Neil deGrasse Tyson responds

February 22, 2012 • 5:11 am

Neil deGrasse Tyson sent me the note reproduced below the line, which he intended to post as a comment.  Since I’ve put up two posts within one week about his views on science and faith (here and here), I thought it only fair to elevate his comment to a full post, allowing everyone to see it easily. (His comment was intended to follow the first link given above.)  I present it here without any response on my part.  I have verified by email that this is indeed Tyson himself.

I won’t respond myself, but if you have comments for Dr. Tyson, please add them to this post. As always, be polite!


I’m impressed by the energy invested in this thread. Thanks for everyone’s interest in my few comments on God and spirituality. I’d like to offer some observations on them:

1) My total output on God and spirituality sums to less than 1% of all that I have delivered in speeches and written in books. Although you would not know this given how heavily that 1% has been lifted to YouTube and viewed by the interested public.

2) My Beyond Belief talk, which birthed this thread, was derived from a previously written article in Natural History magazine. So the article should be what’s used as the formal reference to that content.

3) I mis-spoke in that talk: The percent of religious members of the National Academy of Sciences is half that which I cited, but the error does not change the overall point being made.

4) Odd that I would be credited with declaring that more educated people are less religious — as some kind of militant posture — when I’m just citing the data.

5) I can only conclude that my overall message during the Beyond Belief talk was not 100% clear since Prof Coyne as well as a NYTimes reporter present at the talk were left with identical (yet unintended) reactions to my comments. Are they both not as intrigued as I am that religiosity drops with education, especially with science education, but does not drop to zero, not even for members of the National Academy? I think that’s an amazing statistic, which tells us something about the human mind that is not yet understood. (FYI: The workshop was held at the Salk Institute and the audience was rich in neuroscientists.) And I referenced that fact as an argument to try to get my strident Atheist colleagues to lighten up on the public since up to 40% of our scientific brethren pray to a personal God. And as long as religiosity is not zero for scientists, to assume that science education of the masses would somehow rid the world of religious thinking is a false expectation.

This heavily viewed clip was from the same workshop, by the way:

Tyson rebukes Dawkins

As was this, where I comment that my deepest thoughts on the universe just may trigger neuro-synaptic firings in my head that resemble those of a religious zealot.

6) When I say I don’t care if people are religious, but that I care that religious philosophies stay out of the science classroom, I’m alerting the listener of how I choose to invest my time and energy. To fight for the rights of women within religions, for example, does not require the community of scientists to participate in the same way that fighting to preserve the science curriculum does. I’ve simply chosen my battles there. And even then, it’s less than 1% of my energy and time.

7) Most of the (American) public does indeed embrace science as a way of knowing. Science is more than evolution, of course. It’s engineering, it’s medicine, it’s chemistry, it’s physics. It’s the R&D for every tech company. The percent of total funded science that ruffles the feathers of non-fundamentalist religious people is small. And for the moment, religious fundamentalists still represent a small (but of course vocal) minority.

8) For the record, here is everything I have ever written on the subject of God and spirituality. Anything I have ever said publicly on the subject derives almost entirely from these several essays:

Holy Wars

The Perimeter of Ignorance

The Cosmic Perspective

Does the Universe Have a Purpose?

Letter to the Editor of the NYTimes

So as best as I can judge,in spite of my failure to communicate my intended sentiment in the posted Beyond Belief talk, I think my thoughts have been quite consistent on the matter. And, if you look carefully, almost all views I offer are not opinions but shared observations.

Again, thanks for the collective interest in my work. And sorry of the stupid length of this post. I now return to trying to get NASA back on track.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

New York City

246 thoughts on “Neil deGrasse Tyson responds

  1. to assume that science education of the masses would somehow rid the world of religious thinking is a false expectation

    Is that an assumption that anyone here is making? I think Jerry has espoused the contrary view, that ridding the world of (or at least reducing) religious thinking is step towards better science education (although by no means the only one), at least in biology (evolution) and likely physics (cosmology) too.


      1. So you’re suggesting that 15% or 7% or whatever the number is of the elite scientists simply haven’t had a good “critical thinking” class?
        I can’t buy that. To me it seems likely that Neil’s right, that this believing minority population of advanced scientists may tell us something about the way the (some) brains work.

        1. I think that simplifies it a bit too much. You also have to consider the powerful cultural and societal influence that religion has on most people from the time they grow up until they finally reject their religious beliefs. Some just choose to stick with them. There is also the innate human tendency to see agency in inanimate objects, entirely explainable in evolutionary terms and a cognitive bias, but a perception that influences our behavior, just the same. So it does tell us something about human nature. That we won’t all overcome these influences in adulthood. Well—maybe if we stop brainwashing the children…

          1. …most people from the time they grow up until they finally reject their religious beliefs.

            In many countries around the globe, atheism is the default state during ‘growing up’.
            No friends of mine had to ‘reject their religious beliefs’, as they were not infected with any from the start!

            I take it Ben, that you reside in one of a minority of countries where childish superstitions are violently[1] forced upon the young?
            Saudi Arabia? Israel? Somalia? USA?

            [1] Including non-consensual ritual genital mutilation and torture of helpless infants, of both sexes, or one sex.
            If this foul, depraved and truly evil act is legal in your country, then you are living in the depths of 3rd world, no mistake.

            1. “I take it Ben, that you reside in one of a minority of countries where childish superstitions are violently[1] forced upon the young?”

              Violently, non=violently – it’s all the same thing. Children are so malleable. It doesn’t take much to f**k them up for a good long while. I broke the cycle, in my family.

          2. Lotta intelligent people in this conversation. It’s a great break from Politics–especially the GOP debates

    1. Since in the last 30,000 years or so, nothing has truly “rid the world of religious thinking”, it would appear that NdT’s pragmatic statement has some validity. His challenge to find out why even a small number of the most scientifically educated and accomplished individuals will not move away from theism is not something to be dismissed.

      1. Ummm. . .the world has become a LOT less religious in just the last 200 years. Look at Europe, for instance. I predict–and I really believe this–that in another 200 years both Europe and the U.S. will have atheist majorities. I don’t think we’ll ever completely extirpate religion, but I sure as hell think we can drastically lower the degree of religiosity.

        1. Do you really think you are causal in that? I think that’s just happening. Science in general is causal in that okay, but advocacy against religion – I don’t know? Meanwhile, a McCarthy era concerning beliefs is probably not a good strategy. Think of all the Newtons and George Prices that would be excluded from doing science.

          1. Yes I at least assume that both Jerry & Richard are decidedly causal in “that”.
            Look at what has happened since so-called “strident gnu-atheism” has appeared:

            Churches have been subjected to the intense scrutiny of forensic logic, and are reeling as though punch-drunk for the first time in many millennia!

            I judge that Prof. Coyne has exerted a most measurable impact into this sea-change.
            Globally, as well as in the troublingly benighted USA.

            One would be hard-pressed to to even posit a case that Prof Dawkins was or is not “causal” in the aforementioned “sea-change”.


            Do you really think you are causal in that?

            Dr. Coyne may not think that, but I, and scores of others DO think that he has been seminally causal.

            1. Are we talking about people who were sitting on the fence, then I’d agree. Chores of them have probably been swayed towards science by the writings of Dawkins, Coyne etc. Otherwise, I think staunchly faithful people will only go into defence on being (or feeling) attacked. Oh well, I guess I’m an accomodationist, though that’s not (yet) an established category here in Germany.

              P.S.: Though in America, maybe I’d be a GNU. Sounds too crazy sometimes, what you are discussing.

              1. Sounds too crazy sometimes, what you are discussing.

                Oh, I agree!
                (I am Australian, by the way.)
                But I stand by my observation that one Jerry Coyne appears (to me) to have exerted a profound influence over the global spectrum of sanity.

                Oh, and accommodationists can go hide themselves in a dark corner, and think long and hard about the evil that they have wrought.
                And not emerge until they are good and ready to apologise to the human race.

              2. I agree with you in the short term but not in the long term. For every major change in thinking, whether it be the divine right of kings or the evil of slavery or gender equality (insert your own favorite here), it started out as contentious. But over time the number of holdouts to change became smaller and smaller and were more and more marginalized.
                So at the time of the American and French Revolutions, there were many people who strongly supported the right of kings to rule. Today in the US it would be hard to find very many at all (although if you were going to look I would suspect starting with far-right Republicans). Religious belief could very well follow the same pattern.

              3. The more fence-sitters that move, the more those who don’t move look isolated (so no wonder they get defensive), the more the norm shifts away from supernatural beliefs, and the easier it becomes, socially, to move.


              4. @Michael Kingsford Gray
                “Oh, and accommodationists can go hide themselves in a dark corner, and think long and hard about the evil that they have wrought.
                And not emerge until they are good and ready to apologise to the human race.”

                Can you prove that Tyson has a less positive effect on fence sitters, leave alone any evil he wrought? Maybe the contrary is true or both are good at convincing fence sitters for science.

            2. I’m not sure I’d exactly consider Coyne and the other New Atheists “causal” per se, myself. Rather, I’d say they’re the latest proximate expression of an older and more fundamental causation.

              Looking at the mass of GSS data about strength of religious identification (variable RELITEN), the fraction of Nothingarians by birth Cohort within the US shows a logistic curve. This suggests the underlying trend has been going on since at least the 1970s, and almost certainly earlier. Coyne hasn’t been in this game that long.

              1. Only in so far as a boulder halfway down the mountain is causal to the continuing avalanche that was started by the pebbles near the top.

              2. 🙂

                But do you honestly believe that that’s a good metaphor for the growth of non-belief?

                It seems more like an uphill struggle to me… 


          2. Meanwhile, a McCarthy era concerning beliefs is probably not a good strategy.

            Good thing nobody has advocated anything like that.

          3. Would Newton have been a religious astrologer had he been born today though? I somewhat doubt it. And I would also say that there are plenty of scientists today who believe non-religious nonsense too, like Pauling with his Vitamin C cancer cure. People make mistakes, and are imperfectly logical.

            I would also suggest that there is more competing against religion than straight science. Knowledge of archaeology and history has grown in leaps and bounds since it started, and now you have the situation where a lot of religious scholars *know* without a doubt that many stories in the Bible are false. That sort of stuff is starting to filter down into the common understanding too, along with the sort of textual criticisms that tell us more about how the Bible was written, altered, and plagiarized. I find that sort of stuff almost more infuriating than the evolution denial, since even liberal pastors learn far more about the Bible than they ever, ever tell people, and they make you feel like a complete louse when you finally pull an admission of the real truth out of them.

