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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 (71)

Its not an emotional argument Dan. Procedure is the point you completely neglected and now seek to somehow introduce. You missed the point entirely and seek to introduce it as some kind of counter argument. We are again at cross purposes and not by my fault. If you have no concern to test Fred specifically (procedure is the key), then assume and generalize, that's up to you but take responsibility for it. You cannot distract from the point - namely you are guessing about the future based on past reasoning rather than testing Fred - just accept that and move on. Whether there is a man in the sky however you might define it is secondary to the task of reasoning about "it". It just shows the naiveté of your argument to ask that question.

Personally, I won't share an opinion about such a loosely defined entity (which is De Grasse's point ultimately and a wise one). Do some testing if skipping that stage concerns you, or just guess (confidently perhaps, who knows) that you have a good basis of past reasoning to draw conclusions about Fred (or anything in the future at all for that matter). I am not at all interested in waffling on about this or that entity or strange event. I have a track record of refuting just about anything weird and I am confident of my view of the world so to speak, but that's private and none of your business - draw your own assumptions and take responsibility for them, that's all. Depending on your reading taste, you can look at my free book at my site (click name) for further analysis of "atheism" and "agnosticism" although they are not the main subject of the book.

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarcus Morgan

If you replace "being an atheist" with "remaining unconvinced by any claim anyone has made for the existence of a powerful divine force operating in the universe", you don't eliminate the unimportant problem of being taken literally by some people when using expressions like "god speed", or "god knows", or "oh my god". This is a conceptual issue, not a semantic one. It's not necessarily the label "atheist" that is precluding you from doing this and that, it's merely the fact that you're not a believer that is being called into attention.

Taking the appreciation of certain types of art as restricted to believers is a more serious case of prejudice. Yes, there will be those who will find weird that someone who does not believe in the existence of gods (in short, an atheist) is sensitive enough to appreciate the architecture of a temple or the sacred music of Bach. But do you need to be an Athena worshiper in order to write a book about the Parthenon? Of course not. That's a point that Dawkins and Hitchens labored in vain to make.

About the dictionary issue, I'm using one in my computer, and it describes atheist as "someone who denies the existence of god". I don't agree with this description, because the notion of the denial of a claim gives credit to the claim. Atheism is not denial, it's the absence of a specific belief. So it's not that dictionaries settle the question. As I said above, the problem is conceptual: people think that some things are "for believers only", they either think less of your emotional capacities or they think there's something incoherent about it.

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaulo


In my last post, I was mostly referring to your seeming claim to authority regarding "reality" based on your unspecified experience in court. I perhaps used too many words to say that the courtroom is about as far removed from "reality" as one can get.

I have gone back over the thread, and I cannot figure out who this "Fred" is, who you keep referring to.

You keep saying we cannot know anything about the future. This is simply nonsense, as I demonstrated: We do know to a very high degree of certainty that the Earth will continue to rotate in the direction it has always done. We also know, to mind-boggling accuracy, the timing of eclipses and occultations. You seem to think that it is "reasonable" to believe that these things will suddenly stop acting as they have been doing since time immemorial. I say nonsense. You seem to think that a belief is reasonable unless it is proven to be impossible. I say again, that's just plain silly.

Not everything can be known, but many things can. And not everything that is possible is reasonable to expect.

Well, my friend, I am getting ready to leave on a trip, so I'll be off-line for a while. So you may have the last word. I am not going to take the time to read your self-published books. I have far too much on my reading list to add the works of an armchair philosopher who thinks that nothing can be known and all beliefs are reasonable.

Best wishes to you.

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Schechter

Its not an emotional argument Dan. Procedure is the point you completely neglected and now seek to somehow introduce. You missed the point entirely and seek to introduce it as some kind of counter argument. We are again at cross purposes and not by my fault. If you have no concern to test Fred specifically (procedure is the key), then assume and generalize, that's up to you but take responsibility for it. You cannot distract from the point - namely you are guessing about the future based on past reasoning rather than testing Fred - just accept that and move on. Whether there is a man in the sky however you might define it is secondary to the task of reasoning about "it". It just shows the naiveté of your argument to ask that question.

