Neil deGrasse Tyson and Religion

The latest issue of The Humanist (Sep/Oct 2009) includes an interview with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. I’m pretty sure it’s impossible for him to say anything that isn’t interesting, but a couple things he said stood out:

The Humanist: Do you consider yourself a humanist?

Tyson: I’ve never identified with any movement. I just am what I am and occasionally a movement claims me because there is resonance between my writings and speeches and what they do, and that’s fine; I don’t mind that. But no, I have never been politically or organizationally active in that way. Astrophysics — that’s what I identify with.

Tyson: … You can get on your high horse and say TV is just the undermining of all that is good in society; it doesn’t change the fact that it is the most influential force out there. And if you don’t know the magnitude of that force and what direction it’s pointing, then you will be correspondingly less effective standing up in front of a room. I told the teachers, don’t come up to me and say, oh they just don’t want to learn; it’s not a good class; they don’t want to listen. Excuse me, it’s your job to get them interested enough to want to listen. Otherwise, do not count yourself amongst the rest of educators; take up another field of work.

The Humanist: I imagine that was a little controversial.

Tyson: Yes, and when I say pop culture I don’t mean only the TV shows that are kind of cool and interesting. I also mean the hit shows. I’m talking about Dancing with the Stars. I’m talking about the reality shows most educators thumb their noses at as being of no educational or intellectual value. Yet clearly millions of people watch them every week so there is a disconnect. Once there is a disconnect, you’re not communicating.

Tyson received the 2009 Isaac Asimov Science Award from the American Humanist Association. An essay (adapted from his acceptance speech) is also in the issue:

… This sentiment became associated with the atheist movement. Sometime later I stumbled upon my Wikipedia page, and what’s spooky is that my wiki page is more up-to-date than my personal home page. For example, two days after I appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart I thought, let me add that to my wiki page. I went there, and the link was already up. (The days of anonymity are long gone.) So I’m looking at the page and it says, “Neil deGrasse Tyson, a long-time atheist…” and I thought, where did that come from? I never said that. So I removed it and I put in “agnostic” because I think, based on all the folks who are agnostic historically, I come closer to the behavior of an agnostic than the behavior of an atheist. Three days later it was back to atheist. Then I learned that there are people who want to equate agnosticism with atheism. So I went back in, thinking I needed to be clever about this, and I changed the phrase to: “widely claimed by atheists, he is actually an agnostic.”

I wonder if there are atheists disappointed in him not accepting and embracing that “atheist” label.

I understand his strategic decision — he says he has a better chance of getting his message of science understanding across if he keeps religion out of his public persona. But at the same time, religion seems to be one of the biggest impediments to obtaining proper scientific literacy. There’s no greater anti-science force out there. I worry that many of the people he hopes to reach by not talking about his personal beliefs are the same people who are going to dismiss him because of their own religious views.

  • http://www.noonespecial.ca/cacophony Tao Jones

    Why can’t he be both atheist and agnostic?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    So I removed it and I put in “agnostic” because I think, based on all the folks who are agnostic historically, I come closer to the behavior of an agnostic than the behavior of an atheist.

    So he thinks that labelling difference is based on behaviour? Slightly odd.

  • Jen V

    It’s his choice, not ours. If he chooses to identify himself as an agnostic, than that is what he is. It is not anyone’s duty to question his personal convictions.

  • http://www.hotchicksdigsmartmen.com Janiece

    Isn’t it a bit of a non-starter to debate someone else’s religious self-identification?

    If he says he’s an agnostic, then that’s what he is. Claiming he’s really an atheist in order to use his fame to promote your own movement makes you no better than the dipsticks who try to claim the U.S. is a “Christian nation.”

  • http://www.mutedsound.com John Perkins

    Everyone on the planet is agnostic as there is simply no proof of god’s existence. The question then becomes whether or not you believe in a god with the understanding that there is no way to be sure.

