Monthly Archives: April 2012
Astrophysicist and populariser of science Neil DeGrasse Tyson recently said in a Big Think interview that he calls himself an agnostic. He said that atheists are outgoing people who want to change public policies and have debates and that the word “atheist” has so much baggage attached to it. He calls himself an agnostic, simply because that’s the word that he says describes him best and that he would prefer if there were not any categories at all over such things.
Unlike some people out there, I agree with him, at least to a certain extent. In the interview he talks about how taking on such labels makes people assume so many things about someone and that this is no way to talk to them. If someone says they are a Christian, we do not automatically assume that they are a fundamentalist Young Earth Creationist wanting to change our laws to fit with the Bible and ban evolution from the schools and burn every copy of On the Origin of Species. Of course not, we learn about what they think of the Bible and Christianity and go from there. I wish Christians would do the same for us though. Golden Rule anyone?
I too would prefer if there were no words for things like atheism, agnosticism, theism, or anything else on the god question. If it were not for foolish people inventing imaginary friends and forcing them onto everyone else, especially their children, we would have no need for such labels or to be actively opposed to them.
And here is where I differ with Tyson. Being an atheist does not mean that you are actively opposed or “proudly wear the badge” of atheism. What Tyson is describing here is an activist, not necessarily an atheist though. I may go so far as to say that he’s confusing atheists with antitheists. The atheists we see and hear about all the time are the activist ones that are “in your face” about it. This is merely a stereotype though. No different from the stereotype that all gay men are flamboyant fairies. No, those are just the ones we see at gay pride parades and in pop culture. I know plenty of very passive atheists who do not confront theists at all, in fact some of them, not all, will try to accommodate them so as not to offend and actually confront me to avoid confrontation with theists. They are still atheists though (as much as I do not like these people on a personal level).
I also disagree with his assertion that if he were an atheist then he might be biased in his work to support his preconceived notions about the world. The reason that most people became atheists was because they rejected their initial thoughts about what the Universe was and contained within it and wanted to learn the truth, no matter how upsetting it may be. Just because one is an atheist does not mean that they are going to be biased when they see something they may disagree with (but yes, that does happen much like with any other human being). Most atheists will say when you ask them what would change their mind about the existence of a god? Nine times out of ten they say, “Evidence. Independently verifiable evidence.”
However, I do agree with him and will defend his claim of being an agnostic. People are claiming that since he does not claim belief in a god then he’s automatically an atheist. That just is not the case. In one of my recent posts, I explained how agnosticism is a standalone position from either theism or atheism. Yes, he does not believe in a god, but he also does not disbelieve in a god either. He simply does not know if one exists or not. He’s neither an atheist nor a theist. He’s an agnostic, at least that is what he thinks is the label closest to how he feels. I personally would not call him anything from what he’s saying about not wanting any labels.
Even if all agnostics were really just atheists, so what? Is it up to someone else to define people? Is it up to someone else to give everyone a label just for their own convenience? If someone wants to call themselves an agnostic or simply not call themselves anything at all, let them. It is not someone else’s business what they call themselves. I call myself bisexual, but I have never been with someone of the same gender. I know plenty of people (gay and straight) who would call me straight because of that. I could go to the grave never having sex with someone of the same gender and I would still call myself bisexual no matter what someone might say about it. It’s not about how other people want to call me. It’s about how I feel and how I want to label myself.
As Neil DeGrasse Tyson points out in the interview, there is a lot of baggage that comes with the label of “atheist.” That baggage just is too much for some people, especially if they live in places such as the Bible Belt (such as myself) or the Middle East (where they can be executed under blasphemy laws). We should not blame people for being afraid to come out as atheists no matter where they are though. We should not blame them, but we should still encourage them to come out as atheists and other nonreligious people. Telling them the wonders of science and atheist solidarity is a much better approach than calling them cowards or insulting the theists they may still have close ties to.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson may actually be an atheist. He may just be purposely not using the atheist label so as to not automatically turn off the brains of theists to what he’s saying. If they think, “He’s just some atheist scientist,” then he might not be as effective as an educator. If they think, “Oh, he’s an agnostic,” they may be more receptive to what he’s saying, which is a good thing if we wish to educate people on the validity and awesomeness of science and bring science to the masses so as to prevent things such as Creationism entering our schools and climate change denialists changing public policy and deregulating corporations that destroy the environment.
As he said in the interview, he’s not an activist or wanting to be a part of some movement of atheists, and it’s his job, not ours, to label himself. He’s an educator. The only “-ist” he is and ever will be is a scientist.
