Neil deGrasse Tyson Avoids the Word “Atheist”

Neil deGrasse Tyson is a prominent American astrophysicist, author and science communicator. Tyson  was the first occupant of the Hayden Planetarium’s Frederick P. Rose Directorship, located within the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City which is part of the American Museum of Natural History.  No matter the fact that Tyson does not believe in anything supernatural, he has always had a weird relationship with the word “atheist” and he doesn’t call himself an atheist. Many times he stated that the only “ist” he wants to be is a “scientist”.

What are the reasons behind Tyson’s refusal to identify as an atheist? One of the reasons is that this term might alienate the very people he wants to reach and he wants to be a neutral communicator who can appeal to everybody. According to Openculture.com, Tyson stated that "The moment when someone attaches you 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 that there is to know about you because of that association. And that's not the way to have a conversation."  He even tried to edit Wikipedia's entry on him to include the fact that he is an agnostic, also stating that he doesn’t like one-word labels and that he'd rather not be any category at all.

Other reason is that he doesn’t want to be associated with some of the most prominent atheists out there. According to Patheos, Tyson gave this explanation in the latest episode of the Joe Rogan Experience: “You can look up the dictionary definition of atheists, and it kind of applies to me. But what is the definition of atheist in practice? It is what leading atheists do, and it’s their conduct, and it’s their behavior, and it’s what they say, and it’s their attitude. That is what an atheist is today. Because they’re the most visible exemplars of that word. And most of their conduct, I either don’t agree with or simply don’t engage in.”

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Tyson statements made it clear that he doesn’t believe in God, certainly not in the way traditional religious people do and that makes him an atheist whether he likes it or not. Avoiding the term is his choice, but some atheists believe he should be aware that the same logic he uses with the word “atheist” can be used on any word which refers to a group of people. We can also ask ourselves what is the definition of scientist in practice? Is that what leading scientists do: their conduct, behavior, what they say and their attitude?

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