Neil deGrasse Tyson Explains Why He’s Uncomfortable Being Labeled an ‘Atheist’

The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould famously said that science and religion are “nonoverlapping magisteria”:

The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.

But science and religion, as it is widely practiced, do overlap. They both make specific claims about the nature and history of the Universe. Some religionists do indeed make claims about the age of rocks.

Given the obvious overlap, it’s not surprising that scientists–particularly those who work in the most fundamental and general of fields, like physics and cosmology–are often asked for their views on religion. In this short video from Big Think, astrophysicist and popular science writer Neil deGrasse Tyson explains why he is loathe to take sides on the issue, and why he dislikes the word “atheist.”

“The moment when someone attaches you to a philosophy or a movement,” says Tyson, “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 that there is to know about you because of that association. And that’s not the way to have a conversation.”

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  1. jerry says . . . | April 29, 2013 / 1:07 pm

    Neil, no such thing as antigolfer, antiskier. Maybe its easier to maintain your cadre and a larger ‘friend list’ if you do not commit to atheism, but you have been on the A side for some time, per your debates and speeches. You’re not mainstream and that’s not a bad thing. Even, Benjamin Franklin in his early years (1725), questioned a deist form of philosophy and only remained neutral to not totally upset those quakers and closed minded theist of his day but to not alienate those who would bring his printing business more business. Neil, do you really have to cowtow to the theist…? You’re definitely not an Agnostic… not likely you’ll see this but…

  2. Jessi says . . . | April 29, 2013 / 1:27 pm

    Jerry, are you really trying to tell a guy (especially someone as intelligent as Neil deGrasse Tyson) what he believes?

  3. Phillip E. Banks says . . . | April 29, 2013 / 5:06 pm

    Jerry proves the doctor’s point, exactly. He has already ascribed attitudes to Dr. Tyson that he may not even hold; he has assumed that, because Dr. Tyson doesn’t believe in “the big man in the sky” that he can/should be pigeon-holed with the baggage that accompanies that philosophy.

  4. joan says . . . | April 29, 2013 / 6:36 pm

    i agree so fully w/NDGT.

    it is not about -not believing- in a deity.
    it is about just living,being… w/out the thought of a ‘deity’, or ‘god’, or whatever terminology is chosen to be utilized, even coming in to my thought process.
    at all. period. that’s it. non-issue on a personal level.
    does that make me an ‘atheist’? yes, probably.
    does that make me a secular humanist? yeah.

    i go with the term ‘non-theist’, if i have to ‘pick one’.

    NDGT rocks.

  5. Pseudonym says . . . | April 29, 2013 / 9:21 pm

    I agree with joan, except for one nit which I think I have to pick.

    The title “secular humanist” does imply a philosophy which carries with it an explicit buy-in. It’s very much more than the absence of belief in deities (which is the dictionary definition of “atheism”) or absence of worry or concern about whether or not deities exist.

  6. ExTexan says . . . | April 30, 2013 / 1:32 am

    I love this man as a scientist, but disagree with his portrayal of atheist. He uses the example of a golf enthusiast that don’t push their game on others. They also don’t attempt to force schools to teach about golf over other sports. Theists are actively trying to force their religious beliefs to be taught as science in schools when it clearly is religion, not science. As long as the activist Christians try to force schools to teach Creationism or Intelligent Design, the same thing, in public schools we will continue to speak out loudly against such practice.

  7. Alex says . . . | April 30, 2013 / 2:40 am

    jerry has obviously missed the point entirely.

  8. Adam says . . . | April 30, 2013 / 5:27 am

    Most people have their own views on religion and atheism, and if you say you are one or the other, apply all their views on that to you – including all their misconceptions.
    For example, some people see all Christians as bible bashing people who only do nice things to try and impress God but in reality hate all non-Christians (or that you have to), and some people think to be an athiest you hate Christians (or that you have to), and that religion and science cannot mix, therefore one has to be wrong etc.
    @ExTexan, don’t confuse a small loud minority with the silent majority of Christains who either don’t care about the issue or understand that the two different creation accounts in Genesis are actually parables, and its silly to think both are literal truth, in the same way its silly to believe that the Earth is flat, just because people in biblical times thought that was the case.

  9. El Tiburón says . . . | April 30, 2013 / 6:58 am

    Neil is like my old atheist friends who lead normal, natural, rational lives but don’t actively profess to be atheists.

