The latest issue of The Humanist (Sep/Oct 2009) includes an interview with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. I’m pretty sure it’s impossible for him to say anything that isn’t interesting, but a couple things he said stood out:
The Humanist: Do you consider yourself a humanist?
Tyson: I’ve never identified with any movement. I just am what I am and occasionally a movement claims me because there is resonance between my writings and speeches and what they do, and that’s fine; I don’t mind that. But no, I have never been politically or organizationally active in that way. Astrophysics — that’s what I identify with.
Tyson: … You can get on your high horse and say TV is just the undermining of all that is good in society; it doesn’t change the fact that it is the most influential force out there. And if you don’t know the magnitude of that force and what direction it’s pointing, then you will be correspondingly less effective standing up in front of a room. I told the teachers, don’t come up to me and say, oh they just don’t want to learn; it’s not a good class; they don’t want to listen. Excuse me, it’s your job to get them interested enough to want to listen. Otherwise, do not count yourself amongst the rest of educators; take up another field of work.
The Humanist: I imagine that was a little controversial.
Tyson: Yes, and when I say pop culture I don’t mean only the TV shows that are kind of cool and interesting. I also mean the hit shows. I’m talking about Dancing with the Stars. I’m talking about the reality shows most educators thumb their noses at as being of no educational or intellectual value. Yet clearly millions of people watch them every week so there is a disconnect. Once there is a disconnect, you’re not communicating.
… This sentiment became associated with the atheist movement. Sometime later I stumbled upon my Wikipedia page, and what’s spooky is that my wiki page is more up-to-date than my personal home page. For example, two days after I appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart I thought, let me add that to my wiki page. I went there, and the link was already up. (The days of anonymity are long gone.) So I’m looking at the page and it says, “Neil deGrasse Tyson, a long-time atheist…” and I thought, where did that come from? I never said that. So I removed it and I put in “agnostic” because I think, based on all the folks who are agnostic historically, I come closer to the behavior of an agnostic than the behavior of an atheist. Three days later it was back to atheist. Then I learned that there are people who want to equate agnosticism with atheism. So I went back in, thinking I needed to be clever about this, and I changed the phrase to: “widely claimed by atheists, he is actually an agnostic.”
I wonder if there are atheists disappointed in him not accepting and embracing that “atheist” label.
I understand his strategic decision — he says he has a better chance of getting his message of science understanding across if he keeps religion out of his public persona. But at the same time, religion seems to be one of the biggest impediments to obtaining proper scientific literacy. There’s no greater anti-science force out there. I worry that many of the people he hopes to reach by not talking about his personal beliefs are the same people who are going to dismiss him because of their own religious views.