I am now listening to a Point of Inquiry podcast interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson (dated Feb. 28, 2011). In the interview, Dr. Tyson expressed discomfort with the way that he has been characterized as an Atheist, presumably by some individuals who want to associate him with their own agendas. Dr. Tyson states that he would prefer to associate his public persona with strictly scientific subjects; he does not want to engage in debates about religion. He therefore asks to be described as an Agnostic, not an Atheist. I fully support the Dr. Tyson’s right to self-describe his point of view on religion, however I am disturbed by his stated reasons for this description:
I’m widely claimed by the Atheist movement, but it’s just not a part of my public persona…. There are philosophers who want to debate me about my saying that I’m an Atheist rather than an Agnostic because they want to claim that its the same thing. You could read definitions of words, but at the end of the day its how people behave who associate themselves with those words that define what the word is. So if you look at the conduct of Atheists in modern times, that conduct does not represent my conduct, pure and simple. I just don’t behave that way. I don’t cross off the word “God” from every dollar bill that comes in my possession…. There’s got to be some other word for people like me, and Agnostic seems to fill that role.
In this statement, Dr. Tyson has engaged in unfortunate stereotyping of those who self-identify as Atheists. Even worse, Dr. Tyson seems to define his point of view on the basis of stereotyping others. A very large number of individuals identify as Atheists for a variety of reasons. Certainly there is some number of unreasonable or unpleasant people who identify as such. For me, and for every Atheist I know, we choose this word to describe ourselves because of what it means, not because of any behavioral or cultural associations.
It is perfectly fine for Dr. Tyson to express disinterest in religious questions, and accordingly it is his right to self-identify as Agnostic. But it is not appropriate to repeat unfair caricatures about the behavior of Atheists generally. I am an Atheist, not an Agnostic, because I am actively interested in religious topics and I have a well-defined point of view on the existence of (G/g)od(s).
Every person has a right to self-describe their religious and philosophical point of view, and deserves the presumption that their point of view is reasonable until found to be otherwise. I encourage Dr. Tyson to find better ways of explaining his point of view, just as Atheists are often encouraged to do.
P.S. I do believe that there is no semantic difference between an Atheist and an Agnostic. I welcome any proposals to the contrary, but it seems that Agnostics identify as such mainly out of a social desire to avoid certain types of conversation. This seems consistent with Dr. Tyson’s use of the word.