Neil deGrasse Tyson osculates religion, arguing that dissing religion impedes accepting science

August 17, 2021 • 9:15 am

Neil deGrasse Tyson prefers not to go after religion very strongly (though he has on rare occasions), believing that if you diss somebody’s religion, it prevents them from accepting the science you want to purvey—especially evolution. And he’s probably right, at least if you try to cover both subjects in a single lecture. The result is that Tyson is soft on faith, as you can see in the video below.

This video was put on YouTube last year, but I don’t know the venue or the title. Tyson shows a ranking of 34 countries and the degree of acceptance of evolution of their inhabitants. It’s well known data, but Tyson cherry-picks it to try to show that “religious” countries can be relatively high in accepting evolution, touting accommodation and giving us “hope in the world”. At least that’s how I understand his aim. Examples he adduces are these:

a). Britain is high in accepting evolution but was the country where the Anglican religion was founded. Tyson said that this shows that Britain was “a quite religious community” but is still “very high in this evolution support.” (That was centuries ago, and Britain is no longer so religious!)
b.) Likewise in Germany, where Protestantism was born under Luther, acceptance of evolution high as well. Ditto with Catholic Italy.
c.) Eastern bloc countries are low on religion, as you might expect as they were largely atheistic countries under communism, but fall in the middle on accepting evolution

Tyson finds this “hard to understand”, presumably because religion is supposed to be inimical to accepting evolution. He gives an anecdote about sending people who question the absence of God in the AMNH’s Big Bang exhibit over to the “human evolution” exhibit, concluding that the AMNH’s evidence for evolution is much stronger than the Big Bang in buttressing acceptance of evolution (he doesn’t mention physics). I grant him that, but so what?

Tyson then boasts about how he bested Dawkins in a panel discussion, showing a video of their verbal fencing. Tyson asks Dawkins whether, though Dawkins wants badly to promote evolution, doesn’t he undercut that purpose—and his role as “Professor of the Understanding of Science”—by being a vociferous anti-theist? Doesn’t criticism of religion dispel the “sensitivity” needed to get people to accept science?

It’s a fair question, and one that I’ve faced. Dawkins responds by saying, “I gratefully accept the rebuke” and then goes on to give his own anecdote. In the meantime, Tyson narrates the video by showing how successful he was in “dissing the dude” (Dawkins). Tyson is clearly showing off, but implicitly arguing that you can’t criticize religion if you want people to accept evolution.

The answer that I give is that you can be both an antitheist and a promoter of evolution—you just don’t do it at the same time. Does Tyson think that Dawkins should simply take off his antitheist hat and never criticize religion at all? That idea neglects the fact that the downside of religion goes far deeper than merely preventing acceptance of evolution. Look at what the Taliban does, for instance, or how Catholicism has led to all kinds of inimical restrictions on sex, to the terrifying of children, and to pedophilia. Look how hyperorthodox Jews turn women into breeding stock.  Religious wars and disputations have led to the death of millions. Next to that, creationism is small potatoes.

So no, Dawkins shouldn’t shut up. After all, The God Delusion was one of the best sellers of our time, moving more than a million copies.  And as the old Dawkins site “Converts Corner” attests, it helped dispel the religiosity of many people.  So Richard’s antitheism was instrumental in helping drive people away from faith and towards rationality—and science. (Note how many people in the Corner link the rejection of religion with the acceptance of science.)

At the same time, with his evolution books like The Selfish Gene, Climbing Mount Improbable, and (my favorite), The Blind Watchmaker, Richard not only educated people about science, but got them to accept evolution and its marvels. How many people have attested that it was Richard’s writings that brought them to accepting evolution and appreciating science?

So while Tyson may be right about dissing religion and selling evolution in the same lecture, Dawkins has been inordinately successful in not only helping drive religion from our world, but in getting people to accept and love science. You can say that without the first activity he would have been more successful at the second, but Dawkins, like me, has more than one goal in his life.

