Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Disappointing Cosmos

I loved Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I was inspired by his books. Sagan’s television series made cosmology into a spiritual experience for me. Therefore I was excited when I heard that a remake was in the works.

I watched the first episode of the new show with great expectations. My initial thought was that the “spaceship of the imagination” idea was cheesy, but otherwise the special effects were great.

Condensing the age of the universe into a one year calendar is old hat. I was hoping for something a little more creative, but it accomplished its purpose in communicating the immensity of the time and space.

Then my mouth dropped open at a segment that I can only describe as a hate-filled rant. For some reason the writers of the show decided to include a segment on the martyrdom of the 16th-century Italian thinker Giordano Bruno. It seems to have no other purpose than church-bashing.

The Christian church – both Catholic and Protestant – is pictured as the villain. Church leaders are cartoonish devils squelching scientific inquiry. Bruno is portrayed as the heroic scientist persecuted by narrow-minded, ignorant, evil Christians.

The problem is that Bruno was not a scientist. He was a philosopher and theologian. Discover Magazine got it right in a review entitled “Did Cosmos Pick the Wrong Hero?” What happened to Bruno was wrong – as any champion of religious liberty knows. But it has nothing to do with the birth of modern science. Bruno was a philosopher who ran afoul of the religious authorities.

The segment could have been edited from the script without anyone missing it. That historical side trip had nothing to do with science. Its only purpose was to take a swipe at Christianity. The message was clear: Science is the hero; religion - in particular Christianity - is the villain.

Why do this? What is the point? All it does is deepen the divide between science and religion, which I was hoping this series might seek to breach. If the purpose of Cosmos is to educate and inspire people, you don’t begin by polarizing the majority of your audience.

Sure, the church opposed the heliocentric worldview, as did everyone – Christian and non-Christian - at the time. No one knew any better! We all know the story of Galileo and his struggles with the church authorities. (By the way, he would have been a far better choice for a scientific hero!)

It is also true that the pseudo-science of creationism is presently an embarrassing anti-intellectual sideshow on the Christian scene.  But that branch of Christianity is not representative of the Christian religion. It is certainly not representative of me or any churches I have served.

The historical relationship between science and faith is much more nuanced than this cartoon morality play. It can be argued that that modern science is the brainchild of the Judeo-Christian worldview. It is no accident that science was born in Christendom. The biblical worldview provided the intellectual stance to view the physical world as an area of study, rather than an arena of spirits.

The Genesis story of creation is unique in the literature of ancient religions. It pictures the world as composed of physical objects, including the stars, sun, and moon. The heavenly bodies were not gods and goddesses, like in other religions of the time. The earth was not the body of a deity. Nature was not animated by spirits who possessed springs, caves and trees. The universe was seen as an objective reality that could be known by human beings.

The truth is that Christianity set the stage for the birth of science. How wonderful if Cosmos had explored this aspect of history instead of promoting Christophobic stereotypes.  

I will still watch Cosmos. I am still in love with science, and this series promises to be a good show. But I am disappointed in Cosmos’ anti-religious prejudice. This is not the 17th century, and neither the church nor science should act like it is.  


K- said...

I was disappointed as well - though I can't say I was surprised. The anti-religion and anti-Christianity stance in particular of the scientific community has been increasing in intensity and acceptance in recent years. Back in 2007, Richard Gallagher, editor of The Scientist magazine, wrote an editorial in which he referred to "Richard Dawkins' crusade against religion" and called it "thought-provoking and worthwhile." In the same editorial, he said that since open airing of all views is the best policy, they do allow all comments on their online articles. He then went on to say, "This means that we get a frustrating number of flat-earthers on certain threads, but if nothing else it should keep scientists aware that there are many, many irrational people actively working against openness."

So, according to Gallagher, people of faith are "irrational", "flat-earthers", and "actively working against openness." (The Scientist, editorial, Jan 1, 2007)

Unfortunately, today's Christians are painted much like the cartoon Inquisitors in the new Cosmos episode.

Larry Z said...

Just read your blog on the Cosmos series and couldn't agree more. Being a lover of science shows and looking forward to the remake of Cosmos, I was extremely disappointed with the Christian bashing that they portrayed in the opener as well as several of the following episodes. Can't tell you if it continued for the whole series or not, I wasn't able to tolerate watching any more of it!