Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a scientist, and a very popular one. He serves not only in the capacity of a working scientist, but also as one who brings science to the masses, a communicator of science if you will. He hosts television programs as well as appearing as a guest on television programs. For all of this I applaud him, as educating the general populace on the value of science to society as a whole is of paramount importance. However this video interview he did on the topic of atheism casts a pall upon an otherwise admirable resume.
Dr. Tyson is less than honest in this interview and rather insulting to those who reject the claims of divine revelation. In it, he indicates that he’s not a part of any movement, or more precisely that he doesn’t associate with movements and this is my first point of contention with him. As a science educator in the United States, he knows all too well that the parties of God seek to undermine science, as they always have, because enlightenment and scientific literacy unravel the faith-based claims of organized religion. Someone has to do the heavy lifting of fighting off those who try to erode the teaching of biology to students for example, or seeking to cut government funding for science. If he doesn’t associate with this “movement,” he is allowing others to do the work for which he is supremely qualified.
When it comes specifically to the question of religious belief and the belief in a god, he not only states that he’s an agnostic, but goes out of the way to explain that agnosticism is not atheism and that atheists are always trying to claim him as one of their own. I’ll take issue with this as well if you don’t mind, because agnosticism is an intellectual argument or position rather than a practical one. If one wants to take the position that they do not know if there’s a deity or perhaps many deities, and that it may even be beyond the human ability to know such a thing, that’s wonderful. However, when that person goes about their daily lives, they live them exactly as if there were no gods. They are most certainly not theists, who by definition believe in a personal god, one who is present and active in the governance and organization of the world and the universe. And, as I’ve written before, if you’re not a theist, well then you’re an atheist.
If Dr. Tyson were to be asked specifically if he believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Creator of the Universe, and that through him, salvation and redemption can be found, along with an eternal life of singing the praises of God the Father, I’m fairly certain he would not state that he’s unsure about that, that he’s agnostic about it. If asked whether he believes the Angel Gabrielle revealed the final word of God to mankind through the Prophet Mohammed, and that the Quran reflects that message from the Creator, Dr. Tyson will likely not respond in the affirmative. In fact, when asked if he believed in a higher power generally, Tyson responded: “Every account of a higher power that I’ve seen described, of all religions that I’ve seen, include many statements with regard to the benevolence of that power. When I look at the universe and all the ways the universe wants to kill us, I find it hard to reconcile that with statements of beneficence.”[i] I think that rules out that Dr. Tyson is Christian or Muslim, and most likely eliminates Judaism and Hinduism as well. For the American public at large, he sounds a lot like an atheist. I’d suggest reading two of his own essays, Holy Wars and The Perimeter of Ignorance, and tell me if you think he comes across as someone who is unsure of whether a god created and controls the Universe.
Where Tyson really goes astray is when he tries to be funny, or at least I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he was striving for humor, and asks why we even need the word atheist. He compares atheists to people who don’t play golf, or people who don’t ski. This from a man who knows full well that theists have arrested, tortured and murdered his scientific predecessors for even questioning the Church’s authority. This from a man who quotes Galileo in the response to a question from the audience (see video linked below the post), when he knows that Galileo was tried and convicted of being “vehemently suspected of heresy” and spent the remainder of his life under house arrest. This from a man who knows that as I write this, legislators around the country are writing bills to cloud our children’s minds when it comes to the teaching of evolution, because evolution destroys their creationist fantasies. When Dr. Tyson says that he knows atheists who “wear the badge” and are trying to change policy and that he doesn’t have time or energy for that, he should be thanking those who do have the time and energy as his very livelihood as a science educator depends on those who fight the good fight against the theocrats and science deniers.
I understand that Dr. Tyson does not want to be associated with the negative connotations that come from the word atheist in this country. I personally believe he could do a lot to change that connotation, but I can’t lay my expectations on him. The least he can do though is follow the example of our founding fathers who created the only republic whose founding documents prevent religion from being part of government policy and support those who battle the influence of The Faithful in American life and government policy. If you don’t choose to lead Dr. Tyson, at least get out of the way and don’t belittle those who seek to keep the American ideal alive and keep Thomas Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state from crumbling ever further. By questioning the very need for a word to describe those who don’t believe in the supernatural, the Celestial Dictatorship whose followers relentlessly try to inject their doctrine into others’ lives, you do us all a disservice. To go even further and mock them is beneath you sir.