Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, for the benefit of any readers who haven’t heard of him (both of you), is one of today’s premier science educators and advocates.  He has a long and distinguished record both as a scientist and an educator and speaker, which you can read about on his linked Wikipedia page.  He is a protege of and considered by many, myself included, to be the worthy heir to the late, great Dr. Carl Sagan.  (Do you really need a link for him?)

Back in April he posted a video to YouTube in which he spoke about a bit of a controversy he’s been dragged into, specifically whether he is an atheist.  Dr. Tyson makes it clear that he prefers not to be labeled as an atheist, or anything else for that matter.

He’s taken some flak for this around the web, and while Dr. Tyson certainly doesn’t need me to defend him before I deliver my take on this let me make this perfectly clear: Dr. Tyson has an unconditional prerogative to pick his battles.  Life is short and we all have a finite amount of time and energy to devote to the causes we are passionate about.  If he feels that wearing the label of “atheist” will drag him into a fight he doesn’t have a dog in then he’s perfectly free to refuse it.

I understand his decision; I even support it.  I just don’t agree with it.

Dr. Tyson makes threee major points, I think, which I will address out of order.

Are Agnostics Really Atheists?

The short answer is “yes”.  The long answer is, well, long.

An atheist is a person who does not believe in any gods.  That’s it.  The extent of that disbelief is immaterial.  It is by no means necessary for a person to declare that he KNOWS FOR CERTAIN THERE IS NO GOD for him to be an atheist, and I personally have never encountered anyone calling himself an atheist who has said or implied that he believed anything so silly.  We don’t know anything for certain.  At a certain level of philosophical discourse we don’t know that the sun will not rise in the west tomorrow.  However, the vast majority of the human race does not, in the course of their daily lives, waste any of their brain power seriously considering that possibility.  People, at least those who think about such things, understand that all knowledge is provisional and every belief no matter how strongly held must remain open to re-evaluation in the face of new evidence.  The qualifying philosophical boilerplate that needs to be attached to every statement is taken as read, because if we were actually explicit about it we’d never get anything done.

An atheist doesn’t have to be someone who thinks he has a proof that there can’t be a god. He only has to be someone who believes that the evidence on the God question is at a similar level to the evidence on the werewolf question.  — John McCarthy, Agnostics and Atheists

Where does this leave agnostics?  Conventional wisdom in the atheist community is that agnosticism as Huxley originally defined it represents the belief that the existence of a god or gods is fundamentally undecidable; that it is impossible for humans to determine.  Having not read Huxley I can’t confirm that, and I don’t think it’s a tenable position in any case.  God, as believed by the vast majority, is all-powerful.  An all-powerful being can, indeed, make its existence indisputably known.  Even a “lesser” deity, e.g. Zeus, should have sufficient power as to be able to belt some sense into a skeptic at will.  If you don’t believe this, then you believe in a god or gods that are less powerful than a garden-variety smartass.

Back in the day on alt.atheism we used to distinguish between “weak atheists”, those who state “I don’t believe in any gods” and “strong atheists”, those who state “I believe gods don’t exist”.  These statements may not be distinguishable to those not of a philosophical bent but they are very different.  The weak atheist asserts nothing and thus incurs no burden of proof.  He simply considers the opposing arguments to be not proven.  Strong atheists have a much harder row to hoe because they are making an assertion, to wit, that over the entire set of things that exist there are no members that possess the qualities ascribed to god or gods.  This is where the unwary atheist can inadvertently wade into the waters of dogmatism, as we can’t even begin to examine the entire domain of discourse to verify that the entities in question aren’t present.  I.e., if I wish to assert that “no crows are white” I would have to round up every crow that ever has or ever will exist and demonstrate that none of them are white.  Since crows are as susceptible to albinism as pretty much any other animal I’d lose that wager.  Contrariwise, to assert “some crows are white” I have the much easier task of searching the world for one of the aforementioned albino crows (or let Google do it for me) and when I find one, I can stop.  Gods have the annoying habit of dwelling in inaccessible places (heaven, Olympus, Valhalla, etc.) and often lack definition.  The strong atheist has to be more cagey, going after the advocated deity on the grounds of (e.g.) inconsistent qualities or contrary historical evidence.  A good strong atheist, and I count myself as one in specific cases, when asked if he believes in god will immediately shoot back “which one?” and proceed from there.  Either the theist will commit himself to a definition of his god that can be refuted on, if you will, statutory grounds, or he will cling to the safety of a more nebulous and vague position that can be safely dismissed with the weak-atheist position.  (Just to clarify, I am a strong atheist with regard to the particular claims of certain religions, specifically including the Abrahamic ones, and a weak atheist with regard to others and with regard to the idea of god, gods, or other such supernatural beings in general.)