          4. It’s not as if the non-confrontational “stick-to-teaching-the-science” approach hasn’t been tried. My impression as a foreigner (and please correct me if I’m wrong in this) is that sticking to the science and ruffling no feathers is basically what the Americans have been doing all along, and it has ALREADY FAILED miserably. I don’t think anybody knows for sure why religion is so much more dominant in America than in Europe, but I’m pretty sure it is not because the Europeans have been so much less confrontational in dealing with religion. If anything, I suspect the opposite is the case. Does anybody know of a single marginalized group who significantly improved its situation by sitting quietly and gratefully accepting whatever the majority was willing to give them?

      2. I think many people claim to believe because they have a Pascal’s wager sort of fear that was inculcated in them as a child. Moreover, they’ve been indoctrinated to believe faith is good.

        As religions let go of hell and we start criticizing this idea that faith is a virtue, I am certain that the superstitions of today will fade just as superstitions of the past have– including belief in gods.

        Moreover, I think it’s becoming increasingly obvious that if souls were more than an illusion of the brain, scientists would be testing, refining, and honing that information for their OWN benefit.

    2. i agree with Ant. Teaching critical thinking and the scientific method would be wonderful. However i do think this would be subversive to the promulgators of ancient scripture, and will lead to a more expedient disposition of that of using science to better understand ourselves, the universe, and our place in it. Fundamentalists seem to think they have it all figured out–no doubt a result of the believe based bias that plagues all of theology–and this inhibits innovation in each individual who follows this dogma from utilizing the basic tenets of modern science: Curiosity, Skepticism, and Humility. All of which make the world what it is today.

  2. Your description of the blossoming period of islamic science (was that between 900-1100?) as a period where everybody could believe whatever stripes or colours of faith or be an atheist, but that did not intrude on the free exchange of ideas (scientific and other) also suggested to me that you were not militantly agaist religious sentiments in general, but only against them in the science classroom.

    1. Although of course “islamic science” is a misnomer.

      More accurate to say “science in lands which fell to the arab conquest”.

          1. Which history might that be then?
            A history that excludes the solid Islamic technological and observational contributions toward astronomy, alchemy and geography? (Amongst other things, such as medicine)

            (Many of which the Western world relies upon to this day, especially the failed experiments in alchemy,which gave us the seeds to chemistry)

            I await your scholarly elucidation with bated breath.

            1. The history of empires taking over many different peoples and claiming credit for whatever those conquered peoples have accomplished.

              1. Once again, I ask about the actual scholarly input that (say) the Abbasid Empire engendered, to name but one such truly knowledge-generating empire developed.
                Have you not studied the Abbasid libraries and vast tomes of original works, say relating to mathematics, for example?

                Methinks you cut them short.

                I am no fan of Islam, quite the reverse, but it serves no purpose to ignore or even refute historical facts.

              2. Michael:

                To speak of “Islamic science” makes no more sense than speaking of “Christian science” or “Incaic science”. Science is science: you either gather enough evidence for something or you don’t; you either prove a theorem or you don’t. Whether the scientist is a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist or an atheist is wholly irrelevant. Newton was a believer in all sorts of weird things. Should we call his theory of gravity “weirdist science”?

                Of course, we can recognize that certain power systems prmotoed or hindered the development of science, and I agree thas some Islamic stronhholds really favoured the quest for knowledge. I’m only objecting to adding unnecessary adjectives to science, lest we begin to think that a scientist’s religion has any bearing on the quality of his/her work.

              3. I’ll just put this here:

                The Golden Age of Arabic Science
                » Jim al-Khalili
                Paperback : 26 Jan 2012

                For over 700 years the international language of science was Arabic. In Pathfinders, Jim al-Khalili celebrates the forgotten, inspiring pioneers who helped shape our understanding of the world during the golden age of Arabic science, including Iraqi physicist Ibn al-Haytham, who practised the modern scientific method over half a century before Bacon; al-Khwarizmi, the greatest mathematician of the medieval world; and Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, a Persian polymath to rival Leonardo da Vinci.


              4. Oops! I meant to link from the title, and hadn’t meant to emphasise the subtitle. My subconscious clearly thought otherwise…


            2. the solid Islamic technological and observational contributions

              Kindly substitute “Islamic” with “Christian” in your own comments above, and tell us if you still would accept such an argument.

              The social dynamics set in motion by the Islamic expansion/conquest had a paradoxical effect: for a couple of centuries, or at least a couple of decades, intellectual blossoming under an essentially totalitarian religion that all but wiped out boundaries between civil, legal, cultural and religious categories. Then, predictably, stagnation. In the long view, it is the brief, extraordinary intellectual and artistic blossoming which seems antinomic, not the brutality which preceded or accompanied it, nor the subsequent standstill.

              Between the Salem Witch Trials and the establishment of the Pasadena Jet Propulsion Laboratory lie two and a half centuries and the conquest of a continent. Yet the spirit which sought a New Frontier never quite displaced the religious mindset of the Witch Trials. As the New Frontier wanes, a leading contender for the Presidency is campaigning on religious prejudices which would not have seemed out of place in Salem, circa 1692. Except that, as a Catholic, he would have been in the line of fire, too.

              1. Kindly substitute “Islamic” with “Christian” in your own comments above, and tell us if you still would accept such an argument.

                No, I would not, and should not, no matter how faux-politely phrased.

                Your revisionist suggestion is exactly the reason for which I bothered to comment:
                That the namby-pamby, hoity-toity, up-yer-jacksie ever-so-proper white-bread firghtened-western attitude to true Islamic scholarship is an anathema to folk who have had the be-jeesus scared oput of them by bullshit propaganda.

                No, I shan’t “substitute” “Islamic” with “Christian”, kindly or otherwise, as it would be an illogical perversion of my actual point.

                My original point stands.
                Amplified, if anything.

              2. Despite the fumes of your explosion, you still haven’t made your point: What is specifically Islamic about, say, the science in Abbasid scholarship? Quoting you, this time truly in a faux-polite way: “I await your scholarly elucidation with bated breath.”

              3. It was specifically funded for the advancement of the then Islamic principle that the seeking of knowledge and elightenment was a good path by which to please Allah.
                Oh, and the funders also said it was their Islamic duty.

        1. There was certainly plenty of interesting science taking place in the arab empire and its successor states. This isn’t surprising as much of this area (e.g. persia and the fertile crescent) had always been advanced.

          Doubtless most of the people involved were moslems, most likely descended largely from converts rather than from the arab armies themselves.

          I was just commenting that it seems odd to label it with the majority religion of the area, rather than with the political unit or geographical area as we do in all other cases.

          1. Very good argument.
            In addition to which, we must avoid the pitfall of factice identities ex-post.
            The countries now identified as ‘Arab’, usually because they share the culturally dominant Arabic language, encompass a wealth of ethnic diversity, and a trove of extraordinarily rich pre-Islamic civilisations.

            Sciences, abstract or applied, flourished in the region for millennia before the advent of Islam. Astronomy, mathematics, medicine, metallurgy, hydraulics, linguistics: all have a regional history stretching for more than half the span of recorded civilisation. Islamic expansion provided one new impulse, but it would be incredibly a-historic to assume that it started with a tabula rasa. In our age of instant global communication it has become hard to gauge what the rapid emergence of an empire, endowed with one lingua franca obsessively promoted or imposed at sword’s edge, meant for the diffusion of knowledge and ideas, even though this was only tangential to the main motive of expansion.

        2. Rather than an “Islamic contribution”, wasn’t it a contribution by some people who happened to be muslim, or happened to be born in a country where the main (or only) religion was/is islam?

          If someone who were fat contributed to science, would you say that it’s a fat person’s contribution?

          When someone contributes to science, or anything else where the contribution is real and useful, does it matter whether they’re muslim, christian, black, white, female, male, tall, short, old, young, etc., and do any of those things have anything to do with how or why they discovered something that contributes to science?

          In other words, has anyone or does anyone contribute to science BECAUSE they’re muslim, christian, fat, old, female, tall, bald, cross-eyed, etc.? If that were the case, every muslim, christian, fat, old, female, tall, bald, cross-eyed, etc. person would be a scientist or at least contribute something to science.

          Creobot IDiots love to say that religious people have contributed tons and tons of things to science BECAUSE they were (or are) religious and of course they use that as justification that their religion belongs IN science, but it’s a worthless assertion. Even IF some scientists were or are religious, it has nothing to do with their actual scientific contributions. Instead, it’s that those scientists just happen(ed) to be religious, and the credit for their scientific contributions should go to their scientific pursuits, not their religious leanings or the name of their religion.

          Someone reading this is probably thinking ‘But some scientists pursue (or pursued) scientific discoveries because they are/were trying to figure out their chosen god’s works or are/were trying to reveal the glory of their chosen god’, but the pursuit of the discoveries and the discoveries themselves are actually because of the curiosity in the person.

          If having religious beliefs were directly beneficial in making scientific discoveries, every religious person on Earth would be a world renowned scientist, and atheists would never discover or contribute anything.

          There’s no such thing as an islamic contribution to science, or a christian contribution, or a fat person’s contribution, or a cross-eyed female short old person’s contribution. Scientific discoveries and contributions should not be credited to the religion, height, weight, age, gender, race, or any other irrelevant crap about the person who makes the discoveries and contributions.

        3. But are they contributions from the religion itself or because of economic or political prosperity? It would be safe to say that any advances that pertain to Gods would be theological. The advances in the other fields were made independent of the Islamic religion, it just so happened that the area was the scientific centre of the world at the time. Let’s also not forget what religion ended up doing to the period and how this era finished.

  3. I remain convinced that the best way to improve just about everything about this world is to rid it of religion.

    But I get what Tyson is saying about there being something important in the fact that a non-zero number of scientists are religious, given the incontrovertible fact that science and religion are conflicting methods of viewing the universe.

    However, I don’t think it’s anything particularly mysterious. I’m speculating, mind you, but I think my reasoning is sound. Scientists are, by and large, people who devote inordinate amounts of time to very narrow fields of knowledge. For religion to be abandoned for reasons, a pretty broad base of knowledge is required. So by being intensely specialized, a scientist, who may nevertheless be quite brilliant, can easily lack the knowledge required to conclude that religion is bunk.

    Not all scientific fields are equal, of course. Some fields more directly collide with the claims of religions (such as biology), and I’d expect those types of scientists to have a higher probability of being an atheist than other scientists.

    And a scientifically literate layman with broad interests (i.e. Jack of all trades, master of none) may be better equipped to reach the correct conclusion about religion than a great many specialized scientists.

    Beyond that, there’s the remarkable ability of the human brain to compartmentalize, which can easily allow one to be a functioning scientist while believing things flatly contradicted by one’s field of expertise. Our ability to outmaneuver emotional discomfort is truly prodigious.

    1. You are right, human emotion easily trumps reason. The statistic that intrigues Tyson is no surprise to me at all. In many cases, well educated scientists not only “believe” in a God, but think that science supports that view. However, it seems they most often think the real “evidence” is in some field other than that of their own study.

      Then, of course, there is the study of frozen three-part waterfalls. How can anyone dismiss that?

