Call it identity politics, or the politics of identity, we all crave, in at least some small way, to identify with something outside of ourselves.
Think about how happy you are to inform friends that your favorite movie star or musician supports the same cause, charity, or social issue you do.
Same applies to being a fan of a sports team or athlete – full disclosure, I’m a Bronco fan! I’ve just identified myself with a group. Right thinking people will now accept me as a fan, part of the club. Wrong thinking people, especially Raider fans, now see me as an enemy (or at the very least, an enemy sympathizer). Don’t get me started on the differences between Auburn and Alabama fans!
It also applies to politics. As Republicans and Democrats, by announcing who you identify with, you’ve staked out a position – who you’re with, who you’re against. You’ve communicated a tremendous amount of personal information and belief based on that label.
Of course that information can be followed by the ever important “but,” or “however,” to draw a line to where you’re affiliation ends. A person could say: “I’m a Republican, but I support marriage equality.” An important qualifier – you now know that person is not dogmatically attached to the party leash, and has an independent streak to them. On the flip side, “I’m a Democrat, but I support the 2nd Amendment.” As though identifying as a Democrat requires further explanation that they actually support the Constitution…
Saying you’re independent is akin to calling yourself an agnostic or “spiritual.” Too far on the fence…(pick a side!)
I found it interesting the other day, listening to a podcast of StarTalk Radio – where Neil deGrasse Tyson was interviewing Morgan Freeman. The conversation turned to science (as it always does) and Freeman mentioned that although he has a healthy interest in science, he would not claim to be a scientist. Tyson responded by saying for his purposes, he had no problem claiming him in the science community.
Tyson understood that claiming Freeman’s support to his positions was important. Again, it’s about identifying with something.
So it is perhaps a bit specious that for the same rationale, Tyson reverse engineered this identity formula to disassociate himself from “atheists,” opting for the label (identity) “agnostic” to best describe his religious views.
Whether or not Tyson believes the term agnostic is the best fit to describe his belief is, without a doubt, his prerogative; however, his motivations for doing so, again in my opinion, were misguided (or well calculated).
Tyson’s YouTube announcement described atheists as a “militant” movement with a cause that he could not, nor wish to, devote time, effort, or energy to support.
Tyson misses here in his confusing atheists with antitheists – a big distinction! (and another label!).
An atheist simply denies the existence of god in the absence of proof to the contrary. An antitheist sees religion as the root of evil (no pun intended) and work diligently to the undermining, if not eradication, of religion altogether.
I’ve mentioned previously that by the strictest definitions, most atheists are agnostic in their views. Given adequate proof and/or evidence, most would accept the existence of a god (not necessarily saying they would willingly bow down to that god). Given this, it stands to reason that most if not all agnostics are, by definition, atheists as well. It boils down to semantics (or pole vaulting over ant hills) and how one wishes to identify or affiliate with – at least how I see it – however, there is quite a debate taking place right now on the differences between agnostics and atheist.
What Tyson implied, based on his reasoning, is that he does not wish to be associated with antitheists – “those people” have a clear “agenda” that does not meet his interest in supporting with his limited time and energy.
There are many atheists, myself included, that could care less if people wish to engage in religious practice – it truly affects them not; except when it does! You know, those times when religious zealots scale the “wall” between church and state, insisting on prayer in public school, or the 10 Commandments in court houses, or nativity scenes displayed on public grounds. Maybe an appropriate identifying label would be agnostic-atheist-nonantitheist? (There’s a mouthful!)
As much as we desire to self-identify with groups, causes, etc., (and we do!); the hard part is when the group desires your allegiance. Independents do not like being told – “Oh, you’re an independent? That makes you a Republican.” Similarly, a non-believing person doesn’t always embrace the term “atheist” to describe their religious beliefs.
I understand, to an extent, where Tyson is coming from. There is a stigma associated with the label “atheist.” While a small percentage of the population is willing to embrace the label – for many, the negative baggage that comes with the identity is not appealing. On top of that, there are multitudes that, quietly understand they are atheists, but fear acknowledging their lack of belief will lead to the loss of family, friends, financial support (many are in college), or even their employment!
The further divided we become – politically, ideologically, religiously, economically, educationally, etc., the labels we wear and what we identify ourselves with seems to matter more and more in this country. We feel (or are made to feel) that choosing a side is required. I don’t know about you, but I find the prospects scary…