Personally, I won't share an opinion about such a loosely defined entity (which is De Grasse's point ultimately and a wise one). Do some testing if skipping that stage concerns you, or just guess (confidently perhaps, who knows) that you have a good basis of past reasoning to draw conclusions about Fred (or anything in the future at all for that matter). Depending on your reading taste, you can look at my free book at my site (click name) for further analysis of "atheism" and "agnosticism" although they are not the main subject of the book. I hpe this reply gets posted, its borderline annoyed.

April 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarcus

Dan, I thought so.
Paulo, good point.

April 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarcus

Tyson has great ideals of how he as a public educator should treat society. But he does a common mistake in thinking about the impact of his work on population and changes he might seed and induce. The mistake originates in not taking into account the distribution of mental abilities amongst people. Most of them are not very clever and are not able to use obtained knowledge to challenge their views and conclude rationally. Some subset of these, yet still substantial portion, are not even able to obtain the knowledge in the first place, they just won't understand. So the odds, that the society gets civilisationally boosted from the bottom up by being fed with factual knowledge, are very uncertain. Or at least the timescale on which such a shift could happen is.

April 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGouda

Great podcast!

After listening over-and-over, I think he is right not to want a label himself an Atheist because clearly he is not. It seems to me and as he said, he wants to be a scientist without any "ist" labels. Still why not help the Atheist agenda as was eluded to and come out of the closet ( so to speak) even a little as an intellectual non-believer if you did not hold back some plausibility of a creator? I do not think it is fear of mislabel though. I think it is because he thinks the answer to whether or not a god exist is open or he is a believer in some sense.

There are other motives to not champion the Atheistic cause regardless of his position I think. They are just my flow of thoughts about this podcast and forgive me for the use of general terms of conversation here.

I have broken down a few possibilities to consider:

1. He is as nearly as possible without the label and agnostic and the question for him and a creator remains open in a cosmological argument. - Not an Atheist.
2. He is a believer, but does not subscribe to a religion or any particular dogma but understand the professional consequences of stating it. Is clever for coming here to talk about labels and not views other than science needs to teach only what is known not unknown. - Not an Atheist.
3. He is, as he said, closer to agnostic, thus leaving the question open, but resisting to count or discount a god for personal or professional reasons. He mentioned how discovery was hurt in 1100 AD and fears a strong belief in a universe created or designed will impede science and scientific discovery. He is probably right given the historical evidence. Still, this gives him personal motivation not to reveal or publicly reflect any belief or deist view. Islam at the center of science in 1100 AD was a historical reference he is fond of and has used in lectures about the risk of creation without scientific proof he recons may never come as dangerous to his profession and our human progress. - Not an Atheist.

He is a brilliant guy and perhaps even more so now since he came her to state a few points of his position with conviction and dedication to science, discovery and not being labeled. Especially not labeled an Atheist. His argument is appeasing in some way yet falls very short of what most of us would have thought his stand would be. In the end refused to say God does not exist, nor even claim a non-belief only evidence so far....and so.... Not an Atheist.

May 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterElvishThing


I agree with you that Neil is not an "Atheist", because I don't know what such thing it would be. To what ideology does this word refer to? He's clearly an atheist because he does not believe there's a god. If you're unconvinced, that means you don't believe. In what sense can someone who does not believe be a believer?

If you don't think Jesus is your savior, you're not a Christian, as much as you enjoy Christian music. If you live your life without trusting in or worrying about a divine force operating in the world, that means you don't hold any theistic belief: you're an atheist. Also, there's no logical path from "being against dogma" to "being a deist", as you seem to think. After reading your comment I'm even more convinced that Julia is right: the fact that Neil accepts the bogus associations made for atheists really makes the situation worse.

May 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaulo

I do see your points but I have one counter to consider.

