Neil deGrasse Tyson goes all militant

Here’s Neil deGrasse Tyson at the 2006 “Beyond Belief” meeting. Tyson tends to keep a low profile about atheism, apparently preferring to be known for science communication rather than attacks on faith, but make no mistake about it—he’s an unbeliever.

In this 39-minute video, he makes no bones about his claim that religion is a “science stopper,” using examples from physics and astronomy that he sees as the precursors to the modern intelligent-design movement’s god-of-the-gaps arguments.  You’ll be familiar with some of his examples, but perhaps not with Tyson’s “militancy.” And you’ll learn a lot of good stuff from the history of physics.

The “strident” part starts at 10:30, when Tyson contrasts the pervasive religiosity of the American public with the pervasive atheism of scientists, showing that more than 90% of the former believe in God but that just 15% of members of the National Academy of Sciences accept the notion of a personal God (actually, I think the figure is closer to 2%).  Referring to the latter figure, though, Tyson says that everyone missed the big story about this disparity: why isn’t the percentage of scientist-believers zero(He mentions this later in the talk, too.) Tyson clearly thinks that science promotes unbelief.

I haven’t seen him that assertive about religion since, but then he usually talks to the public, not to an audience of skeptics and secularists.

Note: if the video below doesn’t work, go here.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

For a related discussion, see Tyson’s article”The perimeter of ignorance” from Natural History in 2005.

h/t: Grania Spingies


  1. Posted February 20, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Bummer. Video doesn’t work for me.

  2. Posted February 20, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Nevermind – got it!

  3. Posted February 20, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Yes, it is a superb performance by Neil. Two years ago, I selected an 8-minute piece of it that was less militant and more alluring, and then I pasted in some illustrations over the splices to make it smooth and tight. Then I posted it on my YouTube channel. Liberal churchgoers, as well as secular audiences, I show it to during my pro-evolution presentations find it profoundly moving. So check out this edited “lite” version of Neil — and show it to your theistic and “spiritual” friends:

    Neil deGrasse Tyson: Kinship w/ Cosmos (8 mins)

  4. Griff
    Posted February 20, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I have to say…as a Brit…I think Mr deGrasse Tyson is the best science communicator alive today.

  5. Aratina Cage
    Posted February 20, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    That was… righteous!

  6. Posted February 20, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Big Questions For Small Minds and commented:
    Brilliant folks being brilliant.

  7. Posted February 20, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    A great video.

  8. Callum James Hackett
    Posted February 20, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    I love Tyson, but I saw him in an interview with Roger Bingham from the Science Network where he very unfairly called atheists petty, caring about trivial things like religious mottos on coinage, stating that he prefers to call himself an agnostic.

    • Posted February 20, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      The impression I’ve gotten from him over the years is that he prefers what Dawkins called the “softly, softly” approach. I’ve even seen him argue (at that 2006 conference, I believe) against the “don’t take no shit” approach of Dawkins, Myers, et al.

      • Callum James Hackett
        Posted February 20, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

        Yes, there’s this short clip that made the rounds of Tyson’s criticism of the Dawkins approach:

        I think there is a place for both approaches, so I wouldn’t say he’s ‘wrong’, I was just disappointed with his silly caricature.

        • Diane G.
          Posted February 20, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

          I think we just need to leave it at “there is a place for both approaches.”

          IME, it is generally those who come from the most privileged backgrounds (white, male, upper-class, elitely educated, etc.) who can get away with the greatest “stridency,” whereas most others–females, minorities, et. al.–need to employ the more “sensitive” approach.

          Don’t bother posting all the exceptions; I’m well aware of them.

      • Marella
        Posted February 21, 2012 at 4:26 am | Permalink

        Maybe, but I think he’s getting more militant. He came to Melbourne late last year for Think Inc and was quite clear about his atheism and never said a word against Professor Dawkins.

  9. Dan
    Posted February 20, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Tyson could talk about pancake recipes for a half hour and I’d listen in rapt attention. This is awesome, thanks for posting it!

  10. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted February 20, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Ah but none if it counts, because probably his ancestors were involved in the slave trade.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted February 20, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink


    • GBJames
      Posted February 20, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

      Double LOL!!!

  11. truthspeaker
    Posted February 20, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Since this is the internet, here is a picture with a funny caption:

  12. Tyro
    Posted February 20, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    I like it, but it reminds me of something that really frustrates me about him. In recent interviews (on the SGU?) he said that he isn’t an atheist but an agnostic and tells a funny story about how he’s tried to edit his own Wikipedia article to remove the lines which say he’s an atheist.