  4. Tyson is simply promoting science, without getting sucked into unnecessary and unscientific disputes about religion. Not everyone wants to evangelize for the atheist cause the way Jerry does.

    1. If that were true there wouldn’t be a topic here for you to comment about Tyson’s thoughts regarding religion.

  5. FWIW, I got your message. I didn’t have any response to it, yet, outside of simple acknowleedgement, so I set it aside to continue working on, somewhere in the back of my mind. I tutor, since becoming disabled, and a teen with some sort of cngential brain abnormality asked my thoughts, yesterday, on the death penalty. I suppose those thoughts overlap with thoughts on extremely well educated, scientifically minded folks who continue to believe in a personal god: Keep them around to research their brains, so we can understand what went (IMHO) wrong during their development and try to prevent it in future generations. BTW, good luck with NASA.

  6. Horses for courses.
    As literally militant as I am in regard toward anti-theism, I *do* appreciate and think that I may fully understand the Tyson stance of occasionally waving the full truth of the opposition of popular theism with hard science.

    Of course, accomodationism is NEVER a viable long-term strategy. But it may well be a “gateway drug”.

  7. I think it is great that Tyson takes the time to respond to these questions – he takes them seriously.

    Was just at the planetarium in the American Museum of Natural History with the kids this past weekend, it was a lot of fun for everyone. I spent the entire time in the fossil rooms on the 4th floor thinking about how delusional young earth creationists are.

  8. “4) Odd that I would be credited with declaring that more educated people are less religious — as some kind of militant posture — when I’m just citing the data.”

    I get the impression that Tyson believed you were attacking him for being militant. If that is true, then he clearly misread your post. Then again, who can blame him? maybe he was to busy keeping NASA working..

    1. It’s exactly not militant. And goes to show that there really is no militant secularism at all.

      What militantism is there in stating facts or citing the data? We might joke about being militant, but is anyone really?

      1. Precisely. Advocating for reality is not militant all by itself.

        “Can’t we base our maltreatment of others on this bogus worldview?”

        “No. Your worldview is not justified, and therefore neither is the way you treat others. Why would you want to behave that way towards women/homosexuals/etc anyway?”

        “Not even a little?”

        “No, not even a little.”

        “Militant secularist!!!1! Why can’t you be fair?!”

  9. I’d also be curious as to how the religious views of scientists compare with most believers? I’d be surprised if those that remained religious weren’t more moderate in their views then the general public.

      1. Umm I figured we’d do this smart and compare ontarian scientists to ontario residents, texan scientists with texans and so on. The ones that claim to be christian can be compared to local christians and the ones the claim to be muslim can be compared to local muslims. From now on I’ll make sure to include complete methodologies in my future grant proposals for future survey projects.

        1. Factor in the much higher mobility (geographical and mental) of scientists, and their various non-local community ties.

  10. A non zero percentage of scientists, even the top level scientists, are religious. However that percentage has dropped enormously over the past century. If it keeps dropping at the current rate then almost no top scientists will be religious in 100 years time.
    Why are some scientists religious?
    I suspect it has something to do with the power of childhood indoctrination. Take Francis Collins. Does anyone think it was really a frozen waterfall that turned him religious – in contrast to his upbringing as a child home-schooled by evangelical parents.

              1. It was quite charmingly catchy, entertainingly humorous — the description you so disliked, as opposed to your dour, deliberately degrading response to it.

    1. “Why are some scientists religious?

      I suspect it has something to do with the power of childhood indoctrination. Take Francis Collins. Does anyone think it was really a frozen waterfall that turned him religious – in contrast to his upbringing as a child home-schooled by evangelical parents.”

      Home schooled yes, but evangelical parents, not according to him. From the Language of God:

      “My early life was unconventional in many ways, but as the son of freethinkers, I had an upbringing that was quite conventionally modern in its attitude toward faith; it just wasn’t very important” [pg. 11]

      ” … when I was five, my parents decided to send me and my next oldest brother to become members of the boys choir at the local Episcopal church. They made it clear that it would be a great way to learn music, but that the theology should not be taken too seriously.”

      And Collins goes on to state that he let the theological concepts being preached from the pulpit wash over him without leaving any discernible residue.

      Later he details that while hiking in the Cascade Mountains he converted. And no, it wasn’t the waterfall that did it, but it certainly w/n parental influence. It was more likely an accumulation of life’s experiences, colored perhaps by some of that ‘pulpit residue’, and triggered by the majesty of what he referred to as the “majesty and beauty of God’s creation.”

      Richard Dawkins described his childhood as a “normal Anglican upbringing”. Michael Shermer states that he was once a fundamentalist Christian. Ron Reagan, son of Ronald Reagan same break-away from religion, as well as Steve Jobs and yes, the outspoken Hermant Mehta.

      So just what is it that leads one to faith? I would say a rational view of reality, a kind of bifocality, rather than a religiously imbued upbringing.

      1. people will keep coming to religion for as long as religion exists as part of ‘human condition’

        religin is evolutionary much older than science

        for very long religion was the shepherd of ‘human condition’

        in the attractor state of ‘human condition’ (over evolutionary horizon of next 100 – 1000 years, after peak everything and collapse of fossil fuel scivilization) science is the only foundation for ‘human condition’ (or lack thereof) and the necessary and sufficient condition of sustainability

  11. I love this guy! can’t get enough of his stuff to listen to/watch, he’s so positive and enthusiastic! With regards to the point of his correspondence, I’m absolutely fine that not everyone approaches society’s religion issue the same way, I like that we have such different people all doing their bit their way.. PZ, Dennet, Sam Harris, Dawkins, Eberhard, Greta, Randii, Krauss, Maryam.. and of course Prof Coyne! They and many others contribute a great deal, and though the methods vary, the results are still devestating to the other side…

    Man I miss Hitch…

  12. I was just speaking with someone yesterday about the fact that NdT is public about support of science and picks his battles carefully — choosing to be critical of religion in small circles, which I think is a very wise choice.

    While the 4 (or 40) horsemen can make a public stink about religion’s ills, NdT is making a bigger impact by sidestepping the whole landmine. Like Sagan before him, he’s remaining positive by not poking a stick in people’s eyes.

    As a Secular Humanist scientist living in a religious family, I also have to pick my battles. Insulting my mother-in-law will not change her mind. Telling her about all the advances science has made for her grandchildren will. I applaud NdT’s choice of promoting science rather than attacking religion. He’s making a bigger impact on more people.

    I agree that everyone missed the point: as a nuclear physicist I’m surprised of the 10% (or 5%) asymptote of religiosity among science’s elite. Evolution seems to have shaped the brain to not believe in evolution!

    1. Nice job of sifting the data to support your seat of the pants preordained thoughts.

      How many other evolutionary traits do your know of that have fully formed and applied a cause within 150 years?

      1. It was a joke, meant to get a reaction. I guess I got one.

        In all seriousness, I think evolution shaped the brain in a myriad of ways that unfortunately makes scientific and logical thought rather difficult for us. Our evolved biases are not there to help us find the truth, but rather because they either helped our ancestors survive or because they didn’t hinder that survival enough to have been eliminated as compared to whatever side benefit they accompany. Either way, they make learning and discovering scientific ‘truths’ rather challenging for humans, unlike things like balancing on our feet, which evolution did a great of job of having just about every one of us do easily.

        1. OK, but how do you know that the societies that humans have constructed aren’t the stumbling block? Clearly, our societies although springing from a natural evolutionary process are moving much too fast for natural evolution to be a primary driver. Although, I agree there is some underlying natural substance there, it doesn’t suggest that the religious dictates of our current societies are necessary or necessarily desirable for a caring, compassionate and loving populace.

          1. Completely agreed. I hope I didn’t suggest that our current cultural societies are in any way the necessary for a caring and moral populace. In many ways, our societies are the products of in-group selection pressures that, in my opinions, are very amoral. So, yes, I do see them as a stumbling block in several ways. But they are here and most people resist significant change so it will be a long and hard road to change that.

            As a Secular Humanist, I try to promote the ideas of ‘being good’ as totally separate from any religiosity. If anything, religion came from an existing set of morals that were evolved in us long before the first notions of gods entered a brain. So having a moral, ethical, “good” society is independent of religiosity. And part of being ‘good’ is not insulting others, especially those that are religious [doing otherwise gives all too easy fodder to the notion that atheists are immoral].

            Back to my point about NdT’s approach: by not “Being a Dick” (to quote Phil Plait), NdT is respected by all and therefore has the opportunity to spread an appreciation for science and rational thinking wider than those who insist on insulting the religious.

            1. Christians seem to have no problem with insulting atheists and do so regularly without even a moments consideration or caring that they do. Atheists are responding to that and insisting that it isn’t OK. Why don’t you consider both sides equally and confront the christians about their insulting attitude toward atheists? Why don’t you get them to stop condemning us? As you well know christians are the group with the privileged position, so why are you lashing out at the least favored minority? Your only position is to further insult atheists by suggesting, in other words, that we just shut up about it.

              The problem isn’t that christians don’t have an opportunity to know about science so much as they willfully want to be ignorant of the evidence and conclusions of science. The approach that you advocate, of being gentle, has been the default position of scientists and atheists since pretty much the whole of modern history. That position clearly has not worked and isn’t working now. That position has lead us to where we are and shows no signs of improving in the future. The christians are aggressively trying to force our societies to reenact the days from the fictions presented in the christian holy handbook.

              The Gnu atheist approach can and does have a positive impact, see converts at and the “Why I am an atheist” series that PZ Myers has been running at Pharyngula, just to show you a couple of examples.

              I don’t much care if you and Tyson can see your way clear to support the atheists but at the very least do take a neutral position, please.

              1. I wasn’t aware of Dawkins’ Converts’ Corner – nice blog.

                I guess it’s just a matter of personality. I’m a gentle person by nature. I try not to insult or make fun of people for their beliefs (despite the fact that my family tells me I actually do) because I think it harms more than helps. Dawkins’ approach may appeal to some but I find him offensive and I’M ON HIS SIDE!

                We atheists are in the minority and as such both have to stick up for ourselves (I agree with you completely) and we also have to recognize that there are more and less effective ways of ‘converting’ people. Maybe a full-frontal assault is more effective. Maybe a gentler approach is. As you point out, the gentle approach has been around for a while and only recently have we seen ‘militant’ atheists. OK, let’s see what happens.

                Since you and I are on the same side of this issue, let’s agree that we (atheists) can practice many forms of conversion techniques and hopefully we’ll both be successful in reducing the amount of religiosity in the world.

              2. I guess the problem I have with the “gentle” approach is that it is easily confuses respect for people with respect for religion. The former deserve it, the latter does not. And, Damian, as you say… you are accused of making fun of their beliefs anyway, then why not just be bluntly honest?

