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The entirely understandable evasion of Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson describes himself as an ‘agnostic‘, and that’s okay. I’m an agnostic myself, just an atheistic one.

But this tweet seems like an evasion:

“Am I an Atheist, you ask? Labels are mentally lazy ways by which people assert they know you without knowing you.”

Hmm. I didn’t ask him for his label; I asked a question about his stand on some issue, to which one could reasonably answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Sometimes I’ve seen people shun labels as a subtle method of self-flattery. “Oh, I’m so deep and complex and interesting that I can’t be put into a box.” Well, yes, you are interesting, and yes, you can be put into a box. We’re not all special snowflakes; in many ways we’re terribly like other people. I am, anyway. I consume the same products, read the same books and websites, and have the same thoughts as other people with my interests. Hopefully, once in a while I create something interesting and original, and that’s what makes me kind of special.

Anyway, I can understand NdGT not wanting to tick the box for firm atheism. He’s influential in science communication, so he wants more people to listen to him, and perhaps not turn off those who would be turned off by an atheist. We need him doing what he’s doing, and others of us can wear the atheist tag. As for me, if atheism is a label, it’s a label I’m proud to wear.


  1. I guess it depends on the question whether you CAN be evasive. The "one can't know" or "I couldn't say" answer is the typical agnostic cop-out. A question like "Do you believe in the existence of a god, or gods" is not a question one could evade. One could refuse to answer it in public, but this question demands a binary yes/no. Agnostics should answer that question, not the "Are you an atheist?" one. It's too easy to get around.

  2. Exactly. "Do you believe that gods exist?" is not a difficult question. It wouldn't take an astrophysicist to figure it out.

    On reflection, it seems bizarre to me that such a question needs to be asked, but I guess that's the way things are now.

  3. It's like Kierkegaard's "When you label me you negate me," argument.

    Huxley coined the term Agnostic to mean, "Ignorance of gnosticism; or, ignorance of esoteric knowledge." Huxley wanted to shift the argument from belief in God to belief in religion.

    I'm sure NdGT is aware and quite knowledgeable of the bullshit that is known commonly as theology, so it is quite a cop out. He doesn't partake of religion, so he is not religious. If he's not religious, then he's not a theist. If you're not a theist, then you're a non-theist. Shorten that and you're an atheist.

    If he wants to be listened to, then he's right to evade the question at the present time, but if "atheist" is ever going to lose its sting, then we're going to need people as great and revered as he is to admit it.

  4. I've been wondering this for a while and your post (and the subsequent comments) suggests that this is so: Do atheists in general have a problem with people using the label agnostic? It seems like there is a perception among atheists that agnostics are just too weak to commit to one camp or another and as such are looked down upon.

    Incidentally, if I had to label myself I would go with atheist. Agnostic seems redundant since to me being an atheist just means that I don't have a belief in any god.

    Surely someone saying "one can't know" or "I couldn't say" is by default an atheist.

    Perhaps people go with agnostic because they feel (erroneously? I'm not an expert on this) that atheist means a belief that there is no god, rather than the absence of a belief in one and they don't want to offend their theist buddies.

  5. "We're not all special snowflakes." Ha! I love that. 🙂

  6. Loz: Your comment has reminded me that I have this weird dual definition in my head for agnosticism.

    Every chance I get, I tell people, "Agnosticism isn't a halfway point between 'certain' and 'not certain'. That's an old definition. It's actually a view about what is knowable." Blah, blah, blah, you've heard it 10^6 times.

    But then when someone tells me they're agnostic, what do I jump to? The old definition. On the other hand, the old definition does seem to be what people mean when they say they're agnostic, so I don't know.

    With all that in mind, though, I do find 'agnostic' kind of unsatisfying as a descriptor. As in, I'm not satisfied with their definition of themselves. Then I ask them, "But do you believe that gods exist?" and so forth, as though I'm trying to convince them that they're really atheists. So you could be right about how atheists perceive agnostics.

    I made this cartoon a long time ago, which is related.

  7. Daniel I think that cartoon nailed it.

  8. I don't much care for the word atheist; it implies that there is something out there I don't believe in. Do I have to call my self an africkelist because I don't believe in Frickel?

  9. You might have to, if Frickelists were trying to get Frickelism taught in public schools, if Frickelists sent missionaries around the world and wondered how a africkelist could have morals, and if a presidential candidate were considered unelectable if they didn't believe in Frickel.

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