In these two videos [1,2], prominent non-believers  Neil deGrasse Tyson and Sam Harris reject the denomination “atheist” as not only inaccurately and/or misleadingly portraying their views on the (non) existence of God, but also, according to them, of little content or use, and even potentially pernicious.
The Oxford Dictionary defines Atheism as “Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods”. Now, why would two intelligent, articulate and highly educated individuals of the calibre of Mr. deGrasse Tyson and Mr. Harris, who have repeatedly, clearly and uncompromisingly asserted their unbelief in the existence of a God, defined in just about any way possible, so adamantly wish to distance themselves from the one word that would appear to capture such a stance most clearly, simply and unambiguously?
Of course, these are just two particularly noteworthy cases; I routinely hear statements from non-believers, including personal friends, such as “I do not believe in God but do not call myself an Atheist”… “you cannot affirm with absolute certainty that something does not exist… I would rather say that I am an Agnostic”. I have never understood such distinctions; to me, people who insist on them almost sound in denial, regarding their own atheism. Isn’t lack of belief just that — lack of belief? It is a yes or no proposition. Either one believes or one does not. What difference do the reasons for not believing make, or the degree with which one is confident in, or at ease with one’s own scepticism?
After all, doubts on the existence of anything are ultimately motivated by the lack of credible evidence for it. If and when robust evidence should finally become available, reasonable and rational individuals (believers and atheists alike) would be morally and intellectually required to accept it, and consequently reconcile their positions with it.
That is why I was curious to hear the reasons behind the reluctance of both Mr. deGrasse Tyson and Mr. Harris to accept such seemingly obvious definition.
Give me a break…
The basic argument that they both make in these videos (and in others), is that there is no need for a word that defines one through an activity in which one does not partake, or a conviction that one does not share. “We do not have a word for those who do not believe in astrology”, states Mr. Harris; Mr. deGrasse Tyson pushes the humour even further, by pointing out how we do not have a name for individuals who do not play golf, much less do said individuals feel any need to form associations, holding regular meetings to discuss or celebrate their abstention from golfing…
Er… excuse me, guys, whom are you kidding?
Seriously, do you really need to be explained that a word to describe those who do not play golf is not needed for the simple reason that the vast majority of us do not play golf? Has it really never occurred to you that we make daily use of a host of adjectives, in every context, characterizing persons, concepts or even objects, precisely based on their deviation from what is regarded (possibly just at that historical time) as the norm, the default option? Without causing any raising of eyebrows, we routinely say, of people or things, that they are apathetic, apolitical, asexual, asymmetric, amoral, aseptic and so on and so forth — even (how funny is that) agnostic.
An analogy might help here. I have never had the honour and pleasure of meeting either Mr. Harris or Mr. deGrasse Tyson; all I know of them is what I have read in their books, or from their public speaking. And yet, I do not believe for a moment that either one would object to me calling myself a “vegetarian”, just like the many others like me do, who do not eat meat. If you think about it, vegetarian is very much another word the defines one exactly by exclusion, i.e., by means of what one does not do. Is it a pointless word? Hardly.
After all, the overwhelming majority of people do eat meat, and (perhaps lazily but understandably) assume that the rest do too — unless otherwise informed. Now, most of us would rather not be in the awkward situation of refusing food tendered to us by friends or hosts, whom we elected to keep unaware of our dietary preference until the very last moment, because of some philosophical resistance to “defining ourselves through what we do not eat” — in fact, we would almost certainly be regarded as rude, and for good reasons, were we to do that consistently.
Besides avoiding that kind of embarrassment, the use of the word “vegetarian” simplifies the life of many of us in other ways, as it lets us quickly identify our preferred aisle at the supermarket, find restaurants, cook books etc. There is no argument here, nor is there anything controversial about this word; it is simply a matter of common sense.
What is the difference?
But the same, identical considerations apply to “atheism” and “atheist”. The word atheism comes from the Greek atheos — a– which stands for without, no, absence of , and theos, i.e., God. And really, that is all that it means, namely that those of us who qualify themselves in this way do not believe in the existence of any deity, much less worship or pray to any of them. It is really that simple. And so, for example, the moment you check the box that says “None” in response to a question about your religious belief, whether you like it or not you are de facto calling yourself an atheist.
It has absolutely no other implications; things like, certainty of the non-existence of God, contempt toward those who believe, support of forcible eradication of religion from society, as well as a myriad of other social and political stands routinely (often dishonestly) attached to the word atheism, as if they were an almost integral part of its definition, are in fact completely foreign to it .
In a world where something like 84% of the population abide by some kind of religious belief, and comports itself consequently, it makes eminent sense to have a word to distinguish those of us in the minority, who take exception from what is otherwise an almost universal rule.
