In Defense Of Neil deGrasse Tyson

… and those atheists that are not the same kind of atheist as other atheists. To start, lets look at the video that Hemant Mehta wrote at When Did Neil deGrasse Tyson Start Using the Arguments of Christian Apologists?

Hemant, you’re wrong. If all your allies must be like you and think like you, you will have few allies. Not believing in gods and the supernatural does not commit you to any particular world view, rather it means you probably can’t hold certain world views in light of that disbelief. Clearly, not believing in gods or the supernatural does not make you an ardent atheist because you can also be an agnostic.  Tyson gives the right reasons for not being concerned about atheism and the secular movement. He *IS* a very busy man who is working hard to help fix the politics of science and promote science and NASA etc. His plate is full. Just see my post I Don’t Give A Damn to get some understanding of why those are good reasons.

Hemant, I don’t particularly like all that you do either and do not feel a need to run out and support the ‘atheist cause’ at every opportunity. While I might be criticized for not doing enough you absolutely cannot criticize Tyson for not doing enough. He is fighting the battles that  you can’t and doing a damned good job of it too. If being an atheist meant I had to side with you on everything and think the way that you do I’d become an agnostic too. Yes, you are off base on this one.  Atheism is not about conformity, it’s about not believing. That’s it. Everything else is something else. Yes, Tyson is probably an atheist and might say so when thinking about it more gets high on his to-do list. In the mean time he is on the side of rational thinking and sane behavior and above ALL else he is in support of science, the natural enemy of religion. The enemy of your enemy is your friend, even if they don’t actively appear to be your ally.

I’d say ‘cut the guy some slack’ but I’m not writing to tell you how harsh to treat him, I’m writing to tell you that you are wrong. You do no one a service by trash talking natural allies to your own cause. Shame on you.

    • Andy
    • April 25th, 2012

    It does seem like he doesn’t understand the difference between being an Atheist, being an activist Atheist and being an anti-theist. He is definitely an Atheist but he doesn’t want to be associated with activist Atheist anti-theists, which is fair enough, but I wish he had said so clearly, rather than coping out with agnostic. In this case he seems to be apply Steven Colbert’s definition of agnostic – an Atheist without balls.

    BTW – my definition of agnostic is a person that believes the likelihood of god existing is over 5% but less than 50%. I define Atheism as the belief that the supernatural is highly improbable, but open to review on the presentation of evidence. To believe that there is absolutely no possibility for the existence of god is to be as much of a fundamentalist as a religious fundamentalist that believes that god definitely exists (based on no evidence whatsoever). On the other hand it is silly to spend time and money on the assumption that Leprechauns exist.

    • In my view there are no gods and it’s lunacy to believe that there might be based on the information that we have and evidence that has been offered. I don’t think it a fundamentalist type view to go that tiny step further and say that there is no possibility for gods but doing so would preclude any kind of openness to new information. I also feel that your personal world view is your own and the ‘fear’ of labels is not unwarranted as expressed by Tyson. He rejects a label and says that agnostic is probably as close to his world view as he can tell. All this means that everyone is applying their own definition of atheist but too many people are critical of Tyson because he doesn’t claim to be like them. It sounds kind of childish if you look at it just so. I don’t care if he wants to not say atheist. He is doing very cool stuff and he is without doubt one of the best ‘prophets’ of science. I’m just glad he is alive to do what he seems to love doing. It brightens my world a bit.

  1. It doesn’t bother me one bit that he doesn’t want to identify openly as an atheist. What does bother me, and Hemant, and many other people, is that he is using a straw man definition of atheism, casting negative light on all of us. I think NDT knows the difference, but is trying to distance himself from the label in order to not look bad to believers. The things he said are patently untrue about atheism. They are true about some individual atheists, however it does not seem to be very many.

    And you are strawmanning Hemant, BTW. When you say ” If being an atheist meant I had to side with you on everything and think the way that you do I’d become an agnostic too.” That is completely false. Have you ever read his blog? He spends plenty of time talking about all the various ways that atheists express themselves, the causes they care about, and the things they do. No one ever says you have to be exactly the same as everyone else.

