Is Neil deGrasse Tyson an Atheist?
by Noah Lugeons
If you have even the most passing interest in astronomy or astrophysics, you’re likely familiar with the works of Neil deGrasse Tyson. The director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium,Tyson is part of the minority of scientists who can express his passion for science without boring the hell out of the general public. He hosts science programs on PBS, he appears frequently on programs like the Daily Show and the Colbert Report and he has a number of books that are comfortable reads for the uninitiated.
And he’s definitely not an atheist.
But he doesn’t believe in god.
Curious how that works? Well, if you go to Tyson’s Wikipedia page, you’ll see that Tyson describes himself as a “passionate agnostic”. In a recent interview with Christopher Thielen of the American Atheist Podcast, he explained that he’d repeatedly had to go back in and edit it when people wikied him to an atheist.
When pressed on this issue in the interview, Tyson provided a defense that was so intellectually clever that it almost makes sense. But it doesn’t.
Paraphrasing Tyson, he argued that dictionary definitions to not dictate the cultural meaning of words, but rather that the cultural meaning dictates the dictionary definition. He explains that as he looks around the country and sees people who call themselves “atheists”, he does not feel that they accurately reflect his views.
There is a pertinent back story here, of course. Like many scientists, Tyson has expressed strong concerns about creationism and intelligent design. Like many scientists, he’s publicly expressed the dangers of stopping an intellectual pursuit at “well I guess god did it”. If you take a few minutes searching the name on YouTube, you’ll quickly find a number of lectures where he speaks out against the encroachment of faith on science.
But of course, when he refers to “people who call themselves atheists”, he is referring to the four horsemen. He is talking about unapologetic bloggers like the intrepid PZ Myers. And even though he doesn’t know it, he’s also talking about me. He’s talking about the antagonistic way that the gnu atheists combat the dangers of faith.
To borrow a Thoreau analogy from the Tea-Partiers, Tyson hacks at the branches while Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Hitchins and Myers work on the roots.
But is it fair for Tyson to back away from the very term? Phil Plait, another noted “passionate agnostic” admits freely that there is no functional difference between his agnosticism and my atheism. He does not consider the possibility of god existing in his day-to-day life if at all. I’m sure the same is true of Tyson. When Tyson covets his neighbor’s ass, I’m sure that he doesn’t spend a moment wondering if god minds.
It is in Tyson’s professional and personal interest to distance himself from foul-mouthed and bitter atheists like myself, but should one do so by trying to redefine language? Why claim oneself an agnostic if you aren’t truly on the fence? Couldn’t we offer up a new term like “atheish” for folks like Tyson?
Atheists are in short supply in this country. For that reason we love to try to claim people whenever possible. Many an atheist will make the argument that Obama is part of our club simply because he’s intelligent, scientifically literate and doesn’t talk about Jesus with the incessant fervor that Bush did. It may be true that Obama is an atheist. Political reality would not allow him to admit as much, but there is also no direct evidence to suggest that he is. When we try to claim him we’re really not doing much better than the folks who try to claim him a Muslim.
But when actual, genuine, dictionary definition atheists are fleeing from the camp, I think that is a real cause for concern.
In my experience, it seems that two broad and imperfect categories can be described to illustrate the cause of this schism; “Atheist by way of science” and “Science by way of atheism”. I would count myself among the latter, as I’d rejected faith long before I developed any real understanding of the scientific explanations for those questions that religion purports to answer. Many others were only gradually led from faith as their knowledge of the universe grew and they came to understand that god was not necessary to make a universe or to make it work.
This difference largely defines which side of the schism one will fall into. While it is certainly true that not every gnu atheist got there without a gentle push from science, for people like Tyson and Plait, antagonizing religion is counterproductive. For people like me, it’s the whole point.
So fine, Neil deGrasse Tyson is not an atheist. I can’t exactly argue with someone about their own religious affiliation (or lack thereof). But if he gets to redefine words to distance himself from groups he doesn’t want to embrace, I’d like to claim the same privilege. Henceforth I am no longer white, as I’ve seen many people who call themselves “white” and I don’t agree with a lot of the shit they do. From now on, I will be ambiguous on my race and call myself an agnozoid. I would also like to disavow my species in general, as I’ve seen people who call themselves “human” and I don’t agree with them either. Thus I now choose to belong to my own new hominid species, homo incognitus.
Tyson, I love your work and I have your books sitting on my shelf. I understand why one would not want to choose sides in a dispute that is so often marked my hatred and vicious personal attacks. But not wanting to draw fire from religious nut-jobs is no excuse to go redefining words.