ZOMGItsCriss vs. Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Value of the Word Atheist

It’s always a relief and a joy when someone says what you’re thinking so you don’t have to. And it’s especially great when it’s the inimitable Cristina Rad who does it, in her fantastic style:

Have I publicly geeked out lately about having Cristina as a colleague on Freethought Blogs? If not, consider me geeking out now. Also, go here to see deGrasse’s full remarks on this point and the rest of the topics covered in his Big Think interview from this spring.

I do sympathize with Tyson in one place in the video. I too am sometimes squeamish about affixing a label to myself out of frustration with others who will use that label to make all sorts of presumptuous inferences about me and how I think or what I think. (Since we all do this to each other based on labels.) I talk about this issue and why I call myself an atheist anyway in my post on 7 Reasons Why I Label Myself An Atheist Rather Than An Agnostic:

1. It’s true. I am an atheist. Unlike being a “Democrat” which means identifying with a certain party that I might not myself actually identify with on any of a number of issues, being an atheist simply means “lacking belief in personal gods” and that simple meaning fits me exactly. I do not believe in any personal gods. The true definition of the word is completely applicable to me, so I have no qualms about using it, even if others have misconceptions about what it means.

2. While I do not think I know with uncontrovertible certainty that there are no personal gods, I nonetheless know that no personal gods exist with a great deal of confidence. It is much closer to the truth if they inaccurately presume my atheism entails certainty than if they presume it makes no knowledge claims at all. I am much closer to their idea of an atheist than I am to their idea of an agnostic.

3. The popular connotation of an agnostic is usually not of a hard-nosed, principled skeptic like Thomas Huxley who coined the word to indicate his position that everyone should reject all metaphysical speculation. Popularly agnostics are often thought to be uncommitted individuals who examine metaphysical stances with skepticism, but do not rule them all out in principle. This means that commonly in the popular misunderstanding, the agnostic does not rule out belief in gods at all but either (a) may actually come to believe should the right argument come along or (b) at least has no strong epistemic objections to others believing. But I do have strong epistemic and moral objections to belief in personal gods (as true agnostics in Huxley’s mold would too). My objections are conveyed in the word atheism, better than in agnosticism.

4. In the popular understanding, sometimes agnosticism is a bit more accurately (but still not precisely enough) understood to be the belief that no one could ever know with certainty whether or not there are gods. Believers are quite often fond of relativistically leaping from the perceived inconclusiveness of debates about god to the position that all positions are equal. If no one can conclusively and with absolute certainty prove their position, then, the faulty reasoning goes, they are entitled to believe as they wish as though the evidence in both directions is entirely equal. Accordingly, when they understand the agnostic as endorsing the view that “no one can really know”, they often take this as tacit permission to believe as they wish. Contrary to Huxley’s intentions, they do not hear in the word “agnostic” a rebuke to their blithe and presumptuous believing without evidence but rather only an affirmation that no one can be certain about anything and so no one can be certain they are themselves wrong in their willfully chosen, implausible beliefs.

5. Atheist is the most inclusive category of non-believers in personal gods and unless we unify and commonly identify with each other, we will not be able to dispel all the other myths about us or develop self-consciously non-theistic institutions that can counter the hegemony of theistic ones in the realms of morality, “spirituality”, religion, metaphysics, etc. It is vital that people stop falsely assuming that theistic religion is the sole (or even a proper) source of moral, spiritual, religious guidance or metaphysical truth.

6. Atheism is a confrontational term that signals from the outset that I am willing to unabashedly challenge theistic religious claims and not soft-pedal my objections or compromise my positions to make them more accommodating to theism. And this is true. I am, of course, willing to modify my positions to make them more truthful, but not to make them compatible with theistic religion when it’s false.

7. I see people’s misunderstandings of what atheism means as in need of correction, not evasion. Let someone misunderstand what I mean by the word and ask me “surely you do not mean that there cannot possibly be a God of any kind” and right there I have the opening to distinguish personal god theism from impersonal deism and explain why I can think there are no personal gods while being open-minded to hearing out a deistic metaphysics.

I can then press them on whether they conflate good philosophical reasons for deism with good philosophical reasons for their theism. I can disabuse them of their false assumption that atheism necessarily entails nihilism by explaining my metaethics to them. I can correct the pervasive Cartesian mistake of confusingly equating knowledge with certainty, as well as the equally common Humean muddle of lumping poorly justified beliefs in with well justified beliefs as both “faith” beliefs. There are differences between greater and lesser justified beliefs, to call none of them knowledge and all of them faith simply because none attain 100% certainty is not to elucidate in language but only to equivocate and lower the average person’s standards for belief in a way Hume himself would have found utterly appalling.

For more on distinctions between kinds of atheism, agnosticism, and deism, and discussion of other issues from this post, I recommend the following posts:

Disambiguating Faith: How A Lack Of Belief In God May Differ From Various Kinds Of Beliefs That Gods Do Not Exist

Distinguishing The Atheist Agnostic, The Theist Gnostic, The Atheist Gnostic, and The Theist Agnostic

No, I’m Not An Atheist By Faith, Here Are My Arguments.

