Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has always had a weird relationship with the word “atheist.” He is one, at least in the sense that he doesn’t believe in anything supernatural, but he doesn’t call himself one for reasons that have always been squishy.
The most sensible answer for why he doesn’t embrace the term is that it might alienate the very people he wants to reach.
By maintaining no religious or non-religious affiliation, he’s effectively a neutral communicator who can appeal to everybody, including the type of people who might otherwise reject basic tenets of biology and physics. The only “ist” he wants to be, he’s said many times, is a “scientist.” Still, he believes religion and science are irreconcilable.
The least sensible answer? It’s that he doesn’t want to be associated with the most prominent atheists out there. He boils all of us down to a handful of actions that he doesn’t like — as if all of atheism can be summarized by Richard Dawkins on Twitter — and turns his back on the word.
… however people are using the word, that’s the meaning… by the way, it’s why I don’t call myself an atheist. It’s why. You can look up the dictionary definition of atheists, and it kind of applies to me, but what is the definition of atheist in practice? It is what leading atheists do, and it’s their conduct, and it’s their behavior, and it’s what they say, and it’s their attitude.
That is what an atheist is today. Because they’re the most visible exemplars of that word. And most of their conduct, I either don’t agree with or simply don’t engage in.
[Rogan: What don’t you agree with?]
I don’t debate religious people and tell them they’re idiots… whether or not it works, it’s not in me to do that. I don’t purge myself of words that have religious foundations in them…
(He elaborated on that last part by saying that atheists criticized him online when he used the word “godspeed.”)
I’ll grant him that some prominent atheists say and do things that are cringe-worthy or reprehensible. But as many progressive Christians will tell you, the best response is to reclaim the word and make sure the public is aware that the people getting all the attention represent a vocal fraction of everyone in the tent. Instead of redefining “atheist” in his own way, Tyson is choosing run away from the word, then criticizing those of us who embrace it as if we’re all the same.
It’s also infuriating to hear him make straw man arguments about the problems with atheism. We’re not sitting around, arbitrarily calling religious people stupid. (There are plenty of brilliant religious people in all facets of society.) We don’t flip out when anyone says “bless you” after we sneeze or a politician reflexively says “God bless America.” (At best, those are minor problems.)
While there are definitely times the mind reels at what religious people believe (hello, Creationists), the focus of most atheist organizations and prominent individuals, at least in recent years, has been on conservatives who use the government to advance their religious agenda. We’ve worked with religious allies on that front! Just because Tyson isn’t paying attention doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
This isn’t the first time he’s used the unfair arguments of Christian apologists to trash atheists. Several years ago, Tyson said he would never join an atheist group for the same reason that he’d never join a group for people who don’t play golf… as if all atheists do is sit around and not pray. He completely ignores and belittles all the atheists who advocate for science and comprehensive sex education, who fight back against irrational faith-based policies, who defend separation of church and state, etc.
Tyson has said repeatedly that he doesn’t believe in God, certainly not in the way traditional religious people do. That makes him an atheist whether he likes it or not. If he wants to avoid the word for strategic purposes, I get it. I don’t even mind it that much because I want him to be successful; if my preferred word doesn’t make the cut, I can let it go. But to say you’re not an atheist because a handful of famous ones — who only speak for themselves, by the way — do things you don’t like is an awful reason for avoiding the term altogether.
How is it that one of the finest science communicators in our lifetime continues to give horrible explanations for why he doesn’t want to be labeled an atheist?