Tyson begins by noting that he is often asked if he is an atheist. He then offers a reply: “You know, the only ‘ist’ I am, is a scientist.”
He then goes on to say he has nothing to do with movements and he thinks for himself.
Hmmm, one might think that makes him an individual-ist, but never mind.
Tyson then explains part of his resistance to being called an atheist. As he observes, when people assign you to a movement they assume all the baggage that goes with the movement apply to you as well. Tyson then adds that this frustrates conversation because people assume they already understand your position based on their assumptions about the title applied to you. And that, Tyson says, is not how you should have a conversation. Instead, you should sit down with people and explore ideas in mutual conversation.
I can understand his frustration. But the fact is that “atheist” is hardly unique here. People also make assumptions when you call yourself a socialist or a progressive, a Democrat or a Christian. And yes, those assumptions can create roadblocks for conversation. But the response is not to eschew descriptors altogether. Rather, the response is to explain what you mean when you use a particular descriptor.
Interestingly, note that Tyson applies the word “scientist” to himself without apology, even though this descriptor also has all sorts of baggage. Some of it — e.g. white lab coat, thick glasses, socially inept disposition — is relatively innocuous. But some of the baggage is much more loaded — e.g. fount of wisdom, iconoclast, visionary, brilliant thinker.
Note that Tyson did not consider the baggage that goes with “scientist” as grounds to reject the term. Instead, as he talks he deconstructs some of the stereotypes that go with calling oneself a scientist. After all, he doesn’t wear thick glasses, he’s not socially inept and not a white lab coat in sight.
What this means is that Tyson’s whole monologue about the frustration with titles is completely irrelevant to the question of whether he’s an atheist or not. If he isn’t an atheist then he shouldn’t call himself one, regardless of the baggage that goes with the term. If he is an atheist, he should call himself one while challenging in word and deed some of the baggage that goes with the term. Otherwise, how shall the term ever shed that unnecessary baggage?
Tyson then asserts, “So, what people are really after is what is my stance on religion or spirituality or God.”
That’s ironic. Tyson has just finished complaining about people who make assumptions prior to conversation about the perspectives of the other person. And then he asserts that when people ask him if he’s an atheist what they really want to know is his stance on religion or spirituality or God. That may be the case, but given his own concerns about baggage one would hope that Tyson does not automatically assume all this baggage goes with the question.
Then at 1:07 into the clip Tyson offers the big reveal: he is in fact best described as an agnostic. And what is this? Tyson then offers a definition of sorts. He says the word agnostic is used:
“to refer to someone who doesn’t know but hasn’t yet really seen evidence for it but is prepared to embrace the evidence if it’s there, but if it’s not it won’t be forced to think something that is not otherwise supported.”
Now I could understand this mumbo jumbo if somebody stuck a microphone in Tyson’s face on a street corner and asked him off the cuff to define “agnostic”. But as part of a carefully produced three minute clip featured in the “Big Think” series? This is very disappointing.
Let’s take a closer look at Tyson’s mumbo jumbo description of agnosticism.
Tyson starts by saying an agnostic is someone who doesn’t know if God exists. But that’s just wrong. Many theists will say they don’t know that God exists but they do believe or have faith that God exists. If we accepted Tyson’s description then it would follow that many theists are atheists. But this is absurd.
Next, Tyson implies that agnostics are those who are committed to some sort of evidentialism according to which they need to have evidence for p before they will believe or can know p. But this too is absurd. As any epistemologist will tell you, evidentialism of this kind (the kind commonly associated with W.K. Clifford) readily self-destructs. And agnosticism is certainly not tied to it.
The rest of Tyson’s comment equates agnostic with a person who is willing to believe p should evidence for p arise. But this too has nothing, per se, to do with agnosticism. A person could be an atheist and hold this open view to the proffering of evidence and a person could be an agnostic (a rather dogmatic, close-minded agnostic) and deny this attitude.
All in all, this is a terrible, convoluted description of agnosticism.
Tyson then observes how atheists try to claim him even though he’s really an agnostic. Indeed, some atheists assert that atheism and agnosticism really are the same thing. Tyson insists that they are not the same thing. I couldn’t agree with him more on that. But the difference that he sees between atheist and agnostic is simply bizarre. Here’s what he says:
“Atheists I know who proudly wear the badge are active atheists. They’re like in your face, atheists and they want to change policies and they’re having debates. I don’t have the time, the interest, the energy, to do any of that. I’m a scientist, I’m an educator. My goal is to get people thinking straight in the first place.”
I just about fell off my chair. His goal is to get people thinking straight? And yet this is how he contrasts atheism from agnosticism? That atheists are active atheists (never mind the circularity) and that they want to change policies and have debates? And presumably agnostics are agnostics because they don’t want to change policies or have debates? What kind of nonsense is this? Being policy driven and engaging in debates is not what distinguishes atheism from agnosticism (It would, however, distinguish some types of atheism from apatheism — the view that one doesn’t care if God exists. But Tyson didn’t say he’s an apatheist. He said he’s an agnostic.)
From that point Tyson borrows a line from Sam Harris by suggesting that the very idea of the concept “atheist” is somehow silly or nonsensical or unnecessary:
“It’s odd that the word ‘atheist’ even exists. I don’t play golf. Is there a word for non-golf-players? Do non-golf players gather and strategize? Do non-skiers have a word and come together and talk about the fact that they don’t ski?”
This is an incredibly silly, inane comment with all the rhetorical precision of buckshot. No there isn’t a word for non-golf players and there isn’t a word for non-skiers but there is a word for non-theists and for rather obvious reasons. If Tyson needs to have those reasons pointed out to him, if his understanding of atheism really is that infantile, then what is he doing sitting in front of the camera pontificating in the first place?
Tyson then goes on to speak derisively of atheists meeting in community:
“I can’t gather around and talk about how much everybody in the room doesn’t believe in God.”
Now remember what Tyson said earlier. He doesn’t like the term “atheist’ because people add all sorts of baggage to it. Time for more pot calling kettle black, for Tyson then gives his own meaning to the word “atheist” with his caricature of atheists as people who have debates and get together to talk about how much they don’t believe in God. What an insulting, belittling depiction of the atheist community!
And all this from a fellow who says his “goal is to get people thinking straight in the first place.”