Brian Cox: Atheist or not?

I wouldn’t worry too much about what seems like a semantic question except that it bears on how respected scientists are viewed by the public. As we know, the term “atheist” is largely pejorative, even in the U.K., and so is avoided by public figures, who, if atheists, like to use soft euphemisms like “nonbeliever” or “agnostic”. But to a rationalist, as Robert G. Ingersoll realized, an “atheist” is pretty much the same as an “agnostic”, and Ingersoll applied those terms interchangeably to himself.  Both connote rejections of the idea that there is a god, although to some (and to the Oxford English Dictionary below), “atheist” means “someone who absolutely denies there’s a god,” while agnostic means “someone who doesn’t know whether there’s a god or not.”

So, when you look at the OED definition of “atheist”, you get both senses of the word: denial (which could, but doesn’t have to, mean “absolute rejection”) or “lack of belief”.

But to a scientist, absolute denial of any empirical proposition isn’t kosher, and so all one can say about gods, if you don’t accept them, is this: “There is not the slightest evidence for a god, and therefore I don’t accept a god’s existence.”

Those are the sentiments of an “a-theist”, that is, someone who has removed the concept of gods from their thinking. True agnostics, who in my experience are few and far between, are those who think there might be some evidence for a god, but not enough to be convincing. (Most “agnostics” are really those who see no evidence for a god, but don’t want to use the word “atheist”.)

Scientists like Brian Cox and Neil deGrasse Tyson, who have rejected the label “atheist”, surely do not think there is any evidence for a god. They truly are atheists, but don’t like to use the word. I suspect, but can’t prove, that this refusal to call oneself an “atheist,” despite seeing no evidence for a god, is based on social acceptance: it’s not good for your image to say you’re an “atheist.” And although it’s fine to say you’re an a-Santa-ist or an a-fairy-ist, since you see no evidence for Santa or fairies, religion is a more widespread delusion, and you don’t want to buck public opinion so blatantly. No, best to say you just “don’t believe.”

Brian Cox (and Tyson) have long rejected the label “atheist”, as you see with Cox below. (As far as Cox being militant, no, he’s not, but that’s okay. He does say in public that he sees no evidence for god, and that’s good enough for me):

Nevertheless, this two-minute clip of Cox discussing his “atheism” with Russell Brand disturbed me a bit (make sure you turn the sound up), as this is from Facebook:

First, Cox says “I reject the label because I think that it’s divisive.” That’s one clue that he doesn’t accept the monicker, at least in part, because people don’t like it, not because he thinks it’s inaccurate. What bothers me more is his expression of agnosticism parading under the banner of science:

“Science does not rule out the existence of a creator by definition because we don’t know how the universe began, full stop.”

and

“I don’t feel compelled to go further than the statement ‘I don’t know.'”

Well, there’s a difference between “I don’t know and there’s a decent probability of a god” and “I don’t know but there’s simply not an iota of evidence for a god.” After all, science doesn’t rule out the existence of anything: not the Loch Ness monster, not Santa Claus, not leprechauns, not fairies, not Bigfoot. Why wouldn’t Cox say the same thing about these?

Instead, he uses our ignorance of why the laws of nature are as they are, and about how the universe began, as a justification for some sort of agnosticism. What Bayesian probability, based on the complete lack of evidence for supernaturalism in physics, would Cox assign to the laws of nature, or the Universe, having been created by a god?  He doesn’t know whether Bigfoot or Russell’s Teapot exists, either, but would he say that he’s comfortable asserting that “I just don’t know about these things”?  After all, Cox has been an ardent opponent of flat-earthers and Moon-landing conspiracists, as well as other forms of pseudoscience. Why does religion alone get a pass?

This reminds me of a passage in Natalie Angier’s brilliant essay, “My God Problem“, where she notes the different way physicists treat religion versus other superstitions:

Consider the very different treatments accorded two questions presented to Cornell University’s “Ask an Astronomer” Web site. To the query, “Do most astronomers believe in God, based on the available evidence?” the astronomer Dave Rothstein replies that, in his opinion, “modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of God . . . places where people who do believe in God can fit their beliefs in the scientific framework without creating any contradictions.” He cites the Big Bang as offering solace to those who want to believe in a Genesis equivalent and the probabilistic realms of quantum mechanics as raising the possibility of “God intervening every time a measurement occurs” before concluding that, ultimately, science can never prove or disprove the existence of a god, and religious belief doesn’t—and shouldn’t—”have anything to do with scientific reasoning.”

How much less velveteen is the response to the reader asking whether astronomers believe in astrology. “No, astronomers do not believe in astrology,” snarls Dave Kornreich. “It is considered to be a ludicrous scam. There is no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence to the contrary.” Dr. Kornreich ends his dismissal with the assertion that in science “one does not need a reason not to believe in something.” Skepticism is “the default position” and “one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something’s existence.”

Now I don’t think Cox leaves room for God, but I think he’s giving religion a pass; after all, saying one is an atheist is “divisive.” That’s not true of astrology—or of any form of unevidenced superstition beside religion.

Indeed, here’s an earlier clip in which Cox doesn’t say “I don’t know” about God, but expresses assurance that there is no God. He says this in Human Universe, episode 5 (clip below, my emphasis):

  “We must also learn to value the human race and take responsibility for our own survival. Why? [Points up to the heavens] Because there’s nobody else out there to value us or to look after us. And finally, most important of all, we must educate the next generation in the great discoveries of science and we must teach them to use the light of reason to banish the darkness of superstition, because if we do that, then at least there’s a chance that this universe will remain a human one.”

That is not doubt; that is expressed assurance that “there’s nobody out there”, i.e. God. And that’s atheism: a confidence—not an absolute one, of course—that there’s no God.

So, even if Cox doesn’t want to call himself an atheist, he is one. It’s like a cat saying that it’s not a cat but a dog in order not to frighten the mice.

Let me be clear, though: I have enormous respect for Cox and feel that he’s one of the best science popularizers going. And, unlike, Tyson, he’s less timorous about his beliefs (Tyson had to be forced to admit he was an atheist, and did so petulantly.) And I do appreciate that it may hurt one’s scientific message among the faithful to forcefully express atheism when your job is to sell science. I’m not asking Cox to be an antitheist, of course—I wouldn’t demand that of anyone. But if you do talk about beliefs, then—at least, as a scientist—tell people that that some beliefs have a very low probability of being true based on prior evidence. Just because you “can’t disprove God” by science doesn’t mean that you can’t say that the probability that a god exists, based on the evidence, is very low. Getting the best conclusions based on what we know is, after all, the task of science, and applies to God as much as it applies to Bigfoot.

Why do I care? In the end, it’s only when respected and idolized people like Cox are willing to say, “Yes, I am an atheist” that the term will begin to lose its pejorative tint. And it would be a better explanation of how scientific confidence works to use some sort of Bayesian statement. After all, the question of God is an empirical one.

 

189 Comments

  1. Posted March 26, 2018 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    In a documentary once, Professor Cox described the aurora borealis as “spirits ascending to heaven.” At the time, since I thought he was an atheist, it bothered me. Perhaps it was just a turn of phrase; however, not one I would imagine would be employed by an atheist. Since then, I haven’t known what to make of his beliefs or lack of them…

    • Roo
      Posted March 26, 2018 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      Yeah, my first thought on reading this was maybe he’s not hiding his atheism, maybe it’s more that agnosticism now often covers the ‘spiritual but not religious’ crowd. Because God has no agreed upon definition, it’s difficult to know what someone is agnostic *about. Sometimes ‘agnostic’ means ‘agnostic about materialism’ (which I think it is quite reasonable to be agnostic about.)

      • phil
        Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

        According to the Oxford agnostic (n) means:

        A person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God

        Only in a non-religious context can it mean: having a doubtful or non-committal attitude towards something.

        Clearly in the context of this discussion (i.e.religious) it does not mean uncertainty or indifference in one’s beliefs.

