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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)

I call myself a "Gandhian".

It works for me for a number of reasons:

1) I fully embrace non-violence and anti-imperialism.

2) Gandhi said, "Truth is God." In explaining why he abandoned the phrases, "God is Love" and later "Truth is Love", he directly addressed atheists, saying (in essence, I forget the quote), "Even atheists love truth. They love truth so much, they deny the existence of God."

3) I've read a lot of his writings, and I agree with him on most important issues.

In practice, if I say "I'm a Gandhian" most people make the relatively accurate assumption that I'm what most people would call a "pacifist", though to me, Satyagraha is about more than war and peace.

Since most people have never met someone who identifies as a "Gandhian", it can open up conversations.

Still, the term has the potential to confuse: I'm not vegetarian, or exceptionally simple in my material needs. This is flat out hypocrisy, which is a lack of adherence to Truths that I understand, but even that opens up conversation.

As for celibacy: That's one of the places I disagree with Gandhi.

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLen

Gandhi was a very cool dude. If you're going to revere a person, he's a good choice.

March 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Schechter

I will argue that the question whether the supernatural exists cannot be answered in a meaningful way because it makes no sense. If I am right, gods cannot exist, if just for logical reasons. And if that is right, the agnostic and the theist position are irrational.

What we mean by the word "supernatural" is anything that is not part of nature, not part of the universe. In addition, people use the term supernatural to refer to events inside the universe that seem to defy any scientific explanation, and therefore appear to violate the "laws of nature". I personally find the term "laws of nature" misleading, since, as Popper pointed out, these are not laws that nature has to abide by, but rather our explanations for regularities we have encountered when studying the world. And these explanations are subject to change at any time, as science discovers new data and theorists discover new ideas of interpretation all the time.

Anything that is not part of the universe can not be observed and studied by us. Discussions about divine creators and godlike folk who stay outside of the physical world therefore have no chance of ever becoming more than myths. But what if the god people got involved in the world we live in, and how would we know that they did? As long as the universe behaves according to our scientific expectations, Occam's razor takes care of any speculative divine intervention. In other words, where a godless explanation is available, it will be preferred. Also, since science is advancing all the time, effects that cannot be scientifically explained today might well be covered by future theories. In light of the growth in our understanding it would be hard, if at all possible, to ever rule an observable phenomenon as positively inexplicable for all eternity. We cannot know today what knowledge we will gain in the future.

Furthermore, in our understanding of physics, even an all powerful magician could not make the universe do individual stunts without it reacting to those anomalies, unless the magician changed the universe to a whole new set of physics. To us, that would be the end of ourselves and the end of the world. Hence, discrete breeches of physics performed by god people are impossible to occur. Good-bye, miracles! Forget divinely induced floods and diseases, stop praying for the tornado to not hit your house!

In summary, the supernatural will either forever remain supernatural and thus undetectable and irrelevant to mankind, or interfere with the universe just once and that's the end of everything we know, ourselves included. Either way, nothing can be gained by pondering about its existence. In fact, the word "existence" sounds bizarre in the context of things that do not the universe. The universe is defined as everything that exists. (The term multiverse is a linguistic abomination in my opinion, and the idea behind it is better described by the difference between observable and unobservable universe). Death is not something we live through, said Wittgenstein, and I believe it's time to revisit the meaning of notions that, by definition, cannot exist in the universe, and therefore cannot exist at all.

March 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDietrich Krueger

I have to agree with Robert, a very disappointing episode. I think Dr Tyson abused his friendship with Julia and Massimo. He is special and doesn't want to be called an atheist. Great! Now move along.

March 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChris

Daniel again you missed the point. That's not reasoning, that's just economizing. You are just parsimoniously closing the door around your favourite paradigm - which is that such things are impossible - as an anti-paradigm reacting to the religious paradigm. All very boring exchanges of arrogant paradigmatic views! The correct "reasoning" is to say total success in the past is no guarantee for the future unless you have a crystal ball. I am using different other analogies to help you understand. You are guessing about the future and about reality no matter how successful in the past. Every account needs investigating - that's reasoning about actual evidence, not whitewashing by assumptions. You are not reasoning, you are economizing - just gambling by use of economy - logic bud! The penny may drop. But don't worry, most people live by that creed and never give it a second thought - but its not reasoning, its counting and gambling on the future using available stats rather than talking to Mrs McGregor about her ghost, which would involve reasoning.