    I’m surprised at his reticence to label himself an atheist. It’s an easy question to answer. Do you believe in god or not. “I don’t know” isn’t a viable answer to the question of belief. There are only varying degrees of “yes” and “no.”

  • Siamang

    Well I do think that people should be allowed the respect to actually, you know, self-classify on this issue.

    But folks should work on Neil.

    Then I learned that there are people who want to equate agnosticism with atheism.

    Someone should inform Neil. How about using an astronomy analogy.

    “There are people out there who want to equate planets with gas giants.” “Um, Neil, it’s possible to be both.”

    It’s not

    atheism – agnosticism – theism

    Where agnosticism is the white line down the center of the road.

    But agnosticism is a claim about knowledge or certainty, whereas theism/atheism is a statement about adherence, fideism or worship.

    It’s

    Believe in or worship a god?: Theist
    Don’t believe in nor worship a god?: Atheist

    Absolutely certain there is a god?: gnostic (on the question of gods).
    Don’t know if there is one or not?: agnostic.

    That also sometimes sweeps in: “claim it’s impossible for one to know if there is a god or not.”

    So it’s possible to be an agnostic atheist or an agnostic theist.

    • Dan

      ? ?

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I agree with Siamang, but I go even a bit further.

    I prefer the following definitions:

    Theism – belief in interacting god(s)
    Atheism – lack of belief in interacting god(s)
    Deism – belief in a non-interacting god.
    Gnostic – one who claims knowledge about gods
    Agnostic– one who doesn’t claim knowledge about gods

    An example of an interacting god is a god that listens and reacts to prayer or sacrifices.
    An example of a non-interacting god is one who may have set things up at the beginning but now just sits back and watches.

    With these definitions, one could be an atheist, agnostic, and a deist all at the same time.

    I grant that there were/are some atheists that Neil doesn’t identify with that were/are very vocal about there not being any gods of any kind, but the linguistic term “atheist” should not limited to just those people.

  • Siamang

    Jeff says it shorter and clearer.

    Unrelated:

    This happened once: My daughter was wearing her nice easter dress with tights outside, and got grass stains.

    I looked at my wife, pulled my copy of “Death By Black Hole” off the bookcase and said “That’s what happens when you kneel in the grass with tights on.

    I’m really not making that up!

  • ccubeman

    I think Neil deGrasse Tyson uses the Carl Sagan mindset.

    “It’s ok to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.” – Carl Sagan

    To me this means the following: It’s ok to say I don’t know. And leave it at that.

  • justanotherjones

    er…. how does know for certain it’s atheists changing it back to “atheist”? I mean, it could be some anti-science theist doing it.

  • http://evilburnee.co.uk PaulJ

    Slightly OT but isn’t editing your own Wikipedia page frowned upon?

  • Erik

    Jeff, your definitions leave out an option for lack of belief in a non-interacting god. I have to disagree with your definitions.

  • J Myers

    If he says he’s an agnostic, then that’s what he is.

    If this is true, then I’m a potted plant. Words have meanings, and they either apply or do not apply on the basis of these meanings, irrespective of any one person’s reluctance to apply them, the potential benefit that their application might afford a particular group, or any other condition or consequence.

    Atheism – lack of belief in interacting god(s)

    I would remove the word “interacting”; I don’t see why deism should be included as a subcategory of atheism.

    I’m surprised at his reticence to label himself an atheist. It’s an easy question to answer. Do you believe in god or not. “I don’t know” isn’t a viable answer to the question of belief. There are only varying degrees of “yes” and “no.”

    Exactly.

  • TXatheist

    It is my opinion that men who don’t want to appear arrogant and open minded use the term agnostic because it makes them appear that they could change their mind. I’m baffled myself because Michael Shermer sometimes is agnostic, sometimes atheist. What I’m baffled by is the waffling. do you believe in god is a yes or no question unless you ask someone to define god and then answer. Heck, if someone says god is the imaginary friend for theists then yes I believe in that god. If someone says god is the being that inspired the bible/koran then no.

  • Alan E.

