Jimmy Kimmel Doesn’t Get Atheism

In the latest issue of Rolling Stone, Jonah Weiner writes about comedian and late-night talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel (the story is behind a paywall):

At one point — almost as an aside — Weiner tells us this about Kimmel:

Kimmel was raised Catholic, and he’s still religious. (“I don’t understand atheism,” he says. “I don’t know how anyone could be sure there isn’t a God.”) But when he discovered Late Night [with David Letterman], it seemed like he’d discovered another, secret congregation…

That’s a definition of atheism that most atheists don’t even subscribe to. It’s known as “strong atheism,” suggesting that we have absolute knowledge that God doesn’t exist. Even Richard Dawkins wouldn’t describe himself this way.

Most atheists don’t say that. Like Dawkins, we say there’s no evidence of God’s existence and that’s why we don’t believe in a higher power. That’s neither wishy-washy nor agnosticism. That’s atheism as I’ve always known it and it’s the definition that most of the atheists I know accept, too.

To base your view of a category of people off of what only a small fraction of them believe is unfair — it’s just as bad as atheists who say all Christians share the same beliefs as Mark Driscoll or Rick Warren when it’s so obviously untrue.

Obviously, Kimmel isn’t a philosopher. The conversation wasn’t even important enough to merit its own section in the piece. But Kimmel has plenty of atheist celebrities appear on his show and I’m sure most of them could set him straight on this. He should take advantage of that opportunity.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • CelticWhisper

    I usually explain it with a crude grid/chart system.

    Along the X-axis is “God? Yes/No”
    Along the Y-axis is “Belief? Yes/No”

    So God-Yes-Belief-Yes (I have a positive belief in the positive existence of a god) would be theism. “I do believe in a god.”

    God-No-Belief-Yes (I have a positive belief in the negative existence of a god) would be strong atheism (or maybe medium atheism, since I admittedly didn’t account for varying degrees of certainty or conviction) “I do believe in no god.”

    God-Yes-Belief-No (I have a negative belief in the positive existence of a god) would be weak atheism, or “I don’t believe in a god.”

    God-No-Belief-No would be bad grammar. “I don’t believe in no god.”

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

    Ignoring the difference between strong and weak atheism for a moment, I still find that attitude perplexing. I’m sure Kimmel would have no problem saying he’s “absolutely sure” that Zeus and Krishna don’t exist, so why is it so hard to understand that atheists feel the same way about Yahweh? What makes one god different from another?

  • newavocation

    It seems that the more science discovers about us and the universe, the smaller the chance of a god becomes.

  • Cuttlefish

    Actually, even the “there’s no evidence” crowd is well beyond the threshold for atheism. I don’t need to examine the evidence for something, not to believe in it. Certainly there are atheists who are atheists because of an examination of evidence, but it is not a requirement (any more than, say, Catholics must examine and reject Asatru in order to be Catholic) of atheism.

    Atheism is a spectrum (or rather, a multidimensional set of spectra), not some dogmatic identity. It’s no wonder Kimmel doesn’t get it. Frankly, I’d be surprised if he could explain my (Catholic) sister-in-law; there is tremendous variability among Catholics as well. While it might be fun to see Kimmel schooled by some of his atheist guests, I think maybe watching him ride herd on a disparate group of his fellow Catholics might be even more popcorn-worthy.

  • Bob Becker

    That’s ok. I don’t get Jimmy Kimmel…possibly the unfunniest late night comic next to Conan O’Brian.

  • Octoberfurst

    Personally I think when theists talk about atheists not believing in “god” they aren’t talking about a particular god. They just mean a “god” who started the universe and watches over us. Sure they may say with certainly that there is no such god as Zeus but they firmly believe in the Christian God. However when they hear atheists say there is no god they get perplexed. They wonder how could an atheist say there is NO god at all? They can understand someone who believes in Allah or Krishna. But to believe in no god? That blows their minds.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ trivialknot

    I’m pretty okay with someone not understanding atheism if they at least acknowledge that they don’t understand.

  • Quintin van Zuijlen

    It’s redneck atheism, everywhere but in South-Africa.

  • JohnnieCanuck

    I see that you were going for the humour, but actually your last two cases perhaps should come out like this:

    God-Yes-Belief-No (I believe in the existence of a god, but it is unknowable or alternatively unevidenced.) Also, faith (believing without evidence) is more virtuous.

    God-No-Belief-No (I don’t believe a god exists but it is not possible to prove it.) Weak Atheism.

    As for me, I think I am a fairly strong atheist. What would I do if someone brought me evidence for a god? Examine it very, very closely and ask the opinion of experts in detecting deception. What would I expect to find? Probably fraud and/or deluded thinking.

    There is something not quite right in trying to imagine just what kind of display it would take to convince oneself that only a god could be the explanation, as I’ve read some atheists/agnostics doing lately. Are there people out there trying to imagine how they could be convinced of random other imaginary beings? Bog sprites perhaps?

  • Jill-O

    Wow, there are celebrities that aren’t Scientologists?! ;o)

  • http://www.facebook.com/markfheil Mark Heil

    Don’t forget that Kimmel got his start as the host of “Win Ben Stein’s Money”. I think he spent a little too much time with Stein.

  • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw m6wg4bxw

    Atheism seems to be rather common among comedians, though I suppose that doesn’t necessarily translate into understanding for those in the environment. I don’t know if Kimmel is acquainted, but I’m absolutely certain Emery Emery would be willing to give him pointers concerning atheism.

  • kevin

    While we’re on the topic of definitions, what do you call one who believes in God but also that God does not exist? For instance, what if one believes that stories involving God provide a meaningful phenomenological hermeneutic for talking about the future while also believing that existence is not a meaningful category to apply to God? Does that count as atheism?

  • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw m6wg4bxw

    And simultaneously — since the perception of something as funny is entirely dependent upon the observer — Kimmel is possibly the funniest comic in human history.

  • http://chaoskeptic.blogspot.com Rev. Ouabache

    That’s really surprising considering that he is close friends with Adam Carolla who is definitely a strong atheist. Or maybe that is the reason why he’s confused by the definition.


  • Sure

    I’m pretty sure there isn’t a God. I find it irritating that there’s this idea that you would have to examine the entire universe to be sure. I disagree. God is absent where it matters. He does not heal the sick, feed the hungry or answer the prayers of his followers in any measurable way. So, I’m confident in saying there is no ultimately good God. A god that is indifferent to our suffering is not one that matters to me. I would not worship him and so I don’t care if he exists. I feel sure of the absence of god.

    There’s a lot of science as well, but what convinced me into atheism was that all the claims that god loves and watches over us are mainifestly false.

  • Cecelia Baines

    So what? Kimmel doesn’t have to get us if he does not want to. I do not see Kimmel out there trying to get legislation passed banning us or even to have crosses put ON public land. Kimmel is a good late night host and comic, and as a free man in a country that is supposed to allow various views, he has no obligation to “get us”.

  • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw m6wg4bxw

    I think your question includes two meanings of “believe,” as well as some confusion of what is meant by existence. That doesn’t invalidate it; I understand what you are asking.

    I exclude the concept of a god — useful or not — from the being / category of “god” relevant to atheism. This, of course, wholly depends on one’s definition. I believe the concept of god exists, but not the being it describes. The same applies to Santa Claus. It would be misleading to tell others that I believe in Santa without some qualification.

    So, what should your description be called? Maybe something wordy like “existential atheism / utilitarian theism.”

    Interesting question.

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

    I think you’re right. It’s all so confusing because it seems obvious to me that all the gods are distinct, so if you can recognize one as patently false, then it shouldn’t be hard to understand that others might also be false.

    Plus, a lot of these people talk about “God” to mean a god in general, but then when you question them further it turns out that this god nearly always bears a striking resemblance to the god promoted by our culture. A lot of people (even atheists) seem to confront the question from a decidedly Western monotheistic point of view.

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

    To be fair, that only rules out the Judeo-Christian-Islamic deity. There could still be gods, but they could impotent or indifferent, or even actively malevolent. The claim that “God loves and watches over us” shouldn’t really convince anyone into atheism because it’s a culture-specific assumption, and it discounts a thousand other possibilities of what deities might do or be like if they existed.

  • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw m6wg4bxw

    Draw a circle on a piece of paper which represents all knowledge in the universe. Next, draw a circle within the first circle which represents your own knowledge. Finally, throw the paper in the garbage. LOL Just joking. I agree with your post. : )

  • http://skepticink.com/dangeroustalk Dangerous Talk

    That’s really surprising considering that he was with Sarah Silverman for a long time and she is most definitely an open and vocal atheist. As is Howard Stern and Adam Carolla who are both close friends with Kimmel. In fact, most comedians in general are pretty vocal atheists aside from Dane Cook. We should have Dave Silverman reach out to Kimmel through Sam Simon (another vocal atheist) who is friends with Kimmel.

  • kevin

    What is meant by existence? Some common definitions could be:
    1) Science can talk meaningfully about it.
    2) It fits somehow into an ontology.

    For either of those definitions, I would say God does not exist.

    What is meant by belief? Sometimes people mean a merely intellectual position, and sometimes people mean an existential mode.

    I would say, speaking of belief as an existential mode, sometimes I believe in God and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes my desire aligns with the “Yes!” to life that calls us into the future, and sometimes it does not. Sometimes I try to live in protest of the meaningless of life, and sometimes I don’t.

  • http://www.facebook.com/agni.ashwin Agni Ashwin

    That’s called “sociology”.

  • DougI

    My major complaint is that I work for the Post Office and I have to see Kimmel’s ass crack numerous times a day.

  • John Summers

    I hear Kimmel voted for Romney. If that’s true then he is voting for Christian domination of our secular elected Government

  • http://www.sunstonescafe.com/ Paul Sunstone

    That’s much better than all those people who claim to understand atheism and then go on in the next breath to say atheists are just in rebellion against god, or atheists are immoral, etc.

  • Chris

    Well, if it ameliorates it at all – Kimmel is famously good friends with out-of-the-closet atheist Adam Carolla.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Dharmaworks David Benjamin Patton

    I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware anyone gave a flying fuck what Jimmy Kimmel thinks on well, anything. If that’s what the speed of things is then I might as well consult my local produce man on his thoughts about the proper techniques for neurological microsurgery of the brain.

  • Pluto Animus

    Kimmel revealed what a complete asshole he is nearly a decade ago, when he showed shameless cowardice and ignorance by mocking Michael Newdow’s success at getting the Ninth Court of Appeals to declare “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance to be unconstitutional.

    The whole country was criticizing Newdow’s defense of the Constitution, and Kimmel jumped on the hate/stupidity/Christianity bandwagon.

    What a piece of shit you are, Jimmy Kimmel.

  • http://www.facebook.com/janeteholmes Janet Holmes

    Before you allow anyone to talk to you about god you need to be sure they have a working definition of the idea. Since most definitions of god are contradictory this is almost never the case. How can anyone believe in something they don’t understand? That is not belief, that is just faith, taking someone else’s word for it that they understand it and therefore you should give them money every week. I am perfectly certain that no god that has ever been described to me exists. None of them are coherent.

  • bernardaB

    In addition, archeology has shown much of the Bible to be untrue and the remaining stuff is obviously written, made up, by men who were obviously immersed in the customs of their particular society. Since everything is either wrong or imagined, there is no reason to accept any of it. So maybe I am a strong atheist because since there is no reason to accept anything in “holy” books, which are the only “evidence” given for a god–the Bible is true because it says it is true. So there is no reason to accept the concept of god. I think that atheism goes beyond the idea that “there is no evidence”. I would say that there definitely isn’t one or more gods.

  • keddaw

    Woah! Slow down there.

    Name a god and the various crap around it and I’ll be a strong atheist about that god. I can’t be a strong atheist about every possible type of god since some may be so vague as to be unable to be disproved, but you give me a self-contradictory god (e.g. the Biblical one) and I’m as strong an atheist as one could be.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    Didn’t this guy used to be in a serious relationship with Sarah Silverman? Who has made no secret that she doesn’t have a belief in god?

  • Steve

    There are NO gods, as simple as that.

  • LesterBallard

    I don’t get Jimmy Kimmel. As in I don’t get why anyone thinks he has any talent.

  • Cecelia Baines

    That’s quite a stretch there Ace. People can vote for the opposition for reasons other than religion you know. Obama is swearing in on TWO bibles. I voted for him. That mean I am endorsing religion?

    I am an atheist. I would even qualify myself as an angry atheist. But I am also a realist and understand that not everything is about religion, atheism and endorsements. Perhaps it is time you stopped with the black and white?

  • jose

    I don’t know why it implies absolute knowledge. We don’t have absolute knowledge that evolution is a thing, either. All empirical knowledge is provisional, isn’t it? Why can the conclusion that religion -along with gods- is made up be the same kind of empirical issue?

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    what i don’t understand is how a person could pay money to be part of a known pedophilic organization that spends millions every year in the attempts to deny gay people equal rights. but then, i’m not a TV show host.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    i came to strong atheism after the study of religions, and the realization that like in politics, some people really enjoy lying about things to gullible people who then give them money because the story the liar tells makes them feel good.

  • allein

    I loved that show…though I totally forgot that Kimmel was on it. I was sad when I found out Stein was an ID nutjob…when I first heard about his movie “Expelled” I thought it was a joke; after reading more about it and realizing he was serious, I borrowed it from the library because I refused to pay any money to see it. Then I watched it on a night when my roommate wasn’t home because I knew I would have…things…to say as I watched…

  • http://garicgymro.wordpress.com garic gymro

    I think you’re wrong that it’s not agnosticism. I think that if you accept or assert that you’re not 100% certain of the existence of non-existence of god, then you’re an agnostic (there is, of course, an agnosticism continuum). I think this is important, given that a lot of theists genuinely do claim 100% certainty.

    In this sense most atheists are, of course, agnostics. I think this point is worth stressing, because it’s important for both theists and atheists to understand that agnostics are not necessarily on the fence, and that a lack of certainty does not imply positive belief. It’s also important for many self-avowed agnostics to accept that they’re also actually atheists, and that atheism does not imply 100% certainty.

  • allein

    Sounds like you’re getting at Dennett’s “belief in belief”; the idea that belief in god/religion is a good/useful thing in society even if you don’t actually believe in god(s) yourself. As long as you believe in “something,” that’s good enough.


  • allein

    A lot of people think “agnostic” is some middle position on the same line from theism to atheism, and that’s where a lot of confusion comes in. They are two different things. Though I think most self-proclaimed agnostics are also atheists but just don’t want to acknowledge it for whatever reasons, it is possible to be a believer and still maintain that you don’t know. Most believers don’t do that, though, especially the sort of black-and-white-thinking believer that tends to be the most outspoken; they are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of admitting there are things we don’t, and in some cases, can’t know. Most atheists seem to be more able to accept and admit that we don’t/won’t know everything, and that that’s OK.

  • Son Of Christensen

    Many atheist organizations promote strong atheism.
    Look at the FFRF and their billboards claiming, There Is No god and so forth.
    None of that “lack of belief” stuff for them.

  • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ Bubba Tarandfeathered

    You got a beef with rednecks?

  • Son Of A KC Troll

    Thankfully atheists wouldn’t lie.

  • Son Of A KC Troll

    Isn’t Obama a Christian? He said he was.
    And we know he would never lie to us.

  • Tobias27

    It’s Ok Jimmy doesn’t get Sarah Silverman anymore either.

  • Puzzled

    If that were the case, would you want to know?

  • Puzzled

    He was a speechwriter for Nixon and involved with the closing of the gold window. He’s been actively involved with the right for his whole career.

  • allein

    Yeah, I knew he wrote for Nixon. I just guess I thought he was smarter than that…

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

    I don’t suppose it matters one way or the other. I’m basically neutral. Whether deities exist or not, I can’t imagine caring about them. Maybe if they were evil gods, we’d have to make an effort to placate them. But if they’re just indifferent or impotent, or even if they’re benevolent, I wouldn’t really care. I guess it would be interesting to learn that they were real, but that’s about it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gregm766 Gregory Marshall

    Not to mention he is very good friends with Adam Corolla, whom he hosted a TV show with.

  • ReadsInTrees

    I generally say that I am an agnostic atheist. Agnosticism is a statement of knowledge, while atheism is a statement of belief. I do not KNOW that there are no gods, but I don’t BELIEVE that there are gods. Agnostic atheist.

  • Barefoot Bree

    Well, one of the reasons people try to imagine what evidence would convince themselves of god’s existence is because believers keep asking us for that very thing!

    Personally, my answer is: nothing. Placed against the entire sweep of human history, with its absolute lack of convincing evidence to this point, there is nothing that could convince me that a god was really here all along. No god who hides so completely is worth anyone’s time, anyway.

  • mo

    I would say most atheists, myself included, are “sure” there’s no god, in the same way that if we had to testify in court that we saw Mr Smith steal Mrs Davis’s purse, and the prosecution asked if we were sure, we’d say yes, rather than rambling on about how nobody can truly ever be sure of anything, and it’s theoretically possible that the cia embedded that memory in our brains, and who knows, maybe the laws of logic aren’t even valid in certain situations.

  • Urbane_Gorilla

    I’m an akimmelist. I don’t believe in Jimmy Kimmel.

  • Christian

    There’s no strong or weak atheism. If you don’t subscribe to the position that there is no God, then you’re not atheist; perhaps you’re nontheist or, at most, agnostic. For example, as The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says, “Atheism is the view that there is no God” or The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains “atheism means the negation of theism, the denial of the
    existence of God.” The whole “strong” or “weak” atheism is just an attempt by atheists to define atheism which started in the 1970s by Antony Flew so that they, on 1 hand, could get around having to justify their position with evidence of some kind, on the other, make atheism the default position (ie Flew’s The Presumption of Atheism).