                And what exactly about Richard Dawkins’ argument do you find offensive? Can you provide examples? Because I find him to be exceedingly polite and, to morph your word, a gentleman.

    2. I noted his point, but I thought it was way less important than the main finding, that there is a negative correlation between scientific achievement and religious belief. That a relatively small proportion continue to give credence to a failed hypothesis (religion), or that rejection of an important unifying theory (naturalism) does not inevitably lead to failure in all scientific achievement, should not be so surprising.

      It might be an interesting area of sociological research, but I don’t think the interviews would be easy: (“So tell me, why is it that you believe in the existence of a non-evolved intelligence in spite of all the evidence against it? How did you accomplish so much while clinging to a primitive superstition?”)

      1. Agreed that the main finding is important to the wider world. I think NdT was talking specifically to a subset of the world that is the 90% of scientists who don’t believe. Among THAT group, I think it IS an interesting finding that the number of elite scientists who believe in a god is not zero.

        But the main headline is certainly that religiosity and achievement are not just anti-correlated but are causally at odds. If I accept the argument that “god made it that way” then I will not work hard at solving the problem, and as NdT said, (paraphrasing) “I don’t want that person trying to cure cancer.”

        1. I’m not sure why you or NdT find it that interesting, (the remainder of religious scientists that is). If there is really some hard floor it would be interesting to know that number and it might point to something genetically or neurologically interesting…

          But as a sort of general statement, it doesn’t seem surprising unless you’ve never actually worked with scientists. (That’s a generic ‘you’, nothing personal and I assume NdT has been around academic circles.) I mean, is there any practicing scientist who doesn’t think some of his/her colleagues have bizarre views on politics, or irrational personal resentments, or attachments to some idiosyncratic scientific view that go way beyond what is merited? Scientists are still plenty human and it comes as no shock to me that even very smart and accomplished people get some things wrong.

          1. Fair enough. It may be my personal experiences over-influencing my expectations. I entered college a rather religious person and by my sophomore year I was an atheist. Science is what convinced me of the absurdity of religion, so I guess I find it interesting that someone could be steeped in the sciences and yet retain the religious belief.

            Yet another (evolved) bias – overweighting personal experiences in my case – influencing an otherwise rational mind.

  13. Why won’t Professor Coyne respond? Is it too difficult for him to accept that education probably only correlates with non-religiosity?

    deGrasse Tyson is obviously correct to say that we have no idea why people are religious. I grew up in the Czech Republic and I yet have to meet a Czech who believes in God–and this includes even people with a basic level of education. Why is that? I know it has nothing to do with communism, because other ex-communist countries like Russia, Poland or Croatia, for example, are in fact moderately religious. Plus, the Czechs gave up on religion long before the communists took over and are a lot less religious than the neighbouring Germany or Austria.

    1. You see? There is a substantial data point that shows christianity to be a social disease not a problem with the underlying hardware of the brain.

      1. No, I actually think the “problem” is in the hardware. It must be genetic. Why would the Czechs be so much less religious than all of their neighbours, all of whom pretty much share the same culture?

        1. Seriously? You think the Czechs have been genetically isolated from the other humans in the region to the extent that it has resulted in a no god genetic change. And you have no intention of even considering the possibility that it is more likely the result of cultural differences? Do you have any conception of how that could happen over very few generations?

    2. LOL, the other thing that makes the Czechs special is the fact that they consume a whole lot more beer than anyone else. Maybe there’s a cure for religiosity in it … (thinks) but then they also have the weirdest spelling … maybe it’s that unique combination … ja, definitely, that’s it. The poles also have weird spelling but they don’t drink as much beer.

        1. Aha! I thought that wasshort for pilsner! (I just wasn’t sure and didn’t want to look like an idiot for asking.)

        2. 🙂 Sorry, a bit slow of me there. But what about the Belgians? They might not drink the most, but they certainly make way the best, and the most incredible variety. Maybe it’s the trappist monks blessing the beer or using holy water or something that reverses the effect? You atheists better watch out for the Westvleteren. Those monks know their stuff.

          1. (It was the best dark beer I had when I was there. Apparently the tenth Pope died of alcohol poisoning, so they named this 10.7 vol% beauty after him.)

  14. So as best as I can judge,in spite of my failure to communicate my intended sentiment in the posted Beyond Belief talk, I think my thoughts have been quite consistent on the matter.

    I thought that you communicated quite well, even if Jerry didn’t get it. But then Jerry, and other biologists, are under direct attack from parts of the religious community, in a way that on peripherally affects those of us who are not biologists.

    As for religiosity not dropping to zero – I don’t find that at all surprising. Religion itself is very malleable, so it isn’t hard for people to reshape it into something consistent with their science. And some people do value the community aspects and the traditional rituals that go with religion.

  15. As a non-scientist and intuitive(as opposed to analytical) thinker by nature I’ve always found Neil deGrasse Tyson to be inspiring. His clear, populist communication skills and infectious love of science grab my attention every time I run across him. Science for me is a recreational pursuit because I love the wonder it elicits. Mr Tyson’s straghtfoward reasoning about the topics he addreses make sense to me, and the “less than 1%” about religious topics has been fundamentally instumental in convincing me that my instinctual mistrust and rejection of dieties is well placed. I think the reason that I find is opinions trustworthy is that I find I trust him. I sense that he doesn’t have agendas other than to enjoy the wonders of the universe through science. It a journey that leads where-ever and where-ever that is is just fine and delightful.

    I’m not criticising all you analytical thinkers out there. I’m rather jealous of your talents. But for all of us who by our natures are more intuitive or don’t have the time to delve deeply into data, Neil deGrasse Tyson is the guy who gives me confidence.

  16. The salient observation is that people don’t believe because of reason and evidence, but in spite of it. Why? Emotional and social factors. So even if the rational arguments against religion, and even a career steeped in the critical habits of science, don’t guarantee the abandonment of entrenched religious faith, there are subtle and unsubtle psychological forces in the shifting Zeitgeist that encourage or discourage this persistent superstition. People believe because they perceive that it is a common, respectable, well-subscribed and even default position to take. But we are changing that climate, with many approaches, intellectual and moral in tone, and by degrees making it hotter for those who stubbornly and uncritically believe these crusty old fantasies. There is always a tardy remnant that needs to see almost everyone else move along before they give up and adjust their “deeply held” beliefs to fit the times. This is a war of attrition, and patient persistence is rewarded. The remarkable thing is how fast the movement has actually progressed in just a few short years of “stridency.” NdGT has chosen to be somewhat on the sidelines, and that’s fine. Not a problem for anyone, as long as he doesn’t mke too much of a pastime of second-guessing those who are committed to the project.

  17. I cannot understand Dr. Dyson’s puzzlement over the tiny residue of religion among eminent scientists. Unless you have the H-G-Wellsian view of scientists as cold and robotic thinking-machines, why would you suppose that they are immune to the ordinary influences of upbringing? Early indoctrination and ongoing social pressure are at work here: QED.

    1. One such reason within that category, it isn’t uncommon for people to perform uncharacteristic acts to keep from upsetting their spouses. Darwin would be an example of someone concerned with the prospect of upsetting his wife.

    2. Why is it not zero?

      Because some people became christians before they became scientists, and never have the personal courage to ‘come out’ as atheists (and lose their family, friends, job, etc.).

      Some study science (with a ton of cognitive bias to ignore anything that doesn’t agree with their theology, or outright lying just to pass the tests) for the sole purpose of having scientific credentials to refute science.

      You can read about some in Liars for Jesus.

      Some claim to be theists only to keep peace in their households — spouses exert a lot of pressure, directly or indirectly.

      I would be surprised to find zero, if only because someone would claim that Science was their god.

  18. I agree with Neil that his comments on God and spirituality are perhaps discussed at far greater frequency than he produces them. Of course, this is a natural human tendency. We are paradoxically drawn to things that stand out and aren’t the norm. We notice the 1 guy that cuts us off, not to 10,000 that drive well. We notice the crime on the news, not the lack of it in daily life. It is inefficient to give focus to the norm, and probably is selected against.

    This of course leads to a problem of perceived probability and risk, with it biased towards the abnormal, which can be a problem source.

    One thing I’d like to address though is Neil’s point about education not leading to zero religious belief. While true in the data he uses, that doesn’t mean that it can’t or won’t in greater society. Of course I’m not claiming it will, but religious beliefs need critical mass. That 7% of elite scientists have plenty of surrounding community to support them.

    Now, if it was 7% of the entire population, and they were spread around the world, the social norm would act against them, not for them. Feedback like that is non-linear, and below some threshold we could indeed see religion go to zero. Again, I’m not claiming it, but Neil’s suggestion is that it wouldn’t go to zero and I don’t think the elite scientist data really supports that conclusion.

  19. There are some different interpretations to Tyson’s observation, some more pessimistic than others. The pessimistic one – a view which I don’t share – is that religion is, to an extent, here for good, because there is an innate psychological predisposition in some people, so strong that even scientists maintain religious beliefs.

    I don’t think that’s the case. There are good evolutionary arguments for why we’re predisposed to religion as a species, but I don’t think these are insurmountable. I think the reason why some scientists maintain religious beliefs is because of the cultural stranglehold that religion has, particularly over children. When a child, no matter how intelligent, is fed religious dogma day after day, those fundamental ideas are difficult to shift, no matter what career you go into. This is especially true given how apt we are to hold cognitive dissonances.

    So I don’t think that greater teaching of the values of the scientific method is enough (though it’s certainly needed), but I don’t think religion is ineradicable either. If we could only get religion taught in an anthropological manner, and if we could get parents to stop forcing religious beliefs on their children, I think we’d see religion recede enormously.

    1. Well said.
      Belief in (say) Zeus has declined to the point of perversion.
      Belief in færies remains only in the infantile or the insane.
      To think that belief in a palpably non-existent magic sky-daddy will fare any better is straining credulity to beyond breaking point.

      We need to categorize the following utterly INDEPENDENT concepts:
      * Religion
      * Faith
      * Church
      * Dogma
      * Belief

      Parasites in Palaces love to conflate these independent concepts, and have profitably exploited and conflation since time immemorial.
      To their benefit, and to your loss.

      1. Indeed, faith (in the sense of things believed but not seen, believed despite a lack of evidence) needs to be ridiculed at every turn. We need to make it crystal clear in society that faith is irrational and not virtuous.

    2. I agree with this completely. I’ve never understood why so many people seem to think it’s not only acceptable, but perhaps necessary to lie to children.

      We should answer questions honestly, and when a parent doesn’t know the answer, he should just admit it (and educate himself to the benefit of both parent and child).

      1. Yes, I see parents far too often lying to children. Those lies maybe convenient for the parent but the child’s mind is forming and it is difficult to ascertain that a negative and deeply rooted problem won’t be a result of those lies.

