I have one religious friend.
That's a bad way to start a blog post, because as Kevin Hart once brilliantly said (albeit about black people):

"Nothing is more racist than having one black friend.  Zero black friends is somehow less racist than having one black friend."

He and I get along just fine, thank you very much. He knows I'm an atheist and doesn't bother me about it, and I know he's religious and I don't bother him about it. The reason we both get along so well is mostly that we both recognize that belief (or lack-thereof) is a personal matter and not subject to argument or reasoning, something that many of my fellow atheists fail to realize.

Many people are scared to define themselves as 'Atheists' because of the stigma perpetuated by what I like to call "Anti-theists"; those people you know very well who aren't satisfied with being Atheists themselves, but go around preaching and trying to convert other people as well. Many people think, somewhat justifiably, that those people are just as bad as religious preachers - and it's therefor become a common practice among theists and anti-atheists to define 'Atheism' as a 'religion' because of that group of people who are as strict, militant, and extreme as some religious people are.

Personally I have a problem with both the people who define atheism that way and the people who justify that definition. I'm a 'Live and Let Live' kind of Atheist, and I would like to reclaim the title 'Atheist' from them and restore it back to what it means for me: Not believing in god(s) or any other supernatural force. It is not a 'religion' to me, there aren't any 'rules', there is no dogma and I do not preach. I am an atheist – in the most literal and simple form of the word, and that is all that means.

The Dawkins vs. Tyson approach

Two of the favorite "Atheist Celebrities", at least online, are Richard Dawkins - an evolutionary biologist and the inventor of the word 'Meme', and Neil deGrasse Tyson – an astrophysicist and one of the people responsible for the demotion of 'Pluto' from a planet to a mere dwarf-planet. The two however are vastly different in their approaches to the religious debate.

The former is famous mostly for his anti-religious rants and his almost militant views on theism, while the latter is famous mostly for advocating science literacy. And while most people might think that those two go hand-in-hand, you'll notice how Tyson never said ANYTHING for or against religion – he sticks strictly to science. He is – after all, a scientist.

But Tyson has not just neglected to refer to the subject – he actively refuses to 'take sides' in the 'Theists vs. Atheists' debate. As he puts it:

"Unlike Dawkins, I'm not gonna run around telling people what to believe and what not to believe, I'm not interested in that – that's not my mission."

Tyson even goes as far as criticizing Dawkins' approach straight to his face, saying to him:

"You are a professor of the public understanding of science, not professor of delivering the truth to the public, and these are two different exercises. Persuasion isn't always: "Here are the facts, and then you're either an idiot or you're not", persuasion is "Here are the facts, and here is a sensitivity to your state of mind" – and it's the facts plus that sensitivity that create impact. And I worry that your methods and how articulately barred you can be, end up simply being ineffective when you have much more power of influence than what is currently reflected in your output".

And Tyson makes a very good point: You cannot have a conversation with someone when your entire premise is that they're stupid if they disagree with you, or that their premise is innately wrong. Furthermore, it's Dawkins' approach that causes people to shy away from what might otherwise be a strong and important message about science literacy and understanding. For all we know, Tyson might not even be an atheist! And that's fine.

Belief is and should be personal

Tyson goes on to explain:

"I don't care what you believe – so long as it doesn’t harm another person".

And that's an important line to draw: any freedom – be it the freedom OF religion, the freedom FROM religion, or any other type of freedom – is only defendable so long as it doesn't interfere with other people's more innate freedoms. My freedom to be an atheist shouldn't interfere with other people's freedom to be religious – and for the most part it does not. Sadly, the other way around isn't as clear, as in many societies religious practices and ceremonies are not only supported by the states – they're sometimes even enforced.

It gets even more complicated when you talk about education. Tyson there puts this distinction:

"… However! If what you believe is demonstrably false, and you want to pass it off as true in a science classroom – I have an issue with that. If you want to say it in a religion class – fine… in the "Belief System" class, fine. In the "History of Human Thought" class, fine!"

