UPDATE: “Cosmos” May Get Science Right, But It Gets Church History Wrong

UPDATE: I make it clear that I’m writing this blog post based on the Slate.com article, not based on my own viewing. If the comments in the Slate article had been made by a Catholic writer, I would have taken them with a grain of salt because Catholics can admittedly sometimes take offense when none is intended. But given that this was a neutral source, I gave credence to what was written. I will watch the episode myself online later today because, as of this writing, it isn’t available on the CosmosOnTV.com site. I simply get a message saying “So 404. So not found. So sorry.”

UPDATE 2: Having now watched episode 1 of “Cosmos,” I can say that it’s graphics depicting scientific reality and hypotheses are awe-inspiring. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a host who comes across as knowledgeable without talking over your head. He treats the presentation like he’s a partner on the viewer’s journey to learning more about the universe in which we all live. In relation to the segment about Giordano Bruno, however, it could have been presented in a more fair-minded way. Yes, Copernicus is mentioned as a priest-astronomer who came up with the radical idea that the earth was not the center of the universe. But instead of following his story, the show jumps to Giordano Bruno and treats him as a visionary who was ahead of his time. Technically, his dream about the infinite scope of the universe was correct, and Tyson admits that it was a lucky guess. And in the segment in which Bruno is condemned by the Inquisition, they cite that it’s because of his heretical beliefs as opposed to his scientific views. Still, the suggestion is that the Roman Catholic Church was a force of oppression, which at the time in this instance, was true. Killing people who disagree with us is indefensible, and the Church was wrong to do so. Still, it’s a Church with a 2,000 year history that shouldn’t just be defined by the times it was wrong. If “Cosmos” was going to address the issue of religion and science through history, it could have included a broader view about the Church’s attitudes toward science, perhaps spent a little more time on Copernicus or Galileo. It’s not like the Church comes off looking great in the Galileo affair, but his views had a major impact on science. Hopefully, to offer some balance, it will give a little attention to Father George Lamaitre as the father of the big bang theory (the actual theory, not the TV show.)

UPDATE 3: Tom McDonald has watched the “Cosmos” segment on Giordano Bruno and weighs in.

THE FINAL UPDATE: Revisiting the “Cosmos” Giordano Bruno Controversy a Few Days Later

The latest version of the TV series “Cosmos,” hosted by celebrity astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson and produced by “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane, has been much promoted over recent weeks as providing a fascinating look into the history of the universe using stunning graphics and an approach that will engage average viewers, even those who may not be scientifically inclined.

A recent article by Willa Paskin on Slate.com, however, suggests that the series is also making a statement about religion: specifically that organized religion and the Catholic Church are historical enemies of science.

This is what Paskin writes concerning the show’s debut:

The first episode of Cosmos devotes a good chunk of itself to an animated sequence about a Franciscan monk living in 16th-century Italy who was burned at the stake for his scientifically correct beliefs. It is a segment aimed squarely at anti-science advocates, implicitly arguing that science and the scientific method are not necessarily inimical to god.

DeGrasse Tyson, walking the streets of Rome, relays the story of that monk, whose name was Giordano Bruno. (Though he lived between Copernicus and Galileo, these more famous men each barely get name-checked.) Bruno had a dream not just that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe, per Copernicus, but that neither was the sun: Instead, the universe was limitless. Bruno was not a scientist. He did not test his hypothesis. His insight came to him as a revelation, one he kept preaching even as he was excommunicated and banished from every church—Catholic, Protestant, and Calvinist—in the land (as well as being laughed out of Cambridge). In Cosmos’ version of Bruno’s story, organized religion, and the Catholic Church in particular, are presented as rigid and corrupt—the church is described as the “thought police” and the priest who sentences Bruno to death looks like a very nefarious Disney villain—but faith itself is not. Bruno’s argument is that his god is limitless and unbounded, so why shouldn’t the universe be? “Your god is too small!” he cries to those who brand him a heretic.

Writing in New York magazine, Matt Zoller Seitz interpreted this segment of Cosmos as “painting organized religion as an irrelevant and intellectually discredited means of understanding factual reality” and as part of the show’s larger “pushback against faith’s encroachments on the intellectual terrain of science.”

