Cosmic conspiracy

A year or so ago I watched a UK-produced TV series about the history of archaeology. Prominent in the first episode was a quite mythological claim that early antiquarians were courageous scientists battling against the opposition of a Church monolithically defending biblical literalism and the Flood. It entirely bypassed the fact that most of these guys were churchmen, even though it named some of them, apparently oblivious to the self-contradiction. I thought I’d beefed about it here, but I can’t find anything so no doubt I bottled it up and attributed it to local ignorance … though you’d expect that a series about the “History of…” would do some homework on, well, history.

The situation is quite different with the new remake of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, now being screened out in the US. It’s not a local production, but more a scientific Encyclical. Even the original series was a mega-budget blockbuster. It made Sagan a household name, and launched countless scientific careers, including that of physicist Prof Brian Cox, Britain’s top science programme-maker, female heart-throb and general go-to guy for Authoritative Science.The new series is even more ambitious, and is seen so much as the Word-Of-Science-To-This-Generation that, I hear, it was launched with an address from President Obama.

It is as much an ex cathedra pronouncement of scientific infallibility as any TV programme could be. Is that an exaggeration? Judge for yourself from the status of the orginal series. And so it is more than accidentally significant that the anchorman’s introduction repeated Carl Sagan’s soundbite in order to launch the series on the correct trajectory:

The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.

Well then, this multi-million dollar series is a state-of-the-art programme about all that is, or was, or ever will be. So nothing will have been left to chance. Yet it has been pointed out – but as far as I know only by Luddite dissidents like the Discovery Institute, rather than by mainstream Christian scientists, philosophers, theologians or even by BioLogos – that this statement is an entirely unscientific claim for the truth of materialistic naturalism. It is a straight denial of the existence of the transcendent, and it’s made in the name of All Science. It would be good if the scientific community, perhaps in the guise of the NAS which has at least 15% of theist members, pointed out this extreme metaphysical prejudice in the interests of both truth and the sensibilities of the religious majority of Americans it’s trying to educate. But I doubt that will happen. Why is that, do you think?

More significant, because it has to do with verifiable matters, was the stress in the first programme on the persecution of scientists by “The Church”, specifically condemning the Roman Catholic, Reformed and Lutheran wings. The instance cited was the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno for his affirmation of Copernicanism (remember Copernicus? The Catholic canon lawyer?). Now as any historian of science will tell you, that nineteenth century tale from people like J W draper and A D White is a complete travesty of history, like the myth of the persecution of archaeologists in my British TV programme. What’s more, as Ted Davis would happily confirm, the truth about Bruno has been in the literature for decades – it’s even in popular books on science history. In fact it’s so well known that our common resource, TOF, responded to what the first Cosmos episode said simply with:

‘Nuff said.

Pressed in the comments, he added in his inimitable style:

Bruno is to astronomy as New Age is to quantum mechanics.

That is, he had some woo-woo Hermetic notions and he co-opted Copernicanism as something that would illuminate it. He knew nothing of astronomy. Stanley Jaki, who translated his “The Ash Wednesday Supper” made the wry comment that had the Copernicans bothered to read it, they would have burned Bruno.

TOF knows whereof he speaks. Historian James Hannam puts it more academically, demonstrating that Bruno was little more than a Hermetic magician, whose endorsement of Copernicus’ heliocentrism stemmed from no understanding of what was, in any case, an evidentially insupportable hypothesis. Bruno’s support arose purely from his neo-Platonist veneration for the sun, and from the kudos that Copernicus’ good reputation would impart to his own pantheistic and Christ-denying new religion. When he harangued Oxford audiences about how backward-looking and ignorant they were (as he did everyone who disagreed with him):

The trouble was that the Oxford masters were far from ignorant, They had been discussing Copernicus for at least the previous ten years and had come to the same conclusion as everyone else – he was wrong.

Bruno had to leave Oxford not because of Copernicanism, but because he was found to be plagiarising and misrepresenting Marsilio Ficino. Needless to say, it was his heretical religious views that had him excommunicated by the Protestant churches in various places – they had very little interest in the heliocentrism issue, certainly as a religious issue. When in 1610 he came, at last, before the Inquisition at Rome, although the exact charge sheet has been lost, there was no shortage of frankly heretical dogma in his works for which to indict him. As for his being a martyr to science for his heliocentrism:

This is impossible. As we will see in the next chapter, Copernicanism was not declared a heresy until 1616.

