When I interviewed Neil de Grasse Tyson on Atheist Talk Radio, questions of atheism, agnosticism, or religion did not come up in planning for, conducting, or talking about that interview. Maybe people assumed he was an Atheist. When I interviewed, with Lynn Fellman, Ira Flatow, a couple of members of Minnesota Atheists expressed minor concern: “Is Flatow an atheist? If not, why are you interviewing him on Atheist Talk?” I think that must be because they had heard something about his background. Personally, I have no idea what Ira’s beliefs or lacks of beliefs might be.

My answer to the question that was asked was, of course, “I don’t do interviews about atheism or religion. It’s mostly not my area, and I don’t find it as interesting as the science … We’ve got Ira on the show to talk about issues that would be of interest to our audience, which tends to be sciency.” (I do science interviews on ATT, not so much other topics.)

For the most part, I have no idea if most of those I’ve interviewed are atheists or not. It is my practice to assume that all people I know are “nones” in the sense of “non-believers” which might make them atheists, agnostics, or merely indifferent. I assume that until proven otherwise because I find life less annoying that way, and because there are so many people who assume that others are Christian, or Jewish or whatever. If I am proven wrong, then who cares?

Interestingly, here in Minnesota, when people assume that I have a religion it is often “Jewish.” I’m Irish and German ethnically and was raised as a Catholic in a mainly Irish church, but captured by Jews as a teenager, and raised by them for a while. My “Jewishness” though is mainly because I’m from New York, and New Yorkers and American Jews have some overlap in their culture. Indeed, if Neil de Grasse Tyson was much lighter skinned (but not too light) people might assume he was Jewish, since he’s totally from New York.

(I quickly add that while Neil is from New York City, I’m not … I’m from upstate, but with close cultural ties to The City.)

Personally, I do think of myself as an atheist (see Atheist Voices of Minnesota: an Anthology of Personal Stories for more details, when it is available!) because my work in evolutionary biology and in certain political areas has led me to carry out activism in church-state and related issues. That makes me an activist, and thus, an atheist, apropos NdGT’s commentary in the video. But you will know from my blogging, I mainly address a subset of the issues covered by many of my fellow bloggers such as PZ (Pharyngula) and others.

Oh yeah, and I’m a Scientist. I’m also a Blogger, so be careful.

Comments? Complaints?

Hat Tip for the video: Jennifer Ouellette

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14 thoughts on “Neil de Grasse Tyson is an Atheist Agnostic

  1. Dr. Tyson appears to be a nonsupernaturalist from his statements in the past or I could be reading too much into his statements. Agnosticism seems to be a declarative/non-declarative statement by Tyson. At least he is a secularist.

  2. I have a sad… though I do have some understanding of his point of view.

    Through a lot of hard work, Neil has got into a position where he does not have to deal with the idiocy of religion on the daily basis that many of us lesser lights do. And yes, perhaps he can do us more good by focusing his energies on sharpening the weapons of science and education that we require to defend our godless humanism from the very tenacious and dangerous enemy that is religion.

    I am sure he is aware of the incredible danger posed by the religious right to scientific education. I am just surprised that he does not acknowledge that. And give us, here in the trenches, a little more moral support.

  3. But Greg, you left out the important question: Are you a Golfist or an Agolfist?

    Seriously, I’m going to have to listen to Dr. Tyson’s talk again but I think he’s wrong about atheists in general. He says he’s “claimed by atheists” and I suppose that’s true — but not of all atheists, just the ones he’s hearing. Same thing with “atheists are in your face”, which he more or less said. Some, PZ Myers for instance, certainly are. Others, like me, are mostly silent. NDT is just hearing the loud ones.

  4. theophontes777: NdgT is clear on his position on, say, creationists, intelligent design, etc.

    Watch this:


    Trebuchet: I’m an agolfist. I do not believe it is possible to hit a small ball with a stick and make it go into a hole only slightly larger than the ball a few hundred meters away. Or even a few meters away.