That last statement by Seitz is ironic on two fronts. First, the show is condemning religion for overstepping its bounds by commenting on science, yet “Cosmos” is also overstepping its expertise by commenting on religion.

Furthermore, in condemning the Catholic Church, it’s also condemning a religion that doesn’t insist that the creation story in Genesis be viewed as a scientific textbook; a religion that has no issue with the theory of evolution provided that God is not taken out of the equation; a religion that gave us scientist Father George Lamaitre who is considered the Father of the Big Bang Theory and was lauded by Albert Einstein; a religion that produced so many priest-scientists that there are 35 craters on the moon named after them.

In the case of Giordano Bruno, Slate columnist Paskin herself states the facts that contradict what “Cosmos” is saying about him. She states, “Bruno was not a scientist. He did not test his hypothesis. His insight came to him as a revelation…” (Ed. note: The actual episode states these facts as well.)

If science is about gathering empirical evidence, why should the untested hypothesis of a non-scientist whose idea came to him in a dream be accepted as fact? And as Steven Greydanus pointed out a while back in response to people who take Dan Brown’s historical inventions as facts, “The only remotely scientifically minded historical figure I am aware of who was executed by Catholic civil authorities is the sixteenth-century Dominican Giordano Bruno. Although Bruno rejected geocentrism, and proposed that the sun was merely one star like any other, his conviction by the Roman Inquisition appears to have been for sadly typical reasons — heretical beliefs regarding the nature of God, the Trinity, Jesus Christ and other points of fundamental dogma, in keeping with his pantheist worldview — rather than for his ideas about the universe.”

That’s not to defend burning heretics at the stake. You’ll get no argument here that the Church – or at least certain people who have worked for the Church – have not committed atrocities at various points in history. But to claim that religion is oppressing science based on its reaction to someone who wasn’t even a scientist is doing a disservice to actual verifiable history.

Some people may read this and think, “The writer is Catholic. He’s just standing up for his church, right or wrong.”

Okay, then how about the opinion of blogger Tim O’Neill, who describes himself as a “wry, dry, rather sarcastic, eccentric, occasionally arrogant Irish-Australian atheist bastard.” Let’s see what he has to say about the mythical war against science supposedly waged by the Catholic Church in his review of the book “God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science:”

One of the occupational hazards of being an atheist and secular humanist who has the lack of common sense to hang around on atheist discussion boards is to encounter a staggering level of historical illiteracy. I like to console myself that many of the people on such boards have come to their atheism via the study of science and so, even if they are quite learned in things like geology and biology, usually have a grasp of history stunted at about high school level. I generally do this because the alternative is to admit that the average person’s grasp of history and how history is studied is so utterly feeble as to be totally depressing.

So, alongside the regular airings of the hoary old myth that the Bible was collated at the Council of Nicea, the tedious internet-based “Jesus never existed!” nonsense or otherwise intelligent people spouting pseudo historical garbage that would make even Dan Brown snort in derision, the myth that the Catholic Church caused the Dark Ages and the Medieval Period was a scientific wasteland is regularly wheeled, creaking, into the sunlight for another trundle around the arena.

The myth goes that the Greeks and Romans were wise and rational types who loved science and were on the brink of doing all kinds of marvellous things (inventing full-scale steam engines is one example that is usually, rather fancifully, invoked) until Christianity came along, banned all learning and rational thought and ushered in the Dark Ages. Then an iron-fisted theocracy, backed by a Gestapo-style Inquisition, prevented any science or questioning inquiry from happening until Leonardo da Vinci invented intelligence and the wondrous Renaissance saved us all from Medieval darkness. The online manifestations of this curiously quaint but seemingly indefatigable idea range from the touchingly clumsy to the utterly hysterical, but it remains one of those things that “everybody knows” and permeates modern culture. A recent episode of Family Guy had Stewie and Brian enter a futuristic alternative world where, it was explained, things were so advanced because Christianity didn’t destroy learning, usher in the Dark Ages and stifle science. The writers didn’t see the need to explain what Stewie meant – they assumed everyone understood.

