When Is an Atheist Not an Atheist? (Apparently When You’re Neil deGrasse Tyson)
Atheists, is Neil deGrasse Tyson a voice for you?
I ask this for several reasons. To begin with, he says he’s not an atheist. So, while you are claiming him, know that he’s disowning you, and it’s very important to him not to get slapped with the ‘atheist’ label:
“.. 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.”
That’s a lot of effort to set a record straight. I’m left wondering what he feels the “behavior of an agnostic” is and “what the behaviour of an atheist” is. But, I suppose that could be fair enough – if you’re actually an agnostic. But is he? Here are some of the other things he’s said publically that scream “atheist” and then you can tell me.
First, a couple of warm ups:
“The more 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.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson
So, if he is a theist, his god isn’t a compassionate one.
“God is an ever receding pocket of scientific ignorance.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson
There he’s referencing a common catch phrase popular with atheists.
During a discussion with Bill Moyers, (which you can watch here: (http://aattp.org/neil-degrasse-tyson-tells-moyers-no-religion-in-science-classrooms-video/) Moyers struggled to search for common ground for science and religion, but found himself rebuffed by Tyson at every attempt. Tyson insisted science and religion are irreconcilable. Since, as an Astronomer, he’s clearly a scientist, it’s not hard to conclude which side of that science-religion divide he must be on.
Or, if you prefer, there’s his presentation at the Beyond Belief Conference, in San Diego in November of 2006.
“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. That’s really what we’ve got to address here. Otherwise, the public is secondary to this…if you can’t convert our colleagues, why do you have any hope that you’re going to convert the public?”
Note, not only is he concerned about converting the remaining 15% of scientists to atheism, but he was a guest speaker at an atheist conference. It’s also a preliminary clue that he’s not content with holding his philosophical view just for himself, he is focused on converting the public to it. And yet he’s not admitting it.
That last excerpt was fairly early in his public life. He’s becoming more outspoken, bolder and more adamant about his agenda now, but still avoiding that label of “atheist”. One of my favourites is a talk he gave at the University of Texas at Arlington. He displayed a photo of a billboard hosted by the “Freedom from Religion Foundation”. It was in response to a plethora of religious billboards. (I’ve posted it at the top of this article.)
“Praise Darwin: Evolve Beyond Belief.”
Evolve beyond belief. The agenda is clear. Is it safe to assume that he feels his kind of thinking is on the more evolved side of this scale? His tone during the talk is dismissive of anyone who does not think his way. He appeals to the crowd through his enthusiastic support of the atheist agenda in the billboard and by pitching ridicule toward any opposing point of view.
And yet In his characteristic hedging he then tosses out this bone to balanced points of view.
“I’m not trying to convert anybody. We should celebrate the religious diversity of this country.”
Then he proceeds to warn the listener about the dangers of religious thinking. But he’s “agnostic”.
However, of all his campaigns, I find this next one the most disturbing, not just for the statistics, but for the elitism inherent, and that this elitism is accepted by his audience:
Here he’s displaying the statistics on what happens to a person’s religious belief as they acquire more and more scientific education. According to his presentation:
- 90% of the American general public is religious, meaning they believe in a personal god who intervenes in their lives.
- 45% of scientists in America are religious. (Although Engineers and Mathematicians are holding onto their personal god a little more tightly than other scientists. That must be my problem, that I’m a mathematician.)
- 7% of “Elite” American scientists are religious.
This talk is loaded with the fallacy of innuendo. He labels the most academically educated 7% as “Elite” scientist, implying that their education level elevates them, and therefore their thinking. (Remember, he’s in the group with the PhD’s so he’s also presenting the logical fallacy of giving a self supporting argument, that the elite, rational thinkers are defined as people from his personal group.)
He says a graduate degree gets you “half way there”, implying that you’re half way to the goal of dumping your belief in god. I won’t even begin to discuss here that there can be other reasons for intelligent, rational people to not continue to PhD level, such opting out of the academic system, having seen problems with it. I won’t get sidetracked with pointing out that those who don’t continue to “Elite” level might contain more “free thinkers” and more “rigorous” or “critical thinkers” who do not want to stay with any group’s collective mindset. But Tyson’s position is clear. You’re either with us or against us. You either think like us or there’s something wrong with you.
