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RS103 - Neil deGrasse Tyson on Why He Doesn't Call Himself an Atheist

Release date: March 9, 2014

Neil deGrasse TysonAstrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson returns for this episode of Rationally Speaking, with a particular question to discuss: Should he call himself an atheist? The impetus is a recent dust-up over Neil's appearance on Big Think, in which he explained that he avoids the label "atheist" because it causes people to make all sorts of unflattering (and often untrue) assumptions. Julia and Massimo reply with some counterarguments, and along the way delve into the philosophy of language.

Neil's picks: The movie "Gravity," "IFLS," and the TV Shows "The Big Bang Theory," "CSI" and"NCIS."

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Reader Comments (73)

For the most part this was a great interview. I really appreciate this podcast. However, in the spirit of rationality and skepticism, I would like to offer some constructive criticism. Massimo, Julia, and Tyson felt justified in "channeling Richard Dawkins" so that they could clarify what Tyson's views were by contrasting them with those of Dawkins. Massimo rightly showed some discomfort at doing this. The problem is that they got Dawkins wrong on almost every point. There is a habit people have of working from a caricature version of Dawkins rather than paying attention to what he actually says. I was disappointed to see the rationally speaking hosts doing this. It likely that this caricaturing of Dawkins is due to using a representativeness heuristic. People remember Dawkins' most strongly spoken objections to religion and create a stereotype based on it. Come on, you guys should know better. Julia suggested and Tyson agreed that Dawkins uses C.E. and B.C.E instead of BC and AD. This simply isn't true. For example here is a line from The God Delusion, "Arius of Alexandria, in the fourth century AD, denied that Jesus was consubstantial..." (Dawkins 2006, p. 33). Dawkins uses BC and AD. It was also implied that the fact that Tyson enjoys things like Handel's Messiah, Jesus Christ Superstar, and art at cathedrals was somehow different from Dawkins "ardent" atheism. Dawkins has no compunction about liking religiously themed music. He writes, "I once was the guest of the week on a British radio show called Desert Island Discs. You have to choose the eight records you would take with you if marooned on a desert island. Among my choices was Mache dich mein Herze rein from Bach's St Matthew Passion" (Dawkins 2008, pp.110-111). I would hope that Massimo and Julia would make a point of correcting themselves on this error in future podcasts and pointing it out to others when they make the same mistake.
In addition, Tyson stereotypes those who choose to call themselves atheists based on a few anecdotal instances of being told not to use expressions like "god speed" and concludes he doesn't want to be labeled an atheist because of that. This is not very rational thinking and I think Massimo and Julia should have called BS on this. This type of stereotyping is something Julia rightly pointed out organizations like the Secular Student Alliance (and I might add Dawkins out campaign) are trying to fight against.
Tyson is a great Science communicator and I greatly enjoyed the first episode of Cosmos, but I think he is just wrong about this issue.

March 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChris Jenson

I do recognize some problems with category labeling in general, and this area in particular. To the extent that we need to lump or split, I think the labeling for those with disinclination toward belief or suspicions extending beyond the natural are very sparsely categorized. Given the significant variety of perspectives that might be included, it's not to me surprising or objectionable that someone like Tyson objects to being lumped in with those who he sees as being significantly different. When we identify those individuals who subscribe to supernatural beliefs, dogmas, etc. We have a wide variety of rather specific and fairly well recognized terms with which to distinguish different varieties. It's a bit troubling that the language is so weak at discerning amongst the highly significant differences amongst those not engaging in such beliefs or dogmas.

I spent some time in a building your own theology course years ago that included some well defined modifiers to both atheism and agnosticism. Modifiers were used to distinguish between different perspectives amongst individuals. Also terms were provided to identify categories for those with inclinations toward varieties of amorphous deism. Unfortunately I think very few outside that rather insular shared environment would be able to draw any understanding from such terminology. It seemed to me useful primarily for personal clarification, and relatively useless in labeling myself with a public identity.

Tyson seemed quite irritated by the situation. No doubt others who want to highlight some fundamental commonality with him are irritated as well. I personally find I'm more sympathetic to Tyson in this conflict. His plea seems for us to accept his own choices about the language of his identity. It seems to me he is not concealing belief or opinions, only selecting the identity terms he thinks are most clearly, if still inexactly, expressive of his person. It's certainly not a problem uniquely his. I wish the lumping critics might acknowledge and accept this. We might all concern ourselves more with the language problem, and less with the correctness of the label application.

March 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMark Peters

Everything about the Dawkins comparison is wrong.