    A lot of new atheists seem too focused on not believing and care too much about mocking spiritual people.

  10. Adam Langton says . . . | April 30, 2013 / 7:59 am

    Sure, we don’t have a word for people who don’t golf, but we do have a word for people who don’t eat animal products–vegan. Why? Because it remains the cultural norm to consume animal products and as such one would be presumed to do so unless referred to as ‘vegan.’
    Tyson can be as funny and flippant as he likes, but it remains the cultural norm to believe in a deity or subscribe to a world religion. We use ‘atheist’ for the same reason as ‘vegan.’

  11. Steve Grob says . . . | April 30, 2013 / 8:07 am

    While there may be a lack of words to describe non-golfers and non-skiers, there is a word to describe a non-surfer: HODADDY.

    I love that word. And as I myself don’t surf, I suppose you can call me one, although I’d love to learn to surf one day. So, please, don’t categorize me.

  12. Neil deGrasse Tyson says . . . | April 30, 2013 / 9:01 am

    Thanks for your collective interest in my BigThink interview. A point I neglected to make, but gurgled up in this thread, is that you object to the infusion of religion in the science class – a problem we don’t experience with golfers or surfers (other than via cultural pressures to partake in these sports). But allow me to suggest that when you object to religion in the science classroom, you’re doing so not because it’s religion, but because it’s not science. Leaving me to hope that you’d be on the front lines if **any** non-science world view tried to infiltrate.

    Respectfully Submitted
    Neil deGrasse Tyson, New York City

  13. Mike says . . . | April 30, 2013 / 9:43 am

    It couldn’t have been said any better. Athiests are active in pushing their agenda. So active that I’ve unfollowed many of them on twitter. I don’t believe in god but I don’t need to constantly blab about it.

  14. may says . . . | April 30, 2013 / 1:27 pm

    Well said Mr.Degrasse ..

  15. Preston says . . . | April 30, 2013 / 3:34 pm

    That old tree of knowledge…

  16. Alan Hoshor says . . . | April 30, 2013 / 7:29 pm

    I’m an atheist and have no criticism of Tyson’s entirely rational viewpoint. But then I’m more of a frivolous old atheist than a militant “new atheist.”

  17. Daniel says . . . | April 30, 2013 / 7:31 pm

    I think it might be worth pointing out the extent to which Mr. Tyson’s field of astrophysics was itself developed in opposition to Church doctrine. Galileo was not the only scientist to shake up the Church’s view of the world. Paying close attention to physical phenomena tends to put you at odds with official stories, the church’s or otherwise.

    I love Mr. Tyson’s presence as an explainer and popularizer for science, but ducking the religious debate puts him in false opposition to atheists when the real question is how he reconciles his beliefs with the dominant culture’s God, not whether he accepts a particular vein of political opposition to that divinity.

  18. Dan Colman says . . . | April 30, 2013 / 8:13 pm

    Thanks Neil for stopping by and chiming in. Really appreciate that.

    On a separate note, does anyone know which Facebook page just highlighted this post?

    Cheers,
    Dan (editor)

  19. Susan Ferguson says . . . | April 30, 2013 / 8:23 pm

    Labelling yourself as a atheist can have pretty serious consequences depending on what part of the world you’re from. In some places like Pakistan or Indonesia you could face imprisonment or the death penalty for violating blasphemy laws. To label yourself as “non-religious” is not the same as saying you’re “not a golfer”. Being atheist, professing a non-belief in god is something that you are, not something that you do. And is something so powerful that there are people who will risk their lives for believing in it. It’s also a pretty tired argument a lot of religious people use to play down atheism. As for the “in your face” atheists. I have yet to meet an atheist who harasses people in airports, bus stations or goes knocking on people’s doors to “spread the good word”. I don’t see many hateful atheists protesting funerals or disrupting church services because they don’t like what people are saying inside. (Like some religious people tried to do at the Reason Rally in Washington DC last year).

  20. Mike Springer says . . . | April 30, 2013 / 9:36 pm

    Daniel,
    I don’t think Tyson has entirely ducked the debate. In his comment above he puts a sharper point on what he sees as the issue. It isn’t only the religious extremists who try to block scientific progress and infiltrate the science classroom. Just think of climate change, and the political and economic powers working to suppress scientific evidence in that area.