Beyond Agnosticism: More Details About How I Know Various Kinds Of Gods Do Not Exist, Based On Scientific And Philosophical Reasons

It’s Atheism, Not Adeism

The “A” Word

You Might Be An Atheist Even If You Hate The New Atheists

Agnostics Or Apistics?

Disambiguating Faith: The Evidence-Impervious Agnostic Theists

Atheists Have Affirmative Positions On The Status Of Evidence And On The Standards Of Belief

The Cosmological Argument, The Composition Fallacy, And More Reasons Not To Believe In God

Do New Atheists Unjustifiably Shirk Their Burden For Evidence?

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Raytheist

    I agree with Christina here more than with Neil, when the issue is directly about religion/theism. We need the word atheist, and people need to understand what it means, as a tight, strict, definitive, affirmative, positive declaration of “I am no theist” … and people need to realize it does not include all the gazillions of faulty assumptions about with it means.

    My own thought is that atheist is as much an adjective as a noun. To be a-theist is to be non-theist, or without theism. When people say I am AN atheist it is easy(er) for people to bring up all their negative associations they’ve had with other people who are atheist and make assumptions about you. When used as an adjective (“I am atheist”) is would be less easy, at least in my opinion.

    I am Ray. I am atheist.

    • http://disagreeableme.blogspot.co.uk Disagreeable Me


  • A Hermit

    I always say that because I take an agnostic approach to knowledge and I am, for all practical purposes, an atheist.

    It’s kind of like my hair…I still have some, but I just shave it off and call myself bald. Why pretend? Calling myself agnostic just feels like a comb-over.

    • Bruce S. Springsteen

      This argument over atheism vs agnosticism is old and nothing new can be said, but this analogy is about the funniest and most apt I’ve seen. Well done, Hermit.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Yeah, it cracked me up too.

  • Raytheist

    o’course, that’s pretty much what you already said, so my comment is superfluous. Someday I’ll make a merely fluous point that won’t be so glaringly super.

  • jamessweet

    This very much ties in why I use the word. All other things being equal, I like “nontheist” better to describe most atheists and agnostics (though for my own part, I do not shy away from anti-theist!). But all other things are not equal. Atheist has become a dirty word, and it ought not to be. So I want to take it back.

  • baal

    I call myself an atheist because I know it’s part of my personal internal identity and because I know that I’m implicitly opening myself for the follow-on (pretty much point 6 in the linked post).
    I’m very happy that I’m at a point in my life where that is true.

    I can see why Tyson, with a very public front man position wants to downplay the label as it would lead to a number of derails for his primary efforts. That said, Christina is spot on. Tyson goes a step further than he needs to in dismissing the term entirely.

  • John Horstman

    Oh no, my opinion of Tyson went down a couple notches when he pulled out the “we don’t define other things as negatives” bullshit. It’s just not true, and demonstrates either disingenuous argumentation (especially shocking in this case, as “agnostic” is the same: “a” – not – “gnostic” – learned or known; granted, it might simply be a failure of self-reflexivity as opposed to intentional misrepresentation) or an appalling lack of knowledge of English (asexual, aseptic, anion, atypical, irrational, informal, unbiased, etc. – these just off the top of my head in about fifteen seconds; we define ALL SORTS OF THINGS in opposition – “oppose” is another: to pose against – to what’s typical or in opposition to norms, and theism being both typical and normative, it makes perfect sense to have and use the word “atheist”, exactly as it makes sense to have and use “agnostic”).

    Rad nails it.

  • timberwoof

    Daniel wrote, “I too am sometimes squeamish about affixing a label to myself out of frustration with others who will use that label to make all sorts of presumptuous inferences about me and how I think or what I think.”

    I get that. Oh, yes, I do. For me the analogous situation is whether to affix “gay” to myself, and have people assume that I’m into leather and feathers and stuff. But as Christina Rad said, I can’t let that be my problem; people who do that are terminally stupid.

    I’ll get yelled at for making this analogy, but a nonbeliever waffling and saying he doesn’t know what to believe is like a gay guy saying he’s bisexual. (I can say that because that’s what I did.) No more waffling! I’m gay. (Not feathers; what are you thinking? Fur!) I’m atheist: there are no gods.

  • http://www.secularcafe.org/index.php davidb

    My sympathies are more with Criss than Tyson.

    People should remember that single words don’t define people.

    I’m a secularist. But an atheist secularist.

    Technically I am agnostic about some conceptions of god – the deist one for example. I certainly can’t disprove the existence of a deist god. But I’m an atheist agnostic. I don’t believe that there is a deist god, in any sense of the word god that is generally used.

    I am an anti-theist regarding many conceptions of god – but an atheist anti-theist.

    I’m an atheist – it is a useful word, and one I am happy to self identify with in broad terms, despite one or two little caveats when pressed, as I’ve stated above.

