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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About Tony Rossi

After graduating from St. John's University in New York with degrees in Communications and English, Tony Rossi found a job at the Catholic media organization, The Christophers, that allowed him to indulge his interest in religion, media, and pop culture. He served as The Christophers' TV producer for 11 years, and is currently the host and producer of the organization's radio show/podcast Christopher Closeup, writer and editor of their syndicated Light One Candle column, and producer/scriptwriter of the annual Christopher Awards ceremony.

  • APLove

    First of all, I’m Christian. Just wanted to state that. Secondly, Tyson did make mention that Giordano Bruno was not a scientist, but it was quite amazing that his view of time and the cosmos was strikingly accurate, having no educational scientific background, which is the real point that the show was trying to make.

    Unlike atheists and agnostics who often feel distanced from religion and God after studying scientific topics; I have found myself rather distanced from religion, but much closer to God. Religion continues to be oppressive to those who allows themselves to be oppressed by it. But i’ve managed to separate God from religion and take no issue with mixing science and theism.

    I think religion’s biggest crime is perpetuating one way of thinking, which in effect limits any religious person almost by default, for fear of being condemned. In other words, the church didn’t need to actually oppress anyone, religion does this automatically to those who are afraid to thinking higher.

    • muffler

      I watched the show and thought the segment was a bit heavy handed, but not wrong. It was done in the Deathly Hallows style and artistic to make a dramatic point. One can argue the Church saved ancient knowledge, but if one applies real evidence you will see how much it suppressed it and how it tried to control the ownership of knowledge. The printing press had more to do with the loss of control by the church than the church actually fostering universal knowledge of the cosmos or science.

      The US founding fathers understood history and built the constitution to protect science and the enlightenment from religion while protecting religion from the government. It is a fine balance and we have to protect it every day. We have a country that is successful because of our science and engineering. It tends to be contrary to dogma and the two shouldn’t even be considered elements in balanced debate. One is supported by evidence and testable the other is faith without evidence and untestable.

  • Mike m.

    So disappointed to see Neil Tyson supporting this bit of intellectual dishonesty about Bruno. I assumed he was a more rounded scholar. Then I see that Seth Macfarlene is the producer and understand. The cartoon reminded me of the films created in 1930s Germany to show Jews in a bad light. the use of shadows etc. looking forward to the rest of the show assuming it is focused on science.

  • Alan Turing

    So, Bruno was basically a theoretical physicist since they don’t do any experiments either? Yes, so when has the church explained the natural world in an accurate manner? Never.

  • http://www.woodmr.net Michelle R. Wood

    I’m saddened to hear this new show starts off with a rehash of this old fight, but not surprised. None of the ads for it enticed me as it felt like a lot of flare, not a lot of substance.

    I discovered O’Neill’s blog years ago and was so happy to finally see someone refuting ye olde Dark Ages myth that couldn’t be accused of doing so for religious reasons. I of course desire all to be reconciled to Christ; however, I’m glad this blog is available to point people to actual facts rather than the characteristics people on both sides of the divide cling to in this debate.

  • Dave

    {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…”

    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?}

    This is why you shouldn’t insult a show before you’ve actually had a chance to watch it. The ‘facts’ that Paskin supposedly stated that contradict what ‘Cosmos’ said were actually facts that were stated by Neil Tyson in the episode. .

    {At the end of Bruno’s story, Tyson points out that Bruno was not a scientist and that his vision of the cosmos “was a lucky guess, because he had no evidence to support it. Like most guesses, it could well have turned out wrong.” }


  • rmzungu

    Cosmos doesn’t have valid historical research in it, as far as I can tell. The listed historian is an MA, not a PhD, and a cursory Google search only finds her in an acknowledgments section of one of Sagan’s books. This is in contrast to the multiple PhDs Cosmos has working on the science parts.

    But I’m glad to see that at least some people are questioning this history and pointing out its flaws. I’ve been feeling lonely (strangely, there aren’t too many science historians who work full-time as TV critics — I may be the only one): goo.gl/fb/6k6dC

    • Eric Leblanc

      You don’t need a PhD to be able to do and relay research.