- An acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists
- Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction
- A religious conviction
- Trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something
- Facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject
- What is known in a particular field or in total; facts and information
- True, justified belief; certain understanding, as opposed to opinion
- Awareness or familiarity gained by experience of a fact or situation
I would like to draw attention to that second to last line there.
“True, justified belief”
It is often said that because knowledge and belief have two different definitions that they are two separate things, that belief equates theism and knowledge equates gnosticism. This is based entirely off etymology alone, not usage of modern language, vernacular, or human psychology.
Knowledge and belief are not two different scales or options that split people into four, exclusive little categories based solely on etymology. Knowledge, according to Plato, is a belief that is justified by evidence and reason. They are not separate things that go in two different directions. Belief and knowledge are simply different sections on the same sliding scale.
On one end of the spectrum, there are claims that fly in the face of evidence and reason, such as Intelligent Design/Creationism. As we go further down the spectrum, more and more evidence supports the claims that are made, making them more justified to believe; eventually, we can start saying that we know them to be true instead of simply believing that they are. At the other end of the spectrum there are claims that people accept and know to be true beyond a reasonable doubt because of a mountain of evidence supporting it, such as the theory of evolution.
Another spectrum that can be used in this discussion would be Richard Dawkins’ seven point scale of belief that he talks about in his famous book The God Delusion. On one end you have “strong theist” (1) and on the other you have “strong atheist” (7). These could be called states of mind on the existence of a god. In the book Dawkins calls himself a six. In several interviews since the book has been released he has repeatedly called himself a 6.9 instead of merely a six. I personally would call myself a 6.999999999999999…999999 (you get the point). At that point, I might as well just round up to seven, even though it is not quite fully seven.
A nice metaphor I would like to draw is one that is commonly used against Creationists to help them understand evolution and how small changes occur over time.
What is the first purple (agnostic) word? What is the first blue (atheist) word? Where does atheist switch over to theist? Where does etymology come into play here? Conversions, reconversions, and deconversions can take years. It is not something where someone is automatically now an atheist. There is a time of transition when someone just does not know or claim to believe either way or even know where they stand on the issue. Some might even stay that way.
Now I know it doesn’t seem like it, but I really hate playing “My Definition is Better Than Yours,” but I’ll keep doing it:
- A person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God
That last part is what I have come to realise what an agnostic person is, “A person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.”
Agnosticism is a valid and stand-alone position, despite what some people may say that because they do not claim belief in a deity, they fall into the false dichotomous position of atheist. They also do not claim disbelief, or lack of belief, in a deity either. They are not atheists or theists. They are neither believers nor non-believers. They are agnostics. They are “I don’t know-believers.” Let’s go with “IDK-believers” for short and to appeal to the youth out there.
Do not confuse agnostics with “apatheists,” who I will call “meh-believers” just for the hell of it. Apatheism is a peculiar position that I will go into very quickly. An apatheist is someone who may or may not necessarily believe in a deity, but they just do not care one way or the other if a god exists or not, or they claim neither belief nor disbelief simply because they do not care one way or the other. The god question is not something that they care about or think is relevant to them. Personally, I think they are foolish for thinking that. The question, “Does a god exist?” and the resulting actions taken out by people on either side has profound societal consequences for everyone, as we have seen from Republicans trying to take contraception away from women based entirely off religious reasons.
A person who is agnostic may fall close to atheism or close to theism on the belief and knowledge spectrum, so I can partially understand why someone might call themselves an agnostic (a)theist if that is the case (or even an (a)theistic agnostic), but describing all atheists and theists as agnostic or gnostic is simply unnecessary at best. There is no need for any qualifier to the words atheist or theist.
If someone really wanted to, then as we go further and further on ends of the spectrum, one could call themselves a “gnostic (a)theist.” Just like with the “agnostic (a)theists,” I can partially understand it, even if I disagree with the labeling. I know from some of my most recent videos, such as I Know God Doesn’t Exist, that people have started calling me a “gnostic atheist,” and several friends and followers of mine have started saying that they are “gnostic atheists” as well because of my videos. I would like to say that I do not call myself that. I am an atheist. No extra words needed.
In my videos, I was not endorsing “gnostic atheism.” I was, if anything, explaining my views on ignosticism (not agnosticism for those of you who think I misspelled something). I have run into similar problems with ignosticism that I have had with agnosticism. People seem to think that because they do not believe in a god that they are automatically atheists. However, they also do not lack belief. They also are not “IDK-believers.” They are “what the fuck are you even talking about-believers.” Possibly “WTF-believers” for short.
Using the word “believers” at all for agnostics, apatheists, and ignostics may cause some confusion. I do not recommend using these terms to describe anyone; I’m just using it here alone and possibly within my own blog to help make sense of these stances and philosophies.
