Sorry, Neil DeGrasse Tyson. “Atheist” is still useful.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson spends four minutes in this video trying to disassociate himself from atheism. But he’s ok with “agnostic.” A deluge of Daily Dish readers explain why they’re not mutually exclusive.

There’s a joke, more commentary that funny, I heard somewhere:  There are two types of atheists–those say say “none” when asked their religion and those that say “atheist.”

This is Tyson’s first mistake; he pegs “-isms” it to a “movement.”  There’s this irrational fear that I noticed, among even the most prominent atheists, that by giving the belief a label it gives it a unwanted connotation as dogma.

It’s odd that the word “atheist” even exists.  I don’t play golf.  Is there a term for non-golfers?

Most people don’t play golf.

“Atheism” is useful because 1) It describes a minority. (It might be less useful a term in a country like Sweden that’s largely secular.) 2) While it’s not a necessity, there is still a correlation between lack of religious belief and political ideology. People want to make organizations around common philosophical bonds, and the language is useful to share that bond. 3) It’s just a synonym for non-believer. Stop attaching other assumptions.

On an interesting sidenote, Sweden still had an officially recognized state church until 2000.  But as of 2008, only 2% of the population attended regularly. The Netherlands still has a state church.  Separation of church and state suddenly doesn’t sound like everything.


11 thoughts on “Sorry, Neil DeGrasse Tyson. “Atheist” is still useful.

  1. I was going to write something along these lines. I can see why Tyson wouldn’t want to get tied up into the baggage that currently goes with the word “atheist”. He doesn’t “have the energy”, and you can see where he’s coming from; to him the word atheist means a debate-engaging outspoken atheist.
    But he is mistaken. From the way he talks it definitely seems he is an atheist–he doesn’t believe–but he prefers not to be labelled with a term with baggage. So he’s happy claiming the ‘agnostic’ part of his agnostic atheism. Maybe he prefers to think of himself in terms of what he knows instead of what he believes.
    But he is misdefining atheism in order to dissociate himself from a voice he doesn’t like.

  2. You left something out of your chart. I do not believe that gods can exist. I do not believe it is possible. You can believe that it is possible but that none exist. I do not see any credible evidence that supernatural beings can even possibly exist. You need one more circle in that graph.

    • I suspect that would come under “gnostic atheist”. Although, it’s not explicit in the diagram.
      If you replace the word “proof” with “good evidence” (a super-pernickety use of language) then any reason you have to doubt the existence of super-nature in general places you in the gnostic atheist section more explicitly (by that diagram).
      Other than that, it’s a good diagram.

  3. This chart only highlights the semantics of this debate, while attempting to manufacture additional terms. Agnostic means that you do not claim to know, atheist asserts that you do. Agnostic, “I don’t know if there is/are gods”. Atheist, “there are no gods”. The terms are, indeed, mutually exclusive. Your chart does highlight a great logical fallacy, however, especially the term “gnostic theist”.

    • The chart “manufactures” nothing. These terms are well-known and widely used, especially by philosophical academics.

      The democracy of truth, Wikipedia, says: “Agnosticism is the view that the truth of certain claims—especially claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, but also other religious and metaphysical claims—are unknown or unknowable.” Citation: Hepburn, Ronald W. (2005) [1967]. “Agnosticism”. In Donald M. Borchert. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

      You fucked up your own representations of each view by using “I” as the subject in one but not the other. Let me correct it for you: “There may be Gods.” vs. “There are no Gods.” and then say that these colloquial “definitions” are inferior because they are less dimensional (belief in the reality Y/N? belief in proof Y/N?) than the ones used by the chart.

      Don’t even try to have a semantics debate with me. I will go Oxford English Dictionary on your ass.

  4. From the Oxford English Dictionary:

    Agnistic – a peron who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.

    atheist – a person who does not believe in the existence of God or gods.

    • Yes, exactly. I don’t believe in Hobbits but, at the same time, don’t know of any evidence that proves they can or cannot exist. Still not mutually exclusive.

  5. You can still be agnostic without subscribing to a belief or disbelief in God. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. It just obviously doesn’t fit in the chart.

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