    I listened to his whole acceptance speech, and I especially liked the parts when he was talking about grooming his children to be critical thinkers. He is writing a book on the topic too apparently.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Jeff, your definitions leave out an option for lack of belief in a non-interacting god

    Well, you could add the term “adeist”.

    I would remove the word “interacting”; I don’t see why deism should be included as a subcategory of atheism.

    My motivation is to win back the term “atheism” and make it more palatable for the general population. I know some think this would be an unecesary “watering down” of the term “atheist”.
    Personally, I’m an atheist and an “adeist” :) but I don’t mind considering deists as a subset of atheists. It’s just the way I like to look at it.

    If everyone thinks “atheist” has too much inertia as meaning simply not believing in gods (being interacting or otherwise), then perhaps we would need another term that means simply the lack of belief in interacting god(s). Perhaps “non-theist”.

    I know there are a lot of deists/cultural Christians (and cultural other religions too) out there that don’t relate to the interacting god idea but feel uneasy “signing on” with the more narrowly defined “atheism”. By giving them a term, they can have something to identify with.

  • Shirakawasuna

    I’d say Siamang and Jeff get to the core of the agnostic vs. atheist label.

    I’d jump in and say that despite the fact that it’s entirely reasonable for someone to be an agnostic (statement about their certainty of knowledge) and atheist (statement about whether one in fact believes in a god), when communicating with the public people think agnostic means ‘fence-sitter’. That’s certainly been my experience in the U.S. I respect Neil deGrasse Tyson’s experience in teaching and engagin the public, and with no offense to him, I honestly expected that he would recognize that and change his message there as well – he’s not a fence-sitter. I’d say he’s stuck with a public misapprehension either way.

    I wonder if one of the reason’s he’s stuck with agnostic because it’s less demonized?

  • http://logofveritas.blogspot.com Veritas

    That would be an interesting discussion on Wiki.

    “Source that he’s agnostic.”

    “Source: I am Neil deGrasse Tyson.”

    Edit: This link is ALREADY on Wiki’s discussions. The internets is awesome.

  • http://www.hotchicksdigsmartmen.com Janiece

    @J Myers

    If this is true, then I’m a potted plant.

    That’s a bit pedantic, don’t you think? We’re not talking about an observable phenomena – we’re talking about someone’s mental life. It would be the height of arrogance for me to insist I know more about your own inner thoughts on this matter than you do. As Siamang notes, “I do think that people should be allowed the respect to actually, you know, self-classify on this issue.”

    He’s self-classified, and I’m not sure why it matters, other than as a self-serving preference.

  • http://darwinsdagger.blogspot.com Darwin’s Dagger

    According to the calendar I’m an Aries. That particular label, however accurate, has no meaning for me, and I would never identify myself as an Aries, other than to make this point. I reserve the right to determine how I am defined. It may be factually true that I am a Caucasian, or an American, or right handed. But the rest of the world’s determination that those labels are important don’t matter that much to me. If I choose to define my intellectual state vis-a-vis the question of the existence of God and the supernatural as agnostic, I’m not going to care a hell of whole lot that other people think I should call myself an atheist.

  • Anonymous

    I wonder if there are atheists disappointed in him not accepting and embracing that “atheist” label.

    I understand his strategic decision — he says he has a better chance of getting his message of science understanding across if he keeps religion out of his public persona. But at the same time, religion seems to be one of the biggest impediments to obtaining proper scientific literacy.

    For what it’s worth, I’m disappointed in atheists who insist that other atheists should always accept and embrace the atheist label. It’s that same identity politics mentality – your atheist in-group comes first, and everything else comes second. I disagree.

    I think Neil provides a sound example of when your atheism should come second. Scientific literacy and/or critical thinking are far more important than accepting that there is no God. You won’t get people to accept that God doesn’t exist if they don’t think critically or are not scientifically literate to begin with.

    A concrete example is the evolution-creationism debate. I agree with evolutionary biologists that real biology would be better served if atheists just butted out.

