What is the goal here? To promote reason and rational thought or to make sure everybody thinks religion is ridiculous? If you think that ultimately in the end, these goals are one in the same, then getting people to travel down one road towards the goal is just as good as getting them to travel down the other road.
    Neil clearly is not an accomadationist, and he is obviously not one to pander to religion. But he knows what his goal and purpose is and labeling himself a staunch atheist may be anti-thetical to that goal. He is not throwing atheists under the bus by making science and education his top priority.

  47. Posted April 26, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    in terms of sales strategy, oops ideological discussion, never a good idea to let yuor opponent label/tag you.

    Any term with the phrase “theist” should be rejected out of hand as a slick trick.

  48. mordacious1
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

    • Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

      …either that, or you’re part of the precipitate….

      b&

  49. Posted April 26, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    re: ‘agnosticism” referring to knowledge
    “Thus, it is clear that agnosticism is compatible with both theism and atheism. A person can believe in a god (theism) without claiming to know for sure if that god exists; the result is agnostic theism. On the other hand, a person can disbelieve in gods (atheism) without claiming to know for sure that no gods can or do exist; the result is agnostic atheism.”

    What is your motive in this effort to preserve…no, extend…..the legitimacy of “agnostic?”

    “knowing for sure” means: proven to exist or proven that it does not exist. No atheist, in my opinion, ought champion either. There is no need for this term ‘agnostic’, and the dalliance with it as some tenuous gray term or multi-value-ist accommodation is destructive. Let suffer the person claiming to believe in God without proof; he has only the burden of his own denial to carry. But leave in peace the atheist to whom no proof has been presented. The noise is not of his doing.

  50. Posted April 26, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    I can say this; the one thing that nailed the coffin shut for me was atheists freaking out when I said I would not use the label for myself. Seriously it sounds like preaching – and is that really the goal here? To spread this word everywhere? I thought the goal was exactly what Tyson was doing. Spreading science knowledge, and to be loudly anti-Creationist.

    I have always said about myself that “I have no religion”. Having a label to me is as bad as being forced to proclaim a faith. I don’t need a label. I work in science. I fight Creationism. Why everyone wants me to scream to the world that I proclaim myself an atheist, well, that just sounds very controlling.

    I think this recent study is useful; why not spend more time fighting to make college and grad school more affordable, get kids out on nature progams (I lead some, and we promote hardcore analytical thiking) and support libraries etc?

    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/336/6080/493

    • gbjames
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

      Seriously it sounds like preaching – and is that really the goal here?

      No the goal is to remove the venom from the word. This is no different than the goal of homosexuals thirty years ago to remove the venom of homophobia by adopting and proudly using the word “gay”.

      The goal is for our neighbors to learn that people who don’t believe in gods are just like them, interested in promoting a better life for their fellow citizens and not, in fact, promoters of chaos. The goal is to someday live in a country where a person might run for office while PUBLICLY professing non-belief and hold some chance of winning. The goal will never be achieved if atheists remain in the closet, afraid of the label, because ignorant religious people will continue to imagine non-believers to be something lower than dreadful.

      • gbjames
        Posted April 26, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

        blockquote fail. aarrgghh.

        • Dave Ricks
          Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

          Instead of affirming her value and addressing her objections, your reply confirms her objection to “controlling” — you argue how she should present herself, to support your goals, your way.

          Maybe her goals and her way support your goals better than your way to support your goals.

          • gbjames
            Posted April 27, 2012 at 4:50 am | Permalink

            And perhaps the rights of same-sex couples would be better served by gays remaining in the closet? Civil rights for African Americans in the US would have been better served if only they had remained more docile?

            We have two centuries of experience demonstrating how well closet-living expands human rights. Rights agendas do not advance without the people who have been marginalized standing up and refusing to take it any more. It doesn’t matter if the oppression is for race, gender, or religious views. Closet-living is a bad way to live and is no way to advance a cause.

      • Posted April 27, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink

        HTML wins again. Yay! :D (That is why I left Blogger, to be honest).

        Debate over beers – yes. That’s how I see it too. You would not believe though the offense some people take to my comments (not here, usually) if I don’t buffer them to some extent.

        I agree that atheists are persecuted, but gays and lesbians are a very different case as well. Being born with a sexual stigma and most likely hormonal differences which may have even begun in vitro is is vastly different than choosing to be an atheist when one reaches intellectual maturity.

        But that’s beside the point – persecuted or not, that doesn’t give someone the right to tell me what I should call myself. Being a straight white female is biological. Atheism is not.

        Re: the color red analogy: well, that doesn’t really work. There is no Red conferences. You won’t get a million hits if you google “Red Society) (okay you might, but not referring to the color). If you say, who’s the most famous atheist” on a quiz show, needless to say a name will emerge. Not so with the color red. Like it or not, atheists are stuck with an image, and connotations far beyond the idea that they “merely don’t believe in God”.

        And let me give you my view on religion. I used to dabble in Wicca (casually, and I had to give it up because I don’t believe in any gods or goddesses, although I still follow the seasonal rituals). To me, religion is like ice cream. I think it is fun. That is all, I enjoyed Wicca. I enjoyed chanting. Does it mean anything scientific? No! Just like ice cream, it made me feel good. End of story.

        I never assigned scientific merit to Wicca EVEN THOUGH witches taught people to create ecologically beneficial gardens, etc, which actually does have far more merit than saying God created this and that, still I would never say my enjoyment of Wicca had anything at all to do with science.

