In a lengthy interview with the Daily Beast‘s Marlow Stern, astrophysicist and TV personality Neil DeGrasse Tyson offered up a defense of Scientology, criticized Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and disputed Stern’s claim that President George W. Bush’s administration waged a war on science and global warming.
Tyson told the Daily Beast he had not yet seen the new HBO exposé Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, but was “familiar with it.”
“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?” Tyson told the outlet. “Let’s realize this: what matters is not who says you’re 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.”
“I don’t care what the tenets are of Scientology,” Tyson continued. “They don’t distract me. I don’t judge them, and I don’t criticize them.”
Stern then asked Tyson what he thought of the Church of Scientology’s tax-exempt status as a religion. Tyson responded by comparing the practices of Scientology to a Passover Seder:
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?
Next, Stern used the topic of religion to pivot to Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which Gov. Mike Pence signed into law last week. Critics have derided the law as anti-gay. Tyson called the law “a little weird.”
“I just think it’s a little weird that there’s a law that allows you to earn less money,” Tyson told Stern. “I think that’s weird within a capitalist democracy. If you’re a company and you don’t agree with it, you don’t put your factories there, and I don’t think that’s good for your economy. Usually the economy wins in the end in terms of decision-making, so we’ll see what comes of this.”
Toward the end of the interview, Stern asked Tyson what he thought of President George W. Bush’s suppression of “scientific discussion of global warming during his administration,” as Tyson served on a number of aerospace commissions during Bush’s presidency. Tyson defended Bush from Stern’s criticism. Tyson responded:
People can say and think what they want, but what matters is whether or not it becomes policy or legislation, and I don’t remember any legislation that restricted science. In fact, the budget for the National Science Foundation went up. What matters is money in Congress… So the science budget of the country went up during the Bush administration, and the budget for NASA went up 3 percent – and it had actually dropped 25 percent in real spending dollars under the eight years of President Clinton. I don’t care what you say or think. I care about legislation, and policy.
Check out the rest of the Daily Beast‘s interview with Neil DeGrasse Tyson here.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is available now on HBO Go and HBO On Demand. The film became HBO’s biggest documentary premiere in 9 years when it aired Sunday night to 1.65 million viewers.