  20. A Comment to Neil deGrasse Tyson.
    Don’t take the comments that you read here to heart. Sometimes what you read at WET can be unusually critical. We have been even been known to eat our young. I think I could safely make the bet that the majority here deeply respect the work your doing.

  21. I just finished reading all of Neal’s articles, and found almost all of his remarks spot on. I do have one nit to pick though:

    “On the other hand, the methods of science have little or nothing to contribute to ethics, inspiration, morals, beauty, love, hate, or aesthetics. These are vital elements of civilized life, and are central to the concerns of nearly every religion.”

    As Dawkins has often pointed out, just because science cannot (yet) answer some particular question, doesn’t mean that religion CAN. There certainly are questions that to which science currently has no answer, but I would argue that religion offers precizely zero insight into a single one of those very same question.

    1. I agree with you completely. Insofar as religion has contributed to ethics, morals, and the like, the contributions have been largely negative. I much prefer secular to religious morality. And, of course, philosophy and other secular pursuits contribute to the same things. This is just a version of the NOMA argument, in which Gould argues that ethics is, in fact, the purview of religion.

      Oh, and of course science has stuff to contribute to morals: it gives us vital information important to making moral judgments (e.g. things like “when is a fetus viable?” and the like), as well as, in the future, helping us understand the physiological and evolutionary basis of emotion, aesthetic judgements, and the like.

      Which article was this in?

      1. I beg to disagree, both ways.
        Good old Weberian Protestant ethics were decisive in the formation of the formation of modern Western civilisation, until it was able to outgrow its religious braces and become secular. Surely we’d prefer to have gone straight from the Pre-Socratics to the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, the history of our civilisation took a détour, and unpalatable figures like Luther and Calvin and Knox had, quite unwittingly, a hand in shoving us out of the impasse.

        On the other hand, the view that

        the methods of science have little or nothing to contribute to ethics, inspiration, morals, beauty, love, hate, or aesthetics

        is nonsense.
        I know of hardly any other occupation where ethics are so vital a tool of the trade. One’s scientific education is incomplete without incorporating the elements of intellectual integrity.

        As for beauty and aesthetics, just one example: I think the mathematical beauty of the Dirac electron equation is still capable of imparting a physical jolt, like it did to me as a student. I still remember a paper by Graham Farmelo, of some ten years ago, possibly in the Guardian, by the title:

        Physics + Dirac = Poetry

        It said it all, literally, and truly.

        1. “Good old Weberian Protestant ethics were decisive in the formation of the formation of modern Western civilisation […] and unpalatable figures like Luther and Calvin and Knox had, quite unwittingly, a hand in shoving us out of the impasse.”

          This could very well be true for all I know (not being a historian), still I would make a distinction between insights that just happen to come to us through religious sources (as others have pointed out, for most of human history there were hardly any other sources around) and “religious insights”.

          For example I happily concede that the Golden Rule is about as good at it gets as far as ethics are concerned (and I don’t think objections like “what if you’re a suicidal masochist?” deserve a serious response), but only because it’s an inherently SECULAR principle which stands on its own merit without any reference to the will of God. In fact, I would argue that adding a religious motive like “for the sake of God” takes away the whole point.

          1. We might need one more principle besides the Golden Rule to base our ethics on; something like the “I cut the cake and you choose the slice” principle, if that has a name. It can probably be derived from the Golden Rule, but it’s a procedural idea that avoids impasse when it’s not clear what either of us wants, or if we can’t actually set aside differences. It might be the first step in Rawlsian justice.

            1. Isn’t intellectual honesty and epistemic accountability a basic ethical obligation? If we can’t expect one another to make reasonable defenses of our factual claims, to affirm only those things for which we have plausible evidence and argument and to refrain from pretending to know things we cannot, then one of the principle requirments for civil society is out the window. In that sense, science not only contributes to ethics, it is the shining example of ethical discourse and mutual integrity. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against reality” is the great commandment of the empirical ethicist, and the ethical empiricist.

              1. Yes, I’d agree with this, but you might be able to fold it into Golden Rule reasoning – “I do not wish to be told things that are untrue, whether accidentally or deliberately; therefore I must take epistemic responsibility.”

      2. Google and combine to suggest “Holy Wars”, in the October 1999 Natural History Magazine.

        I’d also add the additional point that science has been able to illuminate what humans refer to as “beauty” — which is not quite the same question, but seems as epistemologically close as humans can get.

        I’d further note that what science contributes to the ought questions of morals and other ordering relationships is answers about what the is-choices (whether or not freely willed) are, and sometimes facilitation of insights as to how the assorted ordering relationships like beauty and goodness may relate to one another. However, that is mostly just more pointless harping on an old tune of mine.

    2. I would pick that same nit. I don’t see why any of the items listed in that quote couldn’t be examined by and contributed to via scientific means. Jerry’s comment above nails it: NOMA.

      A chapter in Steven Pinker’s book ‘The Blank Slate – The Modern Denial Of Human Nature’ touches on this.

    3. I agree with you, and further disagree with Neil on this. I think science has great things to say about all of those things.

      A starting point is understanding where our concepts of these things come from. Even The Selfish Gene discusses the evolution of principles like behaviours and judgments that we call “moral”, and why they have importance to us. (And, for that matter, why we are often hypocrites on moral judgment of others versus our own moral behaviour, which don’t come from the same place for the same purpose.)

      Understanding those origins helps determine what the goals of such concepts are and we can determine what answers “should” be, e.g., from game theory or optimizing behaviours towards those goals.

      Even beyond that, we can re-define these things, like morals, to be more precise in goal rather than evolutionary approximations, and use scientific investigation to determine how to best achieve those goals. This is, essentially, the main thesis of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, and I think it is very compelling.

      Hence science can not only contribute to these concepts, it can help define what they are and why they have value in the first place. More importantly, if not a scientific approach then what possible method could be better at it?

    4. I agree about the “one nit.” Curious if his views in this one area may have changed since 1999. I found all the linked-to essays informative and enlightening.

  22. I found the The Perimeter of Ignorance essay really well thought-out, and I liked the main point: we invoke the “god did it” cop-out at the limits of our knowledge, regardless of where those limits may lie. Even brilliant people can fall victim to that sort of faulty reasoning.

    I have been discussing ID with my dad lately, and that essay was helpful in getting my point across that it isn’t real science, but yet another god-of-the-gaps “can’t figure it out, therefore Jesus” argument, cheer leading for theism.

    1. Not quite at the limit of knowledge but more at the limit of our ability/willingness* to discover/acquire new knowledge.

      Newton was able to discover new knowledge in optics and with gravitation and thus didn’t invoke god but when he felt that he couldn’t discover new knowledge (many body gravitational calculations), then he invoked god.

      * willingness because for many they simply don’t want to consider the evidence for what they reject.

  23. The claims of science rely on experimental verification, while the claims of religions rely on faith. These are irreconcilable approaches to knowing, which ensures an eternity of debate wherever and whenever the two camps meet

    If those who wished to privilege religious creationism dedicated as much time and effort and money in every avenue of public discourse and education with the sole intention of undermining and attacking astrophysics (claiming the moral character of those who ‘believed’ in the scientism of astrophysics to be suspect while labeling any of his responses to these attacks to be from just another angry, militant and strident fundamentalist) as they do evolutionary biology and those who teach it, I suspect Dr Tyson would soon be fed up with playing nice and spending only 1% of his time on this matter. He might actually come to realize that science deserves better.

    1. +2

      my thought exactly. dawkins’ tone is not any more strident in his talks about evolutionary biology than tyson’s is when he is talking about astrophysics.
      it’s when creationists nutjobs appear when things get more heated. but that’s a perfectly normal reaction to idiocy imho.

    2. Somewhere he points out that when he gets YECs in the museum he sends them towards the biology/evolution section and they tend not to come back.

      This seems to indicate that even the small amount he gets is irritating enough to unload it on others so I agree with you that he probably wouldn’t be an accomodationist if he was getting the full brunt of the creationist attack.

  24. I agree with Dr Tyson that you are unlikely to get a zero belief in god/s, particularly among the non-scientific community (more’s the pity). Plenty of intelligent people do or believe dum things, and even statisticians are prone to get things wrong in their own subject (Kahneman & Tversky). All very depressing.

    1. But no one is thinking zero belief is likely or necessary. We want to end the unwarranted privilege, financial costs and, deranged governmental policies associated with giving religion an undeserved lofty position in society.

      1. We want to end the unwarranted privilege, financial costs and, deranged governmental policies associated with giving religion an undeserved lofty position in society.

        Yes, a thousand times. The privileges that religion enjoys in America are beyond belief, through legal exemptions which allow religious organizations to evade laws that otherwise would apply. It’s easy to say that things will be better in 200 years, but it’s hard to foresee any change to this system in my lifetime.

      2. Quite.
        A very good beginning would be the simple (and probably secretly popular) expedient of immediate revocation of the automatic tax deductability element for churches.
        Instead, let them prove their worth, as does every non-church charity.

  25. I just appreciate any scientist who has the talent to make science look FUN to kids and who has the ability to make it understandable to the rest of us.

    I just saw a presentation on what is going on in the Creation “Museum” in northern KY, and they are using both those techniques to present their lies to children and the public. This should be of great concern to all as this facility is making tons of money, influencing a whole generation of kids, and using science as a tool for proselytizing.

    Neil is a counter weight to this, and the more he is out in the world drawing people to the right side of things, the better.

    Every figure in the atheist/non-believer world will have a different take on what it means to promote that, and how best to do it. We are not all going to agree on this. Neil seems to have a pretty good balance with how he wants to promote both science and freethinking. I for one really appreciate what he wrote here and how he expressed it all.

  26. 4) Odd that I would be credited with declaring that more educated people are less religious — as some kind of militant posture — when I’m just citing the data.

    Didn’t you know, citing data and speaking honestly is all it takes to be branded a “militant atheist”.

  27. I’ve enjoyed listening to Neil’s “popular science” lectures; he’s quite a showman. That last observation is key, I believe. Like a politician or a comedian or any personality in show business, audience approval matters greatly to him. And for that reason the slant of his lectures is going to tilt depending on the audience he is talking to. His livelihood and reputation depend on being a well-liked expositor of science, and for that reason he’s not going to be “manning the barricades” with the likes of RD and JC. But I say “so what”. It’s good to have him representing science and perhaps encouraging more young people to become scientists.

  28. And for the moment, religious fundamentalists still represent a small (but of course vocal) minority.

    May I recommend the GSS data to your attention? (Berkeley’s SDA archive provides a very nice interface.) At present, the surveys indicate about a quarter of the US declares the Bible as the Inerrant Word of God AND rejects the proposition that humans evolved from earlier animals. Yes, 25% is clearly a minority; however, given that it is approximately twice the fraction of the US that is black, I hardly feel it accurate to term the minority “small”.