  2. Posted March 26, 2018 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    I find the terms “Christian” or “religious” divisive. Maybe they could show some sensitivity for that. Yeah, right.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted March 26, 2018 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

      I don’t go around proclaiming my atheism, though I never back away from it if asked.

      I also find it divisive when people declare their religiosity, especially as it’s so often part of a claim of superiority. e.g. “I’m a Christian, therefore …”

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 27, 2018 at 3:32 am | Permalink

      Exactly!

  3. GBJames
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    sub

  4. ian Clark
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    The Brand interview bothered me too, for the same reasons. He is very unscientific in his pandering to the religious/new-age spiritualists.
    “Coming out” as atheist seems to be difficult for some physicists. It’s almost as if they are going after some Templeton Foundation money.

    • Posted March 26, 2018 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

      It’s easy money, though, you have to admit. Just parrot whatever William “Relativity Denier” Lane Craig says or give vague answers like the one by Cornell.

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    One of the many differences between religion and science is religion is nothing but belief. Science is about as far from belief as is gets. I will leave the splicing of terms to others who for some reason do not want to offend or prefer apologizing if there may be an offense taken for a term uses. If you have no belief in or regard for religion then just say it. Kind of like Hitch.

  6. JohnE
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    When religious folk make the claim that “you can’t disprove the existence of god,” they are simply playing games with the word “disprove.” They mean “disprove beyond any conceivable doubt,” which is never what they mean in any other context. Instead, they are satisfied that something has been sufficiently disproved when they have seen no reliable, compelling evidence for that “something.” Thus, while there are plenty of old legends about leprechauns and fairies, nearly all of us are convinced that the existence of leprechauns and fairies has been sufficiently disproved to the extent that the subject of their existence is never seriously debated – not ever. In fact, I would wager that if I claimed an invisible, immaterial dragon was living in my garage (to use Carl Sagan’s example), and my defense of that proposition was to assert that you couldn’t “disprove” its existence, I would be laughed at by every single one of those misguided souls who contend that “you can’t disprove the existence of God.”

    Besides, there’s actually no need for anyone to disprove the existence of god – he’s doing a fantastic job of that himself.

  7. Posted March 26, 2018 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    It takes courage to stand up and claim you don’t believe in any gods.

    I could believe in a god, just not one described by any organized religion and I am certain it would only be a god that I believe in. So a religion of one by definition. Still, it will always remain an empirical, scientific question. Without evidence Cox should answer, “I’m an atheist until there is evidence.”

    • Posted March 26, 2018 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      It takes courage to stand up and claim you don’t believe in any gods.

      Not in the UK.

      • nwalsh
        Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:02 am | Permalink

        Nor Canada.

    • rom
      Posted March 26, 2018 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      I suspect it would take a fair amount of courage in the UK and Canada to stand up and say you believe in Zeus.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted March 26, 2018 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

        Maybe not. The English are quite tolerant of harmless eccentrics. 😉

        cr

  8. Posted March 26, 2018 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    It’s pretty clear that he is an atheist, but avoids the term because he thinks it connotes certainty. But it doesn’t (a-theism = lacking theism; that’s all).

    “When I ask him how God fits into his understanding of the universe, Prof Cox says: “It doesn’t at all. I honestly don’t think about religion until someone asks me about it.””

    But isn’t it interesting which quote the headline writers picked out to use:

    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/11143875/Prof-Brian-Cox-Theres-a-naivety-in-saying-there-is-no-God.html

  9. TJR
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    To be fair to him, I wouldn’t call myself an atheist either, because I think its the wrong label.

    I’m non-religious, I don’t follow any religions whether theistic or otherwise.

    • Posted March 26, 2018 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      Not following a religion and not believing in God are not the same thing. I know several people who shun religion but believe in God.

      • TJR
        Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:00 am | Permalink

        Exactly my point.

        • Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:13 am | Permalink

          Well, if you believe in God, whether you follow a religion or not, you are a theist (or deist) and the atheist/agnostic distinction doesn’t matter.

          • rom
            Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:46 am | Permalink

            You can be an agnostic theist -eg Mark Vernon.

            Agnosticism is how we handle knowledge rather than belief. Agnostics may well be atheists and more rarely theists.

            • Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

              I imagine you can be anything you want. The question is whether a belief is coherent or sensible. From Wikipedia, I gather that agnostic theism is believing in God without rhyme or reason or even knowing what It is that you are believing in.

              • rom
                Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

                End of the day we live our lives as if there is or is not a god. How is a deist’s life (as opposed to a theist’s) life different?

  10. glen1davidson
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    I don’t believe that a black cat crossing my path causes bad luck, but I try to avoid it because I understand that it’s bad luck whether I believe it or not. I like to think of myself as agnostic.

    To be fair on the religion and astrology comparison, the fact is that astrology typically makes claims that can be shown to fail (even if newspaper horoscopes are often too vague to be wrong), while many religions try not to make claims that fail (yes, creationists certainly do, but that’s a given).

    While it’s pathetic to believe something because it doesn’t make any claims that can be tested, it seems worse to me to believe something that makes claims that do fail–like astrology and creationism.

    Glen Davidson

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted March 26, 2018 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

      “… I understand that it’s bad luck whether I believe it or not.”

      I don’t think you quite meant that. 😉

      Whether it’s bad luck (or not) is a fact quite independent of your belief in it. (Is that more like it?)

      cr

  11. Pliny the in Between
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    It gets harder for the agnostic (and apologist) god of the gaps every day.

    http://farcornercafe.blogspot.com/2018/03/god-of-gaps.html

    • Craw
      Posted March 26, 2018 at 9:15 am | Permalink

      Why I wonder just ONE god of the gaps? Why not a pantheon, one god for each gap? “Oh god of the mystery of the proton electron mass ratio, hear my prayer”.

      • Pliny the in Between
        Posted March 26, 2018 at 9:23 am | Permalink

        Funny you should say that. The first time in my life I ever heard someone openly mock religion was in highschool chemistry. We had a young sub and he was explaining something and he ended a sentence with, “or maybe it was the deity 3rd class in charge of the hydrogen atom”.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted March 26, 2018 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

          Hadn’t been reading Terry Pratchett, had he?

          (My favourite is Anoia, Goddess of Things Stuck in Drawers)

          cr

      • TJR
        Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:02 am | Permalink

        And where are the transitional forms between all those gods of the gaps, eh? Answer that theists!

    • rom
      Posted March 26, 2018 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      I am not sure what your cartoon has to do with agnosticism? Nice cartoon though.

      • Pliny the in between
        Posted March 26, 2018 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

        The point I was shooting for (not always on target I know) is that agnostics and apologists live in that boundary layer between measurable observation and the unknown. Their arguments usually hang on the notion that something profound may be just beyond our reach (agnostics) or probably/ certainly is (apologists). But the range of options left to metaphysical explanations continue to shrink and we still haven’t seen anyone waving back.

        • rom
          Posted March 26, 2018 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

          Well I consider myself agnostic.
          Having said that I am an atheist (actively disbelieve), when it comes to a whole range of revealed Gods. With deistic type gods I can’t see a way of disproving them and as a consequence they are of no consequence to me.

          Science as a process is agnostic.

          I am agnostic when it comes to life elsewhere in this universe. The big mistake people make is agnosticism is somehow just bound to god.

          Even Huxley did not mean it in this narrow sense.

  12. John Black
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    It’s strange: although I’m an atheist, I still got nervous when Cox pointed up and said, “there’s no body up there to protect you.” I still have an emotional reaction along the lines of “uhh… don’t piss him off or you’ll cause a sudden thunderstorm.” Childhood indoctrination is strong I suppose.

    Reminds me of George Carlin’s bit about “I’ll tell you what, if there is a god… if there IS a god, may he strike all of you dead right now.” (The joke being that he’s still afraid to put his own life on the line with that statement… lingering doubt, heh)

  13. Craw
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    I’m not concerned. Astrology makes predictions we can test and we see them fail. But a vague “there was a creator” doesn’t. Reason enough for people to treat them differently. Note that Cox etc always are not talking about the Bible — easily disproven- but vague “prime mover” stuff.

