When Did Neil deGrasse Tyson Start Using the Arguments of Christian Apologists? April 25, 2012

When Did Neil deGrasse Tyson Start Using the Arguments of Christian Apologists?

***Update***: Dr. Tyson has responded to this thread here.

This is weird for me to say: Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t get it.

In the video below, he claims to be an agnostic… but when you listen to his reasoning, it doesn’t seem like he knows the difference between an agnostic and an atheist.

[Agnostic refers] to someone who doesn’t know… but hasn’t yet really seen evidence for it… but is prepared to embrace the evidence if it’s there… but if it’s not, won’t be forced to have to think something that is not otherwise supported.

So he’s someone who won’t say definitively that god doesn’t exists, but he open to the evidence.

In other words, he’s an atheist… at least that’s the term I’ve always used for that definition.

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 running for 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.

Had he just stuck to his opening statement of explaining that he doesn’t like labels — “the only ‘ist’ I am is an ‘scientist'” — it would’ve been fine. A copout perhaps, but a respectable copout. But hearing him elaborate on those ideas, he just fell into misguided definitions and false accusations we so often hear from Christian apologists. He should know better than that.

Am I off base?

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  • John_A_James

    He also doesn’t think Pluto is a planet…I rest my case…


  • He’s mentioned this before, but it seems like most people weren’t aware of it considering how many atheists like to “claim” him. He’s certainly on our side in the sciences and skepticism, but he’s not interested in debating religion outside of when it clashes with science, and even in those cases he doesn’t talk theology, or separation of church and state. Just that it is bad science.

  • Tom

    I like your suggested substitute, “only ‘ist’ is scientist.”  It is a fair cop-out.  He is one of the best at promoting good thinking skills from a scientific perspective, so why should he really be bothered with philosophizing when there’s a whole world out there to show us.

  • Amanda McCoy

    Hmm, I always thought that Agnostic meant that you thought there might be something out there but you just weren’t sure…which is mostly what he said.
    But I agree that his argument is flawed, which surprises me since he’s a scientist. 

  • His viewpoint is incredibly popular one among the people I know though. Many people I see who don’t believe in God claim they don’t care. They don’t like the word atheist because famous atheists debate and try to change public policy. Some of these people are truly apathetic to politics (which I see as a negative), but many do care. These people will criticize creationism in schools, but they refuse to see they are activists just like the dreaded “Atheists”. Just because they don’t have formal debates about the philosophy of religion or science doesn’t make them so different.

  • Pluto is a big comet.

  • PegK

    I highly respect both Dr. de Grasse Tyson and Sam Harris for their promotion of critical thinking and reason, but I think they are way off base with deGrasse Tyson’s “non-golf players” and Harris’ “non-astrologer” arguments.  There are no golfers leaving golf tracts on my sons desk at school every morning telling him to follow Jack Nicklaus or be tortured for eternity.  There are not “astrology temples” on every corner in every city with patrons trying to force their beliefs and rituals into our schools.  Do I detect a hint of straw here?

  • There are many definitions (as there are for atheist as well). Some say it means that if there were a god it would be unknowable. Others say it’s a claim that you don’t KNOW either way, so one could be an agnostic atheist (I don’t hold the belief in a God, but I don’t know for sure).

  • Dglas26

    Now suppose that I opposed racism, and there was a word for that, say antiracist. Should I say I’m not an antiracist because I don’t like “-ist?”

  • Al Mc

    I do think he is jumping around a little bit; maybe over thinking the whole issue. I, too, think the word atheist is silly but still identify myself as such to anyone who asks. It just simplifies my position (and I’m always ready for a lively discussion).
    I also think he is defining atheism and agnosticism as degrees of belief whereas they have completely separate meanings.
    That clip seems to be highly edited so maybe it didn’t come out as intended.

  • Perhaps new terminology is needed for folks like Dr. Tyson? “Agnostic” has too many meanings: don’t know, don’t want to know, can’t know, don’t care, etc. It’s confusing and we (I consider myself agnostic) get slapped with the “poor man’s atheist” label.

    So let’s go with an all encompassing term that defines people who don’t actively believe in any god, but don’t consider themselves a hardline atheist. I suggest “Athe-ish.”

  • Michael Motejat

    Well in the system of definitions he seems to use,  he is right.
    From my point of view, an agnostic is somebody, who thinks, that it is unknowable, whether deities exist or not, while an atheist is somebody who believes there are no gods. I do know however, that some people include the agnostic viewpoint in their definition for atheism. 
    I personally think the agnostic view is closer to the mindset of natural sciences and I agree with it even though I would not assume that one or many god exists since there is no evidence outside of the anecdotes in ceartain scriptures.

  • JD929

    I guess it’s all down to definitions.  I get the feeling that atheists are trying to nerf the term “agnostic” when they just say an agnostic is an atheist, which really makes the term redundant.

  • djg

    He’s also mentioned a few times that atheists should go about trying to convince scientists of their cause rather than argue to the general public. He makes a big to-do about the fact that a sizable minority of scientists are believers (which implies…what, exactly), and seems to misunderstand the point that one doesn’t need science to be an atheist.

  • smittypap

    If he were to allow the “A” label to be attached to his name, his credibility with the majority of the population as a science advocate (or as a human being for that matter) would be shot.  It’s irrelevant to his mission and would be detrimental to his effectiveness.

  • If you ask me, he is emulating Carl Sagan. If you really knew the guy and lined out what he really believed, most of us would call him an atheist. However, he wants to be seen as advancing science to everyone. People who think about Dawkins rarely think about him as a biologist. 

    It does feel like a cop-out to a certain extent BUT as you said, it is a personal thing. I wouldn’t have a problem if he didn’t call himself agnostic. If he just said that science doesn’t have a definitive answer, that would be enough. Instead, he pushes a flawed idea of what an atheist is. I don’t like it but I guess I understand it.

  • Andrew Morgan

    “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.”

    Yeah, right.  For better or worse, he is sensitive to prevailing public opinion that views atheists with skepticism at best and hostility at worst.  He’s got a job to do as a public educator (similar to Eugenie Scott) that he doesn’t feel is helped by embracing the label.  Hemant comes close to acknowledging this (“He wants to be known as a scientist, period”) but then doesn’t acknowledge that yes, there might be costs to proclaiming you’re an atheist. Not everyone is in the business of fighting anti-atheist discrimination.

    “What you do with that belief is your business” — unless, apparently, the atheist community, really, really wants you to join the club, in which case we’re “really disappointed” in you.

    Yeah, yeah, I can hear it now — “The reason we’re upset is because of his bungling of the words.”  I’d be shocked it Tyson misunderstands the terminology.  More likely he just doesn’t want to be a Dawkins: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_2xGIwQfik

  • Rev1800

    You know, I read this blog almost everyday and almost always agree with the sentiments in it.  But, I have to say on this one you just blew it.  You absolutely cannot get into congress unless you play golf. 

  • Jim McCall

    Tyson has said things that make it seem like he doesn’t believe in God. This video doesn’t change that. Like you said “I have a hard time believing he just misunderstands the terminology “. Is he’s right to assume that at least some of the people he’s trying to educate, particularly those most reachable, are comforted by his equivocation?

  • DG

    I’d be curious just how you define agnostic then, as opposed to atheist. 

  • I get it. I get him. I love him. But he wants a free ride.

    According to the video, he thinks being called an atheist is like giving him a set of ear plugs, and when he goes to talk to someone he has to stop and give the ear plugs to the person he’s about to talk to. This man loves to talk, and to give him a label that would essentially make people stop listening scares him. He lives to teach, to explain. Being labeled atheist would kill that ability. I get that.

    I just don’t like his tone. Imagine someone mocking Dr. King for being too “in your face” with his marches and speeches and sit-ins. Imagine someone mocking Harvey Milk for being too “in your face” with his campaigning and gayness.

    Does Dr. Tyson think that claiming agnosticism is going to keep science education alive in America? Does he think mocking atheist activism against anti-evolution bills is too “in your face?” He’s going to reap the benefits of having more people to listen to him after atheists have fought the ignorance that he spends his day tiptoeing around, and that just irks me. He doesn’t have to be openly atheist. He can claim agnosticism if he wants, but he can’t claim to not want what all atheists want, and that is a more scientifically literate America.

    Has Bill Nye accepted the atheist label?

  • “If you don’t believe god exists, you’re an atheist. End of story”. Sometimes you guys seem just as touchy as theists. I’m no theist, but I don’t like labels either, because I like to imagine other possibilities (like Tyson, I love quantum mechanics, and I love the idea that we vibrate between this dimension and the 4th, which is actually possible in string theory. What if we end up in the 4th after this? What if we’re already there, only we can’t see it with our 3rd dimension senses? In physics and philosophy that’s possible, so saying “there is absolutely nothing else, I’m a hardcore Atheist, you are deluded” is the just like saying “my god is the only truth and you’re wrong and going to hell”. You are claiming to have the absolute truth and there is no such thing). It is true that there is no god in the sense of the magical gods of religions and texts. I even used to call myself an Atheist but I don’t care to call myself that anymore, because as Sam Harris said: that word should not even exist. I also understand someone who has better things to do than shove his atheism all over the place.

  • If he were in any other country other than the US, he would probably be more open about his beliefs. He gets most of his funding from a hyper-sensitive religious state. One need not bite the hand that feeds them while at the same time making his position clear.

  • dangeroustalk

    Tyson here is making the same kind of argument that Sam Harris made at the AAI convention a number of years ago. While I am an active and very vocal atheists, I respect this type of argument and actually find it quite compelling. Almost enough to get me to stop using the term… almost. But at the end of the day, I would rather have people take both approaches. People like me who are vocal about our non-belief and who seek to form a community around our atheism and people like Harris and Tyson who don’t want to be lumped in with Stalin every five seconds. I will still label Tyson an atheist because at the end of the day, he still doesn’t believe in any deities just like me. But I respect that he doesn’t want to be part of a united front in this war, but instead wants to be a lone gunslinger who will fight battles on his own terms and without the baggage that the label “atheism” comes with. 

  • YimYinger

    I was at a talk of his a few months back, and someone asked him why he called himself an “agnostic” as opposed to an “atheist”. What he basically said was that the difference, for him, was whether/how they expressed that nonbelief—simply that an “atheist” is someone who likes to talk about his atheism, while Tyson was much more concerned with spreading science in general.

  • HGee

    ‘Weak atheism’ is already a term for someone who doesn’t believe in a god, but doesn’t assert that a god can’t possibly exist. It’s also the variety of atheism that most prominent atheists seem to use, including Richard Dawkins. We don’t need a new word, we already have ‘atheism’.

    Agnosticism never meant ‘do not believe in any gods’ before. It only means that now because people are afraid of the other A word.

  • Why the big fuss over a label. As long as he’s always seeking truths and not spouting lies, preaching archaic beliefs, etc… just let it be. 🙂

  • I don’t really get worked up over what term is used. I far as I’m concerned, if someone calls themself either an agnostic or atheist, I think they have made it over the hump.

    In my opinion, the big evil is to elevate the personal opinion of the ancient scripture writers to some kind of universal TRUTH that must be followed (like saying to kill gays or that women are lesser beings). Once you have crossed the hump to agnosticism, then you have to devalue the legitimacy of scripture as being universally true. Whether you take that last step of concluding that there is no God is really irrelevant in my book.

  • HGee

    Originally, Thomas Henry Huxley coined the term as such:
    “Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle… Positively the principle may be expressed as in matters of intellect, do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”

    Now it seems to mean just about anything.

  • Zac

    I think you’re just over-reacting. Literally every agnostic I know uses the same reasoning. Agnosticism itself is simply a result of widespread misunderstanding of what atheism means. The way I see it, he’s not tip-toeing around anything in order to avoid conflict or losing credibility, he’s just using a term he think best describes what he believes.