In modern parlance most people when describing themselves as agnostics are taking a position that is essentially the same as weak atheism.  They don’t believe in god or gods but they’re not willing to assert such do not exist.  However, as the alt.atheism FAQ used to say, “words are slippery; if you want to know what someone believes you should ask him”.  This brings us back to Dr. Tyson’s points about what it means to accept a label and whether or not such labels should exist.

Are self-described atheists “militant”?

That rather depends on the atheist.

It certainly seems that people who call themselves atheists tend to be, as Dr. Tyson asserts, “in your face” about it.  But is this only a perception?

There’s a phenomenon I’ve heard described as “the accountant problem”.  (More academic readers will recognize this as an instance of the type I/type II error distinction; this is a more digestible form).  Accounting, as a field of study, is considered boring by most people.  Accountants, of course, typically find it interesting, otherwise they’d probably not be accountants.  Most of them are savvy enough to know not to discuss their work with non-accountants.  They probably won’t even tell people they meet in casual circumstances that they are accountants.  Some are sufficiently clueless in social matters as to regale anyone they can corner at a party with their recent exploits, usually causing their victims to gnaw off one of their own limbs in an attempt to escape.  The result is that for most people, the majority of those whom they know are accountants are boring, and thus accountants are considered by most to be boring people.  This is, of course, untrue and unfair.

Atheists, at least in contemporary America, face a similar problem.  The only atheists the average American ever hears from are activist atheists writing books about god being a delusion and starting lawsuits against the Pledge of Allegiance or whatnot.  He’s probably acquainted with a few atheists but doesn’t know it because the topic never comes up.  The result is that for most people, atheists are unhappy rude jerks who want to make religion illegal.  It’s certainly understandable why someone might not want to be seen that way.  I do have to wonder, though, just how much currency Dr. Tyson gets by not calling himself an atheist.  Is there really a creationist group meeting somewhere with people saying “Yes, Neil deGrasse Tyson is lecturing against intelligent design and encouraging young minds to embrace reason over superstition, but at least he’s not an atheist!”

On the other hand, the reaction from the atheist community itself doesn’t bear close examination.  Looking around the web (links not provided, you can see for yourself via Google if you’re interested) atheists on various sites have expressed varying degrees of disapproval over this video.  This is despite the fact that to the extent that atheism has a legitimate “cause”, Dr. Tyson is doing a bang-up job of supporting it.  Yet atheists themselves reacted to the label, or lack thereof, rather than to his actual beliefs and works.  It would certainly be ironic if atheists were reacting to Dr. Tyson’s self-description while creationists were looking at what he actually does and says.

So why even have “atheists”?

Dr. Tyson notes, paraphrasing a bit, that we don’t have “agolfists” going to meetings to talk about not playing golf.  He asks why we have organized “atheists”, why we don’t just eschew labels and not judge people by what they call themselves.

Well, that might be a nice idea, but it’s simply not the world we live in.  Unfortunately, while no one really cares whether or not you play golf, a lot of people still care about whether or not you believe in god, specifically theirs. There are still parts of America where it is not safe to admit you are an atheist in public.  Being seen as an atheist can cost you employment or business opportunities.  It can cost you friendships — someone I knew, upon hearing me say I am an atheist, blurted out “but how can you be an atheist?  You’re so smart!?!”  You can imagine how that went over.

I hate to use this meme, tired and trite as it is, but if we say we’re not atheists the bad guys win.  The Religious Reich (sic) has a vested interest in maintaining the public’s perception of atheists as a bunch of morose haters.  They want atheists to be seen, culturally, as a bunch of amoral (or outright immoral) pseudo-intellectual nihilists.  They’re going to maintain that portrayal regardless of whether or not people who don’t believe in god call themselves “atheists”.  I’m pretty sure, in fact, that we didn’t invent the word; it was applied to us as an insult.  The activist atheists, sadly, play into the stereotype.  That means the moderates have to step up if there’s going to be any chance of changing minds.  Not to convince people to become atheists — you can’t, they have to get there on their own — but to overcome prejudice.  This is unfortunately a too-common dynamic in America over many issues.  The extremists on both sides are the only ones talking because the moderates are all scurrying for cover.

So, while I can understand while Dr. Tyson might want to direct his energies elsewhere, for whatever infinitesimal good it may do I am willing to call myself an atheist.