Who’s in your tribe?

At Uncommon Descent the author (VJTorley) contends that the Atheists have been claiming as members of their tribe some who don’t belong in the tribe. In other words, some criticize religion (Twain) while others are seemingly indifferent (Einstein), and others make some strong existential comments (Satre), but that doesn’t make them out and out atheists.

The atheist blog Ungodly News has just released a Periodic Table of Atheists and Antitheists. While I admire its artistry, I deplore its lack of accuracy. At least three of the people listed as atheists or anti-theists were nothing of the sort: Albert Einstein, Mark Twain and (in his final days) Jean-Paul Sartre. I realize that the last name will shock many readers. I’ll say more about Sartre anon.

I’m a great admirer of Einstein (who isn’t?) and a fan of Mark Twain, whose houseI visited in December 1994. And I thoroughly enjoyed reading Sartre’s Les Mains Sales (Dirty Hands) in high school. When he wrote that play in 1948, Sartre was a militant atheist, but as we’ll see, Sartre’s views changed in his final years. These three authors I treasure, so I say to the atheists: you can’t have them!

There are three more people on Ungodly News’ periodic table who, in the interests of historical accuracy, I have to say don’t belong there either: Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley and Bill Gates. All three are (or were) agnostics, not atheists, and as I’ll argue below, while these thinkers all reject the claims of revealed religion, none of them deserves to be called an anti-theist. It is an undeniable historical fact, however, that the ideas disseminated by Darwin and Huxley have caused many people to lose their faith in God.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • JoeyS

    Twain dealt with Religion quite a bit. It seemed he did so without much thought or consideration of God, as if he just didn’t have anything to say about his existence (or lack thereof). Einstein attributed the design of the universe to a creator. I was surprised when I read his comments as such, but can’t remember where I saw them. Possibly in one of his writings on peace.

  • http://thedesignspectrum.wordpress.com/ pds

    Scot, you read Uncommon Descent? Who knew? :)

    If PZ Myers is ranked #4, they must be ranked based on degree of rudeness and incivility, not intellectual merit or significance. Who takes him seriously?


    Not a lot of impressive minds generally on that list, and some of the impressive ones don’t belong, as VJTorley notes.

    I am happy to be hanging with the theists.

  • rjs


    This post came from Scot, not me – but #1 on the list in my post today … Gather complete information, not just from sources that support your viewpoint.

  • http://thedesignspectrum.wordpress.com/ pds


    Yes, and I agree completely.

    But now that you mention it, as a general matter, I frequently hear ID proponents encouraging people to dig in to the evidence and think critically for themselves. I usually hear TE folks (especially the ones at Biologos) encouraging Christians just to trust mainstream authority. And that is often combined with ridicule for ID proponents. This is not conducive to critical thinking.

  • Unapologetic Catholic

    I’m a little reluctant to draw a any sort of fine or meaningful definition between atheist and agnostic. I did read Dawkins’s The God Delusion and he didn’t even rate himself as “atheist” under the above definition. The Periodic Table I think is a bit of humor. There’s no question that everyone on that table has questioned the value of religion in general or some religions in particular to a greater or lesser extent. I think that’s the entire point of the Table and it’s not worth much more than that.

    I take Myers quite seriously, and I suggest others do the same thing. The “civility” issue is often raised when there’s no response on the merits. (“i can’t rebut his claims but he asserted them in a nasty voice and hurt my feelings.”) The ENV article misrepresents Myers, whose rhetoric in the post was not “incendiary.”

    Yet another reason to actually read and seek to understand not only from sources that just support your viewpoint but from others as well.

  • http://gcjeffers.wordpress.com Greg Jeffers

    Ungodly News doesn’t call them Atheists, it calls them people “that have taken the time to question religion.” I think many theists belong in that category. I am one of them.

  • http://gcjeffers.wordpress.com Greg Jeffers

    My bad. The title of the chart does call them atheists and anitheists. Nevertheless, this is more about people who question religion, as he says in the post itself.

  • Joe Canner

    Such an analysis, while mildly humorous, also doesn’t do justice to the fact that people change over time. For those that are dead, is this where they were at the end of their lives or is this a reflection of their “life’s work”? Darwin, for example, was a theist for most of his life and questioned the existence of God as much because of the death of his daughter as because of evolution. Conversely, Ben Franklin (not on this list) dabbled with atheism early in life, then embraced deism, and then started to approach theism towards the end of his life.

    As for those who are still living, we only know their beliefs up until this point; who knows what life has in store for them?

  • Joe Canner

    pds #4: At the risk of sidetracking this thread…I do not defend Biologos if they are truly engaging in mean-spirited attacks on ID supporters (as opposed to substantive debates on the subject matter), but I think it is a bit naive to think that the average non-scientist is going to be able to “dig in to the evidence” and come to any conclusions about evolution. At some point, we have to be able to trust that the experts (including many Christians) are not engaged in a massive conspiracy to foist atheism on an unsuspecting public. If we can’t do that, then there is no hope for meaningful debate.

