By Tania Lombrozo
We classify people in all sorts of ways.
Some categories are based on a person’s beliefs: A theist, for instance, is a person who believes in one or more gods. Some categories are based on behavior: A vegetarian, for example, is a person who doesn’t eat animals. And some categories seem to straddle beliefs and behavior: Being politically conservative could be defined in terms of beliefs, but also in terms of corresponding behaviors, such as voting for conservative political candidates or donating one’s time or money to conservative causes.
These different ways of defining categories of people — and in particular the category “atheist” — form the backdrop to an interesting episode of the Rationally Speakingpodcast in which co-hosts Julia Galef and Massimo Pigliucci query astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on his resistance to identifying (or being identified) as an atheist.
For Tyson, eschewing the atheist label is not a matter of rejecting core atheist beliefs — he admits that he’s not compelled by any arguments that have ever been put forth for the existence of God, and he accepts Pigliucci’s suggestion that we’re just as warranted in rejecting the existence of God as in rejecting the existence of unicorns. Rather, for Tyson the matter is one of behavior. The inferences that people make when classifying him as an atheist don’t align well, he feels, with his frequent choice of Jesus Christ Superstar as musical accompaniment on family drives, or with his habit of standing for the “Hallelujah” chorus of Handel’s Messiah. He has as much interest in meeting with other people to discuss their absence of belief in God as in meeting with non-golfers to talk about their absence of a passion for watching golf. In short, he doesn’t take himself to exhibit the behaviors typically associated with being an atheist.
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