The atheist label

Ever notice how participants in a debate will often attempt to direct the discussion by labeling the participants? Sometimes this is helpful and relevant – as when a person’s background or position can give an indication of their knowledge and authority of their comments. On the other hand it is sometime an obvious pandering to the “them vs us” mentality – a guide to how “we” should reject the arguments of a participant because she is one of “them.” The old red smear ploy. (I wonder if this was the motive for the label kiwi atheist” applied to me in a recent discussion).

I think this smearing is commonly used by religious fundamentalists. Just check how often scientists are discredited by labelling them “atheists” in the intelligent design/creationism vs evolutionary science debate. Very often the issue of atheism is exposed as the main concern. And it seems that this label is the most effective way of discrediting any opponent amongst this conservative Christian constituency. And yet, the ‘atheist’ label says hardly anything about a person or the reliability of their knowledge – and, of course, may be completely wrong.

For example, one contributer to recent discussions on this site referred to his role in “debating some atheists in New Zealand.” That got me thinking. The only participant in these discussion I know to be an atheist is me and that is a “very limited … description” of me. Several of the other participants have identified themselves as Christians, none as atheists. It’s clear that most of the participants are scientists, professionally, or strong defenders of science. Yet we all get labelled atheist! This contributor appears to think that science and atheism is synonymous!

Only one science

It’s surely salient that within the scientific community such ideological labelling is very uncommon (although it certainly went on in Russia during Stalin’s reign and in China under Mao Tse Tung). We can have quite fierce debates but evidence and interpretation are the usual weapons, rather than ideological labels.

The fact is that science is done by people who may have quite diverse ideological beliefs. And there is only one science. There is no atheistic science, Christian science, Islamic science or spaghetti monster science. As Richard Dawkins points out we can colour different countries on a world map differently according to predominant religion – but we can’t do that with science.

Anyway I like this cartoon (from Atheist Cartoons – check them out). It shows that preoccupation with an ideological label can mean that really important information is ignored.

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31 responses to “The atheist label

  1. Richard Dawkins, who believes in intelligent design by aliens.

    Respectfully, can you give me one scientific proof for atheism? There are several for intelligent design.

    We are not so smart as God is dumb.



  2. I like the cartoon! What a concept: use a person’s name rather than all those labels…


  3. It’s interesting how most people who are eager to point biases, in fact come with biases of their own. I’d really wish people would stop labeling sciences as if empirical data was just a social construct, what good does it do to invest millions of dollars on research if the public is eager to deny any conclusions that doesn’t pay lip-service to their beliefs?


  4. I think that part of the problem is that the phrase, “there is only one science” is only partly true. When it comes to the science of origins, the inclusion of the term “atheist” is entirely relevant because atheists scientists simply ignore current “scientific” evidence. This is true as to the oringins of the universe as well as to the origins of the first DNA / RNA pre-loaded cell.


  5. Oh boy.

    @ #1: There are no ‘scientific proofs’ for intelligent design that have stood up to serious scrutiny by the scientific community.

    And since atheism is a matter of reasoned personal decision, why on earth would you expect a scientific ‘proof’ for it?

    BTW Dawkins does not believe in intelligent design by aliens. He said that he could not 100% rule out the option of alien intervention in life’s development – but he also rated it very very low indeed on the list of possibilities. (No scientist will ever give you a statement that something is 100% probable, because science – unlike some other ways of looking at the world – doesn’t deal with absolute certainties.


  6. Emil:

    I’d really wish people would stop labeling sciences as if empirical data was just a social construct, what good does it do to invest millions of dollars on research if the public is eager to deny any conclusions that doesn’t pay lip-service to their beliefs?

    It does miss the whole point of the exercise (science, that is), doesn’t it? After all, the point of the science process is to try sort out what’s true without being mislead by people’s biases and personal beliefs, etc. (Within the usual limits as best as we currently can, etc.)


  7. Ken,

    You might like to read this (?): Advancing Science through Conversations: Bridging the Gap between Blogs and the Academy, just out in PLoS Biology.


  8. Thanks for the link Heraclides. I had actually picked it up yesterday and read it last night. Very interesting. I’m thinking of doing a post on it as it relates to the NZ situation.


  9. I strikes me that blogging is a good “job” for retired scientists! Maybe this will be the trend of the future. Instead of holing yourself up and writing that magnum opus that realisticially you know damn-all people are going to read (although it was fun to write) you hit out on the ‘net…?