      • Hug Doug

        well, based on the badly butchered history… i think it would have helped…

  • Ralph

    Seems neither you nor Willa Paskin watched the show at all carefully or you’d know the name of the friar (not monk): the Dominican (not Franciscan) Giordano Bruno, who was run out of Oxford (not Cambridge) after an academic dispute. Makes the critique a little less convincing. And the Catholic Church of today may not have a problem with the idea of evolution, but it’s the same church that condemned Bruno. There’s really no escaping that fact.

  • Richard Seese

    I will try to be as civil as possible in reply to this, and stick with just the facts. Bruno was mentioned in the show as someone with a “radical idea” a “guess” that just so happened to be right. As far as your comment: “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.” It was the fact that a person who challenged the scriptures that others attested to be true was burned at the stake. We could go on for years talking about the many people who challenged the church were in turned killed/tourchered or both, but that’s not productive.

    • Super90Girl

      “tourchered”….seriously? You try to come across as intellectual, then butcher that word by spelling it as it sounds, not as it’s actually spelled? I am embarrassed for you. It’s spelled “tortured”. Please use spell check.

      • Jeff3948

        Dear Super90Girl, you could have been a little nicer about pointing out someone’s misspelling. All you had to say was that he misspelled the word “tortured” as “tourchered” and leave it at that. After all, he was very civil in his statement and not derogatory and insulting like you were to him.

  • Jonah Miller

    In my mind, the impulse to study science is very similar to the impulse to study religion. It’s easy to see how a monk or priest would view religion as a way to become close to God.

    You’re right, demonizing all religion offhand isn’t what science educators should be doing. As a scientist myself, I would rather emphasize that science and religion do not need to be in conflict. And I say this despite being an atheist.

    • bbock

      Did it demonize Bruno’s faith? Or did it credit his faith as being the inspiration for his radical idea that an infinite God might have conceived an infinite universe? Bruno was a man of his time, even if his ideas were radical and ahead of his time. But they were no less inspired by his faith than those who killed him.

  • turning off cosmos

    EXCELLENT article. I was extremely disappointed with the show, which started off great and quickly degenerated to an unscientific message of intolerance. And what was with the sinister looking bishops with cold war Russian accents? They wouldn’t have dared portraying Black, Jewish, or homosexual people in that way!

  • Slamo

    They state in the show that Bruno only had a thought and it wasn’t until Galileo pointed a telescope to the sky to find Bruno’s idea was right.

    • Hug Doug

      they would have done better to talk about Galileo.

      • playingwithplato

        Yes! And why were the giants left out? Because Galileo reconciled his observations and scientific knowledge with his faith and, more importantly, this is the important part for this thread: Galileo (you clearly understand this in his letters to his eldest daughter) understood the error some in the church, men in power, were making in their persecution of certain new ideas brought to the table with convincing observable data. Galileo recognized this but didn’t throw the baby out with the bath water concerning his convictions elsewhere. As a man who suffered unjust church persecution but furthered science greatly and remained faithful, he fails as the protagonist in the family guy cosmos narrative.

  • mudskipper5

    “…yet “Cosmos” is also overstepping its expertise by commenting on religion.”

    Ah, no. Cosmos is commenting on history. Religion just happens to be involved.

    Even deGrasse Tyson mentions in the program that Bruno was not a scientist per se and had no evidence for his understanding of the universe. Cosmos wasn’t trying to sneak this in there. The first of the Cosmos series wasn’t about scientists. It was about how the very basis of science is asking questions and being skeptical of all unsupported explanations. The point is that a person dared to think outside of the church-dictated box … and look what happened to him.

    If there is something factually wrong with how Cosmo presented this historical event, please say so, but you seem to just be upset that this issue was raised in the first place and not just politely ignored, like the drunk uncle at Thanksgiving dinner whose embarrassing antics we would just rather pretend didn’t exist. But the church hasn’t earned the right to have the seedier parts of their history swept under the rug. That would be a disservice to all those who suffered the consequences of daring to think of ideas beyond the scope of religious dogma.

  • Vick

    The first episode was about the scale of the observable Universe and its first 13 million years. Bruno seems an appropriate subject given his original thinking in this area. And he was killed by the church for his thoughts, and his books burned. O’Neill’s criticisms of those who invoke history but don’t know it are valid. But equating Cosmos with the subjects of O’Neill’s criticism is a weak strawman.