And that is exactly the kind of distinctions we should be making. People are free to believe what they want, but when a history school teacher in New Jersey tells his students that they will "burn in hell if they don't believe in Jesus Christ" or that "the big bang and evolution are not scientific theories" and that "Noah's Arc carried dinosaurs", that's where the line should be drown – as he's not just passing off his own personal beliefs onto other students, he's doing so under the title of 'history teacher'.

The separation of church and state, or rather "the separation of ignorance from the ranks of schoolteachers" as Tyson better specified it while referring to that particular case, are battles worth fighting for. However, it is not our place to go around telling people that what they believe is or is not true – for after all, so long as it doesn’t interfere with our rights and our freedoms – it's their right to believe whatever the hell they want. The least we can do is respect that, and not do unto them what we would not like them to do unto us: preach.

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Comment by Brian Daurelle on April 23, 2013 at 7:31pm

The important distinction the Tyson-Dawkins dichotomy fails to address (and, which I think both men themselves often fail to address) is that between belief and reason.  It is conceivable for Atheism to be practiced in the same way as a religion, but this has never (to my knowledge) been the case.  This is because a 'strict atheist' does not necessarily have strict or dogmatic beliefs, but rather is strict about trusting logic, scientific methodology and reason in forming beliefs about the world, and is always open to revising his opinions, beliefs and even definitions.

This is the reason that there should be no equation of Evangelizing and trying to propagate atheism, and the reason there's really no difference between Dawkins and Tyson. Their spat is not based on any sort of disagreement about ends, or even methods.  Tyson simply takes a nicer approach, which involves not spelling out the inevitable result of the arguement they're both making, which is that it is irrational to be religious.  He leaves it at giving people the answers to find that out for themselves, while Dawkins simply states the logical imperative that follows from doing this.

I can only emphasize that it is outrageous and incorrect to equate advocacy of critical thinking with militancy or evangelism (despite the phrase Dawkins suggests-- 'Militant Atheism' is an attention-grabber, and Dawkins is as opposed as anyone to actually spreading it via indoctrination or force). Letting falsehood or systematic uncritical though go unchallenged in the name of peoples' feelings provides tacit endorsement to these things. Allowing a little bit of irrationality is no different in principle from allowing a lot of it, and your middling distinctions mean very little. One can be less prigish than Dawkins and Hitchens often are without compromising the basic policy of never letting irrationality go unchallenged.

Comment by Barry Adamson on April 23, 2013 at 10:39pm

Elad, like you and your friend, I feel the same way.  Your post is well said, even though it is clear that a number of people take issue with it, but that is the cost for speaking one's mind.

Comment by Kairan Nierde on April 24, 2013 at 6:46pm

Tolerance of and opposition to religion are each appropriate depending upon the situation. I wouldn't try to reason with the little old lady I met yesterday whose siblings are all terminally ill and who takes comfort in her beliefs in an afterlife/loving god/cosmic justice. Now, say she tried to convert me to her religion, backed the movement to make my nation a theocracy, or tried to restrict my life-style, choices, or opportunities by throwing around her religious 'weight.' In such cases, she would have encounter a very different side of Kairan.   

Comment by Dale Headley on April 24, 2013 at 7:17pm

Atheists should be militant when it's called for, and tolerant when it is not.  Everyone is entitled to his or her religious beliefs and should not be confronted about them.  But when theists inflict harm on individuals (like the woman who let her babies die), or society (like the promotion of ignorance in the public schools), those beliefs should be ridiculed mercilessly. 

Comment by Unseen on June 2, 2016 at 9:58pm

"Nothing is more racist than having one black friend.  Zero black friends is somehow less racist than having one black friend."


I have one black friend and one East Indian friend. I guess I'm a super-racist.

Some people simply are more social than others. Suppose you have one black friend but you only really have four real friends, for example. 

Anyway, how many black friends you have is irrelevant. 

What's relevant is what kind of friend you are to your black friend.

Comment by Pope Beanie on June 3, 2016 at 4:27pm

Great thread, surprised I missed this 3 yrs ago. Thx, Unseen. I just happened to be about to post a link to an excellent, very recent podcast with Tyson where he eloquently covers this (militancy) topic, and even explains why he never brings up the topic about being black.


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