Much like eating meat, because religious beliefs are by far the norm, they are also assumed — hence the need to opt out for those who do not wish to be included. That is what the word is for. If religious people were the minority, there would be no need for it. As it is, the need is self-evident, and we are reminded of that every day.
Now, I am not going to fault either Mr. Harris or Mr. deGrasse Tyson, both citizens of the United States, by far one of the most secular countries in the world, for being possibly unaware that a lot of foreign governments are very much interested in the religious affiliation of those who wish to spend extended periods of time in those countries. Neither one probably ever had to fill out an application for a residence permit in, say, Germany (like I had to do last year), in which I had to state my religious beliefs or lack thereof (it may come as a surprise to Mr. Harris and Mr. deGrasse Tyson that no interest was shown in my favourite astrologer, much less was I asked whether I own a Big Bertha).
Aside from the several, well-known theocracies that exist on this planet, where non-believers could be prosecuted, even in most western European countries a religious belief is still assumed by default. In Italy, the country where I was born and grew up (in spite of everything still regarded as a modern democracy), weekly hours of broadcasting on public television are devoted to religion. As a result of a 1929 agreement between fascist dictator Mussolini and the Vatican, Catholic religion is taught in public schools, and parents who do not wish that their children be indoctrinated have to request that they be excused. Indeed, albeit the administration thereof differ across countries, religion is taught in public schools just about everywhere in Europe.
Some European countries have, or have had until recently, religious references in their constitutions; a lot of political parties have the adjective “Christian” in their name, including the ruling party of what is arguably the strongest European economy (Germany); its leader has made no mystery of wanting to see the Christian roots of Europe engraved in the EU constitution (nope, no reference to astrology or golf here either).
I could go on and on but, seriously, is there really a need?
What’s the real reason?
That two highly influential public figures, two intellectuals widely (and rightfully) held in high esteem like Mr. Harris and Mr. deGrasse Tyson, would come up with such an incredibly simplistic, bizarre, and frankly ridiculous argument for the removal from discourse of a word that dates back to ancient Greece, is disconcerting. One has no choice but to assume that there must be other reasons, which they would prefer not to disclose or discuss.
In fairness to Mr. deGrasse Tyson, he actually does say, awkwardly but quite honestly, why he would rather not be called an atheist . The reason is the usual one; the word “atheist” is not as accepted, uncontroversial and harmless as “vegetarian” or “agnostic”, as well as many others that fall in the same category (i.e., define through negation), none of which cause any stir. The desire here is clear not to be associated with groups that are unpopular, comprising people branded as “extremists”, closeness to whom may tarnish one’s reputation and/or respectability. Same reason a lot of left-wing individuals would rather not be called “socialists”.
I cannot blame those who have the aspiration to be popular, well-liked, household names, opinion makers, political leaders, talk show hosts, or highly sought after public speakers, for wanting to be perceived as “moderate”, for distancing themselves from extremists (unfounded, unfair and dishonest as such a characterization may be, and often is).
Personally, however, I think that the rest of us atheists should accept what we are, without being either proud or ashamed of it. We should give our religious friends credit. In my experience, very, very few of them will repudiate us for this reason, and those who do are probably not worth keeping as friends (and heck, who am I to judge, I myself do not speak to Juventus fans… kidding!).
I remain convinced that one should state one’s opinions and positions clearly, and calling spade a spade, using the right words, is a crucial part of it. The right word for a person with no belief in any gods is atheist (look it up if you do not believe me).
Any degree of dilution, hesitation, fence sitting, does not do anything for the opinions that one is (declaredly) trying to advocate. It shows weakness, and provides gratuitous and undeserved legitimacy to the most extremely intolerant arguments coming from the opposite sides. So, I think on this one I find myself much closer to someone like Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens, or the great philosopher Stephen Colbert, whom I quote:
“Agnostics are just atheists without balls”
 I hope that at least this definition is acceptable…
 Many modern languages at least partly rooted in Greek still maintain that, including English.
 There is something vaguely Freudian in how he states that he would rather not be associated with “atheists”, i.e., people who do things like, “forming associations”, “holding meetings”; he does not want to be assigned “all the baggage” that comes with that… hearing his words, one is almost led to think of secret congregations, dark rituals, fanatic, mentally disturbed individuals (very much playing into the absurd rhetoric with which many believers relentlessly try to paint atheists). He claims that there is a distinction between “agnostic” and “atheist”, but does not explain what it is, and in fact funnily enough a few seconds later concedes that there may be no difference after all. And then he goes on to state that he would much rather be called a “scientist”, an “astrophysicist”, an “educator”. Well, guess what, Neil, scientists, astrophysicists and educators form associations too, and you belong to some of them; they too hold meetings, which you frequently attend; there is baggage, there are plenty of stereotypes about them too, and I am sure you resent them like the rest of us; and I am sure that you find many of your fellow scientists, astrophysicists and educators, real jerks, much like there are jerks among atheists.
What is your point, again?