Over at The Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta has posted this “Big Think” video of Neil deGrasse Tyson discussing whether he’s an atheist or agnostic. Some of Hemant’s analysis, taken from his piece, “When did Neil deGrasse Tyson start using the arguments of Christian apologetics?” is below, and I agree with him. Either Tyson doesn’t seem to know the difference between “atheist” and “agnostic” (if, indeed, there is a difference!), or is deliberately avoiding the characterization of “atheist” because of its pejorative connotations in America.
Tyson clearly conflates (perhaps deliberately) “atheism” with active atheism: that brand of disbelief that organizes movements, writes antireligious books, and prosyletizes. And Tyson, as he says (somewhat self-servingly), is simply too busy to do that—he’s more interested in bringing people to science. That’s a great thing to do, and Tyson does it superbly, but this explanation leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I’m not going to tell people what they should call themselves, nor do I require Tyson to be an active atheist, but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck . .
Like Hemant, I’m disappointed. It only takes two seconds to call yourself an atheist (you don’t have to write a book on it!), and it would do so much to help disbelief become respectable. His distinction between atheism and agnosticism (the former are “in-your-face”; the latter are not) is completely disingenuous: one can be a Republican and not be an “in-your-face” Republican, and so it is with atheists.
Here’s part of Hemant’s take:
Without going into (boring-to-me) philosophy that breaks the categories down even further (“He’s a weak atheist,” “He’s an agnostic atheist”), it sounds like Tyson is just trying to back away from using the A word.
To some extent, I understand that. He doesn’t want to be known to the public as an “atheist scientist” (like Richard Dawkins). He wants to be known as a scientist, period. There’s a huge advantage to that.
But one of the reasons so many of us respect Dr. Tyson is because he tells it like it is (and he’s so effective in the process). I have a hard time believing he just misunderstands the terminology (at least as it’s used by the general public).
He goes on to explain that one of the reasons he’s not an “atheist” is because the atheists he knows are fervent activists, fighting for that cause, debating god’s existence, etc. But again, that’s not what makes someone an atheist. You can be an atheist and never talk about it with anyone. If you don’t believe god exists, you’re an atheist. End of story. What you do with that belief is your business, but you don’t become a “bigger” atheist because you talk about it openly, and you’re not a “lesser” atheist if you don’t come out of the closet.
At the end of the video, he talks about how he wouldn’t join a group for people who don’t enjoy golf… as if all atheists do is sit around and not pray. As if there is no anti-atheist discrimination to fight against. As if we’re not opposing attempts to make this a “Christian nation.”
If people who didn’t play golf were discriminated against, then we’d make a bigger deal about that, too. But people who don’t play golf can still get elected to Congress all across the country. People who don’t believe in god are banned from even runningfor office in several states (at least in the books). . . .
I’ve never said this before, but I’m really disappointed in Neil deGrasse Tyson after watching that video.
UPDATE: Here’s one way of distinguishing atheism from agnosticism, and I agree with it:
Once it is understood that atheism is merely the absence of belief in any gods, it becomes evident that agnosticism is not, as many assume, a “third way” between atheism and theism. The presence of a belief in a god and the absence of a belief in a god exhaust all of the possibilities. Agnosticism is not about belief in god but about knowledge—it was coined originally to describe the position of a person who could not claim to know for sure if any gods exist or not.
Thus, it is clear that agnosticism is compatible with both theism and atheism. A person can believe in a god (theism) without claiming to know for sure if that god exists; the result is agnostic theism. On the other hand, a person can disbelieve in gods (atheism) without claiming to know for sure that no gods can or do exist; the result is agnostic atheism.