  • Myatheistlife
  • This clip was my instant thought when I read the headline.

    I’d also point out things he said in his intro to “Perimeter of Ignorance” about not wanting that fight.  He then goes on to argue (very well IMO) against God of the Gaps.  He doesn’t wear the label because he doesn’t want to talk to O’Reilly about God.  He wants to talk to O’Reilly about the NASA budget.

  • JacobVFox

    Seems to me Neil is not so much trying to avoid identification with the “A” word as not wanting to be associated with some “A” people. And if Neil is not your kind of atheist that really is your problem.  

  • supercsc

     There is a great deal of confusion over these terms. I called myself agnostic for a very long time because I actually thought agnostic meant you did not believe in god, while atheist meant you believed there was no god. When there is such a great cultural confusion over what words mean, I don’t it is fair to make a big fuss about what he calls himself.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism
    So, gnostic/agnostic applies to the know-ability of god(s). 
    theist/atheist applies to the belief in god(s).

    Theist, you have that belief, atheist you don’t.
    Gnostic you think the position can be proved, agnostic you don’t.

    The vast majority of atheists, including Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris etc are agnostic atheists.  They don’t believe any gods exist, but they acknowledge you can never disprove all possible gods.

    Some theists are gnostic theists.  They are SURE God exists, beyond a shadow of a doubt.  Some theists are agnostic theists.  They believe in God, but don’t feel it’s a provable point.

    I hope that accurately represents Hemant’s views.  It’s the basic argument you’ll get from most argumentative atheists if they feel you’re mis-using the terms.

    The important misconception (or definition disagreement) that most people have, is that in common usage many people take ‘atheist’ to mean ‘gnostic atheist’.  You get that when people say “Aha!  Dawkins just admitted he’s an agnostic!”  Dawkins didn’t admit anything.  He’s always been an agnostic atheist, he was just clarifying that.

  • Jim McCall

    Agnostic = Ultimate causes are unknowable. That’s basically what I think Huxley was saying. 

  • Agnosticism is philosophy.  Atheism is science.

  • As I’ve said in the past, the difference between an atheist and agnostic is that an agnostic thinks that there is a difference, and an atheist does not.

    I’m not particularly bothered by someone who disidentifies with atheism for whatever reason.  I think I’m more bothered by the anti-atheist things people say: trading on stereotypes, acting like it’s just so bizarre to talk about atheism.  What Tyson says isn’t really that bad as these things go, though the non-golf players is tired and cliched.  I’ve heard atheists say much worse things trading on stereotypes of agnostics.

  • guest

    A fight against religion (or religious oppression) is a fight for reason and critical thinking. I’m a philosopher, I identify as an atheist, but that does not define me. I think he see’s “atheism” as being nothing more than a byproduct of a sound, rational, scientifically minded view of the universe and our place in it. It’s not that he is or is not an Atheist(tm), it’s that it does not have any bearing on his life. It’s completely off his radar. I find this to be very common in scientists. The concept of “atheist” vs. “theist” is so absurd, that calling themselves atheist is seen as acknowledging that “theist” is even a world view. Scientists, by definition, do no accept non-natural explanations for phenomena. They are molded and shaped by what they can observe, predict, support, and falsify. 

  • Yukimi

    You can be a gnostic or strong atheist or an agnostic or weak atheist. I don’t think it’s a cop op of the word, I think it’s a very reasonable way to use it.

  • AshBowie

    I’ll cop to that. I think an agnostic is inherently an atheist if an atheist is someone who lacks belief in a god. The term “agnostic” isn’t redundant as long as it is used in its proper domain (epistemology), but it is redundant if it’s being used as shorthand for what one does or doesn’t believe. In other words, if someone asks “Do you believe in god?” and you reply “I’m an agnostic”…then you are saying you are an atheist who is simply articulating what most other atheists assume is already implied: that we can’t know with 100% certainty. 

  • AshBowie

    I might call Tyson an apatheist…he just doesn’t care about god one way or another because it doesn’t figure into his profession or worldview. 

  • Godbeyaj

    Not at all off base. It does seem to imply that atheist have nothing to fight against at that is simply not true. Were there no discrimination and were are secular foundation not quite literally under attack then there would be no problem.

  • Godbeyaj

    Sigh… I am always disappointed in myself for not proofreading .

  • AshBowie

    There were all kinds of ways to answer that question without having to use the tortured logic Tyson used here. He could have said, “I think of myself as a naturalist. As far as I can tell, the world operates according to natural causes and effects. I do not concern myself with gods or demons or fairies because those hypotheses lack any explanatory power, which, as a scientist, is my primary concern. If reliable evidence comes to light that makes a god or any other supernatural construct seem likely to exist, I will of course consider it with an open mind. But until then, I will continue to assume that our amazing and breathtakingly beautiful universe is entirely natural.”

    If he had answered that way, he would have avoided the atheist label without maligning movement atheism or giving ammo to accommodationism. 

  • He’s clearly an atheist. He doesn’t like the word… fine, neither do I. His point at the end was spot on: we don’t generally have words for things that we are not. He says he’s not a golfer, and doesn’t see a problem with the lack of a word for that. He says he sees no evidence for a god. That’s what an atheist is, whatever you want to call it.

    He misuses the word agnostic, which has nothing to do with whether you are an atheist or a theist. An agnostic isn’t somebody who doesn’t know, it’s somebody who thinks the matter is unknowable. Such a person can be a theist or otherwise.

    Tyson should know better. As a scientist, he’s aware that he knows very little with certainty. That doesn’t alter his beliefs. He doesn’t know how the Universe began, but he has a high degree of confidence in the Big Bang cosmology. Because he’s rational, he allows his beliefs to follow the evidence, or the lack of it.

    It is no different when considering deities. Nobody knows for sure. Some people believe- we call them “theists”; some don’t- we call them “atheists”. Some people think we can ultimately know for sure; those that don’t we call “agnostics”. Tyson may or may not be agnostic- he doesn’t answer that question. But he makes it pretty clear he hasn’t seen any evidence of a god, so given his rational approach to things, it’s hard to see how he can be anything but an atheist.

  • Bill Maher has used that one.  He’s obviously an anti-theist, but he tends to shy away from ‘atheist’.

  • Lest we forget, he is also dependent on government money to fund NASA.  He has to be political also.

    There are many who can proudly fly the Atheist flag and it works for them, but like Tyson said, he doesn’t have time for it, his main interest is keeping NASA funded and running so to be saddled with the baggage that comes with the Atheist label would hurt not only him, but undermine the organisation as a whole and stop who knows how many projects.

    We can’t expect him to be another champion of the Atheist movement if he doesn’t want to be just because we think he should be.

  • I love Neil deGrasse Tyson, and it doesn’t matter to me how he chooses to label himself, but I agree with Hemant that he should have left it at “the only ‘ist’ I am is a ‘scientist.'” 

    Instead, he goes on to reinforce  stereotypes of self-described atheists as confrontational, in-your-face activists who sit around talk to each other about how they don’t believe in god when they’re not prosthelytizing atheism. Sure, there are some atheists like that, but not all of us and not all the time. 

    Maybe the label “atheist” wouldn’t come with so much baggage if our apparent allies, like Tyson, didn’t keep assigning it to us.

  • HGee

    I don’t care about what he calls himself. I think the fuss is more about his elaboration, and the way he characterizes atheists.

  • AndyTK

    It does seem like he doesn’t understand the difference between being an Atheist, being an activist Atheist and being an anti-theist.  He is definitely an Atheist but he doesn’t want to be associated with activist Atheist anti-theists, which is fair enough, but I wish he had said so clearly, rather than coping out with agnostic.  In this case he seems to be applying Steven Colbert’s definition of agnostic – an Atheist without balls.

    BTW – my definition of agnostic is a person that believes the likelihood of god existing is over 5% but less than 50%.  I define Atheism as the belief that the supernatural is highly improbable, but open to review on the presentation of evidence.  To believe that there is absolutely no possibility for the existence of god is to be as much of a fundamentalist as a religious fundamentalist that believes that god definitely exists (based on no evidence whatsoever).  On the other hand it is silly to spend time and money on the assumption that Leprechauns exist.

  • brianmacker

    He just spent that videos spouting lies, plus for someone who doesn’t like labels and doesn’t have time for such nonsense, he spent plenty of time labeling himself and spouting lies.

  • articulett

    When someone who doesn’t believe in god distances themselves from the term “atheist”, I feel like they are furthering the prejudice against atheists. I prefer atheists who own the title– they do more for ridding the world of prejudice against non-believers than those atheists who treat the term like a dirty word.

    I understand that the term “atheist” is loaded and it primes people not to like you– but how do we get rid of that prejudice unless more people own the term? 

    I’m with you on this issue, Hement. 

  • Nope, he messed up the arguments.

  • Atheism is a belief position. Agnosticism is a philosophical position. It is possible to be both. In fact, most skeptics and critical thinkers are. Anyone who says they ‘know’ beyond the shadow of a doubt that there is no God is either lying, or doesn’t understand the definition of the word ‘know.’ 

  • Destry Fronck

    In discussions with religious folks, it seems that the first point they make is that I can’t prove that there isn’t a god. So I agree with Tyson on not being called an atheist because of that and the other baggage associated with the name “Atheist”. The label definitely makes it tougher to discuss issues with religious people. That said, I do consider myself to be an atheist. If I saw proof of god, I’d change but I really don’t expect to see any proof.

  • tnie

    AshBowie, I’d like to use your quote – it rocks!  

  • Reasongal

     Yes, I think he sees himself as an educator and an ambassador, teaching all the time but wanting it to be universally envisioned as accessible to all – the label could then cause an “agenda” to be assigned to him that may get in the way of the neediest students.  Carl Sagan served in that way, but was so eloquent in his explanations, even those that could clearly be seen as tossing aside an unnecessary deity that he lured people in to the beauty.  Tyson is an exciting, entertaining, informative, charismatic public figure (can you feel the love?) but he is working in the now of a different type of society – so I get it, but it made me feel sad and a bit ticked.

  • Ndonnan

    Thanks for that, ive learned somthing new today

  • usclat

    I totally agree with you tnie!

  • Ndonnan

    Yep we usually think of what we should have said latter,good answer though

  • Joe

    Agnosticism is an epistemological statement (I know, or I do not know).  I do not know if there are invisible pink unicorns prancing about the asteroid belt with teapot necklaces.  I personally think that the idea is preposterous, but I have no evidence to the contrary, and have no desire to argue about it.Atheism is an axiological position (I have chosen to believe or…not to believe, as it were).  I choose not to believe in above mentioned unicorns, and the evidence (or lack thereof) is irrelevant.  I would like to see evidence discounting such beings, but have no burning need (or arguably even want) for anyone to present the evidence.

    One should inform the other (agnosticism –> atheism), but they are by no means mutually inclusive (or exclusive) of each other.

  • Renshia

    I personally think the guy is the most incredible example of a rational thinking  human. For him to embrace the label would only diminish him. He has his right to pick his battles and I highly respect him for putting himself beyond the fight. I heard him answer religious questions and his answers leave most embarrassed, for asking such stupid stuff/. There is no doubt where he stands.

    This should be the expected norm,  to be above wasting time discussing such stupidity.  I applaud him for being one of the first. It is an example of what we need to strive to.

    I know the time is not right and we have a long time to go before we have reached critical mass.  What people like you, Hemant and people like Dawkins do it vital to us getting to that place.

    I think this is just his way of pressing the fight. By refusing to entertain there is a fight at all.
    There is no evidence, so screw off, end of discussion. You gotta hand it to him he does it in style

    I think his example is an inspiration.  Be damned his reasons.

  • kraken17

    I think of an atheist as one who simply does not believe gods exist. They see no reason to believe such things exist. It is not the same as denying the possibility of beings that some may perceive as gods.