    I noticed that you avoided mentioning the untruths that NDT told, which is everyone’s major concern. Why?

    • It shouldn’t bother you one bit that he identifies however he wants to and in fact should give you some pleasure that he does not identify with theists. Why do you care if he is using a straw man definition of atheism? Do you think that philosophy or theology is his chosen speciality? You may think he knows the difference but you do not know the mind of the man. He is not stupid and still chose to distance himself from a controversial topic/position. He is the public face of a very important ’cause’ and can ill afford to alienate what possibly could be 70% of the support for that cause. He was not explaining his position for atheists, but for believers. He spoke in terms that they will understand. I find what he did completely in line with his chosen responsibilities and causes. He said nothing offensive as far as I can see. That you take offence tells us something about you. You seem to be concerned about yourself and not even a bit concerned about his responsibilities and needs. For decades I’ve kept my position out of public view for fear of the reaction it would probably cause. That you criticize him for his effort to protect what he is doing is less than laudable. No, I do not know for certain that this is why he spoke the words he chose, however, if I were a theist his words would have made a great deal of sense to me while still allowing me to accept that he is not a theist and that is not what he is there to talk about.

      I am not straw manning anyone. My impression of what Hemant said is exactly what I spoke about. If that is the impression that I felt, that is what it is. I simply stated that if this were true I’d distance myself too. I did not imply that Hemant is always demanding that everyone think like him. That little word ‘if’ has a lot of meaning. Of course I read his blog. He started his talk by explaining how people ask him if he is atheist in an accusatory tone. Clearly he is working to avoid controversy with those that are not atheist. He didn’t even really claim to be agnostic, simply that this would come closest. He gave no label for his position. Exactly what untruths did he tell? He clearly wants no label. How can you blame him? Look at the great offence you’ve taken. He didn’t name you.

      Can you imagine what would happen if the national chairperson for cancer research decided to take a stand on a highly controversial issue… like say abortion? What would that do the the charitable portion of their responsibilities. I think that you and others are trying to blow this out of proportion and take offence when there is none to be taken. Probably not as bad as people crying about burned holy texts, but just the same, it’s unnecessary and pointless and illustrates exactly why he might not want to be publicly associated with atheism.

      • As I said, the problem is not that he wants to distance himself from the atheist label, it’s the fact that he is using a lie about what atheism is. He’s putting us down and making us look like assholes, just like everyone else does. He is well respected, and if HE says atheists are confrontational arguers, then people give that more weight.

        NDT could have just said that he doesn’t identify as an atheist, and explained his own beliefs *without* putting down atheists. He doesn’t have to take a controversial position (and no one is saying he must), he just needs to explain his own position in a way that doesn’t promote all the lies about atheists. There is a difference.

        It’s very annoying that he says “I don’t like labels” and then spends the very next sentence saying negative things using a label for a group of people.

        As for Hemant’s blog, I have been reading it for many years, and he has never said anything to indicate that you have to agree with him on everything. If you can’t provide evidence to back up your baseless accusation, then you must admit that you are just arbitrarily taking offense just because someone doesn’t agree with your every thought. Projecting much?

        • Wow, you really seem angry. Perhaps that might be why he doesn’t want to be associated with atheists. You’re angry because he didn’t use the words that would make you happy, that he in fact described atheists in much the same way that atheists describe fundamentalists… by a caricature. Am I saying that you personally do so, no but then he didn’t name you personally either. Are there atheists who fit his description? Yes, there are. They are the ones that everyone hears about.

          I get it, you’re annoyed. Do you need a tissue?

          Apparently your so annoyed that you are having trouble understanding me. I did not say that Hemant demands that everyone think and act like him. I said “If being an atheist meant I had to side with you on everything and think the way that you do I’d become an agnostic too.” If is a two letter word but it makes a huge difference to the meaning of the sentence. If being an atheist meant I had to think and act like any other person I’d not call myself atheist. See, I don’t need evidence. I made no claim against Hemant.

