Kittens, “Cosmos,” Culture Wars, and the Coexistence of Science & Faith

When the new version of the TV series “Cosmos” premiered a few months ago, it raised quite a kerfuffle on this blog and numerous others because of the shallow view the debut episode took of religion. Specifically, it suggested that religion was an enemy of science.

In a new essay in “America” magazine, the Christopher Award-winning co-author of “Love and Salt,” Jessica Mesman Griffith, provides a refreshing perspective on the series and on the symbiotic relationship between science and faith as viewed through the experiences of her eight-year-old daughter and a pregnant cat named Bonny Kate.

Frankly, I think “Cosmos” could have used Jessica’s daughter as a producer on the show because she’s a bridge between two worldviews that some people falsely view as irreconcilable. She’d also be a good influence on people of faith who simply dismiss science whenever it seemingly contradicts the Bible. This little child could lead everyone in a better direction. As our Patheos blogmother Elizabeth Scalia likes to say (quoting St. Gregory of Nyssa), “Ideas lead to idols, only wonder leads to knowing.” After all, embracing mystery is a good thing.

Here’s an excerpt from Jessica’s essay – but go read the whole thing.

Just a couple of weeks before this revelation in the kitchen, “Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey,” the reboot of the classic Carl Sagan show, debuted on Fox. I had watched the first episode with the skepticism of a religion snob, rolling my eyes at the distorted depiction of Giordano Bruno as a martyr for science at the hands of a stereotypically barbaric and ignorant church, feeling disappointed but at the same time satisfied that everything I thought about science-types was true—they’re killjoy atheists out to discredit religion and strip the world of mystery. They want to replace Truth with facts and have the final word on all life’s most important questions.

But we kept watching, because my daughter, innocent of the culture wars, was enthralled. While I was feeling all jittery, psychic alarms ringing at every perceived attack on the religious worldview, she sat by my side, wide-eyed and silent. When it was over she turned to me and said, “Can we watch it again?”

She loved seeing how scientists build on each other’s knowledge, and how work begun by one person living hundreds of years ago might be taken up and carried on by someone else today. Like many 8-year-olds, she is a natural inventor, and she loved the idea that sometimes innovation requires not just intelligence but huge leaps of imagination and faith. Most of all, she loved Sir Isaac Newton, depicted in one of the show’s animated segments as a distracted student and hot-tempered redhead (like her), who is befriended by a kind, reasonable chap (Sir Edmond Halley) who encourages him, defends his honor against a mean bully (Sir Robert Hooke) and helps him make history by publishing the Principia Mathematica.

The irritating potshots “Cosmos” takes at the religious worldview—and there were several—didn’t register with her at all; she still takes the existence of God as a given. In her mind, there is not yet a firm distinction between science and religion. In fact, her religious sense is at least partly what makes “Cosmos” so appealing and accessible to her. Ultimately the show is telling the same kinds of stories we have been telling at home and at church—stories about the hunger for truth, and how the importance of building on established tradition, believing in what we can’t see and being in relationship with each other are all essential to progress toward that truth.

Read the whole essay.

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.

  • Shaun G. Lynch

    The America site is down, so I couldn’t read the original article, but I like the points you’re making here,

    I was also disappointed by the Giordano Bruno episode, with its gratuitous and unfair mis-characterization of the Catholic Church as the mortal enemy of science. Neil Degrasse-Tyson apparently didn’t consider it important to note that Nicolaus Copernicus, who developed the heliocentric model of the universe, had a doctorate in canon law; hardly an enemy of either faith or science!

    Of course, the shots that Dr. Degrasse-Tyson takes at religion are not directed at Catholics or mainstream Protestants. The real targets are those who for some reason think they’re supposed to completely ignore centuries of scientific progress in favour of slavish and irrational belief in the biblical version of creation. Trouble is, all people of faith end up being tarred by the same brush.

    Anyone who still believes that faith and science are incompatible should check out this List of Roman Catholic cleric-scientists.


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