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: