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Labels and Substance

Yesterday Hemant Mehta of the Friendly Atheist took issue with comments made by physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in relation to atheism. In a video by BigThink, Tyson attempts to distance himself from atheism. Here’s the video:

While I wouldn’t call myself a “militant atheist” because I don’t own any guns or advocate violence (the way militant Christians and Muslims do), I am a pretty vocal atheist. So much so, that one would be hard pressed to claim that I was soft on religion. But here I have a disagreement with Hemant.

Tyson here is making the same kind of argument that Sam Harris made at the AAI convention a number of years ago. I find this type of argument quite compelling; almost enough to get me to stop using the label altogether… almost.

But at the end of the day, I would rather have people take both approaches. People like me and Hemant who are vocal about our non-belief and who seek to form a community around our atheism and people like Harris and Tyson who don’t want to be lumped in with Stalin every five seconds. I will still label Tyson an atheist because at the end of the day, he still doesn’t believe in any deities any more than I do. But I respect that he doesn’t want to be part of a united front in this culture war, but instead wants to go it alone and who is willing to fight battles on his own terms and without the baggage that the label “atheism” carries.

At the end of the day, the substance of Tyson’s position is the same as my position. So I really don’t care what label he uses. As a point of fact however, Tyson is wrong in his usage of the terms, but I suspect he knows that. His point is that he doesn’t want to be lumped in with people like Dawkins, Hitchens, and ironically Harris (who never really embraced the label either). I’m less concerned about labels and care more that Tyson is out there educating people about science and promoting the values of reason and critical thinking.

Oh, and while I disagree with Hemant Mehta on this, here is evidence that I can be friendly ;-)

Thanks to Joel for taking the photo at the Reason Rally.

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  • TheMechanicalAdv

    It’s not a problem if Tyson is an atheist. He’s the host of Cosmos, so he better be! What bothers me about Tyson is what he does believe, black hole information theory. I was appalled at the way he went on and on about what’s supposedly “inside” event horizons.

    A black hole is a region missing from space as it can ever possibly be known. As far as science is concerned, it’s a region missing from existence altogether, because it’s beyond scientific inquiry except from the outside. And yet, on a show that’s supposed to explain science to a public most of whom don’t even know what science is, he totally ignores this.