  • AHH

    Yes, it’s bad for atheists to be historically inaccurate and claim these people as being on their team.

    But I can’t help but think of all the times I hear Christians claim people as theists, or sometimes even as Christians, who almost certainly were not. Often this is based on out-of-context (or even apocryphal) quotes. Like when Einstein is claimed as a theist, or Lincoln as a Christian, or when the US Founding Fathers are painted as mostly Christian.
    The atheists are not the only “team” that sometimes cheats in this game.

  • http://www.virtuphill.blospot.com phil_style

    AHH “he atheists are not the only “team” that sometimes cheats in this game”

    To slightly paraphrase monty python: Let’s not go there, It is a silly game…

  • http://thedesignspectrum.wordpress.com/ pds

    Joe #9,

    It is not a massive conspiracy. It involves a fundamental difference in how you approach the evidence. Are you a “theistic materialist” like RJS or not? It makes a big difference in your conclusions. Read my dialogue with RJS which I saved here:


    And consider that in light of RJS’s recent post on critical thinking.

  • rjs


    The term “theistic materialist” was your term, not mine. It doesn’t really convey my position or the position of most of those at BioLogos. I say “most” because I don’t know what everyone thinks and it is a diverse group who are involved in various ways.

    As God knit each of us in our mother’s womb through “natural” material processes (Psalm 139:13) so I think he knit the world and life on the world together through “natural” material process. We are aware of God’s direct action through relationship with God.

    As a result looking for scientific evidence of supernatural action in creation or taking as a default position the expectation of empirically verifiable supernatural action seems a rather unuseful position.

    Efforts directed primarily toward arguing against the sufficiency of apparently natural material mechanisms seem counterproductive.

    On the other hand in reaction to the scientific naturalism and ontological materialism of many outspoken writers and scientists I (we) stand on the same side as those at DI. The naturalist implication in Kroto’s comment, and those of Ethan’s professor (see comment on “Science as Critical Thinking”) needs to be countered.

  • AHH

    Phil @11,
    Yes it is a rather silly game. All of us should probably pause and think about whether the truth of our team’s position is really strengthened because famous people agree with it.
    Maybe this goes with the critical thinking post — Einstein and Darwin are worthy “authorities” on their areas of science, and Lincoln on US politics, but why should their views on theology carry any more weight than anybody else’s?

  • http://thedesignspectrum.wordpress.com/ pds

    RJS #13,

    “As a result looking for scientific evidence of supernatural action in creation or taking as a default position the expectation of empirically verifiable supernatural action seems a rather unuseful position.”

    But that is not my position. Why the false dichotomy? Why do you need to have any “expectation”? Why not hold an open-minded neutrality between natural non-design explanations and design explanations? And, of course, as Christians we always need to be open to God working in ways we do not expect.

    Why not just look for the best explanation, period?

  • rjs


    I didn’t say that it was your position.

  • Joe Canner

    pds #12: I have had similar discussions with my father (who, incidentally, refers to “evolution of the gaps”), but I have yet to understand from either him or you what science would look like if it admitted non-material causes. It is always possible to posit non-material causes for things that we don’t understand in science, but how will we ever prove them? It’s one thing for me, as an armchair evolutionary creationist, to say that gaps in the fossil record represent areas where God may have intervened, but how does that help the scientist advance knowledge?

    Moreover, what difference does it make (to you and me) if you put God in the gaps or if I propose that God endowed the universe with the wherewithal to evolve? You and I can privately speculate all we want, but let’s let scientists do their work in peace.

  • Jeff L

    how would one falsify non-material causes?

  • http://thedesignspectrum.wordpress.com/ pds

    RJS #16,

    I didn’t say you did.

    Why argue against a straw man and not address the position I put forward?

  • rjs


    Many people hold to the necessity of “non-natural” explanations to demonstrate the existence of God. Non theists use the absence to disprove God, theists use the presence to prove God. Because of this history and mindset I find it most important to emphasize that such explanations are unnecessary.

    Whether God worked through “natural” mechanisms or not makes no difference to theism or faith.

    As far as the best explanation… I have not yet seen a non-natural explanation that is not really something of an argument concerning a current state of ignorance. I am perfectly willing to hold an open-mind. But it must always be remembered that it is an open mind in the absence of knowledge today. Nothing of importance rests on a “non-natural” best explanation.

  • Nancy Rosenzweig

    Stephen Jay Gould is on this table – but he explicitly said he was an agnostic, not an atheist. And in his promotion of NOMA he was anything but anti-theistic; he was far too accommodating of religious faith to suit some people (such as Dawkins) who legitimately belong on this table. In fact it was his writings, which often expressed a deep appreciation of religious faith, that enabled me to leave my own agnostic doubts behind and embrace Christianity. Assigning him to the atheist “tribe” on this table is an act of intellectual dishonesty.