        Atheism, unlike secularism, as Degrasse-Tyson said (I forgot to hyphenate his name before, that pisses me off), has implications of actively speaking out on certain issues. Again – like it or not, you’re stuck with those connotations. Stuck with Dawkins, stuck with a feeling of an organized group. You may be fine with that, but many of us prefer to stop being told we MUST use that label.

        RE: my atheism or non atheism, I don’t want to tick of Dr. Coyne, so maybe at some point we can continue the conversation on my post about the topic, go to my blog and see the category “Secular” (if we’re discussing my personal views).

        • gbjames
          Posted April 27, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

          Being a straight white female is biological. Atheism is not.

          This is not really relevant. Labels point to things biological and thing not biological. If one is a registered Republican then it is fair to say that that person is a Republican. They may not like the fact. It may make them unhappy because they can’t stand being associated with Rick Santorum. But they don’t get to claim non-Republicanhood. And NdGT doesn’t get to be a non-atheist just because he doesn’t want to be confused with PZ Myers. To be a non-atheist he has to believe in one or more of those deities. That’s the way it works.

          I think my point about “red” still holds. It makes not a whit of difference that there are no Red conferences (although, to be fair the Communists did once hold conventions even here in the good ‘ol USA). The point is that words have meaning and when the meaning maps to someone it applies independent of their preferences.

          I don’t get your point about liking to chant when the seasons turn. I like Verdi. If I had to pick a half dozen pieces of music to take to the proverbial desert island his Requiem would be at the top of the list. But what does that have to do with this conversation? (I note that he, too, was a non-believer.)

          • Posted April 27, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

            Sorry, I was not clear. My only point was that growing up, I never thought about religion as something literal. I did not even believe in Santa Claus. Therefore quotes like those from Dawkins “I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world” (got that online, tell me if he was misquoted there) don’t sit well with me. I was religious at some point (as I said – Wiccan) but I was seeking to learn science.

            Much more importantly though, I don’t like this whole mixing together a stew of ranting about religion and science together. Someone brings up Jesus in a lecture about the cosmos? Shut them up. Tell them what my Cell Biology professor told a student when he asked about irreducible complexity:

            “THAT IS A QUESTION ABOUT RELIGION. SINCE THIS IS A SCIENCE CLASS, WE’RE NOT GOING TO DISCUSS THAT HERE”.

            That cell biology teacher was a devout Christian, by the way.

            The Republican example is an interesting one. Simply because it brings up the word Conservative. Now, Republican is a very set term. You’re either registered as a Republican or you’re not. You can average together the times you voted Republican. In our state, I can’t even vote Republican in the primaries if I’m registered a Democrat. So it’s not as fluid as you’re making it out to be. I know plenty of people who hate Santorum, but none who would lie and say they’re not a Republican. They would simply say which candidates they support. If you vote or are registered that way, simple math. You are a Republican.

            Conservative, on the other hand, is a fluid term. Just like atheism. Personally, I refuse to call myself liberal because I find social liberals to be annoying. I call myself socially conservative, politically liberal (even though I’m a Democrat). Would you demand I call myself liberal all the time? No.

            Yes, I realize you’re going to say atheism is a simple defenition. As I said before, I am closer to the term secular than atheist. However, you also have not acknowledged that the term atheist comes with many implications. I have zero objections to atheist individuals, groups, etc. However, I have no interest in anyone calling me an atheist, especially when I am conducting science.

            There is no such term as “non-atheist”. If I’m not a theist, I can be “secular”, or I can be “someone who has no religion”. The demand that I adopt the term atheist is pretty pushy.

            • gbjames
              Posted April 27, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

              Well, I don’t know how we resolve this. You keep telling me how you don’t baggage that comes along with labels. I get that. And I recognize that in fact in the minds of a great many people, the word “atheist” is loaded with all manner of nastiness. (You say I haven’t acknowledged this. I think I have. Perhaps not explicitly enough for you, but YES the word is laden with all kinds of negative baggage in the minds of people. Is that clear enough?

              But. It. Doesn’t. Matter. All of the baggage in the world doesn’t change basic facts. If you don’t believe in those deity-things, then you are an atheist. Period. No escaping it. You can call yourself a skeptic or a freethinker or an elf. It doesn’t matter. The word has a core meaning and it applies to you.

              So you (and all of us) have a choice. You/we can squirm in discomfort and say “I’m not one of those guys” even though by definition you/we are. Or you/we can say “Yes. That’s what I am. There are some of us who are more blunt than I am. And maybe there are some that even sweeter than me. But I’m in that club.”

              My problem with the denial position (yours, NdGT’s, whoever’s) is that it represents fear. Fear of being called a person without morals. Fear of being called cold. Of being shrill or strident. Fear of being called a godless heathen who shouldn’t be able to teach in schools. Fear of being the outsider. Fear of “the baggage”.

              The only way to make “the baggage” go away is to stand up and be counted for what you are. You don’t choose to be an atheist. You are or you are not, whether you are willing to admit it or not. By admitting it and standing proud, you exemplify all of the good qualities that many people think are missing and a little of “the baggage” goes away. To me that is important.