Since I have made these videos, some people have been confused with my stances, saying that I can not say I know a god does not exist if I claim ignosticism. This is from ignorance of the stances themselves. To make it as clear as possible, I am “gnostic,” for brevity’s sake, about the theistic gods. I know they do not exist. I can prove definitively with science that they do not. There is no question in my mind that Jehovah, Vishnu, Thor, etc. do not exist. This is why I call myself an atheist, but I do not say that I am a “gnostic atheist” simply because I see no point to these extra labels.
Now an ignostic is someone who does not take a position on the god question until the very term “god” itself is properly defined. Do not confuse this with agnosticism. Agnostics take a stance somewhere in the middle on the belief and knowledge spectrum. Ignostics are not even on that spectrum. They are their own little group separate from the three other categories.
I would say that I am ignostic about a deistic god. Because the term “god” itself is so poorly defined once all claims of theistic gods are destroyed, there is no reason to believe or not believe in a deistic god or gods. The theistic gods have qualities and characteristics that we can test for and see if they really do exist, such as Jehovah’s creation story in the book of Genesis.
A deistic god, which is basically a theistic god watered down by science and philosophy, is too vague to properly define, and those that have been defined, such as those touted by philosopher William Lane Craig, have also been discredited and debunked just like any theistic god out there. All claims about a god, whether theistic or deistic, have been debunked.
This is why I say that I know even a deistic god does not exist. I am not agnostic about it. I am just as agnostic about a deistic god as I am about the Celestial Teapot or the Zsadlfkjasdiagrb. For those readers who do not know what in the hell I just typed, do not be alarmed.
“God” is so poorly defined, but people, as in some atheists, say that they do not know if one exists or not. This is why I created the term “Zsadlfkjasdiagrb” (pronunciation: Zuh-sad-loofk-jaz-dee-ahh-gurb), in a discussion with a (former) friend of mine and fellow atheist (I think), in order to show the vagueness of the term “god” itself. I do not know what the Zsadlfkjasdiagrb is, what its characteristics or qualities are, but I know it is not real.
It is a made up thing. It does not require my belief or disbelief. Doing any of that gives undeserved credence to the concept of the Zsadlfkjasdiagrb. The same can be said of a god. The very concept of a god was made up by fearful, superstitious people that did not understand the natural world around them and attached “god” to the things they could not explain. These evolved into the gods of the world’s religions that we see today. Characteristics and qualities that we could recognise and partially understand were attributed to different gods for different things, and we debunked them all. We showed with science how these gods simply do not exist. Once the theistic gods are gone, what is left? Nothing.
Characteristics were given to the Zsadlfkjasdiagrb when I first made videos about it. People said they imagined a drunk, French Zoidberg from the show Futurama. Does this exist? Obviously not. Once that is gone, the Zsadlfkjasdiagrb no longer exists as anything but a word that someone made up, same with a god.
Another pretty picture to help explain this.
Is anyone agnostic towards the invisible chair? No. Is anyone a theist towards the invisible chair? I would hope not. Is anyone an atheist towards the invisible chair? There is no need to be. Calling oneself an atheist towards the invisible chair or “god” is giving unnecessary credit to the very concept of such a thing when it simply does not exist.
Another problem I have run into is when I say that I am a 6.999999999999999…999999 on the seven point Dawkins scale. People will say, “Then you aren’t 100% sure, therefore you can’t say you know a god doesn’t exist!” Again, with my stance I might as well round up to a seven or up to 100% sure. I will not though, because I cannot be 100% certain of anything by certain people’s definitions of knowledge and certainty, even my own existence, and I do not care to go down that rabbit hole, but I still know that the invisible chair and “god” do not exist.
To explain this, I wrote a quick post in response to this common objection weeks ago, which I have since slightly tweaked from its original form that I think is appropriate to be used here as a closing statement.
If I draw a square in the sand, it is not perfect, but it is still considered a square by most. If I draw a square with the aid of a ruler, even though we are getting closer it is not perfect, but it is still considered a square. If I draw a square with the aid of a computer that gets it within one-millionth of an inch in accuracy, it is still not perfect, but it is still considered a square. None of these are perfect squares. You can say a square is when all four sides are perfectly equal, but even the most advanced pieces of technology and machinery cannot make such a thing. Even if it is only one atom off, that automatically makes it not a perfect square. Closer and closer we get to a perfect square with the advancement of science and technology, but we will probably never be able to make a perfect square, but for semantic reasons we say that these are still squares and not rectangles or trapezoids. The same can be applied to disproving the existence of a god. We may not be able to definitively disprove its existence and be one-hundred percent sure, much like we cannot make a perfect square, but for semantic reasons we know that a god, even a deistic god, does not exist.