  10. Hey, thank you, Heraclides. I’ve been trying to encourage some of my colleagues to join me in blogging; so far no luck but this might raise someone’s interest. (Also, one could use it to make a case for viewing science bloggin as a legitimate form of scholarship for pbrf purposes…)

    I’ll look forward to reading your post on it, Ken.



  11. From my perspective it is a useful role for a retired person.

    Realistically, however, bloggers are mainly younger and this deficiency is reocgnised by the science blogging challenge (to get older, more established scientists blogging).

    Reading the discussion arising from the London conference I have come to the conclusion that many of the participants are unaware of some of the roles blogging can play in science communication precisely because they are younger, preoccupied (naturally) with issues younger scientists face and have yet to confront all the issues of building and funding a career in science. But, I guess that is where the enthusiasm is at this stage. And older scientists have been slow to recognise blogs as a useful medium.

    Alison, you reference to “pbrf purposes” relates (I guess) to the special intricacies of funding and career development in the universities. I guess blogging can be argued for as a form of scholarship which should be recognised. But what about also seeing it as a way of communicating to (and being recognised by) those stakeholders who may be involved in direct or indirect assessments? That is being recognised as somebody proactively communicating one’s work and field to stakeholders and the general public. Wouldn’t that reflect well on the individual, the department and the institute?

    I suspect that once blogging gets recognised as another way for ambitious people to build their careers (above and beyond just numbers of publications) it could take off in NZ.


  12. Alison, you reference to β€œpbrf purposes” relates (I guess) to the special intricacies of funding and career development in the universities. I guess blogging can be argued for as a form of scholarship which should be recognised. But what about also seeing it as a way of communicating to (and being recognised by) those stakeholders who may be involved in direct or indirect assessments? That is being recognised as somebody proactively communicating one’s work and field to stakeholders and the general public. Wouldn’t that reflect well on the individual, the department and the institute?

    Couldn’t agree more. I fired off an e-mail to a few people suggesting that if the University really values blogging (as I think it does, then perhaps it should push for changes to the PBRF system to recognise this as a legitimate form of scholarship. And said pretty much what you’ve just said here (great minds think alike?) about the importance of engaging and communicating with the wider community, be that the professional scientists or the ‘public’ who ultimately pay their salary.

    That whole engagement thing, & the sense of ‘owing’ something, is why Penny Cooke & I began the Hamilton branch of Cafe Scientifique a few years back. We felt that the people doing the science actually have a responsibility to communicate about it in the public domain & in a way that non-scientists can easily access, & the Cafe format fitted that bill very nicely. To me, in many ways blogging’s just another facet of this sort of endeavour.


  13. Hi Alison,

    Commentaries in the literature on science communication, science & society, etc. either seem to be a trend recently, or maybe I’m just noticing them more the way you do when something is on the back of your mind, so to speak. (For critics of science, this sort of “seeing what you seek” is one of the things that the scientific approach addresses. I vaguely remember that there is interesting cognitive neuroscience research on this behaviour, for what its worth.)

    Anecdotally, EMBO Reports seems to have more that its fair share on the general science communication, science-society, etc. side of things for a “general” biology journal.

    I’ve just run into a paper by a Fuller in EMBO Reports AOP (“Science’s twin taboos”). Is this what you where referring as the Fuller & someone else thing that you were following, Alison? Hopefully I’ll get around to reading it later tonight.

    One more (!) science history book you might look at is reviewed in Dirda, Science 3212(5898)1636.


  14. Revromansky said…”Richard Dawkins, who believes in intelligent design by aliens.”

    Um, no he doesn’t. Feel free to prove me wrong by providing evidence.


    Revromansky said…”There are several for intelligent design.”

    YES! A LIVE ONE!!!
    Mine. He’s MINE. I bags him first. He’s mine I tell you.
    Hands off. I saw Revromansky first.

    (Alison, don’t frighten him off. Please. I beg you. I haven’t had the joy of encountering an ID supporter for simply ages. I know it’s like shooting fish in a barrel but…I like shooting fish in a barrel.)

    So Revromansky, I can’t tell you how happy I am that you’ve shown up.
    This Intelligent Design thingy…
    You’re a supporter of Intelligent Design, yes?
    You have proof of Intelligent Design, yes?

    This is truely thrilling. People like you are very rare nowadays.

    Let’s start with the basics, shall we?
    What exactly is Intelligent Design?
    Is it a scientific theory?