  • Bob Becker

    Mr. Rossi’s reply does not, so far as I can see, point out what church history Cosmos got wrong. It did burn Bruno at the stake for thinking, speaking, writing heretical thoughts (among which were his views on the nature of the universe). Torture was a part of the Inquisition’s procedures however much we might all wish otherwise. . Cosmos described the Inquisition circa 1600 as “thought police.” Accurate description on the evidence. The examples Mr. Rossi offers as evidence for Cosmos’ alleged errors (e.g. creationism is not church doctrine, clerics contributed mightily to modern astrophysics, etc.) merely demonstrate that the church’s position on scientific inquiry has (thank god) changed substantually since 1600. And it was only the church of that time (and others then) Cosmos described. Methinks Mr. Rossi doth protest too much. The church’s history is what it is, however uncomfortable it may be to be reminded of its darker moments. Mormons don’t like to be reminded of Mt. Meadows either. Mr. Rossi’s post recalls, however faintly, Mr. Donaghue’s (sp?) intemperate brayings.

  • WGO

    “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.”

    The episode doesn’t ever make that claim. Please watch it again and amend this article. All the episode does is tell the actual story of a man, and then yes the image of the catholic church is representative of their actual actions at that time: oppressing people for not thinking the way they do. I doubt many of your readers identify catholic clergy as being wholly representative of religion.

    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?

    Neil acknowledges, very specifically, that the man was not a scientist. It was an anecdote about what happens when we, people, refuse to let others challenge our beliefs. I find it insulting and dishonest for you to be suggesting this when the actual content of the episode states exactly the opposite. Did you not watch the show you are critiquing? Please correct your factual mistakes in this article, it would be much appreciated.

    • Hug Doug

      Yes, he was killed. but not for his “vision of the cosmos,” which is what the show makes it seem like. he was killed for heresy regarding the trinity, transubstantiation, and the divinity of Christ, among other things. he was a (what we would call) New Agey pantheist, his idea of the stars being other suns with other worlds was a minor part of that.

      • Jeff3948

        But his view was cosmological theories were still part of his conviction “claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity;”. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giordano_Bruno . Also, please note that your view is also sighted in my source, but it is in the section that needs verification.

        • Hug Doug

          Yes, i know. however, in light of the far more serious violations of doctrine, however, it’s clear that this was a minor charge in comparison, and since Bruno wasn’t unique in holding that view or talking about it (similar thoughts are voiced periodically from ~1200 on, when Bishop Étienne Tempier argued that an omnipotent God could have created many worlds, and sometimes by very prominent members of the Catholic Church, like Nicholas of Cusa), it’s clearly not the main reason for his execution. however, that is what Cosmos made it look like, and that is what i have an issue with here.

          • playingwithplato

            Your absolutely right Doug, though it seems several here are in denial that the show misrepresented Bruno. The clear thesis of the first episode was to paint the church, through implication, as generally anti-science, historically, where a rare hero rose up in the face of this opposition.
            Humorously and ironically, the notion of an infinite universe with multiple instances is a metaphysical, and religious for many, claim.

  • Pew

    The show stated that he wasn’t a scientist. I do think there was some embellishment in making the church look like ‘disney villains’ though. The reality is they killed a man who had a different opinion. That happened a lot during the earlier centuries.

    • Hug Doug

      Yes, he was killed. but not for his “vision of the cosmos,” which is what the show makes it seem like what happened. he was killed for heresy regarding the trinity, transubstantiation, and the divinity of Christ, among other things. he was a (what we would call) New Agey pantheist, his idea of the stars being other suns with other worlds was a minor part of that.

  • http://www.stanrock.net/ Stan Patton

    Based on the sentence “The show’s presentation of science will likely be brilliant and visually stunning,” in addition to the conjecture about the show’s theses that are untrue about the show, I’m assuming you did not watch it?

    You said,

    “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…’”

    But Cosmos did say this. It went out of its way to convey this! A statement like, “Facts contradict ‘Cosmos’ because facts are X,” is, at best, reckless when Cosmos said X.

    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but this blog post seems very obviously written by someone powered by hearsay and prejudice rather than by an actual viewing of the show’s content. As a Christian, I found that portion of the show detailed, deftly handled, and with theses that did not overreach into generalities about religion.

  • FirstAmongEquals

    So Rossi is a shill for Catholicism. That makes him unbiased, right? He didn’t even see episode 1. LOL

  • Rockon

    Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy, supplied most of the money backing to Cosmos. He was the executive produce and a devout atheist. The host of Cosmos and his contradictory views is addressed by William Lane Craig here: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-revival-of-cosmos

    By the way, micro-evolution has merit. Macro-evolution runs contradictory to the GOD of the Bible. Catholics should really make that clarification.