" If you're unconvinced, that means you don't believe." I disagree. I think is is a clever way to say, "Hey science can't go there so my answer is scientifically unconvincing and stays far away from personal belief or lack there of." He really wants this separation.

May 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterElvishThing

Atheism is not lack of belief in a god. Atheism is the belief that there is no god. Between theism and atheism is agnosticism, which is taking no position on the matter. A person who lacks belief either that there is or is not a god is an agnostic. Unfortunately, the term is often wrongly taken to be the position that one cannot know whether there is a god or not. Nobody can know whether or not there is a god, so all three terms refer not to knowledge, but to belief:

Belief that there is a god: theism.
Belief that there is no god: atheism.
No belief one way or the other: agnosticism.

In a highly religious society, where atheists are shunned or discriminated against, agnosticism is often regarded as more socially acceptable than atheism, and some atheists call themselves agnostics.

The impression I get from Dr. Tyson is that he is an atheist but objects to the label because of the baggage it carries with it, the result of both society's prejudice against atheists and the activism of some atheists. I thought he made it clear that it was the label he objected to: he wants to be known for what he does, not for what he believes. I wish he would embrace the label, because just as GLBTs only began to make progress in gay rights when they began to come out of the closet so that people saw that many of their own friends and family were gay, so too, prejudice against atheists will only begin to decline and fade away when a sufficient number of people, including prominent respected people, come out of the atheist closet.

May 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Schechter

How convenient to visit here while posting at another podcast. I can answer Dan's further obfuscations in a couple of posts above. Dan, Fred is an invention. Do you not understand that? Also, what possible relevance does my experience in court have to do with the fundamental principle that everyone gets a hearing before they are judged? You have no crystal ball to "know the future with great certainty". Return to the dictionary and distinguish between belief (unconfirmed) and knowledge (confirmed). Is the future confirmed before it has happened? No crystal ball.

Paulo, do you agree that for someone to "Believe there is no God" they must define "God"? That's logical. But if they do not believe in God, they can only be referring to other people's definitions of "God"? Also logical. So what they are really saying is that they do not believe there is a God (as other people have defined God in various ways), meaning they "Do not believe in God". Same thing. It means that no one can make a blanket exclusion of the existence of anything, and can only exclude specific past claims of other people about anything. The future is unknown and best kept that way as we eliminate the claims of others and retain an open mind. Do you agree? Atheists cannot make blanket claims - no one can whitewash anything by blanket claims. All we can do is refute past specific claims and leave the issue open until new facts arise in future and new claims of "God" are refuted in future.

May 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarcus Morgan

So, you invent a make-believe person (Fred) and speak of him as though he were an actual person, and then when someone asks "Who???" you reply that we should understand that he's just a figment of your imagination, and we should have known that.

Theists have a wide variety of conceptions of god, but all include the characteristic of being a supernatural, spiritual entity capable of defying the laws of nature. Therefore, there is nothing at all wrong with my saying that I do not believe in such an entity. I disbelieve in all gods, under all their definitions, because I believe that the real world is all there is: No supernatural entities, no entities that can defy the laws of nature.

It is you who obfuscate when you assert that nothing of the future can ever be known. Astronomers have been predicting eclipses and occultations for ages. There is much we do not know about the future, but there is also much we do know. HOWEVER, this is irrelevant, and all talk of the future in this context is your obfuscation, since the original question was whether or not it is rational to believe in gods (or a god or "God").

For belief to be rational it must be based on reason and evidence. Since there is no evidence for the existence of any god (by any definition) belief must of necessity be a matter outside of rationality. This does not necessarily mean that there is no god. It does mean that belief in god is based on something other than rationality. Most mainstream religions actually agree with me in this, by saying that faith was never intended to be something rational. Faith is belief in the absence of evidence, and therefore not a rational thing.

Believe in god or gods if you like. I'm willing to allow that there's one chance in a googol that there is such a thing, and one chance in a googolplex that any one particular religion has a correct conception of any actual god-entity. But it is a great mistake to imagine that something you believe in without evidence is rational.

