By Thomas Larson
Are there any good reasons these days to declare yourself an atheist? Won’t the label’s tribal militancy, its prickly company, its easy derision, dishonor your family, alienate your friends, and upend your career? And if you are one—and you don’t fess up—might not that lack of honesty trouble you? After all, it is the truth, isn’t it? What’s more, if you don’t make the call (choose, instead, the less excitable “humanist” or “secularist”), someone else will mark you, a stamp that may stick, inerasable, like a Sharpie on your forehead. Whosoever’s badge you go with, how high on your chest will you wear it?
Take the astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, host of Cosmos and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. When Bill Moyers asked him whether he supported “the effort” by well-meaning people “to reconcile faith and reason,” Tyson said flatly, “they’re irreconcilable.” All attempts to describe science with faith “have failed. Anyone who tried to explain the nature of the universe, based on Bible passages, got the wrong answer.” To the charge that dark matter is God, he perked up: “If that’s where you’re going to put your God in this world, then God is an ever-receding pocket of ignorance. Get ready to have that [mystery] undone.”
Because of such statements, Tyson says he’s assailed a few times a month by nonbelievers who pester him: “I thought you were an atheist.” No, he counters, he never uses that word. If he has to have one, it’s “agnostic,” but even that term has scant meaning, he admits, since he’s confident science will solve the “divine” mysteries. Recently, he told Bill Maher that only two descriptors fit him: scientist and educator. Physics has no religiosity, Tyson said. “You don’t ‘believe in’ science. It’s true whether or not you believe in it.” Not only does he sound unfailingly uninterested in religious belief, but Tyson makes no case that he’s agnostic about anything.
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