DeGrasse Tyson: A Question of Belief


Neil deGrasse Tyson in one of his typically inspiring YT clips said we need to investigate why the 7% of the top scientists; the members of the NAS (National Academy of Science) are still believers. It is well known that belief in god tends to diminish with more education and the most elite scientists in the world, voted in by their peers, are by and large atheists. It starts around 1:50 but the whole thing is worth listening to.

To Neil, just why these few haven’t given it up with the other 93% given the data from all kinds of polls do show that belief in god drops with more and more education is an important question. This correlation might indicate that atheists tend to be drawn to a career in science of course, but given that the general population (in the US at least) is around 70-80% believers and that scientists overall drop to 40% still believing in some sort of god, it appears the more educated you are on how the world works, the less likely you will buy into the assumption that there must be some sort of unseen intelligent agent out there who put the clockwork universe together, keeps it running and/or occasionally tinkers with it.

Dr. deGrasse Tyson’s concern was that maybe for some of us we just cannot do without a belief in a god, maybe some even elite scientists must have it. It might be built in, an innate need that will never be eliminated: A damn good question that has not been directly answered. He suggested that the psychologists get working on it, some brain imaging and belief analysis; a little cognitive neuroscience on those guys maybe and see why they haven’t let go. Damn straight. And although he may be correct that this phenomenon hasn’t been investigated directly yet, I think there may be enough data out there for a preliminary, even likely answer.

A few things come to mind.

1. Often people answer a poll question or two in the affirmative about god or religious belief, but when pressed may not mean exactly what the question implies. Scientists like the incomparable evolution defender Ken Miller who is up front about his devout Catholicism backpedals a bit on the literal truth of the transubstantiation and the virgin birth opting for the metaphor explanation. These are non-negotiable Xian/Catholic beliefs so although someone like Dr. Miller may identify as Catholic, it may not mean they subscribe to the beliefs that identification implies. The vast majority of Catholic women worldwide use birth control as an example, despite it being forbidden by the Church. Even the professed Evangelical Christian scientist Francis Collins describes a rather deistic version of god in his books and interviews, so you wonder what sort of actual god belief those few elite NAS scientists may really entertain. If pressed would they confirm a belief in a theistic personal god that answers prayers and does miracles or would they have a more deistic “clockwork creator” in mind or maybe their god is Einstein’s god, not personal or deistic at all but just the lawful and elegant structure of the universe itself?

2. Were those 7% brought up religious? Many people have trouble letting go of “truths” they were taught or immersed in when young due to a sort of Cultural Inertia™ that makes it difficult to fully jettison ideas they were indoctrinated into as a child. Some can walk away, like Dan Barker, John Loftus, Bart Ehrman, and Jerry DeWitt and countless others who didn’t write a book about their escape from religion and a belief in god, but it often takes years and some serious effort to fully admit they don’t accept the teachings of their family or friends anymore.

3. The opposite social experiment has been done. There’s plenty of testimony and anecdotal evidence that folks not brought up in a religion or without instruction to believe in a god or why belief itself is such a necessary idea, don’t gravitate to it as adults. Witness northern Europe for example. Many there have been described as having a “benign indifference” to religion and belief in god. There are non-believing secularists all over the world (maybe a billion or so) who either dropped belief in a god or never had one. Whether one is born into a religion or never indoctrinated into one is a random accident of birth location. If belief was an innate tendency and need, there ought to be a lot of believers who started out without any and just had to have it later, but that is rather rare. So no Neil, I don’t think it is innate. The sense of awe is, the wonder of underlying pattern and majestic complexity and vastness, that is innate, but it doesn’t have to express itself in belief in an omnipotent, transcendent agent unless channeled in that direction. Few express that wonder that Carl Sagan so eloquently offered us all as passionately as deGrasse Tyson does for us today.

4. And then there are nearly a billion Buddhists out there who could give a fuck about a bunch of Creator gods, dig? It is not in their culture, not ingrained in their belief system, not an integral part of their religion and not beat into their kids so they don’t give “god” in the Western sense a second thought. Today’s dominance of the Abrahamic conception of a stern authoritarian deity in some cultures is a historical accident of the infancy of our species.

A belief in god may not be in the least bit irreplaceable or innate. All the evidence I cite above supports the “not necessarily” hypothesis.
Homophobia isn’t innate, thinking women are somehow inferior isn’t, believing JC died on the cross for your sins ain’t, thinking you absolutely must submit to the will of Allah sure as hell isn’t, and buying that the earth could only be 6,000 years old ain’t innate either. You must be taught this stuff, and by a religion. Maybe “god” in whatever form is no less in need of indoctrination to be believed…

Thanks Dr. Tyson for bringing it up!

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