Friday, 6 September 2013

- Labels -

This video by Neil De Grass Tyson ( is really interesting. He addresses the problem of labelling yourself when discussing big concepts. Labelling myself as an atheist, for example, causes my peer to suddenly drag in a load of baggage associated with atheism and means that my peer will assume things that I believe. Thus restricting an appropriate dialogue.

This makes sense as you could hold suspicions on the existence of god without having to label oneself as an atheist. Moreover by taking a scientific stance, when asked about the question of gods existence one could say, "So far I have not seen any evidence to persuade me either way, I'll hold off and wait for further information". This does sounds fairly atheistic, however it is not the sort of throat shoving that militant atheists can be known for.

Personally I favour labels as they condense a long conversation on what I exactly understand to be true about the world to a few identifiable words or phrases. Tyson is right, it can be crudely taken, but I do find them to be useful starting points. If I were to represent my beliefs precisely I would describe myself as an:

Atheist, Anti-theist, Humanist, partial Nihilist, Materialist, Neuroatheist.

If you have read me before, this won't be a surprise. I use this word to express that I do not see any evidence for the existence of anything pertaining to, or that relies on, the existence of a supernatural dimension to the universe (or beyond). Therefore I lack a belief in god or humans having souls that survive death etc.

Heavily influenced by Hitchens, Russell and Freud, this term surmises my active dislike for organised religion. Institutions like the catholic church, I genuinely believe, are not a force for good in the world (for more beautifully made arguments by Hitch & Fry see: I believe that the institutions of all major religions really fail to put the interests of the human first (especially if you are female), and often take an archaic anti-humanistic and misogynistic stance towards critical issues surrounding sexuality, equality and the prosperity of humankind.

The British Humanist Associations very own Andrew Copson recently gave a talk to which I witnessed and he really spelled out what it means to be a humanist. Fantastic values such as equality for all as we are one species, morality is not externally or divinely inspired product, morality is a quality that has evolved and has been socially constructed by humans, and that one can live a fulfilling life without the need to resort to religion. 
Most Importantly, death is a final event that gives life a meaning and emphasises the importance of utilising the one life that we are so privileged to own (

Partial Nihilist
I think most sceptics could adopt this label, but only in the sense that when we reject all religious doctrine and dogma that it is we and only we that can influence the world. I also sort of support the idea that there is no meaning to life or to the existence of the universe. However one has to be careful when making these such statements because I do actually enjoy life and enjoy creating my own meaning and goals that make being alive worthwhile. By marvelling at our own fragile and isolated existence, one does gain a sense of pointlessness. Not to fear, it concentrates the mind and places the responsibility of what one does with their life onto the individual, where it belongs. It is our duty to improve the circumstances of our own lives and of those lives belonging to future generations.

This may be an unnecessary label in this string of labels but it is good to highlight my belief in the natural world. A world that has come about via natural causes and follow norms that are discoverable by the scientific method.

Neuroscience is my trade! I study the human brain with the hope of gaining a greater understanding of how this remarkable organ resembles a person. So far the 150 years of cognitive neuroscience has made me sure of one thing. I am my brain. Take or damage any part of it and you will most likely cause permanent damage to any one, or numerous, part of my psyche, the part of me that make me, me. My conscious life that uniquely distinguishes me and other humans from other animals. This strongly suggests that whatever it is that allows us to be conscious, it is not ethereal or eternal, and that it resembles nothing similar to what religions describe as the soul. This stance also allows me to suggest that on my own global brain death, I won't be rising up from anywhere.

So there you have it, yes labels do bring a lot a baggage that could restrict a conversation. However, as I have just demonstrated, labels also provide the platform, the starting place, on which to embellish and ripen ones world view.

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