Let me be clear here: I loves me some Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Whether he’s smacking down end-of-the-world predictions, or calling out James Cameron for putting the wrong sky in Titanic, or just letting Jon Stewart know that the latest private enterprise spacefaring scheme is no bullshit, the guy has a lot of charm, and has done a lot for science popularization.
It’s no surprise that Neil is often assumed to be an atheist. He speaks forcefully against teaching the Bible in classrooms, and mixing science with religion in general. He doesn’t seem to accept any traditional meanings of being a religious person. And of course, he’s just an incredibly cool guy, so who wouldn’t want to claim him in their movement?
Like a lot of people who choose to distance themselves from the atheist movement, Neil in this video focuses a lot on quibbling over the meaning of words. “The only ‘ist’ I am is a scientist. I don’t associate with a movements.” That, to me, seems like an oddly broad denouncement not only of atheism, but of a lot of valid and worthwhile movements in general. Let me just run through a list of “ists” that I personally would be proud to identify with: Atheist. Progressivist. Computer scientist. Feminist. Noncomformist. Vocalist. Egotist. Abolitionist. Intellectualist. Satirist. Capitalist. Realist. Humanist. Technologist.
You could say I’m playing word games here, but to me it seems kind of oddly nihilistic of Neil (there’s another one!) to denounce not only atheism as a movement, but movements in general somehow. Just because I identify with these things doesn’t mean that I am forced to accept all the baggage that people assume (often wrongly) must go with them. Maybe words like these are a shorthand way of encapsulating a complex set of concepts, but you could say that about language in general, after all. Having claimed that I am any one of these things, I have conveyed a significant amount of useful information; and if there are additional nuances that are not captured by the words, then I’m free to explain them in more detail afterwards.
Anyway, Neil states that he’s an agnostic. Which is fine. I personally tend to identify as “atheist” anyone who does not positively apply a belief in any gods, and to be frank, that seems to fit Neil notwithstanding his other concerns about the word. He describes himself as “someone who doesn’t know, but hasn’t really seen evidence for it, but is prepared to embrace the evidence if it’s there, but if it’s not, won’t be forced to have to think something that is not otherwise supported.” You know, that’s my position precisely. And I’m an atheist. But Neil isn’t the only person I’ve encountered who is uncomfortable with the label, and there are competing definitions of “atheist” in play anyway, so it’s a point that I don’t waste a lot of time arguing over, generally.
That aside, here’s what bothers me about this video. Neil not only doesn’t want to be called an atheist — which is fine — but he went out of his way to make a video complaining about atheism. A lot of this video, in fact, is ridiculing the idea that the word atheism even exists. “Is there a word for non-golf players?” Neil asks. “Do non-golf players gather and strategize? Do non-skiers have a word, and come together, and talk about the fact that they don’t ski? I can’t do that!”
The atheist movement often gets compared to the gay rights movement, and I think there is a lot of validity to the comparison. Both atheists and homosexuals are minority groups who are often subjected to unreasonable prejudice. Unlike being a racial minority, both atheism and homosexuality are traits which do not outwardly manifest themselves, and can only be identified if the person who experiences them chooses to claim them. You can’t be a closeted black person; you can be a closeted atheist.
I’m not gay. I am, however, totally supportive of gay rights. I might make a video where I mentioned in passing “By the way, I am straight.” In fact, I’m sure that there are many places in the TV archives where I have said something like that. But — and this gets to the heart of why this video bothers me — I would never make a video saying “I am straight, and here’s why I am straight. There are all kinds of problems with being gay, I don’t like the word gay, I don’t like the fact that there is a gay movement,” and so forth. I don’t feel like I need to justify being straight, it’s just a basic fact that I am a man who likes women. To say those kinds of things in a video seems like it would alienate gay friends and fans for no good reason.
Neil clearly has lots of atheist supporters; we like science, we like nerdy enthusiasm, and we like the guy. I don’t expect Neil to claim the label, and I think it’s fine that he is direct enough to clarify where he stands on matters like this. I just think it’s not too much to ask that while he’s disavowing the label, there’s no need to belittle a movement full of people who largely share his same goals.