Even so, whatever the charges were Bruno agreed to recant, and there it would have rested if he hadn’t also written to the Pope denying that the statements on which he’d been charged (religious and magical, not scientific, remember) were heretical at all.

Now all this is well-known, and a multi-million dollar science series, without doubt, has access to real science historians. So what is going on if the flagship science series of the century starts with a political endorsement, has a metaphysical commitment as a mission statement, and commences with an “impossible” version of history that seeks to discredit the religious traditions from which a majority of its viewers come?

Imagine for a moment that the Cold War had played out slightly differently. In the communist aftermath the series Kosmos begins with a warm address by Comrade Putin praising the efforts of the scientist-workers on behalf of the revolution. The anchorman sums up the aim of the series by saying:

The Kosmos is the evolutionary outworking of the Marxist-Leninist dialectic culminating in socialism.

The first scene is about how for a century biology was undermined by the mad religiously-inspired theories of the Monk Mendel, and by the capitalist warmongers like Nobel who diverted all science towards weapons research.

Now tell me, how much of the science of the rest of the series would you accept at face value? Would you even watch any more, knowing that all that money spent on the first half hour had been to promote a ruling worldview? You would have to conclude you were watching the propaganda of a rich and powerful ideological establishment, and you’d suspect the science was being used only to serve its wider agenda.

It seems to me, Houston, that we have a big problem with our starship.


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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in History, Philosophy, Politics and sociology, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Cosmic conspiracy

  1. pngarrison says:

    “denying that the statements on which he’d been charged (religious and magical, not scientific, remember) weren’t heretical at all.”

    I think you sort of double-negatived yourself there, or something. Did you mean “were?” Or maybe you should say “asserting” instead of “denying?”

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi PNGarrison

      Good to see you back. I was wondering if you’d recovered from Christmas snow yet! Yes quite right. A grammatical lapse, of which I readily recant whilst shooting off an e-mail to “Fowler’s English Usage” to see if it’s correct after all…

      I’ll edit it now.

      • pngarrison says:

        Jon, in addition to my English teacher-like pedantry, I should have added a “right-on” for the column. I watched a little of the Tyson thing, but the predictability soon bored me and I wandered off. It sounds like Brian Cox is the Brit version of our Neil DeGrasse Tyson, or vice versa. The most interesting thing to me was Tyson’s story about Sagan spending a day with him after he wrote to him as an astronomy-obsessed kid. I don’t like the idea that Sagan pushed him toward materialism, but it does make me think a little better of Sagan that he would spend a day on a little black kid who wrote a letter.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          The undeniably great thing about Sagan, and so Cosmos, was his enthusiasm and sense of wonder. That’s what inspired Cox – just as in my childhood (not more than a year or two after I drew the robin in the last post) David Attenborough and a few others inspired me.

          But that doesn’t give any of them a licence to smuggle ideology, and still less historical lies into their science. To be as uncharitable as I was with the Kosmos analogy, I’m sure many young Germans were introduced to physical fitness and the great outdoors by the Hitler Youth…

          My main point is that we’re not talking about one biology teacher here, or an inspirational book, or even a TV program – it’s the best that money can buy, networked to half the children in the world to tell them all this is theirs to explore if only they dare oppose the Incendiary Inquisition lurking in family prayers or Sunday School.

          I wonder how many kids will ask their teachers, “If the Cosmos is all there ever was, what came before the Big Bang made it?” Better still, of course, “Please Sir, are you familar with the Kalam cosmological argument, and its implications for Neil deGrasse Tyson’s credibility?” Ah well, I can dream.

  2. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    I have yet to follow much of Carl Sagan’s work — I don’t think I’ve ever read any of his stories. But I wonder if this is a case where enthusiasts and self-appointed heirs to his legacy might be indulging in more zealotry than their patron saint would have endorsed? At least on wikipedia, [his ‘cosmos is all there ever was…’ quote notwithstanding] he is quoted as writing several other thoughts that are not nearly so one-sided dismissals of all religion. And he passes himself off as being almost militantly … wait for it … agnostic! (Okay –maybe not ‘militant’). But Sagan at least acknowledged that science does not provide evidence that rules out God. While he certainly won’t be accused of accepting any Christian notion of Deity, he isn’t as dogmatically brittle about it all as his followers would have us believe.

    • Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

      Let me soften that last assertion to … “he doesn’t *seem* so dogmatically brittle” (at least as it appears to me after reading two wikipedia paragraphs of his quotes).

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


        There’s stuff in various comments on the web about how much more reasonable Carl Sagan was than Tyson, and that may well be true – Gnuism didn’t exist in his day. Of course, it’s the new series that’s going to be watched by and influencing the new generation.

        Nevertheless, I’m old enough to remember watching the Sagan series, purely from my interest in astronomy, and I remember being extremely annoyed by his frequent references to “the God hypothesis” and primitive peoples sat around their log fires using gods to explain the heavens before Science came along – prot0-Gnu stuff, at least. The dead tend to acquire a patina of sainthood, I find.

        As I think about it, most ancient cosmologies used the heavens to explain the gods rather than the other way round. The latter were too obvious to be a hypothesis.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          I see BioLogos is living up to expectation again. Today’s Origins News Roundup, one of just three stories:

          This Sunday night saw the premiere of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey on Fox. The show is preceded by the original 1980s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage series hosted by Carl Sagan. Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the host of the series, hopes the show will spark a greater interest in science for people of all backgrounds—including those of religions typically unfriendly to science. He even subtly pushes the idea that “your God is too small,” according to a ThinkProgress article, encouraging people of religion to pursue greater understanding of God by engaging in science rather than attempting to disprove their religious beliefs. President Obama introduced the first installation of the series, encouraging listeners to explore and discover and saying “The next great discovery could be yours.”

          Good old BL ignores the materialist mission statement, ignores the false science history, ignores the “naming and shaming” of Catholic, Reformed and Lutheran churches as persecutors of science and simply commends the atheist presenter’s admonition for religious people to get with the program and not be “unfriendly to science.”

          Tyson’s own respect for religion goes like this:

          Go think whatever you want. Go ahead. Think that there is one god, two gods, ten gods, or no gods. That is what it means to live in a free country. The problem arises, is if you have a religious philosophy, that is not based in objective realities, that you then want to put in the science classroom.

          As opposed, of course, to that objectively-based reality that the universe is all there is, all that ever was and all that ever will be, which is welcome in the classroom.

          Tell me, what is BioLogos for, exactly?

  3. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Always one to search for the cup half full, I note that Tyson includes “no gods” at the end of his list of things people should [irrationally] go ahead and “believe in”. That may be progress of a tiny sort. At least there is an implied acknowledgment in that atheism too must be imported into science from without.

    I assume you were quoting Tyson directly there. Perhaps that was an unintended implication in his wording there. But I’m with you in wishing Biologos would explicitly challenge materialistic propaganda that gets bundled in.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Yes – a quote from a previous Tyson interview, I believe. Since he’s not really known here in UK, I’m dependent on the usual internet sources for his “character”. But he’s reported as saying at an atheist conference, after raising the issue of why there were 15% of believers in the NAS, that if atheists couldn’t convert them they’d never convert the public. The point being, of course, why he he should consider either necessary.

      I was slightly bemused to see that an apparently Jewish guy is the only one to have commented on the BL post so far, talking about an atheist historian wishing that other atheists didn’t misuse history, specifically about Bruno. He appears not to have realised that the BL writer hadn’t even noticed it and was simply endorsing the programme enthusiastically.

  4. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Wisdom seems to be coming from strange places! After following up on that link, I was motivated not just to seek Hannam’s “God’s Philosophers” on interlibrary loan, but to actually order a copy for myself. I notice it’s on the Hump’s reading list as well. Alas that I have to wait till the post gets it to me later next week. But I am ripe and ready to continue my medieval history education.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I think you’ll find Hannam worthwhile reading. I doubt mediaeval mathematicians will gain much room on the High School syllabus, but the more a teacher has a global view of science in culture, the richer the learning experience will be for the students.

      Even tossing in the odd remark like St Bede getting the cause of the tides right a millennium before Galileo got it wrong leads to thinking outside the contemporary box.

  5. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    “Your God is too small” is an incoherent (contradictory) statement no matter who says it. It’s like telling somebody that triangles are too round or that water is too dry.

    More accurately stated (and necessarily true of all of us) it should be: “your *understanding* of God is too small.”

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Yup – even then it seems it can mean almost anything: “You must have a very small view of God if you don’t believe he was willing to diminish his greatness when he created the universe, abandon his foreknowledge to give us free-will, and leave secondary causes to work out mechanistically and/or contingently without his involvement.

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