Neil deGrasse Tyson – Christianity and the Cosmos


Listen to a whole hour of Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about the Bible, Jesus, and Christianity in a way you’ve probably not heard before. Neil is the author of Starry Messenger, host of StarTalk and director of the Hayden Planetarium in NYC. We discuss:

  • What does Neil think about being raised Catholic?

  • Why do we always hear about radical conservative Christian ideas?

  • Does Neil have spiritual experiences? What does he think about that term?


Nate: Well, Neil, so glad to have you on the show. This is a privilege and an honor. This is not just like I said, this year for the interview, I’m holding up astrophysics for people in a hurry right here on my desk right now, actually.

Shelby: I think when Nate and I first met and we’re even getting to know each other, that was the book I got him for Christmas, the first Christmas we were together.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Okay.

Nate: Yeah.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Love cemented in the universe. That’s what that is.

Nate: Exactly. Well, this is where I want to start because this audience almost heretical. A lot of former, current Christians that are rethinking everything, right. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the deconstruction movement within Christianity, but it’s this idea of unpacking your religious Christian background that you had oftentimes it results in people leaving Christianity altogether. For a lot of those probably listening to this show, they have engaged and continued to engage in some way since. We talk a lot about the Bible, so they still care to an extent, but a lot of them, if they’re similar to me and to Shelby, we grew up, like, not really being allowed to learn science. It sounds kind of crazy, but it was not off limits in the sense of, we’re not going to teach this to you. But it was like, hey, you know when they say that the Earth is this amount of years old? Just remember what the Bible says, right? When they say X, just remember Y, it was always this. We were scared. I remember being scared of, like, scientific discoveries, right? Like, if we find life on Mars, what is that going to like I don’t even know.

Shelby: What I destroy our worldview or something.

Nate: Yeah, I don’t even know what I was scared of, but okay, so to set the tone, I’m curious, your spiritual religious background, is there any of that from your family of origin? Did you have any of that at a young age, anything like that? Or was it kind of void of all that?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: So I grew up in a Catholic family. My mother is Catholic. My father converted to Catholicism when they married, and we went to church pretty much each Sunday. And even when we traveled, we’d find a church to go to. If we happened to be away on Sundays through third grade, I think it was, I was sent on Wednesday afternoons to religious instruction. Do they call that catechism? There’s some word they use for it. And so schools would let you out to fulfill this religious obligation, but thereafter, sort of after third grade, because by the time I’m in fourth grade and fifth grade, I’m starting to think rationally about the universe.

Shelby: Wow. You got started early after a first.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Visit to the Hayden Planetarium and saw the universe and the vastness of it and the infinitude of it. And that was when I was nine. And so how old are you in third grade? Maybe seven or eight. But in those years, what I was being told started making less and less sense to me. And plus, as a family, we were not as rigid about going to church. So within a few years we became, as they say, an ashes and palms Catholic, where you go to church on the high holidays, to borrow a Jewish term, and Easter and Christmas and maybe one other few other times my mother remains committed, I would say. But what matters here most is no decision in our household was ever made in reference to the Bible or any other religious text. So in other words, if there’s a reason to do something or to not do something parent to child, the argument was never, what would Jesus think? Or what would happen after we die? Or what would God do? Wow. It was, here’s the reason, okay, you could get hurt doing this or this would have consequences in this other way. So decision making, which is part of how your brain gets wired, never had any spiritual or religious foundation to it in my household, in my household growing up.

Nate: That’s so important. And I think so that’s a good way to describe our audience. Our audience would be the opposite of that, right? Would be the one opposite.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Okay, that’s what we’re talking to.

Nate: Almost every decision was that. And so they have now left that right. They’ve now left those circles. They’ve been rejected by their families, which.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Would be way harder to accomplish than anything I would have gone through myself. Right. Because I didn’t have to then detach myself from a family principles or family mission statement. That’s right. So whatever is required to make that happen has got to be pretty hard on family relationships, on your emotions and the like. I’m pretty Bible fluent, not for having grown up Catholic through age nine, but because when I have conversations with religious people, it occurred to me that I should at least know what the hell they’re talking about. Can I say that? What the hell?

Shelby: The podcast is called Almost Heretical. Remember?

Nate: Okay, so the Christians don’t think we’re Christian. I’ll put it that way.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Okay, got you. So I started reading the Bible and other religious texts, the writings of Joseph Smith. I read the tracts that they hand you that Jehovah’s Witness give you in the street, the Torah. I have a few copies of the Quran, and so I can’t claim to have read every word of every one of these, but I’ve read enough to get a sense of where they’re coming from. And then I would learn I end up knowing more about it than most people who claim to be religious out of those books. So when I reached that threshold, I said, okay, I’m good to go. Here.

Shelby: Yeah. Go back to the science now.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: And what is certainly true is that I know more about your religion than you know about my science. That’s true in almost every case. Yeah. And so that in that way I can have a conversation with people when they quote a Bible passage. In fact, in my latest book, which is not the one you held up latest is Starry Messenger Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization. I make multiple references to the Bible and in the role it has played in people’s thinking about civilization and our place in it. And occasionally the clash of civilization with civilization would otherwise go with Bible writings, others where there’s resonance that fluency enhances. I think maybe it’s not for me to judge, but I think it enhances my capacity as an educator to communicate with people all along the religious spectrum.