              • Peter Beattie
                Posted April 28, 2012 at 3:30 am | Permalink

                I like. :)

              • Posted April 28, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink

                Oh, it doesn’t sound like you’ve been to my page. Fear of conflict or even fatal events does not stop me from saying exactly what’s on my mind. I am polite in order to be a good guest on someone’s blog, but it’s not mandatory in my world, my friend. I simply get irritated when someone becomes obesssed with the idea that I must use a word that does not apply to me.

                I realize we’ll have to agree to disagree. But maybe I was not clear; as I wrote on my post, there is a different defenition for Secular vs Atheist.

                “Atheism: a disbelief in the existence of a diety; the doctrine that there is no diety. Secularism: indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations.”

                (Sorry not italicized html etc, last time I tried it blew up).

                Atheism, by many defenitions, is an active and vocal denial of a diety. Whereas secularism is rejection, exclusion and indifference to it. As you can see, those are two different words.

                Ask almost anyone and they will say that atheism involves some type of loud proclamation. I, most emphatically, do not give a rat’s behind if someone believes in God, as long as they stay the heck away from science classes.

              • gbjames
                Posted April 28, 2012 at 9:23 am | Permalink

                Actually, secularism is not an alternative to atheism, it is a particular position regarding the relationship of religion to civil government. There are many religious people who support the secular agenda. Example: http://www.au.org/about/people/lynn

                But what does that have to do with this discussion? Nothing. It is only another example of a label that you find warmer and more fuzzy, unlike that scratchy old “A” word.

                I wouldn’t care, either, about someone’s private belief in magic underwear or talking snakes. But that’s not an option I get to live. Believers are determined to drive their revelations into my life and yours. They are going to keep appearing in your science classes until public acceptance of religion-as-a-reasonable-thing dries up. You can’t wish them away and no amount of eye-averting is going to make them evaporate.

                That scratchy feeling you get from that nasty label is going to annoy you until the venom (aka “baggage) associated with it is diluted by _actual_ atheists (like NdGT and you) not acting like the “A” word is the problem.

        • bernardhurley
          Posted April 27, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

          How can someone choose to be an atheist?

          • Posted April 27, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

            I think one commenter said it best: atheist is a verbal hand grenade. I don’t consider that good; the rudeness of Dawkins (sorry to bring it up, but – elevatorgate) combined with the mish mosh of religion and science, which I object to (see my comment to GB James just now) means the term is not just a simple description. It comes with baggage, if i use it.

            I am NOT saying I judge any people who choose to call themselves atheists – there are all types. However, again, it is a choice since there are other terms I can use to describe my religious status or non status. Honestly, I don’t believe in santa claus, but no one goes around demanding I use some term to emphasize that!

            • bernardhurley
              Posted April 27, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

              This is just silly. What has Richard Dawkins got to do with it? I was an atheist before I had even heard of him. There have been atheists for thousands of years.

              • Posted April 28, 2012 at 7:32 am | Permalink

                Well, that was then, this is now. If I suddenly went along with everyone’s obsession with using the word atheist, it would not mean the same thing it used to.

                But that’s beside the point. Do we realize that atheists here are going FAR beyond simply saying that a word applies to someone? People are virutally demanding that Degrasse-Tyson use the word in public. It’s a tad kooky.

              • gbjames
                Posted April 28, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

                People are virutally demanding that Degrasse-Tyson use the word in public.

                Sorry to be blunt over this glass of amber ale, but this is a marginally dishonest statement. Nobody is demanding that.

                What people are demanding is honesty. If NdGT is going to make public statements about atheists and atheism, then he has the duty to be honest about it. If he mischaracterizes it or us; if he disparages people who take this matter seriously (as he does in the example video), then nobody should expect to be surprised to see him called out on it.

              • bernardhurley
                Posted April 29, 2012 at 3:47 am | Permalink

                Personally, I find this discussion all rather weird. Until about 5 or 6 years ago I had no idea that anyone in the world had a problem with the word “atheist”. Most people I know are atheists and I normally assume people are unless they indicate otherwise. This talk about the word having “baggage” sounds like American psychobabble to me.

                As far as I can see someone who doesn’t believe any gods is an atheist just as someone who has earned a degree is a graduate and someone who doesn’t eat meat is a vegetarian. Of course, you might not want anyone to know you are any of these things, but that is another matter.

              • Posted April 29, 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink

                You continue to imply that I’m “in the closet” somehow, Bernard. It’s kind of bizarre. As I told GB, my family was 100 percent non-religious. So I’m sorry if other atheists experienced some kind of awful shaming at the hands of the church, but I never got that. I am about as un-ashamed as a human can get. So if I thought atheism was just a word, I might use it. But it’s not. IMO, it’s a club with members who have a very specific agenda. And again, not good for science, which is supposed to be impartial.

              • Posted April 30, 2012 at 11:32 am | Permalink

                Bernard, I think quite a few things have changed in 50 years. I see atheists online now getting annoyed that an astrophysicist won’t “take two seconds” to declare himself an atheist. If this is such a silly matter, why harp on it this way? The word atheist CLEARLY means more than just “someone who does not believe in God”. It now means several groups with varying agendas, but whose main goal is to get more people to stop believing in God. While that’s perfectly fine, many of us in the science community don’t want to obsess on religion. We’d rather obsess on data.

                As I told GB, feel free to stop by my blog if you’d like to continue the conversation. ;)

              • Posted April 30, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

                Hmm…

                So, would you say that the word gay “CLEARLY means more than just “someone who is homosexual”?