Read here about Richard Dawkins' thoughts on Christmas, and how he hates the SECULAR carols, and loves the RELIGIOUS ones:

March 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

'Tyson stereotypes those who choose to call themselves atheists based on a few anecdotal instances of being told not to use expressions like "god speed" and concludes he doesn't want to be labeled an atheist because of that. This is not very rational thinking...'

Exactly how is that not rational? People like Dawkins, Harris, hitchens, pz myers, and even massimo have given 'atheists' a bad name. There is a negative connotation to 'atheist', something along the lines of --" a nasty, pompous, donnish, spiteful, emotionally challenged, know-it-all that demeans believers for the sole purpose of feigning intellectual superiority ". Of course, one only needs to not believe in Gods to be 'atheist' according to most dictionaries. The negative connotations likely gradually accumulated along with the proliferation of the internet. The same effect can be said of words like 'evangelical' or 'conservative' or 'liberal'-- the extreme instances of these groups are quite memorable. That coupled with the fact that people tend to generalize from a specific example and voila -- you get people not liking the label.

March 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBill Rabara

Do label words really ""save time""?

You got to weigh that against their baggage: the misunderstandings, miscommunications, false assumptions, social stigmas, Us/Them box it encourages, and more.

Extra time *upfront* arguably saves time. Or at least redistributes where its spent.

March 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher Aquilino

@Bill Rabara

It is irrational because one shouldn't make generalizations about people from anecdotal evidence. This is one of the causes of prejudice.

March 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChris Jenson

Dear Neil,

Isn't it a bit ironic that as a scientist who measures, divides, and defines the Universe finds himself to be immeasurable and indefinable when it comes to his belief in God? How can you define the Universe when you are having trouble defining yourself?

But what if God is just another name for the Universe, for you, for us, for One or All, do you believe in the Universe? If you do believe in the Universe, do you believe the Universe or God to be certain and absolute or only probable as a game of dice at best? Do you need faith like religion to be a scientist? Can science prove the Universe or God? Will the solution to these questions of truth, the absolute, the God particle, the foundation of you and me be found in the science of measured divisibility and uncertainty or is it simply Nature, God, the Universe, the self-evident? Is the light at the end of the scientific super collider tunnel dividing the Universe into pieces the absolute, the light of truth, or is it the other Way? Is the truth beyond the big bang, or is that just a theory too?

Do you believe in science?


March 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMJA

I have better things to worry about than whether Dr Tyson labels himself an atheist or not but listening to this I wonder if the reason many atheists are upset with him is because they don't recognize themselves in the fun-house mirror version of atheism Tyson holds up to renounce.

Sitting around talking about how much they don't believe in god? Neil, if you don't understand the culture just say so, don't strawman.

March 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDarcy

Great podcast! (as usual.)
I totally agree with Dr. Tyson even though I am more immersed in "atheist culture" than he is; I actually do go to atheist meet ups where we sometimes actually DO talk about why we don't believe in god or gods. (I appreciated his point about "belief", however.)
And when I am around the general public, I use the word 'agnostic' because that is how THEY use the word. And when I am at an atheist group I use the word 'atheist' because that is how THEY use the word. And to an individual who asks if I am an atheist, I always counter with, "What do you mean by the word atheist?"
To Julia and others, I would be cautious in believing that the negative connotations of the word 'atheist' are only from the malevolent intentions of the religious; the recent billboard wars in Times Square is but one example of how atheists often bring the idea that they are "jerks" from being, ……well, …uh…jerks. Understanding homo sapien psychology only confirms this phenomena in my mind.

March 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGregg

I am an atheist. My definition of "atheist" is "Someone who believes there is no god." My definition of "agnostic" is "Someone who holds no opinion concerning whether or not there is a god."

Unlike the impolite people who have hassled Dr. Tyson, I see nothing wrong with an atheist using language that has derived from religion. I don't use "godspeed" because it just sounds odd to me, but I have no problem with someone else using it. When speaking Spanish, however, I do use "ojala" which literally means "god willing" or "if god wills it" but which in common parlance merely expresses the concept that (as the poet puts it) "the best-laid plans o mice and men gang oft agley." Natural language is seldom literal. Using expressions with "god" in them is not an avowal of belief in a divine creator.

I understand Dr. Tyson's annoyance with people who try to tell him how he should speak or act, or who judge his character, based on the label of "atheist," but I offer that if he indeed believes that there is no god, then an atheist is what he is. On the other hand, if he holds no opinion on the matter, then he's an agnostic. And if he assigns some probability other than 0% or 100%, then I suppose the labels really don't apply to him.