  5. Dr. Tyson avoids self-identification as an “atheist” simply because he has no real time or motivation to involve himself in debates abut religion or the lack thereof. He does take interest in issues where other people’s religion impinges on our right and ability to know about the universe and to pass on what we’ve learned to our children. I heartily concur.

  6. Ohio… I agree, plus there simply is a cost to being head of a major research institution and a spokesperson and creating the additional work. Being an Atheist with a a Big A is a commitment.

  7. Can we among the faithless please remove the stigma from the word “agnostic”? Agnosticism is a philosophical position that has nothing to do with whether you actually believe or what you believe in; it’s simply the opposite of believing that you have evidence. The majority of atheists are of the “do not believe, no reason to believe” persuasion. They are agnostic atheists. There are a few that aren’t agnostic; they say they have a reason not to believe, which is quite different. (For the record, a lot of those sorts of people tend to be rather unreasonable about many arguments; a lot of Randroids probably fall into this category for example.)

    I am an atheist. This is beyond doubt. I’m also an agnostic because I have a reasonably good model of God and see nothing in nature that fits that model or requires something that does.

  8. I find it interesting that you are a biologist, along with PZ Meyers and Richard Dawkins. I can see how it would be likely that scientists in the biological fields are more likely to be activists than those in astrophysics. Astrophysicists haven’t had to worry about religion trying to impose a heavy handed, oppressive influence on their field in ages.

    It seems NgDT has already faced the most controversial resistance he can probably confront in his field, the demotion of the beloved Pluto. On a scale of fighting-the-establishment-to-do-what-is-right, this rates a solid “meh”. Although, to be fair, I’m sure he must find some bit of frustration with almost half the American population that believes the earth is less than 10000 years old.

    When it comes to a field that openly counters the claims at the foundation of religions, how humans originated, I would think biologists can be easily inspired to the extremes of activism when faced with the uphill battle caused by ancient, ignorant claims on the subject.

  9. Yes, exactly! But it has more to do with the quirky landscape of the debate than any logic. The most fundamental challenge to the Abrahamic religions is not from biology, but from physics … the big bang vis-a-vis Genesis. The fact that the Big Bang (the theory, not the TV show) was initially articulated by a priest only adds to the complexity of that landscape. Also, among the primary complaints that creationist students and parents make to us teachers of human (or other) evolution, are all physics or other physical science questions. We biologists do not date things; radiometric dating is done by physicists. We do not create the record of stratigraphy; stratigraphy is done by geologists. And so on. So even though the fight is firmly in our front yard, were are merely the host for some of these debates.

    Another interesting thing is the way that astrophysicists and others in physical sciences play fast and loose with things that biological communicators and teachers have tried very hard to avoid, with respect to the language of intentionality, or verbiage that borders on spirituality. They … the physical scientists … get away with stuff that biologists routinely chastise each other over.

  10. Hey, Neil does not want to be labelled. Fair enough, He clearly does not believe in God and has no time for ideas based on dogma not evidence. If any such topic comes up when he is talking he is happy to make clear what he thinks and he is a brilliant voice for reason.
    His point is people who don’t believe in fairies are not called afairyists, they are just considered normal people. He feels that this should also apply to those who don’t believe in God, but don’t want to join the “atheist” club.
    Asking Neil if he is an atheist is the wrong question, just ask him “Do you believe in God.”

  11. I’m not so sure I agree with your assessment about the “most challenging,” Greg.

    Yes, the physical sciences do challenge the literal interpretation of the Genesis timeline, but I think the genetics underpinning of evolution still plays its role in that argument.

    I’ve heard it suggested, and I tend to agree, that a greater challenge to the Abrahamic religions would come from neuroscience, which is arguably eliminating the need for dualism and/or a soul. Genesis can and often is considered an allegory or metaphor (its late for me and I confess I’m too tired to care which it is), but life after death is one of the foundations of even the non-fundamentalist Christian denominations (and several other religions as well).

