Missed Opportunity – The Failure of the New “Cosmos”
I like science.
Really I do. Scientific inquiry and human ingenuity have given us everything from the wheel to the cure for polio to the iPhone. What’s not to like about human ingenuity?
And I generally liked Carl Sagan’s Cosmos – the multi-episode science spectacular that aired on PBS when I was in high school some thirty years ago. It was clear that Carl Sagan really, really liked science, and wanted everyone else to like it just as much as he did. But the series also made it clear that Carl Sagan really DIDN’T like the Catholic Church, as he suddenly veered off course in episode three to tell the story of Galileo and his unjust persecution at the hands of those nasty, anti-scientific religious people.
As a “religious people” myself, I was a bit confused. Was I not supposed to like science because I was religious? Or was I not supposed to like religion because I was scientific? Was there some sort of war going on that no one told me about?
Carl Sagan seemed to think there was. And the ensuing decades since those original broadcasts in the 1980s have only added to the idea of a “war.” Atheist scientists like Richard Dawkins write books about the war. Christian “defenders” like Ken Ham write books and build whole museums about the war. Conservative parents homeschool their kids using curriculum guaranteed to be “100% evolution free!”
In the midst of this a few voices cry out. “Can’t we all just get along?” Can’t we be religious AND excited about science? Is it really a zero-sum game where any gains in science must come at the expense of religion, and vice versa?
In our increasingly polarized culture where every point of view has it’s own cable network and the fastest route to stardom lies in your ability to make your opponent (and their respective cable network) look ridiculous, it feels like a little sanity – and humility – might be in order.
So when I heard of the plans to produce a new version of Cosmos for a new generation, I was hopeful the producers might take a more conciliatory tack.
I was wrong.
Carl Sagan made it three whole episodes before he started throwing stones at religious people. The new series – 19 minutes. Yes, just 1/3 of the way through the first episode, it’s time to make the Catholic Church look terrible.
But not with Galileo this time, since historians have pointed out Sagan’s less-than-accurate retelling of that incident. (Galileo’s persecution came not for his science as much as for his profound lack of tact.) This time our “hero of science” is another 16th century thinker, Giordano Bruno, chosen primarily, it would seem, for the extremity of his punishment. He was burned at the stake. (As opposed to Galileo, who comfortably lived out his sentence under house arrest in the palace of a wealthy friend.)
And here’s where the new Cosmos goes off the rails, ironically repeating the same mistakes as the old Cosmos.
The account of Giordano Bruno is inaccurate. Almost comically inaccurate.
To be fair, Bruno certainly got himself into trouble with the Catholic Church. But his primary sins were theological, not cosmological. He denied the Trinity. He embraced Arianism. He rejected transubstantiation. He rejected the divinity of Christ. For a Dominican priest, these are obviously serious matters that are going to get you into trouble with your superiors.
Now, why the church was handing out death sentences in the 16th century like pediatric dentists handing out Hello Kitty stickers is clearly a valid question. We can’t fully unpack that question here, though an “aha” comes when we notice that the century of Galileo and Bruno was also the century of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Henry VIII. In other words, Europe was in the midst of a revolution, with the short end of the revolutionary stick resting squarely in the hands of the Pope in Rome.
16th century Europe was rejecting the historic view of papal authority. Protestants were running amok. The Rome-centric vision of “Christendom” was collapsing. And so the powers in Rome decided they needed to crack some heads. To shore up their authority by lighting a fire under their dissenters, both figuratively and literally. The behavior of the 16th century Roman church wasn’t commendable – or Christian – in any sense of the word. It was political. The fact that people in power resist threats to their power is a fundamental reality of human history, and in this regard, the behavior of the church in Rome was both reprehensible AND typical.
So characterize the 16th century Roman church how you will. Suspicious, overreaching, oppressive, occasionally cruel. Where Carl Sagan and his progeny err, however, is when they reach into the pie of 16th century chaos and pull out that plum of specificity – “anti-science.”
And that’s too bad. Instead of encouraging detente, the show’s producers seem committed to fighting this science vs. religion war to the bloody end. Which means even more fuel for the creation museums and “100% evolution free!” homeschool curricula they hate so much.
It could have been different. But perhaps, in another 30 years, we’ll get another chance to try to get along.