Agnostics vs. atheists: The case of Neil deGrasse Tyson and the continuing demystification of the world

By John MacBeath Watkins

Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of those rare celebrities who is nice enough to say he appreciates the people who care enough to make him a celebrity. He also, of course, wants information about him in reference works to be correct.

So it's kind of funny that when he changed his own Wikipedia page from saying he is an atheist to saying he is an agnostic, someone changed it back to saying he was an atheist (he recounts the incident in the video above.) Apparently, the editor for his page had trouble accepting that Neil deGrasse Tyson might actually be the expert on his own beliefs (the page currently reflects his statements that he is agnostic.)

What I find fascinating is the pushback he got from atheists. There's a sampling here, and a response by Tyson in the comments. The blog post he is responding to is titled, When Did Neil deGrasse Tyson Start Using the Arguments of Christian Apologists? Ironically, the author does not seem to understand what a Christian apologist is. The most famous and widely read of them is C.S. Lewis, an avowed Christian who argued that Christian beliefs were rationally defensible. To my knowledge, this is not an argument that Tyson has ever made.

Many of the atheists on the site linked to above seem to feel he has betrayed them. Some insist that agnostics are really atheists because they don't believe there is a way to know if there is a god, but they also don't specifically believe in a god or gods.

It strikes me that the useful distinction here is between what is usually called atheists -- people who think those who believe in god are superstitious or delusional -- and people who are usually called agnostics -- people who do not believe in god, but do not have a firm belief that the belief in god is delusional.

I've explained my own views here. There is an additional level of oddity to the debate, because Tyson, according to the contested text of his Wikipedia page, seems to mistake Christian theodicy with all religious belief, when it quotes him:
When asked if he believed in a higher power, Tyson responded: "Every account of a higher power that I've seen described, of all religions that I've seen, include many statements with regard to the benevolence of that power. When I look at the universe and all the ways the universe wants to kill us, I find it hard to reconcile that with statements of beneficence."
Anyone familiar with the Greek myths, or for that matter the old testament, can see through this argument. The problem of pain did not arise in ancient Greek religion because the gods could be spiteful, and cause pain by mistake or through malice. Gods who were not benevolent were not logically criticized for allowing pain; they were likely the cause of it. Those statements with regard to the benevolence of god are in fact an artifact of the Enlightenment. It was Gottfried Leibniz who invented theodicy and named it, claiming the Christian god, in addition to being the only god, was a sort of Platonic ideal of a god, omnipotent, omniscient and omin-benevolent.. He might even be regarded as the father of the Christian apologists, since he laid out everything they would have to apologize for.

The benevolent god of Leibniz's philosophy is often missing from the old testament, where god can be goaded into essentially torturing Job to test his faith, and whose knowledge of Abraham's faith is so uncertain that he has him nearly kill Isaac.

And of course, the question of atheism seems only to arise in the religions of the Abrahamic tradition. Perhaps that is because Christianity itself is the original source of atheism. To be Christian is to believe that most gods men have worshiped since the dawn of time do not exist. It's only one little step from there to believing that no gods exist.

Alternatively, one could not believe in god, but still believe in a spirit world occupied by ghosts, or one could believe in god, but think he's spiteful, foolish and easily deceived, like the old gods of so many pantheons. The language of atheists (and here I'm talking about those who believe all religion is delusional, not those who merely lack a belief in god) is strangely like that of monotheists, demanding that you believe or not believe. They are simply expanding the disenchantment of the world.

They have taken that final step, simplified the matter still further, by going from "there is not god but god" to "there is no god." They owe a debt to Abraham and Aquinas and Leibniz and Lewis that they cannot be expected to acknowledge. While the old pantheons could absorb new gods as people met them, the Abrahamic faiths demystified the world, labeling most of the spirits that animated it in the minds of most of mankind superstition. Perhaps evangelical atheists are demanding a final Reformation, in which the rest of the spirit world must be denied.

But I will not allow them to say that because I do not follow any faith, I must identify myself with a label that applies to people who insist that all spiritual beliefs are superstitions, delusions for the simple minded. Because who knows? If there is such a world, perhaps no living person may know it. Or perhaps some do know it, and I do not. Or suppose it's all a human construct. Does that mean it does not exist? After all, mathematics exists, and language exists, and property and law exist, and they are human constructs.

Tyson's lack of hostility to people of faith may disappoint a great many atheists, but that's not his problem, any more than it is mine. After all, he also lacks faith, which offends plenty of people as well. Given the reaction to what he's said about atheism, it's clear that he has not chosen the easiest path, but has instead chosen the path to which his inquiries into the matter have taken him.