What If Atheists Were Defined By Their Actions?

Jan 7, 2015

Mark Poprocki/iStockphoto

By Tania Lombrozo

We classify people in all sorts of ways.

Some categories are based on a person’s beliefs: A theist, for instance, is a person who believes in one or more gods. Some categories are based on behavior: A vegetarian, for example, is a person who doesn’t eat animals. And some categories seem to straddle beliefs and behavior: Being politically conservative could be defined in terms of beliefs, but also in terms of corresponding behaviors, such as voting for conservative political candidates or donating one’s time or money to conservative causes.

These different ways of defining categories of people — and in particular the category “atheist” — form the backdrop to an interesting episode of the Rationally Speakingpodcast in which co-hosts Julia Galef and Massimo Pigliucci query astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on his resistance to identifying (or being identified) as an atheist.

For Tyson, eschewing the atheist label is not a matter of rejecting core atheist beliefs — he admits that he’s not compelled by any arguments that have ever been put forth for the existence of God, and he accepts Pigliucci’s suggestion that we’re just as warranted in rejecting the existence of God as in rejecting the existence of unicorns. Rather, for Tyson the matter is one of behavior. The inferences that people make when classifying him as an atheist don’t align well, he feels, with his frequent choice of Jesus Christ Superstar as musical accompaniment on family drives, or with his habit of standing for the “Hallelujah” chorus of Handel’s Messiah. He has as much interest in meeting with other people to discuss their absence of belief in God as in meeting with non-golfers to talk about their absence of a passion for watching golf. In short, he doesn’t take himself to exhibit the behaviors typically associated with being an atheist.


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20 comments on “What If Atheists Were Defined By Their Actions?

  • I do understand Tyson’s sentiment somewhat. I don’t like to be labeled an atheist simply because I think it is a religious label. Not that I think atheism is a religion, but it is a label given by religions to people who do not subscribe to their particular fairy tale. And typically it is only the latest fads, i.e. the nonsense people currently believe in that is given the label “atheist”. Nobody is called an atheist for not believing in Zeus or Quetzalcoatl. It’s also notable that nobody is given a label for not believing in other supernatural stuff. There are, as far as I know, no labels for not believing in witches or leprechauns. Gods have the same status as any other supernatural entity: they do not exist, so why should I be given a special name for not believing in them if there is no more evidence for them as there is for any other inexistent thing people dream up?



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  • 2
    maria melo says:

    I absolutely agree, there is no label for a-santa-claus for instance.
    But indeed, it seems that there are people that define all their lives just to argument against the existence of God, I don´t, even if technically I am not a believer myself.
    Didn´t read the article however (as I will, of course).



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  • Why don’t you like Golf? What’s wrong with you. How can you even claim to be a good person. The more you like golf, the more people will like you and will hang out with you. You should really, really try to like Golf. And in fact if you don’t, we won’t be friends anymore. Everybody likes Golf. Don’t deny it. Deep inside, you really like golf, but you just haven’t really tried it honestly. You should try harder. Even cricketers like golf, but we don’t really talk about those weirdoes. Everything we do, we do it for golf.

    Golf is love, golf is life.

    … And that’s why I’m an anti-golfer.



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  • Sorry, folks. I don’t love you ‘cos you are godless, I love you (variously and more or less) because you are moral, rational, educated, moral, pro-secular and most of all moral. I hate godless communities, because the creation of us and them communities is part of the godly religious problem.

    I know this is easy for a Brit to say. I meet fewer and fewer religious types and those that I do are private, non proselitising types indistinguishable from any other decent folk.

    Beleaguered American atheists, maybe with their mind forged manacles newly struck off, could well need a little more shelter. But try not to depend on others too much or for too long. Think beyond being a mere minority.



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  • But the feeling you get, after a hundred terrible shots, when you hit that perfect ball a few inches from the hole makes it all worth while. The prospect of that hole in one, that proves you are better than your mates, is the belief that keeps you going. And, if you reach a certain level, you can play on the holiest of grounds surrounded by other chosen people just like you.



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  • 7
    KrustyG says:

    At the end of the Unbelievers, or maybe it’s in the DVD extras, someone asks RD what he hopes the future of the atheist movement is. He replies that he’d like to see no need for the movement at all, that we move beyond these non-labels. As pointed out many times, there are no aleprechaunists or aZeusists; there shouldn’t even be a need for the label atheist.

    But in the current religion-centred world, it is an unfortunate fact that such labels do indeed exist. As ridiculous as it sounds, theists just don’t get it, since everything is black and white, us or them, in-group or out-group, since we’re not one of them, there must be an ‘us’ group of atheists that we all belong to. Yet nobody considers how strange it would be to characterize the behaviour and beliefs of all people who don’t golf or collect stamps. For example, aside from atheism, I doubt one could find any common thread among RDFers, we all have different political leanings, dietary habits, musical tastes. (I suppose we’re all lovers of science and logic, which counts for a lot; maybe I need to retract that last thought.)