Nate: I think it really does because I was thinking about Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris and even Bill Nye, that you YouTube them or whatever, and you got these debates that they do with Christians or with the religious people. And from my background in that world of Christianity, it really does turn you off to that person.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Right.

Nate: And you’re just like, I’m not even going to listen to it. So I think you’ve had a way to bridge this gap and be the voice, that scientist voice in the room for everyone. And I’m sure there are Christians out there that reject everything you say because you don’t believe the Earth is 6000 years old or whatever it is.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Right. Interesting. Because I don’t engage in debates just as a matter of principle. You see all of them, but you don’t see me, that there’s a reason because I don’t. For me, debate has the construct that one person or the other will win the debate. And by what way? Well, if they’re a little more charismatic, if they’re more likable, there are all these other factors that show up in whether someone, quote, wins a debate. And there’s an old saying, I think it’s mostly true. I don’t think it’s 100% true. But if an argument lasts more than five minutes, then both sides are wrong.

Shelby: Wow.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: There’s some truth to that. Because there’s a limit to how much I’m going to argue with you. If you’re going to say Earth is flat, I’m not going to sit there with you for an hour. I’m just not. All right, so that’s one way. The argument does not last more than five minutes. But beyond that, the truth should not be arrived at by who’s more charismatic. It should never be the case. Now, you said that I bridged a gap. To me, it was never a gap, it was always a continuum. But I see what you mean when you say there’s a gap because these atheist versus religious people conversations, there’s a gap there. And the atheist is not building a bridge to the religious people. All right, I don’t see that happening. Whereas I don’t think I’m building a bridge, nor do I even think there’s a bridge there. I just think there’s a way to have this conversation where people can become enlightened by new information that’s put on the table, and that’s always a better place to be.

Shelby: And that makes sense, especially, I think, coming from the type of Christian upbringing that you described, where these things weren’t really in conflict. Your religion, your faith was, it sounds like, not in conflict with your science.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Catholicism is less Bible thumping than conservative Protestantism.

Shelby: Yes, absolutely.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Spoken broadly, of course. And not only that, the history of Catholicism, they don’t make a big statement about this today, but it remains true today that one of the main points of the priest is to interpret the Bible for you, especially coming from an era when most people were illiterate. So you were not really supposed to read the Bible. You can own one, but the priest never said, Go home, read Luke Five. None of that ever happened. They read it to you while you’re in church. So for me to have learned about the Bible was entirely my own doing. And I wasn’t drawing upon lessons from Sunday school, because that’s not how that unfolded. So that’s the first point, to say it wasn’t in conflict. It’s not. Because all of the religion that I was viewing said, we’re cool with science. No, because in fact, at the time, galileo had not yet been pardoned, which is something that occurred. Was it 1992? That’s old I am. So that took a while. All right, so, yes, there was conflict, but there wasn’t conflict in the household. So that’s the fundamental point I’m making here. And that being said, among enlightened religious people and enlightened religious communities, they’re perfectly fine with what science brings to the table. If you look at the encyclicals of the Pope, you look at there’s some documents written by Baptist ministers. I was part of a panel for the National Science Foundation to produce a document to advise teachers on how to teach evolution, knowing that there are all these other forces going on around you. And appended to the back of that are statements that endorse evolution from major religious organizations, which is a reminder to us that most of the conflict that we see and hear about is from a vocal minority of fundamentalist Christians. And they have the bully pulpit and the press goes to them and they make better clickbait than someone who’s just, yeah, I’m cool with it. That’s not clickbait, but say, well, let’s burn all gays, because that the Bible says so then somebody’s going to click on that, and that voice gets louder and louder and louder. But it is from the Pew polls that I’ve seen the small minority of total religious people, even those who would consider themselves devout.

Nate: Right.

Shelby: And that is an important point. I mean, something that we’ve come to on not just science, but so many different topics for for our audience. Because I’d say Nate and I and many of the people of audience, we like, we are we came from that minority. So that minority, of course, felt like everyone to us growing up, we thought that’s what all Christians were.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: It’s your neighbors, it’s your friends, it’s everyone you see in church. Yeah.

Shelby: And so to kind of even just see like, oh, there’s a bunch of religious groups that endorse evolution or when we look at other topics, we’re like, oh, there have been Christians throughout history who haven’t held to the doctrine of the Trinity the same way.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: It’s so permission isaac Newton among them. By the way, a religious man who held the Trinity in very high doubt got in trouble for that. Of course.

Shelby: Yes.

Nate: Interesting.

Shelby: Yeah. Of course. If you were to have said that to us in that time of our lives, that there’s a bunch of Christians out there who support evolution, we would have just said, well, they don’t really know their Bible or they’re just caving.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: They’Re not real Christians.