  • AshBowie

    Go for it 🙂

  • Kris_in_Texas

    I’d say most, if not all, of us have experienced situations where we don’t announce our non-belief. I don’t enjoy having to stand there, holding hands with my in-laws, while they thank god for providing the Thanksgiving turkey, when I paid $90 for an organic,free range bird with my hard-earned money. However, I can’t start throwing facts and reason out there without causing a major rift between, not only myself and my wife’s family, but also my closeted wife and her family. Sometimes, it’s just not in an Atheist’s best interest to label yourself.

    I think Atheists should have a secret hand signal, for situations like this. 🙂

  • Nordog

    If Pluto is a dog, what the hell is Goofy?

  • A ¨Goof¨, lol

  • Jp-sheppard


  • Jeremy

    I think he was unequivocal in his statement that he didn’t want to interject himself into the “fray” of believers versus atheists. Was he disingenuous? I’m not sure. I personally don’t think on a personal level that Tyson thinks there is a god, but I think he was clear in that he doesn’t want to enter that conversation, that he wants to remain above board. But apparently the question of whether there is a god is not an important question for him, and for that, he gets some respect in my view because it shouldn’t be serious question for any thinking person.

  • nic raj

    I completely agree with Tyson. I’m studying theoretical physics right now and couldn’t care less about religion or non-religion. 

    though I take a kind of opposite stance to the physicist, seeing as I have more time for frivolous thoughts (and we’re obviously different people XD). I enjoy reading and understanding all sorts of philosophy: absurdism, surrealism, nihilism, Navajo philosophy, east Indian philosophy, Taoism, etc…. etc.

    you all do know that science and religion aren’t that different and were even the same thing at one point in our human history, right? study science or politics if you want to make a difference or if you’re feeling oppressed.  

  • Gryphon

    As usual, xkcd has the answer: http://xkcd.com/774/
    I love Neil like everybody else, but he seems indeed confused on definitions (hard to blame him, most people are, even dictionaries are often wrong). I think if he had more discussions with atheists about this naming thing, he would change his mind. 

  • machintelligence

    Come.  Come.  Even Richard Dawkins in “The God Delusion” identifies himself as a 6 out of 7 on the theist/atheist scale. (7 being  “certain that God does not exist”.)

  • Ronlawhouston

    Hemant – you’re off base.  Here’s why.  I’m not going to go into philosophy or the subtlety of atheism versus agnosticism.   For me, it all boils down to our concept of self.  As in self identification.  You’re identification is tied to atheism.  Dr. deGrasse Tyson does not tie his identity to his atheism.  He doesn’t claim to be an atheist and probably doesn’t like being tagged  with that label.  He views himself as a scientist and feels that the great evidence is stacked against there being a god.  Since he can’t prove or disprove the existence of god, he’s perfectly fine being in the “don’t know, don’t care” camp.

    His remarks didn’t register with me since we’re in the same camp as far as self identification.  My suggestion is that his remarks bothered you since they fall outside of your self identification.    I admit I could be full or crap, but think about it.

  • stojadinovicp

    I felt the same disappointment when I saw this from Russel: http://atheistempire.com/mm_dl/text/Russell,%20Bertrand%20-%20What%20is%20an%20Agnostic.pdf

  • Pseudonym

     Tyson has made comments in the past which indicate that he does not believe that religion is inherently anti-science, anti-reason or anti-critical thinking. That puts him in the same camp as Carl Sagan.

    He’d probably be against religious oppression, though. Or any oppression, for that matter.

  • ctcss

     “Tyson has made comments in the past which indicate that he does not
    believe that religion is inherently anti-science, anti-reason or
    anti-critical thinking.”

    Exactly. As a Christian, I would not appreciate being “abducted” by the religious right to somehow bolster their political aims and agenda simply because I happened to  share a few beliefs with them.  I don’t share their aims or their agenda and I would only join with them if I fully agreed with them. And being someone who is not anti-science, anti-reason or
    anti-critical thinking, and who believes in separation of church and state, I could not and would not find any common cause with them even though we have a few religious belief ideas in common.

    And Hemant, as for atheists not being able to run for office, I find that claim a bit much. Mitt Romney is making his second attempt at running for President and dealing with the fact that he is widely distrusted by many simply because of his Mormon faith.  (Heck, his fellow non-Mormon Christians are his biggest detractors!) However, he’s not running for Mormon in Chief,  he is running for Commander in Chief.  His goal is to be taken seriously for the job of president, not to somehow be a political spokesperson for the Mormon faith.  Obama (a black person with an Islamic name, no less) ran as a candidate for president, not as  a political spokesperson for his race.  He was (and is) widely hated by many for completely irrational reasons, yet he persisted in making his case for his  ability to serve the nation. Tyson is most interested in speaking for, and furthering the goals of science, not being a political spokesperson for non-belief. I admire all of these people because of their persistent efforts to serve a wider purpose and group despite what feelings others hold against them.

    Many years ago Jesse Jackson made his first attempt at running for president, but IMO it was quite obvious he seemed more interested in being a political spokesperson for his movement rather than being the best candidate for office. I would have taken him much more seriously as a candidate for president back then if he had already put some time in the trenches serving as a mayor or a US representative, or a US senator, thus proving himself as someone capable of doing the job. 

    So if an atheist wants me to elect them for office,  have them make their case as the best person for the job, not as the most politically outspoken person for their cause.  I don’t elect males or females or Christians or Jews or Muslims or Atheists or Blacks or Hispanics or Asians or Vegetarians or Feminists into office. I elect (or try to elect) someone who will do the best job serving the people.

  • Daniel Schealler

    I think you’ve got it wrong this time Hemant. But that’s okay. You can’t win ’em all. ^_^

    ‘Atheist’ has a technical definition, yes. I used to think that this was all that matters.

    However, ‘Atheist’ has also become a movement and an identity. That’s the side effect (if not the goal) of what we’ve all been doing online, yes?

    Over the last 18 months my mind has gradually changed to a new position: We have to respect a person’s right to choose their own labels, as well as let them choose freely whether or not to be involved in a given movement.

    From the video, it seems very clear to me that while Neil very much fits the technical definition of ‘atheist’, he doesn’t want to be an active part of the movement or the identity.

    His reasons for this could be personal or political or both… But either way, his reasons are irrelevant.

    It’s Neil’s choice to identify however he pleases.

    It’s Neil’s choice to involve himself in whatever movements he pleases.

    Neil doesn’t owe anyone an explanation, least of all us. Especially given the stellar (pun intended) work he’s doing in terms of public education and outreach regarding science.

    I’d love for him to be a part of our team too. But it’s his choice, not ours.

  • Matt in Memphis

    Well said. Personally, I don’t really care what label Tyson wants to use, and if he doesn’t want to be called an “atheist” then I think we should respect that.  I even can sort of see why he fears that using this label may not be helpful for his goals as a science advocate. What is obnoxious about this, however, is that instead of just saying that he “prefers ‘agnostic'” or “doesn’t want to define himself by what he doesn’t believe in,” or is “simply interested in science,” or “would rather not be associated with the atheist movement,” he tries t0 distance himself from the atheist label by mischaracterizing it as something it obviously isn’t for the vast majority of atheists. Very few of us – and none of the prominent “new” atheists like Harris or Dawkins- claim to be sure of a god’s nonexistence or unwilling to change positions should credible evidence appear. 

    He is just being a little too cute with the definitions and it is harmful and dishonest for a someone in his position to blatantly misrepresent the situation like this, especially when the general public already has such a warped view of what most atheists stand for.  I still think Tyson rocks, but this was an obvious fail.  

  • Albatross

    To the author: (I doubt you’ll read this, but I would love an opinion)

    No, you’re not off base.  However, you’re dangerously close to falling into the semantic folly that seems trademark of online discourse (on the subject of atheism).  Whenever considering the way another person self-identifies, it is beneficial to put additional weight on the way they are understanding the definitions of the words being used to self-identify (as opposed to the most popular/accurate usage of those words).  If you were addressing Dr. Tyson directly, it would make more sense to appeal to the wider definition.  As an open opinion article however, you do him and yourself a disservice.  What he recognizes to be atheism may be something that he finds egregious.  So, to eyes affected by that expectation, this article might seem pedantic and you might seem like an aggressor.

    All that said, I tend to agree with almost all of what you wrote, with the biggest exception being accusing him of invoking Christian apologetic.  Looking at the history of the term, atheism had been an assertive stance.  It seems like a mistake to ridicule a great science communicator with a black-or-white-ism, and I hope you reconsider your approach. 

    I found my way here via Dr. Coyne and if for any reason you /do/ read this and you /do/ resonate with some of what I said, please consider opening a dialog with him on the subject.  

  • Exactly. The problem isn’t how he chooses to represent himself, it’s the sloppy argument he uses. This from a guy who, in general, makes it a point to avoid sloppy argument.

    All he had to do was say that he’s not interested in explaining his personal views on the matter, since they would interfere with the other messages he’s more concerned with presenting. (The same thing I say in the classroom, if asked about my religious views.) Simple, accurate, case closed.

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6oxTMUTOz0w

    I want to put on the table, not why 85% of the National Academy rejects God, I want to know why 15% don’t.

  • WML

    Bravo, Hemant!

  • Thank you, Matt. That’s exactly what I wanted to say, only you said it better. I  have been rather upset at his throwing atheists under the bus with distortions like that.  Also, thank you Hemant!

  • Thank you Anne. Stated very well. I wonder if NDT could beat the prevailing atheist stereotyping by being open about not believing. If anyone has a stellar, friendly, logical, science-based reputation, it’s him! He could probably get away with using the term and improving its looks for everyone else, but I understand if he doesn’t want to have to deal with that. 

    Him using those tired, unfair stereotypes is extra damaging because of his very good reputation. He could have stayed neutral, but went negative towards atheists, and underservingly so. 

  • And apparently YOU like to spread the exact same lies about atheists as theists do. You’re no better than them. 

  • CultOfReason

    Tyson is not the first to shy away from self-identifying with the dirty ‘A’ word.  Einstein and Sagan did the same.  Not that it makes it right.

    A quote from Einstein:

    “You may call me an agnostic,
    but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist
    whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from religious
    indoctrination received in youth.”

  • I’m in this category, especially relating to believing family members and friends because I see no reason to egg on conflict just for the sake of it. I usually try to avoid the word “atheist” because of the baggage that comes with it. If we insist on labels, I prefer skeptic or freethinker.

  • Hemant, you said “So he’s someone who won’t say definitively that god doesn’t exists, but he open to the evidence.”  That *is* a fair definition of an *agnostic*. Someone who does not know if god exists.

    Neil deGrasse Tyson does a great job popularising science but I don’t believe he’s what you would call a “deep thinker”. Listening to his conversations with guests on the Startalk Radio podcast, he seems to lack a willingness to embrace controversy, political or religious. Perhaps he doesn’t want to offend anyone in his audience. Maybe his role at the Hayden Planetarium requires this.

    We all know the Richard Dawkins spectrum of [dis]belief, as described in The God Delusion.  There’s no problem with his being agnostic, but my guess is Neil deGrasse Tyson is closer to the atheist end of the scale than he is prepared to publicly admit.  His supposed conflation of atheism with “atheist activism” sounds like a smokescreen.

  • If I heard him correctly, he didn’t even declare himself an agnostic. He said it was the closest approximation to what he’d choose, if he had to.

    His public identity is not one of religion, it’s one of science, and he never gets into the realm of the supernatural. He wants to talk about stars and black holes and geology and biology, not gods or miracles or magic. That’s just what he is, and it makes him optimistic and able to not get dragged into the battles between the sides.

    He comes across as insanely genuine any time I hear him, so I have no trouble believing that he goes home and doesn’t concern himself with that; thus, agnostic. Do you tell  Humanists “NO YOU ARE ATHEISTS ONLY?”

