Book Review and Labels

First, thanks so much to Lisa for her review of Growing Up Godless. She’s an intelligent writer and book reviewer, and it means a lot to me that she gave the book a thumbs up.

Second, with the popularity of Cosmos, I wanted to share this video with Neil deGrasse Tyson answering the question, “Atheist or Agnostic”? I understand his concern with labels, especially with the hostility between believers and nonbelievers. What are your thoughts? Does his stance help the secular movement or hurt it?


17 responses to “Book Review and Labels

  1. I just watched the video by Neil deGrasse Tyson. I completely relate to his wanting to just be, without any labels or being judged. That’s what I want too. However, I don’t agree with his sterotyping of atheists. As one of the comments said on youtube, maybe he has been too busy to research the topic, therefore he seems a bit ignorant. I don’t really consider myself an atheist, maybe more agnostic or just one who doesn’t want a label, but I did feel like he was not very well informed about atheists and based his comments on the extremist side of atheism. Prior to Cosmos, I had never known of him. I do think I like him and think he’s a very well-educated man. It would be nice to see him become more educated on this topic as well 🙂

  2. Interesting, Debbie,

    I have been a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson for many months now. I’m wondering if this video is gaining popularity because of Cosmos. Maybe he’s feeling the brunt of religious opposition to the program for he speaks about the earth being dramatically older than what the creationists speculate. As a result, he feels it’s necessary for him to explain himself.(?)

    I understand why he’s reluctant in giving himself a label because people do have super strong opinions about atheists. However, I am an atheist, but not many people know about it in my big ass red state, nor anywhere else. I don’t picket anything and I haven’t threaten anyone. I’m just trying to figure out how to get out of religious discussions with strangers and acquaintances. I’m only comfortable discussing atheism and religion with other non believers or with the few super close friends that I have. I’m married and a stay at home mom with little kids living in the suburbs. I’m not in anyone’s face about being an atheist. I don’t even debate religion, philosophy, evolution, morality or politics on Christian blogs.

    Now off to see Lisa’s review. 🙂

    • Charity, the video is actually from 2012, but I think you’re right in saying its going viral now because of Cosmos.

      • Thanks, John. For some reason that makes me feel better, I don’t know why. I think he’s just trying to be as objective as possible. I admit, I’m selfish, I was hoping he’s an atheist.

  3. Dr. Tyson has been a part of many programs that were addressing the religion and science issue as part of his larger goal of being a science promoter. I think it is clear if you see more of these videos that he is anti-religion, but for that matter, he is a scientist, and most scientist are anti-philosophy as well.

    The scientific ethos is about maintaining a healthy skepticism until a hypothesis can be ran through the scientific method. This basically requires his position as agnostic. The thing about god, the nature of the definition of God is such that it cannot be ran thought the scientific method. Only the claims that God has interacted in some natural way can be tested, and falsifying those claims still leaves the does a god exist question unscathed.

    I think he is being completely sincere in that video you posted, he doesn’t want to claim atheist, but he also has to consider his professional public opinion as a science presenter and occasional advisor to congress and such.

    If you want to see how he feels about religion in general, here are two links. One is an 10 minute clip taken from the other which is about 45 minutes of him discussing the negative impact of religion on human intellectual progress past and present. He is absolutely against that. The longer video is totally worth the watch because it is packed full of good information.

    Full video:
    Shorter video:

    I don’t think his position or even his attitude towards atheists bothers the secular movement in the least. He actually probably does more to promote secular values by promoting science than any atheist debater or activist including Dawkins or Harris. No one person will shift the tide to secularism by figuring out the absolute best approach to the problem. The secular world needs all kinds coming at this issue from many directions sort of chipping away of the dogmatism of religious ideologies.

    Just my thoughts.

  4. Tyson got a lot of criticism for that statement about agnostic vs. atheist. However, I agree with him. I’m really never quite sure what to call myself, and for the same reason of not wanting to be labeled.

  5. I like the video with Neil deGrasse Tyson for how it proposes people should be able to have an open conversation about religious beliefs not “label” someone. My daughter attends a Catholic school (through 8th grade). She brought home an essay last year in 6th grade that she wrote about our family’s beliefs, in which she talks about how we are Atheists (I had told her we were Agnostic but she got the words mixed up). At first I was worried because Atheist sounded so final. Would they judge us differently, try to convert us, etc.? (I always filled the enrollment form out as “non-affiliated”) Then I decided I really didn’t care what the label was. As long as my daughter is getting a good education and is treated with respect for who she is then I’m good. She has been attending the school for nine years and they have never tried to convert us (whew!). I want her to grow up in a world that is okay with asking questions, having a debate but still be friendly, be in awe of the wonders of the world and find joy in the moment, because we don’t really know what will happen next. 🙂

  6. Ismael Benitez

    “Agnostics are just atheists without balls.” – Stephen Colbert

    First, I would like to apologize in advance for any misspellings and errors. English is my second language. –

    What are your thoughts?
    Most agnostics reject the label of atheist, there is a common perception that agnosticism is a more “reasonable” position while atheism is more “dogmatic”.

    Agnosticism is the view that the truth values of certain claims, especially claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, as well as other religious and metaphysical claims,
    are unknown or unknowable.

    I strongly think that agnostics are intellectually dishonest.