    • Skeptic NY

      There is no such thing as a devout atheist. Either you are, or you aren’t. Sort of like being pregnant.

      • Steve Hanson

        Actually yes there is such thing as a ‘devout atheist.’ It’s just amazing how atheists close their minds, and ignore their own bigotry. The only tactics they can muster up is name calling, censorship, and straw-men arguments towards those who doubt their precious view of a meaningless,pointless universe. It happens all the time. You obviously have never read anything from Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens.

  • Gorb

    “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”

    Cosmos condemned the actions of the Catholic Church ~400 years ago. As it should. And as everyone else should, including catholics.

    “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?”

    This was one of the main points of the episode. The scientific method is first driven by imagination and then constant, non-ending attempts to prove your idea wrong.

    • JoFro

      Guess we better allow those New Age dreamers into the halls of science then, eh?

      After all, the scientific method is first driven by imagination!!

  • Clint A.

    Join Google+
    Tamura Jones
    26 minutes agoEditedPublic
    Catholic Apologist attacks COSMOS
    #science #COSMOS #catholics #patheos
    Catholic apologist Tonny Rossi claims COSMOS gets church history wrong. If all you read is his blog post on the catholic channel of Patheos.com, and you haven’t seen Episode 1 of COSMOS
    for yourself yet, you’ll probably believe that COSMOS gets some simple historic facts wrong:
    * COSMOS claims Giordano Bruno is a Franciscan monk, and that’s sooo wrong, because Bruno was actually Dominican
    * COSMOS pretends Giordano Bruno was a scientist, but he wasn’t (so never mind that he was tortured and burned to death for his beliefs…)

    Tonny Rossi is more than a little dishonest.
    The actual facts:

    * COSMOS correctly states that Giodano Bruno was a Dominican monk
    * Neil deGrasse Tyson unequivocally states “Bruno was no scientist”.

    Moreover, as Tyson states quite clearly, “Giordano Bruno lived at a time when there was no such thing as the separation of church and state … expressing an idea that did not conform to traditional belief could land you in deep trouble”.
    There was no freedom of ideas and speech, there was the Inquisition. That this Inquisition tortured Giordano Bruno for years, and that he was finally burned to death for his beliefs are historic facts. COSMOS doesn’t get the facts wrong, Rossi just doesn’t want you to hear those facts.

    Even worse than Rossi’s outright misrepresentation of COSMOS is his repugnant statement that COSMOS is “overstepping its bounds” by discussing the history of the catholic church (and the things it has done to suppress competing ideas, and thus the discovery of the true nature of the Universe through science).
    That is an reprehensible attempt at censorship, one that’s both vaguely reminiscent of the Inquisition shown in episode 1 and in direct opposition to the freedom of speech we do enjoy today – despite the catholic church.

  • simongarlick

    I’m guessing, given the form of your criticism, that you didn’t actually watch the episode.

  • Tony Allen

    With this statement “as well as being laughed out of Cambridge” Clearly wrong, it was Oxford. Why bother reading further!

  • Lumen

    I really think the people who are upset by the Bruno segment need to go back and watch it again. It is made absolutely clear that Bruno had a vision, and that he was not a scientist. The point being made is that science starts with “what if?” and then moves to testing those ideas and proposals. Bruno was essentially guessing, but he was also correct and further testing of the idea would and did lead to proving that.

    It is essential to be able to talk about ideas, and freedom of speech and separation of church and state are as much about science as the scientific method. Right now in the United States science is often under attack, and a sizable number of people of faith wish to prevent their children from even hearing or being exposed to the ideas of science. It would have been a glaring omission for Cosmos to NOT address the relationship between speech, religion, and science. It is an important issue for our time.

    In many ways it is easiest and appropriate to enter into that discussion by addressing long ago history of the Catholic Church. It is a time that is distanced from ourselves, and distance can bring perspective. It’s also an opportunity for Catholics to set themselves apart from the more destructive elements of Christianity by emphasizing how the Church has changed and evolved over time, and I for one often point out that Catholicism is one of the christian sects that is most supportive of science, evolution and the scientific method. Perhaps it’s time for Catholics to get a little louder about this difference rather than continuing to allow the conversation about science and religion to be dominated by right wing biblical literalists who are intent on teaching biblical literalism in schools.