    What he labels himself (or doesn’t – since he seems not to care for a label in this way) doesn’t detract from what he says, and what he says overwhelmingly agrees with atheism… so let him be whatever he wants.

  • Nordog

    Apparently he doesn’t want to be associated with Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, et alia.

    I’ve long been a fan of Tyson.  I remember the first time I noticed him he was on one of those science shows on cable talking about falling into a black hole.  His description was both informative and funny.

    Now I know he doesn’t want to “poison the well” with people like me.  Just more reason to like him.

  • I’m impressed by the fervor with which this thread has proceeded. Thanks for your interesting in my (and each other’s) views. In response to some of what has been said, I offer a few perspectives:

    0) The opening sentence to this blog: “Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t get it” should instead have said “we don’t see eye to eye” or “we don’t agree on important points”.  As worded, it implies that you “get it” while I and everyone who agrees with me does not.  That’s a strong assertion, which, in my experience, is hardly ever justified.  As a minimum, it does not allow there to be an argument you have yet to consider that would change your view.  That is the essence of dogma.
    1) I have not received money from NASA for the past five years or so.  Back then, I received was a small fraction of large pot of research money to study data from the Hubble Telescope.  Right now I have access to seed monies from the National Science Foundation to birth the radio show StarTalk: http://www.startalkradio.net/.  So my “financial support” is, and has ever been, only partially derived from tax-based sources.  My day job since 1995 has been the Director of the Hayden Planetarium in NYC.

    2) My collected writings and speeches that reference god, religion, spirituality sum to about 1/2 of 1% of my output. And, with the exception of my “Perimeter of Ignorance” talk (and essay from which it was derived), whenever I do reference these subjects in talks, it’s typically because I was directly asked by somebody during Q&A.  But because of forums such as this blog, I find myself being continually pulled back into the conversation. Evidence that people care, for sure, but from my view, a misdirection of energies…

    3) In my opinion, ideas matter more than words and labels.  In a point I’ve made before, our language has only two words that reference or measure a person’s non-religiosity.  So werre left debating who’s sortable into one word or another, rather than discussing the access that religious zealots have to school curricula, or the subjugation of women in many religious philosophies.  Consider that Christopher Hitchens was a tireless fighter for human rights his entire life.  But at no time were you compelled to say “Go Atheist, Go!”  Instead you couldn’t help notice: “This guy cares deeply about the disenfranchised.”

    4) I care deeply about science literacy and the impact it can heave on dreams, ambitions, and the wealth of nations.  Occasionally this mission crosses paths with dogma.  I’m there what that happens, but not typically on the front lines.  That’s because others step forward who’ve written books on the dangers of dogma – religious or otherwise.  These people have forged their careers on debating dogma.  I’m their backup, although I’m usually not needed.  When I do step forward it’s typically with a qualitatively different argument than what preceded me.  e.g. http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/tyson/read/2006/12/21/a-teacher-a-student-and-a-church-state-dispute5) The concept that you can’t prove a negative is often applied to “you can’t prove God does not exist”.  This notion, while strictly true in logic and philosophy, is simply rubbish to the practicing scientists.  That’s why logicians and philosophers, in modern times, make bad scientists.  We prove negatives all the time.  But our language is a bit different.  Instead we might say, “Evidence is overwhelming for the absence of “WXYZ”, such that we will abandon all further  experiments on the subject and go on to other problems”  For example, if you say there’s a bear in a cave, and I surround the cave with footprint-powder and observe for a year that no bear tracks are left outside of the cave – at any time,  I have **in practice** demonstrated that there is no (living) bear within.  For these reasons I will never say “You cannot prove that God does not exist.”

    6) The world (but especially America) contains productive, practicing scientists who pray to a personal god (about 40% of the demographic).  So being a scientist is **empirically** not equivalent to being an Atheist.  Typically they have filtered their religious texts for spiritual fulfillment, ignoring patently false statements about the physical world.   So the fight for science literacy is not against religion, it’s against religious people (and perhaps others) who are trying to change policy in ways that undermine the training of scientists and practice of science here and elsewhere.  For those who want to fight religion beyond these battle fields, I will not stop them.  But my portfolio of energy and interest does not include such conduct or activities.

    7) Don’t take any of this personally, I don’t debate astrologers, faith healers, palm readers, UFOlogists (etc.) either.  I’d rather get people thinking straight in the first place.  If I fail, that’s when I hand them over to the rest of you.

    8) More on these points of view from my acceptance remarks upon receiving the 2009 American Humanist Association’s  Isaac Asimov Science Award.  http://www.thehumanist.org/humanist/09_sept_oct/Tyson.html

    Respectfully submitted,
    Neil deGrasse Tyson
    New York City

  • Nordog

     Now I like Mr. Tyson even more than I did before.

  • Matt in Memphis

    Thanks Deanna Joy.  Love your work on Living After Faith and Ask an Atheist. I am also a Lyons, btw. Small world…

  • Hard man to dislike.  Here’s another really good interview that ratcheted up my Tyson-love a few notches 
    Whenever 5 five-year-old exclaims “This is an experiment!” I think of Tyson and smile “Yep!”

  • I’m impressed by the fervor with which this thread has proceeded.

    Not that you’re unfamiliar with controversy.  *cough*Pluto*cough*

  • VW6

    “Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t get it”?  “Friendly” atheist???

  • I understand what you’re saying and I do agree with some of the things you’ve said, but I really like what Tyson said here.  Basically, he’s a scientist.  If he were to label himself as an atheist, there would be pre-supposed notions about what he says.

    I recently had a to-do with a family member in which she stated something about my beliefs being wrong, but we’d never once had a conversation about what it is I actually believe.

    The face of Atheism, let’s admit it, has been pretty fervent  lately.  I think perhaps Dr. Tyson is being just a bit prejudiced in that area, however, that’s not what he cares about and that’s not the community he associates with.   He’d rather keep his views as “scientific” rather than giving someone the idea that they know what he’s about because he’s labeled as an atheist.  He’s a laid back kind of guy and is much happier talking about what he knows about science rather than the controversies surrounding the idea of Atheism.  The only goal he has is to advance science and make sure that people have the correct information.  How many talk shows has he shown up on and told them that their sets and title screens are all wrong?  He went around and around with James Cameron about the sky being wrong.  I’ll never forget the “happy dance” he did when telling the story about how Cameron contacted him about getting it right on the re-release.

    Bottom line is, we all chose what it is we’re passionate about.  Atheism is not something that he thinks is important.  Science is what’s important to him.  While you’re saying “he wants a free ride”, why not flip the coin?  Don’t you think that by more people listening to him because he is unlabeled will eventually bring more people to atheism?  He’s helping us and we’re helping him.  It’s mutually beneficial.

    I’m not sure it matter much what he claims as far as religion goes.  He’s probably defensive because he’s received negative feedback from people asking him to “come out” and he’s refused or doesn’t agree with the label.  He’s not interested in being part of a movement and that is his choice.  I think it’s silly, however, to ridicule someone for not claiming a label they’re not comfortable with.  It is also COMPLETELY WRONG to try to force someone out of the closet in the first place.  I think we should just let the man go back to what makes him, and by proxy the rest of us, happy.  He’s good at it.  He’s so wonderful to listen to.  He makes me happy.   That’s what  I care about.

  • His argument is sloppy because that’s not where his knowledge or his interest lies.  Do you make it a point to learn about things that DON’T interest you?  

  • CultOfReason

    Neil deGrasse Tyson,

    It’s an honor to be posting in the same comments section as you.  I can tell you’ve put a lot of thought into your post and it was a pleasure reading through it.

    I would, however, respectfully ask you to consider the main point Hemant was making, which is, that the word atheist (a-theist) simply means disbelief in a deity –  which, if I’m not mistaken, does properly reflect your position.  All of the other attributes and qualities you mention (activism, etc..) are reflections of individual behaviors, irrespective of one’s belief/disbelief in deities.

    As you know, atheists – even us quiet ones not involved in activism, are somewhat maligned in this country, so it hurts us when we see someone of your stature play into some of the stereotypes associated with atheists.

    While Imly believe, and think you would agree, that labels don’t define us – it is a reality that people will label us and judge us by those labels.  For that reason alone, I ask you to consider being more careful in future interviews with how you define and use the term ‘atheist’.

    Best regards, and I look forward to taking my kids the the Hayden Planetarium for their first time this summer.


  • Charon

    On point 0): dude, it’s the definition of a word. If you tell me you don’t believe in electrons, but you do believe in a particle of mass 511 keV, charge 1.6e-19 C, lepton number 1, etc., I’m going to say “you are wrong, you do believe in electrons, because that’s the definition of an electron.” And I will be right. Period. That’s not dogma, that’s a definition.

    I know you were addressing many of the points raised in comments, but nowhere do you address Hemant’s point. Your point 7) is particularly weird – Hemant’s entire point was that you don’t need to engage in such fights to be an atheist, and you were distorting the entire picture by saying you do. I don’t care if you’re an evangelical atheist or not, but don’t claim “atheist” = “evangelical atheist”. If you do, you are wrong.

  • John G

    Hemant, I think you’re off base. I think (on this subject, though not on asteroid mining or the proper direction for The Daily Show’s earth to spin) Neil deGrasse Tyson is absolutely right. It’s funny how so many people want to assign labels rather than exchange ideas. Like he says, he’s a free thinker. Lots of people would rather not think so much, and labels like liberal, conservative, Christian, and atheist can help them believe that thinking is unnecessary. Here’s your label; now I know everything about you. People aren’t that simple.

    It’s also funny that Christians frequently use labels to exclude — “not a TRUE Christian” is a favorite phrase. Atheists use the label to include people who don’t want to be included. I think NDT’s reluctance is as much a desire to avoid being lumped in with a lot of angry assholes as anything else, but if he says he’s not an atheist it’s kind of dickish not to respect that.

  • John G

     Most Christians also want a more scientifically literate America. Strutting around like that issue is something that will wither and die without atheist champions is part of the nonsense that NDT chooses to disassociate with.

  • John G

    The best way to get rid of that prejudice is to condemn the antitheists who have appropriated the atheist label. But since online atheist communities are mostly made up of such people, anyone who points out that most religious people aren’t preaching hellfire and damnation and petitioning to abolish evolution teaching is villified as an accommodationist. Nice pleasant atheists would be more willing to claim the label if it weren’t so associated with assholes and bullies.

  • John G

    Like their Christian allies, they oppose creationism in school without thinking that opposing creationism requires them to oppose religion.

    I choose to call myself an atheist despite the fact that “the movement” has really become more of an anti-theist crusade. Not everyone makes the same choice.

  • Nordog

     “Like their Christian allies, they oppose creationism in school without
    thinking that opposing creationism requires them to oppose religion.”

    Not sure exactly what you mean, but as written this is not true.  At least if one means “religion” categorically.

    If by “creationism in school” you mean biblical literalism such that Genesis is a scientific text, then I would oppose that while not opposing religion categorically.

    One can be religious, believe that the natural world was created in some manner by God, and still oppose “creationism” as a science.

    One problem is the word “creationism”.  Generally the term is used to describe people who claim that Genesis is a scientific text with a literal description of the universe coming to be.  Technically it includes anyone who believes God created the universe.

  • Deepak Shetty

     +1 for Dr Tyson’s response (with some minor quibbles)

    In a point I’ve made before, our language has only two words that reference or measure a person’s non-religiosity. 

    This is I believe the crux of the matter . Technically a lot of us could fall under “agnostic atheist” – but then Hemant doesn’t call himself the friendly agnostic atheist. It must be because he doesn’t get it or he is embarrassed to identify with the wishy washy agnostics. (and people who like to argue knowledge v/s belief claims — note that for a human being a knowledge claim is the same as saying he believes something to be true – since technically there isn’t an objective way for the brain to evaluate a truth claim – knowledge and beliefs aren’t easily separated).
    People choose agnostic or atheist more based on how invested they are in the argument that God exists(rather than the degree to which they follow said God) which Dr Tyson has repeatedly said he isn’t.  I too consider myself an agnostic for much the same reason. if however there was a word for anti – religion then I would adopt that because thats a closer approximation of my views – rather than atheist or agnostic.