May 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Schechter

P.S. I think Marcus's error (perhaps intentional, perhaps not) is trying to obfuscate the distinction between belief and knowledge. Knowledge is based on evidence and reason; belief is based on dreams (one's own, or those of others). Dreams serve a purpose, but are not rational, and therefore beliefs (based as they are on dreams) are not rational. They may, sometimes, provide a window into the psyche, but they tell us nothing about what's real in the world outside the mind.

He seems to argue that we cannot know anything, and therefore beliefs are as rational as knowledge. But this is a preposterous assertion.

Religion is the sad fantasy of people who cannot accept the reality of their own mortality, or the reality that in the grand scheme of the universe, we are insignificant. We can take joy in our brief lives, or we can throw away our lives in the pointless quest for a life after death. Belief in the supernatural in any of its forms, including but not limited to god or gods, is the most profoundly irrational of all human endeavors.

May 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Schechter

ElvishThing, that’s not clever, that’s evasive. An evidence-driven person, whether scientist or not, should just say “I don’t believe it because there’s no evidence”. We all have beliefs, and rationality consists of proportioning beliefs to the evidence.

I see your point Marcus, that’s why I don’t think “belief that there is no god” is a useful way to conceptualize atheism. To back up a “belief that there is no god” would be very exhaustive and unnecessary. I prefer the way Massimo and other contemporary philosophers define atheism as lack of belief in the existence of gods. We simply lack this belief because there’s no rational justification for it. That’s what matters: if you lack theistic beliefs, you’re an atheist. What is called agnosticism is an evasion from saying “I don’t believe” – an evasion from atheism.

As for the name “God”, I agree with Daniel that atheists should avoid using it as though there were an actual person it refers to.

May 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaulo


Since my earlier post, I read an interesting pamphlet written by Gandhi's friend Gora, who was a committed atheist.

I understand the pamphlet within the context of Hinduism as the Hindu-Muslim divide was coming to a head in last years of Gandhi's life.


One tradition within Hinduism names the ineffable by saying what it isn't. So 'Ahimsa' (the word we translate as 'non-violence') can be understood as an attempt to name what in the West, we might call 'Christian Love'. Sanskrit is an Indo-European language and the 'a-' in 'atheism' does the same job as the 'a-' in 'ahimsa'. 'Himsa' means violence.

In part, Gora was adopting Atheism from this point of view. In particular, the Greek word "Theos" has the same root as the Hindu word "Deva". The Devas are specifically supernatural beings, such as Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, so in adopting "Atheism", Gora specifically understood that he was rejecting the belief in supernatural beings. But he was not rejecting all of religious thinking: He was a devotee of Non-violence, and this was in fact the basis for his friendship with Gandhi.

The Hindu-Muslim Divide:

Gora made the typical atheist critique of religion as a force that divides human beings into rival sects. As an atheist, he worked very hard to bring together the Muslim and Hindu communities, in part by asking both communities to reject the beliefs that divide them. (In particular, food taboos in both communities prevented them from dining together, and he hosted communal meals where people could get to know each other.) His successes in these efforts impressed Gandhi, and this became the basis for their friendship.

My opinion:

In discussing his reasons for adopting the motto, "Truth is God," Gandhi said:

"[...] not even the atheists had demurred to the necessity or power of truth. But in their passion for discovering truth the atheists have not hesitated to deny the very existence of God-from their own point of view rightly. And it was because of this reasoning that I saw that rather than say God is Truth I should say Truth is God."

I have a warning to the devotees of Truth on this blog:

We should not forget that science has its own history of committing atrocities in the pursuit of Truth. It did not end with the Tuskegee Airmen; studies in "Learned Helpless", that involved torturing dogs, have informed current practices in Guantanamo and other prisons. It is important to understand the conditions that drive human beings to despair, but we should not try to understand this through experimentation.

More importantly: Until we understand the causes of despair (and the roots of meaning and purpose), we should think very carefully before working to undermine belief systems that may bring a sense of meaning and purpose to billions of people. Specifically, if a public figure doesn't chose to describe himself as an Atheist, so be it.