March 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarcus morgan

if someone told me "sure, i believe Jesus Christ is my lord and savior, but i dont call myself a christian, because some christians dont like the music i like, and some of them are jerks"..

i would have to say "well, thats nice, except that you are, in fact, a christian"

i appreciate Neils strategy here. As a public figure he doesnt want to deal with behavior police and time vampires on a issue full of misperceptions that isnt his fight. his advocacy for more words aside, for now its fairly black and white. you are a believer or you're not. if you're not, you're an atheist. your feelings about calendars and cathedrals dont enter into it.

i dont care what labels Tyson accepts for himself. but i do care if he contributes to unfair and inaccurate stereotypes to justify running from the label. Neil's representation of atheism isnt my experience at all, and i dont think its his either. in this very podcast he's talking to two very nice atheists while persisting in the stereotype. Dawkins himself is pretty clear in his appreciation of religious art, but Tyson insists in making distinctions that are 1) wrong and 2) have nothing whatsoever to do with atheism.

i think Tyson wants to distinguish between himself and atheists who are prickly and argumentative about religion. make the distinction if you like, but dont contribute to the ignorance out there by pretending those qualities are part of the term "atheist". a few online trolls may connect those things, you should be better than that. do you accept the WORST stereotypes out there of African Americans, or scientists, and accept that as part of their definition? you shouldn't, and you don't.

NDT certainly doesnt have to call himself an atheist. maybe its better for him if he doesnt. but he is one. I dont go to meetings and rail against religion in public either, but words have meanings, and im clearly an atheist.

March 15, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterowen

Marcus: You keep accusing me of using the word "impossible." I don't think I did. I've been talking about what's reasonable to believe. It is certainly possible that a hundred years of experience will turn out to have given a false impression. But it is not reasonable to expect that it will.

Religion is not based on reason or evidence. It is not reasonable to believe in it, and it is not supposed to be reasonable to believe in it. People are supposed to accept religion on faith, that is, without reason or evidence. That's why it is not subject to scientific study. Because any reasoned argument against it is met with the claim that god is beyond reason. Reason and religion do not belong in the same discussion.

March 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Schechter

Sure Daniel, that reads as more reasonable, but the point is simple, and it applies to any belief. I spelt it out several times. Economizing based on past stats is not reasoning. as I said at the very outset, it is reasonable for purposes of economy, which you appear to recognize. And recognizing also that it "may" be that no one has proof either way, it means we revert to economy. We do not close around a paradigm, and if others have a different view of what a shaman says, let them explore it. Reasoning is an open process, open to claims that might or might not lead to improvements, as we lack crystal balls.Economizing is a convenience. We are more or less on the same page now I reckon.

March 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarcus Morgan

I didn't read your post above on page 2 before I replied. Long thread now. Unfortunately, impossibility still applies. The only way you can make the claim that a future case is unreasonable is by saying it is impossible, because you have no logic or evidence by crystal ball to reason that out. You can only make a blanket all-time judgment if you generalize. You are not taking responsibility for your own economy based on past refuted cases without hearing the future, and cannot duck shove it onto Fred. Of course if you can say with certainty every future case will be the same as the past - across all religious and supernatural events, then Fred is unreasonable. You cannot do that. Just take it one case at a time and take responsibility for a decision without reasoning, but supported by past counting and future suspicion it will apply - full of holes but "reasonable" to you, whatever the reasonableness of what Fred may say, which is unknown.. Hope I haven't spun you out.

March 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarcus Morgan

Marcus, by your logic, it is "reasonable" to believe anything. If I accept your argument, it would be reasonable to believe that the moon is made of cheese, covered with a thin layer of dust and rock. It would be reasonable to believe that the world is being run by lizards from space.

It is _not_ reasonable to believe a thing merely because that thing is not _impossible_. We can legitimately assign degrees of likelihood to a proposal based on the evidence we have gathered to date, and even if we rule out the possibility of assigning probabilities of zero or 100% we can say that when the likelihood of a proposal! based on what we know to date is sufficiently low it becomes unreasonable to believe in that proposal unless and until new evidence comes to light in its favor.