  • He’s funny. I love him even more now.  Sam Harris once said that he really didn’t like the word ‘Atheist’, and we should just call ourselves ‘Naturalist’ instead, since we believe the world is governed by naturalistic laws that can be explained by logic and supported by empiricism (0r something like that) and, as Dawkins said, we can’t really be 100% sure of anything.  I don’t care for the word Agnostic because it literally means ‘without knowledge’.  

  • I don’t go out of my way to learn about things that don’t interest me. Neither do I speak out (or type out) about matters in which I don’t have a reasonable degree of expertise. I’ve found that to be a wise policy that has served me well.

  • AndyTK

    Everybody understands that NDT doesn’t want to carry the torch and join Harris and Dawkins in attacks on the delusional.  What hurts, and why I think this thread has generated more interest than any other that I’ve followed on this site, is that his words indicate that he is an Atheist and yet he will not admit it in public.  It’s not like he is in the closet about his beliefs either.  He isn’t an actor that only friends know is an Atheist but is careful not to say anything in public for fear of outing himself.  He’s more like Paul Lin saying that he’s not gay.  It makes the other gays say, what are you embarrassed about?

    I felt like Chris Hayes handled it much better on the show he had about Atheists a few weeks back.  He said, “I’m an Atheist, but it’s not something that I spend any time thinking about and it is so far down on the list of things I would use to describe myself that I don’t carry that label with me” (or something to that effect).  You got the impression that if asked to describe himself he would say “journalist, author, father, husband and avid golfer” forgetting to mention atheist along with any number of other things that correctly describe him.  However, if asked directly he would own up to it.  NDT could say the same thing, and if I read between the lines this is what he IS saying, except for the first part where he acknowledges that he doesn’t believe in the god hypothesis and is therefore an Atheist.  Instead he runs from the label and for those of us that do take that label and put ourselves out there to show the world that not everybody believes in god and that non-believers can be good without god that hurts.

    Plenty of bonus points for showing up and making his case however, even if I don’t find it convincing.

  • Nordog

    Or maybe he doesn’t want to belong to a club whose members necessarily consider all people of faith to be delusional.


    The concept that you can’t prove a negative is often applied to “you
    can’t prove God does not exist”.  This notion, while strictly true in
    logic and philosophy, is simply rubbish to the practicing scientists.
     That’s why logicians and philosophers, in modern times, make bad
    scientists.  We prove negatives all the time.

    I’m sorry, Neil. I’m a big fan. I really am. But rather than supporting that philosophers make bad scientists, that paragraph supports that scientists such as yourself make bad philosophers. I’m actually astounded that a person like you, who usually has such an immense depth of knowledge would say something so profoundly ignorant of philosophy and logic.

    First of all, qualifications out of the way: I’m almost done with my MA in philosophy, but any other philosopher worth their salt will also tell you what I’m about to tell you: no, it’s decisively not true – strictly or otherwise – in either logic or philosophy that you can’t prove a negative. That’s complete nonsense. In fact, if that were the case, how on Earth would you know, since “you can’t prove a negative” is itself a negative statement? Not to mention that any positive statement is a negative statement of a negative statement. ‘(p & not-q)’ is truth-functionally equivalent to not-not-(p & not-q) which again is truth-functionally equivalent to not-not-not-not-(p & not-not-not-q) and so on. There is no profound logical difference between a positive and a negative proposition, which lets you philosophically prove the former but inhibits you from proving the latter.

    There are various forms of philosophical argumentation, but let’s go with simple deduction. A deductive argument is valid if and only if the conjunction between its premises and the negation of its conclusion results in a logical contradiction. That is, the concept of validity is itself founded upon the law of non-contradiction, which is the negative statement that “it’s not the case that p and not-p.” Which, wouldn’t you know it, can be proven formally as follows:

    1) (A & ~A) [Proposition]

    2) A [Conjunction elimination from 1]

    3) ~A [Conjunction elimination from 1]

    4) ~(A & ~A) [Reductio, 1 – 3]

    You’re a great man, Neil. But, please, in the future refrain from saying that philosophers are bad scientists simply because you don’t understand philosophy.

    Yours truly,
    Heini Reinert

  •  Link to blogpost I did:


    Basically just a copy/paste of my answer to Neil, but with an added exposition of my motivations.

  • I appreciate you responding to us very much, Mr. Tyson. I can fully accept that you don’t want to use the label “atheist” and that is perfectly fine, no matter what your reasons. I won’t even say “nuh uh, you ARE an atheist” because I don’t think that’s cool. It’s important for all of us to have the freedom to describe ourselves in ways we are comfortable. 

    The problem is that you threw all of us under the bus by repeating common lies about what atheists are.  Those negative stereotypes hurt us all and for you, with your respected status in society and in science, to repeat those harmful misconceptions about people using a certain term to describe their position on this one issue (a label, perhaps?) makes it even more damaging. You could easily describe your position by describing your own beliefs without saying negative things about atheists. Thank you for your consideration. 

  • CultOfReason

     Except that atheism is not a club, but simply a position of disbelief with respect to supernatural deities.

  • Nordog

    Okay, then maybe he didn’t want to be a member of some sort of “cult of reason” whose members necessarily consider all people of faith to be delusional.  Especially so when said members have a constitutionally pendantic nature such that they cannot abide metaphor.

  • He doesn’t mind belonging to the club that considers astrologists and faith healers delusional. 

  • >
    The best way to get rid of that prejudice is to condemn the antitheists who have appropriated the atheist label 

    Yeah, I’m right there with ya. I also think the best way to get rid of prejudice against homosexuals is for them to act less flamboyant. (This is sad, but because this is the internet, I’ll confirm that I’m being sarcastic.)

  • CultOfReason

     Except that atheism is not a cult, but simply a position of disbelief with respect to supernatural deities.

    Any attribute you assign to an atheist beyond disbelief in a deity is stereotyping – unless you happen to personally know every single atheist that exists and has ever existed.

  • Nordog

     Man, you really are obtuse aren’t you.  You do realize don’t you that I was ripping on your pseudonym?

    And you can’t be serious about things like, “…atheism is not a club, but simply a position of disbelief with respect to supernatural deities.”?

    Yeah, no has conferences, websites, blogs, writes books, forms political parties, or establishes litigious civil rights organizations by, for, and about atheists.

    Never happens.

    Post Script:
    Ersatz HTML tags (or whatever they are called) added for your edification.

  • Nordog

     Okay; noted.

  • Nordog

     “…no has conferences…” ?

    …and all your base are belong to us.

    Of course that should have been, “…no one has…” etc.

  • Deanna Joy Lyons

    Thank you Matt! Nice to meet another Lyons out here. I borrowed the name from my favorite first husband and I like it. Got a lion tattoo to celebrate. If it’s online and it’s godless, I can usually be found mucking about in the arguments- er, comments section. . 😀

    Let’s all be FB friends and form the giant club of Lyonses who don’t believe in gods.

  • Tyson’s displayed beliefs would be defined as an Agnostic; which is the religious definition that most closely fits the scientific method. There is no solid scientific evidence out there in favor of a divine being, however we cannot at this time DISPROVE the existence of one, either.

    It can be summed up simply. We know, more or less, that the universe began with the Big Bang. But what caused it? It didn’t just *poof* come from nothing. Which leaves two explanations: 1) A divine being (Let there be light, etc.), or 2) yet to be explained scientific theories – The “white hole” theory plus reverse directional time dimensions could be argued for the Big Bang cause, but still doesn’t account for how the matter was created.
    Tyson has previously spoken about how religious scientists in the past, including those such as Newton (whom he considers probably the smartest ever) have been limited by their faith – when they have come across difficulty there have been situations where they ultimately just gave in and said “God did it.” And then, later scientists were able to stand on their research and solve those problems easily.But at the same time, there is much in the universe we simply cannot explain – the Big Bang being the most notable with regards to a divine presence. A scientist like Dawkins who is unwilling to consider that possibility is no different from a Newton in that he is blinded by his faith; Dawkins, however, will simply become obsessed on a subject to the point where he can’t help but get obsessed with it in his absolute denial of there ever being even the slightest chance that a divine being could have caused it. Not unlike the scientists who felt the need to genetically disprove the link spoken of in the Book of Mormon; even though it’s entirely possible that the story is (at least partially) true (like many myths), as the Book of Mormon states that the peoples destroyed themselves – meaning there would be little or no link to modern-day Native Americans.But ultimately, all we can say about the Doctor is…We’ve got a Badass Over Here.

  • anon no 3

    The problem is not that Neil deGrasse Tyson does not use the atheist
    label. The problem is that with what he said he reinforces prejudice
    against atheists and (to use feminist and other activist speak)
    marginalizes atheist who are not activist by saying that to be a
    “real” atheist you need to be an activist. While the first point
    is essentially annoying the second point is something I don’t
    particularly care about but others probably feel more strongly. All
    in all I’m just a bit sad.


  • The problem with most people commenting here is the fact that there seems to be a misunderstanding of what “atheist” means.

    The word “atheist” means a concrete belief in  the lack of a god or gods. It doesn’t mean “I don’t think there’s a god, but there might be”. The second one is “agnostic.” There is no such thing as “agnostic atheist” and the fact that the term is being tossed around is absolutely ridiculous.”Gnostic” means to know, and by contrast “agnostic” means “to not know”, “Theist” means “to believe in god/gods” and the contrasting “atheist” means to not believe in god/gods. There is faith required to be ANYTHING other than an agnostic. You have to have faith that there is a god, or faith that there isn’t. Because you don’t KNOW that there is. Unless you have faith in that belief.

    Dr. Tyson has basically defined himself as an agnostic by his actions, as he has not claimed to have faith in a god or gods, nor has he claimed faith in the lack thereof. And agnosticism supports the scientific method more than any other religious category; as scientists can never claim to be absolutely certain of anything. If a scientist tells you he is absolutely, 100% certain that he is correct about how something works, you can tell him he is wrong and you will ALWAYS be right. Because even if the scientist is correct, there’s ALWAYS a chance that he’s not.

  •  Do you recognise that belief and knowledge are two separate things?

  • CofReason

    Now who’s being obtuse.

  •  You must be new here. There isn’t much difference in friendliness between Hemant and other atheists these days. Although I do think people confuse being forthright with being unfriendly.

  • CultOfReason

    “Yeah, no has conferences, websites, blogs, writes books, forms political parties, or establishes litigious civil rights organizations by, for, and about atheists.”

    I don’t do any of those things. Does that mean I’m not really an atheist or “member of the club”. Are those activities what define someone as an atheist or is it simply their disbelief in a supernatural deity, as I’ve been saying all along.

  • The important point is that since there is so much disagreement over what the terms mean, that before making grand statements about someone else, it’s worthwhile to make sure you actually understand their position.

    We can all go around proclaiming our own definition as the one true definition, but if we start applying our definition to other people, we run the risk of saying stuff like “Richard Dawkins is only 85% sure God doesn’t exist” or “Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t know if God exists” or “Christopher Hitchens thought you could PROVE God impossible”.  All of which are false.

  • Nordog

    Yeah, no.

    Try this on: It ain’t about you.  Your claim was that there was no “club”.  Now you seem to imply that since you don’t belong to a club, one doesn’t exist.  (Again, “club” is being used metaphorically.  Look it up in need be.)   As I mentioned elsewhere, perhaps you should review Aristotle’s Square of Opposition.

    The fact is that many atheists do in fact organize and advocate precisely  around atheism, thus the metaphoric “club” of which I speak.

    Any claim that nothing is done in the name of atheism is patently false.  Only one counter example is need to prove that claim to be false.   However, there are many examples such as the ones to which I referred earlier.