    A personal beliefs (religious or otherwise) should not interfere with the pursuit of truth. Relevant facts and information are not purposefully omitted even when such things may contradict one’s hypothesis.

    Intentionally committed fallacies in debates and reasoning is not acceptable.

    Does his stance help the secular movement or hurt it?

    It does hurt it, in one hand he is saying “follow the evidence”, and then he said “hey!!! I am agnostic. If faith and believes have no foundation in facts, it’s worthless. And I don’t want/need them.

    I am an atheist and anti-theist. I just followed the evidence.

    Take care,


  7. I don’t think he either hurts or helps, necessarily, the secular movement. Having escaped a high-control, cult-like religion, I understand that different approaches appeal to different people. There is no right way. Many people I know really responded to Richard Dawkins. While I thoroughly appreciate Dawkins today, when I was journeying out of the quagmire of religious belief, his approach did not work for me. Ironic, since I’m more like a Dawkins than a Tyson today.

    I responded to satire. Weird, maybe, but humor and satire that is intelligent allowed me to lower my guard and more safely explore taboo ideas. Tim Minchin really made me think with his lyrics. He kind of blew me away, actually, and I couldn’t stop thinking. Bill Maher often made me laugh, and I finally realized I was laughing because I was agreeing. Many aspects of belief were ridiculous to me, but I couldn’t embrace that knowledge, and it helped a great deal to have someone simply state it very bluntly, while making me laugh. This led me to start my own satirical (onion style) blog, and it’s very fulfilling to watch it do the job I sent it out to do.

    Tyson will appeal to a different group of people. We are all working for the same thing. We aren’t working for atheism (I hope) but for secular government, education, and critical thinking. In this context, being an agnostic is perfectly reasonable.

    As far as the label, he is correct. Stereotypes grow up around labels. I constantly try to tell other atheists to be careful with this. I have watched atheists debate Christians about creation or accused them of being anti-science, when in fact, they weren’t. Many Christians accept evolution and science. Why does this happen? Because when we hear Christian, we immediately assume we are dealing with a bible literalist. Many believers, when they hear atheist, make assumptions too. They have built their own stereotypes, and when we do that, we no longer hear the person but hear what we anticipate they will say and filter everything they do say through that bias.

    This battle requires many different approaches, and most of them are valuable.

    • @callheadquarters Thank you for your insights. Do you want to share your onion-style blog link here?

      • Hi, Deborah. Sure! That’s kind of you. The blog is Jehovah’s Trumpet. It will appeal most to ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses because the material is so specific to them. Even the words I choose are loaded with implied meanings that they get right away.

        The interesting thing to watch is how they discuss the articles. A kind of mini-culture has grown where they will comment in a satirical spirit making up their own little stories. I love it. Occasionally, I visit discussion forums where they are talking about the ‘articles’. I put on my Jehovah’s Trumpet hat (zealous Jehovah’s Witness) and basically tell those that have left the religion that I pray every day for their slaughter and the slaughter of 7 billion men, women, children and babies. Because when we boil it down to the very basics, that’s exactly what every Jehovah’s Witness prays for—Armageddon. Of course, they don’t see it that way because they aren’t thinking.

        Yet, the absolute best thing is when an active Jehovah’s Witness jumps on a forum and DEFENDS the monsters I write about. They don’t catch that it’s satire, and they will quote the bible and argue that my characters made the right decision.

        Okay, you allowed me to post my site, and I’ve taken up six inches on your page! Thank you. Congratulations on your book. What I’ve seen of it is wonderful. I’ve also posted links to Amazon in several places and told groups that would find it interesting a little about it. I hope they pick up a copy.


        • Hi Susan, That’s a nice-looking site. Do you do all that yourself? With the length of the articles (and writing in satire!) it must take up a lot of time! Good luck with it! I will follow you on FB.

          • Thanks, Deborah. Yes, I do it all myself. It’s been a learning experience for sure, but I can use what I know now to launch another blog that will focus on some of my fiction. Thank you for following.

  8. I do not believe in any deities – thus I am an atheist whether I like the label or not. An unbeliever works fine with me as well.

  9. Great comments everyone. It’s interesting how different posts resonate with different readers.

    I think he helps the movement, regardless of the label he uses. He is focusing on science and facts and dispelling myth and superstition. Though I certainly understand why he doesn’t want to attach himself to a label.

  10. I understand Tyson’s position, and it’s probably the best one for him if he wants to maintain as wide an audience as possible. Labeling himself an atheist might well alienate those believers who would otherwise listen to him. But he and they are wrong if they think all atheists are militant New Atheist activists.

    I can’t speak for others, but my position is just like his. I don’t have the time or interest necessary to be an atheist activist, just as I don’t have the time or interest to be an non-golfer activist, non-banker activist, or non-LGBT activist. The only difference between us is that what Tyson described is basically a passive, non-activist atheist; he calls that agnosticism. I call it either, or both, or neither. I don’t care enough to label it and call it anything.

  11. I have argued that being an ‘atheist agnostic’ is easily a defensible position. I have no belief in any god or gods (atheist), and I see no evidence either way (agnostic). We are all us probably ‘agnostic’ regarding leprechauns or unicorns, yet don’t get bogged down with terminology in our lack of belief/disbelief in them.

    NdGT is easily a ‘weak’ atheist –

    see –

    I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.

    ~ Bertrand Russell

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