    I think false dichotomy is a huge part of the problem, but it might be built into the human psyche. Most religious people seem to think the world really is black and white. Try to talking about science to someone who doesn’t understand probabilities or complexity and you’re looking at the equivalent of a stunned deer in headlights.



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  • 8
    KrustyG says:

    And for the record, the only version of JC Superstar worth listening to is the original with Ian Gillan as Jesus. Wow, that man can sure belt out the vocals like nobody else. Also, JC Superstar is just fine from an atheist point of view, since the story is told through the eyes of Judas, who committed suicide after the crucifixion, so the tale ends without a resurrection, reducing JC to just another (fictional) person telling us we should live in peace and harmony.



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  • Atheism says nothing at all about how one lives one’s life and gives no insight into what one thinks about other subjects. It’s simply a statement that the supernatural does not exist.



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  • In the USA, claiming to be atheist is roughly as dangerous as claiming to be a child molester. You will unlikely every be elected. The general public do not even know what it means. It seems you can explain your beliefs and then add “but I am not an atheist” and you escape most of the calumny. It is sort of like the knee jerk reaction to socialists or communists while simultaneously claiming to take Jesus literally. It is the word atheist that seems to trigger the reaction.



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  • 12
    CdnMacAtheist says:

    Obzen – I’m just not into Golf – apart from the 2 VW GTI’s I’ve owned – but I do ‘Like’ this Commentary…. 😎

    Happy New Year to all my friends at RDFRS and, with so much sadness & concern, “Je Suis Charlie”…!



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  • This is not a bad idea. The word “atheist” does have negative connotations which are hard to overcome in the minds of many regardless of the “openly secular” effort. Plus, from an outsider’s perspective, it seems that there are almost as many different kinds of atheists as there are religious denominations. Perhaps, different names for different groups would help encourage more acceptance. Given how atheists can range all over the spectrum when it comes to issues, one word to describe them may not do them justice.



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  • 15
    bonnie says:

    the word atheist

    U.S. catch-22; when pressed, we can shrug and wave our hands (thereby not acknowledging Atheism), or boldly state I am an Atheist, anti-theist and watch the fit hit the shan.

    A thought, and broad generalization – engage more high profile Atheist spokeswomen.



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  • Jesus Christ Superstar is imo a completely non-theist musical. it’s a disspassionate look at the creation of a new cult while drawing paralels between attitudes in the past and present.

    in fact, i list it as one of my key “moments” on my journey to atheism

    I was unaware Ian Gillan was the original Jesus though. I shall definitely look out for the original album (think my copy is the movie soundtrack). Thanks for the tip KG



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  • I agree, but trying to find one word that sums up my world view that has not been loaded with partisan baggage by, mainly, the supernaturalists is frustratingly difficult.

    I am currently favouring ‘Phylnat’ as a contraction of Philosophical naturalism.

    Philosophical naturalism is essentially the logical result of methodological naturalism, the doctrine which assumes that there is no way to contact, detect, or otherwise empirically observe the supernatural. Methodological naturalists believe the scientific method to be the only way to determine the truth. Because supernatural, intelligent forces, if they exist, are claimed to be unpredictable and hence unrepeatable, these naturalists must ignore the possibility of supernatural or magical intervention in the physical world.

    Philosophical naturalists take these beliefs one step further and reject the existence of the supernatural altogether, citing the utter lack of empirical evidence. Due to the absence of scientific evidence backing up religion, most philosophical naturalists are also atheists.

    I would suggest that this way of looking at theist claims and arguements puts the burden of proof firmly on them, before any discussion can begin.




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  • 20
    Anthony says:

    In response to the comment: “He has as much interest in meeting with other people to discuss their absence of belief in God as in meeting with non-golfers to talk about their absence of a passion for watching golf.”
    That is well and good, but he would (and should) take a different stance if golfers tried to violently force the rest of the world to play golf by terrorising, bombing or killing those who didn’t (watch out all you golf cartoonists). True, this means the discussion is less about non-belief and more about the consequences of others believing. Recent events mean non-believers are practically forced to take a stance, and so they should, in order to stem the cancerous spread of ignorant indoctrination. Otherwise the apathetic voice of reason will be drowned out. This is especially important in a society where it is frowned upon to be a non-believer, and where those who seek any kind of office must pretend to be people of Faith, social attitudes and norms will never change if atheists remain silent. I agree that the term ‘atheist’ is already negatively stigmatised and is too often incorrectly associated with cold and non-loving, non-caring or immoral people. This attitude needs to change before most non-believers would allow themselves to be labelled atheists. ‘Non-believer’ sounds less confrontational as a term.



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