How did the first episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey treat religion?
Danielle: Last week, Neil deGrasse Tyson promised Brian Stelter that he would be casting a wide net, audience-wise, with Cosmos. He would aim to attract viewers “who don’t know that they like science,” but who “have a little flame inside of them of curiosity,” but also those “who know they don’t like science. They’ve got no flame at all. So we’re going to go in in there and light it.” This is an admirable (if unrealistic) goal, and one that Tyson seems to have embraced in episode one by inviting religious viewers to identify with scientists.
Abby: It’s interesting, because at least one early review of the show suggested that the reboot lost one of the things that made the original Cosmos so special: its ambitious view that every single person on the planet possessing an ounce of wonder could appreciate the cosmos, religious or not. But now that I’ve actually watched the new one, its clear Tyson obviously takes that scientific missionary work seriously, too.
Danielle: Yeah, I expected some subtlety in the program’s attempt to bring a religious audience around to Tyson’s point of view (namely, evolution,) but there was no ambiguity about the fact that Tyson wants its viewers to see the scientifically oppressed as akin to the religiously martyred. The story of Giordano Bruno is used to illustrate this parallel -- he’s a monk who saw a scientifically accurate “vision” of the cosmos, a revelation that he held dear despite persecution and, ultimately, execution. Bruno was a martyr, Tyson tells us, as he walks us through the (beautifully animated) stages of his oppressed life.
Abby: You know, the interesting thing about the Bruno story to me is the fact that it’s a defense of faith, and not of science. Bruno had no evidence to back up his version of the cosmos, as correct as it turned out to be. His value to Tyson’s narrative is that he challenged established, unscientific “facts.” I’m wondering how the Bruno interlude will go over with some factions of the religious audience the show clearly wants to court: although almost any sane person living in the year 2014 would agree that the Inquisition is a good a source for a historical villain as any, it was still a religious institution.
I’m hoping, and I think the show’s writers are hoping, that viewers will understand the Bruno story not as a condemnation of religion, but as a redrawing of the boundaries between faith and science. Instead of putting the two in opposition, the show wants to place faith, curiosity, wonder, and questioning — what if my God is too small? to paraphrase Bruno — along with science against enforced ignorance.
Danielle: Yes! Tyson’s unapologetic looping of faith into science was a pretty bold move, and I’m also curious to hear what some scientists think of it -- posing scientific discovery as based on, at best, a hunch, and at worst divine intervention might raise some eyebrows. The fact that he’s shattering expectations on both sides could allow the rest of the show to explore scientific phenomena in a very fluid way.