    I don’t mean that atheists shouldn’t contribute to the defense of evolution. But they shouldn’t defend evolution under the banner of atheism. That is utterly stupid and counterproductive – it just reinforces religious resistance to taking science seriously, or to asking questions critically. It actually turns people away (religious people) from becoming scientifically literate or critical thinkers.

    If you care about scientific literacy and/or critical thinking, you should be willing to admit that there are times when identity politics doesn’t trump everything else. Promoting atheism is important, but not as important as educating the public about science, or getting people to examine questions in a thoughtful way.

    I see this as the biggest divide within organized atheism. Most groups think that identity politics comes before all else, but a few recognize that their atheism isn’t everything. This is probably why the Center for Inquiry has a secular humanism wing over here, and a skeptic wing over there. There is an implied recognition there that getting non-atheists to think critically is more important than getting them to accept atheism.

    • WiseUp11

      EXACTLY!!! If I could like this comment a million times, I would.

  • flawedprefect

    I like Tyson’s approach. I’m a bigger fan of his because of this.

  • ChameleonDave

    Isn’t it a bit of a non-starter to debate someone else’s religious self-identification?

    If he says he’s an agnostic, then that’s what he is.

    And if he says he’s a genius, is that then what he is?

    Everyone can have opinions about what they are, but that doesn’t make them true, or mean that we have to accept them. Stop being politically correct.

    If he doesn’t believe in gods, then he’s an atheist (‘adest’, ‘non-theist’ etc are silly neologisms). Agnosticism is nonsensical. The term is adopted by people who half-believe and by those atheists who pretentiously want to make themselves sound open-minded.

  • Siamang

    Anonymous.

    I used to think that way.

    Now I’m starting to think the other way.

    I think that the people turning away people who would be critical thinkers isn’t the handful of atheist scientists that anyone’s ever heard of.

    It’s the religionists. It’s the 98% of the iceberg that’s UNDERWATER that will sink you, not the two dudes with a website.

  • Anonymous

    I think that the people turning away people who would be critical thinkers isn’t the handful of atheist scientists that anyone’s ever heard of.

    It’s the religionists. It’s the 98% of the iceberg that’s UNDERWATER that will sink you, not the two dudes with a website.

    I’m not talking about personal blogs. I’m talking about people who try to organize atheists carrying something like “Atheists Against Creationism” signs to pickett outside of a courthouse where a creationism case is being decided. Not helpful, even if it is not as bad as the old “Mary Should Have Had an Abortion” signs.

  • Siamang

    Agnosticism is nonsensical. The term is adopted by people who half-believe and by those atheists who pretentiously want to make themselves sound open-minded.

    One also mustn’t discount the notion that in previous generations in living memory, the A-word could get you actually barred from holding certain jobs. In some places still today you can be run out of town on a rail for proclaiming your atheism. Just last week Hemant faced action against his job.

    It’s not entirely high-minded philosophical precision that causes the term agnostic to mean more than it was coined to mean. It’s not just the domain of the open-minded and the pretentiously pseudo-open-minded. It’s also a philosophical safe retreat area allowed us by the grace of a religious majority. “Call yourself agnostic and we won’t go after you.”

  • Siamang

    I’m not talking about personal blogs. I’m talking about people who try to organize atheists carrying something like “Atheists Against Creationism” signs to pickett outside of a courthouse where a creationism case is being decided.

    But “Christians against Evolution” is cool?

    I’m trying to get at how shutting yourself up is a good strategy. Won’t they know we’re lying?

    “I’m against creationism!”

    “What are you, somekinna atheist?!?!?”

    “ummm… no. uhhhhh…LOOK! BEARS!”

    I got my stomach full of that whole attitude back when the Democrats were loosing elections and people in my own party were saying shit like “you can’t be an atheist AND a democrat.”I heard quite a few commentators talking very strongly about how, if democrats wanted to win elections, they had to distance themselves from secular values and push the Jesus talk. I even heard a number of people on tv and in the newspapers opining that atheist democrats needed to choose one and shut up about the other.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that shutting yourself up doesn’t work. It’s what the previous 2 generations of American atheists did, IMO, for the most part.

