Neil deGrasse Tyson
Director, Hayden Planetarium
03:48

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Atheist or Agnostic?

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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.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson was born and raised in New York City where he was educated in the public schools clear through his graduation from the Bronx High School of Science. Tyson went on to earn his BA in Physics from Harvard and his PhD in Astrophysics from Columbia.  He is the first occupant of the Frederick P. Rose Directorship of the Hayden Planetarium. His professional research interests are broad, but include star formation, exploding stars, dwarf galaxies, and the structure of our Milky Way. Tyson obtains his data from the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as from telescopes in California, New Mexico, Arizona, and in the Andes Mountains of Chile.Tyson is the recipient of nine honorary doctorates and the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal. His contributions to the public appreciation of the cosmos have been recognized by the International Astronomical Union in their official naming of asteroid "13123 Tyson".

Transcript

Neil deGrasse Tyson: I'm often asked – and occasionally in an accusatory way – “Are you atheist?”  And it’s like, you know, the only “ist” I am is a scientist, all right?  I don’t associate with movements.  I'm not an “ism.”  I just  - I think for myself.  The moment when someone attaches to a philosophy or a movement, then they assign all the baggage and all the rest of the philosophy that goes with it to you, and when you want to have a conversation they will assert that they already know everything important there is to know about you because of that association.  And that’s not the way to have a conversation.  I'm sorry.  It’s not.  I’d rather we explore each other’s ideas in real time rather than assign a label to it and assert, you know, what’s going to happen in advance.

So what people are really after is, what is my stance on religion or spirituality or God?  And I would say, if I find a word that came closest it would be agnostic.  Agnostic – the word dates from the 19th century – Huxley – to refer to someone who doesn’t know but hasn’t yet 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.

There are many atheists who say, “Well, all agnostics are atheists.”  Okay.  I'm constantly claimed by atheists.  I find this intriguing.  In fact, on my Wiki page – I didn’t create the Wiki page, others did, and I'm flattered that people cared enough about my life to assemble it – and it said, “Neil deGrasse is an atheist.”  I said, “Well that’s not really true.”  I said, “Neil deGrasse is an agnostic.”  I went back a week later.  It said, “Neil deGrasse is an atheist.” – again within a week – and I said, “What’s up with that?” and I said, “I have to word it a little differently.”  So I said, okay, “Neil deGrasse, widely claimed by atheists, is actually an agnostic.” 

And some will say, well, that’s – "You’re not being fair to the fact that they’re actually the same thing."  No, they’re not the same thing, and I'll tell you why.  Atheists I know who proudly wear the badge are active atheists.  They’re like in your face atheist and they want to change policies and they’re having debates.  I don’t have the time, the interest, the energy to do any of that.  I'm a scientist.  I'm an educator.  My goal is to get people thinking straight in the first place, just get you to be curious about the natural world.  That’s what I'm about.  I'm not about any of the rest of this.  

And it’s odd that the word atheist even exists.  I don’t play golf.  Is there a word for non-golf players?  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 don’t—I can’t do that.  I can’t gather around and talk about how much everybody in the room doesn’t believe in God.  I just don’t—I don’t have the energy for that, and so I . . . Agnostic separates me from the conduct of atheists whether or not there is strong overlap between the two categories, and at the end of the day I’d rather not be any category at all. 

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd

 

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