Recently Neil Degrasse Tyson did an interview with The Daily Beast, which sparked some annoyance with many in the Atheist community. Well, judging from what comes up in the search query now, there were many areas of the interview that sparked annoyance with many people. But one of the reoccurring ones, is his seemingly softball stance on religion.
Many have said (and the article ran by The Daily Beast is headlined with) “Neil Degrasse Tyson Defends Scientology”. But I do not see him as defending Scientology persay, I see him more as, placing it on an even playing field with the rest of the religions of the world. And I can see the line of logic (if I am indeed correct anyway). This set of religions are not “legitimate” religions, while these ones are “illegitimate” (cults?).
They are equally illegitimate and irrelevant.
My focus for this piece is not strictly on the Daily Beast interview. There are plenty of other secular media sources discussing it in detail already, so there is no need. I will focus on more, Neil Degrasse Tyson’s choice to not officially align himself with Atheists.
First, I will put to rest, the “fanboy” argument (“you are refusing to see this objectively just because you like him!”).
I first run into this attitude on (of all places) Dusty Smith’s facebook page, from the man himself. There I joined a thread (a status update about his disagreement with NDT leaving religion alone) by typing my thoughts:
It seems that Neil just has better things to do then, get involved in the secular debate circuit.
That is my interpretation anyway. And I can see his point.
Like, this whole “why won’t he just say he is an atheist already!” Business. Who cares.
In my opinion, he is doing a lot to try and drag the world forward out of the clutches of religion. He is a secularist. So who cares what he calls (or does not) call himself.
Which got this response:
If your priorities are Science then you would attack the thing impeding science. You guys are just fanbois who refuse to call his bullshit out because you like him. It’s like Leonard Nimoy all over again.
I did (in a sense), find myself in agreement.
One can not just brush aside the damaging nature of religion on society, and how it often is an impediment to scientific progress. But at the same time, I can not help but think that NDT would know full well the problems of religion in the world, but just can not be bothered to chime into the debate.
For one thing, there are plenty of people already doing it. And for another, what seems to be more helpful to humanity overall:
1.) denouncing religion?
2.) actively participating in the fields of scientific study?
I will stop myself here for a second, since I have run into a slight issue of my own. Neil Degrasse Tyson is famous for (and specializes in) Astrophysics. Which is:
a branch of space science that applies the laws of physics and chemistry to explain the birth, life and death of stars, planets, galaxies, nebulae and other objects in the universe. It has two sibling sciences, astronomy and cosmology, and the lines between them blur.
I had to stop myself here, because on its face, one could question how exactly astrophysics is beneficial to humanity over all.
And I have asked that question to, particularly after scientists like Tyson have dismissed philosophy due it being a quote “a useless enterprise” (and sometimes going as far as saying that it could inhibit scientific progress by encouraging a little to much question asking ).
Philosophy and Astrophysics are similar in the sense that, they are both “useless” pursuits if the standard is ONLY being beneficial to humanity in a physical way (cancer and other disease and ailment research, climate change solutions, etc).
But no one would (or SHOULD) take that approach, because that is just silly. Of course there is a need for focus on the sciences that help heal and move humanity forward in a physical way. But that does not mean there is no room for academic pursuits that teach us more about ourselves, our origins, and the fundamental problems of existence as illustrated by philosophy (Logic! Since Dusty is the topic).
Such pursuits may not be as useful as say, looking for the cure for Colan cancer or HIV. But it all has a place in the treasure trove of information that makes up the totality of human knowledge.
Which is important, since knowledge is power in the fight against dogma of all kinds.
That was a bit of a tangent. But it served a purpose.
I don’t worship on the alter of Neil Degrasse Tyson, and am somewhat annoyed that a man of “Logic” would jump straight to that conclusion after being questioned. As if its impossible for any criticism to NOT be from the point of view of bias.
Though that was one thing that I FELT like saying, I decided not to, sensing it to be a waste of time. I settled with:
I think i have. Even you a couple times (i have a blog that serves as a place to throw out my ideas and thoughts).
I suppose I can agree that, religion should be called out. I spent the better part of 5 year on FB doing it in groups. So I don’t disagree with that.
our disagreement comes in , his refusal to “admit” he is an atheist. I just don’t care.
I am content with one secular community trying to make a better world.
No, I did not bother sharing my blog (nor will I share this post) over there. Though I sense it would be a great way to get a boost in traffic, I also believe that it would end in a big headache.