Shelby: Right.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: The whole construct is we versus they. One of the more clever comebacks in the atheist community is you go to anyone who’s religious and they’ll tell you what their religion is. Okay, so let’s say it’s a Baptist, fundamentalist Baptist, let’s say, okay? And you say to them, the Catholics are weird, aren’t they? They’re like worshipping all these idols and think, yeah, they’re Catholics, that’s not true Christianity. And how about the Mormons? Oh, yeah, they’re weird, but what would Jesus come? And then you talk about Islam, oh, this is a false prophet, it’s not a real prophet. And they go down the list and it is easy for them to reject every other religion but their own as being preposterous. And how about the Jews? Well, they didn’t receive the word. They should have received the word. We have the word. The Jews are not in on, okay? They can make an argument about every other religion while every other religion is making an argument against them in the same way. So what the atheist says to the fundamentalist Protestant is you are an atheist to every other religion, just as I am. The difference is I’ve added one extra religion to that and that’s yours.

Nate: You talked about Fundamentalist Baptist. I mean, somehow you nailed it right on the head, literally with us. And I think a lot of listeners of the show, but I’ve come to believe that these leaders, most of these leaders when we talk about the majority, aren’t trying to you said burn the gays or whatever. They’re not trying to attack people and they’re not trying to hold these views that are like, I don’t know, hurtful to others. Let’s say they are genuinely concerned about the heaven and hell thing. They’re generally concerned about genuinely concerned about what happens after we die. I guess I’ll give that to them. It’s like, okay, if I truly believed, which I no longer believe, that there was this eternal conscious torment that was going to happen at potentially any moment to you, me, Shelby, anyone listening to this, wouldn’t it be crazy? For me to not be talking about that all the time and to believe. And if I believed that it was about believing a certain set of doctrines, wouldn’t I be crazy to not consume myself with this?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: I feel the same way, by the way. Their thinking is at least internally consistent. There’s this book, it has the rules, and they’re following the rules, so all right, are they bad people for following the rules? Well, social, cultural, mores have evolved over time. Deeply religious people are in denial of that. All right. If you look at the things in Leviticus, half of the list, no one would do it today.

Shelby: Right.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: All right? Is in Leviticus, if your child is disrespectful, you have to stone them.

Shelby: Right? I mean, odds are that no one, even at the time, probably followed that command.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Well, exactly. And there’s a whole section on how to burn the head of a bull so that the aromas are pleasing to the Lord. I mean, they’re just things that, as time moved on, you said, no, I’m not going to do that. No, that does not make sense. And it is a little odd to me that thou shalt not kill is not number one in the commandments or two or three or four or five. That’s a little odd to me, I would think. Just think. And of course, secular laws has thou shalt not kill in a sense. All right, so it has some of those, but the rest we’re completely ignoring as a secular society. So we have rethought the rules, and any reformed Jew does not send the woman out to a tent six days a month okay. During her period.

Shelby: That might actually be wonderful.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Okay. That’s not encoded in modern behavior of enlightened people. So to cherry pick what’s written there and then invoke it is, I’ve always felt was a little bit I don’t want to say unfair. I want to say it’s inconsistent. Yeah, they’re inconsistent. That’s a simpler, better word for it. And I’d like living a consistent life, so that when I see inconsistencies, I have to point it out. And in that latest book, Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization, one of its goals is to find places where people are arguing with each other and then unpack their arguments and show, you know, you’re not basing this on anything that’s objectively true. So why are you so vehemently in support of this? You should at least soften your views so it corresponds with the limited evidence at its foundation. So it’s an exploration on a lot of topics that are there’s a chapter called Risk and Reward where I talk about people can’t really process statistics and probability in their head. There’s entire industry that has arisen to exploit the fact that we can’t process probability and statistics. And they’re called casinos. Wow. They exist because we’re bad at math.

Nate: All right.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Okay. That’s sad. That’s sad.

Nate: It’s sad that you can know the odds going in and still do it, right?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Right. That means you’re not really feeling the odds. All right, so there’s a chapter on gender and identity, on color and race, life and death, risk and reward. As I said, there’s all these chapters and they go places, but I bring cosmic insights and scientific rationality to that analysis, and it’s offered to the reader. So I’m not giving opinions or anything. Now, early, you asked about my spirituality. That word means a lot of different things to different people. The trend from what I can see is people will say they’re spiritual if they’re not otherwise religious, whether or not they believe in God, but they feel there’s something out there. That’s where I find the word spirituality to be landing in these emerging times. So in that regard, I can say that when I’m on a mountaintop and I look up in the universe and I’m alone and I see clouds below me because the mountaintop is above the lower cloud layer and I have my telescope this is a majestic moment. And I’m feeling some connectivity to the cosmos that I’m not otherwise feeling just walking around on the rest of Earth’s surface. So we can say this is a spiritual feeling. I don’t have a problem invoking the word in that context. Another spiritual notion is that the atoms of our bodies are traceable to stars that exploded and scatter that enrichment into gas clouds that birthed subsequent generations of stars. So we’re not just alive in this universe, we contain the dust of stars. We are stardust. So not only are we alive in the universe, the universe is alive within us. And to me, that borders on the spiritual. It’s a gift of modern astrophysics to civilization.

Nate: Getting chills over here, the stardust and stuff. What do you think? Would anything change? Let’s speculate. And what would change if you could zoom every let’s just say America, every American up to, let’s say low Earth.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Orbit for five no, let’s just go to the Moon. Low Earth orbit is glorified high airplane ride. Okay. Go to the moon. The entire Earth is visible to you from orbit. The entire Earth is not visible to you.