    David B

  • Deepak Shetty

    (I prefer the label non-believer but if pushed the closest label is agnostic)
    a. When Sam Harris made the argument that the word atheist is not needed (because we dont have similar words for e.g. for people who dont collect stamps) – I dont remember him getting much pushback – but Tyson seems to get a lot of grief. It looks like people evaluate the argument based on who is making it.
    b. In pt 3. and pt 4. you make the distinction between the popular misunderstanding of the word agnostic. However I doubt you really care (in the sense that it doesn’t prevent you from adopting the label) about the popular misunderstanding of “atheist”. Don’t see why I should either.
    c. I wish there was a word for anti-religion. I really don’t like the bunch of rituals, the Christians must marry Christians sort of thinking. I’d adopt that. I dont really care about a God – I cant really imagine myself worshipping anyone including God if he existed. the only exception I might make is Bill Watterson.
    d. the reason I consider myself agnostic is I don’t know what I would consider as evidence for “God” when the word itself is so poorly defined. I can say the concept is incoherent.

    Its not hard to see that the label agnostic is treated as a dirty word by some atheists. dont you want to take that label back too?

  • anthrosciguy

    Oh no, my opinion of Tyson went down a couple notches when he pulled out the “we don’t define other things as negatives” bullshit. It’s just not true

    Obviously, Tyson has never been to Canada, the land of “not-Americans”. :)

  • mpmiller

    To resolve the issue, just ask the right question:

    “Do you have a belief in the existence of god(s)?”

    An agnostic may not be certain whether or not god exists, but “not certain” is not the same as “yes, I have a belief…”. So not having a positive theistic belief makes all agnostics atheist. I suppose someone could be ‘agnostic’ about whether or not they have a belief, but that’s a question of self-knowledge.

    The statement:

    “I have no beliefs concerning the existence of god(s), neither existence nor non-existence”

    defines one as atheist, but it is not a statement that requires defense. What part of “I have no beliefs…” requires defending? Unless someone is questioning whether or not you possess a belief, again a question of self-knowledge.

  • http://www.alstefanelli.com Al Stefanelli

    Well done, as usual, Dan. I happen to agree with Cristina, but don’t hold any ill will toward Dr. Tyson. We are what we are. Be proud.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/ZOMGitsCriss Cristina Rad

    Thank you for the nice words <3 I'm happy to be here too among such awesome people :)

  • Anat

    For some reason the video link gives me The Happiness Project. Interesting and beautiful, but not Cristina.

    I’m an atheist. I’m as certain about the non-existence of the Abrahamic god (or any other personal god I have ever heard of)as I am about the non-existence of the Greek pantheon, unicorns, fairies or small orbital teapots and people don’t feel the need to waffle about any of them. There might be some kind of ill-defined impersonal ‘something’ that manages to avoid any measurable influence on reality – all of which makes such ‘something’ meaningless and irrelevant. Or some trickster god that manages to weave observed reality in such a way that its influence becomes invisible – idem. Or we live in the Matrix, or in a ‘Last Thursdayism’ universe – idem.

    If people have misconceptions about atheists then the more of us identify as such the better the chances such misconceptions will eventually be abandoned, at least by some.

  • tomh

    being an atheist simply means “lacking belief in personal gods”

    I don’t understand why your definition stresses “personal” gods. I would assume an atheist would lack belief in all gods, personal, impersonal, ancient, modern, whatever, yet your definition seems to say that an atheist might believe in a creator god, for instance, or some other type of god that wasn’t personally talking to you. I find that odd.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      No when I talk about an impersonal god I don’t mean just an impersonable god (i.e. “a creator god who just doesn’t talk to you”). What I refer to is the idea that there is some unified source or ground of all being, or sum total unity of all being, which is a distinct metaphysical principle that has no “personhood” and which has been traditionally called “God” by philosophers (and some laypeople even). That concept is distinguishable lexically from the God theists intend and needs to be distinguished from it.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke
  • tomh

    The idea that there is “some unified source or ground of all being,” seems to me like just another description of a god. You don’t want to call it a god, for your own reasons, maybe you don’t want it confused with the common theist’s god, but it’s still a supernatural force that’s behind all existence. If that’s not a god, it’s a distinction without a difference.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Um, NO, it’s not a distinction without a difference. This is your philosophical ignorance and lack of clarity about distinctions at work. It’s not necessarily “supernatural” (in Spinoza, for example, it is Nature itself). And if it is entirely impersonal it is NOTHING LIKE what laypeople have traditionally thought of their anthropomorphic gods as being like. No heavens, no hells, no miracles, no intelligent lawgivers, no “beyond nature” in anyway that would interfere with science, morality, or anything else pragmatic (IF “beyond nature” at all).

      Those are all huge distinctions between a personal and an impersonal god. Ones that are crucially important to undermining belief in theism, by the way, since half of average people’s most intuitive reasons for believing in a “god” only get them to the “god of the philosophers” which, by itself, does almost nothing to guarantee religious claims of any substance or particularity.

  • tomh

    It’s not necessarily “supernatural” (in Spinoza, for example, it is Nature itself).

    Well, if it’s Nature itself, (capitalized, even), why not call it nature? Instead of the “ground of all being.” And if it’s not “necessarily” supernatural, then sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. It sounds like you need two different phrases for your ground of all being, one for when it is supernatural, one for when it isn’t. What would you call it when it is supernatural? God-like, perhaps?