During this talk, here’s how he slides his agenda in:
“When you are educated and you understand how physics works and you’re mathematically literate and you understand data and you understand experiment and you go to someone who doesn’t having that training and they’re religious and you ask them why are you religious and believing in invisible things that influence your life, what’s wrong with you” That’s unfair. It’s not only unfair, it’s disrespectful, for the following reason.”
So far, sounding like he’s sticking up for the underdog. But wait for it…
“Until that number [of scientists who believe in God] is zero you’ve got nothing to say to the general public. … Figure that one out first.”
Or, as he put it at another time, talking to the National Academy of Science:
““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. That’s really what we’ve got to address here. Otherwise, the public is secondary to this...if you can’t convert our colleagues, why do you have any hope that you’re going to convert the public?”
Well, that makes it pretty clear. Converting everyone to atheism is the goal. Start with collecting all scienctist under that banner and then, presumably, once all scientists are atheists, then it’s OK to be disrespectful to the general public by asking people “what’s wrong with you” for believing in a personal god. Then it’s OK to be dismissive of people who aren’t in your club. Mr. Tyson, what happened to your motto of questioning everything? What happened to questioning even your own paradigm?
Oops – maybe he does have a scientific approach that will promote understanding between these camps:
“Maybe this is telling us something. Maybe there is something in the brain wiring that prevents some people from ever being an atheist. If that’s the case, in a way, they can’t help it.”
[BTW: That’s not only insulting to the people who don’t agree with him, it’s the logical fallacy of dismissing a person for holding the opposing point of view.]
But he’s an “agnostic”.
Why would he disown his own then if he is an atheist? He’s got a solid footing in the public arena. He’s garnished enthusiasm and public adoration for his work in “Cosmos”. He’s in a perfect position to advance the atheist point of view and help the public embrace it. But he’s dodging all that.
Here’s on reason why:
If you go to the March 10, 2014 “Rationally Speaking”, you’ll discover that Tyson avoids the label “atheist” because it makes people have all sorts of unflattering (and often untrue) assumptions that they attach to the label “atheist”.
It’s not that he’s not an atheist, he just doesn’t want to take the heat. Mr. Tyson, not wanting to be labelled an “atheist” is not the same thing as not being one.
He does like the label of “Public Educator” and his teaching style includes “proximal development”. (He alludes to it in this panel discussion: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dxff0k_TEzI ) With proximal development the teacher guides the student by edging them toward the final goal by having them adopt little steps leading up to it.
Coaches use proximal development a lot. They teach you to run a marathon by mastering a few miles at a time. I use it when teaching yoga. On any given day, I have students become comfortable with one or two aspects of their practice, gaining skills that are ‘close enough for now’. Then I add to the skill set and fine tune the skills they have as they go along. I’ve found this works better than parking people in an advanced yoga pose and telling them to breathe, relax and be at one with the universe all at once. Proximal development is a very useful tool.
My question for deGrasse Tyson is, what are you proximally developing us toward? You say you’re an agnostic, and yet you are clearly an atheist. You will make a point and then, when cornered, back down. You clearly think that coming fully out as an atheist is unacceptable to the public, but you’re wedging your foot into the door by calling yourself an agnostic. Is that your “proximal development” strategy for the American public? If you can’t be straight with us about these things, what else are you not being honest about? What is your actual agenda? With your charm and wit and by riding the coat tails of Carl Sagan, how are you trying to shape our thinking?
Mr. Tyson, if you could act openly, with confidence and respect, you could really get some good work done. You could help build a positive reputation for atheists. But you have to show the courage to do this an open and honest way.
My question to atheists is: is this man your voice? If it is, you’re going to have a hard road ahead of you, because nobody likes to be dismissed. Nobody likes to be disrespected. The more you do that, the more they’re going to push back.
If this is not your voice, then he’s already cut the cord with you from his end. You might want to finish the job.
Some of the links referenced in this article include:
Science and religion not being reconcilable
Evolve Beyond Belief, University of Texas at Arlington
Percentage of religious scientists in the US
Tyson alluding to his proximal development strategy while rebuking Richard Dawkins.