Nate: You have that tweet. Where was it? Apollo Eight? Where when they looked back at the Earth rise.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Only when you go to the Moon do you get to look back. You go to the Moon to explore the Moon, and then they look back over the shoulders and they discovered Earth for the first time.

Nate: What did they do when they saw Earth for the first time? Do you remember the tweet?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Okay, what was in the tweet?

Nate: I think you said they read Genesis.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: The astronauts? Yeah. So the astronauts themselves are orbiting. There’s more context to this. Apollo Eight are the first humans to leave Earth for destination.

Shelby: Wow.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: All right. We’d been in orbit boldly going where hundreds have gone before. We now go to the Moon. They leave second week of December or something. Third week of December. They are at the moon. Christmas Eve. And while they’re orbiting the Moon, they take turns reading the first ten lines of Genesis. There’s three, three, and four lines read and shared among them, and that’s what they felt looking at Earth from afar. I don’t have a problem with that. There were some well known atheists of the day who were ready to sue the government for mixing religion with tax based expenditures. And my rebuttal to that, because I write about it in the book, I recount the whole story there, reproduce the lines of Genesis that are there. In the beginning, God created the Heaven and Earth, and Earth was out form and void. All that’s there. Okay. It was Marilyn Murray O’Hare, who’s a leading atheist of the day, had brought the lawsuits. So then I imagined a conversation between me and Z O’Hare, and I say, were you strapped to a million ton rocket and launched a quarter million miles away and observed Earth rise over the lunar landscape for the first time ever witnessed by any human? Did that happen to you? And her answer would be, no. So my reply is, then shut the fuck up. That would be my reply. Because you didn’t feel that. Let people emote in whatever way matters to them.

Shelby: They were searching for words that felt sacred enough to attribute to the moment.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: I think that’s a beautiful way to put it. That was their way to express what that moment meant to them, and I’m not going to take that away from them. Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell looks at Earth the same way. It didn’t happen to be Christmas Eve, but he looks at Earth and he says, this is as retold in an interview with Time magazine. You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the Moon, international politics looks so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter million miles out and say, look at that, you son of a bitch.

Shelby: Amen I’ll?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Give him that, too.

Nate: Yeah.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: That is a cosmic perspective. And that’s the whole point of that next book, which you didn’t have in your hand. A Starry messenger. Cosmic Perspectives on Sip. That’s the one that’s out right now.

Nate: So if we could do that with every American take them to the Moon?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: No, just, you know, you need to do it for the leaders. Do it for the leaders first.

Nate: Do it for the leaders.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Put them all in a bus, magic school bus. Take them to the moon and bring them back and yeah, they’ll be kissing and hugging all the way.

Shelby: That might be worth investing in. You wrote a few articles a while ago on kind of the intersection of religion and science, and I found them very accurate to our experience. If you could elaborate a bit on why it is that holding too tightly to a kind of literal, scientific, religious, Bible based perspective, why that can be so limiting for scientists, and why that’s unhelpful going forward.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Let me say that fine, but let me word that slightly differently. Go for it. Any dogma, no matter what it is, tends to limit your capacity to think outside of that dogma. Any dogma doesn’t matter. By the way, I can use a stronger word than dogma and say there are philosophies that are very sure of themselves and limit your ability to think outside of those philosophies. Good scientists have no dogma. Good scientists have no philosophy. So that anything that happens in front of them can be seen, measured, observed, absorbed, folded into the new idea that the universe might require for us to understand it. So, yeah, if you are sure the universe is 6000 years old because the Bible told you and no other truth, no matter how it’s established, will supplant that then you can’t be head of NASA. It’s not going to work. The jobs in this world that you were precluded from taking. Oh, by the way, we have some famous basketball players who are sure Earth was flat. That’s fine.

Nate: Kyrie Irving, right?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yeah, Kyrie Irving among them. You can be a star basketball player and think Earth is flat, but you can’t be head of NASA. So for me, I don’t want any opportunity to be closed off because I’m in denial of what it could be telling me. I don’t want to value judge it because in a free country, people should think and read and believe what they want. I’m just simply saying it doesn’t work in the laboratory where you are exploring elements of nature that were never previously known or seen.

Nate: Some of the families and former communities of our listeners, and even some that I’ve encountered myself, they’ll say, I guess it’s one of the pushbacks from American Christianity towards those who have either left it or to the scientific community would say, yeah, but science is always changing, right? Something that’s true today, quote unquote, true today. That could change tomorrow when they discover something new.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Okay, so here’s what you do. You say, Is that their reason? Is that actually the reason? Because if it is the reason, it’s false. So it’s not a reason. Okay? If that’s your actual reason, it’s not a reason because you misunderstand science. Okay? So ever since the era of experimental science, basically from 1600 onward, with Galileo, Francis Bacon and others developing the methods and tools of experimental science. Where you don’t just make stuff up. If you have an idea, you test it, then you get someone else to test it and then someone else to test it. If you get about the same results, you’re onto something. Experimentally verified science does not change, period. What does change is the stuff we’re thinking up on the bleeding frontier. That changes daily. Once there’s agreement of observations, experiment, predictive, power, all the rest, then it goes into the textbook and you move on to the next problem. So tomorrow we will not discover that E equals MC cubed. That is not going to happen. We’re not going to find out tomorrow that the sun orbits the Earth and not vice versa. That’s not going to happen. We’re not going to find out that pi, the digits of pi are something other than what your calculator shows you. Was it South Carolina in 1932? They legislated that the value of pi equals 3.0, you say, well, why would they do that? Well, because the value of pi in the Bible is 3.0. What? Yes, it is.