March 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Schechter

Tyson is in denial. For some reason, unknown to us and probably to him as well, he does not want to admit he is an atheist.

March 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Young

@MJA - I think you're misconstruing NdeGT's position. It's not that he has a problem with labels per se, it's that he thinks the current set of labels are insufficient as descriptions. That's why he begins the podcast asking if Julia and Massimo can help him find an adequate label. It's why draws a likeness to the abundance of words for water in different states, positions, consistencies, etc.

I won't speak for NdeGT any further, but one of the reasons why I hesitate to refer to myself as a theist or atheist is precisely because of comments like yours about 'God as identical to the Universe', a notion which would be considered heretical by another God-believer! There are SO many definitions of God out there, that the term is almost worthless as something that accurately communicating a particular idea.

Some people believe in a God that answers prayers, others do not.
Some people in a God who is a person, others do not.
Some people believe in a God who has a domain over only a few aspects of nature, others do not.
Some people believe in a God who exists in time and space, others do not.
Some people believe in a God that creates evil, others do not.
Some people believe in a God that punishes in an eternal Hell, others do not.
Some people believe in a god who rules with other gods, others do not.
Some people believe it is possible for a god to die, others do not.
Some people believe it is possible to become a god, others do not.
Some people believe in a God who created the Universe and no longer intervenes, others do not.
Some people believe in a God that is the Universe, others do not.
The list goes on and on.

That's why I want to hear a person's particular definition of God before I accept it or reject it. And matters aren't much helped by speaking about specifically named gods like Allah or Jesus. How many times have you heard people say "Well, that's not the God that I believe in..."? That arises because even people who claim to belong to the same religion differ in their definitions of God!

So you give me the checklist of things you use to define God, and THEN I'll tell you what I accept or don't accept. That's how I choose to handle it.

March 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?:
Richard Dawkins: Depending on how naïvely literalistic you are, you might be surprised to find the Bible. The King James Version, of course, and not so much on my shelves as continually off my shelves, because I open it so often: sometimes to quote it, sometimes for sheer literary pleasure — especially Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs.

March 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Mr. Tyson is overthinking this. He's an agnostic atheist. I do like his point about atheists who bother to evangelize non-belief to believers- that it's possibly a huge waste of energy. And secularism isn't his schtick obviously, but he recognizes its importance. Beyond atheism, I think skepticism/critical thinking is teachable even if many can't give up their cognitive dissonance about their religious beliefs, which may have more to do with tradition than anything else. Not only is it teachable, but its important because of the harms from pseudoscience, science denial, etc. on the consumer, and the ecology of the planet.

March 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSkylar

Tyson comes across as rather whiny in this episode. So what if people make assumptions about label? Educate them. He already admitted accepting the label of "scientist", but that word connotes stuffy and boring. Why doesn't he reject that label so that people don't expect that of him? He also probably identifies as a "man", but there are a whole host of behaviors that people associate with that label, too.

I call "bullshit". I think the truth is that Tyson doesn't like atheists, and his distaste for Dawkins has been demonstrated on other occasions. He isn't as different from Dawkins or other prominent atheists as he would like to believe.

March 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Esres

In this comment thread there's lots of people nitpicking-at and paying attention to the wrong part of the story.

March 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMe Talk Pretty One Day

Dear Stephanie,

God is One.
= is
As truth is, equal is.
To see it, to be it, simply remove any uncertainties or doubts. Truth is all that remains.
Descartes had a method for is.
If you are still searching for the absolute, study Lincoln, Gandhi, and King.
They died for is, for =, for equality, for self-evident truth, for freedom, justice, for One, for God, for All.
Einstein died searching for the equation too, the equation that unites us All. It was only the speed of light that stood in his Way.
What stands in your Way, in the good Doctors Way?
When All is equal all is truly One.
The single absolute.
Truth is much more simple than thought.

Check this complete list for the definition of God: =
I call = the God particle. Oh and you won't need a super collider or super divider to find it either.
Nor will you need a prayer!
All One needs is the super uniter called truth.
Truth is,

March 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMJA

@Chris Jenson

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

I'm not sure what you mean here. It's quite simple. "Atheist" has negative connotations, having undergone significant pejoration. Therefore, Tyson does not want to be called 'atheist'. There is nothing irrational about that.