                /@

              • Posted April 30, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

                * fudged up the quote marks there… :-/

            • gbjames
              Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:04 am | Permalink

              Can I move to the UK?

              I think the reason for this weird situation is the peculiar history of the United States, in particular our inability to escape the grips of Xtian faithers as well as you Brits have. Having an intentionally secular Constitution has resulted in this strange condition.
              the custom of polite acceptance of multiple religious “traditions” (by nonbelievers) has contributed to the rise of the religious right which has, in turn, has now provoked many of us to resist accommodation.

              • Posted April 29, 2012 at 9:12 am | Permalink

                No worries about being blunt over ale. It’s not like you’re being rude.

                What I said may be an exaggeration in your mind, but it’s certainly not some lie. Read Dr. Coyne’s opinion on how NdGT should mention atheism. Add to that the other posts in which atheists have asked the same of him, and I see it as pushy, to say the least.

                I see the problem in the States as not being tied to Christianity; I was never religious, maybe many atheists have experienced religious oppression thus sense that pressure. Me? I feel none whatsoever.

                I am not “avoiding” the atheist label. I simply see atheists as (now it’s my turn to be blunt) a group with an agenda.

                I actually agree with MANY things that atheists say! However – joining a club is something that I think is unbecoming of a scientist, and something that would sort of kill my individuality.

              • bernardhurley
                Posted April 29, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

                Since when was atheism a club? I have been an atheist for well over 50 years. Admittedly my memory is not all it was but I don’t remember ever filling in a membership form of paying a subscription.

              • gbjames
                Posted April 29, 2012 at 10:38 am | Permalink

                It is not an exaggeration “in my mind”. You made an untrue statement. (Am I wrong? Please show me where someone demands that NdGT “use the word in public”.)

                This is getting silly. He, and you, have many times used “the word in public” (“in public”? does that make a difference?). What is in dispute is how the word is used , what is said using the word, and whether what is said is true or not.

          • gbjames
            Posted April 27, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

            Precisely. One can choose to self-describe that way (or not). But nobody gets the choice of whether to be one or not.

            • Posted April 28, 2012 at 7:33 am | Permalink

              And as I said to BH, the freakout that Degrasse Tyson use that word in public sounds a bit self-serving and also a tad obsessed.

            • Posted April 28, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

              Actually no, origins of the word Secular relate to temporal concerns. I’m going with Merriam Webster on this one. Either way, it is used in common language, GB. I know atheists get upset when people won’t adopt their word, but I’m not alone. Quite a few people I know are getting fed up with this obsessive behavior. I don’t find “secular” to be fuzzy at all. I find it cold and indifferent (part of the defention)! That’s why I like it. Atheist, on the other hand, is starting to sound a bit overbearing. Sorry to disappoint everyone on this matter.

              • gbjames
                Posted April 28, 2012 at 9:54 am | Permalink

                Is this posted in the wrong thread? This one is about whether one chooses (or not) to BE atheist, regardless of how one self-identifies.

                In any case, “secular” has multiple meanings. The one I am using is in common use referring, for example, to our government as a secular (not atheist) institution. I find company in this usage with religious people like Barry Lynn.

            • Posted April 29, 2012 at 10:15 am | Permalink

              I can see how Degrasse-Tyson could have come off as smarmy, but it all depends on his experience. He should have quoted people who offended him, and similarly it would help if you told me which parts of his video you find offensive.

              Going on Bernard’s point, I think the non-theists are the vegetarians, whereas atheists are the animal rights activists. So if I choose not to be a protester, I am not an atheist.

              • gbjames
                Posted April 29, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

                I have little interest in using your customized dictionary. I’ll stick with the one that the rest of us share.

            • Posted April 29, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

              No need to “resolve” anything, I just see this as a friendly debate. :)

              Re: defenitions – Yet you would not consider the difference between secular vs atheist. I don’t have a special dictionary, I use Merriam Webster. Is there one you think is better?

              • gbjames
                Posted April 29, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

                Then go look up the word “atheist” in Mirriam Webster. Note the absence of all of the baggage that makes you not want to use the word in public.

                http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/atheist

              • Posted April 29, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

                Included in that definition is an assertion of the negative. I was upset when I read that, so I jumped into the OED. Same results.

                Notice that the first commentary at the MW site makes the perfect objection:

                “his definition is not quite correct. It should read: One who is without a belief in any god(s).”

                This has to be due to the Judeo-Christian spin in the culture: “God” is the default background noise, and anyone “without god” is cast as proactively believing there is no god. Well, “believing” is a choice, a conviction of the rational mind that the position is true. Thank you very much, but just because my rational convictions contain no need for, and no mention of, God or the supernatural, does not equate to rationally self-proving the negative of someone else’s ghost.

                In other words: The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary and MW sustain a prejudice strong enough to include argumentum ad ignorantiam in the definition.

              • Posted April 29, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

                ha ha ha I swear I wrote my post above with “noise” in it before I read this in the wikipedia article:

                Some atheists have doubted the very need for the term “atheism”. In his book Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris wrote:

                In fact, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer” or a “non-alchemist.” We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.

              • bernardhurley
                Posted April 29, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

                The opinion, which I share, that we don’t actually need the word atheist is quite widespread and is shared by people such as Jonathan Miller. It was once A.C. Grayling’s opinion but he seems to have changed his mind. However that is a different question to whether one objects to the term being used of oneself.