By the way, if you analyze the data Tyson presents in his talk above, it actually provides some support for the incompatibility of science and faith. What I did in the Evolution paper below (click for free access) was to correlate these 34 countries’ acceptance of evolution with their religiosity. And the correlation was negative. (As President of the Society for the Study of Evolution, which publishes the journal, I got the privilege of publishing one article, and I wrote this one. As you can imagine, it took some trouble to get it accepted, but the journal did print it!).

If you take Miller’s data shown in Tyson’s talk, and correlate it with the religiosity of the 34 countries, with each dot representing a country, you see a strong and significant negative correlation: the more religious a country is (moving right on the X axis), the less likely its inhabitants are to accept evolution (moving down on the Y axis). Here is that plot with the caption from my original figure:

Figure 1. The correlation between belief in God and acceptance of human evolution among 34 countries. Acceptance of evolution is based on the survey of Miller et al. (2006), who asked people whether they agreed with the statement, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” (Original data provided by J. D. Miller.) “Belief in God” comes from the Eurobarometer survey of 2005, except for data for Japan from (Zuckerman 2007) and for the United States from a Gallup Poll (2011b). “US” is the point for the United States. The correlation is −0.608 (P = 0.0001), the equation of the least-squares regression line is y = 81.47 − 0.33x.

Now this shows a correlation, not causation, so it may not show, for example, that belief in God makes people resistant to accepting evolution. Another interpretation is that acceptance of evolution is the causal factor, and that leads people to become atheists (this may be true for some folks). But I think, as I said in the paper, a third factor is in play here that leads to the correlation: human well being. For if you plot either various indices of well being, like the UN’s “Happiness Index” or the “Successful Societies Scale” (a measure of social support) against religiosity, you find out that the happiest people, and the healthiest societies, are the least religious. (See my paper for the evidence) And if you lose your religion because your society, as a healthy and happy one, makes religion superfluous, you naturally begin to accept evolution. (As I always say, “you can have religions without creationism, but you can’t have creationism without religion.”) In support of the idea that low well-being makes one religious, I often cite the full quotation from Marx (most people leave out all but the last sentence):

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

At any rate, I believe Tyson distorts the data by cherry-picking individual points.

Therefore, my explanation for the correlation above, including social causation, is this, written in my Evolution paper:

Creationism in America, then, may be a symptom of religion, but religion in the modern world may itself be a symptom of unhealthy societies. Ultimately, the best strategy to make Americans more receptive to evolution might require loosening the grip of religion on our country. This may sound not only invidious but untenable, yet data from other countries suggest that such secularism is possible and, indeed, is increasing in the United States at this moment. But weakening religion may itself require other, more profound changes: creating a society that is more just, more caring, more egalitarian. Regardless of how you feel about religion, that is surely a goal most of us can endorse.

If you’re interested, read the paper, for it’s written not for professional evolutionary biologists but for the educated layperson.

By the way, the correlation between acceptance of evolution and religiosity also holds strongly for the 50 American states as well. I couldn’t get the data for religiosity of individual states, but in my lecture on the incompatibility of faith and science, I do show a slide in which I there is a bar graph depicting the acceptance of evolution in each state. I found separate data for the ten most religious states (red arrows) and the ten least religious states (blue arrows), and put the arrows next to the states in the bar chart.

As you see below, all the blue arrows are above all the red ones. That is, every one of the ten least religious states has higher acceptance of evolution than all of the most religious states. Why? I think the reason is the same as for the correlation among countries.


Thus endeth today’s sermon. Praise Ceiling Cat, and may fleas be upon him. Amen.

35 thoughts on “Neil deGrasse Tyson osculates religion, arguing that dissing religion impedes accepting science

  1. I have friends who go to church purely for the community social standing. One of these is a veterinarian who is a firm believer in evolution.

    1. Are you talking about the UK? This is true in the UK, the church is a social club, and the only entertainment in the village, just watch the BarnabyTV episodes.

