The Varieties of "Atheism"; plus on Kindle Now, Here's Our New Book The Unofficial Guide to Cosmos
Responding to queries from readers, I'm happy to announce that our book The Unofficial Guide to Cosmos: Fact and Fiction in Neil deGrasse Tyson's Landmark Science Series is out now in a Kindle edition.
To celebrate the occasion, let's consider this tweet from a critic:
@d_klinghoffer No acknowledgement whatsoever that Tyson doesn't call himself an atheist, I see. Unsurprising from the Disco Tute.— MikeTheInfidel (@BoredInfidel) November 2, 2014
Nice try. It's true that Tyson rejects the self-description "atheist," with its connotation of braying, in-your-face activists like Jerry Coyne. Tyson is a more sophisticated type, smarter and more effective in his cause. If I held his picture of reality, one that clearly admits no place for God, and if I wanted to influence and communicate that picture to a broad audience, especially including young people, I too would prefer to be called an "agnostic" rather than an atheist. You're going to have a much bigger impact that way.
For the evangelist and apologist, nothing is gained from using a know-it-all sounding descriptor like "atheist." It's much wilier to call yourself an agnostic, or merely a humble "scientist." That is Tyson's way.
But just watch Cosmos for yourself, as we did, and take careful note of the worldview it seeks to advance, episode by episode, often through peddling untruths, distortions, and assorted "taradiddles."
I've toyed with the idea that it may be fair to distinguish between a lower-case atheist and an upper-case Atheist. The latter might refer to activists like Coyne or Dawkins, who make no bones about their mission to see faith wiped off the map. A lower-case version might be someone like columnist George Will who identifies as an "amiable, low-voltage atheist." He said recently in an interview with Real Clear Religion:
RCR: Do you believe in God?
GW: No. I'm an atheist. An agnostic is someone who is not sure; I'm pretty sure. I see no evidence of God. The basic question in life is not, "Is there a God," but "Why does anything exist?" St. Thomas Aquinas said that there must be a first cause for everything, and we call the first cause God. Fine, but it just has no hold on me.
Regarding his colleague Charles Krauthammer:
RCR: Your friend Charles Krauthammer likes to say he's an agnostic.
GW: I think he's an atheist. He flinches from saying it. I saw what he said: "I don't believe in God, but I fear him greatly." Oh, please!
In the past, George Will has had some uninformed things to say about the evidence for design in nature (e.g., that intelligent design is "not a scientific but a creedal tenet"). But certainly, Will is not on any kind of atheist jihad. On the contrary, he even seems critical of "creeping secularism":
RCR: Do you see a creeping secularism in American culture?
GW: Oh, sure. There's an active hostility to the religious impulse on the part of those who preach tolerance and diversity. But I think religion has withstood tougher opponents than today's secularists.
For the "Atheist," it's clearly an alternative religion, an aggressive conversionary one, performing much the same worldview-forming function that others faiths do for their own believers. For the mere "atheist," that's not necessarily so. There it may simply designate a personal rejection of theism.
Now take a guy like George Will, who is not animated by a strong desire to convince everyone that science edges faith out of the picture. You're going to tell me that someone like that is an atheist but that -- after watching Cosmos with its clear materialist agenda, aimed now at kids in public schools -- someone like Neil Tyson's isn't?
As George Will says of his friend Charles Krauthammer's self-reported agnosticism, "Oh, please!"
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