Updated: Sep 9
It needs to be said that Neil deGrasse Tyson is someone I have immense respect for. He has taken the reigns once held by the legend Carl Sagan and infected so many with his passion for science and learning and truth. I have no doubt that this man has inspired many young people to pursue further education and careers in science, and that he has changed and touched the lives of so many people who needed it.
When I heard him on Sam Harris’ podcast, though, I was fairly disappointed. While most of the time spent talking with Sam was focused on Tyson’s career and accomplishments, they did touch on the one topic many of Sam’s listeners were eager to understand: why doesn’t Neil own the title atheist? When Sam posed this question, Neil responded with,
If you require that I give myself a label then the closest word I can come up with is agnostic, not atheist, but I would rather have no label at all. The only ‘ist’ I am is a scientist. Beyond that, a label is an intellectually lazy way to assert you know more about a person than you actually do and therefore don’t have to engage them in conversation. “Oh, you’re an atheist?” Bam! In comes a whole portfolio of expectations of what you’ll say, what your behaviour is, what your attitudes are. Hold aside dictionary definition of atheist, because that’s actually irrelevant to me. It’s irrelevant because the dictionary does not define words, the dictionary describes words as they have come into meaning. Words are living things, and I have seen the conduct of outspoken atheists and there is conduct they exhibit that I do not. If there is an emergent sense of what an atheist is, and that sense is being defined by those who are most visible, then I have to say there’s gotta be some other word for me, but not that word. For example,
Tyson says that a label is an intellectually lazy way to assert you know more about a person than you actually do, but I fully disagree. Labels are ways to help us understand one another. When my next-door neighbour tells me she’s a mom, I understand that she has a family. When my best friend tells me she is gay, I understand she is attracted to women, and that she’s probably going through a pretty scary time in coming out. When my new friend tells me he’s a German, I know where in the world he originated from. Labels are helpful constructs of language. They help us to organize things and understand them clearly. If labels are “intellectually lazy”, then the animal classification system is intellectually lazy, as are car brands and models, names of the different climates and different styles of clothing. We use labels for everything. Literally every noun is a label that we attach to someone or something. You’re suggesting that in order to not be intellectually lazy, we must attempt to communicate without labels? I can’t tell someone I am a mom anymore, because the less intellectually lazy way of doing so would be to say I have kids, instead?
I have found that more often than not, my admission to being an atheist has provoked further conversation, not less. Sure, some people use labels to think they understand someone without engaging them in conversation, but that’s not all that often. Not in the real world, anyway. Labels can and often do provoke more conversation:
“Oh, you’re a mom? How many kids do you have?”
“You’re Aussie? Whereabouts in Australia are you from?”
“You’re a scientist? In which field?”
What’s intellectually lazy, even intellectually dishonest, is not admitting that there’s only one label you don’t like.
Tyson then tells the story of the time he said godspeed to departing astronauts on his Facebook page, and people responded with, “Godspeed? but I thought you were an atheist!”
The very fact that I get that phrase often, and people responding to something I say or do, tells me that I’m not behaving in the way they expect an atheist to behave.
Yeah, you and me both, there, Doc. The funny thing is, I get the same thing because I am a Canadian, or a woman, or a mom, or a socialist, or a writer, or a blogger. I get judgments from everyone regarding how they assume I ought to be behaving based on labels that apply to me. But you know what? I don’t fucking care. I am who I am and I chose to put myself out there. To expect people not to judge is to be desperately naive. They always will. Whether you admit to being an atheist or not, they’re always going to have expectations of your behaviour that are incorrect.
You wanna know how you change that, though, Neil? By openly using the label and defying those expectations associated with it. That’s how we change the negative connotations that come with the word atheist. That’s how we overcame the negative connotations associated with being homosexual, or black or female: you fucking own it, and prove their assumptions wrong.
Neil also mentions that he uses AD and BC when referring to years, as though atheists do not. Sure, there are a handful of anal secularists who are being nitpicky about it, but overall, most of us don’t give a shit. He goes on to suggest that we should be able to give credit where credit is due, that religion was a factor in establishing the Gregorian calendar. He says this, and I’m completely dumbfounded as to why, as though atheists don’t want to remember history accurately; as though we want to rid the history books of any mention of religion and its triumphs and shortfalls. Where has he gotten this from? I’ve not encountered a single atheist who is offended by the use of AD and BC; I don’t know any who would deny the origins of the Gregorian calendar, nor any that would deny its effectiveness in timekeeping. Who told him atheists are against these things? Who told him this is our “expected behaviour”? Where, the fuck, is he getting this horseshit?
There’s got to be a word that applies to me, that doesn’t then have people saying, “I thought you were an atheist”. I’m happy to have no label at all. That’s what’s at the bottom of this.
