I haven’t listened a lot to Neil deGrasse Tyson, but only for lack of time and opportunity. By all accounts he’s a superb communicator of science. I wasn’t as enthused as many about his Beyond Belief talk that I posted yesterday (the delivery was a bit uneven), but his Natural History article mirroring it was very good.
As you’ll recall, that talk came down pretty hard on faith, not only for being used as an excuse for not doing science, but also for being something that’s naturally abandoned by scientists—especially good ones. In the talk he says this:
It’s a deeper challenge than simply educating the public; it’s deeper. As you know, by the books written by our scientific colleagues, that do take these deeply resonant and charitable positions towards their religious beliefs, maybe the real question here— let me back up for a moment. You know, we’ve all seen the data: 40%. . . there’s 90% of the American public believes in a personal god that responds to their prayers, and then you ask: what is that percentage for scientists? Averaged over all disciplines, it’s about 40%. And then you say: how about the elite scientists—members of the National Academy of Sciences?
An article on those data, recently in Nature, it said: 85% of the National Academy reject a personal god. And then they compare it to 90% of the public. You know, that’s not the story there. They missed the story! What that article should have said is: “How come this number isn’t zero?” That‘s the story!
So my esteemed colleague here. . .. .[appears to forget Krauss's name]. . Professor Krauss here, says that all we have to do is make a scientifically literate public. Well when you do, how can they do better than the scientists themselves in their percentages of who’s religious and who isn’t? That’s kind of unrealistic, I think. So there’s something else going on that nobody seems to be talking about: that as you become more scientific, yes, the religiosity drops off, but it asymptotes. It asymptotes not at zero, it asymptotes at some other level; so they should be the subject of everybody’s investigation—not the public.
Now this isn’t completely clear, but I think the message is that it’s almost incomprehensible that a brilliant scientist should accept a personal God, and we need to find out why 15% of them do (I think that figure is really about 2%). There’s also the suggestion that “making a scientifically literate public” won’t work in dispelling religion. I also think, given the tenor of deGrasse’s talk (about how religion has been used historically to “stop science” by positing gods of the gaps), that he sees faith as an impediment in public acceptance of science. But I may be projecting here.
Two readers have since mentioned other, more accommodationist talks that deGrasse has given since this one. They appear to give a different take on the religion/science issue.
In the talk below, originally posted at Big Think, Tyson posits that religion doesn’t have an issue with science because most American’s “fully embrace science.” He says there’s been a “happy coexistence [between science and religion] for centuries.” He rightly decries the incursion of fundamentalist science into schools, and now says that the 40% of American scientists who are religious shows that there is no necessary connection between being a scientist and being an atheist. Curiously, he doesn’t mention the 85% of National Academy members who are nonbelievers. Tyson asserts that the disparity in religiosity between scientists and the American public misleadingly paints their differences as a “built-in conflict.”
First, of all, I don’t agree that most Americans “fully embrace science.” That’s certainly not true as far as my own field, evolution, is concerned. Only 16% of Americans embrace the scientific view of evolution as a mindless, materialistic process, one that takes place without divine guidance. 40% of Americans (not a “tiny minority,” as implied in the talk) accept a fully Biblical view of creationism ex nihilo by God, and 38% believe in a God-guided process of theistic evolution. Americans are scientifically illiterate in many other ways, with that scientific illiteracy highly correlated with religious belief. And don’t forget the global-warming deniers and the antiscience Republicans.
Second: the message of the talk above. I realize that deGrasse tailors his message to his audience, as several readers pointed out yesterday, but this one above, compared with the talk I posted yesterday, seems more than just a difference in emphasis: it’s a difference in what conclusions you draw from the data. That means that it’s Ecklundish, and a bit too flip-floppy for my taste. In the first talk he sees faith as an impediment to science; in the second he sees the two as either partners or, at the least, not in conflict.