  • Nordog


  • Chris

    I heard him say that he considers himself an educator, first and foremost and that to have “impact,” as an educator, one must come to the discussion with a certain level of respect and understanding for those he wishes to uplift. Being that the United States has a large percentage of Christian literalists, why would he (or any educator) want to alienate them from the get-go? It does no good to say, “This is how it is, if you don’t like it you’re stupid.” Now couple this with the inherent left-wing bias that oozes out of the pores of many academic elites (eg. Krauss, Weinberg)… it’s no wonder why the cultural-political divide seems to be widening. I think that Dr. Tyson’s approach is admirable, elegant and… most of all… effective.

  • CultOfReason

    You’re twisting yourself into a pretzel to try and justify your definition of atheist.

    When all else fails, refer to the dictionary…

    From MerriamWebster:

    Atheist: one who believes that there is no deityShort and to the point.  Based on this definition, I’m an atheist, and so is Dr. Tyson, regardless of how he feels about the label. 

  • Nordog

    You really are obtuse, or else simply rhetorically rabid.  I’ve not ever even offered a definition of atheist, let alone tried to justify it.

  • CultOfReason

     Please stop wasting my time.  You made it quite clear through your juvenile use of sarcasm and “metaphor” the attributes that you believe define an atheist:

    – consider all people of faith to be delusional
    – hold conferences, websites, blogs, writes books, forms political parties, or establishes litigious civil rights organizations

    Unfortunately, these are not attributes common to ALL atheists.  There is only one attribute that is common to all atheists.  Can you guess what that is?

  • Nordog

    I never said those attributes were common to ALL atheists.

    The closest I came to saying something like that was in response to AndyTK’s “delusional” comment where I used the modifier “necessarily”.

    But it is you wasting your own time.  You keep wanting to fight with me over something I haven’t said and don’t assert.

    That’s called being obtuse, stubbornly so.

    In your zeal to be contrary and pick the pepper out of the fly shit you’ve lost your way.  No surprise there.

    So, back to the original point.  Perhpas NDT doesn’t want to be associated with a “club” (the equivocal quote marks are for you) that has members who believe people of faith are necessarily delusional.

    Here, as before, I offer a speculation.  It could have nothing to do with his motivation.

    But the observation that there are atheists who do things in the name of atheism, and that one of those things is to proclaim the necessarily delusional nature of theists, is an observation of easily demonstrable fact.

  • Dietrich

    You are certainly correct that the desire for better science literacy is not exclusively the domain of atheists.  However, I suspect your claim that most Christians share this view may not be accurate.  Given that only %40 of Americans believe in evolution, that leaves a majority that don’t or are not sure.  I will claim that the vast majority of atheists fall in the %40.  While there are obviously Christians in the %40, the numbers suggest that the majority fall outside of it.  In my opinion, if one does not believe in evolution, a call for better science literacy rings hollow.

  • Nordog

     Dietrich, first let me start by saying that I agree with the notion that science education and literacy needs to be improved.

    However, I’m always cautious when I read things like, “such and such percentage of this group of people don’t believe in evolution.”

    The problem I have is that how people define certain terms like evolution, creationism, atheist, etc. varies greatly.  And the terms are often, if not usually, used in a polemically charged political sense.

    Not having seen the internals of these polls it’s impossible to tell if those “not believing” in evolution have simply answered a point blank question such as, “Do you believe in evolution.”

    If that is the case, then the person may be reporting that they don’t believe in evolution as they improperly understand and define the term.  In that case, they would be correct in their skepticism, but not their definition.

    In any event, I don’t see how a call for better science literacy rings hollow by virtue of the fact that the one doing the calling is a prime candidate for the need of better science literacy.

  • brianmacker

    Most of the atheists I know have never been to an atheist event nor belonged to any atheist clubs.

  • Nordog

    That’s not surprising.

  • They are related things. Knowledge is something that is true and can be confirmed in exactly the same form by any number of people, whether it be scientific knowledge, knowledge of arts, language, etc.

    One definition of belief is knowledge based in faith. Such as the “knowledge” that there is or is not a god.

    A more narrow definition of belief is a person’s individual way of seeing things. You could interview 1,000 Christians from the same church and they will all have similar beliefs, but ultimately none of them will hold the same belief in God; this is because everyone perceives things, religious or not, differently.

    An analogy could be made to sports. Bob believes basketball is the best sport, and that Michael Jordan is the best pro athlete ever. Joey believes that hockey is the best sport, and that Gordie Howe is the best pro athlete ever. Chris thinks the best pro athlete ever was not a human, but a horse – specifically Secretariat.

    So who’s right? It’s a matter of knowledge (actual information confirmed by others) in that those athletes were great athletes, backed up by the faith in the comparison between hockey players and basketball players (or football, baseball, soccer, etc.) and the comparison between those players and other greats from their sports (Howe vs. Lemieux, Gretzky, and Orr; Jordan vs. Chamberlain, Bird; Secretariat vs. every other horse ever) results in each person’s belief that they are correct.

  • While I can’t speak for the Dr., I can tell you that I don’t think he meant activist in the sense of missionaries and protests. I think he meant more in the sense of actively identifying yourself as an atheist, and making known and clear your beliefs and how they relate to the everyday world. Think of the “average” Christian, who lives their life seeing the different things we all see, and they – as everyone does – look at it through the lens of their religious beliefs. So maybe they disapprove of homosexuality, but think it’s ok for gays to marry because it’s not their marriage. Or maybe they think gays should be burned alive. Or maybe they’re gay themselves. He didn’t seem to be speaking of the “activist” type in terms of those who hold rallies and marches and such. Moreover simply the “active” type. Maybe “open” is a better word. Those who have their beliefs out in the open, rather than hiding their cards until all are dealt.

  • The golf player analogy works to a degree. It works like so:

    Someone who has never played/watched golf is an agnostic. They don’t know if they are a golf player and/or like golf.
    Someone who has tried golf and rejected it is an atheist. They know they don’t like it.
    Someone who golfs (or likes golf) is a theist.

    Pretty simple.

  • You (or others) failing to understand the dictionary definition of a word doesn’t mean there is a disagreement over its meaning. It means there is a lack of knowledge and/or education on your part. The definitions I used are the actual definitions of words, not some slang mish-mash hashed-up smear of the two that makes them the same. Because that’s like if we had assigned colors (Red – atheist, Blue – Theist, Purple – Agnostic) taking Red and Purple and making them mean the same thing. Ludicrous.

  • Anyone who isn’t “certain” that there is no such thing as a divine being should not be calling themselves an atheist. An atheist means someone who concretely believes in the lack of god(s) and if you feel that you aren’t completely sure of that, you are an agnostic.

  • And agnosticism supports the scientific method more than any other religious category; as scientists can never claim to be absolutely certain of anything. 

    You’ve just described virtually every person who calls themselves an atheist.  I have never met or known of any person who called themselves an atheist who thought you could disprove all gods.

  • Rosco Boxer

     so why are you still taking jabs at atheists all over the internet?  stop already.

  • Rosco Boxer

    Imagine what would happen to education if atheists stopped complaining about religion

  • Nickpicano

    yeah you are off base

  •  Some times you have to dig deep with people to find the source of disagreement between you and them. In this case we hit upon it right away.

    You think belief can be defined as knowledge based in faith, I think that’s absolute nonsense. It’s a contradiction in terms.

    But I can see how we wouldn’t agree on the finer nuances of agnosticism and atheism if you don’t understand what knowledge is.

    Thanks for your answer.


  •  I’m an agnostic atheist.

  •  I’ve nearly concluded my MA in philosophy. What degree do you have, which enables you to speak so confidently of the lack of knowledge and/or education of others on this matter?

  • Nordog

    What school?

  •  I’m not sure I understand your question. Are you asking what school are belief and knowledge separate things in?

  • I think it was in the wrong spot, and he was asking where you got your MA.

  •  Ah, I’m sorry. Of course. I should have realised. Well, as I said I’ve only nearly concluded my MA. I need to write a few more things. But both my  (merely) nearly-concluded MA and my definitely-concluded BA are from the University of Leeds.

  • Nordog

    Yes, thank you Rich.

  • denver

    I disagree with him on point 5.

  • denver

    I disagree with him on point 5.

  • Liam mac Lynne

    There’s a fundamental difference between “I believe there is no X” and “I don’t believe there is X” AND both are different from, in obvious ways, “I believe there is X”. The /point/ of having the word ‘agnostic’ is to distinguish the active belief-in-absence from the absence-of-belief. Atheists, both the socially active ones Dr. Tyson refers to and the socially passive ones Mr. Mehta refers to, have an active belief that there is no Deity (of any nature or variety). This is indeed a nominally-testable belief; they hold a hypothesis about the nature of Reality, just as all varieties of Theists do (whether they are Christian, Buddhist, Neopagan, etc.). No one has yet devised a sufficiently reliable, repeatable test for which of those hypotheses is correct, in my opinion, and I have yet to be convinced as a skeptically-thinking scientist by any of those camps that They Are Correct, All The Others Are Wrong. In this sense, I personally operate as an agnostic in nearly exactly the same manner Dr. Tyson describes: I believe the evidence available to me, and I await further evidence. But as Dr. Tyson is quite widely known to be an astronomer (and not a scientist studying Deity), and as such would not be expected to campaign for or be deeply involved in discussions about medical science or the niceties of biochemistry, I certainly don’t expect him to carry forth on the subject: He is not an expert in the subject beyond his personal experiences (nor am I), and /he doesn’t have to be/.

  •  This is weird. I responded to this but my response has vanished. Anyway, I’ve yet to conclude my MA but both my nearly-concluded MA and my definitely-concluded BA are from the University of Leeds.

  • articulett

     I disagree. In my experience atheists who are criticizing other atheists for being anti-theists seem do little or nothing to get rid of prejudice– rather, they further it.  An accommodationist in my book is someone who purposefully throws the critics of religion under the bus (so-to-speak) to make himself look moderate.  Accommodating is fine– telling “Tom Johnson” stories is not.

    If one wants to show respect towards faith, then I’d prefer they do so without putting down those who think that it’s harmful to show deference to faith.

    Atheists who further prejudice against atheists are not atheists I want to be associated with; they do not speak for me. I find them to be far more “assholish” than those they think of as being assholes. They seem to be far less effective at spreading critical thinking than those they criticize.

    This goes for Tyson too.  If he didn’t want to be associated with the word atheist, then he could have said he preferred to be private in regard to his religious opinions; he didn’t need to further prejudice against atheists so that theists might see him as being on their side.


    I like Tyson– but he is an atheist whether he owns the term or not. Moreover, it was crappy of him to spread unwarranted prejudice against atheists in order to win favor with the faithful. I prefer more honest spokespeople for reason.

  • George Faraj

    Atheism = lack of belief in deities. That’s it.

  • George Faraj


  • Nordog

    Much of the discussion on this thread is like a secular version of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

  • Daniel Schealler

    So… It’s all bullshit because we can’t build a space ship out of it?

    I can see the point, but that’s a little harsh…


  • Nordog

    LOL.  Very good.

  • Daniel Schealler

    I dunno. Hemant is definitely a lot friendlier than PZ. ^_^

    Otherwise though, you’re bang on. Being friendly doesn’t mean you have to dissemble behind honey-coated words. I’m glad Hemant isn’t too much in the habit of doing so, particularly here (for all that I disagree strongly with him on this one).

  • moralnihilist

    I don’t have a problem if you don’t want to call yourself an atheist. If it’s not the focus of what you’re doing with your life, then there’s no reason you should have to make yourself known as one. Your stance on God, however, is compatible with atheism. My stance on gender issues is compatible with feminism, but I don’t consider myself a feminist in the sense that it’s what I focus on. Feminism is not my “cause,” even though I agree with it and lend my support to it occasionally.