  15. Surely I’m not really that scary?


  16. Um, no he doesn’t. Feel free to prove me wrong by providing evidence.

    Well he kind of did… From the movie Expelled:

    DAWKINS:Nobody knows how it got started. We know the kind of event that it must have been. We know the sort of event that must have happened for the origin of life.

    BEN STEIN:And what was that?

    DAWKINS:It was the origin of the first self-replicating molecule.

    BEN STEIN:Right, and how did that happen?

    DAWKINS:I told you, we don’t know

    BEN STEIN:What do you think is the possibility that Intelligent Design might turn out to be the answer to some issues in genetics or in evolution.

    DAWKINS:Well, it could come about in the following way. It could be that at some earlier time, somewhere in the universe, a civilization evolved, probably by some kind of Darwinian means, probably to a very high level of technology, and designed a form of life that they seeded onto perhaps this planet. Now, um, now that is a possibility, and an intriguing possibility. And I suppose it’s possible that you might find evidence for that if you look at the details of biochemistry, molecular biology, you might find a signature of some sort of designer.


  17. Aliens from outer space. Way to go, Dawkins, that’s very scientific-like. Thanks, James.

    Anyway, I finally realize the issue of atheism. You have bastardized philosophy by replacing theism, a foundational premise to the thousands year old system of philosophy, with science, a fairly recent invention. You feel that science would best serve your anti-theistic purposes, and so you more or less replace God with the image of science, philosophically speaking.

    You deny the rest of the known world the right to include God in the conversation, but then tell us to prove God with science, not allowing us to prove him philosophically (which would include theology). You are shooting fish in a conversational barrel and congratulating yourselves for your wonderful aim.

    We say, “prove atheism”, and you say you don’t have to, even though science states that all hypothesis and theories should be disprovable. Atheism fails the scientific model, you aren’t even a supposition.

    Sounds like spoiled children with no real reasonable base.

    So, prove atheism according to the scientific model. You can’t, because its unscientific, it is a belief system.



  18. Amen Revromansky…


  19. And if you have followed the debates around the Expelled movie you will be very well aware that much of what Dawkins (& other scientists) said when originally interviewed (for what he & they understood to be quite a different project) was cut, pasted, & quote-mined to within an inch of its existence. He did say the ‘aliens’ idea was an ‘intriguing possibility’. He also said that he rated the actual probability of this happening was very very very very small.

    And as I’ve said before, atheism isn’t science but a matter of reasoned personal decision. You’re falsely conflating science with atheism (eek! materialism, run away run away!) when they are most definitely not one & the same.


  20. Pardon my error. I assumed when the gang jumped me with the observation, “You can’t scientifically prove God, therefore there is no God”, that they meant it.

    Dawkins’ quote was not cut and pasted. He said what he said, that’s all. He believes in aliens, sans proof. He believes in Intelligent Design.

    As to atheism being a “reasoned personal decision” but ID needing “scientific proofs”, you once again prove my assertation that atheists cannot attain the scientific standard that they, themselves, require those of faith to maintain. That’s called a “double standard”. Additionally, ID is an emerging theory that has not been disproven, disprovability being one of science’s prerequisites.



  21. Alison, I think the point being made is that Dawkins is willing to admit not only that (i) life on earth could be designed; but also (ii) that we could find evidence of this. Yet he is completely unwilling, as all atheist scientists appear to be, to concede (iii) that the designer could be non-materialistic. This is clearly arbitrary, prejudiced, and indefensible.


  22. Perhaps we should let Richard Dawkins speak for himself here. He’s writng about being interviewed by Ben Stein – an interview which was gained under false pretenses:

    Another example. Toward the end of his interview with me, Stein asked whether I could think of any circumstances whatsoever under which intelligent design might have occurred. It’s the kind of challenge I relish, and I set myself the task of imagining the most plausible scenario I could. I wanted to give ID its best shot, however poor that best shot might be. I must have been feeling magnanimous that day, because I was aware that the leading advocates of Intelligent Design are very fond of protesting that they are not talking about God as the designer, but about some unnamed and unspecified intelligence, which might even be an alien from another planet. Indeed, this is the only way they differentiate themselves from fundamentalist creationists, and they do it only when they need to, in order to weasel their way around church/state separation laws. So, bending over backwards to accommodate the IDiots (“oh NOOOOO, of course we aren’t talking about God, this is SCIENCE”) and bending over backwards to make the best case I could for intelligent design, I constructed a science fiction scenario. Like Michael Ruse (as I surmise) I still hadn’t rumbled Stein, and I was charitable enough to think he was an honestly stupid man, sincerely seeking enlightenment from a scientist. I patiently explained to him that life could conceivably have been seeded on Earth by an alien intelligence from another planet (Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel suggested something similar — semi tongue-in-cheek). The conclusion I was heading towards was that, even in the highly unlikely event that some such ‘Directed Panspermia’ was responsible for designing life on this planet, the alien beings would THEMSELVES have to have evolved, if not by Darwinian selection, by some equivalent ‘crane’ (to quote Dan Dennett). My point here was that design can never be an ULTIMATE explanation for organized complexity. Even if life on Earth was seeded by intelligent designers on another planet, and even if the alien life form was itself seeded four billion years earlier, the regress must ultimately be terminated (and we have only some 13 billion years to play with because of the finite age of the universe). Organized complexity cannot just spontaneously happen. That, for goodness sake, is the creationists’ whole point, when they bang on about eyes and bacterial flagella! Evolution by natural selection is the only known process whereby organized complexity can ultimately come into being. Organized complexity — and that includes everything capable of designing anything intelligently — comes LATE into the universe. It cannot exist at the beginning, as I have explained again and again in my writings.

    This ‘Ultimate 747’ argument, as I called it in The God Delusion, may or may not persuade you. That is not my concern here. My concern here is that my science fiction thought experiment — however implausible — was designed to illustrate intelligent design’s closest approach to being plausible. I was most emphaticaly NOT saying that I believed the thought experiment. Quite the contrary. I do not believe it (and I don’t think Francis Crick believed it either). I was bending over backwards to make the best case I could for a form of intelligent design. And my clear implication was that the best case I could make was a very implausible case indeed. In other words, I was using the thought experiment as a way of demonstrating strong opposition to all theories of intelligent design.

    Well, you will have guessed how Mathis/Stein handled this. I won’t get the exact words right (we were forbidden to bring in recording devices on pain of a $250,000 fine, chillingly announced by some unnamed Gauleiter before the film began), but Stein said something like this. “What? Richard Dawkins BELIEVES IN INTELLIGENT DESIGN.” “Richard Dawkins BELIEVES IN ALIENS FROM OUTER SPACE.”


  23. revromansky,

    As far as I can tell, ID isn’t a theory, never mind one that “not been disproven”. Any theory needs to rest on evidence and what-have-you, or it isn’t a theory, but I’ve yet to see any for ID. In fact I’ve yet to see anyone formally define ID – properly. As far as I can make out ID simply consists of attacking evolution. That is, its not a theory at all, but rather an excuse to try write off something some people see clashes with their beliefs. Basically, its just a why of “dressing” creationist attacks on evolution with what amounts to the Emperor’s clothes.

    “disprovability being one of science’s prerequisites” – You’re misusing what falsibility means. It doesn’t mean you get to put up a idea with no support and then ask that others disprove and if they can’t it has merit.

    Regards the Dawkins “quote”, I guess you’ve never heard of editing in the production of films (he’s very obviously been cut off in the middle of a longer reply at a point that inverts his meaning: its is the start of a longer point I’ve seen before: who designed the designers.)


  24. My posts crossed with Alison’s.

    I meant to look for the full quote myself, but Alison has beaten me to it πŸ™‚

    (Sod, it!)


  25. ooh, do I detect a whiff of competitiveness here?


  26. πŸ™‚


  27. Hehe, so Dawkins was trying to clean it up…


  28. Revromansky said…”Dawkins’ quote was not cut and pasted.”

    So then Alison goes off and demonstrates that it was.
    Ouch, that’s gotta hurt.

    The problem with Creationists is that they NEVER do any research.
    They go to a creationist web-site.
    Accept it fully and then regurgitate it.

    It never, ever occurs to them to ask “Is that what the guy actually said?”
    Dumb. Yet strangely entertaining for the rest of us.


    Revromansky said…”Additionally, ID is an emerging theory …”

    (..Cedric claps his hands with glee…)

    Oh, so it’s theory? Really?
    That’s so very interesting.

    So, Revromansky me old chum….
    You just make a SCIENTIFIC CLAIM.

    (…loud cheers from the TV audience…)

    In reply, I get to justifiably call you an ignorant ass.

    You get to make me eat my own words by explaining…

    (in simple, reasonable laymans terms of course)

    …how is ID a scientific theory?
    You talk the sciencey talk but can you walk the sciencey walk?
    Go for it!


  29. Hello?
    Ignorant ass?
    Still there somwhere out in cyberspace?
    It been a few days now.

    Come out, come out wherever you are!



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