  21. Tim says . . . | May 1, 2013 / 3:56 am

    It’s multiple choise, you are either;

    A someone who believes in god or gods
    B someone who doesn’t
    C somoeone who thinks there might be

    So Tyson is B but not an atheist because that would put him alongside other atheists that he doesn’t want to be associated with because they are a movement that he want’s no part of. Thanks for the insult!

  22. elizabeth woodside says . . . | May 1, 2013 / 6:16 am

    Neil is logical and articulate. I was raised by a scientist and an artist. Both fields are dependent upon observation for success; yet each found a need for prayer and belief. Evidence born of human exploration is compatible with the spirit.

  23. Kevin says . . . | May 4, 2013 / 10:54 pm

    Thanks to the few athiests on this thread that manage to put NDGT down for his personal views and for labeling all christians and athiests with broad strokes.

    Science and Religion look at the world and universe with different perspectives. There are billions of people in this world with different life experiences and a unique world view.

    Don’t force your view on others instead sit back, listen and share. This is where Science and Religion are have a common thread, it’s called perspective. In Science we do not try to bring pre-conceived or emotional notions to the table while studying and discovering. In Religion we should always avoid bringing pre-conceived notion of others and their beliefs as we meet and interact, to do so would not allow us to see the greatness of the person in front of us.

    To reduce Scientists, Atheists, Religious and “Unlabeled” people to a narrow categorization overlooks the complex beauty of our Universe and Life.

  24. Denny says . . . | May 27, 2013 / 7:43 pm

    How about respect others opinions like them or not? I’m a Christian. Neil seems like a cool dude. Agree to disagree and move on to something else.

  25. Shea says . . . | May 28, 2013 / 8:44 am

    I know I am late to the party, but this is where you’ve annoyed me, Neil. I am an atheist, and I am not an activist. I have friends who are both atheist and agnostic, and none of them are activists. I follow a few Facebook atheist pages, and they are run by a couple of small groups of activists, but the majority of the followers and those commenting? Just regular folks. So you see, your conflating the term atheist with activist is a misunderstanding on your part. You are doing to atheists the very thing that you said you don’t like people to do to you – assuming things about people who proudly call themselves atheist and sticking to your assumption. Funny, that. Oh, and of course you know that there are different types of atheists, as there are different types of agnostics. The majority of atheists aren’t so wedded to their non-belief that they would rigidly deny evidence to the contrary and have no interest in things we can’t see or things that are currently beyond our understanding. Just like you, I change my position on things as the evidence shows me what’s true, and I have nothing against the search. Maybe you just know a lot of atheists in your field who are rigid jerks? Please stop using your beautiful and respected mind to negatively and incorrectly label others as you fear would be done to you.

  26. C. Michael Turner says . . . | May 28, 2013 / 3:07 pm

    If you choose to believe in “no God” in the creation of the universe, then you are faced with a violation of the fundamental laws of physics, a perpetual energy creation machine. The universe has a beginning, it has matter that follows set laws, and it is finite. Without an infinate number of universes existing, one universe prearranged to allow us to exist seems obvious that a plan was set in motion. If you have a problem with that, you will never understand the plan…
    One universe three dimensions
    The elements come in three forms for life to exist, solid, liquid and gas, and exist as protons, neutrons and electrons. Protons and Neutrons break apart to how many quarks each?
    Seems like the beginnings of an obvious plan with a master planner who shows his relationship to himself in all of the universe, from big to small.

  27. Zane says . . . | August 4, 2013 / 2:03 am

    As an agnostic myself, I appreciate the way Tyson has dedicated himself to objectivity. That’s the code any self-respecting scientist should live by, anyway. Part of why he’s trying to distance himself from the “atheist” label has to do with the condescending and (ironically) proselytizing manner in which others act who carry the same banner. That’s not to overgeneralize – that would go against objectivity – but enough atheists act so aggressively that it becomes a stereotype. That being said, I have atheist friends who are totally cool, tolerant, and non-judgemental, as I’m sure some of you reading this are. Another point I’d like to address is the “agnostics are just atheists without balls” argument – if you believe that, you are mistaken. Like Tim above, you may have fallen for the false dilemma fallacy. There really is nothing tying your hands together forcing you to choose between extreme viewpoints. Thank you, Mr. Tyson, for being a bastion of rationality and moderation.

