Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and his Confusion about Words

I’d like to preface this essay by saying that I’m a big fan of Dr. Tyson. I have enjoyed pretty much every presentation of his that I’ve seen (that I can recall), and I think he’s doing an important and necessary job of communicating science (well!) to the general public. I think his new Cosmos is the best thing to happen to science communication in decades.

Dr. Tyson recently appeared on the Rationally Speaking podcast to explain “why he doesn’t call himself an atheist”. And it was incredibly disappointing to hear someone of his intellectual and educational background repeat a variety of old tropes about atheism, that are both irrelevant and largely false.

I’m going to be pointing to certain time-stamps in the interview, and respond to his claims.

Starting around the 5:30 mark, Dr. Tyson relates anecdote about using the term ‘godspeed’ on his facebook status, to wish an astronaut a safe journey. At which point some people responded with “I thought you were an atheist!” Dr. Tyson takes this to mean that, if he were an atheist (or even being perceived as an atheist, then his behaviour is constrained, that he is required to not act/speak in certain ways. This exposes a certain level of ignorance on the part of the people who were hassling him, and Dr. Tyson himself.

There has long been a conversation within the atheist community about the use of language that is ‘overtly religious in origin’ (not the ridiculous example of ‘good bye’ that Dr. Tyson uses, but things like ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes and ‘oh my god’ when expressing shock/surprise), and while individual people who identify as atheists may draw a hard (and completely ridiculous) line in the sand and say ‘atheists do not use these words’, many of us choose not to give up our social upbringing. I, for one, have long ago made peace with uttering “Well, holy god!” in mock exasperation (which is entirely lost on my Canadian friends), saying “goddamn” as an epithet, and all the other words that were ingrained into me during my childhood. If someone is so uninformed as to shrilly declare that I’m not an atheist, I’m not going to wilt under their ignorance and run away from the label. Julia’s exposition on labels is (as is her wont) excellent, and to the point: Do you have a belief in a god? If not: you’re an atheist. The rest is baggage, unrelated to the label “atheist”.

To which Dr. Tyson says he agrees, and then wonders why people hassle him when he doesn’t meet their expectations. The obvious answer is that people are jerks. This isn’t complicated.

At roughly 14:00, Dr. Tyson makes it clear that “I remain unconvinced by any claims anyone has ever made about the existence or the power of a divine force operating in the universe” is his take on all of this. His subsequent and repeated denial of the label “atheist” makes as much sense as a man stating “yes, it’s true that I am an unmarried man, but as I don’t go out drinking late at night, and hassling women in bars, I am not a bachelor!”

While it may be clear that certain segments of society have placed certain expectations on the behaviour of people who would otherwise fit the meaning of a word, it’s entirely ridiculous to act as if these incidental (i.e. non-necessary) expectations are necessary. I’ll bet good money that Dr. Tyson doesn’t wear a white lab coat in most of his work, nor does he work with smoking glass beakers and jars of various coloured liquids: yet he’s still a scientist, regardless of the ignorant expectations people have about ‘what a scientist does’.

After this point, the interview becomes a ridiculous semantic wrestling match, mostly with Dr. Tyson talking over the other two people in the discussion. It’s pretty much a train wreck.

Look, I get that Dr. Tyson may have a number of Good Reasons to not self-identify as an atheist. A grab-bag of possible reasons (and I am not asserting that any of these have a good probability of applying to Dr. Tyson) are:

  • He’s a scientist, and that field generally (if not him personally) is dependent on public money.
  • His ability to reach out to religious segments of society may well be inhibited by an admission that he’s an atheist.
  • Religion is quite deeply ingrained in the Black community, so there may be additional social repercussions to him speaking out that a white person (like Massimo or Julia, or myself) may not have to face. (And this is not unique to the US)
  • Most of the atheists he knows may well be terrible people, and he simply doesn’t wish to be associated with them.
  • Many public atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris) say a lot of really terrible things, and he may not wish to be associated with *them*.
  • There is a history of labels being applied to people of colour, by people who are not people of colour.

As Dr. Tyson repeatedly asserts: people are complicated. There are more to people than one simple label that we apply to them (or they to themselves). And this also applies to atheists who police the behaviour of other atheists (to determine/decide whether those people can be ‘kicked out’ of atheism or not), they have an additional label: those folk are jerks.

As a scientist, I would have hoped that Dr. Tyson (who repeatedly asserts in this interview that he’s “evidence-driven”) would have looked at the conversations surrounding this topic, prior to sounding off this nonsense. I get that he doesn’t want to have conversations about gods/religion, so don’t have those conversations. But this entire conversation was him asserting that

  1. Everything that religious people say about atheists is true.
  2. He doesn’t exhibit those particular qualities (other than a lack of belief in divine beings).
  3. Therefore he’s not an atheist

Julia raises this point, in response to what Dr. Tyson is saying, and Dr. Tyson just flat-out denies that this is his reasoning, even after complaining about the “weird, crazy, negative stuff” that atheists have been doing. His repeated accusations that people (including Julia) are making presumptions about him are, frankly, bizarre. That thing where people look at evidence, Dr. Tyson, and then draw conclusions? That’s not ‘making assumptions’. (and to be clear, it’s not science either, lest anyone think I’m making that inference)

Ascribing the behaviour of a few jerks-who-are-atheists to atheists-in-general is just shitting on atheists-in-general.

But hey, don’t self-label if you don’t want to. But don’t shit on those who do.

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5 responses to “Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and his Confusion about Words”

  1. Tyson, we get that “being an atheist” would be damaging to your career. I mean, in some respect I get that you have to lie to protect your livelihood. But every time you do, you also act as if being an atheist were something actually bad, and you throw the rest of us under your bus.
    You, Neil deGrasse Tyson, are an atheist. And you will be until you pick a god to start believing in. Whether or not you LIKE a label doesn’t change whether or not it APPLIES to you. And the rest of us could really use your help.

  2. “Many public atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris) say a lot of really terrible things…”

    For example? An explanation of what you mean by “really terrible” would also be helpful.

  3. Three quick examples spring to mind:

    Saying dumb things about Philosophy: (pulled from

    Saying dumb things about feminism:

    Saying dumb things about paedophilia:

    I’d suggest googling these things if you want to know more, these are largely old news in the skeptic/atheist communities.

  4. I believe Dr. Tyson is merely trying to redirect focus to the evidence and the knowledge that we do have. Anti-theistic debate would seem to be quite boring for a world-famous astrophysicist, and would be a terrible misuse of his time. (Also, David Silverman is already doing an excellent job at that.) I believe he feels that it is his duty to share scientific findings with the world so that they might come to their own enlightened conclusions. As he himself tweeted, “The truth can never be biased.”

  5. To do that would require to do nothing more than not-talking about atheism, and why he doesn’t self-label that way (given that he never adequately addressed that in an interview intended to do so).

    No-one requires him to take an anti-theistic stance. I don’t require him to take any stance at all. The whole interview could simply have been “I’d prefer not to discuss my opinion on that topic” and we’re done, rather than “I’m not an atheist. Look, atheists are assholes, I’m not like them. No, don’t presume that I think atheists are assholes!”

    (And David Silverman isn’t doing an excellent job at anything, frankly, but that’s a rant for another time)

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