    It didn’t work.

  • Robyn

    When I heard the little speech he made on this subject, I’d have to say I was a little annoyed. Not because he wouldn’t accept the atheist label (I don’t care if he does or not, it’s his choice), but because he generalized and said some pretty…not so great things about atheists at the same time. It was even a little mean. It was kind of out of left field.

  • Anonymous

    But “Christians against Evolution” is cool?

    No. If I were William Dembski promoting a design inference, I would want fundamentalist young earth creationists to butt out, too.

    Look at it this way: When Christians do lame things, it is just as lame when atheists are the ones doing those things. When Christians go door-to-door or street preach, we should be wont to emulate them. So to when it comes to science education or public policy. Advocate those things, sure, but not under the banner of a different agenda. The other agenda clouds the real issues.

    I’m trying to get at how shutting yourself up is a good strategy. Won’t they know we’re lying?

    There’s a difference, you know, between being honest when asked, and not flaunting your anti-religion. Why create problems that can be so easily avoided?

    “I’m against creationism!”
    “What are you, somekinna atheist?!?!?”
    “ummm… no. uhhhhh…LOOK! BEARS!”

    You could have a Christian evolutionary biologist speak for you, like Ken Miller. If the issue is biological fact, it doesn’t matter if an atheist or a Christian is presenting the facts. The facts are still the facts. Bringing up religion, either way, just clouds the issue. The issue is the facts, not personal religious beliefs/philosophies.

    I heard quite a few commentators talking very strongly about how, if democrats wanted to win elections, they had to distance themselves from secular values and push the Jesus talk. I even heard a number of people on tv and in the newspapers opining that atheist democrats needed to choose one and shut up about the other.

    Just because it didn’t work doesn’t mean they would have done better if they had done differently. Where 8 or 9 out of 10 Americans are religious, catering to 1 or 2 out of 10 Americans to win elections doesn’t add up. You adapt your actions to the reality around you, not reality to your whims, unless you are particularly egocentric or narcissistic. People need to get down the basic point that the world doesn’t revolve around them. You are just another dispensible person. For every death, there is a birth to replace that death – so the world doesn’t need you.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that shutting yourself up doesn’t work. It’s what the previous 2 generations of American atheists did, IMO, for the most part.

    It didn’t work.

    What didn’t work? The previous two generations of atheists tried to do what that didn’t work? What were they aiming for that didn’t come to fruition?

    And if they had done something else, would they have done better – or worse?

    Here’s another life lesson. It sucks not to be rich. I’m not rich. I could be rich if I took up to robbing banks. My “strategy” for becoming rich hasn’t worked. Is this a good reason to start taking up bank robbing? No. Why not? Because being one of meager means sure beats the hell out of prison life.

  • trixr4kids

    @Siamang: “Agnosticism is nonsensical. The term is adopted by people who half-believe and by those atheists who pretentiously want to make themselves sound open-minded.”

    Bullshit.

    Agnostic and atheist are not equivalent terms that belong in the same class; one has to do with epistemology (what do we know and how do we know it?), the other with ontology (So, does god exist, or not?). “Agnostic” is not an answer to the ontological question.

    It is possible to be both agnostic and atheist (most of us are, if we’re honest); it’s even possible to be both agnostic and theist. But agnosticism is far from nonsensical.

    Tyson is simply coyly refusing to address the question of theism. It well may be that he is refusing to answer simply in order to avoid flak. Or it may be that on the question of the existence of some god or gods his answer is “we can never know AND I think there’s a reasonable possibility either way”. I doubt that the latter is the case, but I can’t read the man’s mind. I think he’s being slippery, but I’m willing to forgive him ’cause he’s otherwise so cool. Maybe he just wants to promote science as much as possible, without scaring people off.