            • Posted April 29, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

              No no, my point was not that the dictionary defenition made me think the word had baggage. My point was there is a difference between the words secular and atheist.

              My objection is how atheists have changed the word. And on that note, I have a solution to our dispute! (It would never happen in our lifetimes, but worth a listen anyway).

              Dr. Stephen Pinker, my favorite linguist, has pointed out that language changes over time. Were he to study the word, he could determine if the word atheist has now become a word meaning “activist” instead of simply a non-belief in God.

              Take it or leave it, I don’t know any other way to resolve the debate. I realize it’s hypothetical, this study.

              I agree also that people don’t have terms for non-belief in astrology, so not sure why we need a word for non-belief in God.

              • Posted April 29, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

                First name spelled wrong. Sorry.

              • gbjames
                Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

                I no longer can distinguish your comments from tone trolling.

              • Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

                why should a “drifted” usage be more important than honoring the original, a-theism, “without god?”

            • Posted April 30, 2012 at 8:07 am | Permalink

              Tone trolling. Was that reply to me? That made zero sense. I did not demand anyone be nice to anyone else, I suggested we use a reliable method. The fact that an atheist got angry about that says much about the movement.

              • gbjames
                Posted April 30, 2012 at 9:19 am | Permalink

                “…the rudeness of Dawkins…”

                “…It’s a club with members who have a very specific agenda….”

                “…the freakout that Degrasse Tyson use that word in public sounds a bit self-serving and also a tad obsessed.
                Quite a few people I know are getting fed up with this obsessive behavior….”

                “…My objection is how atheists have changed the word….”

                Urban Dictionary:

                Tone troll
                A tone troll is an internet troll that will effectively disrupt an internet discussion, because they feel that some of the participants are being too harsh, condescending, or use foul language. They often complain loudly and target specific subjects, even though they may actually agree with their subjects’s point of view.

                To me, these quotes fall within the definition.

            • Posted April 30, 2012 at 10:03 am | Permalink

              Hmmm. I bluntly called atheists obsessed, controlling and a group with an agenda. Do you really think my point was that everyone should be nice? I don’t know how you got that.

              Just fyi, I shall stop so as not to overcomment but feel free to visit my blog. :)

              • bernardhurley
                Posted April 30, 2012 at 11:21 am | Permalink

                But that’s just silly. I’ve been an atheist for over 50 years. Most people I know are atheists, at least I assume they are – it’s not something that comes up in discussion much. However except in on-line discussions like this I have never come across anyone who does not believe in God who objects to being called an atheist. I have only heard of this phenomenon in the last 5 or 6 years. It strikes me as pseudo-intellectual posing.

                As to agendas it must be really well hidden; I don’t know what it is itself.

  51. Brendo
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    I have trouble understanding “agnostic theism”. Are there actually people out there who claim/beleive god to be unknown/unknowable, and yet believe in it regardless? The more I think about it, the more it seems to contradict its own position. Am I missing something?

    • rhaguirrem
      Posted April 27, 2012 at 4:57 am | Permalink

      Yes they are, Brendo. They are called fideists. And pretty much every presuppositionalist that claims that belief in god is justified since it hasn’t been proved to not exist is an agnostic theist of sort, too.

  52. Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    And I’m not especially fond of the term “agnostic” because it sounds like scientists acknowledging there is some chance that a big man in the sky exists. Huh?

  53. David M
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Disappointing.

  54. Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    No one has posted the obvious. Perhaps far underneath in his inner heart of hearts there is that tiny spot of au contraire…

    … a place where — regardless of training, rationality, exterior proud life — his soul wants and loves God.

    • gbjames
      Posted April 27, 2012 at 5:38 am | Permalink

      Oh, for christ’s sake. Time for you to head off to your worshiping hut for a prayer session. Off you go, now…

      • Posted April 27, 2012 at 9:17 am | Permalink

        dig for context before you spout off crap

        1) i am a Rational with no god.
        2) several posts in this thread to that effect.
        3) my post stands.

        ———

        any other more perceptive people reading this, face it. some otherwise perfectly normal scientists with no religion have still have a seed deep inside, an urge that there just might be God.

        I have no evidence that Neil does, either way.

        • gbjames
          Posted April 27, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink

          Sorry for the offense. I mistook you for a troll. My error.

          • Posted April 27, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

            no problem. thanks for ammending.

            • Posted April 29, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

              Good point about astrology, I pilfered it. Cheers.

  55. Dave Ricks
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    I’m sorry to see Hemant and Jerry pick sides in this interminable Internet pissing contest to control definitions of words (like whether agnostic means floor wax or dessert topping).

    Putting Tyson in the middle of this pissing contest only gets him wet.

    • gbjames
      Posted April 27, 2012 at 5:39 am | Permalink

      Tyson put himself in the middle of it.

      • Posted April 27, 2012 at 5:50 am | Permalink

        Worse. He’s pissing down his own leg.

        /@

        • Posted April 30, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

          (Reply to you from up above)

          Being gay is not a choice, Ant. Changing religious beliefs is a matter of reflection and education. Changing sexual orientation is not. They can’t pray the gay away or vice versa.

          • Posted April 30, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

            ps Ant, please continue the conversation on my blog if you wish. I appreciate the blog author allowing me to respond to people who have addressed me so many times, but it’s getting to be too many comments.