April 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBill Rabara

Atheist has negative connotations *to some*. It appears it does to Tyson. It doesn't to me.

There is nothing irrational about Tyson not wanting the label, no, but it is cowardly, and that is what has people mad. Whether he accepts the label or not, he is an atheist, and he has hung out all other atheists to dry, whether they are "militant," non-confrontational, closeted, or jailed.

To me, Tyson came across as both a bully and a coward in this interview.

So he thinks the label "atheist" carries X / Y / Z baggage which doesn't apply to him, so he doesn't want the label. That strikes me as being bigoted - or severely out of touch. By the one standard that today's atheists ALL share, he is an atheist, whether he is willing to admit it or not. Fleeing to the fake safety of the "agnostic" label, while tossing up and beating down his own red herrings and bullying his way through the conversation, was cowardly.

Particularly loathsome was dismissing the impact of religion as being equivalent to the impact of believers in crystals.. that is awful, logic-burning false equivalence. I'd posit (nay, bet my life that) most atheists wouldn't lift a finger to go off in search of crystal believers to deconvert them. Why? Because they're irrelevant: there are few of them and they don't make laws.

The reason people are angry here is that if you have made it clear you don't believe in god, and you are a public figure, and you refuse to acknowledge that you're an atheist - giving a long string of pathetic excuses that come across as complete BS for it - you're hanging a marginalized group out to dry by refusing to acknowledge the truth.

That doesn't sit well with a group that is largely (with exceptions, as always), skeptical and scientific in its approach. We expect more of our scientists. Especially those that have a stage.

It's ironic that Tyson speaks derisively of efforts to convert common religious plebes when 7% of NAS members still believe in a personal god. Ironically, he may well be in the minority of astrophysicists that are unwilling to admit they are atheists. I may have missed it, but I don't recall him ever conceding that the label applies to him in its narrowest sense, which it does.

Like I said, cowardly.

PS: Wow, did he get Dawkins wrong on some of those "wild goose chase" red herrings of his.

April 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndre

I have just caught up with this again, but no Dan, somehow you have got 3 from 1 plus 1. I am saying evidence needs to be tested in future and until then a claim is neither reasonable or unreasonable - it is unknown and untested. You can base an "opinion" on similar past cases and if Fred says his case is the same as his "flock" that can be settled, but otherwise no. It is simply unknown and neither reasonable or unreasonable. As I have said. and you seem to be slowly conceding as it is irrefutable - reasoning is a process. The future is unknown, and if you want to suppose about the future you need to assess its evidence. Without testing the future you are making an educated guess based on past "similar" cases. Wait till you have done the work, then pass judgment, that's fundamental. No prejudging - but you are free to guess as much as you like - don't call it reasoning. No escape from logic, my friend.

April 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarcus Morgan


NONSENSE!!! You view the sun rising in the east and setting in the west day after day, year after year. You understand why this is, based on the physics of spinning planets and angular momentum. It is reasonable to assert that tomorrow it will again rise in the east and set in the west. It is unreasonable to believe that tomorrow the sun will rise in the west and set in the east.

Your entire logic is based on the fallacy that anything one might imagine is just as likely to happen as anything else one might imagine. It is NOT reasonable to believe such things. There are indeed many things in life that are unknown, and probably some things that are unknowable. But there are many aspects of the world, and even future events, that are so well established that even were it possible for them to play out otherwise, it is not _reasonable_ to expect them to do so.

Regarding the existence or non-existence of any particular god, or of gods in general, it is likely that we will never know the answer with certainty, and possible that the answer is unknowable. One might then ask "Is it reasonable to believe in something that cannot be known?" Clearly, different people will come to different conclusions. I say that a belief is reasonable only if it is based on reason, and reason is valid only when it is based on evidence. The only "evidence" that has ever been offered for the existence of any god has been subjective experience, which is known to be unreliable due to the way the brain works, and reports of the subjective experiences of others, coming in the form of scriptures or sermons or reports of others. When such reports have been testable, they have failed. Thus there is no legitimate evidence for any god. (The common argument from wonder: "I cannot imagine how such a wonderful world could have come to be, therefore there must be a god," is especially weak.)