I adore Handel's Messiah, as well as the Bach B Minor Mass and several of his cantatas. I also love old time gospel music. At home (where nobody is around to object to my utter lack of musical ability) I sing along with all of it. I see no conflict between my love of religiously-inspired music and my absolute conviction that there is no such thing as a god. And I see no reason to purge my vocabulary of words that originated with religion. To do so would be as irrational as those occasional feminists who insisted at one time on saying "ombudsperson" and "chairperson."

But I AM an atheist, because I hold the firm opinion that there is no such thing as a god. I also do not believe in the equally-ridiculous concepts of Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, astrology, or homeopathy, to name but a few.

As for unicorns, I doubt their existence, but they are not in the same class because there is nothing inherently supernatural about a horse-like animal with a horn. And I've often wondered if the unicorn myth originated in poorly-reported tales of the Indian or the Javan rhinoceros, which have but a single horn. A verbal description, passed by word of mouth through several translations, could well end up sounding like a horse with a horn.

I do admit to a soft spot for the Loch Ness "monster," though. I don't actually believe in her, but I do love to taunt UFO enthusiasts with my "theory" that it was Nessie, not space aliens, who built the pyramids. (She did it by telekinesis, of course, without ever leaving Scotland.)

March 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Schechter

Though it wasn't my primary take away from the podcast, I do think the picture of Dawkins was a bit of an inaccurate caricature. Pretty much everything said in his defence by the preceding commenters I would support. I think he was treated unfairly by the discussion.

Still, I sometimes find objectionable Dawkins determined, emotional evangelical engagement with what I think of as the anti-theism atheism.
To the extent that atheism signifies anti-thesism, it's an inappropriate label for those with no position other than being unpersuaded regarding the existence of deities. I think that would be the case whether ones sense of probability lies in the region of 50% or >90%. Depending on what you want to include in the scope of theism, the probability might vary. Some of us just aren't interested in most of the speculation, calulation, and label identity arguments that seem called for. It's also worth recognizing that many who aren't theists, also aren't notably interested in or supportive of the anti-theism and freedom from religion projects now commonly identified with the term atheism. For some individuals, the agnosticism label has the advantage of suggesting open minded flexibility, and a potentially more passive and non adversarial position.

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMark Peters

Here is a quote from my free book at at page 215 ::

Belief is not “arrogant”. It is “reasonable” and it can only reject each individual subjective account of God one by
one on their own terms, facing evidentiary difficulties if individuals claim personal miracles. Reasoning is by
hypotheses defined using secure knowledge to extend it and make it more secure by testing. I cannot reasonably
believe either way about “God” because their evidence is subjective and of apparently endless variety. Absence of
evidence is no “reason” for God to be absent except in those accounts that have been securely refuted. Reason
does not work to favor arrogance, so just ignore God if you tire of refutations. That might be reasonable.

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarcus Morgan

There was no analysis of the logic of being an atheist or agnostic. They have definitions for good reason. I am an agnostic for the reasons above - unfortunately atheists and spiritualist are whistling dixie if they think reasoning applies either way to make hypotheses about God without evidence.

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarcus Morgan

Marcus: I respectfully submit that belief without evidence is not reasonable. And when the question is the claimed existence of a being who exists outside of space and time, who is present everywhere and at all times, who by an intentional act created everything with intentional and specific design, then I regard that as such an extraordinary claim that it requires very extraordinary evidence.

A reasonable belief would be one supported by sufficient evidence to overcome rational objection. And while it is easy enough to create definitions of god as nature, the common use of the word "god" is as a supernatural, magical being, capable of both creating and suspending the laws of nature.

Belief in such a being is not reasonable.

Mark: I dislike the label "anti-theist." As an atheist with a profound respect for nature, I wholeheartedly support religions that cause their followers to treat nature with reverence and to respect their fellow creatures, but I oppose religions that treat nature as something to be exploited, and treat their fellow creatures with disrespect. Because the three major monotheistic religions very often fall into the later category, I oppose them and thus I come across as anti-theistic. But I appear anti-theistic only because our society is dominated by the latter class of religions.

I think it is inappropriate to label as "anti-theist" a person who is opposed to only a specific class of religions, or a person who only opposes the intrusion of religion into areas where it does not belong, such as the science classroom.

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Schechter

Taking Massimo's view that agnostic implies a ~50% likelihood of God's existence, there's a ton of gray area between atheist (0%), agnostic (50%), and believer (100%), and I imagine a considerable number of people being uncomfortable embracing any of those positions. Perhaps we need new labels to describe more views, i.e.