Shelby: Oh, my gosh.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: I thought you guys knew the Bible.

Shelby: You don’t know the Bible.

Nate: You said you know more about religion.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: I didn’t say this to show preach then. Three preach. Brother Tyson here. So in one king seven, where there’s a very detailed description of King Solomon’s palace, I guess what did they call them back then? Not his mansion, but his palace. He’s a king, so he lives in a palace. A very detailed description, and it describes the pond out front. And the description is as follows. The pond is round on all sides, 30 qubits around ten qubits across. Those two measurements can only be true if pi equals 3.0. Oh, man. Because you get pi by dividing the circumference by the diameter. The circumference is 30, the diameter is ten, you get 3.0. The Bible could have shown us that it had some insights not yet discovered into geometry and trigonometry. And the pi verse, by saying 31 qubits around ten qubits across, then you’d at least get 3.1. At least. Okay, so they got it from the Bible and now you can’t so bridges don’t work if you have the wrong value of pi and other fundamental calculations you’re doing in science. So that’s just an example of places where a few other things is it in Job? I think it’s in Job where the power of God is questioned or the the intent of God is questioned. And I come confused. I might be confusing this with Abraham, but sorry, who’s? The one who sacrifices who doesn’t sacrifice his son.

Nate: Abraham?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yeah. Abraham.

Shelby: Yes. He gets close.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Okay. He gets really close. So in one of those, forgive me for not remembering, which you’re forgiven, god comes back and talks himself up. All right.

Nate: Who made the stars?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Exactly. Who made the turn?

Shelby: Where were you? And the foundations of the Earth tides.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Go in and out is a list, and it’s like God is throwing it down. All right, you don’t know any of this, and I do. So it’s a nice list. So you look at that and say, in modern times, how much of this do we understand without invoking divinity? And it’s almost everything on the list, I think. A couple of things we don’t know yet. So you can look at it as in the day. Science had not made those discoveries yet, so everything could easily be ascribed to divinity. But now we’re there. We can predict with it, we can duplicate it, we can imitate it. How divine is it if we can do all of those things? It’s not as much, not so much. So these are things to consider.

Shelby: You referenced the term the god of the gaps, which I think they even maybe talked about that in my university. So credit to them. Who’s? Christian university. But it’s interesting, the god of the gaps really is such an accurate way of putting it. This mindset that as soon as you hit something that you don’t know, and that seems unexplainable, especially to a layperson with no understanding of what science can or cannot really grasp, then you just assume, well, this must be God. And for me, growing up, I mean, it still kind of boggles my mind today. I’m not a scientist. It was just this idea as I became more accepting of, okay, well, maybe there’s some value to evolution, or maybe scientists aren’t all just against the Bible or whatever, but I was still like, but where could any matter have come from? Like this bang, from nothing into everything. For me, that was like, therefore, because this obviously can’t be explained, it must have been God.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Well, you’re in good company, because if you look at Isaac Newton, he wrote down his equation of gravity, very successful, described moon going around Earth, earth going around the sun, jupiter satellites going around Jupiter, even before anyone thought to do so, to calculate that, and so very successful. But then he looked more carefully as equations and realized that the entire solar system over enough, given enough time, would fly apart and go unstable, because as we came around the backside of the sun, as we came around the side of the sun where Jupiter was, jupiter would be tugging on us just a little bit. Then we go around and come back, and Jupiter tug on us again, and this tugging would elongate our orbit and eventually kick us out of the solar system. This is the idea. So he wrote, for the long term evolution of the solar system, god must step in every now and then to correct things, because otherwise I know everything works. That’s a God of the gaps argument. He couldn’t figure out how to stabilize the solar system, and so he invoked God, the hand of God, to fix it every now and then. 100 years later, LaPlace, a french mathematician, solves that problem invents a branch of mathematics pioneers a branch of mathematics called perturbation theory, where it turns out, even though you’re close to Jupiter over here, you’re much farther from Jupiter over here, and then there’s a weakness to it, and it turns out all of these little tugs average out. Turns out. Then he writes this book. It called Celestial Mechanics in French. Celeste mechanique. Napoleon summons up the book, reads it, and said, Monsieur and LaPlace, in the stability of the solar system, you make no mention of God. Harking back to Newton, and he said, Monsieur, I had no need for that hypothesis that’s a god of the gaps evaporating in the face of advances in human understanding of mathematics and physics.

Shelby: I think a lot of people, maybe from our world or maybe people who are just starting to kind of unpack all of this and wanting to move forward, it feels threatening to them because it feels like, if God’s not necessary in science, then what’s the point of God at all? I mean, I don’t know that I don’t feel that anymore. But I think a lot of people I think I used to feel that. Yeah. What would be your response to someone who’s like, well, then what’s the point of God? I mean, maybe it’s just that well.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: There’S an interesting saying. It goes something like god gives meaning to your life, but only after religion convinces you that life has no meaning without God.