            • Posted May 2, 2012 at 3:10 am | Permalink

              Oh, I like it just fine right here.

              /@

              • Posted May 2, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

                Oh, but Dr. Coyne does not. Ask him yourself. It’s not my blog, and I shall not continue to sit here and pretend it is. If you want to, that’s fine.

              • Posted May 2, 2012 at 8:17 am | Permalink

                I’m sure Ceiling Cat will send us to the Land of Nod if we trespass on his hospitality, as he has with others before.

                But your conversation with Bernard, James and me is very much on topic — you have set yourself up as a proxy for NdGT.

                /@

          • Posted April 30, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

            True (sort of). But not, I think, pertinent to the point I was making.

            /@

            • Posted May 2, 2012 at 11:12 am | Permalink

              Sorry, Ant, I know you’re more comfortable here among your atheist friends than you would be on my blog.

              • Posted May 3, 2012 at 5:37 am | Permalink

                Well, that may be so, but it’s not the most important reason for wanting to continue the conversation in this forum. Taking it to another forum would meaning having to synopsise the discussion that’s set out in full here.

                /@

  56. Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    This discussion is starting to remind me of the quote by D. Dale Gulledge: “I am treated as evil by people who claim that they are being oppressed because they are not allowed to force me to practice what they do.”

    Let Neil pursue his career opportunities with WHATEVER level of atheism/agnosticism he pleases. Many of you are sounding like true believers.

    P.S.
    The fact is: the words atheist and agnostic are ambiguous. You can prove this yourself by looking them up in the dictionary. They have multiple meanings.

    Dictionaries simply reflect the actual usage of words in the real world. The words atheist and agnostic are ambiguous because WE use them ambiguously.

    There is no single meaning for these words and nobody can claim possession of the “correct” meaning. That’s just pedagoguery.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 27, 2012 at 4:50 am | Permalink

      +1

      There is much heat and not much light being generated further up this thread. I’d hope atheists would be a bit more… rational. :)

      • gbjames
        Posted April 27, 2012 at 5:52 am | Permalink

        What is important is finding a way to feel superior to everyone else in the discussion. Right?

    • Posted April 27, 2012 at 6:00 am | Permalink

      The words atheist and agnostic are ambiguous because WE use them ambiguously

      This is true. (In fact it’s worse than the discussion here has so far touched upon.)

      Thus, “Is NdGT an atheist?” is a question on a par with “Is RD an ape?

      Would you care if NdGT said, “I’m a monkey, but not an ape”? Because the statements he does make are on a par with that.

      /@

  57. Ludo
    Posted April 27, 2012 at 1:27 am | Permalink

    I get the impression that there are people who would want to promote atheism as a kind of ideological monoculture or, in other words, as a closed belief system. That type of uniform atheism is in my opinion a bit too similar to all that what I (we?) reject in religious (or political) belief systems or ideologies. As a biologist I am convinced that variety and diversity has survival value, not only for organisms, but also for cultural groups and ideas. So we should promote – instead of fight – variation and diversity amongst freethinkers, atheists, agnostics, skeptics, unbelievers, not religious people, whatever.

    • Ludo
      Posted April 27, 2012 at 1:48 am | Permalink

      I should of course have added adaptability as a mayor trump card in the struggle for life: is not Neil deGrasse Tyson promoting the good cause – intellectual freedom – (also) by his power to adapt to reality (the environment)?

      • Posted April 27, 2012 at 2:49 am | Permalink

        Yes, but by dissing the term “atheist,” he’s not promoting intellectual freedom.

        /@

        • Posted April 27, 2012 at 2:51 am | Permalink

          I think it was addressing “in your face” atheists. Not atheists or atheism in general. The point, it seems to me, is about tactics and their consequences.

          • Posted April 27, 2012 at 3:09 am | Permalink

            Well, yes, Jim; that was clear. But he – wrongly! – tars all atheists with the same brush and thus reinforces entrenched notions regarding the social respectability of atheism (that is, that it has none).

            /@

            • Posted April 27, 2012 at 3:14 am | Permalink

              Well, we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one, Ant. I’m not going to read more into what he said than what he actually said.

    • Posted April 27, 2012 at 2:48 am | Permalink

      I get the impression that there are people who would want to promote atheism as a kind of ideological monoculture or, in other words, as a closed belief system.

      Well, atheism isn’t a belief, let alone a belief system. Nor is it a culture. In its most general sense, it is simply an absence of belief in any god. As long as coelsblog’s blank bit of paper remains blank, you are an atheist (in that sense).

      But clearly you have in mind something broader than this. So, who are the people that you think want to promote atheism as a kind of ideological monoculture? And what do you think that monoculture embodies?

      /@

    • gbjames
      Posted April 27, 2012 at 5:43 am | Permalink

      Straw Man. I think your impression is wrong. I do not see anyone advocating an ideological monoculture.

  58. Roz
    Posted April 27, 2012 at 1:41 am | Permalink

    I appreciate this blog as it reflects my thoughts of late. Recently someone close to me decided they’d call themselves a humanist as it’s kinder on creationist family members than atheist. I’m not ashamed of being an atheist, neither do I ‘preach’ about it. It’s just a description for how I am thiestically oriented. If it weren’t for the fact that I have god-botherers around me in my life, I probably wouldn’t ever identify myself as an atheist any more than I would a non-believer-in-rainbow-patterned-miniature-unicorns.

