Faith, Reason & Progress: A Response to Neil Degrasse Tyson

Fraying Rope

Recently I stumbled over the very winsome and articulate Neil Degrasse Tyson.  He is a fantastic communicator; disarmingly casual, witty and entertaining.  He seems intelligent, yet without an air of condescension; clever and still humble enough to recognize that he doesn’t have all the answers.  And yet, for some reason he made the assertion in the video below, that it is religion which has pushed back against scientific progress throughout human history.

According to Tyson, revelation (Quran) replaced investigation in Islam thus leading to the decline of Middle Eastern civilization and likewise if revelation (Christian bible) is allowed to replace investigation in 21st century America we will likewise fall short of our potential.  Unfortunately post-modernity has made these kind of gross oversimplifications of both historical and contemporary Western society commonplace.  However Tyson’s willingness to regurgitate the revisionists’ understanding of society rather than a historically accurate one, is really not surprising once one understands his most basic assumptions about faith and reason.

     In Tyson’s thinking, faith and reason cannot ever coexists because faith starts where science ends, substituting curiosity driven investigation with unquestioning allegiance to fairytales and myths.
     This is both a philosophically anemic perspective on faith and a philosophically delusional perspective on science.  First because the etymology of Faith demands by its very definition that it must be reasonable.  It has occurred to me that perhaps like most agnostics and atheists, Tyson actually means that religion is antithetical to reason, a case for which can certainly be made.  But a case for an unreasonable Faith can not.  Unreasonable Faith is just foolishness and has no place in Christianity.  Secondly, with regard to science: Science that is reasonable is trustworthy (literally – worthy of your Faith), but science can only address that which is observable.  Beyond the realm of observation it becomes theoretical at which point reliance on it is a kind of blind faith no different than kind which many religious leaders demand of their followers (Jeremiah 6:14).
     Furthermore, Tyson’s ignorance regarding Christian theology is likewise profoundly obvious in that he ascribes to the literalist interpreters of the scripture a kind of back peddling approach to the text which tries to bend interpretation of the text around discoveries in science.  Contrary to his understanding of things, those who do this are not true literalists.
     Literalists are such because they understand that the Literal meaning is the meaning the writer intended, not the literal meaning which the willfully ignorant assign to it.  When a man quips about being so angry he could kill his son, most people would recognize that he literally means his son is infuriating him not that they need to call DCF.  A literal understanding of the Bible is no different – it is contextual in every way.  If one reads it “literally” but out of context, then one will arrive at a wrong understanding of the text.
     Along these same lines Tyson speaks of Intelligent Design within the framework of Faith & Religion, once again blurring the lines of the debate and relocating all those who subscribe to a non-random explanation of the universe as belonging to the same philosophical camp.  Once again this is a gross oversimplification of ID, which is just as likely to be adhered to by those who believe the world was seeded by aliens as it is by any religious system in the world today.  Granted, when the discussion of Origins moves toward the unknowable, then he is right – it belongs in a philosophy class not a science class.  However the acknowledgement that random chaos can’t explain everything and that 40% to 60% of scientists digress on this is not religious at at… it is just honest.  [Click here to view his lecture on this.]
     Interestingly, despite his intense anti-theism views, according to the video below Tyson considers himself an Agnostic rather than an Atheist because he says the philosophical questions don’t matter to him.  However this is itself either deceptive or disturbing, for one cannot wrestle with the nature of the universe without drawing conclusions that have philosophical implications.
     Either Tyson is unaware of his own biases, or else he is intentionally pretending to have none so as to propagate his message as objective.  Something all too common in post-modernity where words seem to be more about gaining power than communicating ideas.  Facts may not have an agenda, but Men always do.
     This is ​precisely ​why the Atheist movement wishes to draw him into their camp​, because his message resonates with them.
     So while fairness requires that I acknowledge the fact that there are many religious people, who in the name of Christianity have acted in ways that would support Tyson’s assertions about Faith and Science and Reason and progress, it is highly contestable as to whether those people actually represent the Faith System presented in the Judeo-Christian Scripture.  For without a belief in the sacred work of investigation [Genesis 1:28 & Proverbs 25:2] there would have been no modern scientific revolution.
Note: The same argument regarding whether or not individuals correctly represent the Faith they claim can and should likewise be made for any religion.  As a Follower of the Way of the Cross, a Disciple of Messiah Yeshua I believe that all other truth claims fall short.  This however doesn’t in anyway justify the ignorant lumping of religious peoples together based on the actions and teachings of some without first evaluating how those actions and teachings actually align with the text they hold as sacred.  This to me is the crux of the debate over whether it is Islamic Radicals or Islamic Moderates who are the anomaly of the Islamic faith.
     My point is this:  One cannot make bold assertions about ultimate reality, disregarding all those who dissent from said assertions by simply painting them with broad strokes as religious fanatics.  To do so is neither reasonable nor charitable, it does not educate or woo, and it certainly does not promote progress.  Frankly, Tyson’s flagrantly erroneous characterizations of anything that departs from what he believes to be correct makes me think that perhaps his thesis on progress and revelation needs an antithesis.
Progress has been stalled in the 21st century primarily because the Revelation of Evolution has replaced Investigation with the religious dogma of Humanism, a Religion whose intolerant clergy have worked tirelessly to radicalize the masses against any and all critics who dared to question the reasonableness of their claims.
Fraying Rope