  28. Cory says . . . | August 16, 2013 / 4:25 am

    You can claim to be “agnostic” all day long, but at the end of the day, you are either a theist or not, you either believe or not. If you do not believe, then you are an atheist. It is not a title, it is not a “label,” it is not inherently a movement, it is a description. Yes, there are those who carry the word like a title, and there are those who push an anti-religion agenda, but this does not encompass all of atheism. Dr. Tyson lacks a belief of a deity, by his own admission, and that makes him an atheist, regardless if he accepts the description or not (this is similar to creationists claiming they are not part of the primate family, just because they don’t want to be in the “category” does not mean they are not.) If you want to be an agnostic, then you have to not know what you believe. Sorry Dr. Tyson, while I respect you immensely, on this, I will stand next to the statement that you are very wrong in your assessment.

  29. MS Kati says . . . | August 19, 2013 / 3:51 am

    Cory, you are missing several points entirely. First, Mr. Tyson has stated that he does not like being called an Atheist not because he does not believe in their viewpoint, but because he dislikes the other associations with the word and associations with words in general. He doesn’t want to be associated with the movement, even if the description is apt. Second, Agnostics are typically those that theoretically believe a deity could exist, but do not believe in any currently worshiped deity; this is unlike the Atheist who is thought to believe in a wholly deity-less universe. Finally, Mr. Tyson is stating his opinion on the matter of being labelled, leaving no factual statement for him to be “very wrong” about.

    In short, you may not have given this comment the proper amount of thought.

  30. roger says . . . | August 22, 2013 / 7:50 pm

    To believe or not to believe and be associated is the topic…let us all be mindful that whatever or whomever you decide to give thought too, there are endless possibilities above us all that can’t be measured.

  31. UJ Kim says . . . | October 1, 2013 / 11:33 am

    “Atheist” is an unnecessary term, because it is the default. You don’t call healthy person non-patient or healthy condition a-disease. “Patient” and “disease” are enough. Therefore, “theism” and “theist” are enough.

  32. mela says . . . | October 3, 2013 / 11:10 am

    That’s too bad you don’t give God a chance. I dare you to.

  33. Dain Q. Gore says . . . | October 13, 2013 / 2:46 pm

    Not sure how not wanting to be labelled is an insult.

  34. skylights says . . . | October 29, 2013 / 1:22 pm

    No. The law of conservation of energy states that energy is neither created nor destroyed. Again: Energy is never created — it only changes form. All the energy of the universe was contained in the singularity before the Big Bang.

  35. skylights says . . . | October 29, 2013 / 1:27 pm

    It’s too bad you don’t give atheism a chance. I dare you to. Start by reading a good book debunking god, such as The Portable Atheist.

  36. Sachi Mohanty says . . . | November 19, 2013 / 8:21 am

    The baggage of atheism is clearly less than that of religion.nnnIf you choose to make clear that you are not an atheist, then religious types and God-believers will claim you as one of theirs.nnnThe choice is up to us to decide whether we wish to be ‘mis-understood’ as ‘religious believers’ or ‘atheists.’nnnI think it’s incumbent upon Dr. Tyson to make it clear that he does not believe in the God of the Old or New Testament or Quoran or the Hindu scriptures.nnnI think it’s simpler to just say ‘I am an atheist.’nnn:-)

  37. Sachi Mohanty says . . . | November 19, 2013 / 8:24 am

    That is a ‘good idea’ but we are yet to reach that stage of evolution of the human species.nnnWe live in a time and a civilization where more than 90% of people are believers.nnnI can talk confidently about India where that percentage is more than 95 or 99.nnnIt’s therefore incumbent upon me to make it clear that I do not subscribe to the religion of my parents.nnnEverybody else in my society does.nnnSo, the label of ‘atheist’ is a proud and necessary one as of now.nnnMay be not so in Europe.nnn:-)

  38. Sachi Mohanty says . . . | November 19, 2013 / 8:25 am

    Agree.

  39. Joe says . . . | December 17, 2013 / 3:20 pm

    I put it this way, NDT dislikes being labeled an atheist, and he has every right to deny the label. But he does not hold a belief in any god currently. So people aren’t wrong when they label him an atheist anyway. An agnostic in the case of the question of existence of god(s) is someone who doesn’t claim to know if a deity exists. If a person, even an agnostic holds a belief in a god(s), then they are a theist, if they lack such a belief they are an atheist. You can be agnostic and either atheist or theist. Agnostic isn’t a neutral third option, it is a stance on a different question altogether.