Shelby: Wow. Oh, man. Wow.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yeah.

Shelby: So then, okay, what would you say? How have you derived meaning for your life?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: So meaning, I think I can only speak for myself, but it may apply to others, that meaning somehow, somewhere, someone trained us to think meaning is something you search for. I’m on a quest for meaning. Well, maybe you have the power to manufacture meaning in your own life. For me, I manufacture meaning that’s in one of the chapters of the book is life and death. And in there, I describe this. I manufacture meaning by learning something today that I didn’t know yesterday and somehow lessening the suffering of others. Those are the two drivers that give meaning to my life. If you don’t otherwise think about creating meaning in your life, then you are susceptible to whatever else is out there that you do not control. I don’t think about it beyond that.

Nate: I want to rapid fire through some of my off the wall questions, if that’s okay.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Sure.

Nate: That’s the point in the interview we’re at. And feel free to change these. I like how you change questions and make them better.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yeah. I don’t know if it’s disrespectful, but.

Nate: I think it’s very respectful.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Okay.

Nate: Because people don’t always ask the best questions. Should we care about what happens when we die, or can we just not help caring about it?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: The people who fear death, I think they fear death because they’re born knowing only life but to fear death. Well consider that if you fear death, you don’t want to die. But if you don’t fear death, then death is as natural as living. And I have a lot of thoughts when I die. One of them is I want on my tombstone a quote from Horace Mann who said, be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity. So that’s what I want there. And also is there any reason to think other than a religious text, is there any reason to think that your state of existence in death is any different from your state of nonexistence before birth, before you were born, you say, where am I? How come I’m not on earth yet? What am I doing? There’s no awareness of anything. And so now you’re alive, but then you die, your brain functions cease. Why believe that that’s any different from how it all started?

Nate: That probably should make me feel better. I think it’s also for some reason when I was just sitting there thinking about that the void of nonexistence.

Shelby: I know I think in my gut I’m like, I still want to exist. I don’t want to just disappear. But I don’t know if that’s just.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Selfish or yes, it’s entirely selfish. Make room for somebody else.

Shelby: Makes sense. Makes sense.

Nate: In the future, how likely is it that we could go back in time and see if Jesus really rose from the dead? This is a time travel question, right?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: So I think about this all the time and I said suppose I do go back in time. By the way, I was in a car in I think it was Orlando and the driver is a car service. He heard that I was a scientist but didn’t fully know all my work. But he asked me about evidence and he says, so as a scientist you need evidence for things, right? I said yeah. And he says, but what about the evidence for Jesus’s resurrection? And I said, well what evidence are you referring to? And he said, well, the guards that were positioned outside. And I said, first of all, we know in modern understanding of the human mind that eyewitness testimony is some of the worst testimony you could possibly put forward.

Nate: There’s those 911 accounts, right, where someone describes their day and they’re wearing a completely different thing, completely different set of events.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yeah, correct. So that’s just be cautious of that. But beyond that, I told them they were not witnesses to Jesus’s resurrection. Yes they are. I said, no they weren’t. Go read the Bible. They were asleep.

Shelby: Right? So all they saw was well, depends on the account, but some shining light and I mean all they are attested to have seen which these documents, you know, they were written decades later anyway.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Okay, now there are multiple versions, right? So the one I’m remembering there’s, the apostles give their accounts. The one I’m remembering is the guards were asleep. They wake up, the stone is shifted, and the body’s not there.

Shelby: Right, exactly.

Nate: That’s all shelby, you just mentioned, though, how many years later were these written?

Shelby: I mean, the earliest would have been probably 30 to 40 years later in.

Nate: The which is I think that’s important, too. Right, right.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: So 40 years later when when memory is as sharp as ever.

Shelby: Yeah.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: So, so my my point is, even without reference to eyewitness testimony, the very Bible itself, I think all the accounts agree, at least on this point, that the guards were asleep. They did not see the resurrection. Okay. So you can’t use them as any kind of evidence for the resurrection if they were asleep.

Shelby: That’s interesting. I’ve never really noticed before what you’re saying there, though. I mean, they have accounts of people who they have accounts of people interacting with some version of Jesus after his death. But that you’re right. That there’s no one who actually that’s not the resurrection. No one who witnesses the act of resurrection. That’s so interesting.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: That didn’t happen. Like right. Everyone’s not watching this happen. It’s two sleep, two dudes who are asleep. Can you find it? Do you have a Bible in front of you?

Nate: 28.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Okay. It describes the guards. Here we go.

Nate: No, here we go.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Here we go.

Nate: His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep. That’s their quote. So this is Matthew 20 813.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: So this driver, who also said he was a pastor at a church, did not know that because to him, they were eyewitnesses. If you’re asleep, you’re not an eyewitness. Remember, I said at the beginning, whatever I know of the Bible or your religious book, it’s more than you know of my science, and in some cases, it might be more than you know. Again, I don’t claim perfect knowledge of all the nooks and crannies, but I know enough places to dip in to have a conversation, a meaningful conversation with someone, rather. I don’t believe any of that. I don’t know. Have you read it? Well, not really, no. That’s not a conversation. We’re on opposite sides of offense, and we’re not even going to try to dismantle it. What started this? Sorry, I’ve lost track.

