Talking about a confronting subject – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson calls on fellow atheists to show respect, compassion and understanding towards believers.

The context is the relationship between education and belief in a personal god. This belief declines from around 90% among the general public to 7% among elite scientists – small, but  still a significant minority of top scientists who believe in some kind of personal god who can intervene in the world.

At 2:39 Tyson says this:

So here’s my problem, here’s my concern: When you’re educated and you understand how physics works, and you’re mathematically literate, and you understand data, and you understand experiment, and you go up to someone who doesn’t have that training, and they’re religious, and you ask them “Why are you you religious, you’re believing in invisible things that influence your life, what’s wrong with you?”, that’s unfair.
It’s not only unfair, it’s disrespectful, for the following reason: until that number [the 7% of elite scientists who believe in a personal god] is zero, you’ve got nothing to say to the general public. These are scientists among us in the National Academy of Sciences who are religious and pray to a personal god and I know some of them. And you’re fighting the public for their religious beliefs?
Figure that one out first, because maybe there’s an asymptote. Maybe you can’t change everybody. Maybe that’s telling us something. Maybe there’s something in the brain wiring that positively prevents some people from ever being an atheist.
If that’s the case, in a way, they can’t help it, and you’ll never know it because you’re not one of them. So I ask you, first for compassion with the public, but you should target your exercise, and your experiments on understanding that number. Because that’s not zero. Yes it’s low, but it’s not one percent, it’s not one-half of a percent, or a tenth of a percent – it is seven percent – one out of fourteen.Neil deGrasse Tyson

How far to take this? I think Tyson himself demonstrates a great balance in his public life, speaking clearly and openly, with humor and respect.

3 thoughts on “Talking about a confronting subject – Neil deGrasse Tyson

  1. Liz McLellan

    Well sure. And that’s how I operate – right up until they work to take away science funding, my reproductive autonomy or the rights of my beloved LGBTQ friends and family….

    I don’t actually care what people believe. I care about their impact in the world. Progressive religious people are not the problem…

  2. David Bofinger

    I’m not sure we can draw any conclusion much from the fact “the number” is non-zero. We’re talking about humans here, nothing is ever going to be literally zero. 7% is actually pretty low, compared with 40% or 65% or 90%.

    I suspect on anecdotal evidence that anyone brought up religious gets a certain amount of wiring that inclines them toward religiousness, not necessarily the same one they started with.

    Good to hear him using astrophysical accuracy in his calculations. 🙂

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