    • Hug Doug

      the problem is the show makes it seem like he was executed for his “vision of the cosmos,” when that is not the case at all.

      • Rationalist1

        Actually there is no record of why he was executed. But modern morality holds that it’s best not to execute people for heresy, either in science or in religion. It is unacceptable now and unless you’re a moral relativist, unacceptable then as well.

        • Hug Doug

          that is patently false. while the Inquisition’s records of the trial have been lost to time, there are numerous accounts of the trial and the accusations levied against Bruno, and a simple google search would produce them for you. do a bit of homework before you make silly comments like that, or at least read Bruno’s wikipedia page.

          if you continue to insist that there’s no records of what happened, then consider this: wouldn’t that be even worse? Cosmos presented a very straightforward, black and white account of an idea of Bruno’s which led to his trial and execution. if there’s really no historical records, wouldn’t that make what they did disingenuous at the very least, if not an outright presentation of misinformation? without any historical backing, they should never have told such a story.

          the morality of what happened is not the issue. the historical record and the inaccuracy with which the story of Bruno was presented on Cosmos, is.

      • Jeff3948

        Dear Hug Doug, You can not make a statement like that without backing it up with a source. What you say may not be true. Some important documents of Bruno’s Trial have been lost, conveniently, by the Catholic church probably because he was actually burned at the stake and that murder later became viewed as a sin against God and an embarrassment to the Catholic church. However, based on the summary of the trial that has been re-discovered in 1940 his cosmological theories were at least in part a reason for his conviction. In contrast, the detailed records of Galileo’s trial were NOT lost, probably because Galileo actually recanted his writings to save his life. In the end Bruno refused to recant, and was thus burned at the stake. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giordano_Bruno

  • Pofarmer

    FWIW, Catholic schools teach “special evolution” for humans. So while they technically teach evolution, they then proceed to immediately undermine that teaching. It’s all rather underhanded.

  • Pofarmer

    “… 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”

    One other thing. When I researched some of the “peer reviewed historians” working on conflict thesis, I found that an awful lot of them have other publications that read almost as religious tracts. It whiffs not of careful scholarship, but of image rebuilding. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle here.

  • Kimmy84

    I realize tweets are different from the show, but the show’s twitter feed wrote this:


    Giordano Bruno was more than just a Philosopher, but also a:
    ☑ Dominican Friar
    ☑ Astronomer
    ☑ Mathematician
    ☑ Poet

    So are they saying Bruno was a scientist or not?

    • Hug Doug

      he was not a scientist.

    • Inis_Magrath

      It depends on your definition of scientist, and we’re talking about the 1500s when someone described as an astronomer and mathematician may well have embodied a scientists kind of thinking.

      But by today’s standards, certainly not in that he did not propose hypotheses, test them and revise his theories according to observed results.

  • Corey

    Two quick points:
    1) As everyone else is pointing out, Rossi should have watched the episode before writing this.
    2) It seems Rossi misunderstood Paskin’s article, because he takes issue with the single sentence quote of Seitz, whose interpretation of “the Cosmos” is different from Paskin’s.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christophers/ Tony Rossi

      Hi Corey, I admit I probably should have watched the show before writing about it. I broke my own rule on that one. What did I misunderstand from the article? I have no problem admitting when I got something wrong. And thanks for being polite and civil.

  • http://reverbnation.com/davidowen David Owen

    Patheos totally misses the mark here. The point illustrated by Cosmos is that Bruno was a misfit who challenged dogma at all levels. The kind of thinker that drives science. He may not have been a scientist but clearly he studied and was inspired by math and (banned) science books intensely in spite of the dangers. His insightful visions about the nature of the universe were nothing short of epiphanies. This last point is crucial. To him the mental breakthrough brought him closer to Creator. The formulation of a theory was a religious experience and he needed to share even at great risk to his life. In short it was a character study.

