Neil deGrasse Tyson on science/religion accommodationism

May 22, 2015 • 3:07 pm

Apropos today’s discussion on reddit and my post about the conflict between science and religion, I came across this 11-minute discussion between Bill Moyers and Neil DeGrasse Tyson about that conflict. Tyson is far harder on religion, and far more insistent on the incompatibility between scientific and religious claims, than I’ve seen before. (Moyers clearly has a weakness for faith.) At 3:08, Tyson says he doesn’t think faith and science are reconcilable—that every effort to reconcile them has failed. He adds that he has “zero confidence” that anything fruitful will emerge from efforts to effect such a reconciliation.

My only disagreement with Tyson here is that he characterizes all creationists as “fundamentalists”, and not “enlightened religious people.” He’s talking about a minimum of 42% of Americans, and a maximum of 73%. I doubt that even 40% of Americans would characterize themselves as fundamentalists! Also, Tyson seems overly concerned with creationism as the predominant danger of faith, while I see many other dangers—some far more harmful than simply teaching creationism in the science class. In general, though, Tyson presents strong opinions in an eloquent way. His discussion of god-of-the-gaps arguments starting at 8:30 is very good.

Maybe if I get a vest with stars on it I’ll be seen as less strident!

61 thoughts on “Neil deGrasse Tyson on science/religion accommodationism

  1. He didn’t come across this way on the latest Star Talk. He let the priest get away with a lot of crap.

    1. Do you mean the episode with James Martin, the jesuit priest? I think Neil Degrasse Tyson wanted to hear himself too much.

      1. Yeah that’s the one. He was too generous and let the priest get away with typical religious fallacious arguments.

        1. I agree with you. I almost threw my beer at the television in exasperation. Neil Degrasse Tyson was too nice to go head-to-head with the priest.

          1. Yes, and I didn’t expect NDT to be rude to him but he should not have let him get away with the fallacies he was spewing…people will watch that and think the priest had some good points (he didn’t).

    2. It’s sorta like letting your aged aunt with dementia get away with a lot of crap – she doesn’t know any better. Well, she does – but reality strikes.

  2. I think he’s quite clear on his attitude toward religion, even if he isn’t willing to wear the label “atheist”. He outlined his reasons for this last year on an episode of the Rationally Speaking podcast:

    He’s definitely been critical of a lot of the rhetorical strategies of Dawkins and the “New Atheist” crowd, but without falling into the opposite error of accommodation or “new atheists are the same as fundamentalists” malarkey. Overall, Tyson strikes a good balance here, making him a good ambassador for science and reason.

    1. I was kind of disgusted with his showing on Rationally Speaking. I assumed that he steered away from religion because dissing it would put off otherwise receptive (to science) people, which I could understand. But that’s not it.

      The reason he gave for not calling himself an atheist was that he doesn’t like labels (slippery), and he doesn’t talk about religion much because it just doesn’t interest him. Science interests him, (but not the main detractor of science).

      1. Regardless of his professed reason, I think it’s precisely because he wants to be as diplomatic as possible – he wants to be our generation’s Carl Sagan, not Richard Dawkins.

        Dawkins gets immediately tuned out by a large number of people, because he’s so well known for his atheism first, and his science credentials second. I bet a lot of Dawkins’ religious critics probably don’t even know what type of scientist he is.

        So, like Sagan, NdT will make the odd comments here and there that make it pretty obvious what he really thinks about this stuff, but otherwise deflect the topic by saying he “isn’t interested” or “doesn’t want to label himself”, or whatever.

        I think those excuses are pretty soft and lame, but oh well. He’s a force for good.

        1. I don’t see why he doesn’t simply say, when talking to a scientific audience, that putting religion down will turn a lot of people off. That’s fine, it makes sense. Instead he seems to either be daft about it or he makes dumb excuses.

        2. NdGT can often be heard proclaiming that he does not care what people believe and they can believe anything they want as long as they don’t bring it into the science classroom.

          He seems not to notice the logical inconsistency of this stance: it’s precisely the beliefs of godbotherers that compels them to insist not only on bringing their tripe into the science classroom but also having it overrule science. So if you don’t care and don’t take a vigorous non-accomodationist stance against tripe, tripe is what you get.

      2. I am not sure you are fair with him.
        I don’t know if he shares my view on this, but for me, theism is a non-position. It’s so clearly unsound intellectually, that I don’t find it necessary to make serious arguments against it.
        Now, I live in Israel, and we learn bible in school (critically in the state education system), so I need to explain to my child that the biblical creation story is a story and not how the universe took its current form. I had to explain to her that God is a superstition, just like (excuse me, Jerry) black cats bringing bad luck, or astrology and the like. But arguing with mature people about the existence of some imaginary creature which created the world and guides it is just too ridiculous for me.
        I understand the need the need in America to fight to keep creationism out of science class, so maybe your situation is different.

        1. Agreed, religious belief is a mere symptom of the underlying disease of belief held in the absence of evidence or in the face of contrary evidence.

          But it has devastating consequences: If you believe you’re occupying land out of security concerns you can be argued out of doing so if those concerns are allayed. Not so much if you occupy it because you believe your god gave it to you.

          1. HEH
            OK, I’ll bite. Legal definitions aside, many Jews, religious and secular [including me], feel that we are the indigenous people in this land, and as such, we are not occupiers.
            What to do with this pragmatically is a different matter. That you have a certain right doesn’t mean that other considerations cannot lead you to give it up. The difference you’re talking about comes to play here, but it’s not absolute either. In fact, some religious supporters of the two states solution support it with religious arguments, and secular opponents of it do just fine (in their opinion. I think they are wrong) without referring to anything divine.

        2. It’s ridiculousness is precisely why why argue against it.

          Hitler had some ridiculous ideas, too. You wouldn’t have taken this laissez faire approach with the Nazis, presumably.

          There comes a point at which the spread ridiculousness must be resisted. If I were you, I’d feel as though I’d already reached that point, given your example. The school my daughter attends should not be forcing me to correct their teaching. A world populated with ridiculousness would be a dangerous world. Do you really want to live in a world governed by people whose reasoning has been hobbled by the ridiculous baloney they embrace?

          We’ve got to try to get them to let go of it.

          1. I’m a great supporter of teaching the bible in schools, just as we teach other literature (You cannot finish school here without studying some important Israeli books, as well as some Russian, English, Greek and other foreign literature. The bible has a unique place in the Jewish heritage, and you are ignorant if you are not familiar with it. It isn’t taught as divine truth in our schools and I see no problem with it.
            I also explained to my daughter that there are no witches, fairies and zombies. This doesn’t make me feel that I need to take the “opposing views” seriously.
            Again, here, nobody is trying to teach biblical stories as science, so we don’t need to be as careful as Americans have to be.

            1. “It isn’t taught as divine truth in our schools and I see no problem with it”

              That’s exactly right. By all means teach the bible, but as literature, not as divine. Some day in the U.S…

            2. I’ll take your word for it, but I’m still left wondering why you need to explain to your daughter at home that the bible is fiction if they clearly portray it as fiction at her school. My parents never had to clarify to me that the stories about Zeus and Hades were myths, and I learned about them at school. They would only have had to clarify if my teachers were presenting the stories as something other than myth.

              Trying to get people to abandon ridiculous beliefs doesn’t require taking their beliefs or arguments seriously. But it’s just foolishness to suppose that you should let ridiculous beliefs proliferate simply because you think the beliefs are ridiculous. Those beliefs have effects, and we absolutely should take those effects seriously, wherever we are. Just because where you live is not as close to theocracy as the U.S. is at the moment doesn’t mean you should be complacent.

              1. She’s 7 years old. The limits between fact and fiction are not always clear at her age.
                I think that she knew to tell that mummy and daddy don’t believe in God before she knew what God was, that “humans are apes” and animals are evolving “from previous animals”. When she wants to please me, she says that she is curious, and scientists are the heroes in our home. So you should get the idea of how she is brought up…

    2. “He’s definitely been critical of a lot of the rhetorical strategies of Dawkins and the “New Atheist” crowd . . . .”

      Well, since he’s so well-positioned to critique others in this regard, perhaps he could give Dawkins lessons on how to shout at and interrupt others on stage. (I wonder if anyone brings ear plugs to his presentations.) Most who share the stage with him put up with it, I gather in an effort to be nice and Keep The Peace. Lawrence Krauss doesn’t put up with it, giving as good as he gets.

  3. Stop worrying about being strident. Anyone who publicly criticizes religion is called strident. No matter hoe polite you are, you can’t avoid the adjective.

  4. Tyson made a series of visits with Moyers when he was doing the Cosmos program. And Moyers is no longer doing a show on PBS, unfortunately but still operates a web site. Also, Moyers is certainly religious still to some degree. I think his dad was a preacher in Texas so he most likely had it drilled in. His main thing as most know is politics, journalism and is a liberal always.

    Always give you the news you would not get anywhere else.

      1. I did a little reading on Moyers. He was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1954 and earned a master of divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1959. He worked both as a pastor and director of information at the SBC seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, before joining the staff of the newly created Peace Corps during the Kennedy administration

        In 1989 after a penetrating interview with a high level Babtist and politician, Moyers and the leadership had a serious falling out.
        So, I have not learned more about his religiosity in later life.

