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Neil deGrasse Tyson on Why He Doesn’t Call Himself an Atheist

Published March 9, 2014, Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson returns for this episode of Rationally Speaking, with a particular question to discuss: Should he call himself an atheist? The impetus is a recent dust-up over Neil's appearance on Big Think, in which he explained that he avoids the label "atheist" because it causes people to make all sorts of unflattering (and often untrue) assumptions. Julia Galef and IEET contributor, Massimo Pigliucci, reply with some counterarguments, and along the way delve into the philosophy of language.

Agnostics are atheists with better things to do.
No, an atheist is a person who is not a theist. Someone who is asocial is not social. An apolitical person is someone who is not political. Something asymetrical is simply not symetrical.

Yes, atheists have more time than theists, (We get free Sunday mornings every week!) but the term "agnostic" is pretty useless, since it addresses knowledge rather than belief. You don't care what a person professes to know, only what they believe.
Whats the difference between a unifying field and "God"
One is intelligent, omnipotent, and can express feelings towards someone (or something) while the other cannot. Also, I'm pretty sure an agnostic is some who believes or thinks that God's existence can neither be proven or dis-proven. It's kinda a middle ground between atheists and theists. I just wish people would stop being so hateful towards theists/religious people and what we believe.
In a way I can sympathise with your wish for people to "stop being so hateful towards theists/religious people and what [you] believe". Some of us really are, and I would be interested to know (based on what I've written here in the past) whether you put me in that category.

If so, it is certainly not my intention, although I do sometimes express a degree of anger and resentment in relation to religion, and certainly there are those who do so far less "delicately" than I do. Yet, I also find it significant that deGrasse Tyson avoids the label "atheist" because it causes people to make "unflattering (and often untrue)" assumptions. What this shows, of course, is that atheists have the same problem: that some people are hateful towards us and what we believe.

So what's the solution? Again I'd be interested in your thoughts, but I guess empathy must come into it somewhere, i.e. a willingness to put ourselves in each others' shoes?
@ Peter Wicks
I can't really remember what you have written in the past but you're entitled to your opinions and try to express them intelligently. I certainly don't think all atheists are bad people and I'm sure a lot of them are genuinely good people. Its just that I constantly read and hear how people demonize religions, particularly the Judeo-Christan faiths. Regrettably there have been people who misrepresent those faiths and have done terrible things in God's name, but that's their fault, not God's. What personally bothers me is the amount of ignorance about what ours faiths teach and what they mean. You don't know how many times I've heard about God being a cruel murderer in the Old Testament. People who make those claims tend to not know the whole story and miss the point. If more people actually read through the whole Old Testament (especially the minor prophets) they would know 1) the people being punished did genuinely terrible things, 2) that God's acts were not out of cruelty but justice and retribution and 3) that those people were told time and again that if they repented and turned away from their evil practices that they would be forgiven and spared.

Forgive me If I soundly like I was ranting. There's a lot that needs to be said. As for a solution, the best one I can think of is being respectful as possible towards the opinions/beliefs of others and willing to listen. Likewise, be respectful when you feel the need to share those opinions/beliefs. As a non-denominational Christian I would like to see more people accept my faith, but I can't and won't force anyone to belief. A person's faith has to be his/her own. If I'm sounding to preachy I again apologize.

@ instamatic
I agree theists shouldn't be hateful towards women and gays, but it is erroneous to assume we all are. As for Paul of Tarsus, I'll inquire my pastor about that but it sound a lot like the error of missing the point which is something everyone does in one way or another when it comes to the Bible and what it says.
Thanks for your response. There are indeed people who unfairly demonize religions, not only Judaism and Christianity but also (even more so I would say) Islam. As you say, if people do terrible things that's their fault, not God's, and that is even more true from the point of view of someone who doesn't believe God exists. (If God doesn't exist, then nothing can really be His fault.)

I once read the entire Bible from beginning to end. I was brought up as an Anglican Christian, and tried to put my faith into practice as best I could. I decided to read the Bible from beginning to end at a time when I was struggling to make my faith work for me, and my doubts had started to seem more real to me than my faith. And what struck me about the God of the Old Testament was the mixture of love and wrath, as He saw his chosen people indeed refusing to turn away from their practices He regarded as evil.

I agree that mutual respect is an essential starting point, and also willingness to listen, however I think there have to be limits to both. For example, if someone keeps repeating the same points over and over (not that you do this, but some on this site do, as do many others, both theists and atheists) then I think it is reasonable to conclude that one has better things do to than carry on listening. Similarly, some beliefs/opinions are so repugnant that they simply do not deserve respect. And I think empathy can help here, because even when we don't feel we can in all good conscience "respect" someone's point of view, we can at least try to put ourselves in their position, and imagine how they must feel. I think a lot of problems could be solved if more of us did this.