  • Pentheus

    Mr O’Neill’s history, while interesting, is at least partially deficient. There is decent evidence, by late classical standards anyways, for Christians having killed Hypatia of Alexandria for her beliefs. Moreover, it seems clear that they participated in at least a partial destruction of the Alexandria library. He refuted this without siting his arguments–so we don’t know what he intended. More significantly, he asks for one scientist burned during the middle ages (doesn’t specify “by catholics), but apparently is unaware of Michael Servetus. Servetus, the physician, and scientist who discovered how pulmonary circulation functioned, was also a Socinian, or anti-trinitarian, He fled Italy, with the Inquisition upon his heals, only to make the mistake of stopping in John Calvin’s Geneva. He was ultimately burned by Calvin’s followers for his anti-trinitarian/anti-infant baptism beliefs in 1553. Additionally, it is certainly true there were many Jesuit scientists who contributed to the advancement of the new sciences. Many in fact, believed Gallileo regarding the Copernican model. However, very few were willing to support Gallieo beyond a certain point, and none publicly acknowledged the Copernican model.

    • JoFro

      What decent evidence is there that Hypatia was killed for her beliefs? Quite a few of her own students were Christians. Heck, men who went on to become bishops of the Church were her former students and continued to praise her. The only claim that she was killed for her beliefs comes 300 years after her death by a Christian who had an issue with paganism. No one writing during and around the time of her murder claim her death over her religious beliefs.

      The Library of Alexandria was already non-existent at the time. One of the most anti-Christian critics of the time, who openly condemned the Christians for a lot of crimes, never claimed they burnt down any library. There is the claim that the Temple of Serapis was burnt down by the Christians but no proof of any library being torched by them.

      Michael Servetus was never burnt for his scientific beliefs, was he? That’s what O’Neil is asking for. Show me one scientist who was burnt or executed for his scientific beliefs, rather than his theological beliefs.

      Seriously about the Jesuits? Of course they were not going to support Galileo beyond a certain point – it was because his heliocentric model was lacking in scientific evidence. Galileo was proposing a theory that he himself had no strong evidence for. No serious scientist in their right mind would be supporting Galileo at that time.

  • Henry

    You made a couple of minor errors, and should have watched before commenting. However, I think that you will draw largely the same conclusions, once you do watch it. And you will be correct. Again.

  • Jerry Asbridge

    Cosmos lost an opportunity to build bridges and went with the “see the ignorant faithful” narrative. See here for better choice: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/outthere/2014/03/10/cosmos-pick-wrong-hero/

  • henry bliss

    For an interesting perspective on Bruno see Ioan Culianu’s book Eros and Magic in the Renaissance. Culianu contends that what we now call modern science emerges because it was the type of inquiry that people like Bruno and Galileo could do and not be persecuted by either the inquisition or the protestants. As you note, Bruno got in trouble not for doing “science” but for his theology but also for an esoteric use of the art of memory and for a kind of early depth psychology.

  • David Probasco

    It was not condemning the Catholic Church. Just the Inquisition. Do you really support the torture and killing of thousands of people?
    I am sure they will talk about the other scientists that came from the church as well. It was just the first episode.

  • JM

    I made a big point of sitting down with my kids to watch the first episode of Cosmos, having remembered fondly the original series that I watched as a child. I should mention that I am both a mathematician as well as a Roman Catholic, and I’ve never felt any conflict between these aspects of my life. So I was quite taken aback at the negative imagery used to depict organized religion as an enemy of science. I’d like to expose my children to quality TV shows which discuss science, but I’m not going to expose them to shows that portray some kind of false choice between our religious faith and science.

    • Asemodeus

      Good thing then that Cosmos didn’t do that.
      The entire point of the Bruno segment is the celebration of personal choice, especially with religion.

  • Dave MacCannell

    I like NDT. I really like Family Guy and Seth McFarlane one of “Cosmos’” executive producers. I was excited about the new Cosmos show like almost everybody. But I was hoping for a less incendiary, more Sagan-like show. I say that because of the very beginning, which set a pretty clear tone for the show that many people have a legitimate beef about. The characterization of Giordano Bruno as the heroic scientist put to death by the church for his heliocentric view of the universe was clearly there. He was not a scientist and he was not put to death because he disagreed with the earth-centered universe that the Catholic church believed in. He was a nutjob. Nobody should be put to death for philosophic or religious views, but that was why he was executed. I think Sagan would have spent more time on Copernicus and Galileo who had MUCH greater associations with science and the sun-centered universe and neither were put to death by the church. It seemed an awful lot like the show concentrated on some details about Bruno that might martyr him and fuel the church vs. science flames. Something that is going to get you into trouble if you have spoken out against “cherry picking.”