  14. Merilee
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Sub

  15. Simon Hayward
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Science pretty much does rule out the loch ness monster – apparently. I remember watching a documentary on this many years ago that considered the energy capture of the valley – it seems that a valley that length and width at that latitude doesn’t receive enough incident light to support the plants needed to support, in turn, a colony of “monsters”. They didn’t exclude the possibility that the monsters ordered their groceries online from sources outside of the valley….

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted March 26, 2018 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

      That honestly sounds doubtful to me, considering the amount of life constantly being discovered in apparently hostile environments.

      As you note, though, energy exchange from other areas may be a significant factor.

      Their conclusion must have relied strongly on an assumed size and activity of ‘monster’. Large animals that don’t move much have correspondingly lower energy requirements.

      The ‘why haven’t we seen it yet?’ argument is probably stronger.

      cr

    • Posted March 26, 2018 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

      Amazon’s delivery reaches far.

  16. Liz
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    I was an agnostic at around 15 or 16. I kept that word until college when I started to ask more questions and debate more with people. I wouldn’t have called myself anything other than a skeptic. I don’t remember exactly what it was but it was something I came across about agnosticism and atheism that Richard Dawkins said. It was something like the line between the two is almost non-existent and that they are basically the same thing. I was agnostic but on that line from about 25 or so until a couple of years ago. It was only recently that I was able to call myself an atheist. It is a little bit more difficult going from saying nothing to saying atheist. People (random people) are jarred by it at first I have found. Friends/family already thought I was an atheist. It just is a little bit more difficult in the beginning of the conversation but it doesn’t matter in the end. It’s why it’s that way from my perspective and the conversation that’s important. It’s the truth and if I had to wait to figure it out for myself, that’s a good thing. I’m wary of idolatry in atheism leadership.

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 27, 2018 at 3:48 am | Permalink

      “I’m wary of idolatry in atheism leadership.”

      I hear ya. I like to think that atheism leadership falls into the herding cats realm, but there seems to be no end of applicants who think they can.

      • Liz
        Posted March 27, 2018 at 9:31 am | Permalink

        +1

  17. Tod
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    My take on the whole agnostic/atheist detail is in line with the atheist experience explanation I’ve heard – if you think you can ever know there is a God, then you are Gnostic, if not Agnostic, if you have a belief in a particular God you are a theist and if not (simply not convinced counts) then you are atheist…

    So you can be an a gnostic or agnostic atheist or a gnostic or agnostic theist/deist… as they refer to separate distinctions…

    This might not be a dictionary definition but can be very helpful cutting through confusion.

  18. Posted March 26, 2018 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Calling oneself an atheist is only divisive because theists are crybabies who aren’t ready for big boy undies.

  19. Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Brian Cox has replied to Jerry on Twitter:

    “You are right all the way to the ‘socially acceptable’ bit. Rather I don’t like the divisive way in which the word is now used – I think public discourse is too aggressive, which is part of the reason we’re in the current mess. You are correct though, according to the definition.”

    • Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:19 am | Permalink

      Why would calling yourself an atheist be aggtessive public discourse?

      • Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:21 am | Permalink

        It shouldn’t be, should it?, but Christians can get upset if their religion isn’t treated as true.

        • Posted March 27, 2018 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

          In my experience, they [almost] always get upset, if not offended. Let it be crystal-clear that the other X thousand other religions [brilliantly called by somebody schools of thought] are mistaken.
          .-

      • Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:22 am | Permalink

        Because a lot of society looks at “I’m an atheist “ as being on a par with “I’m a homophobe”.

        • darrelle
          Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:59 am | Permalink

          I don’t know, homophobe doesn’t seem to be a good example. Many religious folk think it is OK to be a homophobe. Something like “I’m a convicted rapist” might be a better example.

          • Plunky
            Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

            In response to GreenPoisonFrog and darrelle here is word that I consider a better example (and to those who may object to such a word my heart-felt apology, but I think it works in an intellectual discussion where we are all adults). The word is ni@@er-lover. The word is vile and vulgar but from a strictly technical point of view I am a ni@@er-lover because I have many black and African American friends who I respect and love—but, I would never use the term because of the origins of the word and the intent of those who fashioned the it; i.e as a pejorative, whose intent is to demean and create division.
            The same is true of the word atheist. The word was fashioned by theists as a pejorative, the intent being to demean and create division. An atheist was seen as someone in league with the devil, separated from god. It by no means was used simply denote someone who casually dismissed the idea of any deity. The word was created by theists from a purely theistic perspective.
            Atheism is the absence or rejection of the belief that deities exist. It is an understatement to say this was not taken lightly throughout the western world for most of recorded history. On the contrary, you were killed for it in very unpleasant and tortuous ways.
            This is the reason I reject the word atheist, no matter how you intend to use it it will always carry the weight of that historical perspective IMO.

            • GBJames
              Posted March 27, 2018 at 6:58 am | Permalink

              I don’t know if that is actually true, although it is certainly used that way. (That the word was fashioned as a weapon against non-believers.) Atheists have been calling ourselves “atheist” for hundreds of years. It will cease being used as a pejorative only when non-believers stop acting like it is.

            • Posted March 27, 2018 at 10:10 am | Permalink

              As we all know, words and phrases have a life of their own in terms of their meanings, who thinks they own the definition, the right to say it, etc. Sometimes we are forced by others to abandon a word or phrase even though its literal and/or historic meaning fits our desired use. On the other hand, if the opposition is not particularly strong, we can fight back. It’s a judgement call. It may be impossible to take back, not worth the struggle, or an alternate word or phrase is deemed good enough.

              Although some would use “atheist” as practically a swear word, we have no real respect for their opinion in this case. I think there’s still time to take “atheist” back. We also have the general trend away from religion so perhaps we’re on the right side of history.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:53 am | Permalink

        Cox’s product [books & TV] is consumed worldwide. In some markets declaring oneself atheist isn’t conducive to conversation because of the connotations. Thus if Cox wants to discuss black holes or the inflationary era prior to the Big Bang [or anything he is knowledgeable on], he doesn’t want some of his Texas audience turned off by the word “atheist”. Down that way “atheist” & “socialist” are almost interchangeable – “socialist” being a term of abuse!

        • Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:05 am | Permalink

          So he should be honest and say that marketing is the reason he avoids the word atheist rather than not wanting to contribute to aggressive public discourse.

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:26 am | Permalink

            No – it’s not marketing in the sales sense that I was talking about – though that’s a factor perhaps. Mainly he wants the convo to be about subjects he’s specifically pointing at rather than be sidelined by stuff that he doesn’t think about & in which he has no special knowledge. Staying ‘on message’ is more productive than being diverted by the loons & ideologues.

            • darrelle
              Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

              That is pretty much what NdGT has explained openly on at least one occasion. That he wants to talk to his audiences about science not about religion so he doesn’t want to refer to himself as an atheist or openly identify with that label because he is sure that would impede his science messaging.

              In more recent years though it seems to me that he has become more willing to speak directly and negatively about religious views. Maybe he’s getting tired of the bullshit and is finding it more difficult to continue to keep quiet about it.

              • Michael Fisher
                Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

                I agree with all you’ve written. In addition I think Cox is not much interested in philosophy or theology – his plate is full with debunking the kind of nonsense more amenable to smashing via observation, logic & the occasional equation. We leave it to PCC[E] to get his feet wet in the quagmire of wordplay beloved of those with an aversion to stopwatches & yardsticks. 🙂

        • Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:24 am | Permalink

          And yet Richard Dawkins’s books continue to sell well, and I’m talking not about The God Delusion, but his evolution books. The idea that somebody who knows you’re an atheist will reject your attempts to do popular science is, in my view, a claim for which there’s no evidence. As I’ve said, I’ve never heard anyone say, “Oh, I’m not going to read The Selfish Gene because Dawkins is an atheist. The way to avoid the rejection is simply not to mix your atheism with your science.

          Yet that is exactly what Cox does in the second video above!

          • Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:28 am | Permalink

            I agree that Cox goes a bit too far in pandering to his presumed audience. We aren’t thinking he’s actually a closet theist, are we? Say it ain’t so!

          • nicky
            Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

            I disagree there. I know several people who refused to read books by Dawkins I recommended (not TGD, but ‘Climbing Mount Improbable’), because he is a militant atheist! God forbid!

            • Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

              Ok but the question is really whether they would have read Dawkins’ books if he wasn’t a militant atheist.

            • Posted March 26, 2018 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

              I’ve heard of some people who won’t read Dawkins because of that either.

      • Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:48 am | Permalink

        Maybe because of the abrasiveness of those so-called “Friendly” and “Happy” atheists out there.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      And what current mess is caused by stating you are an atheist?

      • Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:29 am | Permalink

        My guess is “current mess” refers to the Trump world with aggressive discourse as a contributing cause.

      • Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:33 am | Permalink

        Who’da thunk that Trump, endless war and social discord are all the result of a few people standing up and saying we do not believe in an imaginary being.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:31 am | Permalink

        I don’t understand that either. What current mess? How is the word currently used? Is it bad how atheists use the word or how the religious use the word? And why can’t you use the word how you want to use the word? Feminism and Left are also words that have been coopted. Shall we stop using those words too? How many words will be taken from us?

        • Diane G.
          Posted March 27, 2018 at 3:54 am | Permalink

          Hear, hear. Let’s defend our words, not fall for the coward’s out of euphemism creep.

  20. Geoff Toscano
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    I think that if Cox weren’t a television celebrity he’d be much more ready to use the term atheist. I think the term is much less pejorative in the UK than you imply, but it can cause problems when it comes to the attention of some of our right wing, gutter press.

  21. Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    My guess is that both Cox and Tyson are considering their audiences when they say these things that bother us, as you suggest. Perhaps they may be forgiven if we recognize that any audience members they lose will no longer be affected by what they have to say and might lose out on the enlightenment of science and lack of God.

    Or they worry that they’ll be replaced by their employers by scientists that are less divisive and more inclusive (ie, more friendly to advertisers).

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      I know that NdT has said that is why he doesn’t want to say he is an atheist as he feels that it detracts from the science. It sounds reasonable but is it true? Is there real data to back that up? Why not just say that you don’t feel that your personal beliefs and conclusions are relevant to your science and refuse to answer instead of muddying everything? Or to say that you feel that discussing that is a distraction but you will say that all conclusions you make are based on evidence and that as evidence changes so can your conclusions?

      • Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:46 am | Permalink

        As you suggest, Cox may be wrong in his internal cost/benefit analysis. He might be better off being completely honest and state his atheism, assuming that’s what he is. However, it is his decision and only he knows his situation.

        I doubt it is worth doing a study to confirm it but I have no trouble seeing in my mind’s eye a parent in a religious household forbidding a child interested in science from watching that “atheist Brian Cox”.

  22. Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    “I wouldn’t worry too much about what seems like a semantic question except that it bears on how respected scientists are viewed by the public.”

    Semantic often seems to imply quibbling about which word to use, i.e. trivialities. But it’s also about what something means, which is not trivial.

    Problem 1: becoming selectively super exact when it comes to God or religion. When people are not convinced by something and there is no evidence for some assertions, they’ll say that something does not exit, is not true and can be dismissed. We do not make a point to leave the door open for some probabilities. Further, Gods, as conceived so far are not merely improbable, they are impossible (the chance that they exist in any multiverse is nil).

    Problem 2: Some skeptics and science-minded people treat assertions as some sort of pact with evil, a Word Magick, as if it was impossible to change one’s mind after the Magic Words were uttered.
    At this point, we have no evidence for flying saucers, and everything we know about such extra-terrestrials rests on imagination fuelled by B-movies. Therefore I can safely dismiss such ideas. When against all odds other evidence shows up, I’ll change my mind. That’s it. I am not committing some grave sin to assume they don’t exist now, and when some day a flying saucer descents accept that they exist, after all.

    Another problem for this approach are multiverses. I didn’t bother to make up my mind about them, but some smart people believe they exist. This creates even more problems for such Word Magick inclined people, because it means that they’d become cripplingly unable to say anything (also see problem 1). Perhaps, Abe Lincoln never was president in some version of the United States, and maybe is not even a mammal in some others. We always assume our own turf, as we come to understand it right now.

    Problem 3: Take both together, and you see that God is not just about anything that vaguely resembles the character in the Bible. It must be the character of the Bible or it is not God. I am happy to give plenty of metaphorical leeway and elbow space for all sorts of variants, but he absolutely must have communicated with humans a few thousand years ago, and absolutely must have revealed himself in some shape or form and that revelation must have prompted humans to invent certain religions. If the entity we’ll find hypothetically at some point in the future did none of these things, it is not God. If he didn’t inspire someone who was Mohammed, he isn’t Allah, and so on.

    Likewise, deities as they exist in various other religions or pantheons must have certain features. If they don’t have these features, they are not deities. We can call them whatever we want, and even extend our term “deity” to include these entities as well (which we do all the time to encompass new circumstances). But these new deities are not those deities that were featured in ancient religions (unless that can be demonstrated somehow). To maintain that these deities do not exist would remain true.

    Problem 4: many words exist in marked and unmarked senses. I am an atheist, feminist and liberal. This is the unmarked sense as someone who is not a theist, someone who believes in the equality of the sexes (and genders), and someone who believes “each must live as s/he sees fit”. But I am not an Atheist, not a Feminist, and not a Liberal, which treats such concepts as a marked version, which I reject. Markedness implies a special “unusual case” contrasted with “default” pair (common example is how Black/People of Colour are in US culture used in a marked sense, as special case, whereas everyone else are just “people”).

    It also implies additional meaning that is shaped by those who use such terms as identity. Here Atheism becomes to mean a special type of atheist: it implies New Atheist, which is treating religious questions as a “god hypothesis” that is rejected for lack of evidence. It means an individual who identifies as part of a community of like-minded non-believers of this type, is generally outspoken, and typically American. In Northern Europe, various shades of nonbelief are commonplace, so that the marked version goes to Christians, Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans and so on, they are our “People of Faith” so-to-speak. The POOFs (people out of faith) are just ordinary people.

    In sum, I can understand why a Briton like Brian Cox could be hesitant to identify as an Atheist (marked version), or understood that way. His claims that we don’t know whether God exist are however rubbish.

  23. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    I bet saying you are a Jew is divisive too yet people say it all the time. I find denying who you are to make others comfortable is a really horrible thing not just for yourself but for those who have to hide who they are. I find it odd of Cox because he is so plain speaking about other illogical beliefs such as fake moon landings and the flat earth. He doesn’t seem to worry about offending people at those moments. This is the same man who once said, “Anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a twat”.

    • Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:37 am | Permalink

      My guess is that Brian Cox doesn’t see himself as a promoter of atheism, unlike the author of this blog. It’s just not as much his thing so perhaps not pushing it aggressively is a good choice for him.

      I actually have a problem with Cox’s “Anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a twat”. Considering that all this quantum mechanics and related issues are so up-in-the-air, it seems a bit too strong a statement for my liking. There were some serious physicists that thought there was some chance the LHC might create tiny black holes once it was fired up. See for example: https://phys.org/news/2015-03-mini-black-holes-lhc-parallel.html

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:43 am | Permalink

        I don’t think you have to be a strong promoter of atheism to state honestly that you are an atheists. I’m sure the majority of gay people aren’t strong promoters of homosexuality but they say they are gay if they are asked, unless, like some atheists, they are in the closet, which Cox is not.

        My example of the twat comment was to show Cox’s inconsistency in giving his opinion on things he considers nonsense.

        • Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:50 am | Permalink

          I agree. It’s just that people make different decisions based on their own personal situation as well as their beliefs and goals. In the case of Cox, it is probably more important to be inclusive than to be 100% in-your-face honest about his atheism. Someone who has written a book on the subject might make a different decision.

