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Missed Opportunity – The Failure of the New “Cosmos”

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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.


12 CommentsLeave a Comment

  • Reply

    Paul Vander Klay

    3 months ago

    That’s helpful. History is what it is and as Dr. Karin Maag explains in the Geneva/Servetus case execution for religious reasons was the law, just as imprisonment for terrorism would be today. http://youtu.be/CP7Zcrj6CfI

  • Reply


    3 months ago

    As fellow religious people I find a lot of comfort in the principle, and book by Arthur Holmes, All Truth is God’s Truth. (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdman’s. July 1977. ISBN 0-8028-1701-7.) Which allows me to listen to, appreciate and learn from anything science has to teach. But I think culture has given Science so much authority it now sees it self as the sole definer/decider? of what truths are true. The problem with that is science is not able to answer every question. For example if I’m in the kitchen watching the water boil on the stove and my wife comes in and asks “Why is the water boiling?” One answer is “the temperature where the vapour pressure of the liquid is equal to the pressure exerted on the liquid by the surrounding’s environment pressure. ” Another answer is: “I was making some tea and wondered if you like some?” Science can produce the 1st answer, I don’t think it can ever produce the 2nd. So I suppose while all truth is God’s truth not all knowledge is science.

  • Reply


    3 months ago

    I think a lot of people are hung up about the details of Bruno and Galileo and not understanding the overarching message… which is that their ideas were suppressed and the idea of thought control by an authority is unacceptable. You can say “oh well ” and I’ll simply say “oh ok… so the church was totally justified to ruin a man’s life then (whether burned alive or to live your days in a fancy prison and not be able to pursue your passion)?”

    I certainly don’t think that taking a swing at religion wins you points on the “let’s get along” front, yet I don’t think it’s the general idea of religion that gets the flak in these shows as much as the extremist positions some take. While you mention Sagan on Galileo and the Catholic Faith, you seem to forget other episodes where he talks about some of the themes of other religions, like Hinduism, without taking a dig at them. Maybe they’re not terribly fond of Christianity because historically speaking it hasn’t been exactly been a “kind” religion, especially towards those with differing views.

  • Reply


    3 months ago

    Not sure how telling history is wrong

  • Reply


    3 months ago

    Hey Phil!

    Glad to see you’re keeping the conversation alive. I haven’t had time to watch the ful episode of the new Cosmos but I hope to soon. In the meantime I did watch the animated piece about Bruno Giordano that you mention. I took away a very different tone that you did. . . .

    First, I think we’ll have to agree that the Catholic Church (or even the Church in general) doesn’t fare well as the shadowed figures close in on Bruno. This plays into a fairly popular stereo-type that demonizes authority and who better than the Catholic Church to fill this role. . .then again, they were conducting the Inquisitions about this time so its an understandable (in not unfortunate) narrative ploy.

    Second, as a Christian artist, I heard some language that was very compelling about the scientific/creative impulse deeply embedded in devout belief.

    Early in the piece Bruno is introduced as a man who “hungered to read everything about God’s creation”.

    Later Bruno is intrigued by the idea of a universe “as boundless as his idea of God”

    Finally, the video states this the idea of an infinite universe made perfect sense to Bruno. “The God he worshiped was infinite. So how could creation be anything less?”

    I might be wrong here, but it seems the Comos folks have chosen intensionally inclusive language allowing for the co-existence of religious curiosity and the pursuit of science. Albiet somewhat clumsily (they did throw the historical Church under the bus) but a conciliatory gesture none the less. Wether they maintain this stance throughout the series remains to be seen.

    Thanks for keeping discussions like these alive and well, Phil!


  • Reply


    3 months ago

    Go dad! I’m glad you’re a smarty.

  • Reply

    Ori Pomerantz

    3 months ago

    A lot of us have serious misconception about history and the philosophical roles of science and religion. At the risk of sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong, now that What’s in the Bible is finished it might be time for a follow-up series dedicated to Captain Pete and his Pirate’s Guide to Church History.

  • Reply


    3 months ago

    I am now a faithful reader of your random thoughts, a faithful, Catholic fan. Oh, how you need to cross the Tiber!

  • Reply

    Esther O'Reilly

    3 months ago

    I do think it’s worth noting though that evolution, at least as most people conceive of it, is really not consistent with the evidence at hand. I think the Biologos types are pretty desperate for love from the atheist side, which of course they’re never going to get. I frankly don’t see much point in theistic evolution given the information we actually have. Progressive creationism makes a lot more sense to me. So I would be cautious about assuming that evolution automatically is the scientific way to go, and if you deny it you must be a YEC.

  • Reply


    3 months ago

    You should read Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen Meyer. I saw him interviewed and he says that some major scientists are agreeing with him in private about his understanding of Creationism versus evolution. They just can’t publicly agree for fear of losing credibility in the scientific community!
    We taped the new Cosmos but could only watch the first five minutes before turning it off because it was more about the silly fake spaceship in our opinion!! I didn’t get to the Catholic bashing part! We converted to Catholicism in 2004 because the Church has remained true to the doctrine it teaches for 2,000 years. Though Luther had very legitimate complaints at the time, the main tenets of the Church were not the problem. Power corrupts man and we still see that sin in man today. Catholicism has outlasted many scientist’s “theories” because God’s Truth will never change. As Christians we all share in the history of the Church whether good or bad, but we constantly see good outlasting the bad. Phil, you are one of very few people to do high quality Christian education to young people and I really admire that. My children have grown up with Veggie Tales– I remember talking to my high school friend Ron Smith about a new project he was working on (that was the release of your first video!). My kids would listen to the cd of your songs every time we were in the car too! When I started to teach religious ed this year to the younger kids at church, I rediscovered you and What’s In The Bible and I was thrilled! Thank you so much for the amazing work you’ve done in children’s evangelization!!!

  • Reply


    1 month ago

    I would agree with Casey whose comment was “I’m not sure how teaching about history is wrong”. (I also thought the comment about Galileo “comfortably living out his life under house arrest” was a too understated for words. The loss of one’s freedom, no matter how “comfortable” his surroundings is still a loss of freedom.)

    But the real issue with this article is in the 6th paragraph where you asked “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?”

    The simplest answer is this: You can certainly try to be religious and “love science”…..but, if you follow the rabbit-hole far enough, sooner or later, you will have to decide whether you’re going to adhere to the evidence or not.

    Science deals in evidence. As such, there’s just no room in the conversation for creation theories that include talking snakes or invisible people. It’s not good, bad, right or wrong…it’s just a matter of a lack of evidence.

    So, you seem to be lamenting the fact that COSMOS is the latest public example of someone engaging in a “war” between science and religion.

    Is it really a war? I don’t know. I’m sure it can be perceived that way by people who want to claim to “love science” but also subscribe to long-held, cherished beliefs that are anything but scientific.

    But, a great many people who really do “love science” — or even are scientists themselves — don’t necessarily view it as a war. Many of them are even “religious” (although they probably accept most of the Bible’s teachings as allegory rather than historical fact).

    At the end of the day, it’s simply a matter of choice. Does one want a worldview that’s based on evidence? Or does want a worldview that’s based on a traditional narrative?

    It’s a choice we all have to make.

    But, I know of no society that has ever suffered because they were too desirous of evidence to support their beliefs. I can, however, think of more than one that suffered greatly because they were inclined to hold beliefs for which no evidence existed.

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