    • Posted April 27, 2012 at 3:00 am | Permalink

      Well, it may be a “kinder” term than “atheist”, but “humanist” says more about you than your absence of belief in any god:

      Roughly speaking, the word humanist has come to mean someone who:

      • trusts to the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works and rejects the idea of the supernatural (and is therefore an atheist or agnostic) [sic]
      • makes their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals
      • believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.

      [BHA]

      Note particularly that atheism (or agnosticism!) isn’t a primary idea of humanism, just a consequence of its naturalistic stance. (As is the case for most – all? – gnu atheists, whether or not they would self-identify as humanists.)

      If your friend’s creationist family members think that it is less threatening, they just don’t get the implication of the “rejects the idea of the supernatural” part.

      Of course, there are atheists who don’t reject the supernatural; those that don’t believe in any god, but do believe in other “spiritual” woo. In some ways, those “woo atheists” are far less threatening to theists than humanists are!

      /@

  59. Posted April 27, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Just checked and found that Neil’s wikipedia entry is back to labeling him simply as agnostic. How about an “ecosystems approach” to moving our culture toward a full-scale, yet inspiring naturalism? Functionally, we need different folks to fulfill all the niches, to speak to all the variant audiences. I am thrilled that the gnus are vocal and active. And, I wish they could let Neil do his thing — as the rock star for exhilarating video presence in communicating science — and just science.

  60. Nilou Ataie
    Posted April 28, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Um, saying you are an atheist expends a lot less energy than performing that tap dance that Neil just performed. I’m exhausted just listening to him.

  61. ep
    Posted May 1, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    It seems contradictory to say that not all atheists are activists and then say that they need to be in order to fight Christianity. You don’t see it, but you are a perfect example and are providing evidence for why he does not want to label himself an atheist.
    I applaud NDT for not wanting to label himself anything except a scientist! If he wanted to call himself an atheist then I believe he would. There are plenty of well-known people who assert their atheism; he would be in good company. I believe him when he says he does not wish to engage people in such discussions about religion. He has always said that science and knowledge is his priority.
    The reason atheists want to claim him or want him to declare for their side is because they want to use him in their fight against Christianity, and when will that not be enough? When will they say that he is not a good atheist because he does not combat Christianity or theism?

    • bernardhurley
      Posted May 2, 2012 at 3:42 am | Permalink

      Atheism is not a “side” and it has nothing to do with fighting Christianity or any other form of mass delusion.

      • gbjames
        Posted May 2, 2012 at 5:21 am | Permalink

        Bernard, I agree with this sentence technically (the word, has limited meaning by itself), but it is also true that when we atheists assert the fact of our atheism, it is inherently confrontational to the ears of believers. We need to live with that fact.

        This is not a reason for an atheist to shirk from being out of the closet. And most definitely not a justification for non-believers to criticize others who are assertive as NgDT does above.

        I came to see this subject more clearly after reading Greta Christina on the subject:

        http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2011/10/24/were-telling-them-theyre-wrong-why-coming-out-atheist-is-inherently-oppositional/

        • bernardhurley
          Posted May 2, 2012 at 7:03 am | Permalink

          I’ve said I was an atheist for over 50 years. I’ve never been confronting anyone by doing so. If people are idiotic enough to think I am then that’s their problem.

          Some evangelical guy came and sat next to me on a bus the other week and asked me if I believed in God and I answered “No.” How is that being confrontational?

          • gbjames
            Posted May 2, 2012 at 8:09 am | Permalink

            I’d answer by referring to Greta’s comments. She says it better than I can, but it comes down to this (a quote, but please read her entire commentary).

            Coming out as an atheist means telling believers we think they’re wrong.

            There is something inherent in saying, “I’m an atheist” that implies, “You are mistaken to be a believer.” Even if you’re not saying it explicitly. Even if you couldn’t care less about persuading people out of religion. Even if you’re actively opposed to the idea of persuading people out of religion. There is no way to say, “I don’t believe in God,” without implying, “If you do believe in God, you’re wrong.”

            • Posted May 2, 2012 at 8:14 am | Permalink

              Yep.

              And that’s exactly why even the most innocuous atheist bus posters stir up such animosity.

              /@

            • bernardhurley
              Posted May 2, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

              But this has nothing to do with atheism. the situation is symmetrical. There is no way to say “I believe in God” without implying “If you do not believe in God you are wrong.” In fact there is no way of asserting anything without implying that those who do not agree with you are wrong.

              • gbjames
                Posted May 2, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

                Please read the rest of her case. She’s a very good writer and says it better than I can. It isn’t that long. I think she addresses that objection well.

              • bernardhurley
                Posted May 2, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

                I’ve just read her piece and I think she is utterly confused. I have never “come out” as an atheist or have ever denied it either. If you live in a society where you feel saying you are an atheist is a matter of “coming out” then it is not you who is being confrontational. Why take the blame for other people’s actions?

              • gbjames
                Posted May 3, 2012 at 4:40 am | Permalink

                You are lucky to live in a place where religion is irrelevant enough to there is no need to “come out” if you are atheist. Over on this side of the pond life is different.

                I think that the point she makes in comparing the atheist stance relative to the “queer” stance is very much on-point. An atheist, coming out, says in effect, “You are wrong”. A gay person coming out says “I’m different”. Those are two very different things.

                Neither I nor Greta are taking the blame for other people’s actions. We’re simply recognizing a difference between these kinds of “coming out” experience and acknowledging that one is more confrontational that the other.

              • bernardhurley
                Posted May 3, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

                The way I see it is that people who claim the right not to be disagreed with are being confrontational.

      • ep
        Posted May 4, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, I was exaggerating and being inflammatory. The point is that there shouldn’t be sides, or labels, or categories; we are individual human beings. He doesn’t want to be called an atheist. It is his choice. Why are SOME atheists so upset? Does it lessen your own beliefs if someone doesn’t agree with you? It shouldn’t. If you want to be a quiet atheist, go ahead; if you want to be an activist atheist, more power to you; if you want to be an in your face atheist or Christian, well, there I have to draw the line. He does not say that his friends who wear the atheist badge proudly are foolish, or stupid or should give up or shouldn’t be atheist. If people want to read more into what he says than what he says, then that is their problem, not his.
        You apparently have preconceived notions about Christians (mass delusion) and evangelical guys. I’m so disappointed in you (sarcasm).

        • Murchad99
          Posted January 9, 2014 at 7:06 am | Permalink

          “Why are SOME atheists so upset?”

          I think people have been fairly clear as to why they’re upset, and it has little to do with insecurity or a desire for conformity. In his video, Neil committed several fallacies by implication, all of which served to validate and reinforce the fallacious assumptions and pejorative perspectives many theists have towards the concept of atheism. Someone who has spent as much time around non-believers (atheist gatherings, conferences, interviews) should and probably does know better.

          This video helps advance the theist perception that atheists are an angry, activist, unscientific minority. It has already become the rallying cry of ignorant apatheists and “in-betweeners” looking to attach themselves to trendy thinkers and intellectually-superior-sounding -isms, so as to appear separate and “above such petty arguments”… people who are genuinely offended when actual atheists refuse to conform to their narrow definitions of terms and correct them about what they do and don’t believe.

          Had Neil stopped at pointing out that the ambiguity of the term and variety of definitions and assumptions was responsible for misunderstandings and assigned baggage, most atheists would probably respect his right to choose void this or any other label in the interests of scientific outreach. But to proceed to misrepresent atheism … that’s harmful, coming from someone with his intelligence and celebrity status.

      • ep
        Posted May 4, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, I was exaggerating and being inflammatory. The point is that there shouldn’t be sides, or labels, or categories; we are individual human beings. He doesn’t want to be called an atheist. It is his choice. Why are SOME atheists so upset? Does it lessen your own beliefs if someone doesn’t agree with you? It shouldn’t. If you want to be a quiet atheist, go ahead; if you want to be an activist atheist, more power to you; if you want to be an in your face atheist or Christian, well, there I have to draw the line. He does not say that his friends who wear the atheist badge proudly are foolish, or stupid or should give up or shouldn’t be atheist. If people want to read more into what he says than what he says, then that is their problem, not his.
        You apparently have preconceived notions about Christians (mass delusion) and evangelical guys. I’m so disappointed in you (sarcasm).

    • Posted May 2, 2012 at 5:51 am | Permalink

      I believe him when he says he does not wish to engage people in such discussions about religion.

      And yet NdGT comes out with things like:

      God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance that’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller as time goes on.

      And:

      Let there be no doubt that as they are currently practiced, there is no common ground between science and religion. … The claims of science rely on experimental verification, while the claims of religions rely on faith. These are irreconcilable approaches to knowing, which ensures an eternity of debate wherever and whenever the two camps meet. [From an article entitled “Holy Wars”.]

      The bone of contention is not that NdGT calls himself an “agnostic” (although it’d be better if he were to call himself an “agnostic atheist” just to be clear that he’s not an “agnostic theist”), but that he holds up a strawman image of atheists and says, “I’m not like them.”

      /@

      • ep
        Posted May 4, 2012 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

        The bone of contention is absolutely that he chose to call himself agnostic and refused to be labeled atheist. If someone says, “I’m an atheist” it creates a completely different picture, than if someone says, “I’m an agnostic”. It may be completely wrong and based on false assumptions, but that’s his main point; these labels create assumptions before you even speak your mind. Personally, I think he should have stuck with I’m a scientist.
        As far as the quotes, they do not suggest that he is not an agnostic and they do not say that he knows without a doubt there is no God. It is true that as scientific knowledge expands the things that were once attributed specifically to “God” are shrinking. You can say that God does not cause tornadoes, but that does not mean that God does not exist or you no longer believe there is one. The quotes support his statement that first and foremost he is a scientist. And he is correct that it “ensures an eternity of debate” because religion is based on faith. A debate which he does not wish to participate in or take sides on. You would really have to ask him because I certainly don’t speak for him. I’m just telling you my impression of him, obviously.

  62. Posted April 18, 2013 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    Today, I went to the beachfront with my kids.
    I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.”
    She placed the shell to her ear and screamed. There was a
    hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear. She never wants to go back!
    LoL I know this is entirely off topic but I had to tell someone!

  63. Posted July 7, 2013 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    What’s weak and pathetic is that others take time out to bash fellow scientists based on whether one is more atheist than another. I seriously have to question the writer and their position. It’s quite shameful on the part of the writer because it is similar to the stupidity religious people who shout at each other or what not of who is more christian or who is more jewish or who is more muslim. Where is my thesaurus, I need to find a word stronger than pathetic because that word describes the writer in my view.


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