About once every 3-4 months on forums like RichardDawkins.net we get some discussion where someone invokes the old “Conflict Thesis” and gets in the usual ritual kicking of the Middle Ages as a benighted intellectual wasteland where humanity was shackled to superstition and oppressed by cackling minions of the Evil Old Catholic Church. The hoary standards are brought out on cue. Giordiano Bruno is presented as a wise and noble martyr for science instead of the irritating mystical New Age kook he actually was. Hypatia is presented as another such martyr and the mythical Christian destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria is spoken of in hushed tones, despite both these ideas being garbage. The Galileo Affair is ushered in as evidence of a brave scientist standing up to the unscientific obscurantism of the Church, despite that case being as much about science as it was about Scripture.

It’s not hard to kick this nonsense to pieces, especially since the people presenting it know next to nothing about history and have simply picked this [bullsh–] up from other websites and popular books and collapse as soon as you hit them with some hard evidence. I love to totally stump them by asking them to present me with the name of one – just one – scientist burned, persecuted or oppressed for their science in the Middle Ages. They always fail to come up with any. They usually try to crowbar Galileo back into the Middle Ages, which is amusing considering he was a contemporary of Descartes. When asked why they have failed to produce any such scientists given the Church was apparently so busily oppressing them, they often resort to claiming that the Evil Old Church did such a good job of oppression that everyone was too scared to practice science. By the time I produce a laundry list of Medieval scientists – like Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Peckham, Duns Scotus, Thomas Bradwardine, Walter Burley, William Heytesbury, Richard Swineshead, John Dumbleton, Richard of Wallingford, Nicholas Oresme, Jean Buridan and Nicholas of Cusa – and ask why these men were happily pursuing science in the Middle Ages without molestation from the Church, my opponents have usually run away to hide and scratch their heads in puzzlement at what just went wrong…

… In the academic sphere at least the “Conflict Thesis” of a historical war between science and theology has been long since overturned. It is very odd that so many of my fellow atheists are clinging so desperately to a long-dead position that was only ever upheld by amateur Nineteenth Century polemicists and not the careful research of recent objective peer reviewed historians. This is strange behaviour for people who like to label themselves “rationalists”. I’ll leave others to ponder how “rational” it is.

Speaking of rationalism, the critical factor that the myths obscure is precisely how rational intellectual inquiry in the Middle Ages was. While dinosaurs like Charles Freeman continue to lumber along claiming that Christianity killed the use of reason, the fact is that thanks to Clement of Alexandria and Augustine’s encouragement of the use of pagan philosophy and Boethius’ translations of works of logic by Aristotle and others, reason and rational inquiry was one intellectual jewel that survived the catastrophic collapse of the Western Roman Empire and was preserved through the Dark Ages that resulted from that collapse…

…The enshrining of reason at the heart of inquiry and analysis in Medieval scholarship combined with the influx of “new” Greek and Arabic learning to stimulate a veritable explosion of intellectual activity in Europe from the Twelfth Century onwards. It was as though the sudden stimulus of new perspectives and new ways of looking at the world fell on the fertile soil of a Europe that was, for the first time in centuries, relatively peaceful, prosperous, outward-looking and genuinely curious.

This is not to say that more conservative and reactionary forces did not have misgivings about some of the new areas of inquiry, especially in relation to how philosophy and speculation about the natural world and the cosmos could have implications for accepted theology. Hannam is careful not to pretend that there was no resistance to the flowering of the new thinking and inquiry but – unlike the perpetuators of “the Myth” – he gives that resistance due consideration rather than pretending it was the whole story. In fact, the conservatives and reactionaries’ efforts were usually rear-guard actions and were in almost every case totally unsuccessful in curtailing the inevitable flood of ideas that began to flow from the universities. Once it began, it was effectively unstoppable.

There’s a lot more to O’Neill’s piece that anyone who thinks they know everything there is to know about the Church and science will find enlightening if they approach it with an open mind.

I wish the creators of “Cosmos” had that kind of an open mind when it came to addressing religion. The show’s presentation of science will likely be brilliant and visually stunning, hopefully opening people’s minds to the wonder and complexity of the universe. But it should have stayed within the parameters of its own expertise – or at least provided an unbiased look at the whole story of what actually happened. A show and worldview that thrive on empirical evidence should have the sense and integrity to apply that approach to all aspects of its storytelling.

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