          Yes, I understood what you meant by the twat comment. I just thought it was interesting that he was making a bold statement without actually having much to justify it.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:35 am | Permalink

            And is he really being inclusive? What about people who don’t believe? Now here we are excluded again. Or are people really going to go away if he says what he says? I think that may be a gut feel.

            • Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:48 am | Permalink

              I doubt if any atheists are going to stop watching Brian Cox because he is less than forthright about his beliefs in this area. Still, that should be part of his internal cost-benefit analysis.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:58 am | Permalink

                They may not stop watching him but the point was that Cox did this to be inclusive but if so it isn’t inclusive. You can never be completely inclusive and this excludes atheists.

              • Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

                Wouldn’t the inclusive choice be the one that maximized the number of viewers? The most inclusive choice may still leave out some.

      • Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:03 am | Permalink

        I actually have a problem with Cox’s “Anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a twat”.

        The Earth is routinely bombarded by cosmic rays from space that have a higher energy than anything the LHC can produce,

        • Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:17 am | Permalink

          That was one of the arguments against the idea but obviously a cosmic ray and what the LHC does are not identical. I am not one of the scaremongers. However, the LHC was designed to explore new energy domains and to answer fundamental physics questions, right? Its very existence implies that we don’t know what exactly will happen when it is started up. It was still a serious question and no one should be considered a “twat” for asking it.

          • josh
            Posted March 27, 2018 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

            The difference between what the LHC does and what cosmic rays do, is only that the LHC does it very often in a small, well-instrumented space at a lower energy. Of course, calling people “twats” isn’t the politest way to explain that!

        • Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:50 am | Permalink

          Meanwhile, no one takes seriously the threat posed by Skynet.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:16 am | Permalink

        To expand on Coel forcefully … nonsense! 🙂

        As Sean Carroll writes HERE:-

        “…there’s nothing the LHC will do that the Universe hasn’t previously done many times over. This is, of course, the conclusion of the recent paper by Giddings and Mangano. It’s long been understood that the energies attained by high-energy cosmic rays are vastly larger than those created by the LHC; the collisions at CERN aren’t the most energetic in the universe, they’re just the most energetic ones created by human beings, that’s all. But the alarmist brigade, desperate for continued relevance, came up with a loophole: what if black holes are created, but ones from cosmic rays simply escape the Earth’s gravity, while those created at the LHC sit around and eat us up? What G&M show is that, even if that were possible, cosmic rays bumping into to white dwarfs and neutron stars would have created black holes that did get stuck, and would have eaten them up. But the fact is, we see plenty of white dwarfs and neutron stars in the sky; so that’s not a danger. It has nothing to do with any arrogant presumption that we understand physics at high energies, or the evolution of microscopic black holes; it’s simply that there is no scenario in which such black holes are created without having other observable effects.”

        • Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:28 am | Permalink

          Yes, I get it, but calling someone a “twat” for being an unwarranted alarmist seems to me FAR more divisive than saying “I’m an atheist”!

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:37 am | Permalink

            Indeed.

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:54 am | Permalink

            From memory it was 10 years ago when he was part of the BBC media team explaining what the LHC was – it hadn’t undergone tests yet & hadn’t been run. There was mountains of bad journalism on the theme of the LHC end of the world scenario. That part I clearly remember.

            Then he got inundated by comms from the whole spectrum of conspiritards, pseudoscientists & religious loons prior to ‘switch on’ & he blew a gasket. A plain-speaking Oldham lad can only take so much! He cries “Twat” because particle physics is the game he cares about – not the existence of a purposeful creator.

            • Michael Fisher
              Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:57 am | Permalink

              I forgot to mention the various types of ‘tards & loons were sending him death threats to.

              • Michael Fisher
                Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:58 am | Permalink

                too

              • Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:59 am | Permalink

                I could imagine that he got really tired of answering that question.

          • Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:58 am | Permalink

            Agreed. Cox has also said:

            “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – if you don’t think Apollo 11 landed on Moon you are a colossal nob end & should get a new brain”

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

              I remember him threatening to hit someone with Newton’s Principia too. I can’t remember who it was, but they deserved it for being stupid.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

                Ha ha, this was it:

                “If anyone else asks me about “Nibiru” the imaginary bullshit planet I will slap them around their irrational heads with Newton’s Principia”

                Now that’s how I like Brian Cox! 😀

              • darrelle
                Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

                I’m beginning to like Brian Cox more and more as I read this thread.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

                I know. I love his plain speaking.

              • Posted March 26, 2018 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

                What else am I missing out on by not following him?

              • darrelle
                Posted March 27, 2018 at 7:37 am | Permalink

                Exactly what I asked myself!

            • Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

              And from memory he’s also used the word “fuckwits” on twitter about moon-landing hoaxers.

      • Posted March 26, 2018 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

        Mini-black holes means they will evaporate via Hawking radiation really quickly, so I don’t think they are a legitimate worry.

        • Posted March 27, 2018 at 9:59 am | Permalink

          That’s the theory but we are talking about the potential end of the world here!

          • Posted March 27, 2018 at 10:51 am | Permalink

            It follows from QFT and GR, iirc. There’s no reason it should be false if both are trur.

            • Posted March 27, 2018 at 11:11 am | Permalink

              Again, theory! I am not predicting the end of the world here. Just saying that when we do experiments in strange physical domains AND our theories are much less solid than, say, evolution, we cannot be absolutely sure of the results. There can be surprises. Also, we know that there are forces out in the universe that if unleashed nearby would make mincemeat of life on earth, and perhaps the earth itself.

              One suggested explanation as to why we haven’t found intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is because they all evolve to the point where they do some fundamental physics experiment that ends them. The probability is not zero.

              • Michael Fisher
                Posted March 27, 2018 at 11:40 am | Permalink

                In the quantum world nothing is zero

                In the quantum world the chair you’re sitting on could achieve Earth escape velocity without outside assistance, but you’d perhaps have to wait a period of time vastly longer than the proposed total life of our universe for it to happen [if matter is stable for that long of course].

                Saying there is some risk, that the probability of a regrettable Black Hole outcome “is not zero” with the use of the paltry energies available at the LHC is meaningless baloney. Unless you can provide a mechanism that would allow such a weird outcome at low** LHC energies – to set against our observations of the entire observable universe in action.

                ** around 10^12 electron Volts – we have measured 10^20 electron Volts coming from a cosmic particle [figures from memory]. That’s a ratio of 1/100,000,000th less energy from LHC

                And to quote Sean Carroll from the same article that I linked above [the article you probably didn’t read]:

                “Maybe there is a fleet of invisible alien spaceships hovering over head, testing our commitment to unlocking the secrets of the universe, and they will destroy the Earth with their alien death-lasers if we don’t turn on the LHC. There’s a chance!

                And that’s a chance I don’t want to take”

              • Posted March 27, 2018 at 11:59 am | Permalink

                Yes, there’s probabilities in all things. However, it pays to look at the sources of those probabilities before looking at their value. You, Sean Carroll, and others are saying that if we take our physics theories as a given, the probability that X (the bad thing) is infinitesimal. In fact, the argument you just presented says that X has the same probability where we turn on the LHC or not. And, of course, there are such risks that we acknowledge but can’t yet do much about: asteroid strikes, passing black holes, nearby supernova, alien invasion, etc.

                What I am talking about is the probability that the physics theories we are currently considering are wrong. The problem as I see it is there are so many of them and they are largely untestable. In fact, this is a common lament by the very physicists that work on the theories and the other physicists that critique them.

                How can we estimate that probability? We look at how many competing theories are under serious consideration. We look at experimental results. We look at whether a theory sticks around for a while or come and go like styles of popular music. If we look at fundamental physics this way, it is not on solid footing. Even the physicists will say there’s something we’re missing here. Quantum mechanics is a good description of how things behave at a certain level but it is not a very satisfying explanation. They are all waiting for an Einstein event. Relativity was a revelation that really made sense and was satisfying in ways that quantum mechanics is not. Even the physicist say this but as one of them (Feynman?) famously suggested, sometimes you just have to “shut up and calculate”.

