Neil deGrasse Tyson: Atheist or Agnostic?

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson claims the title “scientist” above all other “ists.” And yet, he says he is “constantly claimed by atheists.” So where does he stand? “Neil deGrasse, widely claimed by atheists, is actually an agnostic.”


30 Responses to Neil deGrasse Tyson: Atheist or Agnostic?

  1. For knowledge: if you hold omniscience as a standard, everyone is agnostic; if you hold reasonable, common certainty as a standard, then you can have claims to knowledge.

    For belief: if you accept a belief, you are a believer; if you have not explicitly accepted a belief, you are automatically a non-believer.

    Religious claims MUST include both a knowledge and a belief label; NdGT is an agnostic atheist.

    HOWEVER, with that bit of language cleared up, I completely understand his desire to not fit himself into labels, because he wants to EDUCATE, not DEBATE. I don't agree with that desire, but I at least get it.

  2. Love this vid. His point about moving from label to an assumed knowledge/ understanding of an individual is terrific, and it applies in both directions.

  3. So…he's saying he's taking upon himself the label "agnostic" — even though he rejects labeling. Logical fallacy there, no? Essentially, he confuses being atheist (that is, not requiring the belief in the supernatural to make sense of the universe) with being militant about a cause.

    Of course, when religious folks start trying to take away funding from science, because "God did it." is obviously all the answer they/we need….he may find himself a bit more motivated.

    Watch out NdGT — religious people all over the world just embraced you as one of their own — as a seeker that simply needs a little convincing to accept THEIR "truth."

        • See my reply below for what I mean. I did want to ask a question here, though.

          Isn't atheism strictly someone who denies the existence of any god? What you described, "not requiring the belief in the supernatural to make sense of the universe", may be true of atheists, but it's true of agnostics as well.

  4. Tyson starts off by talking about how he doesn't like the way that once you label somebody, people make a bunch of other assumptions about what they believe and how they behave — then goes on to label atheists and accompany the label with a bunch of other assumptions about what they believe and how they behave.

    With regards to atheism as a movement, he's absolutely right — there's no movement, or at least, there shouldn't be. There's no point in getting together to talk about not believing in something.

    So what DOES bring us together as atheists? Science. Philosophy. Empiricism. The belief that we can skeptically interrogate the universe itself and discover answers more amazing than we could have imagined to questions we never even thought to ask.

    What brings atheists together isn't what we don't believe in — it's what we DO believe in.

    • He speaks of the assumptions because they are what is attached to atheism and atheists. He doesn't want those assumptions placed on him.

      "So what DOES bring us together as scientists? Science. Philosophy. Empiricism. The belief that we can skeptically interrogate the universe itself and discover answers more amazing than we could have imagined to questions we never even thought to ask. "


      There's a difference between being a scientist and being someone who uses science to disprove god to other people.

      • Science can't disprove god. It can't, and it never will be able to. Gods are, by definition (or at least, by most traditional definitions), outside of the realm of science. Anybody with a shred of common sense knows this (and keep in mind, this is coming from somebody who self-identifies as an atheist).

        What it can do is cast doubt. It can discredit some of the reasons we used to believe in god(s). Science cannot disprove god(s); however, it removes the necessity for god as a means of explanation.

        It was once believed that lightning was Zeus showing his anger. Turns out it's caused by a difference in electrical charges between the clouds and the ground. Does this disprove the existence of Zeus? No, of course not; it just means that Zeus is not necessary to explain lighting. Zeus may still exist, and that difference in charges may be his way of manifesting his anger, but if we remove Zeus from the equation, the explanation does not make any less sense than it did with him. So he's unnecessary. Not disproven, just unnecessary.

        It was once believed that all species originated from Yaweh creating them. For a long time, this was as good an explanation as any. But then we came up with the theory of evolution (and have since found more evidence in support of it than was ever dreamt of in Darwin's time). Does this disprove the existence of Yaweh? Not at all. But it means that he is not necessary in order to explain where species came from. He could still exist, but removing him from the equation would not make the theory untenable.