0% - atheist
<0.1% - pseudo-atheist
0.1%-10% strong skeptic
10%-40% moderate skeptic
40%-60% agnostic

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBen

Strictly speaking, Atheism is defined as non-theism. Anyone that does not believe there is a God (which is NOT the same as believing there is NO God) is an atheist. I could hate that males are sterotyped, but I am still a male, like it or not, by definition. If the only reason to avoid the label is not liking it, that is not very rational, especially if the label does fit you. The fact that people associate atheism with bad things is the real problem, not the word itself.

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick M

Patrick: Then were does the word "agnostic" fit in? I define that as someone who holds no opinion on the matter, but by your definition, someone who has no opinion would be an atheist. No?

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Schechter

The root of Agnostic. Means without knowledge. "A" without, "gnosis" knowledge. Atheist means without God. If we use these definitions you could be an Agnostic atheist or an Agnostic theist. The agnostic atheist doesn't believe there is a God, but does not claim to know this. The agnostic theist believes there is a God, but does not claim to know it.

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChris Jenson

I find it interesting that one comment critiques Tyson for using a Dawkins "caricature" and that it's a form of stereotyping. Dawkins has repeatedly been guilty of this in regards to stereotyping and caricaturing religious believers. Why is this okay when it's one way versus another? Not all religious people believe in a personal "god in the sky" who interferes with our lives. Not every religion even believes in a god. Dawkins often caricatures religious people as being literal translation believers, when a large portion of them see a belief system rich with metaphors to teach morals not literal facts to dictate actions. If most religious people believed their religion literally the world would be a much different place...
I don't blame Tyson for not wanting to be lumped in with atheists, Einstein didn't want to be either... Lately atheists spurred by Dawkins and Hitchens have become more militant. Militant views are by definition anti-science. Science allows for new evidence to disprove previously regarded theories, militant views don't. Many atheists these days refuse to acknowledge evidence when you suggest their stereotypes of religion are inaccurate.

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJo

Hugely disappointing episode, where Neil 'Gish galloped' his point of view, at the expense of allowing reasonable arguments to be posed. He basically bullied his way through the interview.

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

Daniel, you missed the point entirely. The penny did not drop, so to speak. I am not reasoning either way about God simply because, as you say ,there may be no secure evidence - "either way"! Certainly each account I hear has no secure evidence once I look into it, and I assume that will always be the case if I bother to keep questioning each subjective account.

The God you describe is one of many I have heard of, and that one is usually quite easily refuted - in "subjective accounts"! Are you getting the picture. Every account of anything is subjective and attempts at objectively sharing a truth with others - and everyone must be respected for what they have to say until refuted! If someone claims a miracle and I have time I listen then decide if ":their" account can be refuted. But what of the mystic in the village, or the shaman, or Mrs McGregor's ghost? I won't visit them and I leave open their claims until closed.

The burden of proof by parsimony is not reasoning. Just because an account follows a trend does not mean the trend will continue in the next "miraculous account". A burden is just a means to dismiss "that" account by Joe if it fails the burden because it will fail if it lacks evidence - but await another account or a revised account by Joe because they are endless.

In short - no evidence either way gives no basis for reasoning either way, but it is a basis to say from past patterns that it is reasonable not to pursue the quest of endless refutations to find secure evidence either way. It is "reasonable" only because parsimony as ruthless economy says not to bother anyway - but that is not reasoning, that is economy and a concession to economy to save time and effort. Even when Joe fails his burden, that is a failure of evidence and the burden just means he is compelled to put something forward. The burden itself as parsimony is not a "reason" for anything.

Have a go at understanding the above. It is pure logic applied to what is out there, my friend.

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarcus Morgan

Chris: I think you are taking the words too literally. As you say, "agnostic" literally means "without knowledge." But theism and atheism deal in belief, not knowledge. Nobody can know whether there is a god or not, so the literal use of words that deal in knowledge or lack thereof is not appropriate in the context. A theist believes there is a god, and an atheist believes there is not. By your definition, the entire human race would be agnostic, because nobody can know, and the word therefore would serve no purpose. However, as commonly used, the word refers to someone who has no opinion or takes no position on the question.

Marcus: I disagree. With the caveats that nobody will ever have a final definitive answer, and that perhaps one day some piece of evidence will be forthcoming; to date there has NEVER been even one single shred of evidence for any supernatural claim or paranormal event that has withstood scrutiny. Belief in such a claim or event therefore is not reasonable. Of course those who wish to continue searching are free to do so, and more power to them. But just as it is _reasonable_ to accept evolution based on the mountain of clear evidence in its favor, so it is _not_ reasonable to place belief in a system that has been investigated in depth by numerous people for many many years and has failed to provide the least scrap of evidence.

