I am sure that I am not the first one (nor the last one) to say something about this, but given that dr Tyson has not corrected himself on this subject I would like to take a minute and explain the errors he made in his BigThink video “Atheist or Agnostic?”.
1. Atheism is a movement today, however, being an atheist does not make one an activist and a part of that movement. Therefore, it is a mistake to say that one is not an atheist just because one does not want to or has no time to participate in a movement which holds the same name.
2. Yes, too many people associate different, mostly wrong, attributes to someone who admits to being an atheist. The problem, however, is perpetuated by notable celebrities like dr Tyson, who then shy away from that word instead of explaining its true meaning and educating the public about it. It is rather sad to see someone back away from truth because of the majority which has false assumptions about the subject. It is my understanding that an educators job is to explain and thus destroy false assumptions, rather then to avoid confronting them and, by doing so, allowing them to perpetuate.
3. The word agnostic does not come from Huxley. Huxley hijacked it and used it wrongly. The word Gnostic comes from the Greek word γνῶσις (gnōsis), which means knowledge. And thus A-Gnostic means “he who does not know” / “is without knowledge”. It is, therefore, not an answer to the question of belief but rather to the question of knowledge, does one know if god exist. Even if it is taken as the stance that one can not know whether god exists or not, it is still not an answer to the question of belief. One can believe or not believe when one does not know. Thus, being an agnostic does not conflict with nor excludes being an atheist or theist.
4. Finally, the most important mistake dr Tyson made was by saying that he is not an atheist. This is simple set theory, people are either theists or they are not theists. A negation of the term which is the actual definition of the word a-theist. Atheist is the negation of theist and anyone who is not a Theist is therefore an A-Theist, a non-theist, a person who is not a theist. Thus, dr Tyson, by saying that he is not an A-Theist actually said that he is a Theist which we all believe is not true. If dr Tyson is a Theist, it would be fair to say so or to say that he does not wish to answer that question. However, saying that he is not an atheist, he labeled himself as theist, willingly or unwillingly.
5. Dr Tyson says “Atheist I know…” and then explains how he differs from them. I truly hope that this logical fallacy “Fallacy of composition” was simply proof of him being a human after all, just like the rest of us. Many humans I know are unbelievably different from me, should I not “label” myself human because of that? The fact that some atheists behave somehow has nothing to do with the actual meaning of the word. The only thing that defines an atheist is his lack of belief in a personal, theistic, god.
6. Yes, the word atheist should not exist. However, in the world where 99% of people play golf, I am sure that a word for someone who does not play golf would be invented. Also, even though the word for someone who is not a communist is not used, the word acommunist would surely come up if the extreme majority were in fact communists. Therefore, the word A-Theist does exists and its meaning is simple and clear: “one who is not a Theist” and dr Tyson should use it as such and educate people on its meaning.
7. In the end we come back to the issue explained in point 1. Just because dr Tyson does not wish to participate in the movement does not mean he is not an atheist. Also, just because dr Tyson does not wish to “be any category” is, frankly, his problem which does not alter the fact that he is in one of the two possible categories, namely Theist or not, whether he wants to or not. And again, as an educator, it is his job to explain to the public the meaning of the word atheist and not to look at active atheists, who mostly are actually anti-theists, and then shy away from it and by doing so perpetuate and promote the false notion and false assumptions about atheism and atheists in general.
If dr Tyson reads this, I would urge him to examine the actual meanings of the words gnostic and agnostic as well as theist and atheist and then educate people on the actual meanings of these words rather than what people want them to mean and/or use them falsely as. But, more importantly, I would urge him to correct the mistakes made about these words in the above video.
The honest thing for dr Tyson to do would be to either say that he does not wish to answer whether he is a Theist or an Atheist (a perfectly fine choice) OR to answer whether he does belong to the set Theist or not. And if not, to realize and to say that he is, therefore, an Atheist and to explain, as I did above, what that actually means.
And if he wishes to explain how and why he is different from the “Atheists he knows” then by all means he should do that and maybe he should also mention that these active atheists are actually all Anti-theists.
p.s. An anti-theist is an atheist who actively opposes religion and tries to reduce or destroy its negative influence on people.