In the absence of evidence-based reason, belief cannot be said to be reasonable. Belief is just belief. Many mainstream denominations embrace this lack of reason, asserting that the value of faith is precisely that it is not grounded in reason or evidence. They celebrate the unreasonableness of belief.

None of the above proves that belief in a god is mistaken. It simply demonstrates that calling it "reasonable" is a gross abuse of the English language. Faith is not reasonable, and was never intended to be reasonable. Belief is not even faith if it is based on reason, since faith is defined (charitably) as belief in something unseen and unknowable, or (uncharitably, in the words of mark Twain) as believing what you know ain't so.

April 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Schechter

A wordy and misconceived view of my post. You didn't read the bit about Fred following his flock, if it is past and "satisfactorily" refuted by "reasoning" then job done for his claim - no need to consider his evidence. You do look up every day and expect to see the sun but that does not mean it will be there - its likely to a very high degree. No crystal ball, Dan, and no blanket judgments without evidence in future. You have no chance of overcoming Hume's "is-ought" with your arguments. As I have said (and use words now saying again) you can guess about the future based on past reasoning and good luck, but its a guess without a crystal ball old chap. There are better arguments than yours against Hume you might explore.

April 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarcus Morgan


You are arguing about what is possible, regardless of how unlikely. I am arguing about the use of the word "reasonable." It is not reasonable to believe in a vanishingly unlikely event, merely because it is not impossible. There are probabilities in the real world. A belief in something whose likelihood is one in a million is not based on reason. Therefore, though it is possible in the strictest sense, it is not reasonable.

I am at a loss to understand how you fail to comprehend the difference between being possible, and being reasonable to expect.

Belief does not require reason, since the human brain, while capable of using reason, is not fundamentally reasonable. You seem to feel that any belief is reasonable. This is just plain silly. There are reasonable and unreasonable beliefs.

April 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Schechter

Dan, your analysis is shallow and misconceived. Belief can be as abstract as you like, but we are talking about reasonable belief - red herring again by you. And once again nice and clearly let me say that its quite reasonable to make an assumptions about the future if the future is just like the past (Fred says the same as his flock, so we dismiss Fred without hearing him out). But that is not reasoning - its is gambling based on past reasoning about Fred's flock and its application to Fred. I have no idea how you draw the conclusions you do from my comments.

Just fumbling for reasons for what seems obvious to me, perhaps you need to understand beyond the fundamentals of Hume, which you haven't addressed at all to show you understand the limitations of mind. You can make all the assumptions you like based on the past, and everyone does it all the time to get by. But when you go to court like I do, reality kicks in my friend. The account in front of you gets specifically refuted. By all means champ, count, apply probability based on the past, and so on, but if an account arises involving "the strange" give pause to whether you will need to be specific or just continue with assumptions.

All the stuff about making reasonable decisions based on assumptions? Everyone does it. It not shameful. You apply reasoning, to build a bank and work from it until a new paradigm arises to take a new direction. You induce a future possibility based on past confirmed facts for testing. Induction is insecure by definition my friend, and so is the future (which is why we can never have crystal balls) - your arguments are just shallow. Let's hope the "debate" ends here, as we have no adjudicator and I am tired of repetition.

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarcus Morgan


The bottom line here is that you think it is reasonable to believe in a magic man in the sky. I do not. We're never going to agree on that point.

You say:

"But when you go to court like I do, reality kicks in my friend."

Now there's a non-sequitur! Of all the venues in which humans meet, the courtroom is the one most divorced from reality. In court, facts do not matter. Only procedure matters. A case is won by the lawyer who is best prepared and most skilled at manipulating the procedural rules. Everyone in the legal profession knows that a guilty man with a skilled and well-prepared lawyer is far more likely to go free than an innocent man with an unskilled and unprepared lawyer. Just as debates are won by the more skilled debater, not the debater with reason on her side, so court cases are decided by the skill of the opposing lawyers, not by the actual fact of the case. It's really quite an educational quandary that procedures which were devised in a sincere attempt to promote truth and justice, in the end overshadow, undermine, and eventually defeat both truth and justice.

But now I understand why you argue that it is reasonable to believe in a magic man in the sky. The courtroom experience has a tendency to dissolve the distinction between reason and imagination.

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Schechter

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