  40. Michele Plotts says . . . | January 12, 2014 / 6:21 pm

    Excellent interview. I understand your point as to not labeling yourself.

  41. Greg says . . . | January 31, 2014 / 11:39 pm

    I’m laughing really hard reading some of these responses. Some of you are still attempting to rationalize simple logic here. To say “You either believe or you don’t, either you’re a theist or atheist,” misses the point entirely. Look, I was raised in a baptist church, but I don’t believe. I don’t really like the term atheist either, simply because I don’t like any title that makes folks automatically stereotype or lump me into a group with all sorts of preconceived notions. At the end of the day, I really don’t care what you think of me, but I’d like to be really clear, I have no religion or affiliation, I’m just simply me. Funny how some so quickly are willing to say “Be yourself” and then add a little subtext in fine print that says (as long as being yourself puts you into one of our presorted and organized categories so we can file you with like people, and not have to actually get to know you as an individual). For those of you that have watched South Park, it’s like an episode where Stan joins the little ‘goth’ kids. He asks what he has to do to be goth, and one of the goth kids, who are so obsessed with non-conformity, tell him he has to do everything they do, i.e. listen to the same music, dress the same way, talk and act the same. You folks arguing over a title are doing the same thing. Really, a lot of you are pseudo-intellectual at best.

  42. Xeriscape says . . . | March 16, 2014 / 9:41 pm

    I perfectly respect Dr. Tyson’s desire not to adopt a label. Think of it in terms of political ideology: I support many left/progressive causes/issues, but I design to call myself a “liberal,” NOT because certain people consider it a pejorative word, but because it limits my views. If there were, say, one conservative issue that I would support because I felt strongly about it for some reason, I wouldn’t want anyone to assume what my viewpoint. I’d much rather think for myself than merely follow what others have already thought.

    Another issue, and one that no one seems to bring up, is the fact that atheism is such a predominantly white movement (let’s face it, people…it is) and that Dr. Tyson, as a person of color, might rightfully not feel comfortable with the cultural aspects of that. Just sayin’.

  43. Sayuri Kirin says . . . | March 27, 2014 / 1:42 am

    I am a Christian (really I like to call myself, an “open-minded Christian”

    And I really like this man Neil DeGrasse. And like him, I hate it when people are labeled and then JUDGED on those labels. Atheists can be just as guilty as Christians and other religions of judging others.

    I’ve noticed many scientists are afraid to say they are of a particular faith in due to it immediately labeling them so others can judge them.

    Scientists do not want the dead albatross hanging around their necks that is theism. They want their work to be enjoyed and thought-provoking and influential to others. Work that could speak to anyone.

    I applaud the Carl G. Jung for stepping forward and declare his belief in God. I don’t know how he did it. I always had a fascination of both him and Freud. And Freud was an Atheist. And he declared his belief in atheism strongly. Even though I am a Christian, I could care less if he believed or didn’t. Freud’s and Jung’s ideas I love to ponder upon. I love science, I love psychology, I love pondering over good and evil.

    I feel in my heart, that existence itself will clearly never be fully comprehended by human beings. I believe that existence leads to to infinite dimensions, other intelligent life, parallels from this dimension to other dimensions we can’t see. I myself had a run in from something from another dimension. And it spooked the hell out of me. Beings that can infiltrate from their dimension to ours malevolent or benevolent.

    There is nothing wrong with someone saying they feel like they’re agnostic. I know a lot of people that are. I understand where they are coming from.

    Christians (other religions) as atheists need to stop the hypocritical judging of others. All in all it makes you look like the ignorant, not the one you are judging of ignorance.

  44. Sayuri Kirin says . . . | March 27, 2014 / 2:03 am

    Also I want to point out that I don’t believe everything in the Bible. I just can’t. And I honestly don’t care if people say I’m a “lukewarm Christian” and that I’m not a true Christian because I don’t 100% agree with the Bible. As aforementioned, I DON’T care about the opinions of others because of this.

    Oh and the username that began with “X” let’s not make this a race thing. That has got to be one of the most retarded and RACIST things I’ve ever read. Think about it!

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