Whatever someone believes, there is some train of events and influences that has led them to hold those beliefs, and to an extent we all believe things that make us more comfortable. For the moment, I find it more comfortable to believe that God does not exist, other than as a figment of our collective imagination, but who knows? That may change.
Dogma, in any form, messes up society.'

Nailed it Neil. This is the central most valid point of this whole discussion.

I come from Belfast originally and I've taught English in Saudi Arabia. In both places and from both places terrorism has arisen and been exported to other places. In both areas, religious dogma (and from that social, ethical and political prejudice) holds people back, oppresses minorities and ensures lack of progress and indeed personal growth.
I largely agree with you, but I think we need to consider the impact of what we write, and not only whether what we write is accurate. We may think that religious dogma holds people back, oppresses minorities and ensures lack of progress and personal growth, but at doesn't necessarily mean that saying so will reduce the problem.

As I wrote in my reply to Christian, whatever someone believes there is some train of events and influences that has led them to hold those beliefs. So if we want them to question those beliefs, which I suppose is the purpose of writing about the harm they can do, then we need to make it feel safe for them to do so. As I also wrote, we all tend to believe things that make us more comfortable, so if we make it uncomfortable for people to question their beliefs then we will make it less likely, not more likely, that they will do so.

For example, when Christian C. writes "God's acts were not out of cruelty but justice and retribution", he is doing so in part because the alternative idea that the God portrayed in the OT is actually a cruel murderer makes him very uncomfortable. It is far more comfortable for him to believe that people maki the alternative claim are "missing the point". And as I'm sure you're aware given your background, what holds for Christian C. also holds for a great many other religiously-oriented people.

I'm not saying that we should never state what we dislike about religion - on the contrary it is sometimes essential to do so - but I think by now the IEET readership is very well aware of the harm that religious dogma can do, and if some are not then repeating the point one more time is not going to make them aware. It will just lead them to reinforce their defences.
@Peter re "If someone keeps repeating the same points over and over, then I think it is reasonable to conclude that one has better things do to than carry on listening."

I totally agree. A reason why I don't really care too much about "converting" others to my ideas is that I am persuaded that our choices of values and positions on big issues (e.g. religion and politics) are largely motivated by aesthetic and emotional preferences, against which rational arguments are mostly powerless. I can "convert" you either in the first five minutes or never, which seems to indicate that arguing for more than five minutes is pointless.

Also, we all know that totally different positions can be defended with equally strong arguments. I know how to argue for religion or atheism, individualism or collectivism, libertarianism or socialism, and so do you.

Accepting as a given that our choices of values and positions on big issues are largely motivated by aesthetic and emotional preferences, against which rational arguments are mostly powerless, I conclude that it's much better to spend time finding workable ways to live together without shooting each other.
Indeed. Of course, the urge to "convert" each other can be difficult to resist, and there is an extent to which there is little point in saying anything unless you are trying to convince somebody of your point of view. But we can at least be judicious about what we argue about.

That said, while I think what you wrote is very close to the truth, we must avoid concluding that rational arguments are *altogether* powerless. Yes I can argue both sides of any issue, having learned my debating skills around the breakfast table as a kid, but it is easier to do so when you have logic and evidence on your side. And also, logic and evidence generally plays at least some role in motivating our decisions about which side of an issue to argue.

One great thing about our conversations here is that no-one can come close to shooting each other, so we are able to discuss quite emotive issues without much harm being done. We all get annoyed from time to time, but at least we emerge from the encounters unscathed. This also means that we can hopefully make more progress in sorting fact from fiction than in more "dangerous" situations, and for that rational arguments are essential.
@Peter re "the urge to "convert" each other can be difficult to resist"

Not for me, not so much, honestly. I understand and accept that others have their aesthetic preferences, as compelling to them as mine are to me. I prefer to spend time discussing with those who share similar preferences.

To those who really want to convert others, I suggest to shift from rational arguments to emotional persuasion. Finding the right angle is difficult and requires a lot of empathy, learning to see and feel things from the point of view of others.

Somebody, perhaps here, made a very acute observation: if you want to change something, you must first allow yourself to be changed by it.
I completely agree. Sometimes it just feels good to state one's views, without particularly caring whether anyone is convinced by them or not, and if one does care then indeed empathy is the place to start.

But I still want to insist - whether I manage to convince you or not! - that ultimately there is little point in making statements unless you want to "convert" someone to your point of view, or at least influence them in some way. Also, if one exclusivively uses "emotional persuasion" (another word for that is of course manipulation) then one can end up being exposed as lacking integrity. By contrast, the more one relies on rational arguments in support of a position one genuinely believes, the more likely one is to gain a reputation for integrity, especially among relatively discerning people. But even then, empathy is an essential element to ensure genuine communication.
Interesting thoughts. As I've said before, I suspect you may be overestimating the difference between US and Europe. Is that because I don't understand the US, or because you don't understand Europe? In China they have a parable about four blind men experiencing an elephant by touching different parts of it, and coming up with completely different ideas about what they have encountered. We are all like that: we form worldviews based on a grossly limited experience of actual reality, and that's without even taking account of the well-studied cognitive biases that we all have. Both the fact that we have different experiences and the fact that we have different cognitive biases give us a different view of reality. The one thing we can be sure of is that we are both wrong.