    But what bothered me was the trivialization of the need for an atheist movement in the first place. You compared it to a group of non-golfers who get together to talk about not playing golf. It’s a stark metaphor, but not accurate.

    If we lived in a world where being a golfer was considered a social necessity in order to be elected to public office, if we lived in a world where golfer parents shunned their children for quitting the sport, if we lived in a world where being an open non-golfer could cost you your job, then yes, it would not be very surprising for non-golfers to get together and support each other in that situation.

    I don’t know if you’re just unaware of what happens to some atheists when they are open about their non-belief, but in this country it can be a real problem.  I will never have a normal relationship with my parents solely because their religion teaches them that having said relationship is sinful. Every time we have a friendly conversation, they are violating their religious principles.  Religion is often a barrier to normal, healthy human interaction, and calling this issue trivial in so many words is, quite frankly, insulting. 

    We would love to live in a world where an atheist group would make as much sense as a non-golfer group. It would be amazing if the FFRF, AAI, AA, and all other atheist groups shut their doors due to lack of need. We’re not the ones making atheism a big deal; the small-but-powerful minority sector of loud, obnoxious, fundamentalist theists is. 

  • Nordog

    Personally I agree with much of what you say here, though I am struck by how it contradicts the oft cited point that no one does anything in the name of atheism.

    Also, his point about “non golfers” has been made here at least a few times, though in the form of “non stamp collecting.”

    This point may have already been made, but I think it is important to remember that NDT’s answer is in the context of his being a well known public personality, celebrity even.  And he IS an advocate for science education.  The term “atheist” at that level does necessarily, if unjustly, carry certain baggage.  If all politics are personal, and if in politics perception is reality, then NDT’s personal, yet public, persona is very susceptible to the label wars.

  • Madelaine Leidy

    I’m so disappointed on this video, not because he’s denounced himself an Atheist, we will probably be fine without him, but because he has made it sound as if Atheists are out there in the world starting wars. Regardless, I guess he is trying to separate himself for reasons only he knows, perhaps political pressure or social pressure, I suppose he is more likeable and acceptable as “Agnostic” Christians see this as hope that a person can yet be “converted”, and that is ignorant to think, because after all whether NdT wants to admit it or not, all Atheists are Agnostics. Atheists aren’t going to shut their eyes and say “No, you are wrong!” to anyone that can prove the existence of God. In his response to Mr. Hemant notice he did not address the main point of the people that are finding this video upsetting. Dr. Tyson danced around it.
    I feel so betrayed. For someone so smart, he sure did the common mass accepted thing. Such a shame. I think he’s becoming too worried about the mainstream. Then again, as I said above, he must have his reasons. Maybe the people that pay him don’t want him to be labeled anything unpopular. To be put into a box and branded by someone like him, who so many people listen to and respect, is very upsetting. Not to mention the fact that as a black man he should be the last person labeling people. Atheist struggle very hard to be accepted and respected. One comment like this sets us back further into acceptance. Not all Atheists are militant horrible people like he made them out to be. Also if it wasn’t because of who he is, nobody would care about this video, but because of his relative fame, it does have impact on the Atheist community. For Dr. Tyson to act so coy as to not understand why this is getting so much attention, is insulting. I don’t think I’m going to buy his humble act anymore.

  • You are right on one point, one is a claim of knowledge, the other is a claim of belief. Now, you can absolutely be both because they are positions on different questions.  You are still confusing the claim of knowledge with faith. “I know my god exits.” is still a claim of faith, not demonstrable knowledge. 

  • Nordog

    Is all knowledge demonstrable?

  • Panurge987

    NDG basically asks why there is a word for not believing in gods, when there isn’t a word for not golfing. Here’s the best reply I’ve seen to this question:
    (to paraphrase Michael Nugent):
    Atheism in the real world is like “not golfing” – in a society where almost everybody golfs, and most people believe that the inventor of golf created the universe, and that we have to read Golf Digest before we decide what’s right or wrong, or before we decide what laws to pass. And if we did live in such a world, I can assure you, there would be a word for not playing golf, and there would be conventions dedicated to discussing not playing golf.

  • Egyptsteve

     Nobody owns words.   Usage is always fuzzy.  And usage is all that there is.

  • AndyTK

    Just to be clear here, I used the word “delusional” as a way to indicate the level of attack that somebody like Dawkins is comfortable making that NDT would not.  I happen to fall in Dawkins and Harris’ corner on this, but I’m perfectly fine with NDT not wanting to take such a polarizing stand.  As a matter of fact I would love for NDT to come out with a version of “The Magic of Reality” that isn’t so condescending to theists, not because I disagree with what Dawkins says in the book, but that a young adult science book that explains how science works and why this method has been able to generate such great results without directly attacking religion would be more welcome in moderate theist homes.

    BTW – if you believe in fairies, unicorns, ghosts, or any other supernatural being you are delusional, some people are just too nice to say it to you, even if they are thinking it.

  • Ken_Pidcock

    Am I off base?

    Not at all.

  • cokane


    Agnostic is a term people use to try to act like they’re wiser than those rubes who call themselves atheists.

    The problem is, the minimum required to qualify as an agnostic is to admit that we cannot be certain if there is a god or if there is no god.

    This means that virtually every self-identifying atheist is an agnostic. It also means that most theists qualify as agnostics as well.

    At the end of the day, agnostic is a meaningless label. When it comes to the question of religious beliefs it is far more informative to tell a stranger that you are an atheist or a theist.

    Agnostic is a label used by people for political reasons, due to the demonization of atheism in America. It is also used as a form intellectual wankery. You are so much wiser than those deluded atheists, you have the wisdom to know that you cannot know.

  • Thehouseofmania

    I understand from reading that you are an atheist, and that you feel strongly in your belief. However, reducing the agnostics belief to equate atheist, because it somehow within your own rational offends the absolutist idea that no God exists, is equvilant to any Diest equating agnosticism with Christianity, Islaam, or any other Creation/Creator believing faith.
    The honest observer with any rational ability to discern, sees this post for what it’s worth. A true disdain for non-believers in the idea of a God-less universe. And a people using science as a conduit to attack and distroy faith in anything higher than man as his own god.
    There are alot of credible arguments given by those who put forth the science of intelligent design. To be truly “scientific” one must recoginise obvious and unwavering truth, regardless of ones theology or religious views, and Atheism is whether liked or not, does seem a religious view.
    The only way we will ever know the truth within science is to remove all religious ideology, especially the most damning one called atheist. Atheism is a view of God. The sooner this is pointed out for the masses, the sooner real science can begin.
    Thank you God for the Agnostics of Science, no pun intended!

  • Thehouseofmania

    I understand from reading that you are an atheist, and that you feel strongly in your belief. However, reducing the agnostics belief to equate atheist, because it somehow within your own rational offends the absolutist idea that no God exists, is equvilant to any Diest equating agnosticism with Christianity, Islaam, or any other Creation/Creator believing faith.
    The honest observer with any rational ability to discern, sees this post, and the ideas put forth by its author for what it’s worth. A true disdain for non-believers in the idea of a God-less universe. The independent observer has the capacity to see this argument (and many the like it) for what it is; a people using “science” as a conduit to attack and distroy faith and religious ideas.
    There are alot of credible arguments given by those who put forth the science behind intelligent design. To be truly “scientific” one must recoginise obvious and unwavering truth, regardless of ones theology or religious views, and Atheism is whether liked or not, does seem a religious view. Those who practice it’s (atheist) philosophy use what they reference as “scientific” for no other purpose than to attack God. What could possibly be scientific about that?
    The only way we will ever know the truth within science is to remove all religious ideology, especially the most damning one called atheist. Atheism is a view of God. The sooner this is pointed out for the masses, the sooner real science can begin to flourish, as the record is evidence, where atheists go, creativity dies. The absolutist ideas seem to coincide with the drastic decline in invention where ever they are allowed to take root.
    Thank you God for the Agnostics of Science, no pun intended!

  • guest

    ndg didn’t  state or suggest a negative cannot be proven. in fact, he himself showed how  a negative can be proven. what he did say was that applying the “you can’t prove a negative” argument to the debate on the existence or non existence of a deity is of no use to that debate, because that particular negative (the non-existence of a deity) cannot currently be  proven, just as there is no current scientific proof for existence of a deity.

  • MaybeMaybeNot

    It seems to me, by my reading of Dr. Tyson’s response and my personal behavior and belief, that Dr Tyson does not believe or disbelieve in “God”.  Therefore, not an atheist.  This seems to be a place of ambiguity that makes folks on both sides of the isle uncomfortable.   Some of us are not bothered by the ambiguity.  If one had decided that a certain sort of God that dictates my and everyone’s minute human activities (from the food we eat to the sex we have) does not exist then it is possible to decide to not clutter ones mind thinking or caring about things that cannot be proven (or at least, to my thinking have not been proven).  It is easy to live with the ambiguity if you feel (I feel) that the decision does not impact my personal daily behavior.  It seems, to me, an act of human arrogance to assume the knowledge of God’s existence one way or the other, as I agree with those on this blog that the evidence does not exist either way.  If one came up with some good evidence,  one way or the other I might start caring and choose sides.  I also don’t care who win the Stanley Cup for all the same reasons. 

  • gcomeau

     “However, reducing the agnostics belief to equate atheist,”

    That is not what he did. He was explaining the proper use of the terms agnostic and atheist. And it needs explaining because the majority of people I see use the term agnostic clearly do not know what it means.

    What is does NOT mean is “I don’t know if God exists” or “I’m not completly sure whether God exists or not”. That’s not being agnostic, that’s being confused.

    What it DOES mean is “I believe that it is *impossible* to know whether God exists or not.”

    That is not an alternative to either atheism or theism. Saying you are not an atheist, you are an agnostic makes as much sense as saying you are not an atheist, you are an accountant.

     Agnosticism has to do with what you believe about whether God’s existence or non=existence can be known. Atheism and theism have to do with whether or not you believe God exists… whether you can *know* it for sure or not.

    So you can be an agnostic… but you are *still* either an atheist or a theist. Almost every single atheist I know is also an agnostic. Most theists I know are also agnostics. Agnosticism is not some kind of fence sitting middle position between the two, it is a completely separate consideration.

  • Minister Ecom

    There is no middle ground between belief & disbelief.

    You either believe or you do not. 

    If you do not, you are an atheist of one sort or another.

    I believe it’s quite likely there is/was a god/creator force/universal mind.
    Nonetheless, I’m still an atheist.

  • guest

    I like Mr. Tyson too.

    But he’s still trading in atheist stereotypes here.

    It’s similar to the way someone tolerant of gay people does the same gay people a disservice when he calls being gay a “lifestyle”

    (except of course that by that analogy Mr. Tyson is super-duper gay,  i.e. he sure as heck is an atheist by any commonly accepted definition of “atheist.”)

  • Bullet

     Is there a reason so say “I believe in yxz”? Sorry, but the electron belief is plain stupid. Nobody has to believe in anything. You measure electrical current? Fine. You can conclude that there is a 511keV-mass transporting those 1.6e-19 C? Hey, go ahead, call it “Electron”. Is there any necessity to “believe” anything?

  • Bullet

     Gross. Should have been a response to charon. *argh*

  • “There is no middle ground between belief & disbelief.

    You either believe or you do not. ”

    This is just so, so not true.

  • Joseph Huddleston

    Do tell, what is the middle ground?

  • Believing on Sunday afternoon, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and disbelieving on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday forenoon?

    Or perhaps Nicky believes it’s possible to have neither belief nor non-belief in something. Perhaps being in a coma counts? Granted people in a coma lack a belief in anything whatever, but it’s an implicit rather than explicit disbelief.

