Home > Uncategorized > Is Neil deGrasse Tyson an Atheist?

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.

  1. October 24, 2011 at 1:49 PM

    I agree with Neil deGrasse Tysons position, and as an astrophysicist and someone held in quite high esteem as a teacher, I think its a little arrogant for you to say “what he does’nt know”.

    He adopts a very scientific position, a null hypothesis, of god being equally and unequally likely to exist until it can be tested. Testing is likely impossible, as we as yet dont even have definitions of what constitutes belief, or God. The closest term for this would be agnostic

    You say he has a vested interest in not offending, well I’m sure it would’nt shock you to know Dawkins makes a pretty penny when he’s bag-piping his agenda. To see speak at the Royal Albert Hall in London recently was £50. Same with the other three, whoever they are. He’s not on the professional talking circuit to spread the good word.

    I’m sorry your country is intolerant of atheists, but it starts to feel in the UK the opposite, where to identify with anything theist is an opportunity for some atheist with a chip on his shoulder looking for a reason to feel superior, or a sense of belonging to at least some group.

    Lack of functional difference does not mean the same, in the same way that correlation does not mean causation.

  2. March 6, 2012 at 8:58 PM

    Very interesting. Didn’t know Tyson considered himself agnostic. I sit, well, on the opposite side of the aisle from you, but really enjoyed this post.

  3. klirich@aol.com
    March 12, 2012 at 5:58 PM

    I am gratful that I am a nut job. NUT JOBS OF THE WORLD…UNITE! I live with an agnostic and he disregards (loves me anyway!) my nut-jobbiness as I disregard his relegion of WORSHIPPING at the alter of the intellectual. Oh yes….being an athiest is also worshipping. Deny all you want. It is still so. GOD BLESS YOU!

  4. Fletcher
    March 16, 2012 at 4:32 AM

    I think it’s more than simply not wanting to be publicly criticized or attacked by those who are religious. I think he approaches the world in a purely scientific fashion, meaning that he looks at the evidence and draws conclusions from that. However, as any good scientist does, he is open to the possibility that the evidence can change. Atheism often carries a dogmatic connotation with it, not so dissimilar than that of theism. However, I do consent that there are variations of Atheism, and it is difficult to describe someone who doesn’t believe in God as an Atheist because it is a sweeping view that doesn’t take into account the nuances. I think that Tyson is more of a pragmatic atheist, in the sense that he believes that there is good evidence against the belief in a God, but he does not discount the possibility that evidence could be presented to him (no matter how unlikely this actually is) which would convince him of the existence of God. In fact, I think he’s more of a methodological naturalist since he doesn’t even really wanna to address issues of God, instead focusing solely on looking at the world through the lens of science. The problem is that there is not really a word that accurately describes a viewpoint such as Neil’s. I don’t think he’s necessarily redefining words, and he doesn’t want to portray a sense of arrogance that would come from creating a new word for his viewpoint. Instead it seems he simply chooses the word which more accurately reflects his viewpoint. It’s not the same as you saying that you are no longer “white” or “human” because these words reflect scientific facts, such as the pigment of your skin, your DNA structure, etc. The word Atheist reflects a belief/viewpoint, which is much more fluid and subject to change than, for ex., the word human (in the biological sense). Which is exactly why it can be interpreted in certain ways, and carries with it certain connotations. The dictionary definition lacks these connotations, which is why i think that a correct definition of the word “Atheist” (which include such connotations) is really what Tyson is objecting to being called. It’s not that he’s an Atheist in disguise or that he doesn’t want to associate with fellow Atheists. It seems as if he simply is not an Atheist as the word is commonly defined/known.

  5. Nick
    April 21, 2012 at 5:25 AM

    This article really summed up how I felt after reading the original transcript the first time. However, like yourself, I can appreciate Tyson’s views, even though I had a hard time accepting them at first. But then after I thought about it, and really tried to see it from his point of view, Tyson wants to maintain his persona as an open-minded educator that teaches people how to think. His credibility towards the religious majority rests on this fact. And by calling himself an atheist, or any other label for that matter, it’s hard for him to come across as “open-minded” if he already holds a concrete position on a question that many view as up for debate.

    Regardless what he truly believes, distinguishing himself from the “atheist culture” is important to him because it’s one less variable that people don’t have to consider before they decide whether they want to listen to what he has to say. In that respect, believers and non-believers alike, are not seeing him as an atheist, they are seeing him as a scientist. And that’s what’s important.

    • Nick
      April 21, 2012 at 5:41 AM

      I’d like to add, that in his public discourse, part of Tyson’s goal is to reach out to the people that happen to be unfamiliar in the subject of science. And at least in America, there seems to be an abundance of reactionaries. A vast majority of people that tend to react before they think. So if you have a public mass that finds overwhelming truth in the concept of “God before man”, the second they here “atheist”, they immediately react, and stop listening. I think that is what he is trying to avoid here.

  6. MexSeiko
    March 23, 2014 at 5:07 PM

    In other words, Neil deGrasse Tyson is a chicken. He’s on the fence. He fears God, but he fears Atheist Scientific Police more. He doesn’t want to offend mom and pops who are probably African-American Christians, perhaps AME, but his job is on the line if he says Hallelujah!

  7. taras chepurny
    March 22, 2015 at 8:40 PM

    I find it intriguing to hear that after a lifetime of studying the universe, Mr. Tyson still fails to acknowledge that there is a Supreme Creator! I find him intellectually dishonest with the most important person in his life. Himself.

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