Now you may excuse Tyson by saying he’s changed his mind and become less militant, and perhaps that’s the case. But others may say that he simply tells different audiences different things. And that’s okay, too: when I talk about the evidence for evolution, and my book, I don’t tend to drag in religion, for that’s a separate issue (although, I think, it’s the root cause of creationism). But consider this. Tyson’s talk that I posted yesterday could easily have been given by Richard Dawkins, at least in terms of the message about religion. If Dawkins gave the talk shown above, though, wouldn’t we be concerned about his change of message? And if we would be, why is it okay for DeGrasse to flip-flop and Dawkins not?
Here’s another video in which Tyson talks about religion and science:
“I personally don’t care what people want to believe—this country was founded on religious freedoms. . . I don’t have any issue what you do in the church, but I’m gonna be up in your face if you’re gonna knock on my science classroom and tell me that they gotta teach what you teach in your Sunday school, because that’s when we’re gonna fight.”
Bravo about fighting creationism! But where Tyson and I differ here is that I do care what people want to believe. I do care what they “do in the church”: I care if those churches treat women as second-class citizens, or tell the faithful that homosexuality is a sin, or teach lies to children. I do care about the pernicious and divisive doctrines of Islam.
And most of all I care what people do in the church because it spills over not just into the science classroom, but into society as a whole. Just read Sean Faircloth’s book, The Attack of the Theocrats, and you’ll see the many insidious ways that faith has insinuated itself into our government, and the special exemptions it enjoys not just from criticism, but from taxation. If you think that the biggest problem of religion in America is creationism in the school classroom, think again. Read about how religious day-care centers are exempt from many of the regulations that secular centers have: they don’t even have to be inspected in many states! Read about the policies that many states have about not prosecuting parents who harm their children by withholding medical care on religious grounds only. How does one weigh creationism in schools against the death of even a single child?
Of course I agree that we can’t force Americans (or anyone else) what to believe, and we should never prevent them from worshipping or professing their faith. But the dangers of religion run far deeper than simply its incursion into the science classroom. It always bothers me when folks like Tyson, or organizations like the National Center for Science Education, argue that if people profess belief in evolution, then everything becomes all right. It’s not all right, because religion is far more pernicious than simple creationism. First, it’s the cause of creationism, and creationism won’t disappear until religion does. Second, how do you weigh children learning creationism against children being terrorized for life by what they’re taught in a Catholic church? Which one is worse? And there are all the other dangers of faith recounted in Faircloth’s book and those of the Four Horsemen.
The elephant in the room is religion, and Biblical views in science classrooms are its droppings. You won’t eliminate the droppings until you get rid of the elephant.
Finally, Tyson claims that our attack on religiously-based “bad science” in public schools should rest not on its religious roots, but simply on the fact that it’s bad science. He says “it’s not an issue of separation of church and state.” To a point I agree: we can dismiss creationism solely because it’s bad science, and it shouldn’t be taught on that basis alone. But we can’t legislate creationism out of science classrooms without citing the First Amendment, and, in fact, that’s how creationism has always been expelled from public schools in the Federal courts. if we’re going to expunge creationism from schools, going after it as cases of teachers pushing “bad science” would involve a painful, step-by-step review of each teacher’s behavior, and then the onerous process of correcting or firing that teacher. But going after creationism as an incursion of religion into the public sphere—a perfectly proper and justified thing to do—eliminates the problem in one swipe. No creationism can be taught, anywhere.
By “problem”, I mean, of course, the legality of teaching creationist views (including intelligent design) in schools. The bigger problem remains: religion, the source of creationism. So even if you don’t care about the other inimical (and more serious) side effects of religion, ignoring it as the source of creationism is a blinkered view. I aver that there’s precious little evidence for the accommodationist claim that one can bring religious people to science by telling them that their religious beliefs are compatible with science.
While I applaud Tyson for getting people to learn about science, and to become excited about it, I disagree with his strategy—at least the strategy suggested in the two videos above. But to each his own.