On Wednesday, CFI Michigan sponsored a talk by Neil deGrasse Tyson at Grand Valley State University. His talk was hilarious and he was incredibly charming and engaging. It was a blast. I only have one complaint other than the uncomfortable metal chairs we had to sit and and that was Tyson’s answer when asked what he thought of the atheist movement.
I vaguely remember this coming up before and some atheists being angry that Tyson declared himself an agnostic rather than an atheist and very publicly distancing himself from organized atheism. I didn’t really care. And I still don’t. But I was very disappointed in his answer, which was a Sarah Palin-level word salad that literally had nothing whatsoever to do with the question that was asked. He talked about the founding fathers and religious liberty, he talked about creationism in schools. He did everything but actually answer the question, which really annoyed me. But he has answered it in the past and here’s the video of him doing so:
I have no problem with most of this answer. I couldn’t care less whether he wants to call himself an agnostic or an atheist and have no desire whatsoever to get into a semantic debate over what those terms means (yes, I believe an agnostic is an atheist, but I really don’t care what people want to call themselves). And I’m really not bothered by his obvious attempt to distance himself from organized atheism. Don’t care. Don’t see why others should either. Whether he’s doing it out of some political decision to keep himself away from controversy or not, I just don’t care.
But here’s one problem I do have with his answer. He says that he doesn’t understand why the word “atheism” exists at all, arguing that we don’t have a word or a movement for those who don’t play golf. I think he’s being disingenuous here and I think he knows it. Of course he knows the difference between atheism and a-golfplayerism. If golf was an ideology (set of ideologies, really) that influenced public policy, if people actively tried to turn non-golfers into second class citizens, and if there was a cultural assumption that non-golfers were evil and immoral, he knows damn well that there would be, and should be, a movement to counter those things.
And in reality, he is part of that movement, or counter-movement to diminish the influence of religion on public policy, whether he wants to associate with the other aspects of it or not. The work he does is important in countering the negative influence of religious belief in undermining science education and public policy. He’s on the team, whether he wants to declare that publicly or not. He knows that he has a common opponent with those atheist activists who are doing similar work to counter the influence of religion.
Which is why I don’t think people should pressure him to declare a position at all. I think that’s pointless. Let him keep doing the work he does and stop demanding that he put on a certain uniform when he does it. But still, I’d like to hear him address these questions a bit more honestly. I’d rather hear him say something like this:
“My focus is on science literacy, so I don’t involve myself in religious questions except when they intersect with science and public policy. Everyone has to choose for themselves what really animates them and if others focus on separation of church and state or direct engagement with religion or building communities for non-believers, I think that’s fine and it’s exactly what they should do. It just isn’t my focus.”
He should just say “it’s not my thing” and move on rather than dodge the question when asked or pretend, disingenuously, that he just doesn’t understand why there is an atheist movement at all. Of course he does. And if he thinks that avoiding association with that movement will help him get a fair hearing in the public square, that’s fine with me too.