Faith

Stephen Colbert Schools Neil DeGrasse Tyson on Faith and Science

YouTube screenshot of Stephen Colbert and Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

Stephen Colbert, host of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” shot down astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson over the suggestion that “believers” have an “urge” to “reject evidence.”

Colbert told Tyson that he would prefer to know rather than not to know, and described his father’s endless pursuit of knowledge. “So how do you resolve the urges of a believer to reject evidence in favor of faith?” Tyson asked.

“Bullsh*t!” Colbert shot back. “What are you talking about? The urges of a believer? The urges of a believer to reject evidence? Who says… That’s spoken by somebody who is not a believer.”

Colbert, a practicing Roman Catholic despite his broad support for Democratic politics (and likely abortion), declared, “There is no urge to reject evidence.” Then he undercut his own defense of the rationality of faith by adding, “I don’t think that my faith is related to evidence. They’re different things.”

“My faith approaches a mystery,” he added. “My faith comes from a place of a need to be grateful. Like my faith comes from a place where I am grateful for the world, and I cannot answer the question, ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ as you and I have discussed many times.”

“And so, until you can tell me why there is something rather than nothing, I see a place to place my gratitude for existence, how strange it is to be anything at all,” Colbert said. “From there, I can extrapolate into my own tradition, which is Christianity and Catholicism, and my gratitude for Christ, through Him all things were made.”

Colbert concluded, “I like evidence, because it is better to know than not to know. And I was taught by intellectual Catholics who believed you could still be a Catholic and still question your church.” Later, he jokingly recalled a comment that “you believe you can be a Catholic and still question your church. There’s a word for that — a Protestant.”

Many liberal Democrats — like Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — identify as Catholic and even go to Mass but disagree with their church on key moral issues, especially abortion. This is problematic for their claim to be good Catholics, but Colbert’s discussion on faith and science did not engage in these issues.

Colbert was right to call “bullsh*t” on Tyson’s claim that “believers” have the “urge to reject evidence.” This is nonsense. As Colbert noted, there is no independent philosophical explanation for why anything exists at all. Ultimately, it makes more sense to believe there is a force — or a Person — behind the universe than not to believe that.

After all, the great founders of modern science were Christian, and for good reason. Christians believe in a God who created the universe out of nothing, who did so using “wisdom,” and who was free to create any way He wanted. Furthermore, He created human beings in His image, and thus able to think His thoughts after Him.

Thus, it makes sense for the universe to be rationally ordered in a way that humans can discover and understand.

Finally, atheism also involves belief. There is no evidence that God does not exist, and a great deal of history makes a great deal less sense if He does not.

Patheos’ “Friendly Atheist,” Hemant Mehta, argued that Christianity “requires a suspension of disbelief” because of key doctrines such as the Resurrection of Jesus, the Virgin Birth, and miracles in general. Yet Mehta cannot explain why each of the gospels insists that Jesus rose from the dead — and was seen by dozens of people. Furthermore, some event must explain why the disciples — who scattered and even denied Jesus when He was arrested — would later be willing to die gruesome deaths rather than deny His Resurrection. Mass hallucinations and cunning schemes do not explain away this evidence.

Mehta argued that “suggesting that God poofed us into existence … is just wishful thinking that gets us nowhere.” But that’s not what Colbert or any rational Christian suggests. Referencing thousands of years of Jewish history, Christians point out that God Himself insisted, over and over again, that He created the universe, that He used plagues to convince Egypt to let the Jews leave, that He caused kings to rise and fall, and that He even sent His own people into exile and brought them back.

God’s creation is not just a philosophical claim, it’s an explanation of thousands of years of history.

Contrary to Tyson and Mehta, faith in Christianity is very compatible with evidence — and with science in particular. Indeed, miracles only break the normal operating rules of the universe because those rules exist in the first place — and the occasional violation of those rules only makes God’s action more remarkable.

Faith and science build on one another, and if one interpretation of scripture seems to conflict with science — such as statements that the earth doesn’t move — Christians rightly reconsider their interpretation — verses like that are expressing God’s providence, not an opposition to the idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Struggles on how to interpret Genesis 1-11 may also find similar solutions that preserve both the authority of scripture and the reliability of science.

Interestingly, a recent study found that “all humans are descendants of the same man and woman who lived 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. Our communal mom and dad got together after a ‘catastrophic event’ that almost wiped out the human race,” The New York Post reported.

My colleague Michael Walsh reported the story, suggesting scientific evidence was discovered for Adam. It seems his lifelong study of John Milton’s excellent epic poem “Paradise Lost” may have distracted my colleague, since the far clearer Bible allegory for this study is Noah, not Adam. Interestingly, many Mesopotamian cultures had recorded similar flood stories, with almost all of humanity wiped out. Only Genesis put the story in the context of an all-powerful God punishing humans for sin, as opposed to petty tyrant deities annoyed by humans keeping them up at night.

Whether or not the flood covered the entire world, the evidence is in favor of a catastrophic flood recorded by many different civilizations. All scientific studies are provisional, so it would be unwise to interpret scripture solely on the basis of changing scientific conclusions, but from time to time, science does uncannily echo the pages of the Bible.

Stephen Colbert rightly shot back at Tyson, but his response left a great deal to be desired. Americans need to understand just how complementary faith and science truly are.