Fact Check

03.23.14

How ‘Cosmos’ Bungles the History of Religion and Science

Neil Degrasse Tyson’s remake of the 1980s series tries to explain how early-modern thinkers began to discover the wonders of the universe. Its history is as cartoonish as its graphics.

Cosmos, Fox’s much-anticipated remake of Carl Sagan’s classic wonder-of-science series, is drawing attention for an unexpected reason. The middle of the premier episode features a long segment on Giordano Bruno, an early-modern friar and philosopher who was burned at the stake for his outlandish theological views. Bruno’s heresy was partially related to his hypotheses about the universe, some of which were astonishingly correct: that the cosmos is infinite, and that the sun is just another star. His proto-scientific inquiry and his clash with the Catholic Church made Bruno an Enlightenment hero, lionized by modern historians and even by figures as celebrated as the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel.

That’s more or less the story that gets told in Cosmos. Bruno is introduced as “only one man on the whole planet” who suspected that the universe was larger than everyone living in the year 1600 thought. Neil Degrasse Tyson ambles through alleys in the Vatican, explaining that there was “no freedom of thought in Italy,” and Bruno’s theories brought him “into the clutches of the thought police.” Bruno, according to Cosmos, wandered around Europe, arguing passionately but fruitlessly for his new explanation of the universe, only to be mocked, impoverished, and eventually imprisoned and executed. Catholic authorities are depicted as cartoon ghouls, and introduced with sinister theme music. Tyson explains that the church’s modus operandi was to “investigate and torment anyone who voiced views that differed from theirs.”

There are cultural, religious, and even political reasons that the story of scientific progress and political enlightenment are so attractive.

What Cosmos doesn’t mention is that Bruno’s conflict with the Catholic Church was theological, not scientific, even if it did involve his wild—and occasionally correct—guesses about the universe. As Discover magazine’s Corey Powell pointed out, the philosophers of the 16th century weren’t anything like scientists in the modern sense. Bruno, for instance, was a “pandeist,” which is the belief that God had transformed himself into all matter and ceased to exist as a distinct entity in himself. He believed in all sort of magic and spirits, and extrapolated those views far beyond his ideas about the infinity of the universe. In contrast to contemporaries who drew more modest conclusions from their similar ideas, Bruno agitated for an elaborate counter-theology, and was (unlike the poor, humble outcast portrayed in Cosmos) supported by powerful royal benefactors. The church didn’t even have a position on whether the Earth orbited the sun, and didn’t bring it up at Bruno’s trial. While the early-modern religious persecution certainly can’t be denied, Bruno was killed because he flamboyantly denied basic tenets of the Catholic faith, not because religious authorities were out to suppress all “freedom of thought.”

Cosmos’ treatment of Bruno as a “martyr for science” is just a small example of a kind of cultural myth we tell ourselves about the development of modern society, one that’s almost completely divorced from the messy reality. It’s a story of an upward march from ignorance and darkness, where bold, rebel intellectuals like Bruno faced down the tyrannical dogma of religion and eventually gave us secularism, democracy, and prosperity. Iconoclastic individuals are our heroes, and big, bad institutions—monarchies, patriarchies, churches—are the villains. In the process, our fascinating, convoluted history gets flattened into a kind of secular Bible story to remind us why individual freedom and “separation of church and state” are the most important things for us to believe in.

The real path to our modern selves is much more complicated—so complicated that academic historians still endlessly debate how it happened. While some scholars treat “the Enlightenment” as if it were a single movement, others argue that it unfolded differently—at different paces, in different styles—in different countries. Some argue that atheism was a central concern, while others think the “age of reason” was driven more by the desire for greater political freedom. Either way, deeply religious Catholic scholars contributed to many of the great discoveries of natural science, and even the foundations of disciplines like geology. Very few of the heroes of the Enlightenment were atheists, and even the scientific luminaries of the period fell for various forms of “occultism,” from alchemy to spirit-conjuring. Many were elitists who, despite their opposition to tyranny, remained contemptuous of the masses. The veneration of reason did not lead neatly or automatically to moderate democratic politics; in some cases, like the Terror of the French Revolution, it resulted in bloody brutality not much different from the sort visited on religious heretics like Bruno a few centuries before.

Does it matter that a TV show doesn’t get into complexities that divide even the world’s leading historians? To a certain extent, misunderstanding the story of Bruno isn’t going to do a whole lot of harm—especially in a country where so many people are in denial about basic scientific facts. But that Cosmos added an unnecessary and skewed version of Bruno—especially one skewed in this particular way—is a good miniature lesson about our tendency to turn the past into propaganda for our preferred view of the present. There are cultural, religious, and even political reasons that the story of scientific progress and political enlightenment are so attractive, and filter down even into our children’s entertainment. It allows us to see ourselves as the apex of history, the culmination of an inevitable, upward surge of improvement. It reassures us that our political values are righteous, and reminds us who the enemies are. The messy, complex, non-linear movement of actual history, by contrast, is unsettling, humbling—even terrifying.

But that chaotic story is worth telling, even when it comes to pop entertainment. It reminds us that history rarely gives us uncomplicated heroes or black-and-white moral choices. It reminds us that even our most impressive rational feats are colored and shaped by our irrational natures, and that our attempts to explain and master the world are always, at some level, an illusion. Cosmos is a grand tour of the amazing things we’ve figured out about the world, and it should also be a reminder of how many more remain unfathomable mysteries.