  12. Well, yes, the idea that religious stuff is all delusional is the greatest challenge, but we were not talking about that . We were talking about the stuff people who want to believe in the bible complain about vis-a-vis science, and that is all about details.

    It would be interesting to Fisk Genesis in relation to this issue, defining the category of science that objects to each fact. I am sticking to my guns on this. the ferment, the sun and the moon, everything about time, the oceans, the ark, a whole bunch of stuff is not strictly biology. I’m taking something of a checklist approach to this because that is what the argument is about. There is not comparing more or less important arguments or facts in this debate. That is not how creationists work, and it is their debate! (This hasn’t been a scientific issue for over a century.)

    OK, I looked:

    18 of the verses in Genesis chapter 1 pertain to physical sciences, 12 to Life sciences (not all are necessarily wrong … but most are either wrong or irrelevant)

    Interesting blog post coming up pertaining to Genesis 1:18 and Bill Nye the Science Guy!

  13. I’m sorry but based on what you said here, I kinda find that title of your show is a bit disingenuous. I’ve never heard your show before or anything like that, but to somebody who’s never heard it before, when I see that it’s called “Atheist Talk Radio”, I’m gonna assume that you’re gonna, idk, TALK ABOUT ATHEISM!!!! lol If you’re gonna talk about science, I feel you should call it “Science Talk Radio” or something like that. That’s like having a show called “Christian Talk Radio” and saying “Sorry, I’m only interested in talking about construction and other things not related to Christianity”. Not to mention you barely even talked about NDT and ended up talking mostly about yourself lol. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for science talk; as a nerd and an atheist, your show sounds interesting and maybe even intriguing.

    Anyway, back to the topic, I had a long conversation with a friend of mine about NDT, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I still support him heavily, but a spade is a spade, so I feel he is a bit disingenuous with his claims in the Big Think video. First, he claims he’s an “agnostic”, but his claims in most other videos suggest he’s more of an agnostic atheist who just isn’t comfortable with the label. I really think he should just man up and accept it! You know that old cliche “If the shoe fits”? He should try it on and see how it fits. Second, he accuses atheists of doing what he himself does! There are SO MANY VIDEOS where he’s talking down about religion, religious people, religious belief, and the existence of God himself. While he may not be quite an asshole about it, he still does it, which makes him just as bad in a theist’s eyes as any other atheist. Third, he has been and would continue to be a strong leader for the movement. He claims he doesn’t wanna be part of the movement, not realizing he already is! We atheists, much like you scientists, want mostly the same thing – for people to act REASONABLY, using logic and facts supported by evidence to influence their actions/beliefs. He regularly agrees with and communes with many who do support our movement like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc. He actively pushes for that in multiple talks/interviews/etc., and that’s exactly what we want. Why would he disassociate himself from us? That’s like Batman calling Robin a loser cuz his suit is too “homo”, despite them being on the same team.

  14. When I see the word “disingenuous” I think of the dictionary definition, which basically means misrepresenting or lying. I really would prefer it if you did not call us liars, or at least, that you apologize for that. Having said that, I will glance at your very long comment but since you started out with an insult, don’t expect much.

    OK, let’s see…

    OK, your parallel made up case about Christian Radio shows me where you’ve gone wrong. Atheists Talk Radio does in fact mostly cover atheist related issues. (In your example you have the Christians talking only about construction.)

    The mission of the show is to have guests and to discuss topics that are of interest to the community. The community has a great interest in science, so we do some science. That is well within our purview. You are simply a bit narrow minded in these manners.

    I forgive you.

    Anyway, back to the topic, I had a long conversation with a friend of mine about NDT, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I still support him heavily, but a spade is a spade

    OK, right there you just got yourself banned from this blog until you can issue a really good explanation. Maybe you are just stupid. Is that the case?


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