Nate: How likely could we go back? Is it that we could go back and oh, yeah.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: So I think to myself, if I had a time machine, would I observe the events described in the Bible of the accounts of Jesus? And my answer is no, I wouldn’t, because suppose I go to it, and then there are some thieves who stole the body, and it was not the Spirit of God through a beam of light. What am I going to do with this information? Just think about it. I’m going to come back today, say, look, guys, this is all especially since the entire foundation of religion is faith. This is the whole point, all right? If you needed evidence to support what you believe, we would call it fact. We have another word for it. If you needed incontrovertible evidence. So to run around looking for evidence for your faith, then if you’re really going to do that, then how open are you to all the other evidence you’ve been ignoring so far? The evidence for a 14 billion year old universe? Are you sweeping that under the rug? But you want to accept possible. So let’s take a look at the Shroud of Turin, okay, in recent years shown to be a forgery, a brilliant forgery, though, but a forgery nonetheless. Let’s assume it wasn’t a forgery or we didn’t know it was a forgery. And you see the imprint of Jesus there with the beard and the cross.

Shelby: That was supposedly over his face, the.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Burial, which is a traditional for Jewish burial of precisely that kind because of course Jesus was Jewish. And so as we occasionally need to remind some Christians, so you would say, well, this imprint on the cloth is the Holy Spirit and the energy of his body resurrecting out of the cloth without having to unfold the cloth. And this is sort of the record of that. Okay. And we can show that a strong beam of light will make this kind of an imprint on the cloth. Okay, and you’re a religious person and this is working for you, really. Okay, so you like that evidence. You like that. Okay, how about all the other evidence that conflicts with practically scientific evidence that conflicts with practically everything else in the Bible? Oh, no, but that’s faith. My point is, and I don’t want to tell religious people how to be religious, but if you’re really going to be religious, don’t try to find science that supports what you’re doing, because you will have to cherry pick it to make that happen, because most of the science does not support especially what unfolds in Genesis, okay? I’m just saying enlightened religious people don’t use their Bible as a science textbook. They just don’t. They use it as a source of wisdom or inspiration.

Shelby: And we talk about this all the time on the show, but that is not how the authors meant it to be used.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: I don’t even going to go there. I’m not even going to go there. I’m not going to claim I know what the authors were thinking. I’m not even going to claim that because that’s your version of Christianity, okay? Their version of Christianity is this is the word of God through the hand and the mind of the authors, and that is the truth. So you settled in your own interpretation that left you comfortable with the scripture. And I’m saying everybody can do that and has done that, all right? So they have a comfort level with it. And I’m coming from the outside of all of that saying, I don’t care where you land but I do know that if you’re going to start claiming science supports it, at some point you’re going to have to deny the science that does not support it.

Nate: Sure.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: And that’s a very slippery slope. There are even people who are looking for the Star of Bethlehem. There was like a planetary conjunction where three or more objects are in the sky together, but that wouldn’t have been interpreted as a single star, not by any educated person, which we think the three wise men were. And so we don’t really have anything there. And so maybe it was divine. Okay, that’s fine. But if you’re going to try to find something in the actual historical records, again, you’re trying to find evidence to support your beliefs. If they’re authentic beliefs, you don’t need evidence. And I’m not even going to fault you for that. We live in a country that constitutionally protects the free expression of religion. And like I said, enlightened religious people are not going to the Bible for their science. Neither did Thomas Jefferson. Do you know about the Jefferson Bible?

Shelby: Yeah, it was berated in my upbringing, but now I think, you know, I kind of see where he was coming from.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yeah. And it’s titled The Wisdom of Jesus of Nazareth. Okay. Something like that. Or the life and morals of Jesus of Nazareth. That’s what he titled it. And physically cut out with scissors and then glued back onto a page, cut out every mythical, magical, miracle feat of Jesus, leaving behind his morals and his wisdom. That’s a Jefferson Bible. And so I assert that enlightened religious people take more that tact, not trying to stand in denial of science or whatever, or they’re not going there. To them, the Bible is a source of inspiration and guidance for living and maybe guidance for dying. And so, of course, you have to cherry pick that as well. But still, if it works for them, I don’t have a problem with it.

Nate: Yeah.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Also, there’s one other point. There’s the assertion that we are a Christian nation. This is an objectively false statement. Yeah, it’s a very I want it to be true. I think it’s true, and I want it to be true, so I’ll declare it as such. It is an objectively false declaration about the United States, okay? Our constitution makes no mention of God. That fact alone, controversial in its day, but everybody else’s Constitution in the world is talking about God. Ours does not. It makes one very minor mention of God. Do you know where that is? No. You’re not going to get it.