    1. Yes, and also why then, if just a tiny minority, is the Republican agenda and its supporters so wrapped up in which candidate is the most fundamentalist. Close to 50 percent of the United States vote (assuming no republican vote tampering (as if)) goes for that agenda.

  29. Well there are also top level nobel prize winning scientists that have later succumbed to junk science.

    It’s essentially a weakness of the intellect in succumbing to what it wants to believe is true. Science is our tool against this mental trap. That’s all it is.

    It seems that as human beings, we all have this personal “want”. We may be conscious of it or we may not be, but it’s there. So this is where doubt and skepticism is of prime importance because it guards us from succumbing to this inherent bias on how we want things to turn out. This doubt always has to be maintained. We have to be vigilant about it. But for some, sooner or later they drop the ball on it and succunmb to their personal “wants”.

    All religions, junk science and other con jobs are all built to exploit this. This is what makes people ignore evidence when it is presented to them.

  30. I don’t think eliminating or even reducing religious practice and belief is in and of itself a worthy quest. Rather the goal should be getting religious believers to moderate their views. Religious practice has been with us across various cultures for thousands of years. Obviously it fulfills some deep need within and provides some
    beneficial advantage or evolution would have cast it aside long ago. We should not be too hard on the accomodationists who must try to reconcile the facts of science with the tenets of religious faith because in so doing many have moved away from fundamentalism to a more moderate world view. Religion is evolving and moderating largely because of the force of the internet, people are questioning and challenging in many online religious forums in ways that would have been considered heretical not toO long ago. So the future of religion is not no religion or even less religion but something perhaps focused on community, values and attitudes.

    1. Religious practice is fine, among consenting adults. Religious practice without belief is pretty much what UU is about.

      Religious belief is too, as long as it doesn’t:
      (a) Lead believers to seek to maintain, or changes to, public policy that restricts freedom of expression or other secular rights.
      (b) Lead believers to deny the scientific basis of, and thus oppose, public policy (eg, wrt AGW).


  31. Do we have similar statistics for european academies?

    I ask because one possible cause for the relatively high percentage of believers in the NAS could be the difficulty of overcoming indoctrination so that you might only get 60-80% (for example) of religiously educated people stop believing in god even after a good science education (similarly to how vaccines do not generally inoculate 100% of those getting the shots).

    If we had similar statistics from european academies, where the percentage of scientists who had a religious education would be lower due to religious demographics, we could see if there is a decline in belief after a scientific education that is proportional to the decline of religiosity in the general population.

    What would be best would be to know not only the proportion of scientists that does/doesn’t believe in god but also the proportion of scientists that used to believe in god but don’t anymore (and vice-versa, those who converted to a religious viewpoint).

    Even if there is a causality between a scientific education and deconversion, if the correlation is not 100% then you still will get scientists that are believer as long as there is a reservoir of believers in the general population (and that is not even considering scientists that start out nonbelievers but convert later like Polkinghorne).

  32. My own analysis, while not having read Tyson’s essays:

    – Tyson is, despite his description, known for outputting very little on religion.

    – Tyson has been portrayed as a believer in accommodationism, something that he now confirms in spades.

    – Tyson erects common strawmen on outspoken atheists, that they are “militant” and that they expect science education making religion less of a problem, “rid the world” even.

    That religious tends to become agnostics and agnostics atheists during higher education and science studies is a simple observation that he himself notes.

    But the value added expectation among many atheists is that less religion will make for better education. (Expectation not observation, there is still little to no support what I know of.) Say, less problems with creationists pushing religion onto science classes.

    That said, I can’t agree with his hypothesis on religiosity among scientists. If we observe the above process with a supply with many religious as in US, we wouldn’t expect a zero observation. Since we are dealing with individuals, we wouldn’t expect an exactly zero observation anyway.

    The more interesting observations would be of older individuals and of secular societies. How low can religiosity tend? My expectation from current observations would be that it can become low indeed, virtually indistinguishable from zero.

    Why not? It isn’t like religion is a certified fetish, even if it certainly can look that way from afar.

    1. Ah, I forgot the difference between the sexual and the anthropological use of fetish. I meant the sexual use fetish.

      But it hits me that _accommodationism_ looks exactly like an anthropological use fetish re religion:

      “an object believed to have supernatural powers, or in particular, a man-made object that has power over others. Essentially, fetishism is the etic attribution of inherent value or powers to an object.” [Wikipedia]


    2. The more interesting observations would be of older individuals…

      Which prompts me to ask, is religiosity amongst those elite scientists correlated with age? One might hypothesise a positive correlation…


    3. Re:
      “My own analysis, while not having read Tyson’s essays: – Tyson has been portrayed as a believer in accommodationism, something that he now confirms in spades.”

      You might want to read the essays. He doesn’t strike me as an accommodationist at all.

  33. If we understand this as something political rather than only about educating science, then accommodationism starts to sound like appeasement, cowardice, even collaborationism. I don’t think those are too far from the truth.

  34. I find these “heresy trials” a distasteful distraction (none more so than Krauss’s, but that at least ended in an apology). They remind me of nothing so much as the endless debates the schisms within Christianity have about communion and baptism and whether the Bible is inerrant or merely inspired and when the rapture is going to occur and whether it’s necessary to speak in tongues to be saved…and on and on and on. It’s not enough that a person be on the side of rationality and critical thought, and no promoter of ignorant superstition. No, they have to phrase their opposition to specific beliefs in specific ways in order to be considered orthodox. And if someone speaks up to say that the Klieg lights and auto-de-fe bullshit against our own isn’t really helping anything, then they have joined the side of the accommodationists. When really it’s more a matter of just being weary of approved formulations and doctrinal purity. I have resisted tooth and nail the characterization of any atheist as “fundamentalist.” That strikes me as absurd. But stuff like this does make me wonder if we’re not just providing ammunition to our opponents.

    1. So… you decided to enter the endless debate, joining on the side of accomodation?

      I’m not sure I get it… Everyone is right? It doesn’t matter who is right? The issue doesn’t exist? The issue isn’t important? Someone who thinks the issue is important is a fundamentalist? We’re being too shrill or strident?

      Please clarify because all I’m picking up is that you don’t like people to disagree with one other.

      1. I think it’s more like the observation that Greta Christina has made several times – we need the flamethrowers and the silent types and even the peacemakers. It’s fine to be gentle, and it will sometimes even be more effective.

        What we don’t need is to equate relative silence with active accomodationism – there is a big difference. I’m not sure where to put NdT in this though.

        1. Unless I misread things (always possible!), I don’t think anyone is objecting to relative silence. I think what people are objecting to is the idea that silence somehow contributes to a solution.

          Isn’t there a difference between “I wish you would say something, but suit yourself” and “Don’t tell me that saying nothing is helpful!”?

          (And fwiw, I’m a huge NdT fan although I think he is whistling past the figurative graveyard as far as anti-science and religion goes.)

          1. This is fair enough. I think much just has to do with personality and what will be convincing to different people. I used to be a creationist Christian, but (much to the chagrin of my family) I “succumbed” to science after I started studying theology and college textbooks on biology and cosmology (thinking I needed to read them so I could bolster my theist arguments against science).

            Was I ever gobsmacked – I had just never known what real understanding and real ingenuity looked like, and it pretty obviously was not to be found in theology books. Anyway, this “conversion” process took 5 hesitant years or so, and during that time I most often gravitated toward people who were pro-science but not necessarily anti-religion, because I just wasn’t sure what I believed. I think there are lots of former theists like me who were impressed with the sheer competence of science and scientists but who bristled at deliberate conflict during that time in our lives.

            None of this suggests that anyone should actively try to promote logical or even methodological compatibility of religion and science – but relative silence can actually make a positive difference in the debate to budding atheists who dislike conflict. And none of this suggests that anyone should be silent when religion tries to encroach on public education or elsewhere in the public sphere – I just think other people will be better at hitting those points with the requisite force than a softy like me.

            1. Thank you, Another Matt–you said it better than I could. I went through very much the same process. One of the features of Christianity I most hated was the (often acknowledged but seldom really condemned) habit of “killing its wounded.” Now, that clearly doesn’t apply to NdT–he’s not wounded. But we observe something of an imperfection in him–an unwillingness to go as far as we’d like in demonstrating the incompatibility between science and religion. And we pounce. Do I think being right is important? Hells to the yeah, I gave up a fair amount to join the pro-reason lobby.

              But I also think we could treat people a little more kindly. Or…maybe more to the point, if we’re really going to tear into people, let’s go after the Plantingas and Craigs and Polkinghornes and the like. You’ll never, ever see me write one of these whiny “can’t we be nicer” comments when we attack those motherfuckers. Sometimes, though, it seems like Hawking and Krauss and Mooney and Tyson and the like can’t say much of anything without some “freethinker” somewhere wishing he’d have said more, or less, or other. And I do lean toward Greta’s approach, of allowing, even encouraging, a variety of styles and voices. As much as I love Dawkins and PZ and Hitch and Harris, frankly if those were the only atheist voices I had been exposed to, it might have been a much longer, possibly different journey out of fundamentalist Christianity.

              The voice that worked on me was a pretty gentle one: Carl Sagan. “The Demon-Haunted World” was a turning point for me. And while it is never accommodationist, neither does it go out of its way to shout down religion at every opportunity. I don’t think we have a real disagreement here on anything important–and I’m tired and crabby today, so please cut me a slice of slack. But there’s something in me that recoils at reading comments that would not be out of place on one of those Christian websites that concerns itself with jots and tittles to the detriment of bigger pictures.

              I’ll probably end up regret posting this comment. Probably the bottom line is, I’ve gotten so much out of Krauss and Tyson, for example, and seeing them criticized–even though I know they can take it, and I get that rationalism is a full-contact sport–touches a nerve in me.

              1. It’s interesting to me. PZ, Dawkins, and Hitch are all completely indispensable, and I would have hated them at age 14 or 18 (I would not have understood them either, which is probably the more important point). And after all we’re both posting on Jerry Coyne’s weblogsite, someone who is not exactly hesitant to speak up.

                Of all the popular writers, Douglas Hofstadter’s work probably had more influence on shaping my beliefs than anyone, and he’s fairly silent on the religion matter too. One’s work just doesn’t need to be about the conflict to have a powerful and positive role to play in the argument.

  35. Since the moderator has moved NDGT’ response here, I am, herewith, moving my response to NDGT to this thread:

    Wayne Tyson
    Posted February 22, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink
    NDGT (If I may be so presumptuous/lazy as to abbrev. your wonderful name), your post was full of solid stuff, but now you will have to adjust your figure up to 2% from 1%.

    Continuing with my presumptuousness, I will levy the charge that the quality which endears me most to you, your impish sense of humor, gets past most people, thus the confusion of literalists and reductionists.

    I look forward to hearing your Beyond Belie talk–from the nosebleed seats, of course.

