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Atheists Deserve a Better Spokesman than Neil deGrasse Tyson


Just watch him on the Comedy Central program The Nightly Show. Yes, it's on Comedy Central, but that doesn't stop host Larry Wilmore from posing, in earnest, the old question of science versus religion. That's the theme of the panel discussion with Dr. Tyson, comedian Tom Papa, and a soft-spoken Christian hipster pastor, Carl Lentz. Despite having been done to death, the question of whether ancient faith can survive the encounter with modern science is not a no-brainer.

Tom Papa, apart from some tasteless humor about the confluence of race and yoga pants that leaves the two African-American participants in the program speechless, basically comes down on the side of the question that says science points to something beyond nature, even as it undercuts the claims of specific religions. Tyson is the conversation's designated atheist (though we know he prefers to be called an "agnostic"). See the segment here:

A Salon article summarizes the contents of the show, "Neil deGrasse Tyson destroys argument for intelligent design: 'I cannot look at the universe and say that yes, there's a God, and this God cares about my life -- at all.'"

Tyson's logic is that, as he claims, "intelligent design" assumes a benevolent designer, and the track record of violence and suffering in the universe negates a benevolent deity. Tyson goes on to mock people who, according to crude atheist satire, think The Flintstones is a "documentary" and who picture Jesus as riding on a dinosaur.

Tyson is asked about intelligent design, and can offer nothing more substantive than this:

I look out to the universe and yes, it is filled with mysteries, but it's also filled with all manner of things that would just as soon have you dead. Like asteroid strikes, and hurricanes, and tornadoes, and tsunamis, and volcanoes, and disease, and pestilence. There are things that exist in the natural world that do not have your health or longevity as a priority. And so I cannot look at the universe and say that yes, there's a God, and this God cares about my life -- at all. The evidence does not support this.

This problem has been known as long as men and women have pondered ultimate questions, and the book of Job showed thousands of years ago that easy resolutions of it fail. But that's all irrelevant to the theory of intelligent design, which considers -- in scientific, not moral or spiritual, terms -- the objective evidence of purpose at work in the origins of the cosmos and in the origins and evolution of life. ID doesn't try to resolve the enigma of innocent suffering, and it isn't committed to identifying the source of design in nature with the God of the Bible. Those are all issues that ID scientists leave in the hands of philosophers and theologians.

Tyson might have chosen to address the science of intelligent design, its distinctive arguments and the evidence it brings to bear. Though The Nightly Show is on Comedy Central, there's enough serious content on the show that I'm confident Mr. Wilmore, the host, would have welcomed some serious comments. Instead, Tyson misdirects the conversation to an irrelevancy.

As for the Jesus-on-a-dinosaur theme, that is about as low as I've seen Tyson go -- and I say that as someone who edited an entire book of responses to the distortions of science and history that bedeviled his series Cosmos.

The temptation is to dismiss Tyson as a buffoon. But first of all, he's too influential to dismiss. And second, he's no buffoon. Listening to him, you can't deny that this is a smooth and cunning man. As Ann Gauger said here the other day in reference to another, less celebrated ID critic, what he seeks to do is "prejudice" his audience.

Among TV viewers, there are a lot of people -- a great majority -- too distracted to investigate the evidence of ID for themselves. It's precisely those unwary science consumers to whom Tyson addresses his snarky platitudes.

If I were a serious atheist, I think I would be pretty ticked off that the likes of Neil Tyson and Richard Dawkins have got themselves promoted to be the celebrity spokesmen for my point of view. For much the same reason, if I were a theistic evolutionist I would be unhappy about being represented by a character like Karl Giberson. (See John West's comments on Giberson from this morning.)

Thoughtful people deserve to have their ideas, whether right or wrong, defended by someone thoughtful. Yes, atheists deserve better than Dr. Tyson.

Image credit: Bruce F Press (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.