Mar 12, 2014

How the atheist movement lost America's most famous scientist

As Hurricane Sandy bore down on the East Coast with winds of 100 miles per hour, power lines went down and, like the flip of a switch, New York City's lights went out. Neil deGrasse Tyson, perhaps America's most popular promoter of science today, gathered his family in their dark Manhattan apartment.

He got a flashlight.

He got a Bible.

He began to read:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
Recalling the moment from 2012, Tyson said he read from the beginning of the book of Genesis "to fill the spirit of the air." It's an example, he said, of how he doesn't conform to the popular perception of an atheist. It's an example of how he doesn't fall in line with New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, or fit with the atheist movement, as a movement, even though parts of that movement have actively tried to claim him.

Tyson recently went on a podcast devoted to skepticism, Rationally Speaking, to talk about that "land grab" to claim him ideologically for atheism, and why he resists being called an atheist.

A widely popular advocate for science -- on TV talk shows, popular comedies, and in DC comics, on YouTubenow his own TV show, at his day job at the Hayden Planetarium, and seemingly anywhere else he goes -- Neil deGrasse Tyson is by far America's most famous scientist. And he's been particularly popular with those who see science as triumphant over religion. To the point that they feel a certain sense of ownership.

This became especailly evident last year. Wikipedia editors wouldn't let Tyson change his entry to say he wasn't an atheist and then when he did speak publicly and disavowed atheism, some atheists were very upset. Hemant Mehta said Tyson "just doesn't get it," and accused him of buying the bad arguments of Christian apologists. Jacob Fortin called Tyson an intellectual coward. Noah Lugeons said Tyson was being dishonest. Russell Glasser said he was needlessly belittling the movement.

Tyson is unmoved. He's not a part of that movement, and doesn't want to be claimed. He doesn't call himself an atheist and doesn't want to be called one either.

That doesn't mean he should be mistaken for a theist, however. Asked directly about the existence of God, Tyson told the hosts of Rationally Speaking, "I remain unconvinced by any claims anyone has ever made about the existence or the power of a divine force operating in the universe."

To him, however, remaining unconvinced is not the same thing as being an atheist.

Atheism is a label, according to Tyson, and as that label is used in America today, it refers to a movement. That movement, notably, is marked by certain sorts of public advocacy that Tyson isn't interested in. And it's marked by its opposition to common cultural practice, such as reading from the book of Genesis when a storm knocks out all the lights in Manhattan or wishing "God speed" to an astronaut about to leave earth. Tyson cited criticism of his use of "God speed" as pivotal to his decision to distance himself from the label "atheist."

Tyson said:
All the sudden I can't use 'God speed'? They're telling me how to behave . . .  You can say 'atheist' has this really simple definition -- that you strongly doubt or feel pretty confident that there's no god in the world or anywhere in the universe -- and fine. If that's all it is, and I say I'm an atheist, then why does someone tell me what words I should or shouldn't use? Why does someone then want to fight me with expectations of what that words should mean when applied to an individual? 
I don't want to have those fights.
The astrophysicist said there were other cultural practices that distinguish him from someone like Richard Dawkins, and what he takes to be the atheist movement:
  • He listened to Handel's Messiah every Sunday morning during grad school, and still attends performances now
  • He watches Jesus Christ Superstar at least a few times a year
  • He listens to the music from Jesus Christ Superstar regularly
  • His favorite rock song is Spirit in the Sky, which is about heaven and Jesus
  • He actively takes his children into beautiful churches
  • He is a proponent of the Gregorian calendar, and will fight for the use of "BC" and "AD," despite religious denotations
  • He doesn't initiate conversations with religious people about their beliefs
At least on a couple of points, Tyson's characterizations of New Atheists are not accurate. Dawkins is on record as a fan of Christmas music and beautiful British churches, and he uses "AD" in his books, though that makes Jesus birth the world-historical moment by which time is measured. This is not just a straw man argument, though. Tyson is rather claiming that "atheist" does not designate a propositional claim, today, but a culture. In current use, the noun doesn't simply name individuals without the mental state corresponding to the statement "God exists." Rather, the noun names social activity. 

"Atheist" names a cultural position that Tyson does not want to take, a position that involves remaining vigilant about and conscious of the smallest references to religion. 

"It's not what I'm about," Tyson said, noting he was making a "huge exception" to even talk about the  topic on the Rationally Speaking podcast only because so many people were so upset he wouldn't call himself an atheist. "I'm an educator. I'm a scientist. And I like singing the praises of the universe . . . I want to talk about black holes and the Big Bang and the early universe and the multiverse and dark matter and dark energy."

Being a science educator does sometimes mean opposing the use of the Bible as a text book. It does sometimes mean opposing the times and places where religion is invoked to put an end to inquiry. Tyson's record is clear, here. Yet, as the astrophysicist said on a New York radio show last week, "The issue there is not religion versus non-religion, or religion versus science." Instead, "the issue is ideas that are different versus dogma."

This is presented as the fundamental conflict in the history of scientific discovery in Tyson's new show, Cosmos. As Rachel Edidin writes in a review at Wired, the show renders the conflict of the history of science as a conflict of those for and against curiosity. Some were inspired by faith to explore the universe, while others used faith to forbid inquiry into the unknown. The conflict was not about religion, then, but curiosity.

"It's about the moral and human imperative to discovery," Edidin writes, "even in the face of opposition, and testament to the power of imagination as a catalyst for exploration."

Tyson, when he reads Genesis aloud to his children in the stormy dark, knows something of the way religion can inspire wonder, expand the imagination, and instill a desire for knowledge. He himself is not moved to belief by those words, but neither does he see Genesis as the problem. And he's not going to accept induction into any movement that would forbid him or anyone from finding motivation there, in those words, to be curious about the world.

"You ought to be able to think or feel however (you) want," Tyson said. "Fight dogma. And if it happens to be under the guise of religion, fine."