Neil deGrasse Tyson, a long time ago now, annoyed a lot of people. He did this not by identifying as an agnostic, but by using it to entirely the side-step the issue of whether he is an atheist. Does he believe or not? Penn Jillette addressed this issue in his book God? No! where he argues that anyone who doesn’t know (i.e. is an agnostic) doesn’t believe (i.e. is an atheist). And I find it hard to perceive how Jillette might be wrong.
As it happens, agnosticism is not part of a spectrum between theism and atheism. If you have a belief in God you are a theist. If not, you’re an atheist. There is no middle ground there. Tyson, I think, annoyed people by making up what atheism is. Tyson, after bemoaning the title “atheist” because people append baggage to your worldview, decided an atheist is a person that gets into all the arguments. That is not what an atheist is.
Tyson has taken the idea of being considered an atheist so badly that he got into a re-edit war on Wikipedia that described him as an atheist. It is not just that he prefers to identify as an agnostic, it is that he denies being an atheist. But, surely, he’s both.
I wouldn’t mind if he was religious. He would be no less a science communicator, and no less an astrophysicist. But being an atheist and denying it is both annoying and strange. It’s strange because it’s a simple question: do you believe or not. It’s annoying because he’s making a conspicuous and conscious effort to not associate with a particular moment. But, by any functional definition, he is an atheist.
He could claim to be spiritual. And, so long as he added the addendum that he knew it wasn’t a scientific idea, that also would be fine. I also wouldn’t mind if he admitted that he was an agnostic atheist, but just preferred to identify as an agnostic. Perhaps he would prefer to identify as ‘open minded’ (agnostic) than what looks like having already made up your mind (atheist).
There are a lot of people who post “deepity” under the guise of agnosticism, or humbly brag that they are better than theists and atheists because they are agnostic, so I imagine that I’m going to get some angry responses to this. To pre-empt this I have some questions for people who want to argue:
- If you don’t know (i.e. are agnostic) don’t you necessarily not believe (i.e. aren’t you an atheist)?
- What are the identifying claims or conclusions, or what are the stances (and on what questions) of an agnostic?