Shelby: Okay.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: You’re not going to get it. Ann Odomini 1789. That’s the only mention of God, okay? Because they’re using the Julian calendar based on Jesus. Whatever. Okay. So there’s another thing that’s hardly ever talked about. Was it 18 four? There were wars in the oceans between European nations and Islam, okay? They’re basically holy wars. And this was greatly disrupting trade that the United States wanted to conduct with our trading partners overseas because the Muslim community wanted to attack us, just the way they wanted to attack England and France and Portugal, Spain. And so in the treaty of tripoli, which was drafted principally by john adams, who wrote our constitution. Primarily wrote our constitution. That treaty, which is written by him, ratified by congress. It is a treaty between us and the muslims. And it says, unlike these other people, these other nations you are fighting, we under no conditions are a christian nation.

Shelby: Wow.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: That’s what it’s I paraphrase, but it’s almost exactly what it says. Don’t confuse us with Spain. That’s being driven by a pope and God and the Christian God that is not us. You can trade with us. This is the kind of evidence that says we’re not a Christian nation because it actually says that. It’s funny because they didn’t hadn’t settled on the spelling of what it is to be Muslim at the time. So it was the followers of Mohammed. The spelling is not quite exact yet, but it’s clearly what’s going on in this treaty and what they’re talking about. So yes. What would I say to a room of fundamentalists?

Nate: Yeah, what would you say, I’m curious. To a room of full of just fundamentalist Christians, conservative Christians in America right now.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Okay. I’d have one message. I’d say try hard. I know it’ll be hard for you. Try hard to not put your Christian rules of life into laws and legislation that affect people who are not Christian. No, try not to do that, because, for example, you want to put the Ten Commandments in the thing. The Ten Commandments appear in the Old Testament. That is a religious document that is followed by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Okay? That’s a religious document. You want to try to say that the people can’t be gay, and you’re going to cite or they can’t cross dress. You’re going to cite passages in Deuteronomy. It’s very clear. A man shall not don the clothes of a woman or woman the clothes of a man, lest this be an abomination unto the Lord thy God. This was used against Joan of Ark in the trial of Joan of Ark because she was dressed like a man. That was like, nearly half the case against her, by the way. All right, it’s clear in the Bible, okay? Try to resist making laws of the state that capture rules of your religion, because we are a democracy, and laws have to apply to everyone. And if everyone is not fundamentalist, not everyone is Christian, and certainly not everyone is fundamentalist Christian. You are asserting your laws upon them. The danger here is if some other religious community moves into town and they outvote you, they will start putting their religious rules into play, which would then require that you follow their religion. One of the greatest features of this country is that our Constitution makes no reference to a religion doesn’t mean it doesn’t like religions. There’s reference to religion in the First Amendment that we cannot stop you from practicing your religion provided your religion doesn’t subtract rights from others. Okay? We can’t stop you. And the only way we can’t stop you is to not declare a religion. That omission was not just, oh, we forgot that omission was brilliant, allowing all religions to escape prosecution of their thinking in whatever country they were in, and they could come here. And only in America, I think, can you have a row of buildings, and one of them is a mosque. One of them is a synagogue. One of them is a Catholic church. One of them is a Baptist. You got all of these and there’s scientologies down the block. All of this in America. That’s something to be cherished about who and what we are, because the government is not telling you what religion to follow.

Shelby: I guess the reality is you can’t have freedom of religion and be a Christian nation.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Thank you for summarizing.

Nate: Shelby GPT. Yeah.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Next time. Yeah, thank you. Next time. That’s what I’ll say. That is the only message I can think to bring to conservative Christian Americans, to fundamentalist Christian conservatives. That’s the message I would bring.

Nate: I think it’s needed, very needed. We needed to fly them up to the moon, apparently. All the way to the moon.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Some of that, too. What I might also say, I would say why are you trying to change the curriculum in my science classroom to match your religion. Why are you doing that? Because I don’t go to your Sunday school and tell your instructors what to teach there. I don’t pick it outside your church. Say, that might not necessarily be true. This is a sacred place, the church, the community church. I don’t want to say my science class is a sacred place, but it’s a place where we’re teaching science. Let the science be the science. I don’t mind teaching religion, but get a religion class. You can learn religion in the religion class, but to put religion in the science class, that’s not fair. Yeah, because I’m not doing that to you. And in the interest of fairness, that’s another message I would give. I would give fundamentalist conservative Christians yeah.

Nate: You mentioned earlier you want your tombstone to say that you contributed to society.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Right?

Nate: I don’t remember the beautiful quote you.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Shared, but you totally mangled that.

Nate: You want to leave a mark on society.

Shelby: You want to have left something.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Let the world be better off for you having lived in it. That’s all.

Shelby: Well, I think you’ve already accomplished that goal, but I hope you accomplish it many more times over.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Okay, well, thank you. And I’m happy to talk to you a little bit about the Bible. Just a couple of passages, the value of pi. Also, there is no reference to a spherical Earth anywhere in the Bible. There’s one place where Earth is referred to as a circle, and all maps of Earth drawn pre Columbus, it’s a circle, usually with Jerusalem in the middle. So we know what a circle is, and it’s not a sphere. So the idea that all the Bible knew the Earth was here no, it didn’t. Neither did anybody else in the day. So just be honest about this.

Nate: Yeah. I love it. Well, thank you, Neil, for coming on the show. We really appreciate your time.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Thanks for your interest. I was very happy to chat all about on all those topics with you. Thanks for having me.

Shelby: It was a pleasure.

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