        I identify myself as an atheist not because I believe with certainty that there are no gods, but because I see no reason to believe in them. They're like the Yeti or the Loch Ness Monster. They cannot be disproven, but until I am presented with convincing evidence that they exist, I assume they don't.

        Are there some atheists who misunderstand this and take it too far? Yes, of course. Just like there are members of any faith you can name that take their beliefs too far. But in both cases, this is not reflective of the average believer (or non-believer), nor is it reflective of the inherent nature of those beliefs (or lack thereof).

    • The atheist movement is more about keeping religion from being forced onto everyone, especially through laws and governmental policy. It's also giving those who are afraid to admit what they believe (or in this case, their lack of belief) a support system. It's about protecting people from the harm done in the name of religion as well, not to mention encouraging education, which religion seems to stifle.

      • I guess that's the point then. He doesn't need or want a movement based on fighting religion because he only sees it as an impediment to the science and teaching he could be doing instead. He's just a scientist. Call him agnostic and leave him out of the debate.

  5. I am a bit confused as to why this is a big deal. Just as he was saying about labeling, this knowledge only serves to pigeon hole him. We don’t gain anything meaningful from the knowledge of whether he is agnostic, atheist, Jewish, Muslim, or what ever. Instead we just flame the Internet flame wars of “religion is need” vs. “no it isn’t.”

    That being said, I really don’t understand why he is as popular as he is. (To the point that completely meaningless dribble is passed around the Internet like a game of telephone.) He is saying that people should be more interested in science.. We are already interested in science.. this is preaching to the choir, really.. I say that we should let the guy get back to doing science rather than praising him for having the audacity to talk about it.

    • you should watch some of his stuff, if you haven't (and it doesn't seem like you have). He isn't just pushing interest in science, which there is far from enough interest in it in the United States, he also talks about science in general. He does so in a very humorous way that it makes it enjoyable to watch, but makes you think at the same time.

  6. Speaking of how annoying it is to be stuck with a label that defines you… Most atheists don't do any of the things he says atheists do. Just the one who are, for lack of a better term, atheist fundamentalists.

    Those people are the functional equivalent of folks who protest golf course development projects as being huge wastes of space & resources that could be better used for social housing or food production or the like.

  7. I find it funny that people are still trying to claim him under a label, and accuse others of attempting to claim him under a label, in response to a video that says he doesn't want to be claimed.

    Why do you guys all care so much?

  8. Neil Tyson, excuse me what did he discover to make him a top scientist? Has he even done the leg work to verify a real scientist work? Tyson is just a guy who tells you what other hard working scientists think and have discovered. I am sorry I don't care what he believes in, he has as much to do with science as a six oclock news anchor has to do with the shooting down the streat earlier last night.

  9. A few points:
    1) "Agnostic" is such a squishy word; while it might technically be called a label, it's a far more vague, open one than "atheist".
    2) NdGT *isn't* claiming to be against labels; he's against *others* inaccurately labeling him. "Labeling" himself as agnostic isn't contradictory, especially when defines what he means by agnostic.
    3) When he describes atheists, he admittedly paints with a broad brush, but he's also deliberately describing people he personally knows. That said, I think this illustrates his point very well (if, perhaps, unintentionally). "Atheist", whether fairly or not, has negative stereotypes attached to it. By voluntarily labeling oneself an atheist, they're placing themselves under those stereotypes, whether true or not.
    4) The same is true for those in religious contexts (i.e. "fundamentalist"/ "evangelical"/ "conservative" Christians). Or the more broad "religious folks/ people".

    To paraphrase Elagie:
    And, yes, it is irksome to then have others — unfairly and utterly inaccurately — tar all religious people with the same brush.
    I think that's the point.

