There’s Science and There’s Scientism, But Neil deGrasse Tyson Doesn’t Know That

By David Mills Published on June 5, 2019

Her daughter had gone to medical school and lost her faith, she said. The new doctor told her mom that she’d learned too much science to believe all that religious stuff anymore. Two other women in the audience added their own stories of raising their children in the Church only to see them seduced by “science.”

This is the first in a series. For the second and third articles in the series, see Three Reasons Christian Children Give Up Their Faith and What to Do When Your Children Leave the Faith.

A local church had asked me to speak on the subject “science or religion?” They chose the “or” in the title. Not “and.” They assumed opposition. The mothers’ stories showed they had reason.

It’s “And,” Not “Or”

Is it really “or”? Writing from my own tradition: the Catholic Church says no. The other great traditions agree. The Church says there’s science and there’s science. There’s the careful investigation of nature, which tells us all sorts of interesting things and produces all sorts of practical blessings. Then there’s using science as the sole and final guide to life, the universe, and everything.

Science or Religion?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church answers the question “Science or Religion?” with two quotes, one from each Vatican Council. She says: “Both! But each in its place.”

The First Vatican Council declares: “There can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.” That was in 1870.

God tells two stories, or rather two parts of the same story, in different ways. Some parts of the story He reveals. Other parts He lets us discover and gives us the brains to do it.

The Second Vatican Council says it a little more clearly: “Methodical research in all branches of knowledge … carried out in a truly scientific manner, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God.” That was 1965.

God guides the scientist studying nature, because He made the world the scientist studies. If the scientist does his job right, he will never find a reason to deny the faith.

— David Mills

This second idea is sometimes called “scientism.” It’s always used against religion. Scientism insists we can study God the way we study nature. Can you see him? No. Can you measure him? No. Can you experiment on him? No.

The “scientist” in the second sense says: Here’s what we think about gravity. We keep dropping bowling balls off buildings and every single one hits the sidewalk. We figured out how gravity makes the planets move. And sure enough, they move that way. But you can’t you do that with God. So no God.

No Evidence?

Everyone’s favorite scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson said this, speaking to CBS. Talking about religious faith, he said: “There’s just no evidence of it. And this is why religions are called ‘faiths’ collectively. Because you believe something in the absence of evidence. That’s what it is! That’s why it’s called ‘faith’! Otherwise we would call all religions ‘evidence,’ but we don’t, for exactly that reason.”

Tyson only allows evidence for God that would be evidence for gravity. Notice the crucial thing here: He just doesn’t say, “You can’t prove God exists.” He says “You have no evidence. You have no reason to believe in God.” He insists we believe just because we want to. Like the Baltimore Orioles fan who thinks his team will win the World Series this year. Or this century.

This isn’t very smart. It’s actually, you know, dumb. He’s a really smart guy, but gosh, that’s dim.

The World Thinks That Way

Our whole world thinks the way Tyson does. We Christians naturally pick it up. We start to think the way the world thinks. It’s in the air we breathe. We feel there are things we believe and things we know. We believe our religion, but we know our science. Belief is less sure than knowledge. Therefore knowledge/science tops belief/religion.

That means belief/religion is closer to having a favorite football team or a special diet plan. Knowledge/science is like recognizing the reality of gravity. The world says: It’s great if your beliefs work for you, but don’t think they’re true for anyone else.

The Right Tools

No, the Church says. The issue’s not that simple. Reality is one thing, yes, but with different parts. It includes God and the supernatural; nature; and man, who’s a mixture. Here’s the important thing: We must use the right tools to study each part. This is why Tyson’s remark is so dumb. He’s like a man trying to look at microbes with a telescope. Or study Mars with a jeweler’s glass. He doesn’t see the germs or the planet, so he believes they’re not there.

You need the right tools. That’s the real meaning of the word “science” or Scientia. It’s the disciplined, methodical, careful way you understand the thing you want to understand. The tools we use to study the movement of the planets don’t tell us anything about God. They’re not designed to do that. We know him in a different way than we know gravity.

About that, I could say a lot. Christians have spent a lot of time and effort developing the evidence for God. There’s Thomas Aquinas’s famous five proofs. There’s the reasons for believing that Jesus rose from the dead and therefore Someone raised Him. We have evidence. Tyson may reject it. He may think it bad evidence, or insufficient evidence, but he should see that we have real evidence. But he can’t seem to get out of his scientism enough to see it. He’s aimed his telescope at the petri dish on the table, and that’s that.

What did I say to the heart-broken mother? We’ll talk about that next time.


David Mills is a Senior Editor of The Stream. After teaching writing in a seminary, he has been editor of Touchstone and the executive editor of First Things. He has edited a book on C. S. Lewis called The Pilgrim’s Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness and written two books of popular theology, Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary.

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