    He clearly is an atheist so what is the story behind this attitude? I wish that someone would follow-up with him on that.

    • Posted February 20, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      See #8.


      • Tyro
        Posted February 20, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

        Thx. I can sort of see that he doesn’t want to be affiliated with nasty, grimy, immoral atheists but shouldn’t basic honesty play a role somewhere? And since he isn’t a nasty, grimy, immoral person then by coming out as an atheist might do something to overturn the bias. By sticking with this “agnostic” stance, he’s tacitly agreeing with this negative stereotype.

        And I definitely hadn’t seen that interview which makes me think he’s said this several times so I can’t just waive it off as a slip of the mind but a steady, reasoned position.


      • Tyro
        Posted February 20, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

        And thanks for the ref. I’m sneaking a few minutes while at work and only skimmed the earlier comments. Shhh, don’t tell anyone.

        • Doug
          Posted February 20, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

          You better hope the IT folks minding the logs are secular…

        • Posted February 20, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

          I’ve reported you to the Internet Police.

          • Tyro
            Posted February 20, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

            You got the wrong man!

            The guy who sits right next to me got let go this afternoon. Seriously. I’m not saying that I blame you, but I do hold you responsible.

  13. Diane G.
    Posted February 20, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    Well, watching that definitely improved my day (month, decade, life…)!

  14. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 20, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Belief in the supernatural is intellectually untenable. Not long ago, it was unacceptable to say so publicly; those who did were treated like cranks.

    Now, at least among elite scientists, those who claim that supernatural beliefs are tenable — or at least the tiny subset of such scientist who try to defend that position publicly — are taking on crank status. Movement in this direction is gaining the force of history. The New Atheists, and scientists willing to speak out on this issue, as Dr. Tyson does here, have advanced this trend and, in so doing, performed a public service.

    • GBJames
      Posted February 20, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Permalink


  15. MadScientist
    Posted February 20, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    What Tyson says depends on his audience. With the general public he’s happy to talk about the science and not involve religion at all – I believe that’s the way it should be; why would anyone ever want to mention religion when teaching science unless of course someone else brought up the topic. Then again, if someone brings up religion, you should continue talking about the science and not argue the baseless religious claims. If you start arguing religious claims then you’re dabbling in nonsense. Of course it can be tricky…

    • Posted February 20, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

      That sounds sensible enough. It is the Laplacian response, isn’t it? “A deity? I have no need of that hypothesis.” The science stands by itself or has unknowns that are acknowledged, without supernatural bits stuffed into the cracks.

      We like our walls cracked until we can fill them with real filling, and not bogged up and papered over so we can smugly say “jobs done.”

  16. Chris Granger
    Posted February 20, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    His quote that Intelligent Design is a philosophy of ignorance had me saying, “yes!” aloud. This is beautiful.

  17. Bacopa
    Posted February 20, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    I’ve actually only ever seen the strident parts that were uploaded to Youtube just after this lecture. Thanks for posting the whole thing.

  18. Dave Ricks
    Posted February 20, 2012 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

    Maybe off the real topic, but I feel compelled to share a point I find endlessly amusing.

    Above in 8., Callum James Hackett posted a video where Tyson waved his two hands apart horizontally as he talked about persuasion: “the facts plus the sensitivity, when convolved together, creates impact.”

    In 1933, the mathematician Norbert Wiener wrote, “The quantity [of this integral] is known as the Faltung [folding] of f(x) and g(x) (there is no good English word)” (The Fourier Integral and Certain of Its Applications, p. 45).

    In that book, Wiener was developing a more formal mathematical treatment of what some mechanical and electrical engineers were already doing more heuristically to describe the response of a given linear system to some excitation in general. And in the more formal math Wiener was developing, a recurring theme was this integral operation on two functions, with one function appearing “backwards” or “folded” relative to the other function, so Wiener wrote the word “faltung” being German for “folding” (because “there is no good English word”).

    As the 1987 forward to the reprint of the book says, “Harmonic analysis as we see it now is essentially harmonic analysis as it was viewed by Wiener. Translations of functions (the term of translation, applied to a function, was introduced by Wiener) and convolutions (not yet named in English, for Wiener uses the German word Faltung) play a basic role”.

    So in that short video above at 8., where Tyson waved his hands apart, in opposite directions, and said “convolution” — Wiener was inb4 the word for that!

  19. Wayne Tyson
    Posted February 22, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    How much trophy-hunting is involved in these comments?

  20. Mary - Canada
    Posted February 24, 2012 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Amazing presentation…thanks for posting Jerry. Though I don’t understand why Tyson is labelled as “militant”. Most of what he expresses is factual. His reference to the demise of economies is eye opening

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