  5. Just finished reading your comments on Reddit. Superbly done.

    Haven’t watched the video yet…but I wanted to comment that Moyers has a long history as what I think of as a “Jimmy Carter-style” Christian. I think Moyers might even be a pastor of some liberally progressive denomination. Very much a salad bar Christian, but exquisite taste in what to pick out and what to leave behind — a perfect example of, “If this was mainstream Christianity, there would be bigger problems to focus on.”

    On an entirely unrelated note…I just made the best cup of coffee I ever have. It’s taken an hell of a lot of experimentation, but I think I’ve finally found a really, really good baseline….


    1. I guess I’m not really a big fan of the Jimmy Carter style “religious left”, which at least when it comes to issues around sexuality, personal drug use, etc, is every bit as harsh and punitive as the religious right. I’m thinking specifically of Jimmy Carter and the Carter Center’s recently taking up the cause of a global war against pornography, prostitution, and the sex industry, in the face of increasing recognition that decriminalization and harm reduction might be a better approach, and one more consistent with liberal democratic values.

    2. Just finished reading your comments on Reddit. Superbly done.

      Ditto, and seconded. I browse the Reddit AMA’s from time to time, and I’ve never seen anyone provide so many detailed answers.

      1. Ah…French press, 25g beans ground at 1 1/2 turns on a Lido 3 grinder, sifted through 1mm mesh (giving 20g grinds), 250g 92°C water…steep for two minutes, very slowly plunge without compressing the grinds, just as slowly raise the plunger until it’s just barely submerged…steep another 6 minutes, repeat the plunge (with raising it), decant into a thermos. (With everything pre-warmed, of course…good beans…all the usual….)

        The plunging is in lieu of the various usual stirring methods, only it’s more thorough and even. And keeping it submerged keeps the grounds submerged as well.

        …at least, it seems to work…this morning’s coffee was as good a reflection of the beans I used as yesterday’s was, only I much prefer the Ethiopian beans I used yesterday to the Sumatran ones today.

        (If at all possible, find a local roaster whose stuff you like and just buy a week or so of beans at a time.)


        1. Thanks, Ben. Some of the best coffee I ever had was from a french press (some of the “less good” too). I’ll definitely try your method. Have a great weekend!

        2. When I learned all about coffee on Big Island in HI I totally could see how you could ruin it all with bad roasting. The place I went in Kona would roast peoples’ beans for them for a cost.

          1. I won’t rule out the possibility of me attempting to roast beans someday…but that’s so far down the road that there’s no point in pretending to even think about it. Everybody worth their salt these days has computer-controlled temperature profiles, and how’m I supposed to do better with home equipment?

            Brewing I now know I can handle. I’m sure I’ll be tweaking my brewing recipe for quite a while, but at least now I know I’ve got a good baseline. But adding the variables of roasting into that equation…that way madness lies….


  6. I kind of like calling all creationists fundamentalists. I agree that it’s not true, and my motives are not fair, but being called a fundamentalist might make some milquetoast believers rethink their position.

    1. To me a fundamentalist is someone who takes the Bible as literally true, which automatically makes them a creationist.

  7. My quibble with him (aside from him ignoring the more current and useful definition of ‘atheist’) is at 7:15 when he defends science in the science classroom. I think it’s also important to stand up when people want to invoke religion in the legislature.

  8. Slightly off topic but reading your Reddit conversation…if you want to read Joseph Campbell, I’d start with Hero of a thousand faces. It is supportive of the skeptical position in that he basically shows how many, many, MANY myths have the same basic structure and story elements. This would include many biblical stories too, and the theology around Jesus. Its pretty compelling; it really does look like humans have basically been telling the same story in different variations for thousands of years. Not just in the stone/bronze/iron ages, either – we still tell that story today. IIRC, George Lucas took classes from Campbell in college and basically used this book’s suggested meta-myth as a blueprint for Star Wars. One might even say he (Lucas, not Campbell) did some “experimental comparative religion”…and the experiment worked. 🙂

  9. The terminology — fundamentalist, creationist, evangelical — are too loosely defined for debate.

  10. Those who make God-of-the-gaps arguments are doomed to discovery (if they live long enough and pay attention) that they’ve placed their faith in a deity composed of phlogiston and élan vital, lashed together by bailing wire and duct tape.

    Indeed, if you scratch a believer making religious arguments concerning the Origin of Life, you’ll find a lurking vitalism — a belief that the world is made up of the trichotomy animal/vegetable/mineral (or, more accurately, the tetrachotomy mineral/vegetable/animal/human) and that never the twain shall meet, but for a classic step-two “then a miracle occurs.”

        1. Almost everyone seems to get that verb wrong. It might help to think of hay bales, or “tote that bale,” or, um…

          Wait; should be “tote that barge and lift that bale.”

          Tote that barge??

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