  2. I do not see how there could be an argument regarding religion and not believing in evolution. Just take your own survey and ask a few religious people. Of course I am not attempting to convert anyone so I really see nothing wrong with discussing both at the same time. As far as Tyson is concerned I am mostly neutral on him. He is a performer. The U.S. is at the bottom of the list on belief in evolution for good reason — religion. The by state stats kind of tells the same story. Just like vaccinations.

  3. NDT is frequently a science communicator (and entertainer, really) on television before a lay audience in America. I think he feels strongly that he in particular needs to be soft on religion while promoting science if he isn’t to lose half his audience on the science part. If he were to be an anti-theist on The Tonight Show, for example, they wouldn’t ask him back and a very large audience would lose some exposure to science.
    That said, I can’t say that I’m happy that NDT is maybe in his heart soft on religion.

    1. I don’t think he’s soft on religion “in his heart”. I’m pretty sure he’s a non-believer. One thing he HAS said that makes some sense is that, if he declares himself an atheist (or whatever), people just look at that label and think they know everything they need to know about how and what he thinks, which is not true. He’s been very firm about not being called an atheist for that specific reason, but I’d be very surprised if he has any belief in any supernatural entity or phenomenon.

    2. Along the lines of what Robert wrote, NDgT definitely does not have a soft spot for religion in his heart. There are a few video clips of him clearly stating that (paraphrasing) religion is bunk in no uncertain terms, but of course the large majority of the time he simply avoids talking about religion at all. From what I’ve heard him say about criticizing religion he simply thinks it’s a bad tactic if your intent is to teach science, and that’s what his intent is. I can’t think of any instances of him coddling religion, he simply avoids it.

  4. Tyson asks Dawkins whether, though Dawkins wants badly to promote evolution, doesn’t he undercut that purpose—and his role as “Professor of the Understanding of Science”—by being a vociferous anti-theist? Doesn’t criticism of religion dispel the “sensitivity” needed to get people to accept science?

    Three lines of rebuttal:
    1.) the same might be said if a Professor of the Understanding of Science was an ardent feminist. Many conservative religions believe in innate gender and adherents might very well dismiss an evolutionary biologist known for arguing that women are oppressed by Patriarchal systems. Yet it’s probably harder for Tyson (and others) to say feminism should therefore be downplayed by science popularizers.

    2.) Evolution and atheism are in fact directly connected — and not only by gutting the Design Argument. As Dennett points out, the ToE is a kind of “universal acid” eating through all the top-down explanations of religion by providing a model bottom-up explanation. And, as Jerry has eloquently argued, in religion faith is a virtue; in science it’s a vice. The Magisteria overlap.

    3.) Truth matters. Telling the Little People what they need to hear while quietly reserving hard conclusions for the Designated Adults isn’t very ethical — and probably won’t end up being very practical in the long run, either.

  5. Pace Tyson, Slovenia was never part of the Eastern Block. Before obtaining its independence in 1991, it was part of Yugoslavia, which was, under Josip Tito, albeit communist after a fashion, one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War.

    Sorry, had to get that off my chest. 🙂

    1. Well said. Western Europeans could easily travel to Yugoslavia and Yugoslaves were free to come to Switzerland and other countries for working. Not much in common with the countries beyond the Iron Curtain.

      1. Yugoslavia under Tito — famous for having six republics, five nationalities, four languages, three religions, two alphabets … and one political party. 🙂

        1. My views on the former Yugoslavia are no doubt influenced by the fact that I was jailed twice by the Serbs on suspicion of espionage–the first time during the Croatian war, the second time during the Bosnian war.

  6. I see a problem with the correlational plot shown in the publication. It is that, thoretically, a negative correlation between variables measured at country level could exist even in the presence of positive correlations of individuals’ data within each country. But on this topic I would expect that plots with individual data would go in the same direction as the country data.

  7. Let a hundred flowers bloom. Science is likely better off with both the Dawkins and Tysons types as spokespeople than if we only had one type. Demanding a certain sort of activism from every member of a group seems a bit too authoritarian to me. Thus telling popular atheist scientists they ought to publicly promote science and atheism is not something I’d ever insist on. It’s maybe a ‘nice to have,’ but not an ‘I’m boycotting you if you don’t.’

    I can see Tyson’s argument that, if your goal is to talk science, it’s better to engage solely on the science and not bring up a related subject which might trigger the listener’s emotional defenses. Academic distance is our friend, cultivate it in our target audience. Poking the bear then trying to have an academic discussion with it is generally not a good strategy. But as you say Jerry, this is easily addressed by giving different lectures at different times and places – it does not require a person to pick one of those subjects and never speak on the other. Worst case scenario, you’re forced to tell some person in the Q&A that you’re happy to address their question in another fora, but not here.

  8. Since there are so many religions that teach various things about Creation, it is not practical to try to accommodate them in satisfactory way. I think the wisest reply when the question of science and religion comes up is to simply keep it at “Science looks at what can be observed, described, tested, and analyze, and that’s what we’re reporting. How that fits with your beliefs is up to you and your spiritual guides.”

    You can tie yourself in knots otherwise.

  9. I always struggle with the direction of causation here. Societies with good governments and large social welfare benefits are generally not religious. Societies with bad governments and/or lousy social welfare benefits are often religious. However, if religion is viewed as a mutual aid society (a form of cooperative private insurance), it makes sense that religion would be less prevalent in a society where there is no demand for a mutual aid society versus one in which it was extremely important for survival. It is not clear that religion “causes” bad government and stingy social welfare benefits (although it may decrease the public demand for services), rather that a strong state with generous benefits will supplant the traditional role of religion. What is religion if not community + fertility boost + mutual aid (which is related to the first).

    Yes, religions have their sacred myths, belief in which is generally necessary to identity, but this isn’t different from beards or tattoos or funny hats or dietary restrictions. If I had to guess, religion is more about community (and feeling like you receive the benefits of being part of a community) and less about belief. In contrast, religious disputes are more about beliefs and things like beards and dietary laws. However, taking religious disputes as normative of religion is like taking divorce proceedings as normative of marriage. (Can you really be married and have an affair vs. can your really be Catholic and not believe in God?)

  10. What bugs me about NDT’s handling of religion is that he doesn’t just say to people who are asking him about it that he’s leaving religion alone to be as influential as he can be about science topics. Instead I’ve heard him being evasive about religion.

    I understand that a choice to leave religion alone in order to best convey science is a logical strategy but I find his caginess on it off-putting. And I do think that drawing conclusions from what science has taught us (no Gods are evident or necessary) should be a part of scientific education. What’s it all mean?

    1. My guess is that he understands that it doesn’t take much for people to start picking up on his atheism and using it to dismiss him. So many people these days will look for any excuse not to pay attention to science or to justify their non-scientific beliefs. “Don’t listen to him. He’s an atheist.”

  11. Britain is high in accepting evolution but was the country where the Anglican religion was founded. Tyson said that this shows that Britain was “a quite religious community” but is still “very high in this evolution support.”

    If this is what Tyson thinks, I am somewhat disappointed. It’s a complete misunderstanding of the place of religion in British society. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the British Isles were ravaged by religious disputes. The Church of England was born out of that strife and has evolved into an organisation that draws the sting out of religion. Even at the time of Darwin, the C of E was probably more a social club than a hotbed of religious fanaticism. What other branch of Christianity could have a priesthood of whom one in fifty is an atheist?

    Britain is more secular than many explicitly secular states (e.g. the United States) even though it has an official church and probably was at the time of Darwin.

  12. ‘Dawkins responds by saying, “I gratefully accept the rebuke” . . .Tyson narrates the video by showing how successful he was in “dissing the dude” (Dawkins). Tyson is clearly showing off . . . .”