June 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLen

This was delightful! Why is there no confirmation that my comment will put this beautiful program into my Facebook stream?

September 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTom Youngjohn

My jaw is still on the floor listening to Neil go on and on for the last 15 minutes of the podcast. There's just no way that, after the fact, he could possibly see that as a cogent argument. The most forehead-slapping argument of all, the one that took the cake EASILY, was the one about what scientists can and cannot do until they have the last 7% of their group convinced. I would assume by that logic, he should have no issue with the following:

"There isn't 100.0% agreement amongst climate scientists that AGW is real. Hey climate scientists, if you can't even convince that last 3% of yourselves, don't you CONSIDER going to the public trying to convince them."

... Yeah jaw was down on the floor when I heard him use that.

Here's the thing, Neil is essentially he is taking what a few pedantic internet trolls' comments on his blog, and deciding we have to trash the word atheist altogether. Which is ridiculous, and even Tyson knows that. I hope he's embarrassed looking back on this interview.

October 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

So Tyson does not want to be labeled an atheist because he doesn't think he acts the way he thinks other people think atheists act? And if you do label him an atheist, then he thinks you're prejudging him, despite the fact that we already know all we need to know about Tyson to label him an atheist, which is that he does not believe in god.

Do we need to have a conversation before I label him black? A man? An astrophysicist?

If Tyson didn't think he acts the way he thinks other people think blacks, or men, or astrophysicists act, would he shy away from those labels as well?

Instead, why not explain that you're an atheist who uses the phrase "god speed".

Tyson conflates the dynamic nature of American dictionaries with people's preconceptions and stereotypes. The more I listen to this the more respect I'm losing.

December 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEric Kamander

I'm sorry but to dismiss the dictionary and claim a word means what YOU think it means is plain silly.

Yes, dictionaries can change over time, but the time when "atheist" means something other than "not a theist" hasn't happened.

January 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAdam

Why should atheists apologize for initiating conversations, organizing clubs, writing books and worst of all…posting on twitter?

NDT complains about lazy labeling than relies on a petty list to differentiate his behavior from atheists: The Pol Pot argument? Atheists want to change B.C. and A.D? Atheists want to purify society from religious sayings, music, and traditions? Seriously, WTF Neil????

Why is a discussion of atheists worthy of a special NDT interview? Where’s NDT’s sense of the proportion and lack of critique of the religious who push their agenda in every conceivable manner?

What standard does NDT use in identifying acceptable conversation starters? Why is it noble to initiate conversations on space exploration, telescopes and particle colliders, but subject to NDT’s scolding if you initiate a conversation on religion’s deleterious effects on education, foreign policy, women’s rights, end of life planning etc.?

Is NDT not conveying that he knows better than his hosts, colleagues and audience? Does NDT not realize that he has started more than his fair share of unprompted, abrasive conversations to be critiquing Richard Dawkins and atheists? Doesn’t NDT find it strange that his national academy colleagues find it acceptable to be labeled atheists?

If NDT finds religious and supernatural claims unconvincing, why waste your time taking to task those who confidently express the very same opinion?

January 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterColin
That is probably the silliest reason to not call oneself an atheist, because of all the (false) associations with it? Without sufficient evidence to believe in something, it is reasonable to say you don't believe in it. All other gods have failed this test for most modern-day religions and they have no qualms about it, why should a person who has found no convincing evidence feel like there should be some other way to describe their status on theism? And association? Are Christians changing their affiliation bc of some fundamentalists? There are always people in every group that have lousy personalities or are dogmatists; worse, there are people not in the group that make fun or cast negative connotations that haven't anything to do with the group but more with the people who do it. Hiding from your stance is silly - I'm an atheist and I also happen to be a pretty good person, so if you are looking for horns or baby-eating, or whatever else, you will not find that here! I'm someone who finds reality, truth, and their philosophies (metaphysics and epistemology) to be interesting topics while also finding science to be fascinating and always unveiling the mysteries of what is.
November 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMichele

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