Those stuck in the clutches of dogma rarely take criticism well, or seriously. And those that think they are on the side of logic, often resort to ad hominem.
I will leave that for the youtube comment section.
But moving on, a big part of the reason why there is annoyance between NDT and atheists, is the false dichotomy that is a big part of modern atheist viewpoints. This idea that you are either an atheist, or a theist (there is NO middle ground!). If you start from that prospective, then one can only conclude that NDT is being disingenuous. The most common reasoning I have heard from the atheist community (in terms of speculation for his “dis-ingenuousness”) is his career.
The logic here apparently being that agnostic is (I suppose) easier for the ignorant theist folk to swallow them then that that evil “Atheist” word. Something I would entertain as a possibility, had he not been the target of much criticism from that segment upon releasing Cosmos (not to mention various twitter controversy’s).
But the point of this post is not to Neil Degrasse Tyson’s unofficial WordPress fanboy/explainer of beliefs, because there already is a person that can do that well enough (NDT himself!).
The point of this post is more, who cares.
I don’t understand why it is so important to atheists that everyone on the side of secularism be an “Atheist”. And no, it is not a matter of “Logic”.
Logic brings people to point of, and often results in the discarding, of ones previously unquestioned beliefs. Some end up Atheists, some end up in other categories.
Atheism is not the only “logical” outcome of a faith de-conversation. And if you think it is, then I hereby question how you (and other atheist’s who share your same view, which is a great many) can also keep pushing the narrative that atheism is NOT a religion. Because from this prospective, it sure as hell looks like one.
I was amused that even Bill Maher mentioned this feud briefly in the epilogue of a recent Real Time episode.
It never has really been all that important to be an atheist, for me. Well, I did have the “Atheism is all of Secularism” attitude when I first joined the debate circuit WAY back when (on account to reading heavily atheist influenced articles on non-belief, likely wikipedia). But my Deist friend quickly corrected my ass when I tried to put him under the Atheist umbrella. And rightly so.
I had naturally come to the conclusion of a void of my own accord (one could say, organic Atheism). While I thought that I was just learning more about atheism, I was also absorbing popular atheist ideology.
Though I encountered it then, this has not been a phenomenon that I have encountered at all in the last few years. I did not come across all that many agnostics in my travels (mostly Agnostic Atheists), but none the less, I didn’t really see any problem (certainly no logical fallacy) with ones choice to align themselves as an agnostic. Even if this has been a “thing” for a long time, all of my encounters with the phenomenon were fairly recent.
Speaking of said phenonenon, it can be amusing to watch the comment areas around posts where NDT’s name comes up. Comments can range from the pseudo-educational (“Neil is clearly wrong in his understanding of what an agnostic is “) to the annoyed (“I don’t get why Neil won’t just come out as an atheist already!”).
Its something that is both amusing and frustrating to see. First, are these people that are pushing the agnostic misunderstanding argument. They see it as being tied to Atheism, being that Atheism states belief, while agnosticism states knowledge.
Whenever I make mention of the false dichotomy presented here, I am pointed to these definitions. They assume that I am ignorant to Atheism, something that I find hilarious. Both because these people often have worse grammatical skills then me, which is apperently saying something (I have been told that I am a terrible writer in the past. Most often by fellow atheists). And because I have been in the mindset for around a decade (quietly for a few years, openly and discussing online for 5 or 6 years).
Its not that I don’t understand how many atheists interpret the word, and the corresponding philosophy. Its that I DISAGREE.
I disagree that the commonly utilized modern interpretation of atheism as defined, is all encompassing of the entire secular community. To quote Bill Maher, why is this even a thing?
It is one matter if a person has a flawed understanding of any of the terms involved, such as “I am agnostic because I don’t believe in any gods, but am certainly not an atheist!”. I have been presented such a scenario by an atheist in the past. In that case, I would agree that the person appears to have a flawed understanding of the terms, and does seem to be more Atheist then Agnostic. But its not my place to definitively tell that person what they are. Secularism and non-belief is a personal journey (or at least, SHOULD be), and its up to the individual to decide where they fit (or DON’T fit, in the case of people like NDT).
Its not like we have any evidence to guide the process. The whole of the secular community is in agreement that there likely is no god or deity, so enough said. All these games of semantics being played by Atheists in terms of said words definition is both unnecessary and stupid.