    • http://twitter.com/DickManning1 Dick Manning

      I feel like he is being a slippery fish as well. Though I’d argue that atheism doesn’t claim to answer any questions either. I claim atheism but don’t say I know for sure there is no god, I just say I have no reason to believe there is a god. To me it seems like agnosticism still has “well, there could’ve been” in the cards. While atheism is more like “well, if there could’ve been we have yet to detect anything that even remotely suggests the notion outside of our own psychology. Therefore I have no reason to believe in it.”

      Imagine if tomorrow all of our memory of world religion were wiped out. Or better yet, that  we viewed the modern religions in the same way we view ancient pagan religions, as absolute mythology. Would agnosticism even be on the table at that point? I think so, but it seems atheism would be the more direct approach for an inquisitive mind. I could be wrong, I often am :)

  • Aj

    This is Wikipedia, and words aren’t just labels they have meanings. If Neil deGrasse Tyson had taken the time to click on the link “atheist” in his article, he’d be presented with multiple definitions of atheist, and some will correspond to his views. The page on agnosticism also has multiple definitions and some of those will correspond to his views as well.

    Clearly Neil is in error, he hasn’t considered that the writer of the entry, and the audience of Wikipedia, are what is important. His preferred definitions aren’t important, it’s whether the meaning is communicated. He hasn’t added anything of worth to Wikipedia by changing the words, he could have explained his position but he chose not to. The comment about behaviour of atheists and agnostics gets to his motivation for aversion to the word “atheist”.

    When he says “claimed by atheists” he really means “claimed by agnostics” because they’re most likely not atheists under his definition. Which shows the bankruptcy of his position because even he can’t stick to his own definitions. Of course what he needed to say was “widely claimed by agnostics as an ‘atheist’ meaning agnostic, he is actually an agnostic.” which raises the question why fucking bother changing atheist to agnostic.

  • turkey

    @Aj:

    When it comes right down to it, Wikipedia is just another website. It has no more authority to define words and to attach those words to people than this website does. There’s a reason high school teachers tell their students not to use Wikipedia for research papers. It’s not the be-all-end-all of human knowledge.

  • Aj

    turkey,

    It has no more authority to define words and to attach those words to people than this website does.

    Exactly my point. The important part is the ability to communicate meaning.

    There’s a reason high school teachers tell their students not to use Wikipedia for research papers.

    The reason is they’re either ignorant of what Wikipedia is or they’re afraid their students are. It’s a shame that educators react to such a powerful tool in fear. It’s a greater shame that when presented with a chance to educate students on research and critical thinking, they would just ban particular sources.

  • Karen

    Sadly, it’s still true that many people will turn off someone immediately if they see that label “atheist.”

    While D.G.T. is trying to reach as many people possible with the message of science and critical thinking – and he’s got such a fantastic platform from which to do it – I’m sure he’s trying to stay as relevant as possible to as many as possible. Sticking on the big red A will only discredit him to a large number of folks who most desperately need to hear his message.

    I happened to hear that interview and I also was surprised that he seemed uninformed about the agnostic atheist option. Too bad.

  • Siamang

    I agree with AJ. I’ll note that High School teachers are also not the be-all-end-all of human knowledge.

    I had quite a few teachers in high school who could have used a kid on wikipedia in class looking stuff up for them to keep them abreast of their field.

  • Siamang

    Anonymous,

    Advocate those things, sure, but not under the banner of a different agenda. The other agenda clouds the real issues.

    I guess I’m not for clouding, but I’m also not for hiding.

    Lemmegiveyouanexample. Richard Dawkins has written the best-selling atheist book of all time. There are some people who said and do say that because he is a biology professor, he shouldn’t have written a book about atheism. Now he’s writing a book about evolution. Those same people now say that because he’s known as an atheist, he shouldn’t write a book about evolution.

    To give two examples: Chris Mooney and Sheryl Kurtzenbaum. Currently the poster-children for pro-science concern-trolls.