  36. I don’t know what Neil deGrasse Tyson is trying to point out by citing that stat but most of the time when I see it bandied about by atheists it’s to say ra-ra look how clever we are. Sorry to stand up for the believers here but this one always irritates me. Personally, I have a religious wife who is way smarter than me, has all three of her degrees top of her class with distinction, and maybe my being less smart is what makes me an agnostic, or not an atheist, but luckily you don’t have to be very clever to at least see the fallacy here: the veracity of an idea has nothing to do with its popularity. Do I really need to remind anyone of this?

    And you’re also very mistaken if you think you can deduce a particular relationship from that statistic, even if religiosity is zero for scientists. A statistic can only point to the presence of a relationship; it cannot give any indication as to the nature of the relationship. So there may be a relationship between being a modern, clever scientist and being and atheist but that relationship could just as likely be positive as it could be negative:
    It could be because scientists are less superstitious but it could just as likely be because they understand religion very poorly;
    it could be because they no longer need God to explain lightening, etc but it could just as likely be because they are prone to be reductionist and make the category error.

    So certainly, the statistic does point to an intriguing phenomenon but you’d have to get to grips with some very messy stuff to work out why. It would be intellectually very lazy to feel satisfied with the stat.

    1. I don’t think anyone’s point is that being an atheist makes you an intellectual titan. However the data suggests that better science education and performance leads to less religion, and/or less religion leads to better scientific performance. Like any statistic, that doesn’t imply there aren’t smart religious folk or dumb atheists.

      It would be a fallacy to argue that a popular idea must be true, but (speaking as an American here) atheism isn’t particularly popular so no one is making that argument. Rather, one could argue that the consensus opinion of a group of experts is more likely to be true. That’s not a fallacy. The consensus could of course be wrong but it’s an inductive sort of argument and thus not refuted by a strict deductive fallacy.

      So, on an inductive understanding, it’s not ‘just as likely’ that scientists are irreligious for rational versus irrational reasons. The point of picking scientists or ‘elite’ members thereof is that we expect those people to be good at rational, skeptical inspection of an idea and to have a talent for correctly modeling the world. If you want to discount that idea you need to show that for some reason scientists as a group don’t apply their talents to religious issues, or that they are swamped by some bias that is selected for in ‘scientists’ versus ‘non-scientists’.

      TL_DR: I’m not an atheist because of the high percentage of atheists among top scientists, but that statistic is probably not a coincidence.

    2. I mean no personal offense to your wife, but however intelligent religious people are, I have never found their reasons for being religious to be anywhere near coherent. By it’s very nature “faith” requires the repudiation of reason as a basis for deciding what is true and what isn’t. If your wife is religious it is in spite of being intelligent.

      1. Michael Shermer has a chapter in his book, called: Why Smart People Believe Weird Things

        His conclusion? They believe them for stupid reasons, but are emotionally attached to them and can better rationalize them when their stupidity is pointed out.

        So . . . I’d have to say the evidence demonstrates that people who are theists are not smart about the existence of god(s).

        I would say the same thing about Stephen Hawking if he made decisions based on his horoscope. Or if Richard Dawkins said he believed in astral projection.

        It’s like an idiot-savant, to use a non-PC term.

    3. The reason your wife is religious (and smarter than you) is because religion is a germ that society infects into a young child’s blood stream at a young age.

      When we are kids we figure out rather quickly that the tooth fairy, santa, leprachauns, etc., are all fake fairy tales.

      But then at the same time we see momma playing gospel every Sunday, hauling us to church, and reading the bible.

      How many American families do not have at least 2 bibles in their home?

      When you see all the weirdos in church with their hands in the air, praising, singing, and crying, and closing their eyes and thinking inside their brains (praying) every week as a child. And all through your young adult life and you don’t question the absurd fairy tales then you still are infected.

      No offense but your wife still has the religious germ.

    4. Josh, Tim, Xuuths, thanks for your responses, I really appreciate the opportunity to discuss these things with smart, open-minded people.

      Josh, you know I really do often encounter people committing that that fallacy but I’m glad to be able to set that aside here. What you say about induction is interesting but I’m going to have to duck that one because I don’t subscribe to the current model/doctrine of induction and it would get too complicated. I’d rather just take the tack of arguing that modern atheist scientists tend to be everything but authorities on religion. It’s a major factor that has me holding back on atheism. To my mind, scientists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris exhibit an incredibly poor understanding of the thing they reject. I see nothing but a big straw man. See what I have to say about faith below for an example.

      Tim, Xuuths, you obviously get my point then – by making the distinction between intelligence and the actual reasons for believing something. It really does come down to dealing with some rather messy reasons and stuff like what faith is. But the point I’d like to make is a little more subtle. I’m not denying the role of intelligence in the specifics of what one believes, rather I’m saying it’s like having a sharp scalpel as opposed a blunt knife. Having it means you have the capacity to make subtle distinctions and understand things but there is little in that scalpel itself which will have you use it for this or that purpose or with any precision. Most atheists hack crudely at religion, and I include Richard Dawkins here, though he at least does it with a sharp wit. 🙂

      What you have to say about faith is a good example. I hope this doesn’t piss you off but I have to say you clearly don’t know what faith is, have not questioned your assumptions about it. Here is a nice litmus test for having a basic understanding of what faith is:
      The apostle Paul said “We walk by faith, not by sight.” If your response to that is anything like, “Yeah, see, faith is blind” then, sorry, but you get the buzzer not the bell. Your prize: some basic literature lessons. This applies whether you are a believer or not. Most fundamentalists also think this means faith is blind.

      The blind faith idea shows a gross oversight of the obvious fact that Paul is referring to the walk of life. It’s just comical to think he’s referring to bipedal locomotion and the reliable optical sense data one needs for that. It takes just the slightest bit of common sense literary skill to unpack this enough to see that Paul means the exact opposite to the faith-is-blind reading. All he’s saying is that one needs more than just your eyes for the walk of life, that you need deeper insight, and the Faith is what gives you that. An analogy would be how the education, training and traditions of a pilot enables him/her to read all those complicated dials in the cockpit and fly skillfully. Now I’m not trying to make any specific claims about how a good Christian may or may not be better able to read a situation than a poor damned heathen, all I’m saying is that if you wish to disabuse a Christian of his faith, you’re not going to get anywhere if you don’t know what faith is. That’s not very clever at all.

      You say “in spite of”, well, if I had to go ahead and reject the notion of faith, it would be in spite of the scientists and their half-baked ideas on the matter.

      1. Now I’m not trying to make any specific claims about how a good Christian may or may not be better able to read a situation than a poor damned heathen, all I’m saying is that if you wish to disabuse a Christian of his faith, you’re not going to get anywhere if you don’t know what faith is.

        Forgive me, but you aren’t trying to make any specific claims at all.

        I often read your flavor of response, which says that atheists really just don’t know much about faith and only tilt at windmills and defeat straw men, and I wish that you had included your specific thoughts about what faith is that is different from the atheist understanding (or at least a resource for further reading).

        Until then, let me offer this recent post by Eric MacDonald, which is as good and succinct a summary as any for why atheists tend to focus on faith primarily as a set of beliefs, and reject faith by rejecting those beliefs.

      2. Beachscriber wrote:
        All he’s saying is that one needs more than just your eyes for the walk of life, that you need deeper insight, and the Faith is what gives you that.

        After all your declaiming about how atheists don’t know what faith is, this is the best you can come up with? That one needs Faith, (whatever it is), to have a meaningful life. Why not tell us what one needs faith in? God, something unseen, what? And what would faith give us insight into? Some deeper truth, no doubt, perhaps the supernatural. Your whole screed is simply empty rhetoric, pompous and pretentious. In spite of Paul I think I’ll stick to what I can see, and leave the Faith, (with a capital F) to you.

      3. Matt, thanks for that article. It was a good read. Though it will take a lot more than that to convince me that people like Dawkins and Harris actually understand the stuff they’d like to debunk. To someone like myself, it really is quite overwhelming. Another good example is the way they talk about the eye-for-eye thing, taking it as literally as those idiots who actually pluck eyes out while the slightest bit of common sense tells us the eyes and teeth are given as tokens in a system of proportional justice – a standard we practice to this day. And what about Dawkins calling the sins of the fathers principle evil. To my mind he hasn’t thought past his nose about it let alone turned it on its head: I don’t want to live in a world where my actions have no consequences. I am accountable to my children and their children some things I might do will affect them. Etc. We’re just scratching the surface here. My point is I appreciate Neil deGT’s diffidence and consider most of the prominent New Atheists unsubtle, to say the least.

        Tom, I just debunked the old “faith is blind” idea and you say “Is that the best you can do?” If I lop your legs off next are you going to say it’s just a scratch?

        But generally, I think you are under the misapprehension that I have an apologetics agenda. I don’t. So I have no interest in dealing exhaustively with the concept of faith here. I was just using one aspect of it as an example of how atheists tend to have crude, simplistic, fallacious ideas of the religious stuff they wish to debunk. And I’ll say it again, that does not mean they are wrong.

        1. Beachscriber: Paleeze. Point us to a place where someone advocated living in a world where a person’s actions have no consequences. Pardon me, but Jeezus Christ on a Frigging Tricycle!

          The question isn’t whether you are accountable to your children or not, it is whether your children are responsible for your “original” misconduct.

        2. I agree with James.

          And why is unsubtle a bad thing? It really depend on how you interpret it. Direct. Forthright. Uncompromising.

          When dealing with the pernicious effects of religion, on society and the individual, those sound like positive traits to me.


          1. Unsubtle is a bad thing because life is not unsubtle. Here’s another subtlety of life: its subtlety does not preclude us from being direct, forthright and uncompromising in our dealings. Those qualities are something I like in the New Atheist movement (by contrast, the fundamentalists do a lot of ducking and diving). But don’t expect to hit your target with your directness if your understanding of the situation is unsubtle.

        3. “atheists tend to have crude, simplistic, fallacious ideas of the religious stuff they wish to debunk”—If those atheists were themselves formerly religios, would you say that their ideas then must have been crude, simplistic and fallacious?

          In fact, I suspect most believers’ ideas are primitive and unsophisticated compared to the stuff that the theologians concoct—and I think that it’s those ideas that Dawkins et al. primarily aim to debunk. Everything else is just courtly embroidery.


          1. Well, there we can agree on some things. I’m very happy to see the atheist fire burn off the dross. My problem is they are oblivious to the gold – plebs.

            1. Again: “the plebeians” are not ‘gold’. Your incredibly vapid assertions are mere distractions from the patent fact that you have zero to say of any consequence.

              Might I suggest that you might be best served by respecting your chosen non-de-plume, your nym behind-which-you hide, and revert to inscribing your musings upon the sand, where they will gain their rightful position in history: being repeatedly and assuredly excoriated by the relentless tides.

