Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Godless Cosmos

Cosmos, Fox’s reboot of science popularizer Carl Sagan’s famous TV series, kicked off big last weekend, appearing on 220 networks in 181 countries, with an introduction by President Obama, no less. [I previously wrote about the series here] Beforehand, The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman wrote a review in which he praised the primetime science program as “amazingly bold. Why? Because science is godless. And the United States is a strongly religious country.” Comments like that highlight an unfortunately false division in the culture today between science and faith.

When the original Cosmos aired 33 years ago, the atheist Sagan didn’t go out of his way to alienate believers. But we live in very polarized times, so in the new version, “there’s no debate… at all about science vs. religion,” as Goodman put it; in fact, it “is pretty damning about religion and the Catholic Church in particular.”

This “conflict theory” – that religion and science are incompatible means of knowing the universe – is by no means held by the majority of historians or scientists today but unfortunately is held by the show’s producer, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, and its host, Neil deGrasse Tyson [I have previously written about Tyson for Acculturated as well].

In a Vulture piece that originally appeared in New York magazine, Matt Zoller Seitz elaborates: “The new Cosmos makes it clear that the war [between science and religion] is still going on, and that this series is determined to be on the right side of it, by painting organized religion as an irrelevant and intellectually discredited means of understanding factual reality.”

Among the media and pop culture in general, the assumption is that religion = willful ignorance. Believers are caricatured as intolerant science-deniers clinging to their inbred ways and their snake-handling rituals. This reveals much more about the ignorance (if not outright bigotry) of their critics themselves than it does about the believers.

When Goodman, for example, claims that “science is godless” and that the new Cosmos won’t be appreciated by “a whole lot of people who don't understand science or don't want to try to understand it based on their religious beliefs,” it is clear that he is the one who doesn’t understand science, its history, or Christian theology.

While there may be fundamentalists who cling to unscientific notions about the age of the earth, there is no inherent conflict between science and religion. Indeed, Christian theology, which holds that God intended us to understand Him and the natural order through the rigorous application of our intellect, lies at the very heart of the scientific process.

This is far too big a topic to cover in full here, so allow me to quote a quick summation from Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success:

While the other world religions emphasized mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guide to religious truth… The success of the West, including the rise of science, rested entirely on religious foundations, and the people who brought it about were devout Christians.

But what about the Inquisition? What about the torture and execution of Giordano Bruno, as depicted in the Cosmos premiere? Hasn’t the church at times been guilty of violently suppressing uncomfortable scientific truths? Of course. Human history is one long struggle out of barbarism and ignorance to enlightenment, right up to the present (and that concept of history as progressive and linear is a Christian one, by the way). The history of the Church is no different. That’s not to excuse it, only to put it in the context of its time.

It’s a shame that a series that will have such an impact on the popularization of science will unnecessarily seek to drive a wedge between science and faith. “Science gives us the power to see whatever our senses cannot,” Tyson says at one point. Of course it does – just as faith gives us the power to see what science cannot.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/10/14)