    I am of a different mindset. I think we shouldn’t muzzle one of the greatest communicators on the planet because he wants to communicate on two different subjects that both piss off religious conservatives.

    Also, just TRY to muzzle him. It can’t be done. So here in the real world, where we can’t muzzle people, sometimes we need to accept that people are going to speak up about multiple different things. Bill Nye the Science Guy won’t just talk about general Science, sometimes he’ll talk about saving the environment. Sometimes he might talk about education! Heaven forfend sometime he might talk about politics! People! What are you going to do about them, always having multiple interests!

    There’s a difference, you know, between being honest when asked, and not flaunting your anti-religion. Why create problems that can be so easily avoided?

    You know, there are people who don’t think it IS a problem to be an atheist AND have an evidence-based view on evolution, AND say it.

    I often think that Dawkins struck the most powerful blow against creationism we’ve seen this decade by going right to the jugular: “how do you know there even IS a God?” He stopped the debate being about radiometric dating and plate tectonics and brought it right back on target. Creationists LOVE to argue scientific technobabble, because they’ve learned how to sound plausible to the scientifically illiterate. But Dawkins swooped in and attacked their primary assertion. Really genius, in the debate between science and unscientific thinking. I wish Gould were alive to take part in that debate of tactics.

    Where 8 or 9 out of 10 Americans are religious, catering to 1 or 2 out of 10 Americans to win elections doesn’t add up.

    I understand democrats pandering to religious folks. What I don’t get is telling non-religious democrats to pretend to have religion or shut up about secular values. Sorry, but “shut up about your views” is against the American Character. Listen to my views, or don’t, and dismiss them, or don’t. But I will not shut up about them to assuage the bigotry of others.

    What didn’t work? The previous two generations of atheists tried to do what that didn’t work? What were they aiming for that didn’t come to fruition?

    I don’t know what they were aiming for, but they sure left us a world where they very rarely, if ever, fought directly against unreason and theocratic values. Look at the dismal state of science education in biology in America. We’re like 35th among industrialized countries. Look at representation in congress… Congresspeople are afraid to be anything other than believers. Look at the indoctrination of Christian belief in our military… that’s completely out of control, and that’s been getting worse.

    Time to speak up. Time to put ads on busses. Time to stop shutting up, lest we offend.

    And if they had done something else, would they have done better – or worse?

    Well, we tried “sit down and shut up” for a generation. Let’s try the other thing for awhile and see.

    Because being one of meager means sure beats the hell out of prison life.

    I recommend you read Greta Christina’s rant on atheists and anger. (google it, because I don’t want to trigger the moderation bot)

    But here’s a sweet, juicy taste:


    So when you tell an atheist (or for that matter, a woman or a queer or a person of color or whatever) not to be so angry, you are, in essence, telling us to disempower ourselves. You’re telling us to lay down one of the single most powerful tools we have at our disposal. You’re telling us to lay down a tool that no social change movement has ever been able to do without. You’re telling us to be polite and diplomatic, when history shows that polite diplomacy in a social change movement works far, far better when it’s coupled with passionate anger. In a battle between David and Goliath, you’re telling David to put down his slingshot and just… I don’t know. Gnaw Goliath on the ankles or something.

  • qbsmd

    Interestingly, Wikipedia’s article on agnosticism states “It is not a religious declaration in itself and the terms are not mutually exclusive.” so I’m surprised they allow it to be used as such elsewhere.

  • jjj

    you people and your labeling.

  • Ray

    Come on people. Neil is a scientist, as am I. If you come at this topic from scientific principles, there is no scientific evidence either that there is, or that there isn’t a god. Hence, the scientist concludes: agnostic. Should there become accepted evidence available that either there is or isn’t a god, then a pure scientist can be either diest or athiest. For myself, I like to say apathetic agnostic.