              • Posted March 27, 2018 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

                Given that our current theories have predicted accurately gravitational waves, and the electron’s magnetic moment to 11 decimal places, and Hawking was simply generalizing QFT’s flat spacetime to a curved one, I think the probability of a black hole from the LHC swallowing Earth (evaluated at that time) is only several orders of magnitude greater than alien lasers, which is still mind-bogglingly small.

              • Posted March 28, 2018 at 9:03 am | Permalink

                Maybe but I really was not talking about LHC specifically anyway. I defer to your understanding of LHC physics.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted March 27, 2018 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

          @Topping

          QM is a perfectly fine “explanation” [or rather model] of the world. It is “not very satisfying” only if you expect there to be a foundation beneath it that behaves more like the macro-world that we intuitively grok. If that is the expectation then you’ll be eternally disappointed.

          It is my belief [only mine] that the various ‘interpretations’ of QM may always remain untestably indistinguishable, but we’ll get along fine with a set of rules that while rational & formalised operationally, are just weird. End of story.

          If there is a big hole in particle physics [incomplete Standard Model is highly likely] or QM it will not be such as to make the LHC a danger to us. We understand pretty perfectly everything at that energy scale! It’s just a fact. If there’s surprises it’s at energies way higher & possibly with dark particles that don’t interact at all/much with ‘us’ – again, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing to worry about at 10^12 eV.

          We don’t need to quantise gravity to know the above in the same way as you don’t need to explore Africa to find the library book you left on the bus yesterday. We don’t need a full picture to draw a map of the 10^12 eV sector is what I’m saying.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted March 28, 2018 at 10:08 am | Permalink

          vampyricon
          Posted March 27, 2018

          “Given that our current theories have predicted accurately gravitational waves, and the electron’s magnetic moment to 11 decimal places, and Hawking was simply generalizing QFT’s flat spacetime to a curved one, I think the probability of a black hole from the LHC swallowing Earth (evaluated at that time) is only several orders of magnitude greater than alien lasers, which is still mind-bogglingly small”

          To which you reply:

          paultopping
          Posted March 28, 2018

          Maybe but I really was not talking about LHC specifically anyway. I defer to your understanding of LHC physics”

          LOL! But looking back over the thread I see four mentions by you of LHC physics in this comment thread [#23]:

          paultopping
          Posted March 26, 2018

          “…I actually have a problem with Cox’s “Anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a twat”. Considering that all this quantum mechanics and related issues are so up-in-the-air, it seems a bit too strong a statement for my liking. There were some serious physicists that thought there was some chance the LHC might create tiny black holes once it was fired up. See for example: …

          In future please let me/us know what you ARE specifically talking about & structure your argument so as to make it clear. All I see in your contributions to comment #23 is you ending up walking back the stuff you can’t support & finishing with a hand wavy nothing burger.

          • Posted March 28, 2018 at 10:33 am | Permalink

            I apologize for letting this thread spiral out of control. Although Brian Cox’s “twat” comment referred to the LHC, my original comment was a hand-wavy argument about how fundamental physics is not really settled science and, therefore, calling someone names when concern might be legitimate is unwarranted. Perhaps it was warranted in this case because the LHC is safe to a high level of probability. Certainly it has been so far.

  24. Robert
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    “I reject the label atheist, and I’m about as militant as the Vicar of Dibley.”
    Can someone help me out? Who is the “vicar of Dibley”?

    • Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      An old Brit-com.

    • dallos
      Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      • Robert
        Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:40 am | Permalink

        Very good. Thanks.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted March 26, 2018 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, those little epilogue jokes were always hilarious. Not least because ‘Alice’ had no sense of humour whatever and always took them literally.

        They did some really risque ones too – I can’t believe they did the Invisible Man joke (though they got the punchline wrong…)

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZutFnAn_kM

        Wonder if they’d dare do it today…

        cr

  25. Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    The thing is, Cox and Tyson are obviously atheists in the sense of not believing in a supernatural moral CEO of the Universe.

    Their a-gnosticism isn’t about theism, but deism. We don’t know (or care) about an Absolute Beginning.

    It would clarify a lot of social media debate, if scientists would simply use the term “atheist” in the ordinary sense of not believing in a supernatural authority.

  26. kevin7alexander
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    I don’t use the term because there’s almost no information there. If I said that I saw a video about an animal that wasn’t a cat, what would you say it was? You can’t say because there are millions of species that aren’t cats. Even though one piece of information may be the most important bit that many people care about, it still doesn’t tell you anything really useful. It’s closely related to the fact that many will jump to assume that they know everything about you when all they have is one bit.

    • Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      A fair point, but I do think the word “theism” covers all sorts of beliefs in supernatural moral authorities.

    • darrelle
      Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      I understand the argument, but I don’t think it works. I mean, it can work as a statement, for example expressing your opinion about how unimportant religion is.

      But, that a book is about an animal that wasn’t a cat is very unlikely to be important enough, sociologically speaking, that any significant percentage of the population would care or think that a word to label it with should be invented. The same can not be said about religion. Sociologically it is one of the most significant phenomena of human societies. Peoples’ religious views are very relevant to other people both subjectively (for better or worse many people care a lot about other’s religious beliefs) and objectively (people’s religious beliefs affect their behavior, which in turn affects others).

    • josh
      Posted March 27, 2018 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      Do you use the term invertebrate?

  27. W.T. Effingham
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Dammit Jim! I’m a Cosmology Professor not a psychiatrist!

  28. colnago80
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    I think that the position taken by Richard Dawkins is the most reasonable one. Dawkins opines that the the existence of god is a scientific proposition and that currently there is no scientific evidence for his/her existence. Therefore, he takes the position that the proposition that there is no god should be taken as true as we sit here today. However, he is willing to reconsider his position should credible evidence be found.

    Now the question is, what would constitute credible evidence? That’s easy, evidence that the claim in the Book of Joshua that the Sun stood still in the sky for a day in fact actually happened without any of the consequences that the laws of physics would predict. Such a finding would strongly imply some sort of intervention by an outside force.

    • Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      Like pornography, we’ll recognize proof of God’s existence if and when we see it. The sun stopping in the sky might have some physics explanation, after all. Of course, if there was a big hand next to the sun and we all heard a booming, hearty laugh, then we would know for sure.

      • colnago80
        Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

        It is difficult to see what a reasonable physics explanation might consist of. Too many known laws of physics would have to be overcome.

        Of course, strange things have happen to our understanding of the natural world. For instance, the apparent existence of dark energy which nobody understands.

        By the way, it’s not the claim that the sun stopped in the sky that’s the problem. There are a number of plausible explanations as to how that might happen (e.g. close approach of a black hole). The problem is how the consequences of a stoppage could be avoided.

        • Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

          Yes, I was thinking the black hole explanation as one possibility. If the sun stopped, I certainly wouldn’t jump straight to an explanation involving God. At a minimum, I would wait a while to see what happened next. Some other possibilities:

          – An atmospheric effect changes the apparent location of the sun. The Earth is actually still spinning.

          – A really strong gravity source is bending the apparent position of the sun in the sky.

          – I am suffering some sort of medical event or under the influence of drugs.

          The latter is probably the most likely.

    • Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      I have a list of what I’d consider good evidence for good in Faith Versus Fact. In fact, I adhere to Richard’s position, as I think it’s the only one that’s scientifically sensible.

      • ian Clark
        Posted March 26, 2018 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

        This is the reference book that scientists, including Cox and Tyson, should read and cite to the masses!

  29. Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    I find maths divisive. Especially when you are working out how many times one number goes into another number.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      Always wondered what that “identity property” of division was all about.

    • Neil Wolfe
      Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      You make division sound so dirty. I hope it’s all consensual. Is that why there’s a SIN button on my calculator?

      • Merilee
        Posted March 26, 2018 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        +1 for SIN button🤓

    • Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      Don’t be irrational.

    • Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      When theists do math, they use only imaginary numbers.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

        How derivative!

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

          Ha!

