Monday, April 30, 2012

Perpetuating Stigma

Now, normally I'm full of hype about Neil deGrasse Tyson. I found his point on God as a "perimeter of ignorance" right on target (although I would take it a step further perhaps). I will post on that another time. I find the man charismatic and I honestly think, and have said in the past, that he is the best person to be the new voice of a revised Cosmos (Pluto hatred aside). Everything about Neil deGrasse Tyson makes me happy...


And then there is this...

Neil deGrasse Tyson Thinking Small on "Think Big"

I am a skeptic. That means I go to great pains to avoid knowledge claims - especially about concepts that are stipulated to be immune to any sort of verification/refutation. However, I also do not believe in god(s), which is what one would expect from someone who "does not assent" to claims. That is a sufficient condition to make me an atheist.

I think Dr. Tyson is being muddled here - allowing the religious to define "atheism" for him and rejecting atheism based on that agenda-ridden definition. To Tyson, I would ask this: "You know, I don't want to be thought of as any kind of "-ism." Is there a word for people who are anti-racists? Because I don't want to be called it, lest I be associated with an "-ism." Never mind that I am such a person. Do you think that's the proper approach?"

Of course you don't, Dr. Tyson.

Tyson needs to understand that his science relies entirely on a environment of inquiry, scientific and otherwise. Yes, there are dogmatic atheists in the world, but they are becoming much fewer and farther between now, and, generally, they rest of the atheist community is working to correct them. The important point is that looking at theism's and atheism's track record for providing, endorsing and permitting an environment of free inquiry, including scientific inquiry, the history seems to indicate (unequivocally) which is more inquiry friendly.

To be fair, atheism is often seen as another (contradictory to theism) knowledge claim about a stipulation (God) that does not admit of any verification/refutation. As a (real, epistemic) skeptic, I balk at that too.

However, atheists have begun to define themselves now, and we are defining it as a "lack of belief in/of god(s)," thereby moving it from a knowledge claim to a belief state (not a belief; a belief state) - which is quite different, and much more defensible against certain theistic noises. There are dogmatic atheists in the world still, but that's part of the move from the theistic definition (designed to create confusion) and the more coherent new definition of atheism, and the atheist community is busily correcting the dogmatic atheists now. Nowadays, agnosticism and atheism are being seen as separate issues about separate subject matters.

By publicly declaring he does not want to be called an atheist, Tyson is not merely declaring he doesn't want to be claimed by atheism, he is adopting and perpetuating a definition of atheism that has been imposed upon us by theists for millennia, and in the process, Tyson is reinforcing and perpetuating an artificial stigma against atheists. We atheists are striving to move beyond that theist-imposed definition of atheism. It is declarations like Tyson's that hold us back.

Now, if Tyson doesn't want anything to do with the dogmatic atheist, that's his business, but to help atheism evolve into a more coherent form, the best course of action is not to support old incoherent stipulations, but rather to join in the negotiation of a more coherent understanding of atheism. The same mind that brought us god as the "perimeter of ignorance" might have something to offer atheism if he were prepared to set aside the theistic, agenda-ridden definition of atheism. I find Tyson's unwillingness to even try intensely disappointing. I find his pandering to a definition that keeps atheists marginalized and stigmatized infuriating.

On the other hand, if Tyson is unwilling to consider atheism qua "lack of belief" then let's get him out of the frontier, leading edge of conversation about atheism. He won't be the one advancing the subject matter...*

*Yes, this was a parody of Tyson's own depiction of God-believers at the frontier edge of scientific exploration.


  1. I love when atheists find out their heroes no longer suit their personal bias. They get so offended. NGT is clearly saying that no matter how much the atheist community tries to prop him up as some savior, his professional and personal role is as a scientist and educator. He has no need for nor interest in the baggage that atheism carries, assembled by both theists AND militant anti-theists alike. Now watch how quickly he is defamed and degraded from prominence as a rational humanist intellectual, simply for betraying the assumptions of certain atheists.

  2. Is that what you think this is about? Offence? Perhaps my analogy wasn't clear - this is not about anyone being disgruntled, this is about the social function and effects of definitions of atheism.

    If, as you say, Tyson in not interested in the "baggage" then, as I said, the proper response is to engage in the negotiation of definitions involved in a constructive manner, in order to address whatever "baggage" his issue with it is. That is what I do. The stance Tyson adopts, publicly expressed, enters into the discussion in a negative, destructive way. He has not set himself outside of the discussion - he has fallen in line with an misunderstanding of atheism that vilifies and stigmatizes atheism and atheists, reinforcing and perpetuating that misunderstanding.

    The other option would be to just remain silent, but he chose to not do that. He didn't have to say what he said. He could have remained silent, but he chose to wade in - on the side of a definition of atheism that maintains the very baggage he claims to be trying to avoid.

    I, and many, many others, define atheism as a lack of belief in god(s). This is actually the removal of baggage by removing additional content, allowing for views like humanism to become options - something prohibited in "primacy of god" theist thinking.

    Of course, among rational thinkers, there are no untouchable "heroes." No one is above critique. If Tyson were to read this blogpost, I suspect he might disagree, perhaps even dislike it, but I would be very much surprised if he were to say hero-worship avoidance of discussion were appropriate or warranted.


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