That said, I agree that excessive temporising can be unempathetic. Sometimes, people really want to know what you think, and if you disagree then they prefer you to be honest and say so. In fact I think you are such a person: you state your views, and then you like anyone who's interested to state whether we agree, and if not why not. More generally I think that's the kind of discussion it makes sense to have here at IEET: we state our views (in response to articles), and then if people are interested they can state whether they agree, and if not why not. Or sometimes it provokes us to make further comments, and we basically type whatever comes to mind. I do that quite a lot.

But sometimes we get annoyed with each other and then it can become problematic. As I wrote in reply to Giulio, at least we all emerge unscathed (at least physically), but of course we want commenting here to be an enjoyable experience, not an annoying one. And that was part of the motivation for my response to Taiwanlight. I was trying to have an authentic and respectful dialogue with Christian C. about a subject on which he clearly has strong feelings, and I felt it would be helpful to become aware of those feelings. Some people want to know what we think, others just want their own beliefs to be reinforced. As I've said before, some people fear knowledge, and we need to be at least somewhat sensitive to that.
Not much to disagree with here, though perhaps a few things to question. For example, how exactly are you using the word "spiritual". Presumably you are referring to the kind of sensibility that attracts some people to religion. But what is that sensibility, do all religious people necessarily have the same kind of sensibility, and aren't there other ways to express/satisfy such sensibility than what we would usually regard as "religion"?

As an initial attempt at an answer, one might define spirituality in this way as a desire to accept and believe, submit even ("Islam", not so different from Christian worship and self-denial), rather than doggedly asserting oneself, that egotism that indeed makes so many IEETers spill so much metaphorical ink arguing with each other. In other words, a preference for "faith" over doubt and critical reasoning.

But then, isn't transhumanism itself in some ways a faith? You mentioned the Mormons above; aren't the Mormon Transhumanists a perfect answer to your question, "Why would a truly religious person be interested in space colonisation?" What if you think God wants us to colonise space, or that you will find God there, or that you will become God through technology?

Bottom line: there are different ways of being "spiritual", and probably some bizarre and unexpected overlaps between religion and transhumanism. Religion tends to bind people to obsolete worldviews precisely because of the preference for faith over doubt, but then new forms of religion spring up and embrace and solidify more up-to-date ones. It's not obvious to me why transhumanism isn't essentially a case of this happening, except that for the moment it is probably too undisciplined to really cohere. For the moment it's the doubters who are embracing transhumanism, because everyone else is too sold on more traditional viewpoints, but already the faithful are flocking there, which is why the genuine doubters prefer to call themselves technoprogressive.
To some extent I'm fond of religion/spirituality too. I'm even nostalgic for Christian fundamentalism, perhaps especially so. I don't think anyone who hasn't experienced that can really understand the joy that comes along with it, and the "God-shaped hole" (as they like to call it) that is left when one finally takes one's doubts seriously, as I did, and sets about finding a new "faith". Not only is faith (in particular that it's worth the bother) involved in science; it is an essential component of living.

Is religion/spirituality "escapist"? In a sense, yes. Once you start to genuinely grasp radical scepticism, the idea that that we know absolutely nothing for sure, it can be very disconcerting, and it certainly generates an urge to escape. All faith - and I maintain that religion/spirituality can most simply be defined as belief systems that place a lot of emphasis on faith - is an escape from the paralysing uncertainty about whether anything we do has meaning.
@Peter re "I maintain that religion/spirituality can most simply be defined as belief systems that place a lot of emphasis on faith - is an escape from the paralysing uncertainty about whether anything we do has meaning."

I maintain that religion and spirituality, at least my kind of religion and spirituality, is all about the vast, unknown, wonderful, mysterious universe above and inside us. There are more things in heaven and earth, and all that. Faith has very little to do with it - we will go out there and grab or build whatever we want, and this has meaning.
Giulio, any sentence beginning "we will" is an expression of faith.
Peter, I will think about that 😉 😉
Ha ha - well I agree that one didn't take that much faith!
'As I also wrote, we all tend to believe things that make us more comfortable, so if we make it uncomfortable for people to question their beliefs then we will make it less likely, not more likely, that they will do so.'

Agreed, Peter. Simply because I asserted the importance of understanding the dangers of dogma here, it doesn't mean I don't approve of the 'softly, softly catch the monkey' approach.

However, sometimes one is assailed by ideological fanatics and has to be robust in defending oneself. One also has to bear in mind that more assertive pronouncements across the Internet, backed up with evidence can change minds over time.

It seems to me that in recent years, it has become significantly more difficult to start and/or sustain cults and I think the easy access to new ideas and arguments on the Internet, some argued extremely assertively, has had an effect.
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