      • rom
        Posted March 26, 2018 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

        But integral

  30. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    NdGT is the director of a taxpayer-funded institution, so I can understand why he’d be circumspect about flogging his lack of religion in any setting where he might be seen as speaking for the Hayden Planetarium — although I’d expect him to be honest in answering any questions put to him on the topic (which by and large he seems to be).

    As to Cox, I figure he’ll outgrow his tentativeness, probably once he hits puberty. I mean, he’s what 12, 14 maybe — or is that just a surfeit of boyish charm? He seems to have tapped into the same Dick-Clark-like eternal-teenager dimension as house physicist Sean Carroll. 🙂

  31. Larry Smith
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Personally, I’m more and more comfortable in calling myself an atheist if it comes up in conversation. I feel that it’s important to stand up and be counted, to let those I run into know that not everyone is religious, there are a lot of us out there, that godless people can be good people, etc. In the long run this will get religious people more used to non-believers. (Note: I do live in Southern California, so I am not exactly in the Bible Belt out here.)

    • Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      Yes, it does seem like atheism is becoming more acceptable these days. However, I also live in Southern California. I do remember that “atheist” was virtually last on a “Would you vote for a President who …” poll. I doubt I will live to see our first publicly atheist president. Then again, I probably would have said the same thing about a black president before Obama. I would love to be proven wrong.

      • Posted March 26, 2018 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

        I think the likelihood of a black president is almost twice the probability that an atheist will become president if you base the percentage of both groups:

        7% atheist / agnostic
        12, 47 black people
        (2014)

        • Posted March 26, 2018 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

          Sure but we don’t pick our presidents using random sampling. Point taken though. If we are being picky, the chance of having a black president is 100% since we just had one recently. Ok, perhaps only half black. Can there be a half atheist?

          • Posted March 26, 2018 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

            Half atheist would be an agnostic, isn’t he?

  32. Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    I’ve been listening to Infinite Monkey Cage from the beginning and I’ve never heard a hint that Cox might be religious.

    I suspect he’s just trying to get Brand off the subject, Brand being an annoying twat just dying to unload his pseudo-Dickensian word salad in his listeners’ ear holes..

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      Did you listen to his podcast with Sam Harris? I thought I would have to go lie down after because I found Brand exhausting. He is all over the place and doesn’t listen long enough before interrupting even his own thoughts!

      • Posted March 26, 2018 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

        I think he has some kind of Wernicke’s aphasia. He’s fluent but it’s fluent gibberish.

  33. rom
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    The title is a little misleading

    • rom
      Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      A bit more context to the video

  34. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    A most unusual figure in this quandary is Bertrand Russell, who among the general public accepted the label atheist, but among professional philosophers insisted he was really an agnostic. He was not worried about offending the faithful!

    Many features of many religions can be easily discredited by science, notably Scientology and Mormonism in toto. Much of Roman Catholic Thomist philosophy is discredited by modern physics, including the metaphysical distinction between substance and accident upon which the notion of “transubstantiation” rests. Archeology strongly suggests that the Biblical Exodus is fiction.

    There can be both inconclusive evidence for and counter-evidence against the same proposition. Arguments for the existence of God seem rather gossamer to me, and the counter-argument of theodicy seems strong to me.

    If we are simply talking about a concealed generic God, I would identify as an agnostic.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      You get bonus points for describing god arguments and “gossamer” because it immediately creates an image of a faery with wings which is relatable to fantasy beings like gods.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted March 26, 2018 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

        I actually get especially annoyed with apologists who use arguments from ancient Greek philosophical theists and then make an unwarranted quantum leap to the Judeo-Christian God.
        Aristotle does not say much about the character of his Prime Mover.

    • rom
      Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      For the general public he describes himself as an atheist and for philosophers an agnostic.

      I can dig up a quote/link if you are interested

  35. nicky
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    I think the ‘problem’ is quite simple, and I agree with Cox:
    Atheist in the sense that we know that anything religions have on offer is BS, baloney, piffle, you name it.
    Agnostic in the sense we do not know, how the universe began -if it did begin-, what time is, etc.

    A Loch Ness monster is of a different category than an ‘Almighty God’. The former, although I do not believe there is one, would not necessitate to completely review my world view, after all, we had the Coelacanth and Megamouth. A Pliosaur in Loch Ness? Extremely unlikely, but not world shattering (I would love it if there were some). An “Almighty God”? It would mean about everything we know from science would not be true, absolutely shattering.
    I think elves, fairies and leprechauns fall somewhere inbetween (did we not find Homo floresensis?). Probably less likely than even a Loch Ness Monster, but very, immeasurably much less unlikely than an Almighty God. There is a kind hierarchy of unlikeliness, and a God as offered by the several different established religions is tops there.
    Note that Unicorns actually do exist, we call them ‘Indian Rhinoceros’ (Rhinoceros unicornis) nowadays. 🙂

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted March 26, 2018 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

      I’m with you on the Loch Ness Monster point. Nessie could exist without breaching one law of physics.

      Like you, I’d love Nessie to exist** even though I have to concede the probability is remote.

      **As a physical entity, that is, rather than just a concept. In Nessie’s case, the two things are easily distinguished. In the case of God, rather less so.

      cr

  36. Posted March 26, 2018 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    My general rule of thumb is to let people decide.

    I do agree that “agnostic” is sometimes wishy-washy and “politic” but sometimes alas that is necessary.

  37. Mike Anderson
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Tired of the semantic games non-atheists play with the definition of atheism, I’ve recently adopted Dawkins’ terminology and have been calling myself a rationalist. Many have avoided using this term because it implies that non-atheists (including agnostics) are irrational, but I think it is the most accurate term, and the implications are perfectly valid.

    Believing in human-focused supernatural being is as irrational as believing in Russell’s teapot. If someone wants to say “God is the totality of the universe” or some new age nonsense – ok, fine, you got me: in that case I’m not an atheist. But I’m still a rationalist.

    • Posted March 26, 2018 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      Russell wouldn’t have liked your expression “non-atheists (including agnostics)”. Neither do I. Can’t see the practical difference.

      Like Russell, I call myself an atheist in ordinary conversation. A-gnosticism is simply scientific a-theism, when you need to be more precise.

      I do realise there are people, possibly including Cox, who define non-atheism differently. I’m sure the younger ones will get over it 🙂

      • Mike Anderson
        Posted March 26, 2018 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

        Russell wouldn’t have liked your expression “non-atheists (including agnostics)”. Neither do I. Can’t see the practical difference.

        Yes, there is redundancy in “non-atheists (including agnostics)”.

        A-gnosticism is simply scientific a-theism, when you need to be more precise.

        “A-gnosticism” and “a-theism” are very uncommon terms and difficult to distinguish from “agnosticism” and “atheism” in conversation, so I don’t use them.

  38. mirandaga
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    “True agnostics. . .are those who think there might be some evidence for a god, but not enough to be convincing.”

    Respectfully, an agnostic is not in doubt about whether there might be evidence for a god (he knows there isn’t) but about whether, despite the lack of evidence, there might a god. He’s basically saying, because there’s no evidence, I don’t believe there’s a god, but I could be wrong. A true atheist is saying, because there’s no evidence for a god, there is no god.

    The essential difference between an agnostic and an atheist is humility.

    • GBJames
      Posted March 26, 2018 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      With equal respect, the atheist position asserts an absence of belief in deities.

      The “humility” claim is, frankly, just a slur.

      • darrelle
        Posted March 26, 2018 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

        +1

      • mirandaga
        Posted March 26, 2018 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

        “The humility’ claim is, frankly, just a slur.”

        Well, if it’s a slur (and it wasn’t intended as one) it’s a slur I would also make about people who believe in God and aren’t open to the possibility that they might be wrong. Anyone who answers the question “Could you be wrong?” with an absolute “No” is, IMO, lacking in humility.

        No scientist worth his salt would fall into this category, however, since skepticism is baked into the cake of science, so to speak, but not into that of religion.

        • GBJames
          Posted March 27, 2018 at 7:38 am | Permalink

          “Humility” is a vapid critique. It says nothing about the claims in question. It simply attempts to shame someone into being quiet.

