Neil deGrasse Tyson, famous for being the coolest smart guy on the internet other than Bill Nye The Science Guy, made some people do a double take by appearing to defend Scientology in a recent interview with The Daily Beast.
Scientology, the religion made famous by the likes of Tom Cruise and John Travolta (with some satirical help from South Park), has been back in the headlines after HBO aired a documentary about the organization entitled Going Clear. It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Since Tyson is a known atheist, choosing to believe in science and logic over traditional religious narratives, the Daily Beast asked him about Going Clear and Scientology in general.
DB: Speaking of aliens, did you see HBO’s Scientology documentary Going Clear?
Tyson: No. I heard about it, though. I’m familiar with it.
DB: I’m curious what your take on Scientology is, because the intergalactic story of Xenu does encroach on your territory a bit.
Tyson: So, you have people who are certain that a man in a robe transforms a cracker into the literal body of Jesus saying that what goes on in Scientology is crazy? Let’s realize this: What matters is not who says who’s crazy, what matters is we live in a free country. You can believe whatever you want, otherwise it’s not a free country—it’s something else. If we start controlling what people think and why they think it, we have case studies where that became the norm. I don’t care what the tenets are of Scientology. They don’t distract me. I don’t judge them, and I don’t criticize them.
Now, where the rubber hits the road is, since we are a free country where belief systems are constitutionally protected—provided they don’t infringe on the rights of others—then how do you have governance over “all” when you have belief systems for the “some”? It seems to me that the way you govern people is you base governance on things that are objectively true; that are true regardless of your belief system, or no matter what the tenets are of your holy documents. And then they should base it on objective truths that apply to everyone. So the issue comes about not that there are religious people in the world that have one view over another, it’s if you have one view or another based on faith and you want to legislate that in a way that affects everyone. That’s no longer a free democracy. That’s a country where the few who have a belief system that’s not based in objective reality want to control the behavior of everyone else.
DB: The documentary essentially argues that Scientology shouldn’t be granted tax-exempt status as a religion.
Tyson: But why aren’t they a religion? What is it that makes them a religion and others are religions? If you attend a Seder, there’s an empty chair sitting right there and the door is unlocked because Elijah might walk in. OK. These are educated people who do this. Now, some will say it’s ritual, some will say it could literally happen. But religions, if you analyze them, who is to say that one religion is rational and another isn’t? It looks like the older those thoughts have been around, the likelier it is to be declared a religion. If you’ve been around 1,000 years you’re a religion, and if you’ve been around 100 years, you’re a cult. That’s how people want to divide the kingdom. Religions have edited themselves over the years to fit the times, so I’m not going to sit here and say Scientology is an illegitimate religion and other religions are legitimate religions. They’re all based on belief systems. Look at Mormonism! There are ideas that are as space-exotic within Mormonism as there are within Scientology, and it’s more accepted because it’s a little older than Scientology is, so are we just more accepting of something that’s older?
The line I’m drawing is that there are religions and belief systems, and objective truths. And if we’re going to govern a country, we need to base that governance on objective truths—not your personal belief system.
Some people believe that Scientology receiving tax-exempt status from the U.S. government is an abuse of the system. But Tyson clearly points out that the constitution gives anyone the right to believe in whatever they want. Why is one 2000-year old fairy tale more accepted than a 100-year old fairy tale? The real question should probably be: why does any religion receive tax-exempt status?
So yeah, Tyson does kind of defend Scientology, which is often referred to as a cult in the media. But we think we would defend any belief system just as strongly, including our favourite: The Church of The Flying Spaghetti Monster.