            2. Ah, Michael, I just looked you up myself and it seems I misread you by trying to be reasonable. Sorry about that.

              1. Ha! I win! You took sarcasm literally. This is fun. Lets do it again tomorrow.

              2. that’s enough–I won’t have my readers calling other readers imbeciles. Michael, you apologize for your invective, or post elsewhere.

              3. My apologies, JAC. I chimed in before finding you’d already dealt with the situation.

              4. Awgee, we was just beginning to have some fun. But I guess you know where it will all lead, and really, the main reason I’m here is to learn more about evolution. Getting to bounce some of my own ideas about religion and ethics around is a bonus.

              5. Michael Kingsford Gray wrote:

                A death in the family (my mother) has affected my reason

                Nothing wrong with your reasoning. A bit emotional, perhaps, which is understandable.

        4. GB, No, I wouldn’t bother with more than just a flat denial of that: common sense tells us the question is not whether your children are responsible for your misconduct (what idiot construed it that way?!) but whether your are accountable to your children. If you are a religious person, then you believe this is the way God made the world and if you are not that is still the way you believe the world to be. What difference does it make?! Can we please just get off our tricycles and high horses and talk common sense?

          Having said that, as a white person living in South Africa, I do take some responsibility for my forefathers’ actions and this determines how I respond to stuff like affirmative action … (subtle stuff, I know).

          1. 1) “Common Sense” is not.
            2) Why on Earth do you take responsibility for actions over other’s actions which you had no possible or even potential control, nor culpability? That sounds to me like the emotions of (at least) a very confused individual, and (at worst) an individual who is not quite ‘right in the head’.
            3) Blithering is not subtle.

          2. 1) 🙂 damn right about that.
            2) I don’t see myself 100% individualistically but as an element of a trend, a group. Umuntu, ngumuntu, ngabantu. Look that up and you might begin to understand my position.

            1. You have already outlined your vapid position in excruciating detail.
              So sufficiently that it might be apparent to to a retarded six-year-old.
              I do not require another round of infantile word-games by which to amplify my already solid opinion of your empty-headed cluelessness, thank you.
              I fear that I already understand your position now to the extent where said understanding has contaminated me mentally to wish to desperately wash my mind in suplhuric acid.

          3. Well, Beachscriber, I really can’t discern a clear position for your particular version of common sense.

            1) Only an idiot would construe that children are responsible for the misconduct of their parents. (and presumably you are not an idiot)

            2) God made it so that they were. (And presumably you are a believer.)

            3) You are a white person in South Africa. Therefore you are responsible for your forefather’s actions.

            Number 1 is inconsistent with 2 and 3. A person who thinks 2 and 3 are true must, apparently, cop to being an idiot.

            There is no evidence at all for #2, which can consequently be dismissed without further comment.

            As for #3, no person is responsible for the acts of previous generations. Period. Only a religious madman would send a child to prison because his grandfather committed grand larceny.

            We can, however, recognize when prior generations’ actions have produced unhappy results with which we and other living people must contend. This is the reason for affirmative action. It is not a punishment served by you for the crimes of your parents. It is you, me, and other living people trying to make the world better with policies that address unfair consequences of prior generations’ misconduct. These are entirely different moral perspectives. In one we are responsible _to_ living people. In the other (religious view) we are held responsible _for_ someone else’s (made up, in the case of the talking snake) crime.

            1. GB, I’m sorry. I left that seeming contradiction there deliberately to provoke a response and then forgot about it. I must seem rude after you made the effort to set out your argument so nicely.

              It’s quite simple really. I distinguish between myself as an individual and myself as a member of a group. Apartheid South Africa made that easy because the legislation defined me as a member of the oppressive elite whether I liked it or not. The legacy of that will live on for some time to come. I don’t think it is right that I pay for all of my father’s racist actions but I cannot deny my membership of the group and to the extent it still exists I behave in ways that are sensitive to the legacy – by tolerating some affirmative action, by helping rebuild broken social structures, by tolerating resentment, etc. By contrast, individual acts of racism on my part towards particular people would demand a different, more personal response. So there is no contradiction because the specific responsibilities and responses demanded are different between individual actions and those of the group I am part of.

              1. Well, no, I didn’t think it rude. I just forgot about it. In any case, I think you are now saying you didn’t mean what you said before, that you only did it to be provocative. And that you agree with me. If so: no harm, no foul. But I can’t honestly say I understand what your point is (or was).

              2. “But I can’t honestly say I understand what your point is (or was).”
                gbjames, my point was and remains that the idea of having one’s sins visited on subsequent generations is good and right, and I’m saying that whether God made it that way or not. On the surface of it, it seems unfair, but unlike Sam Harris, et al, I’m thinking past my nose about it. I’m looking at the other side of the coin and noticing that it means I’m responsible for my actions to subsequent generations and I aught therefore to be careful (the word here would be God-fearing if you believe God made it that way). How could anyone disagree with that little reality of life? Wouldn’t you agree that if you sexually abused your daughter, you’d be responsible for her messed up life and to some extent for her children’s too? Now look back at the other side of the coin, from the point of view of your messed-up grand children. Should they call foul on God or Evolution or whatever for making things that way? No, most certainly not. For one, a foul in the system leaves you with an unfair immunity and for two, it leaves them with the imperative to break the cycle of abuse as best they can.

                If, like me, you see how much sense it actually makes, you can’t help wondering why people like Dawkins call God evil for it. Is he not capable of looking at the other side of the coin?! This is just one example among countless where they just reveal their ignorance. You should worry that they so do the case against religion a disservice.

                After making my point of looking at the other side of the coin, and flatly denying your charge that it would make the children responsible for your sins (the absurdity of that is a matter of agency in responsibility), I then left an apparent contradiction hanging in the air when I said that I do however take some responsibility for my white South African forefather’s actions. That paradox is resolved by pointing out the individual-group distinction. The group spans generations and one bears the responsibility of its actions in different ways to that of individual actions. It’s complicated but this is not the sort of thing you want to oversimplify if you want to resolve human conflicts.

              3. “the idea of having one’s sins visited on subsequent generations is good and right”

                Do you actually mean this? It is an awful idea, the kind that would be dreamt up by a sadist. I would disagree that you are “thinking beyond your nose”. You are just spinning rationalizations to justify godly fantisies.

              4. Could you perhaps respond to the reasons I give? And you can leave God out of it because I don’t currently see how it makes much difference whether God or Evolution made it that way. And would you actually prefer a world in which you bore no responsibility for actions affecting subsequent generations?

              5. In fact, please do leave God out of it. Lets just look at it from an evolutionary point of view. How far do you think the human race would have got if it did not to some extent take responsibility for the things that negatively affect subsequent generations?

              6. Why would one leave god/religion out of a discussion that is at root about a religious doctrine? What is under discussion is the doctrine of original sin. Don’t ask me to pretend otherwise.

                You ask if I would “prefer a world in which you bore no responsibility for actions affecting subsequent generations”. The question get it exactly upside down. We are not discussing whether someone should be held responsible for their misconduct toward subsequent generations.(Which, of course they should.) What is at issue is whether someone is to be held responsible for the misconduct of his/her ancestors (especially fictive ones).

        5. Beachscriber wrote:
          I just debunked the old “faith is blind” idea

          I’m sorry, but you have “debunked” nothing. All you have done is assert that Faith gives one a deeper insight into life. Without defining what this “Faith” is that you speak so glibly of.

          I have no interest in dealing exhaustively with the concept of faith here.

          In other words you can’t define it. Interesting.

          1. I don’t understand why you’re giving me such a bloody hard time over such a small thing. Faith is a complex thing (it is classed as a virtue and virtues are complicated) and I’m sure you’re not interested in a thesis in the matter. All was trying to do is use a common, silly misunderstanding of an aspect of faith as an example of how much of religion is poorly understood. This was with a view to explaining my own backing of Neil deG on a more diffident approach. I do have lots of good reasons to consider Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins simplistic on these matters and the blind faith mistake is the least of it but I don’t have some bloody bible belt agenda and I don’t care much for US politics and I’m not going to write a thesis on the subject in this narrow little column.

            1. Classed as a virtue? By who? (the faithful, of course.)

              I classify faith as quite the opposite. There is nothing remotely virtuous in believing in things for which there is no evidence.

            2. Your saying that faith is is a matter of believing in things for which there is no evidence is EXACTLY the blind faith idea. This reveals a subversive strategy on your part. Instead of admitting to having the “blind” concept of faith and facing my objections to it, you simply tell me I’m saying nothing. I guessed your assumptions and spoke of them before you revealed them explicitly. If your assumptions are nothing then, ok, I said nothing.

              Your “by who” question reveals a fallacious idea of virtue too. I suspect you think it is some kind salad bar of of nice values to pick and choose from depending who’s they are, or some woo woo, spiritual-moral standard set by the church. Heck, faith isn’t even necessarily directed at God! Even here, I’m thinking you are not debating this stuff in good faith, and God has nothing to do with that. You really just don’t want to know what faith really is and no amount of showing up your assumptions is going to change that. And that suits me fine because I don’t see myself writing a whole explanation here.

              1. Trying to make a case that faith (in the religious sense… I trust we are not confusing that with the use of the word to say “expectation based on prior experience”) is different from “blind faith” is provides no clarity at all. In the religious use of the word there is simply not a difference. If you are a normal Christian believer you take things like the talking snake story, Jesus’ resurrection and divinity, etc. on faith. You have no choice in the matter since there is no evidence for such things. None. Quibbling that this is “blind” in order to distinguish it from some less un-bound-by-reality version of religion is a dog that won’t hunt. Please provide examples of “non-blind-faith” religious beliefs.

  37. What a bitch move on the part of the writer not responding to Dr. Tyson when he was the one ranting on Tyson’s views. More and more I’m losing respect for this blog. It seems like a total waste of free time reading this crap.

    1. I simply can’t spare the time (after all, I’m retired) to read EVERYTHING that is written here or anywhere that lacks continuity/DIRECT responsiveness to the point-instant cited (This is, if it is any consolation, endemic to, and epidemic within, the Internet at Large.). Too often (almost always) replies tend to add up to diversionary tactics because someone heats up the kitchen. In rather strange attempts to save face (many posters put another person down to feel relatively higher up), posters commonly stray from the point, preferring ranting against OPINION rather than indulging in intellectual honesty. Digression and adding irrelevancies are other tactics under the mask of self-anointed superiority to puff up already overstuffed shirts to legendary proportions, blissfully unaware that the mirrors before which they preen are from the Fun House at the carnival.

      That said, I stick with this blog, not because I am entertained by the ad hominem attacks, but because they are the price to pay to blow such chaff away for the kernels of wisdom that sometimes rise to the standards I expected when I was searching for a discussion on evolutionary biology and ended up here, where Atheism seems to have been largely degraded to something frighteningly like a belief-system, complete with authoritarian statements, hierarchy, (gulp) excommunication . . .

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