    I wonder how likely it is that Tyson would “gratefully accept the rebuke.” I trust that Tyson wasn’t too disappointed that Dawkins did not contest the “diss” and opted to “Keep the Peace.”

    There is at least one video with interesting post-ripostes between Tyson and Lawrence Krauss on a several-member panel. A question was posed to another panel member. Tyson immediately said, “Don’t get me started on [whatever it was].” Krauss piped up, “The question was for not-Neil.”

  13. There are various means of persuasion and various modes of approach. Dawkins does not so much preach to the choir as give the choir something to sing. Furthermore, some people—perhaps those already wavering between religion and reality—are indeed persuaded by his approach, his antitheism, and his excellent scientific writings and explanation of evolution.

    Tyson takes the softer approach, to cozy up to those more confirmed in their religious beliefs and more hostile to outright atheism. Perhaps he’s the good cop to Dawkins’s bad cop. He thinks he can catch more flies with honey. Perhaps this could be a more effective mass-audience approach to increasing acceptance of science. But it’s Dawkins who vitalized the cause of scientific humanist atheism and helped make it a force to be reckoned with. Ideally Tyson will soften up the religious minded and leave them vulnerable to Dawkins hard-hitting approach.

  14. Just published:

    Miller JD, Scott EC, Ackerman MS, et al. Public acceptance of evolution in the United States, 1985-2020. Public Underst Sci. 2021 Aug 16:9636625211035919. doi: 10.1177/09636625211035919. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 34396821.

    The public acceptance of evolution in the United States is a long-standing problem. Using data from a series of national surveys collected over the last 35 years, we find that the level of public acceptance of evolution has increased in the last decade after at least two decades in which the public was nearly evenly divided on the issue. A structural equation model indicates that increasing enrollment in baccalaureate-level programs, exposure to college-level science courses, a declining level of religious fundamentalism, and a rising level of civic scientific literacy are responsible for the increased level of public acceptance.

  15. DeGrasse-Tyson is not even wrong. Dawkins and probably you, too, entered the ring with religion in the first place because they — religious people, chiefly creationists — had a major problem with the teaching of evolution. After a while, it may not matter who fired the first salvo, but of course this conflict remained a persistent problem in the USA.

    He’s also wrong in characterising Northern European Christians. Their beliefs are totally different from US Christianity in a lot of ways. It seems mostly a numinous affair, occasionally woo-ish that is generally a private matter. The specifics of belief seem not to matter at all. People just believe in something and are generally reluctant to think too hard about it, and dislike probing questions. It’s also kept far away from any real concern or knowledge and does not intersect with reality at all, except as a vague imaginary force that seems to make people feel less on their own, and as a possible afterlife of sorts. Also, US style Christianity is a love-bombing gospel fest. By contrast, religion in Northern Europe are more like an orchestra visit: reticent, and contemplative where maybe elderly regulars recognize each other and chat before and afterwards. That’s my experience anyway.

  16. Two roads (or more) to the same destination strategy… not planned, softly, softly… hmmm ok, however deGrasse Tyson his is not the dominant or only way to ‘approach’ the religious.
    The idea is to stimulate inquiry, skepticism and not enter a zero sum game with a very successful contributor to reason.
    IMO evolution is fundamentally one big anti religion statement. The religious have to vary it and add to to be of any use… the hand of a meddling god argument.
    As for those devout anti-evolutionist, their ignorance and tragedy will die with them. So be it.

  17. Can we just say that American religion is truly weird, and the amount of effort put into anti-science preaching is just not there to the same extent in other countries? You simply don’t need to fight against religion to teach evolution (or other sciences like climate science) in order to gain an acceptance of it.

    In America, I’d imagine that getting science and religion to coexist might be more difficult than just getting people to lose their religion. So much effort goes into saying there’s no conflict yet the preachers and acolytes are vocally adamant they are.

Leave a Reply