Neil DeGrasse Tyson is the avuncular face of science in our popular culture, and I am confident that virtually all of what he communicates to the world is conscientiously accurate. However, there is one instance where a statement by Dr. Tyson flew in the face of objective reality as I understand it.
He said that he is not an atheist, but he is an agnostic.
I know that many people would describe themselves in the same way and see nothing contradictory about what Dr. Tyson said. However, not only are the two terms not mutually exclusive but virtually every atheist, at least every intellectually honest atheist, is also an agnostic.
Atheism describes a lack of belief while agnosticism describes a lack of certainty. I am an atheist because I don’t believe in any god or gods, generally rejecting supernatural explanations for, well, anything. I am an agnostic because I freely acknowledge that the non-existence of any deity is an unprovable concept, largely because believers on the existence of gods have not offered testable proof for their belief.
Applying this definition of agnostic would imply that sincere, intellectually honest theistic believers were also agnostic, acknowledging that existence and non-existence are beyond the reach of empirical proof. The concept of faith would seem to concede that true intellectual certainty is not obtainable, making every believer an agnostic theist.
This is what makes the smug, unearned confidence of certain believers, especially those of the fundamentalist variety, especially frustrating. To be a fundamentalist is to be a font of unsupportable, often counter-factual, faith-based statements offered as if they were self-evident truths.
When people say that they are agnostics and not atheists, they do so under the mistaken belief that agnostic occupies some sort of middle ground between belief and non-belief. I am confident that those who say they are agnostic would, if pressed as to whether or not they actively believe in any sort of deity or belong to any religion, answer in the negative. As we have established, non-belief is, by definition, atheistic.
I think people who say this often do in the belief that “agnostic” is simply a less-confrontational word than “atheist,” which has distasteful connotations among a wide swath of believers. While this is true, I don’t accept it as an excuse for mislabeling yourself. Unless popular, well-liked, high-profile figures like Tyson embrace the label of atheist, the term will never lose the stigma attached to it by those ignorant persons who see us as amoral, baby-eating, devil-worshipping Nazis and communists. Just as seeing friends and family members come out as gay or lesbian has removed the stigma attached to homosexuality for many people, when people in Middle America understand that many of their friends and neighbors, people they like and trust, are atheists and have been all along, the label will become less provocative, less confrontational with time.
Obviously, Neil Tyson is free to call himself whatever he wants, but I hope he understands that, when he calls himself an agnostic, his fellow atheists know what he really means.