The saddest thing about this statement, is that it’s coming from a scientist, who likely thoroughly understands the human being’s predisposition to want to classify and order things to better understand them. A scientist who has probably made much use of the classification system for animals, the periodic table of elements, the names and classifications we apply to celestial objects. We are unable to function without labels. Labels are how we communicate, and how we understand the world around us. Each one of us has countless labels that apply to us, such as our nationality, our race, our gender; are we short or tall? Thin or round? Are you O negative or B+? Are you an introvert, bisexual or a socialist? Double-jointed, cancer patient, dog lover? Are you a driver, a rider or a swimmer? A vegetarian, a virgin or a registered voter? You can’t get rid of labels, because it’s how we function.
Just to show you how ridiculous what Tyson is saying is, let’s switch out some of the words in his rant :
If you require that I give myself a label then the closest word I can come up with is Earthling, not American, but I would rather have no label at all. The only home I know is Earth. Beyond that, a label is an intellectually lazy way to assert you know more about a person than you actually do and therefore don’t have to engage them in conversation. “Oh, you’re an American?” Bam! In comes a whole portfolio of expectations of what you’ll say, what your behaviour is, what your attitudes are. Hold aside dictionary definition of American, because that’s actually irrelevant to me. It’s irrelevant because the dictionary does not define words, the dictionary describes words as they have come into meaning. Words are living things, and I have seen the conduct of outspoken Americans and there is conduct they exhibit that I do not. If there is an emergent sense of what an American is, and that sense is being defined by those who are most visible, then I have to say there’s gotta be some other word for me, but not that word.
While Neil would have every right to say this if he wanted to, none of it would erase the indisputable fact that he’s American, and will remain so until he renounces his citizenship. Just like, no matter how many times he refuses to acknowledge his atheism, he’s still an atheist until the day be begins to believe in a creator god. The word atheist has a meaning that cannot be abandoned, just as the word American does. Sure, there can be a lot of debate about what it means to be an atheist or an American, but the word itself describes something specific. If you choose not to identify as an American, that’s fine, but it doesn’t erase the fact that you are.
That’s why I don’t even use the word agnostic. I said, if you had to pick a word then pick that word, but I don’t know that a word exists in this context. All told, I just don’t think it fits the model. Like, my favourite musical of all time is Jesus Christ Superstar.
I fail to see your point, Neil. My favourite holiday of all time is Christmas. I also enjoy Jesus Christ Superstar, as does my godless husband. You wanna know something weird? I love deep southern music, all twangy and riddled with banjos, and that haunting voice wailing about their Lord and Saviour. I fuckin’ love it. I can’t explain it. New Orleans got under my skin, I suppose, but the point is, I can hear the name of Jesus and still enjoy myself. I can sit in a pew and watch my son sing Christmas carols and have my heart fill with pride. I can lay back on a tropical beach in Thailand and swell with awe as the call to prayer rings out at sunset. Being an atheist doesn’t make me reject everything that’s ever been associated with religion in any way. My musical taste does not determine my stance on religion. The fact I don’t believe in a creator god does.
I can and do enjoy many things that religion has given us, I’ve even written about it. I am an outspoken atheist, Neil. How do you explain my behaviour, then? I think you have a deep misunderstanding of what being an atheist is, and the irony is that it’s the attitude you exhibit that makes it so necessary for men like you to own the label, atheist. We need to change this image of atheists. As you said yourself, Doc, If there is an emergent sense of what an atheist is, and that sense is being defined by those who are most visible… so, be one of the most visible and change the goddamned definition, then!
I bet that neither you, nor Dawkins, nor Dennett has ever had uttered to them, the phrase, “I thought you were an atheist”.
Should I go on, Doc?
I get it myself, constantly, especially around Christmas time.
“Christmas? I thought you were an atheist!”
“You let your kid take karate in a church? I thought you were an atheist!”
“You quoted a religious person? I thought you were an atheist!”
I see this, at minimum, once per week. You don’t get it because you’re afraid to admit you’re an atheist, you get it because people are idiots, and no matter what you do or how you describe yourself, you’re going to continue to get it. Heck, I’ve seen religious people be on the receiving end of that bullshit!
I get it maybe two or three times a month.
Ahh, so you’re an amateur 😉
People are not even allowing me to be me.
Hey, Dr. Tyson? Welcome to the internet. We all get that. No matter how we label ourselves, we all get it. You’re not special. I mean, to me you are, but as far as online idiocy goes, we’re all exposed.
You know, you said something closer to the beginning of the podcast, Neil, that caught my attention,
I’m an educator and the moment you start choosing sides against things that are political, which is people’s right to do in a free, pluralistic society… the moment you start doing that then anyone who is not in that political leaning is not going to listen to you. You’ll be an asshole to them and you just shut out half the people you could be educating.
If this had been the reason you’d offered for why you don’t use the term atheist to describe yourself, I could have respected it. Not wanting to alienate those who desperately need the education you offer, is a valid reason. Your platform is about education. It’s about science and learning and knowledge. I would expect you put those goals ahead of all others because they are your purpose; your passion.
Sadly, though, you gave this explanation for why you don’t support a particular presidential candidate, not why you don’t identify as an atheist. For that, you drew up a few insulting strawmen instead, and you’re wrong, Dr. Tyson. You’re wrong.