    • 1) The term agnostic refers, colloquially, to agnostic atheists. The word atheist refers to all atheists. The term agnostic is by no stretch of the meaning a more open term.
      2) To say that calling himself agnostic isn't a label because he defined the term is absurd. His definition doesn't change the baggage that comes along with the term any more than it would any other label.
      3) There are a lot of stereotypes that come with the word gay, does that mean that no one should call themselves gay.
      4) It is not fair to reinforce stereotypes about anyone. That being said, Christians worship a book that says we atheists deserve to be stoned to death (forgive us if we're not fans of it). Some atheists may think that your beliefs are silly, but we follow no unifying doctrine.

  10. As a student studying physics, almost every single one of my classmates is an atheist. I hear just as many atheists ripping on religious people as I hear religious people ripping on atheists (more, actually). What I hear NdGT saying is that he doesn't want to get involved with either side. He would rather describe himself as agnostic to avoid having to debate this very point that people are arguing. He sees that joining one side or the other is pointless, and he chooses to spend his time doing better things. I respect that. I don't think that him calling himself agnostic is offending, anymore so than my roommate calling himself atheist or my brother calling himself religious. I think you are preaching logic, but are illogical for getting worked up about somebody having a different set of beliefs than you.

    What it comes down to is that you are irritated he will not simply agree with your opinion. You can write me a page on the logical fallacies of the argument (his or mine), but the basic point is he believes something different than you, and you don't like that.

    • a person is either a theist or they are not (making them an atheist). From what he says in this video, NdGT does not believe in a deity, thus making him not a theist, so where does that leave it? It's not a matter of taking sides, it's just a matter if you do or do not believe in something. The real fallacy of the whole argument is the use of agnostic. It is, simply put, a lack of knowledge, which we all do. So somewhere or another we are all agnostic. It's not really a belief. To say your agnostic on religion is to say you don't know what you belief or don't belief.

      This all aside, NdGT isn't interested in debating the points of religion, or lack of religion (except for when they cross over into his turf, see his response to Bill O'Reilly), he is more concerned about the science itself

    • I don't particularly care about what Dr. Tyson chooses to call himself. It was wrong of him to make sweeping generalizations about atheists. He has the right every right to self-define, but he has no right to define us.

  11. Why are people getting so confused by the definitions of Atheist and Agnostic? Look them up! There's a perfectly good dictionary website a short click away!

    ag·nos·tic  [ag-nos-tik]
    a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience.

    a·the·ist  [ey-thee-ist]
    a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings.

    One is complete denial, eg "God does not exist in any way shape or form." – Atheist
    The other is leaving it to the unknown, eg "I don't know if a 'God' exists or not." – Agnostic

    Why is this so hard to understand? This isn't confusing people. Props to Neil for standing up for how he feels on such a touchy subject. He continues to be one of my favorite people to learn from.

    • so because one dictionary defines the words in such a fashion that is it? Have you compared definitions between dictionaries before? Ever wonder why they can have different meanings for the same word? Or how about looking at the definition for a word in a dictionary, then finding it in the dictionary from the same group from thirty or forty years ago? Meaning behind words is no easy thing to assign, and it often changes. And a lot more time has been spent discussing what these words really mean, broken down to their roots and dissected at length.

      Of course, there is also the other part of the definition, and this part varies as well but is essentially the same between them all:

      a person who is unwilling to commit to an opinion about something

    • You got this definition from (which is not the end all, be all of the still living English language). Atheist and agnostic are words with (dead) Latin roots. That being said, gnosticism is about what you know, theism is about what you believe. An agnostic is one who doesn't know if a god exists, an atheist is one who does not believe that a god exists; the two terms are not mutually exclusive. One can be an agnostic atheist (which most atheists are) and one can be an agnostic theist (which some theists are).

      As for Neil "standing up for how he feels", he has the right to define himself however he pleases, but I don't think that reinforcing negative stereotypes about atheists is anything to be proud of.