This does not prove there is no god or that the supernatural does not exist. But it does make it unreasonable to believe in it until such time as a reasonable amount of evidence is discovered. Note that I am only commenting on your statement in an earlier post that belief is "reasonable." (And I am assuming you were referring to belief in a god. If you meant belief in general, then of course it depends on what the subject is; e.g. belief in god or belief that my office chair will support me when I sit on it.)

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Schechter

NDT made sure that this became a huge waste of time. It sounds like he is more interested in how to label himself than anyone else out there, including some "ardent atheists". If he doesn't want to come out as any label, why is he having this conversation? I guess he couldn't resist the opportunity to talk about himself with others.

He describes his position on the supernatural as "unconvinced of the evidence put forth". What evidence? What could evidence for supernatural claims even look like? - I think he is just not man enough to use simpler language such as "I see no reason to believe and therefore I don't." And that would be atheism in my book.

Massimo spoke about the difference between atheism and agnosticism in terms of bayesian statistics, with the agnostic position being on of 50/50 between belief and disbelief. This may be the common view but I cannot stand it. If the agnostic position is "I don't know for sure, therefore I'll say it is equally likely that miraculous stuff exists and not exists". The problem with this approach is that we do not and cannot know ANYTHING empirical FOR SURE, following Popper. Hence, all we can so is choose what to believe and what not to believe. Ergo, the only meaning for the term agnostic that's left is somebody who doesn't know what to believe, who cannot evaluate data, cannot draw conclusions and does know what Occam's razor is.

I find the agnostic position toward the supernatural to be logically (!) untenable. Just as the idea of the supernatural itself.

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDietrich Krueger

Politics and religion are two topics where people engage in very similar type of argumentative behaviours, unsurprisingly since both tend to be important components of people's identities. It seems to me that the distinction that Neil deGrasse Tyson makes here is analogous to that made in politics all the time, between labels that exist in language(with all their connotations) and belief-bundles, consisting of your own set of individual beliefs.

An example is the distinction between 'Conservative' and 'conservative'/'small-c conservative'. The former implies self-identification with the Conservative movement or party, while the latter indicates a belief bundle that shares philosophical roots with the movement, but can contain beliefs which may or may not align along partisan lines and possibly a lower level of interest in political activism.

Surely 'small-a atheist' (or a-unicornist!) would be a far more useful and accurate way to describe someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson. By appropriating agnosticism, he is hardly doing a favour to those whose priors for gods and unicorns, unlike his, are very different. He is essentially contributing to the mangling of the connotations of the word 'agnosticism' just as he claims those of the word 'atheism' have been.

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRohit

Understanding that dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive, they are still useful in a case like this. Merriam-Webster online ( gives its first definition of "agnostic" as

"a person who does not have a definite belief about whether God exists or not"

and then:

"a person who does not believe or is unsure of something"

And then, under "full definition,":

"a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable; broadly : one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god"

But as I mentioned earlier, nobody who truly understands the distinction between knowledge and belief would claim that knowledge of god is possible; god is a matter of belief, so I default to the first definition: "a person who does not have a definite belief about whether God exists or not." Words in all natural languages change their meanings with time, as their use by the population evolves. Agnostic began as Greek for "unknown, unknowable" (same link as above) but has evolved to mean a person who has no definite belief (as opposed to knowledge) about something, most commonly god.

(Many Christian fundamentalists assert that they "know" there is a god. But they simply fail to comprehend the distinction between knowledge and belief.)

I cannot speak for Dr. Tyson, but I really doubt that he has no definite belief about the existence of god. I do understand and sympathize with his reasons for not wanting to be labeled. Labels seldom communicate the nuances of individual personality. But if he labels himself as agnostic just because some religious bigots ascribe disparaging characteristics to atheists, then he is allowing those bigots to set the terms of the discussion and doing a disservice to atheists. Just as the GLBT community has made steady progress in gay rights and marriage equality by coming out of the closet and becoming visible as normal people who happen to have different sexual orientations than those formerly considered acceptable by society at large, so also atheists must come out of the closet so that the rest of society will see that we, too, are normal people who happen not to share the majoritarian belief in a magic man in the sky.

The GLBT community embraced the words "queer" and "faggot," thus stripping them of their former negative connotations. We atheists need to embrace the word "atheist" to strip it of its negative connotations which, in any case, only exist in the minds of a relatively small, if vocal, number of religious bigots.

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Schechter

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