  • Gus Snarp

    I can understand and accept most of what Tyson says on this, but I still have a problem with what he didn’t address in his response, that he uses agnostic as a way to get around atheist because he has accepted one stereotype of atheists as the definition, when it is not. He doesn’t have to call himself an atheist, but it would be nice if he could do that without tacking on the baggage about atheism to his statement. Here’s a response to this question that I like much better:

  •  I personally just love that your list is numbered from zero instead of one.  🙂

  • Religious

    0) It’s a thesis statement.
    4) Actually, you can prove a negative. I’d always assumed otherwise until you objected to it and I googled it. 
    ( http://www.graveyardofthegods.net/articles/cantprovenegative.html )
    The difficulty is proving something that is unfalsifiable.  For example, aliens might have drugged you and put you into an ultra-realistic simulator, making you think that you’d placed footprint powder around the cave.

  •  Sorry I’m late to the party. Here are a few popular Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes:

    “The most I learn about the universe, the less convinced I am that there’s any sort of benevolent force that has anything to do with it, at all.”

    “I want to put on the table, not why 85% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences reject God, I want to know why 15% of the National Academy don’t.”

    “God is an ever receding pocket of scientific ignorance.”

    By all sane definitions of the word “atheist”, Neil deGrasse Tyson is an atheist because he does not believe in a god. He may still want to consider himself an agnostic atheist in that he thinks its possible that there could be a god out there somewhere, somehow, but as of right now does not believe it exists. That’s fine. That’s what I am. I don’t think there’s a god, I don’t believe in a god… but I’m not going to conclude that “there is no god”. Agnosticism and Atheism are mutually compatible. To say you are agnostic does not answer the question “do you believe”.

    Neil deGrasse Tyson does not believe. He is an atheist. The saddest part is that he either does not understand the term “atheist” or he is happy to give power to those who associate all sorts of evil things with the term. He is unwilling to take on the baggage that fundamentalists assign. He doesn’t want people to think that he’s “evil”, “argumentative”, and “hostile” – which they often associate with atheism – so instead of saying “I’m an atheist” and showing them that it’s not fair to judge all atheists in such a manner, he has decided to disassociate himself from the term. And that is why I am utterly disappointed in his response on his BigThink video. I have chosen to publicly call myself an atheist for the sole purpose of demonstrating that the term should not be synonymous with negative stereotypes… so as to give power to other non-believers to stop pretending solely for social reasons. NGT’s video was not “Big Thinking” in any manner – it was cowardice… and it only gives power to those who are eager to unfairly judge and stereogype non-believers.

  • TruthMan

    Yes he is an Atheist. But he can’t admit it to the general public because he comes from christian family. At least Carl Sagan had the courage to bury religion. Religion is bullshit.

  • I suspect you might not realise that Carl Sagan also refused to call himself an atheist in favour of ‘agnostic.’

    “My view is that if there is no evidence for it, then forget about
    it. An agnostic is somebody who doesn’t believe in something
    until there is evidence for it, so I’m agnostic.”

    “An atheist has to know more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no God.”

    Both quotes by Sagan.

  • well from your first few paragraphs i feel like you dont know what the difference between an agnostic and atheist is…. Like Tyson says… An atheist does not at all believe in god… an agnostic does not rule him out completely… atheist rule him out completely that is not light atheist that is agnostic

  • AndyTK

    The problem with that definition is that it makes all
    atheists fundamentalists (sure of something that cannot be proven) while
    leaving agnostic as a definition with too broad a definition to be useful as it
    includes everybody from theists that have doubts to people that are almost
    certain that god doesn’t exist.

  • Mandy

    Person X: “Do you believe in God?”

    Person Y: “No.” 

    Person Y is an atheist. We don’t know if Person Y actively believes there is no god or if Person Y isn’t sure if there is a god and therefore cannot claim certain knowledge. It doesn’t matter. If Person Y cannot assert a belief in any gods, that person is an atheist. 

  • Mandy

    If you don’t believe in something affirmatively, then you disbelieve. That includes answers such as “I don’t know.”

  • Everett

    Taking a stance of, “I don’t know, and I am not capable of knowing.”

    Agnosticism is just that. And then you can get funky with it, truthfully. You can be an Agnostic Atheist; “I don’t believe in God, yes, but I can’t prove to you or know for sure that he isn’t real”. Agnostic Christian; “I do believe in God, yes, but I can’t prove to you or know for sure that he isn’t real.” Agnostic this, agnostic that. Seriously, why are you so hung up on the definition, or, better yet, defining for Mr. deGrasse Tyson exactly what it is that he, not you, believes?

    Between belief and non-belief is a cession to both. I can and will be swayed either way given the evidence, but I have no evidence for either, and I am under the impression that it is intrinsically impossible to provide the necessaries to prove either.

    Agnosticism is more of a knowledge based stance than it is a theological one.

  • Everett

    Atheism- I do not believe there is a God, or any deity for that matter.

    Agnosticism- I am not capable of knowing if there is a God or any deity for that matter, no matter what belief I have.
    Theism- I believe in a God, or perhaps another deity.

    Our neurobiology, for all we know, may not allow us to perceive the necessaries to definitively prove in a deity or god. Christian scripture and personnel cite this themselves, saying to trust in God for he knows things that we may never understand. I may not believe in God, yes, but perhaps he’s purposely taken away my belief in a grander scheme of his. How would I know, given he has control of my understanding?

    As an agnostic myself, I will say that the Christian God is a genius invention in that all explanations of him make him omnipotent, and able to manipulate everything to a point where I must always take into consideration that it may be his will that I do not understand- and that alone impedes my ability to use knowledge as a vehicle to disprove him.

  • Not knowing is not a middle ground between believing and not believing.

  • Everett

    Do not ignore the second condition of the definition.

    “I am not capable of knowing.”

    I can’t extract the schema of “belief or non-belief” which has stood so long in our culture from your stance. This all or nothing mindset, if that’s what you would like to believe in, would be the reason for your inability to see the middle ground. In truth, it fascinates me because our language has developed words like, “skeptic” which show that belief is a continuum, but we’ll throw that away. Let us play with your dichotomy while I quote my earlier statement.

    ” Agnosticism is more of a knowledge based stance than it is a theological one.” 
    You all are treating agnosticism as a belief on a continuum of theology, and not as an empirical stance stance on a continuum of quantifiable and provable knowledge. Agnosticism and Theism are not mutually exclusive. THAT is the job of Atheism.

  • DeepThought

    Atheism = I believe there is no God AND I know there is no God
    Agnosticism = I don’t know there is a God AND I don’t know what to believe

    So the question:
    Do you believe in God doesn’t have a yes or no answer only. There is a third answer whic is “I don’t know”

    That is Agnosticism

  • Melly_myers

    I don’t totally understand where all this is going and where it’s coming from; NDT seems to be fairly clear in his thoughts.  Where’s the confusion coming from?  If the man says he’s agnostic, he’s agnostic.  Do we need to look the definition up?  Because I’m assuming ppl have.  I can’t speak for him, but it seems pretty simple- he doesn’t have evidence- whether it’s scientifically based, or any other experience-based way… to tell him that beyond a doubt, there’s a god. However, he doesn’t have absolute certainty from any and all evidence that a god doesn’t exist either. maybe the collection of all knowledge for him so far has pointed in one direction more than the other, or maybe it hasn’t (agnostic theism vs agnostic atheism)… but either way, his view point stands in the way of not knowing, and not being able to prove or disprove.  He’s not ‘one or the other’ on the issue- hence the title “Agnostic.”  His job is to explore our magnificent Universe.   Keeping himself OPEN to any and all knowledge that comes his way telling him something new- something that could open him (and the scientist community) to more- is what getting closer to the truth is.  If that brings him to the knowledge that a God exists, so-be-it.  If it brings him to the knowledge that one doesn’t exist, so-be-it.  If it shows neither, so-be-it!  There is no fight in him for one way or the other- there is no proving or disproving, only a bit of energy spent on explaining himself!  There is only quest for knowledge, and what is found, is simple that.   Mystery is awesome.  The need to explore is in our very nature (and if it isn’t for some, maybe it should be.)  Keeping your mind and heart open to the bits of information the Universe is slowly revealing to us, is where I personally find truth.  Again, can’t speak for the man, but I sure do love his words, and his POV, and that light he has in his eyes when he talks about the cosmos- it certainly makes me feel like a religious person!  

    (((( I REALY LOVE you Neil!!!! woohoo!!!!- ok the little middle school girl came out for a second, but truly, I’ll always follow your lead.  You speak with clear, thought out intelligence and in no way seem to have barriers that so many ppl put up in their minds.  I always look forward to what you have to say, and I love the awe you have for the existence of all that surrounds us, especially that which is just beyond our grasp.  Now if you’ll excuse me, i will go kiss your feet in my shrine to you.  jk.  call me.  haha.  -Just a true fan  :))))Melanie Myers

  • Go Neil go!!

    I hate the term/label atheist. Saying you’re an atheist does nothing to broadcast what you believe in. Atheism, by definition, tells people what you don’t beliee in.

    So like Dr NGT I try to step around the hard core atheist for they always seem cold and arrogant.

  • Leahcim3362

    There’s just a little chance that Tyson’s position is more rational that yours.

    It’s good to have a period in one’s life for learning prior to presuming to be a teacher.

  • David

    clearly you don’t know the definition of agnostic or atheist. 

  • simon Bar

    I agree, the stigma attached to a scientist announcing oneself as an atheist is a big undertaking.  It could also affect the position holds with the Hayden Planetarium.

    We know what he thinks— it is sad that he must conceal it..

  • Thadmurphy8

    Agree, I don’t know if he fears the label.  He says we shouldn’t be caught up in labels, but defining a belief system is a huge part of a particular human’s makeup.  Especially if you are NDTyson.
    So, Corporate pressure?  I would hate to think of Neil this way I think of Romney’s tactics with  protected, safe, non offensive answers.
    Atheism isn’t a leap into a new dimension or a marriage vow, it’s just an answer to the god question.
    I love Neil, but the christian right will arm themselves with ammunition such as this.

  • simon Bar

    A strong assertion-that Neil ” doesn’t get it”, however your point is well taken.  I have heard Dr. Tyson speak and debate on many occasions,  and continue to enjoy his entertaining speeches.  When someone like Dr. Tyson speaks without a script, the true nature of his positions and his beliefs seem to appear in the obvious, and in the not so obvious places.
    I assume he doesn’t believe god created the Cosmos, even without the knowledge of how the Cosmos were created.  To admit that god is simply a man made device to insert as an answer into unknowable questions is not a giant decision.  Dr. Tyson, I’m afraid is fearful of that nasty word/moniker “Atheist”.  After all, the years have not been kind to this word, nor its identifiers.
    We, as a culture and society need to remove the evil connotation associated with the word “ATHEIST” .   Words are fluid in nature and in definition.  The simple non belief in an “idea” that an entity constructed planet Earth is not an extreme position. I say, to the contrary, the common sense of it all is becoming more and more  overwhelming thanks to people like Dr. Tyson.
    Thank you,
    Simon Bar Sinister ( I will rule the World)

  • simon Bar

    This is the crime of it all. NDT teaches children around the Country and can not be identified as that most horrendous of words, and the people who identify with it.  The word is….. “ATHEIST”.
    It’s like saying Hi. I’m NDT and I’m a Commie and Gay, bring on the students…
    So, do we vilify Dr T , or do we hope he educates enough people to arrive at the conclusion of skepticism-non belief.
    He is in between an asteroid and a meteor.

  • simon Bar

    I will step on the ledge and state in my humble opinion that theists are delusional. If one believes that praying for a new job results in a conversation with a supernatural being they are delusional.  A conversation that involves a decision to either agree to pleas of a new job, or the denial of the plea.  A consciously made decision by supreme being….
    This is a tremendously common belief in the christian religion and is by all rights and definitions delusional..

  • Nordog


  • simon Bar

    Christopher Hitchens identified himself as an “anti-theist”.
    I have adopted this term, and prefer it to atheism because it narrows the field to organized religion.

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