What “-ist” and isn’t: Atheist, Agnostic, and Other Labels

I am a Neil deGrasse Tyson fan. The man is amazingly smart and quite personable, a combination that can be tricky to find in the world of scientists (I’m an engineer and I work with a lot of them). I also identify as agnostic and am involved in a various skeptic and atheist circles, so, naturally, I was excited to see this big think video with his views on atheism vs. agnosticism:

So that was… interesting. I don’t always disagree with what people smarter than me say, but when I do, I blog about it.

He does start off on a good foot, acknowledging that people placing labels on others, and asserting that they know everything about one’s stances because of said label, isn’t a good way to start conversations. Respecting people’s right to self-identify, even if you disagree, is just basic respect. People editing his wiki to say that he’s an atheist when he identifies as an agnostic are wrong and being disrespectful.

It starts going down hill for me when he starts attempting to differentiate between atheists and agnostics. He posits that the difference between the two is that atheism is a political stance involving active participation while agnosticism is just not knowing whether or not there is a god and being open to the possibility if there is ever evidence there is one. I disagree wholeheartedly with this assertion as a politically active agnostic. I dislike how “non-believers,” a group that includes both atheists and agnostics, are viewed/treated in society and I want to do something to change that. I am vocal about these things because I believe the personal is political. This informs my feminism, my queerness, my blackness, and, yes, my agnosticism.

Conversely, there are many atheists who sit quietly with their belief that there is no god and don’t bother getting political about it. That’s fine too. Arguing that the difference between atheism and agnosticism is how vocal people are about their stance on the existence of supernatural beings just makes no sense. Adding “ist” to the end of a philosophy in order to turn it into a label or descriptor doesn’t automatically assign some level of activism to the labeled person. That’s just not how it works.

It is also bad practice to come to that conclusion as if “the atheists I know are in-your-face and engaged in policy change” translates to all atheists and what atheism is. That’s making the same mistake of attaching the “baggage” that comes with a label to a group and presuming to know all about said group that he, rightly, railed against at the beginning of the video.

Both atheists and agnostics are open to changing their views based on solid evidence proving the existence of gods. The main difference, in my estimation, is that atheists take the lack of evidence for the existence of god(s) to mean there is no god, while agnostics only go so far as to say they can’t prove or disprove the existence of god(s). That’s it. Not level of in-your-face-ness, political engagement, or social activity, just what conclusion you draw (or don’t draw) from a lack of evidence for the existence of god(s). He’s correct that there is significant overlap in the stances of atheists and agnostics, but the difference he posed isn’t a real one.

I think agnostics get called atheists because one can’t claim to believe in god if they aren’t certain god exists. In this way, agnostics are just atheists (people without belief in god) who aren’t committed to the idea that there is no god, and are withholding a conclusion until more evidence for, or against, the existence of god(s) is available.

My main issue with the video was his golf analogy questioning why the term atheist even exists. His argument was that having a term for non-participation in religion was odd since we don’t have have terms for non-participation in other activities. This analogy separated the behavior of many active atheists so far from the relevant social and political contexts that it’s effectively useless. Maybe there’s a blind-spot here – since he’s in the scientific community where being an atheist isn’t seen as taboo or even uncommon – but putting atheism or religion on the same plane as a hobby where there are few adverse social effects for participation or non-participation, is a mistake. In the rest of society, being openly atheist causes people question your morality, trustworthiness, fitness for political office, and worth as a person.

Those social penalties are why people ask if he’s an atheist in an accusatory manner. Those social penalties and the misinformation that often accompanies the anti-atheist (and often anti-science) bias that ends up in policy, are what get people vocal and political about their non-participation in religion. Atheism and agnosticism are more than just non-participation in theist religion, but identities in opposition to the privileged status of being religious. In this way, they’re more analogous to being socially and politically active around other oppositional identities such as being a person of color (being non-white) or being queer (non-heterosexual/non-cisgender). Since being a non-golfer isn’t an “othered” status, there’s no need for the term or for meetings of non-golfers. Each non-golfer can choose a label based on what they are instead of what they aren’t with no repercussions. That’s just not where society is around belief or non-belief.

In wrapping things up, I want to go back to the statements about labels made in the beginning of the video. Treating labels as end-points and short-cuts, as opposed to the starting-points and facilitators of increased understanding they should be, is definitely no way to start a conversation. The problem isn’t labels themselves though, but rather the shut down of intellectual curiosity many people experience when they encounter a label. Labels – when coupled with respect for self-identification – are useful and I don’t think they should be discarded just because people stop thinking once they stumble upon one. Instead, knowing that labels are attached to individuals and each individual differs from another, we should learn to be curious as to how our labels fit ourselves and each other. A label doesn’t make a group a monolith or strip the labeled person of their individuality and other identities. I’m in no way arguing that everyone should be compelled to label themselves, sometimes there just aren’t labels that fit well and declining to label yourself is necessary. In those cases though, we have an opportunity to create and adopt other, better, more accurate labels for ourselves, and that’s pretty awesome too.

All things even, I still think “scientist” is a damn good label.

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~ by hirandnow on August 30, 2012.

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