          Just because you’d like Tyson to be on your side doesn’t mean that he will be. Just because you would like for him to treat atheism in a way that would add a controversial dimension to his public personna doesn’t mean he must. Tyson is a person and is not obligated to act any specific way except in as much as he needs to act in a way that does not hurt his own causes and the groups that he publicly and professionally represents. Atheists are not on that list. Your charge that he should have done better is pointless. It only makes you and other atheists look bad. Sure you can feel let down or disappointed if you like, but public outrage/anger is just over the top. The bit where he talked about Wikipedia shows that atheists are all too willing to put words in his mouth against his wishes. No wonder he thinks atheists are ‘in your face’ activists.

          You’ve complained about what Tyson said. You’ve complained about what I’ve said. I think you are misunderstanding things in more than one place. Perhaps it’s because you’re angry. Perhaps it’s because you are an aggressive ‘in your face’ atheist activist. Whatever the reason is, I think you’re making a mountain out of a mole hill with this subject.

  2. Atheist and agnostic aren’t labels or identities, they are positions, single points of data – two default negations on a question of existence. It does seem that deGrasse Tyson is buying into the Christian Apologist – Fundamentalist – Evangelical straw man that these are not default positions but world views, they are not.

    Neil deGrasse Tyson is equivocating with the two positions. This may make him friends with some Christians – but, it doesn’t make it intellectually honest.

    • Richard, despite definitions people use words as labels all day long. In Britain they Hoover the carpets, and call the machine a Hoover no matter who makes it. Atheism is used as a label but I get your point that it’s not a label. I’ve just replied to Deanna Joy Lyons as to why it seems to me that Tyson is doing something that he has to to protect the causes that he is responsible for. I’ve had to keep my atheism in the closet for decades for some of the same reasons. Ask yourself why he has to worry about it or talk about it at all and you should understand why he is reluctant to take a stand on a controversial issue that might alienate 70% of the contributors to his cause. If you want to appeal to theists, intellectual integrity is hardly the best method. Think about that for a bit.

  3. Moving past the mutual suspicion that has arisen between scientists and men of faith is thus a critical first step in seeing how religion and science are not, in fact, enemies at all. The two are able not only to co-exist peaceably, but within the person of the scientist, religion and science can ultimately interconnect and strengthen one another. The pioneering astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler, who first calculated the elliptical orbits of the planets, perhaps put it best when he wrote: “The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order and harmony which has been imposed on it by God and which He revealed to us in the language of mathematics.”

    That source of rationality, which is God himself, should be a source of continual wonder for each of us, as it was for Einstein when he mused: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”

      • AndyTK
      • May 3rd, 2012

      Kepler lived in an age where Religion ruled, literally, and if one didn’t try to cloak oneself in religion you could be executed for being a warlock. As somebody else also mentioned; science has learned so much more since Kepler was alive and pushed god so far back into the esoteric realms of currently unknown science that you can hardly claim that he represents a modern view of either science or religion.

      The conflict between science and religion is that they completely disagree on how to determine what is true. The method that science has used very successfully is kryptonite to religion for religion cannot prove any of their supernatural claims using any of the methods that science recognizes. Religion claims to have a different way of determining truth, but that method hasn’t produced any useful information (where I define useful as anything that materially improves human life). Religion has to deny the validity of the scientific method simply because religious claims cannot meet those standards. So, the only way that a scientist can be religious is to not be a scientist when it comes to religion. The scientist must embrace faith, which is the kryptonite of science for it is belief without evidence.

      • great response im still chewing on this

      • I will second the idea that this is a great response. Thanks

  4. The comprehension of the universe is not as Einstein saw it. We know much more now. The discovery of the world around us through science is indeed a grand source of excitement and should be a source of pride.

    If the Christian god wanted us to know mathematics he’d have written a bit more about it, likewise with science. It can be argued that the Christian Bible fails to do anything like promote science and math.

    Give no care for tomorrow and give up all your possessions is hardly rational thinking. Jesus did declare that not one bit of the old law was erased or superseded until all has come to pass. Well, we’re still here learning and doing and there is no god involved. All those who were promised a savior before their life ended are now LONG dead.

    Science and religion may well be seen by some as compatible… for now. It won’t last forever. Soon the creator god will be pushed back further. Far enough back as to not have had any effect on our existence at all.

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