As stated before, it is completely fair to educate someone who has a false understanding of certain terminologies (namely Agnosticism and Atheism). But not everyone has that ignorance.
I know the definitions of both Atheism and Agnosticism, and how they work together in the stance that is Agnostic Atheist. I am well aware of these terms, because I applied them to myself for the better part of a decade or so.
I know how Henry Huxely apparently intended the term to be utilized (“it is not a creed”), and that this definition has shifted with time. I also know that Atheism used to be defined as “a belief that there is no god(s), or denial of the existence of god(s)”. This to has shifted over time to the current “lack of beliefs in god(s)”.
I mention this here, because I have presented this to some atheists that I have come across, who claimed my mentioning this was silly. Silly because, and I quote (well, paraphrase), “terminologies change over time”.
Yes. So Atheism as defined can shift to a less positive claim, but Agnosticism can not shift towards something that is more encompassing to some real world prospectives? Give me a break.
Its like an atheist responding to the definition of religion which includes “an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group” by saying something akin to “that should not even be part of the definition!” and claiming logical fallacy.
I know that you do not need a whole lot of education to be an atheist, or to be vocal in the atheist community. But FUCK, before you go around accusing others of practicing cookie cutter ideology and using logical fallacies like “moving the goalposts”, make sure that you are not also guilty of such fallacies.
Its great that you dumped the shackles of religion and have come to the side of reason. But don’t fall back into old habits, such as viewing the gray as black and white (“there is only atheism and theism! Nothing else!”).
That is not logic. That is just harmful semantics. Semantics that ends up just causing needless friction in the secular community, which in term takes energy away from what should be the focus, tackling religion and the harms it causes in society (and finding other ways to a better and more healthy future species and planet).
I often hear about how much of a bad name the atheist community has (particularly in the US). This is very unfortunate, but frankly, FUCK the Atheist community!
I don’t really give a fuck about how the Atheist community is perceived, but I do care a lot about how the secular community is perceived. Not to mention, while we all fight, the theists only continue to gain more power.
I went on another tangent there (I do apologize). I tend to do that when I get on the topic of Atheism, and secular issues. My natural inclination to absorb now information and see things in a new light brings things into prospective, but it often leads to nothing more then frustration, because “logical” people can’t see when they are blinded by ideology. But that is typical of many people, and something one grows used to after awhile (you have to, or you will go insane). Its when such people become so smug, arrogant and condescending that it makes one SO frustrated.
I know, you should not let faceless people get under your skin. But after being told that one is an unthinking and illogical moron by people that do little more then regurgitate ideology, the reaction eventually becomes FUCK YOU.
But anyway, the same accusations made of me (when it comes to the false dichotomy of Atheism / Theism) are also made towards Neil Degrasse Tyson. They assume that just because he uses the term “Agnostic” to describe himself, he does not “understand” Atheism. An amusing accusation, considering that many see him as highly respectable and intelligent in any other context (besides maybe in his stance on GMO foods, but thats a whole other ball of wax). But as soon as he is differing in terms of belief, he is WRONG.
Now, its true that only NDT can truly prove his fluency of such philosophies as those involved here. But by looking at various quotes of his floating around (and the Big Think video), I conclude that he has a fairly good grasp of what he is talking about. And as such, I do not find his choice to identify as an “Agnostic” all that questionable. Considering that there is also a connotation (“though I would prefer not to be in any category at all”).
Its not like he is alone. Carl Sagan and Charles Darwin were Agnostics. In fact, Sagan had one interesting thing to say about Atheism:
“An atheist has to know a lot more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no god. By some definitions atheism is very stupid.”
Another notable member of the secular community that identifies as Agnostic is Bill Nye.
The overall point of this post is, what flag you fly (or what t-shirt you wear) should not matter. All that matters, is that you dumped the shackles and crossed the aisle.
Atheist. Agnostic. Deist. Pastafarian. It does not matter. All that matters, is that we are focusing our collective energy where it is needed (fighting and beating back religion), and not pissing it away fighting amongst ourselves.
Since NDT is on the mind, I had previously heard an interesting accusation of quote “embellishment” on his part (apparently on multiple occasions). I had not really looked into it before, but did a quick search now.
It looks like the main source is this article (reblogged at link from The Federalist).
It does not really influence my view of him all that much, but its certainly something to consider.