    • http://twitter.com/DickManning1 Dick Manning

       But wait a moment, why is it religion gets this special pass where in every other field where we commit the scientific method it wouldn’t hold even a spaggetti-strainer’s worth of integrity? If you assert a claim that god is real and juxtapose faith along with that assertion why in the world would you claim neutral grounding on that if there isn’t the slightest shred of proof?

      I can say I’m agnostic when it comes to aliens a lot easier because we have scientific theories and an educated idea on the size of our own galaxy as well as both hypothetical mathematic equations and theoretical ones, right? I mean I’m no scientist, I’m a cheerleader for scientists, as Penn Jillette might say.

      To me this sort of breaks down into the evolution of words as well as an attempt to communicate while avoiding as many semantics and strawmen as possible to get the message across. This is really more of a philosophical discussion or a scientific one but it is also a literary argument in a way, I think. I mean “apathetic agnostic” sure sounds like atheism to me. If we go by the argument that “atheism is a religion and belief-system like not playing tennis is a sport.” Which I’m sure you’ve probably heard if you’ve listened to a fair amount of the debates we get to see on youtube with guys like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris,  Dennet, and about a half-dozen more I’m having a brain fart on right now :P

  • Michael Linden

    I agree with
    what Anonymous has been saying, and I must say, I am disappointed
    with so many people (particularly Siamang) assuming they know what’s
    going on in someone else’s mind. To assume Dr. Tyson claims
    agnosticism just to avoid negative appeal, or to assume that he is
    “playing it safe,” is to assume you know how his mind
    works. One, your (understandable) victim mentality may not
    necessarily be his.

    Two, there are folks who are not atheists but are not religious. There are folks who do not believe in a God but who do not necessarily think there is no “driving force” other than materialism (the particle/energy kind, not the greedy kind.) There are folks who simply lack a need to define such a thing in the first place–there is no need for belief, in that case, as a personal God can neither be proven nor disproved, and so they needn’t think anymore on the subject. For some still, we really just lack a broader vocabulary for “Everything is One and what you call “God” I call Source State or the the experiential state of consciousness.” (That, in fact, would simply be the argument against a “source” separate from ourselves, for we are the universe and, having been birthed from the universe, into the universe, there is no distinction to be made.) There are so many ways to be/think, so many in-betweens, and certain situations or stages of life/self discovery/whatever else can cause a person’s labels to fluctuate, or to simply lack super-clear definition. And so you see, there are so many ways to think, separate from a strict non-belief or a strict belief. For some, there is simply “redefining,” or looking at something from another angle.He’s an intelligent man, I’m sure he knows what he’s talking about. And if he doesn’t, who knows? I’m not him. The views he has shared with the public regarding a connectedness with the cosmos border on spiritual, if one feels that we are the universe not only in a physical sense but in a sense of experiential reality. If he wants to try to use a common label for how he feels in order to keep people from wrestling him into something he feels he is not, that’s his prerogative. The entire discussion is almost unnecessary, because again, none of us are in his head.

  • katie

    The science of the universe and life itself is the purest DIVINE there is. If you consider it a beautiful miracle, it is called pantheism. If you consider it boring and uninteresting, it is called (apathetic) agnostic or even atheistic.  Science IS religion. It’s that simple. Whether you consider it DIVINE is your own perspective.

  • Anonymous

    At the risk of getting a lot of shit,  here goes:
    Y does the blogger or adim of the article say in his outro “But at the same time, religion seems to be one of the biggest impediments to obtaining proper scientific literacy. There’s no greater anti-science force out there.” The most popular religion (Christianity) and the largest contingent of these (Catholics) which are under the authority and guidance of the Pope believe in Evolution, and are taught the same at school (i speak from experience, being catholic and raised with an education at a catholic school). The Catholic church itself has said that literal interpretation of the bible, with regards to Creation isn’t valid due to the proof of evolution… Soo Getting to my point, if the majority of the majority Religion out here believe in Science and god, is that still considered “Improper scientific literacy”??? Don’t you think there are bigger deterrent’s to scientific illiteracy?? Is that statement really true? religion is the most anti-science force out there??


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