Atheist or Agnostic?

Today, I am writing on Atheism, Jean Bodin, and John Rawls. I bet you are pumped about that post!

Anyways, it made me think of this video from the folks at Big Think.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium.

My favorite quote from the following clip is this:

And some will say, well, that’s — “You’re not being fair to the fact that they’re actually the same thing.” No, they’re not the same thing, and I’ll tell you why. Atheists I know who proudly wear the badge are active atheists. They’re like in your face atheist and they want to change policies and they’re having debates. I don’t have the time, the interest, the energy to do any of that.

I do not share this to dismiss Atheism, nor do I think that is what Neil deGrasse Tyson is doing here, though his does paint a bit of a straw man of what it is that Atheists do. Religious apologists often dismiss and caricature Atheists and Atheism. They drive me nuts when they do.

What I like about this brief clip is that it shows that many who are non-theistic, do not see themselves as Atheists. I wonder if this is a bit like those who view themselves as spiritual…but not religious?

YouTube Preview Image

Here is the full transcript of the clip:

I’m often asked — and occasionally in an accusatory way — “Are you atheist?” And it’s like, you know, the only “ist” I am is a scientist, all right? I don’t associate with movements. I’m not an “ism.” I just – I think for myself. The moment when someone attaches to a philosophy or a movement, then they assign all the baggage and all the rest of the philosophy that goes with it to you, and when you want to have a conversation they will assert that they already know everything important there is to know about you because of that association. And that’s not the way to have a conversation. I’m sorry. It’s not. I’d rather we explore each other’s ideas in real time rather than assign a label to it and assert, you know, what’s going to happen in advance.

So what people are really after is, what is my stance on religion or spirituality or God? And I would say, if I find a word that came closest it would be agnostic. Agnostic — the word dates from the 19th century — Huxley — to refer to someone who doesn’t know but hasn’t yet really seen evidence for it but is prepared to embrace the evidence if it’s there but if it’s not won’t be forced to have to think something that is not otherwise supported.

There are many atheists who say, “Well, all agnostics are atheists.” Okay. I’m constantly claimed by atheists. I find this intriguing. In fact, on my Wiki page — I didn’t create the Wiki page, others did, and I’m flattered that people cared enough about my life to assemble it — and it said, “Neil deGrasse is an atheist.” I said, “Well that’s not really true.” I said, “Neil deGrasse is an agnostic.” I went back a week later. It said, “Neil deGrasse is an atheist.” — again within a week — and I said, “What’s up with that?” and I said, “I have to word it a little differently.” So I said, okay, “Neil deGrasse, widely claimed by atheists, is actually an agnostic.”

And some will say, well, that’s — “You’re not being fair to the fact that they’re actually the same thing.” No, they’re not the same thing, and I’ll tell you why. Atheists I know who proudly wear the badge are active atheists. They’re like in your face atheist and they want to change policies and they’re having debates. I don’t have the time, the interest, the energy to do any of that. I’m a scientist. I’m an educator. My goal is to get people thinking straight in the first place, just get you to be curious about the natural world. That’s what I’m about. I’m not about any of the rest of this.

And it’s odd that the word atheist even exists. I don’t play golf. Is there a word for non-golf players? Do non-golf players gather and strategize? Do non-skiers have a word and come together and talk about the fact that they don’t ski? I don’t—I can’t do that. I can’t gather around and talk about how much everybody in the room doesn’t believe in God. I just don’t—I don’t have the energy for that, and so I . . . Agnostic separates me from the conduct of atheists whether or not there is strong overlap between the two categories, and at the end of the day I’d rather not be any category at all.

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About Chris Henrichsen

Chris Henrichsen has moved Approaching Justice off of Patheos. Find his latest posts and the new Approaching Justice. Thanks!

  • Agni Ashwin

    He’s an apatheist — he just doesn’t find god-talk (or anti-god-talk) all that intellectually interesting.

  • Voidhawk

    If you’re not a theist then you’re an atheist, it’s there in the very root of the word. An agnostic is someone who doesn’t claim to know one way or the other.It’s not rare for someone to be an agnostic atheist.

    NdGT has a point when he expresses his frustration that you even need the word ‘atheist’

    “I don’t play golf. Is there a word for non-golf players?”
    No, but if there was (Agolfist?) then it would apply to him, whether or not he chose to use the label for himself. If golf players were constanly influencing policy on the basis of their golf-playing (All government officials must wear silly trousers, women are not allowed in government bars, people were using people’s preference for irons over woods as an excuse for violence) then it is entirely reasonable to expect that agolfists would be getting together, organising, and arguing that golf is not necessary or preferable as a form of government.
    If religion was as trivial as which sport we preferred then movement atheists wouldn’t exist and the term ‘atheist’ would only be of interest to academics, but it isn’t trivial, religion deeply influences (for good and bad) billions of people around the planet and the actions they take.


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