          • mirandaga
            Posted March 28, 2018 at 11:05 am | Permalink

            “It says nothing about the claims in question.”

            About the claims in question, then, I’ll say this: both atheism and theism are based on trust–trust in scientific evidence, trust in religious authority, or trust in personal experience. Agnosticism is a qualification of trust–not doubt, necessarily, but an openness to being proved wrong. I’m agnostic about most things–e.g., I don’t believe in an afterlife but I’m willing to be surprised. As the bumpersticker has it, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

        • darrelle
          Posted March 27, 2018 at 7:59 am | Permalink

          The term atheist does not mean an absolute disbelief in deities. Absolute has got nothing to do with the definition of the word atheism. I understand that when it is convenient for them some believers like to claim that it does because that gets them to where they really want to go, to be able to claim that atheists are arrogant. I’ve always considered such dishonest tactics to be pathetic on the part of the believer and a shame when atheists seem to accept it.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted March 26, 2018 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

        Agree with you, GBJ. ‘Humility’ is a red herring as well as a slur, with sufficient equivocation it could be levelled at either camp.

        cr

    • rom
      Posted March 26, 2018 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      You see no difference between a strong atheist and a weak atheist.
      Positive versus negative?
      Hard versus soft?

    • Posted March 26, 2018 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

      What you call an agnostic is how atheists would define themselves. I find this debate even more frustrating than theism debates. If self-proclaimed agnostics are so humble, they should LISTEN to how atheists define themselves before engaging in their “atheists are arrogant” smear campaign.

  39. Lee
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    “There is not the slightest evidence for a god, and therefore I don’t accept a god’s existence.”

    I would argue that it’s more than a matter of lack of evidence for God (or gods); it’s a matter of compelling evidence *against* him/her/them.

    The basic idea is that if you have two hypotheses A and B that are at least conditionally independent and at best mutually exclusive, then evidence for A is indirect evidence against B and vice versa. The standard example is a patient with a bad cough which might be due to either influenza or pneumonia. If x-ray results show that the patient has pneumonia, those results strongly decrease the probability that the cough is due to influenza, because the pneumonia is an adequate explanation for the cough, and the prior likelihood of having both conditions is much less than the likelihood of having just one. If A and B are mutually exclusive, the effect is even stronger.

    In the case of science vs. religion, each makes claims about the nature of life and the universe, but only science backs those claims up with evidence, and only the claims of science are supported by that evidence. This would seem to me to be more than just a lack of evidence for the claims of religion, but strong indirect evidence against those claims.

    As a relative newcomer to atheism, I personally understand the pull of belief in God even in the absence of evidence, and even in the face of contradicting evidence. Losing that faith was, for me, like losing my best friend. I well remember walking the streets, tears in my eyes, begging God to exist. I’ve more or less worked through that stage, but I have nothing but compassion for people who hold onto faith on the slightest chance that somehow science will reverse itself and make room for God.

    It’s for this reason that, for me at least, the wording is important- It’s not just a lack of evidence. There is strong weight of evidence, in fact, evidence that God does not in fact exist.

    • GBJames
      Posted March 26, 2018 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      Welcome to the reality based community.

      • mirandaga
        Posted March 26, 2018 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

        “I have nothing but compassion for people who hold onto faith on the slightest chance that somehow science will reverse itself and make room for God.”

        I honestly doubt that anyone holds on to a belief in God on the chance that science will come around. People’s belief in God is generally founded on either 1) indoctrination from early youth or 2) some personal experience or event that persuades them of a spiritual force in the universe. People in the first group are not waiting on science to “make room for God,” though they may, as they grow up, learn enough about science to abandon their belief (as you seem to have). People in the second group, who trust personal experience more than any authority, religious or scientific, are probably only going to reverse their belief because of some other personal experience (e.g., the death of a beloved child). Clearly, the second group is a harder nut to crack, but neither group is holding out in the hope that science is going to “reverse itself.”

    • Posted March 26, 2018 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

      There are many of us who have some of your understanding (and anguish at certain points) of the emotions associated with transition from god(s) believer to acceptance of there being no god(s). Though I have left the god-believer groups, I don’t belittle, argue with or try to “proseletize” them unless they push their belief system on me (and the rest of the world). Until then, I would prefer to find common ground with the hope that we can live together peaceably. Pollyanna, I know.

      • Posted March 26, 2018 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

        Sorry. I misspelled proselytize (or, corrected it incorrectly). Mea culpa.

  40. Posted March 26, 2018 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Probably Brian Cox wants to be seen as a science communicator and doesn’t want his pro-science message to be muddled up with new atheist rhetoric. But science and science thinking have powerful atheist implications. Good luck with that Brian.

    Just like the song “Love and Marriage” you cain’t have one without the other”….

    rz

  41. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    I think Brian’s doing fine without us telling him what to think. 😉

    Richard Dawkins isn’t an atheist either, according to the clips rom linked to at #33.

    Much of it depends on the definition of agnostic vs atheist, and unless everyone agrees on the same precise definition (which they don’t) it will never be settled.

    cr

    • darrelle
      Posted March 27, 2018 at 8:02 am | Permalink

      Mine are the correct definitions.

  42. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted March 27, 2018 at 5:07 am | Permalink

    My reasons is because such labels inject confusion in claims about nature, and living in a secular nation I could not care less about the religious, theological and philosophical perspectives.

    For one, agnostic is mainly used to label those who claim they do not know/have sufficient evidence; Jerry’s “New Agnostic” definition has to prove its use.

    For another,theologians and philosophers both likes to claim that “science can never prove or disprove the existence of a god” without giving evidence for such an assertion. In the sense of knowledge I can reject “a god” based on observation with the same robustness that I can reject, say, a curved universe. Whether the claim is that gods work through magical rituals (such as “prayer” or “heaven”), imbues certain animals with properties (such as “souls”), spontaneously make actions (“miracles”), universes or laws, they have all been observed to be rejected at the same quality (p level) as other claims (modulo that some are rejected by still revisable null hypotheses). I jotted down the evidence in a commentary the other day, so I won’t repeat it here.

    Maybe the assertion of “atheism” is a conversation to have in nations where older generations still will assert religious privilege for some decades to come. I rather have a conversation on the daft and arguably rejected claim that “science can never [assert knowledge on the question of] the existence of a god”. We have known for a decade that *all* religious claims on nature is now attacked by observation, and seemingly rejected at the very first go we have had at testing the larger ones. They fell as a ton of bricks on the heads of the still superstitious. It is time to start that conversation, among us and above all with them.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted March 27, 2018 at 5:09 am | Permalink

      Oops, C&P error. That comment should have started:

      I don’t label myself on the atheist/theist scale nowadays either, since such labels are philosophical/theological. The label I use “secularist that rejects superstition with other pseudoknowledge”.

      • GBJames
        Posted March 27, 2018 at 7:02 am | Permalink

        “Atheist” is a much shorter and more easily used descriptor.

      • GBJames
        Posted March 27, 2018 at 7:02 am | Permalink

        “Atheist” is a much shorter and more easily used descriptor.

  43. Posted March 27, 2018 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    The irony is that originally, the word “agnostic” did not mean merely that it was unknown whether a god exists, but that it was unknowable. And of course this only makes sense after first being certain that there can be no god whose existence would be knowable, which is a stronger claim than merely saying that there aren’t any.

  44. Posted March 27, 2018 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    I find the existence of a creator highly improbable but evidence would convince me. Such a supreme being then would be supernatural, and I’m sure it will certainly be anything but a deity demanding to be worshipped.
    .-

  45. bric
    Posted March 27, 2018 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    I have long considered myself an a proud and out atheist; But I have a confession
    I have become a secret worshipper of Victoria Coren-Mitchell. The sacraments consist of watching Only Connect on rotation: after three or four hours the material world just melts away

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted March 27, 2018 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

      Vicky is a goddess. That David Mitchell is a bastard for stealing her!

  46. Posted April 5, 2018 at 4:09 am | Permalink

    Matthew knows him – what does he say?


%d bloggers like this: